This novel is utterly brilliant.
This is the blurb from Amazon:
'Did I say I was Jewish? I should be Jewish all of a sudden?' Argumentative, Yiddish-speaking, 80-year-old Jack Silver has reluctantly returned to Golders Green to care for his 10-year-old grandson, Danny. Unpredictable and outspoken but warm-hearted, Jack is resolutely secular and repudiates everything Jewish. His profoundly troubled son, now a successful middle-aged journalist, has followed in his footsteps, while the brilliant young Danny has been kept in ignorance of his heritage. When Jack is beaten up by an antisemitic gang, it changes everything. He and Danny secretly set out to outwit and track down the thugs and bring them to justice. The hunt takes Jack into memories of his own childhood and the two unlikely heroes discover a shared identity spanning generations that eventually draws the whole family together.
Desperately sad in places, but ultimately affirmative; I really, really enjoyed it, and am at a loss to know why the copy I bought from EBay in immaculate condition was originally from Northumberland County Library and was officially stamped "withdrawn from stock" when it was only published in 2009 !
"To Be A Jew " was another serendipitous EBay find. A phenomenal amount of information is packed into 323 eminently readable pages. This has been my bedtime book (after prayers and Psalms, and before lights-out!) for a few weeks, and I have really enjoyed it.
"The Morville Hours" was a charity shop find that had me jumping up and down with delight. I borrowed this from the Public library last year and loved it so much I trawled second-hand bookshoops and EBay for months, looking for a copy at a price I could afford, but to no avail. Then when I least expected it, I found it, for 60p !
This review appeared on The Guardian website, and sums it up much better than I can:
The Morville Hours: The Story of a GardenWhen Katherine Swift arrived at Morville Hall in 1988 she suggested to its owners, the National Trust, that she make a garden. Instead of providing three-dimensional drawings or elaborate planting plans, she wrote about an imaginary garden - in the present tense - as if walking along its paths and borders. She managed to convince the National Trust by using words alone.
Swift, who lives in the Dower House of the Shropshire mansion, writes beautifully: her apples are not the flawless fruits from supermarkets but "the Quasimodos and Cyranos of the apple world, humped and bossed ... with basins ribbed, puckered and russeted". They are easy to pick, last all winter and have solid English names such as "Cornish Aromatic" or "Norfolk Beefing". Her pears, however, remain a mystery to her. Varieties such as "Duchesse d'Angoulême" or "Doyenne du Comice" are like "voluptuous heavy-eyed French empire beauties who demand absolute obedience", for it is said that a classic dessert pear is only perfect for one day.
In an allusion to the monastic past of the house and grounds, Swift takes her structure from the hours of the divine office - the daily rhythm of worship followed by monks, starting with Vigils (celebrated in the night) and ending with Compline (at the close of the day before the community retires to bed). Like a medieval Book of Hours, The Morville Hours guides the reader through the days and seasons in Swift's garden.
But she rarely stays for very long in the garden; she rambles through the history of the house and grounds and also through the past of Shropshire, the locals and of her family. Traditionally February's occupations in the Books of Hours, for example, are chopping wood - and so we read about the art of stacking a log pile; the mini-ice age during the 15th century; the winter of 1946-47 when Britain ran out of coal; her father studying his Greek grammar with his overcoat on; and the different logs in her fire - tulip tree for long winter nights, sweet-scented apple wood or sputtering green holly.
The structure that she imposes is really an anti-structure, as her narrative yomps through all manner of subjects. Memories of her childhood and her difficult relationship with her parents are presented in snippets and through little associations woven into the story of the garden. But there is also much light-hearted detail. In Compline (the last of the hours and a time for reflection), for example, she describes the "seven deadly sins" of gardening, including pride, covetousness ("the inordinate longing ... for the blackest of black hellebores") or lust ("how we lust after strapping young gardeners").
The Morville Hours could easily have been just a whimsical little book, but Swift brings profound knowledge and insight to her story. She reads the landscape like a manuscript, "a palimpsest of texts", deciphering its history, meaning and joy. The garden itself is a journey through the past, with garden rooms that have been inspired by the story of the house and the people who lived and worked there. There is the cloister garden, in honour of the old priory that once stood at Morville, an Elizabethan knot garden laid out in "swells and washes of pink germander", a canal garden to evoke the formal gardens of the early 18th century and an Edwardian fruit and vegetable plot. By leading the reader through these different spaces, Swift subtly imparts her knowledge of many centuries of British horticulture, from Roman vegetable gardens to Victorian rose borders.
Swift adores the winter and the cold - "there is so much more time to look". Stripped of leaves and blossom, the garden exposes its pure structure and the tiniest details such as the thorns of the roses. She laid out the garden during her first winter at Morville - "a garden of ruler-straight lines ... of black and white paper, of moonlight and shadows". Her vision is in monochrome, when snow, frost and moonlight cast the trees, borders and hedges in their true shapes without distractions. The winter isn't only an end, she writes, it is also a beginning, "when the frost gets to work to purge it of disease and decay".
There are no illustrations (except a map of the garden and of Shropshire) and there is no need for glossy photographs, because this is gardening writing at its best. Swift's prose brings the garden alive in all its details, scents and meaning. Her style is how I imagine the garden to be - evocative, heartfelt and magical.
Another interesting article about the book can be found here from the The Times:
When Katherine Swift took on the esoteric title of Keeper of Rare Books at Trinity College Dublin, she left her husband, Ken, behind in their house in Oxford and commuted between the two cities each week. She loved her scholarly work in the grave, beautiful library with its great showpiece, the Book of Kells, and she adored Dublin: “I made good friends in what was then a raffish, exciting, interesting city.” But Ken Swift was not thrilled with the arrangement. They had met at university – Katherine was only 21 when they married – and he missed her. She had often said that what she would like to do, above all, was to make a garden. A serious garden, not grand necessarily, but not a suburban patch either. “Every Friday night Ken would meet me at Heathrow with a sheaf of estate agents’ particulars,” she says. “It was his plan to lure me home. There were diminutive Georgian manor houses we couldn’t afford, gaunt brick ruins with walled gardens filled with nettles, sagging timber-framed palaces…”
Then he found the Dower House at Morville Hall in Shropshire, a National Trust property offered for lease to applicants considered by the Trust to be “the right kind of people”. She first saw it alone, driving through the winter dusk on a Friday from the ferry at Holyhead, arriving after nightfall, leaving the car and walking down the avenue, feeling her way in the blackness. She sensed, rather than saw, the high horizon of a wooded hill, the bowl of land cradling the turrets, pavilions and cupolas of the big house. The windows of the dark, untenanted Dower House “yielded nothing”. It was enough; this was where she would make her garden: “I’d finally found what I wanted to do.”
Twenty years later, she and I sit in the library of the Dower House: white walls, white linen-covered sofas, red silk curtains and a blazing log fire. There is Darjeeling tea and toast, a choice of damson jam, honey and Gentleman’s Relish. Outside the tall sash windows, rain falls steadily on the garden, dimpling the surface of a long, slender canal with its border of tulips and crown imperials, drenching the rose beds with their supports of pillar and rope swag, bouncing off the beehives in the wild garden, soaking down to the seeds of poppy, valerian and wolfsbane yet to snout up through the mix of red soil and rich, black compost.
What was once an acre of rough grassland grazed by cows has become a series of garden rooms enclosed by 12ft-high yew hedges, each echoing a period of the house’s history and the ghosts of its previous inhabitants, Eliot’s “footfalls in the memory”. Digging over the ground, Swift found fragments of china, white marble floor tiles, broken clay pipes, opaque slivers of medieval glass “blue as snow-melt”, and wondered: “Who drank from that cup, who smoked that pipe, who looked through that window?”
The kitchen garden was the first to be planted: “So Ken could have vegetables to cook with.” By now he had moved his bookshop to nearby Ludlow: “He did all the shopping and made dinner every night, so I didn’t have to think about anything except the garden.” She worked alone each day till the light ran out, sometimes longer, feeling her way; everything was grown from seed or cuttings. “We had no money; it took six weeks to dig 1,000ft of 2ft-wide trenches for the yew hedges in stony ground, and I had tennis elbow by the end; I was often so tired I crawled up to bed on my hands and knees.”
As she laboured on, the church clock kept time, striking the quarter hour, recording the progress of her day. “It provided a kind of basso continuo to life at Morville.” She recalled her mother’s copy of the Book of Hours, and the calendar that prefaced it with its illustrations of the horticultural and agricultural tasks allotted to each month: “Keeping Warm and Chopping Wood” in February, “Mowing” in June, “Ploughing and Sowing” in October, “Slaughtering and Baking” in November. The chiming of the clock, the rhythm of the seasons, the sense that she was part of a continuous cycle of life, death and renewal had a profound effect: she would write her own book of hours, recording the arc of a year in time past and time present.
The Morville Hours took 14 years to complete: a work of extraordinary lyrical beauty, both scholarly and poetic, the incantatory naming of things and the writing at times so erotic it makes you weak at the knees. It is a book of fragments – gleaned from the soil, from the stories of neighbours, from record books, from liturgy. But there are, too, fragments from her own story, shards of painful memory: her mother telling her, “Having you ruined my life”; her grandmother, Ada, warning her father: “You’ll swing for that temper”; a terrible row between her father and her husband followed by 30 years of estrangement. “Making the garden mended all of the broken heart and pain of childhood,” says Swift. “Writing the book made things clearer – it was a kind of expiation.”
When she started on her garden she realised how much she owed her father, who had always made gardens wherever they lived, taking cuttings from place to place: “We moved a great deal; he was always taking umbrage at something or someone, falling out with a boss or a neighbour.” She began to include him and his gardening exploits in her book: “Then I felt mean, not writing about Mother; eventually, I had to explain this fearsome pair.”
Her parents, she writes, had a knack for starting over, for reinventing themselves, changing jobs, changing places, changing religion, both continually in a ferment of new ideas, literary, political, philosophical, theological. They were educated out of the working class, but never arrived in the middle, and were uncomfortable with both. Each move meant a new school for Katherine and her brother.
“We never had people round,” she tells me. “We were the ultimate nuclear family, all on our own.” Her parents had tempestuous rows – “My mother would sit weeping at the breakfast table, ‘I only stay for you,’ she said” – and their children were required to take sides: “She enlisted me, always, against Pa, whom I loved.” Later, when she was married, and her father fell out with her husband, she was forced to choose again: “I felt I had to be loyal to Ken.” Father and daughter were reunited after 30 years when he was ill with dementia and her mother moved them down to Shropshire. “I looked after them for seven years; they only had me and the kindness of strangers.”
Outside the cheerful warmth of the library and the kitchen with its ancient Rayburn, the house has an austere chill familiar to anyone who has lived before the advent of central heating. It smells of wood and Imperial Leather soap and the faint citrus tang of the ornamental Seville orange trees, over-wintering in the front hall with its galleried upstairs passageways. One year, Swift was snowed in, alone, roads blocked, power lines brought down by ice: she sat and read by candlelight in an armchair pulled up to the fire, shutters closed, “the tapestries stirring in the draught, carpets lifting on the bare boards of the corridors”. She was, she says, supremely content: “Isolation: it’s what I do best. Gardening, reading and writing. All solitary pleasures.”
She has no children: “I discovered soon after we were married that Ken didn’t want them.” Wasn’t that a terrible shock? Wasn’t she angry that he hadn’t mentioned it? “Well, no, I was a bit surprised, but I was only 22, not thinking at all about babies.” Her own mother suffered “catastrophic” postnatal depression after her birth – “Don’t have children, dear,” said her parents. “I think that was a really good piece of advice,” she says now. “I didn’t want to risk putting myself through what my mother went through. It was entirely selfish, really.”
After her father died in 2002, she and Ken separated, and he went to live in Ludlow; Swift took him vegetables from the garden, made up window boxes for his new flat and still regularly fixes his computer. He read each chapter of her book as she wrote it. “We are still very close; I do love him. He didn’t garden but he always understood the point of it; why I was always exhausted, why I never wanted to go on holiday. We did go away once, to Paris in winter. At Sacré-Coeur I wanted to light a candle and we wandered round looking at all the plaster saints with their votive offerings. There was one with very few candles: ‘That one,’ Ken said. It was St Joseph, the patron saint of understanding husbands.”
For five years now she has lived with her partner, Sandy, an old friend from university days. He is upstairs watching football, making occasional forays into the library to bring us fresh tea and stoke the fire. Without him, she says, the book might not have taken so long, “but life would not have been so much fun”.
Still, she often sent him away so she could write undisturbed, hanging blackout curtains at her study windows to avoid distraction, eventually taking herself off to a borrowed one-room cottage on a remote mountainside to finish it, spurred by an increasingly urgent publisher’s deadline. “It was so high, there were no birds except for the occasional raven and buzzard. I looked out from my desk into thin air and felt sublimely unselfconscious.”
She is thinking about her next book: “Something about mitochondrial DNA – passed in plants only through the female line; about mothers and daughters, looking at questions of place and belonging. Of things being uprooted.” It is all much on her mind – her 20-year lease on the Dower House is up in August this year, and she doesn’t know whether she will be offered a renewal or, if she is, whether she will be able to afford it. “I never knew what the future would be here,” she says. “It was like falling in love: you know it will end in tears, but you do it anyway.”
Extract from The Morville Hours :
As my days spent alone in the garden turned into weeks and the weeks into months, I got into the habit of leaving the front door of the house open – not just unlocked, but standing open to the garden – from spring to autumn, all day long. I would open it first thing in the morning to smell the air and close it only at midnight as I went to bed. House and garden became extensions of each other. The kitchen filled with plant pots and tools and string, the hall with boots and jackets and gloves, the bathroom with tender seedlings. Plants spent part of their year in the house and part outside in the garden; I could tell the time of year from the tide of greenery in the house. And gradually I came to know the creatures who shared the house and garden with me: the jackdaws who roosted in the roof space; the black newts in the cellar, dining on woodlice; the harvest spiders and the tortoiseshell butterflies who found a winter home in the dim recesses of the ceiling; the swallows who reconnoitred the bookshelves in the hall for nesting places in spring. Outside, there were other creatures and other worlds to discover: the citadels of bees and ants, the papier-mâché galleries of the wasps, the subterranean refuges of badgers and moles. Then there were the wanderers – the animals who came and went unseen: the night owls and the foxes, the birds who left their arrowed footprints in the snow. The cats were louche go-betweens, at home in both worlds, belonging to neither.
I found companionship too in the other people who inhabited the same landscape – the tramp, the hedge-layer, the stockman, the gravedigger; the sheep-shearer, the farm labourer, my neighbour who tended the vines, the lad who brought the logs, the butcher who delivered the meat – present-day inheritors of those figures in the calendars of the Books of Hours. Country people seem to have all the time in the world. Not really, of course. Concerns are as pressing here as elsewhere. But there seemed to be a country courtesy which required that conversations over the field gate or in the lane or down in the Church Meadow be unhurried – a mutual satisfying of curiosities, an exchange of information, a bond formed: Welsh voices, Shropshire voices, Black Country voices, telling stories of the land and the village and its people.
Gardens are about people first and plants second. Like our multilayered language, gardening is made up of different elements, bits and pieces from far and near, now and long ago, taken and incorporated into the vocabulary of plant and tree, the grammar of path and hedge. I divided the garden up, hid each part from the nine others behind high yew hedges, played a game of multidimensional chess with myself. In my 21st-century garden, bits of the 17th century are still here – and the 19th and 16th and 18th – poking through the gauzy surface of the present like Marley’s pigtail. And there is China and America and Africa, as well as Shropshire. And stories – many stories, of this house and the people who lived here, and of the people who live here still – handed on from person to person, told and retold, a skein of stories. Like the lavender my father took as he moved from house to house, from one job to the next, and I from him, taking cuttings of the lavender, and cuttings of the cuttings, and cuttings of the cuttings of the cuttings, rooting it each time in a new garden.
And me? What is my story? My father carving my name in the speckled green side of a vegetable marrow so that I could watch the letters stretch and grow as wide as my own four-year-old smile. Violet-blue Michaelmas daises and basking tortoiseshell butterflies. Fossils in wrappings of cotton wool. Books on leaning metal shelves. The smell of pipe smoke in a cold room. A typewriter. Blue hyacinths. Iron Age forts and the worn steps of church towers. A dozen clocks chiming the hour for dinner. A black-and-white marble floor. A yellow climbing rose. Clouds passing over the hillside. Each a fragment of memory, a lost moment, a shining and irreducible “now”.
You can smell the spring even before it arrives, like a seafarer becalmed for months on the wide expanse of ocean, scenting land before he sees it. Caught unaware, stooping perhaps to collect milk from the step; one morning it is suddenly there, on the breeze, unmistakeable after the long months of winter: a smell compounded of greenness and rain showers and damp earth; a hint of balsam, a rumour of hyacinths – pregnant with the ghosts of flowers-to-be, like Flora’s breath. The clock strikes, the sound reverberating across the Church Meadow like ripples of water in the Mor Brook. Nine o’clock on a spring morning. How can you resist? The village is quiet; husbands, wives, children all dispatched to office or school; hum of early-morning traffic silenced; scrunch of postman’s foot on gravel been and gone. Leave the mail unopened, the milk where it stands on the step. Follow your nose into the garden.
Even the rain smells different. April is the month of sunshine and showers, rainbows and reflections, of small, puffy, white, fair-weather cumuli which bubble up into cauliflower-headed cumuli congesti behind your back and take you by surprise. Intent upon some late pruning, I hear the rain before I see it, rattling on the leaves in a rising wind. “Only a shower,” we say, sniffing the air. And it is: gone as quickly as it came, with ragged fragments of sky left in the puddles of the drive and a glaze of silver on the rose leaves.