Sunday, October 29, 2017

Country Matters - Clare Leighton

The day the clocks go back is reliably my favourite day of the year; that hour feels like such a gift, and today has been reasonably productive. I've made Quince and star anise jelly from Diana Henry's brilliant 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke' (it's such a good book for all sorts of preserving). I love this jelly, and am surprised that I don't seem to have written about it before here. It's excellent with all sorts of meats, cheese, and atva oush good on a scone too. I've made it every year since I found the recipe (2012?) and would hate to be without a jar now.

I've also got my first Christmas cake in the oven, have spent time with family and friends, hoovered, been to see a film, bought Christmas cards, and discovered a stain on the airing cupboard ceiling which I hope isn't an indication of yet another bloody leak (it could be the marks from a previous leak coming back through the paint. Fingers crossed) and met my new upstairs neighbour. All in all a full day. It's amazing the difference an extra hour makes.

I like the dark nights too, this is the time of year when living in a city comes into its own. Leicester is caught between the lights of Diwali and Christmas, it's a cheerful place to be at the moment with piles of fallen leaves to kick through, but no gaunt hedgerows for the wind to whistle around. There's none of the eeriness of the autumnal countryside.

It still surprises me how much easier I find it to be in tune with the seasons in a town rather than the country, but it's here that I can walk everywhere seeing the year turn whilst I do so, and here too that shops and market stalls are full of the seasonal produce that just as clearly Mark the approach of winter as those falling leaves.

I don't know what Clare Leighton would make of today's villages. Some things perhaps haven't changed so very much, but the world she writes about and engraves here was already disappearing in the 1930's when she recorded it. Reading this book I recognise glimpses of what she describes, but rather in the way you can trace a family likeness between grandparents and grandchildren. There are still flower and produce shows, still pubs with locals who have their particular spots, still village cricket, but the chair bodgers, tramps, smithy's - they're all gone. So too has the village witch, and I think it's illegal to pick wild flowers now, so no more primrose gathering.

It was the engravings that attracted me to this book, I've always liked Leighton's woodcuts -  her writing turns out to have the same bold clarity to it, and the same lack of sentimentality in its observations. There is plenty of affection for the community and way of life that she's making her subject, and she must have known some of these figures were anomalies even as she wrote about them but I don't feel that nostalgia is the driving force here, though it easily could have been. Rather it's a reminder to look at what's around, and to appreciate the rhythm of a life dictated by the seasons.

It's a beautiful book (from Little Toller Books who find and produce wonderful things) that feels just right for a day balanced between autumn and winter.

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