Any news?

View of Lamb House from church tower

View of Lamb House (Mallards) from church tower

Watch out, friends and colleagues: I plan to start speaking like a true Tillingite, asking “Any news?” when I run into people, and replying with an astonished “No!” if they reveal something gossipy and exciting. My recent trip to Rye made me eager to reread E. F. Benson’s Make Way for Lucia series, and I’ve just finished the 6th volume, making this my fourth immersion in the world of Tilling. 

This time around, I had the added joy of being able to visualize Rye as Benson’s famous town, with its cobbled streets, red-tiled roofs, church tower, and views of the Channel. The E. F. Benson Society has created a map of Tilling/Rye, showing known (and guessed) locations for the characters’ houses, which I kept at hand. So convenient for any Luciaphil.


Lamb House from the garden

Followers of this and my other blogs may have read my earlier posts about Lucia and Georgie and Elizabeth Mapp — I’ve written often about my admiration, but never anything extensive.

I chuckle as I consider assessing the literary value of Benson’s great opus, because I risk sounding just like Lucia at her most irritating — Miss Knows-Very-Little-But-Pretends-Expertise. Near the end of the 6th volume, Lucia wishes (but only secretly) that she could finally admit to ignorance of both Italian and music, but she can’t break the habit. It’s a complex game, where she pretends to be an expert and everyone knows she’s pretending — the pitfalls are predictable yet each time with just the right twist to surprise.

A basic outline of the series: In the 20s and 30s, two characters vie for social premiership of small-town England. The first volume, set in Riseholme, introduces us to Lucia — Mrs. Emmeline Lucas — handsome, clever, and rich (in fact, she could be a grown-up Emma Woodhouse, without Mr. Knightley to keep her in line) as well as conniving, pretentious, a name-dropper, and willing to work tirelessly to keep her star shining for her friends and the world at large to admire and envy. She’s also kind, generous, interested in everything, and protective of her closest friend, Mr. George Pillson.

Miss Mapp's view down West Street

Miss Mapp’s view down West Street

We meet Lucia’s nemesis, Miss Elizabeth Mapp, in the third volume. Clever, greedy, malicious, curious and thoroughly in charge of her friends’ well-being, Mapp resides in Tilling. Without her perfect example and prodding, her friends would (she believes) quickly devolve into lazy drunkards, hopeless gossips, or (heavens!) socialists. When Lucia moves to Tilling, she challenges Mapp for the role of First Lady of the Town. From this point on, the two see-saw each other up and down, sometimes securing supremacy for themselves, but occasionally making such gaffes that the other is shot into the heights.

Crooked chimney

View from Lamb House towards church, with that crooked chimney

Favorite parts: Georgie’s “espaliered locks” (at first a comb-over, and then a toupée), and his dread of children, who are “so sticky, particularly after tea.” Tilling’s crooked chimney, which every painter exaggerates to make the crookedness look less like poor artistic skills. Diva’s tea-shop, Susan Wyse’s MBE and her husband’s bowing (even to paintings), Irene’s audacious artwork, and the Padre’s odd mixture of Scots, Middle and Modern English. Not to mention the Lobster à la Riseholme saga, which includes a flood and sea-rescue.

The Feydeau-like farce of volume 6, in which a crushed budgerigar and a silver-topped riding whip each disappear and reappear with regularity, shows off Benson’s plotting skills. Lucia cleverly handles Miss Mapp, but also makes colossal errors and loses face repeatedly. Yet (and this is what I most admire about her), she pulls herself up and never looks back, even when all have deserted her.

DSC00878Henry James may have been Rye’s most celebrated literary denizen, but Benson made the town into a place of pilgrimage. Those who visit today come for Lucia and Mapp, walking the cobbled streets to stare at half-timbered or brick façades, climbing the church tower, checking teashop menus for Diva’s sardine tartlets, and imagining Benson’s characters popping in and out of doorways. As Lucia would say, “Such a treat for them all!”

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Author Profile: Holling Clancy Holling

Lizzie Ross:

A post on Calmgrove’s My New Shy ( reminded me of this post from an earlier blog of mine.

Originally posted on The Ineluctable Bookshelf:

Three images from my childhood reading are permanently etched on my mind: a boy diving deep into the sea to rescue his ivory seagull; a tiny carved Indian sitting in a canoe atop a snow-covered mountain waiting for spring-melt to start his journey; a lightning-struck tree dying from the top down and silhouetted against a red and purple sunset (in order: Seabird, Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree in the Trail).

Each of these was created by Holling Clancy Holling (1900-1973), author and illustrator (with his wife, Lucille Webster Holling) of books that combine geography and history in adventure tales that take readers on voyages across North America and through the world’s oceans. When Houghton Mifflin reprinted some of these in the 1970s, I was so happy to finally be able to get my own copies.

With full-color drawings on every right-hand page, and text and pen-and-ink margin drawings on every…

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100 Happy Days: Day 2: Library Run

Lizzie Ross:

What my sister the chef brings home from a library visit:

Originally posted on An Artist Creates:

100 Happy Days

100 Happy Days

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Ridiculous Obsessions

Harrow Weald

Bakerloo Line: Harrow & Wealdstone

I.e., NOT in the least bit magnificent.

I try not to succumb to obsessive collecting. I actually don’t need complete matching sets of book series (so what if two of five volumes are paperback?) or any musician’s entire CD/LP/45 output. But today I learned about a permanent installation in the London Underground, and I could feel the obsessive bug nibbling at my fingers.

The installation is Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth (2013), 270 different labyrinths, one in each of the 270 Tube stations. I’d already noticed a couple here and there during my travels these past 3 weeks, and I’m fascinated by labyrinths, so …

Bakerloo Line: Wembley Central

Bakerloo Line: Wembley Central

Question: How many could I collect with my camera before boredom or hunger or exhaustion set in?

Answer: 14.

That’s not very many, just a bit over 5% of the total, but it took 3 hours. Each photo requires exiting the train, finding the labyrinth (which occasionally requires exiting the station — not fair, Wallinger!), taking a photo or two, and then waiting for the next train. Yawn.

Tomorrow I’ll bring a book.

Posted in Art, Labyrinths | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Found it!

The famous red-tiled roofs of Rye

The famous red-tiled roofs of Rye

It must be tough to compete for attention with people like Henry James and characters like EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. I went to Rye today, specifically to visit the former home of James, Benson and others, but also to look for the house where Joan Aiken first lived. Signs direct one to Lamb House, the EF Benson Society offers a map of Tilling, but information about Joan Aiken’s beginnings is simply not there. A tiny reference to her father, Conrad Aiken, was all there was.

Film set

Film set

The town is currently a bit discombobulated by film crews and actors being carted around in mini-vans, all for a new production of Mapp and Lucia for the BBC. I saw a young woman in flip-flops, trousers and a psychedelic shirt hoisting a massive umbrella over Diva Plaistow (Felicity Montagu) to keep her costume dry as they walked 50 yards from the van to the church. Grips and camera-people and sound-engineers mingle with tourists just trying to make their way up the cobbled streets.

Lamb House. Ersatz Garden Room is white framed window on left.

Lamb House. Ersatz Garden Room is white framed window on left.

Like me, most tourists come for Lamb House. The famed Garden Room (if you’ve read Miss Mapp, you know what that is) was destroyed during WWII and not rebuilt. Normally, a wall plaque marks where it once commanded the top of West Street. For the current filming, however, a reproduction is in place — we can see how it might have been for James, Benson and the original occupants, the Thomas Lamb family in the 1700s. A lovely prospect from the house towards the church, and another from the Garden Room towards the town.

And just around the corner: Mermaid Street, one of the poorest areas of Rye in the 1800s but now upscale. I walked slowly down this street, looking carefully for a marker showing Joan Aiken’s house: and found it, a small white  circle all but hidden by ivy and virginia creeper. Only her father’s name is listed.

Conrad Aiken lived here

Conrad Aiken lived here

I know there’s nothing particularly magical about authors’ birthplaces. And yet: I still want to see.

Standing outside Jeake’s House (now a pricey B&B with rooms named for Conrad Aiken, Malcolm Lowry and Radclyffe Hall), I looked up at the windows and imagined a young Joan looking out of them. Did she like the name of her street? Did she feel the 300 years of history within those walls? Did she imagine the lives of earlier occupants? Did she ever visit Lamb House and wonder about the authors who had lived there? She might have peered into the Garden Room windows, might have run into EF Benson walking his dog.

That, at any rate, is what I like to imagine.

Posted in Time travel, Travel | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

How to time travel


Bakklandet, Trondheim

I’m not a historian. Nor am I an expert in the Middle Ages or the history of Northern Europe. And yet: I’ve set myself a task to write a novel covering nearly 700 years of history, from the 12th to 19th centuries, and from Norway and its Atlantic outposts to York during the Plague years and London just after the Restoration, ending on an ocean beach once belonging to the King of the Western Isles. All because of an exhibit a couple of years ago at the Cloisters.

Trondheim Cathedral, St. Olav (early 20th C)

Trondheim Cathedral, St. Olaf (early 20th C)

Since I’m not a historian, my research techniques don’t involve weary slogs through archives [which, I realize, would not be weary to true historians; in fact, I've actually enjoyed an academic paper about archeological digs in Trondheim, including detailed analyses of how combs were made, but I found this online (thank you, Google) and not in the dusty and lonely sub-basement of a library].

My purposes aren’t to get the history right, but to get it interesting (I can feel the historians’ shudders — no fear, I’ll aim for historical accuracy). The article about the combs says nothing about the shrieks of seagulls fighting over rubbish thrown off the back of a fishing boat, nor about the hike up the steep hill to the fort overlooking the harbor, nor the deep silence at night — which actually isn’t what we who live south of the 60th parallel north would call night: it’s simply three hours of twilight between bright or cloudy days. Yet that’s the kind of information a novelist needs. The best way to get that is obvious.

After 4 days of searching, success.

After 4 days of searching, success.

So to Trondheim I journeyed, to get as close as possible to the 12th century town of Nidaros. Some of what I learned:

It’s only 2 hours by plane, from London to Trondheim, across the North Sea and then up the west coast of Norway. The North Sea is notorious for its wild waves and storms, so imagine crossing it in an open boat, one sail and 30 oarsmen. I don’t envy the oarsmen. But Trondheim is well protected from the sea, on the east shore of a fjord that dog-legs southwest to northwest as it feeds into the Sea. The Nidelva (I was told that nid is a Viking expletive), the wide river that outlines two sides of the peninsula on which Nidaros was built, runs quietly down from the hills south of town. At the harbor, with gulls and terns circling overhead, boats full of orange-jacketed tourists motor up, down, and across the fjord, a modern version of the fishing boats that must have sailed daily to net cod, hake, and mackerel.

997 is the year Olaf I (not the St. Olaf) arrived, beheaded some local earls (jarls) and began talking about this new thing called Christianity. Olaf II (no relation, as far as I can tell), died a few decades later in a battle with local farmers, and soon afterwards was canonized.



From about 1100 to 1537, Benedictines living on Monkholmen (an island in the harbor) made their own beer, traded as far away as England. At night, noises from their loud parties echoed across Nidaros. The fort that stands now on the island was built in the 1600s over the ruins of the monastery, so nothing can be seen of building foundations.

Cathedral spire, pilgrim's way

Cathedral spire, pilgrim’s way

Yet while on Monkholmen, I imagined the Benedictines watching building after building rise, including the tower of the Cathedral housing the remains of St. Olaf. Even now, the spire is the highest point in the old city, making it easy to orient oneself. I could also imagine pilgrims following the Nidelva en route to the Cathedral, glimpsing that spire as they came over the last hill blocking their view, and sighing with relief to think they were close to their destination (although I have to wonder how they all got home afterwards — by foot, again?).

Norse ring-and-dot motif

Norse ring-and-dot motif, Archbishop’s Palace, Trondheim

Almost nothing of Nidaros remains. Built almost entirely of wood (even the streets), it has died several times in fires. The narrow alleys (veita) give a hint of the close-set buildings and maze-like streets of a medieval town, but it took a visit to the NTNU Natural History Museum to understand that those ancient streets would have been crowded not just with people, but with sounds and odors: pigs, goats and poultry wander at will; a mother croons lullabies to her baby behind the room where her craftsman husband stokes a fire; a leather worker talks to himself at the window where a shutter folds down to act as workbench in his 4′ x 7′ workspace.

OK, it’s isn’t actual time travel, but it’s as close as I suspect I’ll ever get. And it’s enough.

Posted in Historical fiction, Historical research, writing | Tagged , | 3 Comments


I’m cheating a bit here, with brief notes on what I’ve been reading, in between packing for summer vacation.

Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margarete Schutte-Lihotsky

Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Margarete Schutte-Lihotsky

For those of you interested in the history of cooking and eating, here’s a book not about food, but about implements: pots, peelers, graters, timers, ovens, and so on. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork (2012) takes us from wood fires to four-slot toasters, from fingers to forks, from wooden sticks to wire whisks. Wilson makes some excellent points about how “progress” may in fact be the opposite. Post-WWII efforts to equip kitchens with labor-saving devices served only to tie women more closely to the room that men rarely entered. Wilson also notes the changes made possible by new technologies (yogurt consumption increases, recipe books get written). There are also surprising tales, such as the one about our overbite, and another about can openers.

Cover by Carson Ellis

Cover by Carson Ellis

For something completely different, try Colin Meloy’s Wildwood Chronicles (3 vols, 2011-2014, illustrated by Carson Ellis). Set in Portland, Oregon, it tells the story of the Wildwood, an expanse of dense woods west of the Willamette River, protected by a magical boundary few can pass. When Prue’s baby brother is kidnapped by a murder of crows, she and Curtis give chase and find themselves embroiled in a political uprising setting foxes against every other animal and human in the Wildwood, all of whom speak. I have to decide now whether to pack the immense 3rd volume or save it for my return. (PS: If Meloy’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the singer/songwriter/guitarist for the indy group, the Decemberists.)



Finally, there’s Roz Chast‘s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2013). Chast, long-time cartoonist for The New Yorker and perhaps the funniest woman alive, has already published collections of her cartoon art and a couple of kids’ books. As far as I know, this is her first memoir. It follows the physical decline and deaths of her parents, over the course of a few years, starting funny as hell (see the title) and ending still funny but also sad, especially for anyone who’s parents are heading into the same final years. The title is a comment Chast’s mother makes, when Chast starts asking about their plans for, well, you know: when IT happens. Chast’s parents are the opposite of the townspeople of La Crosse, Wisconsin (NPR’s Planet Money report here).

cantwetalkIn fact, most of us are the opposite of those enlightened Wisconsinites. Perhaps Chast’s memoir can help open up those conversations, if only to avoid that scene of the daughter abandoning all her parents belongings to a dumpster because she can’t face sorting through everything.

Summer reading to include George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of, a bit of Mapp and Lucia (while I make a trip to Rye/Tilling), and who can say what else.

Happy summer to my readers! Happy reading to all!

Posted in Cooking, Fantasy, History, Memoir | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments