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credit: Estudio Maria Santos

Very striking but too cold for day-to-day living for me.

Oh! dear, Gershon, (observe the comma – I am not being forward!) I wish you weren’t so much cleverer than I am.  When I first knew you, I was always in a state of waiting breathlessly for you to find out that I wasn’t clever, & erase me from the tables of your brain for ever – then I thought oh: well you must have found out by this time & were kindly overlooking it – but the more I saw of you, the more things I discovered you could do that I couldn’t – you could understand music, and pass your driving test at the second attempt, and play games, & follow the Hebrew in the prayer book without using your finger, & be forward without being impertinent, & sing in the street without being foolish – & all kinds of other things too – but this last display of versatility is too much – you can type as well – and in two colours – and two different sizes!  What can I do but say humbly that it’s been an honour to know you? (3 August 1939)

I have been longing for a really good collection of letters to read but Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander is exceeding my every expectation.  Alexander, a recent Cambridge graduate, was recovering from a car accident during the summer of 1939 when the letters to her future husband Gershon Ellenbogen begin and from the beginning they are extraordinary.  Bursting with life and humour, I can barely stand to put them down to do anything else – except perhaps pop by here to share a few snippets.  Expect more dispatches in coming days!

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Sharlene has the Mr Linky this week.

Just one book to share this week: Murder on Cold Street by Sherry Thomas, the just-released fifth book in her “Lady Sherlock” series.  Thomas is good at writing any genre she turns her hand to (romance, mystery, YA, fantasy) so it’s exciting any time she has a new release.

What did you pick up this week?

After travelling to Germany in 1937, Walter Fish, a retired editor of the Daily Mail newspaper, returned to England convinced that war was coming.  His response was to find a home in the countryside for himself and his wife.  They’d planned to find something turn-key with a ready-made garden.  Instead they ended up buying “a poor battered old house that had to be gutted to be liveable, and wilderness instead of a garden”.  Almost twenty years later, in 1956, Walter’s wife looked back and chronicled what they did with their two acre plot in the classic gardening book We Made a Garden by Margery Fish.

Margery was in her mid-forties when they bought the house and Walter almost twenty years older.  They had married in 1933 after working together at the Daily Mail and while Walter had had gardens of his own in his previous homes, this was the first one Margery had ever been involved with.  In fact, surrounded by gardening-minded relatives, she’d been quite scornful of their pastime in earlier years:

I have always felt my family have been very forbearing towards me.  Before I was married I didn’t do anything in the garden.  Every weekend, when my sisters were navvying to make a garden round the little house we built, I sailed off on my bicycle to play golf.  And I never stopped saying the most scathing things about gardeners, what fools they were always to be working and never enjoying their gardens, and what was the good of having a lovely garden if you never had time to sit in it and enjoy it? […] I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years.

Now with a space of her own, Margery threw herself wholeheartedly into the making of a cottage garden, making up in enthusiasm and energy what she lacked in knowledge.  With Walter also interested in the garden, she realised quickly that to make her mark on the space she would need to move quickly – before he could impose his own vision on the garden:

We all know the saying about fools.  When I think of it now I wonder how I had the hardihood to attempt such an ambitious scheme.  I had never done any gardening before we went to Somerset and had certainly never even thought about garden design.  It might have been the most abysmal failure, but I didn’t think about that.  My only thought was to get the project under way before Walter took an interest in what I was doing and complicated matters with too much criticism and advice.

Margery leads the reader through the garden, recalling how they handled different areas and challenges.  I particularly loved hearing about the areas where they failed or struggled – it’s always heartening to know this doesn’t just happen to you.  Margery was led by enthusiasm in the early years and sometimes, as with the stone garden, that led her to plantings that she’d regret:

I was instructed to plant what I could between the stones, to relieve the hard angular lines.  At that time it was literally a case of making bricks with straw as I had practically nothing to use.  Looking round the garden I came upon some stonecrop and pounced on it as an answer to prayers.  There wasn’t very much and I broke it into small pieces and poked them between the stones.  I had no idea that when it settles down in a place it not only starts raising a family but goes in for founding a dynasty as well. […] Sometimes in the summer my heart softens when I see its really pretty flat pink rosettes, but most of the time it is war. […] If, by an oversight, it is allowed to stay on a piece of a flower bed for more than a minute, in two minutes that flower bed will be a solid mat of stonecrop of a particularly luxuriant quality.  Every year I pull out barrowloads of it and I know I shall continue to do so until I die.

There were lucky successes, plenty of failures, and lots of marital conflict as Walter’s strong opinions (on watering, on certain plants, on caring for the drive, and on and on and on) had to be taken into account.  Walter died in 1947 and while Margery remembers him fondly throughout the book and his influence helped make her the gardener she became, she also obviously enjoyed the freedom she had after his death to shape the garden according only to her own ideas.  They started the garden as a “we” but Walter was a fair-weather gardener and it clearly became Margery’s main interest as time went on, a topic of which she never tired:

I could go on and on.  But that is just what gardening is, going on and on.  My philistine of a husband often told with amusement how a cousin when asked when he expected to finish his garden replied ‘Never, I hope.’ And that, I think, applies to all true gardeners.

I found this slim volume delightful.  Margery is an excellent and entertaining writer, full of informative gardening details but also a cheerful sense of humour.  So much of her has been poured into the garden and into the book that it’s easy to understand why it has stood the test of time and remains a classic.  Her garden has also survived and can still be visited today.  If I’m ever in Somerset, I’ll be sure to stop by East Lambrook Manor Gardens and see it for myself.

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After seven months of working from home and goodness knows how many more to go, I REALLY wish my workspace looks like this.  But then again perhaps the books would be too distracting…who could work when you have all of those vying for your attention?

Whenever Simon and Karen host one of their reading weeks, there are a few authors who bibliographies I immediately check.  It’s hard to find a year that didn’t have a book published by Angela Thirkell, Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer and in fact for 1956, the focus of this week’s reading, all three had new books out.  Spoiled for choice (though Thirkell’s talents were waning by then), I happily picked up Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, looking forward to rereading the humorous story written at the height of Heyer’s powers.

We meet our hero, Sir Gareth Ludlow, on a visit to his sister’s home.  Adored and idolized by his nieces and nephews, we understand immediately the character of “Uncle Gary” but his sister, being an elder sister, also clues us into the key challenges of Sir Gareth’s life: he is thirty-five years old, unmarried, and, with their younger brother now dead, must think of an heir.  Having never fallen in love since the death of his vivacious fiancée seven years before, despite the many young women that have been thrown his way, the family is starting to despair.  But Sir Gareth has his own plan as to whom he wants to marry and is in fact just off to propose to Lady Hester Theale, an old friend and confirmed spinster of twenty-nine living quietly under her family’s thumb.

He sets off from London but soon crosses paths with Amanda “Smith”, a very determined sixteen-year-old runaway.  Amanda, loathe to reveal her identity, is happy to share the details of her situation and of her plan: an orphan living with her grandfather, she is in love with a military officer and determined to marry him.  She has run away from home in order to force her grandfather’s hand but, having run out of money, is trying to convince the innkeeper to hire her when Sir Gareth stumbles across her.  He takes it as a matter of course that the young lady must be rescued from herself but Amanda views Sir Gareth’s involvement less kindly:

‘I believe,’ said Amanda, after another seething pause, ‘that kidnappers are sent to prison, or even transported!  You would not like that, I daresay!’

‘No, indeed.’

‘Well!  I am just warning you!’ she said.

‘Thank you!  I am very much obliged to you.’

‘And if you,’ declared Amanda, bethinking herself of the groom, and twisting round to address him, ‘had one grain of manliness you would not permit your master to carry me off.’

Trotton, a deeply interested audience, was unprepared for this attack, and nearly lost his balance.  Much discomposed, he could only stammer an unintelligible answer, and glance imploringly at Sir Gareth’s back-view.

‘Oh, you mustn’t blame Trotton!’ said Sir Gareth. ‘Consider how difficult is his position!  He is obliged to obey my orders, you see.’

‘He is not obliged to assist you in kidnapping people!’ she retorted.

‘I engaged him on the strict understanding,’ said Sir Gareth firmly, ‘that that would form an important part of his duties.’

‘I w-wish you would not be so absurd!’ said Amanda, struggling to suppress a giggle.

Being a Heyer hero, Sir Gareth has no sinister intentions.  He abducts Amanda from the inn but takes her to Lady Hester.  Having already obtained her father’s permission to propose, the entire household is scandalised that Sir Gareth would bring such a young, pretty girl – clearly a mistress – along with him.  But his faith in Lady Hester is well-placed and Amanda is soon confiding in her – and also lecturing her about Lady Hester’s meek ways with her overbearing family:

‘I wonder you should not tell people who scold you to go about their business.’

‘I am afraid I have not enough courage,’ said Hester ruefully.

‘Like my aunt,’ nodded Amanda.  ‘She has no courage, either, and she lets Grandpapa bully her, which puts me out of all patience, because one can always get one’s own way, if you one has resolution.’

‘Can one?’ said Hester doubtfully.

‘Yes, though sometimes, I own, one is forced to take desperate measures.  And it is of no use to tease oneself about propriety,’ she added, with a touch of defiance, ‘because it seems to me that if you never do anything that is not quite proper and decorous you will have the wretchedest life, without any adventures, or romance, or anything!’

‘It is very true, alas!’ Hester smiled at her again. ‘But not for you, I think.’

‘No, because I have a great deal of resolution.’

But while Lady Hester trusts that there is no relationship between Sir Gareth and Amanda when they arrive, she also is certain that one will develop.  Amanda’s brightness and energy remind her too much of her long-dead friend who Sir Gareth once loved and so she rebuffs Sir Gareth’s proposal, despite being clearly, painfully already in love with him.  Heyer’s genius is in making the reader like Amanda but never share Lady Hester’s fears.

Unsurprisingly, Amanda has soon run away againand the rest of the novel takes place on the road.  The greatest danger to Amanda’s innocence comes from Lady Hester’s uncle, a middle-aged roué whom Amanda convinces to aid in her escape.  But Amanda, innocent though she is, is far from stupid and gives him the slip, setting off to disturb the lives of yet more people with Sir Gareth in hot pursuit.  When Amanda’s most ambitious plan goes awry, Sir Gareth is shot and becomes gravely ill.

Heyer loved a sickbed scene and this is no exception.  It allows her to show Amanda’s best qualities – her quick thinking and decisiveness – and also to allow Lady Hester, when summoned to Sir Gareth’s side by Amanda, to finally rebel against her family.  It also allows Heyer to amuse herself and the reader as Amanda and Hildebrand, a young aspiring playwright who had the misfortune to cross Amanda’s path and be roped into her schemes, squabble their way through Sir Gareth’s recovery, concocting ever more confusing relationships to one another to lend some propriety to their current circumstances.

Heyer revisited this plot – eligible bachelor crossing paths with beautiful runaway – many times but this may be my favourite version of it.  Amanda is her best and most well-rounded runaway and the humour is perfectly sustained throughout.  It had been years since I last reread it but I’m so happy I picked it up for the 1956 Club.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander – Sarra Manning flagged this collection of letters from the Second World War back in March in her list of 2020 non-fiction releases, describing it as “It’s like somebody put all my favourite things into a magical book-making machine and this is what came out.”  Sold!

Love from Boy edited by Donald Sturrock – I am so in the mood for letters or diaries but haven’t found anything to suit me yet.  I have high hopes for the Eileen Alexander book (above) but am also excited about this collection of letters from Roald Dahl to his mother.

Walking to Samarkand by Bernard Ollivier – I love books about walking and books about the Silk Road (have you read Lands of Lost Borders yet?) so this seems ideal for me.  I have only just realised that it is actually the second volume, the first being Out of Istanbul so now I’m off to find that too.

Women and Their Gardens by Catherine Horwood – I read Horwood’s excellent biography of Beth Chatto earlier this year and was delighted to see the library had this earlier book, a survey of female British gardeners from the Elizabethan period onwards.  It seems to have originally been published as Gardening Women if you’re looking for it in the UK.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili – I love a family saga and I’m always interested in books from Eastern Europe so this doorstopper (well-reviewed in the Guardian last year) seemed ideal.  But is it ever huge – thank goodness the library has extended its loan periods and eliminated late fines during the pandemic.

Angels by Marian Keyes – After reading a few of Keyes’ books over the summer (Grown Ups and Rachel’s Holiday) I’m not ready to let go so it’s back to the Walsh family series.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman – People are so enthusiastic about Backman’s books but I’ve never read any of them.  But I’ve broken that curse and am now halfway through this touching story about a bank robbery turn apartment-viewing-hostage-situation and loving it.

One Game at a Time by Harnarayan Singh – Bit of a niche interest this.  For my non-Canadian readers, Singh is a sports announcer for the Punjabi broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada (because yes, that is something we have).  In his newly released memoir, he tells his story of growing up on the prairies and pursuing his dream of working in a sport where no one else looked like him.

Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen – There has been press about this everywhere (did you see it in the Guardian?  Or NPR?) and as a millennial I feel I should at least give it a try to understand what the rest of my generation is apparently feeling.

What did you pick up this week?

At this stage in my reading career, how many types of wartime memoirs have I read?  Serious and humorous, military and political, front lines and home front, Allies and Axis, I’ve made a pretty good survey of the Second World War but I’m not sure I’ve ever read one that managed life on the home front as lightheartedly as Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson.

Anderson was in her mid-twenties when the war began, single and working in the F.A.N.Y.s, though not very devotedly.  When we meet her on the first page she is just about to go AWOL and get married, with no plan of returning.  This, as we learn, doesn’t seem wildly out of character given the number of jobs she cycled through before the war.  She has spent time as a “nursery-maid, a governess, a chaffeuse, a scene-shifter, a ballet-dancer’s dresser, and then I tried to emigrate to Canada […] as a mobile Sunday school teacher”.  She also found time to illustrate wrappers for toffees while living in a studio flat with three bohemian friends.  It is an incongruous and intriguing life for the daughter of a country parson but a good indicator of the adventurous and indomitable spirit that makes her so interesting to read about.

Anderson hadn’t enjoyed her time in the F.A.N.Y.s but she had found some peace there.  When she takes the time to analyse her reasons it with her usual humour and self-knowledge:

Walking home to the rectory, I tried to analyse my reasons for wanting to go back.  My heart had never been in the F.A.N.Y.s until Dunkirk.  The community life did not suit me.  Discipline did not appeal.  I was not a good F.A.N.Y., either technically or socially.  Could it be patriotism?  Knowing myself, I felt there must be some more selfish motive behind it.  Then I remembered telling Lucy I should feel safer right in the war.

That was it.  Anything might happen now, not only to my brothers and friends in the navy, the army, the air force, but to my parents, to Rhalou [a sister] with her little family, and to Lorema [another sister] still at school.  In the F.A.N.Y.s I should be safe from the impact.  Somebody else does your thinking for you in the army, and even your feeling.  And if I were killed, well, in the F.A.N.Y.s life was that much less interesting to want to cling on to.

Even though the F.A.N.Y. portion of her life is over with quickly, I did love hearing about it.  Her sketch of her commanding officer delighted me and seems like something from a Joyce Grenfell sketch:

We were commanded by a bubbly-haired old actress who, as the niece of a senior army officer, took her position very seriously.  In her talk she mingled a certain amount of army jargon, picked up at her uncle’s breakfast table, with the normal chatter we understood of hats and actors and horses.  Sometimes, judging by her modes of addressing us, she saw us as Mayfair Debutantes and sometimes as Men Going Over The Top.

Once Anderson dashes away from the F.A.N.Y.s to marry Donald Anderson, who is much older than her and whom she has been in love with for several years to the disapproval of her family, the focus becomes exceedingly domestic.  But for once in a wartime memoir we do not have to hear ad nauseum about the prices of things or about ingenious cooking on the ration (I’ve taken about as much of that as I can handle).  What we do hear a lot about is housing and, thankfully, I find that endlessly entertaining.  The Andersons bounce around frequently through the short war years, setting up homes in London, in the suburbs, and in the country.  As housing shortages and stretched finances make shared living both practical and necessary, Anderson takes on a variety of housemates and eventually latches on the brilliant plan of letting rooms to holidaymakers.  This turns out to be not so brilliant for someone with no hospitality training but is very funny.

During the war years Anderson had her first two children (she would eventually have five in total) and of all the domestic details I’ve read in diaries and memoirs I’m fairly certain I’ve never come across so many pages devoted to life in a maternity hospital.  The birth of Anderson’s first child was rather dramatic so she spent plenty of time at the hospital and I was fascinated by the details of it.

With her ever-changing accommodations, Anderson spends a fair amount of time bouncing around to friends and family as well.  Any time her mother appeared I was delighted as she seems a redoubtable sort of woman, equal to anything put before her (whether it be reconciling herself to her daughter’s elopement or living under the German flightpath to London):

My mother was very sceptical about the German raiders getting across the Channel at all.

‘Once,’ she said, ‘one got across and dropped some tiny little bombs on Eastbourne and then landed and gave himself up.  He was hardly out of the sixth form.’

There was a fifteen-mile-from-the-coast ban on non-residents and my mother was determined to keep all the secrets behind it.

‘Then what’s that whacking great crater down in the field over there?’ I asked.

‘One of ours,’ she assured me.  ‘They dropped it by mistake on their way out.’

‘Just as uncomfortable all the same to be hit by it.’

‘Anyways that was ages ago.  They’re much more practised now.’

As she spoke there was an enormous explosion on the marshes.

‘Marsh gas, I suppose?’ I teased her.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, sure to make you smile and even giggle throughout – a rare enough thing for a wartime memoir.

But what delighted me most was discovering facts about the rest of Anderson’s life.  I was tickled to learn that her fourth child is Janie Hampton, author of How the Girl Guides Won the War, a book I read and loved years ago.  But most impressive of all for me was the discovery that Anderson’s father had been the clergyman at All Saints’ Herstmonceux in East Sussex.  The last book Anderson wrote was about Herstmonceux Castle, including her memories of playing on the grounds through the 1920s and 1930s.  The castle is now owned by Queen’s University, the Canadian school where I studied, and serves as its international study centre.  I spent a term studying there in 2007 and it was the happiest part of my university years.  It’s a small, small world.

The Castle

When I was little, there was nothing I liked more than a pioneer story.  Tales of families crossing the plains in their wagons, braving the elements, and relying on their wits and one another to get through the storms, blights, and assorted perils they faced.  The main way to feed this love was with endless rereadings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books but there was a steady supply of mediocre imitations around, many of them from my father’s own childhood bookshelves.  And that is where I found The Children Who Stayed Alone by Bonnie Bess Worline, originally published in 1956 (as Sod House Adventure) but reissued in the mid-60s when my father was just the right age for tales of young pioneers.  Coincidentally, my mother was in fact a young pioneer at this same time but it meant something very different by then (although she looked adorable in her communist kerchief).

The title leaves little room for doubt about the book’s main event: with their father away getting supplies and their mother tending to a neighbour struggling with a hard labour, Phoebe and Hartley Dawson are left alone to take care for their five younger siblings.  A fierce storm arrives just after their mother’s departure and so they are left alone for several days to care for the children, tend the animals, and, most dramatically, care for the Native American woman and her sick child who have stumbled out of the storm into their little sod house.

For a child, it’s the ideal fantasy.  There’s nothing really scary happening and Phoebe and Hartley grow in confidence as they prove how well they can manage.  They also – Phoebe especially, to whom the bulk of the work falls – gain an appreciation for how hard their parents work to keep everything running smoothly.  The way this is presented can be cringingly didactic but great style isn’t a necessity for a genre of books aimed at ten-year-olds.

The bulk of the book covers the events of those few days alone and it’s a puzzle as to why Worline continued the story beyond that.  This has the flavour of a family story written out for a larger audience so I suspect she wanted to do justice to the loved ones who lived the events.  She follows them out of the cold winter into the hopeful spring and summer, which sees the family moving into a new wooden house, new neighbours settling where there had only been lonely prairie a year before, and the children preparing to start at the newly formed school, a scary prospect for kids who’ve never attended one.  And there is a happy if improbable reunion with the Native American woman whom they sheltered in the winter, whose father-in-law is the chief of the local tribe and who gives a grand and highly appreciated reward to his family’s young protectors.

For a book written in 1956, I was prepared for some outdated attitudes but was surprised by how well Worline’s tale has aged.  Obviously, the Native Americans are referred to as Indians, but not in any derogatory sense, and Mrs Dawson, even when she thinks they are launching a raid on her home and have captured her husband, remarks “Perhaps we have no right to the land.  I’ve never quite felt the Indians got a square deal.”  That is some impressive sang-froid.  Mr Dawson shows his own progressive values in his determination that all of his children, girls included, should go not just to school but also onto college.  He believes all of these young pioneers, regardless of gender, have a role to play for which college will help prepare them.  He is proud that their state has higher education for women and extorts Phoebe, shy and nervous about school, that she must:

…help this state grow into a good state to live in, a state that takes care of its people as a family takes care of its children.  I don’t know just how; but that is why I want you children to have the best education you can get, so you can find out how.

But let’s be honest: the greatest thing about reading these tales as an adult is hearing about the handsomely stocked pantries, winter feasts, and communal meals.  It’s all about the food and this book excelled at describing everything that was on the table.  When Phoebe and Hartley want to cheer up the younger children during the storm, they put together a party with freshly made popcorn, nuts, and taffy, which is as much a treat to pull and form into candy as it is to eat.  Phoebe admires the family pantry – full of potatoes, onions, dried and smoked meat, dried fruit, and preserves – all the more for remembering how bare it had been in earlier years, when crops had been poor and the family unprepared for what was needed to get them through the winter.  And when the Dawsons host neighbours from all around to help build their new house, the tables are fairly groaning with the massive spread laid out for the mid-day meal:

Besides the many varieties of corn and corn-meal dishes, there were bowls of Dutch cheese, deviled eggs and creamed hard-boiled eggs, wild greens wilted in bacon grease and hot vinegar, dried beef with hominy, sauerkraut, raw cabbage slaw, and many kinds of potato salad.

There were kettles of stewed chicken, cold roast pheasant and partridge, fried rabbit, and Mrs Pfitzer’s rabbit stew with dumplings which she had carried across the fields in a big iron kettle.  There was a kettle of boiled ham and beans, and a big baked ham.  The special treat of the Dawsons was roast lamb with fresh mint sauce from Mother’s mint bed.  There was wheat bread, and soda biscuits, real treats for everyone, and of course the butter Phoebe had churned the day before, and many kinds of jelly and preserves.  Last of all were the pies, dried apple and dried plum and dried peach; and gingerbread with a big bowl of whipped cream to spread on it, and Indian pudding, and thin, sweet pancakes spread with jam and rolled up while they were hot.

Reading these sorts of books as a child, back in the pre-internet days, I could only guess at what things like hominy, taffy, and creamed hard-boiled eggs were (I am still, internet-enabled though I am, confused about hominy).  But that was and is part of the fun.

This is not great literature and the children are nauseatingly good all of the time (all of it!  How is this possible?) but I still thoroughly enjoyed it and am delighted we’ve managed to hold onto my father’s copy for all these years.

There is one reading day left before the 1956 club starts!  I love these reading events (hosted by Simon and Karen), which encourage bloggers to spend one week reading books published in a specific year.  1956 looks like it’s going to be a great one.

The club runs all week so you have plenty of time left to join in.  Here are some reading ideas:

Books from my archives:
Summerhills by D.E Stevenson
The Legends of Prague by František Langer
All the Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith

What I’m reading:
Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson
The Children Who Stayed Alone by Bonnie Bess Worline
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
We Made a Garden by Margery Fish