Archive for the ‘Roy Strong’ Category

I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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Country LifeI have just finished reading A Country Life by Roy Strong, an enjoyable collection of magazine columns Strong wrote about his life at The Laskett.  Covering all manner of topics – the adventures of his absurdly named cats (the Reverent Wenceslas Muff, the Lady Torte de Shell, William Larking Esq, and Herzog Friedrich von Sans Souci), descriptions of alfresco dinner parties, observations of developments in the garden, and musings on the futures of ill-attended country churches – these short pieces capture country life in all seasons and are illustrated with beautiful drawings by the author’s wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman.

To be conscious of happiness in life is rare,” Strong says in one of the pieces but, more than most, he seems able to not only recognize moments of happiness but also to capture and appreciate them.  It is this sense of contentment that makes this book so enjoyable.  His enjoyment of simple things – visits with friends, charity lectures, even the daily act of writing in his diary – is wonderful to behold.

Many of his observations are only a few sentences long, but that makes them no less precious.  I loved this description of how the seclusion of country life in winter gave him a better understanding of Austen’s novels:

I have been in the country virtually the whole time since Christmas – a long stretch without the wicked city.  January and February are pretty awful months, ones in which the weather enhances the sense of enclosure and isolation, which not even papers, television or radio quite eradicate.

Suddenly, I am acutely aware of a kinship with the England of Jane Austen, in which the fashionable chatter of the metropolis percolates only fitfully with the backdrop of a war on the mainland of Europe, while civilized life in the country still goes on. Plus ça change…

Perhaps because it is winter here, I enjoyed that section of the book the most, with its talk of Christmas decorations, marmalade-making, and hyacinth bulbs.  Best of all were Strong’s musings on “A Country Library”:

The classification of a private library ought to reflect the structure of the owner’s mind, and that inevitably changes over the years.  In addition, the best of systems in the end breaks down in the face of bequests and gifts of books; when there is no more room to jam anything in, little heaps start spring up.

Once reshelving starts, there is no going back.  It has to be accompanied by the iron will to discard several thousand books in order to re-establish any order.  My wife cannot bear parting with anything, and I find that on seeing this massive evacuation, she has hastily constructed makeshift shelves of bricks and old planks in the garden room, to take in the throw-outs which ranged from books in Russian, which I cannot read, to a set of the Waverley novels.

I was still short of space, so we studied a guest bedroom, which had already sacrificed a bay to take in the sections on contemporary biography and Cecil Beaton, in order to build yet another bookcase.  I never mind sleeping in a room jammed with books, and one hopes one’s guests will feel the same.

Self-sufficiency, in terms of civilized life and information, remain the essence of any library in the country, however small.  No one can afford to be without a run of the great classics, the odd volume on the peerage, or a handful on local topography, architecture and history.

Except for four months spent in East Sussex, I have never lived in the country nor do I ever expect to.  But there is something irresistible about the idea of it and Strong’s pieces capture the romantic, gentle country life we city folk dream of, with a warm Aga in the kitchen, a large garden to be worked on and enjoyed, rooms full of books, and plenty of witty, intelligent friends to be welcomed for visits.

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Almost as soon as I expressed an interest in gardening books, blog reader Margaret Powling recommended that I try The Laskett by Roy Strong.  Thank goodness she did as otherwise I would probably never have come across this wonderful chronicle of how Strong and his wife, designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, created The Laskett, “the largest formal garden created in Britain since the war.”  It has not only become one of my favourite gardening books – and probably the most inspirational of the ones I’ve read so far – but also one of my favourite books of 2012.

Part of what makes this book so incredibly fascinating are the plentiful photos included in it.  It is wonderful to actually see the garden progress over the years, from the bare fields that were there in the mid-1970s when Strong and his wife purchased a very ordinary early Victorian house set on four acres in Herefordshire, to the established, rather eccentric garden of the early 2000s.

Another huge part of the book’s appeal is the level of detail Strong happily goes into.  I loved how specific he was.  I need details (the more minute the better) and Strong provides them, getting into the particulars about cost and labour.  As a reader, it is very easy to win my affection: all you need do is disclose your finances to me.  Works every time.  As both Strong and his wife were devoted to a poorly paid field (the arts), The Laskett was created on a shoestring budget, with many cutting and plants donated from friends.  It was fascinating (but also a tad frustrating) to read how many trees could be purchased in the 1970s for less than £20 and equally intriguing to find out just how little cash there was to work with, Strong having received a paltry salary at the V&A (where he was the first director without a private income).  His portrait of 1970s, pre-Thatcher Britain is bleak and the creation of The Laskett, begun in the mid-1970s, was his escape from an ever-more worrying world that seemed on the brink of collapse:

I was fully conscious from the outset that The Laskett garden was a child of its time, the middle of the seventies.  When I talk to groups I am about to escort around the garden I always evoke those years on the backcloth to the making of The Laskett garden.  In front of me I often see nothing but a sea of bewildered faces, as though gardening was a world apart from reality.  I remind them how in January 1974 I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum and began my directorship in the midst of the three-day week, with the miners on strike and the imminent collapse of the Heath government.  My secretary and I sat and worked by candlelight, for government had decreed that the lights be turned off.  This was the prelude to over five years of social turmoil until, after the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979, a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Even then it was not until the middle of the eighties that anything remotely resembling stability and economic prosperity returned.

Strong writes so engagingly about the creation of the garden, sharing all number of personal stories about his inspiration and adventures while making it, that you can’t help but warm to him.  I did finish the book a tad envious of his diverse circle of friends, many of whom are paid tribute to in the garden.  He and Julia had such an amazing group of gardening-inclined friends and acquaintances to draw inspiration from.  I started taking down names as I read, eager to learn more about these people if I could.  Some are well-known (Cecil Beaton and Rosemary Verey, for instance) while others sounded vaguely normal but terribly fascinating (like George Clive), the kind of people who no doubt gain mentions in all sorts of books written by their friends but who will never be the focus of one themselves.  The best thing about reading memoirs (which is essentially what this is) by interesting people is how many other interesting people they know and are able to ‘introduce’ you to.

I think Strong may have also inspired a passion in me for formal garden design, which, given the spaces I’m likely to have available in my city-dwelling lifetime, is inconvenient.  Where am I going to have the chance to indulge a passion for topiary, or even the chance to create garden ‘rooms’?  His passion for structure, for trees and hedges creating walls and canopies, was intoxicating: 

Hedges to most people are a burden.  To me they are a joy.  If I had to simplify The Laskett garden I would indeed sweep away everything and leave just the hedges and topiary.  They endow the garden with its romance and mystery, evidence too that garden is as much about placing human beings in space as are architecture and theatre design.  It is not for nothing that I sometimes like to shock an audience by saying to them, ‘Remember, flowers are a sign of failure in a garden,’ a remark that is always guaranteed to produce a reaction. 

Who needs flowers indeed!  Me, I would have said before I read this, but Strong has converted me (except for my beloved blubs – I could never give those up). 

I think what I loved most about The Laskett is how individual it is.  Strong was inspired by others but this is identifiably his garden, telling his and Julia’s story.  It may not gain the approval of professional garden designers, may not follow the ‘rules’ gardeners are supposed to abide by, but it is wonderfully them, from the garish paint choices to the unexpected (and abundant) statues.  It chronicles episodes in Strong’s life, pays tribute to friends and family, and celebrates both his and Julia’s professional achievements.  There’s a Shakespeare Monument, erected after Strong won the Shakespeare Prize from the FVS Foundation of Hamburg, the V&A Museum Temple (Strong spent 14 years there as director), the Nutcracker Garden (one of the ballets Julia designed for) and the Elizabeth Tudor Avenue (named in memory of a book Strong wrote about her, the proceeds from which helped finance the planting).  The garden is truly Strong’s masterpiece:

The Laskett garden was never to me anything other than a work of art in the making, one that called for vision, the exercise of the eye, the application of taste, discipline, patience, craft and knowledge over a sustained period of time to conjure up an unforgettable experience through the time-honoured application of art to nature.  It was always viewed with that higher vision in mind, one of a kind I learnt about through studying garden history.  There I read that any great garden was not only an arrangement of plants and artifacts in terms of design and composition but also a tissue of allusions and ideas.  In our case to wander in The Laskett garden was a journey of associations.  On a superficial level the garden sets out to delight and surprise but, on a deeper one, for us the resonances have always been far more complex.

It took decades to develop the garden to the impressive state it was in when the book was published in 2003, restricted by time and money, but the garden is truly a reflection of the gardener, of Strong’s personality and influences.  Every garden should be this unique, should have its own identity, complete with a memory and sense of humour.  It is an art, garden designing, and really does offer you the scope for wit and whimsy, drama and tribute.  But few, I think, recognize that and are truly able to make as much of their gardens as Strong.

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