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Archive for the ‘Cultural Miscellania’ Category

If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we can only control so much – but what we do control has the power to make us happy and keep us calm in uncertain times.  It is in that spirit that I think everyone should track down a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and embrace the power of music to comfort and delight you in 2021 and years to come.

First published in 2017, this wonderful book is a daily guide to classical music.  A broadcaster and musician (and actress and journalist and…many, many things), Burton-Hill put it together after years of making playlists for friends and hosting radio programmes, eager to help introduce others to the genre she loves and yet which seems so far removed from many people’s lives.  As she puts it in her introduction:

What I am determined to do…is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.  I want to open up this vast treasury of musical riches by suggesting a single piece to listen to every day of the year: by giving it some context, telling some stories about the people behind it, and reminding you that it was created by a real person – probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as you, who wished to express themselves and happened to do so through this particular sequence of musical notes.  It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt.  And that’s you!

With one piece selected for each day of the year, Burton-Hill guides listeners through familiar classics, forgotten gems, and contemporary works.  It is an exciting collection and for every work of genius by Mozart or Bach (who rightly have multiple entries throughout the year), there is something I would never have found by someone I have never heard of.  Refreshingly, Burton-Hill includes pieces by more than 40 female composers.

Though the main goal of the book is to demystify the genre for those who might have viewed it as an elitist art form, the book is just as rewarding for those of us who have been attending classical concerts all our lives and listen to little else.  I grew up in a house where classical music – so cheap and easy to access in our modern world, thanks to radios, home audio systems, and now the internet – was always on and where trips to children’s programmes at the symphony started so early that I can’t remember my first concerts.  My mother was raised in a world where everyone went to operas and concert halls, travelling by tram and sitting in boxes alongside teachers and factory workers, so took it for granted that music was necessary for everyone.  She lulled her babies to sleep with Brahms and Mozart and we accordingly assumed it as part of our lives.  It wasn’t until we started spending time at friends’ houses that we realised this wasn’t the case for everyone – and frankly that still boggles my mind.  Clearly, what those friends (and their parents) needed was this book.

While some pairings of music and day are significant – many composers are featured on their birthdays and national independence days marked by compositions from proud sons/daughters – others are more whimsical.  In January she offers up “music that feels like a large glass of red wine” and later a piece to console listeners simply because it is mid-February and we all need a bit of consoling as we wait for spring.  The descriptions of pieces are engaging and informative, giving context to the pieces and their composers, and never more than one page long.

My only quibble – because I am the least technologically-inclined millennial in the world – is that the music itself is available only on streaming playlists (on iTunes and Spotify) and not in a mammoth CD collection.  I hate having my devices nearby when I read and would love to be able to put the music on easily while I read.  But recognize that I am a dinosaur and need to get with the times.  Or burn my own CDs…

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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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It’s a lovely, chilly autumn afternoon here and after a busy morning of garden work it’s nice to settle down inside and look through some holiday photos from beautiful, sunny Brittany last spring.

After somehow tearing ourselves away from Perros-Guirec (this still seems like a mistake.  Why did we ever leave?  Why I am not there at this exact moment, eating galettes and going for bracing daily swims?), we made our way to Saint-Malo.  Saint-Malo is a walled city best known for having been almost totally destroyed by Allied bombardment in 1944 (chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr), although generations of Canadian school children also remember it as the birthplace of the explorer Jacques Cartier, who sailed from Saint-Malo to “discover” Canada and claim it for France.  Nowadays, it is also a major transportation hub, on the TGV line from Paris and with a port that welcomes British ferries and many, many British tourists.  After the tranquility of Perros-Guirec, it was a jarring change to suddenly be surrounded by so many (rather obnoxious) travellers.

So, I did the only reasonable thing: after checking into our AirBnB within the walled city, I hopped the boat to Dinard, a resort town just across the estuary from Saint-Malo.  One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Brittany was to explore the GR34 walking trail that follows the coastline.  I’d done a lot of walking around Perros-Guirec and was excited to now explore the trail around Saint-Malo, in a region known as the Emerald Coast.  Starting off with the beautiful 3 hour walk from Dinard to Saint-Malo was a great way to stretch my legs after a morning spent travelling and escape the daytripping crowds in Saint-Malo.

The next day, there was yet again more walking.  We caught the bus (the public transportation around Saint-Malo was excellent!) to Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, a little town to the west, and walked from there back to Dinard.  It was a stunning trail, with lots of variety and some extraordinarily beautiful points jutting out into the ocean.  The weather wasn’t great but it was properly atmospheric with lots of wind, a touch of rain, and a beautiful contrast between the bright sea and the dull grey clouds above.

This part of France is full of reminders of the Second World War, which, as a history buff, I found fascinating. Brittany had a strong resistance movement and there are tributes to the Maquis in many villages. And, as we walked along the coast, we came across many old bunkers, part of the German’s “Atlantic Wall”.

For a break from the sea, we spent the next day exploring the charmingly picturesque village of Dinan further inland.  We visited on a Monday, when most of the shops are closed, so we missed the tourist crowds that are usually there are enjoyed having the quiet, beautiful streets largely to ourselves.

For our last day in Brittany, I’d hoped to visit nearby Cancale but the weather was a bit unpredictable and the wind was extraordinarily strong so we stuck close to Saint-Malo, walking instead along the beach outside town and over to Pointe de la Varde east of town.

I did, although it may not sound like it, also spend some time inside the walls in Saint-Malo.  The town itself didn’t do anything for me – like most reconstructed cities, it feels a bit soulless – but I enjoyed walking the walls in the evenings, taking shelter from the winds on the sunny-south side of the walls and watching the locals play pétanque, and, of course, eating delicious local Breton specialties in its restaurants.

I don’t think I’d return to Saint-Malo (I’d stay in Dinard instead) but it was still well worth seeing and the places I was able to visit while using it as my base cemented my love of Brittany.  I’m already plotting to return and hopefully explore the western part of the region – after all, the GR34 trail covers the entire coast and I’ve only gotten to do little parts of it so far.  There’s a lot left to see!

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Despite growing up with plenty of exposure to all things French, I have never been a Francophile.  My holiday dreams have always looked further east, to central Europe, or north, to the UK.  But the one area of France that has always captured my imagination is Brittany.  Every Breton I’ve ever met has always enthused about its beauties and mentioned how much it rains.  Being a true Vancouverite, nothing could be more enticing to me than the promise of rain and people who share my love of it.  And then when I heard about the great GR34 trail that follows the Breton coastline, I was hooked.  It was time to go to France.  It turned out to be the perfect destination (especially since it was so easy to add Giverny to the itinerary as well).

For a relaxing approach, we chose two different towns to stay in, each for four nights.  We started in Perros-Guirec and it quickly became one of my favourite places I have ever been.  We had perfect weather (no Breton rain for me on this trip!) and absolutely perfect accommodation at the wonderful Villa Les Hydrangéas.

After a long travel day from Giverny (via Paris), we arrived in Perros-Guirec in the late afternoon to find the locals taking a dip in the surprisingly warm ocean.  For water lovers, this was an excellent first sign.  As we talked to people throughout our stay, we discovered that the water apparently stays quite warm year-round and many locals swim – or at least walk in up to mid-thigh or waist, doing companionable strolls through the sea with friends – each day.  Such a life!

We had no vigorous agenda for our stay – just lots of walking and relaxation.  The most popular walk is from Perros-Guirec to Ploumanac’h, one of the more famous spots on the Pink Granite Coast, so we did that on our first day, walking there along the coast and then back through a valley and then small villages.  The entire day was stunning.

The next day we took a taxi to Port Blanc and walked back to Perros-Guirec from there (about 16km).  Most guidebooks recommend a car for Brittany and I can see why – the public transit is pretty dire in some regions – but we got along quite well without one.  One of the most enjoyable things was chatting to our taxi driver (we had the same one take us to Port Blanc as had picked us up in Lannion and brought us to Perros-Guirec on our first day) and learning about his love of the region and what had brought him there.  My mother is fluent in French and, while I stumble embarrassingly when I try to speak, my comprehension is very good (thank you Canadian school system), which made France by far the easiest destination I’ve visited in a long time.  Not surprisingly, you get a lot more out of a destination when you can speak to the locals!

On our final day in Perros-Guirec we visited the town’s market and then went for a “little” 4 hour wander through neighbouring villages until we found ourselves again at Ploumanac’h, from where we walked back along the coastal path, retracing our steps from our first day.  Then we went for a dip in the ocean, just as warm as the locals had promised it would be!

And the food, as you would expect in France, was excellent.  We ate some delicious galettes and had a marvelous dinner in town, but mostly we enjoyed simple picnics with stunning views, both on our walks and for dinner.  Our hotel room had a terrace with a sea view where my mother and I would retreat with some wine and food in the evenings and congratulate ourselves on the excellent decision making that had brought us to Perros-Guirec.

All in all, it was a spectacular destination.  Not only was the scenery extraordinary and the walking wonderfully easy along well-maintained trails, but the entire region was pristine.  Everything was so clean – the water, the forests, the buildings – and the diversity of wildlife was fantastic.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard as much birdsong anywhere else I’ve visited.  Bretons are proud of the natural beauty of their region and work hard to keep it that way, as well they should.  As much as I love my mountain holidays, Perros-Guirec has me convinced that seaside escapes are just as restorative, especially out of peak season.  I’m still half-amazed my mother and I managed to tear ourselves away so I have no doubt I will be back one day.

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It’s a lazy, rainy Sunday here – so welcome in the middle of hot summer – and it seems like the perfect time to sit down and share some photos of the lazy, rainy time I spent visiting Giverny back in May.

Monet’s gardens at Giverny are world-famous and well-loved, welcoming more than 500,000 visitors each year.  Within day-trip distance of Paris, the tiny village of Giverny explodes during the day as tourist arrive, filling the gardens and the village with garden-lovers from all over the world, only to contract again in the evening to a sleepy place where only two restaurants are open.

I started my trip this year in Giverny, going there directly after landing in Paris (where I connected with my mother who had started her trip a week earlier in the Czech Republic).  Staying at a cosy B&B within the village, I got to relax in its quiet bird-filled garden and stretch my legs after a long travel day by walking the path between Giverny and the nearby town of Vernon.  After airports and airplanes, it was such a relief to walk through fields and be surrounded by flowers, fresh air, and, delightfully, cows.  Then it was back to the B&B to laze in the garden until dinner and read Mad Enchantment, Ross King’s excellent history of Monet’s paintings of the water lilies.  I love being able to match my reading to my holiday destination and this was the perfect choice.  Reading about Giverny and Monet’s life there added so much to my experience of the village and the house and gardens.  Stopping to see the family grave in the small cemetery, all the names of his family members meant so much more to me because of what I learned about them in the book.

The next morning, with our pre-purchased tickets in hard, we showed up at the gardens right at opening time.  We strolled around the water garden (devoid of water lilies in mid-May), posed on the wisteria-laden Japanese bridge for the ubiquitous photos, and enjoyed the general calm of the gardens before too many others arrived.

We then made our way to the gardens surrounding the house, where row upon row of irises were in full bloom.  There was a light mist of rain that morning, which made the vivid blues and purples of the irises stand out more than they would have in full sun.  Iris are one of my favourite flowers so, for me, this was absolutely the perfect time to have visited the gardens.

After spending the bulk of the morning in the gardens, we visited Giverny’s small but well-curated Impressionist Museum, strolled about the village, and spent another lazy afternoon back in the B&B’s garden.  I absolutely loved staying in Giverny for two nights and not having to rush about like the many day trippers we saw visiting, who seemed too worried about catching their buses and making it to their next destination to enjoy the many small charms of the village.  It was such a pleasure to be able to see everything in a relaxed manner, especially after so many years of looking forward to visiting. And it set the laid-back tone for the rest of our time in France, when we left the following morning for the stunning Brittany coast.

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Arts Club production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (photo credit: David Cooper)

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth but, being unintentionally ahead of the game, I was already paying homage to her yesterday.  I went down to Granville Island (which is always far more joyous in winter than in tourist-ridden summer) to my very favourite theatre to see the delightful “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Set two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, “Miss Bennet” reunites the audience with favourite characters as they prepare to spend Christmas together at Pemberley.  The family arrives in waves, with the BIngleys and Mary Bennet arriving first, followed by Lydia alone (Wickham, obviously, not being welcome), with Mr and Mrs Bennet and Kitty to follow on Christmas Day.

But soon it is not just Bennets descending on Pemberley.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh has recently passed away and it has been discovered that, due to the conditions of her late husband’s will, Rosings now passes to Arthur de Bourgh, his nephew.  Mr Darcy has invited Arthur to join them for Christmas and soon Anne de Bourgh, showing much of her mother’s determination, arrives as well.

Mary Bennet takes centre stage here and, as played by Kate Dion-Richard, is wonderful.  In the two years since her sisters married, she has matured but no one seems to notice.  Jane and Elizabeth, when reunited, barely acknowledge their younger sister is in the room.  They don’t stop to consider how Mary must feel, left at home with their ill-matched parents, expected by everyone to remain a dutiful old maid, content to be quiet and alone with her books and piano.   But Mary is not content and she wants more, even if she doesn’t quite know what that would be.

She is still Mary – socially awkward with her dedication to absolutely factual statements, absorbed by lengthy dense books that her sisters can’t begin to understand, and happier in a library than a ballroom – but she is far more interesting and energetic than Austen ever made her.

Arts Club production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (photo credit: David Cooper)

Mary is saved from spending the holidays entirely alone in the library by the arrival of a fellow socially-awkward bookworm: Arthur de Bourgh, played absurdly well by Matthew Macdonald-Bain.  An only child who went from home to school to Oxford, Arthur has lived in an almost entirely male and almost entirely academic world.  He is in no way prepared for his role as master of Rosing – or for a Christmas among the lively Bennet sisters.  He is particularly not prepared for Mary Bennet, with whom he instantly feels a kinship.  Their shared joy in discovery and learning, and their general conversational awkwardness make for some hilarious and heartwarming scenes.  Everyone in the theatre spent the entire first act, as these two got to know one another, with a broad smile on their face.

There are, of course, comic complications but it is a Christmas play – and more importantly an Austen-inspired one – so all ends well.

The set was gorgeous, all the actors were excellent, and every theatregoer had a marvellous time.  It’s playing until December 30th and I’m already considering going again.  After all, it’s hard to have either too much Christmas or too much Austen in your life, especially when it is this much fun.

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Life is getting very Christmas-y around here.  Last night was my office Christmas party, today I’m off to a concert, and the Christmas cookie reserves are steadily piling up.  But as the year draws to an end, I am also reminded that I never shared any photos from my trip to Germany and Austria in the autumn.  So, for anyone looking for something to do on a wintery Sunday afternoon, here’s a glimpse of how I spent my holiday.

We (my mother and I) flew directly from Vancouver to Munich and arrived during the first weekend of Oktoberfest.  We only passed through the city enroute to Austria but there is nothing like being surrounded by hundreds of people all dressed in lederhosen and dirndls to help put you in the holiday mood.

The first stop of the holiday was the village of Söll in the Wilder Kaiser region of the Austrian Tirol.  We spent 5 days there hiking and enjoying the beautiful scenery, and it was spectacular.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  We had ideal late September weather – if anything it was a little too hot – and the hoards of summer visitors had thinned out to just retired German tourists and us.  It was perfect.

Regretfully, we eventually tore ourselves away and headed to Germany.  We spent the next few days based in Stuttgart, which proved unexpectedly delightful.  The city was hosting its famous Oktoberfest-esque Bad Cannstatt festival and, as this was the 200th anniversary of the festival, there was a special celebration happening in the city’s historic centre the entire time we were there.  We would go out and spend the days exploring the suburbs and local hills and then come back to the city to enjoy the festival in the evening, taking advantage of the food stalls to enjoy a glass of local wine and some of the regional delicacies for our dinners.  We also managed to fit in an opera at the city’s famous opera house – the season opener, no less.

We were in Stuttgart over the weekend and on the Saturday we took the local commuter train to the suburb of Esslingen.  It’s a beautiful medieval city which thankfully survived the war relatively undamaged.  We had a lovely morning strolling about, enjoying the market and especially enjoying the wine bar at Kessler Sekt.  It was a popular stop for everyone after the market and the crowd overflowed from the courtyard out into the street.  I am not sure I have ever found a better definition of civilized life than friends and families drinking sparkling wine in the streets on a sunny Saturday morning, with children running around and babies dozing in their strollers.  Suburban life in Germany always looks good to me but this was particularly idyllic.

From Stuttgart, we headed to Heidelberg.  My mother has wanted to visit ever since her university days, when her German professor was forever reminiscing about the city where he had studied.  It’s a beautiful town but I’m happy our stay there was short.  It felt overrun with tourists compared to where we had come from.  Stuttgart was busy but it was full of German tourists who had come for the festival – the city doesn’t rely on them.  Heidelberg, on the other hand, felt tailored for visitors rather than locals.  Even worse, there was a football match taking place that had pulled in huge crowds of English fans.  There were local police stationed near every sports bar and Irish pub in town, looking confused by the rowdy public drunkenness of these visitors.  There were a number of them on our train the next morning and they were certainly in a great deal of pain by that point.  But the city was beautiful and I would not be at all averse if someone wanted to gift me one of the villas down along the river.  

From Heidelberg, we went south, back to my beloved Freiburg.  This was my 3rd time in the city and the first time I had entirely good weather.  It’s supposed to be the sunniest city in Germany so I knew eventually I’d get my timing right!  Freiburg is a vibrant university town and a wonderful base for exploring the Black Forest.  We went on some beautiful hikes in the nearby hills but also just enjoyed the city, with its lovely twisting streets, excellent shopping, and laid back atmosphere.  It was the perfect place to end the trip.

It was a wonderful two-week holiday and I’d recommend all of these destinations (even Heidelberg).  The highlight was Söll but Stuttgart was a very pleasant surprise and I will always, always take any excuse to return to Freiburg.

Now to start planning my 2019 trip…

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Goodbye, Christopher Robin

Once upon a time (say late 2011), Simon said “Gosh Claire, I really think you’d enjoy the adult works of A.A. Milne.”  And I said, “He seems extremely prolific and eminently useful for A Century of Books so why not?”  And down the rabbit hole I went (this is a particularly good joke if you know about the Rabbits.  Which you probably don’t.  Which is why you should read more A.A. Milne).

Having now read 30+ of his works (22 of which I somehow managed to review here), plus Ann Thwaite’s excellent biography, and Christopher Milne’s autobiographies (The Enchanted Places and The Path Through the Trees), I feel pretty close to A.A.M.  He is one of my favourite authors and, frankly, human beings.  So it was armed with all this knowledge of him that I went this week to see the newly released film “Goodbye, Christopher Robin”.

Simon, the chief A.A.M. advocate hereabouts, also saw the film and had his own thoughts about it.

Covering the period between the First and Second World Wars, the movie looks at Milne’s life as he recovers from his experiences in WWI, becomes a father, and creates the children’s books that would make both him and his son immortal, to their mutual horror and to the detriment of their relationship.

It begins with Milne stumbling through parties and opening nights, haunted by memories of battle that make it difficult for him to function in the swirl of society his wife, Daphne, so adores. Illustrator E.H. Shepard stands stoically by, a fellow survivor, to let him know he is not alone.  To Daphne’s frustration, Milne struggles to finish new works, including the anti-war book he feels passionately about.  A move to the country doesn’t help much and it isn’t until Milne is left alone for several weeks with his adorable son, from whom he has been distant until this point, that inspiration strikes in the form of children’s poems and, eventually, stories.  And then the whirlwind begins.

It makes for a strong narrative in a film that is beautifully shot and competently acted.

However…

I can understand why Milne was portrayed as having writer’s block even though the years covered were some of his most prolific and successful.  I can see why shell shock is a convenient basis for this, even though there is nothing in A.A. Milne’s, Thwaite’s or C.R. Milne’s writings to suggest he actually had it.  And I can forgive the “let’s hit the viewers over the head” approach to the film’s central anti-war message and lack of mention of Milne’s real-life about-face regarding war (despite having been a life-long pacifist (even before serving in the First World War) and the author of the anti-war book Peace with Honour, Milne was incensed by Hitler and felt passionately that the Second World War needed to be fought and there was honour in doing so.  When Christopher wanted to leave Cambridge and join up but was having trouble passing the medical, he turned to his father, who gave him every possible support).

No, what truly bothered me about the film is the misrepresentation of the relationship between A.A. Milne and his son.  It is accurate in parts but robs them of the close and happy years they actually had together before the rift emerged.

In the film, A.A.M. only notices Christopher (or Billy Moon, as he was known to the family) when the womenfolk are away from home and there is no other caregiver for the little boy.  The two play in the woods, A.A.M. recaptures the joy of childhood and is suddenly inspired to write what will become instantly successful children’s poems and stories.  He – and especially wife Daphne – are swept up in the success, essentially abandoning Christopher once more.

While it’s true that Christopher Milne resented his parents for not protecting him from the success of the books and was haunted his whole life by Christopher Robin, the fictional boy with his name, the truth of their relationship was very different, at least during the period covered by the movie.

A.A. Milne really only had two people he was truly close to his entire life: his brother, Ken, and his son, Christopher.  While Christopher was growing up, both before and after the children’s books, he and his father were best friends and did just about everything together.  It was a close and loving relationship that endured as Christopher grew to adulthood.

For me, the most upsetting scene in the movie is between father and son, when Christopher accuses his father of basically only using him for copy and then ignoring him for the rest of his life.  However, in real life it was Christopher who dropped his father and the split didn’t occur until after Christopher had joined up during the war.  Unfortunately, it was a rift that would only grow larger as Christopher grew older.  What the film does get right is that the great tragedy of both their lives was the success of that bear of very little brain.

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classic-german-bakingTwenty five years ago this autumn, I met my best friend.  We were five years old and met the way any five year old meets a new friend: a forcible introduction arranged by our parents.  It was just before Kindergarten started, where she and I would make up two thirds of the female population of our class, and our parents thought it would be good for us to meet before school started.  So my friend was brought over to my house, Lite-Brite in tow, and, as far as we can recall, we sat side by side at our respective Lite-Brites, diligently but silently plugging coloured pegs into the screens.

Now, a common love of Lite-Brite only gets you so far.  But from the very beginning we realised we had something in common that all the other children found very weird and slightly suspicious: we got our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.  This is a very big deal when you are little and, in our minds, marked us out as rather special people.  What it actually meant was that her father was from Germany and my mother was from the Czech Republic.  Our respective Canadian grandparents lived too far away to hold much sway over the holidays, whereas our European grandparents lived nearby.  So the holiday traditions we followed were theirs and were similar enough for us to feel a sense of a shared heritage.

This sense of heritage extended into the kitchen.  As we grew up, we both became keen bakers and cooks.  The Czech women I am descended from are famous for their lack of interest in anything culinary so it was my friend I could share my cooking adventures with.  We experimented with all cuisines but it was the Central European recipes that bound us together.  We could talk to anyone about making a quiche or homemade pasta and find hundreds of books to advise on how to do it perfectly.   But, thanks to a dearth of books about Central European cooking, we alone could talk over how to make a feather light dumpling (something I have still to master), debate what the “correct” filling is for rouladen (still no consensus around whether or not there should be egg), and share our secrets for the perfect schnitzel (carrying these to the grave, sorry readers).  It wasn’t an everyday thing and it wasn’t the core of our friendship but it was a way to explore our heritage and share it with one another.

We stayed together from Kindergarten to the end of university, moving through four different schools together.  We made strudel with my Czech grandmother when we were little, lost our minds trying to get the streusel topping right on fruit cakes when we were teenagers, and caught up during busy times at university over homemade schnitzels.  During high school, we co-wrote a food column for our school paper that was titled something like our “German Cooking Corner”.  Because every teenage girl is naturally looking for a good Christmas stollen recipe, accompanied by bad puns and hilarious family anecdotes.  (For the record, it was an excellent recipe, direct from my friend’s oma, even if it did call for 20 cups of flour.  The danger of getting a recipe from a woman who came from a family of 12 and used to run a beer garden, I suppose.)

When I bake, she is always the person I wish was in the kitchen with me.  But these days we live in different cities and in different countries.  It isn’t so easy to make vanilla kipferl together at Christmas or pflaumenkuchen (the best of all possible cakes) in the summer.  But now there is at least one way to bring our kitchens closer together…

Today is the release day for Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for ever since Weiss announced it was in the works.  You may remember Weiss’ excellent memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, or know her from her outstanding blog, The Wednesday Chef.  Now she has presented us with this gem of a baking bible, which, thanks to NetGalley, I have been using for months and which served as the inspiration for most of my summer baking.  Some recipes are familiar favourites, others I remember from my travels , and some are entirely unknown to me (naturally, these are the ones I’m most eager still to try).

Weiss confidently guides the uninitiated through the wonderful world of traditional German baking.  She gathers recipes from around the country (with the odd drift into Austria) and the results are a tempting introduction to the region’s too often overlooked delights.  There is an entire chapter devoted to Christmas baking, which is inspired, and I appreciate that cakes and yeasted cakes are handled in separate sections (giving us that much more cake – never  a bad thing).  Yeasted cakes are something I have yet to master and I am hoping this book will give me the confidence to finally confront them.  As much as I love my current plum cake recipe, I know I’d prefer it with a yeasted base.

All of the recipes I tried were excellent.  One of the hits of the summer was the recipe for Swabian Streusel-Jam Slices.  Made with apricot jam and a streusel topping with nuts, they were the perfect combination of sweet and tart, crunchy and buttery.  And they travelled surprisingly well on hiking trips (which were necessary to burn them off as they were very more-ish).  I lost track of how many times I used the Sour Cherry Streusel Cake recipe as inspiration, replacing the cherries with whatever fruit happened to be in season (it handled excessive volumes of blueberries very well indeed).  I loved the simplicity of the Simple Rhubarb Cake and the equally straightforward Sunken Apple Cake has become one of our go-to recipes (I made it again over the weekend).  And, for those who aren’t familiar with it from Weiss’ earlier book, she includes her recipe for plum butter (Pflaumenmus), which is absolutely delicious and so, so much better than any of the store-bought brands you can find.

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

Versunkener Apfelkuchen

I’ve only tried a handful of the recipes and I’m eager to move on to more, especially the savories and the breads.  If I could whip up fresh rolls for a proper German-style breakfast one weekend that would be joyful (and require much more confidence with yeast than I currently possess).  And who isn’t intrigued by a Cabbage Strudel?

These are exactly the kinds of recipes I want to be sharing with my friend.  Which is why one copy of the book is on its way to her and another is on its way to me.  We might not be able to share a kitchen these days but we can still share the recipes we love.

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I popped over to Victoria this weekend for a mini summer holiday.  It only lasted from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon but it was a wonderful break and incorporated all the things I love about going to Victoria: stunning island scenery from the ferry, amazing floral displays at Butchart Gardens, excellent food in Victoria, and, of course, fabulous book shopping.

Russell Books, one of my all-time favourite bookshops, is located in central Victoria and I spent a happy couple of hours there on Saturday afternoon, sifting through my favourite sections.  Every fifteen minutes or so you would hear another delighted patron exclaiming over some find or the sheer variety of books on offer.  Deservedly so.  My hard work was rewarded and I can home with a respectable haul:

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Window on My Heart by Olave, Lady Baden-Powell – how to resist something this random?  The autobiography of the wife of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, who was herself very heavily involved in the Scouting and Guiding movements.

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor – PLF’s travel memoir about his time spent in monasteries.

P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe – There were shelves and shelves and shelves full of Wodehouse but I chose to go with a collection of Plum’s letters.

Nairn in Darkness and Light by David Thomson – a memoir about growing up in Scotland in the 1920s.

An Italian Odyssey by Julie A. Burk and Neville J. Tencer – I am fascinated by the Via Francigena but there are so few books about it.  This memoir about walking the Italian portion of the route is one of the few out there (alongside Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim, which I picked up earlier this year).

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay – slowly building up my collection of GGK, having read them all first from the library (as usual).

The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford – I learned about this when reading My History by her daughter, Antonia Forest.  Longford sounds absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to learn more about her life.

The Smell of Summer Grass and The Gentry by Adam Nicolson – both excellent books that I’ve been meaning to add to my library since I first read them. 

A Change of Appetite by Diana Henry – I can now safely return the library copy that I keep checking out.

A very good day’s work, as far as I’m concerned!  And also just a nice summer break in a lovely city.

Sunset Outer Harbour

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