Annie Swynnerton

I forgot to say that, while I was in Manchester, I went to the art gallery and came across an exhibition of paintings by Annie Swynnerton (1844-1933). Some were familiar, but it was fascinating to see so many together, to follow how her art developed over the decades, to admire her skill and focus . . . and all this accomplished when women didn’t do such things. Not surprisingly, she was a feminist and a suffragist.

Her portraits were outstanding. Some of the paintings of children were too sentimental for my taste, and the allegorical ones were so-so. Her depiction of Italian light . . . well, nowadays we all know what the Mediterranean is like, but in Swynnerton’s work you really do experience the delight of someone brought up in Victorian Cottonopolis on discovering pure sunlight.

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Furness Abbey and Sandscale Haws


The Duddon estuary from Sandscale Haws



I had a hankering to revisit Furness Abbey, so off I went. I got off the train at Dalton and cycled the couple of miles to the site. The abbey originally belonged to the reforming Savignac Order but later became – like Fountains Abbey – Cistercian and enormously powerful and wealthy. It was both isolated – on the dewdrop of the Barrow peninsula – and influential – in that it faced towards the Isle of Man and Ireland. Cracks appeared some years ago in the chancel, so it’s no longer possible to get up close to the impressive sedilia (seats for the clergy), but there was still much to wander around, ticking off “Romanesque” and “Gothic” on my mental checklist. The long undercroft is particularly nice:


There’s not much decoration left  – it was that type of monastic order but also the red sandstone doesn’t weather well – but I did notice some pincer-type decoration in a sheltered position which brought to mind the much earlier Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna:


And other bits that I liked:

After lunch, I set off towards the Duddon estuary to see if the roads were pleasant enough for cycling. I’m happy to say that they were, so I ended up at Sandscale Haws. Bracing wind, beautiful view and lovely sand:


My mileage for the day may even have reached double digits.

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The big spirea


There’s a conflict between the size the spirea needs to be to flower well and the space for it in the flower border. This year I’ve allowed it to get big so it’s flowering profusely.

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Happy Days

Dir Sarah Frankcom, with Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange

I hadn’t seen this before; I knew about Winnie being buried up to her waist (thank you, Pears Cyclopedia ca. 1973) and assumed it would be the usual Beckettian conundrum with flashes of theatricality to offset the pessimism. I hadn’t appreciated how particular the theme of Happy Days is: a long, uncommunicative marriage, decline, bereavement death . . .  Ouch, it really hurt! I had to amuse myself by looking round the audience and noting that it was nearly all composed of older couples.*

Maxine Peake was brilliant – channelling Joyce Grenfell in her attempts to be upbeat. The problem of staging in the round was solved by having Winnie’s mound placed on a slowly rotating turntable. And the play – well, that’s the thing.  The immobilising mound, the unbridgeable gulf of a few feet between Winnie and Willie, the props (oh, keep hold of Brownie!), the comic pointlessness of reading the toothbrush, the importance of memories and words, and Winnie finally getting to sing her song at the play’s end. I have no idea if that was the ultimate irony, or a version of “What will survive of us is love”.

And after the play I went out and bought some new shoes.

* There was a small group of teenagers in school uniform. My neighbour spoke to them at the interval and reported that they were bemused by the play. Not surprisingly, they didn’t come back for the second act. I had some sympathy for them but thought, “Ah, just you wait forty years . . . “

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A tale of two gooseberry bushes

Alarmed by the increasingly sagging branches of one gooseberry bush, I headed out straight after breakfast and picked a load of unripe fruit to lighten the bush’s load. (Stewed with a little extra sugar, it’ll be fine.) There’s so much fruit that the centre has collapsed.

E516C3EC-2C46-4B47-9B8D-AA6D70627406In contrast, this is what remains of the other gooseberry bush.

It had never really thrived, and I had to cut off half the branches earlier this year as they were dead. The rest looked OK (albeit very lop-sided) and had fruit, but a couple of days ago the leaves started to wilt, despite regular watering. Given that a neighbouring bush died two years ago and all that remained of that root system was a single stick, I feared the worst and consulted Dr Google. It sounded like verticillium wilt, which spreads upwards from the roots through the water-conducting tissue. Even if my diagnosis is wrong, I’m concerned for the other fruit trees. So I dug out the bush (the roots had some lesions on them) and wiped the tools I’d used with white spirit. The little patch will be returned to the lawn.

If I really need more gooseberries I can plant a bush elsewhere.

And now I’m looking at the plum tree adjacent and wondering if it’s looking a bit peaky.

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Bee food


The bees are back – there is a constant hum around the comfrey and poached-egg plants. The yellow rattle doesn’t even get a look-in.

My frenzy, on return from holiday, of tidying and control has calmed down. A little light weeding, cutting back (bye-bye, geraniums) and staking is enough for the moment . . . along with lots of watering. It’s hardly rained at all for a month and the sun shines almost every day.

I made a discovery when trimming the winter-flowering jasmine yesterday: it roots itself and would take over if it could. I’ve been treating it with such delicacy, when all along it’s a bully. It was the same with the hebe (still slightly bald from its short back and sides in December). Well, now they both know who’s boss!

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Funny Cow

Dir Adrian Shergold, with Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine and Tony Pitts

A film about a female northern comic in the 1970s that wasn’t condescending or sentimental. The narrowness and joylessness of that kind of life was full-on, undercut with some great scenes of silliness by Funny Cow and her mother. It didn’t try to suggest (as the otherwise very good A Very English Scandal, about Jeremy Thorpe, does) that Black and mixed-heritage people normally had jobs as parliamentary ushers or Dublin photographers in the 1960s and 70s. Any feminist subtext was partly undermined by Funny Cow being so sui generis. And it had its own scale of grim. When she leaves the bathroomless terraced house of her childhood and moves to a dump of a flat above a laundrette  – complete with yellowing newspaper over the windows – with her not-yet violent husband and thinks it’s wonderful, she’s right. She has the same euphoria when she moves in with the middle-class Angus and explores his Observer-supplement house with its two bathrooms.

It was episodic in form and left gaps for you to complete. Maxine Peake was brilliant as the Funny Cow (she had no other name): a blob of red in a grey world, fearless/reckless in her dealings with her violent father and husband. She was full of life – the scene where she first met her husband was exhilarating. Their marriage was as a descent into harsh words and beatings, but at the same time there was an energetic but mirthless scene involving a tin tray and the two of them dancing to “Mule Train” on the pub jukebox.

Some things didn’t quite work – the relationship with Angus was a parody straight out of Educating Rita (although her rejection of him was also the film’s rejection of the middle-class intellectual narrative), and her sudden success as a club comic was almost a fairytale. And did she have no reaction to the suicide of her mentor? Was that one of the gaps we were meant to fill in? Or was it the film’s comment on the tragedy of no longer being funny?

But other things were very evocative. That fear of bullies and violence, for example; Funny Cow’s retaliation to bullies defined her from childhood onwards, but Angus’s freezing when intimidated by her husband was the kind of humiliation that the majority of people experience.

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