Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bees and hellebores, round childhood reading, and back to bees again.

I fear the photos I took of the now flowering hellebores one bright morning last week could end up being like the frosty morning ones and taking a month to get through.  So, first of all, I selected only the ones which had bees in.  I can't get enough of photographing bees, of course, and people seem to quite like seeing them.  Even so, there are a lot of photos.  So I've put the 'bees in the green hellebores' in a grid collage to save time and space, but it's at quite a large resolution, so can be looked at in greater detail should you so wish. 

 I especially like the picture in the middle row, on the left, where the insect seems to be angling its head to give me a baleful (subjective and anthropomorphic interpretation...) glance as it passes, rather as the damselflies seemed to. 

I was intrigued by the yellowish masses on the bees legs.  I always assumed these were pollen sacs, but on zooming in they look rather waxy, and I wondered if they were perhaps composed of propolis, the protective plant secretion which make sticky buds sticky and shiny spring leaves shiny, and which bees use in the making of beeswax.  Researches on-line were inconclusive but interesting; sites, blogs and forums run by beekeepers are marvels of single-minded passion and expertise. One exposition on the wonder of bees' legs led me to conclude that the expression 'the bees' knees', rather than being the humorous deformation of the word 'business' I had always taken it to be, was quite literal, for these really are the most extraordinary and multi-purpose of appendages.  Another explained that among the many uses to which bees put propolis, which has strong antiseptic and preservative qualities, is to encase and mummify the corpses of mice who have made the mistake of trying to enter the hive, and been stung to death.  More charmingly, I found this little video of a honey bee collecting propolis.

Thinking about propolis, and sticky buds, led me to remembering the joys of horse chestnuts in childhood, how these trees, not really native to this part of Europe, seem in so many ways larger than life, from the amazing stickiness of the aforesaid buds in spring, to their magnificent blazing white candle flowers in early summer, and their great splayed opposing pinnate leaves with their boldly lined parallel veins, which I never tired of drawing, to the glossy glory of the fruit, 'conkers', in their sponge-lined, spiny husks in autumn.   

Which in turn (I am feeling digressive in the extreme today) led a memory of an Enid Blyton story I remembered reading when I was very young, perhaps six, something about a wooden toy soldier and a fairy, and how the latter stuck some part of the former's anatomy (I think it was his nose...) which had come off, back on with 'sticky bud glue'. It is probably my first memory of throwing a book down in disgust.  I  probably couldn't have articulated why; but it was to do with the romantic soppiness of fairies and toy soldiers falling in love (I was completely incurious of such matters at that age, they simply made me squirm, whether among make-believe characters or realistic human ones), and partly because of an incapacity to suspend disbelief about the physical properties of plant secretions as adhesives; I knew sticky bud glue, it was remarkable and interesting stuff, but it would not work to stick wooden articles back together, even supposing one could collect enough of it to do so - it may be seen I was a rather tiresomely literal-minded child, a characteristic I still have difficulty in shaking off. Also though, I think I just hated the simpering and patronising style of the writing.

Later, at perhaps 8 or 9 years old, our teacher read to us from an Enid Blyton adventure story - something from the [Mountain, Ship, Valley, Island...] of Adventure' series, I think.  We enjoyed it as a whole class thing, and I sought out others in the series from the school library to read.  I may have made it through another, but couldn't read any more of them.  This recollection heartens me, when I doubt my powers of discernment as to whether things I read are good or not.  Neither my family nor my teachers were prescriptive  about reading matter, if we were reading and enjoying it that was all that mattered. I was not always a particularly discerning and certainly not a precocious reader - at about 14  I went through a phase of compulsively devouring Biggles books, I knew they were not good, laughed at the repetitive and clichéd writing and paper-thin characters, but they provided something I craved, I'm still not sure what.  My parents wouldn't actively have encouraged Enid Blyton, and I don't think there were many of her books in the house, but they never sneered or snorted at anything we liked.  Evidently my primary teacher was not opposed or she wouldn't have been reading from them to the class.  So nobody had told me they weren't very good, and in fact I probably felt disappointed with myself at being unable to finish a book, but something in me simply found them irritating and unsatisfying.  

For my secondary schooling I moved on to a smallish girls' private school, which was very definitely an Enid Blyton-free zone (though in the Junior Library I did find a rare old copy of one of the adventures of 'Worralls the WAAF', Capt WE Johns' attempt to become a reconstructed male and cater for tomboyish gels by providing a female counterpart to Biggles, quite a curiosity).  I still appreciate their attempts to inform and guide and provide for our reading habits, though sometimes it seems to me that the works by classic writers which are, by virtue of their length or subject matter, deemed suitable for younger readers, are often poor and unappetising examples of those writers' work.  

Jane Eyre was fine at 13 or so, but Persuasion the following year was hopeless, it's a grown-ups' book, I don't know what they were thinking of, but at least it wasn't Northanger Abbey, which has, I gather put many people right off by being presented as Jane-Austen-lite .  A Christmas Carol and The Childhood of David Copperfield (the first part of the whole) are not good places to start with Dickens, even if they are short and deal with apparently kiddy subjects (and yes, I know there are some who will say there is no good place to start with Dickens...).  And The Nun's Priest's Tale as Chaucer for beginners (that was O level) was pretty stupid too - we're 15 now, too big for fables and talking animals, right?  One of the problems is that the small, bagatelle works by big writers, such as Northanger Abbey and a Christmas Carol and the Nun's Priest's, which at first look to be lightweight and easy, is that they are often satirical, self-referential, or otherwise bits of quite sophisticated whimsy which in the context of their work overall (sorry, can't bring myself to write 'oeuvre' with a straight face), and the milieu in which they were writing, fall into place and can be appreciated as such, but taken apart, as an introduction, seem fairly pointless and unappealing and give a misleading impression.  

I'm inclined to think it might be better to let youngsters roam a bit, and just give them the wherewithal to do so; if they're ready for grown-ups' books early they'll find them, otherwise wait until they get to a point where they can get stuck into the proper canon.  By 16 I was ready for more or less anything the A level syllabus and its related reading could throw at me, and relished Sense and Sensibility, Middlemarch, The Franklin's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, and even Bleak House.  I can't say I enjoyed Paradise Lost all that much, and Hopkins was a struggle, but I'm glad I was bent to studying them, as I've come to love them as life has gone on.  So I'm not against a degree of pushing into more difficult things, but it's just what and when, I suppose.

The other thing my posh school weaned me on to of course, was Shakespeare, starting with A Midsummer Night's Dream, and this is the exception I'd make to not prescribing the fairy story bagatelle for the kids.  We were about 11 or 12, and it was a delight, most people seemed to enjoy it.  There's something about the charm of it which just works, even if it does all seem a bit bonkers.  I never had to study it again, not at school or university, and it stands alone.  There was even a junior school production of it, which thinking about it, was quite a feat, getting 11 and 12 year-olds to act a full Shakespeare.  I auditioned but didn't get anything.  This was a disappointment, but another worthwhile lesson; projecting myself, becoming someone else, a voice that could carry to the back of the school hall and a prodigious memory for lines were not something I could or should aspire to.

But I still love those crazy fairies.  One of the things which it strikes me now about it, which was never drawn attention to when we studied it or made much of generally, is the confounding of scale.  It's the kind of elephant in the room of the overlay and bleed of the fairy world into the mortal one, but an elephant which might be only as big as a mouse, or else equipped with seven-league boots.  Enid Blyton's fairies exist in teensy-weensy fairyland, where they might mix with toy soldiers, but like sticky bud glue, they've got no strength or substance.  Just how big are Shakespeare's fairies? They fall in love with mortals and steal their children, on the stage they appear alongside them.  They can apparently get 'around the earth in forty minutes' at a time when the size of the earth was still problematic and difficult to grasp, so they can clearly encompass huge areas and distances.  Then Bottom gets magicked and translated and grows a donkey's head, frightens his mates, but then cavorts with Titania, and everything's tiny, on a scale of cobwebs and mustardseeds and moths. What's going on? 

Which brings me back to the bees.  Those little sacs of propolis, or pollen or nectar, or whatever they are, and the bees' knees,

'Monsieur Cobweb; good monsieur, get your weapons in your hand and kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good monsieur, have a care the honey-bag break not; I would be loath to have you overflown with a honey-bag, signior...'

they always make me think of that.


the polish chick said...

oh lucy, you are such an entertaining meanderer (meandereuse?).

i love dickens. i fear he is often associated with gloomy victorian england, but i have found that i love his sense of humour whenever it shines through and shine it does.

for me, the thing that bogged me down in my youth was canadian content. as teenagers we were forced to read margaret laurence's stone angel, a book so bleak, so endlessly cold that i shiver to think of it. it put me off canadian authors for years, because i figured they were all like the wind howling on the prairies. i couldn't be more wrong. i still blame too early exposure to this author for the years it took me to come back to my own country's literature. i'm fairly certain that if i were to reread the novel now, i might even enjoy it, but the scars are deep and painful and i cannot bring myself to do it.

when i was sick as a child, my dad would be sent to the library with a plastic bag into which he indiscriminately stuffed random books. some of his finds were awful, some wonderful. i still remember that it was in one of those grab bags that dorothy sayers came into my life, and i love her.

enjoyed the short bee film. perhaps if more of these circulated in the blogoshere, more people would become worried at the worldwide loss of bees. we seem to have an unlimited capacity to care about the loss of cute things, and that bee was sweet.

oh boy, that's a long comment. i think i'm done now.

Dale said...

I was always intensely irritated by fairies, and I have always wondered by Shakespeare's Midsummer Night fairies don't trouble me. I think because the mood of the play is more Douglass Adams than anything else. I hated fairies because I craved other worlds passionately, and sly archnesses that simultaneously catered to and belittled that craving infuriated me. But nothing about the Night tickled that craving at all, so I didn't resent it.

Golly, what Dickens novel *would* you start a young reader on? Great Expectations is short, but it's so intolerably bleak, maybe the saddest thing he ever wrote: I can't see starting there. I think that Little Dorrit was the first one I read to my daughter, and then Our Mutual Friend. Or maybe it was Pickwick? I might have started with Pickwick. I wonder if she remembers? (All right, I'm in a meandering mood myself, possibly.)

Barrett Bonden said...

I read this post with growing excitement, keen to get other tasks out of the way so I could wallow in self-indulgence with tales about the nurturing of my cultural wellsprings (which contained, among other things, warnings about mixed metaphors). An opportunity to do a really long comment, honed in MsW, where all the accents - and there would be need for them - are a mere click away under Insert. And now I find myself lacking material.

The problem lies in the passage of time and a child's perception of that phenomenon. Accepting that the necessary trawling lies at the outer edge of what I can remember, and in my case that's quite a long time ago, I scratched around for evidence of stories read out at primary school that might have impinged on my interests and tastes. Of answer came their none. This was of course the wartime and my teachers were pain-inflicting dragons and yet I'm astonished that they left nothing behind - other than, again in my case, an obscure desire to get even. The only extramural cultural resource was when a wireless (it was a wireless not a radio; it had inlaid wood surrounds) was placed in the main hall and we listened. To what?

Aged nine I took a very undemanding extrance exam and entered the Bradford Grammar School prep school, thereby pre-empting my expected failure in the eleven-plus or whatever. Nobody read to us there. I seem to remember doing Latin ("The pirates tied the captain's hands and threw him overboard.")

The only person who read to me was my mother as a result of which I bear the traditional middle-class stigmata inflicted by Swallows and Amazon. But at what age and what did I make of it? The book opens with the Swallows mother waiting at the top of a hill with a telegram. Approaching her, coming up the slope, is the youngest of the Swallows, Roger. But he's not running he's pretending he's a dinghy and is tacking. How on earth did I - or for that matter my non-marine mother - react to that, given that I needed to be read to?

What impresses me about your account is the way you are able to fit it all into a temporal framework with a clear picture of your understanding (or lack of it) at various stages. I asked Mrs BB about being read to at primary school, mainly because I was surprised that Enid Blyton was thought acceptable. Inevitably she can top the both of us. Her wartime was spent being shelled from the other side of the Channel and seeking protection in Dover's many caves. Enid Blyton was read to her in the caves, at which time she was five or six.

The only useful contribution I can make is to reveal I too read the Worralls books (at what age I know not) and found her more interesting than Biggles and, especially, Biggles' pal Ginger. May I offer this possibly forgotten literary detail. Having run out of things to say about flying W. E. Johns came up with another character - a commando. I'd love to be able to tell you his name but I'm going to have to Google it: (pause) ah, yes, Gimlet. A poor offering but mine own.

Plutarch said...

I read at least one Worralls book, but as a last resort when I had read Capt W E Johns' entire Biggles output. Johns' literary shortcomings did not worry me at the time. Not that they matter. Biggles books when they turn up at Hall's bookshop usually fetch something in the order of £50 each. Gimlet wasn't a patch on Biggles or Worralls.

The labial harmonies of the phrase Bees and hellebores is almost as pleasing as the photographs.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I love bees knees, such wonderful things, I've seen different coloured ones too, I think the colour relates to the flowers the bees have been feeding on.

I didn't like Enid Blyton's stories but I did enjoy her nature study books. As for Dickens I started with the Old Curiosity Shop and loved it but never really read that much more until I was an adult.

Nimble said...

Ha! Bees-knees/business never occurred to me before, thank you. I liked the bees in blossoms and the childhood reading impressions. I had to read Great Expectations as a teenager and loathed it, it is very bleak and I have a preference for entertainment. I thought I should reading Oliver Twist but was never able to finish it in high school or college. So I abandoned Dickens until I was thirty and I've had a wonderful time reading him since then.

I think the size/time/place fuzzing that you described in Midsummer Night's Dream is very modern feeling.

marly youmans said...

I could ramble about in this topic for a long time like a bee on business in greeny hellebores, but I shall restrain myself and just say that the first books I remember truly reading (that is, rereading by myself with much desire and passion) were the Alice books. At either 4 or 5 when I moved to Baton Rouge, I was given two slipcased volumes by friends of my parents, and I can't fathom how many times I read them. Love them still.

PatioPatch said...

Hello Anna, have just stumbled into your blog rather like the flight of the emerging bees. Wowed by the images and enchanted by your musings.
As a young child did not like stories of toys coming to life and most books that appealed seemed to be about naughty dogs/ponies making good in the end. Eschewed Noddy but read every adventure of Secret Seven and Famous Five. David Copperfield was my favourite Dickens book, aged 12.
Not sure if you welcome comments so will leave it up to your ultimate censorship.