Tunes for a Monday Morning
The right books at the right time

Reading and place

The Tooth Fairy by Su Blackwell

"Reading for me is inextricably tied to place," writes Scottish author Emma Tennant about the books she favored in childhood. It's my favorite of the charming essays to be found in Antonia Fraser's The Pleasures of Reading, for Tennant grew up in a house that seems to have emerged from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, built by her great-grandfather:

"The Victorian Gothic house -- a 'monstrosity' to some, a 'folly' to others -- to all a decidedly odd place for a person to spend their formative years, cast its long shadow over the books I read. For years no book I read came from anywhere but the bowels and lungs -- and in some cases the twisted attics -- of the Big House that crouched at the end of a valley still then clad with the last shreds of the Ettick Forest. I read up and down the house, and I knew fairly early on that I would never begin to get through it all -- even with the help of the terrifying Demonologie, property of James IV of Scotland, with its turning paper wheels to aid with the casting of spells.

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"To begin with that ragged line of Ettrick silver birches outside my window. This was the Fethan wood, where James Hogg set fairy tales and metamorphoses: it was dangerous to walk there, to go up to the ring of bright grass and look down at the house through silver-grey trees. People came out transformed into animals -- or didn't come out at all, to be discovered years later as three-legged stools. I read the Hogg stories -- or they were read to me -- and years before I was able to go on to his great masterpiece, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the account of a man driven insane by Calvinism, by the dictates of the devil who sends him out to kill as one of the Elect -- I could feel the power of Hogg's imagination in the hills and woods and streams that enclosed the house.

Detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"The house could be said to be like an archaeological dig, with the basement providing material contemporaneous with the discoveries of archeologists Arthur Evans or Heinrich Schliemann, and just as startling for a child to discover as it must have been for the archaeologists to unearth the foundations of Knossos or Clytemnestra's tomb. Here were Henty and Ballantyne -- and, most important of all, H. Rider Haggard's She -- all in low rooms hard to find in a labyrinth of tiled passages, cold with a strong smell of rot. Here the strong and brave of the Empire fought their battles and had their impossible adventures; and here I lingered, in disused dairies and stillrooms, reading in a world which was a dusty monument to that vanished and glorious past.

The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Another detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

"From the crepuscular vaults of the house there were two ways up. The back stairs led to the schoolrooms, where tubercular daughters had coughed over books of such spectacular dullness that I remember none of them -- except for the fact that some more recent incumbents had left a stash of historical romances by Margaret Irwin and Violet Needham. Here, in the abandoned schoolroom, I was drawn into a past (there were a couple of Georgette Heyers too) of phaetons and darkly scowling artistocrats and games of faro and the like, and for a while I stopped there, until the discovery of Alexander Dumas' The Back Tulip drew me down the stairs again and out into the garden. For the magnetic quality of that extraordinary book led me to search the grassy paths and flower borders for the elusive tulip -- and once I thought I saw it between two yew trees, at the entrance to the garden: a rich, gleaming black flower that would guide me somehow down the paths my own imagination was just beginning to try....

Gormenghast by Su Blackwell

"The attic had books in trunks that had split open with age -- books no-one wanted when they went off to war, or went off to get married, or had no room for anyway. Bees had once swarmed in the attic, and it's to the smell of wax that I remember finding the early Penguins: the Aldous Huxleys, a book called A Month of Sundays, which I have never since been able to trace -- and the odd Agatha Christie, which kept me up there until dark, amongst children's wicker saddles, pictures of dead aunts that no-one would ever want to look at, and a floor covering of dead bees."

The Snow Queen by Su Blackwell

The Luminaries by Su Blackwell

As an American child growing up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses, I longed for a Gothic pile like Tennant's, with rooms to explore and books to discover and pathways leading to fairy tale woods. It wasn't until I was grown that I finally lived in house full of history and ghosts: a Matilda by Su Blackwelllittle stone cottage, 400 years old, that I owned for two decades before I was married. That's a story for another day, however, as that was a place that shaped my adult self, not the child I was and thus the writer I became.

What house did you love in childhood? Or long for? Or perhaps still inhabit today? We've been talking about place and home this last week, and the houses in which our earliest years unfolded surely shaped our creative psyches as much as the land or cityscape around them. For me, tossed back and forth between the houses of various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care, the transient aspect of those years led to a deep obsession with the theme of "finding home, place, and family" that runs (whether I consciously mean it to or not) through all of my work. I'd be a different writer if my childhood had been stable and rooted. Not better or worse, just different.

Despite having no single place that was my home, I also associate the books I loved in childhood with places where I first read them, as Emma Tennant does in the delightful passage above. Re-reading such books can whisk us right back, for good or ill....

A potent form of time-traveling indeed.

Detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

The art today is, of course, by the great British papercut artist Su Blackwell, most of it created in the last year.

”I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore," she says. "I began making a series of book-sculpture, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes. For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Visit the Blackwell's website to see her utterly amazing book sculptures and installations, and go here to see a video in which the artist discusses her creative process. She also has three lovely books out: The Fairytale Princess (with Wendy Jones), Sleeping Beauty Theatre (with Corina Fletcher), and Su Blackwell Book Sculptures.

The Shell Seekers by Su Blackwell

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellPictures: You'll find the titles of Su Blackwell's sculptures in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The passage by Emma Tennant above is from The Pleasures of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the author.


I'm sure I've waffled on about my childhood home before; tiny mid-terrace house, no front garden and only a small yard at the back, no room for trees or even many plants. I remember the bathroom being built and baths taken in front of the living room fire before its building. I also remember my mother's pride when it was finally finished; the first bathroom in the entirety of the Woodgate area of the city!

Now I live in a modest 'semi' but with a garden at front and back and a densely 'forested' railway embankment full of foxes, owls and other wildlife. This led me to start writing a novel in which the embankment was a liminal space leading to different worlds. But after presenting the first chapters and outline to my editor it was greeted with that dreaded phrase: "not commercial enough". It still calls to me from the depth of my computer's hard-drive and also from a selection of memory sticks. One day I'll write it anyway.

My childhood, and most of my life has been lived in the urban semi-detached or detached houses of the latter half of the 20th century: small rear gardens, close next-door neighbours, nothing to write home about.

My dream was always a 400 year old thatched cottage in the country, with a rose trellis framing the wooden door. Low beams, niches and alcoves, and a huge fireplace where one could sit in the corner and be warm in winter's darkness.

When I "retired" 5 years ago, I got the 400 year old building - made up of two dwellings linked together - but I also got my dream of a bookshop too. I live above my 'work' in an urban setting with no garden, but I am ridiculously happy.

I very much want to read that book...and I'm not at all convinced your editor is right.

Congratulations on getting your 400 year old home Carol-Ann, but especially for being 'ridiculously happy'! Not many can claim that. May it last throughout your life.

Thanks, Terri. I'm not convinced that the editors are right either.

I'd love to hear more about your bookshop-home!

I grew up running around the woods on the 'family land' I've spoken of that surrounds the house my parents still live in. I would read my dad's copies of Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Roald Dahl, and developed a taste for the genre early.
I now live in a home I built 23 years ago, the land chosen when I saw a kingfisher fly along the creek just behind the property. It's rattling call annouced that this would be a place of prosperity, and so it has been for me.
I would love to hear more about your 400 year old previous home!

Me too, Carole-Ann.

Hmmm. Maybe it's time to write about my old cottage again. I didn't for a long while because I was missing it too much (and I still avoid going near it, even though it's walking distance from where I live now). But maybe it's time.....

Until then, the story of my leaving the cottage is wound into this article:

It was a hard move (even though it was entirely by choice), but here's a sweet story about it: The couple who bought the cottage from me had a tiny daughter who was thrilled about moving into the "fairy tale house." Later, I heard from her mother that she'd insisted on dressing up in her fairy costume on the day of the move, eagerly ran into the cottage with great excitement, looked around, and then burst into tears. It transpired that she'd thought they were coming to live with me, and was deeply disappointed to find an empty house.

(All was well in the end, though, when she learned I was still nearby and she could visit...which she did, bless her.)

I love the idea that a kingfisher chose your home. Straight out of a fairy tale, Cathi.

getting lost in a good book is the solace, the place I go to for escape, for inspiration, for pleasure, for wonder, for research, for love, for passion, for so much of this lifetime where everything else is always in a state of flux, shifting and changing...

I ramble on all the time about my childhood home, which was a large, haunted, half-empty thing set in a deep wooded valley beyond the edge of suburbia. The valley soaked in so much rain and shadow that its layer of normalcy had become full of holes. The otherworld whispered and shifted amongst the trees, into the house, all around me. When I was eight, we moved to a suburban townhouse, and I clearly remember my dismay at how ordinary and unenchanted everything was.

I also had a darkly magical summer house ... but this comment is long enough already. Suffice it to say, I was blessed to grow up at the wild seams of the worlds. I think I fell in love with mythology and fantasy as a child because those books were the only ones to even halfway acknowledge the magical reality I knew. People call them "escapism" but to me they are remembrances, ways of returning.

I love Elizabeth Goudge's description of her childhood house. Just glorious!

What a beautiful story.

I'm with Terri in wanting to read that one, Stuart.

Both sound heavenly, Carole-Ann.

Wonderful kingfisher omen, Cathi.

Hi Terri

I grew up , as mentioned before, on an old homestead with wild life, wooded acreage and water. Add to that a barn, garden, and pine trees, and it sets the stage for an imaginative childhood, one strongly connected to nature. Yet, I was always drawn to history, especially 18th and 19th century culture, events and architecture. Living in the Hudson River Valley of upper New York State, there were plenty of historic homes to fuel my interest and fascination. One of the most beloved for me, was "Boscobel " ( a Federal period house built right on the Hudson circa 1798. It had grandeur with columns, a wide stair case and rooms haunted by exquisite drapes, china, rugs and grand portraits of its past inhabitants. I felt at home there, always drawn to the wainscoting on the walls and the presence or shadows of those watching us from another world. I wanted a house just like this one, laid out on a lawn with boxwood hedges, a lake with black swans, a small vineyard and carriage house. Every year, we visited this place which was only 30 minutes across the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge from where I lived. Because of this place, I found myself reading Jane Austen, The Bronte sisters, Anya Seton and other female authors who either wrote in that time period or of that time period.

The Museum House

Because history happened here
the rooms are roped off. The china,
furniture, drapes, linens , glass
and silver all original. Everything is staged
(stillness) except our eyes staring
at the plate, the polished wood, the clock
the kettle and candle sticks -- the sheen of curtains
camisoling light.

Whoever used these things, these rooms
lingers in the glaze and grain
reflective, gazing back on us
who seem more viable;
or is it vulnerable -- with less
barriers and beautiful science, the scarcity
of tasks that made "them" strive, stretch
beyond the given.

Thank you for this stunning art and recollective essay on childhood places, memories and reading.

Take care

This post resonates. I, too, have longed for a Victorian pile, which I've been fortunate to be able to experience many times in books, if not in life.

Like you, Terri, I moved a lot as a child, on average ever year / year and a half (my father was a restless soul); and to this day have not lived in one dwelling longer than four years. Perhaps that's why reading became such an important of my childhood; and why I now have such a longing to find a place to put down roots and call 'home'.

I do, however, have wonderful memories of visiting my grandparents in their two-bedroom bungalo where my mother grew up. I'd explore the basement where my grandfather had his tools and work bench (he worked in a tool and die factory, but carpentry was his love), and listening to him talk about the latest book about ufo sightings, or esp, or some such that he was reading. I'd also usually have a book with me from a school or public library, which I'd tuck into a corner to read.

Last year, when I first started to read Lord of the Rings to my younger boy (who was a reluctant reader), I took him to a nearby willow tree (whom we named Treebeard) overhanging a canal from the Danube, which is large enough for the two of us to sit in. We went there numerous times. I hope that leaves a lasting impression with him. : )

Beautiful, Wendy.

Hi Stuart

I am with Terri and Lynn, sounds like a wonderful premise for a novel Write it because I believe when a writer composes something of deep ad personal interest to him or herself, it can become their best work. I saw a bio-documentary on Anne Rice's live a few years ago and learned that when she first wrote "Interview With The Vampire" , it was rejected by 21 editors before the 22nd published it. And she kept submitting this manuscript persistently over a two year period. So I would say belief in her work and tenaciously holding that belief paid off.

I think (today) publishers are too much into the "commercial aspect" of literature. They are afraid of not making enough money on the project or catering to the general trends ( not often the most imaginative or original) of public interest and demand. Anyway, I hope you do write it someday. I, too, would certainly like to read it.

My Best

Hi Terri

I loved, loved your article on the "Folklore of hearth and home" You so beautifully define that essence of place, dreams and belonging. In particular, I adored this description --

"only the goblin murals on the kitchen walls remained of the life I'd known there. I lit a last fire in the ancient stone hearth…and when the flames had burned down low, I put hot coals into an old tin can, following a Dartmoor folk custom. The coals would be used to light a fire at my new abode, just down the street — which would bring me luck, according to some legends, and allow any fairies that lived in the hearth to move along with me, according to others. I left the cottage, locked the door, and pushed the house keys through the door's mail slot. They hit the floor, and with that sound, a large part of my life was now over."

Also loved the example you used to convey the point of how woodland dwellings can be a source of retreat, mystery and a place to either discover or rediscover ourselves. This essay was a treasure to read!

Thank you!

Hi Lynn

What a an interesting narrative of how you grew up, how it shaped your love for reading and impressions of what you are looking for in a home. I could personally relate to this wonderful passage

"I'd explore the basement where my grandfather had his tools and work bench (he worked in a tool and die factory, but carpentry was his love), and listening to him talk about the latest book about ufo sightings, or esp, or some such that he was reading. I'd also usually have a book with me from a school or public library, which I'd tuck into a corner to read. "

With me, it was the attic of my grandfather's garage. He had stored up there, old tools, furniture and magazines. He had antique copies of the national Geographic from the late 1930's through the 50"s. As a kid, I looked through them with avid intrigue. They took me to places of history and nature that totally left me fascinated and better informed. I often laughed because the covers would say "30 illustrations in color" and of course, being a young kid in the late 1970's I was used to colored pictures in all forms of media without thinking twice. It was simply expected. But back them, colored photos or illustrations were much rarer and costly. Anyway, I tucked myself away in a corner of that attic with cobwebs, splintered wood and light streaming through dust laden windows like a ghost -- and read the material. The age of the place only added to the magic of the process. Thanks so much for sharing your impressions and your experience! I enjoyed reading it!

My Best

And P.S. what a wonderful way to spend time with your son and foster his interest in reading. I am sure it will leave a lasting and magical impression!

Hi Lyn

Many thanks for reading my memories and poem! I deeply appreciate it!

Take care

I too grew up in a classic 30's semi-detached house. As a child it offered none of the romance of the Professors house in Narnia. I longed to live in literary houses and the one I loved most was Green Knowe. I so wanted to be Tolly and meet Linnet and her family.

I have learned to live in my current post war house, and it is very far cry from the romance I still long for in a house. Over the years I have collected a number of fantasy houses and rooms, mostly spied on walks or from the top deck of a bus. One, on my university ride home, fired the imagination for years. It was a classic Oxford Victorian Villa; the front room could be viewed from the top of the bus and held such wonders. The whole room was filled with musical instruments, violins, violas and mandolins. For years I longed to know what the life of that room must have been like.

I'm with everyone else. I want to read that book too!

Living about your bookshop - that sounds wonderful to me. And kind of magic too.

I've enjoyed so much reading about the homes that you all grew up in. I, like Terri, grew up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses and longed for an old magical house. And yet, reading these posts, and thinking about my childhood (which was not the happiest) I fondly remember one little place my family lived in for a year in Burgundy Village. It was just a tiny place in an old shabby suburb, and all the four children had to sleep in one room, four single beds crowded into one room with only a space for a dresser. The oven didn't work, so my mother made donuts on the stovetop. This house had a big yard, completely flat which meant it was perfect for running around and around and around and around the house on summer evenings. This yard bordered on our school lot, and when we were late for school we could climb the fence and run through the schoolyard. There were also big bushes on either side of the front door and they made great backstage hideaways from which you could emerge into dance routines on the sidewalk leading to the street. Whoever had lived there left their cat, and we adopted her and named her Pinky, and took her with us when we moved.

I missed that house so much when we left it. The next place was on a hill, and it wasn't as much fun to run around, and there were no bushes lining the front door, and you had to go down steps for the dance routine. We took Pinky with us, but she wasn't happy. One day she decided to go.

Thank you for causing me to remember Elmwood Drive. It was magical for me.

I loved Green Knowe too, Charlotte, and always wanted to live there.

Home Is Everywhere

Like a Gypsy cowboy
My father took me and Mother
From the first homes I know;
A small two rooms in The Dalles.
By the Columbia River, where
The bed fell out of the wall
And the air was sweet and strong
Of the ancient sands and mud.

Next we went to Cow Canyon,
Little motels they's be called now
Down from the tar black highway
And a store, bar, post office
Bus stop where my dad got off
He was a driver, and we lived
In the mystery of ancient hills
And many birds I talked to.

Madras was another little town
Where we lived in a cottage,
Close to the school. There were
No cement sidewalks. Dirt paths
And some boardwalks. This is
Where I learned everything, how
To read, write, make friends
With everlasting memories,
The fair haired boy I liked and
The dark haired Warm Springs
Daughter of the Chief, and all
Best friends with some magic
In all their laughter and smiles.

And my mother sitting with me
As the radio gave me the grand
Music of Tchaikofsky and Chopin.
Our slavic should music we had
She and I. Where packing up
And on to another house, our
Bright come and go, onward.

Our Slavic" Soul "was unfortunately was swiped away by the word watcher, which is often wrong.

A little like ghosts wandering among "things," ; Their breath and minds and "strive, stretch beyond the given" we have to imagine.

Thank you Terri, Lynn, Wendy and Donna for your encouragement. Actually I've more or less finished present projects and so I dug out the novel yesterday. I've written over twenty seven thousand words of it, more than I thought, and I still think it 'has legs' even in today's uncertain market. I think I'll continue to work on it between other tasks and let it develop at its own pace.

Wendy, I imagine you working on your pieces like the craftsmen who made the beautiful objects you describe in your poem; in a way you're a 'Sheraton of words' or perhaps a 'Wedgewood of words' has a more pleasing alliteration.

I always enjoy reading your offerings here, Wendy.

Your grandfather's garage sounds like an Aladin's cave of wonders, Wendy!

Thank you for your kind words. I'm so glad you enjoyed sharing in them as I did with yours.

Yes, my son is already looking forward to the good weather when we can return to Treebeard for more stories. He does now enjoy reading on his own (I always wanted to encourage him, but never to push, as each child does things in their own way and time),
but he still loves being read to. As do I.

Very best, Lynn.

Hi Phylllis

Home is everywhere you live or settle, I think, and each place offers its share of experience, wisdom and associations. You capture the essence of this wonderfully in your poem. I very much enjoyed reading this!

Thank you for sharing!
My Best

Hi Phyllis

I really like the way you summed up the context of this poem. Yes, it like "ghosts wandering among things". Thank you so much for sharing your impressions. I deeply appreciate it!

Take care

Hi Stuart

Your beautiful commentary on my work is very deeply appreciated!! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I love both Sheraton crafted furniture and wedgewood vases, plates etc. Only wish I owned some!!

Again, thank you much!
My Best,

And ,too, Lynn
always enjoy reading yours!

My Best

I'm glad to hear this Stuart. I'm intrigued too!

Oh my. What a blessing. So glad you have your place. =)

This quote gave me chills, Wendy! Thank you for sharing it. Terri, it sounds like an incredibly special place. Looking forward to learning more.

The sculptures in today's post are exquisite. The Shell Seekers made me quite teary.

Love those first two lines, Wendy! They say so much about our culture.

Beautiful poem, Phyllis. I think the third stanza is my favorite, but the last lines of the last stanza ring out!

Thanks so much Edith
for your wonderful observation!

I deeply appreciate your interest in this piece and comment!

Take care

You have a following Stuart, and I say, "Write for the right reasons, and the right people follow." See us ... we are sniffing at the movement on the embankment, enchanted by the whiff of potential!"

Thank you so much Edith and Wendy. I wasn't sure about this poem. You give me so much - that these memories are poetic.

Beautiful, Terri. How like a charm that family, that child, was, and is for you and the cottage.

Books are a place to go to for all the reasons you give. I go to them now as an old woman, for as a child there weren't many books to be had. Now, the girl who lives in that old woman makes stories for both of them ... and both are glad.

I love the opening lines and the image of the bed that fell out of the wall, in the Dalles. The Dalles one of my first memories of the Pacific Northwest, when I was a freshly-arrived Hawaiian Island girl of 20-ish. The Dalles where I walked in my first river to cool from a 100 degree afternoon, and stepped out dry.

How words can take you there. Thank you, Phyllis.

Thanks for your story and the link, Terri! I look forward to reading it. I hope the cottage has been just as magical for your young neighbor.

I still see kingfishers from time to time. 😉

I thought so too, Lynn!

How nice of you to share this. Living in Central Oregon we often drove through The Dalles and turned left to go along with the Columbia River to Portland. I was about four years old when I began to save memories. It was there I saw the Disney "Snow White and the Seven
Dwarves," and heard "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," for the first time in a market.
And there were still Indians catching fish in the river.

I've just delivered the latest to the publishers and now I'm officially between projects, so I think the time has come to continue work on the 'embankment novel'. Thanks to everyone for the encouragement.

That's great news, on both fronts -- the manuscript completed, and the manuscript returned to.

Alas, they only stayed there a little over a year before they moved to New Zealand, due to the father's work. Unfortunately the woman who bought it from them painted over all the fairy tale murals, so it's no longer the "fairy tale house" -- though still a lovely and historic place.

Wonderful news, Stuart! Congratulations on both.

I grew up in a typical Australian house (what might be termed a Bungalow, I suppose) that my parents built in the early 70s. Chocolate feature brick wall in the lounge room, lino and cheap carpet on the floors, aluminium windows in mission brown. Nothing could be less magical! Oh how I longed for a house that had a staircase, even just that seemed marvellously magical. Oh, how I dreamt of a 2 story house that had winding stairs, and wooden windows, and uneven wood floors, low ceilings and heavy beams. What I really wanted was either a thatched cottage, or a small quirky medieval manor house. I still long for a house like that. And an I yearned for an attic! The first poem I ever wrote, was all about my special room in the the attic...existing only in my imagination. But there were magical places not too far away, in the garden, and a little further afield the beautiful Whistlepipe Gully, where my imagination ran riot and created a different world.

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