Rough Husbandry by Patrick Campbell ~ 1965. This edition: Arrow, 1967. Drawings by Quentin Blake. Paperback. 186 pages.
My rating: 9.9/10 (In other words, pretty well perfect for my current reading mood.)
What a lot of bookish disappointment this week has brought me. After a stellar start to the year with T.H. White’s The Godstone and the Blackymor, the next travel memoir I tackled, Honor Tracy’s Silk Hats and No Breakfast, was less than wonderful.
A re-read of Ruth Reichl’s 2005 foodie memoir, Garlic and Sapphires (still to be discussed – über short review: I mostly really liked it) raised my spirits somewhat, but it mostly just made me hungry, and yearning for some serious time in the kitchen, but as our house is in the throes of a major construction project (I probably should be taking “before” photos, because our main living/dining area is very much down to its most basic state prefatory to being put back together again) all cooking these days is of an eat-to-live type, versus anything frivolously creative and requiring of much counter space.
So Reichl was a cheerful note, but too soon over, and I looked about for something else just as diverting. Farley Mowat beckoned to me from the bookshelf. Perhaps some time in Siberia might be entertaining, given the fact that our current weather is reminiscent of the wintry steppes? But by page 27 I was ready to cheerfully chuck our bearded Canadian bombast to the Russian wolves, arm in arm with his adoring spouse Claire. The earnest and deeply boring (at least in its early chapters) Sibir wasn’t doing it for me, not at all. Back to the bookshelf.
Ah, what’s this? A newish book, this next one. Let’s give the current writers another go, I thought. Published in 2011, and purported to be a “creative memoir”, Catherine E. McKinley’s Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World, showed some promise, what with its travelling-to-Africa-in-search-of-her-roots theme and a nice botanical focus on the fascinating indigo plant. A major botanical howler on page 1 had me raising my eyebrows in wonderment: indigo is not a parasitic plant, dear Ms. McKinley. It is indeed a member of the nitrogen-fixing Legume family (alternatively known as the Fabaceae), and therefore has a complex relationship with the organisms in the soil it inhabits, but it does not take its nutrition directly from other living things. Quite the contrary, in fact! And the blithe reference to its place in the Indigofererearsa tribe, though technically correct, is needlessly arcane, seeing that the genus name Indigofera is the more commonly accepted reference.
Chiding myself for being too darned detail-fixated, I soldiered on with the Indigo memoir. And, sadly, found myself labouring mightily to stay interested. Creative memoir is all very well and good, but only if the writing is of a stellar enough quality to support the flights of fancy of the memoirist. In a nutshell, Catherine E. McKinley is leaving me underwhelmed. “Golly, you’re hard to please,” I scolded myself. “It must be just your mood. The January blues, or something.” A visit to the Goodreads Indigo page cheered me mightily: my response is not unique. I’m better than halfway through the book, and there is some interesting stuff going on, mostly to do with the upscale Dutch textile trade and its connection to traditional African and Asian batik techniques, but honestly it’s grimly hard going, and I wonder if I’ll make it to the end.
Desperate now for something I could effortlessly fall into, I took down a new-to-me collection of Jan Struther’s short essays and poetry from the 1930s and 40s, A Pocketful of Pebbles. I was saving this for just such a readerly flat spot, and my hopes were extremely high, particularly since I have a soft spot for the semi-autobiographical Mrs Miniver, and another essay collection, 1938’s Try Anything Twice. Starting off with a selection of poetry, I was disappointed to discover that our Jan Struther is of the “it must rhyme” class of poet, where a bit of blankness (in the technical sense) might be better suited to what she is trying to express. Moving on to the essays, I was further dismayed to discover that a large number of them are already familiar to me, being merely reprinted from Try Anything Twice.
Well, boo, hiss. I hate it when that happens! I will push ahead, though, because there are many unfamiliar pieces in the collection as well, but between the repetition of the prose pieces and the mild disappointment of the poetry, my high expectations were slightly dashed. (And a more detailed review shall follow some day on both of these collections, because Jan Struther was a grand essayist, and most of my disappointment in this case was that it wasn’t all new pieces to discover.)
By this point my family had noticed that I was getting decidedly grouchy, prowling about muttering about the dearth of “something good” to read, which I must admit garnered me some sympathy, as they’ve been in that state themselves fairly frequently, despite the presence in our home of several thousand widely-assorted books. My husband wordlessly placed this next slender paperback onto my night table along with my much-needed-and-appreciated 6-in-the-morning cup of tea yesterday, giving me a nod and a smile before heading off to work, and by golly, his helpful instinct was right. This little thing has totally hit the spot.
I’ve rambled on terribly, so those of you who’ve made it so far are to be commended for your forbearance. Thank you for your patience. Now let’s see if I can sum Rough Husbandry up in a paragraph or so.
Fellow Canadian readers of vintage fiction will no doubt be familiar with Eric Nicol’s blithe and sometimes downright silly short sketches on things domestic. Patrick Campbell is Nicol’s Anglo-Irish counterpart, and just as purposefully funny. Where Nicol can sometimes go a bit overboard with his goofy anecdotes, Patrick Campbell in this happy collection never made me roll my eyes in annoyance, not even once. I smiled to myself; I even laughed out loud. I’m a happier person for my reading of this book; it charmed me greatly. The illustrations by Quentin Blake are absolutely perfect, too.
That’s a personal response, but it tells you nothing of the contents, does it? Here you go, an example of what’s inside. Only the first chapter deals in boyhood reminiscences, but the ensuing adult kitchen adventures are a natural evolution of young Patrick’s quest to improve his personal comfort levels, domestically speaking.
The excerpt breaks off rather suddenly, but should give you enough of a taste (pun intended) to see whether this is your sort of thing. Clicking the images should enlarge them for easier reading.