Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Forgotten Book

Right. Before I start with the story, I need to sort some technical stuff first. Bear with me, it’ll be over in a minute. There are gnomes and witches and secret gardens ahead, so it’s worth sticking around. Oh dear. Lost some of you already.

I want to introduce one of my favourite Dutch children’s books to you, but I've stumbled on a slight problem. The title of the book, which also happens to be the name of its main character, is not the easiest one for non-Dutch speakers. It’s Scholletje. What did I tell you? Impossible name. And try translating it! The main character of the book is nick-named Scholletje, because she once nearly drowned during a traditional (and unbelievably stupid) Dutch game called ‘scholletje trappen’ or ‘kicking the ice’. You go to a frozen ditch or canal, stand on the ice and kick it, to separate the ice you’re standing on from the main body. Now the game is to stay afloat on that bit of ice as long as possible, without falling into the water - and possibly drowning. Told you: mind-bogglingly dumb. But there you have it.

You see my problem. Try making a catchy translation of a name that means ‘little plate of ice’! I suppose I could go with something like ‘Frosty’ but then it either suggests the girl has a bit of a cold personality, or it conjures up an image of a grinning tiger with a bowl of cereal. It just doesn’t work. But never fear: I've thought of an alternative. As this is a water related incident, and the story is about all sorts of creatures from the realm of enchantment, I've decided to go for Nixie. A nixie being a water sprite. The name sounds rather fun, don't you think? Quite pleased with it actually. All in favour of Nixie then? Alright yes, I'll get on with it now.

Nixie is an eleven-year-old girl. Her actual name is Jacoba Lapwing, which is obviously something she'd prefer to forget. The things parents do to their children. Anyway. Nixie is a dreamy girl as well as a bit of a tom boy, who lives with her family and her rather promiscuous cat Betsy Catchum in a small house in the city. The family only recently moved from the country and Nixie still misses the outdoors desperately. Her new home only has the tiniest of patio gardens - barely large enough to store the garbage bins.

This would all be rather depressing for a nature child like Nixie, if it hadn't been for the Garden. Behind the patio fence, there lies a huge, luscious garden, the only remaining part of what was once a grand country estate. The Garden runs along the entire length of the street and Nixie has a perfect view of it from her bedroom window. She's not supposed to enter it of course, as the unpleasant woman who owns it is sure to raise hell if she finds out (Nixie thinks she beats her pale-faced children and nagged her husband to death). Our heroine is of course undeterred and very frequently climbs over the fence. 

There are many different kinds of trees and other plants in that wonderful green haven. It also boasts a large pond and a hedge that runs straight through the middle of the grounds. But the main thing about the Garden is that it is enchanted. Around midnight, the garden dwellers come out from their hiding places. There are fairies, gnomes, goblins, witches, will o' the wisps, brownies and even some musty old demons. Among other things. According to Betsy the cat, there should even be a couple of white ladies and fire sprites about, but she admits she never saw them herself. She just heard that from a rodent she interrogated. Before she killed it. 

The most powerful of all the enchanted creatures is the Garden Spirit - tall and solemn and as old as the world, he is respected by all. His powers include the ability to make the garden and all its occupants take to the night sky - to travel to special places in nature, or the scenes of ancient legends. Nixie is allowed to come along on these trips and the Garden Spirit even takes her to places where the others are not allowed to follow. Still, to her the dearest of all the garden folk will always be Tom, a thousand-year-old gnome, her friend and protector. 

One day, Nixie is forced to make a hasty retreat from the garden after a day-time visit (helping herself to some nuts from the trees), and makes a nasty fall. She breaks her leg and as it is a very complicated fracture, the doctor tells her she will need months of bed rest to heal. But she can see the garden from her bed and her friends do not abandon her, visiting her and still taking her along on their trips when the garden takes flight. 

Then infection sets in and Nixie is moved to the hospital, where she will need to stay for many months. She pines for her beautiful Garden, and worries whether her family will take good care of Betsy, who is expecting yet another litter. The Garden Spirit sends her one of the magical creatures every couple of nights, who tell her stories of their own adventures, or fairy tales, or just make her laugh with their silly antics. 

Nixie's infection however turns to septicemia and her life is hanging by a thread. The garden folk realise she will not make it without their help, and as they are skilled in herb lore, they know only one thing can still save her: a special herb that only grows in the Siberian Taiga. Tom and his friend and fellow gnome Everhard set out on a quest to find the plant for Nixie and take it back to her in time, encountering many dangers as well as helpful creatures on the way. 

Why did I like this book so much? I guess because it had everything I looked for in a book when I was a child. There were so many elements to it that interested me. The fairy tales, the history, an element of spookiness and adventure. And the main character I found so very real and likeable. Nixie addresses the reader in a very matter-of-fact, no frills kind of way and narrates the stories she has been told or experienced the way a child would, without being overly sentimental about some of the more sad or gruesome facts. There's a touch of Roald Dahl in there I think. In any case, I find her totally convincing.

All in all, I don't understand why this book isn't known to a wider audience. As far as I can tell, it has never been translated into another language - quite rare for Dutch children's books of that period. But even in the Netherlands it is long out of print and very hard to come by. Perhaps at the time the book was written (1974) the author, a physician 'in real life' (hence the abundance of medical details in the book) was still not very widely known. But he went on to co-create a book that sold millions of copies the world over.

Who doesn't know this much-loved book about Gnomes? Wil Huygen created it together with illustrator Rien Poortvliet in 1976, only two years after he wrote 'Scholletje'. Many of the elements in Scholletje return in his delightful book about the life of gnomes (including the ecological/environmental messages - plus some very entertaining stories about the outsmarting of trolls). Why is it that one book has found such national and international acclaim, and the other is all but forgotten?

It's true that Scholletje doesn't have Rien Poortvliet's magical illustrations, which I admit played an essential part in the success of 'Gnomes' (it has several illustrations by Carl Hollander instead). But the stories in it are equally charming and entrancing. In my not-so-very humble opinion anyway. I would have thought publishers were sure to study an author's other works to see whether they were equally marketable. And I wonder why they decided this one wasn't. Too many stories in one book, and therefore too much going on? Too Dutch with the local folklore bit? A tad too much realism here and there? Or maybe something as mundane as a dispute between publishing companies? 

I believe children across the world would still be delighted by this little book. You can't tell me there aren't kids out there anymore with a love of reading about magical creatures and adventures and what not. Did I mention there's a time machine device in there as well?

If Wil Huygen were still alive (he passed away several years ago) I would have written to him to see if he couldn't get it reprinted. Secretly hoping he'd then invite me to tea obviously (just assuming a children's book author is a nice person which might very well not be the case). As he is no longer with us, I may just have to approach the publisher myself.

So... what is your verdict, based on my synopsis of the book? Do you think you would have enjoyed reading it as a child? Be Dutch with me. I can take it.

First photo is the cover illustration of the book, made by Carl Hollander, photographed by me with my iPhone. The Gnomes book photo was nicked from Amazon.com, other photos are stock photos from 123rf.com

Monday, 16 January 2012

Twilight cocooning

I love the light in my living room. With floor to ceiling windows, the light comes flooding in, even on the darkest and gloomiest days. A sunrise on a bright day is lovely, when the dark indigo of the sky changes to shades of pink, purple and orange. This time of year I rarely get to witness it of course, as I'm either on my way to work, or still hugging my pillow when it's the weekend. But oh well. Lovely all the same whether I'm there to look at it or not. Let's not get sucked into the 'sound of a falling tree' discussion.

Gorgeous though a sunrise may be, on the cold winter days when I have no social commitments (or have those people over who are part of the furniture), my mood tends to go towards cocooning. I just want to envelop myself in a warm, nurturing environment. And for that sort of mood, our long twilights are ideal. When the light outside is only just starting to fail, and there's a soft glow of candles and of the fire inside, my home feels especially cosy and snug.  

Now I have for some time been familiar with that famous William Morris quote: 'have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful'. Pure, simple brilliance. I took it one step further in my new home though Wills: 'have nothing in your house you do not have a positive association with'. Easier said than done I can tell you.

Obviously I did not ask myself with every fork, tea spoon or other utensil whether it made me feel good. So no need to picture me doing Uri Geller stares at those. I did however get rid of quite a bit of stuff that had some sort of negative trigger to them. Like a book I loved but that (because of the glowing declaration of love he wrote in it) instantly reminded me of the ex-boyfriend who kept stalking me on and off for 8 years. Every time I saw it my initial reaction was one of feeling betrayed. Not good. I think you get the general idea of the exercise.

So now the items I see around me mostly remind me of people I love, happy events or other positive things. Favourite books included of course. What would a home be without those? Don't be fooled into thinking I don't have hoarding tendencies though. I do. Oh God I do. I'm just really making an effort now to keep them in check - and thus make room for the new. 

That throw is the only one of all my turquoise items that hasn't been put away for the winter. It doesn't match the rest of my winter colour scheme but... it's just too comfy. The picture of course lacks a cat snoozing on the rug (or sharpening its claws on it with a sideways daring glance at me). Or alright, maybe a sweet pooch. But only one of the non-drooling variety. Please. 

Do you like the gleam in my owl's eye and the pensive expression of my fox? Despite the bad press foxes have had lately, I still feel a strong affinity to both animals (not that they could EVER rival a cat of course). Oddly enough I have never ever seen a fox in the wild in Holland. The only foxes I've ever seen (and quite a few of them too!) were in London. Last place I'd have looked for one to be honest. Anyway. The pictures don't really do my cushions justice. Nor my sofa as a matter of fact - it's a very, very pale beige but in these pictures it has a strange pinkish hue. You get the basic feel though.

A shy man given to me by a shy man years ago. Legend says it will protect your house, as long as you stroke its bald little head from time to time in appreciation. Dusting that shelf might also work.

Still haven't found the perfect mirror. What am I looking for exactly? Not quite sure. Typical case of 'I'll know it when I see it'. Drives some people mad. 

I forgot to drink that tea. It was spiced orange too - and I've nearly run out of my supply.

Do you have a favourite time of day in your home? Breakfast by the kitchen table? Afternoon playtime with the little ones (furry or otherwise)? Dinner with the family or that special person? Or just enjoying some quiet me-time with a good book in the evenings?

Friday, 13 January 2012

A matter of opinion - John Soane's Museum

My first acquaintance with John Soane's Museum in London was when I read a short story about it as a child. The story was one by Dutch author Godfried Bomans and was called 'The most hideous museum in the world'. No prizes for guessing what he thought of it! Bomans made it clear that everyone in their right mind would find this a most depressing place. Which only served to convince me that I had to go see the museum myself one day. Because that's just the way my psyche works: 'I'm perfectly capable of making up my own mind, thank-you-very-much'. Plus I had a sneaking suspicion that contrary to dear old Godfried, I would turn out to be thrilled by it. Guess who was proved right.

Stay with me as I go over the introduction bit, just in case you hadn't heard of the place yet. I'll try to keep it short and sweet (no heinous laughter there Mr. Crisp - I'm warning you!).

Of humble beginnings, Sir John Soane (1753-1837) lived to become a distinguished architect of the neoclassical style. Apart from his professional works, his own home became a bit of a project for him as well. He ended up demolishing and rebuilding three houses in succession at Lincoln's Inn Fields, numbers 12 through 14. We can only conclude Mrs. Soane was a very patient woman.

Although Soane designed his property as a home for himself and (initially) his family, he also used it as a backdrop for his many collections of antiquities and works of art. You'll find that 'many' is the key word here. As he was keen to preserve his possessions in situ and was long estranged from his one surviving son, he determined to establish the house as a museum, which was to be kept in its original state as much as possible.

Now where to start in describing this most idiosyncratic of homes? Soane's collection is almost the sort of treasure trove you'd expect to find in an Indiana Jones film. Past the trap door, after the ball of death and the corridor of poisoned arrows. But perhaps the place is best described as the home of the eccentric elderly relative children always get sent to in (my kind of) children's books. Because it really still is a home. It just happens to be one with surprises around every corner.

The first rooms you encounter are still quite normal looking - apart from some delightful quirks - and more or less in keeping with what you'd expect from a well-to-do family of the Regency age. But then all of a sudden the collection takes over. With full force. Interlocking rooms with objects on almost every available surface. Pompeian bronzes, Greek and Roman friezes and reliefs, mosaics, Egyptian antiquities, but also paintings, sculptures, water colours, you name it, it's there. Soane obviously knew what he loved (regardless of whether or not it was generally considered noteworthy), and what he loved, he acquired. As it would appear - at times in bulk.  

It strikes me as funny that an architect of the neoclassical style, with all its clean, simple lines, and little to no frills, filled up every open space he could find in his own home, thereby creating the busiest of schemes. So many of the rooms are packed from floor to ceiling. Which is just what Bomans' story builds on. Even though he admits that Soane had many a lovely piece, he feels they are completely lost in this mad display. In his view, Soane was a man possessed, someone who only cared for amassing more and more beautiful artefacts, to the detriment of everything else. And he wondered, would Soane have died a happy man amidst his many possessions? Was this accumulation of material goods really worth sacrificing his family's happiness for, and giving up his own peace of mind?    

Er. Godfried old boy, I don't think you were being entirely fair. When it comes to Soane's family, neither of his boys would have been entitled to a mug with ‘bestest son in the world’ on it. Quite the contrary. Surviving son George sounds like he was a particularly nasty piece of work if you ask me. Soane himself was convinced that George's apalling behaviour hastened his mother's death in 1815. I think it's safe to say that the father suffered a lot more heart ache over the son than vice versa. And let's not forget that by all accounts, Soane's marriage was a happy one. What also endears him to me (shamelessly sentimental pet lover that I am) is that he greatly cared for his wife's pet dog Fanny, whose portrait can still be admired in the house. Is that consistent with the image of a man who only lived for his treasures?

Bomans' story comes to mind every time I visit John Soane's Museum. It can't be denied that Soane really did love gathering 'stuff' around him. But it doesn't feel to me as if he did it just for the sake of possession. Even now, the house and the items it holds, feel loved. Soane chose to surround himself with items that were special to him, even if not all of them would have been considered by others to be beautiful or of great value (a lot definitely are though!). I can almost picture him walking through his home, a faint smile on his face, touching or rearranging a treasured object here and there. In my opinion, he did succeed in making this a true home. 

I suppose it's obvious I adore the place. I love discovering new things all the time in this crazy rabbit warren of a house with all its little architectural tricks, interior design madness and of course its wonderful objects. And the little hoarder in me can relate to this greatest of collectors. Although I personally do feel there is a limit to the number of cinerary urns a house should have. Even without a former person in there. Just a minor detail though. I love the house all the same and I'm glad I get to visit it. Soane loved opening up his house and letting others share in the enjoyment of his treasures. That doesn't sound so very miserly to me, Godfried.

How I wish I could spend the night there just once. And wander around the rooms by candlelight, without other persons about. Alright, maybe just one. There are some spots that I imagine will look particularly eerie, like the crypt with the sarcophagus of Seti I. Which does happen to be one of my favourite objects. Now imagine my delight in finding out I actually can fulfill my fantasy! Well, I can't have a sleep-over obviously. Not without offering some serious bribes. But it is possible to visit the house by candlelight - every first Tuesday of the month. I'm definitely going to do that this year. Another visit will also give me a chance to see the rooms that had hitherto been closed, but that have been carefully restored to their former glory. I can't wait.

So I’m sorry Godfried. I’m not with you on this one. Hope my comments won't make you turn in your grave. I do still read your books you know.

If you're still with me after this long tale - what do you make of John Soane’s house? Do you think he should have toned it down just a bit - or maybe a lot? Do you feel he let 'things' take over and get the better of the house and maybe even his life? Is the house, as Bomans felt, a sad relic of a lonely man's life? Or do you think it is a wonderful thing that he followed his own heart and his own tastes?

I’d love to hear your view.

John Soane's portrait was sourced from the National Portrait Gallery website. The etching of the catacomb with the sarcophagus of Seti I was taken from Wikipedia. All other photos sourced from Soane.org.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Cat Boat

I could tell you that I chose this topic because it fits in nicely with the time of year. You know, with the yuletide season and the new year inviting us to pause and self reflect, and perhaps practice a little more kindness, a story about selfless devotion seems just the thing.

Let's be honest here though - I just want to talk cats. Oh alright, and I'm feeling not a little sentimental. Possibly a lingering side effect of the Christmas sugar overdose.

So be forewarned. If the mere thought of our feline friends makes you sneeze and wheeze, or even shudder in horror and disgust, look away now, this is not your kind of tale. Although I dare say that the human kindness bit may still appeal to you, cat lover or not. Some would disagree and claim that no cat hater could ever be a charitable person. I would of course never venture as far as to say that. Did you know that Adolf H. hated cats by the way?

The story I want to share began in 1966. A lady called Henriëtte van Weelde was living in a house by one of Amsterdam’s many canals, when one fateful day she spotted a mama cat and her kittens shivering in the cold, trying to find shelter under a tree. Many would have looked the other way, but not Henriëtte. Mother and litter were soon bundled up and transported to the warmth and safety of her home. A happy outcome for this furry family. But the tale doesn’t end there. Soon another stray found a home with Henriëtte. And another. And another.

It wasn’t long before Henriëtte became known as 'that cat lady’. People started bringing her strays and cats they couldn’t look after anymore. Henriëtte took them all in. She had a large house as well as a large heart, but when even her patio and her roof top terrace started filling up with felines, she realised something had to be done. And as she, like most Dutch, was made of practical stuff, she came up with a practical (if somewhat novel) solution.

What is Amsterdam most famous for? No not that. Stay focussed. Please. That whole Sodom and Gomorra idea is so last century and no, we're not all doped up to the eyebrows. I meant of course its multitude of canals. So if you were in Amsterdam and in need of expanding your space, where best to do it than on the water? If people can live on house boats then surely so can cats. As long as they keep their socks dry. Having come to this brilliant conclusion, Henriëtte bought a barge and had it converted into a feline-friendly abode. And with the Dutch love of nicknames, within no time the locals had dubbed it the 'Poezenboot': the Pussycat Boat. Yes, there's always the odd tourist who mistakes it for something else. 

As you can imagine, that's when things really took off. Cats came from everywhere (and thankfully so did the volunteers). The Poezenboot became a proper Amsterdam institution. Many, many cats have over the years enjoyed room and board in this floating cat sanctuary. They were either found loving new homes or, if that wasn't possible, allowed to live out their lives in safety and comfort - with a nice canal view as an added treat. 

Sadly, that one lady it all started with is no longer with us. Henriëtte van Weelde passed away at the age of 90 in 2005, to the end surrounded by loving cats. And I am sure she enjoyed jubilant greetings from a furry welcome committee as she passed through the pearly gates. For after all: 'heaven can not ever heaven be, if my cats aren't there to welcome me'. 

You'll be happy to hear that the Cat Boat is still going strong. A legion of dedicated people is making sure that things (literally) stay afloat and that cats continue to find love and shelter on board. They even have a website and a magazine to keep people updated on the antics of their feline boat dwellers, and to share heart-warming stories of cats who have been lovingly adopted.

Some of the kitties will remain on the boat however. They have been either too traumatized by people's treatment of them or have just never been domesticated. They won't ever grow to be 'people cats', but the Cat Boat people love them all the same and continue to offer them a safe haven and a nautical playground. And did you know you can financially sponsor these little ship's mates? That's what I decided to do over Christmas. Don't my sultry Kairo and my sturdy Houdini look gorgeous? Yes, I know. They don't really have that 'come hither' look on their faces. And a good thing too as coming too close would not be the best of ideas. Definitely not people cats.

I want to share one last tale with you. Just one of the many stories in which the Cat Boat made a real difference. A heads up - it's going to get shamelessly sentimental from here on.

One day, at the end of October 2010, the Cat Boat got a call. An emotional young woman had a sad story to tell. One of her friends, still a young man, had died unexpectedly leaving behind 16-year-old Moby, his trusted companion that he had raised since a kitten. To add to the tragedy of the young man's death, the girl had not been able to find a new home for his beloved cat. So Moby arrived at the Cat Boat shortly after. It was poignantly clear that he had been deeply affected by his loss. He was described as a listless cat with the saddest eyes in the world. And even though he was treated with special affection and tender loving care, you could tell that to Moby life just wasn't the same without his special person (anyone saying he was probably just missing his home is an ailurophobe). 

Two months passed and Moby had still not found a new home. Then, just after the New Year, a young man came to visit the boat to have a look at its occupants. He still wasn't sure whether he really wanted a cat. And if he was going to take one, it would have to be a kitten. A staff member showed him around the boat and noticed something remarkable. As they passed Moby, who was locked in his own compartment at the time, she saw the cat stir at their sight and hurry out of his sleeping basket to position himself by the bars. And when they walked by the compartment again, a soft little paw was stuck out to get the young man's attention.

Well. There probably weren't any violins playing (cats haven't forgotten what the strings used to be made of*), but all the same it was love at first sight for both of them. Then the young man was told the story of Moby's devastating loss. You can guess what happened next. It was decided there and then: Moby had found himself a new companion.  

I'm such a sucker for happy endings.  

All images shamelessly 'borrowed' from the poezenboot website. I did the wonky frames though.
*I was relieved to hear this is apparently a myth