Fifty Shades of Magnolia

Let’s face it, when you think of a magnolia, this is usually what springs to mind – or worse, if you live in rented accommodation (like I do) something like this –

Something vaguely cream, off white, inoffensive and bland are words usually used to describe magnolia. In plants, I often think of spring, cascades of gorgeous flowers and sweeping up petals about a week and a half after they bloom. They do get everywhere. So imagine my glee when I discovered that there are over 200 types of magnolia in the world – and they certainly don’t all look like that! In fact, very few of them are actually magnolia coloured – and yet again, I’m surprised.

The most common variation in magnolia is the colour, and the overwhelming majority of magnolias are various shades of pink, as you can see here:

This is Magnolia Betty, a deep pink/mauve which retains the “traditional” shape of the magnolia flower. Another, Magnolia Marilyn, combines the pink and white in a beautifully contrasting flower:

It’s a bit of a showstopper isn’t it? I’d be delighted to have that in my garden, although I’d need to keep her well pruned back as magnolia do like to take up space.

A very unusual type of magnolia is the star magnolia, so called because they have beautiful stellate flowers. They also come in a range of colours but the one I’ve chosen is almost pure white – simply gorgeous:

It doesn’t really look like a magnolia does it?

And, because I simply can’t resist finding a flower that totally bucks the trend, here’s a yellow magnolia – just to prove that they really do come in all shapes and sizes:

I’m fairly sure if I looked hard enough, fifty shades of magnolia wouldn’t be difficult to find at all.


Of late, I’ve found good biographies pretty difficult to find. Good biographies that are interesting and easy to read are rare enough; but a biography that is interesting and easy to read whilst simultaneously telling two life stories side by side is about as easy to find as unicorn poop. Finding this book, which details the lives of two women I’ve long found fascinating, can only really be described as a fine example of the best unicorn poop I’ve come across. If you see what I mean.

It helps, of course, that Mary Wollestonecraft and Mary Shelley were mother and daughter and, in their own way, blazed particularly distinctive trails, one as an early feminist and political libertarian, the other as a noted Gothic novelist whose greatest creation survives today. One of the (many) things which struck me, however, is how despite having written a number of novels between them, each woman was best known for her first work – Wollestonecraft for A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Shelley for Frankenstein.

The book interweaves their lives, giving each woman a chapter in turn – the first and final chapters are, if you like, joint chapters – shows the parallels their lives took to remarkable effect and allows the reader to show just how deeply the daughter was influenced by her mother, despite never having known her.

The central figure linking both women is William Godwin, husband to one and father to the other. Gordon does not paint a terribly flattering picture of him and the most charitable view of him from the biography is of a curmudgeonly old hypocrite more interested in extracting money from his son in law than in having any kind of social relationships. Indeed, he frequently ignored his family members, noticing them only if a bill was to be paid or they had some money with which to settle the outstanding (and rising) debts.

Of course, it is impossible to write about Mary Shelley without mentioning the Romantic poets, given her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley and the close association both of them had with Lord Byron. Both of the poets came across realistically, but I can’t help wondering if Gordon instinctively felt closer to the Romantics than she did to Godwin. Of course, there is always the possibility that Godwin really was a curmudgeonly old hypocrite and both poets were arrogant and idealistic, although Shelley seemed the more empty-headed and flighty of the two.

Gordon makes extensive use of the women’s unpublished writings, relying on letters and journals to illustrate their mental processes and the development of their respective outlooks on life. For both women radical politics were of fundamental importance and their interpretations of what it meant to be a woman at the turn of the 19th century is still worth reading today. It doesn’t feel like much has changed sometimes, although at least wives are no longer their husband’s property – for now.

This book was a chance find in my local library and I’ve loved every page of it. It’s an essential read if you love either of the main subjects, or even radical politics or Romantic poetry. It doesn’t feel like a heavyweight book, which is an amazing achievement for 500 plus pages.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Yesterday, upon the stair
I saw a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh how I wish he’d go away.

My first version of this blog was, I will admit, entirely different, mainly because I’d always thought this poem was written by someone else and wrote the entire blog about that person. This means, of course, that my wonderful theory about the underlying message in a piece of nonsense verse has become, of itself, nonsense. Poetic really.

That said, the story behind this poem is still quite interesting. It was written by William Hughes Mearns, a child psychologist who believed that silly poems which attracted children’s attention would improve their language development and encourage creativity. It’s certainly easy to remember, and the silliness of seeing a man who wasn’t there is something that a lot of children do find appealing. And, because I thought it was written by Spike Milligan, led me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about mental illness that I’m going to share them anyway – even though they bear no relation to the poem whatsoever.

At the time that Milligan was writing some of his best known nonsense verse – including my favourite, In the Land of the Ning Nang Nong – a common way of referring to people who suffered from mental health issues was to say that they “weren’t all there”. It’s not such a leap, especially for a child, from “not all there” to “not there”. As Milligan himself suffered from mental health problems, including depression, I’m quite sure he would have seen this aspect of the poem quite clearly.

Looking at the poem in that light, it loses its silliness and becomes quite poignant. Can you imagine – being the man who wasn’t (all) there, not (all) there again today, and someone wishing you’d go away? What an indictment on how we treat the mentally ill!

Although the next time I write a post about a favourite piece of nonsense verse, I’ll make sure I’ve established who wrote the poem well in advance of writing.

A Host Of Golden – seriously?

Every so often, I like to confuse people by demonstrating that flowers aren’t always the colours we seem to think they are. We may believe that irises are all blue, but they’re not – and when Mother Nature got her clever little mitts on the humble daffodil, she was hell bent on proving Wordsworth to be a pretty good poet but not much of a naturalist.


Most people are quite used to seeing daffodils in various shades of yellows – the lovely bright golden yellows, some with white petals and yellow trumpets, yellow petals with orange trumpets and even white petals with orange trumpets. The lovely thing about these are that they bloom at slightly different times, so you can have a display of narcissi (to use their technical name) for quite a long time by being inventive with the varieties. They come in different sizes as well, so you can vary minis with standards and even giants. It’s really very pretty.

Then Mother Nature starts with her curve ball…


No, these haven’t been Photoshopped and there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight. These are, quite genuinely, pink daffodils, or Narcissus rosa to use their technical term. In all my years (and there are many) I’ve never seen a pink daffodil before – and since I found this picture, I’ve seen loads. There are even mauve ones as well:-


Wordsworth is really starting to look a bit daft now, isn’t he? I have to say, though, that my favourite is the Dragon Daffodil, presumably invented by a deranged Welshman:


So – don’t ever tell me that all daffodils are yellow. I may just be forced to get my paintbox out.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I sorted out some of my bookshelves a while ago and was mortified to discover that for reasons best known to myself, I’ve got four copies of Dracula. One of them looks like this:


I’ve got very fond memories of this particular book. It’s the first one I remember buying myself and is the copy I think I have read most often. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember if there are any differences between this edition and any of the others (I expect the Penguin Classics edition has more extensive footnotes and addenda) but if pushed, this would be the copy I keep.

I like the bold cover design, the dramatic colours and the typography; I’m less keen on the fact that it looks like it’s travelled halfway round the world with me, but since it has I suppose that’s what I should expect. The story itself is exactly the same as it is in every other edition, but this was my first and it’s very special to me.

Although that might change if I ever get my hands on a signed first edition…

The Height of Luxury


Reading about the Detection Club, I discovered to my glee that for a long time I had something in common with Agatha Christie (we don’t share it any longer for reasons that will become obvious) – one of our longstanding ambitions was to travel on the Orient Express. It was a journey from Istanbul to London, returning from a trip to see her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archaeologist in what is now Iraq, that Christie conceived the setting for one of her most famous stories. I, unfortunately, have yet to set foot on the train, although I often see it ready for boarding in the summer at Victoria Station.

Even Michael Palin’s been on the Orient Express – it formed the first part of his journey Around the World in 80 days and, if I remember, he disembarked at Venice, rather than going on to Istanbul. As far as I’m concerned, it is the ultimate in luxury long-distance train travel. Having done my fair share of long-distance train travel over the years, I’m quite looking forward to doing some more in a bit of luxury.

I’m not sure that it’s changed much since Agatha’s journey – although I doubt many murders are carried out in the sleeping carriages these days.

What Interior Design Can Teach Us About Politics


Ignore the meme. Just look at that wallpaper!

Seriously, by the time I get round to posting this, Trump will be president of the United States and nobody thought to consider what they could learn about this guy from his living room before they voted for him. You think I’m kidding? Seriously, that living room is more revealing than his entire history on social media.

This is a man who does not believe in understatement. His background is one where wealth and status are completely pointless unless you can flaunt them and rub the noses of the peasantry in your finest handmade toilet paper. Trump’s motto is probably “Bigger is Better” – and that applies to everything from his chandelier to the stories he spins, before changing his mind and declaring that he never said that really, must be that fake news again.

Indeed, this is reinforced by his use of Twitter, where he spends more time insulting people and spouting nonsense, usually in capitals and followed by a pointless adjective and a couple of exclamation marks, than actually conducting any business at all.

I have no idea whether or not Mr Trump is a good businessman. He is apparently quite a wealthy one, but if I were in business – or politics – I would like to know as much about the man as I possibly could and that interior is as revealing as it comes. Will he make a good president? I’ve honestly no idea, but I wouldn’t hire him to decorate my front room if his life depended on it. This level of ostentation puts the Kardashians to shame, and that’s saying something.

Perhaps instead of presidential debates, they should have that chap from Through the Keyhole nip round their house and conduct a full report on their interior design decisions. I expect that will tell the American people a lot more about who will occupy the White House for the next four years than anything they say in front of the camera. Because, you know, obviously the Russians will have changed everything and sold it on to a news station as an attempt at character assassination…

Now, if you don’t mind, I need to get this tongue out of my cheek before I choke on it.