A Book of Moss

If there’s one thing the readers of this blog like, it’s moss.
So this 1950 King Penguin book by Professor P.W. Richards might be of interest. Professor Richards complains that moss is unjustly neglected, quoting botanist John Bartram: “Before Dr Dillenius gave me a hint of it, I took no particular notice of mosses, but looked upon them as a cow looks at a pair of new barn doors.”
Richards is forced to admit, ‘As far as direct economic value is concerned, mosses are not of great importance.’ Although in former days, he points out, they were used for stuffing mattresses and pillows in rustic areas, or to make baskets and antiseptic bandages.
He gives some tips on how to cultivate moss – water with rainwater, and avoid lime: “With these hints and a little preliminary experience, anyone should be able to embark on a successful career as a moss gardener.”
The beautiful illustrations are by Johannes Hedwig from his 1787 book on mosses studied through a microscope.

The Writing Routine

Daily Routines is endlessly fascinating for those who work at home sometimes and can’t shake off a guilty feeling that sitting in your pyjamas at noon eating a Lion Bar is not the way to Get Things Done. Nonsense! Winston Churchill got things done and his routine is the best of the lot: 7.30am substantial breakfast and working in bed, followed at 11am by rising, bathing and a weak whisky and soda in the study; 1pm three-course lunch with friends, champagne, brandy and cigars. Then a little light work or possibly backgammon, and “at 5pm, after another weak whisky and soda, he went to bed for an hour and a half.”
We brush aside the up-before-dawn and 10,000 words-a-day types, and embrace those who mastered a more civilised life, such as Nabokov – Scrabble, butterfly hunts and long naps – or Truman Capote: “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping.”
I mean, whose work would you rather read, Colette – swimming, sex and regular blood transfusions from an attractive young donor – or film critic Roger Ebert – rise at 7, oatmeal, treadmill, cold shower etc. And Joyce Carol Oates’s comments – “To me, wasting time isn’t in my nature. I find it difficult to understand why people would deliberately waste their time” – make me determined never to read a word she’s written. Most importantly, try never to sit next to the highly self-disciplined J.M. Coetzee: “A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once.”
Some had more idiosyncratic routines. Auden’s method, perhaps not recommended, was to take lots of speed, which he considered a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen”. Maybe Gertrude Stein is the one to emulate: “Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing… Miss Stein spends much of her time quarrelling with friends.”
Pictures from LIFE archive.
See also Writers at Work

The Squirrels Have Milk Teeth

This may be the best book I’ve ever come across. Found for 50p in a secondhand bookshop, I knew as soon as I saw the mouse footprints that it must be mine:
This 1937 guide to the “Vertebrates of Britain Wild and Domestic” by Edmund Sandars is full of tiny details of creatures’ characteristics, often shown in little pen and ink diagrams. Field mouse tracks:
Cows’ digestive systems:
He shows their gait:
Their skeletons:
and illustrates the varieties of the species:
No detail is too small:

Take One Distilled Raven…

Anyone interested in perfume ought to check out A Natural History of the Senses by the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. It was a bestseller in its day, but looks as if it might have gone out of print. Ackerman is particularly good on the neglected sense of smell, especially the scents of people from history: crusaders came back perfumed with rosewater, Napoleon was drenched in violet cologne, Walter Raleigh smelled of strawberries.
She hurtles through time and space, throwing out strange facts left and right: if you put an Indonesian flying fox in your hair (as she does, experimentally), it starts to cough because of your soapy smells. Elizabethan women would put peeled apples in their armpits till they were soaked with sweat and give them to their lovers. One of Nero’s guests was smothered to death in a shower of rose petals. She’s defeated in her attempt to describe the smell of a penguin, but she has got a useful way to trick deer and rabbits by disguising your human scent with mushrooms, and a 16th century recipe for a perfume that makes women beautiful forever – it involves distilled raven, talcum powder and myrtle leaves, if you’d like to give it a go.
See also:
The Art of Perfume
Pictures from LIFE.

The Enjoyment of the People

This 1945 King Penguin about “art as practised by artists of the people for the enjoyment of the people” has an essay by Noel Carrington (who I think was the brother of Dora) about the survival of folk art on coaches, in fairgrounds and on musical instruments. Even then he was lamenting its disappearance under the influence of mainstream culture: “I noted with regret that the lettering on a little train roundabout in which my children had embarked was in the sober sanserif type designed by Eric Gill.” I like the illustrations by Clarke Hutton:

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Many Strange Accidents

Talking of owls, a kind correspondent sent me this image from the Owles Almanacke of 1618, by Thomas Dekker, or possibly Thomas Middleton. In this mock almanac an owl makes predictions for haberdashers, grocers and ironmongers, and gives still-valid advice for the coming year, including, “Evacuate by vomit when The Sun in New Fish Street draws excellent French wines that leap up in your face.” Also, “Those that would be taken for a gentlewoman must sue for shoes that creak like a frog but our shrewd dames will have dumb bottoms that they may rush upon their maids as ’twere out of an ambush.”