12 September 2012

In Jane Austen's Footsteps

“In Warwickshire, I have true-hearted friends.” – Henry VI, Part III

“You should write a novel,” a friend suggested casually over a cup of tea. “Your life,” she added,  “has been so ‘Austen-esque’.” The comparison of my ‘romantic narrative’ with the stories of Jane Austen does seem apt in some small ways. After re-establishing our acquaintance in 2007, my Darling English Boy and I pursued a long-distance relationship built firmly on correspondence. Beyond emails and text messages, in true Austenian fashion, we actually wrote letters – and sent them in the post!
On one occasion, the Darling English Boy signed his missive: “Your Mr Darcy or Colonel Brandon - which ever you prefer.” What a deliciously romantic choice! And, what a boon: a man who knows his Austen from his elbow. (I was completely hooked.)
One thing about Jane Austen neither of us knew was her affection for Warwickshire. The City of Bath may well lay claim to being Austen’s place of residence. However, in her novels she decries the “insincerity, smoke, confusion, and horrid gatherings” that were unavoidable features of city living. Without doubt, Jane Austen was a country girl at heart, and Stoneleigh Abbey, here in the heart of Warwickshire left a lasting impression on her.

In 1806, Jane Austen arrived at Stoneleigh Abbey with her mother and beloved sister, Cassandra. This trio was enrapt by the beauty of their cousin’s newly inherited stately home and its bucolic setting. Nestled on the banks of the River Avon, Stoneleigh Abbey sits on 690 acres of parkland and is surrounded by a lush, verdant landscape. Austen found here the “life and liberty” she so missed in hustle, bustle and din of Bath.
Taking in the view from the house, one can see the woodland grove that gave Austen such pleasure on those late summer days. She called Stoneleigh’s woodland grove a “pretty wilderness.” This phrase resurfaces famously during the iconic encounter between Elizabeth Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in her masterpiece Pride & Prejudice.
Stoneleigh Abbey and family figures associated with it provided Austen with ample fodder for her renowned novels. It is referenced at length in the description of Sotherton Court in Mansfield Park, and as one takes a turn about the estate, thoughts of Pemberley immediately spring to mind.
By far my favourite feature – after the breathtaking Georgian plasterwork in the Grand Hall – was taking a stroll along Jane’s favourite path. On a (surprisingly) sunny summer day, I found myself following in Jane Austen’s footsteps. What better inspiration could there be for a would-be novelist or avid Austen fan?
Every September, hundreds of “Janeites” (as Jane Austen fans are known) flock to Bath for that city’s annual “Jane Austen Festival”. I have yet to persuade the Darling English Boy that we should don Regency costumes and join them. Lucky for him, I have found a touch of Jane Austen much closer to home.

More details
Stoneleigh Abbey – “Warwickshire’s hidden jewel”                                                                                       Jane Austen tours Sundays (1pm) and Wednesdays (12pm). Special Jane Austen evening tours with wine and canap├ęs, throughout the year. See website for details: www.stoneleighabbey.org

Glorious Twelfth (August Column)

Is that lead slow which is fir’d from a gun? – Love’s Labour’s Lost

Hunter green wellies, touches of cashmere, Lamb’s wool and tweed - the hallmarks of country apparel. To me, country apparel has always been the apex of British fashion - and a style of which I have long been enamoured. 
I regularly sported wellies and short, tweed skirts through the sunny streets of Manhattan - only to have a chorus of taxi drivers bellowing at me at every turn: “You expectin’ rain, sweetheart?”
Thankfully, my lifestyle has finally caught up with my wardrobe. But what about the pursuits for which country clothing was actually intended? One of the joys of my newfound rural life is having opportunities to experience country sports.
Shooting has always held a certain fascination, with “the Glorious Twelfth” being the centre of shooting lore. The start of the grouse season is indeed the stuff of legend - and luxury. Grouse shooting enthusiasts pay high prices in pursuit of their passion. A 200-brace day on one of the more prestigious moors, for eight or nine guns, would cost more than £38,000; and that’s before adding in agents’ commissions, ammunition, keepers, loaders or beaters tips, insurance, food, travel and accommodation. That’s a costly bit of tweed!

Before biting such a choice bullet, I set my sights on a shooting experience closer to home. My brother-in-law is a retired Warwickshire Police Inspector and former team manager of the GB Police Clay Shooting Team. His shooting career was inspired at the age of 10, after hearing news of Bob Braithwaite’s remarkable clay shooting victory at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and this marked the birth of a lifelong passion, which has seen him win numerous national Police and inter-service titles including the Services Clay Classic in 2007.
For the past two years he has coached the Warwickshire College shooting team, and he has led them to achieve back to back victories in the 2011/2012 Schools Challenge events at Bredon School in Gloucestershire, winning two £1500 shotguns. This year, Warwickshire College were also awarded “School of the Year” by The Clay Pigeon Shooting Association.  On the back of this success and in line with their ‘Enterprise College’ status, (Shooting being worth an estimated £2 billion to the UK economy) Warwickshire College are now exploring opportunities to offer their shooting coaching facilities to a wider public.
One mild, summer’s day, I donned my wellies and met him at Edge Hill Shooting Ground, where he introduced me to the joys of clay shooting. The experience was nothing short of exhilarating and empowering: the feel of firepower, the joy of precision and success and hitting the targets.
I had expected that I would be utterly useless at shooting a swiftly moving object out of the sky, but I surprised myself! I have no doubt this was much more than a mere case of beginner’s luck. More than being just a sure and able shot, my brother-in-law is also an excellent teacher. And - he looks great in tweed!

Love it or leave it

Tolerance is a funny thing.
I've been inundated recently to offer some comment on the upcoming US Presidential election. I have resisted for much same reason that I shall not be voting this time around: I don't have to live with the result. 
Of course, in a global sense, yes, we all have to live with the result, but my point is that the result will have not any immediate or intimate impact on my life, so my input into the result should likewise be limited. (A stoical stance worthy of Julius Caesar's Marcus Brutus!)
What I can offer, however, is an observation - drawn out by a recent query as to my views on Mitt Romney's faith/religion.
Last year, the DEB and I hosted two friends of his to dinner - a British-American couple from Texas. Many of you, dear Readers, will be stunned in amazement to learn that I broke bread with not one, but two, staunchly evangelical, Tea Party supporting Republicans. (Or perhaps more shocked by the fact that two Republicans dared to sup at my "liberal" table?) 
Our affable dinner took a sombre turn when Carla began to bemoan the current state of affairs in the USA. I surprised myself with my own detachment and ability to listen calmly as she shared her grievances over President Obama's "betrayal"of the American people. 
I did not pitch a fit or throw a wobbly -  but I took pleasure and smug satisfaction in the thought that in the upcoming election my one Democratic vote would surely cancel out hers. 
Of course, this is a ridiculous thought, this is not at all how it works! And so, it was in that single moment that I realised I shouldn't and mustn't vote. I would be doing so for the wrong reasons - to vote against someone else's opinion, in attempt to counteract the influence of their vote. Voting is privilege, and many gave their lives to achieve this right for us all. To undertake it out of spite or anger is to my mind, wrong. 
Sadly, I feel that this is precisely what politics in America has become: "spite voting". Perhaps, this is what it has always been, and I just didn't realise it until now.
And so, to Mitt. 
After Carla finished her tirade, expecting me to take the bait and bite back, in some sort of pro-Obama litany, I responded instead with what I thought was a fair and balanced remark: "Well, Mitt Romney is your best chance against Obama."
Carla fell silent.
It was as if I had just suddenly declared a belief that the moon was made of cheese.
I explained that I was living in Massachusetts when Mitt Romney was elected Governor. And, a very decent Governor he was. Mitt's faith/religion was not at all a stumbling block for me, or the notoriously 'liberal' electorate of Massachusetts - but it clearly was for Carla! She could barely speak the word 'Mormon' -  her pastor had just preached a sermon recently about the 'Mormon cult', and warned his flock against being deceived by the "closet liberal" Romney.
"Oh, dear, " I said, allowing my smugness to finally take hold. "You're going to be in a bit of a bind, then, aren't you? What on earth will you do?"
Fast-forward to now, and within the blink of an eye, Tea Party voters like Carla have swiftly shifted their song sheet, and soundly changed their tune. The "M-word" is no longer the bugbear it once was. The greatest (and saddest) irony in all of this is the bare-faced fact that if Mitt Romney were the Democrat or Independent candidate, and a Mormon, the Religious Right - who are embracing him now - would be grilling him and having him from breakfast!