Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A pocket book of flowers

I went to my local car boot on Sunday.  How much for the little green book? I asked a trader. He wanted a quid; I offered fifty pence and we agreed to split the difference.

What I'd bought was a pocket book of flowers - or more accurately, A Flower Book For The Pocket, by Macgregor Skene, Professor of Botany at the University of Bristol. It's one of those beautifully illustrated field guides that  became popular in the Forties as printing techniques allowed for cheaper reproduction of colour plates. The book is quite scholarly by today's standards, though it's written with real skill which makes the taxonomy accessible to the layman - a style that was later perfected by the Wayside and Woodland series and their ubiquitous cousins, the Observers Books.

This particular copy was bought in 1943 and it cost someone ten and six. I know that because there's a price mark on the first page and an inscription that reads:

 To E from W. 
When WE went NW.  
August 43.

E has written her name, E M McGarry, on the inside leaf. I suppose E could just as easily be a 'him', but the writing looks feminine so I'm going to presume otherwise - not that it matters.

Whoever E was, she was a diligent botanist, ticking and dating the illustrations, noting any variance to the description. Common Hemp-nettle, she observes, is taller than described and Hedge Woundwort has solid not hollow suckers. She's added details of flowers and variants not included the book, commented on the accuracy of the illustrations, and my favourite, noted that 'high heathland' would  be better defined as 'heights over 1500 feet'.

In '44 E saw a Hemp Nettle at St Brides Major (all her dates use an apostrophe). That same year she recorded a Marsh Gentian in Norfolk, Knotgrass in Cornwall and Water Avens at Borrowdale. Between '43 and '45 she includes sightings from Cambridge, Dartmoor, Stonehenge, Salisbury,  Ogmore, Cowbridge, Exmoor and Suffolk. On a few occasions she's picked flowers and pressed them between the pages, their impressions still there after sixty years.

Reading her notes, it's possible to create a fictional portrait of E. From the frequency of the place names I'd say she came from the West Country, and she must have had transport to travel so far and so frequently. Remember, all this took place during the Forties, so presumably she was well off, and by the look of things, well educated too - her handwriting is beautifully formed and the accuracy of her notes indicates more than a keen amateur.  As for who W was - her companion on that trip to the North West - a lover perhaps, or a sister?

I love these old books, and to me they are enhanced by the notes and jottings of a past life. I have a copy of the Wayside book of Dragonflies that includes handwritten lists of species seen in Wiltshire over many years, there is even copies of the owners correspondence with the book's author.

To a collector, books that have been marked are often devalued, the descriptions on ebay will typically say 'some scribblings and notes throughout' or 'considerable wear and pencil markings'. What they don't say is, the book includes a life that took joy from nature; someone, who in the midst of a World War, stopped to record the flowers she saw.

Those recordings stop abruptly in 1947. What happened to E after that I wondered? The notes gave me no clues. Until that is, I turned to page 353 - almost the last of the book - and there was that same handwriting, this time in biro,  underlining and ticking Bladder Sedge, with the note Bratton Fleming ' 97.

I like to think that E lived a long life, that she had many books like this - that perhaps she turned to an old copy to remember W and reminisce about those trips to the Lake District and Cornwall.  Bratton Flemming is on the edge of Exmoor - not quite 1500 feet about sea level. I wonder if she's buried there, and what flowers grow on her grave.


  1. A beautiful story... and a reminder of how we are all linked by the places we go, the things we touch and the memories we care enough to record somewhere.

  2. What a coincidence - we're publishing a post about wildflowers on the same day!

    What a lovely discovery. I have a battered copy of Francis Rose and you've made me wish I'd recorded my sightings in its margins in addition to the pressed flowers I have in there.

    I've done some voluntary work at Kew's herbarium and was interested to note that many of the plants in there were collected at the time of war. I speculated that quite a few men couldn't get home in places like Africa when they went on leave, so went on plant hunting expeditions close by instead.

  3. What a beautiful post, thank you x

  4. I like to think that 'E' would be delighted someone appreciates her diligence. I'm sure the two of you would have got on famously. A very pleasing find for you, and your sympathy for they previous owner is something many would overlook.

  5. Likewise - a beautifully told story. Keynotes of a passionate naturist and botanist from a violently contrasting period in our more recent history. A welcome distraction no doubt from some of the many other casualties of war at the time.

    More than a good excuse to search around the backwaters of Bratton Fleming sometime then.

  6. You have roused the detective in me, I would be tempted to find E McGarry's origins.
    Kindles discovered years hence won't have quite the same effect methinks.
    That was fifty pence well spent.

  7. The previous Anonymous post was me Mark (Cait O'Connor)
    For some reason your blog won't let me make comments - it keeps asking me to sign in again to my Blogger account and then refuses to let me. I have no trouble on others' blogs - very odd. So I shall probably have to be Anonymous from now on.... I may try my Name.URL next time. Loved your post anyway.

  8. What a lovely find. We went to a car boot at the weekend, for the first - and last - time. Not for us.
    I love books that have notes in them, hard to sell as people often want pristine editions, accepting of signs of wear and tear and age, but not personal annotations, which adds to the charm of the book and gives the imagination free rein to create a whole world and life for the person who wrote in the book.
    By the way, I have often had to sign as Anonymous for the same reason as Cait. But I have found that if I re-enter my google account name and password, untick the keep signed in box, then I can leave a comment. Usually. Let's see if it works this time.....

  9. I like it when one makes a discovery like this one.

  10. It aroused the detective in me also, so am sleuthing on Ancestry)). What a delightful find, and one you cherish, rightfully so. The book makes a spirit connection over time, with another who loved flowers and travel. Surely wildflowers grow on her grave.

  11. The book opens a door on a facet of someone else's much more valuable than a pristine edition.

  12. Lovely post. E sounds like someone I would have enjoyed meeting.

  13. I love gems like old book, photos postcards etc
    nice blog entry

  14. Your post got me pondering about morality and negotiation. I wonder why you negotiated 25p off the price?

  15. Absolutely brilliant post Mark. There aren't many pleasures I like more in life than exploring a car boot sale, in the hope of coming across books like the one you have described so eloquently.

  16. Do so agree. Have been working in Bodleian, found book I wanted, turns out to have been given by Benedict Nicholson who has pencilled name and Sissinghurst, then at back has provided his own written bookmarks and comments in absence of an index.

    It is the handwriting that provides an intimacy. For instance, my father died in the war so I didn't know him. But I found a tiny, mandatory hand written will, in a bold rounded hand which told me so much and touching it was like touching him.

    I love this blog and will treasure it.

  17. this is such a sweet story. thank you for sharing it. x

  18. I love the way books offer so much more than just a read. I wonder what will be the equivalent with eBooks in a century's time? A book to treasure, I''m sure.

  19. I love these old books, and to me they are enhanced by the notes and jottings of a past life. I have a copy of the Wayside book of Dragonflies that includes handwritten lists of species seen in Wiltshire over many years

  20. Just came across this blog. We have this book and all of Macgregor Skene's books. My fiancé is Skene's granddaughter. Surprisingly the family did not have all his works until we managed to collect them over the last few years. Scene died in 1973.

  21. The above thought is really good about the pocket book of flowers. everyone should try this.
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