Wednesday 19 August 2020

'As you look southwards from Box Hill...'

Yesterday I spotted this attractive little volume – number 37 in the King Penguin series – in one of my regular charity shops. It was priced keenly enough at £1.99, but the man at the till sold it to me for just 40p, as that was the price on the flyleaf and it had not been crossed out. This, he said, was to teach the staff 'a lesson'. Fair enough, I did not demur.
  Wild Flowers of the Chalk has 16 colour plates by Irene Hawkins. Here are her renderings of Horseshoe Vetch and the gloriously named Squinancywort (from squinancia, a medieval Latin word for quinsy, an unpleasant complication of tonsilitis) –
The cover design is by William Grimmond, who designed several King Penguins, and the text is by John Gilmour, an eminent botanist who was, among other things, director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Although he was a standard-issue atheist, Gilmour teamed up with Father Hugh Maycock of Little Saint Mary's to found an excellent charity for the homeless, Cambridge Cyrenians.
  He begins the short (28-page) introductory text of Wild Flowers of the Chalk with a lovely image of the topography and extent of the English chalkland:
'As you look southwards from Box Hill, forty miles across the wealden woods, the line of the South Downs forms an elusive horizon. Immediately to the west the spurs of the North Downs fade away to the Hog's Back. To the east, the steep slope of the escarpment continues through suburban London and Kent to the cliffs of the North Foreland. These two ranges, the North and South Downs, meet in the neighbourhood of Selborne, and from Gilbert White's 'vast hill' the mind's eye can follow the white trail of chalk across England...'
  Next time I enjoy that view, I'll have a better idea of what I'm looking at, and how the English chalkland fits together. Later, Gilmour explains the differences between 'characteristic' and 'non-characteristic', 'exclusive' and 'constant' species by giving the analysis a human application:
'In a seaside resort, for instance, among the characteristic inhabitants, landladies are constant but not exclusive, bathing-hut attendants are both constant and exclusive, while business men, though seasonally not uncommon, cannot even be called characteristic, as they are in Birmingham.'
  Gilmour gives a brief account of the flowers to be found on downland, on cliffs and chalkpits, in beech hangers, and by roadsides and hedgerows, and he devotes a section to the endlessly fascinating chalk orchids, with their unpredictable habits, their weirdly mimetic appearance and curious ways of getting pollinated (the Bee Orchid, by the way, has largely reverted to self-pollination despite having gone to all the trouble of evolving a convincingly bee-like flower).
  This is a lovely little book, beautifully designed and well made (it barely shows its 73 years). The King Penguins were a great series (edited by Nikolaus Pevsner and inspired by the small-format books published by Insel-Verlag in Germany), and it's tempting to suggest reviving it and adding more titles, but I doubt if – modern tastes and modern publishers being what they are – they would get it right. Any new volumes almost certainly wouldn't be, as the originals were, made and printed entirely in England (or, as this volume is, set in Monotype Bembo).
   The back board of Wild Flowers of the Chalk is decorated with this little vignette of Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, from which the four main spokes of the English chalkland radiate out over the country...

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