Etcetera Etc. (Sibella Court, 2009)


I have spent the last several weeks helping my daughter settle into her new school, while finding my own way through the changed structure of the days, and I am tired of words. What better time to browse lazily through Sibella Court’s Etcetera etc., with its pages upon pages of images? Even as a physical object the book is a treat; despite being a recent volume it has that delicious smell of library stacks, and the paper is thick and heavy, with occasional translucent sheets used to good effect. Inside it is mostly pictures, of rooms Court has styled, filled with objects she finds beautiful, fabrics and tarnished silver and wooden pencils and straw hats — the gathering of a self-confessed “bowerbird” who loves to collect things which catch her gaze and create new ways to use them as decor. I do not share Court’s aesthetic, which is very textural, objects piled in layers upon layers, and to my eye unpleasantly cluttered, but some of the individual objects she features are quite beautiful, and I like several of her colour palettes.


As for the words — well, it is like reading a document from an alien world. I cannot imagine bestowing so much time and attention upon objects. Finding them, arranging them, changing them — when would I read, or cook, or garden? Court loves her objects, she loves display, believing that “a home is like a museum without the signs saying ‘Please Don’t Touch’” and so she styles rooms with a multitude of things for visitors to investigate and examine. After all, she asks, “what’s the point of possessing beautiful and meaningful things if you can’t show them off for the world to see?” This theatrical approach extends through the book; she suggests that readers should imagine their “interiors as sets where objects, art and furniture can be moved or interchanged, and old objects easily moved to make way for new pieces of a different mood.” It is, I think, the precise opposite of what I wish; I want my home to be stable ground from which I may launch myself out to explore, rather than a place “forever changing and evolving” to enhance my “mood, lifestyle, and current obsessions.” My moods and obsessions satisfy me as they are; I cannot imagine trying to make the rooms I live in reflect them.


I find it curious and fascinating, this living focused upon the external gaze, this sense of the home as a place which is on display. Home as stage set, the opposite of home as sanctuary. I would find it deeply uncomfortable to live in, but as an author I am captivated by trying to imagine the people who would choose such a way of living, what stories I might tell about them, how they would move, speak, think, feel — and what, also, these spaces would be like, to move through, to live in. How would I wake up, if my bed was on the floor and my shelving provided by a ladder? What kind of work would I settle to do, if the walls were covered with stamped linen and my shelves overflowing with boxes and fabric and old playing cards? A book like this is a feast for my imagination, and the perfect antidote to hours spent tracking down school uniforms and filling out volunteer paperwork.


Vicarious Herb Gardening

I am lucky enough to have a large garden — not the one in the picture above, alas — which, mostly, I shamefully neglect in favour of reading and writing. Still, it is there and I am very fond of it, and despite the terrible drought that we are in the midst of, it more or less flourishes. I took the two books pictured below from the library with the intention of growing more herbs in my garden, especially some of the obscure ones I find in Elizabethan recipes, such as lovage and borage — but as the drought worsened I thought better of it, and decided to read aspirationally instead, planning for a future when there is once again rain.


Charles W. G. Smith’s The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs is a slender paperback featuring 26 different herbs; this is a conveniently sized book I can imagine actually carrying outside with me for reference while planning a garden. The herbs are listed in alphabetical order, with a small photograph of each one — I would not have minded more, as it is good to see the plants in different stages, some change a great deal when they flower or go to seed. Smith gives a brief history of every herb, advice on planting, harvesting, and preservation, and some suggested culinary and medicinal uses. Between each of the individual entries are recipes, grouped by method, ranging from standards such as baking and sauces to more unusual ideas such as making herbal salts and sugars. I was a little frustrated that these in-between sections are not listed in the Table of Contents, but the individual recipes are all included in the index, so it is possible to find a specific item without too much difficulty — and given the slimness of the book, flipping through looking for a particular section is not overly onerous.

Growing & Using Herbs & Spices by Don Burke is a much weightier book, quite literally; it is in the heavy coffee-table style, with full page photographs carefully styled and shot. Like Smith’s book, the entries are alphabetised, with information on how to grow, harvest, and use the various herbs and spices — although Burke is very clear when there is not scientific support for medicinal claims. Many of the entries include a recipe as well, although not all; a pity, as while I do not need more uses for common herbs such as basil, I would have loved to see recipes for nettle or marigold. Unlike Smith, Burke includes spices, while acknowledging that most of his readers will be unable to grow such tropical plants as clove trees and vanilla orchids. I liked the playfulness of including these; it is interesting reading how vanilla pods are harvested even if I will never do it myself. All in all this is a marvellous book to daydream over; the beautifully styled photographs were quite evocative, and the recipes sample from Thai, Indian, and Indonesian cuisines as well as the usual French and Italian. If I were going to buy just one of these books it is this one I would buy — but the glory of the library is that I may enjoy them both.