Vita Sackville West called it ‘a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay’. The poet and botanist Geoffrey Grigson referred to them as ‘snaky, deadly beauties’. Anne Ridler described it as ‘delicate’ and ‘rare’: ‘You enter creeping, like the snake / You’re named for . . . ‘. Denise Levertov would have it as ‘our talisman in sorrow’. It has been called the Leper Lily, Lazarus Bell, Drooping Tulip, Bloody Warrior, Turk’s Head and the Mournful Bell of Sodom. It’s dramatic, with its curved amethyst hood, like a fin de siècle heroine. And poisonous, the Lucrezia Borgia of the flower world.
our week in the Dordogne, as the guests of Anne Berkeley, Sue Rose and I were
treated to the sight of a field dotted with snakes head fritillaries. Even
there, where they are more abundant than at home (introduced into the English
garden sometime in the eighteenth century) we had to search, skirting the paths
along the Dronne, attempting to spot bright dashes of purple, like rare jewels
in the grass. But there was a satisfaction in the hunt; eventually spotting
them, flamboyant and shy at the same time, in the early April sun. We had
missed their full blooming, caught them as they were on their way out, not to
come again until next spring. Poisonous, beautiful and fleeting.
It’s a bit like writing, which we had assembled to do together (this activity we normally practice in isolation). Somehow going away with other writers provides a kind of team spirit – there is nothing so inspiring (and daunting) as the sight of another writer getting down to business, happily tapping away on her laptop. But maybe not so odd – after all, the poem is something you create for yourself first, but then you are encouraged to share it, to allow the reader to become part of the bargain you strike when you first put pen to paper (or fingers to laptop).
have spoken here before about the freedom of writing away from home, how the
anxieties and tasks of every day life are briefly forgotten when you are
somewhere else. The joy of writing is that you need very little in the way of
equipment to engage in it, and you can easily move from one place to another
where there are fewer distractions (apart from the noisy nightingale, who
seemed to be at it for much of the day as well).
home, it seemed I wasn’t quite finished with my fritillary spotting. As they
had already departed my garden (where I’ve planted a small pot of them – not
quite as exciting as finding them in the wild), I was thrilled to find a lone
one among the cowslips in the churchyard at Tudeley in Kent. And here, another curious
transplant – stained glass windows by Chagall in the medieval church. My friend
Lynne Rees and I had made an excursion to see them, and the sun shone on our
Chagall was initially commissioned to design a window in memory of Sarah D'Avigdor-Goldsmid, who died in a boating accident in 1963. He subsequently designed the rest, making it the only church in the world to have all its windows by Chagall; the final one was installed in 1985, the year the artist died at the age of 98.
They are perfect in their surprising setting; exuberant, bright, but also somberly moving. It seemed appropriate to be there, back in my adopted country, looking at the work of a fellow Russian Jewish émigré, who made his home in France, where I’d just been.
And so we bloom where we are planted …