Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Last Best Friend - George Sims

I had plans for today, they involved me efficiently reading, writing, and knitting. Finishing all sorts of odd jobs, and generally getting stuff done, were high in the agenda. So far I've put some flowers in a vase, consumed most of a packet of biscuits, and done very little else - which is disappointing - although there's also something deliciously self indulgent about basically doing nothing on a week day.

By contrast 'the Last Best Friend' offers almost non stop action. Part of the British Library's classic thriller series, I hadn't heard of George Sims before, and probably never would have if he hadn't made it into an edition like this - which says a lot for the power of a book cover.

It's 1966, and antiquarian bookseller, Ned Balfour, is enjoying a mid life crisis with a girl half his age in Corsica when he gets a telegram from a good friend back in London saying he needs to speak to him about a terrible decision he has to make. Hours later Sam Weiss is dead, and a stunned Balfour is on his way home determined to make sense of what happened.

Initially it looks like Sam's fall from a tenth floor window was suicide, but Sam suffered terribly from vertigo and something doesn't quite add up - including that telegraph. When Ned starts asking questions amongst their friends the answers are inconclusive, until he's warned off by some heavies, at which point it's abundantly clear that something is very wrong.

The back blurb tells us that Sam was an art dealer and had survived Dachau, so I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that nazi art looting is involved, but it unexpectedly chimed with David Williams 'Murder in Advent' in making a reputation a very good reason for murder.

A wartime youth is catching up with a whole set of middle aged men in this book. Some, like Sam Weiss, are dealing with what happened to them, others - Balfour - are still coming to terms with how small a part they played, and yet others have different consequences to reconcile. The question is, how far would you go to protect what you have when you have a lot to lose, and what do you go when things start to spiral out of your control.

It's a decent page turner that sets interesting moral conundrums for the reader - what to make of Balfour is another one where Sims excels at maintaining a balance between sympathy for his flaws and exasperation with them. The real pleasure of this book for me though was in the details.

I love the details of high end luxury in 1966, what it's geography was, something of the moral compass of the times - but then it's always the details that get me. They're the things I relate to; the scent of mimosa, mentions of old German wine (I could almost smell the kerosene note of a good mature reisling) the name dropping of an expensive watch, the street names you recognise, all of those things make a book live in my imagination in another dimension altogether.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Sin of Abbé Mouret - Emile Zola

Way back in the mists of time (February 2014) I decided I would read my way through Zola's Rougon - Maquart cycle. Had I randomly started with 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret', I wouldn't have got very far. I don't know if this is Zola at his worst (I certainly hope it is as I've a long way to go yet) but he's very far from his best here.

Abbé Mouret, is Serge, son of François and Marthe Mouret, cousins who's marriage spectacularly unravels in 'The Conquest of Plassans' when Marthe discovers religion and becomes obsessed with her lodger, Abbé Faujas. It ends with the now insane François setting fire to the house. For all its sensationalist elements I loved 'The Conquest of Plassans' having no trouble believing in the mid life religious awakening of Marthe, or the slow degeneration of François, abbé Faujas' machinations, or those of his family. As the tragedy unfolds there's a terrible inevitability about it all.

But that's Zola in a relatively urban setting. I knew from 'Earth' that he had a startling view of life in the country, even so he excels himself in 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret'. The village of Les Artaud is a dusty hell hole, inhabitaed by a bunch of incestous, godless, savages. - the whole village is one family, the Artauds, who interbreed in a way that really couldn't be recommended.

Serge has something of his mother's religious mania, manifesting itself in an unhealthy adoration of the Virgin Mary. He neglects his physical self to a point where he collapses, at which point his uncle spirits him away to a neglected garden paradise and the care of a young woman, Albine.

The middle part of the book is Serge, who has amnesia, and Albine, falling in love whilst they explore the garden and their own awakening sexuality. It is by turns long lists of plant life (which might grow as described, but it seems unlikely), and heavy handed metaphors, it reaches a queasy sort of climax with the whole garden 'hot with universal rut'. Discovery quickly follows.

By this point I'd well and truly lost patience with it. But it goes on. I get the points Zola is trying to make, and not just because he signposts them in the literary equivalent of 20 foot neon, most of them are points worth making - though the garden descriptions are lazy and heavy going. The kindest thing to say about it is that's it's patchy.

Despite all that however I'm glad I've read it, and very glad that it's in a decent critical edition and new translation (by Valerie Minogue). Oxford World's Classics published this last year, before that it had been out of print for a while, at least in English. And at least part of the point of an undertaking to read a cycle of 20 books by the same author is to take the good and bad together. Anyway, I'm glad I've done it, and happy to be done with this one. Here's hoping the next Zola is less heavy going.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Solo - Signe Johansen

The cold that was making me so miserable has gone, but as a final hangover it's left me in a bit of a reading slump. I'm struggling to concentrate on anything longer than a newspaper article so at the moment Knitting in front of old films is more appealing than picking up a book. I hope this changes soon, meanwhile I've got some cookbooks to look at which feel like a good half way measure.

I bought Solo a couple of weeks ago because it's full of the sort of good I ought to be reading, rather than the food I am eating, and because I don't really enjoy cooking for one.

The thing nobody tells you (or maybe they did and I just forgot it) is how young you are when you start to get old. Since hitting my forties a lot of things have changed; I'd never had indigestion before a miserable day last year, now I've had it twice! I react differently to sugar, and to bread, reheated food disagrees with me - everything takes more thought, the days of eating whatever I feel like whenever I feel like it are behind me. My partner has a whole different set of dietary do's and don'ts (auto correct tried to change don'ts to donuts which has a nice irony to it) which also makes things interesting.

In short, cooking which I've always found a pleasure, has increasingly become a chore when it's just for me, and I'm hoping that some of Johansen's enthusiasm will help me readdress that. Cooking for others is easier - recipes are so often family sized 4-6 people, or more and sizing down isn't always easy (and there's the pleasure and praise of the people you share the food with to motivate you). It's not just recipes which are family size either, a lot of pre packed meat, fish, and veg, and pre packed is often the only choice you can find, comes in larger sizes than one person needs or wants.

The recipe which sold me the book is for Scallops and Sherry. Scallops are expensive, they're also quick to cook. I don't know why I'd not really considered them the perfect treat for one before, but they are. You only need a few, and what nicer thing to cook for yourself, assuming you like scallops as much as I do? The same is true of mussels, I cook them for 2 quite often, but never just for myself, but if I'm getting them from the market getting half a kilo isn't a problem. I'm on the fence about cauliflower, but willing to be convinced that roasting it will change my feelings about it, and so it goes on. There are things I know I'll like here, things I know I will try, and beetroot yoghurt which I won't.

The chapters break down into light bites and things on toast, easy weeknight suppers, one pan wonders, make ahead, salad mezze and tapas, simple pleasures, lazy weekends, and sweet things. The flavours are of the bold, clean, fresh kind that I associate with Johansen, but the main appeal of this book is her hope that you'll consider it as a sisterly companion in the kitchen, and thatblike any good sister she encourages you to take care of yourself, reminds you that you're worth the effort, and is reasonable on the subject of buying a tin of soup when you really can't be bothered.

It's a perfect book if you're customarily cooking for one, or two, people. Sizing up is much easier than sizing down, if you're cooking for more, and I just really like it's attitude (that's the recipe for crêpes cherry jubilee talking).

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Books about Suffragettes

Inspired by Alice Hawkins, and yesterday's centenary anniversary of the 1918 representation of the people act that gave some women the vote I've (literally) dusted off my collection of books on the subject. I have a feeling that Martin Pugh's book about The Pankhursts may have been the first thing I ever bought from Amazon. I haven't read it yet.

Elizabeth Crawford's 'Art and Suffrage, A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists' is brand new, it arrived last week, and is excellent so far. The entries include places you can see the artists work, something I haven't really seen included before, but which is really helpful.

The virago book of Suffragettes, 'Votes For Women' edited by Joyce Marlowe was the first book on the subject I remember reading post university and is an excellent starting point for anyone looking to read a bit more about the subject. I used to have a remarkably handsome hardback copy, but it took up to much space and had to go. I remember loving Melanie Phillips 'The Ascent of Women' too, which I read at about the same time. Between the 2 books I actually started to retain detaills...

The March of the Women might actually have been a university text book, I can't really remember anything about it so I really ought to read it again. 'One Hand Tied Behind Us' by Jill Liddington  and Jill Norris was also really good, Liddington's 'Rebel Girls' was a reasonably recent charity shop find (which I got really excited about) and is yet to be read.

I haven't read Emmaline Pankhurst's 'My Own Story' either, she's quite a troubling character by contemporary standards and I have a feeling she might be a bit hard to stomach. Still, there's only one way to find out, and I really ought to get to grips with her.

I'm actually ashamed of not having read 'Women's Suffrage in Shetland', and intend to put that right directly. 'The Scottish Suffragettes' was a Christmas present and another one I'm looking forward to.

The obvious gap in this collection is something that deals specifically with Millicent Garret Fawcett and her circle, which included some remarkable women. When I was reading a lot about this (around about 2004/5, I think it started with wanting to win an argument) there wasn't anything much available. I've been looking at Elizabeth Crawford's 'Enterprising Women' which fits the bill, but would be very pleased if anyone has any other suggestions.

 I'm also wondering about getting an up to date general history. Some government papers relating to Suffragette history were only released in 2003, after a lot of the books I have were written. I find the arguments that spurred me to start reading in the first place still aren't won, not personally, and not in the much wider argument for equality. There's a lot to be said for going back to the beginning to understand exactly why the fight is so important, to take some comfort from the progress made, and to gain some inspiration from those pioneering, persistent, indomitable, women.

Monday, February 5, 2018

A Fair Isle Fisherman's Kep

There's a Facebook group devoted to what I'm going to refer to as the official Fair Isle Kep. I followed a link to it and immediately fell for the glorious variety of Kep's people were producing, so I joined the group, and bought the pattern created by Anne Sinclair. (It costs £10, the money raised goes to fund the local museum, so even if I hadn't knitted it, it would have been money well spent).

Kep's, for the uninitiated, are a bit like an extra long ski hat, and I guess we're traditionally worn by fishermen looking to keep warm at sea - I've seen old ones in the Shetland Museum, seen pictures of even older ones, and read accounts of them in descriptions of local costume from at last the early 19th century. They are remarkably flamboyant articles.

The Facebook group is having a Kep-along at the moment which was just the spur I needed to use up some of my yarn stash and get on with it. The group is friendly, supportive, deeply enthusiastic about all things kep, ranges from beginner knitters to old hands, and has almost 4000 more members than Fair Isle has inhabitants (which I think is about 55, give or take). I do love the thought of thousands of people across the world having this particular link to one small island. 

Meanwhile knitting the kep was fairly straightforward, I learnt a bit doing it, and realised there's a lot more still to learn - which is all to the good. I used Jamieson and Smiths heritage shades - it's a nice soft yarn, especially for Shetland wool, and as the range is designed to work together I thought I'd be on safe ground colour wise. I stuck with the patterns provided by Anne Sinclair (but have seen an amazing array of possibilities in the last few weeks) and avoided adding extra stitches, wanting to keep it as simple as possible first time around. The pattern gives you a basic template to work too, but with all the room you could want for personal variations - which is perfect. 

I'm quite happy with the results - there are mistakes, but they're not to obvious. How I put colours and patterns together needs more work, but I find it easier to learn from not getting it quite right first time than from careful planning (which I don't always have the patience for). I really enjoyed the community aspect of the knit along and being able to ask questions, or better yet see that someone else had already asked the question. It was also a fun thing to knit.

There is a reasonable chance that if you know me, you'll be getting a kep. 




Sunday, February 4, 2018

Alice Hawkins Unveiled

It's almost exactly a hundred years since some women in the U.K. got the vote, it was 1928 before full suffrage, and however you look at that it's not a long time. Leicester is one of the cities celebrating the centenary in a big way, and one of 3 (also the first) to unveil public statues. Parliament Square is getting Millicent Garret Fawcett (not before time), Manchester will have Emmaline Pankhurst, but Leicester has Alice Hawkins.

She is the first named woman to be represented by a statue in the city (there's a seamstress around the corner, but she's anonymous) and whilst she might not be the best known name in the suffrage movement, she deserves to be better known.

Alice was born in Stafford in 1863, a working class girl she left school at 13 and by the time she was in her early 20's was a machinist in the Equity shoe factory in Leicester (the building is a couple of streets away from where I live, as is the street she lived on, and the market place she spoke in). She saw that working conditions and pay for women were inferior to those of their male counterparts, and that the trade union movement wasn't interested in addressing the issue. In 1907 she joined the W.S.P.U, marched in London, and was arrested for the first of five times (another arrest followed carving 'Votes for Women' onto the green of a local golf course). Undaunted she invited Sylvia Pankhurst to speak in Leicester and started speaking on village greens, outside factory gates, and in the market place. That entailed facing down violent heckling and physical assault. After 1918 it seems Alice returned to 'normal' life, dying in 1946 aged 83. She was buried in a paupers grave.

I read a lot about the Suffragettes specifically and the women's suffrage movement more generally (the suffragettes have far more written about them than the suffragists do) a few years before I started blogging, so it's high time I brushed up on that history and read some of the newer books. As I recall the Pankhurst's got the lions share of the attention in those books, which I hope has changed somewhat. The work they did was important, but the personal sacrifices and risks women like Alice took, women who didn't have the money, education, or influential friends, the Pankhursts did, deserve much more attention.

Alice's determination and bravery in standing up for her cause is inspiring - certainly inspiring enough to draw a crowd of several hundred on a freezing February day to see her statue unveiled, and I'm proud that this city has chosen to honour her (and has done for a few years now in various ways, but principly by making her the focus of one trail of interpretive boards around the city centre). It's right that her voice is remembered, because it's precisely such voices which have all to often been forgotten, and their stories are important.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

Murder in Advent - David Williams

I'm still full of whatever cold/flu bug that's been laying me low, and finding it hard to concentrate on reading, so I've been knitting instead. I actually finished 'Murder in Advent' before I went on holiday, but it's taking me just as long to get round to writing about things as it is to finish books (it's just to tempting to sleep instead).

I think this one was a stocking filler from Christmas 2016 so it seemed well past time to read it, it was originally published in 1985, which is in line with a few of these Pan reprints. I've had mixed experiences with them, some having been much better than others and initially I wasn't that taken with 'Murder in Advent'.

After the confusing bit at the beginning where we get introduced to a lot of people with not very convincing names though it got a lot better. Merchant banker, Mark Treasure (that's where it goes with the names) has been invited to Litchester Cathedral to give the casting vote on if their copy of the Magna Carta should be sold to an American museum. The cathedral desperately needs the money, but the chapter is divided over the sale. Mr Treasure holds an honorary position as a vicar warden which is why he gets the deciding vote.

What the reader discovers in the foreword though is that the Magna Carta is almost certainly a fake. Knowing this we're naturally suspicious of all those who oppose the sale, and then when at the 11th hour the library where it's kept catches fire and the Magna Carta is destroyed we're even more suspicious. Unfortunately the Magna Carta isn't the only thing to go in the fire, the Dean's verger is discovered dead, murdered in fact.

Mr Treasure starts investigating, and as he does so everything gets murkier. Almost everybody seems to have had the opportunity to murder the verger, and almost anybody might have had a very good motive - it just depends on who knew the charter might have been a fake. In the meantime there's a few other unsavoury goings on that just might be a motive for murde too.

What I really liked about this, apart from the ecclesiastical details (which I always enjoy) is that for once it seemed like a really feasible reason for murder. If the Litchester Magna Carta really has been pinched someone has a lot to lose if the fraud is discovered. Certainly enough to think that setting fire to it is the answer, and even enough to decide that the death of an old man is reasonable collateral damage. It's also a safe bet that everyone involved with the cathedral is going to be keen to hush things up, because what a scandal...

The way that suspicion and opportunity is liberally spread around is satisfying too - the guilty party is by no means obvious even as the plot elements come together, and the red herrings are well placed. Altogether the genuine article when it comes to unjustly neglected gems.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Charles I King & Collector and Charles II Art & Power

I'm still being floored by a really vile cold - it's nasty enough to have made reading a chore, and to have destroyed my interest in shopping (both indicators that I must be quite ill). Despite feeling utterly disgusting we had train tickets and plans for Saturday (it was our 11th anniversary) so armed with a lot of tissues, a packet of lockets, and a litre of orange juice, I went to London anyway.


It was worth it to see the two Charles exhibitions - Charles I King and Collector, which opened at the Royal Academy on Saturday, and Charles II Art and Power at the Queens Gallery (happily just across the Green Park). Plans to find bergamots were forgotten though.

I learnt from the Jasper Johns exhibition that first thing on a Saturday morning (the RA opens at 10am) is a good time to beat the crowds. We turned up at 10 to 10, so joined a queue to get in, but it was a short one, and the crowds in the gallery were manageable (also if you keep coughing and blowing your nose loudly people will wisely avoid you). I'm grateful for this because it's a magnificent exhibition and you need a bit of space to appreciate it. It was also really good to see both exhibitions together.

There are so many highlights in the Charles I show that it's hard to pick from them, but I certainly came away with a new appreciation of Van Dyck. He emerges as a real star of this show, more than holding his own against some very illustrious company, and seeing so many of his iconic images of the royal family together is powerful. I really love Holbein as well, so seeing his drawings and a couple of wonderful paintings was also a treat. D loved Mantegna's 'The Triumph of Caesar' series, which certainly have an impressive presence, as do the Mortlake tapestries, but if there was one particular picture it would have to be Rembrandt's portrait of his mother (or at least it's thought to be his mother modelling for a genre piece of an old lady) which is mesmerising.

Altogether it's an almost overwhelming display which shows the breadth and quality of Charles I collecting ambitions, along with those of his Queen, Henrietta Maria.

Charles II Art and Power, in the Queens gallery at Buckingham palace is a smaller show, but again, very high quality. It explains more about Charles II artistic ambitions and intentions as well. This is a man creating a show of power to bolster and confirm his position as king, drawing a line under the austerity of the interregnum, and competing with his French cousins for personal magnificence.

The number (around 80) of objects from the royal collection in the Charles I show are a testament to how successful the son was in retrieving bits of his fathers collection. Much of it by simply demanding it back. He couldn't get much of what had left the country, and I feel a little bit sorry for whoever had to give back that Rembrandt, but at least when it came to art works Charles left the monarchy a tremendous legacy.

I could wish that the RA show touched more on why Charles I collected, it does a tremendous job on how and what, and I hoped that the catalogue would answer the why rather more comprehensively. A bit more discussion of how contentious, even dangerous, the religious works would have been would have helped as well. I've been reading around since Saturday and realise that I know very little about the general period beyond the bits you pick up at school, and not nearly enough about the reign of James I and VI (when did the country become so vehemently anti catholic?)

Regardless of the gaps in my knowledge both exhibitions are literally dazzling both in content and breadth. See them if you can.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Vienna

I'm back from Vienna, wgphich was wonderful, with a stinker of a cold which is not. It's been 4 hours now and my ears still won't pop back to normal, which is disconcerting, and there is the guilt at having passed on this horrible lurgy to my travelling companion- so that's back home with a bump.

This was my first visit to Vienna, although it's somewhere I've wanted to go ever since a teenage infatuation with Gustav Klimt. We were there for 3 days which was long enough to get a feel for the place, and know I want to go back to explore all the things we didn't have time for on this trip.

I like traveling in January, I don't mind the cold, or the relative dark - especially in cities, and appreciate the lack of crowds for big attractions. It's a while since I've been out the country which made this trip even more exciting. There's an element to every big city that feels familiar - the same big brands, and even the same kind of things you 'must see', but I'm always delighted by the things which are slightly different (in Ireland it's green letterboxes). In Vienna this was Spar shops, specifically the Spar Gourmet in the corner of 'our' street. It was housed in a beautiful Art Deco building, and was like a Waitrose (but better). It was infinitely superior to the English equivalent - the ubiquitous Tesco Metro.

Our hotel was in the heart of the historic city centre which meant everything we wanted to see was within easy walking distance, and whilst there might have been a few more sign posts for things we coped with a map. We went to the Belvedere to see the Klimt's (though due to a re hang not many of them were on show). There was a crowd around 'The Kiss', but nobody looking at anything else in the room - and if they were, only for as long as it took to focus a camera and click, which doesn't seem like the most satisfactory way to interact with a picture. The Belvedere itself is stunning, as are its views, and it's collection of medieval art was a surprise highlight (surprise because it's not what we'd specifically gone to look at, but the details are utterly absorbing.

We also went to look at Hundertwasserhaus, which stands out even more for being so crazily at odds with the sensible streets around it. We also found time to poke around a whole lot of streets and churches - Peterskirche, a baroque jewel which only got a passing comment in our guidebooks was the most impressive in a city that doesn't lack for impressive churches. We both wanted to see the Kaisergruft; the crypt where generations of Hapsburgs are buried in incredibly ornate sarcophagi. It's hard to describe the place, but it made both of us wish we had a rather better grasp of Austrian history.

There was also time for quite a lot of coffee and cake, though it would take a much longer stay to do the cakes real justice. When we were booking this trip a travel agent told us Vienna isn't a very popular destination, something that surprises me even more now I've been. It was easy traveling for us, flying via Birmingham. The city felt safe and friendly, it isn't stupidly expensive, there's a lot to do, as well as a lot of places to just sit and enjoy the view (which given how important cafe culture has been to Vienna is a tourist must anyway), people were friendly, and there's gourmet Spar. It's hard to imagine what else a visitor could want.









Thursday, January 18, 2018

A day of small things

After feeling generally low and washed out for what feels like weeks I've had a really good day off. The sort that starts with a solid nine hours sleep (after a week veering towards insomnia and a truly terrifying anxiety dream where I was in Shetland but couldn't buy any yarn) and the luxury of knowing you don't have to be up for any particular time.

The sort of day that allows for a leisurely breakfast and where you don't feel guilty for whiling away the best part of an hour following links on twitter. A day when the paperwork I've been procrastinating over gets cleared up in minutes, and the other things I've been meaning to book or generally sort out get done too. 

I'm off to Vienna for a few days on Sunday, and hadn't really felt excited about it, but I do now. It's amazing the difference a good nights sleep makes. It's also helpful that I've finally had a good look at a guide book. We're not there for very long so the list of things we 'must' see is short, but we're both agreed there will be a lot of exploring, coffee, and cake. 

I've also managed to finish knitting a cowl - so that's 3 balls of wool gone from the stash - which I'm pleased with. It's Donna Smith's 'Brake Cowl' (the pattern is free on ravelry, is pleasingly simple, and didn't take long to knit) which uses a traditional 'horseshoe' lace pattern. It's a lace I really like, so I'm looking forward to wearing it.