Sunday, May 19, 2019

Moder Dy - Roseanne Watt

Where Transport for London gave us poems on the underground, Shetland has Bards in the Bog - if you find yourself using a public toilet, chances are there will be a poem in the back of the door. The Bards in the Bog project called for original works from local contributors and I'm thinking about it now because it says so much about the continually evolving relationship with dialect and language that places like Shetland have.

When I was growing up in Shetland the oil industry was in its early days, it was bringing prosperity, but the pace of change was relatively slow, and I suppose the traditions of crofting life were something that could more or less be taken for granted - and for many something to escape from.

Dialect was widely spoken, but in our village from a child's point of view it was not the language of authority. My teachers were mostly mainland Scots, as was the minister, and the Doctor, and his wife. My parents were incomers too, so I never picked up an accent, and I have a sense that the use of most dialect words was discouraged at home. The exception to that was perhaps in bird and other wildlife names.

Malachy Tallack talks about the twin pillars of accent and ancestry in Shetland society in '60 Degrees North' which particularly resonated with me, because of you don't have both (and neither of us did) you remained an outsider. As an outsider dialect was harder to pick up because of the Shetland habit of Knapping - modifying dialect to be easier to understand to non native speakers (Watt defines this as "to speak in an affected manner, a Shetlander attempting to speak 'proper' English).

By the time my younger brother and sister where at school (1990's) attitudes towards dialect had changed to the point that they were actively encouraged to collect words. Shaetlan as a language is predominantly a mix of old Norn, lowland Scots, and English, which more or less reflects the history of the islands. The Moder Dy this collection takes its name from refers to the mother wave - an underswell that's meant to always travel in the direction of home and which you could steer by when you were out of sight of land.

Some of the poems here are written entirely in Shaetlan, they come with 'uneasy translations' - sister poems - they are close to each other but discernibly different. (There's a glossary to consult if you want a more direct translation of specific words). Other poems mix dialect with English, some don't use dialect at all, but it's a continuous thread throughout the collection, which makes language, where it comes from, how it evolves, and how we use it a consistent theme.

That it's taken me almost 3 hours just to write this much about one aspect of this collection is probably as good an indication as I can give about how much there is to it. I've been reading through it for days, slightly desperate for someone to share my enthusiasm with. Especially for Nesting Faerie Ring, which takes 14 words to sum up a thousand + years of folklore warnings about Faeries, whilst summoning a vivid vision of the thing itself, and creating an unsettling momenti mori. In 14 words.

But then every poem has revealed something, and continues to give more with each reading. They've stretched time whilst I've read them on tea breaks and bus journeys - a scant quarter of an hour turned into a profound pause in my day, and provoked a whole range of emotion which has sometimes been uncomfortable.

I really can't overstate just how damn good I think this collection is, how rich it is, or how much I want everybody I know to read it. I am absolutely in awe of what Roseanne Watt has done here, hers is a voice to follow.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Anne Eunson's Lunna Mitts

The pattern for these mitts is in the 2018 Shetland Wool Week annual, and I like them so much I've knitted 3 pairs so far.

I like small projects that can be finished quickly, I love the Print o the Wave openwork pattern, and I particularly like to wear mitts that don't have finger holes, so the Lunna mitts ticked a lot of boxes - ill almost certainly end up knitting many more pairs (and have been daydreaming about what yarn shades I might want to get with them in mind). 

The first pair I made for a friends birthday using a circular needle that I thought would be easier to use than double pointed needles. It wasn't, there weren't really enough stitches and the yarn kept snagging on the bit where wire meets point. They were fiddly to hold as well - so much for shortcuts. I followed the pattern, and was happy enough with the result (my friend says she likes them a lot), especially the way the yarn defined the pattern. (It's Jamieson and Smith Heritage Auld Gold, a slightly thicker yarn than the pattern asks for, but nice and soft, and definitely the colour I wanted).

The finished mitts felt a bit long for my hands though and I wanted a pair for myself so made some in grey. (Jamieson's Ultra in Shaela, also beautifully soft, and the recommended weight) but moved the thumb placement down a bit. The yarn is lovely, but the colour didn't bring out the pattern as much as I wanted, and the hand part still felt a bit longer than I wanted - I liked the extra length on the wrist though. I ended up giving these away too, and starting a third pair.

I made these a repeat shorter at both ends, and as I'd finally ditched the circular needles, a little bit smaller. The yarn is Jamieson and Smith Heritage in Berry Wine and they're exactly what I wanted. That's another great thing about small knits - it's no great investment of time and effort to make them over and over with any small variations that occur.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Smallbone Deceased - Michael Gilbert

The drain situation seems no nearer to being resolved and I'm finding it increasingly stressful. I really, really, want to be able to use my kitchen again properly, and really, really, don't want to be worrying about what I'll find every time I come home.

Under these circumstances it's increasingly easy to imagine how someone might be driven to committing a murder...

'Smallbone Deceased' is the second of the British Library crime classic Gilbert re issues I've read, it has absolutely confirmed my enthusiasm for him, and I am very happy to know that they're looking at more of his books. The biggest mystery here is how he managed to fall out of favour.

Horniman, Birley, and Craine is a legal firm that's both respectable and fashionable (in that it has an extensive aristocratic client list in an era when the aristocracy seemed to have occupied the same sort of celebrity position as today's reality t.v stars). The firms founding member (Horniman) has recently died and Henry Bohun has just been bought into the company.

When a large deed box is opened to reveal the remains of an unpopular client in a state of advanced decomposition it's a nasty surprise all round, especially as it pretty much has to be an inside job. Henry Bohun is the only member of the firm who looks to be off the hook as the body has clearly been there longer than he has. He's also a friend of a friend of inspector Hazelrigg who sets him to snoop around a bit.

One of the things I really enjoy about Gilbert is that he clearly knows the world he's describing. The petty office politics and procedures ground the plot in an unassailable atmosphere of reality. This makes the discovery of the body both easier to swallow, and more ridiculous. Gilbert's sense of humour is another thing I really enjoy. Both together mean a book that you might want to read over and again, never minding that you know who, how, and why, the crimes have been committed.

I've been saving the third Gilbert (Death in Captivity, loosely based on his War time experiences) as a treat, I think I might start it tonight to stop me brooding about the drain situation.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

A Round Up post

I've had a couple of holiday days this week, and had planned to read a lot and catch up with a few posts. I've done neither, spending a lot of time waiting for workman to turn up and do their thing instead (fire alarm guys, when you say you'll be on sight from 9am but don't turn up until 11.43 and then complain about parking you're not making any friends). At least I've had time to listen to lots of podcasts. Mostly that's been Emma Smiths undergraduate lectures on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. That's nothing like as worhy as it sounds, find them Here.

On Saturday, as well as seeing The Provoked Wife at the RSC (still excited by how good that was, it's absolutely worth making the effort to see) we went to Coughton Court. It's the home of the Throckmorton family, managed by the National Trust and has a collection of stunningly pedestrian portraits. Architecturally it's more or less a mix of Tudor and gothic revival, and as romantic as you could hope for.

The portraits are interesting precisely because so many of them are not old masters. It's no bad thing to realise how much very ordinary art covered the walls of the rich and powerful. It's also interesting because it's very much a National Trust house, set up for people to look around and to take the relative beating of all those welly booted feet crossing the carpets. The rooms the public see are stage sets for whatever story the Trust wishes to tell on a given year - which is a great thing in its way, because you can collapse into chairs and enjoy the setting. On the other hand those carefully set rooms with a minimum of things that can be damaged feel a bit dead to me.

On Sunday we went to Deene Park in Northamptonshire - it's part of the Historic Houses association, completely family owned, and open to the public between 2-5 on Sunday afternoons between April and September. Deene Park has a long history (interesting architectural links with nearby Kirby Hall) a lot of very good art, and is very much a living house. It came out of the Second World War in a pretty poor state but the parents of the current owner set about rescuing it, and he and his wife are carrying that project on.

It's definitely worth a look if you're ever in the area when it's open. There was a particularly well preserved tapestry in one room, gardens with teapot topiary which are charming, guides who are more than ready to give their honest opinion about what a shit the 7th Earl of Cardigan was (the charge of the light brigade one, and possibly the best known previous owner). It's also really beautiful inside and out.

I've had some luck in Leicester's charity bookshops. I found a Maria Edgeworth I hadn't heard of - 'Ormond' - which sounds like fun, and 'Female Playwrights of the Restoration' five comedies. Whoever had it before has made copious notes on Susanna Centlivre's 'The Basset Table' and nothing else which I find very intriguing. As a good deed I took a Scottish five pound note as change for these, the oxfam volunteer was unconvinced that it was legal tender, and visibly surprised (also totally unconvinced) when I promised her she wasn't ripping me off because it was actually worth £5 and that there's no sort of exchange rate.

Not in a charity shop I finally bought Angela Clutton's 'The Vinegar Cupboard' which I'm very much looking forward to reading properly, and the new River Cottage handbook on Outdoor Cooking. Living in a city centre flat and not driving creates very few opportunities for outdoor cooking, but a person can dream, and at least I'll know where to turn if I ever find I need to spit roast something.

Finally, just in time to cheer me up prior to tomorrow's return to work, the latest edition of Elementum arrived today. I'll write about this properly when I've read it, but honestly, it's glorious. The theme is Hearth which ties it quite nicely to Outdoor Cooking.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Provoked Wife - Vanbrugh at the RSC

I've had a bit of a thing about Sir John Vanbrugh (soldier, spy, playwright, architect, and who knows what else besides) since student days when I first learnt about him in the context of his architectural achievements (principally Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace - which are perhaps even better pieces of theatre than his plays - which is saying something).

The 1995 production of 'The Relapse' at the RSC was on at the time I was studying him, it absolutely cemented my Vanbrugh fan status (it was an excellent production as well, one that really made me fall in love with both theatre generally, and the RSC specifically). I've been waiting for an opportunity to see another Vanbrugh play ever since, so you can imagine how excited I've been.

To add to the personal investment, this is only the second time in 12 years that I've managed to get my partner to see a play with me. He's not much of a theatre fan, and the only other thing (almost exactly a decade ago) that I got him to watch was a really bad Salome at Leicester's Curve theatre. It was so bad that he's been able to legitimately hold it against me ever since. Happily his interest in architecture made the lure of a Vanbrugh play to much to resist.

I'm not sure that he enjoyed it quite as much as I did, but I enjoyed it a lot, and we've finally agreed we can put Salome behind us. I did wonder beforehand if this performance could possibly live up to the expectations I had for it, but it exceeded them, and I'm really hoping that I might manage to see it a second time.

Lady Brute has married her husband for his money and position, he married her because he fancied her and she was too well connected to rape. Two years later they can't stand the sight of each other, his attraction has worn off, to be replaced by aggressive irritation. On the back of this she's inclined towards having an affair with her husbands friend, Constant, who fell in love with her when he saw her on her wedding day, and has been perusing her ever since. Constant's friend, Heartfree - a younger son of little fortune, and professed woman hater, has been flirting with Lady Fancyfull, but drops her when he meets Bellinda, Lady Brute's niece. Bellinda returns his interest, but neither are sure about marriage, and meanwhile Lady Fancyfull is bent on revenge...

There's a lot going on here, the first half is played mostly for laughs,  the second half is much darker though, going beneath the obvious jokes about marriage to show just how awful it can be to find yourself tied to someone you really dislike. Lady Brute is her husbands property, she cannot leave him. He cannot get rid of her, and Bellinda who has a frontrow view of this toxic relationship has to try and decide what her own future should be.

Vanbrugh presents marriage as a tremendous risk for both parties, and leaves it like that. Sir John might be every bit the brute his name suggests, but it's hard not to feel some sympathy for him. It's easy to feel sympathy for Lady Brute in the face of her husbands actions, but hard to forget that it was vanity and greed that got her into this mess (she wanted a rich husband and assumed she had charms enough to govern him). Constant appears more as the serpent in the garden than salvation.

It's a beautiful production to look at, and the way music and song are used is tremendous as well, and there's any number of excellent performances. The one that really stood out though was Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute who just when he's been his most repellent finds the pathos in the character too.

See this play if you can.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

National Trust Book of Puddings - Regula Ysewijn

One of the first cookbooks I ever bought (after Claire Macdonald's 'More Seasonal Cooking', but not long after) was a National Trust publication. I was still at university, and somewhere along the line it disappeared. All I really remember about it now was that the cover had copper pans on it, that it had a good apple cake recipe, and was big on comforting food.

There is nothing more comforting than a pudding, and this pocket sized book capitalises on that. Regular Ysewijn is a pudding expert (her Pride and Pudding book is a magical combination of design and historical research - her photography is stunning - and the whole thing a work of art.) and she was a particularly good choice to write this book. She loves and understands her subject, and doesn't get buried in nostalgia.

That's quite a trick to pull off when you're discussing Spotted Dick, figgy pudding, treacle pudding, cornflake tart, jam roly-poly, and so on. I probably have several recipes for all of those already, and not all of them particularly appeal to me (the figgy pudding does - it would work very well as a Christmas pudding, or for any other wintery dinner party). Jam roly-poly and spotted dick were not parts of my childhood though.

Eve's pudding was - but not this version which suggests using dried barberries soaked in Cointreau (the version I remember from school was nothing much more than an apple sponge - it was good though). I was also momentarily excited by something called a fudge tart. My mother used to make a tart filled with something like fudge and raisins - it's a lost recipe now, we think it might have come from a can of condensed milk. It must have been incredibly unhealthy and was a rare treat, but my god was it was good.

This fudge tart doesn't sound quite like the one I remember and was apparently a school favourite. It does sound good though - but probably best only made for large gatherings and to be eaten in small portions.

I really like the sound of autumn hedgerow pudding for which I would need to make an elderberry jam (I'm here for that), a St George's pudding, Wet Nelly (it's a bread pudding, and I've actually been looking for a good recipe for this for ages), and the Latvian Rye and cranberry trifle amongst others.

Basically these 50 recipes are the perfect mix of antique, familiar, classic, and curious. All the things I would expect and plenty that I did not. Some of them have been tweaked to make them more appealing to contemporary tastes, others (like tipsy pudding) give the opportunity to explore your inner Victorian pastry chef (happily we have more reliable ovens). It's a handy little book to have.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party - Graham Greene

I'm finding it quite hard to extract myself from the world of Georgette Heyer at the moment; it's a comforting place to be - and in real life I ought to dust, and still have drain problems (consent has been given to have the floorboards up, but no sign of a date for that yet) and work isn't much fun either.

Because retiring to bed for a week with a pile of old romances isn't on the cards I thought reading something entirely different might be a good idea. Graham Greene is an author I've meant to read forever but never quite got to. 'Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party' is a long title for a novella, and I have no idea of how typical it is of Greene, but it turned out to be a good place to really start with him.

I'm fairly sure I bought this book because it was short, it's definitely what appealed to me about it when I picked it up last night (that and it had worked to the top of a pile). First published in 1980 it's late Greene, and it has a grotesque, gothic, air about it.

The narrator, a man in his 50's, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a girl in her 20's. She's the daughter of toothpaste millionaire Dr Fischer, who since the death of his wife has amused himself by tormenting a select group of wealthy friends. His aim is to see how deeply they will humiliate themselves in the pursuit of the extravagant gifts he gives them.

Anna-Luise, Dr Fischer's daughter, calls these friends the toads, and is happy leave her fathers house behind her. He in turn has no apparent interest in his daughter, but is keen to use her new husband as a fresh way of humiliating his toads.

It's an odd little book, it focuses on grief, greed, love, and hate - but mostly I think on grief and greed and maybe a little on the different rules that govern the very rich. Dr Fischer is a horror, but only because others allow him to be by acquiescing to his demands. As he keeps pointing out, nobody needs to play his games. They all have more than enough money to buy their own toys.

I'm fairly certain that I'd picked up some of Greene's books before and not got very far (Our Man in Havana' rings a bell), this book has convinced me to try again, and try a little harder if I find my attention wondering.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Frederica - Georgette Heyer #1965club

My love of Georgette Heyer must be fairly obvious by now, and yet again I'm using Simon and Kaggsy's book club as an excuse to re read one of them - 1965 is late Heyer which can be a bit ropey, but 'Frederica' is one of the better late books so I got lucky.

Before Christmas I started reading Jane Aiken Hodge's 'The Private World of Georgette Heyer', and now realise I only got about halfway through it. Even so I think it's probably a better biography than Jennifer Kloester's 'Biography of a Bestseller', mostly because Hodge was writing early enough not to be perturbed by a number of Heyer's prejudices, or feel any need to apologise for them. 

Heyer was a snob, her outlook is high Tory, and that's particularly obvious in 'Frederica'. But then she's not a writer you turn to for social realism and she's nothing worse than more or less representative of a good portion of her age and class. And despite that social conservatism, as romances her books are curiously subversive.

In 'Frederica' we have the eponymous heroine who is attractive rather than beautiful, her younger sister who is a stunner with an equally lovely personality but is a bit dim, and a rich Marquis who is persuaded to help them enter polite society and do the London season. Quite a lot of the book is devoted to the adventures of Frederica's younger brothers though - and that isn't typical romance.

Our heroine is 24, and responsible for 3 of her 4 younger siblings. The fourth, Harry, who is ostensibly their guardian and head of the family is quite happy to leave all the responsibility to his sister. When Heyer's father died (when she was in her early 20's) she became financially responsible for her mother and brothers, as well as supporting her husband whilst he experimented with various careers and then trained as a barrister. 'Frederica' is very good on the reality of responsibility with all its frustrations and joys. 

Something else that's typical of Heyer, but not necessarily typical in romance novels, is that love is based on mutual respect and a shared sense of humour. If Heyer's characters don't generally seem to be in a any particular hurry to get into bed with each other they always seem eager to share a joke or lend support when it's needed. It also means that the main impediment to a happy ever after in this book isn't some unlikely life or death situation, but that Frederica is to busy running a household and managing children to give any thought to love. 

The real appeal of Heyer though has to be her world building. Her regency England is a fantasy, full of lovely houses, lovingly described clothes, and any number of intriguing details. Reading her with google is an extra pleasure - I can look up all sorts of things now - including inflation calculators...

Heyer's research was impeccable, so when she mentions money here it felt worthwhile to see what she meant. Frederica and her sister have £5000 each, which if my guess of an 1820 setting is more or less correct comes out at about £475000 in today's money. When another character says he has about £2000 a year that's an income of around £189000. The best part of half a million sounds like a more than respectable dowry, but neither girl has many job options beyond wife. If you could hope for an income of between 3% to 5% of that amount you're looking at something between £15000 - £20000 a year in today's money. You can live on it, but it's not wealth. 

Marriage to a rich man means a considerable staff to manage and social, possibly political, influence as a hostess. When Frederica gets her happy ever after she's being guaranteed a life of comfort, but also the prospect of an interesting job compared to a make and scrape existence on minimum wage. 

This post is stretching on, I've deleted at least as much as I've written, and without even touching on what I think Heyer might be saying about 1965 (I find this book feels more socially conservative than some of her earlier ones and am tempted to see that as an older woman feeling nostalgic for the certainties of the past in a very fast changing world). 

'Frederica' hadn't been a particular favourite, but re-reading something familiar primarily because of the year it was written in is an excellent way to reassess previous impressions. One of the many things I love about Heyer is that her books always give me something new every time I read them. She's not perfect, but she's interesting. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

On Seeing a Play More Than Once

As much as I love going to the theatre, and as much as I've wanted to see things again, it's only in the last few weeks that I've managed to see the same production multiple times - and it's been a bit of a revelation. So far I've managed to see The Taming of the Shrew 3 tmrs at the RSC - and I'd happily go again.

There are a couple of contributing factors to this beyond the quality of the production - one is a friend who enjoys live theatre even more than I do, and the other is the availability of heavily discounted tickets (check the RSC website from noon on Friday afternoons for offers for the following week if you can - we're lucky that we live just close enough to make midweek visits attractive).

I have slightly mixed feelings about the £10 tickets, mostly I'm really grateful for the opportunities they're giving - so far to see As You Like It which we hadn't planned on, and Taming of the Shrew more than once. Part of me worries about the implications of so many cheap seats though.

Still, it's a tremendous luxury to be able to get to know a production really well, and to see how it's developed from preview week. The biggest surprise has been seeing how much different seats affect how I see the performance. I really hadn't appreciated this before - generally we've opted for seats in the upper gallery (less expensive, no chance of being expected to participate, good overview).

Seats a couple of rows back from the stage and to its right (the RSC has a thrust stage) meant a much better view of the costumes, looking up at the action rather than down in it, and an entirely different awareness of what was going on. From the stalls my focus shifted towards whoever was directly in front of me rather than specifically following the dialogue. It's a better place to see how the cast interact with each other, and particular details. We both commented on how different it made the play seem. Third time round I went back to a gallery which confirmed those differences in perspective.

I really loved this production of The Taming of the Shrew the First time I saw it, and better acquaintance has only made me like it more. I'm not the biggest Shakespeare fan, I find his women generally disappointing, his low comedy too low for me, and the language often too involved and dense to really get to grips with. Watching a play as challenging/problematic as Shrew is refreshing because a sizeable part of the audience clearly shares the same reservations.

Flipping the genders and having women, and women's voices, dominating the stage does surprising things too. I'm not used to seeing so many women in the stage and it's thrilling, it was also one of the brilliant things about The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, as was Sophie Stanton who is also amazing in Shrew. Seeing is one thing, but hearing is another, I didn't expect so much more female speech to make a difference to me, but it does, maybe because it creates a balance in tones that makes the whole thing easier to listen to and follow (I certainly find it so).

In the end if it's a choice between seeing the same play twice, or two different things, the choice would always be to see the different things, but I'm really grateful to not need to make that choice at the moment. We're planning on seeing as much as we can, as often as we can, whilst we can.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Shetland Wool Week annual 2018 and a Happy Easter

The weather this weekend has been unusually idyllic for most of the UK, so I'm writing this whilst looking out of the window much in the manner of a dog who thinks it's long past time to go for a walk. But I'm already a bit sunburned around the neck and have work tomorrow so it's time to come in and be sensible.

My reading plans for the weekend didn't get as far as I'd hoped, mostly because it was much better to chat to my mother in the sun, and make a fuss of her dog. Both of those things are knitting friendly though, and so I've made good progress on a pair of mitts from last years Wool Week annual.

I've never really got to grips with ravelry, I've used it to look for patterns and ideas, and bought a couple of things through it, but that's as far as it goes. I know it would probably be useful but it's such a huge community that it feels a bit overwhelming - although it's reassuring to know it's there if I get in a mess with something.

One thing I really do love though are the Shetland Wool Week annuals (the last couple of editions are still available through the Wool Week shop Here). They're a nice combination of patterns, most of which lean towards the solidly traditional (and correspondingly timeless) and essays on various aspects of Shetland life. Earlier annuals have focused more on the knitwear industry, but the 2018 issue looks further, going back to explore the history of the women who followed the herring fleet as gutters, and forwards to the Perrie Makkers - the children who will keep this rich tradition alive and evolving.

There are a lot of gloves and mitts in the 2018 edition, along with a hat by a designer I particularly
like, Wilma Malcolmson. Her colours are always amazing, and she makes her hats a little larger than anyone else seems to. That makes them a better fit on me than most I've found so I'm very pleased to have the pattern for one.

The other thing I like about these patterns is that there's something for everyone from absolute beginners up. When I first saw one of these I was right at the beginning of learning to knit, and more interested in the history than what I might make. That's slowly changing, but either way they're one of the best investments in my knitting library.