Monday, October 17, 2016

Lost In A Pyramid & Other Classic Mummy Stories - selected by Andrew Smith

I've been excited by the idea of this book ever since I first saw mention of it months ago. It did not disappoint, but then the British Library classics never do (they certainly haven't yet). What I was hoping for was a book that would have a bit of gung ho boys own style adventure, some humour, and something to think about - I got all of that and a Mummy story from Louisa May Alcott.

Before I saw the book I had assumed that the hay day of the Mummy story might have been in the 1920's when Howard Carter was excavating Tutankhamun's tomb (I may also have had 'Death on the Nile' at the back of my mind). I was wrong, the stories that make up this collection date from between 1869 and 1910. I knew about the Georgian craze for the Egyptian, but had not considered the impact the building of the Suez Canal had, or the presence of the British military for the proceeding decades.

On reflection though it makes sense, not just because of the historical events unfolding in Egypt, but because of the Victorian view of death and the mystical. Between Darwin's shocking new theories about evolution on the one hand and a growing interest in Psychical research on the other - never mind the official introduction of crematorium's in the middle of the 1880's it's hardly surprising that Mummies were so appealing, or that so many of these stories have a curse narrative.

There's also an interesting light thrown on contemporary views of colonialism. The racial stereotyping of native characters might be uncomfortable, but the Western traveller in Egypt doesn't appear in a particularly flattering light either and there's much implied criticism.

Meanwhile for all out bonkers, throw everything at it and see what sticks, fun there's the genius that is 'The Story of Baelbrow' by Kate and Hesketh Prichard. I'm including spoilers here because I can't resist sharing this. There is a remote and ancient country house, built on the sight of an ancient burial mound (of course) and (of course) it has a ghost. The ghost seems to have been getting a bit frisky, the ladies have been disturbed, and eventually a housemaid is found dead - but how. So (of course) Flaxman Low, detective and psychic (what else), is called in. He forms certain deductions and on a dark and stormy night (naturally) things come to a head when it turns out that (look away now if you don't want to know) the ghost was in fact not just a ghost, but also a vampire, and it's possessed the body of a Mummy. It is dispatched with extreme prejudice. I am so glad Andrew Smith unearthed this one.

Grant Allen's 'My New Year's Eve Among the Mummies' was another treat. I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've read by Allen, and this one is delightfully tongue in cheek with a bit of a chill at the end. 'A Night With King Pharaoh' by Baron Schlippenback is the one that's particularly interesting for its unflattering portrayal of everyone, but basically it's a really strong collection with each story offering something interesting.

It's also, and most importantly, fun to read. I prefer tales of the supernatural that still let me sleep at night, these do, but they're also just creepy enough to satisfy the craving for something a little bit spooky that comes with the season. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Kitchen Sunday

After what seems like ages of feeling under the weather I'm finally myself again, though the appearance of Christmas in all the shops whilst I was lying low and taking antibiotics for a week is a bit disconcerting. Where has the time gone? How on earth is it half way through October? And isn't it getting dark early now!

It is however undoubtedly mid October, I've seen the schedule for wine related events at work for the next few months so it's clear there's no escaping Christmas, and the dark nights are another hint to get organised. To that end I've spent my day going through cupboards, cooking, and generally tidying.

I'm trying to be more restrained on the preserving front this year (I might have overdone it the last couple of years) but it's quince season and quince jelly is R's favourite so not making it would be just wrong - that and I love making jelly. With the quince and star anise (from Diana Henry's brilliant  'Salt, Sugar, Smoke') I particularly like the way a pale pink cloudy liquid turns into a crystal clear jelly with a colour somewhere between russet and copper.

I had left over quinces so I roast them with a vanilla pod, myrtle, sugar, lemon juice, and orange blossom water. I'm not overly convinced by the texture of quinces so knowing what to do with left over ones is always a bit of a quandary. I found lots of packets of ground almonds though and I think I'll like them together in a cake. The syrup tasted lovely so I've earmarked that for a semolina cake.

There was also bread baking, the first stages of making a rye sourdough starter, and a stew. It's been a while since I really spent a day pottering in the kitchen, I'd been missing it and it feels good to have made the effort. It'll be Christmas cakes and puddings next, which will just possibly reconcile me to the passing of the year, it'll certainly get me back in the cooking habit.
Quinces - hopefully on their way to being delicious...

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why Art History Matters.

It seems the last exam board offering Art History as an A level is dropping it, which might not seem to be a big deal to many people, especially with so many other things going on in the world right now, but I think it's worth talking about.

My degree is in History of Art so I have opinions about this, starting with the way I've seen the subject characterised over the last few days; too soft, too dry, too elitist - all of which I take issue with. My state school didn't offer Art History as an A level, though I wish it had, but it did form a significant part of the Art A level. This turned out to be a very good thing for me, without that portion of the course I wouldn't have got the result I did, and couldn't have gone to the university I wanted.

I didn't do this because it looked like an easier option, but because it was the more interesting one. To understand what you're looking at when you look at a picture it really helps if you have a decent grasp of the historical context it sits within. That means a decent working knowledge of the politics of the time, it's philosophies, the politics of artists and patrons, and religious upheavals. You can't help but become familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, plenty of the bible, and quite a bit of the apocrypha as well. A passing knowledge of contemporary books, poetry, and drama also helps, as does some understanding of scientific thinking. There is iconography to be decoded, maths and colour theories to be understood, and always the people who created the art, and paid for its creation, to be thought of. It's many things, but not soft.

In fact what it offers is a good all round education in the arts, encourages excellent academic discipline, useful transferable skills, the pleasure to be found in looking at really beautiful things, and a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. The history of art is the history of human creativity. What the canon celebrates may well be (is) flawed, but dig about a bit - we're all there somewhere.

What really bothers me however is the perception that it's an elitist subject, the preserve of posh white people. My school was lucky in that we had an enthusiastic, enlightened, and open minded teacher who shared his love of the subject with us and made it accessible. Making us say why we liked or didn't like the images we looked at in each lesson was arguably one of the most useful thing I learnt to do at school.

The difference a dedicated A level would have made comes down to awareness, and that can improve accessibility too. We choose the subjects that will shape the course of our education at a ridiculously young age, encouraged down whatever path seems likely to yield the best exam results, and with (at least in my experience) very little idea of what else might be out there. Studying a subject that encourages the exploration of so many other disciplines can only be helpful. It's also a chance to look, to really look, at our shared cultural history.

It's also worth thinking about just how much art we own as a nation, much of it free to view, in galleries up and down the country. It's there for all of us, or at least it is until public funding cuts go to deep, and a lot of it is there thanks to Victorian ideas of self improvement. It's quite a legacy, and again makes me question why we encourage this idea of elitism.

History of Art. It might always have been a fairly marginal A level in terms of the number of schools offering it, or students taking it. Not being able to sit it is no bar to taking a degree in the subject, and yet I can't help but feel we're all a little poorer for this decision. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

1947 Book Club

I had reading plans for this week but they've been stymied by a nasty chest infection which totally wiped me out, and destroyed my ability to concentrate on anything very much. I can only imagine how much fun I've been to be around.

It's vexing not to have read something specially (Chatterton Square had been waiting for this, but there's no chance I'll get to it in time now) but I can at least link back to books previously read.

First up is Dorothy B. Hughes' In A Lonely Place which is a fantastically atmospheric bit of noir by a mistress of the art . It seems I was full of a bug and a total misery the night I wrote about that too. Never mind, the book is brilliant.

Second is T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose which was unexpectedly joyful, Kate Macdonald has written an excellent piece about it for the 1947 club. The copy I read has gone back to its owner and now I'm thinking I need to get my own, and also read more White.

And last for tonight the book of my favourite film, Compton Mackenzie's Whisky Galore. It's a wonderful book, funny and affectionate - a classic for a reason, and one that I can't recommend highly enough.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

National Poetry Day

In my little corner of the Internet it's all about National Poetry day today (and my youngest sisters birthday, Happy Birthday, Sophie) so inbetween naps and antibiotics that what I've been thinking about. (I've got a bitch of a chest infection which won't shift, it's been almost a month of feeling like death warmed up. I should have gone to the doctors earlier which is making me feel like an idiot for trying to tough it out and getting so run down in the process.)

I know we occasionally had poetry inflicted upon us at primary school, and remember encountering it in an altogether more positive way at junior high level. At about the same time I took to writing (really awful) verse as I assume many adolescent's still do. It wasn't until the first term of A level English when we studied Keats that I really began to understand the pleasure to be had from reading poetry though, or to get an inkling of the power that can be stored in a few well chosen words.

It's a pleasure that lasts.

I'm sharing Jen Hadfield's The Moult' to celebrate the day, it, and more can be found Here

The Moult

Stay out of the sun:
we can all see you. Stop picking fights
above your weight. We've this high

golden bowl of heather and moss
company of whaups and cries and
mutters in the wind; the long

draught of islands

and blinding sea.

Shelter in the hoodoos and pluck
your fur - fine smelt caught on heather
and shining reeds -

ruing it as I do, this flying
gleaming floss snatched back
and spent by the wind.

Freeze when the sunlight hits you

you're not invisible. Scratch off

your dreamcoat of silver money.
Rest downwind in the sun. Run
double-jointed when the valley dims.

Jen Hadfield
from Byssus (Picador, 2014)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Norman Ackroyd

I fell in love with Norman Ackroyd's work a couple of years ago when I first saw his 'A Shetland Notebook' (a collection of sketches done from the deck of a boat, they're basically rough impressions and notes to be worked up later - and utterly magical). Since then I've spent quite a bit of time eyeing up his aquatints online in a deeply covetous manner.

There is a gallery in Thirsk (Zillah Bell) which holds an extensive collection of Ackroyd prints and was on our route between Rievaulx abbey and Harrogate so we stopped to have a look - and I bought one. Which was extravagant, but after 2 years thinking about it isn't something I'm going to regret.

The extravagance is relative, to my eye this is a thing of beauty which will be a joy forever, I had the money for it, and honestly I can't think of a better way to spend it than on art. Prints are a comparitivley affordable way of collecting, and be they woodcuts, Lino cuts, screen prints, aquatints, engravings, lithographs, (the list goes on) there's a lot to love.

Really though, this post is just about sharing something I'm beyond delighted with.

Before framing

The magic moment, back from the framers - you already know what it looks like but now you get to unwrap it, know it's all yours, decide where to hang it, and generally enjoy yourself. Love this bit.

And framed, it's a terrible photo. Sorry! 

Incidentally, the title is 'Scarborough', somewhere I've never been, but I do love the mood of this image. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Little Local Murder - Robert Barnard

This was the second Barnad I read, and it's the other one that Pan have recently re issued. Again I'm not entirely sure about the cover, it's very pretty and it sums up the idyllic country village image that the residents of Twytching would surely relish... But for a book written in 1976 it just doesn't seem to have the right tone. It doesn't hint at the edge to Barnard's humour either.

The village of Twytching is on tenterhooks with the news that the local radio station us Hong to make a programme about them to be broadcast with their twinned town in America. Mrs Deborah Withens (who I assume references Mary Whitehouse) who is accustomed to ruling the place with a rod of iron assumes she'll get to choose who appears in the show, and it seems everybody wants to appear on the show.

Not all is as idyllic as it seems though, there have been nasty anonymous letters doing the rounds, people are frightened, and when the first villager chosen turns up dead it all begins to get very nasty indeed.

It's a frequently funny book, but darker than 'The Case of the Missing Brontë'. There's something disconcertingly real about the murder and the solution to it which is at odds with the humour. The result is a very effective but slightly uncomfortable tension running through the book which makes it hard to pin down.

On the whole I preferred 'The Case of the Misssing Brontë', which seemed less complicated, but the two books together make for a good introduction to Barnard. They're sufficiently different to make it clear that he does more than one thing, and to indicate which thing the reader might want to pursue in his writing. For me it'll be the more obviously funny books - but that's a choice based on personal preference rather than quality considerations.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


I spent the hottest days of September (when it was a steamy 30 degrees, what a time to get a cold) contracting a bout of bronchitis which has left me well enough for work but pretty much wiped out for anything else. It's certainly made concentrating on reading harder than I'd like, so after a fair amount of falling asleep over books I have up and got the knitting needles out instead.

I want a neck warmer, something smaller than a cowl, which won't get in the way of the stock of a shotgun when I go shooting, but will be warm. Something in Fair Isle should fit the bill in terms of warmth, but getting the sizing right - snug enough not to get in the way, loose enough not to be distracting, and not to deep, is proving a challenge. (One that's watching would probably solve, but where's the fun in that?).

My first attempt was a bit to snug for me so I've given it to a friend as a birthday present (someone who doesn't wear their hair in a bun so has a bit more wriggle room putting it on). I took cake  and stones too so whatever they thought about the knitwear there was something to be wholeheartedly pleased with!

I do like the pattern though, and think one more repeat (horizontally) will have it just about right. We'll see.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Life In Shetland - Tom Kidd

This is the book I was so pleased to find in a Harrogate branch of Oxfam. Tom Kidd's photographs date from the mid to late 1970's, the time when the oil industry was really beginning to make an impact in Shetland. It's also the Shetland, or at least one view of it, that I knew as a very young child (bits of it anyway).

The book itself is long out of print, and when I've seen copies on line they've been prohibitively expensive, but this one came in at around a tenner which I was happy to pay. All the pictures and more are available on Kidd's website but there's something about having the book...

It's a remarkable document of a point in the islands history - it's something to be grateful for that someone was on hand with the specific intention of documenting it - which makes it a welcome addition to my small Shetland bookshelf (it also means I'll no longer be tempted to pinch my fathers copy).

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Weekend in Yorkshire

I'm just back from a very satisfactory weekend away, slightly dismayed by the number of things I have to do before work tomorrow, but determined to share the highlights anyway.

Theoretically the best thing about living in the midlands is the number of interesting places that really aren't that far away. In practice this seems to boil down to making regular comments along the lines of 'we should really go to Harrogate' and then never doing it. Except this time we finally did. the thing with Harrogate is that people always say it's lovely, we regularly pass the signs on the way to and from Scotland, and neither of us had ever been.

It is lovely, if remarkable for the number of places selling bespoke kitchens and other interior design concerns. We both fell in love with a glorious copper bath (no price tag, couldn't afford to ask) and loved the tea and buns in Betty's, and both felt a few more book shops wouldn't have been a bad thing...

We also looked at a serious amount of ecclesiastical architecture. Rievaulx abbey, which is haunting, has a grace and beauty about it, it also has an excellent little museum with some extremely powerful remaims of carved heads (they're quite coarse and primitive compared to much of what I've seen, but they have real presence - more than enough to put the fear of God into you) and little odds and ends which make the destruction that accompanied the dissolution of the monasteries suddenly starkly real. They also have a very good tea shop that does extremely generous slices of very good cake.

After Rievaulx, which I'd thought was pretty impressive size wise, we went to Fountains abbey (National Trust rather than English Heritage, soulless tea shop, disappointing cake). I was momentarily distracted by a herd of giant Schnauzers (7 of them, they were really nice dogs) and then floored by the size of the place. It's the most effective demonstration I've ever had of what the power and wealth of the church meant in this country pre reformation. The site looks like it could be the ruins of a reasonable sized town rather than a single institution. It really deserved a whole day rather than the couple of hours we had, and I can't say often enough just how huge it is. I mean really big.

There was also the nearby church at Studley Royal to look at which is a mad Victorian confection with some glorious details, and on the way home Harewood house and the impressive collection of alabaster effigies in All Saints church there, including one that's had a witch mark carved on it. There's the start of a great story in that.

More than that I managed to realise a long cherished ambition (details soon) and found a hitherto elusive book, so altogether a very satisfactory weekend indeed.