Friday, January 17, 2020

King John at the RSC

I cannot overstate how grateful I am for the RSC’s current rush ticket policy - on Friday afternoons there’s the chance to pick up tickets for the following weeks performances at £10 each. We live about an hour from Stratford and are quite prepared to go on a week night so over the last year have seen so much more than we could otherwise have afforded. Initially I felt a bit guilty about this - it felt almost to good to be true, or fair to the RSC who’s full price tickets represent a fair amount of entertainment for your money even if I can’t afford them.

I’m over that now that I can honestly say I’ve spent more on the roughly 10 theatre trips last year than I would have on my normal 2 or 3, and knowing that seats are still available. I wouldn’t chance being able to get rush tickets for something I was really desperate to see, but it’s meant I’ve seen a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise have gone to. It makes a huge difference whilst I’m not working too.


King John is an excellent example of a play we wouldn’t have necessarily gone to see without rush tickets, but as it stands we’ve now seen it twice - because it’s that good (so good that we would possibly go again if we get the chance). It’s not one of Shakespeare’s better known histories which is probably all to the good, this production also feels effortlessly relevant.

King John is played by Rosie Sheehy who slouches onto the stage in pyjamas and kimono the morning after his coronation, mixes, and then downs something between a Bloody Mary and a Prairie Oyster. Anyone who can swallow a raw egg and tomato concoction like that has earned the applause she got for it. In the background a BBC style announcement delivers the prologue - the setting is a re-imagined mid twentieth century with a hint of mafia style families about it.

It’s a modern(ish) setting that really works. The first half is full of colourful costumes, swagger, disco, dance offs, jokes, and a sense of louche decadence. The fight scenes are magnificent (the lighting, choreography, and during a wedding the mother of all food fights*). They’re clever, visually stunning, and really compelling.

The second half is darker, John’s fortunes are failing, dark deeds are afoot, and events are spinning out of the protagonists control. The costumes become heavier, the colour scheme changes, and so does the lighting (less disco, more candles). The music darkens too, and again all of this is really effective - I can’t remember seeing a play where I’ve been so impressed by staging, music, and lighting. The performances are universally excellent as well - not just individually good, but working really well together.

This is on for another couple of months, and is definitely worth seeing if you’re going to be anywhere near Stratford. I think it’s also being shown in cinemas at some point.

*Beware of flying bread roles if you’re in the first couple of rows.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Christmas Egg - Mary Kelly

I particularly enjoyed this years seasonal mystery from the British Library Crime Classics series, not least because it centres around a Fabergé egg which adds its own sense of romance and glitter to the story. Beyond that it’s a generally satisfying mystery with a minimum of bodies and plenty of human interest.

It’s almost Christmas when Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes are called to a gloomy flat off Islington High Street. Published in 1958 London clearly hasn’t started to swing yet (at least not in this shabby corner of Islington) and war damage is still obvious. An old woman has been found dead, which might have looked quite natural if it wasn’t for the very valuable icon she’d given her landlady.

The dead woman turns out to have been Princess Olga Karukhin, and there’s more than a suspicion that she had other treasures, now missing. As Chief Inspector Nightingale investigates further he begins to think the robbery is linked to a so far successful gang he’s been after, and has to wonder who he can trust.

All of which is made more complicated by a young woman with a severe crush on him, an attack on Sergeant Beddoes, and the search for a Christmas present for Nightingale’s wife.

The descriptions of pre revolutionary Imperial Russian splendours are probably more romantic than exact, but they’re a lot lot of fun (and might be entirely accurate for all I know) and the whole Russian connection is attractive - there’s a shadowy feel of the Cold War, and a common Bolshevik enemy, along with the romance of a fabulous treasure. That Princess Olga had probably travelled far beyond eccentric adds a slightly gothic note that works too.

The foil to this is Nightingales private life and that’s handled well too. A snowy winter adds even more atmosphere and the plot is pacy enough to stop the reader asking to many questions of it. Altogether it’s a charming book that makes for perfect winter reading and shows exactly why this series is so successful (the books might not always be great, but they’re always fun, and the quality is consistent so you can trust them).

Monday, January 13, 2020

Top Ten books of 2019

Every year I’m in two minds about doing a top ten list (it’s a surprising amount of effort at a point where I want to look forward rather than back) but then I look over the last years posts and remember how good things were and it it seems worth it. This time a lot of my favourite books have been food related and it’s been a surprise that books that seem integral to my kitchen came into my life so recently.

As ever these are in no particular order, they’re all just really good books.

Food first, Mark Diacono’s Sour is brilliant. I really enjoy the way he writes, his approach to food (and drink), and in this case the way that he’s exploring a particular element of flavour. This is also a beautiful looking book from cover to cover which is appealing too. A common comment when people ask for wine recommendations is that they don’t want anything that tastes sour - that tells me a few things, including that we’ve trained ourselves to like ever sweeter things. This book is a reminder of what we miss when that happens. It’s also full of things I want to taste.

Sue Quinn’s Cocoa is also full of things I want to taste, engagingly written, and notable for the amount of savoury recipes using Cocoa. I feel like it’s a bit of a hymn to the cocoa nib and as such has been a gift to me. There are sweet recipes too, but this is about much more than chocolate in the way most of us will think about it. Most importantly though, it really is full of delicious things.

I’m quite pleased that I didn’t write about Caroline Eden’s Black Sea until February (I’d bought it when it came out in 2018) because it’s bloody brilliant and I get to list it here. Part cook book, part travelogue, and home of the altogether brilliant Potemkin cocktail, everything about it is beautiful. It’s a book to immerse yourself in and I love it so much I ended up buying a dress that matched the cover.

The cook book I’ve used the most, and which feels like it’s been part of my life for years not months is Anja Dunk’s Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings. A lot of her recipes have become firm favourites, they’re reliable, fresh, and undemanding. They also get me a lot of compliments. I don’t know what my preconceptions about German influenced food were but there’s something about Anja’s flavours I find irresistible in a way that I didn’t entirely expect. It is absolutely a book worth looking at.

Jack Adair Bevan’s A Spirited Guide to Vermouth is the book that finally properly opened up Vermouth to me to the point where I’ve become somewhat evangelical about it, and acquired quite a bit of it. I still wish it had an index, it’s probably something for people who already have an interest in aperitifs and cocktails, and the recipes it has are quite specialised, but it’s an excellent guide to its subject and definitely the best vermouth book I’ve found.

Roseanne Watt’s Moder Dy blew me away. It’s an amazing debut collection of poems that explores a range of subjects. I was particularly interested in all the ways that Watt uses dialect. It’s a book that’s really made me want to re engage with poetry (which I do sometimes read, but slightly self consciously) in the way I did as an A level student (enthusiastically without self consciousness). I can’t guarantee that everyone who reads her work will respond in the same way that I did, though I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have, but I think most of us probably could do with a bit more poetry in our lives.

Stephen Rutt’s  The Seafarers was another really happy discovery. It was so much better than the book I expected it to be. I expected it to be good, but it’s more than that. People talk about a lack of diversity in nature writing (Rutt touches in it himself) mostly meaning that the majority of writers are white, male, and probably at least approaching middle age. There’s a lot of very good writers I need that bracket so I don’t mean that as a criticism, but it’s also really good to read younger writers (Rutt is in his 20’s) as well as thinking along the lines of gender and race. All of those things offer different perspectives. Again though the main thing is that he writes really well.

Nan Shepherd’s The Weatherhouse was a revelation. Her face is on Scottish £5 notes, and ‘The Living Mountain’ has been thoroughly rediscovered but I think her fiction is still a bit neglected. I don’t really understand why because this was excellent - a genuine lost classic in my view. Anybody with an interest in the fiction of the 1920’s and 30s should look at her.

Lynn Enright’s Vagina a re-education was a book full of lightbulb moments, and one that made me think again about a lot of things I hadn’t really questioned. There have been quite a few books around  this or similar topics recently which is all to the good. This is the one I read, and can recommend for everyone.

And finally I’m going with my old Virago copy of The Collected Stories Of Sylvia Townsend Warner. 2019 was the year that I finally started to get her, and I particularly enjoyed her short stories. She’s an absolute mistress of the medium, and it’s a format I love so there’s you go. What will 2020 bring.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

My Grandmothers and I - Diana Holman Hunt

It vaguely occurred to me as a student that I ought to try and do some research into my great grandfather who had been a minor Victorian painter. I very quickly hit a dead end and kind of forgot about it until a couple of years ago when after a casual conversation it started to seem like a good idea again.

I think there’s probably a good story somewhere in the mix, but the 25 years procrastination has not helped me and the dead ends are multiplying. Diana Holman Hunt turned out to be one of them, but at least I found her books so though she turned out to be a dead end she’s most definitely not a dead loss.

Serendipitously a distant cousin got in touch, she was also doing a bit of research into Francis Swithin Anderton, and sent me an interview the family had done with my great aunt Rosamund when she was 90. In it she mentions playing with the Holman-Hunt children - I’m not sure about this, she would have been much younger than William Holman-Hunt’s children, and considerably older than Diana Holman-Hunt who as far as I can tell was the only grandchild (for such a famous artist there’s very little information to be had about his children).


‘My Grandmothers and I’ is an odd little book. It was a surprise best seller for Holman-Hunt who is giving a highly edited view of her childhood and some of the more colourful parts of it. Her father is working abroad (India?) her mother is never mentioned, it seems likely that she’s dead but we don’t know and the internet had failed to clear this point up for me. Diana is living with her maternal grandparents, the Freeman’s, in a smoothly run luxurious household. If this grandmother comes across as cold, her grandfather seems warmer, and the staff are fond of her.

Her other grandmother ‘Grand’ is the widow of William Holman-Hunt, a much more eccentric proposition living in a decaying house that acts as a museum to the great man. Stays with Grand sound horrendous, she is something of a miser, and obsessed with preserving past glories and memories. Of the two grandmothers she comes across in much the worst light.

Grand was a Waugh (it was a considerable scandal at the time that Holman-Hunt married first one sister, and then after she died, another one, which wasn’t entirely legal in the UK at the time) but I didn’t make the connection to Evelyn Waugh until I started ‘My Grandfather, His Wives and Loves’. It’s the same family which is interesting because there’s definitely some early Waugh waspishness about this book which I now assume is deliberate.

The reason I called it an odd little book is because it’s clearly written (first published in 1960) to poke at the Victorian/Edwardian manners of her grandmother’s, but also I think to settle some old scores. Life with the Freeman’s might be short on obvious affection but it also sounds like a fairly typical upper class childhood, and not particularly unhappy.

Life with Grand is much worse. Chaotic to the point of neglect and abuse, when Diana’s father finally turns up he turns out to be weak, selfish, and in every way deficient as a parent. Still, it’s Grand who comes out in the worst possible light and the ways in which Diana chooses to expose her are a very deliberate decision.

It’s an undeniably amusing and interesting memoir though, made by Diana’s ability to paint herself in a less than flattering light too. Her voice is her own, but Nancy Mitford fans should find plenty to love in this, as will Waugh fans. It’s well worth tracking down.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Murder at Christmas - 10 Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season

I have a couple of these Crime anthologies from Profile, and read this one back in early December with some excitement given the list of authors (Margery Allingham, Ellis Peters, Edmund Crispin, John Mortimer, Nicholas Blake, Micheal Innes, Gillian Linscott, Ethel Lina White, Julian Symons, and Dorothy L. Sayers).


On the whole the book lived up to its promise. There are some cracking good stories in here, Ethel Lina White’s ‘Waxworks’ being particularly good - as much horror story as crime. There were other stories that turned out to be a bit of a disappointment though - Michael Innes’ ‘The Ascham’ was a bit of a mess.

Overall I came away feeling that the British Library collections have spoilt me a bit. Any collection will throw up a favourite, but the BL books have rarely had a story in them that has made me wonder why it’s there (I can’t think of a single one off hand). This collection felt like a couple of things were there for no better reason than the seasonal setting (I really hated that Micheal Innes).

Reminding myself again what’s actually in the book it has a lot more excellent than indifferent or annoying (Innes has cast a long shadow) though, so I am tempted to search out more of the series beyond the ones I already have.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Vintage Christmas - Vintage Minis

Seasonal reading is a troublesome thing in many ways. I have a little pile of Christmas themed books that I’ve been given, am reading, or have just finished, but now it’s January there’s a certain pressure to be looking forward rather than back. On the other hand it’s still the depths of midwinter at least until the end of the month and it’s only now that I’m back home and have a bit of time on my hands that I’m ready to read them.

‘A Vintage Christmas’ was my impulse purchase in Corbridge’s Forum Books. (Corbridge, from the 15 minutes I spent loose in it, and the excellent lunch we had at The Angel looks like it’s worth a proper explore.) I’d liked to have spent a lot longer looking at what they had and talking to the staff but we had to go and it seemed rude to go without buying something.

I picked up this book because it was pretty, published by vintage, and had an interesting selection of authors in it. Beyond that I’m not sure I had particularly high hopes for it, but it’s turned out to be a total gem. Some of the chapters are extracts from books, and whilst I know not everyone likes that I don’t particularly mind. When it’s done well, as it is here, I think it’s a really good thing.

I’ve never particularly wanted to read Cider With Rosie, but I can take a chapter of Laurie Lee and really appreciate it. The same with Louis de Bernières. There are writers like Alice Munro, Anne Enright, and Helen Simpson, who I’ve always meant to read but somehow haven’t. This has been an excellent taster.

The classic bits - Trollope’s ‘Christmas at Thompson Hall’, a bit of Sherlock Holmes, and the goose bit from ‘A Christmas Carol’ are reassuring. I didn’t particularly read E. Nesbit as a child, discovering her as an adult is a constant joy. Raymond Carver on the other hand is the opposite of comforting, he provides an unadulterated sour note into the mix.

Altogether it’s been the most satisfying post Christmas reading, I also particularly like the way that along with an introduction to each writer there’s a short list of more of their work to explore. I know this is marketing for Vintage, but it’s also helpful.

Monday, January 6, 2020

This Golden Fleece - Esther Rutter

I spent a long time reading this book, my copy is now in a state that reflects that, and this write up feels long overdue. There was no particular reason it took so long to read - I just kept letting myself be distracted by fiction, but it’s a good book to read at a contemplative pace, a chapter at a time between other projects and around my own knitting.

‘This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History’ is a timely book. Knitting and spinning isn’t an exclusively female occupation, but it is predominantly a female one and as such it sometimes feels that it’s cultural importance is dismissed. This book is one of a slowly growing library that’s changing that.

Rutter is an engaging guide with a deep enthusiasm for her subject and a willingness to try all sorts of  fibre based projects. Her history of knitting in Britain is interspersed with her own experiments in knitting and explorations of the wider culture around how garments were worn or used.

If the book has a weakness it’s that each chapter easily deserves a book of its own so the history can sometimes feel rushed and superficial. I found this particularly in the chapter on Shetland because it’s a history I’m reasonably familiar with and the gaps were more obvious to me. I really hope that Rutter carries on writing about textiles and expands on some of the material she has here, there’s still a lot of work to do. But meanwhile this is a sound overview/introduction to the countries most significant knitting traditions.

In many ways the strongest chapter is on the political nature of creating. Knitting communities like Ravelry seem to be becoming increasingly politicised, and this time last year a row about racism in knitting was blowing up (it’s still blowing, and I think will continue to do so for sometime yet. There’s a lot of things that need to be challenged and addressed). There are issues about what design and creativity, especially women’s creativity, is worth. For those of us who think about it there are decisions about who or where we buy our yarn from, and why.

Rutter’s making clearly does have a political edge to it (I’m wary of the idea that all making is in some way a political act as I have sometimes seen claimed) and she’s really compelling on the topic. Her final chapter on knitting for gifts is another one where she really comes into her own on the meaning of the things we make for ourselves and others.

Over all a really good book with a lot to recommend it. Knitters will definitely find it interesting, but there’s so much here that it should offer something to anyone interested in British history, culture, and craft.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Borders Book Shopping

There's a lot of things that I like about the Borders (both the English and Scottish sides), high on the list being the excellent bookshops and cafes to be found. This trip has taken in the ever excellent Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells, and the new to me Forum books in Corbridge on the other side of the border. There are more of them in the area, but time is short and the Mainstreet bookshop is a particular favourite, partly because of it's café and deli so it's a must visit. Forum books was a happy find that I only got a few minutes in.



The thing about a good independent book shop is that even when they're quite small they feel like they've got a better choice (certainly for me) than even much bigger chain branches manage. I think this is because good independent book shops give more space to books from independent presses and can give much more space to the books they're personally excited about.

They're also much easier to form a relationship with. When I go to the Mainstreet Bookshop I normally start in the deli and homeware section (coming from the carpark you hit it before you get to the books and café). They have blood oranges (I love these, and they're annoyingly hard to find in supermarkets) and a really interesting selection of gin and other things. The cheese looks good, and if you're after a card, or a present, or a Netherton foundry prospectors pan there will be something. All of this puts me in a good mood for book buying.

Their café is excellent as well which doesn't hurt. The books are the real draw for me though, and I always come away with something. This time I had book tokens to spend and quite a bit of time for browsing. I came away with edition 3 of Elementum which I've wanted for a while, getting it without paying for postage made it feel like a bargain. Alex Woodcock's 'King of Dust' from Little Toller, another book I've been interested in for a bit and couldn't resist once I'd actually seen it, and Charlotte Runcie's 'Salt on Your Tongue' which I'd vaguely heard about and was interested in, but again needed to see.

I might have found the Runcie in my local Waterstones, but they didn't have either of the others. In Forum books I bought 'A Vintage Christmas' which is mostly excerpts from novels with a Christmas theme. It was very much a holiday based impulse purchase, but one which I'm really enjoying. This is book shopping, or even just shopping at it's most enjoyable, and both of these shops are well supported by their local communities. They also give a lot back in terms of events.

One New Years resolution will be to see if I can find more bookshops like this closer to home (Kibworth books is really good, and an excellent place to start).

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 - Goodbye to all that

I've been avoiding doing any sort of round up post of the last decade and am not about to start now in any serious way. It's the decade in which I became middle aged with all that that entails in the way of loss, aches, and pains. It's also a decade that I spent in a job I really didn't like much (it paid the bills and was in the right place, I worked with some great people and I'm grateful for that but if I'd known how happy redundancy would make me I would have gone long ago).


It is good to have this blog, started in 2009, to look back on for reading and other highlights, but right now I mostly want to be looking forward because despite a lot of the crap going on around us right now (and still having the absolutely revolting cold that made me a misery over Christmas) I'm personally feeling hopeful for my future in a way I haven't for a long time.

I'm also in the Scottish borders, which is one of my favourite places anywhere with D (just as we were 10 years ago) with good company, wine, and food, to look forward too tonight. And a lot of good books - some that I bought with me, and some that I bought from the magnificent Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells.

Whatever 2020 brings, I know it's got some great reading in it.

With all of that in mind I hope everybody reading this is also feeling more or less hopeful for what the New Year might bring, and has as many books lined up to look forward to as I do. Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Christmas Books

It's been quite a subdued Christmas this year - my mother has really unpleasant back problems, my sisters partner unexpectedly died earlier this year, my partners father is 93 and has been in and out of hospital. I've had a really nasty cold (and no job), and my mothers dog has had diarrhea (probably because she ate more turkey than the rest of us put together along with quite a few pigs in blankets).

Despite that it's also been a really good Christmas for me, mostly because I've had time to appreciate the people around me. If that sounds a bit trite after 20 years of being lucky to get 2 days off together for Christmas I can't tell you the difference it makes, or how much more I've noticed the effort my mother (particularly struggling with back pain) goes to.

She is also the source of a lot of the books I was given and I really appreciate those too.

I'm excited by all these (sorry for the terrible picture, I'm blaming the cold, and I'm away from home for now so can't get a better one - they'll all get more attention soon). The book at the bottom of the pile is Kate Young's 'The Little Library Year' which is an absolute delight - and apparently half price at the moment in Waterstones. I can particularly recommend it for both tempting looking recipes and being lovely to read. Maybe because Young is from Australia and when she came to the U.K. our seasons were new to her, or perhaps because of the way she takes books as an inspiration as well, it all feels fresh.

The Kate Hawkings book 'Aperitif' is also a joy to read. Mostly though I've been spending time in Kevin Crossley-Holland's folktales. Technically this is a children's book, which has been perfect for someone with a disgusting cold, but it's not childish, and I really love a good folk or fairy tale.

Voyaging Out by Carolyn Trant was a present to myself. It's a history of British women artists from suffrage to the sixties and looks amazing. I haven't bought it away with me but its a big part of my plans for January.