Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A bit early but...

Happy New Year. I will be hauling myself to work tomorrow in an effort to look willing and tie up loose ends and shall then be heading northwards on Friday morning where I shall be rendezvousing with some of my paternal family, and best of all (sorry dad) the Scottish one. Before I go I need to gather up all the tissues which have fallen like a New York blizzard around the place, choose some books, pack some warm clothes, oh and all the other things you need to do before a few days away.

There’s a vague forecast for snow so perhaps the scenes of last year will be repeated, I’m half hoping they will be, until I remember the drive home that is, but whatever happens (bar power cuts, please no power cuts, I want a holiday not a deep freeze) spending time with family, good books, good whisky, and of course the Scottish one is going to be a great way to end one year and start another.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Look what I found

In an effort to beat ‘The Cold’ which is laying me low I’ve spent most of today in bed asleep – not even the energy to read, but what was left of the afternoon has been spent staring at old episodes of Marple and looking for entertainment online. Two things have cheered me up immensely the Daily Otter – otters bought to you every day. What could be better than an otter every day? I’m not so bothered about the pacific otters (crikey – jingoistic prejudices regarding foreign otters, whatever next) but basically this blog has unfailingly cheered me up since I discovered it a week or so ago. There’s a sliding otter I’m particularly taken with.

Cartoons of Old a blog I vaguely remember seeing before but clearly didn’t pay enough attention to so I’m very grateful for a timely reminder. I can’t currently get enough of Punch style cartoons and here’s an apt selection. The more I see the more fascinated I become, and that’s probably enough about my browsing habits for tonight...

Monday, December 27, 2010

The day after Boxing Day, which might still be Boxing Day because I don’t really understand the bank holiday arrangements.

First off I need to make a confession – I have a cold, or perhaps that should be a COLD. The confession proper is that I react to this in the manner of a man in a boots add (as opposed to a real live man who probably makes a lot less fuss about than I do.) I feel rotten, but no amount of suggesting that losing a sense of smell is a terribly disorientating experience for a wine person seems to convince people that I might not actually live to feel good again... Currently I’m a bundle of blankets considering the merits of rum toddy v whisky toddy and looking forward to Miss Marple (winning over ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ because of add breaks which will allow for more toddy’s if the need arises).

Before I was struck down by this horrible illness (it’s a real illness honestly) my head was full of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Caravaners’, but now it seems to be full of snot I’m holding off until I feel less sorry for myself. (I had mixed feelings about this book and don’t feel it’s entirely fair to try and assess it through a haze of self pity.) What I’ve been doing instead is scouring amazon for upcoming books and trying to work out what bookish things are exciting me about 2011.

The answer is actually not very much at the moment. In the aftermath of Christmas and Birthdays I feel pretty well provided for on the book front and perhaps also a little out of touch with what’s on the horizon. So far all I’ve spotted are the two new River Cottage handbooks (Pam Corbin on Cakes which is intriguing, and Mark Diacono on Fruit which is truly exciting –to me at any rate). The other big event and I have to wait until August for this, is Vintage republishing a clutch of Stella Gibbons. There are some that look like they’re coming out officially and some which I think might be print on demand, ever since Virago bought out ‘Nightingale Wood’ a couple of years ago I’ve wanted to be able to get my hands on more so this is very exciting.

Other things I’m looking forward to on the book front in 2011 include furthering my acquaintance with Trollope, I plan to finish the Barchester books and probably try either ‘Rachel Ray’ or ‘The American Senator’. This is also the year I want to tackle Sir Walter Scott as an adult (a childish passion for Ivanhoe is not enough anymore) and actually read some of the Edith Wharton I seem to have collected – I got three for Christmas and they all look good. I’m also on the lookout for something tempting to balance all this nineteenth century stuff – mind you nothing later than 1950... I think this is the shape that the next month or two will take book wise, I’m off to the borders for a few days to celebrate New Year (and some uninterrupted reading) so need to give some proper thought about what to take with me. Something long because I’ll have the time for it and something short so I feel I’ve been productive I think.

And now the Toddy’s are calling and my tissues are just out of reach so I think I really have to move. I hope everyone else out there has happy reading plans to look forward and finds themselves infection free!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

And it is cold outside (and in) I’ve been delivered from the warm comfort of my mother’s house to a cold comfort flat. The heat is coming on slowly but in the meantime I’ve eaten far too much chocolate in a probably misguided effort to warm up, and some very good carrot and whisky soup (which my mum sent me home with, I love my mum) which actually has warmed me up.

My brief Christmas break is all but over – I’m back at work in the morning (and none too enthusiastic about it) so I have a few brief carefree hours left in which to curse the freeview box for breaking down (though blessing the fact that my very old second hand television works well enough without it to let me see ‘upstairs downstairs’ later) and play with my new books. One of the things I struggle over with Christmas is that from a retail point of view it dominates the year, one way or another it’s been on my mind since august and has left room for little else since the beginning of November. Now it’s the 26th of December and it’s all over – not a slow wind down to match the slow wind up, but an abrupt finish which no matter how many years I spend in this business I’ve never managed to get used to – perhaps it’s why I love new year so much; it feels like a second chance to enjoy friends and family, but with all the pressure taken off.

Care of my lovely mother I have a stack of Trollope’s and Wharton’s to read – all very exciting, but the book that really absorbed me yesterday, and seems entirely appropriate to match against BBC 2’s day of war films is ‘PUNCH Goes to War 1939 – 1945’. I’ve wanted this ever since I first saw it a month or two ago. I was a great fan of Punch from when I discovered it sometime in the 1980’s until it folded in the early 90’s (the briefly resurrected magazine was not the same thing). I spent happy hours on rainy days looking through bound albums from the 1880’s at my father’s (searching for jokes I understood) and fascinating hours looking through similar albums in university libraries. ‘The Best of Punch Cartoons’ cheered me up whilst I was recuperating from surgery a couple of years ago and ‘Punch Goes to War’ saw me through a family Christmas – what more can I say!

Actually the family Christmas was a pleasure; Punch wasn’t an escape - more a fascinating distraction. It’s true that a picture paints a thousand words and there are so many pictures here; for me with my love of so much fiction from this period this feels like an indispensible book. There are single cartoons that could stand as whole chapters of ‘Henrietta’s War’, or ‘Mrs Miniver’ not to mention the provincial lady’s adventures (there’s a piece by E M Delefield in here as well, but I read it with the combination of a frightful cold and too much Champagne in my system so didn’t really take it in.)

So far my favourite shows a young lady waiting on the quayside as a fleet comes into harbour – a dockhand is telling her “ ’Ere comes the Liberty men, miss.” To which she replies “Thanks, but I’m waiting for the ones from the ‘Undaunted’”. Any way I look at it this is a book of treasures (so glad my many hints weren’t ignored) which I’m very pleased to have and anticipate much further enjoyment from.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wishing for a merry Christmas

This is the first Christmas Eve I’ve not had to go to some kind of work since 1995 and I have to say it’s bloody marvellous. So far I’ve seen a man in Waterstones dressed as a reindeer (he may have looked hot and bothered but I applaud his dedication to the cause – whatever it is - he looked a lot better than the girl in fairy lights), bought some chestnuts and a pair or warm woolly tights, and wrapped my presents with hours to go.

Seeing as I could have stayed in bed all morning I was even up in time to hear the Popes thought for the day on radio 4 and perhaps best of all, but also very poignant, I’ve watched ‘The Snowman’. As a child living on an Island with very few other people Christmas wasn’t nearly as exciting as the start of summer which bought another family with it. The Buttons had a daughter just between me and my sister in age and how we envied her – she had a swing, a cup with a frog in the bottom, grown up brothers and sisters, and blond hair. A gap of thirty years has left vague but happy memories of those summers but I can feel that happy anticipation like it was yesterday.

Emily’s father was an animator, all round gifted artist, and lovely man, among other things he worked on ‘The Snowman’. Sadly he passed away earlier this year, so this Christmas as well as wishing everyone all the best for the festive season I’m also raising a virtual glass to absent friends. Having had the time to stop and think about people today has been lovely, and possibly the best Christmas present I could get.

And now I’m off to enjoy the snow! Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Haunted House – Sort of Dickens

I had a plan to do some sort of round up of 2010 reading with my top ten books (you know the sort of thing) but time is getting away from me and as it’s always possible I’ll read a book so damn good that it couldn’t reasonably be left off any half ways decent list in what’s left of the year... Well it’ll wait until the New Year. (Which is the catch all phrase covering every part of my life for the next 3 days.)

For some reason unknown, but most definitely exacerbated by a ‘career’ in retail I don’t really like Christmas very much, I should perk up about in time for the Dr Who special, will enjoy boxing day (hopefully mostly from bed with a pile of books), grit my teeth through a further few days at work (both bank holiday days thank you very much) until finally fingers crossed I will get on a train on New Year’s eve that will reunite me with the Scottish one in Scotland where we plan to spend quality time by the aga or by the fire. Leisure activities will basically revolve around whisky and books. Sadly it will be an all too brief break from the everyday but I’m really, really, looking forward to it.

Meanwhile in-between trying to keep warm and trying to stay sane (that would be Christmas in retail again) I’ve been trying to get into the spirit of the season through mince pies and a flirtation with Dickens. The mince pies have been great, the Dickens a little more mixed – he’s one of my literary blind spots (don’t dislike what I’ve read, never seem to muster the enthusiasm for more) but I’m not prepared to give up just yet so thought short stories might be the answer.

Hesperus have bought out collections ‘conducted’ by Dickens from Household Words (I’m guessing as they mostly have a Christmas theme that they come out around this time of year). I’ve had ‘The Haunted House’ for years but never paid much attention to it until I got a copy of ‘The Holly Tree Inn’ back in November. I like short stories generally and have been loving all things Victorian recently so here I am one (and a half) collections later wondering if I’ve been converted to the Dickens side or not yet.

‘The Haunted House’ is a little bit wintery and doesn’t have much supernatural activity but does have contributions by Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. It also has a long (to me very dull) poem by Adelaide Anne Procter which I had to force myself to finish, it was a touch too Victorian even for my taste. Otherwise this collection scores on all points. Humour, romance, adventure, just a touch of horror – all present, correct, and splendid reading for dark cold bus journeys. I’m also quite pleased to say that I really enjoyed the Dickens contributions; the way he sets the scene and expounds on the problems of keeping servants in a haunted house is just joyful.

Friday, December 17, 2010

In a Lonely Place – Dorothy B. Hughes

I had meant to go out tonight, but as well as having not a thing to wear I got home tired, grumpy, cold, dirty, aching, whiny, and hungry – essentially a full complement of miserable fairy tale dwarves and very bad company for my old (yet still 5 days younger than me) friends birthday. I could also add sulky to the list because the vital amazon package dispatched on the 7th expected from the 11th IS STILL NOT HERE. My godson (who won’t notice) won’t get his Christmas present on time.

The restorative powers of a hot bath and hot food have helped me regain some sort of perspective but it’s still been one of those niggly days, my reading mood is all over the place as well – I want to get stuck into something big and involved and maybe a bit noir-ish, but don’t have the time or concentration (or anything both Victorian and hard boiled) to do that this week so meanwhile it’s hard to settle...

When I picked up ‘The Blackbirder’ to read a week or two back it was because I’d just got myself a copy of ‘In a Lonely Place’ and thought I should read the old Hughes first. I’ve been also hoarding in the manner of a book squirrel recently earmarking everything for the 10 short days off I’ve got looming in the new year, but have reluctantly admitted to myself that I can’t haul 20 odd books away with me (not if I want clean socks as well)(I want clean socks). Long story short I went straight from ‘The Blackbirder’ to ‘In a Lonely Place’ which turned out to be a good thing. I was vaguely disappointed by ‘The Blackbirder’ but very impressed with ‘In a Lonely Place’.

It’s not as if ‘In a Lonely Place’ is without faults; the end is sort of rushed and not entirely convincing but basically it’s a thrilling, chilling, very hard boiled and nicely twisted sort of story. It opens in the middle of a sea fog with a man watching a woman thinking about how he might approach her, how she wouldn’t be scared – at first. This is Los Angeles in 1947 and a serial killer is on the loose, every month a girl is raped, strangled and dumped and he’s clever enough to leave no traces. This is the situation when two old war comrades meet, Dix Steele and Brub Nikolais. They flew together in the air corps – for one man the war was the high point of his life and he’s come out without job or purpose. The other has put it behind him, is married and an up and coming detective. I can’t say anything else without giving far too much away, and hope I haven’t done so already.

From the very first page it seemed very pretty clear who the guilty party was going to be, it also seemed equally likely that this was a red herring – which is I think Hughes’ strong point. As a reader I’m never very sure about where I stand which is something I love here, it keeps me on my toes and more than makes up for any plotting deficiencies (in a good way – I was so wrapped up in thinking through the issues that Hughes raised I could have overlooked a great deal more than an overly intuitive blonde or two along the way).

What is interesting is reading a book written by a woman about a man whose killing women and why. It’s also a dark, tense, entertaining read which proved an excellent antidote to the season.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It’s just what I’ve always wanted!

Well my birthday ended this morning with something of a splash and a drip – I woke up to find my bathroom quietly flooding via the light switch pull and (what turned out to be) my upstairs neighbours shower being left to run over the floor. The Scottish one behaved like a hero risking electrocution to unscrew the light switch fitting whilst I stood shivering in my dressing gown on the doorstep of number 10 hoping someone was still in at 8am. I was lucky, seems we both had late starts and the flooding was very minor, I’m normally out the door by 7am and could have come home to a deluge...

It was a grand birthday and I’m in the mood to count my blessings (by which I mean presents) today. I’ve not had many books (though I’m still hopeful of a few more – my last bout of Christmas shopping from amazon is yet to turn up and that might well contain some odds and ends for personal use, I’ve also been led to believe there are a few more parcels with my name on which are coming round for tea and mince pies at the weekend.)

The blond has really outdone herself present wise this year though and I’m not sure how either of us will ever top this one as the perfect present. She has an awe inspiring assortment of dictionaries and there are a few in her collection which I’ve long coveted chief amongst which is the Oxford paperback reference ‘A Dictionary of Popes’. How can I express how pleased and excited about this I am? The Scottish one understands – I was hard pushed to get it back off him, but even the blond was slightly surprised at how taken I was with it. I’m quoting the product description from amazon in full here:

“This fascinating dictionary gives concise accounts of every officially recognized pope in history, from St Peter to Pope Benedict XVI, as well as all of their irregularly elected rivals, the so-called antipopes. Each pope and antipope's entry covers his family and social background and pre-papal career as well as his activities in office. Also, an appendix provides a detailed discussion and analysis of the tradition that there has been a female pope. This new edition reflects the very latest in papal research and contains additional information in the further reading sections of each entry, making the book an even more useful starting place for research into specific pontiffs. The entries are arranged chronologically making this a continuous history of the papacy over almost 2,000 years. It reveals how, for much of that history, spiritual and temporal power have been inextricably mingled in the person of the pope. A fascinating read for students of theology and history, as well as the general reader with an interest in Christian history.”
If that sounds appealing you know where I’m coming from, if it doesn’t – well I’m sorry but I’ve rather wanted this book for a long time and I’m very happy to have a copy of my own (new and updated to include the present pontiff). I love books like this not so much for their reference value, although that’s a serious bonus, but because they’re so good for dipping in and out of. A juicy pope (or saint) is hard to beat for a thrilling story; I think it very likely that there will be a Pope of the month feature here in the very near future...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

It seems Christmas is still coming...

I realise I’ve been a bit quiet over the last few days, and online anyway am probably going to be a bit quiet for a while longer. Blog writing has taken second place to Christmas card writing – love getting them, a bit ambivalent about writing them. It shouldn’t but does feel like doing my homework; however they’re almost done now which means I’ve actually achieved something on a day that started out by my being totally incapable of finding my favourite jumper, sticky tape, and credit card bill. Amazing how long it can take to find something to wear, find a way to seal a parcel, and meet one’s financial obligations...

It’s also my birthday on Monday but due to work a fair amount of celebrating is being done tomorrow so I think I’ve got 6.5 waking hours left to get organised to a point where I can let people over the threshold without being judged a domestic disgrace. No pressure there then. Meanwhile the books I want to talk about are piling up and I’m beginning to think some sort of list is in order, the sort of thing that will give an illusion of order until I inevitably lose it.

If there was a list top of it at the moment would be ‘Tea at Fortnum and Mason’. This was an impulse purchase that I pretended would probably be a present but I’m telling you now that this little beauty won’t be leaving my kitchen. Afternoon tea is something I love and something I’d like to indulge in far more often. I had one book dedicated to the art already and very inspiring it is too but ‘Tea at Fortnum and Mason’ is both beautiful to look at and full of good stuff to bake – how could I not find space for it on my shelves?

I was initially attracted by the green and gold cover and then further seduced by the very pretty illustrations (fine china, fine fabrics, and fine looking cakes) I didn’t even pay much attention to the actual content at first but now I have and can report that there is an interesting history of tea drinking, a history of Fortnum and Mason’s (which is one of my favourite shops anywhere – partly for the window displays, mostly because walking through those doors is like walking into a fantasy of English gentility. It’s the Mitford sisters in shop form.) Excellent and useful tea tasting notes (they appeal to the wine geek in me – a good tasting not will always impress!) and of course some very nice recipe’s. I’ve made the marmalade which has been uniformly enjoyed and have earmarked some excellent looking rose biscuits (with almonds and crystallised rose petals), honey and lavender loaf cake (flavoured with tea as well), and a coffee and walnut cake as immanent future projects.

There’s also a suggestion for meringues filled with lemon curd and cream that are a welcome update on a favourite from circa 1990 – Claire MacDonalds lemon curd pavlova. It was a great pudding (as well as very efficient – the egg yolks went into the curd, the whites into the meringue) but currently not very fashionable, little meringues on the other hand are having some sort of moment... Anyway if I was prepared to part with this book (or bought more copies) it would make the perfect stocking filler and anyone else with a passion for afternoon tea really ought to have a look at it (I’m thinking of you Cardigan Girl Verity!)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dr Thorne – Anthony Trollope

Despite vague intentions I don’t seem to be much good at joining in with things so I’m more than a bit pleased to have managed to synchronise myself with the classics circuit trip round Trollope. I’ve been waiting to grow into Trollope for the best part of the last two decades, 2010 has been the year that it’s happened and I’m feeling very celebratory about it not least because there are so many books to look forward to... I’m now half way through the Barchester Chronicles and feel that I’m beginning to get the measure of the man, only beginning mind you, but in ‘Dr Thorne’ I think I’m starting to detect patterns and quirks of style.

I will warn you now – there’s a very high chance of plot spoilers in the following post, but one of the things I find I really like about Trollope is that plot isn’t really important; it’s simply a device to explore a moral dilemma with. In ‘Dr Thorne’ that issue is legitimacy and class. Briefly the Dr Thorne of the title stands as guardian to his niece Mary – she is the illegitimate daughter of his dead brother and is in every way an exemplary young woman. In her uncle’s eyes she is not only an angel incarnate but absolutely his niece, but legally she has no real right to the name she bears, no recognised position in society, in short (and crucially) she has no ‘blood’.

Dr Thorne is himself a connection of the Thorne’s of Ullathorne – a family that has made a cult out of blood, he is also near neighbour, friend, and doctor to the Gresham’s of Greshamsbury (the foremost family of commoners in Barsetshire) who have also made a cult out of blood (can you see where this is going?). Almost accidentally Mary has been bought up with the Gresham children on terms of near equality and by the time the action starts the Greshamsbury heir (young Frank Gresham) is coming of age, something he celebrates by proposing to Mary Thorne. To complicate matters further the Gresham’s are bankrupt; Squire Gresham married an earl’s daughter and has spent his marriage paying for her idea of a supportable lifestyle – not something even his once very respectable fortune has been able to keep up with.

Now young Frank is a decent sort, young but true and once he’s plighted his troth he’s determined to keep his word, Mary is a young woman of integrity and principle and equally determined to do the right thing so as she becomes aware of the reality of her situation she tries to release him from his promises. Frank must marry money to do his duty by his family but how can he do this and remain a decent sort? And indeed what if Mary was to acquire money, would that make her lack of position acceptable to the rest of the Gresham’s?

Well it just so happens that Mary is a possible heiress to an unlikely but vast fortune, her uncle is aware of this but is determined that she will be accepted on her own merits and so the scene is set. What’s more important money or birth, and what actually makes someone a lady or for that matter a gentleman? So much for the moral dilemma, now for what makes this such a good read; it’s a book full of Trollope’s gentle humour, there are some exquisite character sketches, and there’s something of a culture shock. I also get the sense that Trollope really cares about his characters; the young man destined to die so that Mary can inherit twists and turns off the page, caught between being a villain in the piece, and a man deserving all our sympathy. I really feel that in a different book he might have been reformed into the hero - of all the characters in the book he’s stuck with me the most as a compellingly real personality up to and including the unfortunate and eventually fatal predilection for liquors.

And evidence that the Victorians really felt differently to us? Mary’s mother is left pregnant and alone after the man who seduced her (Trollope alludes to drugs and rape) is killed. A previous beau offers to marry her despite her fall, but he won’t take on the child. The mother has the stark choice of child or husband – she chooses a husband (though in all fairness she knows that her child will be cared for as well, or better than she could care for it herself), but what shocked me is that the man in the case is presented as a hero for contemplating taking her on at all. Had she been a widow it wouldn’t have been an issue but sex outside of marriage has to be punished, and the sins of the mother will be visited on the child...

I’ve only scratched the surface here, I have a long set of notes and questions attached to ‘Dr Thorne’, and am extremely hopeful that someone out there will not only share my enthusiasm for this book but challenge some of my ideas about it. Trollope so exactly fits my reading needs at the moment that I want to shout about him from the roof tops, but mindful of how long it’s taken me to get to this point I’m trying to be restrained. With other Victorian writers I’m generally looking for something sensational or nostalgic, I find myself turning to Trollope because he makes me question and think, and so far it’s proving to be a very rewarding relationship for me.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Sunday the 5th December and have I been writing Christmas cards? Have I finished my Christmas shopping? Have I had a good and thorough tidy round my flat? Caught up on book reviews and read any of the pile of books clamouring for attention? Finished the Christmas rota for work? Of course not to any of the above, instead I’ve made biscuits, mince pies, and fudge – all very nice and I’m telling myself useful preparation for the next few weeks. I feel very festive (as well as slightly sick after over sampling the fudge) up to and including the seasonal sense of panic that comes from not having started Christmas cards, not knowing where many of my friends live (because now I’ve left it quite late to find out), not remembering the names of most their spouses (far, far, too late to ask), and knowing I’ll be in exactly the same position in a week’s time...

Thanks to a day spent in the kitchen I have a stack of recipes I want to share, and a similar stack of cookbooks I want to rave about – it’s all terribly exciting (for me), indeed I’m so excited I hardly know where to start. Perhaps with an apology to the lovely delivery man from DHL. Gary (that’s his name) got back to me this afternoon after the dozens of dropped calls I left on his mobile to say he was outside my door. I was a good quarter of an hour away but the dear man promised to wait if he couldn’t get someone to take charge of my parcel. He even phoned me back to give me a progress report, so I take back everything I said. Someone who’s prepared to come out on a cold icy Sunday making sure I (and others) don’t have to go to Loughborough is someone who deserves the highest praise.

And now back to the kitchen – I’m quite proud of having made a successful batch of fudge today. I’ve tried before and ended up with a gritty, sticky, sugary mess. Not very nice. This fudge however is really pretty good, in the manner of an obsessive fudge maniac I’ve been comparing the recipe I used before (Nigella) and the one I used today (Hope and Greenwood). Today has much more in the way of detail and that’s clearly the way forward for a recipe pedant like me. The fudge is smooth, creamy, and sweetly delicious with just a hint of saltiness at the finish (I don’t even like fudge very much, more than a very small piece gives me a horrible headache, but none of that’s stopping me feeling ridiculously pleased with this stuff).

The Hope and Greenwood book ‘Life is Sweet’ is one I got last year, was hugely enthusiastic about at the time and then totally failed to use, I plan to spend serious time with it in the new year. I also used my sugar thermometer (a present from my dear dad last year) for the first time – turns out it makes all the difference.

Salted Vanilla Fudge

8 inch shallowish baking tin lined with baking parchment
700g granulated sugar
75g unsalted butter
200ml evaporated milk
200ml double cream
Seeds scraped from a vanilla pod
Maldon Sea Salt (or similar)

Place the sugar, butter, evaporated milk and cream in a heavy bottomed pan (one with good deep sides) and gently heat until the sugar has dissolved stirring all the while with a wooden spoon.

Introduce the sugar thermometer to the pan and turn up the heat to medium, bring the mix to boiling point, stirring regularly to make sure it doesn’t stick on the bottom. After 15 minutes it should have reached 100°c (212°f) at which point lower the heat as this is the danger point for burning.

Keep heating until it reaches 115°c (240°f) (soft ball...) this took far longer than I would have believed possible. When temperature is reached take off the heat and start to beat with an electric whisk – carry on for about 7 minutes and then add the vanilla seeds, carry on beating for another 5 to 7 minutes or until the fudge loses its glossy look and gets grainy round the edges. Just at the last minute add a good pinch or two of salt and whisk that in to.

Dollop into the prepared tin, smooth down and leave to cool. After about an hour score into squares and when it’s finally set (another couple of hours at least) snap into bits ready to share round else you go into some sort of sugar induced coma.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Devilishly good marmalade

It’s still really quite cold (both inside and out) and I’m being kept from the hot bath I’m longing for by the possibility of a delivery from DHL who claim they keep going until 9pm. I don’t care that the country grinds to a halt every time it snows (although it’s frustrating that my bus will turn up and get me to work pretty much on time in the morning rush hour, but will be half an hour and more late when the roads are clear at night) but courier companies really annoy me.

I don’t drive – which is just one of the reasons I sometimes shop on line. I do work, which means I’m not available during work hours in the week, please dear God someone tell me why couriers only do domestic deliveries when people are at work, and only have depot’s where non drivers cannot possibly hope to reach them? And furthermore how am I meant to get my parcel from a depot that’s not only inaccessible, but also only open when I’m at work? And another thing – even if I manage to get someone out to the back end of nowhere on my behalf (Loughborough for heaven’s sake) I first of all have to give them the delivery card and my passport, and if it’s not done in a week the package is returned to sender. And (there’s more) if the delivery driver is going to put a phone number on the card why won’t he answer?

So – back to marmalade. Marmalade is a bit of a preoccupation with me, after years of thinking I didn’t like it one day I found myself staring at jam in a supermarket wondering why there wasn’t a really good bitter orangey version. At which point the penny dropped, I tried marmalade again and found I’d grown into it. Since then I’ve been making my own which is hugely satisfactory (there’s a real witches cauldron element to stirring up the boiling mixture that I love) but so far I’ve been fairly faithful to one recipe (I experimented with Lemon and Lavender but was a bit take it or leave it over the results.) However I did recently purchase ‘Tea at Fortnum and Mason’, it was meant to be a present but frankly it’s looking unlikely that I’ll be letting go of it.

It has a recipe for Seville orange and Whisky marmalade which looked intriguing because it uses brown sugar and as I had a bag of Seville’s lurking at the back of the freezer I thought I’d give it a go. For any other keen novice marmalade makers out there this is the second time I’ve used previously frozen oranges and it seems to make life a lot easier. They defrost a little soft so don’t need to be boiled for so long, the inner orange comes out super easily and the skin is then perfect for fine slicing... At first I wasn’t sure about the flavour of the sugar I thought it might be a bit overpowering, but having had it on toast I can confirm its damn fine and I think it’s going to be excellent in the river cottage chunky fruit cake I’ve become so fond of recently.

1kg Seville Oranges
1.5kg golden granulated sugar
500g light muscovado sugar (I used dark so the marmalade looks like something Satan would have for breakfast and has a super strong muscovado taste)
75ml whisky
8 or 9 sterilised jars

Wash the oranges, then half them and squeeze out the juice, remove all the pith and pips as well. Put the pith and pips in muslin and tie into a little bag (best also tied to the side of the pan so it doesn’t get lost in a vat of boiling sugar) add the juice to the pan, and finely chop the orange rinds. Add those to the pan too (it needs to be a big pan). Finally add 2.3 litres of cold water and bring the whole lot up to simmering point. Simmer gently until the rinds are soft and the liquid has reduced by about half. This will take between one and two hours...

Finally add the sugar and heat gently till it’s all dissolved – give it a good stir to help it on its way and then boil vigorously for about 15 minutes, at which point it’s time to start testing for setting point (yes time to mess around with cold plates working out if it’s wrinkling or not). When setting point has been reached add the whisky (I suggest letting it cool just a little first because adding alcohol to boiling sugar has dramatic results – which was news to me) boil again for roughly 5 more minutes to get back to setting points. Let it sit for a couple of minutes and then pot up.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Blackbirder – Dorothy B. Hughes

The Expendable Man’ is one of my favourite Persephone books – it’s a pitch perfect thriller which I found unbearably tense and almost equally thought provoking. It has one of the best opening sequences of any book I’ve ever read and is generally a cracking good read that I can highly recommend. It was also my first brush with Dorothy B. Hughes and ever since I’ve been vaguely looking out for her books.

Some cursory research revealed that Hughes was a reasonably prolific writer of Noir fiction and that most of her books are in print one way or another and so I did precisely nothing about it until I picked a second hand copy of ‘The Blackbirder’ which I was quite excited about and then proceeded not to read for a couple of months. However a combination of the weather which has been begging for something a little bit Noir, and just finishing Trollope’s Dr Thorne and wanting a total change of pace, made this feel like a good time to pick it up again.

‘The Blackbirder’ was written in 1943 and is set about the same time; it starts in a New York rathskeller then careers across the country ending in Santa Fe. The heroine Julie, a refugee from occupied Paris, is running for her life from the Nazi’s, from her family, and from the FBI. She keeps bumping into a grey man who claims to be a recuperating RAF pilot, but may be Gestapo, or possibly FBI. There are also a couple of corpses – they may have been Nazi’s, or they may just have been standing between Julie and her pursuers either way she has to keep moving before the police get involved. Oh and there’s a diamond necklace and of course the Blackbirder himself – a shadowy figure who’ll smuggle you in or out of Mexico for a price.

If that sounds confusing it was. In another mood this book would have appealed far more to me, but a mix of high expectations and a head full of Barchester affairs didn’t do it any favours. The hard boiled style felt almost like parody which is unfair because it isn’t, but I do think it’s a bit of an odd beast born out of a specific time and place in history. Julie the heroine is a good example of this; bought up as Julie Guille niece of the Duc de Guille (a sneaky collaborator) she is also Juliet Marlebone heiress to her father’s fabulous fortune (which the Duc has designs on). She uses both identities and despite having fled Paris alone and unaided at the age of 19, crossing Europe on foot whilst evading the Gestapo, escaping to Havana, and then being smuggled into the USA the best part of 3 years later it seems she can’t leave her room without bumping into an old acquaintance, none of whom fail to recognise the fashionable young thing in her present guise of a poor and badly dressed refugee.

Julie thinks nothing of raiding a corpse for possibly incriminating evidence, travels with her toothbrush in case she needs to make a run for it, can fly, shoot, likes to sing whilst she irons, can look glamorous with the change of a hat, is not put off by finding herself trapped in a house full of Nazi’s in a Santa Fe blizzard, has no compunction about stealing cars, and can expertly knock out a rival with a torch. Americans don’t seem to expect much of their women.

Now reading all that back I find myself thinking that it sounds brilliant, just my cup of tea, but I would have liked this better if the paranoia had been taken down a peg or two, and if there hadn’t been quite so many plot twists. Not knowing which side someone is on is one thing, but there are too many contradictory explanations from the author and far, far, to many coincidences for me to enjoy the whole thing at face value. It does make me wonder however just how concerned Americans were about fifth columnists and what their home front was like. I’m very used to thinking that the war didn’t touch the USA in anything like the way it touched Europe but ‘The Blackbirder’ has made me think that perhaps I should bother to find out a bit more about it.

A taste of the Unexpected - Mark Diacono

Or Armchair Gardening and Brian Friel

The two don’t really have anything in common bar the blonde tearing me away from my armchair and its plethora of activities this evening with bribes of cultural activity. The local theatre has had a Friel festival going on for the last few weeks and she was determined we should go – so off we went tonight for ‘Translations’. One of the things I really love about living in a city is that we can turn up at a theatre (I also love living within walking distance of a theatre) on the off chance and get cheapish standby tickets. I know next to nothing about Friel, but enjoyed ‘Translations’ and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in language, identity as it relates to language, and Irish history and culture. The blonde is passionate about all of those things so delighted with the play. I’m quite interested in all of those things and was delighted by the scent of peat as we walked into the theatre.

Peat smoke is the smell of home and childhood to me and I’m now sitting here buried up past nose level in a jumper that is splendidly redolent of peat and wool. It’s making me very happy and has put me in the mood for making plans... In this case garden plans. I no longer have a garden of my own; when there’s work to be done the Scottish one likes to refer to his garden as mine (though if I suggest that things need buying it goes back to being his garden and new plants become unnecessary...) but good as he is in letting me dig and weed to my heart’s content it’s not really the same. I miss having my own patch of earth to mess around with which is why this is the best time of year to read gardening books.

No really it is – I like drawing up wish lists and imagining the perfect Eden summer will bring, an Eden that doesn’t involve heavy clay soil, is oblivious to north facing aspects, and certainly takes no account of cost. Probably one that will water itself on the many occasions I’m not there to tend to it as well. When spring comes I need to be practical about what can be done out there but just now I’m spending some serious time with Mark Diacono’s ‘A taste of the unexpected’ and it’s very exciting. (This is another book that’s just begging to be a present.)

Diacono’s philosophy that life’s too short (and gardening possibly too much effort) to grow the things we can buy easily and cheaply anywhere really appeals to me. I love the idea of growing and eating more exotic produce – especially when it comes to fruit and nuts, after all who wouldn’t want to eat an apricot picked straight from the tree? Mark started off with a couple of Jane Grigson books which helped form the basis of his personal wish list; it’s an approach that I can relate to – most my gardening desires stem from recipe’s involving irritatingly elusive ingredients but what really sets this book apart is the blending of practicality with fancy.

Each plant comes with helpful advice about varieties, growing, harvesting, and of course cooking which is suitably inspirational but just before I get carried away there are also sensible warnings about – well about not getting carried away. I’m urged to consider plants which will yield almost immediate results as well as ones which will take years to produce, not to reject the easy winners, to think seasonally so that there are exciting things throughout the year and plenty of other good planning tips. The expert gardener will be casting me pitying looks by now, but I don’t care – I’m getting lots of ideas and finding them in a form that gives me the confidence to have a go. Some books make me feel like I can change my life and this is one of them.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It really is quite cold outside...

And to prove it good old radio 4 unearthed some Norwegians tonight who were happy to confirm all our suspicions and state that it is indeed chilly out. I’m inside and it’s chilly here too, I’ve been at the Scottish ones place in the country most the weekend sitting by his nice warm radiators drinking mulled wine and the idiosyncrasies of my central heating means that now I’m home I’ll have to wait for hours for the heaters to heat. I’ve washed up for the pleasure of having my hands in warm water, baked to heat the kitchen, and am even considering ironing something when I give over huddling around my laptop for warmth.

In fact it’s so cold indoors that I was forced to go shopping this afternoon (bread, milk, extra hot water bottle...) and suddenly I’m feeling like I might be winning against Christmas. Today’s purchases, a trip to Nottingham yesterday, and a whole lot of stuff turning up in the post and my mindset has moved from panic to the sort of pride in my organisational skills that normally comes before a fall. I do apologise if I seem Christmas obsessed, but I’ve not really thought of anything else for the last month, and for now can’t see much beyond the big day. It’s a feeling that wears off but if I don’t do the preparation now I won’t be ready (or able) to enjoy myself when I actually get to stop. I think on the whole this is just how I want it – retail at Christmas can be as exhilarating as it is exhausting, any lack of a leisured Victorian idyll of Christmas is more than made up for by being part of the madness of so many people’s real Christmases.

And now I’ve got that of my chest – today festive cheer is being bought to me via Michel Faber’s 'The Crimson Petal and the White' (and that extra hot water bottle) as you can see from the picture I’ve amassed quite a collection of these – unusually it’s a one book fits all affair. I loved ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ when I read it earlier this year, am quite excited about the upcoming adaptation, and think it’s the perfect present. Looking back I’ve read books over the last year which were probably better and which have certainly touched me more deeply, but none which has absorbed me so much or which I’ve been as keen to share.

A gripping story about a prostitute’s rise from the gutter (very festive) it’s an absolute page turner which should allow any grateful recipient to escape into Faber’s extremely believable version of Victorian London. There’s just a hint of salacious trashiness about it – enough at any rate to make it feel like a guilty pleasure (In the same way that ‘Peyton Place’ or ‘Valley of the Dolls’ are) but also, and like that pair, more than enough substance to justify the amount of time that needs to be spent reading it. Winter is the time for stories and the more epic the better so anybody out there who gets a copy of this is very lucky indeed!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Something Old, Something New

So far I’ve confined my online book buying activities to amazon. I’m not really a fan of internet shopping, believing very strongly that money (on the rare occasions I have it) should be spent in ways which promote choice and help people keep jobs... But back in the real world choice on the high street is already severely limited and when times are tight price matters.

Cutting a long story short I’ve discovered the book depository, now obviously I’ve heard of it before nevertheless I’m brand loyal so I’ve always stuck with amazon, but things have changed thanks to Canongate Classics. Canongate in partnership with creative Scotland and the The Book Depository have released just over 100 titles from their back list. They’re available as e books or print on demand (As an aside am I the only one who’s a bit hazy about what print on demand means? Quality, presentation, time before available – it doesn’t half vary.) And until March they’re only available from the Book Depository who have a special little shop for them.

Anyway I’m guessing there are plenty of books printed without much demand as all the titles I looked at were available for dispatch within 24 hours. I’ve looked out for Canongate Classics for years – they do a fine line in Scottish literature from the really quite old to the early 20th century and I’ve found some great books through the imprint (and notice in an incidental sort of way looking through this current list that they share a few titles and authors with Virago).

The end result is that as an early birthday present to myself I ordered some books which turned up promptly and cheaply – which is the sort of thing I like and just generally I’m really quite excited by them. I got ‘Highland Lady In Ireland’ (I have the highland lady diaries already, though shamefully unread, but these diaries cover two minor obsessions of mine – what could be more tempting?) Book number two is Annette Hope’s ‘A Caledonian Feast’ (the widely acknowledged definitive history of Scottish cuisine no less) it’s hovered on the edge of my wish list for a while and now seemed like a good time. I also got Duncan Williamson’s ‘The King of the Lamp’ which is a collection of Scottish travellers’ tales. It was a bit of an impulse purchase and is either going to be a great find or something I’ll wonder why I bought for ever more.

Having a good old browse through the Canongate list has also made me look out the unread classics I already have with a definite view to reading in the nearish future, which in way that probably only makes sense in my own mind makes me feel like I’ve got far more than three new books. This promises to be the highlight of the week – which means I’ve had far worse weeks and that I’ll be going to bed happy tonight.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christmas comes sooner than you think

The twinkly lights and irate shoppers are making Christmas hard to ignore and it’s time for me to face up to the fact that I’m even less organised than usual this year. Number of Christmas cards to send – 60ish, number of cards bought – 0, number of presents to give – not even calculated, number of presents already procured 2 ½ , number of days off left – 8, and it’s all complicated by quite a few birthdays (including mine – number of years I’ll be reaching to remain undisclosed).

It seems likely that I’ll be doing my bit for festive cheer via books and wine (again) and if I mean to order online it should happen before the post goes crazy – so probably by the end of the week, but goodness knows I’m finding it hard to raise any enthusiasm for the idea. My online excursions have resulted mostly in book orders for me (well I do have a birthday coming up) and very little in the way of hard present buying. In truth I want to spend my money on the high street where the cash is really needed but I’m struggling to find much that inspires in the book direction. Finding wine is a lot easier but feels a bit cheekier because it’s also work.

Presents (giving and receiving) are important to me – getting things, even things I’ve ordered for myself is hugely exciting, choosing things for people is even more thrilling but it takes time to do it properly. Hmmm time – this could get tricky... especially when budget requirements call for some imagination and creativity. Still despite feeling (and knowing that I look like) a limp dishrag, being busier than I’ve ever been in my life (this year is something else entirely), and getting a fresh coating of bruises and grime every day this is still by far and away my favourite time of the year. I think it’s a combination of thinking about the people I care about and being surrounded by sparkly things.

I’ve got a proper break coming up in January and can hardly wait; I’m already planning a stack of reading and even more baking. It should be good, now all I have to do is make those lists and source something fabulous for the blond, make mince pies, get some cards, tidy the flat, decide on a tree....

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blink and I miss the weekend

I’m feeling a bit fed up with the world in general this evening – having not finished work till 7 on Saturday night and having to be back for 8am on Monday morning I’m wondering what on earth happened to the idea of a weekend (it doesn’t help that I don’t get paid until the end of the week and am feeling the pinch). Today has gone by in a blur and I’ve still got so much to do, when I need to be at work keeps changing so I can’t make plans (sulking because a projected theatre trip on Tuesday is going to have to be ditched) and the Scottish one might as well be in Scotland for all the time I’m getting to spend with him.

Christmas – and in retail terms it’s full on Christmas now – is not the easiest time in my line of work, it gets very hard to carry on being nice to people day in day out. I’m frankly dreading the coming week when we’ll be shorthanded and there’s a lot (A LOT) to do – what I want to do is stay on bed and read ‘Dr Thorne’ for Decembers Trollope classics circuit because obviously that sounds a lot nicer than earning a living, but now it’s time to stop grumbling, grit my teeth, keep my mouth shut and get on with it. After all Christmas comes but once a year.

To cheer me up (or conceivably just to keep me quiet) the Scottish one took me to see the first part of ‘Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows’ this morning. I’m an unashamed Potter fan; I’ve loved the books and the films and will be just a little bit sad when the last film comes out and I know that’s the end of it all. I climbed on the Harry Potter bandwagon back in 1998 when I was working in a bookshop and everybody kept recommending ‘Philosophers Stone’. Eventually I gave in and read it, bought the second one 24 hours later and then had to wait a couple of months for book 3 to come out which was the first one that had a bit of an event attached to it. After that it became a bit of a tradition between me and an English teaching friend to get the books at midnight on the day of release and to go and see the films.

Say what you will about J.K Rowling (and I have only good things to say about her) the fuss and fun over those book releases created some really happy memories. Before it happened it would have been hard to credit that much excitement over a book release, it’s also hard to imagine it happening again anytime soon so I’m glad to have been part of it.

My Potter books are well read – they’re perfect for retiring under the duvet with when colds or flu strike and generally when I feel in need of something familiar, absorbing, and easy to read. (Anyone surprised now that I didn’t take to ‘Hawksmoor’?) The films are much the same – perfect Sunday viewing even given the increasing darkness of the story and this one was a cracker. I cried 3 times - when the owl died, when the elf died, and when Hermione makes her parents forget they have a daughter (an emotional episode of Home and Away will set me off though if that gives a guide to how susceptible I am to tears). The best thing about this film though – the mounting and believable tension all the way through, and that it makes a pretty good stab at showing how complicated life is even when you’re not being chased by a demonic wizard, oh and quite a nice bit of animation too. So really my weekend’s been okay.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd

This book came with a weight of expectation attached to it – one of the Penguin decades series, the Scottish one loves it, Will Self gave it a good write up, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years because of the architecture connection. On the other hand it is that bookish beast – something written by a contemporary man – that I tend to avoid.

Both the Scottish one and Will Self (care of the introduction, we’re not acquainted) told me that this was a dark and frightening book so what with the dark and scary weather and a train journey down to London to get through I thought what the hell now’s the time. I wasn’t scared which has disappointed me a bit, I was confused (but that’s hardly unusual) and I didn’t actually dislike the book in any way, but nor am I feeling any particular passion for it.

The confusion came with the plot which goes round and round in circles, the same things happening to different, or possibly the same people, at different, or possibly the same times. A notebook might have helped (okay would definitely have helped) because there are certainly things I’ve missed which might have been significant. Of course they might have been quite insignificant and just things that happen but that doesn’t feel like Ackroyd’s world.

The Hawksmoor of the title is a present day detective investigating a series of child murders. The bodies are turning up by churches – churches built in real history by Nicholas Hawksmoor, but in ‘Hawksmoor’ built by Nicholas Dyer (who’s living the real Hawksmoor’s life and who has a mysterious link with the modern Hawksmoor). Dyer’s system of architecture favours the arcane and shadowy; his buildings demand sacrifices – generally a child...

This felt like a very masculine book to me, not many women, lots of action, not so much introspection, and a lot of visceral detail. I was fascinated by the repetition and the way Ackroyd plays around with ideas of time and reality but for the most part I just didn’t click with this book. In the end I want a character I can empathise with even if I don’t particularly like them and in this case I couldn’t find that character in either Dyer or Hawksmoor. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a deficiency on my part and at the very least I should have been a bit more horrified by ‘Hawksmoor’, but to me it felt like little more than an academic exercise with more style than substance.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Desert of the Heart – Jane Rule

One question that came up on Saturday was “What books won’t you read” which is one I find hard to answer. The fairly flippant reply was “anything written by contemporary men” which is sort of true because I don’t read much contemporary fiction (by men or women), I suppose I should really have said I just won’t read anything that doesn’t appeal to me (I’ve been thinking about this a lot since) it’s not a very specific response but it’s accurate.

It’s something I’m still thinking about because as I come to write up my thoughts on this particular book I realise I have quite a collection of books about lesbian relationships. This is a theme that clearly appeals to me probably because of the way roles are worked out between protagonists who generally start from a point of unambiguous equality. (Or something like that.)

The back blurb for ‘Desert of the Heart’ reads thus
“Evelyn Hall, an English professor, is in Reno to obtain a divorce and put an end to her sixteen year marriage. During her six weeks’ stay at a boarding house, she meets Ann Childs, a free spirited casino worker and fifteen years her junior. Evelyn is about to be overwhelmed by more than just the staggering, spare beauty of the Nevada desert...”
Which is basically what happens, Sarah Waters says ‘A significant novel by any standards, and an undisputed lesbian classic’ but for me the big thing about this book is the way it talks about work.

Meanwhile the relationship element rings true to me, especially the intense conversations between Ann and Evelyn - they talk about philosophy and feelings in a way that feels clunky but at the same time realistic, however the way Rule talks about work, and Ann’s work particularly is something else entirely. Ann is a change apron in a casino. A job that seems to entail carrying a massive weight of cash around for hours at a time (my estimate is about 25kilos) whilst keeping a watchful eye on the gaming floor.

The thing with Ann is that she’s a clever and able young woman working in an apparently dead end job which she clearly gets both satisfaction and inspiration from. For the time being what she does provides her with a kind of family albeit a dysfunctional one, and a rhythm to her life that has nothing to do with earning money. Most of her friends including the work ones, disapprove of what Ann does but not Evelyn who has a ‘respectable’ profession so perhaps has a better idea of what a bear pit any job can lead you into, and who can see the skill that Ann needs in her work especially when it comes to handling people. What fascinated me were the details of how the apron is worn; that if you turn round to quickly the weight will swing out of control and is enough to knock you down, how tired Ann is at the end of a shift – tired enough to cry and to struggle to function, how break patterns work, and how she justifies her job both to herself and others.

Work and relationships are the two things we’re most likely to define ourselves by – to me Ann’s need to justify what she does suggests that she’s not the free spirit her sexuality suggests. She’s neither proud of nor indifferent to her job, and the job itself seems to be used as a challenge to convention where I might have expected her preference for women to be.

In fact the more I think about it the more I think this would be a great book group read; there’s a lot going on and a lot to talk about – my book about work and identity will be someone else’s love story, and another’s tragedy so in conclusion I can only agree with Sarah Waters and repeat ‘A significant novel by any standards...’

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tea, Cake, and a Great Day Out

First of all I feel honour bound (after having, though with considerable help from the Scottish one, eaten most of it) to share the details of Mondays very successful cake. It’s basically the chunky Fig Prune and Apricot cake from River Cottage Every day. It was baked on TV Thursday night and the link to the recipe is here. I used ordinary self raising flour and as I’m not overly fond of figs (which is why there’s been a packet at the back of the cupboard in need of use for a while now – I wish I could remember why I bought them in the first place) when I make the cake again, which will be soon, I think I’ll use dates instead. Prunes on the other hand are something I love to cook with and I’m very pleased to have another use for them because there always seems to be half a pack hanging around.

Anyway not for the first time, and most likely not the last, I’m singing the praises of a book from the River Cottage stable though I do think I need to break out and do more than bake cakes – there’s a venison stew that looks good...

Saturday was a day I’ve been looking forward to for a while – a planned day in London where I got to go not only to the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the RA but also meet up with some other book bloggers. We made the pilgrimage to The Persephone bookshop (one small purchase, which would have been very virtuous if it hadn’t been coupled to a few more extravagant acquisitions earlier in the day – all necessary I assure you) and then headed to the British Museum for afternoon tea which was extremely proper (cucumber sandwiches, scones, a choice of tea’s, and little cakes all on a stand – very pretty).

The catalyst for the occasion was a UK visit from the very charming Thomas of My Porch. He bought presents which was unbelievably exciting (as well as extremely generous); and had in fact chosen appropriate American books for everyone; I got Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening and Selected Stories’ which I’m delighted with. I’ve read ‘The Awakening’ before but none of the other stories, and have been looking out for more Chopin. Paperback Reader personally recommends one of the stories so all in all it comes with glowing testimonials.

This is the second time I’ve met up with like minded bloggers and it’s been great both times. Normally meeting new people socially is something I’m a poor hand at. For some reason I can never think of anything to say and so generally hang around feeling uncomfortable, fellow bloggers are an interesting mix of total strangers/people I feel I already know. Most of the conversation was about reading which didn’t leave much time for anything else but learning more about the people behind the screen was a pleasure – even the very real possibility of being trapped in a lift with these people wasn’t as awful to contemplate as I would normally fear (don’t use the British Museum lifts, they don’t behave well.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11th

Leicester’s war memorial is on the edge of a park just out of the town centre. It was designed By Lutyens who seems to have been the go to guy for war memorials and for 364 days of year it’s a fairly imposing archway sitting at the top of a slight rise with a nice–ish view over the city but on November 11th it has it’s moment. The moment is sunrise because our war memorial is solar aligned – sadly this doesn’t seem to be widely known (I’d hoped to find a picture to illustrate but can’t see any online and don’t have any myself because this is the third year in a row it’s rained). I’ve only managed to catch one sunrise but it was quite an experience and unless it’s actually blowing a gale and raining (today) it’s a good place to be at 7.22 am on a November morning.

At that time of day there’s hardly anyone around – a few dog walkers, people like me on their way to work and a few people on their way home – a good time for reflection and for wondering what it might have felt like at sunrise on November 11th 1918. How can a war end at 11am? How do you go on being at war for those last few hours knowing it’s for nothing very much anymore? Still there’s something hopeful about sunrise – new beginnings and all that, and it strikes me as such a fantastic touch to a memorial – a way of bringing stone to life and making it really demonstrate what all that sacrifice of life might have been for. It’s uplifting without being sentimental and I can heartily recommend it even if it does mean getting up ridicoulously early on cold dark mornings.