Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hide And Seek – Wilkie Collins

I’m suffering from the beginnings of what looks like being a really horrible cold (I’m taking it like a man) and have been procrastinating all day but it’s time to pull myself together, tear myself away from River Cottage which has been cheering me up for the last hour, and focus on Wilkie Collins.

Collins is my favourite Victorian writer by a distance (so far), I’ve tried with Dickens but have never really got beyond feeling quite worthy for making the effort. Why Dickens is so much better beloved is something I wonder about every time I pick up a Collins book, and ‘Hide and Seek’ has proved no exception to that rule, now I’ve finished it I find I’m missing it – a hard read to follow.

It’s not about the plot which in this case centres on a mysterious deaf and dumb girl. She’s a poor orphan who’s been raised in a circus, and is seen and rescued by an artist by the name of Valentine Blyth who takes her home to his bedridden wife. Terrified of losing the girl they christen Madonna (because of her resemblance to a Raphael Madonna) Valentine keeps what little he knows of her past a closely guarded secret. It’s a short but sad history of a dying mother with a starving baby – a Good Samaritan takes pity on her suckling the baby, and agreeing to foster the infant Madonna (real name Mary) according to her mother’s dying wish.
Madonna grows into a lovely and happy young woman secure in her family and on the verge of falling in love with one Zach Thorpe – the exuberant son of a strictly puritanical father. An ill advised foray to a low bar brings Zach into contact with a mysterious stranger, and leads to his speedy exit from home, and this is where the plot thickens. Through a series of extraordinary coincidences the stranger turns out to be Madonna’s Uncle (through some equally unlikely coincidences Zach will turn out to be her brother), but as I said before it’s not really about the plot...

There are two things about this book that really made it sing for me. The first was the story of Valentine himself – he’s a very mediocre artist, but that doesn’t stop him living for and by his art in the most sincere way possible. It sustains him against every disappointment and brings untold pleasure with it – I like to paint and once had artistic ambitions and can’t tell you how true this rang for me, as well as being a happy reminder of something I hadn’t given much thought to recently.

The second was the story of Mary Grice the hapless young mother. She’s young, innocent, and not altogether wise when she falls in love, and falls from virtue – for which she pays a very heavy price. Forced to flee from her home she’s cheated of her savings and left alone and friendless; an absolute outcast from society. It’s a harsh punishment for a momentary lapse from virtue, but very much the correct fate for a Victorian maiden who strayed. It’s worth remembering too that it’s not very long since having a child out of wedlock was a disgrace. My grandmother put the fear of god in my mother when she was a teenager in the sixties by telling her that pregnancy would result in all of them being thrown out of home (it’s just possible that my grandfather would have done it to – that or not raised an eyebrow). Granny was speaking from not altogether happy experience of her own youthful mishap.

Collins however makes it clear that Mary is a relatively innocent victim, the reader is first invited to apportion blame to her seducer, and then the finger is unmistakably pointed at evangelical puritans; those who live by the bible but without an ounce of Christian charity. Mary’s lover is ignorant of her fate – he’s never given the chance to make things right. Her father would have forgiven and sheltered her, but he too is denied that chance. As everything unfolds it’s equally moving and thought provoking; if Collins could find a sympathetic audience in the 1850’s why was illegitimacy still such a disgrace 100 years later?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Last night we went to see Nosferatu in the local Cathedral complete with organ music care of Nigel Ogden (from BBC2’s ‘The Organist Entertains’, which honestly didn’t mean much to me but the publicity was big on it so I’m assuming others are better informed). It transpired that it was really about the music, the last of a series of organ recitals, but I can’t help but feel that the Cathedral was a great if slightly uncomfortable (hard seats) place to see a film and hope that they consider revisiting the idea.

I’d never seen Nosferatu before and it turns out that the last 88 years have changed our ideas of what’s scary; this was possibly the campest film I’ve ever seen – the Scottish one describes it as delightfully of its time which is true. It seemed amazingly hammy and overacted but to an audience used to music hall style entertainment that would presumably have seemed quite appropriate. Even so there were some chilling moments – some scenes with rats which I found unsettling, a mad estate agent, and a crewless boat slipping into harbour. It’s based closely on ‘Dracula’ with just enough differences to avoid getting into trouble (apparently it was meant to be 'Dracula' but they couldn’t get permission to use the story).

We weren’t the only ones who found it funny, the whole Cathedral kept erupting into laughter – if the images on the screen didn’t do it than the subtitles most certainly did, but nothing could distract from the grandeur of the surroundings, or banish the shadows from the candlelit naves. There were iconic Nosferatu effects every time someone walked past the floodlit windows outside (My-friend-the-teacher’s son amused us more than you might expect by doing a very good impression as we left the building, she was delighted to see her 13 year old pick up on a cultural reference which didn’t come courtesy of his x-box live). The organ accompaniment was grand and reminded me strongly of 'Miss Hargreaves'– it’s also something that it just wouldn’t occur to me to sit through without a visual distraction.
I did wonder why they chose ‘Nosferatu’ but as the man with the collar explained beforehand it raises a lot of questions of a distinctly Christian nature and I can’t argue with that. I would love to see what could be done with a genuinely scary (though still appropriate) film, the organ, and such an amazingly atmospheric venue.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Month In The Country – J. L. Carr

I’m currently reading Wilkie Collins ‘Hide and Seek’ and meant to post about it tonight but due to a weekend spent with my youngest sister I’ve not done much reading – a lot of cooking, shopping, and some theatre going, but the nearest we got to books was buying some new ones.

‘Hide and Seek’ talks a lot about art and what it can do for the artist which reminded me of ‘A Month in the Country’ which I read a few months ago for a postal reading group. I didn’t feel that I could talk about it until its original owner got it back complete with everyone’s notes and thoughts about it, but it should be home by now so...

I loved this book which would otherwise have completely passed me by – one of the good things about book groups. I was really pleased to find a copy in a 3 for 2 offer a couple of weeks later – it’s definitely a re-reader. For such a short book (only 90 odd pages) it made a profound impression on me, I was on the fence until page 13 when there’s talk of an English baluster, and Bannister Fletcher – it took me right back to my own student days and set me off on paths of remembering which set up nicely for what follows.

‘A Month In The Country’ tells the tale of Tom Birkin damaged survivor of the first world war and a bad marriage. It’s late in the summer of 1920 when he turns up in the village of Oxgodby to restore a church wall, and I have to admit that my first assumption was that it was a novel contemporary with that period. It soon became clear from the language that this couldn’t be the case, but a quick check revealed that Carr was born in 1912, wrote ‘A Month In The Country’ in 1980, and a slightly slower check that his work has a strongly autobiographical element to it. When he talks about those last few years before the horse was replaced by the motor it really feels like memory and not imagination which is certainly part of the power of the book.

Birkin camps in the tower of the church he’s working on and quickly becomes absorbed in his labours and into the local community. The weather stays good and the summer stretches on with Birkin quietly getting over his shell shock, and equally recovering from his bad marriage as he falls for the vicar’s wife. As the church mural is revealed so are two more stories – that of the original artist, and something of his subject. When Carr evokes the long dead muralist describing the colour of his beard from hairs left in the plaster and describes Birkin’s feelings on standing in this masters footsteps he describes something I recognise.

Everything comes to an end when the weather breaks, Tom moves on taking his memory of a perfect summer with him which is as it should be. His affair with the vicar’s lovely wife reaches a conclusion which I found both perfectly appropriate and very moving. I’m generally keen on short stories and novellas but it’s rare that they stick with me as this one has.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two Hundred (and ten) Virago’s - and counting

It sometimes seems that my mission in life is to accumulate; books of course, but also shells, little pebbles, shoes, postcards, pictures generally, bits of ribbon, odd socks (though I swear they start out as pairs) theatre programmes, stuff for the kitchen – well you get the idea, and all of it collects dust like nobody’s business, but within the general accumulation there are little hoards which are genuine collections and the one dearest to my heart is my collection of Virago books.

I currently have just over two hundred volumes – which is almost double the number I think I had a year ago – the sudden acceleration is due to (mostly) friendly rivalry with the blonde – last time I checked she was about 2 books behind me – but she’s sneaky so I may be behind now... I should admit that I behaved shamefully in the Astley Book Farm a couple of weeks ago over a Nina Bawden – there wasn’t a tussle but only because I moved with uncharacteristic speed and snatched the book moments before she got her outstretched hand on it. In my defence... hmmm can’t think of a defence, but it did turn out to be an ex library copy and the blonde likes her books pristine so we stayed friends this time. The lovely ladies who run Astley have threatened to hold back Virago’s for the purpose of setting up a bidding war between us; they might be on to something.

My love for this publisher stretches back over 18 years which I realise (though not entirely willingly) is half my lifetime. I first discovered those nice green books when I was fresh at university and beginning to realise there must be more to the canon than men and Virginia Woolf. Those were the heady days of discovering Molly Keane, and Rosamond Lehmann, Dodie Smith and E. M. Delafield’s ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’. After graduating I worked in a bookshop for a while (the Blonde was my boss) and that’s when I started collecting (though I must admit to not really reading many at the time) and then for a while my reading tastes veered off in other directions.

My rediscovery of Virago was a happy moment (Florence King’s ‘Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady’, Mary Renault’s ‘The Friendly Young Lady’s’ Dorothy Baker’s ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’) and the point where I started looking for apples rather than authors on books – a strategy which has lead me to all sorts of happy discoveries – F. M Mayor, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Alice Thomas Ellis, Elizabeth Von Arnim, and Barbara Comyns are all writers I would probably never have read without Virago’s livery to recommend them. I have a list almost as long of writers waiting to be read on my shelves all there for the same reason.

Virago have become more than just a publisher to me, some of the best days I’ve spent over the last couple of years have been with the blonde scouring the countryside for second hand bookshops and those distinctive spines. For someone as unathletic as me hunting down books is as close to sport as it gets. There are rules, sort of, I won’t buy a book I don’t think I’ll read (one of the reason’s I really admire Verity and her Virago Venture) which is why I don’t have a copy of ‘The Well of Loneliness’ (don’t know why, never fancied it). I don’t (generally) buy duplicates of books I already have but then find a Virago edition of (The exception is ‘Mrs Miniver’ but the duplicate copy I now own is going to a new home soon). Amazon purchases are allowed, but we both agree that they just aren’t the same – it’s the thrill of finding a book that makes this such fun for us – finding F. M. Mayor’s ‘The Squire’s Daughter’ or Barbara Comyns ‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ were almost euphoric moments because I’d wanted both for a while, as was finding Catherine Carswell, and Christina Stead, both new to me, both yet to be read, but both very promising looking.

I’m not fussy about the colour of the cover, although I’m fond of the old green ones; something I like about my collection is the mix of sun bleached old books, pristine bottle green ones, and the whole rainbow of the current covers. The blonde likes her books as immaculate as possible and will buy on that basis; I’m more likely to be attracted by a title (‘Moonraker’!). I’m not entirely sure how many modern classics there are – but I know its well over 600. I hope there are about another 100 or so old and probably out of print again titles waiting for me to find (obviously I really hope it’s far more), and thankfully they keep publishing more so Virago truly should be a publisher for life and not just for Christmas. Meanwhile my little sister is visiting this weekend, and the blonde and I plan to take her out – should we see a bookshop I’m particularly looking for ‘The Thorn Birds’ (don’t judge me) and Ethel M Dell’s ‘The Way of an Eagle’ (really, don’t judge me). Oh and wish me happy hunting!

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I was catching up with my father earlier today and he gently hinted that I might like to do another Shetland post (okay, gave strict instructions to that effect) I guess all the books have got dull for him, but as it happens there’s a post I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while – books with a Shetland connection, or perhaps it’s Shetland with a book connection.

One of the many things that take me back time after time (apart from the promise of lobster and whisky) is the sheer amount of creativity that the islands seem to encourage. I get struck with a desire to paint – something which I entirely lack the discipline to do well (glossing over the need for talent, but never mind that), but which I enjoy immensely if I can find a sheltered spot in conjunction with a view. The view is the easy bit.

I also begin to regret that I’ve forgotten how to knit; it was a part of our education (I believe funding has just been cut for teaching knitting in schools and I can’t help but feel this is little short of criminal). My mother has a pair of Fair Isle mittens (prone to making her slightly misty eyed) to prove I wasn’t entirely inept, but I was left standing by girls for whom knitting was very much in the blood.

This sort of brings me in a very roundabout way to Mary Fraser–who knits, paints, cooks, and does the most incredible embroideries. (all my efforts to persuade my father and stepmother that as they have two they have one spare have been in vain) I don’t have a photo and can’t describe them in a way which could do them justice – but take my word for it, they’re incredible. She also does some pretty nifty Fair Isle bunting, binds books in the traditional medieval way – again in Fair Isle, but also in hand marbled paper (bookish connection number 1) and has illustrated two children’s books (bookish connection number 2), all in all an quite a list of talents – and one I suspect only scratches the surface of what she can turn her hand to.

Sadly It seems the children’s books are only available in Shetland, which is a shame – most the text is in dialect broad enough to possibly confound the untutored southerner (although the blonde had no trouble with it) but I like both the pictures and the story (by Valerie Watt) so my young godson will be getting copies when the time is ripe and I think he’ll love them too.

Of all things though it’s the Fair Isle bits and bobs I seem to have coveted and gathered the most of. George Mackay Brown wrote that ‘Mary is made for merriment’ when he met her on a Shetland visit (in ‘Northern Lights, a Poet’s sources’ no less – bookish connection number 3) it’s an apt description. Fair Isle is a potent symbol of Shetland (the museum uniforms include woolly jumpers) as an expat I feel a little moment of warmth whenever I see it, even when it’s the product of China. My woolly notebook contains whisky notes, which is probably an excess of Scottishness, even if it is something I take very seriously, but the bunting just makes me happy. I have a weak spot for bunting anyway but much as I like the floral chintzy versions they’re not really me. The knitted versions is just as whimsical but with a bit of muscle to it and I love the sense of humour behind it as well as the personal touch; this is a true cottage industry and makes me think I should have tried harder in knitting class (which my report card might have mentioned at the time...)

Mary Fraser - Shetland Bookbinders have a look here

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

Autumn isn’t my favourite time of year – I don’t mind winter but there’s something about the descent into it that I find dispiriting, but there are compensations. One of them is that autumn feels like the perfect season for Victoriana especially the more sensational kind and this September is being improved for me by Wilkie Collins.

There are a handful of his books I’ve been eyeing up for a read for a while and after ‘The Crimson Petal and The White’ I wanted to stay vaguely in period so went for ‘The Dead Secret’. It starts with a death bed scene followed by a dawn flight from a foreboding Cornish tower, and skips quickly to a dawn wedding some years later. In-between these events the only evidence of a Secret is hidden in said Cornish mansion...

When Rosamond Treverton marries Leonard Frankland it seems to be the most serendipitous of unions – childhood friends who fell in love, Leonards father has bought the Treverton family seat (that mysterious Cornish mansion again) Rosamond brings the money back to the family. Leonard Frankland has two important idiosyncrasies; he’s recently become blind and he’s very proud. His family were once landed gentry but more recently the money’s come from trade, something his father has taught him to be ever so slightly ashamed of. He believes in keeping a proper distance from the lower orders, in fact fundamentally believes in the idea of lower orders.

Rosamond is free from these particular prejudices, she’s a happy, loving, open hearted, and cheerful young woman devoted to her husband. If she has a fault it’s a quick and passionate temper. As the young couple journey south to take up their inheritance they are somewhat delayed by Rosamond producing a son and heir a month early. During her convalescence at a country inn she’s attended by a mysterious nurse who seems strangely agitated and warns her to avoid the Myrtle room at all costs when she reaches her new home.

All this warning does is determine Rosamond to find the room and reveal its secret – and here’s where the resemblance to ‘Cousin Henry’ comes in. The secret is contained in a hidden document which has the power to destroy Rosamond’s happiness and deprive her of her fortune in one fell swoop. She’s faced with the choice of telling her husband everything and hoping that love is enough to overcome his pride, or of destroying all evidence of a Secret no-one even suspects – something that would be made even simpler by Leonards blindness.

I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it all ends happily – both Leonard and Rosamond are unhesitatingly honest but this is by no means all there is to the book. In good Collins style there are a host of other bit players vividly drawn and displaying a plethora of eccentricities, there’s also the hint of a ghost story that conjures both real suspense and comedy into a particularly fraught part of proceedings.

Its Collins touches of comedy and the grotesque that make him so dear to me as a writer, but I think it’s his social conscience that elevates him to classic status. If ‘The Dead Secret’ is anything it’s an attack on the idea of class superiority. Here fortune is an accident – not even one of birth, what matters is a good and true heart, the rest being down to education and opportunity. Collins plays with ideas of legitimacy and identity in several of his novels, and reading ‘The Dead Secret’ it struck me again that surely some of the things he suggests must have been shocking to the society he belonged to. I think there’s some pretty revolutionary socialism going on here – as well as a turning on the head of my pre-conceived notions of what a Victorian audience would have found acceptable. Anyway I’m blowing the trumpet for Wilkie Collins – I think he deserves far more attention – especially when it comes to the lesser known novels, as the nights draw in and the duvet calls you can’t do much better for thought provoking entertainment!

The Augustus Egg painting above (one of a triptych called 'Past and Present') is just because I like it and because I feel it's in the spirit of Collins, though Collins would never allow such injustice to pass unpunished!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cousin Henry – Anthony Trollope

I’ve read two books which deal with secrets and inheritance over the last week; Wilkie Collins ‘The Dead Secret’ and Anthony Trollope’s ‘Cousin Henry’. The similar subject matter was coincidence but it’s made for interesting reading. It sort of makes sense (to me) to talk about ‘Cousin Henry’ first – this is my first foray into Trollope; I’ve been flirting with him for a few years now, but never actually committed to opening a book.

The reason behind this long flirtation is not that he’s one of those big names I feel I should read (though that’s not unattractive to me), but that Trollope was a favourite of a much missed god father. He was a deeply intelligent, very funny, wise, and kind man – I feel if he loved Trollope then there’s something in Trollope for me. Of course if I’m wrong I’ll be a bit upset about it – hence the hesitation in getting stuck in. ‘Cousin Henry’ probably wasn’t a good place to start; chosen because it was short and had large print, I thought I’d be done with it in a few hours and ready for the next one. It turned out to be an experimental and surprisingly modern late work, a detailed and introspective character study of a troubled character in a morally fraught situation.

Deep in the Welsh countryside an elderly man is almost at the end of his life and wracked with indecision as to what to do with his estate. On the one hand is his beloved niece Isobel Broderick who has been regarded as his heir, on the other his nephew Henry who bears the family name. Respect for primogeniture is ingrained in the old squire so despite feelings of guilt about the situation he’s leaving Isobel in the old man makes out his will and calls Henry down to the country as his successor. Initially he hopes for a marriage between the cousins to salve his conscience but Isobel makes it clear that she despises Henry. In fact everybody despises Henry although it’s never really made clear why and when Isobel removes herself, the old man left alone with poor old cousin Henry changes his will again.

Now Henry knows the will has been changed, and he understandably feels angered by it, so much so that he allows it to become hidden (not really a spoiler because it’s on the back cover). The resulting situation is a mess. It’s generally accepted that a new will was made but equally widely assumed it’s been destroyed, perhaps by the old man, perhaps by Henry, and this is where things get interesting. In the absence of a later deed Henry inherits, but what will he do next – reveal the truth or keep the estate?

Meanwhile Isobel returns to her father’s house where she’s not entirely welcome determined to make a martyr of herself. She suspects a good part of the truth and the rest of the book is something of a struggle of wills between the determined strength of a silent Isobel, and the weak vacillations of Henry who’s inexorably pushed towards a public declaration of his innocence that he’s entirely unequal to making.

What makes this book different is that the wronged heroine is not an especially likable young woman, whilst the rogue of the piece is incapable of the actual act of villainy which would secure his position. Isobel is proud, stubborn, hypocritical, disdainful, and uncompromising. She refuses her cousins offer of marriage with an insult which couldn’t fail to make him her enemy, refuses to take any part in the search for the will in her favour, but equally refuses to believe that it doesn’t exist, refuses again to accept any money from her cousin under the terms of the proved will (which makes her unpopular at home) and generally sets out to make a public martyr of herself, presumably aware of the effect this will have on public opinion towards her cousin.

Cousin Henry in his turn finds himself in a terrible trap. Despised by all around him he feels powerless to act. Destroying the evidence will mean committing a sin beyond redemption, allowing its continued existence removes any security or comfort from his situation. He lets chance after chance to reveal the truth painlessly slip by him, each time he does so the probability of total disgrace becomes more certain and he knows it. The great question is this – if he was treated more kindly would he act more honourably?

Plot wise I thought this was a corker, stylistically it was more of a challenge. The dialogue felt stilted, and as the protagonists mull over their options it all becomes somewhat repetitive – which is realistic, but not as entertaining as the more sensational ‘The Dead Secret’ or ‘The Crimson Petal and The White’. All in all a mixed success, but I’m not done with Trollope yet – I’ve had some encouraging recommendations for what to try next and would welcome any more...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mrs Ames – E. F. Benson

‘Mrs Ames’ was another of my amazon acquisitions from last month (I’m working through that stack slowly but surely) and I actually read it a few weeks ago but other things have got in the way of writing about it – mostly ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ which absorbed so much attention that it didn’t leave much room for anything else, and ‘Mrs Ames’ deserves proper attention.

I’m very attached to the Mapp and Lucia novels but have had mixed feelings about other Benson that’s come my way, generally I’ve found they lack the ‘classic’ quality which make the Mapp and Lucia books so special to me and many, many, others so I was curious about ‘Mrs Ames’ from the outset – would it be a disappointment, a curiosity, or a proper gem.

Cutting to the chase it’s a proper gem (but I’ll also be taking the scenic route as well). The Bloomsbury group titles continue to intrigue me, the first round of titles included a couple that I already knew and some that came highly recommended (Miss Hargreaves will always be synonymous with Simon stuck-in-a-book for me). This second round has been more of an unknown quantity and it’s also made me realise that I had certain preconceptions about the Bloomsbury titles. I assume they will be light, funny, period pieces – which they so far have been, but there’s so much more going on as well.

The back blurb gives the bones of the story but it doesn’t give away much else, so based on a description of Mrs Ames reigning over the social scene of Riseborough until the captivating Mrs Evans catches the eye of both her husband and son made me think this would be a prototype for ‘Mapp and Lucia’ which was enough to make me buy the book.

The first thing that struck me was how definitely pre (first world) war ‘Mrs Ames’ feels. Mapp and Lucia inhabit a busy world that indefinably belongs to the active middle aged; Mrs Ames and her circle are just as middle aged, almost as active and somehow all feel much more redundant – their days are spent in the same round of socialising and gossip but there’s a pervasive lack of purpose; it’s just a way of spending time. Mrs Evans flirtation with Major Ames which ends up threatening social ruin for herself and the destruction of two marriages is born of nothing more or less than boredom. She’s not a deep woman and strong feelings seem to have bypassed her, so the thrill of fancying herself in love – of actually feeling something – is too much for her to resist.

Mrs Ames herself is a fascinating character, short with a face like a toad and a social dictator to boot – yet still I couldn’t help but warm to her. Long past the first flush of youth she still touchingly believes that a bit of rejuvenation by way of a good moisturiser and some (entirely natural of course, and not a dye) hair restorer and some spur of the moment paddling will turn back the clock. Finding her husband has been blinded by the far more obvious attractions of Mrs Evans she casts round for something and finds the suffragette movement.

I can’t tell you how much this excited me – for all my reading from the period I don’t come across much that deals specifically with the suffrage movement so Benson’s take on it in 1912 felt like gold dust. Mrs Ames takes up the movement by way of an autumn diversion not least because she knows it will annoy some of the neighbours. Her attempts at direct action are somewhat ill fated (and very funny) but what’s really noticeable is how the idea takes hold of her. It’s made explicitly clear that it’s the first time she’s really thought about anything – the results are even more intoxicating than Mrs Evans brush with love. Whatever the other results and embarrassments arising from this conversion Mrs Ames finds herself on terms of equality with a new (somewhat lower) spectrum of society. Trades people become people – my feeling is that Benson approved.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Sundays do tend to be about food round my way and today has been no exception. Yesterday the blonde and I headed out to the country to inspect the new house of a teacher friend and fellow Bridgewater fan (whatever else was moving chaos the tea was impeccably turned out) the house is great with a very promising garden, not however as promising as the teachers fathers garden... It has a lot of fruit trees – several kinds of apples, some really good plums, and a damson all gave up their best for us. So fecund were they that even the fact that I was wearing heals didn’t stop me getting bags of fruit. I’ve got some serious plans for all this fruit, now all I need to do is get organised before it goes over.

My last foraging expedition was a couple of Sundays ago when the Scottish one and I went out hunting for blackberries, I baked some into an apple and blackberry version of Apple pudding cake (I seem to remember we liked it!) but the majority went into blackberry whisky (one big jar half filled by 70cl of cheap whisky, 200g of sugar and as many blackberries as it took to fill the rest of the jar). The Scottish one tested it today and has declared it delicious (hopefully my turn soon) with no sign of secondary fermentation (the original Dom Perignon and I have both had problems with this – in my case with homemade mincemeat which is a bit less glamorous than his Champagne experiments) and so we’re hoping to find enough blackberries to make more, possibly using brown sugar which I hope will add another layer of complexity and general deliciousness to the overall flavour.

Today however is about cheesecake – made by request for lunch. I’ve not made a cheesecake for years and had vaguely remembered it being a slightly complicated process. It’s not. This is a version of a Nigella chocolate and lime cheesecake but mine is a lot smaller, lunch was only for 4 and there’s only so much left over cheesecake a person can eat without slipping into a larger dress size. I’m not sure how fashionable cheesecake is these days but it tastes as good as it ever did so here’s the recipe (for the original and probably best see ‘Nigella Bites’ or possibly her website)

1 packet of crunchy chocolate chip cookies – double choc chip won’t go amiss (150g)
40g of butter
100g caster sugar
2 whole eggs + 1 egg yolk
2 tubs (400g) cream cheese (might as well be the light version)
Juice of 2 ½ limes

1 small (17cm) springform cake tin needs to be made as waterproof as possible. It needs a sheet of tinfoil big enough to cover the base of the tin (Inside, and clipped into place by the sides) and to wrap up almost to the top of the outside of the tin. A second sheet of tinfoil wrapped around the outside of the tin should then do the trick.

Next the biscuits should be blitzed into a powder, then the butter added and the whole lot blitzed again into a buttery crumby ball. Spread this on the base of the prepared tin and put in the fridge to harden.

Set the oven to 180°, boil a kettle, and dig out a roasting tin big enough to fit the cake tin with room to spare round all the edges.

Whip the cream cheese until smooth, add the sugar and beat again, then add the eggs and lime juice, poor the gloopy limey mix into the prepared tin and place it in the roasting tin, half fill the tin with boiling water (and definitely below the level of the tinfoil!) put the whole lot – very carefully – into the oven and bake for about an hour. It should basically look set but with the hint of wobble to it.

Immediately remove as much foil as possible without undoing the sides and leave to cool on a rack – when it’s properly cool put in the fridge, still in the tin, for 2 or 3 hours (minimum) to make sure it’s well set and then eat.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jelly - With Bompas & Parr

I’ve had this book for a couple of months now, and meant to write about it from the moment it hit my doormat but somehow haven’t which I’m feeling a little bit guilty about. I might have written about it sooner if I could only have decided if it was a work about art, or about food – it is of course both, but the tidy part of my mind wants an overall definition (so I can put it on a shelf).

Today seems to be the day though (Mrs Ames will wait a little longer), after my liaison with Nigella I’m in a foody sort of mood. ‘Jelly’ is at the opposite end of the cook book spectrum – it’s full of things I can only imagine making – but oh how I imagine making them. Jewel coloured, wobbly, seductive, exotic perfect jellies flecked with gold, or holding gleaming fruits in their pellucid depths all freshly turned out of their bespoke copper moulds (available from £600) I rather like the ones shaped like breasts. Seems appropriate for jelly.

I’m also more than a little in love with the striped Clementine jellies. These are such a thing of beauty, but I calculate they would take about 9 hours to make. I still want to try them, or perhaps something similar – stripy jelly, really what could be more exciting sat on the table in front of you? I’m an unashamed sucker for a bit of theatre (and okay the camper the better) with my food. Not all the time perhaps, but there are definitely occasions when I want to be amazed and enchanted by what’s on the plate (I had a choux pastry swan at an impressionable age and have been trying to re live the thrill ever since) Bompas and Parr do this on every page – the only problem being that I can’t eat any of it.

I haven’t yet made a jelly, but I’m going to – it’s time for them to exist outside of my imagination, I want to spend a weekend on it and make a few, it looks like it could be compulsive. I should say too that every one of the many people who I’ve shown this book to have had the same reaction. Starting with a patient but resigned look as they prepare to humour me (far too few of my friends share my enthusiasm for cook books, especially the less every day examples), they quickly become more enthused with me going “I know, and look!” It’s very much that kind of book.

It’s also definitely food treated as art, high art that just happens to be edible as well as beautiful, imaginative, and wonderfully wobbly. Bompas and Parr have been responsible for quite a few instillations now (google them and see, or better still get the book), Harry Parr trained as an architect – which makes sense when you see their jellies – there’s certainly a strongly architectural element, from the very obvious use of the building shaped moulds, to a more general aesthetic sense which feels like it owes little to the traditional kitchen. The non foody background brings me back to what I like so much about Nigella as well. Getting nice moulds might be tough but the principles behind the jelly making look simple enough (if time consuming) and are clearly explained – art aside this is a practical book, but the art shouldn’t be put aside and I can’t put it better than this:

“In a world where food is becoming so worthy, it’s time to rediscover the joy that can come from cooking. Jelly is a good a place as any to start enjoying food. So whether you make jellies with foraged fruit or with juice from the supermarket, you’ll still have fun. And fun should, for once, be important.”
Bompas and Parr – not just marketing genius, but jellymongers extraordinaire.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


This has been quite a day for me – I’ve become a god mother (which I’m really excited by), my god son is a paragon of every virtue (he didn’t cry once) and I’ve publicly renounced Satan and all his temptations – which I feel pretty good about. It has been a little bit distracting though so I’m not in the mood to write about E F Benson’s ‘Mrs Ames’ which was plan A, plan B is in a roundabout way about rearranging my kitchen.

Another (less momentous) landmark passed this week – my collection of virago books reached the 200 score. Since last month’s influx of books I’ve been trying to catch up rather than acquire, but good charity shop finds can’t be ignored and the 200 mark is one I was a little bit keen to pass. In for a penny in for a pound and all that – so when I saw the new Nigella book half price in Waterstone’s I couldn’t resist. I honestly meant to wait until Christmas for this one, but her books have almost totemic status in my kitchen and ‘Kitchen’ (Recipes from the heart of the home) is a more than worthy addition to the canon.

‘Kitchen’ has been my bedtime reading for the last couple of nights and the first thing it’s made me do is act on some long held but half formed plans to organise my own kitchen rather better. The Scottish one got to spend Saturday night in town helping me scrub down the top of the fridge and generally shift and carry, and this is the thing I most love about Nigella. On television I find it hard to warm to her, I don’t doubt that she’s a voluptuous and lovely woman (I saw her once at a book signing, I’ve never in my life seen such a long queue of bashful looking men – all clutching baking books) but I don’t see much of my own life in those programmes, that and they feel a bit over staged.

The books are a different thing altogether. I really like the woman in-between these pages, and perhaps more to the point I trust her (who could help but trust someone who confesses to having over 4000 cookbooks, I mean I thought my collection was getting out of control...) I love these cookbooks because they are precisely that – books full of ideas for people who like to cook, nothing chefy, nothing I feel like I couldn’t tackle, nothing I feel I can’t tinker with if I want to change it. These are things which matter to me – I’m an enthusiastic but not terribly skilled cook, the right guide gives me the confidence to try things I might otherwise avoid – which in turn gives me more skills. Cooking and sharing food is something that makes me happy, and I also share this sentiment entirely “a kitchen however inadequate or alien, has the ability to make you feel once you’ve cooked in it a few times, as though you’ve marked out some safe and reassuring place of your own.”

There are no shortage of days which make me feel like a safe and reassuring place is exactly where I want to be and my kitchen is for me just that place (even more so than under the duvet on a dark and stormy night), especially after my rearrange and now that I can see work surface again. It’s also really nice to read someone who’s serious about their food, but happy to have a trashy, kitschy element to it – Nigella never makes me feel judged for liking things I probably shouldn’t (like Fry’s Creams).

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber

Where to even start with this book? It’s one that I’ve picked up a few times over the years – lured by the book cover, only to put it down again when I realised it was contemporary, but an enthusiastic write up from Kirsty made me want to read it, and so only slightly daunted by the length (833 pages) I started.
The Crimson Petal and the White’ has clearly been waiting for me since, well since 2002 when it was published, and possibly the whole of the twenty years I’m sure I read it took to write before that. Honestly I don’t think I’ve fallen into, and in love with, a book so hard since Angela Carter’s ‘Nights at the Circus’ and that was a good few years ago. There have been a lot of much loved books over those years but they’ve been friends – a basically platonic relationship, this has been a fairly intense affair. I read it in a week, which meant outside of work I didn’t do much but read this book, or talk about it. My, but I must have been fun to be around – the blonde has already given in under the pressure and bought her own copy, she’d better start reading it soon...

Having established that I liked the book (a lot) I now have the slightly harder job of trying to put my finger on where exactly the magic lies. This is the story of Sugar a distressingly experienced young prostitute, her lover, his wife and a wider ripple of other characters. The narrative is juggled between protagonists with quite dazzling dexterity – it changed perspective often enough to keep me turning pages avidly but never drifted off course. Sugar is determined to have a better life, William is determined to have Sugar, and Agnes (the wife) is determined to keep her place in society despite her precarious grasp on health and reality.
The plot is basically the way these characters lives change through contact with each other – it’s hard to say much more without giving away plot spoilers which I’m loathe to do but I won’t be spoiling the surprise if I say there’s plenty of sex (which avoids the pitfalls of being to gratuitously described), some death, some religion, plenty to make you think about the position of men and women in society, and quite a bit about the nature of prostitution - and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Still there are plenty of books which offer all these things so what’s special about this one?

What really caught me from the first moment was the way the narrator pulled me in as a fellow voyeur (there must be a technical term for this device, please tell me what it is if you know) it felt appropriate for the nature of the book, and it also made me very aware of the physical presence of the book. Its weight and feel in my hands added to the barrage of smells, sights, and sound that pervade the story; it felt right. The second thing I realise I really liked is the emphasis on smell, and on bodily functions – normally something ignored in the books I read, but it’s ridiculously easy to empathise with a heroine who’s worrying about when she’ll next be able to pee. I appreciated too that Faber doesn’t try to write like a Victorian, he uses some slang terms which feel right, but nothing to distract or annoy the reader, just lovely words that fit together effortlessly and make you want to read on and on...
It might be that there are faults or moments of clumsiness in this book, but I was far too caught up in it to notice – it feels like a masterpiece. What I did notice was craftsmanship, the research must have been meticulous – every detail, and there are hundreds of them, rings true which is a remarkable achievement, it doesn’t feel laboured, just very well made. Every time I opened the book I was in Faber’s world, by the time I finished it, even after 800+ pages I didn’t feel like I’d had enough – which brings me to the finish. It’s an abrupt ending leaving a lot of unanswered questions, which in the normal way I might have found frustrating, but after feeling so deeply involved with the characters here it worked for me – what happened next is for the reader to imagine – I Imagine it turning out well for the heroine, not so well for the men in the book, but I’m okay with that.