Saturday, June 25, 2011

What happened next and a giveaway.

Somehow this afternoon has turned into this evening and now tonight (I think that makes sense) and I've been remarkably productive, unfortunately it’s all been channelled in the wrong direction (yes I should have been revising). What I have done though is rake through my books – and out of the 1600 odd titles I've found about 20 I think I can do without.

Gone are the first year philosophy textbooks which I didn’t read in 1992, haven’t looked at since, and know full well I will never look at – kept all this time partly as a reminder of the past, partly because I like to finish a job however long it takes (that’s probably a lie) and partly because one of them cost me 15 quid and I really felt I should get something for my money. Well I admit in this case it’s time to let go.

The wordsworth edition of ‘War and Peace’ can go and join it’s many brethren in the charity shop as well. It’s manky despite never having been opened and I’m finally prepared to concede I will never read it, the Russian classics don’t appeal to me that much added to which it weighs a ton and would fall apart before I got half way through. If the day comes when I really want to read nothing else I’ll get a nicer copy.

There are a few duplicate copies, absolutely unnecessary, a few leftovers from my days in the bookshop and a few unwanted presents... Now for the disclaimer; if any of the wonderful friends who have given me books over the years are reading this than obviously your treasured gift is not in this pile. But, and I feel an almost crushing sense of guilt (or is it exam anxiety?) admitting this, most of the books on the shelf that I feel a bit ambivalent about (not very many really) have been given to me rather than purchased. Some in a casual I read this and thought you might like it (and your flat is closer than Oxfam) kind of way, others have been proper gifts. As gifts I want to keep them, as books I’m not so bothered and this is why I have a copy of ‘Trainspotting’.

The other thing about rejecting gifts is that they might turn out to be ‘Nights at the Circus’ which I first got as a fairly casual sort of present. It took me a while to come round to it but when I did it sparked an almost obsession with Angela Carter. That book about a giraffe might turn out to be my next Angela Carter moment. I’d better keep it.

Anyway I feel very virtuous about my clear out – it even got to the point I had to stop myself before getting rid of some things I may yet want to read (‘Charlotte Gray’ you are safe for now) which is basically almost everything that looks even vaguely contemporary and in the spirit of sharing I have a book to give away.

If you think you might be interested in a copy of ‘The Road To Vindaloo – Curry books for Curry Cooks’ then please let me know via comments, email etc. It’s one of Prospect books finest and has a whole lot on the history of curry as well as recipes. Perfect for curry fans everywhere and as good a way as any for me to convince another person of how brilliant Prospect are. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

So how many is too many and what happens next?

I currently share my one bedroom flat with roughly 1600 books (I gave up counting somewhere near 1450 but that was a while ago and they keep coming in) and I have to ask – where will the next one go? I’m not getting any more space and, well, the books do keep on coming. There’s a pattern (which will be familiar to many) starting with my famous five collection. I start off with a shelf, the shelf gets filled, another shelf arrives (the first extra shelf when I was about 7 came with a reading light attached courtesy of my dad being quite good at that sort of thing, I don’t get that sort of attention to detail now.)

When we moved from Shetland to Leicestershire there was a whole (small) wall of shelves in the room I shared with my sister. I appropriated the shelves, my sister had to make do with some in the airing cupboard but she’s not a reader so there’s no need for sympathy. Eventually I set off for university leaving the by now overflowing shelves behind, amazingly my sister put up with this situation.

Halls or residence have surprisingly modest shelving provision and I had a corresponding income so the book situation stabilised for a couple of years – until I moved into a flat. I got more shelves which acted like a magnet (or something). A couple of years later I moved back home with guess what – yes indeed, more books. When I moved again it was into a shared house so ¾’s of my books went into storage. I kept on acquiring books which ended up living in suitcases under the bed – one of the many reasons it seemed like time to take the leap and buy a flat. The edge of fear that came with mortgaging my soul and future to the bank was blunted by the generous wall space I acquired in the transaction.

But now 6 years later the shelves are filled, the walls are filled, every surface and quite a bit of the floor has books on it and it’s time for a tidy up. The answer is not by the way a kindle. I can’t afford one, and don’t want one. I like books, I like being surrounded by books, (I just don’t like the feral state they’re descending into at the moment). I’ve sort of tried ebooks in that there are some stored somewhere in the bowls of my laptop but they’re out of sight and out of mind which means the chances of me reading them are negligible. What I really need are some ingenious and possibly decorative storage solutions (sadly a bigger home is out of the question).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Orient Express Silvena Rowe

I have an exam coming up (I think, it’s one of several things that isn’t very clear about a course I’m going on next week concerning spirits and distillation) and to aid revision I went to the Scottish ones this weekend where there are less distractions (allegedly, though it’s possible I went there because he cooks for me and brings me cups of tea at regular intervals). I was so dedicated to the cause that I left my laptop behind and also left home without a work of fiction about me – for the first time in years.

Fortunately the wine and spirit education trust provides a reasonably entertaining as well as informative text book so reading it wasn’t the chore it might have been, but being without a computer felt weird. Far stranger than it should have really because the laptop I’ve become so attached to has only been a feature for the last 2 years (internet in the home – not even that long). What all of this has to do with Silvena Rowe is that after using a couple of recipes (all excellent) and reading through some more it’s clicked that she rarely uses salt.

Salt – can you imagine cooking without it? Again, it shouldn’t be a stretch for me, I spent a year cooking in a nursery where salt was a forbidden addition. I was under the impression that I wasn’t a heavy user but as I cooked tonight I kept checking the instructions in a slightly disbelieving way to make sure it wasn’t needed.

The recipe in question was chilli – scented king prawn and feta guvech. Guvech is apparently a sort of Bulgarian pot which gives its name to the stews you make in them (and this is why I missed the internet). I’m not sure how traditional Rowe’s version is (probably not very, there is a definite fusion feeling here) but it’s incredibly quick taking only 20 minutes, simple, and presumably quite healthy. The end result is impressive and destined to become a regular feature (we meant to take a picture before finding we’d eaten the whole dish) which keeps happening with Rowe’s recipes. ‘Orient Express’ is every bit as good as ‘Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume’, it’s pretty much more of the same with more emphasis on throwing together and cooking quickly (although some things need to be marinated or similar ahead of time).

I know there is no shortage of ‘express’ cookbooks around but I like the personality of this one. The flavour profiles (the chapters are romantically titles Emerald Spice and Gold Dust, Fire and Noble Velvet, Purple Citrus and Summer Breeze, Sweet Eucalyptus and Liquid Gold, and Exotic Perfume and Delicate Fragrance) suit me Emerald Spice and Gold Dust translates as Za’atar and Saffron, Fire and Noble Velvet is Chilli and Cumin. A few key spices in the cupboard and you’re ready to go, and as long as you have the key components in place the details take care of themselves (I don’t much like improvising because in practice when I do everything ends up tasting the same, but I do like it when you can tinker with a recipe a bit to make it suit you).

I have no end of good intentions regarding this book and eating properly after late finishes at work – we’ll see how that goes but either way this is a brilliant book.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Poor Caroline – Winifred Holtby

Oh how I want the new Virago editions of the Holtby books (so far I've only got ‘South Riding’) they are the most beautiful and generally all round desirable paperbacks I've seen in a while but unfortunately funds are low, not even the emergency stash of five pence’s in a gin bottle was enough to make dream a reality (generally spent on more gin, shoes, or books depending on how many are in there, at the moment would stretch to a pair of flip flops. From Primark).

Still it’s a cup half full sort of situation – I’m guessing that a few people have upgraded on their old books because I’ve turned over a few of the original green covered Holtby’s recently, mostly copies of ‘Poor Caroline’ (it’s just not as pretty and for once I can see the point of buying another copy of a book you already have). Once the books open it doesn’t matter what the outside of it looks like and so I’ve finally read my first Holtby.

‘South Riding’ has been on my to read list for ages but when I pick it up it looks like such an investment of time and effort and– well I’ve still not read it, that sort of effort has been saved for Trollope’s of late. ‘Poor Caroline’, quite apart from having an inspired title it is a temptingly short novel which always feels like the best way in with an unfamiliar writer.

On the back of ‘Poor Caroline’ I foresee a happy relationship with Holtby for books and books to come. I’m not sure what I expected but she was drier, spikier even, than I expected. The ‘Poor Caroline’ of the title is Caroline Denton-Smyth an elderly spinster living in straightened circumstances in deepest Kensington. She is a woman with a mission, and the mission is the Christian Cinema Company (British Cinema will be cleaned up!) Perhaps unluckily her grand idea captures the attention of Basil St Denis (vaguely aristocratic dilettante living of his wife’s money and vitality). Basil has charisma and makes the company, or at least a board happen and that’s enough to feed Caroline’s fantasies.

The board in question is a rag tag bunch of misfits and crooks – more misfit than criminal, but the odd rogue in the pack adds both colour and humour as the story unfolds through each member in turn. Each and every one of them has a particular motivation for being there, and all with the exception of Caroline are in it to get something back out, without exception they all despise and pity Caroline.

Caroline herself has the final chapter tying everything together and slightly upsetting the reader’s preconceived ideas of her. She is both more and less deserving of sympathy than I expected in the end. Truthfully Caroline is very human – in that she’s not always a very nice woman, she’s an incorrigible fantasist and scrounger with no qualms about taking advantage of the generosity of anyone she comes across. On the other hand she’s had a full life and despite the many setbacks and genuine causes for grievance that she’s met she still manages to find things to believe in, and she still manages to carry on.

It’s the complexity of all the characters here that make me look forward to more Holtby. Every one of them is beautifully complete and believable (for good and bad) even ridiculous situations are carried off with aplomb underpinned as they are by good solid motivation. This felt like a minor work, an exercise in style as much as anything, so how good will her masterwork be? I’m guessing it’ll be good.        

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Geraldene Holt’s Cakes

Today has been a despondent sort of occasion – no reason for the mood, it should on the whole have been a happy sort of a day, but there’s been far too much procrastinating and not enough action until it’s got unexpectedly late and I still haven’t done many of the things I meant to do. If I can shift myself off the chair in front of the computer (with a nice view of the television and with a handy shelf for a drink / plate of sandwiches / piles of books) my answer to these sorts of moods is to bake and cook my way out of it. That’s finally what I did tonight, so now I do at least feel like I’ve done something.

And indeed I have, I’ve baked a really very satisfactory chocolate cake (actually its bloody brilliant for which I wish I could take more credit) and done something useful but dull (compared to cake) with elderly peppers and a bit of pork rescued from the back of the freezer. Mind you the kitchen looks like a bomb site again which was part of the reason for earlier dejection.

I’ve been playing reading with Geraldene Holt’s ‘Cakes ever since I got back from holiday and found it waiting for me courtesy of lovely Prospect Books. (And where has the last month gone exactly?) I meant to write about this properly a bit ago, it’s a brilliant book that deserves some serious attention but I fear that it’ll be passed over. I don’t often see Prospect’s titles in bookshops and amazon don’t seem to recommend them to me which means unless you know about them they can be easy to miss which is a crying shame.

Cakes’ is a reprint of a classic (at least a classic to those in the know) and is the fruit of Geraldene Holt’s baking for her local WI stall. I like this edition for the no nonsense approach, by which I mean clear and precise instructions rather than a reliance on styling. I’m getting sick of food books which are more picture than recipe (Nigel Slater’s fruit book is beautiful I don’t deny it, but since I got it for Christmas all I’ve done with it is admire the moody pictures of blackberries which feels like a fail). Not having pictures is unexpectedly liberating – if my cake doesn’t look perfect (but ahem, they always do...) at least I don’t have to compare it to an unfeasibly beautiful piece of baked perfection.

Clear instructions that I can rely on however are another story. The pedant in me craves foolproof instructions which is exactly what Holt gives me. If I do what I’m told I’ll get what I want, and once I know what I’m doing I can think about improvising. This is the best kind of cookbook. It’s also taken me back to an appreciation of the basics; it had been a long time for example since I made a Victoria sponge (I’ve been to easily seduced by other flashier cakes) but after a prompt from the book I made a cracker filled with passion fruit and cream. It was very nice. I can also recommend the chocolate velvet cake, and really have to finish with a list of some of the cakes I mean to make... Angel  cake with St Clemant’s cream, Russian cake, Dutch apple cake, Pineapple fruit cake, Chocolate honey fudge slices, Hazelnut cake with Port wine cream, French coffee walnut cake, Pine nut honey and lemon cake, Congress tarts (because they sound just a little bit wrong), Palmiers, Gold vanilla and Silver almond cakes, I could go on and on, but I need to go to bed, and want to reassure myself that the chocolate velvet cake is still as good as it was an hour ago as I go on my way happy.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clouds Of Witness – Dorothy L. Sayers

It’s a rainy Sunday morning and what I should be doing is brushing up on my knowledge of distilled spirits ahead of an exam in a couple of weeks (as well as actually learning about some of the more arcane elements of cocktail making – Sunday morning however just doesn't feel like the right time for this kind of thing). Instead I'm almost entirely focused on Dorothy L. Sayers still, with a very small part of my concentration reserved for the possibility of a-nice-cup-of-tea-and-a-biscuit; proper Sunday activity I'm sure you’ll agree.

When I read Jill Paton-Walsh’s ‘The Attenbury Emeralds’ I thought I wanted more Peter and Harriet because those were the books I enjoyed most and consistently re read through my teens and onwards (reading back through Elaine Random Jottings post on ‘The Attenbury Emeralds’ from last year I see that this is a pretty common theme). What I actually wanted was more Sayers, looking at the books on my shelf I see that there are half a dozen that are falling apart with use and rather more that look suspiciously unmolested so I hauled out ‘Clouds of Witness’ in a fairly arbitrary manner and started reading. I couldn’t stop reading (and not just because I’m not interested enough in being able to identify bar tenders kit).

The thing with Sayers is that she leaves you in no doubt as to her academic credentials and proclivities – she will throw in quotations and longish chunks in French without either explanation or excuse. I imagine that she saw her audience as women like herself or like the provincial lady (and after all, who else would her audience have been but the educated middle class and middlebrow?) when I was much younger it made me want to learn more, now it makes me grateful for Google. The relationship between Harriet and Peter was fairytale enough to appeal to me in my teens; I think I was too young for the rest of the series.

I appreciated the silly rhymes, the slang, and indeed all Lord Peter’s affectations. I liked the aspirational element of the books as well – soft carpets, silks and velvets, Russian leather, crepe de chine underwear and fine wines (though one mention of Chateau d’Yquem has sent me off on a little research mission of my own to see if Sayers actually understood what she was talking about or not – I really can’t help myself) but mystery aside a lot in the rest of the books was over my head. This time round I enjoyed the whole of ‘Clouds of Witness’ in a way I was incapable of twenty plus years ago – for good and bad; the affectations are no longer as amusing but the inter war world is far more fascinating. The huge bonus here is that instead of pinning unrealistic expectations on a new book by a different author I have a sizable chunk of actual Sayers that I can work my way through to all intents and purposes for the first time.

Plot wise it’s a dead body in a country house with the likely culprits being the sleuths brother or sister which leads to an investigation that dashes from Yorkshire to London then Paris and New York in a very unlikely (but entertaining manner). I think the final courtroom scenes are the best – brother’s life hanging in the balance as we wait for Peter to fly back across the Atlantic with something vital to the case - all in the teeth of a rising storm (it’s 1924 – I think) so this is quite an undertaking and Sayers really builds the tension beautifully. Having her policeman buy a camisole for his elder sister in Paris has a touch of comic brilliance about it, and for menace there is Lord Peter putting pressure on a witness to come forward knowing quite well that if she does her husband will probably kill her (I don’t think that scene would really have sunk in first read round for me) which makes the nervous breakdowns at the end of each case feel far more inevitable.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Attenbury Emeralds – Jill Paton-Walsh

First things first – it’s only fair under the circumstances to give some context to the depth of my affection for Dorothy L. Sayers, especially the books with Harriet and Peter. Going back through the mists of time to 1987 and the BBC series that ran ‘Strong Poison’, ‘Have His Carcase’ and ‘Gaudy Night’, I fell completely in love with Miss Sayers creations getting the books just as soon as I could. I was 13, it was Dorothy L. Sayers who made me determined to go to university (Oxford naturally, although my mother favoured Cambridge because she felt it had better tea shops, and I ended up in Aberdeen which suited me so well I didn’t notice the tea shops or lack thereof). It was also Dorothy who instilled in me a desire for silk pyjamas, my own library, and a flat decorated in soothing shades of grey.

As you’ve probably guessed I read these books at an impressionable age and they didn’t fail to make an impression. The non Harriet novels not so much but every 13 year old girl (presumably) likes a love story and a feisty heroine. When Jill Paton-Walsh completed Sayers unfinished novel ‘Thrones, Dominations’ I really couldn’t tell the difference between the two writers and was happy to accept this new addition to the canon. I don’t think I’ve read the second book Paton-Walsh wrote (‘A Presumption of Death’) but (and it was almost certainly the mention of emeralds in the title) I quite fancied reading this one despite my oft mentioned distrust of writers taking on other peoples characters.

Unfortunately ‘The Attenbury Emeralds’ released my inner pedant (never on a very tight leash anyway), and once you start picking holes everything starts to unravel. It wasn’t a plotting problem – a mystery solved, unsolved, and resolved is what it says on the cover and what it does in the book. The original case of the Attenbury Emeralds is one of Lord Peter’s first and here he’s telling the story to Harriet, now 30 years later the emeralds new owner needs to prove their provenance which turns out to be no simple matter.

My problem with the book comes down to the never explain, never apologise principle. Frequently bad advice but when it comes to recreating the past (or much loved characters) it should be the rule to live by (says I). I imagine that the majority of people buying this book – especially in hardback – are doing it because they already know Sayers’ books. We’re already familiar with Peter’s back story and shell shock issues, bringing it up again didn’t feel natural. Neither did all the explanations about the aristocracy ostensibly for Harriet’s benefit; the fascination for a title has never gone away, not even in detective fiction as Elizabeth George’s inspector Lynley shows.

After that mentions of Elizabeth David’s new book and the upcoming festival of Britain jarred a little because they didn’t feel like part of the flow of the plot. However the biggest sticking point was over manners and mannerisms. Everybody seemed so keen to apologise for being upper class, the oldest Whimsy boy calls Bunter (Lord Peter’s man) Mervyn but I can’t believe that an Eton educated child would ever exhibit such a breach of etiquette in his father’s house, or show Labour tendencies, or... but I won’t harp on in this vein because you either let these details bother you (as I sadly do) or you don’t.

In the end what it comes down to is probably this. Dorothy L. Sayers was clearly more than a little bit in love with her Lord Peter, and I like to think that Harriet is more than a little bit of Sayers. There is a chemistry in those books that was and is irresistible to me. Jill Patton-Walsh clearly has a great deal of affection for Harriet and Peter but I feel she treats them like slightly elderly relations who can’t be trusted not to say something outrageously un pc.

However I enjoyed getting slightly annoyed by what I saw as inconsistencies almost as much as I would have appreciated a production I regarded as flawless, and I’ll be looking out for Jill Paton-Walsh’s other books to see what she’s like on her own ground as well as going back (again) to Miss Sayers so all’s well that ends well...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume – Silvena Rowe

I’ve resisted this book ever since it came out about a year ago despite my step mothers partisanship for it (she’s a professional chef and we share enthusiasms for quite a lot of cook books). I assumed that I already had enough books covering Middle Eastern food, and that really Claudia Roden should be enough for anyone, and so she is for the classic and strictly authentic sense, but when it comes to Silvena Rowe I’ve come to admit the error of my ways.

It seems I really am late to the party on this one, even the blonde who professes to hate cooking knows of and admires Silvena (this is because she has a sensible sort of job that gives her whole weekends off and lets her watch Saturday Kitchen whilst I’m flogging wine to people who can’t remember what was recommended on it but won’t take anything else...) The damascene moment came courtesy of Mary (book binder, maker of fair isle goodies, producer of exquisite embroideries, and damn fine cook). Mary loves this book too but more than that she invited us for dinner and produced what felt like it had to be the whole book. I wish I’d taken pictures.

We had Suzme rolled in Za’atar sumac and pistachios, fennel and feta kofte with walnut tarator, avocado and sumac whip, tomato pomegranate and sumac salad, Lamb kebabs, pistachio revani with passion fruit syrup, pink peppercorn and pistachio meringues (there was also an amazing artichoke and bean salad, and a very good lamb stew, fruit, and ice-cream but they had a different provenance). I think I’ve remembered everything – it was really incredible food and there was an awe inspiring amount of it – it’s become legend between my sister and I. Mind you since I picked my copy up from the post office this afternoon I’ve made seared monkfish with rose petal salt (except it was vanilla which I already had, and not rose which likes to sit quietly for 24 hours before it’s ready) pilaf with pistachio almond and currents, and the really amazing tomato and pomegranate salad.

I also made some pomegranate molasses (litre of pomegranate juice, 115grams of sugar and 4 tablespoons of lemon juice, heat gently until the sugar dissolves and simmer for about an hour until only about a quarter of the liquid is left and you have a thick syrupy mixture.) and revani (semolina cake which I didn’t know before so I’m sharing now) with almonds and strawberry syrup - because to be honest they’re a lot cheaper than passion fruit at the moment.

It’s a book that doesn’t seem to want to let you cook just one thing but I like that about it. Everything I tried tonight was commendably quick and easy, some dishes need a bit of preparation in advance but it’s all marinating which isn’t terribly demanding. Everything looks amazing which makes the bits which do demand effort far more appealing and overall it’s a darn exciting book. Which is good because I’ve also got the next one – ‘Orient Express’, report to follow soon.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Charmed Life – Mary McCarthy

There was a real buzz around Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ when Virago reissued it a couple of years ago, and I’ve seen a lot of bloggers enthuse about it in the meantime but when I read it I was underwhelmed. It can’t have been all bad though because I’ve picked up a few other McCarthy’s since and now I’ve got round to reading one of them.

A Charmed Life’ is the sort of book that I hoped ‘The Group’ would be; both shocking and thought provoking it made for uncomfortable reading at times. McCarthy seems to be good at lifting up the rock on human emotions and having a good look at all the stuff wriggling around underneath. Written and set in the mid 1950’s (I always seem to feel much better about books which are contemporary with their setting) the action takes place in the New England coastal town of New Leeds which is by way of being an artists’ colony. The summer season is over leaving a hard core of bohemian intellectuals and slightly contemptuous natives.

As the back of my copy states “New Leeds...boasted three village idiots, twenty one town drunkards, and two ex-wives for the average resident. It’s eighteenth-century houses and it’s artistic citizens were run down, warped, and mildewed...” which is most of the problem foe Martha and John Sinnott. Martha was a New Leeds citizen with her first husband until seven years ago when she ran away one night in her nightgown to be with John. Somehow they’ve let themselves be drawn back to the town despite Martha’s conviction that it will lead to disaster.

Her ex-husband Miles still lives nearby with a new wife and child, a man who repels Martha but whom she’s powerless to resist – as the book progresses it transpires that he’s not just unpleasant he’s systematically abusive but this being 1950’s America nobody seems to particularly object to his behaviour (or even notice it) any faults his friends can’t ignore are excused because he’s seen as a gifted intellectual. Nobody believes in Miles as strongly as Miles does with the possible exception of his current wife who really has no choice but to accept him at his own valuation.

The pivots of the New Leeds social scene are the Coe’s – Jane and Warren. He paints, she avoids housework. Jane comes from a moneyed background which along with her husband’s uncritical adoration allows her to live as she chooses. She’s a proper McCarthy monster and I don’t have to imagine her because I’ve met a few like her. Warren in an unlikely way turns out to be the hero of the piece; a miraculously genuine though not faultless man.

It’s through the Coe’s that Martha and Miles meet again which slowly but surely brings about the New Leeds disaster that Martha has been fighting against. Abusive relationships fascinate me in fiction, not the abuse but the relationship. What upsets Martha about meeting Miles and new wife Helena is the evidence that she’s failed. Loving her current husband is no consolation because he’s easy to love. Helena’s relationship with Miles who’s a horrible man is to Martha evidence that Helena is a better more womanly woman. It’s this sort of observation which made this book stand out for me. I’m quietly hopeful that Virago might reprint it, I know another McCarthy – ‘The Company She Keeps’ - is coming out in November, ‘A Charmed Life’ definitely deserves the publicity and the chance of a new audience.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Quarter days

I actually looked up quarter days this evening, because yes, that’s exactly how exciting my Saturday night gets these days – Dr Who, food, looking up stuff, and very soon now sleep. I’m not sure what I’ll do now Dr Who has finished, probably look up more stuff, or go to bed earlier.

Quarter days are on my mind because service charges are due (1st June, 1st September, 1st December, and 1st March dates which don’t match up with either the traditional quarter days of England, Scotland, or the modern quarter days) but the bills haven’t been sent out – the fat bank balance is attractive to look at but the snitty demand for cash which will be eventually forthcoming really annoys me, that and who ever enjoyed chasing up bills?

Another and much nicer reason to look forward to the quarter falling is the arrival of 'Slightly Foxed' and now 'Hortus'  ("The most intelligent gardening magazine in the world"!)  which feels like the perfect fix for a gardener without a garden. I’ve sat on the fence regarding ‘Hortus’ for about four years but finally gave in after a recent article in the Saturday Telegraph magazine. ‘Hortus Revisited’ the collection of articles put together in book form for their 21 year anniversary has been a favourite for as long as I’ve had it (and how I hope that there will be another archive volume to celebrate this year’s 25th anniversary). I like these journals more than I can say, or at least more than I can say quickly and it is a Saturday night and almost past my bed time.

The quality of ‘Hortus’ from the paper to the writing is decidedly set at luxurious. It feels good, looks good, and is a in every way a pleasure to read (always assuming you have at least a passing interest in plants) not least because of the lack of full colour and glossy pictures. In an age where almost everything is lavishly illustrated there is something very restful about a nicely set out page of text (which is maybe why I like reading so much, and possibly another reason why e readers don’t really appeal to me) it lets me think. Pictures are more likely to make me drool.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Absentee – Maria Edgeworth

I had high hopes for ‘The Absentee’; my previous experience with Edgeworth was more than encouraging and the first fifty pages were very encouraging. From there on in though it went a bit downhill for me, the reason for this is that ‘The Absentee’ was originally intended as a play and it still reads like one. The dialogue wants to be declaimed and everyone is forever striding off or popping in all of which I find very unsettling.

It’s sort of a shame because it would have been a pretty decent play and could with a much more thorough overhaul have been a much better novel, which 200 years after the fact is all fairly moot and perhaps if I’d not spent such a long time anticipating I wouldn’t have felt so underwhelmed by the end.

On the plus side the story is good. Young Lord Colombre has recently graduated from Cambridge and come up to town where he finds all is not as it should be. His mother is intent on breaking into the highest circles of society despite her own and others prejudice over Irishness, the more she tries to hide it the more ridiculous she becomes and the further she falls short of her society ambitions. Colombre is both shocked and distressed to hear his mother being openly mocked by guests that the family are bankrupting themselves to entertain.

Lord Clonbrony – Colombre’s father – has fallen into low company and the hands of the money lenders (a fairly stereotypical and unpleasant portrait of a Jewish money lender features which is an ironic point of interest in a book that’s so concerned about anti Irish sentiment). He misses the status he had back in Ireland so has sought out Irish company and in doing so has taken a step down amongst the hangers on at race courses and the like.

There is also an attractive but poor young lady who’s a sort of cousin – Grace Nugent, Colombre is in love with Grace but realises that his family won’t approve and so decides the best thing he can do is take himself off to Ireland to see what the situation actually is between his happy memories and his mothers absolute hatred of the country. First impressions of his native country are good but then Colombre falls in with Lady Dashfort and her daughter who are on a man hunt. He’s temporarily diverted from his purpose as they bear him off into the country and show him all the worst they can of the place, they also break the news that Grace is most likely illegitimate.

Grace’s parentage was an unexpected plot twist, she’s a clever, attractive, and virtuous young woman extremely loyal to her family, a loyalty that the Clonbrony’s share – they are aware of her supposed parentage but value her on her own merits. Colombre seems unable to do the same, the stigma of illegitimacy is too much for him despite his love so he proposes going off to the army. All the while there is also a dissertation on the virtues of a well run estate with an honest agent against the vices of a badly run estate and a dishonest agent.

Eventually Colombre returns to London and offers to sign away a portion of his inheritance to balance the family books if and only if everyone returns to Ireland. At first lady Clonbrony resists but eventually agrees with the promise of new furniture. The question of Grace still remains and through a series of unlikely coincidences she’s found to be a legitimate heiress after which everything is set to end happily.

I couldn’t help but compare this plot with Anthony Trollope’s ‘Dr Thorne’ (written some fifty years later) there are so many similarities that Trollope could have lifted the plot straight from Edgeworth (and who knows maybe he did) but his treatment of illegitimacy is entirely different. His Mary isn’t half the woman that Grace is but she’s deemed worthy of being loved for her own merits despite her parentage which is possibly the first evidence I’ve found of the Victorians being more open minded than there Georgian predecessors.

In conclusion it’s a better book to think about than it was to read at the time, but even here I really do like Edgeworth and I’ve still got ‘Helena’ waiting.