Sunday, July 28, 2013

Other peoples books

I suspect my father won't really appreciate this post (and perhaps I should have asked if he would mind) because he'll think I've been rummaging and if he can't find something he wants I'll be blamed for moving things around and hiding them (I swear everything went back exactly where it was dad...) but this is a lightning tour around some of my father and stepmothers books.

Other people's books are fascinating (and quite revealing) in this house it was my stepmother and sister who were the readers, my sister has moved out now but a few books I know I've passed on to her over the years pepper the shelves so we've both contributed to their unique character. I've never lived in a house that didn't have a lot of books in it. When I was very young we lived in a house that had been built by my great great uncle in the late 1880's, it still had his library (which in the best Victorian manner was an actual, albeit small, library) as well as boxes of book club choices mouldering in odd attic corners that must have been the reading choice of his successor, it's thanks to her old books that I discovered 'Gentleman Prefer Blondes' and had I been less fastidious about mould I might have found lots of 
I love this cover and wish I'd found time to read it
other gems too. All I really remember about my parents reading matter from those very early days were lots of copies of The Reader's Digest.

In the next house we lived in my mother had one whole wall of the sitting room turned over to books but I was to engrossed in Enid Blyton to pay much attention to them. Father and Stepmother's current bookshelves are an interesting mix of odds and ends that came out of both these houses including notebooks that his great uncle must have inherited from previous generations, more readers digest stuff, my stepmother's cookbooks (she's a chef so she has a lot of those, I have newer paperback versions of all the same Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David titles) her taste in fiction. There are a mass of Shetland specific books and a collection of tatty paperbacks that reflect the years when they ran a hotel/guest house - I can't tell if they reflect Bo's taste particularly or if they're the sort of books
that accumulate when a lot of people come and go.

I will take a better look at this one next time
It's a very friendly collection of books, mine are somewhat more curated - I ran out of space a while back so a book needs to earn it's shelf spot, this lot reflect an extended family rather than a single person and don't seem to have any sort of door policy. I like finding familiar things amongst this lot, and was especially delighted to find some crumbling Victorian books that feel like real treasures. I remember finding the moth book as a child and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd
ever seen. There is also an old recipe book from the first half of the 19th century which is fascinating. It's hard to read but Bo did once make a butter and almond tart out of it. It called for an obscene amount of butter and tasted pretty good as I recall. Sadly there isn't very much in that book, but it's interesting to see that it had been used by at least 3 different people and for well over a century.    

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A trip to The Mill

It's still horribly hot and humid here, so much so that I doubt the current thunder storm rumbling in the background, or the torrential rain doing it's best to get in through the need-to-be-open-or-I'll-suffocate windows will actually do much to freshen the atmosphere. My poor lap top continues to pant away in the manner of an overweight octogenarian Labrador that's been taken for a far to brisk walk and at the end of my first week back at work I feel much the same as it does but with added bruises. In my absence an illusive spider has taken to leaving webs in the oddest places, I can't find the damn thing anywhere, just the evidence of where it's - been mostly at ground level so I'm increasingly paranoid that the thing is going to jump out at me, if it does it won't get a warm reception. To lighten the my mood I've been finding homes for all my new woollens, looking at holiday pictures and listening to this and other examples of Shetland dialect on you tube.

We both bought quantities of tweed whilst we were away, D has taken his and gone off in search of a tailor - a suit beckons, but I'm not sure what to do with mine yet. I had vague plans to make hot water bottle covers and scarves from it but am still very much at the stage where the idea of taking scissors to this beautiful piece of cloth feels wrong so instead I'm going to spend my time telling you about where it came from.

Jamieson's mill in Sandness is an experience. Wool from Shetland sheep is quite fine (and I think long, but I forget precisely what makes it so unique - please bear with me) so traditionally had to be mixed with wool from coarser clips to go through commercial spinning machines, the guys at Jamieson's were told that it would be impossible to spin pure Shetland wool, but they wanted a pure Shetland product so they bought a machine anyway and tinkered with it until they could get it to work just the way they wanted. The result is that at Jamieson's you can see the whole process from raw wool coming in, to bales of dyed wool, wool spun into yarn, and yarn knitted up into garments or woven into tweed.
From my point of view the best thing about it is this... You go along to the factory which has a little shop, find the shop is locked and try a few doors till you find the office which looks like somewhere you shouldn't be, but somebody very helpful comes and lets you in the shop anyway. The shop is mostly balls of wool and jumpers which I guess are very slight seconds or overs from large orders, what the shop doesn't have is tweed but if you ask nicely you will be led through a door, round a corner, through another door and into the factory where you skirt around some terrifying looking knitting machines and if you dare close your eyes for a moment imagine that you could be in Victorian Lancashire. Closing your eyes isn't wise because there's a lot more machinery going full tilt to be skirted around,and then just when you're wondering why a man is fixing his car in the middle of a textile mill you find yourself handed over to a man at a loom. He takes you up a rickety set of wooden stairs and into the tweed loft where you negotiate your way around more sacks of wool and find a wall of tweed. He will casually wave at it, tell you the stuff in the corner is samples and not for sale and then go back to his loom whilst you get to rummage around the rest of the fabric to your hearts
content. We had a great time. This is really just left overs - most of the tweed is exported overseas - so you have no idea what you might find or if there'll be enough of what you find to do what you might want with but there's plenty of variety. Eventually you make a choice, retrieve the man from his loom, he gets the scissors out and then you try and reach the shop again without falling into any moving machinery. It's an extremely friendly and civilised way of buying something, the place smells strongly of wool (by which I mean lanolin, once you recognise it is extremely evocative) and seeing the entire process taking place under one roof is inspiring. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


I have a birthday with a nought in it this year - the last time I was enthusiastic about a birthday with a nought in it I was 10. This year I'll be quite a bit older and birthdays do tend to highlight all the things I'm ambivalent about in my life. I can however tick off one thing from my wish list...

A couple of years ago I blogged about my friend Mary and the many amazingly lovely things she creates, including dinner - we went to eat with her last week, the 'few things' she thought she might throw together turned into a three course banquet of treats, the pudding was greeted with screams of delight from one (5 year old) guest who I can safely say spoke for all of us. D has asked me daily if I can make a salted caramel sauce like Mary's and if I can when I will - I'm more interested in replicating her raspberry elderflower and cardamom sauce.

But I digress, Mary creates exquisite embroideries, I've coveted one for years and years and now I finally have one - a lucky combination of her having a few available and my not having actually spent every penny I possessed on knitwear means that I'm now the proud owner of 'Figs'. So proud that despite the difficulty of getting a reasonable photo of something under glass I'm still determined to share my prize with you. I think these embroideries are staggering, they're a few inches square and just perfect, I can only imagine the time and patience it takes to create one of these - 'Figs' is currently sitting opposite my bed so I can stare at it first and last thing, the more I look at it the more I fall on love with it. It will eventually need to find a wall space, but the obvious spot is behind my bed where I won't see it nearly enough and that just won't do. There are images here of a few more of Mary's pieces (including a rather better image of 'Figs' than I've managed) - marvel at her brilliance!  

Monday, July 22, 2013


It was somewhat cooler in Shetland than in Leicestershire (a balmy 12 degrees or so which is very much as I like it) so knitwear was quite appropriate especially when out in boats. Back at work today and it's fair to say I'm a shade less enthusiastic about all the woollens - just taking pictures of them made me feel hot and bothered (thunder is a vague threat in the background but even if we do get a storm it seems unlikely to clear the air - my poor laptop is to old to handle this kind of heat and is fanning itself in a manner appropriate for an over excited Victorian lady). Even so I'm still really excited about all the knitted stuff (if I thought I had the patience I would try and remember how to knit, sadly ambition would outstrip ability quite quickly - I do better to buy it ready made) and want to share even despite the heat.

Shetland is justly famous for it's knitwear, specifically lace and what I'll loosely term 'Fair Isle' patterned stuff. I love it primarily because it's beautiful, but also because it's played an important role on the economics of the islands over the years, especially for women. It's also been a political issue with more than a hint of sweated labour in the past. When I was at school girls were taught to knit which was great - we had a brilliant teacher and the classes were fun, 16 years or so down the line both my brother and sister were taught (my brother made an excellent tea cosy which I rather covet) but sadly cutbacks have meant that knitting is no longer on the curriculum which I consider a real shame. 

just look at it!
Looking back at old school photographs almost all the children are wearing traditional jumpers, looking about on the streets of Lerwick there are still a lot of them around (you can even buy woolly Fair Isle hoodies - if hoods didn't make me look like a hunchback I'd be really tempted) so I hope it's a skill that continues to be passed on, and this is why: I was visiting a  friend now almost 80 who has a lot of family photographs on the wall including a rather magnificent one of her father. It's brown with age but shows a very smart young man in a suit, shirt with a stand up collar, and a very natty looking pullover, I would judge it to have been taken in the 1920's from the general style of the thing and was commenting on it when my friend (Laura) told us that her mother had knitted the jumper for her father before they were married, she also quite casually mentioned she still had it then disappeared for a moment coming back with the actual jumper. It was a bit frayed round the elbows but otherwise perfect. Exquisite even. And it made the picture come to life. 

Meanwhile Shetland is getting better at displaying some of it's knitted treasures; the museum has some very nice things on display and so does the Bod of Gremista both have shops but the Bod of Gremista is by far the best of the two. I'm also inclined to spend a small fortune in The Spider's Web which is a cooperative venture with a brilliant cross section of knitted and felted stuff to fall in love with. Buy from either and they can tell you who knitted your item, they also make it abundantly clear what a living, vibrant art form this is. Colours change and new things to decorate with a bit of Fair Isle pattern are found (coffee pot warmers, oven gloves, bow ties,  notebooks, bunting, decorations...) but the tradition remains much the same. I'm not sure I have the necessary panache to wear the beret I bought but it's so lovely I had to have it; if I don't wear it I'll frame it - it's the choice of colour that made it so desirable and crosses the boundaries between craft and art. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

And I'm back!

Two weeks has flown by, and not in reading books - I managed to finish one and read about 30 pages of two others, but there were so many other things to do... I've bought a lot of knitwear, which was useful in Shetland where we spent about ten days in a cloud. Not under a cloud but quite literally inside one, the rest of the country basked in sunshine, we sat in a sea haar that refused to lift (it didn't look like we'd get home today, more flights have been disrupted in Shetland over the last 2 weeks than in the Icelandic volcano episode a couple of years back, and we were lucky today our flight made it and so did one other but nothing else got in or out after that). The Shetland word to describe fog this thick is steekit I can think of no better way to describe it.

Photo's prove that it lifted occasionally and between buying all those woollen goods, catching up with people, making a fuss of the dog, fishing for, smoking, and eating mackerel (along with a lot of other very good food) there really wasn't enough time to do half the things we wanted. I did have a good nosey around the bookshelves though and found some cracking stuff to go back and read next time I'm up there (some chance of finding time to do it though).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

It's that time of year again

I'm off for the annual pilgrimage to my northern homeland where I hope to see lots of puffins, take the dog for  long walks in the sun (or light rain, it's all good as far as the dog's concerned), read a few books, drink a few whisky's, spend time with family and friends, keep my feet dry, see some paintings and generally have a great time. Back in a couple of weeks (or before if it rains a lot and someone lets me at a computer). For the rest of the evening I'll be seeing how much premium gin I can fit in my suitcase and choosing which books to take.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gloria - Kerry Young

'Gloria' was sent to me as a review copy (it seems I'm doing well for these at the moment) and I was primarily interested in it for the history of it's author - Kerry Young was born in Jamaica to a Chinese father and Chinese African mother, she now lives in Leicestershire, I don't come across very many local authors in my reading so that alone was intriguing. 

'Gloria' is a companion novel to Young's widely praised debut 'Pao', I haven't read the earlier book and didn't feel at any point through 'Gloria' that I was at a disadvantage, as the time frame seems to be the same in both books it's very definitely a companion rather than a sequel and as such works perfectly as a stand alone novel. I notice from Kerry's website ( that a third novel is planned; 'Fay', Fay has a peripheral but significant role in 'Gloria' mostly as Pao's wife and I have a feeling that her story is going to be particularly interesting. 

'Gloria' starts very promisingly with an attempted rape and actual murder, it's well done - shocking but not gratuitous, and a very convincing motivation for what follows. What follows is a flight from the scene of the crime for young Gloria, she heads from the country into Kingston with her little sister in tow to try and start a new life. It's 1938, the city is in turmoil and the options for young women with limited education are few and far between. Shop work is followed by domestic service - which is little more than slavery, and that eventually is followed by prostitution. Gloria is a capable woman so eventually she finds other, though perhaps just as morally dubious, ways of making money. She also develops an interest in socialist politics.

I loved the first three quarters of this book, Gloria is an interesting creation; she's struggling both with her own past and with the wider cultural issues post slavery. As able as she is she never quite shakes off feelings of worthlessness. The last quarter I found more problematical, I felt the it feel apart - the final resolution of the opening scene didn't convince me, revelations about other characters connections with Gloria felt at odds with what had gone before. It also became clear that nothing was really going to happen, all the loose ends get tied up more or less happily but not necessarily in a way that rang true for me.

In conclusion this is a bit of a mixed bag - there are things about it which I think are brilliant; especially the dialogue, Jamaican and Chinese characters both have a distinctive rhythm to their speech which feels pitch perfect - not overdone, not intrusive, but very atmospheric but in the end there was (for me at least) a few niggling things which didn't quite come off properly or live up to the early promise of the book. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Deer Island - Neil Ansell

'Deer Island' came to me as a review copy from Little Toller Books, they asked if I'd like a copy and as everything I've read from them has been excellent I naturally said yes please before they had a chance to change their minds. When I read the brief description of Ansell as a man who had lived and worked with the homeless in London staying in squats interspersed with brief escapes to Jura I was reminded of people I had known but not much taken to in my own teens and twenties so was ready to disapprove. It is however a short book - only 96 pages, and there's no better invitation to step outside of your reading comfort zone than a short book.

What happened in the end is that I read it twice, the first time pages at random whilst the book sat on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks - a few page with every solitary cup of tea or at breakfast, the second time I read it properly from start to finish over a couple of hours. Both readings marked this book out as something special. The beginning is, I think, a happy ending - it describes a settled sort of life in Brighton, the actual ending is altogether bleaker, or would be without that beginning. 

There is something about Ansell that reminds me of Gavin Maxwell, I don't think there's a  particularly obvious parallel here unless it's a sort of lost boy quality (I've put Ansell's earlier book on my wish list, it'll be interesting to see if the impression continues) but it's meant as high praise. Life amongst London's down and out's sounds intense but occasionally familiar; working in a city centre you soon get to recognise and be recognised by the down and outs, when I first worked in town I had quite a lot of friendly contact with local beggars, changing their coins into notes helped them out (and saved us in banking fees). Every 18 months or so though you would realise a familiar face had gone. I hope some got off the streets and generally found more stable lives, with most you simply watched a process of physical disintegration which could never end well. I found this depressing observing it from the relative distance of the shop door, I can only imagine what it does to you when you live right in amongst it all.

Ansell's way of dealing with it seems to have been to travel, sometimes to far flung corners of the globe, but periodically to Jura on the west coast of Scotland. Unless you fly at least part of the way getting to Jura is basically a two day process from London - which when you think about how small Britain is, makes you realise how remote it is, the process of getting there gives the traveller ample time to feel removed from whatever it is they're leaving behind and to adjust to what they'll find when they arrive - which in city terms is a whole lot of nothing but geography.

As this post rambles on I really wish I had Ansell's skill for succinctness. It's a book about losing and finding things within yourself, but far less pretentious than that sounds. It's also a very good book, one that should be sought out, enjoyed, and meditated over.