Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Weekend

Sadly it's almost over and time for me to go back to work (bank holidays don't really happen in retail) but I'm till feeling quite pleased at getting a very unusual three days off together, and having got them managing to have such a very nice time, and unusually still having a lot of chocolate left. 

Today has been far more about the boat race than any religious festival which may have coincided with it and probably more about cake than either. I enjoy the boat race, probably because it's the sort of sport I can understand - only 2 teams, 1 winner, and it doesn't last very long. It's also pretty to watch, I live next to the river in Leicester where both our local university teams practice - watching the eights working together is always impressive even when they're only beginning and still a bit clumsy. This years race was very satisfying to watch, not least because Oxford won so under the terms of our traditional bet my partner now owes me a pack of tea cakes (Tunnock's naturally).
Making Easter eggs turned out to be a really good plan, there has been a small but definite improvement in my chocolate handling skills, but more to the point is the time it takes. I like making bread for the same reason; although no individual part of the process takes to long or is especially demanding you can't rush it, a couple of hours pottering around with the radio for company and the air scented with melting chocolate is as good a way as any to wind down when I can't handle the excitement of a book. I meant to take better egg pictures but they got eaten and I didn't.

There was also a cake - there had to be a cake, I couldn't spend 3 days at home without making one and I had a real craving for a honey cake. This one is hard to beat although I still haven't actually made it with wholemeal flour (this time I had some nice spelt flour which has come out lovely). It's a shame cake isn't a healthy option - this one isn't shy of either butter or sugar but it's so good that I just don't care.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday Projects

The joy of having a day off and messing about in the kitchen would be unparalleled if it wasn't for all the tidying up it creates... Despite that I've had a great time making Easter treats today. There are marzipan rabbits inspired by a picture on facebook - all you do is roll the marzipan into balls, pinch them out into an egg shape whilst flattening the base, snip out ear shapes with some scissors and lightly toast under the grill. The taste great (if you like marzipan).

I also thought it might be fun to try and make my own Easter eggs and get a bit more practice in with handling chocolate which is something I continue to struggle with - basically because it calls for quite a bit more patience than I possess in the general run of things. I think the eggs have been reasonably successful, I covered them in gold lustre to cover up finger prints and other unsightly blemishes, but it's going to take a lot more practice before I'm properly competent at this kind of thing and I really need to work out how to stick the halves of things together in a satisfactory manner - that and how to coat the inside of the moulds reasonably evenly. 

I also made some Gin and Tonic truffles (recipe from Hope and Greenwood's 'Miss Hope's Chocolate Box') which were going to go inside the eggs until I realised that would be pushing my luck/competence. This is the second lot of truffles I've made - first time round I was very heavy handed with the gin which gave the truffles one hell of a kick (great in an actual gin and tonic, disconcerting in a chocolate) second time round I restrained myself somewhat with generally pleasing results. 

I was a bit doubtful about 'Miss Hope's Chocolate Box' at first but find I keep going back to it for inspiration and instruction. What I particularly like about it this recipe is that the quantities are fairly modest - perfect for experimenting with when your not quite sure how much of a mess you'll make and don't want to overdo the calorie intake either. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

An evening out

I don't get out very often these days - mostly because I've got a lot better at finding excuses not to - but
every so often an invitation too good to want to turn down marries with my work schedule. So it was last night with Penguin books bloggers evening. This is the third one they've done and the third one I've been lucky enough to get invited. It's a heady mix of books, book lovers, book writers, and wine and this year hosted in a bookshop (Foyle's) so I staggered back from London under the weight of many books - the free ones on offer weren't enough, I had to buy another five. I also found time to buy some whisky - basically I came home very satisfied with my afternoon off. 

The book I came home most excited by was Alicia Foster's 'Warpaint' of which there will be much more later but basically it's set in the war and revolves around the art world - specifically a handful of women war artists. So far (I started it on the train) it's great fun with some interesting points to make. 

I have three days off now (which is more than I usually manage over Easter) and nothing special planned beyond a general hope that I might catch up with a few people and make a dent in this bag of books - some chocolate might be on my agenda as well, basically it's going to be the perfect weekend. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Exiles Return - Elisabeth De Waal

When I read 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' Elisabeth De Waal was one of the characters I wanted to know The Hare With Amber Eyes' she must have been a remarkable character and certainly deserves some attention. Amongst everything else Elisabeth was also a writer, leaving behind five unpublished novels including this one, all in manuscript, and inherited by her grandson housed in an old carrier bag.
more about. Edmund De Waal's grandmother lived through interesting times. She fought for the chance of an education - successfully, she studied law, set off into Europe where she married outside of her own super rich Jewish circle, finally settled in England, extracted her father from Nazi Vienna, and in 1945 went back to see what could be salvaged - that much I remember from '

It seems that Elisabeth De Waal tried and failed to get her books published in her lifetime but kept on writing anyway. Edmund quotes Elisabeth on this:
 'Why am I making such a great effort and taxing my own endurance and energy to write this book that no one will read? Why do I have to write? Because I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published...What is lacking? I have a feeling for language...But I think I write in a rarified atmosphere, I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences, the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves...I distill too much.' 
I'm not convinced that this is a particularly well chosen quote for this book. I suspect the problem with it may have been the fairly sensationalist plot which includes homosexuality, suicide, adultery, many titled folk, and a young girl who is seduced and then abandoned by a princely but unprincipled lover. If Elisabeth wasn't such a good writer in other respects the last part of this book would be something of a mess as the plot, which I do not feel entirely hangs together - enjoyable as it is - takes over from her perceptive exploration of exile. 

Exile must have meant a lot of things to Elisabeth personally and she explores many of them here. There's exile from home, from class, from family, from church, and from status, nor does she forget to look at the children of those who make the choice to leave - the legacy, even of self imposed exile, is passed down the generations. The first exile we meet is Professor Adler, a Jewish scientist on his way back to Vienna after 15 years in America. His wife and daughters have done well in the U.S. and have no desire to return to Austria, but the professor has never felt at home there - shocked by the casual anti-Semitism he's met with in New York, uncomfortable with his wife's success, and simply missing home, he takes his chance at repatriation returning to a country that has promised reparation but neither knows what to do with, or particularly wants, this ageing man who has experience but no capital. 

This is the point when the occupying forces of the four powers are about to move out of Austria, Vienna is recovering and rebuilding, and after 15 years there is a post war generation taking possession of it's future without perhaps being over anxious to examine it's immediate past, it's also interesting that there are so many upwardly mobile young people in this book. Adler's return is a difficult transition, the few old acquaintances he has left have lived through there own difficult years which leave them slightly embittered towards those who got away - who had an easy war safe in a country of plenty. Initially Adler is paranoid and hard to like, but homecoming suits him, and in the end he gets his moment of catharsis in conversation with someone who admits to having been a Nazi.  

If Adler is our hero Resi is the heroine. Resi has been sent to her Austrian family from America - they have adjusted to life there, it suits them, but to Resi something is missing and she doesn't quite fit into the country that's been home almost all her life. In the Austrian countryside with her aristocratic though no longer wealthy family she finds peace and purpose and in Vienna her connections open doors to her. Elisabeth chose her own route, arguably the war, for all the loss and heartbreak it bought, also created opportunities for people like her who wanted to escape the constraints of the rarefied society they were born into - there is little of the sense of loss in this book that characterises 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' - instead it feels like someone making sense of a changed world. Resi however is a problem. She has neither the confidence, born of knowing precisely who you are and where you're from, or the ambition of her parents who fought to go their own way, to back her up so she's a little bit adrift in the world. 

Persephone have a talent for finding thought provoking books and this one is no exception, I'd even go as far as to say that it's almost the quintessential 'Persephone'. The success of 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' should guarantee a certain amount of publicity for 'The Exiles Return' (it's already been discussed on Radio 4's Front Row) which it deserves. Elisabeth has basically successfully distilled her experience to create a really interesting discussion about the experience of exile, and about Austria's past, present, and future as it was in 1955, and better late than never we can now all read it and engage with her. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Intelligent Woman's Guide - Bernard Shaw

The full title is 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide To Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism And Fascism' and I
accepted this copy from Alma books at the tale end of last year. Unfortunately I failed to get very far with it before Christmas (there clearly wasn't enough intelligence left at the end of the working day) but it's a useful thing to have around and I've been referring to it a bit over the last few days.

On reflection it was probably never going to be a good idea to try and read my way all the way through this  book in one go. There's a lot in it to take on board, I'm not much of a non fiction reader at the best of times, and when it's not the best of times I'm very easily distracted without the hook of a plot. As a book to dip in and out of though this one has a lot to recommend it. 

The advantage of reading a book of political theory written in the 1920's is that it isn't effected by the second world war. The advantage of reading political theory by a liberal minded socialist is, for me at least, a broadly sympathetic viewpoint and so no danger of throwing the book across the room. The second world war - in Britain at least it's still 'The War', despite ending 68 years ago and inching ever closer to slipping out of living memory, and also despite the many conflicts we've been involved in since, and are involved in now. Reading the chapter on fascism in 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide' gave me one of those moments when I realise how much I understand that word to be synonymous with the Nazi's. Shaw is good on fascism. In a few pages he deals with it's attractions and how it can appear to work, before pointing out why it's a less than desirable political system (history continues to prove his point) but what really caught me out was that his great fascist dictator was Napoleon (it came as a mild surprise to me to think as well that when Shaw talks about Napoleon his distance from him in time is roughly the same as ours is to Hitler now). I think of Napoleon as being Napoleonic - certainly a dictator, but I don't recall him ever being described as a fascist in any of my brushes with him studying History. It's a little thing but it made me re-adjust my ideas and question why I think the way I do on certain subjects which is a good thing.

There are also a couple of pages on eugenics - something that crops up reasonably frequently in pre war fiction where it's not always absolutely frowned on. Shaw doesn't approve - he manages to be funny as well as convincing in his reasoning, and his point that we poisoned Socrates, crucified Christ, and burnt Joan of Arc so perhaps shouldn't assume that we have a good handle on who the right sort of people are in society holds just as well now as it did in 1924 when our science was unimaginable. 

I'm about to head off to bed to read what Shaw has to say on the subject of banking (a typical Friday night for me these days) having been struck again by how useful a volume this is to have around the house. For me that's partly because it sheds all sorts of insights into the fiction that I love, but it's also because everything I've read in here is worth discussing. No well dressed bookcase is complete without it, and every intelligent woman, (and man) ought to give it a look. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Love Stories - Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Or to give it it's full title 'There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories'. I found  'There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbours Baby' very rewarding so was really pleased to see another collection of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's stories, even more so because these turned out to be both moving and accessible examinations of love and bitterness. 

In the introduction Anna Summers (who I think is the translator here as well) talks about the Russian word byt, from being, and pertaining to the circumstances of everyday life. In this case all the crap of everyday life. These stories have been picked from Petrushevskaya's whole writing life from her first published story in 1972 up to one from 2008 published in a collection to celebrate her seventieth birthday. Without knowing the dates of the stories it's hard to tell which come from the soviet era and which are later. It doesn't really matter because Petrushevskaya doesn't directly discuss politics. Her's are not stories of knocks on the door in the middle of the night or of labour camps, but of the everyday drudge of domestic life lived often in poverty and always in cramped, claustrophobic conditions where the greatest luxury imaginable might very well be private space - a room of one's own. 

With this in mind it's no surprise that the love that has the best chance of survival is that of a mother for her child - claustrophobia destroys the affection between couples, and makes children impatient with their parents, but however fragile it is love, and sex, give life some other purpose than the business of getting through the days. Indirectly this is political - the housing shortage is a key element in every story and there are surely political implications to that, though another truth is surely that for most people nothing changes regardless of regime. 

The first story 'A Murky Fate' covers a mere 3 pages and tells of an unmarried woman in her 30's who implores her mother to go out for the night so she can bring home a fat balding married man some 10 years her senior. He leaves assuming that that's it - an unromantic encounter if ever there was one, but next day the woman cries with joy, knowing that there's nothing but pain and disappointment ahead for her doesn't matter - now she has something. I find this heartening. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Last Night I Baked 60 Cupcakes

... And this morning I got up at 6.30am to ice them all. They're for a work Comic Relief fundraising thing where I hope the charitable instinct will kick in because these cakes aren't entirely my best work (I did try, but it's been a long, long, week, last night wasn't the best time for an epic baking session). I set out to make red velvet cakes - and here's some product information; the Dr. Oetker natural red food colouring is made from beetroot, it smells, and tastes, strongly of beetroot. No amount of sugar or cocoa in the cake masked the taste of beetroot, nor did a generous dollop of vanilla flavoured icing. I don't dislike beetroot but it isn't the chocolatey flavour I hoped for, and furthermore whilst the cakes were an attractive red on the outside a sample cake revealed that they were chocolate brown on the inside which means the beetroot didn't even do what it was meant to - not a colouring I'll use again.  
The second lot of cakes were meant to be minty green velvet as a sort of nod towards St Patrick's day but it turned out to be an inauspicious moment for innovation, it was clear from the moment that I added the colouring that khaki was the best I could hope for. So the renamed mint chocolate swamp cakes got their minty icing, where it turned out it wasn't a good time to improvise either. I had made a lot (A Lot) of cream cheese icing assuming that if vanilla and lemon worked in it so would mint, turns out it tastes and feels a lot like toothpaste which may be why it's years since I've used mint flavouring (when I grow mint I like a really peppery one so hopefully this is a personal quirk and the swamp coloured toothpaste cakes will be more appealing than they sound).

The final lot of cakes were chocolate Guinness ones from a Nigella recipe which was both a very definite nod to St Patrick's day and also to my job. I've wanted to do this recipe as cupcakes for ages but never had an occasion until now so here's a bit of a warning: there is a lot of very runny batter involved, really a lot, in fact something like 3 pints of it. I had blithely assumed it would make 12 good sized cupcakes (the sort that go in muffin cases and not the much smaller fairy cake) it actually made 24 which was inconvenient because my oven doesn't like to multi task, taking a strictly monogamous view of one cake tray at a time - as punishment it encouraged the second tray to erupt and escape (by which time I was really tired). Despite this the Guinness cakes are good. The Nigella recipe uses frightening amounts of butter and sugar, however you make this cake it's one that needs to be shared around. The Guinness gives a rich depth that's most appealing  and stops it being too sweet, I like a crème fraiche based topping which helps to hint at the tang of a good pint but used a vanilla icing this time which works well on the smaller size. I was really pleased when I found some black paper cases because with a bit of a squint these almost look like mini pints... 

The rest of the day has been dominated by Rugby which I don't understand but is mesmerising anyway.      

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alma Books Competition

Alma books are running a competition for Easter - all you have to do is follow them on twitter (@almabooks) and re tweet the competition details. They publish some great books and these look like no exception!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Breakfast With The Nikolides - Rumer Godden

My reading life generally follows a path - I'll pick up a book, and it will lead onto another, and then another,  until either it feels like I've come to the end of that particular road, or something comes along that I drop everything to read which heads me off on a new path. Occasionally though there will be a pile of books which all look so good that my reading doesn't fall into a pattern but jumps around all over the place. This is how it is at the moment and it's making me realise how much the last book I read influences how I think about the one I'm reading now. My understanding of Amy Sackville's 'Orkney' owed a lot to 'The Phantom of the Opera' and 'Breakfast With The Nikolides' was partly informed by my reaction to 'The Mussel Feast' (actually on reflection it seems that all unwittingly I've read a pile of books about unhappy domestic situations and controlling relationships this year). 

I've seen 'Breakfast With The Nikolides' referred to somewhere as a coming of age story but that's not at all how I saw it - to me it'a a book about rape. Really it's both these things and more, 'Breakfast With The Nikolides' is beautiful, perceptive, moving - essentially far to good a book to fit into one little box, but on this reading this is what I made of it...

The book opens with Emily Pool's dog escaping from the house and behaving quite erratically, before it skips back to reveal the Pool family. Charles Pool has been living alone in a Bengali back water for the last 8 years in a house that's beautiful and cared for but oddly damaged - everything has been broken at some point in the past. War has broken out in Europe and is driving his estranged wife back to him along with their two daughters - Emily and Binnie. This is not a happy family, Charles and Louise seem to hate one another and Emily's relationship with her mother is exceptionally strained. Charles doesn't know the name of his 8 year old daughter and Louise's reaction to the house she hasn't seen before is one of shocked familiarity.

India is hot and tense, there with a definite threat of violence in the air. Charles gives Emily a puppy, and it's his odd behaviour that triggers one set of events. Louise decides he's rabid and has him destroyed but tells Emily he dies in a fight with another dog whilst the children where having breakfast with the Nikolides family down the river. It's a breaking point in their already strained relationship with neither Louise or Emily capable of controlling themselves or the consequences of their actions. For Emily one part of childhood is over (so yes I guess it is a coming of age story).

Meanwhile Charles and Louise's past is slowly unravelled. Louise is a beauty but she's by no means a pleasant woman; towards the end of the book Charles tells her that she was not "reasonable, you did not want something - you wanted everything. You wanted to spend all your money and be rich, you wanted to have a child and have no worry and pain, you wanted to marry and not be married; and when it naturally didn't fall out like that you made an outcry and a moan. You wanted to be trusted and have the fun of being untrustworthy - and you did have fun, didn't you Louise? And you wanted me to be jealous - without being inconvenient." she knows, and we know it's true, her replies that he was bestial are clearly meant to lack much conviction, but Godden also makes it clear that the marriage breaks up after Charles rapes her one night.

On the one hand the reader is clearly meant to side with Charles; after 3 years of Louise's games he snaps, at some point in the encounter she submits to him - seemingly what she can't forgive about the night is that she responded to him: her revenge is to take their child and cut off all contact whilst refusing to divorce him, she keeps the (as a result) children from him whilst living in Paris where there have been lovers, and after it all she still wants him. Charles has spent the intervening years living like a monk in a re-creation of the house they shared believing himself to be as hateful as she told him he was, and yet still he wants her. I could just about have gone along with the possibility that this is Louise getting the passion she wants from her husband without having to admit to her desires but for Godden making it quite a violent rape. Charles starts by taking an axe from the wall and smashing everything in the house before dragging his wife to bed. The servants are banished, the baby screaming, the entire house desecrated - I don't believe this is a rape fantasy, which is a concept I understand but which makes me profoundly uncomfortable, it's retribution and that too is an uncomfortable idea.

On the other hand this revelation towards the end of the novel made me re-assess Louise and her actions; it's clear she hates India as much as her husband and daughters love it; her extreme reaction to the dog's suspected rabies is in part an attempt to find a reason to leave, Charles accuses Louise of smashing the house - of 'making' him do it and it's quite possible to believe that she engineered a crisis sufficient to smash up her marriage. It's another violent event that brings the couple back together, it's not a healthy relationship and neither party is blameless or without sympathy.

That's one part of a satisfyingly complex and nuanced exploration of family relationships - Louise and Emily would demand as much space again. I had thought 'Black Narcissus' would probably remain my favourite Godden but this is a real contender and generally the more I read her the more respect I have for her as a writer. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013


It's been a grey old week and to combat the weather it would seem mothers this year will mostly be drinking heavily to celebrate Mothering Sunday if my sales this weekend have been anything to go by. In fact we've sold so much that if you know a mother in the Leicester area I would recommend that any approach made on Monday morning involves a bacon sandwich, a couple of paracetamol, and extreme caution.

Slightly less exhausting was a local farmers market on Thursday - it's one of the high points of my month now that my day off has finally synchronised with it, not just for the market which is excellent, but because the market town (Market Harborough) that hosts it has a whole lot of interesting independent shops including a very nice florist where I got a little bit over enthusiastic. I'm glad I did, the narcissus (narcissi) have scented my whole flat, daffodils (like rhubarb) are an irresistible promise of spring. Anemones are maybe my favourite flowers but I don't often see the white ones for sale (they go to classier spots than I usually get to frequent) I love these for the traces of other colours in the petals and for all their subtle variations.

The orange ranunculus are another favourite, they are such odd looking things but with the most vivid colour. I keep thinking about growing them but think they only really work as a cut flower - I can't quite see them in the ground - far to exotic and blowsy for my garden, but apparently quite appropriate for my bedside table. Anyway, this lot have been cheering me up for the last couple of days so I thought I would share.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Mussel Feast - Birgit Vanderbeke translated by Jamie Bulloch

I've just read two of the recently reprinted Rumer Godden's and been surprised to see both described as young adult books, which makes me think I'm not very clear about what young adult means. I've looked it up  which has only confirmed a vague prejudice against the term, but perhaps that's my age showing because I find myself thinking 'in my day...' and that can't be a good sign. If I could choose though I would have 'The Mussel Feast' on the school curriculum here as it is in Germany -  it's the sort of book young people ought to read.

The mussel's in the title are a well chosen food, I cook and eat them quite often because they're my partners favourite, I like them too, but there comes a point halfway through the meal when I suddenly find them repulsive (every time I eat them, and I really do like them up until that point). The other thing with mussels is how carefully they have to be observed - when you scrub them you need to make sure that every single one is closed and undamaged, when they're cooked you have to be sure that every one has opened. Get it wrong  you face violently unpleasant (gastric) consequences.

 'The Mussel Feast' is narrated by a teenage girl, she starts by looking back to a specific evening - were the mussels they were preparing an omen of things to come? No, she decides they were not, but they are a sign that her father is expected home from a business trip and his immanent arrival is causing some tension in the family. It always causes tension in the family. As the narrative unfolds it becomes more chilling. The father is slowly revealed as controlling, violent, manipulative, demanding, unreasonable, in short very dangerous to his family.

The family has escaped from East Germany to the West, but despite the promise of freedom I assume that would mean, the household is still a totalitarian state with obedience maintained by a system of division and intimidation. This night is different though, the father doesn't come home and the mother, brother, and sister start to talk. That small brake in routine is enough to shift the family dynamic. Each revelation and confirmation strengthens the bonds between the three as they wait - denial becomes harder, by the end of the evening some act of revolution, however minor, is inevitable and a gesture will be made. 

We never find out quite what happens, I think it's just possible that the husband has cleared off with his attractive young secretary which raises the possibility that he's been as much a prisoner of the domestic situation he created as the rest of his family has. It's a book to think about, the parallels between domestic oppression and political oppression are impossible to miss, I keep thinking about Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich' (which I did read as a young adult, and at about the same time that Birgit Vanderbeke was writing 'The Mussel Feast') it's a book that's stayed with me as a great cry of unfairness and the two make good companions. 'The Mussel Feast' provides the hope that is missing from Ivan Denisovich - the possibility of change. It's a book that begs to be discussed and ought to be pressed on the young - it's just the book I'd like to see being given out on world book day...

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Fugue In Time - Rumer Godden

Of all the Rumer Godden titles Virago have just released this is the one I was most anticipating - it wasn't one I'd heard of before (though I suspect there are a good few more of those) but this one promised a brash young American turning up at her uncles house in war torn London, a history of the family including a mysterious orphan, and a love story or two which all sounded like fun. It also sounded quite a bit like 'China Court' (I thought I had blogged about 'China Court' but must have read it just before I started) which I remember as being gently enjoyable.

The first few pages went on to feel a lot like 'China Court' and I was momentarily disappointed - much as I had liked I didn't want to read essentially the same book over again - and then it developed into something much better than I was expecting, though now I've checked Godden's bibliography I see that 'A Fugue In Time' precedes 'China Court' by some 16 years (I don't know why this has surprised me but it has).  'A Fugue In Time' is also, and I didn't expect this either, a response to T. S. Elliot's East Coker, specifically this passage: Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
                    The world becomes stranger, the pattern more
                    Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
                     Isolated, with no before and after,
                     But a lifetime burning in every moment
                     And not the lifetime of one man only
                     But of old stones that cannot be deciphered,
                     There is a time for the evening under starlight,
                     A time for the evening under lamplight
                     (The evening with the photograph album).
                     Love is most nearly itself
                     When here and now cease to matter.
                     Old men ought to be explorers
                     Here or there does not matter
                     We must be still and still moving
                     Into another intensity
                     For a further union, a deeper communion...
                     ...In my end is my beginning.

It is the story of a home and a family that have lived in it for 99 years. An elderly and disgraced General, Rolls Dane, has retired into his family home to live - I would say with the past but that's not quite right. The house doesn't forget the people who have made their lives in it. John Ironmonger Dane who took the lease and made a home for his young wife Griselda, Selina their daughter who takes over the housekeeping when Griselda dies giving birth to Rolls, Lark Ingoldsby whom John brings home as a young orphan and delivers into Selina's resentful care, there is Rolls/Rollo/Rolly, There is Grizel the young American niece who will also have her future in the house, and then there is Mr Proutie, and Mrs Proutie, and Mrs Crabbe, and all the others who have made the house what it is above and below stairs. All their stories are told, or at least parts of them are, and they're all told at the same time.

Each story belongs to the house as much as the furniture, the china, or the glassware - much of which is described in glorious lists of inventory - a home is made by the people that live in it, but it is also made of things, all the things which are loved and cherished and invested with memories.

This is an extraordinary book - thinking about it makes me think it shouldn't work, but it does, it really does. Godden does so many things with it, of which for me the most interesting is how she explores women's lives through their relationship with the house, and again to me the most interesting is Griselda. Married at 17 Griselda is a stuffed into the role of the angel in the home which really doesn't fit her very well. She's desperate for a life beyond the walls of her home but she's trapped by convention and love. There are plenty of ways to illustrate the plight of a respectable upper middle class Victorian housewife, Godden  does it by pointing out that Griselda doesn't have a key to her own front door. She has the interior keys, excepting the cellar key which is the property of master and butler, but she can't come and go from her own house as she pleases, not without being observed and not without tacit permission. The implications of that are still bothering me.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Quiet Life - Beryl Bainbridge

I had until now successfully avoided reading any Beryl Bainbridge, or even being very aware of her; if I had noticed her books at all it was the later historical novels, and that's not a genre I'm very attracted too. Even Gaskella's 'Reading Beryl' week last year didn't have me paying as much attention as it should have (but it now makes a wonderful resource which is one of the brilliant things about blogs) but a couple of weeks ago I got an unexpected envelope from Virago with a couple of Bainbridge's in it (that's one of the brilliant things about blogging) and they looked quite tempting.

Partly that's the power of the Virago apple on a spine - it will always guarantee my interest, but these are also Bainbridge's early novels where she writes out her early life in a loose combination of autobiography and fiction. After I read 'A Quiet Life' I went back to read the introduction where it came as no real surprise to learn that Bainbridge became a  sort of protégé of Anna Haycraft (Alice Thomas Ellis); there is a darkness to  this book which dovetails neatly with Alice Thomas Ellis's dark humour. It's another reason for me to warm to Bainbridge.

'A Quiet Life' starts with a re-union between brother and sister, Alan is waiting for Madge in a cafe, they haven't seen each other for 15 years and he seems a fussy stuffy sort. Madge in contrast sounds vaguely bohemian with a dry sense of humour. She starts to describe Alan's childhood - he was lonely, musical, the favoured child who wasn't called upon to work around the house and who was shielded from the rows... Alan doesn't recognise himself, though neither does he really deny Madge's version of events, and then on his way home he falls back into his own memories.

Alan's version is rather different - Madge is a careless, manipulative, slut, their mother a domestic tyrant obsessed with appearances and their father a constant embarrassment - an entrepreneur who has fallen on hard times. There is clearly passion in their marriage but it's gone sour, love has been replaced by bitter fighting and antipathy. For Alan life is about avoiding confrontation and trying to maintain some sort of peace within the family, he too wants to maintain appearances. Madge has no interest in maintaining anything, she deals with their horrible home life by being brutally honest about it and by ignoring any parental authority. At barely 15 she's roaming the countryside with a German prisoner of war seemingly unconcerned about any consequences her actions might have.

It's a bleak little book - which is something I very often find cheering (I can't pretend my life is anything like this grim, which is nice) and so it it here. The home life described is appalling, but it seems that somehow both Alan and Madge have found their happy enough endings despite the damage - both, I imagine, quite different. And then Bainbridge looks for empathy, rather than sympathy or pity, for her characters which I found myself responding to far more than I expected. I'm enthusiastic to read the rest of the Virago re-prints now, and who knows, after that I might even put aside my prejudices and tackle some of the later books. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Food From Plenty - Diana Henry

This book came out in 2010 when I took a look at it and decided I didn't need another cookbook (I know, I know, I probably wasn't feeling well at the time, and certainly can't have been feeling at all myself). In defence of my poor judgement I was feeling the economic pinch at the time even more than I do know (which is a shocking thought in itself). Since then though there has been 'Salt Sugar Smoke' which turned out to be one of those magical books that felt like it had been written just for me (I know it wasn't, but still - it couldn't have been more perfect) and called for a proper evaluation of Diana Henry's books. The more I read the more I like her.

I've spent quite a lot of time looking for ideas in 'Food From Plenty' over the last few weeks and found some cracking things, but it's only tonight that I've looked at the introduction - it's all good stuff making some very valid points (all of which I agree with) especially in the first couple of paragraphs. Henry started writing this book just before the economy nose dived at which point editors and publishers started looking for pieces on cheap food but for Diana this was missing the point. She makes the case that before recession struck we were already beginning to embrace a more seasonal and local approach to food and that the amount of food being thrown away had become an issue. Cheap food isn't really the answer - a desire for cheap meat has, after all, landed us in a situation where we have to finally admit we don't have a clue what we've been eating, which is hardly reassuring.

The key to this book and the philosophy behind it is to buy wisely and to use everything. Fruit and veg in season is far cheaper, and tastes far better, than out. Good quality meat doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive, especially if it's a less popular cut, and cooking a bit extra with a view to leftovers is sensible too; it saves cooking everything from scratch later in the week which in turn saves both time and money. With this in mind the recipes for prime cuts of meat and salmon are followed by lots of ideas for things to do with the extra bits, the same is also true for pulses and grains and because the recipes come from all over the world using the same core ingredients doesn't mean eating obvious variations on the same them three days in a row.

I'm lucky in Leicester - we still have quite a good market - though I can't say it gets the love it deserves (market shopping is a skill, there is very definitely still a buyer beware element to the experience, but if you're prepared to go with what's good on the day there are terrific bargains to be had). Fruit especially can be very cheap which brings me to my favourite recipe in this book so far 'Apricot and Almond upside down cake'. I love these very moist, nutty, cakes which can be dressed up with a bit of cream or dressed down with a cup of tea and I'm always tempted to buy apricots off the market despite knowing that half will be too bruised to use and the rest will be rock hard and tasteless. The thing is you get at least 20 of the little blighters for a pound and the poor girls on the stall (it's an open market) look so cold at this time of year, this cake gives them their best chance with a really wonderful balance of sweet and tart as well as a generally sunny appearance that's very welcome in late winter.

A couple of years down the line the message in this book makes more sense than ever, as well as it just being generally excellent. One I'm so pleased I didn't miss out on!