Thursday, May 30, 2013

No One But A Woman Knows - Margaret Llewelyn Davies

This was my bargain buy from the bank holiday, it did indeed turn out to be a harrowing read but almost a hundred years after it's first publication it's still an important and depressingly relevant book. Margaret Llewelyn Davies was general secretary of the Women's Co-Operative guild from 1889 to 1921. In 1914 she  initiated the sending of letters asking about direct experience of childbirth and rearing and some of those replies make up this book. 

The bare statistics are worth considering from the very beginning 348 mothers had experienced 1396 pregnancies that ended in live births although 122 of those children died within a year, there were 83 still births and 218 miscarriages, 2  of the women had experienced 10 miscarriages each, 1 had 5 still births. In total those 348 women had 1697  pregnancies. Household income ranged from as little as 9 shillings a week to as much as 5 pounds - which roughly equates to £45 going up to about £500, the average seems to be around 25 shillings or £100 - £125 pounds. Even the top end isn't much to raise a family of several children on, and the women who took part in this survey were at the better off end of the spectrum of working class families. 

Without a national health system a doctor was often unaffordable, and certainly not someone you could call on lightly. Getting in help when the baby was born to deal with heavy housework (imagine a world without washing machines) and other young children was another considerable expense. Some of the women describe being almost continuously pregnant for years on end, one tells of a neighbour who's had children 10 months and 14 days apart, another of a woman having 4 children within 2 and a half years (1 set of twins). 

Poverty means not enough food so expectant mothers are often malnourished which in turn leads to sickly children. Lack of knowledge and not being able to afford decent medical care leads to a litany of horrible sounding ailments - it comes as no surprise to read that a pregnancy was the cause of fear rather than joy. It isn't all doom and gloom though, there are a few women who understand birth control, some who have had easy pregnancies, and where there is enough money to make sure that the family is decently fed better health is assured. 

Minimum wage in 2013 means someone over 21 working a full time (39 hours a week) earns just over £240 pounds a week before tax and national insurance. Employers at the lower, unskilled, end of the job market increasingly favour part time workers. Women are no longer the property of their husbands in this country, marital rape has been recognised as a crime since the 1990's, the pill has been available on the NHS since 1961, and abortion has been legal since 1967. Illegal doesn't mean it doesn't happen, and abortion remains a contentious issue. 

This book is relevant because it reminds us why the women's movement was so desperately necessary in the first place, and why it's still so important. Sitting here in comfort with more than enough to eat, the security of knowing if I become ill I'll basically be looked after for free, and having made an educated choice not to have children just as so many of my friends have made the educated choice to have the children they want and can afford, what really strikes me is not how far we've come in the last century but how close we still are to the lives of these women. Yes, things have generally improved for families but 'No One But A Woman Knows' is also a warning not to be complacent. It doesn't surprise me to see that it and it's sister volume 'Life As We Have Known It' were some of the first books that Virago published back in the 1970's, it's fantastic that they're back in print - 'No One But A Woman Knows' feels like a really important book. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Drowning pool - Ross Macdonald

I have a new phone, I don't understand what it does, can't stop it doing whatever it is it does, and have
somehow spent all afternoon and evening on trying to master it, my hope is that I'll have figured out how to set the alarm on it before I go to sleep tonight. I must be getting old because things like this just baffle me now.

None of which has anything to do with Ross Macdonald's 'The Drowning Pool' but it feels good to share. I've read a few Macdonald's now and he's always enjoyable though in the nicest possible way a little bit formulaic - or at least heavily reliant on common themes between books, which if less intelligently handled might get tiresome. As it is he makes them work, and for me, never better than here (at least not in my reading so far). 

Lew Archer meets another attractive older woman with a troubled marriage to a man who isn't quite what he seems to be, and some issues with a mother in law and daughter. There are some particularly good one liners, and an sticky situation that looks particularly bad for Archer until he extracts himself in a way that would do Bond proud. 

I think the physcology of this book works better than in some of the others I've read, or at least it certainly works better for me. This is a massive spoiler but it turns out that the husband is gay. He married his wife, the attractive older blonde, partly in an attempt to deny his sexuality - it was her job to save him from himself. She married him because she was pregnant (not his child). Sixteen years later it's not looking good. The marriage is tense, the mother in law holds the purse strings and she holds them tightly so when she drowns in the swimming pool it's almost a relief. Matters are further complicated by the unhealthy mutual attraction between father and step daughter. It's Macdonald's habit to have events from the past, the sins of the father's if you will, come back to haunt the next generation - in this case because it's a simple thing - a bad marriage it makes sense. The identity of the killer came as a surprise, and a shock, but it made sense.

In the end murder and the nasty reasons behind it are still a lot simpler than trying to get to grips with a new mobile phone which has me worried. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Bank Holiday Bargains

It's been a real treat having a long bank holiday weekend, working in retail it doesn't often work out that way for me but this time it did (and I needed it, I was asleep by 8.30 on Friday night - once upon a time that was to early to consider going out, never mind go to bed). Even better it's been sunny and I've had garden access, so in the best British tradition am mildly sunburnt on the 4 square inches of flesh I neglected to cover, and as a finale a good look round in bargain bookshop 'The Works'.

Back in the 1990's before amazon was such a big thing there were lots of discount bookshops around on the high street, I worked for a couple of them and it was quite exciting - the books we got were over runs, returns, and slightly damaged stock (at times there may have been stuff that fell off the back of a lorry too, and possibly the occasional raid by the police in search of some of the trades more colourful characters), there were some great books to be had though. These days most of those shops have gone but here in the UK, but we still have 'The Works' and Leicester's branch isn't at all bad. It's a shop I tend to overlook and then am always really surprised when I find loads of really good things in there, often books I paid full rice for but weeks before. What's great about it is finding desirable books that had otherwise slipped under my radar. 

Today's haul is Adam Nicolson's 'Gentry', it looked vaguely appealing when I saw it in hardback, but was so clearly a book that would sit gathering dust and mocking me over all the better uses for the money that I could have found. At £2.99 I could happily forgo an overpriced coffee and assume that I WILL dip in and out of this at some point. It's the story of 12 upper class families from the middle ages to the present day and hopefully has a few eccentrics in it as well as a particular view of British history. 

I totally missed Virago's reissue of Margaret Llewelyn Davies 'No One But A Woman Knows' last summer. Subtitled Stories of Motherhood Before The War it's a collection of letters from working class women compiled by the Women's Co-Operative Guild in 1915. It seems it was also one of the first books that Virago ever published. I find this kind of social history fascinating and if it's not too harrowing I'll get it's companion volume Life As We Have Known It: The Voices of Working-Class Women which is a similar account of working women first published in 1931. Apparently Virginia Woolf was a fan which is quite the endorsement.

My final purchase is one I'm likely to get ribbed about. I have a Lovejoy habit. It was Sunday night prime time viewing when I was in my teens, I liked it then, I love it now (it's repeated at odd times and in odd places on freeview) everybody laughs at me for watching it but I don't care. I've thought about tracking down one of the books the series was based in for years but never actually did, and now I've found one cheap, shiny, and new (all good right?). It's published by the intriguing Constable & Robinson another thing that had passed under the radar for me despite them having been around since 1795. However every time I go in The Works I find books I love bought back into print by them (specifically by Alice Thomas Ellis, and Sarah Caudwell) so I'm doubly intrigued by this Lovejoy title.  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Weekend With Claude - Beryl Bainbridge

I left town this weekend to spend in the countryside, my weekend has been rather quieter than the one Bainbridge gives us here. Highlights for me have been transplanting things around the garden, picking the first of my rhubarb (I've waited two years for it to be ready so this first crop has been hotly anticipated, here's hoping it makes the best crumble ever - unlikely, I know I've overdone the crumble bit) , and that's about it, so all very calm and relaxing. 

This was my second outing with Bainbridge, picked to counterbalance 'Miss Buncle Married' and 'The Blue Castle' which I assumed (rightly) would be light and charming, I also assumed (rightly) that Bainbridge would be altogether darker and spikier, so a good foil. The book hangs around Lily but is narrated by four different characters. Lily herself, Norman, Shebah, and to some extent Claude. Lily has bought Norman, Shebah, and Edward to spend a night with Claude and his mistress Julia amongst their treasures in the country. Norman, Shebah, Lily, and Claude are old friends with lives they've allowed to become overly involved and interdependent. Edward has been chosen by Lily to be a father for the possible child she might be carrying and to this end he has to be made to believe he might be the father. She has asked her friends to tell Edward nice things about her in the hope that he'll propose and all will end happily.

This seems an unlikely out come, Lily is slutish in her domestic habits, free with her affections, too dependant on her friends, and far too dependant on her own emotional chaos to settle down into a happy or effective marriage. Second book in and clear themes and motifs are also emerging, Bainbridge alludes to the same sort of childhood as she did in 'A Quiet Life' and I assume that there is a good pinch of autobiography here. 

I  enjoyed 'A Quiet Life' more, but mostly because it was completely new to me, reading 'A Weekend With Claude' only a few weeks after meant that some of the shared details between the books felt repetitive in a way that wouldn't occur after the year or two that normally comes between books as they're published - it's something I'm going to bear in mind for reading the other two Bainbridge's I have waiting. What I lacked in enjoyment however was more than made up for in insight. Bainbridge is merciless in her portraits, brilliant too. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Blue Castle - L.M Montgomery

I know a couple of people who adore 'The Blue Castle' and I loved 'Anne of Green Gables' when I was younger so when I saw a copy I bought it despite the truly horrible cover. Actually a quick look suggests that this poor book has been afflicted with a series of horrible covers over the years which is perhaps why it's not more widely known (the original covers are perfect so I can only hope I turn up a nice copy in a charity shop sometime). It really is a shame about the cover, without the recommendations I wouldn't have picked up a book that looked like this (normally Hesperus have perfectly nice covers too).

So now I've got that out of my system onto the contents. This is basically a Cinderella story. Valency Stirling wakes up to find she's 29, unattractive, unloved, and unhappy. She still lives at home (but as it's 1926 and semi rural Canada it would be odder if she didn't) with an overbearing mother and cousin. She's surrounded by a hidebound family (more of a clan really) where she's the but of every joke and looked down on for her spinster status. Life is about as joyless as it could be for Valency and then she gets some news which should make it worse, but instead it encourages her to throw caution to the winds and start saying what she thinks.

From there it's a short step to a decent haircut, a flattering dress, and emancipation from the family. The end result is that Valency turns out to be something more interesting than beautiful; she's attractive. For the reader the attraction is that she's having fun, saying what comes into her mind, and doing what she thinks is right. Her adventures lead her to a handsome renegade and after some twists and turns it all ends happily (I don't think that's to much of a spoiler). 'The Blue Castle' of the title refers to the imaginary home Valency creates for herself to escape into when real life gets to much.

This was the perfect book to spend a wet afternoon with, and is something I expect I'll read many times again. It's short and charming, (I might also have cried at the sad bit) with plenty of humour, and a generally uplifting vibe and belongs with the select handful of books that I turn to as comfort reading. It really does deserve a better cover though. It's cheap for Kindle's though. I'm also looking forward to seeing what Montgomery's Emily stories are like when Virago re print them in December.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Miss Buncle Married - D E Stevenson

I thought 'Miss Buncle Married' would make for nice gentle holiday reading (how long ago that seems now) and I was right. It's years since I read 'Miss Buncle's Book' and it turns out my memories of it are vague - I think that Miss Buncle writes a book using her neighbours as the characters, and then the things she invents for them come true (or something rather like that), it all gets rather fraught and eventually Miss Buncle is forced to flee the village  - which she does, and falls into the arms of her rather nice publisher Arthur Abbott in the process. 'Miss Buncle Married' picks up the story about a year down the line. Barbara Buncle is now Mrs Abbott and very happy with her Arthur, but if there's a fly in the ointment it's this - they're too popular. Instead of spending time together it's a constant round of dinner parties and bridge which neither of them are really enjoying.

The answer is to move and what follows is a long search for the perfect house, some crazy coincidences, the threat of another novel, and some suitably happy endings. D E Stevenson was a prolific author, and extremely popular in her day, but the majority of her books are distinctly average, 'Miss Buncle's Book' it seems, was the exception that proved the rule - it's genuinely charming. 'Miss Buncle Married' appeared a couple of years later and is 'dedicated to those who liked Miss Buncle and asked for more'. I seem to remember that after Miss Buncle first came out Persephone stated quite clearly that they wouldn't publish the sequels because they simply weren't good enough - taking the book on it's own merits this is quite true, it's a fun read, but lacks the extra something that Persephone books normally have. That said I guess they re-printed it for the same reason Stevenson wrote it - for those who liked Miss Buncle and asked for more, and really what better reason could there be? Not every book has to be a masterpiece and before it was reprinted second hand copies of 'Miss Buncle Married' where around £50 a throw.

It's by no means a bad book, there are plenty of moments when Stevenson offers a piece of real insight or something which made me laugh out loud and for anybody (like me) who enjoyed Miss Buncle it's well worth the time spent on it. There is one thing that really stood out though. The Abbott's new neighbours have 3 children; an older son who despite his angelic appearance leans towards the demonic, a younger son who is placid and reasonably ordinary and inbetween a daughter who clearly has obsessive compulsive issues. There is a heartbreakingly sad little portrait of how she deals with her anxieties towards the end of the book - and it's those moments that make all the difference. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Magda - Meike Ziervogel

I am familiar with Meike Ziervogel in her role as founder of Peirene Press but now I've had the chance to think of her as a novelist. (It's an aside but I find Peirene's progress encouraging and inspiring. People talk about the death of the book and other such nonsense, but the success of small independent publishers shows that the world is a much better, and much more interesting, place than some would have us believe.) Some time in the dim and distant past I watched a documentary about Magda Goebbels and I've found her an interesting character ever since. The idea of mothers who harm their children seems to have a power to shock like nothing else (nothing else I can think of anyway) but when I first watched that documentary it seemed to me quite possible to empathise with Magda's decision to kill her children, uncomfortable, but possible.

I also read somewhere that the British have such an obsession with the second world war that more books are published about it here than anywhere else in the world, I'm still not quite sure what I make of that but I am interested in how Germany has come to terms with it's 20th century history, and more specifically how we, the British, can accept and discuss that changing relationship with the past. The book that started this interest was Bernhard Schlink's 'The Reader', easily the first time I'd seen a Nazi portrayed with any sympathy, it's an excellent book but Schlink chose to make his heroine a victim of circumstance. 'Magda' moves that process along, Magda is hardly a victim but Ziervogel does make her human.

Fiction that uses real people or events isn't always my cup of tea and I must admit that whilst I enjoyed the first half of 'Magda' enough to carry on reading it wasn't until the second half of the book - when the family arrive in the bunker - that it really came alive to me. The bunker is deftly sketched, mentions of the dark, the close air, the impact of bombs falling over head, drunken soldiers gathered in corners, and whispered conversations as Eva Braun and Hitler's wedding preparations are made heighten the sense of tension and claustrophobia as the story winds towards it's inevitable conclusion. 

It's at this point that Magda's eldest daughter, Helga, really makes her impact on the narrative. She's recording her experiences in the bunker - the day to day life, first love, and a growing sense of unease with her mother. For Helga and the children there is the idea that life is the thing, and that the future will take care if itself. They have been shielded from the reality of war, even into the last days the possibility of defeat is inconceivable, the talk of soldiers who say it's so seems iconoclastic to the point of blasphemy. For Magda there is the reality of the situation, she knows what the consequences of defeat are likely to be for the first lady of the Reich. Ziervogal chooses to have Magda believe in Hitler with a religious fervour so that her final act is a blend of loyalty and protectiveness amongst other things.

In truth I've always been inclined to see what Magda did as at least in part an act of compassion. Her children would have had a hard legacy to bear. In a letter to her eldest son from a previous marriage Magda stated that Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvellous that I have known in my life. The world that comes after the Führer and national socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me (or at least something like it, that quote is lifted from wikipedia). What kind of life can you imagine for those children, and later yet their children? 

'Magda' is a complex portrait of a difficult and emotive situation. It's good to read about these names from history as people rather than monsters, and worthwhile to try and understand what drives a person to do terrible things. The result is something that has lingered in my mind and imagination weeks after reading it and which I wholeheartedly recommend.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013


battered but comfortable old bedroom
emptied, dusted, and de spidered 
I've been planning on re-decorating my bedroom for ages, but have been put off by the botheration factor of moving the bookcase, however it was a job well overdue. My bed had been held up by a couple of old wine boxes for the last year so after finally ordering a new one I thought it would be a good time to do the lot. It's been a tiring 24 hours. I was right to be put off by moving the bookcase; I don't care that IKEA's Billy bookcase is now a sort of classic, my one is a bloody nuisance that's unwilling to stand upright, and inclined to total collapse when moved (the back fell off which meant the uprights lent considerably, and it needs to be wedged into place with card under the front of the damn thing or I'm sure it would crush me in my sleep). 

There was also the problem of dismantling my old bed properly - despite some bits of it falling apart the nuts
the was it a mistake moment
and bolts were just fine and I'm not overburdened with tools - I'm almost 40 and have so far managed quite well with a couple of screwdrivers, a small hammer, and several corkscrews. The corkscrews are useful for opening the wine which generally secures the help and toolboxes of better equipped girlfriends. Last time the bed went up my dad was here (plenty of tools, always, never mind how far from home he is) without him it looked like I was going to be stuck, but then god bless him the Scottish one turned up, and he too it seems never leaves home without some sort of handy tool kit. 

almost sorted
So by 7 this morning I was ready to start painting (it's remarkably easy to get up early when you sleep on the floor) at which point I had a total panic about the colour I'd chosen (the Scottish one hates it). I wanted dark grey but when I opened the tin it looked suspiciously brown (because of ordering the bed and getting delivery for a day off and all the other nonsense there wasn't time to get a sample and then go back to get more paint so I took a chance). It went on the wall brown too but started to dry to the colour grey that was on the tin which cheered me up - until I started on the second coat which has dried brownish. It's not a bad colour but I'm only 90% sure about it. 

and meanwhile all the rest of my flat looks like this
My friend the blonde came round (with tools, but we didn't need them in the end) and we assembled the new bed with ease (didn't even break a sweat, or swear) and now almost everything but the books are back in place. They're going to wait until I can re alphabetise them (and face the idea of more bending and lifting without wincing) and I'm going to make good use of one of those corkscrews. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Possibly the most exciting competition I've ever seen!

This is a Penguin press release for a competition that sounds amazing, if I could commit the time I'd be doing my damnedest to win it, but as it is all I can do is share the details here and look forward to following the progress of whoever does win. 

This summer we’re celebrating The Old Ways spirit of adventure with a competition aimed at
finding and fostering a new generation of explorers and thinkers.

We’re pleased to announce The Penguin Wayfarer Competition, to celebrate the paperback publication of The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane (published in Penguin Paperback on 30th May, 2013). The competition launches today - May 13th at

Show us around your favourite ancient tracks, holloways, and sea paths and you could spend your summer trekking across the country for Penguin Books and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. We’re looking for someone who doesn't mind getting their boots dirty, can string a sentence or two together, and who can get creative about how they share their journey with the world – you should already know your way around social networks and be able to produce short videos on your own. 

The winner will become our Wayfarer and will get to travel around the UK during all of July and August on our shout (so please only enter if you’ll be available all summer). You’ll visit some of the Old Ways paths, but more importantly, you’ll strike out on your own and make some new discoveries, on or off the beaten path. You will then report back on your adventures through blog posts, photos, videos and tweets.

Sound like the perfect way to spend your summer? Head to our entry page at and submit a short (two-minute) video before midnight on Sunday, June 9.

From there we’ll choose a longlist of 20 and hand it over to the public to vote for their favourite Wayfarer. Robert Macfarlane will choose the winner from the top 10 vote-getters and we’ll announce the Wayfarer winner on June 28.

Could you be the next Robert Macfarlane?

The Wayfarer Mission

→ you will be available five days a week during July/August and flexible with evenings/weekends.
→ you will plan a travel itinerary with feedback and approval from the Penguin team.
→ you will work with the Penguin team to keep the travel itinerary to a budget – accommodation will most often involve camping! (but camping equipment generously provided by Snow + Rock)
→ you will stay in touch with the Penguin team during your travels and post online content at least five days a week.


The Wayfarer will receive a daily fee and travel expenses from Penguin during July-August, camping and outdoor equipment from Snow + Rock (value: £2500), a two-month train pass from CrossCountry Trains, select accommodation and activities covered by Virgin Experience Days, and the longlist and shortlist prizes below.

The 20 longlisted candidates will receive a signed copy of The Old Ways paperback. The 10 shortlisted candidates will also receive a limited edition print by Stanley Donwood based on the linocut he created for The Old Ways paperback jacket, signed by both Donwood and Macfarlane.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kitchen thinking

Pottering around my kitchen (radio 4 on in the background) browsing through cook books, a cup of tea or
coffee to hand, and planning things to make comprise some of the most contented moments in my life. In a quiet way it's often where I'm happiest, it's the room I miss most when I'm away, and it's where a lot of my favourite toys live. I don't attribute any particularly mystical properties to cooking or welcome any pressure to emulate a particular lifestyle, but for me it works and the books are an integral part of that - I like following a recipe, love understanding how a dish is put together and finding the flavours which define a specific style.

Because of all these things I'm always looking out for cookbooks and regardless of the ones I go home with it's fascinating to see what's out there. I have definite cookbook turn off's - I don't really care for pink covers, I prefer content over style which is why I'm drawn to publishers like Prospect and Grub Street (who are quite stylish enough and have the classiest of content) and have lost patience with Tessa Kiros' books which are far to pretty to get grubby (also one of them arranges recipes by colour which is a cute idea, but cute isn't really my thing - not that I'm parting with it). I can resist the lure of classic French (as opposed to regional French) food, this is partly because francophiles annoy me, (not the French, I don't have a problem with the French, honest) and partly because it's the sort of food that I want to be cooked for me. 

Despite those prejudices I've managed to gather quite a collection of cookbooks - and still want more, but finding a book that fills a gap isn't easy which is one reason to be so excited by Lindsey Bareham's 'The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales'. I hadn't really registered Bareham as a food writer before despite having her soup book on my shelf but I'm aware now. I haven't actually looked at any of recipes in here yet, but I've sat up late of an evening reading about all the bits and pieces of kit - the premise of  'The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales' is that the equipment we use on a daily basis gather as many memories and as much meaning as the food we cook and share so here Lindsey takes the utensils as the cue for each recipe whilst giving helpful advice on sourcing and caring for those utensils. 

Memories aside I've had ample opportunity over the last couple of weeks to consider how much equipment shapes what I cook. My stepmother is a cook by trade so despite their place in the Borders basically being a holiday home the kitchen is reasonably well equipped - and it has the beloved aga. The aga invites it's own kind of cooking (muffin, scone, and stew heaven for a week) but other things bought me up short (couldn't find a mortar and pestle), it's funny how much you appreciate something when you suddenly don't have it to hand. I won't cook in my partners kitchen if I can help it - I've never got used to his fan oven and no longer like cooking on gas (I have long hair and once managed to singe the ends of it on a gas ring, I was lucky, it could have been nasty. I wear my hair up now.) more fundamental however is that he doesn't even have a rolling pin - he and his kitchen are perfectly adapted to each other but for me it's hard work.

'The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales' has got me thinking and feeling inspired - always a good start, expect to see plenty more about it here!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Murder of Quality - John le Carré

This was my first John le Carré; I chose it after a conversation with a charming elderly gentleman in a A Murder of Quality' because it was short. Long books put me off when it comes to authors I haven't read before, especially when it's a book outside of my normal reading choice which le Carré is. I was also attracted to 'A Murder of Quality' because it sounded so atypical - this is a murder mystery set in a private school with George Smiley in the detective role rather than the cold war thrillers I associate with him, but it does come in a neat little package.
bookshop (although I don't think he really approved of my reasoning) he told me the earlier books were by far the best, I chose '

What I really wanted from this book was to know whether I would get on with le Carré or not - I did so at some point will doubtless set about tackling his whole back catalogue - but what really interested me in 'A Murder of Quality', and what I assume might not be such a central theme in the spy novels is the way le Carré chooses to look at the British class system. It's a system that's still flourishing in much the same way now as it was in 1962 when 'A Murder of Quality' was first published. The BBC recently ran a thing suggesting that the old definitions of class were out of date, they identified 7 specific classes and devised a calculator so you can work out where you belong and whilst it's not entirely convincing it is quite interesting. 

John le Carré's own career certainly bought him into enough contact with the public school system, including Eton (where he taught) to be well versed in the manners and language of  the upper classes - something he mercilessly exposes here. Carne school could be modelled on any of a dozen important private schools - but not Eton or Harrow. It has it's customs, language, and manners as well as a staff mostly made up of old boys who determinedly drop into conversation how friendly they are with the local Lord whilst judging the quality of each others silver. There is however an interloper - a grammar school boy who's made it onto the staff along with his wife, Stella, who has china ducks on the wall and will not fit in. She's the victim but who's the culprit and will the old school ties be enough to cover his tracks?

Le Carré clearly has a bit of fun with all this and whilst some of the details (things like how a man hitches his trousers when he sits) were a bit over my head as class indicators most of it was unsettlingly familiar - oh, how harshly we judge those whose manners aren't quite our own. I would be interested to read a contemporary novel that covered much the same sort of ground - the closest thing I've come across was Julian Fellows 'Snobs' which was nowhere near as subtle or interesting so any recommendations would be gratefully received. As for 'A Murder of Quality'; it's a decent whodunnit but an absolutely excellent piece of social observation and commentary. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Revisiting Ring of Bright Water

When I wrote about 'Peking Picnic' a couple of weeks ago I mentioned the postal book group I'm in. Well my book was 'Ring of Bright Water' Simon was the last person to read it, and both book and accompanying notebook landed in my mailbox just before I went on holiday. 'Ring of Bright Water' has a special place in my heart, it's a book I've read many times over the years but it was really as a homesick teenager that it got under my skin. I already had a bit of an Otter obsession after close encounters with them in Shetland, 'Ring' was published in 1960 so in the late 80's it read as nostalgic but still quite recognisable. Re- reading it last year with another 25 odd years on the clock Maxwell's way of life and the world he led it in seems much further away - at least all of it's 60 odd years...

I will admit that I was nervous opening the notebook to see what everyone thought of this book - I'm aware it's not perfect, and knew when I sent it off that it was something I'd spent years fruitlessly trying to get the group to embrace - so as a group choice it was a bit of a gamble, and I would have hated it if nobody had liked it. Happily pretty much everybody did like it (huge relief) which is a great testament to Maxwell's writing.

Maxwell at his best really is a terrific writer, I have most of his books but am only really familiar with the Otter series - of which 'Ring' is by far the most appealing, his childhood memoir ('The House of Elrig' - worth searching out), and 'Harpoon at a Venture' which I consider to be his best book and desperately in need of being reprinted. His charisma jumps off the page in 'Ring' in a way that's made this book a lifelong friend, I suspect the man himself would have been considerably more difficult to get along with which is one reason I've never read his biography. A few of my book group friends had though and it was recommended a couple of times in the notebook. I know enough about Maxwell to know that 'Ring of Bright Water' is the varnished truth. There are omissions and occasional romancing - all of which makes for a better book - but perhaps it's time to read a little bit more about the man behind the book...

It's an irony that the success of 'Ring of Bright Water' contributed to the end of Maxwell's highland idyll, although my impression of Maxwell is that he'd always find a way to make a mess out of his life. Maybe that's part of the appeal of this book. The otter bit is emotional and funny - until it becomes tragic, the bits about the west highlands are classic British nature writing at it's best, but what I notice now is the window onto my grandfathers generation. Men who had grown up between wars, fought in the second one, and had to try and make sense of that post war world. Maxwell was ridiculously well connected with the privileges and introductions that went along with that, his life was fascinating and full of incident, but there is so much failure - he was part of a generation of gentlemen adventurers who seem long gone now.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Holidays and Bread

I've been away in the Scottish borders for a week - it's a part of the country I love more each time I go there. It has idyllic scenery packed full of romantic architecture and history, we saw a deer in the garden (it was a badger last time), there are house martins nesting above the windows, we heard wood peckers in the trees behind the house, and there's a particularly brilliant bookshop a couple of villages away - what's not to love. We're lucky to have a particularly comfortable flat to borrow, it has an aga in it which has rather added to my love affair with the location and basically means I've spent the last week living a pleasantly middle class dream.  

With the aga waiting for me part of my holiday packing was the River Cottage 'Bread' handbook. I can't remember now if it was the first or second book from the River Cottage series that I bought but it was certainly the one that sold me on them, I think it's the best basic bread guide around - I've certainly not seen anything to beat it yet. What I particularly like about all the handbooks is the general format they share. The size is convenient, they feel nice, and you get a lot of information packed into a neat little package. In this case there are instructions for making an outdoor bread oven, a few recipes for left over bread (the summer pudding is excellent) and things to put on it (nettle pesto, beetroot houmous), and of course there are a lot of bread recipes.

The basic loaf is fool proof - thanks to the very good instructions that explain not only what you do to make a successful loaf, but also why you do it - which I always like to know. Just recently though I've discovered a love of English Muffins - it's taken me a while, I'm not sure why it's taken me all these years to discover them but it has, still now I've discovered them there's no holding back. I had looked up Dan Lepard's recipe but good as it sounds it's also quite a long winded take on the humble muffin. Daniel Stevens version here is rather simpler, relatively quick to make (nothing with yeast is quite instant) and absolutely delicious. The recipe is here.

Other holiday highlights included a couple of visits to the excellent Mainstreet Trading Company, it's a
combination of bookshop, cafe, home ware stuff, and now a deli. The bookshop part is one of those fantastic independent stores which manage to cram all sorts of good things into quite a small space without feeling in the least bit crowded. The cafe is very nice as is the deli and all the other bits. It's a great example of how this kind of thing should be done - every time I've been there it's been busy and is over all far more than the sum of it's parts. There was also plenty of time for reading, as well as just sitting enjoying the scenery (whilst drinking champagne and eating scones) so basically the perfect getaway.