Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Brandons - Angela Thirkell

'The Brandons' was the first Thirkell I read, I found an old Penguin copy second hand about 7 years ago, experience now tells me it's the one of the easiest to find, it's also what I've come to think of as classic Thirkell. I've read a couple that I think are better books, ones that go a bit deeper beneath the surface and that have a genuine emotional pull, but they're not necessarily as much fun as this. Because it was the first 'The Brandons'  has always been my benchmark, re reading now that I'm reasonably familiar with her work has confirmed that benchmark status. This is the work of a writer who's really hit her stride, she knows what her fans like and she's providing it, but it also feels like she's enjoying herself in the process. There's a ridiculous paragraph about a carousel ride which I won't quote because I'm afraid of the sort of spam it might attract but which is ridiculous and sublime and full of the sort of terrible double entendre that you can't quite believe you're reading.

There are two reasons to read Thirkell, one of which is the particular sort of social history she records. The Irish Times describes her as a middle class Nancy Mitford which I take issue with a little, Thirkell's background comes from the heart of the Edwardian artistic and intellectual elite, it doesn't sound like middle class life suited her particularly well when she tried it (in Australia) so she begged money from her godfather (J M Barrie) and cleared off out if it back to London and her family. Life, she felt, was much more peaceful without husbands (a sentiment Mrs Brandon clearly shares in this book). Nancy Mitford is self consciously upper class to a fault - it seems likely to me that Thirkell would have been amused by her efforts.

'The Brandons' is an idealised chronicle of upper middle class life just before the war, almost everyone has plenty of money (which must be nice) and plenty of time (which must be nicer) which is not to say they're entirely free of problems but for the most part it's a gracious easy way of living. The relationship with servants is the comfortable Downton Abbey sort where for the most part they get to share the good things their employers have and in some cases enjoy a domestic tyranny over them. I don't doubt that this is an idealised version of the reality of life in service and can well understand why the second world war really put an end to that way of life but I can also see that especially in that interwar period when choices were opening up for women (and almost all the servants here are women) and the balance of domestic power was changing that it could have been as comfortable as Thirkell describes. Because we know the war is coming and it'll wipe this comfortable elegant world away there's an elegiac quality about the book which adds a certain piquancy to the story.

Otherwise it's a fun romp, Mrs Brandon is a woman in her early 40's who still has claims to beauty (I should think so too), her husband sadly (but not that sadly) passed away fairly early in their marriage leaving her with plenty of money, two children, and a devoted following of retainers, friends, and admirers. Her life would be altogether easier if people would be content to flirt and not fall in love with her. especially tedious are young men who insist on reading the books they're writing to her... Mrs Brandon really comes into her own when she starts taking a hand in Miss Morris' affairs. Miss Morris is the put upon companion of a rich Brandon aunt who keeps threatening to leave her fortune to one nephew or another. It's a light and frothy confection with a  genuine heart - there are some satisfying romantic conclusions, appearances from old Barsetshire friends, a glorious lack of the vague anti- Semitism that can mar some of her books, and above all else it's a book that makes me laugh (even more so second time around). 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Leicester Book Festival and Kibworth Bookshop

A good bookshop is a joyous thing and although the city no longer has one there's a little gem of a bookshop out in one of the villages not far out of town. It's 15 minutes on the bus from work, and I get a handy half hour in there before the first bus back to town. Truly it could get expensive, I went along today to have a quick chat with Debbie (the lovely owner) about Leicester Book Festival which is basically her baby and now going into it's second year.

Events start next week and stretch over the next month, some of them are free, all are really reasonably priced and most things happen in the evenings so altogether perfect for fitting around work. It's a great project which deserves all the support it can get.

It turns out that Debbie's taste in books is reasonably (really) similar to mine, her shop is a mix of books I have and books I want - 3 of the books I wanted are now books I have (Rupert of Hentzau, H E Bates 'Through the Woods' in a lovely Little Toller edition, and a Stefan Zweig, once again proving that that the moment I have a book in hand it's going nowhere but home with me ) it would have been easy to keep on buying. It's only a small shop, but it's got a great range - though obviously I'm biased because they're all the sort of books I love - and that's the joyousness of it; I can browse round Smith's or Waterstones for an age and find nothing at all that appeals but a couple of minutes in a shop like this is exciting and inspiring. Of course there are plenty of times when the big chains don't disappoint, especially in the bigger branches where there's more room for staff to have some fun with the range but it's good to know there's somewhere like the Kibworth Book Shop within easy reach too.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scottish Cookery - Catherine Brown

A holiday where I can haul along as many books as I please, buy a pile more, and spend some serious time reading them is my idea of heaven, it's not often I come back from a holiday without a pile of new books, my recent trip to the borders was no exception. The book I'm most excited about is 'Scottish Cookery' by Catherine Brown, it'd been on my wish list for a while but never quite made it to the top. The moment I saw it however it became a must buy - and this is one of the problems with internet shopping - it's much easier to stay on the fence over a thing when you can't actually see it. It's a classic sales technique to hand the prospective customer an item, once they're holding it they're much more likely to buy it.

So it was with 'Scottish Cookery', online it sounded interesting, in my hand it came home with me. It's a fascinating book which has been around since the mid 80's but the current edition has been thoroughly updated, it's absolutely worth having. It's a blend of food and social history with recipes, starting with a description of a meal eaten in the edge of the west coast back in the 1970's and a consideration of the diet enjoyed by the average rural Scot before the clearances. Back in the pre industrialised day the Scots diet was frugal but varied made up of whatever could be caught, foraged, farmed, and preserved. Post industrialisation feeding the urban poor is a different matter, it's probably worth noting that the life expectancy in the slummier parts of Glasgow is considerably lower than the rest of the country even now.

Scotland does well for raw ingredients, there's a plethora of game, excellent beef and lamb, all sorts of fish and shellfish (many of which are far easier to find for sale in Europe than the UK), lots of oats and barley, plenty of berries (and rhubarb) on the fruit front, and no shortage of dairy. There's also a long history of cultural exchanges to make things interesting. It's not all haggis, porridge, and deep fried Mars bars, and the foodie revolution hasn't passed Scotland by. One thing that Brown covers that's really caught my imagination is the Fife diet (which I think I'd heard about before but not in any great detail) in 2007 a group of friend pledged to only eat food from Fife for a year, now there are over 3000 participants and demand to fill gaps in the diet have motivated local suppliers to try new things - Fife now has a local cheese.

Realistically eating locally like this can only be a middle class lifestyle choice - it's expensive and as a country we can't produce enough to feed ourselves, but anything that encourages a reconnection with the food we eat is a great thing. (Leicestershire residents were recently up in arms in the local paper about venison being sold from a local country park where it had been sourced from. How, they asked, were they to explain to their children that the deer they'd just seen was now dinner? Post horse meat scandal I would have thought it might be reassuring but then I'd rather know where my food comes from). That it only takes a relatively small number of people pursuing those lifestyle choices to make it feasible for artisan producers to make a living is also quite exciting, it doesn't always have to be about big business.

It's from this book that I've also latched onto the idea of cultural exchange in food which I like the sound of so much more than fusion food (which I guess means something else anyway). Scotland is good on cultural exchange - there are all those sailors who went off and hopefully discovered more than scurvy, the auld alliance with France, the Norse influence that stretches along the coast, interaction with the Dutch herring fleet, all the Italians who came to Scotland (not sure why, but they did and they bought gelato with them) and then all the emigrants who went off to conquer new worlds and who it could reasonably be supposed sent recipes back home sometimes. More recently there are Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Polish influences adding something to the mix (though I'm a bit doubtful about the curried haggis balls I see for sale in Hawick). It's exciting, recipes are full of clues about shared culture and history.

So far I've been dipping in and out of this book for the cultural history more than the recipes though there are no shortage of things bookmarked to try at some point. It's an eminently readable book in the same way that Jane Grigson's and Claudia Roden's books are which is the highest praise I can give - essentially it's inspirational and practical in equal measures, so well worth seeking out.

Monday, May 26, 2014

What are we saying here?

In a week when Michael Gove (who I'm no fan of) didn't ban any books and isn't about to set fire to piles of American classics there has been the most almighty dust up after an article in The Sunday Times (hidden behind a pay wall) which was nothing if not inflammatory. Everyone I know is outraged.

It's over twenty years since I took GCSE's and my memory is a little hazy about it, I certainly do remember studying Of Mice and Men but only because I hated it with a passion that's only been equalled by a deep antipathy for D. H. Lawrence when I encountered his work a year or two later. I was unlucky, my spelling and grammar landed me in one of the lower sets for English where I was fully expected to fail (achieve less than a c grade) and that may have been one of the reasons that I failed to really engage with any of the books on the syllabus (again, I have no clear recollection of any of them) despite being a voracious reader out of school. I won't blame the teachers I had - they were all good. When it came to choosing 'A' levels I was pushed towards doing English by a harassed man who clearly wasn't very interested in the individual needs of specific students. He did me a huge favour, I scraped through those exams with a good enough result to do 'A' levels and suddenly found myself in a room with a whole lot of people who wanted to be there and who wanted to talk about books. Better yet we were actively encouraged to read all sorts of non syllabus things and to think about what we read. It was pretty damn good.

As far as the Gove row goes I'm fairly indifferent about what students are studying as long as they're getting good quality literature. The idea that 90% of kids have 'Of Mice and Men' forced on them depresses me slightly (though apparently lots of people love it) there are other books though and dare I say that perhaps it wouldn't be the worst thing of there was a bit more variety? What has really depressed me about this whole furore however is the attitude towards our own classics. A trio of reasonably presentable GCSE students (girls who like to read about vampires in their spare time) declare that 2 English/British classics in 2 years is to heavy, to narrow in outlook. 2, count them again - 2 in 2 years. Out of all those books, some of which are pretty good. Reading Dickens (according to The Times) is a bit much to expect of the young. I'm not the biggest Dickens fan but his books don't entirely lack for issues to discuss and they're not uniformly inaccessible either. Is it really unreasonable to expect or encourage kids to read off syllabus and isn't there something fundamentally wrong if all they are expected or encouraged to read are things which might come up in exams?

It's obviously a good thing to broaden horizons and experience other cultures through their literature, it's a shame that translated European fiction is entirely off the agenda, and god knows I wouldn't wish D. H. Lawrence on anybody either but even if this really was about having a purely English syllabus (which as far as I can tell it isn't) you could still have an amazing reading list made up of books that have just come out of Britain (in Scotland it seems they're already doing this with set Scottish texts on the syllabus). Why is it that when we defend 'The Crucible' 'Of Mice and Men' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' we're doing it in a way that seems to say that there's nothing as good to replace those books with? At a moment when there seems to be a rise of a particular sort of nationalism in this country it might not be an entirely bad thing to broaden our horizons by celebrating how diverse British culture is.

Of course it's entirely possible that I feel like this because I had to work on a bank holiday and I generally feel at odds with the world this evening so am bound to disagree with whatever the majority of people are saying.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

We're going on a tomb hunt

White boar pendant on a chain of suns and roses
Following the news that the remains of Richard III will most likely be buried in Leicester (though I'm sure the arguing in this is far from over despite the results of the judicial review) there's some speculation as to what his eventual tomb will look like - the next set of plans are due to be unleashed on the public within the next few weeks, previous suggestions have left something to be desired. Inspired by this we thought we'd spend the day looking at genuine medieval tomb with a Richard connection. The tomb in question belonged to Sir Ralph Fitzherbert  and his wife Elizabeth and is in Norbury church near Ashbourne in Derbyshire.

It's a beautiful church that you find with luck and a sat nav tucked away amongst a maze of single track roads buried in deep embankments and cow parsley (so basically very easy to miss) and turns out to have not only the tomb of Ralph and Elizabeth Fitzherbert, but Nicholas Fitzherbert - all of them have very fine effigies. There are also the remains of a couple of carved Saxon crosses which suggest the site had a much earlier church than the one currently standing (the oldest bits of this one date from around 1300), a really bizarre alabaster slab with an incised effigy of a woman in her shroud (it looks like a body in a sack) which represents Benedicta the disgraced wife of a Tudor Fitzherbert (he said she had a vile and lewd character and went off where it pleased her, he clearly didn't please her at all) and some stunning medieval stained glass.

detail of a Bedesman with a rosary at Sir Ralph's feet
Ralph Fitzherbert's tomb is significant in connection with Richard III because it's the only one remaining to show a knight wearing a white boar pendant, his armour is also interesting (he died 2 years before the battle of Bosworth) it's been reproduced as a fully functioning suit (to be fair I'm more interested in the idea that somebody somewhere has this thing to dress up in than the actual details of how it's buckled on and the like). Coincidentally it's also probable that it's made from exactly the same stone as the lost tomb of Richard III's would have been as Derbyshire was the local source for alabaster.

The tombs are interesting, definitely as good as any I've seen and certainly live up to the claim of being amongst the finest in the country but what I wasn't expecting and was therefore even more impressed by were the windows. So much medieval stained glass has been lost either through being deliberately smashed or just through general wear and tear that seeing a whole lot of it is something of a treat. The Norbury windows are extraordinary, the very helpful church warden said that some pieces were only 2 millimetres thick (English heritage have done a rescue job and double glazed the lot so it's safe) it's survival really is remarkable.

From a distance the grisaille stained glass doesn't look particularly special (actually it looks a bit grubby) but close up it's exquisite and has the added bonus of flooding the church with light, even on a grey rainy day. Stepping inside a church like this is a markedly different experience to the Victorian Methodist and Presbyterian churches that failed to impress me as a child, I can only imagine the effect it had on the average villager back in the 15th century - even more because they would have got the whole lot in glorious technicolour. There were still traces of paint on the alabaster figures that surrounded the tombs, but any plaster the church interior once had was long gone and the ceiling was plain as well, though that too may well have originally been painted.

The Norbury church website is here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sea of Ink - Richard Weihe (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

I read this at the start of my recent holiday, it was wet and cold enough to more than justify a fire and an afternoon on the sofa which in turn led to a fair amount of dozing off which rather added to the dream like quality of this book. It's 51 short chapters (very short, none are more than a couple of pages long) and 11 pictures which together form a portrait of an unusual man.

Born as Zhu Da, a minor prince of the Ming dynasty, in what might best be described as interesting times, he grows up in the sheltered formality of palace life until the old dynasty crumbles and the Manchurians take power. Zhu Da who already shows artistic promise disappears into a monastery where he spends the next 40 years as a monk and learning his art. During this time he changes his name time and again until eventually he is Bada Shanren a master painter. There is also some debate about his sanity. Contemporary accounts describe him as mad but current thinking seems to be that his madness was a conscious manipulation of his behaviour to avoid the new regime.

Each chapter is an episode from his life be it a piece of history, an anecdote, the description of a picture, or a meditation on how art is created and it's all rather more like reading poetry than prose, more because of the way that many of the chapters could be separated from the book and still feel like something complete. Having read it all it's easy to dip back in and out at random points and find something thought provoking, and sometimes beautiful, to mull over.

Bada Shanren's painting is so stripped back it's almost abstract, a few lines and smudges which
quietly resolve themselves into something figurative. More than that for images made of almost nothing there's a tremendous sense of the artist behind them, but what's even more remarkable is that Richard Weihe (and Jamie Bulloch) seem to do the same thing with words. It's a magical book (I see now that I'm looking at the inside cover I'm by no means the only person who feels like this about it) there's nothing flashy or obvious about it but it get's under your skin (it certainly has mine) and sticks there.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Persiana - Sabrina Ghayour

I'm fairly sure I met Sabrina Ghayour once at a book thing, I definitely have a memory of someone charming and glamorous talking about this kind of food and having one of the rare moments when I  wish I lived in London (or some other similar city) where there is so very much more going on than Leicester (which has it's own charms - though they're not always obvious to me).

I get very excited about Middle Eastern inspired food and perhaps even more excited by books about Middle Eastern food. I love how colourful it can be - jewel like pomegranate seeds, vivid green salads, glowing orange segments, the wonderful deep yellow of saffron, scarlet peppers, dusky pink rose petals, jade green pistachios - it's the sort of exotic I find deeply appealing, it puts me in mind of the Arabian Nights and Oscar Wilde in about equal measures. There's also something very attractive about the way this kind of food quickly builds up into a multi coloured banquet - a bowl of couscous, a salad, something meaty, maybe a couple of dips, or possibly a whole lot of mezze, possibly a bread... it's all the joy of a picnic at the comfort of a table and perfect for sharing. More than that it's food that demands to be shared. Finally the flavours suit me, I'm a wuss when it comes to really spicy food, most of the (really good) Indian food which Leicester excels in is far to hot for me but the gentler spiciness of Middle Eastern food is just right. I'm also a big fan of fruit in savoury dishes (it always surprises me when I find people who really don't like that) along with things that mix honey and citrus - basically I'm a fan.

'Persiana' is billed as recipes from the Middle east and beyond, some of the recipes are traditional others are the result of a cultural exchange which must mirror the authors own life. Her family is Iranian but she grew up in England and as a cook is self taught as it seems nobody in the family was particularly interested in cooking. In terms of learning how to cook that's possibly a bonus, it suggests you get the kitchen to yourself and an audience ready and willing to be experimented on if it saves them having to face an unwelcome chore. Family influences also encompassed Turkish, Arab, Armenian, and Afghani cultures and cuisines, so that along with the more English elements really does make for a cultural exchange. The British bit comes in with the use of some ingredients (fennel, pork, rosemary) which really aren't traditional in Middle Eastern food but the spirit feels authentic. Recipes evolve - another thing I really like about this sort of cooking is that although the ingredient list can be quite long there are elements that can be played around with according to what the cook has on hand and personal preference (I'm not a fan of coriander leaf and will happily do away with it wherever I can).

I've had this book for the past week and have been having a lot of fun with it, I've made a pistachio orange blossom and honey ice-cream which has a brilliant texture, a herby rice dish that's traditionally served with dried fish but which is a meal in itself, a really good orange salad rich with sumac and pomegranate molasses, experimented with herby sugars to go with pineapple and strawberries (I prefer those without sugar, herby or otherwise, but admit that they look considerably more dressed up with) and have any number more things bookmarked. There's a lot of great looking stuff in here, some of it demands a little time but it's all really good tempered food with no unnecessary complications, and there are plenty of really simple (but very effective) bits - like those herby sugars. In short this is a really exciting book from an equally exciting writer.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Curl of Copper and Pearl - Kirsty Stonell Walker

Kirsty Stonell Walker (who I will refer to as Kirsty for the rest of this post because it's shorter and friendlier than Stonell Walker) blogs at The Kissed Mouth and I really should have asked her for some sort of biographical blurb to go with this book when I accepted the offer of a copy. Her day job is a historian of the Victorian specialising in the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle, she has also written the first proper biography of one of the brotherhood's more notorious models - Fanny Cornforth.

'A Curl of Copper and Pearl' is a fictionalised account of another Pre - Raphaelite model - Alexa Wilding. Alexa modelled almost exclusively for Rossetti, she features in his finished work more than any of his other models (I'm getting my information mostly from Wikipedia so I'm taking it on trust a bit) and yet there doesn't seem to be a lot of concrete information about her - she clearly avoided the scandals that some of her Pre- Raphaelite sisters managed to embroil themselves in. I dug out a couple of Jan Marsh's books about the Pre-Raphaelite women to see if there was anything about her in there - nothing apart from a quote from Rossetti being unpleasantly dismissive of Alexa. It seems she was valued for the blankness of her expression(and her red hair)

The combination of the familiarity of Alexa's face and the relative mystery of her life make her ideal for fictionalising though I find it curious that I enjoyed this book so much whilst having so many niggles with Jonathan Smith's 'Wilfred and Eileen' . It might help that there's nothing you can really make up about the Pre Raphaelites in general and Rossetti in particular which is stranger or less feasible than the actual truth about their lives and affairs.

Rossetti apparently first saw Alexa (then Alice) Wilding walking down a street, he was so struck with her that he asked her to come and model for him. She agreed but didn't turn up, some weeks later he saw her walking again and this time he persuaded her to come home with him, offering to pay her a weekly retainer for her services.

Kirsty's Alexa is a seamstress living with her butcher uncle and a grandmother in the shadow of St Paul's cathedral and Newgate prison. One thing I really enjoy about a book with an actual artists at it's heart (see also War Paint) is that you can have the images in front of you whilst you read, Kirsty takes it a step further, Alexa's life as a seamstress gives her an intimate knowledge of fabric - she can't help but notice and describe it. I'm one of those people who can't help but touch things - stroke fabrics, pick objects up, smell flowers, taste wines, and curiously this book works along much the same lines as wine tasting does; first you look, then you smell, and finally you taste (she talks about food a lot as well). Because of this I'm right there with her when she's describing a velvet or a silk, there too when she talks about the smell of the butchers that hangs about Alexa, along with the blood ground into her skin from helping out at home, and appreciative of all the loving descriptions of food.

The text has something of the quality of a William Morris pattern about it - lots of colour and detail and that feels appropriate. Alexa emerges as a figure determined to take control of her own life once an opportunity emerges to escape from her origins. Her ambitions are ordinary enough - she's looking for love and security, but the people she's found herself amongst are far from ordinary so she finds herself witnessing infidelity, madness, forgery, lust, theft, and death (as the back blurb has it). There's also that infamous bit of grave robbing and Rossetti's chloral addiction. Throughout it all though she remains something of an outsider, observing the inner circle but not entirely part of it.

For any fans of the Pre Raphaelites or Victorian melodrama in general this should be a must read book. It's also worth remembering that all of the more sensational plot developments are basically based on fact, and there are plenty of colourful details that don't get a mention (including a pet wombat). Generally speaking it's an excellent page turner from someone who really knows their period, and better yet someone who doesn't feel the need to explain how much period detail they know at you (which is a pet hate). Finally, it's a silly thing but every time I see a book cover which uses a Pre Raphaelite image on the cover (and there are plenty of them, especially on older Virago books) I always want the story inside to be about the woman on the cover - maybe because it's so often Jane Morris whose story is reasonably well known anyway - and of course it never is. It's rather a treat to see Alexa on the cover and read about her within, it also seems a fitting testament to her that she's once again sitting as a model for us to weave a story around.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Episode of Sparrows - Rumer Godden

'An Episode of Sparrows' is the second of the current Rumer Godden's that Virago have released as part of their children's fiction series. It was originally published on an adult list but it makes sense as a children's book. It makes me think of 'The Secret Garden' but the way I remember it as a child where it was very much Mary's story rather than as I found it more recently - very much Colin's story.

In this case the lost child is Lovejoy Mason, her mother, a singer of questionable morals and with no noticeable sense of responsibility has fallen on hard times and basically dumped Lovejoy with her landlady, no money, and no forwarding address. The landlady is kind enough but she has her own concerns, a child, especially one as strangely adult as Lovejoy can be is more than she really feels she can cope with. For Lovejoy there's nothing, she has nothing of her own to speak of, no family, and only the kindness, or otherwise, of those around her to rely on.

It's post war London, and whilst the streets are still punctuated by bomb sights I think rationing has ended so I'm guessing the book is set when it was written around 1955. Lovejoy lives on a slightly slumy street that is attached to one of those swish London squares complete with an enclosed central garden. The residents of either are worlds apart rather than yards, though for the residents of the square it's a world of disintegrating privilege.

Everything is sparked off by a fallen packet of cornflower seeds. A very small boy (Sparky) finds the packet but makes the mistake of examining it in plain view - it's promptly grabbed by Lovejoy who becomes obsessed with the idea of growing them, she casts around for a suitable spot to make a garden finally finding a place in an old bomb site. She steals odd seeds from packets in Woolworth's to plant, and steals from the church candle box to buy a trowel and fork. Sparky gets his revenge on Lovejoy - who hates with a passion - when he tells the 13 year old Tip Malone and his gang of feral boys that Lovejoy is appropriating their patch. They may be children but it's dangerous, boys and girls don't much mix and when they do it's very much the worse for the girls. Within minutes the embryo garden is destroyed. For Tip however there is remorse, and so he helps Lovejoy create another garden and that in turn leads to all sorts of problems - and then solutions.

A garden, the joy of watching living things grow, a trio of children who need each other to make sense of an often unfriendly adult world, and a certain amount of faith - these are the things that remind me of 'The Secret Garden' but Godden is a very different sort of writer and what she brings to this is quite distinct from Burnett, in some ways it's more truthful, but it's also a redemptive story with a much wider scope and the result works for adults and children alike. In her preface Godden says the germ of the story came from an actual incident which happened to her not long after she moved back to England in 1945, it took ten years to grow into this novel - it was worth waiting for.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Holiday catch up

Because I'm sure everyone wants to know what I've been up to whilst away from the internet. Basically I slept a lot - it rained, there was a wood burning stove, and the sofa was very comfortable - what can I say? There were vague plans for walking up hills and things but they evolved. When not napping or drinking tea I managed to read some books (including yesterdays 'The Trowie Mound Murders' which was a very nice way to spend an afternoon) bought as many as I read (didn't read as many as I took - and for everybody who said more books than knickers - my mother is shocked by you all) from a couple of excellent local bookshops ( Main Street Books in St Boswells and Masons of Melrose).

We were staying in the depths of the countryside in a house that has a garden that turns into a wood - walking around the garden was almost like proper exercise, it was also chock full of wildlife - I saw a live badger, a deer, about a hundred pheasants, and there were house martins nesting above the windows (lying on the sofa gave an excellent view of them) so it was all very idyllic indeed. Even more so when you consider the excellent bookshops within easy striking distance and the very good brewery just down the road. Beer isn't absolutely my thing though so I used the time to finally master the art of sabrage (knocking the top off a bottle of champagne with a sabre - or a large kitchen knife as I don't have a sabre). It's not difficult but there's a knack to it that I struggle with.

Basically you need to hit the neck of the bottle at it's weakest point - where the seem that runs up the side meets the lip - with something reasonably heavy. If you apply sufficient force the cork and the top of the neck fly out and everyone watching is suitably impressed, if you close your eyes, twist the knife so not enough force is applied, and generally behave like a bit of a girl (because it's not the most sensible way to open a bottle) it doesn't and nobody is impressed. I got there in the end though, even so I declined to open the really good champagne this way.

We also saw some pretty impressive architecture on the way up to Scotland - Cragside in Northumberland which I've wanted to visit for upwards of 20 years was well worth the wait. It was the first house anywhere to have electric lighting, and is just overall a stunning Victorian fantasy place. We will be going back. We also saw Seaton Delaval - designed by Vanbrugh who when he wasn't architecting was a soldier, a spy, a play write, and generally a very busy man indeed (it seems unlikely that he spent much time asleep on sofas in the afternoon). In Scotland there was Dryburgh abbey - what's left of it (excellent stonework and Walter Scott is buried there) and Mellerstain house which is classic Adams. Some scones may have been consumed as well.

Meanwhile back at home there were 3 books waiting for me, all very exciting. There's Jen Hadfield's Byssuss and the new L M Montgomery's (due out in June so I'm feeling a little smug about these) from Virago. The last were a particularly nice surprise to come home to.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Trowie Mound Murders - Marsali Taylor

I had hoped I'd manage to write about this before I went on holiday, that at least was the plan but it didn't quite work out, I even took my laptop away with me along with good intentions to catch up on all manner of things. Happily it wouldn't work so instead I had a lazy holiday with lots of reading rather than mindless browsing on amazon and lost hours on twitter. 'The Trowie Mound Murders' have been another outing for my phone in kindle mode - it's an occasionally handy app but not a way of reading I particularly like - particularly now that I come to write about the book as the phone app isn't great for trying to find bits for reference. Price wise however the kindle option wins here (£2.49 as opposed to £12.99 and I know it shouldn't be about price but if you're looking to take a chance on a relatively unknown writer it helps - this is one you should take a chance on.)

As I mentioned in the last post Marsali used to teach me, it feels a little bit odd to be commenting about her writing - but I'm going to do it anyway. This is her second novel and the second to feature Cass Lynch as the heroine who isn't quite a detective, both are set in Shetland and have a nautical theme. The first book is Death on a Longhsip (also a kindle bargain) which both myself and D enjoyed though I would say that it does that first novel thing where everything gets thrown into it and some of it's a bit distracting from the action. In the best second book tradition 'The Trowie Mound Murders' improves on everything.

Cass is teaching local children to sail over the summer whilst she considers her options, the plan is to go to college in the autumn to get the qualification she needs to skipper tall ships but the idea of going back to school is rather daunting for a woman who's been footloose and fancy free for the last decade or more. Anders (the very attractive Norwegian) is still sharing her boat and the dust is generally settling after the events of the previous book. One evening a couple of yachts moor in the same marina and is as is the general way everyone falls into conversation. One of the couples don't seem to be quite legit, there are odd things about their boat and they ask a lot of questions without giving anything away about themselves, and then the other couple disappear in an odd way. Cass feels compelled to inform the coast guard and she also lets her old adversary DI Gavin Macrae know there's something odd afoot too. Gavin turns up post haste - he's another possible complication for Cass, there's a definite attraction between them but would he be another unwelcome tie to a land bound life?

Meanwhile all sorts of undercurrents are detectable behind the net curtains of Shetlands croft houses, there are hints of art theft, smuggling, drug trafficking , and a possible porn ring. In real life Shetland has a reassuringly low crime rate but the black fish scandal a couple of years ago suggests that a certain piratical Viking spirit is alive and thriving. There are a couple of dodgy local characters here and they feel absolutely authentic - there's a real sense of menace about these guys but it's nuanced too but then just generally I felt it all hung together really well. Cass calling the coastguard when she does is responsible behaviour, when she gets to close to the crime it's a feasible accident that she should do so, and a set piece where it looks like it might end very badly for her is truly chilling. And as for the murders, it was quite bad luck on the murderers part that they didn't get away with it - they almost could have...

Easily a character in it's own right is Shetland, it's landscape, sea ways, and history are integral to the plot as is it's language (there's a handy glossary at the back for dialect words) which really gives a sense of the place. I really like books with a strong sense of place so it's another element that scores for me here. On the basis of this I'm really excited about the next book, it's going to be fun seeing what Cass does next.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Trowie Mound Murders - Marsali Taylor

Marsali Taylor was the first teacher I had who was one of those teachers you never forget, the ones who really inspire you with a love of something and now she's writing books which I also find very inspiring. She taught us English, French, and Drama all of which interests are reflected in her books. 'The Trowie Mound Murders' is the second of her Cass Lynch series. I had hoped to read and post about it before I went on holiday but didn't quite manage to do that - a review will be forthcoming when I return. Meanwhile here is a bit from Marsali about the languages involved in her books and a link to my Death on a Longhship review which is well worth a read (the book that is, I'm making no great claims for the review).

What language are my characters speaking now? Author Marsali Taylor talks about the difficulty of writing foreign languages in her two crime novels, Death on a Longship and the newly-published sequel, The Trowie Mound Murders.

Often things that amuse a writer whizz un-noticed past the reader. One fun problem I had to solve in my Cass novels, Death on a Longship and The Trowie Mound Murders, was language.
The obvious one was trying to give a flavour of the wonderful, distinctive Shetland dialect without losing the reader. ‘Quar’s du gaaun?’ On the westside, my heroine Cass’s place, wh becomes a qu sound, and throughout Shetland du, dee, dy, dine are used for you, your, yours. An a sound is often drawled aa. Grammar-wide, the verb ‘to be’ is often used differently. That question was simply, ‘Where’re you going?’ I ended up trying to keep the distinctive grammar, some vocabulary, like peerie for small, and Shetland use of English words, like turned or mad for angry, and easily read pronunciation differences, like the common Scottish no’ for not. I hoped this gave a Shetland feel without making life too difficult – and for those who wanted to know more, there was a glossary at the end of the book.

However Cass is a linguist. Shetland was her first tongue out of the house, but in it she spoke English to her dad, and French to her mother. Maman is a French opera singer, and although she’s noticeably foreign when she’s talking English to Dad, of course when she and Cass are talking to each other, they’re fluent. It’s always a problem in films: if it’s an English language film, where two French characters are supposedly talking to each other in French, why on earth should they have French accents? Properly speaking, the director should ask for a suitable English accent: city, country, posh, chav ... which would sound equally odd. In the same way, I wanted the reader to be aware that Cass and Maman were talking in French, but as it’s completely natural to them, I didn’t want to splatter my prose with French words in italics. Instead, I tried to think the conversation through in French as I wrote, and translate, so that though the English is as gramatically correct as Maman and Cass’s French would be, the turns of phrase are French.

That’s where proverbial phrases came in: you know, the kind of thing your Granny used to say to you. ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it.’ ‘Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.’ Every time I cut my sewing thread too long (because threading needles and knotting threads is such a pain) I hear my own Granny, who was a tailor, say, ‘The mair haste the less speed, says the tailor with the lang threed.’ (She was right too – it always tangles.) These lovely sum-ups of folk wisdom are different in every language, and so the sayings they’d grown up with became a way into my characters’ childhoods. Maman’s parents were Poitevin farmers, and her mother encouraged her singing talent with phrases like ‘Nothing’s impossible to a stout heart’ and ‘Paris wasn’t built in a day’. Her more down-to-earth father commented, ‘With ifs and buts, you could put Paris in a bottle’. For ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’, Maman would say, ‘you can’t have your butter and the money for your butter’. Translating these into English gives a beautifully French feel to the conversation.
Cass’s dad is Irish. His father was a builder in Dublin, with rather traditional ideas of a woman’s needs in life: ‘’It’s a lonely washing that has no man’s shirt in it.’ His country-bred wife encouraged Cass’s self-reliance: ‘It’s a bad hen that does not scratch for itself’. Irish Gaelic was spoken in their house, and now Cass is trying to revive those memories so that she can speak to Gavin Macrae in his own tongue, Scottish Gaelic. Where she tries it, I’ve put the words in Gaelic, in italics, to show how tentative she feels about speaking this foreign language.

Anders, Cass’s crew, is Norwegian, and, like most Scandinavians, he speaks beautiful, slightly formal, English. However there are episodes in both books where he and Cass are using Norwegian as a more intimate language. Both are less inhibited; I’ve tried to make Anders sound more colloquial, and although Cass’s Norwegian wouldn’t be as fluent as I’ve made it, I’ve used the fluency to show how her normal emotional reticence is freed by this language that is half-foreign and half harking back to the Shetland of her childhood (Shetland dialect and modern Norwegian both come from the Norse the Vikings spoke).
Language. It’s who we are: the tongue we use, the proverbs we cherish. In many ways, my Cass has too many selves: Shetland, English, Irish, French. Only when she leaves them behind to embrace the pyhsical language of the sea, balancing against the swell, adjusting rope and sail, bracing herself against the great ship’s wheel, does she feel truly at home. She could remain with that world, safely apart from human emotions, or choose a language to join the human world of relationships – but which?

I had fun juggling Cass’s languages... not that she gets a lot of time for speaking in The Trowie Mound Murders. The past angst that she worked through in Death on a Longship has lightened her, and this second book is less introspective, more action-filled. If I’ve written well, you’ll be too busy turning the pages to notice languages ... I hope so!
Death on a Longship and The Trowie Mound Murders are both published by Accent Press, and available on Amazon.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

On Holiday

After what feels like an eternity but has in fact only been 4 months it's time for me to go on holiday again. The Scottish Borders are calling, and I am packing. So far I've packed marmalade, champagne, pearls, plenty of books, a large bottle of gin, a warm jumper, rhubarb, some wellies (which auto correct is determined to turn into willies - which is not what I mean to say at all) and enough clean underwear to see me through - though I may have broken the golden rule and packed more books than knickers. Whatever the weather does I'm confident I'm going to enjoy myself, though I do wonder what will happen of Scotland ever gets border control. Is rhubarb likely to be a prohibited item? Do I really need to take it on holiday with me anyway? And perhaps most vitally what have I forgotten to pack which I might really need when I was thinking waste not want not over the rhubarb.

Reading, as you can see, mostly sponsored by OWC

Friday, May 2, 2014

Wilfred and Eileen - Jonathan Smith

'Wilfred and Eileen' is the kind of book I'm quiteSummer in February' - Jonathan Smith wrote both the book and the screenplay so although I haven't read it I'm assuming the film is close enough to the book. I went as part of a family outing mostly because there was dinner on offer before hand which probably demonstrates the level of enthusiasm I felt beforehand. Not Smith's fault, but faced with the cinematic choice of a woman with clear mental health issues making a series of terrible relationship decisions or something with explosions in it I normally choose explosions. This policy has lead me to sit through some terrible films.

wary of so bear with me through this post, I will be trying to keep my prejudices in check but they're more than likely to get away from me. First up I didn't much enjoy the film version of '

'Wilfred and Eileen' is based on the lives of Wilfred Willet and Eileen Stenhouse, they were the grandparents of Anthony Seldon who Smith taught at Tonbridge school and who gave him the bare outlines of the story one day after class. This is the second reason I'm wary - I'm not on the whole a fan of biography's, and though theoretically the admission that some of this is fiction the pedant in me wants to know exactly how much. The bare biographical bones are as follows, Wilfred and Eileen meet in Cambridge, it's 1913, Wilfred has just finished his degree and it's the last round of formal events before packing up and returning home ostensibly as an adult. Wilfred is destined for medicine and has a summer course at the London hospital, Eileen it turns out is a nearish neighbour and chance acquaintance deepens to friendship and then love. The two marry secretly, sneaking off to a hotel for snatched hours alone, Wilfred is immersed in his studies and doing well at them, and then all of a sudden war is on the horizon. He feels it's his duty to sign up and despite Eileen's dismay does so. On the 13th December 1914 he's shot in the head whilst trying to help a wounded comrade. Miraculously he survives and is eventually rescued from almost certain death in a Boulogne hospital by Eileen who has managed to get a passport and passage over. She brings him back to London, makes sure he gets the best possible chance, and eventually will dedicate her whole life to this man - she really must have been a remarkable woman.

My third reservation/prejudice is that this book was initially published in the 1970's. Smith had the help and approval of Willets daughter and his research is clearly impeccable but my preference is for books contemporary with their setting - which may be why I'm not much of a fan of biography. All these prejudices aside this is a fascinating book, especially given that it's based on true events. Smith is clearly with Wilfred Owen on the whole "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
/ To children ardent for some desperate glory / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
/ Pro patria mori.". Our Wilfred sets off to war with all the idealism a young man of his class and education would be expected to feel and gets a very rude awakening. His medical career is finished and there must have been real questions over what he would have been able to do with the rest of his life. For Eileen married to a man she's known for less than 2 years there's the possibility of being tied to a stranger for the rest of her life who will be utterly dependant on her. This isn't quite how it turns out but I get the impression that Wilfred wasn't an easy man.

The afterword gives a little bit more information, the couple had 3 children, Wilfred joined the Communist party and did a lot of work for trade unions as well as writing a series of books about birds and flowers. Eileen remained devoted to him and presumably they had a happy marriage but what Smith didn't find out for some time was that their first child, a son, seems to have become totally estranged from his parents and there is talk of moods.

It's hard to know what sort of man Wilfred would have been without the head injury, he seems to have been a dedicated and brilliant student, though only a year into his medical studies who can know what sort of surgeon he would have made, and then the secret marriage is odd. Smith suggests a tricky relationship with Wilfred's parents, it seems he couldn't talk to them about getting married at all - the couple were young so their initial dismissal is understandable, but Wilfred is also unwilling to reassure Eileen's parents about his intentions which rather reinforces why his parents should be so hostile to the idea. I also find it odd that after getting married they don't tell their parents, socially Eileen is a step up for Wilfred - it's a romantic story but I don't understand the secrecy.

What I find really interesting though is the sense of social change behind this story. The war may have been full of donkey's leading lions but without it one wonders what would have happened. Assuming Eileen wouldn't have got pregnant and caused the sort of furore that would have caused Wilfred's parents to cut him off without a penny it seems likely he would have turned first into the sort of doctor that he rather despised as a student, and then into much the same man his father was. Nothing can have shown him quite as much equality as life in the trenches. And as for Eileen, she wasn't bought up to be the sort of girl who could have taken on the war office and managed to get herself across the channel before circumstances turned her into that woman. Wilfred went on to lead a useful life, the personal loss was terrific but not all the changes were bad.