Saturday, January 30, 2016

Weekend Plans

After a Saturday spent out in deepest Rutland doing a bit of research, or more specifically, searching for something to finish off a project I'm quite excited about the rest of my weekend - or at least the rest of Saturday is going to involve these... A knitting project that I've been ignoring for months, but just needs I final push to get it finished. The final push is taking some effort. After 4 solid hours I managed to knit about an inch more.

When the knitting gets a bit too exhausting I've got Zola to turn to. I didn't get round to him at all last year, but 'The Conquest of Plassans' had me from the first page. It's good to be back in Plassans.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Death on the Riviera - John Bude

Just the cover of 'Death on the Riviera' was enough to recommend it as a winter read - it would be wonderful to swap today's grey sky for a blue one, golden sand and a couple of palm trees wouldn't go amiss either. 

'Death on the Riviera' sees Detective Inspector Meredith and acting sergeant, Strang, dispatched from the gloom of London in February, to the glamour of the Riviera to work with the French police in tracking down a counterfeiter. All agree it's nice work if you can get it. Meredith and Strang have a perfectly nice time working out how the racket is being run and rounding up the perpetrators, and in the process keep running into the occupants of the Villa Paloma. 

The Villa is the property of Nesta Hedderwick, a wealthy widow who likes to surround herself with handsome young men. Unfortunately for Nesta the sort of young men who are happy to live off of wealthy widows are perhaps not the sort you should have in the house and it's soon clear that at least two of them are a fairly bad lot. 

The actual murder comes late in the book, is ingenious - I thought the murderer should have got away with it - and easily might not have happened at all (which is a nice touch). Beyond that there's not much I can say without giving far to much plot away - which would be a shame.

The charm of the book is in its setting, Bude takes a real joy in mentioning the food, the wine, the sun, the sea - the whole package, and all he needs to do to underline the contrast between the south of France and the UK is mention that it's February a couple of times, it's more than enough. The plot might not bare to much prodding, but it's entertaining - which is what matters to me in a book like this when I'm more interested in how, than who, dunnit

Altogether I really enjoyed this one, it's another worthy addition to the British Library crime classics series, and just the thing to escape into when outside looks like this... 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Road To The Harbour - Susan Pleydell.

I loved this book! It was one of those that once I started reading it I didn't want to stop, was frankly resentful of anything and anyone that did make me stop, and didn't want it to end either.

It's the second sort of crime novel I've read by Susan Pleydell, and it's even better than 'The Glenvarroch Gathering'* that I enjoyed so much last year. Briefly, 'The Road to the Harbour', originally published in 1966, tells the story of Anthea Logan. She's in her late 20's, is as conventionally attractive as the heroine of a romance should be, and has had a fairly rough time of it. Seven years before the book starts she had a promising career as a journalist and was falling in love with a colleague by the name of Jock.

Unfortunately the love affair didn't work out so well, and her career takes a nose dive when her brother is found guilty of selling secrets to (presumably) the Russians. He goes to prison and she's left to deal with the repercussions it has within her immediate family - as is often the lot of women.

Seven years later her parents have both died, and Anthea is ready to start again. She heads to Balgarvie, a Scottish fishing village she fell in love with as a teenager, and which seems like just the place for a second chance. She books into its famous sporting hotel, where she's the subject of much speculation (sporting hotels are not normally the first choice of glamorous, young, single, women), and then things start to go wrong. (There may be spoilers ahead).

There's a waiter who comes on a bit to strong and resents being knocked back, a cousin who decides to dislike her, the ex has bought the house she had her eye on, and then a document goes missing and the scandal with her brother comes back to haunt her.

I think it works so well because nothing really terrible happens to Anthea, but it's all so believably grim. Of course she gives up her life in London to support her parents, because they clearly need the support and it's what a good daughter would do - as well as offering an escape from the publicity of the situation. Men making inappropriate passes at women aren't unusual either, and the vindictive reaction of this one seems entirely likely. The disturbing presence of the ex makes sense as well, and the business with the missing document is a reminder that mud sticks.

Pleydell does an excellent job of taking these elements and really ratcheting up the tension. Its not life and death, which made for a nice change of pace after all the murder mystery's I've been reading, but they're still things that matter, that would matter if they happened to us, and are not so far from the things that do happen to us. It puts me in mind of Trollope and all the trouble over misplaced cheques and promissory notes, and how absorbing that becomes.

* Both have come from Greyladies and in due course I'll be ordering the rest of the Pleydell's they have in print.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

My Top Ten Books of 2015

Rather a late top ten this time (normally I do this in late November), and I had thought about skipping it altogether this time. 2015 had its good moments, but on the whole I'm glad to see the back of it, it's a year where everything got on top of me and I didn't always handle it very well. I didn't read as much as I would have liked either so I wasn't sure how good a top ten I could come up with.

Looking back through a years worth of blog posts though I see some really got d books - I may not have read so many but at least the ones I did manage had lots to recommend them, so here we go (in no particular order).

Ruth Ball's 'Rebellious Spirits' is a terrific book. It gets the mix between entertainment and information spot on and gave me a whole new interest in something I work with everyday (booze). There are quite a few not great books about spirits out there, so finding a good one, and one with good jokes too, is something to celebrate. My copy has been borrowed (I should get it back before it's gone forever).

And whilst I'm on the subject of booze - a new edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine is guaranteed a place on any years top ten. It's an indispensable book for anyone with an interest in wine. It's authorititive - as you would expect, but also full of articles that pull me in, and lead into unexpected corners. It's just great.

Rumer Godden's The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is an emotional roller coaster of a book (at least it was for me). Apparently it got Godden into a bit of trouble in Hollywood circles for bearing more than a passing resemblance to a certain scandal. It's the story of three children who won't accept their parents divorce, and choices for a new life. Instead they persue their mother to Italy, insert themselves into that new life and, without altogether understanding what the consequences might be, rip it apart. Godden is superb at this sort of thing, and this one is a masterpiece.

2015 was the year that I finally took the plunge and bought some Greyladies titles. The real discovery was Susan Pleydell, I really liked The Glenvarroch Gathering (I like 'The Road To The Harbour' even more, but I've only just read it, it'll probably be on this years list) partly because it's good to find a mystery that doesn't have a murder attached, but also because in a quiet (and quintessentially middlebrow) way she's really compelling.

2015 was also the year I finally managed to read a Daphne Du Maurier all the way through. My form with this writer has previously been poor- the new cover on the Virago edition helped (it certainly helped me open the book, I loved the cover) and this year I'm ready to try her again. Jamaica Inn is so well known I really don't need to say anything about it, but for anyone else who has struggled with Du Maurier I will say - persevere. It was worth the wait.

Mellisa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time is one of the few contemporary books I read last year, and in the process she's become one of the relatively few contemporary authors I'm really interested in following. For me it was particularly the way she writes about nature, weaving it into her narrative, me making a book that felt like much more than the sum of its parts in the process.

I've had a soft spot for Sir Walter Scott for a while now, and consider it a great shame he's not better loved. I quite understand why people aren't initially overly keen to tackle him - it was a visit to his house at Abbotsford that finally gave me the push. There are so many reasons to read Scott (he's important, and endlessly inventive) but the best one is that he's entertaining. I liked Waverley so much I posted about it 4 times, something no other book has ever yet got me to do. There's so much in it, and it's exciting. Give Scott a go!

Gin and Murder is another Greyladies title, this time by Josaphine Pullien-Thompson better known for horsey children's books (terrible summery, I'm sorry). 'Gin and Murder' deserves a prize for best title of the year (ever - it's a fabulous title) but it's much more than that. It's a brilliant portrait of a hard drinking hunting set in the 1950's. The murder is tragic - sometimes the victim doesn't get much compassion, but this one does, and it underlines other tragedies in the victims life. It's also an unflinching look at alcoholism and the effect that has on a marriage and a family - but maybe more fun than I've made it sound.

I read a lot of the British Library's Crime Classics last year and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, I'm choosing Captital Crimes, the short story collection with London as its unifying theme, because I really love a good collection of short stories (which this is) and because it sums up the joy of this series of books for me.

Finally it's got to be L M Montgomery's A Tangled Web. Rediscovering her, and exploring beyond Anne of Green Gables has been a revelation (she really makes me want to visit Prince Edward Island specifically, and Canada generally). It's a light book, mostly funny, but with bitter moments. Montgomery does such a good job of describing the life of large families and small communities that I really feel I'm there, finishing one of her books is a sadly disorientating experience- I don't want to leave them. She's a wonderful comfort read, but there's more to her than that. Ignore the awful cover.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Literary Knits - Nikol Lohr

My knitting progress stalled a bit at the end of last year, but now I feel like I've got a bit more time (and it's finally turned cold) I've been eyeing up my yarn stash again. It won't currently all fit in the drawer set aside for it, and as I know I'll buy more the next time I'm in Shetland (and who knows, maybe before) I really need to use some of it. 

I've also got the inspiration of 'Literary Knits' in front of me, this was a Christmas present from my mother (great choice mum). It's an American book which is mostly significant for the number of knits inspired by American classics (I feel quite ignorant for not being familiar with 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn') but it's also possible that there will be the same sort of unexpected differences I find between British and American cookbooks. I'm not an experienced or knowledgable enough knitter to know yet.

Like every book of patterns I've ever picked up it also has a fair share of knits I could never imagine anyone wearing - I'm thinking very specifically of the Katie Rommely Gaiters. They're sort of lacy, flared, and have pom-poms, and I just don't get them. Never mind. I have my doubts about a knitted Elizabeth Bennet top and a Galadriel hooded dress too, but again, each to their own. 

On the other hand there's a very attractive looking pattern for fingerless gloves (which I'm really keen to make, and one for mittens which I'm starting to come round to as well, they'd certainly be easier to knit than gloves (with fingers) and possibly just the job for dog walking too. For some future date when I have a lot more patience there are some very attractive shawls (the Emma, for Emma Bovary, has particularly caught my eye, the Jane Eyre shawl is a close second) and a couple of jumpers I really like the look of. 

Altogether it's an inspiring collection, the literary connections are a nice touch, and there's recommendations for iPad knitting apps, along with the usual guide to techniques and so on, that as a novice knitter I'm happy to be pointed towards. There are sections on knitting for women, for men, and for children, so there really is something for everybody and the whole thing has me itching to pick up some needles and get going. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Crime at Christmas - C. H. B. Kitchin

the current cold snap that we've been enjoying (well I've been enjoying it anyway) is due to end tomorrow, so I thought I'd better talk about 'Crime At Christmas' before the seasonal frost has quite disappeared (it was encouragingly spring like this afternoon).

'Crime At Christmas' isn't (obviously) just for Christmas, but it was one of the half dozen or so vintage titles (this one from Faber & Faber) that were impossible to avoid in any bookshop anywhere through November /December last year. I'm not generally very good at themed or seasonal reading but golden age crime and winter do seem to go well together. Murders aside this is comfort reading of the highest order - absorbing without being demanding, and set in a world of reassuring certainties.

I don't want to give to much away so (in case anybody did manage to miss it altogether) will just quote the blurb from the back. "It's Christmas at Hampstead's Beresford Lodge. A group of relatives and intimate friends gather to celebrate the festive season, but their party is rudely interrupted by a violent death. It isn't long before a second body is discovered. Can the murderer be one of those in the great house? The stockbroker sleuth Malcolm Warren investigates..."

I'll add to that, that I'd happily read more by Kitchin. I liked Warren who despite being a youngish man has something of the old maid about him (I'm not very good at spotting this kind of thing, but I wondered if he was meant to be gay, which I'd like in a book from 1934), his disapproval of parlour games certainly struck a chord with me, as did his dislike of bright young things. I really fell in love with this book for this description of Christmas though "Christmas! Stockings, holly, crackers, carols, too much plum pudding, and the vague depression which even in childhood had seemed to surround the whole business - and the summer still so very far away."

It's exactly how I feel about it, so it's good to see someone else write it. (I hope that doesn't make me sound more than usually miserable or curmudgeonly). On the up side there was absolutely nothing disappointing about retiring to bed with this particular book and enjoying its particular brand of mild cynicism - it made me very happy indeed.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Hebridean Notebook - Norman Ackroyd

I'm currently in the middle of a book so good* that it's a real wrench to put it down and post about something else. Even more so because having put it down I then realised that I was hungry and a trip to the kitchen has told me I really need to wash up and have a general tidy as well. I really need more reading time, and possibly a cleaner, and by need I suppose I mean want.

Something else I really want is a Norman Ackroyd print (if I won the lottery it would be a watercolour) I know which one, I know where it would go, and at £450** it's tempting to think I could, with a bit of scrimping, commit such an extravagance. What I need is a new mattress, and after that the washing machine is looking a bit iffy, as is the fridge, the extractor fan in the kitchen has given up the ghost, and my bathroom heater isn't in perfect working order either. Art, however necessary for the soul, will have to wait. Meanwhile I can content myself with this (and the earlier 'Shetland') notebook.

'A Hebridean Notebook' really is a beautiful thing - published by the Royal Academy of Arts in association with a couple of galleries that represent Ackroyd. It looks like a facsimile of an original sketchbook right down to what looks like a ringed stain from a cup of tea on one page, though in this case I think it's a collection of sketches made over a number of trips. Ackroyd makes it look effortless; a few dashed lines and a wash of paint somehow resolve themselves into a landscape filled with light and weather.

 I've messed around enough with watercolours to know it's not in the least bit easy, and oh how I wish I could sketch like this. I've spent a long time looking at this book just wondering how he does it, and more time appreciating that he has done it, and yet all they are, are sketches. Some are clearly done very quickly, probably from the deck of a boat, and in not the nicest of weather, others suggest a slightly more leisurely pace, all of them are wonderfully evocative.

* Susan Pleydell's 'The Road To The Harbour' for the curious

**It's not a practical purchase but I have a sinking feeling it's going to be one of those things I really regret not doing.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Pure Juliet - Stella Gibbons

I was aware that Vintage were publishing some previously unknown novels by Stella Gibbons but hadn't thought much about what they'd be like. At her best ('Cold Comfort Farm' - obviously, 'Nightingale Wood' if you want some charming romance) she's brilliant, but of the handful of titles I've read there have been a few that have underwhelmed me. I hadn't really meant to read these new ones, found in manuscript form by her daughter. Then I was asked if I'd take a look at 'Pure Juliet' for Shiny New Books and decided to say yes.

It's a strange book, one that almost certainly wouldn't have seen the light of day if Vintage (and to a lesser extent Virago, who reprinted 'Nightingale Wood' which certainly sparked my interest in reading more Gibbons) hadn't already done so much work to resurrect her reputation and build a new following for her.

'Pure Juliet' is broken down into three parts. In the first section we meet Juliet, a frustrated, ungainly, teenager considered weird and creepy by family and teachers - she has no friends. What she does have is an uncanny gift for maths and physics. At 17 she's also achieved 5 A levels in these subjects at her local comprehensive, but her father has decided she'll be leaving to find work as a secretary and not going to university. For Juliet, obsessed with working something out neither option holds any attraction. Instead she runs away to the country to live with a rich and elderly woman she met by chance in a park, and who wishes to adopt her. Here, she believes, she will find the peace she needs to work out the maths of something that seems to matter.

Juliet is so socially withdrawn and inept, and so gifted when it comes to maths and physics that it's tempting to assume she's autistic (at least it is now when it's a label we're all familiar with) but that doesn't seem to be what Gibbons has in mind. This Juliet just has something important to do, so important that any distraction is an inconvenience to be resented and there's simply no time or energy for anything but the work. The first book sets this all out and introduces Juliet to the people who will shape her life, especially Frank - the nephew of her would be guardian and the man who decides to make her his protégée. It's his intention to nurture her genius and teach her to be human at the same time. There is also Clemence, the woman who loves Frank (he hasn't noticed) and her reaction to his interest in Juliet.

The second book makes clear just how difficult Juliet finds normal human relationships, her work really is all that matters to her. Even death is an inconvenience. She's oblivious to the animosity she raises in others and remarkably single minded, it ends with her being accepted into Cambridge, much to Frank's satisfaction.

The third book is where it falls apart a bit, Gibbons makes it clear that she doesn't think much of women who don't want a family. Juliet is unnatural not because of her intelligence but because she's not interested in sex and everything sort of fizzles out into a somewhat underwhelming conclusion, and a lot about Frank and Clemence's children who turn up to late to feel relevant or interesting.

Gibbons is spectacularly good at describing the English countryside, she finds and shares the beauty in a field or a hedgerow that makes her as good as any nature writer I've ever read, and it's a skill she puts to good use here. Mostly though this is a book for fans, It's not going to win over any new readers, and there's an underlying snobbery, as well as that dismissal of women who don't have a husband and children that's problematical. It's interesting to see what Gibbons is doing at the end of her writing career, paths first book especially is compelling, and I never lost interest, but there's also a not quite finished feel about it. Recommended but with reservations

Friday, January 15, 2016

Murder For Christmas - Francis Duncan

I've always been a fan of vintage/golden age crime, and last year I read quite a bit of it - mostly in the form of British Library crime classics, but Christmas also bought me a couple of seasonally themed murders. The first of these was Francis Duncan's 'Murder For Christmas'. I don't know if statistically people are more likely do one another in over the festive season, but I do know my own patience is at its lowest ebb of the year and there's always someone who's particularly trying... (Though it's strictly tears before bedtime rather than violence.)

I didn't know anything about Francis Duncan (actually 2 minutes research shows that almost nobody does, that it's a pseudonym and there was a hint of mystery attached See here) or anything about this book beyond that it was first published in 1949. There's nothing concrete in the plot to suggest an actual date for the setting but somehow it feels inter, rather than post, war. Mostly because it's never mentioned and thetes no sense of austerity about the setting. I don't know why I get so obsessed with knowing when a books set, but I do.

The plot is clever enough with some excellent twists, there's plenty of atmosphere, and if the solution hinges on some psychological gymnastics on the part of the detective (retired tobacconist, Mordecai Tremaine) that's no criticism. The set up is the classic snowbound country house on Christmas Eve with an unlikely collection of guests and a suitably, if inexplicably, tense atmosphere. Mordecai has been invited (after brief previous acquaintance) with the promise of a mystery to get his teeth into, out of curiosity he shows up to find himself in a house with enough in the way of undercurrents to make a murder seem inevitable. Then, in a very festive touch, Santa Claus is found shot under the Christmas tree.

Tremaine slowly unpicks the problem along with the local policeman, and before the turkey leftovers could have been disposed of the mystery is solved with a mercifully low body count (I generally feel one murder is plenty).

If the book has a fault it's the authors habit of using everyone's full name all the time - not so much a fault as a tic, but one I quickly found slightly distracting. I'm mentioning it because forewarned is forearmed and in every other respect this is an excellent, as well as suitably seasonal, read.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


Because a good biscuit isn't just for Christmas, and because winter is far from over (it really feels like it's only just beginning now it's finally turned cold) now seems like a good time to share the really good gingerbread recipe I found this year.

It comes from Mima Sinclair's charming 'Gingerbread Wonderland' (a bargain for £3 inThe Works). I had ambitions to do more with this book back in December (maybe next year will see me make a gingerbread wreath for the door, maybe...). Meanwhile January offers plenty of scope for enjoying gingery hot chocolate, ginger buns, and those biscuits.

I first tried this recipe for tree biscuits but they came out quite soft so they didn't hang well (there were a lot of casualties when they just collapsed - snap is the wrong word for something this soft, and they were definatley cooked) and they spread a bit in the oven, on the other hand they tasted really, really, good. For eating purposes icing is totally unnecessary - they're quite sweet enough without.

Pour 140g of golden syrup into a saucepan with 200g of soft light brown sugar, 200g of unsalted butter, the zest of a lemon, 4 teaspoons of ground ginger, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1/2 a teaspoon of ground nutmeg, and 1/4 of a teaspoon of ground cloves. Melt over a lowish heat, stirring regularly until the sugar has dissolved.

Increase the heat slightly until the mix just comes to the boil, remove from heat and beat in a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda until just combined (it goes all frothy at this point)  then leave to cool for quarter of an hour.

Meanwhile sift 500g of plain flour and a teaspoon of salt into a bowl, add a lightly beaten egg, and the wet ingredients and mix until just combined (the more it's worked the more the biscuits will spread). It's a sticky dough. When it's just combined and smooth wrap it up in cling film and stick it in the fridge for an hour or two.

Heat the oven to 180c (160c got a fan oven) or gas mark 4, cut into shapes, and bake for 6-10 mins depending on size/thickness. They're done when they're golden brown around the edges. They keep well - I've still got some which are a good 3 weeks old and they're still good.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Claire Macdonald Game Cookbook

 The thing with cookbooks, with all books really, is that whenever I reach a point that I think I have enough on a particular subject something new pops up that looks absolutely indispensable. So it is with Claire Macdonald's Game Cookbook.

We spent New Year holed up in the Scottish Borders where we had ample opportunity to admire live (if somewhat bedraggled) pheasants, and as it rained a lot it seemed sensible to explore some of the excellent independent book shops the area is so well provided with. My favourite is the Mainstreet trading company in St Boswell's. I cannot overstate how much I like that place, or its very good cafe (the orange and Rosemary cake is highly recommended).

In the end it was D who bought the Game Cookbook, which now presents something of a dilemma - it would really be silly to buy another copy for my flat when he already has one, but it's such a useful looking book that it's hard to resist. The attraction of game is that it's free range, lean, comes in sensible sizes (1 pheasant is just right for 2, a partridge is a good size for 1 - and so on) and from my local market is cheap. Supermarkets sell more and more if it but at roughly twice the price of any of the butchers I've used. The butcher will also be more informative regarding the age of the bird (or beast) which is handy to know.

The first thing I like about this book is that, with the exception of woodcock and snipe, all the game is easily available (grouse is very dependant on what kind of a season it's been, there was none to be had this year on Leicester market, but last year there was plenty and at a good price too). The second thing is that pheasant and venison get the longest chapters - sensible because they're the most widely available, and pheasant is probably the cheapest too.

The third thing I like is that there's a really extensive chapter on stuffings, jellies, sauces, and other accompaniments as well as generic recipes for stock, pies, and soup. The recipes themselves are tempting (they're tempting us anyway) as well as having useful serving suggestions with them. The list of seasonings etc seems reasonably modest and with the current exception of arrowroot all things that are in my cupboard already.

There is also that absolute clincher - the blindingly obvious once you think about it suggestion that you somehow never thought of. For me, in this book, it's using skinned venison sausages to make a pasta sauce. I don't know why it's never occurred to me do something like that before, but now it has I will. It might not be a waste of wild boar sausages either.  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes

'A High Wind in Jamaica' was an impulse buy to celebrate the news that Waterstones was back in the black (I like to do my bit and keep up the good work...). I think I chose it because it mentioned pirates and sounded just different enough to what I had been reading to be appealing.

It turned out to be an excellent choice. It has something of the atmosphere of 'Lord of the Flies' about it, which it pre dates. Very briefly it's the story of a group of children bought up in Jamaica, their parents decide to send them back to England after a hurricane and an earthquake make it seem to dangerous for them to stay. They're put on the barque Clorinda (written in 1929 it feels like it's set pre WW1) and set sail under the care of the sailors.

The children (ranging in age from about 13 to roughly 4) are happy enough learning their way about a ship and affectionately attached to the crew, but when the Clorinda is taken by pirates and they are almost accidentally taken hostage they are just as content with the new crew, not unnaturally assuming that this has been a simple, and planned, transfer all part of some adult plan. As the truth gradually dawns on them they are for the most part indifferent to it, with the exception of Margaret, the eldest, who as not quite a child has a different understanding of what might happen to her.

The children are a problem for the pirates who are more petty criminal than violent brigands - their presence is essentially a death sentence, and so they plot to move them on. Before that can happen though there's another raid and (spoiler) one of the children kills a man. It changes everything for the Pirates, though again for the most part the children brush it off.

What Hughes does beautifully is show how irritating as well as endearing children can be. Their innocence, or maybe ignorance, protects them from the harm that the Pirates might have done them, and from the harm their experiences might cause - with the exception of Margaret, who does understand, and suffers for it.

To the adults in the book the children are hard to fathom, as children are, but the other thing Hughes does beautifully is explore their logic along with the limited morality that children might be expected to possess. It's not that they're immoral, or even amoral, but that they haven't learnt about the shades of grey yet.

The extra ingredient is that the story telling is utterly compelling, it gets under your skin and stays there. The ending is horribly inevitable, it made me want to do whatever the reading equivalent of looking away is, but I couldn't - it's a brilliant book

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Home again

That's me back from my travels, and back to work on Monday. The break has been good, I do wish it could have been for longer though, I need another week just to read 'Bleak House' and that sounds so much more appealing than the stock counting I know awaits me. Never mind.

It's become something of a custom for D and I to meet in the Scottish Borders for New Year, where (lucky man) he gets to spend it with a colourful selection of my family, their dogs, and other friends. Fortunately he likes them, and the other perks (comfortable sofa, good fire, beautiful scenery, excellent book shops) make it a great place to escape to.

The excellent book shops include the Mainstreet trading company in St Boswell's, as well as a proper bookshop it's got an excellent cafe, very good deli with some interesting whisky's, a few antiques and other nice things. It gets the balance between all those elements spot on and as I like all those things a lot it's always a treat going there.

Going to Edinburgh was also a bit of a treat. The drive is just long enough to be tedious (plus bloody awful in bad weather, and it really rained a lot) so the new train line has a new convert in me. It made it possible to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition (see previous post) which I'm still beyond excited about (don't pass up any chance to see it). Edinburgh is a city I'd like to know better, I'm never there for long enough to explore more than the obvious bits, maybe that will change some day, meanwhile I can always walk it's streets in books.

New Year's Day was, in the morning at least, the only respite in a week of rain. It wasn't so very heavy for most of the time, and the area escaped serious flooding this time (Hawick, just down the road, was hit badly earlier in December) which was lucky - so I'm not complaining about the general dampness. As it was dry and the local Hunt was meeting in the village we decided to go and see them set off. D had never seen this before, and I hadn't for very many years. I have mixed feelings about hunting (my sympathy is all for the fox) but whilst it's legal, being done legally, you're not stuck in a traffic jam waiting for them to get out the way, your pet isn't being terrorised (or worse) and so on - then watching them set off is an evocative sight. The hounds are also ridiculously friendly (unless you're a fox/cat/hen) and I can't resist dogs.

Regardless of my feelings on the matter it looked like most of the community had turned out in support (regardless of hangovers, and a few possibly in search of the hair of the dog) and the whole scene could have come straight out of Trollope, or any period drama ever made.

Finally, despite being given a tower of books for Christmas I may have bought a few more - well the book shops were just that good

Friday, January 8, 2016

Modern Scottish Women Painters & Sculptors 1885-1965

At the risk of sounding somewhat dull one of the things I really wanted to do in the Borders was try out the new rail link from Tweedbank to Edinburgh. It doesn't really cut the travel time from where we were, but it makes it much easier. The main attraction Edinburgh held for me in terms of being a day trip destination was the Modern Scottish Women exhibition.

This is something I really wanted to see from the moment I heard about it, and it most certainly didn't disappoint. When I was studying history of art it was clear enough that there had always been women working as professional artists, but with a few exceptions (the exceptions were just enough to make me wonder) you don't see them or their work. There's a direct and obvious parallel with women writers - before Virago modern classics, Persephone books, and the current appetite for reprints or rediscovered fiction they were, with those obvious exceptions, hard to find.

It matters because if we can't read those books or see these pictures women lose a part of their history and no-one gets the whole picture. Sir William Fettes Douglas' statement (as president of the Royal Scottish Acadamy) that the work of women artists was 'Like a man's only weaker and poorer' made in 1885 was close enough to what male counterparts would say at school or university in the 1990's. The end of the argument would always be - well name 10 decent women artists/writers - and back then I couldn't. It's not the most dramatic case of everyday sexism but it was still diminishing.

The emphasis, as you might expect from the National Galleries of Scotland, is on artists with a Scottish connection, though many trained in France and England and had lives which took them much further afield. There are 45 artists represented, a handful of whom are probably recognisable names (Anne Redpath, Joan Eardley, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Jessie M King, Phoebe Anna Traquair) the rest not so much, though some of the images might be familiar from old Virago covers.

The strength of the exhibition is its size and variety; there are a lot of self portraits, portraits of other women, portraits of children, and still lives. Because you know they're all painted by women it's tempting to see this as a feminine concern with the domestic, but fortunately there are enough examples of other subjects to halt that train of thought. It's not as if men never paint women, children, or domestic interiors.

It's also interesting to consider how these images made by women looking at women, or themselves, differ from those made by men looking at women. For me the best example of this is the work of Dorothy Johnstone who's quite well represented (her paintings were a highlight of the exhibition) her women are absorbed in their own activities. Though again the difference I think I see might just be my own preconceptions.

Over all it was just really exciting to see a proper collection of good quality art which shows there were plenty of talented women making a career in this way and not just a few exceptions. The catalogue is well worth a read, and for anyone likely to be in Edinburgh over the next few months the exhibition should be a must see. It finishes on the 26th of June, more details here