Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Book of Haps - Kate Davies Designs

Like so many others I'm still struggling to come to terms with the result of the EU referendum and the stunning lack of a plan, or even any sign of leadership, from either the government or the Labour Party. Everything seems so uncertain at the moment which is not a state that brings out the best in me but it's the steadily increasing reports of racist incidents I find most disturbing as a sign of things to come.

Perhaps it's as well I have a stack of new textile books to bury myself in as a distraction, and particularly apt that the first off the pile is 'The Book of Haps'. For those who haven't been eagerly anticipating this book for months, didn't follow each design as it was revealed through late May, and might never have heard the word before a hap (and I need to be careful here because this is contentious) is something most people might recognise as a shawl. The difference is hard to pin down but in Shetland terms a shawl suggests something done in the very finest lace, a hap is a practical, everyday, working, garment.

They're apt because the original meaning of the word is 'to enfold, to cover, and to warm' - which certainly speaks to my personal desire to hibernate right now.

I did follow the previews of each pattern from 'The Book of Haps' Here by all 13 designers, and very interesting they were but most of them look well beyond my current knitting abilities so the patterns are only part of the reason I was interested in this book. (There are some stunning patterns though, so they're something to aim for.) The other reason was to read the essays about the origins and construction of something which is a particularly Shetland art form.

Davies has a nice anecdote about the difference between a hap and a shawl being about £1000 (the work in a really fine shawl is phenomenal). I have a hap that was knitted for me by a woman I think of as family, my mother has a fancier one that she was given when I was born and that my sister and I were christened in, the traditional ones are still likely christening gifts and as such for all their relative simplicity they acquire special meaning. This is something explored in a chapter that looks at one specific pattern that became ubiquitous across the world, knitted time and again for births, or handed down through generations as an heirloom these are special things that celebrate creativity and family (it was an unexpectedly moving chapter).

Altogether it's a fascinating book, as valuable for its academic contribution to how you might understand textile history as it is for the patterns and inspiration it provides. For anyone with even a passing interest in knitting it's well worth a look.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Back to Leicester

I'm back from Shetland, and to be honest not entirely happy about it. It's wet and cold in Leicester, the news seems to be uniformly grim at the moment, and I've come home to a moth invasion (the damn things are everywhere) which bodes ill for the yarn stash I've bought back. That and after all the joys of delayed flights and a long day I have work at 8am tomorrow.

On the plus side (and this is a big one) my father is a lot better. I do have a considerable wool stash to play with, and some excellent books on textiles and knitting to go with them. Bob the sourdough starter survived my absence and is now once more fed and happy, and none of the plants have died either. Being back will be a lot better when I've caught up with a few friends and caught up with myself - but the view from my flat does not compare to this...  

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff - Gil North

'The Methods of Sergeant Cluff' turns out to be the second book in a series, and unfortunately I picked it up to take on holiday because it was the shorter book without actually checking, or even thinking about it. I've also probably read it a bit early, it was available at the Bodies From The Library day but isn't generally released until September. Never mind.

The reason I'm mildly regretting not reading the books in order is that this one clearly takes place in the aftermath of the first one, and there's a clear assumption that the reader should know what happened. It doesn't affect the central plot but it did leave me with lots of questions. Happily I can answer them as soon as I get home.

'The Methods of Sergeant Cluff' was originally published in 1961 but it could be any time between 1930 and the 1980's, and the only way I can think to describe it is as hard boiled Yorkshire noir. Sergeant Cluff is a Gunnershaw man born and bred and about as chatty as you would expect a middle aged Yorkshire man to be (not very chatty), and I must admit that at times this makes following the action tricky - but you get used to it.

Meanwhile an attractive blond has been found dead in the street with more money about her than she could have got from her day job. There's a local youth who seemed besotted from her and seen running from the scene, but Cluff doesn't think it's as simple as that. There's the girls boss too, and something just feels off.

The actual outcome is as noir as you like, with a suitable sting in the tail. It's not precisely a whodunnit - there aren't enough clues to solve the puzzle, it's all much more psychological than that - and none the worse for it.

I understand that the Gil North titles have divided people a bit, and also that this was a TV series back in the day. I'm coming down on the bit of a fan side, once I'd got into the rhythm of the book I really enjoyed it and as the end draws near and the tension ratchets up it was both exciting and shocking in equal measure.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

It's going to be all about textiles for a bit...

This is a bit of a preview of what the next few weeks are going to be about for me. I have a huge yarn stash to get home including (but hardly limited to) this really beautiful (and very reasonably priced) cone of very fine lace weight wool. I'm really looking forward to playing with these - but first I've undertaken to write about some textile books, all of which I'm really quite excited by.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Summer solstice from Shetland

We're still having a great time in Shetland with lots of walking, and a very (very) brief swim. The water was exceptionally bracing, and that combined with strong winds, sunshine, strong G&T's, and excellent food is producing a remarkably soporific effect by around about 9pm. Hopefully we'll stay awake at least long enough to see the moon tonight... Meanwhile here are some pictures from earlier.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Cake - it's getting serious

My youngest sister (the cake baker in chief) came round for Father's Day, tried the apricot and earl grey tea cake and then produced a cake if her own. Just a little chocolate cake filled with raspberries and cream and topped with a coffee and chocolate glaze (well played Sophie, you win this one).

It was delicious, with a glaze so shiny I could see myself reflected in it, and the whole thing as light as a feather. I'm not sure I can bake a proper response to that.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Apricot, Earl Grey, and Lemon Cake

What's a holiday without cake? In the general way of things the cake baker in chief in these parts is my youngest sister (who clearly understands the advantages of coming home and using someone else's ingredients and kitchen) but this week it was my turn. It's not a competition (at least, not if I can't win it...) but as the older sister I clearly have to put up a good show.

My effort this time was a semolina and syrup cake loosely inspired by a pavlova recipe I'd seen in Sabrina Ghayours 'Sirocco', and the result is good enough to share. It's also a reminder that I should use semolina more often in cakes, the end result isn't so different texture wise from ground almonds (thanks to the syrup that's what people assumed I'd used) but it's a lot cheaper.

Line the base of a 20cm cake tin with foil and heat oven to 180 (160 for a fan oven, or gas 4). Cut 4 apricots into 8's and gently heat them with some butter and a spoon of sugar until they're just softening. Take off the heat and leave to one side.

Meanwhile beat together 150mls of vegetable oil, 4 eggs, and 170g of caster sugar until smooth, then add 200g of semolina, 75g of plain flour, 3 teaspoons of baking powder, and 170ml of milk, whisk until smooth and don't worry about how sloppy the batter looks. Pour the batter into the tin and put the apricot segments on top (most will sink) then bake for about 50 mins.

Whilst the cakes baking take roughly 300mls of boiling water and add an early grey tea bag (or make a pot of tea and drink the rest). When it's reasonably strong add the juice of half a lemon and around 180g of white sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer until syrupy. When the cake is cooked either cut it whilst still in the tin or stab it thoroughly then slowly pour the syrup over it as evenly as possible. Leave to throughly cool - it's even better the day after baking when the tea flavour really starts to come out - then eat.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Old Photos

One of the nice things about being in holiday is being able to quietly ignore what's going on in the rest of the world for a while. more especially because at the moment it all seems do unrelentingly grim. Without being ignorant it feels good to be sifting through old photographs rather than a newspaper (or similar) when it's time for a cup of tea - so that's what I've been doing.

I wanted to see if I could find a likely candidate to be the lady in my little oil painting, I think I might have, without gaining any idea of who she actually was but just generally I really love this series of pictures. There were once more (with even more elaborate/camp outfits) but we're not sure where they are now. The ones I have found are perhaps enough to be going on with. The earliest must date from around the late 1880's and they go up to 1913. Back then the family obviously had enough money to be able to entertain themselves by dressing up in elaborate costumes, taking pictures of each other, and spending long summers messing around in Shetland (all sounds heavenly). This, it seems, is what people did when they made their own entertainment.

 This one looks early, it was certainly taken on a glass plate, and will have been an outfit my great great uncle bought back from trips to Japan. She could be my lady.
 This one is dated 1913 on the back

This one is from at least the 1890's and again I'm inclined to think the seated figure could be my lady.

 Francis Swithin Anderton was the painter and not a man to mind a bit of fancy dress.

Sadly damaged, but this pose is pure Georgette Heyer, though long before Heyer was around, it's also my favourite.

This one is also early and makes being Victorian like more fun than usual.

 Sensible family pose just pre war. Elegant, but not fun.

 Just in case you hadn't realised he was an artist...
 Or liked dressing up.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Bodies From The Library

Much as I've always enjoyed Golden age crime fiction, I could know more about it, so the chance to go to the Bodies From The Library event last weekend was to good to be missed. This was the second time the event had been run (the first being last year to launch Martin Edwards book 'The Golden Age of Murder') hopefully it won't be the last. Quite apart from anything else it's good to be in a room with a group of people who are all clearly fans of the same sort of books (it doesn't really happen to me that often). 

It also made me question my own attitude towards genre fiction; why do I feel the need to justify reading these books - which I do - even if only by saying how much fun they are in a vaguely apologetic way. That's something to consider at leisure. 

Meanwhile back to the British Library. Tony Medawar actually made me want to dig to find if I've got any Anthony Berkeley (I think I have) and read him. He did make me buy a copy of 'Ask A Policeman' which I'm currently enjoying very much indeed. 

Jennifer Morag Henderson was a revelation on Josephine Tey. She's written a biography of her which looks well worth reading. I've read a couple of Tey's books but didn't know anything about her, not even that she also wrote plays. That she seems to have led almost a double life - the sister who went home to Inverness to care for her elderly father on one hand, successful author and public figure on the other. I didn't know she was a Scottish writer either which adds another layer of interest to her work (or at least to some of it, I really ought to read more of her books along with Henderson's biography. There is clearly more to Tey than I ever imagined.

Listening to Rob Davies and Martin Edwards talking about the golden age and the British library crime classics series was really interesting too. I'm obviously a fan of this series, primarily I think because these have always been workmanlike books. Not the best sellers of their day, not always high art, but it's a consistently interesting series and I have a better idea of why that may be now. 

Stella Duffy was very entertaining on the subject of theatricality in Ngaio Marsh, I'd never had much interest in her New Zealand set books before, and now I really do. Sometimes I need a push to bring something alive, or to simply change my perspective slightly. It didn't take much to go from meh to must read. 

Barry Pike did that too, again I knew nothing about H. C. Bailey, and don't think I'd ever even come across the name to notice before, but now I'm very curious. I had heard of G. K. Chesterton, but mainly through Father Brown adaptations. Turns out he was literally a larger than life character, he too now demands further investigation. 

It was a great way to start a holiday. 

Monday, June 13, 2016


I had very good intentions to write about the Bodies From The Library event today, but I'm now in Shetland where it's been such a glorious day that I've been out walking (with only a little bit of sleeping in the garden) and generally enjoying it whilst it lasts.

Shetland is beautiful whatever the weather, or so I think anyway, but cloudless blue sky's never hurt. Generally adding to the holiday mood is my stepmothers excellent cooking and dad being well in the mend. Bodies From The Library soon...

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham

Golden age crime is very much on my mind right now, yesterday I went to Bodies From The Library yesterday at the British Library to listen to all sorts of people discuss it, and seeing as vintage crime is enjoying such a moment theres a tremendous choice of titles to enjoy. It doesn't do any harm that most of the covers have tremendous shelf appeal as well.

'The White Cottage Mystery' is a classic example of cover love - I saw it, wanted it, sensibly checked I didn't already have it, bought it, and because it was short managed to read it on yesterdays train journeys between London and Leicester.

Uninterrupted reading time is one of the pleasures of travelling by train (or as of later today, plane) and Allingham proved an agreeable companion. I read most of the Campion series in my late teens (after some TV adaptations) but haven't really revisited her since.

'The White Cottage Mystery' was her first detective story, originally published as a serial in the Daily Express in 1927 and published as a book a year later. The epilogue brings it up to 1927, but most of the action takes place around 1920.

It's a pleasing mystery; a deeply unpleasant man is shot and there are a handful of suspects all happy to say they wanted him dead, the problem for Chief Inspector Challenor is that though they all wanted to do it, it seems non of them actually did, so who does that leave?

The solution is interesting, dramatically it works really well, but I'd be interested to know if it would work practically without immediately giving away the culprit - not that it really matters. Much more important is that this was a rattling good read (complete with shadowy secret societys in the very best tradition) and that it's an opportunity to see what Allingham is doing at the beginning of her writing career. Here she's using some well worn devices but there are all sorts of interesting ideas bubbling under the surface. All in all a very enjoyable way to while away a couple of idle hours.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Bird in a Cage - Frédéric Dard

Translated from the French by David Bellos.

"Deadly deceit in '60's Paris, from the undisputed master of French noir".... That's not a description I'm inclined to resist, and given that 'Bird in a Cage' is only a modest 120 odd pages there was no problem with finding the time to read it either. 

Briefly, Albert has returned home to a Parisian suburb after an absence of some years. Whilst he was away his mother has died, so their apartment is empty, damp, unwelcoming. It's Christmas Eve and outside everyone is celebrating, so Albert goes out too. Over dinner he sees an attractive woman with her child (no husband) who he follows to a cinema. After the film he helps her carry her now sleeping child home, and from there everything unravels.

'Bird in a Cage' has a vague, but definite, sense of existential dread right from the start. Something about Albert is being left unsaid, and there's a mystery about the woman he's picked up too, but he's powerless to resist her - or perhaps just in no mood to resist her. 

Obviously there's a murder, but I don't want to give anything away here (well, I do, but I'm trying very hard not to). Suffice it to say that Albert's out of his depth here, and his past is ever ready to catch up with him. The plot is reasonably simple, but so ingenious that until the details were revealed I hadn't worked it out - and the ending... The ending is perfect, inevitable, and has a certain poetic justice - or is it no justice at all.

That's something the reader will have to decide for themselves. It's a brilliant book, and though Frédéric Dard may have been 'one of the best known and loved French crime writers of the twentieth century' he's new to me, so this was a real discovery and treat all rolled into one. 

The (very) good news is that Pushkin Vertigo will also be publishing 'The Wicked Go To Hell', 'Crush', and 'The Executioner Cries', all of which I will be reading with enthusiasm. 'Bird in a Cage' really got under my skin - I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Another knitting post

Finishing a knitting project has withdrawal symptoms almost as bad as finishing a really good book. I started a shawl/hap intended for a friends birthday present about 5 weeks ago, and since then I've spent happy hours with it in the park (on the odd occasions the sun came out and before it got really huge) listening to the radio, and whenever I've been watching television. Knitting is a great for sitting in comfy spots and not moving a lot and yet still feeling really productive. Now it's done I feel slightly bereft and rather like I should be hoovering (along with sundry other chores of a similar nature). I would start another project, but a couple of days before I head off on holiday probably isn't the best time.

I saw haps knitted sideways like this last year at a craft fair and thought then that it would be something I could do without to much trouble, and then saw a couple of designs using a lace pattern I was already familiar with and really like. This pattern sort of came from Elizabeth Lovick's 'Magical Shetland Lace Shawls', the sort of because I didn't read it properly and then found I'd been increasing to quickly, but I quite like how it's worked out so not a problem.

I was right about it being easy to knit (even without properly following the pattern), as it was just a question of increasing stitches on each row (then every other row when I realised why it was getting so wide so fast) until it seemed deep enough, then knitting along for a bit until it seemed like the right time to start decreasing (Lovick's pattern gives a specific number of repeats but I wanted something longer) and that's it.

I will admit that when I blocked it (quite aggressively) it came out rather longer than I had anticipated, but that's all the better for wrapping up in come winter (or the weather we mostly enjoyed throughout May) and on the whole I'm pleased enough with the result to be happy about giving it away.
Being stretched

Before being stretched


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Death In The Tunnel - Miles Burton

I have a pile of vintage crime to get on top of (which reminds me, I must check which Margery Allingham's I already have...) it's something I find irresistible (not that I make any attempt to resist it) especially at times of stress. My father is currently enjoying the opportunity to annoy the nurses in his local hospital after some unfortunate post op complications. He's managed to get blood clots on both lungs, pneumonia, an irregular heart beat that had to be sorted by electric shock treatment, and his knee hurts after the original operation - which was to sort out his knee. Never mind, next week I'll be up there to bother him in person, and meanwhile I can entertain myself with suitably elaborate murders.

'Death In The Tunnel' does elaborate to perfection. Sir Wilfred Saxonby is travelling home by train one dark November night, he's the sole occupant of his compartment which has been locked, so when the train emerges from a long tunnel with Sir Wilfred dead (shot through the heart by a single bullet) suicide seems like the obvious conclusion. There are some odd discrepancies though, and no apparent  reason for suicide - so the police are suspicious enough to launch a proper investigation and the picture gets murkier than ever.

I love locked room mysteries, and quite like train journeys (having a 1st class compartment of the old fashioned sort to oneself would make it even more appealing - murderes aside) and steam trains so there's a lot to enjoy here. The descriptions of the tunnel (a long one) filled with smoke, steam, flying cinders, and the roar of the train are fabulously atmospheric - it sounds like hell itself.

The solution to the murder is ingenious with each clue designed to make the case more confusing.
It's so ingenious that it probably doesn't bare careful consideration, but that too is part of the appeal of this kind of murder mystery for me. I don't want gruesome details, what I do want, amongst other things, is a puzzle and the tacit understanding that it's all most unlikely. 'Death In The Tunnel' delivers on that without becoming too unlikely, and that's thanks to the police procedural element.

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard is methodical and thorough without being particularly imaginative, his civilian colleague, Desmond Merrion provides the imagination to make the links, but leaves it to Arnold to find the evidence. It's a pleasing combination which satisfactorily explains the presence of an amateur sleuth as well as good working relationship. Another very worthy addition to the British Library crime classics series, and just what I wanted this weekend.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

What Richard III has done for me - Leicester Cathedral

Or more precisely, Leicester cathedral gardens. I have mixed feelings about Leicestershire, on the whole I'd much rather live somewhere else, somewhere by the sea with a big sky and a dour aspect (so basically anywhere on the north east coast could have my name on it), but for all its many shortcomings I love the city - or at least my bit of it.

My flat is right next to the river (or at least the building is, my flat is on the side that overlooks a car park and university buildings, but never mind) with a park on the doorstep, hard by the castle (or at least what remains of the castle precincts). It's green and leafy, rich in wildlife (the park is full of squirrels and rats, the river full of swans and other less aggressive waterfowl) and is convenient for everywhere. Which includes the cathedral gardens.

When Richard III was disinterred his carpark resting place (which had been a playground in Leicester Grammer until it relocated) his part of town was rather down at heel, but his reappearance has kickstarted some serious gentrification. The cathedral gardens, which had been a bit of grass, some graves, and a collection of cider swigging tramps who seemed as permanent a fixture as the graves, got this treatment too.

What makes them so special to me is how wild they are. So much of the cities green space is clipped, groomed, regimented, and planted with something garish in the way of bedding plants, but the cathedral garden is gentler then that. It's full of corners provided with seats, and has some nice planting, but nothing compares to a great swathe of wild grass/meadow. Maybe it stands out because of the neatly mown lawn next to it. It definitely stands out for the number of species in it, and I really love that someone has the vision to say 'leave it'. And I just wanted to share that with you!