Sunday, August 20, 2017

Antidote to Venom with a Gimlet

I wrote about Freeman Willis Crofts 'Antidote to Venom' Here as part of a 1938 book club (what I particularly like about Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs are the way they make me consider what's happening in the years the books are being written in and looking at them with that particular focus).

It's an interesting one both because it tells the story from the point of view of the murderer and because of the strong moral, and Cristian, message it concludes with. The protagonist is an outwardly successful man with a slightly weak character. He's unhappily married to a woman who came from a more affluent background and can't, or won't, understand that she needs to alter her expectations. A series of bad decisions culminate in murder, and whilst in this case the details of the crime are exaggeratedly elaborate George's downward spiral rings true.

Slowly but surely he digs himself into a hole that he doesn't have the strength of character to get out of, his moral compass increasingly compromised with every step. one of the things I found really interesting about this one was the light it threw on social expectations. If George divorced he would lose his job, and the hose that goes with it, as a married woman his wife would be barred from a number of jobs even if she wanted to work, as it is the assumption that her husband will provide piles the pressure onto George, and when he fails, gives her a genuine sense of grievance. Obviously non of this excuses murder in the least, but the way Crofts tells it is provocative and masterly.

I associate Gimlets with navel officers (rum for the men, gin for the officers, and lime with both to keep scurvy away) they're also referred to in Angela Thirkell's 'Marling Hall' (there's a lack of lime for the gin, when it does become available the difficult landlady swipes it, using a whole bottle in an evening so I'm assuming Gimlets are the drink being made) which suggests this was a common way to drink gin. The colour and kick of the Gimlet certainly recalls venom.

The Gimlet is half and half lime cordial and gin stirred, it can be iced if desired.  (Rose's lime for preference, Plymouth gin if you want the Navy connection) The Savoy Coctail book also has a Gimblet which is 1/4 lime juice to 3/4 gin well shaken in a medium sized glass and topped up with soda water - which I like rather more, but are altogether less venomous, and less likely to encourage you to make bad decisions.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm with a Percy Special

Properly speaking the Percy Special appears to be associated with the English/Scottish Borders so Yorkshire (Sergeant Cluff's home) would be at the southern most edge of its reach, but people need to be warned, and the thing is in the spirit of the books setting.

Written in the late 1950's/early 1960's the two Cluff books I've read are best described as Yorkshire noir (original write up Here). They're bleak, brutal, and very British in the 'Get Carter' mold. From memory Cluff mostly drinks beer, or brandy, but as the brother of a well enough to do farmer in a county where there's both hunting and shooting a Percy Special is a distinct possibility. It's the kind of no nonsense, strong, drink that you could expect any farmhouse kitchen to be able to rustle up.

It's a concoction attributed to the 10th Duke of Northumberland (1914 -1988), and quite possibly invented with malice aforethought, the Percy Special is simply equal parts cherry brandy and whisky. I first encountered it one new year in the Scottish Borders, it came in a fairly large, full, tumbler, and despite protests was followed by another. It pretty much did for me.

It's very much associated with hunting and shooting both of which tend to start with strong spirits, and it's a good hip flask option for cold days on the side of a hill. Or inside after a day out in the cold. It'll certainly warm you up. It is not sensible to drink it by the tumblerfull, and beware old lady's who tell you otherwise. Nevertheless it has become something of a New Years tradition to drink this at least once, and in moderation I like it.


Friday, August 18, 2017

The Poisened Chocolates Case with a Café Kirsch

Anthony Berkeley (Anthony Berkeley Cox) was the founder of the Detection Club, and to quote Agatha Christie "All his stories are amusing, intriguing, and he is the master of the final twist"and 'The Poisened Chocolates Case' is one of the classics of golden age detective fiction. It's sort of an expansion on one of his short stories "The Avenging Chance", where a box of chocolates is sent to a gentleman, at his club, who decides he doesn't want them. Just as he's about to bin them a fellow member takes them off his hands. After sharing them with his wife, he's very ill, she, who ate rather more, dies. So who was the intended victim, and who was the murderer?

In "The Poisened Chocolate Case' the police at something of a dead end put the problem before Berkeley's detective, Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle - 6 amateur sleuths. Each come up with a different solution, each one more convincing than it's predecessor - before that final twist. In this edition there's also an alternative ending from Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, and a new soloution from Martin Edwards (I dream of being something like half as productive as Martin Edwards).

The old Cocktails and drinks I'd turned up that specifically mention chocolate didn't sound very appealing (egg yolks, cocoa powder, and spirits I neither have, or want to have) and then 'The Cocktail Book' arrived. This was first printed in 1900, and is the first book devoted purely to the cocktail (earlier books, like Jerry Thomas, are more general). This edition from the British Library will be officially published in October, so I'm very grateful for my early copy.

There is a Café Kirsch in the Savoy Coctail book, but it's a little bit more complicated than this one, and what I principally like about this version is it's simplicity. It asks for half a cup of hot strong black coffee, and a pony of Kirsch. Fill a glass half full of fine ice, add the Kirsch and coffee, shake (I assume in a shaker, not stirred in the glass, but instructions are vague) strain into a Cocktail glass and drink. It's cold, light, not to alcoholic (I may have used the equivalent of a Shetland pony) and quite refreshing.

However, I made this on the night of the Perseid meteor shower, and when I went to the only place I could look for them from (the rubbish shoot on the next floor up from my flat is outside, it wasn't a great view, and a spectacularly unromantic setting, but I saw a few shooting stars and they made it magical), I used the last of the coffee to make a still warm version - which was even better. Warm enough to keep the slight chill of an August in England night and the slight bitterness of the cold coffee at bay, it also bought out the cherry flavour of the Kirsch a little more.

The cherry and coffee combination is just enough to hint at a superior (un-poisoned) liqueur chocolate without being in any way sweet or cloying, it's not so strong as to interrupt concentration, and altogether has the feeling of a slightly illicit treat to accompany a book with.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Murder in Piccadilly with a Clover Club

Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston has all the ingredients of a Victorian melodrama - boy with expectations meets a dancer in a nightclub, he fancies her, she fancies his expectations, but the wealthy uncle refuses to stump up any cash (the boy doesn't seem inclined to make his own money). Then there are some shady clubland characters who have an agenda of their own regarding the money, so who wielded the knife that kills the wealthy uncle in the middle of a Piccadilly crowd?

I wonder if careful parents or guardians still worry about their sons coming home with a girl from the chorus line (I feel sure there are villages in the Home Counties where they very likely do)? And whilst this may be the gin talking, just thinking about this book leaves me torn between pulling it off the shelf for a good read, or hunting out my collection of Fred Astaire films - they're both much the same vintage, the book having been published in 1936.

I'd been eyeing up the clover club for a few days, on the one hand it sounded good, on the other it involves raw egg white - which puts me off. In the past whenever a cocktail involves egg white I've simply omitted it, it's there for texture rather than taste so the flavour isn't compromised if you do that. However, I really felt I should make the effort and keep the egg this time - turns out it's not revolting (please don't let me get salmonella on the back of this). The egg white emulsifiers into a frothy head, which is actually quite pretty, and combined with the bright pink colour, and the sherbety hit that the combination of lime and grenadine brings, along with the kick of gin - well it could have been a coctail designed for Lorelei in Anita Loos 'Gentleman Prefer Blondes'.

It's history predates prohibition, apparently it comes from Philadelphia's Clover Club, and it seems to have been around since the very early part of the twentieth century. I made the Savoy cocktail book version partly because it's about the same vintage as the book, so I can assume that anyone in the West end asking for a 'Clover Club' in the 1930's would have had something like this, and also because I prefer the way the recipes are broken down into simple proportions. In this case you take juice of half a lemon or 1 lime, the white of one egg, 1/3 of grenadine, and 2/3rds of gin. Shake well over ice and strain into a glass.

I've seen it suggested that you dry shake (without ice) for up to a minute to get the egg to foam then add ice and shake until cold. I didn't find this neccesary, but I did use a fresh egg (the whites are less runny). In this case the Grenadine adds the sweet element, but I've seen recipes which use raspberry syrup, or in the case of This version from the Martin Millers website, fresh raspberries and sugar syrup (though halving egg whites sounds like a pain). Add a sprig of mint to the glass and you have a Clover Leaf.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Quick Curtain with a French 75

Had 'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' (the collected crime reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by the indefatigable Martin Edwards) come up on my Amazon recommends list I probably wouldn't have payed it much attention. Luckily I heard about it at the Bodies from the Library event at the British Library early this summer where it was selling like hot cakes. It turned out to be an absolute treasure trove of a book. It's 3 years worth of Sayers reviews for the Sunday Times, and they're delightful.


I mention it because Sayers reviewed Alan Melville's 'Quick Curtain' on the 2nd of December 1934. She didn't approve of it in the least because Melville basically drives a horse and coaches through the whole thing, absolutely refusing to take the genre in the least bit seriously. She also says "His satire tends to be shrill and obvious, and includes several thinly veiled personal attacks" (intriguing). I loved it for all the reasons she did not (original post Here).

Alan Melville knew the world of theatre and television, it was his day job, and that really comes across here. I have no idea who he was digging his pen into, but age has mellowed any bite that might have had and this book is tremendous fun.

The French 75 is a classic coctail that seems to have been first recorded in thevSavoy Cocktail book. It's allegedly named for the 75ml Howitzers the French used in the First World War - known for their speed and accuracy, the drink is meant to be similarly effective. I tried this out in my mother at the weekend, we both felt that there's probably a lot of truth in that. They're lethal, but also really good.

There are various recipes around for this one that give very specific measurements for each component but I'm going to stick with the Savoy version that simply calls for 2/3rds Gin, 1/3rd lemon juice and 1 spoonful of powdered sugar (or use sugar syrup - about half as much as the lemon juice). Shake the sugar, lemon and gin over ice, strain into a flute and top up with well chilled champagne.

It tastes like lemonade, but it really isn't. It seems just the thing for Melville's glamorous leading lady, and is a great way to spend a Saturday night with my mother (my sister says we're not allowed to do this again, and are old enough to know better. We don't agree). It doesn't have to be Champagne, although if it isn't I'd choose sparkling wines that use the same grapes and method rather than cava or prosecco. It just seems more in the spirit if the thing.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Death of an Airman with an 'Atta Boy'

I notice when I first wrote about death of an airman it was around the time of the last (not great) Tommy and Tuppence adaptation. At the moment there's talk of another tv version of Pride and Prejudice - and much as I love both Agatha Christie and Jane Austen there are so many other great books which would be fun, and fresh, to watch. 'Death of an Airman' is just such an article.

The action mostly takes place around Baston airfield. An Australian Bishop has turned up for flying lessons (a huge diocese makes flying between parishes a sensible option) where he's unlucky enough to witness the tragic death of George Furness, one of the instructors and a talented pilot. The question is, was it an accident, suicide, or murder... It's the bishop, who has a bit of medical experience, who notices the discrepancy over the rigor mortis times and quietly alerts the police.

Soon Scotland Yard are involved and a much wider criminal undertaking uncovered but who's running it, and just how many people are involved? It's a clever scheme, a good story, and has a satisfactory ending. Sprigg allows himself some funny lines and situations by way of light relief but never distracts from the seriousness of the crime. Setting the murder in a community of aviators adds a certain romance and heroism as well. There is the feeling that all these people treat life and death as a slight matter - as a generation that survived the First World War might, they're not callous, it's just that they've already seen such a lot.

I loved the flying Bishop, he's a wonderful character, I also liked the bar scenes in the flying club where I feel the drink really ought to have been an Aviation, it sounds like exactly the sort of cocktail I like (i.e heavy on gin and lemon juice) but to make it properly you need Crème de Violette - which isn't impossible to find, but it's a niche product that I don't really need.

The Gin Foundry gives a recipe based on the first published version (Hugo R. Ensslin's from 1916) and calls for 50ml of gin (they suggest Bombay or Aviation) 10ml of Créme de Violette (which gives it a very pretty colour) 15ml of Maraschino (I'm beginning to think I do need a bottle of this, but am holding out against temptation) and 15ml of fresh lemon juice. Shake over ice, strain and pour. Garnish with a candied Violet.

Harry Craddock corrupts that slightly in the Savoy cocktail book, his recipe is 1/3 rd lemon juice, 2/3rds gin and 2 dashes of maraschino shaken and strained into a glass. If I was drinking this I'd want the Violette and the violets, and I'd want it in a nice bar.

The Atta Boy also comes from the Savoy cocktail book, and is another member of the martini family. It's a simple 2/3rds Gin, 1/3rd French vermouth, and 4 dashes of grenadine. I assume a dash is similar to a drop, so added the grenadine sparingly - just enough to provide a very delicate pink tinge to the drink and a hint of fruit. The vermouth was dry and the gin packs a punch so that pale pink belies the kick this drink has, but I'm sipping it as I write this with increasing approval. It might not be as sophisticated as the Aviation, but then Baston aero club didn't sound so very smart either, somon the end I think the Atta Boy catches the spirit of the book rather better.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Murder of a Lady with White Wine Cup

'Murder of a Lady' by Anthony Wynne is set deep in the Scottish highlands (well on the shores of Loch Fyne, which is Highland enough for me) and is a tremendous locked for mystery. Mary Gregor is found dead in her room, the only clue a fish scale. At first there's shock, she's the lairds sister and a considerable personality in local circles, but as we slowly learn more about her the idea that someone wanted her dead becomes easier to understand. Meanwhile the body count keeps tiding, with the same Gish scale clues - the natives start muttering about a mythical sea beast - the actual explanation is almost as far fetched, and also wonderful.

I have a soft spot for books like this. There's a tongue in cheek feel about the whole thing, almost as if Wynne is daring the reader to pull him up on his plotting, but I want to see what he can get away with almost as much as I think he does.

Being a Scottish mystery this might have been an opportunity to look for something whisky based, but I think Duchlan Castle is the sort of late Victorian monstrosity that would have prided itself on its hospitality, and ruled as it was by Mary Gregor, I feel sure there would have been some sort of Wine Cup which would have made an appearance at any large gathering.

Apart from Pimm's and cheap Pimm's knock offs alcoholic cups seem to have rather fallen from favour (they have found here anyway). Sipsmiths do a very good 'London Cup' which I really struggle to sell, and there are one or two others on the market, mostly gin based, but they're not something customers talk about or I come across nearly enough. Which is a shame.

For parties of any sort a Wine Cup is an excellent idea scaled up or down according to need - basically if you'd make a jug of Pimm's you could make this instead, and any left over will keep perfectly well for the next day. There are dozens of variations on the theme, and plenty of room for improvisation at home, but I really like the sound of this one from Arabella Boxer's 'Book of English Food', she found it in Rosemary Hume's 'Party Food and Drink'.

2 Bottles of dry white wine, 450ml soda water, 1 smallish glassful of brandy, 1 smallish wine glassful of elderflower syrup or cordial, a sliced lemon, strawberries, cucumber rind, borage (if you grow it) and ice. Mix all together a couple of hours before serving.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

the Secret of High Eldersham with a 'Bloodhound'

'The Secret of High Eldersham' is a terrifically melodramatic book full of murder, mayhem. Devil worship, kidnap, and smuggling. There's also a glamorous heroine to get in and out of trouble. It's a little bit silly, overblown, and tremendous fun, but even so Miles Burton (one of Cecil Street's pseudonyms) manages to get a genuine sense of menace into proceedings when he wants to.

In crime fiction terms you can't really go wrong with a bit of devil worship as a dramatic device. It gives you ample opportunity for flaming torches, shadowy figures, sharp knives, and unspeakable practices (all the better for being left at least partly to the imagination). There's also the underlying suspicion that something sinister is almost always going on in the countryside. When Burton was writing this between the wars (The Secret of High Eldersham was published in 1930) remote villages could still be genuinely isolated and relatively primitive places. Plenty of houses would have been without phones, electricity, running water, or cars - who knows what old beliefs and superstitious practices could linger on in places like that where almost everyone would be related to each other, and strangers a rare occurrence...

I felt I had to make a Bloodhound for this series as soon as I saw it (in the Savoy cocktail book) because with a name like that how could I not? The suggestion of blood in its red colouring, and name, as well as it essentially being a riff on a martini made it a good match both for the devil worshipping denizens of High Eldersham and for Mavis Owerton, the heroine from the big house with a love of fast cars and speed boats.

It did however raise the vexed question of vermouth. Vermouth is a handy thing to have about a kitchen, it's useful for plenty of recipes, and neccesary for a good martini, but it doesn't keep well. A Bloodhound calls for 1 part French vermouth, 1 part Italian, 2 parts Gin, and 2 or 3 crushed strawberries (shaken with ice, and strained into a cocktail glass). I don't want 2 bottles of vermouth open at the same time if I can help it, and Italian vermouth is a bit vague. The Italians make lots of things that could answer that description in a whole range of colours and levels of relative sweet to dryness.

A bit of research suggested that something sweeter and red was probably intended, so with slight reluctance I opened a bottle of Spanish vermouth (made by the sherry people, Lustau) that I had. I really didn't want to buy another bottle despite the number of cocktail options that it would open up, because I'm not that serious about making cocktails as a regular thing. I can't answer for how authentic the result was but it certainly tasted like something I imagine Bertie Wooster would have drunk with enthusiasm.

Crushing the strawberries was a slightly messy exercise, and whilst I quite liked this one, I didn't love it. I'd make it again, but only if I particularly wanted a 1920's/30's theme for an occasion

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Female Detective with a Black Velvet

Andrew Forrester's 'The Female Detective' is possibly the original Lady Detective. She appeared in print in 1864, as did William Hayward Smith's 'Lady Detective'. The British Library editions have 'The Female Detective' as the first, but in 'The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime' the editor, Michael Simms, has them the other way around, either way it took more than twenty years for more female detectives to join them.

The Penguin book is an excellent introduction to a number of female detectives, invented at a time when the very idea must have been faintly outrageous. That the Lady Detective making her revelations on my copy (an early British Library reprint with what I assume is the original cover reproduced in it) has a young woman on the cover who is not only lifting her skirts to reveal a good bit of ankle under her crinoline, but she's smoking, there's also what looks a lot like a pint glass with some straws in it next to her.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that having met, and liked, both of these resourceful ladies in the Penguin collection, I bought the British Library books and still haven't read them. It's an awful oversight, and one which I'll put right as soon as I can.

The Black Velvet is roughly contemporary with both of these books, there is a story I very much want to believe that says it was invented at Brook's Club after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, so that even the Champagne had the appearance of wearing a black armband. It's made in a pilsner glass or champagne flute, is half and half champagne and stout (Guinness is the obvious choice for this one because it's everywhere, but if I can find it I'd use something like Samuel Smith's Imperial stout because that's how much I want the Prince Albert story to be true). Put the champagne in the glass first, and gently pour the stout in, over a spoon if it helps, so that it floats on top of the fizz.

What I find so attractive about this story is the way it slyly subverts notions of Victorian mourning rituals, in much the same way that 'The Female Detective' and her sister subvert the cliches of Victorian womanhood. They may have been aberrations, far ahead of their time, but there was also clearly a market for them. As for the Black Velvet - there's something affectionately tongue in cheek about drinking it as a tribute to the departed.

Even if it wasn't invented at Brook's (Difford's guide, and I'm indebted to a man on Twitter for this information, suggests another origin - the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin says they did it first, and date it to the 1870's - it may be so) it's still a drink with a venerable history, and the mix of aristocratic champagne and workmanlike stout is surprisingly appealing. If you haven't tried this before it's better than it sounds, as well as a chance to drink like a Victorian (lady Detective).

Friday, August 11, 2017

Verdict of Twelve with a 'Rose'

The British Library's Crime Classics series has unearthed all sorts of books. Some whose appeal is based on nostalgia, atmosphere, location, and period mannerisms as much as plotting or quality of writing, and some where it's genuinely baffling to try and work out why they ever went out of print.

Raymond Postgate's 'Verdict of Twelve' is one of the latter sort, inreally do most understand why it languished so long in obscurity, and honestly, unless you actively dislike vintage crime this is a book worth going to some effort to seek out. It's split into roughly three parts, the first explores the back stories of some of a jury about to hear a case. These histories are not quite what anyone might expect, but all are deeply compelling, they also explain the conclusions the jurors will later reach.

The second part of the book describes the events which lead up to the trial, including a possibly vital clue to the frame of mind of the deceased in the form of a short story by Saki. Finally we have the trial where a middle aged woman is accused of murdering her ward, a sort of nephew by marriage. The question of did she, or didn't she, remains very much open until a sort of afterword clears it up. What makes this book so very good though, is not finding out what happened, but in following the principle players as it all unfolds. It really is a tremendous book.

The woman in the dock is Rosalie Van Beer, a shop girl who married a soldier 'above her station' in the heady days of the First World War when there wasn't time to think, or waste. Her husband was killed at the front, her husbands family pension her off and pretty much wash their hands of her. Rosalie is sinking into good natured alcoholism and low company when the deaths of her first husbands brother, and father, leave her in a position to move into the family home and take up guardianship of young Philip. In doing so she becomes socially isolated- to grand for her old friends, unacceptably vulgar to the county set her father in law would have belonged to. The drinking becomes less good natured.

She's not an attractive character, but she's fascinating, and I wanted a drink that reflected her history. After a bit of digging through the Savoy cocktail book I found a Rose Cocktail (French style No. 2). It sounded like a good fit, but I wasn't sure how it would taste, the answer to that was surprisingly good. It calls for 1 part cherry brandy, 1 part Kirsch, 2 parts Gin, stirred well with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. The colour was an attractive dusty pink, and the flavour deceptively benign for something that packs quite a punch. The cherry brandy provides sufficient sweetness to take the edge off the gin and kirsch.

There's the echo with Rosalie's name, and the possibility that this is the sort of romantically named drink a young officer might have bought his girl on a night out somewhere smart before going to the front. It's also got more than enough alcohol in it to satisfy a fairly hard drinker.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Mystery in White with Hot Spiced Rum

I've just been reading my original review for Mystery in White, written in October 2014, just before it became a surprise Christmas best seller that year. My hope that it would be successful enough to bring more of Farjeon's work back into print has been more than met.

I really loved this one, not least for the way it almost turned into a ghost story, but also because there's something delicious about the set up; a group of strangers find themselves stranded in a country house with no way out and the deepening suspicion that one of them is a murderer. It's a well used device but it's always going to work when it's handled well (as it is here).

I've never been snowed in anywhere with a murderer, but I have been snowed into houses in the country a couple of times and am familiar with the lurking sense of claustrophobia and worry about supplies (one new year in Shetland we were down to left over sprout soup, it's fair to say we were desperate to get out by then, a well stocked cellar really helped us get through it though.)

There are other times when the weather is a welcome excuse to stay in - the torrential rain that we had earlier this week looked much better from an armchair than it did the pavement, and it was certainly cold enough to give me the push to finally try hot buttered rum. In August.

This is a drink that has a venerable history, and that has always sounded good until I started to think about the butter element - when visions of greasy fat floating in my drink have put me off. Seeing hot rum recipes in Jerry Thomas made me overcome my reservations and give it a go however, and it was much better than I hoped.

He says use a small bar glass, one teaspoon of sugar, one teaspoon of mixed spice, one wineglass of Jamaica rum, one piece of butter as large as half a chestnut. Fill the tumbler with hot water. An alternative, which I'll try the moment I'm cold enough again, is to swap the mixed spice for a grate of nutmeg.

I take the specification for Jamaica rum to mean anything that's not white rum would be fine, and opted for a small measure, and a correspondingly smaller amount of sugar, spice, and butter. All stirred up the butter gave the drink a slightly silky mouthfeel without being greasy and the whole thing was warm, fragrantly spiced, and pleasantly sweet. Exactly what you would want if you'd come in from the snow, or out of the rain, or to sit with late in a garden watching stars (and any other excuse that comes to mind). I particularly like this version for it's simplicity, making it was as little effort as making a cup of tea.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Thirteen Guests with a Champagne Cocktail

I prefer to drink good Champagne as it comes, and definitely prefer not to drink poor quality Champagne, or sparkling wine, at all but the Champagne cocktail is a classic and it's my fathers birthday today (he seems to quite like them, though he's not such a fan of Champagne as I am) so it's a suitably celebratory drink to have in mind.

To make it you place a sugar lump in a champagne flute, add a drop or 2 of Angastoura bitters, cover the sugar cube with Brandy, and then top up with fizz*. Marischino cherry optional. It's definitely worth using a reasonable brandy for this (Courvoisier V.S or Martell V.S  would both be great). The less ingredients a coctail uses, the more you'll taste the individual components, and the more you'll know if you've skimped on them. This is not the place for the cooking brandy.

J. Jefferson Farjeon's 'Thirteen Guests' is set against the backdrop of a house party that been gathered together for a stag hunt. The guests include an actress, a journalist, an artist, a mystery novelist, a cricketer, a politician, a beautiful widow, and an industrialist. They also include the hapless John Foss who has ended up there quite by chance after an accident at the train station makes another guest take pity on him. Not quite part of the party, and stuck to a sofa, he gets to observe all sorts of things.

It's a brilliantly atmospheric book, with just the sort of setting, and guest list, where I feel the Cocktails would call for the discreetly decadent edge the Champagne gives this one.


*If you don't want to use Champagne I would suggest a good quality sparkling wine, either something from Australia or New Zealand (using the permitted Champagne grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot Meunier and using Champagne method) or a cremant de Bourgogne. All should be a bit cheaper, or at least no more expensive, than a mediocre Champagne on some sort of special offer, and will be excellent. Prosecco and Cava use different grapes, they would make a perfectly good cocktail, but for this I feel it should be something that is at least all but identical to Champagne.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Scream in Soho with a White Cargo

A Scream in Soho by John G Brandon is the book, a White Cargo is the cocktail, though both sound like pulp fiction titles, or suitable names for this kind of drink. The recipe comes from 'The Savoy Cocktail Book' and dates back to the 1920's. I first came across it on a tag attached to a Sipsmiths Gin bottle and have made variations of it a few times at work for customer tastings.

It's not a cocktail I like, or would particularly recommend, but it generally gets an enthusiastic reception and it fulfils the criteria of being easy to make and only including ingredients you're likely to have around. If you like Baileys (I don't, too sweet and sticky) ignore my opinion on the White Cargo and try it - you might like it very much indeed.

All it calls for is equal amounts of good quality vanilla ice cream and gin (the gin can be quite ordinary) shaken together until smooth. Cut the ice cream into smallish chunks or you'll be shaking it for what feels like forever. If you do like it, experiment further with rum or vodka and any ice cream you like the sound of (I'm not judging) we had particular success with rum and a coconut lime ice cream. The upside is you don't need ice, the ice cream is providing all the cold you want. Definitely drink it quickly though, and mix fresh if you might want another.

'A Scream in Soho' has an impressive line up of Soho Italian gang members (which is what made me think of the White Cargo - or at least it made me think of Glasgow's ice cream wars and organised crime generally.) cross dressing German spies, duplicitous Austrian countesses, and dwarves all running around in the black out getting up to no good (published 1940). There is nothing politically correct about it, but it's authentic vintage pulp with a certain camp appeal, and fast paced enough to carry the reader along. If you like melodrama and period detail, as well as details of period paranoia, you probably want to read this.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Continental Crimes with a Berlin Blonde

Or is it a Parisian Blonde... Many years ago I had a not great cocktail book, now long gone to a charity shop. One of the recipes in it was for a Berlin Blonde, which was just cream and golden rum with nutmeg (or so I remember). I made it once at least a decade ago, so can't have been hugely impressed or I'd probably have made it again.

Now I have found Berlin Blonde recipes online, they call for rum, Cointreau/triple sec/Curaçao, cream, and a sprinkle of cinnamon, but I couldn't find anything about it's history, or any mention of it in The Savoy Coctail book. What I did find was a Parisian Blond (equal parts Jamaica rum, sweetened cream, and Curaçao).

I made that, and threw on some cinnamon anyway because the rum and cinnamon combo was very reminiscent of half the recipes in 'Classic German Baking'. It was okay, but the alcohol felt unbalanced - to harsh, I hadn't sweetened the cream either, and the cinnamon didn't feel quite tight either. So I had another go (proper research goes into this you know) with just rum (a dark rum this time because the last of the golden went into the first round) slightly sweetened with sugar cream in a higher ratio, and the cinnamon again. It wasn't an improvement; the colour was a better Blonde, but there was to much cream which made it bland. Third time was the charm.

1 measure of dark rum, 1 measure of Cointreau, 2 measures of cream, a dash of gomme syrup (which dissolves properly but I'd forgotten I had earlier despite it being in front of me) shaken over ice, strained into a coctail glass with a grate of nutmeg across the top. Just sweet enough, just strong enough, and pretty well balanced all round. The orange from the Cointreau came across nicely, the sweet spicy flavour of the nutmeg complimented the orange better than the altogether more Christmassy cinnamon did, and looked rather more blonde as well.

I like the idea of Berlin for this, rather more than Paris, but even more I like that at some point this drink has changed its identity (like a pulp fiction femme fatale). Creamy drinks aren't normally my thing but this one is simple enough to have a certain elegance, the creamy (after testing 3 I want to say velvety) texture is appealing as well.

I will write more about 'Continental Crimes' in a few weeks, I'm still working my way through it at the moment (so far it's great), I'm particularly pleased that it has an Arnold Bennett story in it. A cocktail plays a pivotal role in his 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' and it's that story that made me want this cocktail with this book.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Death on the Cherwell with a Blackberry drink

The blackberry drink comes from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' and because it's a Sunday I thought I'd find something non alcoholic. It's in the cold drinks section so not even a mocktail (though Heath  doesn't use that term. His drinks are simply hard or soft.) however there's nothing to stop you adding alcohol, or using blackberry whisky instead of blackberry juice if you're so inclined.

Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote 3 books (all back in print as part of the Crime Classics series, the other 2 are 'Murder Underground', and 'The Santa Klaus Murder'), I found 'Death on the Cherwell' particularly interesting because of its portrait of 1930's Oxford student life. It was published in the same year as Dorothy L. Sayers 'Gaudy Night' and shares some themes with it. 'Death on the Cherwell' has its own charm though, as a period piece it lacks the troubling allusions to eugenics (or the hero worship of Lord Peter), for the current reader it remains more than a pleasant bit of nostalgia thanks to Hay's affectionate portrait of first year students. (I wrote a little bit more about it Here).

At 18 the would be detectives are caught between child and adulthood, still young enough to congregate on a boathouse roof to form a secret society dedicated to cursing the bursar, but not for much longer. Still young enough to enjoy going out in search of blackberries too I should think, although that's a pleasure that far outlives childhood.

This years blackberries are nicely ripe now so this is the perfect time to try this drink. You will want a quarter of a wineglass full (it would be a small wine glass and that's as specific as I can be), a teaspoonful of lemon juice, and a tablespoonful (or to taste) of fine sugar. Put in a large tumbler With plenty of ice, shake well, and top up with soda water.

There's a good recipe for blackberry whisky Here, which is entirely worth making. It really is better if you can leave it for a couple of years to mature (stick it at the back of a wardrobe and forget about it for a while, it's easier than you think) in which time it will become far more than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Death of a Busybody with The Bee's Knees

When the Reverend Ethelred Claplady takes a drink in George Bellairs 'Death of a Busybody' it's a glass of sherry. (It's actually 3 glasses of sherry, which leaves him a little the worse for wear, but it's an understandable lapse to make when a deeply unpleasant busybody of a woman is found beaten to death in your cesspool). Now sherry is a drink in all its many (and delightful) forms that I'm willing to champion at any given opportunity, but it's not a cocktail, and I think that Reverend Claplady's sherry is probably best enjoyed as is (I imagine he favours an old oloroso - all nuts, dried fruit, and a dry finish).

However Reverend Claplady also keeps Bees, more than that he's engaged in writing a book about bees, and he sends Inspector Littlejohn some honey in the honeycomb, and that's all the excuse I need to make a Bee's Knees. This is a prohibition era American cocktail where the honey and lemon would have disguised the rough nature of the gin. I found a recipe for a hot version Here a couple of years ago - it's very good, but had never made cold one before tonight.

After a solid hour of unsuccessful searching for something that might sound like a champagne punch I drank at someone's seventieth birthday about 25 years ago - a memory blurred by both time and the strength of the punch (all I clearly remember about the drink was being warned that the secret ingredient was probably a lot of gin, it could equally have been Brandy. Or both.) I felt I deserved a drink.

I know this is another gin cocktail (though vodka would probably be an acceptable substitute given the strong flavour of the other ingredients) but it's really good, really easy to make, and really pretty, so worth embracing.

The recipe is simple - equal parts gin, lemon juice, and honey. I would suggest a light honey to give the gin a fighting chance of being tasted, but it's really a matter of personal taste and experimentation. Mix the gin and honey together until the honey is dissolved, put it in a cocktail shaker with the lemon juice and some ice, shake well, strain into cocktail glasses, and drink.

The combination of sugar (or something sweet), lemon, and gin, is something of a theme with these old cocktails (the Marmalade was another variation) but it works so well that it's worth thoroughly exploring. Here the honey gives the drink a wonderful golden colour, but more than that you also get all the complexity and richness of its flavours coming through - something sugar doesn't provide (or Marmalade for that matter). It doesn't taste alcoholic until about 5 minutes after you've finished it (I'm currently noticing that in fact it was).

Because of the hot version I'd thought of this as a winters drink, but cold with the honey really doing its thing (I used a Dorset heather honey this time) it tastes of summer hedgerows and gardens - which is nice, and also chimes in with the serpents in Eden theme of 'Death of a Busybody' for me.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Serpents in Eden with a Daisy

Daisies are a class of cocktail I hadn't really encountered before I started digging around in vintage drinks books (although to be fair with the knitting, books, working for a living, the not insubstantial cost of building up a sizeable collection of gin and single malt whisky, writing, shooting, and buying the occasional picture - I don't go out much of an evening, so for all I know they could be everywhere) but they're exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for.

The internet tells me that a margarita is a type of daisy which should give you an idea of what to expect, but it's origins go back to the 19th century. I found recipes in Jerry Thomas and also in Harry Craddock's 'Savoy Cocktail Book' from the 1930's (I dithered about buying this for years, it's currently out of print so I've ended up with an e version on my phone. It's a horrible format for a cocktail book, and a lesson learnt about dithering.) I preferred the look of the Savoy versions which don't require curaçao, orgeat, or marischino. Curaçao (not blue) isn't so hard to find, orgeat and marischino are both worth having if you're serious about classic cocktails, but you need a proper specialist, or to order them online.

The gin daisy calls for the juice of half a lemon, 1/4 of a tablespoonful of poedered sugar (or a dash of gomme syrup to taste) 6 dashes of grenadine (or again to taste, because what's a dash?) a measure of gin, and a long tumbler. Half fill the glass with cracked ice, stir well, top of with soda water, and garnish with 4 sprigs of green mint and slices of seasonal fruit. A rum version (made with Santa Cruz rum) wants the orgeat and marischino, the whisky daisy dispenses with the garnishes and the grenadine and is shaken with ice before being strained into a cocktail glass and being topped up with soda water. I will try the whisky version the next time I have a suitable whisky hand. The brandy daisy recipe in Jerry Thomas calls for a dash of rum, Harry Craddock doesn't mention it.

The gin daisy I made was a deceptively potent affair with a sherbety mix of sweet and sour. The grenadine made it a delicate blush pink as well as providing sweetness and I really liked it. Grenadine  can be found in any supermarket in the mixer section, but have a look at cordials as well, it's quite possible you'll find a bottle (teisseire is a good example) 4 times the size for the same price. Gomme syrup is simply a sugar syrup. You can buy it for convenience, but if there's any chance you'll use a lot of it make a bottle ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. It'll be much, much, cheaper.

And as for the book choice? It's hard to express just how enthusiastic I am about the Crime Classics short story anthologies without sounding like a slightly crazy woman - is it enough to say I really love them, and short story collections generally? No, apparently it isn't. I like the surprises a well chose selection throws up, the range of styles. The chance, as with these books, to really explore a particular theme as viewed by a range of authors, and I love the way short stories fit into bus journeys, work breaks, waiting for something to cook, and all the other odd times in a day when you find yourself with quarter of an hour or so to fill. The list could go on.

'Serpents in Eden' covers countryside crimes, and has the most perfect story about sabotage and vegetable marrows it's possible to imagine (by Margery Allingham, it's about 10 pages long, nobody gets murdered) and the book is worth its purchase price for this story alone. Ethel Lina White's 'The Scarecrow', and Leonora Wodehouse's 'Inquest' also stand out in memory, it's a book full of highlights. A daisy sounds suitably innocent and bucolic, whilst having all the neccesary bite once you drink it, to sum up the appeal of this collection to me.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Incredible Crime with a 'Marmalade'

Reasearching coctails is all well and good, but this one has a kick like a mule which bodes ill for my concentration (and the knitting I was going to finish later). I found the 'Marmalade' in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' originally published in 1939 (beautifully reprinted by Faber & Faber with a nice Edward Bowden cover). Heath is an engaging writer in the subject of food and drink (Faber & Faber have reprinted 2 titles, so have Persephone, I really hope someone picks up 'Good Breakfasts' and 'Good Sandwiches and Picnic Dishes' both of which sound charming) though his instructions on Cocktails are very much of their time.


All he has to say on the subject of the Marmalade is to take 2 tablespoons of Cooper's Oxford Marmalade, the juice of a large lemon, 4 glasses of gin, and a squeeze of orange peel in each glass. That's it. I'm taking the line that precise measurements are a matter of taste for this one. To make a single measure I used a small teaspoon of Marmalade (my own, of course) the juice of half a small lemon, and a measure of gin. I shook them all with ice and am drinking it, strained, from a martini glass. I've also tried it with soda water added as a long drink with more ice (and all the Marmalade bits) - which works very well indeed.

Three days in gin is emerging as a bit of a feature for this month, that's because I really like gin and I'm primarily looking for drinks that use a minimum of expensive or difficult to source ingredients. This cocktail would work well with either vodka or a white rum as a base - and probably with whisky or Brandy too if anyone cares to make the experiment. The astringency from the lemon juice is nicely balanced by the sugar in the Marmalade, but only just so it tastes like a grown up drink - the soda water makes it summery, but otherwise it tastes a lot like something that would be very welcome by the gore on a winters afternoon after some sort of freezing cold out doors activity.

Marmalade, even if it's Oxford Marmalade, seems perfectly in accord with the Cambridge college and country house setting of 'The Incredible Crime', the gin kick of this cocktail very much in tune with what I'd expect hard swearing Prudence Pinsent to drink after an energetic days hunting. (A Percy special might have been another choice.)

The charm of 'The Incredible Crime' is its atmospheric evocation both of collage and country house life, something the 'Marmalade' certainly adds too.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Death on the Riviera with a Negroni

Whilst Shetland is having the best summer anyone can seem to remember (sunnier than Cornwall in July, and no crowds on the beaches) Leicestershire is putting on an energy sapping display of grey clouds and what feels like near constant rain (the sun has come out occasionally, but mostly when I've been at work, and never for long).


Thank god then for books which conjure the idea of summer and sun when nature doesn't oblige. I've been enjoying Kay Plunkett-Hogge's 'Aperitivo' (it started off looking like something I didn't need, but quickly turned into such an engaging book that I couldn't go home without it), so much so that I'm almost convinced to try, again, to appreciate Campari. Kay has a lot to say about Campari generally, and almost as much to say about Negronis specifically.*

I might struggle to really enjoy Campari's distinctive bitterness, but plenty of other people love it. It's been around since 1860, but really became popular after 1915. If you do like it, it's a great thing to have around because it goes into a few classic cocktails, the Negroni (closely followed by the Spritz) being the best known. At its most basic a Negroni is equal amounts of Campari, Gin (I agree with Kay about going for a classic like Beefeater) and vermouth, though there are plenty of variations regarding the gin, the vermouth, and the precise percentages, for perfectionists to pursue.

John Bude is maybe a bit of an acquired taste too, he was moderately successful as a crime writer in his own life time, but has sold far more as part of the Classic Crime series than he did in his own lifetime. One reason for this might well be that so many of his books are based in real places (Sussex Downs, Lake District, Cornish Coast, and of course the Riviera) the place becomes almost an extra character, and undoubtedly increases the nostalgic appeal of his work.

'Death on the Riviera' was first published in 1952, and is easily my favourite Bude (so far). I think it's the dash of humour that I particularly like, most of it fairly gentle, that and the sense of a smoggy miserable London abandoned in favour of the sunny Riviera. I believe I remember Brandy being drunk more than anything else in this one, but I'm certain that Nesta Hedderwick's bohemian guests would have put away any amount of Campari, quite likely in Negroni form.

*Aperitivo has lots of variations on the gin/bitters/vermouth theme. Vermouth is really useful to have in the kitchen but should be used reasonably quickly (within a couple of weeks) once opened. There are plenty of prompts here to use it up - much better than finding a sadly oxidised bottle some months later.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Classic Crime and Cocktails

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books with a Tom Collins

I've been happily working my way through Martin Edwards 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books' for the last month or so (read it for to long at a stretch and the resulting wish list quickly gets out of hand). It's excellent, and mentions many more than 100 books, so there are a lot of avenues to explore. The British Library Crime Classics series has also now passed the 50 titles mark, ('The Story of Classic Crime' serves as a companion to the series) with the promise of plenty more to come, which is good news all round.

Edwards says in his introduction to 'Classic Crime' that "The main aim of detective stories is to entertain, but the best cast a light on human behaviour, and display both literary ambition and accomplishment. And there is another reason why millions of modern readers continue to appreciate classic crime fiction. Even unpretentious detective stories, written for unashamedly commercial reasons, can give us clues to the past and give us insight into a long vanished world, that for all its imperfections, continues to fascinate".

It's a statement that sums up why I read so many of the books that I do, and what I enjoy about them. Any vaguely nostalgic yearnings for a different time are the least of it (and don't really go back any further than long school holidays with rainy afternoons spent fishing through disintegrating  boxes in the attic which often turned up slightly mouldy old book club editions). I am really fascinated by the clues and insight into a not so distant part though.

With all of that in mind I thought it was time for another booze and books series, but this time specifically focusing on the Crime Classics series, and cocktails of a similar vintage. (Cocktails and crime fiction seem to have evolved at roughly the same time, and certainly enjoyed a joint 'golden age' between the wars - and that's the line I'm sticking with).

I've been looking for simple cocktails that call for a minimum of ingredients mostly to answer the 'and how to you drink this/what do you mix it with' questions I get at work, and because I think they're the sort that work best at home. (I'm not a natural when it comes to mixology, and don't have the space or money for an extended collection of liqueurs).

The 'Tom Collins' is an obvious start point - first recorded in the second edition of Jerry Thomas' 'The Bartenders Guide' (1876) there are some great stories about its origin. The first, from America, suggests it got its name from a hoax played in 1874 (it made the papers). People would be told that somebody called Tom Collins was in such and such a bar spreading nasty rumours about them, but when they got there and asked for him they got a drink instead... An alternative British version suggests that it's name got mixed up with that of John Collins, head waiter at Limmers Hotel on Conduit street, London (familiar to Georgette Heyer fans) in the 1870's. He served a gin drink that fits the same description, and would probably have been a close relation to Georgian Gin punches.

The Jerry Thomas version calls for five or six dashes of sugar syrup, the juice of a small lemon, one large wineglass of gin (large wine glasses of the period were rather smaller than now) and two are three lumps of ice. Shake well, and strain into a large bar glass (a Collins glass!) and fill up with plain soda water. Imbibe while it is lively. Whisky or brandy can be used instead of gin. Later versions throw in a marischino cherry.

This is basically gin with (a good quality, and properly lemony) lemonade, but it can be made sweet or sour to taste and makes an excellent alternative to a gin and tonic. For real authenticity use an 'Old Tom' Gin for a British version, or a Dutch genever for the American. I can't help but think it would also be an especially good match with William Stephens Hayward's 'Revelations of a Lady Detective' as well.

I generally read with nothing stronger than a cup of tea or coffee to hand, but all Cocktail suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Marling Hall - Angela Thirkell

still in 1942, but this time in Barsetshire and the War is everywhere. It's a very different atmosphere to George Bellairs 'Death of a Busybody' where he ignored it as far as possible. As ever with Angela Thirkell reading her books once is not enough (I'm very grateful for the Internet and the access it gives me to the Angela Thirkell society's guides go her novels. Invaluable for chasing down references.) there's so much detail that a lot of it will always slip past me first read round.

That's partly because the first time I read these books I'm sort of concentrating on the plot, such as it is, and trying to keep everybody's relationships, names, and children straight. After that it's Thirkell's rather malicious humour as she digs her pen into people or types that annoy her. And then there's her insiders view of an upper middle class world under increasing threat.

'Marling Hall' opens with William Marling, squire of Marling Hall, a man in late middle age contemplating 'his small and much loved world crumbling beneath his feet during his life and a fair probability that his family will never be able to live in Marling Hall after his death.' Regardless of how you might feel about class, this is a sad reflection - it's not the relative luxury, but the personal history, and the pride in being able to pass something beloved on to the next generation that's being threatened. Knowing the number of country houses that were demolished post war (see Here for more), some of them of real architectural significance, it isn't unlikely that Marling Hall would have been raised to the ground. I don't know if Thirkell had any inkling if the scale of the destruction that would come with peace when she wrote this, but it lends a considerable pathos to her defence of old county ways.

There's a lot about the county set in 'Marling Hall' and I will admit that I'm feeling faintly nostalgic for my memories of what that meant when I was a child. Men in tweed suits that they quite possibly had made before the war, or that may even have belonged to their fathers before them and frankly intimidating women with pearls who looked capable of just about anything, mostly encountered at the local agricultural show. They would have been the generation that Thirkell is writing about here - something I hadn't really considered before, but is probably another reason I like her books (without wanting to live in one).

Something else I found particularly interesting in 'Marling Hall' is the focus in child rearing. In Thirkell's eyes this means the right kind of nurse/nanny followed by the right kind of governess, before going to the right kind of schools. It's definitely worth noting that her fictional school (Southbridge) seems to be filled with benign, well educated masters, who do not take pleasure in beating boys. Their diet is good, and they get hot water. This is very much at odds with just about any description of private schools I have ever read or heard.

The question of whether bringing up children is best left to professionals or parents is an interesting one though, but even more interesting is Thirkell's frank admission through one of her characters that her children are far easier to like because she isn't primarily responsible for their care. She can enjoy them without becoming tired or overwhelmed by them. It's not a point of view that fits with the #blessed Instagram image of motherhood - but it's honest.

On the other hand I get the impression that Thirkell would only defend her way of thinking so vehemently if it was under threat not just from outside forces, but from within her own glass/the class she writes about.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Death of a Busybody - George Bellairs

It turned out that two of the books I took on holiday with me were first published in 1942, and as both were basically always intended as light reading it was particularly interesting to realise how different their respective approaches to current events were.

The first book I read was a British Library crime classic (with a particularly lovely cover) - George Bellairs 'Death of a Busybody', the second was Angela Thirkell's 'Marling Hall' which will get its own post.

'Death of a Busybody' was perfect holiday reading, not in the least bit demanding, thoroughly entertaining, mildly funny, and enough underlying tension to give it some oomph. Miss Tither is a middle aged spinster with a prurient interest in her neighbours lives. She's given to spying on them, haranguing them for their sins, or informing their spouses/parents when they stray. It's an unattractive mix that's bound to lead to trouble so it's possible that nobody is very surprised when she turns up dead in the vicars cess pit.

The local police are busy with a number of other more or less serious local crimes do Beverly sensibly decide to call in and work amicably with Scotland Yard. Cue the entry of Inspector Littlejohn who's job it is to turn over stones and see what crawls out.

The answer to that is much as you'd expect in the way of young people misbehaving with each other, unhappy marriages, and a few who might drink more than they should. There's a missionary nephew who might have something to hide but none of it quite adds up to enough to justify murder - not until the will is read at any rate.

As Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, there's nothing particularly original about the plotting or even the device that provides the crucial alibi, but it's done do well that it doesn't matter. What does matter are all the little embellishments that bring the book to life (the body in the cess pit being but knew such detail) and give it a great deal of charm.

It's also a noticeably nostalgic book, the war is alluded to (the village taxi has been replaced with a horse and cab due to petrol rationing) but mostly ignored in favour of the things that should be - sunny harvest weather, good food and beer (with plenty to go round), and everybody getting what they deserve in the end (good and bad). It seems likely that that was just as comforting in 1942 as it is in these uncertain times, and probably just as unlikely. Either way it provided me with a very happy afternoons entertainment so I'm thoroughly recommending it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cheerfulness Breaks In - Angela Thirkell

I've had the last lot of Virago Thirkell reprints sitting around since November waiting to be dusted down and read, took 'Marling Hall' on holiday with me, and then thought that I really needed to read 'Cheerfulness Breaks In'. It's a source of real irritation to me that Virago chose to issue this as an ebook only. It means I've had to read it on my phone, which I don't enjoy, and makes it very hard to refer back to when I want to check something, remember it, or write about it.

On the plus side it means that it is available to read at a reasonable price. I think I can understand why Virago went down the ebook route as well. Plot wise it's not perhaps Thirkell's best, it's hard to work out/remember what's going on at times as characters from previous books pop in and out (I've not read these books in sequence, and there are so many very similar people then it gets confusing), and this as Thirkell as un PC as I've met her. There's lots of casual racism, anti Semitism, snobbery, and high Tory propaganda. Despite all of that, and maybe because of my own current mood, I found this one particularly moving and relevant.

Published in 1940, 'Cheerfulness Breaks In' starts in the summer of 1939 when it's still possible to hope that war might be averted and finishes just after Dunkirk on a shocker of a cliffhanger. In between people get married and engaged, take in evacuees, get involved with work parties and committees, watch the younger men head off into the various forces, worry about if they're doing their bit, and generally dig in for the future.

It might not be a perfect book, but it captures a moment and a mood whilst reflecting back prejudices and fears in a way that really got under my skin. Well ordered, comfortably elegant, middle class lives are about to be shattered forever and Thirkell knows it. From the older generation of characters who have fought and lost people in the previous war and are now faced with children or grandchildren facing the same destruction there's a palpable sense of distress.

Younger characters can see it as fun, apart perhaps for Lydia Keith who's time s taken up with the mundane but neccesary tasks of caring for her elderly parents, running the family estate so her father and brother can concentrate on other things, and lots of less glamorous committees and voluntary work (work that leaves her smelling of rabbit stew) at an age when she might reasonably have looked forward to parties and fun. Mostly though, it's an elegy to a world that's about to be smashed to pieces and I can't help but feel evident Thirkell's dismay regardless of how I feel about her politics or prejudices.

Her point of view may at times feel controversial by contemporary standards, but that doesn't make it any less valid, or important to remember - or even to consider.

As ever with Thirkell I know that when I come to re read (please let it be in a paper copy by then) this I'll find much more in it. I don't think I made a bad job of spotting some of her references (I got the Radcliffe Hall/Compton Mackenzie one) but there will be dozens more to spot, and plenty more to consider.

One thing I'm definitely considering after reading a couple of her book back to back is the way the title of snob is applied to her. It's in much the same way as with Georgette Heyer, and seems much more pejorative than when applied to say, Nancy Mitford (I'm going to guess that Thirkell might not have considered Mitford quite the thing). I find Thirkell both funnier and more illuminating than Mitford whose affectations can get tiresome and whose characters are hard to care about.

For rather less muddled, and better informed, thoughts on Cheerfulness Breaks In see This from Kate Macdonald.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Whalsay Fair Isle Knitting Through The Decades - The Book

I've spent a lovely day off with my yarn (all sorted and catalogued, now just waiting to become things). It should go into draws or boxes for the duration, but I'm unwilling to take it off the floor at the moment, partly because I like the unexpected colour combinations I find moving it around.

That's sort of relevant because the great thing about the Whalsay Fair Isle exhibition was the unexpected colours. It's hard to describe just how unexpected it was, especially for the older garments, but handily there is now a book (currently the only place I've found it for sale online is here  on Jamieson and Smith's website). It's a short booklet, only 56 pages, and doesn't contain everything in the exhibition (or have any patterns in it) but it's well worth the £12 it costs.

In her comment on yesterday's post Ginny Jones (very helpfully) put up the link to Kate Davies post about this exhibition (Here) which is worth reading because it's excellent, and as a bonus has pictures of some garments that I don't think were in this years show (though I could be wrong about that, it's surprising how different textiles can look on camera compared to life). It all reinforces my excitement about what I saw on Whalsay.

'Fair Isle' has become something of a catch all term, and though I've heard there are people on Fair Isle itself who find it a bit annoying and hold that only Fairisles from Fair Isle are the real deal, it's never much bothered me before. After Whalsay it does, because my understanding of Shetland knitting has changed. Until now I was familiar with what I suppose are best described as stereotypical garments in either natural sheep shades, or in the reds, blues, and yellows produced by natural dyes. There are several very beautiful examples in the museum collection. They're combinations that remain popular and are familiar from dozens of period dramas.




In my innocence I thought that this was more or less representative of the work being produced across Shetland both for sale, and to wear, especially in the 1920's and 30's, even though theoretically I knew about the range of chemical dyes available, that Wool by this time generally went south to be processed before coming back as yarn, and that women were buying yarn rather than spinning it themselves as a matter of course. I hadn't thought about interlocking patterns at all, associating them more with Scandinavian design and assuming that they appeared later - I was wrong. Whalsay clearly had its own style distinct from 'Fair Isle', it deserves its own fame. The next question is how many other distinct reagional variations are there?

There are a couple of things I'm taking from this, the first being that there needs to be a much bigger, dedicated, exhibition space in Shetland that really tells the story of the islands knitwear, and that explores local differences (or schools of patterns, motifs, and colours). The existing museums do an excellent job with the space they have available but it's nowhere near enough. There's some terrifically exciting stuff here that arguably functions as art (as well as craft and fashion) and it deserves to be properly assessed and celebrated.

Secondly there desperately needs to be an accesable catalogue, either digital or in a book, that comprehensively records not just the official museum collection, but also the pieces held by various local heritage centres, and in private hands - if people can be persuaded to share. There's a tremendous history of creativity here - something that's really great about the 'Whalsay' book is that the knitters and often the wearers of these garments are known - and it should be shouted from the rooftops.

Meanwhile this is the book we have, and it's not to be sniffed at. Page 53, showing a collection of contemporary yoke jumpers knitted by girls as young as 10 (they're amazing) shows that this incredible tradition of creativity is alive and well.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Nigella Lawson and a lot of yarn

I had fully intended to write a post about the Catalogue for the Whalsay Fair Isle Knitting Through the Decades exhibition tonight but I got distracted by the big box of yarn I posted a week ago (back in Shetland) finally arriving, and Nigella Lawson's 'Feast'.

A friend produced an absolutely wonderful red kidney bean dip pre dinner a couple of weeks ago, which was a revelation to me because I don't normally care for kidney beans. I begged the recipe only to be told it was in 'Feast', which I have. I made it tonight and it was just as good as remembered (the mix of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and coffee smells - the last not actually in the dip - has made my kitchen smell great). Whilst I was at it I thought I ought to have a good look through 'Feast' to see what else I had forgotten or failed to notice in the past.

Lots it seems, so I won't make a list, but it was also a reminder of why I really like Nigella's books. It's full of quick and easy things, some so simple they hardly deserve the title 'recipe' but are exactly the sort of helpful suggestion you want to make things easy from time to time. Balancing those are the full on showstoppers that involve a bit more than an M&S meringue nest, some pomegranate seeds, and a bit of cream - but which are never intimidating, and always reliable. I tend to overlook my older cookbooks so it was good to get reacquainted with one of them.

The yarn apparently took the scenic route from Shetland, taking a very long time to get from the village post office to its next recorded destination in Aberdeen, but finally on Monday (I posted it on Wednesday last and was getting anxious) it started to move again. It arrived in Leicester today, almost made it to my flat, but I was working, so it got diverted to a mystery post office. This is allegedly my closest post office. It isn't, but the much closer ones don't take parcels (I can't tell you how much I miss the callers office in town).

Unfortunately the delivery man's instructions were cryptic. The post office he indicated closed some time ago, the postcodes he put down for both myself and the mystery post office were indecipherable, but as far as I could make out both incomplete and incorrect. R very kindly agreed to go on a trip across town and into a maze of streets in a not particularly nice neighbourhood to help me try and find the parcel. We found the defunct post office, asked directions in a nearby hairdressers, who sort of sent us in the right direction but gave us the wrong name, consulted google (unhelpful), asked another passer by, found a post office, (3 streets away) which luckily turned out to be the one we wanted, and got my parcel with minutes to spare before closing.

My plan for the rest of the evening is to spend quality time with all the Wool. (iPads capitals for Wool, but who am I to argue?)


Monday, July 17, 2017

Whalsay for Fair Isle knitting

I was cross with myself when I came back from Shetland last year for missing what everyone said was a brilliant exhibition on the island of Whalsay documenting Fair Isle Knitting through the decades In the heritage centre. Luckily it was so popular that the heritage centre decided to extend it for another year, and publish a small book about it.

I'd never been to Whalsay before, so there was all the fun of working out where the ferry went from, when the heritage centre would be open (4 afternoons a week for 3 hours) and then making sense of the ferry timetable. Whalsay also has a restored Hanseatic böd (the poet Hugh MacDiarmid lived on the island for a while too) on the shore not far from where the ferry docks, or the heritage centre - convenient.

Our first stop was the Böd. I knew the Hansa had been active in Shetland, but I'd never really appreciated how active - a road behind Pier house was known as Bremen Strasse for many years - or how influential they must have been. I didn't know there had been so much piracy in and around the islands either, so it was all thoroughly exciting.

I was so excited by the actual knitwear that I forgot to check if the heritage centre is run by volenteers (I think it is) or to ask how they came by their collection. I have the feeling that many pieces might only have been lent. All of them had family histories attached.

My interest in traditional Shetland knitting has been growing for years, not because the style is particularly unique - photographs from Eastonia showing very similar designs, and the appropriation of Norwegian stars into post war designs alone show that ideas and motifs have been exchanged and refined for a very long time. To me these kind of international links are one of the things that make it so interesting. What is unique are the design decisions made by individual knitters, and the more of these pieces I see, the clearer it is that this is art as well as craft.

The great thing about the Whalsay exhibition is that it's full of things that were knitted for family members rather than for sale. They're made from the yarn that was available to buy, so most of the jumpers from the 1920's and 1930's here are actually knitted in Rayon (they're quite slinky, and all for men who must have looked utterly splendid in them) which is probably one reason they've survived as well as they have (do moths like rayon as much as they like Wool?). They don't look anything like the golfing jumpers the Prince of Wales made so popular, but they are stunning.

These patterns often weren't written down, although later on girls definatley collected motifs from their friends, and the complexity of them is something to behold, as is the constant evolution of style in line with changing fashions. I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough to anyone who will be in Shetland this summer. There's so much information to take in, the ladies in the heritage centre are brilliant with so much knowledge to share, and it's beautiful knitwear.













Saturday, July 15, 2017

Back from Shetland

Or where you get to see some of my holiday pictures. I got back to Leicester this afternoon with very mixed feelings. I could have done with another month (at least) away to catch up with everybody and everything I wanted to. I'm a bit disconcerted by the realisation that it will definitely get dark tonight rather than just a few hours of twilight, there's a mountain of washing to deal with, and I really would like to see a lot more of my dad (and the rest of the family too).

Meanwhile the weather was very kind to us and we had a great time which makes leaving that bit harder to do (rain, wind, and all round bad tempers next time might be helpful, if not better). So whilst I collect my thoughts and sort out laundry here are some pictures...