Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Island of Doctor Moreau - H. G. Wells

After finally reading some Wells ('The Invisible Man') instead of just assuming I had, it seemed like a good idea to read more. I was right. 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' is straight horror after the comedy of (with a tinge of horror) of 'The Invisible Man' but it's tremendously effective.

A shipwrecked Edward Prendick finds himself an unwelcome guest on a less than satisfactory ship. The captain is drunk, the crew surly, his fellow passengers a little odd, and the cargo not quite what might be expected. After a tow with the captain he finds himself set adrift until Doctor Moreau reluctantly agrees to give him shelter in his remote island.

For Prendick it's a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, because the island's other inhabitants are deeply disturbing, his host intent on his own experiments, and his situation in every way precarious. I doubt it's much of a spoiler to say that the Doctor has been carrying out experiments on animals, vivisecting and generally mutilating them to create creatures that have a semblance of humanity in some cases, in others just to appeal to his sense of whimsy. He maintains his rule over them with the threat of pain. He is a vengeful god.

There is also a hint that all of it might be the product of nightmarish hallucinations as when Prendick finally makes his way back to civilisation he's once again found out at sea in a small boat on the very edge of life. Not that the element of doubt makes his story any less nightmarish, or real - either to the character of Prendick, or to the reader.

If the science of Doctor Moreau no longer stands up, the absolute horror of what he's done is still as vivid as ever, it also chimes with current fears about genetic modification - and if Doctor Moreau is a direct descendent of Frankenstein, his influence on popular imagination is certainly as influential as his ancestors.

The ethical questions Wells asks about whether we should do what science can let us do are also as pertinent as ever. What it asks us about the nature of God is interesting as well, but that this exploration of what it is that makes us human is both a gripping book that it's a struggle to put down, and not the sort of thing I'd like to read late at night, is what really makes me a fan. It really is a case of better late than never with me and Wells.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Bodies From The Library 2017

It is horribly hot in my flat tonight (hovering around 30 degrees, I can't begin to tell you how much I wish I was in Shetland right now where it's sunny, but a much more manageable 12 degrees with a light breeze. Soon.) I'm torn between throwing the towel in and trying to sleep, or watching two students rescue a green woodpecker from the car park below my window (it can't seem to fly, but limped up to them looking hopeful about twenty minutes ago, they have found a box for it and are doing the bedside thing, presumably until expert help arrives, it's oddly gripping).

What I'm gong to do is write about the excellent Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library that I went to on Saturday before it all seems to long ago. This is a celebration of Golden Age crime fiction, and a really good event. It sounded like it would be run again next year and I'd wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody with an interest in the genre.

The organisation is excellent (adequate tea and coffee opportunities, doesn't over run, chance to buy the books being discussed). This year the post lunch slot was taken by a vintage recording of a Dorothy L. Sayers story, a sensible concession to the mid afternoon slump that must make speaking in that slot a somewhat disheartening experience.

(Just a quick update, security have come to take a look at the woodpecker.)

What I particularly like about this event is how friendly it feels, how enthusiastic everyone is, and the general feel of being part of a conversation (rather than in a lecture). All the speakers were good (very good) but if anyone gets the chance to hear Tony Medawar, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Dr John Curran, or Martin Edwards talk than go and hear what they have to say.

The opening panel on the continuing popularity of the golden age was particularly interesting, throwing out things I hadn't considered before. Martin Edwards new book 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books', officially out in 2 weeks time, but available at the event, is looking very good (I'm enjoying it very much at the moment, much more to follow on this). I spent quite a lot of a sleepless (far to hot) Saturday night cross referencing between The Story of Classic Crime, and 'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' (the collected reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers) and had a very nice time doing it.

I'm also particularly excited by the sound of an October release in the crime classics series - 'Foreign Bodies' which is a collection of golden age era stories in translation from as far afield as Japan, Russia, Mexico, and India, many of them in English for the first time. I have high hopes for this. One of the things I love about older books are the insight they give into how people used to think (common prejudices, ambitions, attitudes - that sort of thing), stepping out of the relatively familier British settings, and point of view, should be all sorts of interesting.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Taking Detective Stories Seriously - The collected crime reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers

Its been another week of horrific images in the news, the sort that make it difficult to concentrate on anything else, so I've mainly been knitting (obviously the perfect occupation for the hottest weather of the year so far) and getting into pointless arguments about politics (it's like picking a scab). 

Today however I'm back on the books and freshly enthused after the British Library's 'Bodies From The Library' classic crime conference- which was brilliant, if they run it again next year it's absolutely worth going to. I'll write more about it soon but am so very pleased with this particular book purchase I couldn't wait to share.

'Taking Detective Stories Seriously' is a collection of the crime reviews that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote for the Sunday Times between 1933 and 1935 (there's a scant handful of later ones too). I have yet to read the introduction and commentary by Martin Edwards (surely the busiest man in crime fiction?) but am very much looking forward to it. What I did do was spend the train journey home reading what Sayers had to say about all the books I'd read. 

She must have worked every bit as hard as Martin Edwards does because along with writing her own books she was reviewing 3 or 4 crime novels a week which means we have a fairly comprehensive overview here of crime fiction over those years. 

I loved Sayers when I was in my teens and susceptible to the romantic allure of Lord Peter, rather less   when I realised how susceptible Sayers was to the same allure (there's something uncomfortable about reading that, as if she's inadvertently exposing something that should be private). And then there was 'Ask a Policeman' that was great fun, but has since made it quite hard to take any of the featured detectives at face value again. 

Anyway, what I'm getting round to saying is that the Dorothy of these reviews is a delight. She's funny, honest in her criticisms, generous with praise, and altogether com s across as a woman you would love to sit down and talk about books with. 

Crucially we're in perfect accord regarding Georgette Heyer (unremarkable plots, but with enough charm for it not to matter) which is my personal litmus test, and from there I found I broadly agreed with her view on most of the books I'd read. I liked Alan Melville's 'Quick Curtain' (a British Library Crime Classic) rather more than she did, but then he's not sending up my chosen work. 

It will mostly be a book for dipping in and out of, but it made me laugh out loud several times in the train, which probably annoyed the man trying to sleep next to me, but made a very hot journey altogether more enjoyable than expected. I had absolutely no idea that Dorothy (the books made me think of her as Dorothy, rather than Sayers) could be so much fun, or funny. For anyone with even a passing interest in either Sayers, or Golden age crime fiction, this book should be a must buy. I am beyond delighted with it. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Locked room murders and other similarly impossible crimes are one of the sub genres I particularly enjoy in golden age, and older, mysteries so You can imagine how pleased I am that there's a whole collection of them here. Sixteen impossible crimes, to be specific, including contributions from Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, R. Austin Freeman, Edmund Crispin, and Michael Innes amongst others (oh how I do love this series).

I've always found the puzzle element the most appealing thing about older crime fiction - so much less disturbing than forensic detail. (Anthony Wynne's 'Murder of a Lady' is a particularly enjoyable, and delightfully far fetched, example - also from the British Library Crime Classics series - where I would defy anyone to work out the solution before the end.) In 'Miraculous Mysteries' the solution to more than one apparent murder is that there wasn't ever any crime - it's all about the problem, and they're especially satisfying, not least because they give the impression that the authors are having more than the usual amount of fun devising them.

In his introduction Martin Edwards argues, convincingly, that the locked room mystery has been a feature of the literary landscape for a good two hundred years (starting with E.T.A Hoffman's 'Mademoiselle de Scuderi' in 1818 before moving on via Sheridan Le Fanu, and Edgar Allan Poe). Despite being less popular than in their pre war heyday the locked room mystery has never really gone away either (shows like 'Jonathan Creek' offer classic examples of impossible mysteries) because who doesn't love a good puzzle?

Martin Edwards, who clearly loves his subject, as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, also appears to be having more than the usual amount of fun selecting these particular stories (every time I think about these books 'fun' is the word I keep coming back to). It's so good to have an anthology that covers a good number of unfamiliar stories by familiar authors (the only story I was previously acquainted with was Dorothy L. Sayers 'The Haunted Policeman') as well as presenting some truly obscure ones. The end result is a decently comprehensive survey of impossible crimes over a roughly fifty year period, each one featuring an ingenious solution to the problem it presents.

I would dearly love to discuss particular stories, but as I can think of no other format which is quite so easy to ruin with an inadvertent spoiler, I'm not going to. What I can say is that I think the collection is worth the cover price for the gem that is Michael Innes 'The Sands of Thyme' alone (and not just because I love the pun). There's not much I find more satisfying than a really entertaining collection of short stories, they genuinely make me happy.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

The Woman Who Did - Grant Allen

"But surely no woman would ever dare to do so," said my friend.
"I knew a woman who did", said I; "and this is he story."

I like to have a kindle app on my phone, I mostly ignore it because it's an awful way to read a book, but sometimes it's useful, setting it up on my new phone last week was a reminder of all the odd stuff sitting on there, including 'The Woman Who Did' by Grant Allen.

It was almost certainly a free download (probably made in the first flush of enthusiasm when the last phone was new). I really enjoyed 'An African Millionare' and 'Miss Cayley's Adventures' (which takes a happier view of the New Woman than this book does) and it's always a pleasure to find one of Allen's stories in an anthology. Free ebooks are more of a gamble, I also suspect I chose this purely for the title.

'The Woman Who Did', which Allen says in his dedication he wrote "for the first time in my life wholly and solely to satisfy my own taste and my own conscience" is interesting but it isn't his most entertaining work.

The woman who did is Herminia Barton, daughter of the Dean of Dunwich, and introduced as 'SUCH a nice girl too', and what she does is follow her principles in the hope of striking a blow for the emancipation of women. Particularly when it comes to marriage, which she views as a form of slavery. When she meets Alan Merrick and they fall in love, she refuses to marry him, but persuades him to become her lover anyway. He agrees with her principles, but has his doubts about the social consequences of their actions. Doubts which are fully justified when he unfortunately dies intestate whilst Herminia is pregnant.

Allen is at pains to point out throughout the book how pure in mind and deed Herminia is, driven purely by principle, and the mantra that truth will set you free. She is prepared, and happy, to earn her own living in her search for equality and freedom, prepared and happy to be shunned by society if by doing so she can set a better example for the women who follow her. What she doesn't bargain for is losing the man she loves, and being left penniless whilst she's least able to earn her living. Still, despite the warnings, she perseveres.

The situation Allen creates is a peach in its beautifully thought out unfairness. The impeccable social connections which initially make Herminia's unorthodox behaviour acceptable (in so far as going to Girton, taking a job as a teacher, living alone, and a taste for William Morris prints and lose clothing is unorthodox) in society, but once she's known to have taken a lover she's gone to far. It's also a scandal that we can surmise will hurt her fathers career within the church - and this is where I'm unsure of just how exactly Allen feels about his heroines decisions.

The sacrifices Herminia is prepared to make for what she believes in are one thing, but she's forcing the consequences of her actions on her father who simply can't be seen to condone his daughters behaviour, and can't really be expected to share her views privately either. Had Alan lived he would have had some stiff questions to answer on the topic of seducing Dean's daughters, and would have been cut off from his own family. There is also the question of where this all leaves Herminia's child in an age when being illegitimate still carried a considerable stigma. All the prejudices against Herminia's decisions might well be rank hypocrisy, but they're still real prejudices.

It's therefore not surprising when the daughter thoroughly rejects her mother's principles, finds herself utterly appalled and disgusted by the truth of what Herminia has done, and considers that her life has been ruined. At this point, in the best tradition, Herminia does away with herself (leaving a worryingly passive aggressive note for her teenage daughter).
One of the things that makes it interesting is that when Lynne Reid Banks wrote 'The L Shaped Room' almost 70 years later (1960) attitudes hadn't really moved on, or that having a baby outside of marriage would still raise eyebrows in the 1980's. Even now, the kind of open relationship that Herminia suggests looks unusual. Allen does such a good job of listing all the double standards and hypocrisies society exercises towards women, not all of which have been resolved, that it becomes compelling reading to see just what injustice he's going to heap on his heroine next. And if sometimes I wanted to shake her for her decisions, or questioned the precise nature of Allen's own convictions and conclusions on the questions he raises, this book has certainly made me fonder of him as a writer

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bousta Beanie (more knitting)

I had a long list of jobs to do today (I should be reading Zola, writing about some classic crime, hoovering, and so on) but I can't concentrate on anything much thanks to the distraction that is the general election. I can't ever remember caring so much about the result, and am currently well on my way to being a nervous wreck. On the whole it seems like a good time to think about knitting instead.

I made a hat, specifically Gudrun Johnston's Bousta Beanie (the pattern can be downloaded Here where it's currently free). She is patron of this years Shetland Wool Week, a hat pattern has become a traditional part of the event, and it's been fun seeing all the personal variations each knitter brings to them over the last few years (what kind of a world was it before Instagram?).

This one is intended for D, who might even wear it, and will match the cowl I finished a couple of weeks ago. I love everything about Johnston's design - which is simple enough for even a very amateur knitter, such as myself, to follow without trouble. Love it so much I've already started another one for another friend.

Simple as it is, it's still a breakthrough for me (actually, just following a pattern is a bit of a breakthrough). One which will let me look at more ambitious projects with a bit more of a can do attitude, so a big thank you to Gudrun Johnston and the Shetland Wool Week team for providing such a confidence building project.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Salomé - Oscar Wilde

It's all about Rome this season at the RSC, which I'm not particularly enthusiastic about - at least neither R or I have found ourselves enthusiastic enough to commit to organising times, tickets, travel etc - but we've been missing Stratford trips so we decided we would see Salomé.

The last time I saw Salomé performed it was in Leicester, it's the only time I've ever managed to get D into a theatre, and it was the worst (that includes an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet) production I've ever seen. He has point blank refused to make a second attempt to see anything, which is a shame, but it was so bad it's almost understandable.

This time was better, but R and I still have some doubts about it.


For me the problem is that when I read Salomé what I find interesting about it is that Wilde has a young girl first of all expressing her desires, and when she's denied exacting a terrible revenge. It's still relevant because on the whole I don't see much evidence to suggest that as a society we're terribly comfortable with women, especially young women, expressing their desires or sexuality as blatantly as this. Salomé's demand for the head of John the Baptist is still shocking because it's really not how we expect women to behave.

This production particularly wants to look at the play through a gay lense, its marking 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and it casts a young man as Salomé. The director, Owen Horsley, explains this decision:

"The figure of Salomé is a taboo as she transgresses the boundaries of both male and female sexuality. I wanted to focus on that ambiguity of gender and, as I am approaching this from the perspective of male sexuality, I wanted a man to play the role. Salomé will - through costume and actions - continually juxtapose male and female conceptions, remaining fluid throughout. When a man expresses fluidity with their sexuality, there is still a chaos and anger in respond to that. A gay man who doesn't feminise or masculinise his sexuality still faces problems in a society that can't understand or accept that ambiguity."

All of which is fair enough except that watching/listening to a man express his sexual desire, and then reacting with such violence when he's denied didn't feel transgressive, it felt depressingly normal. I also found Matthew Tennyson's Salomé mostly asexual rather than fluid. He was most convincing when he was briefly naked (and excellent in the last scene with the bloody head of Iokanaan cradled in his lap).

Basically it didn't really work for us, but then both R, and I would have been much more interested in a play that explicitly explored why we're still so uncomfortable with female sexuality and identity, so we weren't the most sympathetic audience.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ten Books

Simon at Stuck In A Book has redone his ten random books meme (choose ten books at random of the shelf and talk about them, and yourself a little bit in the process). I enjoyed this last time (though how can it be so many years ago?), love nosing around other peoples books, and perhaps love rooting through my own books even more, where I can be guaranteed to find pleasant surprises.

The chance to find book treasures I might have forgotten I had seemed like far the best way to spend a few hours on a Sunday otherwise overshadowed by yesterday's attacks in London, especially as the rest of the day has been dominated by getting and setting up a new phone. (Obviously I'd forgotten all my passwords, and the very patient young woman in the shop might as well have been speaking a different language, it is clearly a sign of getting older when a new gadget raises dread rather than enthusiasm).

Back to the books; I'm currently overwhelmed by piles of unread books everywhere, so I thought I'd pick ten of them from out of various heaps before they (hopefully) find more permanent homes. It definitely seemed like a good way to find a few overlooked gems.

Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' came easily to hand, it's only been in my flat for a week or so, was at the top of the closest pile, and is the next book I'll read. I'm slowly working my way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle, it's taking years, but there's no hurry. This one came to me as a review copy, and it's next on the pile because I've promised it to Shiny New Books. I'm looking forward to it after really enjoying 'The Conquest of Plassans' (to which it acts as a direct sequel) but I'm also wary of Zola after the excesses of 'Earth', it'll be interesting to see what mood he's in this time.

Robert Merle's 'City of Wisdom and Blood' is part of another epic French cycle (the fortunes of France, apparently Merle is a sort of modern day Dumas) this time passer blushed by Pushkin Press. I have the first 3 in the series (this is number 2), each of them makes me feel a little bit guilty. The problem is that they're quite long books (this one is over 500 pages) it's the same reason I have an armful of unread Dumas titles, there just never seems to be time to read them. There used to be time, I used to love long books, but somewhere in the last 3 or 4 years things have changed and I'm not quite sure what to do about it.

When I saw that Vintage had reprinted 'Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther' ibwas really pleased to see something other than 'The Enchanted April' or 'Elizabeth and her German Garden', then really surprised when I realised I didn't have a copy, I thought I'd collected all the old green Virago editions.  My enthusiasm for Von Arnim waned a little after reading Somerset Maugham lay into her (he made one fair points) but it's been a while and I'm ready to have another go. I want to read this one soon.

This particularly beautiful cloth bound edition of 'The Iliad' is another review copy. It's also a prod to remind me that having read, and loved, 'The Odyssey' when I was 17, it's basically been on a mental to do list for 26 years. It's taken me longer to get round to than it took Odysseus to get back home, and he took long enough over that. These editions from Oxford World's Classics are so very handsome, so very much the sort of book I look at and want to read, that maybe it won't be much longer...

I think it was Miranda Mills who recommended Eva Ibbotson's 'Madensky Square' a while ago. I'd read one previous Ibbotson for a book group, and thought this might make for some light reading to have on standby against the sort of week when nothing else will do. That week hasn't come yet, but when it does I'm prepared for it. I'm assuming this is the kind of book that will hit the same sort of spot that Georgette Heyer does. It might also be just what I need to balance Zola with.

I have a small collection (very small) of vintage Penguins. Some have been chosen for their titles, others for their authors. T. H. White is someone I keep collecting, but (again) haven't actually read much of. 'Farewell Victoria' is apparently a sort of overview of the Victorian era seen through the eyes of Mundy, as we follow him from childhood to old age when he's a still a groom, amongst an army of chauffeurs in an almost unrecognisable world. I need a rainy day and an absence of other commitments to get on with this one, it's exactly the sort of book I forget I have and feel excited about every time I turn it up.

'Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov' is another half forgotten treasure, I found it in a wine box that's enjoying a new life as a bookshelf on a windowsill behind blinds I never draw (because I have delicate watercolours hanging in my bedroom which can't cope with direct sunlight). I love fairy tales, myths, and legends, and am building up a reasonable library of them. The more I read them the more links between them emerge and the more interested I get.

Frédéric Dard's 'Crush' is a Pushkin Vertigo, I have a few in this series now, the ones I've read have all been excellent (Dard's 'Bird in a Cage' has the best twist I think I've ever read). I've been in a bit of a reading slump for the last few weeks, but just looking at this book is lifting it (Zola first). I wonder if it's better to have beautiful bookshelves with plenty of space where you can find everything, or to live in the equivalent of a second hand book shop with no discernible system but where you keep finding great stuff ? (The first probably, but chaos has its compensations).

'Long Live Great Bardfield: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood' represents my love for Persephone books (I've met some wonderful people thanks to Persephone books), and for the artists she associated with, as well as the artist Tirzah was herself. It's also another very long book, and somehow there's always something else to do before I can sit down with something like this.

'Arsene Lupin Vs Sherlock Holmes' by Maurice Leblanc published by Alma classics is sadly dust covered. I think I've read Leblanc before (I've certainly got more Lupin stories, but maybe unread). It sounds fun, slightly irreverent on the subject of Holmes, and I should have read it ages ago. At least it's dust free now.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Scottish Lighthouse Pioneers - Paul A. Lynn

I've been reading this (excellent) book about the Stevenson's lighthouses in Orkney and Shetland to review for 60 North magazine whilst trying to read my way through Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Wrong Box' which I started on Mull and have currently misplaced. I don't know why I'm having such trouble finishing 'The Wrong Box' (I've a similar problem with 'The New Arabian Nights') it's the sort of macabre humour that appeals to me, it's made me laugh, and it's deeply engaging, yet for no good reason I struggle to picks it up again every time I put it down.

I had no such problem with Paul Lynn's book, which has made me think I really need to read Bella Bathurst's 'The Lighthouse Stevenson's' too. I'm familiar with a few of the lighthouses in this book, Sumburgh head (in Shetland) being one of my favourite places anywhere. (It's great, it's right on the southern tip of Shetland, a couple of miles from the airport. Head up there on a clear summers day and not only will there be puffins to watch on the cliffs below, and a good chance of a whale sighting, but there's the most tremendous view up the length of Shetland where you can almost feel it unroll in front of you like a map.) I've also walked out to Hermaness in Unst to look out at Muckle Flugga, which is basically the end of Britain (there's another rock a little bit further out if you want to be pedantic). That too has puffins and gannets, it also has Bonxies which I'm less fond of, and is a much stiffer walk. You feel like you've earned the view when you get it.

The Stevenson's were clearly a remarkable family, from patriarch Robert who started out as an apprentice gunsmith, before going to work for his stepfather (metelwork and lamps) and ended up as a world famous engineer with the Bell Rock Lighthouse as a lasting testament to his skills. There were also the three sons, and the two grandsons who followed him into what became a family business (more or less willingly) and whose achievements more than lived up to Roberts legacy.

It's a fairly short book that gives us a gazetteer of the relevant lighthouses, an overview of the family, eye witness accounts from Sir Walter Scott who accompanied Robert on an inspection trip in 1814 (it gave him the inspiration to write 'The Pirate'). An altogether less enthusiastic eye witness account from Robert Louis Stevenson doing the same tour of inspection with his father (engineering really wasn't for him), and finally a more detailed look at Muckle Flugga, which sounds like it was the most challenging of all to build. The bar was pretty high at this point, reading about how they managed to build this thing perched on top of a 200 foot wedge of rock off the edge of Unst is awe inspiring.

It's a great little book about a family who achieved something amazing, but I'll give the last word to Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote:

"There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, 
But one of my blood designed it.
The Bell Rock stands monument to my grandfather;
The Skerry Vhor for my uncle Alan;
And when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland,
I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father."

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Bring The Paint - Leicester

Leicester has had a street art thing going on this weekend - well all week really because there's far more than a days work in these. I was basically oblivious to the factop that this was going on, and probably would have been for months to come if it hadn't been for a gin tasting I had to host earlier this week.

Leicester has what it slightly optimistically calls a cultural quarter. It's where the theatre is, an arts cinema with studio space, and I now know, some studio space, along with a few bars. It now has some huge murals too - a very positive addition.

There are a lot of things I like about these kind of events, but the biggest thing is the atmosphere it helps create. En route to the gin thing I got the chance to talk to some of the guys painting. That was mostly me saying how amazing whatever it was, was. It was also an unexpected opportunity to share a love of William Morris and his philosophy.

The event stuff mostly happened yesterday when I was at work, but on a sunny Sunday morning there were plenty of people, including me, wandering around all ready to share a bit of enthusiasm and point out beautiful (or weird) bits of the city we hadn't collectively noticed before. It sounds a bit cheesy but it was really nice.

There's still quite a few pieces I haven't managed to see yet, but what I did see was brilliant.







Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Incredible Crime - Lois Austen- Leigh

The bombing in Manchester on Monday night is throwing a long shadow over this week, and even though I know I've got nothing but platitudes to express how it's made me feel, it's still impossible not to acknowledge it. The increased police presence on the streets here, including the rare for Leicester sight of armed officers, reflects back an underlying tension that I really hope is short lived.

Meanwhile I can happily lose myself in some escapist crime fiction, Lois Austen-Leigh (who was the great great grand niece of Jane Austen) provides pretty much the perfect book to do that with in 'The Incredible Crime', which is blessedly murder (if not body) free, and spends a lot more time and energy on hunting than anything else.

Lois Austen-Leigh wrote 4 mystery novels all of which seem to have been basically out of print since the 1930's. Looked at purely as a mystery that's not altogether surprising, at least if this one is a representative example, it's all quite convoluted, she seems to have lost interest in the mystery she starts with quite quickly, the one she takes up is never entirely explained (at least I don't think it was), and the attitude towards her heroine is slightly jarring (far, far, to independent for her own good apparently).

Looked at as more than a mystery however it has a lot to offer. Once I'd stopped worrying about the plot it was thoroughly entertaining, and as a period peice it's fascinating. Her view of Cambridge and its academics is interesting too, and it's a cracking novel about hunting.

Prudence Pinsent is the almost middle aged, very good looking, daughter of Bishop Pinsent, Master of Prince's College, Cambridge. She's well off, well connected, self assured, swears comprehensively and at length, and is fiercely independent. Something her friends don't entirely approve of.

It's sometime not later than 1931 (when the book was originally published) and Prudence is about to abandon the world of academic gossip and bridge parties to join her cousin, Lord Wellende, for the hunting season. On the way she meets an old friend, Captain Studde, who works for the coast guard. He tells her about a smuggling ring suspected of distributing a drug (X.Y.X.) through Cambridge, there might also be a connection with Wellende hall. Some rather senior figures from Scotland Yard and the secret service are taking an interest.

Prudence promises to do what she can to help but her loyalties are torn between the demands of honour, family, and a Professor Temple - poison expert, cousin of Lord Wellende, and initially unlikely love interest. Nor is Prudence entirely above suspicion herself, the senior figure from Scotland Yard has his doubts. Meanwhile something is definitely going on at Wellende, but what, and has Prudence got utterly the wrong end of the stick on this one?

I think Lois Austen-Leigh is having to much fun playing with the forms of detective fiction, especially the country house mystery, to take it particularly seriously. The Cambridge bits are a little different, her uncle had been Provest of King's college when it opened up to a world beyond Eton, it's safe to say it's a world she had some knowledge of, and one she paints with a degree of affection. The Cambridge men all make much more likely smugglers or drug traffickers as well. It's quite easy to believe that a combination of war time experience and honed intelligence would give them a moral flexibility and single minded determination when it came to pursuing their own ends.

The passages (there are a few of them) about hunting are up there with Trollope for sheer enthusiasm (and length) and have an interest of their own (I can sit this next to 'Gin and Murder' in a little subsection of hunting based mysteries). Taken altogether it's an entertaining book with some lovely sly humour and a lot to enjoy - which is exactly what I've come to love so much about this series.


Monday, May 22, 2017

The Photographer- Meike Ziervogel

I've been following Meike's work since the early days of her publishing house, Peirene Press, and later as a novelist with great interest. One (of many) reasons for this is because of her interest in dealing with the experience of recent German history.

My grandmother was German, she met my grandfather when he was stationed in her village, he left her pregnant, and she followed him back to England. It's not clear to me if he was expecting her or not, I've heard when she turned up he was engaged to another woman, nevertheless they did marry, though not happily. I remember her as a bitter, unapproachable, woman who never talked about her past at all. She told her children that they had basically been simple peasants who were scared by Hitler and didn't really know what was going on, which they accepted, and in turn so did her grandchildren.

The reason I'm sharing all this is that I had a lightbulb moment a few years ago hearing Meike at the Kibworth book festival when she talked about this as a great national lie. Since then one of my aunts has been in touch with her German cousins and it's become clear that in our family at least it was a lie, though an entirely understandable one for a German girl trying to make a life in England in the 1940's to tell.

'The Photographer' is based on the experiences of Meike's own grandparents, and mostly covers the point at the end of the war when eleven million Germans fled from east to west. The central couple, Albert and Trude, meet and fall in love in 1933 without the approval of Trude's mother, Agatha. Albert is a photographer and together they travel, build a reasonably successful business, have a son, and despite Albert's occasional infidelities are happy together. To Agatha however, Albert is a threat to the security of both her daughter and grandson, so when the chance arises she reports him to the authorities and he's sent to the front.

All of them survive the war, Agatha, Trude, and Peter manage to get to a refugee camp in the west, and eventually Albert finds them through the Red Cross, at which point the process of rebuilding a family begins.

For me this is by far and away the best book Ziervogel has written yet. I'm aware that my response to it is filtered through my own family history and the sidelights it throws on that, but I also think the constraints that following her own history have placed on Ziervogel give the book a particular strength. It's a combination of knowing something of how these people really acted, and of their stories, even if only half talked of, have been distilled through generations of memory and telling.

At the centre of it is how will Albert and Trude deal with what Agatha did; will there be confrontation, silence, understanding, lies? Can there be forgiveness, happiness? Or does this individual act of betrayal even matter that much after all that follows it, would have followed it anyway?

The way the story unfolds echos fairy tale archetypes, it even ends happily. I went to the launch for this last week and one of the questions that interested me was if that happy ending rang true. My own view is that the book ends in a happy moment, which isn't quite the same as a happy ending, and I think that does ring true.

There's a lot going on in this book, and a lot more I'd like to discuss, which will be hard without giving spoilers (when I'm done with this post I'll be looking for other blog reviews to comment on). I'm particularly interested in the relationships between the 4 principles and the way they deal with what they know and don't know, but it's also important to note that it's only really now that a book like this can be written about that particular bit of history. It's interesting too in light of the current refugee crisis, and so much more.

I honestly can't recommend this one highly enough, please read it!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Knitting again

Given that we're well into the second half of May it's not particularly cheering that I could still happily be wearing this latest effort. The only reason I'm not is that it's destined for D.

The motif is lifted from Gudrun Johnston's 'Bousta Beanie' pattern for Shetland wool week. The hat is the next thing I'm going to try and knit, it'll be my first hat so wish me luck. It's also destined for D, so wish him luck too.

I've been trying to persuade him for a while that a cowl would be useful, especially if he's sailing (can't blow off or get in the way) and you probably can't have to many woolly hats. He's finally conceded the point regarding cowls, so the colours reflect his preferences rather than mine (I don't dislike them, but I wouldn't go with red and grey for myself).

What I really love is the rhythm of the motif. I like the suggestion of waves, and the definite Bridget Riley/Op Art feel it has. It's quick and simple to knit, but not boring, and for small items - I think it would be to much on a whole jumper for example - find it altogether pleasing.

My natural inclination is towards bigger, more complicated, motifs incorporating more colours so knitting this has been a really useful chance to appreciate how well something simple can work. It's definitely something I'm going to think about next time I'm planning something of my own. Meanwhile I'm just going to say again how much I love this particular pattern. Now all I have to do is dress it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Russian Revolution Hope, Tragedy, Myths

Whatever else 2017 brings it has at least improved my knowledge and understanding of the Russian revolution. It's not something that we particularly studied at school (beyond that it happened, and that it pulled Russia out of the First World War) and since then the way it's cropped up in my reading, or viewing, has been just as incidental. That, and there's been so much history in Russia over the last century that it's not always easy to keep up with it all.

Seeing Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 at the RA earlier this year made me realise a couple of things, the first being that my whole view of the country is filtered through the tail end of the Cold War, which is to say with a hangover of suspicion. The second is that it's essentially passed out of living memory within my lifetime, and whilst I know that's stating the obvious, it's still surprisingly difficult to grasp - It's a reminder that my memories are someone else's history lesson.

The British Library exhibitions I've seen have, without fail, been excellent. This one was no exception. Printed material might not have quite the same initial impact that the RA's exhibits did, but the much greater need to read about what they are, or represent, means much longer spent contemplating them. There's the time and space to absorb much more information.

The strength of this exhibition is that it essentially starts in 1896 with the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and the increasingly unsettled political situation in Russia as neccesary reform, along with neccesary infrastructure, failed to materialise. Things did not go well in the war with mismanagement of resources exacerbating shortages, a German born Tsarina would have been an easy target for resentment, and the rest is history.

What might have happened if it hadn't been for the war is an interesting question. There's a suggestion here it had lessened the perceived value of human life, and increased the capacity for violent action. The following years of civil war saw ten million lose their lives, and another two million leave the country, along with five million who died as a result of famine. Those are incredible numbers, how to imagine the impact that must have had?

All of it certainly had an impact on the imagination though - in books, in art, in aspiration, hope, and myth making, and that battle for hearts and minds - from both sides - is thoroughly explored here. There's also room for odd little bits; I didn't know Arthur Ransome (the Swallows and Amazons one) had been a journalist on the scene, or that he married Trotsky's secretary. The letter that granted Lenin's application to use the British Library (under an assumed name) is also present. These are the things that bring the subject to vivid life, that and the pamphlets and posters that were in common circulation. Allow at least a couple of hours to get round it all, and go, it's fascinating.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Recipes From The Woods - Jean-François Mallet

I thought I had managed to resist this book but it turns out that was wishful thinking - I kept seeing it in Scotland last month, and every time I did I wanted it more. By the time I got back to Leicestershire I was getting a little bit obsessed and had to order a copy.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the tweed and tartan effect cover. I beer between finding it amusing or appalling depending on mood (most of the time amusing), but it's the contents that matter. I'm gathering quite a collection of game based cookbooks - this one is subtitled 'the book of game and forage' which might have been what put me off in the first place. Provincial English cities have their foraging limitations.

In this case I imagine it'll be the mushrooms I struggle to find. Somewhere local might sell a good selection of them but if they do, I don't know about it. I'm not sure how easy it would be to get snails either but as preparing them apparently necessitates 10-12 days of starving them in an airy wooden box on a bed of grass, changed daily, then rinsing them, putting them in another box with kosher salt, vinegar, and plain flour before refrigerating for 2-3 hours, rinsing them again, cooking them in their shells for 30 minutes in boiling water, removing the flesh from the shells, and cooking them for another 30 minutes before removing the black parts and rinsing them again, I'm okay with that. They definitely sound like something I'd rather have served with a flourish in a restaurant.

With the possible exception of hay (maybe a pet shop?) and woodcock (which I wouldn't cook anyway because they're scarce and should be let alone) nothing else in here should be particularly hard to source if there's a good game dealer around.

I've become much more interested in cooking and eating game over the last few years - hence the expanding collection of cookbooks on the subject - for all sorts of reasons, the most important of which are flavour related. Pheasant, partridge, and mallard especially are all also really cheap to buy, new things for me to do with them will be very welcome come the autumn. There's plenty of inspiration here, and plenty of pate and terrine recipes which look like just the reason I need to get a mincer (which I like to think would be a genuinely useful kitchen gadget to have).

The recipe that passed the flick test though was the very first one - haunch of venison roasted with cocoa. It sounds and looks really good, simply relying on a really nice bit venison to make it special, the venison and mango brochettes on the next page also look great. Hare and pear spring rolls with blueberry sauce is something else I'd like to try. I look at hares every year, and every year faced with recipes for jugged hare (doesn't totally appeal) I don't bother.

There are also plenty of rabbit recipes, and as there are plenty of rabbits, eating them seems like a good idea. I have cooked rabbit before, I think it was an elderly one (dad shot it whilst it was digging a hole in his lawn) it was certainly tough despite my best efforts and slow cooking. Trying again is long overdue.

So plenty of sensible, tempting, accessible recipes, and some beautiful photography - it's a winning combination.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Verdict of Twelve - Raymond Postgate

This is another British Library publication that I've been sitting in for far to long, this time from the crime classics series. My general enthusiasm for this series is no secret, but 'Verdict of Twelve' is something special. There have been some real gems over the years, but sometimes they've been gems because they're so very much of their time, fun and nostalgic in about equal measure and solidly entertaining with it. As satisfying and interesting as they've been, it's easy enough to see why they fell out of print. 'Verdict of Twelve' is more than that.

It's true that a book that uses a Saki story ('Sredni Vashtar') as a significant clue was always going to win my heart. It's true too that the description of Raymond Postgate in the back blurb "a socialist journalist and historian, and founder of the Good Food Guide" who "also wrote highly regarded detective novels", prejudices me entirely in his favour. But even allowing for all the partiality that comes with that I really do find it's neglect over the years bewildering.

There's such a lot to enjoy. Part one introduces us to the jury, with some of their past histories - which will of course inform their verdict on the evidence - explored. These are all more or less unexpected, some are shocking, all are handled deftly, and quite frankly the books earned it's money already at this point.

Part two covers the case the jury have to consider, it's a pitch perfect blend of black humour and genuine tragedy. An unhappy, not particularly lovable, and orphaned child, is trapped in a house with his sort of aunt. Neither have any other family, or any affection for each other. The question when the boy dies is was it an accident, murder, illness, or suicide. The Saki reference provides suggests all sorts of inferences as well as humour, but Postgate never lets us forget that there's a bitterly unhappy child and that he's died.

Part three is the trial and verdict where the jury pit their personalities against each other to try and decide the fate of another human life (it's hanging for the defendant if she's found guilty). At this point we know only a very little more than the jury does, and not enough to know exactly what happened- though we probably all have the same suspicions, which the jury does not.

Finally there's a postscript that in a final twist delivers all the answers. Knowing the answer makes very little difference to the enjoyment of the book (so cheat if you want to) because whilst it explains what happened, it's the why that's been built up all the way through that really matters.

I cannot overstate how good this one was. Please read it and judge for yourself (it's really good).
Even more so if you have a soft spot for Saki.

Updates. There's a second Postgate joining the Crime Classics series in September when Somebody At The Door is reissued. It seems he also wrote, amongst other things, a book on Portuguese wine in 1969. I'm almost tempted to order a copy to see what he has to say on the subject. Currently, in my wine selling day job, Portuguese wine (especially the reds, which are easier to find) would be my hot tip for something really interesting that doesn't cost the earth. Much as with Raymond Postgate I don't understand why it isn't a bigger thing. The more I find out about him the better he sounds.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Haunted Library - Selected by Tanya Kirk

The day seems to be speeding past with absolutely no inclination to tackle any of the jobs that want doing kicking in whatsoever. That includes blogging, and if I found myself doing anything more productive or creative than feeling being glued to my chair whilst I look at Instagram and Twitter I'd let it slide. As it is there's really no excuse not to deal with at least one of the books stacked up in front of me.

They have a slightly accusatory air about them; they know they don't deserve to be neglected , especially 'The Haunted Library' that I've been reading intermittently since October. It's a British Library collection of classic ghost stories, the unifying theme being books and libraries, selected by Tanya Kirk. The back blurb tells me she was co-curator of the absolutely magnificent 'Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination' exhibition a couple of years ago. (It was tremendous).

This book is every bit as good as that provenance led me to hope. Curiously there are at least two stories where the readers of certain books end up strangled... One belongs in Margaret Irwin's 'The Book' which I found the most chillingly ghostly in the collection. Here the book of the title exercises a malign influence on its reader but also, and far more terrifyingly, on the other books it comes into contact with. It's influence spreads like a contagion across the shelves. It's a horrible thought.

Edith Wharton's 'Afterward' which opens the collection is haunting in a more straightforward way but has stuck with me, as has Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Apple Tree'. May Sinclair's 'The Nature of the Evidence' has a physical meeting with a ghost that put me in mind of Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting  of Hill House' (I wonder if Jackson had read Sinclair's story). In Sinclair's case the contact is rather more benign but it's still unsettling.

And then there's Algernon Blackwood's 'The Whisperers' where a hapless writer, looking for a distraction free spot, finds himself in a suitably empty room. Only it's not quite as empty as he thinks it is, it has recently been storing books, and they've left something behind!

There's also a Mary Webb story. Now I have plenty of Mary Webb's books, though I've never managed to read one of them, so this was at least a start. It's a shame that it appears to be a total contrast to the majority of her work, because this is a genuinely funny pastiche of a ghost story, and I'd very gladly read more if it was in the same light hearted vein.

It's because I liked 'The Haunted Library' so much that I took so long over reading it, rationing individual stories like the treats that they are. There's nothing in here that would keep me awake at night after reading, but plenty that's just enough to give an agreeable sort of a chill. Which is how I like my ghost stories. I really loved this book.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Gather Cook Feast - Jessica Seaton and Anna Colquhoun

I've had one of those exhaustingly productive days off where I've done almost every job on my list along with a few unexpected ones along the way, rounding off with finally dealing with the rhubarb that's been menacing me since Sunday. It's jam now. I'll be wiped out for work tomorrow.

Whilst making the jam (at least inbetween wondering why something that starts off a beautiful combination of pink and green ends up a sludgy brown, and why rhubarb jam is always sweeter than I want it to be) I remembered this book. The poor thing has been kicking around the sitting room for weeks waiting for me to write about it (I probably won't cook from it before it finds a home in the kitchen, but probably wouldn't write about it once it's left the to do pile by my favourite chair).

The cover proudly mentions that these are recipes from land and water by the co-founder of Toast. Which I had to look up (clothes). I guess it's a selling point but it's one that's mostly lost on me. The book sold itself once I'd looked inside it anyway. 

The recipe that first caught my imagination is for Juniper roast venison with pine jelly. Described as a breath of moorland on a plate, there's something wonderfully romantic about this dish and I'd order it like a flash in a restaurant. The process of making the pine jelly (sourcing the pine needles from my city centre flat won't be easy) means I won't be making this anytime soon, but that doesn't matter. It's even more perfect because 3 types of pine are suggested, the author has tried 2 and describes the difference. That really is food for the imagination.

Recipes for pickled damsons, malted ice cream, braised rabbit with lemon and olives, and sloe whisky or brandy (instead of the more usual gin) where what determined me to take this one home though. I also fell for the beautiful photography, despite lavish illustrations of landscapes normally being a turn off in a cookbook. I'm guessing it works for me here because of things like the juniper and pine venison, and a suggestion for gilded gingerbread with Caerphilly cheese. The gilding is optional and suggested only for very special occasions, and again I'm a little carried away by the romance and opulence of this image.

The gingerbread is something I will make, and though I almost certainly won't gild it, having tried to wrestle with gold leaf before I'm impressed that there are instructions for application (my own experience hasn't been altogether happy in this endeavour). 

I can't say this book has given me as much to think about as Gill Meller's 'Gather' (which really does feel like an important book) though it's exploring similar ideas, but it does have a lot of things I want to eat in it. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Why I'll be voting Labour

I've dithered about writing this post for a few days now having always preferred to keep this blog reasonably politics free, but I also feel like this election is a time for nailing colours to the mast, so here goes anyway.

I live in a traditionally safe Labour seat that has a decent (well spoken of, scandal free) MP (Jon Ashworth), so even if I was a floating voter it's probably the way I'd go round here. The main reason I'll be voting Labour though is that I don't trust the tories with the economy.

I work in retail, which is not on the whole a well paid, or particularly respected, sector. It's also food based retail (specifically drink) where I'm getting an excellent view of prices rising whilst wages remain broadly stagnant. Truthfully, I've done alright under the last government. I don't have children,  and an increased personal tax allowance means that despite earning less than I did a decade ago I'm actually taking home more money. Which worries me.

For now whilst my health is okay and non of my nearest or dearest need care it's fine. I earn a living wage, though not all of my colleagues do, can pay my bills, don't go hungry, and have organic shampoo, because there's enough money to have some nice things in my life. What I don't have are savings, there's not enough money coming in to provide a decent cushion against emergencies. But still, compared to plenty of others my situation is comfortable. As long as nothing goes wrong. On the whole I'd rather be paying a bit more tax and be confident that if things did go wrong there would be an NHS free at point of use, and a job seekers allowance that would still let me pay my bills and not go hungry to fall back in.

What worries me even more though is the number of people who are on low wages. I don't see how we can afford to pay people less than a living wage because somewhere along the line we're all going to pay for that. I'm surrounded by people who have no chance of getting a mortgage in the foreseeable future, people who are working well past retirement age because they can't afford not to, people who have families and can't afford posh shampoo, or to replace shoes which are falling apart. People who are told they're lucky to have a job.

I also see more and more people taken on, on 4, 6, or 8 hour contracts - which might as well be zero hour contracts. The theory is that they should be flexible and available for overtime when needed, I guess it's a cheaper way to employ people too. The reality isn't quite like that, and I can't see it ending well if we carry in down this path.

So for me the only answer is to vote for a party that looks likely to protect and improve the rights of the lowest paid and who are talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Certainly the party that's trying to talk about it. From where I stand that looks like something which would basically be good for everybody.

I also accept that others will see this in a very different way, will see different answers to the same problems, or will have different priorities. I certainly hope that there's more than one answer to this particular issue, and definitely don't believe that anyone who thinks to the right (or indeed left)of my position is evil/selfish/stupid/deluded or whatever other offensive label is currently being thrown around.

In the end the most important thing is to vote, to hope for the best (whilst preparing for the worst), and to listen to what other people are saying. Mostly to vote though. Please vote.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Sedition - Katharine Grant

I really struggled with this book to the point that I wondered what on earth was I thinking when I bought it. I was probably hooked by the title and the idea that piano lessons could be subversive, and maybe the comparison to Sarah Waters. Maybe it was the promise that it was original and dark, or the Virago Apple on the spine.

It was not that it's a historical novel (set in London 1794), because generally historical fiction doesn't work very well for me. There are of course a long list of exceptions to that statement, but I'm not going to follow that path tonight. It definitely wasn't the promise of transgressive sex, which I can only assume I missed when I first picked it up, because almost without exception (I can't think of an exception, but there probably is one) that's not something I'm interested in reading about. The problem being so often, and here, that I was left with the impression of abuse by numbers, and I don't find that entertaining, or thought provoking.

Plot wise 4 wealthy merchants decide they will buy a piano and have their 5 daughters taught to play with the object of giving a concert to attract potential husbands. They want to buy titles. Unfortunately the piano maker has an unhealthy love for his instruments, he doesn't want to sell, and when his disfigured daughter forces him to part with his best piano in revenge for an insult, he persuades the music master the merchants hire to seduce their daughters. Which he does, even though one of them smells like a goat.

Meanwhile one of the girls (not the one who smells of goat) has rather more serious problems than a frisky pianist, and her own plans to subvert the concert. I know I'm being unfair about this book, a lot of my problems with it are subjective, and the next reader will love all the bits I didn't. I lost patience in a splendidly gothic scene where curtains are torn aside only to unleash a hell of spiders and bats in a shadowy ball room being used as a music room. I've been in bat inhabited churches, the smell, and mess, is distinctive - I wasn't feeling it and started to get pedantic, which is never a good sign.

I persevered anyway, and liked the second half of the book more, where I think I began to appreciate what Grant was doing. It didn't help that the musical references were over my head too. It's not a bad book (I might have enjoyed it a lot more if it was), but it wasn't for me. I'm still glad I read it, and I'd definitely have a look at anything else I saw by Grant, because her story telling was compelling enough to get me through a book that I could so easily have abandoned, but in fairness to both of us I'll only read it if it really sounds like something I'll love.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Brighouse Hotel - Susan Pleydell

I think this is the third Pleydell I've read from Greyladies, it's making me think I really need to get the school based stories, despite that being a subject I don't find overly appealing.

'Brighouse Hotel' is the third of Pleydell's Scottish set books that Greyladies have re published (are there more?) and whilst I didn't love it quite as much as either 'The Glenvarroch Gathering' or 'The Road to the Harbour' it was still thoroughly enjoyable. 

Originally published in 1977 'Brighouse Hotel' reuses a character from 'The Glenvarroch Gathering', Pat McKechnie, now grown up and working as an estate manager. The Brighouse hotel sounds like a superior sort of hangout for climbers, is also the Mountain rescue centre, and is on Pat's turf. When he discovers that Clunie Ritchie, a girl he always used to fight with when they were younger is there as receptionist he decides to take some holiday, climb a bit, and get to know her again. 

Clunie has turned up in Glen Torren (fictional but obviously west coast Scotland) after a dinner with an ex boyfriend, a very successful climber called Keith Finlay, reminds her how much she misses a place where her family used to spend every summer. There's a temp job at the Brighouse hotel and she takes it, only to find that another ex boyfriend, Malcolm Graham is still there, preparing to join Keith on an expedition to the Hindu Kush, and still interested in Clunie. 

It's a gentle sort of book, Clunie has unresolved feelings about Keith, and half formed not very serious intentions regarding Malcolm. A bit of drama is provided by a folk singer, Davina, who has family connections in Glen Torren too, and who Clunie has met in London. Davina upsets everyone in Glen Torren, apart from Clunie, when she manages to poach both Kieth and Malcolm. It may be the 1970's but Glen Torren does not care for permissiveness- it's a long way from London. 

It's obvious from the beginning that Pat and Clunie will end up together, but I liked the way that Pleydell explores the significance of their backgrounds. This is partly a class thing, both might be described as upper middle class, but it's the similarity of experience, manners, and outlook that really matters. It encompasses all sorts of unspoken but understood things between them. Things that Clunie doesn't share with the more parochial Malcolm for example. Davina doesn't share them either, her outlook is altogether more careless and bohemian, and she has a total lack of either patience with, or sympathy for, life in Glen Torren. 

The rest of the drama centres around the work of the Mountain rescue team, and the very real dangers involved in climbing. It's good to see them get their due here. 

As with the earlier books, I find reading Pleydell a real treat. It's easy going but with enough substance to not feel throw away, there are themes worth exploring here, as well as some keen observations. Using the Mountain rescue service to provide the life and death thriller element to the plot is effective - these people really do go out and risk their lives to save others, waiting for news really is harrowing, and it happens all the time. 

I am so pleased this book is available. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Twilight and Moonbeam Alley - Stefan Zweig

I'm back from holiday, the soundtrack of the day has mostly been the washing machine doing its thing, and it's back to work with a daunting list of things to be done in May. I managed to finish one book whilst I was away, bought about 6, and am wondering why I packed 3 (which felt like self restraint at the time) in the first place...

Meanwhile one of Mays jobs is to catch up with the books I read before I went away, including this little one from Pushkin Press. I bought it a very long time ago, mostly because it's a beautiful object, it was the first Zweig I tried, and for well over a decade it was why I didn't try another one.

I'm not sure/ can't remember what my initial expectations where, but for whatever reason when I first tried to read it 'Twilight' didn't grab me. I put it down unfinished and basically ignored Zweig until I came across 'Beware of Pity'. Very much my loss. I made the effort with this one again after 'The Invisible Collection' with much more success, (though I'll admit neither story came close to 'The Invisible Collection' for me personally) and a stronger than ever determination to read more Zweig.

'Twilight' is the longer novella, it tells the story (based on fact) of Madame De Prie. More specifically the moment she falls from grace. My knowledge of French history is limited, so I hadn't heard of her before, but it seems that for a short while at least she was an extraordinarily powerful figure in the French court. When she fell, she fall hard, banished to her country estate she committed suicide a year later. A very short Wikipedia entry is testament to how brief a footnote she ended up being in history.

It's a desperately sad vision of a woman trying and failing to hang on to the life she loved, the attention and influence she craved, and utterly failing. Zweig's compassion for his subject along with his merciless refusal to allow her suicide any impact on her former friends is undoubtedly a powerful combination but there's a hopelessness about it that makes me understand why I didn't finish it first time around.

Moonbeam Alley deals with the same underlying theme of human desperation, but the end is more ambiguous and corrospondingly easier to read - even if it doesn't have quite the same emotional impact. The main thing I'm taking away though is that this is a writer who I should pay far more attention to (I need to read, not just buy, the books). It's going to be a rewarding journey.

Edinburgh

After Mull it was on to Edinburgh for a couple of nights avoiding hen and stag parties. There are things I love about Edinburgh, and things I really don't. Mostly I dislike the amount of tartan tat aimed at tourists that proliferates around the city centre. It's hard to move for overpriced whisky, fudge, shortbread, tea towels with Nessie on, stuffed highland cows, ginger wigs, and things made badly out of tartan or tweed. Which is all depressing.

It maybe didn't help that we went to the castle. The entrance fee is £17 per adult (an extra £3.59 for an audio guide), it's a lot to stumble around in the wake of hundreds of other tourists to look at some cobble stones and a collection of regimental museums and war memorials, but I console myself with the thought that the revenue the castle generates must prop up quite a few of historic scotlands less popular properties. We went because D had never been before, and it is interesting. It's also a beautiful (in a grand and rugged sense) collection of buildings with more than a dash of romance about it.

As a Georgette Heyer fan I was delighted to see the Eagle that ensign Ewart captured at Waterloo. I tried to explain the climax of A Civil Contract' to D, where Adam is waiting in London for news of the battle to come through, but he didn't seem impressed. The fictional Adam wasn't the point, but thanks to her descriptions I knew the symbolic importance of the object.

Generally though I find Edinburgh looks best from street level, looking up everything is a bit more impressive, and the uglier bits of contemporary architecture less obvious. From the castle you see how much of a mixed bag it is. Nothing dents romance like a multi story car park. Much better to find yourself walking past a Novotel and suddenly catching sight of the castle instead.

We made time to go to the portrait gallery which is an excellent place to see some of the faces that made Scottish history. It definitely gives a more nuanced view on the Jacobites than is to be found at Culloden (I remember being bitterly disappointed as a child in the portrait gallery, learning that bonnie prince Charlie was not quite the hero I'd thought). It's a grand Victorian building with impressive arts and crafts era murals, a good cafe, and a lot to think about. Going there always makes me want to learn more and think harder about what's on display - which I count as a success.

Otherwise the Edinburgh I want to find again remains elusive. I know it's there, but there's never quite enough time, or energy, to go exploring far enough to find the heart of the place away from the obvious attractions. Maybe next time.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mull and Iona

From Inverness it was on to Mull via Oban and the delights of a Cal Mac ferry. Oban is the ferry port for Mull, Coll, Tiree, Lismore, Barra and Colonsay. The train drops you right next to the ferry terminal so the harbour really is the focus of the town for visitors. I guess that most people pass through Oban with an hour or two to fill in much the same way that we did. There's a distillery that's worth a visit, and a branch of Waterstones that's remarkable for being just about the only place I didn't buy a book this trip (not for lack of temptation, but rather a moment of clarity where I questioned the wisdom of hauling a small library round the Highlands and Islands with me). There are some great fish restaurants too, but my overwhelming sense of the place is of being in a sort of extended departure lounge.

Hotel bedroom view.



Apart from a visit to Islay a decade ago the western isles are pretty much a mystery to me, and Mull, because of the Sea Eagles, has long been in my wish list. I didn't see a Sea Eagle this time, so obviously will have to go back.

All islands have there own distinct flavour (theoretically I know this, but it's still a surprise how different the ones I've been to feel), my first impression of Mull was one of general affluence, and that tourism is a big part of that. For such a small population it's particularly well provided with cafes.  We only had two and a half days in Mull which isn't nearly long enough - another reason to go back.


The second thing you notice about Mull is the roads. They're mostly single track and spectacularly twisty - it took us almost 2 hours to drive 50 miles, at the height of the tourist season it would be even slower going. This was fine for me, I don't drive, so was free to look out the window and enjoy the scenery (everything looks like a postcard), probably less fun for D. If anyone reading this ever plans a trip to Mull, plan it carefully, it's quite a big island, everything will probably take longer than you think to get to, and it's not really the sort of driving that invites you to get in a car and keep going until something looks good. That's part of its charm.

Tobermory looks exactly like its pictures and is utterly charming, everywhere seemed to do great food, there's another distillery at one end of the harbour, and all the comings and goings of the boats was mesmerising. We stayed at the Western Isles Hotel (it's seen better days but has relatively new ownership and is undergoing rolling refurbishments. Any shabbiness was more than made up for by the most spectacular view, friendly helpful staff, and that it had featured in a film I love, 'I Know Where I'm Going'.) which I loved. I can't overstate how good the view was, and whilst we didn't see those eagles the hotel terrace was filled with swallows each evening, watching them at (very) close quarters over a gin and tonic was wonderful.

Iona is just off the end of Mull, and again it's picture postcard perfect, in a day when it was supposed to rain we had glorious sunshine, the whole lot looked like a painting by Francis Cadell. Whatever we didn't have the opportunity to see on Mull, I have at least come away with a much better image and understanding of all sorts of things I've read in the past about the west coast of Scotland, and a much better appreciation of the work of the colourists who I've always been a bit dismissive of in the past. I really want to go back.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Inverness and beyond

It's almost the end of our Scottish trip, which has been invigorating, inspiring, and expensive in pretty much equal measure. It's also been comprehensive enough to be exhausting, in a thoroughly good way, hence the lack of posting - despite good intentions. Tonight we're in Edinburgh where a night in our hotel room seems more appealing than fighting past hen parties the length of the Royal mile. Part of me is tempted to do it anyway, but that part isn't my feet which have already walked miles today...

But back to the beginning, Inverness (was it really only a week ago?). D has family in Inverness and visits regularly, but for some reason I had never been before last October. A terrible omission on my part because it's a brilliant base to explore the highlands from, as well as being a city with a very definite charm of its own.

Inverness town centre (it has an epic sort of industrial estate just outside the town that I guess services most of the Highlands and Islands with everything from aga's to a new tractor) is quite small, and a little bit shabby, though there are signs of rejuvenation, which makes it easy to explore. I'd love to take the overnight sleeper there one day. I haven't because every time I've looked it costs 4 times what my flights have, and that's before I've got down to London to catch it - but what a perfect way to arrive. From my point of view the principle retail attraction is Leakey's bookshop. It's a huge secondhand treasure trove in an old church with a massive log burning stove to keep the cold at bay. There's also an excellent Waterstones for more browsing, and Wood Winters wine merchant (handily opposite Leakey's for souvenirs in the form of whisky or gin. The Royal Highland hotel (station hotel?) next to the train station comes complete with tartan carpets and stags heads on the wall and feels positively Edwardian - the tea and scones are excellent. There is more than this to Inverness but so far that's kept me more than busy enough.
Ullapool

Snow on the hills, I love these colours.

The best thing about Inverness though is how many great places are not that far away. Last year we went to Skye for lunch - it's a couple of hours drive through beautiful scenery, over to Speyside to investigate some distilleries (we just hit the edge of it and still managed to see 5), to Cromarty for another lunch - it's a really charming fishing village. Culloden battle field, which is worth a look because it's a pivotal episode in Scottish history, and one that still casts a shadow.*

This time we went to Ullapool - more excellent little bookshops, stunning scenery, and a really good lunch. Tomatin distillery (we like distilleries, we don't always buy anything or go on a tour, but they make for a good general destination). We also took the funicular railway to the top of Cairngorm. Which was the first time I'd ever been on a mountain (so quite exciting). It was really bloody cold - which you can expect in a sub arctic environment, and beautiful. It's a desperately fragile environment so the railway is a good way to see something of the mountain without doing it any damage. And that was my 2.5 days in and around Inverness, it's possibilities are far from exhausted.

*I'm not entirely comfortable with how the National Trust for Scotland interpret this event, especially it's aftermath. The government (English) was not magnanimous in victory, reprisals against the highland clans were brutal, and nothing justifies what happened - but I think a better effort at explaining why the government was so determined the '45 would be the last uprising would be helpful.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

In Scotland

I'm on holiday (much needed and anticipated) in Scotland for the next week, starting in Inverness, heading to Mull for a few days, and then finishing up in Edinburgh next weekend. I bought my first bottle of whisky at Birmingham airport, and despite only having 5 minutes to stick our heads round the door of Leakey's (legendary second hand bookshop) I found a book to buy (by then there was also a second bottle of whisky). In short the holiday has got off to a reasonably good start.


I don't intend to spend the entire week buying whisky (though that has been the pattern of some previous Scottish road trips) but in the past picking up a couple of bottles at the airport was one of the  holiday rituals I really looked forward to. It was certainly one of the best things, from my point of view, about being in an airport. Sadly it's not as exciting as it used to be.

At some point I'd like to do a books and booze series about whisky, but the band of whisky's which I consider affordable and interesting keeps contracting. Something I had plenty of time to think about in Birmingham's duty free this morning. Just a couple of years ago any reasonably large airport would be a great place to buy whisky, including a smattering of travel retail exclusives. Now it's almost all exclusives which amongst other things means you don't really know what you're buying (though to be fair there's generally a good range of tasting samples available and they're good about sharing them). They're also generally no age statement whisky's (nas) which I have mixed feelings about too.

The marketing line on these is that it frees distilleries to produce more exciting drams, they don't talk so much about demand outstripping supply, or that this is a cheaper way of making whisky. Prices reflect demand, and are rising accordingly. The bright spot in this is a resurgence in blended whisky, and blended malts. For years people were a bit sniffy about these, but they're coming back and they're doing it in premium style. At least the accompanying premium prices are less eye watering than the ones their single malt cousins sport.

So today's airport buy was a Mackinlay's based on the whisky that Shackleton took to the Antarctic. It's a blend of highland malts, has a pleasing sweetness to it, and will make a fine companion to Henry Harland's 'The Cardinal's Snuff Box'. I don't know anything about it, or him, other than that he was the editor of 'The Yellow Book' and seems to have been a suitably colourful character to do so.