Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sunday and some Books to look forward to in 2018

It's been a busy old week work wise, partly because our buyers threw us a big tasting session on Friday. This involves a trip to London and as it's a day out of the shop it has a real holiday feel to it, it's also a chance to bitch with colleagues about all the things that frustrate us (currently this mostly seems to be a lack of Chablis), and try some excellent wines. The last is important, it might sound like pure self indulgence to spend an afternoon getting re-acquainted with Krug, Taittinger Comte de Champagne, Veuve's Grande Dame, and Pol Roger's Cuvée Winston Churchill (my personal favourite  against some stiff competition, I could have reported on the current vintage age of Dom Perignon too, but some rotter finished it before I got a look in) but you have to spit, and this is the stuff that customers want to know is worth the money. Somebody has to do the research.

It would have been even more fun (it's the highlight of my working year) if I hadn't been coming down with a cold - a blocked nose makes tasting very hard, but I did my best. Happily I got to recuperate whilst dog sitting for my mother. It was a perfect combination of fresh air whilst I was walking her, and napping on the sofa when I wasn't, and now I'm back home with the Oxford University Press trade catalogue for the first half of 2018, and a cup of the best hot chocolate I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. It's Kate Young's Chocolatl recipe (inspired by Philip Pullman's Northen Lights) and is the perfect combination of thick creamy chocolate, aromatic spice, salt, and a couple of things you'll need to check the book for. It's just wonderful.

Also wonderful is the OUP trade list. It's a toss up between this and the British Library list as to which is my favourite (both have a particularly high ratio of the kind of books I get particularly excited about). So wonderful I'm here to share my personal highlights.

I'm intrigued by 'Prohibition a concise history', by W. J. Rorabaugh. I'm interested in the cultural history of alcohol generally, the idea of the Prohibition era is evocative, but I really don't know enough about it.

Patricia Fara's 'A Lab of One's Own' is being published to help mark the centenary of women gaining the vote in this country, and it sounds timely. It looks at the women who stepped into the labs during the First World War, women who carried out pioneering research, and were then unceremoniously pushed back out of the lab again when the men returned. Stories like this need to be told, both to inspire, and to challenge the prejudices that still limit women in science.

Jane Stevenson's 'Baroque Between the Wars' promises to take a fresh look on the arts between 1918-1939 and explore how baroque offered a completely different way of being modern. I think this one sounds fascinating.

There are also more of the beautiful cloth bound hardback Oxford editions coming out. These books are gorgeous so I'll be very tempted at the prospect of replacing my tatty old paperback copy of 'The Mabinogion' (which I think I really need to read again), and it will clearly be the year to finally discover the weird fiction of Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories).

It's the bicentenary of Emily Brontë's birth next year too, so there's an updated reissue of 'The Oxford Companion to The Brontë's'. I'm not the biggest Brontë fan, but even so this sounds desirable.

I'm still battling with Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' (I will get there, but his take on rural life is both disturbing and heavy going. If ever there was a case of something nasty in the woodshed, and a man prepared to describe it in hysterical detail...) but that's not putting me off a sense of excitement about 'His Excellency Eugène Rougon'. I'm hoping Zola on court and political circles will be as good as Zola in 'Money'.

And finally, the book I'm really excited about. 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' is getting the World's Classics treatment. I have mentioned before how obsessed with this book I was aged about 11. I read it time after time, and whilst my enthusiasm for it has abated somewhat I'm still fond of it, I have never looked forward to reading the introduction of a book more.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Little Library Cookbook - Kate Young

I've occasionally read Kate Young's Guardian column where she matches recipes to books, but never got particularly excited about it - mostly because I was never particularly excited by the books that were featured when I saw it. Nevertheless I was quite excited when I saw a book was coming, and had put it in my wish list hoping someone might consider it as a Christmas present. Then yesterday I finally saw a copy (it's not made it to Leicester's Waterstones, but it was everywhere in London where I'd been wine tasting) and decided I really couldn't wait to get it.

I love the concept of matching books with food and drink (as demonstrated by the 100 odd books and booze posts to date that I've done here) finding that it adds another layer to your memories of a beloved book, and clear inspiration in the kitchen. I like the project element of it too as you search for just the right recipe to make the moment live.

Sometimes the choice is obvious, sometimes the links between text and food (or drink) are more personal. The most obvious food in literature is probably Proust's Madeleines (for which Young does indeed provide a recipe), but Edmunds's love for Turkish delight in 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' must run a close second (recipe also included) and I bet it's a book that far more people have read.

Altogether there are 100 recipes divided by the time of day they might be eaten, some are things to make on a lazy weekend when there are hours to spare for pottering around making Marmalade (Paddington) and cinnamon buns (inspired by Donna Tartt's 'The Goldfinch'), or suggestions for porridge (The Secret Garden) which can be part of any but the most rushed morning routine. Also, and I wholeheartedly agree with Young on this, porridge doesn't have to be confined to breakfast.

And if you're thinking porridge isn't really worthy of a recipe, or that people these days are all too inclined to fill cookbooks with things that are scarcely recipes at all, then at least here it makes sense, because this is as much about a love of books, and a genuine love of food, as it is the recipes. It's a deeply engaging combination which provides a reading list as well as a recipe list, and encouragement to find the same kind of links in the books I too love.

Monday, October 16, 2017

#MeToo

I'vet been thinking about writing this post all day (because what Monday really needs is intensive thinking about sexual assault and misogyny) and wondering if it was really something I wanted to do. These are not memories I particularly want, and not things I would generally share outside of an actual face to face conversation- and maybe that's part of the problem.

So there was the young male teacher who wanted to be everybody's friend , he was young enough to have gone out with the only slightly older sister of one of my classmates, and not above referring to his ex in a derogatory way in class. I thought he was an arse, and someone I'd rather avoid. He told my mother, during parents evening, that he thought I'd probably been abused. I hadn't, it didn't make me warm to him. He told me, in front of a staff room full of collegues and another of my glass mates that he thought I was manipulative. It was probably my first experience as an almost adult of that feeling of shock and powerlessness that is never the reaction you expect to have. 

At university on an almost empty campus at the end of first year there was the builder who walked up to me, in the middle of the day, and simply grabbed my breast and laughed about it with his friend. Again, total shock. What do you say, who do you tell, who actually cares, and what the hell does somebody who thinks that's alright do next? I didn't tell anyone, couldn't have accurately described either man, simply didn't know what to do.

There was a customer when I worked in a bookshop, in the days before we talked about grooming, who would come in and initiate friendly conversation about books. He was very softly spoken so you had to lean in to hear him, but he seemed harmless enough until one day he just started talking filth. Total panic again trying to work out what reaction he expected and wanted. It seemed he wanted a reaction, but that not giving him one was encouragement for him to continue. I confided in an older, female colleague - her reaction; how do you think it makes Me feel that he's harassing You. Jealous apparently. It turned out that 'Eddie' had made a habit of doing this in every bookshop in town. He stopped coming into our shop after another male colleague recognised him as his sisters maths teacher. It was his relative anonymity that had made his behaviour possible. Now I'd call the police there and then, at the time I couldn't bring myself to repeat the things he'd said. 

There was the manager at work who had an escalating drink problem, not good in an off licence, he also had wandering hands when he'd been drinking, and a line in humour that it was hard to find funny. The situation came to a head when he verbally harassed a colleague young enough to be his daughter (in front of a group of us) and she asked me to back her up when she made an official complaint. There was a lot of pressure (from our female line manager) on us to drop the complaint, enough that it would have been easier to give in. I was asked to get everybody to make statements about his behaviour, assured they would be confidential, then after they were submitted, told that in fact they weren't confidential and that this man would have access to all of them. 

He was dismissed, but not for harassment, he hadn't been paying for the stock he was drinking. When I applied for his job, the job I'd been doing whilst he was incapable of it, and the job I was expected to do whilst he was suspended and replaced, I was told I wouldn't get it because I couldn't be seen to be rewarded for reporting him. It was not a nice time and I'm still grateful for the many male colleagues who did provide support - because happily it isn't all men.

I seldom wear a watch now after being followed across town by a man who initiated conversation after asking the time (it's a common approach). Despite increasingly explicit requests for him to leave me alone he followed me for about quarter of an hour, from the street door of my flat, with a constant stream of verbal harassment, only stopping when I reached the high street and there were to many people to close for him to carry on unnoticed. After a couple of taxi journeys when similar things happened I'm now reluctant to get taxis at all. 

And my list could go on, and on. Some incidents far more serious than any of these, dozens which are the common currency of women's lives (not just women at that) and hardly make an impression any more. But they should, and they should be talked about because I find the thing that bothers me most about #MeToo is how bad we are at talking about this kind of thing. I think about how poorly prepared I was to deal with any of the incidents that happened to me in my teens and twenties. How many times you're told that it's nothing, made to feel that complaining will be more trouble than it's worth, pressured not to complain because of the administrative problems it will create. Asked to consider the impact a complaint would have in the man involved, was his transgression serious enough to warrant the possibility of losing his job - and the guilt that makes you feel.There's the disbelief too, and all the rest of the toxic crap that gets thrown at you.

There's also the reality of complaining and following it through. I once went to court with a friend to support her whilst she got a restraining order against an ex who was stalking her. Listened whilst his lawyer attacked her on the stand, even asking if his client would give her children would she reconsider her position. That's how far he was from accepting that she simply didn't want to see him any more. 

Most of all though, it's the horrible feeling of shocked disbelief that this is happening (again), the realisation that you won't react the way you always thought you would, won't know what to say or do, and that (again) your power over a situation has been removed from you. It's humiliating and frightening, and can take a long time to get over. 


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White

Mid October and I feel stuck between the end of summer - it's been unseasonably warm this weekend - and the looming threat of Christmas which isn't actually that far away, despite protestations from some quarters that it's still to soon to talk about it. It isn't to soon, and even as I type I have Christmas puddings gently steaming in the kitchen.

I read 'The Third Eye' back in June, and haven't quite got round to writing about it in all the time since, finally doing it has definitely made me realise that this is really Autumn, and not the end of summer. Fortunately it's an excellent autumn book, with just the right atmosphere for darkening nights.

Caroline has been living with her sister and her family in a small London flat, she's welcome, but feels strongly that it's time she struck out independently. Partly because she feels slightly inadequate next to her far more intellectual sister, and her professor husband, and maybe because the professor is a little too fond of her.

There's no hint of impropriety, but rather a gentle reminder to the reader that no marriage, however sound, needs a permanent house guest in any form, much less that of a younger more physically attractive sister. It's part of White's charm that she reminds us of that before it's perhaps altogether evident to her characters.

Anyway, Caroline is happy to accept a post as games mistress at the Abbey School, despite her brother in laws reservations. Turning up at the beginning of the autumn term it's down becomes clear that all is not quite as it should be. The previous games mistress died in slightly odd circumstances, the matron has a bit of a cult following amongst the pupils, and holds séances with the headmistress. There's a general atmosphere of uneasiness that becomes increasingly tense - which is White's forte, and she really excelled at it here.

Caroline is soon affected by the same creeping unease that pervades the place, and her situation gets worse when she falls out with the matron over her treatment of a pupil. A crisis point is reached where Caroline finds herself in real danger from an unexpected source (after a wonderful exercise in rising paranoia and dread during a journey back to the school), before everything is resolved more or less satisfactorily (at least for Caroline).

It's an excellent book by an oddly neglected writer - there's this from Greyladies, and a few of her stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, and whilst more of her work isn't hard to find as ebooks or print on demand formats, I feel she deserves more. This is the woman who wrote the book Hitchcock based 'The Lady Vanishes' on after all. 'The Third Eye' has a tremendous amount of atmosphere, as well as a plot that nicely blends a sense of impending melodrama with a feeling that these kind of things could all to easily happen. And it really is just the kind of thing to read with curtains drawn, and fire lit (or puddings steaming) on an autumn evening. It'll certainly make you think twice about talking to strangers on buses.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

At My Table - Nigella Lawson

Autumn, season of celebrity biographies, big name cookbooks, and sundry other Christmas hopefuls is upon us with a vengeance. There's a few food titles I'm hoping I might get for Christmas (Ren Behan's Honey and Rye, Kate Young's The Little Library Cookbook, and Supra by Tiko Tuskadze - which has been out a little longer, and looks excellent if anyone wants to know) and others that I've bought already.

'At My Table' was an impulse purchase when I saw it half price in Waterstones*. I've been a Nigella fan since 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' and love all of her earlier books. I've been less enthusiastic about the later books, but I think that's natural - Lawson is one of those bankable names who seems to be expected to produce something annually, and I'm not sure how sustainable that is - you just can't write a How to Eat, or a How to be a Domestic Goddess every damn year. 

That and personal tastes change. How I cook and eat has certainly changed a lot over the last few years. Annoying shift patterns make it far harder to prepare, plan, or make meals, than it used to be. The food my partner prefers (both to prepare and eat) is different to my first choices as well. I like his cooking, I like him cooking and me not having too, but it does change the amount of time I used to spend playing in the kitchen (but then why should I have all the fun?). 

All of which is a long winded way of saying I wasn't sure I'd like this book until I actually saw it. There are things I'd never make in here (toasted Brie and fig sandwich because I loathe Brie and am ambivalent about figs) but not many, because mostly these are exactly the sort of recipes I want at the moment. 

Chicken and pea traybake, Hake with bacon peas and cider, the herbed leg of lamb, and the no churn ice creams all look great (those were the things that caught my eye during the flick test). It's a book full of recipes that don't need to much thinking about beforehand, and which don't demand to much effort to produce - recipes that a tired person can tackle with enthusiasm on a Friday night after a long week and a very quick trip around a supermarket. Or look forward to whilst they slowly do their thing in an oven and you try and catch up on all the tedious chores that seem to make up weekends at the moment. 

It's exactly the sort of home cooking I'm after (the emergency brownies which come in small quantities sound intriguing as well, I'm not sure any brownie recipe will ever quite supplant the HtbaDG version, but that one is built on industrial lines - this one isn't.) Apparently some people have been sniffy about a whipped feta recipe, but hands up, it's not something that had ever occurred to me to do and I like the sound of it a lot. 

On the whole a great book for beginner cooks, harassed cooks, and cooks (like me) who feel they've lost a bit of their kitchen mojo and want some inspiration. 

*Why are the books everyone is likely to buy anyway always so heavily discounted? 'At My Table' has a cover price of £26, which I imagine very few people will pay. Buying it for £13, or less, makes the books listed above look unattractively expensive by comparison, and doesn't make it any easier to understand what a book actually needs to cost. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Cocktail Book

'The Cocktail Book', reprinted here by the British Library, first appeared in 1900, and it seems to have been the first book specifically dedicated to the cocktail (there are earlier books which cover Cocktails along with other things, this book is just Cocktails).

This edition is a nice little hardback with a smart black and gold cover which has almost certainly been designed as a stocking filler, and thought of as a bit of a curiosity, but especially after my cocktail experiments back in August (which also celebrated the BL's Crime Classics series, matching drinks to books gives a nice set of boundaries to work within!) I've found I have a lot of time for these early drinks books (Jerry Thomas' Bartenders guide, Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks', and Harry Craddock's 'Savoy Cocktail Book' are the others I have). They are far more than curiosities. 

The great thing about these books is that a lot of the drinks are easy to mix, there are plenty which don't call for lots of obscure and expensive ingredients, and lots of them taste good (some might not, tastes and times change). Each also have their particular strengths, for 'The Cocktail Book' it's the use of bitters.

Angostura Bitters are easy to find, most supermarkets sell them, but they're only the tip of an aromatic (and bitter) iceberg. Bitters are useful things to have around, they can transform drinks in all sorts of interesting ways, so a book that encourages their use is a good thing (it'll mostly be a case of searching them out online for most of us, but they're not particularly expensive, and go a long way). There is also a handy glossary at the back of this book which explains what the less familiar things are, and where practical what to substitute them with.

As a curiosity it's certainly interesting to see the kind of drinks that were popular in the Belle Époque, and though ingredients like acid phosphate are a challenge to source (it's available on Amazon in the U.S, but looks like it would take more searching for in the U.K) things like Café Kirsch (coffee and kirsch shaken over ice - though I prefer it warm) are both simple and appealing.

However you look at it, it's a book with plenty to offer, and well worth investigating.




Sunday, October 8, 2017

Was there a Russian Jane Austen and What's a Classic anyway?

I have been reading books (though slowly) and I will write about one soon, but this morning I read This article on The Pool website by Viv Groskop and it's been bothering me all day. In it she asks how do we acknowledge that men created the majority of the literary classics without doing women writers a disservice.

Classic seems to be a fairly elastic term at the best of times but I'm sceptical about this article and it's statement that "It's simply not as if there are dozens of women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries who remain unknown and under-rated" or that "Many of the great male writers attained their status because they said something about the time they were living in that was viewed as significant".

It may well be that there aren't many British women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th century remaining to be discovered, but the list of 'anomalies' is far longer than Woolf, Austen, assorted Brontës, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Louise May Alcott (sic). Just looking at my Penguin and Oxford classics I can add Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Oliphant, and Ellen Wood to that list. I have something over 400 Virago Modern Classics, dozens of Persephone's, yards of golden age Crime by the acknowledged queens of the genre, and all sorts of other things to carry on making the point with.

All of them were popular in their day, presumably because they too were saying something significant about the time they were living in. Books in the U.K. are relatively cheap and we're well served with reprints of English language books. My by no means comprehensive collection tells me that these women were far from anomalies, and that it's quite possible to acknowledge that they were unjustly neglected, or dropped from the canon, over the years without doing any disservice to their male counterparts who were justly recognised and remembered.

We are not so well served by books in translation, and I have no idea if there are French, Italian, Russian (you get the idea) versions of Virago or Persephone, intent on rescuing those hidden female voices, but if books by Irene Nemirovsky or Teffi have started to appear in English over the last decade or so, I'm prepared to believe there are more (Wikipedia leads me to suppose so too).

I'm also wondering how many of those canonical classics by the great male writers that fill so many bookshelves are read as opposed to representing good intentions. Their names may be better known, but outside of universities how many people really settle down with Chekhov at the end of a long day? (Readers here are not likely to be a representative sample for answering that question).

To me it seems that where we do do those great male writers a disservice is in isolating them from their female peers. I've got far more out of reading Trollope having read Oliphant's 'Carlingford Chronicles', and enjoy Wilkie Collins more for having read Braddon - and that's a list that could go on too.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Books I'd love to see on Screen

I've been out in the villages today so have missed National bookshop day, but as I'm no stranger to the inside of a bookshop I don't feel to badly about it, and there's always tomorrow. Meanwhile a comment from Susanna about Arnold Bennett's 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' got me thinking about that perennial question; what books would you most like to see adapted for television?

I believe there's yet another Jane Austen adaptation on its way, which I'll almost certainly watch, and probably enjoy. And I might have read about a Brontë something or other which I would also watch but with a little less enthusiasm (and also I might have imagined reading about this). I'd also add Agatha Christie to the over adapted list.

Meanwhile, Susanna is right, 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' would make excellent T.V. It's a big, colourful, romp with plenty of action, and scope for gorgeous costumes. It also breaks conveniently into 2 parts, and I'd happily watch it.

I'd also quite like to see Georgette Heyer on the television, possibly something late like 'Cousin Kate' (though its depiction of mental health issues might be problematic). The late books are generally rather less loved than the early ones, so much less danger of howling in outrage at whatever nonsense is on the screen (the really awful David Walliams take on Tommy and Tuppance comes to mind). 'Cousin Kate' (thinking about re reading it for the 1968 book club) has an oppressive, somewhat gothic atmosphere, the orphaned Kate is struggling to find a way to keep herself when she's taken in by her half aunt. There's something wrong in the house but she's not clear what it is, but when a mutilated rabbit turns up we can all guess what's coming next. Done properly it could be good.

Given the success of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford' books it's a safe bet there would be an audience for Margaret Oliphant's Carlingford Chronicles too. I love these books, not least because of the way she responds to Trollope's Barchester Chronicles in them (though that's by no means all she's doing). They absolutely deserve to be better known, and have some tremendous characters in them.

I'd really like to see some of Barbara Pym's excellent women given some screen space too. They deserve the attention, and done well would be wonderful to watch.

Meike Ziervogel's 'The Photographer', or Marie Sizun's 'Her Father's Daughter' (published by Meike's Peirene Press) would also be great. They both take a good look at fathers returning from the Second World War. 'The Photographer' is a loosely biographical account of a family from East Germany being drawn into the war, partly through an act of betrayal, and finally finding each other again in the refugee camps of the west. 'Her Father's Daughter' is French, the betrayal is of a different nature, and how families fit together again after long periods of separation is the major theme. Both books are brilliant, both offer a different view of the impact the war had on society to the one I'm used to seeing. Both would make for tense and gripping on screen drama.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Grand Babylon Hotel - Arnold Bennett

I've been meaning to investigate Arnold Bennett for a long time, and found this in Edinburgh back in January. It sounded entertaining so seemed like a good place to start.

The back blurb told me that:
"Nella, daughter of millionaire Theodore Racksole, orders a dinner of steak and beer at the exclusive Grand Babylon Hotel in London. Her unladylike order is refused, so Theodore promptly buys the chef, the kitchen, and the whole hotel. But when staff begin to vanish and an aristocratic guest goes missing, Nella discovers that murder, blackmail, and kidnapping are also on the menu."

The Times also described it as rather excellent.

It is excellent. Nella, and Theodore Racksole are an appealing pair, with a delightfully modern relationship for a book first published in 1902, Theodore let's Nella do much as she likes, and what he's told, on the grounds that it's just easier that way, and as she's a determined young woman he's probably right.

From the very night that he buys the Hotel, Theodore suspects something is amiss, and relishes the chance to solve the problem. The mix of Ruritanian style royalty, murder, mayhem, kidnap, and international intrigue is entirely far fetched and very much tongue in cheek, which is all extremely satisfying and great fun along the way.

'The Grand Babylon Hotel' seems to be a bit of an oddity in Bennett's oeuvre - it certainly has little to do with the potteries and the five towns, and sounds worlds away from the 'Old Wives Tale' as well. If I'd realised that earlier it probably wouldn't have been the book I started with- simply because it was so much fun that I'd quite like more of the same. Beginning with something more typical might have been a better idea, if only because at the moment I still don't really feel I know anything about Bennett. That will change though, and meanwhile this one is a little gem of a thing.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Back home with Books

Back home, and back to work. Work looked like I must have been gone a month rather than a week, which I suppose at least makes it abundantly clear how much I actually do do there. I can hope that's been noticed (though due to being both busy, and chronically short staffed, it's unlikely) because one day in I'm feeling in need of another break.

Inverness was fun and quite busy so we took our time coming home, stopping in the Borders on Saturday before the last stretch down the M1. I love the Borders, and have a particular fondness for St Boswells (pretty village, excellent bookshop - The Main Street Trading Company with a decent Café) so staying there was a proper treat.

Packing for this trip, I made the mistake of taking 2 books I really felt I ought to finish but just haven't been in the mood for, so ended up doing very little reading. It was only on Saturday afternoon that I saw sense and decided to actually read one of the handful of new books I'd bought.

The unread books (I will finish them soon) are Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Moret' which I started months ago. The problem is the middle section, it's almost unbearably dull - a long list of plant names, interspersed with an equally tedious sexual awakening. I'll grit my teeth and get on with it at the weekend, but Zola on the countryside is not a treat. The other book is L. M. Montgomery's 'Anne of the Island'. I love Montgomery, I loved the Anne books as a child (all of them) and have been looking forward to reading the Virago reprints. Montgomery is far better on nature than Zola, but the combination was not a happy one, so Anne needs to wait a little longer.

My book buying was fairly restrained, partly held back by the tottering piles of unread books currently infesting every part of my flat. They're becoming overwhelming again and I need to do something about it, but I still couldn't resist 'The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff' ( begun age 12, ends with her death at 25, she was born in the Ukraine in 1859, but mostly grew up in France. She wanted to be a singer, but TB stopped that so she turned to painting. She founds remarkable, the book is a doorstop, but it'll keep) or 'Cork on the Water' by MacDonald Hastings (fishing, shooting, and murder, with ballerinas - it sounded worth a punt) both from Leakey's. E. F. Benson's 'Secret Lives' was a charity shop find, as Benson has never yet disappointed I'm pleased to have found this.

Mindful of the just one book principle of supporting both bookshops and publishers I found 'The Nebuly Coat' (Apollo it sounds intriguing, full of melodrama and architecture, which are both things I like) and Alistair Moffat's 'The Reivers' in the Main Street bookshop. I also found an excellent toasted coconut cake there that I'd very much like the recipe for. I'm reading The Reivers at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Inverness and Cawdor Castle

It's almost time to leave Inverness again after a brilliant few days, this is my third proper visit, and every time I find I like the place more. It's a small city, a little bit shabby in places, and nowhere near as visitor/tourist oriantated as I expected on my first visit. There are a couple of places selling tartan tat, but only a couple. For reasons I really don't understand, especially because it's not far from the whisky Mecca that is Speyside, not to mention the significant number of Highland distilleries which aren't that far away either, there isn't really a proper whisky shop.

On this visit I have found a really good little gallery though, Leakey's bookshop remains magnificent, and I now know how to wrap a medium sized yacht up for the winter (the trick is to get someone else to do the bulk of the job).

In between exploring every side street I could find, and cocooning boats in rope and tarpaulin, we went out to Cawdor Castle and gardens. (Long story short, Shakespeare's history is based on shaky sources for Macbeth, and aimed to entertain James VI (James I of England) who was fascinated by witchcraft to the point of obsession, rather than for educational purposes. The actual Cawdor castle post dates events by quite a long time.






Recent history is far more outlandish than anything in Shakespeare- almost pure soap opera, after the 6th Earl died in 1993 and left the lot to his second wife. The children of his first wife, including the 7th Earl were clearly not impressed, an increasingly bitter, and very litigious, family feud followed.

This is a shame in that the castle still retains the feel of a family home, and looks like it would be an amazing place to spend early childhood, full of all sorts of exciting chances to fall off, down, or into things, and it's rather sad to think this may more longer happen. Meanwhile it's a picture perfect Scottish castle with a liberal quantity of towers, courtyards, turrets, and winding staircases. It's also built round a holly tree (it died sometime in the 14th century, probably not long after it had a house built around it) but the tree is still there for anyone to see - which is one of the best things I've ever seen in an old house. (The legend runs that an early Thane wanted to build a new house, so directed by a dream he put a box of gold on the back of a donkey, and let it wonder about all day, then built his house where it lay down to sleep in the evening - under the tree).

There is also a fantastic collection of art, not just the old portraits that you expect to find in old houses, but a lot of fairly contemporary work, including sculpture and ceramics. The Café was excellent as well.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Buying Just One Book

Independent, and all round excellent, publisher, Salt have been tweeting about #JustOneBook this month. If all their followers bought just one book directly from Them in September, or indeed in October, it would be enough to keep them on track for the year.

I vividly remember the first training day I had about sales, I was working for Oddbins at the time, and it was explained to us what a difference getting every customer to spend a pound more would make to the company. It stuck in my mind because it was such a small amount, and that's the difference between being comfortably profitable, or not.

Salt have a really interesting list, my personal recommendation would be for Meike Ziervogel's 'The Photographer' which is easily one of my favourite books of the year, and Ziervogel's best so far, but there's a lot of great stuff to choose from.

Good quality independent publishers are something to be grateful for, cherished, and supported, as are good bookshops - independent or otherwise. Sometimes it makes more sense to use Amazon (though that's rarely because of price these days, unless it's a headlining sort of release, they're just not that cheap anymore) but I much prefer not to, purely because when I spend my money elsewhere I know it's helping keeping my local booksellers in business. The same is true ordering directly from the publisher.

So at that point in the year when I start thinking that I need to start thinking about Christmas (followed by the more panicky realisation in about a months time that actually it's almost November, work is crazy, only going to get crazier, and I need to do more than start thinking about it), I'm getting in my traditional 'think about where you spend your money' bit. It doesn't take much to make a difference to smaller (or even larger) businesses, but having them around is good for all of us. To borrow another phrase from that long ago training day, show them the love (I know it's a cheesy, corporate, thing to say - but there you have it).


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Jasper Johns at the Royal Acadamy

I'm off work this week and all over the country - on Saturday it was London to catch up with some old school friends, it was also the opening of the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Acadamy. I've loved Johns iconic works from the 1950's and '60's ever since I first encountered them, so this exhibition was a must see affair.

None of the friends I was meeting shared quite the same enthusiasm, and in fairness an exhibition perhaps isn't the best way to catch up with people you haven't seen for a decade or so, especially if it's the kind of crush that the RA normally entertains on a Saturday afternoon. So I got an early train and arrived a few minutes after opening, which turns out to be a great time to get there because it was as quiet as I've ever seen it.

This is a major retrospective that covers all of Johns career - I didn't actually realise he was still alive, which is shameful, but understandable given that the really good stuff all seems to date from the 50's and 60's, and focuses on images of 'things the mind already knows'. The flags especially maintain their freshness and power. Looking at them close to was an unexpectedly emotional experience.

As a symbol a flag comes loaded with all sorts of significance anyway, the American flag maybe more so than many, and particularly at the moment. It is something the mind already knows, and because of that, something not always paid much attention. Stopping to look at a painted version makes you both appreciate how the image has been physically painted, and also to start thinking about the layers of meaning we attach to it.

The thing that I've always loved about Johns work is the feeling that he really loves paint and colour, and that's something that really came home to me here. Amongst the later works the series I really liked are the Catenary paintings (a catenary is the curve a cable makes hanging under its own weight, suspended only by its ends). These are mostly grey canvases with lengths of string suspended from attached wings. The paint echos the curve of the string, and the string casts shadows on the canvas. The effect is much more interesting than that description sounds, I promise.

Over all it's a great exhibition, there are enough of the iconic pieces to make you feel you've got your money's worth, the sketches, preparatory works, paintings, and sculptures, show just how very good a draughstman and painter Johns actually is, there's room to explore his ideas and the themes he keeps coming back to. The later work isn't as interesting as the early stuff, but it gives his whole career context - and I'm really pleased I've seen it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Enjoy Fair Isle Knitting- Chihiro Sato

I've got lots to write about at the moment, but am off to Inverness for a few days tomorrow so most of it is going to have to wait until I get back - but Wool Week has started in Shetland (I'm just not getting far enough North) and as the Instagram pictures start coming through I feel increasingly home sick.

On the upside the lovely people at The Shetland Times have been extremely generous with review copies (this was the first bookshop I knew, it's a wonderful bookshop, and splendid publisher of local titles). First there was Sharon Miller's fabulous Heirloom Knitting and now I have a slightly early copy of Chihiro Sato's 'Enjoy Fair Isle Knitting'. (It's showing as available for pre order in the website, but as I have a finished copy I guess it won't be a long wait for it).

Chihiro Sato lives in Tokyo where she has a shop called Shaela. Shaela refers to a particular natural shade of grey Sheep fleece which is one of Chihiro's favourite colours. Looking at the shade cards at the end of the book it looks like she stocks the entire range of Jamieson's Spindrift yarn (and a very fine yarn it is). She first came to Shetland in 1989 and has been returning ever since. In that time her love for, and knowledge of, Fair Isle Knitting has continued to grow.

I'm constantly fascinated to see what individual knitters bring to the techniques they use and the traditions they encounter. There is a school of thought that says if it doesn't come from Fair Isle, you shouldn't call it Fair Isle. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this approach, not least because describing all of Shetland's traditionally inspired stranded colourwork as 'Fair Isle' doesn't do the rest of the islands many favours when it comes to recognising distinct local trends (I'm thinking of the Whalsay exhibition here). On the other hand that's the name that's stuck -  much in the way that London Gin describes a style rather than a geographical provenance. (That I think about this so much is a testament to the 'Authenticity in Culturally Based Knitwear' study day broadcast I watched.)

Back to Chihiro Sato, and the chance to see how she combines her own traditions with Fair Isle techniques. There are 18 projects altogether, and whilst in some the colour inspiration come direct from the Shetland landscape, and the motifs are entirely traditional, others have Chihiro's own motifs that reference waves, bamboo, ancient beads, and so on. There are also colour ways that look to Japan (there's a jumper called Sakura that call on the ancient cherry trees she can see from her window) and ways of using colour and pattern that are all her own.

The book is translated, so although the English is clear, there are idiosyncrasies to it, but the instructions look clear enough - it only turned up yesterday, so I haven't had a chance to investigate the details. Even if I never knit anything from it though, the chance to see how Sato responds to the things that inspire her is inspirational in itself


Friday, September 22, 2017

The Living Mountain - Nan Shepherd

I bought this book back in April, partly inspired by the lovely (Scottish) £5 note that bears Shepherd's  face (the other side has a pair of mackerel, and I need to keep the next one I get). It's a short book that I thought I might read in an afternoon. I started it in August, and finished it today.

Generally speaking I haven't been reading a lot recently - I've been knitting instead, but even so that's a long time to get through 108 pages. One reason it's taken so long is that this has to be just about the most perfectly written thing I've ever read. It's perfect in the way that frost patterns and snowflakes are perfect. If I'd made a note of everything I wanted to keep as a quote I would have transcribed almost the whole book, and it's left me more than slightly obsessed with the work of Susie Leiper (specifically the calligraphy pieces).

'The Living Mountain' describes Shepherd's experience of, and love for, the Cairngorms. Somewhere she had a lifelong relationship with. I've never really understood the appeal of mountains before; Shetland is hilly, but not mountainous, Leicestershire is flat, when I lived in Aberdeen I was more inclined to look to the sea than the hills, and it will always be the shoreline that captures my imagination in the way that the Cairngorms captured Shepherd's, but even so she's hooked me in here.

Maybe it helps that the Cairngorms are the only mountains I've ever got really close too, and even if it was mostly via a funicular railway (which Shepherd would not have approved of) it only took a few minutes for what is essentially an arctic landscape to beguile me. It's such a harsh, uncompromising, environment  that I couldn't help but fall for it in the same way that I love the Sea. There's nothing easy about the place, the views are impressive if they're not covered by clouds, but there are others just as good. What makes it special is that you really have to look, to find the beauty in the place, and when you do, as Shepherd did, there's so much to see.

She describes walking in every sort of condition, and all the many rewards it brings, the moments of clarity, of joy, and of fear - of literally looking into the abyss. It's a remarkable book, one that demands to be read over and over - because like the mountains it's too much, too rich, to take in all at once.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dido Queen of Carthage - Christopher Marlowe

We saw this on Monday night at the RSC, and all I really want to say about it is go and see it.

I've been enthusiastic about Marlowe since studying 'Doctor Faustus for' A levels (decades ago) and would happily go much further out of my way than Stratford to see anything of his performed. I found no such enthusiasm for Anthony and Cleopatra, which was one of our Shakespeare texts (or Twelth Night, which was the other one) so I was interested when I read that Virgil, who provides the source material, turned her into a Cleopatra prototype..

I can see the parallels in the doomed and obsessive love affair that will be the ruin of a queen, but I never had much patience for Anthony, and on the whole I think the themes explored in Dido are quite different.

The play opens with Jupiter lusting after Ganymede, angering both his wife, Juno, and his daughter, Venus - who feels that he should be paying rather more attention to what's happening to her son, Aeneas, as he flees the sack of Troy.

Jupiter tells Venus not to worry, and Aeneas along with his son and a handful of followers find themselves cast ashore in Carthage where they're soon reunited with more of their band of refugees, who are enjoying the hospitality of Dido's court.

Dido takes in Aeneas as well, promising him whatever aid he may need, and asking in return to hear the fate of Troy. Venus, wanting to be sure that Dido will do everything possible for her son, sends Cupid to make sure she falls in love with him. She does, to distraction, but it's a cruel fate.

Aeneas has a fate awaiting him, he is to go to Italy and build a new Troy, and when Jupiter sends Hermes to remind him of this he eventually turns his back on Dido with devastating consequences for her.

The set design was brilliant, a sand covered stage consistently evokes an idea of land and a home land. It is desert and beach, something to be rooted in, and something to travel across. There's also a curtain of water that's tremendously effective - when the shipwrecked Aeneas tumbles through it onto the stage for the first time it really felt like he was being delivered from the storm.

Best of all though is Chipo Chung's performance as Dido. She was mesmerising. The story of the real Dido is frankly inspiring; as a young widow she founded Carthage, building it from nothing into a successful mercantile and navel nation, whilst successfully avoiding pressure from a neighbouring king to marry and submit her subjects to him. Parallels that might conceivably have amused Queen Elizabeth. Which also makes it interesting that when Dido does fall in love and tries to make Aeneas King of Carthage to keep him by her side it works out so badly.

Virgil and Marlowe's Dido has a somewhat different history, but she's still an impressive woman ultimately screwed over by the machinations of the gods. Aeneas is a trickier proposition. When he chooses his duty/destiny to go to Italy and found Rome over her it feels like the cruelest of betrayals after all she has done for him, but love is only really enough in the pages of a romance.

But back to how damn good Chipo Chang was, it all comes together in the final scene (possible spoiler - there's quite a lot of suicide) nobody on our row had dry eyes at the end - also down to Amber Jones, playing Anna (Dido's sister). She doesn't get to do a lot until the end, but the dynamic between the two women makes the emotion so real.

We loved this, it's Wednesday and I'm still buzzing about it - if you can go and see it, go and see it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kingdom Come at the RSC

R and I haven't been to Stratford as often as we generally do this year (though we're making up for it with two visits in 5 days here), that's mostly because the theme has been Rome which hasn't captured our joint imaginations as much as some other seasons have. But then her parents turned up with glowing reports of how good 'Kingdom Come' was so we compared diaries, realised we were both free 2 days later, booked tickets and went.

It's the first time I've been in 'The Other Place' since it was reopened last year - and very nice it is too. The foyer is one big Café and feels particularly welcoming. The ticket price was also welcoming, £10, for which I'm more than happy to take a chance on something that says it's immersive and features nudity. 


The year is 1640, parliament is rebellious, and King Charles 1 is playing a god in a court masque. We know how this ends. One of the things I really liked about The Other Place is the way it feels like a box, the chairs we sat in were divided from the stage space by a row of lights on the floor about 2 feet in front of us - it makes it very easy to pull the audience into the play, or push them out, with a few props or bits of scenery. 

The Masque ends with Charles on trial, and then the audience is urged to follow the cast through the building (into the scene dock) to witness his execution. I imagine the mood of the audience makes a considerable difference here, our audience was muted, which contributed to a specific mood, change the audience and I guess you change the mood with it (I'd happily go back to test that theory). Anyway, huddled in a dark room, surrounded by scaffold, jostling for a view, whilst also trying to hang back a bit (just in case), and movement around the room that you could hear rather than see was very effectively immersive. 

The third act deals with the reality of puritan rule, mostly through the eyes of a troop of actors, and has the most obvious parallels to contemporary issues  (such as religious tolerance, and intolerance, attitudes towards gender, personal freedom, PTSD), although all things considered it's done with a light touch. There are also a series of beautifully lit (chiaroscuro that Caravaggio would have been proud of) tableaux that recall seventeenth century genre paintings. It really made me wish that I could have taken pictures - it was mesmerising (I'd also have liked to see if I could match some of those tableaux to actual paintings). The effect echoed both the carefully created images of a world seen through Instagram, but also to suggest a nostalgic longing for good old days. 

The FT described this as an honours failure, the Guardian gave itva more enthusiastic 4 stars. I'm with the Gaurdian. It was thought provoking, visually and orally delightful, unexpectedly exciting to be able to move around the building, and altogether invigorating. We both came out feeling deeply enthusiastic, and ready to take a chance on pretty much anything the Other Place decides to put on. 

Kingdom Come is on until the 30th of September and is absolutely worth taking a chance on if you're  in or near Stratford between now and then. 


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Vineyard Cake from Sweet

The promise of this cake was what sold me on 'Sweet', Vineyard cake, also called Cleopatra cake, is filled with grapes, and uses most of a bottle of Muscat - that's an attractive combination for a wine merchant.

Closer inspection of the recipe shows that it wants an inconvenient amount of Muscat - 450ml, we sell bottles of the suggested Muscat Beaumes de Venise in 375ml bottles, and I knew I had an elderly half bottle of Californian Muscat at home needed using (if it was still okay). Because of the size of the original recipe it also needs to be made in a chiffon or angel food cake tin, which I don't have either. A bundt tin won't do because there's a sugar crust and grapes on top of it, which is where you want them to stay.

Happily it was an easy recipe to half, so I made it as a loaf cake instead, and it's cooked through beautifully. The old bottle of Muscat I had (2009 vintage) was past it's best but still basically sound. There's no point in cooking with wine that's corked (cork taint smells and tastes like musty cardboard,  it's caused by a bacteria in the cork, and nothing will fix it), oxidised, or otherwise faulty. Wine that is older than it should be to be at its best is slightly different. As it ages it loses its fruit flavours, which is what was happening to my Muscat, but it still had enough of its distinctive sweet grapey character to be drinkable, and as cooking it would have much the same effect on it as aging had, I was happy to use it. For future baking I'll be looking for 500ml bottles of moscatel (basically the same grape, but Spanish rather than French) though I'm also curious to see how it might work with a pale cream sherry.

Meanwhile, grease and flour a 2 pound loaf tin, wash and slice lengthways 50g of seedless grapes (which turned out to be far fewer than I expected) and finely grate the zest of a lemon and half an orange. Preheat the oven to 210°C/190°c fan oven/gas 6.

Take 170g of caster sugar, 90g of butter at room temp, 40 ml of olive oil, and the scraped seeds of half a vanilla pod and mix for a couple of minutes until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs, one at a time, beating well each time, and then take 250g of plain flour, a good pinch of salt, 1 tsp of baking powder, and 1/4 tsp of bicarbonate of soda and add about a third of it to the mix followed by half the (225ml's total) of wine, blend and then add half the remaining flour and the rest of the wine, followed by the rest of the flour.

Pour the batter in the tin, scatter the grapes evenly across the top, and put in the oven. Now take 35g of caster sugar and 35g of butter and mix in a small bowl until it's a thick paste. Wash and half another 50g of grapes (no longer surprised at how few that is) and when the cake has been in the oven 15-20 minutes carefully remove it and spread the sugar crust evenly over the top, breaking it into small pieces as you go, scatter the grapes on top of it and stick it back in the oven, wearing the temperature to 180°c/160° fan/ Gas 4 and continue to bake for another half hour or so until a skewer comes out of the cake clean. Allow to cool for half an hour in the tin before removing.

It's a gloriously light cake, with an attractive grapey, almost incense smokey note from the Muscat (you can smell the wine, it's great). It's very good with a cup of coffee but I'm going to get that chiffon tin because I think this would be a brilliant dinner party cake (possibly with some whipped cream laced with the remaining Muscat on the side). Apparently it keeps well - I'll report back on that.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sweet - Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh

Today has been a bank holiday lieu day, much needed after a couple of very hectic weeks at work have left me feeling thoroughly washed out. Initial plans to spend the morning walking a friends dog around the really beautiful Bradgate Park were rained off (we're not keen on the rain, her dog really hates it), and the doctors appointment that I had for today didn't turn out quite as I hoped it would either. 

Last year middle age inflicted a fallen arch on me, this turns out to be a really painful nuisance, and over the last couple of months has got far more so. Normally the really lovely doctor who deals with this kind of thing at my surgery sends me away with a simple exercise and advice regarding insoles or wrist straps (moving wine all day is liable to give you tennis and golfers elbows and some carpel tunnel issues). This time he's booked me in for an ultra sound - so no quick fix and a further reminder that I'm not as young as I used to be.

To cheer myself up and get the day back on track inwent and had a good look around Waterstones. Truthfully I would have done better to have gone straight home and actually read one of the Mountain of books that are waiting for me, but it's September and the pre Christmas releases are starting to appear. This is always an exciting time for cookbooks and I was tempted by a few; Sabrina Ghayour's 'Feasts' looks good, and although it's been out a couple of months so isn't precisely a new book, I really, really, want Tiko Tuskadze's 'Supra' on Georgian cooking. Every time I look at this book it tempts me more. I already bought Olia Hercules' 'Kaukasis' which touches on the same part of the world, and need to have a proper look at it before I buy another book on the same kind of food. Still, 'Supra' looks excellent, and every time I flick through a copy something else catches my eye and looks irresistible. 

Meanwhile I did get 'Sweet'. I had been on the fence about this before I saw it, previous Ottolenghi books have been full of things I'd like to eat, but not so much the sort of food I want to cook. This one  is different. Everything sounds special, the flavour combinations really appeal to me - apart from Baileys and Guinness cake, nothing can reconcile me to Baileys. The Vineyard cake, full of grapes and using really quite a lot of Muscat Beames de Venise sounds amazing though, or pineapple and star anise chiffon cake, or chocolate tart with hazelnut, Rosemary, and orange, or gingerbread with brandy apples and crème fraîche, or cinnamon pavlova, praline cream nod fresh figs, or prune cake with Armagnac and walnuts... the list goes on. 

It's not even necessarily about cooking these things, I should be avoiding sugar (but dear god, rum and raisin cake with rum caramel icing) they just sound so damn good that it's a book to live vicariously through. Though I will cook from it, and with enthusiasm, I just need to make sure I share, but I think I'll also be using it a lot as a jumping off point. It's making me think about flavour combinations new to me - this seems to be the moment when I finally 'get' Ottolenghi. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Wightwick Manor

Given that it's only just over an hour away from me I don't know why it took me so long to find out about Wightwick Manor (there's a list of National Trust places like this that make me think they could be doing a better job of letting people know what's out there), but now I have I'm here to spread the word.

I read about Wightwick in an article someone had posted somewhere (details are hazy) about Pre Raphaelite houses. Wightwick is on the outskirts of Wolverhampton and sounded intriguing, the reviews for the cafe were also excellent (I can personally recommend the coconut and pineapple cake). We went today, which also turned out to be a heritage open day so entry was free which was a bonus that went some way towards mitigating the cost of (William Morris themed) umbrellas. It was sunny and dry when we set out, but that didn't last.

Wightwick Manor was to be the family home of the Manders, reasonably wealthy, and rising, industrialists from Wolverhampton, with keen social consciences. The project was started in 1887, and then the size of the house was doubled between 1892-3. The Manders taste ran to the arts and crafts so the went to Morris & Co for their wallpaper and various bits of furniture.

Geoffrey Mander, who inherited the house from his parents, seems to have shared both their taste and their socialism. In 1937 he gave the house, its contents, and an endowment to the National Trust. At that time it was still technically a modern house, but it was also a well preserved piece of late Victorian taste, and it's gone on to be something more. The Manders continued to live in the house and in partnership with the Trust further built the arts and crafts and Pre Raphaelite collection - this is an ongoing process.

There are some remarkable things here; an extensive collection of Rossetti's work, pieces by Elizabeth Siddel, Burne Jones, ceramics by William de Morgan, paintings by Evelyn de Morgan (there's also an extensive exhibition of both their work in the Malt House gallery which is quite stunning). There's also a wonderful Cecil Aldin freeze around the nursery wall. There is wonderful Pre Raphaelite stained glass - and essentially I would happily move in tomorrow.

If I had a criticism, it's that it isn't always clear what your looking at, the pictures aren't labelled and though some of the rooms had lists and guides that helped answer questions, not all did. Altogether though it's a brilliant opportunity to see the art against its intended background, and see the wallpapers and textiles together. The house itself is a delightfully romantic confection full of alcoves, hidden corners, and treasures. It is well worth visiting.







Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A New Piece of Art

Collecting art is one of the things that makes my heart sing, it's also something I spend a lot of time thinking, plotting, and planning over. Both budget and space are limited so decisions have to be made carefully - which is part of the fun of it. Will whatever I'm looking at work in my flat, will it work with everything else in my flat, is it light sensitive which limits where it can be hung, how will it be framed, do I really love it, and so on.

I have pictures on the wall that I've spent years considering before actually buying them and if they're still available after 2-3 years careful consideration it's clearly meant to be, and regrets, or buyers remorse, are unlikely (I've never regretted any of these purchases).

What I don't generally do is buy things online, not anything really (with the excelption of books where you basically know what you're getting anyway) but especially not pictures. The risk is that unless you're already quite familiar with the artists work, the small image on screen can look very different, and quite disappointing compared to expectation, in actual life. That's nobody's fault, it's just how it is.

Which is all a long winded way of saying that I bought something online that I'd not had a chance to have a proper look at first and I'm beyond delighted with it. The piece in question is by Debbie George, I've admired pictures of her work for a while, but never managed to see anything first hand. (The only time I was anywhere near a gallery she exhibits in, it was closed). Then early this year I found The Edition Shop online, they sell original works under £200 with everything clearly priced.

The pricing thing is important. Look at works for sale on a lot of gallery websites and you won't find prices anywhere, a lot of artists websites miss them off as well and it's deeply frustrating, especially when you eventually do find a price and its way out of range of your budget.

Anyway, after watching a number of pictures I really liked get sold before I could make my mind up, infinally saw something I couldn't resist and bought it. Pictures from The Edition come unframed which is both a much cheaper way of buying things, and means that you get the frame you want (one that works with both the thing that's going in it, and the other framed things you already have). Their packing was excellent so my picture arrived both swiftly and in perfect condition, and again, I'm just so happy with this - which is why I'm telling you all about it!


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Heirloom Knitting - Sharon Miller

One of the great joys of blogging (and life generally, I cannot over sell how exciting this is) is that occasionally a highly coveted book will fall through your letterbox completely unexpectedly. Sharon Miller’s updated and enlarged new edition of ‘Heirloom Knitting A Shetland Lace and Pattern Workbook’ delivered that moment in spades.

It was even more exciting because I didn't even know it was being reprinted, and had become resigned to never seeing this seminal work. I first heard about it watching back the 'Authenticity in Culturally-Based Knitting' conference held at the Shetland Museum early last year (and if that sounds dry, it really wasn't - if it's still available to watch it's time well spent). It was the tremendously talented jeweller, Helen Robertson  saying what a game changer this book was that got my interest, but at the time it was out of print, and second hand copies were prohibitively expensive.

My interest in Knitting, especially Shetland knitting, is partly driven by its links to women's history and creativity (though it was by no means an exclusively female occupation, there are documented cases of men who were unable to earn money in any other way also turning to knitting to contribute to household finances). In many ways it's an undertold story, but the more I read and discover the more interesting it becomes.

Long story short, the best, most accomplished, Shetland lace is stunning stuff, and as a knitter I find there's something addictive about the process of creating even the most basic openwork pieces. And the reason I can create these basic pieces at all is largely thanks to the work that Sharon Miller did. Before Miller if traditional lace patterns were recorded at all it would have been in a string of barely comprehensible abbreviations (which may have been particular to individual knitters, and would have assumed a fairly advanced degree of proficiency). Women taught to knit by mothers and grandmothers from their earliest years rarely needed to write this stuff down.

What Miller did was come along, study the archive collection in Shetland, and then chart it. The basic techniques of increases via yarn overs, and decreases by knitting stitches together are not difficult (the refinements on the basics are another matter), and in chart form they're relatively easy to follow. It meant that knitters everywhere could have a go at this, including a generation of Shetland knitters who hadn't been taught how as a matter of course. More than that the documenting of fragile garments, or even recreating them from photographs is just generally a valuable exercise in preserving a record of the creativity of the original knitters.

That on its own would be more than enough, but this book does more than that. It records where the designs came from, who they're associated with, covers every aspect of how to knit them, how to dress them, how to preserve them, how to put motifs together, how to adapt and refine patterns . There's a collection of projects for every skill level and so much more.

Finally, one detail I really like is that all the illustrations of the individual stitch patterns are black and white, and look like they've been knitted in single ply Shetland cobweb yarn -

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Death in the Tunnel with a 'Maiden's Prayer'

This is the last of this series of books and booze posts, and probably the last cocktail I'll drink in a while (or maybe not, I've started to get into the habit now, and those bottles of vermouth need using). It's been a real pleasure doing the research for these drinks, after an enthusiastic attempt to master the art of cocktail making about 20 years ago I thought it was something I was really not very good at. It turns out that all I needed were good quality ingredients (vital) and to find drinks I actually like and that are simple to make at home. It's been just as much of a pleasure to take a good look at the British Library crime classics as a series rather than as individual books.

I've always been a fan of vintage fiction - for all sorts of reasons, so these books are absolutely my thing. It's fair to say that as novels some are considerably better than others, but even when I've not been totally convinced by one element of a book I've found other things of interest in it, and I've enjoyed every one of them I've read. The short story collections are, without exception, excellent, and just generally I'm looking forward to seeing whatever they turn up next.

Meanwhile 'Death in the Tunnel' (by Cecil Street writing as Miles Burton) is a good example of a bit of plotting that I didn't love, but a book that I still really enjoyed. Sir Wilfred Saxonby is traveling alone in a locked compartment on the 5 o'clock from Cannon Street. The train stops in a tunnel, and when it emerges again a few minutes later Sir Wilfred is dead, shot through the heart by a single bullet. The obvious conclusion is suicide, but something doesn't quite add up about that...

The Maiden's Prayer is fr Sir Wilfred's niece, Olivia Saxonby. Around 40, unmarried, and dependant on her uncle she acts as something between a companion and a housekeeper for him. Burton gives her circumstances (she is after all a possible suspect) quite a bit of consideration and in the process we get a sidelight on the options available for the interwar generation of surplus women. Living with her uncle, subject to his whims and strictures, doesn't sound like a lot of fun for Olivia, but her job options would have been limited anyway by both education and opportunity so giving into family pressure and filling this particular role makes sense.

Given the outlook for middle aged maidens it's not surprising that the Maiden's Prayer is essentially a stronger version of a white lady. 3/8ths Gin, 3/8ths Cointreau, 1/8th lemon juice, 1/8th orange juice all well shaken over ice and strained into a coctail glass (from Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks'). The relative sweetness of the orange juice initially disguises the alcoholic heft of this drink (though now I've finished it, I have no doubt at all about it's kick) but this Prayer is heartfelt, and means business.

And that's the end of this books and booze series.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Notting Hill Mystery with a 'Brandy Smash'

'The Notting Hill Mystery' is one of the very early detective novels (1862-3, originally published, anonymously in serial form). It's told in the form of a report from an insurance agent, investigating after the wife of a mysterious Baron dies. If he hadn't taken out five sizeable life insurance policies on her, one after the other, mere weeks before she met her end it might not have looked quite as suspicious. The mystery here isn't who or why, but how, and how to prove it.

This was also one of the earlier books in the Crime Classics series, and whilst I'd bought the first couple (which specifically featured female detectives) I'd passed this one over. Reading about it a couple of weeks ago though, I saw that one of the characters has the same surname as me - which was enough of a push to send me out in search of a copy, and I started reading it yesterday. So far so good...

It also presented the perfect opportunity to go back to Jerry Thomas to look for a suitably contemporary drink. I found the Brandy Smash. Smashes, he tells us, are simply juleps on a small plan, instructions for making them with gin or whisky, as well as brandy, follow.

To make one take a teaspoon of white sugar, two tablespoons of water, 3 or 4 sprigs of mint, and a generous measure of brandy. Press the mint in the sugar and water to extract the flavour, add the brandy, and fill the glass 2/3rds full of shaved ice (ice in my case). Stir thoroughly and ornament with  a few sprigs of fresh mint, and  half a slice of orange. Beautify with berries in season.

I really like this combination of brandy, mint, with a bit of sweetness (I'll admit I didn't beautify with berries, but the possibility is intriguing). It's not a particularly strong drink, especially as the ice begins to melt, and if you've gone easy on the brandy, but it's extremely good late into a hot afternoon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Lake District Murder with a 'Sidecar'

John Bude's 'The Lake Distruct Murder' was the second of the British Library's Crime Classics I read, it was back in early 2014, I was careful not to give spoilers when I Wrote  about it, and I left my copy with my father (because I thought he'd enjoy it as much as I had) in the Borders. Which means the details are now hazy, and I can't check back to the book.

Never mind. I do remember enjoying it both for the descriptions of a bit of the country I've never managed to be in when it wasn't raining (so I'm taking those descriptions on trust) and for a plot that involved illicit booze along with the murder in the title.

I'm not sure that Inspector Meredith is really a cocktail man (though he seemed to enjoy a good cognac in 'Death on the Riviera', but his police bike has a sidecar, and I feel he might enjoy one of these if it came his way.

I had assumed that the Sidecar might have been a prohibition era cocktail (using lemon to disguise rough brandy), but it seems to have originated in Paris just after the First World War and was indeed named after the Sidecar on a motorbike. I've made the version from the Savoy Cocktail Book which is a simple 1 part lemon juice, 1 part Cointreau, 2 parts brandy, shaken over ice and strained. It seems the original Sidecar had more ingredients but they've been refined away with time. The French take on a Sidecar has equal amounts lemon, Brandy, and Cointreau which would make it slightly sweeter and a little weaker (some also put sugar round the rim of the glass).

In the Harry Craddock version the lemon and brandy both vie for dominance, the result is mouth-wateringly sharp, and for once tastes every bit as strong as it is. There's something quite uncompromising about it, which I like. It also feels like a distinctly masculine cocktail from the name down to the suggestion of expensive cologne that I associate with brandy (you can find the same notes on the nose from both, and I notice an increasing number of scents that describe themselves as having a brandy smell about them).

Inspector Meredith might not have drunk these, but some of the bars he was watching must have served them...


Monday, August 28, 2017

The 12.30 From Croydon with a 'Blue Train'

Freeman Wills Crofts seems to have been at the forefront of an increasing interest in phsycology as part of the make up of a crime, and as in 'Antidote to Venom' we know who the murderer is in this novel. What we don't know is how the police will get their man, who has an apparently sound alibi.

Every time I've tried to write on from there I've found myself giving far to many spoilers, so I'll just say this is a gripping story of (I'm quoting from the back blurb, but it's not wrong) intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification, and self delusion.

Although our murder victim is flying to Paris, the Blue Train that took the wealthy from Calais to the French Riviera (and is the setting for an Agatha Christie, amongst over literary appearances) seems quite in keeping with the spirit of the thing, not least because Freeman Wills Crofts was a railway engineer before he was a novelist.

One thing I've learnt from doing this series of posts is that a lot of Cocktails have duel identities, or are minute variations upon a theme. In the case of this particular 'Blue Train' (both recipes from The Savoy Cocktail Book) we have a 'White Lady' in disguise. The base for each is 1/4 lemon juice, 1/4 Cointreau, 1/2 dry gin shaken well with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. To make it a Blue Train you add a dash of blue food colouring.

The basic mix of lemon, Gin, and Cointreau occurs a few times, it's a good one - I've seen White Lady recipes that call for egg white as well, though I now recognise that as being a Fizz, and have always omitted them anyway. It's also a very potent cocktail which you truly realise about 5 minutes to late. I've made it using lavender infused gin (Lavander ladies...) which is delicious, and Rhubarb Gin (not bad, but not as good as I'd hoped, the Rhubarb flavour gets a little lost) and with Marmalade vodka when I had no Cointreau (like rocket fuel, but we had a good time anyway). I had never thought to add food colouring, which sounds a bit like a con on the bar tenders part in this case, but a charming one.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Resorting to Murder with a 'Southside'

Holiday mysteries with what is essentially a gin mojito (or as I find no mention of mojitos in the Savoy Cocktail Book, perhaps it's more accurate to say that a mojito is a rum southside...) on a bank holiday weekend. It's a combination that could only be bettered if I didn't have to work tomorrow.

Golf courses, the English seaside, Paris, the Swiss mountains - there are all sorts of holiday possibilities here, though the number of unfortunate events (probably not covered by insurance either) that befall the holiday makers make me feel a little more sanguine about working rather than being away.

The Southside seems to have a number of incarnations, I went with the recipe I found on the Gin Foundry site - 8 leaves of mint, 4 part so gin, 2 parts fresh lime juice, 1 part sugar syrup - and it was good. Put everything in a shaker with plenty of ice, shake well, strain into a coctail glass and garnish with a mint leaf. Harry Craddock (Savoy Cocktail book) uses lemon, but I preferred the idea of lime, partly because I wanted the delicate green colouring.

Craddock also adds a dash of soda which according to the Gin Foundry would be a Southside fizz, add champagne and it would be a Royale. I like the sound of the soda version. I made also told this is really good with basil instead of mint, which I might try later tonight (I love basil, so expectations are high). However you make it, it's a gloriously fresh and late summery sort of a drink.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Crimson Snow with a 'Honeysuckle'

'Crimson Snow' is a collection of winter set mysteries, particularly good because in amongst the cheerfully over the top tales set against snowbound country houses there are a couple of much darker stories - ones with accidental victims or which murders committed in the pursuit of petty thefts. It gives the book a slightly different balance to the rest of the short story anthologies in the and suggests there's a lot more material and variety for these collections to cover yet.

I found the 'Honeysuckle' in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' and assumed it was simply a rum version of a hot toddy (although all of these books devote whole sections to the toddy so 'simply' maybe isn't the right word).

The instructions are to dissolve two teaspoonfuls of honey in a tumbler with boiling water, Add a slice of lemon, rum to your taste or discretion, fill up with hot water and stir well before sampling.

The result is hot, sweet, and satisfying. Much sweeter than the whisky toddys I normally make, and not quite what I expected. It's the honey that took centre stage in this, helped by the fact that I'm using a strongly flavoured, dark, Greek honey. My rum is Goslings Black Seal (a dark Bermuda rum) with a muscavado sugar note to it that blended in with the honey in a way that complimented and underlined it's character. The lemon stops it from being too sweet, but only just. Different honeys and rums would change the character of this one quite a lot (which sounds like hours of fun to me).

For obvious reasons I've always associated hot alcoholic drinks with winter, and this one is comforting and fragrant enough to brighten and warm the coldest of days (it's also making me wonder why we get so hung up on mulled wine when there are so many other very easy options out there) but turns out it's not just for Christmas.

It's not quite 9 o'clock and dark outside, and whilst it's not quite autumn, it is the end of August, and no matter how warm the days are there's a definite cooling off after sunset. Turns out this is a great drink to sit with whilst watching bats in the gathering dusk.