Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Nigella Lawson and a lot of yarn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Whalsay for Fair Isle knitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Back from Shetland

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017


My holiday day is almost over, I'm not looking forward to going back to work - not least because I've been so busy doing so many nice things here that I could do with a lazy week to recover.

One of the many great things about Shetland is it's wildlife; we've seen puffins, porpoises, gannets, seals, the lawn is covered in oystercatchers, terns have dive bombed us, as have skuas, and there have been a lot of otters. More particularly there's been a lot of one otter who has reliably appeared between tides and at dusk. It looks to me like a young female, she has a distinctive pink patch on her nose and is a joy to watch.

Shetland is a brilliant place to spot otters - walk by the shore keeping an eye out for spraint, empty crab shells and sea urchins; likely otter food. Ideally if you spot one hope you find yourself upwind and not silhouetted against the sky - their eyesight is poor so they rely on their sense of smell. If this is the case stay still and they might not notice you. I spent a good 45 minutes watching my otter yesterday before she got downwind of me and swam off. As I was in an undignified as well as uncomfortable position I wasn't altogether sorry to be able to move, but hadn't wanted to disturb the important otter business of eating and fluffing up fur.

The photos aren't great because mobile phones have severe limitations, but it's the best chance I've ever had to try and take any pictures, and it amazing just to be able to watch her for a while. They're enchanting creatures.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Victoria Gibson at Shetland Textile Museum

It's difficult blogging on holiday, every time I look out of the window I get distracted, never mind the people to catch up with, walks to go on, exhibitions to see, dogs to commune with, and all the rest of it.

I want to write about this one whilst it's fresh in my mind (though I'm planning on seeing it again before I go). Victoria Gibson's distinctive knitwear is easy to take for granted if you've always been familiar with it so now is absolutely the right time for an exhibition to really evaluate her work.

Shetlands Textile Museum (at the Böd of Gremista, just on the way into Lerwick) is quite small (more space for exhibiting objects would be great, though they do a brilliant job with what they have, and the very knowledgeable volunteers on hand to answer questions and give practical demonstrations are amazing). It means there's only really one room for this exhibition which makes what they've managed to do even more impressive.

Seeing a row of Victoria's jumpers in a shop is quite impressive - her designs are big on colour and texture. Seeing her knitwear in a gallery setting does it justice, especially when you can follow its evolution over five decades.

From the early striped jumpers in earthy tones for Cloth Kits (some self assembly required) and bright rainbow colours of the seventies, to the signature designs that focus on graduating colours and textures, it's really interesting to see the work evolving.

Over the years I've had a few of the checked jumpers. I like the way they explore how shades quite close together on the colour spectrum work together (the volunteer I spoke to at the museum, an experianced knitter, was saying she'd never think, or dare, to use colours in the same way). I also like the way that there's a nod to Fair Isle patterns (2 colours in each row, limited stitches between colour changes) though these ones also make me think of tweed.

The textured jumpers take this a step further. The patterns created using different stitches are another nod to Fair Isle, the subtle graduations in colour are often suggestive of the Shetland landscape, but more than that it just feels like there's a real pleasure in exploring how these things work together. The finished articles make it look effortless, but it isn't. Seeing the exhibition gives some idea of the creative process behind the clothes, as well as being a reminder that it's a process that involves any number of knitters.

It's an excellent exhibition and should be a must see for anyone in Shetland this summer.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Story of Classic Crime

I'm very pleased to be hosting a guest post today from Martin Edwards to celebrate the publication of 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books'. It's an excellent book (which I'm now equally pleased I didn't bring on holiday with me because my luggage is still 'Destination Unknown'). I will write more about it when I get home, but promise it's worth seeking out if you have even the most passing interest in classic crime.

In uncertain times, classic crime stories offer both escapism and entertainment. But the best of them give readers much more – interesting characters, thought-provoking moral dilemmas, fascinating description of period and place, as well as a good deal of high-calibre writing. Detective stories have often been under-valued – even some authors tended to be dismissive of their own work. But the striking success of the British Library’s series of Classic Crime reissues speaks for itself. Readers in this country and much further afield have discovered for themselves the pleasure of reading long-neglected authors such as John Bude and Raymond Postgate. And they keep coming back for more.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is my second book about the crime genre. The Golden Age of Murder explored the Detection Club, founded in 1930, the people who were prime movers in the Club, the books they wrote, and the way the times in which they lived affected their lives and their work. It was a book for fans, rather than academics, and encouraged by its reception, I’ve again tried to give a fresh take on the genre’s history. This time, my aim is to show how crime fiction changed from the start of the twentieth century, when Sherlock Holmes tracked down The Hound of the Baskervilles, to the century’s mid-point, when in the aftermath of the Second World War, Julian Symons and Patricia Highsmith set about taking the genre in a new direction.

Part of the fun of this type of book, both for me as writer, and (I hope) for you as readers comes from unexpected twists –just like the mysteries I examine in the text. So my selection of 100 books contains not just the usual suspects, ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Poisoned Chocolates Case, The Murder at the Vicarage, and Smallbone Deceased, but also some titles that aren’t likely to have crossed most people’s minds. The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, and Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr, for instance. There are a few quirky choices which may provoke surprise, and also give a different perspective on the subject from any that can be found elsewhere. And as well as the hundred in-depth discussions, there are references to about another six hundred books, many of which are little-known but well worth seeking out. You may be relieved to learn that there’s an index of titles, as well as of authors!

When I first proposed this project to the British Library, I envisaged a manuscript of about 60,000 words. But the more I worked on the book, the more it grew in scale. I like to think this isn’t due to verbosity on my part, but because I found so many fascinating books and snippets of information to weave into the narrative. My previous book about the genre, The Golden Age of Murder, was a labour of love ten years in the making. This one didn’t take quite as long to write, but I found it just as much fun. And I hope you will too.

Thanks, Hayley, for hosting this guest post. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be travelling around the blogosphere, talking about different aspects of the book, and of classic crime. Here’s a list of all the stops on my blog tour:

Wed 28 June – Lesa’ Book Critiques -
Thurs 29 June – The Rap Sheet -
Fri 30 June – Pretty Sinister Books -
Sat 1 Jul – Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (interview) -
Sun 2 Jul –Eurocrime -
Mon 3 Jul – Tipping My Fedora -
Tue 4 Jul – Desperate Reader -
Wed 5 Jul –Clothes in Books -
Thu 6 Jul – Emma’s Bookish Corner -
Fri 7 Jul - Random Jottings -

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is published in the UK on 7 July by the British Library, and in the US on 1 August by Poisoned Pen Press

Monday, July 3, 2017

Back in Shetland

I'm enjoying my annual trip home to Shetland (unfortunately my luggage is not, and shows no sign so far of turning up, I last saw it on Saturday). The weather is occasionally glorious, I've had the chance to buy some yarn and an interesting looking book (as well as the basics currently lost in transit), and eaten an amazing bean dip (must get the recipe), so despite the lack of suitcase its all good. It doesn't hurt that I was able to buy gin by the litre at the airport (hand baggage).

Also hand baggage was dad's Father's Day/birthday present, a Curlew's egg painted in egg tempera by  Anna Koska. I was delighted with this (the first thing I've ever commissioned) and Dad seems to like it too - which I guess is what counts. There are lots of curlews round here, their call is one of the distinctive sounds of home, and dad's also had a succession of boats called 'Curlew' so it seemed an appropriate thing to choose.

There's something really satisfying about getting a bespoke thing like this, it's not particularly that it's currently unique, but the involvement in the general process (describing what you want) is fun, and getting exactly what you wanted is really exciting. It feels altogether more personal.
Current luggage status.