Sunday, August 18, 2019

Uradale Shawls - Marja de Haan

Impending redundancy isn't doing much for my concentration when it comes to reading which is a shame because I've got a small stack of books I really want to read right now. I just can't decide which one to get on with first, so instead I've been knitting.

My stepmother gave me 'Uradale Shawls' when I was staying with her in June, the Scalloway pattern looked like a good project for getting through some of my yarn stash, and uncomplicated. What I hadn't quite appreciated is that in terms of yardage it's the biggest thing I've knitted so far, progress is slow, but it's also been a blessing.

I'm a big believer in the therapeutic qualities of knitting as a hobby. It gives me something creative to do which is always a positive, is absorbing enough to stop brooding, but still lets me listen to podcasts or half watch trashy tv (some of) which makes me feel even more productive, and is just generally calming. The size and nature of the Scalloway scarf is especially perfect - it's a really simple shape, with stripes that keep the endless stockinette interesting - it doesn't make unreasonable demands on a mind inclined to wander a bit.

I have never bought any of the Uradale yarn (it's an organic farm near Scalloway in Shetland) although I have seen the odd bits of it around in Lerwick, so I'm mostly using Jamieson's Spindrift with a bit of Jamieson and Smith's jumper weight in the closest colours I had.

Most of the patterns in the book are for large triangular shawls, and now I'm working out how much yarn you need from the given weights I'm realising just how big they really are, they're mostly stranded too, so they'll be warm. The given instructions suggest knitting in the round for most of the shawls with a steek you cut at the end. I think I'd rather knit purl rows and do them flat even if it would take longer.

Otherwise this is a really nice collection that reflects the landscape and yarn that inspired it. There's only one pattern that really looks like fairisle, everything else has motifs that pick up on local wildlife and landmarks. It's a lovely book to have as a souvenir, and the shawls themselves would be something to treasure.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

East - Meera Sodha

Blackberries are ripening on the hedges, and in a few short weeks (on September 5th to be precise) half the books I've been anticipating since spring will be published - Autumn is coming. Half the books I've been anticipating are also coincidentally cookbooks, and then there are the ones I didn't even know I wanted... awkward at a time I need to be saving against the impending redundancy.

Meera Sodha's 'East' was one I didn't know I wanted until both my Twitter and Instagram went crazy for it on Thursday (it's publication day). If it hadn't been for the recommendations I wouldn't have picked this up - I'm not good with chilli (it's a heat that registers with me as pain, M&S roasted red pepper hummus turned out to be hotter than I like). The chilli thing is a pain in the arise when you live in a city like Leicester.

I tend not to buy vegetarian books either, I have an uncomfortable suspicion that because I'm not a vegetarian I feel like they're not for me, which is silly. Anyway, a proper look at 'East' persuaded me that it would be worth the investment, so here we are. 

It's a 120 vegan and vegetarian recipes from Bangalore to Beijing, and also "fuss free food made from British ingredients". The second part of that is particularly attractive. Because of where I live Chinese and Indian ingredients are easy to find. Korean and Thai not far behind, some things (like black Venus rice which sounds delicious, and spelt flour) might be a bit harder to find, but everything else ought to be more or less on my doorstep. 

The joy of this book is that it's full of flavours and combinations that I wouldn't normally cook, because of that when I'm reading through them I don't find myself thinking about meat, or feeling that it's in any way missing (that's decades of conditioning to think of vegetables as a side dish rather than the main event, I know it's not true, but it's an unconscious bias I'm finding hard to shift). More than that, things just sound delicious.

Beetroot and ginger soup, overnight soy eggs, paneer spinach and tomato salad, caramelised fennel and carrot salad with mung beans and herbs, udon noodles with red cabbage and cauliflower and so much more. The desserts look amazing as well, with some beautiful sounding vegan cakes.

Given that my whole frame of mind is focused on change at the moment, this feels like the perfect cook book for my current mood. So much of the food sounds fresh, vibrant, (though I will probably scale back the chilli somewhat) and colourful. Just browsing through it makes me feel optimistic. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Deep Water, Mysteries on the Waves - edited by Martin Edwards

I've always found August a strange sort of inbetween month. Growing up in Shetland, August could throw some distinctly autumnal days at you, the long twilight hours of midsummer are going, and the new school year loomed. Even as an adult it's a month that makes me think more of endings than beginnings. In retail it's when Christmas planning starts in earnest. Looking out the window the landscape has an overcooked feel, and altogether my current employment status is all of a piece with how I see this month.

I can't settle to much, I'm finding it easier to knit than read, and when I am reading I'm drifting towards short stories. I actually read 'Deep Waters' whilst I was on holiday back in June. It was the perfect book for the ferry journey to and from Shetland - not least because much of the water involved was river rather than ocean (there's even a swimming pool).

It's an enjoyable collection - as I would expect from the crime classics series, with plenty of variety. I love these for holiday reading because there's something for most moods, nothing demands to much attention, and short stories fit so well into the odd pockets of time when I actually get to read in (rather than the weeks of uninterrupted reading time I still sometimes imagine I might get).

'Deep Waters' gives everything from the pulpiest of efforts involving piranhas trained to kill on demand (sort of) to Kem Bennett's masterly 'The Queer Fish' which perfectly draws the line between comedy and drama. A couple of the stories flirt with suggestions of the supernatural before resolving themselves into something closer to science fiction.

There is also the last appearance of Raffles (E. W. Hornung's amateur cracksmen - gentleman cricketer and burgler) in 'The Gift of the Emperor'. I read a collection of Raffles stories in a cheap Wordsworth Classics edition one August well over 20 years ago, but not this one. I'm not sure I'd ever given it much thought, but this isn't the end I would have imagined. It was unexpectedly melancholy, more so in an anthology that separates them from their previous exploits (in which setting it would sound more like just desserts). As it stands it's another example of how well Edwards puts together these collections.

They're beautifully balanced, and together his collections are always more than the sum of their parts. That piranha story that in another setting would be to silly for words is the perfect seasoning in this book, as is Raffles last adventure. Perfect summer reading indeed.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A Spirited Guide to Vermouth - Jack Adair Bevan

I've been hoping for a good book on vermouth for a while now, and been working my way through this one since the end of May. So far it's the best book on the subject that I've found - although as my search has mostly been an occasional browse in a small Waterstones the competition has been limited.

It's taken me a long time to come round to vermouth as a category to get excited about, and there are reasons for this. Vermouth generally was not fashionable 20 years ago when I started out in Wine, and neither were the drinks it goes in. It's also quite a complicated set of drinks - Vermouth means all sorts of things from sweet to dry to bitter, white through amber, rosé, and into red. Once open it also needs to be drunk reasonably quickly - you need to commit to that bottle in a way you just don't with most other things.

My preferred kitchen vermouth (something good for drinking and cooking with) is a dry white, but it turns out my preferred cocktail vermouth is a rich red (either for Manhattans or Rob Roys, also with gin as a Gin and It. It's what you want for a Negroni too, although I'm not such a fan of those). But that barely scratches the surface of possibilities out there.

Vermouth's fortunes have changed considerably over the last few years, the ever growing popularity of gin has a lot to do with that, as do changing tastes for cocktails - although it's still not the easiest thing to buy around here. Choice is slowly improving but it is slow. I personally think that a growing interest in lower alcohol drinks is what will really help the spread of vermouth across the country.

It makes a brilliant long drink with tonic, and at less than half the abv of gin it's a much lighter alternative with even more complexity of flavour. This book does an excellent job of explaining the different styles, introducing some key producers, looking at the culture and history of Vermouth, thinking about matching it with food, and giving recipes.

The recipes are for both cocktails and food - which is really useful because you want to get through a bottle within 2-4 weeks so the more ways to use it the better. There's also a recipe to make your own vermouth (tempting). Jack Adair Bevans vermouth credentials are impeccable so you're in good hands - especially when it comes to the bar craft and cocktail bits. He's also drafted in some excellent writers to contribute recipes.

The one thing the book really needs is an index. Not having one is slightly irritating especially for cross referencing products. A glossary of the vermouth's used in the cocktails (and maybe some alternatives) would also be useful. Most of the vermouth's need to be ordered online (or at least they do if you live in the midlands) and represent a reasonable investment, the obvious place to start exploring from would be the most mentioned products.

I like the mix of cocktails in here, they start at relatively simple and go up from there. I could wish that some weren't quite so product specific, but that's a personal prejudice mixed with a pedantic nature that makes me want to follow a recipe exactly, rather than a criticism.

Altogether it's an excellent book, and an excellent place to explore vermouth from.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Slightly Foxed & Other Things

I have books waiting to be written about, and projects to consider, but after the redundancy news  and hard on it's heels some family dramas it feels like there's altogether to much to think about. Most of that is all the emotions that go with thevwork situation. Now the initial shock has worn off I'm bouncing between excitement at the possibilities, and a good dose of nerves about them too.

A symptom of that are the simultaneous desires to hoard things and have a good clear out. Along with the shock an initial intention to spend as little as possible over the next few months (whilst I still have a job) has worn off. Instead I've amassed extra shampoo and conditioner, shower gel, olive oil, a lot of Fry's orange creams, and there's a posh bottle of vermouth on its way.

The looming threat of a no deal Brexit is adding slightly to the anxiety (specifically regarding good olive oil and all the other store cupboard stuff that falls somewhere between staple and treat) but Fry's orange creams aside this is mostly just sensible housekeeping.

The more obvious (to me) sign of stress is the urge to de clutter. I don't know why these situations always makes me want to get rid of stuff but they do. It's not really a bad thing either though. The books are out of control again, and a purge wouldn't go amiss - to which end I was eyeing up 11 years worth of Slightly Foxed editions, wondering how much I wanted them.

It's a cause of some regret to me that I didn't hit on the name 'Slightly Foxed' first - the combined reference to used books and mild drunkenness is so utterly perfect. Still, 40+ editions takes up a chunk of space and my flat is small.

I thought about it for all of two minutes, mostly contemplating the sheer variety of books and authors covered over the years, with a quick detour into the pleasure of receiving the thing. 'Slightly Foxed' is quietly brilliant - both the quarterly and the podcast. It's not just the writing, or the subjects covered, but also the showcasing of various artists (particularly woodcutters).

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Red hot

It is unbearably hot and humid at the moment - neither my flat, or work are designed for temperatures in the mid 30's (nor am I really, I like it at around 18 to 20 degrees and not much more) so obviously this is the week I managed to finish another Kep, and finally got some sour cherries.

I've wanted to get my hands on sour cherries for a long time but have never seen them for sale. I found out by chance last year that a work colleague had a tree and they said they'd let me have some this year. Now I've wanted these because I swear I've seen recipe after recipe that calls for them over and above the jam I particularly wanted to make. On Monday when I was given just over a kilo of them it was already hot enough to take jam off any sort of agenda. Nor could I find a single other recipe that was any kind of use.

For now I've shoved them in a jar with vodka and a bit of sugar (unpitted) to hopefully use when it cools down. I've been promised some more so maybe jam will happen too.

Meanwhile I finished a Kep. I started this back in late may but wasn't totally happy with how it was going so lost interest a bit. I managed to finish it before the heat got out of hand though, and now it's done it looks better than I thought it would.

Every bit of fair isle I attempt is a learning curve, this one was a lesson to plan better - I'm happy with the red theme, but it's bitty - some contrast has worked better than others, and so have some of the motifs. I was using up left over bits of yarns so there and I think a few shades less would have been better as well as more rigid repetition of colours. Next time I'll know.

It's also been a really good lesson in how the different shades work together. There's a scarlet and an orange in there which I was really doubtful about, but the red especially looks brilliant against other red shades - glowing rather than garish. It's definitely encouragement to step out of my colour comfort zone and experiment with more swatches.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Measure for Measure at the RSC

It's been a very long week, the tickets that I booked last Friday to see Measure for Measure on Wednesday already feels like it happened months ago, not a matter of days. I'm glad I had booked them though, a dose of Shakespeare was as good a distraction as any from job woes.

I’m also feeling particularly grateful for the overall chance of grabbing rush tickets for £10 at the RSC. It’s meant that we've seen a lot more than we normally would this season, and at that price even looming unemployment doesn't make it feel like an extravagance.

Measure for Measure wasn't something we would have particularly planned to see if we'd been paying full price either (I certainly have mixed feelings about Shakespeare), so something else welcome about this season has been seeing how the company handles different roles. I already knew how good Sandy Grierson is, but It was interesting seeing Lucy Phelps and Joseph Arkley again so soon in different roles.

This Measure for Measure is set in a Vienna of about 1900 which possibly helps the audience make more sense of it than a contemporary (1604) one would. Or at least the idea of late Victorian piety and sexual repression make some sense of Angelo and Isabella.

And this is my problem with Shakespeare. Isabella doesn't really make sense to me. Faced with the choice between her brothers life or her virginity, especially if her live brother could marry the girl he's got pregnant, she makes the choice to sacrifice her brother remarkably easily. The more so because she doesn't seem at all worried about Mariana’s chastity when the idea of swapping the two women comes up.

Regardless of my own personal irritation with Shakespeare's general treatment of women, this really is a play that resonates in the #Metoo era. Isabella is right to say that her body isn't a bargaining chip, and even more right not to trust Angelo. Lucy Phelps is excellent in the role, radiating horrified disgust at both Angelo’s words, and his touch. Her equal horror towards the Dukes offer of marriage is masterly.

Sandy Grierson is a brilliant Angelo too - for a character who is such a despicable hypocrite it's no mean feat to elicited some sympathy from the audience. Joseph Arkley is a great Lucio too - a nice blend of charm and villainy who looks to be having the most fun on stage. David Ajao (Pompey, a pimp) and Graeme Brookes are also a treat. David Ajao particularly looks like an actor to watch out for.

Altogether it's been a really strong season so far in Stratford. As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Measure for Measure have all been excellent with some memorable performances and a company that feels like it's bringing out the best in everybody on stage.

Saturday, July 20, 2019


I started blogging here ten years ago towards the end of a year long hunt for a job after being made redundant twice within 6 months. It seems oddly neat to find myself in much the same position again. 

We had an indication of what to expect on Monday, and confirmation on Thursday that our shop is closing early November. In some ways the news has been a relief. It's felt like it's been on the cards since the results of the brexit referendum came in - swiftly followed by a warning that in an uncertain future not all jobs could be guaranteed. Since then we've seen costs rise and sales fall. Wine and a weak pound are not the best combination. 

I have no idea what I'm going to do next, but apart from the very real concern about how to pay the bills if I'm out of work for a longish time, I'm mostly feeling optimistic. I hadn't realised just how stressful work had got until I realised that the dominant emotion was relief that I wouldn't have to get through another Christmas there.

Last time this happened to me it felt flat out terrifying, and there are less opportunities now for a middle aged wine aficionado than there were then, but this still doesn't feel as bad as it might. Hopefully it's going to be an opportunity for more change. I'm more or less certain that I'll be able to make a dent in my tbr pile at least, and if it's put on hold my immediate summer plans of researching Vermouth more thoroughly so be it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mr Calder & Mr Behrens - Michael Gilbert

The Michael Gilbert titles reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series were so good that I'm keeping an eye out for more of his books. There are plenty of them around, but they're not particularly cheap for secondhand, or attractive (sorry House of Stratus, but your covers are not appealing) which is enough to remind me how tight my budget is.

All of which is probably a good thing because space is even tighter, and the amount of books I should read next is getting ridiculous. Turning up the occasional Gilbert will be a proper treat at this rate. One that I did find was ‘Mr Calder & Mr Behrens’, a collection of short stories that follow the careers of two secret service types.

The first story deals with an episode in Mr Behrens war history - it's a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, the last brings us up to possibly the beginning of the 1980’s (this was originally published in 1982) with the two men deciding to retire after one last job which also has a Hitler connection.

I'm not clear if these stories were written together as a collection, or gathered together over a number of years, but they're roughly chronological from the war time start, through Cold War paranoia about sleepers and spies, the dangers of slightly crazy military types determined to be a danger to the public, before tackling the IRA, would be gangsters, radical student politics, and neo nazis.

I had a slow start with this one, the Hitler assassination plot didn't give much room for Gilbert's lurking sense of humour, which is one of the things that make him such a good writer. A couple of episodes in and the book really warms up though.

Calder and Behrens are mild enough looking middle aged men, but they're both utterly ruthless in pursuing their ends, and make no bones about disposing of people. They're state sanctioned murderers. Mostly what they do is business, sometimes there's a personal edge to it.

The end result is a collection that never allowed me to be to complacent - there's the odd flash of dry humour used like a seasoning, episodes of starkly efficient violence used in much the same way, and overall a feeling that it might have worked a lot like this.

The thing I really like about Gilbert's books though is the sense of his personality that comes through his writing. His general attitudes hold up well against modern sensibilities which is a bonus but there's more to it than that. It's a general conviction that I’d be delighted to find myself sitting next to this man at dinner. I really don't understand why his books fell off the radar in the way that they have. He's far to good to be missed out on.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Seafarers, A Journey Among Birds - Stephen Rutt

I’m not sure now what I expected from ‘The Seafarers’, I was interested it in for the Shetland and Orkney chapters, slightly wary about the links it might draw between nature and mental health. Whatever I expected though, this book far exceeded it.

It starts with Stephen arriving in Orkney, 23, and escaping from London which has not been good for him. Seven months on North Ronaldsay as a volunteer at the bird observatory beckon. It's an obvious, or at least not an odd, choice for a young man with a teenage passion for birding, and an obsession with migratory birds and what they represent to him.

One of the things Rutt does particularly well is make a point without labouring it - he talks candidly enough about how bad London was for him, and to an extent the surprise that is. After all, with a good degree, a good job, no particular responsibilities, and living with friends, it should be the best of times, but it is not. From there any struggles with his mental health are addressed as necessary, but as a background theme. This book is about so much more than one mans personal journey.

The choice of birds he focuses on are interesting too - Storm Petrels, Skuas, Auks, Eiders, Terns, Gulls, Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, and Fulmars (there's also a chapter on vagrants). I read this straight after coming back from Shetland where with a bit of effort I could have seen Storm Petrels (a night time trip to Mousa broch is a long held ambition that I will get round to) where I saw more or less everything but the Manx Shearwaters (and the vagrants) as a matter of course and pretty much from the doorstep.

All of those birds are on endangered lists, and this year the general reduction in numbers (particularly of Terns, Eiders, and Arctic Skuas) of some of these species felt particularly noticeable. Having grown up on the coast these are all birds I've taken for granted, and in the case of both terns and great skuas, cursed (both favour attack as the best form of defence). The thought of their loss is almost incomprehensible, it's also terrifying.

Each chapter is a starting point to discuss a species, a place, the naturalists and birders associated with it, the impact of the Anthropocene. There is further exploration of the history and culture of remote island groups and how they use and live with the birds around them. A lot about how little we know about birds, especially migratory birds and how they function, which in turn means we can't really understand the impact we have on the wildlife around us. There's also some useful thinking on how we package and market wildlife.

Altogether it's a deeply thoughtful book that asks a number of important questions of its reader. Rutt shares his concerns and conclusions in a way that leaves room for debate - though I found I agreed with him on pretty much everything. All of which make it a book worth reading, but the joy of it goes beyond that.

It's in the championing of birds which are not perhaps widely loved. It's rare to read a defence of the Great Skua, or an appreciation of Razorbills. The whole thing is an encouragement to look at what's around us and to properly observe it.

It's an amazingly assured debut that absolutely nails the line between being accessible without feeling dumbed down, and for me one of the best bits of nature writing I've read. I can’t overstate my enthusiasm for this book, or recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Book of Preserves - Pam 'The Jam' Corbin

Another book that I've been looking forward to for a while. Before Pam’s River Cottage handbook on ‘Preserves’ (the 2nd in the series) came out in 2008 I hadn't really bothered with making jams or jellies. It had always seemed easier to buy them - which it is, but doesn't take into account the satisfaction making them brings.

When I think of that book now I think of the huge success that is the raspberry fridge jam, the minor failure of an apple curd (just didn't like it), and first tentative steps into the mystery that is chutney. Diana Henry's ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’ is easily my favourite on the subject of preserving (because I want to make more or less everything in it) but it's Pam The Jam’s book I turn to if I have a glut of something and no particular idea of what to do with it.

I don't know how to start explaining the magic of preserving to the uninitiated, but it is a peculiarly satisfying thing to do. I especially love the way that jellies start off as roughly chopped fruit, and end up as beautiful jewel coloured jars. The way chutney develops once bottled so that it becomes more than the sum of its parts is a close second.

Beyond the immediate satisfaction of making, there's also the feeling of a task shared by generations of previous cooks - that things have their season and so do the jobs that go with them. I find it reassuring, and deeply comforting. And as preserving is an art there's endless room for refining.

The jams that we buy are legally required to contain 60% or more of sugar, and the jams we used to make were more or less the same. Sugar helps a jam set, and acts as a preservative. If you're making a lot of something that's going to hang around for a while (the years supply of marmalade that gets produced when seville oranges are around for example) that's quite handy. Better refrigeration, and better quality jars p, are two things that allow the home cook to reduce the amount of sugar (and up the amount of fruit) in preserves. Or with chutney reduce the amount of vinegar.

Which is the specific point of this book which is set on “learning to shed new light on a traditional craft”. I’m personally drawn towards the chapters on jelly and fruit cheeses (which I haven't made before, but which look like fun). There are some really good looking coulis and compotes which are always a useful thing to have around. A chapter on curds which I'll probably ignore (strictly lemon curd in these parts thank you very much) but less prejudiced people should definitely be looking at.

The chapter on pickles looks really good too. I'm more or less new to pickling as well as fruit cheeses, and these recipes are appealing to me - they sound like things I want in my kitchen. My favourite thing about the marmalade chapter is that Pam isn't snobby about using those tins of pre cut Seville peel (she gives quick and easy jam recipes too). I both love and don't love the ritual of cooking and cutting the oranges, it's quietly encouraging to be told shortcuts are fine.

Overall this is a book full of inspiration coupled with sound advice, beautiful photography (by Mark Diacono)  and illustrations (Hello Marine). It's time to order a new box of jars and start planning.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Mr. Fortune's Maggot - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I meant to choose a Sylvia Townsend Warner to take on holiday with me, but I forget, and then didn't really read much whilst I was away anyway, so I suppose forgetting didn't make much difference. Because of this my choice for A Gallimaufrys reading week was the shortest novel with the largest print.

If that's not the best way to choose a book in the general way of things, it did at least work out well for me this time. I bought the book when I was busily collecting older Virago Modern Classics and before I failed so badly with 'Lolly Willows'. The blurb for 'Mr. Fortune's Maggot' didn't particularly inspire me, so without this prompt and slight deadline anxiety I might never have got round to reading it - but it turned out to be a magical book. My time for Sylvia has finally arrived.

"The Reverend Timothy Fortune, ex-clerk of the Hornsey Branch of Lloyds Bank" has spent a decade as a missionary in the South Seas, mostly doing accounts, when he feels a call to try and convert the remote island of Fanua. He sets off for a three year stint but his only apparent convert is a boy called Lueli. Lueli loves his mentor and "this love, and the sensuous freedom of the islanders produces in Mr Fortune a change of heart which is shattering..."

There was a point where I wasn't quite sure I knew where Sylvia would take us, and was a bit nervous about finding out, not least because of so many scandals about dodgy priests between 1927 and now. Mr Fortune isn't that kind of priest though - he's a genuinely kind and humble man determined to do his best to bring god to the islanders.

The islanders aren't particularly interested, but they're an easy going lot and they clearly like Mr Fortune both for the novelty he provides, and his good nature. In turn he takes their lack of interest in good part, happy with his one convert.

The relationship between Mr. Fortune and Lueli is a complex one. It's not physical, but it's not quite platonic either; it might be described as a drawn out, innocent sort of courtship, at least on the part of Mr Fortune who hasn't ever really had anybody to love before. We don't see much from Lueli's point of view, but there's enough to show that his affection is genuine and deep. The difference is perhaps that Lueli will have other loves, Timothy Fortune will not.

The 'change of heart' when it comes is shattering, and not what I expected. I don't want to give spoilers here which makes it hard to go on. I hope it isn't to much to say that this is the story of a kind man who when he finally finds happiness, understands that he has to give it up to protect everything he has come to love.

It's a gem of a book, quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, and devastating by the end. I feel stupid for taking this long to understand just how good Sylvia Townsend Warner was, but at least have the pleasure ahead of reading through the rest of her books.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Stirling Castle

A few years ago we went to Edinburgh Castle, I'd previously seen it as a child and had romantic memories of it, D had never been, so it was an obvious Edinburgh thing to do. Both of us were disappointed. It's an amazing sight, but quite expensive and most of what's inside the castle compound seems to be regimental museums, and the Scottish war memorial. It's also incredibly crowded.

By contrast I'd never been to Stirling castle, but D had. The ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland released us on to the mainland at 7am and we hadn't really planned what to do beyond breaking the journey back to Leicester somewhere about halfway. Not much is open to visitors at 7am (in fact not much I looked up was open before 11am) but Stirling Castle opens at 9.30 and we were there about 10 minutes after that very ready for coffee and scones.

If it's a choice between Stirling and Edinburgh, choose Stirling. Both castles sit atop dramatic rocky outcrops, though Stirling still looks out over quite a lot of countryside. Both attract a lot of visitors but Stirling early in the day is much more manageable than Edinburgh (there was space to look at things and choose how you moved around the sight).

Stirling was owned by the war office and used as a barracks from 1800 to 1968, its now looked after by Historic Scotland who have been slowly restoring the castle. What they've done is spectacular - Stirling was an important royal stronghold, a palace as well as a fortress, with some fabulous renaissance detailing. The royal apartments have minimal furnishing but maximum colour thanks to the painted friezes on the walls.

What furniture there is, is new, but traditional. It means nothing is roped off, and we see everything looking fresh and vibrant. This is especially true of the tapestry sequence of the hunting of the unicorn. Research suggests that this set was in the Royal collection so a new set was created using an original sequence now in New York as a template. We’re all used to seeing faded tapestry in galleries or country houses, seeing it fresh off the loom is something else entirely.

The tapestry would have been worth the admission price alone, but then there are the Stirling heads… these were carved ceiling decorations that represented contemporary figures, fancy figures, and figures from mythology. They had been taken down in 1777 after a ceiling collapse, and seem to have been scattered around. Recreations in full glorious technicolor are back in situ. There's also a tremendous exhibition which has some of the originals, as well as copies you can get up close to, and which shows the process of making these things.

Add to that, that the staff were incredibly helpful and friendly and it's easily one of the best historic sights I've visited. There's a really good mix of things to make it equally entertaining to children and adults. It’s easy to explore (looking at the website it seems that all the major areas are wheelchair accessible), and the way the sight is being interpreted seems pitch perfect to me. It's definitely worth going out of your way to see.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Buying what looks like all the yarn

When I started knitting again one of the first bits of kit I started looking for was a good squared note book. In the end I got a 5mm squared moleskine. It isn't perfect - 3mm squares are a better size, but annoyingly hard to find.

What moleskine does provide is a hard cover, and the useful back pockets for loose pages of pattern. It's also become a really useful yarn diary over the last few years. I had a dim idea that keeping a note of the yarns I bought would be a good thing, so now it's a post Shetland ritual to sit down and catalogue everything I've bought.

I don't really buy yarn anywhere else - because I've already got so much of it, but the walls of colour in both Jamieson's and Jamieson and Smith's are irrisistable to anyone with magpie instincts. I don't try and resist at all, which was why when I spread out all the yarn last night even I was surprised by how much there was.

The first year I went on a yarn mission I had no real idea about what a ball of wool would look like when knitted up, so everything came more or less in singles, and was just colours I liked. What that shows me know is how much the colour range changes with both companies - these are not static ranges at all.

The year after that I was more interested in the different weights of yarns, and the Jamieson and Smith Heritage ranges. Then in buying a more restricted palate but in sufficient quantities to knit larger things. What I really notice about last year's colours are how they reflect the landscape immediately around my father's house. This was inadvertent at the time but makes me really happy now.

This year I wanted to fill gaps - I realised when I wanted some greens earlier in the year that I really hadn't got many. The same for vibrant raspberry pinks. I also made myself buy colours I wouldn't normally look at in an effort to learn more about putting them together in fair isle patterns.

I also bought a couple of cones of yarn - at 500g they're the equivalent of 20 balls - and if they seem like a sizable initial investment they work out at less than half the price of buying individual balls. These are from the Jamieson and Smith Heritage range. They're natural shades and lovely to knit with so I was really pleased to get them. Maybe they will become the jumpers I keep thinking about starting...

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Back from Shetland

I got back to Leicester around 3pm today, it's hot - my flat was like a furnace with all the windows closed, but the drains seem to be fixed. The plumbers left everything beautifully tidy, I by contrast have already covered clean sheets in cocktail bitters which had leaked in a bag. Because of course they would.

Time in Shetland goes far to fast, I didn't manage to see everybody I would have liked to, or even do half the things I meant to, but it was wonderful to be there and I've come back inspired in all sorts of ways. I'm also broke and have a lot more yarn.

Meanwhile this is going to be another picture post whilst I come down from holiday excitement and contemplate the reality of going back to work in the morning.
One of the highlights of going by boat rather than flying was to come out of a thick sea haar just off Fair Isle. It's much more dramatic than this picture suggests, and was alive with gannets, puffins, razorbills, fulmars, guillemots, and more.
Jamie is a more or less retired sheepdog now, and he gets rather more pampered than he used to. This includes a blind eye to him snoozing on the sofa, but the dangling back end is his way of pretending he's only leaning on it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019


I had meant to post a bit more diligently whilst here, but I haven't actually read much - there has been a lot of eating, drinking, and general catching up with people. I've also bought a lot of yarn, but more of that when I return south. Meanwhile a lot of stuff has gone on Instagram, but I like having picture posts here too, so here goes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Back in Shetland

I'm up north for a couple of weeks, which has happily coincided with work finally beginning on the drains in my flat. At the moment I'm being promised that everything will be fixed by the time I return  - fingers firmly crossed.

Meanwhile it's deeply satisfying to be back in Shetland (which is both warmer and dryer than Leicestershire has been) where I can drag D round various wool merchants and textile displays, and he can persuade me to look at marinas and boats.

On the textile front it's great to see so many of the original garments that inspired Susan Crawford's Vintage Shetland Project on display, seeing them gives extra life to her work just as her research and recreation adds more to the story of the objects.

I've also been following the blog posts about the Lace project that the Shetland Museum is Undertaking it's been fascinating so far, and I'm really excited to see that at the end of this they will be publishing the patterns. I might never have the required patience or skill to make these things, but that makes them no less interesting to read about and understand the construction of.

The textile museum has a particularly pleasing display this year too - it's taken colours as it's starting point and pulled an excellent selection of pieces out of the archive. My favourite is probably a rayon jumper knitted in the 90's and which I assume is a reconstruction, or at least a reference to some of the Rayon jumpers that already existed in the museum collection, as well as the ones still in more or less in private hands (we saw some amazing ones in the Whalsay exhibition a while back).

I have no idea what rayon is like to knit with, but the result is beautifully iridescent and eye catching and I quite like the idea of something moths probably wouldn't eat (unlike silk). Either way it becomes something spectacular when the light catches it.

Beyond that it's just been the fun of buying some yarn, and planning to buy some more. These are significant decisions to be made over the next 10 days or so (time is moving much to fast).

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Vinegar Cupboard - Angela Clutton

I don't often use Amazon these days. I don't find it significantly cheaper for many of the things I want, getting deliveries to my flat is a bit of a pain (they don't like leaving them, which is fair because it isn't secure, and there isn't a click and collect place nearby) and I prefer to shop on the high street. Still, I needed an oven light bulb which thanks to online retailers undercutting high street retailers were unavailable to buy in Leicester, and ended up ordering a couple of books too.

One of them was 'The Vinegar Cupboard' which I'd been eyeing up for a while, and though the book itself is excellent, the state it arrived in had hardened my anti Amazon stance. It was the kind of grubby and scuffed that looks like it's been kicking around in sales bins for months, and there were greasy finger marks on the cover. Which took away a lot of the new book excitement. Nor can I find a way to complain to Amazon about it. I can complain about the driver - but he wasn't the problem. I can leave a poor review, but that's unfair on an excellent book. I suppose I could have sent it back, but that's a lot of extra hassle for me. It's altogether an unsatisfactory situation.

As is the fact that my kitchen then drains still aren't fixed, which means I'm eating a lot of sandwiches (minimal washing up) and getting increasingly angry with the neighbour who is withholding consent to get the work done (floorboards need to come up in both flats). Together the two things mean I've not had as much fun with this book as I had hoped to by now.

Which is a shame because it's got a lot going for it - including lavish use of flavour wheels which I'm always a fan of. It's also a particularly well indexed book, which is something else I appreciate (the lack of an index is currently spoiling another otherwise excellent book I'm currently reading). There is a list of vinegar producers to look out for, which whilst it makes no claims to do anything but scratch the surface, is a handy place for a reader to start making a wish list from. There's an index of the recipes by Vinegar type which is really useful, and then an index for everything.

I wanted this book because the recipes in it look great, but even more because whilst I'm aware that vinegar is a useful thing to have around I'm a bit lost when it comes to the subtleties. Which means every so often I end up throwing away sticky, dusty, bottles years past their best before dates, used for one recipe that called for them and then forgotten.

It's a bonus that 'The Vinegar Cupboard ' is a joy to read too, with plenty of history and vinegar legend, as well as really comprehensive breakdowns of flavour profiles. It's easy to see why it won the 2018 Jane Grigson Trust Award. I'm really glad I've got it, I just wish I'd bought it from an actual shop.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Snow White and Other Tales - Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

As a rule I don't much like hardbacks, they take up to much space, and I can't be doing with having duplicate books around the place either. Again, they take up to much space, and who needs more than one version of the same book? And the exceptions that prove these rules... any interesting translation of the brothers Grimm it seems.

I really like the cloth bound, jewel coloured, hardbacks that Oxford University Press are producing, to the extent that I have to hold myself back from buying, or asking for, copies of things I already have, but this one turned up unannounced in the post. This translation by Joyce Crick is a delight and will happily join my other editions of Grimm, a collection that's likely to carry on growing.

The introduction starts by saying that a "new translation of a text with a claim to be the most-translated of texts after the Bible needs some justification" but I don't think it does. These tales are so ingrained in our culture in one form or another that new translations seem an appropriate continuation of the oral tradition.

As an adult I've probably read 4 different versions with reasonable thoroughness, and they've been everything from feeling stripped back to the bare bones of the tale, to Philip Pullman's story tellers take that I was reading this last winter. Crick's translation is somewhere inbetween, fun to read and as scholarly as you would expect from the OUP.

Pullman's collection was abridged to 50 tales. There are 82 here, some of them distinctly challenging to modern sensibilities. The most noticeable aspect of that is an ingrained anti semitism, the sort we generally like to hide away now. It's salutary to be reminded of it here.

Something I expected less is the way that different tales seem to come to my attention in each different translation/edition. I'm not quite sure why it should be that different titles seem to jump out of different contents pages, but they do. It feels a little like a reading version of looking through a kaleidoscope.

Definitely a collection aimed at adults and students, but with all the pleasure of story telling flourishes which make it a joy to read. I'm delighted with this edition.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Death in Captivity - Michael Gilbert

I've enjoyed more or less everything I've read in the British Library Crime Classics series (everything has had something to recommend it), but Michael Gilbert's books have been a particularly happy discovery. I really hope there will be more (there are some spectacularly ugly house of Stratus editions of his work which I will buy if I have too) because based on the sample of 3 that I've read it's hard to understand why he ever fell out of fashion.

'Death in Captivity' is a sort of locked room mystery set in an Italian prisoner of war camp in the summer of 1943. A man widely suspected of being an informer is found dead in a half dug escape tunnel. Due to the arrangements to get into the tunnel he can't have got there by himself which seems to limit the pool of suspects to the group of men who know about the tunnel...

Henry 'Cuckoo' Goyles is given the task of trying to work out who did it, but meanwhile the allied forces are landing in Sicily and there's about to be a significant regime change in Italy. Everybody is jumpy regardless of side - enthusiastic fascists have quite a bit to worry about, and so do the prisoners who might find themselves in the non to careful hands of the Germans.

The need to find the murderer, work out if there's a traitor in the camp, and escape whilst the going's good, make for a tremendously satisfying thriller. The tension as the last few chapters spin out is terrific, but there's more to the book than it just being a good yarn.

As with the other 2 books in this series (Death has Deep Roots, and Smallbone Deceased) Gilbert is drawing heavily on his own life experience. He was a prisoner in Italy, he did escape, not everybody he traveled with survived the experience. It gives his picture of camp life an authenticity that's impossible to counterfeit, especially when it comes to describing how relationships between the men thrive under one set of circumstances, disintegrate under others, and how different personalities cope with the hardship of camp life.

It also helps that these books have aged well - the prejudices of the era are more or less in check, and in the camp there's a tolerance for all the different cliques set on getting through the experience as best they can. The faction that make up the dedicated escapees are only one group, those who spend their time on roulette, amateur dramatics, and make believe, don't necessarily suffer by comparison. Another writer might have made theses characters the butt of a joke, Gilbert uses them to move the plot along in various ways, and his descriptions feel affectionate.

All of that, along with Gilbert's particular brand of understated deadpan humour, makes for a winning combination. These books have all been so much more than the sum of their parts, and they make me really curious about the author as a person (I imagine he was a charming delight of a man). I'm inclined to say this one is the best of the lot, both in terms of plot and for its insights into POW life but all 3 have their points, and they're all excellent.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Woman in Berlin - Anonymous

I've been reading this book slowly, almost but not quite in real time - it's a diary that runs from the 20th of April to the 22nd of June 1945 written by a 34 year old German woman in Berlin. It's not always been the easiest thing to read because it doesn't show human nature at its best and to read it for to long together has a slightly brutalising effect.

I was regrettably hazy about the downfall of Berlin, had never given any thought to what happened when the Russians and other allies swept in. Our inherited war stories are so fundamentally different and it's easy not to dwell on the reality of what being in an occupied city was like, especially at the end of a long war when the enemy is suddenly at your disposal.

In his introduction Antony Beevor touches on suspicions about how genuine the diary is. It's clear that the author was a professional journalist, so it seems safe to assume she had some sort of eye for posterity but the whole thing rings to depressingly true to be anything other than genuine.

It is on the whole an account of hunger and rape, with the deepest anger saved for the returning German men who insist on being protected from the reality of what happened to the women. It's an anger it would have been hard to express post war, and a reality that many must have wanted to put firmly behind them, but equally that resentment must still have been festering for so many women.

Our heroine quickly makes the decision to find herself a reasonably senior officer in the hopes that it will provide her with some protection from the indiscriminate attacks taking place (this is after her neighbors have more or less thrown her to the wolves to protect themselves). It's a plan that works well enough whilst each man is around, but they are moved on quickly and then the the whole sorry business starts again. Still, it means she can get food and there is a level of protection.

Crucially the fact that this is a widely shared experience initially makes it easier for the women to deal with what's happening - they can talk about it, even joke, and assign a certain amount of blame to the administration that left them so vulnerable. That starts to change as the men drift back and the enormity of events generally and what it might mean for the future sinks in.

It's nothing like the heartwarming accounts of life on the home front, but there is a raw honesty here about the cost of war, and something of the pull of nationalism, as well as the humiliation of being part of a defeated nation - turning from a people into a population. The quality of the writing (and translation by Philip Boehm) makes it a particularly compelling narrative, and if enjoy isn't quite the right word, it really does feel like an important book to read.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Venice Preserved at the RSC

We've had a pretty good run at the RSC so far this year with excellent performances of The Taming of the Shrew, The Provoked Wife, and As You Like It, so we were probably due something we weren't going to be so enthusiastic about - and this was it.

I did a bit of homework about Thomas Otway and Venice Preserved beforehand so had an idea of the plot and how influential the play had been in its day, along with some of the political context behind it. Which turned out to be a good thing because the more or less 80's cyberpunk inspired setting strips  a lot of that context away.

The play opens with Jaffeir confronting his father in jaw, the senator Priuli. Priuli has not approved of his daughter, Belvidera marrying Jaffeir to the point that he's engineered their financial ruin. When Jaffeir realised he's going to get nowhere with Priuli he turns to his friend Pierre, and is quickly convinced by his talk of revolution.

Pierre seems to be motivated by the circumstances of his mistress having a transactional sexual relationship with another senator, Antonio. When he takes Jaffeir to meet with his co conspirators they demand that he hand over Belvidera as collateral. Later Belvidera reveals that the leader of this group, Renault, has tried to rape her leaving Jaffeir with seriously torn loyalties. Eventually he betrays the rebels, but it precipitates a mental breakdown for both him and Belvidera followed by a stage full of bodies.

This production chooses to draw out the submissive elements in Jaffeir's relationship with Pierre, which echos the kink that Antonio employs the courtesan, Aquilina, to satisfy for him. Jaffeir is a decidedly beta male in this scenario, his motivation for joining the rebels a mix of petulance concerning Priuli's actions and presumably hero worship for Pierre.

A contemporary audience would have understood this in terms of Catholic/Protestant struggles within the strict codes of male honour. In those terms Pierre and Jaffeir's decisions make sense - their personal grievances being the last step towards radicalisation that's presumably based on religious affiliation. The cyberpunk setting is stylish but it really didn't work for us, largely because it doesn't help explore the idea of male honour, and neglecting that robs the second half of the play of most of its tension.

It's hard to believe that this Jaffeir (who seems more incel than insurgent) wouldn't just clear off with Belvidera, it's also hard to see why Belvidera is so smitten with him (the audience consensus on the
way out seemed to be that she should have known she could do better). Nor is there the neccesary chemistry between Michael Grady-Hall and Stephen Fewell as Jaffeir and Pierre to make me believe these are friends who would die for each other.

Les Dennis as Priuli on the other hand was a revelation. He was totally convincing as the powerful man bent on pursuing a petty spite, and then the repentant father (although by now his low opinion of Jaffeir feels justified). Jodie McNee is a mesmerising Belvidera too, but the really memorable performances are John Hodgkinson as Antonio, and Natalie Dew as Aquilina.

Her disgust for the elderly lover she's obliged to entertain, and his enjoyment of that disgust, is masterly. Hodgkinson, squeezed into fetish ware raises easy laughs, but his obvious enjoyment of Aquilina's anger and disdain exemplifies the frustration of anyone on the receiving end of harassment. At least when she seems to snap at the end of the play it's all too easy to understand why.

Monday, May 27, 2019

All Among The Barley - Melissa Harrison

It's hard to believe that it's more or less 4 years since I read 'At Hawthorn Time' and fell for Melissa Harrison's writing, but so it seems to be. 'At Hawthorn Time' was one of those books that has really stuck with me, and partly because I liked it so very much I've been hesitant about reading 'All Among the Barley'.

I was always going to wait for the paperback anyway (not a hardback fan) but even when I bought it (more or less the moment it hit the shelves in my local Waterstones) it made me a little nervous - which is the downside of keen anticipation.

Set in East Anglia across the high summer months between hay and harvest in 1934 the book is told from the point of view of 14 year old Edith. Just finished school, she is clever, bookish, the baby of the family, sheltered, isolated, and caught between child and adulthood.

Meanwhile between the continuing agricultural depression, an increasing pace of change towards mechanisation, and the country's inter war flirtation with fascism (Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green was published in 1935 and is an interesting comic counterpoint to some of the events in this), as well as the farmers annual anxiety about weather and harvests tensions are building.

I have a bit of a prejudice against books set in the past - it's not everybody who can make it work convincingly, but Harrison does. This is partly because of the focus she puts on describing the farm and its wildlife, which is both pure Harrison and also very much part of a contemporary trend in the 1930's.

Dorothy Hartley is specifically referenced, but it's impossible not to think of Adrian Bell if you've read Corduroy/Silver Ley/The Cherry Tree, or the work of Claire Leighton. I don't think I've read all of Vita Sackville-West's 'The Land' (worth following the link to listen to the clip of her reading from it though, even if just to hear her diction) but she's part of this tradition too. Lolly Willows and Tarka the Otter are also mentioned amongst others - Lolly Willows signposting where Edith might be heading, Tarka more of a warning about Constance FitzAllen.

Initially Constance seems like she might be working along the same lines as Dorothy Hartley or Claire Leighton, or even Adrian Bell - keen to record an England on the cusp of disappearing. But it becomes increasingly clear that her interests go far beyond recording and into creating a specific sort of propaganda.

The brilliant thing about this book is how nothing is overstated. Edith is utterly convincing, and whilst it's clear something is going wrong it's not entirely clear what, or how serious it actually might be. Constance Fitzallen is a catalyst in the midst of tensions that were already present and again utterly believable. The dramas are both profound and banal - the fear of bankruptcy, old age and infirmity, war time losses leaving an absence of men to work the fields, alcoholism, not knowing how to say no to something you don't want, and so on.

All of them go to build towards a conclusion that's both shocking and inevitable. It's also a book that speaks clearly about the dangers of nostalgia and an idealised vision of an imaginary past in our own era, and again it's done with a lightness of touch which makes it all the more powerful.

Basically this book really is as good as everybody has been saying, and you should absolutely read it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Myth and Materiality in a Woman's World Shetland 1800-2000 - Lynn Abrams

Books have their own serendipity. I've had this one on the shelf for years, it's presence more about good intentions than serious ones, but between anticipating Roseanne Watt's Moder Dy and reading the bibliography for David Gange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge (which I'm also keenly anticipating) it suddenly seemed long past time to read it.

It turned out to be a good choice giving me specific things to think about whilst reading Moder Dy, and also making an interesting companion to Melisa Harrison's 'All Among the Barley' and another translation of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

If you don't have a specific interest in either Shetland, or Women's history this probably isn't the book for you, but if those things do interest you it's excellent. Geography and economic circumstances made 19th century Shetland fairly unique. The majority of men had little choice but to go to Sea (initially either because it was part of their croft tenancy arrangement, or they were in the navy, went to the whaling, or later went to the herring). Loss of life was not infrequent, and even when all was well absences could run to years. It meant that on land women outnumbered men by a considerable margin.

It also meant that women were left to run the crofts - which mostly did not produce enough to live off without a man to fish, and make what money they could from knitting. It was very much a subsistence life but it also meant that women were routinely economically active as producers.

Abrams explores the mythic status of the crofting woman (and she does have a mythic status, one that it's hard for contemporary women to measure up too) along with the reality of women's lives, particularly as they can be found through court records. She also reflects on how Shetland's heritage industry is mainly packaged for local consumption.

The book was first published in 2005 and I think that's changed slightly in the interim, especially through events like Wool Week and the growing popularity of knitting and textile based tourism. But generally it's still true, and something else that's unique about Shetland, at least in a Scottish/British context.

Abrams raises a couple of interesting questions about emigration and the barter truck system too. Men emigrated in larger numbers than women, despite there being larger numbers of women than men, and how hard it was for single women to make a living. It's not clear why they stayed but it suggests to me that whatever reasons were motivating individuals, they're somewhat more complex than the picture generally painted of clearances and economic necessity.

Barter Truck was an undoubtedly iniquitous system which allowed merchants to exploit women by forcing them to accept goods instead of cash for their knitwear. Worse yet the goods were often things like tea or haberdashery which had to be bartered amongst other women for the actual necessities of life. It's generally (and rightly) presented as a very bad thing. It also continued in Shetland more or less until the Second World War, long after it had officially been banned.

Abrams work is making me wonder why it persisted so long. She shows that Shetland women were ready to go to court for a variety of other reasons, and there is the example of The Hoswick Whale case to show that tenants were prepared to face down landlords at least by the 1880's. Again it's the suggestion of a more complex picture that I find interesting here. It's a book that's shaken up some fairly lazy assumptions on my part - and I'm always grateful for that.