Monday, August 3, 2020

Business As usual - Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

It's becoming something of a theme that almost every book I've written about recently is one that I should have read a while ago - but it's true of this one too. Somewhere between the dislocation of lockdown and suddenly feeling weird about reading something set in retail I really procrastinated on 'Business as Usual' until yesterday when I more or less read straight through it.

The first thing to say about it is it's really good. I can only imagine that there are other publishers who specialise in reprints of women's writing who are kicking themselves for not getting to this first - and if they're not they ought to be. It's a delightful book, funny, warm, quirky, and surprisingly relevant for something from the early 1930's.

It's an epistolary novel told through letters, telegraphs, memo's and a few other bits and pieces. The protagonist is a 27 year old woman, Hilary Fane, who has just got engaged to a rising young surgeon in Edinburgh. The engagement is to be for a year and she has decided to fill it by going to London and getting a job as she's just been made redundant from the library she's been working in.

Job hunting turns out to be harder than anticipated until eventually a very junior, and temporary, clerk's position turns up in Everyman's  - a version of Selfridges. There's a bit I'd like to say about Hilary's personal relationships but they'd be spoilers so I'm going to focus instead on the retail side of the book which is particularly well done.

Maybe it isn't particularly surprising how recognisable the details of life in a large department store still are given that human nature doesn't change that much (and computerized systems don't always drive the efficiencies you might hope for), but one thing that really struck me is Hilary's graduate status. In one of my first tutorials as an undergraduate the tutor in charge (a PhD student who was also a manager in the local Dillon's) told us never to try and patronize book shop staff - they already had their degrees she said. So does Hilary, but it isn't much help to her when she's job hunting.

There is an expectation that people who work in bookshops (or sell wine) will be well educated - at least on the part of people who work in bookshops (and wine). To many people start working in them as students and stay after graduating. Increasingly that's also true of those working in supermarkets as better jobs fail to materialise. It's a particularly hard system on women. Initially shift work can fit well with other interests, later it works around childcare, and there's always the possibility of promotion. Unfortunately you soon hit a bottleneck - the way to get ahead is to move around the business which favours the young and commitment free.

Hilary starts out hoping to find a job that pays £4 a week, but ends up with one that pays £2 10 shillings instead. Her entire income is taken up by rent, transport, and eating which she briefly finds fun, and then a cause for some despair. But Hilary knows her situation is temporary. She has well to do, if not especially well off parents to return to and a solidly comfortable and secure middle class life waiting when she marries. It would be easy to make a joke out of her period of poverty, but the authors don't - instead making a point of discussing the bleaker aspects of a life spent working hard for never quite enough to get ahead on.

They're good on the unglamorous but sometimes surprisingly impressive behind the scenes systems that make a really big shop function, and on company culture. I got really emotional about how Hilary describes Christmas; "I've kept Christmas with the best but I've never provided it before. I hadn't an idea what December could be like for the people who did." If you've experienced this you know. If you haven't it is hard to describe as how exhilarating, exhausting, and hellish it can be.

There is a charming romance in here, and it's mostly a light and funny book, but the details and compassion for the working people it describes are what make it something so much more than a charming period piece for a lazy Sunday afternoons reading. I genuinely cannot recommend this highly enough.

Do have a look at the Handheld list Here

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Awakening; Musings on Planetary Survival - Sam Love

I find poetry the hardest thing to write about - which is one very good reason to keep trying to do it. By contrast it's much easier to talk about, which is why I'm now regretting being the first person on this tour - I'd very much like some other peoples reactions to bounce off and to have a virtual conversation with.

Still, somebody has to be first, so here goes. I hadn't heard of Sam Love before I read this collection, and it was only when I started reading that it really clicked that he was American (since then I've done a bit of googling and am slightly less ignorant). I'm also going to suggest that if you don't know him either that you leave off looking him up until after reading some of his work. The author information came at the back of this book, and there's a lot of Sam in his work - another admission - I half thought Sam Love would be a woman when I said yes to this, and now I feel that I shouldn't have made his gender clear. There was something really useful about coming at this collection with no clear idea of age, ethnicity, nationality, or gender; just meeting somebody's words and getting to know them through their poetry.

As far as the poems themselves go they're neither the most beautiful, or complex that I've encountered - but there's an honesty about them which is deeply appealing, and there's no mistaking their meaning either. By Poem number 5, 'Jacuzzi Guilt' I felt like Sam was a friend that I wanted to listen too. It nails the difficulties of balancing the benefits of comfort and convenience with the needs of the planet and the wider population, and it does it with understanding and sympathy. It's a theme that recurs throughout the collection; the poems that touch on it are the ones that resonate most for me.

'Ghost Stumps' is another poem that stood out for me. In it Sam talks about his Victorian era house which both cries out for restoration and represents the wholesale destruction of ancient woodlands. There are issues here that we all have to grapple with - recognising the cost of things we consider beautiful, the cost of our historic legacy (the question of how to acknowledge the good and bad in that is increasingly pressing), and that non of the answers are likely to be simple.

It's a short collection, easy to read in minutes, with poems that that I've come back to a few times in the weeks that I've had this. The central themes are environmental damage and taking personal responsibility for it - 'Blueberry Mourning' is another poem that has stuck with me. There's both hope and despair here and it's definitely a collection that I recommend. The things it's discussing are important and the way it discusses them is no less so. It doesn't lecture or scold, but asks for consideration and compassion along with action.
It's available for £6.99 from Fly on the Wall Press who are doing all sorts of interesting things and are very much worth checking out. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Things I've written Elsewhere

It's hot and I'm bothered - I don't do well in the heat, I certainly can't knit when the temperature is hitting the mid 30's and Leicester is still in lockdown. I considered writing another post about this, but who needs another rant on a day like today. Instead here's a couple of links to posts I've written for the Shetland Wool Adventures Blog...

Here for 10 books about Shetland textiles - mostly knitting based.

And Here for 10 books more generally about Shetland - where it won't be 30+ degrees tonight and I wouldn't be melting into my chair.

Shetland Wool Adventures is also bringing out a journal soon, which I've also written a piece for and which has some really appealing looking patterns in it. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the finished product and absolutely recommend having a good look around Misa's website!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Scaddiman Cushion Cover - A Knitting Post.

This is a new knitting shape for me - a circle - and I'm really pleased with both Hazel Tindall's pattern and my results.

I made a poor choice of cast on (cable) thinking that the relatively large loops it leaves would be easy to pick up and sew together when it came to joining the two halves of the cushion cover. To be fair they are easy to pick up but they leave a  bit of a gap that makes the seam really obvious. My poor sewing skills don't help with this. I've already started another cushion and have changed the cast on accordingly, though it'll be a while before I see how well the new choice works.

I think this is the first one of Hazel's patterns I've followed, it was beautifully clear and despite how intricate the cushion cover looks it's surprisingly quick and simple to make. The design has a really easy to follow rhythm to it and no tricky surprises so I didn't have to spend ages trying to work out, or having to refer to where I was on the chart. I don't memorise things like this particularly easily so finding patterns that flow as well as this one are an absolute treat.

Scaddiman's heid (also the slightly more vivid scabbieman's heid) is a dialect name for a sea urchin hence my colour choices for this version (which have also turned out well, although I might just slightly rearrange some of them another time). The fun thing about Fair Isle knitting is that changing the colours even a little can dramatically change how you see the patterns and motifs so knittin g up things like this won't get old.

Another bonus was that the cover doesn't use a massive amount of yarn. I used a mix of Jamieson's Spindrift and Jamieson and Smith's jumper weight, mostly part balls to finish up the bits and pieces hanging around from other projects.

The final thing that I appreciated about the pattern is that Hazel suggests 3 different ways to dress the finished cover - my best option was to cut out a piece of card (it turned out to be a ridiculously tough bit of card, I needed a hammer and nail to make a hole in it, and broke the blade of a craft knife cutting it out - but won in the end). It's a small detail really, but seeing a range of choices was helpful, as well as a reminder that it might be worth finally buying some blocking wires when I'm working again.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Beast In View - Margaret Millar

I don't know if it's coincidence, some sort of weird synchronicity with my books, or just the lens that I'm currently seeing the world through at the moment but 'Beast in View' turned out to be another book that was unexpectedly lockdown relevant. It also turns out that I have 2 copies of it, the paper back that I read, and one in a Library of America anthology of four suspense novels by women crime writers from the 1950s edited by Sarah Weinman.

Normally realising I'd bought a duplicate would annoy me, but this time I feel like I've at least read a chunk of the smart and relatively expensive anthology - which is something. There's also a 40s volume in the same series and I very much recommend both. I didn't buy the other volume because I already had a couple of the books in it, they're excellent, as is Sarah Weinman's anthology of short stories; 'Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives'. If you like vintage noir at all and don't yet know Weinman's collections - look her up.

There seems to be a reasonable amount of Margaret Millar's work in print, although in a rag tag of different editions and quite a lot of it collected in anthologies, which is good news because she's an amazing writer. I found her via the Pushkin Vertigo series of which I'm a committed fan - and it's as good a place to start reading her as any. When I bough 'Beast In View' (for the second time) it was not long after Pushkin had started reprinting her and the only title I could find in Waterstones Piccadilly (how I dream of going back there, or any other big book shop, or anywhere not locked down).

It turns out to be the story of Helen Clarvoe. Thirty, living alone in an hotel, estranged from her mother and brother, and obviously struggling with something. One night she gets a strange phone call, it's personal and threatening so she writes to the only person she knows who might help her. Paul Blackshear, wo manages her investments. Paul is lonely, bored, and eventually overcomes his disinclination to help Helen who he becomes increasingly fond of. Meanwhile the caller is widening her net to take in the whole Clarvoe family and she's becoming increasingly spiteful and dangerous.

The ending manages to be both shocking and inevitable. We know something is very wrong, and there are clues along the way but for all the final melodrama Millar always manages to keep things under control. We can infer that there was something very wrong with the Clarvoe family, but there's no particular hint as to what it might have been - just that it's left 3 people very damaged. It's Helen's life stuck in her hotel suite, afraid to go out, that made this feel like a lockdown specific novel to me.

Paul's interest in Helen, and her reaction to it are an interesting detail, as are the strained relations between the 3 Clarvoe's. I'm not sure how the depiction of a specific mental health issue stands up to our current understanding, I think Millar is vague enough in the details to make it work, and there's nothing on the NHS website that openly contradicts what she does in this but it's probably worth sign posting anyway.

The other really interesting, and absolutely harrowing aspect of the book is the treatment of a gay character. It's easy to forget, especially if it doesn't affect you personally, how far we've come from this sort of homophobia, and how important it is not to take that for granted. Altogether it's an absolutely gripping read - literally edge of the seat stuff at times, and as compelling as everything I've read by Millar so far. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

My Husband Simon - Mollie Panter-Downes

This is the first of the British Library's new Women Writers series that I've read, it has set the bar high for whatever follows it either in the same series or more generally in my own personal reading. To be fair the other 2 Women Writers titles already out, and the 5 which are coming all look strong and it's going to be really interesting to see where these go.

There will probably be spoilers in this post.

Nevis Falconer is 21 the author of a successful novel, and staying at an older friends country house for the weekend, when she meets 28 year old Simon Quinn. There's such a spark between them that by the Sunday evening they're staying at a pub losing their respective virginities, already intent on marriage.

We then skip forward 3 years to a crisis point for Nevis. Her writing is not going well, she feels trapped by domesticity and then Marcus Chard, her American publisher turns us at the Savoy and invites her for lunch.

There is some speculation as to what extent 'My Husband Simon' is autobiographical - Nevis is more or less the same age as Mollie when she writes her first book, marries, produces her second book, and the age she would have been when she was writing this one. I'm more inclined to see it as a what might have been, than of her actual life. If it is a self portrait it's in the form of deeply unflattering caricature, but I think it's more likely a parody of a type rather than meant to be any one person. It's certainly a younger version of the type that's forever cropping up in the background of Dorothy L. Sayers, or makes up half the cast of a Nancy Mitford.

There's also a lot of commentary about how temperamentally unsuited Nevis and Simon are, that the only thing that keeps them together is sex, but I'm not sure the reader is in a position to judge this because we see everything through Nevis' eyes, and she's far to self absorbed and unobservant to be reliable. I'm not convinced about the class difference that Simon suggests in his afterword either. If Nevis is socially a cut above Simon it's a very small cut and seems mostly to be based on his father having made his own money.

Nevis says he never struck her as being particularly intelligent, that she can't understand how he built up the business, but it's Edward Quinn who who has the generally patrician markers of a good palate for wine, and a love of reading and books (which he collects in first editions). The deeper problem between the couple is Nevis's immaturity and lack of awareness. When Simon tells her that she misunderstands what intelligence is, damning anyone "...who (a) had not seen the latest play and read the latest novel; (b) did not know who Virginia Woolf was; (c) could not look at a dress and say "My dear, is it Molyneux?" she seems to agree with him. She certainly applies the test to his brother.

I found Nevis fascinating in her awfulness, and Mollie expert in the way she reveals it layer by layer. She's a terrible snob, both intellectually and from a class point of view, staggeringly self absorbed, and totally lacking in empathy - and yet despite it all she's a character I like, maybe because right at the end of the book there is a moment of genuine self awareness, but mostly because of Mollie's skill in writing this monstrously egotistical young woman.

Simon is a presence that threads through the book becoming more real with each episode. It's increasingly clear that he is self aware, and loves her in a way that she's not yet capable of understanding. (Spoiler here) early on Nevis tells us that Simon doesn't want children because it will spoil her figure, later it becomes clear that he wants them very much. Not having them is one of several ways he puts her needs first. When he states that Marcus Chard understands her he is perhaps realising that what Nevis likes about Marcus is that he takes the responsibility of her choices away from her whilst flattering her intelligence.

The original blurb for the book suggests that Nevis's choice will boil down to being a wife or mistress, but I think it's more likely to be between being the wife of a man who will treat her as an equal, or one who will make her into a trophy. And that's maybe the reason Nevis is likable, it's because rather than despite of her flaws. The fact that she's selfish enough to keep fighting even when she's dimly aware that what she's fighting for isn't worth having.

I know 'One Fine Day' is generally considered a better book, and maybe it is, but I prefer 'My Husband Simon'. I love the way it unfolds, there is a brilliantly disturbing scene in a park with some beggars, a few with her servants (On holiday in Venice, Nevis is happy to head for the Lido everyday, later her housemaid tells her she should try Bogner Regis - Nevis is appalled, it is a perfect bit of comedy in the middle of something generally darker). An intriguing description of a Dutch still life in the Quinns house "...a hideous and very valuable Dutch painting of six oysters in surprised conjunction with two dead pomegranates and a dead widgeon." which forms part of the background to a heated discussion about D H Lawrence.

The painting gets mentioned a couple of times - in my time as a student the view was very much that even the dead widgeon could be understood as a sexual metaphor - a theory that slightly postdates this book, and is now somewhat discredited. The agreed symbolism of the oysters and pomegranates has not changed so much, Mollie's wording makes that clear, and she's using this image to signify a couple of things, but Nevis seems unaware that the picture is in it's way every bit as explicit as anything Lawrence wrote.

And so it goes on. This is a goldmine of details about a particular London in the early 30's, there's a checklist of books, the central relationships are drawn with an incredible deftness of touch, and I could go on for a couple more thousand words when really 4 will do  - seriously, consider reading this.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Jane Austen; Writing, Society, Politics - Tom Keymer

Officially out later this week, I was sent a copy of this by Oxford University Press to review. It's been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks looking appealing, and so for once I've read it in good time. Part of it's appeal is that it's a short (148 pages) and pocket sized - it makes it an easy book to pick up. It is essentially an introduction to Austen's novels that can be read whole in a few hours, or referred back to on a novel by novel basis.

Taken chapter by chapter you have a decent introduction to each book, or adaptation, which when put together form a decent overview and assessment of Austen's career. The various adaptations are worth thinking about here, and Keymer occasionally touches on them, because I've watched Pride and Prejudice many more times than I've read it. It's easy to forget when they're so ubiquitous that these are only interpretations, and far from complete representations of the novels.

For such a short book there's a lot packed into each chapter, and Keymer makes excellent arguments against some of the charges against Austen and the scope of her writing. The Northanger Abbey chapter persuasively suggests that it's far more than a parody of Gothic fiction for example, and the Mansfield Park section ('The Silence at Mansfield Park') is just as persuasive in how it talks about the way Austen doesn't talk about slavery. She brings it up - and this is a theme throughout her work - but then leaves the reader to join the dots.

The silence Fanny Price is met with when she asks questions is enough to silence her in return. Do we need Austen to spell everything out for us or is it enough to know that this was to sensitive or unpleasant a subject to openly confront in the family circle? And so it goes on.

In 'Sense, Sensibility, and Society' there's some really interesting quotes from Mary Wollstonecraft about the cult of feeling and sensibility (it's hard not to apply them to twitter culture) alongside a defense for Marianne's sensibility against Elinor's stoic sense. Throughout Austen's work is put into context with some of the writers she would have been familiar with and who immediately follow her. My reading list now not only takes in wanting to re read most of her work, but also finally to read Ann Radcliffe, Thomas Love Peacock, and Mary Wollstonecroft (thank god I've already read enough Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson not to feel the need to make the experiment again) and a whole lot of other things happily sitting on my shelves.

Major threads of literary criticism around Austen are summerised, and there's a decent list of further reading if you want to go follow that path. For my needs this book is probably enough. It has already enriched my understanding of Austen and will definitely continue to do that as I read more and again. It's concise, informative, and accessible (how often do you find yourself reading about Mansfield Park long after midnight and thinking just one more page, maybe another chapter?) an excellent companion to Austen's that gives plenty to think about without feeling like it's going to get between you and the text*. I thoroughly recommend this one for anybody who has even a passing interest in Austen's work.

*I'm still vaguely annoyed by everything I've ever read about Jane Eyre, all of which has robbed me of a little bit more of any enjoyment I found in that book.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Temple House Vanishing - Rachel Donohue

This is another book that's been sitting around for a while and that once I started it I couldn't put down. What follows might be considered spoiler adjacent though, so please be aware.

There were to things that really resonated with me in this book. One is that the vanishing part happens to a 16 year old girl in 1990 - which would make the character exactly my age, and the second concerns the relationship of an attractive young male teacher with his 16 year old pupils. A third parallel might be the Colin Pitchfork murders, this was still a live case when we first came to Leicestershire, and created something of the same paranoid atmosphere that Rachel Donahue describes her journalist character growing up with.

At my school there were 2 young male teachers, both would have been fresh out of teacher training and maybe 23-24. One was my form teacher, I didn't particularly like him, he wanted to be everybody's friend, but he also made snide comments about an ex girlfriend - who was the elder sister (by 2 years) of another girl in the class. Presumably because I kept a distance from him he told me for no particular reason that he thought I was manipulative, he asked my mother at a parents evening if I'd been abused. I can't imagine what that was like for her, but 30 years later I'm still furious about it.

I didn't have lessons with the other teacher, who was considered attractive. Around the time I was graduating when he would definitely have been old enough to know better it turned out he was having an affair with an A level student whilst his wife was pregnant. The girl drove her car into a tree hard enough that she was killed in the crash. The inference was that it was suicide.

None of this is particularly close to what happens in 'The Temple House Vanishing' but it's the background against which I'm judging the book, and which makes me think that Donohue's debut is particularly impressive.

Louisa has just one a scholarship to an elite catholic boarding school where the majority of the girls are hostile to her. She does make a friend in Victoria though, who seems both sophisticated, and elusive despite their closeness. There is also the art teacher, Mr Lavelle. He's young, handsome, and by any standard a spectacularly poor choice on the nun's part. The reason for his appointment seems to be that he comes from the right sort of background.

Then at some point Mr Lavelle and Louisa vanish. Coming up for the 25th anniversary of this disappearance a journalist who grew up on the same street as Louisa and vaguely remembers her is given the job of writing a series of profile pieces on the main characters in the drama. The novel unfolds in a series of flashbacks which allow Louisa to tell her story, whilst the journalist (who I do not remember being named) does her own research.

I think it's clear from the blurb that the teacher pupil relationship is going to be troubling, but Donohue keeps its exact nature ambiguous all the way through (please don't draw any conclusions from anything I say here), and her portrayal is excellent. I could sense all the way through that something wasn't right with all the relationships at the heart of this book, but every single character is nuanced and complete in a way that precludes easy judgements about them.

There are nods to Shirley Jackson here, and I think other writers too - things that struck a chord but which I couldn't quite place within the over all gothic atmosphere. The whole thing is beautifully balanced to give a sense of unease, and to make the reader ask difficult questions without giving easy answers. It's a clever, rich, and rewarding book.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Blitz Writing - Inez Holden

Not everything is going to plan today, the longish walk I planned turned into a medium walk after it started raining hours before forecast, and dinner is stubbornly refusing to defrost (I didn't make a plan B and don't want to brave Tesco's in the rain for something shit but not that cheap). I have finished a couple of books that have been sitting around for far to long though, and they've both been excellent, and my sister sent me stroopwafels in the post - so on balance I feel like I might just be winning.

The first of the excellent books is Inez Holden's 'Blitz Writing' from Handheld Press. It's worth signing up for their newsletter, and definitely worth following them on facebook for details of the sale box. I can also commend their services for sending presents to other people. I've been lazy about this in the past and default used amazon but will where possible be buying direct from small publishers now.

A very long time ago I read a short story by Holden (Death in High Society), and for years kept an eye out for more of her work, without success, until I'd more or less forgotten about her. The story was the sort that sticks with you though and I'm extremely pleased that Handheld are reprinting some of her work (there's more of her wartime writings coming next year). I can only hope that some of her fiction comes back into print as well.

'Blitz Writing' includes 'Night Shift' which is a lightly fictionalised account of a week on night shift in a factory engineering parts, and 'It Was Different at the Time' which is a more general memoir of the period from April 1938 to August 1941. There's an overlap in events between the two, but 'Night Shift' was published first, which I guess is why it comes first in this edition but I'd actually recommend reading 'It Was Different At The Time' before 'Night Shift'.

'It Was Different At The Time' provides a whole lot of context for 'Night Shift' and expands on what we know of Holden's views about the people she's working with - she's sympathetic but unsentimental about the people she meets. It's a view of London's working class women that's often absent from the more common middle class memoires and diaries of the period that have come my way.

I found 'It Was Different At The Time' more compelling as well, the Monday chapter of 'Night Shift' was interesting but it didn't suck me in, which is probably why it took me so long to get round to reading this properly, by contrast I raced through 'It Was Different At The Time' which is now full of underlining's and I want to read the first half of this book again armed with the understanding the second half has given me.

Blitz aside the thing that really struck me about 'Night Shift' is how little has changed for women working in menial jobs. The concerns about wages being paid properly, the way they talk and complain, the relationship with the men in charge, and their relationships with each other will all be familiar to anybody who has worked in a low paid job with a lot of other people, especially a lot of other women. Other people must have written about this, but I can't think of another example off hand of anyone doing it with the empathy or respect that Holden does.

'It Was Different At The Time' is fascinating because it records the build up to the war and different attitudes - there's a bit about racism that seems particularly relevant to our contemporary world, and Holden's London is perhaps surprisingly multi-cultural, certainly compared to films, tv series, and all those other middle class accounts I've read. It shows more of Holden herself too, and the different social worlds she flits in and out of.

One of the joys of Handheld books is that they come with excellent introductions, notes, and in this case a list of works cited and further recommended reading. Kristin Bluemel does a brilliant job of introducing Holden and laying out the salient points of her life - she is someone I'd like to know much more about. I really recommend reading this both for how good it is and because of the slightly different perspective it brings to territory that turns out not to be as familiar as I'd come to think. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Leicester Lock down Part 2

Leicester is still in lock down, it's due to be reviewed on the 18th, with rumours that it will be extended. I wasn't sure about writing this post, but after finding the last week really hard I'm doing it partly because it helps me deal with it, and hopefully because if anybody reading this finds themselves in a similar situation they might find it helpful as well.

The first thing is that still being in lock down whilst the rest of the country is coming out of it is much harder than I anticipated. It feels weird seeing friends doing things whilst I'm still stuck at home. The idea of pubs being open is frankly frightening, but the school situation seems worse. Leicester's schools were closed again which sends a fairly specific message which is hard to reconcile with increased relaxation elsewhere. There's no sense in which it feels like we're all in this together, it's very much a case of feeling left behind.

The city centre is emptier than it's been since early April, although nothing is shifting the hardcore group of drinkers who have colonized the middle of my local park. There will be anything uo to 30 of them at a time, they're not daunted by the threat of virus (although as less than fit looking men in their 50's and 60's you'd hope they might be) heavy rain, or the police who regularly come through and ask them to move on.

They're easy enough to avoid, and I suppose the fact they're their at all means that they're not trying to get into pubs and bars outside the lock down zones, and why would they? The park with a bag of cheap lager is cheaper and less regulated than any pub is going to be. I still find them intimidating both in numbers and for the All Lives Matter football shirts they favour. There are noticeably less younger people around.

If you live, as I do, near the centre of the lock down zone the distance to leave it is a deterrent in itself. If you live on the edge of it I wonder how tempting it is to ignore the new regulations? I've certainly been surprised by the number of people suggesting that I pack up and clear out for a week or two. This is hard as well because it's really tempting to do exactly that and the reality is that I've been careful enough for there to be near zero chance of having come into contact with the virus - one of the things I'm really struggling with at the moment is how hard I find it to make myself leave my flat. I'm more worried about lack of exercise than anything else at the moment, but if we don't follow the rules where does that leave us (quite apart from the possibility of a fine)?

There seems to be a growing conviction that this is primarily a problem that's caused by, and effects, the city's Asian and black population, which is both disturbing and outright dangerous. The worst part of this is that it's a narrative that the government seems comfortable encouraging, partly I assume in an effort to discredit local Labour leadership.

There still doesn't seem to be any really clear explanation of why Leicester has been hit so badly, especially compared to other cities with similar demographics and industries. Leicester is a poor city, the council has had the same swinging budget cuts that everyone else has had under a decade of austerity measures, and you can see the damage that's done everywhere.

The sweat shop set ups in the textile industry are no secret. Sarah O'Conner wrote about them here 2 years ago, and again earlier this month here, which includes this link from UK Parliments website that lists how our current government rejected every recommendation to clean up the garment industry. This Guardian article which criticises Priti Patel's comments on sweat shops highlights further problems. It's an issue that's been raised over and over again, but ignored. The news this weekend that a farm in Hereford has 73 confirmed cases amongst it's pickers (here) indicates it's not just factories that are a problem.

Brexit was bad enough for bringing the racists out of the woodwork, Covid is compounding that. The very last thing Leicester needs is a rise in racial tension. The people who live here are being badly let down by a government that either doesn't have a plan or refuses to communicate it. It looks like there won't be any extra help for businesses (here), and altogether things look bleak.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Killer in the Rain - Raymond Chandler

I feel like I've been reading this book throughout the whole of lock down, including the extra Leicester time I'm currently enjoying. I really put the effort in the last couple of days to get the damn thing finished though so I can finally move on with a clear conscience to the next half finished book on the sin pile.

I like a bit of hard boiled noir, I really like Raymond Chandler's version of it, so I had high hopes for this book, but although there are interesting things about it, it was generally a disappointment. It's eight of what are billed as Chandler's finest short stories, originally published in Black Mask and Dime Detective, but as each are around 70 pages long they feel more like novellas. There are a couple that work well, but mostly they feel like they're to short to develop character and plot, but long enough to get tediously confusing, or dwell over long on scenes of torture and violence.

A lot of the ideas in these stories were eventually turned into some of his better known novels, so if you're a real Chandler fan this is worth reading to see how they evolve, but even within the stories here there's a lot of repetition, particularly between the last 2 stories - The Lady in the Lake, and No Crime in the Mountains. It's not just that the detectives are interchangeable (different names, everything else the same throughout the 8 entries) but between these two the local sheriff is also much the same, and one longish scene that describes them is almost word for word identical.

If they'd started and finished the book it wouldn't have been especially noticeable, coming together it's mildly annoying. The final story also has a bunch of unlikely Nazi's shoehorned into it and an appallingly racist take on a Japanese character. It's on a par with the depiction of black characters.

I haven't read any Chandler for a while, and maybe this is a feature in his full length novels that I've forgotten, or which I wasn't quite as sensitive to when I first read them. Coupled with what feels like a whole novels worth of graphic violence compressed into a relatively short format it made the whole reading experience feel quite grueling. These really aren't Chandler's best works, but they've been packaged as if they deserve to be held up to them which is probably the thing that's really annoyed me most about this collection.

It would also benefit from some sort of introduction, commentary, or notes that indicated how the individual stories evolved into other things, and a gave a bit more context about the pulp magazines they first appeared in.

This one is best left to the real fans. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Pooh Cook Book - Katie Stewart

It's been a dreich day here, which has matched my mood. There was sad news this morning and even before that I was finding it hard to settle. I had not anticipated how difficult going back into lockdown would be whilst the rest of the country is coming out of it. I thought it would be a continuation of the last 3 weeks, tiresome but not much more than that. Turns out it feels much more isolating when most of my friends are outside the lockdown zone. It's not what they're doing, but that they can start making tentative plans and I can't. But it can't go on forever and tomorrow will probably be better.

Whilst it was still sunny this morning A.A. Milne came up in a phone call with my mother. It turned out that I knew an impressive amount of trivia about him, almost all culled from years of reading Stuck In A Book. I think we had Winnie-the-Pooh books when we were children, but I don't remember much about them, haven't watched the Disney version, didn't finish 'The Red House Mystery' and haven't seen or read any of his plays or other novels.

I have had 'The Pooh Cook Book' for as long as I can remember though. It looks like the sort of book that was probably a very early present from my Godmother, and I have a great deal of affection for it. As a child I remember making the coconut ice and peppermint creams, and later using the pancake recipe.

It was first published in the early 1970s so there's a dependence on margarine that seems really nostalgic now. The last time I really cooked with it was in the 90's when I spent a year as a cook in a nursery. We used the cheapest possible margarine for cooking with, it was so revolting (smelt awful, felt awful, tasted awful and looked awful, it was full of pockets of oil - just disgusting) that I haven't used it since. To be fair if you want a good light sponge there's something to be said for a decent branded margarine though and maybe 20 years is long enough to have moved past that particular trauma.

Every time I look at this book I'm impressed with it. It's clearly designed to be used independently even by quite young children with the easiest recipes asterisked at the beginning. It starts with instructions for cinnamon toast intended for 'Smackereles, Elevenses, and Teas. Lunches and Suppers are slightly more advanced, but still written very much with a child learning to cook in mind. I love that there's a bread recipe complete with instructions on how to make different shaped rolls.

The inclusion of a cider cup for parties is intriguing; do parents still let their youngish children drink even very mildly alcoholic punches at parties? The recipe asks for 1/2 a pint of cider, 1/2 a pint of lemonade, 1/2 a pint of undiluted orange squash along with the addition of a few sprigs of mint and a sliced apple and orange. It's to be served with ice and says it will serve 6. I'm not entirely convinced by the squash in this, but with a bit of tinkering and carefully chosen ingredients it could be a decent low alcohol alternative to Pimm's.

Cocoa made with milk and honey sounds fabulous, and an old fashioned still orangeade excellent as well. I bet the honey and raisin scones are decent, and there's a peanut butter, chocolate and rice crispy concoction that I like the sound of too.

Unexpectedly for a book from the 1970s there's even a fruit centerpiece that actually sounds pretty in the Christmas section. It's for frosted fruit - you whip up some egg white, paint it in streaks down well polished apples or pears, and then roll them in castor sugar and let them dry. Grapes can be highlighted with little dots of sugar. I quite like the idea of doing this to some shiny red apples - would have loved doing this when I was a child.

Altogether 'The Pooh Cook Book' has aged really well. It doesn't have pictures of the food, but is full of quotes from the Pooh books and E. H. Shepard's illustrations so it still looks great. The honey based recipes for cakes, biscuits, and tarts, of which there are plenty, appeal to my adult taste buds, and it still feels like it would be a great way to get kids cooking. It looks like it's still in print too, which is somehow really reassuring.

Unfortunately the rest of Katie's books don't seem to have fared so well, if they're as good as this one I think that's a shame. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Despite having had a good proportion of Sylvia Townsend Warner's books on my shelves since pre blogging days, and a lot of enthusiasm, especially for 'Lolly Willowes', from people who I normally find my reading preferences aligned with it took Helen to really make me read her.

It was Helen's blog where I first saw Warner's fairy tales mentioned, which in turn made me curious about them when they were re published by Handheld Press. They are one of the best things I've ever found, and I'm now quietly in the process of bestowing them on friends I think might be suitably deserving/appreciative.

For last years Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week I tried Mr. Fortune's Maggot which was a beautiful, melancholy, profound book which has stuck with me. For this year I wanted to try' Lolly Willowes' again. I started, and failed to finish this maybe as much as 15 years ago. I don't know why I didn't get on with it better at the time. It sounded like very much my sort of book,  but it didn't spark any enthusiasm in me at all, and I totally failed to see any of the humour that runs through it.

It might be that it was around the time that I was reading a lot of books about surplus women and the weird element of 'Lolly Willowes' jarred with that. If I was comparing her to F. M. Mayor (The Rector's Daughter, The Squire's Daughter, The Third Miss Symons"), which I might have been I can see why I might have struggled.

The start of 'Lolly Willowes' feels conventional enough at first glance - a shy young woman who not only fails to make a social success but fails to worry about it, from a genteel background, who goes from father to brothers house. When she settles with her brother the family give over the small spare bedroom to her (which is a wrench because it means having to wash the double sized sheets for stray single visitors) and she dwindles into a useful aunt passively joining in with all the family's activity and routines.

When Mayor takes a similar character in 'The Rector's Daughter' she makes the most of a similarly empty life in a way that I felt defied the reader to pity it's central character. Warner has Laura Willowes make a pact with the devil and become a witch. Had I read to the end first time I would have better understood 'Lolly Willowes' in that surplus woman tradition. It's touched on in the last few pages in a way that also recalls Virginia Woolf's 'A Room Of One's Own' albeit with a playfulness and humour that I do not associate with Woolf.

It's also a book that has a particular resonance at this stage of my (extended) lockdown. Laura's feelings about life in London compared to the country very much echo mine right now when the limitations of the city have never been more frustrating, even if in other ways it has been a gift for getting the sort of peace that Laura desires.

What I really can't understand though is how I missed the humour and sharpness of this book last time around when it's the first thing that hit me this time. It doesn't much matter because I got here in the end, which feels like the greatest good luck.

I'm really beginning to wonder if Sylvia Townsend Warner might be the most under rated writer though, and why that should be. It looks like she might be getting the Penguin Modern Classic treatment next year so that might help a little, and I wish I had something more intelligent to say about her beyond the very sound advice to read her books, but until I've actually taken that advice myself the next best thing I can tell you is to read what Helen has to say about her. She has read Warner widely, and her reviews are both insightful and accessible. Helen Macdonald, Harriet Devine, and Simon Thomas at Stuck in a Book are all also great places to start reading around her. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Lockdown in Leicester Again

Fair warning, this post is probably going to turn into a longish rant. 

I live just on the edge of Leicester city centre, quite close to one of the universities, which means at the moment with no students around my part of the city is relatively empty, social distancing has been easy enough to do, and for the most part rules have been observed in the immediate area (with a few exceptions, but even the committed drinkers that have colonised part of the local park at least leave plenty of space around the path through it, so you can still distance from them). There have been Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the city, one large one that I completely avoided, and a few smaller events which I've seen from a distance. 

I haven't wanted to be anywhere near even small crowds, but they've been easy enough to give a wide berth to when I've seen them, and almost everybody present that I saw was wearing a mask, and keeping some sort of distance. Much like the people standing in long queues for post offices and shops. There was some coverage of high rates of infection in Leicester over the last couple of weeks, but the centre itself felt safe enough - well organised, plenty of hand sanitizer (including on stands in the market place), and orderly.

The way rumour and reporting ramped up over the weekend was worrying, but as Sunday turned into Monday, and 5pm came and went with no announcements the speculation was very much that the worst of it might be that existing restrictions would simply stay in place a while longer. At 9.15pm we got the news that we were meant to be going back into something much more like full lock down, and that non essential businesses would be closed from the Tuesday.

Which really isn't a lot of notice, and quite feasibly people would have been done with news for the day. I can only imagine the frantic phoning around employers had to do. Beyond that there was no clear idea of exactly where was covered by the lockdown zone, what it meant for people with jobs outside the city limits, how it might affect people on Job Seekers allowance, what it meant for social bubbles, or crucially why Leicester has such a spike in cases and where are they centred.

As of this morning (Wednesday) there's a postcode checker if you're not quite sure about if you're in the lock down zone or not - because that's just how vague it is, and it sounds like the council might finally be getting more detailed data. Sounds like, and might, are the key words there though.

It seems like single people and single parents can still stay in their social bubbles with another household, but it's not clear what that means if your other household is on the wrong side of the lock down zone. My partner is outside the zone, and I won't be seeing him, though the fact that I could and did see him in the days leading up to this, and considered packing a bag and heading over there on Monday evening sort of makes a mockery of having to officially keep a distance a few hours later. Or do we officially have to keep a distance? 

It's the sort of question there should be quickly available answers for. School's are closing again for all but children of key workers, tomorrow - because now apparently there's a suggestion that children are passing on the virus - there's a ton of unanswered question about that too, and difficulties for single parents who have to consider if their children should be moving between households which might be on either side of the lockdown zone, or how to explain to children inside the zones with schools outside it why they're home again. For people coming out of shielding the advice seems a bit hazy too. I'm guessing that effectively if you're somewhere near the boundary line the common sense thing is to carry on as before. All of it adds to the worry when it's so unclear how your friends and family are affected, even if you've more or less worked out your own position.

Meanwhile the level of traffic in the city does not appear to have significantly reduced, though the number of pedestrians has, there are builders working outside my window, on the other side of the road, and on the opposite bank of the river to me, and whilst the university is firmly closed to academic staff and students, maintenance and security are still very much present. 

County town councils are angry with the city mayor for stating the obvious about the chances of people heading out to them from the lockdown zone  - but there's nothing to stop them, no resources to police this, and absolutely no sense that there was a coherent plan from government about how local lockdowns might work despite knowing they were on the cards. This should surely have been planned for better than this? A lot of pubs in the county are now choosing not to open at the weekend because of their proximity to the city, some that are will be asking for evidence of local residency before they let customers in, but there's no indication that there's a wider strategy, or even advice, for businesses outside the zone. At least one hairdresser who lives in Leicester has been told that she's still okay to go to clients houses outside the zone after Saturday as planned. 

A lot of the commentary online around why this is happening to Leicester is blatantly racist and deeply unhelpful. Leicester is a very diverse city, and there are a lot of older people for whom English is a second language that they struggle with, but there's been a lack of public health advice in anything other than English. It's also a poor city (40% of children are estimated to be being bought up in poverty). The areas that are supposed to be most affected are generally ones of small terraced houses where multi generational living is common. Gardens are tiny, pavements narrow, local shops small and there shouldn't be any blame attached to that.

I am reading that there have been issues in some of the garment factories, which have long been known for exploitative habits, including paying as little as £3.50 an hour. There are articles about this in The Guardian and The Financial Times today. It seems they may have been forcing people to work in unsafe conditions. This is believable, it's also a situation that's been on the radar for years so there's also a big question about why so little has been done about it, and if even this will be enough to change things.

So altogether I'm angry. Not at the relatively minor inconvenience (to me at least) of going back into lockdown, not even at the frustration not knowing when I can see my family again, but at the lack of clarity and obvious organization. It seems likely these lockdowns are going to be a feature of the coming months, they need to be handled a lot better than this has been. I hope lessons are learnt from what Leicester is going through, but honestly there's a lot of it that should have been obvious, and it's deeply worrying that it's taking so long to address. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Summer Kitchens - Olia Hercules

It looks like lock down might be extended in Leicester, but not Leicestershire, which is not happy news from my point of view. Most of my dearest are outside the city limits, and last night I was sorely tempted to pack a suitcase and flee. Calmer reflection convinced me that I'm probably better off at home albeit alone. Suggestions that English visitors might have to quarantine for two weeks if they go to Scotland was even less encouraging. At this point I'd rather hear some hard no's instead of all the vague maybes that keep getting my hopes up.

Lock down at home does have it's upsides though, and one of them has been a run of really good cookbooks, the latest of which for me is Olia Hercules' 'Summer Kitchens'. This is another book I've looked forward to for a while, and which like Gill Meller's 'Root Stem Leaf Flower' has immediately far surpassed my expectations.

It's a collection of 'recipes and reminiscences' from every corner of Ukraine. I could stand to learn a lot more about Ukraine (I've actually looked at a map this evening, something which always makes me feel old, it's changed a lot since I sat in a classroom with a map on the wall*). The recipes look great and there's probably actually more of them that I'll use from this book than from either 'Mamushka' or 'Kaukasis', the photography is wonderful too. It really celebrates the people, food, and places the book talks about and is perfect for a bit of arm chair travelling.

It's the reminiscences part of the book that makes it really special though. Every recipe comes with context, and there are essays on a number of subjects - a discussion of traditional Ukrainian ovens (pich) including some of the superstitions around them has been a particular favourite so far, but I've got more to read. There's even a section of recollections that people had sent to Hercules which caught me unawares. I ended up so over emotional that I had to go and make a cup of tea and then a honey cake to get a grip on myself again. It's not a sad section, but an equally beautiful and generous addition to a book that is already both those things in spades.

The cake was 'Lyuba's honey and berry teacake'. I made it because I was seeing my mother and sister so a big slab of cake felt justified and it is wonderful. It uses lard instead of butter which is something I'm not yet used to baking with, and tastes even better in the couple of days after baking. It's not a sweet cake but the honey makes it rich enough to be filling, and it is indeed very good with an aromatic or herbal tea. I might share the recipe here sometime, but for now I'd say instead to buy this book.

Whilst life is still carrying on at a slower pace it's full of things you might want to eat, and it's a joy to read too. That's a great combination at any time, but I particularly appreciate it right now. It's not every cookery writer who gets better from book to book (though there are plenty who do) but Hercules is doing just that. There's a confidence and style about this one which I'm find particularly beguiling and reminds me of everything I love about Claudia Roden's writing. It really is a wonderful book.

*Our primary school was old enough to have a map with a good quarter of the world still shaded in red still hanging around, also outside toilets when I first started - which were freezing in winter, and spidery all year round. The old map was a curiosity in a sort of store room behind where we had art lessons, not one we were taught from.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Summer's Lease - Thom Eagle

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I haven't read the universally lauded 'First, Catch' yet - though I do now have a copy which is near the top of my to be read pile. 'Summer's Lease' was my personal celebration that my local Waterstone's is open again and I can once more buy or order books locally with ease.

It's all to easy with books bought like this to never quite get round to reading them (I have shelves full of things bought with giddy enthusiasm but not yet read to prove the point) but fortunately the combination of weather so hot that all I've been able to muster any enthusiasm for is reading and actually opening the book, meant that I read it over two days. Which is why I've now bought 'First, Catch' - because 'Summer's Lease' is brilliant.

I might have read it a week before but that the first few pages sent me off to bake bread (in those days when it was raining a lot and cold enough to make that attractive) which distracted me, but there's no force on earth that would have made turning the oven on seem like a good idea in my little flat this week. Reading those pages again did make me wish for a really good bakery in Leicester city centre though. An M&S baguette (which I'm not knocking) is as good as I can find locally, it's not always enough.

'Summer's Lease' does have recipes in it, but in a whilst we're on the subject you could try this sort of way that is almost incidental to the main point of the book, which is to talk about the why and how you can make something of summer's glut whilst cooking without heat. It's a mix of philosophy, notes, opinions, memories, observations, and experience, it's also a page turner.

There are four chapters which discuss breaking, salting, souring, and ageing. It was a couple of pages into breaking that I went off to make bread, overcome by a want to hear the crust crackle as it came out the oven. I hadn't thought of the importance of breaking things apart, or breaking them down, in cooking but now that I have I feel like everything has changed. Simple things like why it's better to tear some herbs apart rather than chop them, or the advantage in tearing apart ripe fruit or tomatoes for a salad - the better to interact with the dressing, now make a lot more sense.

I hadn't much though about the best time to add salt to a salad either, but testing the theory on some ripe tomatoes last night has convinced me that it does make a difference. It's also convinced me that I really need to be prepared to get my hands dirty more, especially handling meat. The way Eagle talks about it you can feel the changes in texture that tell you something is happening, and also when something is ready. Again, I'm not sure that I've ever really seen this explained so clearly before, although that's possibly because I've never particularly wanted to make something like a steak tartar so it just hasn't come up. It might be that I'm still not interested in steak tartar, anymore than I am in raw oysters (I've tried, but I just can't), but that doesn't diminish the lightbulb moment of understanding why things work together, and what they're doing.

The big thing here though is just what good company Thom Eagle is in this book. He encourages experimentation in the kitchen, but also cautions against the desire to try and make everything yourself (whilst acknowledging how seductive the lure to do so is). There are plenty of fermenting and curing projects which would be both distinctly antisocial, and eventually yield results that won't be as good as the product you can buy. Instead the focus is on things that there's a genuine benefit for the home cook in tackling, along with an admission that things will go wrong and turn out badly from time to time.

As fermenting becomes increasingly fashionable this is a particularly useful thing to read and understand - I would have been happy to see a brief discussion about whether it's yeast or mold expanded on, but at least I have somewhere to start researching from (something nasty happened to previous sourdough starters that I'd very much like to avoid in future). I really enjoyed reading this, and expect to refer to it a lot more in the future - my moment of enthusiasm in Waterstones served me well.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Woman in the Wardrobe - Peter Shaffer

'The Woman in the Wardrobe' is by the same Peter Shaffer responsible for Equus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun' and Amadeus - which surprised me a bit at first, but on reflection makes sense. 'The Woman in the Wardrobe' is from 1951 and feels like an homage to locked room mysteries, one that's quite happy to make fun of it's source of inspiration as well as show considerable affection for it.

There's no specific date suggested for when the action takes place, but the fact that the local hotel has been involved in a couple of seedy divorce cases gives it a 1930's kind of a feel (I've been googling divorce law and London gun shops for this - I really hope I don't end up on some sort of watch list - in 1937 cruelty, desertion, and insanity became grounds for divorce, so the need to prove adultery would not have been so pressing). Service revolvers are a plot feature too, but Wikipedia tells me that they're likely First World War ones.

I've looked all this up because part of the charm of the book is that it sits in the suggestion of a past rather than feeling like it's rooted in it's own contemporary world. A character like amateur sleuth Mr Verity, would always have to belong to an earlier time of larger characters than out own world (whenever it is) makes you feel are quite possible. 

Mr Verity is a wonderous creation, a fat man in his 60's, we first meet him carrying a mauve bathing suit heading for the sea. His hobby is collecting antique sculpture (with scant regard for export laws) and being right - the police respect him almost as much as they dislike him. 

The woman in the wardrobe is a waitress - Alice Burton. It's an awkward place for her to be found as on the other side of the door, in a room with locked doors and bolted windows, is the dead body of a blackmailer.

The whole book bowls along fueled by a mixture of wit and humour. There's definitely a theatrical edge to it, and the pace is such that you don't really have time to pick faults in the plot. The twist at the end is an absolute peach and very much of a piece with the general underlying humour of the book. It's a fun mystery that resolves itself convincingly enough but the real joy is in Shaffer's descriptions and details - especially on the subject of Mr Verity and Inspector Rambler. This is a tremendously enjoyable addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

House of Weeds - Poetry by Any Charlotte Kean, Illustrated by Jack Wallington

Sometime last year I made a resolution to read more contemporary poetry, and thanks to Isabelle Kenyon and Fly On the Wall Press I'm keeping that promise. She's sent me a few things I wouldn't otherwise ever have come across and 'House of Weeds' is one of them.

Now feels like a good time to be reading poetry - in this case because the individual poems, and even the whole collection, are short enough to be read even when current events keep sending my mind skittering off in other directions.

I particularly like the collaborative nature of this collection - each poem takes a weed and personifies it, with Jack Wallington's illustrations directing the reader to a particular image or association. They interpret Kean's words in quite a specific way, and I assume that she in turn directed Wallington about what she wanted.

Poetry with illustrations just like this isn't something I'm particularly familiar with and I've found the specificity of it interesting. The pictures impose a particular reading, without them there would be more room for interpretation. This way the author has much more control over the reader, and that in turn carries an increased challenge to agree or disagree with the combinations of word and image in front of you.

That challenge is further underlined by the personal nature of Kean's characterisation of her different weeds - some resonate with me, others are at odds with my sense of specific plants and the types of misfit she associates them with. It's the surprise that comes with being at odds that makes this collection compelling.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Between Worlds: Folktales of Britain & Ireland - Kevin Crossley-Holland

I think this is technically a children's book, Walker Books certainly specialises in publishing for children, and there's something about the illustrations that suggest that it's meant for younger readers, but there's nothing about it that isn't equally satisfying for the adult reader as well.

I had this on my wish list and a really wonderful friend (she has a habit of picking the books I most want off that list) bought it for me at Christmas - I've been enjoying it a few stories at a time ever since.

There's a quote on the back of the book from Philip Pullman that simply says "This great storyteller", and I can think of no better words to describe Kevin Crossley-Holland. What makes this collection so good (for young and old alike) is the way that he strips the stories back to their basics and then adds just the right amount of personality and poetry to make them not just come alive, but to sing for the reader.

Some are barely a couple of paragraphs long (Boo is particularly good - a nervous young woman alone in her fathers house secures doors and windows with all possible diligence, only to hear a voice say 'That's good - now we're locked in for the night' - how can a ghost story get better than that?) most run to a few pages, and there are some like Tam Lin which stretch a bit further.

There's everything here from tales of fairies, to ghost stories, taking in adventurous epics, love stories, and battles of wits along the way. Some feel ancient, others sound like they might be more modern in origin - but they're all good, and the long twilight of midsummer is my favourite time of year for stories like this. It's a time when anything sounds like it might be true and you can never be quite sure of what you're seeing. I can think of nothing better to read by the dying embers of a campfire (even if it's only at the bottom of the garden) at the end of a day. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Coming Out of Lockdown

It's been a difficult week, and as I'm writing this at 4.30 in the afternoon in the near dark with yet another thunder storm rattling around me (3 days of them now) it feels like nature is doing everything it can to add to the general sense of discombobulation.

Lockdown restrictions are lifting in a series of confusing ways across England, differently in Scotland (I really want to see my dad, I'm very homesick for Shetland, I'm hoping that it'll be possible to visit him before too long, but have no idea when it'll be deemed safe to do so) but even as things lift, what's obvious are the way things have changed.

The thing I'm currently finding hardest to deal with is he change in atmosphere around the city. The park which was a solace for most of the last 3 months isn't any longer. There's a group of up to 20, mostly middle aged men, who have taken over both sides of the path at the narrowest point in the park which is also the middle of it. They drink steadily throughout the day and though it would be unfair to say they're threatening, they are intimidating. Walking through them feels like an intrusion. Their music drowns out the birdsong, and whatever is rustling around in the bushes these days is larger than a rat. (They've been rained out by the storm, and it sounds like a few of them are having an argument under the archway that leads to the garages of this flat)

The city itself is busy again but people look like they're much more on edge - some carefully keeping 2 meters distance, others brushing past like you're invisible and ignoring the carefully laid out one way systems. Queues to get into the newly reopened shops are... long, I haven't really had this with the corner shop style supermarkets in town and after months of nearly empty streets it's proving hard to get used to. Some public toilets are open, but even between them and the deluges of rain we've had in the last couple of weeks there's still an overwhelming smell of urine in a lot of the alleyways too.

Now that I can go out I've never wanted to stay in more.

That edginess is even more obvious online, it's probably cowardly to stay quiet on some topics but equally now doesn't seem like a good time to try and speak out on sensitive subjects when you can't do it face to face. To try and keep myself from falling down rabbit holes on twitter I spent most of the last few days binge reading my way through Sarah J Maas 'Court of Thorns and Roses' series. It sounded promising, though I hadn't realised they're aimed at young adults.

I don't really have much to say about them - there are interesting ideas which could have been better
handled, the quality dips as the books go on, but it's possible the rest of the series might get better (I think there are more books planned). I wanted something fairly mindless that I could bury myself in, and I managed to do that, but I was also hoping I'd find another Naomi Novak (I'm thinking of Uprooted and Spinning Silver) or Katherine Arden, and didn't. They were neither good or bad enough to say much more about here. 

The relative break from everything did help me step back from all the crap though, and I do feel more able to deal with everything, and that's a better place to be in than I was last week. Now I just need the storms to blow over. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Root Stem Leaf Flower - Gill Meller

I'm struggling with the lack of nuance on social media this week and how much general frustration and anger is on display (I'm thinking specifically of a spat sparked by a picture of a colourful roundabout in Musselburgh that Chris Packham posted - it got jumped on because many of the species were non native). I'm absolutely not immune to it - as I worry more and more about what my job prospects are and see more friends facing redundancy and continued uncertainty - it's really hard not to lash out, or fall into pointless argument. I'm not always succeeding at avoiding these things but I'm going to try really hard today.

One thing that's not causing either anger of frustration is 'Root Stem Leaf Flower', I've been cooking from this book a lot over the last 10 days or so and it's every bit as good as first impressions made me hope it would be. So far the only downside is in being unable to share the things I'm making.

The recipes are arranged seasonally but because I'm buying my veg rather than growing them I'm not following it particularly seasonally. Availability is relatively limited at the moment, Leicester Market never quite closed through lockdown, but it did contract. It's slowly expanding again but the variety isn't there. That's down to a combination of wholesale prices being too high with vendors not feeling they can pass on the increases, and goods just not being there - the effects of the wet winter were already obvious in the price and quality of Lincolnshire produce back at the start of the year.

It's been harder to keep track of time through lockdown anyway, and realising that the fruit and veg I see for sale hasn't changed anything like as much as it would in other years has added to a general sense of stasis, and also a nagging unease. This post keeps veering off in ways I was not planning on; what I meant to say was that the wintery baked leeks and dill were delicious, and so were the autumnal roast peppers and shallots (although the leeks felt wintery, roast peppers are great whenever).

I think my favourite recipe so far has been the aubergines and roast tomatoes for everything though - it sums up all the things that I'm loving about this book. It's simple both in terms of the ingredient list and what you need to do with them. It's delicious - and economic which is always a bonus. And it stands out thanks to the addition of some crushed fennel seeds. I guess there's nothing especially revolutionary about fennel seeds, but they would never have been an obvious choice for me to use and they're the thing that turns a try of agreeably roasted veg into something memorable.

My favourite thing about the book is that it's absolutely full of recipes that do the same thing - either taking a vegetable that I don't normally get very excited about (I'm looking at you broccoli) and making it sound great, or something that I like (hello carrots) and turning them into total stars. The last time I felt this enthusiastic about brussels sprouts was reading Anja Dunk's 'Strudel, Noodles, and Dumplings'.

Despite my best intentions to reduce the amount of meat in my diet I haven't always done very well at finding recipes that inspire me, but this book really does. That it's come at a time when I'm spending more time in the kitchen and have re-found my enthusiasm for cooking feels like an absolute gift amongst the general wreckage of 2020. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Second Ishbel Shawl

I liked this pattern so much that after the orange version (which has gone to my sister) I started another one straight away. This time I went up a couple of needle sizes and added a repeat of the vine pattern as well as using a marginally thicker yarn.

The yarn is a cone of Jamieson and Smith's Shetland Heritage Naturals* in a dark grey. It's not as thick as the jumper weight or spindrift yarn that I'm used to, but slightly heavier than a lace weight. I think the yarn on the cone is oiled for machine use - it certainly doesn't feel quite the same as it does in balls, or have the particular sheepy smell about it (though I got that in spades when I washed it). Regardless it's really lovely to knit with.

It also really needs to be blocked before you can tell exactly what you've got. I spent almost the whole time I was knitting this worried that the change in needle size was going to ruin the definition of the pattern, even more because it's quite a fuzzy wool whilst you knit with it. Turns out I needn't have worried, it's dressed up beautifully with lovely crisp definition. The increased stitch size means the difference between the 'right' and 'wrong' sides in the stockinette stitch isn't so obvious either which I count as a bonus.

The Heritage yarn is still fine enough to make a really light shawl, which is perfect for the current weather we're having. It's soft, warm, and drapes really nicely. I used a spindrift in a blue colour for the last 3 rows and like the slight change in weight there as well.

I love this grey colour, which is perhaps the only problem with this shawl - shade wise it's close to a lot of the clothes I wear and so likely to get lost a bit - though calling that a problem is a bit of a stretch.

I'm quite tempted to start a third Ishbel, it's a satisfying pattern to knit, easy without being boring, and everything else I've queued up is going to demand more concentration than I feel like giving at the moment.

The pattern is by Ysolda and a good place for relative beginners to lace/openwork wanting to tackle something interesting.

*£33 for a 500g cone rather than £3.30 for a 25g ball is a bargain.

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Accidental Countryside - Stephen Moss

This was the last book I bought before bookshops locked down, it felt appropriate then, and even more so now - almost 3 months later. The subtitle is 'Hidden Havens for Britain's Wildlife' and I'd describe the book as a sort of manifesto for how we can make space for wildlife in relatively urban settings and the benefits that has all round.

It's very much preaching to the converted in my case, to the point that the only criticisms I have are that this is a book that could really do with an index, and if not an index at least a bibliography, or list of further reading.

What we do get is a comprehensive list of places (railway embankments, roadside verges, old gravel pits, and similar odds and ends of land) and some of the work that's being done with them to create wildlife reserves, or otherwise create space for nature. When it works it's brilliant, although sadly for a lot of these spaces their status is fairly unofficial and they can be easily lost to development.

There's also a persuasive argument for building on greenbelt rather than brownfield land. We have a fixed perception, particularly in England (the debate is somewhat different in Scotland, I don't know enough about Wales) that farmland and countryside are more or less synonymous, and that farmland is a good place for wildlife. The reality is that a lot of farmland is an industrialised monoculture that actively discourages natural diversity (messy, machine cut hedges which are full of gaps are an example of this that I particularly dislike).

It's also true that people in cities need more access to green spaces, so why not start putting them in cities where the people are? Quite apart from anything else it's a brilliant way to build an interest in wildlife, and help people learn how to be around it. The point is made a couple of times that a nature reserve is not the same thing as a park.

I'm lucky in Leicester in that the council have taken a light touch approach to the riverside and parks around me. They're maintained in such a way that they feel safe for human use, but with enough bits left untended to encourage a decent range of birds and insects. We also have Bradgate Park about 5 miles north of the city centre. It was once the home of Lady Jane Grey, and there's still a Mulberry tree in the grounds of the now ruined house that was meant to have been a gift from Raleigh. There's also belladonna growing in odd corners. It's another landscape which is expertly managed to provide space for people and wildlife (although perhaps more accurately deliberate rather than accidental countryside).

We could be luckier though, there's a biggish redevelopment of part of the riverside going on at the moment which is going to be housing, but could have been something else altogether that might have been a significant draw into the city.

Getting back to the book, Moss also looks at the impact humans have had on the landscape since ancient times, and how we've created, as well as destroyed, habitats. One of the first he discusses is the Broch on Mousa in Shetland. Storm Petrels use it's walls as a nesting sight, somewhere they're well protected from predating gulls. There's an irony here in that the Broch's ancient inhabitants very probably used these birds as candles (they're very oily, the details are not pretty and can't have smelt pleasant), their descendants certainly did well into the 19th century.  The way peregrines are colonising cities comes with no such associations and is something that I find deeply hopeful.

That sense of hope runs through 'The Accidental Countryside', over and over there are examples of things that can be done to make space for nature. They range from the simple and cost effective option of reducing how much verges are mown to new housing estates building in genuinely wildlife friendly measures (which can add value so it's not asking very much of developers to do more of it).

A consistent theme throughout lockdown is how important, and helpful, so many of us have found observing more of the nature on our doorsteps, which is why this book feels so relevant to this moment.

 Bradgate, where the dog couldn't fathom how laid back the ducks were (kept responsibly on a lead at all times). The deer in the bottom picture are in an area that people are kept out of. They have the whole of the park to roam, but there are sanctuary areas throughout too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt - Out in Paperback

The Seafarers, A Journey Among Birds is out in paperback tomorrow. I read this book at more less this time last year (early July to be specific) when I'd just come back from Shetland. It's a world that seems a lifetime ago; I had a job but would learn I was being made redundant a couple of weeks later, and was desperate for change. The changes 2020 have bought aren't really the sort that I'd have chosen, but relative isolation has had some upsides and at least one of those started with this book.

I liked bird watching as a kid, but it was a hobby that fell by the wayside when we moved to Leicestershire (the logistics were more complicated and other things came along) even if I never lost the basic interest. Reading 'The Seafarers' last summer was a gentle reminder of something I was missing, and since reading it I've been paying more attention not just to the wildlife around me, but also to the debates around it.

The increased awareness of the birdlife around me has been a gift, especially this spring. I think it's a gift that a lot of us have been grateful for, and I hope that it will feed into an increased consideration of, and protection for, wildlife generally - it just might. Though it's anybody's guess if that will be enough.

Anyway - if you missed The Seafarers first time round it's a wonderful book by a really gifted writer at the start of what promises to be a really interesting career. I lent my copy of 'The Seafarers' to my partner so it's locked down out of my reach at the moment and I can't do much more than read my original review of it here. If money wasn't such an issue I'd buy myself the papaerback to refer back to. It'd be useful right now as I've been reading Stephen Moss's 'The Accidental Countryside' and I'd like to do a better comparison of some of the thinking between them.

There are a few things that made this book so special that are worth repeating. The choice of species to focus on - many of them are birds that we take for granted a bit, but a focus on Razorbills rather than Puffins when you want to examine the plight of auks generally is arguably more illuminating.

It would also have been easy to make this a book that focused on mental health, a subject that's touched on, but which remains an underlying theme - it's most definitely not another book that promises redemption or recovery in wild places, though it does show that a shift in perspective or priorities can be really helpful. I know that the point that I really fell for this book was in the ways that Rutt acknowledges the privileges that open these spaces for him. Again, it's done lightly, and I only noticed it because it's absent from a lot of the other nature writing I've read.

Finally it's the sheer range of issues, ideas, and anecdotes that are covered that makes this book such a joy to read. It was one of my books of the year for good reasons.