Friday, October 23, 2020

Shetland Wool Week Annual 2020 - Volume 6

We can meet again in private gardens in Leicester, so this afternoon I really enjoyed a cup of tea in the rain - with a friend I hadn't seen for months. His garden is a very bird friendly one so there was the added pleasure of robins, blue tits, blackbirds, and gold crests (the latter right above our head in a birch tree) busily eating everything they could find. The combination of the relative privacy of a garden with conversation underlined for me how often it's relatively little things which make a big difference.

Going to Shetland in September was a big thing in the context of this year, but it was the simple luxury of being able to step outside and walk for miles without seeing anybody, coupled with the long views, and the wild things to watch that made it so special. That, and being able to spend a bit of time with immediate family - none of which I will ever take for granted again. Altogether it rebooted me into a much more positive frame of mind.

I'm lucky in that I have hobbies well suited to spending a lot of time in relative isolation - knitting, reading, painting, planning spreadsheets of all the weird tales in the various anthologies I have which can act as a master index... None of these things demand (or encourage) company. Buying yarn in Shetland was another activity that demanded a certain amount of privacy - I didn't spend too much (in my opinion) but a critical audience (such as my father) may have disagreed. It was also a lot of fun - even more for the anticipation that went into it, some of which was fueled by the teaser images on Instagram for the patterns.

When wool week was officially cancelled for this year I was one of the many people who vocally hoped that the annual would be produced anyway. It's always been a publication to look forward too - another small thing which could be rescued from the chaos of this year and become something to look forward too. I hope it has also helped some of the people in Shetland who's wool based income will have taken a hit this year.

I really have been looking forward to it, and when my copy finally landed with me on Wednesday morning I was delighted. There's a good range of patterns again - a Donna Smith Jumper which is tempting, Alison Rendall's sock pattern which I'm determined will be the first pair of socks I make, leg warmers, mitts, and hats which are all very accessible patterns for Fair Isle novices, and perfect for making as Christmas presents. They're great patterns for not novices as well, but as discussed with The Shetland Wool Adventures Journal it's great to have patterns which are broadly inclusive for basic knitting abilities that actually look like things you want to make and wear.

The pattern I'm most attracted to though is Ella Gordon's Radiant Star Cowl. It's featured on the cover and is very much the sort of thing I want for myself. I like everything about this cowl, especially the nods towards vintage knitwear and Shetland's working history. Ella wrote an excellent blog post about her inspiration and process which is well worth a look. Something else to hope for is that one day she might write a book which brings all her knitting interests together. 

There are articles I'm looking forward to spending more time with in the annual too - and altogether it's a really good buy at £21. I see some of the older volumes are also being offered at serious sale prices on the website HERE. I recommend any and all of them.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Port of London Murders - Josephine Bell

 I'm reading a good bit of weird and horror at the moment - 'Women's Weird Volume 2', and 'British Weird' from Handheld Press, and some of the British Library titles too, but in-between, and because I scare easily and still want to sleep at night I'm mixing in a few other things. 'The Port of London Murders' turned up on my doorstep on Tuesday and looked so appealing I read it straight away.

I particularly love the cover of this one which goes all out for the atmosphere and is an excellent match for the atmosphere of the book. I read this almost in a sitting not so much because of the mystery element - which is okay, but because the London it depicts is irresistible.

When I say the mystery is okay I don't want to sound like I'm damning it with faint praise - it's a rattling enough yarn where the reasonably high body count seems totally reasonable, but we have a grasp on who the villains are from early on so it's more of a question of how they commit certain crimes, and will they get away with it. The murdering, as we also find early on is linked to drug smuggling, the scheme behind this is clever, although I doubt it's how actual drug smugglers would work - although I'm fairly ignorant about this the amounts seem small for the risks involved. 

Meanwhile what really makes this book sing is how Bell depicts the slums around London's docklands and the characters to be found there. Some are respectable, prosperous even, engaged in honest work on the river. Others are chancers, criminals, grifters, or simply hanging on at the end of a long life. They're all compelling. I really wanted to know if Harry Reed and June Harvey would reach an understanding, if Leslie Harvey would realize his dream of another ride in the Police launch, and if Mrs Bowerman would make it to the end of the book. 

There are wonderful descriptions of the working life of the Thames, a tense section whilst a tug pulls 4 barges through a thick fog with the possibility of disaster looming all the time given they can't see where they're going. The descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells, and texture of life on the river are fabulous - it is easily the most compelling vision of London I've come across in this series (better even than in A Scream in Soho).

It is altogether a deeply satisfying book - enjoyable, easy to read, intelligent, and a portrait that rings true of it's time and place - the by play between the Pope and Dunwoody families, along with the headache they are for the Doctor and their welfare officer is comic genius. It works so well because Bell maintains a compassion for her subjects that stops them falling into caricature or parody.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Food Almanac - Miranda York

I've been on a little bit of a food related book spree recently (The Little Library Christmas, The Food Almanac, and after she said it was appearing already in shops Caroline Edan's 'Red Sand's about 3 weeks earlier than I expected to be able to buy it). I've only had time to glance at 'Red Sands' which I picked up on Monday - the benefit of getting it early is that I still had quinces to make a really good lamb and quince plov with, but it looks great. It's also a hard book to define. It certainly has recipes in it, and food is central to the writing, but it is more travel book than recipe book.

'The Little Library Christmas' has a higher proportion of recipes to text, but it covers much more than food and pushes a little at the bounds of what a traditional cook book is (in my mind anyway) too. 'The Food Almanac' does the same kind of thing - food and drink is at it's heart, but explored in all sorts of ways. 

Once a habit is formed it can be the devil to break even when it's something that you wouldn't necessarily consider addictive. This is my relationship with my kitchen - for a decade between my mid twenties and mid thirties I busily collected books and equipment, most of which I had a definite need for, or which at least catered to whatever fad was of the moment (I never really did get into icing biscuits despite a brief enthusiasm for the idea). A decade and more later I still can't shake the habit of gathering things in, despite long since having run out of space.

Whilst I can now walk past a display of china, glassware, or pots and pans with only the briefest pause I still can't resist cookbooks. I sort of need to learn how to though because as well as having no space money is also short. It would be easier to resist if writers didn't keep doing new and interesting things.

'The Food Almanac' is a neat example of this. I probably wouldn't buy another seasonal cookbook (that's probably a lie - depending on who wrote it, but as I'm only really trying to kid myself, please excuse me) but a book that takes me through the seasons with recipes, menus, poems, essays, folklore, book recommendations, and a celebration of toast? Count me in. 

I hope that 'The Food Almanac' becomes, if not a yearly publication, at least a series that comes out every couple of years. It's not much bigger than a paperback, the ideal book to give as a no pressure gift to anyone else who really enjoys their kitchen time, and the perfect book to take if you're self catering somewhere on holiday. There are things to cook, things to drink, and things to while away a lazy afternoon with reading. 

Whilst I have nobody to cook for there's more than enough in here to entertain me beyond the recipes I want to try, which make it the perfect book to keep by my bed, or next to the sofa, to dip in and out of when there's time for a few pages. If I was 20 years younger it would have me planning a long wish list of books, as it is I can only hope that Faber (or someone) will decide to reprint Ambrose Heath's 'Good Savories' in an attractive edition and at a reasonable price. Meanwhile there's a wealth of things to enjoy here in a book that's more comforting and sustaining than a bowl of chicken soup. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Monday - a round up with Diana Henry Brownies

This weekend I received not one, but two, unexpected gifts, and made some really spectacular brownies - although I don't think brownie is a sufficient description for the sheer glory and decadence of this particular bake. 

Unexpected gifts of all sorts have been something of a feature of this year, and it seems like a good time to acknowledge that. It's no secret that I've not always found lock down easy, Leicester still has restrictions (now we're officially in tier 2 things have relaxed a bit), and there have been tough times. I know that I've observed the restrictions with reasonable diligence - being in Shetland was an eye opener. Family were frustrated by the tightening of rules that represented a degree of freedom from what I'd been used too. But it's also been a shock being out of Leicester and seeing how much has closed for good, or remained closed up due to covid. 

Sat in my bubble it was easy to imagine the rest of the country was more normal than we were, an impression bolstered by a lot of social media which showed people out and about doing things. Actually being out and about tells me otherwise. The world has changed - but maybe that's okay, though it's making it frustratingly difficult to get hold of my preferred advent calendar. One irony attached to the current situation is that after months spent indoors because of restrictions, I now spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about leaving my flat because of expected deliveries. Not being able to buy things on the high street (more necessary things than advent calendars) is not something I see as a change for the better. 

On the whole though I'm lucky. Despite the downs and frustrations I've not yet had to worry about how to put food on the table, I'm not easily bored, have appreciated the time to knit, cook, read, and just be, and am not dreading the winter. Being inside right now feels like a privilege, or at least it does when it's raining, dark, cold, or otherwise unappealing. Living on your own does at least mean there's no one in the house to annoy you (I'd still rather have company, but it's not all bad). I'm also more than lucky in my friends and family. 

I've got people I can call, I've been sent packages containing tea, biscuits, jewelry (from a silver smithing friend), books, vermouth, and knitting patterns. It's a degree of kindness and generosity that I'm totally bowled over by. They're the same attributes that spill online in various groups, podcasts, hashtags and more that encourage conversation and provide real highlights to my week. It's not all bad by a long way.

On which note - Diana Henry has been posting a daily recipe on Instagram since March. There have been some crackers, but Fridays was particularly decadent. Blackberry and Rosemary Brownies sounded very promising. I made them yesterday - they do not disappoint, and are very much at the luxury end of the brownie scale. There's a lot of chocolate, sugar, and a bit of booze in these, and although I'm happily eating one with a cup of coffee right now I think they deserve a bit more of an occasion. Link to recipe here

They'd make a fabulous grown up birthday cake - even more because they're better baked the day before you want them, and possibly in a round tin for more of an evening mood (am I alone in thinking a wedge seems more celebratory than a square?). Anyway, they're really good, and now I need to go for a brisk walk even if it does mean I risk missing a half expected delivery of review books... 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Days of Falling Flesh and Rising Moons - Steve Denehan

There is a quote on the back of this collection that says "Denehan is sort of like Bukowski, if Bukowski wrote while drinking rather than drunk." (from Chris Margolin, editor of The Poetry Question). It's a long time since I've read any Bukowski, but it's a comparison that I think does Denehan a disservice. He writes like somebody I would like to have a drink with, or a cup of tea, or a chat generally. Bukowski for all his talent has never struck me as someone I'd want to find myself in the same room as. 

This is the second Denehan collection I've read - the first was Miles of Sky Above Us, Miles of Earth Below which I loved. This collection is darker in every sense (cover included), and so is my own mood these days. A lot has changed in the year between these two books; Covid creeps in here, which I found unexpectedly hard to read about outside of a news context. These poems highlighted for me how many months this virus has been around, and underlined the way that changes to the way we live and interact are beginning to feel increasingly permanent.  

The poem that I keep coming back to here is 'No'. It's one that I wish would be taught in schools. It takes far to long for most of us to understand the pleasure, power, and usefulness of the word No, and I like the way this poem puts the word love in it's place too. This is one to copy down and keep handy for all the many times I need reminding that no is not only an option, but a good idea. This is where I do agree with Chris Margolin - Denehan's work is "...proof that poetry doesn't need to be complicated to tell a damn good story."

It's a pleasure to read a body of work that is so generally accessible. The poems here are heartfelt, clever, playful, surprising, and sometimes heartbreaking - 'Geoff' is a perfect horror story in verse about the clipboard wielding charity collectors that turn city centre streets into gauntlets to be run with a beautifully unexpected ending (which maybe does have a little Bukowski about it?). 'Margaret' came under the heartbreaking category for it's mix of tragedy, love and hope. 

There's also quite a bit here about difficult relationships with fathers, and the loss that comes with ageing  - poems that have a different resonance now I'm in my 40's than the would have had even a decade ago. There are stabs of recognition now, not just from my own experience, but from the wider experiences of friends as we all try to puzzle out the realities of middle age. 

I really do recommend Steve as a poet to read and follow. It's been both a pleasure and a privilege to be part of this tour. You can find his books from all the normal sources, and also follow him on twitter for more poetry updates. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Unbearable Bassington - Saki

One of the highlights of my trip to Shetland was meeting Micheal Walmer, who has recently moved up there. We got a socially distanced walk between weathers and to talk about books - including ‘The Unbearable Bassington’, and wondered what kind of writer Saki would have become if he hadn't been killed in the first world war. I think that the answer is partly here.

I'm more familiar with Saki's short stories, frequently anthologized in the sort of collections I like so there's a decent quantity of them I've read many times, as well as often dipping into a comprehensive penguin edition. They're funny and memorable with all the authors trade mark wit, cruelty, and elegance, but this is the only longer work I've read. The body of the book feels typical enough but there's an emotional punch at the end which I don't find in the short stories. 

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ in question is (presumably) a youth called Comus who is more force of nature than boy, a fated lord of misrule who sails through his school days care of good looks, undeniable charm, and sufficient sporting prowess. Post school and the world isn’t quite so kind to Comus; there are no shortage of charming young men on the town and neither he or his long suffering mother have any money, Comus needs to contract a decent marriage as the chances of him making any sort of hand at a career are slim. Unfortunately he blows it in the marriage stakes through sheer perversity which leaves him with but one option – he’s exported to West Africa in the traditional manner of black sheep in the age of empire.

The other Bassington is Francesca a woman who is commonly held to have no soul – instead she has a drawing room – an ordered peaceful place where all her household gods are laid out. The affection between Francesca and her son is real, neither is much given to loving others but both care deeply for each other despite the barrier that’s grown up between them. This coldness is due almost entirely to the nature that Comus can’t help but have: “Fate played him with loaded dice; he would lose always.”

‘The Unbearable Bassington” was first published in 1912 and reads as both an attack on and an elegy for the society it portrays. Saki must I think have known war was coming (He wrote ‘When William Came’ – an imagining of London occupied by the Germans a year later) with hindsight it certainly reads as if he realises that this particular society is all but done with. There are constant pokes both at the vapid nature of society gossip and the patronising futility of good works (my favourite being this: “No one has ever said it,’ observed Lady Caroline ‘but how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them.”). Perhaps there is a sense of frustration too at a society that produces boys like Comus who have no conceivable use in the world (except they are destined to become cannon fodder very soon) and no means to live on.

If the plot is a little depressing the one liner’s that litter every page are perfectly polished gems sparkling like nobody’s business making the book a joy to read. Maybe a bigger question than what Saki would have become, is what he would have become if he'd have lived longer and not had to have experienced the war. It's harder for me to imagine how he would have reacted to the disintegration of the Edwardian world he skewered so perfectly - we lost a great writer when he died, but what would he have lost if he'd lived? 

I first read this book in a disintegrating orange Penguin edition, it's a real pleasure to have the new copy printed by Walmer (it's a particularly pleasing pocket size, the print isn't too small, and the introduction by Maurice Baring is useful). It's something which deserves to be far better known. This is true of all the books Walmer publishes - it's worth having a look at his Facebook page here for links to more reviews. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Shetland Wool Adventures Journal - Volume 1

 I've been waiting very patiently to read this new journal from Misa Hay - it came out whilst I was in Shetland, but beyond having a quick look in The Shetland Times bookshop and at my stepmothers copy I held off reading it for a treat when I got home. I'm glad I waited, it's good to have something to look forward to, and after a few grey days, a couple of loads of laundry, and all the other boring things that need to be caught up with when you've been away for a few weeks this was the perfect thing to read this afternoon.

I have a piece in it about Mary Prior's book, Rhubarbaria which I'm really pleased to have contributed. I'd actually subscribed to the Journal before Misa asked me to write something for it, I'm even more pleased she asked me now I've properly seen a copy. It's a lovely thing to be associated with.

The journal covers patterns, of which there are 6, walks, recipes, stories, and inspiration. The patterns are a mix of hats, gloves, mitts, a chunky shawl (Donna Smith's Brough - very nice) and a cowl. The hats and mitts are great projects for people relatively new to Fair Isle knitting - quick, not too fiddly, and the sort of thing that anybody would be happy to produce. I say this quite a bit, but I really like the accessibility of patterns which are both beautiful and not overly complicated.

The first knitting book I bought had a range of projects in it that all looked hideous to me. It quite quickly ended up in a charity shop; those patterns might have been carefully chosen to build a skill set, but who wants to invest in the materials and time it takes to knit something they're not going to like? The Shetland Wool Week annuals (which Misa was also responsible for in the early days) were the first things I bought that had patterns I really wanted to make in them, and felt I could make. I doubt I'm alone in this.

The recipes in here are great too. The ingredients and flavours reflect Shetland and the best of it's produce, but again are things I want to make and eat (especially the treacle bannocks which sound like ideal autumn/winter treats). I really like the way the landscape is showcased through a trio of suggested walks, and theirs a wealth of other things which come under the more general heading of inspiration.

My highlights include an article by Mike Finnie (architect, watercolourist, jeweler, and over all renaissance man) on croft houses, Eve Eunson on Fair Isle chairs, and a couple of articles on the history of Lerwick. All of it is an indication of the history and range of creativity to be found in Shetland - just part of why it's such an exciting place to be. 

Details of how to order are here. It's well worth a look. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sprig Muslin - Georgette Heyer #1956Club

A late entry for the 1956 club here - I only decided to read this last night after thinking it might be interesting to compare another book in the light comic vein with 'Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders'. 'Sprig Muslin' had never been a particular favourite Heyer for me, but yet again I find reading her in my 40's gives me an entirely different perspective from when I first read these books in my teens. It's probably not unrelated to the fact that I'm not that much younger than Heyer was when she wrote this.

It did turn out to be an interesting book in relation to 'Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders' as neither are really concerned much with the plot - both are serviceable but call for a willingness to play along, but both are very interested in being funny.

'Sprig Muslin' is an odd Heyer in a lot of ways. It's a romance in the sense that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote romances, there is a love story but it's barely sketched in - and is maybe the better for it. It opens with the here - Sir Gareth Ludlow, 35, rich, handsome, charming, intelligent, and blessed with a good sense of humour seeking a suitable bride. Much to his sisters dismay he's settled on a shy 29 year old spinster with no particular fortune or pretensions to beauty. 

The reason for his choice is that a very beautiful and spirited fiancée unfortunately broke her neck and died 7 years previously when she stole his horses. Sir Gareth, understandably, hasn't been quite the same since. He likes Lady Hester and thinks they'll get on well together but to everyone's surprise she turns him down. This, the reader quickly understands, is because she's in love with him and wants more than the cool arrangement he's suggesting. 

Meanwhile Sir Gareth has met and rescued Miss Amanda Smith, 16, stunningly beautiful, running away from home and a massive pain. Heyer in a different mood might have tried t persuade us that Amanda and Gareth would fall in love, but she doesn't even bother doing that here. The majority of the book is about the increasingly unlikely adventures that befall everyone as Sir Gareth tries to work out who Amanda is and return her to her home. Heyer also spends a lot of time pointing out that most fictional romance conventions are dangerous nonsense - she has a point.

At no point does Amanda understand the very real risks she takes as she continues to run off with a series of random men, whilst recycling the plot of 'Pamela'. It is a funny book, one that feels a little bit like a drawing room farce - if such a thing is possible whilst a series of people chase around the countryside in a series of carriages, carts, and curricles. 

The broken neck interlude is surprisingly grim to start an ostensibly light hearted book with, Amanda falls somewhere between being a heroine, villain, and victim. Her behaviour has real consequences for those around her, and Heyer makes it clear over and over that she's basically a child. She's a victim in that she's been spoilt by an indulgent grandparent, and uncritical reading of books that have given her a skewed idea of the world. Gareth and Hester's love story happens almost entirely off the page, which is fine because their characters are almost non existent.

There is a point about friendship and respect being key to a successful relationship along with shared humour, but mostly this is a satire on romantic conventions, which is perhaps why the Punch reviewer seemed to like it so much ("Altogether probbaly the best thing Miss Heyer has yet done"). Along with Miss Hogg these 2 books are giving me a sense of a society on the brink - caught somewhere between old traumas and new anxieties and dealing with both by making jokes - perhaps I'm projecting... But then this is always my thing with Heyer - every time I read her I find something new, and something that feels prescient. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders - Austin Lee - 1956 Book Club

 I bought this book just after Simon and Kaggsy's last book group and have patiently sat on since finding that the next book club would be 1956. In the meantime I've found that crime fiction from the 1950's seems to be very much my thing, which only made me anticipate this one more.

It was worth the wait. Greyladies books are a treat anyway so I never had any doubts that I would enjoy this, the question was how much I would enjoy it. A mysterious American has been found dead in an abandoned shop in Haworth after a visit to Professor Appleby - an increasingly jittery Bronte expert. Another body turns up in Wordsworth country (in this case making a mess of Lady Haltwhistle's fitted carpet), and the mysteries continue to pile up with the bodies.

At this point Miss Flora Hogg and her friend, Milly Brown are called in. Flora Hogg, graduate of Bristol, ex school mistress, and daughter of a police detective has herself turned detective with some success. Her methods are sometimes unorthodox but eventually successful. The mystery here is enjoyable, it bounces along sort of making sense but mostly existing as a vehicle for Lee's humour and a series of set peices which are absolute gems.

There's more than a nod to classic golden age mysteries that suggests something like a post war nostalgia for a pre war world, but mostly I think it's a vehicle for jokes that Austen Lee wants to write. Miss Hogg and Milly are two at least middle aged ladies concerned about their tea and shopping when they're not detecting. The passage where Lady Haltwhistle finds out what's happened to her carpet is a masterpiece, and there are plenty more comic interludes in the book. It's a mystery for people who want to be amused rather than seriously puzzled.

I like to try and work out what these books tell me about the year they're written in when I do these book clubs, but apart from an extremely casual attitude to drink driving this one doesn't tell me much - apart possibly from the enjoyment of good food and wine throughout. Rationing only finally ended in 1954 (meat being the last thing to return to normal) so in 1956 plentiful and good meals must still have felt like something not just to be excited about, but that couldn't be taken for granted. 

Maybe the humour is a clue too? A book for a world that's getting back to normal and wants to enjoy itself without dwelling on the serious things just around the corner or the serious things in the past. Or maybe not. Either way Greyladies publishes another Miss Hogg title, and Austen Lee wrote several more - if they're as good as this one I hope someone republishes more of them soon. They're just the sort of comforting read I could do with right about now. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Back From Scotland

I got back to Leicester last night with no real enthusiasm for the place. The extra 100+ days of lock down we've had here have probably been the final straw and I've been absent for a goodish bit of it after the water went off in my building for a weekend. I had to move out for a few days and saw no good reason to come back. There are still things I find convenient about living in a town, still people I care about here (although I can't see them) but I've loved the space that first the Scottish Borders, and then Shetland gave me other the last weeks. It made me feel so much better than I have in months, and I'm really going to miss it. Especially now the students are back here - they generally make the city feel safer, but right now an extra 40,000 people, half of them on my doorstep, feels overwhelming.

Meanwhile it's a long, long, time since I was in Shetland during the Autumn and so I ended up falling in love with it all over again. I was lucky with the weather. It was frequently quite windy, often quite wet, but never for very long. I wouldn't have minded a proper storm, but am grateful for the the glorious light and the change of colouring I got to see. It went from still having a hint of summer in sheltered corners, to feeling like winter was almost there on the more exposed hills.

It was also a chance to think about how I present the Shetland I see here and elsewhere on social media. I'm normally there around midsummer, and like most of us my pictures are carefully edited to show the wildest or most picturesque things I come across. It's a romantic view of a landscape which isn't exactly dishonest, but ignores the industrial reality of the place, so isn't entirely honest either. It's something that was really underlined for me when I posted a picture of an oil rig that's being decommissioned. People were ambivalent about it, but oil is a huge part of Shetland's recent history and prosperity as is fishing, salmon farming, mussel farming, and now the landscape is being torn apart for a massive windfarm.

It's generally accepted that the ruins of old fishing stations are attractive in a way that the massive sheds and pelagic fishing boats of today are not - but the new boats signal far more wealth for the people who work on them. The ruins represent a deeply exploitative system that took far longer than it should have to break. Maybe the windfarm will settle into the landscape in the same way that salmon and mussel farms have become so much part of the voe's that I can't really remember what they looked like without them. Maybe they won't - I'm not a fan of windfarms and somewhat dread the impact they're going to have. I think they'll further shift the balance between wild and domesticated (or industrialized) away from nature. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Little Library Christmas - Kate Young

 I'm still in Shetland, the wind is still blowing (which is okay because we have a wind turbine which dumps excess energy into heated towel rails so the less appealing it is outside the hotter the bathroom gets, and eventually the whole house - because, boy, do those towel rails heat up) and the rain is driving horizontally across the landscape. Perversely this is the weather I miss most when I'm not here. Good weather in Shetland is beautiful, but even the city looks good in the sun, whereas is takes proper countryside to still appeal on a day like this.

However much I might like the view from the window (with the comfort of that towel rail at my back) I'm not entirely inclined to go out in it (no seriously wet weather boots for a start) so I'm making bread and leafing through a few books, including Kate Young's 'The Little Library Christmas' which is an absolute treat.

The Little Library books are great, and if I don't really need another Christmas cookbook (I have 2, and always go to my mothers anyway - she has no intention of giving up the apron just yet) I've always got space for a book about books and food, and the thoughts of Kate Young who is an author who feels like a friend when you read her. Someone who can suggest the most luxurious hot chocolate recipe, recommend a handful of good books to you, and if a whole book sounds like to much effort to concentrate on then reading a chapter of a book like this is more than enough to keep me happy.

I've long been an advocate of starting Christmas preparations early, October is the perfect time for making cakes and mincemeat (there's a recipe in here that sounds good, and that can be used more quickly than the Fiona Cairns recipe I normally favour. Maybe this will be the year to try something different?), for perhaps buying a few new decorations, choosing cards, making lists. This Christmas might be different for a lot of us, but that seems like all the more reason to plan to me.

If another lock down, or something that feels very like it, is looming then we will need things to look forward to, ways to look after ourselves, and ways to care for others. Something else I warm to about this book is that it covers quiet nights in alone. Both the hardest and easiest thing about most of this year for me has been how much time I've spent alone. I don't dislike it, but I'm very aware of the effect it has on me; it's very easy to stop considering other people or their points of view when you don't have a lot of contact outside your own very small bubble. 

That in itself is another reason to enjoy a companionable sort of book like this - the recipes look good, there's some pickled sprouts and a chutney I especially want to try, and if a good proportion have appeared in the other Little Library books there are more than enough new ones to make this worth having just for the food. But again, it's the book talk, and someone who understands the importance and magic of a Christmas tree that really calls to me. It's the sort of book that reminds us we never really have to be alone if we don't want to be, and that there's much worse company to be found than that in the pages of a favourite book. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Scarweather - Anthony Rolls

 I've been trying to spend as much time as possible outside whilst I've got some countryside to roam and there are otters and seals to be spotted (there are humpback whales around the south of Shetland too, but I don't think I'll be lucky enough to see them this time - it's quite a long way to go just on the off chance, which is a lot of sitting in a car instead of being outside. It all adds up to a bit less reading than I had optimistically packed for - but there have been a couple of other bookish diversions along the way.

Meanwhile I have read 'Scarweather', I really enjoyed 'Family Matters', the other Anthony Rolls title in the BL crime classics series, so came to 'Scarweather' with high expectations. It did not disappoint. The structure of 'Scarweather' is marginally more traditional than Family Matters, but not by such a lot. 'Scarweather' is also a much funnier book. 

It opens in 1913, John Farringdale who will be our narrator is an undergraduate almost at the end of his Cambridge years. His two great friends are his cousin, Eric Foster, and an older man - Frederick Ellingham. Eric has become friends with an eminent archeologist - Professor Tolgen Reisby, and his attractive young wife Hilda. All of them go up North to take part in a dig the professor is organizing and enjoy themselves hugely, although John is worried about the closeness between his cousin and Hilda Reisby.

The next year Eric disappears in what is supposed to be a swimming accident, and with no proof that it could be otherwise, but some suspicions, John Farringdale and Frederick Ellingham carry on with their lives, swept up first by the war, and later by their respectively successful careers. They don't forget Eric though, and Ellingham in particular determines to find out what happened to him despite the passing decades.

Anthony Rolls was a pen name for Colwyn Edward Vulliamy who was a keen amateur archeologist. There's quite a bit of archeology in this book, and a lot of jokes at the expense of different types of archeologists and their arguments. It's an affectionate humour of the sort that would make me read this book again - it also helps that we always know who did it, and can guess what happened, but there are still plenty of suitably gruesome and gothic details to enjoy along the way. If the who is the only reason you keep reading, there's not much reason to read again.

Anthony Rolls is definitely one of those writers who has unjustly fallen out of sight. He's inventive, amusing, clever and thoughtful. A quick search on amazon suggests his other books are essentially unavailable - if they're anywhere near as good as 'Scarweather' and 'Family Matters' I hope they get rescued from obscurity soon. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Shetland, Phone Boxes, and Breathing Deeply

 If I still feel a bit weird about being away - it's partly because I was lucky to be a couple of days ahead of the tightening of restrictions in Scotland, so I'm both extremely grateful to be here and feeling a little bit guilty about it - I'm loving the relative freedom. It feels amazing to just be able to walk, and god knows I need the exercise. 

Meanwhile I've finally seen the finished Phone Box, which looks good, and we're trying to see if we can rescue it's sister which stands about 3 miles away. I don't think the Vadlure phone box has quite the same exciting history as the Lera Voe box does - although who knows what research will throw up, but it does (and this is saying something) have a far more spectacular view. The first step is to contact BT and see if they will allow us to adopt the box.

I also had luck when it came to a second hand book find, and got something interesting from The Shetland Times Bookshop. The Shetland Times was one of my favourite places as a kid, and is still a pretty fine bookshop. It's small but well stocked, and they have some proper bargains. There's book bundles of slightly damaged stock for sale at the moment - £5.99 and some really interesting looking stuff to be had. It's not something I've seen done before but it's a great idea.

All in all it's exactly the change of scene I needed, so here's a few pictures to share.

The Vadlure phonebox, in need of a bit of love, view not included in this photo.

The island on the horizon is Foula, scene of the Oceanic dives from 'Treasure Islands.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Knitting From Fair Isle - Mati Ventrillon

 I'm back in Shetland, the weather isn't terrible (which is a bonus for this time of the year), and it is still good to be away. I'm even getting used to the different and changing covid restrictions. It's amazing to be here in a year that I really didn't think I'd make it. I've already been knocked out by the fresh air (it makes you so sleepy!). It would have been wool week right now in normal circumstances - it's going ahead in a fashion online, and hopefully means that I'll be able to schedule a visit t the textile museum before it closes for the year. It still feels vaguely ironic that the first time I've been in Shetland at this time of year for a long time is This Year.

On the other hand I do have a copy of 'Knitting From Fair Isle' with me to review, and that's more than enough excitement to be getting on with. I had been anticipating this book for a while. Mati Ventrillon has a distinctive style that I really like. She came to Fair Isle in 2007, moving from London where she had been an architect. She joined the Fair Isle Crafts Co-Operative and spent the next four years learning how to knit traditional Fair Isle garments and motifs. In 2015 there was a row with Chanel (speedily resolved on their part) when a jumper she had designed was used in their cat walk show without proper attribution. There have also been projects with Fortnum & Mason (tea cosies, I really wish the pattern had been included, maybe another time it will be) and others.

The tag line for this book is '15 contemporary designs inspired by tradition'. As Ventrillon discusses, every Fair Isle knitter brings there own style to the things they knit, most obviously through the motifs and colours they choose. It's her distinctive use of colour that had me most interested in this book, and it hasn't let me down.

There are a few things that 'Knitting From Fair Isle' does really well. There are 3 chapters or sections - Inspired by Tradition, Playing With Backgrounds, and Past and Present, each with 5 projects. There are variations on hats and mitts which are ideal for the beginner. Scarves and neck warmers, including one which is knitted in panels and sewn together so that the patterns run horizontally rather than vertically, which are the next obvious step up, and then a vest, 3 different jumper patterns and a poncho which are much bigger projects, and because of the shaping required more ambitious.

It's a pleasing collection which has just the jumper I want to knit, and there are several of the accessories that I like the look of too. I've had this book for just over a week and have been working through a pair of wrist warmers which have made me realise the importance of swatching for any of the projects in this book. Which is also why wrist warmers are a great place to start as they act as a very effective swatch. I think my tension is a bit tighter than it could be, and I will probably have to change the size of the needles I use accordingly. 

There are 3 colourways for each pattern, and this is tremendously helpful. There are 2 tone versions, traditional colours, and then depending on the chapter, combinations called Admiral, Ombre, and Stripe. Three quarters of the way through an Ombre combination (dictated by the few bits of yarn I'd packed from the scrap bag) I had a penny dropping moment about how the colours and design tied together which have made it very clear to me just how useful this book will be. How to put colours together and make them work is one of the hardest things about Fair Isle knitting so I really mean it when I say useful. 

Something else I really love about this book is the way that the test knitters are acknowledged. Instead of a list of names, their work is credited in every picture it appears in, and at the back there are photographs of all their hands knitting. It underlines how much work goes into producing a book like this, and how many people are involved. It's not a form of acknowledgement I've seen before, which is a shame because it says so much about the collaborative nature of the enterprise, and the sense of community that knitting can bring. 

A very worthy addition to any knitting library, I really recommend this one, and will almost definitely finally commit to starting a jumper (the slash neck all over). I am 100% committed to buying the yarn for it to the point that I've almost been dreaming about it. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020


 After months in Leicester I'm away, and frankly it's confusing. Also wonderful, but definitely confusing. I'd committed to going North to see my father (and other family, including my 'baby' sister who will be 30 whilst I'm with them - we think it will be the first time I've been there for her birthday) a couple of months ago when it seemed unthinkable that Leicester would still be in lockdown.

As it turns out the rest of the country is currently joining Leicester in lockdown, but after the water failed in my building a few weeks ago I'd more or less moved out of my flat, and the city. It isn't easy living alone under local lockdown restrictions when your support bubble is out with the city limits. One of the many things that hasn't been clear is if they come under the same restrictions as I did if we're seeing each other. I also found it weird listening to endless complaints about the rule of 6 when I'd spent so long with the rule of none. But then as has been clear for a long time, lock down is not the same for everybody. My experience as a person living alone in a city that had never been out of lockdown is very different even from some of my immediate neighbours.

Anyway. Away is good. I've been in the Scottish borders, a place I love, and which isn't short on space. We're lucky in that my family has a flat in an old country house here, it feels safe for us, and more importantly for our neighbours to be here, and there was work which couldn't be put off any longer. I've been helping my father move some really substantial Victorian furniture around so that old moth infested carpet could go, and new moth proof carpet be fitted. We've also got the hot water fixed and done a few other jobs, and I'll finally be going to Shetland with him tomorrow now that we're definitely a single household.

If I sound like I'm trying to justify myself, I am a bit. This all feels odd to me. I've checked and double checked, and don't think I'm breaking any rules, even under todays new guidelines, but after so long on my own in my flat it all feels too good to be true. There have been unexpected things such as the mental and physical benefit of having really long views again. After months of horizons that are never more than a few hundred yards away, hemmed in by buildings, the nightly headache has lifted, and my eyes are nowhere near as sore as they had been. I assumed I needed a stronger lens prescription, but it turned out to be a change of perspective that was missing. 

There are have also been the expected benefits of having another person to cook for and eat with, of being able to walk for an hour or more without meeting another person and feeling safe, of fresh air, trees, and I cannot over emphasize this - space. This part of the world excels at providing big open spaces, along with small private spaces, and it feels like heaven right now.

I don't know what the next months will bring. I've already got a distressing number of friends suffering from long covid, and others dealing with the mental health repercussions of this year. I hope we can find ways to be kind to each other, to not forget those who are lonely and vulnerable, and to make peace with the rules that are put in place.  

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Ghost Stories - E. Nesbit

 I'm not entirely sure what's happening with Greyladies - I haven't noticed any new books for a while (although looking is risky when you're short of money, so what do I know) but they're definitely still sending books out even though headquarters have moved again and they're now based in Peebles (there might be a second hand bookshop too, and in happier times I would have planned an excursion). I ordered the Nesbit ghost stories and another book early in lockdown, and then put them aside as something special for later.

Later is now, I'm actually in the Scottish Borders which feels amazing after months of being cooped up in Leicester. My family has a flat here which is unexpectedly empty, and has a ton of space around it. I'm hoping this will be a stepping stone on the way to Shetland in a couple of days - lockdown situation permitting. I also wish I'd come up here weeks ago as it's taken no time flat to realise how much being in Leicester has been getting me down. The weather has been amazing today, I've had proper walks, can't go to M&S for salted caramel eclairs, and already feel better for it. 

Greyladies books feel appropriate for the house I'm staying in (built in 1914, it was a prep school for a while before being converted into flats in the 1970's, there's a whiff of a few different pasts about the place). E. Nesbit's ghost stories are perfect autumn reading. Some are dark enough to be shiver inducing, others are more gentle.

I really discovered her ghost stories through the British Library Weird series, and it turns out that I'd read 3 of the 7 stories in this book in that series (including 'Man Sized in Marble' which I have in a few anthologies*. However as John Miller's collections have shown me, context can make a considerable difference to how you read these things, and having a collection of Nesbit's tales together not only conforms how good she is, but also makes it easier to see the distinctly feminist thread that runs through them. 

The first three stories here have a considerably darker tone to them - 'From The Dead' is particularly grim, 'John Charrington's Wedding' is full on gothic melodrama, and 'Man-Size in Marble' is the sort of thing that I could all to easily believe in where I am at the moment.

'The Ebony Frame' is another version of 'From the Dead' but less horrible - all of these four tales involve people comin g back from the grave in one form or another. In 'The Ebony Frame' I was prepared for the worst but things are resolved in a way that's both sad, and probably for the best (especially if you've read 'From The Dead'). 'The Mystery of the Semi-Detached' is spooky, and the closest one I could describe to fun (it doesn't feel quite like the right word when somebody ends up murdered, but the others in the collection all go further down the horror route).

'The Pavillion' is curious, not a ghost story but a weird plant story (I first read it in Evil Roots). There's a sadness about this one which underpins it's feminist slant, and there's a similar sadness about 'The Shadow - which is genuinely creepy. Altogether it's an excellent collection which covers a variety of moods. If people still did this kind of thing they would be ideal stories to read aloud to an audience at Halloween or Christmas too. The kind of thing that won't scare you silly, but might make you jump at shadows.

I also really like the format of this book - it's a pocket sized edition, and there's something I find particularly satisfying about a book that can genuinely fit in a modest size pocket - and with print large enough to read comfortably if you did want to give a performance. 

*Some rainy day when I'm bored I'm going to make an index of all the ghost stories I have and which anthologies they're in. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Checkmate to Murder - E.C.R. Lorac

 After reading two crime classics that felt quite innovative, 'Checkmate to Murder' definitely has a more traditional feel to it, it's also full of later war time London atmosphere (it was published in 1944), and altogether it is an eminently satisfying book. 

An artist is painting his model in a studio built in the garden of a Hampstead House long past it's glory days. They have two friends playing chess in the room with them, and the artists sister comes and goes throughout the evening as she prepares supper for them all in the small kitchen. Their landlords char lady comes in to see her after checking up on the old man who owns the house, and leaves the latch key on the table by mistake. Not long after a brash special constable arrives with an injured soldier in tow. He's accusing the soldier of murdering the old man in the house.

The soldier turns out to be his great nephew, and the general idea at this point is that he's probably innocent. The special constable seems suspicious but it could be a red herring, the char is above reproach - so could it have been one of the studio party, and if so how?

The eventual answer is reasonably ingenious, and the clues are sort of all there to be picked up on, so the plot works perfectly well, but what I found really enjoyable about this book was the mood it presented. The full horror of the blitz is in the past and Londoners are sort of recovering from it, whilst also still being marked by the experience. We can surmise that some characters have shown their best in a crisis, others have been brutalized by it, some couldn't stick it from the start, some are attempting to profiteer - or at least look to the future, and others are just trying to get by.

Anything like this has taken on a whole new resonance thanks to Covid, which if nothing else demonstrates what it's like to be in a country that collectively facing a specific threat. At this point of dragging local lockdowns and ever more confusing regulations depending on precisely where you are, it's becoming increasingly easy to see how the rules get flouted on one hand, but also how the majority of people following rules makes it easier for those intent on breaking them to do so. 

It was also a reminded that the blitz didn't last for the whole of the war. I have Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang's The Spirit of the Blitz - Home Intelligence and British Morale from OUP in front of me at the moment, waiting to be read, and this book was very much a reminder that I could do with understanding a lot more about this part of our history. 

'Checkmate To Murder' is a solidly entertaining mystery set against an interesting background that's enough to have me chasing after more serious reading (and also more Lorac). The sort of comfortable reading that will see you through a hot afternoon or a rainy evening, and definitely the kind of book I want at the moment.  

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Treasure Islands - Alec Crawford

 Sometimes it's relatively unexpected books which are the most rewarding. Books about maritime salvage wouldn't automatically be the first thing I pick up, even if they are 'True Tales of a Shipwreck Hunter', but I very much wanted to read Alec Crawford's account of some of his most notable dives because the most notable of them was probably on the Oceanic, and it's what the bulk of this book is about.

The Oceanic was one of the great White Star liners, for 2 years after she was built she was the biggest boat in the world. Aclose cousin of the Titanic she sank in September 1914 off the shaalds of Foula, a reef close to the island. For anyone familiar with the west coast of Shetland Foula is a familiar landmark on the horizon. It's about 14 miles off the coast of the mainland from where I grew up, sometimes disappearing into cloud and bad weather, and far away enough to demand effort and planning to reach. Apparently we went there in a rib when I was still in my carry cot, I've never made it back since, but it hovers in my imagination the same way it does on the horizon. 

Coincidentally it seems that Alec Crawford, and Simon Martin's attempts to salvage from the Oceanic began in 1973 - which was the year I was born. We lived on the Island of Vaila at the time, which guards the voe where the Foula mailboat travels to and from with supplies (the village is called Walls, or Waas in dialect). Work on the Oceanic, and excitement around it were a background part of my childhood. You could buy bracelets made of her copper stamped with the White Star logo from a local jeweler, my grandfather acquired a port hole, dad has one of the nuts from a propeller blade (it's big) and one of the actual blades stands outside the Lerwick museum, so big it's actually hard to imagine what the whole propeller must have looked like, but it gives some sense of the scale of the ship. 

I guess Simon and Alec must have been almost local celebrities, they were certainly well kent faces in the village, and in Shetland more generally, and are remembered fondly. One of the really lovely things about this book is seeing how obviously that affection was returned and how much they seem to have enjoyed working in Shetland and living on Foula, which is the least accessible inhabited island in the UK, and almost miraculously still inhabited. There has been speculation that it would be evacuated since St Kilda was emptied in 1930.

In 1937 Michael Powell filmed 'The Edge of the World' on Foula as a stand in for St Kilda, which only increased speculation about its probable fate (the film is interesting of you get the chance to see it), but it's carried on, sadly the shop closed in Crawford's time there but the post office has clung on and the School is still open. Strange stories about the Foula Folk still abound on the mainland, and I believe they still celebrate 'Old' Christmas and New Year. I still hope to make the trip over there some time.

Meanwhile 1970's salvage operations seem to have been several health and safety lifetimes ago - the risks that Simon and Alec take come to seem crazy even to them, as by the end of the book Alec is aware that his luck is running out after a series of near misses. Diving on the Oceanic is tricky because of the tides and currents on the shaalds - sometimes they have a window of as little as 20 minutes in the slack of the tide, and the things they achieve in small inflatable boats made me shiver from the safety of my landlocked arm chair in the midlands. 

There's quite a bit of technical information in here about the operation they ran, but Crawford's style is so engaging that I could have taken a lot more of it, despite being fairly ignorant on the subject. It's something about the combination of these being both ordinary and extraordinary people. They're not exceptional divers at this stage, Simon had been a journalist and took his share out of the Oceanic proceeds to open a wine bar. They're not especially well equipped either - but they manage to successfully dive on a particularly challenging site and do things that nobody else had managed in the preceding 50 years. It's a story of genuine adventure.

My favourite anecdote though comes from a time on Barra when they'd been diving on the S.S. Politician - this is the wreck that inspired Compton Mackenzie's 'Whisky Galore' (watch the black and white version of the film if you haven't seen it, it's brilliant, the recent remake is not). They managed to find some intact bottles on the wreck, although they'd been down there for around 30 years at this time, and took them ashore. They then went to visit the artist Peggy Angus (who's daughter lives on the west coast of Shetland) with a carry out of beer and one of these bottles. By the time the beer was drunk it seemed like a good idea to boil up the whisky bottle, let it cool, and drink it. Apparently the rankness of the whisky was only exceeded by the viciousness of the following hang over.

The combination of proper adventure, sunken treasure, Scottish islands, memories of fragile communities, the affection this book is written with, and the pleasure of spending time in the company of someone who's achieved some really notable things gives this book a much broader appeal than you might initially suppose. I was planning on buying it for a few people, but I suspect most of them will beat me to it. Dad says he's picking up a copy tomorrow, after we talked about it earlier and he shared some of what he remembers from the time. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fermentation - Rachel de Thample

 This is the 18th River Cottage handbook, number 19, coming April 2021 and also be Racheel de Thample will cover Bees and Honey. I love this series which I've been following for more years than I can easily remember now (a quick check suggests that they first started coming out around 2007). These are the books that helped me work out how o make decent jam, definitely taught me how to make a good loaf of bread, sent me foraging into hedgerows, hanker after a firepit of some sort (not easy in a flat without a garden), and so on.

With a complete set I reckon I'd be well on the way to the good life if I lived somewhere near the Dorset coast and had a small holding. They're certainly as good a place as any to start if that's your dream, or alternatively if you just want a better understanding of what it takes to raise pigs and chickens - or indeed keep bees. All of them work well as recipe books because all of them go beyond the obvious and show you more things that you can do with whatever it is that you're looking at. A whole, or even half a pig represents a serious amount of meat, it needs a bit of ingenuity and know how to deal with it all. 

'Fermentation' falls into the 'Bread', 'Baking' and 'Preserving' part of the series - these are fairly traditional cookbooks for accessible home use, and  more or less beginners guides. The 'Baking' book is nice, but I have it to complete the series, it was never going to teach me much. The 'Bread' book on the other hand is still my favourite on the subject; it's easy to follow, full of sound advice, and the sort of thing you can read in bed or carry around with you.

Fermenting is having a moment again in Britain (which makes me wonder - could we have a great British Ferment along the lines of Bake Off - it's seems like the sort of thing that might be appropriate post Brexit), and is something I keep skirting around. I'm happy with sourdough, although I don't currently have a starter. It's an easy and satisfying place to start experimenting from, but that's as far as I've got. I want to expand on that and I'm hoping this will be my gateway book, but in all honesty fermentation is a bit daunting for the woman who lives alone.

Will it be like the pickled quinces that I made last year (and loved) but 3/4rs of a jar are still sitting at the back of the fridge and I have no idea what they'll be like now - vinegary beyond belief, mushy, or otherwise unappealing? I haven't currently the courage to investigate. Sauerkraut looks like a good place to start, but I'm not convinced I like it enough to eat my way through a whole jar in a timely way. And then there are the slightly daunting warnings about carefully introducing fermented food to your diet in small quantities to start with. That seems at odds with eating all the sauerkraut before it ferments beyond my idea of a good thing to eat.

I know exactly what those warnings mean after an old work colleague made kimchi for the first time, overindulged on it, and told me in graphic detail about the results. 

I'm also deeply skeptical about kombucha - possibly because I've read too many plant based horror stories over the years, but that's my problem and something I need to get over. The upside is that the actual equipment that you need to start fermenting is minimal (jars), there isn't the same pressure around sterilization as there is with jam making, and as this book starts you with vegetables and works up there's plenty of experimenting to be done at the cheap end before you need to think about investing in more expensive ingredients. Fermented honey and fruit jams are intriguing me, but it's probably sensible to start with a cabbage...

The overall tone of the book is really encouraging with plenty of places for the novice fermenter to start, and to build confidence from. It's a mark of how much more everyday sourdough is in our lives that there are several recipes for things to do with a starter beyond making a loaf of bread. Pancakes, doughnuts, and rhubarb sourdough buns all look good. The last two are probably not ideal if you've got to eat them all yourself, but they still sound great and they're bookmarked for a post Covid world. 

The one thing I'd really have liked is a bit more information about mold and yeasts. It's touched upon, specifically Kahm yeast which is harmless but can look look like mold (or at least I'd always assumed it was mold), but my last sourdough developed something which smelt appalling. I have no idea what it was, why it struck when it did (after months of having a happy starter), or how to avoid it happening again. It's one of the single most off putting things that's ever happened in my kitchen, and seems like something worth addressing at greater length. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Weird Woods - edited by John Miller

'Weird Woods', or 'Tales From The Haunted Forest of Britain' is perfect early autumn reading. Before this British Library series, and Handheld's Women's and British weird books I hadn't really thought much about the distinctions between books I might vaguely look at, and for, in the horror section. It turns out I quite like a good ghost story, do not like full on horror, but really enjoy the weird and eerie. There's a world of difference between being unsettled and terrified. Weird seems to have more scope for humour too, which really helps with the not frightening myself to stupid to sleep late of an evening (as I regularly did in my teens thanks to Stephen King).

John Miller is also a particularly good editor - his 'Tales of the Tattooed' collection in the same series is also excellent. It's the introductions to each story that make him so good, they tie the collection together and give the reader some pointers towards specific interpretations or elements within them. If you just want uncanny stories you don't need to read the introductions, but when a book is built around a theme it's really good to have something of the reasons for each inclusion.

It certainly made me re read Edith Nesbit's 'Man Sized in Marble' again. I have it in at least two other anthologies but neither would have made me think about the atmosphere the wooded landscape brings to the story, or set it up for comparison with Mary Webb's 'The Name-Tree'. I was grateful for the prod to read a Mary Webb story as well. I have a few of her novels from when I was enthusiastically collecting older Virago Modern Classics, but have found her style - annoying is one word I want to use - approaching her in a short story is easier than trying to tackle a whole book. Considering both tales together is worthwhile.

There's a very enjoyable Marjorie Bowen entry, and one from M.R. James which reminds me I have a collection of his stories I should read. W. H. Hudson's 'The Old Thorn' is an excellent example of how ambivalent our relationship with nature can be. The old thorn of the title can be either friend or foe depending on how it's been treated. Hurt the tree in any way and you'll pay for it, it's a theme that crops up throughout this collection, showing that our unease with how we treat the environment is nothing new. Daisy Butcher's earlier collection in this series, Evil Roots, Killer tales of the Botanical Gothic expands on this theme.

It's a beautifully produced book too; there are 3 atmospheric photographs of woodland which are a nice touch. They suggest an other worldliness, or a world with more that we easily understand, that perfectly fits the mood of the collection which over all is more that forests are places to be respected rather than feared, but if they're not respected you would do well to be afraid...

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Man Who Didn't Fly - Margot Bennett

I've been particularly lucky with the British Library Crime Classics that I've picked up recently, so far they've been remarkably good, and 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' was a particularly good choice to follow Anthony Rolls 'Family Matters' with as both of them have a slightly unusual structure.

Where 'Family Matters' gives us the run up to the murder, making it clear who the victim will be, and why, but giving us a selection of possible murderers, 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' gives us four potential victims in the form of a logic puzzle. The four men had arranged to fly to Dublin on a private charter plane, but only three get on it. When the plane crashes over the Irish sea with no survivors we know the pilot was there, but without knowing who the missing man was nobody can say with any certainty who the other three were, which means non of them can be officially declared dead.

The police start investigating, but what they hope might be a simple matter turns out to be anything but, especially as the fourth man hasn't come forward. Has he done a bunk, or is he dead too? As nobody particularly noticed who did or didn't get on the plane all the police have to go on is a handful of doubtful clues gleaned from half remembered conversations. The end result is the sort of logic puzzle that has always defeated me, so I happily left the working out to the characters on the page. If you are good at logic puzzles this should be an extra bit of fun for you though.

Meanwhile more about the characters of the four men, and what had happened in the days immediately before the flight slowly emerge. The Wade family is at the centre of this, and like the four men who have disappeared the Wade's have things to hide, but one of the men was a friend and neighbour - rich but with business problems, another a romantic interest for 20 year old Hester Wade - heartily disapproved of by her father, the third is their slightly odd lodger who's erratic behaviour has to be a cause for concern, and the fourth a trusted, but not necessarily trustworthy financial adviser.

There's also the question of why the Wade's are being so cagey and what they might have to hide. Hester Wade is the heart of the book; a medical student old enough to understand her father's weaknesses, and to realise that she is the grown up of the family, young enough to find it all completely overwhelming. She is a brilliant portrait of a young woman who's having to do all the emotional labour and is well and truly over it by the end of the book.

The question of who is dead and why is an appealing puzzle with some entertaining twists, but the real strength of the book is the way it builds up the characters of the missing men and those they leave behind. What will happen to the Wade's is what had me reading late into the night.