Sunday, February 23, 2020

Phone box drama with Russian defectors - or something like that

Theres something appealingly (or appallingly depending on your point of view) incongruous about rural phone boxes that at first glance seem to be in the middle of nowhere. Even as a child in the 1970s when it wasn’t unusual for houses to still not be on the phone part of the appeal of our* phone box was that it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.

At the time the immediate area was very sparsely populated indeed, and it’s on a road to nowhere very much (See Google maps here) unless you live along it, for some of the houses it would have served that phone box must be almost a miles walk. Which is still a lot closer than the nearest village which is another mile or two further on.



Considering that has made me think a lot about how our relationship with phones has changed. The houses near this box could only really make calls, and you’d need ready cash to do it. Or you’d use it in an emergency. There’s something about the idea that information only goes out, doesn’t come in, that fascinates me.


This map ought to expand Here

Now, back to June 1958. It’s midsummer so there’s more or less 24 hour daylight, and the Russian factory ship Ukraina (there for the herring, Russian factory ships on the skyline were a feature of Shetland summers well into the 1990s) is sitting of Footabrough on the west side of Shetland. 

Around 9pm William Fraser senior and his son, Willie junior, are working in a field on their croft - Crookataing** which is also the closest house to our phone box - when they spot a stranger. The stranger turns out to be an Estonian fisherman who has jumped ship from the Ukrania in a commandeered motorboat and made for land. Happily both the escapee and Willie junior speak just enough German to understand each other and the Frasers agree to hide this man, Erich Teayn (the Shetland Times calls him Erich Klaub, but all other sources say Teayn).


Willie then goes to our phone box to call the police***, meanwhile much to the annoyance of the coastguard around 30 Russians have landed at Footabrough in pursuit of Erich, which is totally illegal and basically an invasion of British territory. They search the countryside passing close to Crookataing, but not going in. 

Erich was taken to the Lerwick police station where local authorities point blank refused to hand him back to the Russians, before being transported south. It seems he got to stay in the U.K. though not much is known about what happened to him after this. 

Questions were raised in parliament, though not many See Hansard here, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot in the British press or much fuss - searching around for details I’ve found more references to American publications than any other. But it’s still a curious story and even more curious that it’s not better known. 

Erich was definitely lucky that he found people to take him in, the Shetland landscape doesn’t offer much cover if a search party is after you and reports of 30 men sounds like the crew of the Ukrania meant business. An account from The Shetland Times is Here.

There’s now a go fund me page Here


*By our I’m thinking of all or any of us who might read this.

**Years later my father and stepmother bought this croft house, renovated it, and lived in it for a number of years, it has an amazing view and seems a ridiculously tranquil spot for this kind of excitement. 

***Absolutely the sort of emergency that demands a phone call.  

Friday, February 21, 2020

A post about my dad

My Father is a man who needs a project in his life, for preference one that involves him making something* and with a minimum of paperwork (not his thing). His current project unfortunately looks likely to involve a lot of paperwork, not much building, and needs some good ideas.


(I hope I’ve got the genetic inheritance to look this good when I’m 75)


He has adopted a phone box which is desperately in need of rescue. Because it was on his land he could buy it for a pound, but fixing it up will cost thousands. It can’t be used as a phone box again, and isn’t near much**, but it’s a well loved local landmark. 

When it was working and I was much younger I made desperate phone calls looking for a lift to avoid the 2 mile mostly uphill walk back to the village from it, or just sheltered from the rain in it. When my youngest sister was much younger a book selling neighbour left a clue in it for a midnight Harry Potter treasure hunt one launch day***. It must have overlooked the time my dad rescued a whale that was caught in some mooring ropes. For a few years there were some knitted mushrooms by it (a bit of yarn bombing from a visiting knitting group) which were brilliant. And those are just my memories.



Unfortunately it needs more loose change than any of us have, and without a clear idea of what the box could or should be used for it’s hard to know how to go about raising the money (If anybody has any really good ideas about what the box could be used from we’d love to hear them) but my dad has always been the sort of person who believes something will turn up.

And because he’s my dad, the sort of man that this stuff happens to, something did turn up. He found a message in a bottle. It had been at sea for around a year and longish story short the man who had released it promised a thousand dollars to the charity of dad’s choice and to send him another thousand dollars. The cheque has arrived (we weren’t convinced this would happen) and when it clears will cover a good portion of the cost of a new door for the phone box. 

If ever there was a message (in a bottle or otherwise) from the universe that a project was meant to happen, this must be it.


*He made me my glove boards, and for my 40th birthday gave me a silver teapot in a box purpose made to store it. When my next sister hit her 40th she got a silver teapot in a box shaped like a treasure chest with a false bottom in it. Our youngest sister, not yet anywhere near 40, has a fabulous toilet roll holder made out of a broken 19th century Japanese walking stick. He is always building things. 

**The box is near the head of Lera Voe in Shetland, the road goes to Burrastow where there’s a small hotel, and a handful of houses around but not a lot of passing traffic. It’s a place you most likely have to go out of your way to get to. 

***Which takes bookselling, neighbourliness, and friendship above and beyond.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hag’s Nook - John Dickson Carr

It’s possible that ‘Hag’s Nook’ is my favourite John Dickson Carr so far. I won’t say of all time because there are going to be plenty more to read, but there’s something about this one that I particularly liked.


The elements are now quite familiar - a Murder with plenty of gothic embellishment, a hint of the supernatural, a locked room situation, and a little bit of romance for good measure. In business like hands it’s an effective formula and John Dickson Carr’s hands are very business like. 

In this case a young American graduate is visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, he meets a pretty girl at the station, and is delighted to hear that they’re heading to the same destination - but she seems a bit troubled. When young Ted arrives in Chatterham the village turns out to be dominated by the ruins of an eighteenth century jail with some nasty legends attached to it.

Meanwhile the pretty girl’s brother has to spend a night in the same jail to collect his inheritance, but there’s a legend that the men in the family die of broken necks and he’s none to keen on having to keep vigil. He turns up dead the next day so he was right to be nervous.

Carr flirts with the possibility of this turning into a ghost story all the way to the end, but it's never more than a flirtation. There’s to much humour for anybody to start seriously worrying about things that go bump in the night (my favourite detail is Ted’s confusion about how English money works - it’s pre decimalisation- so he pays for everything with notes to avoid having to count out the coins, and is consequently weighed down with pockets full of change) but just enough doubt to create a pleasing sense of melodrama.  

I keep thinking about this book in relation to the recent BBC adaptation of The Pale Horse, and wishing in more or less equal measures that Sarah Phelps would leave Agatha Christie alone, and that she would tackle Carr. It seems to me that he’s more or less writing what she’s filming (so perhaps she wouldn’t need to change the plots so much) and that Carr would be wonderful on screen. On the page he’s reasonably cosy, but there’s plenty of room to pull out the darkness in his work and make all sorts of things out of it. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Skerries Mitts

The Skerries Mitts pattern comes from Marie Wallin’s Shetland Book. They looked like a useful and quick knit that wouldn’t be complicated, and I had most of the colours she used along with close enough substitutes for any I didn’t.

They are quick, they’re not complicated, they are useful, and I’m on my third pair now (they seem to get promised away before I finish them, the fourth set might stay with me). The only bad thing I have to say about them is that they use hardly any yarn and I really need to clear out more of my stash. 

I liked the first pair, but they were a bit to long for me, and although the colours looked good, they weren’t my colours. For the second pair I took out a few lines of plain colour whilst keeping the patterns, and moved the thumb opening up a bit whilst making it smaller. For the third pair, which I’m currently working on, I’ve changed the motifs around. For the next pair I’m thinking ribbing instead of moss stitch, possibly making them much shorter, and so it goes on.

There’s nothing especially clever about the pattern - it’s a tube with a thumb hole in it, which is satisfyingly adaptable and good for keeping wrists warm. What it’s brilliant for is using as a kind of swatch. I’m lazy about swatching and getting colours to work in Fair isle style knitting is an endless challenge.

Each pair of these mitts I’ve made has shown me things which would work better, which is amazingly helpful. In both finished pairs I made mistakes that I’ve found quite interesting - in the first pair I missed a single row colour change, in the second pair I forgot I’d changed colours round and used green when I had meant a purple/pink colour. The difference those few rows make to the overall look of the mitt really surprised me. I’m wondering how many pairs I’ll need to make before I’m totally satisfied with the results.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Hazelnut Meringue Cake

Way back in my teens and early twenties I used to work for my stepmother over the summer. She had what would now be called a boutique hotel. We did dinner, bed, and breakfast. Dinner was the fun bit. The menus changed daily and were based on what we could get, or what turned up (there was a shady character known as Kevin the poacher who sometimes appeared of an evening with fish. He was basically poaching from my father, but we bought it anyway).

I started to learn about wine in those summers, became committed to cooking seasonally and locally, and discovered a lot of excellent desserts. A hazelnut and raspberry meringue cake was a favourite, something I always wanted for my birthday but never made because winter raspberries are not appealing.

I used to bake a lot more than I do now, and kind of miss writing about cakes especially. Valentine’s Day seemed like a good excuse to make something, and a packet of hazelnuts left over from Christmas made some version of this cake seem like a good idea. The recipe is in Jane Grigson’s fruit book where she makes a few suggestions for alternatives to raspberries.


February is not the easiest month for soft fruit, but I bought a bowl of rock hard plums from the market and slowly baked them with sugar, vanilla, and some Madeira until they gave up and relaxed. They turned out well, the plums still sharp enough to balance the sweetness of the meringue and the texture of the cream. The hazelnuts give the meringue both flavour and texture. It would probably have looked a bit prettier if I hadn’t poured the plum syrup over the cream (it might have been good to have whipped it into the cream) but it tasted great.

The meringue recipe asks for 125g of hazelnuts baked in a low oven (gas 2/around 140 °C in a fan oven) for 10 minutes until they’re brown all the way through. Let them cool and then grind to a coarse powder (some lumpy bits are good). Whip 5 egg whites to stiff peaks, slowly add 300g of caster sugar whilst still whipping, and then whip in half a teaspoon of white wine or cider vinegar. Gently fold in the hazelnuts.

I made this as a 2 layer cake, quite large because I wanted the meringue to be reasonably thin. Once it was in the oven it occurred to me that I could have made it into 3 layers. It could just as easily have been a sort of pavlova/tart affair. We used to make this in cake tins, which meant everything was the same size, but I find it easier to use baking sheets and judge the size by eye (the meringue used to be a devil for sticking to the side of the tins).

However it’s done it wants to be sitting on some greaseproof paper and cooked for 35-40 minutes at gas 4 (160°-180°C depending on your oven). Let the meringues cool, and then fill, or top, with fruit and whipped cream just before dinner.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero at the RSC

We went to see ‘The Whip’ on Monday, and it was brilliant. Which does not make it the easiest play to write about. My theatre companion and I have been discussing it ever since with undiminished enthusiasm.

We’re not generally very excited about contemporary plays, and even less keen when they deal with big issues - our experience with these has not been particularly encouraging. There’s often a depressing tendency to over explain and emphasise in a way that can feel patronising and clumsy.


The Whip doesn’t do that, partly because it’s not a single issue play. It hinges around the attempts to get the bill through parliament in 1833 that abolishes slavery. We know it gets through, but the history that we’ve chosen to remember sort of stops there. It was a tweet from the treasury in 2018 that highlighted the fact that as a country we only finished paying off the debt for reparation to slave owners in 2015, and an iniquitous apprenticeship scheme.

There are also reform bills in the offing to regulate the conditions in factories, and to change the poor laws, and a growing interest in women’s suffrage, and indeed full suffrage for men. All of these things are woven together along with a gripping political drama about the process of getting an act through.

Men who appear to be idealistic reformers turn out to have equally reactionary ideas on other subjects, and feet of clay in general. We all know what’s right and wrong, but the question is how you put right something that’s wrong without making things worse. The very idea of reparation to slave owners is disgusting, but without it there’s no chance of the legislation being voted through, and every chance of serious civil unrest.

There is question after question about morality, along with gentle reminders of how desperate things were for the poor in Britain. Terrible working conditions, coupled with poor laws that severely restricted mobility, which raises more questions. For me perhaps the biggest being why wasn’t the cost of reparation a scandal that lasted. How did that get brushed under the historical carpet?

It’s not a short play, and it’s emotional watching, but we spent most of it on the edge of our seats (the impression was that the test of the audience was the same). In a Twitter world identity politics are so polarised that it becomes intimidating to try and engage - questions rarely seem welcome. Spending a few hours watching something that both encourages questions and embraces the moral shades of grey and complexities of a situation felt liberating.

It’s a clever, interesting, thoughtful, powerful, play with an amazing cast (quite a lot of them are also on King John) that work beautifully together. There are excellent performances from Corey Montague-Sholey, Katherine Pearce (who is amazing in King John too), Debbie Korley, and Richard Clothier in the big parts, and they feel like generous performances as well - ones that give everybody involved the chance to shine.

It’s absolutely worth trying to catch this whilst it’s on (for another 5 weeks or so). I’m also really keen now to read everything I can by Juliet Gilkes Romero and would go well out of my way to watch anything else she writes.


Sunday, February 9, 2020

Wintering: A Season with Geese - Stephen Rutt

After years of sensibly reading one book at a time (finishing them in a timely fashion and finding the next book comes along quite naturally - it's all very civilised and productive) I've fallen back into the bad habit of having half a dozen things on the go and not finishing any of them. It's frustrating but I'm slowly catching up with myself.


One book that I've been meaning to finish for far to long was 'Wintering', and today I've thoroughly enjoyed doing just that. 2018/19 must have been a remarkably busy time for Rutt debuting with 'The Seafarers' in May and 'Wintering' coming out in September.

The mood of 'Wintering' is different to 'The Seafarers', a sister rather than a sequel. As a child I was quite keen on birdwatching, but it's a hobby that didn't really survive the move from Shetland to Leicestershire where it simply wasn't considered safe to go wondering off into the countryside on your own.*

Now I live in a city centre the bird watching opportunities are... different. My flat is next to a river and a park, but it looks over a carpark. From my window I see a surprising number of gulls, crows, peregrine falcons, pigeons, the occasional egret or heron, and at the right time of year I hear geese (rather more than I see them).

The river, amongst other things, gives me a lot of fearless swans (who are quite ready to mug you if they even suspect bread) the occasional rare gift of a kingfisher, the usual compliment of ducks, coots, and moorhens, and in the winter a good number of geese. Mostly Canada geese (which I love, they're elegant with a beady eyed intelligent look about them) and greylags. They are one of the joys of winter.

In this book Rutt references the depression that he talked about a little more in 'The Seafarers', mostly in relation to seasonal affective disorder, but it's not really what this book is about. This one is much more concerned with bird watching, what it’s like to go out into the cold in search of a bird and why you might do that.

I loved 'The Seafarers' and I've loved this book too. Rutt's writing is worth spending time with. He's thoughtful and interesting. He's neither sentimental or romantic about his subject, but there's clearly a deep love and enjoyment for it. As with ‘The Seafarers’ there’s also a lot more to think about here, including the implications of changing and shifting bird populations.

The way Rutt approaches the thorny issue of hunting/shooting is interesting too. It’s something discussed in passing rather than in depth, and without emotive language. Farmers do not regard large flocks of geese on their fields with the same enthusiasm as birdwatchers do, but it seems like there’s room for debate as to how much damage they do. By stripping that debate back to the figures there’s room for conversation which seems important to me.**

The whole book makes me want to look closer and learn more and maybe even find an up to date field guide for British birds.

*This was the time, and place, where Colin Pitchfork murdered 2 teenage girls and the resulting DNA manhunt (the first of its kind). It added to the sense of culture shock coming from Shetland where no such concerns existed.
** It’s easy to be anti shooting, and anti interfering with nature, but the current situation is undoubtedly more complicated than that. The current conversations about re wilding and re culturing the Scottish Highlands are one example.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Spirited - Signe Johansen

I mentioned this book a bit in the run up to Christmas because I genuinely think it's a useful one to have in the kitchen, but it concerns me a bit too. Part of Johansen's mission is to make the world of drinks more female friendly, something I'm 100% behind - it has after all been what I've spent 20 years of my working life doing, but I don't entirely recognise the wine world she describes.


I think that's mostly because I don't spend a lot of time in London, but it's depressing to realise how exclusive the wine world can still be. Even more so for me because part of the reason I fell into the drinks trade was because it felt quite woman friendly.

There are women at every level, and with real power within the industry, it may still be male dominated but there's no shortage of great female role models. But then I like the nerdy stuff too. It's not necessary for your enjoyment of wine although I'd argue that the more you know the more it gives you more to enjoy.

Beyond that I'm with Johansen all the way. What she brings to this book is a cooks perspective and palate. She covers tea, coffee, smoothies, drinks which are projects to make, things which can be foraged, and a useful list of cocktails and winter warmers. There's also a useful list of food and drink pairings (snacks as well which not everyone thinks to include).

It's good to see a proper emphasis on non alcoholic options, as well as a proper appreciation of the value of a bit of care and ceremony when it comes to making a cup of tea, coffee, or any other drink. I still don't think you find the same suggested levels of machismo snootiness outside of London (at least I've not encountered it in Leicester or other similarly provincial cities), but I'm thoroughly fed up with earnest mixologists cocktail books which do get beyond the M25 (unlike half the ingredients they want).

This at least is a book anyone can use, and that's definitely worth raising a glass to.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

It Walks by Night - John Dickson Carr

I’ve spent most of this week diligently making things (in-between job hunting) and now have a lot of marmalade, one and a half pairs of fingerless mitts, and some arrangements to my credit. There will be a post about the mitts in due course, the marmalade is flavoured with a dash of chocolate bitters and has come out splendidly. The arrangements included an opticians appointment.

I now have my first pair of glasses, specifically for reading. They’re a bit disconcerting but I’m getting used to them and think they’re helping (it doesn’t feel natural to wear glasses yet, and I don’t like the way things are out of focus beyond about 50cm whilst I’m wearing them, but I do like how much less tiring reading suddenly seems).

‘It Walks By Night’ is the first mystery novel that John Dickson Carr wrote, which now that I’ve read four of them I think you can tell. It has all the things I’m beginning to recognise as the hallmarks of his style but it doesn’t flow as well, or have the humour of the other books I’ve read.

It does have a distinctly gothic atmosphere, a hint of a ghost story about it, and a locked door/impossible crime element. (The door isn’t locked, but it’s watched - that really isn’t a spoiler). What I like so much John Dickson Carr is that gothic element and the way becomes to have fun with it.

In this instance the humour is mostly confined to the title - ‘It Walks by Night’ is definitely used to suggest something of an inhuman nature. Then throw into the mix a lunatic and murderous ex husband who has been to a plastic surgeon, a beheading, a shady night club, and lots of illicit drug taking. It isn’t quite as over the top as it might sound from all of that.

The drug taking sounds a bit unlikely, and some of Inspector Bencolin’s forensic deductions would stretch credulity on an episode of CSI, but over all it hangs together. I think this is both because despite the melodrama a couple of key characters behaviour is surprisingly convincing, and for that generally gothic atmosphere.

There are specific references to vampires and werewolves as well as things that go bump in the night. I wonder if we’re also meant to think of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Gaston Leroux is name checked so it’s impossible not to think of The Phantom of the Opera. It’s excellent window dressing for what might not otherwise be a particularly memorable story, definitely adding that extra something.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Of Cats and Elfins - Sylvia Townsend Warner

It's hard to fathom how I got through so many years without discovering Sylvia Townsend Warner's short stories, I blame 'Lolly Willows' which for whatever reason I didn't click with (or finish). It's the S T-W book that everybody seems to love so I spent a long time assuming she wasn't really for me.

It might be that I'd appreciate 'Lolly Willows' much more now and maybe I'll give it a go for the Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week later this year. Meanwhile I'm completely in love with the two collections of short stories that Handheld Press have published, particularly 'Of Cats and Elfins' which is a remarkable collection.

I should have finished this weeks ago, but had held out against doing so for two reasons. One, I didn't want to be done with this book, but also short as they are these stories have a way of getting under my skin and they didn't want to be rushed.

The six Elfin tales are excellent, and very much along the lines of the first collection Kingdoms of Elfin. They're quite a bit longer than the Cat's Cradle collection, and are characterised by a melancholy air that underpins everything about them. The Arthur Rackham images Handheld have chosen for the covers are a perfect expression of that mood. Both stories and cover image share a playfulness and beauty, along with something a little unsettling (uncanny?).

'The duke of Orkney's Leonardo' (the 5th in this collection) is easily one of my personal favourites of all time. Reading it gave me that magical feeling of finding something that could have been written just to amuse me. It's a sense of recognition within a book that I associate more with childhood and teen years than being an adult reader so finding it here was a real gift.

'The Cat's Cradle Book' which makes up the second half of this collection is different in mood. The gentleness of the Elfin stories has gone. This collection opens with a framing introduction. A woman has stopped to admire a pretty house, and finds herself admiring a handsome young man and communing with his many cats. A dreamy interlude follows where they discuss the history and charm of cats along with their language which our narrator understands better than she speaks.

The young man has been collecting the cats stories with a view to publication, our narrator takes them away, returns after a distraught call from the young man telling her all the cats are dying. We can infer that the young man also dies, but who can say for sure. Catlike, these stories play with the reader - making up to you before revealing claws.

The first one, 'Odin's Birds' is The Twa Corbies from Scottish folklore, which makes me wonder if some of the others are so explicitly based on stories that I'm unfamiliar with, or if that just the impression that S T-W wants me to have. The collection was first published in 1940 which I only looked up because one tale, 'Bluebeard's Daughter' feels like it belongs with Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber' but it came 40 years earlier. 'The Castle of Carabas' also plays with a well known fairy tale and feels unexpectedly contemporary with it.

Now I know the date was 1940 I'm speculating that part of the reason this collection seems so contemporary, and chimes so hard with my current mood, is because of a shared uncertainty about the future. Mostly though its because Warner is a brilliant short story writer.

The Cat's Cradle collection never pulls it's punches. The stories are frequently funny, they're beautifully and seemingly effortlessly poetic in places, and time after time they pull the rug from under you at the end with a stinging lack of sentimentality. They're just brilliant.