Friday, January 15, 2021

O, The Brave Music - Dorothy Evelyn Smith

This is one of the British Library's Women Writers series, the second I've read of them, and another surprise. For no particular reason I'd missed Simon at Stuck in a Book's original enthusiasm for it, and after deciding to read it imminently I've avoided the recent spate of reviews of it (which I'm now going to have to go back and search out). The surprises were twofold - the first was that I hadn't expected it to be a coming of age novel told initially from the perspective of a 7 year old girl, the second which unfolded in all sorts of ways was that there were a remarkable number of parallels with my own life in it starting with the disintegration of Ruan's parents marriage when she is 7.

Smith is one of the many writers who had all but disappeared from view until about a decade ago when the enthusiasm of people like Simon, and Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow have rescued her a bit. There's still not a lot of information out there about her to be easily found, but 'O, The Brave Music' is meant to have a strongly autobiographical element to it. 

Our narrator is Ruan Ashley, the book opens on her 7th birthday, in chapel, where she's half listening to her father deliver his sermon. Asides throughout the book let us know that she's looking back on her early life which effectively accounts for how old beyond her years Ruan can sometimes seem. It's a smart move on Smith's part, it stops Ruan from seeming unbearably precocious at some points, and I think she nails how we remember our pasts. 

Ruan is something of a misfit in the family; to imaginative to fit comfortably into the straight laced respectability demanded by both the provincial setting and her fathers role as a nonconformist minister. Her parents marriage is unhappy, her mother, a considerable beauty, left her grand county family for a love that seems to have quickly burnt out, her father is tormented by the knowledge that he loved a woman's body better than hos god, however briefly. It's not really a recipe for a happy family life, and inevitably the marriage falls apart in the kind of juicy scandal that must have delighted the congregation gossips.

Even in the 1970's when my parents split people were unwilling to discuss such things in front of the children - Ruan's experience of a proprietorial and pitying sort of kindness rang all sorts of bells for me. But for Ruan there's one great consolation - her friendship with David, which is central to the book. She more or less falls in love with him the moment they meet - on her 7th birthday when she's in disgrace, and he's 12.

I know the age difference has bothered Simon slightly, but it doesn't worry me. Initially they form a partnership based on a certain amount of common ground. Both are lonely children, both are struggling with class - Ruan and her sister are caught between their mothers standards and their fathers ideals and relative poverty. David's father was considered gentry, but he was a swindler and a suicide. David himself is being bought up by the self made man and business partner he tried to swindle. 

Class, and class distinctions run throughout the book. David is less of a snob than Ruan has been taught to be, but despite his fathers history he still benefits from the unconscious mannerisms that he's picked up as a child, and which mark him as a gentleman. Both children find a natural sympathy in each other, David is kind to her, and Ruan adores him for it, they both share a love for the moors around them - and here I found echo's of 'The Secret Garden' - or at least the elements that I remember of it, rather than the book it turned out to be when I re read it. 

Ruan's friendship with a black boy who attends the same free school that she and her sister are briefly sent too feels like it could be a direct comment on Frances Hodgson Burnett's attitudes. It's guess work as to when the book is set, it was written in 1943, but takes place in a pre first world war England. Smith was born in 1893 though, and it's reasonable to assume that it starts around 1900, when she was 7 herself, it can't be more than a year or two later because there's only the very beginning of speculation about a coming War when around 7 years later, David is setting off on a year of travel. That Smith takes a goodish chunk of time and book to condemn racism, and the hypocrisy around it for either Edwardian England, or war time England is noteworthy. 

The sympathy between Ruan and David survive his going to school, and the various changes in both their lives. It's never quite a sibling relationship - and again, the way Smith draws relations between Ruan and Sylvia is a perfect portrait of sisters with little in common but family ties, they love each other, but neither understand or have much affection to spare each other. For Sylvia, who in her way is perhaps braver than Ruan, her younger sister is a social drag. Sylvia has inherited her mother's beauty but doesn't have Ruan's intelligence. What she does have is a determination to make the best of her gifts, it's not clear that Ruan shares that strength of mind - she's too happy to drift along, living in her books.

There's a lot more than I want to cover in a single post happening in 'O, The Brave Music', but one thing that I can't finish this post without discussing is how often Ruan refers to David as her love, and how often she does it in the past tense. This too is something that saves their relationship from being troubling, despite her growing physical awareness of him by the end of the book, or his apparent acceptance that he will come back for her. That past tense could mean nothing, for readers knowing that War is coming for both of them, for readers in the middle of the War this book was published in, it could mean David never gets the chance to come back. It might mean that Ruan is looking back on an innocent first love with the perspective of a later love, or that it's burnt itself out in the way her parents relationship did. Smith gives no clues, just the suggestion of possibilities.  

It is a wonderful book, one I'm really pleased to have had the chance to discover. This series is shaping up to be genuinely interesting with both books I've read from it offering as much challenge as comfort. There's sentiment in 'O, The Brave Music' but nothing sentimental despite it's nostalgia.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Almanacs and Pikelets

As it's somehow, unbelievably, almost the middle of January I thought I'd better have a look at the almanacs I bought last year, and maybe do something seasonal. I started with Miranda York's food almanac which has 2 attractive breakfast suggestions.

There's a spiced blueberry muffin cake from Charlotte Druckman which sounds spectacular, but feeds 10 -12, is best eaten on the day it's made, and will have to wait for the next New Years family gathering that can be managed. Which is at least something to look forward to, and has the added bonus that if my youngest sister is there she will almost certainly take on actually cooking this beast whilst the rest of us drink coffee and offer encouragement. 

The second option is Ella Risbridger's Imperfect Pikelets. The recipe says it serves 4, but also if you're on your own to make the whole lot anyway because they'll keep a few days. I like a scaled down recipe, and I also like the way that this one is set up for breakfast. It's get up make a cup of tea, mix the batter, go back to bed for an hour (or alternatively walk a dog for an hour) fits my current routine so I gave it a go.

I've not made pikelets before, or even actually ever seen one, so I'm guessing about size and appearance. I got up at 7, made my cup of tea and the batter, went back to bed with a book and listened to the radio a bit. I thought whilst I made it that the batter was quite wet, and I know that the packets of yeast I bought early last summer, whilst still well within date, got over hot late summer - nothing is rising particularly well with them. On the other hand it was the last sachet and I thought I'd take my chances. It turned out that my Bicarbonate of Soda is also a couple of months past it's best before - I'll replace that asap. My flat is also quite cool at the moment, especially the kitchen which doesn't have any heating in it.

This is all leading up to the batter not rising as actively as it should. I gave it another half hour, and then a bit longer, and was then to hungry to wait so I made the pikelets. They tasted good, and had the correct bubbles. I risked using a griddle pan (I don't have good form with this), which is a pain to heat on my electric hob. I'm still trying to find the optimum heat for it to cook so that things don't take forever and stick, or burn and stick. I'm almost there, and at least it's big enough to make more than 1 pikelet at a time on. 

The experiment with the griddle pan worked out less badly than in the past, and I was happy with the taste and texture of the pikelets, if a bit suspicious of their general appearance - the images of Australian ones all over the internet are depressingly perfect, mine were definitely as imperfect as the recipe title promised. I do like that they're much thinner than crumpets which I've never especially cared for, but I also think the batter needs to be a little bit thicker so I might up the flour content if I make these again - this recipe has more liquid in it than I'd use for an American pancake/drop scone which seems off. 

Meanwhile I've been reading other pikelet recipes for comparison, have left the rest of the batter to see what it does in a few hours time, am making a shopping list and checking to see what else is hopelessly out of date in my cupboards. The liquid to dry ingredient ratio seems much the same in all of them (but not all flour is equal, and currently I'm using what's available which has not always been the best quality in the last year). Risbridger's recipe definitely has the advantage of being sensibly sized, and having a timetable that fits attractively round a likely routine. 

A few hours later, I added more flour to the remaining batter - it didn't make much difference, and I've about had it with the griddle which I'm thinking is probably only good for using as a cast iron bread or pizza stone. I like the pikelets though. They're sufficiently different to pancakes in taste and texture to feel worth making. The recipe in 'The Food Almanac' is the perfect size for anything less than an absolute crowd. They make a great breakfast, but on a cold grey day they make an even better afternoon tea treat. Also I probably need to consider getting a full size, non stick, frying pan. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Dinner With Dickens - Pen Vogler

There are points in every year when I look at the stacks of books that weigh down every surface in my sitting room (not just my sitting room, but it's their first stop) - normally some time around June, then again in October, and December - when I think 'they've been there since Christmas'. Every year more join them. Since starting to blog in 2009 I probably have neat photographic evidence of all the books that come my way courtesy of a December birthday followed less than 2 weeks later by Christmas. 

Sometimes I look at those untouched piles of books and realise something hasn't moved for a couple of years and feel a little bit bad about it. Though that's more to do with the lack of order than not having read something. I'm mostly resisting buying books at the moment, a lack of money is helping me find some self control, but it's been a (bad) habit for I don't know how long to buy quite a lot of books to relieve the gloom of January, despite having so many new ones Right There in front of me. 

This year, as every year, I'm full of good intentions to read these books quickly but as I type there's Patrick Laurie's 'Native in front of me that I bought in the 1st lockdown, still unopened. It sits on top of a pile of other 'new' books of a similar vintage, so it'll come as no surprise that I haven't even opened some of my Christmas books yet.

I have opened 'Dinner With Dickens' though, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time reading through it over the weekend. Regular readers will know that I really enjoy the links between food, drink, and books. It's the reason I've done all those books and booze matching posts in the past, and for my deep love of Kate Young's Little Library books. It's a big part of the attraction with Regula Ysewijn's books too (her photography and her husbands illustrations are another). Publicity for Pen Vogler's latest book, 'Scoff' (sitting under a chair in my bedroom - not quite sure how it got there from the proper pile on the other side of the bed, but books do like to travel) made me look at her back catalogue, and since then she's turned up all over the place (Radio 4, and Christmas tv about Charles Dickens - where I learnt that Catherine Dickens wrote a cookbook) including in this case as a present from my mother.

There's a lot to like about this book, the first in these isolating times being that there's plenty to read in it apart from recipes, because living alone is not overly compatible with a Dickensian feast. There's details about Dickens life, and about his books. I'm slightly ambivalent about him as a writer, so many of the books are long, and I prefer the sensationalism of Wilkie Collins. I find him more fun over the long haul. Still, reading about the foody elements of Dickens gives his work a resonance for me that's encouraging. Maybe I will read that copy of the Pickwick Papers that's gathering dust on an out of reach top shelf after all...

The second excellent thing about this book is that the recipes have been updated - and tested. Victorian, and earlier, cookbooks assume a lot of general knowledge and an entirely different sort of kitchen and shopping set up. There's no guarantee that recipes had really been tested either, and certainly when you read some things it's hard to imagine how they would work. 'Dinner With Dickens' gives us over 60 recipes that start with the chapter 1 - A Yorkshire Breakfast, inspired by Nicholas Nickleby, and ends with Chapter 10 - Drinks with Dickens (The Pickwick Papers). Inbetween there are family dinners, dining house treats, tea, cakes for giving, food for the poor, for grand occasions, for Christmas and more.

At some point in the future I look forward to making some of the things in here - I want to make jelly and set it in an orange, but doubt I have the patience, there or biscuits that look much more likely for every day consumption. There are also the drinks - especially the punch, wassail, and smoking bishop which are crying out for good company on a winters evening. I really miss cooking, eating, and perhaps most of all drinking with other people, it's not even about alcohol - being able to share a coffee with someone again will be a moment to celebrate. 

Pen Vogler has also given Jane Austen similar treatment in 'Dinner with Mr Darcy which I might casually leave on my wish list for next Christmas - if it's as much fun as this one is it'll be worth having, even if I don't need the help it gives to bring Dickens alive for me.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Fair Isle Weekend - Mary Jane Mucklestone

For a while I didn't think I'd be able to get a copy of this book - it's not a particularly cheap one and ordered direct from Laine (a Finnish publication) the delivery charges were prohibitive. I've got a bit of a hang up about online shopping (it's saving me a lot of money at least) which I see no particular reason to overcome whilst I'm without a job and it's all to easy to click on things without thought. On the other hand I know Mary Jane a little, and like her a lot, so I really wanted this book.

Happily, because I no longer have a local yarn shop in Leicester, Jamieson and Smith are stocking it. They're welcome to my money, so in the end it wasn't so difficult to get hold of, and Laine have an extensive list of UK stockists to check for other local suppliers to.

I've only been to Fair Isle once, when I was quite young. Back then it was mostly known for it's bird watching, the knitting was taken for granted across Shetland, and whilst people might have made the pilgrimage specifically for wooly reasons, I don't think it was common. I remember an older, long gone, incarnation of the bird observatory, a spectacular sandy beach, and the very small plane we flew in on. Although I've been past, and over Fair Isle more times than I can remember since then, a return visit is long past due. 

It's an odd place - not quite Shetland, although I can sometimes make it out on the horizon from the hill above my dad's house on a clear day, definitely not part of Orkney either. It's an amazing thing to pass it on the ferry to or from Aberdeen on a clear night or still morning (you have to be up early in the morning) in the summer. It's something like looking at a giant snow globe with all the birds wheeling around the cliffs, it's relative isolation is more obvious when you fly over it, but however you see Fair Isle if islands are your thing, it has a powerful pull about it. 

So powerful that I've let the matter in hand get away from me a bit. Getting back to 'Fair Isle Weekend', like most of us I've had a bit to much time indoors and on my own this last year, during which I've become ever more interested in how books like this - and more often food related titles - are put together; how the collections inside them are linked. In this case the patterns are things you might literally pack for a Fair Isle weekend stay. A couple of Jumpers, a pullover vest, some hats, a cowl that won't blow away, and some fingerless mitts. It's a sound summer capsule wardrobe for a remote Scottish island, There are wrist warmers too, which you might even knit whilst you were there if the weather was particularly bad, you were waiting for the Puffins to come in of an evening, or just sitting around an open fire - inside or out - chatting and enjoying the place. 

There's a jumper - Lower Leogh -that I particularly like, but would have to make about a foot longer to suit me, based on a childs jumper in Ella Gordon's collection. There's a simple stripe of pattern around the bottom of the garment, and bits of seed stitch at hem, neckline, and wrist, that add some pleasing texture. The cowl is a winner as well - as is the choice between a pretty beret and a warm, much chunkier, bobble hat. 

There can never be to many wristlets, or patterns for them in the world either. They're quick to knit, and excellent way of swatching, and as Mary Jane points out - determining the itch factor of the yarn you're thinking of using. Something you want to know before you go the full jumper. They're practical, make really nice small gifts, are the perfect Fair isle beginners project, are really good for using up scraps of yarn - the list could go on.

What I really love about this book though is it's love of place, and the generosity of spirit that it captures. There's all the information you need about places to stay, which also includes a link to donate to the rebuilding of the Bird Observatory, which used to be the main accommodation on the island and tragically burnt down a couple of years ago. It's rising from the ashes, which is vital to the community on Fair Isle (link here There's also a link to the Fair Isle Fisherman's Kep group which I'm a big fan of.

There's also a bit about the history of Fair Isle knitting and the specific names given to families of motifs there, as well as a sense of the adventure that trips to Fair Isle have bought for Mary jane and the friends she's visited with. I can't help but fall for this kind of enthusiasm, or appreciate the respect for the place behind it. Mary Jane has written a handful of books about Fair Isle and Scandinavian knitting motifs that I really recommend too

Friday, January 8, 2021

Murder in Midwinter - edited by Cecily Gayford

I've spent today with what I can only describe as a politics/current affairs hangover. Between Covid, Brexit, and whatever that was in America it's all been a lot. I suppose one thing to be grateful for is that the current lockdown is eclipsing some of the Brexit issues that might otherwise be painfully obvious. The only places I've been are my local market and M&S food hall. If I can't shop outside, then M&S is at least spacious, well staffed, and never hugely busy. In M&S there are not only gaps on the shelves, but gaps where shelves have been removed. 

On the whole though, it's not something I want to think about much here where it feels like the most useful thing I can do is concentrate on positive things - such Jane Grigson's suggestions for red cabbage, and books I've enjoyed. Which brings me to 'Murder in Midwinter'.

I think this is the 5th in what has become an annual Christmas tradition from Profile books. I have the last 3 of them, but as far as I can tell I've only read last years 'Murder at Christmas' which I was slightly underwhelmed by. It was okay, but not as good as the British Library Christmas collections that I've become used too. 

'Murder in Midwinter' is in my opinion a much better collection and has me re-assessing how much I want the earlier collections (much more now). Midwinter is a slightly wider remit than Christmas which perhaps helps with the selection but I liked everything in this one, and enjoyed the variety of writers too. I guess both John Mortimer and Ruth Rendell fall well without the golden age remit of the BL books - but the Rendell has fun referencing a couple of golden age lady sleuths, and Rumpole of the Bailey is always a treat for me. 

There's a version of Anthony Berkley's Chocolate Box mystery (titled The Avenging Chance this time) which is always satisfying, and Ellis Peters 'A Present for Ivo' has an equally satisfying pulp fiction (genre not film) feel to it. Edward D. Hoch's 'The Man From Nowhere' treads the line between murder mystery and weird tale which makes it ideal midwinter reading too.

Unlike previous lockdown's I'm actually managing to read quite a lot at the moment, but even so I'm keeping a big stack of short stories to hand. A good collection will keep me busy when I can't decide what I'm really in the mood for, a short story will generally hold even my wandering attention when a novel will not, and this selection is comfortingly traditional. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book - The Red Cabbage Chapter

As the world looks set to continue with the crazy (America really doing its bit on that front tonight) I'm mostly focused on eating more vegetables and using some of the short dated stuff in my cupboards. It might sound like setting the bar low, but I'll take whatever wins I can at the moment - and what else can you do in a lockdown in January?

There has been a red cabbage kicking around since Christmas. I quite like it, my mother and sister don't. It got left in the garage and mum insisted I bring it home with me yesterday. A whole red cabbage is a daunting prospect for a single person, and whilst I found a few attractive looking salad options in various books it's not salad weather - and I'd have had to buy to many other bits. For times like this though there is always Jane Grigson. 

It's easy to forget how downright brilliant her Fruit and Vegetable books are - I mean, all her books are excellent, but these two are something more. I have talked about this before - I still remember buying them some time in 1999 and reading them like novels on the bus to and from work. They were the perfect thing for exploring Leicester Market with, and for years were the most used cookbooks on my shelf.

Time passes, a book buying habit spirals out of control, there's always some new volume to consult, and then a day like today comes around when I realise anew why a classic is a classic. What to do with a red cabbage apart from my normal fall back of braising it, which would mean eating it until February?

The answer turned out to be a combination of 3 of the recipes in Grigson, who gives Victorian British, French, and German possibilities amongst others. My red cabbage ended up being simmered with a clove studded onion, smoked bacon, chestnuts, apple, cinnamon, and some blackberry vodka (no suitable red wine) and eaten like a stew with some Cumberland sausages sliced into it. 

I've been wondering what to do with the packet chestnuts at the back of the cupboard for a while - a little chestnut goes a long way for me - but had not considered them with red cabbage like this. The combination is excellent, the slow cooked cabbage has a nutty flavour to it anyway, the chestnuts keep their texture which is a nice counterpoint to the cabbage, and the smoked bacon pulls it's weight too. The sausages were very much an optional extra, and the left over cabbage is going to work perfectly either as a side dish with most of the rest of the weeks planned cooking, or just on it's own - maybe some crusty bread on the side.

The long slow simmer also gave me plenty of time to read through Grigson and be reminded of what a treat she is to read. From early and unpleasant memories of pickled red cabbage in the lake district there is a world of information in this book, a surprisingly big world for a book first published in 1978 - or at least it seems so for somebody with childhood memories of an era when avocado's seemed exotic and okra was far beyond my knowledge - as where any squashes beyond a pumpkin.

This book also has one of my all time favourite desserts - Angels Hair Charlotte - which honestly does transform carrots into something sublime. There could not have been a better time to remember Jane Grigson and her books, she is the best possible lock down companion. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Crossed Skis - Carol Carnac

 New Year, new lockdown and all the crap that goes with it. I'm trying not to think about it to much today - there's a combination of anger, anxiety, and relief that need to settle, but I'm holding on to the fact that if it gets really grim being stuck on my own in town, that I can make a bolt for the country and my mum who is both my social bubble, and still in need of some care (in the form of dog walking mostly, which is the big thing she can't properly manage yet) after her hip replacement. 

Meanwhile my second book of the year turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable and to be taking place more or less in real time as I read it. I picked up 'Crossed Skis' assuming that winter sports would mean a winter setting, but that it starts on New year's day and covers the following week was a pleasant surprise. 

Written in 1952 the plot is inspired by a skiing holiday the author had had the year before, it's also interesting to compare to Nancy Spain's Death Goes on Skis from 1949. Something that relatively recent reading has taught me is that although I'm familiar with all sorts of fiction from the 1920's up until the end of the second world war, the post war period is a bit of a blank to me. This is the world my parents grew up in, and which as a child I supposed probably wasn't very different to the world I was growing up in. The sense of the 1950's as both a time of tremendous opportunity and of reckoning with the recent pastis something that I was vaguely aware of but never really questioned.

Which might be why I find it so fascinating when I meet it now. In 'Crossed Skis' most of the characters saw war time service or were otherwise affected by it. A group of 16 (8 men, 8 women) ranging between their 20's and 30's in age are setting off for a 2 weeks of winter sports in Austria. As is inevitable in a group this size - arranged because it should have been cheaper, so that there would be a mix of abilities, and with dancing as well as skiing in mind there have been a lot pf drop outs and substitutions. The result is a mix of people who know friends of friends, but don't necessarily know each other, but all with interests in common.

Reading the book now the constant suggestions early on that people might not be who they say they are seem a little self conscious given the way the plot will go, but as I try and remember a pre digital world, are maybe not so odd. Especially given the cold war, the Austrian backdrop, and the general excitement of travel. 

Back in London a body has been discovered after a fire, something that might have passed as an accident but for a single clue that points towards a skier, and makes the scene look a bit off. The pleasure of this book is in the contrast between a grim London January against the gloriousness of the Austrian alps, and the growing suspicion amongst the Austrian party that something isn't quite right. 

They don't as a whole know each other well enough to know who might be the wrong un, and have no suspicion of a murder in the background, but something is amiss and causing a thread of anxiety to run through the party. 

It's a good, atmospheric, mystery that hints at other sorts of lockdowns (mention of the Russian sector and the tightening Iron curtain across Eastern Europe as a contrast to the holiday feeling of freedom) but mostly feels like total escapism. Using a party of relative strangers is an excellent device, and the final chapter of the book is properly exciting as a chase across the mountains unfolds in the teeth of a blizzard. It's a brilliant book for odd bits of period detail as well. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Simon Armitage

Back on Wednesday (was it Wednesday? Who knows, who even cares anymore?) when it was announced the Midlands were going into tier 4 I had a brief panic about having enough books to hand. It was stupid, I have more than enough books to hand, there must be well over a thousand hanging around waiting to be read, I was given a pile for my birthday a couple of weeks back, a bigger pile for Christmas, had just had an amazon delivery care of vouchers I'd been given, and minutes before had been feeling overwhelmed by the number of books hanging around. 

I managed to retain enough sense not to rush out to Waterstones for a last minute panic buy, and resolved that I'd actually read some of the many new books around me, and really try and hold off  buying any more books for a couple of months. That resolution lasted all the way to this morning. 

'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is the specific reason for my speedy downfall - although it would have been something else quickly enough. I bought the Simon Armitage edition after listening to the In Our Time episode first broadcast in 2018. I meant to read it that Christmas, and then last Christmas, have been faithfully carrying it around since early November before finally opening it yesterday.

As with Beowulf it turned out to be much quicker, and much more enjoyable to read than I had imagined - hence the swift abandonment of the no new books resolution, I've just re-listened to the excellent In Our Time episode, and happily discovered that there's bonus content (fund the BBC, my license fee is worth paying just for programmes like this, never mind all the other good stuff on there), which is really useful, but I also want a copy that has notes as well as an introduction. I also enjoyed it more than enough to want to read some more translations.

I have a confused memory of watching a televised version of this when I was a bit to young to really follow it - so probably in the very late 70's or early 80's, which left me with the impression that it was somewhat frightening. The trailers for the Dev Patel version also look like they're playing on the horror element, but actually reading Simon Armitage's version, and listening to Melvin Bragg's conversation about it, the thing that really sticks out is how much comedy the poem has in it. 

It also turned out to be as much a New Year story as a Christmas one, and so the perfect thing to read on New Years day when the action both begins and ends. It was also the perfect thing to kick off a years reading with - properly entertaining with a virtuous amount of cultural capital attached to it as well...

There is still something horrible both about the first appearance of the Green Knight, his odd challenge, and the way he picks up his severed head and leaves with it in such a matter of fact way, and then the final finding of the green chapel with all the attendant suggestion of the unknown and devilish about it, but the real fun pf reading this is how unheroic Sir Gawain spends a good chunk of time being.

Whilst his host is out hunting, Gawain spends what might be his last few days lounging in bed and flirting with his hosts wife who keeps accosting him there. It takes all his wiles not to sleep with her, in what turns out to have been a cleverly laid trap. We're invited to both laugh at Gawain's discomfort and sympathise with his predicament, something that the In Our Time episode gives really useful context for. The ending is also interesting - Gawain fails to uphold his own high standards, though he is forgiven or absolved by everyone else, including the Green Knight who he has in the end substantially wronged twice. 

But then the Knight never plays quite straight with Gawain either, the moral ambiguity, and absolutely human failings of both are deeply compelling. Most of us would surely behave exactly like Gawain just as surely as we find ourselves judging him for not being quite perfect. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Top Ten Books of 2020

I keep an appointment diary, but it's basically a combination of to do and have done lists, here is where I keep something like a record of what I'm interested in and thinking about, so coming up with this years list of best books has been a recap of 2020. January, February, and the beginning of March feel like both a lifetime ago and a different world. One where theatre trips were possible (I really miss the theatre, and the privilege of cheap rush tickets which let me see so much over the past couple of years) and a year that started with hope and a conviction that this was going to be the start pof an exciting new phase. It didn't turn out quite like that.

There was the optimism of early lockdown where it all seemed like a chance to step back and smell the roses whilst spring erupted around me in a part blessedly free of alcoholics, followed by the pessimism of never getting out of lockdown during a summer marred by a park full of alcoholics (if it wasn't so intimidating having to walk past them there would be something almost heroic about the dedication this group of drinkers have to being out in all weathers to drink cheap lager together from sunrise to sunset). And then onto our current phase of uncertainty and Covid burn out.  

I read more than I thought I had this year, but a lot of it has been old detective fiction and tales of the weird. All of those books have been excellent, and I'd recommend every single one of them, but whilst they haven't melded into one, it's hard to look back and say this one, or that one, are the ones that have stayed with me. It's also been a brilliant year for food related books with a coupe of things that feel like they ought to become classics. 

I know there's a camp that says books of the year ought to be ranked - and I might agree (I wouldn't agree) if they were all in the same genre, but they're not. These are books which have defined my year and which I've really enjoyed.

Georgette Heyer's A Civil Contract is my choice from the good chunk of Heyer I've re read this year. She's an author I find an equal mix of comfort and challenge in, and who has seen me through a variety of hard times over the decades. A Civil Contract shows her at her best - just staying within the confines of the romance genre to write a book which shows that relationships are hard work and complicated, and worse. Heyer is a snob and sometimes it grates. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance start with the detective fiction - if you like it you'll enjoy the majority of her writing, if you don't there's no need to carry on. There's a brilliant Heyer readalong group on Twitter and some excellent Podcasts if you catch the bug. 

Sylvia Townsend Warner continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. Her novels are getting some smart looking reprints in Penguin Modern Classics so if you don't have a guilty stack of unread old Virago Modern Classics 2021 will be the year to stock up. Better yet are Handheld's reissues of her fairy stories. Of Cats and Elfins is so good I've given copies to a few people. It's unexpected, funny, sad, charming, spikey, and altogether brilliant. A really good introduction to Sylvia in her many moods and just wonderful. 

I bought David Lebovitz's Drinking French assuming I'd get a fun summer drinking Vermouth and making classic cocktails. I did not, but it's still an excellent book even if it now feels like it belongs to a part of my life which is over. I'm still not sure if I miss the wine trade or not, I definitely miss being able to sit in a summery garden with a few people chatting over something good to drink. The reality of Brexit probably won't help with this particular miss either - but I can still dream of trips to France and bringing back interesting aperitifs. 

Gill Meller's Root Stem Leaf Flower is probably my favourite cookbook of the year against some really stiff competition, including Olia Hercules' Summer Kitchens. Both are 3rd books, both feel like by far the best work from either author, both are exciting, but in the end I've cooked from Root Stem Leaf Flower more and it's quickly become a go to book for inspiration. I wouldn't be without it now and just writing this is making me think about broccoli - which no other book has ever done for me before. 

The Accidental Countryside by Stephen Moss felt particularly timely. I think it was the last book I bought before non essential shops closed, and was the perfect thing to read stuck in a city centre and really noticing the variety of wildlife - especially bird, plant, and insect life, around me. I haven't read Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside yet, but it's on my list for the coming year. There's a lot to think about with this one, specifically in how we think of the countryside and the value of brown field sites. Urban and suburban places can do a lot to make space for a little wildness which is a benefit for all and everything concerned. This year has really shown how valuable that can be. 

If I could literally hoist a flag for any publisher it would probably be Handheld Press who keep producing interesting and unexpected books. Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford was an other favourite. Mostly light and funny but with real heart, I really enjoyed this book whilst recognising far to much about the world of retail in it. Mostly though it was the humour that I loved about this that made it so memorable and is also making me wonder if I should just retire for the rest of the day and read it again now. 

Patrick Baker's The Unremembered Places is the book with the concept that really caught my imagination. Baker explores parts of Scotland which haven't exactly been forgotten - the physical remains of the history are there, and findable, but they're not well remembered or celebrated either. Everywhere has places like this, I've been researching a couple in Shetland (including the first phone box my dad restored) and realizing how many stories can exist around a place, and how easily they can be lost. It's a book to question the history we remember and why. This book just wins out for me over David Gange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge and Sean Lysaght's Eagle Country only because it is Baker who made me think about looking for these stories and places on my doorstep (lockdown friendly) rather than on the grander scale. Again, all 3 are excellent books, and the latter two arguably have a lot more to offer the armchair traveller right now). 

Of all the classic crime I've read this year, Julian Symons Progress of a Crime feels like the most memorable (I guess I won't really know until this time next year). The British Library Crime Classics have been a feature of this years reading for me, and I've been lucky with all of them so far with lots of what I feel are series highlights. This one isn't so much interested in the affect a murder has on the victims family, but how it affects those around the accused. Written in 1960 it captures a moment in history that we sort of overlook now I think. Sandwiched between the war and the swinging 60's there's opportunity and prosperity for some but a hard reckoning with the recent past too. 

Miranda York's The Food Almanac is the book that's made me realise I'm convinced there should be a K in almanac. Again it was a tough call between this one and Kate Young's The Little Library Christmas both write about so much more than food, and Kate Young's book is the first Christmas one I've come across which doesn't assume a conventional family Christmas or really having a lot of money (I'm thinking of the Nigel Slater Christmas book which earnestly discusses which £80 candle to light on Christmas morning - it's a lovely book, but not quite for me). In the end it's the almanac not because it's a better book, but for the variety of writers and writing in it and the fact hat Christmas has passed.

Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese Ghost Stories are my final choice as a representative for all the weird I read in 2020. He was a writer I'd never heard of, and then found around very corner once I started reading this. If ever there was a time to take comfort in something weird or other worldly this does seem to be it and I've found it really helpful for mentally boxing up some of the uncertainty. There have been brilliant collections from Handheld, and the British Library which I've read with enthusiasm. I've a little stack of more scholarly texts on the subject which I honestly mean to read too (good intentions quail at 300+ pages of small print and footnotes when there are so many tempting stories to be read). Hearn's combination of Japanese and Irish influences has to be fairly unique and his life story is as interesting as his work.  

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The 27th of December - Seasonal Greetings

I normally write some sort of Happy Christmas post, and I hope it goes as read that I do wish anybody who's reading this a Happy Christmas - which is a season, not just a day, but this year the normal platitudes don't feel entirely appropriate.

My Christmas day was good, it's actually the first one I've spent with my partner of 14 years - he's normally with his father in Scotland whilst I'm down here with my mother, but normal plans are suspended. I really liked walking the dog with him, and being together to open presents and eat. I know that plenty of my friends and acquaintances similarly enjoyed the quieter, calmer Christmas that restrictions dictated - but equally, plenty did not. 

At times like this it's sometimes easier to be on your own, for those of us who are used to spending a lot of time in our own company there are all sorts of strategies for dealing with potential loneliness, and if most the rules around Covid tiers are made with families in mind, at least social bubbles give us some options. It's far harder to deal with a situation where you're desperate for some time and space to yourself. I can't imagine how hard it is to be cooped up with people if that's how you feel.

The last few days before Christmas bought out a lot of horrendous stories of the crap that's been happening to others as well. I have a convalescing mother and dog on my hands - both will be better before they know it (as long as they behave) but one friend who broke her ankle a couple of weeks ago had her partner test positive for Covid on Christmas eve, and came down with symptoms herself on Christmas day. They're clearly not coping well, and so many pf the normal things we do to help at times like this are off limits. 

I've always liked this lull between Christmas and New Year, and during all my years in retail missed it badly - the 2 or 3 days off after being crazy busy then going straight back to a tidy up and relative boredom always felt wrong. Even now without a job, this week for me is an opportunity not to worry, to just ignore the looming questions about my future for a brief time - although in some ways most of 2020 has felt a bit like this gap in the normal (is it a case of being careful what you wish for?). And again I know there are other people in my life who really struggle with this time, and are finding it harder than ever right now.

So yes, Seasons Greetings, I hope it was a Happy Christmas, I hope it'll be a Happy New Year, but I know it's more complicated than that for many of us at the moment.