Sunday, April 21, 2019

Shetland Wool Week annual 2018 and a Happy Easter

The weather this weekend has been unusually idyllic for most of the UK, so I'm writing this whilst looking out of the window much in the manner of a dog who thinks it's long past time to go for a walk. But I'm already a bit sunburned around the neck and have work tomorrow so it's time to come in and be sensible.

My reading plans for the weekend didn't get as far as I'd hoped, mostly because it was much better to chat to my mother in the sun, and make a fuss of her dog. Both of those things are knitting friendly though, and so I've made good progress on a pair of mitts from last years Wool Week annual.

I've never really got to grips with ravelry, I've used it to look for patterns and ideas, and bought a couple of things through it, but that's as far as it goes. I know it would probably be useful but it's such a huge community that it feels a bit overwhelming - although it's reassuring to know it's there if I get in a mess with something.

One thing I really do love though are the Shetland Wool Week annuals (the last couple of editions are still available through the Wool Week shop Here). They're a nice combination of patterns, most of which lean towards the solidly traditional (and correspondingly timeless) and essays on various aspects of Shetland life. Earlier annuals have focused more on the knitwear industry, but the 2018 issue looks further, going back to explore the history of the women who followed the herring fleet as gutters, and forwards to the Perrie Makkers - the children who will keep this rich tradition alive and evolving.

There are a lot of gloves and mitts in the 2018 edition, along with a hat by a designer I particularly
like, Wilma Malcolmson. Her colours are always amazing, and she makes her hats a little larger than anyone else seems to. That makes them a better fit on me than most I've found so I'm very pleased to have the pattern for one.

The other thing I like about these patterns is that there's something for everyone from absolute beginners up. When I first saw one of these I was right at the beginning of learning to knit, and more interested in the history than what I might make. That's slowly changing, but either way they're one of the best investments in my knitting library.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday and Easter book plans.

One of the many downsides to working in retail (low pay is the biggest) is that bank holidays and weekends really aren't a thing - this is the first year in a long time when I've actually got two days off over Easter (Saturday and Sunday). I'm looking forward to going to my mother's, where all the drains work, tomorrow where I'll get the chance to be reasonably lazy*. Or at least get the chance to read a bit and catch up on a few things.

I've been reading 'A Woman in Berlin' which is excellent, but not an easy subject, so I've also started Eva Meijer's 'Bird Cottage'' and that's the book coming with me. The opening chapter begins with spring hedge cutting which seems particularly topical given the amount of hedges being netted this year to try and prevent nesting birds. Anyway, it hooked me in and I'm looking forward to reading more.

If anybody is looking for a last minute Easter present, especially for themselves, I'm still really enthusiastic about Sue Quinn's Cocoa. We don't go in for Easter eggs in a big way in our family, but should you have lots of left over chocolate there's no better place to look for some ideas about what to do with it. (Hot chocolate because it's still cold at night, and some really good cookies, are both calling to me).

Finally, the book I'm currently most anticipating for this summer is David Gange's 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge', even more so after skimming through the bibliography he's put together on his blog. There are quite a few favourite books and films mentioned, so I'm really looking forward to going through that list properly and making notes on what to search out.


*This is dog dependent, if it's warm enough she'll collapse in a heap under the hedge at the bottom of the garden and mostly leave us in peace. If it's not warm enough she will want to play an endless game of teasing us with a toy. We have to pretend we want the toy, she won't let us touch the toy, but if she thinks we're not sufficiently interested in the toy she gets very annoyed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Time: A Year & A Day in the Kitchen - Gill Meller

I bought 'Time' back in September when it came out, but there were a lot of really good cookbooks coming out last autumn, and for most of this year my kitchen has been more or less unusable because of the drain situation.*

Cooking is one of the things I like to do to cope with stress, but the inconvenience of having to use the bathroom sink for washing up is off putting. I'm eating a lot of sandwiches and takeaway, and not feeling great on it. Fortunately salad season is getting closer and whilst I'm not wild about washing lettuce in the bathroom either, it seems more manageable than pots and pans.

Meanwhile when my mother picked up the latest lot of washing from me (this is an upside, and she irons EVERYTHING, even tea towels) she bought me some rhubarb from the garden. It reminded me of the rhubarb with rose geranium leaves recipe in 'Time' (a baking tray lined with foil is easy to deal with) and thought I'd give it a go.

I bought a rose geranium about 5 years ago specifically to cook with, and never did (it's currently looking a bit sorry for itself and obviously needs a bigger pot) so this really was the perfect recipe. My rhubarb hasn't been forced so the finished result doesn't look anything like as pretty as the one in the book, but it tastes good, so I'm happy with it.

Rhubarb baked in an oven with light brown sugar, honey, and rose geranium leaves isn't precisely the healthy take on fruit and veg I'm craving, but it's delicious. I've never sweetened it with honey either and I like the flavour it brings - it makes the whole thing a little bit more complex and interesting.

Now that 'Time' is off the shelf I might keep it on the kitchen table for a while and try and use it more. I like Mellers food and philosophy, and I like the way the recipes in this book are arranged first by the time of day, and then by season, for the way it makes me think about food, although it would probably be easier to navigate if it was the other way around. Or at least, I'm used to navigating by season first and then meal - so this feels a bit like being in a supermarket that's had a re-arrange to make you look at everything afresh.

I also think this is a slightly more challenging book than 'Gather' was. I really loved 'Gather', specifically the way it was rooted in the landscape that Meller inhabits. It had a real sense of terroir. 'Time' is more about kitchens (which tell their own stories about how their users cook) and the mood is different. Maybe it's the difference between a guide and a host, I can't yet quite put my finger on it - another reason to spend more time actually making the food.

*Yep, the drain is still blocked. I'm currently waiting for a disclaimer form to arrive in the post so I can promise I won't get to upset about any damage to the floorboards that apparently need to come up for the current round of investigations to be finished. The problem is pressing for me, less so for my neighbour who is being evasive about the whole thing so I'm a bit worried that he might not sign.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

We Are Feminist - Foreword by Helen Pankhurst

'We Are Feminist: An Infographic History of the Women's Rights Movement' is a brief, easily digestible, overview of the fight for equality across the world. As Helen Pankhurst points out in her foreword it's by no means comprehensive, but it does try to give a sense of the central achievements of feminism.

Today is one of those days when I'm really feeling my age (a stinking cold with all the attendant aching joints is really sticking the knife in), a day when I have to take myself off Twitter, and remind myself why it's a bad idea to read BTL comments on Guardian articles. A day when it seems impossible to work out where I stand in the current culture and identity wars and everything seems hopelessly complicated. The sort of day when it feels like we're going backwards.

That's exactly the sort of day when it's helpful to have something that unashamedly celebrates the achievements of the 'strident' women this book focuses on. It's uplifting, and to quote Millicent Fawcett "Courage calls to courage everywhere" - there's nothing complicated about that.

Courage calls to courage everywhere is maybe the defining theme of this book. All of the women in it, however problematical some of them may now seem (it's hard to be a second wave feminist these days) are united by a thread of courage and determination. For me that's the most exciting thing here - learning a few names I haven't heard before, and can now research at more length, as well as being inspired again by figures I'm more familiar with.

There are statistics that demonstrate how far we have come, and there's a bit of political and historical context for each wave of feminism which is useful too. Altogether it might not be the most serious examination of the subject, but it's a good basic introduction - easy to follow, and with a lot of information packed into such a small format.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Tea House Detective - Baroness Orczy

The Tea House Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, is a book I've wanted to read for a while. Mostly because I'm generally interested in Baroness Orczy (due to a childhood obsession with The Scarlet Pimpernel), but also because she's one of the relatively early people writing in the detective fiction genre.

The Old Man in the Corner is probably the earliest arm chair detective (it's what the Ellery Queen quote on the cover says), and Orczy's foray into detective fiction must have been inspired by the success of Sherlock Holmes - the old man being something of a Holmes like character with Polly Burton, journalist, filling the Watson role.

The old man (we don't learn his name) parks himself at Polly's favourite table in her regular lunch time cafe and without much encouragement starts to explain to her just how hopeless the police are by giving her solutions for various notorious unsolved crimes. He is clearly one of the world's great mansplainers.

Polly seems to be as fascinated as she is irritated (it's never clear if she uses any of his insights in her journalistic career) but over time something of a friendship obviously builds up between the pair. This is really a collection of short stories with a particular thread running through them that makes sense in the final episode (where Polly finally gets the last word) so it's no surprise to read that they originally appeared in serial form before being collected into a book in 1908.

As short stories they're fun, the who done it element is more or less obvious from the beginning of each story (only one tripped me up) but they're pleasing enough mysteries for all that. Maybe more so because the culprits and clues are so easy to spot.

More interesting is how ambiguous the old mans morals are. He feels no need to take his insights to the police, and no duty to see justice meted out upon the guilty. He simply wants to demonstrate to somebody how clever he is. Polly seems to accept this, maybe because she doesn't always believe his explanations, but her own conclusion and reaction to the final crime is curious. It's not entirely clear where her sympathies lie at all and it's that little bit of ambiguity that in the end makes this book memorable.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Death Has Deep Roots - Michael Gilbert

After a month or so of struggling to read I've finally managed to finish some of the books I'd started, and find the enthusiasm for more. It feels good to not only want to lose myself in a book again, but to find the concentration to do it.

The British Library's latest crime classics have certainly helped that process along. I think I'd sort of heard of Michael Gilbert before, the name certainly feels familiar, but I hadn't read him. He may be my favourite discovery from this series - and I have really loved some of the BL books. 'Death Has Deep Roots' is from relatively early in his writing career (1951), which if the bibliography on Wikipedia is correct seems to have kicked off in 1947.

'Death Has Deep Roots' starts at the beginning of a murder trial. Victoria Lamartine is accused of killing Major Eric Thoseby and disatisfied with the direction her original defence was taking has engaged a new team. With only a few days to go a desperate search for new evidence begins. A search that goes all the way back to France and the war time activities of Lamartine and Thoseby.

One of the things that makes this book so successful is that Gilbert is writing what he knows about - primarily the law (his profession), and the war. The feeling that what happens in court is more or less what would happen in court is compelling, but I found the war bits even more so.

The war might be over, but it's only 1951, it hasn't been over so very long and the scars are all still pretty fresh. Added to the network of men who were at school together, is a network of those who served together. The young solicitor, Nap, who heads off to France to gather information is convincing because it's easy to imagine that he's still as much soldier as he is solicitor, and that just maybe he misses some parts of his war work.

It also makes the various episodes of violence feel particularly threatening. They're not especially showy but there's no doubt that these characters hold the lives of others cheaply. A bit more death won't much matter to them.

The descriptions of life in the Loire under occupation are deliberately brutal too. They're used to remind the jury and other spectators in an English courtroom that the hardships of the blitz were quite different to those of running resistance under the nose of the gestapo. These are the details which give the plot credibility and in turn make this a particularly enjoyable thriller. Gilbert's humour also helps with that. It's very satisfying to know I've got two more waiting to be read.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Victoria - A ballet by Cathy Marston

The kitchen drain saga continues, and continues to be a demand on time, patience, and ingenuity. We're apparently waiting for news about insurance and access to some other part of the building this week.

I think Prince Albert probably worried more about drains than Victoria would have done, he seems the micro managing type. Happily it's not an issue the Cathy Marston worries about in 'Victoria'.

This theatre trip was to the altogether local Curve in Leicester. It's a theatre I'd like to go to more so I'm always pleased when something comes up that I actually want to see. Northern Ballet's shows are a definite draw, they've even started to convince my previously ballet ambivalent friend that it's an art worth paying £30+ a seat to see.

'Victoria' is brand new, as good as the reviews say, and absolutely worth catching if you can. It's told from the point of view of Victoria and Albert's youngest child, Beatrice, who Victoria intended to keep with her as a companion. It opens with Victoria as a demanding old woman on the edge of death. She leaves Beatrice with her diaries, which she begins to read.

The scene shifts to the early days of Victoria's widowhood and her growing relationship with John Brown, and becoming Empress of India, before shifting to Beatrice's own courtship with Prince Henry of Battenberg (Liko). Victoria is initially resistant to the idea of losing Beatrice, and though Liko wins her round, his allotted role isn't enough for him so he returns to the army. He dies in Africa.

The scenes that show the relationship between young Beatrice and Liko, with the older Beatrice literally clinging on to him at times, are particularly powerful with both her happiness and loss palpable. It finishes with her anger as she considers how her mothers demands have shaped her life.

The second half explores Victoria's early life, and marriage. The horrors of the Kensington system are alluded to, and so are the fights with Albert, as well as the passion, followed by the sheer grind of almost continuous pregnancy and childbirth. By the end Beatrice has made peace with her memories.

There's so much to enjoy about this - the score is perfect, the performances are excellent, but what I particularly appreciated was the both the focus on Beatrice and the acknowledgement of the complexity of Victoria's personality and relationships, especially how controlling Albert was.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Face in the Glass - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

'The Face in the Glass' from the British Library tales of the weird series is a collection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's gothic tales edited by Greg Buzwell.

'Lady Audley's Secret' has to be Braddon's best known book, I first read it about a decade ago (it was one of the first books I posted about on Here) after a lifetime of meaning to read it. It made quite an impression, and I still don't understand why it isn't as frequently adapted as 'The Woman in White' has been. Both published in the early 1860's and along with 'East Lynne' are the beginnings of Victorian sensation fiction.

I discovered Wilkie Collins novels, appropriately enough in my great great uncles dusty Edwardian library as a teenager. Any valuable books were long gone, but there were yards of slightly damp uncut Wilkie in cheap green covers. House and Library were sold together before I got to discover much more then those and bound editions of Punch which makes me wonder what other Victorian gems I might have missed out on discovering at that impressionable age.

Collins gave an inkling that the place of women in Victorian society might have been more interesting than I had assumed, Braddon more than confirms that, both in her own life and with her writing.

Reading the collection of her gothic tales I'm struck again by both how good she is, and the subtle but profound differences between her stories and those of male contemporaries that I'm familiar with. This collection opens with 'The Cold Embrace' in which a feckless art student is haunted by the ghost of his fiancé.

It's not entirely clear where Braddon's sympathies lie in this story, even if the young artist should have been more constant in his affections his fate seems like a harsh one, and there's a sense that the young woman could have made better choices. 'At Chrighton Abbey' is a good old fashioned ghost story, and as it begins I had assumed the narrator is a young man.

I think Braddon does this on purpose, re reading it she's careful not to mention gender for a good few pages, and when she does it comes as a surprise. Her narrator is the child of a Chrighton cousin, left more or less destitute when her father dies so she heads off first to Vienna, and then to St Petersburg where she earns good money as a teacher. Then in her 30's she goes home for Christmas where she's welcomed with open arms by her relations. This is not Brontë country, but rather a precursor of the independent new woman.

Indeed there are a few independent women in this collection who either set out to earn their own living, or are amply supplied with their own money. They are in stark contrast to the desperate creature in 'The Cold Embrace'. 'The Ghost's Name' is also interesting, both for its humour including a prosaic afternote to the main drama which is an excellent punchline, and the way it discusses  domestic violence.

Altogether this is a wonderful collection, getting just the right balance between being entertaining and providing something more to think about under the stories than just their entertainment value. It's also an excellent introduction to Braddon, why she's so interesting and how she can feel quite subversive.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cocoa - Sue Quinn

The problem with my kitchen drain continues, the consensus amongst the 7 men who have so far been to look at it being that it's complicated, and will probably be expensive to fix. It's work that should be covered by the building service charge and the management company that deals with that are in no particular hurry - though they do at least seem to be accepting that it comes under their remit.

Meanwhile I've been reminded that much worse things can happen, and am adjusting to the inconvenience (as is my mother, who is taking my laundry which is amazing of her, and readers - she irons everything. Even pyjama trousers, which I have never done). It also helps that I'm off work this week, having time on my hands makes everything better.

I've also got Sue Quinn's 'Cocoa' which is exactly the book I needed to cheer myself up with. I picked it up after seeing Diana Henry recommend it a couple of times, and fell in love on the spot. It bills itself as an exploration of chocolate with recipes - but has more recipes than I think that suggests, and they're good ones.

Is also worth saying that if you have a mother who enjoys cooking, or are looking for something more interesting than a supermarket Easter egg* to give this year, you want to look at this book.

The background information about chocolate and the industry is interesting. The explanation about quality and what to look for on labels is really useful, and the description of how to taste chocolate was illuminating. It's basically exactly the same process as for wine, which I hadn't fully appreciated.  The flavour descriptors are particularly similar, which makes sense now I've thought about it, I'm also thinking  this is something I can use as a training tool. There will be times when it'll be a lot easier to use different chocolates to teach a tasting skill set than it is wine.

If I needed that further underlining I got it in spades when I opened a bag of cocoa nibs and inhaled - it was almost intoxicating. Cocoa nibs feature a lot, which is good because they're both really versatile, but also the kind of thing I find I buy, use once, and then linger unloved at the back of a cupboard.

The recipes are the real hook for me with this book. Quinn explores the savoury end of the chocolate/cocoa flavour spectrum as well as the sweet, things like prosciutto with bitter leaves and a nib vinaigrette, or soft cheese salad with blackberries, mint, and nibs sound particularly good. That said it's sweet stuff I've made so far.

A delicious Jasmine infused 'Medici' hot chocolate inspired by Cosimo III Medici's favourite, and jaw droppingly extravagent, drink. Quinn's version mixes milk chocolate with milk and jasmine tea bags and makes something unusual (at least if for most of your life hot chocolate has meant Cadbury's sugary drinking chocolate powder) refreshing, and slightly addictive.

Just as addictive is a sweet dukkah, the sweetness mostly comes from honey and is subtle, nibs give a cocoa depth of flavour, pistachio and rose petals make it extraordinarily pretty, cumin and fennel add another dimension that increases its versatility - and that's only half the ingredients. It creates a minimum of washing up and is going to be a store cupboard staple.

Chocolate, olive oil, almond, and Rosemary cookies also turned out to be every bit as good as they sound. Not to sweet, rich, and a brilliant flavour - worth washing up in the bathroom sink for.

All of those recipes feed back to the basic ethos of the book which centres on ethics and quality. Chocolate is a luxury, and we can all "choose chocolate for flavour, quality, and provenance not the cheapest price tag." That doesn't mean paying a fortune, just taking care to make sure something is at least fair trade, and taking the time to look at the label to see what it is we're actually eating.

*We love chocolate in my family but aren't big Easter egg fans. I dislike the packaging and the premium price for an ordinary product, mum can't resist the temptation of eating them before she's given them away, Dad hates anything he considers too commercial, my stepmother doesn't like cheap chocolate, and so it goes on.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Knitting Post

Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I've been knitting a hap for the last few weeks. It didn't start particularly well, for some reason everything went wrong and I had to rip it back a couple of times before the (simple) pattern clicked. When it did click progress was smooth enough to make me wonder why it started as such a struggle.

The starting point was Donna Smith's Brough shawl pattern. Her shawl looks beautiful, but it's knitted in a heavier weight yarn than I have in my stash, and I really need to use up some of the yarn I've got (because currently there is no space for more, and I can't possibly justify spending more money on more yarn until I've used some of the stuff I've got). Part of the appeal of Donna's design is the size of her shawl, and also how squishy it would be with that thicker yarn, so it's going to have to wait.

I liked the tessellating leafy motifs of the lace border though, and the thought of starting from a single stitch and working up - which I hadn't done before, and is presumably why it took me so long to work out the repeat (or maybe I hadn't drunk enough coffee, or shouldn't have been trying to listen to podcasts at the same time). I really wanted to use the 7 balls of Jamieson's 'Peat' (spindrift) I had, but didn't think that would be quite enough so decided on a second colour for the border.

There were a few contenders, and whilst I'm pleased with the smokey grey purple shade I went with (Jamieson and Smith, I forgot to make a note of the colour code) I think I could have gone bolder. Overall though I'm happy with the way this has turned out. The size is good, the colour is delicious, the pattern is pretty, and I might have learnt my lesson when it comes to swatching (don't really have the patience to do it, but I should have, because I ended up having to guess when to stop).

It's also the sort of thing that's really useful for this time of year when it's starting to get a bit warm for a coat, but you need something more than just a jumper, or a cardigan. I'm also torn between starting straight away on another one (and making a slightly better job of the edging) or finding something much smaller that will be quick,