Wednesday, June 26, 2019


I had meant to post a bit more diligently whilst here, but I haven't actually read much - there has been a lot of eating, drinking, and general catching up with people. I've also bought a lot of yarn, but more of that when I return south. Meanwhile a lot of stuff has gone on Instagram, but I like having picture posts here too, so here goes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Back in Shetland

I'm up north for a couple of weeks, which has happily coincided with work finally beginning on the drains in my flat. At the moment I'm being promised that everything will be fixed by the time I return  - fingers firmly crossed.

Meanwhile it's deeply satisfying to be back in Shetland (which is both warmer and dryer than Leicestershire has been) where I can drag D round various wool merchants and textile displays, and he can persuade me to look at marinas and boats.

On the textile front it's great to see so many of the original garments that inspired Susan Crawford's Vintage Shetland Project on display, seeing them gives extra life to her work just as her research and recreation adds more to the story of the objects.

I've also been following the blog posts about the Lace project that the Shetland Museum is Undertaking it's been fascinating so far, and I'm really excited to see that at the end of this they will be publishing the patterns. I might never have the required patience or skill to make these things, but that makes them no less interesting to read about and understand the construction of.

The textile museum has a particularly pleasing display this year too - it's taken colours as it's starting point and pulled an excellent selection of pieces out of the archive. My favourite is probably a rayon jumper knitted in the 90's and which I assume is a reconstruction, or at least a reference to some of the Rayon jumpers that already existed in the museum collection, as well as the ones still in more or less in private hands (we saw some amazing ones in the Whalsay exhibition a while back).

I have no idea what rayon is like to knit with, but the result is beautifully iridescent and eye catching and I quite like the idea of something moths probably wouldn't eat (unlike silk). Either way it becomes something spectacular when the light catches it.

Beyond that it's just been the fun of buying some yarn, and planning to buy some more. These are significant decisions to be made over the next 10 days or so (time is moving much to fast).

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Vinegar Cupboard - Angela Clutton

I don't often use Amazon these days. I don't find it significantly cheaper for many of the things I want, getting deliveries to my flat is a bit of a pain (they don't like leaving them, which is fair because it isn't secure, and there isn't a click and collect place nearby) and I prefer to shop on the high street. Still, I needed an oven light bulb which thanks to online retailers undercutting high street retailers were unavailable to buy in Leicester, and ended up ordering a couple of books too.

One of them was 'The Vinegar Cupboard' which I'd been eyeing up for a while, and though the book itself is excellent, the state it arrived in had hardened my anti Amazon stance. It was the kind of grubby and scuffed that looks like it's been kicking around in sales bins for months, and there were greasy finger marks on the cover. Which took away a lot of the new book excitement. Nor can I find a way to complain to Amazon about it. I can complain about the driver - but he wasn't the problem. I can leave a poor review, but that's unfair on an excellent book. I suppose I could have sent it back, but that's a lot of extra hassle for me. It's altogether an unsatisfactory situation.

As is the fact that my kitchen then drains still aren't fixed, which means I'm eating a lot of sandwiches (minimal washing up) and getting increasingly angry with the neighbour who is withholding consent to get the work done (floorboards need to come up in both flats). Together the two things mean I've not had as much fun with this book as I had hoped to by now.

Which is a shame because it's got a lot going for it - including lavish use of flavour wheels which I'm always a fan of. It's also a particularly well indexed book, which is something else I appreciate (the lack of an index is currently spoiling another otherwise excellent book I'm currently reading). There is a list of vinegar producers to look out for, which whilst it makes no claims to do anything but scratch the surface, is a handy place for a reader to start making a wish list from. There's an index of the recipes by Vinegar type which is really useful, and then an index for everything.

I wanted this book because the recipes in it look great, but even more because whilst I'm aware that vinegar is a useful thing to have around I'm a bit lost when it comes to the subtleties. Which means every so often I end up throwing away sticky, dusty, bottles years past their best before dates, used for one recipe that called for them and then forgotten.

It's a bonus that 'The Vinegar Cupboard ' is a joy to read too, with plenty of history and vinegar legend, as well as really comprehensive breakdowns of flavour profiles. It's easy to see why it won the 2018 Jane Grigson Trust Award. I'm really glad I've got it, I just wish I'd bought it from an actual shop.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Snow White and Other Tales - Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

As a rule I don't much like hardbacks, they take up to much space, and I can't be doing with having duplicate books around the place either. Again, they take up to much space, and who needs more than one version of the same book? And the exceptions that prove these rules... any interesting translation of the brothers Grimm it seems.

I really like the cloth bound, jewel coloured, hardbacks that Oxford University Press are producing, to the extent that I have to hold myself back from buying, or asking for, copies of things I already have, but this one turned up unannounced in the post. This translation by Joyce Crick is a delight and will happily join my other editions of Grimm, a collection that's likely to carry on growing.

The introduction starts by saying that a "new translation of a text with a claim to be the most-translated of texts after the Bible needs some justification" but I don't think it does. These tales are so ingrained in our culture in one form or another that new translations seem an appropriate continuation of the oral tradition.

As an adult I've probably read 4 different versions with reasonable thoroughness, and they've been everything from feeling stripped back to the bare bones of the tale, to Philip Pullman's story tellers take that I was reading this last winter. Crick's translation is somewhere inbetween, fun to read and as scholarly as you would expect from the OUP.

Pullman's collection was abridged to 50 tales. There are 82 here, some of them distinctly challenging to modern sensibilities. The most noticeable aspect of that is an ingrained anti semitism, the sort we generally like to hide away now. It's salutary to be reminded of it here.

Something I expected less is the way that different tales seem to come to my attention in each different translation/edition. I'm not quite sure why it should be that different titles seem to jump out of different contents pages, but they do. It feels a little like a reading version of looking through a kaleidoscope.

Definitely a collection aimed at adults and students, but with all the pleasure of story telling flourishes which make it a joy to read. I'm delighted with this edition.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Death in Captivity - Michael Gilbert

I've enjoyed more or less everything I've read in the British Library Crime Classics series (everything has had something to recommend it), but Michael Gilbert's books have been a particularly happy discovery. I really hope there will be more (there are some spectacularly ugly house of Stratus editions of his work which I will buy if I have too) because based on the sample of 3 that I've read it's hard to understand why he ever fell out of fashion.

'Death in Captivity' is a sort of locked room mystery set in an Italian prisoner of war camp in the summer of 1943. A man widely suspected of being an informer is found dead in a half dug escape tunnel. Due to the arrangements to get into the tunnel he can't have got there by himself which seems to limit the pool of suspects to the group of men who know about the tunnel...

Henry 'Cuckoo' Goyles is given the task of trying to work out who did it, but meanwhile the allied forces are landing in Sicily and there's about to be a significant regime change in Italy. Everybody is jumpy regardless of side - enthusiastic fascists have quite a bit to worry about, and so do the prisoners who might find themselves in the non to careful hands of the Germans.

The need to find the murderer, work out if there's a traitor in the camp, and escape whilst the going's good, make for a tremendously satisfying thriller. The tension as the last few chapters spin out is terrific, but there's more to the book than it just being a good yarn.

As with the other 2 books in this series (Death has Deep Roots, and Smallbone Deceased) Gilbert is drawing heavily on his own life experience. He was a prisoner in Italy, he did escape, not everybody he traveled with survived the experience. It gives his picture of camp life an authenticity that's impossible to counterfeit, especially when it comes to describing how relationships between the men thrive under one set of circumstances, disintegrate under others, and how different personalities cope with the hardship of camp life.

It also helps that these books have aged well - the prejudices of the era are more or less in check, and in the camp there's a tolerance for all the different cliques set on getting through the experience as best they can. The faction that make up the dedicated escapees are only one group, those who spend their time on roulette, amateur dramatics, and make believe, don't necessarily suffer by comparison. Another writer might have made theses characters the butt of a joke, Gilbert uses them to move the plot along in various ways, and his descriptions feel affectionate.

All of that, along with Gilbert's particular brand of understated deadpan humour, makes for a winning combination. These books have all been so much more than the sum of their parts, and they make me really curious about the author as a person (I imagine he was a charming delight of a man). I'm inclined to say this one is the best of the lot, both in terms of plot and for its insights into POW life but all 3 have their points, and they're all excellent.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Woman in Berlin - Anonymous

I've been reading this book slowly, almost but not quite in real time - it's a diary that runs from the 20th of April to the 22nd of June 1945 written by a 34 year old German woman in Berlin. It's not always been the easiest thing to read because it doesn't show human nature at its best and to read it for to long together has a slightly brutalising effect.

I was regrettably hazy about the downfall of Berlin, had never given any thought to what happened when the Russians and other allies swept in. Our inherited war stories are so fundamentally different and it's easy not to dwell on the reality of what being in an occupied city was like, especially at the end of a long war when the enemy is suddenly at your disposal.

In his introduction Antony Beevor touches on suspicions about how genuine the diary is. It's clear that the author was a professional journalist, so it seems safe to assume she had some sort of eye for posterity but the whole thing rings to depressingly true to be anything other than genuine.

It is on the whole an account of hunger and rape, with the deepest anger saved for the returning German men who insist on being protected from the reality of what happened to the women. It's an anger it would have been hard to express post war, and a reality that many must have wanted to put firmly behind them, but equally that resentment must still have been festering for so many women.

Our heroine quickly makes the decision to find herself a reasonably senior officer in the hopes that it will provide her with some protection from the indiscriminate attacks taking place (this is after her neighbors have more or less thrown her to the wolves to protect themselves). It's a plan that works well enough whilst each man is around, but they are moved on quickly and then the the whole sorry business starts again. Still, it means she can get food and there is a level of protection.

Crucially the fact that this is a widely shared experience initially makes it easier for the women to deal with what's happening - they can talk about it, even joke, and assign a certain amount of blame to the administration that left them so vulnerable. That starts to change as the men drift back and the enormity of events generally and what it might mean for the future sinks in.

It's nothing like the heartwarming accounts of life on the home front, but there is a raw honesty here about the cost of war, and something of the pull of nationalism, as well as the humiliation of being part of a defeated nation - turning from a people into a population. The quality of the writing (and translation by Philip Boehm) makes it a particularly compelling narrative, and if enjoy isn't quite the right word, it really does feel like an important book to read.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Venice Preserved at the RSC

We've had a pretty good run at the RSC so far this year with excellent performances of The Taming of the Shrew, The Provoked Wife, and As You Like It, so we were probably due something we weren't going to be so enthusiastic about - and this was it.

I did a bit of homework about Thomas Otway and Venice Preserved beforehand so had an idea of the plot and how influential the play had been in its day, along with some of the political context behind it. Which turned out to be a good thing because the more or less 80's cyberpunk inspired setting strips  a lot of that context away.

The play opens with Jaffeir confronting his father in jaw, the senator Priuli. Priuli has not approved of his daughter, Belvidera marrying Jaffeir to the point that he's engineered their financial ruin. When Jaffeir realised he's going to get nowhere with Priuli he turns to his friend Pierre, and is quickly convinced by his talk of revolution.

Pierre seems to be motivated by the circumstances of his mistress having a transactional sexual relationship with another senator, Antonio. When he takes Jaffeir to meet with his co conspirators they demand that he hand over Belvidera as collateral. Later Belvidera reveals that the leader of this group, Renault, has tried to rape her leaving Jaffeir with seriously torn loyalties. Eventually he betrays the rebels, but it precipitates a mental breakdown for both him and Belvidera followed by a stage full of bodies.

This production chooses to draw out the submissive elements in Jaffeir's relationship with Pierre, which echos the kink that Antonio employs the courtesan, Aquilina, to satisfy for him. Jaffeir is a decidedly beta male in this scenario, his motivation for joining the rebels a mix of petulance concerning Priuli's actions and presumably hero worship for Pierre.

A contemporary audience would have understood this in terms of Catholic/Protestant struggles within the strict codes of male honour. In those terms Pierre and Jaffeir's decisions make sense - their personal grievances being the last step towards radicalisation that's presumably based on religious affiliation. The cyberpunk setting is stylish but it really didn't work for us, largely because it doesn't help explore the idea of male honour, and neglecting that robs the second half of the play of most of its tension.

It's hard to believe that this Jaffeir (who seems more incel than insurgent) wouldn't just clear off with Belvidera, it's also hard to see why Belvidera is so smitten with him (the audience consensus on the
way out seemed to be that she should have known she could do better). Nor is there the neccesary chemistry between Michael Grady-Hall and Stephen Fewell as Jaffeir and Pierre to make me believe these are friends who would die for each other.

Les Dennis as Priuli on the other hand was a revelation. He was totally convincing as the powerful man bent on pursuing a petty spite, and then the repentant father (although by now his low opinion of Jaffeir feels justified). Jodie McNee is a mesmerising Belvidera too, but the really memorable performances are John Hodgkinson as Antonio, and Natalie Dew as Aquilina.

Her disgust for the elderly lover she's obliged to entertain, and his enjoyment of that disgust, is masterly. Hodgkinson, squeezed into fetish ware raises easy laughs, but his obvious enjoyment of Aquilina's anger and disdain exemplifies the frustration of anyone on the receiving end of harassment. At least when she seems to snap at the end of the play it's all too easy to understand why.

Monday, May 27, 2019

All Among The Barley - Melissa Harrison

It's hard to believe that it's more or less 4 years since I read 'At Hawthorn Time' and fell for Melissa Harrison's writing, but so it seems to be. 'At Hawthorn Time' was one of those books that has really stuck with me, and partly because I liked it so very much I've been hesitant about reading 'All Among the Barley'.

I was always going to wait for the paperback anyway (not a hardback fan) but even when I bought it (more or less the moment it hit the shelves in my local Waterstones) it made me a little nervous - which is the downside of keen anticipation.

Set in East Anglia across the high summer months between hay and harvest in 1934 the book is told from the point of view of 14 year old Edith. Just finished school, she is clever, bookish, the baby of the family, sheltered, isolated, and caught between child and adulthood.

Meanwhile between the continuing agricultural depression, an increasing pace of change towards mechanisation, and the country's inter war flirtation with fascism (Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green was published in 1935 and is an interesting comic counterpoint to some of the events in this), as well as the farmers annual anxiety about weather and harvests tensions are building.

I have a bit of a prejudice against books set in the past - it's not everybody who can make it work convincingly, but Harrison does. This is partly because of the focus she puts on describing the farm and its wildlife, which is both pure Harrison and also very much part of a contemporary trend in the 1930's.

Dorothy Hartley is specifically referenced, but it's impossible not to think of Adrian Bell if you've read Corduroy/Silver Ley/The Cherry Tree, or the work of Claire Leighton. I don't think I've read all of Vita Sackville-West's 'The Land' (worth following the link to listen to the clip of her reading from it though, even if just to hear her diction) but she's part of this tradition too. Lolly Willows and Tarka the Otter are also mentioned amongst others - Lolly Willows signposting where Edith might be heading, Tarka more of a warning about Constance FitzAllen.

Initially Constance seems like she might be working along the same lines as Dorothy Hartley or Claire Leighton, or even Adrian Bell - keen to record an England on the cusp of disappearing. But it becomes increasingly clear that her interests go far beyond recording and into creating a specific sort of propaganda.

The brilliant thing about this book is how nothing is overstated. Edith is utterly convincing, and whilst it's clear something is going wrong it's not entirely clear what, or how serious it actually might be. Constance Fitzallen is a catalyst in the midst of tensions that were already present and again utterly believable. The dramas are both profound and banal - the fear of bankruptcy, old age and infirmity, war time losses leaving an absence of men to work the fields, alcoholism, not knowing how to say no to something you don't want, and so on.

All of them go to build towards a conclusion that's both shocking and inevitable. It's also a book that speaks clearly about the dangers of nostalgia and an idealised vision of an imaginary past in our own era, and again it's done with a lightness of touch which makes it all the more powerful.

Basically this book really is as good as everybody has been saying, and you should absolutely read it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Myth and Materiality in a Woman's World Shetland 1800-2000 - Lynn Abrams

Books have their own serendipity. I've had this one on the shelf for years, it's presence more about good intentions than serious ones, but between anticipating Roseanne Watt's Moder Dy and reading the bibliography for David Gange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge (which I'm also keenly anticipating) it suddenly seemed long past time to read it.

It turned out to be a good choice giving me specific things to think about whilst reading Moder Dy, and also making an interesting companion to Melisa Harrison's 'All Among the Barley' and another translation of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

If you don't have a specific interest in either Shetland, or Women's history this probably isn't the book for you, but if those things do interest you it's excellent. Geography and economic circumstances made 19th century Shetland fairly unique. The majority of men had little choice but to go to Sea (initially either because it was part of their croft tenancy arrangement, or they were in the navy, went to the whaling, or later went to the herring). Loss of life was not infrequent, and even when all was well absences could run to years. It meant that on land women outnumbered men by a considerable margin.

It also meant that women were left to run the crofts - which mostly did not produce enough to live off without a man to fish, and make what money they could from knitting. It was very much a subsistence life but it also meant that women were routinely economically active as producers.

Abrams explores the mythic status of the crofting woman (and she does have a mythic status, one that it's hard for contemporary women to measure up too) along with the reality of women's lives, particularly as they can be found through court records. She also reflects on how Shetland's heritage industry is mainly packaged for local consumption.

The book was first published in 2005 and I think that's changed slightly in the interim, especially through events like Wool Week and the growing popularity of knitting and textile based tourism. But generally it's still true, and something else that's unique about Shetland, at least in a Scottish/British context.

Abrams raises a couple of interesting questions about emigration and the barter truck system too. Men emigrated in larger numbers than women, despite there being larger numbers of women than men, and how hard it was for single women to make a living. It's not clear why they stayed but it suggests to me that whatever reasons were motivating individuals, they're somewhat more complex than the picture generally painted of clearances and economic necessity.

Barter Truck was an undoubtedly iniquitous system which allowed merchants to exploit women by forcing them to accept goods instead of cash for their knitwear. Worse yet the goods were often things like tea or haberdashery which had to be bartered amongst other women for the actual necessities of life. It's generally (and rightly) presented as a very bad thing. It also continued in Shetland more or less until the Second World War, long after it had officially been banned.

Abrams work is making me wonder why it persisted so long. She shows that Shetland women were ready to go to court for a variety of other reasons, and there is the example of The Hoswick Whale case to show that tenants were prepared to face down landlords at least by the 1880's. Again it's the suggestion of a more complex picture that I find interesting here. It's a book that's shaken up some fairly lazy assumptions on my part - and I'm always grateful for that.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Outdoor Cooking - Gill Meller

River Cottage Handbook No. 17. I love this series which is fairly evenly divided into books I use a lot, books I daydream about using a lot (whilst I choose to forget how much hard work running small holding is) and the ones like this which provoke quite an emotional response.

The ongoing problems with drains in my building (most of the year without a properly working kitchen) feel like more or less the final straw. Flat life in a city centre has less and less to recommend it. I want to live somewhere with a sense of community again, have a garden, and a real fire.

Reading 'Outdoor Cooking' brings back childhood memories of beach fires, barbecues, bonfires, and the open fires all the houses I grew up in had. It's also intensifying the desire to live somewhere I could build a wood fired oven for the fun of working out how to use it. I'm on the fence about spit roasting, but everything else in here is a siren call, and I've been reading through this book with the same enthusiasm I had for Enid Blyton way back when. Probably because whatever else might now be problematic about Blyton, she was excellent on the allure of campfire cooking.

Meller's writing about food and cooking is always a delight to read, but I particularly like the format of these handbooks. They're a generous pocket size, with robust covers that make them good traveling companions. The space constraints don't allow for to many tangents - it's mostly direct and helpful instructions on whatever topic is to hand, with just enough personality coming through to make the books feel friendly.

Especially after the recent moor fires it's good to see that the first chapters are strict on fire etiquette and ethics. It is not okay to build a fire wherever you like, safety must come first, and you can't just pick up whatever wood you like (Scotland has different laws about right to roam, and I guess as long as it hasn't obviously been claimed, driftwood is fair game either side of the border). After that there are plenty of instructions for how to build different sorts of cooking fires, and going right back to basics - just how to build a fire, which is almost certainly a vanishing skill.

And then it's the recipes - which all sound great. Unexpectedly for a book about outdoor cooking it's the fruit and vegetable things which I'm really craving as I read this. I don't even particularly like Brussels sprouts, but the idea of wood roast sprout salad with apple and celeriac has my mouth watering. As does the grilled cabbage. The Cider and Fennel Toffee Apple not only sounds good, but Gavin Kingcome's photography makes it look magical (the hard caramel trails from the Apple looking for all the world like a golden flame).

Beyond that there's all sorts of projects here - fire pits and earth ovens, things baked in clay, bread twists baked around sticks, the sort of slow barbecuing that the Americans do, spit roasting anything from a whole hog or deer down to a chicken, and of course wood ovens. Most of it has the back garden in mind, and just aboutvall of it demands a bit of time and planning.

It might not be a lot of planning or time, or it could be that a whole weekend is taken up with preparing and making, but as a big part of the philosophy of food like this is to be able to share both the making and the eating of it, the anticipation that time and forethought create is part of the seasoning.

I wonder if I post my father and stepmother* a copy now, will it be a big enough hint about possible holiday entertainment next month?

*Bo, my stepmother is a cook, and has more than enough to do through the summer without somebodys bright ideas about standing her over a fire for hours at a time when she's not actually at work. On the other hand she also has valuable experience doing reconstructions of Viking era cooking... although her recollections of that sound more like horrified flashbacks of being smoked like a kipper rather than precious memories. It's a dilemma.