Sunday, August 18, 2019

Uradale Shawls - Marja de Haan

Impending redundancy isn't doing much for my concentration when it comes to reading which is a shame because I've got a small stack of books I really want to read right now. I just can't decide which one to get on with first, so instead I've been knitting.

My stepmother gave me 'Uradale Shawls' when I was staying with her in June, the Scalloway pattern looked like a good project for getting through some of my yarn stash, and uncomplicated. What I hadn't quite appreciated is that in terms of yardage it's the biggest thing I've knitted so far, progress is slow, but it's also been a blessing.

I'm a big believer in the therapeutic qualities of knitting as a hobby. It gives me something creative to do which is always a positive, is absorbing enough to stop brooding, but still lets me listen to podcasts or half watch trashy tv (some of) which makes me feel even more productive, and is just generally calming. The size and nature of the Scalloway scarf is especially perfect - it's a really simple shape, with stripes that keep the endless stockinette interesting - it doesn't make unreasonable demands on a mind inclined to wander a bit.

I have never bought any of the Uradale yarn (it's an organic farm near Scalloway in Shetland) although I have seen the odd bits of it around in Lerwick, so I'm mostly using Jamieson's Spindrift with a bit of Jamieson and Smith's jumper weight in the closest colours I had.

Most of the patterns in the book are for large triangular shawls, and now I'm working out how much yarn you need from the given weights I'm realising just how big they really are, they're mostly stranded too, so they'll be warm. The given instructions suggest knitting in the round for most of the shawls with a steek you cut at the end. I think I'd rather knit purl rows and do them flat even if it would take longer.

Otherwise this is a really nice collection that reflects the landscape and yarn that inspired it. There's only one pattern that really looks like fairisle, everything else has motifs that pick up on local wildlife and landmarks. It's a lovely book to have as a souvenir, and the shawls themselves would be something to treasure.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

East - Meera Sodha

Blackberries are ripening on the hedges, and in a few short weeks (on September 5th to be precise) half the books I've been anticipating since spring will be published - Autumn is coming. Half the books I've been anticipating are also coincidentally cookbooks, and then there are the ones I didn't even know I wanted... awkward at a time I need to be saving against the impending redundancy.

Meera Sodha's 'East' was one I didn't know I wanted until both my Twitter and Instagram went crazy for it on Thursday (it's publication day). If it hadn't been for the recommendations I wouldn't have picked this up - I'm not good with chilli (it's a heat that registers with me as pain, M&S roasted red pepper hummus turned out to be hotter than I like). The chilli thing is a pain in the arise when you live in a city like Leicester.

I tend not to buy vegetarian books either, I have an uncomfortable suspicion that because I'm not a vegetarian I feel like they're not for me, which is silly. Anyway, a proper look at 'East' persuaded me that it would be worth the investment, so here we are. 

It's a 120 vegan and vegetarian recipes from Bangalore to Beijing, and also "fuss free food made from British ingredients". The second part of that is particularly attractive. Because of where I live Chinese and Indian ingredients are easy to find. Korean and Thai not far behind, some things (like black Venus rice which sounds delicious, and spelt flour) might be a bit harder to find, but everything else ought to be more or less on my doorstep. 

The joy of this book is that it's full of flavours and combinations that I wouldn't normally cook, because of that when I'm reading through them I don't find myself thinking about meat, or feeling that it's in any way missing (that's decades of conditioning to think of vegetables as a side dish rather than the main event, I know it's not true, but it's an unconscious bias I'm finding hard to shift). More than that, things just sound delicious.

Beetroot and ginger soup, overnight soy eggs, paneer spinach and tomato salad, caramelised fennel and carrot salad with mung beans and herbs, udon noodles with red cabbage and cauliflower and so much more. The desserts look amazing as well, with some beautiful sounding vegan cakes.

Given that my whole frame of mind is focused on change at the moment, this feels like the perfect cook book for my current mood. So much of the food sounds fresh, vibrant, (though I will probably scale back the chilli somewhat) and colourful. Just browsing through it makes me feel optimistic. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Deep Water, Mysteries on the Waves - edited by Martin Edwards

I've always found August a strange sort of inbetween month. Growing up in Shetland, August could throw some distinctly autumnal days at you, the long twilight hours of midsummer are going, and the new school year loomed. Even as an adult it's a month that makes me think more of endings than beginnings. In retail it's when Christmas planning starts in earnest. Looking out the window the landscape has an overcooked feel, and altogether my current employment status is all of a piece with how I see this month.

I can't settle to much, I'm finding it easier to knit than read, and when I am reading I'm drifting towards short stories. I actually read 'Deep Waters' whilst I was on holiday back in June. It was the perfect book for the ferry journey to and from Shetland - not least because much of the water involved was river rather than ocean (there's even a swimming pool).

It's an enjoyable collection - as I would expect from the crime classics series, with plenty of variety. I love these for holiday reading because there's something for most moods, nothing demands to much attention, and short stories fit so well into the odd pockets of time when I actually get to read in (rather than the weeks of uninterrupted reading time I still sometimes imagine I might get).

'Deep Waters' gives everything from the pulpiest of efforts involving piranhas trained to kill on demand (sort of) to Kem Bennett's masterly 'The Queer Fish' which perfectly draws the line between comedy and drama. A couple of the stories flirt with suggestions of the supernatural before resolving themselves into something closer to science fiction.

There is also the last appearance of Raffles (E. W. Hornung's amateur cracksmen - gentleman cricketer and burgler) in 'The Gift of the Emperor'. I read a collection of Raffles stories in a cheap Wordsworth Classics edition one August well over 20 years ago, but not this one. I'm not sure I'd ever given it much thought, but this isn't the end I would have imagined. It was unexpectedly melancholy, more so in an anthology that separates them from their previous exploits (in which setting it would sound more like just desserts). As it stands it's another example of how well Edwards puts together these collections.

They're beautifully balanced, and together his collections are always more than the sum of their parts. That piranha story that in another setting would be to silly for words is the perfect seasoning in this book, as is Raffles last adventure. Perfect summer reading indeed.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A Spirited Guide to Vermouth - Jack Adair Bevan

I've been hoping for a good book on vermouth for a while now, and been working my way through this one since the end of May. So far it's the best book on the subject that I've found - although as my search has mostly been an occasional browse in a small Waterstones the competition has been limited.

It's taken me a long time to come round to vermouth as a category to get excited about, and there are reasons for this. Vermouth generally was not fashionable 20 years ago when I started out in Wine, and neither were the drinks it goes in. It's also quite a complicated set of drinks - Vermouth means all sorts of things from sweet to dry to bitter, white through amber, rosé, and into red. Once open it also needs to be drunk reasonably quickly - you need to commit to that bottle in a way you just don't with most other things.

My preferred kitchen vermouth (something good for drinking and cooking with) is a dry white, but it turns out my preferred cocktail vermouth is a rich red (either for Manhattans or Rob Roys, also with gin as a Gin and It. It's what you want for a Negroni too, although I'm not such a fan of those). But that barely scratches the surface of possibilities out there.

Vermouth's fortunes have changed considerably over the last few years, the ever growing popularity of gin has a lot to do with that, as do changing tastes for cocktails - although it's still not the easiest thing to buy around here. Choice is slowly improving but it is slow. I personally think that a growing interest in lower alcohol drinks is what will really help the spread of vermouth across the country.

It makes a brilliant long drink with tonic, and at less than half the abv of gin it's a much lighter alternative with even more complexity of flavour. This book does an excellent job of explaining the different styles, introducing some key producers, looking at the culture and history of Vermouth, thinking about matching it with food, and giving recipes.

The recipes are for both cocktails and food - which is really useful because you want to get through a bottle within 2-4 weeks so the more ways to use it the better. There's also a recipe to make your own vermouth (tempting). Jack Adair Bevans vermouth credentials are impeccable so you're in good hands - especially when it comes to the bar craft and cocktail bits. He's also drafted in some excellent writers to contribute recipes.

The one thing the book really needs is an index. Not having one is slightly irritating especially for cross referencing products. A glossary of the vermouth's used in the cocktails (and maybe some alternatives) would also be useful. Most of the vermouth's need to be ordered online (or at least they do if you live in the midlands) and represent a reasonable investment, the obvious place to start exploring from would be the most mentioned products.

I like the mix of cocktails in here, they start at relatively simple and go up from there. I could wish that some weren't quite so product specific, but that's a personal prejudice mixed with a pedantic nature that makes me want to follow a recipe exactly, rather than a criticism.

Altogether it's an excellent book, and an excellent place to explore vermouth from.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Slightly Foxed & Other Things

I have books waiting to be written about, and projects to consider, but after the redundancy news  and hard on it's heels some family dramas it feels like there's altogether to much to think about. Most of that is all the emotions that go with thevwork situation. Now the initial shock has worn off I'm bouncing between excitement at the possibilities, and a good dose of nerves about them too.

A symptom of that are the simultaneous desires to hoard things and have a good clear out. Along with the shock an initial intention to spend as little as possible over the next few months (whilst I still have a job) has worn off. Instead I've amassed extra shampoo and conditioner, shower gel, olive oil, a lot of Fry's orange creams, and there's a posh bottle of vermouth on its way.

The looming threat of a no deal Brexit is adding slightly to the anxiety (specifically regarding good olive oil and all the other store cupboard stuff that falls somewhere between staple and treat) but Fry's orange creams aside this is mostly just sensible housekeeping.

The more obvious (to me) sign of stress is the urge to de clutter. I don't know why these situations always makes me want to get rid of stuff but they do. It's not really a bad thing either though. The books are out of control again, and a purge wouldn't go amiss - to which end I was eyeing up 11 years worth of Slightly Foxed editions, wondering how much I wanted them.

It's a cause of some regret to me that I didn't hit on the name 'Slightly Foxed' first - the combined reference to used books and mild drunkenness is so utterly perfect. Still, 40+ editions takes up a chunk of space and my flat is small.

I thought about it for all of two minutes, mostly contemplating the sheer variety of books and authors covered over the years, with a quick detour into the pleasure of receiving the thing. 'Slightly Foxed' is quietly brilliant - both the quarterly and the podcast. It's not just the writing, or the subjects covered, but also the showcasing of various artists (particularly woodcutters).

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Red hot

It is unbearably hot and humid at the moment - neither my flat, or work are designed for temperatures in the mid 30's (nor am I really, I like it at around 18 to 20 degrees and not much more) so obviously this is the week I managed to finish another Kep, and finally got some sour cherries.

I've wanted to get my hands on sour cherries for a long time but have never seen them for sale. I found out by chance last year that a work colleague had a tree and they said they'd let me have some this year. Now I've wanted these because I swear I've seen recipe after recipe that calls for them over and above the jam I particularly wanted to make. On Monday when I was given just over a kilo of them it was already hot enough to take jam off any sort of agenda. Nor could I find a single other recipe that was any kind of use.

For now I've shoved them in a jar with vodka and a bit of sugar (unpitted) to hopefully use when it cools down. I've been promised some more so maybe jam will happen too.

Meanwhile I finished a Kep. I started this back in late may but wasn't totally happy with how it was going so lost interest a bit. I managed to finish it before the heat got out of hand though, and now it's done it looks better than I thought it would.

Every bit of fair isle I attempt is a learning curve, this one was a lesson to plan better - I'm happy with the red theme, but it's bitty - some contrast has worked better than others, and so have some of the motifs. I was using up left over bits of yarns so there and I think a few shades less would have been better as well as more rigid repetition of colours. Next time I'll know.

It's also been a really good lesson in how the different shades work together. There's a scarlet and an orange in there which I was really doubtful about, but the red especially looks brilliant against other red shades - glowing rather than garish. It's definitely encouragement to step out of my colour comfort zone and experiment with more swatches.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Measure for Measure at the RSC

It's been a very long week, the tickets that I booked last Friday to see Measure for Measure on Wednesday already feels like it happened months ago, not a matter of days. I'm glad I had booked them though, a dose of Shakespeare was as good a distraction as any from job woes.

I’m also feeling particularly grateful for the overall chance of grabbing rush tickets for £10 at the RSC. It’s meant that we've seen a lot more than we normally would this season, and at that price even looming unemployment doesn't make it feel like an extravagance.

Measure for Measure wasn't something we would have particularly planned to see if we'd been paying full price either (I certainly have mixed feelings about Shakespeare), so something else welcome about this season has been seeing how the company handles different roles. I already knew how good Sandy Grierson is, but It was interesting seeing Lucy Phelps and Joseph Arkley again so soon in different roles.

This Measure for Measure is set in a Vienna of about 1900 which possibly helps the audience make more sense of it than a contemporary (1604) one would. Or at least the idea of late Victorian piety and sexual repression make some sense of Angelo and Isabella.

And this is my problem with Shakespeare. Isabella doesn't really make sense to me. Faced with the choice between her brothers life or her virginity, especially if her live brother could marry the girl he's got pregnant, she makes the choice to sacrifice her brother remarkably easily. The more so because she doesn't seem at all worried about Mariana’s chastity when the idea of swapping the two women comes up.

Regardless of my own personal irritation with Shakespeare's general treatment of women, this really is a play that resonates in the #Metoo era. Isabella is right to say that her body isn't a bargaining chip, and even more right not to trust Angelo. Lucy Phelps is excellent in the role, radiating horrified disgust at both Angelo’s words, and his touch. Her equal horror towards the Dukes offer of marriage is masterly.

Sandy Grierson is a brilliant Angelo too - for a character who is such a despicable hypocrite it's no mean feat to elicited some sympathy from the audience. Joseph Arkley is a great Lucio too - a nice blend of charm and villainy who looks to be having the most fun on stage. David Ajao (Pompey, a pimp) and Graeme Brookes are also a treat. David Ajao particularly looks like an actor to watch out for.

Altogether it's been a really strong season so far in Stratford. As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Measure for Measure have all been excellent with some memorable performances and a company that feels like it's bringing out the best in everybody on stage.

Saturday, July 20, 2019


I started blogging here ten years ago towards the end of a year long hunt for a job after being made redundant twice within 6 months. It seems oddly neat to find myself in much the same position again. 

We had an indication of what to expect on Monday, and confirmation on Thursday that our shop is closing early November. In some ways the news has been a relief. It's felt like it's been on the cards since the results of the brexit referendum came in - swiftly followed by a warning that in an uncertain future not all jobs could be guaranteed. Since then we've seen costs rise and sales fall. Wine and a weak pound are not the best combination. 

I have no idea what I'm going to do next, but apart from the very real concern about how to pay the bills if I'm out of work for a longish time, I'm mostly feeling optimistic. I hadn't realised just how stressful work had got until I realised that the dominant emotion was relief that I wouldn't have to get through another Christmas there.

Last time this happened to me it felt flat out terrifying, and there are less opportunities now for a middle aged wine aficionado than there were then, but this still doesn't feel as bad as it might. Hopefully it's going to be an opportunity for more change. I'm more or less certain that I'll be able to make a dent in my tbr pile at least, and if it's put on hold my immediate summer plans of researching Vermouth more thoroughly so be it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mr Calder & Mr Behrens - Michael Gilbert

The Michael Gilbert titles reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series were so good that I'm keeping an eye out for more of his books. There are plenty of them around, but they're not particularly cheap for secondhand, or attractive (sorry House of Stratus, but your covers are not appealing) which is enough to remind me how tight my budget is.

All of which is probably a good thing because space is even tighter, and the amount of books I should read next is getting ridiculous. Turning up the occasional Gilbert will be a proper treat at this rate. One that I did find was ‘Mr Calder & Mr Behrens’, a collection of short stories that follow the careers of two secret service types.

The first story deals with an episode in Mr Behrens war history - it's a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, the last brings us up to possibly the beginning of the 1980’s (this was originally published in 1982) with the two men deciding to retire after one last job which also has a Hitler connection.

I'm not clear if these stories were written together as a collection, or gathered together over a number of years, but they're roughly chronological from the war time start, through Cold War paranoia about sleepers and spies, the dangers of slightly crazy military types determined to be a danger to the public, before tackling the IRA, would be gangsters, radical student politics, and neo nazis.

I had a slow start with this one, the Hitler assassination plot didn't give much room for Gilbert's lurking sense of humour, which is one of the things that make him such a good writer. A couple of episodes in and the book really warms up though.

Calder and Behrens are mild enough looking middle aged men, but they're both utterly ruthless in pursuing their ends, and make no bones about disposing of people. They're state sanctioned murderers. Mostly what they do is business, sometimes there's a personal edge to it.

The end result is a collection that never allowed me to be to complacent - there's the odd flash of dry humour used like a seasoning, episodes of starkly efficient violence used in much the same way, and overall a feeling that it might have worked a lot like this.

The thing I really like about Gilbert's books though is the sense of his personality that comes through his writing. His general attitudes hold up well against modern sensibilities which is a bonus but there's more to it than that. It's a general conviction that I’d be delighted to find myself sitting next to this man at dinner. I really don't understand why his books fell off the radar in the way that they have. He's far to good to be missed out on.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Seafarers, A Journey Among Birds - Stephen Rutt

I’m not sure now what I expected from ‘The Seafarers’, I was interested it in for the Shetland and Orkney chapters, slightly wary about the links it might draw between nature and mental health. Whatever I expected though, this book far exceeded it.

It starts with Stephen arriving in Orkney, 23, and escaping from London which has not been good for him. Seven months on North Ronaldsay as a volunteer at the bird observatory beckon. It's an obvious, or at least not an odd, choice for a young man with a teenage passion for birding, and an obsession with migratory birds and what they represent to him.

One of the things Rutt does particularly well is make a point without labouring it - he talks candidly enough about how bad London was for him, and to an extent the surprise that is. After all, with a good degree, a good job, no particular responsibilities, and living with friends, it should be the best of times, but it is not. From there any struggles with his mental health are addressed as necessary, but as a background theme. This book is about so much more than one mans personal journey.

The choice of birds he focuses on are interesting too - Storm Petrels, Skuas, Auks, Eiders, Terns, Gulls, Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, and Fulmars (there's also a chapter on vagrants). I read this straight after coming back from Shetland where with a bit of effort I could have seen Storm Petrels (a night time trip to Mousa broch is a long held ambition that I will get round to) where I saw more or less everything but the Manx Shearwaters (and the vagrants) as a matter of course and pretty much from the doorstep.

All of those birds are on endangered lists, and this year the general reduction in numbers (particularly of Terns, Eiders, and Arctic Skuas) of some of these species felt particularly noticeable. Having grown up on the coast these are all birds I've taken for granted, and in the case of both terns and great skuas, cursed (both favour attack as the best form of defence). The thought of their loss is almost incomprehensible, it's also terrifying.

Each chapter is a starting point to discuss a species, a place, the naturalists and birders associated with it, the impact of the Anthropocene. There is further exploration of the history and culture of remote island groups and how they use and live with the birds around them. A lot about how little we know about birds, especially migratory birds and how they function, which in turn means we can't really understand the impact we have on the wildlife around us. There's also some useful thinking on how we package and market wildlife.

Altogether it's a deeply thoughtful book that asks a number of important questions of its reader. Rutt shares his concerns and conclusions in a way that leaves room for debate - though I found I agreed with him on pretty much everything. All of which make it a book worth reading, but the joy of it goes beyond that.

It's in the championing of birds which are not perhaps widely loved. It's rare to read a defence of the Great Skua, or an appreciation of Razorbills. The whole thing is an encouragement to look at what's around us and to properly observe it.

It's an amazingly assured debut that absolutely nails the line between being accessible without feeling dumbed down, and for me one of the best bits of nature writing I've read. I can’t overstate my enthusiasm for this book, or recommend it highly enough.