Monday, February 17, 2020

Skerries Mitts

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Hazelnut Meringue Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero at the RSC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Wintering: A Season with Geese - Stephen Rutt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Spirited - Signe Johansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 6, 2020

It Walks by Night - John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Of Cats and Elfins - Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 30, 2020

First finished knitted thing of the year

One of the things I wanted to do whilst I have a bit more time on my hands between jobs was knit more. It hasn’t really worked out so far - there seems like a lot to do regardless of work and I have nothing like the empty time I imagined. Still, I finally finished a largish hap that I started back in December.

I haven’t made any New Years resolutions as such, but I am determined to get through some of my yarn stash (it’s overflowed from most of a chest of draws into several large bags in odd corners) and read more books (totally out of control). This hap was a reasonable start. Knitted in Jamieson’s DK it took 12 25g balls. Typically I had 11 of the main colour, a moorit/shaela mix (moorit is a natural brown, shaela a grey - I love the dialect names for the colours of Shetland sheep) so ended up using a couple of balls of ‘Pine’ for the edge.

It isn’t a combination I would have chosen, but it’s what I had enough of and now it’s done I like it more than I thought I might. It’s putting me in mind of strips of pine forest against wintery Scottish hillsides. The moorit/shaela mix that looked lovely in the summer seemed muddy whilst I was was knitting against a winter landscape, but miraculously when washed and dressed has improved significantly again. The brown is soft and warm with the grey giving it an occasional silvery sheen (my own hair is actually much the same combination now I think about it).

The pattern is an adaptation of Donna Smith’s Brough shawl, just using the outer leaf motif. I’ve done this before with spindrift yarn, but using the DK made it effortlessly larger. It’s a lovely pattern to knit once you get into the rhythm of it (which doesn’t take long) and is pleasingly squishy and warm now it’s finished. The next thing I knit is going to be smaller and quicker, but I do love Donna’s designs and mean to knit more of them (one of the things I like about them is that pieces  like this are so easily adaptable, I like her gloves in the last Wool Week annual too, but am planning on making them fingerless mitts).

Monday, January 27, 2020

She Died A Lady - John Dickson Carr

I’m a bit behind on reading (and reviewing) after giving a biggish knitting project that had been hanging around since early December my full attention over the last few days. I’ve finally finished it (apart from the washing and dressing bit, but close enough) and am planning an early night with Sylvia Townsend Warner, possibly followed by some more John Dickson Carr to catch up with the books again.

I got the Polygon editions of ‘She Died a Lady’ and ‘Hag’s Nook’ for Christmas, but until now all I’d read by him was the earlier Polygon reprint of The Constant Suicides which I principally remember enjoying for its humour and an enjoyably twisty plot. Reading ‘She Died a Lady’ I recognised what I’m assuming is going to be a Dickson Carr hallmark - a larger than life in every way detective.

He’s also turned out to be just the author to suit my current mood. It’s not that these mysteries are especially good - there are clues as to who did it, but there are a couple of loose ends that don’t make much sense as well. Or that the characterisation is particularly good, because it’s not. What is good is the pleasingly gothic atmosphere that Dickson Carr conjures.

In ‘She Died A Lady’ the reality of war is building through the sultry summer of 1940. People are beginning to worry but this is before rationing really kicks in or life has changed much for most people. Retired doctor, Luke Croxley is having dinner with his friends the Wainright’s, the tension increased by the presence of Mrs Wainright’s young lover. Even so their apparent suicide halfway through the evening is unexpected.

The mystery is solved by Dr Croxley and eminent barrister Sir Henry Merrivale, who is confined to an electric wheelchair due to a broken toe for most of the book. Sir Henry is the most splendid gargoyle imaginable and is used to excellent comic effect. Dr Croxley is the emotional and moral ballast to the book - a decent man who finds himself in terrible situations and dilemmas so that in the end I cared far more about him than the victims. I’m fairly sure that that’s intended and it’s another thing that makes this book something a bit out of the ordinary.

I also had an odd sense of deja vu reading it - I’m almost sure I’ve watched a film version of this, though a quick search didn’t turn anything up. I know I haven’t read it before, to many details which would have been unforgettable were new to me, but I could almost see the opening scenes in black and white. If it hasn’t been filmed it ought to be - it would be an excellent alternative to mangling Agatha Christie in search of something new.

Friday, January 24, 2020

On 'Book Murdering'

There was a proper stramash on book twitter this week when Alex Christofi posted a picture of some of his books cut in half and was promptly dubbed a book murderer. He did this to make them more manageable to carry around and read, and whilst it's not something I'd do myself, they're his books and I feel like he should be able to do whatever he likes with them.

I seem to be in a minority on this, but then it's also my habit to dog ear my own books, write in them, possibly highlight them (I prefer to use pencil, but I'll use a pen if it's all I have) and so on. Some of my oldest paperbacks are held together with sticky tape and still half falling apart. If the book belongs to someone else I wouldn't do any of these things, but neither would I lend a book of my own to someone. I'll give them away if I'm done with them, but lending to often means not getting back and that really is annoying.

The thing about the book murderer story that most disturbs me is not what one man chooses to do with his cheap paperbacks, but how so many people feel a sense of personal injury over it. It's a fetishization of the book as an object that I don't think is particularly healthy, certainly not when it comes to mass produced paperbacks.

I don't feel like a custodian for my books, they're mine to do what I want with. I might want to pass some of them on, but there are plenty that I've read and re read to the point of disintegration. There are others that will be outdated beyond the point of usefulness. Regardless, it's my choice what I do with them.

I'm not especially taken with the idea that you somehow have a duty to pass on books to the less fortunate either. There's no reason to assume that someone to broke to buy their own books would have any particular interest in the same subjects that I do, much better to have proper access to libraries that might reasonably have a properly diverse range of books.

The really important thing is that people get the chance to read the books they want in the way that suits them best, and if that means cutting them in half, fine. It does make me wonder if it would be worth looking at publishing books in multi volumes again. I'd much rather have something like that than one of those overpriced badly bound hardbacks that sit in Beautiful or Gift Book sections.