Monday, November 30, 2009

Broderie Anglaise – Violet Trefusis

I have a fascination with Vita Sackville-West. I think she kept turning up in portraits and books when I was at an impressionable age and somehow I’ve never got over her. It’s not the Virginia Woolf connection that attracts me, and I can’t honestly say I find Vita much of a writer, not fiction at any rate – her gardening articles are something else entirely. I love Sissinghurst but upper class English lady gardeners are hardly unique. Vita’s legacy to me is the variety of her experience; I imagine she must have been a desperately selfish woman in many ways but also passionate, grand, disappointed and above all complicated - impossible to pigeon hole – she would definitely be at my fantasy dinner party.

Broderie Anglaise is a book I bought out of vague curiosity a few months back because of the Vita connection and because I had seen it mentioned a few times and it was at the front of my mind. I picked it up to read this week because it’s short, so perfect to get through in lunch breaks. I tried to read ‘Pirates at Play’ a few years ago and found it very unappealing so thought ‘Broderie Anglaise’ would be a similar chore, it was an unexpected surprise to enjoy it as much as I did.

It is apparently a fictionalised account of the aftermath of Violet and Vita’s affair – and a meeting between Violet and Virginia Woolf, all told from the point of view of her caricature of Virginia – Alexa Harrowby Quince, and very much a reply to ‘Orlando’ which is referenced. I still think that Violet Trefusis is a decidedly second rate writer but here at least she’s very compelling. It’s possibly because she’s getting to have her say – the last word on a very public affair, and a certain amount of revenge through some fairly malicious characterisations. ‘Broderie Anglaise’ was written in French (in 1935) and presumably only published in France, Victoria Glendinning (Vita’s biographer) who writes the introduction thinks it unlikely that either Vita or Virginia new the book, she also points out that Violet would be unlikely to want any of her (still living) victims to read the book, especially Vita’s mother Lady Sackville who gets a pasting.

The plot such as it is has centres around the young Lord Shorne (Vita) and the older but inexperienced Alexa’s (Virginia) affair overshadowed as it is by Shorne’s previous affair with his cousin Anne (Violet) and his morbid fear of his mother and the extraordinary domination she has over him. The initial pen portrait of Alexa is certainly recognisable as Virginia, although a Virginia stripped of any charm. It’s unkind but not entirely unsympathetic, Vita and her mother are treated with real cruelty and disdain; Lord Shorne is shown to be a coward and a liar, his mother a virtual demon, and as with anything to do with Vita, Knole (Otterways) features largely; in this case as another unhealthy obsession.

Bits of it work. The relationship between mother and son is unsettling, grotesque, and just feasible; the relationships between Alexa, Anne and Lord Shorne are imaginable but turning Vita into a man is an over simplification. However bitter Violet felt about the end of their relationship the fact remains that they were both married women, Vita with children. Whilst Lord Shorne has nothing to fear but his (admittedly terrifying) mother his behaviour towards Anne is cowardly and unforgivable, as is his behaviour towards Alexa. For the real Vita – unable as a woman to inherit as the fictional Shorne does, dependant on her mother and her writing for an income, the decision to return to the husband she undoubtedly had a loving if unorthodox relationship with (and of course her children, home and other responsibilities) is altogether less cowardly.

The very best part of the book though is the grand seduction scene – as with all half planned seductions, this one set to take place in the most theatrical of locations there is more than a hint of farce. In this case it’s the drunken progress through a series of state rooms to a moth ball infested four poster. Entirely English, very funny, not particularly salacious, and I suspect very cruel because it has an entirely authentic ring to it.

There are other passages I’ve marked too, an acid aside about the Italian spring which I’m inclined to see as a sniffy dismissal of ‘The Enchanted April’ is just one. Quite apart from any associations with actual personalities I consider this worth a read – just for the bedroom farce alone it’s worth the cover price, and there’s much more than that, but for anyone with a passing interest in any of the three women it concerns it’s absolutely worth tracking down. If nothing else Violet does a cracking job on demystifying Virginia Woolf and raises some interesting questions about gender and same sex relationships – mostly by not mentioning them.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Could somebody please explain why...?

There is something particularly nice about a week day off – I definitely see it as one of the plus points of working in retail. The illicit joys of day time TV aside it’s particularly satisfying to enjoy a not to early breakfast whilst watching the rest of the world go off to work and shopping is far nicer without the weekend crowds. On a weekday whichever side of the counter you’re on you’re far more likely to be treated as a person rather than a necessary evil. (I’m not a fan of the policy that demands purchase related conversation with every customer. It’s hard on the assistant to keep up the required level of enthusiasm and drains the joy out of genuinely spontaneous discussion.)

I really rather wanted the ‘Postcards from Penguin’ box which had resolutely failed to be available for purchase either on the internet, in my home town, or even the quite-cosmopolitan-in-comparison Nottingham, but yesterday they finally hit my local Waterstone’s. Working on the theory that even at full price 15p a postcard is terrific value and that they’ll make great birthday cards I threw caution and loose change to the winds and got a set. Now I’ve had a look the idea of letting any of them go seems ridiculous; so not so economic but still a very nice thing to have.

One postcard particularly grabbed my attention and that’s because I have a bit of a bee about the book in question. It’s Ludwig Bemelmans ‘Hotel Splendide’. I first heard of Bemelmans in a ‘Slightly Foxed’ article although I was already familiar with the title ‘Hotel Splendide’ because it’s on a penguin tea towel (and a mug and a pencil). I should probably add that I’m a fan of the Penguin merchandising, I have tea towels, lots of mugs, a beloved bag, and now of course postcards. I would also have deckchairs if they funds permitted, so this isn’t me being some sort of design snob. What I would like to know is why the book itself is out of print? It’s a good book – Ebury have printed a slightly abridged version under the title of ‘Hotel Bemelmans’ which I have, but it was an effort to find. It seems somehow wrong that I can send a postcard of a book which I consider a classic, but I can’t buy the book.

“But copies are cheap and plentiful on amazon” I hear you cry, “well yes they are” continues the conversation in my head, but... when you read a recommendation for a book, and money is perhaps short, and it’s not like a blog where it’s always possible to question the reviewer more closely, well sometimes you just want to pick the book up, consider it, flick through it and then decide to buy, or not. Or at least that’s how it is with me. I fully intend to get a copy of the Penguin version one day and sit down to compare both books to see what’s omitted by Ebury, but it’s not a project that feels pressing.

Further investigation of the postcards reveals an interesting mix of books and styles. Plenty classic stripy Penguins, some which I imagine we’re meant to laugh at, and some I want to investigate further. Putting aside the (not insignificant) consideration that this box set is more about a design legacy than literature I’m still wondering why some books last and others disappear, seemingly regardless of quality. Back to Bemelmans – this is the man who wrote the ‘Madeline’ book and also the man packed off to New York from his uncle’s hotel in the Tyrol at the age of 16 after he shot a waiter. His life in hotels as described here would be fascinating enough but he was also a gifted painter as well as writer and bon vivant. Anthony Bourdain (of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ and other bad boy cooking memoires) wrote the introduction, he too clearly loves the book. The thing about ‘Hotel Bemelmans’ for me was that the world of petty (and grand) scams and rigid hierarchy is still familier to anyone who’s worked in catering. The prohibition era grand hotels have gone, excess today is a little different, and fortunately child labour laws and human rights have improved working conditions, so just from a historical point of view this is worth a read....

Enough, I think it’s a terrific book which should be better known but unaccountably the world at large doesn’t bend to my every whim, however I still don’t see why it should be possible to buy ‘Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps’ and not ‘Hotel Splendide’ unless it’s because one’s a joke and the other isn’t. Bookselling is truly a strange game.

Finally I want to spare a thought for Borders (UK) staff today who will be facing a grim Christmas after yesterday’s announcement that the company has gone into administration.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Castle Rackrent

After ‘The Big House of Inver’ I’m in the mood for – well if not more of the same then at least something firmly rooted in place. Given that 'Castle Rackrent' is billed as the first regional novel in English on the back blurb it seemed like a good place to start. My copy has been sitting on various shelves for a good decade without being read, mostly because much as I like the sound of novels of this vintage I often find them hard work to get into. There are several exceptions to this and after actually reading Maria Edgeworth I think she’s one of them. I also have ‘The Absentee’ and will be trying that soon as well in the hope that I find it as immediately appealing as ‘Castle Rackrent’.

Clearly Somerville and Ross knew ‘Castle Rackrent’ well as much of it is re worked into the back story of ‘The Big House of Inver’ and some of the same devices are used for the rest of the plot – two very different books but both belonging to a tradition that must have started with ‘Castle Rackrent’. Basically a novella of barely 90 pages that tells the story of the Rackrent family from the point of view of an old family retainer starting with generous and drunken Sir Patrick, tight fisted and litigious Sir Murtagh, inveterate gambler and rake Sir Kit, and finally ill fated Sir Condy with his weakness for whiskey punch.

I really loved this book; the romp through family history is basically an excuse for recounting some of the juicer scandals from Irish society mid 18th century and for throwing in every stereotyped caricature of the Irish character that Edgeworth can find. Just the promise of those two things was enough to make me read on but there’s more, this is such a genuinely funny book. The jokes could probably have been written yesterday – they feel fresh enough and there’s something about the rhythm of the dialogue between various Rackrent’s and their wives which whilst it clearly comes of its time it could equally be spoken word for word today.

Being a short book probably helped my enjoyment as well. One of the things I was conscious of when reading ‘The Big House of Inver’ was that whilst the same kind of family narrative was entertaining it could drag on a bit; I spent a long time waiting for the action to unfold, not an issue in ‘Castle Rackrent’. It’s definitely a book I can see myself reading again and again, especially on wet afternoons, I have the feeling there’s a lot more to find in it, I also have a page of scribbled queries to follow up the first being about the life of a Lady Cathcart. I would say more but don’t want to throw in any spoilers. Honestly though this is a book which really repaid the couple of hours it took to read it and I’m wondering how to follow it up, at the moment I’m thinking to carry on with old and regional but will have to see what the book shelf casts up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

The weather has been horrible, everything is hotting up for Christmas and after a challenging day of being nice to people (no matter how trying they choose to be – this is just one of the many joys of retail) all I want to do is go to bed with a hot water bottle and a book which will give me the same feeling the hot water bottle does so I’ve gone for a revisit to 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day'. I first read it when Persephone released it as a classic, and fortunately before it came out on film.

I wish the film had had more in common with the book; it was enjoyable enough viewed as an entirely different story, but Miss Pettigrew is a little gem and really didn’t need dicking about with. Poor timid Miss Pettigrew who has spent a blameless and latterly miserable 40 years being respectable and doing her duty as befits the position of a gentlewoman. Forced to earn her living as a rather under qualified governess and facing unemployment at the beginning of the story her situation is parlous. In a time of recession it’s a shock to realise how much harsher the world was in 1938. Miss Pettigrew is hungry, homeless and entirely alone in the world. She knows a desperation that few of us will ever be unlucky enough to experience.

What unfolds is a single perfect unlikely fairytale day, the fairytale being Cinderella with perhaps just a hint of sleeping beauty. The Miss Pettigrew in Winifred Watson’s book has never been kissed, in the film there are hints of a lover lost in the war. I like the un-kissed elderly virgin better; it makes the promise of romance for her more poignant, and the story far more magical. This isn’t about second chances it’s about the wonder of finally getting any chance.

Lovely as the Cinderella story is it’s the detail and dialogue which lifts this book so far above the ordinary. Lots of books make me laugh, but few books make me laugh out loud as often as this one, and few books make me want to get others to read it as much. When I bought my copy I stood behind a woman buying three copies as presents she’d loved it so much. It’s all airy light and belts along at a tremendous pace just balancing on the line between fundamental truth and total nonsense and for anyone who has unaccountably managed to miss out on reading this already I’m going to leave you with this:

“I presume,’ said Miss Pettigrew scornfully, ‘you are speaking of the young girls you are so fond of. You are a very stupid man. You should remember your age. No. I will not flatter you. You are not a young man. You will undoubtedly get rheumatism. You go straight home to-night and to-morrow insist on pure woollen underwear. Whether I am rude or not, let me tell you this. They won’t get romantic over you whether you wear silk or wool. So you may just as well wear wool and be comfortable.’

Miss Pettigrew is undoubtedly correct in her assessments (even if pure wool underwear sounds a bit scratchy to my modern sensibilities I’m sure she’s right).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Big House of Inver

I’ve been aware of Somerville and Ross books for as long as I’ve liked Molly Keane – so a number of years now, but mostly because I have the impression that ‘Some Experiences of an Irish R.M’ would be a bit like James Herriot without the cows (I have no idea if this is true or not it is absolutely blind prejudice) I’ve never read it and generally it’s the only Somerville and Ross book I see for sale. Some research – ok a quick look on amazon- shows Peter Bowles on the cover which explains my thought process. Irish R M has Sunday night television all over it; a cover with a hunting scene looked far more appealing (sorry Peter).

‘The Big House of Inver’ hasn’t entirely dispelled my prejudices but I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be looking out for more of their work. It seems that the initial idea for the plot came from Ross after seeing an empty house somewhere on the southwest coast of Ireland in march 1912 and discovering something of its history, Somerville went on to write the book alone after Ross died (so I don’t know how typical of their work this is), publication was in 1925.

Typical or not it’s an interesting addition to my small collection of Irish ‘Big House’ novels – so far generally comprised of Molly Keane and Elizabeth Bowen. The Anglo Irish ascendancy is a subject I find fascinating, especially at the point they start to fall. English society looked down on Irish titles, and the Irish nobility generally seem to have been seen as irredeemably provincial in London (despite a determinedly English and expensive education) yet as English educated protestants however long a family had been established in Ireland it seems fair to say they would always be seen as other, a situation only exacerbated by a rigid class system. A visiting English Baronet in ‘The Big House of Inver’ frequently states that the country is unfit for white men perfectly expressing the lack of sympathy between English and Irish culture.

Most of the action takes place in 1912, and generally has the feel of an Edwardian society with one exception. Peggy the upwardly mobile agent’s daughter who forms the main love interest in the latter half of the story read like a post war girl to me, something that made a lot more sense when I checked the publication date after I finished reading.

The story is that of the Prendeville family and the first 70 or so pages rush through 150 years of history charting the rise of this particular branch of the gentry, and their fall bought about through pride and profligacy. A series of liaisons with peasant girls, including marriages, dilutes the blood line and blurs the boundaries between village and big house. When we arrive at 1912 the Prendeville family is all but ruined and living in ungracious poverty. All that’s left is held together by the eldest and illegitimate daughter of the house, all her hopes are centred on restoring her younger legitimate brother to what she perceives to be his rightful position.

The stage is set for tragedy of some sort, and it slowly unravels before us, complete with a suitably Irish element of the supernatural. There are morals aplenty, principally the idea of pride coming before a fall and the likelihood of the sins of the fathers being visited on the children. There is also the vexed question of the eldest daughter, Shibby’s legitimacy. Despite her sordid beginning she is shown time and again to be the true heir of her family’s heritage, but the lack of a name or formalised position holds her back.

This is an old fashioned sort of read, but the ending is unconventional enough to make it well worth the read, the humour is equally fresh, even the colloquialisms work. I first found this book in a relatively expensive 2nd hand emporium before getting it far more cheaply on amazon. If you find it cheaply enough it’s well worth a read, and possibly one day a reprint. I shall keep my fingers crossed for it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

And all I bought was Whisky

I had hoped and supposed that I would be talking about some exciting new acquisitions today after a visit to Nottingham – an often more exciting city than my own with has a whole host of retail opportunities I’m normally denied, including a fairly large Waterstones. Somehow I failed to buy a single book – I blame Christmas which seems to have a depressing effect on the choice of things to be had in shops, that and the refusal of a 25% off voucher I had for Waterstones to print. Even more disappointing than Waterstones (where I did at least see a tempting Raymond Chandler, a nyrb Sylvia Townsend Warner – Summer Will Show – and the Penguin ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ all of which I now wish I had) were the charity shops we found. They had nothing at all interesting which surprised me, with any luck it’s because we were looking in the wrong place and next time will be more auspicious.

Fortunately it was a very rewarding day for my partner who is still talking enthusiastically about the concrete in the new contemporary arts centre, and who managed to acquire some really exciting whiskies (a shared passion) all bought on my recommendation so I hope I get to try them. Oh and I got tiny edible gold stars for cake decorating – because who doesn’t need those?

Despite my relative lack of enthusiasm for even very sophisticated concrete (and I was quite enthusiastic about the lace effect stuff on the outside) I really enjoyed the arts centre. There was a Hockney exhibition that it was a pleasure to see outside of London, but far more exciting to me because I’ve seen nothing like them, where two small rooms off one of the major gallery spaces. A study room which actually had books in it, interesting books about mythology and poetry, as well as books about art; books which would help the reader reach a deeper understanding of the things around them, there was also a big communal table to sit at and no hushed library atmosphere. It’s such a good idea I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before.

Just off the study room is a small collections room. At the moment it’s dedicated to a cabinet of curiosities, currently it contains three cabinets filled with books, eyes, gin, passports, cabbages, balls and much, much, more. Truly a thing of wonder.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why I wanted to be a Domestic Goddess, and where it all went wrong...

At the best of times I’m prone to considering feminism and what I expect and get from life as a woman. Book Snob's recent post about these very subjects has set me of again, as has my polyester induced reading of ‘The Housewife’s Handbook’ – not I notice the householder’s handbook – like most manuals on domestic matters this book is aimed squarely at women.

Rachel’s comments fascinate me mostly because they closely reflect mine at a similar age, certainly closely enough to make me examine how and why they’ve developed. She’s also made me examine my life other the last year, as did some of the comments. I go through phases of domesticity, normally accompanied by some sort of book purchase – food, garden or flower arranging generally. They phase soon wears off although I’m vaguely interested in lots of the ‘domestic arts’ – anything which encourages or demands creativity really. If I feel myself getting down in mood I try and cook myself out of it, the combination of concentration on the task in hand, and the basic fact that if I follow the rules good results will follow is something I find tremendously soothing.

I suppose that most women feel that they are judged in some way on their housekeeping skills in my case mostly by my mother who is much more conscientious than I am and recently I have felt very answerable to her. My work situation being what it has I found myself in the really uncomfortable position of relying on my family for help again, I never considered myself as much of a career woman, or as being defined by my job, but until I lost it I didn’t realise how much financial independence meant to me. Job seeker is far below stay at home mum in the social scale. There are sound financial as well as emotional reasons to being a full time mum, as well as an implied choice.

Job seekers are short on choices so I feel we have to take control where we can find it, in my year of underemployment I baked and preserved, sewed, borrowed a garden, polished, started blogging – anything in fact to feel busy, useful and in control. Anything to have an answer for the question ‘What did you do today’. Apparently Nigella Lawson has a theory that people coming from a less secure or happy background are more likely to want to create domestic harmony in their adult lives. I tend to think she’s right, and I think it’s the general uncertainty of the times which makes a sanitised version of fifties domesticity so appealing today – it’s a game to play, but definitely a role that can be cast off at will for most of us.

I grew up with the idea that I could do or be anything with the result that at 35 I still haven’t made up my mind, but I do now know how important my independence is to me. However tiresome work can be, however much time is taken up by it, time which could be more enjoyably spent, it gives me the means to be myself. There were a lot of things I loved about having that time, but feeling that I had no control over what might happen next was not one of them. Of course one of the best things about being back at work is that I can buy more books...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How do you deal with polyester?

I’ve been an all natural fibres sort of a girl for as long as I’ve had a choice, and now for the first time since school I’m in a polyester uniform (ah the joys of a working life). I’m not sure if they still even exist but the thing I particularly remember was gym knickers. Nasty, nasty things that I burnt the moment I could. Now my bĂȘte noir is my work skirt – it should be a perfectly sensible length, and for about five minutes is, but the combination of tights and nylon means it tends to head north fairly quickly. Ironing seems to make it angry – any attempts at control become truly futile, so I’m on the hunt for household tips and hints.

The hunt encouraged me to dig out my copy of Rachel Simhon’s ‘the Housewife’s Handbook’. It was a Christmas present from my sister a couple of years ago and came with a fair amount of irony attached - housework not being entirely my forte. My hoover caught fire sometime in September and I haven’t yet replaced it. I’m pleading poverty on this one, but will admit I’m not sorry to have an excuse to ignore the dust slowly piling up on the floor. I can’t yet see my footprints in it so as far as I’m concerned all is well, though eventually I suppose I’ll have to do something about it.

Simhon’s book came out in time for festive sales in 2007 part of a wave of domestic goddessary which has continued to gather momentum (and mass of printed material) ever since. I thought last year’s crop of Christmas books was something to behold but I see yet more have appeared in time for this year. When these books are good they’re great, and I’m putting ‘The Housewife’s Handbook’ in the great category, but it’s easy to get to much of a good thing and I do wonder who’s buying a lot of these books, or who they’re being bought for. I was pleased with my Christmas present, but would be taking it a bit personally if I got a housework book every year.

Ms Simhon suggests fabric softner might help with my static problems and I’ll give it a go, although I think my polyester is probably proof against such a simple solution I’m definitely crediting it with more resources anyway. Leafing through the book though I have found plenty of other useful tips and hints I’ll probably forget or never use but all of which make me think I should read the book properly.

The introduction deals with the thorny feminist issue of a housewife’s social position and status, very reasonably asking why we despise the role so much. Homes to be welcoming do demand a certain amount of care and for most of us there’s nobody else to do it, equally homes are expensive, expensive to buy and furnish so it only makes sense to take care of them. I tell myself this but I’m still a bit slovenly about housework, although there’s always the chance I’ll grow up and get on with it someday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thus Was Adonis Murdered

I read all my Sarah Caudwell’s back to front, and have now just finished ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ – the first book she wrote. I don’t know if it’s because I became more used to her style as I went on but I found each book better than the last, ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ is easily my favourite. The plotting is ingenious, the characters fresh but fully formed, the humour light and sparkling – altogether a very satisfactory read and for a first novel really impressive.

I wonder if Caudwell had lived longer what she would have gone on to write? I feel the four Lincoln’s Inn books are possibly made even better for leaving the reader wanting more, but it’s also a crying shame that such an entertaining writer’s career was cut so tragically short. It also occurs to me that Caudwell is the sort of writer who might struggle to get into print today. I don’t imagine that her books where ever huge sellers, it seems more likely that they would have been steady performers that earned their keep on the shelves but didn’t make anyone rich. Though having said that I notice since last quarter’s ‘Slightly Foxed’ article that the second hand prices on Amazon have crept up and up, hopefully someone will notice and consider a proper reprint.

The things I love about Caudwell are the things that I fear would make her unlikely to find a voice today. Without being particularly high brow she comes across as unashamedly elitist. Culture and education, especially a classical education are key elements in all four books. Reference to the works of Shakespeare abound – but are not confined to the best known plays, art and architectural references also abound. A working knowledge of the classics isn’t really necessary as any major references are explained, but I suspect the more you know the more you appreciate.

The plot in ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ is a peach, revolving around some particularly obscure points of law and scholarship and the writing style – well it’s very stylish. Wordy is the best (though sadly inadequate) description I can find. Lovely, exquisite, polished, lengthy and unlikely prose with plenty of humour in the same vein. There’s a certain amount of worldliness – amazingly Caudwell manages to make a woman’s serial and predatory pursuit of beautiful and very young men seem like an endearing character trait rather than seedy, I don’t think she’s ever unseemly or particularly gratuitous. It’s always a relief to read a writer who knows when to shut the bedroom door.

I can’t rate Caudwell highly enough; she strikes the balance between intellectually satisfying and lightness of touch with particular panache and throws in the odd ingenious murder as well. One of the unsolved mysteries of the series regards the sex of Hilary Tamar, Oxford Don and sort of detective. Professor Tamar reminds me of any number of male academics – I think he’s definitely a he but there is always a tantalising element of doubt.

To end all I can say is this; if you’re not already a convert and you come across a Caudwell - read it, she’s the best discovery of the year for me and this is the year that I discovered F.M Mayor so I consider that a compliment.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A wine soaked ramble at the end of the week...

I listened to Open Book this week on radio 4 almost by accident, but was interested as the results were revealed for the neglected classic competition. The panel who should surely have known better expressed some surprise over the number of books 50 years or older that listeners had suggested as further neglected classics for consideration and rediscovery. Who amongst the reading public can failed to have noticed Virago, Persephone, Hesperus, Capuchin, Penguin Modern Classics, Vintage, Faber Finds, Pushkin Press and Bloomsbury Group – and this is hardly an exhaustive list of publishers opting to resurrect the neglected classic, or even the not very neglected at all classic (Capuchin when did Dracula go out of print that you really feel that it’s a book that needs to be kept alive?)

Now clearly I’m a fan of books from just such publishers, their wares fill the majority of my book shelf space, and I await new publications with a level of enthusiasm other women apparently reserve for shoes and handbags. From time to time I try and put my finger on what it is that appeals so much about these books compared to the majority of contemporary fiction that I by pass with such regularity. My ideas about this keep evolving, the first reason I’m not terribly proud of – essentially it’s that quality is guaranteed. If a book has been initially well received even if it’s 50 years or more ago and a publisher I like and respect are validating it then the chances are I’ll find it a rewarding read. It’s a lazy sort of approach but with pressure on both time and money I like the feeling of confidence that Persephone and others inspire.

The second reason is that when I look around the book market it seems to me that the decent middlebrow novel is a slightly endangered species. Once upon a time shop shelves where filled with a now almost undreamed of variety (this is my romantic and slightly wine soaked recollection at any event) of titles, writers like Alice Thomas Ellis, Sarah Caudwell, Barbara Comyns and Robertson Davies who all must have been solid if not spectacular performers, and now are only readily available from amazon market place. Lowest common denominator books – the sort of thing that used to be the speciality of airports and railways (incidentally East Midlands Airports tiny WH Smiths had the best choice of books I’ve seen almost anywhere recently) are easy to find and so are the relatively high brow prize winners and fellow shortlisters but the middle ground feels curiously sparse.

I think the increasing number of niche publishers suggest all too clearly the fact that the mainstream has become over reliant on blockbusters and high profile heavyweights. The policy of deep discounting on certain titles dismays me, the official price tag on the latest Jamie Oliver is laughable – who will ever pay full price for that book, and what does that make it worth? The latest Persephone however knows its value and so do I – a much more reassuring position to be in, so it comes as no surprise to me that people want these kinds of books.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Life is Sweet (In all good bookshops)

My first week day (flu free) day off work with no particular plans – oh the good intentions I woke up with. They mostly centred around a bottle of bleach, some dusting and generally neglected housework, possibly some light shopping and maybe a bit of Christmas planning. I’m sorry to say its well into the morning and I’m watching Gilmore Girls in my pyjamas and beginning to think there won’t be enough hours in the day.

The Christmas preparation revolves around a plan to make presents for people, which seemed logical last year when I came up with it and the next festive season was a long way off. At the time I was still mostly convalescent and had plenty of time on my hands, now half way through November and the reality is that time is short, and when I talk about making things I mean cooking them which doesn’t always lend itself to advance preparation. The mincemeat I attempted earlier in the autumn still looks fairly unappealing (one jar has definitely fermented despite my very careful following of instructions. Disappointing) and the spicy Christmas jam which was much more successful has almost gone.

It looks like most my friends will have to make do with books and wine again (which will probably be something of a relief) but as a half way measure a few of them might get Hope and Greenwood’s ‘Life is Sweet’. I’m vaguely aware of Hope and Greenwood sweets, I’ve seen them looking very appealing around the likes of Fortnum and Mason’s and Selfridges and the book looked very appealing on the shelf too. So appealing that I bought it and carried it home in triumph. Before I say anything else I think it’s definitely worth mentioning how nicely produced this book is. I like the polka dot covered dust jacket, I like the stripe and rose covered hard cover underneath. The pictures are good – nice retro styling and clear shots of the confectionary, and the layout for the recipe’s complete with handy hints – all very user friendly.

The writing style - deliberately jolly hockey sticks with a huge dollop of innuendo actually made me laugh. Guiltily because I thought for a moment that I should be a bit more ‘grown up’, then realised I was being silly and to go with it. The recipe’s are serious enough for the rest of it to be light hearted as it likes; the substance is there, I want a sugar thermometer more than ever but at least in the meantime there is practical advice about telling if something is hot enough. Storage instructions and use by guides are extremely helpful (certainly helping with excuses as to why homemade might not be the best option for Christmas which lets me off the hook) and so is the short but sweet list of stockists.

If for no better reason than that I finally have a recipe to make Rose and Violet creams I want this book to succeed this Christmas, and succeed generally- despite the amount of space devoted to fudge, toffee, caramels, hot chocolate, nougat and Turkish delight – all winter treats in my mind, I am anticipating next year’s picnic season for the chance to make my own mallows, and looking at some of the pictures feel they would make an excellent alternative to birthday cake.

A very very tempting book

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rowan jelly and a nice day out

Almost by accident Saturday found us in Uppingham and by accident I mean that when my partner suggested we stop for lunch in Melton Mowbray I insisted we carry on to Uppingham despite it being 20 miles out the way. In my defence I should point out that as small towns go Uppingham is well furnished with antique shops and a fine brace of second hand book shops within a door or two of each other. I like both, but my favourite as I have mentioned before is The Rutland Bookshop. I’m including pictures this time which I hope will go some way to showing just what an unlikely place this is. It’s tiny, so tiny that you’re almost afraid to move – particularly inhibiting this visit as I was wearing a big coat and carrying a large bag. I thought there would be a book avalanche at almost any moment.

Amazingly (well it amazes me anyway) I didn’t buy anything. I saw a lot of books I already had, browsed through a formidable pile of Angela Brazils and turned over any number of alluring titles. I slightly regret leaving behind an old orange and white penguin ‘Tarka the Otter’ but my rule at the moment is not to buy anything I don’t think I’ll read straight away and generally to lay of acquiring more of anything for myself until after I’ve Christmas shopped for others. However anyone with more money or less self control who finds themselves in the area should make a point of visiting The Rutland Bookshop. It feels like something straight out of Dickens and clearly deserves support.

The trip to Uppingham also yielded a Pheasant and the opportunity to try the Rowan Jelly I made a few weeks ago. Making it made me feel like a cross between a highland lady and a later day Mrs Beaton type. It’s the first time I’ve attempted Jelly rather than Jam so I wasn’t sure what the results would be like, especially given my makeshift jelly bag made from a piece of muslin and an embroidery hoop balanced between 2 chairs, but my mother very kindly provided me with a bucket of Rowan berries and earwigs diligently collected from her garden. I had expressly requested the berries – the bugs were a little something extra, so doubts about what might be lurking in the bottom of the bucket aside I got on with it and can now recommend making jelly to any and everybody. The Rowan is excellent with game, and I have it on good authority equally good on scones and toast. Whilst berries are still around the recipe is as follows:


1kg of Rowan berries

1kg of crab apples or the sharpest apples available

1 lemon

Around 1kg granulated sugar

Pick over the fruit removing stalks and leafy bits and rinse the berries.

Chop the apple roughly – no need to peel or core.

Place all the fruit in a pan with 1.2 litres of water, bring gently to a simmering point and continue until the fruit is soft and pulpy. Remove from heat.

Have ready a scalded jelly bag or other suitable contraption – turn the contents of the pan into it with a bowl underneath to collect the juice. Leave to drip over night, and don’t squeeze, squeezing causes cloudy jelly.

Start to sterilise half a dozen or so jam jars.

Measure the juice. Hopefully it will be about 1.2 litres. For every 600ml of juice allow 450g of sugar.

Put the juice and the juice of the lemon into a pan and bring slowly to the boil. Add the sugar just as it comes to the boil, stir until dissolved and then boil rapidly without stirring for 10 mins after which it’s time to start checking for setting point. I favour the cold plate and does it wrinkle method, but one day I’m getting a sugar thermometer.

When setting point is reached pot and seal as quickly as possible.

Keeps for a year

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Alice Thomas Ellis is never a simple writer, I’m pleased to have got most of her books now but sometimes feel they need to be approached with caution, especially after reading one. I chose ‘The Inn at the Edge of the World’ last week because it was billed as a sort of ghost story which seemed appropriate for Halloween, and because it’s a set on a remote Scottish Island – something I’m always intrigued by.

I’ve said it before, and will probably say it again but Alice Thomas Ellis ought to be properly in print and sadly at the moment she just isn’t. I always find her writing unsettling and this book was no exception. It’s a simple enough story; an unhappily married man has taken himself and his wife off to a remote island to run an Inn in the vain hope that the isolated setting will curb her excesses. Predictably his plans have foundered somewhat and he’s left with a failing business in a community that won’t accept him with a very angry wife for company. For Christmas he manages to gather five more equally unhappy, disillusioned and empty souls all with their own reasons for escaping the festive season.

What follows is a cleverly understated descent into a calamity which shattering as it is, somehow avoids being the tragedy I thought it would be; in the most unlikely way it almost seems like a happy ending. The Island is presented as particularly inhospitable; the locals are referred to but refuse to engage with visitors and incomers (or readers), it seems an unreal place mostly obscured by mists, rains, or snows – a grey landscape melting into a grey ocean. Anyone familiar with the north coast in winter will recognise this particularly bleak take on it, anyone who has been a stranger to a place will be familiar with the impression of life and activity happening just out of sight and behind doors closed to the interloper.

The supernatural element of the tale is partly ghostly, partly based on the myth of the Selkies – the seal people. Legend has it that the seal folk would come ashore on moonlight nights shed their skins and dance. Mortals who fell in love with a Selkie could keep them on shore by stealing their skins, but should a seal woman or man ever find that skin again they would be off back to the sea regardless of family left on land. ‘The Inn at the Edge of the World’ is something of a reworking of this myth – this is when the the Selkies reclaim their own; where sea meets land and all the edges are blurred. Those who are recalled to the ocean seem somewhat more – or less than human.

Anyone else would have thought this was enough to be going on with but not Alice Thomas Ellis. She also throws in a good chunk about Gordon of Khartoum which allows her to muse on the meaning of Christianity, and a running criticism of ‘The Tennant of Wildfell Hall’ which I would guess is a book she didn’t think much of. As the opinions expressed about Helen Huntingdon very much coincide with my own youthful reading of ‘The Tennant of Wildfell Hall’ I found this sort of running joke added the necessary comedy element to balance the book out.

Altogether a book I want to recommend – finely wrought, well balanced and provocative. Please give Alice Thomas Ellis a go if you haven’t yet tried her, she’s more than worth the effort.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Getting stuck in my ways

I dislike being lent books – nothing is more likely to make something seem unappealing than being told at length how much you’ll love it. I never seem to get round to reading these things which clearly fails to endear me to the lender, and on the rare occasion I borrow and love something I really don’t want to give it back – this also fails to endear me to the lender, but in an effort to expand my reading horizons I’m part of a postal reading group. (Although in the interests of full disclosure it’s only fair to admit that the group is made up of likeminded readers so whilst my tbr pile expands horizons stay much the same.)

I have two months to read each book, and somehow always leave it so I’m rushing through it in the last few days, but so far I’ve managed not to disgrace myself or let the side down to badly which is perhaps part of the reason the latest book to arrive perturbed me as much as it did. In short I did not like it, wasn’t attracted to it, and am thanking heaven it was a short quick read. It’s the first time since school days I’ve bothered to read a book I haven’t taken to, but I felt honour bound to get through it and it did serve to illustrate to me how decidedly I stay in a reading comfort zone.

I’m vaguely aware of a whole world of books which don’t really appeal to me without even including things I feel I’ve grown out of or moved on from. I know when my buying habits changed from fairly indiscriminate to deeply discriminatory and now I’m wondering exactly when my interests began to narrow down to the specific niches they occupy today? I suppose when I started to live alone (and like it). Altogether reading a book I didn’t like cover to cover has been an interesting experience, it’s not something I mean to make a habit of (unless the postal strike leaves me with no choice in the matter) but once in a way I suppose it’s good for my reading health.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Keeping it in the family

Or who do you think you are... I am lucky enough to have a written set of memoires for both my grandfathers, both of whom managed to pack a fair amount of living into their lives. It’s something I’m especially grateful for today as my mother’s father, the last remaining representative of his generation in my immediate family, finally succumbed to cancer this weekend so there will be no more opportunity to hear his stories first hand – and could he tell some crackers.

Both sets of memoires are highly edited and not always very accurate (mum’s dad especially was not the man to let the truth get in the way of a good story) but they both manage to capture something essential about both men and the times they lived in. I don’t know how common it is to write your own memoires these days, or to keep the kind of diary’s that give much insight into a life. I do know that letter writing seems to be a sadly dying art and somehow emails are not entirely the same thing. It seems likely in the future that we will leave enough of ourselves spread across the internet to give our descendents plenty to mull over, but there’s something about a set of thought out written down memoires that’s special.

I would particularly like – and keep buying them notebooks as a hint – for my parents to write their lives down. Mum learnt to fly as a girl and dad once saved a whale as well as managing to dodge being sent to Vietnam by the skin of his teeth. Dad’s dad was almost certainly a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales, and mum’s dad swore he robbed a bank. With a tank. He explains that it was the war, and that looking back its behaviour that could be seen as out of order, but at the time seemed normal. I have no idea at all if he really was involved in a bank robbery or not, but it’s entirely the sort of thing he might and would have done.

I can promise though that the opening anacdote of granddads book; “On a beautiful spring morning in 2002, at the age of seventy-nine, I found myself heading straight for a concrete wall at over 70mph in a Ferrari 500. The fifty year old grand prix car was completely out of control.” Is entirely true. He was always a bit of a handful.

It’s easy to look back on previous generations and see their lives as interesting, when its family the wider sweep of history is bought not only to life but into the home. My maternal grandmother was German, she arrived in the UK in 1948, young, unmarried and with a baby in tow, she never really told her story, although I can guess at bits of it, I do know she never spoke German again after she learnt English. How common where German war brides? I don’t even know that. All our families have these stories and they’re all worth recording, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for more family memoires all stored up and waiting for the lucky historian to stumble across one day.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Saplings (part 2)

Moving on...I’ve had ‘Saplings’ on the shelf for a few months (the very attractive Persephone Classics edition – I think I like these even more than the original grey jackets), and post flu was looking for some easy reading. What I really wanted was something like ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘A Little Princess’ (anyone who knows ‘Saplings’ can draw their own conclusions at this point) so I hoped Streatfeild’s style would fit the bill, which it did, I will also admit that before the end it brought tears to my eyes (a mix of sentiment and flu).

Briefly the book tells the story of the Wiltshire family, mainly the 4 children, and the effect the war including the loss of a beloved father has on them. It’s an admittedly flawed but generally brilliant book, and one I can’t help but think more parents should read. Streatfeild gets to the heart of how profoundly little things can undermine children, how important a sense of security is and how easy it is to disappear between the cracks in family and school life.

From the very beginning there are storm clouds on the horizon – both in terms of impending war and within the family dynamic. Lena who is all wife and mistress, mother very much as a second thought is clearly the weak link in the family, through no fault of her own she will never be able to provide the stability her children need from her – when she loses her husband she falls apart, but she’s not really a bad mother, just not naturally suited to the role, and ill prepared for it by a sheltered life of privilege. The Wiltshire children also suffer from their sheltered life, they are particularly ill prepared for their first experiences of life outside the charmed circle of their own home.

In the end only Kim the 3rd child and youngest boy seems likely to thrive, he alone has the resilience to keep on bouncing back and to understand how to get what he wants and needs. Tuesday the baby of the family develops a series of nervous ticks and tricks as the domestic landscape around her continuously changes without explanation.

The older children Laurel and Tony should on the face of it be more equipped to cope, but they both fail utterly. Streatfeild spends more time on Laurel the eldest and her problems are easier for me to understand. Lacking any particular talent or beauty in a family that has both she is consistently brushed aside with little to fall back on, she inherits a need to love and be loved from her mother, although her instincts are more familial she still needs to come first with someone, and although there are plenty of people who care there is no one who cares enough to give her the help or love she needs.

Tony will probably grow out of his problems, as will Tuesday, Kim is already coping by the end of the book, and Lena has found a new husband who will provide her with the care she has to have to survive, but Laurel at 16 is left with the cheering prospect of finishing school and embarking on a career to get away from a home no longer tolerable to her. All in all her future seems bleak to me, and that’s why this strikes me as the kind of book which needs to be widely read and discussed, I wonder how many people can look through their own extended families and not find parallels with the Wiltshire children nor wonder about the times when we might have made just a little bit more effort for someone. All this without preaching – a genuinely thought provoking, conscience pricking book. Well done again Persephone!