Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Heading North

One of the pitfalls of working in retail is the effect it has on Christmas. Work is flat out till the last minute on Christmas Eve, so there’s very little home build up, then Christmas actually happens and I’m back at work before it’s really been taken in. I’m sitting here on the 29th thinking I’m ready for it now, and vaguely wondering where all the new stuff came from. It’s a shame because it was a particularly good Christmas this year and a bit more of it would have been nice.

Fortunately New Year is on the way and from six o’clock New Year’s eve I’m a free woman for 10 whole days. Friday morning I’m getting on a train for Scotland where I will be holed up (briefly) with my family and for slightly longer with my partner and a pile of books – all of which I’m really looking forward and hopefully at the end of it I’ll feel like I’ve had a proper festive season. The last few days have also lead me to make my first New Year’s resolution; I’m going to get some sort of home internet connection, four days without being able to get online, and another ten days to follow is not all bad but....

In the meantime I’ve been admiring the organisation of others who have managed to condense their years reading into wonderful summarised lists (I still have a couple of Christmas presents to wrap goddammit) and would struggle to summarise the books I got for Christmas. I will say that I haven’t read a bad book this year – almost entirely due to very self indulgent selection, but I don’t plan to change that any time soon. My orgonisation isn’t going to stretch any further than working out which of the paperbacks (gratefully received and pictured) to take away with me, there needs to be at least one very long one which I probably won’t get round to reading and three or four shorter more tempting ones that I will. The weather forecast is for very bloody cold so the long one stands a better chance of being read than normal – consequently I’m looking for a less ambitious choice (James Joyce and Cervantes will be staying behind).

The short list is currently Wilkie Collins ‘Armadale’ (long owned, never read), Trollope’s ‘The Way We Live Now’ (I never seem to get round to reading him, but really want to), ‘The Kalevala’ (on the shelf for more than a decade and front of my mind since it was on radio 4 on Monday – probably won’t be a laugh a minute, but on the other hand I do sometimes enjoy epic national poetry, sometimes...), Winifred Holtby’s ‘South Riding’ (guess what – I’ve had it for ages and not read it), or maybe Vere Hodgson’s ‘Few Eggs And No Oranges’. I will definitely be taking my new Barbara Pym, Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’, and Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Belinda’. No idea how much I’ll end up getting through, and if anyone has any suggestions for alternatives or a favourite longish book from that list – please let me know.

I hope you all have a really grand start to the New Year – I have a bottle of champagne, a bottle of malt, and a pile of books says I will.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Loitering With Intent

The magic of Muriel Spark is how honestly cold she is in print when it suits her, and it does suit her. She has no hesitation in making her heroines difficult, unsympathetic, and hard around the edges; Fleur Talbot heroine of ‘Loitering With Intent’ is no exception to this difficult mould. Fleur is a formidable sort of girl living on the fringes of post war bohemia writing her first novel. She’s a Catholic having an affair with a married man in a by the by sort of way. Although she’s not at all concerned when he heads off with a male poet in 1981 when this was first published that would still have been just a little bit shocking, partly because it happens without comment or judgement in a sort of plot dead end.

Fleur’s affairs although they have repercussions also happen without much comment or judgement, I think the inference is that it is for those without sin to cast the first stone; those of us in glass houses can lay off and mind our own business. It’s something Spark and Alice Ellis Thomas have in common, as is their Catholicism, as it’s an attitude I enjoy in both writers it makes me inclined to look out for more catholic women writers to test a half formed theory (but that’s a little detour).

Back to ‘Loitering With Intent’ – it’s a fascinating book which I really couldn’t put down (normally early working hours will make me stop reading but I couldn’t sleep until I finished this so the last day of work before Christmas was far harder than it should have been). Fleur is writing a book, and looking for a job whilst she does it. A job turns up with the Autobiographical Association which she takes only to discover that its members already exist in her novel. As the story unfolds it becomes more sinister, life and art (within art) merge closer and closer; Fleur who controls the art struggles to control life as her novel is appropriated to a point that makes it seemingly impossible to get back. What will happen? How will it resolve? This is what kept me reading long into the night, not least because Spark reveals the ending long before the end, what you have to read all the way through for is to find how she gets you there.

Part of the tension – and it really does get tense, almost frightening, is in seeing a woman who’s basically very self possessed, have control over her own creation taken away from her so easily, and so clearly against her will by a man who however charismatic and convincing he is to the other characters is clearly shown to us as a dangerous fraud by Fleur. Part of me was as angry as Fleur about these turns in events, and this is entirely due to Spark’s ability to draw the reader round in circles until it’s hard to tell what’s meant to be real and what isn’t. It’s a wonderfully sharp, clever but above all grippingly entertaining book. My biggest concern on finishing it was to find something as good to follow up with...Which I think I’ve done, but more of that another day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

To Bed With Grand Music

I should have mentioned that I was enjoying ‘The Devil’s Elixirs’ so much that it kept me from reading ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ the latest Marghanita Laski to be published by Persephone, and a book that I’ve been desperate to get stuck into since I bought it a couple of weeks ago. Well Sunday was the day that I finally got round to it and it wasn’t disappointing.

I read my way through most of Mary Wesley’s output some years back which in many ways covers the same sort of territory as ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ – nice girls taking advantage of the war to sleep with whoever they want. The difference is that Laski wrote this in 1946 when it perhaps wasn’t the done thing to admit that women had behaved in this way. By the time Wesley was writing our grandmothers misdemeanours where far easier to relate to.

Plot wise there isn’t much to it; a young married couple bid goodbye to each other as he’s sent off to Cairo and she stays behind to keep the home fires burning, however good intentions don’t last long and she’s soon off to London where she drifts from lover to lover trying to pack in as much fun as possible. Laski published the novel under a false name apparently because the tart-without-a-heart character Deborah Robertson was based on a friend and she didn’t want her to recognise herself. I think it’s fair to say that the book reads like one woman trying to make sense of another’s lifestyle – and not always succeeding. What fascinated me about ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ is the way it highlights how moral values have shifted – that and the double standard between how men and women are judged.

Deborah at only about 24 is still a very young woman by my reckoning – very young to be married with a child and settled in the country with a fairly limited social life. The book starts with her and her husband saying their goodbyes in bed. He flatly refuses to entertain the idea of remaining faithful to her, but promises his affairs will be meaningless. Frankly this is an attitude I’d find hard to condone in a husband even in a war and his first few letters home are full of tales of moonlight picnics in the desert and Cairo parties, so no wonder his wife at home feels pretty miffed.

Admittedly Deborah comes across as a basically shallow and selfish woman – she wants a good time and nice things and is entirely capable of justifying whatever means she employs to get them, but infidelity aside I don’t find her so very morally corrupt or hard to relate to. Her affairs are transient things based on a desire for companionship, sex, and a generally good time with a bit of glamour thrown in by way of dinner at the Savoy and a frivolous hat or two. Nothing the modern woman can’t sympathise with in that, and yet by the end Deborah is shown in a mercilessly harsh light as little better than a prostitute.

Although Laski doesn’t entirely excuse the men Deborah sleeps with, neither does she treat them as harshly, somehow their affairs are less offensive. Joe the American officer who talks Deborah into her first major affair is let off the hook by falling in love, something she despises him a little for. Deborah’s emotional manipulation of given situations to get her own way, or to appear in a better light are also described in a fairly critical light, but these are the times when I have most sympathy for her. They ring so true.

In the end it’s hard to like Deborah; I prefer Mary Wesley’s infinitely less judgemental approach to the same sort of women but that's not meant to diminish how much I loved this. ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ works as both a little bit of social history and as a cracking attempt to get under the skin of a scarlet woman from a broadly sympathetic (or at least not overtly hostile) view point. I’m hoping this book will be widely blogged about and discussed – I’m keen to see what others made of it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Devil’s Elixirs

I came across E.T.A Hoffmann for the first time almost exactly a year ago when I picked up ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ (courtesy of a book token – how I love getting those) it sounded suitably creepy and surreal for winter reading; and indeed it was. Like far too many people I’m very hazy on European writers, even the classics, I know they’re out there but I find them easy to avoid – and when it comes to the Russians downright depressing and easy to avoid.

Hoffmann I fell for, not least because when I started reading I realised the stories where familiar – they’ve been used for both Opera and Ballet and amongst many other (unread by me, and I’m not prepared to reveal the depth of my ignorance by listing them) writers, Edgar Allen Poe was deeply influenced by him. 'The Devil’s Elixirs' was written between 1814 – 1815 towards the end of a sadly short life and deals with lots of Hoffmann themes; the struggle of vice and virtue, fate, split personalities, obsession, and madness. Fortunately he has a sense of humour as well or it would all be a bit heavy going, and fortunately One world Classics have been good enough not only to bring this book back into print but to do it with a new translation (by Ronald Taylor) the first since 1824 and to let me have a copy to read. Thank you One World Classics.

It occurs to me that quite aside from not being able to read German I would have found it really hard to read this book in an untranslated form. Early 19th century German filtered through a 21st century mind makes the reading much more accessible. At least I think it does – it may be that Hoffman would still read like a Jane Austen or a Maria Edgeworth where it’s just a matter of adjusting my reading ear (eye?) a little and the language would let me in. I suspect however that it would be more like trying to read Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ or Charlotte Dacre’s ‘Zofloya the Moor’ – very hard for me to find a rhythm which makes me want to carry on.

As it is Hoffmann and Taylor between them have created an admirable tale which has made excellent pre Christmas reading. I wanted something seasonal – or at least which would put me in the right frame of mind for the season and I feel I hit the nail on the head when I picked up ‘The Devil’s Elixirs’. It’s the life of Medardus the monk, a man born to bear the sins of his father and grandfather before him. Despite promising himself to the church he is lead first into temptation and then into the world where he almost entirely gives himself over to evil doing (murder, rape, more murder, stolen identity, more murder, and a few other sins for good measure) before finally seeking to repent and find his way back to God.

The Devil’s Elixirs come from St Anthony’s cellar (left behind after the Saint vanquished the Devil and all his temptations, but carelessly un-destroyed so that they can lure others) Medardus is persuaded to drink some which is what initially unbalances him enough to start out on his murderous rampage. During the course of his wanderings it’s also made clear that Medardus is cursed to repeat the actions of his father and grandfather – will he ever find his way back to redemption?

What feels Christmassy about this book to me is that it’s always clear that Medardus could resist temptation; that the first steps in his downfall are taken through pride, weakness - his own bad choices. Once set on the wrong path it may be that fate takes over in a frankly alarming way, pursuing him fury like across Germany and Italy, but whenever there is a wrong choice to be made Medardus makes it – and always there is a chance for salvation if he will take responsibility for his actions. There is also a lot of self flagellation which is less Christmassy, but essentially it’s a very good thing to think hard about the decisions we make and the motives behind them, especially at this time of year (although really not so good to literally beat yourself up other them).

The plot is frankly complicated, but followable, with genuine suspense, tension and shocks – it’s a good read, partly because it does demand a certain amount of concentration. Medardus is believably fallible all the way along; it’s all too easy to identify with him even when he’s doing his worst. In short a perfect book to read when it’s cold, dark, and wild enough outside to make the existence of supernatural and malevolent forces that bit easier to believe in.

Finally - a picture of a lego stag - simply because it impressed me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I should be writing Christmas cards – time for this is getting very short, but instead I’ve spent the time flicking through ‘River Cottage Every Day’ and watching River Cottage Christmas which is giving me a serious case of River Cottage envy. Once upon a time I was sceptical about the River Cottage way; I’m not sure exactly when the conversion came about but somewhere along the line I bought into it completely, ‘River Cottage Every Day’ (with thanks to my sister for this) is simply the latest stage in what is fast developing into an obsession.

By some inexplicable quirk of fate I’m not living on a small holding anywhere idyllic enjoying the good life – a city centre flat means that most foraging expeditions are confined to Waitrose rather than Hedgerows, we don’t even have a decent farmers market in this city although there are several out in the county where the money is. In some ways I’m grateful for this because much as I believe in the nose to tail eating ethos offal doesn’t often appeal - for now I intend to carry on avoiding anything which reminds me to strongly of an episode of casualty or which demands I shave it before cooking.

That slight double standard aside I’m all for seasonal produce, understanding where my food comes from, and not wasting anything I buy so Hugh is definitely my epicurean crush of the moment but that in itself is not enough to make me take my sister to book shops and go That One Please until she gave in and got it for me. The cookbook collection has reached a critical mass (takes up to much shelf space) and can only be added to after careful thought and consideration, a book has to earn its place. ‘River Cottage Every Day’ brings my River Cottage total up to five handbooks and 4 full sized cookbooks; so why do I need this one as well?

One reason is a definite preference for books by cooks rather than chefs – Delia, Nigella, Hugh; they all work on a level I feel comfortable with and confident at, I trust these writers to help me produce results I’m proud of and want to share. I’ve acquired some lovely cookbooks over the years that I know I’m unlikely to use because they demand skills and equipment I don’t possess. The philosophy behind the book appeals too, which matters if you don’t want to feel like you’re on the receiving end of a lecture – as it is I find the tone infectiously enthusiastic - I am most definitely the converted and don’t mind being preached to. Finally and most importantly there are plenty of ideas I’ll use. I really like the lunch box section – there’s nothing I couldn’t or haven’t thought of before but the presentation makes it feel fresh; I can actually see myself moving on from the cheese sandwich...

I really do think this is an everyday sort of book and I’m desperately tempted to pack it for a long weekend stay in a house in the borders over new year (there’s an aga and I can’t wait to play on it) the only problem is it’s quite a hefty tome to drag all the way up on the train (am I alone in taking cookbooks on holiday? I like them for light reading and practical use, so actually they are space efficient...) we shall see. Finally I have to say that having just finished the cake I made on Sunday – that recipe is worth the price of the book alone. Chocolaty Heaven.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Birthday (to me)

Birthday excitement is all done and dusted and it’s been back to work as usual today – but it was fun whilst it lasted. I have a respectable pile of new books all of which I’m very excited by, made a successful cake (with the help of one of the new books) and had a resounding win at scrabble, I’ve acquired a sugar thermometer which gives dire warnings about being exposed to extreme temperature changes and have a new Barbour complete with divine waxy smell and wax that rubs off, so nobody in their right mind will let me sit in their car for the next month. Basically I’m feeling pretty happy and pleased with life, despite a hard day on the shop floor.

I spent most of the weekend cooking, drinking and gossiping so no actual reading but I feel quite evangelical about the chocolate cake I made – recipe from ‘River Cottage every day’. As the divine Hugh points out everybody needs a little black cake in their repertoire and this is his. I thought it was going to be almost identical to a Nigel Slater version, but with apologies to Mr Slater I think this cake is better, probably because there’s so much butter and chocolate that even Nigella might think twice...

Hugh Fearnley–Whittingstall’s Easy Rich Chocolate Cake

250g dark chocolate broken into chunks

250g unsalted butter

4 medium eggs separated

100g caster sugar

100g soft brown sugar

50g plain flour

50g ground almonds

Line the base of a 23cm springform tin with baking parchment

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a thick bottomed pan on a very low heat. Stir from time to time and cool slightly.

Pre heat the oven to 170°c / gas 3

Meanwhile mix the egg yolks and sugar together until thick and smooth, stir in the melted chocolate and butter and add the flour and nuts.

In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, add 1 spoon of egg to the chocolate mix and fold in, then add the rest of the egg white folding carefully with a large metal spoon trying to keep the mix as light and airy as possible.

Poor the mix into the tin and bake for 30 mins until only just set – the middle of the cake should have a very appealing wobbly fudgy texture – let it cool for 10 to 15 mins before release from the tin and then prepare to enjoy...

Friday, December 11, 2009

A grand day out with my mother

It’s my birthday at the end of the week when at least I won’t be as old as I feel in the morning, so as an earlyish celebration my mum and I went to London today. She had Very Important Shopping to do in the Silver Vaults (sadly not for me) so we actually spent most of our time down there – no hardship because it really is the most amazing place. Literally underground vaults filled with the most amazing collection of silver – each vault is a different shop and you can find anything and everything you can imagine being made from silver.

Highlights included what appeared to be a bath (probably a wine cooler?) made of silver, a large model elephant; actually a zoo worth of animals and generally a sense of having stumbled on a pirate treasure hoard. It’s another world down there and worth a look if you’re ever on chancery lane. Sadly it didn’t leave as much time for book shopping as I would have liked; I managed the big Waterstone’s on Piccadilly, Hatchards, and the Foyle’s in St Pancras without actually buying anything. Yet again I couldn’t seem to give my money away, which given the long list of books I was looking for and that it’s almost My Birthday really annoyed me (why the entire book trade is concentrating on Christmas and not bibliophile Sagittarians is something of a mystery I think).

All of which made me more grateful than ever for Persephone Books. Convenient for the train station and a guaranteed oasis from the rest of the world it made my day. Finally a purchase (Marghanita Laski’s ‘To Bed With Grand Music’, Mrs Rundell’s ‘A New System Of Domestic Cookery’ and Christine Longford’s ‘Making Conversation’), all newish titles, but, and this is key to my love of Persephone – they keep all their titles in print and even if availability in bookshops is sadly patchy Persephone themselves are always helpful, I discovered them 5 years ago and have gone back time and again to follow up new recommendations of older books and I’ve always been able to find them. After today I’m certainly in the mood to appreciate that this is both immensely satisfactory, and really quite rare.

I wonder how many of the growing number of publishers of ‘neglected classics’ will manage to match Persephone on this? I think not very many, certainly not many are as approachable, or as ready to talk to their customers – the shop/office combo really helps with this – and perhaps it’s one of the reasons that people become so evangelical about Persephone. It feels personal, not in a company policy demands we try and engage you in conversation even though we don’t much care way, more a we know what we’re talking about and can answer your questions because we’re passionate about it way. Genuine passion is infectious; it makes me care in return. I’m glad Persephone are thriving, they provide a quality benchmark of how to do these things right, and I'm very pleased with my present to myself as well - a happy birthday is pretty much in the bag.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thank Susan Hill

Pretending to Christmas shop on Sunday I found myself (and what a surprise this will be) in a bookshop looking for something for myself. What I wanted after reading some excellent reviews for it (here and here) was Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ from Virago press, frustratingly it was not to be had in town, and I’m not prepared to deal with postal deliveries in December; not after a 40 min wait in the cold at the sorting office on Saturday, and under no circumstances if it involves courier firms, so amazon is out until January. The post office people where at least working hard and trying to be helpful, but this is all another story – moving back to the point; I did see one exciting book hiding amongst all the seasonal crap/ celebrity biographies that we’re meant to want at this time of year.

The book in question was F.M Mayor’s ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ and I’m assuming it’s available in all good bookshops thanks to Susan Hill’s championship in both in ‘Howards End Is On The Landing’ and on Radio 4’s Open Book programme. I know a few people have already written about 'The Rector's Daughter' this year which is one of the reasons I’ve held off until now, but as she’s actually on the shelves waiting to become someone’s impulse purchase I’m going to have my say.

This really and truly is a neglected classic, criminally neglected considering the quality of the writing. The plot is basically the life of Mary Jocelyn; a good and dutiful daughter who works hard in her father’s parish and who almost finds fulfilment. Mayor does the disappointed, disappointing, woman like no other writer I’ve yet discovered. Mary is like so many of us; not especially attractive or brilliant or talented though she is loyal, dutiful and passionate. She lacks confidence and worldliness and tragically, because she deserves love, she fails to marry her man who is carried off by a most unsuitable beauty at the last moment.

If nothing seems to be very satisfactory for Mary – a thwarted love affair, a difficult relationship with her father, forced into unwelcome intimacy with her rival, and finally eviction from the home and community she loves when she loses her father, the really remarkable thing about this book is the way Mayor snatches some sort of victory for her heroine from these unpromising circumstances. Whatever else happens to her Mary at least gets to love with real passion, and to know for a moment she’s loved back. It would be easy to write this off as an empty thing – is it really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Mayor’s answer is yes.

There must have been many Mary’s in the mid twenties when this book was written; impoverished gentlewomen with few options, from desperately sheltered backgrounds which gave them no preparation for the world they found themselves in. There are still plenty of Mary’s now. Women who want a chance to love and be loved but end up living solitary lives warding off the pity of more successfully coupled up acquaintance.

That’s only half the story though, because there is also the father daughter relationship between Mary and Cannon Jocelyn. Once more on the surface it’s a deeply unsatisfactory relationship. Cannon Jocelyn is initially incapable of expressing affection for any of his children, he’s disappointed by the distance of his son’s and somewhat indifferent towards his surviving daughter; without malice or intention he destroys her confidence in her abilities and femininity and it’s heartbreaking – but as the book progresses it becomes clear that he does cared deeply for her however hard that is for him to express, and she does come to understand that. For me it’s this relationship in all it’s finally drawn and nuanced detail that makes the book remarkable. It’s so utterly true to life that I found it almost unbearably moving and all too recognizable.

F.M Mayor is a remarkable writer, I wish I could do more justice to her, but she’s far too complex and subtle for me to easily pin down. I won’t pretend that ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ is a cheerful or even comfortable read, but it’s very rewarding and deserves the widest possible audience. For anybody reading this who hasn’t yet sought it out, please, please do because whatever reaction you have to it, I can’t imagine it will be disappointment.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Slightly Foxed

I may previously have mentioned (several times) how much I love ‘Slightly Foxed’, but as my latest issue has just arrived I feel the time is ripe to mention it again. I put off subscribing to “The real readers quarterly” for a couple of years which is now a genuine regret as it’s bought such satisfaction through the letter box for the past two years. Tight finances were making me wonder how I would find next year’s subscription but happily the same post bought a generous birthday donation from my father which has now been ear marked for this very purpose (he may have mentioned something about intending the funds to go towards a new hoover, but I have priorities).

So dad, if you read this let me count the ways in which ‘Slightly Foxed’ deserves more support than the vacuum cleaner industry does. First impressions count and the name is a piece of genius and wit that promises to entertain me indefinitely, but just in case that’s not enough I would also like to mention it’s a delight to handle and fits neatly into my (admittedly oversized, but handy) pocket, and the cover illustration would be worth the subscription alone. This quarter features a Quentin Blake drawing which is making me smile even now as I look at it.

Still not convinced the money wouldn’t be better spent on eradicating dust bunnies from under the sofa? Well I’m not saying that it’s a job that doesn’t need doing but I expect I could manage the it with a broom and some sort of improvised face mask, and there is absolutely nothing under the sofa to inspire me whereas ‘Slightly Foxed’ is packed full of things I want to follow up. I’m feeling just a little bit smug about it this time as I’m already familiar with three of the authors mentioned and one of the contributors (I am a real reader, I think this makes it official); normally it’s all new to me. I’ve also found a couple of things to add to my wish list – James Lees-Milne’s entire output is beginning to sound like a necessity, and I’m definitely coveting the ‘Slightly Foxed’ printing of ‘Another Self’.

I’m going to the library to try and get hold of something by Eric Ambler after a very intriguing review, and will be dropping broad pre Christmas hints regarding Michael Burn’s autobiography ‘Turned Towards The Sun’. I could go on. Oh and okay, I will go on as far as to mention that there is now a book shop that I hope to make a pilgrimage to sometime in the New Year.

It occurs to me as I sit writing this in the manner of a slightly besotted school girl that one of the things which makes ‘Slightly Foxed’ so wonderful in my eyes is its relative uniqueness. I know of no other publication that combines this sort of quality of production and content (though it’s more than likely that there are dozens I haven’t heard of). These days I get the majority of my reading inspiration from other bloggers and from a really excellent online book group (Dove Grey Books) but I still don’t have an internet connection at home so my online time tends to be brief and hurried.

A quarterly journal is a great thing to have turn up; I can take my time over it and properly consider things I would often otherwise ignore simply because I’m pressed for time. It’s also reassuring to know that enough people share the same interest in reading over a broad spectrum of slightly obscure and often out of print books to make ‘Slightly Foxed’ a going concern. Even paperbacks, when new, are outside my budget at the moment (And why do I work exactly?) so the more tempting a review of a new release the more frustrating I find it, old books however are going to be either affordable or laughably out of range. Either option is preferable to just out of reach. The end result is that I’m more determined than ever to keep on blogging and looking for other readers with similar tastes, and similar circumstances – finding likeminded people will give me far more satisfaction than even a dust free floor would. So hopefully dad will forgive the slight misappropriation of funds and be pleased to know how much appreciated his present will be...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The House of Dolls

Barbara Comyns is a writer I have problems with. I found her first in Oxfam when I picked up a copy of ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ (I actually thought I was buying ‘The Bronte’s Went to Woolworths’ which I had also seen and then had to go back for). I found it a deeply moving book, and when I found ‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ a few weeks later I was really hooked. Hooked enough to order ‘Sisters by a River’ new from amazon – which really disappointed me, and since then I’ve had mixed feelings about Comyns.

At her best I find her dark, funny, deeply disturbing and very disarming, at other times I’m left wondering why I bothered. ‘Sisters by a River’ is rather like that it’s some of Comyns earliest writing (before she learned to spell, or found someone to spell for her) it has been published as it was written and I found it hard going to read, it’s also a very fragmented book – essentially stories from Comyns childhood that she later told her own children, she uses much the same material to far better effect in ‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’.

By this time I’d already acquired ‘The House Of Dolls’ and ‘The Juniper Tree’ which have since languished in various corners waiting for proper attention. I’m finding lunch a great opportunity to work through short but not entirely appealing books on my shelf (we all need a break from being polite to customers and reading seems to be the order of the day in the dining room. Perfect for me.) I’d been told that ‘The House Of Dolls’ was ok but not Comyns at her best and it’s an assessment I agree with. However I liked the sound of a book about middle aged prostitutes written by Comyns who has a way of delivering tragic and shocking material in a heartbreakingly deadpan manner.

In this respect ‘The House of Dolls’ doesn’t disappoint. It’s the story of six women – all without a man in their lives – and all trying to find ways to cope with growing up and growing old under one roof. The roof in a shabby part of Kensington belongs to Amy Doll, a young widow who lives in the basement with her daughter Hester. Widowhood has forced her to let rooms, and penury has forced her aging tenants into prostitution, some with rather more enthusiasm than others. I think if their’s a moral it’s that men give, and men take away, leaving women to pick up the pieces. There is also something of a theme about age, Hester who at 14 seems to be avoiding womanhood, Amy Doll who meets and marries a policeman (his appearance is the catalyst for the breakup of the brothel) initially inhabits a middle aged role of universal motherhood until she’s transformed back into a young bride, the other women in the house walk a thin line between middle age and old age.

Of the four whores upstairs only one is a truly a woman in search of independence, and she seems to find it – she earns enough on her back to buy herself another life elsewhere. Another left destitute by widowhood finds love with a dentist from Putney who never does learn of her profession. She too gets another chance for a happy ending. What’s left are Bertie and Evelyn, women who have long ago lost any grip on truth or reality, deep into middle age still trying hard to hold onto youth, oblivious to the fact that they are seen by everyone around them as old.

Comyns doesn’t over stress the unfairness of the double standards which apply to men and women’s sexual conduct, and doesn’t make any bones about how hideous (or unrepentant) Bertie and Evelyn are, but I think she makes the point nonetheless. Her touch is equally light and effective in exploring the perception of age, and really this book should work better but somehow I found it didn’t entirely come together; at her best Comyns holds nothing back, but in ‘The House Of Dolls’ I felt she could have gone further. That said it’s still a thought provoking and satisfying, if not always comfortable read that’s made me feel much more enthusiastic about the prospect of plenty more Comyns to read.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Oranges and Wine

Christmas is apparently coming and I’m preparing for it by candying orange slices. A week long process which involves lots of sugar and takes up a lot of space before it’s finished. It has occurred to me as I drain the oranges, simmer the syrup, and return the oranges (making the kitchen very sticky in the process) that writing Christmas cards would have been a better place to start. Oranges taste better though. As does wine, which is my day job, and this week has had more than its fair share of wine tastings. Wednesdays was (and will remain) the highlight thanks to D'Arenberg wines and some particularly luscious dessert wines which by no coincidence I think will be good with candied oranges.

It all means very little time for reading, so here’s the Orange recipe instead; they aren’t as much trouble as they sound at first and are really worth the effort anyway, especially as they cost a bomb to buy. I’ve seen several versions of candied oranges which take less time, but again the extra effort is worth it as these ones (from a recipe in Acton and Sandler’s ‘Preserved’) are by far the best I’ve tried, and even better every bit as good as the ones a tour guide friend used to bring back for me from Bruges. Just as well as- she’s changed jobs now and Birthday/Christmas wouldn’t be the same without them.

Candied Orange Peel:

10 navel Oranges

1.8 kilos Sugar

200g liquid glucose

Slice the oranges about ½ a cm thick, discarding the ends. Gently simmer the slices for ½ an hour in a large pan, drain and place the slices back in the pan with a kilo of sugar and enough water to cover them entirely. Bring to the boil and simmer for a further ½ hour.

Place a lid on the pan and leave for 24 hours

Remove all the oranges, add a further 200g of sugar to the syrup and simmer until the sugar has dissolved, return the oranges to the pan and leave for a further 24 hours.

Repeat this for the next 3 nights until all the sugar is used.

When the sugar is gone remove the oranges, add the glucose to the syrup, bring to simmering point and put the oranges back in for another 24 hours.

Finally drain the oranges, dispose of the syrup and lay the oranges out to dry on trays for 48 hours.

Store them in an airtight container with plenty of greaseproof paper between them until wanted, when they are excellent dipped in plain chocolate, or sugar.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I have a friend who is single mother to a now almost teenage son, and since it opened our chosen spot for hanging out was the local Borders – so we’ve been going there for around seven years I think. We chose it because her son liked it and could wonder around the children’s section with minimal supervision whilst we enjoyed coffee and gossip and a certain amount of humorous derision on her part regarding my book choices. Happy days. At one time we would go almost every weekend and almost always bought something. Since then the choice has declined and our buying waned with it. However plans for Sunday had already been made and they involved coffee, an unbiased and friendly discussion of everything our mutual friends had been up to… and the possibility of books – in short Borders.

The news that it was going into administration wasn’t a huge surprise. The signs had been there for a while, but that makes it no less depressing. We stuck to our original plans, but all three of us left the shop wishing we hadn’t gone. There is nothing edifying about a building full of people fighting over the scraps of a business whilst staff watch everything they’ve worked so hard on get torn apart. I’ve been in a similar position and still find the memory depressing; I sincerely hope the staff come out with decent payoffs because heaven knows they will deserve it by the time the doors finally close, and whatever situation Borders has got itself into, it’s in no way the fault of their generally excellent floor staff.

From the shop floor point of view it’s a frustrating irony that when a business goes down customers flock in, despite the fact that initial discounts are small – the 20% off most books at the weekend should still leave a profit margin – where were the customers when you needed them and running similarly generous discounts?

When it comes down to it Borders felt like it lost its way some time ago, and with it lost the interest of customers like me. There have been plenty of times I wanted to spend money, had money to spend, and couldn’t find anything to buy. I wish they had managed to get it right because although I think Waterstone’s is the better retailer I don’t like the fact that they have now become the only real player on the field/high street. It’s not healthy for anyone and neither is an over reliance on internet sources. Amazing as places like amazon are they can never replace the local Borders I remember in it’s hay day when it was defiantly a family destination; somewhere children where encouraged to engage with books and their own imaginations and somewhere that people like me could find both what I wanted, and things I never knew I wanted.

But the thing image that will now really stick with me is a line of half a dozen booksellers stuck at the tills working flat out and every one of them on the verge of tears as they deal with a public happy to get a bargain out of someone else’s personal disaster. A depressing way for anything to come to an end.