Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Less Than Angels – Barbara Pym

I loved this book and thought it would be so easy to write about – which in a way it has been– I’ve written literally thousands of words about it, deleted them, started again and so on. I’m not sure why it is but the best ones always seem to be the hardest to write about. Anyway here goes...

I wonder if in thirty years time I’ll be reading books from the 1990’s with as much enthusiasm as I currently read books written in the 1950’s. I can just about imagine Bridget Jones being reissued by Virago with an introduction explaining how it was a best seller in its day neglected ever since. I have mixed feelings about Ms Jones, and slightly less mixed but not very positive feelings about her imitators, and yet she may just age better than some of her more literary contemporaries, only time will tell and its part of the reason that the process by which a book becomes a ‘classic’ fascinates me.

Barbara Pym is a great example of this, she was popular in her day, and then not, rediscovered, almost forgotten again, and now is having her Virago moment (a well deserved moment I hasten to add). She never deserved to be neglected, but seeing as she was I wondered why now was considered the moment to reassess her. The answer in this case seems to be that the (Virago) stars aligned and we were lucky enough to get Pym back.

She has been described as the Jane Austen of the fifties and I think of all her books I’ve read ‘Less Than Angels’ is the one where that comparison makes most sense to me. It would be ‘Persuasion’ Jane (which is quoted) because Pym’s territory is that of the disappointed woman and she is mistress of it. So far ‘Less Than Angels’ is by far and away my favourite of her books. I had to stop myself from scribbling all over it with biro to mark the bits I particularly liked; I will be reading it again, and again after that I should think – I feel like one reading only scratched the surface of what might be in there.

This is a book of men and women – the women are imperfect but affectionately drawn, the men are imperfect and somewhat less affectionately drawn; they mostly seem to exist to live off of and be cared for by their women folk and none of them come out of it particularly well. I read through with mounting indignation at the way women are viewed and treated – Pym’s anger seemed to burn off the page – but I want to be sure it’s her anger and not mine. I think it’s her anger; the observations seem sharper and the humour drier this time - the introduction suggests that there’s a strongly autobiographical element which makes it interesting.

So many of her female characters seem compliant with their fate, accepting of it and determined to make the best out of not always promising material, ‘Less Than Angels’ is the first hint I’ve had that this might change (in my reading so far; I keep getting dark hints and promises from hardcore Pym fans of shocking things to come). I could easily imagine Catherine (the heroine here) saying enough’s enough. As it is she decides after being let down by one man to pursue another, not in a terribly predatory way, but certainly with quiet determination after deciding she’s not ready to become one of those ‘excellent women’ who turn to good works and the church for their solace. A thoroughly absorbing and rewarding read this one.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I’ll have one of Those please...

The Scottish one and I went for a bit of a road trip on Saturday – Shugborough Hall for him, and Ashbourne in Derbyshire because I kept going on about how much he’d like it, and where we had an eye wateringly expensive round of coffee and cake. It looked such a nice town too, but do they ever know how to separate you from your money if you but once sit down, and for something which seemed to cost it’s approximate worth in gold it was very ordinary cake.

The highlight of Shugborough for me – where they do a comparatively reasonably priced tea and cake of most acceptable quality – was a small Greek temple in the garden. I want one. Well to be specific I want a garden large enough to have one, and then a Temple in it. I spent a large portion of the afternoon outlining its many uses and possible amenities – perfect for afternoon tea, garden lunch, a writing desk where the Scottish one could work from on nice days, a place to throw a carpet and lots of fat silk tasselled cushions to recline on whilst eating Turkish delight and reading the Arabian nights. You could, I said, hang a hammock in it, entertain guests there (the Scottish one does at least have a garden, though perhaps not the desire to lounge on cushions in it, or make anybody eat Turkish delight in it.)

He does like classical architecture though, and is generally speaking fonder of a well proportioned column than the next man so he listened to me for really quite a long time before gently explaining that even if he was willing to work for tea and scones on the design side, not in itself a precedent he’s keen to set (and I should never have taught him to make scones – my leverage is gone), the cost would still be prohibitive. Very prohibitive – silence reigned for a bit until I misdirected us at a crucial junction which led to some fairly animated conversation. Fortunately we found Ashbourne without too much trouble in the end.

The place is thick with antique shops and as luck would have it we found a (large) Georgian column made of wood – he was very tempted but perhaps fortunately tea ruled out the purchase of large and costly window furniture no matter how attractive it’s Capitals – I don’t think it would have fitted in the car for a start. It did however reignite the Temple question – who would it be appropriate to dedicate it to, how the addition of a brazier would make it suitable for winter use, how nice it would be to read in...

The cost is still an insurmountable issue unless I win the lottery – but really and truly a room of one’s own is all very well and good – but who wouldn’t rather have a temple, and if you had one how much fun could you have in it. Now I’m back home sitting in the dark, thinking about work in the morning and listening to the washing machine the idea seems more attractive than ever – this is the thing about spring; it gives me ideas far above my station.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Joyce Dennys – Henrietta’s War

I’m very late to the party on this one – but better late than never. ‘Henrietta’s War’ was a charity shop find last year, and something I was particularly pleased to get my hands on. I’ve wanted it since it came out, but when I’m broke and choosing between a thin book and a thick book somehow the thick books win; more words per pence which is a ridiculous way to think but there you have it (I apply the same logic to biscuits which is probably why I should diet).

‘Henrietta’s War’ is quite a slim volume so I by passed it in favour of the rather plumper 'Mrs Tim of the Regiment' (also from Bloomsbury), wrongly assuming that they were much the same thing, and that both were essentially more of the provincial lady. It seems that despite reading plenty about ‘Henrietta’s War’ I didn’t actually pay much attention to what people were saying – something I’m slightly ashamed to admit, but again; better late than never.

Henrietta is a letter writer, a subtle but significant difference to being a diarist; comparisons to Delafield’s ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ led me astray but a few pages in and I was on the right track again. The letters addressed to Robert; a childhood friend, (with I think just the suggestion of old romance) detail Henrietta’s everyday life back on the home front. She doesn’t expect replies and the ‘letters’ are chatty, honest, and funny. I can see that they would have worked perfectly as a weekly serial, and think they work almost unusually well as a novel – Henrietta certainly compares very well to Mrs Miniver in this respect (this may be because of excellent editing; Henrietta is one of the rare occasions when I really want to know what the editor did and how much of the credit they deserve).

Henrietta herself was redeemed for me by showing her fear as well as humour. Confounded by forms and instructions, falling foul of blackout laws, paralysed into inaction when faced with a possible sea mine, and afraid of BANGS at times she’s seems almost unbelievably incapable, and yet... Henrietta conjures up an image of pre war housewifery when a middle class household, complete with two daily maids and a gardener, could be supported on a single wage albeit that of a Doctor. Her job is to run a household in a way that few of us could now imagine or aspire to (not in my circle anyway) but despite the anachronisms of her position she really does keep the readers sympathy which is a real tribute to Joyce Dennys. She makes me feel the fear of being bombed far more effectively than anything I’ve read about the blitz and without a single person being blown up.

It’s a further testament to Dennys’ skill that a collection of stock characters are brought to life so remarkably well. They really don’t feel like clichés at all and yet on examination the whole cast is there, if I could put my finger on precisely how she does it I could make a fortune (Or at least write a damn good book). I think it’s largely due to the affection between the characters – the sense of a husband and wife i proper accord and of peoples strengths and weaknesses held in equal affection.

I’m longing to say that if you read only one book about the war this year... but that won’t do because Bloomsbury are bringing out ‘Henrietta Sees It Through,’ so if you haven’t already read ‘Henrietta’s War’ then there are at least two books about the war you must read this year, or at least take the time to pick up and browse through properly. If the second instalment is as good as the first (and I’ve every reason to think it will be) it should be a real treat - the balance between funny, poignant, and evocative is both flawless and endearing.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In search of the perfect...

When I was a student (in the mid ‘90’s) pecan pie was a relatively new and sophisticated delicacy – well in Aberdeen at any rate. (Now I’ve said that I’m trying to recall the days before the current cupcake vogue began, and the days before my cookbook obsession began). I remember being very excited to find a pecan pie recipe in my newly acquired copy of Claire Macdonald’s ‘Seasonal Cooking’, and equally disappointed when it didn’t turn out as I hoped, and certainly nothing like the pie’s I’d tried. Not just a Pecan Pie, an M&S Pecan Pie – probably.

I think it was back then, and back in the kitchen of my student flat, that my recipe quest really began. It started as the hunt or the perfect cookbook; I imagined once that one book might have all the answers, but am fast reaching a point where I have one book for each recipe. I’ve started collecting them altogether to make the perfect book for me – a plan which would have worked better if I’d started writing in biro not ink, and hadn’t spilled things on it so it’s now illegible... I live and learn.

This weekend though I finally found the perfect (for me) pecan pie recipe. My mother left a whole pile of pecans with me that she no longer had a use for (seemingly it happens) and after all those years I thought as I had friends coming round that the time had come to have another go: pecan pie surely being retro enough to be cool again, so after a good old dig I lighted on ‘The Hummingbird Bakery cookbook’. For all I know it might not be the most authentic version in the world (well it wasn’t by the time I’d finished with it because I don’t keep corn syrup around the place for a start) but it looked great and tasted great and I’m sharing it the way I made it:


1 lot of shortcrust pastry, enough to satisfy a standard flan dish, chilled and ready to go.

200g of golden castor sugar

250ml of golden syrup (I made a guess based on how much was in the tin to avoid extra stickiness and that worked out fine for me...)

½ a teaspoon of salt

3 eggs

60g unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

100 -150g of roughly chopped and some whole pecans, recipe said 100 but I had lots so went over -and liked it.

• Roll out the pastry and blind bake it for a mere 10 mins or so at 180°c

• Meanwhile put the sugar, salt, and syrup into a pan and bring to a gentle boil then put to one side and allow to cool.

• Turn the oven down to 170°c

• Using a balloon whisk whip the eggs together until combined, when the syrup has cooled a little pour it slowly into the eggs whisking all the time to stop the eggs from scrambling. Add the vanilla extract and the butter. Keep stirring until the butter has melted. (A note: if you add the syrup to hot the eggs will scramble, if you add it to cool or to slow the syrup will set quite hard... whisk like mad and trust to luck)

• Fill the pie case with pecans and syrup and bake at 170°c/gas3 for 50 – 60 mins or until the pie is dark caramel colour and slightly crusty on top.

As ‘The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook’ is a bestseller it probably doesn’t need much more introduction, but just in case it’s passed anyone by I’ll sing its praises anyway. I like the kitschy style of American baking but find the quantities used in say ‘The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook’ somewhat daunting – (I find the quantities used for icing in any if these books twitch inducing and terrifying) they also measure in cups so it was only half way through my first batch of cupcakes that I realised American 24 is something like British 48.

Hummingbird uses UK friendly measurements, and when they say 12 cupcakes they mean 12 scant cupcakes. On balance that’s a good thing. It’s a good book with some lovely ideas and worth getting for the pecan pie alone...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wigs On The Green

My first brush with Nancy Mitford came about fifteen years ago on a visit to Chatsworth. I found an omnibus in the gift shop and as I had a nine hour train journey back to university to look forward to it seemed like just the thing to pass the time. My twenty year old self thought it was probably the most sparkling sophisticated thing she’d ever read. I think a reread is probably due – the omnibus included The Blessing, Love in a Cold Climate, Don’t Tell Alfred, and The Pursuit of Love and I think it’s probably fair to say that those four are the best that Mitford has to offer.

Still Mitford’s are big business as the steady stream of books by and about them prove, and this year sees the reissue of two more Nancy’s – ‘Wigs On The Green’ earlier this month from Penguin (along with very pretty new jackets for their other titles) and ‘Highland Fling’ in the summer from Capuchin. Outside of the four normal suspects the only other Nancy I’ve read is ‘Pigeon Post’ - about a year ago when I found a cheap second hand copy, so I’ve been very excited by these re-issues.

Right off it’s undoubtedly true that the earlier books lack something that makes the best ones so good. Taken on its own ‘Wigs On The Green’ is an occasionally funny period piece – not all the jokes have aged well, and it brings all the Mitford snobbishness firmly to the fore, there isn’t an awful lot for the reader to warm to. The thing is you can’t take it on its own – it’s a juicy bit of history with plenty to recommend itself to anyone interested in the Mitford’s, or anyone who wonders how fascism could ever have looked attractive. I’m quite interested in both so felt my money was well spent.

Wigs On The Green’ was responsible for a huge rift in family relations. Unity Mitford who is skewered good and proper (though with much love and affection) was furious, as was Diana for the less than respectful tone taken towards her husband and the cause of British fascism. (Nancy’s fascists are called the Union Jackshirts which I think is comedy genius.) Charlotte Mosley who writes the introduction suggests the reason that Nancy suppressed the book post war is because of the upset it had caused within the family, and following Unity’s attempted suicide there’s plenty of weight in that argument. However I think the pro fascist feelings expressed are altogether more to the point; it’s not the kind of book I imagine many authors would have wanted to own up to post war. I also think now is a great time to bring it back.

As an idealistic youth I leaned far further left than right and on the whole that’s the way that history has vindicated, to be exposed to a world where fascist hadn’t yet become the dirty word it is now is as shocking to me as it is fascinating. This is exactly what ‘Wigs On The Green’ does, as Mitford explained to her sisters in an attempt to patch things up all the nicest people in the books are fascist and the general attitude towards them is very pro. In place it really does make for uncomfortable reading yet she does make me begin to understand why fascism might have been attractive.

Attractive because it’s about the young and idealistic, a suggestion of romance, and for the upper classes of the day a return to an altogether more ordered and certain way of life. For Nancy who also flirted briefly with the politics clearly weren’t something to take to seriously – she laughs continuously at her Union Jackshirts in a way that suggests she finds such enthusiasm for a cause somewhat ridiculous, but in a way that also suggests that the very real threat they pose is underestimated.

For pure Mitford fans there is also a portrait of Peter Rodd (Nancy’s husband) in the form of the unprincipled Jasper Aspect. Apparently he was also part model for Evelyn Waugh’s Basil Seal, Jasper/Peter/Basil are cads of the first order, but not without charm. Nancy, not long married when she wrote this spends a good bit of time exploring love, marriage, and divorce. In short the writing is on the wall for all those with the gift of hindsight to read, and I am more excited than ever about ‘Highland Fling’.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Joy of Blogging

Some years back I did a stint reviewing books for a local magazine, it was one of those county lifestyle things and my job was to choose four or five definitely middle class books a month and say how marvellous they were in two hundred words or less. I say ‘job’ in the loosest possible sense of the word – payment was basically that I got to keep the books and I mention it at all because the whole experience reinforced some very bad reading habits.

Deadline was two months in advance, so when not engaged in more gainful employment I was glued to the bookseller and a phone trying to find a suitable selection of books that would still seem new by the time the damn magazine hit the shelves. On the plus side this was how I found Persephone and acquired a fair few gardening and cook books. On the negative reviewing fiction was really tough. Persephone aside many of the books I wanted to read where out of print (Virago), about lesbians (Virago), poetry (big literary crush on Ted Hughes), Harry Potter (enough said), or classics that really didn’t need any introduction. What ended up happening was me getting a book, reading about twenty pages and then losing interest before making something up at the last minute. I should probably add that the books about lesbians were very good but one way or another failed to fill the aga saga criteria the paper demanded.

When I started blogging I had a lot of time on my hands which gave me the chance to read more, and to find more books that interested me to the point I wanted to shout about them. I assumed it would make me think more about what I was reading – which it has, I hoped it would make me read more which it also has, but what I hadn’t really reckoned on was that it would make me a much more disciplined reader. I used to have several books on the go at once, which explains the (very) large number of half-read-but-never-finished books I now own. Since I started writing about the books I read I’ve pretty much stuck to one at a time which has turned out to be something of a personal revelation.

This time around I also feel more personal responsibility on the occasions when a publisher is kind enough to provide a book I’ve asked for, anything other than a prompt and thorough reading would be dishonest. This too is making me think a lot harder about what I’m reading and what the next book will be – in fact all day when I’m moving boxes the part of my mind not actively engaged in remembering not to drop bottles on my foot is generally considering what book will come next and why. Blogging might not have turned me into a better or a more organised person, but it has made me a better more organised reader and I do wonder what it’s done for other bloggers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Breeding Classics for Profit and Pleasure

I realise I’ve not talked much about an actual book recently – I have been reading but it’s been a combination of a book for a postal reading group which I think it might have been bad form to talk about it, and Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Belinda’ which I’ve been desperate to talk about, but have been slow in finishing. I’ve also been distracted by shopping and baking but might gloss over that for now.

Despite having had Castle Rackrent' on the shelf for years I only read it, and finally discovered Maria Edgeworth last autumn. She was something of a revelation to me – I find it can be hit or miss with me when it comes to reading eighteenth century classics for fun, and I have no other reason to read them. ‘Belinda’ reminds me why I gravitate towards the classics in the first place.

The story is roughly as follows Belinda Portman is an orphan in (I guess) her late teens, she’s been bought up by an aunt who has successfully disposed of six previous nieces in advantageous marriages and Belinda is to be her final triumph. She’s not quite penniless but she doesn’t really have independent means either. After much manoeuvring she’s sent off to stay with Lady Delacour in town, and this is when the action begins. Belinda soon realises that not all is well with Lady D (suspected cancer, raging opium addiction, unhappy marriage) or with Lord D (alcoholic, gambling problem, dodgy mistress) still she sets out to be a good friend and does what she can to improve the domestic situation. Meanwhile she falls in love with a young man who turns out not to be all he seems (grooming a young woman to be the ideal wife in secluded Twickenham), becomes engaged to another who also turns out to be less than perfect (just gambling this time). All this without even starting on the vindictive cross dressing Harriet Freke who is determined to ruin both Belinda and Lady D, or the interesting insights into attitudes about race, or even the meditations on the courses open to middle and upper class women in the eighteenth century.

If I have a problem with the book it’s that it took me two weeks to read – it demands a little bit of concentration; more than I can give it on tea breaks – but that’s hardly a bad thing. On the plus side there are a lot of things to chew over at leisure; early on Belinda decides not to follow the examples around her and she starts to assert her independence. A risky thing for a girl in her position; throughout the book she is a guest in her friends’ homes – a precarious situation at best. Interestingly when Lady Delacour makes her will she leaves jewellery to Belinda making it clear that if she marries she can wear it, but if she chooses not to it will furnish her with an independence.

Belinda’s aunt sends her to London with this advice
“But nothing to my mind can be more miserable than the situation of a poor girl, who after spending not only the interest, but the solid capital of her small fortune in dress, and frivolous extravagance, fails in her matrimonial expectations, (as many do merely from not beginning to speculate in time). She finds herself at five or six and thirty a burden to her friends, destitute of the means of rendering herself independent (for the girls I speak of never think of learning to play cards) de trop in society, yet obliged to hang on all her acquaintance who wish her in Heaven, because she is unqualified to make the expected return of civilities, having no home...fit for the reception of company of a certain rank.”
 It’s harsh advice for a young girl, but still has a ring of truth to it more than two hundred years later. Like it or not unmarried women still lack a certain status – although thank heaven and feminism we have a few more choices these days.

Fortunately Belinda’s fate is happier than the one above. I love this book for the combination of almost sensation novel levels of action and serious issues. I have one more Edgeworth on the shelves after which I will be trawling amazon in the hopes of unearthing something good. Meanwhile I'm very pleased that Oxford World Classics are keeping Edgeworth available for people like me to discover, and  reminding me that classics are classics for a reason.  

Monday, March 15, 2010


What with having to work for a living it’s been a while since I’ve had much success in tracking down a decent haul of second hand book treasure. It doesn’t help that most the second hand shops within walking distance are charity ones – I understand the policy of only taking nice new clean looking books but from my point of view it’s not making for the most interesting selection.

I did actually spend some time in an age concern shop on Saturday trying to work what the stunning number of Dan Brown’s on the shelf says about the city – undiscerning enough to buy the book (bad) or discerning enough to dispose of it forthwith (good). The other book that I find disconcertingly ubiquitous in charity shops is Elaine Dundy’s ‘The Old Man and Me’; last year it was Miles Franklin’s ‘My Brilliant Career’ (why when it’s a Virago book it’s never an unread Muriel Spark is one of life’s mysterious injustices), but really – why ‘The Old Man and Me’? Did everybody get it for Christmas having already bought a copy or what? It sometimes occurs to me to wonder what I might be doing now if I had given my career as much thought as I give things like this, possibly for example I would have had a career rather than jobs – but where would be the fun in that.

Today however has been a red letter day, thanks to all the travelling over the last few weeks I had a day off to take (bonus of a job over a career where I daresay days off are for wimps) and as the blond is on holiday we went off on a tour of the county’s booksellers. First stop was the town I went to school in. It acquired a Waitrose last week which is the only improvement it’s seen in the last twenty years, it’s sadly lost the very decent independent bookshop that once lived on a corner of the high street and now only has a couple of shelves in an age concern. With the lightening reflexes born of trying to stop wine bottles before they hit a stone floor I managed to grab the only interesting looking book in the place before the blond even noticed it. She says I reminded her of one of those frogs with the long sticky tongues when they’re catching flies. I got Sybille Bedford’s ‘Compass Error’ for £1 so am happy to rise above the allusion.

After that we moved on to a town I used to work in – it gave me a bit of an advantage because I know the book hotspots and she didn’t. Like the good friend I am I shamelessly took advantage of my knowledge to head straight for the best shelves and can report that it totally paid off. I managed to get a lovely copy of ‘Henrietta’s War’ by Joyce Dennys which I have wanted since Bloomsbury bought it out but have never felt I had the money for. Very pleased. I also found ‘The Camomile’ by Catherine Carswell, which sounds interesting but mostly I fell in love with the cover, and Sarah Scott’s ‘Millenium Hall’ which I’ve never heard of before, but which is apparently an important and visionary work about a utopian women’s commune written in 1762.

The blond didn’t buy any books and rightly treated me to the odd dark look until I introduced her to a purveyor of excellent sandwiches. Restored by food we called into a craft shop to find ourselves being harangued by a very racist man with a passion for cross stitch at which point it seemed like time to come home.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Thousand Things To Do

I’ve been reading lists – mostly The Guardians list of 1000 books you must read, and a glance at ‘A 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’. The Guardian list is marginally less annoying seeing as it has the good manners not to adopt the slightly sinister intimations of mortality that the 1001 things series implies, but still these lists annoy the hell out of me (which doesn’t stop me reading them).

A list of ten books to read before I might reasonably expect to shuffle off this mortal coil I could get behind, a hundred I would contemplate, but a thousand? I’m afraid not – realistically that’s twenty five or more years of prescribed reading at my current rate of progress (some of those books are long) and never mind all the books not on the list I want to read. Really though it’s the Must in the title that I object to. Who says I must? Reading some, many, or all of the listed books would probably make me better informed, broader minded, sleepy, and insufferably smug; I’m doubtful about how much of a bonus that would be.

The Guardian list is interesting (I feel I should confess that I found it in someone else’s blog, and now I can’t remember whose it was which is no end frustrating –if anyone can tell me please do). As far as these things go I think it’s a good list – this is based entirely on the percentage of books on it that I own/have read. I should also say that it’s only a fiction list – which is making me wonder should there be an accompanying list of 1000 nonfiction books which must be read, and just how much time do these people think we have?

Of course the list of 2000 books you must read before you give in and build a little hut out of them from within which you can shout abuse at any passing list makers doesn’t really have a ring to it, so which books do you cut to get back to 1000 books to read before it’s too late and the world ends because you couldn’t read fast enough? And what value does that give these lists? And what about the new books that come along whilst your reading through the first list that are so good they should be on the list? If a new list is written which books get knocked off?

Okay so I’m probably being a little bit literal minded about this but I do find these things mystifying as well as infuriating. Anyone who’s likely to peruse any or many of the excellent books listed is, in my opinion, more than capable of choosing their own reading. Looking at The Guardian I counted up 157 books that I owned; 94 of which I’ve read, 18 more started and abandoned, and 45 left waiting to be picked up. Apart from a slight feeling of inadequacy over having clearly read so little considered of worth over the years I’m wondering why out of all the Georgette Heyers to choose from ‘Regency Buck’ made the grade (‘The Infamous Army’ is on there too which makes more sense). I love a Georgette Heyer as much (probably more in most rooms) as the next person but of all of them it wouldn’t be ‘Regency Buck’ I recommended first or that I grabbed if I thought I was about to be marooned on a desert Island.

If I have a point it’s this; apart from being fun to compile what are these lists for, what do they say about us, and do we even seriously aspire to them? Oh and why do I get so worked up about these things – anyone with an answer to that will probably have the undying gratitude of the Scottish one. Something for me to think about whilst not reading James Joyce...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Everyday Drinking...

The Distilled Kingsley Amis

This is a book I’ve bought a few times but never for myself, and which I never dared read in case it didn’t make it’s intended destination, well thanks to the generosity of Bloomsbury I now have a copy of my own. Appropriately it arrived the day I returned from wine training and I can confirm that had I started reading a copy planned for anyone else I would indeed have kept it.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s very (very) funny. I admit I’m a wine geek and that perhaps a teetotaller would be less amused, but a teetotaller probably wouldn’t be choosing to read a book called ‘Everyday Drinking’, so I’ll say again – it’s a very funny book. It’s also informed and opinionated. Opinion I expected seeing as it started life as a series of columns and then as a number of books before being gathered together in its present format. Given that the articles were originally written between 1971 and 1984 it’s pretty impressive that the only thing that seems to have dated are the prices. The days of being able to buy a good claret for about £3 a bottle are long gone (god damn it I was born to late) I suspect wine’s of the quality Amis refers to would go for between £30 and £50 minimum these days.

I struggle with humour titles, and indeed ‘funny’ books generally – they are the ones most likely to go to the charity shop, not because I don’t enjoy them, but because often I find the joke only works once. What’s particularly pleasing about ‘Everyday Drinking’ (bearing in mind that it’s not sold as humorous) is that whilst it makes me want to do that really annoying thing of reading excerpts out loud because I think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read, it’s also genuinely, and seriously informative. Basically it’s re-readable which is always a bonus, equally there would be far worse places to begin forays into your booze based education, which I consider to be very high praise indeed.

As someone who’s spent the last decade drinking and tasting for profit, (I’m contractually obliged to taste, as opposed to drink, beers, wines, and spirits whenever required) as well as for pleasure, I’ve read a fair bit around the subject. I consider myself knowledgeable both about wine and the way people write about wine, though by no means an expert on either – so far I’ve approached the Amis book in bits, dipping in and out – that after all is the beauty of a collection of articles, but I will be going back with a notebook and working my way through in a more orderly fashion.

This unusual degree of organisation is because I have to deliver some training on wine related matters and I’m planning on shamelessly ripping off Amis – especially on the topic of Wine Resenter’s, as I have the distinct impression that’s what I’m going to be faced with. I’m also finding it just slightly ironic (as well as reassuring) that what my employers spent three days and a wedge of cash on teaching me is neatly encapsulated by Amis and thoughtfully wrapped into a single volume by Bloomsbury.

Further advantages of ‘Everyday Drinking’ over intensive training are a list of cocktail recipes and a lack of role play opportunities. Training won out by offering a genuine, live, Master of Wine which made up for the aforementioned role play, and who I dare say if pressed could have provided some decent cocktail suggestions. If you can’t find an MW though, I thoroughly recommend Amis instead.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The V&A

I find the V&A entrancing and infuriating in almost equal measure. I’ve been visiting it for the best part of twenty years yet its layout is still a total mystery to me. There was a whole run of rooms devoted to furniture that I saw in 1995 and have never found again, also a staircase with a scale model of (I think) Ranelagh Gardens at the top – it was a big model so I wonder what happened to it. I know I didn’t imagine these things because I was with twenty other History of Art students at the time – we had quite a lecture on the garden model.

It’s maddening but it’s also part of what makes the V&A so magical – rather like Hogwarts perhaps. The cast court is pretty amazing as well – some of the casts are just mind bogglingly huge, it was a real pleasure to be able to introduce the Scottish one to it; like discovering it for the first time all over again. At this point I have to say if you don’t know the V&A or haven’t bothered with the cast court then do check it out – it’s amazing (as I’m sure Rachel from Book Snob will confirm if she reads this), although to be fair the whole place is just the most amazing collection of stuff ever – truly one of the world’s great museums.

The reason for being at the V&A was for the ‘Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill’ exhibition (6th march to 4th July). I’ve wanted to visit actual Strawberry Hill ever since the same professor who guided us around the V&A lectured on it, my ambition should finally be realised this autumn when it re-opens. In preparation I mean to read ‘The Castle of Otranto’. I was going to read it before the exhibition only to discover that I’ve never acquired a copy, a situation now fixed (I’m pleased and a little impressed to report that the V&A bookshop stocks the Oxford World Classics edition of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ which happens to be the cheapest...)

I will admit that it’s the sort of book that I read, if not actually out of a sense of duty, at least partly as a box ticking exercise in an attempt to get as complete a picture as possible of whatever is currently interesting me. Having seen the exhibition I’m keener to read it for itself. Horace Walpole is a fascinating character; if I was having the fantasy dinner party he would certainly be on the guest list (I wonder what he would make of Vita Sackville-West who would also be at the table.) and he pops up in the most unexpected places; for example first encountered by me in Georgette Heyer, which isn’t so unexpected given her level of research, but still seems a little unlikely. I wonder also what Walpole would have made of that – his portrait, at least the Reynolds versions, show a shy looking man, which he seems to have been. On the other hand he loved to show off his ‘little gothic castle’ so maybe he would have enjoyed his guest appearances in historical romances, and he would have been delighted to know how much admired Strawberry Hill still is, and that it's still a source of inspiration to artists like the wonderful Claire Dalby (who's woodcut has pride of place on my wall).

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Grumpy Old Sailor

After being away for most the week (and wondering why I had no clean clothes for the rest of the week) my mood by Friday night was somewhat despondent. The Scottish one has been exceptionally busy recently as well; conflicting work patterns have stopped our paths crossing as much as they could. However he came up more than trumps by taking me out for dinner, and on Saturday morning after a very early visit from my mother (who wanted a signature for a shot gun licence – we’re trying not to argue with her) he said lets go to London.

London is an hour and a half and something over £50 pounds away by train, so it normally involves planning and budgeting for me, but as he was offering to cough for the fair I couldn’t say no, so off we went. The object of the visit was the Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A – which was excellent, and the V&A generally – I’ve not visited for years, and the Scottish one, quite unaccountably does not know it at all well. We loved the cast court, especially the life size cast of Trajan’s column in two bits, and he was hugely taken by some concrete (architect) stairs we walked up; all in all it was a grand day out topped off by a parcel from my dad when I got home.

What he’s sent me is a children’s book called ‘The Grumpy Old Sailor’ (which appealed to the Scottish one, who likes to sail) and appealed to me because it’s lavishly and beautifully illustrated. I wanted to write about it because it fits with the island reading I’ve done over the last few weeks, but I admit I have no idea how to write about a children’s book, partly because I have no idea what children enjoy but here goes anyway.

‘The Grumpy Old Sailor’ is written by Janice Armstrong and illustrated by Meilo So, it’s the first of four planned books from the duo who are both based in Shetland. It’s about four children and an old sailor (quite grumpy initially) and the relationship they build before he heads off on his final journey. The language is a mix of prose and poetry which sounds nice read aloud, but the story itself is quite poignant. I think books like this are meant to be read aloud to children, and looked at by them, rather than read by them. I’ve been drawn back to the book throughout the day to properly work out what’s happening – it’s still a bit mysterious, but if I wanted to explain death to a small child I think this would be a good place to start.

Despite how that sounds it’s not a depressing book, but it is affecting – which is no bad thing for children, the morals aren’t hammered home, and the pictures are wonderful. Strongly rooted in place I still think it’s a book that will travel well, and one I hope to give to quite a few families this year particularly because I really love the illustrations. There is a cat that keeps appearing that I had to go back and hunt out in every page and dozens of other details that I really enjoyed – so thank you dad, a great book for children from six to thirty six.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Home At Last

After a long three days being trained, and a longer three nights away I’m finally home. Training itself turned out to be pretty good, using trains turned out to be horrible – it took me an epic five hours to get home tonight. I’m not going to talk about trains as it will probably make me break down and cry at this point (I wonder what it’s like to be chauffer driven?). Nor am I going to talk about phones (much) mine broke down on the trip home so I am now back with my old reliable one. Wondering how well the conversation is going to go when I demand a replacement versus the repair O2 will try and fob me off with.

In short an annoying end to an otherwise productive day, meanwhile I’m half way through Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Belinda’, have come home to Kingsley Amis’ ‘Everyday Drinking’ which is both apt and amusing, and have suddenly realised that a postal book group book has not only not been posted on as it should have been, it’s not been finished either, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg (bookberg?). Really I don’t have time to work...