Saturday, July 31, 2010

Well this one sort of fits the bill

A week or two back Cornflower asked for pictures that summed up a book. It’s an idea that fascinated and stumped me in equal measure. Ask a question like that and my mind goes instantly blank which annoys me all the more because I have a degree in History of Art – theoretically my memory contains a vast picture library which I ought to be able to call on at a time like this to provide something dazzlingly appropriate.

In practice it doesn’t, or at least it does contain a vast picture library (even if many of the details are a little fuzzy now) many of which are so dazzlingly appropriate that they have already been used as cover art for the books I have in mind. Some are dazzlingly inappropriate and reflect books I expect no nice girl would admit reading but that’s what comes of a liberal arts education.

Still this is something I wanted to take part in because that degree contributed a lot towards my reading tastes and preferences. I have a love of British art only partly born out of a complete and humiliating lack of ability to learn another language; it’s a love that reaches its consummation with the Victorians (though isn’t by any means confined to them), specifically in problem paintings and conversation pieces. It’s a small step from sensational canvas to sensation novel and combining the two only heightens the appreciation of both for me.

So after due thought and consideration I’m presenting Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s ‘The Last Day In The Old Home’, it doesn’t in any way illustrate ‘The Law and The Lady’ which is the book that I was trying to match to a picture but does, I think, share a lot with the average Wilkie Collins novel in terms of subject and tone. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and that I don’t get done for infringing copyright rules... The original is in the Tate (British not Modern), it and its brethren are not very far from the Pre Raphaelite collection but they are somewhat less popular and therefore rather easier to get up close too and have a good look at.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Law and The Lady – Wilkie Collins

Or the best possible holiday reading. I’ve had a soft spot for Wilkie Collins for a long time now, indeed since finding a Victorian set (cheap green cloth covers and an aroma of mildew) lurking in our old house. I ran out of things to read and hit the Collins and I’ve read him on and off ever since. As an aside most the books went when the house did, but for some reason –and I’m assuming it’s because I didn’t put it back where it was meant to go – Dad still has ‘The Law and The Lady’, which also explains why it seemed slightly familiar.

It is now my firm intention to include Wilkie Collins in my packing any time I’m away for more than a few days. ‘The Law and The Lady’ has plot holes aplenty but I don’t care – it’s a ripping good read. It’s a good old fashioned story of girl meeting boy, marrying him then finding he was accused of poisoning his first wife. Boy abandons girl and she dedicates her life to proving his innocence. To do this she takes on her mother in law, the most startlingly un-politically correct insane cripple and his equally grotesque cohort, the law, and a woman chasing major. She travels the length and breadth not only of the country but the continent, refuses to listen to advice or reason, never gives up on her (frankly unworthy) husband and is in every way a pretty good heroine.

This is what I loved about Collins when I was in my teens and it’s what I love about him now. The hapless husband is a poor kind of a creature who Collins wastes very little time on, all his attention goes into Valeria – heroine and narrator, to Sara the Ill - fated first wife, and the supporting cast of improbable players that make the book such a page turner. It was a revelation then, and it still makes me wonder how his heroines went down in the 1870’s. Were they scandalous? Inspirational? Plausible?

I found them inspirational – far more fun than Dickens as well, no offence to Dickens fans, I like him too, but Collins adds an element of what I can only describe as high camp which I’ve never been able to resist. More importantly though he mixes it with remarkably strong women wronged by law and society and then brings them out triumphantly on top. It’s telling that the accused murderer in this book – the only character who can really know for sure he’s an innocent man, is yet content to accept an ambiguous verdict (and indeed behave like a fairly guilty man). It’s his wife who shows ingenuity, intelligence, bravery and determination, his wife who risks her reputation to save his, and his wife who succeeds where all the men have failed.

It’s a pacy and surprisingly fresh read. I can’t say modern because a contemporary writer wouldn’t get away with Miserrimus Dexter, and actually the only way I can think to put it is to say that if Dan Brown could write he’d write like this. I also got the feeling that this was the sort of things Wilkie dashed off to pay the bills with, which I also think has a direct relationship with how readable it feels today, ‘The Woman in White’, or ‘The Moonstone’ are better written but harder reading if you’re not really a fan of nineteenth century fiction... Now – off to amazon to make a comprehensive Collins list, and perhaps time to dust down ‘Armadale’ and give it another go.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Water Beetle – Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford fascinates me, (and a whole lot of other people obviously) at her best she (and her sisters) cast a spell of glamour, wit, and scandal which pretty much reduces me to a schoolgirl crush. At her worst she seems a ridiculous snob but I’m not sure that that doesn’t add to the glamour as well. In real life I don’t care for nicknames and find myself struggling to use them, I avoid wherever possible social circles as incestuously involved as Mitford’s clearly was, yet she makes it sound sophisticated and possibly even fun which is quite a gift. All of which is why I’ll pick up any Mitford thing that comes my way and at least give it a once over.

So it was with ‘The Water Beetle’ which I picked up for the princely sum of a £1.50 and which I thought would make a good stop gap whilst I wait for Capuchin’s reissue of ‘Highland Fling’ to appear. Getting ‘Highland Fling’ is proving to be a bit of a trial, amazon are currently sold out and neither local Waterstones has a copy (which is more especially annoying as the larger of the two branches in town is getting back to its bookselling routes by pitching about 15% of its floor space over to Paperchase. I like stationary but I prefer books, my stationary buying needs are well catered for in Leicester, my book buying needs aren’t and I fail to see how less book selling space is going to improve a bookshop. And it occurs to me that this is part the reason I called myself desperate reader. Hmmph.)

Slightly distracted from my point now but I’ll get back to it yet... so here I am patiently (ish) awaiting a means of purchasing a long anticipated book and looking for ways to while away the time, both factors which pushed me towards ‘The Water Beetle’ an assortment of Mitford essays which with one or two exceptions have aged remarkably badly. She gives a fascinating account of a visit to Russia in the 50’s and what Mitford fan could fail to be excited by ‘Reading for Pleasure’ an account of Nancy’s reading tastes, but the rest of the collection is Nancy as a woman of a her class and time – a Francophile to boot, I’m not so very pro French - the result of years in the wine trade rendered hideous by customers who don’t know what they’re talking about (no reason why they should) but who refuse to believe that I do. (People I’ve wasted the best years of my life on learning this stuff, I’m not just making it up, and if you persist in doubting me one day I’ll snap and use the ‘Oxford Companion to Wine’ in a way Jancis Robinson could hardly approve.)

Again – where was I? Ah yes, Nancy Mitford reading like a parody of Prince Philip – and this is the thing, I can’t warm to the woman in these pages, she put my back up more often than not, yet still I can’t resist her because even when she’s repellent she manages to be fascinating. I could only recommend ‘The Water Beetle’ to hard core enthusiasts but I would still recommend it. I plan to keep my copy with the various collections of Mitford letters I’ve amassed as a reminder of the other side of the women so carefully edited and presented in these anthologies, I rather think it’ll help me read more between the lines.

Finally has anyone read ‘Highland Fling’ yet – and if so what’s the verdict?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Off

And then back to the day job in the morning, working on Saturday is a pain sometimes not least because I’ve tried to pack in two days worth of household activity into the part of Sunday left after waking up late. I’ve shopped, made jam, baked a cake, cooked a chicken, sorted out laundry (ok so I gathered all the clean laundry from its drying perches and dumped it on my bed which has promptly disappeared, and I still have to actually sort it but at least I Made A Start) finished a book, and created more washing up than I could have believed possible. I still have to do another load of washing, catch up with the Scottish one, wash my hair, and excavate my bed. I will be exhausted by the time I go back to work tomorrow.

The cake baked is a chocolate Guinness cake, not my sister’s version but the original Nigella version from ‘Feast’. I wanted to be sure which was best, and although the Nigella one rises beautifully and is commendably light and fluffy, it lacks the dense black chocolaty richness that makes my clever little sister’s one so good and which gave it a real Guinnessy feel.

The jam is cherry and redcurrant, made with the cherries I picked on Thursday and so far I’m not very happy with it. Such a shame because the cherries were so lovely – plump, juicy, scarlet and burgundy coloured jewels and the jam seems a bit like wallpaper paste. This is my second attempt at cherry jam and I seem destined to fail with it.

The last lot I made a year ago with cherries from my mother’s tree, the recipe said sugar, so I used sugar – ordinary granulated sugar. I have not yet forgotten the two hours spent pitting cherries, or the mess it made, or the further hours spent trying to get a bubbling cauldron of blood red goo to set. It wouldn’t set and wouldn’t set and finally I had to heed the call of nature. Gone for not more than a minute after an eternity of waiting and the whole lot has caramelised into a thick toffee mess (If I can’t spread it on a croissant – which I can’t, it does make an acceptable addition to brownie mix) so I added a not to my recipe – PECTIN.

Today – cherries lovingly pitted (leaving my apron, kitchen table, and self looking like extras in a slasher film), redcurrants de stalked and all softening up nicely I add what I think is a carefully worked out weighed and measured quantity of pectin infused jam sugar. The moment it hits the pan it becomes clear there is far, far too much of it and that redcurrants are little pectin bombs which negate the use of special sugar. Bugger.

I’ll reserve judgement until It’s all cooled down and I’ve tried it, but so far I’ve never seen a stickier denser jammier jam and I’m not feeling very optimistic – although at least it’s not burned this time... The price of cherries being what they are I won’t be having another go until next year, and then only if I can get a free crop – hopefully third time will be a charm, but in the meantime I’m going to have cherries as nature intended – straight, unadorned and in no way fiddled with.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

It’s all a bit River Cottage round here at the moment

Which could possibly double as code for ‘I’m procrastinating over housework in any way I can, and yet trying to look busy at the same time’. This is no slur on the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall way, I don’t need much encouragement when it comes to procrastination and the lure of the outdoors in the summer is hard to resist (though in all honesty a lot of my foraging takes place in Waitrose which isn’t exactly the same as a small holding or allotment whichever way I look at it).

As hoped and hinted for, though to be fair he didn’t need much encouragement, Dad took us fishing. The weather was amazing, the fish (on this occasion) were biting, and although I spent most of my time sitting back and watching, I did get slapped around a bit by a mackerel which I think counts as taking an active role in proceedings. Dad’s current boat is best described as a fixer upper and it’s perhaps fortunate that we only discovered that the steering was totally knackered after we got back to dry land – but it adds a certain frisson to the memory and we didn’t come to any harm. My father who is a wise and talented man (who reads this) can count cooking amongst his many accomplishments, so almost before I’d managed to extract myself from the boat (low tide, high pier) he had the fish cooking.

Mackerel caught cleaned and cooked within the hour have to be one of the best things you can ever eat (Dads mantra is ‘It’s just a drop of olive oil some salt and pepper’ which is true as far as it goes, but he has that just cooked thing going on which suits sea food so well, and which takes a fair bit of practice to do properly). As today has been a day off I’ve spent a good chunk of the afternoon perusing ‘Sea Fishing’ (River Cottage handbook 6) and reliving last week’s excitements. I’ve written about this book before and am unashamedly a fan of the whole series but ‘Sea Fishing’, ‘Edible Seashore’ and ‘Mushrooms’ (soon to be followed by ‘Hedgerow’ which I am ridiculously excited about) are particularly special. I’m almost inexpressibly impressed by the combination of practical information including countryside lore - and law, recipes, and foraging/fishing tips, personality, and personal convictions.

We caught some young cod which were sadly too badly damaged to throw back (leaving behind some hungry and disgruntled gulls) and delicious as they were cooked with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper (there was a theme), from a conservation point of view they should be left well alone. ‘Sea Fishing’ is commendably clear on this point. I have a few natural history titles – descendents I think of ‘Ring of Bright Water’- where earnest men go out and experience the wilds; they swim in lakes, sleep under stars, admire great flocks of birds wheeling against the twilight sky and write about it in increasingly irritating lyrical prose. There has been a definite fashion for this sort of writing over the last few years - the other end of the spectrum is Collins excellent New Naturalist series, which I will admit is generally a little too specialist for me to read with unalloyed pleasure.

The middle ground - and I hope the future of popular natural history is River Cottage handbook territory, or at least that’s how I feel every time I read, buy, recommend, and give these books. I also think it’s worth mentioning that it’s Bloomsbury who publish these titles because credit where credits due.

The looking busy part of today’s (by now I have to say entirely successful) bid to avoid the hoover took place in the Scottish one’s garden, half hearted weeding was replaced by whole hearted cherry picking. Last year we got 4 cherries off the tree, today I managed to get about half a kilo before sending him up a step ladder to make it a kilo which I think you’ll agree is a far more useful quantity. Tantalisingly plenty of cherries remain just out of reach but I value the Scottish one above jam (or maybe a pie, or perhaps ice cream...) so wouldn’t let him get the long ladder out. At least the blackbirds will be pleased some are left, and I get to indulge my River Cottage fantasies whilst I decide what to do with the crop I have got.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whisky Galore – Compton Mackenzie

Starting off with some of my holiday reading and the intention of writing a list of things I want to commit to blog before I forget (or give in under the pressure of getting pictures from camera to blogger – why does this turn into such a struggle on such a regular basis?) I think I did pretty well reading wise whilst away – I worked my way through 3 and a ½ books which given all the other things we were doing – and serious attention given to whisky drinking is included in those activities, is a respectable number.

Since reading ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ ‘Whisky Galore’ jumped up to the top of the pile. It’s been one of my favourite films for a long time which was the reason that a previous attempt to read it got nowhere. Book and film have relatively little in common; the film (for those who have seen it and know what I’m talking about) takes one element of the story, condenses it and adds considerably more drama. It’s a great film. The book takes the scenic route starting with a love story and a recalcitrant father and of course a desperate shortage of whisky. The islands are dry and the islanders don’t like it. In the fullness of time the SS Cabinet Minister comes aground with a payload of whisky bound for America. The islanders spring into action to liberate the water of life, which once in their possession starts to solve all their problems. It’s a great book.

Mackenzie writes with knowledge and affection (just in case anyone doesn’t know the story the SS Politician went down off Eriskay in 1941 carrying amongst other things 28000 cases of whisky much of which was looted, this isn’t so much a fictionalised account of what happened as delight in a good story.) It made perfect reading for a rainy Sunday on an island, and is a book destined to be re read when I’m feeling nostalgic, homesick, or in need of something gently amusing generally. I loved the reminders of a gentler, slower pace of life, one which admits the possibilities of poetry and fairies (poetic Gaelic ones) and deep inbred cunning.

I think Mackenzie wanted these reminders too; I don’t doubt that he’s writing with an eye to change, by 1947 when ‘Whisky Galore’ was published it must have been clear even in the outlying Hebrides that elements of the culture and community would disintegrate under the pressure of modern life, but I don’t want to get carried away with the idea that this is all the book is about. To my mind it’s mostly a cracking good story which will tell you a lot about Island psychology and why some people thrive and others fail in this environment. I would love to quote at this point, but when I look through the pages for something suitable I find myself reading long past the point where quotation is reasonable so will just say again – it’s a terrific read.

I should also say that the edition pictured is the current Vintage one, the edition I read is a particularly ugly penguin (a cover which won’t be making its way into any postcard collections, and which I know that penguin have since improved on). It might not be a looker but my copy does have a handy Gaelic glossary and phonetics guide at the back, I’m assuming this is standard, but just in case it isn’t and just in case you feel you might want to read it having the glossary was a definite bonus – it’s given me this for example ‘A bhòbh bhòbh’ (a vov vov) – exclamation of despair, which I find myself using from time to time now I’m back at work (only in my head so far) somehow it perfectly sums up that post holiday feeling.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Back Home

My annual pilgrimage to Shetland is now over (and it didn’t last nearly long enough). Book’s have been read, books have been bought, lots of books have been added to wish lists and I’ve got to organise myself for work tomorrow. Good things about being back are the prospect of a first-class catch up with the blonde and others, and a proper catch up here and across the blogosphere. The rest of it feels a bit dismal (the city is not wearing its most enchanting face tonight). Still give me a few days and I’m sure it’ll feel like I was never away... (I started that sentence meaning to cheer myself up, but can’t help but feel it went a bit wrong somewhere along the line).

As my father pointed out (several times, especially after my last post) it didn’t rain all the time, or even most of the time, and we had a pretty amazing visit topped off by an Otter swimming just feet away from us as we were admiring the scenery last night. Shetland is dear to my heart so fair warning – there will be a good few pictures over the next few weeks!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

It‘s Raining

So far so holiday good, but today it’s raining fit to flood so I’ve left the Scottish one happily in possession of the sofa, a good book, a cup of tea, plenty of ginger nuts and good intentions regarding some drawing and gone in search of internet access (care of my little sister - who’s about a foot taller than me in her heeled shoe’s - but is definitely young enough to be ’little’). Family time is proving to be very satisfactory - I was bribed with fresh Lobster which will never fail to turn me into an obliging and grateful human being.

Sadly it’s proving a challenge to get pictures from A) camera to B) computer and even harder to C) blogger so any images today will be recycled which is a shame because amazing fresh seafood aside one of the holiday highlights has been m’little sisters chocolate Guinness cake which definitely deserves a proper illustration - as it is I’ve got her to write down how she made it ... It’s an adaptation of a Nigella recipe but I can’t imagine sisters version being beaten so it’s the one I’ll stick with.

Dark Damp Lovely Luscious Guinness Cake
250ml Guinness                 
250g unsalted butter
100g dark chocolate
200g caster sugar
200g soft brown sugar
142ml (small tub) sour cream
2 eggs
Tablespoon vanilla extract
275g plain flour
2 and a 1/2  spoons bicarbonate of soda

1 small tub of  double cream
1 small tub of crème fraiche

Large spring form tin lined and primed, oven set to gas 4 /180 c
Put the Guinness and butter in a saucepan, heat gently until the butter is melted. Add the chocolate broken into pieces allow to melt and stir all together.
Add the sugars to the mix.
Beat together the sour cream eggs and vanilla, add to the Guinness batter, fold in the flour and bicarb, poor into the tin and bake for 45 mins to an hour.

When it’s cooled completely whip the cream for the topping, and fold in the crème fraiche - the overall effect is very guinnessey, and we want to see what sort of cupcakes this mix makes. Sisters use of crème fraiche in the topping cuts the sweetness of the cake with just a hint of the memory of the bitterness of a good pint (she’s a clever girl) I should also say that these quantities make a cake big enough to feed a small army, but it does go down remarkably fast.