Sunday, October 31, 2010


One good thing about living in a flat is the absence of small children demanding money and sweets with menaces - Halloween is long past being my favourite night of the year, but the clocks going back last night has been something of a bonus. This week has been exhausting and seems to have lasted for ever with more than its fair share of ups and downs. It probably hasn’t helped that we’ve sold approximately 12 tonnes of wine in the last 10 days (that’s a bit by any standards when you’re only dealing retail) and I don’t think I’ve ever been so dirty or tired this long before Christmas.

The end result was me sleeping like the dead for 12 hours last night and being extremely grateful for an extra time to catch up in today. I’ve washed things, tidied things, gone to town and dealt with things, and finished ‘Barchester Towers’ (it also helped being asked out for an early dinner or I’d still be looking at washing up instead of Downton Abbey and wondering what I might read before yet more sleep).

I occasionally mean to theme my reading but never seem to manage it however today I’ve pulled ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’ off the shelf. After ‘Barchester Towers’ I want something quite different and I’m not quite ready for another book that will absorb me as completely as that one did (the rest of the series are on their way to me – I have a parcel to pick up tomorrow which should either be amazon riches or a new shower hose which my father thinks I might be in want of). Short stories are perfect for times like this and anthologies don’t go amiss when it’s hard to settle on something specific.

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’ is a collection I can’t help but get excited over. I’ve had it a couple of years and wrote about it here last year. I think I’ll be reading the Ruth Rendell or A.S Byatt contributions tonight, but have just looked up Charlotte Riddell who sounds quite intriguing so it’s a contender. Either way it’s time for bed and scaring myself just enough to really enjoy the twin benefits of duvets and hot water bottles, if I start anything that promises to be too daunting for night time consumption I can save it for a daylight perusal on the bus - just in case that parcel does turn out to be plumbing supplies and not the handful of Trollope’s I’m hoping for...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Let’s Kill Uncle – Rohan O’Grady

I love the title of this book so much that even without the Bloomsbury Group endorsement I would probably have felt the need to buy it had I come across it unawares, which for once in a way I might have done as it’s the only one of this summer’s set of Bloomsbury Group titles I’ve seen for sale on the high street. As it was it headed up an amazon order, which given that it’s also the only Bloomsbury Group title so far which was a totally unknown quantity to me was almost a leap of faith on my part (I like to know exactly what I’m buying so the internet is only for things I’m absolutely sure about which probably makes me just as weird as the customer I spent much of the afternoon complaining about...)

Now I’ve read the book I love the title even more – it sums up the plot and characters entirely; a little dark, somewhat mysterious, funny, disarming, and deceptively simple – or deceptively complicated (I’m still not sure which). This is a book that defies categorisation and laughs at genre, the main protagonists are two ten year old children and I would have loved it when I was in about that age, but would I have loved it more than I did now? Probably not because I think I would have missed too much, but I must find a young adult to try the book out on...

So we have these two children – a boy and a girl sent for the summer on a remote and beautiful Canadian island – but it’s a cursed community, its youth sacrificed on the battle fields of Europe and never replaced, which makes the islanders totally unprepared for youngsters like these who are more a destructive force of nature than anything else. (So pretty typical children really.) Slowly things settle down and then they get strange again when young Barnaby Gaunt’s uncle turns up. Uncle isn’t a very nice man and he has designs on Barnaby’s life (there’s quite a fortune at stake). For Christie (a very sensible young woman of highland extraction) the answer is clear – they have to kill uncle first, but how easy will that be?

Rohan O’Grady is a pen name for June Skinner who started writing novels in her 30’s whilst she bought up her children and kept house somewhere in West Vancouver. She must have been writing for her children, but she was clearly writing just as much for herself and the result is irresistible. There are some more novels out there and I’m tempted to track them down (though it’s almost certainly going to have to wait until the New Year now – and how much does being poor suck?) There’s something really unique about ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’ though if it were to remind me of anything or anyone it would be Shirley Jackson. However ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’ is a warmer more human book than anything I’ve read by Jackson. The landscape comes alive, and so does the situation – two children planning the perfect murder because they’re frightened for their own lives – two children who are aware of all the repercussions of their actions, and two children who have no-one to turn to despite being surrounded by well wishers.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough or really say how pleased I am it’s crossed my path. I really hope that the Bloomsbury group project continues and that they keep unearthing treasures like this one.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Well at least one of us had a relaxing night

I’ve had visitors this week (and work) with the result that by Wednesday night I’m utterly exhausted and haven’t read anything. The visitors have (mostly) been great, and consisted of family (mine), dogs (belonging to family), friends, and small children of friends. See I bet you’re feeling tired just thinking about it...

The (mostly) refers to one of the dogs – pictured- Jamie is a handsome chap and I’m devoted to him, when/if he thinks he seems to quite like me too, but I wasn’t entirely expecting to share a bed with him and I’m quite determined it’s not going to happen again. My (one bedroom) flat is the perfect size for me, and as a nice polite sort of girl I take to the sofa for the night if I have house guests, (my poor, put upon little sister is the exception to this rule) consequently dad and stepmother got the bed, I got the dogs.

One dog curled up and went to sleep till nature called the next morning. Jamie chanced his arm by appropriating a chair, he knows this is forbidden so for the rest of the night he did about 20 minutes on the chair before getting off, clattering across the floor boards, having a good collar rattling shake, scratching (thoroughly) and then commencing to lick himself (very thoroughly) before coming to lick me, eye up my sleeping arrangements and assess how much more comfortable they might be to his, try and get on the sofa with me, give it up as a bad job and fall on the floor in a huffy thump, rest for 20 minutes and start all over again. All night. I can’t quite bring myself to hate him for this, and it’s not as terrifying as the time he hid himself under our bed one holiday emerging at 2am in a pitch black room unfamiliar to us all – it’s one way to wake up, but not recommended if you’re of a nervous disposition, or want to get back to sleep.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Good things also come to those who wait...

More lovely parcels have been coming my way – birthday and Christmas are frankly going to be a disappointment after this and once more these books I’m particularly pleased to have especially as some of them seem to have come my way against the odds.

There are a lot of nice things about blogging and at the risk of sounding shallow/mercenary I have to admit that the occasional free books that come my way are high on the list of my personal reasons to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve always loved getting post, and I love books so as combinations go what could be better (apart from a lottery win, or world peace, or a sunny summer on the Scottish coast, or a really good cake...)? Nope, I can’t think of anything either.

Perhaps part of the reason I get so excited about these things turning up is because it has a definite novelty value and because the few mailing lists I’ve been lucky enough to get myself on are with publishers I’m hugely enthusiastic about. Of all these my absolute favourite is Oxford World Classics who mail out utterly unexpected books including ‘The Complete Fairy Tales’ of Charles Perrault. I’ve wanted this book ever since I saw it in hard back a year ago – it’s been quietly sitting on my wish list ever since, and moved up a notch or two when I saw it was available in paperback so imagine me when I turned up at the post office to collect an expected parcel on Friday morning having a conversation a bit like this with the post man...

Me “hello I’ve come for this” (brandishing receipt for undelivered packet)
Postman disappears behind the scenes and makes some furtive rustling noise in the background appearing a couple of minutes later with two parcels and a sheepish expression. “Do you have another receipt anywhere” he asks
No, just that one” I say eyeing up the second parcel and my chances of getting hold of it (he’s clutching them pretty tight I can tell you, and I doubt I’m getting to him through the plate glass window, plus I should stay on good terms with the post office...)
ummm” he says “er, we seem to have two parcels for you
Well I’ll have both” says I, and then I see the date on the Oxford parcel “it says September on it”
“Yes, we’ve had it for a while” (I can tell he’s lying being economical with the facts because I’m in that office quite often care of my dirty amazon habit.)
Thank you for keeping it” I say through gritted teeth as I head back off into the dawn and on to work. This isn’t really a criticism of the post office who got me my post in the end even if it did temporarily go missing (though I also know for sure that there is a micro library of mislaid books out there with my name on them and where do these things get to?) In truth I was so pleased to have the book that nothing would have dented my mood – and nothing did for the rest of the day.

I also want to say a big thank you to Sophie at Virago who made me feel like a kid in a sweet shop by telling me to let her know if there was anything I might like. Oh yes. I asked for ‘Desert of the Heart’ and she sent it twice after the first copy was a no show. I consider that particularly generous and again it’s a book I’m really looking forward to reading. Now – time for bed to get up for work and just the possibility of something exciting in the letter box when I get home (quite likely at some point this week courtesy of that amazon addiction.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

National Baking Week

Thanks to Verity I now know its national baking week – an idea I can get right behind, although I don’t think some banners would have gone amiss – and more fanfare generally. Actually there might have been quite a lot of fanfare but I have literally spent most my week in a cage (albeit a spacious one filled to the brim with fine wines and spirits, and oddly a collection of hoovers). The new shop is now open and I’ve been released onto the floor to dazzle with my wine knowledge. So far I’ve mostly been asked where the beer is, and one memorable moment when someone asked to see my Chardonnay. We have perhaps 60 peachy melon-y, occasionally toasty and vanilla-ish, sometimes lemony and all excellent examples of this particular grapes output before I even start to factor in champagne, prices from £5 to £105. They are not grouped together. My customer couldn’t be more specific and it looked like an impasse until she decided a bottle of pinot grigio would do – she liked the label. So 11 years of painfully acquired experience proved useful again; I miss the cage. (It really is a cage.)

Because of all this going on baking time has been limited, but I did make an apple pie and I think that counts – even better it was quite an impressive looking tart (well the blonde made all the right ooh and ahh noises when it appeared) and it’s amazingly easy too so I thought I would share the details. (It was most likely originally a Nigel Slater recipe but I like to think it’s mine now)

1 heavy based frying pan approx 20 cm diameter and with an oven proof handle – or similar.

Half a packet of readymade puff pastry (unless you want to show off or have other pastry preferences)

5 or 6 apples – the current tart was made with russets which proved particularly satisfactory

40g of unsalted butter

3 tablespoons of caster sugar – nice if it’s flavoured - either vanilla or lavender is good.

Peel the apples and chop into reasonably chunky segments – but keep one half apple aside (minus the core and pips).

Pre heat the oven to 200°C or equivalent

Heat the sugar in the pan until it melts – don’t stir it but shake the pan to try and keep it an even colour, when it’s all liquid and an even dark gold (not dark brown) take it off the heat and add the butter immediately, let that melt and arrange the apple pieces in the pan. Start with the half apple (flat side facing up) in the middle and work outwards with the rest of the segments. Keep them reasonably tightly packed.

Roll out the pastry and put it over the apples trimming off the edges so it’s nice and neat looking. Put the whole lot in the oven for about 25 mins (until the pastry is puffy golden and mouth-watering in appearance) Allow to cool for about 10 minutes and then turn the whole lot out onto a plate so that the apples are back on top. It’s very nice (not to sweet) and every time I’ve made it people think I’ve been very clever which you can see quite clearly isn’t the case. I call that a win! (The little black bits in the picture are lavender heads from the lavender sugar.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Good things come in envelopes from publishers

My job is changing – wine selling activities are moving across town into a big new shiny shop which doesn’t leak and smells of paint. It’s a great thing from my point of view – the number of wines, beers, and spirits I get to play with has tripled and I have a team to lead again (time to dust off my intimidating manner and practice looking like I know all the answers) but it has meant that the last few weeks have been hectic, dirty, and depressing in almost equal measure as operations in the old shop have been wound down. Fortunately there are books which see me through this sort of thing and two have turned up in the last few days which have made me particularly happy. (One expected and one not.)

Some things just look to good to sit on until I’ve read them properly so here’s a quick preview. The unexpected one came from Prospect books (who I thought were a brilliant publisher before – but now I’m totally enamoured) and is called ‘The Book of Marmalade’. Anyone who knows me will be able to imagine my joy over a book with a name like this. I was a late convert to marmalade but it was a damascene affair in the middle of Sainsbury’s one day when I found myself wishing someone would make a bitter orange jam (yes I’m aware of how ridiculous this makes me sound) and what do you know there was the marmalade right in front of me. That was actually the only jar I ever bought – since then I’ve been making my own. (Mostly Seville orange but there has been a foray into Lemon with a hint of lavender.)

‘The Book of Marmalade’ by C. Anne Wilson looks to be an in-depth history (the chapter titles are enticing in themselves ‘Marmalade as an aphrodisiac’, ‘Marmalade in the new world: The early centuries’) followed by a collection of recipes. I honestly can’t wait to get started on this one and am considering making it my bus book next week. Can I also suggest that if you have an interest in cookbooks and/or food history that you have a look at Prospect's list – I’ve got a few on my Christmas wish list already and suspect there might be a few more before December.

Book number two is Mark Diacono’s ‘a taste of the unexpected’. Mark Diacono heads the gardening team at River Cottage. I have, and have given as presents a few times, his ‘Veg Patch’ (one of the River Cottage handbooks) and am quite excited by another River Cottage title coming from him next year (‘Fruit’). ‘A taste of the unexpected’ (published by Quadrille) is if anything even more exciting... Mark’s philosophy is that life is too short to grow the everyday when it’s easily and cheaply available everywhere. Why not grow the odd and wonderful instead? He started off with ‘Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book’ and made a list of the things he wanted to grow (at this point I was hooked, and then came the icing for this particular cake) Mulberries and Quinces featured heavily. I got mulberries last year but only by flirting outrageously with a park keeper and I didn’t get a chance this season. Quinces which I’m also keen to experiment with have proved really difficult to get my hands on as well. I clearly need to annexe the Scottish one’s garden and establish an orchard immediately.

I will be spending a lot more time with this book – it’s a brilliant combination of gardening advice, cook book, and inspiration. I saw a mention of comfrey tea for plants as well which makes me think there may be some talk of bio dynamics which also really excite me...

Basically despite the weather, despite the prospect of losing my life to work until January, and despite having no money for fruit trees I feel pretty damn good about the world today. Books are great aren’t they!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Girl meets Boy – Ali Smith

After ‘The Warden’ I really wanted to get stuck straight into ‘Barchester Towers’ but have so far resisted partly to give me the time to get the rest of the series. (I’m off to hunt them down across the cities charity shops in the morning and if that fails it’ll be an amazon binge.) Meanwhile what to read next? My general inclination has been for the 19th century but I’m aware that if I overdo it with that now, by Christmas it won’t appeal at all and I have a stack of ‘Classics’ (quite a bit of Trollope, some Edgeworth, a couple of Wilkie Collins, and some Oliphant amongst others) that I’m keen to work my way through, as well as who knows what else I‘ll find to enthuse over in the meantime.

I had a good scour of the bookshelves but nothing felt quite right (a sort of twist on the ‘I haven’t got a thing to wear’ dilemma) so I opted for short and picked up Ali Smith’s ‘Girl Meets Boy’ which was the result of my last major amazon frolic back in the summer. It’s one of the Canongate myth series (which I think is a fantastic concept, and one which has persuaded me to read writers and books I would never otherwise have picked up) and this time based on an episode in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. Art history is littered with episodes from the ‘Metamorphoses’ and I read the book a few times as a student but the story of Iphis and Ianthe isn’t one I particularly remembered.

It seems when Iphis’s mother is pregnant her husband tells her that sadly they can’t afford a girl, so if she has a girl it will have to be put to death. She’s not best pleased with this news and prays desperately to Isis who promises everything will be alright and tells her to bring up the child regardless. Iphis is born a girl, a fact her mother conceals from everyone bar the nurse. Iphis is a name used by both men and women, and she comforts herself that in this at least there is no lie. All goes well until Iphis and Ianthe fall in love – they have grown up together and their match is seen as desirable by all, apart perhaps from Iphis who loves Ianthe with all her heart but sees no way of possessing another woman. Another trip to the temple is called for and the outcome is a transformation. The girl Iphis enters, the boy Iphis leaves – the wedding takes place and everyone lives happily ever after. (Unusual for Ovid – most the stories in ‘Metamorphoses’ end with sadness.)

The quotes on the front of ‘Girl meets boy’ are ‘exhilarating’, ‘Joyful’, and ‘Charming’ all of which are true and as succinct as the book itself. It only took me a couple of hours to read and was an excellent foil for my 19th century obsession. I rarely read contemporary books and this one was to me shockingly contemporary – Cilla Black’s ‘Blind Date’ is history (can’t argue with that) but all the details set ‘Girl meets boy’ so firmly in this time here and now that I can’t imagine what it will read like in 10 or 20 years time – something I’m quite hung up on because I’m just not used to it. It’s also very Scottish, specifically a book set firmly in Inverness (the Scottish ones favourite bookshop is described), something which I really liked – Inverness is a fast growing, fluid, changing sort of place at the moment (or was until the recession hit) a city having its own metamorphoses couldn’t be more appropriate for this story – it’s a character in its own right.

It’s a fantastically poetical book as well and one that appealed to every romantic idea I’ve ever had about falling in love; a book that sings out about how marvellously easy things are once you accept that you’ve met your match, and how exciting they are too. Autumn isn’t my favourite season so reading a definite spring book full of blossom, birdsong, and passion has been a real mood lifter, and it’s a book I mean to get my youngest sister to read whilst she’s still of an age to not expect this kind of exhilaration as a right at the beginning of something. (She’s a good natured girl who generally humours me, which I find hugely endearing.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Warden – Anthony Trollope

I’m very pleased to announce that it’s finally happened – I’ve fallen in love with Trollope. I’ve stopped being intimidated by the length of some of his books now that I’ve got some solid evidence I’m going to enjoy all those massed words and generally I can’t wait to get stuck in. The only small fly in the ointment is that there doesn’t seem to be a uniform and cheap edition of Trollope and I can’t help but feel that they would all have looked so lovely had I been able to get my hands on a long row of matching volumes. Still that’s not the sort of consideration which should get in the way at the beginning of what I think will be a long and rewarding relationship – true love isn’t based on appearances.

Trollope is also playing hard to get, which in no way lessons his charms but has made me curious. I can’t buy his books new on the high street in Leicester which is disappointing (but not unexpected from past experience). I frequently see Trollope’s in charity shops (sorry), but by the time I’ve checked to see if I have them they’ve generally sold, so why is it internet only? Another retail mystery.

But back to ‘The Warden’ the plot is simple (especially after my Wilkie Collins binge) the Warden in question is Mr Harding, a man of unimpeachable personal integrity who’s been enjoying a comfortable income and home for some years as custodian of Hiram’s Hospital. A youthful local reformer – John Bold - who also happens to be in love with Harding’s daughter takes it into his head to expose the injustice of the warden’s income compared to his wards, who scenting the chance of money mostly get behind the call for reform. Solicitors are instructed and the case starts to take on a momentum of its own especially after the press take it up. Poor Mr Harding who had never questioned his income or his entitlement to it is mortified, the case against him founders but how is he to reconcile himself to the idea that he may not truly be entitled to what he’s enjoyed for so long?

Poor Mr Bold too who realises all the consequences of his conduct somewhat to late – his motives are pure enough; a genuine desire to improve the lot of the poor,(and perhaps a little desire for public regard) but his actions are calculated to hurt those he personally loves and esteems however a noble and roman attitude he adopts. And this is before we even look at the 12 old men who inhabit the almshouses; their situation as it stands is one of comfort and ease, if not of wealth. All their wants are taken care of, and in the form of Mr Harding they have a kind and dedicated master – can reform improve their lot? Well no, it probably can’t...

I found it an absorbing moral dilemma, but I found that in ‘Cousin Henry’ too and yet it still left me a little cold. What ‘The Warden’ has is humour, even laugh out loud humour and a truly appealing narrator who takes the time to address the reader in the most engaging way with little asides about his characters, but the surest sign of burgeoning love was how fresh the text seemed.

I no longer know if this is a true sign of a classic, or a good indicator that I’m enjoying a book, but I do find reading 18th or 19th century lit I can break things into two camps – books where the language feels right to me, and books where I just can’t fall into the rhythm of the words at all – so far I’ve failed utterly with Dickens, but love Wilkie Collins. I’m ambivalent about the Brontes, a fan of Mrs Oliphant, not so keen on George Eliot, but enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell – and I loved ‘The Warden’ but found ‘Cousin Henry’ heavy going yet a brief plot précis makes both sound equally appealing to me. I do know that when everything about a book falls into place for me it’s a tremendously satisfactory experience, and in the end that’s all I read for.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Bird in the hand...

(Vegetarians should probably look away now)

Great excitement here on Monday night – the blonde has made a new friend and he has seemingly unlimited access to game (she doesn’t think he’s a poacher, I don’t care if he is) and so we came to an arrangement over a brace of Partridge – she did the dirty work and I cooked them. When my father reads this I know I’m due a talking to but I am a little bit squeamish about gutting and plucking, the blonde on the other hand is keen to learn butchery and quite happy to eviscerate something when the occasion arises. She says opening the door with a half plucked bird in hand is an excellent way of getting rid of salesmen too – and who am I to argue.

Game is a relatively recent discovery for me – one that probably coincides with the Scottish one who’s also a fan. Up until last winter my imagination didn’t stretch much beyond the occasional roast pheasant, or venison stew pack, but I’ve branched out a bit since then and have high hopes for this season.

I’m well aware of and right behind the arguments about game being lean, free range, organic and generally good for you, but for me the two big advantages are that a) thanks to a good market and now the blondes new friend it’s quite cheap (average price for a brace of pheasants that will feed 4-5 with leftovers for soup is £7.50), and b) it comes in handy portions – a pheasant or wild duck will do two people nicely, partridges, pigeons, and quails come in handy one person size. Basic I know, but I spend most my time cooking for one or two people and it makes things easy.

Monday’s recipe was a Clarissa Dickson-Wright effort (from 'The Game Cookbook') and very nice it was too:

Partridges with Tomato and Pepper (for 2)

3 tablespoons of olive oil
2 Partridges
2 red Peppers cut into strips
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
Juice of half a lemon
A pinch of brown sugar
2 large cloves of garlic mashed with salt, salt pepper and thyme

Heat the olive oil in a heavy based frying pan, season and brown the partridges all over. Put them to one side and cook the peppers for about 10 mins turning from time to time (no brown or black bits wanted) add the garlic and continue cooking until the peppers start to soften, add all the over ingredients including the partridges and simmer in the open pan for about 25-30 mins until the sauce is thick and jammy and the birds are done.

We had this with couscous which was excellent, and the partridges were good and juicy which was a win because they can tend towards the dry (at least when I cook them...)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance - Edmund De Waal

This book turned up on my amazon recommends list a few days after my sister and I came into possession of a handful of okimono and netsuke that have made a journey through both sides of our family. De Waal’s book is about a huge collection – some 264 netsuke originally collected by Charles Ephrussi in Paris during the 1870’s when Japonisme is the cutting edge of fashion. Charles is fabulously wealthy, freed from taking a direct part in the family banking business, a patron of the arts, a scholar, and Jewish.

From Paris the netsuke journey to Vienna as a wedding present, at the same time moving from the salon to the boudoir and the heart of family life – and then comes the war and it seems likely that they will be lost altogether, but miraculously the collection is saved and hidden until it’s reunited with the authors grandmother. She takes them back to Tunbridge Wells before giving them to her brother who takes them to Tokyo. He leaves them first to his lover and then his great nephew – and now their story is continuing in another family home, this time in London with an artist rather than a patron as their owner.
Our pieces were collected by a great uncle who I’m pretty sure bought them as souvenirs from a trip to Japan in the 1880’s though when I examine my assumptions about our family history I’m not sure what’s fact and what’s myth. I do know he had quite a mixed bag of Japanese things, that he lost out in the depression, and that he died in 1936 leaving what he had left to his sister’s daughter. She was my father’s godmother and he got amongst other things this small collection of ivories. I remember seeing them when I was about 6 or 7 and being fascinated, as well as forbidden to go near them. An instruction I totally ignored – I also remember climbing on a chair to get to a desk to stand on tip toe to reach a top shelf and have another look... I think I got smacked for my troubles but it was worth it. Dad sold them to my maternal grandfather on the condition that they came back to my sister and I – something that looked unlikely to be remembered, but perhaps because most of them are damaged and none valuable nobody seemed bothered and we got them – they still hold their fascination for me.

Most the things I’ve collected through my life are important to me, but when I’m gone they won’t have much significance and I actively want my books which are by far the majority of my possessions to be spread far and wide. But the small accumulation of family things I have – all of which originated from the same great uncle - are mine on the understanding they stay in the family. There is an irony in all of this, but it’s a condition I’m prepared to accept and honour because the personal history they’ve accrued means something to me and will hopefully mean something to whoever gets them next.

‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ is an intensely personal sort of memoir, just as personal as a treasured object handed on from one person to the next; it demanded and got an intensely personal response from me as a reader. There is a little bit of philosophy, a lot of memory, a painstaking reconstruction of the lives of long departed antecedents, and a good deal of sadness and anger in this account by a vicar’s son of his Jewish ancestors, and what they went through and lost. I feel like there are flaws in this book but no dishonesty and it totally got under my skin – there are places where I would like to argue with De Waal but he’s also given me far more than I imagined likely to think about as well as a hitherto unknown desire to read Proust.
Proust because Charles Ephrussi is one of the models for Charles Swann; De Waal makes him come alive as a charming man who collects netsuke with his mistress, a generous benefactor of the impressionists (who later turn on him over a love of symbolist painting and the Dreyfus affair), and in short someone who’s company I want to spend more time in.

The Vienna portion of the story is more fraught. I’m shamefully ignorant of what it meant to be Jewish in Austria at the turn of the century and found myself surprised that such a rich and well connected family managed to so misjudge the political situation – that in their world of international banking they had no inkling of what’s to come. My blood ran as cold as it was meant to when the Anschluss is described. When De Waal writes “‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ and ‘Heil Hitler, Sieg Heil’” it echoes round my imagination as dark as you like, but I’m equally chilled by the admission that Anna – the servant who saves the netsuke for the children has almost vanished from history. She was always there but far enough beneath attention that her surname has vanished. What the family lose and how it’s lost is terrible, but I feel the general anger and sense of betrayal obscures how great a risk this woman took to save something for the children she must have loved.

But this is De Waal’s family and his story to tell as he chooses, so the narrative is richer for the very personal bias and pre occupations, and if sometimes it feels like a point is a little laboured or a supposition unsound I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I also think this is the most tremendous book about things and the allure they can exercise. The netsuke will undoubtedly be charming, amusing, desirable objects in themselves but I think De Waal holds them dear for the sake of his beloved great uncle, who would have loved them for the memories of playing with them in his mother’s dressing room. Anna must have had her memories of better times and past glories to sustain her through the indignities and hardships of war as she slept with them in her mattress. Emmy Ephrussi would surely have cherished them for their part in her family life long after her children grew out of playing with such toys, and Charles Ephrussi would have had recollections of Parisian afternoons in the back of discreet shops with his beautiful mistress every time he picked one up, which is perhaps why they had to go. How can you not be engaged by history like this?

Saturday, October 9, 2010


I’ve been reading Edmund De Waal’s ‘The Hare With The Amber Eye’s’ over the last few days – it’s a very personal sort of family memoir and it’s got completely under my skin – to the point that I’ve even found myself thinking in De Waal sentences. I clearly need to put some space between me and this book otherwise anything I write about it will come across as pastiche and I really don’t want that.

Fortunately my much anticipated Puffin postcards arrived this week and are proving just the ticket for generally lifting the spirits. Flipping through these old covers is a delight – both the Scottish one and I have had at least one moment of pure nostalgia – his over a book I’ve never even heard of, me over ‘The Snowman’ which I still remember getting as a child – at least I have a very vivid memory of having it handed to me to look at whilst I waited for my father on his weekly visit to the bank (this was before cash machines and direct debits made this sort of activity sound actually Victorian).

I also remember the Puffin Book Club – the excitement of browsing the catalogue in school, taking it home and begging for books, and finally the books arriving, although I can’t honestly say I remember what they were now. I do remember looking at ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ with my mother, and her choosing Ladybird and Puffin books for us (who would guess that books formed a big part of my childhood).

I love this collection of cards for the fantastic artwork, the happy memories, and for the sheer number that show books I’ve never heard of. I never expected there to be so many I didn’t recognise (and I’m slightly disappointed not to get a Worst Witch postcard – but maybe next time...) I think there’s a very good chance that these will become my godson’s first birthday present – he might be a bit young for writing (though he is of course an amazingly bright young thing) but I think he might soon like the pictures and I can foresee hours of happy chewing, scribbling, and scrunching up and just perhaps the start of a love affair with books which we all know can last a life time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

I think I’ll mostly be staying in...

Life is unexpectedly and rather unwelcomingly imitating art today. The last book I read (‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’) was set against a back drop of war and fascism, my currant read ‘The Hare With The Amber Eyes’ follows a Jewish dynasty across Europe and across the 19th and 20th century. Anti Semitism features as does the rise of fascism.

This is not my normal sort of post and for the most part I like to avoid politics here but this is on my doorstep and it would be crazy to ignore it.

Tomorrow (sat 9th) the English Defence League is having a static march in Leicester, anti fascist groups are planning a counter march and town is beginning to feel very tense. Previous EDL marches have ended in trouble and it seems we’re expecting the same. I’ve been here for a good few years and have never seen a fuss like this – shops and banks are electing to close for the day and windows in the city centre are being boarded up. Most the streets are closed to traffic, the police are asking people to stay away and a lot of buses are being re routed. We’re also getting over a 1000 extra police people.

Somehow I managed to remain oblivious to all this until yesterday but have now reached a state of mild paranoia in record time. I really hope that it’s a case of over reaction, but after events in other cities where the EDL have marched it seems the outlook is a little bleak for public order. Bleak as well that there seems to be a text campaign aimed at certain parts of the community designed to promote anger and radicalism.

It bothers me how much power these people have to disrupt our lives, and really bothers me that nothing seems to have been learned from still recent history. I’ve come to take it for granted that in day time give or take the streets are basically safe - realising that it might be a luxury is an unpleasant shock. On the bright side there have been, and are, a number of peaceful and peace promoting cross community events planned for Friday and Sunday. Saturday I’ll be staying at home – part of me wants to go out and scream for what I believe in, part of me is grateful for the instruction to stay out the way and out of trouble and that bothers me to.

The photo is one I’ve pinched from Hope not Hate and was taken in town this evening. They have asked for the city to support them by going lime green and the council have obliged with our multi coloured street lights.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius

There are lots of things I like about Peirene Press and I’ll come clean – one of them is that they asked me if I’d like a copy of this book to read. More importantly (yes more important in my scale of priorities than presents) I love that these books are short. I don’t read much in translation, there’s no particular reason or prejudice behind this gap in my literary experience beyond a huge pile of other reading preoccupations which have initially proved more attractive, and so many of the books I see in translation strike me as worthy rather than fun, but reading books like this one are a revelation which make me think I should try a little harder to see what else is out there.

‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ has a particularly personal resonance for me. It’s a single sentence stretching over 117 describing the thoughts and feelings of a young, heavily pregnant, German girl as she walks through Rome on her way to church. Its 1943, her husband is in Africa and the future is looking uncertain. It’s personal to me because my grandmother was German; she met my English Grandfather whilst he was in the army and I don’t suppose he behaved in a very gentlemanly fashion. She arrived here with a baby (which I believe was news to him) sometime in the latter half of the ‘40’s. They made the best of it but by the time I knew her it’s safe to say she was bitter about the way her life had gone, she had good reason but it didn’t make her very nice to be around. Delius has made me wonder what my grandmother was like when she was young and had the prospect of happiness in front of her. She didn’t tell her story and now she’s gone it’s lost but the aftermath of her history is very much alive and felt within the family.

Delius’s typical young woman is conscious throughout of her otherness. She’s not the enemy but she’s definitely a foreign object, a walking symbol of the war – something that she and the reader are constantly aware of. She’s also innocent of anything other than a determined avoidance of thought. Somewhere at the back of her mind there is clearly the niggling idea that all is not right with the Reich, but more pressing are the everyday cares – foremost her concern for her husband and unborn child. To doubt is to be disloyal – victory isn’t so much about lands conquered, but the safe return of loved ones and the chance to form a family. I can’t imagine anything which makes people more selfish or dangerous – or easier to understand.

I read this book over a few lunch hours which I think was a bit of a mistake, next time I mean to sit down and just read; I know there’s a lot more in here for me and that some if it fell through the gaps of bitty reading. That long single sentence demands you invest the time to read it properly, which is fair enough given the length of the book. I will also admit that when I read about it I wasn’t sure how it would work for me as a device, but in the end I didn’t really notice the lack of full stops (which might say something about me and my approach to punctuation). There are a lot of paragraphs, and sometimes I wasn’t sure why they were there – something I’d love to know about, and which makes me really sorry that I couldn’t attend a recent event with both writer and translator (living in the provinces rather tends to rule these things out damn it) but never mind, there are plenty of reviews out there and enough research should hopefully answer all my questions.

The only other German book about the war I’ve read is Bernard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ in which there is a definite need to explain, excuse, and atone. ‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ is just that – a portrait, and one with the hint of a challenge to the reader which seems like a good step further on in discussing what being on the ‘losing’ side does to a nation as well as to a person. Will all the hope, love, and pride in this young woman survive what’s to come, or will she lose too much?

I would love to either go on talking about this book, or make a snappy conclusion here, but the truth is that for all its brevity I’ll be mulling it over for quite a lot longer, it felt so elegant and self contained, yet full of ideas, and to be honest I hardly know where to start or finish with my thoughts on it. It amazes me that a writer can pack so much into so few pages and so neatly too, and that’s before I even start to consider that it’s been translated as well.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nigella v Hugh

Thursday night whilst I was settling in front of the television for an hour or so of thinking about getting round to the ironing I was disturbed by a text message asking if I too though the background music on ‘Nigella’s Kitchen’ was to reminiscent of a porn film. I wasn’t qualified to answer because a) I don’t watch porn – unless you count Nigella, but as I understand it licking your fingers whilst wearing a cardigan is pretty innocent behaviour, and b) I was watching ‘River Cottage Everyday’ at the time.

Thanks to channel 4’s helpful habit of repeating everything an hour later, and BBC iPlayer this isn’t such a problem – but really why on earth schedule my two favourite cooks against each other? Momentary irritation was soon forgotten listening to the lovely Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall wax lyrical about the joys of mussels but it’s all come back to me today.

Sunday (as you might well have noticed) is my day for cleaning the kitchen before turning it back into a bombsite post bake, considering housework before escaping to mooch around John Lewis and Waterstone’s, and realising that I’ve not done anything really useful and it’s time for bed again. After years of practice I’ve got it down to a fine art but today’s rain is making the walk into town really unattractive and looking for inspiration in the kitchen has ended up in a replay of the Hugh v Nigella dilemma.

It normally does come down to one or other of these two. I love Nigella’s what the hell add more butter attitude – perfect for a Sunday afternoon treat (and Monday evening, Tuesday lunch, Wednesday breakfast...) I like how easy she makes things too, but then Hugh – well he has a twinkle in his eye as well, and theoretically his small holding ethos is nearer to my heart. Realistically Nigella’s brand of chocolate covered domestic goddessery often wins out over wholemeal goodness, but then I like the get your hands properly dirty attitude that comes with river cottage. Choices, choices – because after all Hugh seems to like chocolate too, and Nigella isn’t all double cream; the truth is that my ideal lifestyle would be some sort of unholy combination of the two.

Today river cottage won out and I made Chelsea bus from Handbook number 3 ‘Bread’ (by Daniel Stevens) which by the by is another thing I really like about both outfits. Nigella (with her collection of 4000, count ‘em 4000 cookbooks!) frequently credits other cooks with influences coming from all over, and possibly my favourite thing about the River Cottage books are the handbooks. A whole community of people all adding fresh voices and ideas to the brand. ‘Bread’ is another one I’ve taken away for holiday reading and I can testify to the quality of the buns I made today, and the basic bread recipe I’ve made almost enough times to graduate onto something more complicated.

The Blonde and I have a plan to spend a Sunday making bagels – for me this means spending some serious time comparing and contrasting different recipes and if there are any major variations between them we plan to take one each and see what happens, and unless they’re absolutely the same chances are it’ll be Nigella’s on the one hand and Mr Stevens on the other...