Monday, January 30, 2012

Bedtime Stories

The first pay day of the year has rolled round and with it the first amazon order (dispatched and can't wait for it's arrival) I'm particularly excited by a collection of short stories put together by Michael Simms. Simms is responsible for 'The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime' which all but doubled my wish list. 'Dracula's Guest' has (amongst others) vampire stories by Mary Cholmondeley and Mary Elizabeth Braddon - that's why I've bought it, the rest is all bonus. 

Everyman's collection 'Bedtime Stories' was another holiday read and is a thing of beauty, it's not just the charming dust jacket but the turquoise cloth cover, the matching ribbon, the little bit of contrasting purple stitching at the top of the binding, and that the pages are stitched not glued - it's a very nice package. The link with 'Dracula's Guest' is that for bedtime the stories are of a generally dark often ghostly nature. Nothing to terrifying - not so as they would keep you awake, but enough to make you glad to be tucked up in bed (possibly with a hot water bottle and a hot chocolate) with good lighting at your fingertips.

Some of these I've read before - there's an A. S. Byatt and an Angela Carter both of which I've got in other collections but am happy to read again, the rest of the collection is to diverse to pin down without listing them all (which would be dull for me to do). Short story collections are my answer to e-readers; I never really understand why they aren't more popular, a well crafted short story is a wonderful thing - a beginning middle and end in as little as a couple of pages. I love the economy and completeness of a good short story (but get unreasonably irked by ones that feel like they still have more to say). 

Collections like this particularly appeal to me a - the mix of things I want to read and which it would never have occurred to me to have a look at, it leads to all sorts of discoveries alongside the comfortable knowledge that there are likely favourites in there. I've read about half of 'Bedtime Stories' so far and may not pick it up again for months, or maybe I'll take it to bed with me in a minute and try to choose something that won't scare me silly, but it earned it's cover price with an Isak Dinesen short 'The Sailor Boy's Tale'. The sailor boy rescues a falcon from the rigging of his boat and later when he kills a man on his way to meet a girl the falcon reappears to help him in the form of an old Lap woman. It's a very effective fairy tale from a writer I normally have no interest in - 'Out of Africa' is one of those books I've failed to read (tried it perhaps to young, haven't ruled out giving it another go) and I had no idea that she'd written so many other things including a couple of collections of short stories. Guess what's gone on my wish list now...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Christmas Pudding - Nancy Mitford

This was a Christmas present and completes my Mitford collection (though I still hanker after the complete Penguin edition) and is the last of my Christmas-y reading for a while. It's almost a month since I actually read this book (whilst on holiday) when I took copious notes of my opinions and doubtless brilliant insights. Unfortunately I've no idea what happened to my notebook. I had it a week or two back but there have been guests and entertaining since then and in a mismanaged attempt to look tidy and organised I've lost god knows what useful things (the hot water bottle stopper with a working seal has also disappeared and it's quite likely that I won't be able to put my hand to my cheque book for a while). I'm sure it'll turn up one day (hopefully with a missing necklace and my scattered wits).

Meanwhile it seemed like a good idea to write about this book before I forgot all about it. 'Christmas Pudding' was a bit of a revelation at a point where I'd begun to think of Mitford as decidedly over rated and over exposed. It's not that I particularly disapprove of the Mitford industry - we all have to make a living and they're an interesting family albeit mostly in terms of the people they knew - but Nancy wasn't really a prolific writer of books (8 fiction, 4 non fiction?) and her legacy is one of decidedly mixed quality. 'Highland Fling' is never better than average (although still amusing and it was her first novel so allowances can be made) 'Wigs on The Green' is mostly a curiosity, well worth reading, but butchered by Nancy in a failed attempt to placate her fascist sisters. Seeing as that didn't work it's a shame she never let rip with all her original intentions - that would have been a book to seek out. 'Pigeon Pie' is another curiosity with lots to enjoy in it but again - distinctly average.

'Christmas Pudding' is in another class, it was Nancy's second book and has a touch of magic to it. The story is a romp with romance shot through with a hint of bitterness - nobody makes bitter as funny as Nancy can. She's also talking about a world she knew; bright young things in London, and the landed gentry in the Cotswold's. The existence she describes is terrifying; the central characters -Sally and Walter Monteath have just produced a daughter (which seems somewhat feckless as they have not a bean to live on) fortunately baby Elspeth's christening gifts ought to bring in a few bob once they're hocked. They live hand to mouth cadging off richer friends with seemingly no thought for the future - the embodiment of the bright young thing - but Mitford throws in an odd little New Year's day scene where everyone sits around hungover to the eyeballs and looking every minute of there age, she's well aware that the party will end. 

There are other wonderful creations; Paul Fotheringay the misunderstood writer whose tragic masterpiece has been hailed as the comic tour de force of the season and Bobby Bobbin - the boy. The boy is a creature, or perhaps a force of nature that has all but vanished (I hope he still exists within the enclosure of a few select private schools) teenagers are not the same at all. Bobby is wonderfully unlikely to the modern eye but is such a popular type in fiction that he must have existed...

This isn't quite Mitford at her mature best - not much Mitford is - but it's really very enjoyable and I highly recommend it. It's a good thing that Capuchin and Penguin have done re releasing these titles .

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett

My reading still has a vaguely Christmas-y feel at the moment as I'm working  through the books I bought myself to get in the mood but didn't get to before the big day (not to mention the ones I was given as well - a whole pile of treats awaiting attention). Long dark nights and crappy weather make me crave classic Noir, I don't mind if it's in book or film form but I've got to have some. 'The Thin Man' has a particularly appealing blurb as well: "Ex-detective Nick Charles plans to spend a quiet Christmas holed up in a hotel suite with his glamorous wife Nora, their pet Schnauzer and a case of good Scotch. But then a bullet - riddled corpse and a missing inventor (not to mention a beautiful young woman) force him out of retirement..."

Despite several bullet ridden corpses this isn't an especially festive read (Christmas only gets the barest of mentions) but it is good Noir. Hammett is the man credited with inventing the genre, Raymond Chandler called him "The ace performer" and he worked for Pinkerton's detective agency - so there's a chance it's not all fiction. Chandler treads very similar ground and I don't think anyone does hard boiled quite as well as he does - (but then without Hammett would there have been a Chandler?) it took a few chapters to shake off the comparison (Hammett has more humour) but eventually the ace performer came through.

Hammett himself has quite a history - detective, veteran of both world wars, communist (black listed and jailed), TB and no stranger to a drink or two. The most striking feature about 'The Thin Man' is the amount of alcohol consumed - it was published not long after prohibition ended but is set against a background of speakeasy's and spectacularly heavy drinking -whisky for breakfast and then drink after drink - it's almost a surprise that anyone was sober enough to plan and commit murders, more of a surprise that Nick Charles is sober enough to solve a crime - especially one as ingenious as this.  

What makes the book, as with all the best Noir (and this obviously reflects my own personal preferences) are the one liners, Hammett would have held his own in conversation with Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee. He's smart and funny with an eye for absurdity as well as a general world weariness, there is no doubt that Hammett believed things could be better and was angry that they weren't .

Penguin keep slipping these little Noir gems out ('In a Lonely Place', 'If I Die Before I Wake' a whole lot of Chandler...) and I can only hope that they both find more and that someone (I'm looking at you amazon recommends) makes more effort to bring them to my attention. Potentially good news is that Johnny Depp is involved in a project to remake 'The Thin Man' - the old black and white films are brilliant but these are cracking good books and some remakes could be fun. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Something to celebrate (again)

I've just finished washing up post Burns night supper - we ate a lot of Haggis, recited a modest amount of poetry, had a few drams, had some fudge, and in my case a spoon to much of cranachan (with rhubarb - I love that stuff, but my god it's rich). Before the Scottish one I was ambivalent about Haggis but he loves it and I've learnt to. I truly love Burns night though, it's such an easy dinner to cook so there's no stress, and it's great to have something to look forward to at the end of January. It's been noticeably lighter the last few evenings, spring is on it's way even if it'll be a while in getting here which is something worth marking with friends and a celebration. Also how good it is it to have a night dedicated to a poet? And with Whisky! We need more of it.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Of Books and Cake

At about the age when I started to think I was to cool for the delights for books like 'Kidnapped' I went on a school trip to London, we were let loose for lunchtime outside the National Gallery and somewhere round the corner from St Martin-in-the-Fields we found a Cranks wholefoods and the best piece of carrot cake I've ever had. It was rich, and dark, and moist, light, and fruity, and spicy - altogether lovely, and has lived long in my memory. 

Sometime later I found a copy of 'The Cranks Recipe Book' amongst my step mothers cookbooks complete with a carrot cake recipe (and now how I blush over for my teenage self) which I copied into the back of Virginia Woolf's 'To The Lighthouse' which I spent most of that summer dragging around trying to read. I managed to finish it but can't honestly say that I either understood or enjoyed a single page - the only reason I still have it is because of that recipe scribbled (without instructions because I Knew How to Bake Cake so little details like cooking time and temperature, or even sort of flour have been dismissed as being for amateurs). Perhaps I will continue to keep it as a reminder that I once thought I knew everything I would ever need to... (And who knows maybe I did and have just forgotten most of it.)

I do however remember that the cake I baked bore no resemblance to the fabled version from that school trip, Both book and recipe have remained untouched for at least a couple of decades but sometimes you just want carrot cake and I've yet to find a take on it that's just all that it could be so I thought I'd go back to the beginning as it were. The cake that came out of the oven is okay but quite frankly ordinary (but at least I remembered to take it out of the oven in time) - the search continues so if anybody has a recipe that comes out quite dark and rich ideally with sultanas in it I'd be very pleased to have it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Kidnapped - Robert Louis Stevenson

'Kidnapped' was a childhood favourite - or more specifically a favourite from the years that seem to be classed as young adult now; a term I'm a little bit suspicious of but I assume covers the stage when one grows out of The Famous Five but doesn't yet feel compelled to walk around with a conspicuous copy of something Russian. (I wonder if there's a polite term for that phase?) I probably had a battered Puffin Classics copy back in the day but it's long gone, so a few years ago I felt impelled to purchase a rather more grown up looking Canongate version (it looked exceptionally scholarly) which has kicked around the shelves ever since waiting to be picked up until finally I was in the mood for something Scottish and Victorian.

A few pages in and I wondered what I'd signed up for - it was clear that 'Kidnapped' wasn't entirely the book I remembered (it was also clear that I didn't really remember much about it). Re-reading it, it's a much more complex novel than I would have imagined a week ago. Having started this post the Scottish one and I have spent the last 2 hours discussing Jacobite's, the suppression of the clans, and Scottish independence. I grew up with a romantic notion that the Jacobite cause was a noble one and that Bonnie Prince Charlie was a hero (in Shetland where traditionally there is little love for the mainland Scot) He grew up being told that Bonnie Prince Charlie was a nasty little man, foreign at that, who was the ruin of the Clans (in the Highlands where you might imagine a different attitude would prevail).

I assumed that a good portion of my pro Jacobite sympathies were culled from 'Kidnapped' but reading now I see no evidence of enthusiasm from Stevenson. His Alan Breck Stewart is in most ways a ridiculous little (literally - his lack of hight is frequently referred to) man with a distinctly skewed idea of honour and morality. Resourceful and brave certainly, but also overly proud, vain, quick to take offence, manipulative, and unscrupulous. He certainly has no qualms about taking a second rent from his clansmen who can ill afford it so that his chief can live in some comfort and safety in France. David Balfour - the Lowlander happy to swear his allegiance to King George is on the other hand a model of youthful integrity whose only discernible fault is his inability to tell when he's on a tidal Island.  

As a children's book it's a ripping yarn which manages to mix the fairy tale elements of a young man destined to find he's the long lost rightful heir of an estate and fortune, with adventure on the high sea's, a life and death journey across a wild landscape, and just a little humour. As a grown up book there is far more humour, more tension, more horror and plenty of the duality that the introduction in my edition insists upon. David leaves behind a world of certainty for one where nothing is assured and where the weather is as much his enemy as the red coats are. 

As for 'Kidnapped'  itself - well the chances are anybody reading this will already have know it reasonably well, but should you be on the look out for a copy I absolutely recommend this edition. The notes, glossary, introduction, and maps are excellent (I learned stuff) and as a book to provoke conversation it has a lot going for it - not least as it feels remarkably relevant in a time when Scottish independence is very much on the news agenda.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Here Be Dragons - Stella Gibbons

An apt title for a sometimes provoking book. Tanya Izzard wrote an interesting post about 'Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm' and a story in it she found particularly problematic 'Cake' - I somehow missed it out on my first read but can now see why she had an issue with it. I don't find it as troubling as Tanya did though it's undoubtedly the weak link in the collection. However I do agree that when reading Gibbons there is often something that jars in her work. 

'Here Be Dragons' spends most of it's time being absolutely brilliant but there are moments when it totally falls down. At it's best this is the story of Nell, daughter of an ex vicar - he's undergone a crisis of faith and illness which has left him unable to provide for his family, because of this Nell and her parents have moved to London where a successful aunt has lent them a house in Hampstead. The top floor of the house is occupied by an ex husband, his new wife, and Nell's cousin John. 

John is destined for National Service but meanwhile is wondering round bohemian London's clubs, espresso bars, and darker corners in search of material for his novel. Nell falls for the charms of her cousin and allows him to lead her into this world - sometimes she enjoys it but mostly she sees through the artifice of rich kids playing at poverty. Nell has different ideas of how her life should be, she's experiencing real poverty and has no taste for it. A first job in an office bores her whilst offering no real prospects and then she discovers waitressing. It offers her better money and allows her to plan for a future where she'll have her own cafe.

I like this - it was refreshing to read about a girl who wasn't going to be a writer or similar, Nell will clearly succeed (I like to think far beyond the imagination of 1956 when this was written). Her mix of inexperience, determination, and character are all convincing - the attraction to her comparatively exotic cousin makes sense as doe her flirtation with his friends and lifestyle, but so does her own inherent conservatism.

Cousin John is less convincing, Gibbons doesn't resist throwing out dark hints about his probable future, she also gifts him with genius and a sort of omnipotent ability to meddle in others affairs - neither of which always hit the right note. On the other hand she hits off exactly how smugly irritating 19 year old boys can be (a few days with my brother were testimony to her skills of observation*). 

Nell's parents are another strong point. Her father's loss of faith is described in moving, and again convincing terms. How that story resolves itself feels just as truthful. It occurs to me that this is a difficult thing to get right, but Gibbons definitely pulls it off. Her love of London and of Hampstead also come through, the portrait she draws of them is nostalgic now, and surprisingly beautiful from a woman I associate with a love of the countryside.

The real  bit of grit in the oyster for me though is when she talks about the increasing number of coloured faces in her cityscape. Descriptions come across as slightly uncomfortable and poorly integrated both onto the plot and the portrait she draws of the city. It's something that shouldn't have been noticeable and because it is, it irritates me. 

All of those niggles aside I loved this book whilst I was reading it and still do. Gibbons is a good writer with a lot to offer - she certainly deserves to be back in print and I really hope that this particular title graduates from print on demand to easily available. It's quite possible that Nell will become one of my all time favourite fictional heroines - never would I have thought 300 pages about a girl who wanted a tea shop could have been so compelling. 

*I love my brother and understand there's no point in trying to argue with him even when he comes out with real crap. I look forward to spending time with him in the future when life has destroyed many of his adolescent hopes and dreams. Alternatively he can buy me drinks so I can drown my sorrows whilst sincerely congratulating him on his luck.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Marzipan and Cherry Cake

The last slice of Christmas cake went at the weekend and as I'd got into the habit of tea and cake (and have been desperate to use my Kitchen Aid) it seemed only reasonable to bake something by way of a replacement. Ages ago I saw a recipe in Susannah Blake's 'Afternoon Tea Parties' which looked like it would fit the bill. It seemed perfect because it uses marzipan, glacé cherries, and ground almonds all of which I had bits of hanging around after Christmas baking. I was half tempted to use apricots instead of cherries as I had some of those hanging round as well but on reflection cherries were the right way to go. 

The marzipan in this cake is brilliant, it managed to recall the eaten cake whilst being totally different (much lighter and therefore much easier to eat a big slice of) and the whole almond and cherry thing is always a winner. I'm showing a picture of what the cake would have looked like if it hadn't not been ready when the rest of dinner came out the oven and more than ready when dinner was finished and I remembered it again (oops) it still tasted great* - especially with a cup of tea. The recipe also came with a brilliant tip, my oven is old and it seems likely the thermostat is a bit off. Long story short the tops of slow baked cakes are generally a little on the crispy side by the time the cake comes out and somehow it had never occurred to me to put a bit of tin foil on top of them for the last 20 minutes of cooking time. It works however and it's something I'll remember.

Marzipan and Cherry Loaf
175g butter (room temp)
175g caster Sugar
3 eggs
175g self raising flour
85g ground almonds
175g glacé cherries
75g (chilled) marzipan grated.
 A 2lb loaf tin lined, and oven at 180/gas 5
Mix the butter and sugar until light and creamy before adding the eggs one at a time and then the flour and almonds. Stir in the cherries. Put half the mix in the tin, sprinkle the marzipan on and top with the other half of the mix. Bake for about 45 mins then put a bit of foil on top and finish off for another 25 mins. Cool and eat. 

*The cherries aren't burned/caramelised, they're posh Waitrose ones that come in an upmarket dark cherry colour. Honest.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rachel Ray and why Trollope sometimes annoys me.

I love Trollope; I really do, but not blindly. The first of his books I read was ‘Cousin Henry’, I had mixed feelings about it but realise now that it couldn’t have been a better introduction because like ‘Rachel Ray’ it shows both the best and worst of him as a writer. The biggest problem I have with Trollope is his habit of repetition, for example;
 “She thought only of him, how beautiful he was, how grand, - and how dangerous; of him and his words, how beautiful they were, how grand, and how terribly dangerous! She knew that it was very late and she hurried her steps, She knew that her mother must be appeased and her sister opposed,- but neither to her mother nor her sister was given the depth of her thoughts. She was still thinking of him, and of the man’s arm in the clouds, when she opened the door of the cottage at Bragg’s End.
Rachel was still thinking of Luke Rowan and of the man’s arm when she opened the cottage door...”
Trollope uses this trick all the time and on occasion it works really well underlining a point, it’s also a useful tool in making the details of the plot stick in the readers memory – something I suppose was especially helpful if you’re reading a chapter a week (that quote is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another). However in ‘Rachel Ray’ – as in other places – it’s a device that he employs far too often, it becomes (to me) an annoying distraction from the plot which I just want to unfold. ‘Rachel Ray’ is 400 pages in my edition, if it was 300 pages long it would be a far better book.

I haven’t yet read Trollope’s autobiography but have read about it a few times – it seems that it did his reputation no end of damage partly because he advocated approaching writing as a job to be done rather than waiting for inspiration to strike. Apparently it was his habit to sit down each morning before work at the post office commenced and bang out a prescribed number of pages. On the whole I’m sympathetic to this approach but here it feels like nothing has been discarded and that when in doubt he’s simply rehashed points he’s already made. If Luke Rowan is referred to as a potential wolf in sheep’s clothing once it’s a question that’s asked twenty times. The reader knows he isn’t but has understood the doubts of Rachel’s family long before Trollope has tired of reminding us.

He’s also been accused of anti-Semitism and this is the first time in his novels that I’ve seen where that comes from. There is an election during the novel; the two opposing candidates are Mr Butler Cornbury – squire’s son representing the landed Tory element, and Mr Hart – Liberal Jewish tailor down from London and Not A Gentleman. On the whole I’m indifferent to racial attitudes in older fiction – it’s easy enough to overlook casually mentioned prejudices and assume that in more enlightened times the author would most likely share my own views. Here however there is an argument (repeated) that a Jew shouldn’t be allowed to stand for parliament in a Christian country, Mr Hart’s supporters are the more villainous of the books characters and naturally it bothers me that an authorial voice I’ve come to consider friendly suddenly comes out with opinions I can’t feel comfortable with.

In fairness it’s just as likely that Trollope was making up his daily word count when he kept returning to the question of whether Jews (and Catholics) ought to be accorded the same parliamentary rights as Protestants and he doesn’t do a bad job of giving both sides of the argument but his Conservatism (never much in doubt) is very much to the fore.

None of this makes me want to give up on Trollope, or make me think less of him as a writer (or a person) but it does make it clearer to me why he isn’t as well known as Dickens. With better editing (I’m back to the repetition) Trollope’s reputation would stand much higher but as it is his shortcomings are too obvious to always ignore, happily he has the talent to more than compensate for the bad and overall I think it makes for a richer reading relationship.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rachel Ray and what I love about Trollope.

Catherine Pope at Victorian Geek (who has read her way through all of Trollope’s considerable oeuvre – which I think is more than I will ever do) has recently done a couple of posts on her top ten, and ten terrible Trollope’s. I’ve read eight of his forty seven novels so far, none of them obscure titles and am beginning to know what to expect – when he’s good he’s the best thing since Jane Austen, the rest of the time he’s nowhere close. Catherine has Rachel Ray in her top ten and I can see why, but for me it’s the perfect example of everything I love about Trollope and everything I really don’t.

The plot of ‘Rachel Ray’ is a simple enough boy meets girl affair – Rachel lives with her widowed mother and widowed sister in genteel poverty on the outskirts of Baslehurst. Mrs Ray is a woman in need of a husband support if ever there was one with the result that she leans rather heavily on her eldest daughter Dorothea Prime. Dorothea has a tragic sort of past – married in her teens to a young curate who survives a mere 6 months before Dorothea is left to go home with only £200 a year, a taste for low church preaching, and a penchant for good works to sustain her. She’s a woman who’s inclined to see the worst in people and find sin everywhere. 

Between these two Rachel’s life has been extraordinarily sheltered – hot buttered toast and cream for tea is the height of debauchery and aside from country walks with the local brewer’s daughters she sees nothing of society. The boy is Luke Rowan who’s come into a share of the brewery much to the dismay of his partner Mr Tappitt who had come to consider the concern all his own. Luke is a coming young man determined to have everything all his own way and with all sort of new fangled ideas about brewing decent beer (Tappitt doesn’t), he’s also new to the area. Luke and Rachel fall in love in quick order and despite Mrs Ray’s fears that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing come after her lamb, and Mrs Prime’s conviction that he’s the worst type of godless fiend, it’s eventually decided that he probably isn’t that bad and is allowed to pay his addresses to Rachel. She accepts him and all looks set to be happy ever after when sundry complications ensue.

Mrs Tappitt had designs on Luke for one of her own daughters and isn’t prepared to let Rachel walk off with the prize without a fight, Mr Tappitt also wants a fight, he’s convinced that brewing good beer will be the ruin of them all and isn’t prepared to be taught his business by a boy half his age. Mrs Rowan senior isn’t happy either, she wants her son to make a more advantageous match and is quite happy to let the Ray’s know it. Mrs Prime is determined to put a spanner in the works whilst at the same time juggling a proposal from Mr Prong (her preacher) who seems as interested in the lady’s money as the lady, and finally Mrs Ray is bought to such a state of doubt that she forces Rachel to break with Luke. How will it all end happily?

The best of Trollope is that his villains are rarely too villainous, or his heroes to heroic – they are all eminently human and in this case it’s very easy to sympathise with the Tappitt’s as well as wondering if Luke really as a steady enough character to be suitable for Rachel. There’s nothing sensational about the plot but it’s a definite page turner, there are times when it seems quite doubtful that there can be a happy ending (though of course we still know there will be). 

Trollope is also excellent on the nuances of class and social position which is particularly fascinating here where he deals almost exclusively with the bourgeoisie and their politics as they relate to the everyday workings of a small rural town. Broadly speaking nothing much has changed in the way these places work in the last 150 years and I do think that it’s his eye for these details that are a great source of Trollope’s strength as a writer. The love story is nothing special, his empathy for his characters is and raises this quite above the ordinary.  

That’s the good – next time I’ll tell you why Trollope is sometimes the most frustrating writer I think I’ve ever read.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Dangerous Time of Year

Seville oranges have appeared at work and despite the fact that my freezer is still inconveniently full of last years haul (I thought I was on top of it until my mother came round with what feels like half a hundredweight more she'd been looking after for me) and I have many, many, jars of marmalade of increasingly unknown vintage hanging around the place I'm finding them hard to resist.

I came late to preserving - or perhaps it's not something one naturally turns to much before one's thirtieth year - but some time not long after then I started to develop an interest, by the time I was thirty five it was more like a passion, possibly when I hit forty it will be a full blown obsession. Meanwhile I'm still acquiring books on the subject, have taken to squirrelling away old jam jars (which friends and family now surrender as a matter of course), peruse the Lakeland Plastics catalogues with the same furtive enthusiasm that teenage boys (presumably still) hold for top shelf magazines, and am £50 away from a maslin pan to call my own.

The most recent book to join the fold is a reprint of what the cover assures me is Beryl Wood's classic 'Let's Preserve It'. It was a Christmas present from mum and I'm delighted with it; a proper A-Z of mostly jams, jellies, marmalades, and chutneys with side lines in the way of vinegars, pickled walnuts, and preserved lemons. So far I've only browsed so it may well be that there are all sorts of other good things in there. I'm strongly reminded of Niki Segnit's 'The Flavour Thesaurus' in the way that so many flavours are paired - it's an approach that I find endlessly beguiling and inspiring (although getting my friends to share my enthusiasm/eat the results of the more picturesque combinations can be an uphill struggle). 

I'm hoping I can resist the urge to buy more Sevilles, given that their season is a short one (only a few weeks) I may do all right and can concentrate on using up existing stores. Discovering a love of marmalade came about the same time as I discovered an enthusiasm for making it, both came like a bolt from the blue some time in 2006 - though even after my damascene moment there's only so much of it I can eat, mint and pineapple jelly however may be a different matter (quince and pumpkin jam however you can probably keep). This is a fascinating little book for the light it shines on previous generations of careful preservers (many of the recipes clearly have a venerable provenance) as well as for world of flavours it's suggesting to me. The instructions are brief to the point of economy so it's perhaps not the best book for a new initiate to the dark arts of preserving but otherwise it shows every sign of being indispensable. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Private Eye - The First 50 Years an A-Z - Adam Macqueen

After my birthday, Christmas, sales, the generosity of Penguin (a huge parcel of Adrian Mole thank you very much) and others, as well as a general lack of self control I think the book situation is getting a bit out of hand. I've spent a good portion of this morning scooping up errant volumes from the floor (where many have been forming precarious towers - not I hope in some sort of escape bid) and piled them all in one place, there is a much smaller stack of books already read. Some of these books have already been mentioned in passing but all cry out for more attention here as well as a more permanent and ordered home on a shelf they can call their own so it looks like I've got my work cut out.

First off the pile is 'Private Eye - The First 50 Years an A-Z', I wanted this from the moment I saw it but held off for lack of funds (and in the hope that someone would give it to me, nobody did) so was delighted to find it half price in Waterstone's when I was uncharacteristically flush. Back in the day, though certainly not including the Al Fayed owned re-launch in the mid 90's, I was generally a fan of Punch - more cartoons less pointed satire. It's a sad admission but my grasp of current affairs isn't quite up to getting the best out of Private Eye, that and without finding it offensive I can't always summon up a sufficient sense of outrage against it's victims - though as I get older that's changing. 

I do however (and can't quite believe I'm admitting this here) have a bit of a crush on Ian Hislop and admire the Eye's publish and be damned attitude as well as the way that it's steered away from sex scandals (which on the whole are probably not in the public interest however amusing they might be from time to time). The more I read about the Eye though the more intrigued I am and each time I put this book down (which isn't easy, the last two nights I've still been flicking through it at 2am hours after picking it up for an intended 10 minutes) it's with an increased conviction that the stories behind and about the magazine are probably more interesting than anything I'll ever find inside it.  

Of course that opinion might change if I read 'Private Eye' more often - which I might; after 50 years it's enough of an institution to appeal to me and Adam Macqueen has done a brilliant job of portraying it as a brilliantly anarchic gang of talents committed to exposing hypocrisy, criminality, and foolishness in those who should know better. I watched an interview with Hislop once where he explained that as editor of the Eye he basically had to be whiter than white - you can't go slinging that much mud if you have skeletons in your own cupboard - and for all those who've complained about their treatment in the Eye it would be well worth remembering that if they'd behaved better in the first place they wouldn't have anything to fear.     

The G-String Murders - Gypsy Rose Lee

I truly hope tonight's browsing history doesn't lead to any particularly colourful spam (on the whole I can't recommend looking for images of vintage G-Strings) but I try to be thorough and some of the wardrobe descriptions in 'The G-String Murders' are rather outside my experience (which is mostly confined to M&S's finest). I have a few of the Femmes Fatales titles from the feminist press but this is one of my favourites (along with Vera Caspary's 'Bedelia') I bought it just before Christmas which looking at the prices now was clearly just in time. 

Given that burlesque has become so popular over the last few years (it's even reached Leicester) it surprises me that this book is all but out of print, it's also a damn good read - Gypsy rose Lee out quips Mae West which is quite impressive. The plot is a bit creaky but the atmosphere, slang, characterisation, and one liners are all brilliant, although I should warn anyone lucky enough to pick up this particular edition that there seems to be a lot of typesetting errors. Not enough to render the book unreadable but enough to be noticeable and annoying, however forewarned is forearmed and however niggly it became it's still such a good book that I didn't care in the end.

Gypsy Rose lee is the eponymous heroine of the book as well as our guide backstage in a burlesque theatre at the seedy end of 1940's New York. There are dancers - many past their best days and resorting to some desperate cosmetic measures, mobsters, impresarios, a lot of drinking, plenty of cat fights, some colourful language - basically you can pretty much smell the smoke and feel your feet sticking to the floor. Unfortunately all is not well at the old opera; Lolita La Verne (who nobody liked) has been found dead, strangled with a G-String, someone has tried to strangle Gypsy, and as if that wasn't enough the Princess Nirvena (blackmailer) also turns up dead in the Gazeeka box (no idea) anyone could be the culprit and it's a question as to whether the killer will be caught because the cops seem more interested in the chorus girls...

I know really pulpy Noir is my thing and not everybody feels the same - but honestly what sensible person could resist an opening like this:
"Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theatre isn't the sort of thing you're likely to forget. Not quickly, anyway. It's the little things, incidents that don't seem important when they happen, that slip your mind.
     With me, for instance. As long as I live, I'll remember seeing that bloated, bluish face, the twisted, naked body, and the glitter of a G string hanging like an earring from the swollen neck. Sometimes, even now, I wake up in a cold sweat with the sounds of a body squashing on the stage, and Dolly Baxter's screams in my ears."

Friday, January 6, 2012


Well I'm back from my break albeit reluctantly and still have a few days off to sort myself out before it's back to work. It's odd to be home, my flat is taking a while to warm up and everywhere I look there are jobs to be done. The biggest and most intimidating of these is to sort out an incipient damp problem, my upstairs neighbour had a leaky pipe which has left my bathroom ceiling in a state - this is no worse now than when I went away so it looks like that problem is under control, unfortunately there seems to be another leak in the airing cupboard. It's going mouldy. I'm not happy.

Upstairs seem nice and will doubtless be helpful but I still foresee weeks if not months of chasing plumbers, house agents, insurance companies and all the other crap that goes along with these things. It's not the start to the New Year I would have chosen but is probably indicative of things to come - the best laid plans and all that. It's also another reason why I'm not making any resolutions this year, I tried last year and felt vaguely frustrated that all the good intentions, small as they were, kept being pushed aside by more insistent issues - this year I'm taking it as it comes, my resolutions will be made and carried out on a daily basis rather than grand ones where I will constantly let myself down by failing to be consistently better organised and such like.

Meanwhile the borders were as lovely as ever, my favourite bookshop (Main street books trading) came up trumps, I read some cracking good books, got disappointed at Glenkinchie distillery (closed due to wind damage) but happily missed the worst of the Scottish gales - although we still saw trees down everywhere - it really blew, froze looking at Melrose Abbey, ate my chocolate reindeer, and generally wish I’d never left.