Saturday, March 31, 2012

Prospect Books

You will never know how hard I fought against the urge to use some sort of pun in the title for this post but I successfully resisted. I am extremely fond of Prospect Books and it's proprietor Tom Jaine, though I must admit with the latter that it's cupboard love; he sends me books from time to time which never fail to delight me be it something like Gereldine Holt's 'Cakes' - just excellent - or Blandine Vie's 'Testicles' which has amused or discombobulated whoever has seen it (reaction is generally dictated by gender). I don't doubt that Tom is charming in real life too, his letters and emails certainly are - such as today when he sent me some copies of his food journal Petits Propos Culinaires (PPC for short). Now I know I've read about it before but I hadn't given it much thought, you get 3 copies a year for £18 (which represents pretty good value compared to  Slightly Foxed and Hortus which it's not at all dissimilar to) and I will be subscribing immediately (stopping only to blog about it first). 

As Tom says (I hope he doesn't mind me calling him Tom) "Had it been founded in the last 5 years rather than in 1980, it would most likely have been a blog and you might think that we would be best advised to convert to electronic publication at full speed. But there are plenty of people who still enjoy the printed word, find a small book fits more easily into the reticule or brief case, can be consulted at ease on the throne or be cuddled closely in bed. So we stick with the printed form." 

Well I prefer the printed form and enjoy food history; the two hours I spent on buses today was rendered much more enjoyable by the copy of PPC I read. The illustrations are black and white and there are no recipes - this isn't food porn, instead what you get are a series of thoughtful and thought provoking articles about food writing, it's history, and again quoting Tom "...what might charitably be called ethnography and some frivolities to lighten the mix." My favourite section though is the book reviews which range from the lengthy and erudite to the short and pithy. 

Talking about 'Honey and Preserves' (the little Fortnum and Mason book) the other day I touched on a growing feeling of over exposure towards all those lavishly photographed personality heavy cook books. The best food writer I've ever read is Jane Grigson, her books are wonderful; full of anecdote, history, and excellent  reliable recipes all of which come with a provenance (I like my wines to reflect their terroir* and prefer food which does something similar) there are no pictures. Prospect's books do the same thing, amongst other activities they showcase good writing, the history of our food culture (which is pretty much the history of our culture) the slightly off beat (Testicles and Tripe) and what to do with single crop gluts (Rhubarb and Courgettes) it's exciting. 

Publishers like this deserve attention and support - they make my shelves more interesting, but there books aren't always the easiest to find - seek them out and at least take a look at what they have to offer.

*Terroir loosely translates as a sense of place - it refers to the geography, geology, and climate of a vineyard  all of which should go to make a wine that's unique to its own particular spot. There's a sort of romance in the idea which appeals to me and once you've had a surfeit of identi-kit fruit forward wines (think of every new world sauvignon blanc you've had under a tenner) something distinctive is a blessing. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A scene of mild excitement

Browsing through Nikki Duffy's 'Herbs' book (currently by my bed because I keep picking it up for inspiration) I found a promise that Lemongrass is easy to grow from the stalks you can buy in supermarkets - all you need to do is find one with good bit of the brown heel/base at the bottom of the stalk. I don't use a lot of Lemongrass at the moment but it sounded like a good idea so I duly picked up the last packet on the shelf after work which fortuitously had the required brown bit and carried it home in triumph. I figured that for 79p I wouldn't mind if it didn't work. 

More traditionally spring like image
That was a month ago and the Lemongrass failed to either die or grow which was quietly disconcerting (reading up on it again in 'Herbs' I realise how much it likes the heat - it seems it won't do anything in winter) if it wasn't doing anything I expected it to get slimy and disgusting at least, but it didn't and I kept giving it another chance until finally on Tuesday the sun did it's work and something looked different - inspection has revealed roots coming out (doesn't look very appealing at the moment but I'm sure it'll get better) and I'm really quiet pleased. Watching things grow never fails to feel a bit like magic. It's also very satisfactory to bring a bit of spring inside a garden-less city flat, I miss growing things that I can fuss over daily on a regular basis - long may the Lemongrass thrive.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Honey and Preserves

My friend C came round on Sunday evening to commiserate with me over the waterfall* that used to be my airing cupboard (plumber has identified the problem and is quoting the flat's owner what will no doubt be a large amount of money to fix it - everything has gone very quiet. Apart from in my flat where the steady drip, drip, drip of water is becoming increasingly hard to block out.) Eventually we got to talking about cookbooks - she was asking me what I thought of Rachel Khoo - I said she annoyed me; not you understand based on her book or tv show, I've not managed to catch the latter and haven't read the former, my prejudices are based on her little Paris flat being presumably leak free and an over abundance of large and stylish cookbooks on the market. 

In the end it turned out I was annoyed by just about everything and everybody (I don't know what's put me in such a bad mood recently...) but the cook books I do get enthusiastic about are the small fit in your pocket type. I loved 'Tea at Fortnum and Mason' when it came out a couple of years ago and so could fairly be described as over excited when I saw a companion volume had been released - 'Honey and Preserves'. This one is mostly full of the sort of things your grandest aunt probably serves her guests at dinner parties (salmon in a warm cucumber sauce and the like) but there's a surprising amount of inspiration (and information) packed into this really quite small book. There's a description of the Fortnums beehives which makes me long to see them - they sound both grand and fun at the same time (to an architecture geek anyway) and a refreshing lack of personality. Like the shop there is a distinct identity, but it's unobtrusive - if there is a philosophy it's delivered in a slightly tongue in cheek fashion - this is about the finer things in life and a certain old fashioned traditionalism.

It's a refreshing approach and as I read things out to my partner - despite him being full of a very good dinner- he's salivating (it was mention of a whisky custard that did it). He is in all probability another reason why I've come to particularly like small (but perfectly formed) cookbooks; he doesn't have many (I have about 100 for every 1 he has) but I can sneak the small ones in - the same when we go to stay with my fathers Aga - this fits neatly into a suitcase/handbag/pocket... Not to be dismissed as a novelty item.

*This is only a very small exaggeration.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Findings - Kathleen Jamie

It's spring and my reading at least (as you may have noticed) has led me off into wilder countryside than my work bound self can currently manage. One book has lead to another in a way that leaves me wondering how I'd managed to miss coming across them for so long, an effect that's heightened by reading non fiction from a group of writers who if not closely linked were certainly aware of each other and reference accordingly. If nothing else it's given my amazon recommends list a good shake up - which is where I fist noticed Kathleen Jamie's new book 'Sightlines'. It has a particularly beautiful cover - deep blue sky and gannets and I will admit to being hooked in by it. It's not out for another week or two but that's given me time to catch up with 'Findings' (almost as pretty and also from Sort Of books).

Until now Jamie's work had passed me by - and this despite any number of enthusiastic reviews, awards, and general approval - which is disappointing but hardly surprising given that I read in a sort of bubble the limits of which are what catch my eye in my local bookshops (a reasonable but not extensive or overly imaginative range), that which other bloggers recommend (but then I tend to follow people who like the same sort of books I do so it's still a limited scope), and whatever amazon throws at me courtesy of its frequently baffling programme (often surprising and offbeat, not so often hitting the spot). Where do you go to meet new books?

'Findings' itself turned out a perfect delight. It's a series of shortish essays about things Jamie has given her attention to. There are a lot of birds and quite a few beaches, meditations on darkness and light, thoughts about language and experience - especially mortality, and quite a bit about the power of place. I like short essays, like short stories they make for perfect break time reading. 'Findings' had an extraordinary ability to pull me in and shut out the rest of the world which is exactly what I want, and need, over lunch at work, or on the bus, or even in bed before sleep, and because each essay is perfect and complete in itself it's easy to put it down when the allotted time is up.

It's also a book about seeing things, a dead whale, a skull, a spiders web, a bird, a weather vane, all become remarkable under Jamie's gaze but after due consideration though the thing that really set 'Findings' apart from the common run of things for me is that she keeps asking questions; both of herself and her reader, sometimes, but not always, there are answers. There is always something to think about though and I love that. 

March in the Midlands is when spring really kicks in, everything growing is noticeably greener, leafier, taller on a daily basis, and even without the clocks changing today it's felt so much lighter every evening. I find it an unsettling time of year, morning sunlight isn't kind to my flat - it shows up the wear and tear which makes me restless, I feel like I'm missing to much. Reading how Jamie sees the world around her is quietly inspiring in ways I can't explain without falling into cliché, I'm really looking forward to 'Sightlines'. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012


There was an interesting article in one of the weekend papers about pirating ebooks - something I've never given any thought to before but I keep coming back to it now, not least because it chimed with an earlier piece, and my own experience, of shop lifting in bookshops. The gist of the article was that an author had seen somewhere on line somebody offering a reward to anyone who would pirate his new (and I think début) novel. He wasn't best pleased but attempted to engage in conversation with the would be thief.

The initial explanation boiled down to this: I want the book, I don't want to pay for it, I don't have to, and what can you do about it? Other justifications include 'I've already bought the book in another format why should I pay again', 'it's not available as a paid for ebook in my region', 'it's more expensive than a paper book (which I don't want) and that's not fair', 'I don't know if I'll like it and don't want to spend my money until I know I will', and the one that makes me want to slap whoever says it - 'knowledge should be free'. This is the sort of reasoning that makes me yell at the screen/radio/paper -"What about a LIBRARY you cretin".

The dishonesty involved in pinching something is one thing, but it's also something I imagine we've all done in some form - stationary from work, the thing you borrowed... The souvenir peat from Laphroaig distillery (that might just be me). What I struggle with is how people will try and justify stealing an authors work - there's really no argument against the 'I can and I will' attitude but if you're going so far as to make an excuse you know you're wrong - don't you?

Frankly if you can afford an e-reader (and all the free stuff out there isn't enough for you) you can sure as dammit afford to pay for the books of living authors trying to make ends meet - and if you don't want to do that do without - or go to a library, show there's a need for them and help keep them open. 

I know the genie is out the bottle on this one, there's no going back to a more civilised way of doing business - you know, when we bought actual things with actual cash money (and probably spent time balancing cheque books too) but as someone who works in retail the way people steal things bothers me - it's frightening if people don't admit they're doing it. There's no such thing as a victimless crime, we all pay one way or another, and the more things taken without payment the more those who do pay have to cough up - and that's not fair either. In my own little world,  where books are still strictly the paper sort, most of my purchases are second hand - which isn't great for authors incomes either, but then most the writers I favour are dead so I don't suppose they mind so much (it could be better news for the publishers though) but if this rant had a purpose (and I admit it might not) it's that this has been another reminder to think about how I spend my money.     

Monday, March 19, 2012

Domestic disaster improved by cake

Because there's some sort of intermittent leak coming from the flat above my airing cupboard looks like this. It used to be full of linens, towels, warming socks, and everything else I wasn't sure what to do with. The leaks been a problem since the new year when I first noticed it but it's been sneaky and most of the time the ceiling has been dry to touch. The last few days however I've caught it out (can you tell how much this is getting on my nerves...). For no reason either I, or my upstairs neighbour, or apparently the plumber employed by his letting agency, can fathom - it's only the last one that worries me - water's coming from somewhere, and only seems to be doing so around about lunchtime. It might help if the plumber was prepared to have a proper look.

This is why, after dispatching a suitcase full of blankets and spare duvet to my mother's thankfully dry house, I spent hours clearing my wardrobe to put the rest of the bits in there. By about midnight everything was neatly stowed away and I thought I might get almost a nights sleep. then I went to set the alarm on my mobile. I couldn't find my mobile. The last time I saw my mobile was on the bed with all the things to go in the wardrobe, 20 minutes hopeful searching revealed nothing. There was nothing for it but to haul everything back out of the wardrobe where finally the phone revealed itself in the depths of a pillowcase, needless to say approaching 1am  nothing went back in neatly. Which is why my wardrobe now looks like this. 

Fortunately it was a half day for me at work and only 5 hours sleep perhaps helped me make the man who has to tell the plumber to pull up somebody else's floorboards believe it's something he Will Have To Do. I hope so anyway not least because I'd hate to think the fraught conversation I had whilst balanced on a stepladder inside the airing cupboard listening to water dripping from Somewhere was a waste of time.

After all that I made cake, Dan Lepard's (I should be on commission) semolina cake from The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. Sadly it's not in 'Short and Sweet' which is fast filling up with cuttings from his column, but this one is a winner. I was looking around for a good recipe for Revani last year and finally this is basically it. the texture is perfect - light and sticky and delicious. It does sound like a lot of syrup but the semolina soaks it up perfectly and it was very simple to throw together. Totally recommended.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Isles of the West - Ian Mitchell

This is one of the Scottish ones books which I don't normally touch (he's more careful with his books than I am with mine, and if he has something tempting that's hard to track down the temptation to 'borrow' it might be overwhelming) but I was struggling to get to grips with what I'd taken to read this weekend and after hearing that Mitchell had written about Tex Geddes I thought I'd have a browse. Tex Geddes was a harpoon gunner with Gavin Maxwell in the Soay shark fishery days and bought the island after Maxwell went bust, by all accounts quite a character, and definitely someone who will bear further investigation if his obituary is anything to go by.

Mitchell took to him straight away when he visited in 1996 and writes an entertaining chapter about the occasion and some of the stories told - he mostly wanted to know about Gavin Maxwell which encouraged me to read more. Unfortunately the book doesn't have an index and as I'd also seen mentions of Frank Fraser Darling it seemed worth investigating amazon - where the reviews are mixed to say the least of it (the price of the first copy I found was also unattractive, though further searching has revealed cheaper ones). Intrigued I spent the rest of the day reading on and have now skimmed my way through most of the book. 

I had assumed that 'Isles of the West' and the later 'Isles of the North' were generally about sailing and islands, instead 'Isles of the West' is mostly a crusade against the RSPB, Scottish National Heritage, and any other major conservation body or figure Mitchell comes across. None of these bodies lack detractors in the highlands and islands where ideas about conservation are almost guaranteed to clash with the opinions of crofters and fishermen set on making a living out of the same landscape. In 1996 when the future of Eigg was a hotly debated news topic this was timely and iconoclastic. (Hebridean island with a loathed laird, the outcome was a community buyout in 1997 - I dimly remember this being in the papers.) 

Since then views about conservation and the make up of Island communities have changed considerably, tourism is bigger than ever, property prices have gone through the roof, and incomers have kept on coming in. What's left is occasionally troubling. In an attempt to get answers about how much money has been spent on Corncrake preservation Mitchell frankly bullies hapless RSPB wardens (and then gleefully reports it which makes for odd reading) he has nothing but condemnation for Frank Fraser Darling which may for all I know be well deserved, but dismissing him as a morbidly obsessed seal eater seems a bit extreme, from my recent reading their respective philosophies for the future of the highlands didn't seem so very far apart - both seem to advocate traditional and diverse farming practices as the best way to protect the environment, and both seem convinced that the western isles can be productive farm land. I think he would have had a pop at Maxwell to if he could have got any dirt (and it isn't for lack of trying that he doesn't get any). 

It's an interesting book with a lot to say - much of it worth saying, and one day I should read it properly and try and get past both Mitchell's prejudices and my own. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St Patrick's Day and a bit of Recycling

Last years shamrock biscuits. The green glitter still lingers.
I'm at the Scottish ones this weekend where I have mostly been trying to dig a hole in heavy clay soil with a view to planting things in it - I hope after all the effort they thrive. Now that I'm back in the warm with a cup of tea my mind has turned to cake; we don't have any and the Scottish one isn't a baker so his kitchen lacks the means for me to make one, but if I was at home I'd be baking a Guinness cake in honour of St Patrick's day and because it's delicious. 

I recommend my sister's version which is dense, chocolaty, and splendid (last written about 2 years ago and definitely time to bake again)
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.

Nigella's version which is a little lighter and more adaptable to being turned into cupcakes can be found here (which is where the picture is pinched from as sadly I didn't take a photo of Sophie's offering which was every bit as good looking). 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ring of Bright Water - Gavin Maxwell

Little Toller Books have turned out to be a joyous discovery - and one more reason to be thankful for Gavin Maxwell. My original copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' started to fall apart last time I read it and is now kept for sentimental rather than practical reasons. For a while the only version in print was an abridged amalgamation of 'Ring of Bright Water' and its two sequels; 'The Rocks Remain', and 'Raven Seek Thy Brother', it's not a format that appeals to me so I was delighted to find Ring not only back in print, but in such a handsome form. The cover illustration is particularly apt - it's a detail from Winifred Nicholson's 'Bonnie Scotland' and I'm assuming it's a view from Maxwell's Camusfearna (she was a regular visitor and if I had an outrageous amount of money I would have loved to buy this) and I can't imagine anything capturing the spirit of the book better.

I've read 'Ring of Bright Water' any number of times and each time it's a slightly different book, undoubtedly because each time I'm a different person so there were surprises. Memory associates it exclusively with otters and the small patch of the highlands Maxwell came to call home but the otters don't appear until half way through, the whole first half of the book is an evocation of Camusfearna (really Sandaig, but Maxwell wanted to protect his privacy and the place he writes about has become so much a place of fable that his name for it seems more appropriate than a specific geographical location).

The way he tells it he was casually handed the keys to his spirtual home by a friend from university days whilst he (Maxwell) was attempting to earn a living as a portrait painter after the failure of the Soay project. It's love from the beginning and so begins a new phase of life, the chance find of a barrel top from the shark fishery leads to the writing of 'Harpoon at a Venture' and the death of his dog Jonnie leads to the search for a new animal companion. On a trip amongst the marsh Arabs of Iraq with Wilfred Thesiger he buys an otter cub, she doesn't live long but just before he leaves the country he acquires another - it's the beginning of an obsession which will last for the rest of his life. The otter section of the book is both funny and heartbreaking. Mijbil the otter who barely makes it back to the UK alive is with him for a year and a day before his untimely end.  

The grief that colours the whole book is at it's rawest re-living that year and its aftermath. Mijbil was an otter sub species previously unknown to science and so is named after his owner - as Maxwell says "he belonged to the only race of living creature that was ever likely to bear my name", he's aware that the love he lavished on that beast makes him slightly ridiculous but he's prepared to expose himself to it anyway. 

There are a hundred things I could say about this book, but as I've been told the quotes I chose from 'Harpoon at a Venture' were stomach churning I'll leave the last words to Maxwell to redress the balance and because they sum up how I feel about the book as a whole.

"It is October, and I have been for six unbroken months at Camusfearna. the stags are roaring on the slopes of Skye across the Sound, and yesterday the wild swans passed flying southwards low over a lead-grey sea. The ring of tide-wrack round the bay is piled high with fallen leaves borne down the burn, and before a chill sea wind they are blown racing and scurrying up the sands. the summer, with its wild roses and smooth blue seas lapping white island beaches, is over; the flower of the heather is dead and the scarlet rowan berries fallen. Beyond are the brief twilight days of winter, when the waterfall will thunder white over flat rocks whose surface was hot to bare feet under summer suns, and the cold, salt-wet wind will rattle the windows and moan in the chimney. This year I shall not be there to see and hear these things; home is for me as yet a fortress from which to essay raid and foray, an embattled position behind whose walls one may retire to lick new wounds and plan fresh journeys to further horizons. yet while there is time there is the certainty of return."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Danish Pastry

As a break from the West coast of Scotland here's what I've been baking. I've wanted to have a go at Danish pastry ever since finding a recipe in Nigella's 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' but unfortunately the dough demands to be left overnight and I've never been that organised. Dan Lepard's recipe in this weeks Guardian here is a shortcut version which can be done in an afternoon so I thought I'd have a go. I'm used to my pastries shop style - very crisp and flaky so these aren't entirely what I wanted/ expected. It may be that there are no shortcuts, or it may be that I was heavy handed with the pastry and the butter got to thoroughly blended in, either way the result was surprisingly cake-y. The raisin pastries were better than the chocolate ones - which looked like pain au chocolat but just weren't the same as the ones you buy.

We ate the pretty ones first.
This is a recipe I'll try again - just in case I can make it better, but for now no good patisserie counter has anything to fear from me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Harpoon At A Venture - Gavin Maxwell

On Thursday I was in London for the  Penguin bloggers evening. This is a rare treat for me, train fares are prohibitive, and work hours have to be negotiated but this particular evening was to tempting to miss. One of the unexpected highlights was a conversation with Robert Macfarlane*, I liked 'The Wild Places' which I read long enough ago to not remember much about, and am quietly excited about his new book 'The Old Ways' (and only partly because I managed to grab a proof copy). What was really exciting though was finding that we were both very enthusiastic about Maxwell's 'Harpoon At A Venture', I've never met anyone else who's ever read it, much less loved it before and yet this is a book that deserves classic status quite as much as (if not more than) 'Ring of Bright Water'.

I've been talking about 'Harpoon At A Venture' a bit recently which made me realise it's years since I last read it and a re-visit was long overdue. When I first found this book I was in my early teens and read it as a straight adventure story, one that was particularly attractive because it was set on the west coast. Reading it this time I was surprised by how big a role the war and it's aftermath play. It all starts in an air raid in 1940, the battle of Britain is at it's height and Maxwell is stationed with 2 other officers and 200 men near the Blackwall tunnel and East India Docks. They think their moment has come one night but the bomb fails to explode, out in the crisp autumn dawn after the all clear he finds the bomb in a churchyard where he realises the crypt is being used as a shelter, opening the doors he's "hit by a stifling wave of air so noisome that I retched even at its first impact. The temperature was that of a Kew hothouse, the stench indescribable...One hundred and twelve people had been in that airless crypt for seven hours." The people in the crypt, which has become a cesspit during its occupation, are in no hurry to be disturbed, nothing has ever made the blitz seem more horrible or real to me than that description (much of which I've left out). 

Later on, after a disconcerting (for the reader) encounter with a naked guardsman in the showers, Maxwell and a friend daydream about buying Hebridean islands after the war as suitably clean and fresh alternatives to the rubble and filth of London. It's an idea that stays with him and as the war ends he negotiates to buy Soay. This is where the problems begin, for Maxwell realises from the beginning that a life of quiet retirement won't do - peacetime is dull - Soay needs a project. A chance encounter with a basking shark seems to give the answer, and it's a mark of how good a story teller Maxwell is that when you find his reaction to the shark is to shoot 300 rounds into it you're still with him. This is the start of a mission to kill a shark (the 300 rounds don't do it) and the birth of the shark fishery plan.

What follows is a chase that the sharks win again and again, until finally they succeed and catch one. For Maxwell and his crew it seems to be as much about the thrill of the chase as the catch which is perhaps why in planning terms they mess up again and again. By the time 'Harpoon At A Venture' was written he can admit that failure was almost guaranteed from the beginning of an under capitalised scheme where nobody had a clue what they were doing. It took 5 years for that to really become clear during which time Maxwell lost everything (though almost miraculously it seems he managed to protect the investment of others.)

There are echo's of that first dockland scene - a beach on Scalpay is transformed into a charnel house of dismembered sharks, the sea red with blood but this is as nothing to the contamination of Soay. The factory fails to work efficiently, the harbour fills with scum and carrion - none of the clean escapism planned in 1940, and worst of all a brine tank is tainted. Unfortunately it contained 16 tonnes of shark flesh.
 "For a wave of air so noisome, so active, and evil, it is difficult to find comparison...Ammonia, dense, suffocating, and almost visible...the smell of the Blackwall crypt seven years before was no more than a pale presage of what my illusory Island of Avalon had to offer me now... It was alive, heaving, seething, an obscene sea such as Brueghel might have conceived, alive as the sanctuary of Beelzebub himself, with a million million grubs, twisting, turning, writhing, as though beneath that surface layer of putrescence were the struggling bodies of all the wounded but resurrected dragons that we had attacked and that had escaped us." 

Despite the business failure though there is success of a sort here, it comes in the form of high adventure, life and death struggles with both the sharks and the elements, and escape from austerity Britain. There is a heartbreaking letter from a boy of 22 who finds himself trapped in a marriage to a woman he neither loves or is loved by - he's willing to throw his life savings into the shark venture in return for a job and escape.

As a piece of nature writing it's worth remembering that almost nothing was known about Basking Sharks before the Soay project - scientifically something important came out of this mess. the Hebrides in all there stark, stripped back beauty, and especially its seas are alive on the page. There are continual observations of birds and beasts of every sort, meticulous and poetic at the same time. There is also the conundrum of how to live in and off a landscape without destroying it - a question we still have no satisfactory answer for. It's a tremendous book whichever way you look at it and badly needs to be bought back into print - not least because my copy has now started to fall apart and wants replacing.

*I wish I'd taken notes when I talked to him although that would probably have been a bit off putting... A lot of books were mentioned some of which I remember, some of which I can't quite bring to mind, all sounded interesting and would have born further investigation. Still, the list I have is quite long enough to be going on with and will inevitably lead to yet more books so all is not lost. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Island Years Island Farm - Frank Fraser Darling

There's an island theme emerging at the moment - I'm on a roll and enjoying it so there's more to come. 'Island Years Island Farm' felt like a book that had been waiting for me most my adult life - it's curious that amazon have never tried to make me buy it, as it was I saw it when I was eyeing up a new copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' (there was a display of Little Toller Books - it's a fantastic looking series of classic nature writing and worth looking up here).

This was one of those books that it surprises me not to have met long ago. Googling Frank Fraser Darling doesn't reveal much either, there is a standard blurb about his work in the Scottish islands with his wife Bobbie but very little more. It seems that he was a prominent environmental campaigner, researcher, philosopher, and visionary. Clearly a much respected man and I wonder if that's why there's not more information about his personal life, normally this wouldn't bother me but this is an intimate sort of book, and from the moment that the introduction by his son Alisdair referred to Bobbie as his fathers first wife I was curious. From what little I've found the Fraser Darling marriage broke down not long after the original publication of 'Island Farm' and Frank went on to have two more wives and three more children. It's pertinent because 'Island Farm' is full of plans for a future that clearly never happened and I was left wondering what happened to the croft on Tanera Mor.

Indeed it's the only (very little) fault (and perhaps only in my eyes) with the book and it's presentation - originally two books 'Island Years' and 'Island Farm' Little Toller have melded them into one (this isn't an omnibus) the joins are pretty seamless, the time line is sometimes a bit confusing, but I think that may have been the case anyway and the Scottish one didn't notice any discrepancies (he's generally far more pedantic than I am). I think there should be a little bit more about what Bobbie went on to do with her life in the introduction, she's a shadowy but crucial part of the narrative, I hope she went on to do something that made her happy.

For anyone who's ever dreamed of living on a remote island or bit of coast line this is a must read book. The Fraser Darlings met at agricultural college in the twenties and quickly married. Frank went on to do a Ph.D in Edinburgh before heading off to research red deer in the highlands. It seems that he and Bobbie had a love of wild places and dreamt of living on an island. Eventually they got funding to study bird life on Eilean A' Chleirich and went off with a small child in tow to live in a couple of tents for more months than would seem feasible. After Eilean A' Chleirich came stints on North Rhona, Treshnish, and finally Tanera Mor where they  rescued a derelict croft, and as war breaks over the rest of Europe Frank and Bobbie labour to bring it back into production. (Frank was considered to old for active service and then manages to break his leg on his way to milking a cow, but a sense of guilt and frustration is palpable as news keeps coming through of friends being blitzed or taken prisoner).

Otherwise my own experience tells me that this is a particularly accurate view of Island life in Scotland. There is the almost constant presence of the wind with the corresponding wonder of a calm day. The rewards of living so close to not just land, but also sea, and sky when you have to learn to accommodate to the environment around - if the wind blows and the tide is against you there's sometimes no way off an island. If you can accept that though the pay off is seeing things denied to others, knowing a place intimately shore to shore and having it's secrets revealed to you, that and a very primitive satisfaction in being the only ones to see it.

Although written in the 1940's it's only very rarely that this book feels like a period piece, mostly because if you choose to live somewhere very isolated not much has changed - links to the outside world are still sometimes tenuous and the weather can still cut you off. The thought of casting off possessions and expectations to live an entirely stripped back kind of life is seductive despite the sacrifices it would call for (although I have no romantic illusions about living in a tent and don't suppose I would thrive as a small holder). 'Island Years Island Farm'  is after everything a timely read though. It's salutary to realise that the message to reduce, reuse, recycle is old, old, news. There's a lot to think about in this book, as well as a lot of entertainment (and for me at least a lot of nostalgia). I can't recommend it highly enough.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stuck In A Book

This week Simon at Stuck In A Book is doing a my life in books series - today he's got Karyn from A Penguin A Week and me. This is the second time that he's run the series, it was excellent last time and is excellent again. Simon's brother's revelations about the music tastes of the young stuck in a book are my highlight so far and are going to be hard to beat but bookwise there's still a lot to look forward to. 
the comfy dog picture has no relevance - it's purely decorative. But he does look comfy. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Shetland Rambles - Mairi Hedderwick

From Sark to Shetland - 'Mr Pye' (and booking a summer escape to the North) has set me to reading some of the unread island books I have around the place. This is a treat, I'm very fond of small islands and if I can't be on one I can at least look at pictures and read about them. Mairi Hedderwick is best known for her 'Katie Morag' books (about a little girl on Coll) and a quick look at her wikipedia entry makes it clear she's been well and truly bitten by the island bug - by my count she's tried to leave Coll only to return a few years later about 4 times. Islands are like that, they get a grip on you so that nowhere else will feel like home.

Initially I wanted this book for the pictures - it's a sort of travelogue wherein Hedderwick spends a summer travelling around Shetland following in the footsteps of the Victorian artist John T. Reid attempting to paint what he painted on his original trip in the 1860's. It sounds like a dream project really and the sets of illustrations (Reid's engravings, Hedderwick's watercolours) would be enough to sell the book, but there's also a surprising amount of text. I only know Hedderwick from her children's books so hadn't imagined she would have so much to say. (I don't know why I was only expecting pictures but there you are - with hindsight I'm quite ashamed of that).

She's an interesting companion, must be quite redoubtable as she's in her 70's and chose to spend an northern summer sleeping in the back of an ancient Landrover (the Countess), and is a woman of decided opinions. It's fascinating to see a place I know well through somebody else's eyes and prejudices. It annoys her that the hotels and guest houses are all full (in the middle of the season) when she turns up without reservations, indeed other tourists are always in the way, and there's plenty of space to dwell on the wrong doings of the landed classes. It seems incredible to her that Reid could have enjoyed the hospitality of these people rather than denigrating them - which seems to miss the point of Victorian society (people with no money can't afford much in the way of art either). 

She also has a terrific empathy with the Islanders she meets, and a great deal of clear sightedness about the problems which face fragile island communities. Hedderwick fell in love with Coll in the 60's when mainland life hadn't quite invaded and she's clearly looking for somewhere that's still relatively untouched, for better or worse though you can't stop progress and so there's a definite sense of sadness and nostalgia running through the book. Balancing that though are plenty of great stories - old scandals, legends, ghost stories, and pen portraits of the people she meets. There is also the satisfying climax of finding some rare Reid originals in Buness house in Unst - the very northernmost tip of the U.K. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mr Pye - Mervyn Peake

For the record I didn't get very far with Gormenghast (it was Lord of the Rings all over again - half way through the trilogy and I found I just didn't give a damn), despite that when I saw 'Mr Pye' in the Main street bookshop I was drawn to it. It's lucky thing that bookshops like this one make me feel that it's a positive duty (as well as a joy) to spend money otherwise I'd never have bought this book and that would have been a shame - it's a glorious little book in all it's oddities.

'Mr Pye' is something between a fairy tale and magic realism - although neither description/categorisation really does justice to the book. The Mr Pye of the title is an energetic evangelist who has more than a passing resemblance to a penguin. He's a happy soul who's determined to bring universal love and harmony to the island of Sark - not an easy task, but he sets to with a will starting with his landlady Miss Dredger and her sworn enemy Miss George. Miss Dredger is a willing disciple and at first all seems to go well, at just the moment when Mr Pye is about to bring the Sarkese round to his vision of the Great Pal (at a midnight picnic with an armchair bound Miss George descending a cliff care of some sturdy ropes and even sturdier fishermen as a finale to the evening) he's upstaged by a small and very dead whale.

From there on in things get strange for Harold Pye - he starts to grow wings and it appals him. In desperation he turns to sin in the hope that they'll disappear. They do but only to be replaced by horns - which leads to an extremely stressful time for Mr Pye as he struggles to find a balance between good and evil that will allow him to remain merely a man. It's a doomed struggle and it would take someone much better versed in the dark arts of literary criticism (or who understands it all) to tease out the symbolism and meaning therein. I did read some bits and pieces from around the net about 'Mr Pye' which were interesting but nagging at the back of my mind all the time is the thought that perhaps Peake just wanted to have a bit of fun. There are some lovely jokes in this book, my favourite being a riposte to the possibility of air born Russian invasion - a murmuration of Stalin's (it reads better than I repeat it). There are also several descriptions of the local femme fatale Tintagieu that are laugh out load funny (but again better read in context than repeated). 

The final strand of the story, and the one that lead me to buy the book in the first place, is Sark itself. The island is lovingly described, all it's nooks, crannies, and idiosyncrasies explored; it is as much a character in the book as Mr Pye himself - or anyone else for that mater and I certainly can't resist a good island story. This is a thoroughly rewarding book, odd, funny, and thought provoking, in equal measure.