Monday, May 28, 2012

An Academic Question - Barbara Pym

The latest Barbara Pym to be reissued by Virago is a bit of a departure from the Pym I'm used to. It hails from her time in the wilderness when she couldn't get her novels published and whilst the first draft was finished in 1971 'An Academic Question' first appeared  in 1986 (6 years after Pym died), sometime in-between she had rewritten it in an attempt to make it more contemporary 'to swing' even (horrible thought) but the existing version is an amalgamation of the two versions along with notes that Pym's literary executor put together. 

There is a slightly apologetic introduction that explains this isn't Pym's masterpiece, and fair enough it maybe isn't, but it's a lot better than I expected after reading the intro. I except that Pym doesn't write naturally about motherhood or marriage but she does a terrific job of capturing the awkwardness of essentially conservative people trying to be liberal with their manners and morals. 

Told from the viewpoint of Caro Grimstone the graduate wife of rising young academic Alan, all the action takes place against the background of a provincial university. Caro, much to her mother's disappointment didn't manage to make it to Oxford or Cambridge, and didn't manage to marry the Byronic David, now a successful politician. Alan she considers to be somewhat below her daughter. Caro herself has reached something of a dead end. Having married Alan straight out of university she's never had any sort of career, he doesn't want her assistance with his work, and their daughter is looked after by a capable au pair. She has rather a new house, very self consciously modern with furniture that's already looking shabby, they take The Guardian, and Caro even has a gay best friend.

It's a situation that's almost as foul as it sounds, the gloss is off the marriage and life for Caro is rather empty. For something to do she starts to read to the elderly; the old man she reads to was once a missionary and anthropologist, just the field her husband is in. It's an opportunity that he exploits to steal some papers that will give him the chance to make his reputation whilst getting one over on a senior and highly respected colleague.

Caro's life of leisure, complete with good works, is quite Victorian and raises the question of what do you do with your life when you don't have much personal ambition? Having help in the house is clearly a sign of success , as is not having to work - but again what does it leave? Caro's friend Kitty who represents an older generation, and who used to live a life of colonial luxury on a Caribbean island until a minor coup made it all rather uncomfortable, had no such problems. She sees it as woman's role to be decorative, her occupation, which she finds absorbing is to 'preserve' herself and dress, and yet her life is undoubtedly more satisfying than Caro's.

Kitty's sister Dolly also lives in the town running a junk shop and keeping hedgehogs - she doesn't worry about being successful and is also happy, and again it raises questions. It might not be Pym at her best but it's still really good.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jubilee Sort of Plans

I can take or leave the Olympics – the few events I might be interested in watching I’ll inevitably miss, and quite frankly as far as I’m concerned it might as well have been in Paris. I also resent the way anything to do with the games is so fiercely protected - reserved for the exclusive use of sponsors which seems somehow at odds with the amateur spirit of it all, also the merchandising is naff. The Queens Diamond Jubilee I feel quite differently about – much better merchandising, an extra day off (though not for me just yet because I’ll be working - which I’m inclined to sulk about at the moment, but it can’t be helped) and something it’s much easier for anybody (who isn’t stuck at work) to join in with if they wish. Also the Jubilee is good for business (why I have to work).

The Queen visited Leicester to kick off her Jubilee tour (lucky woman) and whether you’re a fan of monarchy or not what was most noticeable about the day was the variety of people turning out (for a multicultural city we don’t always mix well), a great atmosphere, and a collective forming of happy memories the none of which ought to be underestimated. Work or not I intend to mark the occasion, marmalade made with gold leaf on my morning toast ought to introduce a festive air, there may be a little baking, and I should be able to find a novel or two to put me in the right frame of mind.

The general love of all things retro that we’ve embraced as a country for the last few years could have been tailor made for a Diamond Jubilee (I do like those official pictures of the queen from the fifties – the ones that still have a Victorian feel to them) and if I can fit some baking in I intend for it to be something from Peyton and Byrne’s ‘British Baking’ book. Browsing through it there are no end of things which would grace any street party/console someone who isn’t invited to a street party/delight someone who doesn’t give a damn for street parties.

Book wise I was half playing with the idea of re reading A.S Byatt’s ‘The Virgin In The Garden’ which has the coronation as it’s background. I read and enjoyed it some years ago though it’s likely that a lot of it went over my head at the time. In ‘Portraits in Fiction’ Byatt talks a bit about this book – it would certainly be a high brow option.

Whilst looking for ‘The Virgin In The Garden’ I found ‘Riders’ (printed by Corgi...) I imagine the Queen has this and it would probably be more fun to read it, interesting too, to see how it holds up after all these years. Would it feel like a ‘classic’ waiting to be recognised or will it just stink of the eighties? On reflection I think I might save it for the Olympics which I believe feature somewhere in the action and it might just lift my general indifference to the occasion.

Delafield’s ‘The Diary of a Provincial Lady’ also looks good for a re read – again it’s been a long time, and whilst it pre dates the new Elizabethan age it has the right retro vibe to it, and it’s funny. In fact looking at it I can’t believe how long it is since I read these books.

There are also books I haven’t already read which are looking good. Barbara Pym’s ‘Civil To Strangers’ should evoke the fifties just nicely and is on my to be read soon pile. Another book I found whilst looking for something else is an omnibus of Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott - volume 2, did I ever have volume 1 I wonder, and can anybody tell me if these are any good? It is from the right period though and might be fun too. Any other suggestions for evocative summer reading gratefully received...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Portraits in Fiction - A.S Byatt

I've had this little book for a long time now, it was a present from a friend the best part of a decade ago and has sat unread on various shelves ever since until I came across it looking for something else a couple of days ago and suddenly it looked very tempting.

'Portraits in Fiction' is based on the Heywood Hill lecture given at the National Portrait Gallery in 2000 - it's been years since I last read a lecture and there was something a little nostalgic about it, as well as a disquieting feeling that now a lot of it's just slightly beyond my reach. I think when I was studying History of Art I would have been picking holes in Byatt's arguments - or trying to anyway but at this point I'm simply excepting everything she says. The great thing about Byatt is that she's always a challenge.

'Portraits in Fiction' is an exploration of the difference between portraits in paint and portraits made with words - the latter of course leaves rather more to the imagination. It's a book that's full of ideas about time, life, death, and sex as they're captured on canvas and by words. In short full of ideas which should add another layer to future reading and as such more than worth the few hours spent reading it, as was the sense of a mental work out. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hebridean Sharker - Tex Geddes

After my Trollope adventure I wanted a complete change of pace and as luck would have it 'Hebridean Sharker' turned up in my letter box. A month or so back I wrote about Gavin Maxwell's 'Harpoon at a Venture' (a book I love to the point that I'm prepared to be evangelical about it), having reminded myself about  just how good that book is I was intrigued to discover that Tex Geddes, Maxwell's harpoonist, had also written a book about his experiences. Even more intriguing Birlinn were in the process of reprinting it so potentially this was going to be an opportunity to learn a little bit more about Maxwell and his Soay years from someone who was there.

As it turns out Geddes once described as a cross between Ivan the Terrible and Popeye deals mostly with the years after he left Maxwell's company - and is doubtless the better for it. Geddes isn't the writer that Maxwell was, but he has great stories to tell and proceeds to tell them in a way that makes me wish he'd written more about his life - which was nothing if not adventurous. The action opens on his wedding day in 1948, The ceremony takes place in London and after missing the sleeper north on which they have reservations they manage to make it onto another train and so on to Mallaig arriving in the teeth of a blizzard and just in time for Tex to abandon his wife to go out on a lifeboat rescue mission. After a brief pause in action to explain lifeboat construction we return to Jeanne back in Mallaig listening to the trawler wave band on the radio as the message "Oban radio calling Mallaig Lifeboat...Calling Mallaig Lifeboat... Can you here me..." goes out. No reply (the boat's radio signal has been blotted out by mountains. Happily Tex is home in time for breakfast.

There's a lot of boys own adventuring here as Tex and his shipmate Johnny pursue Sharks only fractionally smaller than their trusty boat 'Traveller' - which is often in danger of being pulled apart inconveniently far from shore but there's more to the book than that. Geddes doesn't just catch sharks, to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads he and his wife are both working, when it's not sharks it's lobsters or ring netting. They struggle to find a house at all - it's only when Jeanne negotiates to buy Soay that they do manage to find a place of their own to live in, even then it's almost derelict and as they move in the rest of the island is being evacuated.

Tex whose early life made him ideal for the commandos was clearly drawn to a way of life not entirely risk free, but the general problems he and Jeanne face, more especially after they have their son Duncan, must have been common enough amongst ex service-men, and women, grown used to a different world and impatient of re-imposed rules. 

The all action thing isn't often my cup of tea, but this book makes it work, it's worth being reminded what lifeboat men face when they turn out at night, and salutary to realise what our grandparents were prepared to do to earn a living (I'm not thinking specifically of Tex here so much as all of the marginally less colourful people he introduces the reader to). It's a good book, and using the original jacket was a great decision, it does indeed deserve it's place as a Hebridean classic. 

Can You Forgive Her? - Anthony Trollope

Where to even start on 'Can You Forgive Her' - it's a monster of a book, thanks to small print my copy is squeezed into about 900 pages (it also weighs 1lb 5oz) and none of that space (or weight) is wasted. Apparently Stephen King once referred to this book as 'Can You Finish It?' but I always think the challenge is in starting, there's a point somewhere in the first 100 pages when you know you've been hooked and after that finishing is only a matter of time. In this case it took me about 10 days, most of that steady holiday reading, and that's another thing, a book like this doesn't want to be finished quickly; it contains a whole world covering a period of time akin to the 18 months over which it was first published in serial form, rush and you'll miss things and though I'd honestly love to read this book again who knows when I'll next find the time, so why rush the opportunity whilst I have it (also my copy is exceptionally battered after it's trip round Scotland, pages are even trying to escape)?

First impressions of the Palliser series are overwhelmingly positive; 'Can You Forgive Her?' is my favourite Trollope so far, I like him best with a big multi stranded story, it leaves less scope for repetition, and where it does occur it's useful. The central plot concerns Alice Vavasor and how she'll dispose of herself in marriage; there was once an understanding with her cousin George but it didn't prosper and as the book opens she's engaged to another man - John Grey but has her doubts about him too. She loves him but having spent her adult life enjoying an unusual amount of independence (an uninterested father plus her own money) she's frightened of giving that up, more especially because Grey is generally unbending in his opinions (he insists on treating Alice's attempts to separate herself from him as some sort of temporary brainstorm which can be cured by a change of scene). Alice's cousin, and George's Sister, Kate is determined to bring the two back together she worships George and considers that Alice, along with her money, would be good for him. 

George is a curious character, a talented drifter with a mixed reputation and a determination to get into parliament. Initially his character is ambiguous, there's a ruthlessness about him that's not unattractive, it seems he could offer Alice a marriage of equals and one moreover where she would keep her own name. However as the novel develops he becomes a darker character until by the end he's a full blown villain estranged from all who have cared for him.

Meanwhile Kate and Alice's aunt has been left a wealthy young widow after the death of an elderly husband. She takes herself off to Norfolk with Kate and soon has a pair of potential suitors; the impecunious but attractive Captain Bellfield, or the altogether well off, but rather unattractive, farmer Cheeseacre. Mrs Greenow can afford to do what she likes but whatever she does she determines that she'll keep the purse strings in her own hands. Kate who has no fortune has determined to live for her brother and not pursue marriage as an option.

The third strand of the novel is taken up with Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser. Plantagenet is a rising star in parliament, tipped as the next chancellor of the exchequer but to get there he needed access to a fortune even vaster than his own considerable expectations as the heir to a Dukedom. The answer is Lady Glencora, heiress to fabulous wealth. Glencora's money doesn't give her independence, the husband she would have chosen has already wasted his own fortune, her family do not consider him suitable and she's been all but forced into marriage with Plantagenet. He finds himself happy with his wife but she isn't as content and her former love is still a tempting proposition.  

'Can You Forgive Her?' refers to Alice and her supposed crime in jilting John Grey. For the modern reader  it's difficult to see why she should need forgiveness, when marriage meant giving up property rights and divorce was socially unacceptable you wouldn't want to make a mistake, nor does Trollope make it feel like a crime. What I didn't expect was a book that dealt so much with women's choices, marriage is still presented as the only legitimate career for a woman but I don't think Trollope is blind to the negative side of that particular bargain even whilst he obviously approves of the status quo - after all he observes:
...Lady Glencora shrugged her shoulders, and made a mock grimace to her cousin. All this her husband bore for a while meekly, and it must be acknowledged that he behaved very well. But, then, he had his own way in everything. Lady Glencora did not behave very well,- contradicting her husband, and not considering, as, perhaps, she ought to have done, the sacrifice he was making on her behalf. But, then, she had her own way in nothing.
It's a wonderful book with so much going on in it, never mind that it's the gateway to the rest of the Palliser series which looks like being even better than the Barchester chronicles. Victorian Geek wrote about 'Can You Forgive Her?' here and should you have missed her post go and read it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Domestic Sunday

I had meant to spend a good chunk of today writing about 'Can You Forgive Her' but opted to make jam, shop, and catch up with a friend instead. There were also scones. And after all Trollope will wait, both he and the book demand a wholehearted and proper job to do them justice.

Beryl Wood's 'Let's Preserve It' was a Christmas present from mum which I was really enthusiastic about at the time but hadn't used at all until now, however last years jam has all but run out and although soft fruit isn't cheap (or flavourful) enough yet pineapples are looking good. The Scottish one teases me about my pineapple obsession - I love them, really love them, but haven't tried cooking them much, Wood had a jam recipe and I had a lot of pineapple (is 4 an unusual amount to have round the house?) so I thought I'd have a go.

There are a couple of really good things about this little book, I like that it's arranged as an A-Z in the manner of a mini preserving encyclopaedia (there are 579 recipes crammed in a really quite small book), I also like that some of the more exotic recipes are for quite small amounts - my jam made 3 jars which is more than enough to be going on with (and let me use my favourite copper pan rather the usual iron monster I can hardly lift). On the downside is that it's aimed squarely at people who know exactly what they're doing - let me quote the jam recipe in full:
2lb pineapple (when prepared), 1 1/2 lb sugar, 1/4 pint water. peel pineapple, remove hard core, cut in cubes; do this on a plate to catch as much juice as possible; put sugar and water in pan, simmer till dissolved and just syruping, add pineapple, cook to set.
 Elegant in it's simplicity I'm sure you'll agree, but I wouldn't really mind a bit more instruction. I couldn't find any indication of how much pectin pineapples contain so I used half and half jam making sugar and added a bit of lemon juice which turned out to be a good idea because without it the jam would have been far to sweet. I should also have used a sugar thermometer, I got impatient and may have been a bit hasty about deciding I'd reached setting point. Now it's cool it's still a bit runny - I think that's okay though, the flavour is good and it's going to make a great filling in a victoria sponge. It's excellent with scones (if messy). However it's a thoroughly inspiring book and one I mean to use a lot more albeit with fingers crossed I'm doing it right.

The shopping part of the day was even more exciting - my friend L insisted (I may have encouraged her a little) that we go to a garden centre, and just when I was in the middle of a rant about searching high and low over the last couple of years for scented geraniums with absolutely no luck at all it turned out I was standing next to a table full of them. I can't begin to say how pleased I was - also they were only £1.99 each , I have lemon and rose scented ones now, my friend's choice smelt of cola (it really did). Potentially very exciting additions for all sorts of recipes and pretty too.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Question of Proof - Nicholas Blake

Nicholas Blake was the crime writing pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis (who I mostly know of as the father of Tamasin Day-Lewis, although I do realise he was also a poet and had a son who did okay for himself too) and his books are back in print. I prefer my murder heavy on nostalgia and low on gore so I don't stray for from Golden Age crime and as all my favourites have gone the way of their victims it's cause for general celebration to find a new name. 

Another cause for celebration is that Nigel Strangeways is a different sort of detective (my reading has veered towards women who invented aristocratic sleuths they promptly seem to have fallen in love with - Lord Peter, Inspector Allyen, Albert Campion...) Nigel is a fearsomely intelligent Oxford drop out (had enough, answered his exam questions in limericks, got sacked) has an addiction to tea, a love of heavy blankets, and helpfully for his chosen career is the nephew of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and in this first book at least his creator shows no signs of becoming romantically interested in his creation. Also the tea is a nice touch.

'A Question of Proof' is a fun read, it has a brilliant car chase in it that actually made me feel like I too might be about to crash into the side of a barn, ingenious murder methods, and a sense of humour don't go amiss either. Nicholas Blake/Cecil Day-Lewis was clearly enjoying himself when he wrote this - I wonder if he was deliberately having a dig at writers who take their characters more seriously? It's a question that should be answered by reading more of his books so it's just as well that Vintage have published a pile of them. Four have come out now with a whole lot more available as print on demand (and as e-books, I'm never entirely sure how the print on demand thing works via amazon because I don't dare pre-order books due to a precarious cash flow situation). A very satisfying book.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dri Dri Gelato

Ice cream is surely one of life's great pleasures, when I was a child the height of frozen luxury was a cornetto - though sadly it was more likely to be a choc ice covered with something not very like chocolate and filled with a virulent yellow something (still seemed good). The great lost ice cream of childhood was something shaped like Dracula, it was bright red, probably horrible, and what we got from the village shop - which sold vanilla (again lurid yellow) chocolate and strawberry ice cream. Once they did pineapple which was unconvincing. All this was a long time before Ben and Jerry's hit the country or before ice cream makers were a common kitchen gadget.

I'm very fond of my Ice cream maker - it's not, as I may have mentioned before, a very sophisticated model but it churns and freezes enough to make a very passable product once it's had a few extra hours in the actual freezer and there's the added bonus that you know exactly what's gone into it. Recipes are fairly ubiquitous now too - most general cookbooks will have a few (Sarah Raven's have proved to be particularly good) and there are quite a few dedicated volumes out there but very few of them have looked like they'd make the ice cream I love (to many egg yolks, I don't want frozen custard and that's the flavour I've found comes through). 'Dri Dri Gelato' is the best book I've found so far although I find I'm making alterations to the recipes - this may be down to my ice cream maker as much as to personal taste, and is a little bit effected by what I have in the kitchen. 

The great thing about this book is that the quantities are small - they pessimistically suggest they'll feed 4, those must be for 4 people can put away an almost epic amount of ice cream, but still it's a quantity that fits neatly into my mixer. So far I've tried the vanilla and chocolate, both have been excellent. There are sorbet's that look good (just wait until strawberries and raspberries are cheap and plentiful) and although at the moment I'm not quite sure what the point of Granita is I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt and try it sometime soon.

This is the chocolate ice cream I made, I like it, my mother liked it, and the blond liked it - it has only a passing relationship with the original recipe and is most decidedly ice cream rather than gelato...

Chocolate Ice Cream
12 floz (375mls) whole milk
8 floz (250mls) double cream
25g dark chocolate
140g caster sugar
2 egg whites
80g unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Gently heat the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water until it melts, add the sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, and egg whites and beat until it forms soft peaks (or at least isn't a solid lump) slowly add the milk and cream until you have a nice smooth liquid. Churn until you either get ice cream because you've got a lovely posh effective mixer, or for about 40 minutes when you'll have a reasonably thick mix which will want a few extra hours in the freezer. Best eaten within a week of making. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Of Scotland and Distilleries

There's a whole world out there with plenty of bits in it I'd like to see one day but still my preferred holiday destination is Scotland - it's full of things I like, including variety. Glasgow for example is a great city with all sorts going on and last week I managed to leave my phone charger in it. I didn't discover that I'd done that until I was in deepest Argyll.

Initially not much of a problem because deepest Argyll isn't big on signal but when not admiring mountains it's nice to be able to talk to people so the search for a new charger began. The nearest town was Loch Gilphead. Whatever it's many amenities include they don't include selling phones, the response when I asked  was a pitying look and the assurance I would have to go to Oban. Oban was 50 miles in the wrong direction. Round here it's hard to go anywhere without tripping over a phone shop, they're as ubiquitous as Starbucks but Argyll eschews such fripperies - which is one reason to love it. Oban was out the question but finally after a bit of searching I found a shop run by a little old man (quite deaf, very shaky, and not the clearest vision either). His till was operated by a lever and was probably as old as he was but bless him he had the technology, wouldn't let me pay for it until it had been properly tested, or until he'd given me a lecture about how he didn't hold with credit cards (or phones).

Campeltown doesn't do phones either, but it does have 3 distilleries (another reason to love it) which might sound like a lot for a small town but when you consider it used to have 34 sounds quite sober. I do like whisky and distillery visits have become a bit of a hobby for the Scottish one and I. We've been to about 20 so far and although we don't always take the tour we quite often do. I would once have thought after half a dozen or so there wasn't much left to see or learn, but I'd have been wrong.

We went to Auchentoshen (just outside of Glasgow and probably the most accessible distillery to visit anywhere) I saw what foreshots look like for the first time (which will be of interest to pretty much nobody but whisky geeks like myself) and to Springbank where they do everything on sight including their own malting (so exciting) and bottling (best smelling factory I've ever been in) and let us try all sorts of things that you normally don't get near (worts and all as it were) including the new make spirit which was potent. All the while the normal day to day business of the place was going on which gives an insight into the process it's generally very hard to see - honestly if you ever do want to see the workings of a distillery there isn't a better one to go to than Springbank (even if it is a bit out of the way).

Whisky is an amazing thing, when I first got interested in it I fell for the marketing romance of a drink that absolutely reflects the specific place it comes from, now I know it better it's even more interesting. The water  which is the really local element has only the smallest effect on the finished product. The still shape matters, but not as much as how smoky, or otherwise, you make the malted barley - they do a whole range at Springbank from non peated to just by a bonfire (there is a small by-product in the way of smoked flour which I'd love to get hold of to bake bread out of). There are a whole range of things the distiller can do with his spirit (the excitement just continues) but the real alchemy happens when that spirit goes into the barrel - they all age differently and are as individual as fingerprints and then all those elements are married together to make the drink you buy. It can take decades for the contents of a bottle to be ready for sale - I really do love it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins

When I think of Persephone books I think of titles like 'Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day' or 'Miss Buncle's Book' but really that's only a very small part of what they do. Persephone also excel at finding unexpectedly dark and thought provoking books; Dorothy B. Hughes 'The Expendable Man' is one of the best thrillers I've ever read, it's shocking and brilliant. 'Harriet' is that kind of Persephone, I finished it a week or more ago but it's still haunting me - 'The Tortoise and the Hare' is meant to be Jenkins masterpiece but I would be prepared to debate that now.

'Harriet' is based on the once notorious Penge mystery - although when I googled it I found very little that wasn’t related to this book. In 1874 the 33 year old Harriet became engaged to a Louis Staunton, a hard up auctioneer’s clerk. She had what we would describe now as learning difficulties, Jenkins makes these quite severe, but  Harriet was lucky to have a loving mother and plenty of her own money so life was on the whole a pleasant round of shopping and visiting within the extended family. It’s on a visit to some distant and hard up, cousins that Harriet met Louis. Despite her mother’s efforts to stop the marriage it goes ahead, which leads to a total estrangement between the two women based on Louis’ insistence. After Harriet has a child Louis removes her to Kent and the house of his brother and sister-in-law. He himself starts to live with Alice (his brother’s wife’s younger sister) in a neighbouring house. Within two years of her marriage Harriet and her child are dead.

Only known photograph of Harriet Staunton
It’s a curious book to read, Jenkins changes the surnames and Louis to Lewis but that seems to be all. The book was written in 1934, the same year that Louis Staunton died, the children he had with his third wife, the children of Patrick and Elizabeth Staunton – any of them might have read this reworking of their parents crimes and although right at the end Jenkins leaves us with the slight possibility that the Staunton’s might not have been guilty of premeditated murder by starvation everything that precedes suggests that they are. Perhaps because it’s based on fact there’s a hard to define something about the tone of the book as well, it’s not quite journalistic, rather more like a play with instructions regarding motivation, but not quite like a novel – the result is compelling, and really doesn’t feel like fiction at all.

Jenkins paints a horrific portrait of Harriet’s fate, she’s incarcerated in an attic, her cloths removed and given to her husband’s mistress to pick over, she is steadily terrorised, starved, and probably beaten, she becomes filthy and lice infested steadily losing the outward trappings of humanity. She must have watched as her child wastes away until he’s taken away from her hours before he dies, and then finally she too is at deaths door whilst all the time Patrick, Lewis, Elizabeth, and Alice watch on, their own lives made comfortable by her money.

For those four Harriet is a resource to be exploited, less than human, incapable of feeling as they do, undeserving of the good things in life when they have had to struggle, and finally an inconvenience to be disposed of but their own relationships also bear inspection. Lewis and Patrick Oman have an intensely close relationship; Patrick worships his brother to the extent that he’s prepared to do anything for him without question, Alice is infatuated by Lewis too which suggests he has a certain charisma, but it’s the relationship between Patrick and Elizabeth that disturbs me. Elizabeth is totally submissive to her husband’s will; his temper is violent and unpredictable and we would now consider Elizabeth to be an abused wife. The death of Harriet’s baby isn’t really discussed much in the book, so was presumably not a major factor in the trial either, and whilst I suppose that attitudes to child mortality were rather more resigned in the 19th century it’s still hard to understand how Elizabeth as an apparently loving mother can reconcile herself to the babies fate.

There is one particularly shocking scene where Patrick wrenches the child from Harriet to baptize it. Jenkins makes his actions violent but Elizabeth hardly reacts. It’s one of the pivotal moments in the narrative – the power of the book is in the way that for most of the time it’s quite possible to follow the Oman’s reasoning – Harriet is to them sub human, she cannot feel as they do, and then of course they are so poor, always hungry; is it fair she has so much when they have so little? Violence is implicitly suggested but rarely explicit, so when for example we find Alice remodelling Harriet’s cloths for herself and wearing her jewellery it takes a moment to absorb the full implications of what’s happening. These are the points in the books where Harriet’s eventual fate is made clear, and where I also think Jenkins makes it clear that she believes that the Staunton’s were guilty of murder.

Harriet’ isn’t always an easy book to read but it’s rewarding and an effective way to challenge your own prejudices. It’s a simple thing to be impatient with those not quite like us, harder to question that reaction. This is a book that shakes your complacency and sticks with you for a long time. Highly recommended.   

Friday, May 11, 2012

Back from Scotland

Well I'm back from a pretty much idyllic week north of the border. Scotland seems to have been enjoying marginally better weather than we've had in the Midlands, only bank holiday Monday and the trip back down were wet and one of those was inevitable... As predicted there wasn't much time for reading and I only bought one book (Christina Stead's 'The Puzzelheaded Girl' which makes a nice addition to my Virago collection) which I found in the Oxfam bookshop on Byres road during the hour and a half we had in Glasgow. 

I've visited Glasgow a few times over the years but somehow have never seen it in the rain which must make me almost unique because that's hardly it's reputation, the sunny afternoon we arrived on was earmarked for McGruer yachts regatta (the Scottish ones choice) so despite a hotel room that overlooked Glasgow's botanic gardens - which were hosting a book fair - and seemed to be within easy walking distance of everything I could  possibly want to do in a city, we set off again for Helensburgh. Sitting in the sun admiring classic yachts wasn't the worst way to spend an afternoon and the fish and chip were amazing so I don't really regret the book fair...

Taking one book turned into two - I was halfway through Nicholas Blake's 'A Question of Proof' which is now finished and will be written about soon, 'Can You Forgive Her' was the chosen tome from the big pile of big books and I have at least made a good start on it, if I keep up the momentum over the weekend I'll be doing okay.

There were distillery visits which I'll probably write about at length later, but meantime will say were most enjoyable and informative. There was also a great deal of very Scottish scenery and variations on the fish and chip theme but if there's one thing that will really stick in my memory it's the bluebells. May is my favourite month of the year, spring is in full flow with all the promise of summer ahead, everything grows on a daily basis, it's rarely too hot or too cold, and the light is really stretching out the days. It's all good. Bluebells aren't unknown in England but they were everywhere in Argyll and came in a much deeper blue than I see here. None of the pictures I took really captured their colour but the trip would have been worth it for that alone, never mind the acrobatic seals we saw, or all the newly returned swallows who were even more acrobatic than the seals.   

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Another big pile of books

Or should that be another pile of big books? I'm going away for a few days (very excited - there's likely to be distillery visits involved) there'll be a lot of driving and the promise of some excellent hotels but probably not a lot of reading time so I'm going to try and do something very out of character...

Normally I take a selection of books away with me (whilst sticking to the sensible no more books than knickers rule) I never read all of them and often buy more - because I just can't help myself. This time I thought I'd take one long book. Just the one. Maybe two, I feel very off about only having a single book; deeply insecure (I don't have a problem, honestly I don't, do I?) So just the one book to prove I can do it - the idea being that if I don't have the time to work my way through a pile of them I can at least make inroads into one wordy monster.

The top of the list is Trollope's 'Can You Forgive Her', it's bulk is currently standing between me and the rest of the Palliser series. I know when I start it I'll love it but dammit it's got enough pages to be 4 books. I've had the A.S Byatt sitting around for a couple of years and want to read it but something shorter has always intervened, the same is true of 'The Thorn Birds' - which might make better trashy holiday reading (it's the other really serious contender at the moment). 'Moby Dick' was a Christmas present, also a couple of years ago from an English teaching friend who recommends it highly, I want to read it I really do but I got a whole handful of Nicholas Blake's today from Vintage and will be able to read them in the same amount of time that 'Moby Dick' will demand. Tough choices.

I'm really looking forward to the Robert Macfarlane but it was booty from a Penguin jolly and doesn't come out for another month, read it now and I'll struggle to write about it with any justice (or accuracy) then. 'Island Going' is sort of earmarked for a holiday later in the year, it fits really well with the island and otter's theme I've been enjoying so much this spring, but at the back of my mind is the suspicion that if I don't read it soon I'll forget about it in favour of other exciting books. 'Helen' and 'Old Mortality' are yet more books I've had for a while and not quite found the time for, both look interesting but I fear they might not be long enough and I'll be left needing a second book.

I need to make up my mind by bedtime tonight so I can pack my choice* (it's also just struck me that the book I go with will determine the hand bag I carry - these are the things we worry about when life isn't a life and death struggle...). Which will be the perfect holiday companion?

*At this point I always expect somebody to yell e-reader at me but I love this ritual of choosing which books to take away and have done for as long as I can remember, quite apart from anything else it's a treat to spend time considering what's on the shelves, there are always books I'd forgotten I had to get enthusiastic about all over again.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Another Birthday Cake

This time a Battenburg which I made in honour of my sisters birthday (I might add she was singularly unimpressed with the effort I put into this pointing out that she still had Christmas and Easter cake and that someone else had already given her birthday cake - I contend that home made Battenburg isn't something that happens to you everyday and that as an adult you have a duty to pretend to be pleased with gifts). I think I'm a fairly competent baker; I'm not scared by unfamiliar recipes, I like a challenge, and I have a few skills in the kitchen, albeit not terribly impressive ones, so whilst I'm not great British bake off standard you wouldn't worry about eating one of my cakes.

However the finishing touches are a different matter - I love a beautifully decorated and presented cake, the fancier the better but lack the patience and ability to pull off anything terribly impressive myself. Whichever way you look at it it's the kind of thing that calls for practice and a woman living on her own can only make so many cakes and biscuits before diabetes beckons. This was my second attempt at a Battenburg (the first one was a slapdash disaster) and I really put a lot of effort into making it look good, which was going well for me until the marzipan stage. It got a bit thin, stuck to the board I was rolling it out on, was inclined to tear, and generally wasn't inclined to wrap itself round the cake in a delicious almondy embrace. Finally I managed to make it look not terrible and all I had to do was tidy up the ends - by the time that was done there wasn't much cake left.

Battenburg is a wasteful sort of thing to make - lots and lots of trimmings both of sponge and marzipan, but after quite a bit of sampling it's clear that it's more than the sum of it's parts - the combination of vanilla sponge, nicely sharp apricot jam, and marzipan is really damn good. Home made is better than any I've ever bought (though who doesn't like the tiny Mr Kipling version that you can try and eat in one bite?) and I've always liked the pink and yellow squares thing. I will make this again when a suitable occasion presents itself. I used the recipe in Fiona Cairns 'Bake and Decorate' and really liked it - I hope my sister does too, though so far she says she hasn't tried it yet (how can she resist, I KNOW how much she likes marzipan...)