Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Scandinavian Baking - Trine Hahnemann

My passion for cookbooks has finally and comprehensively outgrown available shelf space in the kitchen, rogue volumes are colonising other parts of my flat where it's increasingly difficult to keep track of them, the only thing I'm sure of is that I'll probably get more. For my particular set of foody interests this has been a particularly strong year for cookbooks which is exacerbating the space problem - but when a book promises so much enjoyment how can I resist it.

There was never any question of resisting Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Baking' (the fashions for baking and all things Scandinavian have been my friend here). What fascinates me about food is seeing how different flavours and combinations travel the world - or not, there's so much of our shared cultural history there if you care to look for it including the chance to appropriate the bits we like from other places - and in this case delicious cake too.

I found a copy of Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Christmas' in a Waterstones sale a couple of years ago, it's full of good stuff and is the reason I was particularly excited to see what she'd do with a baking book. I love baking for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because it gives me a deep feeling of contentment (I do realise this isn't universal) but the sort of baking specifically, and cooking generally, that interests me is domestic rather than professional. That the extended title for this book is 'Loving Baking at Home' is another selling point for me, and that's exactly what it advocates.

It's this book which has prompted me to finally get to grips with sour dough (I tried adding some starter to an ordinary loaf the other day which seems to be making it keep longer, oh but there are endless happy experiments ahead for me!) with the eventual ambition of making rye breads. There are some great looking loaves in here, so though it may take me some time to source all the ingredients for the rye breads (or at least, and typically, the ones I most like the look of) there are plenty of other things to play with meanwhile. There's also a whole world of meringue based cakes which will get further investigation. I'm firmly of the opinion that there's not nearly enough nutty meringues in my life. I made mini versions of one pavlova/cake affair which sandwiches caramel cream between meringues then tops them with figs and chocolate for a Macmillan coffee morning at work. Sweet but good.

Anyone who loves marzipan (I do) will also find lots to get excited by, and this is the book which is going to make me make Danish pastries (something I've wanted to make for a dozen years or more without ever getting organised to do so). All of which is great but it's the philosophy behind it that really makes 'Scandinavian Baking' so good. To quote the introduction "baking forces us to take time out from our busy lives and, in doing so reminds us why that is necessary", it's not everybody's thing but if you want making a daily loaf of bread to be part of your life this is the book that will help you work out what sort and how to fit it in.

She also talks about getting to know your ingredients. I had never really considered this in relation to flour before but it makes a lot of sense. I'm going to give it a bit more thought now, especially as I make more bread where the quality of the flour is going to be most noticeable and no longer assume that all strong white flours will be much the same. All in all a thoroughly exciting and inspiring baking book which is more than worth the effort of finding a space for in my poor, tiny, overcrowded, kitchen!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mystery in White - J. Jefferson Farejeon

I've read a few of the British Library crime classics now and enjoyed them all but 'Mystery in White' is without doubt the best so far. 'A Scream in Soho' for example is fun to read and has some interesting things to tell us about wartime attitudes but it's also unashamed pulp with some exceptionally non pc attitudes - I didn't feel like I had to make excuses for it, but there's a but to add to that. The same but that I end up applying to a lot of older fiction; attitudes change. With 'Mystery in White' there's much less of that sort of thing, and it's just generally classy which makes it very surprising that he's been so comprehensively forgotten.

Dorothy L. Sayers said Farejeon was "quite unsurpassed for creepy skill", based on this one she was bang on the money. The subtitle is 'A Christmas Crime Story', if I thought for a moment I would be let alone for long enough on Christmas or Boxing Day I might have saved it, it would also be the perfect stocking filler (sorry to throw that out there in October) for any lover of golden age crime. Happily it's also the perfect read for a rainy autumn afternoon, especially if you time it so that it starts to get really creepy as it gets dark (easily done).

It's Christmas Eve, 6 passengers are sat in a 3rd class train carriage stuck in the middle of a field in the blizzard of the century, they all have places to get to and are debating the wisdom of trying to set off cross country for the nearest branch line. It's that or face spending the night on the train. The decision is made when the oldest occupant notices something in the snow and ups and leaves. 4 of the remaining passengers (a nice middle class brother and sister, a chorus girl, and a clerk) promptly follow, but a middle aged bore stays behind. After a while floundering around in the snow it's beginning to look like a very bad decision indeed when through the increasingly bad blizzard they almost stumble into a house. The door is unlocked, the fires burning, a kettle boiling on the hob, and a table set for tea. And nobody is home.

Cold, wet, and generally in a sorry state the 4 decide to make the best of the facilities and hope the owner is understanding when they return, meanwhile the situation becomes increasingly disturbing. A locked door becomes an open door second time around, there's a bread knife in the kitchen floor, and a disquieting portrait on the wall. It's a creepy house. As the 4 begin to thaw out more refugees from the storm appear; first the old man from the train with a dodgy cockney in tow, and next the bore. The party becomes increasingly tense and then it's revealed there was a murder on the train...

Mystery is piled upon mystery, the group are entirely cut off from the world by the snow (and the lack of a phone) and there are hints of something supernatural. Farejeon is clever about this, he doesn't overplay it so I had no idea until the end if it was going to turn into a ghost story or not. Even at the end it's not altogether explicit - there are some plot points which hinge around potentially psychic revelations but they could be explained by the power of suggestion on an overwrought imagination. Otherwise it's up to the reader to decide exactly what they want to believe. The mystery is full of twists and turns which is all very satisfying but it's also a book which made me laugh (intentionally). The thing that really sets it apart though is how Farejeon chooses his characters. They're all reasonably ordinary people, no aristocratic detective appears, no one does anything especially glamorous for a living, and the chorus girl and the clerk are the ones we get some real insight into. The clerk lives mostly in a fantasy world to escape his dull job - he dreams of rescuing an aviatrix from a crashed plane, and the chorus girls views on life, love, and sexual harassment are - well they're real. Both are treated with a respect that's subtly different from so many books of this type.

Altogether then this is the complete package; plenty of tension and suspense but with a sense if fun, lots of atmosphere and twists and turns in the plot, a mystery which keeps you guessing not just about whodunit but also about what's actually been done, and particularly well drawn characters. I'm hoping it's the first of many Farejeon's the BL will reprint, it seems he was fairly prolific so it's reasonable to assume there will be at least a few more gems in his back catalogue. A search on amazon didn't turn up much that was affordable so for now I'll be pinning my hopes on charity shops and that 'Mystery in White' sells in such quantities that he's generally put back on the map.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some Thoughts About Blogging

I've been here for just over 5 years now and although posts about the nature of blogging (as I see it) aren't really my thing every so often it's probably as well to give it some thought, not least because Desperate Reader accounts for quite a lot if my time.

I started blogging towards the end of a particularly trying time. There was a series of woeful work, health, and mortgage insurance issues followed by a year when all I could find was part time work. It left me with virtually no money and lots of time - which in some ways was wonderful, but also horribly uncertain. The wonderful part was that for the first time in years I could read as much as I wanted. The uncertain bits don't really need dwelling upon.

Blogging turned out to be a really positive thing to do in all sorts of unexpected ways, but I also decided right from the beginning that I wouldn't write about things I didn't feel genuine enthusiasm for. I sometimes see discussions about why there are so few negative reviews on blogs but I'd be more surprised if it was the other way round - why promote (even in a small way) something you're ambivalent about? And then I read almost purely for pleasure so if I'm not enjoying a book I'll abandon it; accepting the challenge of wading through 800 odd pages of Trollope endlessly repeating himself only works for me because I love him enough to know the effort will be rewarded.

Having decided that it was basically going to be books I loved it then seemed unnecessary to state where they came from. Initially because they mostly came from charity shops or had been sitting on my shelves for years, and later because the source of the book is irrelevant to what I think about it's contents so unless there's some sort of anecdote attached it feels unnatural to mention it. I do get free books though, some I'm offered, some just appear (as if by magic) and from time to time I'll beg for one.

 Asking a publisher for a book has never stopped feeling like begging, and I've never got past feeling like I've got away with something when they say yes. I have to be fairly certain I'll love something before I ask for it because having asked it seems only fair to read and write about it in a timely fashion, the one time I really didn't much like a book I'd got that way I felt like I'd broken a contract. The publicist on the other hand wasn't at all bothered.

Blogging feeds a book habit my wages most certainly wouldn't cover, but keeping it manageable is sometimes a challenge. In the general scheme of things I don't get sent a lot of books, but I get about as many as I can read so inevitably I end up writing more about titles I've been given then ones I've bought. Luckily (for me) I quite often get offered books I would almost certainly have bought eventually - this makes me ridiculously excited and happy.

Last week there was an article in The Guardian where the author Kathleen Hale wrote about a blogger she had a run in with. A negative review led to a slightly unhealthy obsession on Kathleen's part which in turn led to the discovery that the blogger wasn't who she said she was. It all sounded exhausting. As someone who mostly reads books written by people who died a while ago this is foreign territory to me, there's no downside to a passion for the classics and books which have generally survived the passage of time and fashion.

 Just recently I've read a handful of books by people who are not only alive but also on twitter, it's been very disconcerting realising they've seen what I've written. When I started doing this I assumed my family would read it (because I made them) and bookish friends because they might want to. It remains mildly surprising that other people have found their way here too, nice people, people I've come to like very much - the longer I spend on this  post the luckier I feel. Still, I always write with the idea that my dad reads this, it's a handy reminder to be polite (my father appreciates/demands good manners), not to exaggerate to wildly, and to avoid anecdotes which might lead to awkward conversations with concerned patriarchs.

And that is as close as I'm ever likely to get to a review policy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Barcelona Shadows - Marc Pastor

Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

Marc Pastor works as a CSI in Barcelona as well as writing, this is his first book to be published in English and is a belting price of gothic horror. Set mostly in the slums and back streets of Barcelona in 1911 it recreates a nightmarish world of over crowded, stinking buildings, grinding poverty, prostitution, crime, violence, and any number of other horrors.

The city is uneasy, the streets feel volatile, and to many people have seen to many unpleasant things to be anything other than damaged by the experience - morals are a little lax. Even so rumours that the children of prostitutes are disappearing into the hands of some monster are troubling the detective Moises Corvo. When he starts to investigate it gets even more troubling, his bosses aren't keen for him to look into the matter - the disappearances aren't being reported and there are more pressing matters at hand, and then when Corvo pokes his nose into some of the more upmarket brothels and casinos there are very clear warnings to drop it. Warnings it's dangerous to ignore.

Meanwhile Corvo isn't the only one investigating, our narrator is Death, who takes an understandably unemotional view of the whole situation, but who also has enough curiosity to untangle the story for us as Corvo tries to find his monster.

The discovery of a body drained of blood gives rise to rumours that a vampire may be stalking the streets, and the discovery of another body, decapitated and robbed from a grave doesn't make it any easier for the police to piece together what's going on. Death leads us to Enriqueta Marti who is leading the oddest of double lives. She has been a prostitute, a herbalist, a procuress, she turns up in the mist unexpected places, and she's stealing children for truly unspeakable purposes.

It wasn't until I finished 'Barcelona Shadows' that I realised it might be based on actual events. A couple of minutes research online reveal the whole story of the 'Vampire of Barcelona', so basically spoilers for the book - finding out at the end how much was true certainly added a layer of horror to the whole narrative. Facts about Enriqueta are hazy, the remains of her victims don't truly reveal her motivations, which gives Pastor plenty of room to weave fiction with history.

He opts for the blackest of humour and a straight up horror story, which is a definite strength of the book. Sometimes we need monsters, or at least the explanation that there are monsters out there because the idea that people can do these things is to much to really accept. Pastor's Enriqueta with her claw like hands, mesmeric presence, and the sense of disquiet that she arouses in people isn't quite human, turning her into something a bit more mythical (and not unlike the witch from Hansel and Gretel or even Baba Yaga) doesn't diminish the horror of what she did but maybe it makes it easier to assimilate.

Either way this is a terrific book. Very dark, never gratuitous in it's details, and clever enough to lay out social injustice and then leave the reader to draw their own conclusions - there is more than one sort of monster here. It's very much a story for lengthening nights and a cosy sofa, it will probably also make you check that your door is locked.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Making Sourdough - eventually

About 14 years ago I bought my first book about bread; Tim Allen's 'The Ballymaloe Bread Book' (in case you wondered) from it I learned to make soda bread. Soda bread is brilliant, essentially it's a huge scone so it's quick and easy to make and for a few years it's what I stuck with. It was just the thing to put in front of people - it looks far more impressive than the effort required, is delicious, and can be thrown together not long before you need it. It's also the first place I read about sourdough (14 years ago in Leicester that was fairly exotic), naturally I wanted to try making it, and equally obviously I didn't quite get round to it.

There were flirtations with yeast based breads over the next few years but nothing serious until 2009 when I bought Daniel Stevens 'Bread', it's one of the River Cottage handbooks and is the perfect book on the subject for me. It has been known to come on holiday with me (when I go to stay with the Aga) and it persuaded me it was time to properly get to grips with bread making. So I did - or at least I learnt how to make a decent loaf of fairly plain bread. The pleasure of bread making is partly in the sense of it being a living thing that you get to know; changes in texture as you knead it, the way different flours will make it behave, seeing how it rises. It's also in how it imposes it's own pace on you.

Looking at the list of ingredients on a mass produced loaf of bread and comparing that to the basic components of flour, yeast, salt, water, and a drop of oil that go into the loaf you make yourself made me basically stop buying bread. Not completely stop (I'm not evangelical about this) but the typical loaf of sliced white no longer tastes right to me (far to sweet) so it's no longer a staple, and then if I'm at home bread making is easy to fit around the general domestic demands of life and such a satisfying thing to have done at the end of the day.

A couple of weeks ago I bought Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Baking' (a lush and lovely book) and read some more about rye and sourdough breads which got me thinking about them again. Knowing that I had this week off was the perfect opportunity to actually do this thing after all those years of thinking I ought to have a crack at it. So I did. What I really wanted to have a crack at was a rye loaf filled with seeds and cracked rye, but finding some of the ingredients has proved overly challenging. Thankfully wild yeasts are easy to catch, so following the instructions in 'bread' I mixed a nice organic stoneground wholemeal flour with some water, waited more or less patiently for it to start to ferment - which obediently it did - fed it, changed it, fussed over it, cooled it down, and warmed it up, and finally on Tuesday night started making bread with it.

First  a nice sponge with more flour and water along with some starter to be left overnight, then a dough which I carefully allowed to rise, and then deflated 3 times over the required 4 hours, by which time it was indeed 'like an angel's pillow' as promised. Then it got another few hours to rise again before making it into the oven from where it later emerged as a delicious, crusty, chewy, loaf complete with the approved air bubbles and a complex but pleasing flavour (not to sour) and only slightly over baked. Making sourdough is clearly a commitment. If you have to do it I suppose that might be a bit of a pain, but as a leisure activity it's immensely relaxing. You have to wait for it so there's plenty of time to read, drink tea, and generally ignore the world. I'm making more tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library

I've been told that using the British Library as a library can be a challenge, never having had to try I can neither confirm or deny that information, but as a tourist destination it's amazing. An English teacher friend persuaded me to visit with her about a decade ago, since when it's become a favourite destination; it has a lot to recommend it. First off it's very convenient for St Pancras (where I get on and off the train) so it's very easy to fit in a quick visit on the way to or from other things. Then it's well supplied with cafés, comfortable places to sit, a peaceful atmosphere, and toilets you don't have to pay to use or queue for ages for. Physical needs met, the permanent (free) exhibition of treasures is very good indeed, and the gift shop is basically a very nice bookshop (what's not to love).

And then there are the exhibitions. This Gothic show is the second I've seen at the BL (the first was the Georgians at the beginning of the year) and it's confirmed that their exhibitions are another thing to love them for. As much as I'd like to see the Rembrandt's at the National the really big blockbuster exhibitions aren't always much fun to look at, mostly because so many other people are trying to look at the same time that it's really hard to see anything very much. 'Terror and Wonder' was by no means empty when I went (about 11am on a Tuesday morning) but quiet enough to really look at things, read about them, listen to the audio clips at various points, go back and look again, and generally take it all in. Consequently I spent a lot longer going round this exhibition than I normally do and feeling like I'd got rather more from it than I might generally expect.

The set up worked for me too, I like the space used for these exhibitions, in this case broken up into a series of rooms partly through the use of floating black muslin curtains (very atmospheric) and the occasional bit of dramatic velvet. The lighting was good, the colour scheme effective (an attractive Strawberry Hill appropriate blue leading into sepulchral black, a nice juicy crimson, and finally a stark white, all of which helped mark different developments in our gothic imagination) and effective film and audio clips.

It all starts with Horace Walpole's 'The Castle of Otranto', the first Gothic novel - though even this has it's roots in a much older tradition (the exhibition draws specific links to Shakespeare, Spencer, and others). It then moves on to the likes of Ann Radcliffe, concerns around the French Revolution, the works of the Minerva Press (my favourite single exhibit may have been the collection of Northanger Horrids - the 7 titles Austen mentions in her Gothic parody) and a look at some aspects of the romantic poets work. After that it's the Victorian take on Gothic with penny dreadfuls, Christmas ghost stories and a move into a more urban contemporary setting - the dark streets of London slums rather than unlikely Italian castles before bringing us up to date with the popularity of the Twilight saga, zombie mash ups, and goth culture.

This is an exhibition with a sense of humour (a vampire slaying kit would be my second favourite exhibit) which does an excellent job of charting our flirtation with the dark side of the imagination and some of the directions in which it's flourished. There's a lot to think about here with the definite bonus that an exhibition based around the contents of a library comes with an obvious (and enjoyable) reading list. Disgorged back into the gift shop there's a whole pile of books for sale to consider so you can really immerse yourself in the experience, in some ways it feels like a continuation of the actual exhibition, as does the view of the St Pancrass hotel as you leave the BL. I really recommend it, tickets are £10 for adults - it was money well spent.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rabbit Back Literature Society - Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Translated by Lola M. Rogers.

When 'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' landed on my doorstep I had no idea who had sent it, the mystery was only cleared up a week or two later when I realised that Salt and Pushkin Press share a publicist. Initially I thought it looked mildly interesting, based entirely on enjoying the 2 Finnish novellas that Peirene have published (The Brothers and Mr Darwin's Gardener) and thought no more about it, but after a brief email exchange with Tabitha (the publicist) I promised I would actually read it (and soon - she's very persuasive).

I'm glad she gave me a bit of a push because after a slowish start I was utterly absorbed by 'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' which was something of a departure from anything I remember reading over the last few years. I'll start with the things I didn't like so much about this book - which are superficial - the first is the book cover and title. Before I read it both seemed to me to suggest something altogether cosier then the book turned out to be. Now I have read it both make sense but I would still prefer something that captured a little bit more of the weirdness inside. Second is that this translation is full of Americanisms which is fair enough when the translator lives in Seattle but is oddly distracting for me in a book which I want to feel totally European (by which I probably mean British, but I notice the use of 'parking lot' or 'block' in a way that I wouldn't 'car park' or 'street').

The book opens with a description of Ella Milana ("a pair of beautifully curving lips and a pair of defective ovaries") she is a substitute teacher, a literature graduate, and an aspiring author. Her latest job is in her home town of Rabbit Back, which is also the home town of Laura White, a beloved children's author, and her Rabbit Back literature society; a group of 9 more or less successful authors who Laura White hand picked as children to be groomed for success. Meanwhile Ella Milana's father is showing signs of dementia, he's given up running, which had been a passion, in favour of observing his garden where he keeps getting mysteriously injured. He says it's because the gnomes don't like him seeing them. He dies and Laura White invites Ella Milana to be the 10th member of her society, a party is thrown to celebrate but half way through, and half way down the stairs Laura White disappears in a flurry of snow. Oh, and the contents of books keeps changing...

For Ella Milana it's all a bit much, personally it was where the book really started to get its hooks into me. There are so many questions at this point; what's happening with the books, who and what is Laura White, why has she picked Ella Milana, were the gnomes real, and most crucially - what will happen next?

Without giving to many spoilers Ella Milana learns that she's not the first 10th member of the society, that nobody seems to be very clear about what happened to that first 10th member, and that her disappearance might not be the strangest thing about Laura White. She also learns about The Game, a method that Laura White devised for her students to plunder each other's experience to put in their own work. Ella Milana decides to use the game to get answers, but it also means giving answers. Participators have to spill, they're not allowed to tell a story, instead they have to tell what the listener accepts as the truth, and can only stop when they do accept it as truth - no matter how personal or painful the experience might be. As they're allowed to use force when they deem it necessary physical pain is on the cards too.

What becomes clear is that the truth as recounted this way is still subjective, it's always filtered through the memory and perception of the teller, never quite frees itself from story or myth making. It also emerges that Laura White's methods weren't always particularly wholesome; her pupils may have grown up to be successful but they're also quite badly damaged, the question for Ella Milana is are they damaged enough to have committed a murder. As a mystery novel it's absolutely bloody brilliant with a conclusion that's horrifying for entirely unexpected reasons, but it's not just a thriller. There is also an element of magic realism; fairy tales in the Grimm sense.

The changing books, dogs behaving oddly, those gnomes (also elves, sprites, nymphs, phantoms and nixies), and Laura White herself all hint at another world but in such a way that the reader can dismiss it as some combination of dream, superstition, and imagination or accept it as they see fit. Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen offers a guide to unlocking his intentions here which I haven't followed (yet) because for now I prefer to mull over my own take on his writing, but at some point it would be interesting to read the passages he highlights to see if they clear anything up (I suspect maybe not, but  as it's the ambiguity of the book that I particularly liked, that's okay).

Pretty much everything happens through late autumn into winter, it all ends in spring. It's very much a story of long, dark, cold nights where everything is obscured by snow, made unreliable by ice, and the forest is a dangerous place to go. As for the forest, it feels like very old stories have crept out of it to make their mark on this novel - which I find very exciting indeed, so once again a big thank you to Tabitha for persuading me to read it so promptly.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

All The Tea In China - Kyril Bonfiglioli

If it seems like a while since I wrote about a novel it's probably because it took me the best part of two weeks to wade through 'All The Tea In China'. I read a couple of Bonfiglioli's Mortdecai books years ago (when I did let the third in the trilogy defeat me) but as Penguin have reissued them all again and Waterstones kept piling them up where I could see them it seemed like time to have another go. Both times I was pulled in by Stephen Fry's endorsement, in this case ''You couldn't snuggle under the duvet with anything more disreputable and delightful".

Now I've actually finished it I'll be passing this book onto my partner who I'm reasonably sure will love it, he enjoys the Flashman novels and from what I've read of George Macdonald Fraser they share the same spirit. Theoretically a book full of adventure, art, wine, food, and jokes should work for me and separately the bits about wine, food, art, and some of the jokes do work for me so I was happy enough whilst I was reading, but when the characters are for the most part a means of furthering a joke it's hard to care enough to pick the book up again if the humour isn't quite in tune with your own.

From what I know of art and wine Bonfiglioli knows his stuff, what he says about clippers in the opium trade sounds like he knows about that too. The boat stuff comes alive which is a testament to how good a writer he is, but to really enjoy this and not feel overly prudish about some of the more disreputable jokes I would need to be holed up somewhere warm on a cold winters day. So basically a curates egg of a book for me, to good to dislike but just not quite my cup of tea.


Monday, October 6, 2014


I have a couple of reviews up on the latest Shiny New Books, this one about the brilliant H is for Hawk and this one about the indispensable and brilliant Oxford Companion to Food. As ever Shiny New Books is full of temptations so should come with some sort of health warning for your wallet. I really can't recommend either of the two books I had highly enough.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter - James Russell

This post was meant to follow the one about female role models the other day because it was reading about Peggy Angus which set me off thinking about why it might be that we allow ourselves to forget about so many creative women when we should be celebrating them, but the week got away from me.

Peggy Angus is an intriguing figure, her name has cropped up, mostly in relation to her friends Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, with increasing frequency over the last few years and this summer the Towner gallery in Eastbourne have had an exhibition devoted to her (which this book is partly an accompaniment to). The time is clearly ripe for a reassessment of her work partly because of a renewed appreciation for the likes of Bawden and Ravilious, hopefully because we're getting better at appreciating the decorative arts (it's Peggy's designs for wallpapers and tiles that really stand out in this book rather than her painting), and maybe because there's an effort being made to find some of those lost women artists.

As part of the general excitement around the Towner exhibition (which I wish I had seen) Rachel Cooke wrote an article in The Observer where Peggy is described as designs forgotten warrior, it also makes the point that women weren't meant to be like that back in the 50's (not that it makes them particularly popular now either) and is an interesting post script to the book on a few counts. Russell's book is excellent, right from the title - designer, teacher, painter - which makes clear what order he puts her achievements in (for which he also makes a well argued and convincing case) to the illustrations which are plentiful and quietly inspiring.

One thing I learnt studying History of Art is how important a good bit of gossip or scandal can be in holding the attention of a class, there seems to have been plenty of both around Angus and her circle (Cooke gets quite a bit of it into her article) but it's to Russell's credit that whilst he doesn't ignore this, or the more difficult aspects of Peggy's character, nor does he dwell on it. That in some ways she was an extremely difficult woman is worth considering because clearly still don't like it when a woman doesn't fit into a traditional mould of femininity. Her daughters comments to Cooke make it plain that they had a difficult relationship, Russell reveals that Peggy may have appropriated a design from Victoria that she went on to win a prize with, and comments from former pupils on the Cooke article recall how intimidating she could be. It takes a certain ruthlessness to be successful but we don't like seeing it in women.

On the other hand, and far more importantly, Peggy was clearly an inspired and inspiring teacher who gave her pupils an excellent grounding in history as well as technique. She fought for the right to work after having her children (because she had to) which was unusual  at the time, and at the same time was working on big commercial projects with her tile murals. She believed in, and promoted, patronage of the arts, and looking at the illustrations clearly believed in introducing colour and pattern to every aspect of her life. It's all very exciting, and at the risk of over using the word - inspiring.

Her design work, wallpapers and tiles specifically, are a revelation. Many of the original tile murals are lost now as the post war buildings they were put up in have been pulled down. Similarly wallpaper being something that generally goes up in private spaces and is likely to be changed as houses are sold or tastes change is easy to miss. Peggy compared herself favourably to William Morris, I think she may gave had a point. She preferred to print the blocks by hand valuing the subtle variations in finish that this gave, she would also design papers specifically for the person commissioning them, and highly patterned or brightly coloured as they might be they were also intended to be a background for more art to be hung on. Russell's illustrations show how effectively this worked.

The woman who emerges from this book is a gifted, energetic, complex character whose influence is likely far more wide spread than it's possible to guess. It's high time she got this reassessment, I hope that at some point Carolyn Trant's biography gets a reprint that makes it affordable/accessible so that it can add to the conversation. Meanwhile Russell's book is an excellent place to start exploring from not least because it's very readable (which is a bonus), but also because it begs the question how did she get forgotten in the first place.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A poem for national poetry day.

It may be that I only realised that it was national poetry day this evening listening to some suitably themed thing on radio 4, but that doesn't make it to late to share a poem I'm fond of. It's Norman MacCaig's 'Praise of a Collie', I found it in an anthology a while ago and not long after my father had had to have his old sheep dog put down (she was much loved, but not at all well) I thought he'd like it until I got to the last verse when I realised that it might be a bit soon. It's stuck with me though so here it is - it doesn't have a happy ending, I cry every time I read it - I hope that's enough of a warning.

She was a small dog, neat and fluid —
Even her conversation was tiny:
She greeted you with bow, never bow-wow.

Her sons stood monumentally over her
But did what she told them. Each grew grizzled
Till it seemed he was his own mother's grandfather.

Once, gathering sheep on a showery day,
I remarked how dry she was. Pollóchan said, 'Ah,
It would take a very accurate drop to hit Lassie.'

And her tact — and tactics! When the sheep bolted
In an unforeseen direction, over the skyline
Came — who but Lassie, and not even panting.

She sailed in the dinghy like a proper sea-dog.
Where's a burn? — she's first on the other side.
She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind.

But suddenly she was old and sick and crippled ...
I grieved for Pollóchan when he took her for a stroll
And put his gun to the back of her head.