Monday, March 28, 2016


Thanks to storm Katie rendering much of today's bank holiday to foul to go outside on - horizontal snow this morning (happy Easter everyone) I've been tidying out my wardrobe. It had to be done sometime. My wardrobe is where I keep all the good bottles; whisky that I think might appreciate in value, wine that needs to age, and the good gin (also some cloths and shoes, but they're starting to get in the way of the bottles).

My whisky collection is small and really not worth anything, which is fine, and mostly consists of 9 assorted litres of Old Pultney in travel retail special editions. I really like Old Pultney and will probably end up drinking these one day, but for now I just like to gloat over them. None of them were particularly expensive and they have made pleasant souvenirs of holidays with D, but the problem with collecting whisky now is that prices are rising far beyond my means and even airport special editions are now more likely to be £80 than £40.

It's great for the distilleries and those who are primarily interested in flipping bottles for profit, but a shame for those of us who liked to buy a couple of bottles of something interesting, enjoy one and keep the other for a rainy day (quite often literally a rainy day, much like today, when it might seem like a fine idea to split open some treasure from the back of a cupboard and make plans for the next distillery trip).

Now I knew I had a bit of gin around the place, and I know gin isn't currently collectable in the way whisky is (because yes, the chance that something might shoot up in value is part of the fun - it's just a shame when that becomes the only reason to buy) but I think one day it might be.

Meanwhile most gin is an affordable luxury (under £35) and has become the thing I look out for. The gins on the right are easily available and are basically intended for drinking as and when wanted, but the gins on the left... (I've had to stop twice to go and fetch bottles I'd forgotten about). The gins on the left are for 'best'. That bottle of Shetland Reel in its tweed bag is from the first run, Chase Seville orange gin is much harder to find than when I bought that bottle, the Whittaker's has the most glorious label, the labels are really the reason I bought both Bath Gin and Cremorne's Colonel Fox, and Sipsmith's VJOP and the Fortnum's gin (made by Dodd's) both commemorate happy days out.

Those gins are the beginning of a collection, they're the ones that make me sorry I don't have more, have me making a little wish list of next ones to buy, make me ever so slightly regret the 'good' bottles I left at D's and we drank our way through far to quickly. I don't really regret drinking them (they were great) just not having them any more.

What's happening with gin in the UK at the moment is so exciting, and moving so fast, that it's hard to guess where the market will end up, maybe some distilleries will have their moment in the sun and then disappear, possibly rare bottlings will become valuable, but as gin has always been a drink of the masses I rather hope that it stays that way. Meanwhile, whenever I'm feeling flush, I'll buy any interesting bottle I cross paths with that won't break the bank, and if anyone wants a martini they know where to come.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Naked Shore: Of the North Sea - Tom Blass

I found myself reading a lot (well, a lot more than usual) about herring and the North Sea last month because I'd promised to review some Shetland themed books to a very tight deadline (there's more to Shetland, and the North Sea, than herring but that's what came quickly to hand.) The history of the herring trade is genuinely fascinating but the book that really stood out as special was 'The Naked Shore'.

 'The Naked Shore' is the result of a journey that the author, Tom Blass sets out on " write a book about this sea and its world, too often snubbed by writers, derided for its moody lugubriousness, it's inclination towards inclemency, damp chilly sands, and a decidedly utilitarian aspect when glanced at from a certain angle." Because as he knows "...both the sea and shores it beats upon possess their own allure. Just as the sparkle of the Mediterranean out-twinkles a multitude of vices, do not the mists, miasmas, and surliness of the North Sea cloak a multitude of gems?"

They do indeed, and Blass neatly proceeds to reveal some of them. In doing so he joins a growing group of travel writers exploring not exotic, but known landscapes, places that might seem too peripheral, obscure, or mundane, to bother with in the ordinary way - but which do nonetheless have things to offer. Will Self called it psychogeography (the study of how places make us feel) when he was describing Mallachy Tallack's excellent 60 Degrees North and it's hard to come up with a better description.

I expected to find this a reasonably interesting book, knew I'd love it from those first descriptions of the North Sea and it's sometimes well hidden charms, but had no idea just how rich and wonderful an array of stuff Blass would present. Each chapter could easily be expanded into a book of its own, so what we get is an overview; the gems are bits of history, superstition, legend, and encounters (planned or by chance), that he has along the way.

My favourite (though favourite isn't really the right word) because it was so unexpected, was a chance encounter in 1904 between the hull fishing fleet and the Russian navy, who mistook them for an aggressive Japanese navy and opened fire. It's a terrible incident which resulted in 2 men being decapitated and a ship being lost. It seems no proper apology was made until 2005. It's a piece of history I assume was all but forgotten outside of Hull's Hessle road, but here it is both shocking and riveting. There is a chapter on Shetland which focuses on the impact oil and gas have had on the islands which is why I was reading it in the first place, but also chapters on the other North Sea countries too.

The common thread throughout the book is, (to loosely quote) a communality of experience that binds together North Sea peoples, almost regardless of nationality. This is our sea, a sea that's shaped us as a people quite as much as anything else has, and something that will continue to both define and reshape our islands. It's a point of view that I totally buy into which is another reason I loved this book, but mainly I loved it for being an unexpected page turner.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Conquest of Plassans - Emile Zola

Translated by Helen Constantine.

Anybody with a long enough memory might remember me undertaking to read my way through Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle - it's been a while. Not that this is a problem, I always saw it as a long term project (a decade seems reasonable as a time scale, longer would be fine). 'The Conquest of Plassans' is also the end of my trying to read them in order. The correct order is confusing anyway - the sequence Zola suggests isn't the same as the one he wrote them in, and not all of them are easily available in actual book format. If I have to read the last few as ebooks I will, but I'm hopeful a few more will have had the Oxford World's Classics treatment before then.

 It was good to be back in Plassans and amongst the small town bourgeoise. It feels like such a familiar, unchanging, setting that it was easy to be sucked into Zola's more outrageous plot developments this one left me unsure of the difference between naturalism and sensationalism. Briefly (there will be spoilers, but probably no more than could be found on Wikipedia, and I think the books been round for long enough for it to be quite acceptable to give away plot points...)

The novel opens in the house of François and Marthe Mouret. Marthe was a Rougon daughter who's married her cousin - given Zola's preoccupation with the madness that runs through the family this rings alarm bells. It's a scene of outward domestic bliss and some inward tension. Against Marthe's expressed preference, Mouret has agreed to take a lodger - Abbé Faujas, an impoverished priest, and his mother.

These new arrivals unsettle the family routine and start to highlight those tensions within the Mouret marriage. Abbé Faujas turns up with virtually nothing but his ambition and sets out to conquer the town. He does it in increments, first winning over his landlady, awakening a religious fervour in her, and then increasingly influencing the other women of the town, before eventually dabbling in politics.

 Meanwhile his sister and her no good husband have turned up and also moved in, Mouret, increasingly marginalised in his own home is becoming isolated, his behaviour increasingly questioned, and Marthe has taken religious devotion to the point of mania and beyond. Soon Mouret is locked up in an assylum, Marthe is being robbed blind by the Abbé's family, and the children are all dispatched away from home.

 It does not end well.

 Mouret and Marthe's mental disintegration is compelling - so much of it is based on perception and how those on the outside judge the couples behaviour. Mouret's eccentricities are picked on and embroidered until everyone believes the worst, and isolated as he is by this point it's hard to know quite what he himself believes. Marthe's religious fervour on the other hand is accepted and the assumption that she us her husbands victim soon takes hold. Just as interesting is the Abbé Faujas, ascetic and ambitious, he's morally compromised by his family's behaviour. His inability to stop them ravaging the house, or to show any compassion towards Marthe when she's no longer any use to him show a weak man without any true Christian feeling.

 Bits are overblown, I'm not sure that Zola's understanding of mental illness would stand much scrutiny today, and it all gets a bit grim, but it's also an absorbing and compelling book. I wasn't in the least bit ready for it to end. What I was ready for was another Zola novel...

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ta Daaa

It'll be back to books tomorrow as I've finished the knitting project that's been distracting me for the last week. I'm basically pleased with it - though there are a few mistakes, but I guess that's what happens when you make it up as you go along... On the other hand I've learnt a lot, and am happy with colours and pattern. Onwards and upwards!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Legacy of Shetland Lace - Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers,and Dyers

After (mostly) finishing off a project that had been sitting around for nearly a year I've found it hard to stop knitting (not that I've really tried to stop). Maybe the current cold weather is spurring me on, or it could be that my Instagram feed is full of knitwear designers all doing inspiring things, but whatever the reason the bug has bitten. Dad offering to courier some yarn down for me is another temptation...

It will come as no surprise that there's been some book buying as well. This time it's 'A Legacy of Shetland Lace'. I was somewhat intimidated by it when I last looked at it on a visit home last year, but  after seeing it recommended by Ella Gordon I decided to get it anyway and I'm glad I did.

I was taught to knit at primary school by a lovely woman, and gifted knitter, called Zena Thompson, there are 5 of her designs in this book which would have been enough to make me buy it anyway. We didn't learn anything quite as advanced as the lace designs in here, but even after a gap of 30 years what she did teach us has left me with the confidence to have a go. This is because I know, thanks to Zena, that at a basic level both Fair Isle and lacework are easy enough to tackle, and there are plenty of basic patterns to build skills on. I have no idea if I'll ever build those skills enough to take on any of the more complex designs, they're a different story, but for now I'm happy dabbling at the shallow end.

When I was growing up it would have been rare to find a woman who couldn't knit, or who hadn't knitted to supplement the household income. Since then knitting lessons in schools have been cut, job opportunities have expanded (knitting was all to often very badly paid), and more people have made homes there who don't share this tradition. I think it's fair to say that a decade or so ago the future for traditional knitting skills was looking a bit grim. Since then a general fashion for crafting, and a new generation of talented designers and practitioners has breathed new life into something that is as much art form as industry.

Still 'A Legacy of Shetland Lace' is timely (and hopefully only volume 1 of what would make an excellent series). Legacy is the key word, with the emphasis firmly on traditional items (with some exceptions), and as such it does an excellent job of preserving an important part of Shetland's heritage  as well as sharing it with a wider audience of knitters. Whether the knitter then chooses to work faithfully within that tradition, borrow from it, add to it, or turn their back on it, is down to the individual but having it documented is important.

This book has 21 projects, chapters on technique, and little bits of personal history. If you want
authenticity I guess this is as good as it gets, it makes interesting reading as well as being a practical
guide, but I particularly like it for celebrating the work of so many gifted women, all of whom deserve the recognition. Buying it is the best way I can think of to encourage the better documentation of their skills and achievements.

'A Legacy of Shetland Lace' is available from The Shetland Times bookshop and amazon. Waterstones can order it within 2 weeks, and although I couldn't find it on hive any independent bookshop could also order it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Dr Thorne adaptation

I was going to wait until the end of the current itv series before commenting but after last nights episode I'm so disappointed there seems no point.

There are so many things wrong with this adaptation, the first being that trying to squeeze it into 3 episodes is a nonsense. The thing I love about Trollope, and assume others love about him too, is that he takes his time telling a story. The plot may hinge on something fairly slight (in this case, will a young couple get together despite some obstacles, or not...) but he really explores those obstacles with the result that we get proper 3 dimensional characters.

Two thirds of the way through this adaptation and I don't feel that at all, Mary's had her life turned upside down a number of times already, but have we been given time to consider how she might feel - no we have not. Has she been given screen time to show us how she might feel about falling in love, discovering her origins aren't entirely respectable, being barred from the company of her oldest friends, realising her uncle hasn't been entirely honest with her - any of it? No, no she has not.

Miss Dunstable should be a much plainer woman, and she really needs to look like she's to old for Frank. Alison Brie, and this is no reflection on her acting, has presumably been chosen to sell this to the U.S market. Frank would be lucky to get this Miss Dunstable, with or without a fortune, it's not convincing that people really would only be after her for her money and it removes layers of nuance from the part.

The connection between the Gresham family and Greshambury has also gone, it's not just about the house and a comfortable way of life, it's hundreds of years of connection between the Gresham's and their tennents. If Frank follows his heart what happens to all the people he's considered responsible for? And what sort of a man is he if he turns his back on those responsibilities - would that man make a good husband for Mary, and how would she feel as his wife if there are always whispers about them? Judging from the series so far we'll never know. Which brings me to Frank's sisters. His marriage will affect their prospects in an age where marriage is basically the only career option open to most girls. It would certainly be all these girls were trained for, but there isn't really any sense of that either.

It's frustrating because the cast is excellent, and clearly doing what they can - it's just such a shame that it's turned out to be such a poor adaptation.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


I should be finishing off Zola's 'Earth', and could be writing about his 'The Conquest of Plassons' which I read a week or two back, but 'Earth' is proving to be a relentlessly bleak depiction of peasant life with a lot (really a lot) of perfunctory sex in ditches, on haystacks, under hedges, and any other location Zola could think of. I feel I need a break from so much Gaelic excess and I've been truly bitten by the knitting bug again so this weekend I'm hitting the yarn rather than the books.

I've started a new project and am at the happy stage of wondering if the colours I've chosen are going to work together, or not, as the case may be. They looked great altogether as balls of wool (or so I thought) but everything seems to change on the needles (wires? What is the correct knitting slang I wonder) and I know from experience that I won't really know if I'm happy about it until I can see the finished article.

Sheila McGregor's 'Traditional Fair Isle Knitting' is an excellent source of inspiration (I thought I'd written about it before, but find I haven't - one day I'll post about it properly.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Murder At The Manor

I do appreciate a good collection of short stories, they are the perfect companion for the public transport and breaks that punctuate my working day, and there's something particularly satisfying about a well chosen anthology. 

I'm also a big fan of country house mysteries; it's the combination of closed communities, a suggestion of money, or money lost, the possibilities of places to hide, and old secrets that make them so irresistible to me. Which means it'll be no surprise when I say how much I've been looking forward to 'The Murder at the Manor' collection from the British Library crime classics series (with Martin Edwards as editor). 

I wasn't disappointed. As is now traditional the collection opens with a Conan Doyle offering (The Copper Beeches, very satisfying) and maintains the high standard from there on in. I particularly enjoyed E. W. Hornung's 'Gentleman and Players' - Raffles, the amateur cracksman is best met like this, a little of him goes a long way, or at least that's how I felt last time I tried reading through a whole book of him. 

W. W. Jacobs' 'The Well' was almost a ghost story and successfully gave me the creeps, as did the atmosphere of Ernest Bramah's 'The Secret of Dunstan's Tower', and for that matter Ethel Lina White's 'An Unlocked Window' really ratchets up the tension.... I could go on and list the entire contents, but it's quicker to say I enjoyed them all for different reasons, finding it yo be a thoroughly satisfactory collection.

There could be quibbles (it would be interesting to have the original publication dates for each story for example) but for me this is a near perfect collection. There's a good mix of style and atmosphere, short stories for brief bus journeys, and others which are almost novella length that saw me comfortably through a lunch hour, and a few inbetween which made satisfying bedtime reading without the danger of still thinking 'just one more page' at 3am on a work night. The cover is rather nice too! 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Doctor Thorne - Anthony Trollope

This is lazy blogging; I'm reposting this for 2010 when I first read Doctor Thorne, but it starts tonight on ITV here in the UK so it seemed appropriate. I'm curious as to why this title was chosen, but delighted that Trollope is getting an outing. If the ratings are good there's no shortage of material go adapt... And I really must finish the Palliser books too.

I will warn you now – there’s a very high chance of plot spoilers in the following post, but one of the things I find I really like about Trollope is that plot isn’t really important; it’s simply a device to explore a moral dilemma with. In ‘Dr Thorne’ that issue is legitimacy and class. Briefly the Dr Thorne of the title stands as guardian to his niece Mary – she is the illegitimate daughter of his dead brother and is in every way an exemplary young woman. In her uncle’s eyes she is not only an angel incarnate but absolutely his niece, but legally she has no real right to the name she bears, no recognised position in society, in short (and crucially) she has no ‘blood’.

Dr Thorne is himself a connection of the Thorne’s of Ullathorne – a family that has made a cult out of blood, he is also near neighbour, friend, and doctor to the Gresham’s of Greshamsbury (the foremost family of commoners in Barsetshire) who have also made a cult out of blood (can you see where this is going?). Almost accidentally Mary has been bought up with the Gresham children on terms of near equality and by the time the action starts the Greshamsbury heir (young Frank Gresham) is coming of age, something he celebrates by proposing to Mary Thorne. To complicate matters further the Gresham’s are bankrupt; Squire Gresham married an earl’s daughter and has spent his marriage paying for her idea of a supportable lifestyle – not something even his once very respectable fortune has been able to keep up with. 

Now young Frank is a decent sort, young but true and once he’s plighted his troth he’s determined to keep his word, Mary is a young woman of integrity and principle and equally determined to do the right thing so as she becomes aware of the reality of her situation she tries to release him from his promises. Frank must marry money to do his duty by his family but how can he do this and remain a decent sort? And indeed what if Mary was to acquire money, would that make her lack of position acceptable to the rest of the Gresham’s?

Well it just so happens that Mary is a possible heiress to an unlikely but vast fortune, her uncle is aware of this but is determined that she will be accepted on her own merits and so the scene is set. What’s more important money or birth, and what actually makes someone a lady or for that matter a gentleman? So much for the moral dilemma, now for what makes this such a good read; it’s a book full of Trollope’s gentle humour, there are some exquisite character sketches, and there’s something of a culture shock. I also get the sense that Trollope really cares about his characters; the young man destined to die so that Mary can inherit twists and turns off the page, caught between being a villain in the piece, and a man deserving all our sympathy. I really feel that in a different book he might have been reformed into the hero - of all the characters in the book he’s stuck with me the most as a compellingly real personality up to and including the unfortunate and eventually fatal predilection for liquors.

And evidence that the Victorians really felt differently to us? Mary’s mother is left pregnant and alone after the man who seduced her (Trollope alludes to drugs and rape) is killed. A previous beau offers to marry her despite her fall, but he won’t take on the child. The mother has the stark choice of child or husband – she chooses a husband (though in all fairness she knows that her child will be cared for as well, or better than she could care for it herself), but what shocked me is that the man in the case is presented as a hero for contemplating taking her on at all. Had she been a widow it wouldn’t have been an issue but sex outside of marriage has to be punished, and the sins of the mother will be visited on the child...

I’ve only scratched the surface here, I have a long set of notes and questions attached to ‘Dr Thorne’, and am extremely hopeful that someone out there will not only share my enthusiasm for this book but challenge some of my ideas about it. Trollope so exactly fits my reading needs at the moment that I want to shout about him from the roof tops, but mindful of how long it’s taken me to get to this point I’m trying to be restrained. With other Victorian writers I’m generally looking for something sensational or nostalgic, I find myself turning to Trollope because he makes me question and think, and so far it’s proving to be a very rewarding relationship for me.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Magician - W. Somerset Maugham

It's world book day so although my head is full of shotguns and knitting (maybe I should be reading a Miss Marple) I'm making the effort to catch up on a book review (it's not much of an effort to think about books).

The book is Maugham's 'The Magician' and seemed an appropriate choice because he's my perfect example of an author I thought I couldn't get on with who turns out to be one I can. Many years ago I tried to read 'The Moon and Sixpence' (at least I think it was that one) and got nowhere with it. I disliked it so much that it took 20 years and a book group to make me read 'The Painted Veil' - which I loved.

Since then I've collected a handful of Maugham's which sounded tempting and essentially just looked at them, but 'Dr Faustus' gave me a push to pick up 'The Magician'. I loved this one too. Written around 1907, the introduction tells me it was inspired by time Maugham spent living in Paris, during which time he crossed paths with Aleister Crowley who he says he took an immediate dislike too, though he also found him amusing.

Oliver Haddo, the villian of 'The Magician' was the result of this meeting, he's a grotesque caricature so it's hardly surprising that in a Vanity Fair review Crowley, writing under the name of Oliver Haddo, accused Maugham of plagiarism (a quick search hasn't produced the full article, so I don't know what else he had to say about the book), but it all adds colour.

The whole thing us a splendid melodrama centring around a young doctor, Arthur, who seems to have a brilliant future ahead of him. He is the consummate man of science, thriving in his career, and about to marry the woman he adores - Margaret, young, beautiful, and artistic. She's been living in Paris with a former teacher, Suzie, as chaperone and it's at this point there respective paths cross. Arthur and Margaret take an instant and instinctive dislike to Haddo, but Suzie finds him amusing so he's invited home for tea. The results are disastrous - Arthur ends up kicking him to the floor after an inciddent with a dog and after that Haddo's revenge is inevitable. The form it takes is easy enough to guess at, and is as over the top as any lover of gothic excess could hope for...

What makes it a winner is the way that Maugham builds up the tension. If I was an absinthe drinker it would be the perfect accompaniment to this book (I'm not), champagne drunk from a coupe might be a suitable alternative. It's tremendous fun, as well as being quite dark enough to be genuinely creepy at times. Maugham himself describes the style as lush and turgid, which it is, and all the better for it. I'm so very glad I took a second chance on Maugham.

The Picnic Cookbook - Laura Mason

There's still time for it to turn around, but thus far this week is turning into one of those crappy ones where I find I've forgotten my umbrella when it rains, where it rains when we wanted to do something outside, when the bus home is unusually late, when I seem to drop half the things I pick up, and when plans just do not come together. And my wellies have split.

To cheer myself up, and keep out of the rain, I traded in Waterstones loyalty points for Laura Mason's 'The Picnic Cookbook' - it seemed like the perfect way to dream about dry days to come. My local family isn't always great at picnics - D likes starched tablecloths whenever possible, my sisters opinion of picnics generally is unprintable, mum's dog loves a picnic but isn't the most relaxing companion, and so it's become something we mean to do rather than ever get round too. (My father and stepmother are rather better on the picnic front, maybe it's living by the sea that does it). I still love the idea though, and picnic food doesn't have to leave the house...

Half of the appeal of this book is in its presentation and packing ideas - sandwiches kept in a hollowed out loaf of bread, or in the centre of a lettuce, coleslaw served inside a hollowed out cabbage, and I'm currently looking at a recipe for magic puddings baked in orange skins in the 'Around The Campfire' chapter. If camping had been like that when I was a girl I might be more willing to consider doing it now. It's also undeniably sensible to pack food in things that can be thrown away in an environmentally friendly fashion - if you don't eat them.

It's not so much that any of the recipes are groundbreaking - though they're a world away from the cheese sandwiches and orange segments that picnic meant in my seventies childhood (not that those were bad picnics, just that they were short on grilled quail or prosciutto wrapped scallops. Come to think of it my diet is still short on grilled quail and scallops wapped in prosciutto- or otherwise.)

For those who picnic and barbecue a lot it's probably all perfectly obvious, and whilst in truth my occasional picnic opportunities will probably continue to be catered for by the nearest M&S food hall (that's not the worst thing about living in a city) the idea of food that doesn't come wrapped in plastic has a certain romantic appeal. This is a national trust book so there's a few suggestions of trust properties considered especially good for picnics, and as you might expect from any great British institution- lots of lists of useful things to pack and have handy. In short it's a book full of nice things and good ideas which perfectly facilitates dreams of the perfect picnic - even whilst the wind howls outside and the rain turns to sleet.