Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Seven Acts of Mercy

Our final RSC trip of the year was chosen on the back of not being able to get tickets to see a lecture about original pronunciation in Shakespeare (which obviously sounded really interesting to enough people to sell out really quickly). Stratford seemed the next best option, there were plenty of preview night tickets left for 'The Seven Acts of Mercy' and early pictures of the set looked amazing.

The set, was amazing. I'm always impressed with what they do at The Swan, but this was exceptional. The play explores themes in several Caravaggio paintings, the set plays with the chiaroscuro lighting effects he was famous for, and also uses projected images of his paintings to excellent effect.

I don't read very much contemporary fiction, and don't think I've ever been to see a contemporary play before - I find I feel much the same about both. I'm much more interested in the novels which survive, or resurface, the ones which stand the test of time. The same is definatley true of theatre, so it was probably inevitable that I wouldn't be overly taken with this one.

Switching between Caravaggio painting his altarpiece showing the seven acts of mercy in Naples, and contemporary Liverpool where a dying man is trying to instil both a love of art, and a sense of compassion, into his grandson. Throughout both strands some of the reality of extreme poverty is explored, with specific reference to food banks and the social housing crisis.

Our problem was that as good Guardian reading socialists it was preaching to the choir. I'm not an expert on the iniquities of government policy and how it affects the most vulnerable in society (my companion is, it's her job), I am very aware of how the Just About Managing manage, because that's me and many of my friends.

The issues covered and examples given are important and horrifying, but I'm not sure who this play is meant to reach. Who will see it who isn't fully aware, and already quite angry, about all of these things?

More fundamentally it worried me that all of these people were essentially decent, they were the deserving poor. In my line of work (retail) I see a fair number of people who just about manage by stealing. I'm lucky, I've never been seriously threatened - though I have been threatened, and spent a goodish bit of this year waiting for the police to pick up a shoplifter who has the endearing habit of arming himself with taped together bunches of used syringes. It is mostly my job to avoid him, but in such a way that puts him off stealing (I don't actually know how to do that - if you were wondering). I have colleagues who have been spat on, hit, and threatened with knives as well as syringes. I've seen parents with teenage children come shoplifting as a family, a heavily pregnant woman break down in tears after realising she'd been spotted trying to steal litres of vodka, organised gangs who will clear £500 of spirits of the shelf and be gone in less than 5 minutes. I've also seen alcoholics open bottles and drink them on the shop floor, beyond caring if they're caught or not, and many, many, more.

These are not always the easiest people to feel compassion for, for many of them the system has beyond failed, and conversation about what the answer might be often leads to some really uncomfortable places. I would much rather have watched a play that tried to make sense of that.

We also felt that the Liverpool setting was something of a stereotype. Stratford has food banks, as do the affluent market towns around me in Leicestershire. That speaks to me far more of how big a problem we have as a society, of how badly things are failing, and it's much more uncomfortably close to home for the average attendee at the RSC.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Luisa Weiss' Sunken Apple Cake

Finding a really good Apple cake has become something of a preoccupation over the last few years. I find the older I get the less I like icing, or indeed anything very sweet, and the more appealing cakes which feature nuts or fruit are, especially apples with their hint of tartness. This one from Classic German Baking is the best one I've found yet.

It has a good combination of sponge to apple (lots of apple, but enough sponge to balance it) a very nice texture, doesn't call for anything I'm not likely to have to hand (or relatively expensive, like ground almonds), doesn't have almost a kilo of sugar in it (I have a recipe that does, it's a good cake, but bloody hell - that's a lot of sugar), is quick to throw together, and is absolutely delicious. A total winner in fact.

Luisa tells us that in Germany cakes like this are often called Mittwochskuchen - Wednesday cake - because they're so easy to throw together when time is short but cake is wanted. I love the idea of mid week cake.

This one wants a 9 inch springform tin lined with baking parchment, the oven set to 180 degrees C (a bit less in a fan oven) and 3 apples (or there abouts) peeled cored and cut into quarters. The quarters then want to be cut, not quite all the way through, lengthways - they will fan out a bit as they cook. (I used Bramley's because I had them, and I like their flavour, but they do go very mushy - something that stays a little firmer might be better).

Apples set aside, grate half a lemon rind into a bowl, add 130g of soft butter, and 125g of sugar, then beat together until light and fluffy. Add half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 3 eggs, 1 at a time. Finally add 190g of self raising flour, (or plain with 2 teaspoons of added baking powder), 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt, and the juice from the half a lemon. Beat together until combined. Stick in the baking tin, press the Apple quarters into the mix (core side down), sprinkle with a tablespoon of Demerara sugar, and bake for 35-40 mins or until a skewer comes out of the cake clean.

There are so many things I want to make in 'Classic German Baking', if they all turn out as well as this Apple cake (I'm sorry about Apple with a capital A, I can't cure the iPad of it so am embracing it instead) I'll be very happy indeed.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Another knitting post

I've (almost) finished another scarf (just a few ends to tidy away). It's taken far longer then it should have done because I kept getting distracted by other things, but it's done, its in good time for the recipients birthday, and I'm pleased with it.

I couldn't get a decent picture on my phone and under electric light, which is a pity because the whole point of the thing was the texture in it. I wanted it to be vaguely reminiscent of gloomy North Sea weather and waves on the beach. When D, the only person to see the finished article so far, had a look at it that was the first thing he said so I think that counts as a success.

Waiting to be blocked - which has to be my least favourite part of the process.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club - Dorothy L. Sayers

Ive had my first weekend off in a month (and possibly last before Christmas), which I've spent doing all sorts of useful things. I also thought that after weeks of very slowly reading perfectly good books that I haven't felt any particular enthusiasm for (frustrating stuff, if they were bad books I could call it quits and move on, but they're not, they're just not what I'm in the mood for) I would follow Goergette Heyer with some Dorothy L. Sayers.

I discovered both writers at roughly the same point and read them continuously throughout my teens. At the time I was more interested in Sayers when she was following Peter and Harriet's romance. I found her through the really excellent BBC series in the mid '80's (Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane and Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter - perfect casting) and was young enough to be entirely uncritical about how she handles that romance. All things considered it surprises me a bit to find that whilst I think Heyer ages well, Sayers is increasingly troubling to read.

It turned out I didn't have a copy of 'The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club', so I bought one in its smart new jacket (I'm still 90% sure I hadn't read it before) and got through it on Saturday between chores. In terms of plotting it's a belter.

It's armistice day 1928 (at least 1928 is when it was published, so maybe it's armistice day 1927) and Lotd Peter is at the Bellona to meet the father of a fallen comrade for dinner. He meets a friend, George Fentiman, who still suffers the after effects of shell shock, and together they discover that Fentiman's grandfather (90 years old, and part of the clubs furniture) has died.

His doctor is on hand and happy to state that he's died of heart failure, and then it all gets a bit complicated. The old general had a rich sister, also dying, who has left her money to her brother if he survives her, a niece if he doesn't. She does die, but it's not clear who went first, and as the sum in question is about half a million (if the inflation calculator I insulted is correct that's about twenty seven and a half million in today's money) it starts to matter rather a lot to the junior Fentiman's.

Lord Peter is called in to establish the time line, in the course of which he has to reveal that the body was tampered with post mortem, and it eventually transpires that the general was murdered... The likely culprit isn't so hard to guess, but the way all the bits fit together is eminently satisfying. It was also fun to find myself reading on basically the same day that the investigation starts (accidental, but I liked the way my weather outside was reflected inside the book). Interesting too to read about contemporary attitudes to armistice day and see the effect the war is still having on the generation of young men who survived it, and in a different way the women too.

What's harder to take is how much of a snob Sayers is - she'd put Nancy Mitford to shame; I could well believe she'd swallowed whole 'U and Non-U'. It's not that her sleuth is an aristocrat so much but that she's always at pains to point out how wide the gulf is between the upper classes and everyone else. Even Parker comes in for it. Then there are the references to wine and food (though I could quite agree that a girl who prefers burgundy to champagne is the right sort), music, manuscripts, and other such details (since reading 'Ask a Policeman' it's harder to take these seriously).

It doesn't bother me that Sayers likes to mock the bohemian set that presumably annoyed her in actual
life, but she does it with a very heavy hand. What I really don't like very much is how misogonistic her tone is when she talks about women generally. It might be a fair reflection of prevailing attitudes, but the more I revisit Sayers the more she worries me. I can't help but think she would always have thought of sex with a capital S, and has a few too many of the complexes she accuses some of her minor characters of. Her obvious crush on Lord Peter isn't encouraging either.

Meanwhile the end of the book came as something of a shock, and genuinely chilled me. I'm really pleased I finally read this one.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Snowdrift and Other Stories - Georgette Heyer

This is 'Pistols For Two' repackaged for Christmas and with three recently rediscovered stories added. It's a hardback (which means it'll take up too much space on my shelf - space is more than ever at a premium), but at £9.99 it's a very reasonably priced one and if the publisher hadn't been kind enough to send me a copy I'd have been begging for it as a stocking filler.

My love of Georgette Heyer is no secret, and whilst her short stories don't necessarily show her at her best* they're still wonderful bits of escapism. The reason I'd say they don't show her at her best however is also one of the things I find particularly interesting about them - with less space to expand out into her technique and particular mannerisms are much more noticeable.

Because every story is inevitably a variation on a couple meeting and deciding to marry in fairly short order (after overcoming some sort of obstacle first) it's a collection that's best dipped in and out of - it's also very good company on a 20 minute bus journey when it's either to early, or to late, to concentrate on anything more demanding.

I periodically return to Heyer, generally in times of stress, when the mix of her familiar and well ordered world along with her sense of humour is particularly comforting. Another part of her enduring appeal is how generally capable her heroines are, which I think reflects both Heyer's own life, and more generally her generation of women. This was a generation that grew up in the aftermath of the First World War, and then had to deal with the Second World War and someday I'll sit down and try and work out my thoughts on this and how it's reflected in her books.

As far as this collection goes 'Pistols for Two' is a gem for not really being a romance at all (at least not in the traditional sense) but rather an account of what happens when two young men start competing for the same girl. 'Night at the Inn' has a bit of romance, but rather more in the way of gothic horror - though again, shot through with humour and is another highlight. Both show Heyer's versatility.

The three 'new' stories were written for magazines, and if on first reading seem particularly familiar it's probably because all seem to be prototypes for later books (it was fun working out which ones). 'Incident on the Bath Road' was my favourite - but all three are fun. They do alter the balance of the original 'Pistols For Two' anthology - more stories feels like less variety as the new ones all fit a very traditional romance mould - but more Heyer is unquestionably a good thing.

Sometimes reissues, especially with a new name (like last years reissue of 'Envious Casca'as 'A Christmas Party') are mildly annoying - you get all excited by the promise of something new only to discover it's not. 'Snowdrift', however, delivers with the new material, it's pretty to look at as well, so for long time Heyer fans it's probably (if your copy of Pistols for Two is as tatty as mine) a timely replacement. New fans are lucky however I look at it.

It's also just really good to see Heyer getting a bit of love. Whatever her faults she was a remarkable woman who deserves a bit of celebrating.

*I kept thinking of Angela Thirkell's, Laura Morland and her books about cloths and romance every time an outfit was described (and an outfit is described every time). There's room for it in a full length novel where the details are part of the pleasure. In a short story it's something of a distraction.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sheer Torture - Robert Barnard

'Sheer Torture' is, I think, the first in the series of Perry Trethowan books, it certainly precedes 'The Case of the Missing BrontĂ«' (events from 'Sheer Torture' are alluded to in the later book). It's also my favourite of the three Barnard's I've read, mostly because it's gloriously, and slightly inappropriately funny.

I'm just going to quote the back blurb in full because it gives an accurate flavour of the book...

"It can be a bit of an embarrassment when your old man is done in. Particularly when you are a rising inspector with CID, and hated his guts. Particularly when your old man was at the time subjecting himself to a do-it-yourself version of a Spanish Inquisition torture. And wearing spangled tights. What it meant was that Perry Trethowan had to go back to the home of his ancestors and do a bit of semi-official sleuthing.

Like the Sitwells and the Mitfords, the Trethowans proved that Birth and Artistic Talent could go together. The Trethowans, though, made one hope it didn't happen to often. Percy's father had been a dilettante composer so minor that he stopped composing long before he started decomposing. His uncle Lawrence, head of the family, was a poet of sorts, one of his aunts a stage designer, another an overgrown schoolgirl who had never grown out of her Thirties crush on Adolf Hitler. And that's only the older generation...."

First published in 1981, which probably pre dates the wholesale Mitford mania we've seen in the last couple of decades this is a book that will either really appeal to you (it did me) or not. If the blurb didn't sound promising don't read it.

I know just enough about the Sitwell's and (a bit more about) the Mitford's to make the parody funny. Ugly Victorian gothic houses, family feuds, Perry's understandable reluctance to have his wife and son meet the rest of the family, and the fear that he might end up as head of the family are all also right up my street.

The salacious details about the death (and general habits) of Trethowan senior are mercifully brief, there's a vigorous nod towards Victorian sensation fiction, and a general feeling that Barnard had a high old time writing this. I loved it, and now I wonder - will any other Barnard I read be a disappointment in comparison?

Sunday, November 13, 2016


I woke up at 3am on Wednesday morning, looked at Twitter to see what was happening in the American election, despaired, fell back asleep and didn't wake up again until I should have been on my way to work. Neither Donald Trumps victory, or my oversleeping, were auspicious starts to the day. I wish the results had been different, but they're not, and at least against all the odds I got to work on time. The rest of this week has been about seeking comfort.

I don't want to be overly pessimistic about what the future holds, or even to speculate about it, but at the moment it does feel like old certainties are dissolving. The ensuing uncertainties are not comforting, and nor is the rise in racist harassment some of my colleagues are being subjected to. It was bad enough after the European referendum result, it doesn't seem likely to get better now after Trump's anti Muslim rhetoric- even here in the UK.

Meanwhile I decided to go to London on Thursday for a change of scene and to see the Abstract Expressionists exhibition at the Royal Acadamy. It's excellent, though perhaps not precisely cheering. What really struck me was how much impact these paintings still have, despite 60 odd years in which the world has had the chance to become familiar with these images some of them still feel quite shocking. The Clyfford Still's felt particularly challenging - or maybe untamed is a better word. The Jackson Pollock's have far more impact in life, and en masse, than any illustration suggests, it's also suddenly clear how controlled they are, and interesting to find how desperately eye and mind start searching for recognisable figures (it seems like they're there, just lurking out of reach). It's all good though, in that it's an exhibition that provides a lot to think about.

Much more traditionally comforting was a quick visit to Persephone books to buy a copy of 'Long Live Great Bardfield', Tirzah Garwood's autobiography. I'd like to start reading it now, but think I'll keep it for when I'm away over New Year. It's a longish book, and deserves a bit of time to get really stuck into it, and there a few things I've committed to read first, or have half finished (which feels annoyingly untidy) so should be dealt with first.

Another book I'm really trying to keep my hands off of is an arc of Carol Dyhouse's 'Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire' from Oxford university press. It's not out until February, if I read it now I'll forget about it by then, but it looks so good that I haven't been able to resist dipping in and out of it (so far it's as good as it looks). It turned up all unexpectedly on Wednesday And definatley lifted my mood.

I also bought Trine Hahnemann's 'Scandinavian Comfort Food', it suggests it'll help me embrace the art of hygge* - about which I have my doubts, but I have no doubts about Trine Hahnemann, who's books I generally like.

*I don't really know much about hygge beyond that it's becoming an irritatingly overused word and marketing tool. That's been enough to put me off learning more.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Classic German Baking - Luisa Weiss

The season of buying shiny new cookbooks, with every intention of spending happy hours in my kitchen turning out amazing things - and then getting home from work to tired to move is well and truly here.

I've been looking for a book that covers classic German baking for years, mostly because I love cinnamon and any sort of apple cake, but perhaps not entirely surprisingly there aren't many to choose from in the UK. It's probably no coincidence that the closest thing I've had until now (Tante Hertha's Viennese Kitchen) is also an American imprint. I do rather wish someone would write one specifically for the UK market. Not because of the measurements, which are all given in grams as well in this book, but because supplier lists in this case are tantalisingly unhelpful.

That and the language barrier... I'm not quite sure what instant yeast is in America (I assume it's the same as the stuff we get in little sachets here, but is it?), do we have high-fat European style butter as a matter of course (there's a low fat butter?) Is cornstarch the same as cornflour? Is all purpose flour plain flour? Non of these questions will be hard to get answers too, and this is in no way a criticism, it's just easier (for a kitchen pedant like me) not to have to think about this stuff.

The important thing is the book is here, it covers exactly the things I've been looking for, and there's plenty of history and cultural observation along with the recipes which gives them context (always a bonus). I couldn't ask for more variations on the Apple cake theme - well maybe I could, because it's the sort of thing that's easy to get obsessive about, but there are plenty of really good looking options. They don't call for a mountain of sugar either, or at least not in the way that some Other recipes do.

The Christmas favourites chapter could almost make me cry with vexation that I just can't imagine finding the time to really explore it this year (12 days off between now and Christmas with a lot to do already without going on an unscheduled baking spree). Next year.

I'm really keen to explore the breads and yeasted cakes as well, and the biscuits - and all of it really. Now let's see just how long it takes me.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Un-Discovered Islands - Malachy Tallack

Reading 'The Un-Discovered Islands' in conjunction with 'Scotland: Mapping the Islands' has been particularly interesting, with 'The Un-Discovered Islands' underlining just how unreliable maps can be.

'The Un-Discovered Islands' deals specifically with two dozen mythical, phantom, and fake Islands, which also serve to underline just how important Islands are in our collective imagination. Some of them are islands of the dead - places where our souls go, and maybe come from too, or are otherwise otherworldly. Others were probably cynical inventions to secure funding for further exploration. Some, such as Atlantis, have always been fictional but have somehow come to be accepted as fact - almost. 

Most extraordinary are the last two entries - Bermeja, and Sandy island - both of which have only been finally un-discovered in the last decade or so. Bermeja had been un-discovered somewhat earlier but its existence, or lack there of, was still being discussed by the Mexican government in 2009. And isn't it something to think about - that even now with all the wonders of satellite and digital technology - we're still not, or so it seems, entirely sure what's out there. 

It's also a reminder that Islands that have existed can disappear, that land is swallowed by the ocean all the time. Which is unsettling (though not as unsettling for me in my land bound location as it might be for someone living on the unstable edge of a cliff). 

Altogether it's a fascinating journey to places that don't exist with the chance to explore all sorts of odd stories, myths, and mysteries along the way and with the possibility of heading off in all sorts of tangential directions. 

The book is also beautifully illustrated by Katie Scott - so beautifully it would be very wrong not to mention it. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Scotland Mapping The Islands - Christophet Fleet, Margaret Wilkes, Charles W.J. Withers

The best thing about writing book reviews for other people is the way it leads me to things I wouldn't otherwise have payed any particular attention to. 'Scotland: Mapping The Islands' is just such a book. Without the push of needing to find something that had a particular connection to Shetland, if I'd seen it at all I would have most likely only thought of it in terms as a good potential present for D.

I would have been quite right to have done so, he's very enthusiastic about this book - we've gone far beyond pointed hints and are now in attempted kidnap territory. He'll probably end up as its eventual custodian because it's senseless to duplicate our books, but I don't really want to let go if it. (Only the knowledge that I'll struggle to fit it on my own bookshelves is reconciling me to this).

'Scotland: Mapping The Islands' is a companion volume to 'Scotland: Mapping The Nation' (which I can see I now need to buy as well), neccesary because the story of the islands and the way they've been perceived is different to that of the mainland - and a big enough subject to demand their own book.

I'm not immune to the fascination of looking at islands on maps, which certainly conjur some of the magic of actual islands. I enjoy the pictorial quality of old maps, I've been interested to note the way names change on them, and the way the shapes of a place have changed as surveying techniques developed, but beyond the curiosity of the moment I'd never given any of it much thought. I'd certainly never really considered why maps were made, or on the effect that the relativley unfixed nature Islands have had on maps has on the imagination.

Which makes it fair to say this book has had a profound impact on me and how I think.

The majority of the maps and charts used to (lavishly) illustrate the book come from the collection held by the National Library of Scotland. It breaks down into chapters on Peopling, Naming, Navigating, Defending, Improving, Exploiting, Picturing, and Escaping which also run in a roughly chronological order. You can also choose to read the book by island or island group by following them through the index.

The first thing I did was follow Shetland through the book, it's an interesting example because it still floats around on maps - it's far enough North to mean that putting it in its correct place on a map of Scotland or the UK means that you have to diminish the size of the mainland to fit everything in the page, and the overall effect isn't particularly pleasing from a design point of view (to much sea, not enough land). The convention is to stick it in a box to one side, which isn't very pleasing either but is an excellent reminder that maps are so often an interpretation of the world rather than a strictly factual representation of it.

It came as something of a surprise to know how late it was that accurate surveys of the Scottish Islands were completed. 1886 for example before you could see what the island of Foula actually looked like as well as where it was on a map. I could see it from my bedroom window as a child, the idea that it had only truly been pinned down less than a hundred years before my first view of it stuns me.

It's also an immensely readable book, full of human stories, interest, and enthusiasm - as well as so much to think about. I am particularly grateful that it came my way.