Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Scottish Lighthouse Pioneers - Paul A. Lynn

I've been reading this (excellent) book about the Stevenson's lighthouses in Orkney and Shetland to review for 60 North magazine whilst trying to read my way through Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Wrong Box' which I started on Mull and have currently misplaced. I don't know why I'm having such trouble finishing 'The Wrong Box' (I've a similar problem with 'The New Arabian Nights') it's the sort of macabre humour that appeals to me, it's made me laugh, and it's deeply engaging, yet for no good reason I struggle to picks it up again every time I put it down.

I had no such problem with Paul Lynn's book, which has made me think I really need to read Bella Bathurst's 'The Lighthouse Stevenson's' too. I'm familiar with a few of the lighthouses in this book, Sumburgh head (in Shetland) being one of my favourite places anywhere. (It's great, it's right on the southern tip of Shetland, a couple of miles from the airport. Head up there on a clear summers day and not only will there be puffins to watch on the cliffs below, and a good chance of a whale sighting, but there's the most tremendous view up the length of Shetland where you can almost feel it unroll in front of you like a map.) I've also walked out to Hermaness in Unst to look out at Muckle Flugga, which is basically the end of Britain (there's another rock a little bit further out if you want to be pedantic). That too has puffins and gannets, it also has Bonxies which I'm less fond of, and is a much stiffer walk. You feel like you've earned the view when you get it.

The Stevenson's were clearly a remarkable family, from patriarch Robert who started out as an apprentice gunsmith, before going to work for his stepfather (metelwork and lamps) and ended up as a world famous engineer with the Bell Rock Lighthouse as a lasting testament to his skills. There were also the three sons, and the two grandsons who followed him into what became a family business (more or less willingly) and whose achievements more than lived up to Roberts legacy.

It's a fairly short book that gives us a gazetteer of the relevant lighthouses, an overview of the family, eye witness accounts from Sir Walter Scott who accompanied Robert on an inspection trip in 1814 (it gave him the inspiration to write 'The Pirate'). An altogether less enthusiastic eye witness account from Robert Louis Stevenson doing the same tour of inspection with his father (engineering really wasn't for him), and finally a more detailed look at Muckle Flugga, which sounds like it was the most challenging of all to build. The bar was pretty high at this point, reading about how they managed to build this thing perched on top of a 200 foot wedge of rock off the edge of Unst is awe inspiring.

It's a great little book about a family who achieved something amazing, but I'll give the last word to Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote:

"There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, 
But one of my blood designed it.
The Bell Rock stands monument to my grandfather;
The Skerry Vhor for my uncle Alan;
And when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland,
I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father."

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Bring The Paint - Leicester

Leicester has had a street art thing going on this weekend - well all week really because there's far more than a days work in these. I was basically oblivious to the factop that this was going on, and probably would have been for months to come if it hadn't been for a gin tasting I had to host earlier this week.

Leicester has what it slightly optimistically calls a cultural quarter. It's where the theatre is, an arts cinema with studio space, and I now know, some studio space, along with a few bars. It now has some huge murals too - a very positive addition.

There are a lot of things I like about these kind of events, but the biggest thing is the atmosphere it helps create. En route to the gin thing I got the chance to talk to some of the guys painting. That was mostly me saying how amazing whatever it was, was. It was also an unexpected opportunity to share a love of William Morris and his philosophy.

The event stuff mostly happened yesterday when I was at work, but on a sunny Sunday morning there were plenty of people, including me, wandering around all ready to share a bit of enthusiasm and point out beautiful (or weird) bits of the city we hadn't collectively noticed before. It sounds a bit cheesy but it was really nice.

There's still quite a few pieces I haven't managed to see yet, but what I did see was brilliant.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Incredible Crime - Lois Austen- Leigh

The bombing in Manchester on Monday night is throwing a long shadow over this week, and even though I know I've got nothing but platitudes to express how it's made me feel, it's still impossible not to acknowledge it. The increased police presence on the streets here, including the rare for Leicester sight of armed officers, reflects back an underlying tension that I really hope is short lived.

Meanwhile I can happily lose myself in some escapist crime fiction, Lois Austen-Leigh (who was the great great grand niece of Jane Austen) provides pretty much the perfect book to do that with in 'The Incredible Crime', which is blessedly murder (if not body) free, and spends a lot more time and energy on hunting than anything else.

Lois Austen-Leigh wrote 4 mystery novels all of which seem to have been basically out of print since the 1930's. Looked at purely as a mystery that's not altogether surprising, at least if this one is a representative example, it's all quite convoluted, she seems to have lost interest in the mystery she starts with quite quickly, the one she takes up is never entirely explained (at least I don't think it was), and the attitude towards her heroine is slightly jarring (far, far, to independent for her own good apparently).

Looked at as more than a mystery however it has a lot to offer. Once I'd stopped worrying about the plot it was thoroughly entertaining, and as a period peice it's fascinating. Her view of Cambridge and its academics is interesting too, and it's a cracking novel about hunting.

Prudence Pinsent is the almost middle aged, very good looking, daughter of Bishop Pinsent, Master of Prince's College, Cambridge. She's well off, well connected, self assured, swears comprehensively and at length, and is fiercely independent. Something her friends don't entirely approve of.

It's sometime not later than 1931 (when the book was originally published) and Prudence is about to abandon the world of academic gossip and bridge parties to join her cousin, Lord Wellende, for the hunting season. On the way she meets an old friend, Captain Studde, who works for the coast guard. He tells her about a smuggling ring suspected of distributing a drug (X.Y.X.) through Cambridge, there might also be a connection with Wellende hall. Some rather senior figures from Scotland Yard and the secret service are taking an interest.

Prudence promises to do what she can to help but her loyalties are torn between the demands of honour, family, and a Professor Temple - poison expert, cousin of Lord Wellende, and initially unlikely love interest. Nor is Prudence entirely above suspicion herself, the senior figure from Scotland Yard has his doubts. Meanwhile something is definitely going on at Wellende, but what, and has Prudence got utterly the wrong end of the stick on this one?

I think Lois Austen-Leigh is having to much fun playing with the forms of detective fiction, especially the country house mystery, to take it particularly seriously. The Cambridge bits are a little different, her uncle had been Provest of King's college when it opened up to a world beyond Eton, it's safe to say it's a world she had some knowledge of, and one she paints with a degree of affection. The Cambridge men all make much more likely smugglers or drug traffickers as well. It's quite easy to believe that a combination of war time experience and honed intelligence would give them a moral flexibility and single minded determination when it came to pursuing their own ends.

The passages (there are a few of them) about hunting are up there with Trollope for sheer enthusiasm (and length) and have an interest of their own (I can sit this next to 'Gin and Murder' in a little subsection of hunting based mysteries). Taken altogether it's an entertaining book with some lovely sly humour and a lot to enjoy - which is exactly what I've come to love so much about this series.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Photographer- Meike Ziervogel

I've been following Meike's work since the early days of her publishing house, Peirene Press, and later as a novelist with great interest. One (of many) reasons for this is because of her interest in dealing with the experience of recent German history.

My grandmother was German, she met my grandfather when he was stationed in her village, he left her pregnant, and she followed him back to England. It's not clear to me if he was expecting her or not, I've heard when she turned up he was engaged to another woman, nevertheless they did marry, though not happily. I remember her as a bitter, unapproachable, woman who never talked about her past at all. She told her children that they had basically been simple peasants who were scared by Hitler and didn't really know what was going on, which they accepted, and in turn so did her grandchildren.

The reason I'm sharing all this is that I had a lightbulb moment a few years ago hearing Meike at the Kibworth book festival when she talked about this as a great national lie. Since then one of my aunts has been in touch with her German cousins and it's become clear that in our family at least it was a lie, though an entirely understandable one for a German girl trying to make a life in England in the 1940's to tell.

'The Photographer' is based on the experiences of Meike's own grandparents, and mostly covers the point at the end of the war when eleven million Germans fled from east to west. The central couple, Albert and Trude, meet and fall in love in 1933 without the approval of Trude's mother, Agatha. Albert is a photographer and together they travel, build a reasonably successful business, have a son, and despite Albert's occasional infidelities are happy together. To Agatha however, Albert is a threat to the security of both her daughter and grandson, so when the chance arises she reports him to the authorities and he's sent to the front.

All of them survive the war, Agatha, Trude, and Peter manage to get to a refugee camp in the west, and eventually Albert finds them through the Red Cross, at which point the process of rebuilding a family begins.

For me this is by far and away the best book Ziervogel has written yet. I'm aware that my response to it is filtered through my own family history and the sidelights it throws on that, but I also think the constraints that following her own history have placed on Ziervogel give the book a particular strength. It's a combination of knowing something of how these people really acted, and of their stories, even if only half talked of, have been distilled through generations of memory and telling.

At the centre of it is how will Albert and Trude deal with what Agatha did; will there be confrontation, silence, understanding, lies? Can there be forgiveness, happiness? Or does this individual act of betrayal even matter that much after all that follows it, would have followed it anyway?

The way the story unfolds echos fairy tale archetypes, it even ends happily. I went to the launch for this last week and one of the questions that interested me was if that happy ending rang true. My own view is that the book ends in a happy moment, which isn't quite the same as a happy ending, and I think that does ring true.

There's a lot going on in this book, and a lot more I'd like to discuss, which will be hard without giving spoilers (when I'm done with this post I'll be looking for other blog reviews to comment on). I'm particularly interested in the relationships between the 4 principles and the way they deal with what they know and don't know, but it's also important to note that it's only really now that a book like this can be written about that particular bit of history. It's interesting too in light of the current refugee crisis, and so much more.

I honestly can't recommend this one highly enough, please read it!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Knitting again

Given that we're well into the second half of May it's not particularly cheering that I could still happily be wearing this latest effort. The only reason I'm not is that it's destined for D.

The motif is lifted from Gudrun Johnston's 'Bousta Beanie' pattern for Shetland wool week. The hat is the next thing I'm going to try and knit, it'll be my first hat so wish me luck. It's also destined for D, so wish him luck too.

I've been trying to persuade him for a while that a cowl would be useful, especially if he's sailing (can't blow off or get in the way) and you probably can't have to many woolly hats. He's finally conceded the point regarding cowls, so the colours reflect his preferences rather than mine (I don't dislike them, but I wouldn't go with red and grey for myself).

What I really love is the rhythm of the motif. I like the suggestion of waves, and the definite Bridget Riley/Op Art feel it has. It's quick and simple to knit, but not boring, and for small items - I think it would be to much on a whole jumper for example - find it altogether pleasing.

My natural inclination is towards bigger, more complicated, motifs incorporating more colours so knitting this has been a really useful chance to appreciate how well something simple can work. It's definitely something I'm going to think about next time I'm planning something of my own. Meanwhile I'm just going to say again how much I love this particular pattern. Now all I have to do is dress it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Russian Revolution Hope, Tragedy, Myths

Whatever else 2017 brings it has at least improved my knowledge and understanding of the Russian revolution. It's not something that we particularly studied at school (beyond that it happened, and that it pulled Russia out of the First World War) and since then the way it's cropped up in my reading, or viewing, has been just as incidental. That, and there's been so much history in Russia over the last century that it's not always easy to keep up with it all.

Seeing Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 at the RA earlier this year made me realise a couple of things, the first being that my whole view of the country is filtered through the tail end of the Cold War, which is to say with a hangover of suspicion. The second is that it's essentially passed out of living memory within my lifetime, and whilst I know that's stating the obvious, it's still surprisingly difficult to grasp - It's a reminder that my memories are someone else's history lesson.

The British Library exhibitions I've seen have, without fail, been excellent. This one was no exception. Printed material might not have quite the same initial impact that the RA's exhibits did, but the much greater need to read about what they are, or represent, means much longer spent contemplating them. There's the time and space to absorb much more information.

The strength of this exhibition is that it essentially starts in 1896 with the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and the increasingly unsettled political situation in Russia as neccesary reform, along with neccesary infrastructure, failed to materialise. Things did not go well in the war with mismanagement of resources exacerbating shortages, a German born Tsarina would have been an easy target for resentment, and the rest is history.

What might have happened if it hadn't been for the war is an interesting question. There's a suggestion here it had lessened the perceived value of human life, and increased the capacity for violent action. The following years of civil war saw ten million lose their lives, and another two million leave the country, along with five million who died as a result of famine. Those are incredible numbers, how to imagine the impact that must have had?

All of it certainly had an impact on the imagination though - in books, in art, in aspiration, hope, and myth making, and that battle for hearts and minds - from both sides - is thoroughly explored here. There's also room for odd little bits; I didn't know Arthur Ransome (the Swallows and Amazons one) had been a journalist on the scene, or that he married Trotsky's secretary. The letter that granted Lenin's application to use the British Library (under an assumed name) is also present. These are the things that bring the subject to vivid life, that and the pamphlets and posters that were in common circulation. Allow at least a couple of hours to get round it all, and go, it's fascinating.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Recipes From The Woods - Jean-François Mallet

I thought I had managed to resist this book but it turns out that was wishful thinking - I kept seeing it in Scotland last month, and every time I did I wanted it more. By the time I got back to Leicestershire I was getting a little bit obsessed and had to order a copy.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the tweed and tartan effect cover. I beer between finding it amusing or appalling depending on mood (most of the time amusing), but it's the contents that matter. I'm gathering quite a collection of game based cookbooks - this one is subtitled 'the book of game and forage' which might have been what put me off in the first place. Provincial English cities have their foraging limitations.

In this case I imagine it'll be the mushrooms I struggle to find. Somewhere local might sell a good selection of them but if they do, I don't know about it. I'm not sure how easy it would be to get snails either but as preparing them apparently necessitates 10-12 days of starving them in an airy wooden box on a bed of grass, changed daily, then rinsing them, putting them in another box with kosher salt, vinegar, and plain flour before refrigerating for 2-3 hours, rinsing them again, cooking them in their shells for 30 minutes in boiling water, removing the flesh from the shells, and cooking them for another 30 minutes before removing the black parts and rinsing them again, I'm okay with that. They definitely sound like something I'd rather have served with a flourish in a restaurant.

With the possible exception of hay (maybe a pet shop?) and woodcock (which I wouldn't cook anyway because they're scarce and should be let alone) nothing else in here should be particularly hard to source if there's a good game dealer around.

I've become much more interested in cooking and eating game over the last few years - hence the expanding collection of cookbooks on the subject - for all sorts of reasons, the most important of which are flavour related. Pheasant, partridge, and mallard especially are all also really cheap to buy, new things for me to do with them will be very welcome come the autumn. There's plenty of inspiration here, and plenty of pate and terrine recipes which look like just the reason I need to get a mincer (which I like to think would be a genuinely useful kitchen gadget to have).

The recipe that passed the flick test though was the very first one - haunch of venison roasted with cocoa. It sounds and looks really good, simply relying on a really nice bit venison to make it special, the venison and mango brochettes on the next page also look great. Hare and pear spring rolls with blueberry sauce is something else I'd like to try. I look at hares every year, and every year faced with recipes for jugged hare (doesn't totally appeal) I don't bother.

There are also plenty of rabbit recipes, and as there are plenty of rabbits, eating them seems like a good idea. I have cooked rabbit before, I think it was an elderly one (dad shot it whilst it was digging a hole in his lawn) it was certainly tough despite my best efforts and slow cooking. Trying again is long overdue.

So plenty of sensible, tempting, accessible recipes, and some beautiful photography - it's a winning combination.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Verdict of Twelve - Raymond Postgate

This is another British Library publication that I've been sitting in for far to long, this time from the crime classics series. My general enthusiasm for this series is no secret, but 'Verdict of Twelve' is something special. There have been some real gems over the years, but sometimes they've been gems because they're so very much of their time, fun and nostalgic in about equal measure and solidly entertaining with it. As satisfying and interesting as they've been, it's easy enough to see why they fell out of print. 'Verdict of Twelve' is more than that.

It's true that a book that uses a Saki story ('Sredni Vashtar') as a significant clue was always going to win my heart. It's true too that the description of Raymond Postgate in the back blurb "a socialist journalist and historian, and founder of the Good Food Guide" who "also wrote highly regarded detective novels", prejudices me entirely in his favour. But even allowing for all the partiality that comes with that I really do find it's neglect over the years bewildering.

There's such a lot to enjoy. Part one introduces us to the jury, with some of their past histories - which will of course inform their verdict on the evidence - explored. These are all more or less unexpected, some are shocking, all are handled deftly, and quite frankly the books earned it's money already at this point.

Part two covers the case the jury have to consider, it's a pitch perfect blend of black humour and genuine tragedy. An unhappy, not particularly lovable, and orphaned child, is trapped in a house with his sort of aunt. Neither have any other family, or any affection for each other. The question when the boy dies is was it an accident, murder, illness, or suicide. The Saki reference provides suggests all sorts of inferences as well as humour, but Postgate never lets us forget that there's a bitterly unhappy child and that he's died.

Part three is the trial and verdict where the jury pit their personalities against each other to try and decide the fate of another human life (it's hanging for the defendant if she's found guilty). At this point we know only a very little more than the jury does, and not enough to know exactly what happened- though we probably all have the same suspicions, which the jury does not.

Finally there's a postscript that in a final twist delivers all the answers. Knowing the answer makes very little difference to the enjoyment of the book (so cheat if you want to) because whilst it explains what happened, it's the why that's been built up all the way through that really matters.

I cannot overstate how good this one was. Please read it and judge for yourself (it's really good).
Even more so if you have a soft spot for Saki.

Updates. There's a second Postgate joining the Crime Classics series in September when Somebody At The Door is reissued. It seems he also wrote, amongst other things, a book on Portuguese wine in 1969. I'm almost tempted to order a copy to see what he has to say on the subject. Currently, in my wine selling day job, Portuguese wine (especially the reds, which are easier to find) would be my hot tip for something really interesting that doesn't cost the earth. Much as with Raymond Postgate I don't understand why it isn't a bigger thing. The more I find out about him the better he sounds.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Haunted Library - Selected by Tanya Kirk

The day seems to be speeding past with absolutely no inclination to tackle any of the jobs that want doing kicking in whatsoever. That includes blogging, and if I found myself doing anything more productive or creative than feeling being glued to my chair whilst I look at Instagram and Twitter I'd let it slide. As it is there's really no excuse not to deal with at least one of the books stacked up in front of me.

They have a slightly accusatory air about them; they know they don't deserve to be neglected , especially 'The Haunted Library' that I've been reading intermittently since October. It's a British Library collection of classic ghost stories, the unifying theme being books and libraries, selected by Tanya Kirk. The back blurb tells me she was co-curator of the absolutely magnificent 'Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination' exhibition a couple of years ago. (It was tremendous).

This book is every bit as good as that provenance led me to hope. Curiously there are at least two stories where the readers of certain books end up strangled... One belongs in Margaret Irwin's 'The Book' which I found the most chillingly ghostly in the collection. Here the book of the title exercises a malign influence on its reader but also, and far more terrifyingly, on the other books it comes into contact with. It's influence spreads like a contagion across the shelves. It's a horrible thought.

Edith Wharton's 'Afterward' which opens the collection is haunting in a more straightforward way but has stuck with me, as has Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Apple Tree'. May Sinclair's 'The Nature of the Evidence' has a physical meeting with a ghost that put me in mind of Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting  of Hill House' (I wonder if Jackson had read Sinclair's story). In Sinclair's case the contact is rather more benign but it's still unsettling.

And then there's Algernon Blackwood's 'The Whisperers' where a hapless writer, looking for a distraction free spot, finds himself in a suitably empty room. Only it's not quite as empty as he thinks it is, it has recently been storing books, and they've left something behind!

There's also a Mary Webb story. Now I have plenty of Mary Webb's books, though I've never managed to read one of them, so this was at least a start. It's a shame that it appears to be a total contrast to the majority of her work, because this is a genuinely funny pastiche of a ghost story, and I'd very gladly read more if it was in the same light hearted vein.

It's because I liked 'The Haunted Library' so much that I took so long over reading it, rationing individual stories like the treats that they are. There's nothing in here that would keep me awake at night after reading, but plenty that's just enough to give an agreeable sort of a chill. Which is how I like my ghost stories. I really loved this book.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Gather Cook Feast - Jessica Seaton and Anna Colquhoun

I've had one of those exhaustingly productive days off where I've done almost every job on my list along with a few unexpected ones along the way, rounding off with finally dealing with the rhubarb that's been menacing me since Sunday. It's jam now. I'll be wiped out for work tomorrow.

Whilst making the jam (at least inbetween wondering why something that starts off a beautiful combination of pink and green ends up a sludgy brown, and why rhubarb jam is always sweeter than I want it to be) I remembered this book. The poor thing has been kicking around the sitting room for weeks waiting for me to write about it (I probably won't cook from it before it finds a home in the kitchen, but probably wouldn't write about it once it's left the to do pile by my favourite chair).

The cover proudly mentions that these are recipes from land and water by the co-founder of Toast. Which I had to look up (clothes). I guess it's a selling point but it's one that's mostly lost on me. The book sold itself once I'd looked inside it anyway. 

The recipe that first caught my imagination is for Juniper roast venison with pine jelly. Described as a breath of moorland on a plate, there's something wonderfully romantic about this dish and I'd order it like a flash in a restaurant. The process of making the pine jelly (sourcing the pine needles from my city centre flat won't be easy) means I won't be making this anytime soon, but that doesn't matter. It's even more perfect because 3 types of pine are suggested, the author has tried 2 and describes the difference. That really is food for the imagination.

Recipes for pickled damsons, malted ice cream, braised rabbit with lemon and olives, and sloe whisky or brandy (instead of the more usual gin) where what determined me to take this one home though. I also fell for the beautiful photography, despite lavish illustrations of landscapes normally being a turn off in a cookbook. I'm guessing it works for me here because of things like the juniper and pine venison, and a suggestion for gilded gingerbread with Caerphilly cheese. The gilding is optional and suggested only for very special occasions, and again I'm a little carried away by the romance and opulence of this image.

The gingerbread is something I will make, and though I almost certainly won't gild it, having tried to wrestle with gold leaf before I'm impressed that there are instructions for application (my own experience hasn't been altogether happy in this endeavour). 

I can't say this book has given me as much to think about as Gill Meller's 'Gather' (which really does feel like an important book) though it's exploring similar ideas, but it does have a lot of things I want to eat in it. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Why I'll be voting Labour

I've dithered about writing this post for a few days now having always preferred to keep this blog reasonably politics free, but I also feel like this election is a time for nailing colours to the mast, so here goes anyway.

I live in a traditionally safe Labour seat that has a decent (well spoken of, scandal free) MP (Jon Ashworth), so even if I was a floating voter it's probably the way I'd go round here. The main reason I'll be voting Labour though is that I don't trust the tories with the economy.

I work in retail, which is not on the whole a well paid, or particularly respected, sector. It's also food based retail (specifically drink) where I'm getting an excellent view of prices rising whilst wages remain broadly stagnant. Truthfully, I've done alright under the last government. I don't have children,  and an increased personal tax allowance means that despite earning less than I did a decade ago I'm actually taking home more money. Which worries me.

For now whilst my health is okay and non of my nearest or dearest need care it's fine. I earn a living wage, though not all of my colleagues do, can pay my bills, don't go hungry, and have organic shampoo, because there's enough money to have some nice things in my life. What I don't have are savings, there's not enough money coming in to provide a decent cushion against emergencies. But still, compared to plenty of others my situation is comfortable. As long as nothing goes wrong. On the whole I'd rather be paying a bit more tax and be confident that if things did go wrong there would be an NHS free at point of use, and a job seekers allowance that would still let me pay my bills and not go hungry to fall back in.

What worries me even more though is the number of people who are on low wages. I don't see how we can afford to pay people less than a living wage because somewhere along the line we're all going to pay for that. I'm surrounded by people who have no chance of getting a mortgage in the foreseeable future, people who are working well past retirement age because they can't afford not to, people who have families and can't afford posh shampoo, or to replace shoes which are falling apart. People who are told they're lucky to have a job.

I also see more and more people taken on, on 4, 6, or 8 hour contracts - which might as well be zero hour contracts. The theory is that they should be flexible and available for overtime when needed, I guess it's a cheaper way to employ people too. The reality isn't quite like that, and I can't see it ending well if we carry in down this path.

So for me the only answer is to vote for a party that looks likely to protect and improve the rights of the lowest paid and who are talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Certainly the party that's trying to talk about it. From where I stand that looks like something which would basically be good for everybody.

I also accept that others will see this in a very different way, will see different answers to the same problems, or will have different priorities. I certainly hope that there's more than one answer to this particular issue, and definitely don't believe that anyone who thinks to the right (or indeed left)of my position is evil/selfish/stupid/deluded or whatever other offensive label is currently being thrown around.

In the end the most important thing is to vote, to hope for the best (whilst preparing for the worst), and to listen to what other people are saying. Mostly to vote though. Please vote.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Sedition - Katharine Grant

I really struggled with this book to the point that I wondered what on earth was I thinking when I bought it. I was probably hooked by the title and the idea that piano lessons could be subversive, and maybe the comparison to Sarah Waters. Maybe it was the promise that it was original and dark, or the Virago Apple on the spine.

It was not that it's a historical novel (set in London 1794), because generally historical fiction doesn't work very well for me. There are of course a long list of exceptions to that statement, but I'm not going to follow that path tonight. It definitely wasn't the promise of transgressive sex, which I can only assume I missed when I first picked it up, because almost without exception (I can't think of an exception, but there probably is one) that's not something I'm interested in reading about. The problem being so often, and here, that I was left with the impression of abuse by numbers, and I don't find that entertaining, or thought provoking.

Plot wise 4 wealthy merchants decide they will buy a piano and have their 5 daughters taught to play with the object of giving a concert to attract potential husbands. They want to buy titles. Unfortunately the piano maker has an unhealthy love for his instruments, he doesn't want to sell, and when his disfigured daughter forces him to part with his best piano in revenge for an insult, he persuades the music master the merchants hire to seduce their daughters. Which he does, even though one of them smells like a goat.

Meanwhile one of the girls (not the one who smells of goat) has rather more serious problems than a frisky pianist, and her own plans to subvert the concert. I know I'm being unfair about this book, a lot of my problems with it are subjective, and the next reader will love all the bits I didn't. I lost patience in a splendidly gothic scene where curtains are torn aside only to unleash a hell of spiders and bats in a shadowy ball room being used as a music room. I've been in bat inhabited churches, the smell, and mess, is distinctive - I wasn't feeling it and started to get pedantic, which is never a good sign.

I persevered anyway, and liked the second half of the book more, where I think I began to appreciate what Grant was doing. It didn't help that the musical references were over my head too. It's not a bad book (I might have enjoyed it a lot more if it was), but it wasn't for me. I'm still glad I read it, and I'd definitely have a look at anything else I saw by Grant, because her story telling was compelling enough to get me through a book that I could so easily have abandoned, but in fairness to both of us I'll only read it if it really sounds like something I'll love.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Brighouse Hotel - Susan Pleydell

I think this is the third Pleydell I've read from Greyladies, it's making me think I really need to get the school based stories, despite that being a subject I don't find overly appealing.

'Brighouse Hotel' is the third of Pleydell's Scottish set books that Greyladies have re published (are there more?) and whilst I didn't love it quite as much as either 'The Glenvarroch Gathering' or 'The Road to the Harbour' it was still thoroughly enjoyable. 

Originally published in 1977 'Brighouse Hotel' reuses a character from 'The Glenvarroch Gathering', Pat McKechnie, now grown up and working as an estate manager. The Brighouse hotel sounds like a superior sort of hangout for climbers, is also the Mountain rescue centre, and is on Pat's turf. When he discovers that Clunie Ritchie, a girl he always used to fight with when they were younger is there as receptionist he decides to take some holiday, climb a bit, and get to know her again. 

Clunie has turned up in Glen Torren (fictional but obviously west coast Scotland) after a dinner with an ex boyfriend, a very successful climber called Keith Finlay, reminds her how much she misses a place where her family used to spend every summer. There's a temp job at the Brighouse hotel and she takes it, only to find that another ex boyfriend, Malcolm Graham is still there, preparing to join Keith on an expedition to the Hindu Kush, and still interested in Clunie. 

It's a gentle sort of book, Clunie has unresolved feelings about Keith, and half formed not very serious intentions regarding Malcolm. A bit of drama is provided by a folk singer, Davina, who has family connections in Glen Torren too, and who Clunie has met in London. Davina upsets everyone in Glen Torren, apart from Clunie, when she manages to poach both Kieth and Malcolm. It may be the 1970's but Glen Torren does not care for permissiveness- it's a long way from London. 

It's obvious from the beginning that Pat and Clunie will end up together, but I liked the way that Pleydell explores the significance of their backgrounds. This is partly a class thing, both might be described as upper middle class, but it's the similarity of experience, manners, and outlook that really matters. It encompasses all sorts of unspoken but understood things between them. Things that Clunie doesn't share with the more parochial Malcolm for example. Davina doesn't share them either, her outlook is altogether more careless and bohemian, and she has a total lack of either patience with, or sympathy for, life in Glen Torren. 

The rest of the drama centres around the work of the Mountain rescue team, and the very real dangers involved in climbing. It's good to see them get their due here. 

As with the earlier books, I find reading Pleydell a real treat. It's easy going but with enough substance to not feel throw away, there are themes worth exploring here, as well as some keen observations. Using the Mountain rescue service to provide the life and death thriller element to the plot is effective - these people really do go out and risk their lives to save others, waiting for news really is harrowing, and it happens all the time. 

I am so pleased this book is available. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Twilight and Moonbeam Alley - Stefan Zweig

I'm back from holiday, the soundtrack of the day has mostly been the washing machine doing its thing, and it's back to work with a daunting list of things to be done in May. I managed to finish one book whilst I was away, bought about 6, and am wondering why I packed 3 (which felt like self restraint at the time) in the first place...

Meanwhile one of Mays jobs is to catch up with the books I read before I went away, including this little one from Pushkin Press. I bought it a very long time ago, mostly because it's a beautiful object, it was the first Zweig I tried, and for well over a decade it was why I didn't try another one.

I'm not sure/ can't remember what my initial expectations where, but for whatever reason when I first tried to read it 'Twilight' didn't grab me. I put it down unfinished and basically ignored Zweig until I came across 'Beware of Pity'. Very much my loss. I made the effort with this one again after 'The Invisible Collection' with much more success, (though I'll admit neither story came close to 'The Invisible Collection' for me personally) and a stronger than ever determination to read more Zweig.

'Twilight' is the longer novella, it tells the story (based on fact) of Madame De Prie. More specifically the moment she falls from grace. My knowledge of French history is limited, so I hadn't heard of her before, but it seems that for a short while at least she was an extraordinarily powerful figure in the French court. When she fell, she fall hard, banished to her country estate she committed suicide a year later. A very short Wikipedia entry is testament to how brief a footnote she ended up being in history.

It's a desperately sad vision of a woman trying and failing to hang on to the life she loved, the attention and influence she craved, and utterly failing. Zweig's compassion for his subject along with his merciless refusal to allow her suicide any impact on her former friends is undoubtedly a powerful combination but there's a hopelessness about it that makes me understand why I didn't finish it first time around.

Moonbeam Alley deals with the same underlying theme of human desperation, but the end is more ambiguous and corrospondingly easier to read - even if it doesn't have quite the same emotional impact. The main thing I'm taking away though is that this is a writer who I should pay far more attention to (I need to read, not just buy, the books). It's going to be a rewarding journey.


After Mull it was on to Edinburgh for a couple of nights avoiding hen and stag parties. There are things I love about Edinburgh, and things I really don't. Mostly I dislike the amount of tartan tat aimed at tourists that proliferates around the city centre. It's hard to move for overpriced whisky, fudge, shortbread, tea towels with Nessie on, stuffed highland cows, ginger wigs, and things made badly out of tartan or tweed. Which is all depressing.

It maybe didn't help that we went to the castle. The entrance fee is £17 per adult (an extra £3.59 for an audio guide), it's a lot to stumble around in the wake of hundreds of other tourists to look at some cobble stones and a collection of regimental museums and war memorials, but I console myself with the thought that the revenue the castle generates must prop up quite a few of historic scotlands less popular properties. We went because D had never been before, and it is interesting. It's also a beautiful (in a grand and rugged sense) collection of buildings with more than a dash of romance about it.

As a Georgette Heyer fan I was delighted to see the Eagle that ensign Ewart captured at Waterloo. I tried to explain the climax of A Civil Contract' to D, where Adam is waiting in London for news of the battle to come through, but he didn't seem impressed. The fictional Adam wasn't the point, but thanks to her descriptions I knew the symbolic importance of the object.

Generally though I find Edinburgh looks best from street level, looking up everything is a bit more impressive, and the uglier bits of contemporary architecture less obvious. From the castle you see how much of a mixed bag it is. Nothing dents romance like a multi story car park. Much better to find yourself walking past a Novotel and suddenly catching sight of the castle instead.

We made time to go to the portrait gallery which is an excellent place to see some of the faces that made Scottish history. It definitely gives a more nuanced view on the Jacobites than is to be found at Culloden (I remember being bitterly disappointed as a child in the portrait gallery, learning that bonnie prince Charlie was not quite the hero I'd thought). It's a grand Victorian building with impressive arts and crafts era murals, a good cafe, and a lot to think about. Going there always makes me want to learn more and think harder about what's on display - which I count as a success.

Otherwise the Edinburgh I want to find again remains elusive. I know it's there, but there's never quite enough time, or energy, to go exploring far enough to find the heart of the place away from the obvious attractions. Maybe next time.