Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Vinegar Cupboard - Angela Clutton

I don't often use Amazon these days. I don't find it significantly cheaper for many of the things I want, getting deliveries to my flat is a bit of a pain (they don't like leaving them, which is fair because it isn't secure, and there isn't a click and collect place nearby) and I prefer to shop on the high street. Still, I needed an oven light bulb which thanks to online retailers undercutting high street retailers were unavailable to buy in Leicester, and ended up ordering a couple of books too.

One of them was 'The Vinegar Cupboard' which I'd been eyeing up for a while, and though the book itself is excellent, the state it arrived in had hardened my anti Amazon stance. It was the kind of grubby and scuffed that looks like it's been kicking around in sales bins for months, and there were greasy finger marks on the cover. Which took away a lot of the new book excitement. Nor can I find a way to complain to Amazon about it. I can complain about the driver - but he wasn't the problem. I can leave a poor review, but that's unfair on an excellent book. I suppose I could have sent it back, but that's a lot of extra hassle for me. It's altogether an unsatisfactory situation.

As is the fact that my kitchen then drains still aren't fixed, which means I'm eating a lot of sandwiches (minimal washing up) and getting increasingly angry with the neighbour who is withholding consent to get the work done (floorboards need to come up in both flats). Together the two things mean I've not had as much fun with this book as I had hoped to by now.

Which is a shame because it's got a lot going for it - including lavish use of flavour wheels which I'm always a fan of. It's also a particularly well indexed book, which is something else I appreciate (the lack of an index is currently spoiling another otherwise excellent book I'm currently reading). There is a list of vinegar producers to look out for, which whilst it makes no claims to do anything but scratch the surface, is a handy place for a reader to start making a wish list from. There's an index of the recipes by Vinegar type which is really useful, and then an index for everything.

I wanted this book because the recipes in it look great, but even more because whilst I'm aware that vinegar is a useful thing to have around I'm a bit lost when it comes to the subtleties. Which means every so often I end up throwing away sticky, dusty, bottles years past their best before dates, used for one recipe that called for them and then forgotten.

It's a bonus that 'The Vinegar Cupboard ' is a joy to read too, with plenty of history and vinegar legend, as well as really comprehensive breakdowns of flavour profiles. It's easy to see why it won the 2018 Jane Grigson Trust Award. I'm really glad I've got it, I just wish I'd bought it from an actual shop.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Snow White and Other Tales - Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

As a rule I don't much like hardbacks, they take up to much space, and I can't be doing with having duplicate books around the place either. Again, they take up to much space, and who needs more than one version of the same book? And the exceptions that prove these rules... any interesting translation of the brothers Grimm it seems.

I really like the cloth bound, jewel coloured, hardbacks that Oxford University Press are producing, to the extent that I have to hold myself back from buying, or asking for, copies of things I already have, but this one turned up unannounced in the post. This translation by Joyce Crick is a delight and will happily join my other editions of Grimm, a collection that's likely to carry on growing.

The introduction starts by saying that a "new translation of a text with a claim to be the most-translated of texts after the Bible needs some justification" but I don't think it does. These tales are so ingrained in our culture in one form or another that new translations seem an appropriate continuation of the oral tradition.

As an adult I've probably read 4 different versions with reasonable thoroughness, and they've been everything from feeling stripped back to the bare bones of the tale, to Philip Pullman's story tellers take that I was reading this last winter. Crick's translation is somewhere inbetween, fun to read and as scholarly as you would expect from the OUP.

Pullman's collection was abridged to 50 tales. There are 82 here, some of them distinctly challenging to modern sensibilities. The most noticeable aspect of that is an ingrained anti semitism, the sort we generally like to hide away now. It's salutary to be reminded of it here.

Something I expected less is the way that different tales seem to come to my attention in each different translation/edition. I'm not quite sure why it should be that different titles seem to jump out of different contents pages, but they do. It feels a little like a reading version of looking through a kaleidoscope.

Definitely a collection aimed at adults and students, but with all the pleasure of story telling flourishes which make it a joy to read. I'm delighted with this edition.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Death in Captivity - Michael Gilbert

I've enjoyed more or less everything I've read in the British Library Crime Classics series (everything has had something to recommend it), but Michael Gilbert's books have been a particularly happy discovery. I really hope there will be more (there are some spectacularly ugly house of Stratus editions of his work which I will buy if I have too) because based on the sample of 3 that I've read it's hard to understand why he ever fell out of fashion.

'Death in Captivity' is a sort of locked room mystery set in an Italian prisoner of war camp in the summer of 1943. A man widely suspected of being an informer is found dead in a half dug escape tunnel. Due to the arrangements to get into the tunnel he can't have got there by himself which seems to limit the pool of suspects to the group of men who know about the tunnel...

Henry 'Cuckoo' Goyles is given the task of trying to work out who did it, but meanwhile the allied forces are landing in Sicily and there's about to be a significant regime change in Italy. Everybody is jumpy regardless of side - enthusiastic fascists have quite a bit to worry about, and so do the prisoners who might find themselves in the non to careful hands of the Germans.

The need to find the murderer, work out if there's a traitor in the camp, and escape whilst the going's good, make for a tremendously satisfying thriller. The tension as the last few chapters spin out is terrific, but there's more to the book than it just being a good yarn.

As with the other 2 books in this series (Death has Deep Roots, and Smallbone Deceased) Gilbert is drawing heavily on his own life experience. He was a prisoner in Italy, he did escape, not everybody he traveled with survived the experience. It gives his picture of camp life an authenticity that's impossible to counterfeit, especially when it comes to describing how relationships between the men thrive under one set of circumstances, disintegrate under others, and how different personalities cope with the hardship of camp life.

It also helps that these books have aged well - the prejudices of the era are more or less in check, and in the camp there's a tolerance for all the different cliques set on getting through the experience as best they can. The faction that make up the dedicated escapees are only one group, those who spend their time on roulette, amateur dramatics, and make believe, don't necessarily suffer by comparison. Another writer might have made theses characters the butt of a joke, Gilbert uses them to move the plot along in various ways, and his descriptions feel affectionate.

All of that, along with Gilbert's particular brand of understated deadpan humour, makes for a winning combination. These books have all been so much more than the sum of their parts, and they make me really curious about the author as a person (I imagine he was a charming delight of a man). I'm inclined to say this one is the best of the lot, both in terms of plot and for its insights into POW life but all 3 have their points, and they're all excellent.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A Woman in Berlin - Anonymous

I've been reading this book slowly, almost but not quite in real time - it's a diary that runs from the 20th of April to the 22nd of June 1945 written by a 34 year old German woman in Berlin. It's not always been the easiest thing to read because it doesn't show human nature at its best and to read it for to long together has a slightly brutalising effect.

I was regrettably hazy about the downfall of Berlin, had never given any thought to what happened when the Russians and other allies swept in. Our inherited war stories are so fundamentally different and it's easy not to dwell on the reality of what being in an occupied city was like, especially at the end of a long war when the enemy is suddenly at your disposal.

In his introduction Antony Beevor touches on suspicions about how genuine the diary is. It's clear that the author was a professional journalist, so it seems safe to assume she had some sort of eye for posterity but the whole thing rings to depressingly true to be anything other than genuine.

It is on the whole an account of hunger and rape, with the deepest anger saved for the returning German men who insist on being protected from the reality of what happened to the women. It's an anger it would have been hard to express post war, and a reality that many must have wanted to put firmly behind them, but equally that resentment must still have been festering for so many women.

Our heroine quickly makes the decision to find herself a reasonably senior officer in the hopes that it will provide her with some protection from the indiscriminate attacks taking place (this is after her neighbors have more or less thrown her to the wolves to protect themselves). It's a plan that works well enough whilst each man is around, but they are moved on quickly and then the the whole sorry business starts again. Still, it means she can get food and there is a level of protection.

Crucially the fact that this is a widely shared experience initially makes it easier for the women to deal with what's happening - they can talk about it, even joke, and assign a certain amount of blame to the administration that left them so vulnerable. That starts to change as the men drift back and the enormity of events generally and what it might mean for the future sinks in.

It's nothing like the heartwarming accounts of life on the home front, but there is a raw honesty here about the cost of war, and something of the pull of nationalism, as well as the humiliation of being part of a defeated nation - turning from a people into a population. The quality of the writing (and translation by Philip Boehm) makes it a particularly compelling narrative, and if enjoy isn't quite the right word, it really does feel like an important book to read.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Venice Preserved at the RSC

We've had a pretty good run at the RSC so far this year with excellent performances of The Taming of the Shrew, The Provoked Wife, and As You Like It, so we were probably due something we weren't going to be so enthusiastic about - and this was it.

I did a bit of homework about Thomas Otway and Venice Preserved beforehand so had an idea of the plot and how influential the play had been in its day, along with some of the political context behind it. Which turned out to be a good thing because the more or less 80's cyberpunk inspired setting strips  a lot of that context away.

The play opens with Jaffeir confronting his father in jaw, the senator Priuli. Priuli has not approved of his daughter, Belvidera marrying Jaffeir to the point that he's engineered their financial ruin. When Jaffeir realised he's going to get nowhere with Priuli he turns to his friend Pierre, and is quickly convinced by his talk of revolution.

Pierre seems to be motivated by the circumstances of his mistress having a transactional sexual relationship with another senator, Antonio. When he takes Jaffeir to meet with his co conspirators they demand that he hand over Belvidera as collateral. Later Belvidera reveals that the leader of this group, Renault, has tried to rape her leaving Jaffeir with seriously torn loyalties. Eventually he betrays the rebels, but it precipitates a mental breakdown for both him and Belvidera followed by a stage full of bodies.

This production chooses to draw out the submissive elements in Jaffeir's relationship with Pierre, which echos the kink that Antonio employs the courtesan, Aquilina, to satisfy for him. Jaffeir is a decidedly beta male in this scenario, his motivation for joining the rebels a mix of petulance concerning Priuli's actions and presumably hero worship for Pierre.

A contemporary audience would have understood this in terms of Catholic/Protestant struggles within the strict codes of male honour. In those terms Pierre and Jaffeir's decisions make sense - their personal grievances being the last step towards radicalisation that's presumably based on religious affiliation. The cyberpunk setting is stylish but it really didn't work for us, largely because it doesn't help explore the idea of male honour, and neglecting that robs the second half of the play of most of its tension.

It's hard to believe that this Jaffeir (who seems more incel than insurgent) wouldn't just clear off with Belvidera, it's also hard to see why Belvidera is so smitten with him (the audience consensus on the
way out seemed to be that she should have known she could do better). Nor is there the neccesary chemistry between Michael Grady-Hall and Stephen Fewell as Jaffeir and Pierre to make me believe these are friends who would die for each other.

Les Dennis as Priuli on the other hand was a revelation. He was totally convincing as the powerful man bent on pursuing a petty spite, and then the repentant father (although by now his low opinion of Jaffeir feels justified). Jodie McNee is a mesmerising Belvidera too, but the really memorable performances are John Hodgkinson as Antonio, and Natalie Dew as Aquilina.

Her disgust for the elderly lover she's obliged to entertain, and his enjoyment of that disgust, is masterly. Hodgkinson, squeezed into fetish ware raises easy laughs, but his obvious enjoyment of Aquilina's anger and disdain exemplifies the frustration of anyone on the receiving end of harassment. At least when she seems to snap at the end of the play it's all too easy to understand why.

Monday, May 27, 2019

All Among The Barley - Melissa Harrison

It's hard to believe that it's more or less 4 years since I read 'At Hawthorn Time' and fell for Melissa Harrison's writing, but so it seems to be. 'At Hawthorn Time' was one of those books that has really stuck with me, and partly because I liked it so very much I've been hesitant about reading 'All Among the Barley'.

I was always going to wait for the paperback anyway (not a hardback fan) but even when I bought it (more or less the moment it hit the shelves in my local Waterstones) it made me a little nervous - which is the downside of keen anticipation.

Set in East Anglia across the high summer months between hay and harvest in 1934 the book is told from the point of view of 14 year old Edith. Just finished school, she is clever, bookish, the baby of the family, sheltered, isolated, and caught between child and adulthood.

Meanwhile between the continuing agricultural depression, an increasing pace of change towards mechanisation, and the country's inter war flirtation with fascism (Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green was published in 1935 and is an interesting comic counterpoint to some of the events in this), as well as the farmers annual anxiety about weather and harvests tensions are building.

I have a bit of a prejudice against books set in the past - it's not everybody who can make it work convincingly, but Harrison does. This is partly because of the focus she puts on describing the farm and its wildlife, which is both pure Harrison and also very much part of a contemporary trend in the 1930's.

Dorothy Hartley is specifically referenced, but it's impossible not to think of Adrian Bell if you've read Corduroy/Silver Ley/The Cherry Tree, or the work of Claire Leighton. I don't think I've read all of Vita Sackville-West's 'The Land' (worth following the link to listen to the clip of her reading from it though, even if just to hear her diction) but she's part of this tradition too. Lolly Willows and Tarka the Otter are also mentioned amongst others - Lolly Willows signposting where Edith might be heading, Tarka more of a warning about Constance FitzAllen.

Initially Constance seems like she might be working along the same lines as Dorothy Hartley or Claire Leighton, or even Adrian Bell - keen to record an England on the cusp of disappearing. But it becomes increasingly clear that her interests go far beyond recording and into creating a specific sort of propaganda.

The brilliant thing about this book is how nothing is overstated. Edith is utterly convincing, and whilst it's clear something is going wrong it's not entirely clear what, or how serious it actually might be. Constance Fitzallen is a catalyst in the midst of tensions that were already present and again utterly believable. The dramas are both profound and banal - the fear of bankruptcy, old age and infirmity, war time losses leaving an absence of men to work the fields, alcoholism, not knowing how to say no to something you don't want, and so on.

All of them go to build towards a conclusion that's both shocking and inevitable. It's also a book that speaks clearly about the dangers of nostalgia and an idealised vision of an imaginary past in our own era, and again it's done with a lightness of touch which makes it all the more powerful.

Basically this book really is as good as everybody has been saying, and you should absolutely read it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Myth and Materiality in a Woman's World Shetland 1800-2000 - Lynn Abrams

Books have their own serendipity. I've had this one on the shelf for years, it's presence more about good intentions than serious ones, but between anticipating Roseanne Watt's Moder Dy and reading the bibliography for David Gange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge (which I'm also keenly anticipating) it suddenly seemed long past time to read it.

It turned out to be a good choice giving me specific things to think about whilst reading Moder Dy, and also making an interesting companion to Melisa Harrison's 'All Among the Barley' and another translation of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

If you don't have a specific interest in either Shetland, or Women's history this probably isn't the book for you, but if those things do interest you it's excellent. Geography and economic circumstances made 19th century Shetland fairly unique. The majority of men had little choice but to go to Sea (initially either because it was part of their croft tenancy arrangement, or they were in the navy, went to the whaling, or later went to the herring). Loss of life was not infrequent, and even when all was well absences could run to years. It meant that on land women outnumbered men by a considerable margin.

It also meant that women were left to run the crofts - which mostly did not produce enough to live off without a man to fish, and make what money they could from knitting. It was very much a subsistence life but it also meant that women were routinely economically active as producers.

Abrams explores the mythic status of the crofting woman (and she does have a mythic status, one that it's hard for contemporary women to measure up too) along with the reality of women's lives, particularly as they can be found through court records. She also reflects on how Shetland's heritage industry is mainly packaged for local consumption.

The book was first published in 2005 and I think that's changed slightly in the interim, especially through events like Wool Week and the growing popularity of knitting and textile based tourism. But generally it's still true, and something else that's unique about Shetland, at least in a Scottish/British context.

Abrams raises a couple of interesting questions about emigration and the barter truck system too. Men emigrated in larger numbers than women, despite there being larger numbers of women than men, and how hard it was for single women to make a living. It's not clear why they stayed but it suggests to me that whatever reasons were motivating individuals, they're somewhat more complex than the picture generally painted of clearances and economic necessity.

Barter Truck was an undoubtedly iniquitous system which allowed merchants to exploit women by forcing them to accept goods instead of cash for their knitwear. Worse yet the goods were often things like tea or haberdashery which had to be bartered amongst other women for the actual necessities of life. It's generally (and rightly) presented as a very bad thing. It also continued in Shetland more or less until the Second World War, long after it had officially been banned.

Abrams work is making me wonder why it persisted so long. She shows that Shetland women were ready to go to court for a variety of other reasons, and there is the example of The Hoswick Whale case to show that tenants were prepared to face down landlords at least by the 1880's. Again it's the suggestion of a more complex picture that I find interesting here. It's a book that's shaken up some fairly lazy assumptions on my part - and I'm always grateful for that.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Outdoor Cooking - Gill Meller

River Cottage Handbook No. 17. I love this series which is fairly evenly divided into books I use a lot, books I daydream about using a lot (whilst I choose to forget how much hard work running small holding is) and the ones like this which provoke quite an emotional response.

The ongoing problems with drains in my building (most of the year without a properly working kitchen) feel like more or less the final straw. Flat life in a city centre has less and less to recommend it. I want to live somewhere with a sense of community again, have a garden, and a real fire.

Reading 'Outdoor Cooking' brings back childhood memories of beach fires, barbecues, bonfires, and the open fires all the houses I grew up in had. It's also intensifying the desire to live somewhere I could build a wood fired oven for the fun of working out how to use it. I'm on the fence about spit roasting, but everything else in here is a siren call, and I've been reading through this book with the same enthusiasm I had for Enid Blyton way back when. Probably because whatever else might now be problematic about Blyton, she was excellent on the allure of campfire cooking.

Meller's writing about food and cooking is always a delight to read, but I particularly like the format of these handbooks. They're a generous pocket size, with robust covers that make them good traveling companions. The space constraints don't allow for to many tangents - it's mostly direct and helpful instructions on whatever topic is to hand, with just enough personality coming through to make the books feel friendly.

Especially after the recent moor fires it's good to see that the first chapters are strict on fire etiquette and ethics. It is not okay to build a fire wherever you like, safety must come first, and you can't just pick up whatever wood you like (Scotland has different laws about right to roam, and I guess as long as it hasn't obviously been claimed, driftwood is fair game either side of the border). After that there are plenty of instructions for how to build different sorts of cooking fires, and going right back to basics - just how to build a fire, which is almost certainly a vanishing skill.

And then it's the recipes - which all sound great. Unexpectedly for a book about outdoor cooking it's the fruit and vegetable things which I'm really craving as I read this. I don't even particularly like Brussels sprouts, but the idea of wood roast sprout salad with apple and celeriac has my mouth watering. As does the grilled cabbage. The Cider and Fennel Toffee Apple not only sounds good, but Gavin Kingcome's photography makes it look magical (the hard caramel trails from the Apple looking for all the world like a golden flame).

Beyond that there's all sorts of projects here - fire pits and earth ovens, things baked in clay, bread twists baked around sticks, the sort of slow barbecuing that the Americans do, spit roasting anything from a whole hog or deer down to a chicken, and of course wood ovens. Most of it has the back garden in mind, and just aboutvall of it demands a bit of time and planning.

It might not be a lot of planning or time, or it could be that a whole weekend is taken up with preparing and making, but as a big part of the philosophy of food like this is to be able to share both the making and the eating of it, the anticipation that time and forethought create is part of the seasoning.

I wonder if I post my father and stepmother* a copy now, will it be a big enough hint about possible holiday entertainment next month?

*Bo, my stepmother is a cook, and has more than enough to do through the summer without somebodys bright ideas about standing her over a fire for hours at a time when she's not actually at work. On the other hand she also has valuable experience doing reconstructions of Viking era cooking... although her recollections of that sound more like horrified flashbacks of being smoked like a kipper rather than precious memories. It's a dilemma.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Moder Dy - Roseanne Watt

Where Transport for London gave us poems on the underground, Shetland has Bards in the Bog - if you find yourself using a public toilet, chances are there will be a poem in the back of the door. The Bards in the Bog project called for original works from local contributors and I'm thinking about it now because it says so much about the continually evolving relationship with dialect and language that places like Shetland have.

When I was growing up in Shetland the oil industry was in its early days, it was bringing prosperity, but the pace of change was relatively slow, and I suppose the traditions of crofting life were something that could more or less be taken for granted - and for many something to escape from.

Dialect was widely spoken, but in our village from a child's point of view it was not the language of authority. My teachers were mostly mainland Scots, as was the minister, and the Doctor, and his wife. My parents were incomers too, so I never picked up an accent, and I have a sense that the use of most dialect words was discouraged at home. The exception to that was perhaps in bird and other wildlife names.

Malachy Tallack talks about the twin pillars of accent and ancestry in Shetland society in '60 Degrees North' which particularly resonated with me, because of you don't have both (and neither of us did) you remained an outsider. As an outsider dialect was harder to pick up because of the Shetland habit of Knapping - modifying dialect to be easier to understand to non native speakers (Watt defines this as "to speak in an affected manner, a Shetlander attempting to speak 'proper' English).

By the time my younger brother and sister where at school (1990's) attitudes towards dialect had changed to the point that they were actively encouraged to collect words. Shaetlan as a language is predominantly a mix of old Norn, lowland Scots, and English, which more or less reflects the history of the islands. The Moder Dy this collection takes its name from refers to the mother wave - an underswell that's meant to always travel in the direction of home and which you could steer by when you were out of sight of land.

Some of the poems here are written entirely in Shaetlan, they come with 'uneasy translations' - sister poems - they are close to each other but discernibly different. (There's a glossary to consult if you want a more direct translation of specific words). Other poems mix dialect with English, some don't use dialect at all, but it's a continuous thread throughout the collection, which makes language, where it comes from, how it evolves, and how we use it a consistent theme.

That it's taken me almost 3 hours just to write this much about one aspect of this collection is probably as good an indication as I can give about how much there is to it. I've been reading through it for days, slightly desperate for someone to share my enthusiasm with. Especially for Nesting Faerie Ring, which takes 14 words to sum up a thousand + years of folklore warnings about Faeries, whilst summoning a vivid vision of the thing itself, and creating an unsettling momenti mori. In 14 words.

But then every poem has revealed something, and continues to give more with each reading. They've stretched time whilst I've read them on tea breaks and bus journeys - a scant quarter of an hour turned into a profound pause in my day, and provoked a whole range of emotion which has sometimes been uncomfortable.

I really can't overstate just how damn good I think this collection is, how rich it is, or how much I want everybody I know to read it. I am absolutely in awe of what Roseanne Watt has done here, hers is a voice to follow.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Anne Eunson's Lunna Mitts

The pattern for these mitts is in the 2018 Shetland Wool Week annual, and I like them so much I've knitted 3 pairs so far.

I like small projects that can be finished quickly, I love the Print o the Wave openwork pattern, and I particularly like to wear mitts that don't have finger holes, so the Lunna mitts ticked a lot of boxes - ill almost certainly end up knitting many more pairs (and have been daydreaming about what yarn shades I might want to get with them in mind). 

The first pair I made for a friends birthday using a circular needle that I thought would be easier to use than double pointed needles. It wasn't, there weren't really enough stitches and the yarn kept snagging on the bit where wire meets point. They were fiddly to hold as well - so much for shortcuts. I followed the pattern, and was happy enough with the result (my friend says she likes them a lot), especially the way the yarn defined the pattern. (It's Jamieson and Smith Heritage Auld Gold, a slightly thicker yarn than the pattern asks for, but nice and soft, and definitely the colour I wanted).

The finished mitts felt a bit long for my hands though and I wanted a pair for myself so made some in grey. (Jamieson's Ultra in Shaela, also beautifully soft, and the recommended weight) but moved the thumb placement down a bit. The yarn is lovely, but the colour didn't bring out the pattern as much as I wanted, and the hand part still felt a bit longer than I wanted - I liked the extra length on the wrist though. I ended up giving these away too, and starting a third pair.

I made these a repeat shorter at both ends, and as I'd finally ditched the circular needles, a little bit smaller. The yarn is Jamieson and Smith Heritage in Berry Wine and they're exactly what I wanted. That's another great thing about small knits - it's no great investment of time and effort to make them over and over with any small variations that occur.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Smallbone Deceased - Michael Gilbert

The drain situation seems no nearer to being resolved and I'm finding it increasingly stressful. I really, really, want to be able to use my kitchen again properly, and really, really, don't want to be worrying about what I'll find every time I come home.

Under these circumstances it's increasingly easy to imagine how someone might be driven to committing a murder...

'Smallbone Deceased' is the second of the British Library crime classic Gilbert re issues I've read, it has absolutely confirmed my enthusiasm for him, and I am very happy to know that they're looking at more of his books. The biggest mystery here is how he managed to fall out of favour.

Horniman, Birley, and Craine is a legal firm that's both respectable and fashionable (in that it has an extensive aristocratic client list in an era when the aristocracy seemed to have occupied the same sort of celebrity position as today's reality t.v stars). The firms founding member (Horniman) has recently died and Henry Bohun has just been bought into the company.

When a large deed box is opened to reveal the remains of an unpopular client in a state of advanced decomposition it's a nasty surprise all round, especially as it pretty much has to be an inside job. Henry Bohun is the only member of the firm who looks to be off the hook as the body has clearly been there longer than he has. He's also a friend of a friend of inspector Hazelrigg who sets him to snoop around a bit.

One of the things I really enjoy about Gilbert is that he clearly knows the world he's describing. The petty office politics and procedures ground the plot in an unassailable atmosphere of reality. This makes the discovery of the body both easier to swallow, and more ridiculous. Gilbert's sense of humour is another thing I really enjoy. Both together mean a book that you might want to read over and again, never minding that you know who, how, and why, the crimes have been committed.

I've been saving the third Gilbert (Death in Captivity, loosely based on his War time experiences) as a treat, I think I might start it tonight to stop me brooding about the drain situation.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

A Round Up post

I've had a couple of holiday days this week, and had planned to read a lot and catch up with a few posts. I've done neither, spending a lot of time waiting for workman to turn up and do their thing instead (fire alarm guys, when you say you'll be on sight from 9am but don't turn up until 11.43 and then complain about parking you're not making any friends). At least I've had time to listen to lots of podcasts. Mostly that's been Emma Smiths undergraduate lectures on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. That's nothing like as worhy as it sounds, find them Here.

On Saturday, as well as seeing The Provoked Wife at the RSC (still excited by how good that was, it's absolutely worth making the effort to see) we went to Coughton Court. It's the home of the Throckmorton family, managed by the National Trust and has a collection of stunningly pedestrian portraits. Architecturally it's more or less a mix of Tudor and gothic revival, and as romantic as you could hope for.

The portraits are interesting precisely because so many of them are not old masters. It's no bad thing to realise how much very ordinary art covered the walls of the rich and powerful. It's also interesting because it's very much a National Trust house, set up for people to look around and to take the relative beating of all those welly booted feet crossing the carpets. The rooms the public see are stage sets for whatever story the Trust wishes to tell on a given year - which is a great thing in its way, because you can collapse into chairs and enjoy the setting. On the other hand those carefully set rooms with a minimum of things that can be damaged feel a bit dead to me.

On Sunday we went to Deene Park in Northamptonshire - it's part of the Historic Houses association, completely family owned, and open to the public between 2-5 on Sunday afternoons between April and September. Deene Park has a long history (interesting architectural links with nearby Kirby Hall) a lot of very good art, and is very much a living house. It came out of the Second World War in a pretty poor state but the parents of the current owner set about rescuing it, and he and his wife are carrying that project on.

It's definitely worth a look if you're ever in the area when it's open. There was a particularly well preserved tapestry in one room, gardens with teapot topiary which are charming, guides who are more than ready to give their honest opinion about what a shit the 7th Earl of Cardigan was (the charge of the light brigade one, and possibly the best known previous owner). It's also really beautiful inside and out.

I've had some luck in Leicester's charity bookshops. I found a Maria Edgeworth I hadn't heard of - 'Ormond' - which sounds like fun, and 'Female Playwrights of the Restoration' five comedies. Whoever had it before has made copious notes on Susanna Centlivre's 'The Basset Table' and nothing else which I find very intriguing. As a good deed I took a Scottish five pound note as change for these, the oxfam volunteer was unconvinced that it was legal tender, and visibly surprised (also totally unconvinced) when I promised her she wasn't ripping me off because it was actually worth £5 and that there's no sort of exchange rate.

Not in a charity shop I finally bought Angela Clutton's 'The Vinegar Cupboard' which I'm very much looking forward to reading properly, and the new River Cottage handbook on Outdoor Cooking. Living in a city centre flat and not driving creates very few opportunities for outdoor cooking, but a person can dream, and at least I'll know where to turn if I ever find I need to spit roast something.

Finally, just in time to cheer me up prior to tomorrow's return to work, the latest edition of Elementum arrived today. I'll write about this properly when I've read it, but honestly, it's glorious. The theme is Hearth which ties it quite nicely to Outdoor Cooking.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Provoked Wife - Vanbrugh at the RSC

I've had a bit of a thing about Sir John Vanbrugh (soldier, spy, playwright, architect, and who knows what else besides) since student days when I first learnt about him in the context of his architectural achievements (principally Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace - which are perhaps even better pieces of theatre than his plays - which is saying something).

The 1995 production of 'The Relapse' at the RSC was on at the time I was studying him, it absolutely cemented my Vanbrugh fan status (it was an excellent production as well, one that really made me fall in love with both theatre generally, and the RSC specifically). I've been waiting for an opportunity to see another Vanbrugh play ever since, so you can imagine how excited I've been.

To add to the personal investment, this is only the second time in 12 years that I've managed to get my partner to see a play with me. He's not much of a theatre fan, and the only other thing (almost exactly a decade ago) that I got him to watch was a really bad Salome at Leicester's Curve theatre. It was so bad that he's been able to legitimately hold it against me ever since. Happily his interest in architecture made the lure of a Vanbrugh play to much to resist.

I'm not sure that he enjoyed it quite as much as I did, but I enjoyed it a lot, and we've finally agreed we can put Salome behind us. I did wonder beforehand if this performance could possibly live up to the expectations I had for it, but it exceeded them, and I'm really hoping that I might manage to see it a second time.

Lady Brute has married her husband for his money and position, he married her because he fancied her and she was too well connected to rape. Two years later they can't stand the sight of each other, his attraction has worn off, to be replaced by aggressive irritation. On the back of this she's inclined towards having an affair with her husbands friend, Constant, who fell in love with her when he saw her on her wedding day, and has been perusing her ever since. Constant's friend, Heartfree - a younger son of little fortune, and professed woman hater, has been flirting with Lady Fancyfull, but drops her when he meets Bellinda, Lady Brute's niece. Bellinda returns his interest, but neither are sure about marriage, and meanwhile Lady Fancyfull is bent on revenge...

There's a lot going on here, the first half is played mostly for laughs,  the second half is much darker though, going beneath the obvious jokes about marriage to show just how awful it can be to find yourself tied to someone you really dislike. Lady Brute is her husbands property, she cannot leave him. He cannot get rid of her, and Bellinda who has a frontrow view of this toxic relationship has to try and decide what her own future should be.

Vanbrugh presents marriage as a tremendous risk for both parties, and leaves it like that. Sir John might be every bit the brute his name suggests, but it's hard not to feel some sympathy for him. It's easy to feel sympathy for Lady Brute in the face of her husbands actions, but hard to forget that it was vanity and greed that got her into this mess (she wanted a rich husband and assumed she had charms enough to govern him). Constant appears more as the serpent in the garden than salvation.

It's a beautiful production to look at, and the way music and song are used is tremendous as well, and there's any number of excellent performances. The one that really stood out though was Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute who just when he's been his most repellent finds the pathos in the character too.

See this play if you can.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

National Trust Book of Puddings - Regula Ysewijn

One of the first cookbooks I ever bought (after Claire Macdonald's 'More Seasonal Cooking', but not long after) was a National Trust publication. I was still at university, and somewhere along the line it disappeared. All I really remember about it now was that the cover had copper pans on it, that it had a good apple cake recipe, and was big on comforting food.

There is nothing more comforting than a pudding, and this pocket sized book capitalises on that. Regular Ysewijn is a pudding expert (her Pride and Pudding book is a magical combination of design and historical research - her photography is stunning - and the whole thing a work of art.) and she was a particularly good choice to write this book. She loves and understands her subject, and doesn't get buried in nostalgia.

That's quite a trick to pull off when you're discussing Spotted Dick, figgy pudding, treacle pudding, cornflake tart, jam roly-poly, and so on. I probably have several recipes for all of those already, and not all of them particularly appeal to me (the figgy pudding does - it would work very well as a Christmas pudding, or for any other wintery dinner party). Jam roly-poly and spotted dick were not parts of my childhood though.

Eve's pudding was - but not this version which suggests using dried barberries soaked in Cointreau (the version I remember from school was nothing much more than an apple sponge - it was good though). I was also momentarily excited by something called a fudge tart. My mother used to make a tart filled with something like fudge and raisins - it's a lost recipe now, we think it might have come from a can of condensed milk. It must have been incredibly unhealthy and was a rare treat, but my god was it was good.

This fudge tart doesn't sound quite like the one I remember and was apparently a school favourite. It does sound good though - but probably best only made for large gatherings and to be eaten in small portions.

I really like the sound of autumn hedgerow pudding for which I would need to make an elderberry jam (I'm here for that), a St George's pudding, Wet Nelly (it's a bread pudding, and I've actually been looking for a good recipe for this for ages), and the Latvian Rye and cranberry trifle amongst others.

Basically these 50 recipes are the perfect mix of antique, familiar, classic, and curious. All the things I would expect and plenty that I did not. Some of them have been tweaked to make them more appealing to contemporary tastes, others (like tipsy pudding) give the opportunity to explore your inner Victorian pastry chef (happily we have more reliable ovens). It's a handy little book to have.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party - Graham Greene

I'm finding it quite hard to extract myself from the world of Georgette Heyer at the moment; it's a comforting place to be - and in real life I ought to dust, and still have drain problems (consent has been given to have the floorboards up, but no sign of a date for that yet) and work isn't much fun either.

Because retiring to bed for a week with a pile of old romances isn't on the cards I thought reading something entirely different might be a good idea. Graham Greene is an author I've meant to read forever but never quite got to. 'Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party' is a long title for a novella, and I have no idea of how typical it is of Greene, but it turned out to be a good place to really start with him.

I'm fairly sure I bought this book because it was short, it's definitely what appealed to me about it when I picked it up last night (that and it had worked to the top of a pile). First published in 1980 it's late Greene, and it has a grotesque, gothic, air about it.

The narrator, a man in his 50's, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a girl in her 20's. She's the daughter of toothpaste millionaire Dr Fischer, who since the death of his wife has amused himself by tormenting a select group of wealthy friends. His aim is to see how deeply they will humiliate themselves in the pursuit of the extravagant gifts he gives them.

Anna-Luise, Dr Fischer's daughter, calls these friends the toads, and is happy leave her fathers house behind her. He in turn has no apparent interest in his daughter, but is keen to use her new husband as a fresh way of humiliating his toads.

It's an odd little book, it focuses on grief, greed, love, and hate - but mostly I think on grief and greed and maybe a little on the different rules that govern the very rich. Dr Fischer is a horror, but only because others allow him to be by acquiescing to his demands. As he keeps pointing out, nobody needs to play his games. They all have more than enough money to buy their own toys.

I'm fairly certain that I'd picked up some of Greene's books before and not got very far (Our Man in Havana' rings a bell), this book has convinced me to try again, and try a little harder if I find my attention wondering.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Frederica - Georgette Heyer #1965club

My love of Georgette Heyer must be fairly obvious by now, and yet again I'm using Simon and Kaggsy's book club as an excuse to re read one of them - 1965 is late Heyer which can be a bit ropey, but 'Frederica' is one of the better late books so I got lucky.

Before Christmas I started reading Jane Aiken Hodge's 'The Private World of Georgette Heyer', and now realise I only got about halfway through it. Even so I think it's probably a better biography than Jennifer Kloester's 'Biography of a Bestseller', mostly because Hodge was writing early enough not to be perturbed by a number of Heyer's prejudices, or feel any need to apologise for them. 

Heyer was a snob, her outlook is high Tory, and that's particularly obvious in 'Frederica'. But then she's not a writer you turn to for social realism and she's nothing worse than more or less representative of a good portion of her age and class. And despite that social conservatism, as romances her books are curiously subversive.

In 'Frederica' we have the eponymous heroine who is attractive rather than beautiful, her younger sister who is a stunner with an equally lovely personality but is a bit dim, and a rich Marquis who is persuaded to help them enter polite society and do the London season. Quite a lot of the book is devoted to the adventures of Frederica's younger brothers though - and that isn't typical romance.

Our heroine is 24, and responsible for 3 of her 4 younger siblings. The fourth, Harry, who is ostensibly their guardian and head of the family is quite happy to leave all the responsibility to his sister. When Heyer's father died (when she was in her early 20's) she became financially responsible for her mother and brothers, as well as supporting her husband whilst he experimented with various careers and then trained as a barrister. 'Frederica' is very good on the reality of responsibility with all its frustrations and joys. 

Something else that's typical of Heyer, but not necessarily typical in romance novels, is that love is based on mutual respect and a shared sense of humour. If Heyer's characters don't generally seem to be in a any particular hurry to get into bed with each other they always seem eager to share a joke or lend support when it's needed. It also means that the main impediment to a happy ever after in this book isn't some unlikely life or death situation, but that Frederica is to busy running a household and managing children to give any thought to love. 

The real appeal of Heyer though has to be her world building. Her regency England is a fantasy, full of lovely houses, lovingly described clothes, and any number of intriguing details. Reading her with google is an extra pleasure - I can look up all sorts of things now - including inflation calculators...

Heyer's research was impeccable, so when she mentions money here it felt worthwhile to see what she meant. Frederica and her sister have £5000 each, which if my guess of an 1820 setting is more or less correct comes out at about £475000 in today's money. When another character says he has about £2000 a year that's an income of around £189000. The best part of half a million sounds like a more than respectable dowry, but neither girl has many job options beyond wife. If you could hope for an income of between 3% to 5% of that amount you're looking at something between £15000 - £20000 a year in today's money. You can live on it, but it's not wealth. 

Marriage to a rich man means a considerable staff to manage and social, possibly political, influence as a hostess. When Frederica gets her happy ever after she's being guaranteed a life of comfort, but also the prospect of an interesting job compared to a make and scrape existence on minimum wage. 

This post is stretching on, I've deleted at least as much as I've written, and without even touching on what I think Heyer might be saying about 1965 (I find this book feels more socially conservative than some of her earlier ones and am tempted to see that as an older woman feeling nostalgic for the certainties of the past in a very fast changing world). 

'Frederica' hadn't been a particular favourite, but re-reading something familiar primarily because of the year it was written in is an excellent way to reassess previous impressions. One of the many things I love about Heyer is that her books always give me something new every time I read them. She's not perfect, but she's interesting. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

On Seeing a Play More Than Once

As much as I love going to the theatre, and as much as I've wanted to see things again, it's only in the last few weeks that I've managed to see the same production multiple times - and it's been a bit of a revelation. So far I've managed to see The Taming of the Shrew 3 tmrs at the RSC - and I'd happily go again.

There are a couple of contributing factors to this beyond the quality of the production - one is a friend who enjoys live theatre even more than I do, and the other is the availability of heavily discounted tickets (check the RSC website from noon on Friday afternoons for offers for the following week if you can - we're lucky that we live just close enough to make midweek visits attractive).

I have slightly mixed feelings about the £10 tickets, mostly I'm really grateful for the opportunities they're giving - so far to see As You Like It which we hadn't planned on, and Taming of the Shrew more than once. Part of me worries about the implications of so many cheap seats though.

Still, it's a tremendous luxury to be able to get to know a production really well, and to see how it's developed from preview week. The biggest surprise has been seeing how much different seats affect how I see the performance. I really hadn't appreciated this before - generally we've opted for seats in the upper gallery (less expensive, no chance of being expected to participate, good overview).

Seats a couple of rows back from the stage and to its right (the RSC has a thrust stage) meant a much better view of the costumes, looking up at the action rather than down in it, and an entirely different awareness of what was going on. From the stalls my focus shifted towards whoever was directly in front of me rather than specifically following the dialogue. It's a better place to see how the cast interact with each other, and particular details. We both commented on how different it made the play seem. Third time round I went back to a gallery which confirmed those differences in perspective.

I really loved this production of The Taming of the Shrew the First time I saw it, and better acquaintance has only made me like it more. I'm not the biggest Shakespeare fan, I find his women generally disappointing, his low comedy too low for me, and the language often too involved and dense to really get to grips with. Watching a play as challenging/problematic as Shrew is refreshing because a sizeable part of the audience clearly shares the same reservations.

Flipping the genders and having women, and women's voices, dominating the stage does surprising things too. I'm not used to seeing so many women in the stage and it's thrilling, it was also one of the brilliant things about The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, as was Sophie Stanton who is also amazing in Shrew. Seeing is one thing, but hearing is another, I didn't expect so much more female speech to make a difference to me, but it does, maybe because it creates a balance in tones that makes the whole thing easier to listen to and follow (I certainly find it so).

In the end if it's a choice between seeing the same play twice, or two different things, the choice would always be to see the different things, but I'm really grateful to not need to make that choice at the moment. We're planning on seeing as much as we can, as often as we can, whilst we can.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Shetland Wool Week annual 2018 and a Happy Easter

The weather this weekend has been unusually idyllic for most of the UK, so I'm writing this whilst looking out of the window much in the manner of a dog who thinks it's long past time to go for a walk. But I'm already a bit sunburned around the neck and have work tomorrow so it's time to come in and be sensible.

My reading plans for the weekend didn't get as far as I'd hoped, mostly because it was much better to chat to my mother in the sun, and make a fuss of her dog. Both of those things are knitting friendly though, and so I've made good progress on a pair of mitts from last years Wool Week annual.

I've never really got to grips with ravelry, I've used it to look for patterns and ideas, and bought a couple of things through it, but that's as far as it goes. I know it would probably be useful but it's such a huge community that it feels a bit overwhelming - although it's reassuring to know it's there if I get in a mess with something.

One thing I really do love though are the Shetland Wool Week annuals (the last couple of editions are still available through the Wool Week shop Here). They're a nice combination of patterns, most of which lean towards the solidly traditional (and correspondingly timeless) and essays on various aspects of Shetland life. Earlier annuals have focused more on the knitwear industry, but the 2018 issue looks further, going back to explore the history of the women who followed the herring fleet as gutters, and forwards to the Perrie Makkers - the children who will keep this rich tradition alive and evolving.

There are a lot of gloves and mitts in the 2018 edition, along with a hat by a designer I particularly
like, Wilma Malcolmson. Her colours are always amazing, and she makes her hats a little larger than anyone else seems to. That makes them a better fit on me than most I've found so I'm very pleased to have the pattern for one.

The other thing I like about these patterns is that there's something for everyone from absolute beginners up. When I first saw one of these I was right at the beginning of learning to knit, and more interested in the history than what I might make. That's slowly changing, but either way they're one of the best investments in my knitting library.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday and Easter book plans.

One of the many downsides to working in retail (low pay is the biggest) is that bank holidays and weekends really aren't a thing - this is the first year in a long time when I've actually got two days off over Easter (Saturday and Sunday). I'm looking forward to going to my mother's, where all the drains work, tomorrow where I'll get the chance to be reasonably lazy*. Or at least get the chance to read a bit and catch up on a few things.

I've been reading 'A Woman in Berlin' which is excellent, but not an easy subject, so I've also started Eva Meijer's 'Bird Cottage'' and that's the book coming with me. The opening chapter begins with spring hedge cutting which seems particularly topical given the amount of hedges being netted this year to try and prevent nesting birds. Anyway, it hooked me in and I'm looking forward to reading more.

If anybody is looking for a last minute Easter present, especially for themselves, I'm still really enthusiastic about Sue Quinn's Cocoa. We don't go in for Easter eggs in a big way in our family, but should you have lots of left over chocolate there's no better place to look for some ideas about what to do with it. (Hot chocolate because it's still cold at night, and some really good cookies, are both calling to me).

Finally, the book I'm currently most anticipating for this summer is David Gange's 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge', even more so after skimming through the bibliography he's put together on his blog. There are quite a few favourite books and films mentioned, so I'm really looking forward to going through that list properly and making notes on what to search out.

*This is dog dependent, if it's warm enough she'll collapse in a heap under the hedge at the bottom of the garden and mostly leave us in peace. If it's not warm enough she will want to play an endless game of teasing us with a toy. We have to pretend we want the toy, she won't let us touch the toy, but if she thinks we're not sufficiently interested in the toy she gets very annoyed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Time: A Year & A Day in the Kitchen - Gill Meller

I bought 'Time' back in September when it came out, but there were a lot of really good cookbooks coming out last autumn, and for most of this year my kitchen has been more or less unusable because of the drain situation.*

Cooking is one of the things I like to do to cope with stress, but the inconvenience of having to use the bathroom sink for washing up is off putting. I'm eating a lot of sandwiches and takeaway, and not feeling great on it. Fortunately salad season is getting closer and whilst I'm not wild about washing lettuce in the bathroom either, it seems more manageable than pots and pans.

Meanwhile when my mother picked up the latest lot of washing from me (this is an upside, and she irons EVERYTHING, even tea towels) she bought me some rhubarb from the garden. It reminded me of the rhubarb with rose geranium leaves recipe in 'Time' (a baking tray lined with foil is easy to deal with) and thought I'd give it a go.

I bought a rose geranium about 5 years ago specifically to cook with, and never did (it's currently looking a bit sorry for itself and obviously needs a bigger pot) so this really was the perfect recipe. My rhubarb hasn't been forced so the finished result doesn't look anything like as pretty as the one in the book, but it tastes good, so I'm happy with it.

Rhubarb baked in an oven with light brown sugar, honey, and rose geranium leaves isn't precisely the healthy take on fruit and veg I'm craving, but it's delicious. I've never sweetened it with honey either and I like the flavour it brings - it makes the whole thing a little bit more complex and interesting.

Now that 'Time' is off the shelf I might keep it on the kitchen table for a while and try and use it more. I like Mellers food and philosophy, and I like the way the recipes in this book are arranged first by the time of day, and then by season, for the way it makes me think about food, although it would probably be easier to navigate if it was the other way around. Or at least, I'm used to navigating by season first and then meal - so this feels a bit like being in a supermarket that's had a re-arrange to make you look at everything afresh.

I also think this is a slightly more challenging book than 'Gather' was. I really loved 'Gather', specifically the way it was rooted in the landscape that Meller inhabits. It had a real sense of terroir. 'Time' is more about kitchens (which tell their own stories about how their users cook) and the mood is different. Maybe it's the difference between a guide and a host, I can't yet quite put my finger on it - another reason to spend more time actually making the food.

*Yep, the drain is still blocked. I'm currently waiting for a disclaimer form to arrive in the post so I can promise I won't get to upset about any damage to the floorboards that apparently need to come up for the current round of investigations to be finished. The problem is pressing for me, less so for my neighbour who is being evasive about the whole thing so I'm a bit worried that he might not sign.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

We Are Feminist - Foreword by Helen Pankhurst

'We Are Feminist: An Infographic History of the Women's Rights Movement' is a brief, easily digestible, overview of the fight for equality across the world. As Helen Pankhurst points out in her foreword it's by no means comprehensive, but it does try to give a sense of the central achievements of feminism.

Today is one of those days when I'm really feeling my age (a stinking cold with all the attendant aching joints is really sticking the knife in), a day when I have to take myself off Twitter, and remind myself why it's a bad idea to read BTL comments on Guardian articles. A day when it seems impossible to work out where I stand in the current culture and identity wars and everything seems hopelessly complicated. The sort of day when it feels like we're going backwards.

That's exactly the sort of day when it's helpful to have something that unashamedly celebrates the achievements of the 'strident' women this book focuses on. It's uplifting, and to quote Millicent Fawcett "Courage calls to courage everywhere" - there's nothing complicated about that.

Courage calls to courage everywhere is maybe the defining theme of this book. All of the women in it, however problematical some of them may now seem (it's hard to be a second wave feminist these days) are united by a thread of courage and determination. For me that's the most exciting thing here - learning a few names I haven't heard before, and can now research at more length, as well as being inspired again by figures I'm more familiar with.

There are statistics that demonstrate how far we have come, and there's a bit of political and historical context for each wave of feminism which is useful too. Altogether it might not be the most serious examination of the subject, but it's a good basic introduction - easy to follow, and with a lot of information packed into such a small format.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Tea House Detective - Baroness Orczy

The Tea House Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, is a book I've wanted to read for a while. Mostly because I'm generally interested in Baroness Orczy (due to a childhood obsession with The Scarlet Pimpernel), but also because she's one of the relatively early people writing in the detective fiction genre.

The Old Man in the Corner is probably the earliest arm chair detective (it's what the Ellery Queen quote on the cover says), and Orczy's foray into detective fiction must have been inspired by the success of Sherlock Holmes - the old man being something of a Holmes like character with Polly Burton, journalist, filling the Watson role.

The old man (we don't learn his name) parks himself at Polly's favourite table in her regular lunch time cafe and without much encouragement starts to explain to her just how hopeless the police are by giving her solutions for various notorious unsolved crimes. He is clearly one of the world's great mansplainers.

Polly seems to be as fascinated as she is irritated (it's never clear if she uses any of his insights in her journalistic career) but over time something of a friendship obviously builds up between the pair. This is really a collection of short stories with a particular thread running through them that makes sense in the final episode (where Polly finally gets the last word) so it's no surprise to read that they originally appeared in serial form before being collected into a book in 1908.

As short stories they're fun, the who done it element is more or less obvious from the beginning of each story (only one tripped me up) but they're pleasing enough mysteries for all that. Maybe more so because the culprits and clues are so easy to spot.

More interesting is how ambiguous the old mans morals are. He feels no need to take his insights to the police, and no duty to see justice meted out upon the guilty. He simply wants to demonstrate to somebody how clever he is. Polly seems to accept this, maybe because she doesn't always believe his explanations, but her own conclusion and reaction to the final crime is curious. It's not entirely clear where her sympathies lie at all and it's that little bit of ambiguity that in the end makes this book memorable.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Death Has Deep Roots - Michael Gilbert

After a month or so of struggling to read I've finally managed to finish some of the books I'd started, and find the enthusiasm for more. It feels good to not only want to lose myself in a book again, but to find the concentration to do it.

The British Library's latest crime classics have certainly helped that process along. I think I'd sort of heard of Michael Gilbert before, the name certainly feels familiar, but I hadn't read him. He may be my favourite discovery from this series - and I have really loved some of the BL books. 'Death Has Deep Roots' is from relatively early in his writing career (1951), which if the bibliography on Wikipedia is correct seems to have kicked off in 1947.

'Death Has Deep Roots' starts at the beginning of a murder trial. Victoria Lamartine is accused of killing Major Eric Thoseby and disatisfied with the direction her original defence was taking has engaged a new team. With only a few days to go a desperate search for new evidence begins. A search that goes all the way back to France and the war time activities of Lamartine and Thoseby.

One of the things that makes this book so successful is that Gilbert is writing what he knows about - primarily the law (his profession), and the war. The feeling that what happens in court is more or less what would happen in court is compelling, but I found the war bits even more so.

The war might be over, but it's only 1951, it hasn't been over so very long and the scars are all still pretty fresh. Added to the network of men who were at school together, is a network of those who served together. The young solicitor, Nap, who heads off to France to gather information is convincing because it's easy to imagine that he's still as much soldier as he is solicitor, and that just maybe he misses some parts of his war work.

It also makes the various episodes of violence feel particularly threatening. They're not especially showy but there's no doubt that these characters hold the lives of others cheaply. A bit more death won't much matter to them.

The descriptions of life in the Loire under occupation are deliberately brutal too. They're used to remind the jury and other spectators in an English courtroom that the hardships of the blitz were quite different to those of running resistance under the nose of the gestapo. These are the details which give the plot credibility and in turn make this a particularly enjoyable thriller. Gilbert's humour also helps with that. It's very satisfying to know I've got two more waiting to be read.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Victoria - A ballet by Cathy Marston

The kitchen drain saga continues, and continues to be a demand on time, patience, and ingenuity. We're apparently waiting for news about insurance and access to some other part of the building this week.

I think Prince Albert probably worried more about drains than Victoria would have done, he seems the micro managing type. Happily it's not an issue the Cathy Marston worries about in 'Victoria'.

This theatre trip was to the altogether local Curve in Leicester. It's a theatre I'd like to go to more so I'm always pleased when something comes up that I actually want to see. Northern Ballet's shows are a definite draw, they've even started to convince my previously ballet ambivalent friend that it's an art worth paying £30+ a seat to see.

'Victoria' is brand new, as good as the reviews say, and absolutely worth catching if you can. It's told from the point of view of Victoria and Albert's youngest child, Beatrice, who Victoria intended to keep with her as a companion. It opens with Victoria as a demanding old woman on the edge of death. She leaves Beatrice with her diaries, which she begins to read.

The scene shifts to the early days of Victoria's widowhood and her growing relationship with John Brown, and becoming Empress of India, before shifting to Beatrice's own courtship with Prince Henry of Battenberg (Liko). Victoria is initially resistant to the idea of losing Beatrice, and though Liko wins her round, his allotted role isn't enough for him so he returns to the army. He dies in Africa.

The scenes that show the relationship between young Beatrice and Liko, with the older Beatrice literally clinging on to him at times, are particularly powerful with both her happiness and loss palpable. It finishes with her anger as she considers how her mothers demands have shaped her life.

The second half explores Victoria's early life, and marriage. The horrors of the Kensington system are alluded to, and so are the fights with Albert, as well as the passion, followed by the sheer grind of almost continuous pregnancy and childbirth. By the end Beatrice has made peace with her memories.

There's so much to enjoy about this - the score is perfect, the performances are excellent, but what I particularly appreciated was the both the focus on Beatrice and the acknowledgement of the complexity of Victoria's personality and relationships, especially how controlling Albert was.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Face in the Glass - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

'The Face in the Glass' from the British Library tales of the weird series is a collection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's gothic tales edited by Greg Buzwell.

'Lady Audley's Secret' has to be Braddon's best known book, I first read it about a decade ago (it was one of the first books I posted about on Here) after a lifetime of meaning to read it. It made quite an impression, and I still don't understand why it isn't as frequently adapted as 'The Woman in White' has been. Both published in the early 1860's and along with 'East Lynne' are the beginnings of Victorian sensation fiction.

I discovered Wilkie Collins novels, appropriately enough in my great great uncles dusty Edwardian library as a teenager. Any valuable books were long gone, but there were yards of slightly damp uncut Wilkie in cheap green covers. House and Library were sold together before I got to discover much more then those and bound editions of Punch which makes me wonder what other Victorian gems I might have missed out on discovering at that impressionable age.

Collins gave an inkling that the place of women in Victorian society might have been more interesting than I had assumed, Braddon more than confirms that, both in her own life and with her writing.

Reading the collection of her gothic tales I'm struck again by both how good she is, and the subtle but profound differences between her stories and those of male contemporaries that I'm familiar with. This collection opens with 'The Cold Embrace' in which a feckless art student is haunted by the ghost of his fiancé.

It's not entirely clear where Braddon's sympathies lie in this story, even if the young artist should have been more constant in his affections his fate seems like a harsh one, and there's a sense that the young woman could have made better choices. 'At Chrighton Abbey' is a good old fashioned ghost story, and as it begins I had assumed the narrator is a young man.

I think Braddon does this on purpose, re reading it she's careful not to mention gender for a good few pages, and when she does it comes as a surprise. Her narrator is the child of a Chrighton cousin, left more or less destitute when her father dies so she heads off first to Vienna, and then to St Petersburg where she earns good money as a teacher. Then in her 30's she goes home for Christmas where she's welcomed with open arms by her relations. This is not Brontë country, but rather a precursor of the independent new woman.

Indeed there are a few independent women in this collection who either set out to earn their own living, or are amply supplied with their own money. They are in stark contrast to the desperate creature in 'The Cold Embrace'. 'The Ghost's Name' is also interesting, both for its humour including a prosaic afternote to the main drama which is an excellent punchline, and the way it discusses  domestic violence.

Altogether this is a wonderful collection, getting just the right balance between being entertaining and providing something more to think about under the stories than just their entertainment value. It's also an excellent introduction to Braddon, why she's so interesting and how she can feel quite subversive.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cocoa - Sue Quinn

The problem with my kitchen drain continues, the consensus amongst the 7 men who have so far been to look at it being that it's complicated, and will probably be expensive to fix. It's work that should be covered by the building service charge and the management company that deals with that are in no particular hurry - though they do at least seem to be accepting that it comes under their remit.

Meanwhile I've been reminded that much worse things can happen, and am adjusting to the inconvenience (as is my mother, who is taking my laundry which is amazing of her, and readers - she irons everything. Even pyjama trousers, which I have never done). It also helps that I'm off work this week, having time on my hands makes everything better.

I've also got Sue Quinn's 'Cocoa' which is exactly the book I needed to cheer myself up with. I picked it up after seeing Diana Henry recommend it a couple of times, and fell in love on the spot. It bills itself as an exploration of chocolate with recipes - but has more recipes than I think that suggests, and they're good ones.

Is also worth saying that if you have a mother who enjoys cooking, or are looking for something more interesting than a supermarket Easter egg* to give this year, you want to look at this book.

The background information about chocolate and the industry is interesting. The explanation about quality and what to look for on labels is really useful, and the description of how to taste chocolate was illuminating. It's basically exactly the same process as for wine, which I hadn't fully appreciated.  The flavour descriptors are particularly similar, which makes sense now I've thought about it, I'm also thinking  this is something I can use as a training tool. There will be times when it'll be a lot easier to use different chocolates to teach a tasting skill set than it is wine.

If I needed that further underlining I got it in spades when I opened a bag of cocoa nibs and inhaled - it was almost intoxicating. Cocoa nibs feature a lot, which is good because they're both really versatile, but also the kind of thing I find I buy, use once, and then linger unloved at the back of a cupboard.

The recipes are the real hook for me with this book. Quinn explores the savoury end of the chocolate/cocoa flavour spectrum as well as the sweet, things like prosciutto with bitter leaves and a nib vinaigrette, or soft cheese salad with blackberries, mint, and nibs sound particularly good. That said it's sweet stuff I've made so far.

A delicious Jasmine infused 'Medici' hot chocolate inspired by Cosimo III Medici's favourite, and jaw droppingly extravagent, drink. Quinn's version mixes milk chocolate with milk and jasmine tea bags and makes something unusual (at least if for most of your life hot chocolate has meant Cadbury's sugary drinking chocolate powder) refreshing, and slightly addictive.

Just as addictive is a sweet dukkah, the sweetness mostly comes from honey and is subtle, nibs give a cocoa depth of flavour, pistachio and rose petals make it extraordinarily pretty, cumin and fennel add another dimension that increases its versatility - and that's only half the ingredients. It creates a minimum of washing up and is going to be a store cupboard staple.

Chocolate, olive oil, almond, and Rosemary cookies also turned out to be every bit as good as they sound. Not to sweet, rich, and a brilliant flavour - worth washing up in the bathroom sink for.

All of those recipes feed back to the basic ethos of the book which centres on ethics and quality. Chocolate is a luxury, and we can all "choose chocolate for flavour, quality, and provenance not the cheapest price tag." That doesn't mean paying a fortune, just taking care to make sure something is at least fair trade, and taking the time to look at the label to see what it is we're actually eating.

*We love chocolate in my family but aren't big Easter egg fans. I dislike the packaging and the premium price for an ordinary product, mum can't resist the temptation of eating them before she's given them away, Dad hates anything he considers too commercial, my stepmother doesn't like cheap chocolate, and so it goes on.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Knitting Post

Anyone who follows me on Instagram will know that I've been knitting a hap for the last few weeks. It didn't start particularly well, for some reason everything went wrong and I had to rip it back a couple of times before the (simple) pattern clicked. When it did click progress was smooth enough to make me wonder why it started as such a struggle.

The starting point was Donna Smith's Brough shawl pattern. Her shawl looks beautiful, but it's knitted in a heavier weight yarn than I have in my stash, and I really need to use up some of the yarn I've got (because currently there is no space for more, and I can't possibly justify spending more money on more yarn until I've used some of the stuff I've got). Part of the appeal of Donna's design is the size of her shawl, and also how squishy it would be with that thicker yarn, so it's going to have to wait.

I liked the tessellating leafy motifs of the lace border though, and the thought of starting from a single stitch and working up - which I hadn't done before, and is presumably why it took me so long to work out the repeat (or maybe I hadn't drunk enough coffee, or shouldn't have been trying to listen to podcasts at the same time). I really wanted to use the 7 balls of Jamieson's 'Peat' (spindrift) I had, but didn't think that would be quite enough so decided on a second colour for the border.

There were a few contenders, and whilst I'm pleased with the smokey grey purple shade I went with (Jamieson and Smith, I forgot to make a note of the colour code) I think I could have gone bolder. Overall though I'm happy with the way this has turned out. The size is good, the colour is delicious, the pattern is pretty, and I might have learnt my lesson when it comes to swatching (don't really have the patience to do it, but I should have, because I ended up having to guess when to stop).

It's also the sort of thing that's really useful for this time of year when it's starting to get a bit warm for a coat, but you need something more than just a jumper, or a cardigan. I'm also torn between starting straight away on another one (and making a slightly better job of the edging) or finding something much smaller that will be quick,

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Vagina A Re-Education - Lynn Enright

This post is probably going to send the spam I get about gynaecology clinics in Hanoi into overdrive. So be it.

I've more or less read this book twice now, it's looking distinctly battered after weeks of being carted around, and the margins are full of notes. It's a long time since I read something that felt so important and life changing. Better yet, it looks like there are a few nooks about vaginas and vulvas in the offing.

I'm in my mid 40's,  have had pcos and period related issues since my late teens, and thought I was reasonably knowledgeable - turns out there's a lot I didn't know I didn't know. I really wish a book like this had been available 30 years ago, not even for the questions it answers, but for the ones it asks, the language it gives you, and the conversations it encourages.

The language is the first, and maybe most important, thing here. My family isn't noticibly prudish, neither are my friends but vagina or vulva are seldom used words - it's always euphemisms. But if you're not comfortable using the correct terms it makes it so much harder to have a conversation with your GP if something seems off, and so much easier to have concerns brushed aside. Enright normalises the vocabulary and that alone is a gift.

So is her repeated, and very sensible, advice to see a doctor if you have concerns about periods, pain, or changes - my experience is that women are not told this enough or generally given much idea of what might be a cause for concern. I had 20 years of being brushed off by GP's before being lucky enough to get an appointment with a gynaecologist who was so indignant on my behalf that thinking about it still makes me cry (mostly with gratitude, a bit of anger). I hope that things are getting better, but chances are they're not changing that quickly, and we need all the information we can get.

I also really appreciate how open Enright has been about her own experiences. There's a lot of personal information in here of the sort that people don't generally share even with the closest of friends, again maybe because we don't always have the language to do it. Not particularly wanting to talk about something is okay, but not knowing how to, or feeling you can't is another thing altogether. The discussions I've had about this book with friends have led to a ridiculous amount of penny dropping moments (a lot of people are going to get a copy as a present this year).

The amount of discussion reading this has sparked has been enlightening as well. The chapters cover biology and geography (for want of a better word), orgasms, appearances, periods, fertility,
menopause, pregnancy, and more. Feminism is central, but it's not an easily definable book. It's more or less an overview of a whole lot of things, and if it's specifically pitched at anyone I'd guess it's girls in their teens - who in many ways would be the demographic most in need of a lot of this information.

Really though a book like this should be a household staple, if you have a vagina, or know someone who does there's going to be useful stuff for you in here. It's not a perfect book - I think the chapter on fertility or the lack of it could have had something about women who choose not to have, or accept that they cannot have children, and how society views that. But then each chapter could be expanded into a book of its own, and at least this book is a conversation opener.

What it does brilliantly is underline the range of experience that falls under normal. Again, when I was hitting puberty the books available described periods as something easy that you would sail through (descriptions like The Curse, or A Woman's Monthly Duty, suggested differently) with no real acknowledgment of how painful or limiting they can be. It's the same when we talk about pregnancy, we don't talk about miscarriage much at all for something so common. It's only because I have a friend who has been vocal about it that I now know ante natal depression is a thing.

Menopause isn't mentioned much either apart from not very funny jokes. Maybe because to acknowledge it would be to admit that we ought to be making more effort, especially in the workplace, to accommodate women going through it. To be able to read about all of these things in a way that feels honest, and points you in the direction of more information, is huge.