Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Slightly Foxed & Other Things

I have books waiting to be written about, and projects to consider, but after the redundancy news  and hard on it's heels some family dramas it feels like there's altogether to much to think about. Most of that is all the emotions that go with thevwork situation. Now the initial shock has worn off I'm bouncing between excitement at the possibilities, and a good dose of nerves about them too.

A symptom of that are the simultaneous desires to hoard things and have a good clear out. Along with the shock an initial intention to spend as little as possible over the next few months (whilst I still have a job) has worn off. Instead I've amassed extra shampoo and conditioner, shower gel, olive oil, a lot of Fry's orange creams, and there's a posh bottle of vermouth on its way.

The looming threat of a no deal Brexit is adding slightly to the anxiety (specifically regarding good olive oil and all the other store cupboard stuff that falls somewhere between staple and treat) but Fry's orange creams aside this is mostly just sensible housekeeping.

The more obvious (to me) sign of stress is the urge to de clutter. I don't know why these situations always makes me want to get rid of stuff but they do. It's not really a bad thing either though. The books are out of control again, and a purge wouldn't go amiss - to which end I was eyeing up 11 years worth of Slightly Foxed editions, wondering how much I wanted them.

It's a cause of some regret to me that I didn't hit on the name 'Slightly Foxed' first - the combined reference to used books and mild drunkenness is so utterly perfect. Still, 40+ editions takes up a chunk of space and my flat is small.

I thought about it for all of two minutes, mostly contemplating the sheer variety of books and authors covered over the years, with a quick detour into the pleasure of receiving the thing. 'Slightly Foxed' is quietly brilliant - both the quarterly and the podcast. It's not just the writing, or the subjects covered, but also the showcasing of various artists (particularly woodcutters).

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Red hot

It is unbearably hot and humid at the moment - neither my flat, or work are designed for temperatures in the mid 30's (nor am I really, I like it at around 18 to 20 degrees and not much more) so obviously this is the week I managed to finish another Kep, and finally got some sour cherries.

I've wanted to get my hands on sour cherries for a long time but have never seen them for sale. I found out by chance last year that a work colleague had a tree and they said they'd let me have some this year. Now I've wanted these because I swear I've seen recipe after recipe that calls for them over and above the jam I particularly wanted to make. On Monday when I was given just over a kilo of them it was already hot enough to take jam off any sort of agenda. Nor could I find a single other recipe that was any kind of use.

For now I've shoved them in a jar with vodka and a bit of sugar (unpitted) to hopefully use when it cools down. I've been promised some more so maybe jam will happen too.

Meanwhile I finished a Kep. I started this back in late may but wasn't totally happy with how it was going so lost interest a bit. I managed to finish it before the heat got out of hand though, and now it's done it looks better than I thought it would.

Every bit of fair isle I attempt is a learning curve, this one was a lesson to plan better - I'm happy with the red theme, but it's bitty - some contrast has worked better than others, and so have some of the motifs. I was using up left over bits of yarns so there and I think a few shades less would have been better as well as more rigid repetition of colours. Next time I'll know.

It's also been a really good lesson in how the different shades work together. There's a scarlet and an orange in there which I was really doubtful about, but the red especially looks brilliant against other red shades - glowing rather than garish. It's definitely encouragement to step out of my colour comfort zone and experiment with more swatches.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Measure for Measure at the RSC

It's been a very long week, the tickets that I booked last Friday to see Measure for Measure on Wednesday already feels like it happened months ago, not a matter of days. I'm glad I had booked them though, a dose of Shakespeare was as good a distraction as any from job woes.

I’m also feeling particularly grateful for the overall chance of grabbing rush tickets for £10 at the RSC. It’s meant that we've seen a lot more than we normally would this season, and at that price even looming unemployment doesn't make it feel like an extravagance.

Measure for Measure wasn't something we would have particularly planned to see if we'd been paying full price either (I certainly have mixed feelings about Shakespeare), so something else welcome about this season has been seeing how the company handles different roles. I already knew how good Sandy Grierson is, but It was interesting seeing Lucy Phelps and Joseph Arkley again so soon in different roles.

This Measure for Measure is set in a Vienna of about 1900 which possibly helps the audience make more sense of it than a contemporary (1604) one would. Or at least the idea of late Victorian piety and sexual repression make some sense of Angelo and Isabella.

And this is my problem with Shakespeare. Isabella doesn't really make sense to me. Faced with the choice between her brothers life or her virginity, especially if her live brother could marry the girl he's got pregnant, she makes the choice to sacrifice her brother remarkably easily. The more so because she doesn't seem at all worried about Mariana’s chastity when the idea of swapping the two women comes up.

Regardless of my own personal irritation with Shakespeare's general treatment of women, this really is a play that resonates in the #Metoo era. Isabella is right to say that her body isn't a bargaining chip, and even more right not to trust Angelo. Lucy Phelps is excellent in the role, radiating horrified disgust at both Angelo’s words, and his touch. Her equal horror towards the Dukes offer of marriage is masterly.

Sandy Grierson is a brilliant Angelo too - for a character who is such a despicable hypocrite it's no mean feat to elicited some sympathy from the audience. Joseph Arkley is a great Lucio too - a nice blend of charm and villainy who looks to be having the most fun on stage. David Ajao (Pompey, a pimp) and Graeme Brookes are also a treat. David Ajao particularly looks like an actor to watch out for.

Altogether it's been a really strong season so far in Stratford. As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Measure for Measure have all been excellent with some memorable performances and a company that feels like it's bringing out the best in everybody on stage.

Saturday, July 20, 2019


I started blogging here ten years ago towards the end of a year long hunt for a job after being made redundant twice within 6 months. It seems oddly neat to find myself in much the same position again. 

We had an indication of what to expect on Monday, and confirmation on Thursday that our shop is closing early November. In some ways the news has been a relief. It's felt like it's been on the cards since the results of the brexit referendum came in - swiftly followed by a warning that in an uncertain future not all jobs could be guaranteed. Since then we've seen costs rise and sales fall. Wine and a weak pound are not the best combination. 

I have no idea what I'm going to do next, but apart from the very real concern about how to pay the bills if I'm out of work for a longish time, I'm mostly feeling optimistic. I hadn't realised just how stressful work had got until I realised that the dominant emotion was relief that I wouldn't have to get through another Christmas there.

Last time this happened to me it felt flat out terrifying, and there are less opportunities now for a middle aged wine aficionado than there were then, but this still doesn't feel as bad as it might. Hopefully it's going to be an opportunity for more change. I'm more or less certain that I'll be able to make a dent in my tbr pile at least, and if it's put on hold my immediate summer plans of researching Vermouth more thoroughly so be it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mr Calder & Mr Behrens - Michael Gilbert

The Michael Gilbert titles reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series were so good that I'm keeping an eye out for more of his books. There are plenty of them around, but they're not particularly cheap for secondhand, or attractive (sorry House of Stratus, but your covers are not appealing) which is enough to remind me how tight my budget is.

All of which is probably a good thing because space is even tighter, and the amount of books I should read next is getting ridiculous. Turning up the occasional Gilbert will be a proper treat at this rate. One that I did find was ‘Mr Calder & Mr Behrens’, a collection of short stories that follow the careers of two secret service types.

The first story deals with an episode in Mr Behrens war history - it's a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, the last brings us up to possibly the beginning of the 1980’s (this was originally published in 1982) with the two men deciding to retire after one last job which also has a Hitler connection.

I'm not clear if these stories were written together as a collection, or gathered together over a number of years, but they're roughly chronological from the war time start, through Cold War paranoia about sleepers and spies, the dangers of slightly crazy military types determined to be a danger to the public, before tackling the IRA, would be gangsters, radical student politics, and neo nazis.

I had a slow start with this one, the Hitler assassination plot didn't give much room for Gilbert's lurking sense of humour, which is one of the things that make him such a good writer. A couple of episodes in and the book really warms up though.

Calder and Behrens are mild enough looking middle aged men, but they're both utterly ruthless in pursuing their ends, and make no bones about disposing of people. They're state sanctioned murderers. Mostly what they do is business, sometimes there's a personal edge to it.

The end result is a collection that never allowed me to be to complacent - there's the odd flash of dry humour used like a seasoning, episodes of starkly efficient violence used in much the same way, and overall a feeling that it might have worked a lot like this.

The thing I really like about Gilbert's books though is the sense of his personality that comes through his writing. His general attitudes hold up well against modern sensibilities which is a bonus but there's more to it than that. It's a general conviction that I’d be delighted to find myself sitting next to this man at dinner. I really don't understand why his books fell off the radar in the way that they have. He's far to good to be missed out on.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Seafarers, A Journey Among Birds - Stephen Rutt

I’m not sure now what I expected from ‘The Seafarers’, I was interested it in for the Shetland and Orkney chapters, slightly wary about the links it might draw between nature and mental health. Whatever I expected though, this book far exceeded it.

It starts with Stephen arriving in Orkney, 23, and escaping from London which has not been good for him. Seven months on North Ronaldsay as a volunteer at the bird observatory beckon. It's an obvious, or at least not an odd, choice for a young man with a teenage passion for birding, and an obsession with migratory birds and what they represent to him.

One of the things Rutt does particularly well is make a point without labouring it - he talks candidly enough about how bad London was for him, and to an extent the surprise that is. After all, with a good degree, a good job, no particular responsibilities, and living with friends, it should be the best of times, but it is not. From there any struggles with his mental health are addressed as necessary, but as a background theme. This book is about so much more than one mans personal journey.

The choice of birds he focuses on are interesting too - Storm Petrels, Skuas, Auks, Eiders, Terns, Gulls, Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, and Fulmars (there's also a chapter on vagrants). I read this straight after coming back from Shetland where with a bit of effort I could have seen Storm Petrels (a night time trip to Mousa broch is a long held ambition that I will get round to) where I saw more or less everything but the Manx Shearwaters (and the vagrants) as a matter of course and pretty much from the doorstep.

All of those birds are on endangered lists, and this year the general reduction in numbers (particularly of Terns, Eiders, and Arctic Skuas) of some of these species felt particularly noticeable. Having grown up on the coast these are all birds I've taken for granted, and in the case of both terns and great skuas, cursed (both favour attack as the best form of defence). The thought of their loss is almost incomprehensible, it's also terrifying.

Each chapter is a starting point to discuss a species, a place, the naturalists and birders associated with it, the impact of the Anthropocene. There is further exploration of the history and culture of remote island groups and how they use and live with the birds around them. A lot about how little we know about birds, especially migratory birds and how they function, which in turn means we can't really understand the impact we have on the wildlife around us. There's also some useful thinking on how we package and market wildlife.

Altogether it's a deeply thoughtful book that asks a number of important questions of its reader. Rutt shares his concerns and conclusions in a way that leaves room for debate - though I found I agreed with him on pretty much everything. All of which make it a book worth reading, but the joy of it goes beyond that.

It's in the championing of birds which are not perhaps widely loved. It's rare to read a defence of the Great Skua, or an appreciation of Razorbills. The whole thing is an encouragement to look at what's around us and to properly observe it.

It's an amazingly assured debut that absolutely nails the line between being accessible without feeling dumbed down, and for me one of the best bits of nature writing I've read. I can’t overstate my enthusiasm for this book, or recommend it highly enough.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Book of Preserves - Pam 'The Jam' Corbin

Another book that I've been looking forward to for a while. Before Pam’s River Cottage handbook on ‘Preserves’ (the 2nd in the series) came out in 2008 I hadn't really bothered with making jams or jellies. It had always seemed easier to buy them - which it is, but doesn't take into account the satisfaction making them brings.

When I think of that book now I think of the huge success that is the raspberry fridge jam, the minor failure of an apple curd (just didn't like it), and first tentative steps into the mystery that is chutney. Diana Henry's ‘Salt, Sugar, Smoke’ is easily my favourite on the subject of preserving (because I want to make more or less everything in it) but it's Pam The Jam’s book I turn to if I have a glut of something and no particular idea of what to do with it.

I don't know how to start explaining the magic of preserving to the uninitiated, but it is a peculiarly satisfying thing to do. I especially love the way that jellies start off as roughly chopped fruit, and end up as beautiful jewel coloured jars. The way chutney develops once bottled so that it becomes more than the sum of its parts is a close second.

Beyond the immediate satisfaction of making, there's also the feeling of a task shared by generations of previous cooks - that things have their season and so do the jobs that go with them. I find it reassuring, and deeply comforting. And as preserving is an art there's endless room for refining.

The jams that we buy are legally required to contain 60% or more of sugar, and the jams we used to make were more or less the same. Sugar helps a jam set, and acts as a preservative. If you're making a lot of something that's going to hang around for a while (the years supply of marmalade that gets produced when seville oranges are around for example) that's quite handy. Better refrigeration, and better quality jars p, are two things that allow the home cook to reduce the amount of sugar (and up the amount of fruit) in preserves. Or with chutney reduce the amount of vinegar.

Which is the specific point of this book which is set on “learning to shed new light on a traditional craft”. I’m personally drawn towards the chapters on jelly and fruit cheeses (which I haven't made before, but which look like fun). There are some really good looking coulis and compotes which are always a useful thing to have around. A chapter on curds which I'll probably ignore (strictly lemon curd in these parts thank you very much) but less prejudiced people should definitely be looking at.

The chapter on pickles looks really good too. I'm more or less new to pickling as well as fruit cheeses, and these recipes are appealing to me - they sound like things I want in my kitchen. My favourite thing about the marmalade chapter is that Pam isn't snobby about using those tins of pre cut Seville peel (she gives quick and easy jam recipes too). I both love and don't love the ritual of cooking and cutting the oranges, it's quietly encouraging to be told shortcuts are fine.

Overall this is a book full of inspiration coupled with sound advice, beautiful photography (by Mark Diacono)  and illustrations (Hello Marine). It's time to order a new box of jars and start planning.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Mr. Fortune's Maggot - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I meant to choose a Sylvia Townsend Warner to take on holiday with me, but I forget, and then didn't really read much whilst I was away anyway, so I suppose forgetting didn't make much difference. Because of this my choice for A Gallimaufrys reading week was the shortest novel with the largest print.

If that's not the best way to choose a book in the general way of things, it did at least work out well for me this time. I bought the book when I was busily collecting older Virago Modern Classics and before I failed so badly with 'Lolly Willows'. The blurb for 'Mr. Fortune's Maggot' didn't particularly inspire me, so without this prompt and slight deadline anxiety I might never have got round to reading it - but it turned out to be a magical book. My time for Sylvia has finally arrived.

"The Reverend Timothy Fortune, ex-clerk of the Hornsey Branch of Lloyds Bank" has spent a decade as a missionary in the South Seas, mostly doing accounts, when he feels a call to try and convert the remote island of Fanua. He sets off for a three year stint but his only apparent convert is a boy called Lueli. Lueli loves his mentor and "this love, and the sensuous freedom of the islanders produces in Mr Fortune a change of heart which is shattering..."

There was a point where I wasn't quite sure I knew where Sylvia would take us, and was a bit nervous about finding out, not least because of so many scandals about dodgy priests between 1927 and now. Mr Fortune isn't that kind of priest though - he's a genuinely kind and humble man determined to do his best to bring god to the islanders.

The islanders aren't particularly interested, but they're an easy going lot and they clearly like Mr Fortune both for the novelty he provides, and his good nature. In turn he takes their lack of interest in good part, happy with his one convert.

The relationship between Mr. Fortune and Lueli is a complex one. It's not physical, but it's not quite platonic either; it might be described as a drawn out, innocent sort of courtship, at least on the part of Mr Fortune who hasn't ever really had anybody to love before. We don't see much from Lueli's point of view, but there's enough to show that his affection is genuine and deep. The difference is perhaps that Lueli will have other loves, Timothy Fortune will not.

The 'change of heart' when it comes is shattering, and not what I expected. I don't want to give spoilers here which makes it hard to go on. I hope it isn't to much to say that this is the story of a kind man who when he finally finds happiness, understands that he has to give it up to protect everything he has come to love.

It's a gem of a book, quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, and devastating by the end. I feel stupid for taking this long to understand just how good Sylvia Townsend Warner was, but at least have the pleasure ahead of reading through the rest of her books.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Stirling Castle

A few years ago we went to Edinburgh Castle, I'd previously seen it as a child and had romantic memories of it, D had never been, so it was an obvious Edinburgh thing to do. Both of us were disappointed. It's an amazing sight, but quite expensive and most of what's inside the castle compound seems to be regimental museums, and the Scottish war memorial. It's also incredibly crowded.

By contrast I'd never been to Stirling castle, but D had. The ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland released us on to the mainland at 7am and we hadn't really planned what to do beyond breaking the journey back to Leicester somewhere about halfway. Not much is open to visitors at 7am (in fact not much I looked up was open before 11am) but Stirling Castle opens at 9.30 and we were there about 10 minutes after that very ready for coffee and scones.

If it's a choice between Stirling and Edinburgh, choose Stirling. Both castles sit atop dramatic rocky outcrops, though Stirling still looks out over quite a lot of countryside. Both attract a lot of visitors but Stirling early in the day is much more manageable than Edinburgh (there was space to look at things and choose how you moved around the sight).

Stirling was owned by the war office and used as a barracks from 1800 to 1968, its now looked after by Historic Scotland who have been slowly restoring the castle. What they've done is spectacular - Stirling was an important royal stronghold, a palace as well as a fortress, with some fabulous renaissance detailing. The royal apartments have minimal furnishing but maximum colour thanks to the painted friezes on the walls.

What furniture there is, is new, but traditional. It means nothing is roped off, and we see everything looking fresh and vibrant. This is especially true of the tapestry sequence of the hunting of the unicorn. Research suggests that this set was in the Royal collection so a new set was created using an original sequence now in New York as a template. We’re all used to seeing faded tapestry in galleries or country houses, seeing it fresh off the loom is something else entirely.

The tapestry would have been worth the admission price alone, but then there are the Stirling heads… these were carved ceiling decorations that represented contemporary figures, fancy figures, and figures from mythology. They had been taken down in 1777 after a ceiling collapse, and seem to have been scattered around. Recreations in full glorious technicolor are back in situ. There's also a tremendous exhibition which has some of the originals, as well as copies you can get up close to, and which shows the process of making these things.

Add to that, that the staff were incredibly helpful and friendly and it's easily one of the best historic sights I've visited. There's a really good mix of things to make it equally entertaining to children and adults. It’s easy to explore (looking at the website it seems that all the major areas are wheelchair accessible), and the way the sight is being interpreted seems pitch perfect to me. It's definitely worth going out of your way to see.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Buying what looks like all the yarn

When I started knitting again one of the first bits of kit I started looking for was a good squared note book. In the end I got a 5mm squared moleskine. It isn't perfect - 3mm squares are a better size, but annoyingly hard to find.

What moleskine does provide is a hard cover, and the useful back pockets for loose pages of pattern. It's also become a really useful yarn diary over the last few years. I had a dim idea that keeping a note of the yarns I bought would be a good thing, so now it's a post Shetland ritual to sit down and catalogue everything I've bought.

I don't really buy yarn anywhere else - because I've already got so much of it, but the walls of colour in both Jamieson's and Jamieson and Smith's are irrisistable to anyone with magpie instincts. I don't try and resist at all, which was why when I spread out all the yarn last night even I was surprised by how much there was.

The first year I went on a yarn mission I had no real idea about what a ball of wool would look like when knitted up, so everything came more or less in singles, and was just colours I liked. What that shows me know is how much the colour range changes with both companies - these are not static ranges at all.

The year after that I was more interested in the different weights of yarns, and the Jamieson and Smith Heritage ranges. Then in buying a more restricted palate but in sufficient quantities to knit larger things. What I really notice about last year's colours are how they reflect the landscape immediately around my father's house. This was inadvertent at the time but makes me really happy now.

This year I wanted to fill gaps - I realised when I wanted some greens earlier in the year that I really hadn't got many. The same for vibrant raspberry pinks. I also made myself buy colours I wouldn't normally look at in an effort to learn more about putting them together in fair isle patterns.

I also bought a couple of cones of yarn - at 500g they're the equivalent of 20 balls - and if they seem like a sizable initial investment they work out at less than half the price of buying individual balls. These are from the Jamieson and Smith Heritage range. They're natural shades and lovely to knit with so I was really pleased to get them. Maybe they will become the jumpers I keep thinking about starting...