Monday, November 25, 2019

Miles Of Sky Above Us, Miles Of Earth Below - Steve Denehan

Reading Steve Denehan’s debut collection of poems ‘Miles Of Sky Above Us, Miles Of Earth Below’ has given me a lot to think about, including how to start talking about poetry and where it sits in my everyday cultural landscape.

This collection found me by chance and Twitter. I guess getting so enthusiastic about Roseanne Watt’s amazing ‘Moder Dy’ might have been why Isabelle Kenyon asked me if I’d like to join the blog tour for this book. If she hadn’t it’s not something I’d ever have come across. My small local branch of Waterstones has a poetry section that looks like it’s mostly intended for the gift market full of classics, a handful of well known contemporary poets, and gold embossed hardbacks. It’s all good stuff, but not the place to find anything new.

I don’t think there’s much chance of coming across a book like this in the review sections of the weekend newspapers I’m likely to buy - it’s not mainstream enough. I’m not following enough poets or poetry readers across any form of social media to hear much about what’s happening, although I can at least do something about that.

I do read poetry, but rarely without feeling somewhat self conscious about it, that feeling intensifies exponentially when it comes to talking about it, and again, I’m wondering why this is? Those gift worthy editions of the great and good in my local bookshop have a self conscious air about them too, I can’t be alone in this.

‘Miles Of Sky Above Us, Miles Of Earth Below’ meanwhile has been gently showing me what I’ve been missing by not looking a little harder for what’s out there. There are 118 poems here that cover all kinds of things, most of them everyday thoughts. Reading them brings a warm glow of recognition; the feeling of meeting a friend unexpectedly in the street, or sharing a joke. My favourite (today at least) is ‘Tea’ which speaks of the satisfaction to be found in small personal rituals.

The way Denehan writes about his daughter is beautiful too. I’m much more used to reading about mother love, so personally this feels like a necessary bit of balance - giving words to the feelings I see in s many of the fathers I know.

There is so much more in this collection than I can talk about in a single blog post, some things which elicit such a personal response I’m not sure I would want to write about them at all. I’m really grateful that chance (and Twitter) did bring this book my way. Look Steve up, there’s a good bit of his work out there, follow him on Twitter - he comes across as a remarkably nice man, follow the rest of this tour, and definitely consider buying his books.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Book of Christmas - Christopher Winn

It’s more or less a hive of pre Christmas preparation around here, today is stir up Sunday so I’ve made Puddings. Five of them, because to late has it occurred to me that I could have halved the recipe, and having a lot of small Puddings seemed better than having larger ones. Only 2 of us eat it on Christmas Day, so they’ve got smaller every year. A couple will be presents, and that leaves 2 spare if anybody local fancies a small Christmas pudding (contains nuts, alcohol, and eggs).

In truth it’s possibly more trouble than it’s worth to make them just for me and my mother, but it’s a tradition I particularly like - if not specifically a family one. My sister gave me Christopher Winn’s ‘Book of Christmas’ last year and I’ve been dipping back into it recently.

I generally like winter, but Christmas is a mixed bag of emotions tied up with a whole lot of memories. Inevitably the older I’ve got, the more people there are to miss and. November begins with the anniversary of a cousin killed at 21 in a car crash, this year will be first without my sisters fiancĂ©, who died unexpectedly in April.

The year my mother’s late partners cancer was diagnosed as terminal I went a bit mad preserving things - and made my first Christmas pudding. We had destroyed one in his very eccentric microwave the year before, so decided to go old school and use his AGA. Watching what Christmas baking does to my smart meter reading really makes me miss having someone else’s AGA to call on.

I’m not overly bound by tradition, but there’s a lot about the Christmas ones that give time and space for all those memories and emotions. Winn tells me that whilst it was the Victorians who specifically coupled Christmas with plum pudding, it goes back in one form or another to medieval times. He also tells me that Christmas cake as we know it has the same common ancestor. I find this long history deeply comforting. There is nothing transient about a solid slab of fruit cake.

The smell of strong ale, mixed spices, and dried fruit is delicious as well.

I guess this book was meant specifically for last years gift market and that something new will be piled up on bookshop tables this year but I particularly like this one for its historians view of the season. It’s definitely worth a look, and it’s been good company through the 3 hour wait for the Puddings to cook.

There are no shortage of good pudding recipes around - Delia’s is boozy, and obviously a classic based on the number of people who used to ask for a combination of stout and barley wine. I use Dan Lepard’s version based on a 1930’s recipe*. Nigella Lawson’s is bound to be excellent, Regula Ysewjin’s Pudding books (Pride and Pudding, or the National Trust Book of Puddings) are both a delight and an inspiration. If the closest you want to get to a figgy or plum pudding is reading about it her books are exquisite as well as useful.

It’s a list that could go on, and on, that lot isn’t I even the half of the recipes I’ve got on my own shelves. It’s not to late to make a pudding this year and despite the time, and electricity bill, I think it’s worth it.

*One of the things I like about this recipe is that it calls for only 3 hours steaming on the day of making rather than 8.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Virago Book of Witches - Shahrukh Husain

I’ve wanted the Virago Book of Witches for a few years, but whenever I had checked for second hand copies they were to expensive to be tempting, and I’ve never yet spotted a copy in a charity shop (although now I have it what’s the betting they turn up everywhere). Imagine them how pleased I am that it’s been reissued as a particularly handsome hardback.

Hardbacks aren’t normally my thing (in the battle between space and a love of physical books, paperbacks are my preference) but this one will look especially nice with the Angela Carter edited edition of Virago Fairy Tales. Also, I’m a sucker for anything with an owl on it.

The Virago Book of Witches is also a collection of fairy tales from around the world, but specifically ones that deal with Witches in all their various traditions. There are chapters on ‘Alluring Women and Ailing Knights’ (Indravati and the Seven Sisters is a memorable opening for its distinctly purple prose). ‘Wise Old Women’, which starts with ‘I Love You More Than Salt’, a story I read once as a child and have never seen since. I’d sort of mixed it up with King Lear, Shahrukh Husain’s Version comes with an interesting array of Scottish accents which give it a whole new life.

There are  also chapters on ‘Witches in Love: Possessive Women and Devoted Wives’, ‘Transformations’, ‘Guardians of the Seasons and Elements’, ‘Witchy Devices: Cauldron, Broomsticks, and Trysts with the Devil’, ‘Hungry Hags: Cannibals and Blood-Suckers’, and ‘Trials and Contests’.

The attraction of the witch in all and any of her forms is that she gets to be so many of the things that women traditionally are not allowed to be. She has power, she can pursue sex, behave badly, be destructive, be old, be free. She can fly. A force of both good and ill, a scapegoat with powers that are both desirable and fearsome.

This is a fabulous collection to dip in and out of with an impressive variety of source material. The preface and introduction are excellent, and there are useful endnotes too. Had I known what I was missing I might have coughed up for a second hand copy long ago.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Death In Fancy Dress - Anthony Gilbert

This is a recent arrival from the British Library Crime Classics series, and the promise of a country house party setting made it sound irresistible - it just feels like the right time of year for a country house murder mystery.

Instinct didn’t let me down. Anthony Gilbert is a pen name for Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who also wrote as Anne Meredith (an Anne Meredith book - Portrait of a Murderer was the Christmas mystery in the crime classics series a couple of years ago). I liked ‘Portrait of a Murderer’, but I loved ‘Death in Fancy Dress’, and really enjoyed the bonus pair of Gilbert short stories in this edition too.

It’s some time in the 1930’s, Tony, a lawyer (also in his 30’s) has just bumped into a school friend, Jeremy, somewhere in a bazaar in India. They travel back to London together with Tony painting an enthusiastic picture of Jeremy as a boys own hero (men want to be him, women want to be with him - that kind of thing). Jeremy reveals that he wants to marry David’s cousin, Hilary.

Unfortunately back in London it transpires that Hilary is engaged to someone else, and that she and her stepmother are in some sort of trouble. The two men are dispatched down to Feltham Abbey (the family home) vaguely instructed by someone official to sort out the mess - which is being caused by a blackmailer known as The Spider.

The plot is now sufficiently thick to be a satisfying affair to unravel. It’s easy enough to swallow that somewhere between going to the ‘right’ kind of school, and shared war time experiences you would be sent off to do some quiet work on behalf of the government. The blackmail is for sufficiently high stakes, and also sounds feasible and the various characters basically ring true as well. It’s a strong framework to have some fun with.

I think the probable identity of the Spider is obvious from fairly early on, if it’s not there are more than enough hints when you look back, and a lot of the tension comes from wondering what the repercussions of the eventual denouement will be. There's more tension in the way that Gilbert gives us occasional chances to sympathise to some extent with the culprits initial motives and then reminding us of the human damage that’s being done.

Altogether it’s the full package - great setting, a victim you’re happy to see get done in, a decent plot, convincing characterisation, and some interesting twists which are mainly down to that convincing characterisation. It’s everything I want from a golden age whodunnit.

Looking for a cover image of the book cover I’ve found the blog Clothes in Books which has a lost about some potential outfits for ‘Death in Fancy Dress’ and an archive full of great stuff to look at.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Mincemeat and Mince Pies

It’s a week since I finished work, a week filled with domestic mishaps on a scale from vaguely annoying (smashed a plate, broke a cornishware jar, but at least the latter was fixable) deeply frustrating (it took 3 days to get all of one Yodel handled wine delivery, which was 3 mornings spent waiting for the driver to see if he would, or would not try and ring the doorbell*) and upsetting (upstairs neighbours have flooded the building again, I’m at pitchfork and burning torch levels of had enough of this.

On a more productive note I’ve made chutney, 3 Christmas cakes, started tidying things with a vengeance, and today I’m potting this years mincemeat - and to mark the occasion will be making some mince pies with the end of last years mincemeat.

If I went through all my cookbooks I’d probably find upwards of a dozen mince meat recipes, all a bit different but split between those that need to be cooked, and those that don’t. Last time I was more or less unemployed in 2009 I tried Elizabeth David’s version. I spent a small fortune, which I didn’t really have, on a mountain of ingredients (it was when the final experience that taught me to actually think about the quantities a recipe is asking for before I commit to making it). Mixed it up in a washing up bowl - which it still overflowed, and hated it. It was 4 years before I dumped the last possibly fermenting jar of the stuff.

The reason I’d gone for the David recipe was that it didn’t need cooking, just mixing. The Fiona Cairns recipe that I now use as a base (it’s evolved a little since I started making it in 2013) was a revelation by comparison and doesn’t need cooking either. 

I love making this each year, it smells lovely, and I like the pacing of it. You put everything together, give it a good stir, then stir again whenever you’re passing it for around 24 hours, before potting it. I don’t get tied to the oven, and it’s all very easy going.

Another reason I love making this is because of how I associate mince pies with my mother. She has an excellent pastry hand - which I do not - and has made the best mince pies in epic quantities for as long as I can remember. It’s one of the few things I can think of that has remained a constant tradition from childhood onwards. Mum now makes the same mincemeat recipe (home made behaves much better in the oven than shop bought) which adds to the feeling that this is one of ‘our’ things. 

Mostly though, I just really love a good mince pie - small enough to eat in a bite if you want, well filled, and pastry just the way you like it (not the dry sugary sort that crumbles over everything). The sort I can buy are almost always disappointing (Greggs used to do a surprisingly decent one) and making them is so satisfying.

*This is a big part of why I’m not a fan of ordering things online, but even so Yodel’s business model seems mad. It’s crazily inefficient.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Short and Sweet - Dan Lepard

This blog turned 10 sometime back in August and one reason for carrying on with it is that the older I get the more useful I find it to refer back to. I’m baking Christmas cakes at the moment which makes me look back too - I made my first one in December 2011 using a cut out and kept for a year Dan Lepard recipe back from when he wrote a column in The Guardian. D had bought me a Kitchen Aid for my birthday, but it was so new, and the quantities of ingredients so generous that I hand mixed it that first time.

Since then I’ve made this cake dozens of times - as many as 7 in various sizes one Christmas - it’s a very good cake, although the year I got a new oven I managed to utterly over cook them after it turned out the old oven needed at least 3 times as long to cook something as the new one did. Making them isn’t the longest standing tradition but it’s important to me.

Dan Lepard has got further into my Christmas when I turned to ‘Short and Sweet’ (the blog tells me it was a Christmas present in 2011, and that initially I wasn’t as grateful for it as I am now) for a Christmas pudding recipe. His simple Christmas pudding based on a 1930’s recipe has been a winner with everyone who’s tried it.

As baking books go it’s a genuine classic - if I only had space for one baking book it’s probably the one I’d keep, but as an incorrigible collector of cookbooks there’s always something with a bit of novelty value to look at. It’s this time of year that I reach for ‘Short and Sweet’, and this time of year that I realise again how good it is.

It’s still in print, and if you don’t know it, it’s worth seeking out. Still thinking about Christmas I’ve just found a good looking mincemeat recipe that doesn’t need to be matured. I would contend that making your own mincemeat is one of life’s pleasures - something that makes you slow down and enjoy the process of what you’re doing. Which is what I think Christmas baking should be about, if you don’t enjoy doing it there’s no point, but if you do it’s surprisingly mindful (mindful is not a word I love, but it’s accurate enough here).

As I’m currently time rich I’m going to go beyond the Christmas staples and have some fun with this book over the next couple of months (starting with some orange and almond biscuits). I can’t remember exactly who gave me this (it would have been my mother or my sister) but they deserve another thank you.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What Next?

I’m now officially unemployed (since Friday) and finally feeling the emotional side of redundancy. I’m not going to miss the actual job which has left me with a legacy of repetitive strain injuries (wrist, elbow, and tendons in my right foot) and wasn’t great for my mental health either. I am going to miss a lot of the people I worked with and some of the customers.

Initially the plan was to look for some Christmas temp work and then see where I was in January, but after looking around it’s become fairly clear that temping hours are not great. 16 - 20 hours a week, weekends and late nights, expected to be available Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The pay is around minimum wage too, and shifts often only 4 hours (which means you don’t have to give employees breaks) which ups the transport costs.

The plan now is to take the next 2 months off and start looking for work in January. I know this makes sense, but it also feels weird. I’ve had periods of being of relative unemployment before, but I’ve always been job hunting through them, and quite often doing part time stuff or odd jobs. I’ve day dreamed about a Christmas off for the last 20 years. Finally being able to take one is unexpectedly discombobulating.

It’s not that I’m short of things to do (there are so many things that I need to do) but my sense of where I am in the year has gone to pot. Closing a shop at the time it would normally be filling up with stock was disorienting. I’ve put off making Christmas cakes and such until I finished work and would have all the time to make them without the stress but because I haven’t started I can’t quite believe it’s almost mid November.

The baking, chutney, and mincemeat making have also been a long standing way of dealing with the stress of work, trying to carve out moments to feel some goodwill in. Taking away the main cause of stress (the work environment rather than the work) is going to take some getting used too. It’s also something I really need to do.

What next is feeling like a big question right now, equal parts exciting and anxiety inducing, but meanwhile I’ve made the Christmas chutney today, and tomorrow I might start on the cakes.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Evil Roots: KillerTales of the Botanical Gothic edited by Daisy Butcher

This has to be a contender for personal favourite book title - everything about it appeals to me, and it turned out to be the perfect book to read over Halloween. I love a good collection of short stories at anytime, appreciate them even more in times of stress (last week was the last customer facing week at work, the next couple of days are the clear out and clean up then I’m done), and this collection lived up to the promise of the title.

I found Mellisa Edmundson’s ‘Women’s Weird’ genuinely unsettling - it was definitely a book that had me looking over my shoulder, ‘Evil Roots’ not so much. Maybe this is because I don’t know any mad scientists, or own a flesh eating plant. Or possibly because I already have a healthy suspicion of plant life (is it poisonous, will it scratch me, is a branch going to fall off it as I’m walking past, will that creeper damage the brickwork, will that seaweed drown me*, am I going to be sent out for interminable hours to cut it down**) born of a country childhood and a love of gardening.

Anyway. There are a trio of stories here that really stood out - M. R. James’ The Ash Tree’ which is the sort of class act you would expect from James. Abraham Merritt’s The Woman of the Wood which nicely picks up on the eerie quality trees can have, and Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Pavillion’. The Pavilion is a genius bit of storytelling.

There are a few flesh eating plants that get out of hand which not only illustrate the Victorian unease with scientific advances, but are an interesting parallel with current debates about GM crops - the fear is just the same. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Giant Wisteria’ is here too - I wish I admired this more than I do, but it’s fun to compare it with Ambrose Bierce’s ‘A Vine on a House’ - or maybe pair is a better word.

Essentially these are family friendly weird tales, the sort that are as likely to make you laugh as shudder, and where you can sit in dim lighting without assuming something is coming to get you (maybe not next to any plants though). Daisy Butcher has done a splendid job of finding ‘the very best tales from the undergrowth of Gothic fiction’, it’s a collection that’s fun to read, gives food for thought, and has some real gems in it.

*There’s a long stringy weed that we called Drewie lines when I was a child, we were told it would wrap round your legs and drown you if you swam through it, though in truth the actual temperature of the sea was the most effective deterrent to wild swimming. It is however a nasty weed to get tangled around a propeller, or oars, and it still gives me the horrors.

** My father has a vendetta against thistles, they continue to win the battle.