Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Lockdown in Leicester Again

Fair warning, this post is probably going to turn into a longish rant. 

I live just on the edge of Leicester city centre, quite close to one of the universities, which means at the moment with no students around my part of the city is relatively empty, social distancing has been easy enough to do, and for the most part rules have been observed in the immediate area (with a few exceptions, but even the committed drinkers that have colonised part of the local park at least leave plenty of space around the path through it, so you can still distance from them). There have been Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the city, one large one that I completely avoided, and a few smaller events which I've seen from a distance. 

I haven't wanted to be anywhere near even small crowds, but they've been easy enough to give a wide berth to when I've seen them, and almost everybody present that I saw was wearing a mask, and keeping some sort of distance. Much like the people standing in long queues for post offices and shops. There was some coverage of high rates of infection in Leicester over the last couple of weeks, but the centre itself felt safe enough - well organised, plenty of hand sanitizer (including on stands in the market place), and orderly.

The way rumour and reporting ramped up over the weekend was worrying, but as Sunday turned into Monday, and 5pm came and went with no announcements the speculation was very much that the worst of it might be that existing restrictions would simply stay in place a while longer. At 9.15pm we got the news that we were meant to be going back into something much more like full lock down, and that non essential businesses would be closed from the Tuesday.

Which really isn't a lot of notice, and quite feasibly people would have been done with news for the day. I can only imagine the frantic phoning around employers had to do. Beyond that there was no clear idea of exactly where was covered by the lockdown zone, what it meant for people with jobs outside the city limits, how it might affect people on Job Seekers allowance, what it meant for social bubbles, or crucially why Leicester has such a spike in cases and where are they centred.

As of this morning (Wednesday) there's a postcode checker if you're not quite sure about if you're in the lock down zone or not - because that's just how vague it is, and it sounds like the council might finally be getting more detailed data. Sounds like, and might, are the key words there though.

It seems like single people and single parents can still stay in their social bubbles with another household, but it's not clear what that means if your other household is on the wrong side of the lock down zone. My partner is outside the zone, and I won't be seeing him, though the fact that I could and did see him in the days leading up to this, and considered packing a bag and heading over there on Monday evening sort of makes a mockery of having to officially keep a distance a few hours later. Or do we officially have to keep a distance? 

It's the sort of question there should be quickly available answers for. School's are closing again for all but children of key workers, tomorrow - because now apparently there's a suggestion that children are passing on the virus - there's a ton of unanswered question about that too, and difficulties for single parents who have to consider if their children should be moving between households which might be on either side of the lockdown zone, or how to explain to children inside the zones with schools outside it why they're home again. For people coming out of shielding the advice seems a bit hazy too. I'm guessing that effectively if you're somewhere near the boundary line the common sense thing is to carry on as before. All of it adds to the worry when it's so unclear how your friends and family are affected, even if you've more or less worked out your own position.

Meanwhile the level of traffic in the city does not appear to have significantly reduced, though the number of pedestrians has, there are builders working outside my window, on the other side of the road, and on the opposite bank of the river to me, and whilst the university is firmly closed to academic staff and students, maintenance and security are still very much present. 

County town councils are angry with the city mayor for stating the obvious about the chances of people heading out to them from the lockdown zone  - but there's nothing to stop them, no resources to police this, and absolutely no sense that there was a coherent plan from government about how local lockdowns might work despite knowing they were on the cards. This should surely have been planned for better than this? A lot of pubs in the county are now choosing not to open at the weekend because of their proximity to the city, some that are will be asking for evidence of local residency before they let customers in, but there's no indication that there's a wider strategy, or even advice, for businesses outside the zone. At least one hairdresser who lives in Leicester has been told that she's still okay to go to clients houses outside the zone after Saturday as planned. 

A lot of the commentary online around why this is happening to Leicester is blatantly racist and deeply unhelpful. Leicester is a very diverse city, and there are a lot of older people for whom English is a second language that they struggle with, but there's been a lack of public health advice in anything other than English. It's also a poor city (40% of children are estimated to be being bought up in poverty). The areas that are supposed to be most affected are generally ones of small terraced houses where multi generational living is common. Gardens are tiny, pavements narrow, local shops small and there shouldn't be any blame attached to that.

I am reading that there have been issues in some of the garment factories, which have long been known for exploitative habits, including paying as little as £3.50 an hour. There are articles about this in The Guardian and The Financial Times today. It seems they may have been forcing people to work in unsafe conditions. This is believable, it's also a situation that's been on the radar for years so there's also a big question about why so little has been done about it, and if even this will be enough to change things.

So altogether I'm angry. Not at the relatively minor inconvenience (to me at least) of going back into lockdown, not even at the frustration not knowing when I can see my family again, but at the lack of clarity and obvious organization. It seems likely these lockdowns are going to be a feature of the coming months, they need to be handled a lot better than this has been. I hope lessons are learnt from what Leicester is going through, but honestly there's a lot of it that should have been obvious, and it's deeply worrying that it's taking so long to address. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Summer Kitchens - Olia Hercules

It looks like lock down might be extended in Leicester, but not Leicestershire, which is not happy news from my point of view. Most of my dearest are outside the city limits, and last night I was sorely tempted to pack a suitcase and flee. Calmer reflection convinced me that I'm probably better off at home albeit alone. Suggestions that English visitors might have to quarantine for two weeks if they go to Scotland was even less encouraging. At this point I'd rather hear some hard no's instead of all the vague maybes that keep getting my hopes up.

Lock down at home does have it's upsides though, and one of them has been a run of really good cookbooks, the latest of which for me is Olia Hercules' 'Summer Kitchens'. This is another book I've looked forward to for a while, and which like Gill Meller's 'Root Stem Leaf Flower' has immediately far surpassed my expectations.

It's a collection of 'recipes and reminiscences' from every corner of Ukraine. I could stand to learn a lot more about Ukraine (I've actually looked at a map this evening, something which always makes me feel old, it's changed a lot since I sat in a classroom with a map on the wall*). The recipes look great and there's probably actually more of them that I'll use from this book than from either 'Mamushka' or 'Kaukasis', the photography is wonderful too. It really celebrates the people, food, and places the book talks about and is perfect for a bit of arm chair travelling.

It's the reminiscences part of the book that makes it really special though. Every recipe comes with context, and there are essays on a number of subjects - a discussion of traditional Ukrainian ovens (pich) including some of the superstitions around them has been a particular favourite so far, but I've got more to read. There's even a section of recollections that people had sent to Hercules which caught me unawares. I ended up so over emotional that I had to go and make a cup of tea and then a honey cake to get a grip on myself again. It's not a sad section, but an equally beautiful and generous addition to a book that is already both those things in spades.

The cake was 'Lyuba's honey and berry teacake'. I made it because I was seeing my mother and sister so a big slab of cake felt justified and it is wonderful. It uses lard instead of butter which is something I'm not yet used to baking with, and tastes even better in the couple of days after baking. It's not a sweet cake but the honey makes it rich enough to be filling, and it is indeed very good with an aromatic or herbal tea. I might share the recipe here sometime, but for now I'd say instead to buy this book.

Whilst life is still carrying on at a slower pace it's full of things you might want to eat, and it's a joy to read too. That's a great combination at any time, but I particularly appreciate it right now. It's not every cookery writer who gets better from book to book (though there are plenty who do) but Hercules is doing just that. There's a confidence and style about this one which I'm find particularly beguiling and reminds me of everything I love about Claudia Roden's writing. It really is a wonderful book.

*Our primary school was old enough to have a map with a good quarter of the world still shaded in red still hanging around, also outside toilets when I first started - which were freezing in winter, and spidery all year round. The old map was a curiosity in a sort of store room behind where we had art lessons, not one we were taught from.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Summer's Lease - Thom Eagle

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I haven't read the universally lauded 'First, Catch' yet - though I do now have a copy which is near the top of my to be read pile. 'Summer's Lease' was my personal celebration that my local Waterstone's is open again and I can once more buy or order books locally with ease.

It's all to easy with books bought like this to never quite get round to reading them (I have shelves full of things bought with giddy enthusiasm but not yet read to prove the point) but fortunately the combination of weather so hot that all I've been able to muster any enthusiasm for is reading and actually opening the book, meant that I read it over two days. Which is why I've now bought 'First, Catch' - because 'Summer's Lease' is brilliant.

I might have read it a week before but that the first few pages sent me off to bake bread (in those days when it was raining a lot and cold enough to make that attractive) which distracted me, but there's no force on earth that would have made turning the oven on seem like a good idea in my little flat this week. Reading those pages again did make me wish for a really good bakery in Leicester city centre though. An M&S baguette (which I'm not knocking) is as good as I can find locally, it's not always enough.

'Summer's Lease' does have recipes in it, but in a whilst we're on the subject you could try this sort of way that is almost incidental to the main point of the book, which is to talk about the why and how you can make something of summer's glut whilst cooking without heat. It's a mix of philosophy, notes, opinions, memories, observations, and experience, it's also a page turner.

There are four chapters which discuss breaking, salting, souring, and ageing. It was a couple of pages into breaking that I went off to make bread, overcome by a want to hear the crust crackle as it came out the oven. I hadn't thought of the importance of breaking things apart, or breaking them down, in cooking but now that I have I feel like everything has changed. Simple things like why it's better to tear some herbs apart rather than chop them, or the advantage in tearing apart ripe fruit or tomatoes for a salad - the better to interact with the dressing, now make a lot more sense.

I hadn't much though about the best time to add salt to a salad either, but testing the theory on some ripe tomatoes last night has convinced me that t does make a difference. It's also convinced me that I really need to be prepared to get my hands dirty more, especially handling meat. The way Eagle talks about it you can feel the changes in texture that tell you something is happening, and also when something is ready. Again, I'm not sure that I've ever really seen this explained so clearly before, although that's possibly because I've never particularly wanted to make something like a steak tartar so it just hasn't come up. It might be that I'm still not interested in steak tartar, anymore than I am in raw oysters (I've tried, but I just can't), but that doesn't diminish the lightbulb moment of understanding why things work together, and what they're doing.

The big thing here though is just what good company Thom Eagle is in this book. He encourages experimentation in the kitchen, but also cautions against the desire to try and make everything yourself (whilst acknowledging how seductive the lure to do so is). There are plenty of fermenting and curing projects which would be both distinctly antisocial, and eventually yield results that won't be as good as the product you can buy. Instead the focus is on things that there's a genuine benefit for the home cook in tackling, along with an admission that things will go wrong and turn out badly from time to time.

As fermenting becomes increasingly fashionable this is a particularly useful thing to read and understand - I would have been happy to see a brief discussion about whether it's yeast or mold expanded on, but at least I have somewhere to start researching from (something nasty happened to previous sourdough starters that I'd very much like to avoid in future). I really enjoyed reading this, and expect to refer to it a lot more in the future - my moment of enthusiasm in Waterstones served me well.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Woman in the Wardrobe - Peter Shaffer

'The Woman in the Wardrobe' is by the same Peter Shaffer responsible for Equus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun' and Amadeus - which surprised me a bit at first, but on reflection makes sense. 'The Woman in the Wardrobe' is from 1951 and feels like an homage to locked room mysteries, one that's quite happy to make fun of it's source of inspiration as well as show considerable affection for it.

There's no specific date suggested for when the action takes place, but the fact that the local hotel has been involved in a couple of seedy divorce cases gives it a 1930's kind of a feel (I've been googling divorce law and London gun shops for this - I really hope I don't end up on some sort of watch list - in 1937 cruelty, desertion, and insanity became grounds for divorce, so the need to prove adultery would not have been so pressing). Service revolvers are a plot feature too, but Wikipedia tells me that they're likely First World War ones.

I've looked all this up because part of the charm of the book is that it sits in the suggestion of a past rather than feeling like it's rooted in it's own contemporary world. A character like amateur sleuth Mr Verity, would always have to belong to an earlier time of larger characters than out own world (whenever it is) makes you feel are quite possible. 

Mr Verity is a wonderous creation, a fat man in his 60's, we first meet him carrying a mauve bathing suit heading for the sea. His hobby is collecting antique sculpture (with scant regard for export laws) and being right - the police respect him almost as much as they dislike him. 

The woman in the wardrobe is a waitress - Alice Burton. It's an awkward place for her to be found as on the other side of the door, in a room with locked doors and bolted windows, is the dead body of a blackmailer.

The whole book bowls along fueled by a mixture of wit and humour. There's definitely a theatrical edge to it, and the pace is such that you don't really have time to pick faults in the plot. The twist at the end is an absolute peach and very much of a piece with the general underlying humour of the book. It's a fun mystery that resolves itself convincingly enough but the real joy is in Shaffer's descriptions and details - especially on the subject of Mr Verity and Inspector Rambler. This is a tremendously enjoyable addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

House of Weeds - Poetry by Any Charlotte Kean, Illustrated by Jack Wallington

Sometime last year I made a resolution to read more contemporary poetry, and thanks to Isabelle Kenyon and Fly On the Wall Press I'm keeping that promise. She's sent me a few things I wouldn't otherwise ever have come across and 'House of Weeds' is one of them.

Now feels like a good time to be reading poetry - in this case because the individual poems, and even the whole collection, are short enough to be read even when current events keep sending my mind skittering off in other directions.

I particularly like the collaborative nature of this collection - each poem takes a weed and personifies it, with Jack Wallington's illustrations directing the reader to a particular image or association. They interpret Kean's words in quite a specific way, and I assume that she in turn directed Wallington about what she wanted.

Poetry with illustrations just like this isn't something I'm particularly familiar with and I've found the specificity of it interesting. The pictures impose a particular reading, without them there would be more room for interpretation. This way the author has much more control over the reader, and that in turn carries an increased challenge to agree or disagree with the combinations of word and image in front of you.

That challenge is further underlined by the personal nature of Kean's characterisation of her different weeds - some resonate with me, others are at odds with my sense of specific plants and the types of misfit she associates them with. It's the surprise that comes with being at odds that makes this collection compelling.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Between Worlds: Folktales of Britain & Ireland - Kevin Crossley-Holland

I think this is technically a children's book, Walker Books certainly specialises in publishing for children, and there's something about the illustrations that suggest that it's meant for younger readers, but there's nothing about it that isn't equally satisfying for the adult reader as well.

I had this on my wish list and a really wonderful friend (she has a habit of picking the books I most want off that list) bought it for me at Christmas - I've been enjoying it a few stories at a time ever since.

There's a quote on the back of the book from Philip Pullman that simply says "This great storyteller", and I can think of no better words to describe Kevin Crossley-Holland. What makes this collection so good (for young and old alike) is the way that he strips the stories back to their basics and then adds just the right amount of personality and poetry to make them not just come alive, but to sing for the reader.

Some are barely a couple of paragraphs long (Boo is particularly good - a nervous young woman alone in her fathers house secures doors and windows with all possible diligence, only to hear a voice say 'That's good - now we're locked in for the night' - how can a ghost story get better than that?) most run to a few pages, and there are some like Tam Lin which stretch a bit further.

There's everything here from tales of fairies, to ghost stories, taking in adventurous epics, love stories, and battles of wits along the way. Some feel ancient, others sound like they might be more modern in origin - but they're all good, and the long twilight of midsummer is my favourite time of year for stories like this. It's a time when anything sounds like it might be true and you can never be quite sure of what you're seeing. I can think of nothing better to read by the dying embers of a campfire (even if it's only at the bottom of the garden) at the end of a day. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Coming Out of Lockdown

It's been a difficult week, and as I'm writing this at 4.30 in the afternoon in the near dark with yet another thunder storm rattling around me (3 days of them now) it feels like nature is doing everything it can to add to the general sense of discombobulation.

Lockdown restrictions are lifting in a series of confusing ways across England, differently in Scotland (I really want to see my dad, I'm very homesick for Shetland, I'm hoping that it'll be possible to visit him before too long, but have no idea when it'll be deemed safe to do so) but even as things lift, what's obvious are the way things have changed.

The thing I'm currently finding hardest to deal with is he change in atmosphere around the city. The park which was a solace for most of the last 3 months isn't any longer. There's a group of up to 20, mostly middle aged men, who have taken over both sides of the path at the narrowest point in the park which is also the middle of it. They drink steadily throughout the day and though it would be unfair to say they're threatening, they are intimidating. Walking through them feels like an intrusion. Their music drowns out the birdsong, and whatever is rustling around in the bushes these days is larger than a rat. (They've been rained out by the storm, and it sounds like a few of them are having an argument under the archway that leads to the garages of this flat)

The city itself is busy again but people look like they're much more on edge - some carefully keeping 2 meters distance, others brushing past like you're invisible and ignoring the carefully laid out one way systems. Queues to get into the newly reopened shops are... long, I haven't really had this with the corner shop style supermarkets in town and after months of nearly empty streets it's proving hard to get used to. Some public toilets are open, but even between them and the deluges of rain we've had in the last couple of weeks there's still an overwhelming smell of urine in a lot of the alleyways too.

Now that I can go out I've never wanted to stay in more.

That edginess is even more obvious online, it's probably cowardly to stay quiet on some topics but equally now doesn't seem like a good time to try and speak out on sensitive subjects when you can't do it face to face. To try and keep myself from falling down rabbit holes on twitter I spent most of the last few days binge reading my way through Sarah J Maas 'Court of Thorns and Roses' series. It sounded promising, though I hadn't realised they're aimed at young adults.

I don't really have much to say about them - there are interesting ideas which could have been better
handled, the quality dips as the books go on, but it's possible the rest of the series might get better (I think there are more books planned). I wanted something fairly mindless that I could bury myself in, and I managed to do that, but I was also hoping I'd find another Naomi Novak (I'm thinking of Uprooted and Spinning Silver) or Katherine Arden, and didn't. They were neither good or bad enough to say much more about here. 

The relative break from everything did help me step back from all the crap though, and I do feel more able to deal with everything, and that's a better place to be in than I was last week. Now I just need the storms to blow over. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Root Stem Leaf Flower - Gill Meller

I'm struggling with the lack of nuance on social media this week and how much general frustration and anger is on display (I'm thinking specifically of a spat sparked by a picture of a colourful roundabout in Musselburgh that Chris Packham posted - it got jumped on because many of the species were non native). I'm absolutely not immune to it - as I worry more and more about what my job prospects are and see more friends facing redundancy and continued uncertainty - it's really hard not to lash out, or fall into pointless argument. I'm not always succeeding at avoiding these things but I'm going to try really hard today.

One thing that's not causing either anger of frustration is 'Root Stem Leaf Flower', I've been cooking from this book a lot over the last 10 days or so and it's every bit as good as first impressions made me hope it would be. So far the only downside is in being unable to share the things I'm making.

The recipes are arranged seasonally but because I'm buying my veg rather than growing them I'm not following it particularly seasonally. Availability is relatively limited at the moment, Leicester Market never quite closed through lockdown, but it did contract. It's slowly expanding again but the variety isn't there. That's down to a combination of wholesale prices being too high with vendors not feeling they can pass on the increases, and goods just not being there - the effects of the wet winter were already obvious in the price and quality of Lincolnshire produce back at the start of the year.

It's been harder to keep track of time through lockdown anyway, and realising that the fruit and veg I see for sale hasn't changed anything like as much as it would in other years has added to a general sense of stasis, and also a nagging unease. This post keeps veering off in ways I was not planning on; what I meant to say was that the wintery baked leeks and dill were delicious, and so were the autumnal roast peppers and shallots (although the leeks felt wintery, roast peppers are great whenever).

I think my favourite recipe so far has been the aubergines and roast tomatoes for everything though - it sums up all the things that I'm loving about this book. It's simple both in terms of the ingredient list and what you need to do with them. It's delicious - and economic which is always a bonus. And it stands out thanks to the addition of some crushed fennel seeds. I guess there's nothing especially revolutionary about fennel seeds, but they would never have been an obvious choice for me to use and they're the thing that turns a try of agreeably roasted veg into something memorable.

My favourite thing about the book is that it's absolutely full of recipes that do the same thing - either taking a vegetable that I don't normally get very excited about (I'm looking at you broccoli) and making it sound great, or something that I like (hello carrots) and turning them into total stars. The last time I felt this enthusiastic about brussels sprouts was reading Anja Dunk's 'Strudel, Noodles, and Dumplings'.

Despite my best intentions to reduce the amount of meat in my diet I haven't always done very well at finding recipes that inspire me, but this book really does. That it's come at a time when I'm spending more time in the kitchen and have re-found my enthusiasm for cooking feels like an absolute gift amongst the general wreckage of 2020. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Second Ishbel Shawl

I liked this pattern so much that after the orange version (which has gone to my sister) I started another one straight away. This time I went up a couple of needle sizes and added a repeat of the vine pattern as well as using a marginally thicker yarn.

The yarn is a cone of Jamieson and Smith's Shetland Heritage Naturals* in a dark grey. It's not as thick as the jumper weight or spindrift yarn that I'm used to, but slightly heavier than a lace weight. I think the yarn on the cone is oiled for machine use - it certainly doesn't feel quite the same as it does in balls, or have the particular sheepy smell about it (though I got that in spades when I washed it). Regardless it's really lovely to knit with.

It also really needs to be blocked before you can tell exactly what you've got. I spent almost the whole time I was knitting this worried that the change in needle size was going to ruin the definition of the pattern, even more because it's quite a fuzzy wool whilst you knit with it. Turns out I needn't have worried, it's dressed up beautifully with lovely crisp definition. The increased stitch size means the difference between the 'right' and 'wrong' sides in the stockinette stitch isn't so obvious either which I count as a bonus.

The Heritage yarn is still fine enough to make a really light shawl, which is perfect for the current weather we're having. It's soft, warm, and drapes really nicely. I used a spindrift in a blue colour for the last 3 rows and like the slight change in weight there as well.

I love this grey colour, which is perhaps the only problem with this shawl - shade wise it's close to a lot of the clothes I wear and so likely to get lost a bit - though calling that a problem is a bit of a stretch.

I'm quite tempted to start a third Ishbel, it's a satisfying pattern to knit, easy without being boring, and everything else I've queued up is going to demand more concentration than I feel like giving at the moment.

The pattern is by Ysolda and a good place for relative beginners to lace/openwork wanting to tackle something interesting.

*£33 for a 500g cone rather than £3.30 for a 25g ball is a bargain.

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Accidental Countryside - Stephen Moss

This was the last book I bought before bookshops locked down, it felt appropriate then, and even more so now - almost 3 months later. The subtitle is 'Hidden Havens for Britain's Wildlife' and I'd describe the book as a sort of manifesto for how we can make space for wildlife in relatively urban settings and the benefits that has all round.

It's very much preaching to the converted in my case, to the point that the only criticisms I have are that this is a book that could really do with an index, and if not an index at least a bibliography, or list of further reading.

What we do get is a comprehensive list of places (railway embankments, roadside verges, old gravel pits, and similar odds and ends of land) and some of the work that's being done with them to create wildlife reserves, or otherwise create space for nature. When it works it's brilliant, although sadly for a lot of these spaces their status is fairly unofficial and they can be easily lost to development.

There's also a persuasive argument for building on greenbelt rather than brownfield land. We have a fixed perception, particularly in England (the debate is somewhat different in Scotland, I don't know enough about Wales) that farmland and countryside are more or less synonymous, and that farmland is a good place for wildlife. The reality is that a lot of farmland is an industrialised monoculture that actively discourages natural diversity (messy, machine cut hedges which are full of gaps are an example of this that I particularly dislike).

It's also true that people in cities need more access to green spaces, so why not start putting them in cities where the people are? Quite apart from anything else it's a brilliant way to build an interest in wildlife, and help people learn how to be around it. The point is made a couple of times that a nature reserve is not the same thing as a park.

I'm lucky in Leicester in that the council have taken a light touch approach to the riverside and parks around me. They're maintained in such a way that they feel safe for human use, but with enough bits left untended to encourage a decent range of birds and insects. We also have Bradgate Park about 5 miles north of the city centre. It was once the home of Lady Jane Grey, and there's still a Mulberry tree in the grounds of the now ruined house that was meant to have been a gift from Raleigh. There's also belladonna growing in odd corners. It's another landscape which is expertly managed to provide space for people and wildlife (although perhaps more accurately deliberate rather than accidental countryside).

We could be luckier though, there's a biggish redevelopment of part of the riverside going on at the moment which is going to be housing, but could have been something else altogether that might have been a significant draw into the city.

Getting back to the book, Moss also looks at the impact humans have had on the landscape since ancient times, and how we've created, as well as destroyed, habitats. One of the first he discusses is the Broch on Mousa in Shetland. Storm Petrels use it's walls as a nesting sight, somewhere they're well protected from predating gulls. There's an irony here in that the Broch's ancient inhabitants very probably used these birds as candles (they're very oily, the details are not pretty and can't have smelt pleasant), their descendants certainly did well into the 19th century.  The way peregrines are colonising cities comes with no such associations and is something that I find deeply hopeful.

That sense of hope runs through 'The Accidental Countryside', over and over there are examples of things that can be done to make space for nature. They range from the simple and cost effective option of reducing how much verges are mown to new housing estates building in genuinely wildlife friendly measures (which can add value so it's not asking very much of developers to do more of it).

A consistent theme throughout lockdown is how important, and helpful, so many of us have found observing more of the nature on our doorsteps, which is why this book feels so relevant to this moment.

 Bradgate, where the dog couldn't fathom how laid back the ducks were (kept responsibly on a lead at all times). The deer in the bottom picture are in an area that people are kept out of. They have the whole of the park to roam, but there are sanctuary areas throughout too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt - Out in Paperback

The Seafarers, A Journey Among Birds is out in paperback tomorrow. I read this book at more less this time last year (early July to be specific) when I'd just come back from Shetland. It's a world that seems a lifetime ago; I had a job but would learn I was being made redundant a couple of weeks later, and was desperate for change. The changes 2020 have bought aren't really the sort that I'd have chosen, but relative isolation has had some upsides and at least one of those started with this book.

I liked bird watching as a kid, but it was a hobby that fell by the wayside when we moved to Leicestershire (the logistics were more complicated and other things came along) even if I never lost the basic interest. Reading 'The Seafarers' last summer was a gentle reminder of something I was missing, and since reading it I've been paying more attention not just to the wildlife around me, but also to the debates around it.

The increased awareness of the birdlife around me has been a gift, especially this spring. I think it's a gift that a lot of us have been grateful for, and I hope that it will feed into an increased consideration of, and protection for, wildlife generally - it just might. Though it's anybody's guess if that will be enough.

Anyway - if you missed The Seafarers first time round it's a wonderful book by a really gifted writer at the start of what promises to be a really interesting career. I lent my copy of 'The Seafarers' to my partner so it's locked down out of my reach at the moment and I can't do much more than read my original review of it here. If money wasn't such an issue I'd buy myself the papaerback to refer back to. It'd be useful right now as I've been reading Stephen Moss's 'The Accidental Countryside' and I'd like to do a better comparison of some of the thinking between them.

There are a few things that made this book so special that are worth repeating. The choice of species to focus on - many of them are birds that we take for granted a bit, but a focus on Razorbills rather than Puffins when you want to examine the plight of auks generally is arguably more illuminating.

It would also have been easy to make this a book that focused on mental health, a subject that's touched on, but which remains an underlying theme - it's most definitely not another book that promises redemption or recovery in wild places, though it does show that a shift in perspective or priorities can be really helpful. I know that the point that I really fell for this book was in the ways that Rutt acknowledges the privileges that open these spaces for him. Again, it's done lightly, and I only noticed it because it's absent from a lot of the other nature writing I've read.

Finally it's the sheer range of issues, ideas, and anecdotes that are covered that makes this book such a joy to read. It was one of my books of the year for good reasons.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Japanese Ghost Stories - Lafcadio Hearn

I saw something about this book last summer, bought it, and have been dipping in and out of it ever since. There's been a sort of synchronicity about Hearn for me since then - having never heard of him before his name has kept popping up, so much so that I'm wondering why I'd never heard of him before now.

He's a fascinating character in his own right; born on the Ionian island of Lefkada in 1850 his mother was Greek, his father Irish. The family moved back to Ireland but the marriage failed, in 1854 his mother returned home alone and Hearn was raised by his great aunt, his father was posted to India in 1857, remarried and Hearn never saw him again. Hearn is sent to school in England until his aunt is financially ruined (it's quite Dickensian at this point) and he lives in the East end of London in reduced circumstances for a couple of years. 

In 1869 he arrives in Cincinnati and embarks on a career in journalism. He illegally marries a former slave - which doesn't work out, but his career does and in 1890 he arrives in Japan with a vague understanding with his publisher that he would provide material for them. He breaks with them but remains in Japan until he dies from heart disease in 1904. He marries again there and has a family, a teaching career at a couple of universities as well as his writing, and takes Japanese citizenship. 

It's a full life by any standard. The stories he collected in Japan are seen as classics in their own right, infused with his own memories of Irish superstition from his early childhood. I don't know enough about either the Japanese tradition or Irish folklore to see where one ends and the other begins so I'm taking the word of Paul Murray who has edited and introduced this collection. 

The introduction, chronology, suggested further reading, and notes are all admirable though. I can be lazy about reading introductions but this one was more than worth the effort, not least because a lot of the stories have a vampiric element to them and there's an interesting discussion about how that sits with what's happening in European fiction at the same time. 

There's a mix of stories here, some belonging firmly to a horror genre, others not so much but still dealing with the supernatural. They're all concise and elegant, Hearn is also a master of the eerie. It's a rich and wonderful collection that I've been enjoying a lot recently. There's something about the long twilight of summer that really suits stories like this. When the half light makes it possible to half believe almost anything. Twilight also suits the underlying melancholy of some of these stories whilst thoroughly accentuating the horror of others.

It's an excellent collection, and a really well put together edition. I really recommend it.  

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Gill Meller's Root Stem Leaf Flower - a developing love story

The news is grim again, and I'm not ignoring it, but I feel quite strongly that the best thing I can say about what's happening, especially in America is to read, witness, and listen. 

Meanwhile the opportunity to take socially distanced walks with people, or sit in a park, has done my mental health a world of good. The flowers that a very kind friend bought with her yesterday were a truly tremendous gift, and all of it is a reminder that there are good people, and good things in the world.

Another one of those good things turns out to be Gill Meller's new book 'Root Stem Leaf Flower'. I loved 'Gather' and liked 'Time', which I'm now thinking I need to seriously revisit. It didn't make much anything like the impact that either of the other two have (Gather had the same really special feeling about it that Root Stem Leaf Flower has right from first look) but that might be as much to do with how low being in a difficult work situation made me feel for the last couple of years (redundancy has made a few things uncomfortably clear).

Regardless, I'd been looking forward to 'Root Stem Leaf Flower' enough to feel okay about spending money on it (anyone else feeling weird about doing this now? It seems to go deeper than just the joblessness with me at the moment.) but as it turned up just before a zoom catch up on Friday evening I didn't even think to open it until late on in the evening as bed time reading. It kept me up.

It was the very bookish equivalent of meeting someone for the first time, speaking for hours, and feeling that this was meant to be. (It happens a lot more with books than it does people). The first indication that this is going to be serious came with the picture of some borage - I hadn't even reached the title page. I checked and Andrew Montgomery has done the photography for all 3 of Meller's books. It's obvious with the food shots and the portraits of Meller, and it's always nice work; the dishes look good and there's a sense that they belong to someone's home and garden (grass is a common background). Here though there's an image for each sub section, and they are beautiful. 

I'm not normally a fan of what I think of excess photography in cookbooks, until now my only real exception has been for Regula Ysewijn's books, and that's partly been because they're her images with her food, and the whole package becomes something more than its parts. Anyway, I'm happy to have my prejudices shattered, and these pictures make me feel like I'm looking at something as prosaically every day as an onion as if it's for the first time, and something I need to have immediately. Which is exciting, and I really don't think it's just a case of lockdown fatigue.

It's a vegetarian book, a category that I continue to but with good intentions but quite often not much follow through, but again I'm reading these recipes and not only thinking I want to eat them, but for once not thinking of these things as side dishes. There are also ideas that I'm going to apply to meat dishes - tonight's dinner was a sort of lasagne with sliced courgette rather than pasta, I'll be making the properly vegetarian version asap, but tonight I had other things that needed using. The courgette slices were a revelation.

There will be a proper review of this book soon, but right now it's new love and I couldn't wait to shout about it. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Surfeit of Suspects - George Bellairs

I'm quite tempted to have a proper binge on British Library Crime Classics - and really there's nothing to stop me apart from a knitting project, and it's getting a bit to hot to eye that with any real enthusiasm.

The first Bellairs I read from this series was 'Death of a Busybody' (3 years ago on holiday in Shetland - it feels like a carefree lifetime ago, we tried to swim in the sea, but it was breath stoppingly cold). I remember liking the book in a general sort of way, but not more than that. 'Surfeit of Suspects' is in a different league for me, largely because it deals with dodgy post war property speculation.

My grandfather did pretty well out of the post war building boom, he started off building a couple of houses with a mate then getting retrospective planning permission for them and went on from there. He was also adept at spotting land that would be a good investment for future building plots, and was happy to hold onto it for decades until it's time came. He had a host of stories about dodgy deals, and underhand doings from his time in the trade.*

The murder in 'Surfeit of Suspects' isn't particularly interesting or mysterious. There's an explosion at the Excelsior Joinery Company in Evingden one winters night. It kills 3 of the company directors, 2 of them seem to have been fairly harmless older men that nobody could have had a problem with, the 3rd appears to have been the intended target.

What is interesting is the setting and the shenanigan's which are revealed. Evingden is turning into a satellite town for London. Development is happening at a fast and furious pace and the whole place is being transformed at an alarming rate. There are a handful of business men who seem to have quite a lot more money than they ought to, and it's not to hard to work out that their dealings haven't been entirely straight.

I see from the back blurb that George Bellairs was the pen name of Harold Blundell, who was a prominent banker and philanthropist from Manchester. It seems likely to me that he was more than familiar with (and rightly disapproving of) the sharp practices and downright illegality of the business practices he describes here. There's also a sense of dismay at the pace of change that's coming to the high streets of towns like Evingden, and downright dislike for the stockbroker Tudor monstrosities of his nouveau riche.

There's also an interesting section where Inspector Littlejohn heads off to interview some old money. The taste it displays might be impeccable, but there's still a sense of distaste for those who have (quite legitimately) sold up in good time and can live in comfort, whilst the poor saps who bought up are struggling with a failing and outdated business.

You can treat at this book as a nostalgic look at an England that's changing. It was published in 1964 and Martin Edwards in his introduction suggests it looks back to an earlier time, feels like it could be inhabiting an earlier time, but I don't quite agree with this. To me it seems very much a book of the 1960's. Bellairs might not view what's happening in town centres up and down the country with any particular enthusiasm, but the kind of development he describes is so very much part of its era and no other. You can see the results of it in shabby small town high streets everywhere, looking every bit of their age now that change has caught up with them again and we all shop online.

I liked this one a lot.


*I don't want to make him sound like a crook, but it would probably be accurate to say he took a Dominic Cummings approach to rules at a time, and in a business, where that wasn't frowned on in the way it would be now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Mary Prior's Russian Rhubarb Cake

Thanks to the increasingly vague lockdown/isolation rules I've finally seen D (for the first time since the 14th of March) - we went for a walk in the park, no hugging, but I gave him his birthday kep and he gave me some rhubarb.

It's been one of the things I've really missed through lockdown, I don't know why* this particularly - I don't generally eat a lot of it, but nowhere near me has sold it. The modest handful of sticks I got where a bit on the dry side so there was no time to waste in cooking them so I headed straight for Mary Prior's 'Rhubarbaria' book.

Mary Prior was a formidable historian who I vaguely remember meeting once or twice as her daughter was a close neighbour in Shetland. Ann died, much to young from cancer, a few years ago. She was a birder, writer, traveller, and fabulous cook. She contributed quite a few recipes to this book, opening it is like meeting an old friend albeit in far to fleeting way.

After a bit of searching I settled on the Russian Rhubarb cake that Mary had lifted from George and Cecilia Scurfield's 'Home-made Cakes and Biscuits' from 1963. They sound like a remarkable couple. There's also an old fashioned lack of precision about this recipe, and Mary suggest adding orange to it, so I felt entirely at liberty to make my own changes to it as well.

This started with halving the quantities, the original cake would have been huge and was meant to be cooked in a large baking tray. My smaller version went into an 8 inch round tin which seems about right. The oven temperature 200C, 400F, or Gas 6, seemed suspiciously high and the cooking time of 45 minutes quite long - in my fan oven it cooked well at 170c for 30 minutes, but both the quantity and the juiciness of the rhubarb would probably change this.

I also mixed the flour with semolina to give a little bit more texture to the crumb, and to soak up some of the liquid I might normally expect from rhubarb. I don't know if there's anything specifically Russian about this cake, but it's easy to throw together, has a pleasing tartness to it, and still slightly warm with a bit of cream is positively smart.

Line your cake tin and turn the oven on, then you want 1 ounce of semolina and 5 ounces of self raising flour (having not used self raising flour for a long time I'm really enjoying having it back in my kitchen), 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder, 4.5 ounces of castor sugar, 4.5 ounces of softened butter, 2 eggs, and the grated rind of an orange. Put all of these in a bowl and beat for a couple of minutes. Spread the mix into the cake tin.

Mary says use 9 sticks of rhubarb, enough for 3 cups, for her large version, which is fine if you're growing the stuff, unhelpful for a shopping list. I had about 4 skinny sticks which filled a cup with some left over. Stupidly I forgot to weigh it, but given it's a fairly rustic cake a little more or less isn't going to matter very much.

Having eyed up the available rhubarb, chop into smallish slices, top the cake taking care to make sure that not to much of it ends up in the middle, and then sprinkle generously with demerara sugar. Cook it, and then allow to cool before eating.

Rhubarbaria is available from Prospect Books and other retailers, it's well worth having if you like rhubarb.

*It is possible that it's because I started a Shetland Soap Company Rhubarb and Rose scented soap, called Havera, which actually smells like rhubarb and roses. With all the hand washing it's maybe not surprising I keep thinking of rhubarb.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Ishbel Shawl - A Knitting Post

This governments ability to fill me with paralysing anger, dismay, and fear for the future is quite something. It's certainly more than enough to scupper any chance of writing something coherent about Lafcadio Hearn's 'Japanese Ghost Stories', to let me concentrate on a book, or even to do much on my current knitting project which demands solid concentration. So another knitting post it is.

I've bought quite a few patterns over the lockdown period. It's a small thing that I can do to support designers and to cheer myself up with a bit of inspiration. It's helping me get my yarn stash back under control too - so it's all good.

The Ishbel is a Ysolda Teague design, the second shawl/scarf of hers I've made, and there are a few others that I have an eye on. Her instructions are clear, and the couple that I've made so far have been easy going knits that create really pleasing results. They're perfect for just past the basics knitters who wants to make something that looks really impressive, and the right combination of undemanding but interesting for me (not that far beyond the basics).

This pattern comes with instructions for a couple of sizes, doesn't use a huge amount of yarn - the patterns says 550m of lace or fingering (4 ply) weight for the larger size. There's no reason not to add a few more repeats of the lace pattern for a really large shawl, but I like the official 'Large' size as a handy thing to throw over your shoulders or around your neck. I used Jamieson's of Shetland Ultra* lace weight in Sunburst and Petunia and have something that's both really light and quite warming. It'd work well as a scarf on a cold day, but is elegant enough to be a smarter accessory when wanted.


*I think it used rather less than 55m, I have more than enough yarn left to make matching mitts - Anne Eunson's Lunna Mitts might work well

Friday, May 22, 2020

A Fair Isle Friday Round Up

It's the start of a bank holiday weekend, which never meant much to me in the past because bank holidays are not a feature of life in retail, and doesn't mean much now because of whatever stage of lockdown this is. I think it might mean something to my neighbour because he's hammering something with gusto and thanks to the interesting examples of flanking transmission throughout our building it sounds and feels like he's hammering next to me, not 5 rooms and a whole lot of walls back.

Less noisy bank holiday inspiration has been all over Instagram today as knitting projects have been popping up all over my feed (I've seen some beauties), and there's been some other good knitting based news over the last couple of days too.

Knitting has really helped me sit out this lockdown home alone. It keeps me busy, makes me feel like I've done something productive, and occupies enough of my mind to stop me brooding. It's also been something I've managed to concentrate on when nothing else would hold my attention for very long at all. Thank god for hobbies.

My knitting interests are almost exclusively based around Fair Isle and Shetland lace knitting. I love doing the colour work, and am fascinated by the lace. I can't say that any of this comes particularly naturally to me, I'm a clumsy, slow, knitter -  but I think that only improves the satisfaction when I crack something, and I really value the link to Shetland that using local wool and exploring local knitting traditions gives me.

The first bit of good news is that although Shetland Wool Week has been cancelled, the annual will still be produced. The annuals have been an excellent mix of patterns and essays. They tend to include something for everyone from relative beginners to really competent knitters and are an excellent introduction to a range of designers working in Shetland or closely connected to it. Their website is here and is well worth a look. It's also really worth signing up to the newsletter - it isn't junk mail, and the one I got yesterday had recipes, interviews, some lovely images, and links to other things worth exploring (as well as the good news about the annual).

The Promote Shetland site is more general - and worth following on Instagram, there's also a draw to win £100 worth of Uradale organic yarn that's open to the 1st of June and has to be worth a punt.

Misa Hay who is easily one of the most energetic and creative people I've ever met has announced that she's launching a journal which is more good news for me. It will feature patterns, recipes, walks, stories, and more. It's something I'm really looking forward to seeing. You can follow her on Instagram at Shetland Wool Adventures and My Shetland Garden which I'd recommend just for the pictures, never mind all the other inspiration.

On the subject of Newsletters I'd also recommend Gudrun Johnston's Shetland Trader (her Insta is here). She's brilliant, and I particularly like the way she references her Shetland heritage in a contemporary way. Her mother was a really distinctive designer working in Shetland in the 70s and Gudrun's next book (sadly delayed) is going to have updated versions of some of her mothers designs. This again is really exciting stuff - so much so that I'm even including a picture of myself aged about 3 in a Shetland Trader dress.

Hazell Tindell, who is the world's fastest knitter, is also worth following on Instagram (this list could go on and on), she's really good at showing the process she uses to design things, and talks about the occasional mistakes and miss steps she makes along the way which I find really interesting.

Finally for this round up, I've pre ordered Mati Ventrillon's 'Knitting From Fair Isle' due out in September. This would originally have coincided with wool week and I'm hoping publication doesn't get pushed back. Ventrillon's colour and pattern combinations were copied by Chanel a few years ago (who quickly apologised and credited her). Again her work is both traditional and contemporary as well as distinctive so this book should be a treat. Details here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Tales of the Tattooed, an Anthology of Ink - edited by John Miller

I've been curious about this collection since I first saw it announced, but spider's give me the creeps - even on book covers, so this one got covered by other books quite quickly and has languished for weeks more than it might have done if I wasn't such an arachnophobe. 

Incidentally, the story that inspires the cover is probably the creepiest in the book even if you don't mind spiders, the creepiness derived from a sadistic eroticism which I found queasily disquieting. Otherwise what makes the tales weird is simply the presence of tattoos and the implications they bring.

I think I was vaguely aware that there had been a Victorian high society vogue for tattoos (it didn't surprise me to read about it anyway) amongst women as well as men, but there are a few stories that touch on this. There are more that pick up the links between tattoos and people living on the margins of society - sailors who come and go, criminal gangs, and secret society's. There's also a fascination with the Japanese tradition of tattooing, and Pacific island traditions.

Miller takes care to flag the problematic nature of how Maori tattoos are appropriated in 'The Green Phial' from 1884 both in the general introduction, and the individual story introduction - which is another plus for this collection. The introduction is really interesting, more than worth reading. It raises a host of interesting questions about how we think about, and have thought about, tattoos as well as providing some suggestions for further reading. The individual introductions are excellent for context, and both together make this much more than just an amusing collection of stories.

If amusement is what you're after though there are some gems here - W. W. Jacobs 'A Marked Man' is a particular favourite. I can't describe it without spoiling it, but there's drink, and sailors, and a scam that goes wrong, and it's a delight. There's a Saki story too, which is always a treat, and in this case forms a nice pair with a Roald Dahl effort which is the nicely macabre note the book ends with. 

My absolute favourite story would be Albert Payson Terhune's 'Branded'. In it a truly unpleasant man has who bullies the wife he married for her money (only to discover she doesn't have any) has taken a violent dislike to his prospective sister in law because she doesn't have any money either. He tries to catch her in an indiscretion but is foiled on every front by an excellent display of female solidarity.

The best thing about this book for me though was that it tugged at my imagination in a way that little else has over the last few weeks, and it was so good to feel that excitement again. The Tales of the Weird series has been good from the start ('Lost in a Pyramid' is a collection of stone cold genius) and Tales of the Tattooed is now firmly one of my favourites within it. 

It also looks like you can get a copy with sprayed edged from The British Library Shop which is frankly the icing on the cake.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia - Piero Chiara

Translated by Jill Foulston

It took me a few pages to get into The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, it was first published in 1970, and if the past is a foreign country this 1970 felt further away than the Milan of the 1930's from 'The Mystery of The Three Orchids'. I thought at first it was because the book was in translation that it initially felt stilted, but as I got into it I realised it was more to do with the slang of the era.

Not that slang is quite the right word, but there's the definite feel of a classic Martini or Cinzano advert about some of the background details. They're balanced against the police man going home for his lunch time spaghetti every day - and although this may still be the custom in well to do Italian suburban towns, that too carries a sense of a different time.

Detective Sciancalepre is minding his own business when his friend, the prominent criminal lawyer, Esengrini comes to see him, saying that his wife has run away. Signora Giulia is quite a bit younger than her husband, beautiful, and in the habit of visiting her daughter at her school in Milan every Thursday. This time she's left with her room in a mess, clothes and jewelry gone.

Esengrini reveals without much visible sign of upset that he's had his wife followed and has reason to believe she's having an affair. He wants her retrieved so that they can try to rebuild their marriage. The details here make it clear that the expectations, and law, in 1970's Catholic Italy around marriage are unfamiliar to me. Sciancalepre's investigations come to a dead end though, which surprises him. His expectation is that a woman leaving her husband and child will always get back in touch with some friend to discover what the fall out has been, and Signora Giulia does not.

There's also a growing coolness between Sciancalepre and Esengrini, and between Esengrini and his daughter who will inherit the sizable house when she comes of age. Years pass, and then suddenly a clue to what happened to Signora Giulia emerges - but who is responsible for what happened, and will it ever be possible for Sciancalepre to prove his suspicions?

This is a clever story that wrong footed me in a couple of places - a relationship that looked like it might be really seedy turns out not to be, and there's plenty of the ambiguity that I love in a mystery like this. Sciancalepre is an unexpectedly appealing character - steady, methodical, intelligent, uncomplicated, and I really liked the final twist.

From the moment I got that mental image of a Martini ad the whole thing came alive for me in a really vivid way too. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Listening Walls - Margaret Miller

Arguably the biggest mystery about Margaret Miller is how she disappeared from view for so long  (it's no mystery why Pushkin are republishing her). She is amazingly good and 'The Listening Walls' is a great example of all the reasons why.

Wilma Wyatt and Amy Kellogg are on holiday in Mexico City. Wilma is coming out of a divorce and if she isn't already having one is definitely on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Amy seems to be the long suffering friend who's come to keep her company, but there are unsettling undercurrents between the two women.

Amy is sharper than she appears to Wilma, who can't stop taunting her, and any chance of the holiday being a success looks destined to fail after a confrontation with a drunk Wilma after Amy finds she's bought an expensive present for her husband. All of this is overheard by Consuela, a maid in the hotel who's eavesdropping from a broom closet.

Before long Wilma is dead on the pavement after a fall (or was it a push) from the hotel balcony, Amy is in hospital with a head wound, and nobody can quite agree on what happened. Then somewhere between Mexico City and San Francisco, Amy disappears. Her brother, Gill, suspects her husband, Rupert of doing away with her and calls in private detective Elmer Dodd.

The real mystery at the centre of this book is Amy. Who is she? On the surface she seems to be an ordinary enough well to do woman, in a conventional marriage that despite Wilma's unexpected present appears sound enough. On the other hand there's a strange relationship with her older brother, Gill. He sounds like a controlling influence in her life, and maybe one that she resents, but there's something else there as well which it isn't easy to define.

Helene, Gill's wife, has a real antipathy towards Amy, and it's never entirely clear if she even fully understands why, but it's her attitude that makes the reader uneasily aware that they might be reaching for the wrong conclusions. 

Dodd solves the mystery he was hired to unravel, and Miller answers most of the questions she's posed in a half expected final twist, but in such a way that there's still uncertainty - the games are definitely not played out. I have a couple more Margaret Miller's to read which I am very much looking forward to. As she was the author of 27 books I'm also very hopeful that more will come back into print. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Lockdown Thoughts

After Sundays mini meltdown, and a frustrating phone appointment with the sports injury clinic on Monday* I've restored some equilibrium and am hoping to find a more productive routine to get me through the next few weeks.

It's been a source of personal irritation that I've not read more (I could have cracked on with Zola in earnest, got through the remaining Palliser novels, tackled some Dumas - but no). It seems like such a wasted opportunity to have had all this blank time and not to have done some of that reading. Todays resolution is to forget about the nagging guilt, forget about stacking up the books I think I should be reading, and just find things I'll enjoy.  Which will possibly be more Pushkin Vertigo's as I'm having fun with those.

Part of what's making this time hard for me is not having a job. I'm watching my savings diminish whilst there's a very limited chance of finding work, and whilst the money is holding out pretty well, the prospects for the job market improving any time soon are not encouraging. Trying not to worry about it to much is taking a lot of energy.

So the obvious thing to talk about next is spending money. Lockdown has made it easy not to spend much. All those cancelled hospital appointments alone have saved me a generous amount on bus tickets. There have been no coffees out, or impulse buys in charity shops, never mind in Waterstones, and even food shopping in the little local supermarkets has been limited in scope.

With all that in mind some thoughtful online shopping has felt appropriate. As far as possible I've tried to avoid amazon (though they have been useful for sending birthday presents) but I did order a couple of books directly from Greyladies books. Independent publishers and bookshops are having a hell of a time and right now it seems important to support them even if it's in a very limited kind of way.

One of the things I did when lockdown looked imminent was stock up on coffee from my preferred local roasters. This normally feels like an indulgence, and it is, but I rarely have more than one cup of coffee a day and it's been such a pleasure that it felt totally reasonable to order a selection of loose leaf tea (from here). These are the luxuries that get me through the day.

I've also made a point of buying a few knitting patterns. For a lot of designers the teaching work that is the main part of their income has disappeared and there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of support for the self employed. The patterns I've bought have cost about what those bus fares to the hospital would have done. It feels like money better spent. So far I've resisted the lure of more yarn because I already have a chest of drawers full and try as I might I can think of no justification to get more.

How's everybody else coping, and what are the little things that get you through the day?

*I have an ongoing problem with a ripped tendon in my foot, had just got to the point where I had every possible base covered regarding appointments for it, and then got them all cancelled or postponed. Currently it's not a huge problem so I'm not particularly put out by this, but a conversation with a doctor who seemed unwilling to accept that lockdown would affect the amount of exercise I could get was frustrating. She kept asking if time was the reason I wasn't walking further - in that we weren't meant to be exercising for more than an hour once a day until this weekend, then yes it was. Her last word was that the rules had been changed (that day) mine was to ask if she'd been out because it was bloody freezing, and the 40 minute circuit of a much busier city centre had been more than enough for both nerves and comfort.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Mystery of the Three Orchids - Augusto De Angelis - translated by Jill Foulston

I was going to post about this book yesterday, but for the first time in this lockdown felt so overset (a mix of anger, sadness, and apprehension) by Boris Johnson's address to the nation that all I managed to do was scroll through twitter and take comfort in not being the only person to feel like this. I'm still angry and apprehensive but at least managed to direct some of that energy towards rearranging all the furniture in my sitting room which if nothing else looks productive.

It's not the sense of making up a plan as we go along that bothers me, this is new, it's the only sort of plan that we can make. It's the really poor communication, the lack of clarity, and the feeling that priorities are back to front. If it's safe to go to work it should be safe to see family members who don't need to shield. If it's not safe to see family (albeit with precautions in place) how can it be safe to go back to work?

None of which has anything to do with 'The Mystery of the Three Orchids'. My backlog of Pushkin Vertigo titles are proving good company at the moment and this one, first published in Italy in 1942 but set in the 1930's fits nicely with my love of golden age crime.

It's set in a Milan fashion house and is full of intriguing details about how pre war couture worked. The fashion houses owner is Cristiana O'Brien who it turns out has a lot to hide, and hide from. In the middle of a show for invited guests only she sees an unexpected face, and when she removes herself to her bedroom (she lives on site) her day goes from bad to worse when she finds a dead body on her bed.

After this the bodies start to pile up, there are as good a set of red herrings as you might reasonably expect to find, and everybody is increasingly on edge. The eventual reveal makes sense - with hindsight it couldn't really have been anybody else - and there are clues along the way to hint the reader in the right direction.

There's a moral ambiguity about Cristiana (not, it turns out, her real name) and two of the victims that I think would be unusual in British golden age crime, that Inspector De Vincenzi seems entirely unconcerned by. The crime he's called in to investigate is murder, and any casual blackmailing, or notorious American bank robbers that cross his path are irrelevant to him. It makes the laying of red herrings a lot easier and gives the characters a depth they might otherwise lack.

Augusto De Angelis sounds interesting, he wrote a series of detective novels through the 30s, at least a couple more of which have been published by Pushkin, which made his name. He was also a journalist. He was not popular with Italy's fascist government which led to him being imprisoned during the war. A beating administered by a fascist activist caused a fatal injury, he died in 1944.

Friday, May 8, 2020

V E Day

I've been feeling fairly ambivalent about VE day commemorations, partly I think because decades in retail made me cynical about events framed as sales opportunities. Partly because I'm terrible at joining in with things, and finally because I've reached the point of lockdown where emotions are precarious and it doesn't take much to unbalance me. Speaking to my mother this morning I know she's in the same state - she wanted to make scones for this afternoon but was afraid that if they didn't rise properly she'd end up in tears.

Both my grandfathers were in the army during the second World War, my mothers father (Tom) was overseas for VE day (his accounts of his war varied considerably, but he ended up in Germany where he met my grandmother, at this point his war was not over). My other grandfather (Peter) had back problems so his war was spent in Britain, as an assistant camp commandant at Woolwich Arsenal. In the 1995 he wrote his memoires (they're mostly about hunting and horses) which include extracts from his wartime diaries. My Grandmother spent the war near Oakham with 5 young children, including my father and his twin brother who were born in 1943.

Neither men spoke much about their war time experiences, though from the little Grandad Tom said about it nobody looked good or sounded heroic. The big achievements in his life came later. He did very well out of the post war building boom, and was involved in motor racing, it's these things that defined him for us. He wasn't a particularly nice, or good, man (he had plenty of charisma though and his drive to achieve success was phenomenal). I can't say how much he was shaped by what he went through in the War, but I suppose it must have left its mark.

On the whole Peter seems to have had a comparatively easy war - his diaries are still full of hunting, race meetings, and horse shows in which he participated. I don't remember him talking much about it either, so I re read the relevant chapters of his memoir this morning and it seems worth quoting what he's included for the week running up to VE day.

30th April. Hitler reported dead.

2nd May. Berlin reported captured by the Russians. All good news.

3rd May 45. Hamburg falls and is declared open city. Pen and Nanny and children move to Chacombe. I have to get digs locally until my release from the Army. Manage to get down for week-ends. War news good. Germans surrendered unconditionally to Field Marshal Montgomery on all fronts.

7th May. Go down to Newmarket and meet Dick (his brother who was overseas) in local camp. Very uncomfortable in Nissan huts, but he seems well. We go to 1000 Guineas; good meeting, make a bit on day. Take Dick out to dinner in Newmarket, very crowded.

8th May. Winston Churchill announces officially that Peace has been declared and that the cease fire has been sounded.
Well, the War ended after so much suffering, loss of life and property. Now we have to start again; most difficult for some. Great celebrations in London and elsewhere, but I prefer to keep quiet and ponder on all that has been going on, and to feel sorry for those who have lost everything. We have been lucky. My next door neighbour came in and had a drink. He had lost a son, which he felt very much.

On the 20th of October he knows his discharge papers are imminent, he complains about the stinginess of the £105 he's paid for services rendered over the previous 5 years, which he describes as 5 lost years.

I'd forgotten the details of this section, and was surprised by how low key he was - I had expected something else, but his attitude makes sense. Stuck somewhere between knowing he should be grateful for relative luck, and sorrow over lost friends, hopes, and plans. It's just how I feel 75 years later.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Jane Grigson's English Food and Pancakes

It's quite hard to talk about lockdown because the one thing I'm realising more clearly by the day is that I don't know 2 people who are having the same experience. What does seem clear is that nerves and tempers are becoming more frayed, making it all to easy to unintentionally piss people off or upset them.

For me the last 7 weeks have been a sort of golden bubble of sun, and peace, but there's a nagging anxiety about what the future is going to be and how I'm going to find a job which is increasingly hard to avoid. I want lockdown to ease enough so that I can see at least a couple of people (actual social interactions have mostly been shouting across to strangers about how beautiful their dogs are) and start finding a new normal but after all this time alone I'm not sure how easy that's going to be.

I wish I could congratulate myself on how productively I've used this rare opportunity to have weeks of time with no particular responsibilities - but I've spent a lot of time looking longingly out of the window instead. The one thing I have really done though is start cooking properly again and after a decade of fitting meals around a not very accommodating work rota that is something I can quietly celebrate.

I love cooking, but it had become a chore when I didn't get home until around 9 at night and had to be back at work for 8am the next day. As food is currently a source of real excitement in my day all of that joy in cooking has come back in spades. Not being able to buy exactly what I want when I want it has made me much more adventurous as well. Cookbooks are no longer gathering dust and what the hell, I might as well celebrate the positives where I can find them.

When I was looking up different recipes trying to trace the difference between drop scones and pancakes I had a good look through Jane Grigson. I didn't initially expect to find much, but she's a joy to read and it turned out she did have things to say about pancakes. Both of the recipes she gave are high on my list of things to do when I can cook for other people again. They are 'Pancakes for the Rich' and 'Harvest Pancakes for the Poor'.

Grigson explains that these kind of recipes are still commonplace in France, but seem to have more or less disappeared from English cooking. She also differentiates them by pointing out that in France the rich mans pancakes would be a Sunday treat, the harvest pancakes an everyday family dish.

Pancakes for the rich are a crepe like affair made with 125g of butter, 300ml of single cream, 90g of flour, 1 large egg, 2 tablespoons of brown sherry (probably amontillado or oloroso) 1/2 a grated nutmeg, and 1 teaspoon of either rose water or orange flower water. Melt the butter over a low heat, add to the cream, and with remaining ingredients make a pancake batter. Cook in your preferred pancake pan keeping them nice and thin.

Harvest pancakes call for 150g of flour, 300ml of milk or mild ale, a medium egg, 1/2 a teaspoon of powdered ginger, and lard to grease the pan. Mix the flour to a batter with the milk or ale and the egg, flavour with ginger, and fry in lard in a heavy pan. Try out a small pancake first to see if the consistency is good adding more liquid if it's to thick. Chopped apple was sometimes added to enliven the pancakes.

The result should apparently be quite solid and heavy, and were originally reckoned as a substitute for both bread and meat. Grigson says they make an excellent picnic food particularly if you wrap them around a fried sausage or a finger length of pate, or cream cheese with chives. If you have a griddle suitable for outside cooking they also sound like a great thing to cook on a beach or over a campfire (which is something else to look forward to).

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Executioner Weeps - Frederic Dard

I've amassed a reasonable collection of Pushkin's Vertigo series, and as time has gone on the feel of the series has become increasingly eclectic (it's an interesting mix that puts Dard in the same series as Baroness Orczy) but has in my view remained consistently good across the books I've read.

I'm not entirely sure exactly what I want to be reading right now so until that becomes a bit clearer it seems like as good a time as any to get through some novellas and try a few different things. I kind of wish I hadn't started with Dard though. I checked half way through and see that this was originally published in 1956 so it would have been perfect for Simon and Kaggsy's next book club.

I also found myself slightly impatient with the very male point of view in 'The Executioner Weeps', and a claustrophobic atmosphere which might otherwise have created an appealing tension felt a bit close to home in the middle of a lockdown. The book opens with an artist (Daniel) driving back from Barcelona to his lodgings along the coast. He hits a young woman when she steps in front of his car, the collision smashes her violin case and leaves her alive but unconscious.

Daniel decides to take her back to the hostel he's staying in rather than to Barcelona, and once back the owner is unwilling to call the police (this is after all Franco's Spain) feeling that the morning will be more than soon enough. The girl turns out to be physically fine but her memory has gone. She has no papers, nothing but the clothes she's wearing, but as she instinctively answers in accentless French, Daniel recognises her as a country woman.

She is also very beautiful, and he assumes kind, which is all he thinks is necessary in a woman. He reports her to the relevant authorities, but as he seems happy to pay her way nobody is very interested and they spend an idyllic couple of weeks falling in love, the only sense of disquiet coming from Daniel's attempts to paint Marianne (flashes keep coming back) where he picks up a sly look on the canvas that he's blind to in the woman.

Eventually it becomes clear that this idyll can't continue indefinitely though and Daniel try's to find out a bit more about this woman whilst trying to get her some papers. He's not anxious for Marianne to remember more about her own past though because he's found his perfect blank canvas and perfect woman. He can project whatever he wants on to her, and in turn she makes him a new man too. It makes what he eventually discovers impossibly hard for him to reconcile with the image he's created and everything spirals quickly out of control.

I've enjoyed Dard's difficult characters in the past, but whilst I can admire what he's done here there's something quite troubling about it. Marianne is such a blank that I found it hard to follow Daniel's continued obsession with her as the book ends. That his obsession does continue suggests that his infatuation is based entirely on how her blankness allows him to see himself. It's bleak. It was also compelling, and generally I'd recommend picking up any of the Dard's in this series even if this wasn't the ideal moment for me to read this one.

Monday, May 4, 2020

A Knitting Post - Keps

I've been knitting a lot this year (a lot for me anyway, I'm still a slow knitter). It helps me think in something like the same way that going for a walk used to, and both feel like something of an achievement in their own right. Not that time to think is short at the moment, and as currently thinking is turning to worrying if anything I could do with less encouragement to do it.

On the upside I've been having a mini binge on Pushkin's Vertigo series which has been a slightly bloodthirsty treat, and the knitting does still feel like an achievement. If nothing else it's a tangible measure of time passing and a reminder of what I was listening to, reading, thinking about, whilst I knitted it.

Both of these keps coincided with reading first 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge' and secondly 'Eagle Country' which in turn made me think about colour differently and want to try and catch something of the landscapes that both books made me think of. The best part of any smallish Fair Isle project is the opportunity it gives to explore how colours and patterns work together, and as colour is till the thing I find hardest about Fair Isle there's still a lot to learn.

For the darker kep I also had a Mick Manning postcard of a Sea Eagle that I tried to match the colours from. This was helpful in terms of imposing a certain amount of discipline, and also because someone else had already done the hard work for me (which was nice). It's an approach I think I'll use again, there are some of Ellie Duncan's photographs I'd really like to borrow a palate from (see her instagram here).

The kep pattern is Anne Sinclair's from The Fair Isle Fisherman's Kep group (find it on Facebook here). The pattern costs £10 which goes towards the upkeep of the local museum and the group is fantastic. The discussion is limited to just Keps based on Anne's instructions (these provide a template to work from with some traditional motifs, but what you finally knit is very much up to you). As you have the whole range from those who have never tried knitting Fair Isle to super experienced knitters there are no stupid questions, and lots of people happy to give advice and guidance.

I'm really happy with both of these, one of them is intended for my partner - which one is to be his choice, so there may be one going spare...