Thursday, April 30, 2020


There seems to have been quite a bit of enthusiasm for the scaled down scone recipe so I'm back with a bit less scaled down pancake recipe. Pre lockdown I never really bothered with pancakes at breakfast, and when I did it was the thin sort around pancake day.

For some reason I assumed the thick sort would be a pain to make first thing, but they're not, and are now a weekend staple (not that the day makes much difference right now, there's adequate time every morning). What I did make from time were drop scones (also known as scotch pancakes, or griddle cakes and probably by a whole lot of other names too) but always as an afternoon thing. 

After a bit of research it seems that drop scones recipes almost all have sugar in them, pancake recipes are less likely to include it - but essentially they're more or less the same thing. That said there's a lot of variation between recipes both in quantities and ingredients so I might as well throw my favourite into the ring as well. 

The great thing about these is that they're endlessly versatile, and that left over batter keeps well in the fridge for the next day. The basic recipe which makes 8 or so palm size pancakes (more if there's a lot of fruit in them and you like them small) is 150g of self raising flour (add a teaspoon of baking powder to plain flour if that's what you have), 1 medium egg, a knob of melted butter (the thing with pancakes is that you don't really need to be very precise, around 20g in weight should be about right if specifics are important though) a pinch of salt, and 225ml of milk.

Mix the flour and salt, make a well in the centre, crack the egg into it, then stir with a fork whilst slowly adding milk. About half way through the milk add the melted butter, and don't be heavy handed with the milk because you might not need all of it. When the consistency is like thick cream it's about right - pourable but not runny. If you're adding fruit now is the time to stir it in.

The hob wants to be a medium heat - erring on the side of caution because burnt pancakes don't taste good, they're ready to flip when bubbles start to form on the topside and shouldn't need more than a couple of minutes on either side. I don't think sugar is necessary and the pancakes are better suited to savoury toppings without it, but a tablespoon full will turn the batter into a more traditional drop scone recipe. 

The one thing that most instructions have, which I was taught was absolutely wrong (by a proper scottish great grandmother who made the best drop scones and welsh cakes I'll ever eat), is oil or butter for the pan. They don't stick to my griddle, or non stick pans, and they're lighter and fluffier without. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Eagle Country - Sean Lysaght

I've spent the last week reading this book, occasionally following the diversions it's sent me on for hours at a time before coming back to it, and sometimes just stopping to think about. It was a good choice to follow 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge' with, it's centered on Mayo so there's a little bit of geographic overlap, and the first book had made me brush up a little on my Irish geography. It was also long past time I read this, as I'd bought it almost exactly 2 years ago.

It is a beautiful book, both physically and for it's contents. I really love the Little Toller monographs. They're a handy pocket size, the print is nice to read, the covers enticing - they feel special in an unfussy but very well made way. Contents wise it's a series of walks and climbs around the west coast of Ireland in search of places that eagles have been and might be, along with some of the meditations that walking and meeting people bring.

White Tailed Sea Eagles are the specific focus, with some space for Golden Eagles too. I've a long standing desire to see a living Sea Eagle* (which I hoped to achieve on Mull, but didn't) which is what attracted me to this book in the first place. Reintroduction programmes are having some success in Ireland (and here, where Sea Eagles particularly seem to be popping up all over the place) so Lysaght isn't only searching out the places that they have been, but sees them too.

It turns out there are two things eagles need to thrive - food, and not to be shot or poisoned. There is understandable, if probably unfounded, anxiety amongst farmers that eagles will take lambs, and gamekeepers worry about their own birds. I find it's always a shock to read about these deliberate killings, and it would be easy to be outraged about them, but Lysaght keeps the tone mater of fact which is important.

Blame and outrage don't get the doubtful onside, and the other side of the equation - the state of overgrazed uplands - is an even bigger issue. Improve the state of the land and the rest will start to fall into place. It was also on this point that I really began to understand that a lot of the issues around agri and aquaculture in Ireland are not quite the same as in Britain.

Eagles might be the focus of this book, but they're not everything. There's history and culture, pouring over maps to find eagle related place names, and then the people met along these walks. Hints towards different poets and writers, some of the stories, myths, and legends of the places visited, and a whole lot more.

A lot of the more is Lysaght's charm and perception. He's somebody you want to go for a walk with, even if it's just on the page, and that's partly because the pace doesn't feel punishing. There's something of Nan Shepherd's philosophy about getting to know a mountain here, rather than conquering it, which makes you feel like you could keep up. There's a self awareness which is disarming too, and the pencilled marks now in the margins of my copy are a testament to how many gently presented things there are to think about. It's a wonderful book.

*There were stuffed ones in the house that I grew up in, part of a grim collection that apparently represented every bird that had lived on the island - presumably when my great uncle bought it in the 1880's - had he and his like been content with quality bird books there might have been eagles left for his descendants to see.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Scones for One

This wasn't the post I had planned for today, but I was so pleased with a scaled down scone recipe that I didn't want to wait to share it, although it may be just another step into what's beginning to feel like a transformation into Victorian life.

My day revolves around seeing to correspondence - even if it's mostly online, practicing various crafting accomplishments, considering the days menus, doing the flowers, and otherwise staying at home. The big questions facing me this evening are does the dining table want bees-waxing (and does it need a cloth on it), should I turn the rugs so at least they fade evenly, and should I get the watercolours out again? (Yes, maybe, no point at this stage, and no). I'm fairly sure I might be living in a modern dress adaptation of Cranford, and who's around to tell me differently?

In no way helping with the what century is this question, when I went to the market the other day I bought a lot of very cheap raspberries (£3 for what turned out to be a kilo and a half, or just over 3llbs as the market still deals in imperial measurements) which I turned into the raspberry fridge jam from the River Cottage book of preserves*.

Jam needs scones, but scones don't keep well and getting flour has been an issue (as I expect they spent a lot of time discussing in Barchester or Carlingford). Fortunately for times like this there's Delia Smith (I don't have a Mrs Beeton, and Eliza Acton is silent on the subject of scone, probably judging that it was something you should already know how to do. Catherine Brown refers to scones as fine soda bread in 'Scottish Cookery' and has plenty to say on the subject, and whilst I thought I had a copy of F. Marian McNeill's 'The Scots Kitchen', I was wrong). I like Delia's scone recipe anyway, its a proper no nonsense basic recipe that's easy to memorise and easy to make outside your own kitchen.

It also lends itself well to being scaled up or down, and I had managed to get a bag of Self Raising flour recently (the only sort going, and though not as fashionable with recipe writers now, really handy if you're going to get through it quite quickly - and I think I am). Scones for one are actually the ideal amount of scones for two, or one person quite prepared to eat 4 smallish scones in a day (which I am).

Take 4 ounces (110g) of self raising flour, a pinch of salt, 3/4 of an ounce (20g) of butter, a scant dessert spoon of sugar, and 2.5 fluid ounces of milk - alternatively just add it a tablespoon full at a time. Heat the oven to 200C (fan oven, a little higher in a conventional oven). The original recipe says spreadable/room temp butter, but it's such a small amount that it doesn't matter if it's straight out the fridge. Rub the butter into the flour/salt/sugar as quickly and lightly as possible, add the milk little by little mixing with a knife until the scone mix comes together. Don't let it get to wet. Lightly dust a work surface.

Because it's such a small amount, and as scones don't like handling much, the easiest thing to do is form the dough into a rough round about 2 cm high and then quarter it with a sharp knife. Stick in the oven and they should be done in 10 minutes - that's just time to wash up and whip some cream. Take them out the oven and put the kettle on. By the time the tea is ready to drink the scones should be just cool enough to eat. The smaller amounts make everything quicker, so it's not even half an hour between thinking a scone would be nice to eating a scone. Today is also the day that I found with fridge jam at least they're better cream before jam.

*1500g raspberries, 750g of jam sugar, mash half the raspberries in a pan and stir in the sugar, add the rest of the raspberries, heat gently until the sugar melts, then bring to the boil. Boil for 5 to 7 minutes, take off the heat, let it settle for a minute or so then  pot into sterile jars. Once cooled keep in the fridge and use within 6 months - it's a very soft set jam, really more of a raspberry sauce, great with all sorts of things and not to sweet.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Locked down in Leicester - Listening to the Birds

If you have to spend the lockdown in the middle of a city in a flat that has no garden, there are worse places to do it than precisely where I am. There are worse places in Leicester to be than precisely where I am at the moment. Which is something to hold onto whilst I miss the countryside and wish I was somewhere easier to get out for long walks, and where an hour could be harmlessly stretched in landscapes empty of people.

Despite not getting that much time outside I've been much more aware of the birds and butterflies in my local park because I've actually been spending time in there rather than using it as a short cut to other places. It's this park which is making lockdown bearable, it's got a river and a few bits of fairly unkempt green space adjacent to it (a graveyard and the old castle motte) as well as a couple of other more formal gardens (belonging to the university and Newarke houses museum).

Moving towards the city centre there's another churchyard, St Nicholas which backs onto the Jewry wall museum (Roman remains of the old city walls some of which are built into the church), Jubilee square which is mostly patches of fairly sterile grass, but takes you on to the cathedral gardens which has a few older trees amongst the new planting and is home to peregrines.

I've taken this corridor for wildlife through the middle of the city towards the river very much for granted until this year. It's not a lot of space in the scheme of things, but it is very nature friendly. The first indication of this was walking back from my local Tesco through the university's newest green space. It looks good - green grass, young trees, some other formal planting, but as soon as you're a few feet away from the river the bird song is gone. There are pigeons and crows but little else.

The bigger surprise was The New Walk, a tree lined route from the city to Victoria Park which is probably the biggest green space in the city. Victoria park is basically a mown field, very useful for playing football on, having concerts on, festivals, circuses, that kind of thing, but not a wildlife haven. The New Walk (over 200 years old) though has gardens all along it, and a couple of little park like spaces. I thought it to would be full of bird song today, but it was very muted. Which all underlines something discussed on Melissa Harrison's new podcast The Stubborn Light of Things about just how bad we've become at making space for nature.

It could be easy enough even in the middle of a city, the park on my doorstep shows it, but space needs to be made in the right places and planting has to be for wildlife, not people. Having these places in cities is a benefit for everyone and I sincerely hope that councils will think more about it on the back of this (although the reality is that they're going to be so pressed dealing with the social care fall out of Covid and lockdown that on current budgets it seems unlikely).

As it stands perhaps the best we can do is appreciate and protect what we've got. So far the space around where I live is being used reasonably responsibly and is open, although as the weeks go on, and if the weather stays as good as it has been who knows how long that'll last. What I do know is I certainly won't be taking it for granted again.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim - 1920 Club

My first intention for the 1920 book club was to read Catherine Carswell's 'Open The Door', but I lost track of the days a bit and was caught up in 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge'. when I got 'Open The Door' off the shelf it turned out to be 400 pages of tiny print that I knew I'd never finish in time. After that finding something specifically from 1920 that I already had, but hadn't read before was harder than I expected.

I could have gone back to F. Scott Fitzgerald, or E. F. Benson but wasn't in the mood for either, or for Agatha Christie. I need to get round to reading any Edith Wharton (beyond her excellent ghost stories) but now isn't the moment. What I wanted was something quick and a bit trashy that wouldn't derail me from some other reading plans I have for the next few days. Then I found E. Phillips Oppenheim's 'The Great Impersonation' from the British Library's short lived Spy Classics series.*

It was just what I was looking for. Oppenheim was hugely successful in his day. He wrote over a hundred books, and this one sold millions of copies (at least a million in 1920 alone), and whilst in some whilst in wine terms I'd describe him as having 'gone over' (some of the things he writes are no longer easily palatable) it's also easy to see why he was so popular in his day.

The action opens somewhere in German East Africa in 1913, so it was always a safe bet that there would be some offensive comments in it - there are, but as they feel more like a historical record of casual racism/racist attitudes they didn't bother as much as they might have in other contexts**.

Sir Everard Dominey, disgraced, alcohol sodden, broke, English Aristocrat comes crashing out of the bush and face to face with Baron Leopold Von Ragastein. The two men have an uncanny likeness (with the exception that the Baron is fit, disciplined, and looks 10 years younger). After noticing the likeness and a bit of a nap, Sir Everard finally remembers that the two men were at school and University together, rowing in the same boat (I think) and certainly friendly enough for Von Ragastein to have visited him at his country home.

Months later a fit, healthy, and newly wealthy Sir Everard Dominey returns to London where everybody wonders if it's really him because he seems so different - could he really be Von Ragastein in the role of sleeper agent? The situation is complicated by the passionate Hungarian Princess Eiderstrom who had been having an affair with Von Ragastein who then accidentally killed her husband in a duel which earnt him his banishment to Africa. The Princess, cousin of the German Ambassador, is convinced that Dominey is Ragastein and determined to resume the affair regardless of how inconvenient that might be for an undercover spy. She refuses to take no for an answer.

There is also the small matter of Lady Dominey who is apparently both insane and murderous, determined to kill her husband if he ever tries to spend a night under the same roof as her. This is because he turned up one night covered in blood, and with a broken arm, after another gentleman with questionable mental health who had been more or less stalking her had attacked Dominey. This breakdown has lasted for the full decade of Dominey's absence in Africa, whilst her only close companion has been the mother of her husbands assailant who she doesn't seem to like very much.

Oppenheim's approach to gaps in the plot seems to have been just to throw ever more unlikely elements into it until the reader is so overwhelmed they'll accept anything. For the most part it's fun and it works, but it's lady Dominey who is the serious problem with reading this book now.

The reason for her breakdown doesn't make a lot of sense, the possible Dominey's devotion to her under the circumstances make even less sense. She must be at least in her late 20s, possibly early 30s, given that the couple have been married for over a decade but she's constantly described as childlike in her speech and appearance, which all the men seem to find irresistible, but which seems quite unsavoury to me.

She is also convinced that the returned Sir Everard is not her husband, but is fine with it, she prefers the new version so much that she decides not to slit his throat as he sleeps, but instead asks him to hold her hand whilst she sleeps. There is nothing about this situation which suggests a long and happy marriage awaits, but it's fine because she's pretty, and unless wielding a stiletto in the middle of the night, totally fragile and helpless, so everybody adores her and considers Everard a coward for having cleared off to Africa in the first place.

I can quite see that by 1920 men who are trying to navigate the post war landscape would be comforted by the idea of women as fragile angels in need of 24 hour protection from a strong man. I can see that women might be quite happy to go along with the fantasy, but this particular mix is all red flags, and hard for the modern reader to take.

I think the final ending - which man will Sir Everard turn out to be, is fairly obvious given the age and popular nature of the book, but what's going to happen given everything thrown into the mix genuinely makes it a page turner. All things considered Sir Everard is a compelling hero figure through it all; there's genuine tension about who and what he is. Despite it's flaws and predictability I enjoyed this, I have a copy of 'The Spy Paramount' from the same series which I'll probably read quite soon, because both it's exuberance and certainties are comforting at the moment, even if it's prejudices are not

*I vividly remember buying this in the Nottingham branch of Waterstones in 2014, I'm really missing being able to browse around a good bookshop and being able to buy something on a whim - unemployment and Corona are quite the killjoys.

**Dorothy L. Sayers has a way of seeming pro eugenics, or casually denigrating Jewish characters which I find far more disturbing because they're incidents that seem deliberately inserted into her text.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Frayed Atlantic Edge - David Gange

I bought this book more or less the instant it came out last July and have been circling round it ever since. It was always going to be the next book I read, or the book that I dipped into for quick previews, but as sometimes happens with hotly anticipated titles I was reluctant to actually sit down and read it. In this case if I'm honest, because I knew I'd have to really think about what I was reading, and I've been more interested in escapist reading which would stop me thinking.

Last week it finally seemed like the right time to start it, and it did make me think (there are more, and more, scribbled notes in the margins as the book goes on), and has left me with a whole lot of questions which are perhaps easy enough to answer to my own satisfaction, but would be better for debating with someone who has a different set of prejudices and views. Happily there is a blog that accompanies the book - The Frayed Atlantic Edge - that includes an extensive bibliography, a lot more photographs, and the promise that there's a more formal project in the works which sounds like it will expand on a lot of the areas I have those questions about.

'The Frayed Atlantic edge' is more or less exactly as the subtitle describes it - a historian's journey from Shetland to the Channel, an historian's travel journal is what you get. The journey itself takes in Shetland and Orkney, the west coast of Scotland with a little bit of the highlands as well as the inner and outer Hebrides, Northern Ireland, Eire, Wales, and a chunk of Cornwall all tackled by kayak over the course of a year.

The common thread is the Atlantic facing west coast which is significant to all the communities along this coastline, but doesn't necessarily tie them together. Shetland and Orkney have a distinctly different history, culture, and language (they are not part of the Gaelic or Celtic world) and look East as much as West. North Sea oil has given them a degree of prosperity since the 1970's that's only started to noticeably diminish (I'm thinking specifically of Shetland here, which I know best) in the last few years, leaving the community decades behind in facing some stark choices about sustainability.

Skye has it's own set of issues around tourism and trying to balance the needs of the local community with the influx of visitors who provide so much income - it's the cause of a tension that grows with each summer season. What tourism and second homes have done to Cornwall could well serve as a warning for places like Skye, but the problems facing less accessible bits of coastline are different. The way this is handled shows both the strength of a kayak level view of the coastline, and its limitations.

I've had mixed experiences of Orkney, but it's chapter is my favourite in the book for the way it really captures something of the allure of a place where the past constantly keeps you on your toes (in terms of archology Orkney really is spectacular) in a way that I think does suggest possibilities for future ways of living.

The chapters which cover Gaelic speaking Scotland and Ireland are the ones that raise the most questions. I may be wrong but I feel like Gange instinctively supports the idea of re-culturing the highlands and islands, but I lean more towards re-wilding. This seems set to be a particularly contentious issue in Scotland in the next few years, complicated because it's tied to the thorny issue of who owns the land (a very few people own a lot of it) and the still raw wounds caused by clearances and famine.

It's here that it starts to becomes clear how much the landscape changes over time. Sea levels rise and fall, land use changes, coastlines erode and are reshaped, different industries leave their mark, populations and cultures change too, nothing stays still or certain for long. The more I think about this the less I see abandoned communities as a tragedy. However deep the romantic attachment to a place is, these aren't always easy places to live. They're difficult elements to reconcile, and the forced removal of so many people only intensifies that.*

Gange also touches on deep mapping through some of the Irish chapters, which was a new concept to me, and another one which underlines how much things change, and also how much we centre our thinking about the natural world on our ability to name and describe it, and in the process try and domesticate it. Nineteenth century mapping projects anglicised place names across Ireland and Scotland, obscuring their history and purpose in the process, but for all the negative connotations around this (and they are legion) the realisation that it's part of a millennia's old process has shifted my perspective somewhat.

I could go on (and on) with all the questions 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge' has raised for me, it's a mark of how much I enjoyed the book. The central idea of changing the perspective that we look at our history and culture from (when you stop seeing the sea as a barrier a lot of ideas change) is something that I've been actively thinking and reading about for a few years now. This book has opened up a virtual library of things to explore as well as being a thoroughly engaging collection of travel notes, history, and observations to spend a difficult week with.  

*Malachy Tallack in both 60 Degrees North, and The Valley at the Centre of the World is really good on both the push and pull effect that Shetland has had on him.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A Knitting Post - Zena's Zig Zag scarf

As well as cooking a lot I've also been knitting a bit, although not as much as I'd like - I'm just not concentrating properly, and keep making stupid mistakes which then take an age to undo.

This Zig Zag scarf was no exception. I chose it for it's simplicity, and I suppose something a bit more complicated might have made me focus more, but I've also wanted to knit some version of this ever since I bought 'A Legacy of Shetland Lace' by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers.

When I was at primary school in Shetland the girls were all taught to knit in class as a matter of course, and Zena Thomson was our teacher. She was patient, and excellent at making you feel like you could do a thing, endlessly picking up dropped stitches, monitoring progress, and making sure you had something fit to take home with proper pride. I remember her with deep affection, and am so glad that some of her patterns made it into the Legacy book.

It's also appropriate that it's next to another of Zena's patterns that there's a note about the phrase "Wha haes a guid or an ill fit", it seems "it was always noted if a visitor came in when a new garment was just starting. If a visitor was already believed to be an 'ill fit', the knitting was likely to be re-started. If knitting went wrong after it was underway, the knitter would remember who had visited when it was newly started."

As I've been diligently observing the lockdown I can say with certainty that I'm my own ill fit because I kept messing this up from the start, there's another Shetland word - haandless (meaning clumsy) which would also apply. Every time I had to go back and fix something I thought of Zena, who is still teaching me to be patient, and to produce something I can eventually be proud of.

Her zig zag scarf is knit in 1ply and would be a good starting point for anyone wanting to experiment with a delicate Shetland lace as it's both simple (also no grafting required) and effective, but I wanted something bigger and more robust that would feel actively comforting to wrap around yourself. With that in mind I used Jamieson's spindrift, which is a jumper weight. I like the fabric it produces, and even better Shetland wool has a 'sticky' quality that means dropped stitches tend not to run, but politely wait for you to pick them up. 

I also dropped the edging from the original pattern, which I didn't think would work so well on the larger scale, I also wanted to keep the wavy effect that the original edging straightens out. In the end I was pleased with the results, the finished scarf has been sent to a friend, and I have ideas about what else I can do with this motif. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A Phone Box Update

I'm finding it much harder than my father to motivate myself into much action at the moment. I need a spell of bad weather (and an end in view to this lockdown) to get me moving with some purpose again. As it is every day is blurring into a spring sunshine bathed blur where the only real focus seems to be around the getting, preparing, eating, and thinking about food. I'm cooking a lot. There's not much else to form a routine around alone in my city centre flat*.

If things were normal I would have been anticipating a trip to Shetland in the middle of May, but they are not normal. One mark of that is that such a remote place has become a virus hotspot (the number of cases by head of population is a bit daunting) which is leading to lots of phone calls from me and my sister down here trying to tell dad to sit tight.

Sitting anywhere for very long has really never been dads strong suit. Luckily he has a lot of space around him so he can still go off down the coast to do a bit of beach cleaning with no risk of seeing anybody else, and he's been able to crack on with his phone box project, the phone box is also a good distance from anybody else.

For that, a big thank you to readers and friends who donated towards it. Dad managed to find a door locally for a lot less than quotes he'd from elsewhere. The hinges were on the wrong side but he's done something about that so it's okay. There was a bit of concern because the door he's got wouldn't close properly (he thinks it might be slightly warped) but apparently a latch has fixed it so it can't blow open in the wind. Shetland winds are fierce things, it's how the last door was lost.

Meanwhile the box has been painted inside and out, and a bench seat put in it. The next step is to gather as many stories and memories as possible about the box and the people who lived near it, and for it to find it's new purpose.
After, and before. It's good to see the box looking smart (and dad too), surprising to see Shetland still in it's winter coat when everything is so green here now.

*Not a complaint, I'm comfortable, well entertained, and have access to some decent outdoor space which seems to be being used responsibly enough. Living alone is at least peaceful, and taken day by day things are more or less okay.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Something To Look At: Anna Koska, Mick Manning, and Helen Hunt

It's a strange sort of Easter Sunday here, peaceful, and glorious weather - but solitary. I've not been watching much television, obviously not been going out, and there's nobody to swap eggs with so I haven't really registered Easter this year. In food/wine retail it's normally the second busiest time of year after Christmas and I'd be lucky to get the Sunday and Monday off. I'm missing my family, but enjoying the quiet of this year, and thinking for the first time that it's okay to let go of some traditions.

I also thought I'd finish up this week of art with an egg theme to honour the day and the season. First is Helen Hunt who is a recent discovery for me. Her Instagram (@bird_in_the_hand7) is full of lovely images of her own work and photography, and is good for pointing you in the direction of other interesting work to look at. There is a website here. Currently she's posting exquisite pebble studies, but if you go back a bit there are birds, eggs, hares and more. She is well worth a look.

Anna Koska is best known for her work as an illustrator, her Instagram is a great mix of her work, bee keeping, gardening, and country based life. She is @gremkoska on twitter too, and just as delightful there. Amongst other things she paints eggs, life size, in egg tempera. I asked her to do a Curlew egg for me a couple of years ago as a present for my father which I really wish I could have kept. It was exquisite. I think I'm right in saying she also did the oyster on the label of one of my favourite whiskies (Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster, a dram that's a perfect mix of sweet and coastal salty) which is as close as I currently am to owning a bit of her work for myself. One day I'll have something I can put on the wall.

I've been following Mick Manning on Instagram for a while. It's a great feed for bird images, dogs, and other artists represented by St Jude's Prints - another tempting place to poke around on a slow day, and brilliantly for an online gallery you can search by price.* Amongst other things Manning has a series of egg images, sometimes printed onto various bits of ephemera which I really like - but see for yourself.

*A lot of artists websites don't give prices, and whilst I understand some of the reasons for this it can also be deeply frustrating trying to work out if something is within my budget or not, worth saving for, or nice to look at but above my touch.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Someyhing To Look At: Deborah Vass

Deborah Vass is paints the most beautiful flower studies, and also produces fabulous linocuts, mostly of British birds. Her Instagram account is a pleasure to follow at any time, but I'm particularly enjoying it now whilst my time outside is so curtailed. I recommend her Twitter too if you're interested in wildlife at all.

Her website is best for looking at her paintings, but the Etsy shop is the place to go for the linocuts. I love these, at a very basic level because the strong graphic quality of bold black and white appeals to me anyway and I find these clean, uncluttered, prints really pleasing to look at. The subject matter also appeals to me. It's probably also worth mentioning that they're exceptionally good value, these are not major purchases.

The whole 'A picture paints a thousand words' thing might be a bit trite, but it's true, they can also evoke a whole host of memories from where to why you buy something. I gave a friend a raven print by Deborah because it had a Shakespeare quote ("the raven himself is hoarse" from Macbeth), we go to The RSC a lot together, and had been on holiday in Shetland where ravens are a sort of Up-Helly-Aa emblem. That symbolism, which brings up any number of happy memories, is entirely personal to us.

Sometime later she gave me another of Deborah's prints - this one a cormorant that lives on the Kitchen wall, I face it every time I sit at my kitchen table, and it too evokes happy holiday memories, and has also made me more observant of cormorants whenever I see them (as birds go I think only crows rival them for inky presence, and the ability to give great silhouettes).

Part of why I buy something is for the memories and associations it sparks in me, including artists who either see as I do, or teach me to look until I see as they do. When I look at Deborah's photographs she's teaching me to see details I might well have missed, which is why Instagram is such a brilliant thing sometimes.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Something To Look At: Ruth Brownlee

I'm finding this lockdown harder as it goes on. Not really knowing what to expect from it, or how long it will last for, have not been as difficult to deal with as I imagined, but the reality of having to stay put as bad news starts to come in is really difficult. Phone calls, cards, emails, etc are all well and good, but they're not the same as a hug or sitting over an actual cup of tea, and it's to easy to say you're okay, and to accept that response from other people when you really know it isn't. 

I am okay, honestly. My flat is comfortable, I have plenty to do, no shortage of people to reach out to, and whilst bad news has got close enough to underline just how important social distancing is, my immediate world is still intact. It is making me more than ever grateful for the things I do have and one of those id being able to take a great deal of joy in looking at nice things.

I've known Ruth for a longish time now, she moved to Shetland in 1998 and I think I first met her there a few years later. I'd already discovered her work by then, and first bought it after another period of being housebound (after an operation that meant weeks of not being really able to leave my flat because I wasn't meant to go up or down stairs). One of her paintings was my celebration to mark being able to get about again.

What I like about Ruth's work is how she approaches landscapes in a way that is both abstract and representational. If you follow her Instagram it's easy to trace the landscape she photographs in the images she paints, but the effects of light and weather are far more important than landmarks which makes it easy for the viewer to impose their own memories and connections to northern landscapes far beyond Shetland on them. 

I do think of these as quintessentially northern images, but that also reflects my experiences and the connections I can't help but make to them. I think it's quite possible that other viewers will find echos of other places and moods to the ones I see. My partner always thinks of Caithness when he looks at her moorland paintings, and if I see the North Sea and the Atlantic in the way the light falls, it is defiantly because that's what I know. 

Something else about her paintings, even on a small scale, they change constantly with the light that falls on them, which sometimes gives the impression of watching a landscape through a window rather than that of it being a static image in a frame. 

Most of Ruth's work these days goes straight to galleries and exhibitions - you can find more details on her website. She does sometimes sell limited edition prints which you can normally find out about via her Instagram, and she's currently having a studio clear out and selling things for the artists support pledge scheme through facebook. If you're interested you need to be quick though - she sells fast. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Something To Look At: Esther Tyson

If I'm looking for positives in the current situation (and I really am) it's that I've got a lot more time to look at what's around me, a big part of which is the park across the road from my front door. It's small and ornamental which isn't the best for exercise (it only takes a couple of minutes to cross it) but it is a reasonably rich and diverse habitat so it's mentally stimulating if you take the time to observe, and that's worth a lot.

The park runs along the river Soar which helps with the diversity, but just as importantly it's part of a little network of adjoining green spaces that takes in the old castle motte, formal gardens and a physic garden that belong to De Montfort University, the gardens attached to Newarke houses museum, and the graveyard of St Mary De Castro. All of them are cared for, but council and church funding being what it is, the park is full of wild garlic and nettles, only a small part of the graveyard is mown, and the Newarke Houses garden has both ancient and wild corners.

Whenever I've sat in the park before it's been with a book or knitting, occasionally to feed the swans, and consequently I did not appreciate just how much there was going on in there. Without the noise of traffic, or the constant traffic of students and others going to and fro, the birdsong is suddenly dominating. Less people around are certainly making the rats and squirrels braver, and whilst the trees have been bare of leaves it's been astonishing to count the number of birds in them, and the variety of butterflies around.

These are, or should be, common birds which is a big part of their attraction to me. I can get to know them, properly observe their habits, and in this instance take pleasure from how well we can co-exist (although I'm reasonably certain they're thriving with less people around to disturb them). It's these kind of observations that make Esther Tyson's work so appealing to me.

I would love one of her small bird paintings or crow studies, or any of her bird paintings really, but currently it's her sparrow studies that are the object of my hearts desire. I had more or less resolved to buy one* when I found I was being made redundant and for now that's that. I can, and do, get a great deal of enjoyment from following her work via Instagram, and twitter. Looking at her images makes me a better observer of the things I can see from my window or on a walk, and I'm frankly in awe of how she manipulates paint.

her website is here, do look her up.

*Expense is relative, when I enquired about prices a small piece was around £250 - I don't know if this is still the case - which seemed very reasonable to me, but also represented a definite extravagance given my budget. I still think it's very reasonable but currently have no budget.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Something To Look At: Matt Underwood

Matt Underwood's work might have been an Instagram discovery, it might have been twitter, it might even have been through some of the greetings cards I've seen around of his woodblock prints. Wherever it was I've amassed a small collection (maybe 6) of his prints, and bought a few more as presents. Delivery is currently free from his etsy shops, and a lot of his prints come into the 'is that all?' price category, depending on the size and complexity of the print.

The work available via Etsy is currently bird, plant, or cat based, and images do not entirely do the colours justice. New things appear regularly, and I think there are still tote bags available with his 'Night Patrol' hedgehog on them.* Follow on Instagram to get an idea of the range of his work beyond the woodblocks and what's currently in the Etsy shop. There's also a website but I don't think it gets updated particularly often.

Printmaking in all it's various forms fascinates me, being able to follow the stages of various works in progress is one of the many things I love about Instagram. It also underlines how comparatively cheap a print can be against the amount of work that goes into it. When it comes to woodblocks there's something about the flatness of the image that I find particularly attractive.

Matt Underwood's prints make specific references to the Bloomsbury group, particularly through the use of particular fabrics as backgrounds. I think that tote bag hints at the Bloomsbury habit of decorating every surface available too. The Bloomsbury lot weren't the only artists who did this though, and I see as much Peggy Angus in some of these things as anybody else.

I can't look at a woodblock print without thinking about Japanese woodblocks either, and there's something about Underwood's cats that puts me in mind of German expressionism, as well as a more general 1930's feel. I'm specifically thinking of John Hall Thorpe, and perhaps Clarice Cliff ceramics, as well as reading Adrien Bell. Not that I see these prints in a particularly nostalgic or sentimental light, or think that's what Underwood is doing - it's more that I think he's looking at things in the same way, and maybe delighting in some of the same details.

It's that delight in small things and details that I particularly respond to in his work - it's the delight in looking, and seeing things freshly - a favourite cup, or view, flower, fruit, or the habits of cats as they go about their business.

*I'm really tempted by this, a tote bag is always useful, it's yet another thing to go on the when I'm back at work wish list.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Something To Look At: Paul Bloomer

If I was a wealthier woman, or maybe even just one with a bit more foresight, I'd have made it a habit to get my pictures framed with non reflective glass. I'd also have made sure I got a whole lot more things framed before the best, and most reasonably priced, framers in the city went under last year. I still have some of the earliest things I bought in frames that came from Ikea or habitat and do nothing for the pictures inside.

Until that framers went under I hadn't appreciated how lucky I was, or how cheap they were (I wish they'd charged more now). Lucky because they knew what they were doing, took time to listen to what the customer wanted, would guide you, and then make the frame you wanted. I've since found (expensively, which adds insult to injury) that you can't take any of this for granted.

It's my opinion that a frame is essentially an outfit for a picture, and that outfit might need to be changed at some point in it's life. I think you have to consider where a picture is going, what else it will be hanging with, what it is in the picture you want to focus on, your own personal taste - and these are all things that might change. There isn't a single right answer (there may be a few clearly wrong ones) and I am very much in need of finding another framer who understands that.

If I can find one who isn't ruinously expensive one of the first things I want to do when I'm working again is get the two large* Paul Bloomer woodcuts I have properly framed at last. Paul is originally from the Black Country but ended up in Shetland in 1997 and teaches at the college there.

My first contact with his work was a postcard sized egg tempera piece my father had bought for my stepmother. It's a beautiful jewel like little thing. The next time I saw Paul's work was at Vaila Fine Art, it was an exhibition of much larger woodcuts which I love for their energy. The last exhibition I saw was the Return of the Light series of etchings, first by accident in a gallery near Inverness, and secondly by design at The Shetland Museum last summer where I bought 'Layers of Time'.

It was by no means the only etching in the series that I wanted, settling on just one was not easy, and maybe one day I'll have another. Paul's website is really worth a look. The range of mediums and techniques he uses are really interesting, and the section about his influences really good. There are links to lectures he's given, and especially on his Instagram he talks a lot about what he's doing and the thinking behind it.

 In terms of what he's thinking and painting about he's probably the most interesting artist I follow, and certainly the one with the most to say. Generally the work I'm interested in is purely representational, but Bloomer's work is full of tensions between different elements and ideas, and I'm finding those resonate more deeply than ever with me at the moment.

 Layers of Time 2018, is a small etching from the Return of the Light series, it's on the wall opposite me right now and I find it a comforting thing to contemplate. Curlews feel integral to the Shetland summer landscape, especially their song. 

Curlews and Snipe 1997, is a woodcut (74cm x 61cm) Snipe drumming is another very evocative sound of a Shetland summer and there's something in this that recalls the frenetic energy of a summer full of birds.

*Large in the context of my flat, not in relation to Paul Bloomer's work which can be on the really grand scale.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Something To Look At: Lara Scouller

I'm reading at the moment, but not a lot, and knitting as much as tennis elbow (stupid name, I've never played tennis, but knitting and in the past stocking wine shelves, is a devil for setting this off) will allow. Listening to a lot of radio, and unsuccessfully trying to limit the amount of Covid-19 related news I absorb. Twitter is my nemesis for this; on the one hand it's full of interesting news about books and podcasts, on the other it's people venting their frustrations which quickly gets overwhelming.

Thankfully there is Instagram which feels blessedly normal in a world of uncertainty and change, and on Instagram there is the #artistssupportpledge. Artists are offering work for sale, and pledging that every time they sell £1000 worth of work they'll spend £200 on a fellow artists work themselves. Prices range but overall because you're buying directly, the work is unframed or mounted, and there's no gallery margin, it's a fairly good deal for the buyer.

Along with books, art is something I've loved for as long as I can remember. I grew up with plenty of original art work on the walls, all our family friends had original art on the walls - a good few of them were artists, and I've been collecting prints and the like since I was about 20. More or less any bit of wall in my flat that doesn't have a shelf on it has a picture, and as my view is not great I've been feeling particularly grateful for them these last few weeks.

Because artists are being hard hit by the loss of exhibitions, selling space, teaching, and the rest. Nor are they likely to get much help for it, this seems to me to be an excellent time to think about buying something. More generally it's a great time to just be looking at something other than bad news, so this week is going to be all about artists who's work I like. Please also send me recommendations back, here, on facebook, twitter, Instagram, by email - all or any of them.

The first up is Lara Scouller. I've been a fan of her work since seeing something a friend had but I've mostly not had enough money spare for any of her larger pieces, even the prints, since first coming across her. The website doesn't give prices but the pledge bits she's had on Instagram do. It's her birds and lobsters that I'm particularly attracted too, and I do have a beautiful Gannet print that was an extremely modest buy and I really love.

 These are by my great grandfather, and will probably be familiar to regular readers.

 My view, the same from every large east facing, blasts you out of bed with the morning sun, and gives not great light in the afternoon, window is of a carpark and factory building turned into offices. The lack of vegetation means it's fairly sterile to look out at.

 Which is why inside looks more or less like this. Nothing stays straight on this wall because the washing machine is on the other side of it and the spin cycle knocks everything about.

 This is probably my favourite corner, it gets the best of the light in the morning, and is what I'm currently looking at from the table I work at.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Oats in the North Wheat From the South - Regula Ysewijn

Of all the things I'm missing at the moment being able to go to a bookshop for a browse and to buy much anticipated new releases is high on my list (right behind people, and my mum's dog). Ordering online isn't the same, and it's not as if I'm short of things to read anyway, so this has more to do with how I feel about bookshops than the fear of missing out on something new.

I ordered 'Oats in the North Wheat from the South' from Waterstones (who have had some bad press through this, but are also the only real bookshop choice in the city centre, and for that I consider them a local business that needs supporting) just after the shut down, it actually arrived before the official publication date - it's one book that I didn't want to wait any longer for than I had to. It is probably my most anticipated release of the year.

I wrote about Regula's earlier book, 'Pride and Pudding' a couple of weeks ago - it's an absolute delight for anybody with an interest in food history and a love of a beautifully shot photograph. There have been a couple of books in-between - a really lovely celebration of a vanishing culture in 'Belgian Café Culture', and a useful little book about puddings published by the national trust (but sadly without Regula's photography). 'Oats in the North' is the sort of companion to 'Pride and Pudding' I've been wanting though.

After all that anticipation I haven't been disappointed. It's not so much about the recipes - a lot of which I could find elsewhere, but about everything Regula brings to her books. In this case the most noticeable thing, even more so than in 'Pride and Pudding' is the chance to see how Britain, and British baking traditions look to someone with an outside perspective.

As Dr Annie Gray says in her introduction, I recognise glimpses of the Britain that Regula and her family discovered on holidays, but it's not precisely the Britain I grew up in. There's a really engaging sense (because the descriptions are delightful and flattering) of being explained. Especially when it comes to a Belgian talking about Belgian buns (not a thing in Belgium) for which there are two recipes (19th and 20th century versions). It makes me feel like I'm discovering these things anew, and I like it. I'm also craving toast*. I hadn't really appreciated what a British thing this was

There's also the matter of the research behind each recipe. I love this kind of hands on food history - the sort I can bake myself. I particularly like that where a recipe has evolved a lot over the decades more than one version is included, as with the Belgian buns, and the bits and pieces of information about cooking conditions in those older kitchens. There's also an acknowledgment of the role slavery played in bringing sugar and other ingredients here.

There's a bit to think about with that, too much to fit into this post, but it's important to understand how that history is just below the surface of everyday life, right down to the treat that is an iced bun, or a cake.

The photography is as ever a treat to look at (I've never seen an Aberdeen buttery look beautiful before), and the range of recipes is excellent, especially if you're after carb based comfort.  Even just reading about Sally Lunns and Fat Rascals is comforting right now. I made the Welsh Cakes though. A friends grandmother used to make these when I was a child and they were the best thing. She also made excellent scotch pancakes (also known as drop scones), which are not mentioned. Both properly want a griddle and are so good whilst still warm. Welsh Cakes are the first thing I'm going to make.

I'm so pleased I got this book now. It's sustaining both to read, and to bake from, and for me at least is a reminder of happier times past, and to come.

*Not an easy thing to get at the moment. It turns out the heat of last summer was enough to kill instant yeast packets I had, so the dough I made today isn't rising. I've added a spoon of sugar and another old packet of yeast and it's doing something, but I'm not quite sure what. It's also the last of my white bread flour which is proving hard to replace right now.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Mortmain Hall - Martin Edwards

Anybody who made it through yesterdays quite long post dedicated to my favourite drinks references in 'Mortmain Hall' will probably already have gathered that I enjoyed this book. I never doubted that I would after 'Gallows Court' (the first in the series) and was very pleased to be invited to join the blog tour again for this one.

I mostly know Martin Edwards through his work with The British Library Crime Classics series, and the two books he's written about the history of Golden Age detective fiction. There can be few people better qualified to write a something set in 1930, and possibly the best thing about these books is how much fun Edwards has with doing that.

We get wealthy, mysterious, Rachel Savernake and smart young journalist Jacob Flint again, this time investigating a series of cases where people just might be getting away with murder. But how, and why. Who is working behind the scenes to make this happen? Rachel isn't the only person who has noticed something is amiss, there's also the criminologist Leonora Dobell (pen name Leo Slaterbeck) who has an agenda of her own...

Everything comes to a head at Mortmain Hall, a deliciously gothic setting, in the teeth of a storm and better yet with all the suspects gathered in the library for the big reveal. There are a lot of things that go into making these books work so well, one being that they are very much an homage to Golden Age fiction, full of references and jokes. In that respect 'Mortmain Hall' reminds a little of some of the Detection Club efforts - specifically 'Ask A Policeman' where the various contributors swap their usual detectives.

The plot also matters, and 'Mortmain Hall' delivers something deliciously twisty, with plenty of red herrings and sub plots along the way, followed by a satisfactory conclusion. It works perfectly well as a stand alone piece, and if you know nothing about the era beyond seeing a couple of Agatha Christie adaptations (is it possible that there's anybody who hasn't seen at least one episode of Marple or Poirot?).

For anybody with a deeper interest in the period there is a treasure trove of reference to puzzle out. I've read enough to have recognised some of them, and to suspect more, but if I was minded to there's much more to chase up and analyze than what the characters choose to drink. The addition of a clue finder at the back is a happy reintroduction. It doesn't make much sense until you've finished the book so there are no spoilers, but it does mean you can look back and see how the clues built up.

I also really like the characters of Rachel and Jacob. Rachel is intelligent, beautiful, rich, and utterly ruthless, it's that final quality that gives her the moral ambiguity that makes her so interesting. She's intriguing, and attractive, but not necessarily likable, and I think that's a real strength. Jacob by contrast is more human, almost smart enough to keep up with Rachel, but prone to making silly mistakes when confronted by a pretty face, and with an entirely conventional moral compass. As friends they have an excellent chemistry that has a lot to offer in what I hope will be a long series of mysteries.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Booze and Books - A Mortmain Hall post

I'm officially blogging about Martin Edwards latest book, 'Mortmain Hall' tomorrow, but with time on my hands to chase details I thought I'd talk about the drinks in it today.

One of the many things I like about Edwards' Rachel Savernake series (Gallows Court is the other one) is that they're exceptionally well crafted homages to golden age crime, not pastiches, and as such there's no shortage of references for the reader to decode if they feel moved to.

Drinks being my particular area of interest I can't help but notice them when they're mentioned (something I get a kick out of in older fiction generally is the opportunities it presents to trace drinking fashions).

About a third of the way through 'Mortmain Hall' I remembered to jot down the drinks that seemed particularly interesting, starting with the Chivas Regal that Rachel offers the journalist, Jacob Flint. I like this detail, in 1930 (when the book is set) blends were what people drank because their brand names were a sign of quality. Chivas Regal isn't just a premium blend, it's one of the oldest, and got in early as a royal supplier. It's a choice that sets a tone of tradition and quality that seems right at home in a townhouse library.

There are two types of sherry that get a particular mention - Oloroso and Bristol Cream. The oloroso is consumed in the Bookman's Club where Jacob is interviewing publisher Charles Bonnell. The atmosphere is redolent of  leather upholstery and tobacco which seems an altogether fitting background for my preferred style of sherry. There's a lot I could say about Oloroso but basically it's a dryish sherry characterised by a nutty flavour. It's fortified early so you don't get the yeasty character of something like a fino, and it can be aged in the barrel for a very long time. It gets darker with age, and slightly oxidized which gives its own particular character.

Charles Bonnell seems like a man who likes the best, so I'm imagining a particularly well aged sherry with an oxidized character suggestive of elegant decay and just maybe a slightly self conscious display of sophistication to awe Jacob with.

Later on Bristol Cream is served at Mortmain Hall. The Bristol Cream of the 1930's would have been a little bit different to the blue bottles everybody buys at Christmas. It's a mix of oloroso and much sweeter Pedro Ximenez. Sweetened Oloroso had been popular since the late 18th century. Quality is generally agreed to have declined since the 1950's when the method of production changed somewhat. In a 1930 context it seems like the perfect blend of old fashioned, old money taste, with a sweet edge that's a nice match for the gothic atmosphere of Mortmain Hall.

Gin and Tonics get plenty of mentions, as do Scotch and Soda's, but I was pleased to see a Gin Ricky in the mix too (gin, the juice and shell of half a lime, plenty of ice, top with sparkling water. It's a good low calorie alternative to sugary tonic water in these housebound times, and also my preference for summer drinking). Krug is mentioned in relation to the clandestine club, with the reflection that it's well priced there. As Krug is a super premium champagne this is a relative statement but is one of the hints that the club operates as a honey trap (I don't think that's a spoiler given it's name).

My favourite drink mention is a Boulevardier, also drunk at the Clandestine club. This is a mix of whisky, red vermouth, and Campari - a whisky version of a Negroni if you like, but rounder and more mellow. As far as I can find it originated in Paris around about 1930, but wasn't popular enough in England to make it into the Savoy cocktail book (neither does the Negroni). Again the suggestion of something Parisian and perhaps a little louche, as well as the flavour combination of bitter and sweet is very evocative of character.

And finally, a wine mystery. One character enjoys a bottle of full bodied Grenache with some venison. I asked Martin Edwards about this and he told me that he lifted it from a contemporary menu. I'd love to know what the wine was. French and Spanish wines tend not to use grape varietals in the name, and even Australian (Empire) wines of the day would borrow the manes of their old world counterparts.

I really hit the books to try and solve this riddle yesterday but got nowhere. Just such a Grenache would be an excellent wine to drink with venison. Something from the Cotes du Rhone is most likely, possibly from further south, maybe just maybe a Spanish wine? I might not have got an answer, but I had a lovely, somewhat dusty, time reading wine history and remembering how interesting I find it - for which a proper thank you is due to Mr Edwards for providing so much entertainment in these trying times.