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...