Friday, July 31, 2020

Things I've written Elsewhere

It's hot and I'm bothered - I don't do well in the heat, I certainly can't knit when the temperature is hitting the mid 30's and Leicester is still in lockdown. I considered writing another post about this, but who needs another rant on a day like today. Instead here's a couple of links to posts I've written for the Shetland Wool Adventures Blog...

Here for 10 books about Shetland textiles - mostly knitting based.

And Here for 10 books more generally about Shetland - where it won't be 30+ degrees tonight and I wouldn't be melting into my chair.

Shetland Wool Adventures is also bringing out a journal soon, which I've also written a piece for and which has some really appealing looking patterns in it. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the finished product and absolutely recommend having a good look around Misa's website!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Scaddiman Cushion Cover - A Knitting Post.

This is a new knitting shape for me - a circle - and I'm really pleased with both Hazel Tindall's pattern and my results.

I made a poor choice of cast on (cable) thinking that the relatively large loops it leaves would be easy to pick up and sew together when it came to joining the two halves of the cushion cover. To be fair they are easy to pick up but they leave a  bit of a gap that makes the seam really obvious. My poor sewing skills don't help with this. I've already started another cushion and have changed the cast on accordingly, though it'll be a while before I see how well the new choice works.

I think this is the first one of Hazel's patterns I've followed, it was beautifully clear and despite how intricate the cushion cover looks it's surprisingly quick and simple to make. The design has a really easy to follow rhythm to it and no tricky surprises so I didn't have to spend ages trying to work out, or having to refer to where I was on the chart. I don't memorise things like this particularly easily so finding patterns that flow as well as this one are an absolute treat.

Scaddiman's heid (also the slightly more vivid scabbieman's heid) is a dialect name for a sea urchin hence my colour choices for this version (which have also turned out well, although I might just slightly rearrange some of them another time). The fun thing about Fair Isle knitting is that changing the colours even a little can dramatically change how you see the patterns and motifs so knittin g up things like this won't get old.

Another bonus was that the cover doesn't use a massive amount of yarn. I used a mix of Jamieson's Spindrift and Jamieson and Smith's jumper weight, mostly part balls to finish up the bits and pieces hanging around from other projects.

The final thing that I appreciated about the pattern is that Hazel suggests 3 different ways to dress the finished cover - my best option was to cut out a piece of card (it turned out to be a ridiculously tough bit of card, I needed a hammer and nail to make a hole in it, and broke the blade of a craft knife cutting it out - but won in the end). It's a small detail really, but seeing a range of choices was helpful, as well as a reminder that it might be worth finally buying some blocking wires when I'm working again.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Beast In View - Margaret Millar

I don't know if it's coincidence, some sort of weird synchronicity with my books, or just the lens that I'm currently seeing the world through at the moment but 'Beast in View' turned out to be another book that was unexpectedly lockdown relevant. It also turns out that I have 2 copies of it, the paper back that I read, and one in a Library of America anthology of four suspense novels by women crime writers from the 1950s edited by Sarah Weinman.

Normally realising I'd bought a duplicate would annoy me, but this time I feel like I've at least read a chunk of the smart and relatively expensive anthology - which is something. There's also a 40s volume in the same series and I very much recommend both. I didn't buy the other volume because I already had a couple of the books in it, they're excellent, as is Sarah Weinman's anthology of short stories; 'Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives'. If you like vintage noir at all and don't yet know Weinman's collections - look her up.

There seems to be a reasonable amount of Margaret Millar's work in print, although in a rag tag of different editions and quite a lot of it collected in anthologies, which is good news because she's an amazing writer. I found her via the Pushkin Vertigo series of which I'm a committed fan - and it's as good a place to start reading her as any. When I bough 'Beast In View' (for the second time) it was not long after Pushkin had started reprinting her and the only title I could find in Waterstones Piccadilly (how I dream of going back there, or any other big book shop, or anywhere not locked down).

It turns out to be the story of Helen Clarvoe. Thirty, living alone in an hotel, estranged from her mother and brother, and obviously struggling with something. One night she gets a strange phone call, it's personal and threatening so she writes to the only person she knows who might help her. Paul Blackshear, wo manages her investments. Paul is lonely, bored, and eventually overcomes his disinclination to help Helen who he becomes increasingly fond of. Meanwhile the caller is widening her net to take in the whole Clarvoe family and she's becoming increasingly spiteful and dangerous.

The ending manages to be both shocking and inevitable. We know something is very wrong, and there are clues along the way but for all the final melodrama Millar always manages to keep things under control. We can infer that there was something very wrong with the Clarvoe family, but there's no particular hint as to what it might have been - just that it's left 3 people very damaged. It's Helen's life stuck in her hotel suite, afraid to go out, that made this feel like a lockdown specific novel to me.

Paul's interest in Helen, and her reaction to it are an interesting detail, as are the strained relations between the 3 Clarvoe's. I'm not sure how the depiction of a specific mental health issue stands up to our current understanding, I think Millar is vague enough in the details to make it work, and there's nothing on the NHS website that openly contradicts what she does in this but it's probably worth sign posting anyway.

The other really interesting, and absolutely harrowing aspect of the book is the treatment of a gay character. It's easy to forget, especially if it doesn't affect you personally, how far we've come from this sort of homophobia, and how important it is not to take that for granted. Altogether it's an absolutely gripping read - literally edge of the seat stuff at times, and as compelling as everything I've read by Millar so far. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

My Husband Simon - Mollie Panter-Downes

This is the first of the British Library's new Women Writers series that I've read, it has set the bar high for whatever follows it either in the same series or more generally in my own personal reading. To be fair the other 2 Women Writers titles already out, and the 5 which are coming all look strong and it's going to be really interesting to see where these go.

There will probably be spoilers in this post.

Nevis Falconer is 21 the author of a successful novel, and staying at an older friends country house for the weekend, when she meets 28 year old Simon Quinn. There's such a spark between them that by the Sunday evening they're staying at a pub losing their respective virginities, already intent on marriage.

We then skip forward 3 years to a crisis point for Nevis. Her writing is not going well, she feels trapped by domesticity and then Marcus Chard, her American publisher turns us at the Savoy and invites her for lunch.

There is some speculation as to what extent 'My Husband Simon' is autobiographical - Nevis is more or less the same age as Mollie when she writes her first book, marries, produces her second book, and the age she would have been when she was writing this one. I'm more inclined to see it as a what might have been, than of her actual life. If it is a self portrait it's in the form of deeply unflattering caricature, but I think it's more likely a parody of a type rather than meant to be any one person. It's certainly a younger version of the type that's forever cropping up in the background of Dorothy L. Sayers, or makes up half the cast of a Nancy Mitford.

There's also a lot of commentary about how temperamentally unsuited Nevis and Simon are, that the only thing that keeps them together is sex, but I'm not sure the reader is in a position to judge this because we see everything through Nevis' eyes, and she's far to self absorbed and unobservant to be reliable. I'm not convinced about the class difference that Simon suggests in his afterword either. If Nevis is socially a cut above Simon it's a very small cut and seems mostly to be based on his father having made his own money.

Nevis says he never struck her as being particularly intelligent, that she can't understand how he built up the business, but it's Edward Quinn who who has the generally patrician markers of a good palate for wine, and a love of reading and books (which he collects in first editions). The deeper problem between the couple is Nevis's immaturity and lack of awareness. When Simon tells her that she misunderstands what intelligence is, damning anyone "...who (a) had not seen the latest play and read the latest novel; (b) did not know who Virginia Woolf was; (c) could not look at a dress and say "My dear, is it Molyneux?" she seems to agree with him. She certainly applies the test to his brother.

I found Nevis fascinating in her awfulness, and Mollie expert in the way she reveals it layer by layer. She's a terrible snob, both intellectually and from a class point of view, staggeringly self absorbed, and totally lacking in empathy - and yet despite it all she's a character I like, maybe because right at the end of the book there is a moment of genuine self awareness, but mostly because of Mollie's skill in writing this monstrously egotistical young woman.

Simon is a presence that threads through the book becoming more real with each episode. It's increasingly clear that he is self aware, and loves her in a way that she's not yet capable of understanding. (Spoiler here) early on Nevis tells us that Simon doesn't want children because it will spoil her figure, later it becomes clear that he wants them very much. Not having them is one of several ways he puts her needs first. When he states that Marcus Chard understands her he is perhaps realising that what Nevis likes about Marcus is that he takes the responsibility of her choices away from her whilst flattering her intelligence.

The original blurb for the book suggests that Nevis's choice will boil down to being a wife or mistress, but I think it's more likely to be between being the wife of a man who will treat her as an equal, or one who will make her into a trophy. And that's maybe the reason Nevis is likable, it's because rather than despite of her flaws. The fact that she's selfish enough to keep fighting even when she's dimly aware that what she's fighting for isn't worth having.

I know 'One Fine Day' is generally considered a better book, and maybe it is, but I prefer 'My Husband Simon'. I love the way it unfolds, there is a brilliantly disturbing scene in a park with some beggars, a few with her servants (On holiday in Venice, Nevis is happy to head for the Lido everyday, later her housemaid tells her she should try Bogner Regis - Nevis is appalled, it is a perfect bit of comedy in the middle of something generally darker). An intriguing description of a Dutch still life in the Quinns house "...a hideous and very valuable Dutch painting of six oysters in surprised conjunction with two dead pomegranates and a dead widgeon." which forms part of the background to a heated discussion about D H Lawrence.

The painting gets mentioned a couple of times - in my time as a student the view was very much that even the dead widgeon could be understood as a sexual metaphor - a theory that slightly postdates this book, and is now somewhat discredited. The agreed symbolism of the oysters and pomegranates has not changed so much, Mollie's wording makes that clear, and she's using this image to signify a couple of things, but Nevis seems unaware that the picture is in it's way every bit as explicit as anything Lawrence wrote.

And so it goes on. This is a goldmine of details about a particular London in the early 30's, there's a checklist of books, the central relationships are drawn with an incredible deftness of touch, and I could go on for a couple more thousand words when really 4 will do  - seriously, consider reading this.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Jane Austen; Writing, Society, Politics - Tom Keymer

Officially out later this week, I was sent a copy of this by Oxford University Press to review. It's been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks looking appealing, and so for once I've read it in good time. Part of it's appeal is that it's a short (148 pages) and pocket sized - it makes it an easy book to pick up. It is essentially an introduction to Austen's novels that can be read whole in a few hours, or referred back to on a novel by novel basis.

Taken chapter by chapter you have a decent introduction to each book, or adaptation, which when put together form a decent overview and assessment of Austen's career. The various adaptations are worth thinking about here, and Keymer occasionally touches on them, because I've watched Pride and Prejudice many more times than I've read it. It's easy to forget when they're so ubiquitous that these are only interpretations, and far from complete representations of the novels.

For such a short book there's a lot packed into each chapter, and Keymer makes excellent arguments against some of the charges against Austen and the scope of her writing. The Northanger Abbey chapter persuasively suggests that it's far more than a parody of Gothic fiction for example, and the Mansfield Park section ('The Silence at Mansfield Park') is just as persuasive in how it talks about the way Austen doesn't talk about slavery. She brings it up - and this is a theme throughout her work - but then leaves the reader to join the dots.

The silence Fanny Price is met with when she asks questions is enough to silence her in return. Do we need Austen to spell everything out for us or is it enough to know that this was to sensitive or unpleasant a subject to openly confront in the family circle? And so it goes on.

In 'Sense, Sensibility, and Society' there's some really interesting quotes from Mary Wollstonecraft about the cult of feeling and sensibility (it's hard not to apply them to twitter culture) alongside a defense for Marianne's sensibility against Elinor's stoic sense. Throughout Austen's work is put into context with some of the writers she would have been familiar with and who immediately follow her. My reading list now not only takes in wanting to re read most of her work, but also finally to read Ann Radcliffe, Thomas Love Peacock, and Mary Wollstonecroft (thank god I've already read enough Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson not to feel the need to make the experiment again) and a whole lot of other things happily sitting on my shelves.

Major threads of literary criticism around Austen are summerised, and there's a decent list of further reading if you want to go follow that path. For my needs this book is probably enough. It has already enriched my understanding of Austen and will definitely continue to do that as I read more and again. It's concise, informative, and accessible (how often do you find yourself reading about Mansfield Park long after midnight and thinking just one more page, maybe another chapter?) an excellent companion to Austen's that gives plenty to think about without feeling like it's going to get between you and the text*. I thoroughly recommend this one for anybody who has even a passing interest in Austen's work.

*I'm still vaguely annoyed by everything I've ever read about Jane Eyre, all of which has robbed me of a little bit more of any enjoyment I found in that book.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Temple House Vanishing - Rachel Donohue

This is another book that's been sitting around for a while and that once I started it I couldn't put down. What follows might be considered spoiler adjacent though, so please be aware.

There were to things that really resonated with me in this book. One is that the vanishing part happens to a 16 year old girl in 1990 - which would make the character exactly my age, and the second concerns the relationship of an attractive young male teacher with his 16 year old pupils. A third parallel might be the Colin Pitchfork murders, this was still a live case when we first came to Leicestershire, and created something of the same paranoid atmosphere that Rachel Donahue describes her journalist character growing up with.

At my school there were 2 young male teachers, both would have been fresh out of teacher training and maybe 23-24. One was my form teacher, I didn't particularly like him, he wanted to be everybody's friend, but he also made snide comments about an ex girlfriend - who was the elder sister (by 2 years) of another girl in the class. Presumably because I kept a distance from him he told me for no particular reason that he thought I was manipulative, he asked my mother at a parents evening if I'd been abused. I can't imagine what that was like for her, but 30 years later I'm still furious about it.

I didn't have lessons with the other teacher, who was considered attractive. Around the time I was graduating when he would definitely have been old enough to know better it turned out he was having an affair with an A level student whilst his wife was pregnant. The girl drove her car into a tree hard enough that she was killed in the crash. The inference was that it was suicide.

None of this is particularly close to what happens in 'The Temple House Vanishing' but it's the background against which I'm judging the book, and which makes me think that Donohue's debut is particularly impressive.

Louisa has just one a scholarship to an elite catholic boarding school where the majority of the girls are hostile to her. She does make a friend in Victoria though, who seems both sophisticated, and elusive despite their closeness. There is also the art teacher, Mr Lavelle. He's young, handsome, and by any standard a spectacularly poor choice on the nun's part. The reason for his appointment seems to be that he comes from the right sort of background.

Then at some point Mr Lavelle and Louisa vanish. Coming up for the 25th anniversary of this disappearance a journalist who grew up on the same street as Louisa and vaguely remembers her is given the job of writing a series of profile pieces on the main characters in the drama. The novel unfolds in a series of flashbacks which allow Louisa to tell her story, whilst the journalist (who I do not remember being named) does her own research.

I think it's clear from the blurb that the teacher pupil relationship is going to be troubling, but Donohue keeps its exact nature ambiguous all the way through (please don't draw any conclusions from anything I say here), and her portrayal is excellent. I could sense all the way through that something wasn't right with all the relationships at the heart of this book, but every single character is nuanced and complete in a way that precludes easy judgements about them.

There are nods to Shirley Jackson here, and I think other writers too - things that struck a chord but which I couldn't quite place within the over all gothic atmosphere. The whole thing is beautifully balanced to give a sense of unease, and to make the reader ask difficult questions without giving easy answers. It's a clever, rich, and rewarding book.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Blitz Writing - Inez Holden

Not everything is going to plan today, the longish walk I planned turned into a medium walk after it started raining hours before forecast, and dinner is stubbornly refusing to defrost (I didn't make a plan B and don't want to brave Tesco's in the rain for something shit but not that cheap). I have finished a couple of books that have been sitting around for far to long though, and they've both been excellent, and my sister sent me stroopwafels in the post - so on balance I feel like I might just be winning.

The first of the excellent books is Inez Holden's 'Blitz Writing' from Handheld Press. It's worth signing up for their newsletter, and definitely worth following them on facebook for details of the sale box. I can also commend their services for sending presents to other people. I've been lazy about this in the past and default used amazon but will where possible be buying direct from small publishers now.

A very long time ago I read a short story by Holden (Death in High Society), and for years kept an eye out for more of her work, without success, until I'd more or less forgotten about her. The story was the sort that sticks with you though and I'm extremely pleased that Handheld are reprinting some of her work (there's more of her wartime writings coming next year). I can only hope that some of her fiction comes back into print as well.

'Blitz Writing' includes 'Night Shift' which is a lightly fictionalised account of a week on night shift in a factory engineering parts, and 'It Was Different at the Time' which is a more general memoir of the period from April 1938 to August 1941. There's an overlap in events between the two, but 'Night Shift' was published first, which I guess is why it comes first in this edition but I'd actually recommend reading 'It Was Different At The Time' before 'Night Shift'.

'It Was Different At The Time' provides a whole lot of context for 'Night Shift' and expands on what we know of Holden's views about the people she's working with - she's sympathetic but unsentimental about the people she meets. It's a view of London's working class women that's often absent from the more common middle class memoires and diaries of the period that have come my way.

I found 'It Was Different At The Time' more compelling as well, the Monday chapter of 'Night Shift' was interesting but it didn't suck me in, which is probably why it took me so long to get round to reading this properly, by contrast I raced through 'It Was Different At The Time' which is now full of underlining's and I want to read the first half of this book again armed with the understanding the second half has given me.

Blitz aside the thing that really struck me about 'Night Shift' is how little has changed for women working in menial jobs. The concerns about wages being paid properly, the way they talk and complain, the relationship with the men in charge, and their relationships with each other will all be familiar to anybody who has worked in a low paid job with a lot of other people, especially a lot of other women. Other people must have written about this, but I can't think of another example off hand of anyone doing it with the empathy or respect that Holden does.

'It Was Different At The Time' is fascinating because it records the build up to the war and different attitudes - there's a bit about racism that seems particularly relevant to our contemporary world, and Holden's London is perhaps surprisingly multi-cultural, certainly compared to films, tv series, and all those other middle class accounts I've read. It shows more of Holden herself too, and the different social worlds she flits in and out of.

One of the joys of Handheld books is that they come with excellent introductions, notes, and in this case a list of works cited and further recommended reading. Kristin Bluemel does a brilliant job of introducing Holden and laying out the salient points of her life - she is someone I'd like to know much more about. I really recommend reading this both for how good it is and because of the slightly different perspective it brings to territory that turns out not to be as familiar as I'd come to think. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Leicester Lock down Part 2

Leicester is still in lock down, it's due to be reviewed on the 18th, with rumours that it will be extended. I wasn't sure about writing this post, but after finding the last week really hard I'm doing it partly because it helps me deal with it, and hopefully because if anybody reading this finds themselves in a similar situation they might find it helpful as well.

The first thing is that still being in lock down whilst the rest of the country is coming out of it is much harder than I anticipated. It feels weird seeing friends doing things whilst I'm still stuck at home. The idea of pubs being open is frankly frightening, but the school situation seems worse. Leicester's schools were closed again which sends a fairly specific message which is hard to reconcile with increased relaxation elsewhere. There's no sense in which it feels like we're all in this together, it's very much a case of feeling left behind.

The city centre is emptier than it's been since early April, although nothing is shifting the hardcore group of drinkers who have colonized the middle of my local park. There will be anything uo to 30 of them at a time, they're not daunted by the threat of virus (although as less than fit looking men in their 50's and 60's you'd hope they might be) heavy rain, or the police who regularly come through and ask them to move on.

They're easy enough to avoid, and I suppose the fact they're their at all means that they're not trying to get into pubs and bars outside the lock down zones, and why would they? The park with a bag of cheap lager is cheaper and less regulated than any pub is going to be. I still find them intimidating both in numbers and for the All Lives Matter football shirts they favour. There are noticeably less younger people around.

If you live, as I do, near the centre of the lock down zone the distance to leave it is a deterrent in itself. If you live on the edge of it I wonder how tempting it is to ignore the new regulations? I've certainly been surprised by the number of people suggesting that I pack up and clear out for a week or two. This is hard as well because it's really tempting to do exactly that and the reality is that I've been careful enough for there to be near zero chance of having come into contact with the virus - one of the things I'm really struggling with at the moment is how hard I find it to make myself leave my flat. I'm more worried about lack of exercise than anything else at the moment, but if we don't follow the rules where does that leave us (quite apart from the possibility of a fine)?

There seems to be a growing conviction that this is primarily a problem that's caused by, and effects, the city's Asian and black population, which is both disturbing and outright dangerous. The worst part of this is that it's a narrative that the government seems comfortable encouraging, partly I assume in an effort to discredit local Labour leadership.

There still doesn't seem to be any really clear explanation of why Leicester has been hit so badly, especially compared to other cities with similar demographics and industries. Leicester is a poor city, the council has had the same swinging budget cuts that everyone else has had under a decade of austerity measures, and you can see the damage that's done everywhere.

The sweat shop set ups in the textile industry are no secret. Sarah O'Conner wrote about them here 2 years ago, and again earlier this month here, which includes this link from UK Parliments website that lists how our current government rejected every recommendation to clean up the garment industry. This Guardian article which criticises Priti Patel's comments on sweat shops highlights further problems. It's an issue that's been raised over and over again, but ignored. The news this weekend that a farm in Hereford has 73 confirmed cases amongst it's pickers (here) indicates it's not just factories that are a problem.

Brexit was bad enough for bringing the racists out of the woodwork, Covid is compounding that. The very last thing Leicester needs is a rise in racial tension. The people who live here are being badly let down by a government that either doesn't have a plan or refuses to communicate it. It looks like there won't be any extra help for businesses (here), and altogether things look bleak.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Killer in the Rain - Raymond Chandler

I feel like I've been reading this book throughout the whole of lock down, including the extra Leicester time I'm currently enjoying. I really put the effort in the last couple of days to get the damn thing finished though so I can finally move on with a clear conscience to the next half finished book on the sin pile.

I like a bit of hard boiled noir, I really like Raymond Chandler's version of it, so I had high hopes for this book, but although there are interesting things about it, it was generally a disappointment. It's eight of what are billed as Chandler's finest short stories, originally published in Black Mask and Dime Detective, but as each are around 70 pages long they feel more like novellas. There are a couple that work well, but mostly they feel like they're to short to develop character and plot, but long enough to get tediously confusing, or dwell over long on scenes of torture and violence.

A lot of the ideas in these stories were eventually turned into some of his better known novels, so if you're a real Chandler fan this is worth reading to see how they evolve, but even within the stories here there's a lot of repetition, particularly between the last 2 stories - The Lady in the Lake, and No Crime in the Mountains. It's not just that the detectives are interchangeable (different names, everything else the same throughout the 8 entries) but between these two the local sheriff is also much the same, and one longish scene that describes them is almost word for word identical.

If they'd started and finished the book it wouldn't have been especially noticeable, coming together it's mildly annoying. The final story also has a bunch of unlikely Nazi's shoehorned into it and an appallingly racist take on a Japanese character. It's on a par with the depiction of black characters.

I haven't read any Chandler for a while, and maybe this is a feature in his full length novels that I've forgotten, or which I wasn't quite as sensitive to when I first read them. Coupled with what feels like a whole novels worth of graphic violence compressed into a relatively short format it made the whole reading experience feel quite grueling. These really aren't Chandler's best works, but they've been packaged as if they deserve to be held up to them which is probably the thing that's really annoyed me most about this collection.

It would also benefit from some sort of introduction, commentary, or notes that indicated how the individual stories evolved into other things, and a gave a bit more context about the pulp magazines they first appeared in.

This one is best left to the real fans. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Pooh Cook Book - Katie Stewart

It's been a dreich day here, which has matched my mood. There was sad news this morning and even before that I was finding it hard to settle. I had not anticipated how difficult going back into lockdown would be whilst the rest of the country is coming out of it. I thought it would be a continuation of the last 3 weeks, tiresome but not much more than that. Turns out it feels much more isolating when most of my friends are outside the lockdown zone. It's not what they're doing, but that they can start making tentative plans and I can't. But it can't go on forever and tomorrow will probably be better.

Whilst it was still sunny this morning A.A. Milne came up in a phone call with my mother. It turned out that I knew an impressive amount of trivia about him, almost all culled from years of reading Stuck In A Book. I think we had Winnie-the-Pooh books when we were children, but I don't remember much about them, haven't watched the Disney version, didn't finish 'The Red House Mystery' and haven't seen or read any of his plays or other novels.

I have had 'The Pooh Cook Book' for as long as I can remember though. It looks like the sort of book that was probably a very early present from my Godmother, and I have a great deal of affection for it. As a child I remember making the coconut ice and peppermint creams, and later using the pancake recipe.

It was first published in the early 1970s so there's a dependence on margarine that seems really nostalgic now. The last time I really cooked with it was in the 90's when I spent a year as a cook in a nursery. We used the cheapest possible margarine for cooking with, it was so revolting (smelt awful, felt awful, tasted awful and looked awful, it was full of pockets of oil - just disgusting) that I haven't used it since. To be fair if you want a good light sponge there's something to be said for a decent branded margarine though and maybe 20 years is long enough to have moved past that particular trauma.

Every time I look at this book I'm impressed with it. It's clearly designed to be used independently even by quite young children with the easiest recipes asterisked at the beginning. It starts with instructions for cinnamon toast intended for 'Smackereles, Elevenses, and Teas. Lunches and Suppers are slightly more advanced, but still written very much with a child learning to cook in mind. I love that there's a bread recipe complete with instructions on how to make different shaped rolls.

The inclusion of a cider cup for parties is intriguing; do parents still let their youngish children drink even very mildly alcoholic punches at parties? The recipe asks for 1/2 a pint of cider, 1/2 a pint of lemonade, 1/2 a pint of undiluted orange squash along with the addition of a few sprigs of mint and a sliced apple and orange. It's to be served with ice and says it will serve 6. I'm not entirely convinced by the squash in this, but with a bit of tinkering and carefully chosen ingredients it could be a decent low alcohol alternative to Pimm's.

Cocoa made with milk and honey sounds fabulous, and an old fashioned still orangeade excellent as well. I bet the honey and raisin scones are decent, and there's a peanut butter, chocolate and rice crispy concoction that I like the sound of too.

Unexpectedly for a book from the 1970s there's even a fruit centerpiece that actually sounds pretty in the Christmas section. It's for frosted fruit - you whip up some egg white, paint it in streaks down well polished apples or pears, and then roll them in castor sugar and let them dry. Grapes can be highlighted with little dots of sugar. I quite like the idea of doing this to some shiny red apples - would have loved doing this when I was a child.

Altogether 'The Pooh Cook Book' has aged really well. It doesn't have pictures of the food, but is full of quotes from the Pooh books and E. H. Shepard's illustrations so it still looks great. The honey based recipes for cakes, biscuits, and tarts, of which there are plenty, appeal to my adult taste buds, and it still feels like it would be a great way to get kids cooking. It looks like it's still in print too, which is somehow really reassuring.

Unfortunately the rest of Katie's books don't seem to have fared so well, if they're as good as this one I think that's a shame. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Despite having had a good proportion of Sylvia Townsend Warner's books on my shelves since pre blogging days, and a lot of enthusiasm, especially for 'Lolly Willowes', from people who I normally find my reading preferences aligned with it took Helen to really make me read her.

It was Helen's blog where I first saw Warner's fairy tales mentioned, which in turn made me curious about them when they were re published by Handheld Press. They are one of the best things I've ever found, and I'm now quietly in the process of bestowing them on friends I think might be suitably deserving/appreciative.

For last years Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week I tried Mr. Fortune's Maggot which was a beautiful, melancholy, profound book which has stuck with me. For this year I wanted to try' Lolly Willowes' again. I started, and failed to finish this maybe as much as 15 years ago. I don't know why I didn't get on with it better at the time. It sounded like very much my sort of book,  but it didn't spark any enthusiasm in me at all, and I totally failed to see any of the humour that runs through it.

It might be that it was around the time that I was reading a lot of books about surplus women and the weird element of 'Lolly Willowes' jarred with that. If I was comparing her to F. M. Mayor (The Rector's Daughter, The Squire's Daughter, The Third Miss Symons"), which I might have been I can see why I might have struggled.

The start of 'Lolly Willowes' feels conventional enough at first glance - a shy young woman who not only fails to make a social success but fails to worry about it, from a genteel background, who goes from father to brothers house. When she settles with her brother the family give over the small spare bedroom to her (which is a wrench because it means having to wash the double sized sheets for stray single visitors) and she dwindles into a useful aunt passively joining in with all the family's activity and routines.

When Mayor takes a similar character in 'The Rector's Daughter' she makes the most of a similarly empty life in a way that I felt defied the reader to pity it's central character. Warner has Laura Willowes make a pact with the devil and become a witch. Had I read to the end first time I would have better understood 'Lolly Willowes' in that surplus woman tradition. It's touched on in the last few pages in a way that also recalls Virginia Woolf's 'A Room Of One's Own' albeit with a playfulness and humour that I do not associate with Woolf.

It's also a book that has a particular resonance at this stage of my (extended) lockdown. Laura's feelings about life in London compared to the country very much echo mine right now when the limitations of the city have never been more frustrating, even if in other ways it has been a gift for getting the sort of peace that Laura desires.

What I really can't understand though is how I missed the humour and sharpness of this book last time around when it's the first thing that hit me this time. It doesn't much matter because I got here in the end, which feels like the greatest good luck.

I'm really beginning to wonder if Sylvia Townsend Warner might be the most under rated writer though, and why that should be. It looks like she might be getting the Penguin Modern Classic treatment next year so that might help a little, and I wish I had something more intelligent to say about her beyond the very sound advice to read her books, but until I've actually taken that advice myself the next best thing I can tell you is to read what Helen has to say about her. She has read Warner widely, and her reviews are both insightful and accessible. Helen Macdonald, Harriet Devine, and Simon Thomas at Stuck in a Book are all also great places to start reading around her. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Lockdown in Leicester Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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