Monday, August 31, 2020

Family Matters - Anthony Rolls

I'm on the verge of a BL Crime Classics binge (which I'm sort of trying to resist because there's a lot of good books I should be reading right now, including from the BL's Tales of the Weird series and Women Writers) bought on by having a sort out to see which titles I actually had and realising how many I haven't read yet. That and them normally being excellent escapism, and god knows I want to escape from 2020 on a regular basis.

Reading 'Family Matters' only intensified the desire for a proper binge, although it didn't offer quite as much escapism as I might have liked - Robert Arthur Kewdingham, 'an eccentric failure of a man' (spoilers coming) who will be both the villain and victim of the piece turns out to be a man in his late 40s, unemployed, and something of a hoarder. It's all a bit close to the bone for a woman in her mid 40's, unemployed, who has a habit of collecting junk.

Fortunately I'm less inclined to persecute any potential spouse by talking about past lives as a high priest of Atlantis or bringing beetles home - so maybe it's okay. Robert Arthur, and much of the rest of the Kewdingham family are wonderfully realised monsters, full of middle class smugness and complacency in their own superiority and convinced that the universe will provide all they feel entitled to.

It's no surprise that Robert Artur's wife is at the end of her tether and at a point of desperation, it's more surprising that there isn't a great deal of sympathy for her - but then she's an outsider to the Kewdingham's who are bound by type to support their own however unsatisfactory he is.

The book opens with a description of the main protagonists and then follows them and their motivations until quite near the end Robert Arthur dies. The reader more or less knows what's happening to him and who's doing it, although it's impossible to tell precisely what happens to him in the end - although there are several people with guilty intent by then.

The beauty of this approach, which feels really novel for 1933 is that the reader is really involved with all the characters, especially Bertha (the unfortunate wife). She's an intelligent and attractive woman who is much put upon, but she also loses her temper, bickers with her husband in public, and can't disguise the contempt she's coming to feel for him. She mostly has my sympathy, but there's enough of an edge to her to make the wider family's antipathy make sense.

Robert Arthur himself is a fabulously drawn example of monstrous ego. At any point where I might have felt some sympathy for him it was quickly squashed - and yet he's also utterly believably human and so if sympathy isn't possible, a little bit of pity is.

Crime classics is a broad term, there are books in this series which are pleasantly amusing period pieces but not much more (they don't need to be, good quality classic entertainment is plenty to be going on with), but there are also titles like this one where classic refers to more than style. This book really stood out for me as something more on every level, and I'm very glad it was the one I picked up. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

From The Oven To The Table - Diana Henry

I've written about this book a couple of times since it came out last last September, most recently in March just before lockdown started. I'm writing about it again because it's one of the books that keeps rescuing me.

I need a bit of rescue because Leicester is still in partial lockdown. Shops are open and so are a lot of the pubs, restaurants, and cafes, but crucially we're not meant to meet in houses or private gardens, or meet other households in public places unless they're part of a social bubble for single people. To be honest I have no idea how carefully people are adhering to whatever the current rules are - appearances suggest not much, especially now schools have gone back here.

My own lockdown observance took a significant hit this time last week - the beginning of last week was comprehensively spoiled by evidence of more water coming into my bathroom from upstairs (anyone who knows, or follows me, will know this is a recurring theme). Sometime around midnight last Friday it ceased to be a problem when the buildings pumps failed and all the flats were left without water. No water in a city still in partial lockdown is no joke, inconvenient at the best of times, there's a distinct lack of public toilets open, or swimming pools, or gyms, or public spaces where you might keep warm, dry, and feel safe from infection for any length of time. I decamped.

When I returned it was to realise that the damp patch in the bathroom was turning into a rapidly worsening stream of water coming down the wall and doing serious damage to the plaster board. Discovering this after 5pm is never great, trying to get hold of building managers and letting agents and all the rest of it when so many people are still working from home isn't easy either. Everything appears to be working properly now, please keep your fingers crossed for me that it remains so!

It's a status that seemed worthy of a proper celebration so I'm writing this full of seared and roast duck breasts with Asian flavoured plums (and cabbage) courtesy of M&S having duck breasts on offer and 'From The Oven to the Table'. Now I have 2 more things to celebrate. The first is that I've finally discovered how to cook a duck breast satisfactorily (to be fair the packet more or less gave the same instructions as Diana, but they never used to and I always used to end up with something so rubbery it could have bounced), it turns out that searing and then roasting is the trick. The second is that this didn't take much over half an hour to prepare and cook (it helped that the plums were really ripe) and it was delicious.

Readers of this blog will know that I enthuse about Diana Henry's books almost as often as my flat suffers water damage (both have happened a lot), but until now 'Salt, Suger, Smoke' has been the one I used the most. That's changed with 'From the Oven to the Table' which without much thought has remained this years go to book for when I want something really good. Every one of the several recipes I've tried has become a kitchen staple (duly transcribed and scaled down in a notebook). Not being able to share this food has been one of the smaller but persistent frustrations of lock down.

I don't quite know what the specific alchemy is between me and this particular book. The recipes are very much in classic Diana Henry style, so why it's this one and not say 'Simple' that I keep turning to is a mystery to me, or why the chicken thigh chapter here rather than in 'A Bird in the Hand? I just know that it is so. The baked rice with orange feta and dill (and olives but I don't much like them) is so good it has become my ultimate comfort food. The last things I cooked for others were the pork in marsala, and the Arroz Al Horno - and it's cold enough today to make that seem appealing again.

Maybe it's the whole oven to table concept that works so well for me, it's certainly appealing when your cooking for yourself to be able to bung everything in the oven and leave it be until it's done. Especially when you're not compromising on flavour or variety. Whatever it is, I love this book, it's made me happy time after time in this difficult year, and that seems like something worth sharing and shouting about.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers - Robin A. Crawford

Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers: A treasury of 1000 Scottish words by Robin A. Crawford - I will admit that when I when I volunteered for this Blog tour I was a little bit concerned that this book would be a classic example of tartanry ("term for over elaborate interpretation of authentic Scottish culture or customs, especially dress - what my granny would call 'bum-bee tartan'. The identification of what is 'authentic' is somewhat open to interpretation.").

It was a mostly unfair suspicion, but as this is Crawford's personal choice of a 1000 Scottish words informed by his humour, experience, the occasional nostalgic memory, and interests, I am aware of the sentiments of the author in a way that I wouldn't be if it was a dictionary. On the other hand dictionary's aren't much fun to read and this book is so a touch, or suspicion, of tartanry is very welcome.

It is absolutely worth reading the introduction of this book before doing anything else with it for Crawford's succinct but accurate summing up of what he means by Scottish words. Scots as a language or dialect is quite distinct from Gaelic which is a language, or the broader dialects of Orkney and Shetland which might put forward a convincing argument to be considered as separate languages despite the proliferation of Scots words within them. But then Scots is a diverse, clannish, kind of thing anyway. The northeast, west, lowlands, highlands, central belt, borders, and islands all have their distinct rhythms and words along with their own identities.

If Scots can be defined as anything it's as the language spoken by working people, the language of home and school yard rather than the office or the schoolroom, as Crawford explores (with obvious delight) it's still an evolving and vibrant urban dialect too, and one that thrives publicly on twitter, and perhaps more privately on platforms like facebook. In a world that sometimes feels increasingly standardised when it comes to accents and regional dialects this is an encouraging development.

In the end this has been a delightful book to sift through and find treasure in. My favorite entry is probably for yer grannie (disbelieving response to a lie. Sir Walter Scott wrote in his Journal in 1826, 'Dined with the Duke of Wellington... I wish for sheep's head and whisky toddy against all the French cookery and champagne in the world.' To which the response should be, 'Yer grannie!'...). I'm fond of Sir Walter Scott, and the Duke of Wellington - though of the two I consider Scott to be by far the more heroic so this episode has everything going for it from my point of view, as well as being a sound example of the general charm of this book.

It's also the perfect book to keep by your bedside for when you want something to read for perhaps only a few minutes, or maybe something that will have you following words for a bit longer, or push you towards other books and thoughts (bedside is where I also keep my copy of Sir Walter Scott's journal, and the amount he's referenced in here is sending me back to him). I can thoroughly recommend Robin Crawford's company - especially on a day as dreich as this particular Tuesday when to go out would leave me fair drookit. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Antlers of Water - Edited by Kathleen Jamie

I had been anticipating 'Antlers of Water' for a long time before I got my hands on this copy, and have very much enjoyed reading it. It's been the best anthology of nature writing I've come across since Little Toller's Arboreal which I now want to get back to and read again (which will have to wait, unfortunately my flat is currently without water due to failed pumps and I've had to seek refuge elsewhere). I think that in some ways 'Antlers of Water' is a braver, or possibly I mean more daring, collection but without being able to check that's maybe unfair.

I also really hope that this book becomes what it feels like it's meant to be  - the first volume of an on going series. It is billed as the first ever collection of contemporary Scottish writing on nature and landscape with 24 contributors if you count Jamie's introduction, which I do. It's representative, but can hardly be comprehensive and it would be fantastic to see the work here keep being built upon.

Even the sub heading of 'Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland' doesn't entirely describe this collection, two chapters are made up of photographs, one set comes with some explanation, the other does not. David James Grinly's images in the chapter 'Signs for Alva' made me work to try and decipher them - something I'm by no means sure I've done satisfactorily, but then this isn't a book to rush so it doesn't matter if I don't get everything straight away.

The need not to rush it is something to consider - the chapters are short, but the voices are so different that I found I couldn't satisfactorily read more than a couple a day, and there are several that I've bookmarked to return to, particularly Malachy Tallack's 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Solastalgia' which felt like it was worth much more consideration than a single reading would yield.

Alec Finlay's 'From A Place-Aware Dictionary' is another one that wants a bit of time spent on it. Reading lists of words and the definitions granted them isn't the same as reading anything else. At first glance I only started to pick up on the slyness of his work and it's humour along with the many other things in it. It's also chapters like this and 'Signs for Alva' that refused me as the reader the chance to be complacent or to skim through the book. They demand a different sort of attention and the variety of work here is one of the things that makes 'Antlers of Water' so exciting.

Something else is the fairly equal gender split between writers. I'm not used to seeing so many women's voices in collections like this and it's refreshing, most powerfully again because of the variety of expression. Some write about motherhood, just as some of the male contributors write about fatherhood, but the collection is to well chosen and curated to allow for lazy comparisons between contributors. The same is true for the view of Scotland it gives, because it both does and doesn't feel like a distinctly Scottish book and again it challenges lazy assumptions about wild Scotland.

For now the chapter that I've found most troubling and compelling is Sally Huband's 'Northern Raven' which was partially reprinted in the times earlier this month concentrating principally on the more sexist aspects of Up-Helly-Aa. The full piece packs much more of a punch. It's brave to talk about the darker aspects of island life when you're in the middle of it because it will almost certainly cause some resentment, but these are also things that need saying. The raven as a symbol is a bird that's at the heart of Shetland's idea of it's Viking heritage - which does nothing to protect the actual bird from those who see it as a threat to lambs. It's an uncomfortable but necessary piece to read.

Jim Crumley's 'A Handful of Talons' was an easy going treat by comparison, and an excellent edition to my small private anthology of writing about Sea Eagles. It is altogether a book that challenges and soothes in equal measure. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Potterism A Tragi-Farcical Tract - Rose Macaulay

Handheld Press are fast becoming my favourite independent press. Their choices are consistently interesting, and their editions well produced with particularly good introductions. I'm also impressed by Judith, who chases me up when I've had a review copy and asks me when I'm going to hand in my homework  I don't know how thankless a task that is, but as a born procrastinator her polite enquiries have been a welcome prod. I'm also going to take a moment to recommend a Handheld gift voucher or book as a present. They will send beautifully wrapped books for you, and I'd be delighted if anybody chose to give me a voucher (not least because I've got my eye on British Weird at the moment and there will be more things on their list before I know it).

Much as when I first read the Handheld edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Kingdoms of Elfin' I had tried and failed to get very far with Rose Macaulay in the past. I got halfway through 'The Towers of Trebizond', which looks like it was her last book, and when I bought  it more or less the only one in print and easily available, before losing interest. I have a couple of old Virago modern Classics editions looking hopeful on a shelf as well, and the British Library's reissue of 'Dangerous Ages' (which arrived more or less the same time as 'Potterism') which I'm now considerably more enthusiastic about.

My edition of 'The Towers of Trebizond' doesn't have an introduction which is a shame, Macaulay deserves some context, she isn't the sort of pleasantly fluffy writer the blurb in the back of that book led me to expect. Handheld's 'Potterism' provides all of that, with a particularly valuable discussion on the way anti-semitism is handled in the book. Some of the language is deliberately shocking and both Sarah Lonsdale's introduction, and Kate Macdonald's notes are useful for unraveling that.

Written in 1920 it's almost startling how relevant this book still is in the ways that it presents the press, the opportunities available to women (compared to men) and racism - in this case particularly anti-semitism. Johnny and Jane Potter are twins, the children of a successful self made newspaper owner and his wife - who writes successful sentimental novels. They both go to Oxford where they fall in with a crowd who stand against everything the Potter press represents, and to the amusement of Mr Potter happily join them.

Of the two, Jane is the more intelligent, but as a woman her opportunities are curtailed. The twins are also greedy for the good things, and good times, in life that their more idealistic friends are perhaps not - but then as all of them come from financially comfortable backgrounds they can afford their idealism.

The book is broken down into a series of sections with different narrators - RM who sits outside the story and reports it, a section for each of the Potter twins closest friends, and one by their mother, Leila Yorke. It's also built around a sort of whodunnit and a couple of love stories - the whodunnit is a fun way of exploring the different personalities Macaulay has presented us with rather than a serious thing in itself. The love stories (although that's possibly a misleading description) are perhaps rather more central, but not I think by much.

The consistent theme throughout is satire against the popular press, and against the dangerous hypocrisy of people like Leila Yorke who's prejudices and privilege's threaten to do real harm to all around her. Her section is both hilarious and terrifying. The reason to read 'Potterism' though is that it's far more than the sum of it's parts. It's slyly funny, perceptive, clever, compelling, relevant - everything you might want to read over a lazy weekend.

It's also full of razer sharp observations which makes it a book I want to re read (possibly with a pencil for some underlining) with attention to tease out some of the things Macaulay has to say for more lengthy consideration. Which is the hallmark of a Handheld book - even something as seemingly light and frothy as 'Business as Usual' has a lot going on just under the surface. In this case that includes some observations about the first world war, and it's poets, from a 1920 perspective which seem almost iconoclastic compared to the way we're now taught think, mostly based on work which came substantially later than 1920.

With 'Potterism' I'm also hugely grateful that I finally get the enthusiasm around Macaulay that others have and that I've previously lacked. I don't know if I'll become a huge fan - 'Dangerous Ages' will probably determine that. Sarah Lonsdale's introduction tells me that both are part of a body of 5 works that are worth considering together which is a bonus.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Song for Summer - Eva Ibbotson

We've been waiting since Thursday for more information about lock down in Leicester, only to eventually hear today that the important things (still no meeting people in their houses or gardens, and no arranging to meet people in pubs etc.) are staying the same - and why that couldn't have been announced last week I have no idea. I can now get my nails done (never have), a tattoo (I think, but it's not on my to do list) or go to an outdoor swimming pool in the city (we don't have one of those either). It's wearing and I'm tired of it, the constant waiting for news or clarification also plays hell with my ability to concentrate, it took days to find a book that I could concentrate on for more than 2 pages.

The book I eventually found was Eva Ibbotson's 'A Song For Summer' which I remember buying 2 or 3 years ago for some light summer reading and then being a bit put off by the cover which makes my copy look like the target audience is very young teens. A bit of a trawl around suggests that Ibbotson's not for children's books haven't been especially well served by their covers in the last few years - although the currant crop of monotone photographs of young women are fairly good.

I didn't read Ibbotson as a child, which I think might have been my loss, but she never came my way. A good few years ago I did read 'The Secret Countess' but didn't blog about it. I remember enjoying it but not much more. Still she's one of those writers with a hard core of fans who's taste I normally find reliable and by the time I got to page 4 I felt like I was winning. I started the book on my way to bed and finished it the next day and am thinking I need to buy another emergency Ibbotson for the next weekend the government chooses to spoil with indecision.

Having just looked her up I realise why I didn't read Ibbotson as a child, I knew she was born in 1925, but hadn't appreciated how late in life she started writing. Most of her books came in the 1990's and she seems to have been working up until she died in 2010. I had checked before I started reading and 'A Song For Summer' came out on 1997, when it wouldn't have had anything like the same appeal for me that it does now.

Ibbotson was 72 when this was published, and looking back on her war time experience, in some ways it's tempting to compare her to Mary Wesley who produced most of her work at a similar age, and who I read a lot of around the mid 90's, but Ibbotson is funnier, and probably kinder (it's too long since I read one, and I haven't read enough of the other to be categorical about it).

In 'A Song For Summer' Ellen Carr, bought up by her retired suffragette mother and aunts, turns (somewhat to their dismay) to the domestic arts rather than the glittering career they had hoped for. In 1937 she swaps London for a job in an Austrian School, partly because she wants to find some flowers she's been told about and she understands that there might not be much time to do it in before war comes. The school is eccentric but Ellen is beloved by almost all who know her, and falling in live with Marek, the groundsman.

In the best romantic tradition she's not 'just' a cook housekeeper, and he's more than a gardener who teaches a bit of fencing. Dangerous things are afoot, and there's no shortage of adventure and misunderstanding. If it sometimes seems a bit far fetched it doesn't take much to remember that there are far more extraordinary and entirely true stories of both atrocity and heroism to come out of the second world war.

Vienna isn't a big part of the plot in this book, but how the few mentions of it made me long to return to that City and walk its streets, or sit in its cafes drinking coffee, eating cake, and maybe reading something just like this because I'm on holiday and it doesn't have to be serious. The Austrian parts of the book are beautifully evocative and come alive in a way that the brief mentions of wartime London do not - but then they're not as important so it doesn't matter.

There's no smooth path for Marek and Ellen, and whilst there are elements that follow the traditional Mills and Boon sort of formula this isn't at all what that this book is. I sort of understand why Ibbotson's adult work is primarily marketed at young adults, but genuinely I think these are books for middle aged women (like myself) however much teen reader might enjoy them.

Ibbotson is never explicit, but she's frank about sex, especially disappointing and ridiculous sex in a way that I absolutely associate with older women. It is over all the humour which made reading this such a delight. I underlined the end of a paragraph when another of Ellen's would be lovers muses in complete good faith that "Sometimes he felt that that was what he had been born for - explaining things to the girl he loved so much."

It would be a syrupy sort of thing without the humour, but as it is it's a delightful comfort read of a book. The sort of thing to reach for when times are bad or you feel under the weather and you just want to shut the world out for a bit and dream of Vienna and things turning out alright in the end.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Reclaim Her Name

I've been reading a lot about this project over the weekend, all of it critical. There's a good bit by Sian Cain in The Guardian here which discusses some of the sloppier aspects of the project - images of the wrong author on the cover page of one title, and a dodgy attribution for Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far (her sister Winnifred was also a writer who used the pen name Onoto Watanna). Their pen names celebrate their Chinese heritage (their mother was Chinese, their father English).

I had heard of Onoto Watanna because I know one of her descendants, the sisters work undoubtedly deserves more attention, but probably not because one of them might have written one story under a make pseudonym. Catherine Taylor has more excellent points to make in this article in the TLS, particularly around the reasons people chose pseudonyms.

I'm willing to accept that the concept was well intentioned and not primarily a bid for sales, although the number of errors these articles point out make me wonder how much of a passion project it really was - but I'm still wondering who ever thought this was a really good idea.

I'm all for feminising the canon and reclaiming the very many women who have disappeared from it, or never been allowed a look in despite how good they are. So it's fortunate that we have publishers who are literally dedicated to doing just that, as well as an increasing number of women represented in what I can't help but think of the classic classics ranges from Penguin and Oxford World's Classics. For women in translation Pushkin Press are a good place to start looking.

I also think we could be doing a lot more to reclaim genre writing - especially romance which is probably where you get the most women writing specifically, if not exclusively, for women and often using pseudonyms (although they're generally female) to differentiate different strands of writing as a name becomes a brand. It seems to be just as common in detective fiction too, and almost from the beginnings of the genre.

I have thoughts about this in relation to fan fiction too, but they're messy and are resisting being written down. Essentially I keep coming back to the thought that reclaiming names, possibly against the preferences of the authors in question, helps nobody.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

100 Nasty Women of History - Hannah Jewell

I have mixed feelings about this book. I bought it because it was buy one get one half price with Caroline Criado Perez's 'Invisible Women', which is excellent but I'm reading slowly because I keep getting so angry with how badly women are served in so many ways. This is particularly true of anything that touches on health care, as for to many of us have experienced.

'100 Nasty Women of History' isn't making me at all angry, but I am finding it's general tone slightly irritating. On the one hand it's a decent potted history of 100 women who represent a decent cross section of history and nationalities, though I'm not sure how lost to history Nell Gwynn, Josephine Baker, Sappho, Margery Kempe, Artemisia Gentileschi, Hedy Lamarr, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Sand or Constance Markievicz are.

There are many more names that I'm familiar with but concede might be slightly more obscure depending on your reading preferences, and I'm thinking that depending on those reading preferences and your personal background you might be very familiar with other names here that I am not. On the whole this is a small quibble though. The bigger problem is Hannah Jewell's insistence on using millennial slang. She includes an 'old people glossary' to explain herself at the end of the book which is probably meant to be funny, but feels vaguely patronising.

It leaves me unsure at who exactly the book is primarily aimed at - presumably fellow millennials who have somehow reached well into their 20's without knowing who Artemisia Gentileschi or Mary Wollstonecraft are. It's an approach that might work reasonably well as a column, or on Buzzfeed where Jewell used to work but which grates after reading a couple of entries. My guess is that it's going to date really quickly. If it wasn't for an entry on Empress Theodora (specifically, there are a couple of others that might raise eyebrows too) I might pass this on to the daughters of some of my friends, but as it is I think they might be a bit to young.

Otherwise it's more or less in the Horrible Histories mold, but I'd have hoped that by the time Empress Theodora's reputed circus act was appropriate reading for kids they were ready to read something a bit more substantial, and not a book which basically keeps repeating that men are shit and such babies.

But then it is a decent overview of a decent cross section of women's history, and my education didn't include many figures who weren't white and western, especially when it comes to women so I have learnt a lot from this (although not about Theodora who features in some splendid Byzantine mosaics so is well known to generations of art history students). It's a book that's worth a look, but read a couple of entries before buying it because I'm not sure I'd have come home with it if I had.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Knitting and Covid in a Heatwave

I don't like the heat and so the last few days have not been fun for me. I'm hanging on to my equilibrium mostly by keeping a bath full of cold water to climb into periodically. Although when I was rinsing dishes earlier I thought I had the hot tap on it took so long for cold water to run through.

My flat faces east with most of the outside walls being window so it heats up early and stays hot at the moment. There's no way of getting a cross breeze through, but as the city smells strongly of dog shit, urine (not, I fear, just dogs) spilt beer, sweat, and over hot bins, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Right now the sun is bouncing off the west facing windows of the opposite building and replenishing any heat that might have escaped earlier.

Given the heat this would have to have been the week that I chose to finish a knitting project and also the week I went for a Covid test. The Covid test has been a reminder to not be complaisant. A friend I'd been for a few walks with, and who I know has been extremely careful tested positive at the beginning of the week. She had gone for the test as a precaution before traveling to meet family outdoors next week. She wouldn't have been breaking any rules, and hasn't had any symptoms, the test was an extra precaution to reassure elderly parents. The positive result was a real shock.

As we'd seen each other within 10 days I went for a test too, I hadn't had symptoms either, and have come back with a negative result which I suppose is a relief. The reality is that I knew the chances of having it were slim, the bigger issue feels like the reminder that even when you do everything right you can still catch this thing, and now that things are opening up so much, if you're asymptomatic you can spread it too.

If you do find you need a test try and book it through the NHS website and not the government one that you tend to get directed to. It gives you less choice of testing centers - we have lots to choose from round here, and in my case failed to send the qr code I needed, or register me. Fortunately I got a walk through test anyway and after struggling to register on the government site again called 119 (as advised by the test centre) and quickly got sorted out. I'll certainly consider booking another test before any projected travel arrangements as it seems better to know you're safe, than be sorry later.

The knitting project was a cushion cover for dads birthday (on Sunday). I knew I wasn't going to get it to him on time, but I wanted to show him I'd finished it on time, so despite the heat I battled through and got it done by Saturday afternoon. I'm delighted with how this has turned out as I was short of time for planning and didn't get to do any swatching.

The maths of the thing and the centre of the pattern are taken from Hazel Tindalls Scaddiman cushion cover pattern - her circular cushions are really lovely to knit up, I recommend buying some of her patterns for them. I wanted it to suggest a Lancashire rose - the whole thing borrows elements from the family coat of arms. The curlews are a slightly adapted version of the ones from Linda Shearer's hat for the RSPB for a Curlew crisis month they had a couple of years ago. The scallop shells are another family emblem and are a slightly abbreviated version from a pattern in Marja de Haan's 'Uradale Shawls'. I considered adapting her curlews too, but Linda's fitted my cushion cover better.

I'm not entirely clear on what the etiquette of these kind of borrowings and adaptations are - although I do feel that once patterns are out there (duly paid for in this case) they will naturally take on their own life anyway. Either way it's right to credit the people whose initial work made it easy for me to throw elements together into something that's worked really well for me. I have more plans for messing with that Scaddiman pattern - the centre of it is a peach, just waiting for different colours to change it's mood and the things it suggests. Dad is pleased with the pictures of his cushion as well, which after feeling like I was boiling in the bag to knit it is a relief.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Georgette Heyer Readalong - The Quiet Gentleman

I'm very late to the party on this but a week or so ago I discovered #georgetteheyerreadalong on twitter. The book that they strted discussing last night is 'The Quiet Gentleman' which is one of my favourites and already it's given me an entirely new aspect of the book to consider.

I have no idea where Georgette Heyer would have stood on current ideas about colonialism and an imperial past. 70 years ago when she wrote 'The Quiet Gentleman' I'm fairly sure she would have been pro empire. It seems part and parcel of her high tory ideals, and part of her early  married life was spent following her husband around Africa whilst he worked. But then she said so little publicly that it seems presumptuous to make too many assumptions about her.

In the early chapters the Frant family are revealed to have a large and hideous epergne presented by the East India Company. The internet has been curiously unwilling to reveal suitable images of the sort of thing I had always pictured - The Wellington Collection in Apsley house for example has some cracking silver but It's not shown on the website. In last nights discussion somebody pointed out that this was a clue to the source of the Frant's wealth, and later int he book there are explicit references to a Jamaican estate.

Stupidly I'd never really picked up on this before - if I thought about it at all it was as a reference to Mansfield Park, but what I find really interesting about it now is how ambiguous Heyer is about it. The centre piece is hideous and our hero wants shot of it, whilst the less sympathetic members of the Frant Family wish it to remain in place despite it's questionable taste. The Jamaican estates are left away from the new Earl, and seen at length as a suitable place to banish the villain of the book where he's expected to sort things out and make them more profitable.

I think that when Heyer wrote this book she would have intended these details to reflect the reality of where aristocratic wealth came from in the early 19th century. What I'm not clear about is how she felt about it. The way the book reads now it could be acceptance without judgement, or it could be condemnation. Which is why I find Heyer such an interesting writer, and why for once Twitter hasn't reduced me to impotent fury, but given me something interesting to think about. I'm really looking forward to the next readalong session.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Spoilt Kill - Mary Kelly

It was chance that the last two British Library Crime Classics I picked up were both originally published in 1961, but a happy one because they've been really interesting to compare. Mary Kelly's book is set in the Staffordshire potteries, in a firm very like Spode, called Shentall's. It's still in family ownership and runs along family lines so when some industrial espionage is detected the managing director (Luke Shentall, still only in his mid 30's) calls in a private detective to get to the bottom of the issue.

Whilst Nicholson is investigating a body turns up in the liquid clay and thanks to the relationships he's started to forge with the people at Shentall's he's pulled into the second investigation as well. Mary Kelly also wrote The Christmas Egg which is good, but not as good as 'The Spoilt Kill', at least not in my opinion.

It's not the plotting that makes the difference. In both books Kelly's characters are nuanced and complex - though I think the motivations here make more sense, they're very human and everybody behaves exactly the way you would expect and believe people would behave. The real differences are the way that the potteries themselves take a staring role, and in the social issues discussed.

I'm sort of fond of Stoke on Trent and it's environs. Around the very late 90's my mother and I started making a pilgrimage up there every Christmas to hit the sales. We went to Wedgewood, Spode, the place that made Queensware, Emma Bridgewater, Burleigh and more that I've forgotten. Over the years the nature of the place has changed - it looks ever more down at heel and firms have been sold. I'm not sure what happened to Spode, but it used to be the best place to get white china (rejected before any decoration, dirt cheap, and still really nice to eat off). I finally got rid of it in favour of matching plates a few years back - big mistake.

The Potteries in 1961 might have passed their heyday but they're still a prosperous place with decent job prospects. The details of how the whole process works is fascinating, as is the view of a busy manufacturing town which people are still proud to belong to. When one character originating from London dismisses Stoke as provincial the others politely decline to argue, but they and we know that it's at the heart of an international trade and that there's a difference between being traditionally minded and parochial.

The social observations are interesting too - especially compared to The Body in the Dumb River. There's the same pre-occupation with keeping up appearances, although in this case it's new money rather than old, and a desire to have a television, a washing machine, a better car, all on higher purchase, that causes problems. There's the same sense that divorce, whilst possible, is a scandal to avoid. Both books also have a relaxed attitude to sex outside of marriage.

There's an openness about one character struggling with period pains, and a male colleague acknowledging it and helping her out which surprised me too. Mostly because there's a matter of factness about it which is as it should be, but is still woefully rare in contemporary fiction (at least in  my reading). But that's a detail, the pre-occupation with the just about managing financially being caught up in a credit culture which is only making things worse is a theme that's sadly kept it's relevance.

Altogether there's an odd, but compelling, feeling of having one foot in the past and another in the present day. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Body in the Dumb River - George Bellairs

1961 is turning out to be a good year for the British Library Crime Classics - I'm currently reading 'The Spoilt Kill' and loving it, and 'The Body in the Dumb River' was a real treat. I'm also coming to love George Bellairs. I don't remember being particularly taken with the first one that I read ('Death of a Busybody') but Surfeit of Suspects was excellent and so is this. I'm happy to see that I've got a couple more waiting for me.

I like Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard - he seems like a long suffering, hard working, patient man who spends his time getting the job done. I love the details that Bellairs puts into his books - there was a beautiful bit where a dog steals a chicken in one scene, and later is unimpressed with the cheese rinds the man it stole from is feeding him. It has nothing to do with the plot, it's hardly even scene setting, it's just a nice touch that made me smile.

The victim is a man called Jim, found stabbed in the back in a flooded river. He was a popular fairground worker who didn't appear to have any enemies - but someone obviously wanted him dead, and (slight spoiler) more investigation unearths an unexpected double life which has Littlejohn travelling back and forth across the country in search of clues.

The charm of this book is a combination of the sympathy you have to end up feeling for the murdered man - not perfect, but essentially decent and trying his best in difficult circumstances, and a pleasingly gothic atmosphere back in his home town. There appearances matter rather more than they ought too - divorce would still be a scandal that would not do, and there's a sense of being trapped between the social norms of a much earlier (almost Victorian) time, and the change that's coming with the modern world.

As Littlejohn closes in on the killer the atmosphere becomes increasingly horrible and threatening, but altogether it's a slow burn sort of a book with plenty of time to enjoy the details (like the thieving dog) that Bellairs decorates his work with. There's also plenty of time to consider some of the social details he touches on.

Bellairs was the pen name of Harold Blundell who was a prominent banker and philanthropist from Manchester. Martin Edwards introduction to this book is enlightening - Bellairs was not well served by his publishers, though fortunately he was well paid enough by his day job to be able to treat writing as a hobby that generated a cash bonus. I can't better Edwards statement that "... his books offer unpretentious entertainment, and that has enduring worth." So much so that sales of his titles have been healthy and there are now 5 of them in the series.

These aren't demanding books, but they're well crafted, enjoyable, and offer fascinating glimpses into their contemporary world. There's also the sense of a really decent man behind the pen - someone who treats even his less appealing characters with a measure of compassion, which makes me want to find out more. There's an appeal at the end of the book from the George Bellairs Literary Estate to join in with building an online Bellairs community which is tempting me to sign up for the newsletter. ( there's even a free ebook thrown in.)

Monday, August 3, 2020

Business As usual - Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

It's becoming something of a theme that almost every book I've written about recently is one that I should have read a while ago - but it's true of this one too. Somewhere between the dislocation of lockdown and suddenly feeling weird about reading something set in retail I really procrastinated on 'Business as Usual' until yesterday when I more or less read straight through it.

The first thing to say about it is it's really good. I can only imagine that there are other publishers who specialise in reprints of women's writing who are kicking themselves for not getting to this first - and if they're not they ought to be. It's a delightful book, funny, warm, quirky, and surprisingly relevant for something from the early 1930's.

It's an epistolary novel told through letters, telegraphs, memo's and a few other bits and pieces. The protagonist is a 27 year old woman, Hilary Fane, who has just got engaged to a rising young surgeon in Edinburgh. The engagement is to be for a year and she has decided to fill it by going to London and getting a job as she's just been made redundant from the library she's been working in.

Job hunting turns out to be harder than anticipated until eventually a very junior, and temporary, clerk's position turns up in Everyman's  - a version of Selfridges. There's a bit I'd like to say about Hilary's personal relationships but they'd be spoilers so I'm going to focus instead on the retail side of the book which is particularly well done.

Maybe it isn't particularly surprising how recognisable the details of life in a large department store still are given that human nature doesn't change that much (and computerized systems don't always drive the efficiencies you might hope for), but one thing that really struck me is Hilary's graduate status. In one of my first tutorials as an undergraduate the tutor in charge (a PhD student who was also a manager in the local Dillon's) told us never to try and patronize book shop staff - they already had their degrees she said. So does Hilary, but it isn't much help to her when she's job hunting.

There is an expectation that people who work in bookshops (or sell wine) will be well educated - at least on the part of people who work in bookshops (and wine). To many people start working in them as students and stay after graduating. Increasingly that's also true of those working in supermarkets as better jobs fail to materialise. It's a particularly hard system on women. Initially shift work can fit well with other interests, later it works around childcare, and there's always the possibility of promotion. Unfortunately you soon hit a bottleneck - the way to get ahead is to move around the business which favours the young and commitment free.

Hilary starts out hoping to find a job that pays £4 a week, but ends up with one that pays £2 10 shillings instead. Her entire income is taken up by rent, transport, and eating which she briefly finds fun, and then a cause for some despair. But Hilary knows her situation is temporary. She has well to do, if not especially well off parents to return to and a solidly comfortable and secure middle class life waiting when she marries. It would be easy to make a joke out of her period of poverty, but the authors don't - instead making a point of discussing the bleaker aspects of a life spent working hard for never quite enough to get ahead on.

They're good on the unglamorous but sometimes surprisingly impressive behind the scenes systems that make a really big shop function, and on company culture. I got really emotional about how Hilary describes Christmas; "I've kept Christmas with the best but I've never provided it before. I hadn't an idea what December could be like for the people who did." If you've experienced this you know. If you haven't it is hard to describe as how exhilarating, exhausting, and hellish it can be.

There is a charming romance in here, and it's mostly a light and funny book, but the details and compassion for the working people it describes are what make it something so much more than a charming period piece for a lazy Sunday afternoons reading. I genuinely cannot recommend this highly enough.

Do have a look at the Handheld list Here

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Awakening; Musings on Planetary Survival - Sam Love

I find poetry the hardest thing to write about - which is one very good reason to keep trying to do it. By contrast it's much easier to talk about, which is why I'm now regretting being the first person on this tour - I'd very much like some other peoples reactions to bounce off and to have a virtual conversation with.

Still, somebody has to be first, so here goes. I hadn't heard of Sam Love before I read this collection, and it was only when I started reading that it really clicked that he was American (since then I've done a bit of googling and am slightly less ignorant). I'm also going to suggest that if you don't know him either that you leave off looking him up until after reading some of his work. The author information came at the back of this book, and there's a lot of Sam in his work - another admission - I half thought Sam Love would be a woman when I said yes to this, and now I feel that I shouldn't have made his gender clear. There was something really useful about coming at this collection with no clear idea of age, ethnicity, nationality, or gender; just meeting somebody's words and getting to know them through their poetry.

As far as the poems themselves go they're neither the most beautiful, or complex that I've encountered - but there's an honesty about them which is deeply appealing, and there's no mistaking their meaning either. By Poem number 5, 'Jacuzzi Guilt' I felt like Sam was a friend that I wanted to listen too. It nails the difficulties of balancing the benefits of comfort and convenience with the needs of the planet and the wider population, and it does it with understanding and sympathy. It's a theme that recurs throughout the collection; the poems that touch on it are the ones that resonate most for me.

'Ghost Stumps' is another poem that stood out for me. In it Sam talks about his Victorian era house which both cries out for restoration and represents the wholesale destruction of ancient woodlands. There are issues here that we all have to grapple with - recognising the cost of things we consider beautiful, the cost of our historic legacy (the question of how to acknowledge the good and bad in that is increasingly pressing), and that non of the answers are likely to be simple.

It's a short collection, easy to read in minutes, with poems that that I've come back to a few times in the weeks that I've had this. The central themes are environmental damage and taking personal responsibility for it - 'Blueberry Mourning' is another poem that has stuck with me. There's both hope and despair here and it's definitely a collection that I recommend. The things it's discussing are important and the way it discusses them is no less so. It doesn't lecture or scold, but asks for consideration and compassion along with action.
It's available for £6.99 from Fly on the Wall Press who are doing all sorts of interesting things and are very much worth checking out.