Thursday, October 29, 2020

Queens of the Abyss, Lost Stories From the Women of the Weird - Edited by Mike Ashley

I'm reading quite a lot of weird short stories at the moment - as readers have probably noticed. I considered calling it a day and finding a change of subject after 'Queens of the Abyss' but then started another British Library Weird collection - 'Into The London Fog' because they're just that good. They're collections which suit my current mood, the season, and the general uncertainty of this year, and there's some really good stuff in them.

I was always interested in how 'Queens of the Abyss' would stack up with Handheld's Women's Weird collections (there is a discount of £1.99 off the first collection with the code WEIRD until the end of November if you order directly from Handheld Press) but think the most pertinent thing to say might be that there's no cross over. The second is that whilst Melissa Edmundson has curated collections that explore specific themes in Women's Weird, Mike Ashley has chosen stories for their relative obscurity.

He also points out that all the women represented had experienced poverty at some point in their lives and managed to write their way out of it. That feels particularly pertinent in the case of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'Christmas in the Fog' - which has strong parallels with the current debate about providing free school meals for children during school holidays. 

'The Secret Garden', and 'A Little Princess' were childhood favourites, I've read the Persephone reprints of the Making of a Marchioness and 'The Shuttle' along with a couple of other less satisfactory things and basically enjoyed them all. 'Christmas in the Fog' is FHB at her least appealing. It's part of a series of incidents that she wrote down using an alter ego of herself that she calls the Romantick Lady. 

There's nothing supernatural about this story, but as a great ocean liner is stranded in a fog on the Mersey for 3 days over Christmas it's undoubtedly eerie. The Romantick lady realises there must be children in steerage. She arranges a collection for them so that they will all have a cash gift for Christmas, and to take into their new lives in America. Right at the end she wonders if her charity has been misplaced and will make confirmed beggars of them. There's a lot I found uncomfortable about this, but it was undoubtedly interesting.

Happily everything else was far less troubling, much more enjoyable, and covers the whole range from terrifying (E Nesbit's 'From The Dead'), surreal (Leonora Carrington) science fiction territory (Margaret St Clair's 'The Island of the Hands, and Sophie Wenzel Ellis' 'White Lady') stories where the supernatural is benign, and others where it is not. Some are stopped from being really scary by a particularly pulpy mood (Greye La Spina's 'The Antimacassar' is really chilling until the last page, which is maybe for the best, 'White Lady' is similarly over the top).

Altogether it's a wonderfully varied collection, and easily one of the most enjoyable that I've read from the point of view of pure entertainment. I don't want to be scared silly, so the emphasis on atmosphere here really appeals to me, as does the more obscure nature of the stories. It's frustrating to open a hotly anticipated new title and find it's full of things I've already read - however good they are, and however interesting it is to consider something through a different lens.   

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Spirit of the Blitz - Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang

The effect the Blitz continues to have on the British, and perhaps specifically the English, imagination is one of the minor but consistent irritations of modern life. I think that was the reason that months ago I put my hand up when Oxford University Press were offering this for review. I forgot to check how many pages it had, so must admit my heart sank a bit when it landed with me. It's a big book which I assumed would be quite dry.

It's still a big book, it's followed me to Shetland and back, and I've been reading through it for months, but it's not dry and it's a tremendously useful thing for anybody with even a passing interest in 20th century history, British history, war era popular fiction, a desire to annoy people who bang on about the Blitz spirit, or social history. I tick all those boxes.

What this book is, is as far as I can tell a more or less unabridged collection of reports from the Home Intelligence department covering September 1940 - June 1941. For the first pat of this period the reports were daily, and then they become weekly. Addison and Crang had produced an earlier volume (published by Vintage and called 'Listening to Britain') which covers the early days of the war including Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. I'm seriously tempted to buy a copy. 

Covid and various stages of lock down have encouraged all sorts of lazy blitz analogies, the one thing I've learnt for sure from 'The Spirit of the Blitz' is that human nature doesn't really change. Home Intelligence was a secret(ish) department that came under the umbrella of the Ministry of Information, it was their job to monitor the morale, mood, and behaviour of the public. Ways of doing this included gathering reports from all sorts of sources, including getting the managers of W.H. Smith's shops in railways to share what they over heard. 

My main interest in this book is the light that it sheds on a good portion of the fiction that I read. It's a really interesting companion to Angela Thirkell's war time out put, gave me interesting context for E C R Lorac's 'Checkmate to Murder' (I started both at about the same time) and will give added depth to a hundred more. Here I can find conformation of the reports good and bad about evacuee children, how people responded to rumour, details about a rise in anti-Semitic feeling, the causes of absenteeism in women which makes me think of Inez Holden's Blitz Writing, and so on, and on. It's a world of carefully documented observations about how people were thinking, and very easy to lose yourself in for hours at a time.

The introduction is really useful, and again, nowhere near as dry as these things sometimes are. It explains what Home Intelligence was and how it worked, and some of the internal problems they faced from within the Ministry of Information and the Home office. HI was reporting on people's reactions, which included negative reactions to policy and low morale which clearly ruffled feathers. Addison and Crang also point out some of the problems with the intelligence gathering here, but as they also say; there's no other resource like it. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Women's Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937 - Edited by Melissa Edmundson

 Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women was a stand out collection from last year - it's still genuinely one of the most unsettling anthologies I've read. Not so much because of how horrible, or otherwise, the stories in it are, but because they had a predominantly domestic setting; these were tales that invaded the sanctuary of home. Looking back at volume 1 I see that there is a Mary Butts story in that I liked too, so I'm rethinking the vague prejudice that 'Mappa Mundi' gave me in the British Weird collection.

Generally I don't read an introduction to a book until after I've read the body of the thing. This is partly a mix of laziness and impatience - I want to dive straight into the action, but mostly because once I've read the book the introduction serves as a conversation. It's so much more useful when I know what the editor is talking about. 

Reading Melissa Edmondson's introduction here I'm struck by what a good job she's done in illustrating her points with the stories she chooses. They do "help us come to terms with our shared sense of fear at what we cannot control or explain". These fears are both specific to the era and people that produce them, and more general to all of us - so much so that I'm thinking I need to read up on Jung and his theories again. 

Volume 2 of Women's Weird travels further than Volume 1. The writers have a bigger geographical spread and so do their settings. there's still a domestic emphasis but it's evolved. One story, 'A Dreamer', does not have a specifically supernatural element, but Edmundson is undoubtedly right to consider it weird. It certainly taps into fundamental fears, and is a prime example of how something uncanny draws people together. It's a not quite ghost story of the sort we've all heard, told, and believed. 

The home still poses a threat in a couple of these stories - Marjorie Bowen's 'Florence Flannery', and Lettice Galbraith's 'The Blue Room' does it amusingly with more than a nod to the gothic. Bithia Mary Crocker's 'The Red Bungalow' has a real sting to it both as a horror story and for the uncomfortable questions it raises about colonialism.

Lucy Maud Montgomery's 'The House Party at Smokey Island' is a delight. I love Montgomery at all times, her Emily books have weird/supernatural moments in them, but this is a good old fashioned ghost story and particularly enjoyable. Along with Stella Gibbon's 'Roaring Tower' it shows the weird in a slightly more benign light. 

It's a strong collection - which I had expected (13 tales included, and again I consider this a nice touch), and arguably more entertaining than volume 1 - which I found genuinely unsettling at times. This one is safe to read late at night - although Helen Simpson's 'Young Magic' is the sort of thing that burrows into my imagination and sticks there (like a slug in an apple). Nothing especially bad happens in it, but it's all very disquieting. 

As ever with Handheld's books the introductions, bibliography, notes, and biographical details are a real bonus. As collections to read just for the fun of the thing I absolutely recommend both books, but the scholarly element really makes them something more. 

If you buy them directly from Handheld Press they will arrive beautifully wrapped in brown paper (another touch I love, it really does make getting them special). Order Women's Weird (volume 1) between now and the end of November and use the coupon code WEIRD and you'll get £1.99 off. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

British Weird, Selected Short Fiction, 1893-1937 Edited by James Machin

If ever a year was designed to turn a person to the 'Weird' it's 2020. All the uncertainties, paranoia, superstition, and outright fear in these stories have taken on a new resonance against everything that's happening in the wider world. It's not so much that they're easier to believe in, but that they so well express the general disquiet that I guess a lot of us (surely not just me) are feeling.

Handheld Press have two new offerings - British Weird, and a second volume of Women's Weird. Both are officially launched on Tuesday the 27th and both are excellent. Weird as a category is a relatively new concept for me, in the past I've thought in terms of Horror or Science Fiction (which apart from anything else are the relevant sections in bookshops). Weird allows for some cross over between the two, and for the easily frightened (me again) leans more towards the unsettling rather than the terrifying.

'British Weird' gives Edith Nesbit's 'Man Sized in Marble' another outing - at some point I will make a list of all the anthologies I have that this story appears in and make a note of all the different lenses it asks to be viewed through. Even if just for my own satisfaction I think it'll be a useful exercise. I also think it makes more sense in this collection than in some I've read. There's something about alabaster effigies coming to life for evil purposes at Halloween that feels right at home in an English Churchyard. It is the perfect story to terrify small children into good behaviour with, and which adults can just as effectively terrify themselves with on a dark night - possibly why so many of these figures have witch marks carved onto them? 

There are two novella length stories - John Buchan's 'No-Man's Land' which deals with some murderous Pictish survivals deep in the Scottish mountains. Ancient survivals are a common trope - and there's another example in this collection in Eleanor Scott's 'Randalls Round'. It post dates Buchan's story by 27 years and speaks of slightly different fears. The idea of ancient folk traditions surviving into the 20th century are common in Golden age detective fiction too which is an overlap I find interesting. I suspect Buchan's story of having a political edge with ideas about degeneracy and race that he certainly revisits in the much later 'The Three Hostages'. He also does a splendid job of taking a landscape that is initially described as clean and pure, and everything good, before turning it into a nightmare place almost impossible to escape from.

Algernon Blackwood's 'The Willows' is another story that takes a geography that begins as something exhilarating before having the elements turn on the protagonists who are helpless in the face of the twin threats of nature, and something outside of the nature we know. There are a handful more stories, all well chosen, varied, and in the case of L A Lewis's 'The Lost Keep' a particular gem, and then there is Mary Butts.

I struggled a bit with Mary Butts. She's undoubtedly significant both as a modernist writer, someone who worked with Aleister Crowley, and a genuine believer in the things she was writing about, but I found reading her hard work. I've read enough to be reasonably well acquainted with the writers she discusses in the lengthy essay 'Ghosties and Ghoulies'. Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction' which is included in this book. It seems likely that there will come a time that I'm grateful to have it to hand when I want to check something, but getting through it was a slog. 

Her short story 'Mappa Mundi' was even more of a slog, possibly because it's the only one in the book where it seems probable that the writer believed all of what she was writing. It's not an aspect of the weird I've particularly explored before and whilst I can cheerfully allow my own anxieties about present unknowns to be diffused through a rip roaring tale of strange things going on in the hills, Butts's earnestness is unsettling in an entirely different way. 

This is a thought provoking as well as enjoyable collection. Machin's introduction is excellent, as are Kate Macdonald's notes, it works brilliantly as a collection of stories to while away dark nights with - especially as there's plenty to make you be grateful to be safe at home, but there's a lot more to think about here if you want to. Highly recommended!
This alabaster figure, complete with witch mark, is from the church of All Saints in the grounds of Harewood House, Yorkshire.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

A Stanley Cursiter Inspired kep

I've spent a long time over the last few years looking at images of Stanley Cursiter's 1923 painting 'The Fair Isle Jumper'. I really admire the jumper but since joining The Fair Isle Fisherman's Kep page on facebook about 3 years ago I've been more interested in the hat the girl wears. 

The kep page is excellent - conversation is strictly limited to discussion and pictures of the Kep pattern by Anne Sinclair that is only orderable through the group. Any relevant knitting or yarn questions will be answered by members, and as we span the globe that's really useful for anyone trying to source appropriate yarn. Everything else is banned, including discussion of other Kep patterns. This suits me perfectly - I like a group that stays entirely to the point - and I really recommend joining. Buy the pattern, it's money going to a good cause (the local museum on Fair Isle) knit some keps - they're fun, and seeing the variety f patterns that people come up with is exactly the sort of coping mechanism that 2020 wants.

After a lot of staring, doodling, and searching on Ravelry for other Cursiter reconstruction keps I came to the conclusion that the models hat was probably constructed very much like the Anne Sinclair pattern the facebook group is built around. The main difference is that the crown is plain rather than patterned. The brim pattern is the biggest puzzle.

It's traditional in Fair Isle knitting not to use more than 2 colours per row, it does happen occasionally, but one reason not to do it is that the knitting becomes quite bulky. The pattern that Cursiter paints does have 3 colours to a row, and doesn't look at all like a Fair Isle motif, although it is pretty. There are a few versions on ravelry, and Kate Davies Sixareen Kep owes a lot to the Cursiter image too but none of them feel quite right to me.

I've finally knitted my own version, which needs a few tweaks - I used the Jamieson and Smith Heritage yarns which were perfect for the brim - the colours and texture of it are a good match for period items I've seen, but the natural moorit yarn is a lighter weight than I'd really like, so it'll be back to jumper weight for my next attempt. I want to fiddle with the colours, and possibly the motif, for the brim as well - but the main thing is that it behaves exactly like the kep in the picture, and feels very wearable as well. 

I'm pleased with this and imagine I'll make a few more versions of it. The Pom-Pom's were a pain so I might ditch them too, unless I can find a willing child to make them for me, but right now I'm enjoying all the satisfaction of a job well done.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Shetland Wool Week Annual 2020 - Volume 6

We can meet again in private gardens in Leicester, so this afternoon I really enjoyed a cup of tea in the rain - with a friend I hadn't seen for months. His garden is a very bird friendly one so there was the added pleasure of robins, blue tits, blackbirds, and gold crests (the latter right above our head in a birch tree) busily eating everything they could find. The combination of the relative privacy of a garden with conversation underlined for me how often it's relatively little things which make a big difference.

Going to Shetland in September was a big thing in the context of this year, but it was the simple luxury of being able to step outside and walk for miles without seeing anybody, coupled with the long views, and the wild things to watch that made it so special. That, and being able to spend a bit of time with immediate family - none of which I will ever take for granted again. Altogether it rebooted me into a much more positive frame of mind.

I'm lucky in that I have hobbies well suited to spending a lot of time in relative isolation - knitting, reading, painting, planning spreadsheets of all the weird tales in the various anthologies I have which can act as a master index... None of these things demand (or encourage) company. Buying yarn in Shetland was another activity that demanded a certain amount of privacy - I didn't spend too much (in my opinion) but a critical audience (such as my father) may have disagreed. It was also a lot of fun - even more for the anticipation that went into it, some of which was fueled by the teaser images on Instagram for the patterns.

When wool week was officially cancelled for this year I was one of the many people who vocally hoped that the annual would be produced anyway. It's always been a publication to look forward too - another small thing which could be rescued from the chaos of this year and become something to look forward too. I hope it has also helped some of the people in Shetland who's wool based income will have taken a hit this year.

I really have been looking forward to it, and when my copy finally landed with me on Wednesday morning I was delighted. There's a good range of patterns again - a Donna Smith Jumper which is tempting, Alison Rendall's sock pattern which I'm determined will be the first pair of socks I make, leg warmers, mitts, and hats which are all very accessible patterns for Fair Isle novices, and perfect for making as Christmas presents. They're great patterns for not novices as well, but as discussed with The Shetland Wool Adventures Journal it's great to have patterns which are broadly inclusive for basic knitting abilities that actually look like things you want to make and wear.

The pattern I'm most attracted to though is Ella Gordon's Radiant Star Cowl. It's featured on the cover and is very much the sort of thing I want for myself. I like everything about this cowl, especially the nods towards vintage knitwear and Shetland's working history. Ella wrote an excellent blog post about her inspiration and process which is well worth a look. Something else to hope for is that one day she might write a book which brings all her knitting interests together. 

There are articles I'm looking forward to spending more time with in the annual too - and altogether it's a really good buy at £21. I see some of the older volumes are also being offered at serious sale prices on the website HERE. I recommend any and all of them.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Port of London Murders - Josephine Bell

 I'm reading a good bit of weird and horror at the moment - 'Women's Weird Volume 2', and 'British Weird' from Handheld Press, and some of the British Library titles too, but in-between, and because I scare easily and still want to sleep at night I'm mixing in a few other things. 'The Port of London Murders' turned up on my doorstep on Tuesday and looked so appealing I read it straight away.

I particularly love the cover of this one which goes all out for the atmosphere and is an excellent match for the atmosphere of the book. I read this almost in a sitting not so much because of the mystery element - which is okay, but because the London it depicts is irresistible.

When I say the mystery is okay I don't want to sound like I'm damning it with faint praise - it's a rattling enough yarn where the reasonably high body count seems totally reasonable, but we have a grasp on who the villains are from early on so it's more of a question of how they commit certain crimes, and will they get away with it. The murdering, as we also find early on is linked to drug smuggling, the scheme behind this is clever, although I doubt it's how actual drug smugglers would work - although I'm fairly ignorant about this the amounts seem small for the risks involved. 

Meanwhile what really makes this book sing is how Bell depicts the slums around London's docklands and the characters to be found there. Some are respectable, prosperous even, engaged in honest work on the river. Others are chancers, criminals, grifters, or simply hanging on at the end of a long life. They're all compelling. I really wanted to know if Harry Reed and June Harvey would reach an understanding, if Leslie Harvey would realize his dream of another ride in the Police launch, and if Mrs Bowerman would make it to the end of the book. 

There are wonderful descriptions of the working life of the Thames, a tense section whilst a tug pulls 4 barges through a thick fog with the possibility of disaster looming all the time given they can't see where they're going. The descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells, and texture of life on the river are fabulous - it is easily the most compelling vision of London I've come across in this series (better even than in A Scream in Soho).

It is altogether a deeply satisfying book - enjoyable, easy to read, intelligent, and a portrait that rings true of it's time and place - the by play between the Pope and Dunwoody families, along with the headache they are for the Doctor and their welfare officer is comic genius. It works so well because Bell maintains a compassion for her subjects that stops them falling into caricature or parody.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Food Almanac - Miranda York

I've been on a little bit of a food related book spree recently (The Little Library Christmas, The Food Almanac, and after she said it was appearing already in shops Caroline Edan's 'Red Sand's about 3 weeks earlier than I expected to be able to buy it). I've only had time to glance at 'Red Sands' which I picked up on Monday - the benefit of getting it early is that I still had quinces to make a really good lamb and quince plov with, but it looks great. It's also a hard book to define. It certainly has recipes in it, and food is central to the writing, but it is more travel book than recipe book.

'The Little Library Christmas' has a higher proportion of recipes to text, but it covers much more than food and pushes a little at the bounds of what a traditional cook book is (in my mind anyway) too. 'The Food Almanac' does the same kind of thing - food and drink is at it's heart, but explored in all sorts of ways. 

Once a habit is formed it can be the devil to break even when it's something that you wouldn't necessarily consider addictive. This is my relationship with my kitchen - for a decade between my mid twenties and mid thirties I busily collected books and equipment, most of which I had a definite need for, or which at least catered to whatever fad was of the moment (I never really did get into icing biscuits despite a brief enthusiasm for the idea). A decade and more later I still can't shake the habit of gathering things in, despite long since having run out of space.

Whilst I can now walk past a display of china, glassware, or pots and pans with only the briefest pause I still can't resist cookbooks. I sort of need to learn how to though because as well as having no space money is also short. It would be easier to resist if writers didn't keep doing new and interesting things.

'The Food Almanac' is a neat example of this. I probably wouldn't buy another seasonal cookbook (that's probably a lie - depending on who wrote it, but as I'm only really trying to kid myself, please excuse me) but a book that takes me through the seasons with recipes, menus, poems, essays, folklore, book recommendations, and a celebration of toast? Count me in. 

I hope that 'The Food Almanac' becomes, if not a yearly publication, at least a series that comes out every couple of years. It's not much bigger than a paperback, the ideal book to give as a no pressure gift to anyone else who really enjoys their kitchen time, and the perfect book to take if you're self catering somewhere on holiday. There are things to cook, things to drink, and things to while away a lazy afternoon with reading. 

Whilst I have nobody to cook for there's more than enough in here to entertain me beyond the recipes I want to try, which make it the perfect book to keep by my bed, or next to the sofa, to dip in and out of when there's time for a few pages. If I was 20 years younger it would have me planning a long wish list of books, as it is I can only hope that Faber (or someone) will decide to reprint Ambrose Heath's 'Good Savories' in an attractive edition and at a reasonable price. Meanwhile there's a wealth of things to enjoy here in a book that's more comforting and sustaining than a bowl of chicken soup. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Monday - a round up with Diana Henry Brownies

This weekend I received not one, but two, unexpected gifts, and made some really spectacular brownies - although I don't think brownie is a sufficient description for the sheer glory and decadence of this particular bake. 

Unexpected gifts of all sorts have been something of a feature of this year, and it seems like a good time to acknowledge that. It's no secret that I've not always found lock down easy, Leicester still has restrictions (now we're officially in tier 2 things have relaxed a bit), and there have been tough times. I know that I've observed the restrictions with reasonable diligence - being in Shetland was an eye opener. Family were frustrated by the tightening of rules that represented a degree of freedom from what I'd been used too. But it's also been a shock being out of Leicester and seeing how much has closed for good, or remained closed up due to covid. 

Sat in my bubble it was easy to imagine the rest of the country was more normal than we were, an impression bolstered by a lot of social media which showed people out and about doing things. Actually being out and about tells me otherwise. The world has changed - but maybe that's okay, though it's making it frustratingly difficult to get hold of my preferred advent calendar. One irony attached to the current situation is that after months spent indoors because of restrictions, I now spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about leaving my flat because of expected deliveries. Not being able to buy things on the high street (more necessary things than advent calendars) is not something I see as a change for the better. 

On the whole though I'm lucky. Despite the downs and frustrations I've not yet had to worry about how to put food on the table, I'm not easily bored, have appreciated the time to knit, cook, read, and just be, and am not dreading the winter. Being inside right now feels like a privilege, or at least it does when it's raining, dark, cold, or otherwise unappealing. Living on your own does at least mean there's no one in the house to annoy you (I'd still rather have company, but it's not all bad). I'm also more than lucky in my friends and family. 

I've got people I can call, I've been sent packages containing tea, biscuits, jewelry (from a silver smithing friend), books, vermouth, and knitting patterns. It's a degree of kindness and generosity that I'm totally bowled over by. They're the same attributes that spill online in various groups, podcasts, hashtags and more that encourage conversation and provide real highlights to my week. It's not all bad by a long way.

On which note - Diana Henry has been posting a daily recipe on Instagram since March. There have been some crackers, but Fridays was particularly decadent. Blackberry and Rosemary Brownies sounded very promising. I made them yesterday - they do not disappoint, and are very much at the luxury end of the brownie scale. There's a lot of chocolate, sugar, and a bit of booze in these, and although I'm happily eating one with a cup of coffee right now I think they deserve a bit more of an occasion. Link to recipe here

They'd make a fabulous grown up birthday cake - even more because they're better baked the day before you want them, and possibly in a round tin for more of an evening mood (am I alone in thinking a wedge seems more celebratory than a square?). Anyway, they're really good, and now I need to go for a brisk walk even if it does mean I risk missing a half expected delivery of review books... 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Days of Falling Flesh and Rising Moons - Steve Denehan

There is a quote on the back of this collection that says "Denehan is sort of like Bukowski, if Bukowski wrote while drinking rather than drunk." (from Chris Margolin, editor of The Poetry Question). It's a long time since I've read any Bukowski, but it's a comparison that I think does Denehan a disservice. He writes like somebody I would like to have a drink with, or a cup of tea, or a chat generally. Bukowski for all his talent has never struck me as someone I'd want to find myself in the same room as. 

This is the second Denehan collection I've read - the first was Miles of Sky Above Us, Miles of Earth Below which I loved. This collection is darker in every sense (cover included), and so is my own mood these days. A lot has changed in the year between these two books; Covid creeps in here, which I found unexpectedly hard to read about outside of a news context. These poems highlighted for me how many months this virus has been around, and underlined the way that changes to the way we live and interact are beginning to feel increasingly permanent.  

The poem that I keep coming back to here is 'No'. It's one that I wish would be taught in schools. It takes far to long for most of us to understand the pleasure, power, and usefulness of the word No, and I like the way this poem puts the word love in it's place too. This is one to copy down and keep handy for all the many times I need reminding that no is not only an option, but a good idea. This is where I do agree with Chris Margolin - Denehan's work is "...proof that poetry doesn't need to be complicated to tell a damn good story."

It's a pleasure to read a body of work that is so generally accessible. The poems here are heartfelt, clever, playful, surprising, and sometimes heartbreaking - 'Geoff' is a perfect horror story in verse about the clipboard wielding charity collectors that turn city centre streets into gauntlets to be run with a beautifully unexpected ending (which maybe does have a little Bukowski about it?). 'Margaret' came under the heartbreaking category for it's mix of tragedy, love and hope. 

There's also quite a bit here about difficult relationships with fathers, and the loss that comes with ageing  - poems that have a different resonance now I'm in my 40's than the would have had even a decade ago. There are stabs of recognition now, not just from my own experience, but from the wider experiences of friends as we all try to puzzle out the realities of middle age. 

I really do recommend Steve as a poet to read and follow. It's been both a pleasure and a privilege to be part of this tour. You can find his books from all the normal sources, and also follow him on twitter for more poetry updates. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Unbearable Bassington - Saki

One of the highlights of my trip to Shetland was meeting Micheal Walmer, who has recently moved up there. We got a socially distanced walk between weathers and to talk about books - including ‘The Unbearable Bassington’, and wondered what kind of writer Saki would have become if he hadn't been killed in the first world war. I think that the answer is partly here.

I'm more familiar with Saki's short stories, frequently anthologized in the sort of collections I like so there's a decent quantity of them I've read many times, as well as often dipping into a comprehensive penguin edition. They're funny and memorable with all the authors trade mark wit, cruelty, and elegance, but this is the only longer work I've read. The body of the book feels typical enough but there's an emotional punch at the end which I don't find in the short stories. 

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ in question is (presumably) a youth called Comus who is more force of nature than boy, a fated lord of misrule who sails through his school days care of good looks, undeniable charm, and sufficient sporting prowess. Post school and the world isn’t quite so kind to Comus; there are no shortage of charming young men on the town and neither he or his long suffering mother have any money, Comus needs to contract a decent marriage as the chances of him making any sort of hand at a career are slim. Unfortunately he blows it in the marriage stakes through sheer perversity which leaves him with but one option – he’s exported to West Africa in the traditional manner of black sheep in the age of empire.

The other Bassington is Francesca a woman who is commonly held to have no soul – instead she has a drawing room – an ordered peaceful place where all her household gods are laid out. The affection between Francesca and her son is real, neither is much given to loving others but both care deeply for each other despite the barrier that’s grown up between them. This coldness is due almost entirely to the nature that Comus can’t help but have: “Fate played him with loaded dice; he would lose always.”

‘The Unbearable Bassington” was first published in 1912 and reads as both an attack on and an elegy for the society it portrays. Saki must I think have known war was coming (He wrote ‘When William Came’ – an imagining of London occupied by the Germans a year later) with hindsight it certainly reads as if he realises that this particular society is all but done with. There are constant pokes both at the vapid nature of society gossip and the patronising futility of good works (my favourite being this: “No one has ever said it,’ observed Lady Caroline ‘but how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them.”). Perhaps there is a sense of frustration too at a society that produces boys like Comus who have no conceivable use in the world (except they are destined to become cannon fodder very soon) and no means to live on.

If the plot is a little depressing the one liner’s that litter every page are perfectly polished gems sparkling like nobody’s business making the book a joy to read. Maybe a bigger question than what Saki would have become, is what he would have become if he'd have lived longer and not had to have experienced the war. It's harder for me to imagine how he would have reacted to the disintegration of the Edwardian world he skewered so perfectly - we lost a great writer when he died, but what would he have lost if he'd lived? 

I first read this book in a disintegrating orange Penguin edition, it's a real pleasure to have the new copy printed by Walmer (it's a particularly pleasing pocket size, the print isn't too small, and the introduction by Maurice Baring is useful). It's something which deserves to be far better known. This is true of all the books Walmer publishes - it's worth having a look at his Facebook page here for links to more reviews. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Shetland Wool Adventures Journal - Volume 1

 I've been waiting very patiently to read this new journal from Misa Hay - it came out whilst I was in Shetland, but beyond having a quick look in The Shetland Times bookshop and at my stepmothers copy I held off reading it for a treat when I got home. I'm glad I waited, it's good to have something to look forward to, and after a few grey days, a couple of loads of laundry, and all the other boring things that need to be caught up with when you've been away for a few weeks this was the perfect thing to read this afternoon.

I have a piece in it about Mary Prior's book, Rhubarbaria which I'm really pleased to have contributed. I'd actually subscribed to the Journal before Misa asked me to write something for it, I'm even more pleased she asked me now I've properly seen a copy. It's a lovely thing to be associated with.

The journal covers patterns, of which there are 6, walks, recipes, stories, and inspiration. The patterns are a mix of hats, gloves, mitts, a chunky shawl (Donna Smith's Brough - very nice) and a cowl. The hats and mitts are great projects for people relatively new to Fair Isle knitting - quick, not too fiddly, and the sort of thing that anybody would be happy to produce. I say this quite a bit, but I really like the accessibility of patterns which are both beautiful and not overly complicated.

The first knitting book I bought had a range of projects in it that all looked hideous to me. It quite quickly ended up in a charity shop; those patterns might have been carefully chosen to build a skill set, but who wants to invest in the materials and time it takes to knit something they're not going to like? The Shetland Wool Week annuals (which Misa was also responsible for in the early days) were the first things I bought that had patterns I really wanted to make in them, and felt I could make. I doubt I'm alone in this.

The recipes in here are great too. The ingredients and flavours reflect Shetland and the best of it's produce, but again are things I want to make and eat (especially the treacle bannocks which sound like ideal autumn/winter treats). I really like the way the landscape is showcased through a trio of suggested walks, and theirs a wealth of other things which come under the more general heading of inspiration.

My highlights include an article by Mike Finnie (architect, watercolourist, jeweler, and over all renaissance man) on croft houses, Eve Eunson on Fair Isle chairs, and a couple of articles on the history of Lerwick. All of it is an indication of the history and range of creativity to be found in Shetland - just part of why it's such an exciting place to be. 

Details of how to order are here. It's well worth a look. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sprig Muslin - Georgette Heyer #1956Club

A late entry for the 1956 club here - I only decided to read this last night after thinking it might be interesting to compare another book in the light comic vein with 'Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders'. 'Sprig Muslin' had never been a particular favourite Heyer for me, but yet again I find reading her in my 40's gives me an entirely different perspective from when I first read these books in my teens. It's probably not unrelated to the fact that I'm not that much younger than Heyer was when she wrote this.

It did turn out to be an interesting book in relation to 'Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders' as neither are really concerned much with the plot - both are serviceable but call for a willingness to play along, but both are very interested in being funny.

'Sprig Muslin' is an odd Heyer in a lot of ways. It's a romance in the sense that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote romances, there is a love story but it's barely sketched in - and is maybe the better for it. It opens with the here - Sir Gareth Ludlow, 35, rich, handsome, charming, intelligent, and blessed with a good sense of humour seeking a suitable bride. Much to his sisters dismay he's settled on a shy 29 year old spinster with no particular fortune or pretensions to beauty. 

The reason for his choice is that a very beautiful and spirited fiancée unfortunately broke her neck and died 7 years previously when she stole his horses. Sir Gareth, understandably, hasn't been quite the same since. He likes Lady Hester and thinks they'll get on well together but to everyone's surprise she turns him down. This, the reader quickly understands, is because she's in love with him and wants more than the cool arrangement he's suggesting. 

Meanwhile Sir Gareth has met and rescued Miss Amanda Smith, 16, stunningly beautiful, running away from home and a massive pain. Heyer in a different mood might have tried t persuade us that Amanda and Gareth would fall in love, but she doesn't even bother doing that here. The majority of the book is about the increasingly unlikely adventures that befall everyone as Sir Gareth tries to work out who Amanda is and return her to her home. Heyer also spends a lot of time pointing out that most fictional romance conventions are dangerous nonsense - she has a point.

At no point does Amanda understand the very real risks she takes as she continues to run off with a series of random men, whilst recycling the plot of 'Pamela'. It is a funny book, one that feels a little bit like a drawing room farce - if such a thing is possible whilst a series of people chase around the countryside in a series of carriages, carts, and curricles. 

The broken neck interlude is surprisingly grim to start an ostensibly light hearted book with, Amanda falls somewhere between being a heroine, villain, and victim. Her behaviour has real consequences for those around her, and Heyer makes it clear over and over that she's basically a child. She's a victim in that she's been spoilt by an indulgent grandparent, and uncritical reading of books that have given her a skewed idea of the world. Gareth and Hester's love story happens almost entirely off the page, which is fine because their characters are almost non existent.

There is a point about friendship and respect being key to a successful relationship along with shared humour, but mostly this is a satire on romantic conventions, which is perhaps why the Punch reviewer seemed to like it so much ("Altogether probbaly the best thing Miss Heyer has yet done"). Along with Miss Hogg these 2 books are giving me a sense of a society on the brink - caught somewhere between old traumas and new anxieties and dealing with both by making jokes - perhaps I'm projecting... But then this is always my thing with Heyer - every time I read her I find something new, and something that feels prescient. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders - Austin Lee - 1956 Book Club

 I bought this book just after Simon and Kaggsy's last book group and have patiently sat on since finding that the next book club would be 1956. In the meantime I've found that crime fiction from the 1950's seems to be very much my thing, which only made me anticipate this one more.

It was worth the wait. Greyladies books are a treat anyway so I never had any doubts that I would enjoy this, the question was how much I would enjoy it. A mysterious American has been found dead in an abandoned shop in Haworth after a visit to Professor Appleby - an increasingly jittery Bronte expert. Another body turns up in Wordsworth country (in this case making a mess of Lady Haltwhistle's fitted carpet), and the mysteries continue to pile up with the bodies.

At this point Miss Flora Hogg and her friend, Milly Brown are called in. Flora Hogg, graduate of Bristol, ex school mistress, and daughter of a police detective has herself turned detective with some success. Her methods are sometimes unorthodox but eventually successful. The mystery here is enjoyable, it bounces along sort of making sense but mostly existing as a vehicle for Lee's humour and a series of set peices which are absolute gems.

There's more than a nod to classic golden age mysteries that suggests something like a post war nostalgia for a pre war world, but mostly I think it's a vehicle for jokes that Austen Lee wants to write. Miss Hogg and Milly are two at least middle aged ladies concerned about their tea and shopping when they're not detecting. The passage where Lady Haltwhistle finds out what's happened to her carpet is a masterpiece, and there are plenty more comic interludes in the book. It's a mystery for people who want to be amused rather than seriously puzzled.

I like to try and work out what these books tell me about the year they're written in when I do these book clubs, but apart from an extremely casual attitude to drink driving this one doesn't tell me much - apart possibly from the enjoyment of good food and wine throughout. Rationing only finally ended in 1954 (meat being the last thing to return to normal) so in 1956 plentiful and good meals must still have felt like something not just to be excited about, but that couldn't be taken for granted. 

Maybe the humour is a clue too? A book for a world that's getting back to normal and wants to enjoy itself without dwelling on the serious things just around the corner or the serious things in the past. Or maybe not. Either way Greyladies publishes another Miss Hogg title, and Austen Lee wrote several more - if they're as good as this one I hope someone republishes more of them soon. They're just the sort of comforting read I could do with right about now. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Back From Scotland

I got back to Leicester last night with no real enthusiasm for the place. The extra 100+ days of lock down we've had here have probably been the final straw and I've been absent for a goodish bit of it after the water went off in my building for a weekend. I had to move out for a few days and saw no good reason to come back. There are still things I find convenient about living in a town, still people I care about here (although I can't see them) but I've loved the space that first the Scottish Borders, and then Shetland gave me other the last weeks. It made me feel so much better than I have in months, and I'm really going to miss it. Especially now the students are back here - they generally make the city feel safer, but right now an extra 40,000 people, half of them on my doorstep, feels overwhelming.

Meanwhile it's a long, long, time since I was in Shetland during the Autumn and so I ended up falling in love with it all over again. I was lucky with the weather. It was frequently quite windy, often quite wet, but never for very long. I wouldn't have minded a proper storm, but am grateful for the the glorious light and the change of colouring I got to see. It went from still having a hint of summer in sheltered corners, to feeling like winter was almost there on the more exposed hills.

It was also a chance to think about how I present the Shetland I see here and elsewhere on social media. I'm normally there around midsummer, and like most of us my pictures are carefully edited to show the wildest or most picturesque things I come across. It's a romantic view of a landscape which isn't exactly dishonest, but ignores the industrial reality of the place, so isn't entirely honest either. It's something that was really underlined for me when I posted a picture of an oil rig that's being decommissioned. People were ambivalent about it, but oil is a huge part of Shetland's recent history and prosperity as is fishing, salmon farming, mussel farming, and now the landscape is being torn apart for a massive windfarm.

It's generally accepted that the ruins of old fishing stations are attractive in a way that the massive sheds and pelagic fishing boats of today are not - but the new boats signal far more wealth for the people who work on them. The ruins represent a deeply exploitative system that took far longer than it should have to break. Maybe the windfarm will settle into the landscape in the same way that salmon and mussel farms have become so much part of the voe's that I can't really remember what they looked like without them. Maybe they won't - I'm not a fan of windfarms and somewhat dread the impact they're going to have. I think they'll further shift the balance between wild and domesticated (or industrialized) away from nature. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Little Library Christmas - Kate Young

 I'm still in Shetland, the wind is still blowing (which is okay because we have a wind turbine which dumps excess energy into heated towel rails so the less appealing it is outside the hotter the bathroom gets, and eventually the whole house - because, boy, do those towel rails heat up) and the rain is driving horizontally across the landscape. Perversely this is the weather I miss most when I'm not here. Good weather in Shetland is beautiful, but even the city looks good in the sun, whereas is takes proper countryside to still appeal on a day like this.

However much I might like the view from the window (with the comfort of that towel rail at my back) I'm not entirely inclined to go out in it (no seriously wet weather boots for a start) so I'm making bread and leafing through a few books, including Kate Young's 'The Little Library Christmas' which is an absolute treat.

The Little Library books are great, and if I don't really need another Christmas cookbook (I have 2, and always go to my mothers anyway - she has no intention of giving up the apron just yet) I've always got space for a book about books and food, and the thoughts of Kate Young who is an author who feels like a friend when you read her. Someone who can suggest the most luxurious hot chocolate recipe, recommend a handful of good books to you, and if a whole book sounds like to much effort to concentrate on then reading a chapter of a book like this is more than enough to keep me happy.

I've long been an advocate of starting Christmas preparations early, October is the perfect time for making cakes and mincemeat (there's a recipe in here that sounds good, and that can be used more quickly than the Fiona Cairns recipe I normally favour. Maybe this will be the year to try something different?), for perhaps buying a few new decorations, choosing cards, making lists. This Christmas might be different for a lot of us, but that seems like all the more reason to plan to me.

If another lock down, or something that feels very like it, is looming then we will need things to look forward to, ways to look after ourselves, and ways to care for others. Something else I warm to about this book is that it covers quiet nights in alone. Both the hardest and easiest thing about most of this year for me has been how much time I've spent alone. I don't dislike it, but I'm very aware of the effect it has on me; it's very easy to stop considering other people or their points of view when you don't have a lot of contact outside your own very small bubble. 

That in itself is another reason to enjoy a companionable sort of book like this - the recipes look good, there's some pickled sprouts and a chutney I especially want to try, and if a good proportion have appeared in the other Little Library books there are more than enough new ones to make this worth having just for the food. But again, it's the book talk, and someone who understands the importance and magic of a Christmas tree that really calls to me. It's the sort of book that reminds us we never really have to be alone if we don't want to be, and that there's much worse company to be found than that in the pages of a favourite book. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Scarweather - Anthony Rolls

 I've been trying to spend as much time as possible outside whilst I've got some countryside to roam and there are otters and seals to be spotted (there are humpback whales around the south of Shetland too, but I don't think I'll be lucky enough to see them this time - it's quite a long way to go just on the off chance, which is a lot of sitting in a car instead of being outside. It all adds up to a bit less reading than I had optimistically packed for - but there have been a couple of other bookish diversions along the way.

Meanwhile I have read 'Scarweather', I really enjoyed 'Family Matters', the other Anthony Rolls title in the BL crime classics series, so came to 'Scarweather' with high expectations. It did not disappoint. The structure of 'Scarweather' is marginally more traditional than Family Matters, but not by such a lot. 'Scarweather' is also a much funnier book. 

It opens in 1913, John Farringdale who will be our narrator is an undergraduate almost at the end of his Cambridge years. His two great friends are his cousin, Eric Foster, and an older man - Frederick Ellingham. Eric has become friends with an eminent archeologist - Professor Tolgen Reisby, and his attractive young wife Hilda. All of them go up North to take part in a dig the professor is organizing and enjoy themselves hugely, although John is worried about the closeness between his cousin and Hilda Reisby.

The next year Eric disappears in what is supposed to be a swimming accident, and with no proof that it could be otherwise, but some suspicions, John Farringdale and Frederick Ellingham carry on with their lives, swept up first by the war, and later by their respectively successful careers. They don't forget Eric though, and Ellingham in particular determines to find out what happened to him despite the passing decades.

Anthony Rolls was a pen name for Colwyn Edward Vulliamy who was a keen amateur archeologist. There's quite a bit of archeology in this book, and a lot of jokes at the expense of different types of archeologists and their arguments. It's an affectionate humour of the sort that would make me read this book again - it also helps that we always know who did it, and can guess what happened, but there are still plenty of suitably gruesome and gothic details to enjoy along the way. If the who is the only reason you keep reading, there's not much reason to read again.

Anthony Rolls is definitely one of those writers who has unjustly fallen out of sight. He's inventive, amusing, clever and thoughtful. A quick search on amazon suggests his other books are essentially unavailable - if they're anywhere near as good as 'Scarweather' and 'Family Matters' I hope they get rescued from obscurity soon.