Monday, November 30, 2020


I've been thinking about Christmas a lot over the last few days - it's the time of year when friends start asking what I want for that and my birthday. It's not a question I find easy to answer. I love getting and giving presents every bit as much as I dislike putting pressure on people to meet a certain spending expectation. This year I'm mostly directing people towards my amazon wish list. I know they're not the ideal company, but they do make things like sharing a wish list really easy and I like that for so many reasons. 

I've also been thinking a lot about the pressure we put on ourselves to make this time of year perfect - or at least some approximation of it. I suspect a lot of this pressure is something that women apply to ourselves and each other. Men aren't by any means exempt from this, but it's normally women writing about the emotional labour the season demands of them and worrying that if they delegate the other person will get it wrong. Which they well might, but the question is, how much does it matter?

Twenty years in retail made an already complicated relationship with Christmas more complicated. I came to both really dislike the excessive consumption (yes, we needed them to spend that much, but the sheer quantity of it is mind boggling at times) and really want to be the person on the receiving end of those bottles of very good champagne, jewelers bags, luxury this or that, and time off.

This year might have been shit in a ton of ways, but it's been excellent for readjusting expectations and thinking about what traditions to keep and which to take a break from. Neither mum or I are feeling particularly festive yet, although her whole village seems to have put up decorations this weekend so that might change quite fast. Her surgeon told her she could spend as much time cooking and washing up as she likes (???) so I might try and persuade her to make mince pies tomorrow as some sort of unlikely physio therapy and because she makes amazing mince pies. 

I've also been using the time to make presents for people - very handsome hats, which take an age. Turns out there are more people I'm inclined to give things to than I realised, and that buying stuff is a lot easier than making it. On the other hand I really like spending the time thinking about the person I'm knitting for - what colours they might like, if there's a particular motif that seems appropriate, the possibility of meeting up for a walk... The labour here is definitely self imposed, as it will be when I start writing cards, and making fudge I can leave for the neighbours who have kept an eye on things for me these last few weeks. 

But then it makes me feel like I'm part of a community which is something I want. My partner doesn't really bother with any of it beyond sending half a dozen cards. The sparkly bit of Christmas doesn't matter to him in the same way it does to me, but that doesn't make the decision about whether it's going to be safe or sensible to go and see his 94 year old father any easier. I might make more effort, but our priorities are much the same - it's the trimmings that are different and in the scheme of things they're much less important. 

Anyway, my December posts are likely to be full of  Christmas recommendations, whilst the conversations I'm having with friends are all about the tough decisions we're all having to make this year about balancing family needs, managing expectations, and what we wish we could do. Sometimes we can pull that off, but quite often it's impossible. There's no failure in not keeping everybody happy, and this is not the year to worry about falling short, to over extend on the spending, or let anyone make us feel bad about the things we decide not to do. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Surprise for Christmas and Other Seasonal Mysteries - Edited by Martin Edwards

This is my second Christmas out of retail, and for all the crap that 2020 has bought, it's also the year that I've got autumn back. It's never been my favourite season (which actually probably is winter) but I hadn't realised how lost it gets in retail when it's heads down Christmas planning with a purpose from August onwards (and earlier for a lot of stuff around it). 

Even if I was in town at the moment, with most the shops closed the markers and mood setters I'm used to wouldn't be there. Out in the countryside where my days revolve around the hours of exercise the dog requires, and a once a week trip to the local supermarket it really does feel like a life time ago since colleagues would reassure each other that in 4 more weeks it would all be done, and surely we could cope with that?

It's also the first year in a while I haven't made a Christmas Pudding, or mincemeat - stir up Sunday came and went - and we think we might have trifle this year anyway. Traditions which acted as a life raft to carry me through a shitty job at a tough time of year for the last decade do not feel so important this year. 2020 has that going for it at least. 

I did bring a stack of Christmas themed short stories with my to mum's though, and the first one I've finished is The British Library Crime Classics offering for this year - 'A Surprise for Christmas'. These collections have always been good and this one is no exception to the rule. It's got a really good mix of long short stories, short short stories, and something novella length. There's a lot to be said for this kind of collection when you're away from home and your normal library of books (or when you're travelling a lot, or when you're stuck at home and struggling to settle or concentrate on anything. I really like short story collections for most sets of reading circumstances). 

It turns out that I'm not a huge fan of G.K. Chesterton, but even I thought 'The Hole in the Wall' was okay. I really liked the Ngaio Marsh and Catharine Louisa Pirkis stories a lot. The Novella length offering is pure pulp hokum which demands a little suspension of disbelief and was thoroughly enjoyable. E. R. Punshon's 'Dead Man's Hand' veers into weird territory, which is very suitable for the season, but it's Barry Perowne's 'The Turn Again Bell' which is far more weird than mystery that finishes the collection and sets the tone for it.

I loved this story. In previous years I've appreciated final entries that have a particular darkness about them; 'The Turn Again Bell' is the opposite of these, and is just right for a year that's had more than enough darkness in it. Nothing much like a crime happens in it, but there's an 11th century church, a legend about a bell that rings at Christmas that only the vicar can hear and means he'll be dead within a twelve month, and a beautifully happy ending. 

The British Library Shop has a  3 for 2 offer across all its paperbacks which is a lot of choice - weird anthologies, Women's fiction, Science Fiction anthologies, and all the crime classics including 4 Christmas short story collections, another handful of Christmas or winter themed novels, and more anthologies that will cover all sorts of interests. It's stocking filler heaven for me. 'A Surprise for Christmas' is a vintage entry to the canon - my copy was a treat for myself, it's put me in a much more festive mood, and I can think of a few people who would enjoy it on my present list. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Emile Zola A Very Short Introduction - Brian Nelson

When Oxford University Press published Zola's 'Doctor Pascal' this summer it completed their set of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and is apparently the first time all twenty of the novels have been in print with the same publisher in English. About 6 years ago I thought I'd read my way through the whole cycle, it's a long term project which started really well with 'The Fortune of the Rougons', 'The Kill', 'Money', and 'The Conquest of Plassans', all of which I really liked, then took a nose dive with 'Earth' and 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret'. 

I think I need to replace a very old copy of 'La Débâcle' that I was supposed to read for first year history in 1992, but didn't, with the OWC edition with it's more recent translation, comprehensive introduction, and matching cover. Otherwise my collection is complete, I only have another 14 books to read, and I know some of them will be great. 

I will admit 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' was daunting (I found parts of it all but impossible to read - it was a word by word slog through the middle section, Zola is not his best writing about the country) and 'Earth' was as troubling as it was compelling. 

The OUP translations have been rounded off with Brian Nelson's 'Emile Zola, A Very Short Introduction' which I've been reading over the last few days. It's rekindled my enthusiasm for Zola (and is the first time I learnt that he might have been murdered, which did not help me sleep last night). I guess most of the information in here is in the introductions to the books, but there are pictures, a little bit of gossip, a really useful chronology, and this is a handy pocket sized book to keep by whatever volume I'm reading if I want to check up on specific themes. 

Not all the books in the cycle are discussed in depth, and the short introduction takes in Zola beyond the Rougon-Macquarts. It is in fact a very useful very short introduction, and I must check the list to see what other authors I might want to seriously tackle have similar guides.

I'm waxing particularly enthusiastic now because a couple of Zola's have been a feature of my Christmas stocking for the last 5 years (yes, my mother still does stockings for us even though we're in our 40's and the collection of paperbacks, lip balms, earplugs, chocolate coins, satsuma's and similar odds and ends it contains are the highlight of the day for me). OUP sent me this very short introduction, otherwise it would have been on my wish list, a final Zola contribution to the festive season.

If you have someone in your life who likes French literature, naturalism, matching sets of books, or classics in any combination something like this could solve present buying dilemmas for years. Getting the right books as gifts can be a delicate balance, it doesn't do to impose your taste on the intended recipient, but when you've got shared interests, or there's been a bit of discussion about it before hand (or there's an open wish list to look at) I love getting and giving books. A series that can be added to over the years and becomes a proper tradition is a particularly lovely thing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Lockdown Hats

This lockdown has been radically different, and much easier for me. There's a big difference between being in the city and the countryside - some of which is quite frustrating. I've been quite surprised at how many people in the villages seem to take a really lax view of lockdown compared to my city neighbours. There's a lot of traffic between houses and an assumption that you can come in for a cup of tea that is very at odds with the mask wearing care, and general avoidance of people, in my block of flats. 

It's not everybody by a long way, and as my (mums) dog has a dodgy reputation in the village, people who stop to talk to us give us plenty of space anyway. I'm loving having the freedom to walk as far as I like (never quite as far as the dog wants to go, but we're doing 3-4 hours a day which I think is enough) and the company. It has very much underlined that whilst we're all in the same storm, we're also all in different boats as we get through Covid. 

Mum, who is recovering from a hip replacement op is getting cabin fever whilst I'm enjoying the relative freedom of the same situation. It doesn't help her that she can't get comfortable enough to read for more than a few minutes, or that she's finding sleeping difficult, but recovery is going well and by the time lockdown lifts she ought to be able to get out and about quite a bit.

Meanwhile I've been knitting hats, lots of hats. They're destined to be Christmas presents and I've just started my 6th since the Cursiter Kep. I'm cash poor at the moment without a job so a bit of stash busting is very much in order and I think (hope) that people will like them. A winter hat is always useful and suitably light and unbreakable to post. 

The overall design is continuing to evolve - a pattern on the crown or plain, how quickly or slowly to decrease, how roomy to make the hat, and lots of thinking about colour combinations, but I do now see these as very much my hats. They're far enough removed from all the original sources of inspiration to be their own thing. There's an extra warm brim for keeping the hat in place and ensuring warm ears (which the dog particularly likes) and a slouchy crown big enough to bundle long hair into. Wool is reasonably rain resistant if it's not tight against the skin as well so these are good in a shower.

The patterned crowns can sit quite flat at the back of the head which I also like - the blue and orange one would make someone very easy to find in a crowd. I'm also really pleased with the hat in traditional Fair Isle colours - this one decreases into a square which gives an impression of something a bit like an old fashioned smoking cap, or night cap. It'll be finished with a tassel, I like it's relative plainness.

How decreases and hat crowns worked was something that I found easy enough to follow on a pattern, but confusing to work out for myself until hat number 4 when it suddenly made a lot more sense and now I think I'm good to go when it comes to working out more of my own motifs and combinations of designs. 

They also feel like the perfect lockdown project. Each one takes me about 5 days pottering about on, they're good for using up scraps of yarn, give plenty of scope for variation, are small enough not to get tedious, but big enough to actually clear out some of the yarn I've accumulated , and have sizable sections (ribbing and the plain bits of the crown) which don't demand much concentration which is just right for fitting around mum and her dogs routine.  

Friday, November 20, 2020


Back at the end of October, inspired by the Backlisted Halloween episode, I sorted out the two editions of Beowulf I had with a definite intention of reading both soon. I also bought my godson the Rosemary Sutcliffe version for his birthday - I rather wish I'd read it before handing it over, even if that's not how presents are really meant to work. 

Only a few weeks later I've actually managed to read (technically re-read) the Kevin Crossley-Holland translation in my copy of 'The Anglo Saxon World, An Anthology' that I've had since I was a student. It's the Oxford World's Classics edition which is still in print, and is full of good stuff. I'm fond of this book not least because 'The Dream of the Rood' caught me at an impressionable age and in it's various forms is a favourite poem, I'm also a fan of Kevin Crossley-Holland who is as good as anybody at making this stuff live.

I first read Beowulf for a History of Art course on insular art. It's not a bad reason to read it, the Anglo- Saxon world is elusive, not least because they built so much in wood so that relatively little survives. Last years 'Anglo Saxon Kingdoms' exhibition at The British Library was an absolute revelation in terms of how much written material has survived. I wish I could have seen something like that when I was a student. It's also amazing to me that really big finds like the Staffordshire hoard are still coming to light - I wonder what it would have been like to read Beowulf around the time Sutton Hoo was dug up and you could suddenly see the sort of objects the epic describes?

Thoughts of fabulous treasure aside I remember my first attempt at this was a slog, but since then I've watched the Ray Winston/Angelina Jolie film a couple of times (I quite like it), a really awful TV series that quickly got canned, as well as listening to the Backlisted podcast, and having my imagination well and truly caught by the BL exhibition. 

I still find the lists of names tedious, though I was less impatient of all the diversions it takes and less confused by them. I'm better equipped to notice how the Christian elements are bolted on to a much older narrative, and to visualize the treasures described - which do a lot to root the poem in reality.

There's a lot of treasure to visualize, which is the main thing I'm taking away from this reading. Precious heirlooms are forever being shared around, and rings constantly given as gifts - I like the sound of this. It seems to be something more complex than a simple payment - something between a gift and a payment that suggests a greater level of esteem between those in the transaction than an exchange of coins might. 

I also have the Seamus Heaney translation with me which I hope to read soon - I'm assuming that the more times, and more versions I read this, the more that will sink in, and I'll get from it, but apart from all the gold mentioned, the other big takeaway from Kevin Crossley-Hollands translation was that I actually enjoyed reading this just for the pleasure of it - a lot has changed since 1995. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Death Goes on Skis - Nancy Spain

 Nancy Spain's name rang a bell when I saw Virago were going to republish some of her books, but I couldn't quite place it. I think I must have read it somewhere ages ago under the vague context of queer writers, because no detail of her dramatic life had stuck in my mind as it surely would have done if I had actually known anything about her.

There's more in Sandi Toksvig's introduction and a lot more gossip online about Spain and her lifestyle. Reading about her makes me think she might revel in it, so do look her up. 

'Death Goes on Skis' was Nancy's 4th book (first published in 1949) and there are references to the three earlier novels throughout. I wondered if this one was reprinted first because it has a winter theme, but looking at the titles due next year, which all come chronologically after 'Death Goes on Skis' I'm guessing it might have to do more with quality, theme, and (judging from some very unimpressed amazon reviews) 'dated language'. Toksvig also mentions this, and there are some somewhat anti-Semitic jokes.

It's enough to notice, but not enough to offend me - but then it's not something I have a personal stake in. I do think it's important to remember that prejudices linger long after our general ideas about what constitutes acceptable language change. It's also true that we all have our own prejudices, some of which are more or less generational, and which it's not always easy to fully understand 70 years down the line. I don't know if Nancy is being deliberately and slyly offensive to everyone she possibly can be at times, if it's unconscious, or targeted. That slight uncertainty is part of her charm.

'Death Goes on Skis' isn't a very serious murder mystery; rather it's a series of jokes and shocks. Just when the jokes lulled me into complacency something genuinely horrible would happen, before everything pivots back to set pieces and jokes again. It 's a disconcerting technique, it took me a good 100 pages to really come to enjoy reading this book, after which I raced through it, increasingly fond of the characters, almost of all of which are horrible.

Some of the jokes have probably survived better than others, stereotypes have changed, and there are characters like Miriam Birdseye, who I gather recurs through the books and is apparently modelled on a close friend of Nancy's who does not appear as fascinating or unconventional to me as I think she once would have. This may partly be due to coming into a series mid way. 

On the other hand the shocking parts of the book have lost non of their impact, there's an edge here that time has not blunted. Underneath the humour is a plot about how much damage people can casually do to each other and how corrosive love can be - and this too is the charm. It's the way Nancy unsettles everything. This book is queer in just about every way the dictionary defines it. It will be interesting to read more Nancy Spain. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

On Borrowed Time - Graeme Hall

I'm at my mother's dog sitting and hoovering for the foreseeable future whilst she recovers from a hip operation. It's both really nice to be in somebody else's spacious, warm, and comfortable home complete with hot and cold running dog, and a little bit weird. Both of us are very used to living alone and I keep wanting odd bits of paper, books, or balls of yarn which are back in town. Mostly it's just great to have the company and to be able to help. 

It's also why I said yes to this preview tour - the book sounds interesting (I have Hall's 'The Goddess of Macau sitting at home waiting for me to pick up next time I go over to check up on everything) and Isabelle Kenyon from Fly on the Wall is really hard to say no to. I can't think of many people as indefatigable as she is in helping and promoting her writers far beyond the things her own press is publishing, I find it really inspiring. 

On Borrowed Time’

by Graeme Hall


On Borrowed Time is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai over the period 1996/1997 - including the handover of Hong Kong to China. The novel explores the choices that people have to make; in particular between doing what is easy and what is right.


In Hong Kong, Emma Janssen discovers the truth behind the death of her brother four years earlier. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, a PhD student meets a woman with an unusual degree of interest in his research. These storylines converge at the time of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and Emma finds that she has to choose between revenge or the future happiness and safety of both herself and those close to her.


While being a work of fiction, On Borrowed Time is rooted in the author's own experiences of living and working in Hong Kong from 1993 to 2010, in particular the final years of British rule and the transfer of sovereignty back to China.


About the author


Graeme lived in Hong Kong from 1993 to 2010 and still keeps a close connection to the city. His first novel was set in Hong Kong and Shanghai over the period 1996/97 and most of his writing comes from his love of that part of the world. Graeme first visited Macau in 1993 and he quickly became fascinated by the oldest European settlement in Asia. His short story collection, ‘The Goddess of Macau’ was published in August 2020 by Fly on the Wall Press.



On Borrowed Time by Graeme Hall

Excerpt 2



‘I heard there was mainland money involved?’ Rob looked at Sam inquiringly, his estuarine accent rivalling Cantonese in tonal complexity.

‘Where did you get that from?’

‘Just some gossip from a trader I play football with. He was surprised that the government would allow it.’

‘Well it’s nonsense. It’s a Bahamas-registered company for a start,’ said Sam.

‘Which – as you well know – means fuck all.’

Sam did know only too well, and for a moment a number of bad memories briefly surfaced.

‘It’s just an investment company Leung Hing-wah has set up. You know he’s looking to get into telecoms. That’s all.’

Sam and Rob were on the top deck of the junk belonging to McShane Adams, the law firm they both worked for. It was half-eleven on a Sunday morning and they were on their first beer of the day. Kate joined them, making her way unsteadily as the boat pitched and rolled in the wake of a passing tug.

‘God, can’t this thing keep still? Are you two talking work?’ she said. ‘It’s a glorious Sunday morning, we’ve got the whole day ahead of us and I don’t want to be trapped on a junk with a pair of corporate lawyers who can’t talk about anything else. If you’re going to talk shop I’m going back down to the others.’ The rest of the party were sensibly in the shade on the main deck.

‘I love the way she talks about lawyers,’ Rob said to Sam. ‘To hear her speak you’d never guess that she was one as well.’

‘Not on a Sunday I’m not. Now, which one of you two is going to be a gentleman and rub sun-cream on my back? Sam?’ Sam took the proffered bottle. ‘Thanks … don’t miss under the straps … You’ll make someone a great husband one day, Sam. Who knows, the way things are going it may yet be me.’

Kate and Sam had started at McShane Adams on the same day three years ago and had worked together ever since. They were good friends who offered each other a shoulder to cry on when romantic liaisons were not working out. Only once had the mutual comfort gone further and they’d kissed, before they both pulled back not wanting to spoil a friendship. But one night, after a party and at least one margarita too many, and when they were both more maudlin than normal, they’d vowed to get married if they were still single when they hit forty.

‘Oh that’s nice … Has anybody ever told you you’ve got great hands?’

‘Sam,’ said Rob, ‘you should come to Manila with us next weekend. Play some golf.’

‘No thank you.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, for one thing I don’t like golf.’

‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘And that’s the other reason. I know you’re not going for the golf.’

‘Now, boys,’ interrupted Kate, ‘no fighting on my birthday.’

‘That’s not until tomorrow,’ Rob protested.

‘Close enough.’

Another roll of the junk in the swell caused them all to hold on to a handrail until the boat steadied itself again.

‘So why haven’t we been invited to your birthday bash tomorrow?’ asked Sam.

‘Girls only, I’m afraid. It’s Ladies Night at Carnegies and a bunch of us are going. No men allowed, or at least no men that we might have to meet again the next day. It’s a bummer it’s a Monday though.’

‘I wish I hadn’t asked now.’

‘Don’t be a prude, Sam,’ said Kate, ‘you should try it sometime. Just not tomorrow.’ Kate lay back on the deck, sunhat covering her face.



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Progress of a Crime - Julian Symons

This edition of  'The Progress of a Crime' comes with a bonus short story - 'The Tigers of Subtopia' which I read before the main feature. It's a dark and disturbing thing which provides an excellent set up for 'The Progress of a Crime'. the 'The Tigers of Subtopia' written in 1965 has nothing to do with the swinging 60s, and everything to do with the tension between an older generation that spent their youth at war, and the one that follows. Here the teenagers might be mouthy, but the real threat comes from somewhere else.

'The Progress of a Crime', subtitled A Fireworks Night Mystery is excellent. Loosely based on a real case, it was written in 1960, is set in an unnamed city that could be anywhere from the Midlands downwards - the case Symons had in mind happened in Clapham, but reading this made me think of Leicester, or Northampton. Midlands set books are rare so although I suspect the geography is more southern, I really like that it might not be.

A young journalist from a local newspaper is sent out to cover a bonfire night story where the Guy is in the shape of a much hated old village squire. It's all very quaint until a bunch of Teddy boys turn up on bikes, start throwing fireworks at the current squire, who then ends up stabbed.

Scotland Yard is quickly called in, the gang of boys identified, and one of them also murdered, presumably to keep him quiet. We then follow the police investigation, the journalists investigation, the family of one of the accused boys, the trial, and it's immediate aftermath.

There's a lot going on here, and it's all compelling. Symons is detached from the crime, our main point of view is courtesy of Hugh Bennett, the young journalist, how he grows up through the course of the investigation and trial is the main arc of the book. The crime itself is the sort of senseless thing that unfortunately still happens far to easily - a moment of violence that ripples out to touch other people.

The police are not heroic in this either. There's no bones made about how brutal the process of getting a confession is - which has to make the reader wonder what those confessions are worth. Maybe even more so for the modern reader, because throughout there's a sense of the disruptive effect of the war in the background for the older generation fragmenting and upsetting family values. 'The Tigers of Subtopia' is more explicit about the dangers of that suppressed capacity for violence, but overall I think there's a sense of values and expectations changing.

I knew that Teddy Boys had a reputation for violence, but as it's a look I mostly associated with Hi-de-Hi (prime time 1980's comedy) I hadn't really considered what that really meant. This book has changed that early perception. It's still the progress of what happens after the crime that makes it so compelling though. How newspapers work in their handling of a story, the effect on the family of one of the boys charged with the crimes, how the police investigate and the repercussions from that.

There's nothing particularly explicit in this book, none of the graphic brutality that stop me reading a lot of modern crime, and it goes light on the psychology, but it's not a cosy slice of vintage nostalgia either which more or less makes it my ideal. It was a significant success when it came out, and it's aged well since. Highly recommended. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

27 Genuine Reasons I have Bought Books

 I really liked Stuck in a Book's post about book buying reasons, not least because so many of them struck a chord with me. Liked it so much indeed, and felt such an affinity that here's me own list.

I too have bought a book because it was a nicer edition than the one I already owned - but rarely because I have a real dislike of having duplicate copies.

I've bought plenty of books because I liked the painting on the cover - it's a big part pf the appeal of the original green spined Virago Modern Classics.

Unlike Simon I don't much like the smell of musty old books, but I do love the inky smell of a new book which is why I prefer to buy them. I've also bought more than one perfume because it smells like new books.

I have definitely bought books on the back of friends enthusiasm - mostly blogging friends, but sometimes non blogging friends. I can't remember how many of them I've read or liked, but it's not a bad ratio.

I've bought lots of books because I was in an independent bookshop and felt I had to buy something. The last time I did it was in Forum Books in Corbridge in January. It was A Vintage Christmas and I loved it.

I will regularly buy books because a publisher I like has published the same author. This is particularly true of Virago, but not limited to them.

"Because it was a shade of blue I loved". Hello Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Because of it's format - is exactly the reason I first bought Pushkin Press books. It's something I really like about the Little Toller Monographs as well. They fit perfectly into a pocket and are extremely pleasing.

I have bought a lot of books because Georgette Heyer mentions them, I've even read quite a lot of them.

I absolutely bought Anthony Blunt on French art after finding out he was a spy as well as an art historian. I did need to read the book but could have borrowed it from the library.

I have just about managed to collect all of Vanbrugh's plays, bought because he was a spy as well as an architect, and an amusing playwright. 

I've bought books because they had Lobsters in the title.

Because I've found a £10 note in the street and what else would I do with it... (I think the right answer is turn it into a police station, don't judge me to harshly).

Bought lots of books because they were set on Scottish Islands.

And far to many books because I thought I ought to like the author.

Also because I thought I should be interested in the subject. Books about the Bloomsbury group spring to mind.

I've bought lots of books to celebrate things.

I've bought just as many to commiserate with myself when things have gone badly.

This is a trap I've got better at avoiding, but I've also bought books because I feel I ought to have them. Do we ever read those?

I have bought books because I know the author (in real life not just on the internet, but also because of the internet).

Occasionally I've bought books at author/publishing events because I felt like I ought to. Some of them have turned out well.

I have a lot of Mary Webb books because I collect original Virago Modern Classics. I've never read anything longer than one of her short stories, which I didn't particularly enjoy. I have not, and never will buy Precious Bane. I've got a lot of Edith Wharton I haven't read either, but there's a better chance I'll get to her.

I've bought books because I've realised I've come out the house without one and panicked.

I have quite a few old Penguins because I thought the titles were amusing.

Because the author was a contemporary of Jane Austin, or she might have read them. Which if I'm honest I probably know because of Georgette Heyer. This has mostly worked out well for me, same with writers who were friendly with Charles Dickens. 

Which is how I discovered Wilkie Collins, and why I bought a book where a character turns blue. 

I've bought a lot of books because of who publishes them. I know of no better way to find something new than to trust a publisher who has proved reliable.  

Saturday, November 7, 2020

It Doesn't Have to be Amazon

 Although I'm not judging if it is. Amazon are successful because of all the things they do well, which includes the customer service and convenience. On the other hand they're not the only option (or even always the cheapest) so on the principle that it's good to have things to look forward to I'm sharing a few links for people and places I really like.

Given that we've most of us probably got a bit more time on our hands it's worth checking around. Buying books 3 at a time from Persephone for example gives you enough of a discount to negate the delivery charge - not that it's always easy to find the titles you want from major online retailers. they also do gift subscriptions and you can send presents.

Handheld Press are a brilliant small press, the postage and packing is free within the UK and the books come beautifully wrapped in brown paper. They will send books as gifts for you including a message and with fancier gift wrap (I love the brown paper). It's a really interesting list that's well worth a look. Little Toller who were just in the process of opening a bookshop when this lockdown hit are brilliant as well - beautifully produced nature books are always a good thing.

It's also worth having a good nose around smaller publishers websites. Birlinn had some amazing book bundles in the summer which were particularly good value. There's nothing at the moment but when I was checking for offers I saw a couple of titles I now badly want and might not otherwise have noticed. A look at Pushkin Press is next on my list. 

Etsy is a wonderland of the good, bad, and everything in-between, but it's a great place to search out prints at reasonable prices - I really like both Matt Underwood and Deborah Vass, and the advantage of prints is that they're easy to send to people for a Christmas where face to face deliveries might be tricky.

East End Press do wonderful garlands, decorations, and more. They're another thing that's easy to post. There's no delivery charge if you spend more that £25 and the decorations are the sort of thing that it's really nice to include in a card as a small gesture.

I've taken to ordering coffee from Monmouth Coffee, the choice is excellent, postage is only £2.50 up to a kilo, and whenever I've ordered I've had my coffee within a couple of days. Coffee beans are what I've asked my sister to get me for my birthday. My mother is getting me Cupsmith hot chocolate. They're all good, but the salted caramel is a family favourite. Much as I love wine and spirits, I prefer not to drink alcohol without company. On the other hand I don't want to share that salted caramel hot chocolate so no company is ideal.

Waterstones shops are still doing click and collect as well as a delivery service. Their loyalty card scheme is generous, especially when there are double points weekends (such as this weekend). They are my local bookshop - there are no independents left in Leicester - and part of the community so I'm always keen to support my local branch just as much as I would an independent bookshop.

Something that I hadn't quite realised until early this week when I was getting bits from local independents was how lock down ready they were compared to March. Everyone I spoke to has moved online, a lot were willing to do local deliveries or click and collect, it's something I'll be checking whenever I need to buy anything.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Locked Down Again

After a very brief period of tier 2 restrictions for Leicester we're all back in lockdown, although this time I've decamped to my mothers. She's having a hip replaced tomorrow and needs a dogwalker/dogsbody; this time around I've got company, space, and a dog to whine incessantly at me if I try and eat a biscuit so I expect to come out the other end considerably fitter.

Having spent a lot of time in Lockdowns this year though I thought I might as well share what I've learnt, it's a list very much from the point of view of more or less single women living in a city centre but who can say what's helpful until they see it.

The first thing is that despite all the talk about a winter lock down being harder than a spring one, I'm not particularly buying it. This lockdown isn't quite as draconian, and winter is surely the time when we want to retreat into our own homes a bit. Summer, when my park was full of bald man basking in the sun and marinating in Carling, and I was stuck in a small flat with nowhere to go was hard. Winter when I can cosy up with all the books and the knitting is a much less daunting prospect. As Virginia Woolf points out winter walks have there charms as well.

There is also Christmas to plan for. It'll be different for most of this year which makes it a good thing to focus on now to make sure it's as good as it can be - plan for the worst, hope for the best, and all that.

Regarding the cosying up and Christmas, the one thing I've done in the nature of panic buying is order extra coffee from Monmouth street. I like getting the post, I'm always happy to get good tea or coffee as a present, I think it's a nice thing to give, and it's also the small highlights that get you through the day (and the caffeine).

Blogs, podcasts, and twitter read alongs, have all been great - anything that you can engage with when it suits you and you need it is worth having on standby. It's also good to have somewhere you can honestly say things are getting on top of you. Twitter is my replacement for the casual but helpful workplace conversations which is just about the only thing I miss about working for Waitrose. 

It won't be that bad!

Monday, November 2, 2020

Into the London Fog - Edited by Elizabeth Darnley

I had meant to post about this one on Hallowe'en but things got in the way and with another lockdown looming there are bits and pieces of shopping to do whilst local businesses are still open. It's been moderately busy in town, but no queues, and no sense of being in an uncomfortably large crowd. This is such a critical time of year for retailers that even if the odds and ends I had to buy didn't amount to much I still feel it was something, also the wrapping paper I got is lovely.

'Into the London Fog' was an excellent choice for winding up a weird binge with. Elizabeth Dearnley has chosen 14 different stories, essays, and extracts that represent 14 different parts of London. It's an interesting collection that covers everything from traditional ghost stories, to disconcerting views of London through the eyes of those who would be considered other. And Virginia Woolf. 

The traditional ghost stories are excellent. Rhoda Broughton's 'The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth' pivots from amusing to horrifying in the best way, Violet Hunt's 'The Telegram' is a terrific opener for the book, Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' is a masterclass in the threat that the familiar can hold, and I really loved Marie Belloc Lowndes 'The Lodger'. There's an E.F. Benson too, and his ghost stories are always good.

An account of the history of Spring-Heeled Jack from 1884 that first appeared in 'All the Year Round' strikes a tone between faintly amused cynicism and something more. The suggestion that Spring Heeled Jack was a gang of wealthy young men who set out to scare a given number of people to death is far more disquieting than the idea that he was something supernatural. 

Thomas Burke's 'War' which is an extract from his 'London in my Time' describes Soho in the black out of the First World War. It's an unexpected glimpse into an otherwise forgotten London which is recognizable (if you mentally squint a bit) but also seems impossibly far away - although less far away after this years lockdowns.

Claude McKay's Pugilist vs Poet which is an extract from 'A Long Way From Home' is uncomfortable. He published his autobiography (A Long Way From Home) in 1937, the introduction to this story says he was in London around 1919. It's not so much the racism that he encounters that makes such uncomfortable reading - though it's not comfortable either. It's the feeling that under the surface not so very much has changed - that exactly the same racism is still present 100 years later. 

Including Virginia Woolf is interesting. We get her essay 'Square Haunting' which dates from the late 1920's. I'm not a fan of Woolf, or the Bloomsbury group generally, this piece encapsulates all the reasons why not - which leaves me grateful for the chance to read it, as at least I can put my finger on exactly what the problem is. 

Woolf talks about the pleasure of a walk through the London streets (nice ones) on a winter's evening as dusk turns into dark. The sort of trip made with an excuse - in this case the need for a pencil, but which is really about the pleasure of the experience. So far I'm absolutely on board - the thing I love most about living in a city is exactly those winter walks past brightly lit windows where you have just enough reason to be out to feel purposeful without being in a hurry.

My problem with Woolf is that she's such a snob; there's an interlude where she describes what she clearly sees as a series of grotesques which I found distasteful, and she's just such a cold and disengaged observer. These are personal reactions though, and even if I wanted to, I can't deny the quality of her prose.

Altogether it's an enticing vision of an eerie London, the mix of fantastical fiction with observation stretches the definition of what weird is with very satisfactory results. I love a good collection of ghost stories, I also love that this books gives you more than that.