Sunday, May 16, 2021

Some Thoughts on Reprinting Books

This is essentially a response to Simon's post on Should Offensive Books be Republished from earlier in the week. Both his post and the comments below it are well worth reading with some excellent perspectives. I normally grapple with this from the point of view of a reader who likes to write about and recommend books I've enjoyed or found interesting - which is mostly, but not always the same thing. 

Simon's insights from his position as series consultant for the British Library's Women Writer's series are interesting, and so is what Kate Macdonald from Handheld Press has to say. In the end as far as choosing which books get republished goes it really is down to the people behind them and what they consider to be commercially viable. 

I think this more or less works in terms of checks and balances, especially if like me, you consider the publisher's name to be the badge of quality that makes you take a chance on a book. It's a faith that can be easily dented - after decades of trust in Virago books I'm really disturbed by the way criticisms of Naomi Wolf's Outrages have been handled. I expected better of Virago and find myself looking at their non fiction list with considerably more skepticism now. 

When it comes to fiction, Simon's post has left me with two strands of thought. The first is that there is clearly a need to engage with older fiction and all the questionable attitudes in it - for some of us. Reading is an easy way to engage with the past, and whilst I think there's probably a place for light editing; changing single words where the sense of the passage won't be lost for example, it's a slippery slope to go down. The Culloden visitors centre is one very good reason why this matters.

When I was last there a couple of years ago it really bothered me; the suppression of the Highlands that followed defeat at Culloden has not been forgotten, or forgiven. There used to be (and might still be) a small cross in one of the display cases that the curators thought likely to have been dropped by a fleeing highlander. There were pages of comments on trip advisor demanding the card be changed because no highlander would ever have fled from battle. People were genuinely offended, just as they currently are by The National Trust's attempts to reckon with the colonial past of many of it's buildings, amongst others.

Ignoring or denying the history and attitudes that don't fit with who we like to think of ourselves as being now is dangerous. It absolutely does lead to the worst sort of nationalism. For people like me (white and middle class) there's a real need to come to terms with what has gone before.

Which brings me to the second train of thought those comments sent me on. We don't all need to reckon with the same things, what is salutary for me to read might well be unnecessarily hurtful for others. The idea of a canon of work that's fit for all is an increasingly ridiculous idea, and when you come down to it isn't all fiction genre fiction anyway? We don't all like romance, we don't all like the world of Jane Austen (I do), we definitely don't all want to read the great American novel - but we all need, and deserve representation in books. 

I've wondered in the past if I'm being prissy when I say that attitudes are old fashioned, or potentially offensive, and if I should feel guilty for still enjoying those books. I think the answer to both is no. It's only good manners to be clear about the contents of a book if there's something problematic about it. How attitudes affect me is personal to me, as is what I might want to find in a book and why I'm reading in a particular direction. 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Frenchman's Creek - Daphne Du Maurier

My relationship with Daphne Du Maurier has not been a happy one. She really seems like a writer I should love, but time and again I've failed to get more than a few pages in. Starting with short stories when I was 13, moving through a few film versions of Rebecca making me think I should read the book, and repeated recommendations ever since. The blurbs always sound good, I've diligently bought a collection of her titles over the years - but still, it's mostly a no from me.


I did have a little bit of success with Jamaica Inn (6 years ago, time flies) and must have bought 'Frenchman's Creek' at around the same time as the covers are a matching pair. 'Frenchman's Creek' is easily the Du Maurier I've been told most often I'll love - and again, it's still mostly a no from me. The push to read it came from Alison's Daphne Du Maurier week.

I didn't hate the book, and this time at least I found it easy enough to stick with, reading it in 2 days instead of abandoning it after the first cup of tea, and I have at least identified what doesn't really work for me about this particular book. The first thing is that I really didn't warm to Dona.

I can sympathise with her to an extent - the boredom she feels with the life that she leads, the desire to escape and find some peace, the attraction she feels for her pirate, but not with the capriciousness, selfishness, carelessness, and casual cruelty she displays. She's such an irresponsible woman that I end up feeling sorry for the dull husband who adores her, who I'm almost certain I'm meant to despise. She did after all decide to marry him, and yes, the sex might be terrible, but a half hearted reference to Harry getting (verbally?) abusive doesn't ring true when it comes. He spends the rest of the book doing what he's told and accommodating every wish she expresses in a way that makes anything more than a desire to snap back at her taunts seem unlikely. 

Dona's assertion that she's a good mother doesn't even convince her Frenchman, who's quite ready to point out that she seems happy to abandon them for an escapade with him that could see her hung. She follows this up by musing that if she is caught Harry would probably shoot himself leaving her children (6 and 2) orphaned. However bad a marriage is, however stifling motherhood, this seems like a very high price to contemplate for adventure.

The second thing that bothers me is that this book feels absolutely rooted in 1941. Apart from frequent references to Dona's ringlets and a couple of mentions of puritans there's nothing much to tie the scene to the restoration period, but it's arguable that Dona and her Frenchman's actions make more sense in a world where you might get blitzed tomorrow.

Where Du Maurier does excel is in her descriptions of Cornwall, especially it's wildlife, and also in the way she uses smell to evoke mood. London life is full of the smell of humanity covered by perfume, the smell of her husband's dogs (suffering form eczema), of fire and candle smoke, cooking and rotting. Navron by contrast smells of sea and moor, woods full of bluebells, clean air - and I loved that because I react strongly to smell in just the same way as described here.

I'm a torn over the relationship between Dona and her Frenchman though. On the one hand it seems unlikely to me that people would behave like this, on the other I feel it's depressingly possible that they might. The conversations about how men and women feel and behave don't chime with me today, but might have a generation or so ago. 

I doubt I'll ever love Du Maurier, but I haven't quite given up hope on her, and finding something I'm in tune with. I do apologise to anyone reading this who numbers 'Frenchman's Creek' amongst their favourite books. I hope I haven't been unforgivably offensive about it and I'd be more than happy to see a list of all the reasons why I've got this wrong, because I do feel I must be missing something when so many people who's opinions I respect and generally agree with, love her. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Time For Tea - Tom Parker Bowles

This is the third title Tom Parker Bowles has done for Fortnum and Mason, and I had resolved to resist it. Then I saw a copy and that was that. A person can leave the drinks industry but it seems like the desire to know more about drinks never leaves you.

For most of my adult life tea was my hot drink of choice, then a couple of years ago a really good coffee roastery set up locally and I realised that I did like coffee - when it's made from freshly ground beans that have distinctive flavour profiles, and filtered (with water that's just gone off the boil). If that sounds fussy I'm comfortable with it, I like a drink that comes with a certain amount of ritual about it, it's a luxury and deserves the effort.


All this means that I drink less tea than I used to, but my approach to it is the same in terms of the trouble to make it - be it with a Yorkshire tea bag, or some carefully selected leaf tea. Despite years of tea drinking and a good deal of enthusiastic buying of different sorts of tea over the years though I'm not very knowledgeable about it, so 'Time For Tea' is a useful addition to my drinks library.

Not that there's any particular shortage of books on the subject, but this one suits me despite, or maybe because, it's very much an advert for Fortnum's and their products. I like Fortnum & Mason, I always have ever since my first visit as a wide eyed schoolgirl. It's the unashamed luxury image of the shop that gives even it's most mundane products a little glamour. A lot of the prices are eyewatering but it's always been fun to buy a bit of patisserie to take home, or a spice that you cannot find on a supermarket shelf (and comes in a pretty tin), to enjoy the packaging, and to consider that so many things we take for granted really aren't mundane at all. 

I also like Tom Parker Bowles food writing. He's informative and engaging which makes this an attractive book to dip in and out of, coming back with some new piece of information each time. The recipes are good as well, and it feels like there are more than 50 of them (which is what it says in amazon and Waterstones website) probably because they cover such a variety of things. These cover the range from things that use tea as an ingredient to things that go with tea. There's plenty of food and tea matching (right up my street) and a few cocktails that involve tea (something I'd actually been looking for, so that's handy).

As with the other Fortnum's cook books there are things so elaborate that I have no intention of ever making them - but which I like reading about - and plenty of classics that I'm very likely to make. There's also a good mix of sweet and savory (it's not all scones and biscuits) as well as recipes that will take you all the way through the day.

In short you get everything - trivia, brewing tips, all sorts of tasting notes, recipes, and everything you could think of that relates to making a cup of tea (down to the merits of different sorts of cups). Browsing through the book gives me something of the same feeling that browsing in the shop does. 

It's also worth noting that the introduction and bibliography acknowledge the murkier aspects of our relationship tea and it's colonial history (amongst other issues). I'm pleased to see this - it's not much more than a note in the introduction, but the suggestions for further reading are there for anyone who's interested in exploring more, and the acknowledgement itself matters. Our history is complicated, we shouldn't ignore that. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

A Short Reading List

The last play I saw in an actual theatre was Juliet Gilkes Romero's 'The Whip'. It was excellent, which makes me miss going to the theatre even more, and I've thought about it a lot since. One of the things it did was draw parallels between slavery and conditions in British factories at the same time (early 1830's). The issues are complex but at a very simple level one of the things I took away from that play is that a society that allows slavery was never going to treat it's own poor well, and that a society that treated the poor as badly as Britain did in the 19th century (and before, since, and still) wouldn't have to make much of a stretch to justify slavery.

Reading The Fortunes of Captain Blood recently (written in 1936 - a century give or take since the action in 'The Whip') was an unexpected shock for it's casual acceptance of the slave trade. It bought the past uncomfortably close - to my grandparents generation, and in the weeks since I've seen a few books I really want to read. I'll be waiting for most of them to come out in paperback, but together they look to be having some important, and undoubtedly overdue conversations.#

The first is Emma Dabiri's 'What White People Can Do Next' - which I'll buy as soon as it's back in stock in my local bookshop. Dabiri has always been interesting to listen to, and I'm hearing a lot of good things about this book which makes it a good place to start.

I heard about Empireland from Liz Dexter's review in Shiny New Books and put it straight on my wish list. It's a book I think I've probably been looking for for a good decade and more. Leicester is the kind of multi cultural city that makes it clear to me that any formal education I had at school on the subjects of empire and colonialism fell well short of what it would be useful to know and understand. 

Following Sathnam Sanghera took me straight to Alex Renton's 'Blood Legacy' about reckoning with his family's history of slave owning. This comes out tomorrow (from Canongate) and reading about it was another shock. It turns out that there were something like 46,000 registered slave owners in Britain in 1833 - when a quick google tells me the overall population was estimated at about 13.9 million. If my maths is right that was 1 person in every 302 owning other people.

Consider their families who would directly have profited or been supported by that slave labour, the people they employed off the back of that money, all the people involved in making the slave trade work, all the people directly profiting from selling goods produced by slave labour... I can only conclude that very few of us will not have ancestors who fall into one of these categories. I should have understood the scale of this before now, but I hadn't.

And finally another twitter thread which I didn't book mark and now can't find) lead me to 'Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract' by Richard Atkinson which looks like it covers something of the same territory (I'm also specifically interested in the history of Rum, so there's a lot recommending this one to me). 

Monday, May 3, 2021

From Field and Forest - Anna Koska

I've been a fan of Anna Koska's work for a good few years now - a while back I commissioned an egg tempera painting of a Curlew's egg to give to my father (kind of wish I'd kept it, much as I love him), but the first time I saw her work was on the label of Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster Whisky. It was the label which attracted me to what turned out to be a really good dram, and then a little later someone pointed me in the direction of her Instagram feed. 

It's at the back of my mind to have an egg painting for myself someday - or maybe a mussel shell (do have a good look at Anna's Instagram, it's full of beautiful things) but until I'm rather more solvent 'From Field to Forest, An Artist's Year in Paint and Pen' is a fair substitute.

I've actually had this book for 2 months (since it came out) and have happily dipped in and out of it throughout that time, but a bank holiday weekend seemed like a very good time to sit down and really read it. It's an absolutely charming book - the illustrations are beautiful, as you would expect, but it's also a pleasure to read.


I think the best way I can describe this book is to say that it's the context that balances the occasional envy that a little bit to much Instagram scrolling can spark. Insta shows the beauty of a frosty morning but doesn't really convey the bite of the cold, and it's much easier to vicariously appreciate a nice pile of logs than it is to feel the twinge of back ache that carting them around brings. When you write about something there's a lot more space for unsatisfactory plumbing and slugs in the garden - it's all a lot more real.

Beyond that it's a pleasure to follow the seasons through the eye of an artist who specialises in food illustration. She notices things I would easily miss, and brings me up short with the beauty of something as every day as an apple or a plum. I loved the descriptions of bee keeping, and the changing seasons, tales of an annual swapping of bean seeds between Anna and her mother, and the voluptuous mix of colour from her work, and the flavours and scents she describes.

I also really like the scrap book feel of 'From Field and Forest'. It's a series of memories and impressions; snapshots of moments that we're invited to share, but it does not feel like a lifestyle or how to manual. There's a sensible amount of reserve here which is another thing I appreciate, and which I think makes the book better company. 

I'm at the point in this Covid world where the interactions I miss most are not with my friends and family - who I do miss, but can also reach out to fairly easily. It's the casual conversations with acquaintances, work mates, the chance met friends of friends, familiar faces in shops and cafes that you always used to have a chat with - the web of conversations that go into building our own personal communities. And that's what this book feels like to me - a pleasant conversation with somebody that I know in passing, and about mostly pleasant things (there are horseflies which I think we can all agree are not pleasant). If that sounds like faint praise, it really isn't - it's exactly the kind of thing I've been craving and I've been more than grateful for the distraction and escape this book has given me so far.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Gone - Michael Blencowe

A book about the search for what remains of the world's extinct creatures is the kind of thing I want to read and be better informed about, but sometimes find it hard to muster the enthusiasm for. It's possibly a testament to how much this kind of writing has changed over the last decade that once I open these books they turn out to be much more engaging than I could have imagined.


Blencowe focuses on 11 creatures, but mentions more. He became interested in extinct species as a boy and some of that youthful enthusiasm remains - which is important, because part of that enthusiasm is hope, and we need hope if we're going to do anything about the mess we're in. There's also the tangible excitement Blencowe feels when he gets to hold something like a Moa bone, or observe a the skeleton of a Steller's Sea Cow. 

A certain amount of humour is another part of this books charm, it's mostly the self depreciating kind and aimed squarely at the author, sometimes at descriptions of other human endeavors, and the balance is just right. Extinction is not a funny subject, but the occasional moment of lightness makes reading about it a much more accessible occupation. It helps when Blencowe is pointing out how basically shitty humans can be as well - as when the last Great Auks are being deliberately hunted into extinction because their corpses represent cash from collectors. 

There's a lot I hadn't really considered here before - such as how late in the day it was before we came to accept extinction as a possibility, or how in the west christian beliefs would have coloured ideas about the need for conservation. Although the chapters on New Zealand make it clear that environmental destruction isn't an exclusively white christian issue. 

Mranwhile there are stories here that will be more or less familiar, like that of the Dodo, the Great Auk, or the Pinta Island tortoise. In the case of the Pinta Island Tortoise we've watched it's final demise in slow motion whilst people have done what they could to change the outcome, but when it comes to Great Auks, still with us possibly into the 1850's it's hard not to feel angry about their fate. There was nothing accidental about it, these birds were once wide spread, and it's hard not to feel cheated out of something by their loss.

There is a butterfly in this book, the Xerces Blue that was native to a particular stretch of dunes in what is now San Francesco - gone with their habitat, which makes you wonder what else was casually lost under building lots, and in how many ways the food chain has been disrupted. The Rocky Mountain Locust is a classic example of this - their swarms were measured in trillions of bodies and measured in the size of countries. By 1902 they'd gone and it's not quite clear why. Possibly changes in farming disrupted their lifecycle. They are mentioned almost in passing, but there disappearance raises uncomfortable questions.

In other places highly localised species are wiped out by hungry sailors (understandable at least), or by the invasive pests they bring with them either by accident in the case of rats, or deliberately. This might be in the form of pigs or goats, released so that they in turn will be a source of food on islands that are seen as little more than refueling stages on long ocean voyages - but end up out competing the native fauna for food. It's the waves of predators introduced as pets (cats) or to control other invasive species (rabbits, followed by stoats and their ilk) which again end up decimating both the food native species ate, and then predating on them. 

And yet there are occasional moments of hope. A better understanding of what we're losing, efforts to protect , and the very occasional and almost miraculous re appearance of species that were thought to be lost forever. It's too late for Huia, the Dodo, the Great Auk - but it might not be too late for everything currently on the red list. The concentration on specific species here is also a reminder that doing our best to preserve one charismatic species can have the positive side effect of helping everything else that thrives in the same habitat.

'Gone' is as charismatic as some of the species that it describes, and whilst I'm not convinced that accessible is precisely the word I want to describe it - Lev Parikian called it charming on Twitter this morning which is probably closer to the mark - I do like the way that it's a particularly easy book to read. One that feels like a good starting point for almost anyone (I'm considering passing this copy onto my godson, still at Primary school, to share with his mum) to begin a conversation from. Clear without being simplistic or dumbed down, this is a book that really needs to be read widely. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Lost Gallows - John Dickson Carr

If I was underwhelmed by Castle Skull a few weeks ago, 'The Lost Gallows' is a return to form for both me and Carr. In this case for Henri Bencolin and Jeff they're in a wintery London, staying in an outrageously gothic club where a shady Egyptian is being terrorised by threats from the hangman Jack Ketch, and there is the most marvelously macabre car chase through the West end I think you could ever read. 


If anybody knows what John Dickson Carr thought of Wilkie Collins I'd be very happy to know it as he feels like his spiritual successor here - or at least some of the details are odd enough to be straight out of Collins. I think the plot made some sort of sense, and you probably could have worked out the murderer from the clues provided, by how anybody reading this could concentrate on something as inconsequential as the plot when a car is being raced across London in the fog, apparently driven by a corpse, is beyond me. A liberal application of mysteries disappearing streets, ancient Egyptian curses, hidden rooms, skullduggery, revenge, model gallows, dwarfs, and terrible accents all add to the general confusion. 

There is no point at all in reading Carr if any of this sounds unappealing - the whole point of him, or so I'd argue, is the atmosphere he creates and the details he brings it alive with. I don't honestly care about who did what or how it'll work out, but what I absolutely adore is the way Carr creates a London or a Paris, or any number of other places where for a moment you think you're in a ghost story before he explains how the trick is done. These books are for anybody who's ever jumped at a shadow. In Carr's hands it's positively reassuring to find that evil lies in the hearts of the living, and isn't coming from beyond the grave.

The Lost Gallows is Carr's second book, and written whilst he was still in his early 20's (it was first publishes in 1931 when he was 24 - 'It Walks By Night' is the first, and also available in the British Library Crime Classics series). Judging from my review of 'It Walks By Night', I think 'The Lost Gallows' is a more assured book - though I agree with Martin Edwards in the introduction when he says it's clearly the work of a man, that it's "full of youthful swagger and zest".

There's still none of the humour that I've found in some of his later books, but that humour hasn't been a feature of any of the Bencolin mysteries I've read so far, and Jeff's romance with Sharon seems a bit pointless (Jeff gets better with women as the books continue, I don't know what happens to Sharon) beyond the coincidences it provides for laying clues out for the reader, but the overall there's a sense of the characters settling into themselves, and Carr hall marks about this book which make it hang together just a little bit better than I seemed to think 'It Walks By Night' did. 

Altogether I found this book a lot of fun, especially that car chase with all ghost story connotations - and believe me, even more horrible explanation. I think Carr is perfect lazy weekend reading, I need a bit of time on my hands to appreciate his gothic flourishes - they're too good to rush. 



Monday, April 26, 2021

Murder's a Swine - Nap Lombard

Nap Lombard is the pseudonym used by Pamala Hansford Johnson and her first husband, Gordan Neil Stewart for the two detective novels they wrote during the war (this one in 1943, 'Tidy Death' in 1940). There's something about this arrangement that makes it tempting to speculate that there's a lot of Pamela and Gordan in the haphazard detective duo of Andrew and Agnes Kinghof. 

Pamala was a prolific author, but I think I've only read one of her books (The Honours Board) although a quick check tells me that there's a reasonable amount of them currently available, I don't know anything at all about Gordon Neil Stewart. 'Murder's A Swine' is almost slapstick comedy with just enough of a macabre edge to balance things out. It's set at the beginning of the War before the Blitz and rationing have really begun to bite and starts with Agnes, who has lost her keys, finding a decomposing body behind some sandbags in her air raid shelter. 


Bodies can't bury themselves behind sandbags so this is clearly murder, and then an old lady in the flat above starts being terrorized with pigs heads and other bacon by products. By 1943 I imagine the luxury of being able to use lard in the way it is here would have had a few readers sighing. Bodies start to pile up, and the murders themselves are never treated lightly even if almost everything else is - this is also true of a red herring sub plot about British supporters of Mussolini who are funny until suddenly they're not. 

It's a neat balancing act that generally works really well. Mostly I laughed through this book and it's tongue in cheek nonsense about stockings and haircuts, good legs and plain faces - then it would bring me up short with something genuinely horrible. Sometimes that was the antics of the murderer, but what's really staying with me is the fascist sympathiser who recognises Agnes Kinghof after she's followed him, abducts her from an ARP training exercise which he's also a part of, threatens her, and then does it again because he knows where she lives.

When Agnes tries to call the local police after this incident she mistakenly dials a wrong number which is out of order - the fear she feels knowing that this man could be sitting on her doorstep is too easy to imagine. There's another side plot about a young man trying to prove an alibi which is completely compelling too (I'd love to give some spoilers and discuss this, and am making an absolute effort not to).

Finally, this feels very much like a book of it's time - it could only have come out of the War, and a time of general oddness and upset routines. Almost anything could happen under cover of the blackout, and there's more than a sense that the humour belongs to people who have lived under a prolonged period of stress. It's an excellent and interesting addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.

I hesitate to say that this series gets better and better, but the books from the last couple of years have been particularly to my taste - partly because of my enthusiasm for John Dickson Carr, and an unexpected love of 1950's crime fiction, and maybe because as time goes on and it's become thoroughly established there's just more for everybody. 'Murder's A Swine' pushes lots of buttons for me in terms of it's humour, eccentricity, and darkness. It's quite likely that there will be Golden Age purists who don't think much of it, but I loved it and thoroughly recommend it. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Herb/ a cook's companion - Mark Diacono

Herb - the second book I bought in an actual bookshop last week when it was finally possible to do so again for the first time in months. I don't really know where I am with the easing of lockdown restrictions. Leicester never properly came out of them last year so it's been a long time. I'm not finding it easy to grasp that it's almost May, don't really know where the time has gone over the last couple of months, and am not sure how ready I am to rejoin the world - not that there's a lot of choice about the latter.


I spent a good portion of last week (or was it the week before?) making a spreadsheet of all the weird, gothic, horror, and ghost stories I have in anthologies (about 600 of them, 'Rappacinni's Daughter' by Nathanial Hawthorne turned out to be inexplicably to me popular, I think it's fairly ordinary but it's made it into 3 different collections). I should probably have started doing this sort of thing a year ago. That I've left it until now makes me wonder if it's an excuse to stay in.

Last week also bought an opportunity to cook for another person, which is almost as good as not having to cook for myself, and as it coincided with buying 'Herb', and I had all the ingredients (bar some sage that I pinched from a nearby garden border, and having tinned rather than fresh pineapple) for a pineapple and sage upside down cake it seemed like a promising place to start. I was not wrong.

It's a great cake that works really well as quite a smart pudding (or at least it would if you don't use chopped tinned pineapple which will not lose it's sad 1970's fruit salad look) as well as something nice to have with coffee. The amazing thing was that a combination of sage and cardamom along with the pineapple somehow suggested a hint of ginger. We drank whisky with it (to keep the cold out) Laphroaig PX cask - which was a splendid match, so much so that even the memory of it a week later is making me smile.

I am basically a sucker for a herb book, even though I no longer have a garden, or even a particularly satisfactory herb growing windowsill. The only thing I've managed to successfully grow is Myrtle, which doesn't mind being blasted by summer heat through the glass. Supermarket herb pots always get either green or white fly, and I can't keep up with watering them. This actually turns out to be a fairly decent book for someone with my lack of growing space. 

This is because it's a by no means exhaustive guide - there's a list of Diacono's favourite kitchen herbs, enough of which are available in supermarkets, or which might be easily foraged from friends gardens. These are treated as a starting point, so there's advice on growing, preparing, cooking. Each featured herb comes with a really decent list of things it goes well with which is perfect for encouraging experimentation, and the recipes are more or less (delicious) places to start from. The beauty of this book is in the way it makes you think about flavour and shows you how to get the most out of the herbs you have. I don't need a garden to be able to make better use of the things I can buy, and when I do have a garden I'll have learnt all sorts of things.

The other great thing about this book, apart from being able to spend time reading Mark's writing - he's exceptionally good company on the page, is that it quietly does go about the business of showing you how to make ordinary ish things extraordinary. The Pineapple and Sage upside down cake is a case in point. I have fond memories of the somewhat kitsch version we used to get served at school with custard, I love this version which is far better suited to my adult palate. All the recipes I've marked are somewhat similar in that they're simple enough things in themselves (it's the salads I'm really taken with at the moment) which read like they're going to be coaxed into being memorable. 

It's a really beautiful book to look at as well, but more than anything it's some decent inspiration for coming out of this strange time into one that we can eat together again in - it's a book that makes me want to share - time, enthusiasm, and food.  

Sunday, April 18, 2021

#1936Club

 I've really enjoyed Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings | "Vivre le livre!" (wordpress.com) 1936 book club. As it goes it's probably the year that I've read the most popular fiction from just in the general way of things. I got to revisit a couple of favourites, read something that was if nothing else, at least thought provoking, and realise that I've got a whole pile more serious things to look forward to from 1936 at some point in the future (I think it might be interesting to read Djuna Barnes Nightwood and Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show together some time when I'm in the mood for lesbian and modernist classics).

There's a lot to be said for looking at the books expected to be popular though, at least if you want some insight into the kind of thinking that might have been taken more or less for granted back in the day. Heyer's Talisman Ring is as full of 1936 attitudes as her Behold, Here's Poison. Both have something of the screwball comedy about them and The Talisman Ring particularly suggests an intellectual equality between men and women that feels quite fresh.

It also makes passing mention of Jewish money lenders that I'd happily see amended to read loan shark, or indeed money lender, in modern editions as it's more or less a throwaway slang description. Add it to Dorothy L. Sayers comments about Jewish money lenders in 1935's Guady Night, some observations Angela Thirkell makes in High Rising (1933) (these come immediately to mind, but I don't think I'd have to read very far into 1936's popular fiction to find more examples) and then look again at Rafael Sabatini's particularly troubling Captain Blood chapter and I have a whole new picture of how prevalent and ingrained anti-Semitism clearly was in the period.

All of these writers, along with P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and Nancy Mitford share a particular sort of snobbery too. In some cases it's more engaging than others. I enjoy it more in Heyer and Wodehouse than in most of the others, perhaps it's the comic elements in both, and the romantic conventions Heyer employs that make me feel so. It's also a reminder that the society pages must have been much more like celebrity gossip columns than I'm currently used to.

That Sabatini book is bothering me too. I'm not sorry that I read it, but it has made me wary of picking up anything else by him again. If you read old books your always likely to encounter views and tropes that are now completely unacceptable. Sometimes I don't much care - I did after all choose to read the book knowing it was a risk, other times it really bothers me. This one bothered me for the casual asumption that the public would find a slave trader a sympathetic character.

Sabatini was a successful author at this point, Captain Blood (the first book in the sequence) had been made into a film in 1935, a few of his books had been adapted for silent films in the 1920's. Sabatini must have known his audience, and they must have known him. It's certainly an eye opener. I'm also left feeling unsure about how books like this ought to be treated now. I doubt The Fortunes of Captain Blood is likely to see another serious reprint, so questions about whether that particular chapter ought to be cut or not are moot. It was interesting from a social history point of view, but I kind of feel that some sort of content warning to that effect would have helped. 

Anyway, thanks to Simon and Kaggsy I feel like I've had some of the best and worst of what 1936's popular fiction has to offer, and it's definitely been one of the most interesting book club's to date 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Bodies from the Library, Shetland Wool Week and Dean Street Press

A round up of three free things. The new Shetland Wool Wook hat pattern is now available. Wilma Malcolmson is carrying on as wool week patron so this is a second opportunity to admire her really inspired colour blending. There is a face book group dedicated to knitting this hat which is really helpful if you're new to Fair Isle techniques, knitting in the round, or all of it. It's a really good pattern to take as a template for your own experimentations, a great place to start if Fair Isle is new to you, and a fun thing to be involved in.

This years pattern is called Da Crofter's Kep, and can be downloaded Here. It's worth looking at some of the other things in the Wool Week shop too - the annuals are an excellent mix of patterns and articles, they also feature projects suitable for every skill level - so don't be put off if you're an absolute beginner - and things which I find I want to knit. Which is not the case with every pattern book I pick up. 

The Bodies from the Library conference is back this year in Zoom form. I'll miss going to the British Library for it with all the chance meetings and conversations that brings (along with biscuits in individual packets, really not very good tea and coffee from dispensers, and the book buying opportunities) but being able to watch for free with good tea or coffee, excellent biscuits and the ability to order books as I listen is a very attractive prospect. It starts at 1.30 on the 15th of May, there will be breaks, and registration details are Here.

Finally it took me long enough to start realizing just how generous Dean Street Press are with ebooks, if you keep an eye on their website and Twitter there are weekly offers of something interesting you can download for free, as well as all the other things they're doing. This press is a gem for anyone interested in Golden Age Crime - and beyond. The occasional free eBook is just the cherry on top and a bonus for anyone feeling the pinch. 

I have been buying books now that bookshops are actually open again, but as I'm still job hunting it's been very restrained - A Copy of Maria Dahvana Headley's new translation of Beowulf, and Mark Diacono's Herb book. I made a really satisfying Pineapple and Sage upside down cake from the latter, and am enjoying reading the book possibly even more than I'm enjoying eating the cake - which is a lot. It's enough shopping for now, and I wasn't short of things to read before, but it really has been a pleasure to be able to go back into a bookshop and just browse for a bit. Tomorrow I might go and see what the Charity shops near the university have and just be pleased to have a reason to walk across town (the enough shopping for now statement is clearly already exposed as a bit of a fib).  

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Fortunes of Captain Blood - Rafael Sabatini #1936Club

I have a small handful of Sabatini's books re-printed by House of Stratus and bought about 20 years ago. I remember enjoying them in all their old glory back then, and have wondered since how I'd feel about them now. By chance I had 'The Fortunes of Captain Blood' published in 1936 on my shelf, I'm fairly sure unread until now. It's not very long and it seemed like a great book to compare to Georgette Heyer's The Talisman Ring.


I'd read somewhere that Heyer was a Sabatini fan - which I can well believe, and curiously despite being a good generation older, and writing for several years beforehand, his breakthrough success 'Scaramouche' was published in 1921, the same year as Heyer's 'The Black Moth'. Both writers were prolific throughout their lives, both are writing historical adventures with an element of romance - although the emphasis is different. 

'The Fortunes of Captain Blood' is the last of a trio of books featuring Peter Blood, Irish surgeon accidentally caught up in the Monmouth rebellion - which places the action sometime right at the end of the 17th century, sent to the Caribbean as a slave, and now exceptionally successful buccaneer/pirate. Sworn enemy of the Spanish, snappy dresser (trade mark outfit - black satin, silver lace, periwig, hat with a scarlet plume - which I can only imagine would have been very sweaty in the Caribbean heat), chivalrous in the face of feminine distress, and endlessly inventive. There are six episodes in this book which are loosely linked but more or less stand alone.

The first four stories were reasonably fun. There are loving descriptions of various outfits - a lot of men swaggering around in purple taffeta or satin - or half naked, even more loving descriptions of gunnery strategy and boat maneuvers, plenty of adventure and a little bit of humour. The descriptions of slavery felt odd to read now, especially as they came without much commentary but as observations of a system there was nothing more offensive than you might reasonably expect to come across if you read books of this vintage.

That changed in chapter five in which Blood encounters an angry Yorkshire man. He's a slaver who has been cheated out of his cargo of people by the Spanish in Havana. Captain Blood vows to avenge him by getting both the value of the slaves back for him, and then something extra in the way of compensation. There's a hefty chunk of anti Semitism thrown into the mix as well. I feel it would have been a questionable line to take in 1836, for 1936 it's more than shocking. Why a reader should be expected to feel sympathy for a slaver is absolutely beyond me, why he ought to be avenged even further beyond me. There's nothing casual about the prejudice here and to be honest I see no reason why the chapter couldn't have been cut from the collection by 2001.

It's certainly changed my view of Sabatini who I had been mostly enjoying up to this point but now feel more than disappointed in. I'm glad to have read the book, it was genuinely interesting to compare to Heyer, but I won't be keeping it and I'm not recommending it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Behold, Here's Poison - Georgette Heyer #1936Club

It turns out that Heyer published 2 books in 1936 (a bonus for me this week). The Talisman Ring, covered in yesterdays post, and a contemporary detective novel, Behold, Here's Poison. I can't really argue with the general opinion that Heyer's detective fiction isn't in the same league as her historical novels, but they're still pretty good and probably deserve a bit more love than they've had. 


To be fair Arrow have started reprinting these in smart new jackets - normally around Christmas and presumably thanks to the continuing enthusiasm for nostalgic Golden Age crime, so maybe they're getting a bit more love than I've noticed. There are 11 of these crime novels (one of which, Penhallow, is a bit of an outlier in terms of style) and I think it's a shame there aren't a few more. There might have been some level of collaboration with Heyer's husband, a barrister when she was writing these who apparently supplied some plot details, but I doubt his contribution was particularly significant.

The characters are pure Heyer, and very much part of her stock in trade. She also has a couple of mysteries (more thriller than murder) in her historical novels, including The Talisman Ring so the two strands of her writing are not so dissimilar. Behold, Here's Poison shares other things with The Talisman Ring too. Almost all the action takes place in a few interiors - a substantial house in a wealthy London suburb, Grinley Heath, and a smart London flat off St James, and there are the same very evocative descriptions of certain scenes. 

The one thing I'd remembered really clearly about this book was it's opening. The under housemaid is taking tea up to the still sleeping household, and looks out of a window. She muses about the neighbours but mostly is thinking about the weather - it's going to be sunny and she has the afternoon off. It's a small thing but so very relatable. 

Unfortunately her plans are ruined by finding the master of the house dead. Initially it looks like natural causes - his doctor is certainly ready to say so, but then his doctor also had reason to want him dead, and then Mister Matthews most forceful sister turns up and demands a post mortem. Unfortunately for another sister, a niece and nephew, their mother, an uncle, the doctor, and possibly others who had reason to want Mister Matthews gone, it was murder. Unfortunately for the police it's 5 days later and much of the possible evidence has been destroyed. 

There is a smooth and very intelligent nephew who exists to annoy the rest of his family, whilst running his own parallel investigation to the police - he wants to preserve the family name if possible. He also becomes a slightly unlikely, but eventually oddly convincing love interest for  Stella, Mister Matthews niece and one of the few more or less likable characters amongst the suspects.

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a couple of quite generous reviews of Heyer's detective fiction. She notes that the plots aren't the best, but that the characterisation and humour are. The relations between two sisters and a sister in law are masterfully handled here. They might be caricatures but Heyer makes them live, or at least she does when it comes to showing how incompatible they are, so that even though they're not likable I still feel sympathy for them having to deal with each other.   

There's an emphasis on dress as well, both male and female which is very Heyer, and also very 1930's. Reading these books makes me realise how much the ideal of masculinity has changed over the last 100 years. Intelligence and elegance seem to be the most important attributes a hero can have. I guess this says a bit about the preferences of the Queens of Crime too. 

In short this is a satisfying mystery, the murder method is clever, Heyer's detective is likable (also very intelligent), there's plenty of her trademark humour and a few twists along the way. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance, her mysteries are a great place to start. They come with a slightly different set of expectations, and possibly a bit less genre prejudice attached to them. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer - #1936Club

I had forgotten about the 1936 club until I saw a reminder from Simon a couple of weeks ago, and then got quietly excited when I realised I could read two Georgette Heyer's for it, one of which is an all time favourite - The Talisman Ring. I've been using Simon and Kaggsy's book club as a Heyer enabling tool since they started it and I'm not going to break with tradition now when she's been such a solace in the past year.


This has mostly been due to the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong on Twitter. Every Sunday we work through 3 chapters of whichever the current book is with plenty of mostly entirely relevant discussion. It's a particularly friendly group of readers with plenty of differing opinions and reading the books like this has been really illuminating. I don't think we've done Talisman Ring yet (I didn't join the group until it had been going for a few months), but I took a lot of what they've made me think about into this umpteenth read of it. 

One reason I love this particular book so much is that although there are romances in it, it's essentially a comedy thriller in fancy dress. An old man (Sylvester) is dying, he's rescued his granddaughter from the dicey position of being an aristocrat in revolutionary France at about the same time that his grandson was suspected of shooting a man in cold blood to get back the talisman ring which had been lost over a game of cards. Ludovic (the grandson) is promptly shipped out the country with almost everybody assuming his guilt. Sylvester has summoned his great nephew, Tristram, to his death bed in the hope that he'll marry his much younger cousin (the granddaughter) who will otherwise be alone in the world.

Tristram isn't especially enthusiastic but he needs a wife and isn't especially enthusiastic about anybody else either. Eustacie seems to feel much the same - although after a few hours in each others company it's fairly clear that they really won't like each other much. Then Sylvester dies, Ludovic turns up as a smuggler in which guise he meets Eustacie escaping the prospect of a dull marriage. There's some shooting in a moonlit forest, Tristram realises that Ludovic is innocent, another cousin suddenly looks suspicious, and a woman who makes him laugh turns up. There are a lot of jokes, and it's all very enjoyable.

Reading Heyer slowly it also seems crazy that her work was never adapted for film. Most of the action here takes place in a handful of different interiors and a bit of woodland, the dialogue, and running around is very reminiscent of the screwball comedy's of the era, and the cast is limited. It should have been a gift to film - and a well made contemporary adaptation would be delightful (the only book of hers that was adapted was not well served - you can find The Reluctant Widow on you tube - it's an absolute mess compared to the source material) even if it wasn't entirely faithful. 

As it is there are wonderful scenes - such as Sylvester's death bed - lit by 50 candles, furnished with rich brocades, with an old man in his wig and a great ruby ring at the centre of it determined to have the last word. I feel like I'm watching rather than reading, and Heyer invites her readers to be amused as well as entertained by the vision she's created. 

What I hadn't really noticed before this year, but am coming to see as more of a feature of her work is how loosely Heyer sketches in the details of her main characters. Tristram is described as tall, dark, lean, and we know he's good in a fight - but otherwise it's up to the reader to decide on the details. Ludovic is tall blond and handsome, Eustacie is small dark and beautiful... There isn't really a lot about their personalities either beyond humour and intelligence. Her secondary characters by comparison are much more richly detailed. This has to be a big part of why her books have aged relatively well (there are bits which haven't), it's so easy to project yourself into the heart of them. 

Overall The Talisman Ring is lighthearted, well written, fun. It doesn't expect to be taken particularly seriously, it's function is solely to amuse and entertain which it does very well indeed. I'm very happy to have had a reason to read it again right now. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

In The Garden - Essays on Nature and Growing

It was the 14th of January 2020 when I last went to London, the purpose of the trip was to get a readers card for the National Art Library (housed in the V&A). It was a preliminary for a piece of research that's back on indefinite hold now, and even when it's possible to revisit London for nothing much more than pleasure it's going to be a much longer time before I want to go there (or consider the exorbitant train fare worth while). I've never been to Daunt Books - there's never been time. 


It's London that 'In The Garden' mostly evokes for me though, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Individually each essay in this collection is excellent - there's not a weak link in the chain. Not even Nigel Slater who is not a favourite writer (I can't deny the quality of his writing, but I can't relate to it either - everything in his written and photographed world feels too perfectly curated, too aspirational, for me - even the imperfections, it leaves me cold). Collectively there's a metrocentric feel about the book that I think leaves it feeling a little unbalanced.

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh describing the garden she's growing in Ireland, and Caroline Craig's 'Just Call Me Alan' where she describes her families farming and gardening in Provence, both towards the end of the collection somewhat redress the balance, but a couple more essays like this to add to the mix would have been welcome. 

It's not that I'm unsympathetic towards London bound millennials struggling with high rents and shared housing, longing for a garden to find and ground themselves in. I live in a city centre flat, the lack of a garden of my own is a constant small grief, but I also know plenty of millennials who didn't go to London, who by their mid twenties had mostly bought houses and gardens with their partners, who got allotments and started families before they were 30. I want to read something which reflects what a garden means to these people too.

What is here is excellent though, and there are at least a good number of voices that I don't think we often see in garden and nature writing. How a garden might tie together generations of immigrant families - from the first generation trying to assimilate or recreate a little bit of home through 2nd and third generations making their own identities or reaching back to find links with different parts of their heritage.

Zing Tsjeng's 'A Ghost Story' is a favourite piece for the way she talks about how her garden bridges gaps between her and her mother, and all she has to say on how we transfer our feelings into something like a garden. Francesca Wade is very good on London Square gardens in 'A Common Inheritance' too - but then I'll say again, there isn't a weak essay here. There's no shortage of things to think about either, I guess this is what happens when you chose writers to talk about gardening rather than gardeners to write about it. 

I've also been a little bit on the fence about buying both Kerri Ní Dochartaigh's 'Thin Places' and Francesca Wade's 'Square Haunting' too, but I'm now much more interested in both based on what I've read here. It's definitely a collection to have a good look at.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

There's No Story There - Inez Holden

These are more of the war time writings of Inez Holden, this time from 1944-45 after the earlier collections of Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different at the Time which covered 1938-1941. There's No Story There is a novel, or something between a novel and a fictionalized account of Holden's war time observations. She did work in a munitions factory in Wales although I'm not clear if it was on the scale of 'Statevale' - which covers seven miles, has 30,000 employees, and is an enclosed world of it's own.


I found Blitz Writing interesting, Holden is too good an observer and too good a writer for it not to be, but it's not as compelling as There's No Story There which given that the construction of the two isn't so very different kind of surprises me. There's an extra something about this book, a subtle sort of alchemy that makes it work in a way I can't pick apart.

There are 13 loosely connected chapters - vignettes really, of life at Statevale from the perspective of varied characters, the final chapter presented as a letter a newish arrival is writing home ties everything together. There are also 3 final chapters which are unrelated, but all add to the war time picture, especially Musical Chairman.

This book came out with Margaret Kennedy's Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry and it is absolutely worth reading both together because both feel like they show a part of war time history that's under represented. In  Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry it's Kennedy's willingness to share her fears and prejudices, in There's No Story There it's all about the behind the scenes work and this time I was really surprised by my own ignorance.

Holden was a Bright Young Thing who ended up as a socialist, and reading this book there's more than a suggestion that conditions at Statevale verge on being a socialist utopia - sort of. there's a place for everybody - jobs for people to damaged to go into, or back into the army. Conditions in the hostels are basic but good and for a portion of your wages every need is taken care of. What I hadn't realized is how little choice people had in how and where they were employed.

There's comedy here - especially in chapters 7 and 8 (Factory Tour and Visit) when the visitor who turns up isn't quite the visitor expected, and then something much darker in 9 (Check Up) where a Jewish man finds persecution where none is intended. His paranoia has good foundation of course, which adds to the bleakness of his situation.

There are chapters about being snowed in to the factory, and out of it, Snowed In is perhaps my favourite in the book - it's where I think Holden's magic touch is most evident. She creates images which have an almost mythic power here without being heavy handed about it. It's something about the other worldliness of a snowy landscape and the warmth of a boiler room contrasted with each other. 

There's also a casual look at the strain that war time years apart put on marriages, all the human frailties and weaknesses and how we accommodate them in a community, hints of a mystery, and above all the extraordinariness of ordinary people. Readers will recognise as clearly as Holden did that there is a story - the curious thing is that in all the endless stories of the war that we keep remaking and rewriting how seldom this one seems to be told.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Castle Skull - John Dickson Carr

I’ve been saving this Rhineland Mystery as a treat – I thought the combination Of John Dickson Carr and a suitably gothic Germanic setting to let himself loose on would be quite something. The promise of an Aleister Crowley like figure was also hopeful, but in the end I either wasn’t in quite the right frame of mind, or John Dickson Carr was showing a certain restraint. I think it’s more likely to be that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind because Carr does provide a castle full of secret passages perched high above the Rhine, and shaped so that it looks like a giant skull – which can hardly be thought of as restrained.


This is another Inspector Henri Bencolin mystery, Bencolin is lured from Paris by the great Belgian financier Jérôme D’Aunay, after the equally mysterious and horrifying death of his friend and host, Myron Alison (Carr definitely wasn’t holding back, Myron turned out to be almost as hard to kill as Rasputin). Both men were friends with the charismatic, unpleasant, and very successful magician, Maleger who’s body was supposedly found in the Rhine 17 years previously with yet more mystery attached.

Odd things happen on the way to the Rhine, and when Bencolin and Jeff finally arrive there’s a massive thunderstorm, all the better to appreciate the skull shaped castle in. The suspicion is that one of Myron’s house guests must have murdered him, and as everybody has been stuck in his house together suspecting each other for several days they’re not very happy. An old friend and adversary of Bencolin’s is also on the scene – his German counterpart, officially in charge of the case. The two had been spies on opposite sides during the first world war and have retained a good deal of respect and friendly rivalry.

As I describe this book I realise I’m going to have to read it again at some point, because it sounds better and better, and hopefully next time I’ll be in a better mood to appreciate all the details – of which Carr is a master. As it is the moment I really perked up was near the end when he’s describing a somewhat macabre dinner party and does a role call of Vermouth’s and Amaro’s – which made me long for any sort of aperitif suitable occasion – even a dinner party designed to flush out a murderer in a ghastly castle shaped like a skull with black onyx floors (especially such a dinner party – it would be one memorable way to end lock down).

There’s also a delightfully incongruous cocktail in production at this point – it’s not one I’m familiar with, and a quick look in my own books on the subject and online doesn’t throw up any references for it from 1931 – there’s a similar recipe that claims to be from 1960’s. At some point I’ll dig a little deeper on this – Carr’s version is simple, and I think it would be very drinkable, although I can see why Jeff Marle opts to change to Pernod after his first one. I haven’t made it yet as I don’t have an open bottle of apricot brandy to hand – but it’s 2 parts gin, 1 part apricot brandy, 1 part freshly squeezed orange juice, shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass.

It sounds like a decent cocktail for spring – it should allow the apricot brandy to really shine, be quite fruity, and have a hell of a kick to it. As Carr’s characters have been stuck in their own mini lockdown, a couple of relationships have come to a messy end as well as the matter of the murder under investigation it’s a clever choice – so at odds with the rest of the Gothic atmosphere and high emotion.

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Kulich - Russian Easter Bread from Red Sands

The sun has been shining, we're allowed to meet  friends again without the pretense of exercise, and to celebrate that I made the Kulich from Red Sands to take to a park with a flask of tea for a properly long chat with a very dear friend who I've missed seeing regularly more than I can say over the last year.

I think this Easter bread first caught my eye in Darra Goldstein's 'Beyond The North Wind', although I can't shake the feeling that I've seen it somewhere else recently, as well as in 'Red Sands'. If I have I can't find it now, although there's also a version in Olia Hercules 'Mamushka' so I have at least three recipes I can refer to in my kitchen alone.

Darra Goldstein tells me superstition holds that the success of this bread is mood dependent and not to try making it if you're feeling impatient or bad tempered. I was in a very good mood this morning between the sun and the prospect of seeing R, but there was something about this dough which made me happy as well and it behaved beautifully for me. It's a superstition I'm inclined to adopt.


Every recipe I've looked up for Kulich (I've gone through a pile of them online as well) is different, and although they're all versions of an enriched spiced dough with fruit that's about it. The advantage of the Red Sands recipe from my point of view is that it makes a relatively small quantity. It's enough dough for four breads baked in 400g tins (the sort that have had tomatoes or beans in). That's a good individual size and not to many to find homes for if you live alone. The bigger challenge was using enough tins of things the right size over the last week and remembering to keep them. 


There are other advantages to the small size version - the modest quantities of ingredients are easy to deal with, which is helpful when you're handling a sticky dough like this one - it was very happy in a food mixer which is a bonus if you have carpel tunnel issues and the alternative is a solid 10 - 12 mins of kneading by hand. I didn't get through endless eggs and it was an excellent way to finish up some of the dried apricots left over from Christmas cakes. Same with the mixed spice as well which saved me making another batch and having half of it hang around for months. Smaller tins cut the baking time too, and these little Kulich are easy to handle as they come out of the tins - instructions for larger versions sound like it could all go wrong at the last minute.

Flavour wise to say they're somewhere between a pantone and a hot cross bun but denser is accurate enough, they also strongly reminded me of the tea loaf of my childhood, a sort that seems to have been particular to Shetland - and also made from an enriched dough, studded with raisins, sometimes spiced, soft in the middle, crusty on the outside. A link doesn't seem impossible, although delicious bread is delicious bread the world over.

Altogether these were a lovely thing to make, fitted well enough around a morning routine, and appeal more to me than either Simnel cake or even chocolate eggs (although I like those too). I really like their mushroomy appearance and the feeling of Sunday best they have about them. I absolutely recommend Red Sands, both for the travel journal elements and the recipes - I've found myself cooking a lot from it this year. I would normally include the recipe, but as every one I've read seems so particular to it's writer it doesn't feel quite right to do it this time. 

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Work Place Harassment

I've been debating for a week or more about writing this post - it's something I've been thinking a lot about against the background of the ongoing Sturgeon V Salmond drama. One of the more annoying aspects of this is the number of people who will smugly declare online that Salmond was acquitted of the charges bought against him last year, and ignore his own admissions about how inappropriate his behavior had been. That your man isn't actually a rapist seems like a very low bar to set. The what about the Tories response which either swiftly follows or has preceded this is frustrating too. Damning corruption and lying on one hand, and then using it as an excuse for more corruption and lying on the other isn't a good look. 

Something else I see a lot of is people who questioning how Sturgeon apparently didn't know what was happening earlier, and asking why it wasn't called out earlier. I don't know what her experience, or that of the other people working in Holyrood at the time was, but I can share mine in the hope that it might be a little bit helpful to someone somewhere.

Around 20 years ago I was an assistant manager in an off license. At the time it had a heavy drinking culture, and once you exclude the weekend staff, a lot more men working for the company than women (my experience was that about 1 in 5 of us were women). Regardless of the ratio I've generally found the wine trade to be a reasonable place for women to work in, with a lot of great role models at every level to show you what's possible.

There were a few uncomfortable incidents along the way - a van driver who used to like to make me blush by describing his sex life in explicit detail whilst he stared at me. It was bullying, but everybody treated it like a joke and it seemed easier to go along with that. After he left for another job I said something about how relieved I was he'd gone and why. My then boss was appalled - I should have said something he told me, he would have sorted it out. Which reinforced that it was sort of my fault, but he was right there in the room, chose not to see how uncomfortable I was, gave permission for that drivers behavior by laughing along with it, and never seemed open to a conversation that might have made him uncomfortable.

Another manager was an alcoholic. Drinking at work was a sackable offence but at the time almost everybody did to some extent - tasting samples of whisky in your tea, a bottle of wine split at the end of the day after cashing up. Mostly quite innocent and how we learnt so much about wine. There were plenty of checks and balances to discourage it getting out of hand, but in this case they weren't robust enough. Our working life with this manager started like this, but then the bottles got opened earlier and there were more of them - but he shared everything with us, so we were complicit, and initially it was fun. 

It was less fun the couple of times I had to get my mother to drive him home because he was too drunk to trust to the bus, less fun when he started getting a bit handsy, no fun at all when his wife would come and sit with him in the back of the shop when she finished her work for the day, drinking with him and laughing whilst he asked 18 year old girls for their bra size, but her unwillingness to pull him up on his behavior coupled with her own spiteful remarks towards us made it so much harder for the rest of us (not so much older or more experienced) to know what to do. And then it was Christmas and anybody who has worked in retail will know what that's like.

The penny dropped for me far to late, I came back from a couple of weeks off and saw very clearly how out of hand things had got. A training day in another branch talking to my peer group led to a lot of raised eyebrows and worried looks, and then everything came to a head. None of the younger girls would work a shift alone with this man, and after a staff tasting event one of them asked if I would back her up if she complained about things said to her. I'd heard them, they were completely out of line, so there was only one answer.

The first result was my female area manager, who I had every reason to believe knew about the drinking problem, asked me if I could get this girl to withdraw her complaint. She wasn't pleased when I said no. We were all asked to write statements which we were told would be completely confidential. They were later turned over to out manager. I took the brunt of this - my contract said I had to work as many hours as it took to keep the shop running which meant whilst he was suspended I worked 60+ hour weeks without any overtime. It was exhausting, there was constant pressure to drop the complaints, cover up the evidence, and of we wouldn't, explain our own behavior. Meanwhile colleagues who had known this man in previous roles would tell me what a great guy he was, how the problem was this or that, and was it fair that he'd lose his job over this. What would it do for his marriage, he was trying to start a family. All of it.

He wasn't a bad man as such, and if he'd admitted he had a drink problem the company would have bent over backwards to get him help. He didn't and it became our problem, not his. We were treated as if we were more of a problem than him - we were responsible for the paperwork, the investigations, his mistakes, and our own. When I say I had every reason to believe our area manager knew there was a problem it's because her predecessor told me in front of her to speak up if things got out of hand, but when it came down to it there was no support for anybody speaking up.

He lost his job, got another one somewhere else, moved on. I hope managed to knock the drinking on the head. The rest of us where more or less marked as trouble makers. I've seen the same sort of situation unfold many times since then. The details change but what's constant is people getting sucked into difficult situations incrementally until speaking out can feel impossible, and a lack of support when you do speak out. Worse when people are actively discriminated against for speaking out and predatory individuals are protected. It's also behavior that's dangerously ubiquitous online.

I've tried in my working life to be someone that will listen too and support people who want to blow the whistle, sometimes that's included pointing out how difficult it might be to do so, that there are often more repercussions for the victims of inappropriate behavior than there ever will be for the perpetrators. The older I get the more angry it makes me. That alcoholic manager was mostly his own victim, but every case I've seen since then has been someone exploiting the people around them, pushing the bounds of what's okay bit by bit, picking their victims and undermining them at every turn. It's calculated and unforgivable behavior. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

George Mackay Brown - Centenary Year

2021 has a few centenaries I'm planning on marking. There's Patricia Highsmith's which I know I should have celebrate din January, and who's massive collected short story collection Under A Dark Angel's Eye from Virago is weighing down my conscience right now (it's on top of a pile of guilt inducing books right in front of me all waiting to be read as a matter of urgency). It's a hundred years since Georgette Heyer published her first novel, The Black Moth, which I'll be reading as part of a Twitter group later in the year, which will be a lot of fun, and it's also George Mackay Brown's centenary. 

I think there's another one, but I can't for the life of me remember what it is (prompts gratefully received if anything seems obvious). 

I noticed a few weeks ago when I was combing through Birlinn's forthcoming titles that they're bringing out a trio of his titles in June. They were by no means the only things I noticed - browsing publishers websites is a potentially expensive pastime. It's Mackay Brown's short stories that I particularly love, and the collection edited by Malachy Tallack that has particularly caught my eye. I'm assuming this is a collection that Tallack has chosen, and despite having what I think is the whole set, I really want to see which ones make the cut in this volume.


It's probably also a good year to try and get to grips with Mackay Brown's poetry and novels. I failed utterly with Greenvoe so long ago that it's about time I tried again. And whilst I'm in an Orkney mood there's some Eric Linklater that might make good companion reading.

There is also a celebration and exhibition being run by Orkney Library (one of the best library twitter accounts out there) where they're asking people to knit and donate hats. These will be displayed and then sold to raise money for a local charity. I'm quite taken with this idea - I like knitting hats, I have a piece of his writing in mind as a starting point, and a bit of creativity always makes me feel better about the world in general, so whilst things are still relatively locked down this is a welcome project.

 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Colour of Hope - Jen Feroze

On the anniversary of lockdown starting, writing from a city that has never had lockdown restrictions fully lifted, this feels like the best possible book to be hosting on a blog tour. 

We haven't had the unusually good weather that graced this time last year, the vague idea that lockdown would be something that lasted a matter of weeks feels unbearable naïve now. But it's what I assumed back then, when being told to stay at home felt almost like a gift. Something that would let me put a whole host of worries and responsibilities aside for a month and concentrate on reading and making for a little while. Infection seemed a safe distance away (it wasn't) and long Covid was not yet a thing. 


I've been lucky all things considered. I didn't have a job to lose (still struggling to find one, but that's another story), nobody close to me has died from Covid, although people on the edge of my circle have, and I've lost friends and family to other causes who I had every reason to think I'd see again, or be able to mourn for in company, but that's a boat we're all in. Quite a lot of close friends are dealing with long Covid, which is the thing that frightens me most about this virus.

It's been a strange year of isolation mixed with really amazing care and consideration from all sorts of quarters, and if the current lockdown is shorter on the up beat creativity of the first, the genuine kindness people can show is more in evidence than ever.

Which is where I finally get to 'The Colour of Hope'. Created in the first lockdown in 2020 it started as a project to cheer up a friend. In the middle of March Jen asked her to name 3 things which would always make her feel happy, and then put them into a poem. 2020 moved on and the idea expanded - there are 45 poems here, each inspired by, and written for different people (all women I think, which is a cheering testament to female friendship which is a cherry on top of the cake for me). The poems are named for the people they were for, but the original brief is not included so we can make of them what we will.

There are memories and hope for happy moments written into every line, pleasure taken in simple things, many of which are lockdown proof. I don't want to say much about the poems - I don't need to, they're all the best things about this last year. All the unexpected generosity and care, the things to be genuinely grateful for, the things that make us happy. All the things I'll want to remember about 2020. 




Monday, March 22, 2021

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry - Margaret Kennedy

It's turning into a bit of a theme for me with Handheld Press titles - books by authors I have a stack of titles by in old green Virago covers, but have never got round to reading. Margaret Kennedy is definitely in that sisterhood and for no better reason than that there's always been something else to read first. Judith at Handheld press is also really good at following up review copies with an email about when I might write about their books - so they don't end up buried in a pile of other things not to surface anytime soon. (I appreciate Judith and her gentle deadlines).

Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is a memoir of Kennedy's experiences from May to September 1940. It's written as a journal and covers the period of the Battle of Britain to the beginning of the Blitz. It was definitely created with the intention that it would be read by her family, and probably always with an eye towards publication. Publication came in 1941, but only in America, where it was well received.


It's unlike anything else I've ever read about the War. Kennedy was a successful and well respected writer at this point, decades into her career, she clearly knows her business, and I gave up underlining things because there was something noteworthy on every page. It also seems remarkably candid and personal to someone used to the current pressure to filter yourself that an age of twitter spats and attacks has created.

Margaret can borrow houses for her family to stay in when she feels London is too dangerous, the children have ponies to ride, they have well connected friends, and no shortage of money or places to go when they decide Surrey is to close in case of bombing raids on the city. There are nannies and nurses as needed; leaving Surrey is a relief because apart from Nanny it means no more servants to deal with, and when she ends up in Cornwall it's lunch every day at the local hotel to save on house work. 

She's also writing, caring for her own young children as well as a friends daughter whilst her husband has to remain in London, engaged in war work, involved in the local community, and still doing a hefty amount of housework. It's an unexpected mix of things which are easy to relate  to, and things which are not, Kennedy seems to be both aware of her privilege and to take it for granted, and tells us a lot about the world of well to do, successful, Europhiles with liberal but not socialist leanings in 1940.

Given her liberal ideals occasional displays of class consciousness, or a description of a group of gypsy women as having eyes "Bright and sharp but not quite human" kept shaking me off balance. In 2021 we would definitely think along very similar lines, reading things like this remind me that 1940 is quite a long time ago. 

It's even more of a shock because there's a lot in Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry that feels like it could be being written now. The same surprise at feeling ourselves living history, not knowing what's coming, wondering if it will be a social leveler, if something better can be built on the ruins of the old normal, growing awareness of social disparity and anger at the visible effects of poverty on children's bodies. There's plenty about fear, isolation, and fifth columnists (which seems appropriate after last nights riots in Bristol) too. Margaret's fears for her children are quite hard to read. Deliberately shocking in a way that resonates down 80 years as if they were nothing.

It's these moments, both candid and calculated, that make this such a powerful book to read and which feel most out of sync with a modern world. I can only imagine the response some of what she says would get from a contemporary audience, and have no idea how it would have been read in 1941 - but it leaves no doubt as to how desperate things felt to her in Britain's darkest hour. 

To balance that darkness there's plenty of humour, along with Kennedy's general observations about Europe, America, and national characteristics which are interesting - fluctuating feelings about the French again seem really relevant against a Brexit background. Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry is described in the blurb as being like Mrs Miniver with the gloves off, which for anybody who has read Mrs Miniver, or indeed the War time stories of Mollie Panter-Downes and their like should make you want to read this immediately. Kennedy is much better for being gloves off even if it's sometimes brutal.   


Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Stone Age - Jen Hadfield

It's publication day for Jen Hadfield's new collection of poems  - 'The Stone Age' and my plan was very much to get up early and write about it here, then do a piece for Shiny New Books. It's almost 11.30 and non of these things have happened yet. 

I've been reading this collection for a couple of weeks now, and reading about what Hadfield means when she talks about Neurodiversity, I have thoughts, but here I am not even a hundred words in, planning to slip off and make a coffee to procrastinate some more. I'm also due to write about Jen Feroze's collection 'The Colour of Hope' for a blog tour early next week, which will be easy by comparison, though I never find writing about poetry easy as such.


What I want to do with 'The Stone Age' is discuss it with other people who have read it, to test my opinions and responses against theirs. I found Hadfield's previous collection, 'Byssus' is one I've returned to many times over the years, and which now feels like an old friend. It still makes me put in a bit of work thinking about what it means to me, and what I think Hadfield means. the noticeable difference between it and 'The Stone Age' for me is that with 'Byssus' it feels right that it's an essentially private contemplation and with 'The Stone Age' I want conversation.

This starts with the blurbs attached to each book, 'Byssus' tells me that "she shows speech itself can be an act of home-making. Byssus is a profound consideration of just what it means to get to know a place." 'The Stone Age' blurb by comparison talks about panpsychism and of being "a timely reminder that our neurodiversity is a gift: we do not all see the world in the same way". Which is true, but whilst I welcome the opportunity to confound spellcheck with words like panpsychism which it refuses to recognise, there's a world between getting to know a place through somebody else's eyes and words, and trying to know  yourself through their words. 

That mention of neurodiversity on the back cover is hard to escape. After a little bit of searching I found this interview from July last year between Hadfield and Cat Chong for Guillemot Press which is informative and sent me brooding on the difference between blurbs and introductions. It's hard not to read the blurb before opening a book, and I vaguely resent the way this one is sitting with me. Though now I've actually written that down I think it's losing it's grip on me and I'm finding it easier to consider the poems.

So much easier that I've just deleted a line about how hard Hadfield makes me work to read her, because all at once it doesn't seem that hard at all, although I think she is a writer who does demand a certain amount of effort from her audience. It's something I'm out of practice at after a year of reading comfortable fiction, or non fiction which signposts everything it wants you to think about, but it feels surprisingly good to be making that effort again. And are there ever rewards for it.

I live next to a river that's full of swans. Fed on bread, and fearless, they belong very much to bank and water, seeming out of place when they take to the air, but the day this book arrived I'd watched a flight of them pass overhead. The last poem in the collection '(Sound travels so far') caught what it had been like to watch and listen to them overhead in such a perfect way I'll think of it every time I see such a thing. 'The Stone Age' is full of gifts like this; moments of clarity and sharp images.

For today the defining poem feels like 'Mortis and Tenon' though, which starts: "As soon as I decided to build a gate,/ the locked landscape uttered/ gates: gates I'd never noticed..." It sums up everything I feel about 'The Stone Age' at the moment.