Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Hat Knitting Post

During the year of Covid generally, but since October specifically I've knit a lot of hats. So many that I've lost count and forgotten to take pictures of many of them (I like to keep a record for myself of what's worked, and not worked so well, colour and pattern wise). I think I may be somewhere around hat number 20. 

The reason there are quite so many of them out in the world is because I like knitting them - they're a small, portable, project that can be worked up quickly, and offer endless scope for variation, and because I think they make good presents. It's been a cold winter, who hasn't needed an extra hat? Knitting something for someone also feels like a way of reaching out at a time when we can't really see people. Or at least it does when what I have in mind works.

I am not very happy with my latest hat. I really liked the way the colours in it worked when they were sat in a little heap waiting to be put away. Liked them so much that I left them sitting out whilst they begged to be knit up into something. As they were all part balls of yarn left over from other things a hat was an obvious choice.

I could (should) have done something like a Bousta Beanie (although I might have come up short on the background colour if I had) which is an inspired design from Gudrun Johnston. For those unfamiliar with it, I love the way that she's taken a traditional Fair Isle pattern (of the sort known as Grunds on Fair Isle) and repeated it in a way that reminds me of the Op Art of Bridget Riley. It's both simple, and really clever - also a very good first hat and first Fair Isle project to start with.

Anyway. With my latest hat I realised quite quickly that it wasn't going to work the way I wanted it to, and I was tempted to rip it back, but carried on anyway. It's all very well knowing something isn't going to turn out quite how you want, but until I can see the entire object I find it hard to work out all the things that were wrong with my first idea. It's also fair to say that when something is finished it's often less disappointing than I fear it will be half way through. This was also an opportunity to try a slightly adapted, and new to me crown pattern. Another reason to carry on.

My knitting notebook now has pages and pages of hat notes in it. Different crown patterns, combinations of motifs, columns of figures representing the stitch counts and numbers of rows, and a slowly evolving appreciation of how altering needle sizes changes the tension of my knitting - something that's still prone to change dramatically even when I'm using the same size needles and same yarn - but is steadily becoming more consistent, so that at some point soon I'll actually start to see swatches as really useful. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Salted Caramel Mazurek with Pecans from Zuza Zak's Polska

Once or twice a year I'll be out shopping and see a bunch of beetroots that look so firm and fat, so purple and earthy, that I can't resist them. They remind me of a borscht that a Polish friend used to make which was amazing, and I forget two important things. 

The first is that I don't really like beetroot very much, at least not red beetroot - I find the flavour is too overpoweringly earthy, and I get fed up cleaning the stains off everything it comes in contact with. The second is that I've never found a borscht recipe that comes close to the one my friend made (I'll never find another setting quite as perfect as a dark room in her house, full of the portraits her late husband had painted of her, and every corner stacked with books, to eat it in either).

I do have a couple of new cookbooks since the last failed attempt to find something that sounded close though (maybe Olia Hercules Summer Kitchens, or Darra Goldstein's Beyond the North Wind will have something? Gill Meller might come up trumps too) so this bunch of beetroots might not be destined to shrivel into something miserable before they get used.

The first place I looked was in Zuza Zak's 'Polska' - which has 2 borscht recipes - one is almost a stew with steak in it, the other a clear vegetarian version. Both sound very good, neither were what I wanted. A recipe for a salted caramel Mazurek caught my eye though, mostly because I had a tin of carnation caramel bought early in the first lockdown, and some pecans left over from Christmas both hurtling towards their best before dates. I also had the some sour cream bought with borscht in mind.

However you make it this is a simple recipe and if you have a tin of caramel to use, rather than having to go old school and cook a tin of condensed milk on the hob for 3 hours it's a lot quicker. I should have been more mindful of the quantities - it is almost unbelievably sweet, when it says it produces 10 portions that isn't the coy disclaimer it sometimes is. I've had 3 pieces of this now and I'm not sure what to do with the rest - maybe leave some for my neighbours. It's good, but it goes a long way.

The interesting thing about it is the dough - which I read as being a pastry, and then realised was more like a cake batter. Pastry has never been my strong point, and rolling something that was half way to being a cake batter was a challenge. With hindsight it would also have been a really good idea to chill it again after it went in the tin and before the oven (yes, the sides collapsed).

The dough asks for 300g of plain flour, 125g of soft brown sugar, 200g of salted butter, 2 egg yolks, 1/2 a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 1 tablespoon of soured cream. I mixed it in a food processer because generally the further I keep my hot little hands from pastry the better. If you're doing it by hand mix the flour, sugar, and butter to a breadcrumb consistency before bringing it altogether with the rest of the wet ingredients and kneading until you have a smooth dough. Chill for a good half hour to 45 minutes.

Roll out on a well floured surface until the dough is about a cm thick and then line it into a greased brownie tin (approximately 24 cm long). I made a mess of this - it's a fragile dough, and if I make this again I'd be inclined to half the quantities, use a smaller tin, and not be especially worried about it having raised sides. At this point I should have put it back in the fridge for half an hour, but instead followed the instructions and baked it in a fan oven at 160 degrees (gas 4, 180 degrees if not a fan oven) for about 20 minutes by which time it was a golden colour.

The filling is standard can of carnation caramel (397g) with a pinch of sea salt mixed into it, spread over the cooled pastry and topped with 100g of pecans that had been gently fried in 25g of butter, 25g of soft brown sugar and 1/2 a teaspoon of salt. I would cut down the sugar in this to a scant teaspoon another time.

There probably will be a next time because I'd like to play around with this recipe a bit - if I can make my dough look a little less rustic it could be a smart enough finish to a dinner served in very thin slices with really strong coffee.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Corpse in the Waxworks - John Dickson Carr

February has been hard in all sorts of small ways, but there's a definite sense of spring in the air which is both inspiring me to get myself together and actually achieve things (or at least get on with them), and weirdly also leaving me feeling really tired. I've been doing a lot of dog walking for mum whilst she recovers from her hip replacement operation and whilst the absolute freezing conditions of proper winter were reasonably invigorating, the same walks in the much milder spring air, and without about 2 kilos of mud attached to each wellie boot are leaving me wanting to do nothing but sleep. I did not see that coming.

Meanwhile I've sorted out all of the books that I've promised to read, listed when I've promised to read them by, and started on some of the books I just want to read too, one of which wad 'The Corpse in the Waxworks, A Paris Mystery', a relatively recent addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.

John Dickson Carr is probably my favourite classic crime discovery. I found him first in the titles that came out from Polygon, and now through the British Library editions (this is the 4th title they've reprinted). There are plenty of ebook titles available, and a host of frustratingly expensive American titles in print, which make me wonder how many more the BL will do. Before I worry about that I still have 'Castle Skull' and 'The Lost Gallows' to get around to though, and they'll hold me for a while.

What I like so much about Carr is the atmosphere he brings to his mysteries. 'The Corpse in the Waxworks' came with an odd sense of déjà vu. I've checked, I didn't already have a copy, but I could have sworn that I'd read the opening chapters somewhere else before. That feeling certainly added to the eeriness of the scene Carr was setting. 

Henri Bencolin, head of the Parisian police is taking his friend, Jeff, to meet the owner of a waxworks - a young lady was last seen going into the building before being fished out of the river some time later, stabbed and very dead. It's late at night when the party return to the museum, and find the body of another young woman dead in the arms of a satyr in the chamber of horrors. 

The plot from there on in is complicated and I'm not going to pretend that I had any idea of who did it before the end of the book. The final solution does make sense, and there are (sort of) clues leading up to it, but it's also obviously meant to surprise and shock the reader, so for once I'm not overly worried about my failure to work it out. It wouldn't matter anyway because the chief pleasure in this book, and it's a significant one, is in the world that springs off the page. It's almost cinematic - one of those books that I feel like I've watched rather than read. If only people would stop bothering Agatha Christie's books for T.V. adaptations and look at someone like John Dickson Carr - they could have an absolute ball with him.

Here is a Paris of dark corners, and illicit clubs. Badly lit cafes and seedy streets full of young people seeking a thrill well out of sight of their respectable homes. The scenes in the waxworks are masterly (many years ago when York waxworks closed down I went to the auction where everything was sold off, poking around the building to look at the lots even with plenty of other people there felt oddly illicit, this book magnifies that sense of trespass over and again), as are the visits to the parental homes of the unfortunate young women. 

There is nobody quite like Carr for almost, but not quite, telling a ghost story. He is so good at the gothic touches that build a scene, and then at giving an explanation which is more or less rational for them. I love a writer who can play this sort of game with their readers, and it's exactly what I want to distract me from the current news cycle and the general bleakness of lock down life. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Painter's Hidden Masterpiece - Simon Lake

I got my first Covid Vaccine dose on wednesday afternoon. It was a well organized and painless process, very much like getting a flue jab, and I'm really pleased to have been done so promptly and am very much looking forward to the point that myself, my partner, our parents, and rather more of our friends will all have been done  - which I hope will mean we can see each other face to face again.

Meanwhile some of the underlaying health conditions that got me that jab, combined with it being such a cold, grey, damp, day are making me wish I could go to a charity shop, buy a stack of the trashiest romances I could find, and retire to bed with them, a cup of tea, and plenty of chocolate. As it stands I'm going to try and start doing justice to this particular book - though I think it might take a couple of posts.

'The Painter's Hidden Masterpiece' focuses on the work of Johannes Matthaeus Koelz, an artist who made a swift exit from Germany with his wife and children in 1937, but before I get to that I think this post needs to mostly look at Leicester Museums, and why it has such a good collection of German Expressionist art, and why provincial art galleries are so important - and criminally underfunded.

The Leicester collection of German Expressionism is as good as you will find anywhere. It's internationally acclaimed, and when I spent a summer doing volunteer work in the gallery in 1995 it was still a source of surprise to German visitors that such a trove of things should be here (it was still more or less a pre internet age), not in Germany, not in London. 

The reason it's here is because of a few chance friendships that lead to some early war time donations and purchases from refugees, a curator who had the vision to stage a significant exhibition in 1944. Both the buying and donations have continued since, so that the collection now is considerably more significant than when I first got to know it. 

Leicester is an amazingly diverse and multicultural city, and not just for the Asian populations that are maybe the most noticable; my earlier memories of it include going to the polish stall in the market to buy things for my German grandmother (mostly stock cubes), it did not really surprise me last year to learn that an Estonian sailor who jumped ship in Shetland in 1958 ended up as part of a reasonably significant Estonian population in Leicester, and it makes perfect sense that this is a place that would have a significant collection of 'degenerate' German art. 

It would be lost in London, but here it tells a part of our story, one that we share with all the generations of migrants who have found a home here, as well as the that of those who created, and collected this art.  Current funding is not generous to museums and galleries like ours - really good regional galleries are closing for lack of funding whilst the National Gallery has just been awarded £30 million for a Makeover which I'm actually seething about.

I love the National Gallery, but even if travel were possible I can seldom afford to get to it. It seems much more important, and infinitely more 'healing' to see some of that money spent outside of London and perhaps helping tell stories like Johannes Matthaeus Koelz's. This book was originally developed to accompany an exhibition of Koelz's masterpeice - or what's left of it - 6 surviving pieces of what was once intended to be a monumental altarpiece. Koelz left instructions for it to be cut up and hidden as he fled Germany.

Unfortunately when the surviving bits of the alter piece were finally exhibited (in, I think, Leicester cathedral, the internet is not properly helping my memory on this) there wasn't enough money to fund a catalogue, so this book is an extended version of what we might have got then, independently published by it's author. 

In some ways this is a bonus for the reader. I doubt very much that had it been an exhibition catalogue it would have been quite as lavish as it currently stands, or covered so much of Koelz's life. The downside is that it's difficult to find if the author doesn't contact you (as he did me). I can only find it for sale via his website The £18 price tag is excellent value though, and the story goes far beyond the art. 

It really will have to be another post to actually look at Koelz's work now, but meanwhile do look at Leicester Museums site to read more about the history of their Expressionist collection, it's well worth the time Here  

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Some Links

I've got a couple of things on at the moment that seem to involve an inordinate amount of emailing and not much to show for all the activity (yet), as well as a pile of boring paperwork and admin-y stuff to deal with - including a surprise text from my GP today offering me a first dose of Covid vaccine - I'm getting it tomorrow. I have mixed feelings about this - it's good news for me personally, I might otherwise have expected to wait a lot longer for it, but it also looks like the only reason I've got the chance is because so many higher risk people are just not turning up for their appointments and they don't want to waste the doses. Which is obviously bad news all round. 

Meanwhile I had a couple of emails yesterday about interesting things in the offing and if I don't share them now I'll only forgot.

First up, and the one that I wouldn't have forgotten about because I've been excited about this project for a while now is the forthcoming publication of J.J. Haldane Burgess's book 'Tang' from a new Michael Walmer project - Northus. This one may be of particularly niche interest, but it is interesting. Northus is looking to bring back into print Shetland Classics. It seems really important to me that we can access our local and regional voices, traditions, and history. I am really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Tang. 

Next up is a podcast about Ursula Bloom, details of which can be found here. Bloom's is a name I sometimes come across, but I don't know much about her other than that she was incredibly prolific, writing under several names. One of those was Marry Essex and I do have a copy of 'Tea is so Intoxicating' from the British Library Women Writers series. The email came from Ian of Wyndham Books who are new to me, but look like they're worth checking out if you like super cosy fiction and a good bit of romance. 

Finally, there's a new documentary from Lucy Worsley about the Blitz spirit which will focus on the lives of six people who lived through it. One of the six is Frances Faviell who's books are currently being printed by Dean Street Press. There's currently a free Faviell ebook available via there website, and for a book about the Blitz they have her 'A Chelsea Concerto' which has been much loved by fellow bloggers. Dean Street have all sorts of good stuff on their list , and again are worth a look. I'll also give The Spirit of the Blitz published by Oxford University Press another shout out, it's really good, and a very useful companion to Blitz based fiction. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

A Seasonal Round Up

These are words I never thought I'd say, but Valentine's day has cheered me up. Maybe because this year there's been a bit more emphasis on celebrating friendship, and less tat to be seen even in the shops that are open, and definitely because Covid separation is making the small things more important, the annual card from my mum meant more than ever, and the knock and run Lindt bunny from my partner really did feel like the height of romance.

Until today I've been struggling with February a bit, stuck in the same general slump that so many of us seem to be in, where everything seems to be to much effort, and my concentration is so utterly shot I'm not even reading much. In an effort to deal with the reading, because at least time with a book doesn't feel like time wasted, I've been catching up almanac's and other seasonal books this weekend and have a little round up of them.

The first is Lia Leendertz's Almanac, which is making me wish I'd started buying these years ago (whenever she first started bringing them out basically). I like everything about this, the bits about the sky perhaps most of all, closely followed by the list of significant dates for the month. My intention was to read each relevant chapter at the beginning of it's month, so it's not really surprising that it's been halfway through both times. Never mind. Something else I like about this almanac is that I'll be able to keep them like old diaries to occasionally refer back to in the future, but unlike my old diaries (appointments and the occasional note in them) they'll actually be interesting to look back over. 

Miranda York's Food Almanac (which definitely needs to be an ongoing series) is not year specific, and is just a great mix of things. Pancake day is something I'll miss marking this year - it's never been a crowd of people thing, normally just me and a friend making relative pigs of ourselves eating a few too many, and then wondering why we don't make crepes all the time, but it's become a tradition that I'll miss, and there'll be no fancy quire of paper pancake recipes tried this time. Fortunately February offers plenty of other exciting food prospects - it's still citrus season, the valentines essay here is very much about dinner for one, and there's Chinese new year which is a decent inspiration for the sort of food that's really mood lifting in winter (lots of greens and rich, just hot enough, flavours). 

Another food book, and seasonal rather than monthly (as the rest of these books are) is Gill Meller's 'Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower', but this is such a good cookbook and I've been using it a lot recently which makes me want to give it a shout out. I've wanted to reduce the amount of meat I eat for years with mixed success. I've personally struggled to find recipes that don't leave me missing meat, but this book does the trick.

For example I've always looked at swedes as very much a supporting act, but cubed and roasted with onions sage and chestnuts they are definitely a main feature (though these ones would also be great with a lamb chop). Broccoli roasted with honey and seeds and marinated in soy sauce (amongst other things) is the most enthusiastic I've ever been about broccoli (not previously a favourite). If this sounds good to you, the book is full of more like it. It's also really coming into it's own at a time when the supermarket shelves are distinctly gappy, and a couple of killer recipes for swedes are a godsend.

Finally it's Stella Martin Currey's 'One Woman's Year' from Persephone books. I bought this on my last trip to London which I think was January last year. I meant to read it month by  month, obviously didn't - and actually forgot all about it until I saw somebody mention it elsewhere a few days ago. It sort of sums up the mixed feelings I've come to have about Persephone books. I've only read the first two months (it's back to plan A for this, albeit a year late) and didn't much take to Stella in January. I liked her more in February where we found common ground over daffodils and a country walk.

It's a book with a charm to it, the recipes are fun as are the most and least liked jobs, I like the excerpts from other books too, and the way it's dated is quite interesting. On the other hand it's so very middle class, and would be better for some sort of introduction or afterword. I wanted to love this book, there's a lot in it that I feel I should relate too, but so far I've found even when I'm essentially in agreement with Stella about the value of reading to children, or visiting Libraries with them there's a sort of smug bossiness, and general snobbishness about her tone that keeps me at arms length. Maybe by the end of the year I'll know her better and like her more.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Scribbler - A Retrospective Literary Review

I've been aware of 'The Scribbler' for a while but have only just got around to ordering a copy of the most recent number (issue 16). This was specifically because it had a literary trail of Orkney and Shetland in it. I was interested to see what books would be mentioned and what the format of the article would be like, and now I've read it I'm half planning my own literary trail for Shetland and wondering which books I'd include.

The Scribbler is a retrospective literary review with a strong bias towards old children's books and their authors - as you'd expect from Greyladies, it's also the first journal/review that I've sat down and read cover to cover in a couple of sittings for a long time. This is partly because it's shorter than the majority of the Journals I've subscribed to over the years, but mainly down to the way it's laid out with one review naturally leading to another, a short story that's thematically tied to one of the review topics, and a look at old Girls and Women's magazines that tied to another review strand. The literary trail at the end (which I obviously read first) was thoroughly enjoyable too, with a selection of books I'd mostly not come across before.

Altogether it was a treat that lasted me through perhaps 4 mugs of coffee and which I'm quite likely to pick up and read again. I can't currently justify spending money on a full subscription (it's not particularly expensive - £20 for 3 issues is very reasonable, money is just very tight around here at the moment), but the next issue has a short story by E. M. Delafield in it which is making it all but irresistible to me. 

I really like the tone of 'The Scribbler' too, it feels like a fairly tightly knit group of contributors and there's a chattiness about it that reminds me of my favourite podcasts (specifically Backlisted) and made me feel like I was being drawn into the conversation. I appreciate a review which can make a few jokes without dumbing down. 

The books being assessed here are interesting too. They're not automatically books I'd be drawn to, or seek out even now. Some of them sound like they might pose problems for the modern reader, and nobody reviewing seems shy of pointing out plot issues, but they all sound interesting and make a sound case for the value, as well as the enjoyment, to be found in genres outside of literary fiction.

The chosen short story - an E. Nesbit version of Cinderella in this edition - is the perfect example of this. It's perhaps not Nesbit's finest work, there's fairly awful dialect at play and the characters of the children seem a little unlikely, even if their actions do not. On the other hand it's genuinely humorous, twists the tale nicely, and takes a complex, but not uncommon situation, and presents it ina  way that very young children can understand - so there's really a lot going for it. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Fly On The Wall Press

The most exciting thing about independent presses is that they can be what they want, whilst still offering a sign post for readers, and a measure of support for authors that self publishing might not offer. As a reader it's the signposting I'm really interested in, and how you find the next book to take a chance on.

Which is one reason why I like Fly On The Wall so much. I came across Isabelle Kenyon on twitter, she's someone who's energy and enthusiasm for what she does I find really inspiring, especially when it comes to the poetry that Fly On The Wall publish. Being on her mailing list has given me the opportunity to read and review a few collections that I'd never have come across otherwise. They're not very far from my general area of interests, but are also things I doubt I'd have picked up before she gave me a nudge in the right direction (in the form of review copies with the deadline of a blog tour attached - a blogging perk that I'm very grateful for). With that in mind, a month celebrating independent presses is another nudge - this time just to shout out about Fly On The Wall and try and encourage people to take a look at what they're doing. 

Fly on the Wall is a social enterprise company and a not-for-profit publisher, based in Manchester. We publish innovative short stories, poetry and photography books on pressing issues, from exceptional authors around the globe, all with a socially conscious theme.

Social action is intrinsically linked into our books, and has been since the Press was established in February 2018. Our flagship anthologies work in two ways: each sale fundraises for the chosen charity and each reader continues our conversation, tackling the issues highlighted. We are proud to publish short stories and poetry on the pressing issues of our time, being unafraid to generate conversation about perhaps 'prickly' subjects, whilst also dedicating a large proportion of our yearly publishing schedule to charitable projects. 

Which charities have we worked with so far?



Crisis Aid UK


The Climate Coalition

Street Child United

Fly on the Wall Press guarantees that all our books are both produced and shipped sustainably. 

What does Fly on the Wall Press believe in?

Words have the power to change opinion. Expressing injustice through poetry is an important statement which cannot be undervalued. 

Why should you read and submit to Fly on the Wall Press?

Change and innovation starts with small publishers. Fly on the Wall Press publishes exciting, powerful voices which refuse to stay quiet. By supporting Fly on the Wall, you are supporting the writers of the future.

What does A Publisher With A Conscience mean in relation to your authors?

We are proud to always offered our authors up to four times the recommended royalty rate from the Society of Authors and to be transparent about both our contracts and the publishing process. The publishing industry has been quiet about money for too long! We take time to edit, design and market our books to the highest standards, always in consultation with the author. We take on a 12 - 14 authors maximum per year to ensure that each author is given the marketing campaign and publicity which they deserve. Other publishers may hand over to the author after the editing and design process, but we believe that when the book is released, the real work begins!  We are a small Press with ambition, recognised for our innovative PR campaigns by The Bookseller and celebrated at the 2020 British Book Awards.


Social Media Links:






Manuscript Guidelines:


(We have one annual reading period in Autumn, and we do ask that writers have read a book prior to submitting.)

Friday, February 5, 2021

Island Dreams - Gavin Francis

As a reader, if there was one thing I could change about publishing in England it would be to have one of the really big publishing houses move out of London to one of the big Northern or Midland cities. I'd love to see the kind of differences it might make to the current literary scene and the opportunities it presents at every level. I assume we'd end up with something that looks a bit more like Scottish publishing does - which in turn is why I enjoy book shopping in Scotland so very much.

Canongate and Birlinn are both independent publishers, and both are big enough to feel mainstream rather than niche. the books they publish are old, new, regional, international, cover every genre I can think of, and are consistently interesting. I don't want to read every book that Canongate publishes, but I'll pick up any book that has their logo on it's spine just to make sure. 

'Island Dreams' was a Christmas present from my mother, who to be fair knows me well enough to know that a book with Islands in the title would appeal to me* which is why it's only taken me a month or so to get around to it, rather than the entirely typical couple of years. The Canongate logo definitely helped push it up my list. 

I didn't really know what to expect from this book - it's just expensive enough not to want to take a chance on without browsing access to bookshops (how many amazing things are getting overlooked at the moment because of this?) and the 2 reviews on amazon are no help at all (somebody loved it, somebody else was disappointed). I really didn't expect it to revolve around one of the central dilemmas of my own adult life though - how to accommodate a love of small islands with my wider responsibilities and circumstances.

I would love to return to island living, but as my partner keeps pointing out I have a certain ambivalence towards it too. It's not really the logistical difficulties, although I'm neither blind to them, or altogether enthusiastic about the reality of being weather bound when you badly need to be somewhere else. It's more about what happens when you live in the place you've always chosen to escape too. Where do you escape to then when it all gets a bit much?

I'm probably going to be as unhelpful as the previous amazon reviewers in summing up 'Island Dreams', it's quick to read, almost half of it is made up of images of maps, and even when that's not the case some pages only contain a paragraph, but it's something that will stick with me and that I think I'll go back to time and again. 

There isn't a narrative as such, neither biography, philosophy, or travel writing (the categories it's listed under) really reflect it, though philosophy might come closest, and there are glimpses of Francis's life, and he does travel a lot. It's sort of a book about how we're living, how we need isolation sometimes, and the difference between that and insulation. It's a little bit about growing up and a lot about how islands can hold our imagination.

What I really liked though, is the way the book gently asks if you've considered this, or thought about it like that. The maps gave me the space to think about what I was reading, and there was the comfort of finding someone else who feels the same twin need for isolation and connectivity in turn. Gavin Francis seems to have reconciled those needs better than I have, but reading this gives me a fresh optimism that I might sort out the puzzle in a way that works for me too. 

*There was some heavy hinting in the form of an open wish list, but my present could just as easily have been some classic crime fiction, something about graveyards and/or folklore, or a book about women and art crime.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Stoorbra Socks and some more thinking about Independent Publishing

I finished my Stoorbra socks, I love them, everybody who's seen them (my mum and her dog) loves them, as well as a few friends and relatives who are heavily hinting for a pair (they took me just over two weeks to knit with plenty of time on my hands - people, that's quite a big ask - I'm not saying no, just that it's a proper job of work to make something like these to order). 

I also love the Shetland Wool Week Annual where I found the pattern, and The Shetland Wool Adventures Journal from which I've been cribbing ideas this morning. The Wool adventures Journal is definitely an independent venture - the brain child of Misa Hay, who is a powerhouse of inspiration and creativity. The journal is a logical extension of her business that further supports other local businesses and designers - I like everything about this.

I have a growing collection of knitting related literature, most are focused around patterns, quite a few are self published (Kate Davies, Susan Crawford, and the Trollenwol books that focus on designs using Uradale wool), and there's a healthy number published by The Shetland Times as well. My favourites are the ones that highlight a whole lot of designers - so the along with the wool week annuals and Misa's journal there are the books that the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers, and Dyers have produced. I think of the Wool Week Annual is an independent publication - it's published by the Shetland Amenity Trust, and it serves a specific purpose, so perhaps technically it isn't - but does that matter?

When I say I like everything about these journal type publications, part of that is the variety they offer me as a reader and knitter, part of it is the sense of collaboration within a community. I'm too young to think of the truck* system in Shetland as anything other than history, but well within my lifetime the rates that some knitters were being paid was exploitative which is why so many turned their back on it the moment other job options became available. Wool Week is a visible sign (amongst others) that people can the tide has turned. It might still be exceptional to make a living out of knitting and designing, but at least there's a sense that many of the people involved are doing it on their own terms.

Meanwhile the socks are brilliant. They will be my reading socks, perfect for keeping my feet warm and cozy on the sofa when I'm too engrossed in a book to move around and get the circulation going again. Or don't want to put the heating on. As I said with the first one, it's a really lovely pattern to knit - and I'm delighted to have learnt about 3 needle bind offs (genuinely excited about this). If it's maybe not suitable for absolute knitting beginners, the one size fits all approach means that it is a perfect first sock project as there's only the heel turn to tackle - no other shaping or fitting, and the Fair Isle patterning keeps it interesting all the way. 

It's not just the first sock I've knitted, but the first sock pattern that's made me think it would be worth the effort, and this is something else I like about collections from a whole range of designers - there's always the thing you didn't know you wanted to make until you see it.

*Knitters would be paid in kind for their garments, often in things like tea and sugar which they then needed to barter to get the actual necessities of life. It's a complicated issue - on the one hand you would get something for your knitwear irrespective of actual market demands, but mostly it exploited the knitters.

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Chimney Murder - E. M. Channon

 I put off writing about this book from Greyladies last week so that it could be part of Kaggsy and Lizzie's celebration of Indie publishers month, and because I was hoping that the copy of the latest Scribbler would be with me to talk about in the same post (also because I wanted to finish my Stoorbra socks). Unfortunately I've not seen any post for days, or much evidence of post for anybody else, so I suspect the post man might be ill, or on holiday, so the Scribbler will appear in a future post.

Trying to define what an independent publisher is turns out to be complicated, but trying to find a comprehensive list of independent publishers did at least get me thinking about what I wanted to find. When it comes down to it the advantage a small independent press has is that it reflects the passions and interests of the people who set it up. The chances are that if you like one Greyladies book you'll like a second one, and if you like two of them you can safely take a chance on anything on their list.

I haven't read the whole list, there are categories that appeal to me more than others, but every single Greyladies book I've ever bought (and they're not particularly cheap) has been a hit. Greyladies itself keeps evolving, some of the titles they reprinted at one time have fallen off the list, and they no longer seem to be bringing out new books. They've moved from Edinburgh, to Melrose, to Peebles where they're now part of Priorsford Books. I'm a little bit torn about this - I wish the whole list could have stayed in print, but I accept that isn't always possible, and there are so many people going in for reprinted 'lost' books now that it's a crowded market place.

'The Chimney Murder' is still available to order, I've had it for a while, and now seemed like an excellent time to read it. I was right. Originally published in 1929 it's funny and disturbing in almost equal measure. The Binns family live in fear of Mr Binns and his truly awful temper which makes life almost unbearable. Nothing is good enough for him, and he really does not like his neighbour Mr Marley's hens getting into his garden.

It is unfortunate then, that after loudly threatening to kill Mr Marley if his fowls wander again, Mr Marley goes missing, and (spoiler here) parts of a dismembered body are found hidden in the chimney's of the Binns house. The gruesome aspects of this are not dwelt on, so there's still plenty of room for golden age humour, but Channon keeps it balanced with the quieter domestic tragedies of unhappy marriages and homes - which here are far more devastating than murder.

The best lost books don't have to be great works of literature, the idea of the lost or rediscovered classic has, I think, become a bit tired recently. What they do need is to be both entertaining, and to have something that will always speak to the reader beyond period detail and jokes. 'The Chimney Murder' does that, Greyladies books in general do that. they're well worth hunting out whilst they're still available.