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. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

This Last Week

The last week has been hard. At best it would have been a lot of reminders about this time last year when we started to retreat indoors, and that Harry and Meghan interview. Sarah Everard's murder changed the story and bought to the surface a lot of anger and upset for many of us - me included.

The reason's for this will be different for everybody, I can only speak for my own, but I know part of my anger is tied up with the restrictions of the last year and how I've felt them as a woman living alone in a city centre - my occasional experiences as a woman walking on her own in the countryside with a large dog have been slightly different.

The first lockdown wasn't to bad for me, the weather was good this time last year, my small local park was relatively empty and so were the city streets. The people I saw were shopping or exercising like me, there was plenty of space, and it didn't feel threatening. That changed as the weeks stretched on and the weather stayed good, Leicester remained in lockdown and a dedicated band of drinkers discovered my small local park. The police keep moving them on, they keep coming back, for months anything up to 30, mostly men have taken up the narrowest point of the park so you have to walk a gauntlet of no social distancing to get through them.

They are intimidating. Part of the park, once a castle motte, has been closed off to public access now, ostensibly for maintenance, but it was also clear there was a lot of drug taking and drinking happening up there, and it's out of sight so difficult to easily police with the stretched resources we currently have. The other park near me forms the boundaries of a couple of local drug dealers and gang territories. A lot of people get stabbed on it. The map of where I felt reasonably safe walking diminished week by week with warnings of muggings and gang activities, increased numbers of people heading for the same few family friendly areas when crowds are the last thing we want to be part of, increasingly persistent and aggressive beggars. Then there are the men who think nothing of urinating all over previously attractive green spaces with apparently no interest in privacy, and yet more dedicated drinkers and their attendant rubbish. 

I don't feel safe in these situations because far to many times I've been made to feel exactly how unsafe they are for me. 20 years living in a city working in customer facing roles will do that to you just getting through the day and using public transport. But the thing that makes me most angry is the disconnect in perception - that so many people, mostly men, refuse to see a problem were there so clearly is one.

I have a torn tendon in my right foot, when I had an MRI scan to see how bad it was it also showed arthritis, and I got referred to a consultant for this. He wasn't helpful, maybe rightly considering that there was nothing much that he could do at this stage (maybe wrongly, how would I even know?). What he did suggest was losing weight, which would help, but as many of us have found lockdown isn't great for that. He on the other hand had found it really helpful, he went running after work and there were less people around to get in his way. Aside from running on a torn tendon being both painful and really bad advice, he couldn't understand why I wouldn't consider it. And yet I doubt very much he would have been happy for his wife or daughter to do the same thing in whatever leafy suburb or village he undoubtedly lived in. 

This is something that really needs to change. I know acknowledging that the world isn't a safe place for women means being open to admitting why it isn't, and that that will be hard for a lot of people to face, but it has to happen. We have to stop tolerating the casual abuse of public spaces so that they become and remain male spaces, and we really have to stop deliberately turning a blind eye on situations we don't much want to get involved in because until we do that we're giving tacit approval for them. Bad things will always happen because there will always be bad people, but a lot less of them would happen if ordinarily decent people didn't let them. 

And now I've written this down I really hope I can actually concentrate on reading a book again because I'm also furious at how much energy, and time, being angry, and frustrated, and scared has robbed me of, and not just this for week.  

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Death From a Shetland Cliff - Marsali Taylor

This is the 8th book in the Shetland sailing mysteries series, which I'm somewhat behind with - but it's given me the push to catch up. As the kind of person who will check a couple of chapters in to see how a book ends and who doesn't mind spoilers, I find there's a lot to be said for coming back into a series with several books behind the one I'm reading. It turns out I'm often more interested in what has happened than what's going to happen.

I don't think it's an unfair observation to say that Marsali Taylor has come on a lot as a writer since 'Death on a Longship' either (although it feels a bit weird to talk about her work at all because she was once my English teacher, and a really good one at that). The characters feel properly established, and as heroine Cass Lynch is now a good bit older and considering her long term future I find myself much more in sympathy with her as she negotiates her relationship with Gavin the Policeman.

When I last read one of these Cass was still working towards getting her sailing qualifications, she's now second mate on the Sørlandet, a Norwegian tall ship, currently in dry dock which is why she's back in Shetland, and undertaking a favour to a friend by helping look after his elderly cousin - a bad fall has left her with a broken hip, and the family are circling, scenting an inheritance in the offing.

Tamar might be in her 90's but she's sharp as a tack, which is just as well because she has more than her fair share of secrets to guard. She and Cass hit it off immediately, but at the same time a body has turned up on the beach below some nearby cliffs. It looks like it might not have been an accident, it also looks like somebody tried to break into Tamar's house about the same time as the man on the beach must have died. The last thing Cass wants is to be involved in another murder and she tries her hardest to stay out of this one, but things keep happening.

I'm more of a classic crime fan than a contemporary mystery woman, and reading this now I think someone is going to have a tremendous treat when they find a dusty secondhand copy in 70 years time - they will get such a vivid picture of life in Shetland in the early 2020's. One detail I particularly liked is how Taylor describes various car journeys - they are roads I'm familiar with which gives them a particular resonance, but even without that link there's something really evocative about them. 

As previously mentioned, Cass's changing priorities are compelling as well, as is her relationship with Gavin. Romances in ongoing detective series can be a bit dodgy (from Dorothy L. Sayers onwards) but this is perfect. It's enough to show another side to Cass, and their interactions are sweet, but they don't dominate the action or get in the way. Cass's other big relationship is with Shetland, and her status there is also handled sensitively. The difficulties of being from a place but not entirely native to it are touched on in a way that suggests interesting problems to be resolved in future books. 

And the biggest compliment for this book? Mum saw me reading it and wants to borrow it asap, and after I described the sailing content to my partner he's interested as well. It's not that often that my family want to share my reading with this much enthusiasm.  


Monday, March 8, 2021

Tea is so Intoxicating - Mary Essex

‘Tea is so Intoxicating’ is the 4th book I’ve read from the British Library’s Women Writers series, and the 4th book I’ve really enjoyed from the series. International Women’s day was a prompt to clear another of these Women Writers titles from my to be read pile, but I only thought about it on Saturday when I was half way through something else, so I picked the Mary Essex because it was the shortest of the 3 I had to choose from. 

It was a happy choice - nothing wrong with a shorter book, and in this case it provided the perfect blend of  light hearted and acid humour, with just enough sympathy for the mostly awful characters to make them human, and correspondingly likeable, rather than caricature. She’s acerbic, but not unkind. 

Mary Essex is one of several pen names that Ursula Bloom used. At one point she was in the Guinness book of records as the most published author in the world - with something over 500 works to her credit. The afterword (by all round brilliant series advisor, Simon Thomas) tells me that Mary Essex titles are a departure from the majority of Bloom’s work, which are straight romance. It’s this that makes her feel like such a good accidental choice for international women’s day; to write so many books is impressively business like.

Every time I’ve looked up today it’s been to see another list or montage of inspirational women who have done incredible things - which I love, but I also love the idea of Ursula Bloom getting up each morning, and getting to work, doing it well, but maybe not worrying too much about it being art or genius or whatever. Which is relatable (even if writing over 500 books is absolutely over achieving). 

Even better, ‘Tea is so Intoxicating’ is a funny book about marriages not really working, people being stubborn and behaving badly, and devious Viennese cake cooks upsetting everything, as David, who does not know what he’s doing, wants to turn his cottage into a tea shop, much to his wife’s dismay. David is not the man to listen to advice or criticism, but he is the man to stir up feeling against them in the village. The lady of the manor is up in arms, the local publican is up in arms, the vicar is stuck in the middle, there are ex husbands getting in the way, and like the rest of the village, we as readers get to thoroughly enjoy the whole tangle.

This series is really shaping up to be something special, everything so far has been interesting, slightly unexpected, thoroughly enjoyable, and individual. It’s a remarkably high bar which the next two titles (Diana Tutton’s ‘Mamma’ and E. M. Delafield’s ‘Tension’) look set to meet with ease. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Tang - J. J. Haldane Burgess

It's a happy coincidence that I've finished this in time for World Book Day as I can't think of a more appropriate title to be discussing for it.

Tang, a dialect word for sea weed that grows above the low water mark according to the Shetland Words Dictionary) is the first book to come from Northus Shetland Classics project. It's aim is to bring back into print keystones of Shetland's literature in the form of stories, poems, memoires, and non fiction. I have a lot of love for this as a concept, not just in relation to Shetland, although that does have a particular resonance for me, but more generally for the change in focus to something it would be easy to dismiss as parochial. 

I didn't actually know much about J. J. Haldane Burgess before I read this, which is kind of surprising. He was apparently instrumental in the development of Up Helly Aa (which we were taught about at school in Shetland, as well as experiencing) a well known poet in his day, and generally seems to have been the kind of man that we should have been learning about as a local hero. As it is I've gleaned a little bit of information from Brydon Leslie's introduction, a wikipedia page, and Mark Ryan Smith's 'The Literature of Shetland'.

Burgess had a promising start in life as an academic over achiever. He studied divinity in Edinburgh where he apparently disagreed with certain doctrines, and then lost his sight. After this he returned to Shetland where he carried on writing poetry, history, and novels, became a Marxist, and a noted linguist amongst other things. 

Even having freshly discovered all these details, along with my general enthusiasm for the Northus series, I was at best expecting a book which would be more interesting than entertaining - which is as good an example of the general prejudices around works written in dialect as any I suppose. 'Tang' gave me a lot more than I deserved. It's not just entertaining, it's funny, and wise, and full of ideas and arguments. It's also really accessible for a book that uses so much dialect thanks to Burgess being the sort of author who thought to give the English meaning of a word in brackets next to the dialect when you couldn't reasonably work it out from context.

I initially assumed this was something that the publisher must have done, but he assures me not. I've read a reasonable amount of work that uses dialect and without fail they've all relied on a glossary, or notes, which break the flow of the narrative if you stop to refer to them, and leave you floundering if you don't. This solution is so much more reader friendly, and makes it a lot easier to recommend this book to people who are not familiar with Shetland dialect. 

Tang takes place in the fictional village of Norwik, around 1898 (when it was written). There's a new minister and his mother in the village, the laird's daughter is coming back from the school she's been at in Edinburgh, and Inga Bolt, the shopkeepers daughter, has returned from a lengthy stay with Family on another island. 

Inga is easily the prettiest girl in the village and (my assessment of her is kinder than Mark Ryan Smith's) seems to have a good nature that mirrors her looks. Most of the local boys are in love with her, which she's aware of and enjoys, but has been careful not to encourage. These include her cousin, Hakki Perk who is the local teacher, Bob Ertirson an intense young fisherman, and his best friend, Magni. It's the new minister, Peter Mann, who catches her eye though - and she his, although he also finds himself attracted to the Laird's daughter.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the triangle of Inga, Bob, and Peter, although the hero's are Hakki, and to some extent, Magni, but the plot isn't really the heart of this book - which is more to do with the overall community and it's dynamics. Class is a simmering issue, as is jealousy; Inga has had some education, her father has more money than the laird, although he's careful not to show it. Peter is a good enough man, but also weak and troubled. Mr Black, the laird is a surprisingly benign sort of figure, who features mostly as a friend to Hakki who he considers his intellectual and I think social equal. It's Mary Black, the newly returned daughter who seems set on imposing her will on the community - in opposition to Hakki whom she dislikes, but it's Hakki's personality and ideas that really jump off the page, along with the Gair family who act as villain's and trouble makers.

Judging by the conversations on in the Tang Subscribers group on facebook (joining recommended if you think you might read this book) there's a lot of room for interpretation of what Burgess is primarily doing here. For the most part I'm ready to disagree with people on almost everything apart from the quality of the book. The way I see it, it's mostly a discussion about class and organized religion, and in both cases the discussion is nuanced.

It's notable that the figures who represent authority - the minister, the laird, the shop keeper, the schoolmaster, are all treated with a degree of sympathy that I might not have expected. Their are allusions to Hansi Bolt's commercial acumen, and that he benefits from the truck system, and other things that make his position as a kirk elder more than hypocritical, but we also see him as a kind man, and there's no outright attack on his profiteering. Hakki Perk, who's agnostic and radical opinions might well be Burgess' own is sharp and sarcastic where it does more harm than good. But it's Peter Mann, the minister, who's really interesting.

Young and inexperienced, torn between duty and a barely understood desire, along with his occasional doubts in his calling, Burgess keeps playing with what we understand him to be. On balance I think the evidence is for a flawed, but not bad man, even if he sometimes behaves badly. Temptation, duty, fairness, and what true religion and belief look like, is a thread that runs through the book. 

The final thing to go back to about 'Tang' tonight is how funny it often is. Auld Ertie Gair with his pretentious use of English and constant miss speaking's balanced by a real and vindictive spite, is a perfect comic creation; a fool straight out of Shakespeare.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Drinking Through Georgette Heyer's 'Devil's Cub

The Georgette Heyer readalong on twitter is currently nearing the end of 'Devil's Cub', which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading at a slower pace than usual and with a whole bunch of Heyer fans to discuss every detail with. It's a book I've already written about twice here, and which I've read so many times that my opinion of it has probably evolved as far as it's going too, but after a chance comment last night I started thinking about the drinks Heyer mentions in it. I followed that with a morning of dedicated reading, and a little bit of of liquid research (mostly in the form of chocolate).

The thing that makes 'Devil's Cub' such a very good book in my view is its humour. I think it's Heyer's comic masterpiece, which for a writer who revels in comedy is really saying something. Towards the end of the book I find all my sympathy is with the hero's uncle - Rupert. Rupert (incidentally the name of the man who gave me my first job in wine) has been dragged to France, against his better judgement, to track down his nephew. All he wants to do is eat and drink, all he gets to do is chase around the country looking for people he's had enough of. His moment of revolt comes in Dijon where he finds some excellent wine, and from there on in he's doesn't even pretend to care about what else is going on. 

As a fellow wine lover I have complete sympathy for him, quite apart from enjoying the comic flourish of cases and cases of wine being added to a chase (and chaise) across rural France. Before we get to Rupert's excellent reasons to visit Dijon there are quite a few other references to unpick though.

The first thing to consider is what does what you drink signify both in 18th century England, and in the world of Georgette Heyer. Hugh Johnson's 'The Story Of Wine' is not just comprehensive, it's enjoyable to read and if you see a copy in a charity shop (when they reopen) buy it. He tells me that drinks had become an aristocratic talking point in England in the 17th century, and reminds me that the grandfathers of the first Georgians had seen chocolate and coffee arrive, tea become fashionable, and gin, rum, and cognac become more or less drinkable. It's also when Claret became popular with the English (it has a different history in Scotland thanks to the auld alliance).

By the 18th century a catholic taste in wine was a signifier of good breeding - still very much true when Georgette Heyer wrote 'Devil's Cub' in 1932, and still a class and education signifier now, although a more nuanced one since we discovered a whole new world of wine beyond Europe, and Supermarkets got into the business of selling everything from the cheapest plonk to 1st growth claret en primeur.

Wine in the 1780's (when Devil's Cub is set) signifies wealth as well as class. The tax was prohibitive, so if you're drinking the real thing you belong to the aristocracy, the gentry, or the upper reaches of the professional classes (who would have included the younger sons of the aristocracy). English taverns would sell wine purporting to be Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and French - although there was a good chance they would be home made. Red wine could be made of aloes, blackberries and turnip juice, 'Port' was found made of turnip juice fermented with 'wild fruit' beer and lead oxide amongst other unappealing sounding things. 

On a more respectable note Mrs Rundell gives a few recipes for English wines in 'A New System of Domestic Cookery' first published in 1806, when war with France would have made importing wine difficult, and throughout the 18th century it's possible to find the very grandest of aristocrats boasting of their home made port (which I hope and trust avoided turnips).

It's also worth noting that there's a political allegiance in what you drink at this time. For Tories who might even go as far as having had Jacobite sympathies in the 18th century claret was a rallying cry. Port by comparison was seen as a patriotic (anti French) choice from the war over the Spanish succession. By the 1780's the port that was being drunk would be closer to what we recognise today, and not something that needed to be sold as a patriotic duty to drink.

The first spirit we get in Devil's Cub is Brandy - another bit of drink history trivia is that whisky didn't really become respectable until the late 19th century when phylloxera devastated European vineyards. The authentic spirit would be pot distilled, and I'd guess a basic bottle of Martell or Courvoisier would be close enough to what Heyer had in mind - or indeed something even more basic, as distilling practices have significantly improved since the 18th century. For some interesting recipes to replicate both fake and smuggled brandy, along with a host of other things, Ruth Balls 'Rebellious Spirits' is a fabulous book.

From brandy, the discerning Rupert moves to Burgundy - where we will join him later. He also talks about Port. Early on the port wine in question would have been table wine - stronger than the northern French wines we might have been familiar with thanks to the extra sun, but not fortified. My hot tip generally is to look for Portuguese wine in supermarkets. Around £10 will get you a really excellent wine from the Douro if you want something special. You'll get something thoroughly decent for a bit less. In time, and probably to protect and stabalise the wine during transit, brandy started to be added. Initially this produced something both rough and fiery, but time in the bottle - which you would be getting by the 1780's softens the effect. There are a range of port options, an L.B.V will hit the right balance between relative youth and palatable smoothness. If it's unfiltered you'll get an authentic 'Crust' of sediment too.

Vidal is not considered dangerous until after his 3rd bottle, and the idea of the 3 bottle me is a popular one - happily for everyone's liver's bottles at this time would have been closer to pint size - or about 2/3rds of a modern bottle, and the last inch or so of wine would probably have had to be discarded for the bitter sediment in it, so those 3 bottles aren't quite as bad as they sound. 

The next drink I found was ratafia - thought of as a lady's drink, and dismissed as such by anyone with a discerning palate. This is sort of fair. A modern off the shelf version of ratafia would be Amaretto. You can find contemporary recipes to make your own (Mrs Rundell will oblige for a start) which sound like Ameretto is what you'll get. There's also a ratafia made like Pineau des Charentes. This is a family of drinks that mixes unfermented fruit juice (grape for Pineau, but I've also had really good apple versions) with an eau de vie. I personally prefer this, it's still sweet, but makes an excellent aperitif, and doesn't taste like marzipan. 

Vidal (the hero, despite what he does next) threatens to render the heroine blind drunk by forcing her to drink a flask of Hollands, if she won't get on his yacht. Hollands is Jenever, which we can think of as Dutch gin, although it's not very like the London gin most of us will be more familiar with. Jenever is the spirit that came over with William of Orange, and might have been marginally more respectable than anything being made in London in the 18th century. By the 1780s the gin craze was done and and successive efforts to crack down on consumption had made it more expensive. If you haven't had it, jenever is hard to describe. It's distilled from a malt wine, and feels heavier and more oily in the mouth than a London gin. It's flavoured with juniper, which is familiar, but can be aged in wood - so in a lot of ways it's more like a juniper flavoured new make whisky. For abducting in the Heyer approved fashion you want Oude Jenever.

It's not all booze though. A lot of coffee is drunk - which makes it an excellent drink to accompany Heyer with, and quite a lot of chocolate for breakfast. This seemed like a really good time to try Marie Antionette's Hot Chocolate Elixir with Orange Blossom and Almonds from Sue Quinn's 'Cocoa', the action has after all moved to Paris by this time. I've been meaning to make this for ages, but it's elaborate enough that I hadn't got around to it. It's informed by records at Versailles which sounds authentic enough to accompany a romance, and the following quantities serve 2.

200ml of whole milk, finely grated zest, and juice of an orange, 60 ml of double cream, 1/2tsp orange blossom water, a pinch of salt, 1tsp of caster sugar, 40g of dark chocolate 960 to 70% cocoa solids) grated, and some toasted slivers of flaked almonds. Put everything apart from the chocolate and almonds into a pan and heat, but don't allow to boil. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and stir un til melted. Return to a moderate heat and whisk briskly until the mix begins to thicken and you have a good froth. Serve with the almonds scattered on top (they're optional but you might as well go for them). This is rich, so it really does serve 2 much better than it makes a large mug for 1.

Which brings me back to Rupert, dragged from the prospect of a good time in Paris and forced to set off for Dijon. What Rupert has failed to realise is that he's going to end up in the best part of Burgundy, with some of the most sought after (and expensive) wines in the world. Heyer never tells us what he finds, but my guess would be that it's probably Nuits Saint George or Gevrey-Chambertin. These are wines that had been prestigious since the time of the Valois Dukes of the 15th century. When I started in the wine trade Nuits Saint George was almost a generic term for a good Burgundy, it has more than doubled in price since then so that it's hard to find a bottle for under £50.

In fact it's hard to find any really good pinot noir from Burgundy for much under £30 now, and even something quite ordinary will be over £10. If we want to drink like Rupert (and in quality terms, I do) we need to be inventive. By the 1780's Burgundy was expensive enough to be ripe for abuse. Pinot Noir naturally produces highly perfumed, relatively light wines. It's a challenging grape to get the best out of - which is part of the reason it's so sought after, and also why it started to be mixed with Rhône wines, or the Gamay grape - both of which would introduce body and more obvious fruit. At this point honey was also being added to the fermenting grape juice to increase the sugar content and thereby the alcohol content.

Until relatively recently the perception was that red burgundy should be a heavy, strong, dark, and tannic wine. The tannins are right for pinot noir, but not the rest of it. So Rupert might not have noticed if what he was drinking was a good Cote du Rhône (but anything that costs more than £10 and isn't Chateau Nuef du Pape and you can't go far wrong, but a Saint Joseph from closer to Lyon would surely be a good bet to end up in Dijon). A Beaujolais village would certainly be as soft and smooth as the wines he mentions (gamay grape, not overly tannic, very food friendly). 

Or, for the wine drinker who doesn't mind spending a bit, but doesn't want to go overboard (still between £10 and £20) there are the wines of South Africa. If you can find a good South African Pinot Noir in this price bracket, please tell me, I've had them in the past and they've been really memorable. The extra sun gives them the body, fruit, and colour that Heyer would have expected, but not so much that they're as jammy as the Australian ones. We get the perfume and the elegance of a wine that hasn't had honey and god knows what else added to it, and they've been making wine in South Africa for long enough to have some really old vines (they give a wine a particular silkiness). There is also New Zealand, which is almost as famous for Pinot Noir as Burgundy, and a lot easier to find - but somehow doesn't excite me quite as much.