Monday, May 31, 2021

The Toll Gate - Georgette Heyer

This is the latest book the Georgette Heyer Redalong has finished and the first one where I've really felt my opinion of the book has been challenged by a slow reading. I like this relatively late Heyer (1954, so more than halfway through her writing career) and have long considered it a favourite. That hasn't changed, but reading 3 chapters a week and discussing them at length has shown flaws that are less apparent when you zoom through a book in an afternoon.

The Toll Gate is sort of atypical for Heyer in that the mood stays really quite dark throughout, the only other example that I can think of that's quite as grim as this one is Cousin Kate from 1968. There are other elements that are unusual, but all of them appear in other books - it's the combination of things that makes this one stand out.

It seems that when Heyer started 'The Toll Gate' she had quite a different book in mind - the opening chapter introduces us to Captain John Staple and his extended family, but that's the last of the extended family we see. Eventually we end up in quite a masculine adventure - Captain Staple (Jack, or Crazy Jack to his friends) finds himself not quite lost in the rain and rapidly drawing in night, he seeks shelter in the first habitation he finds - a toll house being minded by a clearly terrified young boy.

The boy's father has disappeared, there's a nighttime visitor he's very afraid of and Jack senses a mystery, the solving of which will alleviate his boredom. In quick succession he loses his heart, meets a highwayman, a bow street runner, and some likely villains. Nell, the woman he's lost his heart too is in dire straights - and unusually for a Heyer heroine seems at something of a loss - she's brave and capable but Heyer is unrelenting in showing us how bleak it can be for a single woman against the world. 

The adventure comes to a conclusion, the right people end up together or disposed of, and it's more or less a happy ever after even if the heroine of the piece is largely absent from the action. As a romance it arguably falls short of expectations, but as a thriller with romantic elements it works well enough for me. As a novel that has things to say about the early 1950's I think it's got  a lot going for it. 

There's the vague sense of a lingering post war austerity, of values which are all but gone, of the boredom that could afflict young men who had spent 6 years at war and don't quite know how to adjust to peace time. There's also the depressing reality for women that careers are thin on the ground again as jobs go to men and they're expected to be home makers regardless of how capable they are. 

So, a mixed book - there is also a lot of early 18th century cant which can be tiresome if yu don't enjoy it (I kind of do here, but that might make me the exception). It's also worth comparing this one to the slightly later 'The Unkown Ajax' (1959). Ajax is a much more typical Heyer - but there's a sense that the two books might have started with the same character. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

The Chianti Flask - Marie Belloc Lowndes

This is an odd mystery from the Crime Classics series - it slightly defies categorisation, it's not quite a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit, it is arguably a romance, although the romance is the least interesting part of the book. It is however a compelling look at what happens to one woman after she's tried for her husbands murder. 

Laura Dousland falls on hard times as a young woman when her father dies having lost all the family money. She hasn't been educated to do much but makes a reasonable living as an old fashioned sort of governess who can be relied upon to teach the daughters of the more recently rich to behave like old money. 

Laura's last employer, the benevolently despotic Alice Hayward, persuades her to marry a school friend of her husbands who is infatuated with he much younger woman. The age gap is a good 30 years and Laura does not much like Fordish Dousland. but he is persistant, as is her friend, and her options aren't great so she does indeed marry him.

We learn all this along the way, when the book opens Laura is on trial, Fordish Dousland has been poisoned, and there's an odd mystery around a disappeared chianti flask. The rat poison that did for him was almost certainly taken with the wine, but what happened to the bottle?

Laura is quickly acquitted and the body of the book deals with her attempts to come to terms with all she's been through. At the same time she's falling in love with a well to do doctor who gave evidence on her behalf and is now treating her, he's falling equally hard in love with her. The twist at the end isn't entirely surprising, but it's a good one nonetheless (and at the slight risk of this being a spoiler, the biggest mystery about the Chianti flask is why anyone tried to hide it in the first place).

'The Chianti Flask' was first published in 1935, but feels as if it belongs to a slightly earlier time, but then Marie Belloc Lowndes was well into her 60's when she wrote this, and maybe that's why Laura and Mark's romantic interludes feel somewhat old fashioned. His parents reaction to their relationship has the same touch of melodrama about it, but rings true for their age and class.

Class is a theme throughout this book, most of the characters are upper class, and there's a good bit of discussion about how a woman who has stood trial for murder can fit back in socially now that she's notorious. It's interesting to compare this with Dorothy L. Sayers, Harriet Vane books. Strong Poison came out in 1930, Have His Carcass in 1932, and Gaudy Night the same year as The Chianti Flask (1935). Laura and Harriet are more or less of an age, and it seems reasonable to assume that Marie Belloc Lowndes would have been familiar with Sayers work. These are very different books, but both have a feminist slant that makes a comparison worth while.

It's the portrayal of women, their lives, and the limitations they face - especially in Laura's case that make this book so interesting. Laura, Alice Hayward, and Mrs Scrutton - they all jump off the page. All are flawed, human, and compelling - Marie Belloc Lowndes was a vaguely familiar name before I read this, now I'm really keen to try and read more of her work - or see some of the films based on it. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Miss Browne's Friend - F. M. Mayor

When I first started blogging I was reading a lot of Virago Modern Classics, 12 - 13 years ago was a good time to be collecting the old editions, one way or another almost every title I've wanted has turned up in a charity or second hand book shop - things I just don't see anymore. That's how I found all three of the F.M. Mayor titles that Virago had printed (The Rector's Daughter, The Squire's Daughter, and The Third Miss Symons). It was also around the same time that Susan Hill recommended 'The Rector's Daughter' somewhere and there was a lot of discussion about it and Mayor going around at the time. 

I suppose she's probably fallen back into relative obscurity again now, which is a shame because she's a remarkable writer and it's a real shame that her books are not all properly in print at the moment. There is a collection of ghost stories I'd very much like to read - 'The Room Opposite and Other Tales of Mystery and Imagination'. One of these stories; 'Miss de Mannering of Asham' is available in the Virago Book of Ghost Stories and The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales - either of which are worth having around (or even both, as I find I have) reading it really makes me want to read the rest of them. There's an early collection of short stories written under a pen name - 'Mrs Hammond's Children' which I know nothing at all about.

'Miss Browne's Friend', just republished by Michael Walmer as part of his Zephyr series, originally appeared in 4 parts in the Free Church Suffrage Times between June 1914 and March 1915 which puts it in the same period as 'The Third Miss Symons', also very short. 'Miss Browne's Friend' is hardly even a novella, but it's very good and deals squarely with Mayor themes, though maybe with a bit more humour than in her other novels (though the humour is there in Miss de Mannering of Asham). 

If I wasn't so stony broke I'd have felt guilty accepting this as a review copy and denying Michael the cover price in the process, but as it stands I'm just really grateful I'm able to read it and add to my sense of Mayor as a writer. 

Miss Browne is one of the army of well meaning spinsters that 40 years later Barbara Pym would write about. Her family depend on her but don't much appreciate her; her life is full of self sacrifice and good work. It's the good work that leads her to Mabel, inmate of a rescue home. The language is hazy and the circumstances vague, but we can assume that some young man has helped Mabel get into trouble. 

Miss Browne is struck by the girl's beauty and is enthusiastic about officially befriending her. As a mentor she's doomed to swift and recurring disappointment - Mabel is a force of nature unlikely to be contained in domestic service, but the story ends with an unexpected twist. 

In some ways I find this a precursor of The Rector's Daughter in that both feature women that on the surface might seem to have fairly empty, unsatisfactory lives, but in the end do not. Or at least I certainly don't think they do. They may be disappointed by aspects of their lot, who amongst us isn't from time to time, but these are not empty lives, they're not untouched by love or satisfaction, and Mayor gives Miss Browne an unexpected dignity. 

'Miss Browne's Friend' is a perfect gem of a story with the perfect mix of pathos and humour about it, it's available directly from Michael Walmer's website along with quite a few other interesting things, and honestly, read it if you possibly can. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

What White People Can Do Next - Emma Dabiri

I've been meaning to get, and read, this book since it came out (beginning of April, so I'm not doing badly), and as I got it just before damaging my knee as I walked downstairs (middle age sucks) I stuffed it into my bag before hobbling off to A&E on doctors orders to get an x ray. It was an excellent companion for a longish wait for results (longer because there isn't anything seriously wrong with my knee so I wasn't a priority). 

I've followed Emma Dabiri since her first appearance on Britain's Lost Masterpieces (it's an excellent show that I really recommend if you're unfamiliar with it), so there was already a good chunk of the ideas discussed in what is a lengthy essay that I was already familiar with. I'm already the converted to an extent, but there was also a lot more to think about and honestly, this is a book that I think pretty much everybody could do with reading - it a very good starting point for a whole lot of important conversations.

So much so that after going on at length about it yesterday to a friend I actually saw in person (this is still a novelty) she ordered 3 copies when she got home, 1 for herself, 1 for her brother, and 1 for a cousin. I had to gently remove my copy from my partner this afternoon and reclaim it until I've finished writing about it, because despite initial scepticism he started reading and kept going. 

I'm slightly wary of writing anything which even touches on identity politics right now online, an already volatile atmosphere has not been improved by the current level of pandemic fatigue, and that's a problem. It's a problem that started for me when the row about racism in knitting erupted a few years ago and so much of the language being thrown about, especially in reaction to being an ally was so profoundly alienating.

It's the insistence on self education in the midst of an online pile on that bothers me, the briefest moment of thought about conspiracy theories should be enough of a warning of how badly wrong that can go. It's a small thing to recommend something, any thing, any one thing, be it a book, a twitter feed, a film, a pod cast, a blog, an artist (the list could go on and on) when you've already taken the trouble to weigh in on a thread. Honestly, I'm quite busy just trying to get by, I'm prepared to do the work, but it's not a priority when it feels like it's being made harder than it needs to be. 

One of the things I really warmed to in this book is Dabiri's far more scathing, perceptive, and eloquent observations on the problems with a certain kind of demand for allyship - which more often than not is coming from other well meaning white people. 

Beyond that 'What White People Can Do Next' - the title is deliberately chosen to be provocative and to be something of a joke - is full of suggestions of where to go next in terms of reading, which in turn will undoubtedly lead to more suggestions, and makes a lot of sense in talking about coalition. Points about talking about class instead of race are a useful, and necessary, change of perspective too.

Maybe most important is the discussion of when we even started thinking in terms of race - and why it's undoubtedly a bad thing. I'd have liked to see a bit more discussion of the role religion has historically in de-humanising those we don't share a faith with. But then it's a short book and that's a big subject all on it's own.

And with further consideration the most important thing here is the idea of coalition to effect the kind of fundamental changes which will work for all of us. Anyway. It's a short book, it doesn't take long to read, and it has a lot to think about in it. I really recommend it.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Passionfruit and Lime Drizzle Cake

There's a slight irony in that I was looking for a cake to bake because I was seeing a very good friend inside for the first time in over a year, and found the recipe in Signe Johansen's 'Solo: The Joy of Cooking for One'. To be fair I'm not quite sure how a recipe that makes 12 muffins ends up in a solo cookbook because although this cake is so good that eating it all myself wouldn't be a particular hardship it's not a good habit to get into. 

It is at least a fairly modest sized cake, I don't think the muffins would be especially big ones, and it's adaptable. I used a 2lb to bake it in but that was on the large size, next time I make this I'll use a 1lb tin, or even a modest sized springform tin - the oven temperature is low enough to be forgiving, just keep an eye on the cake whilst it bakes and check it when it starts to look done.

It's also a reasonably quick and easy cake to make with a whole range of possibilities about it. I wanted something that used passionfruit because I live near a Marks & Spencer's where they sell really handy little packets of passionfruit insides for £1 - I'm not sure how many fruits the packet equates to, it says it's equal to 1 of your 5 a day, but it's also 90g in weight. It looks about the same amount I'd expect to scrape out of 3 or 4 fruits, so despite the air miles and the plastic these have become a favourite. 

When the weather is good, as it was this time last year, a mix of passion fruit and lime over ice and topped up with sparkling water is a really lovely long drink (add a dash of sugar, or sugar syrup if you want something a bit sweeter, but I like this really tart). The weather is not currently good, and iced drinks are not appealing when you come inside after a walk through a hail storm though so cake made more sense. 

The recipe I adapted from Solo is an adaptation of Felicity Cloake's Lemon Drizzle Cake in the Guardian. I'll be sticking closer to Johansen's version because it uses a bit less sugar. The only real change I made was to substitute a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt (didn't have any in my fridge) for a dessertspoon of milk. 

You want 175g of unsalted butter, softened, 150g of golden caster sugar, 1tsp Vanilla extract, a good pinch of finely ground salt, 3 eggs at room temperature, 125g of self raising flour, 50g of ground almonds, a little milk (or a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt), 3 ripe passionfruit (or handy sachet), the grated zest and juice of 2 limes, and 50g of demerara sugar.

If you have a stand mixer put the butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract into the bowl and whisk it for a good 5 to 8 minutes so it gets really airy and light, then line your tin of choice, gather the other ingredients together, and pre heat the oven to 170 C/ Gas Mark 3. If you're using a hand mixer make sure all this stuff is done first. If you're mixing by hand you deserve every crumb of the cake that comes out the oven.

Add the eggs a bit at a time with a spoon of flour to try and stop the mix curdling. Fold in the rest of the flour, almonds, and the milk or yoghurt, put into your tin and then the oven. Muffins will take 15 to 20 minutes, a loaf cake more like 45 - 55 minutes.

Just before it's ready to come out mix the passion fruit and lime in a bowl along with the demerara sugar. When the cake is out of the oven stab it all over with a skewer and slowly pour this mix over it, giving it time to soak in nicely as you go along. 

What you get is a beautifully light and fluffy cake that would be smart enough for a pudding with crème fraiche on the side, or makes an excellent mid morning or tea time treat. If passionfruit and limes aren't available, lemon is obviously an excellent alternative, and if I ever have a spare Seville orange I'd use it for this too.

Signe suggests omitting the drizzle and adding fruit or spices to the batter, and for more information on that Solo is now out in paperback. It's a really useful book, full of Scandi inspired flavours and other nice things which are excellent for inspiring the solo cook - it's also a lot easier to scale recipes up than down, but most of these will make at least enough for 2 anyway so this is great for anybody who isn't cooking for a large family and wants grown up food that finds a happy balance between mostly healthy, occasionally indulgent, and always good.  

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Mamma - Diana Tutton

I'm going to try very hard to avoid spoilers in this post, but just in case I don't manage it particularly well the short version of my review is that Diana Tutton takes a difficult subject, handles it with sensitivity, produces something which still has relevance, and which is enjoyable to read. I really liked this book (a lot). 

I was intrigued rather than enthusiastic about the premise for 'Mamma' - Joanna Mallings is widowed at 21 after a year of marriage and with a baby daughter. 20 years later Libby is engaged to marry Steven who at 35 is much nearer in age to Joanna (now 41). Libby and Steven end up having to move into Joanna's house, and what starts out as a strained relationship between mother and son in law as they try to accommodate each other slowly becomes something more intimate.

Joanna has been unlucky, she had reasonably expected to marry again, but the only man who offered was 20 years her senior and she wasn't interested. Then with the war and a daughter to focus on it's easy to see how opportunities to meet another partner might have been thin on the ground. And as any single woman in her 40's is likely to tell you - the good ones are all taken at this point - or so it always seems.

There's an inference that there haven't been many men in Joanna's orbit anyway - we meet her the day she moves house, and the only friend she's seen to make throughout the book is another woman who has no visible husband. That close proximity to Steven should prove troubling for her is almost inevitable under these circumstances. Quite apart from his personal charms (ordinary but nice) Joanna is suddenly both free from her responsibility for Libby, and reminded of what she's been missing.

For both Steven and Joanna their attraction is based on sympathy rather than anything obviously physical. She's not a type that he admires - his attraction to Libby by contrast is almost entirely physical, because in other ways at 20 her personality is fairly unformed and immature. The one thing that Tutton doesn't discuss is the possibility that in Steven, Libby might be looking for something of a father figure - but it's possibly implied in some of her responses to him, and her enthusiasm for returning to live with her mother. 

The three central characters are well drawn, Steven is a decent man who's obviously in love with his young wife, who seems like an excellent choice for a serving army officer - her passion for order, efficiency, and convention will likely go down well amongst the other officers wives, but when the expected foreign posting doesn't happen things become complicated. 

Libby is still young enough to want to cling to friends and family, sex is a duty that a good wife performs, and might even enjoy, but isn't something she seeks. She's over reliant on the opinions of her friends, and snobbish in a way that sometimes reads unpleasantly, but which she's also likely to grow out of as she experiences more of life. Libby's tory tendencies worry her mother, not because she doesn't share them, but because she didn't share them at Libby's age - she worries that her daughter is growing up with no imagination.

Joanna and Steven bond over a shared love of poetry, and a certain amount of shared life experience, they're close enough in age to be very much of a generation, to understand the world they both grew up in, and crucially to have developed the tastes and preferences that Libby lacks. And this is the crux of the book - the tension between physical desire, sympathy, and the need to love. 

There's an interesting sub plot with Steven's mother which further explores that need to love and care for somebody which also underlines that romantic love is only one part of human relations, and not the most important part at that. This series is doing an excellent job of finding books that tackle complicated relationships with grace and insight. There's a lot in 'Mamma' which I haven't touched on, in a quiet way it has a lot to say, some of it unexpectedly frank. It's also an enjoyable book and Tutton gives us the possibility of a happy ending for Joanna which seems entirely realistic. I absolutely recommend this one and will be following the rest of the tour with interest.


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Some Thoughts on Reprinting Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 14, 2021

Frenchman's Creek - Daphne Du Maurier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Time For Tea - Tom Parker Bowles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

A Short Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 3, 2021

From Field and Forest - Anna Koska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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