Friday, October 29, 2021
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Sunday, October 24, 2021
Ali Smith's quote on the cover of this book is that it's 'The best least-known novel of the twentieth century" and Maggie O'Farrell says in her introduction that she's built friendships on a shared love of this book. I'd never heard of it before seeing it come into the bookshop, but it's definitely one of the best novels I've read without hearing anything about beforehand, and I'd be willing to bet that anybody else who liked it was worth getting to know too.
Elspeth Barker is better known as a journalist and critic, 'O Caledonia' is her only novel, published in 1991 when she was 51. It will appeal to people who like Shirley Jackson, Molly Keane, and maybe to lovers of 'I Capture The Castle' but there's a darkness about it which does not belong in Dodie Smith. It's also the perfect slightly gothic but not a ghost story for Autumn.
We start with the corpse and then the burial of Janet. Sixteen found sprawled "in bloody murderous death" wearing her mother's black lace evening dress, halfway down the grand staircase of the family castle. From there we go back to the beginning of Janet's life and follow her to the end of it.
The eldest of five eventual siblings Janet is unfortunate to have neither beauty nor any particular grace. She's a clever but unlovely and unloved child. The sort who can never do right for doing wrong - who doesn't tell anyone when her sister falls out of a moving car because she's frightened of the row she'll get. Her brother and sisters have the charm and looks that Janet lacks and if their parents don't particularly love or understand them any better, they at least work as a family.
For Janet life is a series of misunderstandings and casual cruelties. She loves the castle her father inherits, cold, inconvenient, and in places dangerously near-derelict as it is. The school he makes of it, and initially makes her attend, is filled with boys eager to bully a girl and eventually to sexually intimidate her. Janet can more or less take care of herself though as an incident with a patch of giant hogweed and a boy who has exposed himself to her prove.
I fell in love with 'O Caledonia' on page 3 when Barker describes a plate of rock buns "assembled on snowy doilies, malignly aglitter with the menace of carbonised currents." Janet is a concentrated version of every one of us who has ever cared too much, felt misunderstood, confused, awkward, ugly, and above all alone - which must surely be every adolescent that has ever been.
There's a dark humor that runs through the book, splendidly gothic or baroque moments - such as Janet's mother painting the hooves of a pony gold in the dining room. The pony is a birthday present for Janet's sister, and Janet jealous on behalf of her own pony frustrates her mother by explaining how the paint will surely poison the animal. This is the other part of Barker's genius; as much as we relate to and sympathise with Janet, we also see how hard to live with she is.
I'm not really going this book justice, but it's genuinely one of the best things I've read in ages. Barker isn't quite like anyone else I've read, though Molly Keane would be the closest (I think Barker is kinder) and anybody who like 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' would surely like this too, though for all the gothic details Barker is less weird than Shirly Jackson. Definitely pick it up if you see it and try a few pages.
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
I went to see this last week - my first time back in any kind of theatre since March 2020. The experience of being out was mostly okay - we were at The Curve in Leicester where they asked people to keep masks on during the performance - which was busy but not sold out with most people complying with the mask request, and usher's emptied the auditorium out row by row at the end so there was no press of people to get through. Despite all that I find I'm not quite comfortable with being sat in a crowd yet.
The Midnight Bell was also a challenging reintroduction to live performance. I have some of Patrick Hamilton's novels which it's loosely based on, bought many years ago with good intentions. But then I read somewhere that Julie Birchill is a massive fan, and I find her so annoying that it's put me off ever since. This is probably doing both Hamilton and Burchill a disservice. I might not like her writing much, but I have no reason to be sniffy about her reading. That's the nature of prejudice though.
Even if I had read 'Hangover Square', The Midnight Bell is based on several books with added bits so I'm not sure it would have helped. What would have been useful would have been more of a synopsis in the program, or even a breakdown of who the characters were.
As it is the dancing is excellent, but it was hard to work out what was going on - the first 20 minutes felt like an intro for something that never came. The ballet follows the lives of 10 characters who frequent The Midnight Bell pub as they form and reform relationships with each other mostly fuelled by alcohol. In the second half, the action has moved on a month and we see how those relationships resolve.
It works well, especially with a gay relationship that wasn't explicitly in the Hamilton books. This becomes the heart of the piece and the story we (my friend and I) mostly cared about. Probably least successful from our point of view was the relationship between George Harvey Bone (a schizophrenic) and Netta Longdon (an out-of-work actress). The violence this ends with was unwelcome given recent news. If we'd known it was coming we probably wouldn't have been as put off by it, but we didn't and it was jarring.
Altogether worth seeing, I've not seen a story like this told in dance before and I think it worked well. we enjoyed the challenge of it, and I'm glad I've seen something this year, but on reflection I don't think I'll be going back into a theatre until the spring. Covid numbers feel just too high and work makes me vulnerable enough,
Sunday, October 17, 2021
It's been a big week for venturing out again, first to the ballet and today to Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam for the Gold of the Great Steppe exhibition. It'll also probably be the last venturing out for a while as I could really do without Covid and I'm not loving the number of people who have abandoned masks altogether now. Very noticeable as we accidentally hit Cambridge the day a half marathon was being run (it was chaos with nightmare parking) which meant the pavements were extra crowded - to the point that even being outside felt overwhelming at times. Never mind that on a packed park and ride bus only about a quarter of us wore masks.
At least inside the exhibition numbers were carefully controlled, there was an expectation of mask-wearing, and the layout both neatly divided people and kept them moving. It also meant that we had no idea what treasure would be revealed next as we worked our way through and the element of surprise was brilliant.
I can't recommend this exhibition highly enough - if you get the chance go and see it. Entry needs to be booked but is free, and the exhibits are fabulous. I knew nothing about the Saka people (and due to mistakenly assuming the exhibition catalogue would be easy to buy elsewhere my big regret of the day is I decided not to get one and carry it around with me).
A lot of these finds are fairly recent (within the last decade as well as being from a culture little known outside of Kazakhstan) which adds both to the element of surprise - who knew this was out there? And the general sense of awe that a lot of treasure will produce. There are other wow moments that I've just deleted descriptions of because frankly, they would be spoilers, but I will share a picture of the exhibit that really got me.
It's thousands of tiny gold beads no more than a millimetre across heaped together. The skill to make these, never mind a needle fine enough to thread them onto clothes is mind-boggling. The way they glowed under the lighting as if they were their own light source was also magical. There are bigger items that looked more impressive in the moment, but these speak of another level of skill and wealth. They're the thing I went back for another look at and broke my don't take pictures in exhibitions habit for (it's annoying for the people around you and doesn't encourage you to look properly).
On until the end of January - go if you can Gold of the Great Steppe
Saturday, October 16, 2021
This week has been a bit of a blur - between a new cocktail book, a first post lockdown trip to the theatre, working, catching up with a couple of people, and making a batch of mincemeat I don't think I've got to bed before midnight since last Sunday. Please don't imagine the bags under my eyes at this point.
I didn't bother with Mincemeat last year and missed making it - but had enough left from 2019 for a lockdown Christmas and used it all. It's one thing I really think is worth making if you like it and the recipe I use, based on Fiona Cairns mincemeat from 'Seasonal Baking' has never let me down. My first attempt was an Elizabeth David recipe that made an industrial quantity, cost a fortune because of that, lasted for years (it was not appealing), and quietly gave the impression that it was fermenting in the fridge for a lot of that time.
The reason the David recipe had appealed, and part of the reason why I like the Fiona Cairns recipe so much, is that neither needs you to cook the apples first. It's a lot of chopping but when it's done it's done, and each time I've made it I've changed the recipe a little to suit myself. The original is fig and almond, and really good. This year's version is cherry, apricot, and hazelnut, with some added cocoa nibs, because actually, I don't really love figs and the whole point of making my own is that it can be what I want.
I make quite a lot of this because I love mince pies, and it's no bad thing to have a couple of jars leftover for the beginning of the next mince pie season whilst the current year's batch is maturing. It definitely wants a month or two to mature so now is the perfect time to get mixing, and it's worth making your own because it certainly has less sugar than the stuff you buy, and as it tends to be a drier mix you don't end up with molten mincemeat glued to your baking tray.
This makes an impressive quantity of mincemeat suitable for households that love mince pies, eat a lot of them, and are likely to give some jars away - half it if that's not you.
200g of nuts - I mostly use almonds or hazelnuts, but would consider walnuts. Toast them for 5 minutes, leave them to cool whilst assembling everything else, then blitz or chop them into small bits.
500g of Bramley apples peeled, cored, and finely chopped.
300g of currents
400g of raisins
300g of dried fruit - figs, cherries, apricots, dates, cranberries - or a mix of these (or even something else if you prefer) chopped as appropriate.
200g mixed peel, chopped
200g of suet.
200g of demerara sugar
200g of dark muscovado sugar
The zest and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons.
3 teaspoons of mixed spice and 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon.
120ml of alcohol. Whisky, Rum, or Brandy are all good. If using whisky or rum I wouldn't mix them, but if I'm using brandy I'll normally do half and half with a liqueur. This year I've used amaretto and calvados. Frangelico, cherry brandy, apricot brandy, port, Madeira, or similar would all work. What you choose should depend on what fruit and nuts you've gone for, and to an extent what you have to hand.
Mix everything together in a large bowl and cover with cling film. Leave for 24 hours, mixing the whole lot up every so often to make sure everything is thoroughly distributed and that the flavours can really blend. Pot in sterilised jars and store somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight until needed.
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
A long time ago when I read the River Cottage Mushroom handbook it explained the importance of having at least 2 mushroom guide books to confirm what you were identifying. John Wright is a wonderful writer, I really enjoyed that book, but I'm not actually that wild about mushrooms so never got another one. I do think that anybody who is at all interested in cocktails needs at least a couple of recipe books though, and sort of for similar reasons.
With a modicum of self-control cocktails are unlikely to poison you (please drink responsibly) but there's a lot to be said for being able to compare recipes for classics, and having something to cover all moods. I have a small handful of reprints of older books which have taught me a lot, and a couple of more contemporary volumes which are great too - though they mostly lean towards aperitifs, vermouth, and other things along those lines.
I have strong opinions on what makes a good home cocktail and a good home cocktail making guide. The key principle is that they have to be relatively easy to make - so no overly specialised equipment, and not to many hard to source ingredients. If I want that kind of cocktail I'll go to a bar. Richard Godwin (you can subscribe to his The Spirits newsletter (he describes it as like a book club but for drinks which it is) to get an idea of his style is excellent at providing the perfect to make at home recipe. Having followed his weekly bulletins for most the summer I ordered the book fairly soon after seeing it was being reissued.
A limited number of ingredients means you can invest in reasonably good quality spirits without spending an absolute fortune (you get out what you put in, spending an extra couple of pounds for a good mid range vodka, gin, rum, bourbon etc is worth it) which also matters. The great thing about Godwin, and this book, is that he takes what he's doing seriously, but not to seriously. There's a lot of history and information here and an excellent selection of classics - old and modern, and a whole lot of varietaions on them. Basically something for every mood or occasion.
This is another important thing about making really good cocktails at home - balance is important and so are proportions, but my idea of when a drink is sweet or sour enough might not be yours. The only way to get it right for you is to test. When you're stating out a book that actively encourages you to make adjustments as wanted is really helpful. Godwin also suggests substitutions which is possibly my favourite thing about his approach to drinks writing. This really is a book that will help you (me) make the most of what I have to hand.
It doesn't hurt that it's a genuinely enjoyable book to sit down and read too. My copy arrived looking like it had already seen some life, and in the 24 hours since it's seen some more. I've tried the Daquiri Mulata (dark rum and coffee liqueuer with lime juice and golden sugar syrup - an excellent twist on the classic) and am going to bed shortly to read up on punches - of which I'm promised plenty.
(at time of writing the best price I've seen it for online is via Blackwell's)
Monday, October 11, 2021
I started reading this book this morning, and have read it every moment I could since until I finished it. It was only about 50 pages from the end that it struck me that a book written by a photographer, which describes scene after scene, had no pictures in it.
'Goshawk Summer' is a sort of diary from James of his experience of 2020 - coming back from a work trip in East Africa filming cheetahs just before the first lockdown, he ends up on another assignment in the New Forest following Goshawks and other wildlife for the spring and early summer. It's an odd time to read about, not least because my lockdown was endlessly extended by being in Leicester where restrictions remained in place for almost all of last year.
When I did get out of the city and moved in with my mother to help her post-op (almost exactly a year ago) it was just before the second lockdown. We were in a quiet Leicestershire village which has its pretty bits, but also a lot of pig farms and mud - it's not any kind of tourist destination, very unlike the New Forest. For James, there's the sense of being an interloper first in the Goshawk's territory, and then as restrictions lifted, in the human territory of the forest where the residents got increasingly fed up with the hoards of visitors that descended as soon as they legally could.
It's an excellent book about observing, changing baselines, and what the future might hold. Goshawk's in the UK are a success story of illicit reintroduction - it's likely that most of the growing wild population are escaped or deliberately released birts bought in by falconers. There are other species recolonising spaces in the same way - pine martens are another predator making their way back into the forest, and there's a steady stream of stories in the news about beavers successfully doing their win thing too. What we don't know is the effect they'll have on ecosystems, and how we might have to learn to live with some of these animals.
Most of us will remember the strangeness of Spring 2020 - the subduing of human noise and activity contrasted by a burst of noise and activity from, around here particularly, the birdlife which suddenly and wonderfully seemed to have the parks to themselves. How those first weeks had an otherworldly, out of time feeling, when everything was uncertain, but also we had no idea how many people would die or how long we would be living with covid for. Also how they were followed by people colonising previously quiet spaces with no thought for anything g or anybody who had been using it before. My park became unusable due to the number of drinkers and drug users who moved into it.
There's a lot to think about in all this about how we need green spaces, how we need to better distribute them, take some of the pressure off of the national parks and well known beauty spots and consider if the pattern of land use and ownership that we currently have is working for enough people. The indications are that it is not - selfish behaviour is both frustrating and understandable (to an extent). There are the younger people denied the festivals that would normally punctuate their summer treating the forest, in the same way, they would campsites, oblivious to the reality that there isn't an army of people to clean up after them. The dog owners who fail to keep their animals on a lead or under control around nesting sights and resent any commentary. The people who park in gateways and driveways, who block the roads and mow down an endless array of roadkill. The angry locals who are all out of empathy for people desperate to get out of their houses.
All of it needs to be part of a wider national conversation. Aldred makes no bones about how he feels about it all, but he doesn't overburden the reader with his commentary either - it's very much about what he observes. There's hope here as well as worries for the future, and specifically the future of the forest. Plenty that can be fixed with only a little thought and education, and just maybe a greater awareness would help us approach some of the bigger systemic issues for which there are no quick fixes.
There's also an endearing insight into a life (wildlife photographer who travels the world) that might sound glamorous, but also involves a lot of time standing in a wet ditch being bitten by midges, and a deep appreciation for the things we still have, whilst we still have them. This would also be an excellent book to read with Stephen Rutt's 'The Eternal Season' and James Rebanks 'English Pastoral'. All three cover the particular moment we find ourselves in, in practical and accessible ways. Aldred and Rutt particularly encourage observation, and once you start to see what's happening, and begin to grasp the complexity of these natural systems, I for one find I desperately want to be part of the answer before it's entirely too late.
Thursday, October 7, 2021
The cold I'm afflicted with is hanging on like a snotty limpet (I wish it would go, I'm thoroughly fed up of feeling constantly tired and bunged up - and it's only been just over a week, so how people are coping with long covid is beyond me). Never the less I've dealt with a bowl full of windfall quinces and have a satisfying 13 jars of jelly to find a home for now and haven't fallen entirely behind on my reading.
Work asked me to read something I wouldn't normally go for (contemporary) so I chose Mark Stay's 'The Crow Folk', which I also thought was young adult, although now it's on the shelf it's designated science fiction/fantasy rather than teen. Working out where things should be shelved is one of the hardest parts of working in a bookshop. There's a remarkable number of titles that defy easy categorisation and run the risk of becoming almost impossible to find again once they're buried on what might not be the right shelf.
With 'The Crow Folk' though I feel that the slight ambiguity of where it belongs is in line with the tone of the book which is somewhat uneven. The heroine is a 17 year old girl, Faye, who is just discovering that the mother who died when she was 4 might have been a witch and that she might have inherited her magical abilities.
The basic premise is good - somebody has opened a door, and something nasty has come through it - Pumpkinhead, a minor demon who is bringing the scarecrows to life and setting them on the villagers. Pumpkinhead desperately wants the book Faye's mother wrote for her (apparently something that was entirely forbidden). Meanwhile Faye is struggling to find answers about who and what she is, the war is rumbling on in the background, the other local witches are angry with each other, and there's never anytime to sit down and read.
The problems begin early on with a silly mistake where elderflower heads for cordial turn into elderberries for a couple of pages - which is it? And what time of year does that make it? Faye reads as somewhat younger than 17, and I would think this was perfect for teens except that some of the jokes about sex landed badly for me - like a much older uncle trying to tell you mildly smutty jokes. I couldn't see the point of them or imagine who was meant to be amused. Her relationship with her father and the rest of the village doesn't really work either in my opinion.
The wartime setting doesn't feel particularly well researched either - I didn't check up on some of the details because by that point I didn't care enough, but it felt off. It's a shame - it's not a bad book, the blurb quote that describes it as a Doctor Who meets Worzel Gummidge is especially accurate. The scarecrows would make excellent Doctor Who monsters and provide some proper chills. I was never a fan of Worzel Gummidge, but if that combination sounds like a winner to you have a look at this. Otherwise probably don't.
Monday, October 4, 2021
Not even a head cold could spoil my absolute excitement over getting this book! I've admired Emma Stibbon's prints for a few years now, but even her prints are currently well out of my price range, and they're not quite D's thing so even if I could afford one there's the question of if we're going to live together how much I should be taking his taste into account? In fairness, it needs to be more than I've done in the past (not at all), or half my most treasured possessions will end up jostling for space with the half of his I don't much care for in whatever dark corners we can find to hide them in.
Anyway, I can stop trying to save or convince when it comes to Emma Stibbons thanks to this Royal Academy produced facsimile sketchbook. It's even better than the Norman Ackroyd books I have from the same series (we both love Norman Ackroyd's work, there won't be any need to negotiate there).
Stibbons is fascinated by landscapes and environments in flux. These sketches cover volcanos and trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. Each sketch comes with a thumbnail and some notes at the back which give useful details about the media used, and the landscapes represented. It answered some of my questions about how she does what she does in her sketches (the answer was gouache along with watercolour) but mostly I'm still slack-jawed with awe (and because of the cold) by how she captures the moments and moods she does. In one sketch it's possible to see where ice crystals formed in the paint as the watercolours froze whilst she was working.
These books are really worth looking out for and grabbing if they cover an artist you admire. It's not quite like owning an original, but it's a lot closer than I expected to get and does feel a lot like having my own private exhibition of sketches to enjoy. I'm also attracted to the old fashioned idea of having an album of sketches to flip through - in the same way, that one of Jane Austen's characters might have done, or Anthony Trollope's young people would have flirted over. On a night when Instagram is down the charm of a book of images cannot be overstated.
Saturday, October 2, 2021
One of the bonuses of working in a bookshop is the range and quantity of books that come your way - there is a considerable expectation to read and for me, it's also an expectation to widen my reading into more stuff by contemporary writers. 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' is a children's book (9-12 year age range) and also one of our books of the month. I wouldn't normally have picked it up, but it was sitting in the staff room and once I started I really wanted to see it through.
As I'm still struck down by a hideous cold (my voice has almost completely gone today) the 9-12 years reading range was also just about right for the level of concentration I could muster. It's a testament to the quality of the book that I finished it in an evening. The range of children's books has come on in leaps and bounds since I was a child, and even since my much younger brother and sister were this age. There were great books around then, just nothing like the choice we have now.
The monsters of Rookhaven are a family who live on an estate hidden from the world by a magical glamour. The only people who know about them are the local villagers with whom they have a covenant - they'll stay inside their estate in return for food. It's an arrangement that's worked well for hundreds of years until the magic wears thin and a couple of desperate children find themselves on the wrong side of the glamour. After that things start to get complicated.
It's a smart and funny book about family, love, right, and wrong. The concept of who and what is monstrous keeps shifting, the tension ramps up nicely, the book is complete in itself, but there are plenty of things left to explore in further installments of the series. It's set just after the second world war which gives the perfect opportunity to explore how grief affects people, and families as a whole, in a way that feels natural.
I really liked the main characters - Mirabelle who is subtly different to her family and doesn't understand why. Jem and Tom, the children who find themselves in this strange new world - especially Tom whose behaviour is so often morally compromised but who's doing the best he can for his sister. The friendship this trio forms feels natural too, they're all outcasts of one sort or another.
The threat that comes for Mirabelle and her family is genuinely scary, the more so because it's evil at its most plausible and underneath its monstrous trapping all too easy to believe in. Uncle Enoch, the family patriarch is a satisfying character too. He has difficult decisions to make and maybe my favourite thing about the book is the way that Kenny breaks these down for us. Altogether recommended for the younger readers in your life and for anyone who feels really grotty and wants a slightly gothic distraction from their cold based woes.