Sunday, February 27, 2022
Wednesday, February 23, 2022
I've enjoyed both the previous books from Northus, but 'Foula, Island West of the Sun' feels like something more. Tang and Broken Lights are important to Shetlands literary tradition and interesting from a historical perspective, they're also enjoyable enough to read for pleasure and not just to broaden knowledge. Sheila Gear's book is arguably more significant as a neglected/potential nature classic than it is a classic piece of Shetland writing.
I've been familiar enough with this book for almost as long as I can remember. Dad would have bought a copy when it first came out in 1983, I know I had one found in a second-hand shop for a while, but I'd never actually read it. Now turned out to be an excellent time to remedy that.
I grew up with the silhouette of Foula on the western horizon as a shifting landmark - sometimes completely hidden by cloud, often partly obscured by it, sometimes it felt tantalizingly close (close enough to make out houses) due to a freak of atmospheric conditions, but generally, it felt every one of the 14 miles over the sea that separates it from the mainland of Shetland. Remote, mysterious, somewhere to visit one day. Sheila Gear's grandfather bought Foula in the late 19th century and she spent childhood holidays there. At some point as an adult, and post zoology degree she returned, married an island man, and stayed.
Foula currently has a population of about 30 people, which has stayed stable for the last 40 or so years, it peaked in the 1880s at 267, but for most of its recorded history, the island supported around 150 people. When Sheila wrote this book life in Shetland was changing dramatically thanks to the money North sea oil was bringing in. For people on the mainland (the largest island that makes up the archipelago) it meant funding for everything from roads to leisure centres, real job choices, and a future for young people in the islands beyond the fishing industry. It also made places like Foula feel much more marginal as they get left behind whilst living conditions improve elsewhere.
Even in the 1970s what Sheila describes (no flushing toilet, water from a well, not even a sink, presumably no electricity, phone via a phonebox shared by much of the island) would have been common enough across the islands, certainly in the homes of older folk, by 1983 it was unusual anywhere but the outer islands where the costs and logistics of change are a considerable challenge. When she describes how they live it's done with a mixture of pride, humour, and defensiveness.
Part of Sheila's reason for writing this book was to answer the question, why. Why is it important to preserve this way of life, and why does she choose to do it - the only answer she finds is love, and as she observes, love is not enough. The portrait of Foula, and to some extent, Shetland, at a point of great change for the islands, and the comprehensive overview of the wildlife and weather that make it such a unique place would each be enough to make the book worth reading, but that underlying question of 'why' is what makes it really significant.
It came as something of a shock to realise how little the conversation has moved on in the last 40 years, despite it being a hot topic again - do you re-culture or rewild the highlands and islands? Sheila's views are uncompromisingly honest, and not ones that will necessarily be popular. She has a tangible contempt for many of the tourists who visit her home and treat the inhabitants as a curiosity. Even when it's visitors they like there's always a sense of us and them, and she's very dismissive of incomers to the island who arrive without understanding what they're signing up for and inevitably leave within a year or two.
It's a thorny issue. Islands need young people, they need decent housing, and they need ways to make a living to sustain communities. The modern world has reached Foula, but it still gets weather-bound, and even when it doesn't getting things to the island will never be easy. Children still have to leave home and board from the age of 12 to carry on with their schooling, even getting home for weekends isn't a given. That's hard for any family to deal with.
When Sheila talks about love, she partly means a love of the island that's been bred through generations of people living in a place that they know intimately. It's a sense of history and attachment that really helps in the depths of winter when hills that have been friendly all summer catch the wind so that it's like "the thunder of a tremendous sea about to overwhelm the whole world, and you will feel fear." Communities need to evolve, but they also need continuity to preserve the things that make them unique. Sheila, writing 40 years ago, says things we'd be wary of expressing now - but her points are valid, even if you don't entirely agree with them (I'm in two minds - broadly sympathetic to her point of view, but with reservations).
My own answer to why it's important to support communities like Foula's after reading this is that it matters that we know there are other ways to live, different ways to measure success. Island life is a struggle, crofting is beyond heartbreaking at times - a late winter storm that kills lambs and sheep that you've struggled to bring into the world, ponies lost over cliffs, the constant worry over how to keep everything going - there are easier ways to live for sure. But to really belong to somewhere in the way that Sheila describes belonging to Foula - that's no small thing.
For an outsiders view of the island, and a glimpse of some of the same personalities have a look at Alec Crawford's Treasure Islands
Sheila wouldn't approve but the 1937 film 'The Edge of the World' (which lead to decades of speculation that it would be evacuated St. Kilda style) was filmed on Foula and around Shetland and is well worth searching out to see some great footage of crofting life.
To see more of Foula follow the Foula Heritage page on facebook - it's a great way to see something of the island's character and wildlife. I'm in awe of the size of the Humpback pod they had earlier this winter.
Finally, I haven't (yet) ordered any wool from this site, mostly because I've already got an out of control stash, but you can directly support the island's crofters by buying Foula Wool, all in natural colours.
Monday, February 21, 2022
If I seem a bit obsessed with rhubarb at the moment it's because I, a woman who lives alone, bought 4 packs of it over the last 2 weeks, carried away by the vivid colour and iridescent sheen of the forced stalks, and now need to use it up before it turns to slimy mush. The reason I bought so much - I've been fantasizing about rhubarb all winter (I'm assuming we all have a couple of seasonal things that we get really excited about food-wise, mine are very definitely rhubarb and blood oranges) and had a long list of things I wanted to try.
Unfortunately getting rhubarb in the city centre isn't actually that easy, and after a couple of miles walking, by the time I finally found some I got carried away. Rhubarb might well continue to feature for a while.
After Zuza Zak's Peach and Elderflower breakfast buns (Here) I've wanted to play around a bit - one thing I really liked about this recipe is the small quantities it makes. Buns like these are best eaten really fresh, and these make just the right quantity to take to work and share, or for 3 or 4 people to make a breakfast of.
For the dough, you need a sachet of instant yeast, 50g of caster sugar, 100ml of milk, 200g of plain flour, a pinch of salt, 25g of butter, a teaspoon of vanilla paste, or vanilla extract, and an egg yolk (keep the white). Put the butter in the milk and gently heat until the butter has melted, whilst that's doing put the rest of the ingredients in a bowl. This is a sticky dough so I prefer to make it in a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer with hook attachments. When the butter has melted and the milk mix is warm rather than hot add it to the dry ingredients and knead for between five and 10 minutes. The dough should be glossy and smooth. Now set it aside in a covered bowl to double in size.
For the rhubarb and custard filling, you need about 150g of rhubarb, which is a couple of tender young stalks. Chop these into roughly cm long chunks and put in a pan with a couple of dessert spoons of sugar, 1 dessert spoon of birds custard powder, and a teaspoon of vanilla essence. Gently heat and keep stirring until the rhubarb has collapsed into a pink cloud and the whole thing is thick and jammy. Set aside to cool, and butter or line a cake tin about 7 inches wide - a sandwich tin is perfect.
When the dough is doubled in size roll it out into a rectangle roughly 1 cm thick, spread the rhubarb over it leaving a good margin at the edges, roll into a long sausage, cut into 6 or 7 pieces and arrange carefully in the tin. Leave for about 20 minutes to double in size and roughly blitz about 25g of hazelnuts, mix these with a generous tablespoon of demerara sugar. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C.
When the buns are ready to go into the oven, brush them with egg white and sprinkle over the nut mix. Cook for about 20 mins until golden. Allow to cool for a few minutes once out the oven and they're good to go.
Saturday, February 19, 2022
The staff discount working in a book shop is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, getting significantly reduced-price books is great, on the other, I already have too many books and don't need any more encouragement. In the case of 'Near the Bear North' I'm just seeing it as a good thing though.
I'm a big fan of Mick Manning's pochoir prints, I have one on my wall that I bought as part of the Artists Support Pledge and really love, there would be more if I had space and money. This alphabet book put together for Design for Today (worth following on insta Here) and published in 2019 has been on my wish list for a while. It belatedly occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that I'd be crazy not to order it, and now the penny has finally dropped I'm delighted I did.
Inspired by fauna and flora from the north of England to Arctic Scandinavia this is a really nice thing to have. D was skeptical when I first showed it to him (why are you buying children's books for yourself?) and was then as charmed by it as I am.
It is possible that my favourite thing about this book is that Latin names are used, so H, which is too often for things like hippo, here gets Hirundo Rustica - the swallow, a bird I really love. There are other welcome surprises throughout, including Manning's distinctive humour. The end result is an alphabet book that would make a great present for any young child, and anybody who enjoys good design/Manning's art. At £14.95 it's a bargain - any good book shop will order it for you or you can get it direct from Design For Today
Wednesday, February 16, 2022
I love the forced rhubarb we get at this time of year and am buying it whenever I see it, which isn't as often as I like. Same with the blood oranges, a little bit easier to find, but prone to going off really quickly thanks to their thin skins, so sometimes I have to use my stash in a hurry.
I had both rhubarb and blood oranges at the weekend and with Valentine's day in the offing, it seemed like a really good time to continue the quest to discover a really good rhubarb cake recipe. This one is as close as I've got, with an edge on a streusel cake I really like. The juice from plain oranges would be fine, but the blood oranges are worth the effort if you can find them for the extra zing they have. I particularly like this cake for dessert, and definitely think it's better the day after it's made - the orange flavours really come out then.
Lightly blitz 100g of whole hazelnuts - you want some quite large chunks of nut left for texture, and chop 350 - 400g of rhubarb into small chunks about a cm wide - set the rhubarb aside in a bowl with a tablespoon of sugar. Line a loose-bottomed 21cm cake tin, and preheat your oven to gas 5, fan 165c, conventional oven 180C. You then need 3 ounces of white sugar and 3 ounces of golden sugar, beaten with 6 ounces of butter until light and fluffy. Add 3 eggs a bit at a time along with 6 ounces of self-raising flour, and the juice of 1 blood orange.
Put the batter in the prepared tin, and top with the rhubarb - it'll look like a lot, but this is quite a damp cake. Make sure there isn't too much piled up in the middle. Mix 2 tablespoons of demerara sugar (or granulated if easier) in with the nuts and distribute this evenly over the top of the cake too. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, adjusting your oven as necessary (mine runs hot so I tend to turn it down towards the end of the bake time).
When the cake looks almost ready juice 2 more oranges and make a syrup with a couple of dessert spoons of sugar. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven (and a skewer comes clean out of the cake) pour the syrup over it, again making sure it's well distributed. Allow to cool completely, remove from the tin, and serve with whipped cream.
Sunday, February 13, 2022
There is no time, and I write this as a woman searching for a wedding dress when I more regret extra weight than when casting on a jumper. So many stitches, that will turn into so many hundreds of thousands of stitches and maybe a kilometer of yarn knitted up - it's a daunting prospect, especially when a pattern calls for negative ease and smaller gauge needles.
You have to be in the right mood for this kind of commitment, and currently, I am, I also have a few cones of yarn that are calling out to be used - my yarn stash has far exceeded problematic proportions and is now the equivalent of a wooly tsunami threatening to take over my flat. The cones take up relatively little space but have a certain presence about them which makes me feel a little defensive. Buying one is a serious statement of intent; a big project is going to happen... And then for ages, they never seem like the right colour, or they're not the right weight yarn, or they're not portable enough.
Anyway, contrary to the all-over jumper I'd carefully planned and spent hours picking colours for I've started a Lower Leogh from Mary Jane Mucklestone's 'Fair Isle Weekend'. I'm adapting it quite a bit - I need it much longer than the original pattern - I'm long in the body and round enough not to suit a cropped jumper at all, and I want something very lightweight so I've changed the gauge of the needles for something a lot bigger.
I started this very much on a whim so haven't swatched, taken proper measurements, didn't think through the colours very carefully, and am keeping my fingers crossed. The colours for the fair isle strip came out of my scrap bag, I wanted blues to go with the dark brown and these fitted the bill, the very pale shade is actually a very pale green (rye) which I like a lot but doesn't necessarily play well with other colours, fortunately, I'm happy with what it's doing here.
Increasing the needle size, but not the yarn weight, for fair isle patterns means losing definition in the pattern. I could have got around this by using high contrast colours, or I can embrace it. The muted palate here has created a painterly/impressionistic feel to the pattern which I like, and I think works well for the kind of jumper I want. The stockinette section I've knitted so far has the lightweight feel I wanted.
I chose this Jumper because it's going to make me learn a lot about shaping and construction - the only other jumper I've knitted was just a tube with sleeves attached (I like it, and it's shaped itself to me much better than I expected), and doesn't call for any seeking. It's slow going at the moment with a lot of increases to look forward too, but so far I'm happy with how it's shaping up.
Thursday, February 10, 2022
This is the first book of the year that really swept me away, it's a fabulous debut novel from Susan Stokes-Chapman which just does everything right from start to finish as far as I'm concerned. I was initially drawn in by the cover so asked for a review copy through work hoping to enjoy it but without any greater expectations.
What I got was a really enjoyable historical mystery with a little bit of romance. The book opens in December 1798 with somebody diving on a shipwreck to try and retrieve Something. Something isn't quite as it should be. From there we move to London in the new year and find Dora Blake in an attic hunched over her workbench working in some jewelry.
She has a pet magpie and a troubled relationship with her uncle and his mistress who are now her guardians. He's run down the family antiquities business and Dora is desperate to find a way out - preferably independence through her jewelry designs. As the plot progresses we meet Edward and his friend Cornelius. Edward is also desperate to find a way out of his working-class background, and into the world of antiquarians. Cornelius has his own issues to deal with.
The mysterious object that was being rescued arrives in London and is delivered to Pandora's uncle, it turns out to be a pithos of great age depicting the myth of Pandora. The men who retrieved it are convinced it's cursed and strange things do seem to happen around it. There's also the question of how a dodgy antique dealer has come by such a thing...
Pandora is an engaging heroine, her desire for independence as a craftswoman does not feel at odds with the era, although her struggle to be taken seriously also feels about right. Her Uncle is a splendidly drawn hero, and Edward and Cornelius are equally appealing characters to get to know and unravel.
I don't want to give away too many spoilers here, but the combination of mystery and mythology worked really well for me. Maybe stop reading this paragraph if you're thinking of reading this book soon. There's a constant question over what the pithos actually is - an outstanding antique that's survived millennia against the odds, or something actually out of legend? It works for me because there's never a definitive answer so there's something of the weird or ghost story here too. The balance between all the elements, including the growing relationship between Dora and Edward makes the perfect page turner. I'll read more profound books this year, probably, but I'll be doing well to find something I enjoy more for sheer craft and fun.
Something else that really marks this book out is Stokes-Chapman's brilliant, and occasionally disgusting way of describing the smells of her London. Everything else, apart from the jewelry, is sketched in, but the smells, especially the bad ones, she goes to town on. It gives the book a particular vividness and adds to the gothic/macabre atmosphere most convincingly.
The final thing that I really appreciated was the afterword - I'm a pedant at the best of times so there were a few details, especially about the opening dive that I questioned. The afterword explains that the diving suit, along with a few other things, had been written about theoretically, but never made or used. It feels like it could be a nod to Mary Shelley's proto science fiction, and left me more than happy to suspend my disbelief.
Friday, February 4, 2022
I meant to write about a book (all week) but I've also got a strong urge to knit at the moment, and having finally got myself together to finish the supersized sock I intended to send someone as a Christmas stocking last year I've cast on a jumper I had no intention of knitting yesterday.
I had spent ages sorting out colours for a second Fait Isle all-over but that'll wait. My dad is also demanding a pair of socks for himself and I probably need to get started on those sometime soon too - so it's busy around here.
The single sock is one of Alison Rendall's (her Instagram is here) Stoorbra's - a pattern I really love, done on a larger needle size and with DK weight yarn. I'm really pleased with the colours - the greens were a random selection that I had, but they couldn't have been planned better - at least not by me. The red I bought last summer with this in mind.
I might be solidly middle-aged but my other still does stockings for us, and I still love it (there was a period in my 20's when I thought it was lame, but I quickly grew out of that). We've used the same sewn stockings for decades and I won't be changing them, but part of me misses dad's woolen wellie socks, all lumpy and mishappen with presents that we had as properly little kids. This sock will hopefully stay with someone for all their childhood and beyond.
It's also a great excuse to show off just what a great pattern this is - the perfect decorative item to hang up and enjoy.