Thursday, January 20, 2022

Work Environments

I meant to finish off my top ten books of 2021 list tonight, but I've been thinking a lot about the murder of Ashling Murphy and some conversations that it led to over the weekend. It's made me wonder about other people's workplace experience so here I am.

I currently work in an all-female team in a bookshop where the customer ratio is fairly even but possibly just tips towards a female majority too. This is somewhat different from the twenty years I spent in the wine trade where I was always in a minority.

The last time I worked in an all-women team was in the late 1990s when I spent a year as a cook in a nursery. It wasn't a happy experience, I replaced one of two men who had been there, the other one was forced out by a frankly hostile atmosphere, and there were always cliques of people at odds with each other. 

After that I worked with a borderline crazy woman in a bookshop who kept telling me that she had a special power; people she disliked died - accompanied by a long stare. She loathed me, I'm still here, but the last time I saw her she was so intent on not making eye contact she walked into a lamp post which I like to think was karma. 

In Oddbins and other wine shops, I got used to being very much part of a minority, albeit a significant one, and being part of quite a macho culture (although that's a description that would surprise a lot of my former colleagues). When I recruited staff it was also mostly, though by no means exclusively men. More applied which made it easier to find people who would fit into the team we had. I still remember being somewhat shocked when I had a rugby-playing Christmas temp described to me by another woman as 'a treat' I'd hired myself. 

He was a treat for all of us in that he was a nice guy who never complained about the heavy lifting the job involved and could effortlessly reach things from the top shelves, but that's not how the comment was meant. Since then I've come across all sorts of toxic behaviour from both men and women, and given the choice would always opt for an as close to evenly mixed workplace as possible, so it's surprising to me how pleasant it is to work just with women right now. 

It's refreshing not hearing the vaguely inappropriate jokes and comments, not having to pick people up on them (and be considered a humourless bitch in the process). Good to be part of a team that likes and respects each other - this is lucky, not gender-related) and freeing not to have to police conversation so that it doesn't make male colleagues uncomfortable. We don't sit around talking about periods all day, but occasionally it's a relief to be able to say you feel like crap and know you'll get a mildly sympathetic response. 

Our romance buying (predominantly women) customers are much more comfortable talking about their book choices with other women too, confident that they won't be sneered at, or thought to be inviting unwanted attention when they mention the smut content. There's something quite depressing about this, which brings me back to Ashling Murphy - a teacher and folk musician who was minding her own business on a run in daylight when she was murdered. 

There seems to be a gap in communication that's really damaging. We all need to be better at making our workplaces work for everybody, part of which is a more general comfort for women around talking about issues that specifically affect us. I don't really have a conclusion here, more a general interest in what other people's experience has been and where/how to find the happy medium that's genuinely inclusive. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Back from the Borders

I've been up to the Scottish borders for a bit of wedding research and a family catch-up - not something I take for granted in current times. Due to where we all live it's not especially easy to see Shetland or Inverness family at any time, and really hard over the last two years of restrictions to get out of Leicester (there were a couple of glorious escapes). I don't regret sacrificing that time, it was the right thing to do, but right at the moment, the people who didn't bother to follow either the spirit or the letter of the law are really pissing me off.

My friends and family missed funerals, canceled weddings, in some cases are still dealing with long covid, worried about jobs, worried about everybody they loved, and now we're all trying to adjust back to a world where some people take precautions seriously, and others think it's fine to wander around with a heavy cold (we hope) and cough all over you without wearing masks. In return for what we all went through, and in some respect for the hundreds of thousands who died or have to live with long-term health problems, we deserve much better from those who are meant to be leading us.

Anyway, in much happier news after 3 hours of driving through freezing fog on Saturday the sun came out somewhere near Durham, and the last 2 days have provided perfect winter weather, sunny, frosty, a full moon, and generally glorious. Dad has had a curlew weather vane made which we're all extremely impressed with. It was made by Nate ( see more of his work Here ). We're generally agreed that his price was pretty reasonable (not precisely cheap, but very good value) so if you're looking for something really special and bespoke he might be worth a look. 

We also had fun in Hawick, a town which finally looks like it might be about to see better times again. We went to the Borders distillery - very smart, and the Kerr's gin is one of the best I've had. We didn't go on a tour this time but might book one when we're next up. the smell coming from the distillery was amazing. I did get a long coveted blanket from the Lovet mill. It's cheaper to wrap myself up in a lambswool and silk blend than it is to put on another heater at the moment. 

Whilst I'm at it, I'm also going to give a shout out to Their Nibs pyjamas. I bought a couple of pairs before Christmas - they arrive by post very promptly, and I really like them. They size large, the ones I bought are a lightweight cotton which washes well and is comfortable to wear, and I love the patterns which are the right type of quirky for me. They also have pockets. My family are uniformly unimpressed by my suggestion we could all have matching wedding party pyjamas, I might do it just to prove them wrong. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022


The closest thing I've made to New Year's resolutions this year is to promptly read some of the books I got for Christmas, and not to buy any more books until I've read a good amount of the ones I already have. The number of unread books has become oppressive again, but I'm making good progress. An actual ban wouldn't work for me, but reminding myself of the current chaos of home, and the expectation of a few review copies has made it easy to exercise some restraint.

I've also started knitting again - I stopped for a few weeks after finishing my jumper and tried to work out what to make next. I have plans for another jumper, but first I'm enjoying knitting a couple of socks that are destined to be Christmas stockings. I meant to make these last year but failed to find the time - I'm using Alison Rendall's Stoorbra socks pattern but on larger needles and with DK rather than jumper weight yarn. So far I'm really happy with the results - and actually doing a bit of stash busting too which also feels really good.

Meanwhile, I'm still eating my way through Christmas cake, panettone, and eyeing the biggest Toblerone I've ever seen (thanks mum) which is all going nicely with tea, and my current book choice - Adrian Bell's 'A Countryman's Notebook' (also, thank you mum) from Slightly Foxed. 

I was dogsitting at the weekend and found a very appropriate quote about rough weather; "No weather, of course, is bad weather on a Sunday - for those on terra firma. You can enjoy going out if you are not obliged to."

The dog would doubtless take a different view of my obligations, and as it happened Sunday was fairly glorious, if cold and very muddy - but it gave us a 6 mile wander that we both thoroughly enjoyed. Having the time and opportunity to do it was a real treat. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

A Crime Adaptation Wishlist

After reading 'Murder on a Winter's Night', just finishing 'Murder After Christmas' from the British Library Crime Classics series, and reading Cross Examining Crimes new years day post I've been thinking about things I'd really like to see on television instead of another version of an Agatha Christie (much as I love Agatha Christie). 

I'd also like to take a moment to wonder (not for the first time) why on earth the brilliant Dorothy L. Sayers adaptations with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter from the late 1980s (1987?) were never repeated and are so hard to find to watch now. I honestly can't imagine better casting for Lord Peter and Harriet than that pair, no remake is needed. There was a brilliant adaptation of Josephine Tey's 'The Franchise Affair' from around the same time which I've never seen since too. 

Josephine Pullein-Thompson's 'Gin and Murder' might not be the best mystery, but it does a lot of other things really well. I'd watch this for the late 50s glamour of the county set and the emotional situation Pullein-Thompson underpins her story with which packs a genuine punch.

It's not necessarily the best mysteries which would make the best viewing, and there's a double truth with that when it comes to Georgette Heyer - her crime novels are generally considered as sort of second-best compared to her romances. I have mixed feelings about this, I think the mysteries are mostly under-rated, but I'm also less attached to them and think there's less chance that anybody filming them would annoy every Heyer fan ever by producing something we would all hate. 'Behold, Here's Poison' is pleasingly twisty, would provide some lovely sets and costumes, and be an excellent opportunity to unleash one of Heyer's queer coded characters on the public.

The British Library has released a couple of Margot Bennett titles, and both have a pleasingly visual element to them which makes me think they'd be great on screen. I've gone with 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' because it came to hand first. I enjoyed reading this, but I'd really love to watch it.

It's possible that there have been adaptations of Gypsy Rose Lee's books - I'm half afraid to look. She wrote 2 murder mysteries and they are brilliant. 'The G-String Murders' and 'Mother Finds a Body' are both worth seeking out - they're affordable on kindle, but out of print and expensive in paper. Who doesn't want to watch murders against a background of 1940's burlesque with brilliant noir wisecracks and one-liners?

To be honest, I'd happily watch a good adaptation of almost all of the British Library Crime Classics series - there's a lot of good stuff in there to choose from. I've picked on 'The Chianti Flask' by Marie Belloc Lowndes because the characters and their moral dilemmas are so richly drawn. The murder part is almost incidental compared to the character studies and a good cast could have a ball with this.

I'd just like to see Vera Caspary get a revival. 'Laura' is a great novel and one of the great film noirs, she also worked on Hollywood classics like Fritz Lang's 'The Blue Gardenia'. I adored the high camp of 'Bedelia' but think 'The Man Who Loved His Wife' would be great on screen. It's twisty with plenty of suspense, and again, characters you can really get your teeth into. 

Micheal Gilbert has been one of my favourite discoveries from the British Library series. He's really good, and 'Death has Deep Roots' is a book I regularly recommend at work. I like the way the action shifts between wartime France and post-war London and the thoughtful plot. If you like classic crime at all Gilbert is worth seeking out. 

Margaret Miller is another happy find, mostly due to Pushkin's Vertigo series. I'd like to see more of her work back in print and again would very much enjoy watching her work. 'Vanish in an Instant' is full of atmosphere and seedy characters - perfect. 

Carol Carnac's 'Crossed Skis' is a fun alpine mystery written in 1952 when Britain, and Europe were still distinctly post-war. Stuck in a grey, Omicron shadowed, midlands January the idea of escaping to the alps is desperately appealing even if I don't ski. After decades of taking travel opportunities somewhat for granted the difficulties of crossing Europe in the 1950s have taken on a new resonance since 2020. This mystery where a largish party of relative strangers (lots of friends of friends) has accumulated and then realise one of their number isn't what they claim - but which one - could provide the perfect mix of escapism and suspense.

Finally, it's about time the increasingly ridiculous Father Brown was canned, and John Dickson Carr gets a look in. I've chosen The Case of the Constant Suicides' only because it was the first one I read. Carr does over the top drama brilliantly, would provide lots of excellent new characters, and keep anybody (me) who likes to watch utter nonsense as long as it's entertaining very happy indeed. I principally love Carr for the gothic flourishes and appreciate that these aren't everybody's cup of tea, but not everything needs to be serious, and the set designs would be something to marvel at in a good Carr adaptation.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Murder on a Winter's Night - edited by Cecily Gayford

It's 12th night, I've finally started my Christmas, now rechristened as twelfth, cake and am cheerfully reading murder mysteries. The Profile published Christmas collection has been a staple stocking gift (still do them, never intend to stop) for the last few years now, and whilst they're always decent, I have sometimes found the quality variable.

Not so with this year's offering, 'Murder on a Winter's Night' is my idea of the perfect anthology. It's anchored by an almost novella-length Dorothy L Sayer's story (The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention) which I only remembered reading before about two-thirds of the way through, and even then couldn't remember the details, so it felt new and after that, there's an excellent mix of short and medium-length offerings. 

There's a good balance between stories that are amusing to the point of funny with a couple that remind you that murder isn't a joke (never a bad thing) and a nearly contemporary entry to balance all the classic crime. I even like that it's called 'Murder in a Winter's Night' so that I'm not left feeling like I'm clinging to the old year now that January is well underway. 

Basically, I enjoyed everything about this particularly well curated collection, it's definitely one to look out for if you enjoy classic crime. I don't want to give spoilers for particular stories, but it would be just the thing to have to hand if the threatened snow turns up this weekend. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

At Christmas We Feast - Annie Gray

Looking at Facebook memories from a couple of years ago I see, with quite a lot of guilt, that so far I've only read one of the books I got for Christmas in 2019. I'm already doing better than that with this year's lot having raced through a crime collection and read most of 'At Christmas We Feast' in odd bursts over the last week. 

This is, in many ways the perfect post-Christmas book - and it's not too late to buy a copy to enjoy before 12th night puts the season to bed for another year. As I haven't started my Christmas cake yet I've officially re-designated it as a 12th cake and will give it due consideration on Wednesday, by which time the mince pies will be finished. Part of what I love about this book, and loved about Anja Dunk's 'Advent' is that both of them help re-extend the Christmas season back into something that makes more sense.

There are lots of things about modern life I could complain about; when, for example, did it become acceptable to bring food and drink into shops? Keep your greasy hands and sticky drinks away from my stock thank you very much, and definitely keep your red velvet latte's away from our carpet - nobody has actually been murdered in our shop, but it certainly looks like they have been now. One of the most fundamental though is the work-life balance we currently accept, our aversion to being a little bit bored, and there really not being enough slack time built into the working year. 

The pace we set ourselves is stupid, especially around Christmas where anticipation starts to build in earnest from Halloween, all for what used to be a 12 or more day series of festivals to be squashed into 48 hours if we're lucky. It's emotionally and physically exhausting, especially if you work in a service industry (I can't imagine a time in the year when working for the emergency services isn't both of those things, so right now I'm mostly thinking of the people in pubs, shops, restaurants, and all the other venues we turn up at demanding entertainment and bargains from at this time of year).

Stretch the celebrations over advent or consider the old feast days and you get time to enjoy and maybe more crucially, digest, all the good things to eat and drink that the season brings. 'At Christmas We Feast' is a tour through centuries of Christmas food traditions which show what's changed, what we've kept, maybe some things we'd like to adapt and adopt, has a smattering of recipes and is generally full of interesting tidbits.

I have tried the wine chocolate recipe from page 49 - or at least cobbled together an approximation of it using some leftover wine, brandy, and sugar in place of port, which I do not have open. Next time I have a leftover glass of wine, or open port, I'm going to try it again omitting the rice flour as a thickener. I like the flavour and kick of it, but don't need the cream-like consistency. I do feel that with a bit of tinkering this might be a great mulled wine alternative and all-around winter favourite. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Happy New Year

A day early, but the sentiment is the same. It's been a full on kind of a week. Back at work on boxing day, over to Nottingham working today (a Much bigger branch) which was fun but tiring. Endless paranoia about omicron which seems like enough to cause a symptom mimicking headache, and a hundred and one other things to do.

Like most of the rest of the country, I'm not sure which day of the week it is either, but only because I've been at work for all of them and am missing the chance to be a little bit bored, read books, and do jigsaw puzzles. This has to be the hardest week of the year in retail when so many of us long for a rest and just don't get it. 

Anyway, when I finally do get a bit of time off (I don't know when that's going to be) I have a jigsaw, a magnificent pile of Christmas and birthday books to read, and after many hours throwing yarn around, I think I've settled on colours for a new jumper which I'm looking forward to beginning. 

Meanwhile, a happy and prosperous New Year to all who read this, with an extra dose of goodwill aimed at those who work over holidays, or who really struggle with not working. Both things can be hard to deal with. I hope 2022 brings us a respite from the last two years of covid related worry. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Sunless Solstice - edited by Tanya Kirk and Lucy Evans

 It’s been a hectic month between work, home jobs, and mum breaking her ankle, and I wish I had more than 2 days off over Christmas (back to work on Boxing Day) but it’s finally calm, we’re listening to carols from Kings (in-between the dog destroying stuffed toys and making me retrieve their squeak from under whatever bit of furniture she’s jammed them) and drinking a very nice fizz. 

When not walking, or otherwise attending on the dog, I’ve spent the day finishing Sunless Solstice, the Christmas weird collection from the British Library. It’s been the perfect choice. I haven’t come across a Tanya Kirk collection I haven’t loved, this one is no exception - I don’t know how the work was divided with Lucy Evans, but I’ll also be looking for anything with her name on it in the future. 

There are odd things (Murial Spark) sweet Christmas stories (Hugh Walpole), sad and menacing things (Daphne du Maurier) and a whole lot in between from slightly camp to properly chill giving. Christmas is the proper time for ghost stories, and the Christmas collections from this series are favourites - all 3 of them have the right mix of moods to see you through the festive season.

Meanwhile I hope anybody reading this is doing alright, and has something nice planned for tomorrow, especially on the book front. A worrying number of friends and acquaintances have tested COVID positive, although so far they’re all getting through without really serious complications, but after the last couple of years it’s not what anybody wants for Christmas - so try and stay safe and well if you can and have a happy Christmas. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Advent (again) - Anja Dunk

The last Sunday of advent, and another two types of biscuit made after a day at work, I can't help myself but write about this book again. It'll make another appearance when I get round to doing a top ten list for the year, but you've probably already got a sense of how much I'm enjoying it. 

I've planned to try the German biscuit thing for a few years now without getting round to it, but whatever happens, it's firmly a part of my tradition now. I could probably squeeze in a few more bakes before the weekend, but having made the schnapps (brilliant) in quantity, 2 batches of Springerle, 2 types of lebkuchen, endless roasted cinnamon almonds, almond marzipan crescents, and hazelnut crescents I might have to stop now, however much I want to carry on.

I've learned a lot of things. The big one is that all this baking is easier to fit into a working day than I had imagined (definitely easier than mince pies, which I also love and haven't had enough of this year). Most of these need a resting time so it's a quick enough job to throw the ingredients together before bed to deal with in the morning, or even a few days later in the case of the Lebkuchen, or before work ready for when I get home - and then it's just a matter of rolling out or shaping the dough and baking it for around 10-12 minutes in most cases. 

Getting other people together to cut out the Springerle would be fun if I had more molds, and every biscuit I've made would be great to do with children, especially as the rewards come quickly from the oven. There are plenty of things that can be made vegan or gluten-free which are good options to have, and recipes like the almond marzipan crescents are perfect for using up Christmas cake leftovers.

Everybody who has tried them has loved the roasted almonds - they're a winning recipe if ever I found one, with the Schnapps coming in a close second. With time I'm sure I'll find other things in here which are as universally loved.

The most interesting thing for me though has been the Lebkuchen recipes and the Springerle. The ammonia for the Springerle didn't smell anything like as bad as I expected and they're not like anything else I've ever tasted - simple, but much more than the sum of their parts.

I hadn't really appreciated how many types of Lebkuchen there are either - and the half-dozen types here are not an exhaustive list. The two I made are distinctly different, and also different from the recipe I've used before. I made the effort to get hold of baker's potassium for these (not much of an effort, I ordered it via amazon marketplace and it arrived promptly a couple of days later) which was definitely worthwhile. The texture is lovely and I'm really happy with both types I made, which are distinctly different from each other both in ingredients and end results, even if they're obviously related.

Anyway, it's a book full of joy, and I'm going to miss baking from it for the next 11 months.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Chianti Flask - Marie Belloc Lowndes

My Second nomination for Cross Examining Crime's reprint of the year is a slightly odd mystery from the British Library Crime Classics series - it defies easy 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 accused of her husband's murder. 

Laura Dousland fell on hard times as a young woman when her father died 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 husband's, who is infatuated with the much younger woman. The age gap is a good 30 years and Laura does not much like Fordish Dousland. But he is persistent, 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).

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 worthwhile.

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. There's a lot to love about this book, which feels like something quite out of the usual way.