Friday, August 28, 2015

The Glenvarroch Gathering - Susan Pleydell

I've been saving this one for a metaphorical rainy day, it was worth the wait. Greyladies books aren't  cheap so there's a certain amount of pressure to get the choice right. I'm not entirely sure of who Susan Pleydell was, I know that roughly speaking Greyladies specialise in the adult titles of people better known for children's books but that doesn't leave me much wiser. The brief biographical details tell me Susan Pleydell was a non de plume, that she was born in 1907, which means that by the time this book was published in 1960 she would have been much the same age as the McKechnie parents, grew up in Scotland, and that she was well educated, musical, worked as a teacher, and married a headmaster.

The Glenvarroch Gathering comes together after the McKechnie family decide that paying guests might be just what they need to make ends meet a little more easily in their Scottish house. Glenvarroch is large enough to easily accommodate an extra 7 people on top of a family of 5 (despite only having 2 bathrooms) and the McKechnie's can keep a cook. Everything is shabby but nothing is actually falling down. It sounds like a comfortable enough way to live, but with the definite impression that a bit more money would be useful to maintain that comfort.
The first guest is Jo, the school friend of the youngest McKechnie, Pat, then there are some stock Americans, Audrey, a young and pretty teacher looking for some mild adventure, Frank, a young academic trying to write a novel along kitchen sink lines, and then Lee and June Anthony. A brother and sister who are startlingly glamorous and exotic in this particular setting. The rest of the gathering is made up of the other McKechnie children, Neil (fresh from Oxford) and Fiona (St Andrews) and their near neighbours and contemporaries Rory and Maisie.

There is naturally a crime to spice things up, but what makes for a splendid change is that it's not a murder. Someone is on the run with £50,000 in stolen diamonds, and whilst they're dangerous they don't want to be the one who gets their hands dirty with actual violence if it can be helped. What it really is, is a book about class, attitudes, and owing of age.

The McKechnie's are solid upper middle class people, educated, intelligent, hard working (Mr McKechnie is a professor, the children will need careers). There is a sense that the older generation is well aware of its relative privilege as well as the cost of maintaining it. For the younger generation it's still a question of things taken for granted - both the luxuries of staff, a secure background, space, and the freedom to enjoy it, as well as the relative discomfort of a shabby house with a limited number of bathrooms and a general air of make do and mend. (I know it sounds like I'm obsessed with the bathroom arrangements, and maybe I am, but it's one of those markers between modern convenience and old fashioned inconvenience and reminds me very much if childhood.)

The family can easily accommodate it's American and academic guests albeit with something if a boarding house atmosphere. They are types they can understand with similar values, and the guests can accommodate them, fully understanding that this way of life is something of a survivals of be enjoyed until they return to reality. The Anthony's are something else. Their glamour is dazzling, fun at first and then increasingly disturbing. They change the dynamics of the party, upset old friendships, and generally start to make things uncomfortable. They are of course not the right sort.

It works because Pleydell obviously knows young people and does a very good job capturing some part of the confusion of growing up, and a very good job on capturing the amused tolerance of their parents as well as their occasional anxiety for their offspring. She makes the countryside come alive too, as well as the charm of shabby country houses. The crime element adds enough tension to make it a real page turner, with the climax holding genuine threat - posed as much by the weather and the landscape as by any human skulduggery, and again I really like that. A good murder mystery is fun, but it's not the only crime and this book makes me yearn for more with a close to zero body count.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reader For Hire - Raymond Jean

Translated by Adriana Hunter.
This is one of the few Peirene titles I really haven't got on with. For want of a better explanation it's just so... so very French - a perfectly reasonable thing for a French book to be but I can be a bit of a francophobe and found myself out of sympathy with it almost from the beginning.

Originally published in 1986 as 'La Lectrice' and made into a film a couple of years later I read somewhere that 'Reader for Hire' was written with the intent "to debunk literary deconstruction theories in the 1980's" (it's in the comments of Parish Lantern's review) which is intriguing, but something that I know absolutely nothing about, so I was left to read it as French farce instead and for whatever reason that brings out the prude in me.

The reader for hire is Marie-Constance, an attractive woman in her 30's with a beguiling voice. After a friend suggests it she runs an add in the local paper: "Young woman available to read to you in your own home. Works of literature, non-fiction, any sort of book you like.' Then comes my telephone number." Ignoring the advice of the agency man taking the copy who points out most people reading it would assume she's offering more than a reading service she sits back and awaits results.

The results are predictable. Everything Marie-Constance involves herself with becomes complicated. Probably because she seems to be recklessly selfish and irresponsible, but then what is she but a voice and a body? A blank canvas for her listeners to impose their own fantasies upon. The men Marie-Constance reads to don't listen, they look, tolerating her reading as a kind of foreplay which I find depressing rather than sensual.

There are more appreciative viewpoints here at Tony's reading list and here at Parrish Lantern. And there is at least something to be said for challenging myself with a book that even if I don't like it, still gives me something to think about.    

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Death of Anton - Alan Melville

I really enjoyed the first Melville I read from the British Library Crime Classics ('Quick Curtain'), it was light, funny, took itself in no way seriously, and saved the best joke for last. I'm very much in the mood for more of the same right now so 'Death of Anton' really hit the spot.

The British Library Crime Classics series is full of forgotten gems (it's just such a brilliant idea - and imagine being the person who gets to hunt through that vast archive for likely candidates). As someone who likes her crime cosy, and with an opportunity to examine real period details and attitudes where possible it could have been tailor made for me. So far though these two Melville's have been something of a high point, as well as it being particularly baffling as to why he's fallen out of print.

The crime in this pair of books is fairly incidental - there has to be one, but it's the dialogue that really matters. That said 'Death of Anton', set in a circus and where the Tiger tamer is found apparently mauled to death by his charges, has far more tension and suspense than 'Quick Curtain' did. Detective Inspector Minto happens to be present when the body is found, and immediately perceives foul play (Anton has been shot, the Tigers couldn't have done it) which is lucky or the crime would have been neatly covered up. He has a handful of suspects - Miller, Anton's partner in the act who had been sacked for drinking, Lorimer the trapeze artist who wasn't happy about the gossip around Anton and his wife, Dodo the clown who appears to have go a bit to close to the Tigers, and Carey the circus owner who seems to be up to something very dodgy indeed.

A further complication is that all the suspects are Catholic, and one of them has confessed to Father Minto, the detectives brother. He obviously can't say who, and it's a somewhat unlikely plot development, but it does add a certain piquancy to proceedings.

There is a real sense of danger around the Tigers though, and also the activities of the trapeze artists, both of which show how easy it is to make something go wrong and have it appear entirely accidental. It seems like a circus would be an excellent place to dispose of someone.

Melville was a well known television broadcaster, playwright, producer, and scriptwriter, as well as novelist. He clearly knew the world he describes, certainly knew it well enough to throw in details that carry the reader through some of the more unlikely plot points. The real pleasure though is in his humour. He has something in common with P G Wodehouse or Noel Coward, though with much more restraint than Wodehouse. It's what makes these particular books so re-readable. Who did it is a fun enough puzzle first time round, but the humour will remain an evergreen joy. I won't quote because I wouldn't know where to stop, but this book is going straight on the shelf reserved for books guaranteed to cheer me up when I'm feeling a bit down.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Magic of Shetland Lace Knitting - Elizabeth Lovick

It's a slightly unwieldy title for a book I'm finding really useful, possibly there was a decision that 'Shetland Lace Knitting' just wasn't selling it enough. The relative frequency of knitting related posts which have started to appear here will have marked me out as a recent and enthusiastic convert, which I am, but I'm trying to contain it a bit. 

For oh so many reasons it's been a stressful year with the result that I've not been sleeping well which has a knock on effect on - well everything, including reading. Knitting (basic) patterns either in colour or lace demands enough concentration to be absorbing but not so much as to be taxing. It keeps me away from lit screens at the end of the day too which is probably helpful for the sleep thing. 

I mentioned this book briefly just after I came back from holiday - it was basically a souvenir purchase - and now I've spent a bit more time with it I'm even more impressed. For a small book it does a lot of things. At this point I'm entertaining myself knitting what are essentially swatches in the simplest patterns and turning them into scarves, neck warmers, or similar. There is a directory of different patterns and motifs categorised by levels of difficulty which makes choosing something suitable to tackle easy. For now that's enough for me, I'm acquiring the basic skills and building the confidence to attempt more ambitious designs. 

There is also a selection of specific projects (socks, scarves, shawls, lace mitts, and so on) non of which especially appeal to me (bar the last and presumably most complicated one - someday...) but which would effectively take you from beginner to extremely competent lace knitter. 

The rest of the book deals with how to; how to put together designs, how to chart them, what the basic rules are, and how to do all the things (like grafting, which sounds tricky) you need to know to progress. The rules and advice are sensible. Seeing charts along with written instructions was a revelation, it makes the whole process clearer, and much less intimidating. I've found written instructions on their own can quickly confuse me, especially with all the abbreviations, a visual guide as well makes a world of difference.

Basically for anyone interested in this style of lace knitting this is an excellent place to start. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mulberry Vodka

Traditionally the point where summer begins to turn to autumn isn't my favourite time of year. By the second half of August the nights are noticeably darker, spiders start appearing EVERYWHERE, and the countryside takes on a faded, burnt out, sort of look. At work all the joy of a Christmas in retail is starting to loom; there's a lot I could say about a Christmas in retail but it probably wouldn't abide by my employers social media policy so I'll just say it's hard work. For months. All of it makes me feel older, sadder, and in desperate need of a sizeable lottery win. 

Perhaps I should start buying lottery tickets, but instead I settled for buying a lot of vodka and pinching mulberries from a nearby tree. 

The one thing I really do like about this time of year is the foraging and preserving opportunities it brings. There's something intensely comforting about storing summer fruit to brighten up winter days (I love winter, the darker and colder the better), last year I went slightly over board with it (over a hundred jars of jam, jelly, mincemeat, marmalade, and chutney) this year I'm going to try for a bit more self control but it's an addictive business. 

Near where I live there is a conveniently underused public garden and in it there are treasures - including a very ancient mulberry. I have asked permission for the fruit before and got it, I probably shouldn't admit that this year I shamelessly scrumped it (the gardener wasn't around to ask, indeed there were no witnesses at all...). Mulberries are hard to come by, but I got 2.5 kilos off this tree without making any noticeable difference to the amount of fruit left on it so I've been able to have a bit of fun with them. 

The mulberry vodka from Mark Diacono's 'A Year at Otter Farm' was a given. It's a beautifully simple recipe - quarter fill a sterilised jar with sugar then empty it into a bowl. Half fill the jar with mulberries, put the sugar back in, and then fill it with vodka. Wait for a year. I am now waiting for a year. 

I wanted to make some jam too, but couldn't find a recipe I really liked so adapted the raspberry fridge one I use (half the weight of the fruit in jam sugar, heated until the sugar melts, then boiled for 5 mins before bottling) with mixed results. Despite adding a little extra pectin and boiling for a bit longer it hasn't really set. On the plus side the syrup with lumps of mulberry in it that I've now got isn't overpoweringly sweet - the fruit flavour still really comes through, and it's delicious on ice cream. I think strained it will also be delicious in ice cream as well and I might try that, but there are all sorts of things it could be good with, and now I'm tempted to go back for more... 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jamaica Inn - Daphne Du Maurier

This is quite a momentous occasion for me - it's the first time I've ever managed to finish a Du Maurier book. I've tried so many times over the years, convinced that she's a writer I should love, but never managing to get absorbed enough in her books to manage more than 50 pages or so. 

'Jamaica Inn' was turned into a TV mini series recently though and after missing half of it I thought I should perhaps give it another go. The really lovely (and hugely improved) cover art on Virago's recent re print finished the job and this time I had no trouble getting through it at all. 

'Jamaica Inn' should be familiar enough to most people for me not to worry about giving spoilers, so basically what happens is this; it's sometime in the early 19th century. Mary Yellan is orphaned at the age of 23, young enough to still be expected to go you family member rather than live alone so she dutifully obeys her mothers dying wish and goes to her aunt Patience and her husband, Joss, landlord of Jamaica Inn. On the way she learns something of its evil reputation, but finds things much worse when she gets there. Joss us the drunken, murderous, head of a gang of smugglers and wreckers, his wife a broken woman, and the inn itself a brooding evil, and shamefully neglected place. 

Mary's initial determination to destroy her uncle is. somewhat hampered by her attraction to his younger brother and a feeling of responsibility towards her aunt, although with or without her intervention a crisis is approaching anyway. The question is how will events turn out and who will be left standing?

Someone in the Independent described this as 'A perfect fusion of gothic romance and a young woman's rite of passage in the vein of Twilight and Wuthering Heights'. The 'Wuthering Heights' comparison sort of works though Jem, and even Joss, are far less objectionable than Heathcliff and in 1936 it was clearly possible to be far more explicit about sexual attraction then in the Bronte's day but I don't think the 'Twilight' comparison is especially apt. At least not from what I've seen of the film version. The crucial difference being that if you take being a vampire out if the equation, Edward is not the sort of young man anybody's parents would object to. 

It does seem a bit hard on Mary that Du Maurier sends her off into the sunset with a man who introduces himself as a horse thief, has dabbled in smuggling, and whisks her off with only the clothes on her back to a life on the road. In January. For all the talk of love and belonging at the end, Mary has still only met Jem a handful of times, and whilst he may have shopped his brother to the authorities to save her, and probably hasn't murdered anyone, what lies between them is attraction. A sensible woman would take a cold bath and then look for a man less likely to end on the gallows. 

Meanwhile it's about full of wonderful images, perfect for filming. The moors and marshes in all their winter bleakness are the perfect back ground for tales of adventure. The revelations about the wreckers grim trade quite as horrifying now as they ever would have been, and Mary herself a compelling character. Her struggles to work out what she should do and who she can trust ring true. Her final decision to run away with Jem also makes sense - he does at least hold the promise of a sort of camaraderie and equality though I wonder if Du Maurier ever pictured a happy ending for them. 

My other question is this - am I ready to tackle 'Frenchman's Creek'? 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Game - Tim Maddams

Game - Tim Maddams

I say the same thing every time a River Cottage handbook comes out but it's only twice a year and I mean it so I'll say it again. I love this series. I love everything about it from presentation to contents. The pool of writers responsible cover a tremendous spectrum of kitchen and small holding knowledge, each and every one has proven to be as much fun to read as it is practical to cook or grow or forage with. I've happily gone on holiday with some of them, dreamt of grand brewing or curing projects with others, planned a fantasy garden, planted things in an actual garden, and given them as presents. They are the books I'd least like to be without in my kitchen; they are the ones most in tune with how I think about food, and they're really, really, useful. 

Game is also something I get quite enthusiastic about, unfortunately It's luxury image doesn't necessarily do it any favours. My interest in game cooking stems from the same period of under employment that started got me blogging. Leicester has an excellent market which includes some game dealers. A brace of pheasant last year still only cost around £7 - about the same for a single bird in a supermarket. A wild duck was £3.50 last time I bought one, partridges are inexpensive as well, and so are rabbits, pigeons, and venison stew packs. Hare isn't prohibitively expensive (though it's something I've never yet cooked) and even grouse, at £15 a brace (again, last years price) is within the range of food that's an occasional treat. 

When I really wasn't earning much at all pheasant made an excellent cheap and free range alternative to chicken. It's the perfect size for two, with enough left overs for soup. A partridge is a feast for one, and a venison and blackberry stew is a rich, opulent, but again pleasingly economical alternative to beef. 

Unless you not only shoot, but have access to a range of places to shoot over - and it can be an eye wateringly expensive hobby - the range of game available to the average cook is limited to what it's easy to buy. For me that's the list above, though I'm always hopeful I'll find a butcher who does squirrel or rook. Butchers/game dealers and farmers markets have not only been cheaper places to buy game than supermarkets in my experience, they also know more about where it came from and sometimes sell it still in fur or feather which is handy for assessing freshness and age. 

As for the River Cottage Game handbook - it's a must have book because it covers so much more than just cooking. The Starting Out chapter covers why we ought to be eating more game; free range, organic, low fat - and arguably conservation friendly (the conservation issue is an argument, I come down on the same side as Maddams on this - habitats that are good for game birds are good for other wildlife too even if that does mean the discouragement with extreme prejudice of many predators. Others disagree feeling that Grouse moors, for example, are over managed for the sporting pleasure of far to few, or that the raising of some 40 million pheasants for shooting is morally hard to justify. It bothers me when pheasants go into landfill because there isn't a sufficient market for them, but the answer to that is to eat more of them - they have a much nicer life than a lot of chickens do.) 

The next chapter covers hunting and shooting, including the open seasons for each species, all of which is useful to know, and then we get to the important bits. First up a list of game species with their various conservation statuses and brief instructions for the best way to handle and cook according to where you are in the season. After that there's plenty about buying and preparing game; again all useful stuff especially when you're faced with a whole dead bird or rabbit without any very clear idea of what you do next (I invariably phone my friend who loves this bit but hates cooking. Between us we're very competent), and then finally a section of recipes. There is also advice on hanging meat, something I've always been a bit hazy about.

At the risk of sounding like I'm trying to teach granny to suck eggs (or roast a pheasant, but my grandmother was a rotten cook so that might have been helpful) the thing with game is that it's either going to be what you managed to shoot (not always what, or how much, you hoped for), what someone gives to you, or what's available in the butchers on the day. It's not just that its seasonal, but that supply can be unpredictable - though pheasant is generally a safe bet. This is exactly the book to deal with all eventualities- right down to being pocket sized if you're the sort who like to take a few recipes shopping with you (I see people do this). There are basic instructions regarding roasting etc as you go through each species, and then more specific recipes which are perfect for using up leftovers, dealing with gluts (probably pheasants again), and things to do with older game to bring out the best in it. 

It really is all good, useful, and crucially, inspiring stuff. A manifesto for getting more involved with the food we eat (which is something I feel strongly about) as well as a 'how to' guide. It's a worthy edition to a truly brilliant series. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Jump - Jilly Cooper

'Riders', 'Polo', and 'Rivals' era Jilly Cooper were for a long time my guilty pleasure of book choice - by the time she got to 'The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous' I was a bit less enthusiastic and from there on in less and less interested. I didn't bother at all with 'Wicked' but picked up 'Jump' because it was cheap and back in horsey territory. 'Rivals', 'Polo', etc haven't survived successive book culls but I kept 'Riders' because it's sort of a classic, saw me through more than one train journey from Leicester to Aberdeen, and I'm pretty sure I'd still love it if I read it again. I really wanted 'Jump' to be a return to form. It wasn't. 

Worse than being simply a mildly disappointing book there are things I really dislike about it. I could have dealt with it being almost a 1000 pages of mainly exposition and far to much about a goat mascot, the unlikely plot, the wonky time line (Rupert Campbell-Black, arch cad, can not be 56 if he started his show jumping career in the 1960's, it wouldn't have been a problem to put him in his more feasible 60's; grumbling about details like this are however an indicator of the books failure to grip) the annoying characters, and the endless poetry quotes and bad puns. I draw the line at a casual acceptance and brushing off of rape. 

Plot wise Etta, a widow at the latter end of her 60's and relict of a frankly abusive husband, has been dumped in a revolting bungalow by her even more revolting children when one night she finds a horrifically injured horse. She rescues it, nurses it back to health, discovers it comes from excellent racing stock, and eventually forms a village syndicate to race the mare now named Mrs Wilkinson, other stuff happens too. 

 'Riders' written in the '70's is undoubtedly a messy sort of a book, but it felt grounded in a world that Cooper knew, the very un-pc attitudes are at least part and parcel of their time, and the characters were vivid. In 'Jump' that's mostly missing. Nobody seems capable of remaining faithful, in the 30 years side 'Riders' was published divorce has lost the stigma that might still have been attached to it in the mid '80's making it far harder to understand why anybody would put up with the sort of wife who slept her way round the village, your work colleagues, clients, and friends then cleared off for a year before returning out of the blue to throw out your new girlfriend. It's even harder to understand why a successful, ruthless, business woman would tolerate a husband who failed to work, drank to much, neglected your child, and again slept his way round the village with seemingly no discretion what so ever. 

Cooper delights in being flouting politically correct attitudes so non of her women seem to be safe from some level of molestation but nothing excuses what happens when she sends them off to Stratford. It's not sexy to have an older man groom the 15 year old daughter of his friend for weeks on end before locking her in a room with a drunk jockey and an actress to involve her entirely against her, loudly declared, will in a foursome. It's rape. As is another character letting himself into a fellow syndicate members room and having sex with her whilst she sleeps. Definitely still rape. Definitely not sexy. 

There is some comeback for the actress when her outraged partner finds out what happened behind his back. Finally 150 odd pages after the incident he points out that she was only 15 so it would be a jail offence - as well as shitty publicity - if it came out, as he dumps her. For the man involved he has nothing but thanks for giving him an excuse to dump her. He's a paedophile rapist for heavens sake - not a charming but weak man - a sexual predator who is a danger to the community. The female jockey (Amber) who is in besotted by the other jockey involved wonders why she doesn't feel jealous about the whole thing when she hears about it. It doesn't occur to her that it's because it was rape and a man who habitually gets drunk and rapes underage girls in such a casual manner is probably not a good bet. 

So that's it, no come back on these men for their actions, no condemnation, no idea that this behaviour is problematical, much less that it's criminal. I can't help but wish I'd devoted the time to getting through a Trollope instead. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Weekends - never long enough.

This was the first full weekend I've had off since getting back from holiday a month ago. It's been expensive (a moment of weakness in a Le Creuset) outlet shop, though I maintain that a cast iron pizza/bread plate will be useful) but fun (I was in a Le Creuset outlet shop - I LOVE that stuff). I also spent some quality time with my mothers puppy. It was meant to be quality time with my mother but the puppy isn't really interested in playing second fiddle to anyone and if that means scaling the sofa to sit on your head she will do it. 

It's also been a weekend of rare good weather for this distinctly lack lustre summer which has been a terrific bonus. Friday night was a dash home from work to be in time to hear Jeremy Corbyn speak at Leicester University - it was an interesting experience, the room, a much bigger venue than originally planned, was packed, and without going on at length the best way to describe the whole thing is as refreshing. After that I went home and made jam. 

Late night jam making, even (especially?) on a Friday is possibly one of those things that nobody tells you about becoming middle aged, though it's also possible, in so many ways, that it's just me. The crux of the matter was a kilo of ripen at home apricots which had gone directly from greenish with a consistency like granite to wrinkly, wooly, and on the verge of turning to mush with no discernible point of acceptable ripeness Inbetween.

I've learnt my lesson with ripen at home now - it doesn't, not properly anyway, and for what I assume is a sound scientific reason and not just my bad luck, fruit that's been bought under ripe like this boils like lava in the pan. I got a burn bad enough to blister (okay, so it's very small) to prove the point. That aside the jam - apricot and lavender from Diana Henry's wonderful 'Salt Sugar Smoke' is particularly good. It calls for a kilo if apricots stoned and chopped, 600g if sugar with added pectin, the juice of a lemon, and 3 heads of lavender. Everything goes in a pan and is gently heated until the sugar dissolves and the fruit is soft, then boiled in hood earnest until setting point is reached when you remove the stalks and pot it. It makes about 4 pots, 3 stalks of lavender is plenty to give a distinctive flavour, more would be overpowering, and it is one of the nicest jams I've ever had.

It was so good that I had to bake a loaf of bread to spread it on - nothing out of the ordinary about that, but each loaf of bread that emerges crisp and warm from the oven feels like a bit of magic worth celebrating. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Vintage Shetland Project

Or another knitting themed post... Like the story of the herring girls, I don't think Shetland yet makes enough of its knitting and textile heritage. As wool week and wool week holidays become more of a thing I hope this changes, but for now the facilities for displaying a really excellent collection are quite limited and it's a collection which deserves a large, purpose built, environment in which to shine.

My own interest in knitting is as much academic as it is practical. When I look at some of those historic pieces, and then at people still making and wearing equally beautiful things it's all quite exciting. Partly because this is also a visible history of mostly working class female creativity (not exclusively female by any means, but traditionally knitting was one way that women and children bought money into the household) and what they did with colour and pattern is inspiring. It's an interest that's also coincided with finally exploring Instagram which in turn has led to a whole new world (to me) of knitting blogs, including that of Susan Crawford.

Susan Crawford is, I gather, a big name in knitting circles - especially if you have an interest in vintage patterns. I'm new to this, but even I've spotted some of her earlier books and coveted them - long before this current bout of enthusiasm. The next one is a project that's been 4 years in the making, and is based on items in the Shetland Museum collection. What Crawfird has done is take 25 garments and worked out how modern knitters can recreate them. To do this properly she's also developed a yarn range - an impressive commitment to quality as well as smart marketing.

From a book lovers point of view there's something else that interests me about this project. It's going to be self published with funds raised via pubslush. There's nothing new about this but it's the first time I've come across a book I want to buy that's been published in precisely this way. As the initial target was exceeded within days I'm clearly not alone, but I'm curious as to where the decision to self publish comes from. I'm guessing from the number of subscribers as well as success from previous books that finding a traditional publisher would have been doable, so I assume this is as much about maintaining complete artistic control as anything else. Not a new idea either, but it's good to see it done so well.

Why I really want this book though is for the history of each garment - and with luck plenty about the knitters as well. It certainly sounds like it's going to offer more than just patterns which will be far beyond my current skills, and quite possibly beyond any level of skill, or patience, I ever do achieve. Never mind, it's good to dream. Now that somebody's actually engaged on this project it also sounds blindingly obvious as a way to preserve and share a bit of history as well as ensuring that particular skills or techniques are passed on. It also helps this particular bit of history and tradition continue to evolve and that's exciting too.

There are links to Susan Crawford's blog Here and to the latest (at time of writing) instalment of the accompanying blog tour Here which has all sorts of interesting links attached.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Knitting update

Most of my week so far has been spent knitting and reading Jilly Cooper's 'Jump' - well the little bit of week left when I'm not at work. 'Jump' is a mixed bag - not terribly good (nowhere near as good as  I remember 'Riders' or 'Polo' being) but somehow difficult to put down. The knitting is more of a success. I've been happily experimenting with the open work pattern Old Shale - it's a perfect starting point because it's probably the simplest pattern in the book and has been great for building confidence.

This is a short round scarf, for days when a serious scarf is to warm but no scarf isn't warm enough. So a day like today basically (it's not so much the cold of this summer that's getting me down, but the constantly grey sky). This one is destined to be a present, another one will be forthcoming, but I think I need to summon the courage to try a slightly more complicated pattern.

Monday, July 27, 2015

At Hawthorn Time - Melissa Harrison

I read this book almost 2 months ago - shockingly lax blogging on my part to be only just getting round to it now - and my memories of it are no longer as fresh as they should be for which I can only apologise. 

It's a book that deserves a bit of thought and unless I have a very clear idea of what I want to say blog posts take me a couple of hours to write at the best of times, the more I like a book the longer it takes. Not normally this long though. 

I haven't read Harrison's debut 'Clay' but it seems to have been widely praised. I did pick up on the buzz about 'At Hawthorn Time' though, and was further attracted by the beautiful cover (exquisite even) as well as the title which turns out to be perfect for the book. It manages to sound slightly ominous as well as evocative. 

The book opens as it closes, at the scene of a terrible car crash, we know from the first page that somebody has died, and by the end of the book know that it is either Jack the old fashioned tramp and itinerant farm labourer, Jamie, a young local boy just beginning to work himself out, or Howard, recently retired and a recent resident in the village of Lodeshill. 

The body of the book quietly unravels these lives before bringing them back together for that final catastrophic meeting at dawn on a May morning. Jack is newly released from prison where he's been held for trespassing. He should be in a half way house and is terrified of being picked up by the authorities again. He can't understand the hostility his chosen way of life rouses, but it's also clear that he's not quite well, and he's so out of step with the world it's inevitable the hostility will increase. 

Jamie is not long out of school, freshly embarked into the world of work and both rediscovering and losing childhood certainties. On the one hand he's rediscovering the familiar landscape around him, no longer able to take it for granted, whilst on the other family relationships are changing into more complicated patterns. 

As for Howard and his wife, Kitty - the seemingly content couple who have taken early retirement are not quite as happy as they look. These are lives full of small tragedies and joys. Ordinary personal tragedies; a lost baby, a lost battle with alcoholism, failing health, failing marriages, and people getting old. Common experiences that tie us all together even when they're not talked about. Meanwhile it's all played out against the explosion of beauty and burgeoning life that makes an English May when spring bursts into extravagant leaf and blossom. Some things will always go on regardless, and the hawthorn is quite indifferent to human drama.

It is a beautiful book, turned into something special by the descriptions of early summer in a generally quite ordinary place. Each chapter is headed with a list; notes of flowers, the weather, trees budding. Every review I've read has assumed these are Jack's notes of what he sees around him, and they might well be, but I thought of them as something independent - the landscape itself another protagonist. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

In A World A Wir Ane - Susan Telford

 Still on a Shetland theme, this is a herring girl's story. Shetland has an excellent main museum and some very good heritage centres, and archeological sites dotted around the islands. (Unst is particularly good with the boat haven - where retired boats live - and a heritage centre that has some very fine knitwear along with other treasures) but there are some stories that could be better told. 

One of these is the story of the herring gutters who followed the fish from Shetland in the spring down to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft towards the end of the year. The girls came from all around the Scottish coast, worked in crews of 3, 2 gutters and a packer, and worked extraordinarily hard. There is just enough information about them to be found in various displays, archive photos, and fishing station remains to be intriguing but not quite enough to really satisfy curiosity. Maybe it's because this was a way of life that's still just about within living memory, as well as not being a terribly glamorous occupation, that it's not as celebrated (though that's not quite the word I want) as it could be. 

Girls would start to follow the fleet from as young as 15, they could gut up to 60 herring a minute - that's upwards of 3000 an hour if they could maintain that rate - and they had to be that fast because it was essentially piece work. They were paid a basic wage which just covered accommodation and food, a wage so basic that it not only failed to keep pace with inflation but actually went down to the point that in the 1930's they had to strike for more. At the end of the season they were then paid 1 shilling a crew for every barrel filled, that covered any outstanding bills and had to cover them for the rest of the winter. A barrel contained between 700-1000 fish. The barrels would be randomly checked by prospective purchasers, if any fish gut remained the barrel was rejected and no money paid for it. The girls were also grading fish according to size as they went (there were 5 different barrels to separate them into) which quickly became a matter of instinct - they didn't have time to look. 

All of this was done out in the open, fingers bound in linen to try and avoid salt sores and protect against cuts, and working for up to 14 hours a day depending on how many fish were coming in. Time off was spent knitting.

'In A World A Wir Ane' Susan Telford gives her grandmothers account of her early life in Lerwick, and then her years following the herring fleet before the war. It's a short book - only about 30 pages, but it gives a vivid picture both of life for a poor family in Lerwick from around the time of First World War, and what it was like following the fleet. It sounds like back breaking hard work, but with an element of fun in it too. The women - and some did this work into their 70's - were obviously a close knit community. Christina seems to have enjoyed the life, memories of hanging out in pubs persuading men to buy them the odd port and lemon, or finding someone to pay them into dances on a Friday night (sixpence, which the girls didn't have spare) show that there was time for fun, even if they were still picking the herring scales off their arms on the way out. 

I keep wondering about what sort of women not only survived this work (think about how many fish they would each have processed in a day - it runs to tens of thousands) but thrived in it, and what the relative independence not only of an income but also being away from home meant to them. 

There are some great pictures in this book which really help bring it to life - all that's (thankfully) missing is the smell, and maybe the noise. It's also worth noting that it's written in Shetland dialect, not impossible to follow if you're unfamiliar with it but not necessarily easy either. I found it through a post on Ella Gordon's blog Here, the Shetland museums picture archive is available online Here and is an excellent resource. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

60 Degrees North - Malachy Tallack

I always find it hard to write about books which elicit a really personal response, and as this one touches on something I've never been comfortable talking about (homesickness) this post will take me a while to work out.

I first read about '60 Degrees North' in Polygon's book list back in the spring and was intrigued then. I recognised Malachy Tallack's name from old bylines in The Shetland Times, and the 60 degrees latitude sign on the road from the airport has become a small but distinctive landmark on the way home. The idea of travelling the parallel, following it all the way round with home as start and finish line is attractive (though I suppose home is always the start and end of a journey). It's a line that crosses Shetland, the southern tip of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia (a lot of Russia - much of it Siberia but also, and exceptionally, St Petersburg which must be the largest centre of population on the parallel by some way), Finland, Sweden, and Norway. 

The thing about Shetland is that although it looks peripheral on a map of the UK when you're there it's nothing of the sort. It's cultural links are as much with Scandinavia as with the UK but more than that it's a place that feels extremely confident of its own culture and traditions. It's not on the edge of anything, but the centre of its own community - broadly speaking anyway. 

There is some discussion at the beginning of the book about what North is. I'm happy to accept the argument that the 60th parallel is as good a way as any of marking the line between almost-North and North. The long hours of daylight (at 60 degrees the sun is above the horizon for 19 hours a day around midsummer, and for a few weeks at least it doesn't get really dark at all) in summer hint at the need to adapt to the elements that challenging winter weather makes explicit. This near North is the accessible part of something that is almost as much idea as place on a map. Where life is quite supportable but there are constant reminders of something wilder, of places that can't be tamed. 

Robert Macfarlane calls this 'a brave book...and a beautiful book', the brave bit was something I was dismissive of before reading but feels fair now. It has something in common with Helen Macdonald's 'H is for Hawk' in that it deals in part with the sudden death of a father. Tallack's father is killed in a car crash whilst his son aged 17 is fishing, and later waiting for him to pick him up. It's not much of a spoiler - it's how the book opens - and inevitably it derails his life. That sense of loss is present throughout the book, it's not the raw grief that Macdonald describes but it's there nonetheless, most especially in Tallack's search for somewhere to think of as home. 

Beyond the autobiographical element it's part travel writing, part natural history, and partly something else. The something else is a meditation on place and community and a lament for the way we're losing our connection to the land we live on. At the beginning of the book Tallack talks about the Shetland 'hill' - common ground where sheep and ponies roam at will and which he sees as being 'in many senses, an in-between land...where time itself seems to move at another pace...' I know just what he means, and also when he says the land inhabits the people just as much as they inhabit it. It's why one of the hardest changes to accept when I go home is seeing so much of the hill that was open is now enclosed by fences. No longer a shared space but a claimed and bound one.