Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Still Reading Scott

I'm about half way through 'Waverley' now and the tension is picking up. Something big is brewing and our hero is slowly being radicalised into the Jacobite cause - I'm pretty sure the Prince is about to turn up and the clans rise at any moment. 

It's easy to forget just how influential Scott is, but he pioneered numerous fiction genres and his particular, and particularly romantic, vision of Scotland is woven into our collective conscious - quite literally as he's credited with inventing the idea of clan tartans. Reading 'Waverley' now, at a point where the union between England and Scotland looks ever more precarious is interesting.

Meanwhile it's also a lot of fun, and sometimes he just delights me. Having battled through the last couple of chapters of volume one (there's a lot of poetry and lengthy descriptions of scenery) volume two starts like this:
"Shall this be a short or a long chapter?- This is a question in which you, gentle reader, have no vote, however much you may be interested in the consequences; just as probably you may (like myself) have nothing to do with the imposing if a new tax, excepting the trifling circumstance of being obliged to pay it. More happy surely in the present case, since, though it lies within my arbitrary power to extend my materials as I think proper, I cannot call you into Exchequer if you do not think proper to read my narrative." 

And then, bless him, he goes on to tease the reader with what is essentially a page long list of wines and things that might be hunted and eaten before promising to "...proceed in my story with all the brevity that my natural style of composition, partaking of what scholars call the periphrastic and amabagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus, will permit me."

Coming, as it does, at the point where our hero is getting thoroughly out of his depth it's a chance to take a pause and get to know the story teller as well as the story. I love Scott for giving me the chance to share the joke with him for a moment, that and introducing me to the word circumbendibus. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Murder Strikes Pink - Josephine Pullein-Thompson

I'm dog sitting today - for a 9 week old puppy who has just realised that her (our) mum has gone out without her and is a little bit upset about it. It might be a long morning...

Meanwhile the country setting is a reminder that I haven't got round to writing about 'Murder Strikes Pink' yet. It was my second Greyladies purchase, and the second of their Josephine Pullein-Thompson detective novels. Like 'Gin and Murder' it has a horsey background but this time in show jumping rather than hunting.

Theodora Thistleton is wealthy, ageing, and hugely unpleasant. Passionate about showjumping, and even more so about winning, she bullies her relatives, her grooms, her secretaries, and her rider (who is loosing her edge and hitting the booze as a result). Theodora's cousin, and heir, Laurence has a marriage on the rocks which is all adding to the tension as his wife, Marion, is drafted in by TT to dogsbody after the majority of her staff decide they've had enough and clear off en masse.

And then TT is found dead, poisoned, and everyone has a motive along with an opportunity.

My favourite book featuring showjumping will probably always be Jilly Cooper's 'Riders', partly because I read it (more than once) at an impressionable age. Josephine P-T's showjumping world is less glamorous and more believable (there's something gloriously English about the fatal dose being delivered via a thermos of pink milkshake in the owners enclosure) but 'Murder Strikes Pink' lacks something that 'Gin and Murder' had. The plot is as ingenious, though it's easier to spot the who, if not the why, in this one. Perhaps the problem is the TT is so universally foul to all around that it's a surprise it's taken so long to do her in. It helps if you can feel some sympathy for the victim.

It's a small quibble however, and overall this is thoroughly enjoyable with touches that make it something special. One of the put upon secretaries is spectacularly annoying - she's clumsy, forgetful, talks to much, is obsessed by who's turn it is to do a task, and constantly bemoans how unkind or unfair people are. She could so easily be a charicature but instead I had the impression of a woman employed by a bully because she will be so easy to bully, of the Sour atmosphere that arises when 3 middle aged women share a house together, especially when one is a much weaker character and all are somewhat embittered, and all the petty frustrations of unhappiness.

Laurence and Marion's faltering marriage put under strain by tight finances and a glamorous divorcee also avoids cliche. The glamorous divorcee in turn is more than just a femme fatale - and so it goes. The real joy of both this and 'Gin and Murder' has been in how fairly stock characters have been
given real humanity. Both books are well worth seeking out for an afternoons entertainment.

My charge for the day. One of us will end up tired out. I'm willing to bet it's me. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Good Drinks - Ambrose Heath

I've never cooked from any of the Ambrose Heath books I have (which is 4 now) but I do love reading him. Persephone books have published a couple (Good Food on the Aga, and The Country Life Cookery Book') and do have Faber & Faber have reissued this one (which they first published in 1939) and 'Good Food' (1932). 'Good Food' has the added bonus of charming chapter heading illustrations by Edward Bawden. 

The only thing I don't like about 'Good Drinks' is the 'I'm a long term fan' quote from Sophie Dahl on the front, and then only because I think, small as it is, it gets in the way of the original cover art - it could have gone on the back in inch high letters with my goodwill (as if that mattered). 

Heath's worth reading because he's informative about food generally, great for historic detail on cooking in the inter war years, and amusing with it. He is however short on details - recipes for cocktails (part 1: Hard Drinks) are confined to a list of components and ratios, nothing about temperature, glass shape, shaking or stirring, or any other helpful tips. It speaks of a different age of cocktail drinking, or perhaps more specifically it speaks of a comfortable middle class inter war lifestyle.

There are more things I find interesting in here than tempting (if anyone wants to experiment with a mahogany - equal parts gin and treacle, please report back...) and some things that Heath clearly found more interesting than tempting (a Kitty Highball: claret and ginger ale, which is as he comments Prohibition getting its own back - he puts it in 'Curious Drinks'). I think his opinion of the Texas Highball must have been even lower, this mix of bourbon and port served with a little ice gets a (!!!). A sentiment I concur with. 

There are things I will make though - Mexican hot chocolate, a mix of chocolate coffee and vanilla isn't ground breaking but sounds great. A Honeysuckle turns out to be a rum hot toddy, but with a much nicer name. Gluhwein, Glogg, Mulled Wine, Mulled ale, Wassail, and negus are all covered and take us back far further than the 1930's. The section on punches and cups is a delight, if I ever get a reliable source of mulberries I would very much like to make mulberry brandy as an alternative to sloe gin.

All together then it is potentially a practical book, though I expect I'll spend much more time reading it than drinking from it. Either way it's a great little book to have to hand. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Reading Scott

I've just started reading Walter Scott's 'Waverley', it's always a slightly nerve racking experience starting a Scott novel because although I like him he also requires a bit of effort and patience. Self discipline is not my defining quality so it's as well that I've undertaken to read this for Shiny New Books, it's just the spur I need, and then within the first few pages Scott gave me something to think about.

First of all young Edward Waverley, a bright and able young man, is being poorly educated - free "...to read only for the gratification of his own amusement, he foresaw not that he was looking sing for ever the opportunity of acquiring habits of firm and incumbent application, of gaining the art of controlling, directing, and concentrating the powers of his own mind for earnest investigation, -an art far more essential than even that learning which is the primary object of study."

And then "...with the same powers of mind, the poor student is limited to a narrow circle for indulging his passion for books, and must necessarily make himself master of the few he possesses ere he can acquire more." The poor student in this case a better student than the richer Edward as lack of choice focuses the mind.

First of all Waverley promises to be more exciting than those quotes perhaps suggest. secondly as someone who's been behaving precisely as Edward does, flitting from one book to another in an attempt to settle on something amusing or sympathetic to mood, it's a timely reminder to pull myself together and get on with it.

I like reading for pleasure, lazily - who doesn't - but it does no harm to be reminded that making an effort has its rewards too.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mistress Masham's Repose - T. H. White

I haven't been reading as much as I usually might this year, though post clear out I'm feeling more enthusiastic about books again, so hopefully that's about to change (having said which I've spent all weekend looking at Twitter and reading election analysis, so maybe not just immediate change). 'Mistress Masham's Repose' was a postal book group choice that I put off picking up until the last minute and then raced through, thoroughly enjoying every moment.

Curiously, for something that clearly looks like the children's book it is (to me at any rate, am I wrong about this?) everyone who saw it at work homed in on the Mistress part of the title before being deeply disappointed to learn it was not along Fifty Shades lines. I don't doubt they would all be better for reading T. H. White rather than E. L. James.

Since reading 'H is for Hawk' last year White has been high on my to do (to read?) list, I even got as far as buying a copy of 'The Once And Future King', but  am now pleased to have started with 'Mistress Masham's Response'. It's short, funny, and thoughtful; the sort of book which works as well for adults as for children, and has been a perfect introduction to White's work.

Maria is a ten year old girl, heiress to the vast but derelict Malplaquet palace, and - in the best tradition - she is an orphan entrusted to the care of two deeply unpleasant individuals. Mr Hater (splendid name) the vicar and Miss Brown a particularly nasty governess. Mr Hater used to be school master, the sort who liked to beat boys, and Miss Brown was his matron. Mr Hater drives a Rolls Royce, suspiciously considering his official source of income, and Miss Brown is given to considering what would happen if Maria were to meet with an accident.

One day whilst out exploring the grounds Maria discovers a colony of Lilliputions (kidnapped after Gulliver's return by the captain who picked him up, and used for exhibition purposes until they managed to escape and live in peace for 200 years until Maria finds them). The friendship which grows between Maria and the Lilliputions eventually leads to their discovery, attempts to entrap them and dispose of Maria, and finally the reinstatement of her inheritance. It also lets White muse upon how we treat those we see as lesser than ourselves whilst having quite a bit of fun in the process.

For me the stream of references to 18th century writers, artists, actors, and architects - some of them relativley obscure - was perhas more of a pleasure than it would be to a much younger reader but the real joy is in how White describes the world. He makes it magical, sometimes dark and terrifying - it's full of predators if you're 6 inches tall - but always magical.

Everything I know of White as a person comes from 'H is for Hawk', but it's more than enough to add something to the reading of Mistress Masham's Repose. Malplaquet is apparently based on Stowe where White first taught and then later lived in a cottage in the grounds - as he has a character (the professor) do here. In Hawk, Macdonald suggests he had to curb his own sadistic impulses when it came to punishing boys, which makes the repulsive Rev Hater interesting (his predilection for corporal punishment is mentioned a couple of times), mostly though it is still the delight in the way he describes the landscape that makes this book a joy. It's worth hunting out.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

After the Election

This week has mostly been taken up with the shock to the system that is returning to work after ten days of relative indolence (those wine bottles don't put themselves on the shelf) and an unexpectedly emotional general election.

Meanwhile my Facebook feed has been awash with links to the photographer Tom Kidd's Shetland pictures. Taken in the late '70's early '80's they show the islands at a point of profound change. It's very much the Shetland I remember from early childhood so my view is somewhat nostalgic. The knitwear is fabulous (it's the only thing that makes me wish these pictures were in colour) but the great thing is seeing a record of a community poised between a very traditional past and a brave new world of oil based prosperity.

They are worth a look and can be found here

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Books have gone

Eight years ago I came home after a May Day weekend away (it was D's birthday, the first we had spent together, the next year I lost my job on the same day) to find I'd been burgled. As these things go I think I was lucky. The damage was minimal and the insurance company made things easy. I lost most of my jewellery but the burglar left the watch my mother gave me when I graduated and the kilt pin my father gave me when I was 21 (though he had the gold bracelet dad gave me for the same occasion). Camera's went but as one still used film and the other was a pocket affair nowhere near as good as the camera function on an average smart phone that was no great loss, and the handful of dvd's that got swiped weren't even mine. The most annoying thing was a carpet bag suitcase that I didn't realise was missing until I went to pack for a holiday. 

The reason so little went was partly because I don't have much that's attractive to burglars (I guess the resale value of Emma Bridgewater mugs and virago modern classics is limited on the streets) and partly because my burglar didn't 'do stairs' (I quote the police). He liked to climb, so had shinned up the drainpipe to my 1st floor flat, chucked stuff in my handy carpet bag, dropped it out the window (so nothing breakable) and left the same way. He was caught some months later when he robbed a 4th floor flat, the climb must have made him hot enough to take his coat off, he left it behind - complete with name and address in it.

The point of the story for me is that it made me reassess my relationship with the stuff around me. I have a lot of stuff, I love decorative objects to look at, can't help but collect bits, and like my father hate to throw anything away in case it comes in again (by which we mean useful, rather than fashionable. We are not particularly fashion conscious people). Post burglary I'm more aware of my attachment to things and also less attached to them. Most things can be replaced, if not exactly than approximately, and happily the handful of bits I would really miss are of value only to me.

In a burglar proofing move most of my worldly goods are books (good luck to the thief who wants to haul them downstairs), even in the event (God forbid) of fire or flood they wouldn't be to hard to replace. Meanwhile since I developed a love of second hand books and started blogging the number of books in my small flat has exploded. Whenever I've tried to have a clear out before I've managed about 30 titles before giving up. This time I really went for it and got rid of almost 350. 

It was easy enough to sort out the ones to go (though I had an inexplicable pang over the Duff Cooper diaries - not sure why that was where the line proved to be, and I can always borrow my mothers copy). Easy enough to call the second hand book people and arrange a sale. Quite odd when the books actually left the building, and also a bit weird taking money for them. It's a modest amount of cash; enough to do something nice with, not enough to need to be used responsibly - but most importantly I have some space back (probably for more books). It's also a timely reminder not to let the desire for stuff to take over, or to allow the amount of things gathered to become overwhelming. 

My books went to Astley Book Farm. They're to be found in the middle of George Elliot country (near Bedworth) and are worth a visit if you're ever in the area. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Rye, Rhubarb, and Wool

I've been enjoying a week off, the original plan was to go away but this years holidays have not matched up with my partners at all, the second plan was to read a lot, but I haven't quite done that either. What I have been doing is sleeping, catching up with people, and also catching up with myself a bit and it's been great (another couple of weeks would be even better).

I'm still knitting and have embarked on, what is for me, the ambitious project of making a cushion cover. I'm roughly half way through, it's based in some traditional Shetland patterns and the thinking behind it was to play with some of the colours I bought back in March and get a better sense of how they work together. Not always in the way I expect they will is the answer, the good thing about a cushion is that by the time it's being sat on less pleasing bits won't really matter and meanwhile I think my skills are improving a bit. 

I also rescued a huge quantity of rhubarb from D's garden, or perhaps more accurately rescued the garden from the rhubarb which is (to put it mildly) thriving. So far I've made muffins, and a mystery recipe called spiced rhubarb. It calls for 3 pounds of rhubarb, a pint of vinegar, a pound of Demerara sugar, and a mix of cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, along with a generous pinch of salt. The instructions were boil until thick then pot. I'm not sure how thick it meant but I stopped at a runny mango chutney consistency. We think it will be good with goats cheese, pork pies, and maybe in a lamb tagine - there is a definite sweet sour thing happening with it, and if it performs as hoped there will be updates.

Due almost entirely to imminent best before dates it also seemed like the perfect time to finally try and make a rye bread. I was overtaken by a fit of enthusiasm for this when I bought 'Scandinavian Baking' and managed to source most of the ingredients. Pure malt flour/powder proved to elusive so a really dark bread is still beyond me - I'm wondering if a mix of marmite and horlicks would add the right malty note. 

When faced with an actual rye loaf I'm slightly less enthusiastic. It's an odd thing to make, the dough is a really unappealing grey and it's hard work to eat. Thin slices well buttered (and maybe with pickled herring and spiced rhubarb?) are good, but it has such a worthy appearance and seems likely to last such a long time... D is a fan though. I don't have a rye starter so used my wheat based one and added a bit of yoghurt to the mix (the rye starter recipe is flour and yoghurt). The bit I saved for the next loaf clearly lives so there will be more of this bread and maybe the habit will stick. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Gin Glorious Gin - Olivia Williams

I found this book unexpectedly disappointing. Wine, beer, and spirits (the selling of) are my day job and of those 3 categories spirits, specifically gin and whisky, is the bit that's most fun to work with. When it comes to wine my customers generally (though not exclusively) look for a bargain. If it's not on offer interest in it is limited. 

When it comes to spirits that changes, and because gin has rapidly expanded as a category over the last few years it tends to be where we have the most interesting conversations, and where price is very much a secondary consideration. A really good book about gin is due.

My first problem with this one is my problem rather than the books - it focuses far to much on London for my purposes. As this is something that Williams set out to do (How Mother's Ruin Became the Spirit of London) I shouldn't complain about it. London gin is a style rather than a geographical indicator though, and I want something that examines gin culture, especially contemporary gin culture, across the country (and maybe also Europe, gin is big in Spain too, and then there's Holland where we got it from in the first place). Discussion of specific bars and bar tenders (mixologists...) who are good now, or at least where good when the book was being researched, is of limited use to me and will quickly date. 

The bigger issue however is that I felt the whole book was a bit sloppy. Silly errors (the booking office bar in the St Pancras hotel looks over St Pancras, not Kings Cross) should have been picked up. There is no index which is annoying, one would have been very helpful, I especially wanted to look up Sipsmith's distillery again). Someone is delighted to find the sweetest Seville oranges - which seems to me to be like talking about sweet lemons, and South American wines didn't become big in the UK in the 1960's. These are little things but as they started to add up they undermined my faith in some of Williams other broad statements, and eventually the whole book. 

On the plus side it's a fairly entertaining read, it makes me want to try a few of the gins I haven't got round to yet, and she paints a vivid picture of a drunken 18th century London. I know I get pedantic about details, another reader would be far more relaxed about things that annoy me, but in the end I feel a little more care would have made a much better book.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Stoneywell Cottage

Many years ago mum and I were National Trust members. There was a special offer, I was studying History of Art including a module on the country house, and when it wasn't sunny enough to bask in a quiet corner of the car park or garden my mother liked the architecture too (back then she just liked the sun more). We spent a very hot summer in 1995 exploring as far away as Kent, eating a lot of ice cream, and setting the world to rights on the way but after that membership lapsed.

The entry card gives a sort of mad hatters tea party feel to the occasion

Until this year Leicestershire has been a hole in the National Trust map - there are plenty of places about an hour away in neighbouring counties but there was nothing on the proverbial doorstep to warrant membership. That's now changed with the acquisition and opening of Stoneywell Cottage a small (but perfectly formed) property in a fairly extensive garden. 

A trip to Stoneywell demands a certain amount of planning, you have to book ahead - this is mostly due to it's size. It was designed as the summer house of a well to do family and is most definitely a cottage. Access is via a guided group - there were 8 in ours which is probably the comfortable maximum. You book a slot in the car park (no shade, don't take a dog) get the shuttle bus (it's only a short walk but the neighbours like their privacy so made it a condition of planning consent that there would be no pedestrians) arrive at the stable block where you are presented with a welcome card and then led down the garden path.

At this point I began to wonder where the cottage actually was - the path curves around the edge of the garden, the house hidden behind a rocky outcrop only reveals itself when you're virtually on top of it. 

Designed by the Earnest Gimson (a good, but not household name, arts and crafts architect and designer) for his brother in 1898 Stoneywell is actually built into the surrounding rock. This gives it a wonderfully romantic fairytale feel and makes it very damp. At least in the heat of summer it would have been reliably cool. Because of the way it emerges from the landscape, and also the z shaped floor plan it's hard to gage the size of the place from the front. It looks small and curled in on itself, the massive chimneys and absence of straight lines say witches cottage - it's all very Walter Crane. 

Stepping inside intensifies the fairy tale feel. You go straight into what was once the kitchen and is now a dining room. Stone flagged floors, a massive fire place, odd nooks and crannies, and steps in every direction (nothing is on the same level) all add to the charm. Up a few stairs and you find yourself in a curving sitting room with windows in odd places and a tiny staircase cut into the hillside which takes you up to the first bedroom.

The house was occupied by the original family until 2012 when it's last owner (now in his 90's) presumably decided he'd had enough of all the stairs and passed it on to the trust. His feeling was that the house had been in its heyday in the 50's so that's the era the Trust have taken it back to. Happily it came complete with a lot of the original furniture so it really is an Arts and Crafts gem. 

Outside it's only from the back that it's possible to get a sense of the size of the place - substantial 4 bedroom cottage - but as you move around it your perception of what you're looking at keeps changing. The gardens, including a wood currently full of bluebells, covers about 11 acres and looks like it will have plenty to enjoy in it throughout the year.

Stoneywell really is like something out of a book, I don't think I've ever been in a place that felt so much like an illustration come to life. It must have made a wonderful summer retreat, and been equally hellish in winter (apparently the last owner kept his wellies by the larder door as it got to wet to go down there in slippers for his morning cornflakes). It is entirely worth visiting. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Last Drink to LA - John Sutherland

As a general fan of Sutherland's books I felt some trepidation about reading this one about his experiences and thoughts on being an alcoholic. I've never liked to know to much about writers I admire just in case they turn out to be total arses off the page.

On the other hand I am interested in alcoholism. Or at least I'm very interested in our relationship with alcohol as a society, including alcoholism, because I make my living selling the stuff. Early on Sutherland talks about the modest estimate that 10% of the population are problem drinkers. One in ten bears thinking about for a moment. Statistically it's likely that you will have a problem drinker in your reasonably immediate family, amongst your friends, work colleagues, that one of your exes was a drunk, and so on. I can tick all those boxes from the habitually (and irritatingly) drunk at any occasion uncle down. It's not encouraging.

The back blurb seems better at describing what this book isn't than what it is. It isn't a temperance tale, or a drunkalog, though in it's way I think it might serve as both. Rather it is a meditation (moving, and thought provoking) on thinking about drinking and the devastating effects it can have - which turns out to be as good a description as any - and is absolutely worth reading.

Sutherland does describe his moment of clarity (as something of a wine snob I fear I was more shocked by his choice of drink for a final binge than the event that actually made him decide it might be time to stop) and it's a cracking story but perhaps because it felt like just that - a story, it was the least interesting part of the book for me. The reader would feel short changed without it; I won't deny I was curious to know what the tipping point was, but what will stick with me, what I find more disturbing, is the discussion of how dull sobriety can be for the problem drinker. It makes more sense of why it's so hard to give up something that will kill, along with causing humiliation and distress to the drinker and anyone close to them, and I guess it's the difference between that 10% and the other 90.

I needn't have worried about reading this, as with everything else I've read by Sutherland it was as thought provoking as the jacket promised, amusing too in places, as well as occasionally shocking but in this case particularly it's the thought provoking bits that matter.

We glamourise alcohol and heavy drinking, tolerate the cost it has on society, accept drunkeness as an excuse for otherwise unforgivable transgressions, and we really need to think about why we do that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Flapjack success

Sometimes there is a recipe, quite often for something apparently simple, which you just can't seem to crack (when I say you, I hope I mean us, and not just me). One such defeat for me had been flapjacks. I've managed to mess up Nigella's version a couple of times and I find her so reliable that if I can't get a good result with her recipe it's sort of game over. The problem wasn't the flavour but that the dratted things just disintegrated which wasn't very pleasing. 

All that's changed now though. Having a good look through Roger Saul's 'Spelt' I found something called Maple Pecan squares which sounded both excellent and like something that I had all the ingredients for - except the spelt porridge - but plenty of ordinary porridge oats so...

I made them and they were excellent, and then I made them again with some adjustments and they were even better. They are also basically flapjacks so as well as being full of oats, butter, and sugar, I'm also full of gratification at a job finally done. 

Take 150g of unsalted butter, 125g of soft brown sugar, 1/3 cup (or 115g) maple syrup, 1 tsp of vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and a 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Put in a saucepan and slowly bring to a gentle simmer. Meanwhile heat oven to 180 degrees, locate and line a 9 inch square cake tin, and measure out roughly 125g of pecans, 25g of pumpkin seeds, 50g of dried cranberries (the pumpkin seeds and cranberries are what I had hanging around, are not in the original recipe which calls for 150g of pecans only, and are obviously optional or interchangeable) and 170g of porridge oats (original calls for 150g but I figure spelt absorbs more liquid so a little extra was probably called for). Mix the dry ingredients into the syrup mix, spoon into the cake tin and bake for 30 mins or until the top is golden brown and going crisp. 

Cool, and this may well be the vital part, in the tin and then put in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight before cutting. The results haven't disintegrated, are extremely filling - which is just as well given the amount of butter and sugar - and best of all its a recipe that can stand to be tinkered with. They also keep well in a tin for about a week. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Gin and Murder - Josephine Pullein-Thompson

After a couple of years considering the Greyladies list I finally found a title I had to have. There have been plenty of these 'Well-mannered books by ladies long gone' that have sounded tempting but at just over £13 a copy for a paperback (including postage) it's the sort of thing I might well buy on impulse when it's in front of me but hesitate over when it's online and I've never seen one for sale.

What Greyladies do (though I suspect most people reading this will already be familiar with them) is publish adult titles by children's authors of a certain vintage. As the product of a horsey sort of family (with a total inability to stay on one as well as a deep mistrust of the beasts - all very disappointing) I inevitably had some of Josephine Pullein-Thompson's pony books on the shelf as a child and remember loving them. Honestly though the motivation for buying this book was purely title based. My relationship with gin is an entirely positive one. 

Happily the Greyladies Site provides reasonably long extracts from their books as a taster so I knew I'd find this a reasonably fun read when I bought it but it turned out to be far better than I expected. The murder takes place in the heart of a hunting set, all very Horse and Hound, with the Master at odds with a rich young man who has his eye on buying into the hunt and sweeping off with the girl. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the Master is already married to the hopelessly alcoholic Clara so is in no position to object to the girl being swept off. Things all get a bit tense at a cocktail party and then the rich young man suddenly dies.

The plot is clever, it's also believable, but what really makes this book something special is the portrait of a particular sort of world and the sympathetic treatment of Clara's alcoholism. First published in 1959 it feels like the action takes place a couple of years earlier. Youthful War time experiences may be increasingly distant but aren't forgotten, there are standards to be maintained, and complicated codes of honour to be observed amongst this horsey part of the county set. With the possible exception of the female 'partners' who live together with their horses and a lot of dogs (the exact nature of their relationship isn't entirely clear). All of the characters can still be found in a smart market town near you (certainly near me in rural Leicestershire) and whilst some of them might be elderly and anachronistic now I don't doubt my parents would recognise every one of them. My grandfather could have easily have had a walk on part.

Meanwhile there is alcoholic Clara. It's a very good example from both inside and out of a woman quietly destroying herself with drink. There is the effect it has on the home, the determined efforts towards oblivion from the woman herself, and the isolation that comes from being a social liability. 

First time round, reading mostly to find out whodunnit, this was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. What makes it worth the money and reading again is the clear sighted, non judgemental, portrait of a set of people it would be easy to caricature. They may be stereotypes but Pullein-Thompson gives them real life. It's a gem of a book. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Love's Sacrifice - John Ford

The RSC habit continues, we've now been often enough to feel confident that we can negotiate the massive road works (which baffle a middle aged sat nav) with ease, along with the inexplicable lack of sign posting for Stratford at key roundabouts (this might have been the first time we didn't make a detour to the outskirts of Coventry). The play was John Fird's Love's Sacrifice which I'd done no research on before going.

In theory I know that Shakespeare is marvellous but in practice I've found most of his plays that I've seen or studied hard work to engage with or whole heartedly enjoy. In turn that put me off his contemporaries and immediate succsesors for a long time but having made the effort to see some more of what's been on at The Swan a whole new world is opening up.

Because I hadn't read the relevant part of the introduction by the time I got home the history of Love's  Sacrifice came as a bit of a surprise. Despite being apparently well received when it was first performed it seems it may not have been performed again since - so not for almost 400 years. This production is the result of academic collaboration the to extend the repertoire through revival and rediscovery. Now I have read the programme, and a few stray articles online, I know that around 600 plays survive (I'm unclear as to wether this is specifically from Shakespear's time or within The Swan's remit of reviving plays from 1570 to 1750).

Love's Sacrifice made it on stage after a series of workshops suggested it might be a winner. I think it is. It seems Ford is responding to Othello, and possibly a similar set of events where an Italian prince did away with his wife and her lover.

The Duke of Pavy has married the beautiful, but not so well born, Bianca and so far they seem happy though there is the suggestion of some tension between her and the Dukes recently widowed sister Fiormonda, and then the Duke's best friend Fernando returns.

Fernando catches the eye of Fiormonda, but he's already smitten with Bianca who he procedes to court. At first she resists him but eventually gives way to his charms and admits she loves him, and that he can have her body to do what he will with - but if she breaks her wedding vows she will kill herself. Fernando accepts this and so the couple settle for languishing looks and the odd kiss but Fiormonda and the Dukes secretary have begun to suspect the relationship and so motivated by lust and jealousy Fiormonda sets about poisoning her brothers mind against his wife.

Eventually Bianca decides to consummate her love with Fernando at which point the Duke, most inconveniently, catches them (not quite in the act). What follows is the highlight of the play as Bianca, reasonably sure that she will die, taunts her husband who seems torn between a desire to forgive and for revenge. His sister pushes him to revenge and so Bianca is dispatched. Brutally. After that the body count increases with some high camp drama. Meanwhile there has been a sub plot where the courtier Ferentes has got 3 separate ladies pregnant and now refuses to marry any of them.

Disgraced, insulted, and rejected the women gather together to plot revenge choosing to kill Ferentes during a court entertainment. Reactions to this are mixed but in the end the consensus seems to be that he had it coming.

It's not impossible to understand why this play fell from favour and out of the canon. It's impossible to imagine a Victorian audience for example taking kindly to 3 unwed mothers not only getting away with murder but also getting relatively happy endings, and then there is the question of Ford's complacency about Bianca's prospective infidelity.

Her position seems to be that having married with good intentions and in good faith, but then finding a man she far prefers should she be held to those vows? Fernando betrays his friend by propositioning his wife 4 or 5 times before she gives in and admits to returning his feelings which is hardly admirable behaviour - but then none of the men here are particularly admirable characters. Everything is driven by the women, and that makes it a fascinating play.

The production itself is gorgeous, with rich colours, sumptuous fabrics, and a libral use of projections and music adding atmosphere. Whatever faults there are in the play (the last 20 minutes all go a bit crazy for modern sensibilities) Bianca and Ferentes murder scenes are transfixing- real genuine heart in the mouth edge of the seat, and tears in the eye stuff. Catrin Stewart is really compelling as Bianca and so is Matthew Needham as the Duke - so much so that it's possible to feel some sympathy for him as he murders his basically innocent wife in a particularly unpleasant manner.

Sometimes it seems a play is never performed simply because it never has been. This one definitely deserves an audience - we came out the theatre thoroughly over excited and inspired - and what more can you ask for than that?