Sunday, November 19, 2017

In the Restaurant - Christoph Ribbat

Translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli.

Subtitled 'Society in Four Courses', this is a hard book to classify. The body of it is in the first three chapters; 'Opening Times' which explores the early day of the modern restaurant, 'Postwar Hunger' which takes us up to the end of the Cold War, and 'Present Day' which ends with Magnus Nilsson leaving Fäviken at the end of a service. The final chapter 'Reading Restaurants' ties it all together with a little bit of explanation and interpretation of the material Ribbat has served up.

What has preceded 'Reading Restaurants' is a series of stories cut down into bite sized chunks that illustrate what restaurants and kitchens have come to mean to us, how we use them, the people who work in them, and some of the many things they represent. The clever bit is the way the stories are broken down and mixed up. They're all compelling, but even more so because you have to keep reading to find out what happens next. The unfolding story of a Japanese restaurant in cold war era East Germany is a classic example, humble beginnings, growing success, propaganda uses, and a surprising post script runs all through chapter 2. Told all at once it would have nowhere near the same impact. At the same time sit ins at Woolworths counters and other whites only restaurants across the American south are also unfolding. As is the reality of segregation in New York where prejudices have been imported wholesale from the south in certain areas.

There's discussion about the emotional work that waiting staff are expected to do, and an acknowledgement of the gist that has for the worker. It's something we really don't talk about nearly enough, and a strange irony that people with the crappiest jobs in the service industry are not in,y expected to look happy about it, but could lose their jobs if they don't.

We see the difference between back and front of house from Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' to Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential', follow the work of various sociologists who have gone undercover in restaurants, touch on the problem of a low wage economy that doesn't pay people enough to live in, and do much more.

Sometimes I caught the references in time (I knew Eric Blair became George Orwell) sometimes I didn't, and ended up with goosebumps when I realised I was reading an account of the dinner that MFK Fisher credits as her starting point. There's even a restaurant somewhere in Unst, Shetland, in the 1950's. This really intrigued me, I know Unst, and would love to know where is being talked about.

Altogether this is a brilliant, provocative, wonderful, satisfying book. A proper gallimaufry of anacdotes that has been a real pleasure to lose myself in. In short I loved it, and highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

How To Be a Deb's Mum - Petronella Portobello

I really need to be better at bookmarking things I see online and might want to refer back to. Someone blogged about this book, after finding it in a charity shop (I think) a couple of months ago. It sounded like fun and there was a cheap copy on Amazon marketplace so I got it. It's every bit as much fun as it sounded but I can't find the original post I saw, and I haven't found out much about 'Petronella Portobello' either, beyond that it was a pen name for Lady Flavia Anderson.

Lady Flavia was the daughter of an earl, married a Scotsman with a castle, wrote books under her own name as well, and had two sons. Petronella, the Deb's mum, has a daughter, writes book reviews to make ends meet, and is a widow living in a draughty pile in Scotland. This book is a humorous (I'd say it was more good natured than the word satire suggests) account of launching a daughter into society by someone who was clearly an insider.

It's the good nature that makes it so appealing (there's non of the spite that I associate with Nancy Mitford, for example, who never seems quite as U as she might have liked). The sense is that this is someone who's laughing at herself rather than mocking others, and in the process has created a curious historical document that has the added bonus of being very funny.

As far as I can tell from all the googling this is a fairly accurate portrayal of what doing the season looked like by the mid 1950's (published in 1957). Our Deb's mum isn't hugely well off; it's a visit to her trustee and the revision to dip into capital to pay for her daughters season - so why do it?

The answer to that seems to be partly because it's what has always been done, it's a right of passage, partly because it's fun, but mostly for the networking opportunities it brings to meet other suitable girls. The argument seems to be that for the majority of these girls there isn't enough money for them to sit around waiting to be married - it'll be jobs all round the following year, and until a suitable husband does turn up. When he does, he probably won't be so very wealthy either, so it'll be a life of trying to make ends meet, the roof in one piece, and the linen in good enough order to keep up appearances before visitors, whilst quietly flogging the family portraits. After a few years of which, when the honeymoon period is over, a network of friends to fall back on is vital.

There's the gentle observation that 'good' girls schools were not on the scale of boys schools, so the chances of making a wide circle of friends was limited. Being a debutante provides the opportunity to meet others from the same background who might be neighbours, might marry a man who could help with a thing, will be useful hostesses for your own daughters one day - all of it.

Which is interesting, but a better reason to search out this book, or pick it up if you spot it somewhere, is that it's funny and charming. I'm actually slightly surprised that it hasn't been rediscovered/reprinted by someone, we're very much in The Provincial Lady, or D. E. Stevenson's 'Mrs Tim' territory, with hints of P. G. Wodehouse. If you like any of those this is safe ground.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Silver Bullets: Classic Werewolf Stories - selected by Eleanor Dobson

This may well have been my most anticipated book of the year - great title, great subject, and great expectations of the British Library (who published it) based on previous collections (see The Haunted Library and Lost in a Pyramid). I was not disappointed. I also came across this Article from the New Yorker whilst I was reading it which underlined something I'd started to notice.

This collection of stories and poems come from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and with some  exceptions they are all set in a time, or place, where wolves still roamed. One exception is Saki's 'Gabriel-Ernest', which in its way is the most unsettling of the lot. It's a curious thing that whilst Victorians happily imagined contemporary vampires (and re-animated mummies, and in one memorable example a re-animated mummy that was also a vampire) their werewolves lived in the past, or Canada.

There are some real curiosities in this collection, George MacDonald's 'The Grey Wolf' particularly interested me because it's set in Shetland, it's setting feels roughly contemporary to its 1871 publication date which makes it another exception to my roaming wolves theory. It's curious to me because although there's a legend about something called a Wulver in Shetland folklore (a beast with the body of a man, but the head of a wolf, which seems to have been a fairly benign creature who didn't transform from or into anything) recorded by Jessie Saxby, it's not wolf country. If they ever roamed in Shetland it would have been a very long time ago when the islands still had tree cover. MacDonald's tale is eerie rather than frightening, with only a limited sense of danger for his protagonist - but it's haunting enough for all that,

W. B. Yeats' 'Where There is Nothing, There is God' is an interesting inclusion, I guess it's intention is to misdirect the reader (I think this was the intention of both Yeats, and Dobson) into anticipating one thing and getting another. It's a beautiful bit of writing though, one with a tremendous visual quality (I feel like I watched it, rather than read it, so strong we're the images it conjured).

I think Kipling's 'The Mark of the Beast' might actually have been my first proper introduction to him, it's made me want to read more. 'Gabriel-Earnest' is Saki on top form, his something wild in the wood is all the more disconcerting for its introduction into an Edwardian drawing room.

Another curiosity is Clemence Housman's 'The Were-Wolf'. It's an interesting mix of things - there's it's northern setting, her own role in the suffragette movement which gives a particular resenonce to her choice to have her werewolf take the human form of a beautiful, dangerous, huntress, and the Christian allegory that underpins it all. Unlike the equally beautiful but dangerous lady in Gilbert Campbell's 'The White Wolf of Kostopchin', it's possible to feel some sympathy for Housman's White Fell who's allure is based on her wildness as well as her beauty. Campbell's story speaks more of men's fear of women's power, and their own weakness in desire.

Altogether it's an excellent collection. Entertaining to read by a fire, with the doors safely barred, and no intention of letting in unwelcome or uncanny visitors on these dark nights, as well as gathering enough examples to appreciate the hold these creatures had on popular imagination, and what they were used to explore. It's also interesting to trace how these beginnings developed - into Angela Carter's wolf stories, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight wolves, or the traditional horror film versions.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Women and Power - Mary Beard

I saw this book mentioned on Twitter, and thought it sounded interesting - it's stitched together from two lectures Beard gave; one in 2014, one earlier this year, both commissioned for the LRB lecture series at the British Museum. The first is titled 'The Public Voice of Women' the second 'Women in Power'. A week after it was published (and having checked it was in stock) I had a chance to head off to my local Waterstones to buy a copy, couldn't see it, so asked at the counter.

Now I know Beard is popular enough that even my tiny Waterstones would have a decent supply of anything new she had written, and the helpful man behind the counter confirmed that. So many people had asked him for it that day that he thought he'd bring a pile back with him to keep by the till. As it was he couldn't because I bought the last copy he had that day. I think we were both surprised at the popularity of a short manifesto on sale at full price (a very reasonable £7.99) which hasn't, as far as either of us had noticed, had huge amounts of publicity. We were also both clearly pleased about it.

In 'The Public Voice of Women' she looks back to Classical Rome and Greece to explore how women's voices were silenced and dismissed in a way that's carried through the millennia. Telemachus' words in the Odyssey when he tells Penelope to go back to her room, that it is his role to have the power, and specifically the power of speech in this household, have clearly carried through the millennia. Given that the classics have been the bedrock of a certain sort of education pretty much forever, it makes sense that these attitudes have become so deeply ingrained in our society.

I'm curious about the need Homer perceived to mention that Telemachus chose to exert his authority over his mother in this way, along with other examples Beard gives. Is it a pre-emotive warning to women to keep quiet and know their place, or discomfort at how vocal they were? The few examples of women speaking publicly suggest they were anomalies. Either way it's hard to have power if you're silenced - and one of the things that I most admire about Mary Beard is that she refuses to be silenced by online abuse, but instead chooses to confront it in exactly the way women are generally taught not to.

'Women in Power' struck even more of a chord, not only because in it, Beard takes a good look at the way Hilary Clinton has been treated whilst it's still so fresh, but because she questions what power should look like suggesting that "you can't easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure". This is something that I've thought a lot about over the last few years in terms of what success is, why we so often talk about it in terms of sacrifices that need to be made, and why we still define it in the same fairly narrow terms, or accept the same pathways to finding it.

I've only read through 'Women and Power' once, I need to think about it and read it again, maybe follow up on some of the further reading - all of those things. For all it's brevity there's a lot to think about here, and the exhilarating thing about the book is that it really does makes me think about the issues it raises. It also makes me want to share it with others - and that it was selling out in my local bookshop shows I'm not alone in that excitement.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


If there is one thing I'd really like people to understand about wine, spirits, and beer (the things I sell for a living) it's that they come in finite quantities, sometimes travel a very long way (taking the scenic route at that, wine comes by sea, it can take months), and their availability cannot be guaranteed. Currently much of our sherry range is missing, it was relabelled, the labelling has to be passed by sherry authorities in Spain, they meet monthly, and it's caused a delay.

Obviously this is frustrating but there's absolutely nothing I can personally do about it. Threatening to go to another retailer will not magically produce the desired bottle, which no other retailer sells anyway, though you are welcome to buy an alternative from us, or elsewhere. A rant about how it's not good enough won't get the bottle either, but for the retailer who has to patiently accept the abuse, and isn't allowed to answer back it casts a shadow over the whole day, and at this time of year it's like constantly hitting a bruise.

What this has to do with mincemeat is that yesterdays disappointed customer wanted a bottle of amontillado (interesting choice) for her mincemeat, which made me think I ought to get on with mine. All other amontillado’s were to expensive, the fino she was eyeing up would almost certainly have been to dry, she didn't like whisky, rum, brandy, amaretto, or any other reasonable sounding alternative, and the look she was giving me suggested that she thought I either had cases of the stuff hidden ‘out back’ which I was withholding from spite (retailers don't do this, we want to make money by selling things, we don't always have to go and look to see if we have something either, we know because we handle every one of the tons of bottles that come into the shop, and answer the same questions all day long) or had personally drunk the lot, I hadn't.

At least making the mincemeat when I got home was calming. Fiona Cairns recipe from ‘Seasonal Baking’ is the second mincemeat I made and the first that worked. It's become a happy tradition to make my own because it's easy, smells good, makes me feel like I've accomplished something, and doesn't bubble up and escape in the same way as shop bought does. I like to make enough to give quite a bit to my mother, who makes brilliant mince pies (her pastry is excellent, mine is not), and generally as presents (I tell myself it's a nice thing to get). It's also a definite advantage of making your own that you can alter the recipe to suit your preferences/what you have, and it's a great way of using up left over dried fruit from Christmas cake and pudding making.

I've doubled the original recipe because I like mincemeat, obviously it's easily halved again.

You will want 200g of nuts, I've used hazel and almonds before (Cairns recipe is for fig and almond mincemeat), and quite like the idea of walnuts but have never had enough left over. Lightly toast the nuts, and chop them until they look the right sort of size. 200g of suet, 200g of mixed peel, 200g of Demerara sugar, and 200g of dark muscavado, can all follow the nuts into a bowl along with 3 teaspoons of mixed spice, and 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon. Next measure out 400g of raisins or sultanas, 300g of currants, and 300g of finely chopped dried figs (or apricots, or dates) and stick them into the bowl too. After that peel, core, and finely chop around 500g of Bramley apple (that's about 2), zest and juice 2 oranges and 2 Lemons, and measure out 120ml of booze. If you're using almonds a mix of brandy and amaretto is good, just brandy, or rum, or even whisky, according to preference all work.

Give everything a really good mix, cover the bowl and set it aside for 24 hours or so to let the flavours really mingle, giving it a good stir from time to time. Finally pot it into sterilised jars (makes around 8 good sized jam jars), and leave it somewhere to mature for a few weeks, by which time it will be mince pie time.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Portrait of a Murderer - Anne Meredith

The only thing that surprises me about the number of murder mysteries set at Christmas is how few uncles or siblings get done in (anyone else who has seen a very drunk uncle wandering the halls not even decked in so much as a sprig of holly will understand). Meanwhile there's something reassuring about the recognition that gathering your nearest all under one roof might be a bit stressful (though the most dramatic thing, apart from the naked uncle, that's happened in my family at Christmas is a bout of tears and a melted chopping board).

Not so the Gray family in Anne Meredith's 'Portrait of a Murderer ' where the family return from church on Christmas morning to find their patriarch, Adrian Gray, dead in the library. The reader has already witnessed the murder and knows the who, how, and why. When it becomes clear that it really was murder the rest of the family have a pretty shrewd idea as well, but more than one person had motive. Will the carefully manipulated evidence be enough to get someone else hanged?

The Grays are a fairly unpleasant bunch - an ambitious politician who wants money from his father to pay of his mistress and buy a peerage, a dodgy financier as a son in law who wants money to stay out of prison and his vain and shallow wife, a bitter daughter to keep house, another steeped in depression after her marriage has been a conspicuous failure. A younger son who could be a promising artist but has married a woman who's dragging him into the gutter, and a father who didn't much care for any of them.

What makes this book so good is the way that Meredith draws each character in their own specific unhappiness making it clear that some can find their way back to happiness, but others will not depending on the person they are and what it is they hold most dear.

This is a darkly compelling murder mystery with a real emphasis on dysfunctional family dynamics, and it's absolutely perfect for reading on a dark winter night and making you grateful for the imperfect family you have. It's a fine choice for the 50th book in the British Library crime classics series - one that feels like a genuinely lost gem rather than an interesting curiosity (I like both sorts, that's not intended as a criticism) for the way it explores what the right thing to do is when you have split sympathies and more than one person is seriously guilty of something.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

1968 Book Club - Cousin Kate - Georgette Heyer

My relationship with Georgette Heyer has now spanned more than 30 years, in which time I've re read most of her books a number of times, and each time I find something new to think about in them. Choosing Heyer for Simon and Kaggsy's book clubs started as an easy option, but I've come to really welcome the chance to have a title picked for me, and the added dimension that thinking specifically about the year it was written in gives my reading.

1968 was an eventful year - the Vietnam war, Prague spring, huge student riots in Paris, assassination of Martin Luther King, the Cold War rumbling on in the background, and Rosemary's Baby showing in cinemas. It's also towards the end of Heyer's life and writing career, she died in 1974, and a long time since she published her first book in 1921.

Her later books are not generally considered her best, not least because she piles in a lot more slang, and in the case of 'Cousin Kate' there's a lot less of her trademark humour as well. That I have a fondness for it at all is because it's set in Leicestershire- her fictional Staplewood is somewhere near the real Market Harborough (just down the road, and still a charming market town, the Angel coaching in that she mentions is still in business too).

Cousin Kate is 24, unmarried, bought up following the drum with her military father across Spain and Portugal, orphaned, penniless, not especially well educated, and very pretty. The respectable occupation open to her is as a governess, but she's too young, too pretty, and not well enough qualified to to find a job easily. When we meet her she's just been sacked after her employers brother made a pass at her.

She's staying with her old nurse looking for any kind of work, when Sarah (the nurse) decides to contact Kate's half aunt in the hope that she'll do something for the girl. What she does is turn up, sweep her away to Staplewood, and keep Kate there with her much older invalid husband, and her disturbingly volatile son, Torquil.

It's clear from the beginning that all is not well with Torquil, it's so long since I first read this book that I can't remember when we're meant to work out that he's insane but there's a brooding gothic atmosphere from the beginning that makes the mood of this book radically different from Heyer's other romances.

I'm going to skate over Torquil's madness and the way Heyer depicts it, and simply accept that she wants him to be both genuinely menacing, but also an object of compassion. I'm more interested in her decision to set the action some years after Waterloo becaus I think it's telling that Kate came unscathed through her experiences following an army across Europe, but meets real danger in peace time. It certainly seems to reflect the uncertainties of the late 1960's.

Happily, Kate meets and falls in love with Philip, Torquil's cousin. So she doesn't have to dwell on the bleak picture her aunt paints when she tries to persuade Kate to marry her son and provide an heir for the estate before he has to be committed. We can dwell on it a bit though because this is one of the things I find particularly interesting about Heyer.

Her father died when she was quite young, at which point she supported her family with her writing. She continued to support her brothers throughout their lives, and when her husband decided to retrain as a barrister it was the money that Heyer earned that payed for that and kept her family afloat. She certainly knew plenty of other successful women writers who must have essentially have been doing the same thing, and given the time she lived in must have known plenty of other capable, successful, women. She would also have seen those jobs go back to men after both world wars.

Even in 1968 the expectation would have been that most women would leave work when they married, and that marriage was a suitable career for a nice middle class girl. (My mother, born in 1950, got the sort of education that prepared girls to be efficient wives for professional men, rather than to have careers - there was no expectation or encouragement at all to go to university, or to dream of any sort of career as far as I can tell.) From a strictly practical point of view Kate could do worse than marry Torquil (provided he didn't strangle her on the wedding night) he could be quietly hidden away in fairly short order, leaving her to enjoy wealth and security in peace for the rest of her days.

Not all of Heyer's attitudes stand up to close scrutiny (she can be a snob, some find her high Tory attitude troublesome, she does occasionally sound distinctly anti-Semitic) but I don't doubt that she's making the point that women were still getting a pretty raw deal in the career stakes when she wrote this, and that it wasn't good enough. She even makes it clear that whilst Aunt Minerva is the villain of the piece, she's also in her way the victim of a bad marriage. A strong willed, ambitious, woman has married a weak man because it's the only option she had. He's given her little scope for her abilities, and wilfully ignored the tragedy unfolding in his own family (he warns Kate not to trust her aunt, but offers her no practical assistance). Minerva may be a cold and selfish woman but I'd argue that Heyer depicts her ambition as a positive attribute, albeit one that's disastrously misdirected.

I'm pleased to have had the push to reread this one. It will never be my favourite Heyer, but thinking about it against the background of when it was written has certainly made me reassess it, and I've found a much more interesting book than I expected.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Reivers - Alistair Moffat

Over the last 14 years or so I've come to really love the Scottish Borders. It's a part of the world that's beautiful, has its own feel (neither Scottish or English, but distinctly Borders), a sense of history, and gains a stronger hold on me every time I find myself there. Sadly that's not been at all often this year, but we did spend I night in St Boswells on the way back from Inverness, and whilst there it would have been rude not to go to the bookshop on Main Street. Once in the bookshop buying something was inevitable.

I chose Alistair Moffat's 'The Reivers' because it seemed high time to become better acquainted with some of the history of the area. The remains of the great abbeys at Jedburgh, Melrose, and Dryburgh, along with the significant church ruins at Kelso speak of an historic affluence. That the place is thick with country houses (including Manderston with its silver staircase), to the extent that it feels like half the peerage must have a bolt hole in the vicinity suggests there's still money on those hills (and definitely in the salmon rivers). The distinctive Peel towers that pepper the landscape however hint at rougher fortunes. 

I suppose I had an image of the Botder Reivers as vaguely romantic robber barons who went raiding into England (encouraged by their womenfolk presenting a dish of spurs when the larder was bare as a hint to go out and steal some cattle - but that's pure Walter Scott territory). The reality is much more interesting. 

Moffat paints a picture of an area that from the earliest times had its own distinct identity, Borderers from both sides had more in common with each other than with their compatriots in the south or north, it's a useful reminder not just of how divided Britain is, but how deep the regional differences are within England and Scotland. 

The Border families, especially on the Scottish side, are generally referred to as clans, but Moffat makes the point that it's the surname that's all important to identity here (for highland clans there's also a deep allegiance to the land), and he refers to the riding families as Surnames - all incidentally still common in the area. Through alliances with neighbouring surnames the heidsmen of these surnames could put thousands of men in the saddle and have them on the march within hours. These where essentially small armies, and the families seem to have felt no particular loyalty to whoever their actual monarch was. 

Understandable when you live on the frontline between warring nations, far enough away from the seat of government to avoid close scrutiny, and powerful enough to make to much interference with you inadvisable. It wasn't a great place to try and make a living as a farmer though. When the little ice age wasn't doing for you, it seems somebody was always setting fire to your home, stealing your live stock, or trampling your crops. 

It's an entertaining journey through a period of history as brutal as it was colourful. The book is full of all sorts of asides, and Moffat clearly loves the region (his affection for it has deepened mine). If I had a quibble it would be that events aren't described chronologically; the narrative jumps back and forth between people and places in a way that can be confusing. On the whole though, I came out of this with a much better understanding of the history of the Borders, and also of Britain as a whole. It's well worth reading. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween reading with a Corpse Reviver

I might not have the stomach for full on horror (and have been scared out of a nights sleep by Stephen King) but when the nights have either drawn out (there's something deeply unsettling about the hours of half light that constitute a midsummers night in the North) or drawn in something a little bit spooky is fun.

I have a fairly extensive collection of vintage horror stories - or maybe gothic tales is a better catch all title for their general mood - to attest to that belief, and quite a pile to go through at the moment.

I'm currently reading my way through the British Library's collection of werewolf stories, 'Silver Bullets', selected by Emma Dobson. It's excellent, and rather like last years 'Lost in a a Pyramid' (mummies) it has a few surprises. Nothing in it has been especially scary yet (I'm 3/4 of the way through) so it's a perfectly acceptable book to retire to bed with.

It was 'Lost in a Pyramid' that introduced me to Arthur Conon Doyle in gothic mode, and in turn made the OUP's handsome edition of his collected 'Gothic Tales' very timely. It's an excellent rainy day book, especially when it's just getting dark outside.

There's a 'Collected Ghost Stories' of M. R. James in the same series (I love these cloth covers) and whilst I've read some of the obvious ones in other anthologies I really don't know James well enough. What I have read has more than persuaded me that he's just the sort of writer that I like though, so I'm looking forward to becoming better acquainted with him.

I bought Henry Chapman Mercer's 'November Night Tales' on the back of a comparison to M R James - and the general description of him as an eccentric archaeologist, historian, architect, and collector with a love of gothic literature (he sounds great). This edition is published by Valancourt Books and might feature a Transylvanian werewolf - I didn't particularly mean to save it for November, but now November is all but here it's going to the top of the tbr pile.

I've also been dipping in and out of 'Dracula's Brethren', it's edited by Richard Dalby and Brian J. Frost. I've got a few anthologies edited by Dalby, and all of them are excellent. So far 'Dracula's Bretheren' is no exception. These are vampire tales from between 1820 and 1910, both inspiring and inspired by Bram Stoker's 'Dracula'.

It might be that my first drink of choice to go with any of these books would be a reassuring hot chocolate, but as it's Halloween tomorrow it seemed like a good time to try mix up a version of a 'Corpse Reviver'. Possibly because it's such a great name for a cocktail the Corpse Reviver has had several incarnations (it's also a testament to the popularity of the hair of the dog theory - which is a rubbish theory, but is now making me think of werewolves, so that's something), the one I would have liked to try is the N° 1 which calls for 1/4 Italian vermouth, 1/4 calvados, and 1/2 brandy, but I have neither the calvados or the Italian vermouth in the house so it'll have to wait.

The Corpse Reviver N°2 (from the Savoy cocktail book) is Gin based, it specifies Kina Lillet for the vermouth, which is no longer made, but the internet seems happy with a non specific French dry vermouth instead. As liberties have already been taken with the original recipe dropping the dash of absinthe, unavailable for years anyway as well as being a spirit I loathe, doesn't feel to iconoclastic. If you have a Pastis to hand that would be the obvious substitute, I have Kümmel which is more caraway than anise, but at least I like it.

This Corpse Reviver is equal measures of lemon juice, dry vermouth, Cointreau, and gin, with a dash of absinthe/pastis/kümmel all shaken well over ice and strained into a cocktail glass. The kümmel, considering it was only a dash, really makes its presence felt, the vermouth not as much as I expected. There's a strong family resemblance to a Silver Bullet (gin, lemon juice, kümmel) a pleasing balance between sweet and sour, and it's not quite as strong as the name might suggest. Taken in moderation it's also proved effective for reviving me after a tiresome day at work.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Country Matters - Clare Leighton

The day the clocks go back is reliably my favourite day of the year; that hour feels like such a gift, and today has been reasonably productive. I've made Quince and star anise jelly from Diana Henry's brilliant 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke' (it's such a good book for all sorts of preserving). I love this jelly, and am surprised that I don't seem to have written about it before here. It's excellent with all sorts of meats, cheese, and atva oush good on a scone too. I've made it every year since I found the recipe (2012?) and would hate to be without a jar now.

I've also got my first Christmas cake in the oven, have spent time with family and friends, hoovered, been to see a film, bought Christmas cards, and discovered a stain on the airing cupboard ceiling which I hope isn't an indication of yet another bloody leak (it could be the marks from a previous leak coming back through the paint. Fingers crossed) and met my new upstairs neighbour. All in all a full day. It's amazing the difference an extra hour makes.

I like the dark nights too, this is the time of year when living in a city comes into its own. Leicester is caught between the lights of Diwali and Christmas, it's a cheerful place to be at the moment with piles of fallen leaves to kick through, but no gaunt hedgerows for the wind to whistle around. There's none of the eeriness of the autumnal countryside.

It still surprises me how much easier I find it to be in tune with the seasons in a town rather than the country, but it's here that I can walk everywhere seeing the year turn whilst I do so, and here too that shops and market stalls are full of the seasonal produce that just as clearly Mark the approach of winter as those falling leaves.

I don't know what Clare Leighton would make of today's villages. Some things perhaps haven't changed so very much, but the world she writes about and engraves here was already disappearing in the 1930's when she recorded it. Reading this book I recognise glimpses of what she describes, but rather in the way you can trace a family likeness between grandparents and grandchildren. There are still flower and produce shows, still pubs with locals who have their particular spots, still village cricket, but the chair bodgers, tramps, smithy's - they're all gone. So too has the village witch, and I think it's illegal to pick wild flowers now, so no more primrose gathering.

It was the engravings that attracted me to this book, I've always liked Leighton's woodcuts -  her writing turns out to have the same bold clarity to it, and the same lack of sentimentality in its observations. There is plenty of affection for the community and way of life that she's making her subject, and she must have known some of these figures were anomalies even as she wrote about them but I don't feel that nostalgia is the driving force here, though it easily could have been. Rather it's a reminder to look at what's around, and to appreciate the rhythm of a life dictated by the seasons.

It's a beautiful book (from Little Toller Books who find and produce wonderful things) that feels just right for a day balanced between autumn and winter.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A Game of Chess and Other stories - Stefan Zweig

I'd dearly love to be able to take a month off work to enjoy autumn as it turns into winter, read a pile of the books that have already waited too long for some attention, and bake. It's not on the cards. Zweig is the kind of writer that really makes me wish it was otherwise though. It's not so much that I get so absorbed in his stories that I struggle to put them down, although there's an element of that, it's the threads of thought he unravels and I desperately want to follow through other books, but don't have the time to.

This collection is published by Alma Classics and includes 'The Invisible Collection' (brilliant), the novella length 'Twenty Four Hours in a Woman's Life', which explores infatuation and addiction, 'Incident on Lake Geneva' which specifically addresses the pointlessness of war, and 'A Game of Chess', Zweig's last story - written whilst in exile in Brazil.

'Twenty Four Hours in a Woman's Life' is set pre World War One. In a hotel on the Riviera a group of guests fall into argument over an unfolding scandal; a previously respectable married woman has run off with a young man she's had but a couple of conversations with. Partly to play devils advocate our narrator defends her, which leads a fellow guest to confide a story from her past to him.

As a middle aged widow she tried to help a young gambler, the situation quickly spirals out of her control, and she finds herself behaving in ways she scarcely understands, and which will characterise how she sees herself - at least until this confession. It's got Zweig's trademark pathos and compassion running all through it.

'A Game of Chess' by comparison is full of anger barely contained by Zweig's elegance of style, there is nothing to soften the story as it unfolds (as there is in The Invisible Collection) just a stark portrayal of how effectively cruel fascism is.

Altogether this is an excellent place to start if your unfamiliar with Zweig - the stories are a good cross section (I'm saying that with all the authority of someone who has read one novel and 4 other stories before this) and it's a very reasonably priced edition (rrp £4.99), and a nicely judged collection if you don't already have the stories elsewhere. The more I read Zweig, the more I like him.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Leighton House Museum for Alma-Tadema

We've been meaning to go to Leighton house for years, but it's just far enough out of the way (Holland Park) for there to never be quite enough time to get there when we're in London. D particularly wanted to see the Alma - Tadema At Home in Antiquity exhibition though (has a soft spot for him), and as this is its final week we made the effort.

The exhibition was excellent, I'm not quite the fan that D is; the classical settings that Alma-Tadema is best known for don't particularly excite me, but the chance to evaluate him as an artist did. Something that was really fascinating was seeing how a technically very accomplished artist could still make a real hash of some things - there are figures in some of the paintings which just don't look right. In life and as a group it's also really striking how respectably Victorian his classical ladies look.

The big discovery was that Alma-Tadema's wife and daughters were accomplished painters, and are well represented here. There's something really encouraging about that - they're all part of the same story, he clearly fostered their talents, and the overall impression is of a wonderfully creative and colourful household.

Anothet thing I hadn't really understood is how much Alma - Tadema's vision of the classical world has informed filmmakers either - understandable in the early days (there are clips from films, some of which are roughly contemporary with his life, or from within a couple of years of his death) but somehow surprising when you see how Ridley Scott clearly references him for 'Gladiator'.

Meanwhile Leighton house is amazing. Unfortunately they don't allow photos (which I respect when it comes to other people's pictures, but find frustrating when it applies to architectural details). Built for Leighton and continuously added to throughout his life, it became a museum not long after he died, but had suffered somewhat over the years. A major refurbishment in the last decade has done its best to restore the original decorative scheme. Do a quick search for images, you won't be disappointed.

Leighton, who never married, only ever had one bedroom built (excluding servants quarters in the basement), so the house is mostly spaces for public entertaining, or for working in, with the stars of the show being the Arab hall, and the narcissus hall. Opulent is the word for these. The Arab hall with its gilding, beautiful tiles, fret worked shutters, stained glass, pool, and cushioned recesses for lounging is straight out of the Arabian nights. The glorious blue of the Narcissus hall has tiles the same shade of blue as a stuffed peacock that sits on a pedestal half way up the stairs - next to a sort of built in sofa with the fattest cushions I've ever seen (not only no photos, no sitting either). It's all utterly magnificent - and now we know where it is we'll go back.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How to be a Kosovan Bride - Naomi Hamill

'How to be a Kosovan Bride' is Hamill's debut novel, in it she follows the lives of two teenage girls from the same village; the Kosovan Bride of the title who marries into a family as traditionally minded as her own, and the Returned Girl, sent back to her family on her wedding night when her new husband suspects she isn't a virgin.

The Kosovan Bride moves into a house with her in laws, soon finds herself pregnant, and with a future fully mapped out for her. The Returned girl is in relatively unchartered territory and seizes the opportunities that her new set of choices bring her.

Hamill's knowledge of Kosovo comes from the visits she's made there working with a U.K charity, the lingering legacy of the war, and the persecution of ethnic Albanians threads through the book both in the form of the early memories of the girls, and the stories they manage to get their families to share. This is all the more powerful for focusing on the everyday reality of life for very ordinary people in extraordinarily difficult circumstances - it's a stark portrayal of the reality of life as a fugitive or refugee.

For the Kosovan Bride the difficulty is in reconciling the hopes and expectations of a contemporary girl, familiar with social media, and images of a world far beyond her village, with the reality of a very traditional marriage and equally rigid expectations. It's a society that sets a very high value on honour and where blood feuds and a general threat of violence are not just a possibility, but a very real threat. Hamill makes it easy to understand why that tradition is so important to the generation that made it through the conflicts of the late 1990's, and to their children as well. She also makes it clear that that tradition is quite a burden for bright young women to accommodate.

For the Returned girl there's the chance to turn her back on some of those traditions, she finishes School, goes to university, plans a different life for herself, meets men on her own terms, starts to write the stories she hears of the past, and finds her own ways to reconcile what she wants with respect for her family's traditions.

The book has the rhythm of a set of fairy tales, and actually also incorporates a traditional fairy tale within it. It's sparse, and effectivley repetitive delivery is both utterly compelling and powerful. It also made me realise that despite knowing some Albanian refugees back around 2000, I know woefully little about this part of recent history. Altogether a remarkable book.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sunday and some Books to look forward to in 2018

It's been a busy old week work wise, partly because our buyers threw us a big tasting session on Friday. This involves a trip to London and as it's a day out of the shop it has a real holiday feel to it, it's also a chance to bitch with colleagues about all the things that frustrate us (currently this mostly seems to be a lack of Chablis), and try some excellent wines. The last is important, it might sound like pure self indulgence to spend an afternoon getting re-acquainted with Krug, Taittinger Comte de Champagne, Veuve's Grande Dame, and Pol Roger's Cuvée Winston Churchill (my personal favourite  against some stiff competition, I could have reported on the current vintage age of Dom Perignon too, but some rotter finished it before I got a look in) but you have to spit, and this is the stuff that customers want to know is worth the money. Somebody has to do the research.

It would have been even more fun (it's the highlight of my working year) if I hadn't been coming down with a cold - a blocked nose makes tasting very hard, but I did my best. Happily I got to recuperate whilst dog sitting for my mother. It was a perfect combination of fresh air whilst I was walking her, and napping on the sofa when I wasn't, and now I'm back home with the Oxford University Press trade catalogue for the first half of 2018, and a cup of the best hot chocolate I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. It's Kate Young's Chocolatl recipe (inspired by Philip Pullman's Northen Lights) and is the perfect combination of thick creamy chocolate, aromatic spice, salt, and a couple of things you'll need to check the book for. It's just wonderful.

Also wonderful is the OUP trade list. It's a toss up between this and the British Library list as to which is my favourite (both have a particularly high ratio of the kind of books I get particularly excited about). So wonderful I'm here to share my personal highlights.

I'm intrigued by 'Prohibition a concise history', by W. J. Rorabaugh. I'm interested in the cultural history of alcohol generally, the idea of the Prohibition era is evocative, but I really don't know enough about it.

Patricia Fara's 'A Lab of One's Own' is being published to help mark the centenary of women gaining the vote in this country, and it sounds timely. It looks at the women who stepped into the labs during the First World War, women who carried out pioneering research, and were then unceremoniously pushed back out of the lab again when the men returned. Stories like this need to be told, both to inspire, and to challenge the prejudices that still limit women in science.

Jane Stevenson's 'Baroque Between the Wars' promises to take a fresh look on the arts between 1918-1939 and explore how baroque offered a completely different way of being modern. I think this one sounds fascinating.

There are also more of the beautiful cloth bound hardback Oxford editions coming out. These books are gorgeous so I'll be very tempted at the prospect of replacing my tatty old paperback copy of 'The Mabinogion' (which I think I really need to read again), and it will clearly be the year to finally discover the weird fiction of Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories).

It's the bicentenary of Emily Brontë's birth next year too, so there's an updated reissue of 'The Oxford Companion to The Brontë's'. I'm not the biggest Brontë fan, but even so this sounds desirable.

I'm still battling with Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' (I will get there, but his take on rural life is both disturbing and heavy going. If ever there was a case of something nasty in the woodshed, and a man prepared to describe it in hysterical detail...) but that's not putting me off a sense of excitement about 'His Excellency Eugène Rougon'. I'm hoping Zola on court and political circles will be as good as Zola in 'Money'.

And finally, the book I'm really excited about. 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' is getting the World's Classics treatment. I have mentioned before how obsessed with this book I was aged about 11. I read it time after time, and whilst my enthusiasm for it has abated somewhat I'm still fond of it, I have never looked forward to reading the introduction of a book more.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Little Library Cookbook - Kate Young

I've occasionally read Kate Young's Guardian column where she matches recipes to books, but never got particularly excited about it - mostly because I was never particularly excited by the books that were featured when I saw it. Nevertheless I was quite excited when I saw a book was coming, and had put it in my wish list hoping someone might consider it as a Christmas present. Then yesterday I finally saw a copy (it's not made it to Leicester's Waterstones, but it was everywhere in London where I'd been wine tasting) and decided I really couldn't wait to get it.

I love the concept of matching books with food and drink (as demonstrated by the 100 odd books and booze posts to date that I've done here) finding that it adds another layer to your memories of a beloved book, and clear inspiration in the kitchen. I like the project element of it too as you search for just the right recipe to make the moment live.

Sometimes the choice is obvious, sometimes the links between text and food (or drink) are more personal. The most obvious food in literature is probably Proust's Madeleines (for which Young does indeed provide a recipe), but Edmunds's love for Turkish delight in 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' must run a close second (recipe also included) and I bet it's a book that far more people have read.

Altogether there are 100 recipes divided by the time of day they might be eaten, some are things to make on a lazy weekend when there are hours to spare for pottering around making Marmalade (Paddington) and cinnamon buns (inspired by Donna Tartt's 'The Goldfinch'), or suggestions for porridge (The Secret Garden) which can be part of any but the most rushed morning routine. Also, and I wholeheartedly agree with Young on this, porridge doesn't have to be confined to breakfast.

And if you're thinking porridge isn't really worthy of a recipe, or that people these days are all too inclined to fill cookbooks with things that are scarcely recipes at all, then at least here it makes sense, because this is as much about a love of books, and a genuine love of food, as it is the recipes. It's a deeply engaging combination which provides a reading list as well as a recipe list, and encouragement to find the same kind of links in the books I too love.

Monday, October 16, 2017


I'vet been thinking about writing this post all day (because what Monday really needs is intensive thinking about sexual assault and misogyny) and wondering if it was really something I wanted to do. These are not memories I particularly want, and not things I would generally share outside of an actual face to face conversation- and maybe that's part of the problem.

So there was the young male teacher who wanted to be everybody's friend , he was young enough to have gone out with the only slightly older sister of one of my classmates, and not above referring to his ex in a derogatory way in class. I thought he was an arse, and someone I'd rather avoid. He told my mother, during parents evening, that he thought I'd probably been abused. I hadn't, it didn't make me warm to him. He told me, in front of a staff room full of collegues and another of my glass mates that he thought I was manipulative. It was probably my first experience as an almost adult of that feeling of shock and powerlessness that is never the reaction you expect to have. 

At university on an almost empty campus at the end of first year there was the builder who walked up to me, in the middle of the day, and simply grabbed my breast and laughed about it with his friend. Again, total shock. What do you say, who do you tell, who actually cares, and what the hell does somebody who thinks that's alright do next? I didn't tell anyone, couldn't have accurately described either man, simply didn't know what to do.

There was a customer when I worked in a bookshop, in the days before we talked about grooming, who would come in and initiate friendly conversation about books. He was very softly spoken so you had to lean in to hear him, but he seemed harmless enough until one day he just started talking filth. Total panic again trying to work out what reaction he expected and wanted. It seemed he wanted a reaction, but that not giving him one was encouragement for him to continue. I confided in an older, female colleague - her reaction; how do you think it makes Me feel that he's harassing You. Jealous apparently. It turned out that 'Eddie' had made a habit of doing this in every bookshop in town. He stopped coming into our shop after another male colleague recognised him as his sisters maths teacher. It was his relative anonymity that had made his behaviour possible. Now I'd call the police there and then, at the time I couldn't bring myself to repeat the things he'd said. 

There was the manager at work who had an escalating drink problem, not good in an off licence, he also had wandering hands when he'd been drinking, and a line in humour that it was hard to find funny. The situation came to a head when he verbally harassed a colleague young enough to be his daughter (in front of a group of us) and she asked me to back her up when she made an official complaint. There was a lot of pressure (from our female line manager) on us to drop the complaint, enough that it would have been easier to give in. I was asked to get everybody to make statements about his behaviour, assured they would be confidential, then after they were submitted, told that in fact they weren't confidential and that this man would have access to all of them. 

He was dismissed, but not for harassment, he hadn't been paying for the stock he was drinking. When I applied for his job, the job I'd been doing whilst he was incapable of it, and the job I was expected to do whilst he was suspended and replaced, I was told I wouldn't get it because I couldn't be seen to be rewarded for reporting him. It was not a nice time and I'm still grateful for the many male colleagues who did provide support - because happily it isn't all men.

I seldom wear a watch now after being followed across town by a man who initiated conversation after asking the time (it's a common approach). Despite increasingly explicit requests for him to leave me alone he followed me for about quarter of an hour, from the street door of my flat, with a constant stream of verbal harassment, only stopping when I reached the high street and there were to many people to close for him to carry on unnoticed. After a couple of taxi journeys when similar things happened I'm now reluctant to get taxis at all. 

And my list could go on, and on. Some incidents far more serious than any of these, dozens which are the common currency of women's lives (not just women at that) and hardly make an impression any more. But they should, and they should be talked about because I find the thing that bothers me most about #MeToo is how bad we are at talking about this kind of thing. I think about how poorly prepared I was to deal with any of the incidents that happened to me in my teens and twenties. How many times you're told that it's nothing, made to feel that complaining will be more trouble than it's worth, pressured not to complain because of the administrative problems it will create. Asked to consider the impact a complaint would have in the man involved, was his transgression serious enough to warrant the possibility of losing his job - and the guilt that makes you feel.There's the disbelief too, and all the rest of the toxic crap that gets thrown at you.

There's also the reality of complaining and following it through. I once went to court with a friend to support her whilst she got a restraining order against an ex who was stalking her. Listened whilst his lawyer attacked her on the stand, even asking if his client would give her children would she reconsider her position. That's how far he was from accepting that she simply didn't want to see him any more. 

Most of all though, it's the horrible feeling of shocked disbelief that this is happening (again), the realisation that you won't react the way you always thought you would, won't know what to say or do, and that (again) your power over a situation has been removed from you. It's humiliating and frightening, and can take a long time to get over. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White

Mid October and I feel stuck between the end of summer - it's been unseasonably warm this weekend - and the looming threat of Christmas which isn't actually that far away, despite protestations from some quarters that it's still to soon to talk about it. It isn't to soon, and even as I type I have Christmas puddings gently steaming in the kitchen.

I read 'The Third Eye' back in June, and haven't quite got round to writing about it in all the time since, finally doing it has definitely made me realise that this is really Autumn, and not the end of summer. Fortunately it's an excellent autumn book, with just the right atmosphere for darkening nights.

Caroline has been living with her sister and her family in a small London flat, she's welcome, but feels strongly that it's time she struck out independently. Partly because she feels slightly inadequate next to her far more intellectual sister, and her professor husband, and maybe because the professor is a little too fond of her.

There's no hint of impropriety, but rather a gentle reminder to the reader that no marriage, however sound, needs a permanent house guest in any form, much less that of a younger more physically attractive sister. It's part of White's charm that she reminds us of that before it's perhaps altogether evident to her characters.

Anyway, Caroline is happy to accept a post as games mistress at the Abbey School, despite her brother in laws reservations. Turning up at the beginning of the autumn term it's down becomes clear that all is not quite as it should be. The previous games mistress died in slightly odd circumstances, the matron has a bit of a cult following amongst the pupils, and holds séances with the headmistress. There's a general atmosphere of uneasiness that becomes increasingly tense - which is White's forte, and she really excelled at it here.

Caroline is soon affected by the same creeping unease that pervades the place, and her situation gets worse when she falls out with the matron over her treatment of a pupil. A crisis point is reached where Caroline finds herself in real danger from an unexpected source (after a wonderful exercise in rising paranoia and dread during a journey back to the school), before everything is resolved more or less satisfactorily (at least for Caroline).

It's an excellent book by an oddly neglected writer - there's this from Greyladies, and a few of her stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, and whilst more of her work isn't hard to find as ebooks or print on demand formats, I feel she deserves more. This is the woman who wrote the book Hitchcock based 'The Lady Vanishes' on after all. 'The Third Eye' has a tremendous amount of atmosphere, as well as a plot that nicely blends a sense of impending melodrama with a feeling that these kind of things could all to easily happen. And it really is just the kind of thing to read with curtains drawn, and fire lit (or puddings steaming) on an autumn evening. It'll certainly make you think twice about talking to strangers on buses.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

At My Table - Nigella Lawson

Autumn, season of celebrity biographies, big name cookbooks, and sundry other Christmas hopefuls is upon us with a vengeance. There's a few food titles I'm hoping I might get for Christmas (Ren Behan's Honey and Rye, Kate Young's The Little Library Cookbook, and Supra by Tiko Tuskadze - which has been out a little longer, and looks excellent if anyone wants to know) and others that I've bought already.

'At My Table' was an impulse purchase when I saw it half price in Waterstones*. I've been a Nigella fan since 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' and love all of her earlier books. I've been less enthusiastic about the later books, but I think that's natural - Lawson is one of those bankable names who seems to be expected to produce something annually, and I'm not sure how sustainable that is - you just can't write a How to Eat, or a How to be a Domestic Goddess every damn year. 

That and personal tastes change. How I cook and eat has certainly changed a lot over the last few years. Annoying shift patterns make it far harder to prepare, plan, or make meals, than it used to be. The food my partner prefers (both to prepare and eat) is different to my first choices as well. I like his cooking, I like him cooking and me not having too, but it does change the amount of time I used to spend playing in the kitchen (but then why should I have all the fun?). 

All of which is a long winded way of saying I wasn't sure I'd like this book until I actually saw it. There are things I'd never make in here (toasted Brie and fig sandwich because I loathe Brie and am ambivalent about figs) but not many, because mostly these are exactly the sort of recipes I want at the moment. 

Chicken and pea traybake, Hake with bacon peas and cider, the herbed leg of lamb, and the no churn ice creams all look great (those were the things that caught my eye during the flick test). It's a book full of recipes that don't need to much thinking about beforehand, and which don't demand to much effort to produce - recipes that a tired person can tackle with enthusiasm on a Friday night after a long week and a very quick trip around a supermarket. Or look forward to whilst they slowly do their thing in an oven and you try and catch up on all the tedious chores that seem to make up weekends at the moment. 

It's exactly the sort of home cooking I'm after (the emergency brownies which come in small quantities sound intriguing as well, I'm not sure any brownie recipe will ever quite supplant the HtbaDG version, but that one is built on industrial lines - this one isn't.) Apparently some people have been sniffy about a whipped feta recipe, but hands up, it's not something that had ever occurred to me to do and I like the sound of it a lot. 

On the whole a great book for beginner cooks, harassed cooks, and cooks (like me) who feel they've lost a bit of their kitchen mojo and want some inspiration. 

*Why are the books everyone is likely to buy anyway always so heavily discounted? 'At My Table' has a cover price of £26, which I imagine very few people will pay. Buying it for £13, or less, makes the books listed above look unattractively expensive by comparison, and doesn't make it any easier to understand what a book actually needs to cost. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Cocktail Book

'The Cocktail Book', reprinted here by the British Library, first appeared in 1900, and it seems to have been the first book specifically dedicated to the cocktail (there are earlier books which cover Cocktails along with other things, this book is just Cocktails).

This edition is a nice little hardback with a smart black and gold cover which has almost certainly been designed as a stocking filler, and thought of as a bit of a curiosity, but especially after my cocktail experiments back in August (which also celebrated the BL's Crime Classics series, matching drinks to books gives a nice set of boundaries to work within!) I've found I have a lot of time for these early drinks books (Jerry Thomas' Bartenders guide, Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks', and Harry Craddock's 'Savoy Cocktail Book' are the others I have). They are far more than curiosities. 

The great thing about these books is that a lot of the drinks are easy to mix, there are plenty which don't call for lots of obscure and expensive ingredients, and lots of them taste good (some might not, tastes and times change). Each also have their particular strengths, for 'The Cocktail Book' it's the use of bitters.

Angostura Bitters are easy to find, most supermarkets sell them, but they're only the tip of an aromatic (and bitter) iceberg. Bitters are useful things to have around, they can transform drinks in all sorts of interesting ways, so a book that encourages their use is a good thing (it'll mostly be a case of searching them out online for most of us, but they're not particularly expensive, and go a long way). There is also a handy glossary at the back of this book which explains what the less familiar things are, and where practical what to substitute them with.

As a curiosity it's certainly interesting to see the kind of drinks that were popular in the Belle Époque, and though ingredients like acid phosphate are a challenge to source (it's available on Amazon in the U.S, but looks like it would take more searching for in the U.K) things like Café Kirsch (coffee and kirsch shaken over ice - though I prefer it warm) are both simple and appealing.

However you look at it, it's a book with plenty to offer, and well worth investigating.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Was there a Russian Jane Austen and What's a Classic anyway?

I have been reading books (though slowly) and I will write about one soon, but this morning I read This article on The Pool website by Viv Groskop and it's been bothering me all day. In it she asks how do we acknowledge that men created the majority of the literary classics without doing women writers a disservice.

Classic seems to be a fairly elastic term at the best of times but I'm sceptical about this article and it's statement that "It's simply not as if there are dozens of women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries who remain unknown and under-rated" or that "Many of the great male writers attained their status because they said something about the time they were living in that was viewed as significant".

It may well be that there aren't many British women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th century remaining to be discovered, but the list of 'anomalies' is far longer than Woolf, Austen, assorted Brontës, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Louise May Alcott (sic). Just looking at my Penguin and Oxford classics I can add Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Oliphant, and Ellen Wood to that list. I have something over 400 Virago Modern Classics, dozens of Persephone's, yards of golden age Crime by the acknowledged queens of the genre, and all sorts of other things to carry on making the point with.

All of them were popular in their day, presumably because they too were saying something significant about the time they were living in. Books in the U.K. are relatively cheap and we're well served with reprints of English language books. My by no means comprehensive collection tells me that these women were far from anomalies, and that it's quite possible to acknowledge that they were unjustly neglected, or dropped from the canon, over the years without doing any disservice to their male counterparts who were justly recognised and remembered.

We are not so well served by books in translation, and I have no idea if there are French, Italian, Russian (you get the idea) versions of Virago or Persephone, intent on rescuing those hidden female voices, but if books by Irene Nemirovsky or Teffi have started to appear in English over the last decade or so, I'm prepared to believe there are more (Wikipedia leads me to suppose so too).

I'm also wondering how many of those canonical classics by the great male writers that fill so many bookshelves are read as opposed to representing good intentions. Their names may be better known, but outside of universities how many people really settle down with Chekhov at the end of a long day? (Readers here are not likely to be a representative sample for answering that question).

To me it seems that where we do do those great male writers a disservice is in isolating them from their female peers. I've got far more out of reading Trollope having read Oliphant's 'Carlingford Chronicles', and enjoy Wilkie Collins more for having read Braddon - and that's a list that could go on too.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Books I'd love to see on Screen

I've been out in the villages today so have missed National bookshop day, but as I'm no stranger to the inside of a bookshop I don't feel to badly about it, and there's always tomorrow. Meanwhile a comment from Susanna about Arnold Bennett's 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' got me thinking about that perennial question; what books would you most like to see adapted for television?

I believe there's yet another Jane Austen adaptation on its way, which I'll almost certainly watch, and probably enjoy. And I might have read about a Brontë something or other which I would also watch but with a little less enthusiasm (and also I might have imagined reading about this). I'd also add Agatha Christie to the over adapted list.

Meanwhile, Susanna is right, 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' would make excellent T.V. It's a big, colourful, romp with plenty of action, and scope for gorgeous costumes. It also breaks conveniently into 2 parts, and I'd happily watch it.

I'd also quite like to see Georgette Heyer on the television, possibly something late like 'Cousin Kate' (though its depiction of mental health issues might be problematic). The late books are generally rather less loved than the early ones, so much less danger of howling in outrage at whatever nonsense is on the screen (the really awful David Walliams take on Tommy and Tuppance comes to mind). 'Cousin Kate' (thinking about re reading it for the 1968 book club) has an oppressive, somewhat gothic atmosphere, the orphaned Kate is struggling to find a way to keep herself when she's taken in by her half aunt. There's something wrong in the house but she's not clear what it is, but when a mutilated rabbit turns up we can all guess what's coming next. Done properly it could be good.

Given the success of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford' books it's a safe bet there would be an audience for Margaret Oliphant's Carlingford Chronicles too. I love these books, not least because of the way she responds to Trollope's Barchester Chronicles in them (though that's by no means all she's doing). They absolutely deserve to be better known, and have some tremendous characters in them.

I'd really like to see some of Barbara Pym's excellent women given some screen space too. They deserve the attention, and done well would be wonderful to watch.

Meike Ziervogel's 'The Photographer', or Marie Sizun's 'Her Father's Daughter' (published by Meike's Peirene Press) would also be great. They both take a good look at fathers returning from the Second World War. 'The Photographer' is a loosely biographical account of a family from East Germany being drawn into the war, partly through an act of betrayal, and finally finding each other again in the refugee camps of the west. 'Her Father's Daughter' is French, the betrayal is of a different nature, and how families fit together again after long periods of separation is the major theme. Both books are brilliant, both offer a different view of the impact the war had on society to the one I'm used to seeing. Both would make for tense and gripping on screen drama.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Grand Babylon Hotel - Arnold Bennett

I've been meaning to investigate Arnold Bennett for a long time, and found this in Edinburgh back in January. It sounded entertaining so seemed like a good place to start.

The back blurb told me that:
"Nella, daughter of millionaire Theodore Racksole, orders a dinner of steak and beer at the exclusive Grand Babylon Hotel in London. Her unladylike order is refused, so Theodore promptly buys the chef, the kitchen, and the whole hotel. But when staff begin to vanish and an aristocratic guest goes missing, Nella discovers that murder, blackmail, and kidnapping are also on the menu."

The Times also described it as rather excellent.

It is excellent. Nella, and Theodore Racksole are an appealing pair, with a delightfully modern relationship for a book first published in 1902, Theodore let's Nella do much as she likes, and what he's told, on the grounds that it's just easier that way, and as she's a determined young woman he's probably right.

From the very night that he buys the Hotel, Theodore suspects something is amiss, and relishes the chance to solve the problem. The mix of Ruritanian style royalty, murder, mayhem, kidnap, and international intrigue is entirely far fetched and very much tongue in cheek, which is all extremely satisfying and great fun along the way.

'The Grand Babylon Hotel' seems to be a bit of an oddity in Bennett's oeuvre - it certainly has little to do with the potteries and the five towns, and sounds worlds away from the 'Old Wives Tale' as well. If I'd realised that earlier it probably wouldn't have been the book I started with- simply because it was so much fun that I'd quite like more of the same. Beginning with something more typical might have been a better idea, if only because at the moment I still don't really feel I know anything about Bennett. That will change though, and meanwhile this one is a little gem of a thing.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Back home with Books

Back home, and back to work. Work looked like I must have been gone a month rather than a week, which I suppose at least makes it abundantly clear how much I actually do do there. I can hope that's been noticed (though due to being both busy, and chronically short staffed, it's unlikely) because one day in I'm feeling in need of another break.

Inverness was fun and quite busy so we took our time coming home, stopping in the Borders on Saturday before the last stretch down the M1. I love the Borders, and have a particular fondness for St Boswells (pretty village, excellent bookshop - The Main Street Trading Company with a decent Café) so staying there was a proper treat.

Packing for this trip, I made the mistake of taking 2 books I really felt I ought to finish but just haven't been in the mood for, so ended up doing very little reading. It was only on Saturday afternoon that I saw sense and decided to actually read one of the handful of new books I'd bought.

The unread books (I will finish them soon) are Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Moret' which I started months ago. The problem is the middle section, it's almost unbearably dull - a long list of plant names, interspersed with an equally tedious sexual awakening. I'll grit my teeth and get on with it at the weekend, but Zola on the countryside is not a treat. The other book is L. M. Montgomery's 'Anne of the Island'. I love Montgomery, I loved the Anne books as a child (all of them) and have been looking forward to reading the Virago reprints. Montgomery is far better on nature than Zola, but the combination was not a happy one, so Anne needs to wait a little longer.

My book buying was fairly restrained, partly held back by the tottering piles of unread books currently infesting every part of my flat. They're becoming overwhelming again and I need to do something about it, but I still couldn't resist 'The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff' ( begun age 12, ends with her death at 25, she was born in the Ukraine in 1859, but mostly grew up in France. She wanted to be a singer, but TB stopped that so she turned to painting. She founds remarkable, the book is a doorstop, but it'll keep) or 'Cork on the Water' by MacDonald Hastings (fishing, shooting, and murder, with ballerinas - it sounded worth a punt) both from Leakey's. E. F. Benson's 'Secret Lives' was a charity shop find, as Benson has never yet disappointed I'm pleased to have found this.

Mindful of the just one book principle of supporting both bookshops and publishers I found 'The Nebuly Coat' (Apollo it sounds intriguing, full of melodrama and architecture, which are both things I like) and Alistair Moffat's 'The Reivers' in the Main Street bookshop. I also found an excellent toasted coconut cake there that I'd very much like the recipe for. I'm reading The Reivers at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Inverness and Cawdor Castle

It's almost time to leave Inverness again after a brilliant few days, this is my third proper visit, and every time I find I like the place more. It's a small city, a little bit shabby in places, and nowhere near as visitor/tourist oriantated as I expected on my first visit. There are a couple of places selling tartan tat, but only a couple. For reasons I really don't understand, especially because it's not far from the whisky Mecca that is Speyside, not to mention the significant number of Highland distilleries which aren't that far away either, there isn't really a proper whisky shop.

On this visit I have found a really good little gallery though, Leakey's bookshop remains magnificent, and I now know how to wrap a medium sized yacht up for the winter (the trick is to get someone else to do the bulk of the job).

In between exploring every side street I could find, and cocooning boats in rope and tarpaulin, we went out to Cawdor Castle and gardens. (Long story short, Shakespeare's history is based on shaky sources for Macbeth, and aimed to entertain James VI (James I of England) who was fascinated by witchcraft to the point of obsession, rather than for educational purposes. The actual Cawdor castle post dates events by quite a long time.

Recent history is far more outlandish than anything in Shakespeare- almost pure soap opera, after the 6th Earl died in 1993 and left the lot to his second wife. The children of his first wife, including the 7th Earl were clearly not impressed, an increasingly bitter, and very litigious, family feud followed.

This is a shame in that the castle still retains the feel of a family home, and looks like it would be an amazing place to spend early childhood, full of all sorts of exciting chances to fall off, down, or into things, and it's rather sad to think this may more longer happen. Meanwhile it's a picture perfect Scottish castle with a liberal quantity of towers, courtyards, turrets, and winding staircases. It's also built round a holly tree (it died sometime in the 14th century, probably not long after it had a house built around it) but the tree is still there for anyone to see - which is one of the best things I've ever seen in an old house. (The legend runs that an early Thane wanted to build a new house, so directed by a dream he put a box of gold on the back of a donkey, and let it wonder about all day, then built his house where it lay down to sleep in the evening - under the tree).

There is also a fantastic collection of art, not just the old portraits that you expect to find in old houses, but a lot of fairly contemporary work, including sculpture and ceramics. The Café was excellent as well.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Buying Just One Book

Independent, and all round excellent, publisher, Salt have been tweeting about #JustOneBook this month. If all their followers bought just one book directly from Them in September, or indeed in October, it would be enough to keep them on track for the year.

I vividly remember the first training day I had about sales, I was working for Oddbins at the time, and it was explained to us what a difference getting every customer to spend a pound more would make to the company. It stuck in my mind because it was such a small amount, and that's the difference between being comfortably profitable, or not.

Salt have a really interesting list, my personal recommendation would be for Meike Ziervogel's 'The Photographer' which is easily one of my favourite books of the year, and Ziervogel's best so far, but there's a lot of great stuff to choose from.

Good quality independent publishers are something to be grateful for, cherished, and supported, as are good bookshops - independent or otherwise. Sometimes it makes more sense to use Amazon (though that's rarely because of price these days, unless it's a headlining sort of release, they're just not that cheap anymore) but I much prefer not to, purely because when I spend my money elsewhere I know it's helping keeping my local booksellers in business. The same is true ordering directly from the publisher.

So at that point in the year when I start thinking that I need to start thinking about Christmas (followed by the more panicky realisation in about a months time that actually it's almost November, work is crazy, only going to get crazier, and I need to do more than start thinking about it), I'm getting in my traditional 'think about where you spend your money' bit. It doesn't take much to make a difference to smaller (or even larger) businesses, but having them around is good for all of us. To borrow another phrase from that long ago training day, show them the love (I know it's a cheesy, corporate, thing to say - but there you have it).

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Jasper Johns at the Royal Acadamy

I'm off work this week and all over the country - on Saturday it was London to catch up with some old school friends, it was also the opening of the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Acadamy. I've loved Johns iconic works from the 1950's and '60's ever since I first encountered them, so this exhibition was a must see affair.

None of the friends I was meeting shared quite the same enthusiasm, and in fairness an exhibition perhaps isn't the best way to catch up with people you haven't seen for a decade or so, especially if it's the kind of crush that the RA normally entertains on a Saturday afternoon. So I got an early train and arrived a few minutes after opening, which turns out to be a great time to get there because it was as quiet as I've ever seen it.

This is a major retrospective that covers all of Johns career - I didn't actually realise he was still alive, which is shameful, but understandable given that the really good stuff all seems to date from the 50's and 60's, and focuses on images of 'things the mind already knows'. The flags especially maintain their freshness and power. Looking at them close to was an unexpectedly emotional experience.

As a symbol a flag comes loaded with all sorts of significance anyway, the American flag maybe more so than many, and particularly at the moment. It is something the mind already knows, and because of that, something not always paid much attention. Stopping to look at a painted version makes you both appreciate how the image has been physically painted, and also to start thinking about the layers of meaning we attach to it.

The thing that I've always loved about Johns work is the feeling that he really loves paint and colour, and that's something that really came home to me here. Amongst the later works the series I really liked are the Catenary paintings (a catenary is the curve a cable makes hanging under its own weight, suspended only by its ends). These are mostly grey canvases with lengths of string suspended from attached wings. The paint echos the curve of the string, and the string casts shadows on the canvas. The effect is much more interesting than that description sounds, I promise.

Over all it's a great exhibition, there are enough of the iconic pieces to make you feel you've got your money's worth, the sketches, preparatory works, paintings, and sculptures, show just how very good a draughstman and painter Johns actually is, there's room to explore his ideas and the themes he keeps coming back to. The later work isn't as interesting as the early stuff, but it gives his whole career context - and I'm really pleased I've seen it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Enjoy Fair Isle Knitting- Chihiro Sato

I've got lots to write about at the moment, but am off to Inverness for a few days tomorrow so most of it is going to have to wait until I get back - but Wool Week has started in Shetland (I'm just not getting far enough North) and as the Instagram pictures start coming through I feel increasingly home sick.

On the upside the lovely people at The Shetland Times have been extremely generous with review copies (this was the first bookshop I knew, it's a wonderful bookshop, and splendid publisher of local titles). First there was Sharon Miller's fabulous Heirloom Knitting and now I have a slightly early copy of Chihiro Sato's 'Enjoy Fair Isle Knitting'. (It's showing as available for pre order in the website, but as I have a finished copy I guess it won't be a long wait for it).

Chihiro Sato lives in Tokyo where she has a shop called Shaela. Shaela refers to a particular natural shade of grey Sheep fleece which is one of Chihiro's favourite colours. Looking at the shade cards at the end of the book it looks like she stocks the entire range of Jamieson's Spindrift yarn (and a very fine yarn it is). She first came to Shetland in 1989 and has been returning ever since. In that time her love for, and knowledge of, Fair Isle Knitting has continued to grow.

I'm constantly fascinated to see what individual knitters bring to the techniques they use and the traditions they encounter. There is a school of thought that says if it doesn't come from Fair Isle, you shouldn't call it Fair Isle. I have a certain amount of sympathy for this approach, not least because describing all of Shetland's traditionally inspired stranded colourwork as 'Fair Isle' doesn't do the rest of the islands many favours when it comes to recognising distinct local trends (I'm thinking of the Whalsay exhibition here). On the other hand that's the name that's stuck -  much in the way that London Gin describes a style rather than a geographical provenance. (That I think about this so much is a testament to the 'Authenticity in Culturally Based Knitwear' study day broadcast I watched.)

Back to Chihiro Sato, and the chance to see how she combines her own traditions with Fair Isle techniques. There are 18 projects altogether, and whilst in some the colour inspiration come direct from the Shetland landscape, and the motifs are entirely traditional, others have Chihiro's own motifs that reference waves, bamboo, ancient beads, and so on. There are also colour ways that look to Japan (there's a jumper called Sakura that call on the ancient cherry trees she can see from her window) and ways of using colour and pattern that are all her own.

The book is translated, so although the English is clear, there are idiosyncrasies to it, but the instructions look clear enough - it only turned up yesterday, so I haven't had a chance to investigate the details. Even if I never knit anything from it though, the chance to see how Sato responds to the things that inspire her is inspirational in itself