Saturday, April 22, 2017

In Scotland

I'm on holiday (much needed and anticipated) in Scotland for the next week, starting in Inverness, heading to Mull for a few days, and then finishing up in Edinburgh next weekend. I bought my first bottle of whisky at Birmingham airport, and despite only having 5 minutes to stick our heads round the door of Leakey's (legendary second hand bookshop) I found a book to buy (by then there was also a second bottle of whisky). In short the holiday has got off to a reasonably good start.

I don't intend to spend the entire week buying whisky (though that has been the pattern of some previous Scottish road trips) but in the past picking up a couple of bottles at the airport was one of the  holiday rituals I really looked forward to. It was certainly one of the best things, from my point of view, about being in an airport. Sadly it's not as exciting as it used to be.

At some point I'd like to do a books and booze series about whisky, but the band of whisky's which I consider affordable and interesting keeps contracting. Something I had plenty of time to think about in Birmingham's duty free this morning. Just a couple of years ago any reasonably large airport would be a great place to buy whisky, including a smattering of travel retail exclusives. Now it's almost all exclusives which amongst other things means you don't really know what you're buying (though to be fair there's generally a good range of tasting samples available and they're good about sharing them). They're also generally no age statement whisky's (nas) which I have mixed feelings about too.

The marketing line on these is that it frees distilleries to produce more exciting drams, they don't talk so much about demand outstripping supply, or that this is a cheaper way of making whisky. Prices reflect demand, and are rising accordingly. The bright spot in this is a resurgence in blended whisky, and blended malts. For years people were a bit sniffy about these, but they're coming back and they're doing it in premium style. At least the accompanying premium prices are less eye watering than the ones their single malt cousins sport.

So today's airport buy was a Mackinlay's based on the whisky that Shackleton took to the Antarctic. It's a blend of highland malts, has a pleasing sweetness to it, and will make a fine companion to Henry Harland's 'The Cardinal's Snuff Box'. I don't know anything about it, or him, other than that he was the editor of 'The Yellow Book' and seems to have been a suitably colourful character to do so.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Stevenson Under The Palm Trees - Alberto Manguel

Reading novellas in a dedicated way was really rewarding, and once I've battled through the book I'm currently engaged with (not a bad book, but I'm out of sympathy with it to the point I'm avoiding it a little bit) I might look out another pile of them. If it hadn't been for the determination to hoover up some of the shorter books littering my flat 'Stevenson Under the Palm Trees' would have carried on gathering dust indefinitely.

I'm interested in the Stevenson family generally (if that's the same tuning as loving light houses) and have enjoyed anything by Robert Louis Stevenson that I've read so far. I can't remember exactly where I bought this particular book, but I think it might have been in one of those bargain outlet places where you find yourself overwhelmed by enthusiasm for and buying piles of things you should read, rather than books you ever read.

That's a roundabout way of saying I found myself a little out of sympathy with 'Stevenson Under The Palm Trees' too, although it's a better book than the one I'm currently reading. The great thing about it being short was that it was easy to carry on to the end without beginning to resent the time it took. The lack of sympathy was caused by a Goethe quote that opens the book; "No one wanders under palm trees unpunished." It just made me wonder why not, which I don't think was a helpful attitude.

The book begins towards the end of Stevensons life on Samoa. He's working hard despite his illness, has his place in the community, and is generally at peace when he meets a Scottish missionary, Mr Baker. After Mr Baker's appearance strange things start happening; rape, murders, and Stevenson's Doppelgänger all disturb the peace.

There are touches of Jekyll and Hyde about this, although it's always possible that none of it actually happens, and everything is the product of either conscious fantasy or the unconscious effect of feverish illness. It's the ambiguity that makes the book so compelling, but there's a further unsettling element. It's illustrated by woodcuts that Stevenson had made in 1881 when he was convelescing in Switzerland. Intended at the time for his 12 year old stepson, they were meant to illustrate a series of short ditties entitled Moral Emblems. Their presence here, in a different context, becomes positively sinister.

It's a clever book which elegantly prods at the nature of good and evil, repression, desire, fantasy, and reality. It pays homage to Stevenson in multiple ways, and it's well worth reading.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rain - Melissa Harrison

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, feels like an appropriate book to discuss over an Easter weekend where inevitably both will feature. My walking will be through a city and to work - but I'll still try and make the best of it.

After being blown away by 'At Hawthorn Time' a couple of years ago I've been interested in anything with Mellisa Harrison's name on it, 'Rain' had been sitting on my wish list for a while, basically waiting for the paperback. It was worth the wait.

It's a short book which (it's all in the title) takes four walks through the rain, one for each season, and uses them as a starting point to explore a whole range of things. It starts with Wicken Fen on a January day with discussion of flooding, peat, reclaimed land, the problems caused by drainage, and the diminished amount of proper fen left to us. After that it's Shropshire in April (a showery Easter weekend), the Darent Valley in an August thunder storm, and finally Dartmoor in an October mizzle.

There is also a moment (in the Wicken fen chapter if I remember correctly) when Harrison talks briefly about how difficult she finds it to read the agricultural (arable) landscape in winter. It's something I guess you'd have to be a farmer (and the right sort of farmer at that) to be able to do with any accuracy. It's economically done, a quiet reminder of how out of touch most of us are with where our food comes from, how exactly the landscapes we look at are being used, and of the increasing gap between producers and consumers - it also hints at the tension between farmers and heratige custodians.

The National Trust (who's badge is on this book) and the RSPB (to a lesser extent) are major landowners and landlords. It's not always a happy relationship with their tennents, and this is only one of dozens of tangential issues this book has me listing to explore further.

There's a list of 100 words concerning rain that comes after the epilogue, and is as good an illustration as any of the British preoccupation with the weather, and our reputation as a rain sodden nation. (Is this a particularly British thing? I'm used to thinking of it as our national stereotype, but when I think about it more it's hard to imagine anybody not being preoccupied by the weather.)

It's a book that covers a surprising amount given its modest length, providing plenty to contemplate from poetry, to the revelation that owls aren't very waterproof (the feathers that make their flight so silent get easily waterlogged, it's one reason why they need to nest in enclosed spaces), and wider environmental issues. All that and it encourages us to see the beauty in a rain washed landscape as well. Altogether recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Quiet Gentleman- Georgette Heyer

The 1951 book club has given me the perfect excuse to re-read Georgette Heyer's 'The Quiet Gentleman', something I've had half a mind to do for a while. The only reason I hadn't already done so is because once I pick up a Heyer I find it very hard to stop at one.

Lyn at I Prefer Reading  has also read 'The Quiet Gentleman', and provided an excellent synopsis, so I'll keep mine brief. Although it's theoretically a regency romance, 'The Quiet Gentlemen' is really more of a thriller, albeit one in fancy dress and wedding bells all round at the end. The new Earl of St Erth has returned to the family seat (Stanyon) a year after his fathers death to find less than a warm welcome. The product of that fathers first, brief, and unhappy marriage the two had never enjoyed much of a relationship, to the point that the Earl had treated his younger son, Martin, from his second marriage very much as his heir. Gervase, meanwhile, had been off serving in the peninsula wars, leaving his family with some hopes that he might have died out there.

The rest of the family party comprises of the dowager countess (very much in the Lady Catherine mould), cousin Theo who acts as land agent, and Miss Morville who is staying with the countess whilst her parents are on holiday. It soon becomes clear that someone really does want the Earl out of the way as he's plagued by a series of near fatal accidents.

Every time I read this book I like it more - I still vividly remember being fooled by the romantic red herring the first time I read it some 30 years ago, and wondering what was going on when the promisingly lovely heiress went off with someone other than the hero. I'm not sure if the other red herring was such a surprise but it's an enjoyable enough mystery, and even though this is the umpteenth time I've read the book I was still desperate to race through it to see what happened next.

Why do I continue to like it so much? The obvious reasons are that there's something distinctly comforting about a romance, that this one showcases Heyer's humour at its best (it makes me laugh anyway) helps, and the mystery element is fun*. I like the way Miss Morville emerges as the heroine, attractive principally for her sound common sense, practicality, and intelligence - a successful relationship does after all need to be based on more than physical attraction.

More than anything though I'm interested in the way that Heyer examines family relationships and attachment to place. That the older son from the failed marriage is pushed out of the second family is understandable, as is the younger brothers resentment when the virtually unknown older brother moves back into his house. What do you do when your home, the home you live in, becomes somebody else's property? Equally what do you do when your property is filled with people who are far more at home in it than you are? How does it feel as the son of a younger brother to love the place that was your fathers home, but where you are essentially an employee? And after spending all your married life running a place, how do you cope with no longer being in charge?

The book has its flaws, but Heyer continues to delight me - her particular brand of humour, intelligence, and common sense has certainly proved the basis of a lasting relationship between us.

* The cover of my copy is particularly foul (I consider the cover from the first edition to be the best of the lot) and not for the first time I'm wondering what Heyer's books would look like if they weren't marketed specifically at women and as romantic fiction. In this one, and it isn't unique amongst her work in this respect, the romance element is the least of it. To sell it as such is underselling it.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Invisible Collection & Buchmendel - Stefan Zweig

It's Kaggsy and Simon's 1951 book club this week - I love these, it's a fascinating way to get an overview of both a year in books, and of certain books through the lens of several different readers - so it's a little bit shaming that I haven't been more organised about my reading for it (this might have been a good week to finally get to grips with Graham Greene, but I don't think it will be now). I could also have used it as a good excuse to re read Robertson Davies' 'Tempest Tost' (love his writing, loved this book read in pre blogging days) but that's not on the cards now either (damn work for interfering with reading time).

What I have read, and which I think qualifies, is a couple of Steven Zweig stories that came in a particularly neat little package. They were originally published in Great Britain in 1951, although the stories were obviously written long before then. Still, if 1951 is when they became available to an English reading audience that's enough for me.

Zweig is a writer I seem to have collected plenty of books by, but haven't read nearly enough of. That has to change, because he's wonderful, though maybe not for reading on buses or in staff dining rooms, as both stories in this book had me in, or in the edge of, tears almost all the way through.

The Invisible Collection (an episode of the inflation period in Germany) is narrated by an art dealer who has gone to visit an elderly man in search of stock. He knows this man has a wonderful collection of prints and hopes he'll part with some of them. What he finds is a blind man who's family are keeping a secret from him. It's a glimpse of the misery the treaty of Versailles caused in Germany,  and of the lies we tell those we love. It's also a perfectly balanced story, elegantly making it's points without being heavy handed.

Buchmendel discusses the casual cruelty of bureaucracy and change. A man takes shelter in a Viennese cafe, slowly realising he knew it in his student days when it was famous for being the unofficial office of an eccentric Jewish book peddler; Buchmendel. Before the (first) war people sought him out for his encyclopaedic knowledge, but after innocently, if stupidly, falling foul of authority he goes to prison, he does not emerge as the same man. Things change and Buchmendel is left behind, broken, and quickly forgotten. It's a small tragedy - but more than enough to get under my skin.

I don't want to make trite observations about what I think Zweig is trying to do, others will already have said it better, and anyway, it's probably something the individual reader should decide for themselves. What I do want to say is read him.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Invisible Man - H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells is one of those writers who's works sound so familiar that I almost feel like I've already read them. Because of this (totally erroneous) impression, I also thought I wasn't much of a fan. I've checked both my bookshelf and memory which collectively tell me that I have bought, but never read, 'Ann Veronica' and 'The New Machiavelli', I might have seen the character of the invisible man used in other films, but apart from that I've never read, or even so munched as watched, anything based on his works.

Wells' work is in the public domain as of this year which means nice new editions of his books are popping up, including a set from Oxford World's Classics - which they very kindly sent me. I might have ignored these indefinitely (still thinking that Wells wasn't really for me based on not fancying any of the film versions of 'The Island of Dr Moreau' etc), but they're short books so I read a couple as part of that general effort to clear through some of the low hanging fruit in the tbr pile. Now I feel like a bit of an arse for not doing this years ago (Ann Veronica still looks a bit worthy and unappealing though).

I started with 'The Invisible Man' which was an excellent choice for its mix of horror and humour, I really hadn't expected the humour. Griffin - we only discover his name towards the end of the book - turns up at a village pub one cold winters day looking for rooms to rent. It's out of season and he has ready cash so the landlady overlooks his odd appearance and general rudeness and lets him have the rooms. As the months pass he continues to be rude and unapproachable, and when his money starts to run out and there's talk of eviction a crisis point is reached.

Fortunately for the invisible man it's now summer, so running around without visible clothes on isn't as bad as it was in winter. But being invisible doesn't necessarily confer the advantages a person might expect. For example, invisible isn't silent, it doesn't leave any hiding places about the person, and Griffin can't reverse it.

The horror, along with an element of tragedy, comes from Griffin's monstrous egotism, that and a natural fear on the part of the reader of the unseen. Griffin has lost all sense of right and wrong (if he ever had one) and is determined to embark on a reign of terror until he's worshiped as a god.

The humour comes mostly from the consideration of the difficulties of being invisible, and how to make use of that invisibility. If Griffin had thought to make himself some invisible clothes before he started making invisible cats it all might have been very different. As it is if he wants to hide he has to be naked, and silent, and as anybody who knows the British climate will understand, that's not ideal (especially if you catch a cold).

To be invisible is a common enough fantasy, following Wells as he picks that fantasy apart was so much more entertaining than I'd imagined. The science part of the science fiction might not read as at all feasible anymore, but the ideas that Wells explores are as relevant as ever - especially exactly what it is that make a monster, and it's these ideas which are making me so excited about reading more of his books.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Restoration Project

Last year my father let me have a small portrait (oil on board) of a mystery woman painted by my great grandfather (Francis Swithin Anderton). It had suffered some water damage after a boiler malfunction, had lost its frame, and was generally in need of some love. I found a restorer, delivered it up, kept my fingers crossed, and was really pleased with the eventual result.
The first picture

The current project, after and before.

This year he let me have another portrait, this time I'm fairly sure (it looks like her) the sitter was my great grandmother, who for reasons now lost, is dressed as a nun. The history of this picture is also a bit of a mystery. As far as I know it had been in a house that belonged to his (Francis') sister and her husband. The house stayed in the family until the 1970's but was rented out complete with its late Victorian/Edwardian fixtures and fittings. When it was sold, complete with furnishings, it was stripped out. Dad managed to get the painting, but not the frame and for the next 40 odd years it kicked around in odd corners, and finally in a shed. At some time it too seems to have suffered from damp, so when I got it in January it was very much in need of some love.

Off she went to the restorer (if anybody ever wants a recommendation for someone good with oil paintings in Rutland I'd be happy to pass on her details). The moment the picture is returned is thoroughly exciting because you finally get to assess what it is you have. This painting (oil on canvas) turned out to be a sketch rather than a finished work. This is clear from the vague nature of the background and a general lack of detail anywhere but the face. The natural darkening of the paint over the years doesn't help here either, the water damage revealed more of the brushwork on her sleeves than is now discernible.

I have no idea if anything further came of the idea that was being worked on, but it wasn't signed. I'm a bit surprised by this, most other things of his I've seen are signed, and as I assume this was a gift to his sister, and that someone had gone to the trouble of framing and hanging it, it was clearly liked enough to be seen as suitably finished for display.

There's no evidence the canvas has been cut down (with the loss of the signature) but at some point it had been taken off its stretcher, moved about an inch to the left and tacked back down. This moved the figure closer to the centre of the image, but left a chunk of unpainted canvas which added to the challenge of framing.

Finding a frame really has been a challenge. Dad remembered her in something quite ornate and gold.  I could see that working, but finding something suitable would be (very) expensive, it would also be hard to fit in with the rest of my flat. In the end after 3 visits to the framers (they're very patient) and a lot of changing my mind I settled for something quite plain. I'm really pleased with the result, it feels right both for the painting and it's current surroundings, but I'm still open to other possibilities. I think of the frame as an outfit, and see no reason not to change it if I ever find something I think will suit her better, or if her surroundings change sufficiently to demand a rethink.

Meanwhile this particular labour of love is at an end, and I get to enjoy the results. The painting's value is basically sentimental, but she has a charm that grows on you the more time you spend with her. The whole process has cost about £360 which doesn't seem unreasonable to pay to rescue a peice of family history (though it does make me hope my washing machine doesn't follow through on its occasional threat to give up the ghost any time soon). The rest of my evening will be spent rearranging pictures whilst I try and find her the right bit of wall to sit on.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A new cookbook and the start of a serious cull

Today I bought my second cookbook of the year ('Gather, Cook, Feast', it looks good), it's sitting next to me whilst I eat my third smoked mackerel salad in a week and wonder where my enthusiasm for cooking has gone. Buying it was also the final bit of encouragement I needed to begin the process of going through my books with a properly critical eye and starting to clear some out.

Starting with the cookbooks was obvious, I completely ran out of shelf space in the kitchen months ago (there are Christmas presents still looking for a home) and I'd got to the point where it felt like I couldn't find anything. I've pulled out 6 books to go. It might not sound like much but it represents about 25cm of shelf space, which was enough to find a place for everything else, and suddenly I feel a lot better - it doesn't always take very much. I had never cooked from 5 of them, not used the 1 I had cooked from (once) in years, and need to question why letting go can be such an issue.

If I was being really ruthless I could get rid of more, and maybe I will, not least because I hope that a few less books will encourage me to use the remaining ones rather more. Cooking has always been something I've really enjoyed but for the last year or so it's begun to feel like a chore at times. There are a whole host of reasons for this, a lot of it's a work pattern that gets me home around 9pm a couple of nights a week, and then has me back at work by 8am the next day. It's energy sapping, and I'm learning the hard way that the older I get the less energy I have.

Suddenly the effort of thinking sufficiently far ahead to have the neccesary ingredients ready to cook something interesting or new when I do get home at a sensible time seems like an effort to much - hence packs of smoked mackerel and salad even on days off. It seems there's also a point when a wall of cookbooks becomes overwhelming rather than inspiring to me.

But for a natural hoarder, and book lover, getting rid of books isn't easy. There are the books which might have been gifts where it feels positively disloyal to discard them. Books bought with good intentions that make me feel I've failed by not embracing their contents with more enthusiasm. Books that represent hard earnt money that apparently I wasted because I never used them and now they're going. Most ridiculous of all there are the couple of Nigella titles that make me feel like I'm letting down the woman herself when I admit I don't really want them. Because I think she's great, even mentioning that her books are on the pile feels oddly disloyal, but when I flicked through them nothing appealed to me - so why do I feel like this?

If there are so many books that just looking at them leaves me paralysed with indecision though (only a little bit over dramatic), then there has to be a cull until the whole lot looks manageable again. Small flats are no place for the sentimental or indiscriminate stockpiling of unnecessary clutter. There will always be space for the books I use, love, and really want, just not for all the books I currently have. I do the same with mugs. That has to stop too.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Her Father's Daughter - Marie Sizun

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

One of the many things I'd like to tell my much younger self would have been to read more European fiction. I remember reading, some time in my twenties, that the British were really poor at reading books in translation, and also remember feeling somewhat vindicated by that - I wasn't the only one. I  struggled with French at school and dropped it at the first possible opportunity. French, or Italian, would have helped with my degree in History of Art, and wouldn't have gone amis in the wine trade. Wine labels have probably taught me as much French as school did, they've also taught me that things stick better if you're interested in them.

What simply didn't come my way at school (with the exception of Anne Frank's Diary, and the Moomins) was literature that threw any light on any European culture or experience at all. Nor did I see any foreign language films. I can't help but wonder how many others had the same experience, and if the same us and them mentality would be so widespread if we were all generally better read.

'Her Father's Daughter' is the sort of subtle family drama that even my younger self might have appreciated. It's set in Paris as the war is drawing to a close, a young child has a happy, and remarkably undisciplined, life with her mother in their one bedroom flat - the only cloud from her point of view is a disapproving grandmother. The father she has never met is about to return from the prison camp he's been in though, and when he comes back family dynamics are obviously going to change.

Change they do, it's not just that there's a new person in a small space, or that the focus of her mother's attention has shifted, but also that her fathers war time experiences have left him with an uncertain temper, and as unused to small children as his daughter is to his authority.

Almost inevitably the relationship that builds between father and daughter is at the expense of the relationship between mother and daughter. That the mother has a secret which is also, inevitably, going to be revealed by the child, makes things altogether more complicated. She doesn't understand exactly what it is that she's revealing, and because it's told from her point of view, we can't be quite sure either - at least not of all the implications, but the repercussions are in no doubt.

So far so good, but what had me reaching for the tissues by the end of the book was the matter of fact description of what the relationship between father and daughter becomes when he moves on from his first family. There's nothing unusual or dramatic about it, but it's still quietly devastating and gives the book a tremendous emotional punch. It's a book I could get really evangelical about.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lyvedon New Bield

It's been a National Trust day today with a visit to Lyvedon New Bield in Northamptonshire. Lyvedon New Bield (new build, there is a Lyvedon old Bield too) was commissioned by Sir Thomas Tresham as a, well I'm not to clear what, but some sort of little house in his garden intended for banquets or retreats. It was never finished.

My favourite graffiti was a row of birds carved into one wall

Tresham is an interesting character, a devout catholic at a time when that wasn't entirely sensible, he spent a good 15 years under house arrest. When he was at liberty he spent huge sums of money on building projects including Rushton triangular lodge (which is built around the number 3 which symbolises the trinity, and is also a play on Tresham's name and trefoil coat of arms). The triangular lodge is a charming building with the feel of a folly about it as well as something vaguely mystical - it's the numbers, symbols, and general Elizabethan love of allegory that does it.

 Unfortunately Tresham seems to have made a habit of living beyond his means, died with debts that would be about a million pounds in today's money, and before Lyvedon was finished, when his builders realised the state of play they downed tools and left. Any chance of the family turning things around were scuppered by his son, Francis', involvement in the gunpowder plot.

Now I know what witch marks are I was pleased to find one 

Lyvedon is based around the number 5, the floor plan is a perfectly symmetrical Greek cross made up of 5 squares, each arm of the cross ends in a bay with 5 sides, each side measuring 5 feet (adding up to 25 feet which reference both the nativity and the annunciation- those Elizabethan Catholics would probably have loved sudoku). Being inside it is oddly disorienting, maybe because it was never finished it's hard to work out exactly how the building was intended to be used, but more than that, it's not always clear where you are in it.

Anyway, it's well worth a visit. There's a tea room which had a very welcome wood burning stove in it (there was a chilly wind) and good scones. A second hand book shack where I struck gold in the form of an old penguin edition of Edith Sitwell's biography of Alexander Pope, Margery Allingham's 'Death of a Ghost' which I've not seen before, and a virago - Ellen Galford's 'Moll Cutputse Her True History'. Anything based on The Roaring Girl is worth 50p of my money!

There are also the gardens. Tresham had ambitions for these, also never quite realised, but as with the  building, a surprising amount has survived. In that case the footprint of his plans still exists. The orchard has been replanted with the trees he specified, moats and mounds have been uncovered, and thanks in part to a photo the Luftwaffe took, it's been possible to trace the plan for a maze which it seems was going to be planted with roses and raspberries, both having significance for Christ and the virgin. I can only hope that the national trust decide to plant this - it might be a bit scratchy, but can you imagine how wonderful it would smell at the right point in summer, and how pretty it could be?

Friday, March 31, 2017

America After the Fall and Revolution, Russian art 1917-1932

One of the things I like about my job is that we have corporate membership to the RA and today I've been making the most of it. I'd go to London more often if East Midland mainlines pricing structure was less prohibitive, but they can obviously get away with charging an arm and a leg (okay, around £50 return, but it's cheaper to get a ticket from Nottingham than it is Leicester, despite it being the same train, and Virgin can do Birmingham to London for around £20 return) and do so with enthusiasm. None of which has anything to do with the exhibitions I saw.

What I really wanted to see was Grant Wood's 'American Gothic' in the America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930's exhibition. I hoped a week day would mean that the Sackler gallery would be less crowded. I guess it was, I can only imagine what it would have been like on a Saturday, but inevitably it was still really crowded. Never the less it's an excellent exhibition, 'American Gothic' surpassed expectation - it's mesmerising, and seems much warmer and affectionate in life than it sometimes looks in reproductions.

Wood's 'Daughters of Revolution' was another highlight. He described it as a satire (there was apparently a spat about a stained glass window he was commissioned to design and the use of German glass in it, of which the DOR did not approve). It's a picture that clearly mocks its subjects, but it has the same magnetism that 'Gothic' does.

It's not a big exhibition but there's a lot to think about, and it's maybe not the worst place to start trying to understand American politics - it certainly hints at some of the contradictions that baffle me as I try and make some sense of it.

Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932 is on until the 17th of April, it was fairly quiet on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and if you can see it you should. Again, there's a lot to think about - in this case a journey from the hopeful chaos immediately after the revolution when everything must have seemed possible, to the depressingly speedy descent into Stalinist purges.

There's a whole range of objects and images to look at, the propaganda is genuinely uplifting (or at least it looked pretty good to someone who had just enjoyed tea and scones, and wasn't a starving peasant forced into collective farming - I've read enough Solzhenitsyn to know how that goes). Official portraits of Lenin looking commanding and imperial however are telling - one Tzar has replaced another.

I really should have bought the exhibition catalogue for Russia, and I wish I could go back (maybe a few times) to properly get to grips with it (there really is a tremendous amount to think about). It's epic, and moving, there's a room with a lot of Malevich's in it (which I personally consider a very good thing), and however fleeting a moment it proved to be, the sense of what was possible at the beginning of that revolution is tangible - especially in some of the ceramics, and it's exciting.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Orison for a Curlew - Horatio Clare

One of the things that I particularly like about Little Toller is how beautiful their books are. They're lovely to touch and look at in a way that not just makes them a pleasure to read, but reinforces the sense of what I'm reading. In this case the illustrations by Beatrice Forshall* act almost like punctuation - the moments I took to look at the image that prefaces each chapter was enough of a pause to let the previous chapter sink in a little bit more.

'Orison for a Curlew' was a Christmas present from my sister (thoughtfully chosen from my wish list, where it was sitting because the Eurasian Curlew, especially its distinctive call, is a defining part of the Shetland landscape I grew up in). The Curlew, Horatio Clare writes about here is its elusive cousin, Numenius Tenuirostris (the slim beak of the new moon) or Slender-billed Curlew. It's so elusive that it's officially one of the world's rarest birds. So rare that at the time of writing it looked very like it may actually be extinct.

A book about a search for a bird that hadn't been reliably spotted in years sounds like it might be quite depressing - this one isn't. Instead it's an unexpectedly uplifting homage to the people who have thought to save the habitats and landscapes to which the bird so recently belonged, and recognition that even if the Slender-billed Curlew has gone forever, it hasn't gone unnoticed and efforts to find it have created a positive legacy.

The question that Clare asks again and again as he travels across Greece and around the Balkans is does it matter if the bird is extinct? The answer is yes, and it's yes mostly because we don't understand why. Not so long ago this was a common enough bird, and whilst it's not been lucky with its habitat, it's cousins and neighbours have not suffered in quite the same way. If we don't know why, we don't know what it's disappearance means, the implications it has for other species, the implications it has for us. And that's quite apart from considerations about what sort of world were leaving behind us, or what responsibility we have towards the environment we live in.

The good thing is that people realise this, attitudes are changing, and as is demonstrated again and again throughout the book "passionate efforts by very small numbers of committed people can have a tremendous effect". So in the end it's a hopeful book, and there's an even more hopeful post script. By the end of the book its years since a confirmed sighting of the Curlew, there are rumours, and the odd possibility, but they feel like wishful thinking, the inevitable conclusion is that the bird has gone. Since then however there is news that Numenius Tenuirostris might have been hiding in Holland and Kazakhstan, that it might not be to late to learn from it after all, and that almost miraculously this is something we haven't broken. Not yet anyway.

*I really like Forshall's work generally, and as this is the closest I'll come to owning any of it in the foreseeable future, these illustrations were a real bonus.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Deborah Vass Linocuts

This mornings bus read was Stefan Zweig's 'The Invisible Collection', the collector in it had amassed portfolios of Dürer's and Rembrandt etchings and woodcuts which will forever remain beyond my means, but I recognised his passion.

I wouldn't like to say which gives me more pleasure - books or art, but I do know that in a fire it's the pictures I'd make a grab for. The small oil portrait of a woman by my great grandfather, and an exquisite embroidery of figs that looks like a painting by my very talented friend Mary Fraser - I'd risk injury for either. They and a few other things are utterly irreplaceable and I treasure them not just for their beauty but also their associations.

Meanwhile, like Zweig's collector, my means are relativley limited so when I started buying pictures they were mostly prints. That's a very vague term, but this doesn't feel like right moment to launch into a long list of all the print making techniques that particularly attract me. It's enough to say that as I've found myself with slightly more disposable income it's still mostly prints that I collect.

I'm not generally a fan of buying things online that I haven't actually seen first. The image on the screen will never be the same as the actual object, and you lose the sense of going on an adventure that going to find something gives. But this weekend I took a chance, and I'm delighted with the results. I've been following Deborah Vass on Instagram for a while, coveting her Lino cuts. On Friday her Etsy shop opened and I'm now the proud owner of two of them. I don't think it'll end there either.

You can tell how pleased I am with them because I'm writing about them here! Have a look at her work, think for a moment about the effort, skill, inspiration, personality, and love that goes into creating them, and keep an eye out for what she does next.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Warner Edwards Gin

On Saturday I finally made it to Falls farm in Harrington (Northamptonshire) to see the Warner Edwards distillery. I've wanted to do this for around 4 years now (basically since they opened and I heard about them) and thanks to my friend Grainne for getting us tickets and driving (thank you, it was a fab birthday present) we've finally done it (even though it took us 4 months to coordinate a date - how is it that as you get older these things get so hard?).

Warner Edwards went into production in December 2010, following reasonably hard on the footsteps of Sipsmith in the vanguard of small craft distilleries - it's all gone a bit crazy since then with new gin brands popping up all over the place with bewildering speed, but Warner Edwards are particularly interesting. Started by two friends who felt if they were going to be working as hard as they were they might as well be doing it for themselves they set about looking for a way to exploit their farming backgrounds.

The answer turned out to be a small barn on Tom Warner's family farm - and this is one of the things I find really exciting about gin distilling - the scale can actually be really small, certainly compared to whisky making, and still be commercially viable. They currently have a main still (Curiosity) that can produce around 700 bottles worth of spirit a time, and a baby still for experimenting with. The farm provides provenance for the flavoured gins they produce (elderflower, Mellisa, sloe, and, rhubarb) and a romantic background for the whole story. It's also quite exciting that this is a project that can support jobs in a rural community.

The gins themselves are great. I bought the Harrington dry because it's just the sort of traditional juniper forward sort of thing I love. Really liked the Mellisa (lemon balm) gin which I already had unopened at home - it's more pungently herby than the basic dry. Was impressed by the sloe stronger than most and not too cough syrupy in flavour, so a definite winner, and surprised by how much I liked the elderflower. The rhubarb gin is an old favourite.

Elderflower isn't a flavour I'm always overly keen on and I had doubts about this one. I'd tried, and disliked, Gordon's elderflower but this is something else. Again it's strong enough (40% abv) to have a proper punch, isn't too sweet, and the flavour is fresh and appealing. There are various suggestions for cocktails on the website, but Grainne and I both thought it might be really good as a rickey with lots of ice, lime, and soda water. It's available from M&S which makes it one of the easiest to find.

Altogether it was a pretty good tour, and not least because you get to try the whole range which makes it very good value as well as informative. My personal highlight was seeing buckets of used botanicals and having the fun of spotting what went in the gin (it's the kind of detail I like) and I can thoroughly recommend going. for more details.

Friday, March 24, 2017

You Were Never Really Here - Jonathan Ames

Most of this year has been spent in a bit of a reading slump. I've been more than usually indecisive about what I might be in the mood for, struggled to find the enthusiasm, or concentration, that all sorts of great looking books would call for, and found myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of unread volumes piling up around me. This week I made a decision - pick short books (anything around 150 pages, or less) and just get on with it.

This isn't my normal approach, but I'm finding it very helpful. There's a steadily growing pile of books that I've finally read which is really satisfying, that sense of being overwhelmed is diminishing, and the slightly unlikely combination of titles is holding my attention and shaking up my imagination (I feel like I'm getting a bit of a mental spring clean).

I'm particularly pleased that I've picked up some of the Pushkin Vertigo series that I have (the feeling now is that I have to collect them all). I don't know anything about Jonathan Ames beyond the little bit in the back cover of 'You Were Never Really Here' (proper research later, but for now I know he's American, and contemporary). To quote from the back blurb:

"Joe has witnessed things that cannot be erased. A former FBI agent and Marinr, his abusive childhood has left him damaged beyond repair. So he hides away, earning a living rescuing girls who have been kidnapped into the sex trade...
Brutal and redemptive in equal measure, You Were Never Really Here is a toxic shock of a thriller, laced with corruption, revenge, and the darkest of inner demons."
Given that Joe's favourite weapon is a hammer, and quite a lot of people end up dead or injured, Ames stripped back style isn't overly graphic. The brevity of his descriptions is still powerful, but we're mercifully spared details - though I'd generally argue that less is more with this kind of thing, so for me the lack of detail was a bonus all round.

There's a quote on the back cover from Gary Shteyngart (I looked him up) which says "Amazing... Would make Raymond Chandler happy", I can't think of a better way to sum up this book, or to recommend it. As I've now spent longer trying to think of a way to do just that then I did reading the book it seems sensible to stop, but I do recommend it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Wicked Go To Hell - Frédéric Dard

I've been putting off reading this for a while now, mostly because I loved Bird in a Cage so much, and was half afraid that nothing else would measure up to it (it's that nerve racking moment when you have to find out if you love the writer or the book). Also because the plot; " At one of France's toughest prisons, an undercover cop is attempting to trap an enemy spy by posing as a fellow inmate. So Frank and Hal find themselves holed up together in a grimy, rat infested cell, each warily eyeing the other. As they plan a daring escape, an unexpected friendship ensues - but which is the cop and which is the spy?" isn't the sort of thing that normally appeals to me.

I didn't like this as much as 'Bird in a Cage', it's much more violent and because it's dealing almost exclusively with a relationship between two men bought together by violence I found it hard to relate to. The way Dard leaves us guessing about which man is the criminal, which the policeman, until the end is clever and effective, it did make me think about the nature of duty, loyalty, conscience, and deception. He doesn't get bogged down in morals, and the exact nature of the relationship between the two men is fascinating.

It's not friendship, but something more binding born out of shared experience, hatred, and distrust, which strips everything else away. In the end there are no good or bad men, just men. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say there are no good men, just men doing what they do.

I don't mind the moral ambiguity of it all, could accept the fairly extreme violence, but wasn't particularly moved by the bond that grows between Frank and Hal (because it really was all to macho for me) though I can see that another reader would be. That said, I was interested enough to not only finish this book, but to read it in a day (instead of picking it up and putting it down over a week), had I really disliked it, or even just found it dull I would quite happily have stuck it straight on the charity shop pile.

It's also confirmed my opinion of Dard as a really interesting writer, and this time it won't take me 9 months to get to the next one I have ('Crush'). It's good to be taken out of my comfort zone, and given my love of the feminine middlebrow, particularly good to read something so at odds with that.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Murder in the Museum - John Rowland

Yesterday's trip to the beach already feels like it happened weeks ago. A wet, and cold again, Monday at work would have been quite enough to bring me back down to earth anyway, but the other big event yesterday was a call from the decorater. This is related to the annoying (now evicted) upstairs neighbour who persistently flooded my flat last summer. After months of trying to coordinate with the approved decorater (I finally managed to get hold of him in January after he got back from the Caribbean) he disappeared again to work out a quote, and I heard nothing until last night when he phoned to say the work had to be gone this week and could he have a key.

I'm not paying for this so I suppose I can't be to snotty about it, but a little bit more notice would have been helpful. As it is I've had a fun evening rushing home to give the keys of my flat to a virtual stranger, with expensive shoes, who makes the Scarlet Pimpernel look easy to find. I'm sure it'll be fine. I've also had to clear anything breakable or previous put of my bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom so he can deal with the ceilings. It means the sitting room looks like a junk shop, I won't be able to find anything, and I've been half choked by dust. His 'don't worry about the pictures, love emulsion will scrape right off those' has not filled me with confidence. But it'll probably be fine?

At least 'Murder in the Museum' was reliable. I'd been saving it for a rainy day - murders in the British Museum/library don't come along every day (at least, I sincerely hope not) - and as there have been a few of those recently the time seemed right.

I'll be honest, it's not the best murder mystery I've read, but that really didn't matter. The joy of this book is in its premise. Henry Fairhurst, a meek and mild man, is quietly researching the life of an obscure 17th century French courtesan in the reading room when his peace is disturbed by a loud snore. When he try's to wake the snorer the man, Professor Arnell (an expert on some of the more obscure Elizabethan dramatists), falls to the floor, quite dead. The plot thickens when it turns out that he's not the first expert on Elizabethan dramatists to have died suddenly in the reading room.

Just what is going on? Does somebody have it in for academics who specialise in the Elizabethens, or is it because both men had money to leave? When a third scholar meets the same end the police have their work cut out.

The plot relies heavily on coincidence, and doesn't bear a great deal of scrutiny in places, but I liked Rowlands sense of humour more than enough to make up for that. It's not a book to be taken seriously, but as light entertainment it works very well indeed. I happily read through it in a couple of hours and now I've finished moving stuff for the decorater I'm off to dig out another Rowland as a reward for good behaviour.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Happy Birthday, Tally

Humour me with this, but Tally is my mother's dog, and today is her birthday. She's two, and since she came into our lives (which will be two years ago in about eight weeks) she's been a godsend. D jokes (it's probably a joke) that I love the dog more than him, I don't, but when she launched herself onto me and my bed at 5 am this morning to lick me awake, before demanding to be let out, I thought it was endearing. If a D had done that I would have sworn at him.

The thing with dogs generally is their wholehearted enthusiasm for people they like, and for life in general, always makes me feel better. It doesn't matter how bad a time I've been having, Tally cheers me up, and when I was struggling with stress a while back spending time with her really helped.

Anyway the dog's birthday has been an excuse for a family outing to the seaside (a 200 mile round trip, so no small undertaking, and as my sister pointed out she's been asking for a birthday trip to the beach for years and never got one). Tally had never seen the sea before, and at first she wasn't at all convinced that it was a good thing, but then she met a much smaller dog who jumped right in so she decided to try it, then spent an age wallowing around like a porpoise whilst trying to catch kite surfers. (She didn't get close).

It's not always easy to find the time for days like today, or even remember how important it is to do so whilst we can, but it's been great, so thanks to the dog for giving us a reason to do it.

We went to Old Hunstanton in Norfolk, it came well recommend as a dog friendly beach, a recommendation I heartily endorse. All the many dogs there were well behaved, the beach was clean, and there's an equally dog friendly cafe by the car park.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bodies of Water - V. H. Leslie

I'm trying to have a bit of a spring clean at the moment (so far I've regretfully thrown away two mugs with cracked handles, and put aside an unused storage jar and jug for oxfam. It could be going better) and part of that is to read through some of the towering piles of books that are currently everywhere. Quite a lot of them are short, so theoretically won't take long...

V. H. Leslie's 'Bodies of Water' had been hanging around ignored for far to long and seemed like a good place to start. There are two timelines linked by a building, Wakewater house, and the river Thames. In Victorian London we have Evelyn, who has been ministering to fallen women, after a love affair ends badly she has a nervous break down and ends up at Wakewater House for the water cure. Back in the present day Wakewater is in the process of being converted into modern flats, and Kirsten moves in fresh from a painful break up. There is only one other resident, Manon, an archivist who starts to tell Kirsten about the murky past of the river and the women who turned to it as a solution to their problems.

The two stories start to touch each other as Evelyn unravels further, and Kirsten starts to see mysterious women at the waters e
dge as she gets to know Wakewater better. There is also the water that randomly pours into her flat and then dries up again (after my experiences with being repeatedly flooded by my upstairs neighbor last year that touched a nerve).

Leslie borrows from the Slavic tradition of Rusalka (the more malevolent nineteenth century versions) as well as referencing all sorts of Victorian paintings (including George Frederick Watt's 'Found Drowned' which is the sort of moralising melodramatic Victoriana I find particularly appealing) to create a very watery gothic ghost story.

Everything about the story is slippery, and by the time I finished I was slightly more rattled by it than I might have liked. This is maybe because I live next to a river where sadly drownings have not been uncommon, so it felt a bit close to home. Otherwise it's a clever, provocative, and genuinely chilling, book that ratchets up the tension all the way through. I wouldn't particularly recommend reading it after dark, or with a tap dripping.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sealskin - Su Bristow

There are a few Selkie myths around, but I think the best known one will be some version of the story of the fisherman who finds himself watching as a group of seals come ashore, shed their skins, and in the form of beautiful young women start to dance. He steals the skin of one of them so she cannot return to the sea with her sisters, takes her home, marries her, and for a while all seems well. There are children, and a settled life - then one day her young son finds her lost skin and with that she's gone.

I couldn't say if it was because this was the first Selkie story I really remember, or if it's because of the ambiguous ending, but it's always been my favourite. I guess it's Su Bristow's favourite too because it's the one she's chosen to tell in Sealskin, taking those bare bones and turning them into something magical.

Donald, the fisherman who's about to catch more than he bargained for, is an awkward outsider in his own community. Out checking his creels he the seal maidens dancing, on the spur of the moment he hides one of the skins, and then rapes it's owner before taking her home to his mother. Despite his prevarications she knows exactly what he's done and makes it clear what the consequences will be.

Donald himself is appalled by both his actions and their implications, and this is where Bristow goes to town. Why is Donald's mother so determined to take the Selkie into her family, how will the close knit community accept this particularly strange stranger, and what if they don't? What are the implications of the truth being revealed? Can Donald find any kind of forgiveness for what he's done either from himself, or from the woman he's taken?

Meanwhile it's not just Mairhi (the seal girl) who's been changed, it's Donald too as he starts to take responsibility for what he's done. One reason the original story has stuck with me is that because the Selkie leaves her children behind it doesn't feel like an entirely happy ending when she returns to the sea, even though I'm always glad for her that she can no back. This time I sort of want her to stay even though I know she won't (which is new, I've never liked the fisherman before).

I don't want to give any more of the details away, but this book deserves the praise that's been heaped on it, not least because Bristow keeps all the uncomfortable ambiguity of the original fairy tale. I saw it recommended when it was 99p for a kindle version (I see a paperback in my future) so took a chance on it, and am glad I did.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Scottish Traditional Tales edited by A J Bruford and D A MacDonald

One of the things I love about bookshops in Scotland is that they always seem to have a Scottish books section (Irish bookshops I've been in do the same, and I assume Welsh bookshops do too - the local interest section that English bookshops sometimes have is not quite the same thing) where I almost always find something interesting. In Edinburgh at New Year I found 'Scottish Traditional Tales' which looked like it would be an excellent addition to my growing folk and fairy tales collection. It is, and I've been dipping in and out of it ever since.

This book represents fifty years of research from the school of Scottish studies at Edinburgh university, and contains almost a hundred stories. They've come from a variety of sources including the Hebridean Gaelic tradition, Lowland cairds (travelling people), Shetland, Orkney - and basically all over Scotland. It was the Shetland stories that made this a book I had to take home with me there and then, but my particular local interest aside it's a proper treasure trove of interesting things.

The stories are arranged thematically, starting with children's tales. There are only eight the editors think were specifically meant for young children, the rest would have been shared with an older audience wherever people gathered together and going late into the night. Other categories include fortune tales, hero tales, trickster tales, 'other cleverness, stupidity, and nonsense', fate morals and religion, origin and didactic legends, ghost stories, fairies and sea folk, witchcraft, and robbers and clan feuds. Some of these, specifically the clan feuds and the origin legends are truly local, but many are variations on folk tales that span the world and can be traced in one form or another across thousands of years.

Stories from Shetland and the Hebrides are particularly well represented thanks to the tradition of gathering together in people's houses of an evening to work and tell stories surviving rather longer there than in other parts of the country. Curiously it's a custom that seems to have died out in Orkney sometime before it did in Shetland where it seems to have been common practice at least until the Second World War. Even after that the flavour of these stories is familiar to me from my early childhood in the 1970's, but by then they were definitely stories to entertain children with and maybe told in a different way.

There's something particularly fascinating in the way that stories evolve as they move from place to place, but also in the details that don't change. For example, however Scottish the hero may be in any tale that involves a giant, the giant always smells the blood of an English man. However, a story from Barra called 'The Fox and The Wolf and the Butter' itself a variation of a European tale which features a Bear and a Wolf, becomes 'The Cats and the Christening' in Shetland (where neither wolves, foxes, or bears feature in the local fauna).

There's an excellent and interesting introduction, and thorough notes for each story at the back of the book (something I appreciated, footnotes would have been distracting). There's also an effort to retain the voice of the story tellers, either by sticking to the dialect they spoke, or in the case of the translated Gaelic tales by trying to keep the rhythm of the them in the English version.

And that's the joy of the Scottish books section - it allowed me to find something that might otherwise have lurked in the relative obscurity of social history, or similar, where I am not in the habit of generally browsing.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Into the Southern Ocean: The Perilous Voyages of the Elsi Arrub- Andrew Halcrow

Andrew Halcrow's 'Into The Southern Ocean' has thoroughly dominated the last week. I had it to review for a Shetland based magazine (60 North) who also wanted an author Q&A. I like doing these reviews because they push me a little bit out of my comfort zone and demand more discipline then I exercise here. In this case I would probably never have picked this book up if I hadn't been asked to, and that would have been my loss.

Back in 1987, Andrew, then in his twenties decided to build a yacht he could sail around the world in. He'd trained as a blacksmith and knew that he had the neccesary skills to make one out of steel, and that's just what he did. In 1988 he, and at the last minute, his brother set off on a 5 year trip during which they sailed and worked their way around the world, mostly in the tropics. They sent articles back to the Shetland Times, so Elsi became something of a household name (there's footage of their return in 1993 on you tube which shows how big an event this was locally). 

In 2005, Alyson, Andrews wife, was diagnosed with MS - and this is one of the things that make this book so engaging and inspiring - she deals with it by deciding she has to give her husband the chance to follow his dream whilst she can support him. The dream is a single handed, non stop, circumnavigation. (I didn't really grasp what a big deal this was until D explained it to me). 

What's so impressive about what Alyson does is that this isn't just moral support. Even when the preparation for the trip was done she was still going to be juggling family, farming, her own job, and providing continuous shore based support via HF radio in the way of weather reports and more. It's easy to pay lip service to those who stay behind to make adventures possible, but it's much more than that here and I've come away with a sense of a really amazing woman, which is an unexpected bonus in what could have been a much more boys own style story. 

The first attempt has to be abandoned when Andrew's appendix bursts and he develops septicaemia. Not a good thing to happen out in the Southern Ocean, he's rescued just in time by a passing cargo ship that diverts to pick him up, but Elsi has to be abandoned. This is genuine edge of the seat stuff - even though I knew what happened next - because by now I really cared about what happened to Elsi. 

Almost miraculously she's recovered a couple of months later, a bit battered but essentially in good shape, and is transported back from Australia to Shetland. Then in 2013 another attempt is made. This time Elsi is dismasted in a storm off the Patagonian coast, Andrew is airlifted off, and she really is lost. 

That's the basic story but there's a lot more going on than that. For someone with no particular interest in sailing I found the details of how to prepare for a trip like this, and the rhythm of life at sea, fascinating. There's time to explore a few corners of maritime history, to look at the ocean, and for the reader time to think about how important it is to try. 

I expected to find this book mildly interesting, I had no idea I'd enjoy it as much as I did (D pinched it off me before I got a chance to even open it, then read it in a day because he couldn't put it down). If you've ever so much as looked at a boat I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Bookshops in the News.

I've been a bit quiet here, mostly because when I've not been at work or asleep I've been preparing book reviews for other places. I'm sure there used to be more hours in the day...

Meanwhile it's been a week with a couple of interesting stories about bookshops in the news, both of which have got me thinking. There's Susan Hill's odd spat with The Book Hive in Norwich (her Spectator article is Here, a Guardian article about it Here, and the bookshops response is Here). If you've missed this, it seems like Susan Hill pulled out of a bookshop event, her PR people saying it was for undisclosed personal reasons, meanwhile she wrote an article about it saying her decision was based on what she perceived as censorship, and anti Trump politics, on the part of the bookshop (they've been handing out copies of 1984 and The Handmaids Tale which had been provided by a local book group). In turn The Book Hive came forward to basically say that's us, and what the hell?

I find it interesting not so much for Hill's accusations, though I do think they're odd, but for her idea of what a bookshop, and especially an independent bookshops should be. In this case, "To my mind, a bookshop is like a library — the only difference is that you buy the books, you don’t borrow them. But both have a duty to provide books (space and budgets allowing) reflecting a wide range — as wide as possible — of interests, reading tastes, subjects and points of view. Walk into one of either and there are the thoughts and feelings, beliefs and dreams and creations and discoveries of many men and women, and that is part of their never-ending excitement." 

Assuming she actually means that, you have to ask why she thinks a bookshop should be like a library. Bookshops exist to sell books, if they don't sell enough books they won't exist for very long, but what do they really have a duty to provide? If it's anything at all I'd be inclined to say it's enthusiasm for the stock they choose to sell, and that's about it. 

The other story floating around concerns Waterstones and their 'secret' shops; three branches that have been opened in picturesque small towns that look and behave like independents (more Here.) I haven't visited one any of them, though if I get the chance I will. The one in Southwold is called Southwold books, there is a sign in the window that indicates they are part of the Waterstones chain, but it's not clear to me if they run the same offers or if it works rather more like Hatchards with different offers and no loyalty card cross over (I do love my Waterstones loyalty card, which has been extremely effective in keeping me loyal). 

Essentially this is another storm in a tea cup. Waterstones staff may view this differently (retail jobs are hard work and not generally as well paid as they probably should be) but I'm not aware of them being a big corporate monster. Talk of them having an unfair advantage when it gives to the imminent rise in business rates sounds like nonsense to me as well. Yes, they might have the money behind them to pay the higher bills, but my experience of bigger companies is that they can afford to, and will, walk away if the profit margin isn't there. Independent's tread a finer line and don't always have the luxury of doing that. But again it does raise the question of what a bookshop, and a high street, should look like.

If Waterstones are finding that small shops in small towns are working for them that's interesting. I'm assuming that these 3 branches are moving even further away from discounting than the branded stores are, and I think that's good news too. We're lucky in this country that books are relatively cheap, but they also represent a lot of work by a number of people all of who need to make a living, deep discounting doesn't really do anybody any favours, not even the customer if it means that all we get are the sure bets that can be relied on to shift a massive number of units at rock bottom price. 

My local Waterstones is quite small, it's something that often frustrates me when I want to browse - Nottingham is the closest really big branch - so this has made me wonder how I'd feel about it if it wasn't branded. The answer is probably more positive, rather than thinking wistfully of what other branches have I'd probably be more focused on the really excellent staff and the very good service they provide. It's something to remember next time I go in. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire - Carol Dyhouse

Despite what they say about judging books by their covers I was instantly smitten with this one - I haven't managed to determine if the image is lifted from a vintage romance or if it was created for this book, either way it's perfect.

Inside the cover is a survey of the history of women and popular objects of desire (from Byron to One Direction via the Duke of Wellington, Rudolph Valentino, Liberace, and David Cassidy - amongst others) which is both informative and exceptionally readable. 

As someone with a slightly guilty relationship with romance novels (out and proud love of Georgette Heyer, quite happy to admit to the occasional bonk buster in the Jilly Cooper mould, less comfortable owning up to a Mills and Boon habit in times of stress) I was initially particularly interested in Dyhouses take on written objects of desire.

Dyhouse however wouldn't let me get away with picking out a single strand like that, because of course that's not how it works. Musicians, actors, public figures of all sorts have always been objects of desire. I wonder after reading this which causes the most disquiet; very public and vocal expressions of desire such as Beatlemania, or the more private escape from reality that comes from burying yourself in a book (an activity that can't even be unwillingly shared) in the relative privacy of the home?

What is clear is that women's desires and fantasies are still viewed with suspicion and fear, otherwise why would romance as a genre still be so easily belittled? It's also interesting to see how an appetite for mass market romance is dismissed along class lines - as shop girl romances - as well as being categorised as particularly low brow (hence that vague feeling of guilt if I choose to spend an afternoon with a cup of tea and a Mills and Boon instead of doing something more worthy or productive. I feel no such guilt if I'm lucky enough to find an old Gainsborough film on television though).

There are interesting revelations - for instance, it had never occurred to me to wonder what men thought of Mr Darcy - it seems they're generally unimpressed (what they think of Lizzie Bennet isn't recorded). Having given it some thought it's not surprising, in many ways he's a blank canvas. I also found the discussion of rape fantasies particularly useful. It's a theme I've always been uncomfortable with whilst begrudgingly understanding the have your cake and eat it aspect of the thing. Again though, what I hadn't really considered is that because it's a fantasy, ultimately the woman imagining it stays in control - which is marginally less creepy.

It's tempting at this point to just keep on picking out things I found interesting, but it's a long, long, list. There's a lot to consider here, and it's a book that I can't recommend highly enough. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Knitting again

Just after the sub zero temperatures have been swapped for an unseasonably balmy foray into double figures I've managed to finish knitting a hot water bottle cover (the sort of thing that people airily declare will be a nice quick project, and which actually took me a month).

On Boxing Day I bought a new rug in a sale, I didn't need a new rug, and more than that arguably didn'thave space for another rug - but it was love. So much love that I spent some time turning the rug pattern into a knitting pattern. It's the first time I've tried doing this and I can't say it was 100% successful, but it's an adequate work in progress.

I made up the pattern for the hot water bottle case too - with the same results. There are things I need to change if I'm to knit another one, but on the whole I'm pleased with it as a first attempt at designing something that's entirely my own. The important thing is that it kept the hot water in the bottle hot, stopped me from burning my feet (hot water bottles with decent covers are the best, and not at all the juggle between to hot and freezing that I remember from childhood), and felt nice against bare skin. As it's going to spend most of its life under a duvet it's flaws will be well hidden.
The original rug 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman

I love the Norse myths and am always interested in a new telling of them, so I've been looking forward to seeing what Neil Gaiman would make of them ever since reading about this book sometime last year.

I must admit that I balked at paying for the physical book though (and find writing about an e version surprisingly hard - I normally have the physical book sat next to me when I'm doing this, staring at my phone isn't nearly as inspiring). It's full price is £20 (it's £16 in Waterstones, £13.60 on Amazon) which would be fine but to fill the 300 or so pages the type is both quite large, and widely spaced. It could easily be half the physical size, which would take up considerably less precious book shelf space (the main reason I'm not fond of Hardback books), and book making resources. I think this might only be the second time that I've chosen to buy an e version rather than a physical book, it's certainly the first time I've done it because the physical book has been so unappealing as an object.

Now for the content - the bit that really matters. There's a short but really good general introduction, a   brief introduction to the 3 major players (Odin, Thor, and Loki), the stories, and then a comprehensive glossary. Without being dumbed down it's also a version which would be suitable for children - it's all good.

The introduction touches on the things that I personally find so appealing about Norse mythology; firstly that these "are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights, and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them". These are gods that seem to have come first from Germany, then travelled to Scandinavia, before spreading south and west through Shetland, Orkney, Ireland and northern England (Leicester was a Viking city, I wonder who they worshipped here). The Norse Gods also seem particularly fallible, prone to getting drunk and making mistakes - even Odin, despite his hard won wisdom, hasn't the vision to see he's sowing the seeds of his own destruction. And then there's Ragnarok - the end of the gods rather than the end of the world. Is it still yet to happen or has it already happened? It's the assumption of a new beginning after Ragnarok that makes the cycle so intriguing to me.

What I hadn't realised is how much of this myth cycle has been lost, Gaiman suggests that what we have left is the equivalent of only having the the deeds of Theseus and Hercules from the Greek and Roman cycles. There are goddesses aplenty for example, whom we have names and attributes for, but whose stories are lost. There are other figures such as Angrboda, the mother of Loki's monstrous  children who remains shadowy, a character just begging to be fleshed out (Gaiman draws specific attention to her in the introduction, I can hope that he'll write her a story some day).

The source material for this telling was (a collection of different translations of) Snorri Sturluson's 'Prose Edda' and the 'Poetic Edda' with a bit of picking and choosing as to which tales to include and what to leave out. The result hangs together well, doesn't get bogged down in repetition or detail, and is family friendly. The relative lack of characterisation is in keeping with the original sources, and also I think, the spirit of story telling. There are embellishments here, touches of humour and observations - but crucially there's an explicit invitation to the reader to tell these stories, and in the process make them their own.

I've read enough versions of these stories now to find them old friends (wearing new clothes each time), and value this collection for being admirably clear and concise, as well as being a simple pleasure to read. I'll buy a copy when it comes out in paperback and be pleased to have it in my library.

Monday, February 13, 2017

After Super Ghost Stories - Jerome K. Jerome

I have a cold at the moment, and although I know it (probably) won't kill me I always feel like it might. The result was that I spent the weekend feeling utterly miserable (I'll spare you a list of symptoms) and not doing any of the writing I had intended. What I did manage was to finally finish 'Afte Supper Ghost Stories', so that at least was something.

I read 'Three Men in a Boat' sometime in my teens, swiftly followed by 'Three Men on the Bummel', and what might well have been 'On the Stage and Off' (it was a slightly mouldy copy found in an old box of books and general jumble very many summers ago) and enjoyed all three enough to retain a fondness for Jerome K. Jerome. It was certainly enough to make me look forward to this book with keen anticipation- and the first part more than lived up to those expectations.

The first part contains the after super ghost stories of the title, and makes roughly a third of the book. It's. Christmas Eve, because that's when the best Victorian ghost stories were told, they take care to tick of all the cliches, everyone telling them is very drunk, and perhaps especially as someone who has been subjected to many hours of youthful tuneless carol singers, I found them very, very, funny. Read out loud to an audience funny - and happily the audience agreed with me.

The rest of the book contains half a dozen essays on various subjects, all of which are amusing, but none of which came close to the After Dinner bit for me. They're well chosen pieces, some of seem almost eerily prescient (as in 'Clocks' where he says 'Truth and fact are old fashioned and out of date, my friends, fit only for the full and vulgar to live by. Appearance, not reality, is what the clever dog grasps at in these clever days.' It goes on like this for another page, every word feeling like it could have been written specifically for our own current affairs. I read all of this out to a different audience and got them to guess when it was written, or who it might be talking about. Nobody got it right, it was somewhat depressing to realise how little changes.

The problem for me though was this; when Jerome sets out to be funny he's hard to beat, but when he's making a wider point some of the sparkle is lost. That said, whilst the After Supper ghost stories are an absolute comic classic (more than worth the price of this beautifully produced book on their own - and it's a very pretty book) the rest of the essays are well worth reading. Their combination of humour, observation, and opinion has plenty to offer, and have given me a rather more rounded view of Jerome K. Jerome as a writer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

I picked this on up in Waterstones - it was book of the month or something, and the promise of a re worked fairy tale lured me in. Unusually I read it in a fairly timely fashion, and ended up slightly surprised by how very much I loved it.

Obviously I expected to like the book or I wouldn't have bought it, the fairy tale aspect was going to be a winner, and once upon a time I read a fair amount of fantasy fiction (at the Terry Prattchet, Neil Gaimen, Robert Rankin, Douglas Adams end of the scale) though not for a few years. Still, I didn't necessarily expect a book I couldn't put down but that's what I got.

The set up was fun, there's a dragon, but he's not actually a dragon - instead he's a wizard called the Dragon, and although he does take a village maiden its only for ten years, and then he gives her back (though at that point she no longer feels at home back in her village). The book opens in a choosing year, everybody assumes that the Dragon will choose beautiful and grave Kasia - so we know that won't happen. Instead he gets stuck with messy and chaotic Agnieszka, neither are very happy about it.

It has to be Agnieszka because she has magic, something she's slow to accept, but with an enchanted evil wood to be fought on the doorstep, threats to Kazia, a handsome prince who isn't quite as charming as he might be, and a growing relationship with the Dragon, she has to get on with it. It's not a perfect book; a little bit to much is crammed in, the final quarter is slightly rushed, very involved, and maybe takes itself a bit seriously, and Agnieszka is bit luckier with her magical choices than one might reasonably expect - but none of that mattered.

What did work was the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia, and Agnieszka and the Dragon - which could have been creepy but isn't. The Wood is satisfyingly horrifying, the set up where traditional fairy tale tropes are upended is fun, and I stayed up far to late to just read a few more pages 2 nights in a row (which was enough to finish it).

I've struggled since I finished this one (before Christmas) to find a book to pull me in in quite the same way (it's a Magic of its own when a book does that). I have a couple of similar impulse buys which have been sitting around for far to long, so maybe the plan for the weekend should be to shelve what I feel I ought to be reading and dig them out.