Sunday, May 28, 2017

Bring The Paint - Leicester

Leicester has had a street art thing going on this weekend - well all week really because there's far more than a days work in these. I was basically oblivious to the factop that this was going on, and probably would have been for months to come if it hadn't been for a gin tasting I had to host earlier this week.

Leicester has what it slightly optimistically calls a cultural quarter. It's where the theatre is, an arts cinema with studio space, and I now know, some studio space, along with a few bars. It now has some huge murals too - a very positive addition.

There are a lot of things I like about these kind of events, but the biggest thing is the atmosphere it helps create. En route to the gin thing I got the chance to talk to some of the guys painting. That was mostly me saying how amazing whatever it was, was. It was also an unexpected opportunity to share a love of William Morris and his philosophy.

The event stuff mostly happened yesterday when I was at work, but on a sunny Sunday morning there were plenty of people, including me, wandering around all ready to share a bit of enthusiasm and point out beautiful (or weird) bits of the city we hadn't collectively noticed before. It sounds a bit cheesy but it was really nice.

There's still quite a few pieces I haven't managed to see yet, but what I did see was brilliant.







Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Incredible Crime - Lois Austen- Leigh

The bombing in Manchester on Monday night is throwing a long shadow over this week, and even though I know I've got nothing but platitudes to express how it's made me feel, it's still impossible not to acknowledge it. The increased police presence on the streets here, including the rare for Leicester sight of armed officers, reflects back an underlying tension that I really hope is short lived.

Meanwhile I can happily lose myself in some escapist crime fiction, Lois Austen-Leigh (who was the great great grand niece of Jane Austen) provides pretty much the perfect book to do that with in 'The Incredible Crime', which is blessedly murder (if not body) free, and spends a lot more time and energy on hunting than anything else.

Lois Austen-Leigh wrote 4 mystery novels all of which seem to have been basically out of print since the 1930's. Looked at purely as a mystery that's not altogether surprising, at least if this one is a representative example, it's all quite convoluted, she seems to have lost interest in the mystery she starts with quite quickly, the one she takes up is never entirely explained (at least I don't think it was), and the attitude towards her heroine is slightly jarring (far, far, to independent for her own good apparently).

Looked at as more than a mystery however it has a lot to offer. Once I'd stopped worrying about the plot it was thoroughly entertaining, and as a period peice it's fascinating. Her view of Cambridge and its academics is interesting too, and it's a cracking novel about hunting.

Prudence Pinsent is the almost middle aged, very good looking, daughter of Bishop Pinsent, Master of Prince's College, Cambridge. She's well off, well connected, self assured, swears comprehensively and at length, and is fiercely independent. Something her friends don't entirely approve of.

It's sometime not later than 1931 (when the book was originally published) and Prudence is about to abandon the world of academic gossip and bridge parties to join her cousin, Lord Wellende, for the hunting season. On the way she meets an old friend, Captain Studde, who works for the coast guard. He tells her about a smuggling ring suspected of distributing a drug (X.Y.X.) through Cambridge, there might also be a connection with Wellende hall. Some rather senior figures from Scotland Yard and the secret service are taking an interest.

Prudence promises to do what she can to help but her loyalties are torn between the demands of honour, family, and a Professor Temple - poison expert, cousin of Lord Wellende, and initially unlikely love interest. Nor is Prudence entirely above suspicion herself, the senior figure from Scotland Yard has his doubts. Meanwhile something is definitely going on at Wellende, but what, and has Prudence got utterly the wrong end of the stick on this one?

I think Lois Austen-Leigh is having to much fun playing with the forms of detective fiction, especially the country house mystery, to take it particularly seriously. The Cambridge bits are a little different, her uncle had been Provest of King's college when it opened up to a world beyond Eton, it's safe to say it's a world she had some knowledge of, and one she paints with a degree of affection. The Cambridge men all make much more likely smugglers or drug traffickers as well. It's quite easy to believe that a combination of war time experience and honed intelligence would give them a moral flexibility and single minded determination when it came to pursuing their own ends.

The passages (there are a few of them) about hunting are up there with Trollope for sheer enthusiasm (and length) and have an interest of their own (I can sit this next to 'Gin and Murder' in a little subsection of hunting based mysteries). Taken altogether it's an entertaining book with some lovely sly humour and a lot to enjoy - which is exactly what I've come to love so much about this series.


Monday, May 22, 2017

The Photographer- Meike Ziervogel

I've been following Meike's work since the early days of her publishing house, Peirene Press, and later as a novelist with great interest. One (of many) reasons for this is because of her interest in dealing with the experience of recent German history.

My grandmother was German, she met my grandfather when he was stationed in her village, he left her pregnant, and she followed him back to England. It's not clear to me if he was expecting her or not, I've heard when she turned up he was engaged to another woman, nevertheless they did marry, though not happily. I remember her as a bitter, unapproachable, woman who never talked about her past at all. She told her children that they had basically been simple peasants who were scared by Hitler and didn't really know what was going on, which they accepted, and in turn so did her grandchildren.

The reason I'm sharing all this is that I had a lightbulb moment a few years ago hearing Meike at the Kibworth book festival when she talked about this as a great national lie. Since then one of my aunts has been in touch with her German cousins and it's become clear that in our family at least it was a lie, though an entirely understandable one for a German girl trying to make a life in England in the 1940's to tell.

'The Photographer' is based on the experiences of Meike's own grandparents, and mostly covers the point at the end of the war when eleven million Germans fled from east to west. The central couple, Albert and Trude, meet and fall in love in 1933 without the approval of Trude's mother, Agatha. Albert is a photographer and together they travel, build a reasonably successful business, have a son, and despite Albert's occasional infidelities are happy together. To Agatha however, Albert is a threat to the security of both her daughter and grandson, so when the chance arises she reports him to the authorities and he's sent to the front.

All of them survive the war, Agatha, Trude, and Peter manage to get to a refugee camp in the west, and eventually Albert finds them through the Red Cross, at which point the process of rebuilding a family begins.

For me this is by far and away the best book Ziervogel has written yet. I'm aware that my response to it is filtered through my own family history and the sidelights it throws on that, but I also think the constraints that following her own history have placed on Ziervogel give the book a particular strength. It's a combination of knowing something of how these people really acted, and of their stories, even if only half talked of, have been distilled through generations of memory and telling.

At the centre of it is how will Albert and Trude deal with what Agatha did; will there be confrontation, silence, understanding, lies? Can there be forgiveness, happiness? Or does this individual act of betrayal even matter that much after all that follows it, would have followed it anyway?

The way the story unfolds echos fairy tale archetypes, it even ends happily. I went to the launch for this last week and one of the questions that interested me was if that happy ending rang true. My own view is that the book ends in a happy moment, which isn't quite the same as a happy ending, and I think that does ring true.

There's a lot going on in this book, and a lot more I'd like to discuss, which will be hard without giving spoilers (when I'm done with this post I'll be looking for other blog reviews to comment on). I'm particularly interested in the relationships between the 4 principles and the way they deal with what they know and don't know, but it's also important to note that it's only really now that a book like this can be written about that particular bit of history. It's interesting too in light of the current refugee crisis, and so much more.

I honestly can't recommend this one highly enough, please read it!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Knitting again

Given that we're well into the second half of May it's not particularly cheering that I could still happily be wearing this latest effort. The only reason I'm not is that it's destined for D.

The motif is lifted from Gudrun Johnston's 'Bousta Beanie' pattern for Shetland wool week. The hat is the next thing I'm going to try and knit, it'll be my first hat so wish me luck. It's also destined for D, so wish him luck too.

I've been trying to persuade him for a while that a cowl would be useful, especially if he's sailing (can't blow off or get in the way) and you probably can't have to many woolly hats. He's finally conceded the point regarding cowls, so the colours reflect his preferences rather than mine (I don't dislike them, but I wouldn't go with red and grey for myself).

What I really love is the rhythm of the motif. I like the suggestion of waves, and the definite Bridget Riley/Op Art feel it has. It's quick and simple to knit, but not boring, and for small items - I think it would be to much on a whole jumper for example - find it altogether pleasing.

My natural inclination is towards bigger, more complicated, motifs incorporating more colours so knitting this has been a really useful chance to appreciate how well something simple can work. It's definitely something I'm going to think about next time I'm planning something of my own. Meanwhile I'm just going to say again how much I love this particular pattern. Now all I have to do is dress it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Russian Revolution Hope, Tragedy, Myths

Whatever else 2017 brings it has at least improved my knowledge and understanding of the Russian revolution. It's not something that we particularly studied at school (beyond that it happened, and that it pulled Russia out of the First World War) and since then the way it's cropped up in my reading, or viewing, has been just as incidental. That, and there's been so much history in Russia over the last century that it's not always easy to keep up with it all.

Seeing Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 at the RA earlier this year made me realise a couple of things, the first being that my whole view of the country is filtered through the tail end of the Cold War, which is to say with a hangover of suspicion. The second is that it's essentially passed out of living memory within my lifetime, and whilst I know that's stating the obvious, it's still surprisingly difficult to grasp - It's a reminder that my memories are someone else's history lesson.

The British Library exhibitions I've seen have, without fail, been excellent. This one was no exception. Printed material might not have quite the same initial impact that the RA's exhibits did, but the much greater need to read about what they are, or represent, means much longer spent contemplating them. There's the time and space to absorb much more information.

The strength of this exhibition is that it essentially starts in 1896 with the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and the increasingly unsettled political situation in Russia as neccesary reform, along with neccesary infrastructure, failed to materialise. Things did not go well in the war with mismanagement of resources exacerbating shortages, a German born Tsarina would have been an easy target for resentment, and the rest is history.

What might have happened if it hadn't been for the war is an interesting question. There's a suggestion here it had lessened the perceived value of human life, and increased the capacity for violent action. The following years of civil war saw ten million lose their lives, and another two million leave the country, along with five million who died as a result of famine. Those are incredible numbers, how to imagine the impact that must have had?

All of it certainly had an impact on the imagination though - in books, in art, in aspiration, hope, and myth making, and that battle for hearts and minds - from both sides - is thoroughly explored here. There's also room for odd little bits; I didn't know Arthur Ransome (the Swallows and Amazons one) had been a journalist on the scene, or that he married Trotsky's secretary. The letter that granted Lenin's application to use the British Library (under an assumed name) is also present. These are the things that bring the subject to vivid life, that and the pamphlets and posters that were in common circulation. Allow at least a couple of hours to get round it all, and go, it's fascinating.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Recipes From The Woods - Jean-François Mallet

I thought I had managed to resist this book but it turns out that was wishful thinking - I kept seeing it in Scotland last month, and every time I did I wanted it more. By the time I got back to Leicestershire I was getting a little bit obsessed and had to order a copy.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the tweed and tartan effect cover. I beer between finding it amusing or appalling depending on mood (most of the time amusing), but it's the contents that matter. I'm gathering quite a collection of game based cookbooks - this one is subtitled 'the book of game and forage' which might have been what put me off in the first place. Provincial English cities have their foraging limitations.

In this case I imagine it'll be the mushrooms I struggle to find. Somewhere local might sell a good selection of them but if they do, I don't know about it. I'm not sure how easy it would be to get snails either but as preparing them apparently necessitates 10-12 days of starving them in an airy wooden box on a bed of grass, changed daily, then rinsing them, putting them in another box with kosher salt, vinegar, and plain flour before refrigerating for 2-3 hours, rinsing them again, cooking them in their shells for 30 minutes in boiling water, removing the flesh from the shells, and cooking them for another 30 minutes before removing the black parts and rinsing them again, I'm okay with that. They definitely sound like something I'd rather have served with a flourish in a restaurant.

With the possible exception of hay (maybe a pet shop?) and woodcock (which I wouldn't cook anyway because they're scarce and should be let alone) nothing else in here should be particularly hard to source if there's a good game dealer around.

I've become much more interested in cooking and eating game over the last few years - hence the expanding collection of cookbooks on the subject - for all sorts of reasons, the most important of which are flavour related. Pheasant, partridge, and mallard especially are all also really cheap to buy, new things for me to do with them will be very welcome come the autumn. There's plenty of inspiration here, and plenty of pate and terrine recipes which look like just the reason I need to get a mincer (which I like to think would be a genuinely useful kitchen gadget to have).

The recipe that passed the flick test though was the very first one - haunch of venison roasted with cocoa. It sounds and looks really good, simply relying on a really nice bit venison to make it special, the venison and mango brochettes on the next page also look great. Hare and pear spring rolls with blueberry sauce is something else I'd like to try. I look at hares every year, and every year faced with recipes for jugged hare (doesn't totally appeal) I don't bother.

There are also plenty of rabbit recipes, and as there are plenty of rabbits, eating them seems like a good idea. I have cooked rabbit before, I think it was an elderly one (dad shot it whilst it was digging a hole in his lawn) it was certainly tough despite my best efforts and slow cooking. Trying again is long overdue.

So plenty of sensible, tempting, accessible recipes, and some beautiful photography - it's a winning combination.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Verdict of Twelve - Raymond Postgate

This is another British Library publication that I've been sitting in for far to long, this time from the crime classics series. My general enthusiasm for this series is no secret, but 'Verdict of Twelve' is something special. There have been some real gems over the years, but sometimes they've been gems because they're so very much of their time, fun and nostalgic in about equal measure and solidly entertaining with it. As satisfying and interesting as they've been, it's easy enough to see why they fell out of print. 'Verdict of Twelve' is more than that.

It's true that a book that uses a Saki story ('Sredni Vashtar') as a significant clue was always going to win my heart. It's true too that the description of Raymond Postgate in the back blurb "a socialist journalist and historian, and founder of the Good Food Guide" who "also wrote highly regarded detective novels", prejudices me entirely in his favour. But even allowing for all the partiality that comes with that I really do find it's neglect over the years bewildering.

There's such a lot to enjoy. Part one introduces us to the jury, with some of their past histories - which will of course inform their verdict on the evidence - explored. These are all more or less unexpected, some are shocking, all are handled deftly, and quite frankly the books earned it's money already at this point.

Part two covers the case the jury have to consider, it's a pitch perfect blend of black humour and genuine tragedy. An unhappy, not particularly lovable, and orphaned child, is trapped in a house with his sort of aunt. Neither have any other family, or any affection for each other. The question when the boy dies is was it an accident, murder, illness, or suicide. The Saki reference provides suggests all sorts of inferences as well as humour, but Postgate never lets us forget that there's a bitterly unhappy child and that he's died.

Part three is the trial and verdict where the jury pit their personalities against each other to try and decide the fate of another human life (it's hanging for the defendant if she's found guilty). At this point we know only a very little more than the jury does, and not enough to know exactly what happened- though we probably all have the same suspicions, which the jury does not.

Finally there's a postscript that in a final twist delivers all the answers. Knowing the answer makes very little difference to the enjoyment of the book (so cheat if you want to) because whilst it explains what happened, it's the why that's been built up all the way through that really matters.

I cannot overstate how good this one was. Please read it and judge for yourself (it's really good).
Even more so if you have a soft spot for Saki.

Updates. There's a second Postgate joining the Crime Classics series in September when Somebody At The Door is reissued. It seems he also wrote, amongst other things, a book on Portuguese wine in 1969. I'm almost tempted to order a copy to see what he has to say on the subject. Currently, in my wine selling day job, Portuguese wine (especially the reds, which are easier to find) would be my hot tip for something really interesting that doesn't cost the earth. Much as with Raymond Postgate I don't understand why it isn't a bigger thing. The more I find out about him the better he sounds.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Haunted Library - Selected by Tanya Kirk

The day seems to be speeding past with absolutely no inclination to tackle any of the jobs that want doing kicking in whatsoever. That includes blogging, and if I found myself doing anything more productive or creative than feeling being glued to my chair whilst I look at Instagram and Twitter I'd let it slide. As it is there's really no excuse not to deal with at least one of the books stacked up in front of me.

They have a slightly accusatory air about them; they know they don't deserve to be neglected , especially 'The Haunted Library' that I've been reading intermittently since October. It's a British Library collection of classic ghost stories, the unifying theme being books and libraries, selected by Tanya Kirk. The back blurb tells me she was co-curator of the absolutely magnificent 'Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination' exhibition a couple of years ago. (It was tremendous).

This book is every bit as good as that provenance led me to hope. Curiously there are at least two stories where the readers of certain books end up strangled... One belongs in Margaret Irwin's 'The Book' which I found the most chillingly ghostly in the collection. Here the book of the title exercises a malign influence on its reader but also, and far more terrifyingly, on the other books it comes into contact with. It's influence spreads like a contagion across the shelves. It's a horrible thought.

Edith Wharton's 'Afterward' which opens the collection is haunting in a more straightforward way but has stuck with me, as has Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Apple Tree'. May Sinclair's 'The Nature of the Evidence' has a physical meeting with a ghost that put me in mind of Shirley Jackson's 'The Haunting  of Hill House' (I wonder if Jackson had read Sinclair's story). In Sinclair's case the contact is rather more benign but it's still unsettling.

And then there's Algernon Blackwood's 'The Whisperers' where a hapless writer, looking for a distraction free spot, finds himself in a suitably empty room. Only it's not quite as empty as he thinks it is, it has recently been storing books, and they've left something behind!

There's also a Mary Webb story. Now I have plenty of Mary Webb's books, though I've never managed to read one of them, so this was at least a start. It's a shame that it appears to be a total contrast to the majority of her work, because this is a genuinely funny pastiche of a ghost story, and I'd very gladly read more if it was in the same light hearted vein.

It's because I liked 'The Haunted Library' so much that I took so long over reading it, rationing individual stories like the treats that they are. There's nothing in here that would keep me awake at night after reading, but plenty that's just enough to give an agreeable sort of a chill. Which is how I like my ghost stories. I really loved this book.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Gather Cook Feast - Jessica Seaton and Anna Colquhoun

I've had one of those exhaustingly productive days off where I've done almost every job on my list along with a few unexpected ones along the way, rounding off with finally dealing with the rhubarb that's been menacing me since Sunday. It's jam now. I'll be wiped out for work tomorrow.

Whilst making the jam (at least inbetween wondering why something that starts off a beautiful combination of pink and green ends up a sludgy brown, and why rhubarb jam is always sweeter than I want it to be) I remembered this book. The poor thing has been kicking around the sitting room for weeks waiting for me to write about it (I probably won't cook from it before it finds a home in the kitchen, but probably wouldn't write about it once it's left the to do pile by my favourite chair).

The cover proudly mentions that these are recipes from land and water by the co-founder of Toast. Which I had to look up (clothes). I guess it's a selling point but it's one that's mostly lost on me. The book sold itself once I'd looked inside it anyway. 

The recipe that first caught my imagination is for Juniper roast venison with pine jelly. Described as a breath of moorland on a plate, there's something wonderfully romantic about this dish and I'd order it like a flash in a restaurant. The process of making the pine jelly (sourcing the pine needles from my city centre flat won't be easy) means I won't be making this anytime soon, but that doesn't matter. It's even more perfect because 3 types of pine are suggested, the author has tried 2 and describes the difference. That really is food for the imagination.

Recipes for pickled damsons, malted ice cream, braised rabbit with lemon and olives, and sloe whisky or brandy (instead of the more usual gin) where what determined me to take this one home though. I also fell for the beautiful photography, despite lavish illustrations of landscapes normally being a turn off in a cookbook. I'm guessing it works for me here because of things like the juniper and pine venison, and a suggestion for gilded gingerbread with Caerphilly cheese. The gilding is optional and suggested only for very special occasions, and again I'm a little carried away by the romance and opulence of this image.

The gingerbread is something I will make, and though I almost certainly won't gild it, having tried to wrestle with gold leaf before I'm impressed that there are instructions for application (my own experience hasn't been altogether happy in this endeavour). 

I can't say this book has given me as much to think about as Gill Meller's 'Gather' (which really does feel like an important book) though it's exploring similar ideas, but it does have a lot of things I want to eat in it. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Why I'll be voting Labour

I've dithered about writing this post for a few days now having always preferred to keep this blog reasonably politics free, but I also feel like this election is a time for nailing colours to the mast, so here goes anyway.

I live in a traditionally safe Labour seat that has a decent (well spoken of, scandal free) MP (Jon Ashworth), so even if I was a floating voter it's probably the way I'd go round here. The main reason I'll be voting Labour though is that I don't trust the tories with the economy.

I work in retail, which is not on the whole a well paid, or particularly respected, sector. It's also food based retail (specifically drink) where I'm getting an excellent view of prices rising whilst wages remain broadly stagnant. Truthfully, I've done alright under the last government. I don't have children,  and an increased personal tax allowance means that despite earning less than I did a decade ago I'm actually taking home more money. Which worries me.

For now whilst my health is okay and non of my nearest or dearest need care it's fine. I earn a living wage, though not all of my colleagues do, can pay my bills, don't go hungry, and have organic shampoo, because there's enough money to have some nice things in my life. What I don't have are savings, there's not enough money coming in to provide a decent cushion against emergencies. But still, compared to plenty of others my situation is comfortable. As long as nothing goes wrong. On the whole I'd rather be paying a bit more tax and be confident that if things did go wrong there would be an NHS free at point of use, and a job seekers allowance that would still let me pay my bills and not go hungry to fall back in.

What worries me even more though is the number of people who are on low wages. I don't see how we can afford to pay people less than a living wage because somewhere along the line we're all going to pay for that. I'm surrounded by people who have no chance of getting a mortgage in the foreseeable future, people who are working well past retirement age because they can't afford not to, people who have families and can't afford posh shampoo, or to replace shoes which are falling apart. People who are told they're lucky to have a job.

I also see more and more people taken on, on 4, 6, or 8 hour contracts - which might as well be zero hour contracts. The theory is that they should be flexible and available for overtime when needed, I guess it's a cheaper way to employ people too. The reality isn't quite like that, and I can't see it ending well if we carry in down this path.

So for me the only answer is to vote for a party that looks likely to protect and improve the rights of the lowest paid and who are talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Certainly the party that's trying to talk about it. From where I stand that looks like something which would basically be good for everybody.

I also accept that others will see this in a very different way, will see different answers to the same problems, or will have different priorities. I certainly hope that there's more than one answer to this particular issue, and definitely don't believe that anyone who thinks to the right (or indeed left)of my position is evil/selfish/stupid/deluded or whatever other offensive label is currently being thrown around.

In the end the most important thing is to vote, to hope for the best (whilst preparing for the worst), and to listen to what other people are saying. Mostly to vote though. Please vote.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Sedition - Katharine Grant

I really struggled with this book to the point that I wondered what on earth was I thinking when I bought it. I was probably hooked by the title and the idea that piano lessons could be subversive, and maybe the comparison to Sarah Waters. Maybe it was the promise that it was original and dark, or the Virago Apple on the spine.

It was not that it's a historical novel (set in London 1794), because generally historical fiction doesn't work very well for me. There are of course a long list of exceptions to that statement, but I'm not going to follow that path tonight. It definitely wasn't the promise of transgressive sex, which I can only assume I missed when I first picked it up, because almost without exception (I can't think of an exception, but there probably is one) that's not something I'm interested in reading about. The problem being so often, and here, that I was left with the impression of abuse by numbers, and I don't find that entertaining, or thought provoking.

Plot wise 4 wealthy merchants decide they will buy a piano and have their 5 daughters taught to play with the object of giving a concert to attract potential husbands. They want to buy titles. Unfortunately the piano maker has an unhealthy love for his instruments, he doesn't want to sell, and when his disfigured daughter forces him to part with his best piano in revenge for an insult, he persuades the music master the merchants hire to seduce their daughters. Which he does, even though one of them smells like a goat.

Meanwhile one of the girls (not the one who smells of goat) has rather more serious problems than a frisky pianist, and her own plans to subvert the concert. I know I'm being unfair about this book, a lot of my problems with it are subjective, and the next reader will love all the bits I didn't. I lost patience in a splendidly gothic scene where curtains are torn aside only to unleash a hell of spiders and bats in a shadowy ball room being used as a music room. I've been in bat inhabited churches, the smell, and mess, is distinctive - I wasn't feeling it and started to get pedantic, which is never a good sign.

I persevered anyway, and liked the second half of the book more, where I think I began to appreciate what Grant was doing. It didn't help that the musical references were over my head too. It's not a bad book (I might have enjoyed it a lot more if it was), but it wasn't for me. I'm still glad I read it, and I'd definitely have a look at anything else I saw by Grant, because her story telling was compelling enough to get me through a book that I could so easily have abandoned, but in fairness to both of us I'll only read it if it really sounds like something I'll love.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Brighouse Hotel - Susan Pleydell

I think this is the third Pleydell I've read from Greyladies, it's making me think I really need to get the school based stories, despite that being a subject I don't find overly appealing.

'Brighouse Hotel' is the third of Pleydell's Scottish set books that Greyladies have re published (are there more?) and whilst I didn't love it quite as much as either 'The Glenvarroch Gathering' or 'The Road to the Harbour' it was still thoroughly enjoyable. 

Originally published in 1977 'Brighouse Hotel' reuses a character from 'The Glenvarroch Gathering', Pat McKechnie, now grown up and working as an estate manager. The Brighouse hotel sounds like a superior sort of hangout for climbers, is also the Mountain rescue centre, and is on Pat's turf. When he discovers that Clunie Ritchie, a girl he always used to fight with when they were younger is there as receptionist he decides to take some holiday, climb a bit, and get to know her again. 

Clunie has turned up in Glen Torren (fictional but obviously west coast Scotland) after a dinner with an ex boyfriend, a very successful climber called Keith Finlay, reminds her how much she misses a place where her family used to spend every summer. There's a temp job at the Brighouse hotel and she takes it, only to find that another ex boyfriend, Malcolm Graham is still there, preparing to join Keith on an expedition to the Hindu Kush, and still interested in Clunie. 

It's a gentle sort of book, Clunie has unresolved feelings about Keith, and half formed not very serious intentions regarding Malcolm. A bit of drama is provided by a folk singer, Davina, who has family connections in Glen Torren too, and who Clunie has met in London. Davina upsets everyone in Glen Torren, apart from Clunie, when she manages to poach both Kieth and Malcolm. It may be the 1970's but Glen Torren does not care for permissiveness- it's a long way from London. 

It's obvious from the beginning that Pat and Clunie will end up together, but I liked the way that Pleydell explores the significance of their backgrounds. This is partly a class thing, both might be described as upper middle class, but it's the similarity of experience, manners, and outlook that really matters. It encompasses all sorts of unspoken but understood things between them. Things that Clunie doesn't share with the more parochial Malcolm for example. Davina doesn't share them either, her outlook is altogether more careless and bohemian, and she has a total lack of either patience with, or sympathy for, life in Glen Torren. 

The rest of the drama centres around the work of the Mountain rescue team, and the very real dangers involved in climbing. It's good to see them get their due here. 

As with the earlier books, I find reading Pleydell a real treat. It's easy going but with enough substance to not feel throw away, there are themes worth exploring here, as well as some keen observations. Using the Mountain rescue service to provide the life and death thriller element to the plot is effective - these people really do go out and risk their lives to save others, waiting for news really is harrowing, and it happens all the time. 

I am so pleased this book is available. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Twilight and Moonbeam Alley - Stefan Zweig

I'm back from holiday, the soundtrack of the day has mostly been the washing machine doing its thing, and it's back to work with a daunting list of things to be done in May. I managed to finish one book whilst I was away, bought about 6, and am wondering why I packed 3 (which felt like self restraint at the time) in the first place...

Meanwhile one of Mays jobs is to catch up with the books I read before I went away, including this little one from Pushkin Press. I bought it a very long time ago, mostly because it's a beautiful object, it was the first Zweig I tried, and for well over a decade it was why I didn't try another one.

I'm not sure/ can't remember what my initial expectations where, but for whatever reason when I first tried to read it 'Twilight' didn't grab me. I put it down unfinished and basically ignored Zweig until I came across 'Beware of Pity'. Very much my loss. I made the effort with this one again after 'The Invisible Collection' with much more success, (though I'll admit neither story came close to 'The Invisible Collection' for me personally) and a stronger than ever determination to read more Zweig.

'Twilight' is the longer novella, it tells the story (based on fact) of Madame De Prie. More specifically the moment she falls from grace. My knowledge of French history is limited, so I hadn't heard of her before, but it seems that for a short while at least she was an extraordinarily powerful figure in the French court. When she fell, she fall hard, banished to her country estate she committed suicide a year later. A very short Wikipedia entry is testament to how brief a footnote she ended up being in history.

It's a desperately sad vision of a woman trying and failing to hang on to the life she loved, the attention and influence she craved, and utterly failing. Zweig's compassion for his subject along with his merciless refusal to allow her suicide any impact on her former friends is undoubtedly a powerful combination but there's a hopelessness about it that makes me understand why I didn't finish it first time around.

Moonbeam Alley deals with the same underlying theme of human desperation, but the end is more ambiguous and corrospondingly easier to read - even if it doesn't have quite the same emotional impact. The main thing I'm taking away though is that this is a writer who I should pay far more attention to (I need to read, not just buy, the books). It's going to be a rewarding journey.

Edinburgh

After Mull it was on to Edinburgh for a couple of nights avoiding hen and stag parties. There are things I love about Edinburgh, and things I really don't. Mostly I dislike the amount of tartan tat aimed at tourists that proliferates around the city centre. It's hard to move for overpriced whisky, fudge, shortbread, tea towels with Nessie on, stuffed highland cows, ginger wigs, and things made badly out of tartan or tweed. Which is all depressing.

It maybe didn't help that we went to the castle. The entrance fee is £17 per adult (an extra £3.59 for an audio guide), it's a lot to stumble around in the wake of hundreds of other tourists to look at some cobble stones and a collection of regimental museums and war memorials, but I console myself with the thought that the revenue the castle generates must prop up quite a few of historic scotlands less popular properties. We went because D had never been before, and it is interesting. It's also a beautiful (in a grand and rugged sense) collection of buildings with more than a dash of romance about it.

As a Georgette Heyer fan I was delighted to see the Eagle that ensign Ewart captured at Waterloo. I tried to explain the climax of A Civil Contract' to D, where Adam is waiting in London for news of the battle to come through, but he didn't seem impressed. The fictional Adam wasn't the point, but thanks to her descriptions I knew the symbolic importance of the object.

Generally though I find Edinburgh looks best from street level, looking up everything is a bit more impressive, and the uglier bits of contemporary architecture less obvious. From the castle you see how much of a mixed bag it is. Nothing dents romance like a multi story car park. Much better to find yourself walking past a Novotel and suddenly catching sight of the castle instead.

We made time to go to the portrait gallery which is an excellent place to see some of the faces that made Scottish history. It definitely gives a more nuanced view on the Jacobites than is to be found at Culloden (I remember being bitterly disappointed as a child in the portrait gallery, learning that bonnie prince Charlie was not quite the hero I'd thought). It's a grand Victorian building with impressive arts and crafts era murals, a good cafe, and a lot to think about. Going there always makes me want to learn more and think harder about what's on display - which I count as a success.

Otherwise the Edinburgh I want to find again remains elusive. I know it's there, but there's never quite enough time, or energy, to go exploring far enough to find the heart of the place away from the obvious attractions. Maybe next time.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mull and Iona

From Inverness it was on to Mull via Oban and the delights of a Cal Mac ferry. Oban is the ferry port for Mull, Coll, Tiree, Lismore, Barra and Colonsay. The train drops you right next to the ferry terminal so the harbour really is the focus of the town for visitors. I guess that most people pass through Oban with an hour or two to fill in much the same way that we did. There's a distillery that's worth a visit, and a branch of Waterstones that's remarkable for being just about the only place I didn't buy a book this trip (not for lack of temptation, but rather a moment of clarity where I questioned the wisdom of hauling a small library round the Highlands and Islands with me). There are some great fish restaurants too, but my overwhelming sense of the place is of being in a sort of extended departure lounge.

Hotel bedroom view.



Apart from a visit to Islay a decade ago the western isles are pretty much a mystery to me, and Mull, because of the Sea Eagles, has long been in my wish list. I didn't see a Sea Eagle this time, so obviously will have to go back.

All islands have there own distinct flavour (theoretically I know this, but it's still a surprise how different the ones I've been to feel), my first impression of Mull was one of general affluence, and that tourism is a big part of that. For such a small population it's particularly well provided with cafes.  We only had two and a half days in Mull which isn't nearly long enough - another reason to go back.


The second thing you notice about Mull is the roads. They're mostly single track and spectacularly twisty - it took us almost 2 hours to drive 50 miles, at the height of the tourist season it would be even slower going. This was fine for me, I don't drive, so was free to look out the window and enjoy the scenery (everything looks like a postcard), probably less fun for D. If anyone reading this ever plans a trip to Mull, plan it carefully, it's quite a big island, everything will probably take longer than you think to get to, and it's not really the sort of driving that invites you to get in a car and keep going until something looks good. That's part of its charm.

Tobermory looks exactly like its pictures and is utterly charming, everywhere seemed to do great food, there's another distillery at one end of the harbour, and all the comings and goings of the boats was mesmerising. We stayed at the Western Isles Hotel (it's seen better days but has relatively new ownership and is undergoing rolling refurbishments. Any shabbiness was more than made up for by the most spectacular view, friendly helpful staff, and that it had featured in a film I love, 'I Know Where I'm Going'.) which I loved. I can't overstate how good the view was, and whilst we didn't see those eagles the hotel terrace was filled with swallows each evening, watching them at (very) close quarters over a gin and tonic was wonderful.

Iona is just off the end of Mull, and again it's picture postcard perfect, in a day when it was supposed to rain we had glorious sunshine, the whole lot looked like a painting by Francis Cadell. Whatever we didn't have the opportunity to see on Mull, I have at least come away with a much better image and understanding of all sorts of things I've read in the past about the west coast of Scotland, and a much better appreciation of the work of the colourists who I've always been a bit dismissive of in the past. I really want to go back.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Inverness and beyond

It's almost the end of our Scottish trip, which has been invigorating, inspiring, and expensive in pretty much equal measure. It's also been comprehensive enough to be exhausting, in a thoroughly good way, hence the lack of posting - despite good intentions. Tonight we're in Edinburgh where a night in our hotel room seems more appealing than fighting past hen parties the length of the Royal mile. Part of me is tempted to do it anyway, but that part isn't my feet which have already walked miles today...

But back to the beginning, Inverness (was it really only a week ago?). D has family in Inverness and visits regularly, but for some reason I had never been before last October. A terrible omission on my part because it's a brilliant base to explore the highlands from, as well as being a city with a very definite charm of its own.

Inverness town centre (it has an epic sort of industrial estate just outside the town that I guess services most of the Highlands and Islands with everything from aga's to a new tractor) is quite small, and a little bit shabby, though there are signs of rejuvenation, which makes it easy to explore. I'd love to take the overnight sleeper there one day. I haven't because every time I've looked it costs 4 times what my flights have, and that's before I've got down to London to catch it - but what a perfect way to arrive. From my point of view the principle retail attraction is Leakey's bookshop. It's a huge secondhand treasure trove in an old church with a massive log burning stove to keep the cold at bay. There's also an excellent Waterstones for more browsing, and Wood Winters wine merchant (handily opposite Leakey's for souvenirs in the form of whisky or gin. The Royal Highland hotel (station hotel?) next to the train station comes complete with tartan carpets and stags heads on the wall and feels positively Edwardian - the tea and scones are excellent. There is more than this to Inverness but so far that's kept me more than busy enough.
Ullapool

Snow on the hills, I love these colours.

The best thing about Inverness though is how many great places are not that far away. Last year we went to Skye for lunch - it's a couple of hours drive through beautiful scenery, over to Speyside to investigate some distilleries (we just hit the edge of it and still managed to see 5), to Cromarty for another lunch - it's a really charming fishing village. Culloden battle field, which is worth a look because it's a pivotal episode in Scottish history, and one that still casts a shadow.*

This time we went to Ullapool - more excellent little bookshops, stunning scenery, and a really good lunch. Tomatin distillery (we like distilleries, we don't always buy anything or go on a tour, but they make for a good general destination). We also took the funicular railway to the top of Cairngorm. Which was the first time I'd ever been on a mountain (so quite exciting). It was really bloody cold - which you can expect in a sub arctic environment, and beautiful. It's a desperately fragile environment so the railway is a good way to see something of the mountain without doing it any damage. And that was my 2.5 days in and around Inverness, it's possibilities are far from exhausted.

*I'm not entirely comfortable with how the National Trust for Scotland interpret this event, especially it's aftermath. The government (English) was not magnanimous in victory, reprisals against the highland clans were brutal, and nothing justifies what happened - but I think a better effort at explaining why the government was so determined the '45 would be the last uprising would be helpful.

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?