Sunday, April 19, 2015

Gin and Murder - Josephine Pullein-Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Love's Sacrifice - John Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The whirlpool - George Gissing

I've been meaning to read Gissing for a while but had never quite got round to doing anything more than buying some of his books (inexplicably it turns out I don't have a copy of New Grub Street - this must change). His name last came up in relation to Zola and realism, but before then I associated him with Virago's edition of The Odd Women and assumed he would be something of a feminist. It looks very much like I was wrong about that. 

No matter how many classics I read it never fails to surprise me how little people, or even society, seem to change. The realism of 'The Whirlpool' reminds me a bit of those scripted reality shows (specifically Made in Chelsea). The protagonists belong to a class where working for a living is considered distinctly none U and to be avoided. The idea of a woman working is vaguely scandalous. Appearances must be maintained regardless of the cost and without regard to practicality or comfort, and money is a constant worry as expenses constantly threaten to eat into capital and so diminish income. 

Harvey Rolfe is a bachelor in his late 30's, perfectly satisfied with his life and the £900 a year (equivalent to roughly £100,000 in today's money) that he currently enjoys, all the more so because in his youth he ran through a limited patrimony and had to work hard to live. His friend Hugh Carnaby has recently married a remarkably beautiful woman - Sybil - who has a fortune roughly equal to his own, they have around £1800 between them of which we can assume every penny is spent. Then there is Alma Frothingham, daughter of a wealthy speculator, Sybil's dearest friend, and an object of some interest to Harvey. These four are destined to make each other spectacularly miserable. 

When Alma's father goes bust and commits suicide he leaves both his daughter and Sybil penniless, and the ripples of the crash carry on bringing misery and disaster to more of Harvey's circle. He in turn shows himself to be a decent enough man, first in casual but sincere acts of generosity towards those of his acquaintance who most need it, and then in offering Alma the safety of marriage. 

The Alma the world, and at first the reader, meets is an attractive girl in her early twenties with a passion for music. As the story unfolds she is revealed to be shallow, vain, without real talent and in every way a bad wife and mother. Harvey finds himself trapped in a relationship based not on the love he had imagined he felt but on a physical attraction which slowly diminishes. For both Harvey and Hugh marriage is a personal disaster. 

Read something of Gissing's own terrible marriages and the antipathy he displays towards these women makes some sense. Alma's vanity, specifically her need for praise, is a deeply destructive force. Sybil's determination to be maintained in luxury indirectly causes the death of one man and the imprisonment of another - and of course the women's relationship deteriorates into enmity. 

What fascinated me however is seeing how Gissing's prejudices cloud his judgement. Neither Alma or Sybil are attractive characters, though Sybil as the cleverer of the two manages to get away with her misdemeanours. Her guilt is inferred though never explicitly stated but she is ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants. Alma is less lucky. There is a physchological depth to the character which saves her from becoming a caricature so eventually Gissing's  antipathy encourages the reader to feel some sympathy for Alma. She's deeply flawed but Gissing declines to examine the deficiencies in women's education, or the constraints society placed on them, both of which would go a long way to explaining why she is what she is and his vision of the perfect wife and mother isn't terribly encouraging either. 

All of which makes this exactly the sort of book I love. There are 3 suicides, a murder, indecent proposals, blackmail, intrigue, and scandals all of which ensure 'The Whirlpool' is a real page turner (on which note - although it's almost 500 pages long in this edition the print isn't tiny so it was a surprisingly quick read). Underneath the more sensational aspects is a serious examination of bad marriages, human nature, and society generally all of which gives the reader plenty to think about - including that insight into Gissing's own opinions about women. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sesame and Spice - Anne Shooter

To escape the books I went to the theatre last night (Love's Sacrifice at the RSC - brilliant) which made me want to sort out all my old programs, which led to opening up The Trunk where things go out of sight and out of mind. After an hour and a half I'd sifted through 15 years worth of old birthday and Christmas cards. Many from people I really don't remember. They're going but all this sorting is getting out of hand so I've retired to the kitchen and contemplation of Anne Shooter's 'Sesame & Spice'.

I've had this book for about a month now so writing about it is somewhat overdue - I blame the urge to get organised (which normally disappears quite quickly, but not this time). I was attracted to it by the tag line 'Baking from the East End to the Middle East' and the pomegranates on the cover. My family mock me for my love of pomegranates as an embellishment to just about anything but they'll come round eventually... I'm also a fan of sweet things, but increasingly it's the kind of sweet that involves fruit and nuts. Cakes rich with ground almonds and soaked in scented syrups, baklava's, sticky concoctions filled with dates and prunes, and plenty of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom- all flavours and textures I love. A book that promised Middle Eastern inspired baking sounded like a winner. 

It is a winner, and also much more than I expected or hoped for. What I hadn't initially realised (from the cover - it's clear the moment you start reading) is that Shooter's heritage is Jewish which means her food references span Europe and and America as well as the Middle East. It's a rich heritage and one that resonates with me based, as I am, in the middle of Leicester - a city that's been described as the most multi cultural in the world. I don't know if that's actually true or not but there's certainly a good argument for it. Leicester was a Roman city, the Vikings made it here and left their mark in place names, and it now has an ethnic majority. Basically we've been absorbing different influences and cultures for millennia.

The first recipe I tried was for the really delicious Citrus lavender syrup cake (it was also the bake that made me realise my old oven had to go) it was nutty and tangy and altogether good with the lavender providing a subtle twist that transformed it into something really special. The second recipe was for a spiced date loaf which is fat free and wonderful in thin slices with a cup of tea. 

Obviously it's possible to have to many baking books - even when you're a keen baker - but this one definitely earns a place on my shelves for it's combination of practical recipes and exciting flavours. It's a really nice mix of tradition from Shooter and what feels like innovation to me but very much in tune with the city I live in. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Bird In The Hand - Diana Henry

Chicken recipes for every day and every mood. 

A couple of years ago I made a short lived effort to rebel against the ubiquity of chicken on the menu but quickly accepted defeat, it's not just that it's hard to avoid, vegetarians excepted everyone seems to like it, most especially children who are otherwise fussy. If I can't escape chicken (though I could try harder to do that) I can still look for variety in the way I cook it and Diana Henry is very much the writer to help with that. Her books reflect the way I like to cook and the way my kitchen works; there are things to potter over, that will impress, that can be thrown together after work with a minimum of fuss, that will use up leftovers, and perhaps most important in this case - things that satisfy a desire for variety. 

As Henry says, cooking chicken is basically easy and there's no reason to complicate it, so whilst there is advice on braising and roasting it's kept to a minimum, and she's also made the decision to dispense with many of the obvious classics - they're easy to find elsewhere. Instead what we get is a really useful compendium of chicken recipes taking inspiration from around the world and which should meet every occasion. 

As well as the actual recipes - broken down into sections that cover suppers, spicy chicken, Sunday lunches and posh dinners, salads, feasts, barbecues, comfort food, and left overs - there are also short essays on how chicken loves fruit, cream, citrus, and herbs all of which open up avenues for experiment without the need for specific instruction. 

There is a foodie complaint about the majority of chicken on the market - that it lacks flavour, but in so far as that's the case it's also why we all love it so much. Quick to cook, and happy to be dressed up in so many different ways there's much to be said for it. The only downside, and the reason I made that half hearted attempt to resist, is welfare. Cheap chicken probably hasn't been treated very well. When it's a whole bird the range in price can be startling (it surprises me at any rate) and certainly serves as an indicator of how it was treated in life. It should matter how the things we eat have been produced - but I'm inclined to get carried away on this subject so will leave it at that. 

In the end this is the sort of cookbook that you pick up thinking why would I need this and end up thinking oh, I definitely need this (which happens to me a lot). Having a recipe suitable for any mood or occasion Is great, but as ever with Diana Henry's books, her voice is the clincher. I really enjoy her writing on, and approach to, food. Each book she releases has become an eagerly anticipated event to be counted down towards on my a****n wish list. 'A Bird in the Hand' is an excellent addition to the collection (and I've already bought a second copy to give to a friend). 

Thursday, April 9, 2015


I've managed to weed out just over 300 books so far and got all the overs back on shelves, or wine boxes pretending to be shelves. Just.

Looking at the pile of books to go I can see exactly why I was beginning to feeling overwhelmed by them. I have a small amount of space for new ones now, but it is a small amount of space, so basically all of the 300+ that will go were hanging around in increasingly precarious piles on top of things. It's really no surprise I couldn't find anything.

In truth I'm a bit frustrated that this hasn't created more space, it has created a lot of dust - or at least redistributed dust that had been minding it's own business and was conveniently out of sight up until now. My original aim of at least 500 books going will now only be achievable if the pruning gets really aggressive - I could easily have dumped the lot by midnight last night when I finally got the last book off the floor - but I probably need to step back before I over do it.
Books to go

 Books being sorted. There are 360 lovely virago's all happily in alphabetic order now...

 This shelf still needs some work.
But these below are pretty much sorted.

And I'm happiest of all with the kitchen ones.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Shiny New Books

The fifth edition is now online and Shiny New Books is celebrating its 1st birthday. I'm proud to have contributed something to every edition, and maybe a little surprised that I've managed to be so organised.

My contributions can be found here for Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville. I really loved this book when it first came out in hardback. Apparently it didn't do quite as well as hoped which is a real shame - it's excellent and well worth seeking out now it's in paperback.

There is also this about George Gissing's The Whirlpool which is not only very good but is also a much quicker read than the 400+ page count suggests!

And then this book which I'm delighted by - Diana Henry's A Bird in the Hand

Monday, April 6, 2015

(Some) of the Books Must Go

This has been an unsettling year so far; there have been deaths in the family - personally distant enough for me to be mostly philosophical about them but also close enough to be an uncomfortable reminder of what the future inevitably holds for all of us. Combined with spring, (an unsettling time in itself) it's making me assess what really matters to me and crave change (not something I'm normally keen to embrace). 

Short of a wonderful opportunity dropping out of the blue and begging to be seized the kind of change I want will take time to achieve but one thing I can confront immediately is the way books have taken over my flat. I love being surrounded by books but given my limited. Living space they've gotten totally out of control, they are everywhere. When I pulled out my weekend bag, unused for a month, to stay with my mother over Easter I found a Waterstones bag of books I'd already more than half forgotten about. There are books in every corner, on every surface, in bags, in the bathroom, under, on, and above their shelves. It's impossible to find what I want, overwhelming to consider the amount that are waiting to be read, and all very, very, dusty. 

With all this in mind my mission for today is to clear out somewhere between 500 and a 1000 of them. That would be a maximum of about a third. Whilst I write this I'm looking a a substantial pile of about 250. Already I can't imagine where they went - for such a big pile it's made very little impact on the shelves and I'm running out of easy choices.

These books are ones I've read, ones I realise I will almost certainly never read, old textbooks from undergraduate days, cookbooks I simply don't refer too (which I would love to keep but they take up so much space which could be better used by books I will use), unsolicited review copies that are creating pressure rather than pleasurable anticipation... Those, and a few which have been gifts are causing the deepest pangs of relative guilt but that helps nobody. 

It was easy to discard what felt like yards of Mitford letters, Noel Cowards letters, the diary's of Duff Cooper and Harold Nicholson - all fascinating and amusing, none of which I've seriously read in the many years I've had them. Gardening books have mostly gone - I don't have a garden of my own, rarely read them, and am much more the sort to plant and see than properly plan. Besides they no longer reflect the sort of things I want to grow, for that I have a collection of River Cottage handbooks. 

This isn't about de cluttering, I'm much to acquisitive to ever successfully do that, but whilst my mind has turned to gardening it feels more like having a good pruning session for the stronger growth of my personal library. What will be left are books that work better together, which don't threaten to bury me in a cascade of paper and obligations, and hopefully a flat that resembles a home more than a warehouse. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Sipsmith Visit

I've visited quite a few whisky distilleries over the years (something like 30 - if you like holidays in relatively remote parts of Scotland they're a handy place from which to enjoy the weather) and each one has deepened my enthusiasm for a good single malt, but until last week I'd never made it to a gin distillery. 

After years of thinking that it's something I'd really like to see I finally made a pilgrimage into deepest Chiswick and had a look round Sipsmith's distillery's new(ish) and expanded premises at 83 Cranbrook Rd courtesy of a work organised trip. 

Sipsmith's aren't a huge brand but they're available nationally through Waitrose so altogether the most surprising thing for me was just how small their set up is. They started off even smaller in what was originally an average sized looking garage on the side of a house (albeit one that had been a microbrewery before hand) but even now operations are carried out from something essentially the size of my dads big shed (it's quite a big shed, but even so...) what I couldn't see, and we were to big a group to get the chance to ask, was where the grain that starts the process is mashed but as at least one award winning gin (Sacred gin) is made in the relative comfort of its distillers home I'm guessing that this too can happen on a very domestic scale.

It's hard to express how exciting it was to realise just how small an operation could be viable - though it does go a long way towards explaining how so many new brands keep appearing. A brief explore via Google suggests a copper pot still would be more affordable than I imagined as well. Not cheap, but potentially under 6 figures so theoretically it would be possible to learn how to distill, sell my flat, hijack dad's shed, get a licence, and go into business. Given that when I started out in the wine and spirits selling business 16 years ago you might expect to see half a dozen different gins on the shelf (Gordon's, Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, a premium own label, and a basic one) plenty of people are clearly doing just that. A quick count at work totalled 40+ different bottles, from producers of every size, the other day.
My own gin collection. Please note how many bottles are still unopened!

Back in the late '90's this gin renaissance would have seemed hardly credible. As a relatively young gin drinker at the time I was an exception, it's image was most definitely dowdy, but with hindsight gin's current popularity isn't surprising. The combination of a colourful history, a product that can be endlessly tinkered with for new variations, and the potential for artisan production is a marketers dream.

Returning to Chiswick, the Sipsmith story is the perfect illustration for what's been happening. In 2007 a couple of guys already involved in the drinks trade thought actually making a London gin in London might be a good idea (it's a style rather than a geographical indicator). After 2 years and a change in the law they managed to get a licence and a still named Prudence. The range has expanded to include vodka (same process no botanicals) a gin based summer cup, and damson and sloe flavoured versions. They are big enough for that aforementioned national distribution but still small enough to be able to play around with their product and have some fun with it. It's probably also worth mentioning that it's really good gin as well. Smooth enough to drink neat (should you wish) and therefore perfect for very dry martini's it also has enough character to make a really good gin and tonic, as well as behaving impeccably in a range of cocktails. 

One of the most successful tastings I've ever done at work was with a recipe suggested on a Sipsmith's bottle for a cocktail called a white cargo, apparently a 1920's invention at the Savoy. It's basically equal amounts of gin and quality vanilla ice cream shaken until thoroughly blended. Personally not for me but customers mostly loved it, and it does hark back to the late Georgian/ early victorian habit of infusing gin with cream and sugar. Finally, as this post has basically turned into an extension of my day job, if you think you don't like gin it may well be tonic water you're not keen on - try a gin with a lot of pepper or lime in its botanical mix (Opihr or Tanqueray Rangpur are good) with ginger ale instead - and on that note it's worth getting the best quality mixers as well. If you're spending between £30 and £40 on a bottle of gin it's a shame to drown it in half flat, cheap, tonic that mostly tastes of sweeter when you can have something like fever tree instead. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

It's been quite a week.

It's been a thoroughly exciting week for me; not only has Leicester seen the reinterment of Richard lll, but on a more personal note I've got a new oven and visited a gin distillery for the first time. 

I've read a bit of negative press about the Richard lll events and heartily disagree with all of it, my experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one. It all finished up on Friday night with a sort of festival of lights when thousands of candles were placed around the cathedral and down around jubilee square. They lined the roads, made patterns, hung in trees and on sculptural forms, smoked like crazy, and were beautiful.

Leicester isn't a particularly large or glamorous city, it's not a bad place to live and has some great things going on, but it generally feels like it suffers in comparison to Birmingham or Nottingham. In short it is not a place I associate with civic pride, or didn't before this week. When we were trying to put our collective fingers in what made Friday night so special what we kept coming back to was optimism, that and a general feeling of excitement in having something unique to take part in. I hope that sense of optimism continues, we need it. 

Now I started writing this post on Saturday evening. I'd been up since 6 cleaning the kitchen ready for the arrival of a new oven, it duly arrived at just after 7am and by 8 I was slightly over cooking some croissants (it's the first fan oven I've had, I fear this is going to be a theme for the next few weeks). After that I was tempted out by friends so plans for cooking were shelved. By 7.30 pm I'd retired to bed with a cup of tea, a hot water bottle, and the intention of catching up on some reviews. At 7.55 a text reminded me I was meant to be in the pub celebrating an ex colleagues new job so I got up again. Sunday has so far not been as productive as it could have been so the shiny new oven remains an unknown quantity. As I have a couple of new cookbooks to put through their paces this is a state of affairs which has to be rectified...

And as for the distillery - it was Sipsmith's in Chiswick and there will be more on that soon.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Richard Reburied

As it was all happening on my doorstep (specifically across the park opposite my doorstep) it would have been a shame to miss Richard III's funeral cortege. It was a sunny afternoon as well which certainly made it more fun. 

There's something timeless about a crowd, it may be that much of the action is now viewed through the lenses of other people's smart phones and iPads (believe me, it was) but the atmosphere, colour, and Morris dancers don't change so much. A brief altercation between a couple of dogs behind me only heightened the medieval atmosphere. I joined the crowd besides the holiday inn (back to it so I could ignore it) where there's a very good view of St Nicholas', Leicester's oldest surviving church and where the coffin was due to change from a hearse to horse drawn gun carriage. It duly did that and picked up some police horses, two Knights in armour, and a modest compliment of city dignitaries. 

Cutting across town to find a way home not subject to a road block I found myself on the procession route again so waited to see the coffin pass by. The Knights were impressive, the police horses impeccably behaved, the city dignitaries appropriately dignified, the coffin very much in view - and strewn with white roses thrown by the crowd - the crowd itself excited but surprisingly solemn, and clergy all dressed up in their finest. I'm guessing a large chunk of the budget for this has been spent on cleaning the city up (it positively sparkled) which is money well spent.  

There will undoubtedly have been people there for whom it was an emotional occasion, plenty watching to complain about how pointless it all was, as well as a fair few like me just interested to see what was going on - hence a decision not to waste time trying to take a lot of pictures but to see what was happening in front of me whilst it was actually happening. It was oddly moving, not so much because of the remains of a 500 years dead king passing by, but because it bought the city to life in a way I seldom see and enjoyed being a part of. Some of it was a bit crazy - though I'm guessing those were the people having the most fun too, generally it all seemed very well organised and as dignified as could be hoped for.
A roaring trade being done in white roses

And normally quiet streets crowded.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pigs and Pork - Gill Meller

Pigs and Pork - Gill Meller

March has been a strong month for cook books - I've got three crackers including 'Pigs & Pork', which I had been anticipating with some enthusiasm for a while. I'm a huge fan of the River Cottage handbooks, I like everything about them from design to content. Some have been more useful to me than others ('Bread' and 'Preserves' are particularly well used) living, as I do, in a Leicester City centre flat (with occasional access to a garden in which I've planted fruit trees - inspired by Mark Diacono's 'Fruit') but my windowsills abound with herbs, there are far more foraging opportunities in town than you might expect, I still have plans to cure some bacon, and there is always something useful to be found in these books. 

'Pigs & Pork' is no exception. I will not be raising my own pig in the foreseeable future, mostly because of the city centre flat thing (obviously). We did do it once when I was a child; I remember it being a particularly mean spirited animal, but even so I had resolved not to eat any part of it - a resolve that lasted just as long as it took the first slices of bacon to start cooking. What I can do though is source good quality pork from local butchers and farmers markets (where it also comes in manageable portions for one person to deal with). 

With that in mind the advice on getting started and pig rearing are of limited use to the non pig owner - though I always find those kind of details interesting. If you like to know about what you're eating the section on choosing a breed is useful even if it's just the pork you're buying and not the actual live pig and the same goes for the how to butcher section as it's quite possible to buy a whole carcass and deal with it accordingly (though again, not necessarily practical in a small flat). Circumstances permitting that's something I'd really like to do some time with a couple of likeminded friends. 

There is also an excellent section on slaughter. This is important. A trip to the slaughterhouse isn't a fun day out, as Meller makes clear there will likely be an emotional response. One of the many things I like about this series is that the books don't avoid this aspect of small holding. The reasonably graphic pictures make the link between animal and food clear. Something that a pre packed portion of meat does not, but it's a thing we should all be clear about. Good welfare standards matter and are worth paying for in the end product. 

And then it's on to the recipes which account for about half the book. The philosophy here, as you would expect, is nose to tail eating so there are recipes for ears, brains, and tail. Blood puddings, chocolate and pigs blood truffles (I'd like to try them, not sure I want to make them), every bit of offal, tongue, cheek, trotter, and then the more familiar cuts. I particularly like the look of a savoury 'chelsea bun' filled with ham, hazelnuts, and spinach (I have a new oven on the way, they could be its inaugural bake). Basically whatever bit of a pig comes your way there will be a helpful suggestion for what to do with it in here, no waste, and no nonsense. For those of us not faced with a whole pig, or any of its less obviously delicious parts the instructions for roasting, sticky ribs, pork bellies, Christmas hams and the like are more than enough to be going on with. A worthy addition to an excellent series. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta

After enjoying the roaring girls season so much at The Swan last year my friend R and I have been planning more Stratford visits, so Wednesday night saw us brave the traffic, baffling roundabouts, significant road works, and diversions which make the journey so interesting (it's a trip designed to baffle any but the most up to date sat nav, which ours wasn't). 

When possible we aim to go on preview nights because they're significantly cheaper - cheap enough to make it feasible to see 3 plays over a season when at full price it might only be 1. In this case it was the very first night and the director opened proceedings by apologetically explaining his cast weren't entirely well so please to be kind to them. It soon became clear that Jasper Britton, playing the lead role, was very far from well which made his performance all the more impressive.

I love The Swan theatre, partly because of it's size; it's small enough to feel intimate - to encourage interval conversation with neighbouring theatre goers, and to never be far from the action which often spills out through the audience. I've never been disappointed by anything I've seen there and 'The Jew of Malta' was no exception. The only Marlowe I'm at all familiar with is 'Dr Faustus' which was a highlight amongst A level set texts, though only just more dramatic than the playwrights own story. The chance to see more of his work performed was far to good to miss. 

In brief it turned out to be a good old fashioned blood bath. The Turks are demanding money from Ferneze the Christian governor or they'll invade. Ferneze decides to levy the cash from the Jewish population; if they don't willingly hand over half their worth then the state will seize the lot and this is what happens to Barabas who is understandably miffed and vows vengeance. He uses his daughter to help him recover some of his former assets, acquires a slave with an appetite for violent revenge to match his own, and sets the governors son against his daughters lover in a duel fatal to both. When his daughter, Abigail, realises what he's done she promptly converts to Christianity and becomes a nun. Barabas just as promptly poisons all the nuns including his daughter and then sets about disposing of the priest who heard her confession. Meanwhile his slave turned henchman is seduced by a courtesan into trying to blackmail Barabas who gets busy with the poison again. He then fakes his own death to prevent being hung before falling in with the Ottoman army and helping them sack Malta. As reward he's made governor but decides to betray them as well by plotting to kill the whole army. The previous governor who he has confided this plan to then betrays Barabas at the last minute, killing him off and regaining control of the island. There is never a dull moment. 

Marlowe, who seems to have been something of an atheist, satirises the myths and superstitions surrounding Jews whilst making his Christians a deeply unpleasant lot. Barabas is a monster but one it's possible to sympathise with. Ferneze is almost as monstrous and far harder to find sympathy for. T S Eliot described The Jew of Malta as tragic farce, this production chooses to play it for laughs with Barabas something of a pantomime villain at times but there is a counterbalance in the number of times he's casually, though brutally, beaten and abused for being a Jew. Barabas' excesses are stage melodrama to entertain an audience with, the reality of everyday religious intolerance is not. 

It's an almost ridiculously topical play which makes the decision to exploit the humour in it wise. Wednesday's audience were clearly having fun but our conversation on the way back (except whilst negotiating a particularly unexpected diversion that took us to the outskirts of Coventry) was all about the darker underlying themes so the point was obviously made.

Back in the theatre we both both found ourselves thoroughly engaged by the action - edge of the seat at times and no fidgeting which really is a compliment where those hard seats are concerned. There may have been some first night hiccups but it was an excellent performance (with particularly gorgeous costumes) which I whole heartedly recommend seeing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Harpole and Foxberrow General Publishers - J.L. Carr

I read Carr's 'A Month in the Country' a couple of years ago courtesy of my postal book group and promptly fell in love with it. It's thanks to the same book group that I've finally got round to reading another Carr but this one is a very different beast.

Where my memories of 'A Month in the Country' are of a quiet masterpiece dealing in love and recovery of self I really have no idea what to make of 'Harpole & Foxberrow General Publishers' except that it's funny. It was the last book that Carr wrote, it was published by his own press, and appears to use the characters from his previous novels. To really appreciate it you almost certainly have to have read those novels, and as the only one I'm familiar with seems to be the one least referred to it sometimes became a bit confusing. 

I'm assuming that what Carr wanted to do with 'Harpole and Foxberrow' was revisit old characters and have a bit of fun with them whilst sharing some of his own reminiscences about a life in publishing. Even without any knowledge of his previous work, and with no very clear plot, it was still funny enough to hook me in and make me read to the end. In a perfect world I'd have the leisure to work my way through Carr's entire back catalogue and then revisit this one to see how many more jokes I could spot and hope that all the other details might become clear too in the process. As it is I probably won't do that because time is short and my book collection feels like it's breathed out. Sometimes the shelves seem to just about contain them but not at the moment. There are books everywhere; under, on, and in, everything. It's become so daunting a situation I may even stop buying them for a while - at least until I feel like the flat has metaphorically breathed in again and I have the illusion of control once more.