Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Autumn is in the air

The weather may have remained summery for the last few weeks but the shortening days (it's the equinox next week) and the constant danger of being hit by a falling conker on my way to and from work tells me it's autumn. If I had any lingering doubts about the turning of the year there are other indications in the way of seasonal fruits, an overwhelming desire to make jam, and book releases. A new River Cottage offering has become a sure sign of autumn in recent years - the latest picked up very reasonably in W H Smith's (they're a great place to look for bargains on big name titles) for a mere £10. It's 'River Cottage Light and Easy' healthy recipes for everyday - I've only had a quick look so far but if I was buying only one book about healthy eating this year it would be Diana Henry's 'A Change of Appetite', as it is I'll buy any number of books about all sorts of things and I have a soft spot for River Cottage books so I'm very happy with to have this one (though I'm not sure I'd have paid full price for it).


There seems to be a trend in cookbooks at the moment to fill pages with either lavish pictures of things which aren't food (I want a cookbook, not a coffee table book full of slightly out of focus pictures of market stalls and shabby chic table dressings with a few recipes thrown in - though judging by the number of such books around I might not be in the majority) or with things that don't in my view count as a recipe - in this case I don't think grapefruit with a sprinkle of black pepper and an optional tiny pinch of salt truly deserves a double page spread, and carpaccio of bananas with lime  - or limey bananas - is pushing it's luck too. On the other hand for the modest sum of £10 there are a lot of nice ideas in there.

Otherwise it's been all about the jam and jelly this week. After a bit of investigation online I decided to buy a big box of jam jars (48) this year instead of recycling a collection of old jars and lids, of which an ever decreasing number seem to match, and all of which have the remains of impossible to remove sticky labels. I am ridiculously excited by the new jars - far more excited than you might reasonably assume a person should be - but there's something so nice about not scraping them down, worrying about lingering pickle smells from previous contents, or conducting an exhaustive search for lids. I've been so excited by them that on Monday I made 7 jars of rowan jelly (just in time, fruit is ridiculously early this year) and 10 jars of fig and pomegranate jam. Tuesday I was at work, today I have mostly been removing jam from odd corners of the kitchen (ably helped by my friends dog who did me the favour of licking it off the floor before I mopped it). The jam recipe comes from Diana Henry's (can you tell how big a fan I am?) brilliant 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke', opening it again has filled me with enthusiasm for preserving things - it is such a good book, and once again there are so many things in it I want to make. This evening prunes are doing there thing, well on the way to becoming prunes in armagnac. Autumn is most definitely her - all I want for now is a source of quinces. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Scream In Soho - John G. Brandon

This is one of the British Library's crime series, it caught my eye with it's definite promise of somewhat camp entertainment - a promise it keeps. John G. Brandon wrote over a hundred novels of which this is judged to be the best - I take this as an indication that his work isn't generally worth seeking out these days (I can't imagine that it's aged well) but 'A Scream in Soho' is an entertaining read which provides a useful insight into the paranoia's and attitudes during the early days of the second world war.

Detective Inspector Patrick Aloysius McCarthy is meeting his boss for dinner in a Soho restaurant when he spots a suspicious looking individual (well dressed in a European way, olive colouring, and startling ice blue eyes) who then disappears into the night. Later, and just as he's about to go to bed a terrible scream rends the Soho night. McCarthy thinks it's a man screaming, the bobby on the beat assumes a woman, both grope through the blackout to the source of the scream (McCarthy still in his pyjamas) where they find a pool of blood, a stiletto dagger, and a woman's lace handkerchief... but no body. In short order the bodies start to pile up (a hapless constable placed on guard, and an old man who had a coffee cart) and the pickpocket that McCarthy sets to follow the man with the ice blue eyes is found covered in blood wandering around on Hampstead heath next to the body of a murdered woman, the very body that went missing from Soho. She turns out to be a cross dressing German spy, and we are given to understand that the Germans are generally keen on cross dressing. Back in Soho some gangsters of Italian extraction (but Soho breeding) try and dispatch McCarthy by running him down in a car - but he escapes. After that there is a mysterious Austrian aristocrat in the traditional femme fatale role (she doesn't turn out to be a man), a ruthless Soho Italian beauty who seems to be going to the bad, a stalwart taxi driver, a dwarf assassin, some missing anti aircraft defence plans, and of course the villainous character with the ice blue eyes.

In his introduction Martin Edwards warns that there are attitudes that will make the modern reader wince - he's right, sometimes it's funny (there is a moment discussing the wig the cross dressing spy wore - it had to be a wig because no man on earth could have grown his hair to look like a woman's) sometimes it's shocking or uncomfortable, but this is also a brilliant evocation of London, specifically Soho in 1940. I haven't pulled out an A2Z to follow the action but I could do, and next time I'm in London it might be fun to see if I could follow the book round Soho. The attitudes might often grate but it's useful to be reminded of how people thought, and to some extent why. I'm also fascinated by descriptions of the blackout. I find it very hard to imagine what it must have been like. There was one occasion going through a village on a night time bus when there was a powercut which gave me some inkling, but it was a starry night so not pitch black. In a city where the sky is obscured by buildings which cast extra shadows - well it's no place for someone afraid of the dark. It brings some element of fairly tales and wild woods back to life.

Over all this is an amusing curiosity, worth reading for the details, and because in the end it's a well crafted piece of pulp fiction and as such a lot of fun.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The White Devil

The problem with a satisfactory theatre trip is that it leaves you craving more. Yesterday was my third trip to Stratford's Swan theatre this year, each time to see plays from the roaring girls season, it possibly won't be the last. In my corner of England (by which I mean the middle) and for our trio of theatre going friends the RSC generally has the most to offer, and this season has been a cracker. 'The Roaring Girl' was particularly good - we came out of that fizzing with excitement and sharing an enthusiasm which hasn't abated even 6 months later. 'Arden of Faversham' was excellent as well, and 'The White Devil' - well apart from anything else it makes me wish I'd managed to catch 'The Duchess of Malfi' when BBC4 did there Webster season. What makes 'The a Roaring Girl' feel so unique and subversive is the character of Moll and the feeling in this production at least that she's more interested in freedom than sex. She remains desirable but aloof, not for her the scrambling after bed partners or the complications of love affairs that beset the other characters - what she does have is a lot of fun - it leads to uncomfortable questions about the roles we still enforce on women. In Arden of Faversham Alice is the discontented wife who's an advert for why divorce us a good thing. The only way she can be with her lover is to have her husband murdered, predictably it doesn't turn out well. Arden isn't a particularly nice man so it's quite possible to sympathise with Alice to a degree but her complicity in using her lovers sister, Susan, as bait in her husbands murder sort of puts paid to that. Susan is property and treated as such which is shocking.

'The White Devil' has one of those fairly incomprehensible revenge tragedy plots where everyone ends up dead at the end and which again makes you think divorce has to be a far better plan than wholesale murder. Duke Bracciano is having an affair with Vittoria who suggests to him that it might be quite handy if her husband and his wife were disposed of. Being Italian and in a revenge tragedy he immediately puts this in hand rather than sitting down with a nice cup of tea and having sensible second thoughts. The Duchess Isabella then turns up, gets treated abominably but still try's to make peace between her husband and brother. By way of thanks her husband has her poisoned, the poison administered through a portrait of himself that she's in the habit of kissing. Isabella's brother, Francisco vows revenge, Vittoria is put on trial for the murder of her husband which has been overseen by her sibling Flaminio who works for Duke Bracciano. Despite a spirited defence on her own part Cardinal, soon to be pope Monticelso has Vittoria sent to a house for penitent whores. After a jealous scene Bracciano flees with her to Padua, marries her, and us then poisoned by his ex brother in law. Flaminio kills their other sibling Marcello, which sends their mother mad, then forms a suicide pact with Vittoria and Zanche which turns out to be a trick. Just when it looks like the killing is done with Francisco's henchmen turn up and kill all 3 of them, and then they in turn are dispatched on the orders of the new duke, Isabella's young son, who ends the play by kicking the pile of bodies on stage and laughing.

This production takes a determinedly feminist stance on the play, using it to showcase how gender inequality and the sex industry damage society. Maria Aberg, the director, chose to recast the male Flaminio as a woman, which worked for us, though as we weren't familiar with the play beforehand it's hard to judge how much difference it makes. The setting is contemporary - which led the RSC to send out a warning email about the level of violence (it was nowhere near as violent or graphic as I expected in the end, the email felt unnecessary ) and effective. The play opens with Vittoria dressing on stage, transforming herself into an exotic object of desire in pink wig, gold mini dress, and heels - her sexuality is both how she gets what she wants but also how she's kept in her place. The home for penitent whores is full of beaten and discarded women which certainly underlines the double standards by which we measure male and female behaviour, but the fate of the good wife and mother Isabella is hardly encouraging either. Even Flaminio who steps outside the traditional roles of virgin or whore doesn't escape punishment (though as a violent killer that's probably a good thing).

On the whole it worked for me, the feminist message was preaching to the choir as far as I'm concerned but it was done well. We certainly came out with enough to think about to keep us going over the hours drive home. Changing Flaminio's gender served to demonstrate how complicit women can be in the exploitation of their own sex, or even their individual sexuality, but I think it also raised interesting questions about sibling relationships, and even more interesting questions about how gender blind the theatre could be.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Happy Find

That moment when you walk into a second hand or charity shop and see a book you've rather wanted for a very long time at a splendidly cheap price. Admittedly this is a battered first edition (and that's not first edition in the romantic, and possibly financially desirable, sense) rather than the swanky new illustrated second edition, but I have plenty of Victorian illustrations around the house, and I'm still very happy with my find and it's low, low, price tag. Share my joy!
This book almost completes my John Sutherland collection (he's so prolific there are bound to be some that have slipped the net) and beautifully compliments my love of Victorian fiction (the more sensational the better).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Audley End and Munnings

Back in the days when I was studying History of Art during the holidays my mother and I used to go on days out to look for galleries and impressive architecture, it was even better if the gallery was in the impressive architecture. At Christmas it was always a gothic cathedral (until the year we went to Lincoln and I was very sick which somehow took the edge off the experience and the habit lapsed) and over Easter and the summer increasingly distant forays to country houses. It's been ages since we've done anything like that though so a recent trip to Audley End and the Munnings Museum (in Dedham near Colchester) was a particularly nice way to spend the day together. (My mother is exceptionally good company anyway, but we're at one on the importance of tea and buns at regular intervals - this is a factor in a successful day out that should never be underestimated; low blood sugar is nobody's friend in these circumstances.)





The main objective was the Munnings collection, for me because I've always had a soft spot for him - and mum... well it was my choice but one I thought she'd enjoy, which she did. Dedham is about 3 hours drive away for us so Audley End was basically picked off the map as a convenient tea stop (they do a very good coffee, a passable scone - no jam - and an excellent caramel shortbread). Obviously it's worth a visit in it's own right, the grounds are everything you'd hope for from Capability Brown, what's left of the house is impressive (what was once a palace to rival Hampton Court was slowly knocked down by several generations short of cash) with some great paintings but perhaps what's best about it is how much of the domestic workings you get to see. The kitchens and sculleries (complete with gleaming copper pans and well blacked range) are fairly standard but the wet and dry laundry rooms and immaculate dairy bought the house alive in a way you don't always see. Better yet was the coal gallery, which as far as I'm aware is quite an unusual feature. On the first floor, so convenient for the bedrooms, is a longish gallery. Coal was hauled up to it through one of the windows and then shovelled into huge bins, apparently enough could be stored up there to heat the house for 5 days, it was used for fires but it's also where all the water for bathing was heated. It must have been a hell of a place to work.

I didn't think much of the film 'Summer in February' when I saw it last summer and haven't read the nook it was based on but Persephone published another of Jonathan Smith's books so have been great at publicising linked things. It's thanks to Persephone that I recognised a Laura Knight coronation mug from across a crowded junk shop and thanks to them that I heard about this museum in the first place. This year they have a room dedicated to his Lamorna work, one dedicated to his second wife, and some of his Great War sketches. It all lives in Castle House,  the Munnings home, which was endowed by the artists widow with a quantity of his work, the furniture she didn't want to decamp to London with, a reasonable amount of money, and the stuffed body of her favourite Pekinese.
Just visible, I hope, are sketches Munnings did of race horses in the plasterwork of an out building. 


I think most people there when we visited had seen the film, it certainly can't have done visitor numbers any harm, and there was one room attendant who seemed to be having a lot of fun giving an alternative view Munnings. In the film he's a bit of a womaniser who marries a girl we can assume was probably bi polar, she has an affair and kills herself. My room attendant thought Florence was just a young girl led astray, that the artist wasn't much interested in women at all, and suggested that his second marriage was a purely business arrangement. There was quite an argument brewing. As much fun as that kind of speculation can be the main thing was getting the chance to assess Munnings work as a body rather than see isolated examples of typically horsey stuff. Until recently the museum has had an active acquisitions policy but Munnings increasing popularity has priced them out now - it didn't stop one lady asking why, if he was so popular, they had so many there. (She was not convinced).

There are examples of poster designs he did in the late 1890's for which he won prizes, and which are also very typically fin de si├Ęcle, and then the Lamorna stuff which is suitably post impressionistic, and then lots and lots of horses. Munnings made his money after being engaged by the Canadian war memorials fund which led to a number of prestigious commissions, his wife, Violet, carried on by introducing him to potential clients and taking on the business aspects of their life together. The things that are very clear from seeing so much of his work together is that he was both very good, and really, really, understood horses. What is less clear is how much he was motivated by cash. Looking at the images of a very specific vision of English life, and given his publicly stated dislike of modernism, he could appear almost subversive now, and maybe it was a deliberate attempt to record a way if life that was vanishing. On the other hand perhaps it was easy money for doing something he liked. Either way it's worth making the trip to Dedham.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Making It Up - Penelope Lively

This is the first Penelope Lively I've read, she's a sort of familiar name but I've come to realise I've got her all mixed up with Penelope's Mortimer and Fitzgerald too, a confusion that I suspect reading her has only added to. This book came to me by way of a reading group so I have a better idea of how it strikes other people than I might have, which is definitely something I like, especially when I'm slightly ambivalent about a book.

Basically 'Making It Up' didn't turn out at all like the book I expected from the blurb, which for me was a shame because I quite wanted to read the book I thought I was going to get. There is a quote from the preface on the back of the edition I read which says "This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the ricks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a confabulation." The blurb goes on, "Making It Up is Penelope Lively's answer to the oft-asked question, 'How much if what you write comes from your own life?' What if Lively hadn't escaped from Egypt, her birthplace, at the outbreak of World War II? What would her life have been like if she'd married someone else? From a hillside in Italy to an archeological dig, the author explores the stories that could have been hers..."

I guess the answer is that not much of what Lively writes comes from her own life. I guess as well that everybody plays the what if game and try's to imagine what life would have been like if certain actions had had different consequences or other choices had been made. Most of us put ourselves at the centre of whatever scenario that conjures - which is only natural, so I expected Lively to do the same. She doesn't which is unsettling, what she does do is explain before and after each chapter how that might have been a path taken which all things considered is frustrating; it could all have been done in the preface. It's chapter three where it becomes a bit of an issue - the young Penelope applied to be a student volunteer on an archeological dig in the early 50's, she didn't get a place but imagines that if she had... The tale takes up 20 years later on another dig with a motley collection of students and professionals thrown together for 6 weeks. The central character is a student called Alice, taken up with a fear of the bomb and a philosophical consideration of the objects they find. The woman Lively imagines she might have been is the wife of the senior academic who suddenly ups and leaves to join a women's group but she's scarcely mentioned which wouldn't matter if it didn't sound more interesting than the story I actually found myself reading.

Otherwise in 2 of the 6 chapters which are confabulations of her own life she kills herself off in short order, in another she dispatches her husband before they meet, it's also the weakest in the collection as a story - it's set in the Korean War and never, for me at least, came alive. By any measure I can give the best of the lot is about an old woman in a house full of books but otherwise I think this one is for Lively fans rather than beginners.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Chocolate and Hazelnut Buns

Despite getting home late on Sunday I couldn't wait to have a crack at something from 'Warm Bread and Honey Cake' so duly set out to make chocolate and hazelnut buns. It turned into rather a fraught experience. The first check was realising that my flour bin had been infested with aphids (escapees from a nearby mint plant). They were everywhere and, whilst possibly tempting for ladybirds, quite off putting. After a bit if searching I unearthed an unopened packet of flour which was bug free, and a bottle of bleach for dealing with the flour bin. Distracted by the insects I then forgot to add salt to my dough, something I only remembered when I had added the filling. I now know exactly what it is that salt does in bread - it's important. Irritation factor aside it was quite interesting to see what a difference it makes, without the salt the dough had no elasticity. In the end the buns went in the bin (bake off style).

Monday night I had another go after work, and was rewarded by a perfect bun in time to retire to bed with in the company of a cup if tea and the latest Slightly Foxed Quarterly - not a bad end to an otherwise challenging day. I love cinnamon buns (with a passion) but am prepared to agree with Gaitri when she says a chocolaty version makes a pleasant change - they do, and these are delicious, they're not to sweet and the chocolate flavour isn't overpowering, the nuts give a fantastic texture.

The dough needs 350g white bread flour, 1 sachet of instant yeast, 2tsp sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 55g butter, 1 egg, and 150mls of milk. Warm the milk and melt the butter in it, then let come down to luke warm whilst chucking everything else in a mixing bowl. Add the milk and butter and mix (it's a sticky dough so dough hooks are best) until smooth and supple. Cover with cling film or similar and put somewhere warm to rise until doubled in size.

Meanwhile take 100g of hazelnuts, 75g of granulated sugar, 25g of cocoa and blitz in a blender until the nuts are well chopped. When the dough has risen knock it back then shape it into a rectangle about 40x30 cm and slather it with 50g of well softened butter (next time I'm going to see what happens if I just make it all into a paste because the chocolate mix was keen to escape) sprinkle the chocolate nut mix over the dough and roll up to make a long roll. Have a 20cm square baking tin to hand (buttered and lined) cut the roll into 9 pieces, arrange in the tin, cover and allow to rise until they press cosily together (double in size) heat the oven to 180/gas4 and bake for 25 mins or until golden brown. Cool and eat.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Warm Bread and Honey Cake - Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra

The last couple of weeks have been somewhat stressful (floods from an upstairs neighbours unsatisfactory plumbing and all the attendant hassle that goes along with that, trying to renegotiate my mortgage - there are no shortcuts it seems - and a very busy time at work) so faced with a whole weekend off it's no surprise that I woke up with a burning desire to mooch around a bookshop for a few restorative hours. Accordingly I took myself off to Nottingham, which has a much better branch of Waterstones than Leicester has, and had a good old browse. I wasn't after anything in particular but never the less felt an irresistible pull towards food and drink titles. I didn't try and resist it for a moment.

'Warm Bread and Honey Cake' came out about 5 years ago, and I know I've picked it up a couple of times with no special interest but today it grabbed me - which is part of the charm of a good bookshop; it would have been cheaper online but then I've never come across it whilst browsing amazon and at no time does coordinating with couriers appeal to me, even less so when I have the desired object in my hand. Since I last looked at this particular book I've acquired (and used) another of Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra's titles 'Sugar & Spice' which I liked more than enough to favourably predispose me to anything with her name on it. She has had one of those lives which give roots in all sorts of distinctive cultures - perhaps the most obvious sign of which us not the recipes so much as that the measurements are given in grams, ounces, and cups (or sticks where butter is concerned) and whilst that might not sound like a big thing American measurements look exotic to me; it's a combination that speaks far more of international experience than any recipe could. This also sounds like the perfect autumn book; warm bread, honey cake... Longer nights and unpredictable weather beg for such things.

It's also time for a confession; this is the first season of the Great British Bake Off I've properly watched and I'm not really a fan. I like bits of it, I'm a fan of baking, I'm definitely a fan of Mel and Sue, and I'm very much in awe of some of those creations, but they seem ever further away from anything I'd want to bake at home. The same could be said for a lot of the baking books I saw for sale  yesterday (I'm think of Surprise-Inside cakes and Peek-a-Boo cakes especially) all of which were full of things that had a wow factor to look at, but none of which made me want to eat them. Opening 'Warm Bread and Honey Cake' at random I'm confronted with spice cake stuffed with Almond paste - it's a good looking thing in a homely kind of way and the very thought of it is making my mouth water - I can almost smell it - and I can't wait to make it. No wonder I fell in love with it on the spot.

It's a book full of things I want to try, things which look useful, things which might present a challenge if that's what I'm in the mood for, and things that speak of comfort along with long tradition. There are things to read about rather than do, and things to dream of, it is in short a book which mixes practicality with a magical alchemy and one which I intend to spend a lot of time with.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Return To Night - Mary Renault



 In 2005 Virago re-printed Mary Renault's 'The Friendly Young Ladies' which I read and loved. On the back of that I went hunting for more Mary, found and discarded the historic novels on the grounds that it didn't sound just entirely my sort of thing (I'm reassessing that viewpoint now) and bought a copy of 'The Charioteer' which I still haven't read perhaps because it's described as a monumental work in gay literature which somehow makes reading it sound like something one ought to do and which in turn isn't always very appealing. A brand new copy of 'Return To Night' on my doorstep however was a bit more inspiring, so only slightly daunted by its 417 pages I got started - and then basically read through it in 3 sittings - and am now fully enthused by Renault again; I don't care how monumental she is!

When Virago first looked to reprint 'The Friendly Young Ladies' back in the early 80's and not long before Renault died she was keen to alter the ending which she felt was too conventional and unconvincing (one if the young ladies rides off into the sunset with a man) in the end a compromise was reached in the form of an afterword. Sarah Dunant suggests in her introduction to these reissues that the same criticism of an imposed happy ending could be levelled at 'Return To Night' but I'm inclined to disagree. Reading 'The Friendly Young Ladies' a decade ago the ending suggested that the heroine was still exploring herself. In 'Return To Night' it's a bit more complicated.

It's 1938 and Dr Hilary Mansell is in her mid 30's with a stalling career. After a job she wants in London goes to her lover, David, she clears off into country practice where she's somewhat bored by the slower pace and more routine work. When Julian Fleming is admitted with a head injury Hilary's experience saves his life, but she also manages to make an enemy of his mother. Later the pair meet again, Julian is extravagantly attractive, intelligent, charming, 10 years younger than Hilary, and has an uncomfortable relationship with his mother. Despite herself she falls in love with him, and he with her. Julian's sexuality is arguably ambiguous but I think this is a red herring; beautiful young men who want to be actors and are uncomfortably close to their mothers do not have to be gay, but it's a convenient suspicion for the reader to hold whilst they try and decipher the tension between mother and son. And tension there is, Mrs Fleming is one of those terrifyingly horrible mothers that crop up all over the place in books of this vintage (do they still? I don't read enough contemporary fiction to really know.) her relationship with Julian is desperately manipulative - she controls him by deliberately withdrawing her favour and affection. There is never anything as vulgar or openly expressed as anger or frustration, never any discussion, just a pervasive sense of disapproval or disappointment which is utterly corrosive. Julian is undeniably damaged, but then how many women don't want to fix a man at some point in there lives?

This book works now because one taboo that remains firmly in place is that of an older woman having a relationship with a younger man. Eleven years is enough for the reader to know that Hilary is right to fear being made to look a fool, to worry about the condemnation of her family, and to dread local gossip - none of these are calculated to help a relationship. She's right too to wonder how much she can trust in the continuing love of a still very young and inexperienced man, and how as a woman with a profession can she go on respecting a man who has none. Or as a woman who fought her own parents to get into that profession how does she find the patience to accept a man who hasn't yet worked out how to do the same? And then Julian wants marriage which make all of Hilary's considerations so much more acute; it would after all be so public.

In the end marriage, or at least an engagement, becomes necessary despite Hilary's doubts or Julian's reservations about his mothers reaction. For Hilary it's hardly a conventional happy ending - she understands that she's as much replacement mother as lover, and by the same measure Julian is in part the child she's unlikely to have. But. War is on the horizon, written in 1946 it's made clear that we know the war has happened even if it's set in 38-39, Julian is going into the airforce and Hilary is a surgeon as well as a GP. Survival is hardly assured so having found love, even messy far from perfect love, why not take a chance on any happiness that's going?

There are clearly parallels between Renault's relationship with another woman and Hilary and Julian's situation - discreet affairs might be tolerated but an open relationship would be a scandal (that 70 years later same sex marriages should still be a contentious issue is a disgrace) in which case the happy ending is that this book bought Renault a huge wedge of cash from MGM which allowed her and her partner to move to South Africa where they lived together until Mary died more than 30 years later. There are things about the book which aren't perfect - it's a bit too Freudian in places (underground caves especially make for quite heavy handed symbolism) but it's a hell of a page turner and she nails so much about loving that it shouldn't be missed.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

August Folly - Angela Thirkell

I first read 'August Folly' almost exactly 3 years ago - I guess it's the August in the title that makes it seem like the right time to do it. Looking back I didn't seem to have much to say other than to have finally been able to pick up on the Trollope references but as ever (or so it seems to be turning out) Thirkell repays re-reading. The Trollope references still amuse me (there is a dramatic incident with a bull which is the making of the fortunes of both young Richard Tebben here and young Johnny Eames in 'The Small House at Allington' ) and I still think this is a good stand alone book despite it's Barsetshire setting, in fact it's a pretty good place to start with Thirkell for a couple of reasons.

The thing with Thirkell, and this is in part why this is a good book to start with, is that she can be a terrible snob. There are moments here when that snobbishness comes out, moments I thought I'd made a note of - but it turns out hadn't so I hope I'm remembering correctly, the point being that if you can't warm to Thirkell here than she's probably not for you. A much better reason to start here is that it's a charming funny book, exactly the sort of thing to lift a person out of the kind of flat mood to be found after their flat has been flooded (or at least significantly leaked into) twice in the space of a week (that's my flat people, and I'm not happy about it).

'August Folly' has two families at it's heart, the Tebben's and the Dean's. The Tebben's are a scholarly couple with not much money and a brace of grown up children who are rather a worry at the start of the book - how are they to be started out in life? Richard Tebben has just come down from Oxford with a third class degree and Margaret has returned from being an aupair in Grenoble. Both are slightly embarrassed by their parents, especially their mother who's inclined to wear shabby clothes and fuss a lot, and both are uneasily aware that they need to find jobs without being particularly qualified for anything, or well enough connected to get a helping hand.

The senior Tebbens are genuinely the sort of parents who might be a trial to their offspring and at the same time a couple who the reader really feels for. Mr Tebben is a civil servant who lived for academic argument about the Norse saga's, Mrs Tebben (who took a first in economics) supplements the family income by writing textbooks on the subject. It's the money she's earned that has built a house just a little to small in the country (where her dear family least want to be). Thirkell's characters can be a little two dimensional, but not the Tebben's, which made me wonder if they were based on real people.

The Dean's are a family of nine children ranging in age from mid twenties down to about five, only six of the children feature. Mrs Dean, despite her many children and being almost 50 is a woman still beautiful enough to be a suitable object of infatuation for a young man (Richard Tebben) her husband is a vague kind of a figure and the childre fill their various places in the plot most satisfactorily but they don't come alive in quite the same way that the Tebben's do. But then the Dean's have money, pots of money, their lives are charmed and easy in comparison to others and that's the point of them.

As it goes the love story between Margaret Tebben and Laurence Dean is more convincing than some I've found in Thirkell, and Margaret's situation calls for genuine sympathy but the real point of reading Thirkell for me is her humour. This is a book that can raise a smile (in the face of considerable domestic disasters on this readers part) through a well described pair of ears in the moonlight, there's something utterly charming and extremely English about it all - I thoroughly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sweets Made Simple - Miss Hope

Over the last few years I've amassed a small collection if books about confectionary - some of them are specifically chocolate based but quite a few of them cover more general sweets. Of all of them my favourites, the ones I keep using, and the ones where I've learnt actual skills from, are the trio of Hope and Greenwood books I have. Because of this I was mildly excited to see they have a TV series (BBC2, Friday nights) now 2 episodes in. Hope and Greenwood started as the sort of shop you find in London or Brighton and not in Leicester (retro vibe and thoroughly thought out design in every detail) all that style charms me and makes me mildly suspicious in equal measure, but the acid test is the quality of the product - Hope and Greenwood are more than satisfactory on that score.

Eventually the books came along (I've posted about them all in the past) with the same mix of fun, design, and thoroughly reliable (as well as delicious) recipes. The instructions are clear, specific, and generally need to be followed to the letter - boiling sugar is not the thing to mess around with, and chocolate is temperamental. In short these are good books and making your own sweets is first if all very satisfying and secondly means you know exactly what you're eating. Nothing brings sugar and fat content to life like measuring it out, and this way there are no hidden or mysterious ingredients.

The BBC2 series is great, there's a charm about Miss Hope and Mr Greenwood that I'm finding genuinely irresistible (no suspicion this time, the dynamic between them really works on camera) and the recipes are fabulous. There is a book to accompany the series - 'Sweets Made Simple' - which looks to be a conglomeration of the first 2 ('Life Is Sweet' and 'Miss Hope's Chocolate Box') as such it is a bargain, in W H Smiths this weekend it was even more of a bargain at half price. Their vanilla fudge recipe is the best I've ever found (the book would be worth it for that alone) but this week I've been trying the pecan maple fudge. It took me 3 attempts to get it right. First time I used to dark a sugar which was okay but the flavour profile was all wrong (the maple was over powered), second time I inadvertently took the pan off one hot ring only to put it down on another, so the fudge burnt (entirely my fault) but the third time was the charm. The book calls for a chocolate covering which
was more than I wanted so I didn't bother with it, but the fudge itself is perfect (ostensibly destined for my boss who has been very accommodating about me waiting around for plumbers and electricians after my bathroom was flooded twice in a week by an upstairs neighbour who I cannot currently feel charitable towards) great flavour and nice crumbly texture.

I would include the recipe but think it would be much better if interested parties bought the book, recipes included in the series so far are on the BBC2 website.

(It turns out that even very good fudge is a poor choice for breakfast, no matter how early you've had to get up for an electrician and feel a treat is called for, or how small an amount you eat, so looks like my boss will get most of the it after all.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

'H is for Hawk' feels like one of those books which has come from nowhere and is suddenly everywhere. I saw a particularly pretty cover on twitter a couple of months ago and commented on it, on the back of that Shiny New Books asked me if I'd write about it for them (the answer was obviously yes) and in due course an uncorrected proof arrived. It sat around for a few weeks and then just as I was thinking I ought to get on with it it was published, Waterstones book of the month, reviewed everywhere, and a best seller. I've checked, and whilst this isn't Helen Macdonald's first book (there's an earlier one about falcons, and a collection of poetry) there's nothing to suggest that something like this was in the offing either. Seeing success like this is beguiling, it sheds a particular sort of glamour about it.

When Macdonald's father dies suddenly and unexpectedly - he's out working when he has a heart attack - she has something of a breakdown. To cope she turns back to an earlier career as a falconer, feeling compelled to train a Goshawk, it partly works though a later diagnosis of depression makes it clear that there are no shortcuts to dealing with grief. In a nutshell that's what the books about; grief, falconry, identity, oh and T H White author of (amongst other things) 'The Goshawk' and 'The Once and Future King'. The beauty of it is that it's got a lot of other things in it too, and that it's capable of drawing a deeply personal response from the reader.

I sometimes think the Victorians had it right with their highly codified approach to mourning, rules and routine can be so very helpful in times of extreme distress. One of Macdonald's problems is that she has no partner, no children, and no 9-5 job, so very little to distract her from what she's feeling. A hawk will provide distraction, or at least it'll demand concentration and impose a routine, give time for the bereaved mind to readjust to this changed status and order of things. The choice of a goshawk, is for Macdonald, an indication of how much the order of things have changed. It's not her normal bird, and they have a very specific reputation, history, and symbolism.

Initially it seems the hawk is doing what the reader hopes it might - helping Macdonald put herself back together. The process of building up a working relationship with the bird is enthralling, a slow winning of a certain amount of trust from the animal based on a mix of familiarity and food. There is always a sense that it can all be lost in a moment if for any reason the hawk decides it's had enough - tame isn't really a word to describe a bird of prey however long it's lived with people.

Meanwhile there is also the question oh T H White, his 'The Goshawk' is a classic of nature writing, his story of an epic battle with a bird he calls Gos, the first he attempts to train. I know it's a classic because I've heard of it, even if I haven't read it, I haven't read it because it's always sounded a little bit to macho to really appeal. Macdonald discovered it as a falconry obsessed child, already one who knew White was getting it wrong, but to young to appreciate what might have been going on behind the training. An adult Macdonald finds more in the book and to such an extent that she becomes a little bit obsessed (or haunted) by White in a way that will be familiar to any reader who's ever found themselves talking to a book (not the ones you want to throw across a room in frustration, or just stop reading, but the ones that call forth an altogether more constructive desire for debate). I think White is what gives this book it's balance, he's where emotion and technique meet, he makes it a less intensely personal read but also a more human one, and he's a great bridge for exploring the symbolism and history of the hawk.

My copy is an uncorrected proof (in due course I'll buy a paperback copy so I have the finished article as well as something which is almost the last stage but also a work in progress) on the cover it has a quote from Mark Haddon saying "It just sings. I couldn't stop reading". In the end that sums it up, it does sing, is full of ideas and questions, it deserves every bit of success it gets


Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Shetland Notebook - Norman Ackroyd


I blame my mother for this - she keeps leaving copies lying around - but I'm developing something of a 'Country Life' habit, I like to think I could stop at any time but the appraising glances I keep sending towards 'The Field' suggest that it's simply a gateway to a tweedier kind of reading. That and fantasies about owning lavish country estates. If it hadn't been for Country Life and its book reviews though I wouldn't have known about Norman Ackroyd's 'A Shetland Notebook' and that would have been a shame.

I read about Ackroyd in connection with some collaboration with Robert Macfarlane some time last year, he's been on the edge of my mind ever since. Ackroyd has been travelling the edges of the British isles snatching images as he goes - it's not much of an explanation for what he does - google his work to get a better idea, but as most the images I've been looking at are based on sketches taken quickly from the deck of a boat snatched is the best word I can think of. I'm desperate to see some of these images off the screen and on a wall somewhere. The Shetland series is being exhibited in London at the moment so I'm hoping to organise myself down there in time to catch them. I'm also quietly coveting a print but that represents a lot of un-bought books.

'A Shetland Notebook' is a Royal Academy publication, a slightly annoying format for fitting on a shelf, and an absolute delight. I'm guessing the format is tied to the shape of sketch books that Ackroyd uses, I hope it is because there's a romance about that which attracts me. I wanted this book for my Shetland library (which is in reality a small collection) and because it's always interesting to see a place you know through the eyes of another person. What I'm actually looking at is far more than I hoped for.

The thing that I find really exciting about this notebook is that it's just that; a notebook. These aren't highly finished sketches but images taken in haste that sometimes only hint at the ostensible subject but they have a magic about them, some combination of mood and moment, light and mass. Something. How is it that the roughest of sketches can capture a place more uniquely and completely than a photograph? There is another thing I really like about this book, a silly thing really, but many if the pages that don't have sketches on them have smudges and watercolour marks - facsimiles of the original sketchbooks presumably, it's unexpectedly pleasing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Man Who Loved His Wife - Vera Caspary

It might well be that Vera Caspary is the best writer you've never read, if you have read her you'll know exactly what I mean. She's not the easiest writer to stumble across in the UK, I first found her through The Feminist Press and then only because I'd really liked one of their other books (maybe Gypsy Rose Lee's 'The G-String Murders' which is also brilliant by the way). Caspary was a It might It might well be that Vera Caspary is the best writer you've never read, if you have read her you'll know exactly what I mean. She's not the easiest writer to stumble across in the UK, I first found her through The Feminist Press and then only because I'd really liked one of their other books (maybe Gypsy Rose Lee's 'The G-String Murders' which is also brilliant by the way). Caspary was a revelation, the first one I read was 'Laura' which is also a classic film noir and probably her most famous book too (she also worked on the screenplay) Vintage published this in the last couple of years too so it's easy to get hold of. Also from The Feminist Press there's 'Bedelia' which is just brilliant on every level. 'The Man Who Loved His Wife' was everything I've come to expect from Caspary, altogether she wrote 21 books so I'm hopeful I'll find a few more at reasonable prices, or better yet that more will be republished - she deserves the audience.

The book opens with Fletcher Strode trying to make love to his young wife on New Year's Eve, he can't and he hates both of them for it. The next day he starts a diary. We learn that Fletcher has been a very successful self made business man, and that 5 years earlier at the age of 42 he fell in love with a woman 19 years his junior. Divorce, and marriage to Elaine follow in short order - at first the couple are happy, what's drawn them to each other is a shared vitality and zest for life. Otherwise they have very little in common. Then tragedy strikes, Fletcher is diagnosed with cancer and has his larynx removed. His voice, big, and a big part of him is suddenly gone, it utterly emasculates him. For Fletchers sake the couple uproot from New York and head out to California, Fletcher can't bare for people to hear him try and speak so they have no social life, he gives up work without having anything to take its place, and it's Elaine who deals with any of the mundane things that require a conversation.

The result for Fletcher is anger, depression, frustration, and a spiralling paranoia that his wife will take lovers. As a reader it was hard for me to remember that Fletcher isn't actually an invalid, all he should really have lost is his voice - the actual physical restrictions of the stoma are that dry heat is painful for him and swimming no longer practical. His problem is more that he's not a man given to inward contemplation or high brow pursuits; the loss of his voice bars him from the social and business activities he loved - it really is catastrophic. As for Elaine, it's really only at the end of the book that I realised how little Caspary has told me about how she feels or what she thinks.

When Fletcher starts his diary he uses it to record his fantasies of betrayal with some idea that he might commit suicide in such a way that it will look like his wife has killed him, the diary, full of imaginary suspicions will be the damning evidence against her. He doesn't want the death penalty for his wife though, rather he sees a life in prison for her with release only when she's to old to be desirable to other men.

Into an already claustrophobic mix Fletchers daughter, only 6 years younger than Elaine, and suitably resentful of the new wife, and her husband come to stay. Don and Cindy have been living beyond there means, smooth plausible Don is desperate for a job but not really prepared to work his way up. Fletcher despises him, nor is there much affection between father and daughter. There is plenty of motive for the pair to want Fletcher dead too. When he does die it's unclear if it's the suicide he might have been planning or murder, but the police end up thinking murder.

The genius of Caspary is how she keeps the reader guessing and the complexity of her female protagonists. Fletcher plays with the idea of Elaine being a guilty wife, Don realise that a guilty Elaine can't inherit her husbands property so is happy to throw suspicion on her, Cindy the daughter is motivated mostly by spite, and the policeman investigating has his eye on publicity and promotion. A successful prosecution of a young beautiful widow will do him no harm at all. Sergeant Knight is presumably gay, he certainly doesn't have much use for women, remains impervious to Elaine's beauty, and potentially ambivalent about the truth - what he's interested in is how good this case might be for his future.

Amongst all this Elaine remains elusive, Fletchers dark imaginings don't tell us what Elaine really feels, she repeats like a mantra that she loves Fletcher, but does she love him enough? This being Caspary you can be sure that she's no passive victim but not of much else.