Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Days out in churches

My partner is researching chantry chapels at the moment so we've been out looking at church's again, it's something that interests us both - from my point of view ecclesiastical architecture is the easiest kind to read, and full of exciting twiddly bits and grotesques, he might be taking a slightly more professional viewpoint on it but still finds it exciting. After the rather austere churches I grew up with in Shetland (a Methodist chapel and I think a Church of Scotland kirk) which clearly didn't believe in putting decorative distractions in front of good Christian souls the churches of the south (starting with Orkney's Italian chapel) were a revelation. For me the fancier the better, gothic or gothic revival for preference, baroque and rococo are more than acceptable, something in the classical mould is fine as long as it has some suitably exuberant bits inside, and any combination of pre Raphealite, arts and crafts, and art nouveau works too.

Our latest trip took us to Newark and Southwell. Newark has the very fine Church if St Mary Magdalene, it boasts the highest spire in Nottinghamshire which makes it very easy to find, has bits dating back to the 11th or 12th century and amongst many other points of historical and artistic interest 2 surviving chantry chapels either side of the high alter both dating from the very early 16th century. One of them has a rare dance if death painting on it which I particularly liked. Newark itself has the full compliment of ruined castles, civil war history, medieval looking street plans, and Georgian buildings (the market square looked to be almost completely Georgian) to the point that I felt like I might have been wandering around somewhere written by Trollope, Oliphant, or Dickens. That it also had a couple of decent second hand bookshops, a very good beer shop, and a place that sold amazing coffee and walnut cake makes me determined to go back.

Southwell is close by and is apparently both a minster and a cathedral which confuses me a bit, is a mix of Norman and Gothic (you can see the join in a way that makes it a perfect illustration for the architectural historian) has a stunning chapter house, and a very good tea room. The town is small, charming, and also has a good second hand bookshop. I got an old penguin Chaucer and a Virago edition of an Edith Wharton I hadn't seen before. I'm going back there too. The minster people want £5 off you to take photographs but I'd already spent money on books and tea so no pictures of the chapter house but it really is impressive. They also have a stunning west window put in in 1996 which manages to look both traditional and new and invites happy contemplation.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Role models

When I was at school and university (I wonder how much has changed in the last twenty years?) as a young woman of feminist leanings it wasn't unusual to find myself in an argument that went along these kind of lines, a man (or more specifically given our age and their attitude - boy) would declare that women could not be great chefs/writers/artists, they just didn't have it in them. Nonsense, I would say, and then be challenged to name 6 or 10 which at the time I couldn't do. Which was annoying because I knew they had to exist but had no clear idea where to find out who they were or what they did (these were the days before google) and because it was a challenge designed to shut me up and put me in my place.

It's also a challenge that's given me a lot to be grateful for, it sent me off to the nearest bookshop to seek out a canon of female authors which is how I discovered Virago books and in turn legions of writing women stretching back to the 18th century. Later on I found Persephone books and yet more writing women along with the concept of the middlebrow all of which has been extremely encouraging. What mattered to me then and now is not how high the art is, but that there is a traceable tradition of women having a voice and being able to make a living from it. Most especially being able to make a living from it, as that's a subtly different, infinitely more encouraging, view of history than the one where women were basically dependants or drudges and men were intent on keeping them that way.

When it comes to artists rather than writers the process of public rediscovery seems to have lagged behind a bit but I think it's finally happening in earnest now, and it's exciting for the same reasons; you could name a few, it seems likely there had to be more of them, but where and doing what. Again it's not specifically great masters I'm looking for but a long tradition of women creating and recording. It's why I love paintings like Emily Mary Osborn's Nameless and Friendless from 1857.

In it a young woman in mourning (I'm inclined to believe her father rather than husband has died as I can't see a wedding ring on her finger - though maybe she's already sold it?) accompanied by a youth is trying to sell a painting, and maybe a portfolio of sketches too. The appraising looks from the dealer and his assistant suggest the work is commercially viable (but not that they'll necessarily offer a fair price). The appraising looks from the two swells on the left suggest an entirely different kind of transaction. Our heroine is definitely in need of friends. Osborn did quite a line in paintings of  distressed women. She herself seems to have been supported in her chosen career by her family but I'm guessing that the situation in Nameless and Friendless was not uncommon which in turn suggests that there were plenty of women seeking (and succeeding) in making a living this way, and that Osborn expected everyone to be outraged by this particular girls situation. 

BBC2 had an excellent series this spring hosted by Amanda Vickery called The Story of a women and Art which unearthed a host of female artists, some more or less household names, and some who had been hiding in plain sight - all very encouraging in the search for role models. Perhaps even more exciting from my point of view though was Alicia Foster's 'Warpaint' which took the real life figure of Dame Laura Knight along with 3 other fictional characters based on real women war artists and created an entertaining thriller along with a really useful look at what these artists were doing (it's brilliant, read it). 

The latest addition to my own personal library of women in the arts is James Russell's 'Peggy Angus Designer, Teacher Painter'. She was a friend of Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, John Piper amongst many others, lead a long creative life, and is quietly being rediscovered some 20 years after her death. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Jam Pan

A while back Marian Keyes wrote a cookbook (Saved By Cake) which I haven't read but looks to be about how baking helped her through depression. She doesn't claim that it's the answer for everybody but I guess depending on how down you are and how much you enjoy cooking it's as good a way as any to deal with a thing. For me cooking is something that I enjoy enough and find absorbing enough that I can rely on it to get me through sticky or stressful patches in life. At the moment we have a family member battling the final stages of cancer, it's a common enough situation to find yourself in - who hasn't been touched in some way by this disease - but that doesn't diminish how upsetting and unsettling it is, so I've been preserving things.

Lots of things. In the last couple of weeks I feel like I've worked my way through at least half of the brilliant 'Salt, Sugar, Smoke' and very helpful I've found it. I've made Purple Fig and Pomegranate jam, Rowan Jelly (though that was from a River Cottage recipe), Cherries in eau-de-vie, Prunes in Armagnac, sweet fig vinegar, and Greengage and Gewurztraminer jam. As I haven't burnt myself it's a harmless pursuit that leaves me feeling better about the world in general, and as I have plans for a lot more preserving (next week I may try making chutney for the first time) I've finally bought a proper maslin pan. For years I've made do with a generously proportioned old cast iron casserole pan that was often (especially at marmalade time) not quite generous enough size wise and weighed approximately half a ton when full of boiling sugary liquid. Now I have a deeper, lighter, altogether more practical stainless steel affair which meant that tonight, for the first time, I managed to make jam without getting it everywhere (joy of joys, none in my hair). This is more than enough of a bonus to off set the trifling inconvenience which is having nowhere to store another pan (it's living under my bed along with several pots of jam, a couple of litres of last years damson gin, plenty of dust, and whatever other items have failed to find a home elsewhere) mostly I am wondering why it took me so long to buy one.

There is nothing quite like having the right tool for the job, however much I might like to think of myself as a natural improviser, generally speaking I am not. I'm more of a natural appreciator of good design and a relatively easy life. I'm also an appreciator of jam and am very much looking forward to making more of it now. (Possibly plum, orange, and cardamom next.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Clara's Daughter - Meike Ziervogel

For the most part I read old books in newish editions, the very fact that they're still around is testament to some combination of quality and popular appeal, and it's very easy to avoid books that won't interest me. Reading a novel, or in this case novella, hot off the pen is a different matter, especially on the rare occasions when I can claim some sort if acquaintance with the author. I know Meike through occasional email exchanges about her Peirene titles, she's a woman I like and admire so reading her first book, 'Magda', was unexpectedly nerve wracking - what if I didn't like it? I did like it, very much, which made me look forward to her second book with interest, and happily say yes when I was offered a proof copy by the publisher, but I read it with that same nervousness - this time because the contemporary north London setting is not one that I'm drawn to.

After all that the first thing to say is that I really liked this one too. Clara's daughter is Michele, successful business woman (though if I had a quibble it would be that I couldn't quite imagine her as the CEO of an oil company which is what she's meant to be), mother, and wife of the rather less successful Jim, she is also Hilary's sister. Initially it seems that Jim and Michele have it all - a happy marriage, children successfully launched on their respective paths, nice home, financial stability, but that's not an impression that lasts long.

The heart of this book is the relationship between mothers and daughters, and specific expectations that society has about daughters when it comes to ageing parents. Clara has reached the point where she isn't quite safe on her own but is unwilling to give up her independence. For Jim the answer is simple - a good residential home, for Michele it's more complicated. The relationships between mother and daughter, husband and wife are interesting but I'm mostly going to ignore them because what really interested me was the relationship between Michele and Hilary.

It feels like a given that Michele's loyalties are torn between her mother and her husband - it is after all what society expects - the question is will she be a good daughter or a good wife. What Michele might actually want is kept deliberately unclear, there are times when her choices about Clara look to be motivated more by ambivalent feelings towards Jim than anything else, but in the background there is Hilary. Manipulative, emotional, Hilary who doesn't want Clara to go into a home, doesn't want to lose her inheritance, isn't in a position to care for Clara herself, and who keeps on chipping away until she gets what she wants.

The portrait of mother and daughter is good, but the sister is the detail which really brings it alive and made this book something special for me. There's a scene where Hilary is on the phone telling Michele that Clara's had a fall, spent the night in hospital, and had tried to phone Michele for help. She's almost hysterical which is a stark contrast to Michele's colder more logical approach and there's more than a suspicion that she's not being quite honest but either way Hilary is an external voice for Michele's internal guilt regarding her mother. This isn't just a primeval stand off between mother and daughter, it's between mother and daughters with the other daughter reinforcing that first learnt loyalty to the mother, the dynamic between the three is fascinating.

I'm aware as I try and write this that I'm expressing myself badly. Essentially I think Ziervogel touches on something fundamental in the relationship between mothers, daughters, and sisters with all the subtle elements of competition, expectation, resentment, and disappointment that are integral to that particular combination. It's a good book, and short, well worth reading - and that's before you even begin to consider the portrait of a wound down marriage - which is also excellent.

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.