Monday, October 16, 2017

#MeToo

I'vet been thinking about writing this post all day (because what Monday really needs is intensive thinking about sexual assault and misogyny) and wondering if it was really something I wanted to do. These are not memories I particularly want, and not things I would generally share outside of an actual face to face conversation- and maybe that's part of the problem.

So there was the young male teacher who wanted to be everybody's friend , he was young enough to have gone out with the only slightly older sister of one of my classmates, and not above referring to his ex in a derogatory way in class. I thought he was an arse, and someone I'd rather avoid. He told my mother, during parents evening, that he thought I'd probably been abused. I hadn't, it didn't make me warm to him. He told me, in front of a staff room full of collegues and another of my glass mates that he thought I was manipulative. It was probably my first experience as an almost adult of that feeling of shock and powerlessness that is never the reaction you expect to have. 

At university on an almost empty campus at the end of first year there was the builder who walked up to me, in the middle of the day, and simply grabbed my breast and laughed about it with his friend. Again, total shock. What do you say, who do you tell, who actually cares, and what the hell does somebody who thinks that's alright do next? I didn't tell anyone, couldn't have accurately described either man, simply didn't know what to do.

There was a customer when I worked in a bookshop, in the days before we talked about grooming, who would come in and initiate friendly conversation about books. He was very softly spoken so you had to lean in to hear him, but he seemed harmless enough until one day he just started talking filth. Total panic again trying to work out what reaction he expected and wanted. It seemed he wanted a reaction, but that not giving him one was encouragement for him to continue. I confided in an older, female colleague - her reaction; how do you think it makes Me feel that he's harassing You. Jealous apparently. It turned out that 'Eddie' had made a habit of doing this in every bookshop in town. He stopped coming into our shop after another male colleague recognised him as his sisters maths teacher. It was his relative anonymity that had made his behaviour possible. Now I'd call the police there and then, at the time I couldn't bring myself to repeat the things he'd said. 

There was the manager at work who had an escalating drink problem, not good in an off licence, he also had wandering hands when he'd been drinking, and a line in humour that it was hard to find funny. The situation came to a head when he verbally harassed a colleague young enough to be his daughter (in front of a group of us) and she asked me to back her up when she made an official complaint. There was a lot of pressure (from our female line manager) on us to drop the complaint, enough that it would have been easier to give in. I was asked to get everybody to make statements about his behaviour, assured they would be confidential, then after they were submitted, told that in fact they weren't confidential and that this man would have access to all of them. 

He was dismissed, but not for harassment, he hadn't been paying for the stock he was drinking. When I applied for his job, the job I'd been doing whilst he was incapable of it, and the job I was expected to do whilst he was suspended and replaced, I was told I wouldn't get it because I couldn't be seen to be rewarded for reporting him. It was not a nice time and I'm still grateful for the many male colleagues who did provide support - because happily it isn't all men.

I seldom wear a watch now after being followed across town by a man who initiated conversation after asking the time (it's a common approach). Despite increasingly explicit requests for him to leave me alone he followed me for about quarter of an hour, from the street door of my flat, with a constant stream of verbal harassment, only stopping when I reached the high street and there were to many people to close for him to carry on unnoticed. After a couple of taxi journeys when similar things happened I'm now reluctant to get taxis at all. 

And my list could go on, and on. Some incidents far more serious than any of these, dozens which are the common currency of women's lives (not just women at that) and hardly make an impression any more. But they should, and they should be talked about because I find the thing that bothers me most about #MeToo is how bad we are at talking about this kind of thing. I think about how poorly prepared I was to deal with any of the incidents that happened to me in my teens and twenties. How many times you're told that it's nothing, made to feel that complaining will be more trouble than it's worth, pressured not to complain because of the administrative problems it will create. Asked to consider the impact a complaint would have in the man involved, was his transgression serious enough to warrant the possibility of losing his job - and the guilt that makes you feel.There's the disbelief too, and all the rest of the toxic crap that gets thrown at you.

There's also the reality of complaining and following it through. I once went to court with a friend to support her whilst she got a restraining order against an ex who was stalking her. Listened whilst his lawyer attacked her on the stand, even asking if his client would give her children would she reconsider her position. That's how far he was from accepting that she simply didn't want to see him any more. 

Most of all though, it's the horrible feeling of shocked disbelief that this is happening (again), the realisation that you won't react the way you always thought you would, won't know what to say or do, and that (again) your power over a situation has been removed from you. It's humiliating and frightening, and can take a long time to get over. 


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White

Mid October and I feel stuck between the end of summer - it's been unseasonably warm this weekend - and the looming threat of Christmas which isn't actually that far away, despite protestations from some quarters that it's still to soon to talk about it. It isn't to soon, and even as I type I have Christmas puddings gently steaming in the kitchen.

I read 'The Third Eye' back in June, and haven't quite got round to writing about it in all the time since, finally doing it has definitely made me realise that this is really Autumn, and not the end of summer. Fortunately it's an excellent autumn book, with just the right atmosphere for darkening nights.

Caroline has been living with her sister and her family in a small London flat, she's welcome, but feels strongly that it's time she struck out independently. Partly because she feels slightly inadequate next to her far more intellectual sister, and her professor husband, and maybe because the professor is a little too fond of her.

There's no hint of impropriety, but rather a gentle reminder to the reader that no marriage, however sound, needs a permanent house guest in any form, much less that of a younger more physically attractive sister. It's part of White's charm that she reminds us of that before it's perhaps altogether evident to her characters.

Anyway, Caroline is happy to accept a post as games mistress at the Abbey School, despite her brother in laws reservations. Turning up at the beginning of the autumn term it's down becomes clear that all is not quite as it should be. The previous games mistress died in slightly odd circumstances, the matron has a bit of a cult following amongst the pupils, and holds séances with the headmistress. There's a general atmosphere of uneasiness that becomes increasingly tense - which is White's forte, and she really excelled at it here.

Caroline is soon affected by the same creeping unease that pervades the place, and her situation gets worse when she falls out with the matron over her treatment of a pupil. A crisis point is reached where Caroline finds herself in real danger from an unexpected source (after a wonderful exercise in rising paranoia and dread during a journey back to the school), before everything is resolved more or less satisfactorily (at least for Caroline).

It's an excellent book by an oddly neglected writer - there's this from Greyladies, and a few of her stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, and whilst more of her work isn't hard to find as ebooks or print on demand formats, I feel she deserves more. This is the woman who wrote the book Hitchcock based 'The Lady Vanishes' on after all. 'The Third Eye' has a tremendous amount of atmosphere, as well as a plot that nicely blends a sense of impending melodrama with a feeling that these kind of things could all to easily happen. And it really is just the kind of thing to read with curtains drawn, and fire lit (or puddings steaming) on an autumn evening. It'll certainly make you think twice about talking to strangers on buses.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

At My Table - Nigella Lawson

Autumn, season of celebrity biographies, big name cookbooks, and sundry other Christmas hopefuls is upon us with a vengeance. There's a few food titles I'm hoping I might get for Christmas (Ren Behan's Honey and Rye, Kate Young's The Little Library Cookbook, and Supra by Tiko Tuskadze - which has been out a little longer, and looks excellent if anyone wants to know) and others that I've bought already.

'At My Table' was an impulse purchase when I saw it half price in Waterstones*. I've been a Nigella fan since 'How to be a Domestic Goddess' and love all of her earlier books. I've been less enthusiastic about the later books, but I think that's natural - Lawson is one of those bankable names who seems to be expected to produce something annually, and I'm not sure how sustainable that is - you just can't write a How to Eat, or a How to be a Domestic Goddess every damn year. 

That and personal tastes change. How I cook and eat has certainly changed a lot over the last few years. Annoying shift patterns make it far harder to prepare, plan, or make meals, than it used to be. The food my partner prefers (both to prepare and eat) is different to my first choices as well. I like his cooking, I like him cooking and me not having too, but it does change the amount of time I used to spend playing in the kitchen (but then why should I have all the fun?). 

All of which is a long winded way of saying I wasn't sure I'd like this book until I actually saw it. There are things I'd never make in here (toasted Brie and fig sandwich because I loathe Brie and am ambivalent about figs) but not many, because mostly these are exactly the sort of recipes I want at the moment. 

Chicken and pea traybake, Hake with bacon peas and cider, the herbed leg of lamb, and the no churn ice creams all look great (those were the things that caught my eye during the flick test). It's a book full of recipes that don't need to much thinking about beforehand, and which don't demand to much effort to produce - recipes that a tired person can tackle with enthusiasm on a Friday night after a long week and a very quick trip around a supermarket. Or look forward to whilst they slowly do their thing in an oven and you try and catch up on all the tedious chores that seem to make up weekends at the moment. 

It's exactly the sort of home cooking I'm after (the emergency brownies which come in small quantities sound intriguing as well, I'm not sure any brownie recipe will ever quite supplant the HtbaDG version, but that one is built on industrial lines - this one isn't.) Apparently some people have been sniffy about a whipped feta recipe, but hands up, it's not something that had ever occurred to me to do and I like the sound of it a lot. 

On the whole a great book for beginner cooks, harassed cooks, and cooks (like me) who feel they've lost a bit of their kitchen mojo and want some inspiration. 

*Why are the books everyone is likely to buy anyway always so heavily discounted? 'At My Table' has a cover price of £26, which I imagine very few people will pay. Buying it for £13, or less, makes the books listed above look unattractively expensive by comparison, and doesn't make it any easier to understand what a book actually needs to cost. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Cocktail Book

'The Cocktail Book', reprinted here by the British Library, first appeared in 1900, and it seems to have been the first book specifically dedicated to the cocktail (there are earlier books which cover Cocktails along with other things, this book is just Cocktails).

This edition is a nice little hardback with a smart black and gold cover which has almost certainly been designed as a stocking filler, and thought of as a bit of a curiosity, but especially after my cocktail experiments back in August (which also celebrated the BL's Crime Classics series, matching drinks to books gives a nice set of boundaries to work within!) I've found I have a lot of time for these early drinks books (Jerry Thomas' Bartenders guide, Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks', and Harry Craddock's 'Savoy Cocktail Book' are the others I have). They are far more than curiosities. 

The great thing about these books is that a lot of the drinks are easy to mix, there are plenty which don't call for lots of obscure and expensive ingredients, and lots of them taste good (some might not, tastes and times change). Each also have their particular strengths, for 'The Cocktail Book' it's the use of bitters.

Angostura Bitters are easy to find, most supermarkets sell them, but they're only the tip of an aromatic (and bitter) iceberg. Bitters are useful things to have around, they can transform drinks in all sorts of interesting ways, so a book that encourages their use is a good thing (it'll mostly be a case of searching them out online for most of us, but they're not particularly expensive, and go a long way). There is also a handy glossary at the back of this book which explains what the less familiar things are, and where practical what to substitute them with.

As a curiosity it's certainly interesting to see the kind of drinks that were popular in the Belle Époque, and though ingredients like acid phosphate are a challenge to source (it's available on Amazon in the U.S, but looks like it would take more searching for in the U.K) things like Café Kirsch (coffee and kirsch shaken over ice - though I prefer it warm) are both simple and appealing.

However you look at it, it's a book with plenty to offer, and well worth investigating.




Sunday, October 8, 2017

Was there a Russian Jane Austen and What's a Classic anyway?

I have been reading books (though slowly) and I will write about one soon, but this morning I read This article on The Pool website by Viv Groskop and it's been bothering me all day. In it she asks how do we acknowledge that men created the majority of the literary classics without doing women writers a disservice.

Classic seems to be a fairly elastic term at the best of times but I'm sceptical about this article and it's statement that "It's simply not as if there are dozens of women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries who remain unknown and under-rated" or that "Many of the great male writers attained their status because they said something about the time they were living in that was viewed as significant".

It may well be that there aren't many British women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th century remaining to be discovered, but the list of 'anomalies' is far longer than Woolf, Austen, assorted Brontës, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Louise May Alcott (sic). Just looking at my Penguin and Oxford classics I can add Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Oliphant, and Ellen Wood to that list. I have something over 400 Virago Modern Classics, dozens of Persephone's, yards of golden age Crime by the acknowledged queens of the genre, and all sorts of other things to carry on making the point with.

All of them were popular in their day, presumably because they too were saying something significant about the time they were living in. Books in the U.K. are relatively cheap and we're well served with reprints of English language books. My by no means comprehensive collection tells me that these women were far from anomalies, and that it's quite possible to acknowledge that they were unjustly neglected, or dropped from the canon, over the years without doing any disservice to their male counterparts who were justly recognised and remembered.

We are not so well served by books in translation, and I have no idea if there are French, Italian, Russian (you get the idea) versions of Virago or Persephone, intent on rescuing those hidden female voices, but if books by Irene Nemirovsky or Teffi have started to appear in English over the last decade or so, I'm prepared to believe there are more (Wikipedia leads me to suppose so too).

I'm also wondering how many of those canonical classics by the great male writers that fill so many bookshelves are read as opposed to representing good intentions. Their names may be better known, but outside of universities how many people really settle down with Chekhov at the end of a long day? (Readers here are not likely to be a representative sample for answering that question).

To me it seems that where we do do those great male writers a disservice is in isolating them from their female peers. I've got far more out of reading Trollope having read Oliphant's 'Carlingford Chronicles', and enjoy Wilkie Collins more for having read Braddon - and that's a list that could go on too.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Books I'd love to see on Screen

I've been out in the villages today so have missed National bookshop day, but as I'm no stranger to the inside of a bookshop I don't feel to badly about it, and there's always tomorrow. Meanwhile a comment from Susanna about Arnold Bennett's 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' got me thinking about that perennial question; what books would you most like to see adapted for television?

I believe there's yet another Jane Austen adaptation on its way, which I'll almost certainly watch, and probably enjoy. And I might have read about a Brontë something or other which I would also watch but with a little less enthusiasm (and also I might have imagined reading about this). I'd also add Agatha Christie to the over adapted list.

Meanwhile, Susanna is right, 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' would make excellent T.V. It's a big, colourful, romp with plenty of action, and scope for gorgeous costumes. It also breaks conveniently into 2 parts, and I'd happily watch it.

I'd also quite like to see Georgette Heyer on the television, possibly something late like 'Cousin Kate' (though its depiction of mental health issues might be problematic). The late books are generally rather less loved than the early ones, so much less danger of howling in outrage at whatever nonsense is on the screen (the really awful David Walliams take on Tommy and Tuppance comes to mind). 'Cousin Kate' (thinking about re reading it for the 1968 book club) has an oppressive, somewhat gothic atmosphere, the orphaned Kate is struggling to find a way to keep herself when she's taken in by her half aunt. There's something wrong in the house but she's not clear what it is, but when a mutilated rabbit turns up we can all guess what's coming next. Done properly it could be good.

Given the success of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford' books it's a safe bet there would be an audience for Margaret Oliphant's Carlingford Chronicles too. I love these books, not least because of the way she responds to Trollope's Barchester Chronicles in them (though that's by no means all she's doing). They absolutely deserve to be better known, and have some tremendous characters in them.

I'd really like to see some of Barbara Pym's excellent women given some screen space too. They deserve the attention, and done well would be wonderful to watch.

Meike Ziervogel's 'The Photographer', or Marie Sizun's 'Her Father's Daughter' (published by Meike's Peirene Press) would also be great. They both take a good look at fathers returning from the Second World War. 'The Photographer' is a loosely biographical account of a family from East Germany being drawn into the war, partly through an act of betrayal, and finally finding each other again in the refugee camps of the west. 'Her Father's Daughter' is French, the betrayal is of a different nature, and how families fit together again after long periods of separation is the major theme. Both books are brilliant, both offer a different view of the impact the war had on society to the one I'm used to seeing. Both would make for tense and gripping on screen drama.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Grand Babylon Hotel - Arnold Bennett

I've been meaning to investigate Arnold Bennett for a long time, and found this in Edinburgh back in January. It sounded entertaining so seemed like a good place to start.

The back blurb told me that:
"Nella, daughter of millionaire Theodore Racksole, orders a dinner of steak and beer at the exclusive Grand Babylon Hotel in London. Her unladylike order is refused, so Theodore promptly buys the chef, the kitchen, and the whole hotel. But when staff begin to vanish and an aristocratic guest goes missing, Nella discovers that murder, blackmail, and kidnapping are also on the menu."

The Times also described it as rather excellent.

It is excellent. Nella, and Theodore Racksole are an appealing pair, with a delightfully modern relationship for a book first published in 1902, Theodore let's Nella do much as she likes, and what he's told, on the grounds that it's just easier that way, and as she's a determined young woman he's probably right.

From the very night that he buys the Hotel, Theodore suspects something is amiss, and relishes the chance to solve the problem. The mix of Ruritanian style royalty, murder, mayhem, kidnap, and international intrigue is entirely far fetched and very much tongue in cheek, which is all extremely satisfying and great fun along the way.

'The Grand Babylon Hotel' seems to be a bit of an oddity in Bennett's oeuvre - it certainly has little to do with the potteries and the five towns, and sounds worlds away from the 'Old Wives Tale' as well. If I'd realised that earlier it probably wouldn't have been the book I started with- simply because it was so much fun that I'd quite like more of the same. Beginning with something more typical might have been a better idea, if only because at the moment I still don't really feel I know anything about Bennett. That will change though, and meanwhile this one is a little gem of a thing.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Back home with Books

Back home, and back to work. Work looked like I must have been gone a month rather than a week, which I suppose at least makes it abundantly clear how much I actually do do there. I can hope that's been noticed (though due to being both busy, and chronically short staffed, it's unlikely) because one day in I'm feeling in need of another break.

Inverness was fun and quite busy so we took our time coming home, stopping in the Borders on Saturday before the last stretch down the M1. I love the Borders, and have a particular fondness for St Boswells (pretty village, excellent bookshop - The Main Street Trading Company with a decent Café) so staying there was a proper treat.

Packing for this trip, I made the mistake of taking 2 books I really felt I ought to finish but just haven't been in the mood for, so ended up doing very little reading. It was only on Saturday afternoon that I saw sense and decided to actually read one of the handful of new books I'd bought.

The unread books (I will finish them soon) are Zola's 'The Sin of Abbé Moret' which I started months ago. The problem is the middle section, it's almost unbearably dull - a long list of plant names, interspersed with an equally tedious sexual awakening. I'll grit my teeth and get on with it at the weekend, but Zola on the countryside is not a treat. The other book is L. M. Montgomery's 'Anne of the Island'. I love Montgomery, I loved the Anne books as a child (all of them) and have been looking forward to reading the Virago reprints. Montgomery is far better on nature than Zola, but the combination was not a happy one, so Anne needs to wait a little longer.

My book buying was fairly restrained, partly held back by the tottering piles of unread books currently infesting every part of my flat. They're becoming overwhelming again and I need to do something about it, but I still couldn't resist 'The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff' ( begun age 12, ends with her death at 25, she was born in the Ukraine in 1859, but mostly grew up in France. She wanted to be a singer, but TB stopped that so she turned to painting. She founds remarkable, the book is a doorstop, but it'll keep) or 'Cork on the Water' by MacDonald Hastings (fishing, shooting, and murder, with ballerinas - it sounded worth a punt) both from Leakey's. E. F. Benson's 'Secret Lives' was a charity shop find, as Benson has never yet disappointed I'm pleased to have found this.

Mindful of the just one book principle of supporting both bookshops and publishers I found 'The Nebuly Coat' (Apollo it sounds intriguing, full of melodrama and architecture, which are both things I like) and Alistair Moffat's 'The Reivers' in the Main Street bookshop. I also found an excellent toasted coconut cake there that I'd very much like the recipe for. I'm reading The Reivers at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Inverness and Cawdor Castle

It's almost time to leave Inverness again after a brilliant few days, this is my third proper visit, and every time I find I like the place more. It's a small city, a little bit shabby in places, and nowhere near as visitor/tourist oriantated as I expected on my first visit. There are a couple of places selling tartan tat, but only a couple. For reasons I really don't understand, especially because it's not far from the whisky Mecca that is Speyside, not to mention the significant number of Highland distilleries which aren't that far away either, there isn't really a proper whisky shop.

On this visit I have found a really good little gallery though, Leakey's bookshop remains magnificent, and I now know how to wrap a medium sized yacht up for the winter (the trick is to get someone else to do the bulk of the job).

In between exploring every side street I could find, and cocooning boats in rope and tarpaulin, we went out to Cawdor Castle and gardens. (Long story short, Shakespeare's history is based on shaky sources for Macbeth, and aimed to entertain James VI (James I of England) who was fascinated by witchcraft to the point of obsession, rather than for educational purposes. The actual Cawdor castle post dates events by quite a long time.






Recent history is far more outlandish than anything in Shakespeare- almost pure soap opera, after the 6th Earl died in 1993 and left the lot to his second wife. The children of his first wife, including the 7th Earl were clearly not impressed, an increasingly bitter, and very litigious, family feud followed.

This is a shame in that the castle still retains the feel of a family home, and looks like it would be an amazing place to spend early childhood, full of all sorts of exciting chances to fall off, down, or into things, and it's rather sad to think this may more longer happen. Meanwhile it's a picture perfect Scottish castle with a liberal quantity of towers, courtyards, turrets, and winding staircases. It's also built round a holly tree (it died sometime in the 14th century, probably not long after it had a house built around it) but the tree is still there for anyone to see - which is one of the best things I've ever seen in an old house. (The legend runs that an early Thane wanted to build a new house, so directed by a dream he put a box of gold on the back of a donkey, and let it wonder about all day, then built his house where it lay down to sleep in the evening - under the tree).

There is also a fantastic collection of art, not just the old portraits that you expect to find in old houses, but a lot of fairly contemporary work, including sculpture and ceramics. The Café was excellent as well.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Buying Just One Book

Independent, and all round excellent, publisher, Salt have been tweeting about #JustOneBook this month. If all their followers bought just one book directly from Them in September, or indeed in October, it would be enough to keep them on track for the year.

I vividly remember the first training day I had about sales, I was working for Oddbins at the time, and it was explained to us what a difference getting every customer to spend a pound more would make to the company. It stuck in my mind because it was such a small amount, and that's the difference between being comfortably profitable, or not.

Salt have a really interesting list, my personal recommendation would be for Meike Ziervogel's 'The Photographer' which is easily one of my favourite books of the year, and Ziervogel's best so far, but there's a lot of great stuff to choose from.

Good quality independent publishers are something to be grateful for, cherished, and supported, as are good bookshops - independent or otherwise. Sometimes it makes more sense to use Amazon (though that's rarely because of price these days, unless it's a headlining sort of release, they're just not that cheap anymore) but I much prefer not to, purely because when I spend my money elsewhere I know it's helping keeping my local booksellers in business. The same is true ordering directly from the publisher.

So at that point in the year when I start thinking that I need to start thinking about Christmas (followed by the more panicky realisation in about a months time that actually it's almost November, work is crazy, only going to get crazier, and I need to do more than start thinking about it), I'm getting in my traditional 'think about where you spend your money' bit. It doesn't take much to make a difference to smaller (or even larger) businesses, but having them around is good for all of us. To borrow another phrase from that long ago training day, show them the love (I know it's a cheesy, corporate, thing to say - but there you have it).