Saturday, April 22, 2017

In Scotland

I'm on holiday (much needed and anticipated) in Scotland for the next week, starting in Inverness, heading to Mull for a few days, and then finishing up in Edinburgh next weekend. I bought my first bottle of whisky at Birmingham airport, and despite only having 5 minutes to stick our heads round the door of Leakey's (legendary second hand bookshop) I found a book to buy (by then there was also a second bottle of whisky). In short the holiday has got off to a reasonably good start.


I don't intend to spend the entire week buying whisky (though that has been the pattern of some previous Scottish road trips) but in the past picking up a couple of bottles at the airport was one of the  holiday rituals I really looked forward to. It was certainly one of the best things, from my point of view, about being in an airport. Sadly it's not as exciting as it used to be.

At some point I'd like to do a books and booze series about whisky, but the band of whisky's which I consider affordable and interesting keeps contracting. Something I had plenty of time to think about in Birmingham's duty free this morning. Just a couple of years ago any reasonably large airport would be a great place to buy whisky, including a smattering of travel retail exclusives. Now it's almost all exclusives which amongst other things means you don't really know what you're buying (though to be fair there's generally a good range of tasting samples available and they're good about sharing them). They're also generally no age statement whisky's (nas) which I have mixed feelings about too.

The marketing line on these is that it frees distilleries to produce more exciting drams, they don't talk so much about demand outstripping supply, or that this is a cheaper way of making whisky. Prices reflect demand, and are rising accordingly. The bright spot in this is a resurgence in blended whisky, and blended malts. For years people were a bit sniffy about these, but they're coming back and they're doing it in premium style. At least the accompanying premium prices are less eye watering than the ones their single malt cousins sport.

So today's airport buy was a Mackinlay's based on the whisky that Shackleton took to the Antarctic. It's a blend of highland malts, has a pleasing sweetness to it, and will make a fine companion to Henry Harland's 'The Cardinal's Snuff Box'. I don't know anything about it, or him, other than that he was the editor of 'The Yellow Book' and seems to have been a suitably colourful character to do so.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Stevenson Under The Palm Trees - Alberto Manguel

Reading novellas in a dedicated way was really rewarding, and once I've battled through the book I'm currently engaged with (not a bad book, but I'm out of sympathy with it to the point I'm avoiding it a little bit) I might look out another pile of them. If it hadn't been for the determination to hoover up some of the shorter books littering my flat 'Stevenson Under the Palm Trees' would have carried on gathering dust indefinitely.

I'm interested in the Stevenson family generally (if that's the same tuning as loving light houses) and have enjoyed anything by Robert Louis Stevenson that I've read so far. I can't remember exactly where I bought this particular book, but I think it might have been in one of those bargain outlet places where you find yourself overwhelmed by enthusiasm for and buying piles of things you should read, rather than books you ever read.

That's a roundabout way of saying I found myself a little out of sympathy with 'Stevenson Under The Palm Trees' too, although it's a better book than the one I'm currently reading. The great thing about it being short was that it was easy to carry on to the end without beginning to resent the time it took. The lack of sympathy was caused by a Goethe quote that opens the book; "No one wanders under palm trees unpunished." It just made me wonder why not, which I don't think was a helpful attitude.

The book begins towards the end of Stevensons life on Samoa. He's working hard despite his illness, has his place in the community, and is generally at peace when he meets a Scottish missionary, Mr Baker. After Mr Baker's appearance strange things start happening; rape, murders, and Stevenson's Doppelgänger all disturb the peace.

There are touches of Jekyll and Hyde about this, although it's always possible that none of it actually happens, and everything is the product of either conscious fantasy or the unconscious effect of feverish illness. It's the ambiguity that makes the book so compelling, but there's a further unsettling element. It's illustrated by woodcuts that Stevenson had made in 1881 when he was convelescing in Switzerland. Intended at the time for his 12 year old stepson, they were meant to illustrate a series of short ditties entitled Moral Emblems. Their presence here, in a different context, becomes positively sinister.

It's a clever book which elegantly prods at the nature of good and evil, repression, desire, fantasy, and reality. It pays homage to Stevenson in multiple ways, and it's well worth reading.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rain - Melissa Harrison

Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, feels like an appropriate book to discuss over an Easter weekend where inevitably both will feature. My walking will be through a city and to work - but I'll still try and make the best of it.

After being blown away by 'At Hawthorn Time' a couple of years ago I've been interested in anything with Mellisa Harrison's name on it, 'Rain' had been sitting on my wish list for a while, basically waiting for the paperback. It was worth the wait.

It's a short book which (it's all in the title) takes four walks through the rain, one for each season, and uses them as a starting point to explore a whole range of things. It starts with Wicken Fen on a January day with discussion of flooding, peat, reclaimed land, the problems caused by drainage, and the diminished amount of proper fen left to us. After that it's Shropshire in April (a showery Easter weekend), the Darent Valley in an August thunder storm, and finally Dartmoor in an October mizzle.

There is also a moment (in the Wicken fen chapter if I remember correctly) when Harrison talks briefly about how difficult she finds it to read the agricultural (arable) landscape in winter. It's something I guess you'd have to be a farmer (and the right sort of farmer at that) to be able to do with any accuracy. It's economically done, a quiet reminder of how out of touch most of us are with where our food comes from, how exactly the landscapes we look at are being used, and of the increasing gap between producers and consumers - it also hints at the tension between farmers and heratige custodians.

The National Trust (who's badge is on this book) and the RSPB (to a lesser extent) are major landowners and landlords. It's not always a happy relationship with their tennents, and this is only one of dozens of tangential issues this book has me listing to explore further.

There's a list of 100 words concerning rain that comes after the epilogue, and is as good an illustration as any of the British preoccupation with the weather, and our reputation as a rain sodden nation. (Is this a particularly British thing? I'm used to thinking of it as our national stereotype, but when I think about it more it's hard to imagine anybody not being preoccupied by the weather.)

It's a book that covers a surprising amount given its modest length, providing plenty to contemplate from poetry, to the revelation that owls aren't very waterproof (the feathers that make their flight so silent get easily waterlogged, it's one reason why they need to nest in enclosed spaces), and wider environmental issues. All that and it encourages us to see the beauty in a rain washed landscape as well. Altogether recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Quiet Gentleman- Georgette Heyer

The 1951 book club has given me the perfect excuse to re-read Georgette Heyer's 'The Quiet Gentleman', something I've had half a mind to do for a while. The only reason I hadn't already done so is because once I pick up a Heyer I find it very hard to stop at one.

Lyn at I Prefer Reading  has also read 'The Quiet Gentleman', and provided an excellent synopsis, so I'll keep mine brief. Although it's theoretically a regency romance, 'The Quiet Gentlemen' is really more of a thriller, albeit one in fancy dress and wedding bells all round at the end. The new Earl of St Erth has returned to the family seat (Stanyon) a year after his fathers death to find less than a warm welcome. The product of that fathers first, brief, and unhappy marriage the two had never enjoyed much of a relationship, to the point that the Earl had treated his younger son, Martin, from his second marriage very much as his heir. Gervase, meanwhile, had been off serving in the peninsula wars, leaving his family with some hopes that he might have died out there.

The rest of the family party comprises of the dowager countess (very much in the Lady Catherine mould), cousin Theo who acts as land agent, and Miss Morville who is staying with the countess whilst her parents are on holiday. It soon becomes clear that someone really does want the Earl out of the way as he's plagued by a series of near fatal accidents.

Every time I read this book I like it more - I still vividly remember being fooled by the romantic red herring the first time I read it some 30 years ago, and wondering what was going on when the promisingly lovely heiress went off with someone other than the hero. I'm not sure if the other red herring was such a surprise but it's an enjoyable enough mystery, and even though this is the umpteenth time I've read the book I was still desperate to race through it to see what happened next.

Why do I continue to like it so much? The obvious reasons are that there's something distinctly comforting about a romance, that this one showcases Heyer's humour at its best (it makes me laugh anyway) helps, and the mystery element is fun*. I like the way Miss Morville emerges as the heroine, attractive principally for her sound common sense, practicality, and intelligence - a successful relationship does after all need to be based on more than physical attraction.

More than anything though I'm interested in the way that Heyer examines family relationships and attachment to place. That the older son from the failed marriage is pushed out of the second family is understandable, as is the younger brothers resentment when the virtually unknown older brother moves back into his house. What do you do when your home, the home you live in, becomes somebody else's property? Equally what do you do when your property is filled with people who are far more at home in it than you are? How does it feel as the son of a younger brother to love the place that was your fathers home, but where you are essentially an employee? And after spending all your married life running a place, how do you cope with no longer being in charge?

The book has its flaws, but Heyer continues to delight me - her particular brand of humour, intelligence, and common sense has certainly proved the basis of a lasting relationship between us.

* The cover of my copy is particularly foul (I consider the cover from the first edition to be the best of the lot) and not for the first time I'm wondering what Heyer's books would look like if they weren't marketed specifically at women and as romantic fiction. In this one, and it isn't unique amongst her work in this respect, the romance element is the least of it. To sell it as such is underselling it.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Invisible Collection & Buchmendel - Stefan Zweig

It's Kaggsy and Simon's 1951 book club this week - I love these, it's a fascinating way to get an overview of both a year in books, and of certain books through the lens of several different readers - so it's a little bit shaming that I haven't been more organised about my reading for it (this might have been a good week to finally get to grips with Graham Greene, but I don't think it will be now). I could also have used it as a good excuse to re read Robertson Davies' 'Tempest Tost' (love his writing, loved this book read in pre blogging days) but that's not on the cards now either (damn work for interfering with reading time).

What I have read, and which I think qualifies, is a couple of Steven Zweig stories that came in a particularly neat little package. They were originally published in Great Britain in 1951, although the stories were obviously written long before then. Still, if 1951 is when they became available to an English reading audience that's enough for me.

Zweig is a writer I seem to have collected plenty of books by, but haven't read nearly enough of. That has to change, because he's wonderful, though maybe not for reading on buses or in staff dining rooms, as both stories in this book had me in, or in the edge of, tears almost all the way through.

The Invisible Collection (an episode of the inflation period in Germany) is narrated by an art dealer who has gone to visit an elderly man in search of stock. He knows this man has a wonderful collection of prints and hopes he'll part with some of them. What he finds is a blind man who's family are keeping a secret from him. It's a glimpse of the misery the treaty of Versailles caused in Germany,  and of the lies we tell those we love. It's also a perfectly balanced story, elegantly making it's points without being heavy handed.

Buchmendel discusses the casual cruelty of bureaucracy and change. A man takes shelter in a Viennese cafe, slowly realising he knew it in his student days when it was famous for being the unofficial office of an eccentric Jewish book peddler; Buchmendel. Before the (first) war people sought him out for his encyclopaedic knowledge, but after innocently, if stupidly, falling foul of authority he goes to prison, he does not emerge as the same man. Things change and Buchmendel is left behind, broken, and quickly forgotten. It's a small tragedy - but more than enough to get under my skin.

I don't want to make trite observations about what I think Zweig is trying to do, others will already have said it better, and anyway, it's probably something the individual reader should decide for themselves. What I do want to say is read him.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Invisible Man - H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells is one of those writers who's works sound so familiar that I almost feel like I've already read them. Because of this (totally erroneous) impression, I also thought I wasn't much of a fan. I've checked both my bookshelf and memory which collectively tell me that I have bought, but never read, 'Ann Veronica' and 'The New Machiavelli', I might have seen the character of the invisible man used in other films, but apart from that I've never read, or even so munched as watched, anything based on his works.

Wells' work is in the public domain as of this year which means nice new editions of his books are popping up, including a set from Oxford World's Classics - which they very kindly sent me. I might have ignored these indefinitely (still thinking that Wells wasn't really for me based on not fancying any of the film versions of 'The Island of Dr Moreau' etc), but they're short books so I read a couple as part of that general effort to clear through some of the low hanging fruit in the tbr pile. Now I feel like a bit of an arse for not doing this years ago (Ann Veronica still looks a bit worthy and unappealing though).

I started with 'The Invisible Man' which was an excellent choice for its mix of horror and humour, I really hadn't expected the humour. Griffin - we only discover his name towards the end of the book - turns up at a village pub one cold winters day looking for rooms to rent. It's out of season and he has ready cash so the landlady overlooks his odd appearance and general rudeness and lets him have the rooms. As the months pass he continues to be rude and unapproachable, and when his money starts to run out and there's talk of eviction a crisis point is reached.

Fortunately for the invisible man it's now summer, so running around without visible clothes on isn't as bad as it was in winter. But being invisible doesn't necessarily confer the advantages a person might expect. For example, invisible isn't silent, it doesn't leave any hiding places about the person, and Griffin can't reverse it.

The horror, along with an element of tragedy, comes from Griffin's monstrous egotism, that and a natural fear on the part of the reader of the unseen. Griffin has lost all sense of right and wrong (if he ever had one) and is determined to embark on a reign of terror until he's worshiped as a god.

The humour comes mostly from the consideration of the difficulties of being invisible, and how to make use of that invisibility. If Griffin had thought to make himself some invisible clothes before he started making invisible cats it all might have been very different. As it is if he wants to hide he has to be naked, and silent, and as anybody who knows the British climate will understand, that's not ideal (especially if you catch a cold).

To be invisible is a common enough fantasy, following Wells as he picks that fantasy apart was so much more entertaining than I'd imagined. The science part of the science fiction might not read as at all feasible anymore, but the ideas that Wells explores are as relevant as ever - especially exactly what it is that make a monster, and it's these ideas which are making me so excited about reading more of his books.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Restoration Project

Last year my father let me have a small portrait (oil on board) of a mystery woman painted by my great grandfather (Francis Swithin Anderton). It had suffered some water damage after a boiler malfunction, had lost its frame, and was generally in need of some love. I found a restorer, delivered it up, kept my fingers crossed, and was really pleased with the eventual result.
The first picture


The current project, after and before.


This year he let me have another portrait, this time I'm fairly sure (it looks like her) the sitter was my great grandmother, who for reasons now lost, is dressed as a nun. The history of this picture is also a bit of a mystery. As far as I know it had been in a house that belonged to his (Francis') sister and her husband. The house stayed in the family until the 1970's but was rented out complete with its late Victorian/Edwardian fixtures and fittings. When it was sold, complete with furnishings, it was stripped out. Dad managed to get the painting, but not the frame and for the next 40 odd years it kicked around in odd corners, and finally in a shed. At some time it too seems to have suffered from damp, so when I got it in January it was very much in need of some love.

Off she went to the restorer (if anybody ever wants a recommendation for someone good with oil paintings in Rutland I'd be happy to pass on her details). The moment the picture is returned is thoroughly exciting because you finally get to assess what it is you have. This painting (oil on canvas) turned out to be a sketch rather than a finished work. This is clear from the vague nature of the background and a general lack of detail anywhere but the face. The natural darkening of the paint over the years doesn't help here either, the water damage revealed more of the brushwork on her sleeves than is now discernible.

I have no idea if anything further came of the idea that was being worked on, but it wasn't signed. I'm a bit surprised by this, most other things of his I've seen are signed, and as I assume this was a gift to his sister, and that someone had gone to the trouble of framing and hanging it, it was clearly liked enough to be seen as suitably finished for display.

There's no evidence the canvas has been cut down (with the loss of the signature) but at some point it had been taken off its stretcher, moved about an inch to the left and tacked back down. This moved the figure closer to the centre of the image, but left a chunk of unpainted canvas which added to the challenge of framing.

Finding a frame really has been a challenge. Dad remembered her in something quite ornate and gold.  I could see that working, but finding something suitable would be (very) expensive, it would also be hard to fit in with the rest of my flat. In the end after 3 visits to the framers (they're very patient) and a lot of changing my mind I settled for something quite plain. I'm really pleased with the result, it feels right both for the painting and it's current surroundings, but I'm still open to other possibilities. I think of the frame as an outfit, and see no reason not to change it if I ever find something I think will suit her better, or if her surroundings change sufficiently to demand a rethink.

Meanwhile this particular labour of love is at an end, and I get to enjoy the results. The painting's value is basically sentimental, but she has a charm that grows on you the more time you spend with her. The whole process has cost about £360 which doesn't seem unreasonable to pay to rescue a peice of family history (though it does make me hope my washing machine doesn't follow through on its occasional threat to give up the ghost any time soon). The rest of my evening will be spent rearranging pictures whilst I try and find her the right bit of wall to sit on.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A new cookbook and the start of a serious cull

Today I bought my second cookbook of the year ('Gather, Cook, Feast', it looks good), it's sitting next to me whilst I eat my third smoked mackerel salad in a week and wonder where my enthusiasm for cooking has gone. Buying it was also the final bit of encouragement I needed to begin the process of going through my books with a properly critical eye and starting to clear some out.

Starting with the cookbooks was obvious, I completely ran out of shelf space in the kitchen months ago (there are Christmas presents still looking for a home) and I'd got to the point where it felt like I couldn't find anything. I've pulled out 6 books to go. It might not sound like much but it represents about 25cm of shelf space, which was enough to find a place for everything else, and suddenly I feel a lot better - it doesn't always take very much. I had never cooked from 5 of them, not used the 1 I had cooked from (once) in years, and need to question why letting go can be such an issue.

If I was being really ruthless I could get rid of more, and maybe I will, not least because I hope that a few less books will encourage me to use the remaining ones rather more. Cooking has always been something I've really enjoyed but for the last year or so it's begun to feel like a chore at times. There are a whole host of reasons for this, a lot of it's a work pattern that gets me home around 9pm a couple of nights a week, and then has me back at work by 8am the next day. It's energy sapping, and I'm learning the hard way that the older I get the less energy I have.

Suddenly the effort of thinking sufficiently far ahead to have the neccesary ingredients ready to cook something interesting or new when I do get home at a sensible time seems like an effort to much - hence packs of smoked mackerel and salad even on days off. It seems there's also a point when a wall of cookbooks becomes overwhelming rather than inspiring to me.

But for a natural hoarder, and book lover, getting rid of books isn't easy. There are the books which might have been gifts where it feels positively disloyal to discard them. Books bought with good intentions that make me feel I've failed by not embracing their contents with more enthusiasm. Books that represent hard earnt money that apparently I wasted because I never used them and now they're going. Most ridiculous of all there are the couple of Nigella titles that make me feel like I'm letting down the woman herself when I admit I don't really want them. Because I think she's great, even mentioning that her books are on the pile feels oddly disloyal, but when I flicked through them nothing appealed to me - so why do I feel like this?

If there are so many books that just looking at them leaves me paralysed with indecision though (only a little bit over dramatic), then there has to be a cull until the whole lot looks manageable again. Small flats are no place for the sentimental or indiscriminate stockpiling of unnecessary clutter. There will always be space for the books I use, love, and really want, just not for all the books I currently have. I do the same with mugs. That has to stop too.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Her Father's Daughter - Marie Sizun

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

One of the many things I'd like to tell my much younger self would have been to read more European fiction. I remember reading, some time in my twenties, that the British were really poor at reading books in translation, and also remember feeling somewhat vindicated by that - I wasn't the only one. I  struggled with French at school and dropped it at the first possible opportunity. French, or Italian, would have helped with my degree in History of Art, and wouldn't have gone amis in the wine trade. Wine labels have probably taught me as much French as school did, they've also taught me that things stick better if you're interested in them.

What simply didn't come my way at school (with the exception of Anne Frank's Diary, and the Moomins) was literature that threw any light on any European culture or experience at all. Nor did I see any foreign language films. I can't help but wonder how many others had the same experience, and if the same us and them mentality would be so widespread if we were all generally better read.

'Her Father's Daughter' is the sort of subtle family drama that even my younger self might have appreciated. It's set in Paris as the war is drawing to a close, a young child has a happy, and remarkably undisciplined, life with her mother in their one bedroom flat - the only cloud from her point of view is a disapproving grandmother. The father she has never met is about to return from the prison camp he's been in though, and when he comes back family dynamics are obviously going to change.

Change they do, it's not just that there's a new person in a small space, or that the focus of her mother's attention has shifted, but also that her fathers war time experiences have left him with an uncertain temper, and as unused to small children as his daughter is to his authority.

Almost inevitably the relationship that builds between father and daughter is at the expense of the relationship between mother and daughter. That the mother has a secret which is also, inevitably, going to be revealed by the child, makes things altogether more complicated. She doesn't understand exactly what it is that she's revealing, and because it's told from her point of view, we can't be quite sure either - at least not of all the implications, but the repercussions are in no doubt.

So far so good, but what had me reaching for the tissues by the end of the book was the matter of fact description of what the relationship between father and daughter becomes when he moves on from his first family. There's nothing unusual or dramatic about it, but it's still quietly devastating and gives the book a tremendous emotional punch. It's a book I could get really evangelical about.



Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lyvedon New Bield

It's been a National Trust day today with a visit to Lyvedon New Bield in Northamptonshire. Lyvedon New Bield (new build, there is a Lyvedon old Bield too) was commissioned by Sir Thomas Tresham as a, well I'm not to clear what, but some sort of little house in his garden intended for banquets or retreats. It was never finished.

My favourite graffiti was a row of birds carved into one wall

Tresham is an interesting character, a devout catholic at a time when that wasn't entirely sensible, he spent a good 15 years under house arrest. When he was at liberty he spent huge sums of money on building projects including Rushton triangular lodge (which is built around the number 3 which symbolises the trinity, and is also a play on Tresham's name and trefoil coat of arms). The triangular lodge is a charming building with the feel of a folly about it as well as something vaguely mystical - it's the numbers, symbols, and general Elizabethan love of allegory that does it.

 Unfortunately Tresham seems to have made a habit of living beyond his means, died with debts that would be about a million pounds in today's money, and before Lyvedon was finished, when his builders realised the state of play they downed tools and left. Any chance of the family turning things around were scuppered by his son, Francis', involvement in the gunpowder plot.

Now I know what witch marks are I was pleased to find one 

Lyvedon is based around the number 5, the floor plan is a perfectly symmetrical Greek cross made up of 5 squares, each arm of the cross ends in a bay with 5 sides, each side measuring 5 feet (adding up to 25 feet which reference both the nativity and the annunciation- those Elizabethan Catholics would probably have loved sudoku). Being inside it is oddly disorienting, maybe because it was never finished it's hard to work out exactly how the building was intended to be used, but more than that, it's not always clear where you are in it.

Anyway, it's well worth a visit. There's a tea room which had a very welcome wood burning stove in it (there was a chilly wind) and good scones. A second hand book shack where I struck gold in the form of an old penguin edition of Edith Sitwell's biography of Alexander Pope, Margery Allingham's 'Death of a Ghost' which I've not seen before, and a virago - Ellen Galford's 'Moll Cutputse Her True History'. Anything based on The Roaring Girl is worth 50p of my money!

There are also the gardens. Tresham had ambitions for these, also never quite realised, but as with the  building, a surprising amount has survived. In that case the footprint of his plans still exists. The orchard has been replanted with the trees he specified, moats and mounds have been uncovered, and thanks in part to a photo the Luftwaffe took, it's been possible to trace the plan for a maze which it seems was going to be planted with roses and raspberries, both having significance for Christ and the virgin. I can only hope that the national trust decide to plant this - it might be a bit scratchy, but can you imagine how wonderful it would smell at the right point in summer, and how pretty it could be?