Holiday Reading

First, a warning: I’m afraid this is a ridiculously long post – but there was no way round it as it contains seven books and several discoveries. I went to Edinburgh recently and, as always, based my reading on the rhyme from The Stockmistress of the now-closed QI Bookshop in Oxford:

Something old, something new, something made-up, something true, one that’s here and one that’s there and one that could be anywhere.

Something old: Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I have not read this since I was about ten but an erudite friend who is a poet rereads it every year. I was curious as I simply remembered a rather charming story about a capable water rat, an over-excited mole and a ridiculous toad. How wrong. The descriptions are the things that make this book special; wonderful glimpses of countryside, waterways and picnics:

 

The Water Rat’s picnic for the Seafaring Rat: ‘Then he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.’

Or the Otter’s description of snow: ‘My! it was fine, coming through the snow as the red sun was rising and showing against the black tree-trunks! As you went along in the stillness, every now and then masses of snow slid off the branches suddenly with a flop! making you jump and run for cover. Snow-castles and snow-caverns had sprung up out of nowhere in the night – and snow bridges, terraces and ramparts – I could have stayed and played with them for hours.’

Something new: Caroline Scott, The Photographer of the Lost

Three brothers enlist in the army during the First World War and, predictably, not all return home. Harry, now a photographer, is searching for his elder brother in France, whilst Edie is searching for the same man, her husband. A man who quotes Yeats to her on their first meeting, telling her to ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. Caroline Scott is a historian so, as one would expect, the story rings true but what is remarkable about this book is the extent to which she has recreated the feel of the period and landscape of war-ravaged France. I really cared about the characters and I found myself sitting for hours in Edinburgh cafes, never quite able to tear myself away from the intertwining tale she so skilfully weaves.

Something made-up: Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

In July I rather rashly said that I would buy ‘fewer books’. There were lots of exceptions and a complicated set of rules regarding what I was allowed (known only to me) but I have pretty well stuck to it. This has allowed time for rereading. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials easily stood up to the umpteenth reading, so I am now rereading the first in his Sally Lockhart quartet. It is a Dickensian mystery with Indian palaces, opium dens, a charming photographer and, at its heart, a heroine with a pistol. And yes, it’s well worth a second read.

Something true: Gillian Tait, 111 Places in Edinburgh That You Shouldn’t Miss

I wish this book had been published when I lived in Edinburgh. Admittedly that was years ago and many of the recommendations in the book didn’t exist or were lying forgotten but it is packed with things you might otherwise miss so I’m sure Gillian Tait would have found the same number of interesting things then.

 

I rediscovered the Stockbridge Colonies; small, affordable dwellings built for and by skilled workmen and artisans in the nineteenth century. They are ingeniously-designed terraces of ‘flattened cottages’ with raised front doors on one side of each terrace so each flat has its own private entrance and garden. Situated alongside the Water of Leith, these properties are now ‘highly desirable’ in estate agents’ parlance and humble artisans have probably been priced out.

The book also introduced me to Dunbar’s Close Garden, just off the Canongate on the Royal Mile. The series of courtyards looked lovely, even on a cold, damp, foggy day (the Scots have a word for this: dreich, which perfectly describes the grey skies and thick mist which is almost rain but not quite). In the seventeenth century this area was outside the city, just beyond the grand but heavily-fortified Netherbow which was one of the six points where people could cross the city walls. The area consisted of spacious mansions, outside the cramped city and conveniently close to Holyrood Palace. Forty years ago Dunbar’s Close Garden was created to give an idea of the terraced gardens attached to many of these houses. The structure ensures it looks good year-round but the planting merits several seasonal visits.

Another discovery was Dovecot Studios. This is a swimming bath converted into a weavers’ studio. You can look down from the gallery, which also hosts exhibitions, and see the weavers at work. It’s fascinating to watch them but the building is also a stunning piece of Victorian architecture with graceful arches and rooftop windows.   

One that’s here: Alexander McCall Smith, The Importance of Being Seven

Whenever I go to Edinburgh I read one of the 44 Scotland Street books. Many years ago I lived a couple of streets away and Alexander McCall Smith captures the area and its residents perfectly. Starting one of the books is like meeting up with an old friend after a long gap; there are no unpleasant surprises, it is gentle, funny and yet surprisingly thought-provoking. If you have ever stayed in, lived in or even just visited Edinburgh’s New Town (actually largely Georgian) I cannot recommend them highly enough. But you must read them in the correct order: 44 Scotland Street is the first.

One that’s there: Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News?

When the fifth Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky was published this autumn I decided to read the earlier ones again. Each story is complete but the back story about Jackson develops through the series. In this, the third, he is again embroiled in a slightly unbelievable series of coincidences but it doesn’t matter. The books are excellent and definitely stand up to the test of rereading. The crime is there but doesn’t dominate and Jackson definitely passes the charisma test – I’m not a huge fan of crime unless there is a charismatic detective (Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, or Kyril Bonfiglioli’s the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai: ‘Degenerate aristocrat, amoral art dealer, seasoned epicurean, unwilling assassin and knave about Piccadilly….’).

One that could be anywhere: Neil Gaiman, Stardust

A young man goes on a quest to find a star to win the heart of the woman he loves. So far, so usual. But this quest involves the land beyond the Wall – the land of faery, and three princes and a witch are racing against him. Reasonably enough, the star herself does not wish to be taken by anyone. The story gallops along with the urgency of a traditional fairy tale enlivened by Neil Gaiman’s amazing imagination. Another book which gives more with each reread.

Jane

These books should be easily available at ‘all good bookshops’, please buy them there, if you can, rather than from a characterless online site.

Making Week 22: Having a plan for the bad times

This is a direct quote from Ann Wood but anyone who writes about the 100 Day Project stresses the same thing – you need a plan for when things don’t go well. My problem is that although I’ve been back from Edinburgh for nearly two weeks I haven’t got back into the boat-making routine. I’ve got lots of excuses: Christmas, work, writing, etc. but that’s all they really are – excuses. And at the moment I can’t see anything improving as one thing I have learnt is that to make the boats I need to be very focused, which I’m not at the moment. I can pick up patchwork for twenty minutes and achieve something; the same cannot be said of the boats. So the plan is going to be that I shall do patchwork for the remaining three weeks. Then, in January, I can decide what I’m going to do for the remaining fifty boats that I still need to make.

In the meantime here are eight miniature patchworks. I still haven’t got a clue what to do with them but I hope that, in due course, a plan will reveal itself.  

  

Jane

Worth the Detour : Two Exhibitions At The Estorick Collection

Yesterday I had a really pleasant surprise. Taking the Victoria Line to Highbury and Islington and walking for a few minutes to Canonbury Square, brought me to the Estorick Collection (https://www.estorickcollection.com) which occupies a fine Georgian house at number 39a. This is one of those galleries everyone has heard of and no-one visits, which is a shame and a mistake. It’s definitely worth the detour. If you are interested in the Italian Futurists, or more generally 20th Century Italian art, then you really ought, indeed probably need, to go.

The key plus points are the excellent permanent collection and thoroughly good and unusual exhibitions. The incidental plus points include a lovely setting, a warm welcome and the probably unfortunate fact it’s very quiet and there is nobody breathing over your shoulder or getting between you and the art.  There is also a very good and reasonably priced cafe serving Italian food that transcends the normal expectations of gallery catering. I ate home-made penne con tonno and drank a good glass of Chianti  for a little over £12.

The foundation was set up by the late Eric Estorick, who possessed a remarkable eye and assembled the permanent collection while making a profitable success of his lifelong devotion to the art of this period at the Grosvenor Gallery. There are works by virtually every significant Italian  artist from the 1890s to the 1950s. Lottery funding played a significant role in the renovation of the building.

Of the two exhibitions currently running, the first, Lithographs from Leningrad, is a remarkable selection of high quality images, many printed in colours and just not what one would have expected from a supposedly tightly controlled Soviet art establishment! However, the other, and probably more important, is Umberto Boccioni: Recreating the Lost Sculptures.

The gallery website states of the lithographs: During the early 1960s, when Eric Estorick (1913-1993) was running London’s Grosvenor Gallery, he developed a strong interest in Soviet art alongside his passion for modern Italian painting. In 1961 he mounted a landmark exhibition of Soviet prints – the inspiration for this special display – which features graphic works by 15 of the artists from the original show: Brodsky, Ermolaev, Izrailevich, Kaplan, Kuks, Lanin, Latash, Maslennikova, Matyukh, Nemenova, Skulyari, Steinberg, Vasnetsov, Vedernikov and Yakobson. This is the first time since 1961 that these artists have been exhibited together in the United Kingdom. Estorick had visited Leningrad’s Experimental Graphics Laboratory in 1960, and was so impressed that he bought several hundred works on the spot. For a number of years his gallery hosted a stream of exhibitions featuring work by artists from the Soviet Union and, for the first time since the Russian Revolution, Westerners were able to see and acquire contemporary art from the USSR.

Of the many ground-breaking sculptures the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) created between c.1913 and 1915, only a handful remain in existence today. A number of his most important plaster and mixed-media sculptures were destroyed in 1927 and this constituted a very significant loss for avant-garde art. Using a combination of vintage photographic material and 3D printing techniques, the digital artists Matt Smith and Anders Rådén have recreated four of Boccioni’s destroyed works: a volumetric study of a human face titled Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head, and three of the artist’s iconic striding figures. As the gallery states This ground-breaking display enables modern audiences to ‘see’ these lost masterpieces for the very first time. The exhibition contains a detailed technical exposition of the methodology involved and you can see the 3D printer in action, which is both fascinating and fun.

Both exhibitions close on 22nd December so not much time remains. Next year there will be four new exhibitions, of which the first is Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life, running from 15 January – 11 April 2020.

Chris

 

 

Each Month in my Garden: December – The Right Weather & Plant Names

The Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine arrived at the beginning of the month and I was struck by the fact that most photographs of gardens in winter are actually pictures of interesting weather. Mist, bright sunlight, frost and snow all make for great photos. Less so the greyish days we usually get. Christmas trees brighten everything but it’s usually the fairy lights that do the brightening rather than the actual trees. So there won’t be any photos of my garden this month.

The magazine also had an article on the change of rosemary’s Latin name. It is now to be part of the genus Salvia, and Rosmarinus officinalis has become Salvia rosmarinus. I see the logic behind the change but I mourn the loss of officinalis which, according to William Stearn (Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners) means ‘Sold in shops; applied to plants with real or supposed medicinal properties’. Nowadays plants are sold in a vast array of shops, not just in nurseries and garden centres but almost everywhere from gift shops to supermarkets, but historically officinalis conferred a certain status on plants. In Botanical Latin William Stearn expands the definition, writing ‘It is derived from opificina shortened to officina, originally a workshop or shop, later a monastic storeroom, then a herb-store, pharmacy or drug-shop’. The name gave rosemary a sense of importance which it has now lost, presumably because common sage, or Salvia officinalis, got there first. 

Russian sage has also been absorbed into the genus with Perovskia atriplicifolia becoming Salvia yangii. What would have been wrong with Salvia perovskia? Poor Russian General V. A. Perovski, 1794-c.1857, (according to William Stearn), loses his credit, which seems rather harsh. But then the RHS Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening describes him as B. A. Perovskii, a Turkestani statesman. Both are books I would normally trust without question. The internet, which I don’t necessarily trust credits Vasily Alekseevich Perovsky, who seems to have had an interesting life fighting in Turkey followed by time on the then Russian Empire’s south-eastern border, extending the frontier with varying degrees of success. It seems unlikely he had time to go plant hunting so perhaps he doesn’t deserve the credit. Another count, Count Lev Alekseyevich von Perovski, who lived at the same time, has given his name to the mineral perovskite. His Wikipedia article starts with the following charming warning:  

Not to be confused with Lev Nikolaievich Perovski, Aleksei Alekseivich Perovski, or other Counts Perovski.

As the RHS article points out plant labels tend to be printed in large batches so it may be several years before the changes appear on retailers’ shelves anyway. By the time we’ve adapted there may well be further discoveries……

Jane

Making Week 21: More than I expected

Some time ago I cut a recipe out from the newspaper. Actually, if I’m honest, this is a regular occurrence. They then sit in a growing pile on the kitchen table and, when the pile threatens to topple, I sort through them and throw away at least half. This one survived the first cull and I’ve now bought the book it comes from: Aran Bakery by Flora Shedden. I’m not particularly good at following recipes, even when I’m supposed to be recipe testing, but I did follow this one as it told me to “mix the butter and sugar till smooth”, rather than the usual ‘mix till resembles fine breadcrumbs’ that I’m more used to for pastry. The result was delicious: pastry with a very slight spongy texture. What didn’t work were the quantities. I had enough for two tarts with some left over. The first was the correct apple, the second a combination of what I could find in the kitchen: one Bramley apple, one Granny Smith, a handful of raspberries and a large splodge of apricot conserve. The pies fall apart terribly when cut but both were delicious.

Jane

Each Month in my Garden: November

My primary aim for the back garden is for it to have lots of places to sit surrounded by flowers. Although it is tiny I have four different areas which accommodate all needs and weathers: the bench by back door that catches the sun at elevenses time, two sets of tables and chairs (sun/shade, eating/sewing/reading/making, friends/alone) and the summer house which catches the last rays of sun in the evening and is perfect for times when it’s too chilly or too wet to sit outside. By November the sun is too low in the sky to do much other than fleetingly appear over the tops of the surrounding buildings and even the summer house (no heating, a draughty window and a bit damp) is too cold to sit in. The garden gets an autumn tidy but that’s about it.

The front garden is different as I go through it every day and look out onto it from the table in the bay window where I supposedly work. The grasses here last well into autumn, the rose flowers, albeit intermittently, till Christmas and there are more flowers but even so I do little actual gardening as everything starts to close down. An unexpected bonus this year is the jasmine which I planted in the summer to twine along the front fence. This is the third time it’s been moved; in its two previous homes in the back garden it was very unhappy, the first because of too much shade and the second because of a very dominant ivy. Now it gets the afternoon sun, seems much happier and this year, for the first time, has beautiful autumn colour. In the past it’s always just given up in October, dropped its leaves and sulked. 

When I was in Edinburgh I walked through Inverleith Park and the Botanic Garden but, if I’m honest I went mostly for the amazing views of the city’s skyline. The bare branches silhouetted against the blue sky were an unexpected bonus.

Jane

Making Week 20: Holiday Sewing

I have been in Edinburgh this week so it was time to revert to portable patchworks. I now have five completed mini quilts and four partly stitched ones. And still no idea what to do with them. On the plus side I’m using up lots of scraps but while I was in Edinburgh I visited Fabric Focus, which is one of my favourite fabric shops and came back with this:

It’s all bound to be useful one day……

Jane

Making Week 19: Ethereal Boats

For the next fifty boats I’m going to use different patterns, partly because the little boats take a ridiculously long time to make and partly the bathroom ceiling has become a fairly full harbour.

My next batch of boats will be made using a pattern from Ann Wood’s website. I’ve only made one so far but I think they’d be fun and easy to make in batches. Some of hers are made from old letters, envelopes and books and decorated with snippets from newspapers. I’m looking forward to experimenting. 

Jane