Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fair Isle Designs from Shetland Knitters volume 1

I don't normally much mind cold weather, but even I'm getting fed up of this winter's reluctance to call it a day. We've had yet more snow, which is one thing, the biting east wind that bought it is another. I can't get warm today at all.

At least this being a bumper week for books about Shetland knitwear is cheering me up. Susan Crawford's 'The Vintage Shetland Project' arrived on Monday, and this latest book from the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers came on Friday. Apparently work has already begun on volume two (I hope work on a volume two of the lace book is underway as well, coincidentally I wrote about Volume 1 a year ago yesterday).

The books the Guild are publishing are growing into a really valuable resource, and not just for the patterns. What really sets these books apart is the way they celebrate the knitters as well as the knitting. Each pattern comes with a little explanation about its name and inspiration, and a little bit about the knitters - when and how they learnt, what they first remember knitting, whose work they admire, what they particularly enjoy about fair isle - it's not exhaustive, but it's enough.

The dedication says "This book is for the next generation - the young people learning to knit, spin, etc, maintaining and developing traditional skills through knitting at home and/or after school clubs." By taking care to record something of the knitters themselves it passes on a much richer legacy than just patterns alone could do. 

The patterns themselves have something for everyone from the complete Fair Isle beginner, through to the expert, including things like Janette Budge's little Bonhouse gift bags that offer the perfect small scale way to practice how to knit a jumper yoke.

Carol Christiansen's foreword is also excellent. She asks some big questions about the nature of tradition and authenticity, and doesn't shy away from the burdensome nature of knitting to previous generations of Shetland women. One of the things that so fascinates me about Shetland's textile history is the often troubling social history it's linked too. That generations of women and children were forced to knit to make ends meet under a desperately exploitative truck system is possibly one reason that the artistry involved hasn't always been appreciated as it should. 

A wonderful celebration of creativity and creators that truly will do its bit to maintain and develop those traditional skills by sharing them in a particularly generous way. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

I've been suffering under a bit of a reading block recently, especially when it comes to fiction. I keep picking things up but not quite opening them, or only getting a few pages in before getting distracted,  or knitting, or any one of a dozen different things. An early Easter has made work a bit hectic too, the wine marketing opportunities are coming thick and fast right now, and it's tiring.

There are bigger problems to have, but I suspect most of us will be familiar with the underdressed, unsettling, feeling of not having a book on the go. I've found the best cure for readers block is to either fall back in a familiar old favourite, or to dig out something different. This time I found some unread Neil Gaimans on my phones kindle app. It's not a format I particularly enjoy, but sometimes it's useful, and so there's a motley collection of things sitting on there.

I found Gaiman through Terry Pratchett, and the collaborative novel 'Good Omens' that they wrote together, and that I'm inclined to think bought out the best in both of them. After that I read my way through The Sandman graphic novels which I loved at the time (I got rid of most of my Sci-Fi in my twenties, which I just occasionally regret).

There's something about reading Gaiman's adult novels that makes me miss the pictures of the graphic works, and something else which makes me think I want to listen to these stories rather than read them.

In 'Anansi Boys' the god Anansi (I'd sort of heard some of his stories - he's a major figure in West African and Caribbean folklore, but I'm not overly familiar with him or the tradition he comes from) has died, leaving his son, Fat Charlie, a bit of a mess to sort out. What I particularly like about Gaiman is the way he uses established  folklore, myths, and legends, for so much of what he does.

It feels like a proper continuation of an oral tradition - which is why I want to hear rather than read his books; I never lost the sense of being told a story, and so never really lost myself in the book. In an ideal world you could ask the teller to embellish on certain details, and you might follow some over avenues before winding back to the main arch in this particular version.

Meanwhile the story unwinds with plenty of jokes to soften it's dark edges, it's folklore elements making it both comfortably familiar as well as providing undertones of genuine disquiet as I remember all the things in fairy tales that really frightened me as a child. There's no doubt that everything will work out more or less as it should by the end, but that doesn't mean there isn't some really nightmarish imagery along the way (things I'm grateful aren't illustrated).

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Macbeth at The RSC

It was our second RSC visit of the year, and month (everything we wanted to see is bunched up together this season) last night, this time to see Macbeth. I think this is the 3rd time I've seen it, the 2nd time at the RSC.

The last time was 1999 with Harriet Walter and Anthony Sher in the Swan. Memories of that performance are a little vague now (what I do recall was some very effective use of drums, no interval, and Harriet Walter being amazing). The first time I saw it was a student production in the quadrangle of Kings College in Aberdeen. It was a chilly kind of night, dusk was gathering, and tremendously atmospheric.

This current production has Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack as Macbeth and his lady, and is framed as the first horror film (in an introductory piece by Peter Bradshaw of The Gaurdian), the set, helped by that price in the programme, recalls Carrie and The Shining. I'm not convinced by the horror film/story argument - wouldn't Hamlet or King Lear be better contenders for that description? The murderous events in Macbeth are no more horrifying than those in Richard III, and all in a day's work for anyone looking to be king of Scotland in the 11th century. I would buy into the idea that it's the first noir thriller (which Bradshaw dismisses).

The witches are played by 3 young girls in onesies and slippers, clutching baby dolls. They sometimes send a chill down the spine, but they were also quite difficult to hear at times, and because they're used to move most of the furniture on and off stage they lose a lot of their weirdness quite quickly.

There is also a particular focus on time in this production, including having a clock count down to the end of the play just above the stage. There's a risk when you do that, that less enthusiastic audience members will spend their time clock watching, judging by the number of school kids annoyed by the fact that Macbeath died before the count down was quite done last night, they had been doing just that. I wish I'd asked them if they found the projected quotes above the stage that signposted the key theme of each act helpful.

Ecclestone and Cusack where brilliant though. This Macbeth is an ambitious man, a soldier used to violence, who is slighted by Duncan even as he rewards him, the seeds of Macbeth's treachery are sown early. Cusack's Lady Macbeth mixes her ruthless ambition with a vulnerability that encourages sympathy for her as her mind begins to collapse under the strain of guilt. As a couple they're both convincing and compelling as they set themselves up to meet their fate. Macbeth's letters fuel her ambition, her resolve pushes him to murder Duncan, but it's his insecurity that leads to Banquo's death and the slaughter of Macduff's children which in turn brings final disaster.

What isn't really explored here is Macbeth's lack of children and how it motivates him, everybody else seems to have them, even Lady Macbeth (the real Lady Macbeth had been married and had at least one son, who briefly succeeded his stepfather as king of Alba, before she was married to Macbeth, who was probably the man who killed husband number 1). What exactly is the nature of her taunt when she talks of having given suck to her own babes? It's hard not to think about how Henry VIII's difficulties producing children motivated him, or the lack of Tudor heirs thereafter, or the mess that Mary Queen of Scots got into.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Vintage Shetland Project - Susan Crawford

Back in August 2015 I subscribed to the crowdfunding for this Book. Back then I'd not long re learnt to knit, and was becoming increasingly interested in the history of knitting in Shetland, I'd also discovered Instagram. The eventual publication of the book was delayed, not least because Crawford had to deal with breast cancer. Happily she dealt with it successfully and the book is now here. I only got it this morning so this is very much an overview- but it totally exceeds my expectations and hopes for it.

It is still the case that although knitwear is one of the first things most people will associate with Shetland (it's got to be up there with ponies), and despite an ever growing interest and appreciation for Shetlands knitting heritage, it's still an under told story. This book is another step towards changing that.

There are 27 patterns that recreate garments from the museum collection, most are Fair Isle, but lace is also represented, and there's a pleading variety of patterns to choose from (for men, for women, and hopefully for the not overly confident knitter). What makes them really interesting though is that these garments are based on one off creations; these are the things the knitters created for themselves and their families rather than for export.

This one s significant because it gives free reign to the creativity of the original knitters, and let's us appreciate just how good they were. If there's one thing I've learnt, especially about Fair Isle, it's that the process of successfully putting colours and motifs together is infinitely harder than you might think. These knitters were expert craftswomen, they were also artists.

But that's not all that makes this book special. It also puts these garments into context, exploring personalities, materials, history, and fashion, with a series of essays that I'm thoroughly enjoying.

I hope this isn't the end of Crawford's work on Shetland knitwear, and also that others will follow up some of the questions this book raises. It would be fascinating to further explore the differences between garments knitted for sale and those knitted for personal use. To have a really good database that showed what was being knitted when would be great too - I thought I was getting an idea of how colour and motif use changed in Fair Isle Knitting until I saw the Whalsay heritage centre exhibition last year. There are personalities here that deserve to be better known too.

It's a wonderful book, a labour of love with an absolute ton of stuff in it to be inspired by, and I am so excited at the prospect of spending more time with it.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Packwood and Baddesley Clinton

When we went to Canons Ashby a couple of weeks ago we joined the National Trust. It's something I'd half meant to do for a while, turning up at a property the day after I got paid was the final push to cough up the £108 for joint membership. The same weekend I read about Falling visitor numbers to the National Gallery, and National Portrait Gallery in London.

I have a great deal of affection for both galleries, but haven't been to either for a couple of years. This is because train fares from Leicester to London are now so prohibitively expensive that visits have been severely curtailed, when I have been there, there just hasn't been time to fit everything I might want to do in. It sounds like this might be a common issue as the majority of those vanishing visitors are domestic.

That National Trust membership cost as much as our train tickets when we went to see the Charles I and Charles II exhibitions at the end of January- it's looking like increasingly good value, and whilst the majority of the houses near us don't have the kind of artwork that challenges the things to be seen in the National galleries, Tate Britain, or the V&A, they do put what they have into the context of complete interiors and architecture.

Packwood and Baddesley Clinton are a couple of miles apart from each other in Warwickshire - sort of between Stratford upon Avon and Birmingham and a part of the country where it seems like it would be hard to miss some sort of Tudor splendour, or arts and crafts inspired delight, if you threw a stone in any direction.

They're an interesting pair of houses to look at together, Packwood was bought by the Ash family in 1904. Alfred Ash, the second generation industrialist who purchased it apparently did so because his 16 year old son, Graham Baron Ash, wanted it (having a father who is as accommodating as he is wealthy sounds like a sweet deal). It's Baron (as he preferred) Ash who made the house what it is today.

When they bought it, it was a relatively small Tudor manor with currently unfashionable Georgian and Victorian additions. These were stripped away, mullioned windows were reinstated, and a search for Tudor and Elizabethan everything was put in hand. Floors, screens, fireplaces, mantelpieces, brickwork, windows, glass, furniture - all of it - were sought out to 'restore' and enlarge the house into Barron Ash's vision of what an English country home should be. The enlargements include a barn converted into a great hall, and a long gallery to join it to the rest of the house.
Zoom in on the tap - this bathroom is the stuff of dreams.

Despite snide comments from both Pevsner and James Lees-Milne, the overall effect is charming. Packwood was a showpiece, and a backdrop for what sound like fabulous parties, rather than a family home. (Barron Ash never married, and liked everything to be perfectly ordered.) It also has the most fabulous bathroom (I love that bathroom). More importantly it's a perfect example of what money can buy and a very particular vision of an ideal English house. It made me think of  E. F. Benson's Lucia, who would have adored it (the novels are contemporary with Ash's creation of Packwood).

Baddesley Clinton is a moated house with links to the Gunpowder plot, a priests hole, and 500 years of Ferrers family history bound up in its remarkably damp free walls. It's probably fortunate for Baddesley Clinton that the Ferrers family were never particularly well off. It means alterations, improvements, and accruals were modest, and that it was never abandoned or broken up in favour of a bigger house. The rooms inside are essentially domestic in scale, it is surrounded by ducks, and it really outdoes itself in terms of charm and romantic appeal (it's the moat that does it).

Barron Ash actually bought bits and pieces for Packwood from Baddesley Clinton when the perennially broke Ferrers family were trying to raise some money. It has the lived in family feel (albeit an eccentric family with some odd arrangements) that Packwood avoids, and the sense of something that's grown, rather than of something created, but there's also a similar sense of artifice here.

Baddesley Clinton

In this case it's thanks to the splendidly named Marmion Ferrers, his wife, her aunt, and her husband, who lived in Baddesley Clinton from the late 1860's into the early 20th century. It was the aunt's husbands money that kept things going and allowed them to live out an almost fantasy life as lords of the manor. Lucia would probably have approved of that too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Supra, A Feast of Georgian Cooking - Tiko Tuskadze

I was given this for Christmas, and it's been sitting by my reading chair ever since. I should probably do more than think about cooking from it, but so far I've so enjoyed reading it that there hasn't seemed much need to do more. There is also the consideration that a book named after, and revolving around, a traditional Georgian feast and culture of hospitality isn't going to be the first port of call for a quick supper for two.

'Supra' is also part memoir as so many cookbooks seem to be at the moment, it's what makes it such a pleasure to read, and I like the context it gives to the food here. Something else that hit me reading Tiko Tuskadze's reminiscences of her Georgian childhood were some of the similarities to Shetlands culture of hospitality. The food itself might have been very different (the true taste of Shetland is probably reestit mutton soup with bannocks followed by cake - anyone visiting Shetland in the summer should make a point of going to a Hall tea to truly understand how much Shetland appreciates a home bake) but the underlying principles of hospitality, and the value of extended family are the same.

This is definitely a book for people who want to spend time and make a little effort in the kitchen, there are key ingredients that might well need sourcing, blue fenugreek*, and marigold petals are two of these, and pastes used in so many recipes that making up good sized batches to have ready would be a good idea. Georgian food is so reliant on walnuts that a cash and carry membership so you can buy in suitable bulk would be desirable. It's weekend cooking, or more accurately party cooking - food to share with friends. It really makes me want to cook a feast, maybe even share my kitchen with other cooks (I normally do not like other people in my kitchen, but there's something about this book that reminds me of the good times and camaraderie of working in catering and kitchens).

Things it's making me particularly want to cook - borscht, which I think I've made for myself once (it wasn't a success) and really need to get to grips with. There's a chicken and walnut salad that sounds really good, and a couple of pork dishes that sound like winners too (pork with pomegranate and a plum sauce, and pork ribs in a sticky, spicy, tomato sauce) - but these are only the beginning. It's a beautiful book that has triggered a whole slew of happy memories.

*Tuskadze does offer ordinary fenugreek and saffron as alternatives, and she lists suppliers as well - and indeed she's very good at suggesting easier to get alternatives all the way through.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Duchess of Malfi at the RSC

This was the first of 3 RSC trips this month (pretty much everything we want to see this season opens this month, so back and forth it is to make the most of preview prices), and for about half a day we weren't quite sure if we'd make it thanks to the snow, but in the end it wasn't a problem for us, which was lucky, about 2/3rds of a full house didn't make it, and it was slightly eerie being in such an empty  Stratford.

At some point I really need to properly study Jacobean art, literature, theatre, and history (it's a sort of retirement dream at the moment). It's a period I don't really know a great deal about, but the more bits I learn the more pivotal It seems, and fascinating with it. 

Briefly, The Duchess of Malfi is the one where the young widowed duchess falls in love with her household steward and secretly marries him. Meanwhile her brothers, presumably seeking to control her fortune, as well as her person, are plotting. When they get wind of her relationship with Antonio they set out to destroy her. Everybody dies at the end. 

Webster's play is based on a short story from William Painter's 1566-7 collection 'The Palace of Pleasure', the source material seems to have been infinitely more misogynistic than Webster's version with much blame attached to the duchess for desiring Antonio, her social inferior. 

There are some excellent performances in this production, Joan Iyiola is a compelling duchess, Chris New horribly sinister as her brother, the cardinal, and Nicolas Tennant's Bosola is particularly convincing in his journey from amoral spy to conflicted avenger. 

Performances aside though there's a lot here that we felt didn't work particularly well. This is the 3rd play directed by Maria Aberg that we've seen at The Swan, and we're beginning to recognise her style. There's a grubbiness to the set that seems fairly typical, but which I find distracting. 

It's a modern dress production, which is fine, but it took diligent reading of the programme during the interval to identify which of the brothers was which, and what they were; a duke and cardinal respectively. Not being able to tell that as the first half unfolds is unhelpful, especially when it comes to the Cardinal, the gap between his actions and his position is lost. 

Meanwhile the set is a cross between a broken down gym and an abattoir, with a symbolic bulls carcass strung up in one corner (its apparently meant to represent the patriarchy). The gym/abattoir arrangement is because director and set designer wanted specifically male environments to explore a toxic masculinity, this is underlined by an interest "in drawing a line from the sporting world, through to the military", both representing "a socially acceptable arena and outlet for competitiveness and aggression". It's hard not to see this as an allusion to fascism, which feels lazy. There are other forms of toxic masculinity in male hierarchies that might better suggest court politics and jealousy, and better reflect the everyday danger that misogyny throws at women. 

Finally, in the second half that bull carcass is stabbed, which floods the stage with blood. Symbolically this works on a number of levels, but mostly is was distracting. Watching the cast flounder and splash around in this stuff (the first row had a dust sheet to cover themselves with, I can only hope it offered sufficient protection) all we could think about was how they were going to clean the stage, themselves, the props, and the costumes - so not focusing on the dialogue at all. Less would have been much more effective.

In conclusion; worth seeing, but avoid the front two rows at ground level, and read the programme thoroughly first. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


I've been knitting a lot recently, or at least spent a lot of my free time knitting whilst catching up with a daunting backlog of podcasts. It's a welcome escape from outside events - Knitting leaves me just enough head space to listen to a civilised conversation about books and reading whilst I diligently count stitches and try not to go wrong, it's calming (until I realise I haven't been diligent enough) which is good.

My latest project has been a cowl for a mum, I have a little bit of an obsession with cowls, and working out exactly what the perfect one for my needs might be. This one might just be that cowl. It needs to provide a reasonable amount of warmth, not be to loose, and not be so bulky as to get in the way of mounting a shotgun into my shoulder when I go clay shooting. That's not something you want to get wrong a badly mounted gun recoiling into your collarbone is uncomfortable.

I like cowls because they don't fall off, don't trail into things, and easily fit in a pocket when you're not wearing them. This one is knitted in a traditional lace pattern called print of the wave, in the round on 3.5 mm needles, and used 3 balls of Jamieson and Smith's heritage yarn in natural fawn (which is a shade my mother particularly likes). It's a 17 stitch repeat, that I repeated 9 times (I hope that makes sense). It's not a difficult lace to knit, but it's a little bit more complicated than anything I've done before, and calls for a bit more concentration. Stitch markers were very helpful.

I followed the instructions from Elizabeth Lovick's The Magic of Shetland Lace Knitting, she's admirably clear with written as well as charted directions, so it's the perfect book for any Shetland lace beginner.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Beauty and the Beast - Edited by Maria Tatar

My sister gave me this (after very heavy hinting) for Christmas, it's a collection of classic tales about animal brides and grooms from around the world which, in what I can only consider an act of optimism, Penguin Classics decided to market as a movie tie in edition with last years live action Disney Beauty and the Beast.

Despite thinking that the core audience for the film probably isn't the core audience for the book, I'm grateful that I saw a copy (and very pleased that my sister bought it for me) because without doubt this is my favourite fairy tale in all its many forms, from Cupid and Psyche through to Angela Carter's iterations and everything in between.

This collection finds versions from Ancient Rome and Greece, India, Iran, France, Germany, Norway,  Italy, England, Russia, Persia, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Alaska, the West Indies, Japan, Ghana, the Philippines, South Africa, Myanmar, Ireland, Sweden, Lithuania, and Native American traditions. They explore model couples from ancient times, charismatic couples in popular imagination, animal grooms, and animal brides, and show both how ubiquitous this particular theme is, and how it changes focus and adapts in different cultures and for different circumstances. As Tatar puts it in her introduction "It may be the tale as old as time, but it is never the same old story".

The introduction covers the broad themes in these tales, and there's also a useful introductory paragraph for each specific story. I've mostly been dipping in and out of this book just for the fun of reading fairytales, but the more I read the more curious I am about the links between them, and so the more usefulbthe essays and introductions are. I'm also curious as to whether there's a reason a selkie myth hasn't been included. Do they fall into a different category? (It might be that the Alaskan tale of the Muskrat husband covers that particular sub genre.)

It's a welcome addition to my slowly growing collection of fairy tale related books, and worth a look if you share my enthusiasm for them. It's also the sort of book that sends me off down different reading avenues. Right now I'm off to make a cup of something hot whilst I decide if I dig out David Thomson's 'The People of the Sea', or Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber'.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Canons Ashby and some book finds

Despite it being bitterly cold (I mean serious, chilled to the bone, head straight to the cafe and hug that cup of coffee as hard as you can cold) today was also gloriously sunny and just the sort of day off to venture out and explore something on. We went to Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire.

It's National Trust not impossibly far away, and charming. The house has been evolving for centuries, from a medieval farmhouse, to a Tudor Manor House, into a Georgian country house that puts me strongly in mind of Pride and Prejudice's Longbourn, or maybe the Musgroves house in Persuasion. Nothing seems to have been knocked down, rather it's been added to or built over and whilst most of the rooms on public display are large, they're large on a domestic scale. They also have a comfortably battered feel about them - in a way that speaks of age rather than misuse - which adds to the general appeal of the place.

The house came to the Trust in the 1980's, apparently in a state of rapidly developing decay, and just in time. Part of it is still a family flat, and there's a Landmark Trust flat in the tower so you can stay there (which is appealing). It was to cold to really enjoy the gardens today, but they seem to be the most remarkable survival, an early eighteenth century formal layout of the sort that was swept away by the fashion for acres of open grass in the style of Capability Brown. Right now there are snowdrops everywhere, and if it hadn't been so cold (so, so, cold) there would have been pictures of them.

Most National Trust properties seem to house a cobwebby second hand bookshops, mostly filled with the sort of things that high street charity shops would automatically bin, but I got lucky today. I found a copy of 'His Majesty's Well Beloved' a 1919 Baroness Orczy title, in the curiosity section. It may well be terrible (a lot of words seem to be capitalised which isn't generally an indication of high literary quality), but it might also be fun, and as a Scarlet Pimpernel fan it had to be worth a punt, and the £2.50 price tag. I also found W. M. Thackeray's 'The FitzBoodle Papers', I can't find much about it from a quick search, but it looked promising, and now it's mine.