Thursday, 28 February 2008

Booking through Thursday - Heroine

Who is your favourite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

My intermittent attempts, during my teenage years, to launch my career as a novelist, were always first-person narratives, so I suppose it's not surprising that my thoughts immediately turned to three narrators. They have a good deal in common, including period. The first is Fanny Logan, quiet observer of the comings and goings of the Radlett family in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. From the perspective of middle-age, Fanny relates the story of her cousin Linda's "relentless pursuit" of love, and Polly Montdore's disillusionment with it. The second, who ought to be another cousin of Fanny's, since she has much in common with her, is Amy Savernake, in Joyce Windsor's A Mislaid Magic and After the Unicorn. I suppose Windsor's writing is too really sub-Mitford to be well-known, but I find Amy's "voice" appealing and her comments on her thoroughly eccentric family are not without asperity. Last of the three – perhaps you've guessed by now – is Cassandra Mortmain. As an aspiring writer, she actually sets down on paper her desire to "capture" her family (and the castle, of course), and she's been like a sister ever since I first discovered her in my teens.

Less self-effacing would be Georgette Heyer's eponymous heroine, Frederica. She's witty, efficient, unfazed by irritable cousins and manages the affairs of her orphaned brothers and sisters with humour and commonsense. Of course, I like most of the Heyer heroines: like Austen's, you can imagine settling down with them for afternoon tea and a giggle at the foibles of the world, and Cassandra, Fanny and Amy would fit right in. I'm sure we could budge up on the sofa, too, for Lizzie Bennet, and Flora Poste and...

Wednesday, 27 February 2008


I saw this meme at Stuck in a Book (where you can find its pedigree) and liked it so much I was halfway through my answers before I'd actually decided to do it. I was sorry to find that Simon doesn't like the word "Onyx" since it's rather in the same field as my favourite. But then my father was a lapidary, which is also a good word, and I spent much of my childhood sorting gemstones. The relevance of the photo, which is an old one, is simply that it's two contented dogs.

What is your favourite word? Chalcedony.

What is your least favourite word? "Incidentally" always bodes ill when my husband starts a sentence with it.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Ah, baroque church music.

What turns you off? Reality television. And breakfast television.

What is your favourite curse word? Hell's bells and buckets of blood. I'm old-fashioned.

What sound or noise do you love? The unique silence that happens when you wake up in the morning and it's snowed heavily overnight. The contented noises my dogs make.

What sound or noise do you hate? Loud noises, especially when made by a high wind. It makes me nervous.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? I could be an anchoress on a suitable country estate, perhaps, as long as the library van visited regularly. With a chicken or two for eggs and a vegetable garden I could be quite self-supporting. And a dog to guard the vegetables. Oh dear, perhaps I'm missing the point. Actually, I'd rather like to be a textile conservator.

What profession would you not like to do? Dentistry.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
"The library is that way...".

Monday, 25 February 2008

Lark Rise to Tea Bread

I've been – belatedly – catching up with Lark Rise to Candleford on BBC1. Having reached episode 3 I'm quite enjoying it, but I was a bit surprised to find that it started about 3/4 of the way through Flora Thomson's memoir, with young Laura's move to Candleford to work at the Post Office. Having seen how the stories for each episode have been created from incidents a few lines long in the book, I'm not surprised that there doesn't seem to be a credit for the author at the start (or am I missing it?), or that a second series of feel-good Sunday telly has apparently been commissioned. Oh well, it's all quite pretty, and there's little enough to watch otherwise.

I've been hunting for tea bread recipes on the internet. We don't each much in the way of cake or pudding in this house, though muffins sometimes happen when both sons are home. When they were small I baked almost daily, and tea bread was a staple for days when I was in a hurry, for instance, if it was a butter-making day, as that was time-consuming. My preference in baking has always been for the "hearty" kind – I can't do light-as-a feather sponges, and never really felt much urge to, but a good solid fruitcake packed with sultanas and raisins, an applecake all unctuous and sticky in the middle or a classic gingerbread were all turned out regularly and disappeared about 10 minutes' later. My tour de force, I reckoned, was a date loaf served with home-made ice-cream. Unfortunately, a vital ingredient of the loaf was Kellogg's bran buds – at some point during the 80s, these were changed, and never produced the right result again. I think they subsequently disappeared in the UK, though they seem to be available elsewhere. I still make good ice-cream, though, on the rare occasions there is any room in the freezer.

The most unusual tea bread recipe I've found uses lavender; I shall have to try making it when the lavender comes into flower, even though I shan't be able to eat it (lavender makes me wheeze). This is one of the kind which is simply a loaf-shaped cake which might be served with butter, as is The Dormouse's excellent banana and date loaf. The other kind is made by soaking the dried fruit in tea – I rather favour this type and plan to experiment with different kinds of tea, Russian caravan for starters, I think. The huge advantage of the breads-made-with-tea is their speed. Soak the fruit in advance (overnight if possible), chuck in some honey or muscovado sugar, flour (not forgetting the baking powder if you're not using self-raising!) and a beaten egg or two, turn it into a tin and shove it in the oven. Go and watch an episode of Lark Rise..., and it should be about ready by the end.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Booking through Thursday - Format

All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

For most purposes I prefer paperbacks, they are usually lighter and more portable, which is important to me. I have huge affection for the old Penguin and Pelican covers, orange, green or blue and cream, and would be happy to have rows and rows on my bookshelf, even if some of them were battered. For preference I buy paperbacks, waiting, if I can bear, for new books to come out in that format, but there's plenty of evidence on my shelves of the occasions when I couldn't wait, or when a special bookclub edition was, inconveniently, produced in hardback. Or, in the case of old books, that is simply what I found.

The main exception is when I am buying an old, collectible, book – in that case I may well choose a hardback, especially if it's an affordable first edition, or is illustrated by a particular artist, or possibly just has a cover I like. With new books that might become collectibles, I don't have strong feelings – a well-produced soft cover is as acceptable to me as the alternative, though I do enjoy the occasional beautifully produced coffee table book. Another occasion on which I buy hardbacks is at readings, generally because that's what is on offer. Finally, I also buy old leatherbound books from time to time, when they serendipitously combine beauty and a subject which interests me.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Cruel and unnecessary...

This isn't the post I had planned for today but I had an email this week from a friend who is trying to rescue two donkeys from France. It's one of those all-too-familiar stories - the donkeys are due to be exported to Italy for meat – mortadella and salami, apparently. Now, I fully admit to being one of those people who is somewhat irrationally squeamish about eating some animals while (relatively) cheerfully eating others. Viewed in a purely objective light, it makes little difference whether it is cows or horses, sheep or dogs, but there are animals I will eat, and animals I won't.

What is certainly not irrational, however, is my strong objection to any creature suffering unnecessarily; despite legislation intended to control the live export of animals, each year in Europe up to 100,000 horses and donkeys, as well as thousands of other animals destined for the meat market, are transported in appalling conditions: suffering from thirst and dehydration, overcrowded and exhausted, in temperatures which swing from one extreme to the other. The Handle with Care campaign points out that:

We already have the technology to transport fresh chilled and frozen meat and the science to prove the welfare benefits of local, humane slaughter. For these reasons, long distance transport is not only cruel, it is unnecessary.

So I admire and support my friend's efforts to rescue these two animals and bring them to Scotland to share a home with her own donkeys, and have sent my small contribution. She is hoping to collect £800 for each donkey, and is in contact the Equine Section website, which lists animals and provides information and advice on how to rescue them. I hope to be able to tell you how she gets on. In the meantime, the International League for the Protection of Horses campaigns here for a ban on the export of live horses, while on the Handle with Care website you can sign a petition to stop the transport of all live animals for slaughter.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Starling hordes

Something I've never seen before today - I had just restocked the bird feeders in the garden and was watching from indoors. The birds are all showing signs of preoccupation with spring and the breeding season - two chaffinches were having a fierce and fluttery spat on the ground - and, as usual at this time of year, the starlings have reappeared at the feeders, having been absent for much of the winter. While I was watching, a starling which was standing on the bird table reached down towards a sparrow on the fatball feeder, grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and pulled it off, shaking it backwards and forwards in the air before dropping it. The sparrow flew off apparently unfazed, but I was full of indignation on its behalf.

I'm very fond of "our" sparrows, and enjoy watching them in the hawthorn hedge, where they each sit in their own little hollow, safely out of the eye of hawks and cats, waiting for the bird food to arrive. They are great characters, travelling in a little flock round the garden, cleaning insects from around the wheel-arches of the cars, clearing up after the chicken run has been moved on and generally carrying out their noisy lives in the full glare of public scrutiny, a sort of extended family appearance on reality TV. The starlings, on the other hand, are raucous and greedy: a fat slab disappears within hours of being put out. In summer whole families bicker over worms on the lawn and, every now and again, an entire flock descends for a day, and the air is full of noise. The beauty of the oily sheen on their feathers is, I admit, under-rated, but I cannot welcome them wholeheartedly.

Tomorrow I will take a little time to groom Senior Dog, who will provide copious clumps of soft brown fluff; these will roll around the garden like balls of tumbleweed, until it has all been collected by uxorious sparrows. The dogs regard the birdtable regulars with a benevolent eye, and SD will not begrudge it.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Things fall apart

In the last couple of weeks everything that possibly can do seems to have broken. The loo cistern, which has been threatening disaster for a while, gave up the ghost the night before I got home – and the plumber, of course, isn't answering his mobile. Half the lights fused. My own mobile indulged in a fit of silent sulks; the Dormouse's chair broke – for people who spend whole days at the computer this is serious but, fortunately, he pinched mine because I was away, and I happened to have a spare after I moved out of the Edinburgh office. Senior Dog ran into something and cut her paw. And OH has an appointment for a scan at an inconvenient time, but that's alright, because he was broken already.

We are all at sixes and sevens, with Older Son due home this evening for rest and recuperation. Most of the contents of the bathroom are in the sitting room after an unsuccessful foray into plumbing by OH: 2 hours and a lot of swearing and the old flush mechanism mostly still in place. After I unreasonably insisted on getting a plumber (apparently; I thought what I had done was say, albeit crossly, that there were people whose job it was to fix these things) he seemed pretty eager to stop. I expect that this will be A Sore Point all weekend, with snappish exchanges, though I try to avoid such moments when OS is home, since he once used a rather nasty expletive about how tedious parental tiffs can be.

I tell myself that these things are sent to try us, and tend to come in bouts. If I wasn't supposed to be working I would go and bake muffins or something to cheer myself up, if I could find the ingredients amongst the overspill of clean towels and loo rolls from the bathroom (the disadvantage of open-plan cottage conversions is that it's like having a downhill slope to the kitchen – everything migrates there, and it's tiny). As it is I should go and mop up the water from the bathroom floor, and try not to think about the way the cost of everything seems to have gone up lately, and now we have to pay a plumber.

Orange, however, following a phone call yesterday afternoon to say my phone was sulking, had a replacement handset here by 11.30 this morning. I know, I can use it to ring the plumber!

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


When I was first married we lived in Exeter, in a terrace on a hill overlooking the railway. We had a friend who was an avid trainspotter, so he liked to have coffee in the kitchen when he visited, and conversations would be interrupted by Chris leaping up and saying excitedly, "That's a 4030 Class II-type!" (trainspotters, I made that up; please don't email to tell me that it couldn't have been one of those in 1973 because they didn't run on that line after '70).

On my way home from Devon yesterday, the train stopped and sat for 5 minutes opposite our old kitchen window, while I indulged in nostalgia about long Sunday afternoons when we walked along the river and home past the Cathedral (I worked in the Close at that time). If you were lucky you might find a shop open to buy an ice-cream – Sundays, in those days existed in suspension from the rest of the week. You could buy an ice-cream or a Sunday paper, if you could find an open shop, but not a tin of cling peaches – and why, exactly, did they cling? And I'm afraid that we did eat such things. When I worked in a country pub we had something of a reputation for good, home-cooked lunches. We served a choice of two salads: lettuce, sliced tomato and cucumber, with your choice of roast ham or roast chicken. Alternatively, you could leave out the meat, replacing it with a hunk of french bread, a wodge of Cheddar and a pickled onion, in which case we called it a ploughman's. I can still pick a chicken carcase clean in record time, and we ate a lot of chicken soup. Somehow, I think we would have to make a lot more effort now, but I still cook a ham the same way, boiling it first then roasting it with a glaze: marmalade is my favourite, but OH does it by boiling first in ginger beer, then using crystallised ginger for the glaze, which is pretty good.

It was good to get back to my own dogs (my mother's Gordon Setter is very boisterous) and at 6 o'clock this morning I was presented with a cup of tea and The Bolter, who curled up beside me and kicked happily.

Below, for the sheer joy of it, and because I mentioned them in my last post, is a litter of Tamworth piglets.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Swans at sunset

In London during the week, and travelling to Devon for the weekend the promise of spring is everywhere. Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury, was frothy with blossom, while crocuses bejewelled the grass, purple and golden in the sunlight. From the train on Friday, the first blackthorn was evident in the hedgerows.

On such a lovely day the journey was a pleasure; just outside Pewsey we passed a pigfarm, where a litter of Gloucester Old Spot piglets were enjoying the warmth. Several other rare breeds could be seen, Tamworth for certain and a pure black pig with Tamworth lines, perhaps a cross. I shall be looking out for them in future. Further west is the birdspotting section on line, from the water meadows below Stoke Woods near Exeter, along the coast to Newton Abbot. It's not so very many years since, with great excitement, I saw my first little egret at Dawlish Warren, a lone white figure on the marshes. Now they are a regular sight, sometimes in quite large numbers, hunting the mud flats all along that stretch, and they are becoming a common bird all over southern England. A couple of years ago my family and I spent a very pleasant afternoon taking a boat trip from Keyhaven to Hurst Castle, on the Solent, where we were able to watch egrets from the boat – I decided that, were I one, I would spend all day admiring my long yellow toes in the water. Not just little egrets, either – my mother was lucky enough to see a great egret on the Dart, and I heard on the radio that even cattle egrets have been sighted here. (I reported seeing a little egret on the Tweed at Berwick two years ago, but I don't think it was corroborated and therefore probably not official.)

Not many egrets of any kind in sight this weekend, however, but other waders, shelduck and swans (and the black swans on the other side of the train at Teignmouth). I'm writing this while watching the rooks and jackdaws in the trees at the foot of the garden – the rooks like to catch the evening sun in a Scots pine. A trio of swans is flapping lazily up the valley. The lawns are awash with snowdrops, the pink camellia is in full flower and the crocuses are a bright tapestry beneath the beech tree. While we walked round the garden considering necessary pruning, and even tackling the odd branch (my mother never goes out without her secateurs) next door's children, faces darkened with camouflage, stalked us through the undergrowth. This is a wonderful garden for children, full of almost-inaccessible paths and vertiginous slopes, so that you could believe you were in the jungle, or the boreal forest – being Devon the planting, some of which dates back to the beginning of the last century, lends itself to either. Of course, I didn't grow up here, and if you had told me when I first saw the house and garden that one day I would feel in some measure responsible for it, I would never have believed it. I'm not proprietorial – I shall never live here, but I've known the place for nearly 40 years, and I lie awake during gales wondering if the trees will all still be standing in the morning.

The sun has set now and I can hear the dog being fed downstairs. Time to go and help with the supper. Local sausages and mash, scrumptious.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Booking through Thursday - enough about books

Okay, even I can’t read ALL the time, so I’m guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well… What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?

Enough about books? Enough about books? What do you mean, enough about books! You simply cannot, in my not-very humble opinion, have too much about books. What do I do when I'm not reading books? Well, these days, I mostly read other people writing about books in their blogs. It takes up quite a lot of time, and I can't do it nearly as often as I would like to (especially when the wifi connection on the train disappears, but I mustn't start ranting).

So when I'm not reading, I am mostly working or sleeping. I do, however, usually watch television programmes for an hour or two in the evenings. Not live television, but programmes like Cranford or Jam and Jerusalem, or something off DVD. Current addiction is Studio 60, but we don't have many episodes left. If I didn't make time for this, my husband would never see me without the usual book or laptop.

The dogs and chickens get quite a bit of time and attention, though I don't manage as much time for walking as I'd like. I have been known to knit, or toy with the odd piece of tapestry work, but computer-induced RSI has limited that. I used to dance, and will again, I hope. Now pass me a book, someone, before I suffer from withdrawal symptoms.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Just half a glass of wine, please... celebrate 100 posts. Okay, they are between this blog and Geranium Cat's Bookshelf, but it still feels like a small achievement. And I'll still wondering whether to consolidate into one blog, but worried that if I do, it will place somehow constraints on what I say. Can I be bookish (well, as much as I am anyway) and still maunder on about dogs and chickens? And the weather, which may feature rather too frequently anyway. Oh and food, of course. This is the place where I muse on the things that make life comfortable, and as the weather (there it is again) improves I shall be thinking about what herbs and vegetables to plant this year and living in fear of the Ivor the Tractor getting stuck in the paddock.

I shall decide after Easter when I have a little more time - life gets pretty busy at this time of year with a 3-day conference to organise in April, as well as all the more mundane bits of my job. Not sure how much I will manage to post during this time - I can get pretty snowed under - and I may have to choose between posting and reading other people's blogs. Alternate weeks, perhaps. After all, people seemed to manage to post while filling Christmas orders (I'm thinking of people like Jane at Books, Mud and Compost here) - surely I can do it while juggling room bookings and audiovisual aids. What's a son for, if not for transforming conference abstracts into an attractive booklet?

All this reminds me that I haven't done anything about the seed order yet - I shall be sitting up in bed with a gardening catalogue tonight, weighing the advantages of gold tomatoes over red ones.