Thursday, 20 December 2012

One Gift Down. . .

I sent this off a bit early to Canada to make sure it arrived in time.  This shawl is for a friend who is going on a month long sabbatical in January to India.  The yarn is Noro Silk Garden and the colours reminded me of tumeric and cinnamon with a bit of sari thrown in.  The pattern is the Zora Shawl by Mindy Wilkes which I found in the 2012 Accessories edition of Knitscene Magazine.  I really like the edging of the shawl and it was a fun pattern to knit.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Amazing Kate Davies Does it Again. . .

There was a nice thump on the floor when the post arrived today and I knew exactly what it was.  I have been a huge fan of the very talented Kate Davies for a number of years now and when she announced her first knitting book was published, I immediately ordered one up, along with hundreds of knitters around the world. And it is gorgeous - the patterns, the photography, the layout, I just love it.

Not only am I itching to knit several of the patterns, I know this is going to be a fascinating book to actually read.  Inspired by the landscape of the Shetland Islands, each section is prefaced by an essay exploring one aspect of the history and geography that inspired the designs.  The first thing I want to make is her puffin sweater (puffins are my favourite birds).

I also love her Stevenson sweater inspired by the islands' lighthouses.

The reading will commence tonight; the knitting will have to wait until the new year (and I still have her Deco sweater to finish up).

Still, I did get one xmas gift off the needles today.  I finished a Tuesday Night Cowl designed by Susan Lawrence for my sister-in-law.  I've knit this before and it's a wonderful and quite quick pattern. The cowl stays firmly around the neck and is very cosy on cold days. You can also easily bring it up to cover your face if it's windy.  When I knit mine, I used a wool that had a lot of alpaca in it and it had quite a halo, although it certainly was soft.  For this one, I used Rowan's British Sheep Breeds Chunky in the Bluefaced Leicester and I think the cables are more defined.  I also really like the undyed colour.  I may have to knit another for myself.

Now I'm attempting a hat (not my forte at all - I always get the sizing wrong).   We'll see how it goes;  I'm usually rubbish at judging the size when it's on the dpns.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Oh, Those Happy Feet. . .

When I lived in Toronto, I occasionally watched Dancing With the Stars (it's on my bucket list to learn to tango one day).  Now in the UK, I'm hooked on its counterpart, Strictly Come Dancing which, despite rarely knowing who the celebrities are, I think I prefer to the U.S. show.  Things may have changed in the latter, but I don't remember the celebrities ever performing a Charleston.  Last Saturday, there was this delightful fusion routine of Charleston and Quickstep performed by Dani Harmer and Vincent Simone. I just loved everything about it - the choreography, the music, the costumes, the facial expressions.  It looks like such fun - I so totally want to do this.  If you haven't seen this, it'll put a smile on your face and a tap in your toes.  Enjoy!

Weekend Tripping: The Lake District. . .

There's snow up in those hills, but it was still a lovely crisp weekend for walking in the Lake District.  The Liverpud and I drove up Friday night to visit friends in Kendal and on Saturday, we drove to Ambleside, parked the car, pulled on the hiking boots and did a favourite circuit leading up to Wansfell Pike.

Along the way you get great views of Lake Windermere looking very still and magical in the early afternoon light.  And the sheep didn't seem to mind the cold.

Our walk takes us through the little village of Troutbeck (with a quick stop for some chocolate and jelly babies) and then it's a left turn into Nanny Lane and a very steep climb up to Wansfell Pike (a little over 1500 feet).  Here we are about half way up.  We had to be a bit careful as the path was very icy in spots.

Unfortunately the top was shrouded in mist but normally you get a terrific view of Ambleside and the surrounding hills.  It cleared a bit once we began our descent.

Sunday was clear and sunny and we went on a brisk country walk in the hills above Kendal.

The route took us along this path towards the Kendal Golf Course.

And the most spectacular views awaited us. Can you imagine playing golf with this type of background?

These photos don't do the scene justice - you can see huge stretches of the fell ranges all around you. I absolutely love this part of England.  Yes, the Rockies are higher and more majestic, but you mostly have to see it all from a car or the train.  The Lake District is just as beautiful, but more humanly scaled.   With a little effort you feel as if you've really earned the views and it doesn't take too long to get to them.  Also there are no bears!

Our walk ended in the lovely town of Kendal which has a busy and very pretty pedestrian high street all decorated for Christmas. We got lattes and did a bit of shopping.  Alas, Williams Wools was shut but I'll definitely try and get there on my next visit.

 I did see a lot of very pretty yarn bombing around town though.

All in all, a very relaxing weekend and it was nice to get away from the madness of Christmas shopping.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

So Many UFOs. . .

I've been fairly busy these last few weeks, but I'll always find time for knitting.  The trouble is, I just can't seem to finish anything! My Unfinished Objects are getting out of control but alas, it doesn't stop me from casting on for something new.

My latest obsession has been knitting cushion covers using different patterns and textures.  I'm quite pleased with these two (although sewing them up into actual cushions has been put on hold until after the holidays).  The plan is to pile them up in heaps on the day bed in the spare bedroom.

I've also been captivated and inspired by a new book called Pop Knitting by Britt-Marie Christoffersson which contains some really imaginative, colourful and wacky techniques.

Who knew that knitting holes could be so much fun?

The above is meant to be a long, horizontal cushion but it's knitting up so large that I think I may have to felt it. The idea is to have some bold and interesting fabric from my quilting stash showing through the holes and then I'll back all of my knitted cushion fronts with various quilted fat quarters. 

But the Christmas gift knitting has to come first.  I'm loving this scarf pattern called Leftie by Martina Behm.  It's a fresh and youthful take on a simple garter stitch scarf and it's been fun choosing complimentary colours.  You can also easily make it any size you like.  The pattern calls for fingering yarn, but crazy me has decided to do it in lace weight.  I like the lightness of it and I've picked colours that I think could work well for use in both the winter and summer.  Still, it is taking FOREVER.  And I'm not looking forward to weaving in all the ends.  Fingers crossed that I at least get this done before the 25th. (I'm also dying to make one for myself).

Monday, 3 December 2012

A Walk in the Park. . .

One of the things I really love about living in the U.K. is how green it always is, no matter what the season.  I often walk through this park that the locals call "The Mystery" (I have no idea why).  Look at how green the grass still is, even in late autumn.  Certainly easy on the eyes, especially on a crisp, sunny day.

 I go for a walk in this park when I'm in the mood for gazing upwards. There's just something about the proportion of the surrounding buildings to the sky and clouds that makes one feel very small, but not in a bad way.  Rather, it's quite exhilarating to be among so much open space and sky in the middle of a city.  I just love it.

Liverpool is filled with many parks, all different and beautiful in their own way and so beneficial to urban living.  On my list of future places to explore is Birkenhead Park located across the Mersey on the Wirral.  This is the park that influenced Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect behind New York's famous Central Park.  He visited Birkenhead in 1850.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Food and Film Fun. . .

Kudos to Squash Nutrition, a food and educational collective, that was the force behind Liverpool's inaugural Food For Real Film Festival.  Combining two of my favourite things and hosting the food filled films at a variety of venues around the city was a brilliant idea. And did I mention that all the films were screened for FREE?????  I really liked the programme too which included a recipe for a hearty lentil soup and even a pattern to knit a boob (in support of breast feeding).

I managed to get out to three events over the five day festival.  I've seen I Am Love twice before, but I never get tired of seeing Tilda Swinton on the big screen, especially in the clothes and stylish interiors of this film.  This is a lush and sexy melodrama where a bowl of soup plays a very prominent and pivotal role in the plot.

The film was shown at FACT but not in their usual theatres.  Instead, I was directed to The Box, a very cozy and very purple viewing room on the ground floor.

This was also the venue for the showing of Big Night at 10:30 am on Saturday.  Why don't more theatres show movies in the morning?  This came with complimentary Italian coffee and yummy pastries.  So civilised.

Lastly I headed out to Camp and Furnace, a warehouse turned bar/restaurant/space of all trades. It's located just a ten minute walk from downtown in an area that reminds me very much of Toronto's Distillery District before all the condos started going up.  The pairing this time was of the Japanese film Tampopo about a widow running a noodle restaurant and the travelling truck driver who tries to help  improve her cooking. It was a very odd comedy interspersed with various homages not only to food, but French movies and spaghetti westerns.  Sitting amidst picnic benches and parked caravans, there was something rather surreal but comforting too about slurping noodles and broth while watching a movie.

I was surprised that most of the events were not full, but given that this was the first year, I'm sure word of mouth will improve future attendance.  I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what the organizers come up with next year. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Double Dutch Delight. . .

The Dutch obviously love their libraries.  A few years ago I was visiting Amsterdam and was absolutely blown away by their huge central public library.  It was so sleek and modern and had a terrific cafeteria on the top floor with great views over the city (along with tasty pastries and lattes).  Now just outside Rotterdam, is a new library called Book Mountain with what may be the biggest single bookcase in the world.

Check out this video on the BBC website.  It's just incredible and so heartening to see public money being spent on making libraries beautiful spaces for all.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Burlington Bertie in Liverpool. . .

One of the things I've missed by not being in Toronto this fall is the annual Cabaret Festival in the Distillery District, especially as this year featured Sophie Milman, Jean Stilwell & Patti Roach, Brent Carver (he's so amazing on stage!) along with regulars (and favourites) Jackie Richardson, Patricia O'Callaghan and Mike Ross AND homages to the musical Oliver! and the music from Fellini films.  Arrrgh, I would have loved to have been there - the festival goes from strength to strength each year which is just fantastic.

I'm not entirely bereft of cabaret in Liverpool though.  Last night I went to the Unity Theatre for The Girl I Left Behind, a one-woman show performed by Jessica Walker that explored the women who worked as male impersonators in the Victorian era and the first part of the twentieth century.  As she pointed out at the beginning, there was no deliberate ruse; the women sang in their own voices and the audiences were never in doubt as to their gender, which brings up all sorts of interesting ideas about the purpose and appeal of these performers, some of whom were famous in their day.  Walker certainly alters her voice though, to great effect, as she switches from opera to 1920s Harlem, to a series of songs performed by various "Johnnies" representing men from a bashful teenager to a randy wealthy senior, desperate to find the girl.

But there was one song in particular that I was waiting for.  When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Julie Andrews (still am).  While other kids were singing along to Disney, I was incessantly playing the soundtracks to The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and in particular, the movie Star, in which she plays Gertrude Lawrence.   I didn't actually get a chance to see the movie until I was in my twenties, but I knew that record backwards and forwards.  And my favourite track was a music hall number called "Burlington Bertie From Bow".  This was made famous by Ella Shields, born in 1879.  Her husband, William Hargreaves wrote the song for her in 1915 and she performed it for decades, all over the world.  She even shared the stage with a very young Julie Andrews who is said to have modelled her character in Victor/Victoria after Shields.  Ella kept performing the song, right into her seventies and Walker chose to represent her last performance in 1952, a tired and somewhat creaky Shields who at one point forgot her lines.  After she finished, Ella collapsed on the stage and died shortly after.  You can her her singing her famous song here.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Reading Adventures on the Train. . .

While travelling around the U.K. on my various day trips, I've never been without a book in my bag to while away the less picturesque parts and the endless platform waiting.   I think train reading should always be fun, heavily plot-driven and if it also has its fair share of rail content, then all the better for this train-lit connoisseur.

I picked up a copy of Maurice Dekobra's The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, translated by Neal Wainwright at Daunts Books, one of my favourite bookstores in London.  It's part of Melville House's terrific Neversink Library - another series of rediscovered classics and translated literature that I'm gradually making my way through (I've already reviewed The Train and The President by Georges Simenon and After Midnight by Irmgard Keun - all fantastic reads).  This novel, originally published in 1927, bills itself as one of "the biggest bestsellers of all time, and one of the first and most influential spy novels of the twentieth century".  I enjoyed this  book very much but not necessarily for the blurb description which drew me to it in the first place.  A "delightful romp" it certainly is, but not so much about spying as it is about, well, quite simply sex, though not at all of a gratuitous or pornographic nature. The plot is a bit flimsy;  our hero, Prince Gerard Séliman, secretary to the beautiful and sexy Lady Diana Wynham, the "madonna" of the title, sets off to Russia to ensure the financial validity of some oil wells left to Diana by her late husband and her last chance to escape financial ruin.  In order to get the Russian communist government to allow foreign investment, Diana has had to seduce Varichkine, the Soviet representative in Berlin, who wants her to become his wife in return for his influence.  Looming large is the indomitable Irina Mouravieff, high up in the Soviet command and Varichkine's mistress who is out for revenge (she would be perfect as a Bond villian) who is following Gerard's every move with potentially deadly results.  What dominates this novel though, are the strong women surrounding Gerard (including Klara, a German spy, and his estranged wife Griselda who suspects him of a dalliance with her stepdaughter), who matter-of-factly use their sexual attraction very strategically to the bemusement and barely concealed delight of Gerard.  The atmosphere including risque German nightclubs and even a Russian prison, is also conducive to sexual politics where the naked body (or humiliation of it) becomes a tool for both political and social power. Even Lady Diana shocks society by doing a striptease, ostensibly for charity, but with her own ulterior motives. It all provides quite the frisson to the backdrop of what is basically an adventure story with some dazzling (and very witty) dialogue and some very unusual and liberating depictions of the "New Woman" of the 1920s.  My one disappointment - there wasn't as much action on the trains as the title might have suggested, but I still enjoyed the journey.

It still shocks me that despite the fact that many of Michael Innes' books are still in print (published by the admirable House of Stratus), you'd be hard pressed to find any titles in a bookstore - independent or chain - or more than one or two in a library, and trust me, I've been looking.  I think he's one of Britain's best mystery writers and his books never fail to entertain with their wit and cynicism.  Appleby and the Ospreys is one of his later works, written in 1986, but with its small village setting embedded with inevitable class consciousness, the reader could be excused for thinking they've stumbled on a classic crime novel from the 1930s or 40s.  Sir John Appleby has officially retired but still likes to "run into mysteries accidentally on purpose." And like most series sleuths, people readily comply by ending up dead in his vicinity.  In this case, the victim is Lord Osprey, owner of a valuable collection of coins, whose dead body is found shortly after the Applebys have visited his mansion.  This is a fun take (spoof would be too undignified), on the typical English country house murder with all of the usual elements at play: a body found in the library, a group of house guests, many with a suitable motive, who are uncannily calm about events, red herrings and of course, the all-knowing and all-seeing butler.  I just never get tired of reading Innes and readily scour used bookstores for old Penguin editions of his books.

Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels are another guilty pleasure, but I also enjoy his psychological romans dur and have several taunting me on my NYRB Classics bookshelf. Sadly, despite its tantalising title, I found Act of Passion, translated by Louise Varèse rather dispiriting. The novel is told in the form of a letter written by convicted killer Charles Alavoine to his examining magistrate.  It begins: "I should like one man, just one, to understand me. And I would like that man to be you."  What follows is the story of his life and the events leading up to his crime.  Alavoine is similar to many of Simenon's characters - a loner, bored with his bourgeois respectable life and an unfulfilling marriage, and seeking to escape his own inadequacies with darker adventures mostly of a sexual nature.  But unlike say, Marcel in the aforementioned The Train, whose bid for personal freedom has far greater moral, historical and dangerous implications, Alavoine's indifferent egotism quickly gets annoying and the "love" that motivates his crime never entirely convinces. I have no problems with a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist but this one quickly bored me. It won't stop me though from eventually making my way through all the NYRB Classic Simenons; he's such a good writer that I can easily excuse a lesser offering.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Day Tripping: Beautiful Bath. . .

I've been busy using up my rail pass and taking day trips around the U.K.  And despite the distance and having to take three different trains, Bath remains one of my favourite places to visit.  

 It really is one of the most beautiful, compact and walkable cities in the world.  I wandered around and just gawked at all the beautiful buildings.

And there's tons of historical, literary and architectural inspiration wherever you look.

And what a refreshing treasure trove of independent stores to be found around every corner.  In particular, I loved all the inspiring craft stores:  a beautiful yarn store called Wool; a quilting shop with an extensive collection of fabrics and battings called Country Threads (which is just kitty corner from Wool); Bijoux Beads a very pretty and sophisticated shop which had some gorgeous, gorgeous beads; and The Makery Emporium which had a little bit of everything and just had my head exploding with ideas.  I wish I lived closer so I could take advantage of the many workshops they offer.

And then it was off to explore the two famous independent bookstores.  First up was Topping & Company,  the type of store filled right up to the ceilings with books.  I could have spent hours there. 

But I also had to check out Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights  (yes, Bath abounds in Emporiums) and now I just want to move in.

Despite its unassuming exterior, it's one of those stores with lots of hidden nooks and crannies and best of all, a bibliotherapy room at the top filled with suggested reading lists compiled by the staff.  You can see some of their "Very Important Book Lists" here.  When I'm browsing in an independent bookstore, I'm always on the hunt for a book that I've never heard of, something that the chains don't stock or if they do, they certainly don't celebrate.  I'll admit it was the cover of this book (prominently displayed) that first got my attention.

And then when I discovered that Names For the Sea by Sarah Moss was a memoir about the author's impulsive move to Iceland, I had to bring it home with me.  One of the best vacations I ever took was   a walking holiday in Iceland and I'm itching to go back.  Plus, I think knitting will surely make an appearance.  When I took the book to the cash register, there was a resounding endorsement from two staff members who had read it.  It's definitely next on my reading list.   And I'm already saving up to go back to Bath for an indulgent shopping trip - this time for at least a weekend!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Living Under the Fatwa. . .

Joseph Anton is written in the third person, which seems appropriate, not only because this is mainly the story of Rushdie's life living under this pseudonym concocted for the police who were protecting him, but as a skeptical but appreciative reader of memoirs, why not "construct" your life as a separate character? One is never going to discover the full truths of a person's life or personality through their autobiography and even less so, I imagine, if the author is a talented writer.

I was a bookseller when The Satanic Verses came out and yes, there was a copy sloppily set on fire in the store, and I well remember all the heightened security when we hosted an event  for The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  The ongoing story of the fatwa and the debates over the cost and need for Rushdie's protection were never as intensely covered in Canada as they were in the U.K. and it was this detailed account, as well as insight into the enormous and time consuming efforts by hundreds of people and organisations lobbying to remove the fatwa that made this an absorbing and important read. The nuances, egotism, political interests and manipulation of language in the taut tightrope that is international diplomacy are fascinating.  I also enjoyed the parts where Rushdie described his inspiration behind his novels and the difficulties - ironically -  his sheltered life created for his writing one.  The almost decade long struggle to get out the paperback edition of The Satanic Verses was also very interesting and disheartening to read about.  His agents were relentless and tireless in their support; sadly his publishers were not.

There is a lot of famous name dropping, some of it valid in terms of the writers and politicians who supported him (and those who didn't),  and a lot of it quite inconsequential; I didn't really care which celebrities he fleetingly bumped into at parties. His genuine concern for the safety of his family and friends, particularly his sons, is very moving; his views on the relationships with the women in his life leave a rather disagreeable taint, in the sense that none of them come off in a particularly positive light and it feels as if the reader is reluctantly forced into invading their privacy. But I gather that would always be a risk if one got involved with a writer.

His story will always be an important and celebrated one in the history of censorship and freedom of speech, and it has been well worthwhile to read his own account of it.  Here he sums up exactly what was and continues to be at stake:

Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed towards ever narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat, or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha'i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them. Literature's view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, towards narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.  There were plenty of people who didn't want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives.