Monday, 28 January 2013

Daytripping: Knutsford (Cranford). . .

I suppose on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice I should be blogging about something Austenesque, but even though I am an ardent Janeite, I'm heading north instead to celebrate  Elizabeth Gaskell's equally entertaining world of Cranford.

I've previously read Gaskell's North and South and her biography of Charlotte Bronte, but neither prepared me for the warmth, humour and touching poignancy that envelopes her group of elderly, opinionated and very proper spinsters (and no, I haven't yet seen the BBC adaptation with Judi Dench, which must be rectified as soon as possible!). These independent women are quite proud of their town and position in it, maintaining their dignity and social standing with limited resources and with the presence of as few men as possible, bemoaning the odd occasion when, "it seemed as if ill-luck would have it that we went to the only two households of Cranford where there was the encumbrance of a man, and in both places the man was where he ought not to have been - namely, in his own house, and in the way."  And yet despite the tough mockery and indifference, there is a lingering sadness and loneliness that often surrounds these women with regrets that nag particularly at Miss Matty, over lost opportunities for love and children, along with real fears of financial insecurity and safety concerns that are most prominent in the chapter "The Panic", where over-active imaginations and exaggerated story-telling, though comical, also heighten the legitimate fears of potential robbers caused by strange noises in the night that have visited every woman who has ever lived alone, in whatever century.

I really enjoyed spending time with these characters and there are scenes that still make me giggle, such as Miss Matty and her sister Deborah going off to their rooms to suck on their oranges in private so as not to offend by suggesting an "unpleasant association with a ceremony frequently gone through by little babies", or the description of the town's postman - a man so lame, that his wife has to deliver all the letters, except on special occasions, when the mail inevitably came very late. Cranford is indeed a town where nothing would ever happen, without the women.

It's also based on the town of Knutsford which is barely an hour's drive from Liverpool and where Gaskell herself lived for many years. I was passing through a few weeks ago and found it full of interesting architecture, posh shops and this memorial tower to Gaskell on the main street.

Engraved along the side of the tower are the titles of all of Gaskell's books.

There's also a tribute to Miss Matty herself.

And what is this building now?  A WH Smith.  I'm kicking myself that I didn't go inside to see if they actually sold Cranford, but I was running late and had already spent a fair bit of time in the Knutsford Waterstones (which did sell her books).

The women of Cranford visit each other almost daily and certainly when there is the slightest bit of gossip to impart. They drink tea, play cards and of course - quite delightedly - they knit: "Miss Pole and Miss Jessie Brown had set up a kind of intimacy, on the strength of the Shetland wool and the new knitting stitches". And as chance would happen, the latest edition of Piecework just happens to have an article on "The Knitting Ladies of Cranford" by Mary Lycan, which includes two patterns adapted from actual knitting books published in Edinburgh in the 1840s.

Both are inspired by Miss Pole and her penchant for "elegant economy".  I'm not sure I'd have much use for the Prudence Cap or Neck Ruff which she would have worn in the winter under her bonnet, but I do quite like the Muffatees -  basically fingerless gloves with a nice little ruffle at the cuffs.

I love the serendipitous tingle of classic literature and modern life colliding into each other and I anticipate this happening on a regular basis the more I explore England.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

And The Cat Came Back . . .

We've had a spell of mild weather and quite a bit of rain which has gotten rid of all the slush and snow.  And into our back garden came a very welcome visitor who has been absent for most of the winter.

This is Sponge -  which has to be the best name ever for a ginger cat.   During the summer she can often be found asleep in a patch of sunshine in our backyard.  A very mellow and laid back neighbour, out and about once again.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Japanese Inspirations. . .

My latest projects seem to be inspired by the Japanese. I'm currently knitting the Japanese Feather and Fan Shawl, a free pattern on Ravelry designed by IzzyKnits.  

I'm using some Madeleine Tosh Prairie  (I think the colour is Ink, but I've lost the band) that is in my stash.  It's a lovely midnight blue and I chose it because it reminds me of the background colour to a lot of Japanese sashiko stitching projects, like this cushion cover I picked up at the Quilt Museum in York.  I'm very eager to get stitching on this (there's a great tutorial on how to do it at the wonderful Purl Bee blog here)

My other current knitting project is some more linen stitch, experimenting with three balls of Japanese Noro Silk Garden.  Originally, I was using one skein at a time but the stripes got a bit too intense colourwise.  Now I'm using three separate skeins and I like how the colours are merging into one another. It's almost like an English garden in full bloom.

Not sure if this will become a scarf, a long cowl, a cushion cover, a table runner, or I might even felt it and see what happens. I'm just going to keep knitting until all the balls run out.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Les Larmes. . .

I went to see this film a little reluctantly having read mixed reviews, but I am a sucker for a musical and enjoyed seeing this on stage many years ago.  I was also determined not to cry, but like most of the audience, Anne Hathaway had me blubbering in about twenty minutes. I have yet to meet someone who has seen the film and not welled up. One cinema not far from Liverpool has taken to giving out boxes of kleenex for the audience to pass down the rows.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this lush, vivid and quite beautifully shot film, and the performances, particularly from Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne (he also had me sniffling with his rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables") were quite compelling.  The song that always packs a wallop for me though, is "Bring Him Home" and the fact that I didn't cry at all during the scene, sums up the one disappointing aspect of this movie; Hugh Jackman simply doesn't have the emotional chops of Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, and the voice I always have in my head for that role. Just as no one will ever sing Eliza Doolittle as well as Julie Andrews, Wilkinson remains the definitive Valjean.  Just listen to him here.

I do applaud director Tom Hooper for giving Wilkinson a small role in the movie though. It was a nice touch and if not the torch, he had least got to pass on the candlesticks to Jackman.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Winter in the U.K. . .

I spoke too soon.  These are my tulips now.

This is what I was hoping to avoid all winter by moving to Liverpool.  Snow is definitely NOT something that I miss about Toronto.

The UK has been hit with some storms over the last few days and I've gotten my first taste of how Britain copes (or doesn't) with a little bit of the white stuff.  Planes, trains and buses have been cancelled, schools have been closed, cars are sliding all over the road as hardly anyone has snow tires, and apart from the main streets, there's very little salting or gritting as they call it.  I volunteered to clear off about two inches of snow off the Liverpud's car this morning, asked him for his scraper and just started laughing - it was about the size of my hand!  Everyone is very grumpy.

By Canadian standards the snow, which has now turned quite slushy, would hardly raise an eyebrow, but even so, I've stopped walking to work as the sidewalks are quite slippery.

I just hope that my daffodils in the back yard which were sprouting up quite nicely, will bloom as soon as this all melts away (the weather promises to be above zero again next week).

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

First Sign of Spring?....

Oooh, look what is slowly pushing up in my outdoor pot.  In JANUARY! These are the tulip bulbs I planted back in October.  It's been a bit frosty lately - as a novice gardener, dare I hope these babies will be alright?  

Monday, 14 January 2013

Back to the Books. . .

The Christmas tree has been taken down and put away, I've seen Mum off to the airport after a month's visit, and the nagging cough and cold that has bothered me for the last two weeks has finally subsided.  Now all I want to do is get cozy on the couch and READ!

Which I haven't done for a long time now.

I read a pitiful 16 books in 2012, the smallest number since I started keeping a book journal over ten years ago (I usually average somewhere between 75 - 125).  I can cite any number of reasons. By contrast, I knitted more than I ever have before which definitely cut into any available reading time.  I've also had ready access to a television for the last six months and have spent far too much idle time in front of it (something I'll remedy this year).  And of course there was a cross-Atlantic move that completely preoccupied me for two months.  But mostly, I think my reading funk was a result of mourning for my books.

Back in Toronto, I lived in a one-bedroom flat that looked like this.

Now I grant that having sixteen bookcases in such a tiny space and sundry piles of books on every conceivable surface may look a tad untidy, but trust me, it was very cozy, especially in the winter. After all, books do furnish a room. (Oh, there are times that I do miss that little apartment). But in making the decision to move to the UK to cohabit with a non-reader who doesn't like clutter (he does have other good qualities), I knew I had to cull quite a bit. In the end, with the cost of overseas shipping to consider, plus the lack of space for bookshelves in my new home, it turned out to be about eighty percent.  Or roughly 4,000 books. And I had about four weeks to make the painful decisions, book by book, and dispose of them.  I sold what I could and donated dozens and dozens of boxes to the university book sales.  And tried not to think about all the money I'd spent acquiring books whose spines I'd never cracked.

The hardest bit was breaking up collections I'd amassed over the years, mostly of beautifully designed imprints. I used to collect Persephones, out of print Viragos, NYRB Classics, Everymans, Folios, New Directions, Europas, Dalkey Archive, Open Letter, Hesperus, and Vintage Crime to name a few. I wasn't a completist by any means but I had lots of shelves dedicated to each.  The only line I kept intact were my Persephones - still the most beautifully designed books I've ever come across - and that meant huge cuts among all the rest.  Even those out of print Viragos, the rewards of hours of happy browsing through second hand shops around the world, were duly decimated.  Along with lots and lots of classics.  After all, I'd easily be able to find Dickens or Austen in England.

Then there were the distressing decisions among my "subject collections", really a lifelong problem with being interested in too many things.  I just couldn't take them all.  But what to give up? Brontes or Bloomsbury?  (In the end it was a bit of both - did I really need two biographies of Bertrand Russell?  Could I live without that collection of 1970s essays on Wuthering Heights? ) I couldn't part with my WWI books but that came at the expense of a rather darn good collection of theatre history, criticism and plays, from the Greeks right up to my favourite contemporary playwrights.  I even ditched all my Shakespeare (though I have since had to go out and buy a one-volume collection. Even if the print is ridiculously tiny, there are just some things you have to have close by).

Unlike culling clothes (I got rid of about 70% of my closet and feel absolutely no regret about any of it -that was truly cathartic),  getting rid of the books really did feel like saying goodbye to bits of me. It seems inconceivable that I no longer have my texts from years of studying English Lit, with my underlinings and margin notes.  My three shelves of quirky "books about books" - all gone.  I chose about five travel books and got rid of dozens.  I took only three cookbooks and didn't have time to copy down all the recipes I wanted from the others.  Art books are big and heavy; they were almost the first to go.  And if there's one book I regret parting from, it's probably a signed edition of Vera Brittain's poems.  I did get a good price for it from a dealer and more than I paid for it online, and I reasoned that poetry wasn't really her strong point.  Even so. . .

But guess what?

I STILL have more unread books than I'll ever be able to tackle in my lifetime! I still have piles on the floor overflowing from the measly three bookcases I now have in the spare room.  And because I no longer work in publishing, I can now read anything I darn well want to guilt-free, which is quite liberating (I see a lot of classics in my near future).  Not to mention that as staff at one of the city's universities, I have an all powerful academic library card which gives me access to unlimited literary treasures.  Life is good.  The grieving process is over. Bring on the  books; my mojo is back.  The Guardian recently published a sneak peak of the publishing calendar for 2013 and there's lots to look forward to. I'm most excited about new novels from Javier Marias, Jonathan Coe (!!!!!), Jane Gardam and Margaret Atwood's conclusion to her Oryx and Crake trilogy.

In the meantime, thanks to some xmas vouchers and Boxing Day sales, here's the pile most close to hand.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A Simple Saturday. . .

Moving to the UK has been all about rediscovering and enjoying the simple pleasures in life (something I intend to continue throughout 2013).  It's also about the weather.  In Toronto the temperature is below zero with flurries.  In Liverpool I was sitting outside in the 9 degree sunshine having a latte and knitting.

A work colleague arranged for a few friends and fellow knitters to gather at Sudley House, an historic Victorian mansion that is part museum (it has really lovely tiled fireplaces and a Victorian doll house) and part art gallery (a Turner, a Holman Hunt, a Burne-Jones among others).  This is the back view.

It also has a very nice cafe with an outdoor courtyard and it was just too lovely to sit indoors.  Especially with these vibrant green views.  Just beyond the trees is the Mersey and on a clearer day, you can see the Welsh hills.  It just doesn't feel like January.

It was the kind of lazy day where you just couldn't help feeling happy with a bit of sunshine on your face and nothing more pressing to do than watch the clouds drift by especially when they were this magnificent. Don't they look as if someone has just smudged the sky with cloud paint?

I met a few new knitters who are also hikers, big readers, and Bronte enthusiasts, and there's no better company for a few hours of chit chat.  Then it was a nice walk home and off to prepare something special for dinner. Though I usually don't like Gordon Ramsey's brusque manners, his last cooking show was very informative and quite enjoyable to watch.  There was no shouting and swearing at some poor novice, just a distillation of essential cooking tips and some very good recipes. I got the accompanying book for xmas (which I highly recommend) and made his slow cooked fiery lamb dish.

The photo below looks a bit of a mess, but trust me, this was a really flavourful dish. The lamb is marinated with chilies, cumin and cinnamon and then cooked for three hours in red wine and stock.  I added a lot of potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips which caramelised in the process and were extremely yummy in all the soaked up juices.  

And the knitting? Well, I've just frogged everything that I knitted today. I'm experimenting with linen stitch and some Noro yarn and I'm just not happy with the result yet.  But I'm not stressed or upset about it; it's been a lovely day and I'll simply give it another go tomorrow.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Lusting After: Journey of Wool Mugs. . .

Aren't these new Wool Journey Mugs from Herdy just wonderful?  Each woodcut depicts a different stage in the process of getting the wool from the sheep into a woven or knitted fabric. Available on a tea towel too. I love them!  I visited the Herdy shop in Grasmere over the summer as the town was a stop on our Coast to Coast walk and I have some Herdy stitch markers that are very cute, and this landscape mug (don't you just love the sheep peeping out of the inside?

What's great about this company is that they donate part of their profits to maintaining the beauty of the Lake District where of course Herdwick sheep are bountiful.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Daytripping: Crosby Beach. . .

Just a 20 minute drive north of Liverpool is Crosby Beach, home to artist Antony Gormley's really beautiful project titled Another Place.   It consists of 100 iron sculptures based on his own body and placed at various locations along a three mile stretch of the beach.  When we visited yesterday afternoon the sea was crashing in, but at low tide, you can walk out right up to many of the sculptures. I find it a very peaceful and reflective piece that doesn't detract at all from the surrounding scenery and it changes daily with the varying light, weather and tides.

I can't resist taking photos whenever I visit.  People often dress up these naked men, especially with hats.

So of course I had to see how my new hat looked (I'm loving the hat by the way - it was an extremely windy day and it completely passed the stay-on-the-head test - on both of us!)

Doesn't look like January does it?  Can't say I'm missing the snow or the sub zero temperatures that are currently in Toronto. 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Knitting Resolutions for 2013. . .

Happy New Year!

Whew - nice to get the xmas knitting out of the way.  I finished three out of the four projects I was trying to get done which isn't too bad.  Didn't finish my Leftie in laceweight (well, that was a daft idea from the start) but did get one done in fingering.

And then having been obsessed by linen stitch at the end of last year, I knit up a long cowl, again for a gift. In retrospect I should have used larger needles as the fabric was really tight.

Speaking of gifts, I also received two really nice knitterly ones.  Sitting on my bedside table is Kaffe Fassett's autobiography, Dreaming in Colour which I'm really looking forward to reading.  The book is wonderfully designed and the photos are just gorgeous, with his many glorious patterns interspersed with his paintings, quilts and knitwear, and inspirational scenes from his many travels.

And then another knitter gave me this wonderful set of alpaca fingering from her friend's own herd. I love the accompanying photos and names of the animals.  I will have to search for the perfect pattern for this lovely yarn; I'm thinking it would make a really nice pair of mittens.

It's nice to be able to get back to the needles and knit just for me.  Yesterday, I whipped up this fun hat using some Misti Alpaca worsted from my stash in a mustardly colour (the second photo captures the colour a bit better.)  I still have to block it, but I really enjoyed the pattern - The Star Crossed Slouchy beret by Natalie Larson which is free on Ravelry.

I was quite proud of all the knitting I did in 2012 and my obsession with the craft is definitely not subsiding. I finished my first jumper and my first cardigan, learned to add beading to my knitting, and figured out Kitchener stitch, magic loop and doubleknitting.  But I still have tons to learn and so have made several knitting resolutions for 2013.

1. Try Fair Isle and intarsia
2. Learn to crochet (I have a gorgeous book of Japanese designs that I would love to tackle)
3. Finish the two cardigans I am in the middle of
4. Knit a top-down sweater (I've done bottom up and a seamed one)
5. Knit more from my stash and buy less (well, at least until Woolfest)
6. Finally finish up my knitted log cabin quilt that has been languishing for two years (just need to seam it and add a border)
7. Finish my hexi-puff quilt (I've done about 70 hexi-puffs - probably need close to 500!)
8. Knit a pair of socks