Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Little Bit of Toronto Visits Liverpool. . .

Some days it doesn't take much for me to feel a pang of homesickness. The smell of doughnuts.  Hearing a Michael Buble or Leonard Cohen song on the radio. The latest baseball scores running along the bottom of the SkySports channel. And then a few weeks ago, I was passing the Waterstones in Liverpool One and saw this:

Of course I had to go. Though Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks books are set in Yorkshire, he's lived for years in Toronto. I used to work for his Canadian publisher and have met him several times. I was once lucky enough to drive him to a library conference from Edmonton to Jasper (he was a delightful passenger). He's now moved to Richmond and promises that a lot more day to day English realisms will creep into his novels. (I think he's done a fine job so far as it is).  I've now just finished his latest book, Children of the Revolution and it was a treat to read.

Banks is called on to investigate the murder of Gavin Miller, a disgraced university lecturer, now fallen on bad times and although the same age as Banks, looking much older. He's strangely drawn to the victim (they liked the same 60s and early 70s music, and had a similar taste in films) and Banks is insistent that the past has something to do with the motive. But which past?  Four years ago when Miller was dismissed from his job for sexual misconduct with two students?  Or forty years ago when Miller was himself a student at the University of Essex at the same time as Ronnie Bellamy (now Lady Veronica Chalmers, living in the same Yorkshire town) who was active in the student Marxist movement during the miner's strike and is now behaving rather strangely about a telephone call she received from Miller just a week before his death?  In the present, Banks also has to deal with petty jealousies and resentments among his colleagues, and a warning from high up to stay away from the Chalmers family, who have important political connections. There was an interesting mix of characters in this mystery and a good demonstration of how meticulous and tedious detection can be the key to solving a case.

I'm also grateful that Robinson added Liverpool to his tour; despite this being a very literary city, so many of the big authors skip it and go to Manchester instead. It was nice to say hello (he remembered me) and hear him talk about both the book and the television series (which I haven't yet seen). And despite the distance (geographical and no doubt in time, reflective) between him and his former city, no, he doesn't have any plans to set a future novel in Toronto.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Writers on Knitting and Knitters Writing. . .

This piece by Alison Lurie in the New Yorker titled "The Sweater Curse", led me to the book from which it is excerpted.  Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood includes essays by twenty-seven writers including Barbara Kingsolver, Elisabeth Berg, Ann Patchett and at least one man - Andre Dubus III - on the transformative power of knitting.  There are also five patterns included. It's out in November.

I'm also looking forward to Clara Parkes' The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in KnittingI have all three of her previous books and read her Knitter's Review newsletter regularly.  I like the cover of this one very much.  It's out in September. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Summer Knitting. . .

I haven't blogged about my knitting in weeks but I have been busy this summer.  Not that I have that much to show for it - just more projects that are partly done and a list of others that I'm itching to cast on.  However, to my complete delight and astonishment really, I did start and complete one entire project and it may be my favourite knit ever.  Here it is:

The pattern is Bonny and it's from this terrific book - Handmade in the UK by Emily Wessel.  She's part of the dynamic duo that is Tin Can Knits - two Canadian women who have formed their own design company even though Emily has recently moved to Scotland.  They have a wonderful blog  and what I like about them is not only their talent and Canadian sensibility (I really want to knit their Antler Sweater), but their generosity to knitters and their eagerness to entice newcomers to the craft. Along with clear and helpful tutorials on their website, they are gradually releasing The Simple Collection - a series of easy patterns that will help knitters learn new skills while creating some very lovely garments. And the patterns are all free!  You can't help but root for them and want to support them.

Handmade in the UK is a collection of lace patterns inspired by the Scottish landscape. The patterns are clear and easy to follow and the book is peppered with personal ink drawings throughout. It's truly a lovely book to add to my collection and I'll certainly be knitting other designs in it. I also like how Emily has used UK indie dyers and yarn producers for each of her patterns and profiled them both in the book and on the blog.

Since Bonny is a sleeveless summer top, I decided to use some Canadian hemp that was in my stash.  It's allhemp3 from Lana Knits and at the beginning it did seem a bit risky.  I did three swatches and couldn't really get gauge and so since hemp, like linen, doesn't really block out, I decided to knit the top two sizes bigger than I normally would.  It was the perfect project to start on the train to the Isle of Wight - 60% of it was just knitting in the round and when you finally get tired of that (it's many, many rounds in fingering weight), there's the fun lace cowl to tackle.  And lo and behold, it fit perfectly! I'm really pleased with how it turned out.  The only mistake I made was not checking the dye lots (I just grabbed a few skeins quickly before leaving) and you can probably see the results on the bottom of the garment.  Thank god ombre is all the rage this season; I can live with it.

Other projects are still on the go.  I made a sea-foam stitch summer scarf out of some cotton in my stash but it's a wee bit short for my liking and I ran out of yarn.  I'm thinking of adding some fringe in a contrasting colour to give it length but I've already spent several weeks procrastinating on the colour.  My go-to grey? Maybe turquoise?  Black and white?  I just can't decide.

Earlier this year, I went to Woolfest up in Cumbria and got several skeins of undyed alpaca which was sold by weight and quite reasonably priced.  I really want to knit some chunky cushions but don't have enough chunky wool.  So I'm making some with this alpaca, knitting a very, very long i-cord which I will knit with large needles.  This is my mindless TV knitting - who knows what will become of it?

But I also have plans for the rest of the alpaca. I've had these three enticing balls of Noro Silk Garden in my stash for a long time.  Again, I'm envisioning cushions - three of them -  with the white as accent colour. Not sure yet about the pattern (fair isle?  intarsia? slipstiching?) but I'm determined to have fun with them.

And with winter approaching, I've realized that I use almost every shawl I've ever knitted as a scarf.  I want some really, really big shawls - the kind I can completely wrap around my whole upper body.  Have I mentioned how cold English houses can get and how long it takes for the heating to kick in? I have two large shawls on the go at the moment.  The first is just a huge square using self-striping Crazy Zauberball yarn.  I have some contrasting burgundy that will become the border but I'm still trying to decide what pattern to do around the edge. I'd like some lace or maybe something triangular.  Need to think about the maths on this one but I think it'll be cozy when it's done. I really do like the colours.

And finally, I'm plugging away at the Eyre Shawl, designed by Karina Westermann.  I'm using Rowan's new Fine Art hand painted sock yarn in the colourway Pheasant.  It is a delicious blend of earthy fall colours - plum, burgundy, brown - that suggest the richness of the Yorkshire moors.  I like this pattern because you can make it as big as you like.  I have two skeins of this yarn and intend to use them up fully.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Time for Cake. . .

It's raspberry season and this week has seen the return of the Great British Bake-off (my favourite telly show!) And it was cake week. The Guardian was right on trend last Saturday and published this yummy raspberry and lemon yoghurt tea loaf (I baked it in a round cake tin instead). It  is now my go-to summer cake, especially when guests are coming.  It's so delicious and moist and very easy to bake.   You can find the recipe here (scroll down to the third one).  I think it would work just as well with blueberries or the blackberries that will soon be ripe on the bush in my backyard.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Isle of Wight Literary Scene or an Excuse to Buy More Books. . .

One of the pleasant surprises of staying at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, was discovering that an interesting circle of artists and writers including Lord Alfred Tennyson, Holman Hunt, G.F. Watts and Ellen Terry, Lewis Carroll and the famous photography pioneer (and great-aunt of Virginia Woolf), Julia Margaret Cameron all had homes and/or visited each other regularly just steps from where we were staying.  I suppose if I had recalled Woolf's play Freshwater, I would have anticipated this, but to be frank, it's not one of Woolf's more memorable works.

So on our day off from the walks, I had to explore the area. First quest was to find Farringford House, where Tennyson lived with his family for forty years, trying to gain some privacy from his many intrusive fans.  A ten minute walk took me to Green Lane and a little gate in the wall that led to the grounds at the back of the house.  Unfortunately, this is what it looks like at the moment.

You can see a little more from the front.  It all looks a little more modern than I'd expected.  Behind it are nondescript holiday cottages for rent. 

Still, he had a lovely view from the grounds and the beautiful down named after him is less than a twenty minutes walk away. 

Of greater interest was Dimbola Lodge, the home of Julia Margaret Cameron which is now a museum devoted not only to her own life and work, but also showcases more contemporary photography exhibits.  It was literally across the field from the house I was staying in.

Among the original photos that are exhibited is this stunning one of a young Ellen Terry. It doesn't look Victorian at all, does it?

A lot of the furnishings aren't original but recreated to give a sense of what her house might have looked like when she lived there.

But on display is a scrap of the original William Morris wallpaper.

And in the rest of the house were exhibits featuring female rock stars photographed by women, and a room devoted to the Isle of Wight Music Festival.  Jimi Hendrix headlined the first one in 1970 shortly before his death, and that's why there's a statue of him just outside the museum. I was delighted to see that it had recently been yarnbombed. 

The museum also had a gift shop and just through it, at the far end of the building is Cameron House Books, a tiny used bookshop but a real browsers' delight.  I can never help myself when travelling; I always want a literary souvenir.  The day before, walking the Tennyson Way, we saw in the distance this beautiful, majestic home.  It's Brook Hill House and was the home of the writer J.B. Priestley (the photo is a bit fuzzy - I had to zoom in quite a lot.)

I've read/seen several of his plays (An Inspector Calls, Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner) but I have yet to tackle one of his novels.  The bookstore had a shelf of his work and I chose one at random, mainly for the title, I must admit.  They Walk in the City was published in 1936 and seems to take place in Yorkshire.  That was good enough for me.  In the gift shop, I picked up an earlier work by Lynne Truss.  Several years before writing her bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she wrote Tennyson's Gift, a novel set in 1864, featuring Tennyson and Julia Margaret Cameron. 

I love what she has to say about this novel on her website:

. . . Tennyson's Gift is, of all my books, my darling, and I won't hear a word said against it. It lifted my heart and it still does. I loved the research and I loved the writing - which I did almost entirely in situ at Freshwater Bay over three long holidays in the mid 1990s. In Tennyson's Maud, there is a chokingly beautiful life - "And the soul of the rose went into her blood" - and I feel that this special little English bay with its sparkling sea and bracing cliffs got into my blood as I wrote the book, and I still shed tears whenever, after the briefest stay on the island, I board the ferry that takes me back to the mainland.

You can't get a better souvenir than that can you?  I can't wait to read it.  Will have to dig out Maud too. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Walking on the Isle of Wight. . .

My mum came over for a few weeks to visit and we travelled down to the Isle of Wight for a week's walking with HF Holidays. I highly recommend them; we've taken several guided walking holidays with them and the leaders are great, the food is wonderful and the accommodation, especially in the houses that HF owns in the UK, is really comfortable.  Just look at where our house was situated in Freshwater Bay; we woke up to a gorgeous view of the sea from our room every morning.

 And beautiful sunsets were also close to hand.

There is an odd assortment of housing on the island.  Alongside some of the ugliest concrete holiday homes I've ever seen (couldn't even bear to take a photo of them)  are quaint villages with picture-postcard thatched cottages.

And even a thatched church!

These beach homes were built in the 1950s and though they look quite fresh and modern, most of them have been boarded up for years. 

The wildflowers were everywhere.

And plenty of sheep too! (these were being rounded up by the farmer to get their injections)

There were lots of ingenious pathways through the fields. See this green boundary? From afar it looks like a set of large hedges.  But once reached, it contains a hidden right of way, often completely shaded which was a welcome sight as we were walking in a mini-heatwave.

But many of our walks were naturally coastal and there is a long distance path that goes right around the island. We frequently walked parts of this path.  On the first day, we visited the famous Needles and  the nearby chalk cliffs.

I had previously thought that the landscape would be very rocky like Cornwall, but it's very gentle, more like the South Downs.  This is a shot of the famous Tennyson Down that was just above our house.  You can just glimpse the monument at the top.

My favourite walk was along the Tennyson Way - starting at Carisbrooke Castle and crossing the countryside along the spine of the island to the sea. There were magnificent views and enough up and down to make it interesting.

Another pleasant surprise (I really hadn't done any research before this trip) was how literary Freshwater Bay was.  Places named after Tennyson should have given it away (or Virginia Woolf's play Freshwater!) but I didn't really put two and two together until I got there.  More on that in the next post.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Some Lakeland Lit. . .

It's impossible when travelling around England not to be completely enthralled by the landscape and to revel in reading the literary heritage and inspiration that accompanies it. There's a lovely bookstore in Grasmere called Sam Read and no fewer than three indie bookshops in Ambleside, and while I already have a huge list of books I want to read about the Lake District, I couldn't resist picking up a few more titles on my recent vacation.

All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills is a strange little novel that would make a great indie film. Set in a small town in the Lake District in the autumn months after the peak tourist season, it's the story of the narrator, (I don't think we ever learn his name) who is a bit of a laid-back loner. He's been camping in the region prior to a planned trip to India but when he's offered some part-time odd jobs and some accomodation with hot water,  his date of departure keeps getting postponed. Meanwhile he tries to make friends with the quirky and aloof villagers in the hierarchical pub with mixed results, becoming a reluctant and unsuspecting colluder with his landlord Mr Parker, in some disturbing plans for his future. Procrastination,  indecision and lethagy take on a sinister undertones in this odd black comedy about inertia and the outsider and I cringed (in a good way) at the perhaps inevitable ending.   The review blurbs on the jacket made me laugh, describing it as a "bit like the Coen Brothers directing an Alan Bennett play" and placing Mills in the literary slot "between Albert Camus and Enid Blyton."  They are not far off. If I have one quibble, it's that it didn't really evoke the Lake District for me; it could have been set in any rural town, almost anywhere in the world.

Fortunately the other two books I bought are completely immersed in the landscape of Lakeland. I'm in the middle of reading them both and am enjoying them immensely.  I really wanted a good non-fiction read beyond the Wainwright guides and Hunter Davies' A Walk Around the Lakes: A Visit to Britain's Lake District fits the bill perfectly, written as it is by a walker who also relishes the literary connections in the area. Though originally published in 1979, the writing still feels relevant and fresh. Davies alternates chapters between his own walks around each of the lakes, describing the beauty and the history of the area, with a biographical chapter on Wordsworth and his deep connections with the many places he lived in and wrote about.  I'm enjoying the interviews with the locals, both people whose families have lived there for generations, along with newcomers who never want to leave (some of them would fit quite nicely into the Magnus Mills novel) and also learning more about other writers who lived in the area such as Beatrix Potter who I didn't know was also a renowned breeder of Herdy sheep. This book is adding to my list of places to visit, including Brantwood, John Ruskin's house.
Something a bit more meaty, and definitely more evocative of the area is Hugh Walpole's Herries saga. I've bought the first two volumes, Rogue Herries and Judith Paris and am halfway through the first. It's an absorbing read, part Thomas Hardy, part Sir Walter Scott, about a family that settles in the wild Borrowdale Valley in the mid-eighteenth century following their subsequent descendents up to the twentieth century. The books were published in the 1930s and though I'd certainly heard of Walpole in connection with his friendship with Virginia Woolf, I've never read him.  Today, Borrowdale is one of the loveliest valleys to walk in but the descriptions that Walpole gives, while celebrating the majesty of the fells surrounding it, also terrify with the stormy and ever changing weather.  Yet it's the desolate landscape that draws the violent and passionate patriarch, Francis Herries, to uproot his family (and mistress) to the area, and through the eyes of this "rogue"  and his young son David, it becomes a place where nature mixes with the mystical.  Francis's disapproving brother lives a more conventional life with his family in Keswick and I gather the tension between the two will develop as the story continues.  For now, it's proving to be a great summer read and I've completely succumbed to its huge narrative sweep. I have to parcel the reading out though as I don't know when I'll next get to Ambleside to purchase the final two volumes (I want to buy them from the bookstores where I first stumbled across them) and I think it's going to be addictive.