Books on the Bus

Cover of Anthony Horow.itz novel The Word is Murder
Crime on the commute

I noted in the last blog post that I was listening to The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz (read by Roy Kinnear) on my commute. My daily dose of audio book listening has become a travel fixture since December, after I followed a colleague’s suggestion to give them a try. As I said before, I have been using the handy little mp3 editions from the library. The audio book listening has been a useful tool in adapting to an unaccustomed bus/train commute; one that started in the unforgiving winter months, which certainly didn’t add a cheer factor to the tedious bus wrangling. I may have mentioned once or twice here, my penchant for crime fiction, so I keep an eye out for new (or indeed, old) ideas that appear in audio format. It is entirely possible, that having discovered the joys of audio books, I will increase my intake of crime novels considerably. Would that be such a bad thing? Don’t answer that one.

Crime has certainly become the genre of choice for my travelling books over the last couple of months. I have however, tried a couple of other ideas. For instance, I have long taken an interest in Bertie Pollock’s daily trials in Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street books, so I tried one out as a commuting book.  Alas, it was too easy going, calm and philosphical to suit my journey to work. Maybe it would have suited my homeward trip better? Perhaps I should try a touch of crime in the morning and catch up on Scotland Street on the homeward ride.  Having said that, the rush hour frustrations of the evening commute might be better suited to the distractions of a juicy crime novel… It’s a work in progress, as they say. I also ventured to listen to Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights a few weeks ago, but for me it didn’t work as a bus book. That is a book that I will return to in print form as I think it is really one to be savoured at leisure, making notes of anything I want to follow up on.

Cover of the Christopher Fowler Bryant & May story, The Burning Man.
London crime

Of course, maybe the detective audio fiction urge will prove to be just a winter thing. Fragrant spring mornings and sultry summer evenings may well encourage quite different listening habits. Let’s wait and see, shall we? For now, I am generally pursuing a criminal course each morning and evening, which has led to my introduction to some new crime writers. One of those is the above-mentioned Anthony Horowitz, who has long been a name that I passed while shelving adult fiction A-M. I always meant at some point to give his adult fiction a go but I never got around to him. I’m not that sure that he’d appreciate that my impetus for doing so was that I needed something lively to distract me from interminable road works.

I have also discovered Christopher Fowler’s detectives Arthur Bryant and John May from The Peculiar Crimes Unit in the adventure, The Burning Man (read by Tim Goodman). Not for the first time in lighting on a new discovery, I have begun well into the series so at some point I need to back track to the earlier books. I really enjoyed this story, both the main characters being agreeably quirky in the chalk and cheese vein. The wealth of historical detail about London’s layers of history is woven into the detective action in a way that brings London vividly to life, as Bryant is a veritable fount of information about the city he loves. I will certainly read more of this series (not necessarily in order of course!)

Now all I need is a steady supply of AAA batteries to fuel my travelling crime fest. And maybe I should treat myself to some decent headphones. Does anyone else relish a good audio book on the bus?

The New Year Resolution that wasn’t

The germ of this first blog post of 2022 is a resolution that I probably ought to make this year, should have made in previous years and in all likelihood will never in fact make. And if I was mad enough to make it, I would almost certainly have broken it before the end of the first week in January. So what is this dread resolution then?

It is: Not to start another book before finishing the one I’m reading and therefore not to end up with several books on the go most of the time. I would just read one book at a time, finishing it before starting the next one in the pile (or the next one that I came across). I could go as far as to say that I wouldn’t even borrow or buy another book until ready to read. (Of course, there are still many unread books here on The Landing, but that’s another resolution altogether, for another year entirely).

It does sound a very simple proposition, but I’m afraid one that would be doomed to failure were I to attempt it. Moreover, in all honesty, would I really want to make and stick to such a draconian resolution?  I do have moments of frustration when I feel that things are getting a bit silly and that I have too many books underway, but most of the time it works for me. I do generally enjoy reading in this way, moving between different genres. Though sometimes I get ‘stuck’ as it were with one book, so that it slips further and further down the reading pile as my attention moves elsewhere. It may then languish on the side-lines for a while as another book makes the running. Occaisonally I give up on a book, but mostly I come back with renewed interest.

Many of the books that leap ahead in my reading programme are library books, spotted while I shelve my section. I have recently begun to feel that I should cut down on library borrowing and return to the reading matter in hand. But feeling hasn’t yet been transformed into action. It is just so tempting to borrow yet another book, that I know that I will then start reading at lunchtime or tea break and thus add into the bookish merry-go-round.

The multiple reads situation has been compounded by my recent move into audio books. In particular, the mp3 Playaway versions that I have taken to listening to on the bus. I find that I cannot read on buses so audio books have proved very successful as an alternative. My commuting books tend to be mostly crime fiction as I find that this genre tends to liven up the tedium of travel. However, it can be irritating to have to try to zone out the travel announcements during the crucial plot points.

Here is a rough list of my current partly-read stash:

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. This is one that I’m reading in the evening, alternating with Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert (1950) as a lunch and tea break read. The Victorian history is a fascinating trip through Victorian domestic life from a historian who has tried out many of the household chores herself, wearing an authentic corset to boot. The author has also tried making up some of the homemade toiletries and remedies, with some success apparently. I’d be a bit dubious about some of the medicinal preparations though!

Smallbone Deceased is a murder mystery set in Lincoln’s Inn Court, with a dead body discovered in a deed box. I have read quite a few novels from the British Library Crime Classics series, snapping them up whenever I spot one. I’m afraid that these crime novels are a big driver of my multi-read habit! Before I had finished Smallbone, I had requested (and begun reading) a copy of Seven Dead by J Jefferson Farjeon (1939). As the title suggests, this locked room mystery (always a favourite type) begins with the discovery of seven murder victims in a country house.

I have been listening to The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz on my morning and evening commute this week. It’s the first in the Hawthorne and Horowitz crime series and is also the first of any of Horowitz’s books in my reading history. This is very entertaining, so I think I will follow the series a little further. The next one is now on reserve, again in an audio version. Rory Kinnear is the series narrator, doing a fine job of bringing the characters to life.

The Morville Hours: The Story of a Garden by Katherine Swift. This has been on the part-read pile since before Christmas, a victim of a new glut of library books. The book tells of the development of Swift’s garden at the Dower House of Morville Hall (a National Trust property) in Shropshire, begun in 1988. I hadn’t read very far before I decided that I would like to visit it one day.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark (1957) was her first novel. This 2009 edition has an introduction by Ali Smith. Are you entitled to say that you’ve started a book if you’ve only read the introduction? Just asking.

I think that’s enough to be going on with for the time being. Of course, I haven’t mentioned the stack of library books yet to be begun, nor my Christmas gifts, nor yet, the books that I bought last autumn from The Last Bookshop in Camden Street, Dublin which still lie unread on my bedside table…

Does anyone else enjoy having several books on the go at once?

Pondering on those interminable book lists

Cover of my book of books
Book of Books

Yet again, I have to account for a long blogging gap on the Landing Book Shelves, as it has been a few months since my last optimistic post. Yet again, I am trying to get back into a reasonable writing routine. In fairness it’s not that I haven’t been writing (or reading for that matter) but that I have been writing letters and emails instead of blog posts. In addition to that are bits of writing for work so I have been attempting to keep my hand in. Sadly, it means that the Landing has been getting neglected and dusty once again. And of course, as I mentioned in my last post, technically the Landing Book Shelves doesn’t exist anymore, being now an imaginary landing. No stairs, no landing, but of course still book shelves, which is the main thing. As is inevitable in a move, much has been relocated and many books are still not really in their ideal place. 

As a form of book blogger procrastination, I have recently been downloading my library borrowing history for the last few years. It’s as good an occupation as any for an autumn evening and my rationale (excuse?) for doing this is that I am going through a phase of puzzling flashes of déjà vu about odd bits of plot and conversation. Had I read this particular book before and forgotten most of it? It is unnerving to think that I may have completely forgotten having read a particular book, so I thought that I would remind myself of what I have read (or at least what library books I have read) in recent years. It’s taken me a while as I have been combing through the list taking out DVDs and books for my fellow readers in the house (they know who they are!)

In addition to this list, I used to jot titles in a couple of old notebooks, of my reads each year but that lapsed as a regular habit a few years ago. Hence my interest in my library account history. Having downloaded the library list, I am now not quite sure what to do with it. Somehow, retaining a digital list doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the original notebook list going back into the early 1990s. It lacks a certain bookish charm shall we say. But, the thought of transcribing a couple of hundred or so titles into a notebook is daunting. To add to this digital list, I am accumulating yet another digital list (footprint?) of the audio books that I have downloaded from the library website. Now this list only dates back to earlier in the year so it is much shorter (at least at the moment!).

And finally, let me not forget to mention the list of books that I have yet to read. This is worse than the TBR pile, but it has at least the advantage of taking up less room in the house than a physical stack of books. It does however exist in a variety of places, which makes it a rather slippery thing to audit. I have an official notebook for titles that I come across, but in reality, I tend to jot them down in any notebook that comes to hand. This means that I come across random jottings, months or even years after the fact. Occasionally these notes can be very cryptic, if I only had a bit of information to hand and not complete title, author, publisher etc. Even more cryptic are the dread scraps of paper and Post It notes tucked away for safe keeping!

So, what purpose these lists? And should I just stop keeping them up?  Who is going to be interested in my reading archive? The problem is that I think I would miss compiling my reading lists, even if keeping them up has become patchy in recent years. The lists provide a literary trip down memory lane now and again. It amuses me to remind myself of what I was reading for instance, in 1993, which is the year of my earliest entries. Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I read in any given year, but once I look at the list, it all comes flooding back to me. Well mostly. Sometimes I simply have no recall of a particular book. I was also relieved to pin down one suspected case of déjà vu: I had previously caught snatches of the audio version at my mum’s house.  Phew!

To sum up the situation, I have lots of lists about books (both actual, virtual, read and unread) and I have no idea whether this is a good, necessary or sensible thing or not. Any thoughts?

A Brief Notice: The Landing Book Shelves is on the move!

You may think that things are never-changing here on The Landing, but that is not in fact the case. There is always a certain degree of book shuffling going on in addition to new arrivals taking up their rightful place. Rarely of course, is there a literary departure! Now however, we have to contend with a much bigger upheaval; a major event in the Landing’s ten year plus history. The entire landing book realm has been relocated, not merely away from its location on the turn of the stairs, but to a new abode altogether. At the moment the un-boxing stage is yet to be completed but the core of the blog’s material will not be on a landing, for the simple reason that there is no landing here.

Yes, the crucial fact of the matter is that in a bungalow, there can be no landing and therefore no Landing Book Shelves. I have contemplated changing the name of the blog to reflect the new surroundings. So far, I have only come up with ‘Front Room Book Shelves’ or perhaps ‘The Study Book Shelves’, neither of which really work for me. If you recall, the blog gained its title partly from the fact of there being books on the landing, but it was also inspired by the title of Susan Hill’s literary memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing. That makes it as much a metaphorical book shelf as a real one (I think).

I am therefore working my way round to deciding not to change the title of the blog at all (of course changing that, would also mean changing the blog’s Twitter handle) and simply going along in the same old way. My only worry is that this action will make me guilty of misinformation of which apparently, there is a lot about these days. Do I wish to add to it? On balance, considering that the blog location has always been as much an imaginary book haven as a real set of shelves, I think I will leave The Landing Book Shelves name well alone…   

Ireland Reads Day: Squeezing in a read (or two)

Today’s Landing Tales post is written in support of the #Ireland Reads day, so I want to talk a little about my memories of my early reading life (once upon a time in Birmingham) going back to where it all started, with a quick delve into the Landing Book Shelves. I hope to give you a little insight into what started me off on a lifetime love of books and reading. And of course, today I will certainly be squeezing in a read. Though in fairness, it’s more a case of trying to stop me squeezing in a loooong read…

My relationship with books goes back a long way. Like many people, I can trace that love back to all those old familiar nursery rhymes and songs, many of which will never be forgotten. Then it’s a short step onto children’s poems such as those of AA Milne, whose ‘The King’s Breakfast’ was one of my early favourites. Nowadays, just like the poor old king, ‘I do like a little bit of butter to my bread’ in the mornings! Although, I am also of the view that ‘marmalade is tasty, if it’s very thickly spread’, so I’m at one with the Dairymaid on that issue.

Now, as Paddington Bear afficionados know well, he is also a confirmed marmalade fan, usually keeping a spare marmalade sandwich under his hat for emergencies. Apparently, it’s a well-known fact that bears who come from Darkest Peru like marmalade,

“Where was it you said you’d come from? Peru?”
“That’s right,” said Paddington. “Darkest Peru.”
“Humph!” Mrs. Bird looked thoughtful for a moment. “Then I expect you like marmalade. I’d better get some more from the grocer.”
“There you are! What did I tell you?” cried Judy, as the door shut behind Mrs. Bird. “She does like you.”
“Fancy her knowing I like marmalade,” said Paddington.

If I were to attempt to compile a top ten childhood favourites list, then Paddington may well be at the top. Not least because, as an adult of (ahem, mature) years I can still sit down and chuckle over one of his adventures, which really do stand the test of time. Take a bow, Michael Bond.

I think that I have probably mentioned on here before, The Treasury of Children’s Classics collection that I had as a child, which still survives, albeit in a very battered state, with the cover selotaped together. It contains a mixture of extracts from classic tales and several poems. It was my first introduction to the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Dickens, Shakespeare (via Lamb’s Tales) the Arabian Nights and Susan Coolidge, to name but a few.

book cover with Aladdin, Pinoccio, Don Quixote
A childhood favourite

But it was the verses that initially drew me into the book, when I was too young to appreciate extracts from Robinson Crusoe and the like. I enjoyed the humorous poems best, such as John Drinkwater’s ‘Washing’, which I am sure struck a chord with many a child. Here’s an extract:

What is all this washing about,
Every day, week in, week out?
From getting up till going to bed,
I’m tired of hearing the same thing said.
Whether I’m dirty or whether I’m not,
Whether the water is cold or hot,
Whether I like or whether I don’t,
Whether I will or whether I won’t.-
“Have you washed your hands, and washed your face?”
I seem to live in the washing place.

Of course, this poem seems particularly innocent and old-fashioned in our Covid era of required hand washing, when handwashing doesn’t just relate to a grubby child in from playing in the garden, who can’t see why a bit of dirt would hurt a jam sandwich.  Or in Paddington’s case it would be sticky paws from eating directly from the marmalade jar.

The themes of washing and general cleanliness link to my final choice for this post (though believe me, I could go on but I have to stop somewhere), which is The Family from One End Street written and illustrated by Eve Garnett (1937).  The family is the Ruggles family, father Joe is a dustman and his wife Rosie takes in laundry:

Mrs Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. “Very suitable too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.

Mrs Ruggles has a sign outside their little terraced house proclaiming, ‘The Ideal Laundry. Careful Hand Work’ and the house is often full of clothes, steam and folded laundry. Joe and Rosie have seven children, the youngest still a baby so life is busy and full of activity and comic adventures. If you know Alan Ahlberg’s picture book Peepo!, then you would recognise these books as sharing the same working class world of the 1930s and 40s. Clothes drying by the fire, kids playing in the yard and the mother in her pinny doing the chores. Though in Mrs Ruggles’ case, working as we would now term it ‘from home’ as well as doing the family tasks. These stories could be sentimental, dealing as they do with a poor family whose children seem to be constantly taking boots to be repaired, yet who have a happy life. Yet, they aren’t at all saccharine sweet, merely very funny and thoughtful. And Eve Garnett’s black and white sketches speak volumes.

I’ll wrap it up for now, but I’d love to hear about your favourite childhood reads or what you’re reading for #IrelandReads, so drop me a line below if you’d like to do so. Now, I will just go and #SqueezeInARead!

Armchair Travelling: The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee

This book was a Christmas present from The Bookworm, so it hasn’t been on the Landing Book Shelves for long. In fact, it is more of a bedside table guest, before taking up its final place as a bona fide Landing resident. I had never before heard of the author and illustrator Chiang Yee (1903-77), or his nom de plume The Silent Traveller, so it was a new discovery as well as a lovely Edinburgh souvenir. The colour plates of the watercolour views of Edinburgh are of very good quality, beautifully reproduced and certainly make me long to visit the city again.

My copy of the The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, according to a pencilled note inside the cover is a first edition (1948) with no name of any previous owner inscribed. It is without dust jacket, pale yellow cloth bound, in very nice condition, though my photograph probably doesn’t do it justice. I will just digress here to mention that I recently read Martin Latham’s The Bookseller’s Tale, which has a chapter called ‘Signs of Use’. Here, he talks about the various ways in which readers down the centuries have engaged with texts, writing in notes and comments. One thing I always look for in a second -hand book is the name of a previous owner or a dedication from the giver, perhaps; however, not in this case.

The first Silent Traveller book was published in 1936, when Chiang Yee brought out his book on the Lakelands, followed by London in 1938 and several more in the following years. The ‘Silent Traveller’ image was his own styling. He comments in his engaging ‘Unnecessary Introduction’ that, ‘It is perfectly natural to be silent when travelling alone’. But he went on to explain that the name originated with his Chinese pen name Ya-Hsin-Chê, which means Dumb-Walking-Man. He said that he chose this name for himself after spending several years as a civil servant and politician, which involved ‘talking night and day for five years or so’. However, I was amused to note that The Silent Traveller also mentions a Birmingham editor who once called him the ‘The Not-Too-Silent-Traveller’ so he obviously wasn’t averse to a chat at times.

  • The title page of The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh showing a painting of the Scott Monument
  • Pale yellow cloth hardback cover of The Silent Traveller
  • Painting of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
  • Painting of St Anthony's Chapel & St Margaret's Loch
  • Painting of Lady Stair's House, Edinburgh
  • Painting of Edinburgh Castle

The author was an artist, poet, writer and calligrapher from a city called Juijiang (written Kiukiang at the time) on the banks of the Yangtze in Jiangxi province. By the time that his Edinburgh book was published, he had lived in Britain for several years, having left China to study in London in 1933. This book is based on a few visits Chiang Yee made to Edinburgh, the first being in 1937, then 1943 and 1944.

The Silent Traveller records his walks around the city, describing his impressions of parks, monuments and buildings. He delights in the effect of the weather and different lights on Edinburgh’s notable features with an artist’s sensibility. One thing that features very frequently in his walks is (perhaps not surprisingly) the rain. It seems that The Silent Traveller must have frequently been ‘The Wet Traveller’, but that never diminished his enthusiasm or curiosity for Edinburgh’s beauty or its history. At one point he remarks that, ‘My affection for rain increases each time I behold a familiar scene take on a new and enchanting aspect through a veil of rain’.

Alongside describing visits to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Botanic Gardens and so on, Chiang Yee discusses art, literature, philosophy and poetry from China and the West. He quotes verses from Chinese poets and includes a few short pieces of his own, inspired by a particular location. He also talks about the differences and similarities between Western and Chinese art; of materials, techinique and perspective. As he points out, ‘It [watercolour] is a point in common between our two countries’ going on to say that ‘Art is an international language which, unlike a spoken language can be understood by all peoples’.

Chiang Yee’s black and white sketches and his watercolour paintings of Edinburgh illustrate the larger tourist sites and beauty spots; also, odd corners and small incidents that he recalls. I look forward to being able to take it with me on a walk around the city and compare his views of the city with present day Edinburgh. And I definitely plan to track down a couple more volumes in this series, particularly his Dublin book. Chiang Yee also wrote several other books including children’s books and works on calligraphy and art. A biography came out in 2010, written by Da Zheng: The Silent Traveller from the East-A Cultural Biography (Rutgers University Press). I was delighted to discover that Chiang Yee has had the honour of a Blue Plaque on his former home in Oxford, where he lived from 1940-55. Something to look out for on a future visit.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has come across The Silent Traveller series, if so do drop me a line.

Recipes: from an Old Farmhouse by Alison Uttley

Cover of Recipes from an Old Farmhouse

An evocative image

I wanted to follow up on the last Landing post on foraging-related books with another foody feature. This book is part memoir of a Derbyshire country childhood and part recipe book by children’s writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976), who was best known for her Little Grey Rabbit series and also the Sam Pig books. The recipe book was first published by Faber and Faber in 1966 and I recently treated myself to the copy shown here, which is in very nice condition. Something to cheer me up during the spring Lockdown! It is a beautiful little hard back book decorated with black and white sketches by Pauline Baynes. The drawings complement the text beautifully. Recipes has been reprinted more recently, but I opted for a copy of the original edition and wasn’t disappointed.

Alison Uttley gives us recipes that her mother used in the farmhouse kitchen, including recipes given by friends and neighbours. These were named for the donor, for example ‘Mrs Lowe’s Parkin’. The book is divided into sections with anecdotes, reminiscences and recipes. If you wanted to try out any of the items, you would need to scale down and adapt the recipes as Uttley gives the quantities and methods as they would have been used by her mother at the end of the nineteenth century in the farmhouse oven. So, you would need to figure out the oven settings and alter the timings accordingly. The recipes aren’t laid out as recipes as we would find them in a cookery book nowadays, but they are easy enough to follow. I’m planning to try one or two of the cakes or puddings in smaller quantities.

I have found overlaps with my foraging post as in a few of the recipes given, Alison Uttley talks about foraged ingredients gathered by the family. I was particularly taken with her account of the annual cowslip gathering expedition with her mother. They took a clothes basket out with them to fill with blossoms. She describes it beautifully here,

Black and white illustration of the author's mother and the maid picking cowslips, with the children in the background

Picking cowslips

One morning in April my mother would announce that we would pick cowslips for cowslip wine. We would set off after breakfast, the servant girl, my brother, my mother and I, with a clothes-basket, and several smaller baskets. It was exciting to run down the first big field, deep down to the gate that led to the cowslip field. By the gate we left the clothes-basket, and we each took another basket and began to gather the flowers.

It sounds idyllic but it was also hard work for all of them, Uttley describing herself as ‘dazed with stooping to the ground’ after a few hours of picking. It sounds as though the children were allowed to go off and play though, while her mother and the maid carried on for the whole day. But of course, the work didn’t stop there. What Uttley refers to as ‘peeping’ was the next task: removing the flowers from the stalks and calyces. That task must have been mind-numbingly tedious as well as an instigator of repetitive strain syndrome. I find it bad enough picking stalks off fruit for a modest sized batch of jam, so I’m not sure how I would have coped with that mammoth preparation session.

Black and white title page illustration for the chapter on beverages, showing entwined branches with culinary equipment hanging off them.

Chapter title page

I’d actually love to be able to try making a small batch of cowslip wine, but cowslips are quite rare now in Britain and also in Ireland according to Zoe Devlin’s website, wildflowersofireland.net. However, she does go on to point out that the plant has made a comeback in Ireland in recent years, so perhaps it will continue to spread.  In his foraging guide Food for Free, Richard Mabey suggests that the huge quantities of petals used in making ‘one of the very best country wines’ has probably contributed to the flower’s scarcity in Britain. He comments on the ‘devastation that some of these recipes must have wreaked on flower populations’. Thankfully now, you can buy cowslip seeds as well as other wildflower seeds to grow in your own garden and even up the balance a little. I somehow doubt that I will be able to grow enough flowers to make wine, though cowslip growing is to be one of my projects for next year (I have the seeds ready!) As far as beverages are concerned, I think I will have to stick to making elderflower cordial, the only problem there being that the best blooms always grow too high to reach!

I hope to return to the book for another Landing post, when I have had a go at some of the recipes. Meanwhile, I will decide where to go for August’s Landing Tales post when I have scoured the book shelves again!

Are there any Alison Uttley fans out there? Does anyone remember her Traveller in Time, televised by the BBC in 1978? I loved the series then, but wonder how it would stand up now.

(Pauline Baynes illustrations scanned from my copy of Recipes) 

 

Two ‘Wild Food’ books: Food for Free and Wild and Free

Before we go any further I would just like to say that it’s a moot point whether these books a) really count as Landing Tales reads as they don’t live in that shelf region and b) would really be a better fit into our retired craft and garden blog Curiously Creatively. I say moot point, because whatever the arguments either way, these foraging books are what I have decided to feature in today’s blog post. And anyway, as you all already know, I can be somewhat flexible as to what constitutes a bona fide Landing Book Shelves title. As to the subject matter, I refer you to the Landing Excursions category and to the occasional garden or cookery feature that creeps in here. So that’s that out of the way then…

Front over of the 1992 edition of Food for Free showing a variety of plants.

Food for Free, 1992

Food for Free by Richard Mabey (Harper Collins 1972, 1992) was given to me about a year ago and is a former library book, so it had already performed much service by the time it passed into my hands. I think there has been a more recent reprint, which I may try to buy. Wild and Free by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín, (O’Brien Press 1978; Wolf Hill Publishing 2013) actually belongs to The Bookworm, though I confess that I have rather commandeered it lately. This is what happens when you buy people books that you really want for yourself! Both books were originally published around the same period, looking at British and Irish wild food respectively. There is of course much overlap between the two books as far as flora and the uses to which they were/are put. Each book has its own approach, Food for Free being more of a field or gatherers guide to edible plants. It gives notes on habitat, season and details on how many of the plants have been used in the past, sometimes with basic cooking instructions. For some plants, the text merely notes that the plant is edible (eg the White and Red varieties of Dead-Nettle) without any further detail. In contrast, Wild and Free presents a collection of methods for a range of dishes, cordials, wines, jellies etc based on a seasonal foraging calendar and tried and tested family recipes. The Ó Céiríns write in detail of about twenty-four sources of food, giving plenty of instructions for making such tasty items as elderberry syrup, nettle soup, crab apple wine and a whole host of blackberry treats. There also seems to be a lot of beer and wine recipes!

As the Bookworm and I have a penchant for foraging, they are both handy books to dip into now and again as we like to extend our foraged food range now and again. Up until this year, I’d say that we have arrived at a fairly regular pattern of free range goods, focussing mainly on berries. Usually we end up with a good supply of blackberries, haws, rosehips, rowan berries and elderberries in the freezer for jelly making. We have used various recipes for preserves, but most frequently the Thane Prince book mentioned over on Curiously Creatively. The exception to all of the berry harvest is elderflowers, which we have picked for a lovely refreshing cordial in the last few summers (one batch already made so far this year, we hope to do another). Wild and Free gives a recipe for Elderflower pancakes that I would like to try for a change – I imagine they’d be great for a weekend breakfast.

Cover of Wild and Free showing blackberry jam & fresh berries.

Wild and Free, 2013

But in this particularly strange spring and summer, with the help of our two foraging guides, we have branched out slightly and explored some new foraged food. For quite a while we have been thinking of turning towards having a go at collecting some young ‘greens’ from the wild plants on offer to see if we could make a meal out of wild vegetables. As Richard Mabey points out, ‘It is easy to forget, as one stands before the modern supermarket shelf, that every single one of the world’s vegetable foods was once a wild plant’. This is obvious if you think about it, though as The Bookworm pointed out, you can quite see why nobody ever thought that cultivating and selling nettles was a great idea. Though maybe, a cultivated nettle would have no sting?

As you might have guessed, nettles were one of our target greens, having been meaning to make nettle soup for years. Funnily enough, we were rather wary about the idea of picking something so stingy to eat! Tip: stout gloves are required. It is also worth poiting out that venturing near a nettle patch with ripped jeans means that you get your knees stung at the very least. In the end, our foraging and cooking went very well thanks to the handy recipe in the Ó Céirín book. In the chapter on nettles, the authors retell a story about St Columcille and his Lenten instructions that his soup of nettles, water and salt should have nothing else ‘except what comes out of the pot stick’. The enterprising cook apparently hollowed out the pot stick and poured milk and oats into the broth. A much more substantial meal. Inspired by a note in Mabey’s book, we have also tried Goosegrass or Sticky Weed, which he tells us was recommended in spring soups and puddings by the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706). We did ours in a pasta dish, which seems to be a much more twenty-first century twist on things.

Moving on to something that we still haven’t tried yet, I was tentatively considering looking for mushrooms and fungus. Mabey’s book has a section on fungus, which I found fascinating reading. I would love to try foraging for edible fungus, but I am aware that I need to do much more research first. At some point I hope to attend a workshop as a starting point, though I’m not sure if I will ever feel confident enough to try it for myself. In the meantime, I am happy to try to merely spot a few examples. The authors of Wild and Free describe a lovely foraging session, when they once gathered bags full of field mushrooms on a walk, which sounded fantastic. Sadly, we don’t live within easy reach of green fields, despite our lifting of distance restrictions now. That’s one for the future. Meanwhile, I will settle for our usual delicious berry harvesting.

I would love to hear from anyone who forages or who has any good book recommendations to pass on to us.

School Adventure: Dimsie Among the Prefects

Cover of Dimsie Among the Prefects; faded green cloth with a letter D as decoration

Dimsie

For this post, I have lighted on a book that pre-dates the Landing Bookshelves by many years as it is one that my mother had as a child. You might recall that I have previously included one of her old books, A Coach for Fanny Burney so I thought that I would dig out one or two more titles as Landing browsing from time to time. Dimsie Among the Prefects by Dorita Fairlie Bruce (1885-1970) is part of a series set at the fictitious Jane Willard school, which begins with Dimsie goes to School published in 1921 (original title: The Senior Prefect). Among the Prefects was published in 1923, though my mother’s green cloth bound hard back edition is an Oxford University Press reprint from 1940. I assume that it must have had a dust jacket at one time but I’m not sure; I certainly don’t remember it ever having one.

The edition is by this stage rather elderly and battered, as you can see from my scans, so it wouldn’t fetch the price that some of the higher quality copies can command. I was surprised to discover that the earlier Dimsie editions can be quite pricey (a 1923 edition of Among the Prefects for £88, without a dust jacket), however ABE also had a 1940 edition in good condition for £9 For instance, which isn’t too bad. I am tempted to order the first in the series as I’ve never come across a copy in my second hand bookshop moochings.

When I was younger, I had a somewhat lukewarm relationship with boarding school stories. I wasn’t a devoted fan by any means, yet I was drawn back to them every now and then. I dipped in and out of various series over the years; the idea of boarding schools had a fascination for me. I suppose this was because it was something that I knew nothing of in real life; for me boarding schools were just places to be found in stories, much like secret gardens and mysterious islands. Maybe it was just that as one of four siblings, I liked the idea of going off by myself somewhere. I also enjoyed adventure stories and school stories often involved adventures of some sort. I loved the boarding school part of the Katy series, when Katy and her younger sister Clover go away to school (What Katie did at School). It seemed a terribly grown-up thing for them to be doing.

I first read Among the Prefects more years ago than I care to remember and I haven’t really looked at it since then, despite seeing it on the shelf every time I visit my mother. I was trying to re-capture the pictures in my mind from that first-time round, but it’s a bit like trying to recall memories of the first time you visited a certain location or to recapture a dream. The impression is there perhaps but the detail remains tantalisingly out of reach. I remember liking the camaraderie between Dimsie and her friends. I must have been quite young when I read the story as I have retained the impression of the girls being terribly grown up and sophisticated. Of course, I also liked the tuck boxes and teas in the study aspect of boarding school life (not realising that this was a privilege only for the older girls) and not for the grubby lower school!

Decorative title pages of my edition of Dimsie Among the Prefects.

Title page



Dimsie

This story then is a further instalment of the adventures of a now seventeen-year-old Dimsie Maitland and her friends, who have all been members of a society called the Anti-Soppists since their Lower School days. This was explained as, ‘a league for the suppression of anything and everything that they considered to be “soppy”. Many and varied were the things that came under their ban’. One of the banned things was writing poetry, particularly morbid verse. In this episode the members of the league are shocked to discover that one of their number, Jean Gordon has been furtively penning poetry. As her accuser points out, ‘I counted a dozen poems, and in every one of them somebody is dead! And she has the cheek to think she can go on being an Anti-Soppist after this!’

At the start of the book, Dimsie is appointed to be one of the six school prefects. She is a very popular and admired figure amongst the younger girls and is trusted and valued by the headmistress Miss Yorke. I don’t think it’s really plot spoiling to say that Dimsie is well on her way to being Head Girl in a later instalment. For anyone interested in the series titles in order, there is a Wikipedia page on Dorita Fairlie Bruce, but the reference given to an author page is sadly now defunct. I have searched for an author society or a fan page but no avail. If anyone knows of one, I would be interested to hear about it.

In this episode, the main strand of the story concerns Dimsie’s mentoring of new girl Hilary Garth (niece of Dimsie’s friend Rosamund), who is a devotee of school stories and thinks that life will be just as it is in books. She arrives at school under the firm impression that school will be just the place to have lots of adventures. Also culled from books are Hilary’s ideas about school meals. She is amazed that the girls have jam for tea, rather than just illegally at midnight feasts. As one of her new schoolmates points out, ’Those books you’ve been reading are all wrong…Perhaps you haven’t noticed that plate of buns lower down? And twice a week we have cake – fruit always.’ A useful lesson indeed for all of us school story afficionados. Dimsie undertakes to keep an eye on Hilary, which proves to be no mean task as the new girl is determined to extract her quota of adventure from her new school. Naturally, this all leads to a dramatic crisis towards the close of the book, at which time moral lessons are learned, bonds forged and even the despised poetry (though a more uplifting variety!) finds a role.

Anyway, it’s probably now about time that I had a re-read! Are there any Dimsie fans out there? Drop me a line in the comments if so.

Frankly Feminine: A Little Worldly Advice from the 60s

Cover of Frankly Feminine, spine facing

Frankly Feminine, 1965

Frankly Feminine: A book of comprehensive information and advice for the woman of today was edited by Eileen McCarthy, published by The Grolier Society Limited, London, 1965. However, despite the publishing date, much of its content seems to me to hark back to the 1950s rather than the Swinging Sixties, with its emphasis on the hearth and home.

I have had this hefty lifestyle tome for several years, a birthday gift from He Who Put The Shelves Up. True to my usual form, I haven’t ever sat down and read it from cover to cover, though the Bookworm has virtually done so in my stead. She can quote bits of advice on various bits of social etiquette with complete confidence (which can be rather disconcerting at times!)

The Editor’s begins, ‘For today’s woman the world is limitless. She can come and go about the continents and the oceans; soon, if the fancy takes her, she may be exploring space, and setting up home on a satellite.’ However, McCarthy goes on to write, ‘but we shall always have the trick of finding our greatest contentment within a small and homely circle.’ Apparently ‘today’s complete woman – who sees the stars around her and finds her happiness still in her home, with her family, and friends’ is for whom this book is written.

So, all of that sets up a contradiction straight away; modern woman can do all sorts of things, but her place is still really in the home, especially if she wants to be ‘complete’. Even if she does make it into space, she will still want to be a homemaker on Mars. Oh, not forgetting that she will still have to maintain her figure to get the husband to put into said home in the first place.

A glance at the book’s contents reveals that Frankly Feminine tackles everything from beauty to gardening and room design to house insurance, as well as wedding, maternity, childcare and family life. The book also offers a crash course in cookery, covering baking, cuts of meat, types of fish and cooking for Christmas and other events. You could even learn basic plumbing and carpentry techniques from this handy volume. As the book chidingly points out, ‘Handywomen sometimes fall down on jobs because their toolbox is poorly stocked.’ The book is full of useful household management-type practical tips (handy in a pre-internet era). How about the removal of stains for instance? Frankly Feminine gives a comprehensive list of likely fabric stains and their removal. You could probably find an answer to almost any household problem. And, in these days of soul-searching about how much impact we have on the environment, perhaps some of the domestic advice could come in useful again. Anyone up for making some homemade cleaning products?

Frankly Feminine seemed to have its eye firmly on the better class of woman (complete or otherwise), giving advice on what household linen to buy and what cutlery will be required when setting up home for the first time (fish knives and soup spoons definitely, though you could apparently buy mustard and salt spoons later). And there are hints about keeping your silver cutlery in good condition. There was plenty of detail about dinner service buying and discussion about different sorts of glassware (Scandinavian, Venetian, French etc) including what sorts of glasses are for serving which wine. There was a clear expectation that the readers of this volume would be hosting dinner parties.

The fashion and beauty advice do take priority though, with careers, interview advice and driving tips trailing behind in the pecking order. There is much emphasis on having and keeping a good figure to the extent of having a ‘Plump-up routine’ for women who would like to gain or re-gain curves. Plenty of advice here for looking after face, hair, hands and neck too, though there is not a single non-white woman to be seen in the book and a definite fondness for featuring pretty, slim blondes in the Grace Kelly line. I was fascinated to read the section about foundation garments. I have somehow never associated girdles with this era. But here you can find instruction on the buying and wearing of appropriate underwear. Apparently, it was most important to get, ‘exactly the right garments that are going to pull you in, smooth you out, or prop you up in the right places.’ Sounds like a major task indeed. But never fear, it was a ‘matter of joint operations’ between a woman and her trusty fitter to ensure that the girdle producing the ‘slickest job’ for her ‘particular anatomy’ would be purchased. Phew, that’s alright then.

Much of the personal relationship advice (with men, family, friends) given in the book sounds so jarring to a 21st century ear, as Irish Times journalist Rosita Boland discovered in 2014 when she and some friends reviewed that section. Frankly Feminine encouraged women to see men not as friends but as potential husband material. The opinion of Boland’s readers was not generally favourable to the tenor of much of the advice given. That’s not surprising when you read, under the sub-heading ‘Giving in’:

There is no real equality between the sexes, and those who think otherwise are merely deluding themselves. Women have freedom, opportunity – but this doesn’t put us on the same footing as men. Fortunately, we aren’t natural world-shakers. We know that success doesn’t put its arms round us when we’re tired and can’t sleep at night. So, if we’re wise, we know when and how to give in gracefully. The benefits it brings are well worth while.

The book has a depressing attitude to what a woman might expect from a relationship with a man. Frankly Feminine encourages women to think of men as large overgrown children who can’t really be expected to be relied upon. It says that women should allow for men’s ‘superiority complex’ and that fact that ‘Most men have very little sense of humour about themselves’. Hmm, not very promising. However, some of FF’s advice can be sensible such as pointing out that we can’t expect happiness to come from without (‘like manna from heaven’), it has to come from within ourselves. Also, ‘Never make the mistake of thinking that life would be marvellous if you were doing something different’. Or, as I remember from my childhood, the grass is always greener attitude. Quite a wise observation. As Veronica, one of the readers in Boland’s article pointed out, some of the relationship advice is, ‘like modern positive psychology. All that is beautiful: how to be happy with life’. There are useful and sensible pieces of life advice here, about being confident and independent, but the man/woman advice in particular seems very dated.

As a piece of social and cultural history, Frankly Feminine is very instructive. This is a fascinating book for dipping into, but probably of more use now for the practical angle than the relationship advice. Having said that, some advice would now be out of date, such as the advice that sun-tanned skin was a good thing to have. Of course, much of the social etiquette would now be behind the times, but perhaps the advice on being a good guest still holds true! And the correct way to eat artichokes might come in useful (but not on a first date perhaps) as well as how to mix cocktails.

Maybe FF could form the basis of a reality television show, where women get to try out life as it was once lived? Just a thought…