Christmas food between the pages

Charles_Dickens-A_Christmas_Carol-Title_page-First_edition_1843

“It was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapour had frozen over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar, Everything was rigid, locked up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.” … Winter not only sets in hard for Laurie Lee, but inspires him to write one of the most evocative depictions of Christmas in literature, His words resonate deeply with those of us living in the northern hemisphere where a sudden drop in the temperature turns noses the colour of cooked quince, bursts the tender cells of dormant plants as it clads the landscape in a brittle tracery of frost.

mosler..christmas-morning-1916-ca

‘Cold December brings the sleet, blazing fire and Christmas treat’ goes the saying, as the earth moves its vast bulk to faces the shortest days of the year, square on. Daylight hours are misty and crepuscular meaning indoor lights remain lit but this unrelenting greyness is interrupted by the gaiety and colour of Christmas: scarlet holly berries and shiny gilt bells; a forest of trees and garlands looped from wall to wall; and the exotic poinsettia, the Christmas flower of Mexico now popular here. Sheeny sweet wrappers get balled up and left down the sides of sofas and outside, decorative festive lights are reflected in the wet cement of the town, making walks home at the end of the day less austere. The smells are different too: the smokiness of decaying autumn leaves and the hot sweet scent of chestnuts from street sellers; the spiced citrus rime from bowls of clementines and sweet baked fug of hot apples ‘hissing and bubbling with a rich look’ as Dicken’s Mr Pickwick enjoyed them.

carl larsson

In the midst of this can be found the Christmas experiences of others, committed to the pages of novels and memoirs, a rich source of pleasure on dark evenings when a book, a blanket and warm chair are all one needs. Some of our most vivid memories are these written recollections and their remembering serves as a kind of collective seasonal synergy where Christmas plans become suffused with the idealised images of celebrations we’ve read about. Dylan Thomas understood this when he wrote A Child’s Christmas in Wales with its richly- stirred pot of the real, the imagined and the magical, His words are the sum total of a child’s magical thinking married with an adult need to recreate what was most enjoyed for our own children:

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

CiderWithRosie

Take carolling- I’ve never been, but having read Laurie Lee’s childhood account of stumbling through the snowy village lanes and surrounding fields with friends and other villagers, I feel as if I was there alongside, cupping my mittened fingers and huffing into them to combat the freezing air:

“Mile after mile we went, fighting against the wind, falling into snowdrifts, and navigating by the lights of the houses. And yet we never saw our audience. We called at house after house; we sang in courtyards and porches, outside windows, or in the damp gloom of hallways; we heard voices from hidden rooms; we smelt rich clothes and strange hot food; we saw maids bearing in dishes or carrying away coffee cups; we received nuts, cakes, figs, preserved ginger, dates, cough-drops and money; but we never once saw our patrons. We grouped ourselves round the farmhouse porch. The sky cleared and broad streams of stars ran down over the valley and away to Wales. On Slad’s white slopes, seen through the black sticks of its woods, some red lamps burned in the windows.

wpid-photo-7-dec-2012-09462

Everything was quiet: everywhere there was the faint crackling silence of the winter night. We started singing, and we were all moved by the words and the sudden trueness of our voices. Pure, very clear, and breathless we sang:

‘As Joseph was walking
He heard an angel sing;
‘This night shall be the birth-time
Of Christ the Heavenly King.
He neither shall be bored
In Housen nor in hall
Not in a place of paradise
But in an ox’s stall.’

And two thousand Christmases became real to us then; The houses, the halls, the places of paradise had all been visited; The stars were bright to guide the Kings through the snow; and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls. We were given roast apples and hot mince pies, in our nostrils were spices like myrrh, and in our wooden box, as we headed back for the village, there were golden gifts for all.”

Food at Christmas carries all the richness and exoticism of the gifts carried across far away lands by the Three Wise Men although frankincense, gold and myrrh are symbolised by sweetly-plump preserved and dried fruits from Israel and Egypt, Southern Spain, Italy and the Levant. We eat ‘foreign born’ sultanas and raisins in minced pies and cakes, in yeasted stollens from Germany and steamed puddings crowned with a sprig of holly and spiked with gold coins, representing the wealth of the kingly coffers. Our wines are fortified and sweetened and spirits are drunk in generous measures: three fingers or more of golden raisin-y liquids are released from their wooden casks after years of quiet and solitary maturation, swirled and appreciated as their vapours rise up to join the spirits of all Christmases past and present.

No matter how poor, the household does its best to proffer these sweetmeats to visitors and when it cannot, families improvise with their own music and seasonal cheer as did Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford:

LRC_1

“There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol-singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire that usual, made up their Christmas cheer.”

Thompson reminds us that extravagant Christmas festivities in grand country houses will mean that other families must do without their loved ones, who work tirelessly as servants for the local landed gentry: “ There was little visiting of neighbours and there were no family reunions, for the girls in service could not be spared at that season, and the few boys who had gone out in the world were mostly serving abroad in the Army.”

The day passed in an understated way, with some seasonal and religious markers:

“Christmas Day passed very quietly. The men had a holiday from work and the children from school and the churchgoers attended special Christmas services. Mothers who had young children would buy them an orange each and a handful of nuts; but, except at the end house and the inn, there was no hanging up of stockings, and those who had no kind elder sister or aunt in service to send them parcels got no Christmas presents.”

We’re not deprived of descriptions of tempting food though:

“Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner-table together with plum pudding – not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens (it was not holly country) were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday.”

An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies
An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies

Margaret Powell was in service and in the first of her three memoirs, Below Stairs, she shines a little light on Christmas from the perspective of servants in grand houses where every task was strictly delineated and decorating the tree was delegated to the Nanny. Powell found having to line up in the servants hall to receive a gift from the family very humiliating, noting that the servants were not given anything deemed frivolous. Instead of perfumes, silk stockings or delectable chocolates they got lengths of uniform material, aprons and black lisle stockings. They had to suffer what she referred to as their employers’ ‘social welfare expressions’ with the children looking at them as if they were ‘beings from another world, which I suppose we were to them’ and then spend twelve hours slaving away producing a feast fit for kings. “If we were to have perfumes or silks we would go astray, they thought” she wrote. “So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”

Julfirande
Karl Larsson

The Victorian Christmas fascinates me for many reasons. During this period, there was the redefining of Christmas as a private family time although a previous obsession with Stuart style public, baronial feasting was reinterpreted as the family table groaning under the weight of home-produced meals. What was eaten during national festivals gained a totemic significance with certain foods depicted as British and imbued with nationalistic qualities, such as plum pudding. I’m  also interested in the contrast between religious prudence and more earthly pleasures and appetites in the farmhouse Christmases depicted in literature. It seemed to me that a Victorian Christmas had the potential to become a spiritual battleground in the minds of the devout, torn as they were between sparing the rod and spoiling their children with gifts, stories and the gift of un-boundaried time, versus the drudge of a farm and their own daily religious rituals – and the need to protect their livestock from any changes to the routines that keep them healthy and productive.

This was never more obvious than in Alison Uttley’s ‘A Country Child’, a lightly fictionalised account of her own Derbyshire childhood in which she appears as Susan, a ‘most fanciful child’, never happier than when she is head down in a book, and born a ‘snow baby’ in December. Her farmhouse home went all out for Christmas, described over the course of a whole chapter: cheeses with layers of sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ and stone jars of white lard sat on the pantry floor, similar in shape to those which hid the forty thieves. The wine chamber stored bottle after bottle of elderberry wine and golden cowslip wine whilst great platters teetered under the weight of mince pies, slabs of fruited cake and jam tarts. Susan and her mother went into a frenzy of decorating:

”Holly decked every picture and ornament. Sprays hung over the bacon and twisted round the hams and herb bunches. The clock carried a crown on his head, and every dish-cover had a little sprig. Susan kept an eye on the lonely forgotten humble things, the jelly moulds and colanders and nutmeg graters, and made them happy with glossy leaves. Everything seemed to speak, to ask for its morsel of greenery, and she tried to leave out nothing.”

Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley's The Country Child
Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley’s The Country Child

The farmhouse kitchen was the heart of the home and especially during festive times when visitors would be received, fed and sometimes kissed if they were family and “everyone who called at the farm had to eat and drink at Christmas time.” The successes of the Victorian age, their colonies, trading strength and central place in global politics were commemorated too in the choice of decorations:

“In the middle of the kitchen ceiling there hung the kissing bunch, the best and brightest of holly, made in the shape of a large ball which dangled from the hook. Silver and gilt drops, crimson bells, blue glass trumpets, bright oranges and red polished apples, peeped and glittered through the glossy leaves. Little flags of all nations, but chiefly Turkish for some unknown reason, stuck out like quills on a hedgehog. The lamp hung near, and every little berry, every leaf, every pretty ball and apple had a tiny yellow flame reflected in its heart.“Twisted candles hung down, yellow, red, and blue, unlighted but gay, and on either side was a string of paper lanterns.”

The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.
The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.

Uttley told of Christmas Eve embroidered texts (‘God bless our home’), guising and folk tales: The Mistletoe Bough was read each year by Joshua, one of the elderly farm hands, as Susan sat unseen in the corner of the kitchen, frightened eyes dark of pupil, until her mother notices and sends her to bed with a candle. As she prepares for sleep, she muses upon another tale told her- that at midnight all the livestock goes down on bended knee in honour of the newly born Christ child. Similar to a tale my own grandfather told me, I lived in hope of catching the creatures outside doing the same, from the hedgehog that visited us nightly to the mistle thrushes that lived in the high trees surrounding my grandparents’ garden. Do hedgehogs have knees I’d ask and ever since,  in the minutes approaching midnight, I stand in my own garden wrapped in a blanket, looking at the stars and wondering…

Lately I discovered that Thomas Hardy wrote this: “Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock./ “Now they are all on their knees,”/ An elder said as we sat in a flock…” and published it on Christmas Eve 1915 in the London TimesThe Dorset superstition was that oxen used to kneel every Christmas Eve, honouring the holy birth so Hardy told readers that were he to be invited by a farmhand to witness this miracle: “I should go with him in the gloom,/ Hoping it might be so.”

Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the 'Perfect Christmas'
Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’

We are treated to a wonderful description of Susan’s Christmas Eve bedtime ritual, set in the darkness of the Little Chamber bedroom where the wood furniture lies staunch still and dour in the blue of the early morning light, reflected from the snow fields of the Peak District and the starry skies outside. We are privy to conversations between Susan and her mother as they ponder what stars are during an evening walk to church: “other worlds” according to a STEM-gifted Susan or, as her mother replies, “worlds or angels’ eyes or visions of heaven.” We discover her stocking contents alongside her as she explores by touch in the dark, pulls out a flat square object and sniffs its cardboard scent (it’s a new book!), finds an orange and crunches into a yellow apple from her favourite tree. Reaching deeper into her stocking, she shakes out a handful of knobbly walnuts from Bird in Bush farm, a tin of confits and a sweet sugar mouse. It is, what Rose Henniker Heaton, in her 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’, would approve of: “a tangerine wrapped in gold paper, in the toe…to help preserve the shape” and Susan’s inability to wait until it is morning proper is perfectly captured by poet John Mole:

Nuts and marbles in the toe,
An orange in the heel,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is wonderful to feel.

Shadowy, bulging length of leg
That crackles when you clutch,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is marvellous to touch.

Susan’s Christmas supper is resplendent, a table piled high with the hard earned fruits of her parents labours. There is a cake iced and sprinkled with red, white and blue hundreds and thousands, topped by a union jack paper flag with a tumbling clown on its other side. A ham is handsomely cloaked with brown raspings and a paper frill and a pie stuffed with veal, ham and eggs is surrounded by brown boiled eggs in a silver egg stand which “stood like a castle with eight stalwart egg cups and eight curling spoons around the tall handle, bread and butter on Minton china plates with their tiny green leaves and gold edges, a pot of honey and strawberry jam and an old Staffordshire dish of little tarts containing golden curds made of beastings, filled with currants. “ The cream in the Queen Anne jug is so thick it barely pours out and the beestings are what we’d know as colostrum, milked from a newly delivered cow, and often used to make luxurious curd tarts after being left to set.

Almanzo Wilder was the future husband of Laura Ingalls, of Little House on the Prairie fame, and like Susan, he too found the wait for the day to start proper, excruciating. He was born into a farming family with no access to any artificial light other than candles or kerosene and they had to conduct their early morning and evening animal husbandry in the dark. Such an exhausting regime in the deep cold of upstate New York rendered those hours of warm sleep doubly precious. Almanzo awoke his family very early indeed at 3:30 am with his childhood impatience- “ children, have you thought to look at the clock?” asks Father, in Ingalls Wilder’s account of his boyhood, ‘Farmer Boy’.

f52386ab8a4ac9d04ab5727e7484bbf4

Compared to Laura, Almanzo ate very well indeed as the son of prosperous horse farmers. Take this description which reads now as the longings of its adult author, deprived of good food by the Depression of the thirties, when she wrote it: “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham, he bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”

Barbara Walker, author of The Little House Cookbook believes that “after a childhood filled with near-starvation experiences,” Farmer Boy became “‘her [Laura Ingalls Wilder] own fantasy of blissful youth, surrounded on all sides by food.’” As a young child Laura’s Christmas Days were full of love, family gatherings, song and religious observance but they were times of material deprivation too: she was fortunate to receive a corn cob doll, a twist of candy in a paper bag and a penny in her stocking whilst Almanzo received livestock, sleighs, clasp knives, toys, a plush store bought cap and ate oodles of doughnuts, cookies, bushels of fruit from a never empty cellar buried under a stream of thick golden cream and maple syrup from their own trees, oh and let’s not forget- popcorn and milk every night.

And yet the descriptions of Laura’s Christmas are just as compelling. Take this Christmas stocking scene from Little House in the Big Woods:

“They plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long, long, sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at that beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn’t even take one lick of her stick.

little-house_1

“Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.”

Later on, when they were both approaching their teens the family moved away from the big woods and their wider family to a dug out in the banks of Minnesota’s Plum Creek. Here, times were harder and the family had to rely on the charity of the local church: Laura got the tawny gold little fur muff she coveted from the Christmas church barrel and her sister is given a delicate china dog. The first Christmas at Plum Creek came after a late Summer plague of locusts had decimated their crops and that of their neighbours and the next Christmas was riven with their fears for Pa’s life when he got lost in a blizzard on his way home to them. Yet all’s well that ends well and as readers we are heart warmed by our glimpse of the family through their lace curtain-edged dugout window as they listen to Pa play fiddle, sing, dance and they all luxuriate in the close presence of the people they love the most. At times I did wonder whether Pa was somewhat selfish in his unrelenting desire to go west which constantly uprooted the family and left Ma terribly isolated at times.

35cc65f6456835e04fe589c33c173723

That’s not the last time a barrel saves them from a Christmas famine either. In a later book, Laura recounts the travails of a long winter where the family slowly starves along with the rest of their small town. When the train finally gets through after months of blizzards in The Long Winter, it is not a moment too soon and it brings their long awaited Christmas barrel, filled with presents from eastern relatives and one solid-frozen turkey complete with cranberries. In a timely celebration filled with relief so tangible we can feel it, the Boast family arrive to celebrate a belated Christmas dinner and they all feast upon stewed cranberries with sugar, bread made from soft winter wheat, sugar-frosted cakes, fruit pies, bread stuffing and roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and Mrs Boast’s home-made butter. The soft breeze and spring air comes through the open windows and Mrs Boasts’ smile is lovely despite her thin face, made anxious from worry and cold.  “The doors were open and both rooms could be used once more. Going in and out of the large front room whenever she wanted gave Laura a spacious and rested feeling, as if she could never be cross again.”

CarrieMaryandLauraIngalls

Pa sat out his first blizzard, curled up in his musquash fur coat as many other creatures do deep underground, awaiting the drip and unfurling of spring but for Katy and Clover Carr, sent away to school in eastern USA, blizzards and the severe winters there mean they must sit out Christmas Day in school and, quite possibly, without their Christmas boxes which have been snowed in. We’ve already shivered with them through pages of impossibly Arctic conditions where they wake daily to “toothbrushes stiff with ice in the morning”, “thick crusts of frost on the windowpane and every drop of water in wash bowl or pitcher turned to solid ice”. The windows have been covered in thick dark cloth to preserve heat and the Nunnery, which is what local boys refer to their school as, has become as parsimonious in nature as the most closeted of religious orders. Katy has been long disabused of her previously held idea of winter survival as ‘romantic’ and has struggled to find the part of her soul which might respond in a Christian way to Christmas deprivation when, (oh joy!), a kerfuffle in the dormitory corridor leads to the delivery of their boxes, the only ones in the school to get through.

The whole thing was declared a ‘marvel of packing’ and brimmed over with gifts, flowers and all manner of American home baked goods. Shared out with the other girls, they all sat in bed, wrapped in shawls and fingerless mittens to enjoy their Christmas food. Parcels were filled with ginger snaps and Debbie’s jumbles (circular sugar cookies in in the shape of entwined rings, originally called gemmels which is German for ‘twin’), the German crullers beloved of the Mittel European immigrants to the Midwest and a “splendid frosted plum-cake”. The second box was full of delicate flowers, slightly drooping in their bed of cotton wool which Katy set about reviving. Katy was sorry to have left this box until last although she didn’t identify with these delicate blossoms, finding the cold more bracing than depressing. “There was something in her blood which responded to the sharp tingle of frost.” Her sister Clover was not so fortunate though as ‘a chilly creature’, requiring hot bricks at her feet and many layers of blankets to stay warm and even the hated Miss Jane, a teacher at the school, was visited by Katy with gifts when she was ill in bed and ignored by all the other pupils who couldn’t forgive the cruel way she had behaved towards the Carr girls. The Christmas spirit indeed….

Thomas Mann, 1926
Thomas Mann, 1926

For snowbound wintry reading, little beats Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War. When Hans Castorp, a young engineer, travels to the International Sanatorium Berghof high up in the Swiss Alps to spend time with his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, we’re not totally clear whether he develops a form of Stockholm Syndrome which sees him identify to the point of displaying symptoms of illness himself. He intended to stay a few weeks and ends up remaining there for years as he is diagnosed with TB and assumes his rightful place on the veranda, coughing up his lungs in the face of magnificent Alpine sunsets. Each night he would take to his room with a pile of books, and a glass of creamy evening milk with a shot of Cognac, living a dream-like life where absence from the everyday human trials and responsibilities is a given and they hear of them at a remove, via whispered confidences, letters from home and newspapers bought from ‘below’.

magicmountain

In the sanatorium dining room there is much talk of snow, the start of the ski season and the onset of Christmas, the latter well before Advent, which startles Hans because he had not considered that this might form part of his conditions of treatment: his usual habit was to spend it with loved ones and tries to cheer himself up: “He said to himself, think of all the places and conditions in which Christmas had been celebrated before now!” Quite.

Hans had not yet developed the habit of seeing Christmas as a a kind of vaulting pole which he could use to leap over the intervening endless days of confinement in their visually arresting mountainous sanitorium. He could appreciate how the accelerated metabolic effects of TB might affect the way one viewed time itself and the landscape, freezing cold yet burning of breath and well upholstered with snow, is perfect metaphor for the febrile thinness of the consumptive. The “arch of the loggia, which framed a glorious panorama of snow powdered forest, softly filled passes and ravines, white sunlit valleys and radiant blue heavens above all”, the crystal and diamond world that lay near the black and white forest under the night skies embroidered with stars, all conspired to seduce patients into seeing Christmas as a state of grace and a short interlude from reality, full of frost and fire like their own fevered state. In What Katy Did at School, its author, Susan Coolidge, addresses us thus: “Do any of you know how incredibly long winter seems in climates where for weeks together the thermometer stands at zero?”…”There is something hopeless in such cold” and it is this I remember when reading Mann’s novel, a reminder to be tolerant and kind towards characters who sometimes become preoccupied with concepts I might consider self-indulgent.

5488606599_eaff5679de

Back in the sanitorium, mail grew heavier as the festive season drew closer; marzipan, Christmas cakes, apples and spiced nuts, all “carefully packed remembrances from home” in the manner of those received by Katy Carr. Their dining room tree crackled in the firelight and spread its fragrance and these distressingly ill people wore their jewels, cravats and evening coats to dinner in a poignant facsimile of festive life back home in the grand cities and towns of Europe. They were “gay at the Russian table” where the first Champagne corks popped and Clavdia wore a Balkan style dress with tinkling ornaments on the bodice. Ending the choice meal with cheese straws, bon bons, coffee and liqueurs, it is significant that the food is represented by titbits, those little morsels that are more easily consumed by illness-affected appetites.

As the room dies down and the tree candles burn to stumps, there is an air of let-down as Christmas Day dawns misty and then was all over, leaving the holiday in the past. The sumptuous breakfasts served in the sanitorium,  “pots of marmalade and honey, basins of rice and oatmeal porridge, dishes of cold meat and scrambled eggs; a plenitude of butter, a Gruyere cheese dropping moisture under a glass bell. A bowl of fresh and dried fruits stood in the centre of the table” and a “thick, dark, and foaming brownly Kulmbacher beer” aren’t mentioned on the holiest day of all.

This same sense of anti climax permeated Dylan Thomas’s description of Christmas dinner and what came afterwards, a sated afternoon when relatives sleep off their engorgement and children attend to the gifts that were opened with giddy speed earlier on, then discarded in the haste to get to the next thing:

“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.”

bookcover_large

In a literary sense, it can be challenging to move a story on from the giddy escalation that marks the month of December. Take Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, his largely autobiographical short story first published in 1956 and eclipsed by his brasher output until it was adapted for screen and stage productions. Truman writes fondly of Sook, his cousin who befriended him in Alabama and whose mischief is central to the tale:

“it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

Dec10 025

Together they haul a straw buggy down to the pecan grove to forage for the nuts which go into their esteemed fruitcakes which are sent to barely known acquaintances or people they have never met at all, including President Franklin Roosevelt. They finance this operation with money that they have accumulated through the year in their Fruitcake Fund and make and gift wrap home brewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting” for relatives. They spend hours preparing the pecans they picked: “Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves.”

Then there’s more delectable descriptions of food as they settle down for the evening:

“We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home” and the next day they procur the whisky that state law prohibits from a certain Mr Haha Jones who operates out of a ‘sinful’ fish fry and dancing cafe.

The prized whisky will flavour their cakes and, as a reward for his help, Mr Jones will get an extra cupful of raisins stirred into his. The actual labour of baking thirty one cakes sounds delectable:

“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.”

christmas-memory-inside1-1024x1004

The pair share the leftover whisky with the inevitable mild inebriation, moving two other relatives to scold Buddy’s cousin for corrupting a child. The next morning sees Buddy and his cousin search deep into the woods for their Christmas decorations, gathering wreaths, chopping down a tree and laboriously dragging everything home in their old buggy. The description of the Alabama woods are breathtaking:  “A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam.

Come Christmas Day, a good old southern breakfast hits the spot: “just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.”

But it is inevitably followed by anti climax as Buddy opens his gifts:

“Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

“This is our last Christmas together,” and for a few more years, ‘fruitcake weather’ continues until the November when she does not get out of her bed to bake…

Seasonal recipes

Alison Uttleys Christmas possets from Recipes From an Old Farmhouse:

“A starved child was a very cold child and I often came home from my long walk from school starved in the winter nights. A posset of hot milk and bread cut into small squares with a dash of rum and some brown sugar brought colour into my cheeks. Milk was curdled with ale to make a christmas posset. Spices were added, cloves and cinnamon, and a grate of nutmeg and brown sugar. The posset was mulled on the hot stove, in a pewter tankard, and poured into smaller mugs of pewter when ready. The ale curdled the milk and made a froth like lambs wool, the old froth of roast apples once used in possets.

Black Cake:

I’ve written about my favourite boiled fruit cake here. It makes an excellent Christmas cake too and another recipe that I’ve made for years is Laurie Colwin’s Black Cake. Also mentioned by Nigella in How To be a Domestic Goddess, Colwin’s black cake came to her via her daughters Caribbean babysitter. Colwin  died in 1992 and whilst alive, gained a reputation as a novelist of short stories. Since her death, at the age of 48, her books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking” have rightfully gained her a new following because of her warm and confiding manner. She encourages readers to try their hand at cooking and uses the tribulations of her own life to reassure them that failure is an amusing and life enhancing part of the process. Here is Colwin on that black cake:

“There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. … Black Cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated, and intense. It has taste and aftertaste. It demands to be eaten in a slow, meditative way. The texture is complicated too—dense and light at the same time.”

The Black Cake calls for burned sugar essence which is essentially melted and browned sugar made the way you would for a caramel, but thinned down with water at the end of the process. There are many recipes for it online but Nigella substitutes molasses. This produces a lovely cake but not THE black cake so if you want to make the real thing, hunt down the technique.

Pecan tassies, inspired by Truman Capote:

Pecan tassies - http://www.thingness.org
Pecan tassies – http://www.thingness.org

These gorgeous little mouthfuls are a classic Southern holiday favourite, also popular at church socials, weddings and the like and provide, as Wendell Brock once said, “a combination of flavours that are the greatest of autumn’s comforts- butter, pecans and brown sugar”. A tassie is a Scots variation of “cup” and a pecan tassie is a small cup packed with pecan pie filling, using a nut (although technically it is a ‘drupe’) which grows abundantly across the South. In his book ‘My Mothers Southern Kitchen’, the eminent food writer James Villas includes a favourite recipe from his mother, Martha, who serves them at her guild meetings and I would be amazed if Truman and his cousin didn’t eat tassies regularly.

Villas knew Capote: in his own words, he “hobnobbed on royal banquettes with Capote, the King of Spain, Dali and a contingent of other gold plated swells.” and got “smashed after cocktails at the Plaza Hotel” with him and Don Erickson, the legendary executive editor of  Esquire. The beauty of Southerners is that no matter how rarefied the air they breathe in celebrity-soaked circles becomes, they retain a connection with the food they grew up eating and seem to countenance no snobbery towards it.

The recipe uses the US cup system but its not hard to convert.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, combine butter, cream cheese and flour and mix with hands until dough can be formed into a soft ball.

Pinch off 24 pieces of dough, and press each piece firmly onto bottom and sides of two greased 12-cup muffin tins.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, beat egg with sugar and salt and stir in pecans and vanilla. Spoon filling into lined cups and bake till the pastry is golden, about 25 minutes. Let the tassies cool and carefully unmold on a large plate.

 

Give a book for Christmas- an annual gift guide

B2u7TuuCAAAayCv

When it comes to buying gifts, I’ve become stuck in a very pleasant rut- my number one choice will always be a book and compiling my regular biblio-gift guides will always be one of my very favourite things to do. So here’s the latest and whether you are buying for Hanukah, Christmas, Diwali or for no reason at all, I hope you’ll find something to please you from my selection of wonders, both newly published and a few older classics.

Culinary words-

41RIBozpFeL._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_

 Essential Turkish Cuisine by Engin Akin is a timely reminder of a country, culture and cuisine possessed of riches, magnificence and generosity of spirit. “Turkish cuisine marries palace finesse with rugged nomadic traditions” explains Engin Akin as she folds and pleats delicate boreki pastries and the reader is taken on a magical and thorough exploration of the way that geography and culture has influenced what is eaten, by whom and in what way. Engin owns a cooking school in Ula and this means her recipes are well tested and possess cultural veracity. They work.

61T8gLHM2HL._SY498_BO1,204,203,200_

This Autumn has seen the release of cookbooks by Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, an embarrassment of riches indeed. Simply Nigella was reviewed more extensively here but, simply put,  Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and kitchen via her usual well tested, humorous and alluring recipes which are liberally scattered with useful micro-recipes and tips to help you eat well. Slater’s latest in his kitchen diaries series, A Year of Good Eating: The Kitchen Diaries III reflects the “endless delight I get from giving people, loved ones, friends, complete strangers, something good to eat” as he stated. His recipes are understated, economical of word and deeply reflective of seasonal time and place, collated into a diary form recipe per day structure.

Creole Kitchen
Creole Kitchen

Creole Kitchen by Vanessa Bolosier is fabulous in every way from the fabulous jacket design to the recipes and words which tell of joy, brightness and life. Her cuisine is drenched in history and is birthed from the ancestry and migration of island people. Starting with an explanation of the term ‘Creole’, Vanessa tells their story and then instructs us as to how best to equip a kitchen Creole style. These are perfect little vignettes in themselves and we then move onto the recipes and a pattern emerges of bold bright flavours infused with a sophistication born from the authors skill and ability. Bolosier has a Guadeloupian, Martinique Creole background, worked as a model and moved to London where she now runs a food company, cooking school and supper club so she makes a great mentor.

61yTRMdZuwL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Not a cookbook but containing some recipes which are closely tied to its story, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal is a mother and daughter coming of age novel set against the food and culture of the American Midwest. We meet Eva, grower of chilli peppers in her wardrobe, effectively an orphan and now looked after by her aunt and uncle. Eva is heart and soul of a story which both skewers and celebrates the emerging global food culture and plays with opposites, placing the authentic (Eva) against those who posture, postulate and pontificate about food in a totally unauthentic manner. Eva is destined to sing through food, becoming a culinary goddess and this lovely novel tells her story and that of the people she meets along the way.

olympia.0

The revival of old homesteader crafts such as pickling, fermenting and smoking has resulted in a slew of books showing us how to do this safely because ignorance of hygiene (among other factors) can result in some pretty nasty consequences. And that is where Olympia Provisions by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson comes in because although it is an American book, the meat preserving techniques it demonstrates are universal. There’s a great balance between the European origins of a lot of the charcuterie and recipes that show the American versions of such- the frankfurters, sausage, salami and confits that have made their store and restaurant so popular.

Inspired by jägermeisters, the charcuterie makers who smoke, cure, and can animals that they’ve hunted or raised on their farm which the author met during her 4 year apprenticeship in the Swiss Alps (before the opening of Olympic Provisions, known as OP), this is a hearty, muscular exploration of the craft. Illustrated with stunning shots of places, food and people the book is not just a coffee table tome for those of us *thinking* about *one day* curing our own meats, it is a call to action because it balances the glossy aspirational aspects of food writing with the practical how to side that is vital in ensuring readers actually get off their butts and DO it.

nanban-edited2

For those of you who like cookbooks inspired by hot new restaurants, the following books should provide you with plenty of inspiration.  Nanban: Japanese Soul Food by Tim Anderson is a sensory delight with bold recipes and unexpected flavours and ingredients by a Masterchef winner. His take on Japanese cuisine resulted in a restaurant from which these recipes are based whilst the restaurant Hartwood in the Mexican Yucatan inspired the eponymous Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry. Hartwood cooks with local ingredients over an open flame, on the grill or in a wood-burning oven. The fish is all freshly caught from nearby waters, the produce is purchased from Mayan farmers, and technique marries the eclectic with timeless ancestral methodology.

61t-w4JCa9L._SX407_BO1,204,203,200_

The Brodo Cookbook was written by Marco Canora who has been the owner and Executive Chef at Hearth Restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village since its opening in 2003. After revitalizing his health by integrating bone broth into his diet, Marco began to make his nourishing broths available by the cupful to New Yorkers from a small window in his East Village restaurant, drawing sell-out crowds virtually from the beginning. No longer just a building block for soups and sauces, bone broths are now being embraced for these perceived health benefits and in Brodo, Marco shares the recipes for his flavorful, nutritious broths and shows how to serve them year round as well as incorporate them into recipes and as a daily health practice. For those people interested in perfecting technique, this is the perfect book.

51W7gtqKa8L._SX428_BO1,204,203,200_

The appeal of a cookbook starts with the words and images for many of us and although it is highly likely that many purchasers of Sea and Smoke by Willows Inn chef Blaine Wetzel, Joe Ray and photographer Charity Burggraaf, might not cook from it, judging a cookbook by this kind of misses the point. The descriptions of food are wistful and beautiful: A broth of roasted Madrona bark,” “Nootka rose petals and salmonberries” and serve as jewelled treasure map to the tiny Lummi Island, a few hours north of Seattle, which can only be reached by an open-air ferry. Ray spent a year here and his words capture the four distinct seasons of Pacific Northwest cuisine without losing any of its wildness, spirit and fleeting beauty.

51mVyIExP7L._SX435_BO1,204,203,200_

If you are a fan of everyday French cooking, In a French Kitchen: tales and traditions of everyday home cooking in France by the author of the now-classic memoir, “On Rue Tatine” Susan Hermann Loomis will keep you comforted entertained and informed. Loomis introduces the reader to the busy people of Louviers, the ingredients available locally and what to do with them. Eighty five recipes and a multiplicity of stories later, Loomis learns that delicious, even decadent meals don’t have to be complicated. Definitely one to read on the darkest of winter evenings, curled up by the fire with a glass of wine: I first read her back in the very late eighties when I was learning to cook for my family and she has been a reliable and warm companion ever since.

cover72449-medium

For the sweet toothed among you, Sweeter Off the Vine: fruit desserts for every season by Yosy Arefi will provide you with a collection of heirloom-quality recipes for pies, cakes, tarts, ice cream, preserves, and other sweet treats. From raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet, ruby red rhubarb pavlova, juicy apricots and berry galettes with saffron sugar to blood orange donuts and tangerine cream pie, Arefi shows us how to incorporate seasonal ingredients with the more exotic (such as rose and orange flower water from her native Iran), all photographed sumptuously by her.

519-iQbcItL._SX431_BO1,204,203,200_

The publication of the Groundnut Cookbook followed a successful Guardian Cook residency where authors Timothy Duval, Folayemi Brown and Jacob Fidio Todd wowed readers with their witty, fresh and culturally intriguing collection of recipes. From Jollof Rice, Butterbean Terrine and Pork in Tamarind to Cardamom Mandazi, Yorkshire Pudding with Mango Curd and Puna Yam Cake, the clear instructions, easily sourced ingredients and sumptuous photography will ensure you’ll cook from it again and again.

51T7oIhqu3L._SY472_BO1,204,203,200_

Finally, if you have a small child keen to get involved in cooking, then this lovely picture book which focuses upon all those lovely festive scents will make a perfect post lunch read. The Sweet Smell of Christmas is about Little Bear who knows that Christmas is nearly here because of all the amazing scents floating in the air. From soft gingerbread men to sweet mint candy, there are so many smells to accompany the festivities; it’s hard to choose a favourite. The book contains six different scratch-and-sniff scents, so kids can interact with the story and smell some of the things that Little Bear smells too. And for older kids, teens and adults who like a bit of GBBO style creativity, The Great British Cake Off by Harriet Popham will encourage them to put sprinkles and cake tin aside and pick up a pencil in order to tackle over seventy colouring in designs. Beautiful illustrations of favourite cakes and bakes are just waiting to be brought to life alongside colouring ‘technical challenges’ to push you just that little bit harder.

Words of Adventure, art and history

cover72606-medium

Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in Atlas of Cursed Places.  Accompany him to 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death, including the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most ‘popular’ suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.

cover72747-medium

In Sidewalking, David L. Ulin offers a compelling inquiry into the evolving landscape of Los Angeles. Part personal narrative, part investigation of the city as both idea and environment, Sidewalking is many things: a discussion of Los Angeles as urban space, a history of the city’s built environment, a meditation on the author’s relationship to the city, and a rumination on the art of urban walking and psychogeography. Exploring Los Angeles through the soles of his feet, Ulin gets at the experience of its street life, drawing from urban theory, pop culture, and literature. For readers interested in the culture of Los Angeles, this book offers a pointed look beneath the surface in order to see, and engage with, the city on its own terms.

51Kw1H3MFML._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Paul Theroux turns his travelling eye on America’s Deep South in his latest eponymous book and this well seasoned traveller of over five decades roams through Tennessee, both Carolinas and Alabama then wades through the slow moving bayous, low country rice fields and marshy Delta backwaters, all of them way below the Mason Dixon Line and still haunted by Mr Crow’s ugly decision. This is a place which is still chained to the past: from older people who cling to the misnomer ‘the war of Northern aggression’ to the problems with who ‘can’ use the ‘N’ word, to multiple losses of industry to ‘abroad’. The book relates the sum total of four trips over eighteen months as opposed to a single linear voyage of discovery and for that reason, the reader has a sense of thoughts revised and cumulative impressions laying on top of each other like the leaves of a book. Yet there is the other side of the South too: the literature and music which Theroux writes of; the food, and hospitality, We go to potlucks and dinners on the ground with Theroux, we see the gun fairs and football and febrile religious observances which divide as much as they enjoin. This is not an especially cheerful book but how could it be? Much of what we believe about the South is not yet a cliche but what we end up with is still a fascinating, frustrating and haunting account of one of the worlds most culturally distinctive places.

cover76621-medium

For cycling fans, What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is an exhilarating and well written account of the life of a cycle courier in London. We experience vicariously, her six years of pain and pleasure-both mental and physical-of life on wheels: the hurtling, dangerous missions; the ebb and flow of seasonal work; the moments of fear and freedom, anger and exhaustion; the camaraderie of the courier tribe and its idiosyncratic characters; the conflict and harmony between bicycle and road, body and mind. I feel in turns, both frightened for her and envious of her unique bikes eye view of the city.

cover77450-medium

Near the top of Mount Everest, on 10 May 1996, eight climbers died. It was the worst tragedy in the mountain’s history and Lou Kasischke was there. After the Wind tells the harrowing story of what went wrong, as it has never been told before – including why the climbers were so desperately out of time as the rogue storm struck. His personal story tells about the intense moments near the top and these moments also revealed the love story that saved his life.

cover77724-medium

Long evenings are pefect for getting to grips with a good historical biography and Cleopatra by Ernle Bradford takes a more balanced view of the last Ptolemaic Queen whom history has traduced and maligned as an infamous woman, given to sexual excess and capable of every perfidy. Bradford depicts her as a woman of infinite courage and political resource who, from the age of eighteen until her death, fought to free her country from the iron dominance of Rome and to secure its inheritance for the son of her first lover Julius Caesar. It was right that she should be buried in Alexandria, for in her spirit and in her ambition she was worthy of Alexander himself. The subject of biography and tragedy, Queen Cleopatra remains a subject to which historians are attracted two thousand years after her glorious but doomed life.

51keX8ZARoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  is the perfect book for any science enthusiast with a penchant for big questions and a side of humour. What if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by signature xkcd comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with updated and expanded versions of the most popular answers from the xkcd website.

Once-Upon-Time

For those of you hooked on Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire is an in-depth history of the Seven Kingdoms, sumptuously detailed to clear up any gaps in knowledge. We go from one world peopled with thrones, swords and fantastical themes to another with our next choice because many of us have grown up with tales of glass slippers, evil queens, and magic spells, but where did they come from and what inspired them? Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale explores these famous stories, their origins, and their modern film, literature, and stage adaptations. In addition, if you are studying literature or have a child in the middle of an English GCSE course, this is such a useful contextual read.

51fLOHFvPuL._SX390_BO1,204,203,200_

There are days so crepuscular, wet and cold that even the most dedicated gardener will baulk at going out in them: this is the time to curl up with Dear Christo: memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter by Rosemary Alexander, a lovely commemoration of a book where well known  garden writers and celebrities such as Alan Titchmarsh, Anna Pavord, Helen Dillon, Hugh Johnson, Simon Jenkins and Mary Keen remark upon their memories of Great Dixter and the great man who gardened here. Or escape the cold by taking yourself off on an imaginative odyssey and literary exploration of Sicily in the capable hands of John Julius Norwich. “Sicily,” said Goethe, “is the key to everything.” It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, the stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, the link between the Latin West and the Greek East. Sicily’s strategic location has tempted Roman emperors, French princes, and Spanish kings. The subsequent struggles to conquer and keep it have played crucial roles in the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful dynasties. Sicily: an island at the crossroads of history is the first to knit together all of the colourful strands of Sicilian history into a single comprehensive study.

the-fish-ladder-katharine-norbury-large

If you are looking for another peaceful, meditative and thoughtful space inside the pages of a book then The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury will please: it has been one of the best books I have read all year and destined to be re-read. Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions and what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

51Y6BZ2y7jL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_

Wood has provided a worthy subject for this years surprise runaway bestseller: Norwegian Wood: chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way by Lars Mytting, so when we found Robert Penn had written a lovely book about using ash wood to create a myriad of items, we had to suggest it as a worthy companion. Ash is the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history so Penn decided to fell one and see how many things he could make from it. Journeying from Wales across Europe and Ireland to the USA, Penn finds that the ancient skills and knowledge of the properties of ash, developed over millennia making wheels and arrows, furniture and baseball bats, are far from dead. The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood and reading it is deeply calming.

51Y6BZ2y7jL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_

If you have a Wes Anderson film buff in your home then what better gift to give than this? The Wes Anderson Collection is the first in-depth overview of Anderson’s filmography, guiding readers through his life and career. Previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera complement a book-length conversation between Anderson and award-winning critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The interview and images are woven together in an intricately designed book that captures the spirit of his films: melancholy and playful, wise and childish and thoroughly original. And for those of you who appreciate the art of a great interview, The Smith Tapes by Howard Smith gathers together the best of this journalists revealing interviews with the likes of Jagger, Dennis Hopper and Andy Warhol. Unedited transcripts are published here for the first time in all their counter cultural glory.

51oOuMWdhJL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_

Other people’s letters are always fascinating and in this digital age, the epistolary arts risk being lost to us all. Feast upon Letters of Note then, a gorgeously designed collection of over one hundred of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the popular website of the same name – an online museum of correspondence visited by over 70 million people.

51YU8LrmRaL._AA160_

From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression ‘OMG’ in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.

51F+xjsB8vL._AA160_

At a time of busy domesticity, this next book might seem like an odd and possibly even insensitive choice after weeks of gift shopping, turkey stuffing and tree decorating, but Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson makes riveting reading. Giving voice to women at a time when domestic politics often rendered them unheard, the pain, lack of fulfilment and frustration behind the popular image of a world where women wore little frilled pinafores and kept themselves and their home immaculate is revealed. Betty Halbreich is a legendary New York City figure and I’ll Drink to That, her amazing life story is also in development by Lena Dunham for HBO. Halbeich is a personal shopper and stylist and now in her eighties, she has spent nearly forty years at the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman, working with socialites, stars and ordinary women. She has led many to appreciate their real selves through clothes, frank advice and her unique brand of wisdom; she is trusted by the most discriminating persons – including Hollywood’s top stylists – to tell them what looks best. But her own transformation from cosseted girl to fearless truth-teller is the greatest makeover of all, best read in this wonderful autobiography.

hqdefault

If you need to ramp up your personal grooming or feel you are floundering when it comes to the make up arts, then Face Paint by top makeup artist Lisa Eldridge will become your friend. This glossy history of cosmetics from the early days of bodily adornment to the present day machinations of the giant beauty industry is explored by a pro who is also known for her excellent YouTube beauty vlogs and practical down to earth assistance.

Fiction

cover73699-medium

From Jane Lotter comes The Bette Davis Club, a madcap road adventure with Margo, a spirited woman in the prime of life whose adventures are triggered by a double martini on the morning of her niece’s wedding.

When the young bride flees—taking with her a family heirloom and leaving behind six hundred bewildered guests—her mother offers Margo fifty grand to retrieve her spoiled brat of a daughter and the invaluable property she stole. So, together with the bride’s jilted and justifiably crabby fiancé, Margo sets out in a borrowed 1955 red MG on a cross-country chase. Along the way, none of what she discovers will be quite what she expected. But it might be exactly what she’s been seeking all along.

cover73974-medium

I’m always pleased by fiction set in less familiar places and in The Private Life of Mrs Sharma we meet Renuka Sharma, a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law holding the fort in a modest rental in Delhi while her husband tries to rack up savings in Dubai. Working as a receptionist and committed to finding a place for her family in the New Indian Dream of air-conditioned malls and high paid jobs at multi-nationals, life is going as planned until the day she strikes up a conversation with an uncommonly self-possessed stranger at a Metro station. Because while Mrs Sharma may espouse traditional values, India is changing all around her, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she came out of her shell a little, would it? A new voice in Indian fiction, Ratika Kapur writes with an equal dose of humour and pathos and her novel is a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity.

cover69242-medium

Secrets and family estrangement lie at the heart of Kelly Romo’s Whistling Women, set against the backdrop of the 1935 World Fair in San Diego, a city where everything went terribly awry for Addie Bates. This is all the more heartbreaking because of the tentative hopes Addie had about a new start as she arrived there from the Kansas orphanage she had previously lived in before travelling to live with her newly married sister, Wavey. Years later, Addie flees to the Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony which provided her with a safe haven for her for 15 years, until she starts to realise that the loss of her more nubile younger body will cause the colonies owner, Heinrick, to eject her. Addie must make her way in a world for which she is ill equipped to live in and following the example of some of the other colony performers, she realises that family is her best hope.

cover74020-medium

A little bit of horror doesn’t go amiss in the Winter either and the stunning ‘lost’ horror novel of the late William Gay is deeply unsettling.  Little Sister Death is inspired by the famous 19th Century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee and follows the unraveling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to try and find inspiration for his faltering work. There’s no irony or post modern trickery in Gay’s novel: it is a classic Haunted House tale and written by a master of the genre.

51A-DfqahuL._SX279_BO1,204,203,200_

Horror and confusion of a more contemporary kind in Tim Washburn‘s Powerless where a massive geomagnetic solar storm destroys every power grid in the northern hemisphere. North America is without lights, electricity, phones, and navigation systems. In one week, the human race is flung back to the Dark Ages. This is something many of us contemplate: can we manage without the sophisticated and interrelated technological matrixes we’ve become dependent upon? Only one man–army veteran Zeke Marshall–is prepared to handle a nightmare like this. But when he tries to reunite with his family he discovers there are worse things in life than war. And there are terrible and unthinkable things he’ll have to do to survive.

51BO9rY8VaL._AA160_

Just out in cinemas is Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and this book which was first published by the London Review of Books has been re-released. In 1974, the homeless Miss Shepherd moved her broken down van into Alan Bennett’s garden. Deeply eccentric and stubborn to her bones, Miss Shepherd was not an easy tenant. And Bennett, despite inviting her in the first place, was a reluctant landlord. And yet she lived there for fifteen years. Altogether darker in tone is David Mitchell’s Slade House which was born out of the short story he published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabits the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks. 

51TydAYhJxL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies. A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. More mysteries abound in the newly published The Master of the Prado by Javier Sierra as he takes readers on a grand tour of the Prado museum in this historical novel that illuminates the fascinating mysteries behind European art—complete with gorgeous, full-color inserts of artwork by da Vinci, Boticelli, and other master artists. Historical figures are brought to life and dazzling secrets, conspiracies and prophecies hidden within artistic masterpieces are uncovered in this intriguing story.

when-the-doves-disappeared-sofi-oksanen-large

I loved Purge, the earlier novel by Sofi Oksanen and her latest, When the Doves Disappeared ( translated by Lola Rogers) doesn’t disappoint. Her plot is fast paced and explores Estonia’s terrible wartime history of mass human displacement, collaboration and occupation, shining a light upon a part of the world which is often neglected by writings about the Second World War. The translation is superb too. Another well translated novel is A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman which became a sleeper hit over the late Summer via word of mouth. The titular Ove is a cantankerous Swedish misanthrope, constantly cross and combative with neighbours, shop assistants and everything, to be honest. But beneath this gruff exterior is a decent man with a generous spirit. Read and smile as he becomes an unexpected saviour to the unfortunates who come his way.

412bkV5qhqL._AA160_

Finally, 2015 saw us saying goodbye and thank you to Jackie Collins who died far too soon of breast cancer. In tribute to a writer who kept me entertained and helped to educate me about what kind of men I needed to avoid, I’ll be rereading two of her novels: Hollywood Wives and Lovers and Gamblers, both classics of the sex, shopping and backstabbing genre. The former provides hours of fun trying to identify the thinly disguised real life Hollywood people who inspired her characters and the latter is a romp involving beauty queens. a male hero who is a priapic hybrid of Tom Jones and Rod Stewart and a plane crash in the South American jungle. Enjoy.

Seasonally themed books

bookcover_large

Christmas themed books are a yearly tradition in our house and the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is where we recommend you start. Scrooge actively hates Christmas and he’s not shy about spreading his misanthropy. A timely visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future remind him about life, love and priorities. Another favourite of mine is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and set in Alabama during the great depression. We meet seven-year-old Buddy whose parents leave him with relatives over Christmas whose gift-buying imagination doesn’t stretch to much more than a religious magazine subscription. His friendship with an elderly cousin saves the day as they both get drunk on whiskey, bake cakes and decorate trees after a muddy cold expedition to find one.

61nWuZ9oXWL._SX427_BO1,204,203,200_

For young children, Chris Judge’s The Snow Beast is jolly Christmas whodunnit because Beast has been robbed and so has the whole village. Without tools the villagers can’t put on their legendary Winter Festival, so Beast sets off to solve the mystery. Discovering that a stranded Snow Beast is behind the robbery, Beast has to decide whether to help this odd-looking stranger.

Holidays_on_Ice

For both children and adults, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss tells of the journey towards love, acceptance and forgiveness which the Grinch, whose heart is two sizes too small, undergoes, after stealing everyone’s gifts because he hates Christmas. Closer to home, A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is based on his own experiences, growing up in a small Welsh town and ideal for reading aloud. Christmas in the country provided Laurie Lee with plenty to write about in Village Christmas, a moving, lyrical portrait of England through the changing years and seasons. Laurie Lee left his childhood home in the Cotswolds when he was nineteen, but it remained with him throughout his life until, many years later, he returned for good. This collection brings to life the sights, sounds, landscapes and traditions of his home – from centuries-old May Day rituals to his own patch of garden, from carol singing in crunching snow to pub conversations and songs.

9780241243657

For those in need of humour after spending hours servicing the needs of others, the writings of humourist David Sedaris might do the trick of putting you back together again (along with a large gin). Holidays on Ice boasts six humorous short Christmas stories impregnated with the sardonic and darkly dry humour Sedaris is known for. If reading about such things as the banality of life working as a Christmas elf in Macys amuses you, because life could always be worse, this is the book for you. Known for her sardonic nature in real life, Fox in the Manger by  P.L Travers has been reissued in a whimsical new edition by Virago. This charming retelling of the Christmas story by the author of Mary Poppins. Printed on board, with beautiful illustrations, this will be the perfect gift book for Christmas.

isbn9780349005713-detail

Finally, how can it be Christmas if someone hasn’t been murdered? Bring Poirot to the rescue with  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie or enjoy the recently reissued Mystery in White: a Christmas crime story by J Jefferson Farjeon who was highly acclaimed back in the day. Read on as heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near a tiny village, leaving passengers at the mercy of a murderer in the deserted home they shelter in. Good classic stuff.

51YCSk6spLL._SX377_BO1,204,203,200_

Simply Nigella reviewed

41PZ3kttf3L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Every time a new Nigella cookbook is published I feel compelled to go back and read her first one, How to Eat, and the urge to do this was particularly acute when Simply Nigella arrived on the book shelves in early October. In part this was because of the tumultuous time she has had (and I have no intention of rehashing it here) which triggered a desire to get out my mental broom and sweep out everything except her food and her words. The other reason was a desire to celebrate Lawson herself because she bloody deserves this.

Back in 1998, Lawson questioned what she referred to as ‘strenuous originality’ in recipes and food where the innovative ‘too often turns out to be inedible’ and now, in 2015, we have some pretty unpalatable and inedible attitudes towards food, appetite and the body in the media. We have glossily packaged eating disorders in the form of blogs about ‘clean eating’, ‘dirty food’ and hashtags impregnated with moral values. Awards are given to ‘food writers’ who devise what are in reality, barely edible recipes, selling them as healthy despite their damaged and unhealthy underpinnings. Many of us (and especially females) eat a side order of judgement and self-recrimination with every meal. It is sadly something that I, a woman who absorbed distorted schemas about food, love and comfort from her own mother, struggle with all the time. I have never eaten a meal that isn’t laced with feelings of anxiety, self-blame and agitation no matter how delicious the food, no matter how lovingly prepared it is. The gastro-demons always lie in wait for women like me but in her latest book, Lawson appears determined to address this tidal wave of orthorexia.

Despite the fashion for ‘clean eating’ and ‘clean food’, ingredients do not have an innate moral value although methods of production certainly do. Focus upon what that palm oil does to orang utans and their environment. Focus upon cattle kept in giant feed lots which turn the land into a toxic slurry soup. Focus upon the poor conditions and low pay endured by immigrants who toil in broiling hot fields to grow our salad greens and the difficulty poorer socio economic groups face when trying to source non processed foods at prices they can afford. This is where the guilt and blame lies as opposed to inside a slice of pie or a bar of chocolate.

Nigella Lawson has always reminded us that food is life, the fundamental part of Maslow’s triangle and its preparation need not become a toil despite this. Indeed, as she points out in her introduction, a disinclination to cook where once it brought peace, joy and a sense of rightness is a warning sign that the rest of ones life has become out of whack. Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and I find the way in which the usually private Lawson has shared this with her readers both moving and dignified. It must have been very hard for her.

I appreciate her consistency and the way she stands against that tide of ‘strenuous originality’. Lawson seems to have a strong sense of self when it comes to food and how to eat it, borne from childhood experiences and loss. As she has said in the past, watching loved ones struggle to eat because of illness, being unable to nourish them with food when the rest of the country appears to be eating under her tutelage must have been torturous. It is this consistency that I find most helpful. Unlike other super successful chefs and food writers, she doesn’t clamber aboard every gastro fad and doesn’t compulsively adopt trends which then undermine the work which has gone before. The only thing Lawson eulogises is the pleasure we can all find in food and its preparation.

And the recipes in Simply Nigella? Well yes, some of them are more technique, method or clever trick which a few critics have criticised as not ‘real’ cooking, more assembly. But think back again to How to Eat and remember the last few lines of her introduction. “As much as possible, I have wanted to make you feel that I’m there with you, in the kitchen as you cook. The book that follows is the conversation we might be having” she wrote. Take the criss cross potatoes (p247), a Hettie Potter contribution and attributed as such. No it isn’t a twenty stage pot au feu, more a method or handy tip than a recipe compliqué and something you’d imagine a friend passing on as they sat perched on your kitchen worktop, glass of wine in hand: “if you do your roasties like this, they’ll be better.” They are potatoes halved, roasted and cross hatched on top to make them even fluffier and crunchier, a way of tarting up something deeply familiar. 

12145396_691552017612907_190002591_n (1)
Caesar salad from Simply Nigella

 The same applies to her opening salvo, a deconstructed Caesar salad that pushed me out of the door late in the evening to the nearest store in search of a new bottle of anchovies. Adorned with a fried egg on top of a a halved Romano lettuce, wafer-thin slivers of parmesan and a sauce made from the anchovies, this is just the kind of assembly cum recipe that people find less intimidating. It has crunch and creaminess from the egg yolk which I fried to the point of it just starting to coalesce plus that salty umami from the fish.

Roasted radishes from Simply Nigella
Roasted radishes from Simply Nigella

I’d say similar about the roasted radishes (p227) which takes an ingredient which I can imagine some folks being a bit ‘meh’ about apart from eating with fridge-cold butter and torn-up bread. Roasting them with chives or scallions in olive oil produces an embarrassment of pink-cheeked riches. It’s not a new technique for some: I have eaten them roasted like this in Brittany and Haute Vienne but knowing you can roast radishes might save them from an elongated stay in the fridge drawer before they are finally chucked out, woody and under-appreciated.

There is lots more shiny newness. A nod to the chia seed revolution with a chia blueberry-bedecked pudding comes with a disclaimer that what she is most concerned with is its glutinous texture -which is not for everyone. (And not for me either.) Lawson demonstrates a consistent appreciation of texture from her early love of Halloumi and its joyous ‘squeaky polystyrene’ description to the gellified bubbles of tapioca and chia seed. Like the people of south east Asia, China and Japan, Lawson has always been partial to a bit of textural oddness.

Lawson seems to have exercised more restraint over her fondness for alliteration although from time to time she gives it free reign (beef chilli with bourbon, beer and black beans, Middle Eastern minestrone, sake sticky drumsticks). It had, of late, got a little out of control in her TV work (almost as if she was deliberately parodying herself ) and this restraint has produced a more readable book as a result. She’s travelled extensively too, including a recipe for pan de quiejo from Brazil- serendipitously- as I recently made this but wasn’t happy with the recipe. Hers works better. I loved a recipe for crackling made from chicken skin, a creative take on established British favourite and such a logical thing to do, WHY haven’t we heard of it before? A plate of Malaysian red cooked chicken is the culmination of a process which saw her posting a photo of her first attempt to much helpful feedback from Malay readers: “add more chillies!” which made me laugh and think how amazing it is that we have such immediate access to expertise.

12144050_965544420171599_1502476340_n
Dutch baby from Simply Nigella

Dutch Babies have clearly become a *thing* and making them is a short jump for those of us with northern grandparents who served great spongy wodges of Yorkshire pudding with jam or syrup as a prelude to the Sunday roast. There’s a practical tip too- make one giant one to avoid being chained to a hot stove top- and some American culinary history in her intro about its Pennsylvanian Dutch origins. (Nigella, please write a regional American cookbook.)

This is SUCH a delicate book, all pistachio, sugar pink and celadon whilst avoiding a descent into My Little Pony levels of pinkness (not that this would be necessarily a BAD thing). The art directors deserve to take a bow. Nigella’s “all about the pink and green at the moment” and there’s strength and fragility in the design: strength of knowledge and research; a visual reminder that life is precious and fragile, and the cake recipes aren’t just about heft although Lawson does like a bit of tension between light/dark in her ingredients. The apricot and almond cake with rosewater and cardamom is pure golden light though,  a love child that might have been the result of trips to Honey & Co with its treasure chest menu of Israeli and other Middle Eastern foods. This cake simply glows, a warm, autumnal mouthful, easy to make with most of the prep emanating from the steeping of the apricots. Go easy on that Rosewater or you’ll think you’ve ingested a Yardley factory.

Apricot almond and rosewater cake from Simply Nigella
Apricot almond and rosewater cake from Simply Nigella

The matcha cake with cherry juice icing is deservedly popular with bloggers and the food pages but pud wise, the stand out for me is the no churn blackcurrant ice cream with liquorice ripple (p336), the freezer twin of her chocolate and blackcurrant cake. Lawson’s fondness for, and talent in identifying and reformulating nostalgic and well known flavour combinations has birthed this ice cream, all rivulets of darkly aromatic juice against a glossy base made from condensed milk and double cream. It takes a curious and sensitive palate to pick up on the commonalities between blackcurrant and liquorice and the recipe continues her experiments with liquorice which we were introduced to in her last book, Nigellissima (little liquorice pots). I’ve ended up ordering thirty quids worth of the stuff from All Things Liquorice as a result: boxes of hard little pastilles from Italy; metal tins decorated with Christmas trolls filled with mint-centred liquorice tablets and salty chewy Finnish liquorice in a cat-patterned box.

Matcha cake with cherry juice from Simply Nigella
Matcha cake with cherry juice from Simply Nigella

Her previous books and social media feeds offer us a cornucopia of recommendations and tips for ingredients, equipment and other peoples recipes but Simply Nigella lacks a bibliography- a puzzling omission. She’s always been super-generous in crediting her sources even when she has changed the original recipe beyond all recognition (take note Mumsnet when you ask for recipe ideas for your cookbooks!) and I’ve grown fond of playing my own version of Nigella Snap! where I compare my food library with hers. Bibliographies can help with tracing the culinary genealogy of a recipe and those of us who enjoy the anthropology of food and eating do like to map family trees.

A small gripe though and teeny tiny in the face of a book which matches Kitchen and Feast for useful comprehensiveness and How to Eat for life love and warmth.

SimplyNigella.com

Where to buy

All photographs are taken from Simply Nigella and are by photographer Keiko Oikawa

Cook book reviews for Autumn 2015

Picking your way through the forest of new cooking titles that pop up like mushrooms isn’t easy so we’ve taken a look and chosen some of our favourite releases for you. There’s something for all here from modern baking by a Californian transpant to Hackney to a book that shows us how to channel the spirit of the Swedish Fika. We also welcome new books by some favourites from the restaurant world too. Enjoy and let us know about your favourites too.
51EWb1khknL._AC_UL320_SR214,320_

The Paw-Paw is largest edible fruit native to the United States and tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango. Growing wild in twenty-six states, it has fed Native Americans and European explorers, presidents, and enslaved African Americans, inspiring folk songs, poetry, and scores of place names from Georgia to Illinois. Requiring no pesticides or herbicides to thrive, it is made for organic production methods and the fruit possesses compounds that are among the most potent anticancer agents yet discovered. There’s much to discover, clearly.  In Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, author Andrew Moore explores the past, present, and future of this unique fruit, traveling from the Ozarks to Monticello; canoeing the lower Mississippi in search of wild fruit; drinking pawpaw beer in Durham, North Carolina; tracking down lost cultivars in Appalachian hollers; and helping out during harvest season in a Maryland orchard. Along the way, he gathers pawpaw lore and knowledge not only from the plant breeders and horticulturists working to bring pawpaws into the mainstream (including Neal Peterson, known in pawpaw circles as the fruit’s own “Johnny Pawpawseed”), but also regular folks who remember eating them in the woods as kids, but haven’t had one in over fifty years. I’m a big fan of single-subject food writing and Moore has written a superb guide to this most unusual fruit which is also a reminder to all of us to engage deeper with our own foodways and eat those foods which perhaps we have taken for granted in the past.

 

510L3ZpQSaL._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_

Lynn Hill established the Clandestine Cake Club in 2010 partly as a response to the recent rise in popularity of secret supper clubs. There are now over 200 clubs around the UK and overseas and this is her second cake book, containing 100 ‘celebratory’ recipes contributed by club members and by Lynn herself. The cake club meets tend to have a theme which members bake to and The Clandestine Cake Club: a year in cake structures its recipes around this with each cake paying homage to noteworthy events and occasions throughout the year, including a sea salted caramel cake which honours Nigel Slaters birthday and the time he paid a visit to the CCC to film an episode of his own show.

Ingredients and cakes range from the traditional (Victoria sponges, roulades, vanilla, coffee) to the less so (tres leches cake, opera cake, rosehip, masala chai) and include unusual combinations ( bacon and maple syrup, sweet potato and vanilla). Traditional cakes such as bara brith are reinvigorated with new ingredients like Welsh honey and camomile and seasons are reflected too (summery lemon and mint cake). The golden pineapple cream cake and caramel pecan brittle swiss roll take this mix of innovation to another level. Sumptuous but clear photographs by Kris Kirkham help less experienced bakers gain understanding as to how the cakes should look and, as you’d expect, the recipes are well written and therefore they work.

41fUO7sd-sL._AC_UL200_SR152,200_

Another year of good eating for Mr Slater is prefixed by some cautionary words about the current epidemic of imbuing foodstuffs with moral and characterful qualities and, as he says, “the need to divide the content of our plates into heroes and villains.” Slater has been cooking for five decades now which affords him the moral authority to overview the constant relay of food and eating fads. He is right, he has ALWAYS been right to warn us about the consequences of allowing guilt and shame to drive our eating. Yes, the methods of production do have an intrinsic moral value and we are right to shun factory farming, companies that do not pay a fair wage and excessive, indulgent food miles but essentially food should be about pleasurable fuel for the body and his recipes reflect that.

His latest book, Kitchen Diaries III- a year of good eating is a collection of recipes collated into a diary form from a few years worth of eating. There is evidence of Slater using ingredients new to him and fashionable to others but he incorporates them into meals which are more than a ‘for sake of’ use of todays buzz food. His New Years Day crispbreads contain trendy rye and spelt but having read and cooked from Kitchen Diaries I and II, I can see the evolution, how Slater arrived here as opposed to a phagocytic takeover of a trend or movement which was created by other people.

What do I really want to cook? There’s a lovely Raclette tart which cuts an eggy, buttery and creme fraiche richness with the acidulated tang of cornichons and the mild burn of a good salami. Pork bone soup is inspired by a hole-in-the-wall meal and a dog-eared laminated menu and his loganberry summer cake is Tove Jansson on a china plate. The date of writing this has me turning to the corresponding recipe for a marmalade of onion and collapsed fig tart and later on in October, he suggests a smoked mackerel and celeriac remoulade to use up the nobbly root in my larder.

There’s a useful new idea too- four seasonal sections devoted to easy cook, easy eating and a development of his previus cookbook, Eat, which riffed off the twitter format with 140 character recipes. These are the heart of our everyday eating, an answer to those days when you haven’t got a ziplock bag of lamb chops marinading in the fridge or a complex gratin with layers beautifully melded together. He’s understated is Mr Slater and his recipes are not predicated upon a perfection of finish and state of the art technique- Slater does not want to leave his readers breathlessly impressed at his skill and wondering if they can pull it off.  His food is a clever distillation of a lifetime’s adventures in food and you, dear reader, get to live this vicariously and achievably through those recipes.
 51UpYXIHjaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
Claire Ptak owns a jewel box of a cake shop and cafe in East London. The Violet Bakery Cookbook is her fourth book and what a book! Focusing on decent quality ingredients and making an effort to explore alternatives for those of you who cannot eat gluten, it goes to say that Violet is a progressive and modern book that still pays its dues to the rules of patisserie. And because of this, the recipes work. Along with running her bakery-café, Ptak is also a food writer, food and prop stylist, recipe developer and consultant which explains its exquisite design, underpinned by real substance. An old school jacket and cheery yellow bookcloth contains recipes that read as a day in the life of her kitchen, covering savoury and sweet foods eaten for breakfast, merenda or elevenses, dinner, parties and lunches. Ptak isn’t a finish fascist either, her icing and decoration show the eye of an artist but are engagingly freeform in appearance. The amateur will feel able to have a go and feel content with their efforts.

Favourite recipes? Banana buttermilk bread, butterscotch blondies, the very adult-sounding ginger molasses cake and the coconut-cream trifle cake.The savoury recipes are great but to be honest, the sweet stuff is what lured me in and kept me baking.

61qa7IO-1AL._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_

 

An ingredient-led feel is what attracted us to Sugar and Spice by Samantha Seneviratne with over 80 recipes that reinvent classic sweets and introduce readers to the more unusual spices, used to infuse puddings. Veteran food editor and recipe developer Samantha Seneviratne invites readers to explore a bold new world of spice-centric desserts with chapter concentrating on a different spice–some familiar, like vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger; others less expected (especially in sweet preparations), such as peppercorns, chiles, and cardamom. There’s familiar recipes such as brownies except these are perfumed with salt and pepper. The cinnamon section (a spice massively popular in the USA and UK) has cinnamon, hazel and date buns, new love cake and ricotta cheesecake with bourbon raisin jam  whilst the nutmeg section has tales of the nutmeg trail and Dutch and British battles over this highly-prized spice.

These recipes are practical but by God, you get the romance too. Seneviratne is a storyteller, making the reader feel thoroughly at home in her life as the child of a first-generation Sri Lankan family, a history she interweaves with the history of the spices and herbs she cooks with and, interestingly, the consumption of sugar in the US and its attendant health issues. We read about her grandmother in Sri Lanka and her beloved brother, and meanr about Seneviratnes mother’s love of the ‘boxed mixes’ she grew up on. As the family adjusted to the USA, they developed a love for all things “American” which threatened to overshadow her grandmother’s love of Sri Lanka and eclipse the sensual wonders of the nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom that grew on her property amongst the coconut palms, teak trees and frangipani, avocado and bananas.

23398307.jpg

The Appalachian region of the USA doesn’t spring to mind when one lists the great cuisines of the world but overlooking it altogether would mean we miss out on a fascinating story of geology, ecology, human migration and seasonality. Eating Appalachia by Darrin Nordahl kicks off with a lesson in how to pronounce the name of the region (think how ‘apple atcha’ sounds) which extends from the mountainous spine of Maine in the northernmost reaches of the contigious States right down to Georgia in the south.

From the intoxicatingly scented paw-paw and Appalachian spice bush, the foods of this region are explored, introducing us to the people responsible for the resurgence in popularity of them, competitions and festivals where they are celebrated and recipes developed by the many people the author encounters. We read of the problems foraging of plants such as the ramp and ginseng is causing too, a salutatory warning for the UK which is seeing an increase in this activity and restaurateurs start to take notice of what is on their door step. The recipes are lovely and easily achieved IF you can locate these ingredients, many of which are botanically specific to the region. However, improvisation is accommodated. There’s Pawpaw Panna Cotta, Pawpaw Whiskey Sour, Chianti-Braised Elk Stew, Pan-Fried Squirrel with Squirrel Gravy, Ramp Linguine, and Wild Ginger Poached Pears, among others.

51USvw8K5qL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

More food writing now with Simon Majumdar’s Fed, White and Blue: Finding America With My Fork who describes himself as not your typical idea of an immigrant. As he says, “I’m well rested, not particularly poor, and the only time I ever encounter ‘huddled masses’ is in line at Costco.” But immigrate he did, and thanks to a Homeland Security agent who asked if he planned to make it official, the journey chronicled in Fed, White, and Blue was born. In it, Simon sets off on a trek across the United States to find out what it really means to become an American, using what he knows best: food.

Stopping in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about what the pilgrims ate (and that playing Wampanoag football with large men is to be avoided); a Shabbat dinner in Kansas; Wisconsin to make cheese (and get sprayed with hot whey); and LA to cook at a Filipino restaurant in the hope of making his in-laws proud, Simon writes wholeheartedly about the food cultures that make up America. He brews beer and works in farming; spends time helping out at a food bank, and even finds himself at a tailgate. This is a warm and humorous book that explores what it means to be American through a prism of food.

51vMpOP7KcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Relae: A Book of Ideas by Chef Christian F Puglisi looks, at first, to be terribly worthy and earnest; a series of interconnected “idea essays,” which reveal the ingredients, practical techniques, and philosophies that inform Puglisi’s cooking. Each essay is connected to one (or many) of the dishes he serves, and readers are invited to flip through the book in whatever sequence inspires them—from idea to dish and back to idea again. However, the result is a deeply personal and unusual reading experience: a rare glimpse into the mind of a top chef, and the opportunity to learn the language of one of the world’s most pioneering and acclaimed restaurants. It is an interesting departure from the standard format of a recipe book by a working chef, Christian F. Puglisi who opened restaurant Relæ in 2010 on a rough, run-down stretch of one of Copenhagen’s most crime-ridden streets.

His goal was simple: to serve impeccable, intelligent, sustainable, and plant-centric food of the highest quality—in a setting that was devoid of the pretention and frills of conventional high-end restaurant dining. Relæ was an immediate hit, and Puglisi’s “to the bone” ethos—which emphasized innovative, substantive cooking over crisp white tablecloths or legions of water-pouring, napkin-folding waiters—became a rallying cry for chefs around the world.

Today the Jægersborggade—where Relæ and its more casual sister restaurant, Manfreds, are located—is one of Copenhagen’s most vibrant and exciting streets. And Puglisi continues to excite and surprise diners with his genre-defying, wildly inventive cooking.

51USvw8K5qL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

More American food writing now from Writings in The Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways by David A Davis and Tara Powell and, more specifically, writings with their roots deeply in the fertile soil of the Deep South. Aiming to go past tired old cliches yet cognizant of the fact that ignoring those well known tropes won’t make them go away, Writings in the Kitchen explores the relationship between food and literature and makes a major contribution to the study of both southern literature and of southern foodways and culture more widely.This collection examines food writing in a range of literary expressions, including cookbooks, agricultural journals, novels, stories, and poems. Contributors interpret how authors use food to explore the changing South, considering the ways race, ethnicity, class, gender, and region affect how and what people eat. They describe foods from specific southern places such as New Orleans and Appalachia, engage both the historical and contemporary South, and study the food traditions of ethnicities as they manifest through the written word..

Scarlett O’Hara munched on a radish and vowed never to go hungry again. Vardaman Bundren ate bananas in Faulkner’s Jefferson, and the Invisible Man dined on a sweet potato in Harlem. Although food and stories may be two of the most prominent cultural products associated with the South, the connections between them have not been thoroughly explored until now.

Southern food has become the subject of increasingly self-conscious intellectual consideration. The Southern Foodways Alliance, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, food-themed issues of Oxford American and Southern Cultures, and a spate of new scholarly and popular books demonstrate this interest. Writing in the Kitchen explores the relationship between food and literature and makes a major contribution to the study of both southern literature and of southern foodways and culture more widely.

event-poster-4049375

 

April Bloomfield is one of the new British young turks whose chef skills have won them huge accolades in New York City and in A Girl and her Greens: Hearty Meals From the Garden, Bloomfield allows colourful, tasty vegetables to take centre stage. Previously focusing on the glories of the pig, here we see a chef at the height of her powers of imagination and creativity, proving that vegetables are not an also ran. There’s roasted onion with sage pesto (a great nod to British stuffing flavours), Swiss chard cannelloni, fennel salad with blood orange (delicious) and braised peas with little gem lettuce, the latter paying homage to classical French cuisine. The ingredient lists aren’t exhausting either. Crushed spring peas with mint has just seven items and none of them expensive or hard to find. The ingredients do need to be fresh, seasonal and good quality though although she is flexible. Take foccacia with three toppings: each topping offers an opton for different times of the year and acts as jumping off point for your own ideas too. Fashions are referenced too with the ubiquitous kimchi recipe included.

With gorgeous photos by David Loftus and cute illustrations by Sun Young Park (the cabbage kimchi squat is a favourite), the recipes are organised by season, by vegetable type or by ingredient/dish; the structure is not hidebound by the way. Her restaurant, The Spotted Pig and previous book, A Girl and Her Pig are referenced with chapters called Top to Tail where all the vegetable is used up (carrot top pesto is an example) which is an approach I haven’t encountered so explicitly before although it is a philosophy many households follow by necessity. Other chapters are titled ‘My pal, the potato’ and ‘with a Little help from meats’- it isn’t a vegetarian book which needs to be made clear although there is much for non meat eaters here. Bloomfield is no aloof perfectionist either; she shares her less than successful results and uses a personal tone throughout.

07fika-tramuta-2-tmagSF.jpg

To another perfectly designed book now with Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats Hardcover by Anna Brones; one of my favourite book releases of the last year because it distils everything we find swoonsome about Scandinavia- its literature, food, design and way of living- down into one book. Fika pays homage to Sweden and its status as one of the world’s top coffee consuming nations. The twice-daily social coffee break known as fika is a cherished custom and can be partaken of alone or with others. It is as much a state of mind as it is of being.In this adorable illustrated cookbook, Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall share nearly fifty classic recipes from cinnamon buns, Swedish cinnamon and cardamom bread and ginger snaps to rhubarb cordial and rye bread and include information and anecdotes about Swedish coffee culture (why it was once a boys club), and the roots and modern incarnations of the custom. Explanations of traditions such as name days are accompanied by recipes for celebratory cakes like advent pepparkakor alongside charming illustrations about how to flip and roll Swedish pancakes and the traditional shaping techniques for baking such as Swedish saffron buns and Semlor, the latter served before Lent.

419jhgL8ffL._SX374_BO1,204,203,200_

The exquisiteness continues with another beautufully designed cookbook by a trained chef of national reknown. I have frequently had the pleasure of eating Skye Gyngells food when she was at the helm of the Petersham Nurseries kitchen in West London and now, thank goodness, she is back with the eponymous new place to hang her toque up on and a book. Published to celebrate this, Spring presents a collection of mouthwatering original recipes from the new restaurant’s menu -there’s beautiful bread and pasta dishes, seafood and meat dishes, colourful salads and vegetables, enticing ice cream and desserts, original preserves and refreshing non-alcoholic drinks. there’s crab salad with chilli, pumpkin, curry leaves and lime, pappardalle with oxtail ragu, guinea fowl with faro and parsley, kimchi and warm chocolate and espresso puddings.

But Spring also provides a fascinating insight into the creation of the restaurant itself, from Skye’s first visit to the space at Somerset House, through the design and development of the site to the opening of the restaurant. She describes how the menu evolved, from the early days testing recipes in her kitchen at home to the opening in October 2014. She also reveals details about the other aspects that give the restaurant its unique character: the decor, art, staff uniforms, table settings etc. We really welcome a book which gives such insight into a chefs life and in doing so, properly credits their hard work, skill and creative input. This embarrassment of riches culminates with Andy Sewell’s evocative photographs, which capture the essence of Skye’s inspirational food as well as the dazzling atmosphere of the restaurant.

JaneGrigson_Screen_LowRes

Know what? I love Laurie Colwin, Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher and Jane Grigson needs to take up her place up on the podium alongside them. Her confiding warmth makes her one of my absolute favourite writers and I cannot understand why she is not championed as much as David et al. Now, 25 years after her untimely death and having been out of print for over a decade, Grub Street is republishing the ultimate compendium of Jane Grigson’s recipes as The Best of Jane Grigson. Following the success of her first book, Charcuterie and French Pork Cooking, Grigson’s research and flair for cooking speak for themselves within this tome. With a delightful introduction by her friend, Elizabeth David, this book is a staple for every cook. The book is organised into regional cuisines from across the globe including: the Americas, the Mediterranean, the Europeans, India and the Far East and contains sections entitled ‘At Home in England’ and ‘At Home in France’; both places close to Jane’s heart. There is also, of course, a detailed chapter on charcuterie.The recipes are introduced in English, with brief descriptions by Grigson, but are also simultaneously designated in the native language of their origin. There are graphs and pictorials for the accurate cooking of meat joints by weight and detailed instructions for picking the best ingredients and making the most of them when they are in season. The book concludes with a chapter on the enjoyment of food which encapsulates Grigson’s approach to cooking along with the experience of reading this book. The recipes are diverse and diligent to detail. There are recipes for the simple weekday dinner to the elaborate celebratory feast. This collection of her best and most-loved recipes, with her introductions, anecdotes, quotations and poems, is a fitting tribute, not only to her culinary and literary skills, but also to the warmth, wit and intelligence that shines through all her books.

Yay! Best Food Writing 2015 will be with us soon. #reviews

51FdYvPjpjL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

“Anthony Bourdain, John T. Edge, Jonathan Gold, Francis Lam, Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Alice Waters. These are just some of the celebrated writers and foodies whose work has appeared in Best Food Writing over the past fifteen years. Whether written by an established journalist or an up-and-coming blogger, the essays offered in each edition represent the cream of that year’s crop in food writing. And 2015 promises to uphold the same high standards with a dynamic mix of writers offering provocative journalism, intriguing profiles, moving memoir, and more.”

I own every single one of the Best Food Writing series and have read each one countless times. Editor Holly Hughes proves there is still vigour in food writing with her annual collation of though provoking, quirky and intelligent pieces from food writers both well known and less so. I eagerly await the publication of each annual volume because although I consider myself a voracious consumer of the genre, even I will not be able to access the very best writing, scattered as it is across all manner of journals, newspapers, blogs, websites and magazines all over the globe. This really does bother me.

11863337_1677747442462893_3766420232865097922_n
My own collection.

Hughes provides a trustworthy food-wire service in book form. There’s always some standouts and in this collection, Tim Hanni’s ‘Maverick Wine Guru’ is one of them. Published by the Sacramento Bee (nope, me neither), he develops upon a phenomenon I first encountered via Jeffry Steingarten’s essay- the supertaster- and he applies this to the world of wine tasting, turning some popular pre-conceptions on their head as he does it. Ever wondered why Zinfandel, Asti and Moscato are the only wines you are able to palate? Well Hanni might be onto an explanation here.

Sara Deseran’s ‘Kidsnobs’ is another fresh angle on a food movement we see more and more and have (probably) our own private views upon- that of the super engaged child foodie. Relating her own experiences of children who are obsessively interested in food and the acquisition of food related experiences, she asks us to draw our own line and is honest in her appraisal of her own children and the fact that in their case, nurture is all and down to both parents working in the industry. Where does the education and empowerment stop and the over indulged, over privileged entitled show off-ness start?

This is a world where top chefs are both celebrated and self define as rock gods and this anthology is heavy on chef profiles. These always polarise readers and reviewers with some complaining that the focus of these anthologies has become too food nerdish. However if Hughes is to accurately reflect the culinary world, the cult of cheff-ly personality cannot be ignored. So we have Blue Hills’ leftover pop up dinners where fish skin, old noodles and veg peelings are fought over in a reservations war and charm food critic Pete Wells. Underpinning this is the very relevant and important subject of reducing food waste in the hospitality business and Blue Hill aims to redefine what is waste and what is not (clue: everything is and could be on the table). In an amusing addendum to the fragile chef ego, there’s a piece about Wylie Dufresne’s reaction to a comment he overheard in his restaurant which referred to chefs as pussies. and we revisit Leah Chase, queen of NOLA’s creole cuisine. Chase survived Katrina and rebuilt her restaurant in Treme (as in the popular TV series) and her place is top of my list when I visit New Orleans next Spring. She is the quietly confident antithesis of people like Dufresne, Ramsay and Batali.

We zoom in closer to the cultural effects of the hospitality business too with a very important essay by Todd Kliman on the informal colour bar which still operates in DC restaurants despite the beliefs of restaurateurs that they have addressed this. Seemingly it is not enough to paint a mural of black cultural heroes on your establishment’s wall unless you like reminding patrons of motivational decor pasted up on their high school halls. Consideration is given as to why sushi bars and other specialised cuisines might not immediately attract black customers historically (lack of familiarity, their own family dining history- in the all too recent past they simply weren’t able to eat in ‘genre’ restaurants because of Jim Crow), something that is a thorny subject and hasn’t been properly addressed before.

It’s not just about the high minded and highly intended either. There’s the down home reminder that home cooking can be an exhausting merry go round of WTF shall we cook ( Molly Watson and Tamar Haspel) and other writers take us on a gastro-reminder about why Taco Bell rules (John DeVore) and long standing foodie figures Jane & Michael Stern extoll the virtues of Nashville’s hot chicken. Seemingly this latter subject has not yet been done to death as they manage to squeeze further juicy copy from this topical bird. DeVore hits us with a startling and frankly ludicrous assertion: he declares that Taco Bell has the best Mexican food? After I had finished spluttering in horror, I carried on reading only to find a fairly convincing argument (albeit tongue in cheek). In a few pages we move from dude to a heartwarming conclusion. I’m not convinced though. We had less dude from Bourdain too as he writes about food traditions with an ode to the clams of his childhood which he is now handing down to his own young daughter. I like this Bourdain, who appears less preoccupied with getting into stupid dick swinging competitions with other chefs which can come across as bullying.

I can never read too much about coconut cream pie and thankfully Kim Severson cannot write enough about it either. A mothers cookbook shares more than just recipes and I imagine every American home has a coconut pie with a story attached. This is Kim’s.

Sarah Grey’s  essay, ‘Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life with Pasta,” was first published in Serious Eats and utterly deserves its inclusion here with vivid and homely touches where the scene is set for a family meal, conceived in a rush of toy tidying, napkins folded by her daughter and a table set with fourth generation china. It celebrates red sauce, reminds us that freelancing can add to loneliness – especially when you factor in the difficulties of maintaining a social life when you have small kids. Friday Night Meatballs transcend a lot of cultural barriers to communal eating, Grey discovered, and she offers up warmth in spades as she writes about her own solutions to all of these: “The house will be messy. There might be card and/or board games. There might be good Scotch. You might be asked to read picture books. You might make new friends. We’ll just have to find out. This is our little attempt to spend more time with our village. You’re invited.”

Long may Holly Hughes reign over the world of food writing anthologies. These, alongside the Cornbread Nation series, are my absolute favourite. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Best Food Writing, edited by Holly Hughes is published by Perseus Books Group, De Capo Press. 

Dr Seuss + me

downloadMost of us can name a Dr Seuss book but how many of you have read my particular favourite, The Eye Book? Written by one Theodor Geisel (who used Theo Lesieg as a pen name) or Dr Seuss, as you might commonly know him, he writes, “Our eyes see flies. Our eyes see ants. Sometimes they see pink underpants” and this utterly barking looking book (with its prescient nod to the modern popularity of Japanese kawaii) pays a hilarious tribute to our eyes, encouraging us to show appreciation for all the wonderful things to be seen and the amazing way they accomplish this.

Spending some of my childhood in Mexico close to the American border meant that I had better access to Dr Seuss than your average British school child in the sixties. He was read in England but not to the extent he was enjoyed across the Atlantic and when we emigrated back to England, our crates were stuffed with my battered collection of books which took a soul-destroying eight months to arrive. The Eye Book (along with One Fish Two Fish), was my favourite and so earned the right to return with us via plane.

My joy at meeting my new form teacher in Suffolk was immense when she started to read Dr Seuss out loud and her American accent rolled over the words. My teachers in Saltillo, the Northern Mexican city we lived near, would sometimes read aloud from the books in heavily accented English with a definite American inflection. Miss Thorne, with her silver hair in a tight bun and possessed of a lofty, aquiline profile, was slightly feared by the other children but not by me and on that first day I nervously offered my copy of Dr Seus knowing, just knowing, that this American teacher would share my most un-English preference for his books.

Miss Thorne was a warm home from home in this strange, land. From that moment on, she was my buddy, a treasured ally in a cold and snow-covered country where Janet & John reigned supreme. Those emotionally constipated post-war drips with their colourless parents were not for me, having been accustomed to the open and effusive warmth of the Mexicans and Americans I had lived among. Janet and John’s brown T-bar sandals, shit-coloured cardigans, pudding bowl haircuts and obsessive repetition of the most boring inanities about running, dogs and balls did not impress.

I suffered a fair bit when I moved back. Eight year old children are not reknowned for their willingness to embrace the new and different and this blonde ringletted girl who spoke in angry Spanish whenever she got emotional and forgot her English, who looked like them but didn’t sound like them, soon became alienated and the butt of jokes. Mrs Thorne helped as much as she could but having a teacher as an ally was more of a disadvantage and I veered from wild fantasies about her being unmasked as my real mother (I had pretty terrible parents too) and other less kindly ones where I vented my anger at her marking me out as teachers pet.

Dr Seuss would have understood. He knew what it was like to stand out and when he briefly broke off from children’s writing to become a political cartoonist, he made fun of isolationists and American isolationism. He mocked the leaders of the Axis powers and railed against the discrimination directed at Jews and African-Americans- all at a time when their estrangement was enshrined in legislation, socially approved of and commonplace.DSC_2683 Seuss’s sense of social justice also stemmed from his childhood; when he was asked about the source of his creativity and did it emanate from his youth, he responded tellingly, “I think I skipped my childhood,” but “I used my adolescence.” His own background as the grandson of a Bavarian German who had emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century and, during the First World War and was teased for being a German-American, became the painful bedrock of a career built upon the capture of youthful minds, before they became distorted by prejudice. His route home from school was accompanied by a rain of brickbats and shouts of “kill the Kaiser.” His college years saw him shunned for being Jewish (he wasn’t) and went on to inspire The Sneetches (1961), a story in which star-bellied Sneetches discriminate against star-less Sneetches. At the story’s end, they learn that “Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” He might not have been Jewish but he wasn’t going to stay quiet on the subject of anti semitism. download (3) “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” says Horton Hears a Who, a book in part inspired by his visit to a post atomic bomb ravaged Japan and an important allegory (although the message isn’t as hidden as your typical allegory). I am in no way aligning my own bullying with that of other groups of people whose marginalizations involve brutality and remorseless, killing punishment but I still saw my own misery and isolation represented in a small way by him. I was that ‘no matter how small and plain little turtle below in the stack‘ (Yertle the Turtle). Dr Seuss understood that a whole lot of ‘smalls,’ added together, would go on to form a whole lot of ‘big.’ He made me realise that I couldn’t avoid being a small, nor was I likely to get a chance to become big, but I could find commonality somewhere. I was not doomed to remain forever alone.

And I was a bookish, owl-eyed child, living my life sequestered and partially protected behind a pile of books, a place of relative safety that nonetheless was regularly invaded by my parents and thus required rebuilding. Hard emotional work but the reward of fantasy lands, of other lives between those pages and the promise, one day, of a life that might be totally constructed by me was a powerful incentive to keep on rebuilding myself after being knocked down. And Dr Seuss invented the word that described me! He invented ‘nerd,’ or was the first person to use it in a book in If I Ran the Zoo. His ‘nerd’ was loving and approving, it was powerful medicine to the nerd word as chanted by the kids at school; a word that had more power to hurt in the seventies than it does now. We hadn’t reclaimed it then. I Wish I Had Duck Feet was a powerful lesson in conformity although I suspect Dr Seuss did not intend it that way. Being bullied (and I was relentlessly bullied all throughout my school years) was very lonely because like a lot of people who experience this, I had a sad and bad home life that the bullies somehow smelt on me. They detected it and homed in, knowing that I had no recourse to support, no angry parent waiting to deal with them at the school gates. My parents didn’t give a damn about it and in those days, most schools didn’t either. IMG_0029 In this book, the main character wishes for ducks feet, an elephant nose, a sprinkler on his head (!) and moose horns (among others). ‘If I had two big duck feet, I could laugh at big Bill Brown. I would say ‘YOU don’t have duck feet, these are all there are in town.’ Near the stories end, the character is imaginng the consequences of having all these useful features at once and how he’d actually end up locked up in a zoo, because society will not see the usefulness, only the freakiness. He decides he would rather just ‘be himself’ but this is not a happy settling as far as I am concerned- rather it is a sad accomodation and admission that to conform is to escape the cruel and beady eye of others. IMG_0032 How did I try to conform? I started by refusing to speak Spanish, refusing to keep up my bi-lingualism which so virulently marked me out as different to the other kids. On my first day in my English school, I turned to the little girls designated to show me around and asked them why there were tables lined up in the corridors (they were being put out for lunch). I asked in Spanish, was not understood and thus began my career as the strange girl- in those days, foreign speaking pupils were not common in Suffolk. My grandfather begged me to speak in Spanish, told me I would bitterly regret it if I forgot it all. I would not listen and I did, for a while, forget most of it, apart from that time when, in upper school Spanish class, my new schoolmaster told me I spoke Spanish like an ‘uneducated Mexican peasant.’ I replied coolly, “That’s because I grew up surrounded by them” (and they were worth ten of you, I thought). Now it is all coming back as age deconstructs the barriers in my mind and Hollywood starts to allow Latino actors to take on roles other than pool boy/nanny/waitress/slut. As they gain [a few] more speaking roles and gain representation in the arts, I am hearing what was (nearly) my mother tongue. And the memories flood back.

My Book (ish) life

c43a0f2697f1b719418e4de91e34a807

We asked folks from all over (including some well known East Anglian people) about the books that made a deep impression upon them as both as children and as adults and it has been an absolute pleasure to compile this feature- so much so that we intend this to be the first in a series of literary reminiscences. All of them read as children, seeing books as solace, inspiration, as a companion or maybe a way of validating their own thoughts and lives. Others were spirited away by their book from a life which held challenges for them, whether from the usual tumult and clamour of childhood or something more. What also emerged was the way in which these readers reinterpret the books they loved as children, reframing them in the current cultural and political context that perhaps escaped them at the time. Or they revisit the comfort the books brought, seeing this in a new and fresh light which nonetheless continues to retain its original youthful purpose. Finally, we see the vivid imagination of the child at play in the way some of the contributors lived those stories, dressing as the characters, apeing their habits or in contrast, rejecting those behaviours or characters they perceived as wrong or unpleasant.

Ray Bradbury was clear about the importance of books and libraries and urged readers to go forth with the ideas discovered within: “You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”. We would say that every person interviewed here is trying to do that, in positive and creative ways, even if those hats upon their heads are strictly metaphorical, albeit many and varied.

So…..from the more traditional childhood reading to the less so; from the books that transported and educated to those that fired them up and made them want to do something, they are all here, in no particular order – person or book. Enjoy.

Suffolk-Bin-Doc-Karen-Cannard-2Karen Cannard lives in Bury St Edmunds and is the creator of the Rubbish Diet, writer of a personal blog and columnist for the Suffolk Free Press. Resourceful and possessed of great shoes, Karen has recently been a judge for the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize, continues to take the Rubbish Diet from strength to strength worldwide and has given a well regarded Ted Talk – ‘Abate, renovate & innovate: individual power over waste’. Here are Karen’s book choices:

“My choice for a childhood book is most definitely Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which I read as as a textbook for English at school.  It was quite a scary read at the time.  It wasn’t so much the crash on an isolated island that I found terrifying but how the structure of civilised behaviour could so easily break down into savagery and terror when everyday reference points disappeared and life became a fight for survival.  For me, Lord of the Flies marked an end to my own childhood innocence and my view on the world, saying goodbye to the ginger-beer fuelled adventures created by Enid Blyton and hello to the wider grown-up world of conflict.

As an adult  ‘The Struggle for Land’, by Joe Foweraker, was a study text for one of my degree subjects, International Relations.  Published in 1981, Foweraker tells of the violence, politics and profiteering surrounding the agricultural development in Brazil.  It was my first insight into the social injustice and environmental issues in an economy striving to serve an increasing global demand for farmed produce. From deforestation, violence and a corrupt political system, it was a real eye-opener.

‘Enough: breaking free from the world of more’ and written by John Naish questioned my own part in our consumer culture and my constant need for the latest gadgets and replacing broken things for new. Along with my growing awareness of waste, It helped foster my appreciation of what I already have, encouraged me to keep hold of things for longer and to value creativity and reuse.”

linda-tirado-110714It is not hyperbolic to affirm that Linda Tirado has raised some much needed hell. Linda’s original essay about poverty, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts’ was written as a comment on a Gawker thread and went on to birth her book, ‘Hand to Mouth’, the raw and honest truth about being poor. A campaigner and activist on many issues, civil rights and health care among them, Linda can be found on twitter at @killermartinis and via her website Bootstrap Industries. Her choices are firmly located in the context of access to education and books and the importance of this. 

“The books that stick out are The Borribles, and the ones by Madeline L’Engle and Roald Dahl. I loved scenes of children making big plans and learning incredible things. As an adult, I’ve mostly read nonfiction and history, and I’ve a soft spot for biographies of philosophers because knowing the ideas without context is only half of the philosophy really. Just now I’m reading Tom Clark’s newest book on the economy and I’m back on John Locke.

I still retain a bit of whimsy because of my childhood books; they taught me to accept the impossible and as I dealt with depression and anger I have recalled those lessons and been able to live a bit more comfortably in my head. After all, I’m not a strange elfchild battling giant rodents in Battersea with a slingshot, so how bad could it be really?

I didn’t go to college. But I’m well educated because books exist. They have at times been my only friends, and there is nothing so comfortable as a decent book and a decent whiskey. Preferably in yoga pants.”

Photo by the Bury Free Press
Photo by the Bury Free Press

Barry Peters is the Group Editor at Anglia Newspapers Ltd for five regional print and digital media titles and is also on twitter. He has edited the four edition print newspaper, The Bury Free Press since 2000, steering it successfully into the digital age. Here he tells us about the books that inspired and influenced him, first as a child and later as an adult:

“I was given Richard Adams’ Watership Down as a young boy in the Fens. It conjured up images I could relate to and really got me hooked on words – something which led me eventually into journalism. I loved books which related to country matters at a young age – the fun vet books from James Herriot were magical and a quick, easy, accessible read.

 As for adult books, I’m sure others will write about To Kill A Mocking Bird...I could read that book over and over again and never get bored. I can always lose myself in Pride and Prejudice – you can’t beat Jane Austen being didactic. But here are some left-field ideas:

I love sport and the people who excel. I loved John McEnroe, worshipped Ian Botham and admired Lance Armstrong for his battles with cancer and his ability to win the world’s greatest cycle spectacle. David Walsh’s 2013 expose of Armstrong -Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong- cuts across both my joy for journalism (he is the Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times) and sport. Film to follow.

Sadly for my family, I’m a keen (if poor) angler. Chris Yates’ Casting at the Sun evokes such great imagery and is written in a way which will excite both avid anglers and those without much knowledge at all. Yates featured on the classic A Passion For Angling and, in 1980, was a boyhood hero of mine when he landed a record fish in the fabled Redmire pool. He famously cast aside buzzers, boilies and bedchairs and fished the old way with rod, line and bread flake which reminded me of my (late) dad.

Bit quirky and not very bookish, but hopefully a little different…”

West_MMichael Lee West is the author of eight books, and counting and a blog which celebrates her life on a rural farm in Tennessee. Her books are quintessentially Southern in a modern way, suffused with the glorious food of this diverse region and acknowledging of its complicated history. A food lover to her core (as all those brought up in Louisiana are wont to be), Michael Lee West cooks as well as she writes and shares her recipes with readers on her blog, on twitter and in her books, the first of which was a memoir of food, love and family. 

“I was ill one summer and my mother brought books home from the library. I adored Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (all of the books). The books took me away from quarantine, into the world of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. When I got a bit older, mom introduced me to Dickens. I began to understand the potent magic of fiction and its power to change a life.  As an adult, I re-read the masterful works of Dickens and find something new each time. I also adore Agatha Christie and MC Beaton. and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were also childhood favorites. Now I’m almost 61 and still read JRR Tolkien. So do my children.”

9f264d09ce0c9fae50f959740aea81acThe prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour in South Suffolk, Jane Basham’s connections with the region go deep, over 23 years deep in fact. As chief executive of Suffolks leading civil rights charity (ISCRE),  Chair and Womens Officer of the South Suffolk Labour Party, Board member at Runnymede Trust and the Police Public Encounters Board, Jane is deeply committed to the politics of fairness and equality and is a staunch supporter of local campaigns to defend mental health services from cuts. She is a force for good on twitter but does, however, find some time to read and this is what she told us:

“The book that influenced me the most when I was young was Great Expectations. I was born in Gravesend a town closely connected to Charles Dickens. I was therefore only a short distance away from the cottage and forge in Chalk that it is said Dickens based Joe Gargery’s forge on. I find Dickens characters larger than life yet so believable. Great Expectations contains some powerful messages. How those who commit crimes do not lose their humanity.  How betrayal can destroy beauty and how money provides both  and sorrow. How your past influences your future and the power of memory.

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (originally from Sri Lanka) a book that I discovered in 2011 when I was the Chief Executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. Set around Aldeburgh the story centres on a refugee from Sri Lanka, his relationship with a ‘middle aged’ woman, the ‘State’ and the memory of home. The book resonated with me with because of my work with refugees, asylum seekers and my understanding of the tragedy that is the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka. Tearne makes Sri Lanka feel familiar as the main character connects to the Suffolk landscape – the reeds and migrating birds that remind him of home. Again the book speaks to me about the influence of the past upon us and the power of memory.”

1dd20a84e349712c334d175dd2a50f6c_400x400Alumni of Edinburgh University, teacher at Bury St Edmund’s County Upper School, feminist and organiser of the Bury St Edmunds Fawcett Society, Eleanor Rehahn is deeply involved in regional politics and social affairs. Keep an eye out for the Fawcetts campaign in the spring which will be encouraging young women locally to vote. Eleanor can be found on twitter here.

“Books have been such a massive part of my life, to the extent that I am very suspicious of people who don’t have books in their house, at their fingertips, and are not able to tell you what they are currently reading. In terms of childhood reading there are so many to choose from.

 However, the books that have remained with me for their uniqueness and magic have been the Moomin books. I have been enjoying them again reading them with my 7 year old over the past year and this has at times been a very moving experience.”

Photo- Ben Hatch
Photo- Ben Hatch

Ben Hatch is a writer, family man, gives great twitter and has both fiction and travel books to his name. His book ‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ triumphed at the top of the Kindle non-fiction charts, not just because of his digital promotion skills but because it is great writing. Ben’s latest novel is called ‘THE P45 DIARIES: How To Get Sacked From Every Job in Britain’ and is under development as a BBC sitcom. A former BBC Radio 4 Book of The Year, it is loosely based on Ben’s experiences of his teens and 20s.

“As a child the books I remember most were the ones that scared me. I remember reading about a description of the plague in a Dr Doolittle story and watching my skin for days to check it wasn’t blackening. Ted Hughes‘ story of The Iron Man gripped me for the same reason. We lived in a tower block and I’d hope each night to see a giant robot staring in through the curtains.

Mostly literature passed me by though until I was 19 and read The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield seemed the coolest guy in the world to me and for at least a year I wore a deerstalker hat turned around the wrong way to emulate him. Salinger just seemed to nail so well how you’d like to be a young man it’s a book I still dip into now. Other books that have blown away as an adult – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is so breathtakingly funny and audacious you smile and lap the book down on virtually every page. Other favourites with more subtle humour – Revolutionary Road and Tender is The Night. More recently I just love Geoff Dyer’s take on friendship in almost all his books.”

download (3)
Photo by Lynn Schreiber

I’d say Lynn Schreiber is well on her way to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the field of child and young adult digital media. Lynn is the founder of Jump! Magazine, a site whose only assumption about girls and boys is that they want lively and intelligent content that is not predicated upon gender assumptions. Interactive and with content partly generated by its young audience, Jump! recently branched out into digital publishing with a series of e-books. Lynn and Jump can both be found on twitter; here she talks about her book inspirations:

“I’d have to say Anne of Green Gables, as it has always been one of my favourite books. Aside from the wonderfully descriptive writing, and the great humour, I love that girls were encouraged to have confidence in their abilities and their talents, and to view their physical appearance as secondary. Now more than ever, this message is vital, for both boys and girls.

I would love to say that a worthy tome, or a slim book of philosophy had most impact on my adult life, but in my day to day life, the book that most affected me was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. It changed the way I speak and communicate with my children, and also made me more aware of communication skills with others.”

downloadAngela Wiltshire trained as a mental health nurse and now works as a psychotherapist and certified Transactional Analyst with a practice in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Active on twitter too, Angela is deeply involved with local politics for the Labour party and works very hard to support her local High St, encouraging people to shop locally and campaigning about the issues affecting local, rural economies. Angela  was also successfully nominated to stand for the South Cosford by-election to Babergh District Council last Spring, 2014. 

“The book that I read in my childhood, and again in adulthood, and which impacted me very deeply was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ by Harper Lee. We read it in English classes at school. I remember looking forward to class to read it. It was powerful and my teacher did all the Deep South accents which strengthened the force of it and after she had read a piece, she would hand over to us to read a paragraph each too. Nothing in my childhood matched it, and I was reminded of it for the rest of my days at that school, as it introduced my classmates to a new name to call me…..’N*gg*r’ (Angela is part Burmese.)

The book that I read as an adult which really left its mark on me is ‘The God of Small Things‘ by Arundhati Roy. Such a sad story. I finished it and immediately started it again. The characters in the story seem trapped in all kinds of cultural quick sand, finding forbidden love outside their groups with unhappy outcomes. Roy’s characters are robbed of their cultural ‘histories’ in post colonial India, something which I strongly relate to, and do not fit into the groups designated to them. The story’s sinister ‘Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’ is way more frightening than any Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster and I couldn’t shift him out of my nightmares for years.”

Photo- James Anderson
Photo- James Anderson

James Anderson is the author of The Never-Open Desert Diner, due to be published in February 2015.  Born in Seattle and raised in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, he has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Boston. For many years he worked in book publishing alongside other jobs including logging, commercial fishing and, briefly, as a truck driver. He currently divides his time between Ashland, Oregon, and the Four Corners region of the American Southwest from where he also tweets. We reviewed ‘Never Open Desert Diner’ here. 

“The most lasting gift of art, in this case literary art, is that is refuses to be static. A poem or a novel read at a young age begs to be read again, and when it is, we find it is a whole new experience because we have changed. I have read Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain over ten times throughout my life and it has never failed to inform my appreciation of those Siamese twins, imagination and youth.

My first introduction to magic realism in my early twenties came not from Marquez or Borges, but from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, at the time banned in the Soviet Union. Magic realism is the voice of the marginalized and oppressed. The experience of powerlessness and victimization is real and the safety of magic in heightened image and metaphor offers sanctuary and hope in a world beyond understanding.  Though seemingly unrelated, Bulgakov’s novel led me in the 1980s to a profound appreciation of desert literature, most notably The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert by Bruce Berger, and the works of Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich and, ultimately, Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. In these books I discovered a thread of magic realism that spoke for the beauty of the desert and its preternatural light, again a sanctuary and a hope for a world beyond understanding.”

victoriabw
Photo- Glosswitch / New Statesman

Blogger , twitter person, writer for the New Statesman, the Feminist Times and other media outlets, Glosswitch shines a feminist light on everything from parenting, mental health and illness to politics- from the big arena stuff to the more personal. Often focusing on the parts of the stories that other media do not reach (the reduction in life expectancy of people with mental illness; why farting is a feminist issue), Glosswitch’s writing is poignant, often very funny and always scythe sharp. Here’s what she said about her life in books:

“I would like to say something much cooler and less politically questionable, but the truth is the books that made the biggest impression on me and which I enjoyed the most as a child were ones by Enid Blyton – first of all The Magic Faraway Tree series, then later the Malory Towers and St Claire’s ones. I’d like to think that in some small way the influence they had on me was positive – I later wrote my PhD on German Romanticism, an interest which was inspired in part by reading slightly sinister fairy stories as a child (I think The Faraway Tree could count as one!). I also wonder if part of the attraction to the boarding school stories was that of a female-only space, in which girls were clearly independent agents who were not acting on behalf of a male audience. I was around 12 when I read the St Claire’s series, a time when my own school life couldn’t have been more different to the ones Blyton described (at a mixed-sex comp with major stress about puberty, impressing boys etc. etc.). While I wouldn’t say Malory Towers is exactly a feminist manifesto, I do think there’s something powerful about how female-centred it is (unlike, say, the Sweet Valley High books I later started reading and now look back on in dismay).

The main focus of my PhD was E.T.A. Hoffmann, a male writer, but beyond that I would say that as an adult I lean very heavily towards reading female authors – there’s less ego in the writing, more truth and less of a desperation to impress (I say, generalising wildly). Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is one of my favourite novels as I think the characterisation is just perfect . Another would be Emma Donaghue’s Room. I would love to be able to write like these women but I can’t imagine how it is that one puts oneself so completely beneath the skin of another, entirely imaginary human being. As a feminist I’ve lately got into reading Andrea Dworkin’s work and that I find utterly inspiring – there’s real lyricism in the way she writes and it manages to convey a real love for women (I put off reading her for years, so convinced was I that love for women = hatred for men!).”

p01m2117
Photo courtesy of the BBC

Lesley Dolphin, radio broadcaster and show presenter began her career at the BBC in 1980 at Look East, moving onto BBC Radio Norfolk. A migration to Suffolk a few years later saw her start her broadcasting at BBC Radio Suffolk where she presents an afternoon talk and music show packed with regional colour, music and chat alongside promoting local charities and events. A true local ‘celeb’ Lesley is a season ticket holder at Ipswich Town Football Club and is very much involved with Suffolk life although she has been known to step outside of the county to do things like climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Find her here on twitter. 

“I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. My bookshelf still displays several dogeared, well read books from my childhood.  There are the classics like The Borrowers, Wind in the Willows and Winnie The Pooh alongside all 12 books written by Arthur Ransome.  These were my dads favourites and several of our summer holidays were spent in the Lake District following in the footsteps of The Swallows and Amazons. I loved our weekly visit to the library although my 4 books didn’t always last so I would also save my pocket money to buy the latest Chalet School paperback.

It’s hard to choose any particular favourites from those years because I just devoured books and so many titles flood to mind :  E Nesbitt’s Five Children and It, Fell Farm Camping, Milly Molly Mandy, Ballet Shoes, the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Seven, 101 Dalmations – I could go on!  However If I really have to pick my favourites there are two, both of them trilogies. Firstly Elizabeth Goudge’s The Elliot’s of Damerosehay – I had not read a family saga before and I loved her descriptive writing. The other book was a Christmas present and it was the best year ever when I unwrapped Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings – I didn’t leave my bedroom for 3 days while I read it!”

Photot- Emma Healey
Photot- Emma Healey

Based in Norwich, author Emma Healey’s first novel ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ was published in 2014 to great acclaim and is now being filmed for an upcoming TV drama. A graduate of a book binding course, Emma’s writing speaks of a love of books that goes far beyond the written word and her first novel is partly inspired by the memory of her two grandmothers, one of whom had dementia, the subject (in part) of her book -read our interview with her here. Instagrammer in residence at  the Reading Activists Account, Emma’s website also features her vines and other short films and animations, another form of art she is interested in. Here is Emma’s list:

“One of the books I remember loving as a small child was A Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy. I read it over and over with my mum when I was 3 or 4 and I remember getting a huge stuffed lion for Christmas because of my obsession with it. The book is all about credibility, and imagination versus reality, which is a theme I still find interesting!  Secondly, Red is Best by Kathy Stinson. I loved the stubbornness of the child and the focus, I felt similarly about the colour red, but wasn’t as tunnel-visioned. It was the first time I really thought about character, I suppose.

As a teenager I loved I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. There are two styles of writer in the book – the protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain, who writes while ‘sitting in the kitchen sink’, and her father, the tortured genius who hides himself away in the castle gatehouse. I thought I’d be happy being either.

I also choose The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I was pretty obsessed with Ann Radcliffe when I was 15  (The Sicilian Romance was my other favourite). The Mysteries of Udolpho is a gothic story from the end of the eighteenth century about a young woman locked up in a forbidding castle, what I liked best was the fact that all the seemingly supernatural happenings had ingenious human explanations in the end. The author (and reader) is having her cake and eating is – creating a spooky sinister atmosphere, but anchoring the action firmly in the real(isn) world.

 
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. As you can see above I loved the eighteenth century gothic romances which this book is sending up, and it’s very clever in the way it treads a similar path to Don Quixote, but without becoming farce in the same way. I also think the meeting between Tilney and Catherine is one of the most exhilarating and witty moments in literature – and a master class in dialogue.”

 

As an adult I would choose The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. It’s really wonderful, vivid and funny. The children are brilliantly drawn without sentimentality, the plot is exciting but never takes over, and the structure is quietly innovative. The protagonist and narrator,Cecil Grey, is exactly the confused jumble of awkward/ passionate/ romantic/ practical/ knowing/ innocent that I was as an adolescent. I just wish I’d had a summer in a French hotel with an international criminal.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. This is a brilliantly subtle book, one that explores loneliness above all (a theme which I think is increasingly important in our society). The narrator is sympathetic despite being inherently untrustworthy, the plot unfolds beautifully, and the way the story is told matches the story itself perfectly. Lastly, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym says so much about the position of certain kinds of women in church communities, it promotes a gentle form of feminism and is also very funny. There are some wonderful characters too: Anglo-Catholic priests and anthropologists, a sexy officer just back from the second world war and an elderly woman who insists on having chicken for dinner because she hates birds and believes in ‘eating your enemies’.”

Womens work: the books and art that shaped my life

Saint Mary Magdalene at her writing desk
Saint Mary Magdalene at her writing desk

Last July, the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize was announced as Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing and on the back of this the organisers launched a campaign to discover the novels that ‘have impacted, shaped or changed the lives of readers’. The top 20 were subsequently reported in the Guardian and whilst they are inspiring and wonderful books, my list differs greatly as I imagine yours might.

The Baileys list was topped by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird because yes, it is a truly wondrous book but also I suspect a small part of its popularity may be down to the primacy and recency effect: the book has been in the news due to the attempts by Michael Gove to remove it from the national curriculum in favour of books of British origin. Legions of loyal Mocking-birders rose up as one to tell Gove where to go and remind him that ultimately, being read-able is not a literary sin. I had to smile when I read that the super precocious Lisa Simpson of the semi-eponymous cartoon show had also voted it her all time favourite, saying: “This book taught me about the importance of standing up for what’s right. And… Boo Radley. SIGH. Last one.”

Researching this piece made me think that actually, I need to look at the arts in general and include the works of art that I love the most. I’m not sure whether this will result in a cluttered old list but in my mind, books and artworks tend to commingle in my brain, or at least the appreciation of one leads down the road to another. You’ll see what I mean when you read on.

So in no particular order…

(1) Wifey by Judy Blume– This book really blew my fifteen year old mind because there was something viscerally gross about the protagonist Sandy and Norm Pressman and their dreary, suburban second-guessed and second-best marriage. Set in seventies USA, Sandy is tired of life with her social climber of a dry-cleaner husband who is bored and boring and she decides to embark on a few fumbling and inept affairs.

Wifey_book_cover

Sandy has developed a literal itch to accompany her emotional  general chafing against Norm;  her good-housewife life with its country club and yearly holidays in the Bahamas; her timetable of Saturday-night sex, starched cookie-cutter dresses and up-do’s.  “So where did things go wrong, Norm?” she thinks, lying in bed. “So what happened? Comfortable. Safe. We had our babies. We made a life together. But now I’m sick….And I’m so fucking scared!…Oh mother, dammit! Why did you bring me up to thinkthis is what i wanted? And now that I know it’s not, what I am I supposed to do about it?”

Sandy ends up settling for her marriage (after a dose of the clap as a moral punishment) and tries to rev things up by initiating regular oral sex with a husband who is put off by her pubic hair. Her decision is not a comfortable one but it is understandable in the face of the social pressures of her uptight New Jersey community. Wifey frightened me with its undertones of seediness and the quiet desperation of a woman going stark raving-mad with unfulfilment. On the surface it presents itself as a comedy of sexual manners and the cover of my original copy reinforces that with its shiny electric blue and titular pop art slash across the front but like all of Bloom’s books it is uncomfortably honest.

Vanessa Bell Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece 1914 © The estate of Vanessa Bell
Vanessa Bell
Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece 1914
© The estate of Vanessa Bell

Whenever I look at Vanessa Bell’s ‘Still Life on a Mantelpiece’ I feel my throat closing off in sharp contrast to the effect the work is supposed to elicit. For me, the cluttered stillness of all the objects on display mirrors the scatty chaos in Sandy’s mind as she tries to make sense of what she has settled for and then struggles against it with various men, all equally stifled and perplexed as to how they ended up this way. Bell placed great importance upon interior decoration as a reflection of personal identity and believed that the domestic milieu could be as artistically valid as any public (male) space: she’d probably feel be surprised that her painting triggers such negative feelings in me. For myself, it is as smothering an example of her class sensibilities as is Sandy’s Ultrasuede covered couch and mid-century modern pieces is of her own. Sandy’s lack of intra-personal awareness, her inability to elucidate exactly what it is she wants and her subsequent actions are an abstract representation of this domestic sphere that so many women find unsatisfying. I have no doubt that Sandy decorated her newly-wed home with some sense of anticipation and a pleasure at having her own space, only to see it all turn to grey in the end.

(2) What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge– If, like me, you are intrigued by Victorian ideas about invalids and the nobility of illness then this book is the ur example of it with the spirited central character, Katy, being cut down by unspecified spinal injuries after defying an order to not play on a garden swing which, unknown to her was faulty.  Prior to this, Katy scrambled over gates, through fields and conducted herself with abandoned unawareness of her gender. She was an early depiction of a ‘tomboy’ in literature along with Jo from ‘Little Women’ although Jo, unlike Katy did not have her gender transgressions corrected by disability or ill health. Jo, being older was framed in the corrective context of her suitability (or not) for marriage. Katy’s subsequent fall from high (there’s a nice metaphor for you) placed her flat on her back for nearly four years and subject to the ministrations of saintly Cousin Helen and her ‘School of Pain’-which sounds like something offered by latex clad women wearing gimp masks as they excitedly quote from the scriptures.

What Katy Did. Folio Society. 2010.
What Katy Did. Folio Society. 2010.

In Cousin Helen we have the classic example of the uncomplaining invalid who is an example, not only to Katy but to society as a whole and we see this in similar books of the era: from Clara in ‘Heidi’ to the eponymous Pollyanna, misfortunes were depicted as bestowed by God for the ultimate good of the afflicted character or those around him or her. For myself, I found Katy to be by far the more appealing, lost interest in her after her conversion to saintliness and this book served as an early and introductory lesson in how to spot moral indoctrination when I read it aged nine. As an adult it showed me the importance of clear and open communication with your children- don’t just tell them to stay off the swing, ensure that you tell them why.

Marina Abramovitch
Marina Abramovitch

The obvious comparison here would be Frida Kahlo whose art very much represented her struggles with the aftermath of an accident that left her with serious skeletal and internal injuries but the artist and work that most comes to mind is Rhythm 2 by Marina Abramović, made in 1974. Abramović sought to test whether a state of unconsciousness could be woven into a public performance and did this in a two part performance. In part one she ingested medication more usually prescribed for catatonia, a state that can cause neurogenic immobility or muscular unpredictability for hours, days or months at a time. As she was not suffering from that condition Abramović’s body reacted violently and she endured painful and uncontrollable seizures. Her mind remained lucid and she was able to observe and document what was happening to her. In the second part, Abramović took another pill, one usually prescribed for people with depression and psychomotor agitation and this had the effect of rendering her emotionally and physically slowed up to the point of immobility. Bodily she was present and still but her psychological and emotional processes were removed from the outside world.

I see a willful bravery in the actions and decisions of this artist with that of Katy who was generally pushing of boundaries in her own small town and domestic situation. Both faced public opprobrium and questioning of their moral character, (Abrmamovic has been very fiercely criticised for risking permanent damage to her psychomotor health) and Katy’s actions resulted in a physically immobilised body which, in turn, caused her to slump into what we would now diagnose as a reactive depression until her cousin came to stay and gave her a transfusion of Christian moral teachings. Abramovic made a very brave decision to put herself on show during a moment of complete vulnerability-not possessed of either her physical or mental faculties, allowing the public to witness whatever happened. Katie used her indisposition to reposition herself as the head of the family and address her depression head on at a time when paralysis must have been a horrendous thing to endure with physical treatments and therapies very few. There must have been very little privacy for her in such a crowded household.

(3) Arial by Sylvia Plath – This is the book of poetry that stopped me from becoming weary of, and intimidated by the form after years of old male poets like Hardy and Lawrence waxing lyrically over mistling thrushes, snakes and sexual frustration from the male perspective, places called Beeny Cliff and fallen women. It also showed me how a popular narrative about the life of a famous person can drown out aspects of character and biography that don’t quite fit, resulting in a very one dimensional depiction, often with a political or cultural agenda.

Plath_CuriousFrenc_2035739i

Speaking personally, when that narrative results in people travelling to the cemetery where Plath is buried in in order to scratch out the name of her then husband from her gravestone, something has gone awry. He treated her terribly but seriously- defacing a gravestone? Grow up. There is no doubt that Plath endured great privation as a result of her mental health problems, her troublesome marriage and her creative drive but she was also capable of great tenderness, hope and joy- read ‘You’re’ to see what I mean in this tremulous and anticipatory poem about her pregnancy and unborn child. I have recently been looking at her wonderful pen and ink drawings too which also show a playful and wry side to her personality, a talent of hers that has been woefully under publicised. This one, ‘Curious French Cat’ is my favourite in the way it is more than the sum of its parts (the title and the drawing) and therefore a metaphor in my mind for La Plath. 

(4) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith-  To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, you don’t know the strength of a woman until you put her in hot water and this book is packed with women facing dire straits; financially, emotionally, and culturally in Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. We have Katie with her gadabout singing-waiter cum alcoholic husband and Sissy who defies the moral norms of the time with her need for love and passion without the legitimisation of marriage and defines happiness by the men she encounters. Evy, another sister of Katie, is married to an ineffectual and weak milkman and the grandmother Mary is brutalised by her husband and limited by her lack of language yet manages to produce literate children. They grow up knowing that the American Dream will only happen if they hide their savings from husbands who are feckless dreamers. And then we have the protagonist Francie, whose blossoming from childhood into young womanhood forms the central part of the story.

images
From reeloldreads.wordpress.com

In an interview, Smith said that she didn’t write about the Nolan family for any socially significant reason, but because they were “the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like” but at the time of publishing her book drew a lot of criticism for its social realism and depiction of poverty and food hunger, death, addiction and women doing what they needed to do to get by and keep their children alive: aspects of life some prefer to ignore. Smith has such warmth and respect for those she writes of, even the characters leading small and mean lives. She respects the person, their individuality and duality, as she says of Francie: “She was all these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It’s that “something” that is in “each soul that is given life–the one different thing such as that which makes no fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

FrancescaWoodman4-1

The female characters in ‘A Tree Grows in Brokklyn’ have rich inner lives that we are privy to. They never break the fourth wall by addressing us but Francie, especially, reveals parts of herself that seemed independent of the authorial prism. She became alive to me. The haunting photographs of Francesca Woodman also have this quality in their revelations of gender, lives in their contextual spaces and secrets concealed and revealed.  Woodman puts herself in the frame but they are not conventional self-portraits as she is either concealed by slow exposures that blur or mar her moving body, making her ephemeral, even ghostly. Like Francie, who offers us a continual frame of perception and insight through experiences, location (Brooklyn is described so vividly via small vignettes) and encounters, Woodman’s photographs are produced in ‘thematic series’, and relate to specific places, props or situations and this reminds us that just like Francies belief systems, a photograph may distort and inadvertently deceive, never offering the whole truth about a subject and its corporeal existence. And in this deception, we see mirrored the rationale behind Francie’s mothers attempts to conceal the unpalatable truth about her father, until she is of an age enough to cope with it.

(5) The Women’s Room by Marilyn French– I borrowed my friends copy and read it until it fell apart and eventually had to buy my own when she demanded it back. I am now, thirty four years later, on my fourth copy and have bought countless others as gifts. The idea of the Fifties housewife was constructed to allow men back to work after they were demobbed- labour saving devices provided manufacturing work and made home more attractive for the women who were lured from their war time jobs (freeing them up for men) back into the home. French exposed the reality behind the ‘American Dream’, of under educated women burdened by creative and intellectual aspiration, encouraged to seek fulfillment solely through the home and the bearing of children, of the sexual double standard and the ways in which women are made responsible for, and boundary setters of, male sexuality and the male sex drive. The stand out scene for me is pretty stunning in its mundanity as Myra and her two sons, Norm and Clark busy themselves in their kitchen on a sunny day, preparing lunch and Myra allows herself to take pleasure in the domestic and shared intimacy they are all enjoying. The sudden realisation that she has ‘nearly bought into’ the American Dream’ as she strings beans at the sink, and is falling into a cosy acceptance of domesticity stops her short. She cannot totally escape her gender conditioning and certainly can never drop her guard: “Outside she heard small children playing….peace cupped her heart and she held it gently. Smiling she stood at the kitchen sink, holding a bunch of string beans in her hand, letting herself be a part of it…She brought herself upright. My God! It was the American dream, female version. Was she still buying it? She didn’t even like to cook. She resented marketing: she didn’t really even like the music that was sweeping through the apartment, but she still believed in it: the dream stood of the happy humming house. Why should she be so happy doing work that had no purpose, no end?”

Frida and the Abortion 1932
Frida and the Abortion 1932

Myra, Val, Clarissa, Isolde and the other characters embodied the many facets of women’s liberation: Second Wave Feminism emerged in the 1960’s and focused on a multitude of issues ranging from women gaining control over their sexuality to their fight for equality in the workplace. The Women’s Room is a novel suffused with many of its central concepts although in 1977 French stated, “The Women’s Room is not about the women’s movement… but about women’s lives today.”   Although its ending is somewhat bleak, ultimately this is a positive book for me because it made me begin to look outwards and beyond my own experiences and lifestyle aged just fourteen.

Some books become intrinsically linked in my mind to great works of art and the artists themselves, whether that be music, painting or another form. Whenever I think of The Women’s Room (and especially hot headed, passionate Val), Frida Kahlo comes into my mind and the paintings of hers that chime with French’s writing here the most are ‘Frida and the Abortion’ from 1932 and ‘My Birth’. The latter is reputed to be owned by Madonna who once said that she could not be friendly with anybody who did not love the painting. Whilst I am not so reductive in my choice of friends (I even have Tory mates for gods sake!) I do get where she is coming from here.

(6) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I sighed with affected boredom when I was assigned this to read as a schoolgirl, being in my minds eye, a revolutionary in pupillage and therefore in need of something a little more contemporary. How on earth could a governess and reluctant wife to be of a blind misanthrope with a mentally ill existing wife in an attic have anything to do with me or my life? I wasn’t interested either in the Mr Rochester type of man nor in saving men deficient in social skills even if they did ride a superlative horse. I have always been about mental health activism so I was never going to be well disposed towards him – even if times were different then.

How wrong I was to write the book off though. Injustice and slavery, the right of a woman to earn a fair days pay for her efforts and the social status of the work of governesses; marriage and equality, the hypocrisy of the church and cruelty of its ministrations were all addressed by Bronte decades before first wave feminists got in on the act. A brave book with sadly timeless themes- the good fight for equality is still to be won and Bronte gives great pathetic fallacy too, all dark and stormy, crepuscular and muscular imagery.

Patio With Black Door, * 1955 * Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887–1986. MFA, Boston
Patio With Black Door, * 1955 * Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887–1986. MFA, Boston

When I think of Jane Eyre I am reminded of the knotty strength of Georgia O’Keefe and I can imagine some of you thinking “eh?” at the comparison but let me try to explain. Many of O’Keefes paintings depict the process by which two opposites-idealism and practicality, go on to become inseparable. She simplifies the creative and intellectual processes, and avoids the pitfalls that lie in wait for the religious and spiritual person by remaining humble. In this I see parallels with Jane Eyre who, when in danger of disappearing up her own pious backside, manages to reign it in by developing insight into this. Time, maturity and withdrawal from a busier, more hectic place, both in mind and situation (again parallels here with O’Keefes departure from claustrophobic New York City) brings about a more grown up and thoughtful woman. O’Keefe, Bronte and her character, Jane Eyre all radically simplify the ‘form’ of what they are trying to do: see the artists depiction of the ‘Black Door’ of her Abiquiqu home which she pares down to its abstract elements over time, in her need to find the essential truth of its form. This has similarities with Jane’s own search for veracity in love, of belonging to the right space and the value she places in autonomy and integrity. Jane’s eventual marrying of emotional, spiritual and moral sustenance reflects the sum total of O’Keefes work, rooted as it is in the need for frankness, spiritual integration and acceptance

(7) The Country Child by Allison Uttley- This book is the one which triggered my love of nature writing with its rich descriptions of the wild Peak District landscapes where Windystone Hall, home to little Susan Garland, a farmers daughter was located. First published in 1931, Uttley drew upon her own youth to paint this vivid picture of a year in the life of a farm, the land and the family who eke their living from it. Uttley was a bit of a trailblazer herself becoming the second woman to graduate with honours in Physics from Manchester University in 1906 and in Susan, we see some of the spirit and questioning that must have driven her interest in sciences and explorers nature. Vivid descriptions of food -from everyday meals to the table laden with the food of feast days and religious holidays permeate the book. The Christmas chapter is swooningly evocative from the coiled trail of candle smoke in the air as the excited Susan snuffs it out before bed to her awakening in the cold blue light before dawn to feel the lumpy weight of her stocking at the end of her bed and waits impatiently to wake her parents.

We meet the people who work and live by the land, the Irish haymakers and shearers and the one armed oatcake and pikelet man called Gabriel with his empty coat-sleeve neatly pinned to his chest. The tentative courtship between Gabriel and Becky, their housemaid after she admires the pikelets ‘under their snowy white cloth’ is another winsome moment. Uttley doesn’t shy away from exposing the ugliness of people or the hardships faced by the family either: we see Susan’s struggle with envy over the Easter egg in its blue satin casing belonging to another family and her guilt after stealing a penny bag from the store and the cruel casual comment: “That Garland daughter is a plain child, positively ugly” made by a local in church and overheard by Susan; horses are made lame and winter storms isolate the stone farmhouse on the hill from all else.

Tasks and responsibilities are very strictly allocated in the Garland household and the text is peppered with colloquial sayings reflecting the deeply patriarchal nature of late Victorian society- Farmer Garland’s only heir is Susan and she feels she is a disappointment. Women’s work is never done in a farming family and it is deeply obvious that their work is vital, no less fundamental to the continued wellbeing of their business and because of this, Susan’s interest in art and storytelling and what her parents see as ‘whimsy’ is sometimes barely tolerated. She is a dreamy, imaginative child.

Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum, Benediktinerinnenabtei Sankt Hildegard, Eibingen (bei Rüdesheim)
Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum, Benediktinerinnenabtei Sankt Hildegard, Eibingen (bei Rüdesheim)

When I start thinking about how labour was divided between the sexes (and still is) I am reminded of the demarcations that reside in art too and the lack of visible female artistic output in our public galleries prior to this century. The tapestry Motherhood from the Spirit and the Water, 1165, from Liber divinorum operum by Hildegard von Bingen is a stark reminder that the needlework that Susan and the female members of her family were weighed down by (darning and other utilitarian tasks), was far removed from the decorative and intricate message of this tapestryI did some research and found that many centuries before, in the early Medieval period, women often worked alongside men, engaged in the creation of manuscript illuminations, embroideries and carded capitals. These female artists were from a small section of society and in possession of a status that afforded them the freedom to do this. They were frequently from aristocratic families or even nuns and separate from the domestic drudgery that marked the lives of other women, but women also worked in butchery and brewing and they were ironmongers and wool merchants too. ‘Motherhood From the Spirit and the Water’ may have been commissioned to show the people that a woman’s most important role was that of mother to her own children and spiritual mother to the rest of the world but it is an important piece of work nonetheless, created by a German polymath- writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and Benedictine Abbess., take a bow Hildegard of Bingen.

(8) The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan – this best-selling memoir by Ryan describes how her mother raised 10 children by entering and winning competitions made me want to bow down to the strength and resourcefulness of this woman.  Evelyn Ryan was an Ohio housewife, irrepressibly cheerful despite a husband who drank away pretty much every penny he (and she) brought into the house unless she could get to it first to spend it on clothing, food and rent. “Every single major contest she won came in just the nick of time” said Ryan including the prize which saved the family from homelessness.

6353
1949 Evelyn and her first six children on Latty Street, Defiance, Ohio: Bruce, Bub, Evelyn, Lea Anne, Terry (Tuff), Dick, Rog.

They were about to be evicted from a rented house when Ryan won a Western Auto contest, giving her enough money for a down payment on the house she would live in for the next 45 years. Most of the merchandise she won, she sold in order to increase cash flow, from washing machines and tap shoes to toasters, trips to Switzerland and cars. Upon its publication, the book was a major success with its loving celebration of a truly resourceful woman at its heart. It doesn’t dwell upon the private horrors Evelyn Ryan and her children must have endured, although it seems Evelyn worked very hard to conceal this from from her children but we readers have imaginations-reading between the lines here is not difficult.

Evelyn started off in life as a stringer with a talent for writing snappy headlines but gave up her career to marry her husband Kerry, a failed singer turned machinist. Her talent for writing enabled her to stand out in competitioning at a time when entries relied upon witty and savvy slogans and limericks as opposed to competitions now which require no intellect or ability other than clicking on ‘share’ or ‘retweet’. Advertising in post war USA was booming and the desire to acquire the goods and services that made a housewives life easier was an easy push to women no longer interested in spending all day at the wash board. Many of the brands we now recognise as iconic boomed in this period and it is this, Evelyn Ryan’s skills at knowing what the Mad Men were after and her preternatural ability to mother her children despite the problems her husband caused that makes me think of the work of multi-media artist Soasig Chamaillard.

Little Mary by Soasig Chamaillard
Little Mary by Soasig Chamaillard

Merging two or more pop art figures in a marriage of kitsch, Chamaillard’s figures are a playful interaction of societal icons and the resulting improbable combinations ask questions about her (and our) vision of a woman’s role and place. You will note the frequent appearance of the Virgin Mary in her work, something apropos to this book- Evelyn was a Catholic and brought her family up with the guidance of the local priest and church, both of whom encouraged her to ‘do better’ in order to support her troubled husband whilst totally ignoring her needs. His alcoholism was viewed as her fault and a sign of her inadequacy. The competition prizes that kept their family afloat for years made her husband jealous and resentful and his answer was to drink away his pay packet, week in, week out. That became her fault according to the mores of the society she lived in.

 

“Nursery rhymes are wonderful and surprising little dramas”- An interview with Michael Rosen

 

Michael_Rosen

This interview has had a gestation more complicated than a multiple pregnancy. Bedeviled by a stolen voice recorder at the Latitude festival, where Rosen was speaking and I was doing press coverage- leaving me with no choice other than to frantically scribble down answers in situ (with a pencil– old school). Then, at home, I was burgled and the bag containing the original notes PLUS transcribed document on a memory stick was nicked. I had come to accept that this was the one that got away. However a few weeks ago the police recovered some of my stolen property including the purse with the stick in. Hence interview.2 reconstructed as best I can. Apologies Mr Rosen for the time-lag.

The previous November, it had been announced that Michael Rosen had been appointed Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London in order to run a new MA in Children’s Literature starting in 2014. It was this that I was particularly interested in; the need to build an academic knowledge base for children’s literature and how this could be of benefit at a time (July 2014) where Michael Gove, then the education secretary, was making pronouncements about the worth of one set text over another.

The relative lack of critique and study of literature for children has left us all wide open to Gove-ian interference regarding what is ‘right’ and who gets to arbitrate ‘taste’ (and his departure doesn’t mean we are out of the woods either). The wrong people are exerting influence for reasons motivated by something other than their critical analysis of the texts themselves but until we have that critical rigour, we lie helpless in the face of this.

So, Michael, who is the arbitrator of taste? Who is deciding now what we read as children?

“I gained my MA in the early nineties and have been teaching and involved in education since then, from a position of wanting to share what I have learned- it all comes from that. As artists and critics, we can easily be bypassed, we have zero power and we need to work towards establishing a consensus. Through research and collaboration and educational critique, it is possible in a sense, to all get that opportunity to be a ‘King for a Day’ where we can say ‘my turn to talk…’

And Gove? Where does he come in?

Power engenders power. It’s a well-oiled party machine and there’s a belief that if they talk ‘this’ way they’ll get ‘it’ into power but Gove…he’s a liability to their side. In whatever role. 

“Gove oddly set himself up as a know it all and was not generous in his way of listening and working with teachers, those in education…the children. He has the ‘power of convenient’, he is using his position to impose his own political views. He could have convened a discussion in a human and thoughtful manner. He is very Napoleonic and cannot bear to think of a consensus. Nothing is being set free here. It is all about imposition. We have teachers who have invested their lives in learning how to do what they do really well. He doesn’t want to hear from them. 

In previous interviews, Michael Rosen has made clear his belief that despite Gove (and the government) stating that these stipulations allow schools to act as they wish with regard to what is studied in literature, in fact the adding in of extra texts above and beyond those stipulated would be almost impossible for teachers. The workload is already immense.

He goes on to state that there is huge interest and academic potential in children’s literature, not as addendum and tag along to adult literature (nor framed in the light of what we loved as children) but a whole new world of critical theory with more than 10,000 children’s books being published in the United Kingdom every year.

“Children’s books are different, in so many ways and are vulnerable to the opinions of uninformed ‘experts’- they have a dual focus in that they are part of the process of formally educating a child but they are also guiding, reflecting and nurturing. The best do this.”

If you take into account the view that each child’s background will affect their relationship not only with the idea of reading itself but the content on every printed page, it is baffling as to why there has been this snobbery for so long about the formal study of children’s literature. It has made us vulnerable to seeking out the wrong people as arbitrators of taste- people like Gove.

“We can value reading for pleasure. We learn beyond exams and the feeding in of information and the retrieval of it through exams and tests. But we learn through the world and what is around us- our bodies, the earth, the way we play and eat and the energy and life around us.

Go onto Michael Rosen’s website and what strikes you is his love of words- a playfulness and exploration and inquisitiveness that we of course celebrate in children and then find that most of us seem to lose along the way. There are videotapes of poetry readings and interviews conducted by year-sixers, jokes and quizzes and while there are sections for ‘adults’, there is little sense of him hiving off younger age groups.  The same applies too, to the different ways in which humans use words. To some of us poetry seems to breathe a more rarified air and it can be a little intimidating- not something for the ‘beginner’ in literature which is a shame.  I asked Michael how parents (and non parents too) can engage with poetry despite their unfamiliarity or unease with it-

But poetry is everyday- it isn’t a separate ‘thing’. Think of nursery rhymes- They are wonderful and surprising little dramas, full of mysteries with all kinds of interesting meanings. Even tiny babies are suddenly engaging with life- a richness of life when they hear them. Think of one- Why was Little Miss Muffet on a tuffet? What is a tuffet? Think of the sound of that word. You can ask questions about them, the child can ask questions about them and it doesn’t matter about the answer.

“Sing songs to them. Look at Dolly Parton and her song ‘The Coat of Many Colours’ which is written verse and is the loveliest story. Engage children with words that fill their heads with the strangeness of non speech language. Writing and the reading of it alone cannot show them everything that is special about a story. Use non verbal storytelling by singing and acting out the words and show them how emotion can be conveyed through the whole body. That teaches them how to manage their own feelings and how to understand the feelings of others. 

So can you recall what your own introduction to poetry was? Your first book?

“My first poetry book was the Kingfisher Book of Children’s Poetry and I love the work of Grace NicholsRoger McGough and John Foster. My parents loved poetry, we had poets visiting and we all told stories.

Michael goes on to discuss how song and poetry share an affinity through their rhythmic structure and cites the example of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for which Longfellow invented the four beat line. The tetrameter, (also called  strong-stress, native meter or four by four meter) is commonly used  in nursery rhymes, ballads and folk songs and has four beats to a line. On a simplistic level, anything with a heartbeat-like rhythm is going to soothe or arouse but more importantly, if you want to introduce yourself or a child to the realm of human experience seen through the prism of poetry, why not exploit what we already know to be familiar and comfortable? Start there and progress onto the other stuff.

Certainly poetry celebrates the rhythm, pitch and sound of language and also the non language sounds that come out of our mouths. Individual words convey meaning in themselves- not only when they are combined with other words. Michael Rosen’s own poetry is testimony to this. Watch this VT of Rosen reading out ‘Chocolate Cake’. There are sounds and expressions that you won’t find in a dictionary and sounds that mean something even if you have an impaired inability to decode language. A son of a friend who was diagnosed with Autism aged three responds to Michael’s sounds of glee with his own glee and it is one of the few times we see him associate joy with sound. It usually troubles him. Small babies are oblivious to the values and meanings attached to words and until they learn those things, they will enjoy a word for the sound it makes solely.  We all eventually learn that a word is an object and it has its own tale to tell but there is a kind of joy involved in going back in time through the reactions of the very young to words and poems and stories. Their reaction is unfiltered.

I once read that babies are born able to make every sound of every language in the world. So the acquisition of language is as much about the process of forgetting as it is about learning. Babies are the kings and  queens of neologisms, they play with sounds, feel them in their mouths, they listen and experience the sound of speech and noise from the inside out and this is something that poets seem to retain or relearn.

“Babies are natural poets. We as writers and poets morph and invent language- babies do this from the start. They don’t know that the sound you are making is ‘right’ or wrong. They borrow and they invent and poets- they do that too. People like Shakespeare, they didn’t fossilize or get pedantic about what word is ‘right’. 

Is poetry more supportive and reflective of changing language and idiom and would you say that it is a more natural vehicle to reflect a child’s lived experience?

“Poetry can and does talk in many voices. I see my own fathers voice..and that of others but you also need to find your own voice too. Poets can use and mine the language of anybody or anything- we do steal the voices of others when we need to. Our language is rich and it reflects what we borrow and what we invent. My own childhood home was full or oral history, tales told, my parents recited poetry and they were teachers and questioned everything. 

Michael went on to talk about how he wrote ‘Words are Ours’, a perfect reflection of the way in which language and its signifiers- the signs of the times, the signs of our times morph. The poem Incorporates ‘text-speak’ to wonder what the next thing, the next word will be and what it might say about us and the impermanence of a fast moving technology is the perfect vehicle to convey this

“We’re not statues and we don’t stand still. Poetry is dynamic and changes. We use dialect- Wordsworth wrote in dialect. People like Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephraniah taught me how to stand and perform and how to reach people using me. I saw how they used their bodies and their voices, how the poems emanated from them. 

He has no truck with word snobbishness. He also has no truck with the idea that we must stick to our ‘own’ dialects although he is also emphatic about the role poetry has to play in promoting and valuing regional and cultural variations. Rosen sees poetry being as inclusive as any other art form and beautifully  experimental – he talks to me like a poetic Professor Branestawm. Sense of place is important but entrenchment is to be resisted. In a poet like Grace Nichols we see the linguistic gymnastics that move language forward leaving pedants trapped in a mire of their own making. Creole and standard English are woven together in her work BUT this is poetry to be performed, heard, not just left on the page. And it is this lesson that Rosen has really taken on board and demonstrated to us. He has taken it further. As I spoke to him he would break off into verse, would show me what he meant by playing with his own words, either via his own poetry or that of others, or song. He recited a portion of his own poem ‘Hand on the Bridge’ to show me how a dynamic, chanting, speechy way of reciting had been inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah and I, like a typical repressed English person at first sat a little awkwardly then by the third or fourth word, grew still and then spellbound.

For more information:

Michael Rosen’s website

Michael Rosen A-Z of Best Children’s Poems

 

Photographs copyright of Michael Rosen. Taken from his website.