The Gathering Tide

A couple of weeks ago I was up at St Andrews attending a little nature-writing festival put on by Waterstones. I’m not much of a one for literary festivals – one summer stint at Edinburgh International Book Festival and one spring weekend at 2014’s Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Writing is my sum total to date – but nature writing is one of my favourite genres and I was looking for an excuse to get to know this little seaside town better, as my husband had just got a job there and we’d be moving there in a couple of months. It was also pretty cheaper – £10 per person for a whole day of events, and that £10 fee redeemable against the cost of any books bought. Sold!

gathering tideThe festival space was a corner of Waterstones packed with chairs and guarded by a table containing lots of tasty things to eat: we arrived in the middle of the afternoon to a choice of cakes, tea and juice and happily settled in to some nibbling before the reading started. We were there to hear Karen Lloyd talking about The Gathering Tide (2016), a book which explores the edgelands of Morecambe Bay on the south-western periphery of the Lake District. Having met and married my husband in the Lakes, crossing the sands of Morecambe Bay with him and a group of friends in 2013 (more of which here), it’s fair to say that we know and love this area well – though not anywhere near as well as Karen Lloyd, who spent a year tracing the Bay’s basin to research this book.

Lloyd has a lifetime’s love of the Bay, having moved to South Cumbria as a child and living there still. She’s also dug deeply into the area’s history, hunting out maritime charts and chasing elusive guides to lead her to places like Piel Island, with its King and Castle and pub, The Ship Inn.

 

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

OK, so I’m slightly late to the party with this one, as it’s already the end of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, rather than the beginning! But I’ve been ill for a large part of the week and before that had a particularly daft few days at work, so this is the first time I’ve had the space and inclination to take part. As usual with all things blog related, it was my good friend Billy-Bob over Stuck-in-a-Book who alerted me to this lovely initiative within the book blogging community.

For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Book Blogger Appreciation Week is an annual celebration of, well, people who blog about books, started by My Friend Amy 2008. In 2012 Amy bowed out of #BBAW (of course it has its own hashtag) and it is now run by the good ladies (Ana, Jenny, Heather, and Andi) over at Estella Society.  Each day during #BBAW there is a different theme or question for Book Bloggers to respond to, and there are also virtual book parties to join in with.

This is the first year I’ve been involved, and because I’m starting so late I thought I’d just combine the elements of #BBAW into one mega-post, rather than five smaller ones. Here goes…

Task 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle

The land which makes liqueur from lemons...

1) Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow (2015)

Food AND travel? Two of my greatest passions are mesmerically combined in Helena Attlee’s beautiful prose which tells the history of Italian lemons with particular reference to the part they play in Mediterraenean culture and cuisine. I read this book in Sardinia, the perfect setting for a narrative which is soaked in sunshine and citrus. I reviewed it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/where-lemons-

2) Hannah Hauxwell: The Complete Story (1991)

As readers of this blog know well, I love life-writing which tells the stories ordinary lives, particularly those in rural settings. This combined auto/biography, which includes verbatim extracts from interviews with Hannah as well as Barry Cockroft’s own prose, first seduced me from the shelf of a charity shop in Shropshire and introduced me to Hannah Hauxwell’s remarkable (by 21st century standards; less so by 18th century ones) life in a remote Yorkshire dale. You can read more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/hannah-hauxwell/

I love wool on a cover, so I do3) Names the for Sea, Sarah Moss (2013)

As readers of my other blog Nordic Narratives will know, I have a long-running love affair with all things Nordic. Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea describes her family’s move from Britain to Iceland in 2009 – 2010, and fuels my fantasties for living in Scandinavia one day. You can find out more about my response to it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/longing-to-name-the-

4) The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar (2012)

I love foraging but don’t often get the chance to do it now I live in the city. However, even here I’ve managed to make elderberry cordial, just one of many delicious, healthy and easy recipes included in Adele Nozedar’s modern classic. An absolute must-have for anyone who likes picking berries, gathering nuts (in May or any other more suitable month), and generally being outdoors. Find out more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/reading-on-the-hoof/

5) The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016)

2016-01-27 23.09.59Nature writing combined with a tale of recovery from breakdown – two of my very favourite genres combined into a truly beautiful memoir of life in and between Orkney and London. Liptrot has been lauded as a new voice in the nature writing tradition, and I think her work has striking similarities to both Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. It’s only just come out (January 2016) so if you can lay your hands on a copy then do, you really won’t be disappointed. You can read my review of it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/the-outrun-return-to-orkney

Task 2: Interview a Book Blogger.

Well this is going to be somewhat tricky, as I have left it later-than-late, so you’ll have to make do with 5 questions that I’ve asked myself. Solipsistic, moi?

Question 1) Where does your blog name come from?

The expression ‘discriminating brevity’ comes Sidney Lee’s In Principles of Biography (1911): Discriminating brevity is a law of the right biographic method.” – I’m probably far too sentimental and/or verbose to be truly discriminating or very brief, but I still really like the phrase. Discriminatingbrevity is actually this blog’s second incarnation: at first it was called Learning to Love Literature and was supposed to be a series of introductions to classic literature. Then I realised I wasn’t reading enough classic literature to write much about any of it, but I was reading a lot of biography, autobiography and life-writing. And so this blog came into being.

Question 2) What do you like best about blogging?

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

There are three things: connecting with other people, giving myself a reason to write more and a structure through which to do this, and getting feedback on my writing. The first has been completely magical and has largely been facilitated through Twitter: I had a great exchange with Amy Liptrot once I’d reviewed her book, and even went to meet her in person to get by book signed by her (this is by far and away the most starstruck thing I’ve ever done). In summer 2015 I reviewed Monty Don’s The Jewel Garden and was amazed to find he’d retweeted the link to my post, resulting in a record 345 views of that particular page. We also had a little chat about whether or not he was ever in a punk band – he wasn’t. Getting feedback on my writing: that part has been completely unexpected, and most often takes the form of my mother rinding me up to debate some aspect of my childhood memories..!

Question 3) What would you like to change about your blog?

I’d like to blog more often (and experiment more with memes, competitions and different styles of posts), connect more with other literary bloggers, and get better at coding so I can make it look prettier and not have occassional gaps and oddities popping up in peculiar places.

Question 4) How did you become a voracious reader? Did somebody inspire you?

Farm Cottage as we knew it

Our family home

Not particularly – both my parents always encouraged us to read, and took us to the library every Saturday to get new books, but neither of them reads obsessively. In fact, my Dad has only read a handful of fiction books in his life – the only ficiton book I can ever remember him enthusing about was Walter by David Cook. He has, however, read plenty of magazines and motorbike handbooks! My mother is a pretty omnivorous reader and the house always had a fairly eclectic stock of books, from Alexander McCall Smith to Jane Eyre and Asterix to Little House on the Prairie, though it was a bit light on the classics. When I got to univeresity and realised that some of my friends actually owned yards and yards of bookshelves double-stacked with Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Defoe I realised I had some serious catching up to do.

Question 5) Do you abandon books if they don’t please you?

Absolutely – I really struggle to make myself read something if I’m not enjoying it. However, I’m quite good about returning to a book that I haven’t been able to ‘get in to’ and giving it another chance. Case in point: Harry Potter, James Robertson, Laurence Durrell…

Task 3 – Blame a Blogger

‘Have you ever read a book because of a book blogger? Be it a good book or bad, bloggers recommend books every day of the year. Tell us all about the book or books you’ve read because of a book blogger and be sure to sure to spread the blame around.’

Tove JanssonThe main culprit for this for me is Stuck-in-a-Book. Not only does he recommend me books, he also posts them to me (this is because he is a real-world as a well as a virtual friend, he also runs book-giveaway competitions so you could receive one of his parcels of literary love too!) Although he didn’t introduce me to Tove Jansson, he has been someone with whom I can share my love of her, and he also furnished me with this rather nice copy of her biography. He is currently trying to tempt me with Katherine Mansfield, having brought me a book about someone writing about KM, and some original KM to start the new year. I will read some, but I have to say I’ve not started yet…

Book Crossing in Kinlochard

Thanks Stilring County library...

Boat-bottom at Loch Ard

This week at work I’ve been recommending Book Crossing to teachers and parents, but all the while never having actually participated in it. But that has now changed – thanks to the hand of fate on a sunny Saturday in Kinlochard.

Bright and early on Saturday morning the husband and I set off for a walk up Ben Venue, determined to make the most of the sunshine forecasted. About half an hour in, I was seriously struggling – heavy of breath, light of head, sweaty of brow – and had to have a rest by a scenic pool. I’d been feeling sore of throat all week, and this seemed to suggest that I have some lingering bug in my system.

Flowers by Scott's pool

Flowers by Scott’s pool

So I baled just after the beautiful pool by which Walter Scott sat and wrote Rob Roy, and retraced my steps back to the village of Kinlochard, leaving the intrepid husband to scale the summit.

After a reviving cup of tea at the Wee Blether Tearoom (oh ok, and a slice of delicious cranchan cake – they also gave me three free hot water top-ups which is always much appreciated, particularly when one is a lone traveller) I wandered along through the village, until I came across this:

Thanks Stirling County Library...

Thanks Stirling County Library…!

Beautiful boxes full of books! There was a donation box next to these, for anyone who was feeling charitable towards the survivors of the Nepal Earthquake, and I flung in a handful of change in exchange for Paulo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello. The owner of the boxes was sunning herself in the porch of this beautiful house:

The beautiful house which also provided the book

The beautiful house which also provided the book

and I shouted a cheery ‘thank you’ over the gate after my lenghty deliberation over which one to choose. I then took my choice off to the lake shore for a read in the sunshine.

It was a perfect warm day for reading in a secluded spot, and I was completely thrilled to discover upon opening it that I had unwittingly picked up my first Book Croosing tome! It has only just started on its journey, but I am looking forward to depositing it somewhere once I’ve finished it, and then sending it on its merry way. Huge thanks to the generous ProfKen who started me on by Book Crossing journey.

Lakeside reading spot

Lakeside reading spot

20150530_135518

After the beauties of Book Crossing, we then headed out to that remote literary spot, Inversnaid of Gerald Manley Hopkins fame. It’s one of my favourite-ever poems, and even my glaciologist husband can recite large chunks of it, he’s heard it so often. Here it is for you to enjoy, along with a couple of pictures from the rest of this marvellous day:

Inversnaid

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

This darksome burn, horseback brown

The infamous darksome burn

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Broken butterfly at Loch Ard

Broken butterfly at Loch Ard

Now – tell me about your Book Crossing adventures and discoveries…

Sherlock, Invictus and pirates galore

Having finally settled in to the flat, unpacked the last box and had our first guests round for dinner, the time has come for a little literary update on my new surroundings. On Sunday the husband and I decided to go on a walking tour of literary Edinburgh, partly to get our cultural bearings and also because I had a job interview with UNESCO City of Literature Trust on Tuesday.

Edinburgh's iconic streets

Edinburgh’s iconic streets

Nothing like a bit of interview prep that can be done whilst having a sunny city stroll! The tour was a fascinating 90 minutes of anecdote threaded through the city’s south side, and galloped through the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling – with a fair sprinkling of bookshops and publishers to boot.

My husband has spent much of the last five years working in the Geosciences Building on Drummond Street and was amazed to discover from our guide that not only had it once been a hospital but that W.E. Henley had spent nearly three years of his life there under the watchful eye of a certain Joseph Lister. Now, when we first heard the name Henley neither of us recognised it, but the guide soon brought it to our attention that this was the man behind the poem ‘Invictus’:

Henley had had his leg amputated as part of his treatment for TB, and together with his beard and crutch was the inspiration for literature’s most famous pirate, Long John Silver – Stevenson had apparently carried an armchair on his head through the streets of Edinburgh to sit at his friend’s bedside. But he wasn’t the only member of his family to be immortalised in literature: his daughter Margaret, who died at the tragically young age of five, was the self-anointed ‘Fwendy-Wendy’ to a certain J.M. Barrie – and thereby Peter Pan’s ‘little mother’ was born. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more made by of these connections by the university – how great would it be to have ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’ emblazoned on the gates of the building that hundreds of students and staff use every day?

Behind the Geosciences school lie the Old Infirmary buildings, ranging round a quiet and almost entirely hidden courtyard providing little more than bicycle storage for today’s university students. But 150 years ago this had been the haunt of Dr Joseph Bell, the renowned surgeon and medical lecturer – and was the alma mater of a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, who (like Stevenson) took direct inspiration for his fictional characters from the people he saw in that corner of Edinburgh. Sherlock Holmes, his characteristic coat and hat and his incisive diagnostic skill, were based on Conan Doyle’s old lecturer.

At the end of the Drummond Street we come to two further literary links: the bar Hispaniola (named after the barque in Treasure Island), which until recently traded under the name Rutherford’s Bar, and had done so since at least 1836. Just over the road from Edinburgh University Law School, it provided a handy watering hole for such eminent alumni as RLS (him again!), Conan Doyle (and him), and Walter Scott.

And then on to J.K. Rowling, William Topaz McGonagall, Alexander McCall Smith, Paperback Books: it seems like every corner of Edinburgh teems with literary life past and present. The tour is a great romp through Auld Reekie’s history, but it really only has time to scratch the surface: what of Burns, Ferguson, and those Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine boys?

And, just so you know, I got the job – so that’s a pretty good recommendation for the effectiveness of the tour!

City Lights

Shouting from the rooftops

City Lights

City Lights

Whilst in California over Christmas I fell into the welcoming arms of the City Lights bookshop, hiding from the rain and the tramps and the strip clubs along Broadway Street. I took surreptitious photographs of signs which had been smirked and smiled for decades by generations of devoted readers; I pretended to read poetry books (because after all, what else could one do in the shop which kicked off the Beat phenomenon with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl); and after about half an hour I found myself tucked into a corner in the basement, eyeball deep in biography. And not just any biography – culinary biography. And not just any culinary biography, but Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (2012).

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Dearie by Bob Spitz

Julia Child had hovered on the edge of my culinary conscience for years. I cannot remember exactly where I first came across her – possibly through my grandmother, who is a phenomenal cook herself and has been valiantly feeding a family of six children, thirteen grandchildren, and three fostered Chinese students for over seventy years. My grandmother had been to the States, where she picked up a cowboy cookbook (one of the first things I ever made from it was Billy-can brownies), and illustrated an expat cookery volume during her years living in Hong Kong called Cooking with Corona. She had also bestowed upon me three bound boxes full of the Cordon-Bleu Cookery School course in weekly magazines (which I am yet to make anything from), and a delight in all things extravagant, delicious, and dramatic. Her major outlets for this enjoyment of excess are her devout Catholicism (she is the only person I know who has a signed dispensation to take food before Mass when pregnant) and in her cookery. She snorts when she laughs, pronounces chocolate with three syllables, and still pickles and preserves at the age of 90. In my mind, she is a little like a short, Catholic, British Julia Child.

I devoured Dearie in a few days, all 535 pages of it, against the backdrop of San Francisco’s parks, cafes and our hostel room with its overpowering aroma of Chinese food. My husband was at a conference all day and most of each evening, which gave me ample time to read and recreate Child in my imagination. I watched snippets of her cookery shows, and cooked absolutely nothing except scrambled eggs and beans. But I fell in love with her, and a little more with America, through Bob Spitz’s writing. Although his prose tends to cliché, it is vibrant and jolly and likeable – all aspects which I immediately transferred to Child. I liked her guts, the way she made French cooking her own in America, her total commitment to fun and joy and joie de vivre. Here was a woman who didn’t want to be tiny, good, quiet, modest – she couldn’t help but be statuesque, naughty, loud and passionate. She immediately made it onto my mental list of female role models (or ‘women I wish I was more like’), where she holds court in the good company of Tove Jansson, Gwyneth Lewis, Margaret Bennett Jenny Uglow, Jack Monroe et al.

Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia

Then yesterday, on my first day without a job and living in Edinburgh, I found Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia (2005) – in hardback for £3 from the Shelter shop in Morningside, since you ask. I hadn’t seen the film, which came out in 2009, but again it had been lurking in the brain-shadows, so I snapped up the book and finished it about an hour ago.

Julie Powell feels like I do about Julia – and the popularity of her blog, book and film suggests we aren’t the only ones. For us, Julia stands for being feminine and joyous, unapologetic in her enjoyment of life and food and drink. She makes us believe that if we have any of those nascent characteristics within ourselves, then we should embrace them and shout them from the rooftops. So this is me, shouting from this virtual rooftop (although I could do it almost from our actual rooftop, as the flat’s a top-floor one): have the courage to do whatever it is that brings you joy. Share it around as much as you can, give it out, out, out. Today, this brought me joy:

Daffodils on my 'desk'

Daffodils on my ‘desk’

not just the bright colours of the flowers, but the fact it was my first day working at my new desk (well, table – but beggars/bloggers can’t and all that) and that I’d managed to write a first draft of a poem, two paragraphs on my embryonic biography project, three letters and this blog. Now, off to the lovely Meadowberry for frozen yoghurt and free Wifi to post this…

Hazlenuts

Birthdays, books, beer and berries

Sorry these posts are a little few and far between at the moment – autumn is always a busy time of year (new school year, hedgerows to be harvested, and a big ol’ birthday to boot), but here are my musings from the last few weeks!

New books – the aforementioned birthday has provided me with a whole heap of delightful bookery to get my teeth into (sometime literally, often more metaphorically).

Birthday books and cards

Birthday books and cards

Most excitingly, and without even asking for it, I have a brand-new literary biography to linger over, in the shape of Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love. Having dropped some not-so-subtle hints to my husband whilst in the Watermill at Aberfeldy, I have also been furnished with Leon’s Fast Vegetarian (and made my first dish, Sri Lankan pineapple curry, from this evening) and a translated Reeds in the Wind, a book I first heard about on our honeymoon to the homeland of its author. A treasure trove indeed.

The previous post mentioned The Hedgerow Handbook: have now managed to collect lots of nuts, sloes and hips which are awaiting transformation. The sloes are mid-fermentation in the gin, the hips are in the freezer, and the nuts are only half-shelled…it’s a tedious process, but well worth the marvellous autumn walks to collect them.

SSBBF stash

SSBBF stash

Two brilliant friends of ours also organised themselves an amazing birthday party this weekend: they hired a bunk barn, bought 10 barrels (and several bottles) of beer and cider, and invited 30 friends to celebrate their 30th with them.Now these are people who don’t mess about – they branded the whole thing as the SSBBF, with beer tankards, beer mats, and beer list to match! It was a great weekend of celebrating with friends and family from near and far.

Reading on the hoof

Reading on the hoof

…and I’m back! Scotland furnished me with a whole heap of exciting new books to get my teeth into (metaphorically, of course, but I am one of those people who reads in the bath and writes in the margins), so here’s a quite overview of my recent acquisitions:

IMG_0612The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar – a gift from the aforementioned lovely friend, this came accompanied by a massive jar of delicious beetroot and orange chutney. I love foraging, preserving and – of course – ingesting, so this book will enable me to do those more safely, more successfully, and more enjoyably. It has beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, and is handily sized to fit into a small rucksack or large jacket pocket. You can read much more about it here. It’s not the sort of book you can ‘read’ like a novel, it’s more like a poetry anthology that you dip in and out of as the mood (or need) takes you. Some of the recipes sound bizarre (Himalayan Balsam Curry), some delicious (Rose petal Turkish Delight) and all interesting. Nozedar gives a history of the plants and their uses, as well as practical recipes and tips on how to find and identify them. The perfect present for autumn!

On the Black Hill, Bruce ChatwinOn the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin – another gift from the lovely AND generous friend, this one I devoured in a few hours on the long journey to Inverness via Blairdrummond. A name I vaguely new, but an author whom I’d never read, Bruce Chatwin cuts a rather mysterious figure; he died, tragically prematurely, of AIDS at the age of 49 in 1989. On the Black Hill is the tale of two twins and their lives on a farm in Wales, whose lives roughly span the 20th century. The brothers are bound together by love, hatred, biology and duty; their tale is hypnotic in the transfixing madness, stubbornness and inscrutability of its characters. The book embodies all that is cruel, beautiful and inevitable about the farming life, telling the story of a century as it charts the life of this remote family. Thoroughly recommended; now to find something else by him to read…

The Time by the Sea, Ronald Blythe – this appeared in the ‘Sale’ box of the wonder that is The Watermill in Aberfeldy.

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

The Time by the Sea is Blythe’s autobiographical rememberings of Aldeburgh in the 1950s, peopled with such luminaries as Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, Peter Pears,  and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. I have high hopes for it as I love, love, love Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, set in a Suffolk my father’s family grew up in but which has now almost completely disappeared. It was made into a hugely popular film in 1974 by director Peter Hall, and charts life in a Suffolk village through the 20th century without pathos but with a clarity which makes you look anew at the world around you. If you can’t lay your hands on a copy of the book (and don’t want to pay for the film before you’ve seen it!), you can watch a snippet of it here:

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver – another Watermillian find, this one is by the author of the brilliant Poisonwood Bible. IMG_0615I haven’t read anything by Kingsolver for years, but this one features real-life characters  including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo fictionalised in the story of Harrison William Shepherd. For a full review, have a look at what the NYT had to say.

Also, long car journeys have been perfect for long sessions in thrall to Radio 4 – here’s one of my favourites, a snippet from the fantastic Listening Project: Peter and Amy – Ronnie’s Recipes (The Listening Project)