Books, books and more books

I am writing this paragraph after completing the rest of the post. I never intended listing so many books; I’d had in mind perhaps a dozen favourites but I just kept on thinking of more. There are, I am certain, many, many others if I could only remember them all. 

I shall be going away a couple of times during October and have begun to think about my reading matter – always an essential part of holiday planning. Since one of those trips involves flying to Ireland with hand luggage only, I shall be making use of the Kindle app on my iPad. You can read about my reluctant conversion to e-books in this earlier post: Real books

I have to confess to not being a great fan of many of the books considered to be classics. For me, the style is often too flowery and I find much of the description unbearably protracted.  I thought I’d share a some of the novels that I have enjoyed with you:

Book D

My absolute favourite book for years now has been William Boyd’s Any Human heart.  Having read it several times, I once recommended this to my book group; it was universally disliked and I just can’t understand why!

It is probably the most involved novel I’ve ever read and by this I mean that it covers such wide-ranging subjects.  The book documents protagonist Logan Mountstuart’s (what a glorious name that is) student years, his literary career, the complexity of his relationships, and his friends and acquaintances – Virginia Woolf, Picasso, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Set amid an ever-changing historical backdrop –  the abdication of Edward  VIII, World War II (when Logan is recruited as a spy by Ian Fleming), The Spanish Civil War and later his unwitting involvement with the West German far left militant group, Baader-Meinhof.  It sounds rather like a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ and yet somehow the story seems perfectly plausible. I imagine that a liking for the book might depend on one’s liking for Logan. I did like him, immensely though the character is somewhat self-centred at times, particularly as a young man. There is a marvellous Channel 4 film which, rarely, is as good as the book. Three actors portray Logan at his various ages and the marvellous Jim Broadbent (above) as the old man gives an outstanding and poignant performance.

Book A

Another book which had a great impact is Rohinton Mistry’s   A Fine Balance. Read only once, I doubt I ever shall again. I found it harrowing but ‘unputdownable’. It follows the story of two tailors living in India. It left me sad and appalled at the squalor in their lives.

Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden), read when newly published and again more recently, tells the story of a young girl in the 1920s who is indentured to the madame of a geisha training house. Her treatment by the jealous Hatsumomo makes for a miserable life.  Eventually she becomes a geisha herself but her idea of what makes for a happy life is very much at odds with western values. It’s one of those books that stays with you for a long time after reading it.

Set during the winter following the Spanish Civil War, CJ Sansome’s Winter in Madrid focuses on Harry Brett, a spy.  Commended for the accuracy of his research, author Sansome pulls no punches and his account  of the living conditions in Madrid at the time and the book contains many examples of real events. If my own book is ever published I would be more than satisfied to be praised for the quality of meticulous research.

Book E

 Margaret Leroy’s  The Collaborator  (more recently marketed under the title The Soldier’s Wife)  is a love story set in occupied Guernsey during WWII. This author is, I believe, very underrated since her name never seems to appear in any list of ‘good books’ or recommendations and yet she has written several cracking good reads. I haven’t yet read A Brief Affair but have it on my ipad ready for holiday reading.

 

 

 

I’m not generally a fan of humorous books but have lately read several with somewhat eccentric protagonists who did make me smile. I absolutely loved The Rosie Project and its sequel, The Rosie Effect. Author Graeme Simison perfectly portrays the social difficulties encountered by an Asperger’s sufferer. If you read and enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, then these are for you.  Other similarly quirky books include The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This kind of book seems to be forming a new genre of novel.

Book L

JK Rowling made her name with the Harry Potter books which I confess never to have read though I know many adults who have (including my daughter who, despite being an out and out academic, loves them). However, I did read The Casual Vacancy, her firts book written for adults. I though it superb with excellent characterisation, though the TV adaptation was not that well received. It was indeed a pale imitation of the book. Her latest offerings (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) feature Cormoran Strike, war veteran turned private eye. I’ve not read the books but am enjoying the current TV series.

 

 

Pretty much anything written by Louise Candlish (her latest, The Swimming Pool, was excellent), Monica McInerney,  Anita Shreeve, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Diane Chamberlain, Katherine McMahon, Lisa Jewell, Kate Morton and Maggie O’Farrell (often family sagas) always please too. I found a voucher in yesterday’s Daily Mail for a recent Lisa Jewell book The Girls for just £1 at WH Smith. Husband went to town and got it for me and it’s been put by ready for the non-flight holiday.

 

When I’ve really enjoyed a book I find that I miss the characters once it’s finished so I like writers who continue a running theme which underpins each of their stories. Three authors spring to mind, coincidentally all detective based:

 

Peter James – Roy Grace police series with the running theme of his missing wife. There are around a dozen books so far, beginning with Dead Simple. I’m less keen on James’s other books which focus on the paranormal, not a genre that I enjoy.

Sophie Hannah – Culver Valley series (ten books to date) where the complex relationship between two detectives is the ongoing, underlying story.

The off-beat  Jackson Brodie private eye series were great. There are four books and I recommend Case Histories as an introduction. Brodie’s slightly chaotic life with intermittent visits from his delightful daughter are quirky and engaging.  A short TV series was made with Jason Isaacs cast in the lead role…very successfully, I thought.  Kate Atkinson tells a great tale but of late she has written quite differently (such as  Life after Life which won the Costa Novel Award and the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize) but  I thoroughly dislike this change of style and hope that she will bring back Brodie soon.

Back in the eighties and nineties I was a fan of  Anita Burgh and can still remember the opening line in Love, the Bright Foreigner …. ‘Stored deep within her, petrified for all time’ …..I have no recall at all what the story was about but clearly the words made an impact. It’s one I’d like to revisit. Our tastes change and I wonder if I would still enjoy it.Book K

My first ever ‘grown up’ read was Kathleen Winsor’s novel written in 1940s, Forever Amber. What I’d think of it now, I have no idea. Maybe I’ll read it again soon and find out. It was out of print for some years but later reprinted with a foreword by Barbara Taylor Bradford. This alone makes me think that I wouldn’t feel the same about it any more. Her books are certainly popular but having read a couple (due to the urging of friends who are fans) I can say with absolute conviction that I found them to be unremittingly  boring.  Apologies if that offends!

A few other odds and ends: Rose Tremain The Road Home, Lori Lansens Rush Home Road,  Nick Hornby High Fidelity, Liane Moriaty The Husband’s Secret… there are so, so many and I’m sure that as soon as I post this I will think of other books that I wish I’d included.

Who are your favourite authors and why?

POSTSCRIPT: I knew it would happen! How could I have forgotten ……. three more excellent reads

 

No other way to slice an egg!

image

Some while ago Delicious, a rather nice upmarket foodie magazine ran an article on the most useless kitchen gadgets. I don’t remember what most of them were but I was certainly surprised to find that an egg slicer featured among them. The egg slicer was probably the most exotic piece of kitchen equipment my mother ever owned! You may remember from my past posts that she wasn’t renowned for her culinary prowess. Though to be fair, a look around my kitchen wouldn’t exactly shout ‘domestic goddess’ because I’m not a great one for gadgets. However, the egg slicer was one of the first things I bought for my ‘bottom drawer’ (does this concept still even still exist?) and I’ve never been without one since. A knife doesn’t do the job nearly so well. It’s hard to cut the egg thinly enough to provide enough slices to cover a piece of toast adequately (and I do enjoy a hard boiled egg on a piece of toast that’s been spread with marmite – I’m one of those who loves the stuff). When my daughter left home to go to university I was required to supply various kitchen bits and pieces and top of her list? Yes, an egg slicer.

There are several other small items that I wouldn’t want to be without in my kitchen… like the set of measuring spoons shown in the photograph above. Who would have guessed that the contents of a Christmas cracker would have proved so long-lasting or useful? The rim whisk (sometimes called a spiral whisk) is regularly used for gravy, custard or sauces and must be forty years old. The oldest whisks were made from twigs but although metal versions were available in the 19th century, it wasn’t until a 1963 television cookery programme featured one that they became popular.

So far as modern equipment goes I’m not really bothered beyond my garlic press (why ARE the bowls on these round? I’ve never found a round clove of garlic) and the electric steamer. My first steamer (a stove-top two part saucepan style stainless steel one which I still have) was another item bought for the bottom drawer. I’ve rarely ever boiled a vegetable. It’s so much more practical to cook several different ones using only one piece of equipment and it’s a healthy way to cook.

image
The most recent addition to my kitchen is a pair of tongs kindly gifted to me by my son’s girlfriend when I admired her own. Oh what an exciting life, I lead!
And apart from my liquidiser (good for soup) and an electric hand blender, I think that’s about it for gadgets. I borrowed a soup maker from my daughter to see if it was something I’d use but it didn’t impress me enough to make me want one, and I’ve always made cakes by hand, never bothering with an electric mixer/chef type of thing either. It just seems like overkill for jobs that only take a few minutes.
How about you? What kitchen equipment do you consider essential? And does anyone else out there own an egg slicer?

 

The Korean War – a little bit of family history

I came from a mother who nursed in the army

Korean War, Singapore

Raffles Hotel, The Officers’ Mess

Tweed perfume and evening dress

 

Some who know me will be aware that I am in the process of writing a novel, the meticulously researched backdrop for which is the The Korean War, which was the first armed conflict of the Cold War. An astonishing fact: the British Army lost more men in Korea than the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan combined and yet many people today have barely any knowledge of it – little wonder that it has been referred to as The Forgotten War.

My interest is personal – my parents met during this time when both were in the army. My mother was an officer in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps – QARANCs. Initially stationed in Kure, Japan she was later posted to Singapore. Her photograph albums document the period from 1952 to 1954 and contain many souvenirs in addition to her treasured photographs. I’d like to share a few of these. About half way through her albums photographs of my father start to appear (before they began courting). It looks as though she may have taken the photo of him below without his knowledge, don’t you think? Smitten before he knew!

All sorts of mementos were collected: the labels from drinks bottles, tram and bus tickets and menus.

My favourite is the menu from the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore where my parents dined on 31st December 1953.

Korean 8

QARANCs were granted commissioned  officer status and the rank of Lieutenant. My mother is the one in the darker uniform

Korean 3

Hours of work were long but there was still time to enjoy the sights and play tennis (or in the picture below, to umpire)!

image

During my research I have read numerous books on army life during the Korean War, and was pleased to see in one, reference to The Belles & Beaus hockey match which took place on Boxing Day 1952 at the BCGH (hospital)  in Kure. My mother was one of the Belles but unfortunately the photograph which gives evidence to this is now badly faded. In later years she gave talks to women’s groups such as the WI about her time in the army. I remember looking through her albums and being interested in the pictures of kimono-clad Japanese women but it is one of my greatest regrets that I did not show more interest in her experiences. In my book I have used some of the tales my parents recounted but I have so many questions which will sadly never be answered.

The main source of entertainment for officers on the hospital site would have been the social events and formal dinners which took place in The Officers’ Mess. I recall snippets of information as, when very young,  I sometimes accompanied my mother to her talks. This picture, with her seated on the far left of the picture, shows a Christmas meal in 1952.

Xmas Party Wo Sang - 1952

My short poem above refers to Tweed perfume and evening dress. When ever my parents went out my mother smelt of Tweed – such an old fashioned perfume now but back then it seemed the height of sophistication along with her deep pink lipstick.   My father liked to her wear Tweed because it reminded him of when they first met. When I was about seven years old she took me to a dressmaker along with one of her beautiful evening dresses which were kept in a metal trunk. Covered in travel labels, this had been the trunk which had accompanied her in her army days. A silky pale green brocade  formed the underneath part of the dress in question and over the top was a deeper greenish-bronze organza. I cannot imagine that by then she had any cause to wear such a dress so each of the luxurious fabrics were made into a party dress for her little girl. Unfortunately I can find no photographs of me wearing either, and I have no idea what happened to the rest of her dresses.

I’m unsure if this was taken in Kure or Singapore but here is my mother wearing one of her lovely evening dresses. I don’t believe my waist was ever that tiny!

Japan X

I have hundreds of photographs similar to those below and I have donated a number of images to Japan’s Kure City Hall Historical Collection. I’m delighted to report that, following an appeal I made for background minutiae some time ago on the ‘Memories of Kure’ website, just last week I was contacted by a gentleman from Queensland, Australia who has very kindly and generously  transcribed many of his handwritten notes from the time and emailed them to me. I am both touched and thrilled to have received this first hand account and will, undoubtedly, incorporate some of his memories into my story.

Postscript:  I have just discovered that my gentleman from Queensland is in fact rather more well known that he’d have had me believe! Mr Ron Callander -author, playwright, poet and journalist has written many articles and television scripts, and has received several awards for his writing.  Furthermore, he has served as State Secretary of the Australian Radio Television and Screen Writers’ Guild and Committee Member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. How lucky am I that he saw my appeal for information!

kamakura

 

My scented garden

Before I begin this post I’d like to leave a message for owners of Blogspot Blogs which I comment on. For some reason I am no longer able to do so. I keep getting the message saying that my credentials cannot be verified. I hope to sort this out soon.

image

What do you think of these gorgeous lilies? I love both their appearance and their divine scent. This one reaches around five feet in height and stands at the side of my front door. A single bulb, last year it sported just a couple of flowers but this year there are at least thirty flower heads. More lilies grow next to the French doors at the back of the house, close to the sweet peas which are doing well, but nowhere near as well as a couple of years ago when we were picking large bunches daily. So far this year we have picked three small bunches. I much prefer to see them in the garden but regular picking is the way to get a good display. Ironic, isn’t it?

For years I have had in my garden a robust climbing rose called Madame Gregoire Staechelin….at least, I thought I did!  It’s glossy green leaves contrast beautifully with the fragrant creamy white blooms. Before writing this post I wanted to check the spelling so turned to Google and there it was, Mme. GS on the RHS website – a lovely PINK rose! Well, they’ve got that wrong, I thought. I looked at other sites. and discovered that, needless to say, the RHS know what they’re talking about: Mme. GS is indeed a pink rose and it seems that the flowers on this particular rose give way to ‘attractive hips in autumn’. Not in my garden it doesn’t! Time to turn detective. A trawl around the internet leads me to belive that my rose is, in fact, Madame Alfred Carriere. I’ve been duped!

Indian Summer rose

image

Indian Summer is the most fragrant of my roses. Strongly scented, it is a delicate shade of a creamy peach. Alongside other roses it lines the path to my front door. Beautiful Britain has a far more subtle scent but its vibrant vermillion/orange with shades of gold outstrips Indian Summer for colour and its abundant blooms outdo most others in my garden (except for Starlight Express which I’ve mentioned in a previous post).

Beautiful Britain

image

In between the roses in the front garden are lavender bushes. Lavender is reputed to drive away aphids. It seems to work as we have very few. Unfortunately this means we also get few ladybirds since they like to feed on the aphids. Nevertheless, for the benefit of the roses, I can do without the ladybirds. I’ve sometimes dried the lavender heads and used them as a pot-pouri. Having recently found a recipe for lavender shortbread, I wondered whether my varieties (Munstead and Hidcote) could be used. The recipe calls for ‘culinary lavender’ but I found this information:  “Though most varieties of lavender can be used in cooking, some varieties are more widely used, including Lavandula angustifolia, particularly the “Munstead” cultivar. These lavenders have the sweetest fragrance among all species of lavender, which creates flavor in cooking”.  I think I’ll give it a go.

image

Another favourite floral scent is lilac. I have a large and abundant purple lilac but sadly it flowers for such a short time.  Finally, the scent of honeysuckle is quite beautiful especially on a warm summer evening, even if its growing habit is somewhat untidy.

image

I really like to grow Lily of the Valley but, despite several attempts, success eludes me. Our clay soil is quite heavy and I thought this might be the cause but according to Alan Tichmarsh  it is happy in a clay soil and has no preference for acid or alkaline conditions. Maybe next year.

AlthoughI refer to my garden and what I grow in it, it’s only fair that I own up to the fact that it’s not me who maintains it. Husband is the one who does the work, and it’s thanks to him that dinner this evening included this year’s first runner beans. Freshly picked, they were delicious.

An Al fresco evening

Starlight Express

This climbing rose is called Starlight Express and it is one of the most prolific I’ve ever seen. At the height of its season we have been known to deadhead more than a hundred blooms in a single day.  It was launched in 1997 (the year that we moved into our present house)  to support the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital fund. We planted this one  the following year.  The fragrance is light and I usually choose more fragrant roses but I love the colour. Indian Summer is my all-time favourite. I have one of these in the front garden.

As we went out for lunch today, we only wanted a light meal this evening so, making the most of the slightly cooler temperature, decided that we could eat outside. Our un-shaded south-facing garden has been far too hot over the past few evenings. A light tuna and egg salad was enough.

Tuna & egg

I’ve been baking this afternoon so we followed it with a sticky lemon cake (made this afternoon) served with chopped strawberries and peaches. Chopping strawberries is a little quirk of mine. I cannot eat a strawberry unless it has at least been cut in half. I can tell you exactly where this odd habit arose. I was a small girl in my grandparent’s garden when, one day, I pulled the stalk out of a strawberry and was greeted by a tiny, wriggling white creature – some kind of caterpillar I expect – but I ran in screaming that there was a worm in my strawberry and I didn’t eat them for years afterwards!

Cake fruit

Whilst we sat there enjoying the warm breeze, I thought I could take you on a tour of my garden which slopes upwards away from the house. Leading from the house, French doors open onto the patio which has a few filled pots, like the one below which contains alstroemeria.   There are some lilies still to flower. I know from previous years that they will be stunning.

Alstroemeria

There is also a small border  where we grow sweet peas, I adore their smell. Amongst their roots are Welsh poppies and Nigella.

Nigella

Seven steps, with a rockery to each side lead centrally from the patio to the next level. On the right hand side is a bird bath and two feeders – one contains seeds and the other, fat balls. There are lots of little hidey-holes for wildlife in amongst the plants.

Bird bath & feeder

At the top of the rockery sits a huge California lilac and behind that a purple lilac tree. Both are well past their flowering time now but here is a picture taken a few weeks ago. It’s a shame that the lilac blossom is so short lived.

Lilac

The second level provides lots of little areas for wildlife, several shrubs including a large orange blossom,  the aforementioned Starlight Express rose, and Madame Grégoire Staechelin, another very vigorous climbing rose, this time white with very dark glossy leaves and a strong heady fragrance.  It is a later flowering rose so nothing to see at the moment. The two roses intertwine with honeysuckle and cover an arbour which sits at the top of the steps. We dispensed with the grass a couple of years ago and laid a circular stone area instead.

corner

A few more steps lead to another, much smaller, rockery and the garden shed which started life as a summerhouse. For a tool store cum propagation room it is rather well appointed with lined walls, tiled floor and fancy wall lights! We so rarely used it for its intended purpose that when the old shed got damaged by bad weather, we decided to co-opt the summerhouse as its replacement.

Summerhouse shed

Behind the shed and up another couple of steps is our small vegetable patch where we (I use this term loosely – I NEVER do gardening other than a rare rose deadheading) grow runner beans, leeks, raddish, spring onions, tomatoes and rhubarb. The raddish are not doing well this year – lots of leaves but very little raddish.

Beans & Leeks

I’m off to paint my nails now, ready for tomorrow’s Ascot Ladies Day.

 

 

 

 

Best foot forward

image

I have a real liking for brightly coloured shoes. I like the way that they contrast with my clothes as I wear a lot of black and navy. Apparently the reason why women so love to buy shoes is because they still fit when you’ve put on weight!
My wages as a Saturday girl in the early 1970s were spent almost solely (pun intended) on shoes. I earned £1.25 a day and can remember spending £4.99 in a very exclusive shop on a pair of divine pair in black patent leather when an average pair cost less than half that price. I think my love of good shoes was born there and then. My father was so horrified at the price he said that I should take them back but my mother said that I’d earned the money and now I should live with the consequences of wasting it all so frivolously; it would be a good lesson and I’d soon regret it. I didn’t consider it frivolous at all, and no lesson was learned – I wore them proudly until they fell to pieces several years later.

image
Recently mentioning at the gym that I was taking a pair of shoes for re-heeling, I was shocked to hear someone ask, “Do people still do that?” Turns out this person throws them away once the heel has worn down! Several others agreed that they no longer took shoes for heeling. I really do look after my shoes very well. I have a whole basket of products designed for leather care and I polish my shoes almost every time I wear them. I also always spray new shoes with a leather protector. This is why I still have shoes that were bought in the 1980s, including the multi-coloured ones in the picture above. They were from the Clarks Piazza range and I wear them perhaps a couple of times a year.

image

The gold moon & star ones are Roland Cartier, bought when my daughter was a little girl, c 1990. The yellow ones were from Jacques Vert and were bought for a wedding maybe twenty years ago. I have other several pairs which are up to 15 years old.
At the gym I wear the two-tone lace ups – I am not a girl that does trainers! My latest shoe purchase was cerise suede ballerinas, bought for no other reason than that I fell madly in love-at-first-sight! That rarely happens of late. The green and the lilac ones are just two of several pairs that have been dyed using TRG Easy Dye bought from Amazon. They have a huge range of colours available and, as suggested in the name, it is very easy to use. (I’ve successfully dyed boots too, and have a few shoe-dyeing tips to share so if interested, just ask).
The younger me loved heels, though never ones as high as my friend Angela wears even though she is the same age as me. She refers to them as her Carter-Bar shoes (i.e. they’re so high that you can only walk as far as from the car to a bar in them)! The queen of divinely gorgeous shoes (and very glamorous with it) , she even has red-soled Louboutins. I think the heels are about 4.5”! I still love the look of heels but rarely wear them nowadays, though I have retained a few pairs for occasions that demand them. My usual style now is ballerina, and in particular, those made by Gabor. In real terms, I think they are still less expensive than those beautiful black patent ones!
Some years ago I visited the Manolo Blahnik exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Here I saw the most amazing, most outrageous, most creative shoes ever. But they could only be viewed behind glass, or from a good distance away. There was no trying on and no touching. Understandable, of course, but so, so disappointing!

I have a favourite pair. They are red leather ankle straps and were bought at a relatively inexpensive price several years ago from Marks & Spencer. Sadly though I love to look at them, they are more or less unwearable because they are so uncomfortable! Nevertheless, I can’t imagine ever throwing them away.

imageI’m almost embarrassed to say that this selection only comprises a small part of my shoe collection. I’ve not even mentioned sandals or boots (apart from the fact that I dyed a pair…light tan to deep wine),  I said in an earlier post that my love of beautiful shoes had waned on becoming a student, and this is largely true. I buy few now but when I do, they have to be especially beautiful.

Coffee with friends

image

Good friends are one of life’s essentials and time spent drinking good coffee and chatting with those friends is one of life’s great pleasures. I have friends of twenty, thirty, forty and even fifty years standing. With these, much of the conversation centres on reminiscing over shared experiences – testing times when we’ve been there for each other offering support and a shoulder to cry on, and times when we’ve celebrated together. We talk about our children and grandchildren and bemoan the fact that we sometimes sound like our mothers! We’ve even started comparing aches and pains!  We meet in nice coffee shops, perhaps at a garden centre or local craft centre, and sometimes in the pub. When we were younger the idea that pubs would serve morning coffee would not even have been within the realms of possibility.

In the past few years I have made a new group of friends at the gym. Over a post-exercise coffee, conversations often involve social events – the planning of birthday lunches or afternoon teas feature frequently! Some of us are forming a team for a charity quiz night next month, and we also have a mock Ascot Ladies Day to look forward to. Our ladies only gym is aimed at the more mature among us and the peripheral social life is a big part of it. I’ll tell you more about the unique Gymophobics concept in another post.

I spent this morning in the delightful company of a much newer, much younger friend. We didn’t talk of the past for we have little shared history, and we didn’t plan future meetings, though I have no doubt that they will happen. We are at very different stages in our lives but we still managed to talk seamlessly for nearly two hours whilst drinking some extremely nice coffee.