Sunday, 16 November 2014

A picture for Sunday

Another teapot, as promised - this time, my own. It's a Booths Blue Dragon teapot, not very old, perhaps 1930s. I haven't used it, which is perhaps a bit sad, but I'm very clumsy these days and it would be so easy to chip it. I'm very fond of blue-and-white transferware and have added to the nice old willow patten that I inherited from my grandmother so that I have a special occasions dinner service; I've also got lots of "everyday" blue-and-white ironstone that survives my clunking it while washing up! I like the mix-and-match ability it offers, and I do think ironstone china is admirable stuff. It was the first mass-produced china, and it made it possible for the middle-classes to have attractive and affordable tableware. The pattern could be applied by transfer instead of hand-painting, and copies of Chinese designs were extremely popular, hence willow pattern in particular. Although blue-and-white is perhaps the most famous, green (that's a green-and-white meat dish in the background), pink, brown and yellow can also be found, as well as several-coloured. Booths is not one of the oldest potteries - nothing like the pedigree of Spode, say, but they produced a variety of handsome designs. I'll post some more next week.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A picture for Sunday

While I'm unable to type much we'll have some pictures. I have a new photo journal at Blipfoto - link on right. Although it will post new pictures as I upload (the idea is that I post a photo daily, though we'll see how long that will last!), I can also upload backdated photos, and I thought I might share them here.

This is lovely blue-and-white ware at Bamburgh Castle. I have some similar, but not nearly as elaborate. The dragons are appropriate because Bamburgh is the home of the story of the Laidly Worm. I should have posted this on Friday, for Hallowe'en!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What I did on my holidays

Actually, this is a post that I wrote some time ago, but I thought I would upload it now, as there's likely to be more on Edwardian clothes and the Great War here in the coming weeks, as they are both featuring quite heavily in my reading.

Early summer got very intense as I became more and more involved in the production my son was in at the local theatre, a new musical about World War I called Sam & Isla Forever. My involvement began when I lent some Edwardian clothes for use in the production -- as advance publicity, and to start to make a record of my mini collection of antique clothing, we arranged a photo shoot with some of the girls from the play:

"Isla" (Photo ⓒ Opuscule Photographic)

One of the scenes from the "home front" takes place on the beach and we felt that all those dark skirts were just a little too sombre for four rather flighty young women, but most of the budget for the production was, we knew, reserved for providing the soldiers with authentic uniforms and guns (and very effective they proved!) So one person volunteered some material and I volunteered to make skirts. Which was all very well until I dug my sewing machine out and discovered some crucial bits seemed to be missing! Happily the provider of the material also offered use of her machine if necessary. Two of the skirts travelled all the way to Devon with me so that I could bast them together completely to save time machining -- on my return I spent one long sunny afternoon completing all but the hemming stage and another in the depths of the theatre doing some final fittings. Two skirts and three belts down, and only one left to make for the heroine, Isla, and, by this time, about 10 days to opening night! Our costume director had rejected the first length of material for Isla's skirt because she wanted her to have a mauve theme throughout, but I sourced some lovely plum-coloured cotton on eBay which very obligingly turned up within two days. I'd designed a skirt based on the suit I'd loaned for Isla to wear as a widow:

By this time I'd got my own machine working -- to my delight because I'd forgotten how much I enjoy sewing! Isla's skirt was finished over the weekend before the first dress rehearsal,  by which time I'd also remembered how much I enjoy being in theatres, so I'd volunteered to dress at least one performance as well - in the event I did all but the last night, when I watched from out front, which was great because I finally got to see how it all looked.

The Sam & Isla girls in rehearsal. (Photo ⓒ Opuscule Photographic)

The play itself, by the way, described by its author Robert Wilkinson as a "kind of fable" was wonderful -- at times funny, at others intensely moving. Audience members were heard sobbing, and my son, who played the incompetent, doing-it-by-the-rules captain, reckoned that the sooner he grew his beard back the better (all the soldiers had WWI haircuts). The action was framed by a campaign in the 70s to have the 306 soldiers who were shot for "cowardice" posthumously pardoned, something that actually only happened in 2007. Seeing the young cast in their uniforms really brought home the horror of that time, and the tragedy of those executions of young men, most of them probably suffering from shell-shock, and some of them only 17.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

My continued absence!

Anyone trying to read my blog may have noticed my rather lengthy absence. There are two reasons for this - most recent is the failure of our broadband connection, which has now lasted nearly a month!! I do hope that normal service will resume soon, but I can tell you, it is extremely inconvenient. Though possibly of benefit to local coffee shops.

The other reason is that not only the broadband is broken - I am too :-(

I'm having problems with my hands, which aren't working very well, and lots of things have got rather difficult. Typing not the least of them. Posts for the time being, always supposing we get out connection back, may be rather brief. Not at all sure about getting the hands back, but my robo-glove is quite entertaining.

I did manage a review on the last issue of Shiny New Books, though, and you can find it here, along with lots of terrific reviews by other people.

Looking on the bright side, we had an addition to the family. This is Loki, a 6-month old rescue - wicked, exuberant, affectionate and the plague of both dogs. You'll be seeing plenty more of him, I'm sure.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Who knows where the time goes?

I'm convinced that, if you want to find books that are truly original, you have to look at writing for children and young adults – it's not exclusive, but the exploration of ideas seems to be so much more interesting when it's aimed at people whose minds are open to new experiences. Of course, adults can be open to new experience too, but I find it's much less common.

The New Policeman is a glorious example of original writing. What it owes to earlier works is its use of legend, and yes, of course I can see influences there -- Charles De Lint comes to mind, and there feels like a kind of dialogue between Thompson and Jo Walton, whose stunning Among Others I finished recently, but my idol Alan Garner's in there too.

The first of a trilogy, The New Policeman nearly defies description if I'm not to give too much plot away – it's sometimes almost tempting to do what I've seen some other bloggers do, and copy the blurb, but it's not really my style. JJ Liddy is a young musician living in a small town in Galway, on the edge of that area called The Burren which always seems to me to be intensely magical in itself. Despite being a place where the rest of the world often thinks time has stood still, the people of Kinvara are constantly aware that time always seems to be rushing by:
For a while it was all anyone talked about, once the weather was out of the way. Then they didn't talk about it any more. What was the point? And besides, where was the time to talk about time? People didn't call to each other's houses any more; not to sit and chat over a cup of tea, anyway. Everyone was always on their way somewhere, or up to their eyes in something, or racing around trying to find someone or, more often, merely trying to catch up with themselves.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But JJ thinks it might be time someone did something about it. In the process he finds out quite a bit about his forebears and the music that runs through his family, and meets some truly memorable people, including the mysterious new policeman of the title. There's a dream quality to the story, appropriate to one where time has gone haywire, but that doesn't meant that it lacks pace or excitement, or laughter and tragedy. Woven through the whole book, like a line from JJ's fiddle, is Irish music, with a traditional tune ending each chapter: readers can play the tunes themselves, listen to a set of reels and jigs from the book on the author's website (where you can also hear Kate Thompson reading from it), or even embark on a hunt for them on YouTube. I don't guarantee you'll find them all – I haven't had time to try many myself as the book, sadly, has to go back to the library – but I suspect most will be there.

The New Policeman won both the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize (the 2014 longlist has just been announced) and the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2005.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Beyond Belief by Helen Smith

Emily Castle investigates future crimes. I’m guessing that when author Helen Smith first thought of this notion it seemed fun and quirky – now, I am certain that I’ve heard our government suggest that it would be a good way to save on public spending. However, I think the government solution would be to lock up all young men in hoodies, whereas Emily thinks about her dead dog, Jessie. 

Now, I have to say that when Helen Smith asked me (quite some time ago – sorry, Helen!) if I would like to read and review her latest book, I hadn’t quite appreciated that it was the third in a series – not that it would really have made a difference to my reply, I’d read one of her books, Alison Wonderland, earlier and found it funny and original. But I must admit that when I finished Beyond Belief I wasn’t entirely clear about the exact role that Jessie played in solving future crimes, given that Emily is quite emphatic that she’s not a spirit guide, or anything like that, but it didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the book, and I did, when I finished, download a copy of the short story which begins the series, Three Sisters. Not sure that it entirely cleared up the Jessie question, but it was a good story.

Emily’s thinking about whether to get a permanent job instead of temping when her neighbour Dr Muriel asks her to accompany her to a conference on the nature of belief – Belief and Beyond – ostensibly to take notes. For the first time the attendees will include mediums, hypnotists, and other fringe practitioners, in an attempt to find common ground with academia, and there are rumours that a death will take place at the event, perhaps because a notable stage magician has issued a challenge to delegates to prove the existence of the paranormal and has offered a huge reward. So far, so Jonathan Creek, but without the duffel coat. Dr Muriel hopes that if Emily documents the rumours, a pattern may emerge and prevent a death, if indeed, one is planned.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a good deal of the last twenty years organising conferences, that I seem to be an absolute sucker for plots which involve them. The weirder the delegates the better.  And here, there is a satisfactory cohort of English eccentrics, complete with floaty scarves, silver-topped canes, wigs and deceased dogs – because Emily is not entirely exempt from charges of eccentricity herself: “Emily had never quite found a job that suited her, a boyfriend who was clever enough for her, or a home that was close enough to the centre of London to make the commute to work tolerable.”  Anyway, to make me even happier, Belief and Beyond will take place in Torquay, memorable largely as the setting for Fawlty Towers – you’ve got to love the Royal Society for Science and Culture’s optimism in choosing such an ill-omened venue.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because I think you ought to read the book for yourself. There’s so much to enjoy here and my casting list is already underway – I have a very firm idea of who’s going to play Dr Muriel, for instance. She’s probably my absolute favourite character, I love her way of just throwing out ideas because she thinks they are interesting. And Gerald Ayode, the President of the Society (which used to be called the Royal Society for Science and Spiritualism), is very endearing in his efforts to embrace technology and modern life by tweeting from the conference. The conference atmosphere is very convincing, too, take it from me.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Sunday maggot...

 Fuchsia magellanica at Paxton House

Yet again my poor blog is being neglected and I'm afraid the weather is to blame, as one reason is that I've been spending a lot of time in the garden and greenhouse, making up for years of summers when I couldn't leave my desk. I haven't even been doing much reading, in comparison with past years, because it's not just the garden that's been taking up my time. Since I'm no longer travelling to London regularly, the pattern of my life has altered, and allowed some new projects.

I'm doing a course on The Literature of the Country House (the rest of this afternoon will be spent completing last week's work) which, as always with me, has prompted quite a bit of reading round the subject, which nicely dovetails with research for a talk I'll be giving later in the year. A search on the library catalogue yielded very few books which were helpful - so far, I've only found one that I could actually borrow, and one that would have necessitated a journey the length of Northumberland to read, but a trawl on Amazon turned up quite a few, and happily I had a couple of gift vouchers to spend. Okay, my selection was slightly influenced by choosing books priced at 1p plus postage, but one of the acquisitions has been Mark Girouard's definitive Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, so I'm happy!

Last week a whole day was given over to a costume photoshoot -- we were lucky with the weather and the generosity of friends who allowed the use of their photographic studio (and indeed, much of their house, and provided lunch!). I'll post more about this anon -- we didn't get through everything and still have Edwardian underwear and stockings to shoot, and I don't yet have copies of the photographs. Somewhat carried away by the fun of the day, with lovely models and lots of laughter, I found myself volunteering to make costumes for a production that second son is appearing in. It's funny, at the start of the day I had simply offered to do a bit of alteration to some shirt collars and so on, by the afternoon I'd said that I would cut a pattern and make three skirts for a beach scene. I may be borrowing the same friend's wonderfully equipped sewing room, since the work space on my desk is about 18 x 36 inches. And my sewing machine is at the bottom of a pile of stuff upstairs -- I think!

Despite all this busy-ness, second son and I did manage an afternoon outing to nearby Paxton House, with the express purpose of taking photographs. He has recently upgraded his camera and, along with a zoom lens, it weighs a ton! It's meant that I've inherited the original camera, as long as he's not on a job where he needs a second one, and I've got to learn to use it. Mostly I switch it to Auto and hope for the best, but I'm already frustrated by not being able to focus on two things at once. I was pretty excited, though, to be able to take a picture of a newt. Well, two newts, but there must have been hundreds in the pond.

Palmate newts

Great crested newt

For what felt like the first time in about a hundred years, I taught some Playford dances. For the uninitiated, these are the dances that turn up in film and TV adaptations of Jane Austen -- the six-part version of Pride and Prejudice used some of my favourites including Mr Beveridge's Maggot (a maggot is a piece of whimsy, and not something the newts above might eat). They are called "Playford" because in 1651 the first edition of The English Dancing Master was published by John Playford. It proved so popular that it was followed by a number of editions up to 1728, with over a thousand dances being described and other publishers cashing in on the enthusiasm for country dance. Some dances have wonderfully fanciful names -- Gathering Peascods, Mutual Love, Pleasures of the Town and Indian Queen to name a few, and there are lots of maggots. They are lovely to dance, often flowing and graceful, sometimes riotous, but even the Morpeth Rant needn't be too demanding for new dancers. Our group laughs a lot and we sometimes abandon a dance until next week when we might summon the collective brainpower to work out a tricky figure.

Funny, there were several things I meant to write about today and I don't seem to have got to any of them. Next Sunday perhaps...