Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

‘Ice Boa’ from Elements

Saturday, October 1st, 2016

I wanted to show you this:


It is Ice Boa from Elements.  Jane, who has knitted two of these now, edged the cast-on side with velvet fabric/ribbon which I think is really lovely and would also have the added bonus of making sure the boa never gets any longer!  I think I will *borrow* that idea.

By the way, I have knitted this is in chunky yarn other than Rowan Cocoon; I love it in luxury Juniper Moon Farms silk/wool chunky but any chunky wool will knit to tension.  Another thing:  you can knit this in DK or Aran weight wool and use the appropriate needle.  Then, I add a few repeats to make it long enough.  It is a very fast knit and need not be at all expensive.  Great gift, really. When making one in DK, I would also add a few row repeats to give it enough depth.  The Boa is knitted flat, on one long fixed cable needle.  It does end up with *a lot* of stitches, but on the other hand it is only a few rows deep. Highly memorable pattern too after the first two or three repeats.

You can buy Elements here.




Book! Dogs! Halloween!

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

So, things to tell you.  First, ‘Elements’ is now available to buy from our dedicated website Smith & Jones Knits.  Hurrah!  Rowan retailers can buy it direct from Rowan via their Rowan rep or account.

Second, dogs and Halloween.  Halloween is their favourite festival, obvs.  This year’s Halloween events are happening, as is traditional, in October and here is Arthur helping me to model two of the items that can be knitted:  Skull and Bones Mitts (black and white) and Tomb Raider Mitts (pink and black); there is also the antidote to skullery – a KSH beaded scarf, Friendly Spirit.  Do you think he looks scary?  BOO!

Really looking forward to these workshops. I love hiding GIANT SPIDERS in peoples’ knitting bags.

Skull and Tomb Raider plus Arthur

Friendly Spirit stitch close up

Skull and Tomb Raider together

‘Elements’, My New Book Out in September 2015

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015


I am working hard on a new book, which I am co-authoring with Donna Jones of Fyberknitics.

‘Elements’ is a collection of 24 projects, 12 designed by me, 12 by Donna.  This will be my fourth book, and it’s been the most fun, because we are a great collaborative team.

The theme revolves around the way each of us draws on our landscapes to feed our designing.  For me, in Somerset, this is about my own close environment, even my own garden, and a little further afield, the moors of the Somerset Levels, and the high ground of The Mendip Hills.  For Donna, who lives in South Wales, it is about the coast and forests of her home-land.

Happily, as we created our story-boards, back in the autumn of 2014, we also found that we inhabit very different places on the shade spectrum.  I am all about the cool greys, whites, creams, and blues.  Donna is using a warmer, richer palette.  It is fair to say we both love colour – but we use it in very different ways.

Donna and I met as Rowan Design Consultants many years ago now.  We bonded over a mutual love of yarn, and a shared outlook on many aspects of the creative life.  Our extreme nerdiness (yes, it is a word) is probably our defining shared characteristic though.  It’s great to nerd out with a kindred spirit.

Some years later, here we are, in the final stages of our joint book.  It will be distributed by Rowan Yarns and in the next few months, I will keep you up to date with its progress.  In the summer, we will launch a website dedicated to the book and our wider collaborative project.  This will extend to events, shows, website video tutorials, workshops – and maybe even a residential weekend.

In the meantime, here are two images from my side of the collection.




Bump Bag Pattern Now Available

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

The Bump Bag pattern has landed!

You can buy it here.

Also, in about 2 weeks, I will have some handles for sale on this site that will be perfect for this bag.  The original handles made by Rowan were discontinued (sigh) and are virtually unobtainable now.  Alternatives are possible but it’s not easy to get the right size.  So I have had a few pairs made and I will post a link to buy them from me as soon as  they arrive.

In the meantime, why not get the Bump pattern now, and then get your yarn – you need 3 shades with enough contrast to count.  There is a yummy palette in Felted Tweed so I think you may enjoy the browsing – I did.

Your pattern PDF includes a free, bonus felted needle case, made with the left-overs.  I had literally about 3 meters of yarn in 2 shades left at the end.  Very satisfying.

Bump needle case 1

I do hope you enjoy it.  It’s an easy if lengthy knit, so I recommend you read some of my posts about audio books and maybe choose one to download to go with it.

I love my original and now rather aged Bump Bag.  It’s a dear friend, the thing I knitted at the start of my designing journey, and by far the most used and loved item I have ever made.


More Reading

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Lots of reading (and listening) has been happening recently.  I have just read ‘Truth and Beauty:  a friendship’, by Ann Patchett:


It’s not a novel but a biography of the American poet, Lucy Grealy.  Ann and Lucy were friends.  It’s an extraordinary friendship, forged from the power that was Lucy Grealy’s sheer force of personality.  Lucy had a disfiguring and disabling condition, resulting from an aggressive childhood cancer and the grueling treatments and operations she endured all her life, in order to survive it.

I was not familiar with Grealy’s work, though I have since started to read about her more widely.  Her own best known work is ‘Autobiography of a Face’.  Her cancer was in her jaw and her face was permanently affected by the initial cancer and many surgical procedures she underwent to try and reconstruct her face.  These were only partly prompted by reasons of wishing to look different; she also had great difficulty eating and this plus the chemotherapy she had as a child, made her diminuative – like a tiny sparrow.

Lucy died in 2002.  She had become addicted to heroine and it is likely that this caused her early death aged 39.

Ann’s portrayal is vivid, very moving – though never maudlin.  Later, on reading around this friendship, I learned that Lucy’s sister very strongly objected to Ann’s book about Lucy.  Suellen Grealy believes that the  book robbed Lucy’s family of the right to private grief.  This deep rift saddened me.  I don’t know who is right or if there even is a right and a wrong, but the book is very beautiful.  The insights it gives you into a shining spirit, so strong and yet so damaged and fragile are very sharp.  But it is the depth of the friendship between the two women that really stars.

I read that the book is described as up-lifting. I was not up-lifted by it but nor was I down-cast.  I do recommend it, especially if, like me, you just love the way Patchett writes.

Next I read an old Persephone, ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’ by Mrs Margaret Oliphant; here is the end-paper:

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow

The Persephone volume twins this novella with another, ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund’ in one book.

I love short stories and novellas, so this was perfect.  In fact I enjoyed the second story far more than the first.  They are both about marriage and written as they were in the Victorian era, they’re surprisingly modern in some ways.

I’m going to tell you what happens so if you don’t want to know, now is the moment to hide behind the sofa.

In the first, Mrs Blencarrow, wealthy, widowed, still young, and rearing a thriving, happy family in security and luxury, is introduced as a paragon of sedate and modest widow-hood.  Never touched by scandal of any sort, it swiftly emerges that she has in fact re-married her trusty and far younger estate steward, Brown.  But this is a dark secret known to no-one except themselves.

The secret is  revealed by a plot device so silly as to make the rest of the book almost too much to go on with.  Furthermore, her eventual saving from disgrace is also dependent on a scarcely explained plot twist.

The chief character, Mrs Brown as she really is, really annoyed me.  She’s a rich and pampered widow with no real cares.  Any grief she may have had is dismissed.  She is a judgemental prudish figure – but with no grounds to judge others.  In fact, I much preferred her gossipy neighbour who discovered the truth – but whose reputation was destroyed because somehow Mrs B gets away with it.

We have no idea why she married Brown, or what they felt for one another, except that she is clearly mightily relieved when he conveniently covers up the deed and then pops off to Australia.

Her brothers are simpletons, too.

The next story – Queen Eleanor etc – is much better.  In a nut-shell, the 50 year old husband and father goes off the rails and bigamously marries a much younger woman in London, leaving his original and legal wife high and dry in Liverpool.  The characters are much more developed and the plot does at least exist.  This story is lively if predictable.

I really enjoyed the book, but I do think the plots are wafer-thin and the writer seems almost too busy to bother with properly developed stories.  But read them for yourself, if only for the refreshing anti-Victorian tone that she sets in what must have been rather racy stories, in their day.

Now, I am reading ‘Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs’:

This is one of my daughter’s A level English texts.  It’s a collection of  journalistic pieces written by women.  This entirely suits my wish for bite-sized reading when reading real, physical books.  The format is clever, with sections such as war, crime, body image and so on, and then in chronological order, a series of articles are grouped.  Some go back to the late 19th century; the most recent is from 2005.

It is really very good indeed.

On the audio side I just finished ‘The Perfume Collector’ by Kathleen Tessaro:

With as far-fetched a plot as you could think up, this book is as light as air, glamorous, frothy, almost Georgette Heyer-ish in parts.  For the record, I was once seriously addicted to GH novels and will not hear a word against them or her.  Set in London, Paris and New York in two time-zones, the author certainly has constructed a complex story (Mrs Oliphant is it most certainly not), which focuses on two lead characters who turn out to be, as you guess from about chapter 3, mother and daughter.

I loved it.  It’s not great literature, but it’s well written and it just absolutely romps along, accompanied by gorgeous dresses, parties, cocktails, gambling, perfume, sex, love, money, war, families and delicious food.  Feeling a bit wintry-blue?  Listen to this.

I liked the last book well enough but the next one, I really loved – and it could not have been more different – ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A M Holmes:

I was stunned to learn, after starting to listen, that A M Holmes is a woman.  Because this book – the first of hers I have read – is told first person by a man and I was 100% sure the author was also a man.

It is a pitch-black, bone-dry novel, so darkly comic it’s painful at times.  I adored it.  A lengthy diatribe on modern American society, the story is very plot-driven and an impending sense of menace (well-founded in the first half of the book) pervades every single day that this book describes – and it spans 356 days, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving – what could be more American?

The humour is exquisite, New York Jewish, dead-pan, stop-in-your-tracks funny.  Not that it made me laugh out loud (LOL as The Young People say nowadays) much.  It’s also very graphic – though not in a brash, pointless way – and you need to know that it contains very adult and also medical passages.

From a difficult start, which is only because it does start quite violently, I grew to absolutely love (almost) all the characters and I still miss them!  That is a sure sign of a good book.  I can only remember it a few times recently, such as when I listened to ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and ‘Skippy Dies’.

I am now going to read everything else this woman has written.  Give it a go if you have a credit hanging about looking for a home.  As a bonus it’s beautifully read and is very long.

Books this Summer

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Recently I have been listening to some new audio books, notably ‘A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters’ by Julian Barnes:


This is really a collection of tenuously connected short stories – some quite long, in fact.  Each one re-tells some aspect of either global history (or myth, depending on your point of view); or illuminates a facet of human nature and behaviour.

It was narrated by Alex Jennings, whose voice is mesmeric and soothing; alive and varied.

I enjoyed this book in a steady, gentle way, the way one does with short stories far more than with a novel, whose pace and unfolding drives you on.

I have also caved in to the Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) pressure and listened to this last week.  It’s a long audio book (I only ever buy the complete works anyway) and at first I thought I had made a mistake because there are about five narrators.  For me, an integral element of an audio book is the reader.  A bad reader can – and has – ruined a book for me.  A good reader can add so much value.  I like the very different narrators in Cloud Atlas.  You cannot compare them as they are so very apart from one another, reflective of the very different sections of the book.  If you like a book to have the conventional parts:  beginning, middle, end – then I think Cloud Atlas may not be for you as it in fact, like the Julian Barnes, above, a series of short stories, but with slightly better linkage than the JB.  The stories are also often very long indeed – novellas, really.  It is not just that there are very different readers, the stories are very different in style too, giving the feeling of a collection of authors.  One uniting factor is the quality of the writing which is superb.

However, I did not understand the ending of Cloud Atlas at all and I resent books that make me feel I need to Google the plot in order to ‘get’ it.

One of the best listens I have had this summer – in fact for many years – was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, probably best known for The World According to Garp.


This book is very long indeed.  I have a kind of rule about my audio books relating to length.  The longer the better and any under 15 hours have to be really compelling for me to consider spending a credit on them.  This one is huge.  It is so odd and so compelling, that I can’t think how to convey its many charms and quirks to you.  As the life-times of the two main characters, boyhood friends as they are at the start, play out, the oddness of the book’s central premise – the existance of God, basically – just doesn’t seem so odd any more.  There are tragic elements, none of which is milked for pathos or to jerk the reader’s emotions about in a crass and obvious way.  There are many examples of light-touch humour, black humour and even slap-stick comedy.  It is so rare for me to laugh when reading (or listening) but I did laugh several times in this happy few days – maybe I made it last a week, I can’t remember.  But even after so many hours with them, I was bereft when it was over.  Just get it, or read it – though the narration of this on Audible is simply stunningly good – and if you do, go with it for the first hour or two.  I am sure you won’t regret it.

I read another Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending:

The Sense of an Ending.jpg

Very short, more of a long short story really.  Beautiful writing captivating the eras it spans, and yet…I didn’t care in the least about any of the characters by the end.  In fact, I was quite bored and glad it was over.  I had no sense of an ending, either.

In other real reading, I have just read two Ann Patchett books.  Her first, The Patron Saint of Liars:

The Patron Saint of Liars Cover

I have now read three books by AP and I intend to read everything she has written.  This first novel is actually amazing.  It’s so assured and paced – and very confident.  The narrative is shared between three ‘voices’ beginning with the central character, Rose.  As it moves on, it also moves through time and we span several decades.  What intrigues – and irritates – is that we never really know Rose.  Therefore we have no idea of what it is that really compels her to behave as she does.  She behaves disgracefully and inflicts incredibly painful life sentences of actual or border-line misery on all those who should be closest to her.  She really appears only to love two people, neither of whom is a family member.

Rose is not a monster in the conventional sense of a fictional ‘baddy’, in fact she is partly conveyed as a good woman.  No-one gets murdered by her; she doesn’t steal fortunes – though she does in a sense steal important parts of family life from all her closest relations, who love her very much.  Rose just casually cuts up hearts and slashes away at love in a way that there is no explanation for.  No dark source for this pattern is revealed.  We know her early life to be happy, blessed.  She herself is widely loved, beautiful and indulged.  Throughout, despite her inexplicable and daunting life choices, she carelessly falls into a fortunate place with kind, loving people.  And then she quite absent-mindedly abuses them with her disdain and complete self-absorption.  Which is why it slowly dawned on me that I really hated her.

There is a loose theme of water – of springs rising, remaining for some time, and then vanishing – and I felt that she was like a spring that comes, stays and then for no apparent reason, vanishes, maybe to resurge elsewhere.  But that we do not know.  In the case of people, there really does need to be a reason, unless the reason is that Rose, like a spring, has no self-control and simply is.  The story is relatively mild yet it deals with all the Big Issues in this life.  For much of the novel, AP conveys a sense of long days, similar in their pattern and flow, bordering on boredom though the book never bores.  I was driven to read it for hours – late hours that I can’t really spare at my great age.  What interests and impresses me most of all is how the author managed to make me want to go on and on reading, despite a growing dislike for Rose, who, by the end, I thoroughly despised.

Then I plunged right into another Ann Patchett, Bel Canto:

Bel canto.jpg

So different to The Patron Saint of Liars (and indeed to The Magician’s Assistant, which I read some years ago), it is hard to credit that it is the same author.  It is set in a fictional hostage-siege in a fictional South American country.  Almost all the book’s activity takes place in this Vice-Presidential Mansion, as the siege drags on for weeks and months.  It’s a violent premise and yet the book is largely – though not entirely – gentle and observational.  The writing shines.

Next on Audible, to see me through autumn and up to Christmas I have:  another John Irving, A Son of the Circus;  The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro;  Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope;  and David Copperfield, which will be my third Charles Dickens.


What I think about when I’m running

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

(The title of this post is a shameless paraphrase.  It is also a warning to you, regular reader, that the knitting phase of blogging appears to be over).

We all knew that the outpouring of knitting posts would dry up eventually, didn’t we?  Have you missed my ramblings on subjects un-knitty?  Have you been wondering what I’ve had for dinner, what I have read, what I have listened to, what I have been doing, how many recycling melt-downs I have had, which caves I have dived into?

The answers are:

1) mainly roast dinners; plus scampi.  Not together.  How weird are you?  I love roast dinners and could eat them every day.  In winter, maybe not in summer.

The scampi is an actual addiction of mine.  I simply adore it.  Shop bought, frozen, breaded scampi.  Preferably the sort they call ‘giant’ or ‘large’ so there is a better scampi-to-breadcrumb ratio.  I sometimes have it – or used to – so often that a kind of scampi-sickness would descend upon me and I’d be forced to avoid the scampi isle for a few weeks.  But it always comes back, the call of the scampi, the lure of it’s squidgy sweet prawniness and the crunchy – not too crunchy – coat of breadcrumbs.  A dash of lemon juice, some mayo to dip into. I don’t want chips, I definitely don’t want peas – I just want scampi.  I want some now.

2) I have read Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway:

Recommended to me by the bookish Karina Westermann whose designs are lovely and whose book choices I urge you to follow too.

Loved it. Could easily have devoured it in maybe 3 goes but was forced by lack of time and some self-will to nibble it rather than gorge.  It is a book quite unlike any I have read, with a duo of police officers – the Hawthorn and Child of the title – opening the novel and threading through it thereafter.  It’s more like a series of linked short stories and since I love short stories even more than whole books, this was perfect.  Like buffets which are my favorite meals.  Oh.  Wait.  No that’s wrong;  roast dinner is my favourite.  And scampi.  Well, buffets are among my favorites.

This book is a buffet –  stories sharing the tressel-table and gingham table-cloth of a book.  It’s graphic and adult.  In a proper, grown-up way, yes there is sex, gay sex and love.  It’s not shocking and it’s not coy.  It’s the sort of book that makes your (my) tummy tighten and tumble.  I was aware of a sense of mild to moderate peril just behind my right shoulder throughout the entire reading of it.  This was partly the edgy stories and partly the tingle of such powerful yet spare and clever writing.  Because aside from the compelling way he spins the stories, the way he writes is reward enough in itself.

Oh, by the way there are no speech marks. Do not let this put you off, instead, let it make the spoken words feel more natural.

I have read some other things lately but this is the one I wanted to tell you about because I want you to read it too.  I am unselfish this way, please, read it.  It almost makes me wish the ill-fated book club was still going (it is, kind of, but without me and that’s another story which I will save for later) so that I could recommend it – but then, I just know, that club being the club it is, that Hawthorn and Child would be carelessly and hideously dismissed with a shrug and upturned palms.  Because there is no conventional plot device or route-map.  I agree, once again, with Karina who has been known to say she couldn’t be in a book club – and I think I can’t either, much though I’d love to talk about this and other books I love, as you do with someone who also loves (or at least understands) the same books.  It’s not about agreeing or scoring – but it is about respecting writing and reading, two great arts, the latter often sadly underrated.

3)  I have finally finished listening to Ulysses by James Joyce.  This was an Audible download and it was a gift download so being a careful person I decided to choose a download that is eye watering expensive (or a credit, but my credits are usually fully allocated in my Wish List), and that I just know I’d never, ever actually read.  It is, of course, a great classic.  My, but it’s a book of so many parts – and I am no scholar so I cannot even begin to tell you how clever and yes, at times, how impenetrable I found it.  I adopted a policy of listening to it in sections, allocating time to it and having breaks.  Having breaks doesn’t matter in the least.  It’s just there, waiting for you as you drift back.

I found that sometimes I was very comfortable with the ‘story’.  Life, food, love, art, sex, death, music, class and religion – a clashing muddle, a dash through just one day in Dublin.  At times like these I felt really proud of my ears and brain, acting like a pair of old friends and together, passing understanding to me.

At other times I was drifting.  This was pleasant, even beautiful, for the writing is breathtaking.  I was drifting but a little lost.

And sometimes I was utterly, hopelessly lost, so lost I had to look things up on the Internet to try and see what the feck was going on, and even then, I was still left reeling, with that feeling you (I) get when you (I) look at maps or I try to negotiate my way to B from C when I usually go to B from A.  In these times, what I generally do is go back to A and then make my way to B, leaving C out of it altogether.  You can’t do that with this book.

However, I was and still am, awash with this book, which I now know I’d never read with my eyes because I just wouldn’t be able to cope, but to listen to it again – yes, that I will be doing.

I listened to it a lot while running.  The running has been in a good phase which leads me to 4).  In 4), I have been running more.  I have entered a half marathon in Birmingham in October.  My first and last HM was 2 years ago and I hated it so much I felt I might just give up running.  However, I have entered this one for several good reasons, or so it seemed and now I have got used to the idea, I am glad.  I can run 10 or 11 miles sometimes.  Usually I run 5 or 6.  Sometimes I only run 3.  But when I ran 10 or 11 recently, it was me and James Joyce.  The mind-bending wonder of his words, or sometimes the sheer beauty of what he tells me made the miles seem fewer or at least quicker – and they weren’t quicker, in fact I have lost pace this last 6 months, I’m not sure why.  Age, maybe.

5) No recycling melt-downs lately, since I have partially opted out of the recycling dictatorship that is Somerset Waste and set up my own independent state.  I burn food waste that I cannot compost on my open dining room fire.  I throw things away that I *think* the recycling police may whimsically reject, there being no discernable policy.  It’s good.  Opting out is the new recycling.

6) Sadly, no caves of late.  Maybe that will come back if the weather warms up.

All of the above and more, are what I think about when I run.



The Killing: there is no knitting

Monday, November 26th, 2012

I am a late adopter.  It was years before I got an iPhone and I still don’t have a lap-top.

So when I heard, sometime after it was over, about a cult Danish TV programme called The Killing, I was still really only alerted to it by picking up comments about the knit-wear.  The female detective who is the main character likes and wears Fairisle hand-knits. The Radio Times even featured a knitting pattern.

But the series was well into it’s third round, when I decided to listen to the audio book of the first series.  I was at least 4 chapters in when I started to wonder when there would be some knitting.  I consulted the Gods of Twitter.  There is no knitting!  So if you were, as I was, expecting to hear about her knitting being ‘woven’ into the (really gruesome) plot, don’t bother, she buys her sweaters ready made.

I feel really let down now.


‘Dear Robert, I have a great urge to knit something for you.’

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

This post isn’t about knitting by the way, it is about the literature of World War Two.

I have just finished ‘Nella Last’s War’.

Nella Last was a housewife who lived in Barrow during WW2.  She was one of about 500 civilians who kept ‘mass observation diaries’ during the war, a record for the nation of how ordinary people lived, worked and coped.  Nella was certainly one of the most prolific.  You may have heard of, or seen the Victoria Wood film, ‘Housewife, 49′ on the TV some years ago, which was based on Nella’s diaries.  What many did was present accounts of how life was lived.  What Nella did was to present us with all that, but also with her highly personal thoughts and reactions through these years.  Sadly a key section is missing, lost when the archives were moved.

I am very interested in British social history during and after the Second World War and I have read many books, diaries and papers on it.  I am interested chiefly in the impact of such a monumentally terrifying and lengthy ordeal, on the lives of women and families.  I am also interested in the role of Government on peoples’ lives – including the parts played by ‘agencies’ of Government at that time such as the BBC, Pathe, the film industry in general.  In addition, I read a lot of British and sometimes American fiction set in or just after this time, for the same reasons.

The way ‘ordinary’ people managed their day-to-day lives and how they felt throughout this time, fascinate me.  I try to imagine how I would have coped, if I could have shown the resilience of  so many of the people I have read about.  The smallest details, such as making meals from rationed food, mending and saving every scrap of clothing, the relentless toll taken by fear, sleeplessness and exhaustion, are probably brought most brightly alive in Nella Last’s story.

Another very good account is to be found in the WW2 diaries of Clara Milburn, a housewife in Warwickshire.  Clara lived a rather more middle-class life than Nella and is perhaps not quite such an effusive writer, but still it is a compelling read, not least because they lived near Coventry and saw at close hand the devastation of that city.

One obsessive diarist, whose many volumes include the war years, is Frances Partridge.  A long-standing member of the Bloomsbury set, Frances wrote volumes and volumes of diaries covering every aspect of her long life – she lived to be 104.  However, her war-years diary:  ‘A Pacifists War’, is uncomfortable and compares poorly to Nella Last’s account.  Graceful though her writing is, the key feature of this volume, as may be evident from the title, is her and her husband’s objection to war on the ground of conscience and thus of course to WW2 specifically.  They took no part in it.  It’s so hard to really judge why people behaved as they did, so long ago.  However, Frances and her husband lived a war of privilege and plenty, in relative safety, the curtailing of their usual frequent visits to London because of the blitz, travel disruption and so on, being more or less the extent of their deprivation.

I think Nella would have been frankly ashamed of Frances.  And astonished.  The Frances Partridge book is self-indulgent, complaining and distasteful to the point of being repelling, though it is fascinating in its own way.

One of the many things that I love about Persephone Books is the rich seam they offer to someone who wishes to mine for WW2 literature.  Here is their section of books about, or of that time, most of which I have read.  To this I would add ‘A Woman’s Place’ by Ruth Adam, because it spans a century of social history and how it impacted on women, including WW2.  And from Persephone fiction, I’d include ‘Mariana‘ by Monica Dickens – her first novel in fact – for it’s last section chiefly, though the entire book is fantastic.

As other reading, if you’re interested, I urge you to look at ‘Henrietta’s War’ by Joyce Dennys, not least because quite near the beginning, it contains the line:  ‘Dear Robert, I have a great urge to knit something for you.’   But chiefly because this book, based on fictional letters, and which was written during the war, not as a book but as a series of features, is really funny, a tongue-in-cheek morale-booster.  It also, by the way, touches upon an aspect of domestic life in the war that I have often thought about:  pets and the way people cared for and tried to protect them, or even feed them.  This matter arises now and again in Nella Last’s book too and was the only part that really made me a bit teary.

If I have in any way whetted your appetite I also suggest the Monica Dickens ‘One Pair of Hands’ and ‘One Pair of Feet’ books.  Short, very funny and especially in the case of the one set in hospital, very moving.

Finally, E M Delafield’s Provincial Lady series.  It’s the last ‘volume’ which really concerns the war but anyway, read them all, in order if you can.

Back to Barrow.  Nella literally comes to life in the war.  Terrified though she often was, mainly on account of fear for her soldier son and her other son, who was in Manchester and later, Northern Ireland in a reserved occupation, she rose to every challenge.  She asserts herself, finds tiring but hugely rewarding work in Barrow running canteens and a Red Cross shop, as well as running her own home like a CEO.  She describes herself, before the war, as placid, timid even, and lacking in assertion, especially with her husband and it is true that she had a very bad nervous breakdown in the late 1930s.  It’s quite hard to believe that she was as retiring and pacific as she makes out, however, for there is no trace of this whatsoever from the moment she starts to write. Quite the reverse. I think she would have been a ‘tower of strength’ – yet it did take its toll on her and her health was at times fragile.

She is very thoughtful about the way the war is affecting women, especially those who are married.  Her own marriage seems to have been if not unhappy, then not satisfactory to Nella.  She is evidently very fond of him, in fact, I suppose she loves him, though she never says this.  Certainly she cares for him, never failing to produce wholesome and tasty meals for him (he is nameless) and trying to make the house and table ‘gay’ at all times.  (The correct use of the word gay, by the way, is one of the main delights of this book for me.  Nella has gay frocks, flowers and table linen; they have gay times, parties, music and trips out.  I reclaim gay.  It is not a word of condemnation, scorn or sexual orientation.  It is a fine word and I want it back).  Yet she muses often about how it will be after the war for women and their families.  Ironic that she wrote, in 1945, about how in her view marriages of the future would have to evolve into real partnerships, and I listened to this in the same week, in 2012 as the C of E voted against the appointment of women Bishops.

On the surface and in many ways, deep down, Nella was a conforming example of her ‘type’.  Yet really, she was a rebel.  She was also keenly clever and a very good writer.  I think she knew that much of her public persona was an act – and that she was, probably, far cleverer than her husband, to whose will she felt she had to bend.  But in fact, what she bent to was the force of society’s expectations then, not to him, for she seems to have been at least his equal in expressing herself.  Little wonder she often felt trapped and stifled.

I’m not sure I’d have been like Nella was, or that we’d have been friends – in fact she had few close friends, her focus being entirely on her sons and her war work.  But had I been compelled to live through that time, Nella would have been my first choice as a neighbour, work-mate and advisor.  She was stoical, probably because she just had to be.  Frequently, some sad or horrifying piece of news will be broken to us by Nella and her sadness or horror is palpable.  And the very next line will be something like:  ‘I laid the table and we had pilchards mashed onto hot buttered whole-meal toast, and some apple pudding I kept back from Sunday.’


Books; and the book club. RIP.

Friday, November 9th, 2012

I have been knitting a lot for some up-coming events and for kits.  Kits.  I’m having a re-think about kits on the site, by the way.  I think there may be a better way.  I’m a slow thinker, stand by.

Anyway, knitting for me means a) idea;  b) think (see notes above re speed of thinking);  c) swatch;  d) swatch again;  e) write pattern and knit;  f) get pattern knitted by someone else, someone amazing who takes no mental short-cuts and sees All;  g) knit it again, obsessively, myself.  This all takes time.  To pass the time productively, I have to be sitting at my workshop table, with good light and peace and quiet.  Peace and quiet is a scarce commodity in our house nowadays, in many ways a good thing, I know, but still…

I also need audio books.  Recently, I have listened to some excellent books.  First, Pure, by Andrew Miller.

The novel is set against the true story of the wholesale excavation of the burial grounds in the heart of Paris and the removal of the bones to a place outside the city.  I loved this book for its language – spare, mostly yet also sometimes unexpectedly embellished and poetic.

I also listened to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, shockingly a book I have not actually read.  This was a real treat, beautifully read too.  So clever and deep, but easy.

One of my (self-imposed) rules about audio books is that now and then I will select a book I’d never read and that I think may be improving for my mind or address a gap in my literary knowledge.  With this in mind, when Audible rewarded me with a free download, I chose Ulysses by James Joyce.  It’s days and days long.  I have started it but I’m approaching it in stages as I do not think I will finish it if I just plough right through it.  I did that once with a (far inferior) very long novel and ended up almost resenting the author.  So far, Ulysses is a mysterious book for me.  I adore the narration and his interpretation is making the book ‘easier’ I feel.  And yet, often I am baffled.  Sometimes I am slightly bored.  Sometimes my mind wanders and I find I’ve been thinking of something else for a while so I have to go back.  Sometimes I am enthralled.  And sometimes, I feel I am being utterly spell-bound – I may not understand what it happening but it’s beautiful anyway.  Such a complex book.

I have also listened to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a very popular download I believe.

It was OK, not great.  As with many books that have a formula as their base – it did get repetitious, because, being a book about walking, every day Harold, not unreasonably, set off walking.  Every day.  I enjoyed the narration by Jim Broadbent but was surprised that I didn’t like the book more.  It’s annoying that I was annoyed by things like Harold’s not buying walking boots but insisting on walking in deck-shoes.  That’s just silly.  I also *think* we were supposed to like Harold but not his wife.  In spite of them both being obviously maddened, literally, by events in their past together, I didn’t like Harold and I did like his wife, a far more sympathetic character I felt.

In October we had a cycling holiday so we listened to The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton.  This is a long expose of the scandal surrounding pro-cycling and the Lance Armstrong affair, doping, cheating, blood transfusions, drug use and so on.  It was gripping, but I very much doubt if it would be unless you love cycling and are fascinated by the revelations about past Tour doping scandals.  It is really shocking to the cycling community, yet apparently it was ‘OK’ because almost everyone did it.  That’s OK then.  Not.  I also bought but can’t bear to go on with Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder.  Terrible.

In real book reading I have embarked on some new (to me) Ann Patchett novels.  She wrote the amazing The Magician’s Assistant.  I have high hopes of the new books I have bought.  And I am also reading a fascinating book about primal eating/living by Mark Sisson.  This is very interesting.  I was introduced to this concept for eating and indeed, living, by a friend of mine.  She has a reassuring science background and is, I feel, a no-nonsense sort of girl who would call a spade a shovel if she thought the content was dodgy.  Do not be put off by the frankly rather startling author pic on the front cover:

Mark looks terrifyingly happy, blond and stare-y, but he writes really well.  I am interested in this because I am very keen cyclist and runner, and would-be caver but I do get very tired, shaky and hungry.  I think maybe I no longer thrive on the ‘healthy’ carbs I have been living on.  Anyway, I’m browsing the plains and forests of our ancient ancestors.  If I find any evidence of knitting, I’ll let you know.

I also adored the lengthy and bonkers true story of The Popes by John Julius Norwich.

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You couldn’t make this stuff up.  Starting with the first Pope, right up to the current Vicar of Christ, it swept me away on a tidal wave of insane, Machiavellian, twisted, living history, in which we encountered truly devout men, truly driven men, truly pious, kindly and wise men, truly terrible men, married men…and (possibly) a woman Pope.  Fantastic.

And now, some very sad news.  The book club of which I was a founder member is dead.  RIP.  You lived a short life.  The last meeting was due to take place about 3 months ago and was to discuss my choice, Regeneration by Pat Barker, possibly the best modern writer I can think of.  To be fair, I know at least three club members read it and enjoyed it.  The others didn’t.  Why?  Why not I mean?  It’s an accessible, beautiful, moving book.

Anyway, due to lack of interest in Regeneration that meeting didn’t happen.  In the whole time, there were only really three or four new books I enjoyed.  I think the club may have folded.

Two lessons emerge.  One:  maybe I am not cut out for a book club at all, because of the tenderness with which I regard my own books.  And two, if I was to be in a book club in future, I’d need to be pretty sure that my fellow members enjoyed reading and, even if we didn’t agree, would potentially lead me down fruitful reading avenues.

Best and worst

Monday, June 11th, 2012

I have read a lot of books recently and listened to many more.  This is the book I have enjoyed reading the most recently:  The Casino by Margaret Bonham, here is the end paper from the Persephone book:

I got this book a while ago, read 1 or 2 stories – it is a collection of short stories – and then put it down, distracted by another book no doubt.  But recently I was unwell, and in this period of unwell-ness, I read such a lot (the only bonus of illness:  once the worst is passed, you can read and read with no sense of time or guilt.  You can read as if you were once again in your teens or early 20s and no-one’s ‘responsible adult’.  You can read as if you had never lost the ability to concentrate for more than 3 sentences together because that was the longest uninterrupted time you ever got).

The writing is clear, witty and very pleasing just in its own right.  But the stories themselves are little stars:  each one rather different, though the focus is on domestic life.  If you like writing that is deceptively simple, slyly funny, bitter-sweet, and if you like stories that might only cover half a day in the life of someone maybe like you or I had we lived then and been the subject of M Bonham’s pen, I think you’ll love these.

The worst book I read was the last book club read, and it was called Before I Go To Sleep by someone or other, really, don’t bother looking it up, you can have my copy if you really want.  Book club continues though we have had some drop-outs recently.  The last book wasn’t quite the worst we’ve had but it was hard going.  The chief problems were that it is based on someone – someone whom I disliked – losing her memory every night as she slept so each morning, she had to re-learn her life all over again.  Who is this man in bed with me for example (though I did wonder:  if she really didn’t know who the hell he was when she woke up but over the course of that day, gradually accepted that he was her husband etc etc – why did she get into bed naked?  I mean, she may have believed him but still, it would have felt like getting into bed with a near stranger, I’d have thought).  Anyway, this is a tiny flaw when compared to the plot.  This is the other chief problem.  As you can probably detect, the nature of her condition leads to a great deal of repetition, since every day we are treated to another ‘oh my God! who am I and who are you?’ scenario.  And every day she does the same or very similar things, chiefly squatting in the corner of her bedroom writing a diary.  Add to this that it is in that genre of literature I detest the most, possibly excepting novels about the wild west and Word Search books:  the psychological thriller.

It wasn’t that badly written.  It didn’t make me want to tear the pages out, due to the writing style, unlike some we’ve had.

I am choosing the next book.  It’s my turn again, which means it is over a year since Miss Pettigrew was scorned.  Then, the club, in it’s infancy, was about encouraging 1 of our number to read, as she had not at that point, ever read a book.  So I chose Miss P because a) I love it, and b) it’s a lovely, happy yet also deeply layered book about women.  This time I have chosen a book that I really love, and which isn’t ‘entry-level’ literature, but is nonetheless a pretty much perfect read, I think.  It’s Regeneration by Pat Barker, the first and I think the best of a trilogy.  Most of the characters are ‘real’ as is the event that provides the focus for the book, an act of anti-war writing.  A ‘novel’ set during WW1, it explores the moral perversion of war, its victims and also that of war as a well of brutally forged creativity.  Along the way, we deal with homosexuality, class and mental illness.  And yet, it isn’t a brutal or difficult book.  It is beautiful and deep.  Choosing it again, I am of course re-reading it, this is my third time and I love it more each time.

I am braced, ready for the possible reaction.  I think you should do likewise.

The worst book I have listened to is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.  This is about 100 hours long and – oh – it’s so hard to sum it up or indeed summon up the energy to describe it.  I was going to tell you all how I felt about it some time ago but held back in case that might ‘spoil’ the outcome for other listeners.  However, I will now say that this novel, part fairy-tale, part mystery, part shopping list could have been so good.  And yet, it melted – but very slowly – into a frankly lazy mess.  I resorted to listening to it at a slightly faster pace on my iPod, and once or twice, in my sleep.  It made no difference whatsoever to my grasp of the plot, for the pace was like that of continental drift.  I was in fact listening to 1Q84 when I got on the wrong train some months ago.  This is, I think due to the mesmeric impact that the book and its audio presentation had on me.  I had to go on, though sometimes I felt rather numb…after it was finally over, I missed it in an odd way, but mainly I was downright angry with Mr Murakami because I honestly believe he could not be bothered to either edit it OR devise a real plot!

Recently I also pondered the books I listen to while I knit and this was because I took out of the knitting box some items from last year.  Out come the toe-up bed-socks and I am instantly remembering listening to The King’s Speech;  Christmas decorations:  the biography of Joyce Grenfell;  more recently, cuffs and beaded twirly mitts will always remind me of the biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin, which is very good indeed, by the way.  Knitting has always been a bit like a diary for me, because there is always a design book on the go and I date ideas, make notes, stick in swatches and photographs, and now I can add another memory layer to my knitting, my book listening.

The Paris Wife

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

If you have loved the books of Ernest Hemingway and been fascinated by his life (I have), then you too might enjoy The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. 

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It is a novel, but really it serves as an autobiography by proxy as it tells the story in first person of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife – the first of the 4 wives that he got through.  Hadley was also probably the most down-to-earth of his women and it is to her that he owed much of the freedom, strength and opportunity to keep at his writing career in its formative years.

I’m listening to this as an audio book and the recording is good, though the voice of Hemingway is a little forced, since the reader is a woman and she is determined to make him very growly.  I bet her throat really ached after recording this.  What I love best is the background, for most of this, as the title suggests, is set during their years in Paris.  Then Hemingway was basically a jobbing journo, who wrote fiction – stories, poems, novels or outlines – when he had the money to stop writing for papers.  The city, in the early to mid-1920s, comes vividly alive. Post-war European poverty and squalor mingled with the art set with whom the Hemingways socialised. 

I think Hadley was very brave and though she did clearly place his work – his art – way above all else, she loved him very deeply and supported him in every way.  Her life (I also quickly read a proper biography to get the facts straight!) was literally all about him, and when he had an affair and they parted, she was broken.  However, the strength she found to go with him to Europe in the first place, to live as they did and to nurture his career got her through and she went on to marry again, move back to the  States and live to the early 1970s.   I was very happy to learn that the divorce settlement for her was the royalties for The Sun Also Rises, which was fortunate for her.  She also got the film royalties.  Seems only fair.  She kept him for years, on the proceeds of a small trust fund and also paid for their initial move to Paris.

He committed suicide, you know.  As did his father, Hadley’s father and 2 of Hemingway’s siblings.  His final years were horrid, really.  Despite his vile adoration for – addiction to, really – bull fighting, and his immense egotism, I do love some of his novels and have ever since I first read them, when I was about 16 or 17.  I haven’t grown out of them, as you do so often with the things you love as a teenager.  I wish he’d had a happier life, maybe I wish he had stayed with Hadley; but I am sure he wouldn’t have written as he eventually did were it not for her – and also, were it not for leaving her when he did.


As I am listening, I am knitting mittens of course and soon I will have pictures of the final version of the twirl mitts, the 2nd being almost done, which I am making with KSH in bronze, a new and very lovely shade and soft gold Fine Lace, also new and ideal  for blending with other shades and yarns. The twist is picked out with tiny golden beads and simple lace.  So they are a fine knit and slow-ish.  The twirl feature continues to occupy my mind and I have a plan for a small and delicate shoulder-cape, simple but with a swirl and bead feature running all across it.


Recently, as a change from my usual 2 ‘real’ books by the bed and an audio book on the iPod, I am reading at night as I used to when knitting first ‘bit’ me:  old stitch directories, vintage pattern books and piles of old house-keeping, needle-craft and home-maker pamphlets.  It relaxes my mind by letting it fly away with so many possibilities that I know I can’t capture them all, so I don’t even worry about making notes and it soothes me to sleep.

That Woman

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

I am obsessed with a new biography:  That Woman by Anne Sebba. That Woman is of course Wallis Simpson.

That Woman - The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor - 9780297858966

It’s so good.  Really pacey and full of fascinating details.  For example, while Wallis and Edward were apart but in exile after his abdication and awaiting the final stage of her divorce, he knitted her a sweater.  He was, briefly, the King and yet while he fretted and pined in his German castle, he knitted for Mrs S.  I am willing to bet she never wore it.

They are not given a sympathetic treatment nor are they demonised.  Sebba doesn’t need to do that because the facts just sprint right up to the battlements of Windsor Castle all on their own and yell:  ‘we were both so selfish, greedy and possibly insane, it was just as well we married each other!’  Geez she comes across as a real piece of work and he seems to have been mentally unstable, weak and just very, very strange. 

All this is conveyed with simple if sometimes uncomfortable facts, using source contributions from both sympathisers and detractors – and it does seem balanced.  I wonder if a biographer initially likes his or her subject or maybe comes to like or sympathise with them?  This does not seem to have been the case here, nor does Sebba seem to dislike Wallis.  I really appreciated that neutrality.  But, you can’t escape what happened and it’s the details that make it so compelling.  OK, the headline:  ‘monarch gives it all up for woman he loves’ is pretty compelling, but get this for an example of fascinating detail:  WS, after her first divorce, and while still living in the USA,  just walked right into the home of a former friend, while that friend was in hospital, and moved in on her husband, Mr Simpson, later cuckolded by HRH of course – but Wallis also took this other woman’s clothes! 

The shattering impact the abdication had on the Royal Family is there in passing, who emerge as furious but dignified, quite an achievement really, as on the odd occasion when fury overtakes me, dignity, accompanied by coherent speech, hurries off on an urgent errand.  Also fascinating are the various political and diplomatic results.  Really, world-scale stuff, given the political turmoil that was fermenting at that time. 

All that said, I think they were really totally unprepared for the misery that dogged the rest of their lives.  However bright the sunshine, however posed the happy snaps, the life that followed was very unhappy.  She was about ten times more intelligent that he was – mind you, so is my cat.  I think they both felt trapped, bored, lonely and sad.  Puzzled.  It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way, was it Wallis?

There is an odd and recurrent reference throughout the book – that cannot be more than a theory as Sebba provides no actual evidence for it – to Wallis having possibly been born with both male and female sexual characteristics, and she does  go on at some length about this.  Was the fact that she didn’t have children, had ‘large hands’ and a deep (ish) rather gravelly voice all part of this?  I seriously doubt it.  Mainly because there is, as far we know, no real proof.  None is provided in the book anyway.  But also, they smoked like kippers and drank like camels on a rare pit-stop, so that may have had something to do with it.  Or maybe she just didn’t want to have children.  Whatever, this theme was for me the weakest element. I’d also have liked a bit more detail on the many years of Wallis’s life after the death of Edward.  These long years are shunted into a very small space.  It seems they were empty years, like many of those that preceded them only these were spent by Wallis alone. 

She did have an odd childhood and he certainly did.  Her obsessions were security (by which she meant money and posessions); notoriety at literally any cost; and fashion.  And that was basically it.  Two sad lives, friendless in the real sense of that word save for each other, and that is open to some dabate since he was certainly morbidly and unhealthily dependent upon her and she was I felt, usually angry with him; bitter and baffled.

I do really commend this book to you, Royalist or not.  (I’m not, by the way, but I am ardently interested in them and how their hand has guided our journey). The thing is, if you or I wrote this story and sent it off to a publisher, they’d laugh it out of the office as ludicrously far-fetched. What amazes me is how it ever came to pass.

Books – again

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

This is a blog by a knitter.  But it is not a knitting blog.  In spite of that, I anticipate a knitting-related blog soon.  For now, books.  Again.

Recent reads (or listens) include:

  • Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (book club read)
  • A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
  • Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  • Call for the Dead by John le Carre
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre
  • Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

 Anchee Min is (was) Chinese but now is an American citizen.  This book is not one I’d have chosen, because I usually avoid historical ‘faction’.  But anyway, as head Book Club nerd, I have to read whatever I am given and then analyse it to within an inch of its life.  What can I say?  Once a nerd, always a nerd…


I quite liked it, although I am guilty of super-fast speed reading over many of the lengthy descriptive passages.  The writing is simple and clean, with short, factual sentence construction, in the main.  The chief impact of the book however has been to make me have vivid dreams about China.  Unexpected bonus.  In one such dream, I was with the book club folks IN CHINA on holiday and we were being secretly followed and in some way that my dream didn’t reveal, threatened by Chinese spies. (Note:  I was also reading The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, so there may have been a book/dream overlap there).  In another, Chinese spies – this time in the Lake District – were sabotaging my mountain bike event by letting my tyres down.

I am reading the follow-up to this book The Last Empress, but only because I accidentally ordered that one first. Oy.

Next, A Far Cry From Kensington by Murriel Spark:


A book of simple genius.  I really loved it, because it is witty, dry, slightly (but not very) plot driven and I adored the central character, Mrs Hawkins.  I felt I was right there, in London as the 1950s contemplated clicking over into the 60s, and people  rented rooms in genteel boarding or lodging houses.  Offices employed people to answer the ‘phones and everyone had their clothes mended or altered, by a tailor or seamstress, rather than buying new.  Completely satisfactory in every way.  On the strength of this, I then started The Mandelbaum Gate by the same author, which I am not enjoying yet.  However, I am going to soldier on with it and hope that sometime soon I will stop being so irritated by the main character.  Footnote:  I then realised I have never read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!  I think this is illegal (though maybe only in Scotland), so I am going to do so, soon.

Next!  Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler:


I have read most of the novels by this American author.  Most of these I have enjoyed and some I have loved.  Another favourite American author of mine is Alison Lurie and they put me in mind of one another, but Tyler is still writing and therefore as you read through her books, you get a sense of moving through decades of American domestic life.  Sadly, Breathing Lessons didn’t really work for me.  I think we were supposed to be exasperated by the main character, Maggie, but in the end – in fact quite close to the beginning – her dizziness and nosiness just annoyed me.  Also, and mainly, although I am far from needing a plot to make me enjoy a book, this one just had no plot whatsoever and the ending, whilst it was a relief, was also just a full stop.  The writing is, as ever, the main joy and that was its saving grace.  She can make the everyday seem poignant and also amusing.  She has a new book out in America soon and I will certainly get that.

The 2 John le Carre novels were genius, especially Call for the Dead.  And Pigeon Pie was drivel which I have been unable to finish.  I am very disappointed because I love Nancy Mitford’s best known novels (now I see why this one is not in that camp) and especially I love her biographies of historical figures.

Serving suggestion

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I am not recommending these books.  I fully agree that a serving suggestion is best.  So, feeling suggestible?  Great, here goes.  Well, we’ll go in a minute, you know I have to take you on a little preamble first, don’t you?  Come on.  If preamble isn’t your thing, skip the next few paras.

This autumn has been manic, busy to the point of ‘oh my God, I have no idea how I am going to get round Tesco’s’.  Yes, I know, Tesco’s.  It’s been that bad.  Not really, I’m kind of joking, it wasn’t that bad – it wasn’t Asda-bad.  (Please sign here………………. to agree that you understand that Tesco/Asda is a joke reference and no offence to Tesco/Asda or their shoppers is intended.  For Tesco/Asda, read Sainsbury’s or Aldi or Waitrose if you prefer).

Anyhoo, it’s been busy.  Loads of teaching, lots of designing, a mahoosive quantity of swatching.  Also, shipped out a fair weight in fascinating golf trolley thingies, some kits (hurrah!) and done my non-knitting free-lancing thing.  Do you know about my non-knitting free-lancing thing?  No?  OK, guess what it is.  Nope I’m not a body-double for Flavia on SCD, understandable though that suggestion is.  No, nor am I (yet) a secret agent working with George Smiley who has been time-warped back to 1963…oh knickers, that’s blown that option, should have kept that quiet.  I’ll tell you another day, it’s not that riveting (no, you at the back there, it’s not being a riveter, ‘cos that would be riveting, wouldn’t it?).  Maybe I’ll tell you on the same day that I tell you about my 5 year odyssey in the West Midlands Fire Brigade, about 2 lifetimes ago…

The good thing about the busiest knitting autumn since records began, is that it’s been incredibly creative, with new ventures being hatched and new developments being – um – developed.  Ah. The creativity seems to have run out already.  The down-side is that it squeezed out some of the usual touch-stones in my life, chiefly reading.  Now that I have taught my last workshop of 2011, and boarded my last story for the year, finished my last non-knitting free-lancing task and generally wriggled into a bit of space, I am reading again – a lot.  By reading, I mean absorbing books whether I take them intravenously, that is to say via audio or actually read a real book.

I dealt with The Alchemist already.  One foot note.  It has kind of stayed with me.  I have thought – I think wondered is more accurate – about it on and off.

Next I read Skippy Dies by Paul Murray:

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I listened to this book and I think this is partly why I loved it so much.  The narration is perfect.  This book is not my usual read at all.  It’s intensly masculine being set in a Catholic boarding school for boys in Dublin.  It deals with teenage boys (mainly, there are some girls in the school next door) and also the lives of some of the teachers and priests.   Almost all the chief characters are male.  It’s not a childrens book or a teen-reader book.  It’s gritty, there is little loveliness, and it deals with some sad material.  However, it is also very, very funny, if you like your funny about as dark as a Nigella chocolate and Guinness cake.  Without the white frothy top.  It’s very dark humour.  I think part of the humour is conveyed via the superb narration, so if I’d have found it as funny just reading it, I’m not sure.  And, most of all, it’s just such fine writing.  I love his words, the clever, sly, poignant, poetic and brutal way that he uses language. 

Also, it’s slow-burn.  To be honest, after 30 minutes I was about ready to give up and anyway my mind was wandering because I was swatching and during these processes, there are blank bits where I assume I have had to use all my brain for a few moments (these will be the bits with numbers in them, when the sound I hear is mainly white noise) and then I switch back in.  I have only ever given up on 2 audio books.  Bill Bryson’s At Home, read by the author.  Oh, how deadly it seemed to me.  An amazingly dull wander through Bill’s house, providing him with an excuse to go on and on about the historical features of how we used to live, and how we live now, with each room as a chapter.  Not helped by his voice, which has a lovely accent but is so rushed and breathless, like a middle-aged man doing a Marilyn Monroe impression.  And the Count of Monti Cristo.  Oy.  That will teach me to try and improve my mind.

But Skippy Dies  just gently picked up pace and interest.  One minute I’m all ‘meh, I think I might give Bill another go…’ and next thing I knew, I was hooked.  Couldn’t wait to get into the workshop room, light the fire, plump up the heap of Dachshunds in front of it and get listening.  As I say, I’m not recommending it partly because I have a strong feeling that if I’d read it myself, I might have given up 2 chapters in.  But I did really love it being trickled into my ears by the narrator.  It also did a rare thing to me:  I lolled (as the Young People say; note to those of my vintage:  LOL = laugh out loud, not as you think, Lots of Love.  Which is, like, totally lame, yeah?).  Actual lollage.  I do laugh out loud, a lot, but not so much when I’m reading.  This is due to years of training myself to laugh on the inside, because laughing on the outside on First Great Western or the Bakerloo Line is frowned upon.  Startled the dogs I can tell you, my lolling, far more used as they are to yarn-related cussin’.  It made me sad too.  Sad, not howling or gnashing/rending.  Sad, because of some of the content, and also sad when it was over.  I will certainly listen to this again.  And I will never underestimate the sheer terror, boredom, pain, angst and hope that adolescent boys must go through.  I am a girl.  I only had girl-children.  I think, if even half of this is actually realistic, they – boys – must have it even worse than girls in their teen years. 

I will warn you though that since finishing this, I think in an Irish accent.  I don’t mind this at all as I adore Irish accents, but it may irritate some.  Or, for all I know, it might not happen to you! 

Then, proudly wearing my ‘Head Girl Nerd of The Book Club’ badge, I read the next-but-one book on our list (emits horsey laugh and pushes reading glasses back up bridge of my nose). This is Sister by Rosamund Lupton:

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Now, the book after next (the next being The Alchemist, do try and keep up at the back there) was supposed to be chosen by the book club member for whom the club was formed, who had, shockingly, never read a book all the way through before.  We have now chosen about 6 or 7 books and she has only read 1 of them. This was the concentration camp book and she loved it.  The idea, a year or so ago, was that by now she would have read all our books and some others, one of which would be her choice.  However, that hasn’t happened.  So we have chosen a book for her.  We did this by a process of one of us saying:  how about such-and-such and me saying:  no I’ve read that already until we came to Sister.  I do not know if anyone else in our club has read it.  Once I’d admitted to not having read it yet, I was sorry as I didn’t fancy the subject at all.  Anyway, I got a copy and then devoured it. 

I’m not recommending this book to you, because, even more than Skippy Dies, it’s way out of my comfort zone.  And, it’s not even funny. That last sentence by the way, is the understatement of the year.  In fact, several passages made me  cry.  Or at least, well-up.  However, it is very well written and I was gripped (now I am starting to sound like a magazine reviewer.  But I was! gripped I mean) by the plot.  Which is, incidentally so improbable it made the difficult content slightly easier to handle, due to its fantasy-level pitch.  I mean fantasy in terms of plot devices, not fairies or unicorns.  It’s a dark, sinister mystery.  Loads of plot, as opposed to my usual:  oh, here we are 300 pages later and not much has happened.  There are some niggles such as the sequence of amazing coincidences that drive the plot for much of the time so that after a while you begin to think:  seriously?  you just happened to walk in at that moment and meet that person?  or see that event?  But in spite of that and an ambiguous ending (only slightly clarified by the author’s Book Club Read Notes at the back), I am glad I read it.  

Spoiler alert:  if you intend to read Sister, skip this paragraph.  The thing is, at the very end, the author kicks away the platform on which the entire story has been built.  This leaves the ‘real story’ very open to interpretation to say the least.  Now this did irritate me a bit because whilst I don’t mind a twist in the tail at all, and this has several, I do think in a mystery, the reader ought to have a least a slight clue in order to play the game.  There was no way anyone could have guessed the way the whole basis of the book would be de-constructed in the last chapter.  Which in fact made me question the entire story.  I concluded that the sister of the title, Tess, had never been murdered but committed suicide, as the police and most people believed all along;  and the older sister who narrates the story first person, Bea, was so consumed with guilt that she first went slowly insane, and as she did so, imagined all sorts of things (the plot), and then also committed suicide, like Tess.   I think this because the ‘murderer’ was never arrested, or about to stand trial.  There was to be no trial and the man to whom Bea makes her lengthy statement, which forms the main way in which the story is told to the reader, Mr Wright from the CPS, never existed either.  The only clue given was in his name.  Mr Wright.  I knew all along that was a red herring!

But I’m still glad to have read it.  Good quality prose, so good you actively notice the way she writes and (in my case) approve.  I love reading a passage or even a phrase and thinking:  perfect.

Finally, a biography of Joyce Grenfell:

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Read to me by Eleanor Bron, who I think is fantastic anyway and who can do a very good ‘Joyce’.  (I am struck by the contrast between these 3 books).  The author of this biography is Joyce’s God daughter I think, or a cousin or something, who knew Joyce, as well as having access to the source material used in this biography, which is rather less ‘edited’ than Joyce’s autobiographies.  In these, Joyce ‘edits out’ some things, notably her great generosity to friends and often, strangers.  But also, some other personal details that, whilst they certainly don’t detract from her, somehow make her more human.  Less perfect.  But just as wholesome, kind, funny and wise, if not more so.  Nice.  There, it’s out.  The N word.  Well, she was jolly nice and I love her.

Joyce was a relief-buffer in between Skippy Dies and Sister.  I am now reading a book of cycle rides that form the epic Lands End to John O’ Groats route, which is broken down into 10 – 20 miles sections, so you could do say 2 – 4 in a day, is illustrated with line-drawings and is quite funny.  Every now and again, the author – who has ridden this several times – features a Brewery Of  The Day along the way.  I hate beer, but love that!  I could do the same but feature yarn stores.


Monday, November 21st, 2011

First up:  ‘Nutcracker!’

It was good – very good in fact.  It was also very exciting that Matthew Bourne himself (praise be to Matthew) was there.  This chap just wandered onto the stage before it started looking as if he was going to ask to turn off our phones, and said:  hello, my name is Matthew Bourne…to which the entire audience made a collective and involuntary ‘ooooo’ noise, a cross between sharply sucked in breath and a proper coo.  Anyway, he was there to introduce a ‘curtain raiser’ in which a group of local school children who had been rehearsed with his leading dancers for some weeks, did a short dance as a ‘starter’, really.  Very moving it was too.

Then they served up the main ballet, which I did love.  However… it wasn’t quite as amazing as Cinderella.  I really wish Mark had seen that first, as I did.  Nonetheless, we really enjoyed it, it was dark (ish), funny and very clever.  Now, I am going to make a statement that I never expected to make:  it was slightly too pink.  I know!  I adore pink as you know and normally, anything pink makes me happy – and it did, don’t let’s over-react.  But oh my, there was an awful lot of pink, mainly hot pink, again, my preferred end of the pink spectrum, and in the end, it was just a tad too much.  Meh.

The Millenium Cntre is an amazing building, really beautiful:

Breathtaking, inside and out, with sweeping stairs and masses of open space giving the feeling of being on a huge liner, or in a very modern ball-room.  The theatre space itself is impressive and the acoustics (though no live orchestra of course so not able to judge that) and the overall vision of the stage were superb.  We had front row seats on the first balcony.  As we sat down I felt the stage was going to be much too far away – I am used to the Bristol Hippodrome, you see.  But in fact, once the lights were down and the curtain was up, it was fine. 

I did feel a little frisson, just a whiff, of ‘Colston Hall’ as we  went into the auditorium…Colston Hall is a venue in Bristol that, despite the recent foyer face-lift remains, for me, one of the deadliest venues ever.  Think sixth form college lecture theatre…I rarely go there anymore because the atmosphere is almost non-existent in the performing space and the wooden seats plus an odd, jumbled lay-out really detract from the performances, I think.  The ‘stalls’ (completely flat with movable seating so quite impossible to see the stage if anyone even vaguely normal in size sits in front of you) is even worse than the upper levels which are better.  And yet we have seen some lovely shows there, it’s such a shame.  I always feel the performers must have to make an even greater effort to overcome the setting.  Incidentally, having seen bands, solo performers, choral works and full orchestras there, the latter works best because although I couldn’t see the solo violinist or the conductor, it matters less with things like that. 

Inside the Millennium Centre auditorium, there is a lot of wood.  A forest (I assume sustainably grown!) of trees must have been used to clad the place, which therefore murmurs ‘sauna…?’ as you walk in.  And it makes it feel slightly chilly, not literally.  However, it just works.  Very comfy, Mark’s legs were able to stretch out, no loo-queues, no blasts of hot and then cold air.  And, the car-park was right next door and Nandos was 500 meters away.  Sweet!

Next my review – more of a ponder, really – of our next book club read.  It’s The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. 

The Alchemist - 10th Anniversary Edition

Yes, I am still in the book club though I have missed the last 2 meetings due to a mixture of work and not reading one of the books because it was set in a concentration camp.  The Alchemist is certainly not a book I’d a) ever heard of, yet I now realise it is famous, apparently;  and b) ever have read, voluntarily.  It is described as ‘inspirational’ and ‘life-changing’.  In fact 2 friends to whom I mentioned it both said:  this book changed my life.  Wow.  OK.  I’d better read it too!

It is a short story about a boy who dreams of finding his ‘treasure’ and follows his heart and his destiny to find it.  Along the way, he meets with strangers and teachers, robbers and warriors, love and loss.   And chiefly, the alchemist.  His ‘treasure’ which I assumed all along would be symbolic, for, say, love is in fact actual treasure– a chest of Spanish gold, though he does also find love – in the desert.  It’s an atmospheric little book, quite evocative of the places he visits and it is sweetly and childishly written making it feel very open and easy.  The translation is rather American.

In fact, sadly, I just don’t think I get it.  Maybe it is less open and easy than I thought.  Maybe it is because I can’t accept it as just so simple.  I think I could accept it as a simple allegorical tale, were it not for the fact that 2 people I know and respect told me that it changed their lives.  I have read it through, it’s very short and took about 3 hours to read from cover to cover with a further hour of back-tracking to make sure I hadn’t missed something.  It’s quite a gentle and sweet fable, really, or fairy story.  I do get that it is supposed to be illustrative rather than ‘real’.  I think I understand that its stages – his journey – represent  breaching personal barriers and having the courage to follow a dream.  I just have an uneasy ’emperor’s new clothes’ feeling about it all.  I did enjoy it more than I expected to, having read the preface.  I was really turned off by the book’s obsession, throughout, with money, gold and treasure.  It is very focused on the acquisition of wealth.  This may be an extended metaphore, but the fact that he does, in the end, dig up a chest of gold before going back to claim his love, makes me doubt it.

All that aside, I have almost never read any ‘self-help’ or self discovery books, though I do like books about running, for example, so maybe it depends on being very personally bound up in the things the author is exploring.  Finding my inner goddess, exploring my higher earth-mother-self, letting the child within me have a play in the park of my unconscious psyche – none of these appeal.  The Alchemist, however, isn’t really like that.  It’s much more simple.  It doesn’t ask anything, there are no ‘excercises’ or tasks or lists.  It seems too simple.  Which is why I feel as if I might be the only one who thinks:  how can this change your life?  Maybe I’ll read it again.

This led me to think if any books had changed my life.  Well, Anne of Green Gables did because it taught me that my love of puffed sleeves and dislike of my own freckles were normal and also, even more importantly, it taught me that books are a magical gateway to other worlds and with a book in your hand, you can escape your earthly life and fly.  Oh my, that was rather Alchemistic!  Sorry.  Many books and poems have had a powerful impact on me and may even have caused me to make changes – but I do not think one has changed my whole life, no.  Apart from anything else, what a responsibility for the author.

If you have read it, I’d be interested in what you think.  And, if there are any books that have changed your life – what are they?  and why?  I’m assuming it won’t be a book about making perfect pasta or how to grow straight carrots, but if that is your Alchemist, why not?  Go for it!

YouTube review for ‘Lacy Knits’

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

This is cool, a YouTube review from Jimmy Beans Wool in the USA for Lacy Knits.  Thank you Jimmy Beans Wool!

Book, covers, judgement…

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

I know, I just know, that I am not likely to enjoy a book if the publishers have decided that what it needs is a pink sparkly, even relief-effect cover, usually featuring a swirling cartoon image of a super-thin chic-chick with a diamante dog lead tangled round her impossibly high-heeled shoes, arms full of designer label shopping bags and a storm of butterflies round her head.  On the other hand, I’m grateful to the (I suspect) 14 year old ‘editors’ in the It’s Not Literature But There Are More Words Than Pictures publishing house who decide that what so-and-so’s new block-buster really must have is a quilted sateen cushion on the front with a stand-out diamond ring in relief.  It makes it easier for me to instantly reject an enormous number of potential books which, if they had normal covers, I might have to flick through before rejecting, thus saving valuable reading time.

I have the same sense of gratitude to people who have purple mohican hair-dos, facial tattoos and multiple body piercings that I can see.  Because, it’s as if they have a little notice above their heads that says:  warning, I may alarm or even frighten you, you might prefer to stand from London to Bristol rather than sit beside me.  Thanks!  I will.

Sometimes, being at heart a pinko-liberal, (small ‘L’ note!), I fight this boring and rather narrow mind-set and I DO sit beside the unconventional person on the train (if there is no other seat, obviously).  It’s often a mistake.  I recall one horrific journey from Bristol to Chester, for the now frankly bizarre sounding purpose of attending a work conference for about 4 hours, staying over-night and then coming back.  This is a linen cupboard reference.   He seemed alright at first, the man sharing my table, but when I produced my knitting – and he produced the first of several cans of cider – my heart sank.  He was VERY interested in the knitting and talked to me about it non-stop, other than the times when, at the many stops, he darted off the train and smoked a hand-rolled cigarette on the platform.  This was in the time when smoking on trains had been banned but it was still allowed on platforms, but more especially I can date it to the time when Debbie Abrahams’ cushion book was published, as that is what I was knitting from. 

So insistent was his questioning of my knitting, despite my increasingly monosyllabic answers, that the other passengers on the train, packed and smelly as it had become, seemed to associate me with him and his over-loud voice, his nervy fag-rolling as he readied himself for the next stop, and his carrier bag of booze.  He and I both got disapproving glances and sometimes frank, open stares.  He’d squeeze in and out of the carriage, and come back reeking of cigarette smoke, which he assured me was a nice smell – urging me to have a good sniff of his tobacco pouch – because he used a cherry-scented hand-rolling mix so that he didn’t smell horrid.  I doubt if he used the word horrid.

The trouble was, much as I disliked and even slightly feared him, I’m not sure why, much as I was anxious in case his smell contaminated the Rowan Hand Knit DK Cotton in cream and two shades of chocolate and coffee, that I was knitting, I was worried about him.  He had a long and hard-to-follow story about how his life was turning out, at the same time full of self-pity and bravado.  His relationships with women, his children and any work colleagues (this latter part was, I felt, really doubtful) were all fraught.  It was hard to follow because I just listened and didn’t ask the questions or head him off in a way that would have led us all into fewer cul-de-sacs and pointless diversions.  I told you I have ‘one of those faces’!  Each fresh outrage would be punctuated by his loud, braying laugh and nervous repetition of phrases such as:  oh well, that’s life, innit?  Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble…like an American film’s idea of how English people speak, perhaps we do;  and the recurrent sharp snap hiss of a new cider can being opened. 

Like him with his life story, I digress, sorry.  Maybe one day I’ll be a lonely train traveller, making people talk to me by cornering them with my knitting, making them smell the silk in Kidsilk Haze (you can smell it, by the way…). Given my social rectitude, even hermit-like tendencies, I feel this is unlikely but you never know, do you?

So, I think that my point is, sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover.  And then on the other hand, I’ve looked at the covers of books such as the George Smiley series by John le Carre, and over the years, rejected them for their dark forbidding jackets and the ‘blurb’ which put me off with its secret agent and cold-war references.  Wrong!  They are amazing, though to be fair, I am listening to them, being poured, like liquid art and happiness, into my ears by Michael Jayston, whose voice is just lovely.  By the way for real reading, I’ve just finsihed A Woman of Independent Means, lent to me me by someone who I’ve come to know through knitting teaching, and I really enjoyed it.  And an old volume that is a collection of stories published in The New Yorker magazine during the 1930s and 1940s.  The New Yorker was a very important literary outlet for lots of great writers in the UK as well as America, for example, Elizabeth Taylor (no, the other Elizabeth Tayor) had many published there over the years.  I love short stories, the pithier the better.  Long short stories annoy me a bit because I think, oh well, if you’d added a bit to it it’d could have been a short novel, or taken some away and made it a proper short story.  My favourite collections of short stories are published by Persephone Books, look for Dorothy Whipple and Mollie Panter-Downs in particular but they’re all excellent.  Often not a great deal happens, or at worst plot is hinted at, but they make vivid sketches of people, life and living then, usually in the sort of suburban way we live now, most of us. 

Another thing I have passed a negative judgment on in the past is very small knitting.  Not micro-knitting, for, say, dolls’ houses, that will never happen.  But really quite small items – actually, Christnas decorations.  But, again, I was wrong, I’ve been knitting mini gift bags and small sweaters and icicles – all hopelessly adorned with beads and sequins – and I love it!  Look!

It’s fun and I don’t care that I can’t wear it, I have done mine in a mon0-chrome scheme and hung the bags and sweaters and icicles on painted white twigs and tied the flowers to a silver-sprayed wooden wreath – result:  happiness! 

Hearts, and then:

…black with silver – not crystal, but silver – beads.

And icles:

And finally, flowers and frosty decorations for a little wreath:

I do hope the workshop participants this weekend will be happy too, as this what we will be making, in whatever colour-way they prefer. 

As a gift to them, they will also depart with a copy of a new and as yet not-quite-finished pattern for a slender evening scarf, that has even daunted me with its beading – pics when I have done a bit more of it.

Bubbles – and lace, but not mine

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Behold the Bubble Pop Electric Comforter, knitted in dusty pink 4 ply wool and gorgeous Majestic Kidsilk Haze:

This image shows you some stitch detail – this design is all about the texture – plus a glimpse of the finishing ruffle, which adorns each end.  I love Majestic, because though it is basically grey, it’s also got a lot of warmth in it, veering into the pink-underneath-of-a-newborn-mushroom spectrum…yes, I do believe that is an official colour on the colour wheel.

This will be 1 of 3 new kits that will populate this site by the end of September.  The others are very sparkly and outrageous cuffs, and a cream cotton baby blanket, with lace beaded hearts.

And now, in Show and Tell, marvel at ‘Hilda’ lace circular shawl from Lacy Knits, knitted by (and here I am awed) Jane, who is a relatively new lace-knitter!  I know!  It’s only the most challenging thing in the book!

Impressive, much.  Well done Jane – who has also leapt straight into full membership of the AC-S Glitter Knitter Cell, by adding beads, knitted cunningly into the point of each ‘tip’.  Even I, Archdeaconess of Glitter, had not thought of that.

New book pattern pic and Shimmer Star-Crossed

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

This is a peek of a shot from a new book proposal that we are working on:

Here you can see Kidsilk Haze and Fine Lace, plus dusty lavender beads.  The corsage uses felted knitted backing – and also melted chiffon!

I have had a couple of emails asking if the detail on new Shimmer Star-Crossed kit could be made plainer.  Maybe this photo will help: