Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Show and tell – cuffs; kit news; Sunday musings…

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

The Moulin Rouge Cuffs have been my best-selling kit since I placed the first kits on this site earlier this month.

Here is a pair, knitted in black with hot-pink details, silver beads and pink sequins, knitted by Sue:


I have added a new cuff to my repertoire – the Le Marais cuffs, which will be a kit as well, and these will also be the new ‘practice’ knit on my ‘Learn to love Kidsilk Haze’ course AKA Little Luxury Knits and one or two other titles, that I teach at retailers.  I’m going to add these cuffs to the site soon along with the new version of Star-Crossed, which will come in a wintry cream-and-silver colourway.

It’s raining hard now, here in Somerset, and has been all morning.  I’m glad it was fine yesterday for Mark was, very unusually, on holiday on the Saturday and we went cycling, a long and fairly hilly ride circling Taunton, thus taking in the Quantocks and a bit of the Blackdowns and some lovely lanes we hadn’t ridden before.  We almost postponed it to today!  The rain is making me restless because the garden is keening at me…the lawn is simply covered in apples, so many things need to be done, and our holiday is almost over.

So I am going to retreat to my dining room camp (should I light the fire?  In 3 days it will be September – and I doubt it’s above 16 degrees today?) and knit the Le Marais cuffs in the second colourway.  And I’m planning a new pair of mitts for Christmas Gift knitting in October.  Rainy days are therefore blessings.  Because they give you permission to just stay in and knit.

I’m reading a lot at the moment too, and also listening to audio books.  My ‘rule’ with audio books is that I only listen to that which I’d be unlikely to read.  So far I have listened to a very diverse range of fiction and non-fiction.  I’d never, for example, have read the Stig Larson books but as a listen, they work very well.  With this in mind, I downloaded some ‘improving’ literature, notably ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’.  This may have been a mistake…

In other news, there is just 1 place left on the January 2012 sock course.

Book splurge

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

It’s my birthday and so far, it’s been lovely.

Usually, Mark takes the day off and we go out, to a garden, for lunch, to the Dorset or Devon coast;  or to Bath for the theatre, perhaps.  But today he can’t and of course Florence and Lily are out, so it’s just me and the boys.  I’m happy because Rupert is much better and as a matter of fact, all I wanted was for him to be better.  So the rest of my birthday loveliness is just a bonus, really.

So far, I have been sent a beautiful cake stand – from The White Company!  This stand will be perfect for showing off cakes at workshops!  Actually seeing the delivery man stagger up with the huge White Stuff box was exciting enough on its own.  I did have a brief thought:  gosh, I hope it isn’t 3 dozen flannels!  I should explain.  I have a bit of habit of ‘collecting’ flannels and have about 100, maybe…No, it’s not odd, try it, it’s fun.  And now and again, friends will buy me ‘posh’ flannels to supplement my collection.  Two of  my favourite flannels are from The White Stuff, and I rarely use these as they are special flannels.  Anyway, it wasn’t flannels.

Then, I got a Jo Malone candle, in white fig scent, which is still my favourite I think.  This was an early birthday present from Mark.  I get the rest later, he says, before we go out for dinner.

I also got:  a fairy pen – so pink, fluffy and me;  a pen in the shape of a dachshund;  a silk knitting badge;  some lovely stitch-markers that have no annoying ‘seams’ to catch your work;  and a sign to hang on the door explaining that the dachshunds are in charge.

But, best of all – and I am not going to feel remotely guilty about this – I have bought myself nine (9!) new Persephone books.  I say bought, but in fact my lovely MiL often gives me Persephone vouchers and I have hoarded them in order to have a massive splurge.  These are the books I ordered:

Making Conversation, by Christine Longford

To Bed With Grand Music, by Marghanita Laski:

Dimanche and Other Stories,by Irene Nemirovski:

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow, by Mrs Oliphant:

Miss Buncle Married, by D E Stevenson:

Mid-Summer Night in the Workshouse, by Diana Athill:

A Very Great Profession, by Nicola Beauman:





 Daddy’s Gone a-Hunting, by Penelope Mortimer:

and finally, The Casino,by Margaret Bonham:

The lady at Persephone was, sweetly, quite excited too and we agreed that I had made an excellent choice.  The images, by the way, are the end papers that Persephone use in their books.  At least, say, 20% of the joy of Persephone Books is the look of the books, the dove-grey covers, the attention to detail such as the end papers they choose.

I’m happy with the choices because I have a fairly wide range – as you know, I have ‘comfort zones’ with my reading and I haven’t strayed far at all.  But there are short stories which I love reading, some non-fiction in the Nicola Beauman book (and I did so enjoy her biography of Elizabeth Taylor – the author, not the actor, so I am really looking forward to that one).  I’ve got ‘light-touch’ fiction, such as Miss Buncle, who we left on the verge of marriage to her lovely publisher and whose married life we now get to snoop about in.  And some social commentary via novellas, too.  All I need now is a month on a secluded island, just me, the dogs and my books…

Sunday morning blues-banishing formula

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

A wise woman – it was The Blessed Delia  – said:  if I feel low, I do three things:  put on a load of washing;  put a big fat chicken in the stove to roast;  and while all that activity is underway, I clean out one just thing – a drawer, a shelf, a cupboard. 

I’m paraphrasing but you get the drift.

At the time, I reckon I was about a life-time and maybe 1 – 2 decades away from where I am right now and I may have mentally scoffed.  Later though, I tried it.  It’s so trite, so simple, yet it works.  I think it will work even if you change the elements of the equation.  Dish-washer can be substituted for washing machine;  simple cake or casserole can sub for chicken, and so on.  The magic lies in the fact that three things are happening at once (productivity and desirable outcomes) whilst really only engaging you at the start and end of two of the processes, and liberating you to do something small (small:  this is vital, do not attempt to re-grout the bathroom or terrace the garden, just line a few drawers), and in the midst of all this, gradually the kitchen fills with yummy food smells and the washing machine does its thing…

I am going to have to employ this tactic and others today.  It’s a blue-Sunday.  Ever have those?  Actually I do love weekends, even though they have lost all real meaning since I no longer have a conventional job and Mark works every weekend anyway and always has.  Do you remember hating Sundays as a child, or was that just me?  I didn’t like roast dinner – now I adore but anyway.  I didn’t like the dullness, the quiet, the stifling being in the house-ness.  Even as a child I adopted blue-Sunday coping strategies, such as doing homework on Friday evenings, because if homework was left, Sunday became even more dreadful.  I scoured the Radio Times for a good old film to watch, or sat in the dining room with my dad while he studied or wrote out Masonic name cards (don’t ask; another time, maybe).

But today, it’s raining very hard and the Met Office insists it will do so all day.  Worse, because I don’t mind rain per se, it’s really cold.  in June.  In my Birthday Season.  How dare it?  So my plans:  run, garden, shower, knit, eat dinner, read – have to be changed, re-jigged and supplemented. 

So (mentally shakes herself to represent fresh resolve), what shall I do?  First, I have a new camera.  For the website.  Oy.  It’s so lovely, so BIG, so complicated.  My head, never a linear place at the best of times, threatens to explode if New Technology arises.  A friend once tried to tutor me through an Excel lesson.  She still vividly recalls me having – having, not wanting – to stop because it was making me cry.  I wish my head was not like this, but it is, we are stuck with each other.  Anyway.  The camera;  I have two (2) DVDs that came with it, and a stack of booklets.  So, I am allocating an hour, an hour being all I think I can stand, to investigating the camera.  That will feel like Homework.  I will do an hour a day until I have taken a picture.  And then, I will devote a further few weeks to up-loading it here and sharing.

Second, I have to get out of the house, even if only for an hour so I am going to walk.  I can’t be staying indoors all day, it makes me feel all funny.  Yes, in the rain, I’ve got the clothing and boots.  I won’t take the active dog as Dachshunds dislike rain/cold/wind even more than do cats.  I’ll be a mad solitary walking-in-the-rain woman.  I will listen to an audio-book.

Third, I will light the fire, have a hot bath, and read.  One of my workshop participants, Nicola of the lovely cuffs, recommended a book:

The Best of Everything

and oh my, how well Nicola knows me!  I adore it and am about half way.  Reading has taken a bit of a back seat recently, as I’ve been out a lot and also when working, listening to audio books, but reading has still been happening.  Of course there has been some grisly book-club reading to get through but that’s in a lull for now as the next book, annoyingly, is one I already have and read about 3 years ago.  The Island, by Victoria Hislop.  A friend passed it to me.  It’s OK, not great but an interesting (and true) basis for the yarn itself.  I mean it’s not great literature but I didn’t hate it, so a big step up from N Hornby.  Anyway, I LOVE The Best of Everything.  I also recently really loved Brooklyn,


again recommended to me via this blog.  Both these books are really really well written.  And ravel you up into their worlds without any annoying language problems.  How great is that?  My blogsters (I think you are out there!) know me better than my book club mates!  Respect.

Fourth, knitting.  I’m knitting Glow still, but planning a little capelet/shoulder shawl, in Pure Wool 4 Ply and Shimmer….as a break from Glow (New Glow) I will swatch this again later.

Fifth, my youngest daughter, Lily, may need some revision help – yay!

Sixth (try and keep up), I am not in charge of cooking today but Florence has promised us roast pork tonight, so the household smell thing will still happen.

Do you know I feel better already!  OK, camera, do you feel lucky today…?

One of ‘those’ faces…and more Maugham

Friday, May 13th, 2011

I think I have one of ‘those’ faces.  The sort of face that says:  talk to me!  I love talking to strangers about all sorts of randomness, so let’s have a bizarre chat!  Actually, I sometimes do, but not always, and not if it’s alarming.  This week I attended the temple that is known as the hair-dresser.  I cycled.  This habit, by the way, drives my hairdresser wild even if I don’t, for once, ride with my helmet.  Anyway, I am pushing my bike along the pavement in Burnham-on-Sea, and an elderly lady leaps out and grabs my arm and says:  Oh!  I think the sound of your cycling shoes tapping on the pavement is rather nice, because you have them under control, BUT when a lot of cyclists walk about making all that noise, I want to…to…simply…go home!

Alright then. 

Yesterday, I taught in a shrine to knitting, Spin-a-Yarn in Bovey Tracey, Devon.  Bovey is a lovely place, quaint, independent and I suspect, seething beneath the Exmoor Park surface, with Joanna Trollope-style intrigue.  As I park my car and buy a ticket, a lady approaches me, brandishing a parking ticket.  With no attempt at introduction, and looking rather wild about the eyes, she stumps up in front of me and says:  I have lost an hour!  where can it be?

My first reaction is, of course, to send up a fervent prayer that she isn’t about to participate in my knitting course.  But she was quite anxious so I said:  it’s 9.30, does that help? 

No!  it’s 10.30!  look at my ticket (shoves ticket into my face) it says 10.30, therefore I have lost an hour – and what’s more I paid for that hour.

OK so you can see where this is going.  But just for a moment then and all the way home, my mind spun with the amazing possibilities this scenario offered:  I could be a time-finder super-hero, recovering lost hours, days, years, even, and returning them to their rightful owners.   Imagine, being given some time you lost.  Not as in time-travel, that would be silly.  But say, a week you kind of overlooked or that melted past you, some years ago and suddenly, it’s back!  You can have it over again.   

I retrieved this lost hour by explaining the way pay-and-display tickets work, urged her to spend no longer than an hour in Bovey, thanked the Lord that she wasn’t a workshop lady, and schlepped my stuff up the hill to Spin-a-Yarn, leaving the lady still muttering, but more cheerfully now. 

The workshop was really lovely.  The shop is not actually small but it’s so filled with gorgeous-ness, when you also pack in eight knitting participants, me and my improbably huge quantity of workshop goodies, it feels so snug.  We had a very happy and creative day.  I can, and happily do, provide a significant portion of energy and enthusiasm whenever I teach, because I love doing it.  However, when you add the combined energy and commitment of all the participants, as happened at both the classes I taught this week, it’s really uplifting and magical.  As so often, I am thankful to my craft and fellow-crafters.


In other news, I have to report that I re-watched ‘Love on a Branch Line’ after a 17 year break, with Mark, while on the IoW and it was charming, but I had mis-remembered it completely.  It’s also a major male-fantasy, but anyway, it was fun.

I also bought a very old copy of The Letter by W Somerset Maugham, for my brother in law, and I intend to post it to him, but it is a volume of plays including two I haven’t read, (or can’t remember) Sheppey, and The Breadwinner, so before it goes, I’m going to read those.

I love the old cover, it’s a Pan book and it was 2’6 (two and six, two shillings and sixpence!):

And this afternoon, after the garden has had a good deal of attention, I am going to cast-on a lace front, beaded toe-up luxury bedsock in Kidsilk Haze…


Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

With a little holiday coming up, I love the planning element.  Aside from the plans regarding where to visit, what to do, and so on, there is the deep pleasure associated with planning the holiday reading, the knitting and the other small treats that make holidays more than a visit away.

I’m planning to re-read Women and Ghosts by Alison Lurie:


I really enjoy short stories and Alison Lurie is a favourite author.  It’s been about 10 years since I last read this collection of odd little ghost stories.  Her writing is something I have enjoyed over many years.  Having first read her novels when I was a student, they still captivate me, not something that all the literature of one’s extreme youth can continue to do in one’s, um, mature years.

I’m also planning to read When We Were Orphans:

book cover of   When We Were Orphans   by  Kazuo Ishiguro

I have owned this copy for a while now but never managed to fit in the time to read it.  I like his style, adored The Remains of the Day (book, film and film location, Powderham Castle).

And also three plays by W Somerset Maugham, including The Letter. 

A shot of the poster for the 1940 film of the The Letter, which starred Bette Davis and is a sublime film.  I have a very old copy of three Maugham plays, that I must have bought from the old book shop in Wellingborough when I was at school.  I really enjoy reading plays, especially as Maugham was so good at dialogue but in play format, everything is much more economical and sharply focused.  Aside from his stage directions to the actors, everything is up to me:  of course, Lesley in the play is Bette in my imagination, how could she be anyone else?

I’m planning knitting, too.  The toe-up socks are going well, with several pattern changes, such as ways to increase after the seamless cast-on.  I cannot make it neat with knit-into-front-and-back increases, so I am using make one increases.  I have re-shaped the toe and also now got the tension about right – maybe still a little loose, but it’s alright.  And the lace hearts are placed correctly and assembling in a nice line up the front.  I still, despite a lot of work (mainly un-doing and re-doing) have not reached a heel…I’m nervous.

So I plan to finish these, with my own needles.  Miss Millington kindly lent me two beautiful short fixed-cable Knit Pros, owing to me owning eleventy-hundred sets of DPNs and masses of very, very long fixed cable needles, but no short ones other than in big gauges.  Oh, hardship, but I had to buy some pairs of 40cm Addi lace-tip circs in 2mm, 2.5mm and 2.75mm gauges.  Can’t wait, they are on their way to their new home as I type.  Then I am knitting them again, as bed socks, adding beads to the front, a new cuff, with a lace turn down and retaining a lace motif.  These will be in Kidsilk Haze, two shades held together on, I think, 2.5mm needles.  I think I will use Majestic and Blushes…or Dewberry.

I am also going to knit a lace scarf, the design for which is half-formed.  Kidsilk Haze or Pure Wool 4 ply options, so one can have a luxury or a (slightly) more practical version.  Both will be beaded.

Finally, DVDs.  I almost never watch television, in the spring and summer especially.  The sitting room becomes an extended corridor between the dining room, kitchen and garden.  But I like films, so we’ll be taking some DVDs we haven’t yet watched.

First, not really a film but a set of the BBC TV series, first aired in 1994.  I loved it and I don’t think it was ever repeated.  The TV series was an adaptation of a 1959 novel by John Hadfield, bring forth this question:  why haven’t I read that?  I’m going to order it now.  We’ve been saving the 2-disc set for the right time and a holiday on the Isle of Wight is that time.  If you like gentle, very English, evocative and tongue-in-cheek escapism, I do recommend this film to you.  I also wanted to live there, own his suitcase and wear twin-sets.  Who doesn’t?

Plus, we’re taking Cinema Paradiso to re-watch.  Of course, one can’t knit and watch a film with sub-titles so it’s almost like being at the pictures.  There are always tears, even the music can set me off.

In other news, I went to the garden centre for love-in-the-mist.  The garden centre.  Not so much emphasis on ‘garden’.  Twelve (12!) coaches were in attendance, with one departing and another arriving.  Getting into the building was like a Royal receiving line, so stately and slow was the shuffling forward.  Finally, you peel off as the coach parties practically break into a sprint for the loos.  If you want a new kitchen, an AGA, a conservatory, a new bedroom groaning with mirrors and fitted like a courtesan’s corset, this is your place.  Gas BBQ, madam?  An entire suite of Gothic-styled wooden garden furniture?  Mmmm yes please!  Or maybe some scented candles, Joules polo shirts, coal, logs, cards, plastic flowers, cakes, Ye Olde Somersetshire Cydrrr…in plastic casks…No?  Just seeds?  The Garden Centre shrugs its shoulders as if to say:  well, there is no pleasing you, is there? (over its shoulders, are draped some tartan picnic rugs, by the way). 

Yes, I got the seeds.  I think there might be a brief window of opportunity to buy gardening-related products between the current spring-time/Easter/Royal wedding ferment and late August when the entire place is transformed into Santa’s Grotto.

Life-Lines (and books)

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

I have knitted the sock and lower foot section of my toe-up socks several times now and finally, I am happy:

Here you see my little foot, posing like mad in order to show off a neat toe-up toe (it took me about 6 goes plus a change of technique to even approach the neatness of Miss Millington’s) and I have added a lacy heart detail that will run up the front of the socks to the ribbed cuff.  However, this sock had no negative ease, my tension being off and the lace panel further adding ‘ease’, so again, I frogged and have now cast on and completed the toe, for the 7th time.  I have ‘flattened’ the toe line too, more to match the slope of my own foot – one of the many beauties of toe-up socks:  tailor-made.

Now I’m going to run a life line through this, because if I go wrong with the lace motif or need, again, to adjust the stitch count, I need not lose my current toe.  Later, before I short-row shape the heel, I will run another life-line, as a) Miss M told me to and I am very obedient;  and b) I have turned and short-row shaped many a heel on toe-down  socks, but only once, on a teeny practice sock, on toe-up socks, so my ability to get that right first time is in doubt.  Or indeed, rummage the information out of my brain – it was at least 4 days ago now.

I woke up early, this Easter Sunday and lay in bed thinking about socks, which led me to think:  life-lines (as in don’t forget to run one before the hearts start);  which in turn led me to turn the words over in my head. 

Life lines. 

The knitting sort are like little magic touch-stones.  If you run one, chances are, you won’t need it.  If you don’t…

I have used life-lines to save my knitting from being impounded in airports (I mourn the needles, but I had about a kilo of Kidsilk Haze knitting to save).  But mainly I use them as insurance.  Clever knitters: one length of spare yarn and a darning needle = sanity saved.

But you know how it is, early in the morning, happy day ahead, maybe it’s too early (5.15 am it was) to knit in bed, Mr C-S still being happily asleep?  I turned on the radio, very soft.  And it occurred to me that this radio was one of my life-lines.  Radio 4 on the BBC (and in the night, The World Service on the BBC) is like a line on a map, or a length of spare yarn, that has run through my life for as long as I have been able to hear.  Oh, I have had my Radio 1 years!  Don’t be too sad for me.  But even as a teenager, I found I couldn’t revise for my O and A levels to music, or silence.  Soft speech radio was my background noise of choice.  I am even now, sitting in my tiny yarn-room, where the computer also lives, transported back to my childhood bedroom, stomach-down on the slightly dusty-smelling carpet, elbows red and sore from being propped up over a Geography folder as I lay on the floor and tried to make facts about guano in South America lodge in my brain. 

In the background, outside No 65, The Pyghtle, Wellingborough, summer is passing me by.  The curtains – yellow and grey flowers – are partly shut, but the window is open and I can hear mowers, the sort you physically push, and the boy next door, whom I adored, kicking his football and making crowd-noises worthy of Anfield, all on his own.  But in my right ear, the afternoon play, Woman’s Hour (then, it was on in the afternoons), programmes about migrating birds, The Archers, Farming Today, The News, bizarre, obscure and long-running quiz programmes, such as Round Britain Quiz, in which I couldn’t understand the questions, let alone answer them.  When I wasn’t revising, I listened to Radio 1, Radio Luxembourg at night, my LPs – Oh, I sound and feel like a relic!

And, I still have two radios like this!

Go to fullsize image

But Radio 4 had woven its way into my head and into my life.  Here it has remained, though I have ditched The Archers, more or less, on the grounds that I simply cannot listen to Ruth saying:  ‘oh, but Daaaaaay-vyyyd…’ one more time.  If I was on Desert Island Discs (see, I even mark my Radio 4 affair with a reference to a Radio 4 iconic programme), I’d ask for a compilation of Radio 4 ‘sounds’:  Sailing By, which is played at the end of the day;  the old early morning music, ditched by a trendy Radio 4 Controller a couple of years ago;  The Archers music;  the ‘pips’;  and someone reading the Shipping Forecast.  I defy you to stay awake through that chant.

I’m going to take family, beloved pets and friends as ‘read’:  they are, of course, life-lines.  But I’m interested in the others.  For me, Radio 4.  Also, books.  The sense of panic having embarked on a long journey and finding the only book you have is about to run out – or even worse, is on the table at home – is as bad as the ‘where’s my purse?’ jolt to the stomach.

Knitting.  Seems almost to be a given, really but it is a real life-line.  I have knitted in happy, sad, empty, busy, lonely, anxious and waiting times.  Furthermore, I am not alone.  When I worked for 2 years on the shop floor of John Lewis in their yarn department, in Bristol, as a Rowan Yarns Design Consultant, I was honoured to meet many knitters each day I worked, and witnessed the powerful relationship these folk – mainly women – had with knitting.   Yes, mainly my customers wanted some yarn and a pattern, like we all do.  But from time to time, you’d glimpse a brief insight into a woman’s life, as she scanned the books, touched the yarns, sat at my little table and thought. 

For many, like me, knitting was a constant current.  Then, something might happen and it became crucial.  A baby is coming, she needs a very special blanket.  A hospital trip is awaited, and following that a long recovery:  the knitting needs planning as carefully as the book list.  Once, a woman and her two young but grown-up daughters, looking helplessly at me, while their mother told me her husband had died the day before and she wanted to crochet a shawl, to wear at his funeral.  So hand in hand, we walked round the little table and stood in front of the yarn.  We chose a pattern, we considered colours, she chose the yarn and they left.  While we chose, she talked, a little, about her husband.  I told the more composed daughter that if by any chance the crocheted shawl didn’t get done, to bring the book and the yarn back.  But the last thing on earth that woman needed to hear was someone saying:  really?  do you honestly think you’re going to get that shawl done, or wear it?  That didn’t really matter, at the time.  I totally understood and I know you do, too.

What else?  Life-lines are not going to include things such as jewels and cars, are they?  It’s far more likely to be a very worn garden trowel and fork set, if we’re honest isn’t it?  Or a set of tea-towels worn so thin it’s lace, but your mum gave them to you when you married.  Or certain pieces of music.  What are your life-lines?

In other news, Nick Horby’s Juliet, Naked is finished.  I had to read it very fast, as if it was a medicine to be swallowed or a sticking plaster removed, or I’d have lost my nerve.

Juliet, Naked

It has become a new benchmark here at Crowther-SmithTowers.  This morning, I was talking about another book which we had both read, with my daughter, Florence.  Florence said:  I love it, but you hated it.  I said, well, I didn’t hate it.  For example, I didn’t hate it as much as I hated Juliet, Naked.  To which she replied:  that’s like saying OK I’ve got pneumonia, but I’m not really ill, I haven’t got the Plague. 

This book, by the way, is our current book club read.  Our club is fledgling and I think it may fail to thrive.  Everyone in it is lovely.  But the club was formed in order to encourage (at her request) one of our number to read.  Not read more.  Just read.  At all.  So far we have read three books, one chosen by me, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which roused feelings across the entire emotional range from boring to dull.  But not actual dislike, really.  Hurtfully.  No, I’m not over it yet.

I think the problem is that we have so far chosen books that we may like, even love, but which we are selecting with this particular member in mind.  Thinking:  this will entertain her, this will tempt her to read past page 4 (so far, that is as far as she has got).  Consequently, I think we are all reading books that she ought perhaps to have read, but which are way short of books that we’d really love to explore, discover, share and hopefully enjoy.  I read a lot and I want to read more books that I might not usually read, and be challenged. 

I know that two club members have given up on Juliet, Naked.  I have finished mine, I think two others may do so.  I doubt the girl for whom we formed the club will bother, she just doesn’t have the time or inclination to read, in a very sweet and good natured way.  Some of our members just come for the wine and read the synopsis on Wiki.  Maybe.

I just didn’t get along with J, N.  It’s so blokey.  There are countless references to lavatories (though only one use of that word as far as I can tell, ‘toilet’ being the word of choice throughout…)  There are intermittent vulgar outbursts.  Story?  So implausible it’s just plain daft (not a problem for me in some fiction, but it has to be beautiful or moving in some way other than repelling).  However, the chief problem is that there isn’t a single character with whom I could associate, like, not loathe if I was stuck in a lift with them.  I just plain didn’t care what happened to anyone.

One of the main characters is a woman.  She is painted as marginally less pitiful than her (ex) boyfriend, yet she is still a single dimensional female.  That she remains in single-D, despite becoming the repository for a great many badly cliched so-called female characteristics, such as passive-aggressive feminism, intellectually rut-bound, sexually vaguely miserable, and still, in the end, utterly unable to resist the dual tug of maternal instinct and a big strong man.  Oy.  The other women have small roles, one is a lesbian, I assume because this is an opportunity for some gags about gay culture in a grim northern setting.  Juliet, the muse in effect, so she may in fact be the central character, turns out to be a stupid, pointless woman.  I think Nick Hornby views all the women in the book in this way, but reserves most of his bile, voiced through the rock-star, for Juliet, because she never actually appears.

The men are simply terrible.  I can’t decide if the author hates women or men the most.  The real main character is a man, an aged American former rock-star.  The other male ‘lead’ is a weird fan of the reclusive rock-star, and, improbably, the long-term boyfriend of the main woman character. 

Fewer lists prevail than in the other Nick Hornby book I once read, High Fidelity, thankfully.  Books constructed on lists, recipes, knitting patterns, email dialogue, post-it notes or maps are not my cup of tea, not least because I think it’s a lazy way of creating a frame or filling up pages.  But I disliked that book, and I disliked this one too.

All that said, I do think there is a quality in Nick’s writing that is admirable.  It’s clever and witty, I smiled once before recalling myself.  I haven’t Wiki-ed him (but I might once I post this) but if he’s once been a Fleet Street sub-editor on The Mirror (love The Mirror!) I’d not be surprised.  Or a gag writer.  Whole elements of the plot, in J, N for example, feel like they were constructed backwards for the purpose of delivering a one-liner at the end.  Even the rock-star’s name:  Tucker, rhymes with….See?  

I think I’d like his writing more if it was non-fiction.  But, I suspect it would be about lists of music tracks, so maybe not.  Actually, to be really fair, the main problem is that I want more in a book than Juliet, Naked could ever give.  So, I’m looking for layers that aren’t there, probably.  Hopefully. 

I am now happily reading Brooklyn:

Toe-Up Socks, witches and gardening

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Great excitement grips Crowther-Smith Towers because I am anticipating a visit tomorrow from a friend of mine one of whose many talents is the ability to knit socks from the toe-up – and she is going to teach me.   I literally cannot wait!  I love knitting socks, despite suffering badly from Second Sock Syndrome.  Ditto Mitten Syndrome, but less badly affected.   I have always wanted to knit them from the toe up, so I can try them on as I go and wiggle my feet about in alluring poses.  I know, it’s hard to ‘allure’ if the sock is still pierced by four double pointed needles, but I will still try.

Once, some years ago, I went on a course to learn how to knit socks from the toe up.  I know I could have looked on You Tube but sometimes you need a real person to show you.  Well, the lady who taught us was a scream.  She unpacked a book, opening it at the toe-up page, and said:  I have no idea how to knit toe-up socks, I have no idea why anyone would want to, and I have never done it, so we will learn together.  And we solemnly proceeded to try to follow the book together.  At roughly ten minute intervals she left us to go and smoke a cigarette in the garden outside, whereupon we would all giggle like naughty children and pull faces at each other until she came back in.  One by one, we stopped the fruitless sock-knitting and just got our own knitting out, until in the end, it was just a happy knitting club type affair.  On that day, I was taught (by another participant) how to knit Continental style;  I didn’t practice enough but I can still do it for knit rows, so knitting in the round Continental style is an obvious tactic…

I’ve also been gardening in a lazy sort of way.  It’s very hot.  Well, it is for April, which I love but it does slow one down.  Do you know, every house ought to have a Rowan tree, as they are said to protect the residents from evil witches (we need not worry about the non-evil sort, they are fine).  I always planted one in the garden of every house I lived in when we used to move often.  When we moved here, eight years ago, I was happy that there was a Rowan already in situ.  So, all I had to do, was decorate it:

This tree is at the back of the cottage in a part of the garden that is not very sunny, but by hanging beads and mirrors from it, when the sunlight does hit this lawn, little spots of glitter leap about on the grass and the walls of the cottage.  In fact, I got this idea from my cousin who had an elaborately but randomly decorated tree in her back garden in Bristol.  I came home and decorated a tree myself and when we moved, I took most of the ornaments with me.

The beads were once red, silver and pink, now all faded by many winters and summers.  It’s not tasteful, but I love it and feel it adds to the mystical charm of the old tree.  It’s also my habit to hang stones that I find with a hole running right through them from strings in the garden, plus one on the front door and one in the kitchen.  I do not know why, except that I must once have heard that such stones were lucky.  I wonder (Wikki? No I shan’t bother) what the fable behind this is?  I’m not going to look it up, and indeed, I’m not really superstitious.  In fact, I laugh in the face of a lone magpie, ha! 

Finally, the Book Club read:  Juliet Naked, by Nick Hornby.  I simply cannot tell you how much I hate it.  It opens with a scene in a disused public lavatory (except that the author repeatedly refers to ‘toilets’).  I feel – call me old-fashioned – that to open in this way is not really a promising start.  I wish to be entertained, enlightened, transported, even shocked.  But not just repelled.  After much moaning from me about how poor Miss Pettigrew was dismissed by my club, and vowing to give Juliet, Naked a fair trial, I feel compelled to go on.  But I really do not want to.

Reading Lists

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

I’m always reading.  Most of my friends are always reading too.  One of my favourite sources of books is Persephone,

Shop photo

The books themselves, in dove grey editions with with beautiful end-papers, are things of joy before you even open them.  What is so delightful is that Persephone under the clever guidance of Nicola Beauman, re-prints novels, poetry, short stories and other books, including cookery books, that are otherwise only available if you are lucky enough to stumble upon them in a junk shop or book-barn. 

I love authors such as Monica Dickens, who wrote dozens of novels as well as the quite well-known ‘One Pair of Hands’ series, and ‘Folly Foot’.  I have loved Dorothy Whipple’s novels for many years, likewise, Elizabeth Taylor’s (not the late actress).  Through Persephone, I have found many more.  I still haunt old book shops and search for out-of-print copies of authors whose words transport me back to the 1930s or the 1950s until 2011 fades away and I’m wearing a tea-dress and living in a vicarage…

That is not to say that the books are ‘light’.  They are never published without a sound reason.  First, the quality of the writers that Persephone chooses is the light that shines through the very impressive catalogue of titles.  Second, each is chosen – I feel this at least – because aside from being a ‘good read’, it has something else to say to us.

One of the best examples of this is ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’, by Winnifred Watson.

Author of Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, Winnifred Watson


The book also has gorgeous end-paper, a 1938 linen print:

End-paper for Miss Pettigrew


Miss Pettigrew is a sweetly gently fairy-tale, set only in 24 hours and telling, in a clever and intelligent way, so much more about the two principle characters, than we could ever really know from observing them over just one (albeit very eventful) day.  It has glamour and wit. I enjoy being transported to night-clubs and tasting their cocktails, for I certainly couldn’t muster the energy or dresses to do so in real life, and anyway, no such palaces of pleasure now exist.  Or at least not in Puriton…

It is also, however, a bitter tale.  It tells us, if we care to look, about the lives of women and their utter dependence, in this book, in these lives, in that era at least, upon others and especially on men.  Miss Pettigrew is mal-nourished, so poor has she become.  Despite her genteel manners and sharp intelligence, she is actually afraid.  She is grindingly, but quietly, poor.  She could in fact, starve.  Unless she gets this last-ditch job.  The other woman, Miss LaFosse, is beautiful, richly kept, sweet of nature, despite being a canny, crafty creature who also depends for her living, on the men who keep her.  And in return for this keep, they wish her to belong to them and do their bidding.  Like Miss P, she is also afraid.  She literally fears for her life, at the hands of her lover, who is menacing and mean. 

They find each other.  In a way, they save each other. It’s a fairy-tale and it has a happy, deliciously improbable, ending.  The sting in its tail, for me, is that each finds love and happiness, but remains dependent on men for their new-found safety and security.  Nicer men, granted.  Men of whom we approve.  Yet, I often wish that Miss P and Miss LaF could have set themselves up and lived a different life together as help-meets and friends.  Still, that would really have been too fanciful, even for this yarn.  And quite out of its historical context.

Other Persephone titles tell us a similar story – that of the position of women in the time that the book was set and written.  But I feel that none does it quite as skillfully as Miss P.  Its skill lies in the layering.  Read it and love its light-hearted, actually funny in places, scenes and its heart-warming romance and friendship.  Or, read that but also delve a little into its clever, clear-sighted heart, where we see women for what so many were and maybe sometimes still are:  not really free, not empowered.

I write this because this was our book club read this month.  We met last night and I had chosen this book.  To my amazement, almost no-one actually liked it.  Much.  Damned at times with faint praise, at others less of the ‘praise’, poor Miss Pettigrew was branded:  easy, light, repetitive, even boring at times, improbable (that I might grant), childish, shallow, dull.  Shoulders were shrugged, hands were spread, in the fashion of well, it’s alright, for what it is…I suppose.

My little heart broke and also filled with pity for Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse.  I was very surprised and unprepared for this.  I also felt that ‘mother in the play-ground’ rage in my heart that you feel when you see your own child pushed over.  What did I see that – as far as I could tell – no-one else there saw?  I’d honestly rather they said:  we hated it, provided this assertion was supported by some reason (as one did, in fact!), than see Miss P’s covers quietly closed after a brief skim-read and never recalled to anyone’s mind again.

I have learned a lesson.  Lessons.  One, it’s really not personal.  Two, I read different books, in different way and for different reasons.  I may be a mature woman, a mother, a wife, a maker, an author (of knitting books only, but still) but I am that out-dated creature:  a feminist.  Or am I a post-feminist?  Oh, it really doesn’t matter.  Let me sum it up thus:  I like to wear dresses, knit lace and bake cakes, but I will always be ready with my plackards, to board the coach to London and march, for, with, because of, other women. As indeed I have done, many years ago.

Next we are reading Nick Hornby, a book I have never heard of, ‘Juliet Naked’.  I am going to read it, but my heart sank as I once read a book by him, whose title now escapes me, but it was set as far as I can recall, in a record shop and seemed to be mainly constructed from lists of records.  I did think it dull and laddish.  Still, maybe I will be pleasantly surprised.  Also, it will be good for me to read a man’s words as I almost always read women authors.  What I will do is this:  I will give it a chance, and be open to it.  I will think about it.

These are my current reads:

This includes the biography of Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford, which I’m re-reading.  It is fantastic, what a writer and subject.  History, written with the craft of a mistress at her art, about a mistress, at her art, with the snap and fizz of a old-fashioned bodice-ripper! My reading pile also includes The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor, a favourite author of mine but I am struggling with this, for some reason I can’t quite understand.