Tuesday 29 September 2009

A felt of two halves

The dark days are certainly with us now. Come the end of September I get a bit depressed at the prospect of six months of walking to work in the dark, but the darker evenings don't bother me so much and it was a lovely sky last night so I went out and photographed.
Anyhow we have done no dyeing nor felting for ages (working days off too much at the moment) so I was determined to do something on Sunday. Tish needed another ball of wool to finish off the cardi she is doing for Julie's baby. She had dyed some several months ago and then found she has not quite enough to finish. Fortunately we did keep a record of the colours we blended and were able to recreate something close enough. And I wanted to do some more felt and dye some more roving.
So this is what you end up with when you are not particularly inspired to anything and just plonk down any available colour.
In one half I used some left over batts of blended roving that I made ages ago, and I really like the mottled patchwork effect. And on the other half I used some pastel coloured corriedale roving for the background and scattered scraps of embroidery silk and other random bits of thread and held them in place with a fine layer of merino. I liked this part too, but they are really two separate projects on one piece of felt. So the whole things is distinctly unsatisfactory and may have to be cut up and used for something else.
The dyeing on the other hand came out beautifully and I am so pleased with them. I am thinking more felt rather than spinning. Although I have mostly bought professionally dyed roving I much prefer the softer more muted colours I get doing my own dyeing. These pieces are done very random and I think I will try and do something more planned next time. I bought a set of very expensive silicone measuring spoons (it's all the rage in cookshops these days apparently)(they go down to 1/8 of a teaspoon) so that we can mix the dyes more accurately and with more subtle variations, and reproduce colours more closely.
M and I took all my library books back, including the ones that were honestly not going to be read any time soon. I really enjoyed Felting Fashion by Lizzie Houghton, which was a lovely inspiring book, but I am getting the feeling as I read more that books will not help and I need to go to a workshop to learn and progress beyond my basic skills. I found a copy of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke, which I have been wanting to read ever since reading 'The Ladies of Grace Adieu' back in March. We also bought 'A Clockwork Orange' for M to read as her 'banned book' (having unsuccessfully searched for a copy of Lady Chatterley) and a copy of Anna Karenina, which she found and decided it would be a challenge.

Monday 28 September 2009

Lady Chatterley et al.

This week is apparently 'Banned Books Week' in the US. Their little banner shows a tiny selection of the books that have been banned at some time or another somewhere in America. There is something essentially very frightening about any government that wants to ban books. I know that sometimes you come across writing that contains ideas or opinions that you would not want to see advocated ... but as an unerring principle, freedom of expression goes along unquestionably with freedom of thought. The minute a government says that it will not allow people to think or write about a certain thing it is a bad day for all of us. The American Library Association website has quite an extensive list of books that have been banned or 'challenged', including many well loved and widely read classics, and also an online form that you can use if you find some piece of writing so objectionable that you would like to prevent others from reading it:-)
Of course the first thing that springs to mind in the UK when discussing the banning of books is the notorious 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' trial, when in 1960 an attempt was made to ban the book under 1959 The Obscene Publications Act. As with most such events it was a case of all publicity is good publicity, and the book was probably far more widely read as a result. Similarly the autobiography 'Spycatcher' by Peter Wright, about his work for MI5, was banned in England between 1985 and 1988, until the courts finally acknowledged that it's widespread availability in other countries made the ban meaningless.
On occasion the suggestion has been circulated that books should be 'rated' in the way films or computer games are, but I would never be in favour of such a move. I even have an instinctive dislike of labels that give a 'suitable' reading age range for a book. I think that once a child is an independent reader their choice of reading material should be up to them. I know that I have seen quite a few films/television programmes that I have regretted watching because of content that frightened or upset me, graphic images can be in your head before you realise they are happening, but I have not had such a reaction to any book. Books are different because of the part that your own imagination plays in your participation in the story. I think that people's fear of children reading something unsuitable is about protecting their perceived 'innocence'. It's as if life must be all 'everyone made it home safely for tea and buns' at the end like bloody Enid Blyton, and nothing bad ever really happens. I for one am really glad to see young people's fiction moving away from this and showing life in all it's rich variety, both positive and negative. Mind you, having said that, I do think J.K. copped out of killing off Harry which seemed to me to be the necessary finale of the series, she just couldn't resist the happy ending:-)

Saturday 26 September 2009

"The bright day is done and we are for the dark."

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.
I bought this book for my sister for her birthday, and pinched it back after she said that she enjoyed it. I have read it in a couple of days this week. Probably a good one to move on to as it was quite a nice quick read, but thoroughly enjoyable and engaging. Written as a series of letters and set in the immediate post -war period it tells the story of the occupation of Guernsey during the Second World War. Juliet is a writer and journalist, touring to promote a collection of her wartime writings, and she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, who found her name and address in a second hand book, and in a literary deprived environment is seeking out some writing by Charles Lamb. So begins Juliet's friendship with the literary society, formed on a whim by the inimitable Elizabeth to avoid punishment for a curfew breach, but which becomes their saviour in the dark times ahead.
Even though all you are getting is tiny snippets of the life that they lead during the occupation, told piecemeal by different characters, you end up with quite a complete picture of what life was like for the islanders. It must have been strange because the war was right there on their doorstep, in the form of the German soldiers, and yet they were totally isolated from the rest of the world. The only assistance they received was when the British government sent a ship to evacuate the children immediately before the invasion, and then towards the end of the war the Red Cross were finally allowed to bring some food parcels.
So Juliet then starts receiving letters from all sorts of people on the island, keen to share their experiences with her and she begins to get totally caught up in their story. Most of the progress of the book however is told through her letters to her editor Sidney and to Sophie, her best friend and Sidney's sister. To elude the attentions of a rather brash and presumptuous American, Markham V Reynolds Junior, she decides to visit Guernsey to meet her new found friends and learn more about their lives. I think the book captures very well the optimism of the post war period. The harsh deprivations of the war are all too apparent and, though not dwelt upon, the terrible sufferings inflicted by the Nazis are there as a background and something that plainly touched and impacted on every life. The literary society developed into something far more than just sharing books, it gave the people a sense of new connection with their neighbours and bonded them firmly together. When Elizabeth is sent to a prisoner of war camp for harbouring an escaped slave labourer the group rallies round to care for and raise her young daughter.
I won't spoil the story by saying any more, but here is a lovely book, full of genuine atmosphere and very real characters and you feel that the author had a close affinity for them and their experience.

Historically displaced

'All shall be well; And all shall be well; And all manner of things shall be well' by Tod Wodicka. Now that is an unusual title, and it tells you nothing about the book, though the painting on the cover is very significant as it is the one that Burt carries around in his wallet as if it were a photograph of himself and his son (An old man and his grandson by Domenico Ghirlandaio.)
This is the story of Burt. His life has become so taken up with re-enacting the middle ages that he has reached the point where he hardly lives in the 20th century at all. (At one point he is offered french fries by his german friend and he has not eaten potato for 20 years, it being OOP, 'Out Of Period'.) He meets his wife at a meeting of the historical society where he has invited her mother to speak; it is a turning point in his previously isolated life. So he becomes bound up with her family's history in Lemkovyna, and begins a lifelong war of attrition between his medieval obsession and his mother-in-law's Lemko culture, in which his son Tristan is the battleground. His daughter June opts out of the family by becoming a sci-fi fan who speaks Klingon and is obsessed with geology. Tristan on the other hand, maintains a careful balancing act between his grandmother's culture and his father's re-enactment group, the Confraternity of Times Lost Regained (CTLR).
However Burt is a flawed tragic hero in the true Shakespearian sense. His obsession, originally an intellectual pursuit begins to take over his life. Unless he is forced to go out into the real world he opts to live almost entirely in the 12th Century. Unfortunately his home brewed mead seems to take over his life quite a bit too, and, although the word 'alcoholic' is not mentioned, it has an equally bad effect on his relationships within his family.
At the start of the story his wife has died of cancer, his daughter lives at the other side of the country and his son has disappeared to Poland. Burt is going with a medieval chant group to a festival in Germany but he plans to abandon them to go in search of his son. He seems to know that he is seeking forgiveness but he has been so self absorbed, wrapped up in his history and self-pity for his wife's illness and death, that he is not even sure what he has done wrong. At the same time as his beloved Tristan is trying to escape him, his daughter June is seeking to return to the family home. The problem is, she doesn't know that Burt has sold everything in an attempt to escape the memories of his lost life.
This is a story about history; not just in the literal sense of Burt's obsession, but also how history, both long term and the immediate past, has an ongoing and expanding effect on people. And it is also about how important family history is, often far more than some characters might like to admit. "Families are historical things. ... But they are always happening and you'll never understand them." (p.257) It is the study of this particular family, and how history affects it.
A beautifully written book. I have struggled to write the review because I got so wrapped up in 'The Eyre Affair', such a huge contrast of content and style, that I lost the feeling of what it was that I loved about this book. The opening description of a young girl being closed up in an anchorage was quite shocking, and I suppose symbolic of the way Burt chooses to separate himself from society. It is a slow, quiet book, focussed on the people rather than the action, and with lots of interesting historical detail. Again a book that lets me see inside a world that I know nothing of, so a worthy addition to the list.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit, or Framptons Rule OK!

I have decided to give up on trying to write something thoughtful and intelligent for my 100th post and just get back to the books, which have been excellent recently.
The highlight of this week has been the existence of 'The Eyre Affair' by Jasper FForde. I found this book on someone's 15 Books List and it is definitely going to be one that I buy for various people who may enjoy it. I confess it did take a while to get going. I started it a couple of weeks ago but then put it down in favour of 'All shall be well ....' (review of this one to come in a day or so) but picked it up again this week and enjoyed it immensely. I was rattling on about it to M on the way home from drama group and then started reading a funny bit out to her (not in the car, but later that evening), and ended up reading the last half of the book aloud, mainly to her but Tish also joined us for brief bits.
Surreal is a totally inadequate word to describe this book. Our heroine is Thursday Next, a literary detective, and she inhabits a world, not unlike our own, but where people are obsessed with literature and art, and science has taken a decidedly strange turn. Instead of street fights between football hooligans the surrealists have a set to with the expressionists, the Dodo has been resurrected and 150,000 people turn up for Mr Quaverley's funeral (he's a minor character in 'Martin Chuzzlewit' who gets extracted and murdered). Her nemesis is Acheron Hades, a criminal with some pretty unusual talents. He steals first the manuscript to 'Martin Chuzzlewit', and then 'Jane Eyre' and, with a motley band of henchmen and the unwilling assistance of Mycroft (Thursday's uncle), he proceeds to hold the literary world to ransom. He is not the only baddie however. The notorious Goliath Corporation, which now pretty much runs the country (having financed the rebuild after WW2, which we lost by the way), is supposedly a benevolent company working for the good of the people, but the aptly named Jack Schitt seems to have other ideas and the power is definitely going to his head.
It reads like a very bizarre detective novel, scattered with incidents, some of which are relevant to the plot, and some of which seem to be just dropped in for atmosphere. There is time shifting, gene splicing, vampires and hundreds of people who change their name to John Milton and then hold conferences about him. It comes as no surprise when the receptionist at the hotel is called Liz Barrett Browning, though why the head of the LiteraTech department is called Braxton Hicks is beyond me.
It is very, very clever. It is almost masquerading as a 'mere' pulp fiction detective story, when really it is scattered through with literary references, which are the basis of much of the humour. I like the fact that the author relishes being intellectual and well read, is not apologetic for being clever but also sees it as something you can have fun with rather than it coming across as dull and academic. There is so much happening it would be impossible to try and describe it, I could never do it justice. The twists and turns of the plot are ingenious, though the denouement in Jane Eyre was somewhat predictable by the time we got there. What I really like is the fact that the minor characters are so well drawn, like Spike (the vampire slayer), although you just get to like them, and then they mostly vanish entirely from the story. We reached the end to discover that there is a second book (and hopefully more after that) and you can see why Fforde has created a world in which anything goes, giving him endless scope for creativity. I can see why Terry Pratchett is nervous.
So, a minor highlight of the book for me was the immortalisation in print of the Framptons. There is a character called Frampton early on in the story, a school caretaker, who turns out to be a vampire who tries to kill Thursday, though fortunately she is saved at the last moment by Spike with a spike. To the best of my knowledge the only other occurrence of our family name in popular culture is the Monty Python sketch called "the man with three buttocks" (viewable here in Youtube) in which a Mr Frampton appears. If anyone knows of any others please let me know. And then on the last page there appears a curious little character called Bartholomew, which is my brother's name, and another that does not appear very frequently anywhere (if you discount Bart Simpson that is).
Anyway, if you have nothing to do next week, get this book, and even if you do go get it anyway and find a few spare minutes.

Monday 14 September 2009

More Knitting

So I did do some knitting over the summer. This is the top I made from Louisa Harding pure silk yarn. It feels fabulous, but has not been worn and now the summer is pretty much over. Never mind, something nice to look forward to for next year.

This is the finished cardigan for Julie's baby (due in a couple of weeks) It was started back in April and is technically the second item that I have made from my own home-dyed, home-spun yarn. Ok, not very practical for a baby as it will have to be hand washed but it will probably only fit for a few weeks (then I have to insist that it becomes a family heirloom). I started following a pattern from an old baby knits book, then got distracted and forgot which one, so I have had to invent the shaping and edging. The design was invented because I was worried that the purple would not be enough, and it was a good thing I added the undyed bits as I had only a small nugget left. I am very pleased with how it has turned out.
And here it is being modelled by the cuddly orang-utan. All my baby hats are modelled by him in the photos on Ravelry so he is my official baby substitute.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Oranges and Lemons

There seem to have been an awful lot of book reviews and family chat recently, and to be honest I haven't been doing much creating anything. I knitted a lovely top in raspberry silk that has yet to be photographed, and fits M much better than me, as usual. I have pretty much finished the baby cardi for Julie, which I will photograph asap. So I did sit down and do a bit of spinning last week, having not done any for ages. I had some roving bought at Rav day. We wandered round and looked at everything twice, and by the time I made my mind up people were packing up their stalls and so I bought something else on the spur of the moment as I did not want to go home empty handed. I spun this variegated orange yarn, it's quite pretty but I'm not much of an orange fan. It came in a mixed pack, and I like the other colours better.
M has been nagging all week for Lemon Meringue Pie. It is a bit of bother to make and pastry is not my strong point (probably the too-warm hands) but I dragged myself away from blog browsing this morning to make it. The girls did assist, M grating the zest and Tish whisking the egg whites.
And this afternoon we are going to see 'Dorian Gray'. Always a risk when you like the book but it looked exciting, and maybe I can persuade M to read it afterwards. We went to see 'The Time Traveller's Wife' the other week with Julie, Al and the kids. It was a lovely film, pretty faithful version of the story, the main characters well played, but then they go and spoil it by changing the ending. And don't get me started on 'The Golden Compass' ... what a travesty!

Saturday 12 September 2009


I went with my daughter last weekend to visit the crematorium in Royal Tunbridge Wells where my grandparent's ashes are scattered. I have not visited before. It is about 33 years since my granny died and about 23 since my grandad died. It feels different from going to an actual burial site, because there is not a particular spot where they are buried. It is just a rose garden, with these plaques around the edges of the rose beds. They feel so far in the past now that I remember them fondly without sadness. I do feel sorry that I did not get to spend as much time with them as some children do, we lived too far away, and that I did not know them as an adult. For a few years I spent a great deal of time with my husband's grandparents and got to know them well, and I regret that I never had that with my own grandparents. Tish and I had been to a university open day at Hadlow College. We had some lunch sitting in a small secluded area created for memorials for children, and then we walked round the beds, reading the plaques and discussing the names and messages. The garden was well looked after and very peaceful. It was a beautiful sunny day and I left feeling it would be a good place to end up. In line with Jewish tradition (we're not Jewish), flowers are for the living, so we found in the pocket of the car a large shell, collected several years ago, so we placed that as a momento of our visit.

This photo shows my grandparents, Myra and Reginald, with my mum in the garden, I think, of the house they lived in in Muswell Hill (no doubt some family member will correct me if I'm wrong). It is probably the mid 1950's, my mum is around 20 or so. I have a very small collection of photographs of them and my mum as a child. My grandad destroyed many photographs after my granny died but fortunately Auntie Enid, who moved to Canada after the war to marry a canadian soldier, had kept some pictures of her younger sisters growing up that granny had sent to her over the years.

Friday 11 September 2009

Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is another from the list of 14 Orange Prize winners (that's the Wiki page, which had a straightforward list of winners, you can also visit the Orange Prize site for more varied info) of which I have now read six. I have copies of 'Fugitive Pieces' and 'Half a Yellow Sun' somewhere in the house too.
Maybe this was another case of very slight disappointment. I read 'White Teeth' some time ago and enjoyed it so much. I found the characters to be so vivid and engaging and it has this wonderfully complex plot, and looking at lots of social issues, but in a real way as part of the characters lives, not self-consciously as can sometimes be the case. So then I started 'Autograph Man' and did not get into it at all and gave up (not something I do very often). This book was different from both. It is set mainly in the world of American academia, with all that that entails. In some small way it reminded me of a more up-to-date History Man, because sexual indiscretion is an undercurrent in the main relationships. Two professors, Kipps and Belsey, on opposing sides of an academic/political debate, find their families abruptly more closely entwined than either is happy with. The story centres on the Belsey family and Howard in particular, as he goes through what is essentially a mid-life crisis. I liked Kiki, the mum who struggles to help her children make it from adolescence to adulthood without too much trauma. It is a story partly about the process of acknowledging this process of separation. But it is also very much about young people developing their sense of identity, a process further confused by the fact that the Belsey children are mixed race and are not sure which identity they are looking for. Jerome, the eldest, has become a Christian, almost as a means to escape his family and is working for his dad's arch enemy, Professor Kipps. Zora has entered wholeheartedly into her father's academic world, and spends her time fighting for the rights of underprivileged, but talented, teenagers to have free access to courses at the College. Levi, the youngest, is moving the other direction and becomes involved with a Haitian political group who are trying to raise the issue of US (i.e. white, western, middle class) exploitation and suppression of their culture. This is symbolised by Kipps, and his vast collection of Haitian art, one of which they symbolically 'steal' back. The Kipps children are similarly struggling, having been bought up in a conservative Christian household, as opposed to the 'bleeding-heart' liberal Belseys.
What the book seemed to me to be talking about is whether the whole 'higher education' college system is inherently exclusive, being only in reality accessible to middle class white kids, but also whether it is desirable for minority groups to participate in such a system when it is blatantly prejudiced against them and does not recognise their culture and value systems. I could be over-reading this but I think the collapse of Howard and Kiki's relationship and the revelations about Kipps are supposed to be symbolic of hypocritical facade of these supposedly cultured and educated people. In that Zadie Smith is plainly being quite critical of the academic environment it was strange that she seemed to enjoy showing off all her research about Rembrandt (art history being the shared subject of the two professors) and the whole college system is obviously something she is very familiar and comfortable with (though maybe you can only judge such an environment properly from the inside?)
So quite a subtle book, lots of issues going on there, many of them not familiar to me, or outside my direct experience. It is set in America rather than Britain and I think that it reminded me that culturally we are often poles apart from them, despite a shared language. Beautifully written, quite hard work in places. Sometimes I had trouble figuring out the motivation of some of the characters, and they mostly tended to be rather self-obsessed, but they are well drawn and very real people. A very intellectual book, a little self-consciously so, but that is not necessarily bad thing. Good reading.

Friday 4 September 2009

"There's such a thing as too much pronunciation"

The story tapes in the car are a hang back to the fact that I did *a lot* of long distance travelling with small children. 'The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents' by Terry Pratchett is really a children's book, but any time someone suggests it there are never any objections.
Maurice, and the rats, can think and talk due to eating stuff off the dump round the back of Unseen University, and with the help of a 'stupid looking kid' called Keith, they go around extorting money from towns by pretending to be a plague of rats. They end up in 'Uuuuuubervald' and meet Melissia, who thinks she inhabits a rather wild, gory fairytale. It all gets a bit out of hand and in the end Maurice gives up one of his nine lives to save Dangerous Beans (my favourite rat). (That is a very abridged version of a pretty complicated tale.)

We have quite a few Terry Pratchett books. I really love his sense of humour. He is a very clever writer and I love the way the Discworld is so beautifully complete and consistent within the confines of what he has created. You can read the books in isolation (though a couple of them are continuations of previous stories) but there are characters that appear in several that draw the whole thing together. He parodies aspects of the real world in many of the stories, like 'Going Postal' (one of my favourites of course) which is a surreal take on the postal system, and in others he takes a well known story and twists it to his own ends, like Amazing Maurice which is based (very loosely) on The Pied Piper of Hamelin, or 'Weird Sisters', based on Macbeth.
So this second photo is of 'The Grim Squeaker', made by Tish (and watched over by Scarlett there I think), from a pattern on Ravelry. Death is the most consistent character in the Discworld novels. I would guess he appears in all of them (but have no idea as have not read all of them), certainly he pops up in to all the ones we have. You know immediately when it's him because he speaks in capital letters, and Tony Robinson (who does the tapes) does an excellent 'Death' voice. And since Death is there for the people, and apparently for the cats too, since he has quite a chat with Maurice about supposedly being hit by a cart, there has to be someone who comes for the rats when they die, and this is where the bone rat comes in, or 'The Grim Squeaker' as the rats choose to call him.
Anyway if you have never read anything by Terry Pratchett I would highly recommend him. You can't go too far wrong with anything that makes you laugh out loud.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

New Room and New Life

Jacob has been gone for just over a week (we haven't heard from him so I assume he hasn't come to blows with Lewis) and M has now taken over his space. The bunk beds found a taker on the Freecycle very quickly and I dropped them off on Saturday afternoon. It took quite some time this morning to wash down all the walls and the mouldy window frame but now it is looking lovely. We shifted the big unit that had divided the room, and then put her high bed in the opposite corner, bought up the old chest of drawers from Tish's room and ... voila!

And she's all ready for her new life of being in charge of her own education. I am feeling slightly disconcerted, it being now seven years since they were obliged to return to school, I'm not sure I remember what I should be doing. Tomorrow I am writing the deregistration letter to the Head, and then will be awaiting with some trepidation some kind of contact with the Local Authority.
For any visitors unsure of how this all works, here's the basics:

Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act states that "the parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise."

The presence of the 'otherwise' clause in the original 1944 Act was reputedly insisted upon by Winston Churchill, who apparently hated school, but don't quote me on that one.
If you have never sent your child to school you are under no particular requirement to inform anyone of your plans. To remove a child from school however you are obliged to deregister (this applies to England and Wales, check the EO website), as follows:

Dear Mrs F
r.e. my fabulous daughter
From today, 3rd September 2009, I am withdrawing my daughter from ***** ***** school in order to take personal responsibility for her education. I would be grateful if you would remove her name from the register in accordance with Education (Pupil Registration) Regulation 8(1)(d) 2006 as she will now be receiving her education otherwise than by schooling. Please would you confirm in writing that this has been done.
Yours sincerely .... etc etc.

Although the children were home educated for most of the first 12 years of family life, since the divorce I never thought I was going to have a 'home ed' teenager (thought technically Lewis never made it back into real school, he was not living with me then) so it is going to be a new experience all round. M claims to remember being at home, she was seven, but so much water has flowed under the bridge since, I think it is going to take her a while to adjust too.
Scary stuff!