Baby Quilts, Favourite Films and Austen Challenge

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As I mentioned in last week’s post, it is with the darkening evenings that my fingers itch for a project and I want to get cosy with some crafting. There is something so fabulous about my sewing basket, apart from the Libertyesque print on its’ exterior, it is the contents as a whole that make my heart sing. Fabric, scissors, seam rippers, cottons, bobbins (don’t you just love the word ‘bobbin’?) quilting pins. These simple things collectively make for the tools that will create something truly special. That’s what I love about being creative, the wonder of simple things changing into beautiful mini works of art. Well, in my case perhaps not, but I do love the process of making and crafting and the satisfaction it brings me to make something pretty.
My latest project, among many others that are on the go (read unfinished) is a baby quilt for my son, and I’ve started cutting out squares for one for my daughter too. Matty is now three and a half and for that space of time I have been collecting my favourites of his clothes. Little stripy tops, sleepsuits with monsters on, bright red corduroy trousers, bodysuits with tractors on, slogan t-shirts, I’d saved them all in a big bin liner, dumped in the bottom of my wardrobe, destined to sit there until the boy reached his eighteenth birthday and I still hadn’t done anything with them! Well, I was determined for that not to happen so I dusted off the bin bag and started wading through the pile and began to cut several 15cm by 15cm squares. I’ve even sewn two rows of them together, so the quilt is now in its’ inception and must be finished. I’ve made it as easy for myself as I possibly can, by not having any rules about colour and where to place squares, and it’s very simple, just squares sewn together, no triangles or rectangles or diamonds, just plain and simple. My daughter is only six months old and already I’m cutting out squares for her quilt, to save stashing tons of clothes in my wardrobe for another three years! I thought it would be a nice idea to make them a single quilt each which they can use on their beds as children, perhaps even teenagers if it’s not considered too babyish. The quilts could even be passed down to their own children if they’re not too tattered by then! I thought it was a nice idea and a good way to preserve all of those darling little baby and toddler clothes I so love.
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I’ve recently watched A Room with a View for about the millionth time, though the first time in a very long while. When I was a teenager this film was on repeat for a significant amount of time! It still is one of my favourite films and is a masterpiece in film making and I think because it is so truly faithful to the book. The casting is impeccable and though Julian Sands is a little bit wooden this is more than made up for by the amazing portrayal of Cecil Vyse by Daniel Day Lewis. Helena Bonham Carter is perfect as Lucy and I adore Maggie Smith’s Charlotte Bartlett and Denholm Elliot’s Mr Emerson. Another classic turn for me is Simon Callow as Mr Beebe and Rupert Graves and Freddie Honeychurch.
I started to re-read the book again in May but got waylaid by reading deadlines for book groups I’m involved with and I sadly haven’t picked it up again since. I want to save it for the right time and place to truly enjoy and savour it, as it is most definitely in my top ten favourite books. For anyone who hasn’t read any E.M. Forster, I strongly urge you to do so, though there is a contingent out there who are a bit anti and think that he’s all about the silver linings. Well, I’m all about the silver linings too so he suits me down to the ground. I love his slight obsession with the young girl who is ‘transfigured by Italy’ and his social commentary is fairly cutting in a nice, E.M. Forster kind of way. I read Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread as a teenager and though they were enjoyable, I didn’t quite take them to heart in the same manner as A Room with a View, and now I realise it is most likely due to the film.
There is something about a Merchant Ivory production that cannot be beaten when it comes to pulling off a period drama. There is something so precise and yet not over the top in detail about the way the actual period is depicted and visualised. The casting is always top notch and the acting of course second to none. But there is something else about the way in which the cast is assembled into a charming array of eccentrics that seems to make the mark of a Merchant Ivory film. Of course, they clearly had a love affair with E.M. Forster, having made several of his books into films. But it is the lavish sets and the incredible costumes that really bring the films to life and make them so sumptuous.
My favourite moments of the film are many but there is little to beat the scene in the poppy field, the scenes in and around Florence, the bathing scene (hilarious, particularly Lucy’s reaction), and any scene showing Cecil Vyse. I truly love that character – he is so stuck up and insufferable yet sweet and deluded at the same time. Another aspect of the film that makes it is the use of Puccini in the score. There is so much beautiful, breathtaking music in this film, and O Mio Babbino Caro is now synonymous with A Room with a View. What an outstanding film, and one that is very close to my old fashioned heart.
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My husband has set himself a challenge to write each of Shakepseare’s thirty seven plays as a limerick. Here’s Romeo and Juliet:
Romeo and Juliet were lovers
Their families were enmeshed in brutal war
They couldn’t cope
So swallowed dope
And lay there cold and dead upon the floor.
He has inspired me to come up with a challenge of my own. Writing is not my forte but I am, as you know, a keen reader, so I thought that some kind of reading challenge would be worth pursuing. I’ve already set myself a longer term reading challenge to read all of the Persephone books in five years. But I fancied something a bit more short term to aim for. I tend to see my professional new year as September and my personal new year as my birthday and tend to disregard January 1st as nothing more than another day in the year. So, by the end of my 40th year, I want to have read the complete works of Jane Austen, that is, including Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, as well as the other main novels. I wanted to read them in order of publication so I’m starting with Sense and Sensibility. It’s just a joy to read Austen and I’m hoping that over the coming eight months as I immerse myself in her writing that I glean more of a sense of who she was and what her inspirations were. I’d like to join the army of Jane Austen fans who are able to quote from each of her novels and talk about them at length. As with A Room with a View, it is the screen adaptations that have brought Austen to life for me. I have only ever read Pride and Prejudice yet have seen either TV or film adaptations of all her novels with the exception of Northanger Abbey. So I know the stories and I have certain actors in my head for certain characters and I hope that this does not spoil my enjoyment of the books. They do say, don’t they, that you should always read the book first?! Well, too late!
As the months progress I will fill you in on my reading challenge and post about each book I read. I’m keen to share my views on Sense and Sensibility already but I’ll wait until I’ve finished! Off I go to read some more. There’s nothing more cosy than cuddling up in bed with a cup of coffee and a good book!

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New Tunes, New Stationary Month and What’s Worth Watching on the Box

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I’ve been listening to a lot of new music recently, which is a departure for me, who is mostly stuck in a muso timewarp circa 1996. Elbow is a band that I only knew through the massive single ‘One Day Like This’, immortalised by its use in the 2012 Olympics. I’m happy to say that by way of my Cathedrals and Cakes companion, I have been able to discover the wonder that is ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’, their most recent offering. What an album. It is as melancholy yet simultaneously uplifting as you would expect from Elbow. My favourites are ‘Charge’; a story of a man in a bar who thinks he doesn’t get enough respect from the younger drinkers there; ‘New York Morning’, a beautiful, soaring song about Guy Garvey and his girlfriend sitting in a New York cafe and the thoughts running through his mind; ‘My Sad Captains’, an amazingly well orchestrated tune that positively rocks like a sailboat on a rocky sea – the lone trumpet both haunting and emotive in equal parts; and the eponymous track, ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’, which in my mind is like a modern day ‘Good Vibrations’ in its arrangement and sound quality on the one hand and on the other like a modern day ‘Within Me Without You’ by George Harrison. There’s definitely a tinge of Eastern influence there. Overall the album is beautifully crafted and needs to be listened to in one sitting at ample volume to fully appreciate the beauty of it.
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Another album I’m feeling particularly effusive about is ‘If You Wait’ by London Grammar. It’s fairly downbeat and reflective, and in the electro stroke haunting vocals category, and it is quite simply fantastic. Every song is atmospheric and catchy too. I listen to most music in my car these days. Gone are the days when I sat and listened to music as an activity in itself, now I’m invariably doing something, mainly driving and having bizarre conversations with my three year old son whilst I’m listening to music so it kind of goes in by osmosis these days. ‘It You Wait’ has got into my very blood. I bought the album having heard none of their music, I simply liked their name and thought I would give it a whirl. I wasn’t disappointed. My favourite track is ‘Wasting My Young Years’, which I believe was a single and did quite well. It’s probably an anthem for today’s youth and I have simply no idea. You see I’m so out of touch with the music scene that it’s embarrassing. As I mentioned earlier, I’m somewhat trapped in the nineties or to be found listening to Vaughan Williams so I am a bit of a sqaure, but proud. Anyway, I’m not going to say too much else about London Grammar for now, but suffice to say if you haven’t heard this album I strongly urge you to give it a try, it is well worth the wait, if you’ll excuse the pun.
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I love this time of year. Being a teacher, I get very excited about September, it being the new start to the school year. In fact it is more like a new year to me than January 1st. I positively relish those chilly mornings which blossom full into beautiful sunny days, the sound of learning buzzing in the air, fresh starts, new faces, new stationary! When I was a little girl I simply adored getting my new uniform and stationary for the new academic year and I have to say very little has changed! Even now as I near my 40th birthday I still get excited about the little things like a new pencil case and some highlighter pens or a new colourful biro to use for my to-do lists…and it’s all a giant indicator that my favourite season is on the way – Autumn. How I love autumn whispering at my door. The leaves! The chilly weather! The need for tights! Hallowe’en! The dark evenings! Warm nights in reading books! Bonfire Night! The lead up to Christmas! The bermonths, as I like to call them, are my favourite time of year without a shadow of a doubt. September, October, November and December are full of fun and frolics and are a good time in my family for birthdays and my wedding anniversary falls in December so there’s plenty to celebrate and lots of festivities to look forward to. In honour of my American cousins I’m even thinking of celebrating Thanksgiving this year, just for the hell of it! It’s such a warm time of year, perfect for crochet and other crafts, and perfect for blogging too! Oh my very God I love autumn!
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Another great thing about autumn is the telly. The summer schedules are mostly dull reruns but come the autumn things hot up a little and the tv stations start bringing out good dramas and suchlike. And of course Strictly, which I will be watching religiously as I have been for the last god knows how many years. I love the glitz and glamour, the beautiful dancing (and at time calamatous dancing!) and of course I love Claudia Winkleman and am very pleased that she is now going to be co-hosting the show. But a Strictly rant is not what I am here to discuss. No. As an aside, I am really enjoying the Great British Bake Off as always, and after bingate I’m even more enthralled though of course it wasn’t half as dramatic as it was edited to be! I’m particularly keen on Martha. She’s only 17 and is clearly a very talented baker. I’m all for the youts so I’m backing her to win, though I also like Nancy, she’s a savvy one and she’s so precise and pretty consistent too. Go Martha!
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I’m also really enjoying ‘Masters of Sex’. It is a bit raunchy but we don’t mind that and I love the fifties setting and the clothes. The story is interesting and because it is based in truth it makes it all the more fascinating. The characters are well drawn and acted and Michael Sheen is as ever brilliant in the title role of Masters. However, despite all the sex and the references to sex, it’s an absorbing and thought provoking drama about the sexual and social mores of fifties American society. It’s well worth a look if you haven’t tried it yet.
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Well, I’m off to read positively the worst book ever (which I’m finding utterly compelling and unputdownable!) namely ‘Digital Fortress’ by Dan Brown of Da Vinci code fame. It’s got a ludicrous plot, flat characters and is just plain silly but I’m loving it! Here’s to trashy novels.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

249823This is a very funny book, and that is the main reason anyone would love it – it is laugh out loud funny in its’ observations of human nature and provincial life.

Of course it is well written, a classic such as this does not make it into the literary hall of fame without being a well-crafted and skillfully written piece. Being a diary, it is more centred on wit, observation and commentary than on plot and action, which being a little bit of an instant gratification type of person, I did, at times, find grating. However, this was more than made up for by the many many moments of hilarity and truth in what the Provincial Lady says (we never learn her actual name, I will hitherto refer to her endearingly as the PL).

The diary is narrated by the PL, but there are many other characters within the book, including her children, Robin and Vicky, her husband Robert,  the French governess, the cook and the maid (this is an upper-middle class family in the 1920s/30s), the Vicar and his wife, and my personal favourite, the acerbic Lady Boxe. Best of all though, is the PL herself, who it has been said is like an early twentieth century Bridget Jones in her somewhat hapless recounting of her equally hapless life.

I found Mademoiselle a struggle as she always speaks in her mother tongue. Though my French is competent, it is not of a standard to keep up with Mademoiselle’s ramblings and rantings. Robert is a very droll character, with his apparent disinterest in everything (particularly his wife and children!) except The Times.  I really enjoyed the way he would barely spare a moment to look up from his newspaper to make some kind of blank look to the PL, but equally I love his comments that leave more to the imagination than they say for themselves. His character is very cleverly drawn. Theirs is a happy but very separate co-existence. Robert and Vicky, being children (and at this point in time children tended to be ‘seen and not heard’), are not really properly developed characters and serve mainly to provide the PL with a platform to make lots of wry observations about having children, which are still very relevant, in today’s twenty-first century society:

(Query: Does motherhood lead to cynicism? This contrary to every convention of art, literature, or morality, but cannot altogether escape conviction that answer may be in the affirmative.)

She makes another astute statement about being a parent which rings true for me and perhaps for many others too:

(Mem.: Theory that mothers think their own children superior to others Absolute Nonsense. Can see only too plainly that Mickey easily surpasses Robin and Vicky in looks, charm and good manners – and am very much annoyed about it.)

One of the things I love most about the book is the way that so many of the themes resonate with me – such as being a mother. The state of motherhood clearly has not really changed that much as is evident when the PL makes the following comment:

(Query: mainly rhetorical: Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as ‘leisured’? Answer comes there none.)

A contentious issue today as much as it would have been in 1930. If not more so today – with stay at home mothers often treated as lazy, work-shy so-called ‘Yummy Mummies’ who spend much of their time at the gym and being ‘leisured’. I could go on but this is not Woman’s Hour, it’s a casual (and certainly not literary) book review. However, I felt that comment really struck a chord with me, and probably would with many other women of today, whether working parents or stay at home ones. Anyhoo, I digress.

The best bits of this book are the sizeable chunks that are filled with laughs. One of my personal favourites is where the PL has just about had it up to there with Lady Boxe saying that she could find out about ‘inexpensive pensions in the South of France for the PL when in almost Ally McBeal fashion:

Find myself indulging in rather melodramatic fantasy of Bentley crashing into enormous motor-bus and being splintered to atoms. Permit chauffeur to escape unharmed, but fate of Lady B. left uncertain…

I love the way in which the PL tries to keep up with what everyone is reading and watching, just as we do today. She’s always trying but failing to read the right books and see the right exhibitions and to have ready and erudite comments to hand. She has a very amusing encounter with a certain Miss Pankerton (Miss P):

Conversation very, very literary and academic, my own part in it being mostly confined to saying I haven’t yet read it, and, It’s down on my library list, but hasn’t come, so far. After what feels like some hours of this, Miss P. becomes personal, and says that I strike her as being a woman whose life has never known fulfilment. Have often thought exactly the same thing myself, but this does not prevent my feeling entirely furious with Miss P for saying so.

I’m sure we all know someone with whom we have to bite our tongue, and with whom we are trying to keep up with all the time. Sometimes it’s just easier to let them have their say and then let them be on their way. Unfortunately for the PL, she seems to know rather a few too many of this sort of person!

Overall, I enjoyed this particular Perspehone (I also have a beautiful Virago version of the book too, pictured below). I love the PL’s self-deprecating humour and her witticisms and at times cutting and sharp observations. The original illustrations of the characters that pepper the text also make for a special treat in amongst the sparkly writing. I would recommend this book to anyone who could do with a bit of light relief and a gentle, amusing read. If you’re hot on plot and action then perhaps look elsewhere. I didn’t love the Diary of a Provincial Lady, but I liked it rather a lot.

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Vintage Ladybirds

ladybirdgoingtoschoolI passed an extremely enjoyable hour the other day watching a documentary I had recorded over the Christmas period. It was on BBC4 (love love love) and was all about the phenomenon that is the Ladybird book. More specifically, the vintage Ladybird book, which had its’ heyday between the 1950s and early 1970s. Ladybird still publish thousands of books today, however they lack the charm and individuality that the old school Ladybirds held for the millions of young readers who came to cherish them, as I did, and I’m sure many of you did too.ladybirdshoppingwithmotherOne of the things that the documentary explored in depth, and which made me realise one of the reasons why I love these books so much, was the art work. The pages of the books were very uniform in that they were printed on one large block of paper, upon which could be printed 52 pages of a ladybird book. The format was: the printed words on the left hand page, and the illustration on the right hand page. This was the standard ladybird way for many years. The illustrations were produced by actual established and often classically trained artists, who would paint the pictures and produce genuine, mini works of art. The only Ladybird I own now is ‘The Story of our Churches and Cathedrals’, illustrated by Robert Ayton who produced some stunning images of cathedrals in this little book. The artists were all extremely well respected in their field, and highly talented in producing the kind of images that fitted the books they illustrated. Some were specialists in drama and emotion, others were meticulous in their portrayal of detail, others more focused on action and movement. One of the most significant changes that were made to the books when they underwent an overhaul  in the late 70s (because they were looking ‘tired’ and ‘old hat’) was the artwork went. The traditional format also went. And thus, so did the quirky individuality of the original Ladybird book. What a shame.

ladybirdcinderellaI owned this copy of Cinderella and loved it (i.e. read it) to death. It literally died a death, so tattered, dog-eared and dirty were its’ pages, so ruined was the spine. One of the things I loved about it was that the fairy godmother was dressed more like a witch! Another endearing thing about the vintage ladybird book is that the language and the style of retelling the ‘well loved tales’ was very matter of fact. This was before the dawn of political correctness and was therefore very direct and had no discernible frills on. There is something very fresh about reading a ladybird book from this time – and it can be laugh out loud funny for that reason too. In the opening lines of Cinderella, we are told very matter of factly that Cinderella lived with her father because her mother was dead and that she had two frightfully ugly stepsisters. Nowadays, all of this is toned down, the language altered and more sympathetic, the facts less starkly represented.

ladybirdchickenlickenThe vintage ladybird is now of course, highly collectible. The 1980s saw a change in the ladybird book. This was when I was learning to read and blooming into a fluent reader with my well loved favourites, and so my ladybird library expanded during this time. Snow White and Rose Red was one of my most favourites, as I had never seen this retelling of the story before and loved the addition to the story of Rose Red. By the 1990s the vintage ladybird book was turning up at car boot sales and in charity shops, and going for a song – often for just 10p each! I know that it was at this time, in my late teens, that I was discarding my own ladybird books in a bid to feel more grown up, as I was replacing them with nineteenth century classics and modern cult novels. Ladybirds now go for a lot more than that as sellers have cottoned on to the vintage appeal of these lovely books. I wonder if any of you out there collect ladybirds? I think I might start! I found a lovely blog dedicated to old ladybird books and it has helped to reignite my love of these little hardback joys. You should check it out, it’s very thoughtfully written with a wry sense of humour.

ladybiedsnowwhiteandrosered By the time I was a reader, ladybird books had changed quite significantly and were looking a little different, though I had many of the original ones in my modest library at home on my bookshelf made by my dad in his carpentry class at school some 25 years earlier. They were looking more like this, below. More modern, more up-to-date. More uniform and dull in my opinion, and gone was the beautiful artisan touch. Of course, I didn’t realise any of this at the time, and I dearly loved my ‘read it yourself’ books, of which I had many. But looking at the difference between the books now, it is clear that around this point in time, Ladybird lost its’ way a little by trying to repackage itself. Yes, in some respects, Ladybird needed to move on. Socially, things had changed from the 1950s lovely Ladybird Land. And yes, the fabric of society had by the 1970s torn to reveal a number of problems and divisions which just weren’t reflected in the books of the time. I understand why the books had to change. BUT. Aren’t books a means of escape from the real world? Aren’t books a means to aspire and dream? So what if my world doesn’t look like Ladybird Land? I don’t care. But I love it when I’m there, when I immerse myself into that world which no longer exists. I’m a little old-fashioned and don’t see the need for gritty realism in children’s books!ladybirdreadityourself

That’s another wonderful thing about the vintage Ladybird book. They were published way before even the age of the VHS recorder, let alone DVDs and the internet and ipads and computer games. You can tell. There is that quaint, old world charm about them. And that’s why you’ve got to love a Ladybird.

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The Gentle Art of Domesticity

GAODuscoverIt was with some pleasure that I recently discovered that Jane Brocket was republishing The Gentle Art of Domesticity as an e-book. I have owned the hard copy of the book for some time, however, my version is the somewhat disappointing American edition because it was cheaper to buy than the ludicrously overpriced UK copy. I say disappointing only because as a UK reader I found it frustrating to read the word ‘candy’ instead of ‘sweets’, for instance. However, it did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the book nor did it stop me from adopting it as my personal bible. You could say that the book for me, has been life changing.

Subtitled, ‘stitching, baking, nature, art and the comforts of home’ the book is so much more than that. It is a beautifully crafted tribute to domesticity and all the pleasures therein. Most of all, it appears to be a tribute to the joy of inspiration – of seeking it, finding it, using it, sharing it, inspiring it in others, and of course, celebrating it. If ever I am low on levels of inspiration, I open the cover, take pot luck and just dip in to the book and wherever I find myself within its’ pages, I never cease to find it. Having long found her blog to be a great place to find inspiration, the book is just another place to tap into that.

When I first read The Gentle Art of Domesticity, I was overcome with recognition. I found many of the things that were included in the book were either interests or passions of my own, or that they soon would be! I’m a great lover of Radio 4, Cary Grant, I quilt, I crochet, I love good wine, I bake many cakes and I’m crazy about colour. The one area that Jane seems to have totally down pat which I cannot seem to get to grips with is knitting! Oh how I would love to be able to knit without dropping hundreds of stitches and getting myself actually and metaphorically tied up in knots!

What I find so likeable about the book is la Brocket’s obvious appreciation of the small pleasures in life, and how making them central to ones’ existence is the key to happiness and enjoyment of life. The book has inspired me to craft and to approach ways of seeing creativity and the processes involved from a completely different angle. It is a celebration of the domestic sphere, not as one of drudgery and endless housework tasks, but as a place for exploration of the self and ones’ talents. What is also appealing about the Gentle Art of Domesticity is that a large part of the book enthuses over domesticity not just through craft, but also through art, film and literature – all great and enduring passions of mine. It was through this wonderful book that I discovered the truly remarkable literary genius that is Dorothy Whipple. This alone is reason enough why I would recommend this book to anyone.

Upon reading some reviews of the book, I was surprised that many people gave an unfavourable review based on the fact that the book doesn’t contain craft patterns or act in some way as a manual or a ‘how to’ type of tome. These people have completely missed the point! The book is not entitled ‘The Gentle Art of Crafting’ – Jane Brocket has published several other books that provide a means to learn or deepen ones’ understanding of a given craft. Instead, what we have is a remarkable and truly one-off book that explores domesticity and creativity in a rather philosophical, conversational manner that is designed to make you think about your own approach to craft, colour, nature, comfort and style, to name but a few topics. It stimulates an inner conversation in which you can explore your own unique preferences and accents, talents and desires. After reading this, you’ll be inspired to do so many things that you’ll be fit to burst with a creative drive and passion. When I read this book I just want to make things. As many as possible. NOW!

Aside from the seemingly unrestrained desire to create which this book inspires in me, it also urges me to go out and discover more. To read more, watch more, see more, do more. To not just dip my toe into cultural waters, but to positively immerse myself with joyful abandon. To find what floats my cultural boat. I have made several discoveries through la Brocket, including Eric Ravilious, the aforementioned Mrs Whipple (love the name, love the books I’ve read so far), parsnip cake, ripple crochet blankets, colouring paste, http://www.aquarterof.com and the truly exquisite Persephone Books (they make awesome presents – especially to oneself). And what’s best is, I keep on discovering…and that’s what this blog is about I guess…all my little discoveries and passions.

The overarching fact with this book is that not only is it inspiring beyond measure, it also makes you think that you are capable of producing really beautifully crafted things of loveliness, without having to be some kind of craft maven. I love the way she recounts her journey into Fairisle knitting – she just decided that she wanted to do it and she did! For me, this is the pinnacle of knitting. How I would love to do that, but sadly I can’t at this stage even knit a simple scarf without dropping stitches and leaving gaping holes hither and thither. Ah well, Jane gives me hope for the future and that is what this book is all about. It’s about possibilities. Another world opens up to you, a world filled with, well, whatever you want. How wonderful.

I fell in love with the book so hard and fast that very soon afterwards the rest of her oeuvre came tumbling through the Parcel Force vortex to my doorstep – I was properly hooked. The Gentle Art of Stitching, The Gentle Art of Knitting, The Gentle Art of Patchwork and Quilting… the list goes on. The only one of her books I don’t own is her latest, ‘Quilt Me!’ I’m hoping this will find its’ way into my possession around the time of my birthday in early May!

I suppose this post has been rather gushing and the word ‘inspired’ rather overused. I make no apologies for this. This book is bloody marvellous. Buy it, now! It’s the ultimate comfort read.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

highwagesbydwI have finally got round to reading some Dorothy Whipple and oh my very God! I am in love with this author. Truly madly deeply. I want to read every word she has ever written, own first editions of her work, create a notebook of all of my favourite lines from her novels, and forever worship at the temple of the Whipple.  I knew it would be good when I was procuring Persephone editions of her books on recommendations from Jane Brocket and Book Snob (two writers whom I admire immensely) but I didn’t realise it would be this good. It’s not as good as falling in love, but it is as good as meeting and making friends with someone whom you know will be a friend for life and whom you click with instantly and in a way that makes you feel very alive.  God, I adore Dorothy Whipple! I have only read but one of her books and already I want to devour the rest…but at the same time I don’t want to rush her work, to gobble her oeuvre in one greedy bite; like all the best things in life, I want to savour and linger over her novels. So, I have decided to follow up with another Persephone, John Coates’ Patience, and then I might allow myself to move on to Greenbanks which I am told is Whipple’s best.

High Wages is a gem of a book, which is in fact how Jane, the main character of the novel describes a book she is reading on similar subject matter. The setting of the novel is perfect. Jane is a shop girl, but not any shop girl. She works at a draper’s shop in a fictional Lancastrian mill town named Tidsley. When her father dies, Jane is left with ‘no people’ and escapes her stepmother and step siblings to work in haberdashery at Chadwick’s drapery, alongside Maggie Pye, another shop girl with whom Jane ‘lives-in’. Jane and Maggie become firm but not altogether well matched friends as they are united in their dislike of their master Mr Chadwick, who makes them work typically long hours for little money and cheats them out of their commissions and who’s wife cheats them out of a decent supper at night by priding herself on feeding each girl for a measly 3d per head. Maggie and Jane get by together perfectly well and then Jane is brought along for walks with the boy Maggie is walking out with, Wilfrid. Jane finds in Wilfrid a true friendship which is not just based on circumstance but sheer pleasure in each others’ company and a shared set of likes and pastimes; reading being the one explored in the book. Wilfrid is the Assistant Librarian at the local library and he finds books for Jane to read and the three of them go off on walks in the countryside together. Maggie does not seem to mind that Jane comes along; she positively insists upon it. Wilfrid is more than happy for Jane to come along as he is not in love with Maggie and a growing passion for Jane is burgeoning. Jane does not mind as she enjoys the walking, the books and the conversation – it is a happily diverting way to spend her half day off and to build new friendships. Jane, Wilfrid and Maggie go about the place in a somewhat odd threesome until the inevitable happens (not a criticism!) and Wilfrid falls for Jane and things come to a head one Sunday when poor Maggie is ailing and unable to come out on the weekly walk. There goes the friendship with Maggie, but there also goes the friendship with Wilfrid (for now, at least) and then we are faced with War, the Great War in fact. Wilfrid enlists and off he goes. Jane’s loss of friendship with Maggie actually heralds the beginning of bigger and better things for Jane, so all is not lost at all, though the War and its’ effects certainly bring pathos to the proceedings.

Meantime, we have already been introduced to the affluent and supercilious Mrs Greenwood and her daughter Sylvia – lovely, mannequin-like Sylvia – who in her person represents more the type of shop girl seen in novels of the time – pretty, loves clothes, somewhat light headed with a wish only to be married and well looked after. Of course, Dorothy does things differently and our shop girl Jane is the antithesis of these things, though of course she is no ugly duckling! Sylvia is privileged owing to the fact that her father, in partnership with Mr Briggs, own and run the local cotton mill; Sylvia’s position in society means that she is spoiled, revered, loved by all but liked by none as she is so vacant and with so little to say. Sylvia exists to create tension in the novel for Jane. She is there as a symbol of envy and pity for Jane – envy because she has everything and everyone at her feet, but pity for the same reasons and more – Jane is independent and earns her keep, which you get the feeling she would rather do than be the indulged daughter of the local cotton magnate any day of the week. Later in the novel Sylvia is a much greater source of frustration for Jane, but I shall not divulge it as it is too good to spoil!

As much as I love the theme of working women and dress shops and haberdashery and so on, I think that the central and most heart warming thread of the book is friendship. There are many friendships in the book, some that endure and others that sadly end. The enduring friendships we witness in the novel, particularly that between Jane and Mrs Briggs, are so touching and really do tug on the heart strings. Their friendship is genuine, built on a meeting of minds and of course that all essential click that one can almost hear when two people get on like the proverbial house on fire. The theme of friendship is one of the joys of this novel.

One might think that because Jane is alone in the world that she is needy or overly reliant on others. Not so. Jane is self possessed and enjoys her own company and trusts her own instincts. She is intelligent and has a business brain, which as a major part of the story, bodes well for her future in the rag trade. Jane is an interesting character and one I grew to love. She is strong without her fortitude being thrust down ones throat. She is self confident without being overbearing. She is brave without being foolish. I admire the way in which she rises from a position of vulnerability and insignificance in the very junior hierarchical position of haberdashery shop girl to owning her very own dress shop – and an extremely successful one to boot. The way in which Whipple handles this steady rise is subtly done with a superbly light touch – there is no meteoric flash in which Jane suddenly and implausibly becomes a success; no, it is woven into the story deftly and exquisitely so that you barely notice until you’re standing on your feet congratulating her on such a positive and accomplished result in her working life.

The book is not openly feminist,  but Dorothy Whipple is clearly a feminist writer making a point about social and economic issues in her own peaceable manner. Feminism is in no way obvious through her writing, yet it is there, being threaded into each and every stitch in the story. I look at the novel, which is written without pretension and see a simple thing written simply. The prose is so clear, the dialogue so direct and plain. Yet it takes immense skill in the craft of writing to make it look this easy and when you really try to dissect this novel, which I have given up trying to do as it is plain and beautiful as it is; it is so intricately plotted it leaves me breathless. Whipple, you are a genius!

Apparently Dorothy Whipple was extremely popular as a novelist in her day, which I am glad of. What pains me is that she now lies in obscurity and nowhere near enough people know of her genius in storytelling and her ability to communicate the simple joys of life in one stark sentence. She should be as widely known as any popular writer today. I am not a book snob – Dorothy Whipple would probably be on the shelves at the airport if she were as popular today as she was in her lifetime, and that is saying something. She should be applauded for her fantastic storytelling as much as for her technical ability as a writer. I can hardly believe I have waited until I am nearly 40 to discover the Whipple, but by ‘Jove, am I going to make the most of the next forty years and keep on discovering and loving this extraordinary writers’ work. Whipple – I salute thee!

On Abandoning a Book

sleepybookI have done something I rarely do – I have abandoned the book I am reading. It is not that the book lacks good writing; the book is extremely well written and reads well. The story is the kind of family based epic that I love. it is essentially a period drama on a grand sprawling scale, the tv series of which I saw many years ago and loved. So why have I abandoned In a Land of Plenty only fifty or so pages in? Because I was so unutterably BORED! I could have pursued it a while longer, waiting for the hook that would reel me in…but I could not be BOTHERED!

As I get older I have less patience for things, people, places that require too much effort. I know what I like, and I know pretty quickly when a book in particular has me hooked, and it is usually the first or second page and that’s me. I am a bit of a ‘you had me at hello’ type of person. It’s not that I’m necessarily into instant gratification, just that I am a self aware person and I know my own tastes very well.

If I abandoned a book previously, I would have felt some sense of guilt or loss – perhaps I was missing out on the greatest work of literature produced in the English language (the way people harp on about Wolf Hall you would think I had missed out on the greatest work in the English tongue – another book I abandoned with relish). Now, I don’t mind so much. There are plenty more books on the shelf. There are so many books that I passionately want to read that it is just not worth my time wasting it on a book I find dull and boring. So I abandon In a Land of Plenty with glee onto the pile marked ‘to be charity shopped’.

I can’t wait to read Call the Midwife!

Two Books and a Brocket Bake

the-uncommon-reader-by-alan-bennettI have read more than usual of late, and managed to get through two books in as many weeks. This is largely due to the brevity of the first, and the sheer engaging joy of the other. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is a slender little number and I could have read it in a sitting if I had the time for such a thing, but I did manage it in just a few days.

Alan Bennett is one of my most loved heroes, up there with Betjeman and Vaughan Williams and Coco Chanel. He is a national treasure yes, but something about his writing seems to speak to my old fashioned soul which is rather odd really as Bennett is, despite all his idioms, a very modern, contemporary writer in that his subject matter is universal and timeless even if it is set in a 1950s provincial town. On the surface we have little in common – our Alan is northern, and very northern with it, whereas I am southern and very southern with it. Alan was educated at the revered and elite Oxford University whereas I was educated at the reviled and shabby Swansea University. Alan is accomplished with words whereas I am not. Alan and I do have two things in common – we have had the same hairstyle since we were wee and we both love to gobble up a book! For whatever reason, Alan Bennett speaks to my soul, and for that I adore him. He’s so gorgeous one of my cats is even named Alan, though my husband would argue that’s after Partridge, not Bennett.

alan_bennettReading is the subject matter of the book and more specifically the Queen’s reading habits as a reflection of our own. I think because I read and always have I imagine that most other people read too. This is not, apparently the case. This saddened me throughout the book, as did the revelation and subsequent realisation that reading is an exclusive activity in that it excludes other people and is therefore unsociable and somehow unacceptable. Whilst the book is very funny and has more than it’s fair share of humour, the message is deadly serious and provides a warning as to what happens to people, to society as a whole when reading is frowned upon or deemed to be an unsociable, nerdy thing to do. Talking about books is something booky people do when they have found other booky people to talk to them about. But I have noticed that unless you’re talking about the book of a film (which is somehow acceptable) then to talk books is considered in some circles too high minded and lofty or to be bringing the tone of the conversation to a serious unwelcome junction. Interesting. I won’t say anything about the plot, its a thin volume and I wouldn’t wish to spoil a page of it as every page sparkles with wit and insight, as one would expect from the thoroughly lovely Alan.

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Now for a slice of cake. Parsnip Cake for instance. My latest Brocket Bake from Vintage Cakes is my most favourite yet! It is very similar to carrot cake, only better… so moist, so sweet yet so perfectly offset by the cream cheese frosting. Wow, it was a pure dream. Making it was fun. I had never heard of parsnip cake before I read Vintage Cakes and was intrigued from the off. I thought straight away that it would make a good alternative to carrot cake which has long since been a fave cake of mine, and as the parsnip was being grated into the mix and the sweet smell of that most delicious of root vegetables wafted about me, I could feel my cakey senses tingling away. The cake mixture itself was incredibly tasty and I could easily have devoured the lot before it even made it into the oven! Luckily I avoided the tragedy of not having a scrumptious parsnip cake (as well as a bad stomach) by getting it into the oven at warp speed and making do with licking the wooden spoon instead. I’m so glad I didn’t devour the cake mix as the cake rose beautifully and was just heavenly with the frosting in the middle and some icing sugar dusted on the top. Wow. I think it’s a contender for my Best Brocket Bake so far! I urge you to make one as soon as is humanly possible – get down to your nearest 24hr supermarket buy the ingredients and make it before morning so you can enjoy it by teatime – you shan’t regret it!

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Lastly, The Silver Linings Playbook – yes – the book of the film! I saw this film because I needed cheering up and my mum thought it would do just that, and it did. I really enjoyed it and promptly ordered the book from the library.

I was instantly drawn into Pat’s world, as he narrates the story and everything is seen through Pat’s eyes. Pat has bipolar affective disorder and has just come out of the bad place. He’s practising being kind rather than right and he’s not watching any more movies, only the movie of his life, which has a silver lining and will end well when he manages to end apart time with his wife Nikki. Pat doesn’t remember why he went into the bad place in the first place and when you find out you realise why his relationship with Nikki could never have the silver lining Pat hopes it will because there is no relationship. There are no surprises in this book, with or without seeing the film first, but it is nevertheless charmingly well written and observed, as are the symptoms and experiences of a man with a chronic mental illness.

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I think the film did quite well in capturing the essence of the book, but inevitably there are chunks missed out, nuances missed, and in this case, whole characters omitted or changed, but I will forgive. I wouldn’t say that The Silver Linings Playbook is the best book I’ve ever read with blisteringly good writing and characterisation and imagery. But it is a well written, clever and sweet story that will captivate you and take you away on a cumulo-nimbus cloud with a lining of silver and make you feel good for a little while. And why not?

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A Bit of This and That

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Due to a heady and hedonistic weekend, I didn’t manage to complete my Sunday night post, so here I am on Monday afternoon feeling like a school girl who’s desperately trying to get her late homework done before anyone realises! Mother’s Day was particularly lovely as I was treated to jam on toast and hot tea in bed, a snowdrop from the garden in an egg cup and Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth, all from my lovely nearly two year old Whirling Dervish (he’s so clever operating the kettle and the toaster so young ;-)). I then went to see my mother-in-law, and then later in the evening saw Les Miserables with my own lovely Marmee (though to say I saw it would be a fallacy – I fell asleep about a third of the way in, owing to two preceding very late nights. However, I have seen it before and can say that I enjoyed it whole heartedly!) My particular favourite moments were Castle on a Cloud featuring the darling young Cosette, and Eponine’s staggering On My Own. A wonderful, epic, moving film.

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Overall, Mother’s Day was a hit with all concerned, especially my mum, for whom I had made some fabulous fabric flowers from a ridiculously simple Chloe Owens pattern from her wonderful book All Sewn Up. They’re so easy and quick to make and make great presents for almost any occasion – the best part being – they don’t wilt and die! I was so pleased with my book too, proof that my husband really does read my blog as it was not that long ago that I was saying just here how much I adore the TV series and wanted to read the book. So, plenty of Brownie points there! I’m especially keen to read it since delving into my family history via my sister-in-law’s Ancestry account. It turns out that my great grandmother Mary was one of thirteen children who lived in the slum conditions of Poplar in the East End, just as in Call the Midwife, except not in the 1950s, but the 1920s. What a life! I can’t wait to find out more about this fascinating subject.

thecrocThe Crocodile by Tirzah Garwood (1929)

Thanks to the Persephone Post and Homes & Antiques magazine, I have discovered the works of the exotically named Tirzah Garwood. She learned wood engraving from her extremely famous husband, who I also admire immensely, Eric Ravilious. The example above is just one of many produced in her lifetime and shows that she was as capable of producing art work of an astonishing aptitude as her more famous spouse. The Crocodile is a great image in itself, but has particular significance to any teacher of children – the crocodile being the mainstay of many a school trip or lining up exercise. This reminds me of walking the children up to the church for Easter and Christmas services, of walking them to the precinct for singing services to fund raise for our PTA, and of course a super way of rounding up and counting children whilst on walkabouts in museums and galleries! It’s truly adorable, even though it pictures slightly older children than I am used to.

Tirzah Garwood - The WifeThe Wife by Tirzah Garwood (1929/30)

The Wife leads one to wondering why the woman is in the bed looking quite so expectant. Is she excitedly awaiting her lover, or perhaps less so full of anticipation and more trepidation? Perhaps it is symbolic of a woman on the eve of her wedding, or the wedding night itself as the title would suggest…maybe she’s a wife who has long been married and would rather be reading the books on the nearby table than be sitting in bed awaiting her partner or, rather less interestingly, sleep. I do love to speculate.

tirzah the train journey 1929-30The Train Journey by Tirzah Garwood (1929/30)

I’m not keen on comparisons between the work of husbands and wives because the husband often comes out on top (!) but this work is strongly reminiscent of Eric Ravilious’ colour work of a very similar scene in a train carriage. However, I have no idea whose work came first in this instance, so I wouldn’t like to comment on that any further – but should anyone know, please do let me know in the comments – I’d be very interested to learn how much Tirzah was influenced by Eric’s work. I love this scene, with the two men asleep, the woman reading from what can only be described as a highly anachronistic tablet device and the other two ladies lost in their own worlds and ruminations. What a lovely study in human nature and the ordinariness of life. What I want to know is – what is she looking at? Someone in the corridor going past? Is she looking out of the window beyond the corridor? Why isn’t she looking out of the compartment window? Indeed, is she looking at anything at all and perhaps just staring into the middle distance? What’s in her lovely big bag? I could go on and on.

Another artist who has been inspiring me for some long while (probably 20 odd years or so) is David Inshaw. I first saw his The Badminton Game at the Tate when I was an A-level art student and promptly bought the postcard which has over the years gone by the wayside. I was struck by the topiary this man is hell-bent on depicting. He has quite a topiary fixation if you really look into his oeuvre! Look at the topiary on this

badmintongameSome very finely crafted hedges there. I love a game of badminton and play every Monday evening with my long time friend from university – it’s a great social game and keeps you fit too. But what begs the question is why on earth would you play it in a long gown?! I jest. I love this painting and it is probably up there with my top ten in which also reside the Millais and Burne Jones of the times of artists past. I have in recent years begun to appreciate the game of cricket. Inshaw is not obsessed with depicting sport in his work, I assure you, though you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise from this post! This painting below is another firm favourite of mine

cricket gameI especially admire the shadow work in this painting and the way the light is captured in the sky. The movement of the batsman as he swings his bat at the ball is also phenomenal in it’s accuracy of human movement. Here’s one more Inshaw for you, minus the manicured hedging:

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Lastly, I wanted to mention that I’ve decided on a simple challenge, which you will see is now a new ‘page’ on my blog; A Predilection for Persephone. I do indeed have a predilection for a Persephone book and have recently massed nineteen of them, though I have only read one! I spend far too much time in book lust with them – flicking the pages and smelling the print and the paper as I do so (does this make me weird? Does anyone else do this? Please tell me some of you do this???!) I like to spend time looking at the endpapers and researching the designer if applicable. I like to find out more about the authors and to admire the typography – another thing that Persephone does so well in retaining the original typeset in many cases. Oh, Persephone, you are a dream. Reading them? Well, in order to spur me on in this endeavour, I have challenged myself to read all Persephone books (currently 100 of them) by Easter 2018. Yes, that’s five years to read 100 books, which is actually quite a long time. I could do it in just over two years if I read one a week. However I tend to read only one or two books each month, so that is rather unrealistic. So, my Persephone challenge begins with William, an Englishman just as soon as I pick it up from the library. I thought that I’d start right at the beginning with book number one. Wish me luck. You will see my thoughts about each book popping up here and there, and they will be catalogued in order on my Predilection for Persephone page as and when they are read and reviewed.

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I just wanted to say that I am really loving my blogging adventure. I know that I am probably only read by a handful of people but any comments I receive really do give me a buzz and a warm feeling in my old fashioned heart, so thank you, truly.

Let’s Hear it for the Girls

emily1  I am currently obsessing over the works of Emily Carr and Winifred Holtby. It is part of my make-up that I need to ‘pash’ on things, whether it be people or objects. Writers and artists are probably at the top of my list of crushes and, having never quite outgrown the schoolgirl tendency to have little obsessions, I may as well resign myself to thoroughly indulge them; and where better than at Teacups and Buttercups?

First, to Emily. On honeymoon in Vancouver, British Columbia nearly five years ago, my shiny new husband and I decided to take in a trip to the Vancouver Art Gallery (incidentally, they do great tea and cake in the café), and it was here that I discovered the powerful and arresting work of Emily Carr, Canada’s art darling. I was immediately drawn to her dark, verdant landscapes and the terrifying forests she portrays – painted in a simple, sparse, restrained manner, yet representing such vast canopies and towering trees. To me, they will forever be caught up in tangled memories of the Pacific Rim Highway on Vancouver Island, the trees nestling along the coastline of Cox Bay, the snow covered mile high trees of Stanley Park and the majestic tree-lined harbour of Vancouver itself. They will forever be remembered as ‘Emily Carr trees’.

EmilyCarr-A-Rushing-Sea-of-Undergrowth-1932-35  I am guilty of having a beauty complex. I like everything I own, everyone I know to have some element of the beautiful and I look for beauty in all things. Emily Carr’s art is not beautiful in the way that I would define beauty, but it is challenging and dark and uncompromising and these qualities are beautiful too. Horrors lie in those forests…I try to stay away from dark things as they have a propensity to leave me feeling peevish and perturbed. But in this case I cannot get enough of these landscapes. They are almost surreal in their weirdness and the way in which they represent life. If you have not heard of Emily Carr do check out her work, she is phenomenal. She produced a variety of work, some in France which is far more Impressionist in style, and other works that are far from the kind I am showing here, but this is how I discovered Emily Carr and to this day these are my favourite of her works.

emily carr shacks and trees in a woodFrom Emily to Winifred. I have recently finished South Riding which took me rather a long time to read; partly due to the fact that it takes me a long time to read any book these days as I have a toddler (busy all day and then often-times too tired to read very much in the evenings), and partly owing to the fact that the book itself was challenging. It wasn’t difficult to read as such, just that I found there was so much to think about following each chapter. I found the book extremely thought provoking, and wanted to make it last for as long as possible. Like a special treat long awaited, I would sometimes wait a couple of days between chapters so that I could really pick over what I had read, and really savour the story as it unfolded. It’s also a book that grew on me incredibly slowly. There were times when I wanted to hurl it across the room and give up altogether, and then of course there were others when I would take it to bed with  me and still be reading into the wee hours.

South Riding

The story is about the inevitable change and decay of the world that existed before the Great War and the slow, inevitable erosion of that world since the cataclysm of that all encompassing event in history. Sarah Burton, Lydia Holly and Joe Astell represent progress and change, in opposition, Robert Carne represents the old order of landed gentry seeing his estate dwindle to nothing due to the 1930s depression. Intermingled with the bigger themes are of course the lives of the varying ensemble cast of characters, all of them interesting and demanding attention in their own ways.

Sarah really grew on me as the story progressed, and she appeared all fresh air and breeziness and bringing order to things that had perhaps become disordered and overgrown, left to rot. The South Riding of the book apparently does not exist in life, and it seems to stand as a metaphor for all that was wrong with 1930s provincial life – the poverty and the petty bureaucracy of local government in the face of that poverty. Here we have rural poverty, which is hidden and shameful. I found that Holtby’s sense of social justice shone through beautifully in this book, without being preachy or sanctimonious.

Two of my favourite parts of the book were both concerning the women of the story. The first was particularly moving and had me in tears. I found the chapter Lily Sawdon Propitiates a God utterly destroyed me as Holtby describes Lily’s silent, secretive battle with cancer. I have no experience of this in my life, but in reading this chapter I now think I have an inkling of what it must be like to experience such a devastating realisation and to be in such constant pain. Very, very moving and so well written, though it is not hard to see why – I think I am right in saying that South Riding was Winifred’s last book and she was taken by cancer at my age of 37, so she knew what she was talking about, so it is no wonder that Lily’s experience comes across as so real and so human.

The other part of the book that really grabbed me was towards the end when Emma Beddows takes it upon herself to give Sarah a talking to. She is very blunt and to the point as only a woman in her seventies with tons of life experience and impatience with youth can be – but what she says is so true! I wish we had heard more of these truths from Mrs Beddows throughout the book and didn’t have to wait until the end of the book for them!

SOUTH RIDINGI cannot do the book justice and there are plenty of other good reviews out there. Book Snob did a super review here, if you would like to read something more detailed and literary. I would simply say that after a fashion, I loved this book and will be looking forward to revisiting it again in the future. Winifred Holtby is now a firm favourite author of mine and I now can’t wait to read Anderby Wold, Poor Caroline and The Land of Green Ginger, as well as my beautiful Persephone edition of The Crowded Street. Any other Winifred fans out there? And now I shall leave you with a gratuitous photo of David Morrissey who played Robert Carne in the BBC adaptation of South Riding.

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