Thursday, 19 November 2015

Autumn and a sewing room

While waiting for and having some work done on our French house, we've been enjoying some fine weather in the Auvergne - that is, up until the last few days, when it has become much cooler and cloudier. My husband has had some beautiful cycle rides while I've been walking and occasionally swimming in the indoor pool in Mauriac. The glorious autumn colours surrounding us when we first arrived are now almost gone, with just the occasional tree still with some brightness left.

I've also done some sewing, as I now have a sewing room, a small narrow room with its own tiny balcony, where I can leave sewing projects, instead of having to move them off the dining table every time we have a meal. I have made in it so far a dust cover for my ancient Bernina sewing machine, an infinity scarf from pieces left over from older projects (as was the dust cover) and have embarked on some machine embroidery. I'll probably still use the dining table for cutting out, as the desk (IKEA) is not very wide.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

My Wedding Dress

My Wedding Dress was made by me, using a Vogue  Designer Original Belinda Belville pattern. It has quite a lot of hand stitching round the lace edged sleeves and bodice top. Here it is on display in my local church, when there was a flower and craft festival last year. The theme was the circle of life , so included craft items and flower displays on baptisms, weddings, Easter, Christmas, tea parties and many other celebrations. The church was filled with gorgeous flower displays . My wedding was in October 1980, so the style reflects the fashion at that time. It was comfortable to wear, but as it has 17 tiny fabric covered buttons down the centre back, with rouleaux loop fastenings, is impossible to get into unaided.

Linking to
Not Dressed As Lamb
albeit a day late.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Two good reads

I've enjoyed two of my most recent reads. One was a book club read, the Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and the other was The Round House by Louise Erdrich.
Sarah Hall's  story has a fairly feisty heroine, Rachel, who starts out as a free spirit, leading a project studying wolves in Montana. She pays a brief visit home, to visit her mother in Cumbria,, returns to the wolf reservation where she is working and has a brief fling with a Kyle, a fellow worker and Native American. After the sudden death of her mother, Rachel returns to Cumbria when offered a job involving the bringing back to Britain of a pair of wolves, into a reserve set up by an aristocrat, Thomas.
Rachel settles into the familiar Cumbrian landscape, then discovers she is pregnant. There is a lot of comparison with the newly -imported wolves and their breeding and Rachel's pregnancy and eventual motherhood. Her ambivalent emotions are described very well. I enjoyed Sarah Hall's writing, which can be lyrical in her description of the local environment, and also almost staccato when describing meetings and talk between her characters. The contrast of Thomas and his son and daughters lives with Rachel and her team of co- workers is well brought out, and her difficult relationship with her younger brother and his wife, childless but not through choice is tenderly interesting and topical read, as there is much public discussion about the re-wilding of Britain; elsewhere in Europe where wolves are successfully increasing their range in the French Alps, Italy and Spain, the discussion is about how farmers might be compensated for loss of livestock attacked by wolves.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich is a quite different read.It is written from the point of view of Joe, a 12 year old Native American, whose mother is attacked and raped, The story concerns the consequences of this act for Joe, an only child , and his parents. It also covers some Native American legends, as well as the legal side of reservation life. I really cared about Joe and his group of friends as they dealt with the complexities of the adult world around them, as well as the problems the attack on Joe's mother had brought to the whole community.
I found this an interesting read, showing a part of modern American life of which I knew very little. Louise Erdrich is an award winning novelist and poet, as well as being part Ojibwe Native American, so writes from a particular point-of-view.
I had this on my bookshelves for a couple of years, then saw a copy in a French bookshop,  and plucked it off my shelves to read and enjoy.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Sloe gin

While on a recent walk up to the Col d'Aulac, above the vallee du Mars in the Auvergne, we came across a sloe bush, bearing a small but healthy-looking crop. So we picked as many as we could reach, and now those same little berries are macerating in a mix of sugar and gin, waiting for the gin to turn a beautiful ruby red colour and to taste of those same sloes. Last time I made sloe gin here, I froze the fruit overnight, then bottled it, this time I just pricked them a couple of times with a sharp -pointed knife, put them in a glass jar, added the sugar and then the gin. I'll give the jar a good shake over the next few days until the sugar has dissolved, then put it away until later in the yea, or even next year.

From the Col, you get a lovely view of the whole valley and the surrounding mountains. Well worth the climb of over 400 metres. This view was taken on the way up, not quite at the top.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Summer reading

I've recently read Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain and enjoyed it, Her detailed descriptions of being, walking, sleeping and closely observing life on the Cairngorms are beautifully written and helped to give me a little more insight into the life of the mountains with which I am currently surrounded in the Cantal. The plateaux are used extensively for cattle rearing, both for milk, which is made into Cantal cheese, and for beef - meat from the Salers breed is highly valued and thus commands a higher price. Cantal cheese is found all over France and elsewhere , usually in its Vieux (Old or Aged) and Entre Deux (literally between two) forms.  Both are a bit like cheddar in texture, but with their own distinctive taste. The youngest form, Tomme de Cantal  is softer and milder and is used mainly for cooking, especially with potatoes to make aligot or truffade.
We occasionally walk up to the Plateaux de Trizac and once up there the feeling of space is immense. Last month we walked up the other side of the valley, almost up to the Promenade des Estives, a track which goes along the crest of the hills between two valleys, the Mars and the Auze.
The plateaux du Trizac

My other readngs have been quite mixed, varying from the light-hearted Lucia in London by E F Benson, which I think I enjoyed even more than the two previous novels in this series. I feel that I am familiar with Lucia and her social climbing attitudes, so could sit back and just enjoy the tale for what it was., a highly amusing tale of social climbing at its most obvious.
Alan Titchmarsh's tale "The Haunting" had some particular interest as it was set in Winchester and the Itchen valley, a very lovely part of Hampshire,  and familiar territory to me. The story concerns a school teacher who after his marriage fails, buys a small cottage with access  through an overgrown garden to the River Itchen, The cottage and the house next door were formerly part of an old mill, and the story of those who occupied the place in the past has resonances with Harry and his neighbour Alex and her young daughter.Anne. A fairly quick read but one which held my attention'
Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side was aquite different story, being narrated by an eighty-nine year old Irishwoman, Lily Bere, who had fled to America just after the First World War, with Tadg, to whom she has become engaged. Lilly looks back on her long life, bringing up a son, and later a grandson, who has just killed himself. Lily's life has been one of loss, but she has also found some sort of contentment though her employer, Mrs Wolohan, who herself suffers grievous losses.
Not a particularly summery read, but a gripping  and memorable tale.
Saplings by Noel Streatfield tells the story of four middle -class children, and their parents, and how all are affected by war. Seen at first as a happy family group enjoying a typical middle-class holiday at Eastbourne just before the start of the second World War, the story  soon hints at the chaos and disasters to come. After war is declared the children  are first evacuated to their grandparents in the country and are later sent away to boarding school, and separated from each other during summer holidays. The loss of their father Alex, who was more sympathetic to his children's emotional needs than their mother Lena, and of the home in London, was disastrous for them. I thought this a very interesting read and as someone who was at boarding while parents were abroad working, had a good deal of sympathy for the situation the children found themselves in. Their point of view is made clear to the reader, but not to the adults they are dependant on for their well-being,

Thursday, 6 August 2015

H is for Hawk

My book group recently read Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, which won ,amongst other prizes last year, the Costa book of the year award.  I enjoyed the read, although  some others found it hard to get into and some also struggled to finish it. It was intriguing, with its beautiful and lyrical writing about nature when Helen is training and eventually flying Mabel outside. The descriptions of the English countryside even in winter inspired me to look for the beauty in the barest of winter landscapes when out and about in it. Contrasted with this was a near academic dissertation of T H White's The Goshawk, his story of trying to train a goshawk in the way that Helen Macdoanld was doing. There was also quite a lot of information about early books on the training of hawks, which I personally found interesting.
The author seemed to have been an observer rather than a participant as a child, which was when she first read The Goshawk and became passionate about hawks.
We did have some discussion about her description of the grief she felt at the sudden death of her father, which was obviously a shock to the whole family and concluded that the training of Mabel was an eventually successful effort to overcome her grief.
All i n all, this is a worthwhile read and a memorable one.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Helen Dunmore - The Lie

Helen Dunmore – The Lie
A lovely apparently gentle read, although the chapter headings giving instructions about the art of trench warfare in WW1 give the lie to that, as does the opening chapter, with its haunting of Daniel. I think you realise from the beginning that this will be an emotionally charged story.
Daniel Branwell and Frederick Dennis grow up together in a small Cornish town, although Daniel’s mother is a cleaning lady for the Dennis family, who live in a newly built substantial house. Mr Dennis’ wife had died in childbirth, leaving two young children, Frederick and Felicia.
Daniel is a clever boy, able to memorise what he reads and have constant recall, while Frederick is not interested in reading. The latter goes off to boarding school in Dorset, while Daniel has to leave school at the age of eleven and work as a garden boy at another large house two miles away.
There are many areas of contrast apart from the above such as the gentle landscape of Cornwall, the harshness of the weather at times, the life of the two boys, the lives of Felicia and her brother – she being denied much education despite being interested and clever.
The war when it comes both separates and brings Daniel and Frederick together; they are separated by the army, Daniel being a simple soldier while Frederick becomes an officer. Eventually Frederick leads Daniels troop but with disastrous results.
The main story is set in 1920, two years after the end of the war, but we don’t know what Daniel has been doing up till the time he arrives at Mary Pascoe’s cottage and seeks shelter. The ending is somewhat enigmatic – is he really being chased by so many people, or is he imagining it? He thinks he sees Frederick, but possibly that is his imagination and his being haunted by Frederick.
 Daniel appears to be cynical at times, due to his experiences, both before the war, during it and afterwards, but is also sensitive.and is representative of how war affects people like him , Frederick seems to be more self-assured than Daniel, but comes from a more privileged background. Daniel seems to be his only playmate when young and he does not appear to make friends easily as an older child and young man. The question of whether Daniel and Frederick were sexually attracted to each hovers in the background e.g. the kiss between them in the garden in France, Daniel’s abstinence in France and his feelings towards Felicia are not clearly revealed.
I read this for a book club meeting but was unable to attend, so am curious to find out what others thought of it.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Reading catch up

Some of my recent reads have been fairly lightweight, with E F Benson's Queen Lucia and Katie Fforde's Recipe for Love being the lightest of the bunch. I've come across so many comments about how wonderful the Mapp and Lucia books are that when I saw the Complete Mapp and Lucia stories in a two volume Wordsworth edition on the Bibliophile website/catalogue at a very low price that I immediately sent for them. I am reading them one at a time, not rushing through the whole sequence, so I can enjoy them at leisure. After all, they were originally published as independent novels, for entertainment. I also saw the television series broadcast at he end of last year on the BBC. I usually prefer to read the books first, then watch, so when I saw it I thought I'd better read the stories as well.

I have read many, but not all, of Katie Fforde's novels ever since she gave a talk about her writing many years ago at Southampton City Libraries, and enjoyed them all as lightweight and entertaining escapist stories, as was this title.
 Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is a fairly short, easy to read story of one summer on a island in the Gulf of Finland, but has such beautiful writing, such tenderness in the description of the relationship between the grandmother and her granddaughter in their adventuring on the island that it will be one I remember for a long time.
Although Stella Rimington's At Risk and Susanna Gregory's An Unholy Alliance are thrillers, they are very different, At Risk being set in the present day, while An Unholy Alliance is set in 1348 at the time of the plague. At Risk is also the first in a series of thrillers with a heroine, Liz Carlyle at the centre of the action. I have n't yet read any of the more recent titles, but will look out for them.
I was unaware of just how prolific Susanna Gregory is, and will probably read others in her series of medieval mysteries, as they are well written and the events described so far in the past they are less disturbing than more up-to-date crime stories. 

Front Cover I picked up Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust  in a local bookshop (October Books, a co-operative) as the sub-title, A History of Walking was intriguing.(It was also reduced in price).  How do you write a history of something that for centuries, millennia even, was the main method of getting about the world for all humankind.
This book covers a huge amount of not just history, but literature, art, human anatomy, gender politics,  mountaineering as well as where we walk in country or city and how the motor car is affecting our pedestrianism. Rebecca Solnit has included an amazing amount of research in this nicely produced volume.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Secret Lives of Dresses

The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean seemed a bit twee as a book title when I saw it the library shelf but on looking at the notes/blurb on the back of the book and reading that the author also has a blog at, , which I had read but not recently, I became more enthusiastic. The book turned out to be a competently written story about a young woman, Dora, brought up by her grandmother Mimi, who owns a vintage dress and clothing store in a small American town. Dora receives n urgent phone call while working in a student coffee bar as a fill-in summer job at university telling her Mimi has been taken to hospital, so Dora rushes back home.
While Mimi is in hospital, Dora decides to keep the store open, and discovers that Mimi had been writing a story about the dresses she sold.
I enjoyed the characters in the story and the visions created by the descriptions of the dresses and other items of clothing. although I am unlikely to wear vintage myself (probably an age thing- I'm in my late sixties) and I thought the gentle romance side of the story believable. I read this in one sitting, as although it's not a demanding read, yet it has great page-turning qualities. You do want to know what happens to the characters, will they be alright?
The discussion about clothes and how they can make you  and those who see you feel is interesting and always relevant. We are constantly given messages about appearance, that it matters, that people judge us by how we look and dress, although we are also judged on how we behave to those around us. I think this book caught my imagination as I used to make a lot of my own clothes, encouraged by my mother. Growing up as a teenager in the 60's, good quality clothes were expensive, so if my sister and I wanted something new to wear, we could make it, using a pattern and materiel bought locally. I have carried on making, although when I had a full-time job and two children, I made fewer clothes; I gave up making trousers for  the boys when they started needing a fly zip, but continued to make cushions and curtains for the house, and for our summer house in the Auvergne.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Return to the Auvergne

A view of the Vallee du Mars

Back in our house in the Auvergne, the other evening we went out for supper to  a new establisment in the village. It is L'Establou de la Vallee, and has been set up by the son of our neighbour. The family have been working hard at converting a barn on land they own just above the village itself, and have turned it into a lovely ferme auberge, in a beautiful setting, and with magnificent views over the whole vallee du Mars and the mountains surrounding it.  L'Establou is well worth a visit. The food is simple but generous and tasty, and the ambiance in the restaurant calm and peaceful. There is a lovely sitting out area beside a small lake.
The whole valley is very beautiful, and at the moment busy with hay making, in order to provide food for the cattle in winter. Cattle rearing is the major farming activity of the area, and cheese is a major product. Cantal cheese is found throughout France and is one of the country's oldest. Some of the local dishes , such as Aligot and truffade, use Tomme  fraiche de Cantal, which is very young cheese,, creamy in texture, somewhat similar to unsalted mozzarella. Both aligot and particularly truffade feature regularly on menus in local restaurents, both being mixtures of potatoes and cheese, but there the similarity ends. Aligot resembles mashed potato but requires a lot of beating to achieve its smooth texture, while truffade is prepared differently. I have to admit I have not yet made either for myself, just eaten dishes prepared in restaurants or at communal meals where aligot and sausage are often the menu.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Catching up

I don't seem to have read so much this last winter as some years., certainly fewer novels than usual for me. Most of my reading has been from pot-luck visits to my local branch library, now in danger of being closed or offered to local community group to run.
Over the winter months we have been spending time tidying up the garden, MOH hacking back various overgrown trees and shrubs, to let in a bit more light and air.

 I have however enjoyed a few books in the last months, Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go being one of them. The descriptions of Ghana itself roused memories of my early childhood, which was largely spent in that country, where my father worked as a mining engineer. Taiye Selasi's writing switched from lyrical to staccato rapidly, but with meaning, and I thought beginning a story with an ending was intriguing.
I enjoyed several of the stories in Rose Tremain's short story collection The American Lover.  I rely on Rose Tremain's writings for interesting, engaging and well-written storytelling, and this didn't disappoint.
Another book of short stories was Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, some of these were qutie memorable, especially the title story and the story about an author visit to a book group in a provincial town. This last seemed to be an author's worst nightmare and had a definite ring of truth to it.  The book was widely reviewed in the press when it first came out, to not entirely complete approbation.
 I finally caught up with Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, one of her most famous and probably the most widely read of her ghost stories and thought it disturbing and unsettling as are some of her others I have  recently read.
I have struggled somewhat with Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, because I do not like the narrator/main character very much at all; I find him and his actions arrogant and self-centred, although the discussions by him with others about his behaviour are fascinating. I also find his constant referrals to Edith as being a child, when she seems to me to be a young woman with a mind of her own, irritating. As this book was lent to me by a friend, I am determined to finish it, but cannot find the impetus to read much of it at one sitting. But then not all books are to be read simply at one go, so to speak. Some are better for being read at a slower pace, thus being savoured more.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Blogging again

A Rant

Having taken a break from blogging for a while, I' returning with a rant about library cuts. Although much in the news last year,but less so this, yet they are still going on. 
What makes local councillors think that closing a local branch library in a city suburb a good idea? The library was built 80 years ago, at a time when the local area was being developed, including the street in which my home is situated. It also has a fairly large council housing estate very near to it, a secondary school just up the road, a primary school near as well. It is just across the road from the university campus, and about 3 minutes walk from the university library. It was suggested some years ago that this branch be closed and the local residents use the university library. That is not an option for most of the users of the public library, as the university library has totally different collections of books to the public library, nor does it provide the services which are provided by the public library, such as rhyme times for toddlers and pre-school children, events for school-age children, computers free of charge for all who wish to access them to use the internet, to search for a job, help with their homework, and so on. The university library is set up to provide academic resources for its students and staff, not for the educational, information and recreational needs of the general public.
Currently the branch is staffed by unqualified, but trained staff, supervised by qualified librarians based in the central library. I spent 18 years of my career as a qualified Chartered librarian in branch libraries in the city, but there are now no full-time qualified librarians based in branches within the city. The city council has recently held a consultation on its proposed plans for the library service, plans which include the possible closure of 5 branches within the city,  unless volunteers or some other organisation can come forward with sustainable proposals to run them. Four of these branches are situated in areas of some deprivation and where schools are not all of the highest standards.
There is an excellent description of the problems which can arise with the use of volunteers in a publicly funded service here:

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