Hitting the road

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Fare is a magazine that’s published twice a year about cities and their food culture. I thought I’d waited too long to buy their first edition about Istanbul, but the Aberdeen shop “Curated Stories” still had copies and posted me one so quickly that I got it the next day. Having read it and also some of the Charleston edition I’m now quite intrigued by their choice of Helsinki as a second destination.

Are you tempted too?

Frilled linen

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And then, opening her eyes, how fresh, like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays, the roses looked; and dark and prom the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale – as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks cane out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day

Mrs Dalloway buying the flowers herself, and the very much not-for-sale roses in Regebt’s Park.

Waterlogged

In winter, you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china teaset were vibrating on a silver tray…You fling the windows open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, pearl-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.

A bit of an odd choice to read about Venice in winter in June, but Joseph Brodsky’s essay was just what I wanted for a bout of travel lust. Each winter for seventeen years he’d return to Venice for a month:

This is a time for reading, for burning electricity all day long, for going easy on self-deprecating thoughts or coffee, for listening to the BBC World Service, for going to bed early.

”Waterlogged” by Joseph Brodsky

 

Practice

I amused myself by giving my father daily  Palsy Practice, which consisted of gently shaking his hand while he was taking his tea: “In a few years, when you’re really old, you’ll probably have palsy. I must give you a little practice now, before you actually get it, so that you won’t be dropping things all the time.”

Jessica Mitford – Hons and Rebels

Granite Island

We envied the Cesari. They had leisure, and we had not had any for several years. The farm work seldom needed more than two of the brothers at any one time; the sisters got through the household chores in a couple of hours of the day. In the long intervals between work Francois shot hare in the maquis that Antoinette cooked in a pot on the open fire with olive oil and whole cloves of garlic; Antoine and Jean-Baptiste repainted the living-room, experimenting with pale Etruscan red framing several shades of blue and grey; Marie embroidered sheets with intricate patterns of roses; Pierette studied a book of the geography of the world….there were hours too when no-one did anything…

In London I had not taken the true measure of our deprivations. I had not understood how far  my daily load of anxiety was a craving for the things every peasant know: space, silence and food that was not stale.

Dorothy Carrington first went to Corsica in 1948, and large sections of the book are infused with a postwar melancholy about the effects of civilisation and the need to retreat to a rough landscape and older society.

But there’s also a much more contemporary zest, akin to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writings, of discovering beautiful vistas and a motley crew of companions, albeit in Dorothy’s case more archaeologists and shepherds than Leigh Fermor’s east European aristocracy and Consuls.

The simmering pot was taken off the fire; it contained a mutton stew, thick with vegetables. But first we had plates of smoked ham and several varieties of smoked sausage, and tomatoes and raw onions swimming in the local unrefined olive oil which gave to all this food a provocative musky flavour; and afterwards came a homemade cheese made of ewes’ milk, oddly tasting for nuts, and finally small, very sweet melons.

If the book had stayed with this it would have been nice enough – I am enthusiastically reading myself into the holiday I’m currently dreaming of – but what makes it really special is that quite soon, Carrington turns the book into a serious and detailed history of Corsican society, from the mountain peaks to the fishermen, from the vendetta, the folk singers, the people cursed to predict and bring death to those they know and the soothsayers, from the revolutionaries who attempted a parliamentary democracy in the 1730s to the prehistoric statues and spirit huts near the capital Ajaccio.

This was completely fascinating – Carrington’s love for Corsica comes through, and she must have carried out huge amounts of research, from Greek texts to political treatises, but wears it lightly. Most praiseworthy of all, she definitely lives up to that other heroine, Gertrude Bell, in her willingness to scale a mountain in pursuit of an archaeological quarry.

Meatless Days

For the next several years Pip let himself occupied by inventing newspapers and procreating: Shahid was born in the year the Evening Times became a morninger; the Times of Karachi and I followed close behind.

Sara Suleri’s Meatless Day’s is a series of essays that collect together not just her family, a failed lover and an irritating friend she can’t drop, but also the birth of Pakistan, where her father was a Dickens-style newspaper editor and her Welsh mother taught literature in the universities.

Ifat, Shahid and I greeted a goat into the family with boisterous rapture, and soon after he ravished us completely when we found him at the washingline nonchalantly eating Shahid’s pajamas.

The early morning was my favourite time, because then those flowers felt firm and fresh with dew. I would go to the vegetable patch and squat over the cauliflowers as they came out one by one, hold them between my knees and chew as many craters as I could into their jaunty tightness. Qayuum was crushed. “There is an animal, Begum Sahib,” he mourned to my mother, “like a savage in my garden. Maro! Maro!”

Childhood reminiscences scatter through each piece, her eccentric and stubborn grandmother who had a direct line into God and would also sit in the empty dining room crying “Oh God give me tea” in order to annoy her son, that same grandmother accidentally setting herself alight by making tea on an open flame one night and the grisly business of tending her burns, the eccentric cooks they had and the scorpion stings she incurred when her brother made her clear out the swimming pool.

Most present of all is the constant, double dislocation of grief and physical exile as her mother and eldest sister are killed in traffic accidents and the remaining family scatters to Kuwait, England and the US. 

I was pleased to have my mother to lead me through those shelves and see the pleasure it conferred on her when she told me contemplatively, “Yes, now you’re old enough to read Jane Austen.”

Soon, I think, we will put the clock forward, obliterate one April hour, and the day will make a startling leap into expansive evenings, creating ample setting for lucid conversation.

Even happy memories carry a load of melancholy and loss, and a weaving together of personal and national histories

when in her nineties she was dying, frail, my brother Irfan was deputed to transport her from Lahore to Islamabad: he chose to take a train, since Pakistan is still a country that takes railways seriously. Such commitment makes of stations, however, a seething mass of life: once they reached Ralwapandi and Irfani had looked first at my grandmother and then at the density of bodies around him, he decided that he had no choice but to pick my Dadi up and, holding her above his head, go running through bodies like a coolie, crying, “Jan dus! – Give way! Give way!” Light and tiny Dadi, the luggage on that coolie’s head, sent wraiths of wails toward the ceiling: “Irfan, Irfan, Irfan”.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the title essay Meatless Days, where an amusing memory of how the meatless Tuesdays and Wednesdays imposed by Pakistan’s first government led to a triple slaughter on Monday’s rather than the efficient rationing that was hoped for merges with a memory of kidneys as a punishment meal as a child, with the gradual adulteration of food (including milk watered with paraffin) in 60s Pakistan and the wider metaphor for disappointment in life that what was a potato on the fork became a turnip in the mouth:

So long before the kapura made its comeback in my life, we in Pakistan were bedmates with betrayal and learned how to take grim satisfaction from assessing the water table of our outrage.

Romance

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My love of A Cup of Jo is well known, and the blog’s ability to get a real – and good – conversation going in the comments is next to nothing. That team isn’t smashing it. So it’s no surprise that when Ashley Ford posted there about her love of romance novels it broke the internet.

So many good suggestions! But for those of you looking for an indulgent night in, can I, firstly applaud the sheer genius of a romance novel bookshop called The Ripped Bodice (worth flying to America just for that), and secondly suggest you line up:

– Penny Reid’s Knitting in the City series

– Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker series

– the Nacho Figueras take on a modern Jilly Cooper

– Alyssa Cole: An extraordinary union

– Ann Calhoun’s Liberating Lacy

– anything by Suzanne Wright or Elle Kennedy

(mum, you should have stopped reading sentences ago…)

“Woman combing her hair” by Joseph DeCamp

Podcast of the week

My love of podcasts is still going strong, and the latest one to cross my radar (very much in a sequence of Backlisted and The Reading Women) is the LRB podcast.

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The first pieces were very much in the nature of 20 minute reviews, so if you want to know what a Giorgione painting is or isn’t, and the chicanery is art attribution, or an investigation of if “international relations” is just “race studies”, then it’s here.

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But there’s also a longer-form interview style that develops, so you can also hear the Asia editor of The Times on North Korea, discussing with an American South Korean author the common iconography of north and south Korea, or a riveting, freewheeling, incisive interview with Carmen Callil of Virago fame (“such a lot of short malnourished people with bad teeth”) on Angela Carter and why Bohemia is bad for women.

In fact that latter one was ringing in my ears as I went to the Rodin Museum recently and thought of Augustus John saying with complete seriousness what a “great pleasure” it must be for his sister Gwen to serve such a man as Rodin…

Ploughing through

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Deineka – young woman reading

This is basically me right now, as the Christmas period is always a great time to get stuck into a pile of books and that drive usually continues into the new year. What I’ve taken down from the book pile already:

and what I’m currently dipping into every day:

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and some of what’s on the heap after a generous amazon voucher from my dad: