Guardian links – Hilary Mantel

Todays Guardian Review section is a special issue as it contains the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s much awaited book The Mirror and the Light. If you’re so inclined you can read it here. I must admit that I haven’t read it myself as it would drive me up the wall not being able to continue reading it until the book is published on the 5th of March.

There’s also an interview with Hilary Mantel which you can read here, she’s speaking to Alex Clark.

Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin and others write about their favourite Mantel books here.

It’s difficult for me to say which is my favourite because I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but I also loved A Place of Greater Safety which I read fairly recently.

I’m now wondering if I should re-read Bring Up the Bodies before reading The Mirror and the Light.

My Friends The Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan

My Friends the Miss Boyds cover

My Friends The Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan was first published in 1959 and it’s the first of a long series of books. The author whose real name was Elizabeth Jane Cameron was born in Renton, in the west of Scotland just a couple of miles from where I grew up but she lived most of her childhood at her grandparent’s croft on the Black Isle in the Highlands. Her books are very autobiographical.

The year is 1918 and Janet Sandison the narrator is eight years old. She’s usually called Janet Reachfar as it’s the tradition in the Highlands for people to have the name of the place they live as a surname. Reachfar is her grandparent’s croft and she lives there with her parents, her Uncle George and Tom, the hired man who is thought to be a bit lacking but is really as my mother would have said – “a’ there and a wee bit mair”.

Reachfar is four miles from the village so it’s an eight mile round walk for Janet to get to school, her main companions are George and Tom and she doesn’t have any toys, she has animals instead which she is responsible for, although her dog Fly is her nanny, taking care that Janet doesn’t wander off or fall down the well.

The most exciting thing that happens in the community is the arrival of the coal boat which happens only once a year and the dominie (schoolmaster) gives the schoolchildren a two day holiday to watch the unloading of it. The coal is unloaded last with all the ‘clean’ things, the winter stock for all of the shopkeepers such as food, drink, fabric and ironmongery, just everything that people need, first. One memorable time a large and beautiful brass bed was unloaded, complete with mattress, blankets and pillows – a gift for Granny Macintosh. So exciting was that that the kids ran alongside the delivery cart to see it being set up.

The Miss Boyds of the title are six unmarried sisters who have moved to the Highlands from a town, the youngest three still have a shop in Inverness and the locals think that they should have all stayed in town. They have no idea of how to even buy the coal and they spend their time giggling, fluttering and nudging each other. They soon gain a reputation for being man mad and nobody has a good word to say about them, until disaster strikes one of them and then the locals feel sorry for them and are forever sending them gifts of food.

I’ll definitely be reading the others in this series, when I can get my hands on them. They’re full of social history as well as humour and an unexpected bit of sadness too. I really appreciated too that although the book is set in 1918 Jane Duncan tied up all the loose ends and the time moves on to 1949 and she lets the reader know what happened to the main characters from 1919 to 1949.

Jane Duncan also wrote under the name of Janet Sandison.

The blurb on the back says: ‘An impressive first novel … the reader can see every scene and hear every speech … full of vitality’ The Observer

Marian Clayden Exhibition at Drum Castle

It can be quite surprising what you see when you visit castles in Scotland. When we went to Drum Castle in Aberdeenshire – I have to say a couple of years ago now, I didn’t expect to see an exhibition of textiles and clothes by Marian Clayden who I hadn’t heard of before but is very well known in her field of textiles and weaving. You can see my earlier posts on Drum Castle here.

Marian Clayden designs

The photos really don’t do her work justice as you can’t see the textures so well. The fabric is mainly silk and velvet, absolutely sumptuous looking.

Marian Clayden textile

Marian Clayden dress designs

Marian Clayden, designs

Marian Clayden was born in Preston, Lancashire which had a thriving textile industry back in the day, so her family was involved in various crafts, but I think we can safely say that Marian picked up that baton and ran with it. You can read about her life here.

Marian Clayden design

She trained as a teacher but after having a couple of kids and being stuck at home she decided to try dyeing some textiles in her kitchen, using skills she had learned in her teacher training. Moving to San Francisco in 1967 must have influenced her hugely – with all of those flower power people and bright colours around the place.

Marian Clayden  designs

Her career took off and there were exhibitions of her work all over the world. Sadly she died in 2015 but her work lives on in major collections all over the world in places such as the V&A in London and the Metropolitan in New York. We were just incredibly lucky to stumble across this exhibition in a Scottish Castle.

Marian Clayden

My January Garden

It has been such a mild winter here in Fife and my garden does seem to have more colour in it than usual for this time of the year. Snowdrops, primulas, primroses, heathers and pulmonaria were all in bloom.

January garden

January garden

January garden

Mind you my camera seems not to be coping with close ups, time for a new one maybe.

January garden

January garden

January garden, Fife

I still think we’ll get snow at Easter or thereabouts, but I’ve got some of the seeds I want for this summer and I’m champing at the bit to get stuck into some proper gardening. It’s still far too cold to sow seeds though.

The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson

The Long Ships

The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson is a Scandinavian classic and was first published in English in 1954, translated from Swedish to English by Michael Meyer. This is a great read which combines Viking raids in various countries, slavery, conversion to Islam under duress, escapes, fights and battles a-plenty, romance and details of domesticity in the late 10th century. There’s quite a lot of humour too, with the whole idea of men going ‘a-viking’ apparently coming about because the men were tired of listening to their women’s sharp tongues over the long dark winter.

This is a real page-turner with the action beginning in Skania (southern Sweden) where a young man called Orm has been left behind with the women while the men go a-viking. Orm had been rather mollycoddled by his mother after his older brother Are had left home and never come back again, presumed dead. But Orm ends up being abducted from his own doorstep and so begin his adventures which end up with him becoming a leader of men. But it isn’t all about fighting men, there are plenty of good, strong female characters in this book.

This book does seem to be historically correct and it details how Christianity was spread throughout Scandinavia, something which seemed unlikely given that the Vikings were so keen on raiding holy islands and murdering monks and priests.

Frans Bengtsson was a poet and biographer and The Long Ships was his only novel, it’s a great Viking saga.

This year I intend to try to read quite a lot of European books in translation, this one counts towards that personal challenge.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

The World My Wilderness cover

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay was first published in 1950, her second last novel with The Towers of Trebizond being her last.

The book begins in post war France at the Villa Fraises where Maurice Michel had lived with his English wife, but Maurice had drowned and as the rumours were that he had been a collaborator it’s assumed that the maquis had dealt with him in retribution. Maurice’s step-daughter Barbary had been on the fringes of the maquis (French Resistance) along with his son Raoul and they had led a fairly wild life dodging the Gestapo and causing mayhem whenever they could. The end of the war hasn’t made much a of a difference to their behaviour.

Barbary had been very close to her mother Helen but since the birth of a son to her and Maurice she’s not really interested in her teenage daughter and decides to pack Barbary off to her father who lives in London. Barbary is appalled at the thought of going there and living with her father and step-mother, but she settles down to life there in her own way, enjoying the many bomb sites and continuing to kick against any authority, and embarking on a career as a shoplifter.

As Barbary’s father is a high flying lawyer she’s a real liability to him, she’s not going to fit into his upper middle-class London society, but she can’t cope with the ruffians of London either.

There are various wildernesses in this book which moves from rural France to the Highlands of Scotland then to the bomb sites of London, and also the wilderness that a family can be when it’s torn apart and re-made in a different guise.

I think the only other book by the author I’ve read is The Towers of Trebizond and I enjoyed that one more with its quirky characters and humour.

A Winter Walk in Fife

Last Saturday we decided to go for a good long walk before Storm Ciara really hit us hard as was forecast, and we had been meaning to visit the Barrel Brig ever since we saw a photo of it on our 2019 calendar. So we drove to the wee village of Coaltown of Balgonie to park the car there and stroll along the country road in the right direction. I took the photo below of Balgonie Castle from a very rural lane. If you look carefully to the left of the middle you’ll see a castle which is a mixture of ruins and a family home. The castle has been used as a location in Outlander, as have so many places nearby.

Balgonie Castle, Fife, Scotland

It wasn’t long before we realised that it was a mistake to tackle this walk at the weekend as we could hear the roar of motorbikes and quadbikes. But some of the bikers pointed us in the right direction for the bridge and presumably the farmer was happy for them to vroom about in this otherwise empty field.

Bikes , Fife

The road went from being fairly good tarmac –
farm path, Fife

To truly awful mud due to the motorbike traffic. My boots felt twice as heavy as they had been – so mired in muck were they.

Fife farm track

But we struggled on, just hoping that we were going in the right direction.
farm track, Fife

Eventually we could see a river through the trees, the River Ore.
River  Leven, Fife

The bridge is described by Historic Scotland as an – early 18th century double arch bridge with cutwater buttresses to centre pier. Rubble spandrels with squared and coursed rubble soffits. It is a pack horse bridge, erected before 1725 and was presumably used by farm labourers who were carting crops around and maybe even people, if they were lucky enough to be given a lift.
Barrel Brig, Fife

The River Leven here isn’t much bigger than a burn really but people still fish in it, or they did when there were any fish in it to catch.
River Leven, Fife

On the way back the sky turned to blue, for a wee while anyway, but as we were caked in mud by then we were glad to get home and sit down with some coffee. Sadly I didn’t lose any of the extra pounds that I put on over Christmas despite the exercise.

Fields, Fife

You wouldn’t believe that it was the same day – looking at the sky, but such is the weather in Scotland, just wait five minutes and it will have changed! I hope you enjoyed stretching your legs with me.

Fields, Fife, scenery

Edinburgh book purchases

We were in Edinburgh earlier in the week, avoiding Princes Street we made straight for Stockbridge, my favourite haunt for second-hand bookshops, but strangely I wasn’t that lucky there. I bought a small copy of

1. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. For some reason this one eluded me through my childhood and that of my own boys. Mind you as it was first published in 1968 I would have been deemed to be too old for it back then. It’s a charming story though and I love the illustrations. After reading Judith Kerr’s wartime reminiscences in Bombs Fell on Aunt Dainty and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, I had to get this one.

2. Tortoise by Candlelight by Nina Bawden is a Virago but was first published in 1963. According to The Observer it’s – ‘An exceptional picture of disorganised family life … imaginative, tender, with a welcome undercurrent of toughness’.

Books Again

Driving across the city to Morninsgide I was amazed to see four Persephone books in the Oxfam bookshop, they almost never appear second-hand. Unfortunately I already had two of them, but I quickly snapped up-

3. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail. I’ve been meaning to read this one for years so it’ll probably jump quite high up the TBR queue.

4. The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart -which I must admit I’ve never even heard of.

I also bought a copy of Shirley Jackson’s We have Always Lived in the Castle, thinking that I had never read this one, but it turned out I had. Oh well, last time I borrowed it from the library so it’s nice to have my own copy. Jack might want to read it at some point in the future.

Have you read any of these ones?

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep cover

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1966 and my copy seems to be a first edition. If you’re wondering which book to read next from your to be read stacks and you just can’t make up your mind – as I often can’t, then a Georgette Heyer book will always hit the spot – I find.

The setting is Bath where unmarried sisters Abigail and Selina Wendover share the custody of their seventeen year old niece Fanny. Fanny’s parents are dead but have left her very well off when she comes of age, meaning that she’s a prey to all fortune-hunters – a type of beast which haunts the streets of Bath.

Stacy Calverleigh also inherited a large fortune but he has run through it all with his serious gambling habit and in no time at all he’s targetting Fanny for her money, and she very quickly believes she’s in love with him. But her Aunt Abigail knows of Stacy Calverleigh’s reputation and is determined to protect Fanny from him.

This brings Abigail into the society of Stacy’s Uncle Miles. He is the Black Sheep of his family and was sent out of the way to India to find his fortune (or fail) twenty years ago. Miles Calverleigh has just returned from India for good but he isn’t interested in his nephew, he’s enamoured of Abigail. But she believes Miles is a bad lot, she knows that he was expelled from Eton before being packed off to India, so she’s not interested in him.

If you’ve already read Georgette Heyer’s books you’ll know that there’s a lot of witty dialogue involved. The blurb on the inside dustcover says:

Black Sheep is one of Miss Heyer’s lighter-hearted romances, with a charming heroine and a most intriguing hero – mysterious, good humoured, cynical, outrageous and in the end irresistible.

A good read.

This is Edinburgh by Miroslav Sasek

This is Edinburgh cover

This is Edinburgh by Miroslav Sasek was first published in 1961 but my copy is a 2006 reprint. I swithered about buying this one, I already have so many books for children but the illustrations are so charming and as I flicked through it I saw the iconic Jenner’s department store building – that swayed me to definitely buy it. I’ve been told that Jenner’s is going to be shut as a store and converted into posh apartments, so it’ll be nice to have it still as it was within the covers of this book.

This is a lovely volume which features many of the places that tourists want to see when they visit the city – Edinburgh Castle, St Giles’ Cathedral, Greyfriars Bobby and Holyrood Palace, but also the more out of the way places such as Dean Village, which I love. The famous penguin parade at the zoo is depicted, although since the pandas took up residence the penguins haven’t been the main attraction that they once were, much to their chagrin, but they started getting their own back by aiming their poo at the waiting visitors!

From The Times, 2011: Penguin poo hits the fans in panda queue


They arrived at their new home in a police cavalcade, having touched down in a private jet, so it was perhaps inevitable that the UK’s only pair of giant panda would ruffle the feathers of their neighbours at Edinburgh Zoo.

According to keepers, the penguins who live upstairs may be suffering from “monochrome jealousy” of Tian Tian and Yang Guang. Eschewing traditional housewarming gifts, the rockhopper penguins are targeting the visitors queueing up to see the pair with droppings.

There is a news video from 2011 about the jealous penguins here.

Of course the pandas don’t feature in this book as it dates back to 1961 with just a few wee updates at the back of the book.

You can see a lot of the illustrations in this book here.

The author first wrote This is New York and This is London before turning to Edinburgh. It’s a children’s book to be enjoyed by all ages.