About Katrina

I live on the east coast of Scotland, not from choice. After 30 years here it still doesn't feel like home. Hence the name of my blog. West is still best as far as I am concerned. I'm married with two grown up 'boys'. I'm interested in books, films, art, crafts, cooking, politics, museums and travelling around Britain.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

 Lady Anna cover

I hadn’t even heard of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel when I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop in Innerleithen. I quite fancied the subject matter though, the setting is the French Revolution and it’s a chunkster at 872 pages. I was disappointed for the first 100 pages or so and I did think that Mantel had definitely improved in her historical fiction with Wolf Hall, but this one eventually got going.

This book has an eight page cast of characters at the beginning, which is just as well as it certainly helps the reader to keep things straight. I think we all have a fair idea of what went on in revolutionary France, but this book begins in the 1760s with the early life of the main participants in the grab for power in the 1780s.

Mantel says in her Author’s Note that where possible she used a lot of the characters’ actual words, whether from their written speeches or preserved writing and has woven it into her dialogue.

She also says: I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide:anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

I ‘did’ the French Revolution at school but reading this book made it all much clearer to me. I don’t think that my school books mentioned anything about the involvement of the British government who were working to destabilise France as a way of getting rid of King Louis and helped to finance the revolution – but now that I think about it – of course they would have!

This was a great read.

Church on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

The Church on the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is quite something – as you can see. You really couldn’t get further away from the ecclesiastical architecture that prevails in western Europe, in other words – it’s definitely different. Yes that is scaffolding swathing it. It seems that no matter where we are there’s scaffolding hugging whichever building we particularly want to see!

Church of the Spilled Blood 7
And from another angle.

Church of the Spilled Blood 4

This church was built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II which took place in 1881. A bomb was thrown at him and it went off when it landed at his feet, I believe he lived for a few hours but was never going to survive. You can read about Alexander II here.

Church of the Spilled Blood

Below is the decoration on one of the sides of the church.

Church of the Spilled BloodSpilled Blood

We didn’t go into the church as Nevsky Prospect was calling to us, we aren’t religious and you aren’t allowed to take photos inside anyway. The outside was stunning enough for me.

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

 Lady Anna cover

Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope was published in book form in 1874 but the setting is around 1830. Lady Anna’s mother was socially ambitious and was determined to marry into the aristocracy. Despite dire warnings, especially from her father, she insisted in marrying Earl Lovel who had a reputation for being evil. Not long after their wedding Earl Lovel told his ‘wife’ that she wasn’t actually married to him at all as he already had a wife living in Italy. Their unborn child would be illegitimate. Then he abandoned his ‘wife’ and went to live in Italy. Over the next 20 years Lady Lovel strove to prove in court that she was actually married to Lord Lovel, all that cost a lot of money that she didn’t have.

A local tailor took pity on her and ended up supporting her and her daughter, Lady Anna. The tailor had spent thousands of pounds on the Lovels, to the detriment of his own son. Meanwhile Anna has more or less been been brought up with Daniel the tailor’s son and over the years they’ve become more than friends, Anna has promised to be his wife when she’s of age. When her mother learns of this she’s horrified at the thought of her Lady Anna marrying the son of a mere tailor, despite the fact that that tailor has been supporting them both for years.

Meanwhile Lord Lovel has died intestate so his estate and money should go to his nephew who is keen to marry Anna which would please Lady Lovel, but Anna feels she must keep her promise to Daniel. Lady Anna takes this all very badly as you would expect of someone who has always been a social climber

Whose side was I on? Well, there are lots of clues to the character of Daniel and they don’t bode well for a harmonious marital future for whomever he marries. Daniel is a Radical, the variety that thinks that everyone should have equal rights, except his wife!

Daniel Thwaite was considering the injustice of the difference between ten thousand aristocrats and thirty million of people, who were for the most part ignorant and hungry.

“Mr Thwaite says, “There must be earls and countesses.”

Daniel Thwaite says, “I see no must in it. There are earls and countesses as there used to be mastodons and other senseless, overgrown brutes roaming miserable and hungry.”

Daniel Thwaite says, ” I don’t want my wife to have anything of her own before marriage, but she certainly shall have nothing after marriage – independent of me” For a man with sound views of domestic power and marital rights always choose a Radical.

I believe that Trollope wrote more books featuring these characters – it sounds like Lady Anna may discover that she has made a big mistake.

Markinch Highland Games, Fife, Scotland

Sunday dawned dreich and damp but it was Markinch Highland Games Day, the first games of the season I think and although it had been raining heavily for the previous few days – the games were going ahead.

Pipe Band

This was the first time I had been to the games and I was really there as I had volunteered to help out with cooking the bacon for rolls, but I got a chance to walk around and see what was going on from time to time.

Pipe Band, Markinch
There was a real mixture of age groups involved in the pipe bands and some of them were from local high schools. They had to find corners of the park to tune up and have a bit of a practice before marching to where the adjudicators were waiting to judge them. One of the adjudicators was from America originally and he was still learning the ropes, but he was one of those American-Scots who was more Scottish than the Scots.

Methil Pipe Band

Luckily the rain stayed away most of the time but waterproof capes were worn by some. I hate to think how long it would take to dry out a wet kilt.

Pipe Band , Markinch Highland Games

The photo below is of a man with a gadget which he seemed to be using to test out the pipes of the individual players. It’s a complete mystery to me!
Pipe Band, Markinch

Sadly the Highland dancers weren’t in the park this year, I think they were at the town hall so I didn’t manage to get any photos of them. The Highland Fling used to be my party trick!

In the photo below the man is attempting to throw a 54 pound weight over a very high pole above him. The competitors didn’t seem to be very heavily muscled, in fact they are regularly tested for the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs – as are all of the athletes. I think they just chose some at random but quite a few of them were tested – it’s all so serious.

Weight tossing

Weight tossing

I think this one made it over!
Weight tossing

Or maybe it didn’t. As you can see there was a cycle race going on at the same time, there were an awful lot of cycle races and various different running races as well as tthrowing the hammer, but I missed those.

Weight tossing

There were three competitors battling it out in this contest, and I’m not sure which one won.
Weight tossing

There are cabers on the grass in the background but I missed that too, I must have been too busy cooking bacon when that was going on. Anyway, it was a long and tiring day, just watching it all going on, I can’t imagine what it was like taking part in it.

Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Look At Me cover

Look At Me by Anita Brookner which was first published in 1983 is only the second book by the author that I’ve read – the other one being Hotel du Lac of course.

This isn’t a comfortable read and indeed there were many times when I wanted to give Frances – who is telling the story – a right good shaking! Frances has ambitions to be a writer but meanwhile she works in the reference library of a medical institute which is of course frequented by medics. One of them Nick – is your typical entitled type, tall and handsome, he’s untidy and leaves everything for others to clean up after him and generally treat him as the something special that he believes he is, and Frances is happy to pander to him. He’s married to Alix who is a very similar type, except she’s always moaning about how she has ‘come down in the world’. Her father had been bankrupted.

Alix and Nick end up taking Frances up, much to her delight and she ends up spending a lot of time with them. Nick and Alix are the type of couple who need to have an audience rather than just being in their own company – always a danger. They’re also very jealous of the very large central London flat and money that Frances has inherited from her very wealthy parents.

Alix doesn’t work and she’s obviously bored, she enjoys manufacturing arguments with friends, particularly Maria and eventually Alix is thrilled when she realises that Frances has taken up with Nick’s friend James as she had planned. But Alix wants to know all the ins and outs of the relationship, something that Frances isn’t willing to talk about. Alix isn’t happy that she’s being kept out of that relationship and doesn’t have much scope for her manipulative nonsense. It’s inevitable that she’s going to throw a spanner in the works – just to get back at Frances. Frances seems to think that all of her experiences are good copy for any subsequent writing that she’ll publish.

This is a frustrating read as Frances is so slow to see what is going on, and even when she does realise she still isn’t enraged as she should be. This is similar to Barbara Pym’s writing – sad and lonely people abound – and of course it features a library.

The Times Literary Supplement said about it: ‘Very sophisticated extremely clever, and brilliantly polished’.

I really dislike the cover of my edition. It’s a detail from a 1928 painting called Portrait de Madame Rita van Leer by Andre Derain.

St Petersburg – part 2

Winter Palace , St Petersburg, Russia
The green/blue palace is the Winter Palace and it’s just part of the entity that is called the Hermitage. There are six palaces which make up the Hermitage complex. There are so many exhibits in the Hermitage that if you spent only one minute in front of each one it would take you seven years to get around it all. We didn’t even get in due to the queues and wanting to viist other parts of St Petersburg in the short time we were there.

Winter Palace, St Petersburghorse-drawn
You can have a ride in a carriage around the square if you’re that way inclined. I watched people in the carriages taking selfies of themselves while they jogged around – not looking at the actual scene at all!

palace , St Petersburg, Russia

There’s a huge square in front of the complex of palaces which make up The Hermitage. Presumably it was designed like that for military purposes. Kings and Queens have always wanted to inspect their troops I suppose. This was the official residence of the Russian Tsars from 1732 until their demise in 1917. You can see more images here.

Palace , St Petersburg, Russia

There’s a massive column of victory over Napoleon in the square which is now edged by loads of tour buses.
victory monument

There are so many palaces around there, it’s difficult to figure out what they are! We discovered later though that the one below is the General Staff building.

Palace , St Petersburg, Russia

palace , horse statue pediment

The square had obviously been the focal point of the recent 1941-1945 Victory celebrations which we had just missed, and they were busy taking down the banners while we were there.
Palace Square  , banners

After years of reading about Russian history I could hardly believe that I was actually standing in front of the Winter Palace and it really didn’t matter to me too much that I didn’t actually get inside. Although I remember my mother telling me that she had seen a train in a station in Holland which had the destination MOSCOW on the front of it – so if we ever do go back (very unlikely) we’ll go by train and have a week there as that is what is needed to do the place justice.
Winter Palace stitch

The White Guard by Mikhael Bulgakov Classics Club spin

The White Guard cover

I got The White Guard in the Classics Club Spin which was almost ideal really as I was reading it while on my way to Russia, except I was going to St Petersburg, not Kiev which is the setting of the book which first appeared in serial form in 1925 but wasn’t published in book form in Russia until 1966.

The setting is the city of Kiev in 1918 – the October Revolution. The Turbin family had been well off but they’ve just lost their beloved mother. It’s particularly poignant as her eldest son Alexei had just returned from the front after serving for years in a disastrous campaign in the Tsarist army. At last the whole family is together, but without their mother. There’s a younger brother, Nikolka and a sister Elena who is married to an army captain and also Anyuta the maid all living in the family apartment but it isn’t long before Talberg the husband abandons them, running away to save his own skin, the brothers had never trusted him anyway.

The city is chaotic with the German army roaming around and various other factions trying to grab the power.

The Bolshevik thugs are running around in the city, attacking anyone that they recognise as having been an officer in the Tsarist army, and it’s very easy for the officers to be pinpointed. Criminals are taking advantage of the chaos to blackmail people into giving up their valuables. The apartment becomes a refuge for others sheltering from the violence.

This is a really great read, conveying the atmosphere of danger, fear and panic as the normal rules of society have broken down and nobody has any idea of what the new future is going to hold for them.

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett was one of the books that I read on my Kindle while I was on the Baltic cruise. I actually ran out of ‘real’ books to read on board, that’s because I found it quite boring, cruises are fine if you are keen on stuffing your face a lot, otherwise there isn’t much else to do but read, unless you’re interested in boozing or gambling!

Anyway, back to the book. Riceyman Steps was first published in 1923 and it won the James Tait Memorial Prize that year, which is one of the reasons that I decided to read it as I’m hoping to read as many as those prize winners as I can get my hands on. It is set in London’s Clerkenwell, mainly in a bookshop and attached flat which has been inherited by Henry Earlforward from his uncle. One window looks into The King’s Cross Road and the other onto Riceyman Steps. Henry had had to learn the book business quickly and despite the shop being really dirty and dingy he had a good number of loyal customers for the antiquarian books in stock. Books are piled everywhere, as is dust and as Henry is a terrible miser he only has one electric light, the rest of the building is lit by candles.

There’s a confectioner’s across the road, inherited by Violet who is a widow, and Henry has taken a shine to her. It isn’t really romance he’s after though it’s more the fact that she has a business and he thinks that maybe Violet would take over the cleaning in the shop. That’s a bit optimistic considering they both already share the same young cleaning woman/maidservant in the shape of Elsie. She has trouble with her young man who is a survivor of World War 1 but he suffers from shell shock, which causes huge problems within their relationship. Henry’s chief joy is to spend half an hour picking his teeth with toothpicks after a meal, not that he would ever go to the expense of buying toothpicks. His only other joy is to fashion spent matchsticks into toothpicks – waste not want not!

Violet isn’t really cut out for being a confectioner and when she decides to sell her shop she also decides to marry Henry, after all – he has good living accommodation. But they really know nothing about each other. When Violet decides to employ a firm of cleaners – complete with new-fangled vacuum cleaners to clean the interior of the building as a wedding present to Henry he is absolutely aghast. She had spent £14 on the firm of cleaners and of course everything had been moved. Henry thinks his customers won’t be able to find the books they are looking for.

Henry’s miserliness becomes worse and worse and he cuts back on food and fuel for both of them to starvation levels – with disastrous results. This sounds a bit of a grim read but I enjoyed it and it’s a lesson for all misers everywhere.

Subscribers

You might know that while I was away on holiday for some unknown reason my entire list of subscribers disappeared, it’s an absolute mystery as to why. Luckily there was a backup of it and Duncan has been able to get it back, so we hope that nobody is missing from it. If you had previously subscribed and you still aren’t getting blogpost emails, please resubscribe.

St Petersburg, Russia

If you know anything about Russian history one thing that you will want to visit in St Petersburg is the Aurora as she fired the blank shot which signalled the start of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Here she is below, moored in the River Neva and just having been given a bit of a makeover, she’s apparently a darker shade of grey than she was formerly.

Aurora

It was possible to get on her but we didn’t fancy the size of the queue.
Aurora flag

There are lots of bridges over the Neva and as you can see – lots of tramlines too.
green domes ,St Petersburg

The Church on the Spilled Blood below was built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Apparently you can still see the blood stains, but I suspect that it’s a bit like Holyrood Palace and Rizzio’s bloodstains – a bit faked up. As you can see it’s swathed in scaffolding at the moment.
Church on the Spilled Blood

Church on the Spilled Blood

Looking across the Neva again to the Peter and Paul Fortress with the golden spires.
across Neva Peter and Paul

Every direction you look in there are churches or palaces, we believe the one below is the General Staff Building. You can see red banners hanging from posts, very Soviet Union looking. These were to commemorate the anniversary of May, 9th 1945 Victory Day. Unfortunately we just missed the celebrations which were a few days earlier.
Palace , St Petersburg, Russia

Below is a sort of canal which is really part of the Neva I think.
blue bridge canal, St Petersburg, Russia

Below is some sort of government building I think. One thing that I really wish I had done before going to Russia was to at least buff up my knowlede of their alphabet, it might have helped a lot.
government building 2 stitch

Below is a photo of an ordinary street in St Petersburg. One thing that I really liked is that the traffic lights have a countdown so you know how long you will have to wait before the lights change again. The ‘green man’ actually speeds up his walking action as the time to cross begins to run out – so helpful I thought!
street in St Petersburg, Russia

Looking at the huge amount of very grand buildings many of which were palaces in St Petersburg it’s very easy to see why they had a revolution. The difference between the haves and the have nots was enormous
1941-1945 banner