Sunday, April 29

Q&A: books

Last week Rosie tagged me in a lovely Q&A all about books, and being the bookworm I am I couldn't resist taking part. This post feels very fitting on a wet and windy Sunday - the perfect conditions for losing yourself in a book. Warning: it's a long'un!

The rules:
1. Post these rules
2. Post a photo of your favourite book cover
3. Answer the questions below
4. Tag a few people to answer them too
5. Go to their blog/twitter and tell them you've tagged them
6. Make sure you tell the person who tagged you that you've taken part!

I tag Louise, Jessica, and anybody else who is reading this and is tempted to take part. Don't forget to let me know if you do complete it as I'm all for sharing the book love.  

I have lots of favourite book covers but I chose this one as it's the inspiration behind the name of this blog. This book is from a secondhand shop and is really old - it has a bookplate that reads 'Strictford Congregational SS - Awarded to Mary Hunter for Regular Punctual Attendance, December 29th 1914'. I love finding books that come with these little pieces of history - handwritten bookplates, personal messages, dedications (the best one found in an old Steinbeck - "To Pat, For all the words you thought I couldn't say, with love, The Twit"). A feature that could never be found on a Kindle...

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Claudine in Paris - Colette. It's about a seventeen year old girl starting a new life in Paris and her observations of the city. I've only just started it, but it's very readable so far...

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
The other weekend I did something I haven’t done in years and went to the library. I had a long browse along the shelves and emerged with a stack of books, just like I’d do on a Saturday morning aged ten. So the books on my pile to read next include:
Possession - AS Byatt
Heart Songs - Annie Proulx
A Gathering Light - Jennifer Donnelly

What 5 books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?
Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Tender is the Night - F Scott Fitzgerald
Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?
Country Living, Vogue and the Observer Food Monthly – sums me up!

What’s the worst book you've ever read?
I remember when I was about twelve and was staying in a B&B on the west coast of Ireland. I’d exhausted my own book supply and had to go ferreting through the shelf of old books left by guests. I picked up a Mills and Boon novel, not really knowing what it was. And it was awful.

What book seems really popular but you actually hated?
The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards. I didn't hate it, just thought it wasn't very well written.

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith, because it’s a book I’m completely and utterly in love with.

What are your 3 favourite poems?
All really common choices; I need to read more poetry!
The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock - TS Eliot
in Just-spring - ee cummings
Ode to a Nightingale - Keats

Where do you usually get your books?
One of my aunts is a writer and has contributed to much of my ‘library’ with secondhand novels she’s recommended and the stack of books I’d get every birthday.The rest come from charity shops or Amazon. I think the prices in most bookshops are absurd so I only buy a new book if it’s a favourite, a special edition, or a recipe book.

Where do you usually read your books?
In bed, just before I go to sleep. I also love lying in the garden in the summer sunshine with a novel and a glass of iced tea!

When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?
Nothing particular - I just read a lot. On the sofa, in the bath, in bed, after school, over my bowl of Ready Brek in the mornings, over my dinner in the evenings, and sometimes curled in a duvet in the cupboard under the stairs (when I wanted some peace and quiet or was pretending to be Harry Potter)

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins, which Rosie is now reading! Apparently even Thackeray pulled an all-nighter because he couldn’t stop turning the pages, so I’m not alone.

Have you ever “faked” reading a book?
I don’t think so, although there were some books I skim read for GCSE/A level because I didn’t like them.

Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?
Yes – not novels but vintage books and illustrated childrens books I find inspiring.

What was your favourite book when you were a child?
Anything by Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. I longed to be the sixth member of the Famous Five and roam sandy beaches drinking ginger beer all day... And when I was really young, there was a book called Each Peach Pear Plum which I think my parents could probably recite by heart, they read it to me so often. “Each peach pear plum, I spy Tom Thumb...”

What book changed your life?
I’ve read a lot books in my twenty years, but I don’t think a book has changed my life, not yet

What is your favourite passage from a book?
 O lord this question could be pondered over for hours! I love this passage from I Capture the Castle:

“He stood staring into the wood for a minute, then said: "What is it about the English countryside — why is the beauty so much more than visual? Why does it touch one so?"

He sounded faintly sad. Perhaps he finds beauty saddening — I do myself sometimes. Once when I was quite little I asked father why this was and he explained that it was due to our knowledge of beauty's evanescence, which reminds us that we ourselves shall die. Then he said I was probably too young to understand him; but I understood perfectly.”

What are your top five favourite authors?
Nigel Slater – not strictly an author but his food writing is amazing
John Steinbeck
Roald Dahl
F Scott Fitzgerald
Laurie Lee

What book has no one heard about but should read?
Emotionally Weird - Kate Atkinson. It's often found shunted to the back of charity shop shelves but is an unusual and brilliant book. It's like nothing I've ever read and there is something so nostalgic about her descriptions of university life in 1970s Dundee, and a summer on a remote wind-battered Scottish island.

What 3 books are you an “evangelist” for?
I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
The Summer Book - Tove Jansson
Granpa - John Burningham
(the most beautifully-illustrated, heart-warming, touching and saddest childrens book there ever was)

What are your favourite books by a first-time author?
The Outsiders – SE Hinton

What is your favourite classic book?
Most of the books mentioned in this post are probably seen as classics. Also love Oliver Twist - Dickens, Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte and The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald.

5 other notable mentions?
Toast - Nigel Slater (an amazing mix of autobiography and food writing)
Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons (just brilliant)
The Country Girls - Edna O'Brien (a wonderful, funny coming of age story set in 1950s Ireland)
Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint Exupery (who doesn't love this book)
The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett (a perfect spring story for all fans of the outdoors)

I'll always be a big reader. I nearly went to university to study English, until I realised I didn't want to study books - I wanted to read and enjoy them. It's one of the nicest pleasures in life to curl up with a book and a cup of coffee; you can forget about your own life and worries for a couple of hours, or maybe discover that somebody has described perfectly your own feelings and experiences, or just enjoy the ability to visit other places and other times.

I'll end with a quote from one of my favourite plays/films, The History Boys:

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours."
And, very importantly, as John Waters said, "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't f*** them."

Friday, April 27

Heavenly chocolate chunk cookies on a rainy afternoon

So I'm going to be really British and talk about the recent weather we've been having: rain, and lots of it. It would be easy to moan about the number of times I've cycled home from work in an absolute deluge and come through the front door sopping wet, or about how any outfit I've worn has been hidden under a sexy black shapeless anorak. And I am craving some warm sunny days. But if I'm honest, I haven't totally hated the rain. It's atmospheric. It heralds the odd exciting clap of thunder. It patters down outside and keeps me company when I'm up late reading. I went for a quick run in between showers yesterday and saw that all the trees and plants look transformed by it, looking full, green and summery.

Today brought another rainy afternoon. So I turned it into a positive thing. I stayed in the bright warm kitchen, rain tumbling against the window. A cup of peppermint tea, Ella Fitzgerald playing, and a few hours of blissful baking. Because if you're going to try and enjoy the rain, you might as well do it properly.

First of all I made dark chocolate chunk cookies. They remind me of childhood baking, and I realised that I've never really made them since! Biscuits, yes - gingerbread at Christmas, almond kourabiedes, sesame and tahini biscuits - but not the huge, chewy, crisp cookies you see in cafes and bakeries.
I spent a long time hunting down a recipe and eventually went with one from the Hummingbird Bakery book. I was hesitant, because I've tried their muffin recipe a couple of times and it's never produced an amazing muffin. But I didn't need to worry as these turned out perfectly. Just the right size, good ratio of chocolate to dough, crisp round the edges and chewy inside. Yum indeed.

Ingredients (makes 24)

225g butter/margarine
350g soft light brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
400g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
225g dark chocolate, roughly chopped (read: bashed with a rolling pin)


Preheat your oven to 170 degrees and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
Cream together the butter and sugar (with a whisk, in a mixer or by hand) until light and really fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Add the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and mix well until a smooth dough is formed.
Stir in the chopped chocolate until evenly dispersed.
Arrange into equal sized balls on your tray and allow plenty of room for spreading (no more than 6 cookies on a tray!).
Bake for about 10 minutes (mine took 15) until golden brown around the edges and quite flat. (At first, they seem to rise and look worryingly like muffins, but be patient and they will flatten. If you take them out and they look sort of runny in the middle, they're not done.)

I also baked oat and raisin cookies...

Oat and raisin cookies can be controversial (there are a lot of raisin haters out there) but I love them for their wholesomeness and the fact they seem slightly healthy! This recipe also came from the Hummingbird Bakery book and was equally successful.

Ingredients (makes 20)

270g butter/margarine
160g caster sugar
160g soft dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
380g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
110g rolled/porridge oats
220g raisins


Preheat your oven to 170 degrees and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
Cream together the butter and sugars (with a whisk, in a mixer or by hand) until light and really fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Sift together the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and cinnamon in a separate bowl, add the oats and mix well. Add to the butter mixture and beat until well mixed.
Stir in the raisins until evenly dispersed.
Arrange into equal sized balls on your tray and allow plenty of room for spreading (no more than 6 cookies on a tray!). Bake in the oven for about 12 minutes (again mine took 15) until golden brown and firm. Be careful as they burn quite easily.

And that is how you turn a rainy afternoon into something nice. Just add baking, tea and good music.

(But fingers crossed for some sun next week.)

Saturday, April 21

Just a moment in... April

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. Honestly one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Lovely, funny descriptions of country life.

Listening to...
(I always listen to the same music, it never really changes...) Bob Dylan, Noah and the Whale, Michael Kiwanuka

Nurse Jackie season 3 boxset (a brilliant, underrated show), Homeland (starting to lose interest...) and Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys (he is my embarrassing crush). But there's hardly anything good on telly at the moment.

My provisional driving license. Eek.

The rain, controversially. It's made everything look so much healthier, and I forgot how much I missed the smell and sound of it.
Also: all the flowers that are starting to come out, the Easter chocolate we've still got lurking in the cupboards, and that fizzy elderflower drink you can find in Sainsburys for something ridiculous like 50p!

Thursday, April 19

A day in Margate

Last Friday we took the train to Margate, to visit the exciting new Turner Contemporary art gallery that's opened on the seafront, and have a ramble around the town. It was cold and foggy in the morning - classic weather for a trip to the British coast - so we looked around the gallery first of all. The Turner Contemporary is built on the spot where JMW Turner used to live and from which he painted many of his amazing landscapes of sea and sky. The gallery seems to have had a positive effect on the town, and whilst half of it is still very run down and seedy (the tragic fate of many seaside resorts), the older part is actually rather nice, with beautiful buildings and lots of lovely cafes, vintage shops and retro signage.

We saw the 'Turner and the Elements' exhibition, which was brilliant. I've always loved Turner. We have a huge print of Rain, Steam and Speed on our wall which I've sat and gawped at since I was tiny. His use of light and colour is so uplifting. It seems to draw you right into the painting. 

We also saw an exhibition by Hamish Fulton, an artist previously unknown to me, whose art is inspired by long walks he takes all over Great Britain and Europe. Some of these walks last for months on end and each piece documents a walk in a very graphic way, using typography and simple line and shape. I really loved his work - it made me think a lot about how we represent events, and how we represent art itself. It also made me want to go on a long walk.

We emerged from the gallery into glorious warm sunshine, and after walking around the seafront we sat outside in the gallery cafe and had an incredibly tasty mug of vegetable soup with a hunk of artisan bread. Then, with an hour before we had to catch our train back to London, we decided to walk around the old town. The bright blue sky meant it was great for photographs so I'm afraid we looked very touristy. Margate has some great vintage shops - sorely tempted by a couple of Laura Ashley dresses though at £50 they were sadly out of my price range. I did make a couple of purchases however which shall be blogged about soon!

All in all, a lovely day. Margate is highly recommended if you like sea air, art galleries, independent coffee shops and vintage rummaging. I haven't been to Kent since I was small and although its coast seems really flat and neat to me (rugged Cornwall and Devon have my heart) the towns seem to be sprucing up quite nicely. Siobhan recently posted about a daytrip to Whitstable, another place which sounds good for a visit - its beach huts did look pretty from the train window.

Thursday, April 5

in Just- spring


Just some photos I've been taking as spring begins to unfold outside. After months of bleakness you can't help but feel uplifted by spots of colour appearing everywhere.

I love this poem by e e cummings, which seems to sum up the beginning of spring perfectly, and reminds me of Easter school holidays as a child, rediscovering the outdoors after winter.

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles

But it's been freezing this week. Truly cruel after last week's summertime temperatures. I was lucky enough to be outside for most of the warm weather and had a particularly lovely day with my Mum and Gran. A stroll across the fields to the garden centre where I work, taking photos of flowers, seeing the horses without their jackets on for the first time this year, beautiful blossom, lingering over coffee outside, orchids, Cath Kidston mugs and cherry bakewell flavour fudge, and a lunchtime picnic & sunbathe in the garden. Freckles and tan lines and everything! Yet now I just felt like crawling into bed with the winter blues.

Hopefully this week of cold weather will just be a blip, because I'm so ready for summer. I cope much better in the heat (I think partly due to being born during a 35 degree heatwave) - in the cold I pretty much just curl up uselessly in a corner and comfort myself with stodgy food until nicer conditions return. This behaviour does have its attractions, but I miss the sun.

I'm sure baking hot cross buns and simnel cake tomorrow will cheer me up, as well as the exciting return of Easter egg chocolate on Sunday! Happy Easter everybody!