Monday, 21 January 2019

It's a Small World

Or, at least, a small continent. From our part of the UK it is incredibly easy to hop over to mainland Europe. The main budget airlines fly out of two London airports, one of which is under 30 minutes from us, and the other 75 minutes if there is no traffic. Over the past three years we have taken advantage of discounted flights to as much of Europe as we can manage. Last year we went on short breaks to Stockholm, Disneyland Paris, Normandy (by car and ferry), Gdansk, and Genoa. We also took a longer summer trip by rail across central Europe, visiting Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic. Smallest daughter also went on a school trip to Lille (France). This year we have already been to Disneyland Paris again, and have trips lined up to Rome, Genoa again and Greece.

This sounds incredibly decadent, but most of our flights have worked out at less than £50 return, and sometimes much less. Our middle daughter is spending the year studying at the University of Genoa in Italy, and she has truly mastered the art of the cheap flight - the lowest fare she has managed so far has been £4.25 to return to Italy after Christmas! She gets the benefit of a student discount and flying to a small and less popular airport, but this still boggles my mind - it costs as much for a two station, ten mile hop on the train. Popping home for the weekend is as easy as it was from her UK university. And when she is there she gets the view in the photo below from her apartment window. The other pictures in the post are also from our trip to visit her in Genoa last October.

Every time we travel, I realise again just how privileged we are to live at a time when the world has shrunk so that we are able to explore so many extraordinary places so easily. In a speech a couple of years ago Prime Minister Theresa May, pandering to the more insular faction of her party, said "If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere". In my view she couldn't be more wrong. I am a proud citizen of the UK (though admittedly rather less proud as we endure the embarrassing shambles that is Brexit), but also love being a citizen of Europe - I am not sure I can quite claim "citizen of the world" as I haven't ventured further afield yet. Even if Brexit means we lose the right to live, work and study anywhere in Europe, I don't intend to let it rob me of my identity as both British and European.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

The world divides into those people who will happily go to events alone, and those who need company. I fall into the former category, which is a good thing as I am interested in a fair few things that M would consider among the deeper levels of hell. One of these is medieval history.

The British Library has had an Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition on display since October which I had been very much wanting to see. Time was beginning to run out as the exhibition ends next month, so on Thursday I took myself off to London to see it. Our trains to London run into a station handily placed just a five minute walk from the British Library, so I can be there in about an hour, door to door. My plan was to see the Anglo-Saxon exhibition in the morning, then to get lunch at either the British Library or the British Museum, and to go to the exhibition on Ashurbanipal and the Assyrians currently on at the British Museum in the afternoon if I had time. In fact the Anglo-Saxons exhibition took me so long to absorb that I ended up just having a quick wander round the free gallery at the British Library in the afternoon before heading home. Ashurbanipal will have to wait for another day - I do hope to make it though, as Ashurbanipal's library is one of my favourite exhibits at the British Museum and I would very much like to know more about him.

I was vaguely aware that the exhibition was an important one with much of the most important Anglo-Saxon material in the world brought together for the first time. I didn't buy a catalogue so working from memory here, but the list of items on display was pretty extraordinary. In no particular order it included:
  • The earliest surviving copy of Bede's Ecclesiastical History
  • Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete Latin Bible (written on parchment so enormous, maybe 12 inches thick?) - made in England but now in Italy
  • The oldest copy of the Rule of St. Benedict
  • The Lindisfarne Gospels
  • The earliest copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  • The earliest surviving letter in English
  • The agreement between Alfred and Guthrum which established the Dane-law
  • Domesday Book
These are just the tip of the iceberg - other items that I particularly liked were an Anglo-Saxon world map, a book personally annotated by both Saint Boniface and Saint Dunstan, and a beautifully illustrated herbal describing the uses of various plants (parsley for snake bites, apparently). There were also some artefacts on loan from museums, including sword embellishments from Sutton Hoo, part of the Staffordshire Hoard, and the Alfred Jewel (up there with Ashurbanipal's library as one of my all time favourite museum exhibits). Photography was not allowed, but here is a picture I took last year of the Alfred Jewel in its usual home, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

I have also added a couple of pictures from outside the British Library: a giant statue of Isaac Newton in the forecourt (above), and the roofline of St. Pancras railway station behind the modern library building. It was a beautiful, bright (but cold!) morning, with a perfectly clear blue sky.

The British Library has various articles and featured items from the exhibition on its website here.

Friday, 18 January 2019

100 Books for 2018: 6 to 10

Book 6 - The Diary of a Bookseller (Shaun Bythell) [Audio]
This is Shaun Bythell's record of his trials and tribulations as the owner of Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop in Wigtown. Some are the inevitable consequence of working with the public, who often have somewhat unrealistic expectations of what they can expect from a bookseller. Then there is Amazon, with which Bythell has what can only be described as a hate-hate relationship! Coincidentally I heard an interview with him on the radio a few days ago - he has now stopped selling through Amazon after a technical error led them to deactivate his account, no great loss as the prices there are so low as to be unprofitable. Although I only gave the book 3 stars it was more of a 3 and a half, and I think I would have enjoyed it more as a book rather than an audio book. An easy and entertaining read / listen.
*** 3 stars

Book 7 - The Lost Plot (Genevieve Cogman)
This is the fourth book in the Invisible Library fantasy series - I wrote about the first here. This time the action takes place in a 1930s style parallel version of New York, where two dragons are competing to secure a court position, a competition to the death which could also cause considerable collateral damage. The protagonists, librarian Irene and her dragon apprentice Kae, are there to rescue another librarian who has become caught up in the contest. I very much enjoy the fantasy universe Genevieve Cogman has created, balanced between the rational nature of dragons and the chaotic,  influence of the hypnotic fae, and the Lost Plot was another good read.
**** 4 stars

Book 8 - Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Maladies (Stephen McGann) [Audio]
This book is family history at its absolute best. Stephen McGann, the Liverpool actor best known for playing Dr. Turner in the Call the Midwife TV series, tells the story of his family (both past and present) through the lens of the medical traumas and diseases which defined much of their lives. The book begins with the starvation which drove his ancestors from famine riddled Ireland, and moves on through pestilence, exposure, trauma, breathlessness, heart problems, and necrosis. The medical theme unifies the diverse stories of his family members, and brings home some of the harsh realities of life in the past while also reminding us that good health is not something we can ever take for granted. If genealogy and personal history interests you, then I highly recommend this book.
***** 5 stars

Book 9 - Take Six Girls: the Lives of the Mitford Sisters (Laura Thompson)
I first discovered the Mitford sisters through reading Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate many years ago. It is hard not to be fascinated by the six sisters, and by how a single family could produce a writer (Nancy), a fascist (Diana), a Hitler groupie (Unity), a communist (Jessica), and a duchess (Deborah). Only the second sister, Pamela, seems to have kept a rather un-Mitfordish lower profile. This book was interesting, but I am afraid it bugged me by seeming to show a preference for Diana, the wife of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Diana maintained her loyalty to Mosley and his extreme right-wing views throughout her life, and I found it hard to summon up any sympathy for her. Nancy, on the other hand, was treated far more critically for being sharp and independent. As a result I found it hard to empathise with the author's picture of the sisters and gave the book only 2 stars.
** 2 stars

Book 10 - The Huntsman's Tale (Ann Swinfen)
The third in Ann Swinfen's medieval mystery series. This book moves the location from Oxford to the countryside when Nicholas Elyot takes his family to help with the harvest at his cousin's farm. An unpleasant new lord of the manor is shot during a hunt and Nicholas needs to uncover the killer. Another very enjoyable book.
**** 4 stars

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

100 Books for 2018: 1 to 5

Thanks to a combination of busy life and spending too much time getting sucked down an internet black hole in which I puttered from link to link, my lifelong book reading habit suffered. In 2017 I rebooted my Goodreads account and committed to reading 52 books as my 2017 Book Challenge. I hit 55. Last year I decided to stretch myself and go for 100. I finished the final book at 6.30pm on New Year's Eve! I use Goodreads to keep tabs of the books I have read and want to read; I give the books I read a star rating there, but rarely write reviews. I'm going to test my memory and try to write brief reviews of last year's 100 books here, a few at a time. I use the word "read" slightly loosely as I also count audio books. I usually listen to an Audible book in the car when commuting to work, and also download some free audio books from the library (the app for these can be frustrating, so I use it less than I otherwise would).

Book 1 - Beyond the Snow: the Life and Faith of Elizabeth Goudge (Christine Rawlins)
I am a fan of Elizabeth Goudge's gentle, uplifting writing, and enjoyed her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, so had high hopes of this book. I can't remember much detail now, but large chunks were simply quotations from Miss Goodge's writing. Disappointing.
** 2 stars

Book 2 - Women and Power: a Manifesto (Mary Beard)
Mary Beard, Cambridge professor of classics and presenter of some excellent TV history programmes,  is one of my favourite voices of reason on Twitter. This short book contains slightly extended versions of two lectures given in 2014 and 2017 and is intelligent feminism at its best, drawing on historical examples from the classical world through to the present day.
**** 4 stars

Book 3 - Jane Austen at Home (Lucy Worsley) [Audio]
I like Jane Austen. I like reading (and hearing) about Jane Austen. Lucy Worsley (also a TV historian) is a Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces and an expert on the history of domestic spaces. She puts Jane Austen into the context of the various homes in which she lived, and does it well. I finished this book with a much better understanding of Jane.
**** 4 stars

Book 4 - How to Go Vegan (Veganuary)
Last year I signed up for Veganuary and committed to eating vegan throughout January. The people at  Veganuary do a great job of providing online resources, and for 2018 they published How to Go Vegan.  I found it an excellent introduction to the hows and whys of veganism, encouraging rather than dogmatic. While I never intended to commit to veganism for the long term, I found I enjoyed eating a plant-based diet and largely stuck to it for most of last year, though eating vegetarian/pescatarian when on holiday, and occasionally succumbing to non-vegan cakes, biscuits and chocolate! This year I want to work on eating ethically, trying to find a balance of eating a mainly plant-based diet, supplemented with a limited amount of traditionally raised meat, sustainable fish, traditionally produced cheese and yoghurt, and free range eggs.
***** 5 stars

Book 5 - The Novice's Tale (Ann Swinfen)
This is the second in a series of medieval mysteries set in Oxford in the 1350s in the aftermath of the Black Death (I read the first, The Bookseller's Tale in 2017). The protagonist is Nicholas Elyot,  a bookseller and single parent of two young children, who lost his beloved wife to the plague. A former scholar, who left his studies in order to marry, he moves smoothly between the two Oxford worlds of the townsmen and the university. Each book in the series is well researched, and although the characterisation builds from one book to the next I think they could be read as stand alone stories. In The Novice's Tale Nicholas becomes involved in the hunt for a novice nun who has gone missing from nearby Godstow Abbey. Sadly Ann Swinfen died last year and the series ends prematurely with the fifth book. If you enjoy gentle historical mysteries I recommend these.
**** 4 stars

Monday, 14 January 2019

So Where Did That Year Go?

I want to blog. I like to blog. I forget to blog. It seems I forgot to blog for a whole year.

This year, I will blog!

Monday, 1 January 2018


2018 already! I knew I hadn't written anything here for a while, but nothing since May?

So ... where did 2017 go?

The biggest change over the last few months is that M has a new job, rather to his own surprise. He had been semi-retired and doing some irregular freelance work for the last couple of years, but following a conversation with a friend who was planning to join the ambulance service as a 111 call handler he decided it was something he would like to try. He applied, was accepted, started training in September and is now a fully fledged call handler on a part time basis - he works just two six-hour shifts a week, which although they are mainly at weekends seem to be fitting in with the rest of our lives pretty well. It also leaves him time to carry on as a freelancer whenever work comes along. 

If you are not familiar with the 111 service, according to the NHS website "111 is the NHS non-emergency number. It's fast, easy and free. Call 111 and speak to a highly trained adviser, supported by healthcare professionals. They will ask you a series of questions to assess your symptoms and immediately direct you to the best medical care for you" - this could be an out-of-hours clinic, an emergency dentist, a GP visit, a call-back from a doctor, an accident and emergency department or minor injuries unit, and in more serious cases the call handlers send out ambulances. There is more about the service here. After scrambling up a very steep learning curve, M is now settling in to the job and finding it challenging and satisfying in more or less equal measures. After forty years working in financial services, he is still slightly surprised to find himself as working in such a different field.

Life for the rest of us has ticked on much as usual. I am still working two days a week as an archivist, senior daughter is still working hard and enjoying her job, middle daughter is part way through her second year at university, also working hard, and youngest daughter is now in Year 7 at school and hitting the pre-teen stage.

We are still travelling as much as we can manage. M and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to France in June (worthy of a post in its own right). We spent a week in Weymouth (Dorset) in August, and a couple of days in Amsterdam in October. Plans for this year include a trip to Stockholm later this month and travelling through Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic by rail in the summer.

I love new years and new starts and can never resist making resolutions and giving myself challenges. This year I have signed up to two formal challenges:

1.  Veganuary - eating vegan for January. After that, who knows!

2.  Read 100 books for the Goodreads 2018 Challenge - last year I beat my 52 book target by reading (or listening to) 55 books. This year I intend to up my game.

General resolutions (much as usual) are to exercise more and to write more (yes, blog, I am looking at you!)

I hope 2018 will be a good year for you and yours.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Literary Memorials

A couple of weeks ago we enjoyed a meal at a hotel in the south Buckinghamshire town of Beaconsfield, for which two or our daughters gave us a voucher as a combined birthday present for M and Mother's Day present for me. As we were not eating until late afternoon we had time to explore the town beforehand. To give ourselves a focus for our stroll we went in search of memorials to two well known, but very different, literary characters connected with the town.

The first part of our walk took us to through the Old Town to the cemetery in search for the grave of one of the Titans of early 20th century Catholic and Christian literature, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

Wikimedia (public domain)

Chesterton lived in Beaconsfield from 1909 until his death in 1936. He was received into the Catholic Church there (in a temporary building used before the existing Church was built) and buried in the Catholic section of the cemetery. His grave was easy to find, not far from the entrance. 

I tried to take close up of the inscription, not very successfully. I think if you zoom in it is just about legible.

Two years after Chesterton's death the prolific children's author Enid Blyton moved to Beaconsfield, where she lived for nearly thirty years, although she died in a nursing home in Hampstead and was buried in North London. For nearly fifty years there was nothing to commemorate her in the town where she had lived for so long, but three years ago a memorial plaque was put up in front of Beaconsfield Town Hall. 

Enid Blyton's books were once considered quite controversial. On the one hand, children loved them and many children who would not otherwise have bothered with books read them avidly; on the other hand, their simplistic style and limited vocabulary turned many teachers, librarians and parents against them, with some libraries refusing to stock the books. My mother fell into the latter category, so I missed out on the Secret Seven and Famous Five as a child, though I remember reading some of her school stories, probably while I was at school myself. For some reason Mum didn't object to the Noddy books, maybe because they were aimed at younger children. Noddy and Big Ears, the most instantly recognisable of her characters, were featured on the Beaconsfield memorial. 

I wonder what Chesterton would have made of Noddy?