Autumnal Aberdeenshire

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After a quite stressful first half term back at school, made worse by the fact that I had to live out of a suitcase in my very kind sister in law’s spare room for several weeks due to delays in the building work on my new flat, I was very ready for a holiday. I had flirted with the idea of San Francisco, but then I saw a photo of a Scottish castle surrounded by autumnal foliage in a magazine and thought that actually, I had much more beautiful – and cheaper! – scenery on my own doorstep. So, a week in Aberdeenshire was duly booked, as it was a part of Northern Scotland I hadn’t yet explored, and the promise of more castles per square mile than any other part of the UK and the unspoiled beauty of the Cairngorms National Park were temptations too good to miss. I was taking rather a risk to visit at the end of October – people made all sorts of faces when I said where I was going, suggesting I was slightly insane to possibly submit myself to a week of driving rain and stubborn cloud – but my head was too full of visions of nature in a blaze of autumnal glory to worry about getting drenched. And as it happens, we were extraordinarily lucky with the weather. The days were crisp, with the most glorious soft golden light that gave the landscape a beautiful sepia hue. It was a delicious week.

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We decided to fly in order to make the most of our time; from London, the train to Aberdeen is over seven hours, which is far too long to be sitting down, in my opinion. Though I missed getting to see the subtle changes in the topography of the UK as the train steams up from the gentle slopes of the South to the craggy coast line of the North, it was a treat to arrive in Scotland within an hour of leaving London. As soon as we picked up our hire car, we were off to visit castle number 1: Drum. Drum Castle is everything you’d expect of a Scottish castle; turrets, towers and plenty of myths and legends! We loved exploring the castle itself, but the surrounding woodland was also breathtaking, with the trees burnished with gold and the waning sunlight casting a golden glow on the surrounding landscape as we climbed up higher and higher to see the Dee valley spread before us. It was a magical first day, and we drove back to our Airbnb cottage filled with excitement for the days ahead.

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Over the next few days we visited all of the other castles in the surrounding area that were open: Crathes Castle, Castle Fraser and Fyvie Castle, as well as two William Adam designed Georgian houses, Duff House and Haddo House. I could bore you with descriptions of all of these, as they were all glorious, but I’ll just tell you about my favourite: Fyvie Castle. Extensively renovated during the Victorian period by a Scottish steel magnate who went to America to make his fortune and brought back a dynamic and very wealthy American wife to the castle that had belonged to his ancestors 500 years previously, it is a magnificent example of how a traditional tower house can be made into a sumptuous home, and we adored it. It helped that we had a brilliant tour guide, but the Victorian interiors were absolute heaven for me! We also very much enjoyed Haddo House, which is well worth a visit for its beautiful grounds alone, where you can see red squirrels!

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In addition to castles, we enjoyed exploring the magnificent countryside and coastline of the region. The beautiful Cairngorms National Park takes up a huge swathe of the north of Scotland, and we drove through it, along the Royal Deeside route, as far as the pretty little town of Ballater. Surrounded by gently rolling hills, lochs and woodland, the Royal Deeside area is so called because of the River Dee that runs through it, but also because of its connection to Queen Victoria, for this is where Balmoral is situated, the Queen’s Highland home. All of the towns in the region benefited enormously from Queen Victoria’s decision to build her castle here in the mid nineteenth century, bringing a railway line with her, alongside a huge number of tourists and wealthy Victorian businessmen and industrialists who were keen to build their own Scottish retreats. The towns along the road to Balmoral received railway stations, neat new rows of houses, and an array of shops to serve the needs of their highbrow customers. Now much of this bustle has gone, in part due to the closure of the railway line in the 1960s, but Ballater retains its quaint Victorian charm and is still the place where the Royal household does its shopping when at Balmoral today. I was delighted to find the wooden station building built for Queen Victoria still standing, and inside it has been marvellously repurposed as a visitor centre, local library and restaurant, with one of Queen Victoria’s railway carriages to look at, a reconstructed royal waiting room, and a fascinating exhibition about the history of the railway line and its connection to the royal family.  It is definitely worth stopping off to visit, especially as there’s a very nice second hand book shop to look in, too!

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The coastline of Northern Scotland is wild and rugged, and though there was no chance of any sea bathing at this time of year, we still wanted the opportunity to see the sea while we had the chance! There are plenty of lovely places to visit along the coast; we stopped off first of all at the pretty town of Elgin, where there is a spectacular ruined cathedral to explore as well as a magnificent little museum, the oldest in Scotland, full of a fascinating, quirky collection of all sorts of objects, including a world-famous early Victorian fossil collection – just my cup of tea! From Elgin we went on to Cullen, a charming village that hugs the coastline, has an amazing railway viaduct, and is the birthplace of the famous Scottish soup, ‘cullen skink’, which is made from smoked fish and potatoes. We pottered about in the antique shops before heading off to Banff, which is a beautiful Georgian coastal town that is also the home of Duff House, whose Georgian splendour was almost eclipsed by the excellence of the coffee and cake we had in the tea room! As the sun began to set, we drove back along the coast to Portsoy, and watched the sun go down over the horizon, before returning to Cullen for the best fish and chips I’ve ever had at Linda’s – definitely a must visit!

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We had a marvellous time taking in the delights of the area, all against the backdrop of an ever changing pallet of glorious golds and ochres that were a feast for the eyes. One final recommendation I must make is to visit the most wonderful independent bookshop I’ve ever been to, in Grantown-on-Spey in the heart of the Cairngorms: The Bookmark. Filled to the brim with an amazing selection of books, including Persephones, we had a marvellous time exploring, and the owner was lovely, knowledgable and full of recommendations. She is passionate about getting people reading in the local area, running all sorts of groups and events, and I was amazed by her energy and enthusiasm. Please do go and support her if you can!

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Literary Landscapes

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Normally when I am asked to take part in a blog tour, my instant response is ‘no’, largely because I am terrible at remembering when I am supposed to be doing things at the best of times, but also because I usually don’t feel particularly passionate about the book being promoted. I would feel incredibly dishonest raving about something that I wasn’t convinced the people who read this blog and enjoy reading what I enjoy reading would like. However, in this case, I was delighted to make an exception and take part, because I love the concept, I love the book itself, and I genuinely believe that all lovers of literature will want this on their shelves.

Literary Landscapes: Charting the World of Classic Literature explores the real-life landscapes featured in favourite classic novels from across the world, looking at their meaning and significance to the novel as well as to the reader and the author themselves. It’s lavishly illustrated with paintings and photographs and ranges from nineteenth century fiction such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables to contemporary novels with a profound sense of place, such as Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. Each novel chosen to be featured comes with an accessible, scholarly written essay about the book’s setting and its significance, along with a variety of maps, paintings and photographs that are so beautiful and fun to look at. Making links to contemporary concerns, literary movements, the author’s own life and the impact on readers, each essay offers a short and sweet tour of the novel’s setting that allows even the most sophisticated of reader to learn something new and place their favourite books within a wider literary landscape. While some of the books featured are very familiar to me, and I fully understand and appreciate the significance of their setting already, there were many in the book, particularly ones set in foreign countries, or by more contemporary authors, which were more of a revelation to me.

Toni Morrison - Lorain High School Yearbook 1949 Courtesy of Lorain Historical Society

I’ve never been a huge fan of Toni Morrison, for example, but reading more about her choice of setting for The Bluest Eye, and seeing a photograph of her in high school, suddenly allowed me to make a connection that wasn’t there before:

“The Bluest Eye is set among the working-class African-American community just after the Great Depression, in the author’s home town of Lorain, Ohio, during the early 1940s. The then small, industrialized town, now a small city, is situated at the mouth of Lake Erie and later became part of what is now known as America’s Rust Belt.

The main theme of this short, melancholic book is of the self-hatred engendered by racism, with whiteness, and blond hair and blue eyes in particular, setting the standard for accepted beauty. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove believes – and is encouraged to believe – that because she is black she is ugly, and therefore cannot be beautiful, or loved – and indeed, her life is one of violence and disaster …

Toni Morrison was born in Lorain at 2245 Elyria Avenue, a two-storey frame house with a backyard full of weeds, very close to Lake Erie. Morrison used this house as a setting in The Bluest Eye, as well as a rundown store downtown, which became, in the novel, the home of the Breedlove family. ‘There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio’, she wrote. ‘It does not recede into its background of leaden sky, nor harmonize with the gray frame houses and black telephone poles around it. Rather, it foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy.’”

From exploring the real-life territory of Hardy’s Wessex to following in the footsteps of Eleanor Catton’s neo-Victorian protagonists in gold-rush New Zealand in her 2013 novel The Luminaries (far more interesting to read about than read, in my opinion!), this book is one of those that provides endless interest and fascination, and is a wonderful way to pass a quiet Sunday afternoon on the sofa. I know I’ll also be using it in the classroom, as a way of helping to bring the classic novels I study with my students alive, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’d like a copy of your own, and are on twitter, then you can win one, closing date 31st October – all you need to do is follow @modernbooks and tweet your own favourite #LiteraryLandscape for a chance to win.

Literary Landscapes is published by Modern Books and is released on the 25th of October.

Summer Reading

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The summer holidays are nearly at a close; I can’t quite believe it. It’s been a summer that should belong only to a distant, slightly hazy childhood memory, where every day was full of blue sky and shimmering sunshine, and all I remember is the sound of my feet splashing in the paddling pool and the tinny tinkle of the ice cream van. For it has actually been hot, consistently, in a way that British people can’t cope with and complain  incessantly about, providing a good two months’ worth of excellent conversation starters when forced into occasions where awkward small talk is required. My flat, made largely of glass, has become a greenhouse and I the wilting plant, and hence I have spent most of these leisurely weeks camped out in the countryside. I’ve been off exploring Scottish castles in Dumfries and Galloway, pretending to be Elizabeth Bennet avoiding Mr Darcy in the Peak District (no handsome hunk rising out of the lake for me, sadly), and lying in my sister’s garden hammock with a view of corn-cropped fields in Kent. I’ve written a 15,000 word MA dissertation on Jane Eyre and radical Christianity, finished writing my second book for English teachers, on teaching nineteenth century literature (coming out in March, if anyone’s interested!) and also read a lot of books. It’s been a very literary summer.

It’s always at the end of the summer, when the lavishness of those early days of dazzlingly bright greenery and bright blue skies begins to edge into weary wiltedness, leaves crisping and curling at the edges, blackberries beginning to ripen, the waving stalks of yellow corn shorn into stubble and the streets of London full of grey dust and dead leaves, that I remember all the wonderful favourite summer books I should have spent those glorious weeks of leisure re-reading. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, The Go-Between by L.P.Hartley, A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr, Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim, Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf…I could go on and on. Instead, I’ve picked books at random from my shelves, and bought undemanding indulgent treats from second hand book shops, devouring them guiltily in one reading like a child with a box of chocolates.

I finally read Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, which was a marvellous romp through her absurd childhood and fascinating first few years living in America, and an intriguing insight into the thinking of aristocratic socialists in the 1930s – apparently not an oxymoron, though they did all fail to see the irony in their leisured existences being down to inherited privilege and good connections! I read two adult novels by A A Milne, Four Days’ Wonder and Mr Pim Passes By, for the podcast Simon and I record, Tea or Books? (you can listen here if you haven’t done so before) – I really enjoyed the lighthearted, very inter-war tone and sense of humour – perfect summer reading! I found Coronation by Paul Gallico in a second hand bookshop while on holiday in the Peak District and absolutely loved this short but brilliantly told and characterised account of a family’s disastrous trip to London for Coronation day. I’ve also read a lot of murder mysteries, which I always seem to devour in the summer – it doesn’t seem seasonally appropriate somehow, but there you are! I picked up a lovely old copy of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, also while on holiday, and had great fun being reimmersed into the world of Poirot, but my real discovery has been Dorothy L Sayers, whose books I’ve been tearing through after starting to read Five Red Herrings in my holiday let in Scotland. I have to say, so far, I’m enjoying Sayers far more than Christie – she is a better writer, I think, and Peter Wimsey is a proper character who I actually care about rather than the rather cardboard Poirot. Having time to sit in bed in the morning and sneakily read a few chapters of a murder mystery while having a cup of tea is such an indulgence. I am savouring every moment until I am brought back down to earth with a very large bump next week and my days will once more be ordered by the ringing of bells.

So, I’ve now finished my MA degree – I can’t quite believe it – and as much as I loved the experience, I do feel that a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I’m no longer going to have to come home after work to a load of research or essay writing to do, and I won’t have to wait to read books I really want to read while I plough through a 900 page novel I’d rather not for my course. I have lots of reading plans and I also want to become a more regular blogger. Excitingly, I’m moving in a few weeks’ time to my very own flat – finally my own place that is actually mine and not a landlord’s – and some very nice built-in bookshelves have been made to fit my lounge so that finally all of my boxes of books in various storage facilities and family members’ houses can be reunited. I’ve forgotten what I even have, so there’s going to be a glorious reunion and many happy hours of rediscovery to come! I’m also hoping there’ll be some spare room to give me an excuse to go book shopping…

Venice

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School is finally out for summer and it should tell you something of the manic nature of summer term at school that I’m only just now getting around to writing about my holiday during May half term! Over the past few years I’ve been making a concerted effort to make my way to the main cultural centres of Italy, to redress my shocking lack of knowledge of this beautiful country. I adored the sun soaked streets of Naples, with their breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, and washing-strewn ochre-coloured apartment buildings that snake their way out from the main shopping streets, children playing out in front of them and black-clad women gossiping on the doorsteps, the whole scene still looking just as it would have done one hundred and more years ago. Rome was utterly magical, with beauty and history spilling out of every corner to the point where my eyes thought they could take no more of such majesty in. Florence was a little gem nestled amidst the Tuscan hills, and its black and white Duomo appearing in flashes as you wend your way through the streets was like taking part in a wonderful treasure hunt. Venice has always been a city I have wanted to see, but unlike the other tourist centres of Italy, which people have never stopped gushing to me about, Venice seemed to the place that everyone had a bad experience of. It smells, they said. It’s too touristy. It’s so over crowded. And did we mention it stinks? As such, I wasn’t sure what I would make of it. Prepared for the stench of a sewer and to be crushed by crowds of cruise ship passengers in its narrow streets, I went off with low expectations and slight anxiety as to what I would find. And when I got there, I learned a valuable lesson: sometimes you shouldn’t ask other people for their opinions. Because for me, Venice was an absolute delight.

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I love the water and waterfront cities in particular, and taking the boat from the airport and seeing Venice emerge in the distance, its pink and orange and gold reflection shimmering in the water of the lagoon, initially seems to be a mirage. How can such a city still exist in our modern world, where time seems to have stopped in 1650 and everyone still makes their way around by boat? It was like entering another universe, where life is simpler and quieter and calmer, and the only sounds you hear are of people talking and laughing and the gentle lapping of water against the shore. The canals are lined with beautiful historic buildings that contain the architectural melange of centuries of changing influences, befitting the nature of Venice as a vital trading port. Moorish designs sit alongside Renaissance structures, plain medieval buildings neighbour luxurious palazzos, and the winding cobbled streets that go up and over the canals and offer tantalising glimpses of hidden courtyards and gardens offer endless opportunities to wander and marvel at all that Venice has to offer.

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Outside of the buildings that make up St Mark’s Square, there was nothing in particular that we wanted to see; we just wanted to enjoy wandering through the streets, floating up the canals and soaking up the atmosphere. The weather was glorious, the lagoon was sparkling, and we were utterly enchanted. The light in Venice is magical, particularly at sunset, when everything takes on an ethereal, rose-gold hue. We loved climbing up the campanile at the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, just a tiny hop on the boat from Giudecca, the island where we were staying, where there were no queues and you get to see St Mark’s Square from a beautiful distance. We also loved taking the public vaporetto boat down the Grand Canal and getting to see how real Venetians travel and go about their daily business. Palazzo Fortuny was a wonderful discovery on one of the back streets, and next time I want to try and wangle my way into one of the fancy Palazzo hotels so that I can see a little more of the luxury of old Venice – as so many of the Palazzos are hotels, it does mean that there aren’t many left to visit, which was a shame.

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However, I have to say that one of the main reasons Venice was so special is because we blew the budget and stayed in one of its best hotels, which was worth every penny. If you’re saving up and want a really special holiday, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am usually a total cheapskate when it comes to holidays, but the moment I saw this hotel online, I knew I had to go there – and I didn’t regret it for a minute. The Belmond Hotel Cipriani is on Giudecca, an island facing Venice, and it is surrounded by beautiful gardens, has its own Olympic sized swimming pool, and serves the most amazing food in its lagoon-facing restaurants that mean you’ll never need to go elsewhere. It was an absolute haven of tranquility and just what we needed during the boiling hot afternoons when it was too hot to walk around. Hopping on the hotel’s courtesy boat, which is the original 1950s vessel that used to transport the likes of Sophia Loren who always stayed there, you feel like a movie star as you’re whisked away across the lagoon to the palm-fringed dock of the hotel. Walking under the jasmine entwined arbour that leads to the hotel reception, you enter a world of utter peace and luxury where the staff bend over backwards to serve your every whim. We loved laying by the pool, swimming, drinking bellinis (invented at the hotel), and eating amazing Venetian inspired food, all while looking out at the shimmering, ever changing waters of the lagoon. I already can’t wait to go back!

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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With its intriguing title and beautiful cover, I found myself drawn to this tale of an 18th century merchant the wrong side of fifty who finds himself in possession of a mermaid and unexpectedly falls in love with a celebrated courtesan. I couldn’t see how all the dots would quite be connected and I don’t normally find the Georgian period of much interest, but the writing was good and the premise too quirky to resist, so in I plunged, and I’m so glad I did! I found it charming and unexpectedly moving, and though there were elements that I felt didn’t quite work, it’s a wonderful debut from someone who clearly has a fantastic imagination, and I’m already looking forward to what she might write next.

The story opens with Jonah Hancock, a prosperous middle-aged merchant, waiting for the news of the whereabouts of one of his ships, which he is expecting to dock with valuable cargo any day soon. He lives in a respectable house in the bustling wharf-side district of Deptford, but he is lonely with only his pert young niece Sukie, who keeps house for him, for company. Indeed, his house is haunted by the ghosts of his long-dead wife and son, whose absence is a growing sadness for him as his years advance with nothing to look forward to, or hope for. He may have a comfortable home and full coffers, but life offers him little of pleasure or excitement, and he has become weary of the somewhat colourless monotony of his existence. So, when the captain of his ship comes knocking in the dead of night with the news that he sold the entire ship’s cargo for a mermaid, Jonah finally has the opportunity to break out of the rut his life has fallen into. Against the advice of others, who think him mad, he arranges to put the shrivelled, gruesome body of the gremlin-like mermaid on display in a local coffee shop, to try and make the money back from his lost cargo in entrance fees. He soon proves all the nay-sayers wrong by drawing huge crowds, and becoming the talk of all London society, from street urchins to royalty. But the mermaid’s biggest fan is the madam of London’s most high class brothel, and when she asks to be loaned the mermaid to host her own party, little does Jonah know that he is about to fall head-over-heels in love with her most famous courtesan, the beautiful and brazen Angelica Neal.

Angelica has reluctantly re-entered the brothel after the death of the aristocrat who had been keeping her as his mistress for several years. Nearing her thirtieth birthday, she is past her prime, and starting to fear for her future. Many of the other girls of her generation have settled down, and though she is adamant such a life is not for her, secretly she longs for the security of marriage, and a home of her own. She thinks nothing of the – to her – elderly and unattractive Jonah Hancock when she meets him at the mermaid party, but when she jokingly tells him that she’ll be his if he brings her another mermaid, Jonah takes the command seriously. He has found himself obsessed by this woman, whose charms have reawakened feelings he had suppressed for years. But Angelica is now ensconced in the arms of a rakish young man-about-town, and couldn’t be less interested in Jonah. Thinking if he can find another mermaid, he will be able to secure Angelica for himself, he prepares to risk everything he has to get her what she desires. But will it ultimately be worth the sacrifices he must make, and will Angelica really want what she has demanded?

The coming together of the worlds of Jonah and Angelica is very well done, as is the conceit of the mermaid, which, within the world of the novel, is entirely realistic and not fantastic in the slightest. It’s clearly meticulously researched, and 18th century London in all its glitz and debauchery comes thrillingly alive off the pages. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and Hermes Gowar makes a very good attempt at realistic-sounding 18th century speech. My only criticism is that it does rather sag in the middle and there are some characters that feel unnecessary; slightly more judicious pruning by an editor would have served the novel well and made it a much pacier read. That aside, it’s still an excellent book, full of fun and good humour as well as being a thoughtful and touching exploration of the pain and insecurity that often lie hidden beneath the surface of our lives. I really enjoyed it, and highly recommend you giving it a go!