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Peasant (Deepest England)
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Gods and Graven Images: Chalk Hill Figures of Britain
Gods and Graven Images: Chalk Hill Figures of Britain
by Paul Newman
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars All the chalk figures and other hill figures described., 19 Mar. 2015
Useful but a little out of date, this book surveys all the known hill figures of Britain (England mostly), whether still visible or destroyed. Literary references, historical descriptions, archaeological investigation and mythological speculation are all covered fully. There are plenty of diagrams in the text, and a few balck and white photographs grouped together as 'plates' in the middle. While the book is sober and archaeological in tone, the more 'new age' views are detailed without sneering, and the author takes trouble to tie the potential meaning of each figure into folklore and pagan religion. Modern hill figures, such as military badges cut by various regiments in the 20th century, are detailed just as thoroughly.

Newman takes great care when lying out the evidence for changes in hill figures over time, due to recutting or redesign. He does his best to date each as accurately as possible, starting with what he believes to be the oldest and moving forwards in time. However the modern reader (this book was published in 1987) needs to know that modern archaeological techniques have resulted in re-dating of several well-known figures, and those dates are much later. If the Cerne Abbas Giant dates from the mid 17th century (as now considered) then it is not likley to represent a pagan British deity.

Having said that, the scholarship is good within those limits, and this inexpensive book is a good starting point for following up more recent research, which can easily be found on the internet.


English cooking: A new approach
English cooking: A new approach
by Rupert Croft-Cooke
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Buy this book, it's a gem., 19 Mar. 2015
1960 was a critical turning point in the story of English food, though at the time of writing, Croft-Cooke does not realise this. Indeed, this book forms part of the process of change. First of all, this is neither a recipe book nor a history of diet. It is a survey of recent English cooking with the historical background of how we got there. Thus is it is both a description of changes in diet, and a snapshot of a moment in time. In describing the dire state of English cooking at that point, it helps stimulate the change which has produced today's diet, a strange mixture of processed ready-meals and exotic cuisine, with cookery a passion for the few and a spectator sport for the many.

Chapter One, 'A backward glance' is a brisk resume of the history of food in England. Chapter Two 'Interlude - The kitchen' had me laughing out loud. It is a cruel, satirical attack on the kind of kitchen all too p[revalent still, replete wih every gadget and costing a fortune, in which no actual cooking really takes place. The book is worth having for this chapter alone.

From Chapter Three we settle down, starting with breakfast and then proceeding in subsequent chapters through Hors d'Oeuvres, Soups, Fish, Egg Dishes, The Joint, Other Meat Dishes, Poultry, Game Birds, Ground Game and Venison, Salads and Herbs, Vegetables, Dessert, Sauces and Garnishes before concluding with a brief glance at Regional and Traditional. Each chapter has some historical context, amusing and informative anecdotes, background information about the sourcing, breeding, growing, supply etc (as appropriate), excellent tips on cooking rather than actual recipes. The author is no chauvinist and acknowledges where Englsih cookery must give way to French if it is to excell.

There is a great deal of social history mixed into the other stuff (fascinating to see him assuming that many of his readers won't be able to afford cream, which must have been much more expensive at the time) and we are treated to insights into contemporary high society (kedgeree parties at Beverley Nichols' for example) but the general approach is conversational, witty, and pragmatic. The appendixes, far from being boring stuff you can ignore, are amongst the most interesting parts. Here is Croft-Cooke on 'Bread':
"The days when bread in itself was good to eat are gone and seem unlikley to return in the lifetime of anyone now living. The most we can hope of bread is that is wholly neutral, something necessary with other foods but without taste, smell, colour, character or design" While every supermarket still sells masses of the 'artificially freshened, machine-sliced and cellophane-wrapped' how happy he would be to see not just specialist artisan bakers charging £3 for a loaf at our farmer's markets, but sourdough, pain de campagne and foccacia as regulars on our supermarket shelves.

This little-known book should be a classic, widely available in reprint. It is a delight to read and, unlike some histories of cooking, entirely heartening and cheering to the modern reader. The intelligent cook will find masses to learn, and I would go so far as to say that this book should be on the shelf in every home where food is a source of interest and enthusiasm.


A SUSSEX FARMER
A SUSSEX FARMER
by William Wood
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars An unsentimental look at farming in the late 19th and early 20th century, 19 Mar. 2015
This review is from: A SUSSEX FARMER (Hardcover)
Born in the mid nienteenth century, William Wood lived through significant changes in both the social life and technology of farming. This book is put together from a series of articles written for publication during the latter part of the 1920s, when Wood was in his eighties. Wood is not a professional wirter. Despite the slightly 'bitty' nature of these recollections, they are very well written by a man who has thought carefully about the deeper processes at work.

As they are reflections upon an individual's experience, there is inevitably much which is personal anecdote. However the recollections are mediated by careful analysis. Wood also looks forward (he is too early to foresee the Second World War in the 1931 edition) to the futire of farming, and many of his observations are surprisingly modern and relevant.

During the 1930s, a large number of rather wistful books about change in the countryside were written, most of them looking back to a lost golden age - the best known probably being 'The Worm Forgives The Plough' by John Stewart Collis. This does bnot fall into that genre. As an old man surveying modern methods, Wood does regret, for example, the loss of the tradition of heavy horses; but this regret is accepted simply without romanticising the past. He brings an equally clear eye to the social changes in relations between farmers and workers, and to the social life that revolves around markets. It is this realsism which makes this book especially valuable to the socila historian. there are no statistics, no charts or graphs - but Wood describes dispassionately the subtle changes in rural life and politics which he has witnessed.


Household Management
Household Management
by Margaret Willes
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars The working areas of National trust houses, 24 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Household Management (Paperback)
This is a slim book, about equal parts photos and text. It has been produced by the National Trust for sale in its gift shops and features properties owned by the National Trust; notably Uppark and Lanhydrock.

The text describes the way the working part of large country houses - kitchens, dairies, servant's bedrooms and so on - were laid out, illustrated by good pictures featuring examples of the different periods and styles. It says more about the architecture and the administration than about the daily lives of those working in the houses. What there is, is interesting and well-written, but the book is best regarded as additional illustration to be used alongside one the many books which deal with the subject in more detail.


The Old Wives' Tale: With Grand Babylon Hotel & Anna of the Five Towns
The Old Wives' Tale: With Grand Babylon Hotel & Anna of the Five Towns
Price: £0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Two human tales and a ripping yarn, 13 Jan. 2015
Some of Arnold Bennett's novels are closely-observed studies of the everyday tragedy of human existence. The Old Wives Tale and Anna of the Five Towns both come into this category. Bennett isn't a great writer but he is a heartwarmingly humane one, and both these famous novels will engage your attention and provoke your sympathies.

The Grand Babylon Hotel, on the other hand, would make a splendid 'caper movie'. Like most thrillers, it is completely unrealistic and full of improbable concidences, with the hero showing a good deal of unlikely athleticism and a heroine of quite uncommon resourcefulness. Unlike most modern thrillers, they are father and daughter and there are few romantic shenanigans in the plot.

Read it as a jolly romp, an old-fashioned adventure - The Riddle of the Sands and The Thirtynine Steps are obviously the kind of thing Bennett is aiming for, though he never quite achieves either the excitement or the improbability of his prototypes.

This might well be a good collection to take on holiday if you want something which is going to sooth rather than stimulate. Or you could take 'Cranford' and 'The Woman in White', and enjoy things even more . . .


The English Country Cottage
The English Country Cottage
by Sally Griffiths
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Cottage charm, 13 Jan. 2015
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This book in no longer in the first flush of youth. However, though some of the styling has dated a little, the cottages selected are so charming that it can still be a source of inspiration. Most interiors books have a touch of 'house-porn' about them, and inevitably when the writers are able to visit and photograph the most attractive cottages in the country, there is room for a great deal of envy on the part of the reader.

However, 'visually stunning' as they are, the interiors in this book do not derive all their charm from architectural features which we can only drool over impotently; it is the way they are furnished and styled which produces a good 60-70% of their effect, and there is much here that the owners of more ordinary houses can learn from.

Be prepared for a good deal of clutter, much of it in shades of brown. This book was written when that was the style. However, unlike some of the worst excesses of 'shabby chic', this clutter is all liveable-with, and does not give the impression of having been just-this-minute piled on every visible surface by and overactive stylist. It is the clutter of real people who happen to like 'stuff', and have cleverly made room for a good deal of it in relatively modest surroundings. It does not take too much imagination to see how the same approach could be applied to pretty pastels or shades of off-white, with a modern effect. Having said that, the style in these pages has dated less than most interiors trends and is probably on the verge of 'coming round again', as styles do.

You will recognise some of these interiors from other books, while others, fresh when the book was published, have since become cliches. Here is Mary Wondrausch's "Brickfields" - but happily a different view: there is that bed with the red-and-white-striped quilt which we have seen so many elsewheres. Seaside cottages adorned with model boats and vintage oars are a bit old hat now, but still appear regularly in the pages of magazines, so must still be on many people's wish-lists.

The subtitles says "interiors, details and gardens". The book is predominantly interiors, and the garden stuff is fairly predictable, though nice. The 'details' are more those of objects than of architecture - this is not a book on restoration, it is one on decorating and furnishing.

In so many recent interiors books, the text is infuriatingly trite and asinine. Here the text does add to the photos, supplying both sensible background and relevant information. The producers of some of the more recent Ryland, Peters and Small titles should give this book to their 'words' people to peruse.


Mutton and Oysters: Food, Cooking and Eating in Victorian Times
Mutton and Oysters: Food, Cooking and Eating in Victorian Times
by Sarah Freeman
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading, 13 Jan. 2015
You would think, that with so many books on the Victorians, and on their food, available these days, that this book from 1989 would have been superceded. In fact, exactly the opposite is true; recent books seem to recycle the same old material, while this one has a fresh perspective and much that you won't find elsewhere. Sarah Freeman has done her research in unfamiliar places and what she has found doesn't always agree with the accepted platitudes.

First of all, this is more a book about food supply and diet, than about recipes - although she does include a selection of these to illustrate her text. Many myths are shot down in flames. Surveying the monstrous lists of dishes served at Victorian dinner parties, she explains that so far from pigging out on heaps of food, guests would select a little here, some more there, often skipping entire courses; the list was there both to give choice and to show off the host's wealth. Normal meals, even for the well-off, alternated boiled mutton with roast mutton, cold mutton appearing at other meals until the family must have had their appetites dulled by mere boredom. She also, of course, details how restricted the diet of the poor was, even in relatively well-off times.

Her chapter on the workhouses is well-balanced, and she makes the point that the food offered should not be compared with a modern well-balanced diet (which practically nobody, even the wealthy, ate at the time) but with the usual food of the poor, which was actually far worse than what most workhouses supplied. She also examines, at length and very clearly, the scientific understanding of diet during the 19th century. The misapprehensions, flawed science and prejudices of the period, slow as they were to fade, added to the general levels of malnutrition. Following 'scientific advice' during the Victorian period meant eating a very unhealthy diet by modern standards and led to malnourishment among all children, even those of the rich. Although Freeman inevitably covers the levels of adulteration and poor hygiene which were at their worst during the period, she sets this in the proper context and does not overemphasise it; the lack of understanding of nutrition had a far more deleterious impact.

One subject which is neglected in most other titles is the rise of the vegetarian movement, and Freeman devotes a entire chapter to this, which even non-vegetarians will find fascinating.

The book does have its flaws. Proof-reading is patchy, and frequent errors of punctuation, plus some obscurely convoluted and over-long sentences, serve to stop the reader in their tracks and interrupt the natural flow of reading. The book comes to an abrupt halt at the end of chapter 13 with no conclusions or elegant resume, rather as if the writer had run out of time. There is, however, a proper index and references are numbered and given in full at the back. There is a substantial bibliography. Minor explanations are given as footnotes. There are no plates but several dozen black and white illustrations in the text, many of them new to me.

As there is no 'look inside' on this book I'll now give a list of chapters.
1. Shops and shopping customs; normal and sharp practices
2. Markets, fairs and street-sellers; oysters three a penny
3. Produce; the best in the world
4. Products; the worst in the world
5. Drink; the grape v. the gooseberry (a reference to home-made wines)
6. Cooking; management of the fire
7. The cooks; aspiring heroines and artistes
8. The cookery writers; frugality and economy v. extravagant farragos
9. Meals and entertaining; from porridge to poularde al a Nelson
10. Children; mutton or cook-it-yourself
11. Nutrition; a case of direct observation
12. The vegetarian movement; heavenly voices and the garden of eden
13. Eating out; a matter of necessity rather than pleasure


The Victorians
The Victorians
by A.N. Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but patchy, 17 Dec. 2014
This review is from: The Victorians (Paperback)
It's not like there haven't been quite a few books on Victorian England . . . to find a new approach is demanding, but A N Wilson's book is thought-provoking and intriguing. Though broadly chronological in arrangement, he explores themes and the development of ideas rather than simply recounting events or detailing social history. This brings us to a far better understanding of the Victorian way of thinking than most books on the subject.

This is not a social history and Wilson concentrates his attention on those who shaped public opinion and influenced events. He is particularly good on political personalities; their relationships with each other and the changes in their views over time. Anyone interested in Victorian parliamentary politics is strongly advised to read it; as well as laying bare the thinking of both Disraeli and Gladstone he is excellent on the less well-known players. There is a oversimplistic tendency on the part of many writers to divide 'eminent Victorians' into establishment figures (with cliched 'Victorian values') and outsiders who somehow illustrate Victorian England's disreputable underbelly. A N Wilson shows a continuity between the world of cabinet ministers and aristocrats, and that of liminal figures like Oscar Wilde and Madame Blavatsky, which makes a lot of sense and brings the period into a more modern focus.

Wilson himself apologises for giving disproportionate space to some themes - the Crimean War for example. This is inevitable if the book isn't to run into several volumes, and we can forgive him. What is more worrying is the presence of certain of the author's 'hobby horses'. When an author makes strange or silly errors, it is not so much the ones we can easily spot that give one pause for thought, so much as the concern about those which we are unaware of and take at face value. Wilson starts out with the powerfully stated belief that neither Queen Victoria nor Prince Albert were the offspring of their mother's husbands. Whether or not Prince Albert was, as he asserts, the son of some German fancy man of his mothers, I am not equiped to judge. However to claim that Victoria was undoubtedly the daughter of her mother's favourite John Conroy is absurd for a very simple reason. Conroy had 'shirt-model' good looks; clean-cut and with an enviable profile. Victoria looked like a boiled codfish; pop eyes, projecting beaky nose, no chin; an extraordinary face which even Winterhalter's flattery could only do so much to disguise. She was, in truth, the dead spit and image of her father, grandfather and uncles - if the Duke of Kent had been the milkman, he'd never have got away with it.

It does make you wonder what else Wilson is astray on . . .


Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from Britain's Prehistory
Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from Britain's Prehistory
by Francis Pryor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Marmite all the way through, 13 Dec. 2014
If this is your first encounter with Frances Pryor's writing, it may not be quite what you expect. Far from being a dry explanation of one particular viewpoint, backed up with reams of dull archaeological detail, Pryor leads the reader through the development of his ideas from his student days on, illustrating his arguments both with vivid descriptions of particular digs, and with insight into the way his views have developed and changed over time. Discussions with other academics feature as prominently as examination of the results of field archaeology.

Not everyone will like this approach. It is very similar to that of Michael Pitts' Hengeworld, now a classic but equally one which divides readers. If you want a lucid survey of current archaeology, avoid it. If you are interested in the way archaeologists arrive at such complex conclusions from the few faint clues left by history, you'll enjoy it. You will certainly learn a lot not only about the archaeology of everyday domestic life, but also about the way theories about prehistory change over time. Highly recommended for anyone thinking of studying archaeology at university!


Copsford
Copsford
by Walter J.C. Murray
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant enough but lacks real sparkle, 31 July 2014
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This review is from: Copsford (Hardcover)
Walter Murray decides to take a sabbatical. He will spend a year in isolation, making a living by collecting wild herbs for sale to pharmaceutical companies, and use the peace and quiet to write. He selects a ruined cottage, with neither road nor decent path to it, infested by rats, for his home. Why? It would seem he has a friend living nearby, but he is exceptionally coy when writing about her.

The farmer who owns the cottage thinks he is off his chump. The author's romantic project is embarked upon without much research, and proves less of an easy living than he anticipates. Much of the wild herb material he collects rots because he has not prepared it properly. So far, a standard snippet of autobiographical 'up against it' writing. We get a good deal of the author's philosophical musings and a little bit about the collection and use of wild herbs. It is quite a charming little book but, in the last analysis, lacking either powerful atmosphere or unexpected insights. It is a bit like a good magazine article expanded into 207 pages.

This book has considerable charm, but the lasting impression one receives is that if the author planned to make a living by writing, he had a way to go - and his subsequent career indeed took him away from journalism. A quick Google reveals little; he published a book on Romney Marsh in 1972 (I haven't read it yet) and one titled 'Nature's Undiscovered Kingdom'. These are the only two books listed on the dustjacket, which tells me that Murray went on to establish an independent school and achieve fame as a wildlife photographer and broadcaster.

'Copsford' was published in 1948, and in the years during and after the Second World War there was a great demand for wild medicinal plants from the mainstream pharmaceutical companies. A more interesting book on the subject (although quite different in every way) is Florence Ranson's pocket guide British Herbs, published to aid those involved in collecting herbs.


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