shewhomust: (mamoulian)
I recently read two books which were burning a hole in my To Be Read pile. I read them end to end because they seemed to fit together: both quite new, both set in Scotland, and both novels about the crime of murder - and this post has been on the back burner so long that Mark Lawson has got in ahead of me, and included them both in his best crime books of the year. I liked the symmetry of bringing together that most literary of literary things, a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and a crime novel with the impeccable genre credentials of the seventh mystery featuring a series detective as seen on TV. But such a very literary novel of a crime novel, and such a gore-spattered yarn of a Booker contender.

The literary novel is Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project, and I'd like it on the record that I bought it before it was Booker shortlisted, because I was intrigued by the Guardian review, and pleased that a small press publication should have made it onto the Booker longlist. The crime novel is Ann Cleeves' Cold Earth, with the usual disclaimer: Ann is a client and a friend, and I wouldn't be writing about her book if I didn't like it. Warning: may (will) contain spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project )

Ann Cleeves: Cold Earth )
shewhomust: (dandelion)
In accordance with the rule that you wait hours for a bus and then three come along together, we have failed to watch all the big TV dramas, but are dividing this weekend between three northern crime series. Two of them spin off from the novels of Ann Cleeves, who is both friend and client, and it is one of the vagaries of scheduling (rival channels, so it can't be collusion) that they are both running on TV at the same time.

Vera is the least northern of the three: it's set in Northumberland, but strays into neighbouring counties, and location-spotting is not the least of its pleasures. It's the least noir, too. The convention appears to be that crime fiction is divided into 'noir' and 'cosy', and cosy is inferior in both literary and moral terms, treating murder as an entertainment and avoiding the grim realities of life. The crimes Vera solves are personal, domestic in scale. They show violence - and the pressures that provoke the violence - breaking into the sort of life lived by the majority of her viewers / readers: I don't see what's so cosy about that (and the first story ended with something genuinely shocking and unexpected, so don't let me overstate this ;'cosiness'). One episode of the four in the current series was based on the latest Vera Stanhope book (The Moth Catcher), the others are original stories, but retain the flavour of the books. Much as I like the books, they suffer from being cut down to fit into however long remains of two hours when you have subtracted the interminable advertising breaks; perhaps I prefer to original stories because I don't have the novel to compare them to. Vera has been an agreeable way to spend Sunday evenings, and I'll be sorry to say goodbye to her tomorrow.

Shetland is made by the same company as Vera, but they have made some very different choices. Given six one hour slots, they have opted to tell a single continuing story, and that story is harsher and more violent. It's probably obvious from the previous paragraph that my own tastes in crime fiction tend towards the so-called cosy; I am more interested in exploring why an ordinary person might commit murder than in contemplating the actions of people whose wickedness is sufficient to explain whatever they might do. If you want me to stay interested when the investigation moves to Glasgow and the Mr Big of gangland, you have to work twice as hard to make me interested. This series of Shetland has achieved that, by keeping the focus not on the hard men but on the effects of their activities. (Here's what Ann had to say about this, though if you are watching the series you may not want to read it before you have seen episode five). There's enough suggestion that the dénouement will bring it all back home to Shetland to make me impatient for the final episode: a two week wait, thank you BBC schedulers!

Further north and more noir yet, we have just watched the first part of Trapped: which begins with a headless, limbless torso being fished out of an Icelandic fjord (later we get a good look at it). As in The Bridge, there's an international complication: the body may have come from the ferry which has just docked, and the captain insists that he is subject to Danish law. It's a curious mixture of grand guignol and officialdom. The scenery - before the weather imposes a white-out - is spectacular. In an extraordinary piece of negative product placement, the ferry, with its probable crime scene, obstructive captain and other suspicious characters is - as it is in real life on this route - the Norrona, which has been on my wish-list since the long ago days when it used to call at Lerwick on its way from Denmark to the Faroe Islands.
shewhomust: (dandelion)
I was beginning to suspect the Guardian of a stealth campaign to increase my vocabulary: words I do not recognise have been cropping up, unexplained. On Saturday, we had 'pancheon'; on Monday it was 'fulvic'.

This was in a 'Shortcuts' piece about ridiculous fads in the marketing of water (article not currently online: a search of the Guardian website tries to fob me off with an eccentric Shetlander and his republic of Forvik). There is, apparently, something called 'black water', a variety of mineral water which "gets its colour from fulvic minerals, for which there are broad health claims". This doesn't make me think that the water has any actual health benefits, but does make me wonder what fulvic minerals might be.

Chambers doesn't know. It offers me 'fulvous' and 'fulvid', both of which describe a tawny yellow - which I hadn't met in English, but recognise as the French 'fauve', tawny like a big cat, and hence a wild animal. So that's a Word of the Day.

The internet, on the other hand, is full of people who want to tell me about fulvic acid, and fulvic minerals, but only because they all want to sell me their dubious health products. (Oh, and it's mentioned in passing in a Wikipedia piece about 'humic acids', a term which describes rather than defines a group of components of soil).

Guardian, are you telling me that this water is black because it's muddy?
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
It's a sunny Saturday evening and I feel a little lazy, a little unfocussed - maybe I could tidy up the old travel supplements that are littering my desk: nothing as demanding as making travel plans, but dream a little of places we might go, sometime... And idleness has been rewarded, because underneath the newspapers I found a book I've been meaning to return to A. next time we see her - and we will see her on Monday, and I would have forgotten it was there. Does that in itself make the process worthwhile? No, on with the links:

The Centre de l'Art et du Paysage is on an island in a lake in the plateau de Millevaches, in the Corrèze (a thousand springs, etymologically, it seems, and not a thousand cows): you reach it by crossing a footbridge. Its website is uninviting, but if you read the Guardian article first, you have some idea what you are looking for, and the Bois des Sculptures soundslike my sort of place (there's an Andy Goldsworthy, which is always a good start).

I can't really see us taking a holiday to savour slow food in rural Turkey: but it does sound good...

Why do I have a copy of the books section here? And why do I not have last week's article about wine tourism in Sicily? (Never mind, I found it!)

This isn't much to show for several months worth of weekly supplements. Most of what they publish just isn't for me: skiing holidays, cycling holidays, how to amuse your children, city breaks... And sometimes I may be a bit dismissive of this material. "Hah!" I might say. "Who on earth plans a trip around recommendations for an outdoor cinema?" Let this be a lesson to me not to be so hasty - because the Cromarty Film Festival sounds rather wonderful: outdoor screenings in Scotland in December night be a challenge, but "Join the audience near the shoreline for mulled wine and watch the opening film as it is projected on to the lighthouse..." (mulled wine? the Festival's own website talks of Glen Ord...)

And one that's not from the Guardian: Britain's most northerly accommodation property (it's on Unst).
shewhomust: (guitars)
We have been out three nights in a row. Today has been quiet and work-filled at home, but the rest of this week will be full of excursions. This is all very pleasant, if disconcerting. Briefly, then:

Friday evening was Horizontal Sunday at the Bridge: they are a trio of Folk Degree graduates whom we know from the student shows, and the venue is the legendary Bridge Hotel, above the Tyne by the High Level Bridge. The upstairs room has windows on two sides, and the trains rattle by - and the cars with their blue lights and sirens - but somehow it's a good atmosphere, and it was a fine show. We may or may not have been the only people there who were neither fellow students nor related to the band - oh, apart from one group who were the family of a very young ex-pupil of one of the band, who got up on stage in her cat-jumper and cat-ears Alice band, and played one very nervous fiddle tune for us. Which was fine. I like Horizontal Sunday more and more, and fortunately they have a selection of tunes on YouTube so I don't have to explain why.

On Saturday evening we went to dinner with friends we don't see often enough - but we had run into them at the Spiers and Boden gig at the Sage and made this date. They live a couple of miles away round the edge of town, and it was a beautiful evening, so we walked there - and back, which meant we could stay late and keep talking (and drinking - excellent Lebanese wines, some of which were not Chateau Musar, and was sauvignon blanc) and it was all good.

Last night we were at the Sage for Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, two fine musicians who have been playing together for a long time and are clearly very easy with each other. And yesterday was the last night of their tour, so they were well into their stride, and even more relaxed. Phil Cunningham does most of the talking and tells the jokes, and Aly Bain drops in the occasional dry remark: Shetlanders aren't very demonstrative, says Phil Cunningham, and claims that the Shetland Times printed the story of the Shetlander who loved his wife so much that he almost told her. Nothing restrained or undemonstrative about the music, though, and occasionally it put on such a turn of speed I'm surprised there wasn't smoke rising from the bow.
shewhomust: (dandelion)
Trying to complete the story of our last trip to the Northern Isles, three years ago, before we are there again in the summer.

So: We took the Good Shepherd back to Mainland. Sailing to Fair Isle we had embarked from Lerwick, but our return sailing left us at Grutness, on the southern tip of Mainland. If you are expecting any kind of ferry terminal, it's a bit of a shock. There's a jetty and a bus stop - and, as Ann Cleeves points out, at least there is now a public toilet. Despite the informality, it works: the bus turned up and took us, and our luggage, to Lerwick. It was easy enough to find the B & B we had booked, and although our hostess was out, there was a post-it note on the front door: "Mr & Mrs [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler - you are in room 6 - ground floor on your right - keys are in door - see you later D."

Up Pirate Lane

We were spending a couple of nights in Lerwick, rather than catching the ferry south that night, mainly because the next ferry would allow us to disembark in Kirkwall, and take a day or so in Orkney. But we were happy to spend a little more time in Shetland, too. Lerwick isn't a big town, and we'd spent a week here a couple of years earlier, but somehow we had never explored the Lanes - the Lons and Klosses, until they were renamed in 1845. A tangle of narrow streets climb steeply (my notebook has the single word 'reticulation') between high walls allowing just a glimpse of the sea below or opening out onto gardens. This one, I think, was Pirate Lane. Elsewhere, Law Lane had been renamed Sherriff Court.

Each time we made the trip from our B & B to the High Street we took a different route, turning from the upper road down a different lane. In one of them we found Monty's Bistro and Bar where we dined on goat's cheese quiche (pleasant but subtle and creamy, which is not what I want from goat's cheese: it was upstaged by the accompanying beetroot), fish pie and tiramisu, with a South African sauvignon blanc - and a glass of Beaumes de Venise, and brief chat with Ann (dining there with some journalists) to sweeten the dessert.

The next day we took the commuter ferry (a seven minute ride) across to the island of Bressay, and spent the day walking in the sunshine, enjoying the views back across the water to Lerwick. I was also impressed by the burnt mound which seems to have been rebuilt, each stone carefully numbered, and by the remains of Ham Fishing Village, a short-lived project (1880 - 1910). (Photos of Bressay)

That night we sailed south on the MV Hrossey, and lingered in the restaurant to watch from its panoramic windows as we passed Fair Isle.
shewhomust: (puffin)
Henry and the puffins (nice little video, worth watching full screen, don't miss the final post-credits hoot).
shewhomust: (bibendum)
The Northlink ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland is a very civilised way to travel. We returned to the terminal, transferred our big suitcase to the trolley, then boarded, found our cabin and relaxed until dinner time, when we dined in the restaurant. We were woken early next morning by the announcement that we were approaching Lerwick, but there was no hurry to vacate the cabin, and we could breakfast in leisure before we left the ferry.

We were due out of Lerwick to Fair Isle on the Good Shepherd in the afternoon, but Ann told us that once the Good Shepherd arrived, we could put our luggage on board. The four of us headed for Hays Wharf, where the Good Shepherd docks - which just happens to be outside the Shetland Museum.

It was a damp and chilly morning, and the museum took pity on us, first letting us in to wait in the reception area, and stack our luggage in a corner out of the way, then tipping us off that the galleries were open and we could look round. We hadn't necessarily intended to spend the morning at the museum, but it is a wonderful museum, and we found enough to detain us and keep us entertained with only the shortest excursion to town until lunch time.

Somehow we all ended up in the museum cafe, and somehow we ran into more of our party there. We told Ann how kind the museum staff had been to us, and that the lady who let us in had lived on Fair Isle for several years. It's typical of the island, I now realise, that this was not just a stray interesting fact, but something to be pounced on and worried until the marrow had been extracted from it in the form of an identification: "Oh, I know, she'll be..."

Eventually - after warnings all round to take seasickness pills - it was time to board the Good Shepherd.

Ready for loading


I had expected a modern ferry, like those that link Shetland Mainland to the North Isles: but the Good Shepherd's first purpose is to carry cargo. Anything that is imported to Fair Isle must either be flown in, or travel on the Good Shepherd (we shared our passage with a boat). If it's too big to fit on the Good Shepherd, you have a problem - and this is why the renovation of the Bird Observatory has been delayed. My initial reaction was to blame the builders, but on this occasion, it seems, that's not fair. The new building is a modular construction, the modules are too large to come in on the Shepherd, and plans to float them in on special rafts weren't put into action early enough to benefit from the summer weather. The island gossip (Fair Isle is a great place for gossip) says that the modules were built in Orkney by a firm who thought that this meant they knew all there was to be known about islands, and learned otherwise.

So passengers are not the raison d'être of the Fair Isle ferry service. The crew treated us with gentle solicitude, as if we were a particularly sensitive cargo, and settled us in the cabin or on deck, as we chose. It was a lively crossing: the boat rolled impressively, especially once we had cleared Sumburgh Head and were on the open sea. The windows veered from showing nothing but sky to showing notng but sea, and back. You read descriptions of storms with mountainous waves towering above the ship - this was nothing like that. Rounded billows barely disturbed the surface of the sea. But the boat reacted energetically enough, and the voyage lasted for four and a half hours (I hadn't quite taken on how much longer it took as a result of sailing from Lerwick rather than the usual Grutness at he southern tip of Shetland).

We were glad to arrive, and grateful Deryk, the warden from the Bird Observatory, who gave [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and me a lift down to our accomodation at the South Light (and then went home and blogged about it). We didn't stay up to watch the election results: I'm not sure we'd have had the stamina for it, even if it had been an option, but in fact the electricity at the South Light goes off at 11.30 (the generator stops for the night) so we went to bed with a clear conscience.
shewhomust: (mamoulian)
Since it's after midday (here, at least) I don't have to maintain a straight face, do I? Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] poliphilo for the reminder of the BBC's classic 'spaghetti harvest' April Fool - and for the pointer to the thing itself, posted on YouTube by the Alexandra Palace Television Society (they have a web site, but it doesn't look as if they visit it very often). Fifty-year old television!

Despite which, my own favourite remains the Guardian's creation of San Serriffe.

[livejournal.com profile] steepholm informs us that Edward Jenner has a museum. Other gentlemen of the eighteenth century decorated their gardens with ruined towers and abbeys, some complete with resident hermit; Jenner's folly was a Temple of Vaccinia, a thatched rustic grotto in which he vaccinated the poor people of the district, without charge. (A note on the web site announces that "A wedding licence is being applied for." I find this... incongruous).

Staying with the medical theme, the wonderful Valerie Laws has won a commendation in the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition. The poem, Lifting the Lid, is part of her continuing work on the medical science of dying - it's beautiful but painful, a bit like staring at the sun. Read it on the Poetry Society's web site.

Shetland Forwirds is a site dedicated to Shetland dialect. There are sound samples from different parts of Shetland (Michael from Fair Isle explains that when his parents were first married, his mother had trouble understanding conversations between her husband and his brothers: she came from as far away as Lerwick - pronouned 'larrick'). There's a dictionary and a collection of idioms (though someone might have told the compiler that in treating 'cast on' as a Shetland term for 'add extra stitches in knitting' he was confusing local dialect and technical jargon). There's an extract from a translation of the Gospel of Saint Mark (direct from Greek into Shetland). And more.

And that's five, so this is no more than an explanatory note, that I found Shetland Forwirds through the web site of Shetland Library, which offers still more good things, including Basement Browsing: As an extra service to our customers, we regularly open up the library basement so that you can have look at some of our reserve stock - lots and lots of extra books for you to browse. (Please note that children under eight must be accompanied by an adult.) (Yes, I know that this probably means that the library is too small - but what a sensible way of tackling that problem!)

Sugar rush

Apr. 23rd, 2009 09:25 pm
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Today we took the plunge and booked our trip to Iceland. Which seems as good a reason as any to post one last installment of last year's holiday in the (not quite so) Northern Isles.

My notes say: "All you really need to eat well in Scotland is a sweet tooth." Oh, yes. The comment was provoked by Shetland's Sunday teas, but it applies the length and breadth of the country. Almost the first thing I ate, in Coldstream, as soon as we'd crossed the Tweed, was a piece of Border tart (from the debatable lands on either side of the border).

On Shapinsay we were served a dessert which our hostess called 'Island Mist': like Eton Mess, it is a mixture of whipped cream, broken meringue and red fruit (raspberries, being Scottish, rather than strawberries). But it is enriched with small lumps of fudge, and then crème de cassis is poured over the top. It's served with a finger of shortbread, presumably to reduce the overall richness.

In Shetland, home baking is a competitive sport. Each week the Shetland Times carries advertisements for 'Sunday Teas' (there is no singular; it's always in the plural, and I see why) held in the Village Hall to raise funds for some good cause. We went to Aith, where the Teas were combined with a plant sale. The trestle tables along one side of the hall displayed the plants (although most of these had gone by the time we got there - but what does it tell you about the desperate yearning for trees in the Northern Isles that there were sycamore seedlings for sale? For sale, admittedly, not all sold, but still, something that I uproot from my garden with a vengeful cry...). On the other side of the hall, the tables were piled high with scones and cakes and buns and traybakes and biscuits. You paid a trifling amount, you piled your plate high, you found a seat and someone came round with an enormous teapot and poured you a cup of tea. And when you'd emptied your plate, you went round again. Each time you went round, something new would have appeared, as the plates were emptied and replaced: it's apparently a matter of pride to contribute something home baked, and people have their specialties. We ate as much as we could, honestly, but it wasn't possible to try everything.

I'm told there are people - well, I'm told there are women - who visit several teas in an afternoon, just to compare the standard of what's on offer.

And the next day we sailed back into Aberdeen. There were traffic lights! And trees - tall trees, in full leaf, some of them - once we left the city - silhouetted against fields of rape. Things were flowering: rhododendrons and lilacs and even the occasional hawthorn. Spring had arrived while we were away in the north.
shewhomust: (Default)
One of the things about Shetland is, you can see where the oil money has gone. The wealth that has flowed into the islands (in payment for serving as a base for North Sea Oil) has been visibly translated into the fast, smooth road that runs the length of Mainland, into swimming pools in small villages, and into a smart new library and museum in Lerwick.

Lerwick museum


We spent most of the next day in the museum, five minutes walk from 'our house': turn right and down to the end of Burgh Road, carry on straight ahead through what appeared to be a builders' merchant's yard, and you are at the 'sail' end of the building. We were exhausted before we'd seen half the collection, but three things which I wrote down at the time:

  • A case containing the book Shetland Lichens (by Kery Dalby, illustrated by his wife Claire), and a note headlined "A Passion for Lichens" explaining that "Kery Dalby, who stays in Perth, has been studying lichens for over 30 years. He has identified 26 new species of Shetland lichens, and collected countless specimens. He recently donated a collection of these to the museum." I'm not sure what it is about this that appeals to me so much. On the one hand, Shetland's lichens are genuinely magnificent (I took photographs of them myself); on the other hand, a collection of countless specimens of lichen is not everyone's perfect gift...

  • Skekklers - wonderful photograph! go look! - are guisers, and wear a costume made of straw.

  • J.J. Haldane Burgess was known as "The Burns of the North" and "The Shetland Esperantist".
shewhomust: (bibendum)
The day after we had visited the southernmost tip of Shetland (southernmost, that is, excluding Fair Isle, which will have to wait for another trip), naturally, we had to head as far north as we could. Two ferries took us from Mainland to Yell, and from Yell to Unst, the most northerly inhabited island: in fact we cut it fine crossing Yell, and screeched down to the jetty to see the ferry pulling away - but as we watched, it paused, and then backed up to collect us.

We drove all the way north to Hermaness, and walked far enough beyond the end of the road that honour was satisfied. We didn't reach the coast ("Next time," we said), but we walked further than we'd intended to, because the air was cold and clear and hard as rock crystal, and the stones glittered in the sunlight. There were bonxies (great skuas) nesting, but there was also a great twittering of small birds. Sea birds don't seem to dominate the avian conversation in Shetland the way they do in Orkney - several times on the road north we'd disturbed gangs of starlings.

Unst is 12 miles long and five miles wide, with a population of 500: what would we find to entertain us there? There were Shetland ponies - and baby ponies, even smaller and fluffier than the adults (Shetland has a number of distinct species, smaller than the equivalent elsewhere in Britain, apparently: as well as the ponies, there are the sheep which provide wool for the knitwear, and a Shetland wren). We had lunch in the Northern Lights Bistro and Gallery, where we drank beer from the Valhalla Brewery, "the most northerly brewery in the United Kingdom." We visited the boat museum, bought knitwear from the knitwear shop and failed to post anything at Britain's most northerly post office (where it would have received a distinctive puffin postmark). We explored Muness Castle - Scotland's most northerly castle ('most northerly' is a recurring theme in Shetland - Britain's most northerly barbershop stood at the end of the street where we were staying in Lerwick - but it is on Unst that it really comes into its own).

Unst's major tourist attraction, though, is none of these things: Ta - DAH! )

Then it was back to the ferry and the drive south down the length of Mainland in golden evening sun that warmed all the colours of the moorland.
shewhomust: (puffin)
Two puffinsAnd the reason why we were driving south (past Sumburgh Airport, where the road crosses the runway with a sign saying "Ahead Only") was to see the sights of Sumburgh, the southernmost tip of Shetland's Mainland. There's a lighthouse, and a fascinating complex of archaeological remains (layer upon layer, back into the past) and best of all, there are puffins. And the puffin, as we know, is my totem animal.

For I shall consider the puffin - with much squeeing and many small photographs... )
shewhomust: (Default)
Look out for aliens


Driving north to Brae the previous day, I had been struck by the absence old farms; but all we had to do was to loop off the broad smooth ribbon of the new road (in Shetland, you can see exactly where the oil money has been spent), into the village. Beyond the new houses in Fladdabister are a group of abandoned crofts, reduced to grassy mounds, heaps of stones, tell-tale patches of feral rhubarb. Here and there lie a piece of rusting farm macinery, or a stack of old doors, because after all, they might come in handy some time. And beyond the grass is the sea, and beyond the sea are more low hills.

And that was Fladdabister.
shewhomust: (Default)
We do not do New Year's resolutions in this establishment; but at one point over the holidays Sue (who does not have a LiveJournal, but did accompany us to Shetland) asked me whether I had ever got round to sorting out the photographs I had taken there. I hadn't, of course; this tab is still open. The reminder sent me back to those photos, though. Many of them are now uploaded to Flickr (and many more to follow); there are puffins on my desktop; and while I am fighting back the urge to post all my favourite photos here, with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one - well, I'll try not to do that, but there will probably be the odd Shetland post.

There is a sign on the road into Lerwick, which reads:

Welcome to Lerwick
Leirvic - Old Norse - Muddy Creek

Truth in advertising is a fine thing, but this may be taking it too far.
shewhomust: (Default)
One of the places we visited in Shetland was the Bonhoga Gallery (part of the genesis of the Herring House gallery in Ann Cleeves' White Nights). We were underwhelmed by the paintings on display, and resisted the temptation of the café, but I had a great time in the card shop.

I was particularly taken by a series of cards in which miniature figures were photographed interacting with foodstuffs: the one I bought shows two figures shoveling what might be snow but is in fact the icing on a birthday cake.*

So now, before I send it off to the lucky recipient (who has her own creative touch with cakes), I need to note that the creator is Claire Grove, and that the card company (who seem to be the only source of her work) is Holy Mackerel.

Update (30.08.10): Claire Grove now has her own web site, and her cards seem to have vanished from Holy Mackerel. Her Gallery section icludes (but under different titles) Sunny Side Up (man v. egg), Anchovies at 3 o' clock (men v. pizza) and Home Sweet Home (colour-coded living in a Battenberg cake).



*Sad fact: and the letters which spell out "Happy Birthday" are in our old friend Cooper Black.

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