Burns Night Book Group

The Fatal Tree book coverFittingly, given the literary connection, the January meeting of the book group I belong to took place on Burns Night. Bring on the haggis…

In deference to the vegetarians in our group, I made Felicity Cloake’s version of a veggie haggis which uses split peas, pearl barley and vegetables to add flavour to the oatmeal. All Spice and plenty of black pepper made it taste authentically haggis-like. For the neeps and tatties bit I went with the BBC recipe here mainly because it meant I could prepare the dish the day before. Haggis can be dry, so a creamy whisky sauce makes it more palatable. To continue the Scottish theme, the menu included smoked salmon, mackerel, a punchingly strong vintage cheddar and a Strathdon Blue with biscuits.

The Flash World

And the book? I chose Jack Arnott’s The Fatal Tree, as I read it last year, enjoyed it ever so much and wanted to know what others thought. The book is based on the real-life story of Jack Sheppard* told through his girlfriend, Edgeworth Bess. Sheppard was notorious for his repeated jail breaks in the 1720s, a period of history when crime rates soared through the roof as tends to happen when differences between the rich and poor yawn so widely. The book also featured the real-life characters, Jonathan Wild, the Thief-Taker General and a rank bad jin as we say in this part of the world, and the playwright John Gay, who wrote The Beggar’s Opera said to be based on Sheppard, Wilde and the Whig politicians of the time.

It explored the rich, underground world of London, social inequality, gay subcultures, criminality and poverty. I loved the canting vocabulary used throughout—the slang terms of the so-called flash world, the underworld of the time. Others, though, found it slowed their reading. The book included a glossary at the back but when we read the book many of us found it didn’t take long to get used to the language and work it out for yourself – Romeville for London, the flat world for ‘normal’ society, phiz mongers for portrait painters, caper merchant for dancing teacher, hempen widow, a woman whose husband has been hanged, and so on.

Our book group doesn’t spend most of the evening on the book—when you’ve all been friends for years and for some of us (me), the book group represents the bulk of our social lives so the night is an opportunity to catch up—but the consensus was… mostly in favour.

Thanks to the language and the descriptions, A Fatal Tree is terrifically atmospheric and something you can easily imagine being adapted for TV or film. Jake Arnott’s book, The Long Firm was televised some time ago. Last night, we spent some time trying to think up who could play Edgeworth Bess, Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild et al. If you’ve ever played the casting game with one of your favourite books, it’s much harder than it seems.

All in all, a great book and a great night.

Did you celebrate Burns Night? And can veggie haggis ever be as good as the real thing?!

 

*Co-incidentally, this week’s news included the story of man who fled the UK, and was then found guilty in absentia of the man-slaughter of his date. He has since handed himself into the authorities in Georgia. His name? Jack Shepherd. 

Cornwall, coke in jars and controversial queens

This week, I…

Spent time in Cornwall

Mum and I had family business down south. Britain may be a small island, but travelling there from our part of the world isn’t easy. For me, it involved a half-hour walk, one hour and twenty minutes on the train, 15 minutes on a tram, one and a half hours on a plane and another two hours in a car until we arrived at the marvellously named London Apprentice village. The best bit of the journey? The car part from Exeter, driving on the road that passes alongside Dartmoor. Wild country and fabulous skies—folks, that bit of sky they use in the BBC Poldark production is representative. We drove into the sunset and talked about anything and everything.

Emma Baird mega breakfastOn the way back, my mum and I stopped off at a truckers caff for lunch, Tanya’s. We opted for the mega breakfast, pictured here. And this is the receptacle (below) they used for my diet coke. I want one. Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany’s pictures cover the place, and the tables are littered with pretty tea-sets. Not your typical truckers’ caff—though I’d hate to stereotype a trucker. Perhaps he or she raises a dainty wee finger as they sip their tea. And tucks into a mega breakfast of bacon, sausages and a couple of fried eggs whilst reading the meaningful quotes on the walls.

Made pickled eggs

I adore eggs. Poached, fried, scrambled, omelette-d or, my favourite, hard-boiled and mashed with mayonnaise, they are brilliant in any form. So far, I’ve given the pickled egg a wide body swerve. Then, I ate one in a gastro pub that had been pickled with beetroot. And I cursed my younger self. This form of the egg could have been part of my life eons ago. What a waste.

Reflected on the force for the good that is the worldwide web

Yeah, yeah—social media pressures, Twitter trolls and fake news aside, when you add up the pros and cons the scales tip in the balance of favour for the internet. I’ve met so many wonderful people online—and later in person too. Lately, I’ve benefited hugely from two online connections. I wrote a book, Highland Fling, and one of those connections—an editor with many years’ experience—volunteered to be a beta reader. He devoted far more time to my project than he should have done, exfoliating his way through my book so the rough scrubbing reveals a far more polished piece.

I posted the book on Wattpad and a reader stumbled across it. She made suggestions for improvement. My book featured a graphic designer and my reader was—a graphic designer. My book included a New Zealand character and my reader was—from New Zealand. Bear in mind that my following on Wattpad is pitifully small. The odds I attract someone who a) comments and makes useful comments, b) has experiences that relate to what I’m writing about are stacked against me. Oh universe, thank you for your kindness.

Watched a critically acclaimed film

Not. The reviews of Mary Queen of Scots have been… mixed, to put it kindly. I saw it and read the user reviews on IMDB afterwards. An awful lot of people didn’t like the colour-blind casting. The predictability of the ‘PC gone mad’ type statements depressed me. Professional critics didn’t touch on this, thank goodness—slagging off the pace and disjointed story instead. Me? Bits of it appealed (and Saoirse* Ronan steals every scene), but as a whole—ho hum. If you love scenery, cinematography and costume, though, you will be in heaven. I thought of Dartmoor and the journey I’d made with Mum and the tumultuous times our wee island has experienced in the last two thousand years.

And yet despite the doom and gloom we have now—Brexit, climate change, the rise of the far right that threatens the freedom of us all and the weird isolationism promoted as the answer to all our woes—I love my life. I’m thankful for aspects of it every day. I do my best to limit the damage I do to our beautiful planet** so I can pass on what I can in good conscience to whoever comes after me, and the little things bring me joy:

  • Pickled eggs
  • A lovely review
  • A sunset that holds your gaze too long
  • An actress who invokes a massive girl crush
  • The kindness of strangers I’ve never met.

Blessed.

*for the love of God, can anyone tell me how you pronounce the name?

**apart from the diet coke consumption, Millennials and Gen Z, I am SORRY about that.