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. 


5 thoughts on “Burns Night Book Group

    • Should you ever choose to visit this neck of the woods, we’ll treat you to a Burns Supper. It doesn’t need to be 25th January, either. It won’t be a home-made one as making the real deal haggis is far more complicated than a veggie version…

      • You’ve got a deal Emma. I have no idea what an authentic Haggis should taste like. When I was doing my specialty training there was a restaurant in Brisbane my boss would take trainees to to learn the art of how to eat with senior colleagues. I would have Haggis as an entrée, steak and kidney pie for main, and Queensland nut ice cream for dessert. I know I always enjoyed the meals there. I assume it had a Scottish connection. It was called “The Clansmen”.

      • Good o! An authentic haggis tastes spicy and oaty more than anything. That Clansmen menu sounds immense… I take it, your aim was not to spit everything out, use your fork like a pencil or chew with your mouth open?!

      • The Haggis was definitely spicy and tasty. Not sure about oaty.

        Yes, the good thing was because of my mother I knew to chew with my mouth closed, not to speak while eating, and tines down always. It distresses me so much to see people using forks not just like a spade or a shovel, but like they have some hand deformity and cannot grip the tool properly.

        Maybe this reveals I am a snob, but it was ingrained in me, tines down…

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