Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The year in books: March

Yet again I have let the month almost slip through my fingers and get away without me having written about this month's book, or rather books, as this month's book is truly a trilogy, although made up of comparatively short books.  Ursula Holden's The Tin Toys trilogy, consisting of The Tin Toys, Unicorn Sisters and A Bubble Garden.  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Ursula Holden began writing comparatively late in life, after attending a creative writing class in her late forties.  The novels are about three sisters growing up in England and Ireland around the time of the second world war.  Each novel is narrated from the perspective of a different sister, providing fresh insights and perspectives on the girls' joint past and uncovers what each knows about the others.

I bought this on a whim, as I had a dentist's appointment coming up and our dentist always runs late, making a good book a must for the waiting room, and I must admit I had vaguely expected something a little cosier.  Whereas these books are far from cosy, they make up a tale of neglect, of children pushed from pillar to post and considered an inconvenience by their mother who would rather follow her own path.  I get the impression that the children's mother feels that as her husband has died and thereby deserted the family, she is entitled to go too.  So the children move from one unsuitable place to another and endeavour to bring themselves up, searching for love and trying to make a home wherever they end up.  Holden evokes places as they seem to a child well, making her places atmospheric and her people real, with all their flaws. In many ways the adults around these sisters are every bit as lost, damaged and vulnerable as the children and just as unable to find their way through a changing world.  For a key theme of the novels is that of class and the impact the second world war had on the lifestyle of the upper classes.  In this new world it is the lower classes who thrive, while the upper classes struggle to adapt and are without suitable resources.

Ursula Holden photographed by Fay Godwin in the 1970s

In many ways I was reminded of Noel Streatfeild's wartime novel for adults Saplings, which deals with similar themes of neglect and the way children could be pushed from pillar to post during wartime.  Both novels do much to dispel the sometimes cosy image we get of the second world war; there is no cheery Blitz spirit to be found.  Other novels exploring similar themes include Streatfeild's first novel The Whicharts (later re-written as Ballet Shoes) and Eleanor Graham's The Children Who Lived in a Barn.  While Marghanita Laski's novel The Village explores similar themes of the war's impact on society.

In summary I would recommend The Tin Toys Trilogy most heartily; I read it in great gulps, riveted and wholly inhabiting their world and will have to go back and re-read it, hopefully more slowly.  Although I am currently attempting that with Rebecca West's magical novel The Fountain Overflows and for all my good intentions I get too drawn in to go slowly and instead read it in great deep draughts.  Do you find you have the same problem with some novels?

Virago have republished The Tin Toys as a Modern Classic and I sincerely hope that they republish more of her books soon.  Here you can hear a short interview  with Ursula Holden, who is in her nineties and living in a convent nursing home in West London.

Monday, 24 March 2014

My personal, partial guide to yarn buying in the UK

I thought it might be helpful to put together a brief guide to where I tend to buy yarn in the UK, which shops I find reliable, which yarns I've particularly liked.  Naturally this can only be a brief guide, we seem to be enjoying a time of abundance of yarn shops and yarn varieties.

First off, a guide to yarn weights, which can vary from country to country, a guide to substituting yarns, and the importance of swatching (checking that your gauge or tension matches that of the pattern so that it turns out the right size - not something to miss out).

I do not tend to use acrylic or artificial fibres, except in blends, as I prefer natural fibres, so I will focus on them.  Natural fibres (wool, cotton etc.) do not have to be significantly more expensive than many of the acrylic yarns and I prefer knitting with them and wearing them.

Good all round shops

Modern Knitting - good for having its yarns organised well, sells a wide range of yarns from cheap basics to some higher end yarns; especially good for sock yarn.  My particular favourites from here are Cygnet Superwash dk and the King Cole Merino Blend range of yarns, both of which are good quality pure superwash wool yarns.

Wool Warehouse - good wide range of yarns including the full range of Drops yarns, a Norwegian company, who are excellent value for money and very good quality natural fibres or blends.  Drops have regular discount times when a range or type of yarns will be on sale, which are well worth looking out for.  Also do a good range of German company Rico's yarns, which are at the good value end of yarn buying.  My favourites here include Drops Alpaca, a light, soft, drapey yarn, one of my favourites ever, their other alpaca based yarns are good too; Drops Karisma superwash, another good quality superwash wool yarn and Drops Fabel, their sock yarn.  Drops Paris and Rico Creative Aran cottons both deserve a mention as they are good for dishcloths and crocheted blankets as well as baby clothing and are very easy care.

West Yorkshire Spinners - buying direct from the manufacturer, this is a comparatively new find for me but I have just made three projects in their yarn one after the other and am impressed.  Good value for money, I especially liked the Aire Valley DK, a wool/acrylic blend which is machine washable and uses British wool.  I really want to try their newly released sock yarn, I have long thought that a British wool standard sock yarn was missing from the market so hopefully this will fill the gap.

MCA Direct - an established Scottish company who sell a good range of yarns including a wide range of Rowan yarns.

Pavi Yarns - has a good range of Cascade 220, an American brand of worsted weight yarn, often described as a "good work horse yarn", was for a long time Ravelry's most popular yarn, among other yarns and some good buttons.

Get Knitted - an established Bristol yarn shop selling a whole range of yarns, good for sock yarn, although their lack of stock control system (things appear to be in stock on the website but then turn out not to be) has put me off lately I will admit.

Stash Fine Yarns - good wide range of yarns, mostly big brand names, some good sales and discount codes, their bargain section is always worth a look.

Deramores - fast gaining ground thanks to aggressive marketing, stocks a wide range of yarns but are often more expensive than other shops for the same product.  They have a lot of voucher codes which make the yarns more affordable, but on the whole I do not shop here much, but thought they were worth mentioning.

Addicted2Knitting - I should declare an interest as this shop is owned by a friend, particularly good for Zauberballs, good range of clover accessories and Knitpro needles.

Kemps of Sunderland - great for bargains, sell yarns companies are clearing out, really worth keeping an eye on

Black Sheep Wools - the other good shop for bargains and clear outs of stock

Sock Yarn Shop - does what it says on the tin, mostly sells sock yarns

Great British Yarn Shop - stocks a range of yarns including some exclusively spun for them, as well as being the sole UK stockist of popular US yarns Knitpicks

Purple Linda Crafts - specialise in crochet, great range of crochet hooks

Higher end shops

Meadow Yarns - a well curated range of interesting yarns from the everyday basics to true luxuries and exotic yarns not sold elsewhere.  Also has the widest range of my favourite Knitpro knitting needles, I like the symfonies (the spelling makes me shudder), which are wooden.  I would like to try the Hjertegarn Lima, a good value worsted weight wool.

Tangled Yarns - lots of lovely yarns, including the luscious Malabrigo yarns, they do a 10% off jumper quantities of yarn too

Loop of London - sells mostly luxury yarns from overseas, can be pricey, sole UK retailers for some US brands like Quince Yarns and Brooklyn Tweed

British Yarns

The Woolsack website lists retailers of British yarns far more comprehensively than I could ever hope to, but I will briefly mention:
Blacker yarns who sell rare breed yarns
John Arbon, an expert spinner with some gorgeous yarns
Maple Tree Yarns (again owned by a friend) for a wide range of British yarns
Jamieson of Shetland and Jamieson and Smith both specialise in Shetland yarns (amazing stuff)
New Lanark, brilliant value British yarn spun at the world heritage site of New Lanark mill, not the softest but very hard wearing

I hope that helps as a start, I will add to this and do a post at some point on my favourite independent yarn dyers.  I accept no responsibility for yarn bought as a result of this post!

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Art of Celebration

Last Monday my favourite band, Rend Collective, released their latest album, titled The Art of Celebration and I have been listening to it all week.  The songs have an energy and life to them and contain many truths and promises.  The premise of the album is that God is always worth celebrating, no matter what the circumstances of our lives and sets the tone by opening:
We’re choosing celebration
Breaking into Freedom
You’re the song...
Of our hearts
This song, Joy, is one of my favourites on the album, the lines "The pain will not define us/Joy will reignite us" have been resonating with me, so often I feel like my identity is being subsumed by illness.  There is an interesting dance remix of this song at the end of the album, while dance music isn't usually my scene, it can work for worship music and it mixes well with rhythms of Irish origin often used by Rend Collective.

The band have talked about not liking being pigeon-holed as a "folk" band and have tried to diversify for this album, but I would say to them not to worry about it, their original philosophy of making music that anyone could get involved in is great, stick with that philosophy.  It is much closer to historical church music than the "traditional" organ and choir music, which originated in the nineteenth century when village music groups were banished from churches in favour of organs.  Let's put worship back into the hands of the people and have inclusive music that has its roots in the past but has freshness for today.

I am terrible at celebrating, terrible at seeing and remembering the good in life and in God; it sometimes feels like my brain is fixated on the bad, the evil, my sin, endless darkness.  But the Bible is packed with people celebrating God, Paul and Silas singing their hymns in prison in Acts 16 particularly come to mind and I hope this album can help me to learn more about always celebrating Jesus and what He has done and is going to do.  Despite the name the songs do acknowledge the hard side of life, it is not mindless "everything is wonderful" stuff, but about the conscious choice to celebrate.  Darkness, deserts, pain, doubts, questions, sorrows, shadows are all allowed in and acknowledged, but placed in their proper perspective of God's grace and goodness and mercy and light.

There's so much I love about this album, I will admit to not being the most moderate or measured reviewer (though honestly I am not in their pay and I bought my copy!), it has brightened up a dull week and has a message I badly need.  Have a listen - in their generosity the band have put the lyric videos on youtube - see what you think, buy a copy, celebrate.

By your power I can change, I can change
‘Cos you’re not finished with me yet 
This is the art of celebration
Knowing were free from condemnation
Oh praise the One, praise the One 

Sunday, 2 March 2014


Although today has been distinctly wintry on the whole we are surrounded by signs of spring.  Our pond was a ferment of frogs last week, at one point we counted twelve in there, which was quite something as it is not a large pond, only just over a metre long at most.  They have mostly disappeared now, leaving the pond full of frog-spawn.  I love spring, watching the cycle of life getting started again, plants appearing, first as tiny green spikes, then emerging into their full identity, small crocuses or full sized daffodils towering higher and higher.  Watching the buds on the trees, there all winter as tiny promises of the renewal to come, slowly swelling and breaking and the bees emerge from their winter quarters and begin to visit from flower to flower.


This has been a good weekend for spring things, despite today's weather, yesterday there were times of gorgeous blue skies and bright, warm sunshine cutting through the crisp breeze.  On my way out I noticed among the many crocuses that have naturalised and are spreading across the front garden most efficiently, one which is striped in purple and white, something I never knew crocuses could do.  On my way home, after dawdling to listen to a blackbird and watch some great tits in the trees - one of them flew close enough past my head that I heard its wing flutter in flight, the first time I have heard that this year - I discovered that crocuses seem to close for the night.  All the flowers had shut in the time I had been out.


We have lots of narcissi in the back garden as well as more crocuses, the occasional tulip, a few hyacinths and glorious clumps of primroses.  I adore the "proper" pale yellow primroses, so sunshiny with heart-shaped petals.  Their cousins the cowslips are beginning to flower too.  Continuing the yellow theme we have sighted a yellow butterfly at the bottom of the garden, probably a brimstone I think.


Everywhere is new life and this morning's great excitement was the news that we once again had two robins, our robin has been doing some valiant singing recently hoping to attract a mate.  There were two robins in the garden in January but it was probably a bit too early for them to be together and one left again.  So we have high hopes of baby robins come the summer.  However, there have not been as many goldfinches around lately, I hope the robin's aggression has not scared them off.


My knitting is keeping with the spring theme too as I am now on the top shaping of the Peerie Flooers hat by Kate Davies, the decrease sections do take some concentration and I have been back re-knitting most rows at least once.  But the finished result is looking beautiful and most spring-like, the Rowan Fine Tweed yarn is gorgeous, with a wonderful lustre.  Hopefully it will be finished soon and my head will match the spring around me.