Sunday, 21 September 2008

Eat, drink and be merry... in the library?

There has been a bit of a hoo-ha in the media, particularly the Times, about some public libraries allowing people to eat and drink there. Many libraries have had rules and regulations, often by-laws which forbid this. These would probably need to be changed by the local council. They were also there for a good reason. It's not very nice borrowing books that are full of stains from dropped food, or even have bits of food in them, but library staff cannot do anything about books which are borrowed and eaten over at home. Banning food and drink in libraries is basically about keeping things clean and tidy - who wants to come and sit and work in an environment that has food wrappers, half-drunk cans of fizzy drink or spilt drinks everywhere. Surveys have shown that most people only stay in the library for a short time - less than ten minutes. Do they really need to eat and drink in that time? Who is going to control the anti-social kids who decide to start chucking their burgers and chips about just to wind each other up for the fun of it. I don't think that letting the public eat and drink while using a public library is a progressive step, I think its a backward one. I'm surprised to learn that there are still libraries that ban talking, as in my experience, there has never been a silence rule in public libraries, except possibly in some major reference libraries, where people may stay and work for longer periods. Most local branch libraries are much more casual, although they don't encourage mobile phones, as these are disrupting for other readers and also unhelpful when staff are trying to deal with a reader's query while they are talking to someone else on their mobile.

Following a dream

Our recent book club read was Rose Tremain's The Road Home. The story of Lev, a widower who comes to Britain to make money to have a better life in his own Eastern European country, this was enjoyed by all of us. We cared deeply about the characters, wanting Lev to succeed, feeling his shame and sorrow and also his joy when life was going well for him. His efforts at finding a job and his success in the one he found in a successful restaurent were the kick start to his eventual dream. The loss of that job makes Lev find other ways to achieve what he wants out of life. Although I don't usually read novels by Rose Tremain in one sitting, this one only took a couple, as I wanted to finish it so much and find out if Lev made his hard-won dream come true.
W Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence is another story about a man persuing his dream. This story, first published in 1919, is about a stockbroker who leaves his convential London life to become a painter in Paris, eventually ending up in Tahiti. Based on the life of Paul Gaugin, it is a tale of discarded wife, children, lover, comfortable life, and friends in the persuance of an unarticulated dream. It took me a little while to get into this story, probably have not been reading enough classics of late, but worth the slight amount of effort required.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Thrifty cooking

Reading an article in the Times yesterday, I discovered that Virago have re-published Katherine Whitehorn's Cooking in a Bedsitter, including a recipe from it called frying pan pizza. I have owned a by now stained, dog-eared and falling apart copy of the Penguin paperback, published in 1963. I bought it when I was a student in Manchester in 1966 or 67, when I was living in the kind of bedsitters she describes, with often very inadequate cooking facilities. The food at student canteens was pretty dire , too, which led me to cook for myself. My mother fortunately was a good cook, and used to tell me and my sister how she prepared the dish we were about to eat for supper or Sunday lunch. Domestic science was not inspiringly taught at either of the grammar schools I attended in the 60's, unless you were prepared to take the subject at O or A level. Cooking in a Bedsitter has the merit of including lots of recipes suitable for one person, able to be cooked quickly, but not relying on the constant use of a frying pan. I cooked and ate my way through most of it when I was a student. Later on I turned to Jocasta Innes The Pauper's Cookbook, (2nd ed, Penguin 2003, first published 1971) which included recipes for dinner parties for impoverished host and not so impoverished guests. I think I bought my first copy of this from the newly opened Habitat in Manchester - the excitement of having something so trendy in Manchester in the late 1960's. There are several other cookbooks from that era: Poor Cook by Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran assumes you like eating well, but are on a limited budget and can only afford cheaper cuts of meat and so on. More For Your Money by Shirley Goode and Erica Griffiths (published in paperback by Penguin in 1981 has lots of recipes for feeding a small family well on practically next to nothing except for a bit of time in the kitchen, and includes ideas for planning a weeks meals at a time, something that modern housekeepers are not encouraged to do( Shirley Goode has a blog here and still writes about thrifty cooking) while Richard Mabey's Food for Free (Fontana/Collins 1972) gives lots of ideas for foragers. I've never manged much more than a bit a blackberrying on the Common, living in a city as I do, but its an ideal book for countrydwellers.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Burning not so brightly?

A recent Book Club read was Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright, a story set in London in1792 about William Blakeand his relationship with a family who lived next door to him in Lambeth. I had wanted to read this when it came out in hardback last year, but somehow never got round to ordering at at the library or even seeing it on a shelf and grabbing it ( I don't normally buy hardback fiction for myself) . I didn't find this quite as engaging as I had hoped and neither did the rest of the group. We have all read Tracy Chevalier's other novels and enjoyed them more, so I am left puzzling as to why this one didn't please quite as much as those other titles. The story is about the Kellaway family from Dorset who move up to London to escape their grief after the accidental death of one of their sons. They rent rooms in a house next to the home of William Blake and his wife, and much of the story concerns the impact London and it's entertainments have on Jem Kellaway and his friend and neighbour Maggie Butterfield. These two children are used as contrasts to each other, to life in town and country and also to innocence and experience, the titles of two of Blake's most well-known works of poetry. There is much that is interesting in it, such as the depiction of Philip Astley's circus, the increasing anti-French feeling and its expression by the local people, but perhaps it is because of this wealth of ideas rather than narrative that we found the book as we did. We still enjoyed it as a novel, but not so enthusiastically as the author's previous titles.

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