30 July, 2010

July recipe: Gooseberry jam

There’s something very pleasing about home-made jam. Gooseberry jam is among the easiest to make, as gooseberries are fairly high in pectin so the jam will set without long boiling.

You can use green gooseberries, red gooseberries or a mixture of the two, depending on taste and availability. Green gooseberries produce a bronze-coloured jam, and a fifty-fifty mix of green and red gooseberries produces jam of a delicate pink colour. As far as I can tell there’s no difference in the flavour.

The quantity below will make about three or four medium-sized jars of jam. You can start eating it straight away, or it will keep indefinitely provided the seal of the jar isn’t broken.

Gooseberry jam

2 lb (approx 1 kg) gooseberries
2 lb (approx 1 kg) sugar. I usually use granulated sugar

Wash the gooseberries.

Top and tail the gooseberries – i.e. cut off the stalk at one end of each berry and the remains of the flower at the other. This tends to be a fairly slow job, so you might like to
find something to listen to on the radio before you start.

Put the gooseberries in a large saucepan.

Cook over a very gentle heat until the juice starts to run. I never need to add any extra water. Then simmer for 15 – 20 minutes until the fruit is soft enough to mash with a wooden spoon. You don’t actually have to mash it, and I usually don’t because I like whole fruit jam, but it’s a good indicator for when the fruit is ready to go on to the next stage.

Add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved (a minute or so).

Bring the jam to a full rolling boil – this means lots of bubbles across the whole surface of the liquid in the pan. Don’t lean over the pan and keep any children or pets out of the way. Boiling jam will sometimes spit, and as it is both hot and sticky it can give an unpleasant burn.

Boil until the setting point is reached. To test for setting point, scoop out a teaspoonful of jam and drip it onto a cold plate. It will form a pool. (If it forms a bead, your jam is ready – take it off the heat straight away and proceed to the next step). Wait for the pool to cool (30 seconds or so), then push it horizontally with your finger. If the surface wrinkles, the jam is ready. If the pool stays liquid, keep boiling for another 2 minutes and test again. I usually find this jam reaches setting point after about 10 - 15 minutes boiling.*

Remove the jam from the heat, and pour into clean glass jars. I find the easiest way to do this is to pour from the pan into a heatproof jug, then use the jug to fill the jars.

Seal the jars immediately. I seal jam jars with a layer of cling film and then a screw-top lid, but you can use any method of your choice as long as it is air-tight.

Let the jars cool, label them, and store in a cupboard until needed.

You can scale up the quantity as you see fit, but remember that you need plenty of space in the pan for the jam to boil without boiling over. If the pan is about half-full after you put the sugar in, that should be about right.

*I am told that a sugar thermometer makes it easier to recognise setting point. I’ve never used one, so can’t comment. The old-fashioned way works for me.

23 July, 2010

The Hounds of Sunset, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1976. Edition reviewed: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402237607. This edition includes all four of the Brothers of Gwynedd novels in one binding. The Hounds of Sunset, 196 pages. Complete quartet, 782 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet covers the following four novels:

  • Sunrise in the West

  • The Dragon at Noonday

  • The Hounds of Sunset

  • Afterglow and Nightfall

The Hounds of Sunset is the third in Edith Pargeter’s quartet of novels telling the dramatic story of Llewelyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales, and his turbulent younger brother David. The first two books, Sunrise in the West and The Dragon at Noonday have been reviewed here earlier. The key characters are historical figures, notably Llewelyn and David, Llewelyn’s bride Eleanor de Montfort, and King Edward I of England. The narrator Samson, Llewelyn’s friend and confidential clerk, is fictional, as is his beloved Cristin and her husband Godred.

The Hounds of Sunset covers the period from 1269 to 1278. Llewelyn is now the prince of (more or less) the whole of Wales, recognised as such and now at peace with England after the Treaty of Montgomery. His brother David, who has betrayed him twice and twice been forgiven, is apparently content with his lands and a pretty young wife. The future looks bright, and Llewelyn seeks to marry his long-affianced bride Eleanor de Montfort, who was betrothed to him by her father Earl Simon de Montfort just before his fatal defeat at the hands of the future Edward I at the battle of Evesham (told in The Dragon at Noonday). But Edward, who has never forgiven the de Montforts, has other ideas. When David turns to betrayal again, this time blacker than ever before, Llewelyn stands in danger of losing his bride, his patrimony and even his life.

Like the other volumes of the quartet, The Hounds of Sunset is beautifully written in intelligent, glowing prose. It isn’t a quick read, and at first glance it may even seem on the dry side, but the writing has a deceptive skill that drew me into the world of medieval Wales. The heroic, steadfast Llewellyn and his passionate, tormented, inconstant brother David are brilliantly illuminated, fiercely opposed and yet bound together by ties that cannot be broken. They dominate the novel and will remain long in the reader’s memory. David in particular is a powerful and compelling character. In Sunrise in the West I compared him to a fallen angel, and that analogy holds even more true now that he has grown in stature.

The third point of the triangle, Edward I of England, is equally strongly drawn. I am afraid he does not appear in a very flattering light, though Samson strives to understand him and Llewelyn seems almost unduly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Edward’s ability is matched only by his duplicity, both of which were demonstrated in his war against Earl Simon and both of which have grown in the intervening years. He makes use of the interminable petty squabbles between the Welsh lords with ruthless skill, and when he has provoked an excuse for war he promulgates it with an iron resolve and all the vast resources at his disposal. The princes of Wales have historically relied on the geography of Wales – deep rivers, dense forests, high mountains – to protect them from enemy invasion, and no-one has bargained for a king who is prepared to force geography to bend to his will. Edward’s implacable military engineering reminded me of the way the Roman Empire used roads and forts to subdue southern Britain a thousand years earlier.

As might be guessed from the title, the whole novel is shot through with a sense of vast foreboding. As the narrator says, “It is a strange thing that Welshmen should undo Wales, but so it was.” That might make it sound gloomy, but it is not, because it is never dull. Sad though it may be to watch Llewelyn’s years of patient hard work destroyed by enmity, fraternal rivalry, ambition and greed, it is never less than absorbing. Furthermore, none of the characters is given to self-pity. Llewelyn retains the hope of making a new beginning and of rebuilding what has been lost, and his love for the beautiful and heroic Eleanor de Montfort shines like a shaft of sunlight through the gathering storm clouds. And David, as always, is unpredictable and capable of dealing out great joy as well as great hurt.

The value of using Samson as a narrator is shown again in The Hounds of Sunset. Being fictional, Samson can be placed wherever the dramatic conflict is at its height, and his intelligence and detached observation make even the most complex political and legal wrangles clear.

A family tree at the beginning helps to keep the characters straight, though I found the text sufficiently clear that I never needed to refer to it, and a glossary of Welsh terms at the back may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. Readers who like to trace the campaigns and journeys on a map may like to have an atlas to hand, as there is no map in the book (at least, not in the advance reading copy).

Third in a powerful and evocative quartet telling the story of Llewelyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales.

17 July, 2010

Locations: Kinder Scout, Derbyshire

All the specific locations in Paths of Exile are real places. The photographs in this post show some of the locations for this scene, set on Kinder Scout on the plateau crossing between the head of Grindsbrook Clough on the southern edge and Kinder Downfall on the western edge.

See the map links at the bottom of the post for topographical maps and satellite images.

First light found them in a bleak wilderness of peat. More precisely, at the bottom of a twisting channel where an icy stream had carved its way through the peat to the underlying gritstone. The whole plateau top was riven with these channels, like the cracks in a giant cowpat, and they were deep enough that even a tall man could not see over the sides.
In the distance ahead, the half-light showed two giant grey shapes standing guard on either side of the channel. Ashhere supposed they were trolls, or ancient standing stones of malevolent power, but he was too tired to care. He plodded on, and with diminishing distance and growing light the two shapes resolved into a pair of gritstone tors. Beyond these sentinels the channel made a wide bend to the left and the stream gathered volume to become an infant river running in a sandy bed. A little further on, and it threaded through a jumble of gritstone boulders and plunged over a rocky fall to vanish in a dark hollow scooped out of the plateau side.

Ashhere stared at it, uncomprehending. His first thought was that they had wandered around in a circle and come to the ravine they had climbed up in the night, but he did not remember a waterfall. And slowly he realised that the sun was rising behind him, and the blue-shadowed plains rolling away to a distant horizon were in the west.

“You have crossed Kyndyr,” said Severa’s voice, behind him.
--Paths of Exile, chapter 15

"The whole plateau top was riven with these channels..."

The Kinder Scout plateau is a more or less flat slab of gritstone overlain by a thick layer of peat. Water trickling over the surface eventually cuts channels in the peat, known locally as groughs. If you click on the 1:25,000 scale map link, you'll see the groughs shown as a network of fine blue lines covering the plateau. This is what they look like in real life.

"...deep enough that even a tall man could not see over the sides."

The man in the photograph is six feet two inches tall. To see out of the groughs you have to scramble up the near-vertical peat walls. In dry conditions, like this, the peat is liable to disintegrate under you in a cloud of choking dust, and in wet conditions (i.e. normal), it has the consistency of thick porridge.

"...the half-light showed two giant grey shapes standing guard on either side of the channel. Ashhere supposed they were trolls, or ancient standing stones of malevolent power, but he was too tired to care. He plodded on, and with diminishing distance and growing light the two shapes resolved into a pair of gritstone tors."

Kinder Gates (see the 1:25,000 map link for the location). On a beautiful day in early summer, when this photograph was taken, Kinder Gates is quite clearly a pair of gritstone tors. Looming out of half-light and mist, especially at dawn on a November morning, is quite a different matter.

"...an infant river running in a sandy bed."

The Kinder River was very low when I took this, as it was the driest summer for decades, but you get the idea.

"....threaded through a jumble of gritstone boulders and plunged over a rocky fall to vanish in a dark hollow scooped out of the plateau side"

This is Kinder Downfall. In the very dry conditions when the photo was taken the fall was reduced to a bare trickle, though you can see the boulder field and the ravine. There's a good photo of Kinder Downfall in spate here, which will give you an idea of what it would have looked like to Ashhere.

"....the blue-shadowed plains rolling away to a distant horizon were in the west."

At the time of Ashhere's (fictional) visit in early November 605, the plains west of Kinder would obviously not have been occupied by Greater Manchester!

Map links
Topographical map available online at 1:50,000 scale and the more detailed 1:25,000 scale
Satellite image on Google Maps. You can scroll around and zoom in and out.

08 July, 2010

The Tide of War, by Seth Hunter. Book review

Headline 2010, ISBN 978-0-7553-5761-1. 427 pages. Review copy supplied by publisher.

The Tide of War is the sequel to the first Nathan Peake adventure, The Time of Terror. It is set in 1794/1795, mainly in the Caribbean and the Mississippi Delta, against the political turmoil of the French Revolution and its effects on the New World colonies. The central character, naval officer Nathan Peake, is fictional, as are most of his colleagues. Baron Carondelet, Spanish governor of Louisiana, and Gilbert Imlay, American agent and adventurer, are historical figures and important secondary characters, particularly Imlay.

Scarred physically by his interrogation as a spy in Revolutionary France, and emotionally by the loss of his lover Sara whom he believes died on the guillotine (events recounted in The Time of Terror), Nathan Peake has temporarily retired from the war to recover at the family estate in Sussex. However, his father’s potentially embarrassing marriage plans prompt Nathan to seek an immediate return to sea, and on reminding the Admiralty of his existence he is promoted to Post Captain and given command of a handsome new frigate, the Unicorn. There is just one snag – the Unicorn’s previous captain was washed up near New Orleans with his throat cut, and the Unicorn herself has vanished somewhere in the Caribbean. Nathan’s mission is to find the Unicorn – if she still exists – and use her to fight the more powerful French frigate Virginie, which is at large in the Caribbean destroying British shipping and arming rebels against Britain’s Spanish allies. On top of this, Nathan finds himself drawn into a slave rebellion in Cuba, a shady plot to conquer Spanish Louisiana, and an encounter with a seductive ex-slave queen who may also be a voodoo sorceress.

The novel is slow to start, with two or three chapters of background before Nathan sets off to the Caribbean, but once it gets going the action rarely pauses in this cross between a spy thriller and a naval adventure – think of the ‘frigate captain’ genre of seafaring stories with a dash of James Bond thrown in. Nathan has to deal with murder, mutiny, hurricanes, shipwreck, pirates, espionage, voodoo, intrigue, rebellions, ship-to-ship naval duels, a land attack on a fort, and still have the energy to do justice to the attentions of the beautiful ex-slave queen La Princesa Negra.

The Caribbean and the Mississippi Delta make for an exotic backdrop, with romantically named places such as The Sea of Sirens and The Mouth of the Serpent. An intricate web of political intrigue extends from the revolution and war in Europe to the European colonies in the Caribbean and North America, further complicated by the nearby presence of the burgeoning United States, officially neutral but possibly not averse to fishing profitably in troubled waters. I was unfamiliar with the history, so the political background was a particularly appealing feature.

Nathan’s social background is hardly less diverse or exotic. His father is of solid English gentry stock with suitably conventional views, while his mother Lady Kitty is from a very wealthy American family of French descent and entertains dangerously radical modern ideas, such as the rights of women (she is a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Woman, who appeared in The Time of Terror) and the abolition of slavery. This background provides a plausible mechanism for equipping Nathan with views on slavery and feminism that wouldn’t be out of place today, which probably helps to make him a sympathetic figure for modern readers. I found him a likeable character, a decent individual plagued by self-doubt and still grieving for the woman he loved, though he does tend to get overshadowed by some of the more colourful secondary characters.

Chief among whom is the outrageous Gilbert Imlay, explorer, smuggler, dodgy businessman, spy and all-round adventurer, a historical figure whose real career extended from a sort of proto-CIA agent in the fledgling USA to Revolutionary France, who had an affair with Mary Wollstonecraft and then promptly abandoned her and their infant daughter, and who, according to the historical note, really did hatch a nefarious plot involving the conquest of Louisiana. I wouldn’t call Imlay a hero, at least not as he appears in the novel, but he steals the show. I wonder if he will make a further appearance in the sequel?

For the most part, the novel is written in straightforward modern prose, with only occasional uses of modern expletives such as f-- (in situations where expletives are surely understandable, such as narrowly escaping being eaten by an alligator. I told you this was an all-action yarn). Occasionally the style veers into the prolix, most notably in the climactic shipboard fight scene, e.g.

“Nathan moved to abandon his sedentary position with some alacrity and drew one of his own pistols with the intention of shooting his assailant in the head, but this excellent plan was betrayed by a singular circumstance.”

"The force of this blow was so great, in fact, it caused the sword to lodge in the hatch cover and Nathan was able to draw his own sword and prepare a more adequate defence than he had previously been allowed."

Lines like these are flanked by page-long discourses on Nathan’s memories of his boyhood fencing master and the design and construction of pistols, all in the middle of a brutal hand-to-hand fight. Perhaps the language is aiming for an eighteenth-century flavour, and it certainly makes for a curious contrast with the concomitant blood-and-guts violence, though for me it also had the effect of slowing and distancing the action.

Two useful maps at the beginning of the book show the geography of the Mississippi Delta and the Caribbean, and are invaluable for following the naval and military action. A helpful ‘History’ note at the end sets out the history on which the novel is based, very useful for readers (like me) who are not especially familiar with the period. (As is so often the case, the most unlikely-sounding aspects of the plot turn out to be true). The novel doesn’t so much end as pause to catch its breath, deliberately untying at least one loose end in the plot which is presumably going to make a major contribution to the next instalment.

All-action yarn of espionage and naval warfare set against the exotic backdrop of the Caribbean and North American colonies in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

01 July, 2010

Iago Gwynedd

Iago son of Beli was King of Gwynedd, in what is now north-west Wales, in the early seventh and/or late sixth century (the chronology and genealogy of the seventh-century kings of Gwynedd was discussed in an earlier post). His death is recorded in Annales Cambriae in the same year as the death of Selyf son of Cynan, King of Powys, at the Battle of Chester (see earlier post on the dating of the battle).

This line in Annales Cambriae is often interpreted as meaning that Iago died alongside Selyf at the Battle of Chester. In turn, this interpretation is sometimes further extrapolated as indicating that Powys and Gwynedd, two of the major Brittonic kingdoms at the time, had formed a military alliance against Aethelferth of Bernicia/Northumbria, and/or as indicating that Gwynedd had some sort of territorial interest in Chester. What do we know about the manner of Iago’s death?


Annales Cambriae

613 The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died].
--Annales Cambriae

Welsh Triads

And that was one of the Three Hatchet-Blows. The second (was) a woodcutter of Aberffraw who struck Golydan with a hatchet, on the head. And the third, one of his own men struck upon Iago, son of Beli, with a hatchet, on the head.
--Red Book of Hergest Triads


Annales Cambriae records the death dates of four out of the seven kings of Gwynedd listed in the genealogies for the seventh century (see earlier post on Chronology of the Kings of Gwynedd] for details). This may be pure chance, reflecting the material that happened to be available to the scribe compiling the Annales. Alternatively, it may be a deliberate judgement about events that were considered important enough to record, or events that were sufficiently important to act as landmarks distinguishing one year from another. If this is the case, then the fact that Annales Cambriae recorded Iago son of Beli’s death may indicate that he was a significant figure.

Did Iago die alongside Selyf son of Cynan, king of Powys, at the Battle of Chester? This is certainly a possibility, since his death is entered in the same year. However, it may be noteworthy that Annales Cambriae treats the two deaths separately. That might be chance or the scribe’s personal style, or it may indicate that Iago’s death was not directly connected with the battle. Furthermore, the Annales record Iago’s death as ‘slept’, which implies a peaceful death and might be a further indication that Iago did not die in the battle. I have suggested in an earlier post that Iago may have been well into his sixties in 613, as this fits with the dates recorded for his predecessors and successors. If Iago was of advanced age, this does not preclude a death in battle if he retained sufficient health and fitness to join the campaign, though it might be considered a slight point in favour of a natural death.

On the other hand, the Triads list Iago’s death as one of the Three Hatchet-Blows, implying a violent death, and one of some note. This would be consistent with death in a major battle. A fatal blow from one of his own men could have happened in the confusion of battle (leaving aside sinister conspiracies, out of which a tale might be spun), and is the sort of thing that might have been considered worthy of comment. It seems not to fit well with the natural death that might be implied by Annales Cambriae.

So what to make of this apparent contradiction? Quite possibly, not a lot. Both Annales Cambriae (early tenth century) and the Triads (thirteenth century or so) date from centuries after Iago’s time, leaving plenty of time in which they could have been misunderstood or mis-copied. Either or both might be mistaken, or the Annales’ choice of ‘slept’ might be merely idiosyncratic, perhaps a scribe using elegant variation to avoid repeating the same word used for Selyf ap Cynan’s death in the same entry.

One possibility is that the Triads may be referring to a different Iago of Gwynedd. Iago son of Idwal son of Meurig* is recorded in the Annals of Ulster as having been killed by his own men in 1039, in one of the various dynastic struggles for rule of Gwynedd:

All these were killed: Iago, king of the Welsh, by his own people; [...]
--Annals of Ulster

It may not be beyond possibility that the patronymics of two different Iagos got mixed up at some point, either in copying the Triads or in oral stories and sagas, and that the Iago in the Triads who suffered the hatchet-blow by one of his own men was Iago son of Idwal son of Meurig (1039) instead of Iago son of Beli (613).

It is not unknown for the Triads to incorporate names of figures who do not belong to early medieval Britain. For example, Alan Fyrgan or Fergeant, Duke of Brittany in the late eleventh century, appears in the Three Faithless Warbands Triad. The Triads featuring men and women who received the might of Adam or the beauty of Eve feature Helen of Troy, Paris son of Priam, Hercules and Hector from classical mythology. This does not strike me as surprising; one might expect a living poetic tradition to evolve to accommodate new material, adding the exploits of new heroes as new stories came into circulation.

If the Iago of the Three Hatchet-Blows Triad was a different Iago, perhaps the eleventh-century Iago son of Idwal, then the Iago son of Beli whose death was recorded by Annales Cambriae in 613 could have died a natural death, which may not necessarily have had any connection with the Battle of Chester except a coincidence of year. This would fit with the choice of ‘slept’ by the annalist, and also with the separation between the mention of the battle and the mention of Iago’s death.

As usual, multiple interpretations are possible. It remains a possibility that Iago Gwynedd was killed (possibly by a hatchet wielded by one of his own men) at the Battle of Chester. However, this seems far from proven, and I would say the very limited evidence can equally support the less romantic possibility that he simply happened to die in the same year as the battle.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Annals of Ulster, available online
Red Book of Hergest Triads, available online

*A patronymic of a patronymic (a patronymic squared?) is needed here, to distinguish him from Iago son of Idwal Foel (Iago son of Idwal son of Anarawd) in the tenth century. See the Wikipedia article on Iago ap Idwal ap Meurig and Iago ap Idwal Foel. Given the recurring use of names across centuries, it would almost be more remarkable if individuals didn’t occasionally get mixed up.