Saturday, January 31, 2009

In thrall to the Swedes

Swedish crime

A little late, I've jumped on the Stieg Larsson bandwagon. After many recommendations, I finally got around to reading 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'. It was un-put-downable (though wonderfully large and heavy) and immediately upon finishing it I went out and bought the sequel, 'The Girl Who Played With Fire'. I've been trying, so far unsuccessfully, not to buy new books, but to borrow them from friends or libraries. But the need to continue my Stieg Larsson relationship immediately was beyond reason or denial.

His central character, the Asbergerish savant Lisbeth Salander, has echoes of Carol O'Connell's Mallory, a much earlier enthusiasm of mine. But, with their extensive and varied range of characters, plots and sub-plots, Larsson's books are much richer than an engagement with a single character. His books are political in the best way, where the themes evolve from the drama of the ills of everyday life - violence against women, racism, the sex trade, and prescient stories of corruption in the world of high finance.

Stieg Larsson's own story is almost as sensational as his fiction. A life-long left-wing activist and journalist who campaigned against fascist tendencies and movements, he died from a sudden heart attack at 50, leaving behind the three unpublished volumes of his Millenium trilogy - of which the books mentioned above are the first two installments. Inevitably, given the nature of his life and fiction, all kinds of conspiracy theories have developed around his death.

My reading for the last few months has included not only Stieg Larsson, but also another two Swedish crime fiction writers - newly discovered Asa Larsson, and old favourite Henning Mankell. (As an aside, I 'discovered' Henning Mankell for myself, randomly buying one of his novels in Amsterdam when I was in desperate need of something to read. This was just before his works were widely distributed and I've always felt some pride that I'd begun reading him before he became famous. Aren't the things you take pleasure from odd?)

On the web I found a recent article by John Crace from 'The Guardian', musing on the rise in popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction, and providing me with a most useful list of other writers I've not yet read. Crace writes most interestingly about the intersection of translation and publishing and how this inevitably affects what becomes popular, but he also speculates that the reason for the current popularity of Scandinavian fiction is that it is exotic - as he says 'It's this sense of the other that sets them apart'. I'm not sure that I agree with him - it depends what he means by 'the other'. He may reflect a British sense of what constitutes 'the other', but as an Australian, Swedish crime novels are no more exotic for me than fiction set in Ian Rankin's Edinburgh. In some ways, they are less exotic because I've visited some of the locales of Stieg Larsson's and Mankell's novels, but I've never been to Edinburgh. What I particularly like about the Swedish crime fiction I've read is that it's deeply rooted within the values and patterns of the community and society from which it derives. Maybe this is what Crace means by 'the other'.

I've also discovered that the BBC has made a series based on some of Mankell's novels with Kenneth Branagh as the gloomy but admirable detective, Wallender. So, we still have this to look forward to in Australia. I loved the Swedish TV series of the books which we saw on SBS - dark and disturbing - so Branagh and the BBC will have a high standard to live up to.

Anyway, enough of blogging. I have to finish 'The Girl Who Played With Fire'.

Monday, January 26, 2009

My affair with Noro stripes

Somewhat belatedly, my first finished project for 2009. It's been languishing for some time, waiting for the space and lack of distraction to block it. It's the latest installment of my long-running affair with Noro stripes:

parquet scarf 2

It's the Chevron Scarf from Joelle Hoverson's 'Last Minute Knitted Gifts'. I've now made several projects from this book and, apart from the fact that they all take me much, much longer to complete than the seductive time-frames given in the book, everything has been a delight to make. So far, they've all been simple, straight-forward projects, but elegant, and usually with some small detail that's delighted me. With this scarf, it's the few rows of reverse stocking stitch at each end of the scarf that gives such a satisfying finish.

Parquet scarf

It's yet another project in one of the blue-green-brown Noro colourways that I keep buying despite my best endeavours to be more light-hearted in my colour choices. The stripes remind me of Missoni colours and patterns that I've loved for decades. And, obviously, it's (yet-again) two-row Noro stripes - this time in silk garden sock yarn.

parquet close-up

Usually, I like scarf patterns that are reversible. As a very experienced scarf wearer I like to cultivate an air of negligence in my scarf-wearing, pretending to let the scarf fall how it will. I thought a non-reversible scarf might require too much fussing to achieve this impression of carelessness, but somewhere through the knitting I fell in love with the texture of the reverse side of the fabric. So, I've decided it really doesn't matter which side (or indeed which combination of sides) is revealed.

Parquet - wrong side

I've called it the parquet scarf because when I first photographed it in its early stages I laid it on a parquet floor to photograph and found the lines of the scarf echoed the pattern of the parquet floor. I was then delighted to discover, when checking the Missoni website, that their gallery also has patterned parquet floors.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Seven miles from Sydney...

Yesterday I had one of those 'Isn't Sydney beautiful?' days. We took the dotee to Manly via the train and ferry.

Bridge & ferry

The return ferry trip to Manly has to be one of the best value tourist excursions in existence. On second thoughts, the Star Ferry in Hong Kong Harbour, and the Staten Island ferry in New York are equally wonderful. They're all trips where for the price of local transportation you have breath-taking views of tourist icons.

My son-in-law and I are wimps when it comes to cold(ish) water and cool breezes, so we didn't actually go swimming, but we did all the other things you do at Manly - walked along the beach-side promenade,

Manly beach

played in the sand and became horrified by how it sticks to everything (both the dotee and myself), chased seagulls (the dotee alone), and ate fish and chips followed by ice-creams.

AM with ice-cream

For me, Manly has rich associations of my Auntie Mollie, who for more than 45 years spent two weeks each year in Manly for her summer holidays - many of them in the same guesthouse where she built up a repertoire of summer acquaintances. She lived in the country, and like many country people of her generation (she would be almost 100 if she were still alive) viewed Manly as the ideal place for a holiday. I can't imagine she ever swam, but she got 'dressed up' each day, ate her guesthouse meals, drank copious cups of tea, chatted to fellow residents and lingering strangers and took a promenade each afternoon. Manly also had the virtue of being close to the city, where she could 'do the shops' and 'go to the pictures'. I used to visit her during her stays, and even twenty-five years ago it seemed like a glimpse of a lost way of life.

There are some remnants of this era when Manly was known to be 'seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care' in the architecture of the houses and older flats, and in the art deco lines of the ferry terminal.

Manly wharf

My Auntie Mollie, by the way, is commemorated in my family for her recipes for pavlova and Christmas brandy sauce. I'm happy to pass these on if anyone is interested.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A beginning

Grey sock

I've begun the first sock for my 2009 Personal Sock Club. I didn't have any brown paper bags but, undeterred, I did 'eeny-meeny-miney-mo' and chose the first yarn. As (bad) luck would have it, it's the yarn I recently unravelled from my unsuccessful holiday sock knitting - Araucania Ranco Solid in a soft mushroom grey. But, honoring the spirit of serendipity, I went with the chance outcome.

After a hunt through my pattern books (somewhat distracted by the dotee's finger-pointing and running commentary on every page) I've chosen the Child's French Sock from 'Knitting Vintage Socks' (modified to fit a woman's foot). It's one of the patterns that Nancy Bush has adapted from Weldon's late nineteenth century practical handbooks - this one from Volume 13 published in 1898.

I'm much happier with this project than my previous attempt with this yarn. The Araucania Ranco is quite thick - almost a 5 ply to use the old-fashioned Australian terminology I've grown up with - and knitting it with 2.5mm needles produces a much more attractive texture than the dense fabric that was the outcome of trying 2.00mm needles.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On the Program

I have renewed admiration for the multi-tasking abilities of the parents of small children who also manage to knit. I have spent most of the last month with the dotee - my 20 month old grand-daughter - and there has consequently been a significant decline in my knitting productivity. I imagine I must have once had these multi-tasking capacities myself when my own children were small, but either they need constant practice to perfect, or you lose such adaptive capacities with age, or (and I think this is really the explanation in my case) you just get too tired to knit and play endless games of shape-matching simultaneously. Shape-matching wins out.

So...the result? My only finished object from the last month is a Missoni-ish scarf. And even that hasn't yet been blocked.

chevron scarf
Chevron Scarf from Joelle Hoverson's 'Last Minute Gifts'
Yarn: Noro Silk Garden Sock

Admittedly, I did also knit and unravel a sock during this time (didn't like the tension; didn't like the combination of yarn and pattern). Nevertheless, this is definitely a knitting lull.

So, having acknowledged to myself that I need external motivation and deadlines, particularly when the distraction of the dotee is readily available, I've filched with some enthusiasm RoseRed's pre-stolen idea of a 2009 Personal Sock Club. For those of you who've not already read about it, you choose some skeins of sock yarn, possibly match them with patterns, and parcel them up in brown paper or other non-transparent bags. At regular, pre-ordained intervals you then choose a bag at random and knit socks from the contents. It has the virtue of knitting with yarn already acquired, some element of surprise and serendipity, and (for me) the motivation of deadlines and A PROGRAM.

RoseRed has a large and exotic stash and she is knitting a pair of socks from beautiful yarn each month! I have a small and less beautiful stash; I knit slowly and I want to improve my sock-knitting skills, so I'm doing (note - not just aiming for) a pair each two months. This is my meagre sock-yarn-stash:

sock wools
Patonyl in slate blue
Araucania Ranco Solid in mushroom-grey
Araucania Ranco Multy in blue/brown/pink
Madelinetosh in Lichen
Araucania Ranco Solid in brick red
The Knittery Slim Sock in Bloody Mary

At this stage I know I want to knit Bex's Luminare from the Knittery Slim Sock, but otherwise I've made no pattern decisions except for having a preference for some Nancy Bush designs along the way.

However, the deadline mentality is already setting in. I've just noted that we're now two weeks into January. A quarter of the time I have for my first pair of socks has elapsed. I should be halfway through my first sock. So tonight is brown-paper bag night, regardless of how many shapes the dotee want to match and how many times she wants to hear 'Meg and Mog'.

I'll keep you posted with my progress - I need you to keep me on THE PROGRAM.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Backtack 4 finale

The last act of my backtack 4 swap has been played out - the denouement somewhat delayed because the package from Anne in Denmark didn't make it to Australia before I left for the Philippines. But on my first day back I rescued the parcel from the post office.

It was every bit as beautiful - and appropriate - as I had believed it would be.

The 'gold' component of the swap was some paper-cut birds, made from double-sided printed paper and strung on gold thread with discrete beads and gold disks. Because I was away for Christmas, my decorations at home this year were minimal. I'd found some twisted willow branches and hung some of my favorite Christmas baubles; I added the birds to this simple assemblage and they immediately seemed at home.


The 'frankincense' element appealed to taste - dark chocolate with orange and some anise sweets favoured by by-gone Danish royalty (Anne had been reminded of these by my post on Rose Tremain's novel about Christian IV of Denmark, 'Music and Silence').

And finally - myrrh - a gift to give pleasure. Most amazingly, Anne made a scarf using the same pattern I'd used to make her scarf - Winnie Shih's Swiss Cheese Scarf. Admittedly, it had been in my Ravelry queue, so there was justification in her choosing it. Nevertheless, it's an extraordinary coincidence. The scarf Anne knitted for me is in linen, which I love, and is in two tones of rich golden-syrupy colours. She also included a small pouch in beautiful silver/indigo fabric. I intend to use it for jewellery when I travel.

Backtack received

I think this was a perfect swap. I enjoyed making the gifts I sent, and love the ones I received. I've particularly valued having a small personal experience of Danish craft. I like the feeling of reciprocity I've had with this swap - a feeling that comes from getting to know and communicating with your partner.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Intramuros (literally 'inside the walls') was a walled settlement initially established by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1571 as part of the Spanish conquest of the Philippines, and now part of modern-day Manila. From its foundation till the defeat of the Spaniards in 1898 Intramuros was inhabited exclusively by the Spanish ruling classes, and contained fortifications, government buildings, churches, monasteries and grand homes.

Manila was the second-most destroyed city (after Warsaw) in the second world war. During the war it had been conquered and occupied by Japanese forces, and in 1945 was 'liberated' by US and allied forces through comprehensive bombing and destruction. It is estimated that around 100,000 Filipino civilians died in this intense period of confrontation.

Intramuros, like most of the older areas of Manila, was devastated during this period, with little evidence remaining of its grand (though deeply inequitable) past. Miraculously (a word that's always used in this context) the church of San Agustin was the only building left intact after the bombing, and there are some remnants of the metres thick walls that gave their name to the area.

I always try to visit Intramuros when I go to Manila. Though getting there through the mad chaos of Filipino traffic is always an ordeal, once you arrive there is always a sense of sanctuary.

Intramuros 1
Restored houses, General Luna Street, Intramuros
Intramuros 3
Courtyard, Intramuros

More than anywhere else in Manila, Intramuros has historical sites that I think would be of interest to tourists, but tourists to the Philippines are sadly few. On my most recent visit, the main occupants of the area were members of wedding parties, literally queuing for their turns at the altar of San Agustin. December is THE month for weddings in the Philippines - the rainy season has usually finished, it's not yet too hot, and many relatives are already visiting for the Christmas season.

San Agustin was built in the late sixteenth century and is said to be the oldest church in the Philippines. As well as surviving the bombing of the second world war it has withstood many major earthquakes, so its survival is indeed amazing, if not quite miraculous.

St Augustine
San Agustin Church
St Augustine door
Main door, San Agustin

While the main church of San Agustin is buzzing with activity, it has a secluded crypt where the remains (bones? ashes?) of my erstwile husband's grandparents and great-aunt are kept - among many others. It also has a quiet, rather moldering colonnaded museum set within the neighbouring Augustinian monastery and a beautiful garden much in demand for grand receptions associated with the weddings.

But my main purpose in visiting Intramuros has little to do with San Agustin or the other sites of interest, such as Fort Santiago (where generations over centuries of rulers and prisoners resided - 'native' Filipinos, Spaniards, Americans, Japanese), or the museum commemorating Jose Rizal, poet, novelist, and executed hero of the doomed Philippine revolution. My main purpose is to visit Silahis, one of my favorite shops ever.

I've been visiting Silahis for many years - 20? 25? I think it's the last reasonably extensive source of traditional, good quality Philippine crafts. Its owner is aging, and I'm sure he can't make much money from the enterprise, as it's almost always deserted when I visit. Silahis has four floors of beautiful baskets and other woven objects, wood carvings, furniture, paintings, books, and (my passion) textiles.


Each visit is, however, increasingly tinged with sadness as the quality and variety of the crafts diminishes each time. Actually, I'm not sure that what I've written is quite true - what is really changing is that the crafts no longer represent in a traditional sense the diversity of the cultural groups within the Philippines, each with their distinctive cultural productions.

This is particularly true of the textiles where there are now few weaving traditions represented. Both the textiles below come from the southern Muslim areas of the Philippines, which is one of the few areas still regularly producing hand-weaving. As for so many other regions of the world, the prices of raw materials are so high, and the return for the labour of hand-crafting so minimal, that only the most disadvantaged groups continue to engage in such time-consuming activities as weaving.

Silahis fabrics

Every time I visit I feel compelled to buy something, as I absurdly think that my meagre purchases might encourage continued production.

Manila is a sprawling, bustling, busy, dirty, polluted city with a population of around 14 million people. When you visit you experience it primarily as a modern Southeast Asian city. Beyond that, you are much more immediately conscious of the inheritance of its 45 years of US colonisation, rather than the centuries of Spanish rule, or the diversity of its pre-colonial inhabitants. More than most other places, for me Intramuros has a sense of the many, diverse and often tragic past experiences of its people.

Intramuros 2

Thursday, January 1, 2009

...and where did you spend Christmas?

This is where I spent my Christmas

Bahay kubo

In a bahay kubo in Laguna in the Philippines.

My erstwhile husband* usually lives in Manila, but he recently built a bahay kubo (a house - usually modest - of local materials) outside the town of Magdalena, about 100k south of Manila in the province of Laguna. He was very keen to have us spend Christmas in his bahay kubo and because he asks very little of the rest of the family we were willing to oblige (though the half of the family who are city addicts were quietly a bit reluctant).

He has built his house on land that belongs to an old friend, on a hill that used to be a coconut plantation, overlooking richly vegetated rice farms, with a view in the distance of Mount Banahaw, a volcano renowned for its religious and spiritual significance.

Laguna view

The coconut plantation was abandoned some time ago, and the owner of the land has planted local mahogany. It's also the kind of tropical environment where everything grows rapidly and even a few years without cultivation results in a jungle-like landscape.

Laguna road
Laguna vegetation

Magdalena is breathtakingly beautiful and heart-breakingly poor. There is a squatter settlement at the foot of the hill where R has built his bahay kubo. In a way that is typical of the Philippines, the owner of the land allows the squatters to live on his land in return for their acting as caretakers of the property - they safeguard it against other squatters and ensure the holiday houses are maintained.

My erstwhile husband employs A, one of the young men from the squatter settlement as caretaker and housekeeper and is teaching him to cook. A's father was killed in a fight when he was 7, and he only finished school to grade 4, so such employment is seen as immense good fortune and enables him to help keep younger family members in school. While we were there, we also employed another young man, RR, to help entertain the dotee, my grand-daughter. Small children are welcomed and seen as a source of endless entertainment in the Philippines so needless to say, she had a wonderful time. Unlike A, at 17 RR is still in school in his final year. Like so many Filipinos, his father works on contract as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia and remits money to his family. Remittances from overseas workers are the life-blood of the Filipino economy and the only way in which many people see a chance of freeing their family from deep poverty. But it is simultaneously damaging the social fabric of the community, as so many young people are growing up without the presence of parents, and so many skilled people are absent from the everyday decision-making and shaping of communities.

For three days we had six adults, one small child, two helpers, three languages, two active dogs and a bossy cat in a small two-roomed bahay kubo. It rained continuously, and my son was ill. Amazingly, in my view, we survived Christmas with relatively good cheer and undamaged relationships. Admittedly, three of us slept in another house on the property, which somewhat relieved the space pressures.

By the way, the Jane Austen Christmas dress fitted perfectly, as the rather sweaty photo of the dotee shows:

AM in Christmas dress

* I am still searching for an un-self-conscious, easy label for the person to whom I'm still legally married, but from whom I've been separated for many years. Any ideas?