Category Archives: Shire Books

Shire Book of the Month: The Women’s Institute by Susan Cohen

The Women’s Institute is a radical organisation and always has been.  That took me by surprise as well.  Susan Cohen’s book ‘The Women’s Institute’ is a real eye-opener and is full of unexpected facts that should serve to blow away any lingering prejudice that the WI is all about Jam and Jerusalem.

The first WI was set up in 1915 in Llanfair in Wales and was inspired by the Canadian WI which was already well established.  The original mission was to harness the skills of country women and to encourage them to play a more active role in village life and to give them opportunities to share activities in a social context with other women. The Great War was already on and there was a great deal that needed doing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the initial movers and shakers in the WI were suffragettes for whom the Institute was an excellent tool in furthering the cause of women.  Country women were often very isolated and there was little opportunity for socialising or personal development and the WI offered the chance to broaden their horizons from politics to practical skills, from art classes to charabanc tours.

The WI catered for women from all walks of life and everyone was equal; the scullery maid would sit at the same table as the lady of the manor and everyone had a voice.

A fine example of WI needlecraftf the manor and everyone had a voice. This situation would have been unheard of in any other context and is another example of the radicalism of the WI. Initially though, women had to be nominated and seconded by someone already in the group which could be quite nerve-wracking.

I asked my friend Mrs Grable why she had initially joined the WI.  She told me that, as a young mother, she was quite lonely at home all day on her own and the WI offered an opportunity to get out of the house and socialise with like-minded women and learn some new skills.  It was also a great way to meet her neighbours and they encouraged each other to go.  She has now been in the movement for forty years and it still has the same appeal, although the activities have expanded considerably since the 1960s.

During the WW2 the WIs were significantly involved in all aspects of war work including organising evacuees, food production and canning projects as well as fundraising and knitting socks for seamen.

The modern WI has also had a major impact in changing the law and leading campaigns including libraries, food labelling, domestic violence, mental health and global poverty and Cohen tells a wonderfully illustrated and evocative story of the importance and relevance of the Women’s Institute and its activities from its inception to the present day.  Perhaps it could broaden your horizons?


Filed under History, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Shire Books, Slider

Shire Book of the Month – British Pigs by Val Porter

A clearly smiling Large White

What is it about pigs that singles them out from other farm animals?  Chickens make good noises and lay eggs, sheep are stupid but feel nice, cows are a graphic designer’s wet dream and give us milk and pursuant dairy products, but pigs are different.  Pigs smile at you, they wriggle when you scratch them and, particularly the smaller ones with long noses, are hairy, intelligent looking and you get the feeling that they truly belong in the English landscape.

The Shire Book of British Pigs by Val Porter is a glorious celebration of this animal’s transition from wild boar to domesticated pig. It starts by explaining the basics of pig keeping and the history of farming and gives detailed information about the various breeds and how they come to look as they do.  Most British breeds have, at some point, been cross-bred with Chinese stock which has resulted in the squashed snouts.

Old English pig from 1842

The pictures in this book are so glorious they’ll make you weep; whether they are photographs of existing pigs or paintings and etchings of animals commissioned by proud owners and stockmen from the past.

Like many domestic farm animals, the drive for intensive, high speed farming homogenised pig breeds and had them shut away from public view. In the decades after the war animals were raised in large-scale, purpose built buildings where the only interest was how much bacon, pork and sausages could be made as quickly as possible.

Thanks to the renewed interest in rare breeds, slow food and local farming, there has been a concomitant awareness of animal welfare and pigs are appearing in our fields once again.  The rare breed is making a comeback and it is quite usual to see Tamworths, Gloucester Old Spots, British Saddlebacks and Oxford Sandy and Blacks rootling around happily in the fresh air.

This book also covers the New Pigs on the block.  Pig breeds continue to evolve and the farmers are interested in make the breeds hardier again so that they can manage an outdoor life.  A pig with a fleecy coat is a sight to behold and I wonder how many people were aware of the, now extinct, Lincolnshire Curly Coat?

Pennywell Mini pig - so gorgeous you could just eat them ... except not these because they're pets, tiny enough to fit in Paris Hilton's handbag.

Porter’s clear and appealing writing style draws you in to the life of these delightful animals.  She has written more than forty books about livestock, farming and self-sufficiency and her enthusiasm shines through. If you like pigs, read this book.  If you like eating pigs this book can only enhance your gastronomic experience.


Filed under Animals, Livestock, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews, Shire Books

Sunday Poem 100

Today’s poem needs to be apposite for several reasons.

Firstly, it is the 100th Anniversary of The Wartime Housewife’s Sunday Poem.  I have tried to make my selections from a wide range of poets from Great Britain and abroad and have tried to make them palatably short as, personally, I wouldn’t be inclined to read 157 verses about albatrosses or unrequited love on a blog.  All publishing deals will be warmly considered.

Secondly, the first ever Sunday Poem was John Betjeman’s ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’.

Thirdly, those lovely people at Shire Books, quite coincidentally, sent me one of their newest titles ‘John Betjeman’ by Greg Morse, a beautifully illustrated little book providing an excellent introduction to the life and work of Sir Betj.

Which is why I’ve chosen this piece by Colley Cibber  … I am funning with you, of course.  These lines, by John Betjeman, offer a glimpse of my idea of a perfect English summer holiday and I feel a deep yearning for the sea even as I copy out the words.

East Anglian Bathe – by John Betjeman (1906-1984)

Oh when early morning at the seaside
Took us with hurrying steps from Horsey Mere
To see the whistling bent grass on the leaside
And then the tumbled breaker-line appear,
On high, the clouds with mighty adumbration
Sailed over us to seaward fast and clear
And jelly fish in quivering isolation
Lay silted in the dry sand of the breeze
And we, along the table-land of beach blown
Went gooseflesh from our shoulders to our knees
And ran to catch a football, each to each thrown,
In the soft and swirling music of the seas.

There splashed about our ankles as we waded
Those intersecting wavelets morning-cold,
And sudden dark a patch of sea was shaded,
And sudden light, another patch would hold
The warmth of whirling atoms in a sun-shot
And underwater sand storm green and gold.
So in we dived and louder than a gun shot
Sea-water broke in fountains down the ear.
How cold the bathe, how chattering cold the drying,
How welcoming the inland reeds appear,
The wood-smoke and the breakfast and the frying,
And your warm freshwater ripples, Horsey Mere.



Filed under Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Shire Books

Shire Book of the Month: Ice Cream by Ivan Day

I chose ‘Ice Cream’ this month because, on this balmy Spring day, the images in it made me long for summer and sandals and eating ice cream outside and the remembered sorrow of dropping a Mivvi on the dusty ground.

There is something rather wonderful about ice cream.  Even though you can buy it anywhere and there are hundreds of different brands, styles and flavours available, the jingling tune of an ice cream van is a sound filled with excitement and expectation.  Even if you disapprove of eating in the street, eating a 99 dripping with syrup as you walk along on a hot day is still, somehow, a proper treat.

The Shire book of Ice Cream is a proper treat in itself.  The Introduction entices you, like a Penny Lick, into the history and manufacturing process of ice cream.  The facing photograph of a moulded ice cream swan surrounded by fruit is extraordinary, particularly when you realise that confections such as these were first seen at the end of the 17th century.  And this is where the story really begins.

Chilled sweatmeats, made by mixing snow or ice with fruit juice or dairy products, were being eaten as far back as the Romans, Persians and ancient Chinese.  The first Slush Puppies if you will.  True ices however, didn’t come about until an artificial method of freezing was discovered using chemical salts with crushed ice.  This process was first described in 1530.

Ice cream was, for a long time, only for the rich as only they had the facilities and the skilled cooks to prepare them.   It was a difficult process and very labour intensive and Ivan Day takes us through the development of the early ice cream equipment and the paraphernalia which went with it.

Ice Cream Maker 1768

As technology progressed, the book describes how manufacturing changed to bring ice cream to the masses and how ordinary people initially responded to it.  Food is so often an indicator of the prosperity and class structure of a country and something as simple as an ice cream pudding can illustrate in an instantly understandable way how society shifts and settles and how simple pleasures become available to all.

Ice Cream Maker 1930

But to understand how nothing actually changes, who do you think created  Parmesan ice cream or made ice cream to look like a cooked ham?  Did I hear you mutter ‘Heston Blumenthal’?  Wrong.  How did the invention of the wafer stop people enjoying saliva and slime with their ice cream?  Who wouldn’t want a bit of Hokey-Pokey?

Well I’m not telling you.  You’ll have to read the book.


Filed under Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews, Shire Books