Books to learn new skills in lockdown, from calligraphy to cocktail making

In need of something new to capture your attention? Take up one of these activities to fill your bank holiday weekend and beyond.

New skills to learn during lockdown
Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

By this point in lockdown, you might well have worked your way through a pile of books, completed a fiendishly difficult 1,000-piece jigsaw and done a very deep dive into Netflix. Or perhaps you've found it difficult to concentrate on doing the things you usually love and find have been less productive than you'd hoped.

Either way, you're probably in the market to learn a new skill or begin a new hobby that will divert your attention from the everyday. We're not necessarily talking becoming fluent in Latin – although if that's what you want to do, go for it – but things that you can fit into your lockdown life, no matter how much time, money or space you have available.

Here, the Penguin team recommends five tried and tested skills – from the practical to the whimsical – you can master during lockdown, and the books to help you do so.

These are things you can fit into lockdown life, no matter how much time, money or space you have

Stocking a pantry

Before lockdown, there were so many culinary conveniences offered to overscheduled city-dwellers – takeaway, delivery and, most recently, those recipe boxes delivered with pre-loaded ingredients – that one never needed to worry about keeping a stocked pantry. In a pinch, even practised chefs could just nip down to their corner shop for any crucial last-minute ingredients.

Lockdown might have changed that, but there's a tool tucked in the back of Yotam Ottolenghi's Ottolenghi SIMPLE that might help those of us just finding their culinary feet: a guide to 'Ottolenghi ingredients', a list of pantry items he suggests readers keep stocked to make his recipes. From there of course, readers can and should extrapolate – identify the ingredients you use most often to achieve the flavours you love, so that your pantry stays full and serviceable as long as possible. 

And if you are cooking from Ottolenghi SIMPLE? Well, you're going to need more za'atar than that.

-Stephen, associate editor

Making cocktails

I've got my egg-based cocktails down to a science now. And all it took was being caged inside my one-bed for six weeks with a vague sense of dread and thirst for some indoor adventure. Some people have press ups, others are making bread. I've got Whiskey Sours. 

I don't just drink eggy cocktails. I'm working my way through Emma Stokes' inspired recipe book The Periodic Table of Cocktails – an innovative how-to of 106 classic cocktails grouped by style, size and spirit following the logical ordering of The Periodic Table of Elements. The idea is simple: if you like one cocktail on the table, chances are you'll like all the ones around it, too. It's easier than science and, for me, a lot more fun.

-Matt, writer

From birdwatching to calligraphy, learn new skills during lockdown
Use lockdown to learn to identify birds in your nearest green space. Image: Jacky Parker Photography/Getty

Baking with what you've got

Among all that fuss about loo roll and pasta, the memo about stockpiling eggs and flour got somewhat overlooked. The new expanse of time spent at home and parents looking to entertain children has seen a proliferation in baking. Perhaps you're part of the sourdough starter squad, or more of a banana bread type, but either way, getting the basics to bake something comforting has been made a challenge.

Enter, then, Sarah Rainey's wonderfully minimalist Three Ingredient Baking. Not only does it help you conjure magic tricks such as creating biscuits from nothing but peanut butter, sugar and an egg, or desert from a packet of digestive biscuits, yoghurt and a packet of jelly, but it helps the beginner grasp the reins of baking.

-Alice, features editor


One of the few positives to come out of the Covid-19 crisis is that many people are remembering to stop and smell the roses – or, perhaps, sit and stare at the trees. Do that for long enough, and you should start to see some of the 52 creatures beautifully captured in Our Garden Birds, a twitcher's guide by street artist Matt Sewell.

His pop-art watercolours have gained him a cult following over the past decade, and it's a style that works perfectly for capturing our chirpy friends. You'll need some binoculars, obviously, and a little patience, but anyone with a garden, a decent view or access to a park will soon find themselves ticking swallows, swifts and chaffinches off their list. 

-Sam, editor-in-chief

Taking letter writing to the next level

Writing a letter to a friend or family member is a lovely act, especially during lockdown when you can't see your loved ones. And if you're going to the effort of putting pen to paper, the next step is to channel your inner Elizabeth Bennet and master some exquisite penmanship.

Chiara Perano is the founder of calligraphy studio Lamplighter London and her gorgeous book Nib + Ink equips you with everything you need to ensure your letters look beautiful. Nib + Ink includes a modern calligraphy alphabet, creative ways to personalise your stationery and projects including how to set an envelope. You'll never want to send an email again.

-Sarah, managing editor 

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