23 November 2011

Charles Lamb once told Coleridge he was especially fond of books containing traces of buttered muffins.

The literary quarterly magazine I work for (the one seven floors up with the panoramic skyscape of London's landmarks and an office dog with a better hairdo than any human I have ever seen) had a readers' day at the lovely Art Workers Guild in the heart of Bloomsbury on Saturday. The building is run by a woman in a matronly smock who is the spitting image of Clarissa Dickson Wright, though, I think, rather more attentive and with a shinier, healthier glow. Almost one hundred subscribers, white of hair and keen of mind, flocked to be shown where to put their coats and where the loos were by a rather excitable me. I had got the bus in first thing with my eyes all swollen and uglified, which was so not cool for the likes of Penelope Lively and her distinctive specs. I thought I may look pained and fragile, which would be appropriate for the talk on the Romantics later. But it turned out that Sue Gee was rather in awe of my outfit, using hand gestures and open-mouthed silent expressions to make this known to me at the sidelines of the Great Hall. She asked where I had got such such pretty things, to which I was forced to admit in mumbles that all items were from charity shops...

The day was a success of lots of tea cups and copious hot tea, overcoming dodgy slides of beautiful wood engravings that illustrate Victorian classics, the Romantics abroad with their reveries in Lake Geneva, perching on steps at the edges of a very red room plastered to the rafters with portraits of the great and good, anecdotes aplenty about all of Graham Greene's fascinating relatives, and the most amazing cakes piles high on a gingham tablecloth. Oh my, the cakes.

Frances Donnelly is a writer, an expert on the aforementioned Greene, a contributor to the quarterly review and works for BBC Radio 4 (!). She also happens to make beautiful, rustic, masterpieces of cakes by the delicious, and hefty, batch. She loaded the heaving table with coffee and walnut rounds, Victoria sponges sandwiched with fresh home-made raspberry jam, chocolate buttercream slabs, apple crumble wedges, gluten-free orange slices, a monstrous four-tiered lemon curd cake and sugar-dusted lemon drizzle squares while wearing her pinny, covered in icing sugar, hair wild and eyes bright. Then she removed the pinny, put on her spectacles, and sat down with her notes to prepare the rather compelling talk she was going to give to the seated mass. She is a dream wonderwoman. And she smiles. I want to be her when I grow up.

The metaphorical cherry on the top. Masterpiece.

16 November 2011

Not only was it Observer Food Monthly this weekend just gone, which is a joy in itself, but it was Observer Food Monthly CHRISTMAS SPECIAL. So great. Salivate. Sunday is my favourite day, made all the better by food porn. And Nigel Slater included a mustard-heavy recipe. I love mustard more than most. And this recipe is the bomb because it doesn't involve many ingredients or much effort. I don't really do cooking, so this is my kind of thing. It is just butternut squash, onion, a pint of double cream, salt, pepper, and four heaped tablespoons of wholegrain mustard, baked for ninety minutes so it is all gloopy, with a slight crust, and seriously mustardy. Total drool. Thanks Nige.

This girl is a winner

Mustard is so dreamy, though not in a soppy dreamboat kind of way, as it has bite. Bite, not pep, because pep sounds way too American cheerleader, which mustard is not. Me and him got through two large jars in a month. And that is not unusual. When we have roast dinners (or, indeed, any dinner) at home, I always have both wholegrain and dijon in dollops, and your run-of-the-mill-though-still-sensational English stuff too obviously, if there's any going. A guy I knew once bought a big tin of the powdered stuff which he would mix up into a paste. I think he only bought it because the make was the same as his sur-name. I saw a list of the world's oddest, most niche museums in a paper the other day. There is a mustard museum in Norwich. I do not think this is odd, I think it is a Grand Day Out. I of course checked out the Colmans Mustard Museum online. Visitors can 'discover beautiful and historical mustard items'. Intriguing. They can 'find out how Jeremiah Colman started his mustard empire'. Educational, and also brilliant that Mr Colman's first name is Jeremiah, a fine name for a mustard. And they can 'sample a range of delicious mustards'. Which is the whole point, I would say, of going to such a place. Whenever I have been to Norwich it has always been really sunny. Without fail. Now I know that it's because they have a big old yellow mustard sun shining over it all the live-long day. Yum, mustard sun.

12 November 2011

A whole month has passed and I have been quite out of the norm and right into a loch. Turns out my Great Uncle Michael counts bats. And sometimes newts. So going off to count birds was pretty much inevitable. Genetically speaking. We arrived in the very middle of the night, in fact just after, with loud suitcases and torches that probably woke the whole farm with light in windows and made birds make screaming haunting sounds. We fished the key from a moss-covered fairy tree-stump outside the front door. I thought there could be someone in the other bedroom because there was a toothbrush already in the bathroom. So I whispered while we opened wine and toasted the beginning of Operation Scottish Adventure. I was less stupid in daylight. Toothbrush mystery remains unsolved however.

A lot happened in the quickest month of my life, and I don't want to be a borelord, so I did some journal trawling and picked out little passages. I've added authentic and genuine photo evidence so it's clear I'm not making the whole thing up. SO...

Where we were
Bogbean, bruised knees, blue lips, hot hot baths.
Reading Anais Nin erotica all the time, and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach in one evening on the sofa.
ELUSIVE BITTERN (that we failed to see - I don't think it was elusive, rather a phantom)
Home from home - the flat has Pride and Prejudice on VHS. White shirted Darcy all wet from the lake. And Emma. And Persuasion. And A Little Princess (!!). PERIOD DRAMA.
Faffing with the cairn as the ducks laugh.
In a canoe on the loch, pulling up reeds by the root. Boat of vegetation. Cold wet hands in workman's gloves. Wading in water, getting stuck in mud, weird to walk on land again. Splashing water over dry-suits and hang them on the line in the dark ducket, heavy feet swaying. So creepy.

Cold Comfort Farm characters, but with Scottish accents.
I have bruises where my kneecaps used to be. Purple, stormy and tender.
Bogbean sounds like something out of Roald Dahl. No beans but sometimes flowers and always tentacles.
Lapwings sound like tuning a radio, like interference.
Peeing in a stream then eating sandwiches sitting on a wall by a bridge in Kirkton of Kingoldrum. The best sandwiches - brown bread sliced thick, cheese, lettuce and so much mustard.
Neeps and tatties and vegetarian haggis with mini bottles of red wine at The Three Bellies Bray on a Friday night.
Haggis, neeps and tatties
Scrambled batter with damson jam for breakfast.
Mink Raft Day is the wettest. Clay and droppings and so much rain. One thigh prickled from nettle stings, the other from a barbed-wire scratch. Fingers crossed for no tetanus. My bones wet and shaking. Then both thighs prickle from heat: heater right up close blowing hot air. Cider With Rosie, smell of very old paperback, eating malt loaf, a ginger nut and a clementine in bed. I feel like Chistmas. It is still raining.
Grilled cheese and mustard and beans on toast, tumblers of whisky. My cardigan has yellow wool flecks in amongst the green that look like mustard splodges. This has been a week of yellow mustard that bites at my nose.
STELLA FOR £2.20!! A WHOLE PINT. A Stella and a Snickers is the most amazing thing.

Hobgoblin and Stella
Wearing dry-suits is like being a Power Ranger.
Clearing away mermaid hair. Silver fishes in the tangles. Uncombed mermaid hair clogging the loch plug. Takes too many throws of the grapple, so we wade through plaited mass, undo the braids.
Torso deep in swamp and weeds/lying in a hot bubble bath, getting all clean and listening to The Velvet Underground's Femme Fatale.
He made gratin in ramekins - ramekin gratin ramekin gratin.

Exploring is the Best Thing. Wake to wind and rain in the dark then it's dry-suits in bogs and swamps, finding dead cygnets and wood all bitten by beavers. Up to our ribcages in swamp and rain and mud and mist.
Hanging binoculars hammer my bladder.
Dry-suit slung over a rake handle and held between us like the fruits of a day's hunt, like stag or boar, or a person if we were cannibals. We hid it under an upturned wheelbarrow under a bridge, the feet sticking out like a dumped dead body.
A dark walk home after getting drunk and the English aristocrat who thought we were roe deer. 'I saw legs'. He didn't invite us to his manor to drink brandy.

'The terrible truth is I think we're coming down with colds' and the pheasants shrieked.
Corduroy hands. We are forever making corduroy hands. Skin printed from being pressed in legs.
BRAVEHEART. A Mel Gibson production with bad hair and blood. They may take our lives but they will never take our freedom. Watching William Wallace hung, drawn and quartered while eating chocolate raisins. Hollywood Scotland. I wanted something epic with our lentil soup.
Rigor mortis rabbit with jaws clamped around a root, and an ice cream sundae as big as my head on Halloween.
Peach Melba
The kettle is boiling a lot quicker here than in Scotland which is kind of blowing my mind along with making my tea more promptly.  


9 November 2011

In bed with Laurie Lee

'She was, after all, a country girl; disordered, hysterical, loving. She was muddled and mischievous as a chimney-jackdaw, she made her nest of rags and jewels, was happy in the sunlight, squawked loudly at danger, pried and was insatiably curious, forgot when to eat or ate all day, and sang when sunsets were red. She lived the easy laws of the hedgerow, loved the world and made no plans, had a quick holy eye for natural wonders and couldn't have kept a neat house for her life'  - Laurie Lee's mother in Cider With Rosie

'Then she took off her boots and stuffed them with flowers. She did the same with mine. Her parched voice crackled like flames in my ears. More fires were started. I drank more cider. Rosie told me outrageous fantasies... For a long time we sat with our mouths very close, breathing the same hot air. We kissed, once only, so dry and shy, it was like two leaves colliding in air' - Rosie and Laurie in Cider With Rosie

Warm afternoon wrapped in my dad-sized wool cardigan and elephant bed-spread I'd brought with me from home, after being soaked to the bone while out checking mink rafts floating in burns and barbed wire slicing my thigh. SO COMFORTABLE despite the stinging. Delicious orange Autumn, citrus, butter and ginger.