Have had a couple of frustrating days with Internet connections. Crossing fingers this connection lasts long enough for post to go out … anyway I have two things to say to you all:
- Happy Solstice! There’s a walk in the woods this afternoon in North Annsmuir Forest near Ladybank, and we all have to take something edible-by-wildlife to hang on a tree. It’s being led by a bone fide Person of the Cloth – Church of Scotland no less – and if that isn’t cause for celebration and hope for the year to come, I don’t know what is. In case I’m being obscure, I’m talking about formal religion embracing the numinous …
- And as with the title of this post, rest in peace Lionel Blue. I’ve loved him for decades. It’s the way he expresses (sorry, expressed) his desire to do the right thing, and over and over again his disappointment and self-forgiveness at not quite managing it. Especially on the food front! So the night he died I thought about making a pot of lentil soup, and ended up making Rocky Road instead … 20,000 calories in every mouthful (depending on the size of your mouth of course). In the lovely obituaries that have appeared in the last couple of days I have learned that Rabbi Blue used to address God as ‘Fred’ – and would sit with Him on the sofa, having a cuddle and a laugh. I’ve decided to call Her ‘Geraldine’, and let her rummage round the kitchen cupboards while I footer about with the flour and eggs and sugar. The link I’ve given for Lionel Blue is an interview in the Guardian, written a couple of years ago, and it’s brilliant, so do have a read if you want to be cheered up.
For further cheer-enhancement, try:
250g dark chocolate, melted with 150g milk chocolate, 175g butter and a couple of tablespoons of golden syrup; add half a big bag of mini-marshmallows, 100g crushed tea biscuits, 50g glace cherries and 50g chopped nuts (hazelnuts are excellent, but use what you have). Stir it all together and pour into a lined tin about 12″ by 9″. Let it chill. Slices like a dream, makes about 24 portions but again, that depends on the size of your portion/mouth … This is based on a Nigella Lawson recipe so you will know that it breaks all bounds of restraint. And a good thing too, at this time of year. From now on, the days are getting longer!
I have something to say about the tax evasion/avoidance debate that has been clogging the airwaves recently. Lord Fink says he does ‘vanilla tax avoidance’ – the sort of thing that ‘everybody’ does. Avoidance I believe is legal and evasion illegal. Good to know.
But what I object to is his use of the term ‘vanilla’ to describe something as bland and unremarkable. Vanilla bland? It’s downright punchy! One long black pod will flavour your whole jar of sugar and you can top it up for a year without losing any of its heady aroma. Tax avoidance of that flavour would surely get you noticed by the authorities …
Here, incidentally, is the photo I couldn’t get uploaded last time – my elegant offerings …well maybe in retrospect they look like a bundle of bones. That’s not a bad thing is it? I like the story of the valley of the dry bones – new life and all that. Maybe I should make another batch of breadsticks for Easter – reclaim it from the chocolate bunnies. Or better still, have the dry bones as well as the chocolate bunnies. You can tell it’s getting late, time I went to bed and stopped rambling. However watch this space for Lenten and Easter culinaria.
I had a lovely event to cook for yesterday. Vera’s house purchase has just been confirmed so seven of us gathered to bring goodwill on her and her home. She wrote (or maybe adapted, from a book by John O’Donoghue) an inspirational liturgy – here’s a brief taster:
‘May God give blessing to this house and all who come here:
Both crest and frame, both stone and beam,
Both foot and head, both gate and door…
… both young and old, both wisdom and youth
both guest and host, both stranger and friend…’
Then we went round the house depositing various objects relevant to that room. My favourite was the bar of soap for the bathroom, ‘for fragrance and opportunity for fresh new beginnings’ – the soap, by Lush, was labelled ‘Sexy Peel’!! And there was a big tub of snowdrops with a prayer for ‘resilience in winter’s cold, and the promise of spring.’ Resilient R Us, this bunch of friends, we’ve been through a lot together.
Then we had lunch – Joseph’s famous vat of prawns and avocados; my Aubergine Parmigiana with home-made Focaccia, a nice green salad, and a big cake I’d made for the first time on Saturday, from the River Cafe Easy book – Hazelnut and Espresso Chocolate Cake. When I was buying the ingredients, I eschewed ready-ground hazelnuts and did as the recipe said – ‘roast the hazelnuts then rub the papery skins off before grinding in food processor.’ I underestimated the time it would take to rub the pesky skins off, and wondered whether there might not be a good living to be made for anyone willing to sit rubbing nuts between her palms for half an hour at a time.
Anyway it was all a great success and there wasn’t much left over by the time we’d all had our fill. More people should bless their homes, I think. We’re taking bookings!
Scottish readers will be all too aware of Scotland’s new drinking laws, which came into force a couple of weeks ago. Basically, the amount of alcohol present in your blood stream must be below 50mg per 100 mls of blood. In baking bread, I’ve recently discovered that mgs and mls weigh the same – I don’t need to change the setting on my scales between weighing the flour and salt, and then the tepid water. So it sounds as if I’m allowed to have half the weight of the blood coursing through my veins as pure alcohol. In the rest of the UK, it’s 80% – outright scary. But I’m not a scientist and I’m easily confused by numbers. And clearly my conclusion is false because the public awareness campaign in advance of the new law advocated drinking no alcohol at all if planning to drive, as even the sherry in your granny’s trifle could put you over the new legal limit.
I grew up in a largely alcohol-free household. If there was ever any drink in the house, it was because somebody brought back a bottle of something syrupy and possibly dubious from their holidays – Spain was all the rage, back then, for those who could afford it. My mother didn’t have to worry about drink-driving limits, partly because she didn’t drink much anyway, and partly because she didn’t own a car. An evening’s entertainment involved walking up the hill to the church hall, having a meeting of some kind followed by a cup of tea and a bit of home-made shortie, then walking back home again. Last year I read Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant autobiography, ‘Why be Happy when you could be Normal?’ Not that my childhood was like this but I could recognise some parallels, like the way that church life provided a community and family to belong to. At one point, talking about the activities (prayer meetings; soup kitchens; choir practice; bible study etc) provided by church involvement, Winterson comments on the joy of having something to do every night of the week, in a town where there was nothing to do.
Anyway, I digress. One of the odd bottles which found its way into our house was thick, yellow and viscous. You mixed it up with lemonade (lots of fizzing) to make a Snowball; and one Christmas season I remember my mother fixing herself a little Snowball on a regular basis to accompany Coronation Street and the filling in of her football coupon. To my astonishment, I found a bottle of said yellow gunk in Aldi the other week, and at £4.99 per 70cl, had to have it. Reader, I confess, it’s nearly finished. I might even go out and buy another bottle. There’s something nostalgically frivolous about it. It’s called Advocaat and hails from Holland. It has 14 degrees of alcohol by volume so mixed with lemonade, it’s not going to make a big impact on your ability to drive. That said, I’m not taking even that tiny risk. I’m very attached to my driver’s license. The Snowball is my strictly bedtime drink. Cheers everyone! Drive safely!
Last night our little short-story-to-film group met, having read Izak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast‘, and viewed the film together. The story was tightly written, spare in style, and leaving a lot to the imagination of the reader – quite modern in fact, although it was written in 1958. It told a tale of ‘a French cook working in a puritanical Norwegian community. She treats her employers to the decadent feast of a lifetime’ (DVD blurb). The story’s message is about God’s love being shown in plenty as well as in famine; that, in fact, you can go too far with abstemiouness! A great message. I commend the book to you; the film was good too but I liked the book better – we didn’t all agree on that but we all liked the story very much.
It reminded me of a feast I held a few months ago to thank some brilliant friends for seeing me through a long tough time. Let me make it clear – I am not the talented Babette in this story! It was all a bit chaotic, seven people crammed around my kitchen table and every time I needed to reach into the fridge, three people had to move their chairs … but it was a great night. I’d bought a fabulous piece of Puddledub roast rib of beef from Craigie Farm Shop and my jaw nearly hit the deck when I found out how much it was to cost. But it was excellent, and then everyone was so generous, bringing wine fit for a much grander occasion, and party poppers a-plenty …
The final picture is self-explanatory. We left the table in this state and went out to the garden to set off fireworks, then to the living room to play silly games. A great night. Captain Wunderkind reported his inner thoughts: ‘Here I am, 24 years of age with a good job and a position of responsibility, good friends and a great life … and I’m sitting in my mother’s living room on a Friday night playing hymn tune charades???!’
I’ve been footering about avoiding writing the ‘About Me’ page on this blog. However Mac Logan, the crime writer who was one of the competition judges for my recent win, invited me to do a guest post on his website and I did so… here it is:
And eeek, to my horror he wanted me to give some biographical info. Well I sweated for a couple of days, unable to find a single thing to say about myself. So Mac, God bless him, did it for me. And now I’m going to cheat and put that little bit of biography in my own blog. Phew. It’s much easier writing about other people – or better still, other people who only exist inside your head.
Has anybody ever heard of the Open Episcopal Church? Well a good friend of mine has just made a bit of a commitment in that direction and I’m looking forward to finding out more. It’s a bit of a ‘church without walls’, which has to be a good thing, because those walls are so expensive, and they keep people out. Here’s what they say about themselves: ‘The Open Episcopal Church presents a viable alternative to the growing tide of fundamentalism by offering evangelical outreach to all, regardless of race, colour, creed, sexuality.’ Liberal, radical and mystical? That’s what I’m looking for so let’s see if this is it.
Anyway – watch this space. Seasonal subjects coming soon -like – HURRAH! – tomorrow is the shortest day and soon the daylight hours will stretch out again beyond 3.30pm. Onwards and upwards.
My first labyrinth was in my friend Harriet’s garden, near Beauly. Small, friendly, perched on a gentle hillside. Walking round it made me think how beautiful Scotland is.
My second labyrinth was at St James the Great in Dollar. This one is a nice two-circle design built between the trees in the church grounds. When we went there it was early summer and a calm, warm evening with the Ochils smiling gently in the background. Very peaceful. Walking round it made me think about how life throws up some unexpected turns; but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you eventually come home.
My third labyrinth hasn’t been built yet; but I believe it will be, because my friend Valerie has dreamed about it, and what she dreams about has a way of coming to be. She has two possible sites – neither of which she owns or has any control over. But she has found out who does. Then by apparent chance last month, she met a man who designs labyrinths, and has just moved into the village. She has an eye on the local quarry for stones which, she thinks, could be personalised by the builders – i.e. local men, women and children. She has been told that to get planning permission, she’ll need to appeal to some sense of heritage; and then today she found out, from a friend I took for tea, that the village has 6th century links to St Brigid and Iona, traces of which can be seen in the Abbey ruins. And when you walk along the river and pause by the site, its thinness palpably shimmers. Yes, it’s all coming together. The spirit is moving.
Well, that’s the new session at Edinburgh Writers’ Club under way. We had a good speaker in Laura Marney from Glasgow (teaches on Glasgow University creative writing courses) and in her own words, she got us ‘juiced up’ (sounds very sexual to me but hey, that’s the difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh perhaps!) and ready to write, write, write.
Her novels have some fantastic titles: like, ‘No Wonder I Take a Drink’. I confess I’d never heard of her before she was booked for our opening tonight so have gone on Amazon to have a look, and have purchased the Kindle version of her book ‘Only Strange People Go to Church’. Obviously I have a vested interest! But I’d like to say that I don’t think I’m any stranger than my non-church-going friends. I’ll let you know what I think of the book once I’ve read it.
It’ll have to wait in a queue though as my next has to be ‘The Nineteenth Wife’ by David Eberhoff. It’s the next title on our book group programme. Something to do with polygamy in a fundamentalist Mormon community. I like the way the book group brings new writers to my attention. Anyway, even before that I have to finish ‘Narrow Dog to Carcassonne’, which I feel is beginning to drag a little. I might speed-read…
Today I heard not one but two sermons on the ‘lost sheep’ theme. You might think one would be plenty; but this was a special day for my friend Valerie and I couldn’t miss the chance to see her in action again. Funnily enough the first sermon was by Jim, who Valerie says taught her all she knows about preaching.
During the second service there was a bit of audience participation in which we were invited to shout out things we had lost. Afterwards I was in raucous company and one new friend said she’d been tempted to shout out ‘My virginity!’ but she restrained herself. I’d thought about shouting out ‘My job!’ but again I didn’t. Aren’t we tame? If we’re not careful we’ll let the church become boring – perish the thought.
On the ‘Found’ side of things I had three lovely surprises today: first, Lieutenant Wunderkind sent me a YouTube link to Maya Angelou performing ‘And still I rise’. See her at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqOqo50LSZ0 Then there was the lovely Valerie doing what she does best. And finally, a man I’d never met before offered to lend his considerable talent and expertise to a small (I’m joking, it’s huge) legal problem I am currently experiencing. And so, the week begins on a great note and is only going to get better…
Do you ever get bored with the mincing correctness of politics these days? I have to confess I’ve never been all that interested at the best of times, so I’m no kind of expert on these matters. However it does feel like there’s a lot of games of conkers going on in the chambers of elected members across the land.
Yesterday a friend and I visited House of the Binns, near Linlithgow – very close to home for both of us but neither of us had ever been before – it’s always the way. It was a very pleasant visit – a fine old laird’s house of the early 17th Century, full of interesting portraits and charming mismatched old china, and inhabiting a lovely spot looking down over the Firth of Forth (‘Binns’ apparently means something like ‘Bens’ – ie hills – the estate is built on two hills). It is the family home of the Dalyell family – Tam Dalyell was Labour MP for Linlithgow from 1962 to 2005. Our guide, a Grangemouth lady who has been guiding for over 15 years, was knowledgeable and entertaining, and dropped in some nice personal opinions and experiences.
We were graced by a personal appearance of Dalyell himself. Now over 80, he excused himself to check on the welfare of his bees, then shuffled off again. Among the many portraits on show, there were copies of press cartoons highlighting his political career as a ‘dogged crusader’. One of the best was of Dalyell with his teeth clamped round a woman’s ankle , handbag brandished nearby – Maggie Thatcher. Apparently he was twice suspended from the House of Commons for calling her a liar, and refusing to retract the accusation. He compared the Falklands campaign to ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’. Although a ready challenge to the conservative governments of his day, he was no less critical of New Labour, and staunchly declared himself ‘Ancient Labour’.
How exciting to come into contact with landed gentry who care about the masses. And it gets better. Tam Dalyell is married to Kathleen Wheatley, whose father, Lord Wheatley, was Labour MP for Edinburgh for many years, and established the Legal Aid system in Scotland. He was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and at his memorial service in 1988, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, was disciplined by his church for attending Lord Wheatley’s service in the catholic church.
I don’t really care that much what denomination people belong to or what beliefs they profess. But I love it when people rise above the often-stifling and misguided institutions of formal religion and do the right thing. And ditto with politics. Yesterday was a refreshing blast of rebelry and I hope it hasn’t gone from public life.