Friday, 29 May 2009


I love this time of year. Summer is still a thrilling concept - we aren't bleached and wrung out by it yet. There's still a coolness in the nights that means you can sleep, but you don't need extra layers. Getting out of the shower doesn't mean speed-dressing as close to the radiator as possible, but you haven't reached the point where a cold shower every 8 hours is an absolute necessity.

I love the way it smells, too. It reminds me a bit of India, but only because smells seem so much more pungent in warm air. (Actually, I think that might be an Actual Fact, or nearly - something about speed of diffusion.( I was cycling around the city this evening at breakneck speed to catch up with the Van of Stuff, enjoying the way the scents changed with neighbourhoods in between willing my bike to change gear and not drop its chain or its pedals or anything like that.

Where I live, there were barbecues. Charred meats and hot fat spitting into charcoal. The difference between steak and sausages discernible. I was starving, too, that's partly why I noticed. Down near our new house there are large communities of Chinese and Indian people, and the smells change. Curry, of many sorts, interspersed still with barbecues - sometimes also Indian-flavoured. Odd to pick out the scents of a western meal in that setting, actually. There's the river with its own smell, and the diesel smell of buses that I kind of like in a perverse way. In a brief period of calm, the clean smells of the launderette and a tanning salon permeated through the food odours. Late, on the way back through town and up the hill to home-for-tonight, the pubs were full and spilling into the warm night. As you go past the door, apart from the thumping music, you are assailed by the cloying smells of sticky alcoholic drinks, cigarette smoke, cheap aftershave and sweat. It's odd that that isn't really off-putting - it's just an indication of what a place is.

And home, at last, there's the smell of me. I stink. I've been chasing about all evening doing things that make me sweat. Bleugh. I need to peel off the clothing and shower. Then I shall smell of soap, rather than fading deodorant and ick, and this will be better. But the smell of me tells me that I did work and can be satisfied with myself for that. Not that I recommend house-moving as the ideal get-fit activity - I suspect it only works for me, and even then I'm not sure it counts....


I'm looking forward to this house. I only recall looking forward to moving house once before, and that was in similar circumstances, in a way. That's saying something - I moved 5 times within one city in one year, last year, and moved twice at least in the year before, between three cities. Some might say I lack stability, or am flighty, or get bored easily. Those might all be true, but they aren't really the reasons I had to move. A catalogue of unfortunate circumstances, for the most part. This year is going to involve some moving too, but I'm excited about all of it.

This time around, I'm going to a place with two of my favourite people in the world. We're all going together, at the same time. That's important, it gives us equality. We're going to a pretty house, with the nicest landlord I've ever come across, in one of my favourite areas of town. We were fussy about what we wanted and we got it more or less exactly - up to and including having the rats living on the property with us. We have two big bedrooms, a decent living space and a garden. AND it's summer.

Next move will, with any luck, be to London. There will probably be a hiatus in St Albans, but still. LONDON. I've lived on the edge all of my life, and so much of the world goes on there, and I'm so looking forward to it.

Moving is usually hard work and seems to get me nowhere. Shifting restlessness with no purpose. I have a purpose now. I'm happy.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

A different sort of post.

Or one more diary-like than they've been of late. I have new poetry books on order - gushy thoughts on Carol Ann Duffy will resume shortly. And I'll probably re-visit lemonade and get summer-food excited. I'll even try and remember to take photos of it...

T and I and various assorted others went to the Cambridge Beer Festival yesterday (I drank cider). It was a wonderful evening of random drop-ins - we were the centre of a small group of wanderers from all areas of my Cambridge existence. GSM people came, a few ADC types were about (including some we hadn't planned to see), Matt the director of the the play he stitched me into producing dropped by, Carl was there, and even Linda from the college chapel set. Even a kind of vicarious family element, though that definitely doesn't count. I had to keep double-taking to keep track of it, and drifted around the circle trying to make sure that everyone had someone to talk to, because in a lot of cases they either knew me a lot better than they knew one another or often were only in the same group because of me. Linda spent a long time explaining spider reproduction to Marion (whom she'd never met), and bonding with Matt over the fact that they both have connections to the zoology department. Leave Linda in any situation and she will proceed to gross out everybody with Bugs. I love Linda.* Carl found someone he'd lived with in his second year of uni in a city 200 miles away to chat to. The attractions of a beer festival break down great disparities. It was a little confusing, and a little stressful because of it. We left before it got too late. T had been on breakfast and I had to be on top of a tower wearing a cassock at *7:15* this morning (more later).

It was a beautiful evening still when we made it home, not too hot or too cold or anything. Hopefully it promises more to come, but I don't gamble when we're talking British weather. We went to sit on the garden wall for a bit. And then there was a hedgehog.

More or less totally unconcerned that we were there, it came bumbling through the fence and snuffling through the undergrowth. It was full dark by that point, no moon, barely any light seeping around the blinds from Will's film inside. Just glimmer enough that it was possible to follow the creature's progress by means of an occasional glimpse of a waddling body on the grass, but it was quiet enough that we could hear it. Listening to it eat was hilarious - so much relish from the little animal. It was chompchompchomplipsmackpotterslurp for a good ten minutes, getting nearer and nearer to T's foot on the lawn. Both of us were still as stones, craning towards it and straining our eyes in dimness to see what it was up to, wondering if it would actually get close enough to touch Traci's shoe (it didn't). When it began to move up the garden towards a bush at the back, I crept inside to fetch Will to show him, but though we could still hear it, it didn't come back from under the bush and it left our patch via the back fence.

But a HEDGEHOG. I like hedgehogs. I like the way they move and the expressions on their faces and their attitude. I don't often see them though; in Cornwall I suspect they're either out-competed by the badgers, of which there are many, or just scared of the dogs, or both. And tiredness and tense and awkward social situations melted into our watching of a wild thing enjoying itself. No deadlines, no nothing. Not long awake from a winter sleep and enjoying a spring glut of fat worms and bugs. No concerns beyond dinner.

I like how even in a city there are still so many bits of things that are natural that hit you if you look. People say that city-dwellers have no idea about the seasons because they never see the plants. But there are hedgehogs and foxes (currently irritating a houseful of London friends of mine) and birds and the odd growing thing and all sorts, and there is the colour of the sky and the weather - it still has an impact.

I wasn't really a country kid, in that nobody in my family farms or raises food animals or manages forests or anything of that sort, but I did grow up in a village. I can milk a cow, believe it or not, though I wouldn't like to be challenged to. But city kids get taken to farms to do that, now, so they can too. I think they probably don't see much of the fields or what goes into them or comes out of them and how things grow, though. Not in a field-wide sense. Not a whole crop, just a bean at school, unless someone has an allotment or a vegetable patch. My mum did and does have a vegetable patch, and she supplements it with ducks now. The llamas still serve no useful function. But I had a childhood spent climbing on rusting tractor hulks, chasing rabbits with my dog, and picking blackberries - until I was 11 anyway, and I loved it. I then spent years living in a city, and got used to the idea of streets of houses and postage-stamp gardens and shops that weren't an event to go to. I know I'm lucky to have had that upbringing - not many kids do these days. But the thing I like most is that it has left me with the ability to have just a small handle on how things the natural world fits together, and how our and everybody's lives are affected by seasonality in a way that it must be difficult to grasp in quite the same way if you've never been that close to the countryside. And it is that slightly closer bond that makes me want to respect it enough not to eat meat that hasn't at least seen daylight and been able to stretch its legs a bit, and to try my best to make choices that have as little impact as possible. I'm not there yet, but I try, and it's got to be a start...

I felt that feeling again this morning. The adults were down to sing the Ascension Day service from the top of the GSM tower at Frightening AM today. I think the last time I got up before 6:30 it was winter - so that time actually felt like dawn, with greyness and mists and sunrise. We're edging on to summer here now, so the sun is well and truly awake at 7am, which was when I left the house. I was slightly disappointed not to be privy to that secret dawn...I like that time of day, though definitely not more than sleep. I can see the season changing, though, and that's ace. On top of the tower today it was a little hazy still from spring dampness, but you could see Ely Cathedral on the horizon 15 miles away - 'the ship of the Fens'. Cambridgeshire is SO flat...

I like that I'm not attached to academic years any more. They create artificial breaks in the progression of the year. Christmas and Easter do that, to a certain extent, too, but they're less intrusive and regimented than the three terms, three holidays arrangement that we use to order our years. I like that I can sink into something more natural, rather than trying all the time to break the year into shorter segments. That just results in feeling like a failure when you miss a deadline that was set with no regard for what the task is and your personal work speed.

And I don't have to watch the end approaching with the same finality that you do with the end of the term, the end of the year, the end of school, the end of university...and there is life beyond whatever the deadline is because the months and the years keep going and don't stop because you've reached a certain milestone. Dates are only a way of talking about time - in themselves they shouldn't be deadlines on their own account. There shouldn't be exams 'just because it's summer'. A couple of college friends have said to me that they always feel guilty if they're in Cambridge in the summer - they should be revising, that's what May means. No. All that May means is that the sun will be edging its way out a bit and that the peas have sprouted. All. Exams are not seasonal. They have nothing to do with the sun and the weather and the natural order of things. There are still deadlines, because otherwise there is no way of functioning, but they are more fluid and less metallic. They move with not against the flow of the year.

*She is actually ace. Used to date a housemate of mine, who made his own mead and shoes and spend a lot of time dressed as a Viking and talking in dead languages.

Friday, 15 May 2009


It's amazing, music. How a single song will take you somewhere you never imagined you could remember that clearly.

'Graceland', and my stomach is knotting that I won't see her again, that she's gone. Until I remember she hasn't, and I can just feel the intensity of that original emotion still there and squirming.

'Blessed be the God and Father' and I'm 10 in the choir stalls in Ashwell. 'Lead me Lord' and I'm a similar age, in my cabin bed with my dad singing me to sleep.

'Walking in Memphis' and I'm in a sunny room in an ancient college, watching someone sing his heart out for the love of it, with one of my best friends in the whole world ever playing the piano and enjoying it just as much.

'The Sunscreen Song' and I'm 14 in an RE class, watching the eyes of one of the most short-lived but influential teachers I ever had as he played it to us at the request of a girl whose presence shaped my teens, albeit indirectly.

'I don't know how to love him' and I'm 17 or so, on stage and singing it wrong.

'Living on a prayer' and I'm 16 walking along a street in Melbourne with 4 other girls dressed in tracksuits (lacrosse tour), singing at the tops of our gravelly hungover voices.

'I will survive' and I'm in a hotel on the Isle of Wight, aged 9 again, fighting with the girls I shared a room with that trip. Or I'm in the kitchen in St Albans, shouting at my dad while the TV plays the Weetabix ad version of the song, about alligator dentistry.

Bellowhead's 'Prickle-Eye Bush' and I'm in a car with T and singing because we've listened to the song so many times we know it by heart.

'Canonball' (Damien Rice) and Andy's playing it next door. Or I'm crying, from a far earlier moment - that passed, and is now important for something not sad.

Eel's 'I like Birds' and I'm sitting with Dan and Steve in that funny flat with two presences so different but related and definitely faded a little now.

How many times will it strike me? I love that music has this kind of effect. I should write a real post, or finish a poem, or both... A list of songs and moments is not really worth public consumption, except for those who might remember the same moments. I must take more photos.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Best Brownies Ever

These are based on a Nigel Slater recipe, with my edits.

250g soft butter (who has soft butter? Throw in microwave on defrost for 30s or so works...)
60g best quality cocoa
60g flour
300g caster sugar
3 large eggs + one extra egg yolk
½ tsp baking powder
250g best quality dark chocolate
¼ tsp each of the following:
- ground allspice
- ground cinnamon
- ground nutmeg
- cayenne pepper (or, if you can find it, ground ancho chilli powder – it’s MUCH milder. The cayenne will make these warm)
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Line a small roasting tin (around 20cm by 30 cm) with greaseproof paper. Break up 200g of the chocolate into squares and melt in the microwave – the recommended method is to heat for 30s, stir, and heat again until nearly all liquid. Overheating it is Bad. Chop the other 50g into gravel-sized pieces.

Beat together the butter and the sugar until light and creamy, and then beat in the melted chocolate and vanilla extract. Beat in the eggs one at a time, and then sift in the flour, cocoa and spices, baking powder and salt. Stir in the remaining chocolate and scrape into a tin. Try not to save TOO much to eat raw – the flavour of the spices is EVEN BETTER in the cooked version.

Bake for no longer than 25 minutes. It should still be soft in the middle, though not actually raw. A bit of gooeyness is important…

Leave to cool in the tin, until completely cold. They fall apart if you try and get them out when they’re straight out of the oven.

Lemon cake.

If I was going to do the food blog thing properly, I'd have to start taking photos of things as I cook them. I'd have to get into food styling. I don't really do styling with my food. A heap on a plate is usually what I'm after. I KNOW that the Japanese say 'you eat first with your eyes', but I disagree. You eat first with your NOSE, and THEN your eyes. One day maybe I'll get time enough to think about how things look on the plate, but my dinner parties are always more low key affairs than that.

In the food blog spirit, I'm posting a recipe or two that I keep cooking for work and that people often ask for. I have just trawled through the archives and am slightly perturbed that I never posted the lemon cake recipe. Gah. So. Here it is.

8 oz butter
8 oz self-raising flour
8+2oz light brown sugar
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 lemons

Preheat the oven to 200ºC and line an ordinary roasting tin (around 35cm by 25cm) with greaseproof paper. In a pan on the hob, gently melt the butter and 8 oz of the sugar together. When melted, remove from the heat and grate in the zest of the lemons. (The purpose of doing things in this order is to allow the mixture to cool a bit before you add the eggs.) With a whisk, beat in the eggs and then the flour, salt and baking powder. Bake in the preheated oven for around 20 minutes, until golden brown and a skewer inserted comes out clean.

In the meantime, heat together the juice of the lemons and the remaining 2 oz of sugar until dissolved. When the cake comes out of the oven, prick it all over with a fork and pour the drench all over, making sure you don’t miss the edges. Leave in the tin to cool completely (overnight), and then cut into squares. Eat within 24 hours… NB, the recipe can easily be halved, but it then relies on you having a 20x20cm tin, which nobody ever seems to have…