Saturday, 29 August 2009

Until the wind changes.

Once again my life is turning over. I'm not the person I was even a year ago, though I suppose that's true for everyone. For me, it's especially so. One year ago, for starters, I was still pretending half to myself and certainly to the world that I was straight. It's taken me most the year to be able to say that I'm not to the great wide internet. Still not comfortable with it, really, but I guess nobody ever is. I'm sticking with the 'bi' label for the time being but we'll see how that goes.

One year ago I had never really fallen in love - loved people, certainly, but not fallen heart and soul.

One year ago I was jumping about from pillar to post, blown about by winds not of my own devising. This year, I might not like the place I am very much at the moment and I might not be very confident about how the places I am going will turn out, but I am here of my own volition. I am living somewhere I chose. I am choosing to leave my job and look for something else. I am choosing to take a great big break before I start in the Civil Service sometime next year. And I feel that I have achieved something this year in actually getting that damned job.

I'm done with Cambridge for the moment. My last night here will be the 31st of October, though I will feel like I've gone by then because I intend to stay with people that day having moved out of Argyle Street the day before. I might come back sometime - it's a fantastic city and the people are wonderful. I love some things about living here. But I need a break from it. I need to be away from the pressure cooker of excellence that is both stimulating and exhausting. I need to break from the people and the situations. I need to be somewhere bigger, where there are different people and different things to do. I will miss it hugely, especially when I'm trying to build a new life somewhere else and definitely when I'm back in St Albans or Cornwall trying to find something to do until somewhere between April and October when my life will be purposeful again.

I have become something, this year. More myself, less hidden. I have acknowledged parts of me and stopped apologising for them. Not in any way all of them. Self-confidence for me seems likely to be always a bit difficult and actually I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't want to be so confident in myself that I stop questioning ways I behave and think with regard to the world and my place in it. It is part of that recognition of who I am that I want to get a tattoo. I have never wanted that kind of permanent change to my actual body before - I've even talked about it on here. But this is sort of different. It's an affirmation - a revelation, not a concealment, as I seem to have envisioned it in the past. I am going to do that, I think, if Traci will come with me and it doesn't prove too scary to walk through the door.

Odd that I hate the New Year posts in January that I feel compelled into. This moment, the end of the summer and the descent back to the winter feels like the natural moment of change. Things are in flux - the year is turning, I can feel the summer heat fading and the autumn earlier nights are here and coming in fast. I guess it's always been the moment of change - it's September on Tuesday, and a new school year starts. I always enjoyed the first day back at school.

I sang at a wedding today, feeling shattered by a very difficult week indeed. It was pretty hard going, actually. Odd that it was 'One More Step Along The World I Go' (very slow and not very good tune recording here, though I'm pretty certain that practically EVERYONE sang that at school and still knows it by heart) that I found the hardest to get through. I needed to do something. I bought a bag, which I do kind of need because my beloved blue handbag is getting pretty tatty, but it didn't fill the hole. I needed to make a statement to myself. Do something slightly crazy to stave off doing something truly crazy. So here's the haircut. What do you think? The woman who cut it looked horror struck when I first said 'same length all over, a couple of inches long'. She said it wouldn't look very feminine, and suggested a bob instead. I wasn't wedded to my idea, really, I just didn't know how to picture a bob. It was never boy hair I was after, just something that will look neater and more like I take care of it than my usual bird's nest, and would be the change I need in my life.

This still doesn't feel like my head. She showed me the back of it and it looks like someone else. I've NEVER had my hair this short. The closest it got was chin-length when I was 12 and I didn't like it then. This, I'm quite pleased with. It won't look like this after I've slept on it and brushed it and washed it, but I think the shape will be ok. My curls are a quite enthusiastic when I give them a chance. We'll see. It's definitely not what I had before. Comments appreciated...

Also, it turns out that it's bloody hard to take photos of yourself in the mirror.

I've been calling it grown up hair to myself. I haven't got the little girl long hair I've had for years, that I always wanted when I was tiny and never could grow. That part of my life is over. Here is something different. I am something different.

Plant to Plate.

It's been too wet. Our grapes that grew so beautifully all split. It's a shame - I tried one or two that weren't split and they're really lovely. They're actually a purple variety and perfect for eating if a bit seedy - I assumed they'd be a sour wine-type. We had to cut them all down and bin them, but they did look pretty.

The tomatoes, though, have been a bit of a triumph so far - I'm really pleased. These are 'Gardener's Delight', with some unidentified cherries thrown in for good measure. My more interesting varieties so far haven't ripened very well, but we'll see. I have a couple of stripey ones that look like they will, and with any luck some of the big San Marzano plums I planted will do too. I don't mind too much if they don't, because there are fab things you can do with green tomatoes - I'm particularly keen to try the curry.

Our chillies are still purple, but they'll ripen in time - I've had those plants a couple of years now so I know how they'll behave. This year's chillies and the peppers are barely more than seedlings...I'm not sure what I do about those. I'm moving in two months (yes, really, again...) so we'll see how they look then. I might give them to my mum if she can find space for them. Hopefully we'll get a few green peppers in say November...! I should probably have planted them out earlier. Seeds can go into compost in February and no later next year, then hopefully they'll be big enough to plant out by the time it gets warm. The tomatillos are still growing...we'll see how that goes...

Blackberries have come and gone, too. Traci and I actually got around to picking some this year - we meant to last year but failed. I've never been a big jam person, but I did want to try cordial with them. I drink a fair amount of squash of one sort or another, and having something made of blackberries sounded great. I made the most enormous mess cooking them - I stained EVERYTHING a deep, dark purple. I have just ascertained though that with plenty of Vanish these stains seem to be happy to come out of even my pale grey tracksuit bottoms, though I have not yet succeeded in getting them out of the wooden chopping board...maybe I should try Vanish on that, too.
They SMELL incredible - of roses...which shouldn't be a huge surprise because the plants are related. And I didn't really mind the stains when this colour is so amazing. I'd have them cooking all the time if I could, I think.

I had a flick through some recipes on the net, but I didn't see any I was particularly keen on. I didn't want to adulterate the flavour of the fruit with spices as some recipes do - I've had spiced blackberry squash before and it's been a bit too cloying. This is a purer flavour. I suspect I added too much sugar (though hopefully this will mean it keeps better), and this somewhat overwhelms the flavour of the berries. The smell is still incredible, and it's not too cloying either as a drink when diluted with sparkling water. It's amazing, that black purple colour doesn't get any less when you water it just stays black. It's less translucent than coke!

I didn't take proper measurements I'm afraid. I know I used around 2 1/2 litres of blackberries and probably around 400g of sugar maybe less. I was walking a line between trying not to make it too sweet and getting enough sugar into it that it would preserve it a bit.

I boiled the fruit in a large heavy bottomed pot - I didn't need any water as it was already pretty juicy in there. I let it boil until it seemed more liquid than solid, and then added the sugar and boiled for a bit longer to let it dissolve. I then strained it through a sieve and then muslin. This was the part where I made such a mess - my sieve kept slipping and the sheer quantity to be strained meant that it went everywhere. Persevering, I eventually ended up with a thick dark syrup which I bottled in this rather lovely old olive oil bottle that I'd sterilised with boiling water.

It's been in the fridge ever since, and I don't think I'd want to store it out of the fridge. I've been drinking it with my dinner, and we made a cocktail with it, tequila, the juice of a lime and some fizzy water that was pretty nice, too. And it's virtually free!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Apple Crumble Cake

Work had a barbecue on Monday, to welcome our new members of staff. We're only a tiny company (6 and a half with the newbies), so there were partners and The Cambridge Arts Marketing Mafia and assorted hangers-on. It was a nice evening. Lots of wine. Being able to leave work at 4, too. Though when I walked through the door of my bosses' house, I was greeted with, 'Hazel! Ah! ...if I give you a glass of wine will you make me another chart?' Typical...!

Anyway, the point was that we left with a party bag. A party bag full of cooking apples from the tree in another guest's garden. ACE FREE STUFF. And an excuse to make apple cake, which I love. That the combination of buttery cake and soft moist tart apple with a hint of cinnamon is a great one is hardly earth shattering news. I was thinking that I'd see if there were things I could do to add texture to it, hence the nutty crumble topping. What I really was thinking about was adding caramelised walnuts instead, but this was hindered by the fact I only had chopped mixed nuts in the cupboard, not walnut pieces, and also that I needed the cake baked quickly because I'd promised a friend tea and cake at three in the afternoon, and she changed the time to 10:30 in the morning! No disaster, except for me skinning the top of my middle finger with my brand new and hence very sharp indeed peeler.

3 small bramley apples, about the size of a girly fist. Didn't weigh them, sorry...
Juice of half a lemon to coat the apple pieces and stop them browning
2 medium free range eggs
4 oz butter
4 oz plain flour (actually, I think half wholemeal flour here might be a nice way of giving this more texture)
4 oz soft brown sugar
2 scant tsp baking powder
Half a tsp of salt

For the crumble:
4 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp icing sugar
2 tbsp (about half an ounce) butter
2 tbsp chopped mixed nuts

Preheat the oven to 180 degree centigrade, or about gas mark 4. I hate my gas oven.

You will also need a tin around 6 inches in diameter and at least 1 and a half inches deep, lined with baking parchment. My cake overflowed - I might make it in a square tin another time to avoid that.

First, the apples. Peel them, without getting blood all over everywhere. Try to keep your fingers intact, or when you put a plaster on the subsequent cut, your pet rats will think it's a wonderful toy and try to pull it off and chew it and generally be fascinated by it. Cut two of them into quarters and core them, then into eighths and into rough dice and add to a pan with about 100ml water. Cook until soft right through and looking saucy. Quarter and dice the third apple and cover with lemon juice.

For the crumble, rub together the butter, flour and icing sugar until it resemble clumpy breadcrumbs, then stir in the nuts.

For the cake, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, then beat in one egg. Sift in about a quarter of the flour, beat, then add the other egg and beat. Sift in the rest of the flour, baking powder and salt and combine. Fold in the apple pieces (not the juice) and add two heaped tablespoons of the apple puree. (This probably won't be all of the puree, but the rest is an awesome thing to add to yoghurt with a bit of sugar.)

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and cover with the crumble mixture. Bake for 30-35 minutes, checking towards the end. The top where the cake mixture pokes through should be nicely browned and a bit cracked. A knife should come out without uncooked cake mixture on it, but it will probably still be a bit wet because of the fruit.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Final acceptance.

Actually, this guy is nothing to do with anything I want to talk about. AND I think it's probably a girl, not even a guy. She's turned up three or four times in the evenings about 10ish. I wonder if her owner goes to sleep or kicks her out or something. We nearly always leave our back doors open, and she just pootles in and makes herself at home. She's pretty keen on the fridge. She thinks it's great. I offered her a bit of sardine from out of said machine though, and she turned up her nose at it. Ah well. I think she's lonely. She mostly just sits and purrs at us. She is without a doubt the single biggest cat I've ever met. She's a bit fat, but she's BIG too - her paws are bigger than an inch across. Hefty. I like having a cat around. In theory, we aren't allowed pets inside, (the rats are technically 'outside' - this was the agreement with the landlord), but since our house is being repossessed at the moment and the landlord seems to have gone totally AWOL I've given up even thinking about it. But my new friend, nice though she is, wasn't the point.

I want to get my hair cut. Properly short. Every time I say that to people around me, they say, ' like girls now and need to have the hair to match?' Which kind of annoys me. Partly because it's true, and I hate to be so predictable. It's not that I want to conform with any stereotypes - exactly the opposite, out of pure contrariness*.

I have been progressively getting my hair cut shorter for the last couple of years in any case, but it hasn't been exactly drastic. I'm annoyed with how tatty it looks when it's long. This picture by the the inimitable Mr Allsop is in many ways a really lovely picture. But my hair's a STATE.

It's quite thin, though the curls means it doesn't necessarily look it. Partly it's that I just don't get it cut often enough and rats' tails is what happens to my hair if I don't get it cut enough. It breaks easily. It's shorter than that now, but it's still that wispy no matter what I do.

My thought is that cutting it short will help it seem less thin and pathetic. The curl means it shouldn't go flat and JUST ick. And if it does, I learnt about mousse. I might not be very girly, but I did figure that one about.

It is about coming out, somewhere along the line. Something about being different and making a statement. Same as the vague but fairly insistent desire for a tattoo, I think. 'I have decided this, now let me show that it means something'. An acceptance. I'm WAY too shy for the tattoo. I'll look at pictures of them and think about it, but the actual walking into a shop and saying 'draw this on my skin' is too much involvement from someone else. Getting my hair cut is pretty ordinary, though. I'd shave my head, except I'd get more questions.

I think I want something like the same length all over, about 2-3 inches, to give it space to curl. I don't know. I might just go for more short and quite layered. Don't know. It'll probably wait for a while until I actually leave Baker Richards (at the end of October...crazy...).

...thoughts on the hair style, anyone?

*True story: I vividly remember being in year 2 (I called it J3 back then, and I was 6 going on 7, for any foreigners) at school and being asked to make something that measured wind direction. I can't even remember now what everyone else made - something with paddles, I'm pretty sure - but I very deliberately didn't go with what was the only really sensible idea given the materials we had because I wanted to be 'different', and failed the test totally. I remember reading the comments my teacher was writing down over her shoulder. Being Contrary Is Not Always The Answer. It's amazing how often I've failed to take note of this since then.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Cornwall and coriander.

Traci and I and several of my friends from college were in Cornwall this weekend. It was all a bit epic and involved my brother losing his glasses in the sea and Mel having nightmares about Leonbergers. Good fun was had by all. I shan't forget Jenny and her fear of mud. I totally failed to take *any* photos whatsoever, which was a bit hopeless. Kate did though, if you can see them on Facebook. We ate a lot and went swimming in the sea and the Londoners learnt a little bit about the country.

...and on the (very foggy) way home, we went to the Eden shop. I love going there, it's a fantastic place. Sadly it appears to have realised that it can make money out of the tourists and it's less of a good place to go to buy presents than it was, but it's still an ace place to get unusual plants and seeds. I bought a Vietnamese coriander. I've wanted one for *ages*, ever since I first saw one at Eden a year or two ago. My problem with ordinary coriander is that you basically need to grow it like cress in order for it to be of any use, and I am not reliable enough in my need for coriander to be able to grow it and use it in that way. This stuff doesn't taste quite like ordinary coriander, but it's similar enough to fill the hole. Plus, it means I can make Vietnamese spring rolls, which I adore and would LOVE to be able to make properly. Not for a while. My little plant, while big for a little plant and probably prepared to explode bigger (they do that, apparently, I might have a bush of it 90cm tall!!), is not ready for much in the way of harvesting yet. Soonsoon...

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

Been a while since a poetry post. I clearly miss my degree too much. Enjoy the pretty poem if the analysis is too self-indulgent!

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiosly answer'd by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

Walt Whitman, from Calamus (1860)

this is J. K. Rowling's favourite poem. That article says it's in Leaves of Grass but my collection clearly says Calamus so I went with that. And well she might pick it as a favourite. I don't know much Whitman and bookmarked this to read after someone mentioned it on Twitter. If someone mentions something as a favourite then I'm usually curious to see why, especially when it's not something I know a great deal about. Whitman was too American to feature on my course at university and I haven't really found a good way in yet.

This poem is fantastic. If you just read it for sense, you get the fact that the speaker finds the world confusing, but that it's all ok when he has a friend, a lover, with him. So far, so good. I'm not sure that it's the sort of thing the British Romantics were much into, though it's hard to say. The style is so different from that of, say, Tennyson who was writing at the same time, or of Wordsworth who was a little earlier. I don't recall this sense of vulnerability in Tennyson or Wordsworth, or even this much positivity for much of the time. Admittedly, I found both of them too wet and self-conscious and frankly emo to persuade myself to study them too long so I will freely accept correction on that subject. I love that last line though. When I first read it, I thought 'wedding poem' because of that fantastic sentiment there, though it would have to be perfectly read to convey the sense of it to anyone just listening and not following it along on paper. All the huge questions of existence are resolved by the presence of another and by the fact that they are there with you. What better summing up of a true relationship can there be? It's wedding season at Great St Mary's again, and I shall await someone choosing something other than 1 Corinthians 13 probably in vain...

Wikipedia suggests that Whitman might be regarded as the father of blank verse - look at the line length in the poem and the lack of strong rhythmic, rhyming or even strong structural devices. It's real blank verse in that sense, but far from prose because of the conscious syntax and even type-setting. The hyphenation of 'may-be' all the way through apart from the first instance seems unlikely to be a mere whimsy of the period or of the later editor. Again, I haven't studied Whitman or American writing of this period, so it's possibly that 'may-be' was habitually hyphenated, but even if it was I like that it forces you to take more time over the phrase - both when reading to oneself or out loud. 'Maybe' is synonymous with 'might' in modern parlance. The way we use and understand the word today doesn't emphasise the permissive element in the word 'may'. Today's use seems to allow us to sit back and let things happen. The quick way that we throw the word about means that we never stop to savour the fact that there are several outcomes to something. This construction is more conscious of the fact that something may be or may not be. Whitman achieves what I have there with six words and italics in two words an a hyphen, and then intensifies the uncertainty by repeating it through the poem. Suddenly, it is more important to us that things have more than one possible outcome and that the speaker and we as readers are more uncomfortable about that. This level of confusion and concern is important because it heightens the relief we feel with the speaker when we discover that love and friendship are the things required for peace.

But the construction of uncertainty doesn't end with 'may-be' - he uses the phrase in conjunction with 'doubtless', 'may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions'. What are we supposed to make of that? Are they apparitions? The juxtaposition of the certainty and the uncertainty only makes our understanding even more slippery. And their are other things, like beginning the poem in the middle of a sentence that is never complete. In fact, all four of the first four lines are dependent clauses without an independent to stand with. They are all missing bits, and we are wrong-footed from the outset. The first nine lines proper of the poem are long run-ons, with interruptions in parentheses. They are hard to follow and one has to read them several times in order to unravel which clauses might go with which. The word 'nought' appears where one might expect 'naught' - the two words are similar but they don't mean the same. How does one resolve it? I went to read the poem in other locations to check that they were printed right. 'Nought' is a number; 'naught' is nothing. We don't normally draw a line between the two that says they are the same thing. ARE they the same thing? It opens more questions.

The second part of the poem is clear. The clauses are easily resolved into sentences albeit still long and complex ones that make sense and follow through, in contrast to the first part. There are no interruptions and no 'may-bes'. Clarity exists in the structure as well as in the sense of the words. It is as though the presence of the friend resolves the potentially complex syntax as well as the 'big questions'. It is all this that makes this poetry not blank verse. The emotional journey of the poem is greatly intensified by the poet's manipulation of our ability to comprehend it. I love it. It's so clever and so well done, and the sentiment is a beautiful one - for all it's a fairly twee resolution of the 'existential angst' theme that so much poetry relies on.