Friday, 25 December 2009

I cannot save the world.

I cannot stop the planet warming and rescue the polar bears and the rhinos.  I cannot stop women being raped in Africa.  I cannot stop rape.  I cannot stop children dying from hunger in Africa or India or England or America or anywhere else.  I cannot knock together the heads of Israel and Palestine.  I cannot 'solve' Iraq.  Or Afghanistan.  I cannot give every accused a fair trial.  I cannot restore those who died before their time.  I cannot stop chickens being boxed into tiny cages and fed hormones or prevent pigs being crated up for all of their short lives.  I cannot release all of the people in prison for political reasons.  I cannot force nations to grant rights to homosexuals or bisexuals or transexuals.  I cannot cure AIDS.  Or wipe out cholera or the common cold.  I cannot protect children from abuse.  I cannot look after all the ancient monuments in danger.  I cannot save the rainforests or the blue whale.  I cannot repopulate the oceans.  I cannot clothe and feed and house all the people on the streets at Christmas time.  I cannot fund the arts.  I cannot find an alternative to fossil fuels. I cannot give second chances to all the ones that flunked the first time, no matter what the reason.  I cannot care for everyone.  I cannot hold everyone.  I cannot save everyone.  I cannot save everything.

I don't believe that this guy, God or Man or Baby, did or will or could, either.  I find it inspiring that he tried - that someone had the attention of the world long enough to suggest it might be a good thing for us all to try, and I find it a worthy aim and outcome for a religion if people still try and follow that example and make things better - even if I know for myself that he was no more than a person in history, and even if they sometimes make things worse.  Better some than not at all.

I will not let all of these hundreds of thousands of cannots run my life - I could panic and cry for the vastnesses of each of them, no matter all of them.  Sometimes I do.  I try - but so often it feels like sandpapering a mountain.  Two choices: turn my back totally, or do a tiny bit for everything, hoping to find one thing that will make it feel like I did something worthy of being here.

Hidden in the dark musics of the season, like when the Cathedral Choir were singing their haunting Dove Mass to me and following it up with rhinestone carols as I was more than half asleep in Truro's twee Victorian church.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

What a hug is.

The Hug
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
Thom Gunn, from The Man With Night Sweats

This is perhaps my favourite full length poem from this collection, which I've quoted before.  It's a beautiful, peaceful image a relationship.  Safe, close, warm, held and loved, yet still surprised and surprising.  I also love the idea of a 'grand passion...become familial'.  He's a very direct poet - there's no beating about the bush or confusion in his imagery.  The poetry comes from such subtle use of words that you barely notice how your reactions are steered.  I particularly like the use of the words 'stay' and 'dry' in the last line, which seem to me to suggest something of death.  The whole seems to conjure up something of Larkin's 1964 poem 'An Arundel Tomb', though that might just be me:

An Arundel Tomb
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd —
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Philip Larkin, from The Whitsun Weddings (London, 1964)

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Taking pictures.

I love taking pictures. Partly, I like the recording nature of it – I've always been one for salting away experiences to come back to later. That's not a small part of the reason I've always had diaries and blogs and things; ever since I was about 12 I've written pretty regularly about things that were happening to me. That Wordsworth quotation I've talked about before from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, about poetry being 'the overflow of powerful feeling remembered in tranquillity is relevant, I think – something about re-living, re-interpreting, making peace and learning might be some explanation as to why, along with a nebulous feeling that there might be some kind of quiz at the end and I ought to take notes. It's kind of strange to go back and read what was bothering me when I was 16. There are events in that year's diary that were clearly central to my existence that I cannot recall at all now – arguments with friends and places I went and things I did. Which just goes to show how little grown ups really remember about what it was like to be a teenager at school and the effect that inter-friend rows or worries about grades or whether that boy liked you or what your friends thought about what you were wearing had on your life. You learn to deal and your dramas gain context but such things are never actually easy - when you're that young it's so much more powerful for being new. That was the year I had been given a day by day journal, and I did write in it every day. Highlights* include my GCSEs and losing my virginity. I've just been given another daily journal for Christmas, so we'll see whether I can manage to keep it again. The way I write has changed a lot though. I have this for anything contemplative and my journals tend to be angsty and aggressively personal, for working out the things that bother me. We shall see.

Photos are part of the record-keeping, the knowing what the world looked like and felt like at a particular time in my history, our history. If they can be beautiful to look at too, that's an advantage. They can't be lie. Even Photoshop can't really lie, you can always tell. That expression on that person's face is really there. He really did spill a pint over her just when you pressed the shutter.

I'm not qualified to discuss graphic art. Mostly, I don't get it. Oh, I have some understanding I think about perspective and spacing and light and colour and even composition when I'm thinking hard so that I take pictures that are usually conventional and can sometimes be nice or maybe even engaging to look at if I get a good one, but I don't understand the context of it all. Of where pictures might fit in the timeline of other pictures, of what the journey is in history – where from, where to and why. Why people pay such large sums of money for things very often eludes me. Why is that black canvas with red squares on it worth so much, when you get right down to it? Is it exclusivity – the fact that you have something that everybody wants? I look at pictures for a mood or a story, in much the same way that I might read a poem but much less hard. If I saw something perfect for the purpose, I would buy something to hang on the wall – but that would be to reduce something that might contain a great deal of social comment to a mere ornament...wouldn't it? Maybe not. It would depend how I looked at it – whether or not it just became a thing. But I probably wouldn't buy something truly disturbing to hang on my wall. I may well buy a copy of a book I found disturbing – that would be a reason to buy it. There's more of the argument about the function of art in there but I need to do more reading before I talk about it again.

There seems to be an obsession in photography with the capture of the moment. Which makes sense – the two biggest things it has going for it as an art-form are accuracy and speed. The best pictures I've seen seem to be where that aim is most clearly realised. Sometimes that means a picture where you can look at something for a long time that you can only see for a split second in the world, or a picture that shows you something you wouldn't think to look at because your eyes pass over it, or a shot that makes you re-evaluate something (object, person, concept, anything) that you know well because it's taken in a strange light or at a strange angle or out of context of out of focus - just a little twisted away from your own view of things. Much like the best literature, I guess. Those pictures have stories. They are the ones you're still thinking about a week later. This is why I object to overly posed, or at least badly posed, photos – it's not a moment that you get in a posed photo, unless it's done brilliantly. Which it can be. isn't usually, even by people who should know what they're doing.

Graham and I went round the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize Exhibition at the NPG yesterday. The shot that won was of a teenage swimmer preparing for the Olympics. It was a great photo – it was. The girl was there dressed in a swimming costume, not looking like a model and looking very seriously straight out at us. She was sharp in focus and the background was nicely blurred. Everything was blue. She had a plastic foot. Graham was suggesting cynically that this was why that portrait had won. It was engaging as a shot, I guess. I can remember the expression on the girl's face even now, and I can't have been looking at it for more than a minute or so. But t the time I wasn't grabbed at all, for all I stood looking at it trying to understand how it was 'better' than the shots around it for a while. Sitting here now, I can feel more in the picture than I did then, though I now might be imagining it – they didn't have a postcard for me to buy. Out of context, I can see that there is a story in the determination of a teenage girl training to be the best in the world. The foot is irrelevant in that context. I'm also haunted by a shot of a boyish girl with scars all over her arms and a portrait of a large and starched black woman sitting on a bench outside a house with two identically dressed little girls either side of her who are both laughing and crying. The first one affected me partly for the very naked portrayal of self-harm, which gave the picture a story that wasn't a subtle one – I'm wondering if that was partly why it didn't win, it was about the subject rather than the photograph, if that follows. The second – maybe too much risk of sensationalism or something patronising? It wasn't either of those things. I'm just struck, like Graham was, by how politically correct the winner was in the face of the rest, many of which drew the eye and the mind much more immediately.

There were other quite dark shots that show the more unpleasant things that humans are, and there was one that we thought was hilarious – of the head and torso of a very happy model, wearing nothing except a belt and a Native American head-dress. Little in the way of thought to the last but it was fun. I think the technically 'good' pictures that don't arrest your thought might as well be illustrations – which isn't necessarily to belittle them, just to ask, yet again, what makes it art? I take illustrations, usually – often deliberately ('I need a picture of this cabbage in order to write about it'; 'I want always to remember that this is how my dog plays on the beach'; 'this walk on this coastline has been beautiful and the light is beautiful and I want to remember it'). Graham takes pictures that talk a bit more, unless for similar reasons he wants an illustration. There is no reason why one shouldn't do both or either both in the same shot. In different contexts, the same picture could be both. That's the thing about a great portrait, I guess – you might have taken this picture of Granny, but it might also speak beyond that surface. There might be a captured expression, or a way of sitting, or a mood, that says something greater about her or about age or about England or about anything else. I want to see the pictures that draw thoughts on the walls.

It's a free exhibition and well worth a glance if you have an hour to spare on Charing Cross Road.

*There should be an 'ironic' html tag.

Monday, 21 December 2009

'The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?'

From Measure for Measure, 2.2.169

This quotation occurs just after Isabella has been pleading for her brother's life with Angelo, the Duke's draconian deputy.  It's a very difficult question to answer, either in the context of marriage (M4M is all about marriage, or if you re-write it like we did, it can be all about the acceptance of homosexual or otherwise queer relationships in a conservative society) or more generally. It depends a lot on what your feelings about marriage are in the first place, I suppose. How seriously do we take the 'til death do us part' stuff these days, really? Is the bond of marriage as much of a big deal as that, really? Should two people stay together even beyond the point when the relationship makes either of them happy purely because they are married?*

There's a chunk of me that doesn't feel allowed to talk about this – I've never been married. I've never, finally, made the decision that yes, this person is forever. All I need or want, always. I might have felt that a time or two, but that's not the same as standing up in front of somebody legal and signing to that effect. That's a big, big deal, that declaration. The very fact that I feel like that, despite the way that marriages are contracted and dissolved in secular Western societies, says that it's still an important institution – to use myself as litmus for Everyone, anyway. If you're going to get up there and have all of those people watching you, you owe it to yourself and everyone else, let alone to your partner, to really mean it, aside from any legalities. It demands that you trust the other person enough, too, to be making the same enormous commitment that you are. You both have to know all the way through yourselves that This Is It. It can't be a time that you hide behind yourself and allow the bullish part of yourself to chivvy the undecided and probably more rational part of you to go through with it. The whole thing is about complete and total trust – for oneself and one's own feelings as well as for the fact that the other person is interrogating themselves just as deeply...which is the scary part.

Is that a fanciful ideal, to believe that people should and do really, truly feel to the bottom of themselves and line up every layer of their minds to check that they aren't fooling themselves, and really can and do trust other people to do the same? Personal integrity and everything. Some people probably know instinctively what they're thinking, I'm probably the odd one out there. But I'm sure there are hundreds of people who drift towards marriage because it's The Next Thing and then live happily ever after - but then there are hundreds of people who never live their lives right to their full extent. The people who just skim their own feelings and understanding, who are content with the surface of life. I'm not sure whether it shows that I'm a cynic to believe that there are many of such people or that I'm an optimist to believe more and more that those people might be the least of the people that I know. Those skimmers might be 'content', but are they ever happy? I've said before that I'll cope with the lows of a life lived as fully as I personally can, without actually imagining extra drama in the name of 'living', to gain the highs at least for a few more years, but that's another story.

But why do relationships where that commitment has been made honestly eventually shatter? Where there hasn't been total honesty with the self and then one another, things are a bit different. I suppose one often feels that one has been honest to in the first place and then finds that one hasn't? But also, how much do people change? If you've been happy with someone for three years is it reasonable to believe that you will always be happy with them? [I'm applying scientific terms to emotions again. I wonder if that's a bad habit or a sane thing to do?] CAN you just outgrow someone, like you might in a short-term relationship of some sort? Why shouldn't you be able to? Is it more that you always outgrow people but then re-learn the loving them part, and that's what keeps a relationship going? Could that be the point in a way of such a tight institution as marriage? I suspect it has to be that.

But it all depends on the sort of the 'outgrowing' I guess. If it's just a question of finding that in your mutual life you have arrived at incompatible points then that is surely where you might re-learn the original loving in the new context. The trouble is that I don't think usually people can see that sort of drifting apart until it's too late. It's perfectly possible for the first realisation that something was wrong before to come from the revelation of somebody's infidelity. The point then is surely not the affair itself but what it means for the original relationship. The person who is 'cheating', to use the most judging synonym out there, might be so horrified by the fact of what they've done that their original relationship will actually be better off...something about realising the value of what you have. But the other side is that one realises what is missing from the prior relationship...which might on some level be a good thing for the individuals involved too. Either way, it ought to lead, admittedly through fire, to the possibility of a better future. Having seen some of that, though, I think that logic glosses far too much of the pain in all of this. Which doesn't invalidate the conclusions, but it does colour them.

[Ok. I still hate the language I'm using in this discussion...but if I don't make it sound clinical, it will sound insincere. As it is, I sound too definite in my wandering attempt to understand some of this, even with the volume of question marks I've used...]

All of which is a long way back around to asking – 'the tempter or the tempted, who sins most?' How much blame can be attached to the 'other (wo)man'? Is it their fault that someone else was tempted? Is it their responsibility to safeguard the relationship of the 'tempted' party? In modern times we only have a generally accepted societal framework for such moral questions, but to take the Shakespearean quotation in context is to require us to address the deeply Christian setting of the period in which it was written. The 'tempter' then is always the Satan and the snake in the Garden, and hence ought inherently to be the evil one; Eve is the 'tempted', and while she is clearly regarded as a sinner throughout the Bible, she is also the mother of the race and the reason for the existence of Christ and so on and thus is an ambiguous figure. With that simplistic rationalisation, we seem invited to make the tempter the greater sinner. However, the snake in the Garden was deliberate in the temptation of Eve; he was all out for her downfall. Shakespeare underlines the ambiguity – clear in his question is the fact that both parties sin and the only query is around which one is more sinful. The question brings us up a little short. Is the 'tempter' really such a Satanic character? Is the 'tempted' really as innocent as Eve was when the snake came to her? How many affairees are really likely to be setting out to break up a home? I'm sure there are people who do go out to sleep with someone married or not, but I find it hard to believe that most people looking for love and happiness (surely 90% of world) would set their sights on something so sure to generate heartbreak and recriminations somewhere along the line. In real life, the ordinary affairee might be guilty of not caring rather than active sin. But a sin by omission is still a sin in most religions. In our society, is it? Well, yes, but I don't think it's such a big thing as it might be to the religious. Perhaps they could be blamed for not stepping back quickly enough, not pro-actively defending the relationship in which they are the intruder. But 'intruder' too suggests action and intention which may well not be there. Is it ever our responsibility to save people from themselves? UK old-style socialist (nanny-state) politics would suggest that sometimes it is The Socially Acceptable Right Thing To Do. But that doesn't reduce the fact that Sometimes Things Happen. Don't They?

It's too circumstantial. Who is the seducer? IS there a seducer? Does ANYTHING Just Happen? How often is there equal blame? Won't it usually be uneven, but be random as to who? Is there a general skew? Is there some sort non-relational standard against which all of these things should be set? The very fact that Shakespeare poses the question in such a way in a deeply religious age again underlines the fact that religion doesn't have an easy and satisfying answer...why should our much more woolly modern consensus-morality be any clearer?

*At no point in this am I thinking about how this applies to couples with children. That's a totally different kettle of fish. It's not just about two independent grown ups then; the obligations have much more to owe to the innocent kids than they do to anyone else.

Friday, 18 December 2009

What Is Paranoia...?

I hate this.  The crackly nervous adrenaline fight-flight tension preparation with no rational prompt.  Of having every little thing around me needle-sharp in my awareness and without able to focus on anything for more than a glance because it's too much to fit in all at once.  Everybody else thinks I'm tired, but I'm standing with my back to the wall and my arms folded and my head down looking drawn because some little part of me is trying to be aware of what everyone around me is doing or thinking or wanting and how it reflects back at me and what I should do about it and what might happen next, and if I huddle in this corner I can keep my back safe to a wall and I need not listen to behind me as well, and if I look unwelcoming and half-asleep I might be able to be quiet and things might settle again.  And if somebody talks to me, I can hardly finish sentences because I forget the ends because my mind has moved from the current situation to the maybes and the mights and the musts of the next thing - to 'I must remember that' or 'I wonder if that happened I should check' and 'I haven't got a list but we need that mustn't forget' and 'that's a silly thing to say' and 'you can't say that' and 'what does she think of you now?' and 'that time I did that thing, that many years ago, I shouldn't have done that'.  And then, there's the guilt for not paying attention or for having forgotten something or for not gauging a reaction properly or for wondering how to escape because wanting to escape is rude.

I end up frozen, not wanting to talk to someone because I don't want to say or do something that makes me feel wrong and silly and annoying and a waste of space, but I want to talk to them because they are my friend and they love me and if I can see that they love me I can be ok.  Which is the constant need for affirmation.  Which wears out everyone involved.  But I WANT to talk to people.  I like people.  I like being close to people and laughing and making them laugh or making them feel loved because that is validating for me, and helps things fade from red alert to at least amber for that minute.  Which sounds bad, in a way, but it's only doing something for other people that they do for me.  It's going to someone for a hug for your benefit not theirs.  But - it's balanced; it's for both.  So the fact that my mind is telling me that I should be feeling guilty for that thought I should push away.  Right?  And then I tie myself tighter and tighter in knots and this is the direction that leads to self-harm because that is the thing that cuts through the circling paranoia and punishes the nebulous guilt and lets it be over.  The handbiting and the teethclenching and the remains of the fingernails driven into whatever skin they can reach, and, eventually somewhere along the line if I can't get away and lose the control totally, razor blades and new scars and new reasons never to go swimming.  And the new guilt for the loss of control.  Getting unbelievably, falling-over, drunk and then sobbing myself out somebody is not a better way of dealing.  It's not fair on the people I do it to.  And if I get that drunk when there isn't anyone to sob on, and it's not a question that the people wouldn't I know that it's a question of going home to an empty house, then that's when things got very bad that time.  Which is why I dont' do it then.  Which is where it comes to being unfair and manipulative.  And the circle locks again...

This jitteriness is the reason I'm good at planning and details and make a good producer and project manager, because if you're in the habit of imagining every possible scenario, you are well-practiced at it.  So maybe I should just deal.  Better.  Because somewhere in existence it serves a purpose.  Everyone has these feelings.  I just have bad coping mechanisms.  So I should find better ones.  I feel guilty for not having better ways of coping.  I don't have real panic attacks, as such, not really frequently anyway.  I just just end up unable to extract myself from a circle.  I can still function.  None of this is life threatening or even debilitating, really.  I have no excuses.  I'm just not a good person.  I must be a better person.  I must stop that thought.  I CAN stop that thought.  But every time something goes faintly 'wrong' I feel my stomach swoop like a downhill rollercoaster and losing control would be so easy.

Why am I writing this online and not a journal?  A feeling that it's less like clapping a lid on the steaming pan and waiting for the explosion, I think.  Trying to remember that this is ordinary, that other people are this person too, that I'm not special and that I'm not this person all the time.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Greens for Tea.

I love green - the colour.  I like to wear it and I like it around me.  I never used to when I was a kid and you had to pick a favourite colour, I used to say there was too much of it and that it was boring, but I have updated my views on a few things since the age of seven and this is one of them.

I also like most green food.  At least the kind that's supposed to be green.  I'd be worried about green meat.  So should you be.  I virtually never make salad, because lettuce is dull and I don't have the patience or the appetite to use many varieties in one bowl because then it goes on for ages.  Cabbage, however, in every single form available, I adore.  This morning, I went to the St Albans Farmers' Market, which I haven't done in a serious way I think at all.  I wanted to see what was there and ideally buy some good quality high welfare meat.  I glanced at the veg stall without much expectation, and picked up the above beautiful bunch.  It's cavolo nero, Italian 'black cabbage', which I've read about a number of times as supposed to be the sort of kale most worth looking for.  I don't think I've ever actually eaten it, but I knew I ought to, as a big green stuff fan.  The leaves are long and pointed, with a prominent rib down each.  It looks a little like savoy cabbage but because it doesn't have a core it doesn't have tough outer leaves and a bitter centre to worry about.  At 90p a bunch, it looked like a good idea.

But then, what to do with it?  It was clearly very fresh, the leaves squeaked and were almost tacky to the touch, and the whole bunch was pert and solid and didn't wave about when I carried it, and it was an incredible colour - more navy blue than any shade of green, under the bloom.  I extracted about 10 spear-leaves and removed the thick rib from the centre of each one.  I sliced up an inch of French saucisson sec that I happened to have (a rasher or two of bacon would have done just as well) and fried it in a glug or two of olive oil with a crumbled (homegrown, home-dried!) chilli.  When it was nearly crispy, I stuck in a sliced clove of garlic until faintly golden.  I hoicked out the aromatics and added the well washed and still damp greens sliced crosswise into inch sections, along with a sprinkle of salt.  Once the pieces were all covered in flavoured oil, I covered the lot with a metal plate and added a little water around the edges.  After about 2 minutes, I pulled the lid off and added back the sausage and the garlic slices.

Another slug of better olive oil, some salt and pepper, a grating of parmesan, a glass of white wine on the side and this was PROPER food.  You could leave out the pork and up the parmesan and it would still be good if you wanted to edge further in a vegetarian direction (you'd need veggie parmesan for purists).  I debated a drop of lemon juice but that makes green things yellow, even if they taste good that way.  The whole thing would be nearly as good with savoy cabbage but the risk of it being tough might be distinct.  Cook for longer.  This was fresh and crisp without being hard to chew in any way.  Maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to make food that's not silly just for myself after all.  Hope.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


I adore books.  Today, I finally got around to sorting the ones in this flat out.  It's a strange place, this, because it contains stuff belonging to all members of my family which, with the exception of myself, they aren't currently using.  It's things they haven't got rid of but only need intermittently or not at all.  There's a lot of un-thrown-away rubbish, or things left here like a very elderly pair of slippers belonging to my dad or the largest pans we own as a family, 'because I need something when I'm there'.  When I got here, there were 6 loaves of bread in the freezer some of which have been there for months and months (becoming breadcrumbs by degrees).  And around the same number of 2-pint containers of milk, half used and frozen 'for next time'.  I have forbidden anyone buying either of those staples until the freezer is under control...

The books aren't that different.  I found a heap of Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and P. D. James that belong to my mum and her crime obsession.  I organised the cookery books that belong mostly to my next brother and me to discover quite how many duplicates we have between us.  He's living in college at the moment so all his cooking stuff is here.  Still.

There isn't really excuse for the following, though.

That's *three* copies of The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, first published in 1903.  It's a relatively little-read early spy novel written at a period that was (rightfully) fearful of German imperial ambitions westward over the North Sea.  It's actually a wonderful read, if you like an action story.  That is no reason to have copies from re-issues in, respectively, each of 1955, 1978 and 1998.  And I first met it as an audiobook, too, which means we have it FOUR times.  I suspect the older two belong to my dad and my mum, and the newest one is mine.  Still.  Not really an excuse.  For Harry Potter we have three copies of each of the last two novels.  That's one for each child, though I suppose that makes sense - we were all living in different counties when those two were published.  I also have the first book in Latin, but that's beside the point.

The duplication is hindering my ability to file things.  I always have this problem.  I suppose I have around two thirds of my books here, and the rest on shelves in Cornwall.  Down there, where I have room for them, they're orderly - divided by genre and then alphabetised.  Here, I've done my best.  Adult fiction is downstairs, along with maps and travel, reference, drama, biography, interesting non-fiction ('coffee table') and most poetry.  Up here beside me is the complete Discworld, 'young adult' fiction (that's the aforementioned Harry Potter*, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Stroud and a few other things - there isn't much space after Terry Pratchett), the irrelevant non-fiction and poetry anthologies.  The main issue is that every single shelf is double-stacked, which means that A-E is behind F-K, etc, and hard to get to and hard to re-shelve.  I haven't labelled things.  I'm debating it.  My family might upset things if they don't notice.  I understand librarians and their constant air of irritation.  It's taken me all day to do this and I hate the thought of it being disturbed.  But I suspect that labelling things might be taken amiss, too...they aren't quite all mine.

I adore books.  It's why I did a degree in English.  I love them for escapism, I love them for learning, I love them for poetry and music and understanding and knowledge and information and discussion and ideas and new thoughts and hope and different moods and people and places to reflect back to myself.  I get totally and utterly lost in stories, I always have.  It's what makes me unbelievably irritating to watch films with - I jump, and gasp and mutter and have to resist shouting encouragement or warnings or advice to on-screen characters even in crowded cinemas.  I usually fail when sitting on a sofa.  That world onscreen is real.  And I feel bereft when I finish a book, or a film, almost without exception.  Putting one down in the middle used to be a very rare occurrence indeed, until my education led to more discerning tastes.  Even now though, I'll probably read the book I've got and then not bother with anything else the author has written unless influenced by some trusted friend.  Once a book is started I feel an obligation to it to finish it.  It's a thing as a whole and never in parts - what comes after modifies what happened to begin with; you can rarely say with any authority that you don't like a book when you've only read half of it, you didn't look at the whole thing.  That irritating foible of style might turn out to be magically transformed later in the tale into something of purpose.  The only exception to this rule is something like a poetry or short story anthology, put together by an independent editor or team.  Any set put together by a single author ought to hold together as a whole, like an album does.  The best of them create something greater than the sum of their parts.  I've never had that feeling about a multi-author collection, there's just too much disparity of style and preoccupation.

I do read several things at once, though, because what I read needs to reflect my mood or I will fidget and not do whatever doesn't fit justice.  I tend to have a volume of poetry, something new to me - probably loosely-defined as 'literature' - and something familiar (still might be some sort of classic or modern classic) or otherwise simpler on the go all at once and will flit between them.  That's often influenced by which is lightest.  I read a lot of poetry collections on trains because they're so little.  I actually don't get on with bookshops and browsing them, it isn't how I read.  I follow threads, looking for influences on favourite authors or books I've heard reviewed or discussed or which come from the same family as something else I love.  I have never been at a loose end for something to read next, not since I first picked up a book.  I have a very well tended Amazon wishlist, which represents fairly accurately preoccupations of the moment, though with a bias towards to trashy because I let myself buy less of it - the 'worthy' stuff gets bought more often.

I virtually never read books created for 'art' that were originally published in a foreign language (non-fiction or criticism is different).  Translation is a difficult and valuable skill, granted, but to my mind it will always muddy whatever the original text said.  Some might argue that translated works should be regarded as something in their own right, and maybe they should, but I don't want my closeness to a text mediated by somebody else.  There was a point that I kept making over and over in one paper of my degree, and I can't now find the reference - about the fact that no reader can truly approach a text in total isolation as advocated by the enormously influential New Critics of the early C20th.  How you understand a given word in a given position is always governed by where you have seen that word, that phrase, a similar word, a rhyming phrase, the same idea, a contrary idea, used in what you have read before - which is influenced by your historical moment, your employment, your gender, your education, your class, what you're listening to...right down to what the weather outside is doing and maybe even what colour pants you put on this morning.**  A translation means that someone else's unique position in time is already influencing how the text can be interpreted, and so one individual's unified creation becomes clouded.  At some stage, maybe I'll learn enough of a foreign language to read well in it, but it hasn't happened yet.  It requires total immersion, I think, to get to the point where your mind feels the connections between things instinctively.  Mind you, there are advantages to being an outsider - I, reading American novels for example, will understand them very differently to someone from that nationality, and it is from such oppositions that the most interesting ideas come from, I guess.  What I read won't be what you read, and from what we each comprehend from a text will a more full and more interesting reading, conversation, philosophy come***.  That is a strong reason for the existence of criticism, for me****.  To do with the exchange of ideas is central in really good criticism and the reason that I read essays on texts I'm interested in, still - even if I'm not writing essays any more.

All of which is a way of justifying the enormously large collection of books I have and will continue to have.  They comfort me and connect me to the world around me and I think they're great.

More about the function of art, from me. I meant it when I said I was keen.

*I keep thinking 'that is the type of thing I'd usually find a reference link for'.  But it's Harry Potter.  No.
**I think this possibly wanders around the edges of Derridan Deconstructionism, should anyone be remotely interested.  Lots of fairly nihilist Post-Structuralist Post-Modernist philosophy about the instability and eventual futility of human endeavour.  Fascinating, but a little dark.
***Edward Said definitely discusses the idea that the Critic should always be in opposition to society in order to be of any use.  Which kind of makes sense.  References...  I *think* this will be in The World, The Text, and the Critic but I couldn't swear to it...
****There's a very great deal to say about the function of criticism - which really means the function and influence of art and literature...the discussion of the POINT of reading.  Academics have been studying it for centuries, which always seems a little uncomfortable to me.  All those discussions could boil down to a justification for their existence, on one level.  In modern times (as opposed to the Greeks), the conversation comes into its own in the Victorian period with Matthew Arnold's seminal essay 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time' (1864), particularly 'the idea of a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.'  I find it absolutely fascinating and wrote my dissertation on the function of art and whether or not it is or even remotely should be regarded as philosophy.  I'm aware that other people wouldn't find it quite so interesting, though...

Friday, 11 December 2009

Stew; soup.

I'm not a soup gal.  It's a thing.  I never have been.  Call it 'stew' and I'm there every time.  I adore that stuff, more or less whatever meat or fish was used to make it.  I would choose a stew almost every time over more or less any other sort of meal.  Long, slow cooked meat falling into a nicely flavoured sauce, and all that.  And apart from anything else, they're easy:

Harissa Lamb, adapted from Nigel Slater's 'Real Fast Food'   (For two, with leftovers)
1 half leg or 2 shanks of lamb
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
1 aubergine
1 tsp cumin seeds
3 tsp harissa paste
1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)

Slice onion and mince garlic. Chop the aubergine (that's an eggplant to you foreigners...) into inch cubes.  Salt the meat, then brown in a large casserole.  Remove and brown the aubergine (you'll need more oil).  Turn the heat down and fry the onions, garlic and cumin seeds until wilted.  Add the harissa, some salt and pepper and the tomatoes. and bring to the boil.  Stir in the aubergine and then poke the lamb back in.  Fill the tin with boiling water and add that, too (mind fingers).  Bring to the boil, then stick it in a low oven (150 degrees centigrade, ish) for about 2 hours, checking once in a while that it hasn't dried out (add more water).  It's done when the meat falls off the bone when you poke it with a fork...

But sometimes...I want something less meaty.  Vegetarian stews rarely cut it, they don't have the depth of flavour that you get from meat, even if you try to (not quite literally) beef them up by adding Marmite.  I think I need a greater well-flavoured-sauce-to-chunks ratio than I can get from veg.  Probably, I just want the meat fat to thicken my sauce.  On occasion when I've had any dripping, I've done that.  I have tried (not necessarily that hard) to make vegetable soup-stews that cut the mustard.  The only one I've found that comes close is a tomatoey harira adapted from this book, but I so rarely have the quantities of fresh parsley and coriander around to make that (something close to 70g of each...) and it wouldn't be the same without.  It is basically a mixture of cumin-y tomatoes, chickpeas, and the aformentioned green herbs.

Also in that book is a rather unappetising recipe for taco soup - which looks like soggy tacos in a bowl of watery broth.  Not attractive to the thick-and-flavourful-sauce enthusiast (card carrying member).  While drifting around The Pioneer Woman's recipe world bit, I saw another recipe for taco soup, this time one that was essentially chilli (close to my favourite food) with extra stock in it to make it soupy - it's similar right down to the recommended accompaniments.  It contains quite a lot of pre-packaged stuff, which needless to say isn't really available in British supermarkets.  Also, it contained actual beef, which is expensive and I regard as unnecessary except for special occasions.  But the concept?  That looked good.  This evening, leaving Cambridge for St Albans circa 7:30 (it's an hour's drive home) post carol service, I discovered I was craving it.  The signs looked good:
 - Already cooked off pinto beans in freezer (I buy a packet then cook the whole thing on an evening I'm in, then bag them up and freeze them.  I always cook them until they're more or less mush, and they're perfect for this.  I realise that they make tins of them, but I'm a purist.)
 - Tins of tomatoes in cupboard
 - More onions and garlic than I ever know what to do with
 - Yesterday's discovery that the following can now be bought at Tescos:

(I know that few others will be quite so excited by this.  It's stock, yes.  I don't eat meat unless it's come from animals that have been reared to better-than-industrial standards - I don't want to be responsible for battery chicken.  This stuff is Really Good Stock, is inexpensive, AND is free range. Tescos should be encouraged.)
 - The fact that I would *drive past* a Tescos on the way home, and could get stock, and, better, tortilla chips.

So, at half past nine this evening, I began to make soup.  Onions and garlic were chopped small and fried in a large pot until translucent.  The packet of fajita mix (only ever the Discovery brand, which seems to be made of real food and doesn't contain MSG) was stirred in.  The tomatoes were added.  A potato masher was applied when they appeared to be recalcitrantly large.  The stock was sloshed in and brought to the boil.  Once I'd got to this point, my bag of beans had just about finished in the microwave and was glopped in.  Tasting revealed the need for half a teaspoon of Marmite (that would be 'yeast extract', nothing weird if you never met it) and some salt.  I could have added the limes I bought for this purpose but I forgot.  That would have reduced the need for salt.  When hot through, it was ladled into a bowl, covered with grated cheese and a handful of tortilla chips was crumbled over that.


I had seconds, despite there being no hunger-need to.  Pleased with self.  To be honest, the whole excuse in the first place, beyond needing something healthy and with vegetables, was the existence of that stock and a gravy I made with it yesterday.  I did also buy some organic stock cubes both vegetarian and chickeny for further experimentation - I want to see what happens when I make it truly vegetarian.  Need to cook more beans first.  And eat this batch - I think there's about 8 portions here...

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Every little thing.

 It's funny what makes a day brilliant, really.  Buying a pheasant helped make mine:

 - Finding own way to butcher's even with not much of a map and never having driven into that part of the country (tick!)
 - Hoping that they had a pheasant and them having a pheasant (tick!)
 - Them splitting some bacon for me into the tiny quantity I wanted to buy (tick!)
 - Two minutes conversation with the butcher about roasting times for said bird that made me feel like a grown up (tick!)
 - Finding way home, despite not LOOKING at the map (tick!)

On top of all of that, the day began incredibly early with breakfast at Tatties with Leigh, which was a totally wonderful way of starting, then running into Sam who said I can sing a *carol service* on Friday and gave me an amazing hug, which was EXCITING, and then seeing Carl and finishing the Christmas shopping by dipping into gifty arty shops, which was pretty and fun and peaceful.  And I came home and went for a full 40 minutes long fast run that made me feel like I'd beaten something.  And my daddy bought me a train ticket home for Christmas and found out that the cheapest available is a first class one.  And I went to the (Abbey) theatre and saw a mass of people I love dearly, including some I haven't seen for a whole! eight! years! and told them about exciting things like driving to Pompeii and auditioning for choirs (not yet, and only if I'm brave).

And tomorrow, I'm cooking the pheasant and seeing Martin.  And on Sunday I will see more people I love at the theatre.  And Tuesday?  Tuesday, I'm going to the SEASIDE.  In December. !! *AND* may be having the first of two Christmas dinners of next week, depending on the timings.

So...I'm less phased than I might be by the fact that I have found out that a close friend is pretty ill, another friend appears to have been pretty ill but I know no details, by the fact (not on the same level) that I couldn't find Jerusalem artichokes in Sainsburys, by the fact that people I'm dying to talk to and adore can't get onto the internet to talk to me (or, indeed, do anything).  I will find out, if appropriate, what is going on in people's lives and then bake for them, also if appropriate, and tell them all I love them because I can't do much else but I do make amazing brownies (one day that post will have pictures...which sounds like an excuse).


Sunday, 6 December 2009

Withnail & I, with extra Shakespeare

 I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god - the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

I've been watching Withnail & I. I don't know what to make of it, though I think that's a traditional reaction to that film. I spent most of the film feeling sorry for Monty, and for Marwood ('...& I'), though obviously it's Withnail you watch. It doesn't tell you enough. There's more story. One shouldn't feel sorry for any of the characters - one shouldn't like them, because one can see that there is a lot of less likeable stuff in them that is barely shown. You know that Marwood is junkie enough for paranoia, you know that Monty is predatory - you know that Withnail could be respected as talented man and certainly one with character and courage. In some ways he would have been redeemed had they chosen to finish the film the way I think the book does, with his suicide. His decision to die would have validated him and credited him with some integrity. The film is like a Beckett play, but with more context than one ever gets from those. Absurdist.

The Hamlet quotation, above, ends the film. I have always remembered the image as 'stellar promontory' rather than 'sterile'. I think the former concept would probably be an impossible one for Shakespeare to come up with - his was still a period that believed in the spheres of the heavens rather than understanding the universe as orbs floating in a void as we do now. For him, the most desolate place imaginable was a spur of headland flung far out into the sea, weather-swept and on which nothing was able to survive. To me, from the vantage point of a new millennium, it seems more appropriate when looking for true sterility to conjure up a rock in space, totally dead, totally barren, totally cold, projected into nowhere, anchorless, helpless, dust among the stars. The feeling is the same, but as the world has become a smaller place since the C17th, so the universe has got larger and our place in it has become infinitely less significant; after all we no longer believe, for the most part, that the world was created by a beneficent entity purely for us.  Shifting from the terrestrial to the universal seems appropriate, with that shift in context.  Anywhere on earth is not remote, not really.  Anywhere in space - is.  I sort of hope that Shakespeare wouldn't mind too much my mis-rememberance of his line, because from my moment of history my image can go some way towards re-investing his with the power that 400 years has leached from it.

The Macbeth quotation is mostly there because it is probably my favourite piece of Shakespeare to say aloud. It follows almost naturally from the Hamlet speech, though the art in it is greater as might be expected from the one in metre and the other in prose. Both deal with isolation and desolation and the insignificance of man in the face of time and situation. Macbeth is over-dramatic (and over-quoted and almost hackneyed, now) but the image of 'all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death' is speaking - each of us guides each other, a day at a time, towards each individual's death. Shakespeare expresses both the futility and the camaraderie of the human experience in the space of ten words. We are reminded how hopeless our lives are, but also that we are all in it together and we have little but one another. It's arguably an odd sentiment from the character of Macbeth, but ultimate poetry.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


Once drained, what was once filled once only
once again waits – once more less and more than once before.
Once filled and once drained, at once ware of potence and impotence, wonder
on what once upon a time it was that once one wished one would wake
From or to.

Unfilled free for future or once full with fulfilment;
Full filled in, but – fulfilling fulfilled and filled maybe willing but too full
To be filled, so

When world-whirled we will st-st-stutter to a stop-start start.