Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun

My father wanted me to be a cook.  I am not sure why.  Maybe because I made him jam doughnuts once in a deep fat fryer.  I remember that was the time I really impressed him.  Never mind books or academic qualifications - what the good of them when I could successfully wield the cage of the deep fat fryer? Cooking was much more useful - especially (though he didn't actually say the next bit) for a girl.

How did you do that?' he asked in wonderment as my doughnuts haemorrhaged jam just like the ones in the shops.    
'It's easy,' I said, because it was.   All I had to do was follow instructions in one of the leaflets by the mixer.  Still, it impressed my father so I was pleased.  
'You could go to catering college,' he pointed out, so I thought about it for a bit.
'No,' I said, 'all I want to do is write.'

Now I'm thinking maybe I should have listened to my father.  I could have become a cook and then written about it.  People like food a lot more than they like science or all the sorts of things I went on to learn.  Food is endlessly interesting to just about everyone because we all have to eat.  

I bought Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun for my Kindle a few months ago and over the last few days just got round to reading it.   The book has turned out to be a valuable addition to my library. It is comprehensive and very interesting.  I now feel I have a good general idea of how the British taste for food changed over the centuries - and change it did, quite radically, many times.  Going from Pre-Roman times the book works its way through the centuries showing how fads for food reflect the wider foibles of the time: periods of austerity are reflected in unadventurous aspirations in the kitchen; while during more flamboyant times the cooks tended to look to more exotic places for inspiration.  The mores of the times are illustrated by menus from cookbooks, quotes, illustrations of equipment and other cultural references.  

One of the more unexpected benefits was the way I learnt the origins of new words.  Curfew comes from the Norman laws that all embers (feu) must be covered (cur) during the night, for instance, and there were more additions like these in nearly every chapter.  

It made me notice what I was eating and cooking and changed my perspective now that I had some knowledge of their history.  Virtually each era introduced something different.  It ends with the modern plea encouraging us to all go back to real cooking using real ingredients.  It reminded me of the fun I can have, and made me determined to try and eat fewer convenience foods and get back to the greengrocer and the butcher (or the equivalent in the supermarket).  I should make more of my friendship with my oven, kettle, mixer and hob -  but not, perhaps, the deep-fat fryer.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

FoodLit Fiction

Putting The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman to one side for later, I have (mostly) worked my way through the three  fictional FoodLit books currently in my possession.

I thought The Restaurant of Love Regained had a sweet charm.  It was about a young woman called Rinko who loses everything to a boyfriend, and so retreats back to her home village to start a special sort of restaurant: one that serves only one customer at a time.  There follows a series of stories concerning customers with problems which the heroine solves using the little known trouble-shooting strategy of cooking.  It reminded me a little, in terms of the writing and the accessibility, of Alexander McCall Smith's work.  Like 'The Number One Ladies Detective Agency' there is an overall plot, in this case the relationship between the heroine and mother, and takes several surprising turns.  It was light, whimsical and entertaining.  

Thank you Alma Books for sending me this copy - and apologies for how long it has taken me to get round to reading it.

The blurb on the back said that the book would appeal to people who liked 'Like Water For Chocolate' by Laura Esquivel so I bought that too.  This has been made into a film which I can imagine worked very well because the plot was straightforward and satisfying.  It had an original structure being divided into twelve chapters for each month of the year, and with each came a recipe that featured in the plot (although not all of the recipes were for food).  Again, it was a light read and relied on whimsy rather than aiming for development of setting and character.  It was vaguely in the past in a place where the youngest daughters were expected to forget any aspirations of having their own family, but to look after their mothers until the end of the mothers' days.  It gave the novel a folktale feel and quite often went further into the realms of fantasy: passion could actually set a place on fire, for instance, and Tita, the poor girl destined to devote her days to her formidable and irascible mother, had the knack of transferring her emotional state to the food she was preparing - sometimes to devastating effect.  

This latter idea was taken up by Aimee Bender in 'The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake'.  Here, the protagonist was called Rose and at the age of nine finds that she too can taste emotions in the food that she eats.  My edition comes recommended by Jodi Picoult, who found the writing beautiful, and like 'The Restaurant of Love Regained', it too is an international bestseller.  Unlike the first two books it is set in a recognisable place (near Hollywood), and relies on the odd behaviour of the characters to convey strangeness.  They don't listen to each other and seem to move around each other in a disconnected way which I believe is part of the point but I found jarring after a short while.  The writing itself also seemed disjointed and off-beat: 'I didn't move.  Mom kept smoothing her hair behind her ears.  Smooth, smooth.  Joseph stood, at his spot.'   Many people obviously love The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake but it was not for me, I'm afraid - I guess it is a matter of taste.

I have now moved on to FoodLit Fact.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Chester Literature Festival 2012: Simon Armitage, Catherine Clarke, Pat Barker and Zoe Lambert

I feel it has been a particularly good Chester Literature Festival so far this year.  In fact, I have been so busy going to events, I have barely had time to write about them, so I thought I'd do a little resume here.

Last Friday, for me, was Simon Armitage day.  Simon Armitage has long been a favourite poet of mine so when I heard he was giving a workshop as well as a talk about translating medieval poetry I booked a place immediately.   The workshop was fun (writing as quickly as possible; with the left hand; drawing pictures; remembering photos; choosing words) and I actually produced the makings of a poem (something I haven't done for some time).

The talk in the evening concerned Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Death of King Arthur from medieval English and contained lots of entertaining anecdotes.  My favourite was Simon Armitage's definition of a poem.  'It is poetry because I say it is.' was the gist.   His reasoning was that since  he is a poet published by Faber if he says what he has written  is a poem then it is!  Excellent stuff.  

The medieval them continued the next day in what used to be the cathedral in Chester, St John's church.  It was a suitable setting for a talk and then a workshop on mapping medieval Chester from texts - a cold and acoustically-challenging place.  I suppose it gave us a taste of what the medieval writers were going through.  

Professor Catherine Clarke is from Southampton University and she is involved in a multi-centred project to map medieval Chester from a series of contemporary texts in three different languages: Welsh, English and Latin.  This gave a picture of the city from different viewpoints - the Welsh outsider  writing anti-English poetry, the monk wanting to show the spiritual aspects of the city and the clergyman fighting for the church against secular influences.   In the workshop we were given different texts and shown how much could be deduced from them.  The whole project is on-line here, and her book, Mapping the Medieval City, will be coming out in paperback soon.  I am looking forward to reading this as soon as it does!

To finish off a busy Saturday, I went along to the Pat Barker talk in the evening at the university and was treated to a reading from her new book  Toby's Room  (part of a trilogy based in the first world war) and then an interview.  The book sounds excellent and concerns a topic I have never heard of being referred to before: reconstructive surgery.

Yesterday I went to my tenth event: Zoë Lambert in the Magistrate's Court of the Town Hall.  She read a couple of stories from her collection, The War Tour (reviewed here), one of which featured the conclusion of a magistrate for a man trying to obtain asylum in this country which was an apt choice for this setting.  Zoë then told us about how she came to write the collection (shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize last year) which was based, in part, on her experiences in helping a refugee.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Chester Literature Festival : Then and Now

Today two books came from Serpent's Tail: Padgett Powell's first novel called Edisto which looks like it is going to be highly entertaining, and a book written about the first world war called Fear.  Both these books were first published several decades ago and are republished now for a new audience.


The first world war was the topic of Paul Dowswell's talk for the Literature Festival this year.  Paul produces a book each year, and I am ashamed to admit that he has outpaced my reading of his work.  His new book, Eleven Eleven, was inspired by his learning that the six hour gap between the cease fire and the armistice being signed at the end of the war allowed another few thousand men to die.  Paul looks at this from three young viewpoints: a German, and an English soldier, and an American pilot.  A great idea - which I am looking forward to reading.
Eleven Eleven
Paul's talk was in one of the lunch-time slots.  In the evening I went to a talk by Patrick Gale about his new book A Perfectly Good Man.  It included a couple of chapters from two different viewpoints a 'good' character and a villain, and they both sounded so enticing I wanted to get started immediately. 
A Perfectly Good Man

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Chester Literature Festival: Re-Vamp

The town hall
was the location for Die Booth's illuminating talk on self-publishing, in particular the publication of her anthology, Re-Vamp.

After describing the origin of the idea (an idea between friends on either side of the Atlantic) she described the process of acquiring material and then the effort required to make it of a publishable standard.  She also included advice on marketing using a blog and the potential pitfalls of compiling an anthology of this sort.
Luckily, Die and her co-editor, L.C. Hu, managed to avoid these through diligence.  Anyway, as I have mentioned before, the result I thoroughly enjoyed reading!

 Alison Leonard added to the discussion by describing her experiences in 'publishing' Flesh and Bronze on Audible.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Chester Literature Festival: Chester Mystery Play Reading.

Yes, it's that time of year again: October  - so it must be the Chester Literature Festival.

I went to my first event tonight - a reading of the Chester Mystery Play which will be performed next year.  Usually these are performed in the open air - which is always a bit of a gamble even in high summer.  But next year, for the first time ever, the Mystery Play is going to be performed in the nave of the cathedral.

There was a model of the proposed set on display, and the cathedral curate warned us that we were not to touch it (she having made that mistake).  It was a sweet little thing, with tiny pieces of furniture rather like a doll's house, but when I asked if it would be okay if I took a picture the set designer wasn't willing, so that, dear blog reader, will have to be left to the imagination.  

Before I went into the refectory (where tonight's reading was being held) I had the chance to take a few pictures of the cathedral passageways looking suitably atmospheric in the dark.  As well as having the main performance in the nave there will also be segments in spaces such as this, as well as in the streets.

Judging from the reading, the play (written by Stephanie Dale) is going to be a powerful fusion of the ancient and the modern - and I was especially impressed with the proposed take on the slaughter of the innocents.  In fact it stunned the audience into an appreciative silence.  The readers were all very good, and I was surprised to learn that apart from being able to read through the script for a couple of weeks, they had only had one other rehearsal.

The Mystery Plays have a distinguished history.  Until Elizabeth  the First's times they were regularly performed, but then were deemed to be too popish.  They were revived in 1951 and from then on have been performed in five year cycles.  This time round the Artistic Director is Peter Leslie Wild and the music is provided by the talented Matt Baker (who is a bit of a legend round these parts).  They involve the whole community and everyone is encouraged to go along to rehearsals.  I am tempted - but only as an extra.  My acting abilities are sadly limited and I'd be apt to trip over any long costumes.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Few Days in Bremen

Bremen: a place of metal pigs

an elegant Bahnhof,
and a fine medieval Rathaus
with golden-lit
and gold-embellished arches
and quartet of animal acrobats.
that Professor Otis stroked for luck.
In the cathedral
the orchestra rehearsed
while down another alleyway
there was different music.

In the northern suburbs there is a different feel
and a collection of modern university institutes line boulevards
in a perfect grid.

I was there to give a talk about my book at the Fiction Meets Science Workshop at the Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences (MARUM), at the University of Bremen.
After a day of fascinating presentations on various aspects of literature and fiction I gave my talk on Wegener's Jigsaw, which was afterwards discussed by Norbert Schaffeld (a literary scholar), Reinhard Krause (a science historian at the Alfred Wegener Institute) and then Gerold Wefer (a geologist, the director of the MARUM and winner of the Science Communication prize in 2010).
It was somewhat nerve-wracking (especially since it was filmed) but people were kind and now I feel privileged to have three such speakers devote so much time and consideration to my work.
After the talk we went down to the basement and were shown core samples from the oceanic bed.  The brown mark on the bottom core is the sediment laid down when a meteorite impacted and wiped out the dinosaurs.  To the right of the brown layer is the older greener glassy rocks caused by heating, and then to the right the ash that fell.
This poster explains more.
Ocean drilling is the subject of Susan Gaines' book Carbon Dreams which I read before I went, and this helped me appreciate what I was seeing in the basement.  Carbon Dreams is the absorbing story of a research chemist making a geochemical discovery.  The sacrifices and life-choices that she has to make to devote herself to her idea are convincing and drive the story along.  It described an era I knew well, and I recognised many features of life in the laboratory which was very satisfying because 'lablife' is rarely evoked so accurately in literature.  One sequence, which described going out on a scientific cruise ship, brought to mind one of the T.C. Boyle books I'd read recently: When the Killing's Done.

The conference continued the next day at the Institute for Advanced Study, which is a little outside Bremen.
This looks to be an exciting place with a collection of different scholars living and working together.  My contribution that day was to take part in a discussion with Susan Gaines and the novelist Simon Mawer.  Simon then finished the meeting with a talk on his excellent book Mendel's Dwarf.  Mendel's Dwarf, I've just read, was 10th in line for the Booker Prize, and I am not surprised.  It features Gregor Mendel, the priest who discovered genetics, and his fictitious descendent who happens to be a geneticist and a dwarf.    As Wilfried Wackernagel, an Emeritus professor of genetics at the university of Oldenburg, said - there are diamonds (references to genetics) scattered throughout.

I learnt a lot during the two days, and found the whole event exciting and stimulating because there were so many ideas and good speakers.
Thanks and Congratulations to Susan Gaines for organising the event.  I hope it has a successful outcome.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012


After the eating

comes the reading...

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Bottle of Memories

When I was doing my Ph.D. - a long time ago now - my father used to come down to London for his work, and we used to meet in an Italian restaurant adjacent to the college and Somerset House  Last Thursday, I went back.

The restaurant is gone and has turned into an office; and for a few moments I stood there trying to remember how it was.  Not for the first time I wished I could bottle memories and revisit them just with a twist of a cap and a nip of the contents.

I walked almost nine miles that day: down from Euston to Waterloo Bridge and then back again.  It is almost a straight line, and there are parts all along it that I'd like to bottle.  And last Thursday I found more specimens for this hypothetical collection of memories.  Maybe this blog is almost as good.

The Hayward Gallery is showing The Art of Change : New Directions from China.  It is an exhibition of contemporary installation and performance art.

The  first installation was based on the concept of exercise machines in the gym: we work to make them futilely turn - why not make it even more pointless and make the machines work the human?   There was also a mess of building materials under a canopy, and an invitation to bring along stones.  I walked on up a ramp past a young woman in a pair of striped pyjamas and then into a space with bed-sized platforms and a girl huddled in a sleeping bag.  A curator drew up a ladder and helped her down.

I read notices.  I watched screens.  Until recently, innovative art in China was discouraged.  Like writing, there is something worrying anarchic about it all, and anyway artists, like all other intellectuals during the cultural revolution, were sent to the countryside to experience the arduous life of a farmer.

Xu Zhen, however, was born too late for this.  His life seems to have followed a Western-style progression of art school followed by acclaim and then global recognition.  Apart from the installation exercise machines he was also responsible for the impressive piece of 'live' art in which a girl  was poised suspended and unmoving.

I think he was also responsible for this

the girl in striped pyjamas.  Once I had passed her she had started to follow me, and for a while she was my silent companion.

She moved when I moved, pausing when I paused, observing me as I was observing everyone else.  Once I faced her and asked her if I could take her photo and her face remained static, just the slight twitch of one side of her lips.

I went on: inside a human-sized mouse hole

Inside an artist called Yingmei Duan came towards me like an apparition from a fairytale, a lost child in the woods, peered into my face as though she was trying to see what was hidden inside, and then presented me with a folded up piece of paper.

On then to why I came: silkworms.  Silkworms as art.  Silkworms heavy with silk with an urge to climb, silk spilling from them, covering windows

adorning discs,

enveloping stones,

coaxed into miniature bed frames

and wrapped around something in the shape of bones

or chains (named after the Milan Kundera novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being).

The girl in the striped pyjamas looked too.  Always on the peripheral of my vision.  Silent.  A benign stalker.

Liang Shaoji's work features raw silk, silkworms and cocoons.

He lives near a silkworm farm in Shanghai, and one part of his installation featured simply the sound that silkworms make when there are hundreds of them eating mulberry leaves.  Together, the sound of their many soft but strong jaws make a sound like summer rain.

The girl in striped pyjamas left me then.  When I came out she had gone.  I missed her.   And as I walked around the rest of the exhibition of  houses made from candles

putrescent pork pictured again and again

becoming, somehow, a grotesque family group, lacquered, buddha-like

a mud-covered room

the cinders of burnt books

and large models of monsters

I kept looking out for her, but she was fickle, and had attached herself to another.

I walked then, back across the river and onto Red Lyon Square for the internecine AGM of the Society of Authors.  The debate that followed featured an editor and an agent and it was the usual mixture of hopefulness and resignation.  The publishing world is changing.  Tom Holland, the previous chair, called it a convulsion, and I don't think anyone knows how it will turn out.  Today I learnt that A.P.Watt, the oldest literary agency in the world, which used to represent me, is now being subsumed by United Agents, and the thought of that is unsettling.  Too much is changing.  Established brands, which until recently seemed to represent something reassuringly permanent, disappear.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm on a sandy beach and this convulsion is like the tide is going out, sucking away all the sand beneath my feet.  If I move I will topple.  Maybe the answer is not to stop, not to wait for the sea or sand or the girl in the striped pyjamas to keep me company, but to keep walking, unstopping the bottle of memories as I go.   Then I can choose what will accompany me: the memory of my father in that restaurant, the view from the office of my first editor in Penguin, my hand on the grand old door of what was then my agent's, and now after last Thursday, the shadowy figure of Yingmei Duan inside the mouse hole

and the piece of paper that she handed to me: 'Everything that you own in the world is temporary, nothing belongs to you.  In life we are travelers, happily walking through.  The most important thing is to treasure the moment.'