26 March 2015

Meaningful

I am struggling to be meaningful this week. I am juggling the ingredients of lasagne, a family lunch, watching a child grow into an independent adult, running, daffodil bulbs and poetry with no sign that any of them want to sit next to each other on the plate of my blogpost. 

The closest I've got to words suggesting more than their plain, unsalted selves is:

family lunch
squeezing in another
layer of lasagne

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what family means to you.


This is the lasagne in question: a BBC Good Food recipe whose one and a half litres of milk for the b├ęchamel sauce made my head swivel between the recipe and the biggest measuring jug I have in the kitchen. Does that lower-case 'l' really mean litres?! But it did and, as the five starred recipe reviews suggest, you get one hugely delicious dish of silky savouriness to serve eight. 

Our granddaughter is in her first year of university, studying Costume Interpretation for Theatre & Screen at UAL Wimbledon, and living in halls.

'I know this is a weird thing to ask,' she says, half an hour after arriving for lunch, 'but could I do some laundry?' Her pink duffle-bag is filled with damp clothes she's washed at her mother's house and the tangle of knickers, tops and jumpers yet to be done. She tells me that a load of washing and drying at Halls costs her £10.

And here we are standing together at the sink in the utility room discussing the merits of a Vanish stain removing bar as she rubs gently at some coffee splashes on a pale pink sleeveless top. I have to tilt my head up slightly to look her in the face.

It is when I look at Summer that I feel the passage of time. It becomes more than an intellectual perception, more than a list of occasions, events, holidays, more than a numerical record of the years. I feel it in my body's memory: her three year old palm resting on my face, the weight of her as I lift her to reach a ball trapped in the branches of a tree. And now the warmth of her 19 year old body curled up beside me on the sofa, her knees pushing through the torn denim of her jeans. I rest an arm on her hip as if doing so might keep her here just a little longer. 

Yesterday I ran 5.5 miles with my women's running group. I spent the afternoon planting daffodil bulbs beneath the lawn. Then I read half of Sean Borodale's Human Work, a poetry collection about food, its preparation and transformation, whose words and phrases are surprising, challenging and evocative, but strangely lacking, for me, in any warmth and joy. 

I told you these ingredients were resisting each other's company. But somehow they have taken their place, one by one. No shared meaning. But each meaningful in their own way. 


19 March 2015

What your life tastes like

James Wannerton tastes words when he reads or hears them thanks to a neurological condition called synaesthesia that links senses which are normally experienced separately. The Telegraph published this article back in August 2013 about a systems analyst from Blackpool who'd created a version of the London Underground map that, instead of the stations' names, showed what each one tasted like. To James Wannerton that is. He has Victoria down as 'Candle Wax' but Victoria is much more 'Old Sweet Wrapper' for me. But the sweet wrapper I have in mind is the kind of paper that Bazooka Joe bubblegum came wrapped in. And that was waxy. So maybe we aren't that far apart. 

Tastes of London 1964 - 2013
You can read more about James Wannerton and browse the whole of the map (with more clarity) by clicking on any of the links above. And I bet you'll immediately check out the stations you're familiar with to see if his taste makes some kind of sense to you. 

Wannerton has been diagnosed with lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, a rare form of synaesthesia in which spoken and written language causes individuals to experience an automatic and highly consistent taste/smell. My 'sweet-wrapper' response to Victoria wasn't at all automatic - but when I imagined myself among the sounds and smells and textures of the railway station that's my gateway into London that's what popped into my head. 

If I think about the 20 acres of orchard outside my back door it would be too easy to say it tastes of apples. Right now it has the taste of soft mud with a hint of earthworm. But in the summer it tastes like Pink Shrimps - you know those old-fashioned spongy sweets? 

You don't have to make logical sense here. It's probably best if you don't even try to as that detracts from the wonder that is our brain. How it makes links between things that can occasionally astonish (and perhaps even confuse) us. 

One of the pieces of advice that I give to apprentice writers is not to edit first thoughts, don't be judgemental at the beginning of the writing process. Just write down everything, however bizarre or boring they might seem. We can never know what might make sense, what might be worth exploring, further down the road. And you don't have to show anyone. No one has to know how barmy you might sound!

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a list of tastes for: the street you live on, the inside of your car, your favourite room in the house, a place you loved from your childhood.

I'm reading in London at the Poetry Society Cafe next Monday, 23rd March. I'll arrive, as usual, at Candle Wax, change at Pea & Ham Soup and get off at Chocolate Digestives. 

I checked out one more station on the map. Paddington Station tastes of Flumps to James Wannerton. I'm going to have to disagree with him there too, because that's the station that rumbles me westwards towards the Severn Estuary and its bridge into Wales. It's Salted Butter.


12 March 2015

Gifts: wood, ginger, orange

Hungry Writing Prompt 1
Write a spontaneous list of the gifts you have received.

A doll's house, a silver locket, white tights, The Child's Illustrated Bible, pens, a leather jacket, a perfume the Queen was supposed to wear, chocolates in a silk covered chest with a dozen secret drawers, magnetic poetry, a maple tree, a Barbie birthday cake, a magic penguin, a blue pearl, a mug painted with a happy cat, a red heart-shaped balloon, love and kindness, laughter, chocolate buttons offered in the hot hand of a young man with Asperger's, so many thank yous, sunrises and sunsets, two rings, a home, words, running...

And the most recent gift I received? This.


A bowl that Tony made me from the branch of a tree. You can see the point on the left where it would have been attached to the trunk. I know. I'm lucky. And you'll be even more astonished when I tell you he created the basic shape with a chain saw. I know. He's clever! 

Hungry Writing Prompt 2
Write a spontaneous list of the gifts you have given.

I found this list was harder to do. I'm going to go back to it when I'm in a quieter space. Perhaps we more easily remember the good things and kindnesses we receive than the ones we give to other people? But I did make Tony a gift this week. Candied ginger.


How far you believe in the efficacy of ginger depends on how much scientific proof you require. But you don't have to believe in anything to just enjoy these sweet chews. If you like ginger of course. But even if you don't you should still try one. You might be surprised. I was. And they do make my currently grid-locked throat feel better. And they are magnificently effective on a niggle of indigestion. And as far as 'candies' in general are concerned these have to be better than commercial ones made with gloop. (Science isn't my strong point.)

I should warn you this is rather a labour of love. But worth it.

what you need:

1/2 lb of ginger thinly sliced
1/2 lb of golden granulated sugar

what you do:

All the smart advice for peeling ginger is to scrape at the papery skin with the edge of a teaspoon. That's fine if you're just peeling one or two fat knobs but a potato peeler is quicker and easier with a quantity.

Once peeled I use a hand-held mandolin to finely slice it. Then I cover the sliced ginger with water in a saucepan, bring it to the boil and simmer for about 45 mins until about a quarter of the water remains. 

Over a low heat add the sugar and stir until it melts. Bring back to the boil, then simmer and cook for about 20 to 25 mins. 

Drain the ginger (and keep any syrup for eating with vanilla ice-cream - oh yes) and toss it thoroughly in three quarters of the sugar. Then spread it out, as thinly as you can on a couple of non-stick baking trays, or trays lined with baking parchment, sprinkle with the remaining sugar and put them a very low oven (100 to 120 degrees) for about 90 minutes.  

I like to shake and shiggle all the ginger onto one tray at this point (see the photo above) and leave it to cool completely, for a few hours or even overnight, during which time it will get crisper, and then I tip it into a jar.

To be honest, as I'm typing this out I'm thinking, 'What a hack!' so if you live near me just pop in and try some! I quite enjoy making them and I might have a go at doing a similar thing with orange peel because I've just remembered that, years ago, someone gave me a gift of a china lidded dish in the shape of an orange which was filled with candied orange peel. 

It somehow managed to be a gift of opulence combined with everyday ordinariness: the exquisite china orange holding the skin of a fruit that we normally throw away. There's a metaphor in there somewhere. I just haven't worked out what it is yet.

3 March 2015

Truth or lie?

Let's start with a food joke.

Four men take a week long hiking trip in the mountains and because none of them know how to cook, and none of them want to, they draw straws for who'll be responsible. The man who pulls the short straw tells the rest, 'Okay, but if any of you complain then I won't cook again.' 

That night they turn up for their first meal and he hands out bowls of a brown greasy gloop which they all taste hesitantly.

'This tastes like shit,' one of the men exclaims. 'But delicious!'

Now let's move on to this:



It's one of my easy apple desserts that I've written about before. I've been making it for nearly 30 years and I can't remember where the recipe originally came from. It's basically apples, cream, and cornflakes mixed with some melted butter and syrup to make a toffee topping. Yes, I suppose it's a bit 'nursery' which is probably why an ex-public school friend, now in his late 60s, had 'thirds' when I made it for a New Year's Eve dinner a couple of years back. I think it took him back to all those warm memories and feelings associated with nanny and nursery tea. But it is lovely. And light. And the contrast of flavours and textures really do work together. At least I thought they did.

Last Saturday I took it to a dinner party with friends. Tony'd volunteered a dessert and I wasn't sure of numbers so a bowl of 'Toffee Apple' seemed a like a good idea. 

'Is this Tony's contribution?' someone asked. 'Yes, but Lynne made it,' he said. 'It's apple puree, whipped cream, and a crunchy toffee topping,' I said.

'Oh, so basically sugar, sugar and sugar then?' came the reply. 

Sarcasm and injustice (it's NOT [foot-stampthree layers of sugar!) although Tony said later that he didn't think it was meant as a criticism. As a writer I've (mostly) managed to separate myself, as writer, from my writing. You have to, in order to participate objectively in critical workshops. But it seems that the cook in me is still clutching her desserts to her like first born babies! 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a scathing account of someone or something. 
Vent your spleen. And your liver and kidneys. 

The ego, being full of self-righteous air, is easily deflated. And re-inflates without too much of a problem. But I've also been trying to remember occasions when I might have been insensitive, or unintentionally mean, about other people's culinary efforts. Maybe there are people out there who will remind me. 

But the experience and the process of reflection have made up my mind that I will never refuse anything when I'm a guest in future. I'll take a small slice of the meat I'm not that fond of, or a spoonful of any uninspiring vegetables, and just a little portion of that bizarre looking dessert. I've decided it's just good manners to say 'yes' to every effort someone has gone to. 

Truth or lie? Sometimes you don't have to choose either.

26 February 2015

My Granny's tarts, Michael Sheen, what a poet said, and other stories

Granny's oil lamp c.1930
Story 1
My Granny James lived in a house with no gas or electricity. The cottage was lit by oil-lamps. 'How did she cook?' I asked my mother when I was home in Wales last week. 'On a hotplate in front of the open coal fire, in saucepans,' she said. 'But we had an oil-fired oven too though I can't remember how it worked. But I do remember her baking Maids of Honour.'

Now I remember my mother's Maids of Honour from when I was a kid: a shortcrust pastry case filled with a dollop of jam, sponge mixture poured on top and baked. They were golden domes with sweet hearts and a perfect marriage of textures.

Story 2
Last night I watched Michael Sheen's 'Valleys Rebellion' (BBC 2 Wales) on iPlayer which juxtaposes the 19th century account of South Wales Chartists and the Newport Rising, 19 of whom were killed in a single day in their fight to gain the vote with the apparent political disillusionment in Wales today. But it's not the presence of apathy, Sheen comes to recognise, that keeps so many people in the Valleys from voting these days, but the absence of hope in a landscape of post-industrial bleakness, unemployment and poverty. The absence of hope? How can that be happening in a first world country in the 21st century? Something is terribly broken.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about what you think is broken.

What a poet said
In his long poem, 'Advice to a Young Poet'* the late Welsh poet and politically engaged writer and editor, Nigel Jenkins speaks of the importance of knowing where we come from, where we live:

Know your place. What legends and myths
have had their shaping here?
What stories, novels, histories?
And who have been denied a voice?

The Chartist movement was born from voicelessness: an increasingly frustrated working class who had no right to vote, no say in their harsh working and living conditions within a feudal system run by industrial capitalists. Their petition to parliament in 1839 asking for the vote for all men over 21 and a fairer electoral system, for annual elections, the payment of MPs, and the introduction of a secret ballot sounds eminently reasonable today but the petition was rejected by 235 votes to 46. In November 1839 around 5,000 men from the valleys marched on Newport. Did they imagine the violence ahead of them? The death and transportation of friends? Would they have gone if they'd known their militant action would not achieve any political end in itself? 

Other stories 
Nigel Jenkins at Tre'r Caeri on the
Lleyn peninsula, North Wales, 2012
If it hadn't been for Nigel Jenkins' encouragement I doubt I would have written Real Port Talbot. He believed in my ability to tell the town's stories before I knew I could. Getting to know the town, to quote Nigel again, 'its rocks, its soils', 'maps and histories', and 'those who filled their lungs here' changed me as a person and a writer. I discovered that the stories that prop up our past make us who we are. The history of our family, our community, our country and its people make us so much more than one person walking through life alone. And writing that book has inspired me to write another that will tell the stories of the lives and times of my great and greater grandmothers from Carmarthenshire, women who lived between 1750 and 1950, who saw Wales change before their eyes but had very little, if any, voice in those changes, or even in their own lives. 

Can hope start there? With feeling richer for knowing the stories of our past? It's probably too simplistic, after all, food feeds people, not stories, and Sheen's visit to the Rhymney food-bank illustrates the need for the most basic of practical help in some of the communities he visited. 

But on another visit he met with the United Valleys Action Group, people from the Rhymney Valley who have come together with a single voice to fight for their community through democratic channels. This is the manifestation of hope. And belief too. 

We all have to act. Inform ourselves. Take part in something bigger than ourselves. Our past maybe. Or our future.