Welcome to the archive of my hungry writer blog, joyfully written and delightfully published between the Autumn of 2010 and Spring 2017.
A beautiful simmered reduction of the first five years of the blog was published in October 2015 by indie Kent publisher, Cultured Llama. It will transport you from France to Wales and back to Kent, tempt you with lovely colour photographs and personal recipes, and encourage both apprentice and practising 'hungry writers' to maintain or begin a daily writing habit and explore your lives, memories and imaginations with 365 writing prompts. You'll also find workshop guidelines at the back of the book for writers who choose to use the writing prompts in a more structured environment.
I hope you enjoy this archive (just follow the link below to 'older posts'), and the book should you choose to buy it, as much as I enjoyed writing every single post.
I'll be writing the occasional review or reflection, under the obviously named 'Reviews & Reflections' tab above. And if you'd like to talk to me about leading a writing workshop for you, school visits in Kent and South Wales, or talking to your community group about writing, life and telling stories please take a look at the Workshops & Talks tab, also above, and get in touch here.
Eat well, live well.
|Available from Cultured Llama HERE|
My childhood biscuits were mainly plain but had lovely names: Marie, Nice, Rich Tea. Quiet biscuits. The kind of biscuits that would never interrupt a conversation. Polite, not pushy. At the other end of the spectrum, and only irregularly present, probably a result of practical economics, were cheeky Jammy Dodgers, irritable Garibaldis, and self-contented and reliable Bourbons. And even more irregularly, the flashy inhabitants of a Christmas Box of Biscuits: Pink Wafers. I ate them at the same time as not liking them very much, a bit like Miss World Contestants in sparkly dresses, too much eye make-up and a saccharine idea of world peace.
I'm in the mood to think, and personify, 'biscuits' because the lovely team at Oreo sent me some samples of their new Oreo Thins. I hadn't heard of Oreos until the early 1990s when a friend asked if I would bring him back a packet from a Florida holiday. I forgot and pretended I couldn't find them. 'But they're everywhere in America,' he said, both astonished and suspicious. Which of course they were. Because the Oreo is a 'mythic biscuit', or at least that's the impression I have from reading their Wiki entry and talking to my American friend, poet and writer, Patricia Debney.
'Yes, Oreos definitely have an iconic place in US food culture. To the point where I'm thinking 'thins'? Oreo THINS?' she said when I asked her about them. Because the whole point of Oreos is, apparently, the filling. And millions upon millions of American children, across a century, have gently eased off the top layer of biscuit, ate it, then scraped off the sugary white filling with their teeth, until not a smear of said filling remained, and then ate the second biscuit disc. Patricia, who's now in her fifties, told me, 'I'm not sure I have EVER eaten an Oreo whole.'
Nabisco, the manufacturers of Oreos, capitalised on the filling's attraction in 1974 and marketed the 'Double Stuff Oreo' with twice the amount of cream filling which, if you were careful, you could pop away from both biscuit sides and eat on its own.
And then there were THINS.
I haven't shared a THIN with Patricia: I do not want to be the person to shatter the Oreo passion of her childhood and youth. And as I haven't ever before eaten a standard or super-size Oreo I can, perhaps, be more objective about their 'lighter' siblings. The Oreo Team describe them as the 'playfully, sophisticated addition' to the Oreo range, 'thinner, crispier and guaranteed to tantalise your taste buds and awaken your imagination!' That's a lot to ask of a biscuit but then Marcel Proust, in Swann's Way, the first volume of his seven volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past, showed the world how a madeleine, a simple sweet cake, was capable of conjuring involuntary memories:
And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine ... immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents ...; and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.
But back to the THINS. And tradition. Following Patricia's instructions, I gently flipped off the top layer of biscuit and ate it. Then I scraped off the creamy filling, but a little too enthusiastically. The bottom disc snapped like a crisp. But the 5th biscuit held up ... And maybe that's the appeal (or one of them) of THINS - you can eat so many more of them!
And how do they compare with my own childhood biscuit memories? I'd classify them as cousins to the lovely Bourbon. Sophisticated city cousins. The ones that turn up in the countryside in silk gloves and high-heeled shoes but we still love them for their brightness; they're so much fun to be around. We serve them sherry (now there's an idea...) and listen, wide-eyed, to the stories they have to tell.
I am running through the wondrous silence of history
past standing stones, invisible tombs, the route Chaucer's pilgrims took across the North Downs, the stone cold dead in churchyards, listening to the sound my feet make on lanes, on mud and stone, sharing my breath, the thump of my heartbeats, with sheep, the sky, the fields. Sometimes I wonder how I got here, what propelled me forward to this moment when the snags of fleece along a wire fence shine with glory, when another the bend in the road ahead is an inspiration not a defeat. And I think of the words, 'yes', and, 'you can', and the centuries of women before me who said them out loud, or quietly to themselves, believing that something could change and making it happen for themselves, their families, communities and for the world. And here I am, each step, each clear thought changing almost nothing, which is still something, and feeling better for it.
An online recipe for apple liqueur, back in October, asked for four pounds of apples to be soaked in sugar (halve the quantity of sugar if your apples are very sweet) and a bottle of brandy for two weeks. After straining and bottling the liquid - which doubles in quantity, by the way, so make sure you have two bottles handy - this is what remained: sweet, brandy softened apple slices that were far too delicious to throw away. So I froze them. Or, at least, I put them in the freezer, overlooking the scientific fact that alcohol doesn't freeze. But yesterday, two months later, despite having failed the total cryogenic test, they tasted fine to me so I let them sit overnight in the kitchen to relinquish their semi-frozen state, and created the following dessert. Although, given its simplicity, assembled would be a more accurate term.
Top that custardy layer with apple slices - tee-totalling slices would be fine, I'm sure, in the absence of drunken ones - and fold the edges of the pastry up and over. That's it.
It takes about 30 to 40 mins to cook at around 190C.
As usual, in my excitement to serve dessert I only remembered to take a photo of the golden Drunken Puff after four of us had demolished over half of it. I'd also been planning to dust some icing sugar over the top too for prettiness. Oh well, next time ...
Drunken Puff seemed a suitable name for it - those apples pack a significant brandied punch. But I couldn't help but think it was an equally appropriate description for the presidential inauguration in the US last Friday, for a man puffed up and drunk with his own self-importance.
'Give him a chance,' people have said to me on social media. And I'd really like to, if there was anything I could base that trust on, if there was anything he'd said throughout the whole of his campaign, right up to Friday's inauguration, that I admired or felt hopeful about. Perhaps his often ridiculous contradictions and lies will stop now that he's in office. Perhaps he won't feel the need to defend himself against the slightest of criticisms and will review his language to avoid being misogynistic, racist and bigoted. Perhaps he will temper his bouts of self-aggrandising although his first meeting, as president, with the CIA would suggest that experience is already trumping hope: read this report in The New Yorker.
I will not dedicate this dessert to him, not even in jest. But every time I make it I will think of #WomensMarch: the millions of women worldwide who marched in protest last weekend against the new president's flagrant disregard for truth and his incitement to hate, against his comments and policy positions over immigration, Muslims, the disabled and the environment, to name a few.
My friend, Rachel Scherrer, was one of the women who marched through Washington DC. 'RESIST' her banner says. Something we should all feel obliged to do when we confront inequality, the mocking or dismissal of the vulnerable, the abuse of power. Everyone of us is capable of standing up for what's good in the world, for fairness, responsibility and kindness. Small acts. Big acts. They all count. One thing leads to another. Rachel and millions of women cannot be wrong.
|Rachel Scherrer at Women's March 2017, Washington DC|
Photo © Jim Scherrer, reproduced with permission
This was at the end of November 2014:
30 day challenge complete: after a programme of walking/jogging/gasping on the treadmill for 30 minutes, every day for the last 30 days, this morning I managed to run 4.8km/3 miles... but in 33 mins not the 'promised' 30. If I'd thought about the maths at the beginning of the 30 days I'd have set speed goals. But never mind, I'm fitter! Now to keep it going and reach a 6.5 mile goal (no time goal though) in the next 6 months
I did. And I kept on running throughout 2015, taking part in three officially timed races, two 10km and one 5km, the 7.5 mile Beast of Bryn mountainous challenge in South Wales, and the Maidstone Harriers Turkey Run. The inspirations for the latter were the prize of a Christmas Pudding, hot chocolate and all the mince pies you could eat at the end, and bacon baps and mulled wine at the home of Leah Ripley, fellow runner and member of Meopham & Malling Ladies Joggers. The Hungry Writer morphed into The Hungry Running Writer.
In 2016 I set myself a different goal: MapMyRun's 'You V the Year' challenge to run 1000km by the end of December. I managed 1,065 by the end of the year. 2017's goal is to run two half marathons because then I can at least say I've run a marathon, if not A marathon!
All this, of course, is nowhere near Eddie Izzard territory. And there are ordinary people out there who've also taken up running later in life and achieved more distance, better fitness and greater rewards for their charities. And I am inspired by them and admire their achievements. But I am also proud of myself. We should all be proud of ourselves when we set our minds to something and see it through, despite setbacks and doubts, and feel that our own lives, and maybe, in some small way, the bigger world, are better for it. So take a bow, accept the applause, wave to the crowd, any of you who've done just that. You are great.
Running isn't something we learn during childhood. We just do it. Some of us carry on running. I didn't. Apart from around secondary school badminton courts, the 2.5 miles downhill from the Baglan Social Club disco on Saturday nights, desperate to meet my midnight curfew, and the occasional game of squash and tennis in my twenties and thirties after I left home. So it's been a learning curve. And here are some of my insights into accelerated forward movement!
1. Old muscles are more hard rubber than stretchy elastic. The temporary injuries I've sustained over the last couple of years have mostly been down to not stretching enough after a run. And there are muscles in my butt I had no idea were there! Muscles that sitting on a tennis ball can reach that nothing else will. So stretch warmed up muscles. More than you think you need to. And more again. Invest in a foam roller too for glutes and quads. But be prepared to yell the first time you use it!
|My kicks: Asics Gel Kayanos 22|
2. Shoes and clothes: no, you can't just slip on any pair of daps and be okay. You need good running shoes. And they should be really comfy from the moment you put them on in the shop and have a practice run on the treadmill. If they don't feel great immediately try another pair: any talk of 'breaking them in' is junk. And if there's no treadmill in your shop, go elsewhere. Clothes, too, have to be comfy from the get-go. And girls: always buy running tights with a gusset. You really don't want to be tugging a seam out of your noonie in front of race spectators, or in front of anyone.
3. Experts can help you with fitness and training. Absolutely. But there are people out there whose self-proclaimed expertise may be doubtful. I took advice about changing my supportive running shoes to neutral ones and badly strained my achilles tendons. Turned out he wasn't a qualified physio at all. Check professional registers for all therapists and the qualifications of all personal trainers.
4. Serious runners. I turned up alone for my first 10km race in a running skort (complete with gusset!) and t-shirt with my car-key and a tissue in my pocket and the first people I bumped into were a group of women wearing identical running club strip, their knees clad in elastic supports, running belts around their waist holding energy gels and carrying water bottles. I felt worryingly ill-prepared but I needn't have. You shouldn't need gels or water for anything under 8 miles, unless it's a scorching summer day, but I guess we're all different. Create your own 'seriousness' which doesn't have to be 'solemn'.
5. Motivation. I still get mornings when I really don't feel like getting out there. Belonging to a running group gets me over that hump: company = encouragement. And on days when I'm planning to run alone I replace lack of motivation with music. Jack Savoretti's 'Written in Scars, Pharrell Williams' 'Happy', or Heather Small's 'Proud', and a bunch of other lovelies on my headphones click me out of negativity and into a positive frame of mind.
6. Getting better. It's impossible to measure our improvement over weeks, or even over the first few months. We get good and bad running days too, days when every step feels like a gargantuan effort and we're wheezing on a small hill that just wasn't this difficult last week, was it? But we are improving with every run we make; it's just that small gains are almost impossible to identify. And our minds seem to wallow in negative responses far more readily too. Sometimes we need to knock those critical voices off our shoulder and kick them into the side of the road. And then, run a route we struggled with this time last year and delight in the difference: we reach the top of the hill without stopping, or we run 4 miles and don't feel out of breath. Feel good. Feel proud.
7. Rewards are good. We deserve rewards for making an effort. Being fitter and healthier hasn't meant that I've stopped eating chocolate or ice-cream or Kettle Crisps. It does mean I can eat them without going all 'guilt-trip' about calories. But I've also noticed that I really do enjoy snacks that are better for me: so maybe there's a lot of truth in the healthy body/healthy mind maxim! One of my latest discoveries are these lemon, nut and coconut balls - and oh my days, they are good. And they look like those coconut Ferrero Rochers too! Enjoy.
And if you have a story about how you've changed your life in the last couple of years, not just through running or sport, but in any way, please let me know.
The Number 1 song in the UK on the day I was born, 3rd June 1958, was Who's Sorry Now by Connie Francis. In my desperation for something even slightly more celebratory I try the USA: Sheb Wooley's The Purple People Eater. Okay, one last shot, Canada: All I Have To Do Is Dream by the Everly Brothers, which also happens to be the Number 1 Country Song on that day. I'll take that.
I found myself on the This Day in Music website because of Paul Cuddihy, author of Read All About It: My Year Of Falling In Love With Literature, who proudly boasts Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks as his birth date song (some of us are luckier than others) during his year long account of reading his books rather than just buying them as literary insulation for his dining room wall.
Are writers more likely to do this than non-writers? I don't know - you tell me. I'm not as bad as I used to be: my move to France in 2006 forced me into a surgical cull rather than pay almost as much to move my books as it would cost to move the furniture I owned. I now read most novels on Kindle and no longer keep any paperbacks I buy. The same for a lot of memoir and autobiography. Although Hemingway's A Moveable Feast will live on my bookshelves as long as I breathe. Poetry and non fiction are trickier to let go of: you never know when you might need them.
Cuddihy's book is so enjoyable because I don't feel he's trying to educate me or philosophise about how certain books might change my life. He's reading for his own pleasure and purpose and is disarmingly open about not finishing a book he isn't enjoying and about his selections: Joanne Harris's Chocolat nestles (there's a very subtle joke in that verb...) up against The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. And the best thing about the book is I'm only halfway through and already inspired to begin my own reading project. Isn't that what we all want good books to do? Affect us in some way: how we feel, how we think, how we act, however small?
Following the aforementioned cull, and having to leave a few dozen metres of shelving in the French house, my books (almost) fit into the new shelf unit I bought when I came back in 2011. They are mostly books about writing, memoir, food and a non-fiction smattering of philosophy and history. And poetry. A lot of poetry, many of which I've only glanced through.
I started my writing life as a poet and although my first book was a novel I always thought of myself as an accidental novelist and much more of a poet. In the last four years I've published two books of prose and hardly written any poetry. And the poetry books are gathering dust. Not just literally, as the whole of my house does, but metaphorically: poetry has become something I used to read.
So my reading project will be to reacquaint myself with poetry, reading some every day. It doesn't sound that difficult does it but poetry asks us to pay attention in a different way than a short story or novel does. It asks for a mind of concentration yet at the same time a mind that's open to the power of language, of its capacity for suggestiveness and layering of meaning. It asks us to slow down, to be still. I have lost that art and I'd like to rediscover it.
So I've just walked over to the shelf and taken out one poetry book that caught my eye: Velocities by American poet, Stephen Dobyns. I remember using a couple of his poems when I used to teach poetry at the University of Kent. I remember being moved to thought and feeling by them. So it's a good place to start.
By coincidence I put the book down on my desk next to a slate coaster my sister bought me. It reads, 'To be born Welsh is to be born privileged, not with a silver spoon in your mouth, but music in your blood and poetry in your soul.'
I'm settling for 'poetry in my hand' for now.