29 Dec 2010

Comfort: Salmon and Spinach Risotto

Tony’s mother died unexpectedly in April 1998. She shouldn’t have. She was fit and healthy. She told us she didn’t want to ‘bother anyone’ when she started having breathing difficulties after she somehow ruptured her oesophagus. Within two weeks the infection in her lung developed into toxaemia and she died.

Two years earlier she had a hip replacement and stayed with us for a month to recuperate. During that time she went from sleeping upright in an armchair the week she came out of hospital to riding a bike for the first time in 60 years a few days before she went home.

Tony used to set her fitness goals, hiding lottery scratch cards in the hedge a little further along the lane each day. I tried to increase the appetite she’d lost through so much pain prior to the operation, making the small and soft food I knew she liked: crust-less sandwiches, cod in parsley sauce. She used to say ‘thank you’ to me a dozen times a day.

Lilian at 17
Lilian Lavinia Crosse was born in 1920 and married in 1938. She had two sons before the end of the war then, 20 years later, when she was in her late 40s, a rather unexpected daughter. Tony remembers his dad, Jack, calling him at work in a wild panic.
‘Son, it’s your mother, your mother…’
‘What Dad, what is it?’
‘She’s pregnant, son, and it can’t be mine. I’ve only touched your mother once this year.’
‘That’ll do it, Dad,’ Tony said.

I’d only known Tony a year when Jack died in 1986.
‘When was your brother born?’ I asked. We were getting all the official documentation together, birth certificate, marriage certificate, to take to the Registrar.
‘Um… February 1939.’
‘Your parents were only married in November 1938.’
‘The sneaky bugger!’ Tony started to laugh. ‘And he gave me and Baz such a hard time when we had to get married!’
I was amazed he hadn’t worked it out before. His sister had. I had. I guess girls are like that.

Jack’s funeral was a standard crematorium service. Tony chose two pieces of music but apart from that we went along with everything the funeral director suggested. When Lil died twelve years later we wondered if we could do things differently. A copy of The Dead Good Funerals Book told us we could.

We ordered a ready assembled cardboard coffin from Compakta Ltd and Tony painted Lil’s portrait at one end and a portrait of his dad at the other. On the sides he painted poppies and butterflies. The lovely, family funeral directors in West Malling, Viners & Sons, collected it from our house the day before the funeral, went to the hospital to pick up Lil’s body and then drove directly to the crematorium.

22 Dec 2010

Writing Alone, Eating Alone: Magret de Canard & Scary Spice Tomatoes

Brisons Veor, Cape Cornwall
Writing Retreat 1998
It takes time for me to adapt to being alone to write.

The first few days are full of the novelty of only answering to myself, eating what, when and where I like, writing until the early hours of the morning if I want to, or staying in bed to read until midday. I like the kernel of stillness I feel growing inside me, not really talking to anyone, except in passing if I need to get some shopping, and noticing how my mind leafs through its ideas at a much slower pace.

It’s around the sixth day that the novelty starts to fade. The house or cottage feels too big or too empty. There are strange and unfriendly noises in the floors and heating pipes. I tend to be neurotically chatty with strangers, the post-man or the woman on the supermarket checkout, desperate to get away from the silence I’ve imposed upon myself. The stillness I previously welcomed feels hollow, like hunger. I’m agitated by the long days and nights. Aloneness becomes loneliness.

I’ve done a number of solitary writing retreats so I’m used to this emotional pattern and can usually push through those few days when I feel like packing up and going home. But a retreat at Almassera Vella at Relleu, near Alicante in Spain, in November 2004 nearly got the better of me. It took me much longer than usual to settle into my routine and I almost burst into tears when I walked into the village supermarket on one of these interim days:

How Are You?

After twelve anonymous days
I walk into the supermercado and someone says

my name and my heart
ignites with something that feels like heat, light.

No matter that rain is pushing its cold smoke
down the mountains,

that I can smell it coming,
the damp evening air sticking to my skin.

What more is there? My place in the world
confirmed, still hearing it in the street –

Lynne. Que tal? Like a blessing. And I am fine.
I am so fine.

(Prizewinner in the Poetry on the Lake festival at Lake Orta, Italy 2005)

But usually, by the eighth or ninth day, I settle. Hollowness and loneliness give way to stillness and aloneness again. I no longer feel threatened by the time that surrounds me. I stop measuring days and nights by the clock and respond to hunger and thirst instead, the need to rest, read or walk. And then

15 Dec 2010

Food & Friends Part 1: Jersey Exotic

‘Do you fancy a coffee?’ I say to the new girl with the big brown eyes when she opens the door of the bed-sit opposite mine. I’ve seen her a couple of times at work and there’s something both intimidating and inviting about her: the way she looks at you and holds your gaze without blinking, the same way some babies do. This morning we said ‘hi’ when we met outside the laundry room on the ground floor of Langham House. I think she could be my friend.

She looks straight at me. ‘I’m pregnant,’ she says. The rims of her eyes are about to overflow with tears.
No-one has ever been so suddenly and bluntly open with me before, and about something so personal too. And it feels like a gift, something precious I've been given.  I don’t even remember thinking about what I will say next.
‘Do you need to borrow some money?’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘and I’ll pay you back at the end of the month, I promise.’
And she does.

After an introduction like that perhaps it’s not surprising that Alison always seemed rather exotic to me: a little dangerous, unpredictable. South Wales and Romford were hardly universes apart, and we were almost the same age, but she seemed to be so much surer of herself than I was, as if she’d already decided to live life according to her own rules regardless of what anyone else was doing or what they said.

She always made up her eyes with the same dark smoky shadow and kohl. She bought a double duvet for her single bed so there was more to wrap around her and it never slipped off. If she woke up with a hangover she’d take a bottle of tonic water spiked with vodka into work to delay the full whack of it until the end of the day. And she changed all of her underwear everyday. Not just her knickers, but her bra too, which at the time struck me as particularly extravagant!

We decided to cook our first meal together on the day she moved across the hall to share my bed-sit: chicken portions baked in Homepride Red Wine Cook-in Sauce with roast potatoes.
‘But how can we make roast potatoes?’ I wanted to know.  At home in Wales, roast potatoes came with a roast dinner. If we weren’t roasting a joint of meat or a chicken where would we get the fat to cook the potatoes?
‘With cooking oil,’ she said, ‘in a pan, in the oven,’ as if I had landed from another universe.

21st Birthday Menu, 3rd June 1979
We both worked for the Midland Bank Trust Corporation in Jersey. I'd arrived in April 1978, Alison at the beginning of 1979, the year of my 21st birthday. I had a party at the Bistro Borsalino in St. Helier with a menu that included Moules Marinieres, Coquille St. Jacques and grilled lobster, a menu I couldn’t have dreamt of a year earlier, but fourteen months later, on an island with so many good restaurants bursting with French cuisine, it had become pretty standard fare to me.
Birthday Party

At the edge of one photograph, taken at the table, there’s a glimpse of Alison’s mother. I’d forgotten her parents were visiting that week and I’d invited them to my party, although they didn’t come back to our bed-sit later that night where the party continued at length in an expectedly drunken fashion. 

What I do remember is her mother pushing open the door the next morning to find Alison lying on her back on her single bed, wrapped in her double quilt, with her feet propped up against the wall, singing the opening lines to Jerusalem over and over again: And did those feet in ancient time…

The next time I saw Alison’s mother was even more memorable for all the wrong reasons. She came to collect Alison who’d spent three months as a voluntary patient in the mental health wing at Jersey Hospital.

Why didn’t I see it coming? Perhaps I did and chose to ignore it. After all I was 22 and totally absorbed in my own romantic escapades. We’d already started to spend less time together because of boyfriends, and then she had another abortion and not long after that she split up with the man she'd been seeing for over a year. She was also getting into trouble at the bank because of an 'attitude' and for taking too much time off sick. When she was threatened with dismissal, she resigned and moved out of the subsidised bank accommodation. I remember feeling impatient towards her because everyone else seemed to be in the wrong; she was always the victim. But I still wasn’t prepared for her call one Sunday morning to come and pick her up at A&E because they wouldn’t let her leave unaccompanied. The duty nurse told me she'd arrived the night before saying she'd overdosed on painkillers but when they pumped her stomach there was nothing there. A week later she committed herself to the mental health ward and agreed to a course of electric shock therapy.

Sometimes we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, so how can we be sure of what’s best for other people? How can we really know what anyone else’s distress feels like, how deep it goes, what they might need to avoid it, erase it, or deal with it? Maybe this is what Alison needed to do but I hated visiting her after a treatment and seeing her in a near vegetative state. And I remember feeling anger and confusion towards her parents who only flew over at the end of the three months to take her home. I knew for certain that my parents would have been on the first flight over if it had been me. But my relationship with Alison was not their relationship. And perhaps they harboured an equal amount of anger towards me. Surely a friend could have prevented her disintegration, or should have recognised the signs and warned them, or someone, before things got so bad? Although I can't help thinking they were embarassed by her too, their 'crazy' daughter. And it probably wasn't an unusual reaction at that time. Her father stayed in the car when they came to pick up her belongings. It was a withdrawn Alison who rang the bell while her mother avoided looking at me from the other side of the road.

The Old Court House
St Aubin, Jersey
But this story doesn’t end badly. A year or so later, she was back to full health and working for the Midland Bank in London. I stayed with her at her parents’ house in Romford for a weekend and we partied at Covent Garden and Stringfellows. We went to Lanzarote together one Christmas, to Marbella the following summer. She came back to Jersey for holidays. And it was down to Alison, and a dancer friend of hers, that I ended up meeting Tony on a blind date in 1985 at the Old Court House in St. Aubin. And it was Alison who I called 20 days later, before anyone else, from Tony’s house in Kent to tell her we were engaged.

‘I knew something like that would happen,’ she said, and then she burst into tears.

She subsequently met and married a policeman, had two kids, who must be in their late teens and twenties now. We sent Christmas cards for a few years and then we lost touch.

Can friends last a lifetime? They seem to for a lot of people, but mine tend to be compartmentalised into certain sections of my life. But that doesn’t make them any less precious, or present.


Pommes Dauphinoise or Potato Gratin

Alison and I once cooked a whole meal from Robert Carrier recipes in the weekly magazines I collected at the end of the 1970s – starter, main course and dessert – after which she complained that she’d never sieved so many things in the course of one day. Carrier wasn’t user friendly, or at least not user friendly enough for two girls in a bed-sit preparing everything on a counter-top Baby Belling Cooker with two rings. The Pommes Dauphinoise were one of the easier dishes we cooked, and the one that was appreciated most by the two guys we were cooking for.
‘Are there any more of these?’ one of them asked.
But there weren’t. I’d followed the recipe to the exact ounce of potato and they cooked down to half their original size. These days I know better than to trust a recipe when it says ‘enough for 4’, particularly if you’re cooking for potato freaks like me or hungry men.

In my version of the Carrier recipe I slice the potatoes very finely and soak them for 30 minutes or an hour to eliminate the starch then rinse and dry them completely between kitchen paper. They can’t be dry enough, but don’t do this until you’re ready to use them or they’ll go brown.

I then layer them in a dish with a light scattering of very finely chopped onion, salt and freshly ground pepper between each layer, finishing with a layer of potato. In the UK I use Elmlea Whipping Cream (part dairy, part vegetable oil) and pour it over until the cream is just visible under the potato layers, then I sprinkle grated gruyere cheese over everything and more ground pepper. Here in France I use the equivalent of single pouring cream.

Don’t use too deep a dish or they’ll take forever to cook. A big shallow dish that’ll take 3 layers is a good idea. Cook for about 90 minutes in a medium oven until soft and bubbling and golden on top. Cover the top with foil if it gets too brown.

But… while in Wales recently I found this recipe in the Western Mail:



I am yet to try it but I like the idea of simmering the sliced potatoes in the cream infused with garlic and thyme. However, as you might expect, I’m not convinced by ‘serves 4’ and I’d put the dish in a hot oven for 30 minutes, or more, instead of using the grill to make sure the potatoes are cooked right through and the cream has been thoroughly enough absorbed.

(p.s. the bit missing from the middle of the recipe where the paper tore awkwardly? It’s: until the potatoes are soft but still have a little bite.)

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write a list of things that feel exotic to you.
  • Write about a telephone call that surprises or shocks.
  • Write about feeling angry.

8 Dec 2010

Home to Home: Green Beans and Pancakes

The last thing my Dad says to me before I leave for the station is, ‘The house comes alive when you’re home.’ And then I’m in the car, driving away in the rain, watching my parents waving from the porch window.

I cannot think of my dad without thinking of his garden which he has brought to life every year for nearly 50 years with potatoes, beans, carrots, beetroot, onions, cabbage. I see him digging, planting, thinning out, and later bending over a row of plump onions, twisting down their tops to allow the bulbs to dry. The coalbunker in the garden was demolished over 40 years ago but when I picture it I smell onions, strung into plaits and hung in the cool dark amongst his forks, and hoes and spades.

As a child I pushed between the long rows of beans with a colander and instructions: leave the small and don’t miss the big. The coarse underside of the leaves grazed my bare shoulders; sun dribbled through the overlaps. I could smell hot, uncooked bean. Later, in the kitchen, he topped and tailed them, sliced away their woody spines. ‘Just a plate of these’ll do me,’ he used to say, ‘with some butter and a drop of pepper.’


9.25 from Port Talbot to Gatwick Airport
Cappuccino, Mineral Water, Apple, Lightly Salted Crisps, Belgian Chocolate Cookies

Snow along the tracks as the train passes through Bridgend, Cardiff, Newport. I remember the winter of 1962/63, the winter Sylvia Plath died in London, the one people still talk about along with 1947, and now, perhaps, 2010 with its airport closures and blocked motorways. I remember staring out of the front-room window at the snow lying thickly along Chrome Avenue, hiding all the pavements and gardens, and continuing to fall, in big, slow flakes. I am 4 years old, wearing a white tartan skirt, standing on the sofa, my fingertips pressing into the claret-coloured Rexine. But if this is a true memory why do I see myself from behind? Why don’t I see only the street, the view through the window? How much of my past is invented, a patchwork of memory and imagination?

15.45 Seafood Bar, South Terminal Departure Lounge, Gatwick Airport
Pink Champagne, Foie Gras and Crayfish Salad with Green Beans and Cherry Tomatoes, Wholemeal Bread
Tony asked me to marry him on a flight from Heathrow to Miami. He stood up in front of our bulkhead seats and said, ‘Blods, will you dance with me?’ There’s not a lot of room in a bulkhead so it was more swaying back and forth on the same spot than dancing. And then he asked. And I said yes.

We didn’t want to get married. In fact, ever since we first spoke about it, I couldn’t stop thinking about stories of people who’d lived quite happily together for twenty years, as we had, before suddenly deciding to get married, and then split up within a year. But we needed to get married to buy the house in Antibes. French inheritance laws are complex and unavoidable and inheritance taxation between ‘unrelated’ people is cripplingly high. So we really did get married for the money!

And because it was a purely administrative choice for us we didn’t want to mark the day in any way. We didn’t want to suggest to anyone, and particularly to ourselves, that things would be different from now on. So getting married in Florida while we were there on holiday, with no friends or family present, and with no excuses or explanations to make to anyone, seemed the easiest and most ‘un-remarkable’ thing to do.

But you have photographs? people ask. No, sorry. We didn’t do that either. But we did laugh in Deerfield Beach Town Hall with a Public Notary who looked like Whoopi Goldberg and who repeated, ‘You guys!’ each time she asked about friends, witnesses, cameras, flowers etc. After 30 minutes and a bill for $135 we went back to the little bungalow we'd rented on Hillsboro Beach, had pancakes for brunch and then went for a swim.

That was three years ago. Now here he is, waiting for me on the other side of the Plexi-glass security screen when I come through Passport Control at Nice. He jumps up and down and waves with both hands, mouthing hellooooo, oblivious to people standing around him. If he asked me to dance now, even with the screen between us, I’d say yes.

Haricots Verts with Garlic Butter Glaze

The beans I remember picking in my dad’s garden were runner beans, the ones with the red bean hearts inside the green pod, or at least they were red until you cooked them and then they lost their colour. He grew dwarf beans too but they weren’t as dramatic as the runners. They (obviously, by virtue of their name) didn’t grow as tall. I couldn’t lose myself in a tunnel of scratchy leaves and sunlight. Picking them was more chore than adventure. So this recipe is my apology to dwarf beans, or Haricots Verts: you have my complete attention now.

Snip the tops off the beans, and the curly tails too if you don’t like them. Apparently the French don’t. Steam, or drop them into lightly salted boiling water and simmer, until cooked but still have a bite to them. You don’t want mushy beans.

Melt a knob of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep pan and add some finely chopped garlic. Swish it around over a medium to low heat for about a minute until it’s cooked. You don’t want burnt garlic. Switch off if the beans aren’t ready.

Drain the beans and toss them in the hot garlic mix over a medium to low heat until they are glistening and steamy.

Serve them with anything. Or eat them on their own. Or add finely sliced salami or chorizo and top with shavings of parmesan for something fatter and more filling.


Apple Pancakes with Cinnamon Honey Cream Cheese

Actually the apples are optional because they sound better than they end up tasting. Or maybe I haven’t found the right apple here in France. I’d imagine that a fresh Cox, or something crisply similar, would be the best because anything that’s too sweet or too juicy is indiscernible in the final pancake. I’ve tried Braeburn, Gala, Jazz, Pink Lady, Fuji, and some anonymous red and green ones that were just labelled ‘French’ and only occasionally detected a burst of appleyness. But I still use them because if you flip them over quickly when the batter is still a bit wet on top the bits of apple splash towards the outer edges and create a crisp fringe. Now, if I haven’t put you off, this is how I make them.

1 small cup of flour
1 small cup of milk
1 medium egg

Mix together, add a pinch of salt, and 1 small grated apple, peel and flesh.

(I’m sure you realise that if you decide to use a large cup then you follow that pattern.)

Melt a knob of butter in a large frying pan and when it starts to sizzle add enough batter to make one big pancake, or two or three individual dollops to make two or three smaller ones.

Wait until the tops of the pancakes start to develop little holes as that means they should be cooked and golden underneath. Flip over for another minute or so.

Now, about the cream cheese. You can use Light, or Low Fat, but it doesn’t taste the same. I’d rather use the Full Fat and have big taste, small portion. Who am I kidding? Big taste, big portion. Add runny honey and ground cinnamon to taste; mix well and serve on the side of the pancakes.

Sprinkle with icing sugar if you’re allowed.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about leaving home.
  • Write about a garden.
  • Write about someone who has waited for you.

28 Nov 2010

Making Sandwiches


For a couple of weeks in the autumn of 1976 I lived on grated cheese and sliced tomato sandwiches. It was the only food I could bear to eat during the initial stages of an illness that would eventually be diagnosed as Glandular Fever. Each day, sometimes twice a day, my mother brought them upstairs to me with a cup of hot chocolate.

My memory of that time is muted, slow. The sandwiches are almost weightless as I lift them from the plate, as I chew and swallow, in contrast with the weight of my body that can only surrender to hour after hour, day after day, of dreamless sleep. Sometimes I opened my eyes and saw them on the bedside table: triangles of soft, white sliced bread holding an airy pillow of cheese and thinly sliced tomato.

How many times did she come in while I slept, not wanting to wake me, and deciding in the end to make them and leave them within reach? She must have been worried during those first weeks when the doctor could not say what was wrong with me. How does a mother feel when the only thing she can do is watch and wait and make sandwiches?

Thirty-four years later, I am in the same house making sandwiches for her: Allinson’s sliced wholemeal filled with flakes of poached salmon mixed with mayonnaise and topped with thin slices of peeled cucumber. No pepper - pepper irritates her throat - and a shake of salt. I cut off the crusts, hesitate between triangles and fingers, and go for the fingers. I wrap them in cling film and slip them into the cool bag with a small Cox’s apple, an oatmeal bar and a paper napkin.

Food occupies us. We apply ourselves to its transformation. We stand over it, wait for it, sometimes even cry over it. It is sustenance, gift, apology. Even though we do not know for sure it will be eaten we still offer it. It contains our love, our hope.

1959 - age 1
It is my birthday tomorrow and this is the house where I was born. It was a sweltering June morning, my mother has told me, but the midwife still insisted on an electric heater in the bedroom and all the windows closed for the small, sickly baby she was convinced I would be, and who would prove her entirely wrong.

That my parents still live in the house where I was born has only become significant to me in recent years: when I come home to Wales I return to the place where I took my first breath. This idea, and how it has come to mean so much, is undoubtedly linked to my parents ageing, and getting older myself. Perhaps the closer we get to the end of our lives the more urgent it becomes to know who we are and where we came from.  This is where my story began.

When I arrive at the hospital, she is asleep, propped against her pillows. Her face is pale, her lemon nightdress loose on her 7 stone frame. I don’t want to disturb her; she needs to catch up on the rest she misses at night because the ward is so noisy. Should I wait or leave the cool bag within reach, where she will see it when she wakes?

sunset over the sea
I remember when my mother
ran faster than me *


Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about being ill.
  • Write about watching someone while they sleep.
  • Write about a transformation.
  • Write about the place where you were born.
  • Write about someone running.

* haiku first published in Blithe Spirit Vol 20, no 3

20 Nov 2010

Cooking Catalunya, Part 1: 42 – 44 Carrer Pi i Margall


'paperforces' - handmade paperwork, Tony Crosse, Barcelona 1995
 There’s a supermarket opposite, a bodega on the corner that will fill your empty bottles with the local vino negro, a wine darker and heavier than rojo, and a little further up the road, one of Barcelona’s covered markets for fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken, meat and fish, and a stand-up coffee bar where you can grab a café con leche or café cortado and throw your crumpled sugar packets on the floor.

The first time I buy a chicken there I come home with its sawn off feet in a little bag. The Catalans roast and eat them, perhaps a parallel to how the British roast and eat pork crackling, though a chicken’s claws strike me as a rather more challenging culinary experience. After that I always make a point of saying, No quiero las patas. No feet.

I nearly give up on the market after my third visit. Okay, my castellano (standard Spanish) is limited, my Catalan non-existent, but surely that doesn’t merit the loud, rapid-fire rebukes I get at nearly every stall? I tell Leonardo, our doorman, and he explains what I’m doing wrong. Or what I’m not doing.

The British shopping habit of silently clocking who’s there before you and who comes up after you, so you know when it’s your turn, doesn’t work here. If there are more than two women in front of you, you must ask, Quien es la ultima? Who’s the last one? And someone will reply, Soy la ultima, and then everyone knows the pecking order. Of course, you need to listen for the same question, and for the first couple of months of market shopping I’m so anxious that I won’t hear or understand the next person, or they won’t understand me, I spend most of the time holding my breath. I know what I mean when I say breathing techniques should be a fundamental part of language classes.

It’s Leonardo who gives me my first Spanish recipe. I want to cook something traditional, I say to him one evening, and the next day he hands me a scribbled list from his wife for Merluza en Salsa: lightly fried hake in a sauce made from onions, garlic, red pepper, tomate triturado (passata), white wine, saffron and cooked peas.

I set off to the market, deliver my now practiced, Quien es la ultima? at the fish stall and a tiny, old woman turns to me and says, Servidora. I hold my breath and hope no-one else comes along after me. Leonardo? Ah, si! He’d forgotten. That’s what some of the older people still say. It translates as ‘your faithful servant’ or ‘yours truly’; basically, ‘me’. Breathe.


 After Tony took the metro each morning, from Joanic in Gracia to Jaume 1 in the Barrio Gotico where Winchester School of Art had studios for their MA in European Fine Art, I shopped, cooked, read my Spanish grammar books and studied for the first year of my distance learning MA in Writing with the University of Glamorgan.

Gillian Clarke
I stopped reading novels, immersed myself in the previous 100 years of British and American poetry, did enormous amounts of free-writing and attempted to write and craft my own poems that I posted off in fat packets (this was the mid 1990s, the days before email) to Gillian Clarke, my tutor at Glamorgan.

For the most part I wrote terrible poems: the worst kind of feminist poems about menstruation and vengeful, bare-footed women, poems that were all imagery and no substance and full of unconscious habits of phrasing and odd punctuation which must have driven Gillian to distraction, despite evidence of her measured advice: ‘Is this something that could be more subtly put?’, and encouragement, ‘Good ending!’

 There were glimpses of craft, of pushing boundaries and experimentation: the form of a free-verse poem emerging in response to its subject matter, some strong poetic closures, a few prose poems at a time when the form was far less common than it is now. But it would be another ten years before I published my first collection.

During one of our tutorials, Gillian said, ‘Don’t be in too much of a rush to publish your first book.’ That’s easy for you to say, I thought, when you already have dozens of books to your name. But I understand now what she was trying to tell me and I'm pleased I continued to serve that apprenticeship after finishing the MA in 1996 – attending workshops, writing courses and readings, submitting to magazines – as challenging and unrewarding as it seemed at times – and that I didn’t self publish too early or find an undiscerning publisher. Learning How to Fall has its failings but I am still proud, five years later, of the overall level of craft the poems display.
There is a series of Barcelona poems at the back of the MA manuscript. Not one of them made it through to the collection because they’re not really poems, more postcards to myself. ‘I have never lived like this before,’ is the opening line and the following pages are full of vivid descriptions that transport me back to a year when I seemed to learn most of my Spanish from the backs of tins and packets, from recipes in the monthly issues of Cocina, and conversations with Leonardo in the foyer of our apartment building. At night we could see the lit spires of the Sagrada Família from our apartment on the 7th floor. We watched our neighbours dead-heading flowers on their balconies, listened to the clink and chatter of their late suppers. And here is a dish of patatas bravas at the Cafè de L‘Òpera on La Rambla, tapas and cava at La Xampanyeria on Reina Cristina. And, to finish, a thick slice of Brazo de Gitano, a sponge roll packed with rich yellow crema and named for the arm of a gypsy I’ve never met the likes of in my life.

 Merluza en Salsa
(Hake in a Sauce)

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about breathing, about holding your breath, about being short of breath, about the breath of life, about deep breaths, about a last breath.
  • Write about a time when someone helped you.
  • Write about strangeness.

14 Nov 2010

Spilt Milk and The Perfect Fried Egg

I have cried over it.

As a kid losing at Draughts, Dominoes, Monopoly. When I wasn’t picked for the Three-legged Race in my final year at Junior School despite winning it three years in a row. When Maxine McBride chose a new best friend. When Mr. Warlow, my Welsh teacher, said he was sorry but he’d somehow got it all wrong: I hadn’t qualified to recite Mae’r Abertawe yn yr haul on the Eisteddfod stage. An ‘O’ level pass in my ‘A’ level English Lit. And later, when I was overlooked for a job, a promotion, time off; when I didn’t make the shortlist, or get the award. When the funding for my first collection was unexpectedly withdrawn. That was a weekend’s worth.

We are leaving France. We are part of a statistic that says 50% of Brits who move to France return home within two years, well, three in our case. I arrived with plans to speak French fluently, to run creative writing courses on the Côte d’Azur, to live and work here for the next ten years, at least. I am trying not to use the word ‘fail’. After all, our house went from this:



and this:



to this:


and this:



in less than a year, so failure isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

I say instead ‘it hasn’t worked out’. Perhaps more so for Tony than for me, who has found the language far more of a challenge than he expected, and admits that for the first time in his life he feels ‘so English’, and disconnected from the society around him. He’s far more gregarious than I am and misses the ordinary, everyday things he took for granted in daily life in the UK, from chatting to the woman on the supermarket checkout, to popping along to B&Q on a Sunday morning for some shower sealant, or calling up a friend for an impromptu, last minute drink or dinner.

With hindsight, our decision not to deliberately seek out the ex-pat community when we arrived might have added to his sense of isolation. Not that we had much time to socialise in the first 18 months here as the renovation was a ten hour a day, seven day a week project that exhausted us both. But there are other things too.

The ‘closed shop’ system that still exists in France which meant, as a private individual, he couldn’t get access to some of the top suppliers of quality building materials. A nasty neighbour’s denoncement of us to the Mairie for changing the colour of the shutters on our house, which, as we quickly found out, you need permission for in Antibes. And Tony's accident.

Early one Friday evening at the end of March last year, just as the light was beginning to drop, he misjudged the height of the blade on the table saw as he reached over it to steady the piece of wood. Two operations and months of rehabilitation later he has the use of his hand but his thumb and little finger are permanently damaged.

It was only after I left him at the hospital at 10.30 that night, drove home and put away all the tools we’d abandoned in the garden in the rush to get to A&E, wiped up the trail of blood over the marble steps, the staircase and bathroom floor, that I recognised how alone I felt.

I’m sure I could have knocked on a neighbour’s door. There were a few people here I could have called. But neither of those things occurred to me at the time. There wasn’t anyone I actually wanted or needed to see, no close friends who knew me, who would turn up and let me cry against them: Michelino and Jan, Bernie and Chris.

A few years ago I spoke to a group of anxious writing students about failure. We can’t be afraid of failing, because we’ll stop growing as a writer, I said. We have to look at failure positively. Failure is never about us, it’s about development. Failing at something allows us to understand something more about our writing, about ourselves as writers. It means we have the opportunity to take it further.

Positive failure? Yes. We have restored a house neglected for 50 years and made it beautiful again. Not a day went by during the renovation when someone walking along Avenue des Chênes didn’t stop to say, Elle est belle. Tony has decided he’s too old for any more of this renovation lark, time to relax. I have learned that I need to be with people who I love and who love me more than I thought I did.

I’ve forgotten now why I started with The Perfect Fried Egg, and how I hoped to return to it. I think it had something to do with small things, ordinary things. I think I meant to write about being kind to ourselves. And honest. Which I think I might have done.

But here’s the egg anyway.

The Perfect Fried Egg

Melt a small knob of butter and a little olive oil (to stop the butter from burning) in a frying pan. When it starts to sizzle, set the heat to medium/low, crack in the egg and immediately cover with a close fitting lid and leave for two minutes, and no longer.



Voila! Some fresh ground sea salt and black pepper and you have the perfect fried egg, a little crispy around the edges, the centre of the yolk still runny, and not a trace of sloppy white.

La vie est belle.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write a list of things you have cried over.
  • Write about leaving home.
  • Write in praise of an ordinary thing in your life.

9 Nov 2010

Take One Red Dragon: A Recipe

St. David’s Day – Dydd Dewi Sant. I wore my welsh costume to school: a black felt hat, plaid shawl, a small white apron over my kilt, and, pinned to my shawl, a fresh daffodil from the garden whose big trumpet head bumped my chin, releasing the sprinkle and scent of pollen. The boys wore leeks attached to their jumpers with nappy-sized safety pins, until playtime, when some show-off would decide to eat his raw. 

There was a school concert and we sang Calon Lân (listen here) and Oes gafr eto, a ridiculous folk song about white, blue and red goats which had to be sung faster and faster with each successive verse until the words fell apart in our mouths. And the finale of the concert: a play in welsh written by one of the teachers. When I was ten, I was picked for the leading role of Maggi, an enterprising cook who convinces a  bunch of hungry cannibals not to boil the poor missionary but to add a packet of her tasty powdered soup to their cardboard cauldron instead. It was one of the more enjoyable moments of my early association with Methodism. But that’s another story.

I only recently discovered that my Welsh costume was not ‘traditional’ at all but a 19th century invention by Lady Llanover. She took certain items from the clothing of Welsh countrywomen at the time, added Welsh tweed, and created a ‘national’ dress that would take hold of the public imagination and survive until today. To be fair, Lady Llanover was not the only one tinkering with mythmaking and the recipe for welsh identity. During the 18th and 19th centuries other popular symbols of Wales – the red dragon, leeks, harps and druids, and even some bardic rituals – were also ‘introduced’, part of a pressing cultural wave to identify and strengthen the idea of ‘welshness’ in response to changes that were threatening traditional ways of life.

Change can often be a catalyst for us to protect what we deem to be under threat. Perhaps it is partly because I have lived away from Wales for more than thirty years that I cling to the small yearly ritual of making Welshcakes on 1st March, St. David’s Day, wherever I am and for whoever I’m around: friends, family, writing groups, my university students, and neighbours in England, Wales, the United States, Spain and France. And even though they could be a result of the same mythmaking, not particularly welsh at all but common to baking practices in general, I still associate them with growing up in Wales and they form part of my perception of what it means, or feels like, to be welsh but living elsewhere. Molly Wizenberg, in her book A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, says, ‘Food is never just food. It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.’

And, a Welshcake is never just a cake. Nor a scone, nor a biscuit. ‘They’re a drop-scone,’ some people say when I describe how they’re cooked on a griddle, or a maen, a bakestone. But they’re not that either. For a start, they’re made from soft dough not a batter, dough that plumps on a hot griddle with the scent of nutmeg and butter. They are my mother’s cool hands, perfect for baking. They are home.

Welshcakes
Depending on what part of Wales you’re in you might hear them called Tishan ar y ma’n (teeshun arr uh maan) or Pice ar y Maen (peekay arr uh mine)
 
Welshcakes: Made in France
½ lb self-raising flour
pinch of salt
¼ level teaspoon of ground nutmeg
4 oz butter, left to soften slightly at room temperature
4 oz sugar
2 oz seedless raisins or sultanas
1 egg, beaten
milk to mix
caster sugar to sprinkle

Makes between 25 and 30 small welshcakes*

  • Sift the flour, spice and salt into a large bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  • Mix in the sugar and fruit.
  • Make a well in the middle of the bowl and add the beaten egg.
  • Working in a circle, push the dry mixture into the liquid centre, adding a little milk if needed, until it binds to a soft dough.
  • Roll out on a floured board to a thickness of less than ¼ inch and use a pastry cutter to make rounds. The size is up to you, but my favourite is a dinky 1½ inch fluted cutter*
  • Cook them in batches on a pre-heated non-stick griddle, or a large flat-bottomed frying pan, over a low to medium heat, for about 2½ minutes each side, or until golden brown.
  • Sprinkle well with caster sugar while still warm.
I think they’re at their best at this point, but if you microwave a cold one for 10 seconds you’ll recover some of that softness. Or, try spreading one with soft, unsalted butter.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about something you believed to be true but later turned out to be false.
  • Write about food that reminds you of home.

4 Nov 2010

Three Houses


Three Houses: The Geography (click to enlarge)
Cae Cottages, Penceiliogi

Memory paints my grandparents like the characters in a Dutch interior: Granny in the doorway between the porch and dark scullery, D’cu sitting in a low chair by the fire where two brass horses rear on blocks of polished oak. I enter silently, from daylight on the unpaved lane, stepping down over the stone hearth into the shadows, as if even the slightest noise could tear the membrane that divides remembering from not remembering.

I am sure I stayed here once although my mother cannot be sure. But I know the two connected bedrooms in the eaves, the cool lino beneath my bare feet, lying in an iron bed with my sister watching the squeeze of sunlight and dust around the edges of the pulled curtains.

The garden is a field with long grass and trees and an outside privy where, a young woman with auburn hair tells her two wide-eyed daughters, I was once chased by a goose.


35 Glasfryn, Dafen

When the cottage was sold and they had nowhere to live the council moved them here, a terraced house with a squeaky iron gate and a long arch-roofed alleyway that ran from the side of the front door to the back garden. Each morning D’cu swallowed a raw egg, breaking the yolk in the chamber of his throat. Sometimes he melted cheese on a glass plate in front of the open coal fire and spread it on thick slices of white bread. Granny fried chips in lard, kept toffee bonbons and rainbow drops in white paper packets in the sideboard. There was always an open tin of condensed milk on the kitchen table to sweeten their tea.

When he died I said, No, I didn’t want go upstairs and say goodbye. A week later, he was the old man who called me his ‘lovely girl’ as I packed his frozen chicken and packet of custard creams at the supermarket checkout. And now he is always leaning on the front gate in a collarless white shirt, sleeves rolled up above his elbows. Sunlight glints off the close-cropped silver stubble on his head that he had trimmed monthly without fail.


Llandaff House, Llangennech

I did not know her. Language fails me when I try. She was only ever Granny, progressively stranger and more stubborn as I grew up and the longer she lived alone. She still wore bandages for her burns; she knocked a pan of boiling water off the grate and over her leg in 1943. She’d eat stale bread rather than buy fresh with the money she hid down the sides of the sofa, in the sideboard, and in old handbags at the back of her wardrobe, tight rolls of notes like fat cigars, the accidental discovery of which sent irrational fear and guilt racing through my ten-year-old heart. She refused gifts, insisting she didn’t like chocolate and she most certainly didn’t drink alcohol, or she inquired suspiciously after the price of any new clothes my mother bought her.

I saw her once, maybe twice, in this house where the walls might have been cream or pale green, where the framed prints were of flowers or seascapes, but where the women who bathed her, cleaned for her, and made sure she ate, were kind and called her Alice.

Alice was ten when her mother died in childbirth. She walked with her father behind the horse-drawn hearse, a father who would re-marry, who would lose another wife in childbirth, who would marry again.

Sometimes I try and imagine the story of the life that shaped her, that persuaded her to stubbornness and suspicion, that fed her neuroses… but that would be my story.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about a house from your childhood.
  • Write about someone you didn’t know.

29 Oct 2010

Trouble

I learnt the secret of a good Bolognese sauce from a man who looked like George Best.

It was 1979. I met him at the bar of Lord’s Discotheque in St. Helier, Jersey. He said his name was Joe, that he drove tourist coaches for a living and he came from Argentina.

I don’t know if he was a particularly good liar, or perhaps a particularly good impersonator – he even went to the trouble of carrying a coach driver’s license tag on his key-ring – but I was twenty-one and particularly naïve. I believed that his jealousy, sullen moods and tendency to show up at my place at all times of the day and night were proof that he loved me.

This was my first Bolognese, courtesy of Robert Carrier, whose precise instructions I followed to the letter, slice and ounce for hours on Sunday morning. Joe was due at my flat at one o’clock. He turned up two hours later in full defensive bluster, blaming a football game he’d forgotten about, trying to make me laugh about the whole thing, and, when that failed, resorting to loud threats of leaving. He didn’t have to stay and put up with this kind of shit. He’d had a tough enough week at work without his girlfriend giving him a hard time at the weekend. He was going to walk out and not come back. Go on then, I say from 30 years away, walk out and keep on walking, you arrogant prick.

And I want to shake her, that girl who starts crying. ‘Don’t go. I’m sorry. Please stay,’ she says because she’s frightened, because she feels she’s in the wrong, because she can’t see she has a choice.

I can come up with any number of reasons for my reaction, then and on later occasions. I didn’t have any strong, independent, female role models. I had no self-belief. I used to mistake a man shouting for authority. I can cite my family background; the era in South Wales where I grew up; the bank where I worked that had different ideas about work, approval and promotion for men and for women. They all sound self-pitying.

How long did I carry on seeing him? Six months, nine months? Until after I found out he was married and ran a hotel with his wife above St Aubin’s Bay. Until after he was taken into police custody one Friday night, accused of stealing drums of coffee and fillet steaks from the Cash & Carry, and coerced me into being his alibi. Until after his wife phoned me at work one day and said, ‘You think you’re special? You’re just one in a long line of girls. He always comes back to me, you’ll see.’

She was right.

Joe wasn’t Argentinean either. He was Portuguese. It seems like a strange thing to lie about today but at that time in Jersey the local people, and a lot of my colleagues in the banking world, looked down on the island’s Portuguese population who were there mostly as low-wage workers in the hotel and restaurant industries. ‘Pork-and-cheese’ and ‘spic’ were used casually and without conscience to describe anyone with olive skin, or with a Hispanic or Latino sounding name. Joe Santos. Originally the Portuguese and Spanish for ‘saints’.

The irony makes me smile and wince at the same time. His behaviour. How his wife put up with him. My own self-absorption.

He said the Bolognese was great, he could tell I’d gone to a lot of trouble, but there was no way it would have been ready two hours earlier. No way.

Some things take time.
 
Slow-cooked Bolognese
 
I haven’t specified quantities. Decide how much meat you need for the amount of people you’re cooking for and that will guide how much of everything else you add. Once the meat is cooked (after about 15/20 minutes) you can taste, add more bit and pieces, and season to your taste buds’ content. You really can’t go wrong.

In a little olive oil soften chopped onions and thinly sliced celery.

Add good quality minced beef and keep turning it until lightly coloured.

Add:
  • grated carrot
  • grated courgette
  • finely chopped garlic
  • tin(s) of Italian chopped tomatoes
  • a good squeeze of tomato puree
  • a couple of crumbled beef Oxo cubes or a tablespoon of Marmite
  • a good glug of red wine
  • a good shake of Worcestershire Sauce
  • dried mixed Italian herbs (or use oregano and a sprinkle of parsley)

Add a little more water, or stock, if the sauce is too dry, cover the pan and let it cook very slowly for at least an hour, and up to two, stirring occasionally and checking the consistency, until it starts to ‘shine’.
To increase the ‘shine’, stir in a large knob of butter.
To intensify the beefy flavour, add more marmite, but sparingly.

Scatter a handful of fresh basil leaves and fresh shaved parmesan over the sauce just before serving to people who love you, and who, for the most part, don’t lie to you or make you cry.
 
Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about the lies you have told or the lies someone else told you.
  • Write about being late.
  • Write about a time when you did something that now feels wrong.
  • Write about someone who made you cry.