25 May 2012

Size matters. And writing prompts.


The lizards are bigger. Okay, it’s been nearly 18 months since we were here, on Hillsboro Beach, FL, but they seem to have been the same size for the two decades we've been coming here so it's a bit of a surprise, this year, to notice they've jumped from the size of an average thumb to the size of a small rat.

They still skitter away from the sun-baked paving stones when they hear you approach but they make a lot more noise in the undergrowth when you pass the hedges that surround each villa. And they don't puff out their little red neck pouches anymore either. I'm not sure what that puffing really meant but I always liked to think it could have been the reptile equivalent of 'Hey, how you doing?' The big ones still make way for you, but rather more slowly which, to me, suggests resentment. It might only be a matter of time before they're as big as the monster we saw a few years back stalking the deck along the Intracoastal Waterway. It must have been four feet from snout to tail-tip with one of those jaggedy spines you normally don't see outside of the British Museum and re-runs of Jurassic Park.

Our friends told us it was probably an escaped pet. Apparently even Komodo Dragons start off cute. This one looked like it could have chewed your foot off.

Holidays involve a period of adjustment: a new time zone, sleeping patterns, a different routine. We're still going to bed quite early and waking up at dawn:



For the third night in a row now I've sat up in bed like a meercat in the early hours of the morning not knowing which appointment I've failed to keep, or which story I miswrote or which MSS I hadn't submitted and my guilty, anxious heart pounds away for a minute until I realise there's nothing to regret or complete.

Foodwise, we've been out for a couple of steaks, and some ahi tuna sushi. Last night we sat on the terrace outside the little villa - you say villa , I say bungalow - with a glass of Grand Marnier over ice topped up with Florida orange juice and wooden skewers threaded with black olives stuffed with cream cheese, marinated artichokes and roasted red peppers:


The most striking thing, but not for the right reasons, I’ve eaten in the last 5 days was a Po’ Boy. I didn’t even know what a Po’ Boy was, which is one of the reasons I chose it at a restaurant facing the ocean at Delray Beach. The menu was heavily in favour of deep fried food and I imagined that if I’d ordered the chicken caesar salad I’d have been asked, ‘Would you you like that deep fried, hun?’

The description of it was pretty good - coconut bread, caramelised onions, tempura battered lobster tail, salad, pickle. I had high hopes, especially when the waitress smiled encouragingly at me and said slowly, more slowly than someone not on drugs should speak, ‘Good choice. The flavour combinations are wonderful.’

I know tempura. At least I thought I knew tempura. Perhaps this was tempura from Japan via Clacton upon Sea. It was… robust. I guess you’d have to be, crossing all those seas to get here. But the lobster tail was sweet and fresh… if a little bland in comparison. It was also, and this’ll come as no surprise, enough for two people. Two people who hadn't eaten for 24 hours.

I did some research for 'po’ boy' when I got back to the villalow or bungilla or bungavilla - for research read 'Wikipedia' - and was relieved that I didn't get the full po' boy on my plate. The name, shortened from 'poor boy', allegedly comes from striking street car workers in New Orleans in 1929. The stories behind some food are more interesting than the contemporary reality, as you'll see if you follow the Wiki link. Although I’m sure natives of New Orleans will be yelping that you can't get a decent po' boy outside the city limits anyway. One day, perhaps.

In the meantime I'm walking up and down the beach each day to make sure that I maintain some connection to the weight I arrived with, and I'm not talking about my luggage. Although there's hardly a chance that a few extra pounds will cause a problem with all this space:


Now, where's that last doughnut?



Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about an animal that scares you.
Write about sleeping.
Write about regret.
Write about being disappointed.
Write about walking somewhere. And walking back.



18 May 2012

Florida calls. And writing prompts.

We're flying to Florida on Sunday. We'll land in Miami around 5.30 in the afternoon, pick up a rental car and head north on I95 to Hillsboro Boulevard then turn east for the A1A and Royal Flamingo Villas on Hillsboro Mile, in the town of Hillsboro Beach. We'll drop our bags and go out for steak. Not any steakhouse and not any steak. It'll be Outbacks in West Boca and we'll both have the Victoria Filet, 'Pittsburgh' medium rare. ('Pittsburgh' is a steak cooked with a seared crust.)

There are a few branches of Outbacks in the UK. We've tried a couple but they're a completely different species to their American counterparts as far as quality of food and service are concerned. It's a chain restaurant with chunky wooden tables and no ceremony but I have yet to find a steak that's better. I've eaten ones in London, other parts of Florida, and Manhattan that have been equally good but at two, three and four times the price. So when we want steak we stick to Outbacks and the one in West Boca is our favourite because it's miles away from any tourist area and generally frequented by locals. And us.

They also (unlike the UK chain) have a great selection of Californian reds and they have an ahi tuna sushi entree that melts like butter in my mouth.


I've had that photo on file for two years. Just look at the spiced crust, the thin rim of cooked tuna and the rose pink hearts of sweet fish. Oh bring on Sunday evening!

This is food cooked simply, both  the steak and sushi, as close to their origins as possible. No cloak of sauce or cushion of stuffing. No culinary fireworks.

The last few years have seen me writing more simply, without the poetic fireworks that tended to garnish my first collection of poetry. My subject matter has changed too: my new book, a collection of haibun called forgiving the rain (due from Snapshot Press later this year) mostly deals with memoir, stories that have made me who I am, events from family life, memories of friends and places. The pieces of prose (many of which started life as posts on this blog) blended with haiku poetry approach their subject matter directly rather than obliquely. I don't seem to need the masks (and protection) of metaphor and persona that I leaned heavily on 8 years ago. This direct approach risks, every now and then, tipping the scale from strong emotion into sentimentality for some potential readers. But I would rather take that risk that not take it at all and produce writing that is competent and crafted but fails to make people feel.

The ocean at my doorstep
on Hillsboro Beach.
Our Florida holidays always encourage me to write; there's something about the location next to the Atlantic Ocean, the limitlessness of the view, the big skies, that infects me with expansiveness too. I hope to share some with you over the coming month. And some steak. And some wine. And there's a little hippy home-made burger joint on Hillsboro Boulevard that I want to try this time too: paper napkins, rackety tables and chairs but the char-grill aroma leads you by the nose to its door.

The downside of all this food and wine over the course of a month is that I'm likely to fly back as cargo. But I can always run up and down Port Talbot's mountains when I get back.


Hungry writing prompts
  1. Write about flying.
  2. Write about eating in a restaurant.
  3. Write about a sweet heart, or a sweetheart.
  4. Write about a time you were gripped with strong emotion.
  5. Write about expanding, literally and metaphorically.


12 May 2012

Feasting on the past. Living in the present.

'Was there something you specifically wanted to do in your life?’ I asked my mother, a couple of years ago when I was back in Wales. She was still recovering from her hip replacement earlier that year; problems that should have been resolved were refusing to go away. We were sitting in the little conservatory extension at the back of the house drinking tea and looking out at the rain. ‘Not that getting married and having us three wasn’t worth it,’ I added, smiling, ‘but I just wondered what else you might have done.’

She thought for a moment. ‘Probably nursing’, she said.‘That really did interest me. But things were different then. You got married…’.
My mother, age 16, on the left.

This is a photo from March 1949 of my mother and her best friend, Faye. She is 16, before she met my dad, before her life had started to lay down marks on the page ahead of her.

How many of our mothers sacrificed their dreams and hopes for a husband and family? Was it sacrifice or choice? Although it is historically true that women had less choice in the late 1940s and 1950s when it came to education and work, particularly working-class women.


***

I chose to stay on at school and do my A levels when my headmaster offered to find me a Saturday job in the Menswear Department of Marks & Spencer's. I chose not to go to university and took a job with the Midland Bank in my home town of Port Talbot in South Wales. I chose to accept the bank’s offer of a job in Jersey in the Channel Islands in 1978. I chose to leave there when I met Tony on a blind date in 1985 and move to England.

What of my choices since then? Have they been directed more by Tony, as the principal money-earner in our relationship, rather than by my own ambitions and desires? One or two people have suggested that, rather critically, over the last 27 years. Did I make sacrifices, denying my self certain things, or were they compromises for practical reasons? Or even for love's sake.

Last week in Port Talbot my friend and history enthusiast, Allen Blethyn, wondered if it had been easier for me to leave the town than people, like him, who have centuries of family roots there. My parents only moved there from West Wales in 1957 to a housing estate that emerged in the same decade and I was born the following year. ‘The town is in my genes,’ he suggested. ‘I don’t think I ever could have left.'

The idea of not being in control of my life feels unsettling. If I believe in fate or the over-riding power of genes, that I have no real choice, then that will inhibit me from making changes, won’t it? The truth, or my truth, must lie somewhere in the middle. Too much control dampens spontaneity and discovery. Not enough leads to stagnation.

We are the maps of our own lives. I am happy with my current location, my place in the world, the relationships with the people around me, so I cannot regret any choices I made (or sacrifices or compromises) that led me here. Even the dead-ends and the occasional wastelands. I don’t hunger for the past. But it is always a feast worth sharing with family and old friends. 

'cardsharks' : with my parents, sister and brother-in-law

Earlier this month my mother underwent hip revision surgery at a private clinic because the National Health Service waiting list was too long and they would not prioritise her. It is criminally unjust that my parents should have to use half of their life savings to rectify a mistake that took place while she was under NHS care.  But lengthy litigation would be the only way to pursue our case and my mother is so relieved to be free of the chronic pain that she wants to look ahead rather than back. As we all do too. 

The nurses at the clinic, particularly the ward sister and one trainee, were the type of nurses I imagine my mother would have been. They showed kindness that went beyond their professional duties. They restored my faith in the idea of vocation, in the sense of complete dedication to a chosen path. Or even a path that called out to them, that they felt they had no choice but to follow. 


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about talking to your mother.
  2. Write about the choices you have made.
  3. Write about the place you came from.
  4. Write about sacrifice.
  5. Write about someone with dedication.



4 May 2012

Continuing the search for the best custard slice. And what I think I believe.

Regular readers will remember this post on custard slices.  And I’ve remained impressed enough by Greggs to keep my banner photo on Facebook: it’s a snap of their cake box. Until today. Today I managed to get to Jenkins Bakery in Station Road, Port Talbot, shortly after midday and there were still half a dozen custard slices left. And they were on special: 2 for £1.50. How can a girl resist?

So, do they live up to my mother’s recommendations and my Aunty Marie’s  yearning for a Jenkins custard slice when she takes a trip back from Hemel Hempstead to her home town of  Llanelli (home of Jenkins Bakery)? I’m not sure. It’s difficult to remember tastes with any measure of precision.  But I don’t think there's really any difference in the custard at Greggs and the custard at Jenkins. And, comparing the photos, Greggs has more of it. Where Jenkins does gain brownie points is in the pastry crust: it was still crisp (but thin and flaky) six hours later.

***

The local elections in Port Talbot yesterday produced a landslide for the Labour Party. I don’t really understand it as the people I’ve spoken to are mainly disappointed and angry about how the Labour controlled local authority have managed the town’s developments over recent years. Turn-out was low though. Less than 35% in the ward my parents live in. Perhaps pro-Labour supporters are more politically motivated?

Plaid Cymru had an interesting poster as part of their election campaign.



How many of us stick to things that are familiar to us rather than question what we believe, or what we think we believe, and re-evaluate our views and opinions?

This is something I keep coming up against as I research for Real Port Talbot. I think I know something. I think I’m familiar with an area. But when I reflect and question, and when I really open my eyes and look at my environment, I realise I’ve been hoarding received ideas, ideas I’ve accepted from other people. And what I thought I knew about some things, some places, isn’t my experience or my reality.

This is both revelatory and disturbing. Honesty, particularly self-honesty, is rarely comfortable.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about searching for something.
  2. Write about the memory of a particular taste.
  3. Write about what you think you believe.
  4. Write about breaking away.
  5. Write about a time when you were honest.