Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Plague, Insect Bites and Me

Oh dear.  Who knew that a horsefly (as nasty as they are) could cause so much trouble?  Bitten on Tuesday, at the doctor on Thursday and at hospital today.  Gulp. Wretched thing. It's all I can do to sip some tea from special cup and saucer (reserved for poorly days) force down the big blue pills and comfort read.
The Plague and I by Betty Macdonald is such a relief. It's like having a cold compress to the fevered brow and a beloved and amusing friend perched on the bed. Perhaps her most well known book is The Egg and I which was made into a film starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in about 1940 - the descriptions of Ma and Pa Kettle were later decried as cultural stereotyping but - hey - she wrote them as she saw them. She is a dab hand at the amusing day to day trivia that makes up life. She had a loving and slap dash childhood in a large family, married (disasterously) young the first time round, deserted the chicken farm and re-married, moving to Vashon Island where she wrote Onions in the Stew (such a favourite of mine that I paid hommage to it by entitling my first book Capers in the Sauce) But in 1937 she was diagnosed with TB and spent nine months in a sanatorium outside Seattle. 
It should be a fairly grim book (she was poor, had two children, hospital care was erratic, and the treatment of TB seems to be positively archiac) But it's not.  It shimmers with delight.  Her humour and eye for detail, an isatiable curiosity for other people coupled with a good dose of healthy cynicism makes this book a delight.  And its funny.  You only have to have spent a week or so in a modern hospital to identify with the characters.  The stone cold food, the petty rules, the Southern minx that hams it up for the handsme doctor, the lack of privacy, and of course the one nurse that can make life hell. In her case it was the Charge Nurse -nicknamed by Betty - Granite Eyes. Betty complains timidly that she is cold.  It as, after all, December, in Seattle, all the windows are wide open and she is freezing. After days of shivering Granite Eyes relents and brings her a paper blanket. This crackles and makes so much noise that Betty is reduced to laying perfectly still so not to disturb anyone. 
Silence is the golden rule in The Pines.  Silence and fresh air.  But the inmates invent countless ways to have fun and outwit Granite Eyes.  Betty becomes best friends with Kimi a beautful young Japanese girl, who demands that her family bring in Soya sauce which she smothers all the food in to make eatable. (Years ago when I was in hospital my best friend who was working in France left a message to be relayed by a puzzled nurse asking me 'Have you drenched everything in Soya yet?') Kimi also makes her mother come in with dainty embroidered tray cloths that she substitues for her own terrible efforts at the laugable Occupational Therapy.  These useless things are called by Betty 'toe covers' and are the bane of their lives. Tangled efforts at crochet, knitting, macrame, sewing and embroidery all get reduced to sweaty chains of sagging ribbons.  In my family, any unwanted decorative object was instantly dismissed as a toe cover, and still is. But above all it was the lack of privacy and not being with her chaotic and loving family that Betty missed.
I like people, but not all people. I'm neither Christian enough or charitable enough to like anybody just because they are alive.  I want people to interest me and amuse me.  I want them fascinating and witty or so dull to be different.  Perfectly charming or 100% stinker. I like my chosen companions to be distinguishable from the masses and I don't care how.
Hear Hear.
Should you have the misfortune to fall ill, The Plague and I will be a tonic.  I won't be getting rid of it, but may well invest in a new copy, for mine is ailing itself with a broken spine and fading pages.  Bless. 

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Hendrick's Horseless Carriage and the divine Saki

I had never seen a stuffed albino hedgehog before, nor indeed a bath full of rose petals with gin and tonic flowing from the hot and cold taps, but these things and more were waiting to delight the unsuspecting at Hendrick's Horseless Carriage at Buxton last week.  Part of the sheer joy of being a writer and being involved in all things bookish is that sometimes you are invited to partake in the ridiculous and extraordinary.  Sometimes it's the dull and worthy of course, but this wasn't one of those occasions, thank goodness.  So it was that I found myself in a converted train carriage parked outside the Pavilion during Buxton Literary Festival. Part of the 'peek & speak' session along with Jess Ruston, Alex Bellos and the master of all things ceremonial, Mr Barr. The stories we told involved Roald Dahl, a super egg and a tortiose...helped by simply lashings of Hendrick's gin and tonic.
The carriage was stuffed to the gills with things extraordinary, a Georgian pheasant feather tickling machine, a stuffed weasel, an elaborate birdcage housing cucumbers, a magic book that read itself, tempting piles of vintage luggage, and all the things that one hopes one will find in an out of the way shop of antiques, but somehow never does.  I wandered through it, absolutely entranced and felt sure that the divine Saki had somehow had a hand in this.  For who else could conjure up the magical domestic everyday stuff as surely and as swiftly as he did? I was dazzled by his stories the first time that I read them, and continue to be dazzled still.
Talking cats, Great Aunts taking tea under a cedar tree unknowingly being watched by a man eating tiger, an otter taking revenge on the hunt by ravaging the larder, Clovis taking the air in Hyde Park whilst Pan spies on him and small girls trapping an unsuspecting MP in a bedroom, filling the house with animals from a made-up-for-glee-and-mischievous flood for The Unrest cure are all written with such charm and wit, without a hint of whimsey or sentiment.
In The Boar-Pig, Mrs Philidore Stossen hasn't been invited to the garden party of the season, but she, clever woman that she is, has spotted that a door from the walled fruit garden leads from her own back lawn - once in, she and her daughter can 'mingle' unnoticed. So much less troublesome than to invent explainations as to why they weren't invited in the first place. So, she and her daughter 'suitably arrayed for a country garden party function with an infusion of Almanak de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream'.  Furtive haste and a certain air of perhaps wearing the wrong hats are spotted with glee by the thirteen year old daughter of the house, Matilada, who is perched half way up a medlar tree avoiding the garden party. 'They'll find the door locked and have to  jolly well go back the way they came.  Serves them right.  What a pity Tarquin Superbus isn't loose in the paddock.' And, after all, Matilda thinks, why shouldn't the enormous boar be given a treat by rootling around in the paddock? Mrs Stossen and her daughter are trapped, in their best clothes, between safety and a giant villainous looking boar.
'Shoo! Hish! Hish! Shoo!'
'If they think that they are going to drive him away by reciting lists of the Kings of Israel and Judah they're laying themselves out for disappointment,' observed Matilda from her reclaimned seat in the tree. She makes her presence know to the flustered ladies (after having locked any possible exit from them) and pretends that she is French, which makes the already flustered ladies lose any semblance of that language that they may or may not have mastered,  Mayhem, hilarity, knowing misunderstanding, and a very undignified climb up a plum tree ensues.  After having extracted ten shillings from Mrs Stossen (shilling by begrudging shilling) for the Children's Fresh Air Fund, Tarquin is finally lured away, and the dishevelled ladies released,
'Well, I never! The little minx, I don't believe the Fresh Air Fund will see a penny of my ten shillings!'
Mrs Stossen was perhaps a little too harsh in her judgement of Matilda, for very neatly entered in the ledger were the india inked legend - collected by Miss Matilda Covering, 2s.6d.

Oh, don't you long for a garden party?

The next best thing is to get to the Carriage of Curiosities and sip a gin and tonic...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Seduced by a cover

Have you ever been seduced by a cover? Well, this is what happened to me with this book.  I freely admit that I have a fondness (some of course would say weakness) for small animals, and yes, I was going to write about dogs (as I sorely miss my little fox terrier who has now gone to dog heaven, which as far as I'm concerned firmly exists and is made up of a dappled shady meadow, a small pack of friendly dogs to run with, lots of tussocky nesting places, baby rabbits to chase but never quite catch, the tantalising smell of steak drifting over the grass and my pair of slippers to guard when the sun falls - and I won't hear differently) but somehow, it didn't happen. I had read Flush by Virginia Woolf, but then I tried to re-read The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna.
Now, Arto is huge in his native Finland and just as big in France. It's been translated into loads of languages and far be it from me to disagree with that literary *ahem* paper - The Mail on Sunday - all unanimously decree that Arto is le dernier cri in Finnish wit.
Oh dear.  I felt like Margo Leadbetter from The Good Life when she cries piteously for someone to explain a joke to her.  She just doesn't  get it.  And nor do I.
Vatanen is a journalst who decides that he's had enough of city life and takes off in his car when he encounters a young hare that's injured on the road.  He goes off in search of it and this turns into a road trip, complete with hare.  He meets a lot of strange and, erm, wonderful people on the way.  He ends up quitting his job, leaving his wife, giveing away his possessions and travelling Finland - taking in forest fires, priests, killer bears, war games and pagan sacrifices.
It has been described as a masterpeice of black humour, as sharp as the Arctic weather of Finland, and highly amusing.
Really? I mean, really?
OK, it's not sugary sweet (we're not talking Watership Down here) But all I can say is that foriegn humour perhaps doesn't travel. Us Brits are the master of black humour, sharp wit and the mighty understatement.
The best thing about this book is the cover, oh yes, and nothing nasty happen to the hare.  At least we don't have a recipe for pie.
A keeper? Hmmmm... I don't know, but I but I do so love the cover.  I longed to have a young hare snuggled into my jacket.  I leave you with the last picture I took of Daphne guarding my slippers, with a book in the background.  Now, that's a front cover.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Kitchen Essays

Should you ever need to know what to cook for a Country Cottage Tea, or Food For The Unpunctual, Tray Suppers, or even for Guests For A Christmas Shopping Luncheon then this is IT.  Of course, it would help if we were all living in 1922 had staff, and had lurking in the larder truffles, cream and the odd lobster or two. (Happy thought.)
Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll is a snuggle down read marathon. I bought it the last time I was in Foyles in Charing Cross Road in their marvelous foodie section. It's quite hard to resist any book there. But this is a real joy. I don't think I'll ever cook from it much, but to read it is a sheer delight.
Agnes Jekyll was the sister in law of the more famous Gertrude who was descibed as an artist-gardener, whilst Agnes was an artist-housekeeper. It's published by the sumptuous Persephone Books which are so tempting, that I could happily buy all of them.
What I specially love is the specifics of this book. There are recipes for what to serve artists before they go on stage (eggs en cocotte, or Mousse of Egg and Sardine which involves pressing hard boiled eggs through a hair sieve, TWICE, boning sardines, adding a filbert-sized peice of fresh butter and moistening all with a little cream.  Good for those of a nervous disposition and equally good for breakfast as it makes a change from marmalade, she remarks.)  She's terribly keen on eggs for all artists, musicians and would be M.P's. Frothed Wine Soup is highly recommended, as is poached eggs, covered in gelatine and garnished with truffles (she uses truffles in nearly everything which makes me suppose that she really was extremely wealthy or that truffles were a damn sight cheaper in the twenties than they are now)
I am also in total awe of the women who cooked these recipes without any of the luxury of the modern kitchen. Sieves are a big thing here.  Nearly everything is sieved, usually more than once.  Aspic, cream, butter and sugar are used with gay abandon.  Even a recipe for cocoa takes FIVE to SIX hours of simmering unbruised coca nibs. Crikey.
There's a wonderfully evocative section of travelling which makes me want to throw on a silk camisole and crush a cloche hat on my head and book the tramp steamer to the Riviera.  For a start she says that food for a journey (implying that the journey itself is arduous and can only be sustained with nourishing food taken at regular intervals) must be 'daintily wrapped individually in grease-proof paper with an outer wrapping of foolscap tied with fine twine and the contents clearly marked outside' Oh, you should also have a nest of horn or silver drinking cups.
What would you find in your travellers basket? Well, she suggests green sandwiches (lettuce and watercress) a wisp of oriental salt and coarsely ground balck pepper, breasts of chicken, pheasant, partridge or grouse enlivened with a little foie gras or thin coating of aspic and some lemon cheese tartlets. Fresh fruit and a few Chelsea buns. Just in case.
There is a wonderful chapter on 'Their First Dinner Party' .  The guests at hers, were Browning, Burne-Jones and Ruskin. She suggests Clear Soup (which lets the cook prove her worth - and after having read the recipe, it really would sort the cooks from the boys - involving hours of slicing vegetables, straining, reducing, clarifying, sieving, re-heating and garnishing) Filets de Sole a la Creme and Pommes Pailles followed by Saddle of Welsh Mutton complete with kidneys, creamed turnips and asparagus with hollandaise sauce, Cremes Glacees Tutti Frutti which has a pint of cream, curacoa and rum in it, frozen in an 'ice cave' then scattered with a 'gay ruching of finely cut crytallised fruits - an apricot, greengage, pink pear and red cherries and macaroons served with liqueurs, follwed by a ripe camenbert and hot home made oat cakes.  Oh yes, and after that cigars (just for the men - natch) coffee and more liqeurs and good quality Barley Water which must be plentiful....
Gosh, excuse me, I had to sit down for a moment after all of that...
Let me leave with you with what she says on picnics 'Let us, then get out of the luncheon basket and have a selection for dessert instead of pudding. A small cream cheese wrapped in lettuce and some crisp plain biscuits with a tiny pot of redcurrant jelly, a box of fresh dates or pulled figs, a carton of almonds and raisons...a handful of glace ginger cubes and a tin of peppermnint creams and lastly the cup of hot coffee tasting as good out of the thermos as tea tastes nasty.'
I don't think I can lose this one - not a cookery book but social history through food.