Wednesday, 13 December 2017

I Tire Of Damsons

Twenty-something years into being a regular damson jam maker, I can finally admit that it's not my favourite flavour.

Don't get me wrong. Damson jam is sharp, it's dark purple, it sets easily. The problem of the stones can be overcome by sieving. The problem of a glut can be overcome by freezing, then making jam in batches month by month, as I am doing this year. And it provides a source of thoughtful presents for relatives. Okay, a source of presents.

I am not unappreciative of the damson as such. I am not really ungrateful.

But, forgive me, oh damson, you have limitations. Lacking the popularity of raspberry, the easy-going nature of strawberry, the usefulness of apricot (sticking marzipan to cakes), the yoghurt-friendly texture of blueberry, you are destined to be homemade. Mainly, it would seem, by me. You speak of low-maintenance back gardens or self-seeded trees at park-sides; you speak of damson gin, damson ketchup, damson chutney, damson cheese, damson fool, damson crumble, damson bloody anything when there's no late frost in April and you and your mates turn into an avalanche.

Sorry. I got carried away. It's just that there have been pounds and pounds and pounds of you and I've been denying myself alternatives.

I am not really ungrateful - but I do find myself addressing a fruit in public.

Why this confession? This confusion. I think I need to let it be known that I have switched to blackcurrant. It went like this ...

I mentioned to my LSF (Longest Serving Friend) that I'd been out to buy her some jam. It was August. I was in London, presuming on her hospitality; presuming to the extent of finishing a pot of blackcurrant jam which had been nearly full on my arrival a few days before. (There was some unopened damson in the back of her cupboard).

Blackcurrant jam, I'd learnt by day 3 of my stay, is delicious, complex, dense, sophisticated: textured but without the annoying seeds of raspberry, the hairiness of rhubarb, the inevitability of strawberry, the lumps lurking in apricot which make an even spread almost impossible. I think I must have said something about this loudly to my LSF.

Last week, my LSF came to stay en route to Snowdonia. Her bag was unusually heavy, I noticed.  I wondered for one horrified moment if she'd bought camping equipment. But she unloaded 11 heavy, hard, cylinders, individually wrapped - my birthday present. They sat on my table whilst we went off and had a lovely weekend tramping about.

After she'd left, and being well brought up, I only unwrapped 3 of the jars before my actual birthday. After 2, I detected a theme. Opening the third was just to make sure, because of my increasing excitement.

Suffice it to say, that in addition to the half jar I brought back from Wales, I now have 11.5  jars of dense, sophisticated, complex, textured, sophisticated, much-travelled, thoughtful, sophisticated blackcurrant flavour of the highest quality to accompany my toast and butter for the next year six months. Or thereabouts.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

I Answer A Question

Toiling uphill in the Tatra Mountains in Poland last June, my friend Richard, brother of my longest serving friend Helen, asked for advice about how to read poetry. 

Breathless from exertion, I was unable to provide a succinct or  relevant answer. My thinking and talking in circles at high altitude to someone for whom poetry isn't an habitual reading choice must've been the reason for my stiff and aching legs that evening.

R, H and I had spent the few days before in Krakow, and, amongst other things, completed the parkrun near to a statue of Wojtek, the soldier bear. Richard was instrumental in ensuring this tribute was installed in memory of the bear who fought alongside Polish troops in World War II

Back in the UK, when I'd regained sea-level and the use of my thigh muscles, I produced a PowerPoint, and sent it to Richard by way of a belated answer to his question. Wojtek provided me with the illustration I needed to make the point that the relationship between reader and poem, in the end, is a personal one.

This weekend, walking in Wales with Helen, I was reminded of those steep Tatra climbs by my aching calves - so, we had another look at the PowerPoint. Six months on, I've worked out how to turn it into a video.

How To Read A Poem

Monday, 20 November 2017

I Fox About

Fox News

Twentieth Century Fox

Fox Fur Heights

Fox on the Rocks

Fox With A View

For Fox's Sake!


Stuffed Fox

Fox Hunting


The Miraculous Appearance of St Basil

Foxtrot Oscar Xray Yankee

Saturday, 11 November 2017

I Lean Towards Butter

 .... is what my son said in answer to a question asked at our cousins' home over lunch recently.  The question was, "Would you prefer oil or butter on your potatoes?"  He was given the only vote and made the right choice.

I've liked olive oil since I met it as an adult, but butter has been with me from the beginning. Butter. Butter melting into mashed potatoes with a twist of black pepper.

Butter. Is there anything like it? I've never been convinced by the alternatives.

"Why," a friend commented once in relation to another question, this time a butter or a yellowish olive-by-name-but-not-by-nature-spread question, "would anyone put emulsified engine oil on her bread?"

Butter. I lean towards it like I lean towards blue skies, meadows, mountain air and clean streams.  I lean towards it as I did to the Little House on the Prairie books, where I first read about how it is made. I lean towards my son making butter like it's a lost art, whisking cream till it separates, straining out the buttermilk for pancakes, paddling and patting the solids into shape.

I lean towards the cool smooth straightforwardly rich taste - towards French butter, slightly salted, twenty minutes out of the fridge, spread carelessly on a torn piece of fresh baguette, or still-warm scones, or cut into a baked potato with a dark, crisp skin. I lean towards it in cakes: I lean towards it in curries.

I lean towards butter, but I try not to fall into it. I attempt moderation. I understand the pitfalls - the valid arguments against: arguments about cholesterol and intensive farming.

Some of these have lodged themselves as reminders around my waist.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

I Post #metoo

John Berger's book, 'Ways of Seeing', which I read for the first time last year, made me cry.  Specifically the third chapter.

"A man's presence" he writes, "suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you." In other words, it is a presence of power.  In contrast, "a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her" (1972, p. 46).  He is writing in the context of visual art - specifically in a discussion of the meaning of the female nude.  And his text is almost as old as me, but still it resonates. 

Berger's thesis hinges on the idea that men survey and women are conscious of this surveillance. I think there is a deep truth in his work. My collusion with the consciousness of being looked at  was built as I grew (don't paint your face, don't wear a short skirt, be modest, don't lead him on, don't go to the disco, don't, don't, don't) became my very fabric, my stooped stance, my lowered-eyes demeanour.

I grew up colluding with the idea of my sexuality as troublesome, Eve-like, and it felt burdensome, sinister. I looked for a hiding place.

You might quibble with Berger: with my response to his text. It's so binary his talk - male / female, men / women: it's 2017 and we are moving on from binaries. 

But I read his work again and it pierces me. And now this. The decision whether or not to post #metoo.

What's the risk?


It's not much, in itself, to align myself with the vast majority of women and some men who can relate to my first such memory, the one of the man in the park on my walk to the tube to school.  I was 13, had never seen the flaccid rope of a grown man's penis before, did not know for a moment what I was looking at, so looked. And I can still see it swinging improbably, him passing to my left, about six feet between us, neither of us missing a step (what, what, What?) - can still feel the punch of shocked realisation, the loss of not-knowing, remember my friend disbelieving me when I told her later, standing on the station platform, .

So many, many other things I will come to remember. Some of these will include physical assault, some will involve people I trusted, some will make me fear for my life.

Dear child.
Dear, dear girl.
Brave teenager with her face set forwards.
Brave schoolgirl who went on to her physics lesson.
I sorrow with you, hold my arms around your shame.
For all that was yet to come - remember your courage, your own gift of survival.
You will come to a place no longer at odds with yourself -
your stride will lengthen with the rage that is rightfully yours.
And I love you for it.

And so I come to this:
Me too, dear heart. Me too, sweet precious girlchild. Dear Liz.

And look! Look at the crowds striding in the same direction.
We were never, after all, alone.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

I Applaud A Performance

Lucy Aphramor is hot.  You can tell this from the cover of her book, Raise The Roof.  She is shown sharp with style and she looks you in the eye. If she had a gauntlet, she'd be laying it down.  Behind her are the flames of a burning home.

It is typical of Lucy, ever-generous, that proceeds from the sale of Raise The Roof are going to support her friends Leela and Jamie, who, she says in her preface, have stuck with her through thick and thin, and whose home burned down earlier this year.

Raise The Roof is the book of the show. Lucy is the Naked Dietician and I first saw her performance in its entirety in Edinburgh, on the Fringe.  I've kept my ticket from that day as a souvenir.

I want to remember that performance because it was brave and bold: in fact, it was incendiary.  Lucy's monologue is a weaving of stories of injustice, of heartbreak and oppression, into something that's alight with energy and hope. Always serious, she plays with words in a way that's clear with enjoyment and raises some chuckles amidst the intensity.

So to take the opportunity to see the performance again at the Quaker Meeting House in Shrewsbury last Sunday evening was, for me, obvious. At a time when the news is full of miserable stories about the abuses of white male privilege - women groped and raped, young black men singled out, children shamed about their body shapes - Lucy challenges the status quo - the assumption that simple sound bites: for example, eat less, move more, dispensed by the Powers-That-Be-So-Simplistic, can redress the injustices resulting from inequalities built into the very fabric of society. Whilst this a personal statement, it inevitably calls us, the audience, to consider living differently:

         for right now I am on fire gut-busting for an exodus from stasis
         so almighty it incites the gods in each of us to hurl up everything
         they worship   sacred  secular  profane   inflame a new way 
         of doing being praying grieving growing speaking thinking longing
         loving listening fucking that does justice justice

It's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in one sitting. Hearing it again, I realised it's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in two sittings, but it was definitely an advantage to hear it twice. And buying the book for a longer look makes sense.

On Sunday, the audience was focused and able to hear each word, each lift of hope and ecstasy, each plunge into despair and pain.  Lucy's command of her words, her amazing memory for them, left us free to soak, washed over by wave upon wave of a searing yet playful narrative which includes the deeply personal references to self-harm and discrimination, and the deeply political longing for injustice to be brought out into the clear light of day, seen for what it is.

Friday, 6 October 2017

I Feel At Home

It was my eldest son who said it out loud first - "Mum, you fit in here."  We were in Antwerp buying small electrical items for his new home, wondering at this city, its zigzag frontages, its mercantile heritage.

Antwerp is in Flemish Belgium: in Flanders.  The language is Dutch: Flemish Dutch.  In those simple facts lie layers of history, politics and numerous cultural sensitivities with which I am only just becoming familiar: sensitivities which this blog may in some way trample across unwittingly - I hope to come to understand more of the complexity, and may need to re-write parts of this in future.

My son expanded on his verdict by saying that I look like many of the women we passed. I'm tall and apparently I dress in middle class Dutch style. His analysis fitted with my feelings.

I have often felt at odds in new places - in Thailand I was too tall, in Paris too casual, in Bari too pale, in Los Angeles too introverted, in Scandinavia too jealous - whereas on arriving in Antwerp, even when driving on the right, I felt immediately at home. 

It wasn't just the weather which settled me, although the grey rain with its moments of intense sunny glory set the backdrop.  It wasn't just everyone's (but everyone's) ability to speak English during a week in which I struggled to commit any more Dutch than the words 'dank je' to memory. I knew I was amongst a tribe I recognised.

From this tribe, the Plantin and Moretus families emerged in the 16th century to establish a phenomenally successful printing business, and the Plantin-Moretus is amongst the best museums, no, it's the best, I have ever visited. The two oldest surviving printing presses in the world live there amongst drawer upon drawer of beautiful fonts.

So far, my son is settling well to his three year BA course in Fashion Design.  I'm hoping to pay several visits to Antwerp during this time and said as much to my Uncle Bob on the phone last weekend.  "Of course, my dear" he said, ever-affectionate, "our Huguenot ancestors were in the cloth trade in Flanders and they fled persecution back in 1570 or so."

My uncle's reminder explained in some way that sense of alignment that comes to me from time to time, when for a moment it feels as if the world, quietened for a while from the clash of empires, fits snug as the new coat I bought yesterday for my niece's wedding. When I got the coat home and looked properly, it turned out, of course, to be Dutch.