28 February 2009

A Grey Saturday making soup: Six Writers

Last night I was visited by five dead writers and one writer holding onto life in his usual stubborn style. After a short meeting and a bottle of champagne, we decided to meet for a soup-making reunion today, this grey Saturday mottled with cloud and frowned upon from luvvie heaven by the whey-faced Wendy, that great Richard of our time may she rest in peace and flounce about heaven with great pageantry.

Ted Hughes:

Cracking pepper into
Brothy depths recalls the
Brackish marshy moor;
Here I lie, Nature’s son,
Sucking in soup and my soul
As I gulp it down, barking.

Gore Vidal (no music here, just a ticking clock):

This soup; my endgame, and
America’s last soup, embittered
With corrupt carrots and the
Last aristocrat of the modern
Empire: Me! Cold dish
Clutched in my cold dead hand alone
Except for my close circle of carefully selected famous friends.
I shall never speak of them.

Sylvia Plath:

Suppe, monstrous soup of
My loins and one final meal
Before bed; lead – my head
Swims in it:
Ach suppe,
You really did it this time.

Patricia Highsmith:

As we slice the onion, slicing
By rote – who knows why the knife
Slips to a passing throat,
Ripping the jugular? Tom and
I’ll consult the severed
Head in the handbag, readers.

Nancy Mitford:

, soup-making is
Mindboggling and to top it
All Non-U. I ran a soup
Kitchen in the blitz – utter
Hell, too awful, and the
Clothes too English. Admit.

Edith Sitwell (set to music as yet unwritten):

You’ll remember I make soup
With the hands of a cripple; croup
Dictates these Elizabethan moon-boiled
Poetic talons must not be soiled,
But photographed.
I’m not at all the type to cry
But this soup rankles. Why?

Picture: Andy Warhol. (1928-1987). Campbell's Soup Cans. 1962. 20 x 16" (50.8 x 40.6 cm).

26 February 2009

Twelve Steps In Galicia: My Hot Chip Revelation

1) The muck-sweat of travel begins and ends quietly, a vacuum-packed arc of silence except the gentle buzz of the air-conditioning chute siphoning out the air and time jerking, shunting you on, carriage nudging carriage on the north road. The dark back of the bus churning through the cities absorbing reels of film, captured passengers, curled-up and babyish over speeding ground, us glassy and blind with self-promotion as we grimly go from A to B with our pilgrim sticks.

2) A seven hour bus journey to test endurance levels.

3) “Between Heaven And Hell” the blinking blockbuster and hot chips marking an unsteady trail from chin to navel; slob, alight with elastic, stringy holiday plans stretched and gummed across the wide, bright plains that dim and blink slipping to watercolour and my list just gets longer.

4) Visit: castle, museum, beach, pagan relics – Pagans! A voice echoes in the hills, the city glares from a distance.

5) Check weather reports: rain/sun/rain – it’s impossible to decipher these symbols and days glinting like treasure on this new map and to prove it, snow buckles and shudders magickly in the hills, tip-toeing across the sky and taking the life I deserted all those years ago, translating it to shifting shadow that disappears into hard tarmac.

6) Pack: books, always books and clothes suitable for freedom – non-fussy, waterproof, taken out over the years, taken in, taken out and over the years used again and again.

7) Granite towns for tea and piles of empty sea, and teeming fish restaurants stuck up like teeth on the corner of the universe. Locals spit and cackle, I pass through air like a tourist, dreamy on cold white wine. I try to take up the cackle with a fishwife. “There’s nothing left in the seas, son” she reasons. “Different from when I grew up. I was born in that little house” She points to a tiny shack by the sea, and whispers naked childhood with buckets and fish and callused hands and toil. “Really?” I’m genuine, amazed. “No!” she roars, old sea dame with her fish, reeling it in.

8) A life of fish, and shells and the smell of sea with its shift and pull, rough magic.

9) “Nobody ought to write before they’re thirty. I hate precocity.” That was a Mitford, I think, or another someone. Here I am, writing since the day I was born, trying to write my way out of this web of deceit, this dull prism and now this hot chip revelation. If this is failing, my fingers stained with ink, it’s better than being the first twelve-year-old grandfather, or the first atomic baby, or the last to the shops when the door is closing. Breathing. I’m breathing, and the wild beaches stretch out before me and the dunes humpback behind me, there is something here, it is me, I’m here. This is the beginning and the end, the best time; when ghosts flit by on the wind and you’ve done enough to join them – but not yet.

10) I tap my pocket and order a beer; have money, will drink. Pass me a plate of octopus, waiter. Red face to red face in the bar-light, I blend in to the corner, we eat, we drink. The cold light of Pontevedra grips me, laughing.

11) A five-hour drink and food orgy to test endurance levels.

12) I will not leave, I will not leave, I will not leave.

My partner-in crime on this trip a few years back was Rebecca Lander, incredibly gifted singer-songwriter. Our guide was the erudite Colin Davies, whose blog can be seen here.

16 February 2009

Crow & Jargon/Philosophy

I have been reading Ted Hughes, and his anarchic super-god, Crow. Ted Hughes was a regular customer at my grandparents pub, The George in Hatherleigh, a little town in Devon. He is my Aunt’s godfather. I never met him, to my eternal chagrin. There he would drink quiet pints, there he told of his recent addition to the proud pantheon of poet laureates, there, probably, he thought up, in his angular brain, poems like ‘Nefertiti’:

Sits in the bar-corner – being bought
Halves by the shouting, giggling, market-tipsy
Farmers who squabble to pay –

She hunches, to deepen
Her giddy cleavage and hang properly
The surrealist shocking masterpiece
Of her make-up

Ted has been labelled a “survivor-poet” and his apocalyptic verse in Crow is as pertinent as ever. The animalistic savagery of Crow is tempered by Hughes’ opinion that humankind has overstepped Nature’s mark. Nature, for Hughes, has a raw beauty that in humankind becomes hellish, unthinkable. Crow, often humorously, beats God at every turn, making him look pompous: ‘When God said “You win, Crow”/ He made the Redeemer.’ One of Hughes’ most triumphant and hilarious poems for me is ‘A Horrible Religious Error’, a cheeky take on creationism:

When the Serpent emerged, earth-bowel brown,
From the hatched atom
With its alibi self twisted around it

Lifting a long neck
And balancing that deaf and mineral stare
The sphinx of the final fact

And flexing on that double flameflicker tongue
A syllable like the rustling of the spheres

God’s grimace writhed, a leaf on the furnace

A man and woman’s knees melted, they collapsed
Their neck-muscles melted, their brows bumped the ground
Their tears evacuated visibly
They whispered ‘Your will is our peace.’

But Crow only peered.
Then took a step or two forward,
Grabbed this creature by the slack-skin nape,

Beat the hell out of it, and ate it.

The crow, Odin’s twins Huginn and Muninn (who he sends off at daybreak to gather news), those black birds that flock noisily in the twilight, is a bird of great power. Hughes sees him, poetically at least, as the true maverick soul of the Universe, forever alone and fighting his own fight. For my blog readers, who know my affinity with the hare, the only animal that gets the better of the crow, or at least equals him, is the hare itself. The hare, that mystical joker who boxes madly in fields, fronts up to Crow thus at the end of ‘Crow goes Hunting’:

The earthquake turned into a hare and leaped for the hill
Having eaten Crow’s words.

Crow gazed after the bounding hare
Speechless with admiration

I am pleased that the Crow is not infallible, although I should have known it, with Hughes’ poetry suggesting it at every turn. Crow may be a dark loner, but he can be got at through humour, and undone, he can relax if only momentarily. It is almost a relief to know that even Crow cannot always be alone. However, do not be lulled into a false sense of security or romanticism. Crow is shatter-skull, man-eater, end-of-world blackness. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Adrian Mitchell (who died last December) once wrote a poem about a bear who every day dresses up in a human skin and goes to work, his grizzle hidden by a human face. What would happen if Ted Hughes’ Crow were to don a human shell and go blackly about the world? What if Crow were to fall in love? I have tried to imagine this in poetry, which may seem rather far-fetched, but I have plenty of time on my hands at the moment.


The castle crag ploughs up-ended into
A grey spooling marsh of sky. The jutting-
Cliff, my face and the murder of crows,
Your eyes. Bracken and bog. The whistle-
Snap of wet reed. Little prose poems about
Scenery will not cut the mustard, I
See you have harnessed ley-lines and
Are about to saddle
Up. Do
Not try to read and translate the
Scroll of my features that has you hidden
In it; every contour of the map
Has been whittled down to one single
Track through the forest.
The archaeologists will find it
Later when we are gone and the whisper
Of that day is fossilised, a breath trapped
Between rocks. Hand to hand we stand
Now, your eyes bright with
Pagan poetry and mine x-raying
Your bones,
Will this snapshot, etched in slate,
Last until the end of Fate?
Or next week. It shouldn’t
Matter, the truth is that
It might or might not,
We are two hearts beating, silly
Really. I do not believe that flesh
Can be so cold.
This is the timeless moment you
Conjured up in small talk – a spell to
Make me wait
As we watch the crows
Gather in the trees. I am not afraid.
I eyeball them, your
Shadows (thought and memory), they
Have dark wings that are your
Symbols. I do not
Hope to wrap my arms about you
And protect you and your carrion
(Life is nothing we decide it starts it ends)
My own protection dripping rivulets down
My back like sweat and collecting in amulets.
Your dark fire
Lies cradled in my cold fist,
A dark crocus bursting up through snow,
Heads up to the mercy of Crow.

I Am My Own Wife

This book inspired not only a Pulitzer Prize-winning play but a legion of fans for Von Mahlsdorf and her wonderfully idiosyncratic voice. This is out-and-out inner glamour, East Berlin-style, and Charlotte is the gentle aunt of more unruly offspring like Hedwig, rock-and-roll East Berlin cabaret junkie and one of queer celluloid's most important characters. Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde, the son of a distantly aristocratic Markish family on his mother's side, and a brutal military father. Riding crops and uniforms were not for him, however, and he spent hours studying his female classmates ("What a lovely flared skirt and what beautifully embroidered trimming!") whilst his father beat him. He went to live with his great-uncle, who loved him quite simply out of respect for Lothar's eccentric but consuming love of furniture, specifically from the post-Biedermeier, the Gründerzeit. This is Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf's story, a love-song to a country and a culture she is keen to uphold through her collection of its' furniture despite Naziism and the Berlin Wall, and the shadow of bigotry ever-looming. A subtle and old-fashioned transvestite who loves to dust, Charlotte finally finds her home in an old palace which she fills with her obsessive collecting and rejoices "This house is my fate". It is testament to Mahlsdorf's extremely peculiar character that this book succeeds in promoting equality where others haven't. This is not a flippant foray into gay politics, but a firmly personal tale of a furniture collector who lived through an oppressive time and liked to wear a twin set and pearls and play with the cat o' nine tails. Sublime.

05 February 2009

Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: Third Food Edition

Since you've been informed that if the Artist and I use heavily-accented French it is by no means de trop, in fact it is de rigueur, we have plunged headlong into a Parisian wonderland. Without even leaving Perthshire! Incroyable, you'll agree. Half-hearted digs at our Gallic cousins have always been common; I even heard someone say "bloody Frogs!" the other day. In 2009! So, balancing on a tight-rope between the ridiculous political correctness that has had Carol "Golliwog" Thatcher deposed from her formidable throne and the insidious xenophobia more at home in football stadia, the Artist and I went hunting for frites, and I am definitely not talking about Freedom Fries.

The big news is THIS: the grand old city of Perth has a passable - no, good - French restaurant. The Artist found it, it's name is Café Tabou on St. John's Place. We were three, me, the Artist and the Infanta. She is a capricious child at times, and has a mad penchant for butter bread, that is t0 say, any bread or toast smeared liberally in butter. Luckily our jaunty waiter (all very authentic in here readers, French staff, crap French music and checked table cloths - it was like being in a dream of utmost joy. Did I say we were in Perth?) brought us a wicker basket piled high with fresh baguette and butter. Mission accomplished: the Infanta calm and happy with the food situation. Which is all you want when lunching with a two-year-old, franchement. Now on to us. An enormous slaveringly delicious-tasting croque monsieur with frites and salad. A generous bowl of steaming moules marinières with frites and a vat of white wine to wash it all down with. This felt very French to me and the atmosphere really did transport us far from the freezing streets. The moules were fantastic, and the best part was when I said so to the waiter and he rushed to the kitchen and shouted "FANTASTIC MUSSELS" to the requisite but unexpected fat gallic chef in the kitchen. The wine list looked pretty good but we couldn't sample too much as we were chaperoning said child. The house white was absolutely fine.
So, no crise in Perth today, apart from when the Infanta threw a frite at the muddled garçon. This was highly amusing but one mustn't encourage a child to badness when she's getting trained up, even if she admits herself she is "bad to the bone".
Photo courtesy of Claudia Massie

02 February 2009

Lentejas: Food Edition Part 2

You may have noticed the use of arch French vignettes in Stevie Smith’s poetry. It works well, because with her gleefully innocent style the generally simple French shines with irony and impish conservatism. However, shall we just draw the line at dropping words like bon mot or crise or enfant terrible into public conversation? As in:

(Laughing in smug fashion) “I’m afraid I’m going to have to claim this bon mot as my own” (More sniggering)


“Has poor Timothy come out of his crise?” (dreary smile)


“Oh darling you really are an enfant terrible !” (titter)

Sometimes, however, it is amusing to drop these words into conversation with a slight dip in the voice. Delivered with a certain panache, they crease you up into fits of rire de hyene.

The question remains whether one ought to use other imported foreign language words in speech? The physically shouty Italians have a plethora of body actions to suggest things. The favourite is hand under chin flick. It gives one an heroic image:

Vaffunculo Gianni, it’s time you moved out of your mother’s” (not omitting chin flick)

The Spanish also gesticulate, but more shoulder-shrugging is required. The universality of joder, like fuck, is key. The most important word we have imported is siesta. It is fine to have one at anytime and also use the word:

“Dude, I’m going for a siesta, don’t smoke all the weed”

We have some Russian words like glasnost. I never use these. But I would like to and keep promising to read Dostoevsky and other such, normally waylaid by a detective novel. They have words like mick and dago that sound cool but aren’t, really. Not officially anyway.

We won’t go into Greek and Latin, but let us just use the word tremendous. It’s root is in either one of the two and is a good one to describe your understanding of their utmost importance and the nature of your lack of knowledge of them.

However, I digress. You will notice from today’s natty title this is a food edition! So let me tell you about the lentejas Artist and I made for the Geologist the other day. The good news is that you can buy cured morcilla de Léon (without rice - morcilla de Burgos is with) in Linlithgow so we got it, and rushed home to a chorizo (Tesco’s finest – good). If you can buy fresh morcilla (as in – not cured) then do not put this in yet. Other things you need are Puy lentils, garlic, onion, chicken stock, ham bone (preferably Spanish jamón bone but highly unlikely in Perthshire) and bacon fat, tocino in Spanish but not sold in butchers in Perthshire - so we put in little bits of mutton (not classic) but conceivably you could add any bits you wanted, and always carrots, potatoes, bay leaves, chile, salt, pepper and paprika.

Fry up the onions and plenty of garlic in olive oil, place in cured whole chorizo and morcilla, hambone, whole peeled carrots and peeled potatoes chopped up roughly, not too small. Then the lentils, stock, some paprika (it’s called pimentón in Spain, you can get that if you want, it is arguably better), bring it to the boil and then let it simmer gently for a couple of hours. Leave it overnight.

Go and buy wine.

The Artist and I know a little about Spanish wine. We like it. We drink it quite a lot. Lentejas needs a rioja, in my opinion. But, you know. Some drinkable, meaty red wine. The feast is then ready. It is a pretty big feed but in Winter one feels it’s necessary. We heated up the lentejas in the oven – we decided it would cook in a more uniform fashion and it was somehow more satisfying to do so.

Serve with requisite salty salad (with tuna, hard-boiled egg, tomato, onion, lettuce and plenty balsamic vinegar, mustard and olive oil) or if you are like the Artist and are eaten up inside by a monstrous fear of things from under the sea, do not use tuna. Others would say the tuna is laced with dolphin and is not friendly. I try to buy all the right stuff but love tinned tuna in olive oil – not the stuff with brine.