Thursday, 19 June 2014

O is for Open heart surgery (therapy) and a few healthy chips

Dear Nigel,

Summer is big and blousey here; the flowers are all out - swathes of blue Geranium, pink Peonies and my favourite weed the deep pink Valerian. The roads are thick with tractors on their way to yet another field of hay and the whole countryside is busy at work. Young lads pulling balers have England flags jutting out of their John Deere's and the roofing next door has ground to a halt as it's all hands on deck to bring in the hay. Children are regularly pulled out of school (unofficially) to help, and the local schools turn a blind eye to it...though you didn't hear it here.

I am making a 'TV supper'. My guest is coming over to watch a DVD. Sometimes, for some people, the conversation flows easier when there is something to do or something to watch. My guest is one such person; and I am making 'Potato Wedges with Gorgonzola Sauce' ( pg 309) for the occasion. At first I baulk at the sheer amount of chilli flakes involved - in this case a whole tablespoonful - but I trust your judgement, and in hindsight have to agree.

These sort of suppers are vying against the heavily-seasoned tortilla chips, the mono sodium glutamate 'gimme-more' crisps, and over-sugared popcorn; and they have to hold their own. Also, I think there is something about eating mindlessly whilst watching the tele that calls for stronger flavours just to bring your mind back again and again to what you're actually doing. It would be an interesting experiment, I think, to link the heat of the chip/or crisp (in chilli terms) with the degree of action in a film. Perhaps a high action-packed, adrenalin-inducing film might be linked to a greater heat tolerance? What do you think?

My mum sends me a cutting out of the 'Northumberland Gazette'. It is an article about a house I used to live in that a TV company is making a programme about.

When my marriage ended in 1998 and I was left with five small children to bring up on my own, I did the only thing I felt I could at the time when paradise has just been bombed, and took my children somewhere to start a new life where there would be no painful memories holding us back. We moved from Cornwall to an old derelict railway station in the middle of nowhere in rural north Northumberland. The railway was like a time warp. There was a Victorian railway station complete with ticket office, an engine shed, a stationmaster's house (which we were to live in), and a tiny terrace of six cottages on the other side of the station.

The railway was part of Lord Ravensworth's estate in those days, set several miles deep in countryside away from the nearest towns, and remained virtually untouched by time. It was overgrown with weeds and long grasses with wild flowers all down the sides of the grassed-over trackbed and brambles around the coal shed. My parents, who lived not too far away, were absolutely horrified that I wanted to move my family to this desolate place in the middle of nowhere, and kept trying to show me more suitable properties in nice little villages nearby. But I was caught up in the romance of the whole place. In my mind I was Jenny Agutter waving her red knickers at the railway tunnel; and the extreme pain of that time made me feel as if I was living on someone else's film set. My fame went before me, it seemed, and all the locals seemed to know that a 'single mother with five children' was moving in. In one swift move I seemed to have gone from respectable Bank Manager's wife to social leper.

The day we looked round we had to tramp through two foot of snow to get to the house. There was no kitchen to speak of, no basin in the downstairs loo and the plaster bounced if you touched it. To my Dad it was a given conclusion but I was already thinking Farrow and Ball paint charts and planning a very special Birthday party on the station platform. The party was to be for my third son, William, who would be seven years old in the July. There would be a line of old school desks making up a long table and tiny chairs to sit at and lots of balloons strung up to the cast iron tracing.

It was this image that kept me going through some very tough times. And in the July we had the party. It was a beautiful sunny day. New school friends from the village primary school three miles away came and we played games and races on the old track bed. The tea was a fine success, punctuated by the constant sound of mini explosions as balloon after balloon popped against the jagged edges of the cast iron tracing. If you had been  driving over the little bridge towards the Vale of Whittingham, you might have chanced to look down and see a line of happy faces waving and holding hands in a circle.

In many respects it was a happy time of renewal and healing. Three children went one way on a bus, two the other way in a taxi. I played piano at the village school, finished my degree and got a teacher training place, and gardened and walked the dog clockwise around the circular track. Archie the old shepherd who lived at the end cottage, would walk his old sheepdog anticlockwise, and we'd nod in passing. He'd had fourteen children, the youngest of whom, Angela, still lived at home and caught the bus with my lot. Archie had come down off 'the mountain' to retire and one of his sons, who worked on one of the farms on the estate, lived in the middle cottage. At the other end of the row of cottages was John the Gamekeeper - a kindly soul. It was community enough for me.

The producer wants to make a documentary for Channel 4's 'Restoration Man'. At long last someone has bought the place and has grand plans for a home. I often thought it could have been moved lock, stock and barrel to a living museum somewhere, it was so untouched. I am sure it will make a fascinating project and a lovely home. And yet, for every weed that is lifted, a little of the romance of the place is removed. It is somehow impossible to have both it seems.

And Jenny Agutter's red knickers will no longer be waving in the wind.


Monday, 16 June 2014

A guest at my table - Angie

A long time ago when I was but a little bird turning into an awkward fledgling, I had a friend called Angie who lived only a bike ride away on the edge of the next village. Angie and I had one of those love/hate relationships that young girls do, best of friends one minute, enemies the next. Such is the pain of life at that age. We were as normal a pair of friends as it is possible to be when one of you is the daughter of a fairly famous ageing rock star, often away.

The school we went to was an ordinary state secondary school set in a (perhaps less ordinary) small village in the fairly heavily-wooded area that nestles not far from the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire. It was an area of small villages and larger properties hidden between the trees where those who wanted to escape the world for a bit of privacy were able to do so. That some chose to give their own children a bit of normality in going to the local state school was a good thing; and indeed there were several offspring and relatives with celebrity connections. But school is a good leveller and any sharp Alec bragging about his dad is likely to get a bloody nose in the playground of a school which caters to all ends of the spectrum.

So Angie and I rode our bikes and camped and talked about boys, and the other half of her life barely came into things at all. Perhaps it simply gave her a far greater confidence to deal with life, and a presumption of entitlement that such confidence often brings. And perhaps it was this that made her do what she did, crushing my fragile first love, betraying my trust.

It is hard enough to deal with your own fragility at that age, to place the trust in another and talk of your hopes and dreams of unrequited love. Perhaps I told the tale too well. Perhaps I made the poor boy of my dreams into such a shining gallant knight that she was mesmerised and caught up in the fairy dust, seeing anew a boy whom she would have passed by daily without a glance. Anyway, their relationship was short-lived - our friendship never quite the same. And the boy of my dreams said, years later to me, 'I wish I'd known'. But it was the wrong time, the wrong place for me by then. Life is full of one-way doors with no way back.

So I'm putting out the biscuits with trepidation. We talk. Now and again. We've followed each other's lives through the ups and the downs in intermittent Christmas cards and the sudden urge to phone. My confidence has grown in life, plummeted and grown again; but then so too has hers. It seems a gilt-edged crib is no protection against the cruelties that life has to offer. And confidence is only skin deep in all of us, however thickly we appear to wear our skins.

She has only a couple of hours to offer me, she says on the phone. She is on her way to take some of her paintings to a new Art gallery. She doesn't know whether they really want them all, or just a few to contrast against another's work. This isn't the Angie I knew back then. Perhaps we have both mellowed in the bottle and the unlabelled plonk is holding its own against the famous name. I give her instructions for her sat Nav and tell her to read it back to me as there's no mobile phone reception here and I may be up the field with the dog. There are no numbers to the houses in this village either, and all the cottages share the same postcode. She could ask at the Post Office, but it's very likely to be closed. I'm starting to sound nervous, despite the biscuits looking like a far better cook than me has made them. She rings off in the exuberant flourish I remember of old when she is keen to finish a conversation and impatient to move on to something else. I bite my lip.

Our letters have been full of the daily doings, the routine, the advent of babies and christenings, school plays and divorces. Her life has had as many twists and turns as mine. And each made light of in the yearly ramblings....'and the weather has been awful here these last few weeks...and by the way, Andrew and I are getting divorced...', she says in one. I let it slide under the carpet like that letter from the postman coming through the letterbox, across the polished parquet floor and found six months later when the rugs are taken up for cleaning. We talk in the crocheted loops of silence. The phone is even worse. She rabbits on about her artwork taking up all her time and I can hear the silence behind that says 'my youngest child has gone off to college and now it's only me and the dog'.

'Come down', I say.
'I can't. I'm busy.I can only offer you a couple of hours next Tuesday.'
'Tuesday's fine. I'll make some biscuits.'
'I'm on a diet.'
'Then I'll eat them for you. But I have to warn you, they're to die for. And you'll have to watch me eat them...'
I hear her smile at this and the chill has gone once more.

So here she is in her navy blue convertible, sunglasses pushed up on her head and her red hair more bottle red than I remember. But she hasn't changed. Still that dimple. Still that warm hug. I used to think, - afterwards, ' I don't want any daughter of mine to have red hair'...and then Hannah was born and she was...beautiful. Angie's changed, a little. We're both a bit - larger, I think. A few wrinkles, perhaps, a bit less energetic, possibly. Do we both look so exhausted all the time? We used to live life on maximum speed and sleep seemed like an optional activity. She says she doesn't sleep well these days. I nod in agreement. We sit outside and she carelessly pulls the petals off a daisy as we catch up on the news, skirting around the real issues, hinting at things and then skimming off in another direction.

'Thank you,' she says, hugging me as she gets up to leave. We've talked. I think. We've shared food.
'My turn next,'she says. We smile. It could be another ten years, or more, or perhaps only a couple of weeks. I wave all the way as she backs down the drive and around the corner and then roars off up the lane. A loose chicken squawks and jumps out of the way. I catch a backward wave of pale white hand with vibrant polish, and she's gone.
'Bye Angie.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

N is for Nice things, Normality and Nigel

Dear Nigel,

I have a friend coming over for coffee. She hasn't time to stay for dinner, apparently, as life is busy, busy, coffee will have to do. I am marking the occasion with 'Oat and Lemon Cookies' (page 407). I hope she has time to eat, time to savour...time to live....Everyone is so busy these days, it seems, stuck on their own little hamster wheels going round and round ever faster, getting nowhere fast. It gets harder and harder to justify taking time out, it seems. My friend thinks so anyway. I think, what if you were not here tomorrow? What about all those things we left unsaid, those half-finished conversations, the half chewed-through chats we never got to finish because one or other of us was always 'too busy', on to the next thing, moving on...

I am taking time out, for a few days; paddling my feet in the cold north sea, watching the young man with the beard making his designer beers in the microbrewery of the pub on the beach - its door slid open to let the scent of the sea and the seagulls' calls filter through into the amber soup. It is a quiet day; the school children are back at school, mostly, the rain drizzles gently against our faces and the wind is from the land - warm and moist and succulent - like the baked herring I am tucking into for my lunch. My mum says 'Your Granny used to make those for the shop'. (My Grandpa had fish shops down the coast). '...She used to bake them in huge trays in the bottom of the old gas oven. They went like hot cakes when the holiday makers all came.' This would have been in the fifties, I guess. I tuck in and try to imagine the palate of another era, in an age before Focaccia. It is plain and wholesome and tastes just right with a plain slice of bread and butter. It does leave tasteful reminders of itself all afternoon long, however, but I guess that is power for the course and not a good-enough reason to abstain.

There is a ribbon of orange seaweed along the tide line, harvested from the bottom of the sea by a rough tide. It spirals with the ribbons of dark green bubble wrap, like a complicated double helix in a biology textbook, going right across the expanse of the bay. We cross the rock pools to the spit at the turn in the sand and look over towards the ruined castle shadowed against the mist. My camera isn't up to this, in this light; I will have to capture it in my mind's eye and develop it in the darkroom of my subconscious.

The children bring small treasures for me to see. Several jointed crabs' claws that stink out the Landrover in their plastic buckets. There is a whole line of pink buoys in the bay guiding the fisherman to his crab pots, and lunch on to the plates in the pub. I have seen crabs here caught in the morning and brought in and eaten hours later with a squeeze of lemon between two slices of brown bread. We find a square pebble with a calcified shape of a heart, left by a little sea creature. It will make a fine paperweight for a fussy Designer type like David. We stroke the pearlised inners of hinged mussel shells and move a line of slowly-moving tiny black sea snails a little further along their rock. It feels nice to be so absorbed.

There is a word in the Swedish language with no direct English equivalent - 'Lagom' - meaning 'just the right amount'. It also translates as ' in moderation', 'in balance' and 'there is virtue in moderation'. It is a concept I find myself creeping ever closer towards as the years go by. Heady past excesses seem merely that. The real things are to be found at the bottom of a rock pool, and in the conversation with my friend, whose unsaid comments are written loudly across her face even as she tries to hide them. This is real conversation; not the sort you can hide behind a smoke screen of telephone 'verbalism' or a brief non-committal email shot. She will be captive to my scrutiny and she knows it.

This moderation - in all things - (good food included), brings a sense of normality to my life, an evenness that fosters a quiet contentment. It is also the way you cook, I believe; focusing on the simple balance of ingredients, letting things sing for themselves with just a hint of everyday magic  to let them shine. It is an honest way to cook. I like that.

I beat the softened butter and muscovado sugar together in  the mixer. There is a gentle rhythm to it all - baking - I am fond of cake but even more so of a good biscuit. I eat my mum's Gingersnaps because they remind me of my Granny. A good biscuit is a comfort. These seem an indulgence to me - two for the price of one, actually; larger than they should be, and slathered in a mixture of two of my favourite ingredients (lemon curd and mascarpone). These are occasion biscuits. I hope my friend appreciates that. The only way I manage to keep biscuits in the house at all, and keep my weight under control, is (rather meanly I suppose), to buy the plainest biscuits that I can for my kids. They do seem to rather prefer that anyway for some obscure reason. When I was a child it was dead fly biscuits (or Garibaldi if you will).

The biscuits spread and toast lightly in the oven. I am careful not to over-brown them as I want them still soft. You say 'I prefer them the next day, when they become soft and chewy'. I think I will too, if they last that long. An unmarked tin is a dangerous thing in our house. When in doubt I have to leave a note sellotaped to the lid. It wouldn't be the first time I came down in the morning to a scattering of crumbs and nearly cried.