Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A guest at my table - Magna

Magna was a large lady with tiny feet who wafted in gracefully on a cloud of expensive Lily of the Valley perfume. I could tell it was expensive because even though she appeared drenched in the scent ( - you could smell it from several feet away- ) it still smelled wonderful, none-the-less. That there should be a reason she might wish to douse herself in SO much scent had never really occurred to me. Only now, thinking back, I remember that she had given up a good career as a University Lecturer to look after her Barrister husband who had become an Alcoholic. It seems natural to me that she should want to surround herself in a protective layer (- in every way -) against the acrid ketone smell of an Alcoholic.

She was a kind and gentle tutor who had found a niche for herself shepherding novice students through the Open University Arts Degree courses, many of whom had little or no qualifications on embarking; some of whom would fly, others who would need hoisting up by the breeches and pointing in the right direction. Magna knew just how to get the best out of everybody. She was as sympathetic to all my whingeing and pleading for extensions on the grounds of lack of sleep due to having a new three month old baby, as she was to all the others.

If it was a come-down for her from teaching the creme-de-la-creme then she never showed it. Her enthusiasm was electric, yet gentle and soft in voice. It was as if she saved all her energy up for these Tuesday night sessions and then exploded her enthusiasm for Pre-Raphaelite paintings or the complex meanings hidden behind an Enlightenment text. It was impossible to not come in on a dark and windy night with the rain pelting down outside and not feel immediately engrossed in something warmer and brighter.

Her tiny feet were truly amazing. They defied any law of gravity that someone so large and voluptuous should move around so daintily, barely seeming to touch the ground in any one place at all. I have seen cartoons of characters shaped not too dissimilar to Magna and always dismissed them as caricatures or incomplete line drawings. The laws of gravity should have held some sway, and yet Magna appeared to have no centre of gravity whatsoever.

I haven't seen Magna for several years now, and, as I put together this most humble of meals, I am wondering how life has treated her. To have been prepared to put so much of herself aside and not to feel embittered by it showed me how it was possible to still live against the odds and be happy. She threw more of herself into what she could do instead of pining after that which she could no longer. If her high voice betrayed an over-enthusiastic optimism, then the energy and vigour behind it was genuine and she took huge delight in watching the penny drop at times.

Her deep Catholic beliefs which had led her to make such a radical career choice were ingrained. She once took us on an outing to her old family home which had since been given to the National Trust. We looked at the Priest's hole and the simple furniture and the picture of Christ hung on the wall.

'Of course,' she said, 'they've got it wrong here. In a Catholic house like this where religious practise had to be kept secret, and the priest hidden at times, there would never have been a painting like this hung up on the wall.' And she was right. She showed us how to take the hidden testimony from a room, or a painting, or a piece of furniture and see what else was there - what interpretation or prejudice time had placed, and needed stripping back like a painting beneath a painting only to be caught in Infrared scanning -  like the man hidden behind Picasso's 'Blue Room'.

She was very matter-of-fact about it all, and never grand. I think life had taught her to value all things and all people equally. For all that, she was amazingly clever and it was always interesting to be in her company and talk on any level. She was the kind of teacher who brought you up to her level rather than the sort who would rather demoralise and squash in order to gain some kind of paltry self-esteem.

As I stand here waiting for her to come in it is her resonating voice that greets me first, closely followed by a cloud of Lily of the Valley, before two tiny feet in red shoes shuttle her in over the doorstep. She sits down like a parachute coming in to rest and immediately asks, questions and notes in the same sentence so that I don't know which part to address first. My brain notches up a gear and I reach for the wine.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Q is for Quality and a Quiet simplicity

Dear Nigel,

I am freshly back from a holiday in Ireland and leafing through your book for inspiration. I find a recipe for 'Poor Man's Potatoes' (pg 113) which seems to fill the bill entirely. Not only does it remind me of Old Ireland but also New Ireland's fantastic culinary heritage has left me bloated and craving simplicity- a piece of toast or a pile of new potatoes. Like you, a fairly empty store cupboard and bank balance also turned me in the right direction. By the time the potatoes had softened in the stock and the peppers remaining plump and juicy, I was in no doubt that there would be plenty of taste and I would not be left feeling disappointed. As always, you didn't let me down. Perhaps next time I might add some smoked garlic or fennel seeds as you suggest; but for now this is plenty.

We went to Ireland in search of new songs, travelling from Dublin to the West coast and back again. In the West our main stay was at the tiny village of Doolin on the coast in County Clare. Doolin is the home of Traditional Music in Ireland, to those who know. Here on the edge of the Atlantic Way, by the harbour which ferries folk over to the Aran Islands, are three busy little pubs with music playing into the night. Over in McGann's a guitar and banjo were accompanying a singer with long dark hair and Celtic looks. A young lad of perhaps fourteen (also from the McGann clan as it turned out) came and did his bit on the penny whistle. He played his few tunes very well and it was nice to see young blood with a bit of old whiskey in his veins. The pub was full to heaving and I got talking to the old guy next to me who turned out to be an architect who had turned to making banjos after an injury. He'd come to see one of his famous handmade banjos is practise played by a true professional. He said he had more business than he could cope with and an ever longer waiting list. There aren't many banjo makers out there, apparently.

On to O'connor's the next evening where an even tighter-packed pub was waiting for the music to begin. This should have been the epitome of our week - this is where it all started and became 'known' - and yet the musicians here were dragging their feet; with long gaps between the songs where they sat and chatted between themselves or went on their phones. I have never been into a pub where the musicians were less keen to play. They were obviously there just for the money, and in the end we made our excuses to the people were were sat with and left for McDermot's and a group of lively young players who were simply having fun and who would happily have played all night, I think .

But before that, for me, the highlight of the evening. An old man stood up. He had the face of Old Ireland, with tight knobbly cheekbones in a red shiny face and smiling eyes, grey hair and a beard. And he entertained. He sang only two songs and then went away. Meanwhile, the accordion player hung his head and looked down, pretending not to hear. The fiddle player fiddled with her iphone and picked her nails. Only the guitarist kept a few chords going while the old man sang.He sang of 'Dublin in the Rare Old Times', and he did it beautifully. This was the kind of Ireland that I had come to hear. I thought, give an old man his two minutes of glory and make his day. How little would it cost you?

Mary, my B&B lady told me the old man had been going to O'Connor's for over thirty years. The musicians were obviously used to his interruptions and resented it. And yet, they had no great desire to play themselves. All he wanted was his few minutes to shine; and he went away a happy man. It was only when he picked up his crutches and turned that I realised he only had one leg. But he left with a huge smile over his wizened face and his eyes lit up the night.

Ireland never fails to inspire me, musically, and yet there is a massive commercial side to it all these days. Even in Doolin, the village has doubled in size in the last ten years. In Dublin, where music plays till three or four in the morning in almost every pub in the Temple Bar part of the city, all the musicians are selling  their Cd's and there are bouncers on the doors. As we'd been there listening to music since about four in the afternoon, trying to measure our drinks, and  had a nice meal, by about eleven in the evening I'd had enough and just wanted to listen and dance. The atmosphere was electric. A young lad with red hair and a beard was entertaining on his own on guitar. Music was more modern here with each musician having his own take on a handful of classics. A group of Irish girls out on the town were having a riotous time dancing and singing along. They impressed me, though, that they still knew all the verses to 'The hills of Athenry' (but I think that owed more to the football than anything else.)

At some point near midnight a man ran into the pub waving a huge silver soup terrine over my head. A load of men in synthetic blue shirts raised their arms and cheered. Clearly, this is some strange local custom as I'm not sure any soup I've ever made has elicited quite that response.

A little later, we were thrown out of the pub by a man with surgically-enhanced biceps who looked younger than my sons. It's a long, long, long time since I was thrown out of a pub. Still, something to impress my wayward older brood. It seems we weren't drinking enough by that time in the evening, though I'm not sure that dancing with beer glasses is to be recommended either.