Sunday, 30 September 2007

Waiting for Godot

Mary has kindly asked me to share my blogging expertise in order to help those new to the blogopolis to thrive. So here are my top tips for successful blogging:

1) Never forget your own insignificance: Why do you think that anyone would ever want to read your thoughts on anything?

2) Learn from the greats: Read only those blogs that regularly get over a hundred comments. They know the secret.

3) Read the comments first. This way you will learn what to think of the post before you actually read it. This makes reading far more productive.

4) Don't attempt to set down a single word until you are utterly convinced that you have a thorough understanding of the 'greats'.

5) Emulate: Start by typing out in full all those great posts you have discovered. Do this over and over again keeping these practice sessions to yourself.

6) Emulate II: Slowly and carefully practice writing the 'great posts' in your own words. Never substitute your own ideas though. In fact, make their ideas your own.

7) Remember there are rules in the blogsphere as there are rules in life. Learn them, they are there for a reason. You do not need to know what that reason is, just that it exists.

Realising that I may have missed out some crucial elements I now ask the good Doctor Maroon, Pat and Carole to fill in the gaps.

Friday, 21 September 2007

All The Cool Girls Smoke

Some men (it's invariably men: I know a mechanic who says he can always tell when a car is owned by a woman because it's filthy and full of crap)... So, some men spend whole afternoons washing and lovingly polishing their cars. They drive them with pride. I've seen men patting their cars and smiling. To such men the cars they own mean something, they are more than merely vehicles to get them from one geographic point to another.

I have, in my kitchen, a yellow bowl. Actually it's mostly unyellow but it's the yellow that stands out. In this bowl I cream together butter and sugar, add eggs – one at a time – then flour followed by one or more various flavourings: fruit and cinnamon; vanilla; chocolate or what-not. Then I scrape the resultant mixture from the bowl into one of a variety of metal tins and put it in the oven. For the rest of the day my house will be filled with the aroma of baking. I have several other mixing bowls but if this one ever got broken I would be devastated because, for me, this bowl has meaning. It is the bowl in which my mother mixed the cakes that demonstrated her love and by using it, in my mind, I do the same for my family. It is the bowl of a thousand birthdays, Christmases, Easters and weddings. But when it sat, sometime in the early '60s, on the shelf at Woolworth amongst a row of others just like it, it had no meaning it was just a cheap bowl. But because whenever I use it I am transported back to those childhood days filled with the anticipation of bowl licking and cake worthy celebration this bowl, to me, is worth far more than one shilling and six pence. It is one of only two things I inherited from my mother. Over the years I have imbued it with specialness. Others may understand this but will not feel it.

I quite understand that anyone else who casts their eye upon it will see merely an old mixing bowl because, in truth, that's all it really is. If what I'd inherited from my mother was a beautiful jewelled brooch that I remember her pinning carefully to her evening coat, smelling of powder and Chanel No.5, before going out hand in hand with my father for a glamorous party, the significance could be no greater. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and price doesn't count in matters such as these. My yellow bowl, crack-glazed and greying, with no exchange value whatsoever, is the loveliest object in my possession.

I have a favourite pair of trousers. They are old and torn and splattered with paint. They are too big and hang down dragging on the ground as I walk. Yet when I put them on I feel good: slightly bohemian, a bit rebellious, slim and, dare I say it, even rather sexy. However, the man in my local deli suggested I might do well to put them on the scarecrow I told him I was making. To him they are just a pair of long-in-the-tooth, scruffy, worthless trousers. He didn't hear my husband once tell me that they make my bottom look great. He doesn't know how easy they are to move in. To me they are life enhancing trousers, they tell a story, my story, though very few people can read it in them. I'll be distraught when the left leg comes away as it's threatening to do.

When, twenty three years ago, I stood at the altar and took my marriage vows, my husband put a pretty, engraved, rose gold ring on my finger. We had found it together, one Saturday morning, in a flea-market. It only cost about twenty quid, but it came to symbolise our togetherness, our till-death-do-we-partness. Sitting on that flea-market table amongst watches with cracked faces and once loved tarnished silver the ring had no meaning, but by choosing it for a wedding ring we gave it plenty. I polished that ring until it gleamed. Sadly, as is my way, I'd lost it within the year. Pregnancy had swelled me and I had to take it off. I, no doubt, put it somewhere 'safe' but failed to find it again when the time came. At first I missed it terribly, feared that people would think I was a single mother, mistake me for something I was not. I felt less married without it. But I got used to the loss, learning as I grew that real love can do without symbols.

Eleven years later, for our twelfth wedding anniversary, my husband presented me with a new set of rings. One hand made by an artisan jeweller adorned with little hearts of various precious metals and two diamond eternity rings to go either side. The combination is a beautiful one and I was delighted by the gift. He'd put a great deal of thought into it, had it made specially. But these are not the rings he placed on my finger on 18th August 1984. Although he meant them to fill the gap caused by my lack of the original I have been unable to give them the meaning he anticipated. I had got used to not wearing a ring over the period of eleven years, there was no longer a gap to fill for me. And somehow these rings are too beautiful for my scarecrow-trouser lifestyle. I tend only to wear them when I go 'out'. I do not wear them to dig the garden or to cook supper or to sit at my desk and work. To me they are no more, or less, special than the diamond stud earrings he bought me for my fortieth birthday which he also had made especially for me. They are a beautiful but unnecessary gift, as most gifts are, and speak no more of love that any of the other such gifts I have in my possession. On Saturday night, at my cousin's fiftieth birthday party, I will wear them, along with the earrings, with pride. A pride borne of having a husband who loves me enough to spend his hard earned cash and his little spare time on bringing me such objects of beauty. But today as I type this I sit here unadorned in my favourite old trousers no less loved or loving. As for my long lost ring I sincerely hope that someone else has stumbled upon it and that now it adorns another finger with a newly given meaning.

That no object has meaning in and of itself whether it is a car, a mixing bowl, a pair of trousers or a ring is a valuable lesson to learn. Objects don't give our lives meaning we, our lives, give meaning to them. That's one in the eye for the advertisers.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Michel de Montaigne: How Wrong Can You Be?

The first thing I noticed about Rhona was her hair: rich chestnut brown and so shiny she appeared to have a halo. In an office full of black wool-mix and barely there make-up she wore brown slub-silk and La Dolce Vita eye-liner. As I walked through the office in which she occupied a small space from my own across the hall in order to use the shared kitchen, she was the only person to smile, to say hello. She didn't look me up and down and bristle. She didn't stare at her screen in studied silence. And when I actually took up a full time position in that very office and her colleagues became my own she was the only one who's eyelids remained unbatted as aspects of my core character leaked through the professional veneer. We got to know each other during our multiple fag-breaks on the corner of Cadogan Street, the heart of Glasgow's red-light district.

After I met her husband, Craig, he commented that in me she had met herself. She lent me Cinema Paradiso. I lent her The Life of Pi. She endeared herself to my son Bob by being the only adult never to ask him what he wants to do when he leaves school. Our sensibilities connected in a way I'd never experienced before.

After a couple of years of interviewing people for jobs they were too good for we abandoned our efforts to earn a living within months of each other. I went first having realised that I spent more in compensation for the horrors of work than I actually earned. She, a little later to have her first child. She moved out of Glasgow to the north. I lived (still do) about sixty miles south. Neither of us are very adept at picking up the phone either to make a call or answer one. We both have mobiles at the insistence of our husbands but mine lies festering in the bottom of a bag and hers lives in drawer. There is a fourteen year age-gap between us. We are both apt to get waylaid by our circumstances.

She had her second child, Edith, in January. I've had my dissertation to grapple with. Occasionally I would leave a message on her answering machine or find she'd left one on mine. Christmas, the season of our last meeting, began to feel like a very long time ago. Then two weeks ago a miracle happened: she phoned and I answered. We talked for about two hours until she had to go and pick Oscar up from nursery. We discussed getting together but left it vague. She would phone me back. Several missed calls later we alighted on yesterday as the date, but where? She would phone me back. On Friday night at about nine o'clock she did and it was settled. We would meet upstairs at the Ubiquitous Chip at two the next afternoon.

Some friendships are based on shared interests, others on mutual circumstances. I have my philosophy friends, my mother-too friends and my home-town friends. Most fit more than one category, flow in and out of the various boxes. This one defies all attempts of reasoned situationism. Rhona has a philosophical bent, an inquiring mind but hasn't studied the subject to any depth. She is my most willing and ardent editor and critic but doesn't, herself, write. There is an eighteen year age-gap between her motherhood and mine. The spiritual home of our friendship is Glasgow but neither of us lives there now. Our relation to one another appears quite unfathomable to some. Stevie, my husband, has admitted he doesn't understand it. I often fear analysis will undermine but to try and explain what keeps us connected I brainstormed:

Reservoir Dogs, green, enamel-ware, flasked tomato soup. Toast. Kate Moss for Top Shop, Kate Moss for anything, razor hip bones, old leather sofas. Big sunglasses, bobbed hair, teal patent shoes. Tapas. Cocktails. Fine bone-china cups. Edward Monkton, Julie Arkell, Cath Kidston, Johnny Depp. Cinema Paradiso, The Station Agent, Edward Scissorhands, anything with Kirsten Dunst. Kiera Knightley's not too thin. Buxom is admirable but we don't want to be it. Grey hair is cool. Kings of Leon, French Film Noir. Noir, French, passion, chic. Scuffing along the beach. Greenhouses, sheds, gift wrapping, ribbon.

If we were Siamese twins we'd be joined at the sense of admiration. She gives me permission to be shallow as she points out my depth. She has a way of highlighting the positives and disempowering the negatives by inviting them in. She can tell how I'm feeling by the tone of my voice, my gait, even my hair. She knows more about me than I do. She aids integration. She understands, she listens and she is genuinely interested. She facilitates compromise and makes it feel like victory.

As the kitchen of the Ubiquitous Chip closed before we got round to ordering we moved next door. There, in a bar that used to be a cinema, we constructed a make-shift tapas from the starter menu. And feasted. Four hours in uncritical company with spicy fries on the side: a veritable banquet.

Today I know more about myself and I like myself more. And in my diary the date for our next lunch has already been marked.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Autonomous Imagism

Fresh damsons: pretty but inedible.

Autumn: Golden leaves and swirling mists. Open fires and toasted scones. Woodlands that smell of mushrooms. Ripening hedgerow fruits. Abundance and burgeoning chills but warm hearths to come home to. Long walks on crunching leaves wearing chunky knits and sturdy boots. Marshmallows. Harvest festivals. Giant leeks and tiny glistening dark coloured berries. Pumpkins for pies and lanterns and, for me, one of the best risotto recipes ever.

Thanks to the poets and other image makers we have a vast stock of autumn fantasies to indulge in and live up to. A golden season from a golden age of happy peasants and observant artists. When was that I wonder?

I've tried on various autumns for size. I've got the Wellington boots, the stripy scarf and am lucky enough to have a small wood behind my house for the purposes of both admiring and crunching on ochre leaves. Last year I bought a book on how to identify edible fungi but lost heart when I failed to find a giant puff-ball. However, I did make an awful lot of things with the courgettes that had taken over my garden. And I burnt a lot of leaves in my pot bellied garden stove. All rather satisfying I must say. Sometimes autumn can cause me to lament the fact that I don't have pale red hair and freckles. Sometimes it makes me think 'but we haven't had summer yet!' Generally though, for me autumn is a time of frantic kitchen activity (winter being the season of eating something I prepared earlier) and this week I have mostly been making jam. I have two damson trees in my garden and this year they have excelled themselves in terms of production. Fearful of waste I have been climbing ever higher to get at the fruit before it rots and searching out recipes to fill my store. Fools and compotes, chutneys and pies. I like making jam the best. It makes me feel like a goddess of the orchard. Yet the whole process, from picking to bottling, can be achieved in under an hour.

The alchemy of jam making is utterly fascinating. In the case of damsons one takes inedible bitter, sour fruit and turns it into something spoon lickingly scrumptious. All one has to do is boil them with sugar until that magic setting point is reached. Of course they must be stoned and this is the most times consuming aspect but with that image of domestic goodliness in my mind I don't mind it one bit. Here's my recipe:

1.5 kilos of damsons
1 kilo of preserving sugar
a teaspoon of ground cinnamon
a five second grating of nutmeg
a freezer chilled saucer

Put your damsons into a large, heavy saucepan with a little water. Bring to the boil, stir around a bit and when the skins begin to split (seconds, trust me) drain. Allow them to cool a little so you can handle them without pain and then squeeze out the stones. Put the fruit back into the pan, pour over the sugar, turn on the heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg. Turn up the heat and bring to a rolling boil. Boil in this manner for 5 to 8 minutes. Once five minutes are up get your iced saucer out the freezer and blob a little jam onto it. Push this blob with your finger and if it wrinkles the jam is ready. If it doesn't wrinkle keep trying every minute or so. Once it's done pour it straight into warmed jars, cover with a waxed disc of paper and put on the lid. As the jam cools in the jars a vacuum will be created and, thus, you can be assured your jam will last the winter if stored in a cool place. Bereft of a pantry I keep mine in the cupboard under the stairs.

Sometimes, instead of using preserving sugar I use dark muscovado sugar and sometimes I add some vanilla extract instead of the nutmeg or cinnamon or both. Sometimes I use all three. Half the fun is in the experimentation and I am considering adding Madeira or Marsala wine next time. The recipe I have given is a kind of mish-mash of two of Nigella Lawson's: greengage jam and damson fool. The nutmeg and vanilla I add from my own imagination.

It strikes me that jam making is not dissimilar to life living. I certainly cherry pick from inherited and newly manufactured concepts of how to live a good life. From the plethora of images out there. And from that create my own recipe for living. Part domestic goddess part fashion model (the thin part only sadly). Part gardener part academic. Part shopper part anarchist. Part environmentalist part emitter of carbon. Part feminist all financially dependent. It's not perfect but it has it's moments.

Damson jam: delicious and gleamingly pink