Monday, August 24, 2020

Oddments

 I try to be really careful with my news consumption at the moment, dipping into my newspaper of choice once a day and Twitter twice. The never-ending dialogue of catastrophe and verbal sparring and lack of nuance can really drain a persons energy. 

But I am careful to keep check of articles I find funny, interesting, reassuring or a plain old hunk of good news. 

Here are some of those I've found recently:

1. Earth Overshoot Day was delayed this year by nearly a month. It's not much, but hey, take your good news where you can find it. 

2. Simone de Beauvoir revealed as an Agony Aunt! How amazing would it have been to take your problems to Simone, have her pull on a Galouise and shrug, Gallicly. "Mon petit, 'ee is not ze right one. Make your own way"?? 

3. Wicked Leeks included a list of things to do with a courgette glut and I am forever grateful

4. There are online jigsaws! Soothing and with the added benefit of making me feel like I'm 10 again, wiling away a rainy Sunday afternoon. 

5. A recent Vittles newsletter on the "life changing magic of cookbooks". Cooking connects us more than we realise: "The question I have been asking myself lately is why do I love cookbooks so much? Why are they important to us? The answer is complicated: what I do know is that I have learnt so much beyond recipes from cookbooks even though the things which have enriched me have rarely been something I actively sought. They are a comfort to me, an escape, and a balm for my soul. Imani Perry, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton said recently: “Living defined by terror is itself destructive of the spirit. Joy was never an evasion of the depths of the wounds, it is literally a sustaining life force”. Anti-blackness is all too real in this time and fighting racism is life-draining. Very little sparks joy in my life, but some cookbooks ignite such a big spark that they practically light a bonfire. Black joy is fleeting; I’ll take mine where I can."

6. When I was somewhere between the ages of 7 and 12, one of my favourite characters in fiction was Ramona Quimby. Naughty and funny and clumsy and living a completely relatable world. This Twitter thread about how she'd be now was everything. 


Sunday, August 23, 2020

My Week In...Smells

You see? I didn’t find a better word than smell after my first My Week In post, so I’ve decided to embrace it. Smells are marvellous after all: our smell memory is so much stronger than anything else, and the merest whiff of something can send us spinning down through the years to our grandmother’s house or back to last year and that holiday beach or even just to the beginning of this year. I love smells, so the word stays. 

Anyway, this was my week in 7 smells: 

Strawberries from the farm shop, so ripe that I could smell them from the boot of the car as I drove home  

The acidic tang of pickling vegetables: courgettes, cucumber, beetroot, runner beans. We have been pickling everything the allotment has to offer and it was this smell that sent me cascading down through the years to my Nan’s house. 

Clean bedding, fresh from the washing line in the brief gap between rain storms. 

Rain! That beautiful, earthy, fresh smell of petrichor that the ground releases when rain hits heat-burden grass, bricks and stones. 

The oat, honey and lavender bath milk I’ve created for myself in an effort to create a sustainable bathing product that doesn’t aggravate my eczema prone skin.

Fresh bread, toasted and topped with a very nice sheep’s cheese. 

That curve between my boyfriend’s shoulder and neck.  

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Great Harvesting


When I lived in the countryside, the arrival of summer fruit season would always bring me joy. I'd search out the nearest pick your own place to take the kid and gather huge punnets of strawberries and raspberries. Some of them got made into jam, most were just eaten with fingers, with ice cream, in cakes. Blackberries ditto. 

And I would always feel rather virtuous and smug. Look at me, making the most of the bounty of the land! Hand me my tweed jacket and walking boots for I am a child of nature!(Not quite as child a nature as the new plot holders on the site who were spotted smearing their faces with mud from their site. They could be an interesting addition to the social mix). 

How little I knew. 

Now I am bound to the city and have an allotment on which to pretend I know what I'm doing, the word harvest has taken on a whole new meaning. 

The combination of a few days being busy with projects at home, the scorching sun followed by the rains followed by more sun, meant that when I finally got up to the plot this evening, I was greeted by courgettes (more of them!) the size of my arm, runner beans so big and fat the breeze couldn't move them and bindweed growing with abundance over the site of the fruit cage. 

Half an hour's hoe work and one blister later, the latter had been conquered for at least...oooh... 2 days if I'm lucky. 

So far, courgettes have been turned into soup, chutney, flatbread, bhajis and, new in this week, a tart with a tahini and yogurt cream which was delicious in the extreme. The runner beans have been blanched and frozen, eaten hot from the pan with gravy and roast potatoes, and eaten warm with a dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and dijon mustard. The giant cucumber (only 2 so far) have been pickled for me to eat with some salmon later this week. 

We were left a small bag of greengages which, supplemented with some plums, I turned into a sort of jam. I say sort of because I foolishly left it to cool before putting it in jars: by the time I got to it, the syrup had stickified (totally a word) itself to the roasting pan and had to be coaxed off. I'm sure it'll taste just fine...

Anyway, the 2 jars of that are now on the new "preserves shelf" in the utility room (I put a lot of plastic boxes in recycling for that to happen), along with the pickled beetroot and courgette chutney. 

The boyfriend has yet to make his runner bean chutney. We are going to need more jars. 

Of the squash I planted a few months ago, so far, apart from their tendrils spreading all over 3 beds, I can see only one promising green one. The tiny patty pans, which are my favourite, seem to have rotted before they were ready, which is a shame. The cabbages are doing fine in their butterfly and pigeon proof cage. 

Next year, there will be a fruit cage filled with raspberries and strawberries, an asparagus bed to tend and the start of the new mini orchard. I can't wait to be even shorter of cupboard space and for the house to smell of vinegar and jam sugar. 

On a side note, did anyone else stand in their garden during the break in the weather last week, arms outstretched, yelling "it's about bloody time!" at the skies? Oh the cooling rain! I'm not a natural heat lover and the only person I know who craves a holiday home in Iceland to escape to during British summertime. 

If I could just win the lottery...

Thursday, August 13, 2020

My week in...Sights

Sights, quite literally, for sore eyes as I was struck down with an allergic reaction to hydrocortisone/hayfever (take your pick according to whether you are a) my doctor or b) me)). My eyes, for the first time ever, had swollen so much I could barely see. 

One hour and 4 slices of allotment cucumber later, they had reduced enough to allow me to work but then developed very dark circles. It took 3 days to completely calm down. A trip to the pub had to be cancelled so no one called the police thinking the boyfriend had hit me, or the zoo thinking I was an escaped panda. 

Despite this, I saw some things that gladdened my heart this week; here are 7 of them:

Cuban wildlife, thanks to a great BBC documentary, Wild Cuba: A Caribbean Journey. Cuba is one of those places I've always wanted to go. For now, I'll settle for watching jewel-bright humming birds and lizards on the screen. 

The planting of the honeysuckle in the new garden border. This is the boyfriend's project and I'd honestly expected the honeysuckle to live out it's entire life in the pot until last weekend. 

Beautiful sunsets over the rooftops, even if each one has preceded a day so hot the air feels like warm treacle, followed by lightening that flickered and flashed silently through the clouds. Eerie and spellbinding. 

A peacock butterfly. 

Little Mabel waiting for me to wake up with all the patience of a toddler, i.e. none. Nose tapping by paw occurred. 

The glorious illustrations in Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat. They're so lovely, I almost want to put them on the walls. Plus, the book is revolutionary, logical and funny. I want her for my friend. 

The new piece of linocut art that I invested in, hanging on the wall in our living room. 



Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Holding Myself to Account

Way back in June, following a series of killings of unarmed Black Americans and the Black Lives Matter protests that took place all around the world, I made a pledge that once a month I would buy and read a book by a Black and/or Asian author in order to educate myself and hopefully make a positive change in the way I knew best. 

How did I do? Well, in June I started reading David Olusoga's Black and British: A Forgotten History. A confession: I am still reading it. It's so well written that it's the one book I feel guilty for not finishing but as well as being very erudite, it's also a dense and chewy read. I can't whip through at my usual speed, I need to give it the time it deserves, so I am, a few pages at a time, alternately grieving and furious over the stories told, regularly picking my jaw up as I go.

July was Lemn Sissay's My Name is Why, which I talked about in my July reading round up. I'm still taken aback by the grace and forgiveness Sissay demonstrates at every turn of his fate. 

This month, I have read Atul Gawande's Being Mortal (oh my, that book!) and have treated myself to Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat. I also have Bernadine Evaristo's Girl Woman Other, which I'm hugely looking forward to.

After that, I have a list of authors I want to read: Children of Blood and Bone, Negroland, The Wife's Tale for starters. 

How do I think I'm doing? Probably not well enough but it is a start. I am still reading Toni Morrison's Mouth Full of Blood, which like the Olusoga, is a dense read. She was so fiercely intelligent that I feel almost humbled to read her and again, I feel it needs more than my usual cracking pace. A few pages at a time and the pause for reflection. 

Pausing for reflection is always good. Certainly better than screaming into the void. 

 And practically? Plans are afoot to incorporate diverse stories into new museum displays, not just women but examining trade routes and the roads our foods travelled to reach us. And we're working with Don't Settle, an initiative that brings young people of colour into museums to challenge rhetoric and create sustainable change. I'm hugely excited about both these activities. I can't bring people back to life or change historical events, but I can damn well make changes for a better future. 

All it takes is a willingness to be vulnerable. To allow others to rise.



Thursday, August 6, 2020

My Week in ...

... touch. I'm a very tactile person and the way something feels is hugely important to me. It's one of the reasons I stopped wearing vintage clothing - I couldn't bear the feel of crimplene on my skin. See also, real wool. Itchy itchy itchy. 

However, these 7 touches gave me all the good feels:

Mabel fur. Yes, I am a little obsessed but she is warm and soft and fluffy, and won't be this way forever, so I'm indulging

The rough surface and slight prickle of the runner bean, courgette and cucumber plants on the allotment

Silken petals on the rose my parent's got me for my birthday

Early morning grass under my bare feet as I pad across to hang the washing out

The whisper-soft brush of the grasses that have seeded in our tiny garden and that dance next to me as I'm weeding

Making focaccia, I'm momentarily distracted by the pilllowy suppleness of the dough under my fingers, mesmerised by how it rises back from the kneading

The fuzz of my boyfriend's newly shaved head. 


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

July at the Allotment

The grand harvest has begun and what a harvest it is! Even with only a few functioning beds while I work on developing the rest of the plot, there has been an abundance of produce. I'm leaving runner beans on neighbours doorsteps and freezing as much as possible. 


The courgettes produce on a daily basis and on a couple of occasions I've left one that was just the small side of perfect only to come back the next day to find it has ballooned to nigh-on marrow size. We've had them stir-fried, bhaji-d, added to casseroles and done simply with butter and thyme and served on toast. I'm not entirely convinced courgette jam is the way to go, but I may not have an option. Of the 2 types we've had - yellow and green - the former are the most delicious. I shall stick to those in future.

 

The beans have produced a whopping 6lbs so far and I spent a Sunday topping, tailing, de-stringing and chopping into small pieces, 4 of those 6lbs. These have been blanched and are now in the freezer waiting for a free weekend when we can turn them into chutney. 


The squash are curling themselves across the beds and I've made a note to plant them in a different location next year as they are slightly in the way. They should be a bumper crop too. 


The wildflowers are spectacular, bursts of colour at the top of the allotment that the bees go crazy for. The borage had a total of 10 honeybees on there when I last checked, all of them heads down, bums up, almost drunk on the pollen they were harvesting.

 

All of the potatoes are up now and I lugged home the last 17lbs of them at the weekend. I'm letting the beds rest until we've built the cabbage cage and then the seedlings can go in, safe from butterfly eggs and pigeons. The planned asparagus bed has been covered over so the weeds can die down before being dug over in winter. 

                                                   

And I finally finished digging out the fruit cage area! That really was a battle of woman against plot as I dug through 3 years of accumulated weeds, grass, bramble root and leavings from previous tenants. I'm now unsure that it's big enough but, as the boyfriend pointed out, we can always extend it next year. 


It is still one of my favourite places to be. My colleague recently gave me a "return to work" gift of a little green notebook with a Moomin on the front and the quote "I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream". I'm with you there, Moomin Papa.

Monday, August 3, 2020

July Reading

I genuinely didn't expect to get much reading done in July. There was too much to do outside, too much work to do and my brain was skittering around like Mabel on our tiled kitchen floor. 

Actually, Mabel is responsible for the fact I did read so much. On my 2nd week of being signed off, she joined the family and, being so small, spent quite a lot of time sleeping in the crook of my elbow whilst I tried not to fret on the sofa. It would have been cruel to move her, so what else could I do but pick up a book from the top of the teetering To Read pile and, well, read. 


And slowly, as she settled in, warm and soft and purring, my brain slowed its skittering. At the start, I read but couldn't tell you what the pages contained, the words just washed over me. 2 books jolted me out of that: My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. They were astonishing. Sissay's for his unsparing account of a childhood spent without love and understanding; Nelson's for her exploration of gender, sexuality and family. Sissay's made me cry, Nelson's made me smile. 

To complement the Sissay, I thoroughly recommend the Imagine documentary on the BBC. Normally Yentob gets right on my pip but this was sensitively handled with enough space left for Sissay to fill with his own words. 

Angelou I've talked about before, my love of Vargas and Christie continues (and not just for the hokey covers, but seriously, have you seen a more hilarious Christie cover than this one?).


I approached The Attenbury Emeralds with an open mind but it was not good. The tone was off, the dialogue hit duff notes, the plot far too complicated and rushed and, oh, it just wasn't satisfactory. As a long time Sayers' fan, I should have known better. It was a bit like Sophie Hannah's attempts at Poirot stories: well intentioned but just not right. 

But I'm going to end on a high note: my pal, Liz Hyder, won the Waterstones Young Adult Book of the Year last week and I'm pleased as a pleased thing that's just had some pleasing news! Bearmouth was one of my books of the year last year - it's an incredible piece of writing with a unique story and an unforgettable voice in Newt. An absolute must-read for any young adult in your life.

July books: 
Seeking Whom He May Devour - Fred Vargas
An Uncertain Place - Vargas
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
My Name is Why - Lemn Sissay
The Attenbury Emeralds - Jill Paton Walsh
The Cornish Coast Murder - John Bude
Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson
Cat Among the Pigeons - Agatha Christie
The 4.50 from Paddington - Christie
Hound of Death and Other Stories - Christie

Saturday, August 1, 2020

In Praise of the Small Garden

As I walked to and from work today (yes, I am back at work and yes, I am feeling better thanks), melting in the cruel heat of the midday sun (oh to be in Greenland right now!), my eye was drawn from the softening tarmac, the relentless blue sky and the bursts of intense light bouncing off car windscreens, to the side of the pavement. In particular, to the front gardens of the houses that lined them. 

Living in a city, most of the front spaces have been turned into car parks as people decide they cannot possibly exist without their car Right Outside their front door. Some are little more than paved waiting areas for the big green and black wheelie bins each household has. But on this street, most have been left as mini gardens and the contents, I think, reflect the people inside. 

There's the one with ivy creeping up over the front door, numerous shells cover the seat of a small bench and there are handmade items almost hidden in the dahlias. Another has a purple slate path that meanders, tinyly through small beds of daisies, Mexican fleabane, phlox and other country flowers. They've managed to fit in a birdbath and a bird table too. 


I pass the one that has 2 wheelie bins but they are partially hidden behind a patch of grass no wider than a flymo that has been allowed to grow to knee height. After that comes the larger property with the sweeping gravel drive, gates painted a tasteful shade of green and 2 artfully pruned trees whose shade allows me to gratefully catch my breath. 

The next has a wall made of bricks, each painted a different pastel shade of pink, yellow, green and purple. It has holes cut in it that have been seeded by thrift, daisies and buttercups. Then there's the one I call the witches garden: it's full of herbs that have been allowed to go wild, including the most enormous rosemary shrub that's been carefully clipped into a pleasing curving shape. 

There are paths of slate, brick, tarmac and gravel. Windows that bow out, sash up and down or simply fling their two halves open to the light. Doors are green, white, blue and red, one a yellow that startles the eye. Numbers are printed on enamel signs, pottery tiles or straight onto the doors themselves. 


In the windows, signs and rainbows for the NHS are still up, yellowing and curling in the sun. One has pictures of the owner’s art as part of the local Art At Home week. There are sun catchers, dream catchers and wind chimes in others.  

Our own tiny patch of front garden is in need of weeding but is full of snap dragons, daisies, marigolds and lavender that the bees are going crazy over. Inside our plain black door is the new addition to our family and my heart is full at the thought of playtime and cuddles with Mabel. 

As I type this now, she’s fast asleep, curled up next to me. A brief pause before she wakes and starts exploring again. There is something so completely joyful in her demeanour and curiosity, it's helping us see our house anew. 




The Shed Makes An Appearance

Saturday was a very momentous (can something be "very momentous"? Surely the "momentous" cancels out the "very"...