Monday, 29 June 2009

Seeing Red

Red poppies and pale pink lavatera

I think that I've been spending far too much time in the garden . . . I'm starting to read "signs" in the flowers.

After two months of pastel lushness, tall red poppies are springing up everywhere. I don't remember planting them. Perhaps they seeded themselves?

Over the last week, the burning sun has scorched the edges of flowers and grass. The Met Office has issued its first heatwave alert. We can't sleep for the early morning light and the suffocating heat.

The colour red, as you probably know, has the longest wavelengths of light. Summer seems to be gathering its energy. The long days are intense with it.

Red is also the colour of anger -- and love. Our weekend was emotionally jagged; the heat builds up, and then there are storms.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Midsummer Magic

Watering the borders
nepeta (catmint) and cotinus (smoke brush)

Do you think that a responsiveness to nature is a genetic gift like any other?

Are some people born more attuned to the ebb and flow of the natural processes all around us? Are they more inclined to notice the beauties around them? Are they more likely to feel nourished by what their senses can absorb?

And why do some landscapes speak to us, while others don't -- or at least not so much, or in the same way.

I've never felt that I was particularly responsive to nature, but there is something about England that makes me feel like a tuning fork which is vibrating to the perfect pitch.

Last night I was watering the garden in the early evening . . . and there was this magical combination of hot sun, cool earth and the smell of water soaking through herbs and flowers. I wish that I could capture it in words: the deliciousness; the sensual quality of pure notes of rose, thyme, lavender and basil.

I always feel keenly aware of that moment when the sun reaches its peak, and then begins its slow, but inevitable, decline again. It has that gorgeous repleteness, but also that shadow of decay, like a ripe piece of fruit or a full-blown rose.

Another kind of magic:
the first ripe raspberries

Last November, we planted raspberry canes in the dull wet ground. They looked like lifeless sticks, and it was hard to believe that anything would or could fruit from them.

All through the spring, my daughter plotted the progress of rough green leaves and then tiny green beads and then, in late June, ripe red fruit. (It is midsummer, but autumn's apples and blackberries are already emerging, raw, hard and green.)

I wonder if gardeners find it easier to accept that the nature of life is constant change. Being new to cultivation, I am constantly surprised how quickly plants flower and fade or just lose their shape. Last week, the nepeta which was a perfect mound all spring had to be cut back. It had sprawled, and grown leggy, smothering a rose, a fuschia, a heuchera.

Today I read: One morning, Polly saw a crimson rose show its heart to the sun, only to fall in a cascade of petals by the end of the day. (from Love in Idleness, by Amanda Craig) Only a few days of sun and the ground has baked hard and dry. The roses fall apart in my hands.

Every clear, warm night we eat outside now. We try to follow Herrick's advice.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Pub Lunch/Shadow Shot Sunday

The pub:
hub of socializing
cherished by the English
for its rituals
beer and idle chat
good grub
a smoke (no more)
but still, the shadowy scent
soaked into wooden beams
and trod-upon tiles

Sunday lunch
nothing to see but sheep
on the hillside
blessed sunshine
hot enough
to justify umbrellas
(but not the rainy day kind)
strong enough
to create shadows
on nearly the longest day
of the year

the sun and clouds
throwing down shadows
over this country quilt
the landscape looks so empty
but besides the sheep
there are two of us

with love to my Father
on Father's Day

I'm a rogue (or is it off-road?) blogger on Shadow Shot Sunday
sponsored by Hey Harriet

Friday, 19 June 2009

Green Acres is the place to be . . .

"Farm living is the life for me"

I've always thought of myself as a city girl. Just give me a whiff of that acrid city air and it's like leaded petrol in my veins.

For three years now I've been out of my natural habitat, and bogged down in the countryside. Instead of taxi fumes, the air smells of wet grass, honeysuckle and the earthy tang of manure.

I've adjusted to clean air; I've come to love the quiet of the place; but the one thing that I cannot wrap my head around is the subject of animal husbandry.

I live next-door to a farm, and every morning as I depart for the school-run I see some unfortunate jodphured person mucking out the stables. It combines everything I like least: mud, stench and hooves. I'm deeply grateful for the work that farmers do, mostly because I'm glad that I don't have to procure my food the hard way. I know that I am like Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon, dabbling in my strawberry plants and hen's eggs, but I'm content to rely on the grocery store as our primary food source.

Although I exist on the fringes of actual agriculture, occasionally I will wander into the trenches, and then be as surprised as an Alice who fell through the rabbit hole.

Last Friday night, my husband and I attended a Farmer's Ball -- my rather airy description of a fundraising event to help local farmers in times of need. (It's an emergency fund, really.) General impressions: Lovely Food (new potatoes and rare roast beef and properly sweet strawberries) but Worst Disco Ever. (The Nolan Sisters? The music was cheesy more than 30 years ago.)

I was sat by a German farmer and his wife; I will call them Hans and Helga. They are the most extraordinary pair: equally strapping and hearty, and always smiling and laughing. They are like a cross between an apple dumpling and an Oom-Pah Band. You might think that the stress and disappointments of farming would result in dour dispositions, but these two act like the world and everything in it is a great jolly joke.

I've no idea how Hans and Helga came to live in West Berkshire, but they've been local fixtures for two decades at least. I've known them for about a decade, and encountered them mostly at chilly "summer" barbeques and Bonfire Nights. Perhaps because I am usually leaning against the AGA, trying to stay warm, they tend to tease me. They treat me like a delicate flower or lace doily: something pretty, "precious," and ineffectual. Although I am usually wearing jeans and a fleece, they make me feel like Eva Gabor in a filmy peignoir.

Despite generalized good-will and a casual fondness, Helga and I tend to bring out the stereotype in each other. When I discovered that she was originally from Bayreuth, I immediately asked her if she had ever been to the Festival. She found this deeply hilarious. "But doesn't everyone ask you this?" I said. "No one! Never has anyone asked me this!" she replied. "Only YOU would know this," she chortled, and then leaned over to share with Hans this great joke. Then, widening her eyes, she confided me: "I did see The Ring Cycle once. Ten hours on a wooden bench. NEVER AGAIN."

At some point, the conversation turned, inevitably, to chickens. I have two hens; Helga has sixty, give or take a cockerel. She proceeded to tell me a lurid tale, sort of a cross between Chicken Run and The Exorcist.

For reasons which weren't entirely clear, Helga decided to "do away" with one of her cockerels -- a mean and stringy old fellow. First, she bashed him unconscious with a wooden board. Then, she cut his throat with a knife to finish him off. Finally, she buried him deep in the muck heap "so that the dogs wouldn't eat him." (Each stage of this murder was related to me with much chuckling and chortling.)

Has anyone guessed the punchline? It was the chicken who just wouldn't die. The next day, one of her daughters commented on the "strange chicken" walking around the yard like a drunken sailor. Like a grisly spectre, the cockerel had risen from the muck heap . . . and was listing around, head lolling at its side.

Apparently, he went on to make a full recovery.

Knife crime takes on surprising forms in the countryside.

one of my pampered chickens

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Carrot cake: for the birthday girl

Carrot Cake: for my daughter's first birthday
and also her fifteenth
The recipe is blotted with my positive review
and the subsequent spatterings which indicate
frequent usage!

I just took my Carrot Cake out of the oven, and the air is richly perfumed with cinnamon and so many memories of birthdays past.

I first made this perennial favorite for my oldest daughter's first birthday.

I can't recall why; perhaps I thought that the pureed carrots made it appropriate for a toddler? Certainly I tend to think of it as a wholesome cake. It is a dense, moist cake, too. You never have to worry about it slumping or tasting dry; it is sturdy and reliable, and it lasts for days . . . assuming there aren't more than two parents plus a birthday girl to eat it. (If you've got a crowd, I have found that people tend to be greedy. Don't count on left-overs!) I make this cake at least once every year; if I don't make it, people get a bit plaintive.

Just a taste of carrot cake!

Although I rarely look at our old photo albums, today I indulged in a fit of nostalgia. So much has changed, but my girl still has the same cheeky grin -- albeit, toothier.

My baby girl

Last night I couldn't sleep, and I started thinking about the night 15 years before when I lay awake all night with mild contractions. I remember feeling ready to get on with it: I wanted to meet my girl.

I remember being vaguely aware that nothing but would ever be the same again.

My daughter was born at 2:18 pm on June 17 in the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, England after what I like to describe as "inadvertent natural labor." Named after both grandmothers, she was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. My first impression on meeting her was that she looked just like her father! That similarity is more than skin-deep; she is smart and strong-willed, also like her father.

She walked early, talked early, read early . . . and now she is anxious to grow up and assert her independence in other ways. This year has been one of enormous physical and emotional change, and sometimes it is hard for me to keep up.

I suppose that is why I am grateful for these small rituals, these paper-chains of continuity between the past and the present.

Carrot Cake: at my birthday girl's request.

Berta’s Carrot Cake
(from The New Basics Cookbook, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins)


2 cups all-purpose or plain flour (if weighed in ounces, it will be approx. 12 oz)
2 cups granulated sugar (16 oz)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup (8 oz) corn oil
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups pureed cooked carrots (approximately 10 2/3 oz)
1 cup (8 oz) chopped walnuts
1 cup (8 oz) moist sweetened coconut
¾ cup crushed pineapple, drained (approximately 6 oz)


Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C. Line two 9 inch cake tins with waxed paper and grease the sides.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda and cinnamon together in a large mixing bowl. Add the oil, eggs, and vanilla, and beat well. Then fold in the carrots, walnuts, coconut and pineapple. (I use my Kitchen Aid mixer for all of these steps; run it on low for the last step and scrape the sides well.)

Divide the batter between the two tins and place on the middle rack of the preheated oven. The cake will need approximately an hour to cook through. The edges will pull away from the sides of the tin and a toothpick will come out clean when it is ready.

Cool the cakes in the tin for 10 minutes, and then invert them onto a baking rack and let completely cool before frosting.

This cake tastes really delicious and wholesome without frosting, but for a birthday cake you are going to need great creamy gobs of cream cheese frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting


8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons (3 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups (approximately 18 oz) confectioners/icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice of ½ lemon

Cream the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and well-incorporated.

Slowly sift in the icing sugar, and continue beating until smooth (no lumps!). Stir in the vanilla and lemon juice. Adjust the sugar for thickness. It needs to be fairly thick or it will slide off the cake!

You may want to garnish the cake with finely chopped walnuts and/or grated coconut. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Drunken Bee

A drunken bee

My dear friend Elizabeth has been taking pictures of drunken bees in New York City, and she requested examples of the same from my garden.

Funnily enough, I already had this picture on the camera. But not so strange, really, because I have dozens of roses blooming at the moment . . . and they do tend to attract bees . . . and bee behavior seems to fascinate photographers. Tangobaby managed to catch an astounding close-up of one just the other day.

My bee is just a blackish blot, so you'll have to take my word for it . . . but this bee was so rapt, so avid and utterly absorbed, that it reminded me of a newborn baby at the breast. Like me, the bees prefer the sun . . . and when it is shining, they appear in clouds of buzzing bliss, like nectar-sugar addicts.

(This rose is in the middle of my herb garden, and I had to practically lay down on the ground, mashing mounds of chives and fennel, to get this view.)

And because I can't resist alliteration, and admire a writer who thinks to use the word "bibulous," a poem for my subject:


You voluble,
Vehement fellows
That play on your
Flying and
Musical cellos,
All goldenly
Girdled you
Serenade clover,
Each artist in
Bass but a
Bibulous rover!

You passionate,
Pastoral Bandits,
Who gave you your
Roaming and
Rollicking mandates?
Come out of my
Foxglove; come
Out of my roses
You bees with the
Plushy and
Plausible noses!

Norman Rowland Gale

Friday, 12 June 2009

Devon when it drizzles

Into the Surf

June is a summer month in England, but not a holiday month. All over the country, students are hunched over their exams, grinding away at Common Entrance, GCSEs or A-levels. The beaches of Devon and Cornwall will be swamped by the end of July, but at the moment they are empty and still. The tide goes in and out, relentlessly, but the bubble and froth of boats and bathers is more intermittent -- if equally predictable.

was almost completely deserted when we visited it at the beginning of the week. Except for a few couples with babies, and the retired set, the town was nearly empty -- and the beach entirely so. Only the presence of carpenters and white transport vans, who were updating the shops for the upcoming retail season, created any buzz.

If the weather had been glorious, I'm sure people would have emerged -- like hermit crabs from their second-home shells. But in the cold drizzle, the children had no competition for places on the pier. High tide fell during tea-time, and clad in thick plastic macs, my daughter and her friend set traps for crabs. Tempted by bacon, the greedy crustaceons practically jumped into the nets. By the end of the summer, their ranks will thin . . . but on a rainy night, they were easy pickings.

Of course, the children threw their considerable haul back into the water. They fish for sport, not food. We prefer to get our seafood from the The Winking Prawn. On sunny evenings, you can sit outside and participate in a communal barbeque. But when the weather is dull, I want to eat my pink prawns and bacon-wrapped monkfish from a more comfortable indoor spot.

No matter how delicious the food and company, there is something terribly melancholy about the beach when it is shrouded in cloud. The children, more impervious to the weather, don't mind as much. For them, the ingredients remain the same: ice cream, and lots of it; a trip to Cranch's to buy rock and clotted cream fudge; a trip on the ferry and sea tractor; and crabbing, of course.

I can't help think, though, that the sun is the crucial alchemical ingredient: its magical properties turn lead into gold.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Oxford: Bookstore fantasies

On Walton Street
Jericho, Oxford

I have a "thing" (is fetish too strong a word?) for independent bookstores. (Indeed, one of my enduring fantasies is to be the owner of one someday.)

I love the idea of well-edited collections -- no trash, only treasures -- where bibliophiles can browse and find all of the books that they always meant to read. A friend says: You must read this book . . . and there it is! Rarities, classics and deserved best-sellers -- all beautifully bound and arranged.
Albion Beatnik is just such a place.

An intriguing mix of the British and the American

There are lots of places to buy books in Oxford, but I doubt there is a collection as eccentric (and yet tempting to my tastes) as the one in Albion Beatnik. Reflecting the owner's passions, it has an excellent collection of jazz (books and records), Beat poets, and 20th century American and British literature grouped by decades. There is a really substantial section of Virginia Woolf and other Bloomsbury writers, both fiction and nonfiction. I was also really impressed by how many British female authors -- particularly those writing between the 1930s and 1960s -- were represented.

An old-fashioned touch: wrapped in plain brown paper

Did I need four new books? Well, that's not the point.

My new treasures:
The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning
In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

I am increasingly aware of the mental cross-pollination taking place in my orbit of the blogosphere. All of these books (or authors) have been recommended to me recently by blog-friends.

Train Landscape, Eric Ravilious

Tomorrow I will be taking the long train journey from Berkshire to Devon. And although I've requested a window seat, from which to view the beautiful countryside moving westwards, no doubt I will be distracted by my travelling companions (Amanda Craig and Elizabeth Jenkins).

Friday, 5 June 2009

Confession Friday

I toyed with the idea of calling this post "Me and My Shadow," because it was seeing my silhouette that started it all.

Usually, England's sky is thick with cloud, but this week it has been gloriously sunny. The other evening, Sigmund and I were taking a post-prandial stroll and I couldn't help but notice our shadows holding hands. Unfortunately, it was a moment of horror for me.

There was no denying it: I have become distinctly pear-shaped.

(Was it turning 40 that did it? Ok, I'm 42 if you want precision in these matters. Was it moving to England, where the pear shape is the womanly norm? Was it the bad weather? Was it the cake baking? Was it blogging that did this thing to me?)

Perhaps I've always had a tendency towards the pear, with a small waist and speed-skater thighs, but it is definitely getting worse. With the pull of gravity and age, my bits are all starting to pool towards the bottom.

So, here's the rub (and I'm not just talking about my thighs):

On our last anniversary, Sigmund gave me this card. I suppose that the sentiment is nice, (and quite apt in our case), but all I could see was the bottom on that woman. Was this my husband's way of telling me that my derriere is getting large?

Here is part of my confession: I have never, NEVER, asked my husband if I look/looked fat. I have never discussed my weight with him. I have never uttered those cliched words: Does my bum look big in this?

Unfortunately, (for the sake of my vanity), I have an exceptionally thin husband. He has slim hips and a tiny, tiny bum. If you see his shadow, you might think "carrot" -- but with no feathery bits at the top. He is also very honest, and wouldn't bother to spare my feelings. Don't ask, if you don't want an honest answer. Even if he didn't actually say anything too horrible, the smirk would give it all away.

Here is another part of my confession: I have only been on a diet once. When I was 15, and already perfectly slim, I decided that I needed to lose a few pounds. I went on a diet that I found in a teen magazine, and the main thing that I remember about it was that I ate an orange for breakfast every day. Then, I played tennis for several hours and swam. Not surprisingly, I lost weight. I also became a little bit crazy. I distinctly remember my mother trying to get me to eat a hard-boiled egg and a piece of whole wheat toast before a tennis tournament, and I remember having a teenage, full-scale, drama queen melt-down because I could only eat the orange. I became a little bit afraid of food, and yet I was in thrall to it. At 15, I discovered that diets make you think about food all the time.

I firmly believe that our mothers influence our attitude towards food and that there is nothing we can do about it. My grandmother had a weight problem, and thus my mother was and is determined to stay thin. When I was a child, I can remember her making us wonderful meals and just having a Sustacal shake herself. Although she eats healthily now, she doesn't eat much and she works out every day. I wouldn't say she exactly deprives herself, but she doesn't indulge herself either.

Ever since my unfortunate dieting experience, I have been determined to enjoy my food. In fact, I am famous (at least among my friends) for it. There are no "bad" foods in my language; there are no self-imposed restrictions. I have always liked to exercise, and I kind of thought this would help me get away with eating cookies on a daily basis.

For most of my adult life, I have been the same size -- give or take 5 pounds. It's a completely "normal" size: an American 8/British 12. I've never been thin, exactly, but I'm not fat either. But the extra five pounds are starting to look permanent and, oh dear, my butt . . . it's getting bigger, and I'm not happy about it.

I was walking with a willowy friend of mine this week and I asked her what she ate every day -- not because I am going on a diet or anything, but I'm starting to realize that I'm going to have to cut back. Here is my friend's average daily intake: No breakfast; soup for lunch (no bread or crackers); no snacks except for fruit; chicken or fish and salad for dinner. She slightly relaxes this punitive diet on the weekends. When she goes out, she likes a glass of champagne.

I went to her for advice, but all I could think was Noooooo way.

And yet: We are going on a biking trip in 6 weeks and I am going to have to wear hideous black lycra shorts. To add insult to injury, they have padding on the bottom.

This week I have walked at least 12 miles and exerted myself for three body pump classes. I have consumed nothing that could be described as "confectionary." Extreme measures are required.

Years ago I taught myself to eat when I was hungry, and for the most part, that is what I do; unfortunately, I may have to start teaching myself to learn to live with occasional hunger pangs.

Tomorrow is the annual Sports Day, but I won't be making any cookies.

I love to eat, but I really don't want my theme song to become Baby Got Back.

To paraphrase Sir Mix-A-Lot: I've got a big butt and I cannot lie . . .

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Hearts and Minds

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@Barrie Summy

By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show. Samuel Johnson

I came to London. It had become the center of my world and I had worked hard to come to it. And I was lost. V. S. Naipaul

This melancholy London- I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air. William Butler Yeats

I believe we shall come to care about people less and less. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It's one of the curses of London. Ambrose Bierce

Perhaps all cities have a dual nature; but whatever is true of any city, is doubly true of London. When I visit London, I tend to get the tourist's view: of world-class museums, orderly streets, beautiful parks, excellent theatre, good public transport and all the weight of history, which means that even total strangers can delight in recognition. We've all "seen" and imagined London, even if we haven't actually been there. It's a wonder that any of the current eight million inhabitants can gain any purchase there, what with all of the ghosts taking up space.

More than one hundred years ago, politican Joseph Chamberlain described London as the "clearing-house of the world;" Amanda Craig's latest novel, Hearts and Minds, so eloquently illustrates how much that remains the case.

Because the novel's main characters are all outsiders, to a greater or lesser extent, Craig is able to look at London in the largest sense: not only what London is, but what it represents -- what it means to people from all of over the world. Every year, unknown numbers of people come to the city -- hoping to fulfill some dream. Whether they are EU citizens, wealthy expatriates, asylum seekers or illegal migrants, they bring all sorts of hopes and expectations; unfortunately, there is a growing sense that even the vastness of London cannot contain all that is asked of it.

It's as if Craig has carved out a large section of London in the 21st century and done a vivisection on it. And underneath the picture postcard, she reveals a London in seething turmoil. If you haven't been reading the British news for the past decade, this novel is a primer for all sorts of economic, social and political issues. Education, the health service, Labour bureaucracy, the press, religion, the ethical obligations of a first-world country, human trafficking, knife crime, terrorism and social class strata are all examined through the incredibly compelling lens of believable, sympathetic characters.

Polly, single mother and human rights lawyer; Ian, the South African teacher; Katie, the privileged young American; Anna, the Ukranian girl who has been tricked into sexual slavery; and Job, who has fled Zimbabwe, become the five voices of the story. In Dickensian fashion, their individual stories begin to cross, and sometimes those coincidences seem a bit fantastical. And yet, isn't life similarly preposterous? Despite all of the millions of us, despite the vastness of the world, it does seem that certain people are meant to be in our orbit -- that they are our destiny.

Although Craig has written a fast-paced, unputdownable novel, there is no getting around the fact that she describes a world full of grim, cruel realities. London has all of the old vices, plus some new troubles for our time. There are no clean slates, really. Everyone in the novel has suffered in some way, and even the youngest characters have had their innocence bruised. Despite this, there are examples of heroism that totally illuminate this novel -- and make it something which is, ultimately, uplifting to read. Of all of the questions that the novel poses, the most important seems to be this: Who will have the courage to intervene on the side of justice? (paraphrasing Ian's words).

In a city of strangers, when we are called upon to intervene for the sake of one individual, will we find the humanity to do so?

Hearts and Minds is a totally compelling novel; I cannot recommend it highly enough.