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Chaz'z Blog

Friday, January 28, 2005

PS - I found the Buxton Friends newsletter; itís here. But itís a PDF file, and donít bother to download it, itís not the issue with my dadís obit in. Iíll keep an eye on it, if I remember.

Posted by Chaz at 11:29 PM GMT [Link]

A lovely thing in the post this morning, from a friend: the newsletter of the Friends of Buxton Festival, with a half-page obituary of my father. He was their treasurer for a decade, after he and my stepmother retired there (she was secretary, I think), and they clearly have very fond memories of him. He left home when I was very young, so Iíve never had the chance to see him through other eyes than the familyís, I know none of his friends; itís unexpectedly charming to discover how much one group of strangers valued him. [I was going to put a link in here, soís you could go and read the obit; the newsletter claims that itís available online. Trouble is, I canít actually find it. Maybe later...]

And then I went to see my doctor, with very genuine physical concerns - and ended up spending twenty minutes talking about my dad, and coming out with no other treatment necessary. Hey-ho. We are odd creatures, inside our bodies and otherwise. I wrote a poem twenty-odd years ago, where the theme and the first line were ĎThe dead donít go awayí; thereís truth in them thar words.

I do wish all the kipple would go away. Kipple is that stuff that accumulates around you as you go, that fills your attics and the dusty corners of your rooms. In my case, of course, it spills across half the floors; my bedroom would disgrace a teenager, and this office is a joke. Worse than the physical stuff, though, is the life-kipple. I spent most of Wednesday in a university double-marking meeting, agreeing with my colleagues that their grades were fair; most of yesterday I spent drawing up funding applications, because without support from somewhere I will not survive this year. Itís all necessary work, all part of the job of being a writer, but none of it is writing.

So this morning, coming out of the doctorís with family stuff - another kind of kipple: lived-kipple, I suppose - on my mind, I did just have to shop. I very carefully and scrupulously persuaded myself that I did not need to spend thirty quid on an unnecessary duvet cover, even in the end-of-sale sale - and then moved one rack over and spent eighty quid on a whole suite of bed linens. I shall have the best-dressed bed in town, but even so, I despair. Look, mum, more stuff...

Iím supposed to be writing reports on all my studentsí portfolios, now weíve agreed their grades. Instead of which, demonstrably, I have frittered much time away in feeling unwell, in shopping, in musing, and in cooking too. I was going to give you my recipes for Lancashire hotpot and two different kinds of cabbage to go with, but this is enough for tonight. Tomorrow, maybe. If you ask nicely.

Posted by Chaz at 11:25 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Undesirable intimacies: my debts have begun to send me letters, on their own account.

No matter. This morning I baked blueberry muffins, only to see if I could. Good news: I can indeed, theyíre scrummy. Fortunately I donít have to take my own word for that; I used self-praising flour.

Posted by Chaz at 04:16 PM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Small ad reads: Nemesis wanted. I'm 5' 10, into kayaking, books and conversation (by day), justice, honour and vengeance (by night). Seeking arch-enemy, possibly crimelord or deformed megalomaniac. Call 0207 567 343

Too good. Just too good...

Thanks, John!

Posted by Chaz at 12:43 PM GMT [Link]

This is application season. Before the end of the month I have to have applied for my usuals, the Northern Rock award (on the grounds that they really, really need to give it to me sooner or later, or else lose all credibility) and a regular Arts Council grant (on the grounds that I really, really need one right now, or else I lose all solvency). Today, though, I spent on a Wingate Scholarship application, for money to pursue my grand Taiwan fantasy sequence. I donít expect to get it; even if I were shortlisted (and it is a damní good application), awards come down to interviews, and I am no damní good at interviews. Why they would ask a writer to defend his work verbally, I am not clear; we are writers because weíre good at writing, not at talking. But hey, thatís the system. And I do believe in engaging with the system; I think itís crucial, that genre writers constantly apply for mainstream awards. Sooner or later weíll break íem down, to the point where the prejudice crumbles.

Itís just too bad that so many applications fall due in the month where Iím trying to do this major rewrite. I canít put them off; nor the marking for the university, although these things steal days from my proper work.

Never mind. Letís talk about food. I donít know if I made this up, or if people have been doing it for years, for generations; I also donít know what to call it, except perhaps a posh version of cottage pie. Whatever, though, itís rather good to eat.

Next time you make a ragú (oh, all right, a bolognese sauce; or any variation of that theme of mince, onions, garlic, tomatoes, stock and red wine), make twice what you need. Next day, take the residue and spread it over the bottom of a buttered ovenproof dish or casserole. If youíre me, add lots of button mushrooms. Make a very thin cheese sauce (butter-and-flour roux, say a not-very-heaped tablespoon of flour to an ounce or two of butter, a pint of milk and a carton of single cream, with a fair amount of strong cheddar grated in). Put a layer of finely sliced potatoes and then a layer of fennel atop the ragu, and pour over some of the sauce. A little salt and pepper, and then layers again; and so on, finishing with a layer of potato and enough sauce to bring the liquid up to the same level. Put on the lid, or cover with foil, and slide into a medium oven. Slip a baking-tray into the bottom, to catch the overspill (and there will be overspill, if the liquid is anywhere near the lip of the dish).

Then leave it alone for an hour and a half. Have a look at it at that point, and if the potatoes are soft already, take the lid or foil off. If not, give it another half an hour. Once itís cooked to that degree, let it have another half an hour or forty-five minutes, till the top is crisply golden; if you lose patience, use a grill, but itís better if you let the oven do the work. Then serve and eat. Yum-yum.

Posted by Chaz at 12:14 AM GMT [Link]

Saturday, January 15, 2005

One of the good things, one of the many good things about living in Newcastle, where I do: I can stroll down to the market and come home with five or six pounds of clean white button mushrooms for a quid. Other places, you can pay forty pence for a quarter-pound; you do the arithmetic [at one hundred pence to the quid, if my units are confusing].

At that price, you can pickle íem, bottle íem, make soup with íem and still have enough to give away. One of the things I like to do is dry íem. You donít need to buy industrial quantities for this, itís worthwhile at any level (and buying cheap is only worth it when youíre buying good fresh ingredients at bargain prices; donít go for the knock-down shrooms when theyíre going black and losing texture. Those are fine to cook with, they have better flavour, but donít try to preserve them by any method).

Simply brush off any dirt, and then lay the mushrooms out on a sheet of newspaper in a warm dry place. Make sure each one is separate, none touching. Then leave them for a couple of weeks while they shrivel and toughen up. Discard any that develop unhealthy-looking habits (moulds, rotting, etc).

Once theyíre thoroughly dry, store them in an airtight container and use at will. I usually keep a jar beside the stove, and throw a handful into any sauce or soup or stew that would benefit from a deeper, darker, richer flavour, that hint of oaky forests and leaf-mould in the rain.

Posted by Chaz at 01:01 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Another thing about funerals, they donít half take it out of you. Got home late afternoon yesterday, and it would have been a very good time to shrug off the day if I could, and do some work. Displacement activity, and all that. But I thought a cup of tea and a slice of cake would be nice first (you do get some odd footstuffs, at funeral teas: I did nibble, in that endless spirit of gastronautical adventure that you-all admire so much, but you couldnít exactly say that I was replete), and I startled myself by dozing off over the Oolong. At five in the afternoon, for crying out loud - how middle-aged can you get? And then I just sat there for the rest of the evening, all wrung out like a flu victim. Emotional exhaustion, I guess youíd have to call it. Shattered by sadness.

Back at work again today, though. Itís an odd one; Iíve got three weeks left till the deadline, and I still canít work out if Iím going to make it or miss it by a mile. You couldnít call it a labour of love, but I am being scrupulously thorough, which means that the process can be really, really slow. I take the extant draft to the pub to read through and scribble on, as has been my habit for lo, this many a long year; and ordinarily Iíd reckon on thirty pages to the pint, more or less. This one is chugging along at about ten pages to the pint. And I canít stay longer for extra pints to make up the shortfall, ícos I stop making sense after half a dozen.

Then I take the scribbled pages to the computer, decipher the scribbles - which usually just mean Ďthis is no good, take another look at ití - and try to produce a better version. And that too is going very, very slowly; and I canít just stay longer at the computer, because that too just exhausts me and I stop making sense. I think what it is, itís a confidence thing. As a writer, I have a pronounced authorial voice, that combination of style and vocabulary and personal tics that proclaims ĎChaz was hereí in every sentence; and Iíve been doing this job for so long itís utterly ingrained by now, and I trust it completely. And now Iíve been told it isnít working; but as soon as you challenge that, itís like a golferís swing or a cricketerís sense of timing, itís built on confidence and habit, and the whole thing crumbles at a touch. So now every phrase, every word is up for grabs and I distrust every one.

People mock me for being ludicrously indecisive; I think the truth is that my decision-organ is just permanently knackered, through making thousands of decisions a day, this word or that word, this order or that, what rhythm to the sentence, where the punctuation, is this really what I want to say...?

Thing is, in English there are always options, there are always half a dozen ways to say anything. Writing well is about finding the right one, again and again and again, every clause in every sentence. Nitpicking over this sentence or that is fine, we do that all the time, every time I read a page I fiddle with it; but cast a general aura of doubt over an entire book and all those choices unravel, suddenly nothing is fixed or firm or certain. Itís like someoneís cut the string, and all the beads have spilled. Which means that piecing it back together again is an exercise in mosaic (if I may scandalously mix my metaphors), which is wholly different from the process of creation, and wholly unnerving. Sorry if Iím going on about this; Iíve done major rewrites before, of course, but never quite at this fundamental level, and I really have no confidence at all. Can these bones live? Truly, I do not know.

Posted by Chaz at 01:31 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, January 10, 2005

Good news - the Ham with a Black Glaze is really rather good. Much more caramelised than carbonised, even after so much too long in the oven. Perhaps I should develop a whole range, and market them as funeral baked meats - Ďwe only cook them black because no oneís invented a darker colour yetí.

As it happens, I was at a funeral this afternoon. My wee friend Murdy; he was twenty-five, which is just an invitation to turn morbid. Last time I buried a boy in his twenties, I was much the same age myself, and it was as it were the beginning of the long parade.

Never mind. Those were the dark days; things have calmed down in the last ten years or so, what with retrovirals and combination therapies, people donít die the way they used to. At least this side of the globe, they donít.

Never mind. I went this afternoon with my long-time best friend Ian, who has lost both his nephew and his father this last fortnight; must be the season. But what was striking, what is an absolute in Ianís life was how much family had turned out. He has one of those long, complicated, extended families with multiple marriages in every generation (a tradition he continues, bless him - Iíve been his best man twice), and everyone who could have been there was. The church was crowded, and three-quarters of them were related, one way or another. I cannot imagine actually being part of such a family (so okay, Iím adopted and I know them all and theyíre all sweet to me, but itís still not the same), but it is rather wonderful when you watch it at work.

Posted by Chaz at 11:26 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, January 6, 2005

I cooked my Xmas ham today. A little late, I know, but there was no imperative once Iíd cancelled the party.

Anyway, itís all terribly easy - and you donít have to wait till Xmas. Take a gammon - whole or half, smoked or green, on the bone or off, it really doesnít matter - and soak it overnight. Rinse it off next day in a couple of changes of water, then cover with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. While youíre waiting - and it takes longer than you think - stud an orange with cloves, and drop that into the water.

As soon as it boils, knock it back to the slowest imaginable shimmer, just the lightest hint of movement in the water. If a scum rises, scoop it off. Give the gammon 25 minutes per pound, then lift it out and drain it.

Mix together equal quantities of dark brown sugar, redcurrant jelly and dry English mustard for the glaze; squeeze the juice out of half an orange and mix in to make a paste.

Peel the rind off the ham, and score the fat horizontally with the tines of a fork, to make ridges for the glaze to cling to.

Glaze, and then bake in a medium-hot oven for half an hour until the glaze has caramelised. Or, if youíre me, have a look after twenty minutes, decide it needs another ten, go off and do something absorbing, come back an hour later and find it carbonised. I think itís going to be okay, though. Wonít know till itís cold tomorrow, but I suspect I have just invented Ham with a Black Glaze.

Posted by Chaz at 11:18 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

My throat is a nest for birds of broken glass; my head both aches and oozes at every orifice. I am, in a word, sick. And trying to work none the less, but see how easily I am distracted?

Yesterday-my-birthday I was not so much distracted as distrait. An abominable thing happened to me in the morning; I went to the cinema, where they showed me Alexander. And yes, I had heard that it was a turkey, but hey, three hours of young men in tunics: couldnít hurt, could it...?

Ow. It is truly a dreadful thing, a mismade patchwork with no sense of what story it was trying to tell, a miserable framing-device (poor Anthony Hopkins, shuffling around as old Ptolemy giving history lectures to his scribes), riven with Oliver Stoneís familiar love of conspiracy theories and some of the worst dialogue you will hear this year, even including the next Star Wars horrorfest.

It has an intermission; when did you last see a film with an intermission? (Actually, I can answer that: it was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where the break comes just as the car goes over the cliff. Fabulous.) Because we were a press show, I assumed they would just go straight into part two of the abomination, but no: the curtain came down, the lights came up. No one sold us ice-cream, but the manager came in to ask if it was as bad as heíd heard. We assured him it was; he said they were actually expecting people to walk out, at this mid-point. A wiser man than I would do exactly that; the second half is worse than the first.

No matter. It happened, it is over, I need never see it again. I am a year older and a tad wiser than I was. Rest of my birthday was fun with friends; this morning, I went back to the cinema. Just to take the taste out of my mouth, you understand. Today it was Vanity Fair, and maybe it was only in reaction to yesterdayís agonies, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. Itís been sweetened up a little, but thatís okay; I was in the mood for happy endings. Something has to end happily, for someone, sometime. I really do believe it wonít be me.

Posted by Chaz at 01:54 PM GMT [Link]

Monday, January 3, 2005

Thereís a bug about among my friends, and it is pleased to report that it has found me.

Actually thereís a choice, a variety of bugs; we wait to see how this one turns out. Maybe just a cold, maybe flu. Gailís had bronchitis, so sheís winning.

Shanít let it slow me down, though. I have never yet been defeated by a single-celled organism; they may be sneaky, but they are stupid (quote, from ĎThird Rock from the Suní, which has just started reruns, hurrah! Iíd forgotten how funny the early series were, back when the aliens were still truly alien. Later they just became another eccentric/comic family, which was tedious). Tomorrow I shall not work, its being my birthday and all; Wednesday, though, I shall be back at it. Unless I can cap Gailís bronchitis. Pneumonia, anyone...?

Meantime, hereís my basic recipe for chicken pilaff:

Bone out one chicken thigh per person. Keep the bones in the freezer, for making stock later. Chunk the chicken, and brown the chunks in your favourite pan. Take íem out, and add half a sliced onion per person. Softly, softly sizzle, sweet and low, until they soften and take on colour. Donít rush this stage. Put in a chopped chilli also, if you like (I like). Then add garlic to taste, and mushrooms if you want to. Mix in a teaspoon of ground coriander and another of turmeric. A handful of cherry tomatoes doesnít go amiss, nor do a couple of segments of lemon. Sizzle hotly for a few minutes, then pour in chicken stock, to the tune of two measures for each of the measures of rice that youíll be adding shortly. (NB - these proportions work for my pan on my cooker with my preferred variety of basmati rice; vary at need, as all these things are variables, but try it this way first.)

Simmer covered until the chicken is tender - around fifteen minutes, give or take, depending on the size of your chunks and how well you browned them earlier. Now add the rice, bring to the boil, put the lid back on and simmer on the lowest possible flame until all the stock is absorbed and the rice is tender. Stir in chopped fresh coriander or parsley, turn the heat off and let it sit for five minutes before serving. Yoghurt on the side is good; so are chutneys.

Posted by Chaz at 09:51 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, January 1, 2005

Thing is, though, that it all starts with a retreat. Anybody out there under the impression that Iím having a party next Sunday (9th) - well, Iím not. Sorry. Other peopleís parties I can manage, seemingly, thoí last nightís did feel like one over the eight, a party too far; to give a party of my own just now is just not possible. It galls me; I havenít cancelled a party since 1963, the year of the Big Freeze.

Not that I could afford the time, anyway. In my current state it would have taken all week to clean the house and cook the ham, the beef, the cakes, the scones, the dips and dippees and the rest. And I have only four weeks to rewrite the novel.

Which is another rule broken: I do not, as a rule, work in this ten-day stretch from Xmas to my birthday. I donít usually do much of anything, except the cooking & cleaning noted above, and the partying implicit. This year, I am at work. Usually I like it when Iím working, it pleases some atavistic Protestant part of me I have not yet drowned in Malmsey, but I keep looking back all the way to 2004 with a certain bitter twist, because I worked harder last year than I can remember, and I ended the year in far more trouble than I started. Might as well have idled, really...

Posted by Chaz at 02:39 PM GMT [Link]

New year, new Chaz. New resolution: be more scrupulous. Youíll all enjoy that.

Posted by Chaz at 12:48 PM GMT [Link]

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© Chaz Brenchley 2002/2006
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.