Sunday, February 29, 2004
Ambigu (it says, in Schottís Food & Drink Miscellany) is an old French word for a meal in which all the dishes - hot, cold and dessert - are presented at the same time. Itís not in my dictionary, and itís not in the new Larousse; I was going to fling the word down like a challenge to readers of this journal (knowing that at least one of them is French, another a scholar of mediaeval French), but then I thought to look in the old Larousse, which has a small paragraph on the subject. That paragraph is itself ambiguous ("the word ambigu is applicable to a meal which is taken between luncheon and dinner, or between dinner and luncheon" - sorry, howís that again?), and of course half my interest lies in its relationship to ambiguous. So I looked up ambiguous in Chambers for the root (ambigere, to go about or waver), and en route I spotted ambitty, an adjective used of glass, and meaning devitrified. And Iím sorry, and I know there is a highly technical explanation, but the concept of devitrified glass just flings me instantly into a world of dehydrated water and dephlogisticated air. Itís okay, though, I like it here...
And meanwhile my first half-dozen chilli hatchlings are sitting on the windowsill, rubbing their little leaflets together and gazing out at a snowy white wilderness, and muttering Werenít we promised rainforests and jungle heat..? There must, of course, be a pun to be perpetrated about leaflets that promise tropical paradise, but I canít be bothered; you want it, do it yourself.
Which is pretty much what I did last night. Not complaining, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but how is it that even when Iím invited to a house Iíve never been before, by someone I donít really know that well, I still end up cooking dinner...?
Posted by Chaz at 01:03 PM GMT [Link]
Saturday, February 28, 2004
Yesterday we finished off the Lit & Philís crime month; I did the last of a series of Murder Squad workshops (and found myself positively volunteering to edit the participantsí stories before we put them up on the L&P website; I am keen to read them, and keen to help, but itís still extra work, that stuff that I complain about all the time, oh help...), and then read in the evening from work in progress (not the fantasy: a bit of Being Small and a bit of Nothing Broken, my Taipei novella). The reading would have been busier if there hadnít been a blizzard blowing; we only had half the booked audience turning up. I might have been more coherent if I hadnít had that extra brimmer of wine in the bar beforehand, but I was meeting Val and I had to tell her that my beloved Julia has secondary cancers in her liver, and there are times and tasks where you just do have to drink.
And then my bedside radio died overnight, which anyone who knows me will know is a disaster; so I went coldfoot through six inches of snow this morning to buy the digital beauty Iíve been looking at for weeks and not buying because I really didnít need another radio - and theyíve sold out, and cannot promise new stock at the same attractive price. I donít know how many times I have had to learn this lesson, that need has no place in shopping. I still dither and delay, and I still do keep on losing what I want.
Tonight Iím going out for extreme foods: surströming, Swedish fermented herring. Iíve met this before, and it is the smelliest thing on the planet (with perhaps the sole exception of stinky tofu, which they sell on street corners in Taipei, and I have been known to walk round three sides of a block to avoid it), but rather wonderful to eat, so long as everybody youíre going to spend the evening with is also eating it. We made the mistake last time of partying with people who hadnít risked it; all evening I was conscious of them sidling quietly and politely away from me, although Iíd washed my hands twice and cleaned my teeth and been so careful not to get anything on my clothes. It pervades, I guess. Through the pores, perhaps, and oozing everywhere...
Posted by Chaz at 05:19 PM GMT [Link]
Thursday, February 26, 2004
Ooh, days off. Several days off. It feels strange, when my motorís still running: almost an enforced idleness, against the natural order. It always takes time for the momentum to die, for my brain to shift gear (mixed mechanical metaphors, hey-ho), to recognise that what was imperative yesterday is immaterial today. So that was the weekend, finding ways to keep busy when I was still jittery and felt I should be working - pleasant ways were found: an evening out, a day with friends upcountry, a quiet day with books and TV, like that - and then on Monday began the second part of the process, reworking this new section of the novel.
Itís odd to be doing it at this stage, mid-book; I donít usually like to look back until a projectís finished, for fear of hating everything Iíve done. This time itís necessary, though - and itís okay, I donít hate it, I donít want to tear it up. Actually, on a first read-through, itís better than I thought. Which is a problem, of course, because that means thereís less obviously redundant matter to cut out. It just wants to be a biiiig book, and itís not allowed; I may need to be ruthless, but maybe not quite yet. At the moment Iím losing what wastage there is, and weíll see where that leaves us, whether Iíll have to go through again and simply cut for length, rather than for art. (Do they do this to painters, I wonder? Yes, Mr Rembrandt, it's very lovely, but look, itís a foot wider than the frame we want to use...)
I do kind of like this polishing-and-cutting process, but itís difficult to regulate or measure. Writing is easy, you can just count, words or pages or whatever, and that sets a target that builds up a head of pressure: Canít stop yet, be a shame to stop at four when I did five yesterday. I suppose I can count words unwritten, words cut out, but thatís only a part of what Iím doing now, and it doesnít bear the same absolute scrutiny. I could spend all day reworking four pages, and cut five hundred words; I could get through twenty pages, and cut five hundred words. How do you compare? Was I being obsessive with one, or slack with the other - or did I do the same thorough job on both? Canít say. But it is easy to get obsessive, to spend an hour on a paragraph, fretting over every word. This is when they tell me I still have the mind-set of a poet. Which is when I bite them. Novelists care too...
Posted by Chaz at 01:42 PM GMT [Link]
Monday, February 16, 2004
Actually, I quite like being convalescent. I am now, officially so: I tested the legs on Wednesday, and I could walk; I tested the head on Thursday, and I could talk; on Friday evening I went to town, for a reading by Margaret Murphy, my friend and fellow-Murder Squaddie. And managed the walk down, an hour at the gig (with a sensible question too), half an hourís chat with Margaret over a drink afterwards and then the walk back home again. Thatís official, I can walk and talk, and what else am I for?
Thatís a question that answers itself. I decided that Friday was enough, and Iíve spent all weekend back in my previous routine, which suits me very well at the moment. Talked to nobody, did nothing more adventurous than a little light shopping; otherwise did those solitary things that I do so well, watching TV and listening to the radio and reading. And, betweentimes, writing. Iíve written lots, ten thousand words this week. And the thing is, the secret Iím reluctant to share - Iím enjoying it. Honest. Sad it may be, but this kind of life is one of my ideas of fun. I like watching movies, I like reading books; I like cooking to a soundtrack, I like hot baths and Radio 4, I like the World Service in the dead of night; I really donít need company for any of it. And I really, really like it when Iím working well. Itís not just that I like myself for doing it, though that is a feature. I like the thing itself, I like the work when itís rolling. Right now Iím really excited about the ortolan, Iíve just discovered the haute cuisine rituals for eating it and Iím stealing them all for the book, and that goes in tomorrow, Iíve been looking forward to it for days; and Iíve been fighting off the urge to talk about it here because itís just so wonderful, but I donít want to pre-empt the luck, so the bird goes in the book and you can read about it there. I will tell you this, though, because it has no place in the book: that my friends Harry and Louise gave me the new edition of Larousse Gastronomique for my birthday, and one of the interesting questions has been how much it differs from the previous edition, which I also have. One of the answers is in its treatment of the ortolan. The 1960 (tr 1977) edition has half a page, and nine recipes; the 2000 (tr 2001) edition has a paragraph and no recipes, the bird having become a protected species in the meantime. I am outraged. Recipes are knowledge, they are inherent in the sum of human history and culture, they donít cease to exist just because the ingredients are no longer available. I shall organise a campaign of protest from my highest horse.
Besides, the bird is still eaten, albeit sub rosa. The last thing President Mitterrand ever ate was an ortolan. He invited friends round for a final dinner; they ate oysters, foie gras, capon - and ortolan. Indeed, he broke entirely with tradition and ate two. No dessert, no fruit, and he refused any food thereafter and died within the week. Forgive me, but that is the way to go. Truly the grand manner.
As for the grand manner of eating the ortolan - well, youíll have to wait for the book.
Posted by Chaz at 12:32 AM GMT [Link]
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Ah, you can tell that Iím not well. I went to make coffee yesterday: filled kettle, boiled water, ground beans, put beans and then water into cafetiŤre, all fine and dandy. Let it sit five minutes, came back, very carefully poured coffee into the lid of the coffee-grinder...
I am famous for doing this sort of thing with tea. Tea is a drink I donít take seriously, and my errors and omissions make that clear. I have opened a new pack of tea and emptied it directly into the pot instead of the caddy; Iíve emptied it into the kettle instead of the caddy; Iíve carried it carefully to the cold tap and filled it with water. And thatís only stage one, what not to do with the tea-packet. I could fill a small Xmas gift-book with 101 Ways to Go Wrong with Tea, if I had a cartoonist to play with.
This is the first recorded instance of leakage, from tea-making (which is a frivolous activity, except in China) to coffee-making (which is a serious activity, all the world over). Iím trying not to be disturbed, and just to blame it on The Virus. Many things at the moment are blamed on The Virus, and quite right too. The only good thing is that even at its most virulent, it hasnít quite stopped me working. Writing when youíre sick is an odd process, like writing when youíre drunk or exhausted: itís ill-disciplined, you slip gears and go off at tangents and do all those things that you ought not to do, but itís better to stray and have to be dragged back than not to move forward at all. At the moment Iíve built up so much momentum, itís actually easier to be at the computer than otherwise, especially when Iíve been too sick to leave the house. So I sit here and write a bit and groan a lot and write a bit more and send an e-mail and moan to Misha and write a bit more; and by the time I stagger bedwards, itís not been a bad dayís work. Not that Iíve read it, mind, that comes later...
Posted by Chaz at 01:23 PM GMT [Link]
Saturday, February 7, 2004
Whoo - there went the voice. I tried to answer the phone today, and the person at the other end thought I was white noise. Which actually I would quite like to be, as white noise is the last distant echo of the Big Bang, and I think thatís kinda cool; but itís not effective as a conversation mechanism. And with the voice went the ability to swallow solids, so what did I do? I made chicken soup, of course. I am my own Jewish mother.
And after the carcass and the vegetables and the herbs had been simmering for a couple of hours, ooh so slowly, I spooned off a couple of ladlesful and added a little cream for emollience and it was scrumptious. But draining a big pan through a colander in my kitchen is always a palaver, and I was feeling a little dizzy when I moved around, so I thought Iíd let the liquid sit on the bones while it cooled, get the last of the goodness out and Iíd strain it later. Always put off what you can, itís a golden rule. And I came back upstairs to bed, thinking how nice the house smelled, all chicken-soupy.
And I got up a couple of hours later and thought again how good it was to have the house so savoury-smelling; and I pottered about and fussed over Mishaís claws till she could bear it no longer (having had an ingrowing toenail, she now seems to have lost a toenail entirely, and it might be the same one, and what does this mean...?) and read a book and listened to the radio and went to have a bath.
And came out of the bathroom an hour or so later, into a house that smelled very redolent of chicken soup - and this suddenly didnít seem so nice, but rather a warning of disaster impending. So I hastened down the stairs, and caught that first delicate whiff of burning bones; and plunged into the kitchen to discover that (yes, indeed, youíre way ahead of me) I had left the slightest of flames burning below the soup-pot all this time, and all the soup was gone and there was just solid matter and encrustation left.
So I raided my larder for my WMD of choice [speaking of which, I should like to say just this once and get it on record that (a) this is not an acronym, itís an abbreviation; and (b) if it must have a distinctive plural then that plural is, beyond all question, WsMD. I am hearing WMDs with increading frequency, and it distresses me], and now the whole house smells of vinegar. Which is the only household hint you will ever get out of me: always hold on to old bottles of stale vinegar. Donít cook with them, but they will sometime save your favourite pan. Just slosh half a bottle in when youíve burned something beyond recovery, and leave it overnight. Come the morning, wash it off. Easy.
Posted by Chaz at 12:02 AM GMT [Link]
Thursday, February 5, 2004
Last week was really, really good workwise: something on the order of twelve thousand words, which is exceptional. Iíve always worked in sprints and staggers, but the sprints these days tend to be more rare and sadly slower; itís always exciting when I get a proper hurry on. Thing is, though, itís usually a sign of a good long work-jag setting in, a month or six weeks of the same; and I canít depend on that this time, indeed I can almost discount it. Last week was great, but this week is already deeply wobbly. Iíve been working when I can, it hasnít gone away; but I had to go out Monday at five, and early evening is my best time for writing. Three pages on Monday, where Iíd been scoring five or six the days before. I had fun out (a worky-type meeting in the pub, to talk about the events at the Lit & Phil this month, and then a touring production of Time and the Conways: straight down the line, just like the old rep companies used to do it, an exercise in nostalgia and classic English middle-class drama, I thoroughly enjoyed it) but I still resented the lost writing-time. Tuesday, I had to go out at half six; four pages on Tuesday, and ditto ditto, thoí again it was a good evening. My old friend Tim Dalling (of the Old Rope String Band: check Ďem out if you ever get the chance) has made an album (does one still call them albums, I wonder?) of songs, including his settings of poems by Louis MacNeice. Piano accordion(!), guitar - Ian Carr, another long-time friend and the finest guitarist I know - and Neil Harland on double bass. They had a launch gig, and it was magic. Then I went back to Timís house for drinking purposes, and didnít get home till 5am. Which is one reason why I scored no pages at all on Wednesday, not a word. The other reason is that I had to go out at four, to meet Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, and then chair a conversation between them at the Lit & Phil. Which I was very nervous about - packed house, we couldíve sold out four times over; and this was something of a new venture for the library, so there was a lot hanging on it, and I have an unfortunate history with chairing events - but they were terrific, relaxed & easy, and I think it went well. Then there was more drinking after, and finally a Chinese hotpot for dinner (not quite authentic Taiwan-style - where was the blood-pudding, I wanted to ask? - but there was tripe and fish-heads and such, and I have now eaten chickenís feet, which is a good thing to have done).
And today I have woken up ill, and not from the drinking. Went to the doctor about something else, and first thing he said was "God, Chaz, you look dreadful. What are you wasting my time for? Youíve got a virus. Go to bed."
So I have, and am, and am trying not to count the pages as they flicker past, unwritten.
Posted by Chaz at 06:17 PM GMT [Link]
© 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.