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Chaz'z Blog

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Not sure how much more drink a body can consume, but I seem to be out to test the limits. Typing when drunk is an interesting exercise; oneís fingers become approximate, while the keyboard remains precise. Damn. Itís kind of like slurring, only far less sexy. I still know when Iím wrong; just have to slow down, focus, take two or three stabs at a word. At least I donít have to look at the keys, that does not help at all, my eye still canít keep up with my fingers. What is it the conjurors say, the quickness of the hand deceives the eye? Durn tootiní.

Anyway: those of you who have been holding off e-mailing in case it was wasted labour, you may now resume your former occupation. Itís back. Twenty-four hours off, and then everything came through in a rush. All the analogies I can think of are unfortunate, so letís not go there. Letís be happy with being here, back in the world again.

Yesterday I was reading proofs (not for me, alas, not my work: Iím checking a Sid Chaplin reissue for publishing friends, and I hate it. I think this is heresy around here, but itís okay, Iím drunk. And not from around here. I hate that whole grim-up-north kitchen-sink battle-of-the-sexes school; I think itís a literary dead end, and I think itís dishonest. I know lots of people from all over, and I donít know one who genuinely thinks of the opposite sex in the kind of poisoned, broken, sociopathic way that these books would have us believe is common currency), so then I went out with a visiting Helen & Mark and our friend-in-common Simon (I have to say friend-in-common because Jean glowers at me every time I say mutual, and I decline to say our common friend. My own feeling is that mutual has come to mean what I want it to mean, the way that people have been using it for centuries: Shakespeare did it, so of course famously did Dickens, and so do I when Jeanís not around. There is a difference between language and algebra, and sometimes I just want to assert it. And then I hear myself going postal over a split infinitive, and realise that I am still a pedant at heart, and on the surface, and all the way between...) and got very drunk. Now thereís a long framing sentence, to contain a couple of pet parentheses. Like a small mother, very very pregnant with twins.

Today I repotted some lavender plants, my first real day of the year out in the yard again. My compost bin is full of worms, which is great, I just canít figure out where they came from, as the yard is a concrete box with no access to outside soil; everything grows in compost, which tends to come sans worm. Except when I make it myself, apparently. Ah, the mysteries of nature. But half my plants are budding and putting on growth, and itís kind of exciting. The signs of middle age: a bad back, aching joints, dozing after dinner, a passionate dislike of modern music, a genuine belief that things were better when one was younger and the world is going to hell in a handcart, and a come-from-nowhere and ever-increasing interest in gardening. Iíve got íem all.

Iíve also been trying to write an introduction for my friend Juliet McKennaís novella for PS Publishing. Itís taken me all weekend to write a thousand words, and I have no confidence in any of íem. Iím okay with fiction, I can bluff my way through that, but trying to write intelligently scares me stupid - or rather it draws the readerís attention to the fact that I am already stupid. No one believes this, but thatís because Iíve bluffed you all with fiction, inter alia the fiction that Chaz is quite smart really. Writing genuine critical matter exposes the bone of me, and you really oughtnít to look at that. Sigh. If only I could learn to say no...

Posted by Chaz at 11:54 PM GMT [Link]

Friday, March 26, 2004

Firstly, if you visited this site in the last couple of days and were peppered with pornographic pop-ups, we apologise. Some wanker hacked the server, and my web guru Roger had to take everything off-line and clean up seventy-seven sites. By hand.

Secondly, if you send me e-mail in the next few days, you may not get an answer, because it may never reach me. As of this afternoon, I have received no e-mails at all, not even the test ones I sent to myself. I would right now be pestering said web guru Roger, but as of this afternoon he is in Belgium, and there is nothing I can do. Maybe itís another problem with the server, maybe theyíll get it fixed; maybe itís something else. Messages may be backing up somewhere, to reach me later; they may all be deleted as they arrive; they may be bounced back to sender. I do not know, and have no way of finding out. Well, except that last, I could ask a friend to test that, only itís a bit late to be phoning people now.

You will no doubt be madly relieved to hear that I did write another story, for the Newcastle anthology. Technically I suppose itís a Gateshead story, as it all takes place in the Baltic (formerly a flour mill, now our trendy new modern art factory). Hand-delivered it to the editor - an ex-student of mine, which I think is kinda cool - a couple of days ago. If she likes it, sheíll doubtless send me an e-mail. Sigh. E-mail has changed my life, almost taken over my life; I barely make one phone call a week these days, but I send dozens of messages. Suddenly to lose it is remarkably isolating. I have, I had, a sense of being in the world, being connected; now I have a sense of being cut off. Itís bad.

Also bad, I went to the Northern Rock Writerís Award ceremony last night. This is the big one, in money terms itís the largest literary award in the country, worth £60,000 over three years. I knew I hadnít won it; we all had this letter that effectively said it was a one-horse race, the jury was unanimous, there was one outstanding candidate and the rest of us were also-rans. Not best designed to promote good feeling, but hey. You develop the skin of a rhinoceros, in this trade. So I went to the ceremony, still prepared to be the best of losers - and they didnít give me a chance, because the award went to Tony Harrison. Thatís the famous Tony Harrison, the one whoís had all those plays produced at the National, whoís written libretti for the Met, whoís been a major cultural figure for twenty years or more. I was chided for making assumptions about his income, but - hell, Iím sorry, they are there to be made. I was outraged and I said so, loudly and often, to anyone whoíd listen. Monumentally indiscreet, me, when I mount up on a high horse; probably done myself no good at all, but oh, I was cross. Nor was I the only one; indeed, I only found one person prepared to defend the decision. The general mood showed in the moment of the announcement; when Julia won last year, she got cheers. This year there was a sort of shocked silence, and then a reluctant spatter of applause. Probably just as well that Harrison wasnít actually there to hear it. Being there is actually supposed to be a condition of the award, but I guess if youíre a big enough name theyíll bend the rules. And then in the mÍlťe afterwards I had words with one of the judges, and she told me that it was simply not true that the judges were unanimous; she dissented entirely, which made me feel better, in an odd kind of way.

So then a bunch of us went to the pub and I got very drunk indeed. Nothing much else to be done, really.

Posted by Chaz at 12:28 AM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

As we know, disastrophes come not single spies, but in battalions. I have had a day of minor but cumulative domestic ruckuses (rucki? ruckae?), none of which matters much independently but taken all together they have overset and overmastered me. Trying to change a light bulb, I found the whole fitting coming away in my hands (insufficient anchor in the dodgy ceiling-plaster). Itís still up there, dangling from its wires; I canít get the shade off, to get at the screws that would fix it back up again, and I canít even shift the little screws that hold the wires in. Itís pathetic. I put the damn thing up in the first place, and I think Iím going to have to cut the cable to get it down. Only I donít want to try that just now. If I canít turn a couple of brass screws, I probably canít work a wirecutter either. I feel like Samson after a haircut, all my strength is fled. And then when I tried to make lunch, I fried the bacon crispy and I melted the butter for the scrambled eggs - and found I had no eggs to scramble, which caused me to shout at the cat, who must have dropped all her forgiveness as she fled, because sheís still being very sniffy with me. And then someone delivered a set of proofs that Iíd forgotten about, that Iím going to have to check through and I donít want to. And all this, all of this is just the icing on the cake, because the dayís real disaster is that I had a story I was writing, and I have just decided to abandon it. Thereís nothing wrong with it, as such; itís got a smart title and a neat plot, itís technically adventurous and seriously painful, and all these things are good, but I just do not like it. I wasnít enjoying the writing at all, I was coming almost to dread it, and that wouldnít matter a damn except that I realised today that I donít want other people reading it with my name on, and that matters a lot. Itís a nasty, ugly little bottom-feeder of a story, and I want no more to do with it. So Iíve walked away. I never do this. Lots of stories get abandoned because theyíre no good or put into cold storage because theyíre not ready, a few even get forgotten about, but I never deliberately kill one off simply on grounds of sheer bloody dislike. New experiences are supposed to be good for you, but this one tastes foul. And it was meant to be for a local anthology, and I cannot conceive of not even submitting a story, which means Iíve got eight days to start again and produce something Iím happy with. And Iím supposed to be getting back to the novel, as a matter of urgency. And all that is the prime pump of this vile day, and now my head hurts and Iím going to bed. Alone, most likely; Misha is downstairs, sitting very upright on the hardest, most uncomfortable surface she can find, just to make the point. Bleah.

Posted by Chaz at 12:25 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, March 15, 2004

I donít know how many recipes Iíve read, in thirty-odd years of cooking. Tens of thousands, surely. For sheer happy idiocy, my favourite is still one of my motherís, which included the instruction to Ďtake the bowl to the cow, and milk one pint directly into ití. For a generation of collective folly, the award goes to all those who have ever said ĎFry the meat, to seal in the flavourí - actually frying does the reverse, it opens the pores of the meat to release juices and hence flavour. Browning the meat does caramelise the outside and hence add a whole new dimension to the taste, which is probably how the confusion arose, but thereís small excuse for its perpetuation.

Anyway, I have a new candidate for individual stupidity. I cooked a chicken curry last night, flavoured largely with tamarind and tomatoes; it was the first time, so I followed the recipe quite closely (except that I used thighs rather than breast meat, so had to cook it longer - thereís more flavour, and I do like sucking meat off the bone). And it says, indeed this is the first thing that it says, it says ĎAs the chillies in this dish are split lengthways, the heat isnít overwhelming.í

Excuse me? I was so shaken by that, I forgot to put any lemon into my lemon rice. Look, Iím happy to acknowledge that garlic changes its nature, the more you interfere with it; left whole, the cloves are sweet and mild, and as you progress through slicing and chopping and crushing and pounding, so they become more and more pungent. I donít know how that works, but itís incontestable. Chillies, on the other hand - no. A chilli contains a certain quantity of capsaicin, and thatís that. The smaller you chop it, the more quickly the chemical will be released into the rest of the dish; leave it whole, and much of the heat will be retained within the chilli. This much is obvious. Which angle you approach it from, lengthways or widthways - no. Thatís not even superstition, itís absurdity to suggest that it could conceivably make a difference. I am smitten by a whole new idea, for a book of quantum cookery in which it would make all the difference in the world, but alas, it would be fiction...

Posted by Chaz at 03:19 PM GMT [Link]

Friday, March 12, 2004

This little notice appeared all over my district on the 29th Feb, and I've been glowing warmly ever since. Sorry it's taken this long to share it, but I'm not always quick at getting stuff done.

Citizens of Arthurs Hill

In case anyone's having trouble reading it, it says:

Citizens of Arthurs Hill, I invite you...
To Celebrate how Ace you are,
To consider how cool this area is,
And to relax and enjoy yourself in whichever way you fancy.

I did this for leapday, coz it only comes round every 4 years and it's a chance to do something different.

I love living here, I love the smells of curry, the dog walkers in Nuns Moor Park. I love the way that people have come here from all over the world, and that all of us moan about the weather. I love the number 12 bus, I love the old bootscrapers next to some of the doors. I love the colour of bricks and
the flowers on windowsills.

I don't like other things in the world like poverty, war-mongering and selfishness, but you guys make this, my home, an ace place to live.


Posted by Chaz at 05:11 PM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Tutorial day at the university, and one of my students didnít turn up. This isnít like that well-known joy of the examiner, the blank sheet of paper (see one of Tolkienís explanations for how he came to write The Hobbit, if the reference eludes you); itís just a frustrating waste of time, because thereís nothing I can do in my college cubby-hole if I donít have students to talk to. So, with half an hour to kill till the next appointment, I nipped out to the Oxfam charity bookshop down the road.

I am, as you know, a profound ditherer, when it comes to extravagance. I go back and back to shops, I look at the same thing over and over again, even after Iíve quite made up my mind to buy it. This time, today, I glanced in the bookshop window, I opened the door, I snatched up half their window-display and carried it to the cash desk.

Okay, I exaggerate, it was only three books; but it was that fast. Three of Elinor M Brent-Dyerís Chalet School books, a series I have loved since I was a child and collected for twenty-some years. All hardbacks, with dust wrappers. Two were reprints at a tenner each and didnít even need thinking about, just out with the purse and theyíre mine; the third was a first edition, and priced at fifty quid. Which is probably a fair price for the book, but I couldnít have paid it. Happily, the nice man who does the pricing was there at the till, so we could have a conversation, which could turn into a negotiation, and I got it for twenty-five (well, the dust wrapper is very torn...).

In which Chazzie loves his absent student, and bounces home in high delight...

Posted by Chaz at 07:31 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, March 6, 2004

One of the attractive things about using Linux instead of (yuk, spit) Windows is the sense of community that comes with, the feeling that weíre all in this together and helping each other in our struggle against the eunuchs - sorry, showing my age again, I mean the monster that is Microsoft. Which, when youíre a newbie, means that you just absorb a lot of help from other people and put very little back into the pot; which means that after a while a sense of guilt begins to accrete, like tannin inside a teapot. And like tannin inside a teapot it all adds to the taste, because guilt is good, itís the oil in the stew, it lubricates even as it flavours (or am I just being too too English here, or too middle-class? Breathes there a people to whom guilt is not the essential oil that keeps society ticking over, that tastes like the resin in retsina, harsh and astringent and just gotta be there?).

Anyway, one step closer to the point of this: in recent days, neither my hands nor my computer mouse have been working satisfactorily. My hands hurt, on account of long-standing RSI aggravated by all the work Iíve been doing this year, and my mouse squeaks and sticks and jumps and is a right pain. So I have been looking at input devices. I wanted an ergonomic keyboard, and a new mouse. My favourite keyboards are made by Maltron, they are bizarre and exotic and expensive and deeply attractive, except for one detail: theyíre beige, as all computers used to be. These days, thankfully, computers are smartening up. My own is black, and there is no way I could bear to use a beige keyboard. So Iíve been looking for one that is black and ergonomic, and there are precious few around. One of those few - and the only one I could just go into a shop and buy - is, alas, made by the demon Microsoft. Itís hard, for those of us who love Linux and try to live the Linux life, to buy anything made by the eunuchs, sorry, I mean those nice but misguided people in Seattle. But this particular keyboard is wireless, which is an attraction; it comes with a mouse, both wireless and optical, ditto ditto; and best of all advantages, because itís in the shops I can go and try it first, see how it feels, because thatís crucial too.

So Iíve been dithering for a while in my usual dithery way, especially as this is the latest kit, and Linux often doesnít work well with cutting-edge hardware; this particular model is so new that I couldnít find any reports on the net, whether or not it would work with Linux at all.

Today, though, I roped in my friend Harry and we went off and had a play, and - largely because Harry had driven me there, and I didnít want him feeling that Iíd wasted his time as well as my own - I took the plunge and bought it. And brought it home, and read the instructions where it says Ďbefore connecting your new kit, make sure that you load the softwareí, and of course the software is all for Windows and Macs and not at all for Linux, so I just put in the batteries, put in the plugs and switched it on. And here is one small contribution I can make to the Linux community, next time anyone wants to know whether the Microsoft Wireless Optical Pro works with Linux, anyone who thinks to ask Google should be fetched here to find this message: it does. Straight out of the box, no problem. At least, no problem on my set-up: I run SuSE 8.0 on a three-year-old Dell Dimension 8100, so nothing here is new, and it works regardless. There are of course buttons that donít work, that are Windows-specific or else need programming in some clever way I wot not of, but I donít care about that.

Itís an interesting keyboard to use. Iíve had a Microsoft ergonomic before (till it was stolen, three years back), but this is dished in a different dimension, I think, and is going to take a little getting used to. Also some of the peripheral keys are differently shaped or ordered, so I do keep making mistakes. Itís not like the last time, though, when I first made the change from a standard to a divided keyboard. The first day, I thought I would never type again, and Iíve been typing nine-fingered since I was fourteen. The second day was slow and careful but starting to make sense, the third day I was up to speed and by the fourth I think I was faster; I really do recommend the change, as it really does help the RSI. This time Iím pretty much straight back into the swing of it, barring those individual oddities. If you do spot any typos, though, itís the keyboardís fault and not mine, okay? Good...

Posted by Chaz at 05:29 PM GMT [Link]

Friday, March 5, 2004

I do like physics. Not school-physics, not the tedium of learning laws and doing Ďexperimentsí that are not at all experimental, where the outcome has been known for centuries and repeated by endless generations of bored and inky children who only want to play with the bunsen burner; what I like is the grand elusive stuff that they make documentaries about, that I understand perfectly for the exact length of time that the documentary lasts and then is lost forever, as though I had neglected to save my understanding before I switched off the TV.

But I also like the real thing, what I live with, genuine experimentation where you do something to see if it works and then go ďOh, hey, that was science, that was...Ē when it does.

As, for example, I was making chilli-oil a few weeks back, and I did a foolish thing (and knew it to be foolish at the time, and still did it, and I do hate that...). There I am with a pan of searingly hot oil, and a Kilner jar full of dried chillies. I might have put a star anise in, for added flavour; I did not. I poured the oil into the jar, and it all seethed and hissed in a very satisfactory way, and I stood watching for a while and then I closed and sealed the jar. I did. As I did it, I thought, ďI wonder if I should be doing this? Maybe I should wait until itís cool...Ē but I went ahead and did it anyway.

And came back a couple of hours later to see that the level of oil in the jar had dropped back a couple of inches from the top, thoí Iíd filled it right to the brim before. All that seething, I guess, or else the oilís just oozed into all the wee hollow spaces in the chillies. Better top it up, then; cold oil would be fine. So I fetched the oil, and went to open the jar.

After five minutes, I entirely gave up; that jar was not going to open. And I did know why, and Roger confirmed it when I was grumbling at him later: ďYouíve created a partial vacuum in there,Ē he said, which was the exact phrase I had in my own head, thoí I donít think I entirely understand it. And then he suggested heating the jar up to the same temperature it had been before, which was the question Iíd had in my head, whether that would work; not everything can be undone by recreating the conditions of the original error (ask anyone whoís tried to save a relationship by going back to the place of first love, he murmured cynically).

So anyway, I left the jar sitting around on the worktop for a few weeks, while I glowered at it; then yesterday I put it into the oven on a low heat and with low confidence. And long before I expected it, while I was still pottering around with the washing-up, there was a soft phut! of a noise, and when I opened the oven door the jar was sitting there with its lid up, easy as anything.

Thatís science, that is. And the oilís terrific.

Posted by Chaz at 11:54 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.