Thursday, March 31, 2005
Been away, the last few days: first to Oxford and Henley, to spend a while with mífriends Helen and Mark. Good food, good drinking, bad falling-asleep-on-the-couch, and lots of fun shopping (watching Helen spend money, largely, and helping out just a little: always a favourite activity). Then to stay with mífriendínícolleague Juliet for a few nights, while we spent the days at EasterCon (UK science fiction convention), promoting our latest enterprise. It does astonish me, just how enterprising Iím become. Whatever happened to the ivory-tower life I always aimed at? Actually, I do know what happened: they took it away, it's no longer possible, ivory is banned from the writerly process. Doesnít matter where you sit on the spectrum; from those like m'friends Val & Ian who are ridiculously successful and ridiculously busy in support of that, who are kept so busy doing promotional stuff they barely have time to do the writing any more, to those like míself who are ridiculously unsuccessful and ridiculously busy in support of that, kept so busy trying to save a frantic career that we barely have time to do the writing any more, that whole vision of the artist who sits alone and just does the thing theyíre best at has been snatched away and is gone.
Anyway, the new enterprise: self and five other fantasy writers are setting up a group along the lines of Murder Squad, to promote our own work and the genre in general. We are called The Write Fantastic (more puns! more puns!), and details may be found on our website. Of this, more later: for it is late, and these days I wake early and tire early and hence fall asleep on peopleís couches, or indeed my own. Whatever happened to the me of yore, who could sleep till midday or later? Lost and adrift, I guess, in an ivory tower somewhere. I envy the bloke, I do...
Posted by Chaz at 12:09 AM GMT [Link]
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
Just in case anyone missed it, today is World Water Day. In celebration (?), Paris is rebranding its tap-water; I donít actually know what the French for tap-water is (eau du robinet, perhaps?), but from now on in Paris it's "Eau de Paris", and theyíre giving away ten thousand branded carafes to prove it. I have, I confess, often wanted to live in Paris, but never more so than today. "Eau de Newcastle" just doesnít carry the same cachet. Sigh...
Posted by Chaz at 12:01 AM GMT [Link]
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
...On the other hand, thereís clearly something to be said for being brain-dead, because Iíve actually done quite a lot today. Including, but not limited to, writing a thousand-word essay on Nosferatu for another of those omnium-gatherum books, where however-many writers pick their favourite horror movie and talk about it. I donít think I really have a favourite (or if I do, I canít remember what it is), so I plumped for Nosferatu because it's old and interesting and (shhh...) Iíd never actually seen it all the way through. Double-shhh, still haven't; Gail played it for me at the weekend, but I have this dreadful middle-aged insomniac habit of falling asleep in mid-movie, so I dozed through all the ship scenes and had to watch them again today. So at least Iíve seen all the bits, if not in the proper order. And my piece makes beautiful sense, I think. Tho' I'm not making too much sense myself at the moment, so maybe it's a ragbag.
Whatever. I did that, I did some other stuff; my salad seedlings are sprouting in the greenhouse; I felt content this evening, and thought Iíd sit up over a late-night hour of Sondheim on the TV. Now Sondheim is my very favourite musical-theatre composer, an absolute passion; and this show was announced as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is a show that I love. But it wasn't that show, they only used the title because it was happening at a theatre called the Forum, which I call cheating to the point of infuriating. In fact it was just a selection of Sondheim numbers, Side-by-Side-lite; and it was a glitzy, Las Vegas-style version of the thing, with some Irish pretty-boy tenor who admitted to never having seen a Sondheim show in his life, and Jacqui Dankworth doing eyes-and-teeth to satisfy her mother, and Maria Ewing forgetting her words and over-emoting as far as her facelift would let her. There were moments where the music managed to break through it all, itís that strong - but not many such moments, mostly it was entirely subsumed by self-congratulation and schmaltz. Sondheim should be louche, and this was lush.
Posted by Chaz at 12:16 AM GMT [Link]
Monday, March 21, 2005
Two meditations on the simple life:
First, I pulled the cork out of a bottle of wine yesterday afternoon, fetched a bowl of oil and some bread to dip into it, and sat down to read a story in a magazine. And thought, as I was doing this, could pleasures get much simpler, more basic, more pure?
And then I cracked up laughing at myself, because it was rather a good wine; the bread was fabulous (artisanal sun-dried tomato ciabatta, from my favourite Nícle baker); the oil was the marinade from the weekendís beetroot, flavoured with that vegetable plus my own oregano, chilli and garlic sprouts; and the story was one of mine, recently published in The Third Alternative. So actually everything that was going on there was highly complex, from the flavours in my mouth to the thoughts in my head to the relationships between me and the food and the story.
[Sidenotes: (a) I donít usually read my own work for pleasure, Iím not that arrogant. Novels I never touch once theyíre published, because Iíve been through the text a dozen times already and I canít bear it. Short stories are different, though; you only live with them for a week or two, then send íem away and donít see íem again until they appear, donít get editorís notes or proofs or anything, so by then Iíve forgotten all the intricacies and worked myself into a state over mistakes/clumsinesses/calumnies, and I do usually read them through, just the once. And (b), garlic sprouts: I think Iíve invented a new vegetable. When you grow your own garlic, youíre supposed only to plant the fat cloves from the outside of the bulb. Out of interest, eighteen months ago I planted a couple of potsful of the skinny cloves from the inside, just to see what happened. What happens is they grow and divide up into bulbs of their own, just as they ought - only the whole bulb is composed of skinny cloves, and theyíre not really worth harvesting as regular garlic. So I left most of íem in the ground to sprout again, and now Iím using them like a highly potent beansprout. The nodule at the end is garlicky and sweet, while the two or three inches of green sprout is quite harsh and oniony, and I love the contrast.]
And second, twelve hours later, four in the morning, I am sitting in the same chair sipping Chinese white tea, utterly unable to sleep. My insomnia comes in two guises just now, either this where I canít get off to sleep till dawn or later, or (my preferred version) where I go to sleep at one or half-one and wake at five and canít sleep again. So there I was this morning doing this truly simple thing, just sitting and sipping and staring at walls. I did eventually sleep about half-five, and woke as usual at eight, in time to be sat on and purred at for an interval before I was let rise to prepare her ladyshipís breakfast. And now I am like a broken robot, shuffling and mechanical and ineffective. Bleah.
Posted by Chaz at 01:50 PM GMT [Link]
Sunday, March 20, 2005
When the going gets tough, the tough get cooking. Two happy days I spent, and never wrote a word.
Itís odd, though, how I can still deceive myself over how long things will take to do, despite decades of experience: so much, indeed, that I long ago coined my First Rule of Everything, that Everything Takes Longer. (In case youíre interested, the Second Rule of Everything is that Nothing Is As Good, but thatís a whole nother discussion.) I spent Friday quietly preparing, cooking what could be cooked in advance and shopping for the rest; went to bed confident that there would be little to do in the morning, and woke up in the morning still confident, still unhurried, thinking I could knock off the last few kitchen-tasks and have plenty of time, all the afternoon to clean and tidy and such. I was even composing a shock-horror entry for this weblog, observing that the house had just been hoovered for the second time in a fortnight, which would be the first time since Iíd moved in ten years ago...
Folly, sheer folly. In fact, I spent all the afternoon still cooking, and never got near the hoover.
Still, I think it was worth it. The prime motive behind the dinner was to find something to do with beetroot, and I did that. I made a confit of quail and served it on lemon-rye toast with marinated beetroot, warm beetroot chutney and a red onion marmalade, and I think it was a triumph. Followed that with a four-colour tricolore (red and yellow tomatoes, basil, two different kinds of buffalo mozzarella), and then a Lancashire hotpot with two kinds of cabbage. Caramelised apples in filo for pudding, and then chocolates with the coffee. Those days I donít want to be a chilli-farmer, I think I want to be a cook.
Posted by Chaz at 12:48 PM GMT [Link]
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Mífriend Chrissie writes to point out that I let my own (yes, yes, long-admitted) prejudices blind me to the truth last night - the four awardees-in-waiting are actually two poets and two novelists, which does adjust the maths a little. Iíd simply forgotten who number four was, to be honest: nobody who knows me could conceivably expect me to remember four consecutive names, recited once.
And they are all four of them friends of mine, so I do still have one reason to apply again, and keep applying, just to help keep the award in motion. Perhaps the whole feeling-second-class thing last night was just an internal defence, to protect me from the truth, that I am in fact second-rate and nothing more. Itís oddly easier to admit to if there is something else as well that you can point to, ďIím second-rate but it doesnít matter, because look, I wouldnít have got the award anyway...Ē
I do still think thatís true, though. Technically genre fiction is a qualifying category, itís actually spelled out in the rubric; in reality, though - well, the whole tendency of the award thus far is to take it down the other end of town. And I still think itís crass, to announce a list of preferred applicants for future years; and I still think it will prove counter-productive, because other people will give up hope and stop applying. Not me, perhaps, but not everyone has my selfless devotion to the welfare of my friends. I have of course given my life over to this cause: who was it who said that to be truly happy, it wasnít enough to succeed, you also needed to see your friends fail? Well, here I am...
Hmm. Still bitter, I see. Still ranting, a little. No matter. I have pretty much a week now where I donít have to do anything stressy; Iím going to work and shop and plant things in the garden, cook and feed people and read books and watch Bab 5 and stuff.
Posted by Chaz at 10:38 AM GMT [Link]
For the avoidance of doubt: whatever is writ hereunder will be the product of bile, bitter envy, resentment and chagrin. Letís be absolutely clear about that.
I went to the Northern Rock Writerís Award ceremony this evening. Now, the Northern Rock is a unique thing, a vast amount of money given to one writer over three years, to support them while they write. You have to be resident in the north-east to qualify, and weíre very grateful to have it. We are.
This was the fourth year of its awarding, and I did apply, as I do every year. Hope springs eternal; desperation cracks a wicked whip; and besides, I think itís a social and professional obligation. If they didnít get lots of applications, theyíd discontinue the award. Itís my duty to do what I can to keep it going, for my friendsí sake more than my own; it may be highly likely that I wonít ever win it, but it is absolutely certain that friends of mine will. Indeed, one already has. So I apply every year, never with any great expectation but confident at least that I make a fair application, Iím a decent candidate. And every year I get the letter that says I havenít got it, along with an invitation to the ceremony to see who has. This year it was a little harder to take, because (a) I really am desperate and (b) I donít believe I will ever put together a better application. If not this year, then probably not at all. So it goes.
So I went to the ceremony, and the award went to Gillian Allnutt. Now - setting aside everything I said above about envy etc - this is no bad decision from the judges. Gillian is a good person and a fine writer. However - and here no doubt I am picking up again that which I set aside before - she is a poet, and that makes four out of four so far, every winner has been a poet; it begins to look as though poetry is a prerequisite. But more than that: the chair of the judges made a speech, and did rather betray that traditional prejudice which says that poets are both more needy and more worthy than the rest of us. Iíve railed about this before, I know, and I donít want to do it again, itís tiresome; but itís something I do keep tripping over,and I donít think itís just my paranoia. ďWriters - and especially poets - need money,Ē she said. QED. She spoke of ďshy poets and assertive novelists,Ē and didnít you just know where her sympathies lay? But more than that: for the first time, the judges wanted to announce some highly-commendeds, four names that nearly made it. Three more poets, and one exquisitely literary novelist: and she urged them to apply again, because she was sure their year would come. It was like a royal declaration, that these were the heirs-apparent.
So thatís the next four years stitched up, then, and just now I am baffled to see why I should bother to apply again. I never really did expect to win it, but I did always assume that I had a chance, I thought I was a contender. Apparently not, I donít even play on the right street. And while I donít mind being second-rate (actually thatís a lie, I do most bitterly mind it; itís just that thereís nothing I can do about it, you work with the tools youíre given and thatís your lot), I really, really resent being second-class. Which is how they made me feel tonight.
Posted by Chaz at 12:54 AM GMT [Link]
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
It says here (in Advice by Hilaire Belloc) that "All - or nearly all - red wine is the better for having just one or two drops of water poured into the first glass only. Why this should be I know not, but so it is. It introduces it. This admirable and little known custom is called 'Baptizing' wine."
Iíll say it's little known; I've never heard of it. Anybody out there ever tried it? Do we think it worth the trying? Trouble is, if I try it and decide that it is indeed so, then I'll insist on doing it every time, and in time it'll become one of those Chazian eccentricities that fall somewhere between curious and increasingly annoying, and frankly I think we've got enough of those already...
Posted by Chaz at 05:03 PM GMT [Link]
Monday, March 14, 2005
Chazíz weekend: Saturday, went down to Durham with Gail to have lunch with Jean and Roger on the occasion of his birthday. Other friends came to pick us up from there and whisked us off to their haunted old house in the country, where we did more eating and yet more drinking and then lolled around in the hot tub till near enough midnight, while the bitter wind played in our hair and the warm water sloshed about and a dog-fox barked in the valley and all of that stuff. And so more drinking before bed, where I lay awake all night waiting for the Green Lady to come and get me. Yikes.
And Sunday, by contrast, was almost entirely sober: an idle hour in the house and then a long wait at the railway station for a damní bus to come and pick us up, as the trains couldnít be bothered to run. And so - eventually - home, for an idle afternoon before I went out to join a friend at Handelís Belshazzar. Iíve never known whether one sees a concert, or hears one; but whichever, this was three hours of pure happy-music. The soloists looked to be having as much fun as the audience, and I just know the chorus was, because I turned out to know several of them. And I do love being sung to. Mob-handed like this, or individually with a guitar, or anything in between. Lieder or Gregorian or Gershwin, doesnít seem to matter. Just so long as someoneís hitting notes in my direction, I am content. When I go back to Taiwan, Iím going to take a chance on the local variety of opera. Five hours of incomprehensibility in the pentatonic scale. Thatíll be a test...
Posted by Chaz at 12:14 AM GMT [Link]
Thursday, March 10, 2005
This is turning into quite a fun week. On Monday I wrote a brief essay on Fu Manchu, for a list-book of a hundred significant horror novels, and then went out in the evening to hear Barrie Rutter lecture - well, talk, really - about contemporary classical theatre and his part(s) in it; Tuesday I just worked, and did actually get a few pages written; today I went to see Constantine, the movie from Hellblazer, and was pleasantly and thoroughly surprised to find it sensible, stylish and enjoyable pretty much from first to last. This afternoon, inter alia, I did a French boy's homework for him. He'd sent me this list of deep and philosophical questions about the meanings and symbolism of my story I am Death's Brother. Neil Gaiman says the only way to deal with these requests is to tell 'em - nicely - to write their own damn essays; but then Neil probably gets them by the sackload. This was my first; and heís French, and Iím romantic. So I told him all that, and then I answered his questions. At least, I gave him answers; they convinced me, and so should probably do for his teacher too.
And this evening, I collected my first vegetable bag. Iíve joined this scheme, where for a set weekly (or in my case fortnightly - I really donít eat that many vegetables) payment, you get a bagful of seasonal organic veg from a local farm. Why am I doing this, when I really donít eat that many vegetables? Partly to encourage me to eat more, I am a slave to propaganda; partly to support the whole organic thing, which I do believe in; partly to encourage me to have more friends round for dinner, to help me eat all this vegetation; partly to extend my range, as I do so tend to fall into ruts and patterns of familiarity. Todayís selection was the standard trio of potatoes, carrots and onions, and then a head of celery, half a red cabbage, some tomatoes (did I say 'seasonal'? Tut - but then, if youíve got a greenhouse, I guess almost anything is seasonal) and some beetroot. I have spent years saying I donít like beetroot, itís almost the last thing I say that about; but in fact Iíve already cooked it once, two Christmases back, roasted with chestnuts and smoky bacon, and that was really nice. So now Iíll find something else to do with it, and see how that goes. Not perhaps the beetroot-and-chocolate cake recipe that came with, but Iíll think of something.
Posted by Chaz at 12:00 AM GMT [Link]
Tuesday, March 8, 2005
I had a few friends round for dinner at the weekend. First time for ages: Iíve cooked in other people's houses, but not let people into my own. I'd forgotten, how much I enjoy it: even the drudgework, the cleaning up has merit, before and after. And once youíve done the washing-up - which, when you live alone, you can take three days over if you want to, as I have - then it's like starting again with a clean house, all this open space where clutter was, it's kind of refreshing.
We started with various smoked-fish pâtés (well, not all smoked - one was a sort of devilled crab, which was definitely my fave; otherwise smoked salmon with goat's-cheese, and smoked mackerel in lemon butter), then had my classic duck confit with fried breast of duck on Puy lentils, with chilli greens and red cabbage (this is 'classic' only because I do variations of it often, because it's nice). A complex dessert, caramelised apples in a sort of filo sandwich with date puree to hold it all together, and then the bit I made up altogether, or at least enough to give it a name. You know about angels on horseback (oysters, wrapped in bacon) and devils on horseback (prunes, ditto ditto); well, now meet saints on horseback. Smoked mussels, as it happens. Wrapped in thin half-rashers of smoked streaky bacon, packed tightly into an oven dish and given ten minutes in a hottish oven 'til gorgeous. Eat with cocktail sticks, straight out of the dish. And then somebody tell me why wrapping something in bacon puts it "on horseback", because I confess I do not know.
And I made chocolates to finish: white truffles with cocoa nibs (which if you donít know, these are shards of the pure roasted cocoa bean, and wonderful) dipped in deep dark chocolate. They were kind of misshapen, because I hadnít done this before and so they sat at the bottom of what I hope to be a steepish learning curve, but they tasted scrummy.
Posted by Chaz at 07:00 PM GMT [Link]
Friday, March 4, 2005
We are creatures of habit, my cat Misha and I; and in the way of middle-aged couples growing together, we hold many of our habits in common. We sit together, much of the time, and we sleep together every night (she in the middle of the pillows, I at the fringes, wherever she allows). We wake together - well, one of us always wakes the other, with varying degrees of grumbling from the disturbed party. We listen to the radio for a while - she on my chest, I as it were beneath her claws - and then when I eventually get out of bed, she follows me to the bathroom and sits outside, yelling at me to hurry up. We go downstairs, and I prepare her breakfast as a matter of urgency, while she paces to and fro across my feet and mutters at the delay.
Except that today, I became aware of something missing, just in that last segment of the programme. Specifically, no small-but-loud cat trying to hustle my ankles. This disturbed me to the point where I put down the pouch & spoon, and glanced back into the dining-room.
Where I caught Misha chasing her tail, which she has not done since she was a kitten-cat (at least, not when anyone was looking). Admittedly she was doing it in a middle-aged and mildly arthritic fashion, with no threat of actually catching the thing; but none the less she was - well, I was going to say 'dogged', but that would be lèse-majesté, so letís just say determined - about it. This was no casual fling, she kept at it till she was giddy and had to lean against the wall. And then when she did stagger through to her breakfast, she stood in a curve, and kept breaking off to walk round in a circle one more time. Lord only knows what was happening in her little head, but I guess we both enjoyed it. One of us at least was giggling like a loon, if loons giggle.
Posted by Chaz at 04:55 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.