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Chaz'z Blog

Monday, June 30, 2003

I am, I always have been a child of enthusiasms. Usually I do one at a time, obsessively; at the moment I'm multi-tasking, all the old favourites come at once. I'm on a writing-jag and a cooking-jag, I'm tending my pot-garden and keeping up with friends and reading and shopping and somehow finding room for all of this, without feeling that anything particular has been let go. It can't last, but I like it while it does.

The novella cracks on apace, though it's rapidly losing any resemblance to what I thought it would be. This is disconcerting, but not unsatisfying. It's at a tender stage, though, and talking about work-in-progress is never easy anyway, so there's not much more I can say about that.

Had dinner with friends on Saturday, but because they are friends and because I don't have their permission to gossip about their innermost lives online, there's not much I can say about that either. I shall revert to type, take the safe option and talk about cooking.

I put a pound of white kidney beans to soak on Friday, forgetful that I was out to dinner the following night. Had to do something with them, Saturday afternoon; so I put them in a pot with fried onions and all the chillies in the house, a tin of tomatoes, some thyme from the garden (I really have started calling it a garden; I like this) and a half-shoulder of lamb. The plan was to leave it on a very very low heat in the oven all the time I was out, and expect rich succulence on my return, fit to be reheated next day and thereafter.

But it took no time to put together, so it had already had an hour before I left; and the house smelled gorgeous as I came downstairs, so I checked, and even on the lowest setting it was bubbling away far too vigorously to be allowed a whole evening's worth. Amazingly efficient, these cast-iron casseroles, once they get up to heat. So I did the other thing, turned off the gas and left it to sit in the residual heat, and that was plenty. Got back in the early hours, had a look and a lick, and oh it was good. And hot. And still warm.

So yesterday, to go with, I plucked my first courgettes, sliced 'em thin and softened 'em slowly with half an onion and a clove of garlic, stirred in a hefty spoonful of heavy cream and a handful of chopped chives to make a sort of emollience to work against the chilli. I made that word up, but you know what I mean. And it was lovely; so today I did the same thing except that the courgettes came with flowers attached, so I steamed those as a sort of garnish, and they were lovely too.

And today has been full of travel plans, to Orkney and to Korea with barely a day between. And me such a homeloving boy, seldom happy away from my own bed; and Misha still so disturbed when I sleep away; and who will water my garden while I'm gone? It's all worry and stress, which I'm fairly sure must be why I do it, can't think of any reason else...

Posted by Chaz at 10:39 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Went out into the back yard this morning (I have almost started calling it a garden), and the courgette-plants were triumphantly ablaze, golden trumpets blaring through the dark green of the leaves. So I looked a little closer, and saw that only some of the flowers were attached to actual courgettes; the rest just had slender stalks. Miserably, I went into town to look at books and find out why all my flowers weren't setting fruit - and learned gigglingly that courgettes have boy-flowers as well as girl-flowers, and only girl-flowers have babies.

courgette flower

Which meant, of course, as all my girls were pregnant, that I had redundant boys. Which means that at last I get to cook courgette-flowers, which I've been reading about for years and never done yet. Today I chopped one roughly, fried it a moment in butter, added it to parsley and a couple of eggs and made an omelette, light and fresh and lovely. Next time, perhaps a tempura batter and deep-fry, see what that's like; and after that we'll go the stuffing route. I'll report back.

Posted by Chaz at 04:59 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, June 26, 2003

One (slightly odd) definition of the best a day can get:

I was having dinner with friends in Tynemouth last night, and the only way to enjoy it thoroughly was to get drunk and stay over, so I did that. And so was woken this morning at seven o'clock (I told you this was odd), in order that I might catch a Metro home and give Misha-cat her breakfast before going up the hill to the doctor's, to have a cortisone injection into my shoulder (did I say this was odd...?). That done, I walked down the hill into town and shopped vaguely without buying anything until I reached my new optician's, where I went in to collect my new glasses. Which are gorgeous, and look terrific, and as I feared are not quite right in the prescription (should've gone back to my old opticians for the testing, if not the frames) but aren't wrong enough to fuss over. Soon as I stop staring at everything to confirm that it's not exactly crisp, they'll be fine.

And so home, to an afternoon of Chaz at work: which means inter alia Chaz walking around the hospital and Chaz walking to the supermarket, but working all the way, mulling over this section of the novella and having ideas in quantities reminiscent of Pelion being heaped upon Ossa, if it's not the other way around (I actually typed that entirely the other way around, Pella being heaped upon Ossian, but it somehow didn't sound quite right...). And the rest of the time I was writing, and it was good to find that I can still do that; and I probably wrote a couple of thousand words today, and it's very very rare that I do that. And I love the work, I adore this book and I don't care if no one else does and if it never sees the light of publication (grey and blear), my novella hath my heart and I have its.

And then it was only six o'clock (its being amazing how much one can fit in to a day that starts at seven o'clock), so I wandered up the road to my friend Andrew's house with a bottle of wine, and found him taking delivery of all his things, that have been in storage for months. So we stood and watched (being both of us separately and medically forbidden to help; my doctor had actually said 'no moving house over the weekend, you've got to let the shoulder rest') while strong men emptied vans and entirely filled the house with stuff. Then, as there was no longer room to cook, we went to our favourite local Indian for a curry, and so home. With that unexpected but exactly definable feeling that yes, this really has been one good day.

Posted by Chaz at 10:46 PM GMT [Link]

Monday, June 23, 2003

I hate being double-booked, but I will keep doing it to myself. It's bad enough when two events clash and you have to prioritise the one you'd rather not do; it's worse when you really want to do both. This weekend I had arranged to go up the coast through Friday night, to see the sun rise on Holy Island on the longest day of the year;

Ten minutes after sunrise on the longest day

but I had to cancel, because Friday evening and Saturday morning were the opening events of this year's Proud Words festival. This is the first and only lesbian & gay literature festival in the UK, and it's ours, and it has to be supported; besides which, it's the best fun around.

So I went to the launch party on Friday, for music and frolics and readings from, among others, Alan Hollinghurst and Patrick Gale, two of the finest writers in contemporary literature, and gay to boot. And then came home to entertain my friends for a couple of hours before they set off northwards without me, and so went to bed late and full of wine and whisky, which is the price you pay for double-booking.

Saturday morning I was up too early, to see Julia Darling (whom we adore) interview Alan; and then I stayed, rather against my expectation, for an afternoon workshop with Patrick. I haven't participated in a writing workshop for years and years, so that was interesting. We didn't actually get to write much, it was more the talking kind of workshop, but I find I have agreed to write up something that I spoke about, for reading at the last-night party. Their idea, not mine; I was trying very hard to keep low, profile-wise. Sigh.

It was a really good day, and one of those rare ones where I feel almost professionally gay, where my being gay is a qualification; I do sort of enjoy that, occasionally. So off for a happy cocktail afterwards with a happy couple of friends - I had a mojito, and I fully intend to reproduce it; I suppose I could look for a recipe on the net, but as far as I could judge it was rum, mint, lime, lime syrup and lots of ice, so how hard can that be? - and then home, thinking quiet night in. Went on thinking that till Harry phoned, and swept me away to North Shields for a mammoth curry with Louise and a couple of her friends. I'm unclear how many bottles of wine we actually drank, but it was certainly an unnecessary number; and this morning I managed to get myself briefly locked into his bathroom while the house was still sleeping around me, which has always been one of my nightmares. But I did get out and I did get home and all seems to be well or well enough, except that one of the local wild kids has spent the day climbing in and out of my back yard, and half-pulled the hose mounting off the wall in the process, and I find myself half-hoping that she finishes the job next time and breaks her scrawny neck in the falling after. I am not in a charitable vein, towards people who break into my back yard just now.

Posted by Chaz at 12:13 AM GMT [Link]

Friday, June 20, 2003

I have been a victim of crime, and I am outraged. I was going to tell you all this other stuff, but I am so fumid, I can think of nothing else. Someone has climbed over the wall into my back yard, and stolen one of my herbs in its pot. My common thyme, thymus vulgaris, has been thieved from me, and I am truly furious about it. And suddenly desperately anxious about all the others: what if this is a serial thief? He can only carry one at a time, but no reason to suppose he won't come back, and back, and back again...

Ah, let's talk about something else. Let's talk about post. I used to live by my post, I used to be neurotic about it; I spent a month once when I was still living at home convinced that my mother was stealing my post, because I was getting none. So I started getting up absurdly early, to frustrate her ? and then decided, had to decide that it was the postman himself who was stealing it, as it clearly wasn't coming in through the door.

Fortunately, things have changed; very little that's good comes by post any more, so I no longer expect it. So it doesn't grieve me when my entire day's ration, as yesterday, was the contract for the university job that I finished six weeks ago, and the letter to tell me that I hadn't got the fellowship I applied for eight months ago. That's pretty much what I expect. And the reason I no longer expect good things in the post, is largely because they all come by e-mail these days. Wherefore yesterday I was busily deleting the morning's crop of spam, and came down to one that wasn't; nearly deleted it anyway, because it had one of those long subject lines that usually denote garbage and wasn't from a name I knew. But I stopped in time, and read it - and it's an invitation to attend a one-day fantasy literature forum. In Korea, in September. British Council job, which is a thing I wholeheartedly approve of (except for the British Council in Taiwan, but that's another story). And it's interesting to note how much I've changed, perhaps grown up in the last couple of years. When I got the equivalent invitation to go to Taiwan I was instantly terrified; applied only because I didn't want to be the kind of person who let such an opportunity slip, but secretly wanted not to get it, and then jittered madly when I did. This time, deep cool, absolutely I want it, straight off. No doubt the jitters will still come, but they ain't here yet; thus far I'm doing nothing but look forward to the trip, and wonder if I can afford to stay a little longer on my own account. They're offering three or four days, but that's really only time enough to bed the jetlag in for the duration.

Posted by Chaz at 11:09 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

So I'm watching this schlock movie, The Peacemaker, a sort of sub-Bond vehicle with Clooney and Kidman in the front seats ('top tottie for all', according to the BBC Three announcer - dear me, does no one remember Lord Reith? Not that I'm arguing...), and the baddie ('I am a Serb, I am a Croat, I am a Moslem,' which is either a way to say that he represents generic terrorism and nothing specific, guys, honest, or else it's a way to say that it really doesn't matter what he is, all foreigners are equally suspect and xenophobia is the only way to go; work it out for yourselves, I'm taking no stand on this) is smuggling his live nuclear device into New York under diplomatic credentials, and the moment before it happens I remember when I saw this at a press show, when his trunk rolls across the screen and it says DIPLOMATIC PAPERS, PRIVILEGED in letters six foot high - except that it doesn't, because nobody proofreads movies, right? Why would they? So actually it says PRIVILEDGED. Six foot high. Might be the biggest misprint in history. Definitely it's the best moment in the movie; worth a second viewing, just to be reminded. I'll probably have to buy the video, just to put it on the shelf among my small but precious collection of books with misprints on their covers. My favourite is and probably always will be a cheap seventies paperback, a tie-in novelisation of the British cop show THE SWEENEY. Which is the book's title too, and in big, big capital letters on the cover it says THE SWEENY. And nobody, nobody noticed. I don't know how that can happen, but sometimes I'm awfully glad that it does.

Posted by Chaz at 10:08 PM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Took a visiting crime-writer round Newcastle this morning; she was on a research trip into Victorian Tyneside, so the regular Chaz'z Walking Tour suited very well, as its bias is towards the historical. I just left out the modern section (that's over the Millennium Bridge to the Baltic, pausing en route to gape at the Sage Music Centre as it swells like a mechanical mollusc in its shell) and we spent more time in the Lit & Phil. Always happy to spend time in the Lit & Phil, and every time I show someone round, I get to show them my favourite book: Beards, by Reginald Reynolds. It really is what it purports to be, an omnium gatherum (his phrase), a sort of miscellaneous study of the beard and beardlessness throughout history. A magic thing, and I thought I was the only person in the world who knew of its existence, until I was holding forth at a dinner party and one of my fellow guests identified it before I'd got a dozen words into the description; apparently there's a copy in Brasenose College library at Oxford, and Howard's entire year had read it.

This afternoon I had to supervise removal-men, for an absent friend. On my way home, I passed through the fish market and bought a tub of crabmeat, as can happen. The world is full of simple pasta sauces, but this is one of the best: soften a clove or two of garlic in olive oil, with a chilli or two if you like it. Add a generous spoonful-per-person of crabmeat, white and brown together, and the same measure of sour cream; then a chopped handful of parsley and chives, perhaps a little basil, a little salt, lots of pepper. Heat till hot, then serve on whatever good dried pasta you have to hand, cooked al dente and cheered up with a good glug of olive oil and more pepper before you add the sauce. Parmesan if you want it. How easy is that?

Posted by Chaz at 10:54 PM GMT [Link]

Monday, June 16, 2003

Assembling the accounts: always a time of joy and domestic contentment. Whoo, yeah. But spare me the sniggering jokes about 'another work of fiction, then, Chaz, eh?' - in this, I am scrupulous. Not sure why, exactly, except that I like and value numbers, and I don't like to see them fudged or shuffled. Besides which, I like to know how I'm doing; cheating the Revenue would cheat me too, give me a warped picture of my own progress. Or, more likely, regress.

Whether it's been a good year or a bad, though, makes no difference to the process, the drawing together of all the numbers, all the bits of paper. I do like numbers, I ought surely to like bits of paper, but this order-out-of-chaos thing, the process I detest. Which might be used to account for my behaviour on Saturday, when I was in a vile mood all day, and went off to an old friend's stag night scowling blackly. Stayed for a few pints, said nothing of any use to anyone and came stomping home early. Shoddy manners. I'm not vain enough to pretend that I spoiled the evening, but certainly I added nothing to it; and if I'd tried to pretend it was because I was in mid-audit, I would have been lying. It was much more to do with half the publishers in the UK turning down my new project, that the lovely Americans have been so keen to sign up to. I get mad tired of people saying 'Chaz, I love this book, but...' It might be easier if I didn't believe them; but they really do like the work and they still aren't going to publish it, because it really is easier to sell a complete unknown than someone who's been around a while and not yet had a hit. Which is a truly depressing scenario, and not only for myself. It discards an entire tranche of craft and experience, those writers whom the industry used to nurture, with an eye on the long game; if short-termism tightens its hold just a little more, there will be nobody left bar the bestsellers and the new kids. And that will make a hollow vessel indeed, and sooner or later the book really won't be worth the candle, and we can all spend more time at the magic lantern show. And I shall live in the country, and subsist on half an acre and no cow. Cows are too big, goats are too mean and their eyes are horizontal, letter-box format, which is scary. I might keep pigs, I like pigs.

Actually, I'm working on a whole new theory that relates writing to farming. Farmers have always been divided into genres: the gentlemen farmers who do it because it's expected of them, because the land comes with the name and that's what gentlemen do; the hobby farmers who do it for the fun of the thing, because they like the work, but their money comes from elsewhere; the commercial farmers, who grub up hedges and strew artificial fertiliser in all directions and do nothing that won't attract a subsidy from somewhere; the subsistence farmers, who farm because that's all they know or all they want to know, and never mind that the land is stony and the prospect bleak. I could go on, but it's a shame to stretch a metaphor too thin and I think you get the idea. Substitute 'writer' for 'farmer' and the list pretty much holds together. We have our dynasties, from the Amises to the Waughs; we have our hobbyists and our truly greedy, truly heedless cash-croppers; and there are still some of us who subsist, who eke a living out of literature without the support of partners or pensions, second jobs or selling out. But there are I think fewer of us, year by year, and there too the parallel holds good. And sometimes, just like farmers, there seems to be nothing we can do but whinge and feel sorry for ourselves, for which I probably ought to apologise but my mood is too grim to offer even that much comfort. In truth, I don't think any of the above is to blame for the foulness that I feel just now, neither the accounts nor the rejections nor any of the other pains and griefs in my life. I'm just on a downswing, and welcome to the slough of despond, Chaz-style; it usually throws up dissertations on the desperate state of British publishing or bookselling or whatever. Always something to kick at: which is convenient really, when I have in me such a dreadful urge to kick.

Posted by Chaz at 11:21 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Further to our feeling that the nomination of Liverpool to be European Capital of Culture 2008 was a retrograde step, a looking to the past: we are not alone. Before the decision was announced, Newcastle was full of posters in shop windows, declaring We're backing 2008. Newcastle is now full of posters declaring We're backing 1968. Well, quite.

Posted by Chaz at 10:57 PM GMT [Link]

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Dinner at Kate's was good last night, and the St Clement's Cake (I have decided, after long struggling with my soul, to instate the apostrophe; but when I do it seems to demand a capital on the Cake) was nice too, or at least I thought so. Here, then, is the recipe, as promised.

Line the bottom of an 8-inch cake tin, butter and flour the tin.

Take two or three slices of stale white bread (a couple of ounces, I suppose, or a little more - but use good bread, not nasty supermarket steamed pulp. I went with ciabatta here), including crusts, and blitz in a food processor to a rough crumb - nothing too fine. Add twice the weight of ground almonds, and then eight ounces of caster sugar. Mix in a heaped teaspoonful of baking powder, and then eight ounces of organic safflower or any other light oil. Beat in four whole eggs, and grate in the zest of an orange and a lemon. Pour into the tin, and bake in a low-medium oven (Gas 4, or thereabouts - you know your own oven best) for an hour or so, until slightly risen in the middle and a skewer comes out clean.

Leave it in the tin while you juice the orange and the lemon into a saucepan, add a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves and three ounces of sugar and bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for a few minutes, then transfer the cake to a deep plate. Pierce it thoroughly with the skewer, spoon the syrup over and leave to cool. If any syrup oozes out, scrape it up and pour it over the cake again; it should all be absorbed. Serve with thick cream or crème fraîche.

Meanwhile, there is a rare and sensational thunderstorm going on out there, and I should probably not be using the computer at all, let alone uploading to the net, but hey, I got spike protection. And I would have phone-line protection too, if I'd only had the sense to plug it in; but I've had trouble before with boxes interposed between me and the phone company, the last one stopped me connecting to the net at all, so I'm not going there. Bring on your thunder, Thor...

And I have a hot and sensational chilli on the hob, brewing gently - lamb, onions, garlic, red peppers and split peas for substance; cumin, Greek oregano and fresh coriander from the stormy yard for flavour; a couple of scotch bonnets and a tablespoon of chilli powder for heat. Try it like that tonight, and if it ain't fiery enough I'll chuck in a handful of little cayennes from my own plants, the first harvest of the year.

And I'm revisiting Highway 61 Revisited - it's a social duty: my having stolen the road for a story a few years back, I have to go and hang out there every now and then - and it occurs to me that if you took Dylan's entire catalogue of songs and constructed an album from them, not a Greatest Hits but just the most coherent, strongest individual collection of songs that you could make from all that range, it might well come out pretty much indistinguishable from H 61. And that from a man whose favourite Dylan album is actually Blood on the Tracks... Come to think of it, this is probably a parlour game, piecing together alternative albums. For Nick Hornby, obviously, and others who find Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon altogether too easy.

Why do we call them albums, I wonder? Because of the sleeves on old LPs, the way they used to open like a book? Indeed, do people still call them albums, or is the word reserved for those of us who grew up with LPs rather than CDs?

I just looked it up, and yup, it's because of the sleeve. But I also found album Graecum, which is the dried dung of dogs, formerly used medicinally for inflammation of the throat. Yum yum, that'd make you feel better.

Posted by Chaz at 05:34 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, June 7, 2003

I think Misha is dissatisfied with my performance as chatelain and helpmeet. I keep finding her sitting in my chairs, keeping one move ahead of me all around the house; I suspect this is to remind me who wears the fur in this house. As if I needed telling. Trouble is, I can't buy her off with treats, special food and such, she's not interested in that. What she wants is company. There's a natural limit to how much I can be around, and even when I am, I cannot always have her sitting on me. These days I can't even have her in my lap when I'm working, she's too fidgety and distracting; so I throw her off, and she scrabbled at my leg for a few minutes, and then she curls up on the floor directly behind the right-hand castor of my chair, so that she's always in my eyeline if I glance downward and I daren't shift the chair a millimetre backwards for fear of agonised yowling. Actually, those times I've been careless, I'm fairly sure that she whisked herself away a moment before the castor would have touched her, but she yowls anyway on general principles, and then has to be comforted, and - well, has anyone got a temperamental toddler they'd like to swap for a middle-aged cat?

Had a good day today, though, after the miserablenesses of the recent few. Spent much of it being smug, on account of my poor agents have been afflicted with a virus (Bugbear.B., apparently it's all the rage among you Windows-using types), and there is nothing like someone else's catastrophe to make you feel cocky that you have avoided same. I suppose that's bad, and we should rather feel humble and grateful and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God - but this really is a matter of choice, and those of us who have chosen to use Linux did so partly at least for these reasons, that we avoid the plagues and tempests that Windows is heir to. No doubt we're heading for a fall here, and when it comes it will be appalling; but meanwhile I wander around with this happy illusion in my head that it never will come, that the whole structure of society militates against it. People write viruses for Windows because it's easy, and because they have this vast soft target to aim at so they really can't miss, it's that childish satisfaction of only playing games that you know you're going to win. People don't write viruses for Linux because the target is small (an installed base of what, millions as against hundreds of millions? That sort of proportion) and difficult to hit (much greater security inherent in the software, and a much more security-minded user base) and it takes work to learn how to do it - and this is probably fantasy, but what I like to think is that by the time would-be virus writers have got that far, they are of necessity so deep-sunk into the Linux way of doing things that actually they figure out it would be more fun to be a contributor, part of the community, writing real code with real functionality. Ach, just call me a dreamer, what do I care? I am watchful, but there are still no viruses knocking at my door.

So yes, general bouncing on my Linux toes today, feeling that for once in my life I made a right choice there; and I bounced all the way into town to the farmer's market, and did some happy shopping. Mostly herbs, little creeping varieties of thyme and rosemary and mint for this fake rockery I've put together with old compost and concrete rubble, and very nice it looks all planted up. No idea if the plants will survive, but hey, this is all learning.

And this afternoon I baked a cake, for dinner at Kate's tomorrow; and I have decided to call it a St Clements cake, on account of the oranges and lemons that went into it. If it's nice, I'll post the recipe here; if it isn't, you will never hear of it again (unless of course it's a total disaster, in which case I promise you the whole story of my humiliation, you'll like that).

And all the while I was listening to the cricket, and that was good too. I should really be there, the first-ever test at Chester-le-Street, just down the railway, first stop from here; but I have my tax returns to do, so I have to be here, in order to avoid them properly.

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

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

So. Farewell then, Capital of Culture 2008; it's gone to Liverpool. Obviously I cannot pretend to be balanced or reasonable about this, after having been so passionately invested in the Newcastle Gateshead bid, but I do think it's a shoddy decision. The first of many messages in my mailbox today sums up the general mood: 'Looking backward rather than looking forward,' it says. That may be unfair, but it is how it feels; and the Liverpool people do their own case no good. Their spokesman on Radio 4 this morning was Mike McCartney, brother of the more famous Paul, and the first coherent words he said were 'The Beatles! The Scaffold!' Well, quite. I think we could have done better. I was embarrassed for Liverpool, that seemingly they couldn't; and I was embarrassed for the judges, to have their nomination so swiftly and so ruthlessly exposed.

But just because we lost the bid is no reason to lose what was best within the bid. I will still be campaigning to have Newcastle declare itself the first British City of Refuge. And meanwhile draw comfort from our being the people's choice in every poll I saw, and the bookies' choice, and every damn body's choice except the committee that got to choose. This gives me the chance to mutter in my beard about Other Factors and Political Considerations and such. Not sure I believe it, but give me a straight loss or a bent game and I know which way I want to go. Conspiracy theories, bring 'em on, I need 'em...

Posted by Chaz at 08:40 PM GMT [Link]

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