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Chaz'z Blog

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Ooh, look, a whole new way to spell me. Iím reading at a new gig, the Queerbeats festival here in Newcastle: the important date to note is Friday 12th August, at Egypt Cottage [which is tragically nothing more exotic than a pub, but Iíd love to know where the name came from]. Me and eight other people, "stories, poems, songs and visual sensory pleasures", it says here, and no, I donít know what that means either. Whatever it is, at least I can deny responsibility, even for my own part in the evening; Iím listed here as "Chaz Brenchoey". Which is, as I say, new to me, after a long triple lifetime of high originality; my father and grandfather also reported many adventures in the orthography of their name, but never quite this. Iím fairly sure it's my own fault, I probably sounded like that down the phone. I hate phones. But apparently I was down on the first-run flyer as Chaz Davis, so Brenchoey is at least an improvement...

Posted by Chaz at 11:30 AM GMT [Link]

Friday, July 29, 2005

Yesterday's vessels: they are sailing, sailing into the east and leaving us, all crewed with missed opportunities...

Oh, I'm sorry. Itís the mood I'm in, Iíve come over all rhetorical. What I mean to say is this: that we've had the Tall Ships in town all week, so the town has been quite full of young persons (Iím thinking sailor-boys here, can you tell?) cut adrift, footloose in a foreign city, needing nothing so much as a little local guidance - and I have seen nothing of them, and they have seen nothing of me, and it's all been such a sorry waste. Partly I've been busy, and partly Iíve been ill, and partly I've been just too gloomy to go out in search of fun & frolics in incompatible languages. Ah, it was all so different last time they were here, twelve years ago...

But anyway, whenever they come, wherever they go, the last day is always a great Parade of Sail, with 100-plus sailing vessels departing in single file and full fig, flying every scrap of canvas that they can, with all the crew up in the tops to wave a fond farewell. Last time was a grand day, both banks of the Tyne lined from Newcastle to the coast, half a million people or more turned out in the sunshine to watch. I was with friends, we got drunk, we had a lovely time.

This year they were hoping to beat that. So what happened? It rained, is what happened. More specifically, it rained coldly on an easterly wind, so we had a grand Parade of Rigging as the ships motored or were tugged along the Tyne, their masts empty of sail and crew both. And a lot of people did turn out regardless, including, to some extent, myself. I went down to the quayside in the early morning to watch the first boats leaving, so that I had at least had some sight of them close-up in all their masty loveliness, a symphony of boy and rope and order. Well, all right, girl too, but Iím myopic, which means Iím allowed to see what I want to see.

Then I jumped a metro to the coast, where a couple of friends of mine inhabit an old lighthouse, and we watched through a window and had lunch in the warm. And did go out into the rain afterwards, to walk down to the pier and see if we could see anything of the race away to Norway - but no, we couldn't, we just got wet.

And so damply home, to dry clothes and a demanding cat, a little desultory work and not much focus, until at last an e-mail from the States. My editor is generally happy with the rewrite on Selling Water; there is still work to do, but that's okay, I can encompass that, amid the great project of restoration that faces me now. I have to rebuild my confidence, several relationships, my reputation, my finances and my career. A wise man would probably put his finances first, but I never could prioritise; any novelist is a synthesist by nature, and I want to do it all at once, in the same package, not so much several birds with one stone as a whole blast of buckshot. But it ain't going to happen like that. It's going to be slow and difficult and painful, like all this year has been; but I am perhaps not despairing any more.

Posted by Chaz at 12:05 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I have invented a cure for the common cold, hurrah. Alas that it won't make me rich, tho' the world will undoubtedly beat a path to my (virtual) door. It is, of course, a recipe.

I was back to feeling lousy, through Sunday and Monday: as soon as the excitements of the week were over. This is not uncommon. I'd say it was psychosomatic, if the symptoms weren't so physical. But my head filled with cold wet rags, I coughed and shivered and wheezed and ran all the fires in the house and still couldn't get warm.

I had no appetite, but I have somewhere picked up one of those adhesive homilies, "feed a cold and starve a fever". Didn't think I was feverish, so I considered what I had in the fridge, in the pantry, in the garden; I considered what I like (soup and heat, largely: a big bowl of scorchio that I can eat with spoon and chopsticks) and I came up with something that I choose to call Thai Beef Curry Noodle Soup, for the sake of clarity. It goes like this:

Cover a brisket of beef with stock or water, in a casserole dish. Add a couple of chunked-up carrots, a couple of halved onions and a halved chicory head (and/or whatever other stock vegetables you have or like: celery, leeks, these sorts of thing), and simmer on top of the stove or in the oven for at least two hours, up to four. You want to end up with the meat stewed to a shreddable softness while still retaining some flavour & interest of its own, and a sumptuous rich liquor. Shred the meat and discard the vegetables.

Assuming a litre of the liquor (adjust seasonings up or down accordingly, or else to taste: this is just how I did it):

Heat a couple of glugs of groundnut oil in a big pan, and when it's sizzling add half a dozen tablespoons of Thai red curry paste. You can make this yourself - basically it's a combination of red chillies, fresh or dried depending on your recipe, with garlic, shallots, lemon grass, galangal, coriander, kaffir lime leaves and shrimp paste, all pulped together in a mortar or a machine - or you can buy preprepared versions with an authenticity that varies from little-old-lady version (in your local supermarket) to this-will-make-your-head-explode (in oriental supermarkets). Your choice, but whichever you go for, to cure your cold add a couple of teaspoonfuls of hot curry powder at this point.

Sizzle the paste, the powder and the oil together till the oil separates again and it all looks a bit brown in there. Add your stock, and simmer for twenty minutes. Then stir in a teaspoonful of tamarind concentrate (a dark and sticky gloop that looks like Marmite but tastes oddly lemony), a teaspoonful of sugar - to help the medicine go down, obviously - and a tin of coconut milk. Add the shredded meat and simmer, add fish sauce to taste.

Meanwhile, cook your favourite kind of noodle - wheatflour or rice or bean, ribbon or thread, just whatever you like. Fetch a big bowl and line it with mustard leaves or spinach or anything of that sort; or try mizuna, chicory leaves, sorrel...

Add the noodles to the bowl, then ladle boiling soup over the top. Sprinkle with chopped coriander and fresh chilli, and eat. With second helpings very much in mind.

That's what I did, and my cold retreated almost instantly, abandoned the field overnight and has not been glimpsed since. Only its detritus remains, a generic chestiness and more asthma than I can shake a stick at. But I am potent, I can shake sticks now. I shall continue with the soupy treatment till the pot is empty; I donít know if it's a consequence of living alone and cooking for myself, or simply a happy accident, but I actually like eating the same thing several days in a row. So long as I can play with the flavours, obviously. A little more chilli, next time...

Posted by Chaz at 11:47 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, July 25, 2005

My Misha-cat has been diagnosed with an overactive thyroid. This is presumably to compensate for her underactive brain. Ah, well. It just means more fuss and money, that's all. She's a cat, she likes this stuff.

We actually took her to the vet on Friday, but couldn't get the results till now, on account of not being here. Been doing Write Fantastic gigs all over the north-east, Thursday and Friday; finished up Friday night in Sunderland, and took advantage of the chance to deliver a chilli plant to my friends Bryan & Mary of that burgh. Largely to Mary, who is the gardener, and who had taken delivery of a greenhouse in the spring. So I promised her a chilli, and set it aside in its early seedling days, and somehow never got it down to her till now. To some extent I feel guilty, because I feel that Iíve had the best of it, the nursing & nourishing through its seedlinghood and those difficult sapling months, to the now of its maturity; but also I feel outraged, because there is a great irony going on here. All my other dozen-odd chilli plants I repotted into bigger pots, a little while back, because thatís what the literature recommends; this one I left in its six-inch, as being that much easier to transport the fifteen-odd miles to Sunderland. So there's a dozen on this hand, and one on the other; and guess which one has burgeoned, has proved fecund, has set fruit first and is now producing eight or nine chillis, where the others have all gone leafy and leggy and have barely started thinking about fruiting? Itís all about stress, I guess, my own are just too comfy and well-fed. Bah humbug, is what I say.

Still, Iím hoping that once Misha's on whatever costly medication the vet recommends, she too will become comfy & well-fed. She has been distinctly scrawny for a couple of years now; Iíd like to get back to the days when people used to comment rudely on her girth & heft.

Posted by Chaz at 12:02 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, July 18, 2005

Just as the rest of the world sits down to read Harry Potter, I sit down to read Diana Wynne Jones. Iím not sure if this is protest or irony or what, but I have to do something to cheer myself up.

Misha is still under the doctor, but I think she's all right. I am not. I have decided that just as there are apparently natural victims in the world, people who are predisposed to suffer violence and degradation, so there must be also natural failures, people who will just never make it in whatever field they set their mind or their heart upon. That would be me, then. I have about two months left before I run entirely out of money, and the latest - probably the last - of my potential escape clauses has just been and gone. We have a well-paid and prestigious literary fellowship here in the north-east, for which I apply every now and then. Iíve been shortlisted before, but obviously never got it; this time around, I didnít even get that far. Just the blunt rejection. It's very easy to feel angry about it - recent Fellows have been conspicuous by their utter lack of impact in the community, and I have a whole tirade predicated upon this, as my application was - but there's no point. Itís just one more thing I no longer have to bother applying for.

I finished the synopsis for Moonshadow vol 2 this week, and should undoubtedly have dived straight into vol 3, to make a whole package that could perhaps be shown around. But I am - you will have noticed - dispirited, and sick of synopses, the endless mapping and remapping of stories I have not written. This is not how literature happens, and if I'm not going to make any money anyway (the most conspicuous aspect of my eternal failure: Iíve published twenty-some books, in numerous styles and genres, and every single one of them has sold disappointingly within its respective marketplace. I can very easily believe that I have bad commercial judgement, but there are so many other people involved in these decisions, professional people with their eyes on the bottom line, it astonishes me that not one of them has ever got it right. Itís true too in other countries, American editions, translations, sales are universally shocking. Which is why I think it has to be genetic, the books carry some invisible mark of Cain), then literature is the last remaining point of the exercise.

Besides, those nice people at NWN gave me a grant to write the Taiwan book, so that's what Iím doing. Sheesh, itís so nice to be doing proper work, words that mean something to me, that donít have to fit some slot in someone elseís concept of what a book should be. This is only an interlude, but those are often the best bits.

Posted by Chaz at 12:37 AM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Mishaís home. Very quiet and sleepy - indeed, we dozed together on the sofa, and grumbled when each other moved - but at least sheís home, and standing straight when she can be bothered to stand, and getting her voice tuned up nicely. It occurred to me to wonder, if we go from crotchety to quavery in our age, what are we before that - minimal?

It occurred to the vet at one stage to wonder if she had a brain tumour. I was happy to disabuse him on that one. Insufficient brain to tume, I said.

Nothing else worth reporting today, just more critical comment from America. This is getting to be like the movies, where everybody has an opinion and every opinion demands a rewrite, so you move further and further from the original (in every sense) concept towards a conformable mean. I never wanted to write movies, for that exact reason; I feel like Iím losing touch with my ideas entirely, in the apparently endless need to suit exactly what people think the market wants just now. And the one sure thing is, theyíll be wrong; by the time anything gets to market, the mood will have shifted and people will be wanting something else.

The difference, of course, is that in the movies you get paid to do the rewrites. Looks like one more of my really, really bad choices...

Posted by Chaz at 08:25 PM GMT [Link]

My Misha-cat is sick and in hospital.

She was fine at ten oíclock, when I went upstairs to have a bath and write a blog and such; when I came down again at midnight, her head was all twisted round and she couldnít stand and she was utterly distressed. So I yelled for the vet, and he said heíd probably better see her; and I couldnít get a taxi, so I carried her the good mile that it is to the surgery, and it all felt very portentous because the only other time Iíd done that was when I took Sophie on her final visit, and tonight we were watched by little black cats on every corner, seemingly.

But theyíre nice at the vetís, they always make us both feel better; and though he was full of awful warnings about the worse things it could be, the vet did think it was probably a disease of the middle ear, so heís given her megadoses of steroids and antibiotics and kept her in overnight. And charged me an appalling amount for the privilege, because of course he had to come in specially from his nice little cottage in the country, which Iím fairly sure Iíve actually paid for over the years.

And now Iím home again, itís half one on a hot night and my catís under the doctor and I am not entirely clear what Iím going to do for the next eight hours, before I can phone to ask how she is. No doubt Iíll think of something. There are books in the house.

Posted by Chaz at 01:37 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, July 11, 2005

...And coming up hard on the heels of autobarbery, we have probable autophagy. Which is of course traditional, which means of course unsurprising; and also unsurprising, I am sure, is this news which I am now in a position to break to you, shock horror: that Elastoplast waterproof plasters are quite emphatically not waterproof.

Thing is, as I said, I did all this cooking for friends, in the house of friends (I tried to type ďa friendsí houseĒ, but my fingers were having none of it; which is odd, because ďa friendís houseĒ is not a problem, but as soon as thereís more than one friend in the house, the grammar seems to fall apart. It can be a blue house, meaning a house which is blue; or a blues house, meaning a house where a traditional form of American music is often played [for the joy of it, I just looked up the blues in my dictionary-of-choice, and sometimes you can just tell theyíve had trouble; their definition begins ďa slow sad song...Ē and ends ď...(sometimes neither slow nor sad)Ē]; but it canít be a friendsí house, meaning a house which belongs to more than one friend); but anyway, I did all this cooking round at Gill & Martynís, and of course I took a lot of my batterie de cuisine with me, because I donít like working with other peopleís gear, itís never right. Their pans are always the wrong size and the wrong weight, and most particularly, of course, their knives are never sharp. So I took my own, and most particularly my own two favourite knives.

And because Gill & Martyn are busy people and I am lackadaisical, we havenít sorted out my retrieving all this stuff yet; so when I came to cook my own dinner tonight, none of it was home. This is not a problem, as I have more pans and knives than a sensible man would ever shake a stick at, but it did mean I was finely slicing garlic with a knife Iíve never actually used before. It was very sharp, which meant that when it came to it, it went through the flesh and nail of my thumb with never a momentís hesitation. Which is hence the autophagy, because I havenít found the pieces, theyíre definitely not on the chopping board so I am fairly sure they went in the dinner. Which is fine, I donít mind eating me, well-seasoned and well-marinated as I am; and for a moment there I almost felt pleased, indeed, as I had only this morning decided to restock with plasters, and how fortuitous is that? I knew I had íem, and I knew where they were. After I had eventually controlled the bleeding - and there was a lot of that - I wangled on a plaster, and very carefully went for a waterproof one, on account of I knew I wanted a bath tonight. And I have had a bath; and yup, I went into it beplastered and came out naked, denuded, bereft. I am scandalised, and half-inclined to write a letter of fury. Thereís probably some small print on the packet, ĎNB - the word ďwaterproofĒ is not to be taken as meaning that this product is in any way resistant to the effects of wetnessí or some such, but I might get a free pack out of íem. Weíll see. Got nothing more interesting to write just now , just a synopsis for a possible book two or three years down the line, while I wait to hear from America. Who was it who said being asked to write a synopsis of a book you havenít written is like being asked to draw a map of a country you havenít visited?

Jean complains about the lack of recipes attached to the menu quoted heretofore. All right, already. Iíll do recipes. Nag me.

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

Sunday, July 10, 2005

It's always interesting to watch a new phrase bed down in the language, temporarily or otherwise. For the last few years, a company that sells paint and varnish products has been running a popular series of in-your-face TV adverts, with the generic slogan It does exactly what it says on the tin. [Latest example: our hero is oiling the decking in his garden. He says, "This is decking. Iím oiling it. Guess what Iím using?" and we zoom in on the tin, which is labelled Decking Oil. Thatís it. Cue slogan, and away.] Just in the last couple of weeks, I've twice heard reporters or commentators use the phrase in a political context, and running it through Google produces many, many other examples. I suspect this one may be here to stay. It already feels like it's been around for ever. Maybe it has, maybe the company's ad agency picked up a phrase that was already embedded, but that's not my impression.

Anyway, the point is, something that really pisses me off is the obverse of that, when the product does not do what it says on the tin. Or, as it might be, in the recipe.

Iíve had a little run of these, because I've been cooking a lot these last weeks, and particularly baking, where I do tend to follow recipes closely because getting quantities and temperatures right is so critical, and a catastrophe is so unrecoverable. It drives me up the wall when you get a new book from a writer you respect, follow a recipe to the letter and end up with a disaster. Cakes that collapse the moment they come out of the oven, pastry that turns unworkably solid during its rest-time in the fridge and then disintegrates when you try to roll it...

I suppose the good thing about this is that it forces me to experiment, to mix and match, to take new flavourings to old recipes that I know do work. Hence I have created my own caramel cake (ingredients from one book, method from another and the icing I made up myself), and as we speak I am developing a lemon sponge (from recipe one) with a lemon-vanilla jam filling (recipe two) and a white chocolate frosting (recipe three). Yum-yum.

But all this has come to the fore because I had two frantic days, shopping and cooking for Helenís hen night dinner. On the menu:

- and I did not have the time or the patience to be let down, and I was. First by the almond pastry, which was - as noted above - impossible twice over, once because its official resting-time chilled it into an unworkable state, and again because once it was warm again it just wouldn't hold together. In the end I broke off walnut-sized pieces and moulded it into the tartlet-tray by thumb. Which was fine, except that this tartlet-tray was advertised as non-stick, and I oiled it regardless, and even so I have just thrown it forcefully into the wheelie-bin with all my first twelve almond-pastry cases still adhering to it. I had to run into town (leaving the lemon-vanilla jam boiling on the stove, yikes!) to buy a new and genuinely non-stick version, for a recipe I still couldn't be sure of. The good news is that the tartlets were really popular, even coming as they did at the end of a meal that was far too long (five hours, we were eating there; and weíd started late to begin with), and the jam is so scrummy Iím using it again in the cake today. Today's calamity is the frosting, where I tried a new method of melting the chocolate, as recommended in my posh new chocolate book, and itís gone all lumpy and yuck. Do these people not test their recipes on domestic equipment, even yet, even after all these years...?

"Ah, bah!" cried the Duchess of Avon, and went to sulk with Achilles in his tent.

Posted by Chaz at 05:38 PM GMT [Link]

One more word on the head-shaving thing: Jean reminded me that when my hairdresser sent his boy scuttling off to buy me a professional beard-clipper, he did so on condition that I wouldnít use it on my head. I gave my solemn promise: no auto-barbery for me.

I said it, I meant it; and now here I am auto-barbering, in apparent defiance of that oath. Remember, though, appearances can be deceiving. These clippers that Iím using are not those clippers that I swore upon. Those were stolen, when I was burgled during my first trip to Taiwan (they stole my beard-clippers, for Godís sake! How depraved these people are...). So I went to the hairdressing wholesaler my own self to buy a replacement; and so, by the letter of the law, I'm in the clear.

What I want to know, though, is this: this argument that saves my precious honour, "I did promise, but it wasn't these very clippers I was promising over, so it doesn't count" - is this sophistry, or casuistry, or Jesuitry? Or even pilpul? I canít quite narrow it down...

Posted by Chaz at 03:50 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Interesting sidelights on a cropped head, n° 1:

Iíve been ill all day today. Not like before, just some tedious variant on a head-cold with added sinuses (does one still divide colds into head- and chest-, I wonder? Never heard anyone say it for decades, but itís still in my vocabulary, on account of all those books I read; seems a shame not to use it every now and then). Frankly I blame the weather, northerly winds and incessant rain, rain for days on end; but I woke up freezing at 5am and put a second duvet on the bed, and Iíve spent all day sitting on the sofa reading books (new John Connolly, new Michael Marshall) with the gas fire on. And - here comes the haircut - every time I ran my hand over the velvety-soft & gorgeous stubble that adorns my head (I am, you will gather, very much into my new hair), my fingers just felt icy-cold. And I canít work out whether itís because the fingers were cold or because the head was hot, but either way, itís clearly a phenomenon. And I donít suppose itís unique, itís sure to have happened sometime in my life before, but I have never noticed it; and why not? Because I had hair in the way of experience. Let that be a lesson to you.

Itís a real pain that I lost today, because I was meant to be spending it shopping. Not for pleasure, for once, except in so far as every shopping trip is a pleasure; but Iím cooking Helenís hen-night dinner on Friday, eight courses for eight people, and I wanted to get all the shopping done today, soís I could cook all day tomorrow. Now itíll just be a mad scramble to do both in one day, and I wonít enjoy either half of it, even if Iím in my right mind and the proper body.

Was feeling better by this evening, just enough so to drag myself out to the opera. Ahh, you are thinking, poor boy, how he suffers; but actually, if it had just been the opera, I wouldíve skipped it and stayed home. I really was that ill. But Gail & I were booked in to eat at the restaurant first, and Iím too much of a gentleman to stand her up. So I hauled myself down to the Sage - our brand-new Norman Foster music centre, looks like a woodlouse and the roof leaks; I love it - and we ate food and drank drink and talked talk, as one does. And bumped into friends, of course, including - oh, whoops! - my hairdresser. Perhaps I should say my erstwhile hairdresser. Which is interesting sidelights on a cropped head, n° 2: because I was so very glad that I had my cap on so that he didnít have to point out the obvious, that I have no hair left and he didnít do that. I love the guy, and I have sent many other people to him, at great expense and pleasure to themselves; and Iím really going to miss the irregular sessions, if Iím really not going back any more. But I can do this shaving thing myself, and frankly at the moment I canít afford the alternative. My suspicion is that life twists over at some indefinable point, so that what used to be an accumulation of experience becomes an accumulation of loss. Losing oneís hairdresser is hardly the worst of these, but it does still count.

Posted by Chaz at 12:36 AM GMT [Link]

Sunday, July 3, 2005

Yesterday was a deeply dreary day, bracketed by trouble: it started with a tax demand from the Revenue, where Iíd been expecting a rebate, and it ended with a major computer crash that left me rebuilding the hard drive by hand. God, but I want a new computer. And can't afford one, any more than I can afford to pay the Revenue. It's just a cock-up on their part, I truly don't owe them any money; trouble is, their demand will fall due before I can even hope to have the cock-up rectified, and there are terrible penalties for failing to pay up on demand, which I'm sure hold true even where the demand is in error. Yikes.

However, even the grimmest days have their saving graces; and as you know by now, when the going gets tough, the tough get cooking. It leads to tenderisation, with a little patience.

So I seem to have invented this whole new dish. In honesty, I suppose it's just a kind of spicy moussaka, and actually I'm sure people must have done it this way before, but I can't find a record. So for the moment, this is Chaz'z lamb and aubergine babotie:

Slice a medium/large aubergine into rounds, brush each round with olive oil and sizzle on a smoking griddle until crisply cooked. Butter an ovenproof dish, and cover the base with aubergine slices.

Meanwhile, slice a couple of onions and soften in butter and oil. Add a couple of crushed garlic cloves, then half a pound of minced lamb. Once thatís broken up and browned, add 4oz of grated carrot, and begin spicing: a couple of teaspoonsful of curry powder (I used madras) and ditto of ginger and herbes de provence, one teaspoon of ground coriander and ditto of turmeric, salt and pepper, half a teaspoon of cinnamon and ditto of sugar, a couple of dried red chillies and the zest of half a lemon. Cook these all together on a low heat until itís all integrated, maybe half an hour or so. Meanwhile, soak a couple of slices of bread in water. Once the mince is thoroughly cooked and all the flavours mingled, squeeze the bread dry, break it up and mix it in, then follow it with a tablespoon of white wine vinegar.

Cover the aubergines with a layer of mince, then another layer of aubergines, and so another layer of mince. Continue until all is used up and/or the dish is full.

Whisk together half a pint (in this country, thatís a 284ml carton - why donít they accept the inevitable, and go for 300ml? I do not know...) of buttermilk, two eggs and a couple of teaspoonsful of turmeric. Add salt and pepper, and pour over the meat & aubergine. Bake in a medium-low oven until the topping is set.

Posted by Chaz at 12:45 AM GMT [Link]

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