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Chaz'z Blog

Friday, December 27, 2002

One by one, I guess, our vanities are stripped away from us. Generally in public. I have for years flattered myself that I was a halfway decent cook; it is now clear that this was indeed just flattery. Christmas lunch came in about two hours later than was promised, on account of the bird(s) taking twice as long as was calculated. I was inclined yesterday to blame Kate's oven, loudly and I fear monotonously; I still say that it is a weird thing and should have been condemned at birth (well, I mean, an oven that's hotter at the bottom than it is at the top? 'Tis flying in the face of nature, so 'tis...), but a smarter man than I would have dealt far better with it. Me, I just got stressed and kept chasing the hot spot up and down and up again, to the detriment of everything except the guests' tempers. They were saintly, and even managed to be nice about the food when they eventually got it. Hmph.

And Jean tells me that if you toast hazelnuts in a low oven, the skins will just rub off. Makes sense to me. Unfortunately, I took the skins off first and toasted 'em afterwards. It seems to be my week for idiocy.

Four days left, to finish the story of Luke. Today I wrote about half a page, and went for two long and fruitless walks in the rain. Something really isn't working at the moment, and it would appear to be me. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to retire to my bed now and nurse my sorrows. I have two, and they are warm and furry. (Actually, one of my favourite books - 'The Hotel New Hampshire' by John Irving - has a dog called Sorrow. It ends up dead, stuffed and impossible to lose, which seems appropriate. And my teddy bear Softly was once misnamed Sorry in the national press, but that's another story.)

Posted by Chaz at 01:00 AM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Chaz'z Adventures in Pastryland, ongoing: because I decline to be defeated, even by something as scary-mystical as pastry, come Sunday I was determined to make mince pies. It's a Christmas thing, every decent right-thinking English cook has to do it, and so I did. And I started out with this recipe I'd found, that claimed to be foolproof; and I had to stop and redesign it twice along the way, because it was a nonsense; and it still came out as the only successful pastry I think I've ever made. So, here is the original 'foolproof' recipe, as adapted by a double fool into something that actually works:

Take half a pound of cold butter, and cube it into twelve ounces of flour. Start rubbing it in. When your hands cramp up and freak out on you, stop trying. Transfer the whole to a food processor, and give it a whizz. Add four ounces of caster sugar, and whizz again. Put back into the bowl you started with, and try to squeeze it into a single coherent lump. When you fail, beat in an egg for binding. Then squeeze it into a coherent lump. Butter the dimples of a mince-pie tray, put a walnut-sized lump of the pastry into each dimple and work them into cup-shapes with your thumbs. Add a spoonful of mincemeat to each, then manufacture little lids from the remaining pastry and seal them over. Puncture each with the blade of a knife, and slide into the middle of a preheated oven at gas mark 6. After half an hour, check they're ready and take them out. Let them cool a little in the tin, then slip 'em out onto a wire rack for cooling. You could brush 'em with egg before you bake them, you could dredge 'em in icing sugar after, but why bother? They'll be fine as they are.

Gail and Gavin came round Sunday night, to watch the musical episode of Buffy with me. It is fantastic, magnificent, adorable, and it kicked me totally into musical mode, so that I played Sondheim for the rest of the evening. Which Gail loves as I do, but Gavin not, I think. Still, I comforted him with shoulder of lamb, slow-roasted in the bottom of a cool oven for about eight hours and then served with spinach and a warm salad of new potatoes, garlic and green beans. That worked. Tonight I warmed through the leftovers and then hot-fried them into a single crispy bubble-and-squeak cake. That also worked, and I deserved it, after spending all day on Christmas duty, shopping and cooking and wrapping. The day's most demanding task: blanching a packet of hazelnuts. Picking the skins off just takes forever, and your fingers wrinkle up, and the little flakes of skin get everywhere, and Misha didn't at all understand why I was wet and stroppy and didn't want to play with her. It's always the family that suffers, come Christmas time...

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

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Chapter Twenty-Three: in which Chazzie has a Nice Time and neglects his work, his cats and his weblog...

Well, I'm sorry, but I have been kind of busy being Chaz. Tuesday I cooked vegetarian, with just the one near miss, where Kate only just stopped me using nam pla in a dressing. Nam pla is Thai fish sauce, which - you'd never credit it - actually has fish in it. Oops. Wonderfully reminiscent of the time when I was a serious full-blown vegetarian myself, and was discovered at a party happily munching away on salami. Well, I liked salami, I had always liked salami, it was my idea of the perfect party food, and I simply neglected to remember that it is in fact made out of meat...

So Wednesday I had a happy day at home, washing up largely, and then went to the Christmas Dance for Peace and So on (or Peace and Shhh..., or Peace and the S-word: once upon a time it was Socialism, until that was abolished under the first Blair government, so then it became Solidarity for a while, only then there was hardly anyone left to be solid alongside, so now it's just So...) and had a happy dancy time. Thursday I was just in the Tyneside Cinema all day: City of God in the morning (wonderful Brazilian film about kids growing into the gangs in the favellas: made with lots of untrained first-time actors, and very stylish indeed), then twenty minutes in the coffee rooms before we went in to see Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Which has left me with half a craving to go read the books again, but I think I'll hold off another year. See the final film, hopefully see them all together, some cinema's got to have a three-in-one showing, and then redeem my soul with the pure text again. I do actually enjoy the films, but I find that I grumble like a fanboy - well, all right, like the fanboy that I am - all the same. As, for example, I do not like the ents in this one. Not at all. Don't like the realisation - they're too tree-ish: I don't believe that ents actually grow branches with leaves on, the text does not say that ? and I don't like how their script has been altered. And yet, I did thoroughly enjoy the film, largely because it doesn't matter. Jackson can do what he likes, he can't actually harm the books. They're safe, they exist, they're on my shelves, so who cares what he changes?

Out of the cinema and onto a bus, out into the rural wilds (well, Ryton - t'other side of the river and upstream a bit) for dinner with friends and their children, and that was Thursday; and Friday was down to Sunderland for the annual sculpture project get-together in a pub. Which we did, we got together in a pub at lunchtime and drank till dinnertime; then I went back to Craig's flat and drank gin, and then we came back to Newcastle together because he and Klaire were going to their friend Julie's party-in-a-pub, and their friend Julie's boyfriend turned out to be my old friend Robin, so I crashed in and drank wheat beer until it was going-home time. At which point I went home and fell asleep in the bath, and woke up at half-past two in the morning. Whoops.

And today I've been to Gail's talk on fantasy films at the Tyneside and counted how many extracts she'd taken from my video collection; and now I've had to come home and turn down a run of invitations because they all clashed with prevous engagements, and life is sooo hectic at the moment I have no idea when I will ever get the chance to work again. Or even to sit still and be sat on by discontented and insufficiently cuddled cats...

Posted by Chaz at 05:45 PM GMT [Link]

Monday, December 16, 2002

As an adjunct to the previous entry, I suddenly noticed more than one literary reference in my title, and I thought I'd best point it out; I wouldn't like anyone ever to forget that Uncle's great castle is called Homeward. Apparently, there is a little clique of Uncle fans among the current crop of fantasy writers; I can't remember where I heard that, but it was recent news. If anyone out there doesn't know what I'm talking about, check out the Uncle books by J P Martin. They're a joy. 'Specially with the Quentin Blake illustrations, which are exact to the mood and the moment.

Last night I went to Graeme's 50th birthday party. I really had to agitate to get there, because he lives in the middle of nowhere so I had to find a driver and then beg a lift; but I really didn't want to miss it, because he promised an Extreme Food event. Graeme is the herring man of men, or the man of herring men, or some such; he's written the encyclopaedia that the fish so obviously deserves. Anyway, to those who came early he was offering surströmming, or fermented Baltic herring. The joy is that it's still fermenting. The tins it comes in bulge visibly, and have to be opened underwater; birds are alleged to fall dead from the sky as the smell uprises. Traditionally this is done in the open air; Graeme did it in his garage. The water frothed and bubbled, and the garage went from full to half empty at startling speed. I stood it out, boldly; I have in fact smelled worse foodstuffs (I was just going to say 'smelled worse', but thought that was open to misinterpretation, and me just out of my bath and all...); on street corners in Taipei they sell stinky tofu, and the odour of that is just vile. This was pretty strong, though - and Graeme says that the serious surströmming eaters leave the tins till they're almost spherical. Ours were only just bulgy.

Having decanted the fish, the trick is to rip the flesh from the bones with your fingers, spread it on buttered flatbread with raw onion and slices of cold potato, double it into a sandwich and eat, washing it down with schnapps or akvavit. So we did, and it ain't unpleasant at all. Not a thing to do often, but on special occasions, and in the open air, and with a bunch of bold souls, surely.

Posted by Chaz at 06:16 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Oh, whoops, there I went again. No entries here for altogether too long. I'd like to blame another outage on the site, but actually it's me that's been out. Lots. Having said that, I was in last night, but entertaining: playing host to Kate's daughter Alba, while Kate went to the office party. Karaoke, apparently; I have never admired her sense of duty more. Alba and I had fun, watching cheap Saturday television and eating prawn curry. All this after I'd spent the day house-cleaning, to the extent of scrubbing the kitchen floor; never did displacement have a more eager servant.

Today I am working, though. This month is the deadline for submissions to a Cemetery Dance anthology, horror/dark fantasy stories set in an inn, pub or tavern. How could I resist? I practically live in the Bodega, my local inn, pub or tavern; they're going to rename it 'Chaz'z Office' any day now (well, they better had; as a joke, it's getting tired). Besides, this particular story is an opportunity to revisit an old friend, and perpetrate a literary pun. I always meant to write more about Luke, the fallen angel from Dispossession, and could there be a better season or an excuse more fit? I think not. So I am, I'm having him walk into the Bodega and see what happens after. But I also always wanted to offer him some choice, at least a hope of some kind of redemption; and so I shall, and so the story's called 'Luke, Homeward Angel'. The grinding sound you hear is Thomas Wolfe's jaw, committing friction.

Posted by Chaz at 06:10 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, December 12, 2002

People are strange. Ever noticed that? I've just been reading, in a publication that had best remain nameless, a recipe for 'lingonberry and port gravy' for the Xmas bird. Well, I'm sorry, but what we here in Gothic Towers are asking ourselves and each other is, um, why? Double-why, in fact: why do you want it in the first place, and if you must have it, why do you want to call it a gravy when it's blatantly not? Make a lingonberry and port sauce if you must, tho' I don't see the necessity; but leave gravy where it belongs, in the lexicon of English cookery. According to my dictionary, the word means the juices exuded by meat while cooking, or a sauce made from thickening and seasoning those juices. Exactly right. Lingonberries and port do not count as 'seasoning'; sorry, but they just don't. I'm not clear why anybody wants to put wine into gravy, except that it's something you learn to do as a student when, gosh, cooking with alcohol is exotic and - or, more probably, because - your parents never did it. In this instance, there's a reason for that. The gravy don't need it, the gravy don't want it. While your bird is resting after roasting, pour off the juices from the pan and let the fat rise. Put the pan on a low heat and - all right, as it's Xmas - pour in a splash of brandy to deglaze it. Scrape up all those lovely sticky bits, pour in some of the fat and add flour. Work it all together - at this stage you can transfer it to a saucepan, but I like to do it all in the roasting-pan, it's more fun - and start adding the cooking-juices, plus some decent stock (made with the bird's giblets if you have 'em; otherwise, straight chicken stock will do. Not a cube, for God's sake, it's Xmas) until you have it as you like it. Simmer till you can't taste the flour any more, and season to taste. Me, I'll probably add a little fresh tarragon, as Estragon is being so obliging as to send up new shoots in this off-season.

Posted by Chaz at 12:33 AM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I'm about as good at organising my life as I am my house; this morning I went out to buy hooks to hang things on, and came home instead with things to hang on hooks. But one of them was a new Magnalite pan for about a third of its proper cost, and Magnalite are just my favourite things to cook in, so that's okay. They've got a couple of their frying pans as well, and I am terribly tempted. Just that I have about a dozen frying pans already, and I can't quite think of a credible excuse for buying more.

The new pan - it's a sort of small wok, I guess - was broken in this evening, with my first shot at a Thai potato-and-mushroom curry. Look, no meat, ma! There are several things that I ought not to do while drunk; listening to and then deleting all my phone messages is one of them, and issuing invitations is another. In consequence of my failure to obey one of these simple rules, I have vegetarians coming to dinner next week, so I thought I'd better practise. I tell myself (firmly, and regularly) that it will be fun; and actually, tonight's curry was lovely. It's just the concept that appals. I was myself veggie for four and a half years, in my twenties; and ex-vegetarians are like ex-smokers, rabidly opposed to the practice of their former vice. Like ex-poets, which of course I also am; which I've just been holding forth about tonight, for Bryan Talbot's benefit. Lucky man.

Otherwise, I spent the day dreaming of new kitchens. Dreaming of converting the dining-room into a kitchen, in fact, and the current kitchen into a scullery and larder. I don't know, you do half an hour's DIY and suddenly you want to remake the house. I do, though, almost entirely. Just can't think what to do with the cats. Or how to afford it, but that's a minor matter compared with the disarrangement of my sweetlings' daily round. All that banging and dust, they'd hate it. So I guess we go on as before. We usually do.

Posted by Chaz at 11:32 AM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, December 9, 2002

Posted by Chaz at 12:30 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, December 3, 2002

What's the point of putting all that energy into displacement activities, if you then go and do some work anyway? Sometimes I despair, I really do...

Today I did better: physiotherapy and shopping this morning, shopping and Chinese homework this afternoon, and the closest I came to working was to sign another hundred sheets for the Dr Who novella. Tho' I did do some good thinking about Getting Carter, just in case I get to do some more work on it. That almost counts as displacement in itself, as I really need to do the next fantasy proposal, and a short story for an anthology, and the ghost novella for Pete before I even think about Carter. I hate having more than one thing on at once; I can multi-task my life in ever-decreasing concentric circle, but I can't do it to my work. Whatever I'm actually doing, I always want to be doing the other thing, so that the energy gets dissipated into the gaps between and nothing moves forward with any vigour.

Oh, and I did some more indoor gardening, harvesting my last dozen chillies and packing the plants away for the winter. The cupboard under the stairs has a convenient little window with a wide sill, so they're all snuggled in together. Whether they'll survive or not, who knows? It's all a mystery to me. As witness: I brought my French tarragon (wittily called Estragon, of course; if I had the Russian variety it would be called Vladimir to match, but I don't, because Russian tarragon tastes like hay. I'm sorry, all you my Russian readers, but it does) indoors to escape the frost, cut it right back and put it in that same window. Suddenly today I find it flinging up new shoots, and they're really vigorous; I moved it to an upstairs window and I swear they've grown a centimetre today. Either I'm going to have fresh tarragon this winter, or it's just got really confused, thought it was spring already and is going to rue its error in a week or two. It didn't do this last winter, just sat quiet & brown in its pot till true spring came. What's a guy to do? Give it water and hope, I reckon. I like to give hope.

Tomorrow to London, to meet my new new new agent. I'd rather be going back two generations to my original new agent, but like the brook Kerith ran away southerly. Sigh. And exit, singing bad Kathleen Ferrier impersonations. There's something about that word 'southerly', it just brings her on. Like 'Southron' will always take me back to Francis Thompson now, although I met the word first in Tolkien. 'It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk' - it's not sentimentality, it's the real thing, the echt sadness of the supporter who's lost his team and can't find a value in the game alone. Which oddly brings us back to Tolkien, because his work is haunted by a true and bruising melancholy which other fantasists imitate but can never reproduce, with the sole exception of Guy Gavriel Kay. If you haven't read him yet, do it now. You can order his books - or any - through this site; follow the link to Amazon from the front page. But watch the postage, if you don't live in the UK...

Posted by Chaz at 12:03 AM GMT [Link]

Sunday, December 1, 2002

Displacement strategies for the reluctant writer, vol 17, chapter 7: Sunday specials

1.Clean the kitchen sink. Scrupulously.
2.Tend, trim, tidy, turn & talk to all the plants in the bathroom. Clean their window, clean their window-sill.
3.Go to B&Q (uh, that's a DIY/hardware store) and play with the power tools. Imagine all the things you could do to the house if you only had the time, the money and the skills required.
4.Fix up a bar next to the cooker where you can hang all your tongs, sieves etc, where they'll be dead handy honest, rather than having to walk the whole length of the kitchen to fetch them.
5.If you really can't avoid the computer any longer, get deeply involved in the intricacies of your new word-processing software. Learn how to create new style sheets; who knows, one day you might actually want to use them.
6.Finally, when all else has entirely failed, write a new entry for your weblog.

Posted by Chaz at 04:15 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.