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Chaz'z Blog

Thursday, December 30, 2004

It is of course notorious that once you become alerted to something, you find it universal, when you had overlooked it entirely before. Classic example from my own case: before I first went to Taiwan, I never knew there were so many Chinese in Newcastle. Since the day I came home, I see them everywhere. As it happens there actually are many Chinese in Newcastle, especially in the university, and Chinatown lies between me and the city centre, so I really do see a lot, but even so I think Iíve been hypersensitised.

That one makes me happy, but the more immediate case in point is starting to oppress me. Or rather, I worry that Iím becoming oppressive to other people, because I keep talking about my father, writing here about my father, seeing funerals and death all over. Perfectly normal, Iím sure, but there must come a time where it slides over from a natural expression of grief into self-pity and self-indulgence and see-how-interesting-I-am,-my-dadís-dead.

I was thinking about this yesterday, walking into town - and found myself face to face with a giant billboard, representing a fresh burial where the flowers spelled out ĎDadí. I think itís part of a government anti-smoking campaign; I didnít look too closely.

And now a friend of mine is dead, a young man Iíve known since he was a child. Iíve been intimate with the family for twenty years, and this is a whole different bank of sorrow.

And through all of this I have just started trying to work again, because I have to. Iíve agreed the tightest possible deadline for the rewrite of ĎSelling Waterí, just one month from now. So Iím reading through the manuscript as it stands, trying to get a grip on the needed changes, and Iím finding it almost impossibly hard. Partly thatís due to all this other stuff (aka Ďreal lifeí, which I can usually separate off quite efficiently), but itís also an actual creative bewilderment. I understand the editorís notes precisely, when I read them as a separate artefact; I just cannot see those points reflected in my text. There seems to be no room left for negotiation, though - and no time, either - so I just have to screw down my professional hat and follow instructions.


Posted by Chaz at 11:49 AM GMT [Link]

Monday, December 27, 2004

So here we are in the dog-days between Xmas and New Year, where itís always hard to find focused things to do; generally I think ĎI can use this time to give the house a thorough clean, preparatory to my birthday partyí and then suddenly find other more urgent alternatives. One of which is a little computer-housecleaning, such as for example clearing out my inbox; no one actually needs two and a half thousand messages cluttering up their inbox. So I file most of íem, delete those few I can bear to live without and start the new year with a refreshing emptiness.

This year, my answering machine is equally cluttered, so I thought Iíd start with that. And Iím halfway through - playing messages, writing down useful phone numbers and then deleting the message - and suddenly one of them is from my father.

Itís nothing, heís just asking if Iím interested in a book heís reading, because if I am heíll send me a copy; and I wasnít, particularly, so I didnít call him back, because he was always hard to say no to. And then the next time I spoke to him he was in hospital and the world had changed.

And now heís dead and I donít know what to do. I canít delete the message, I simply cannot; itís the only record I have of his voice. And I canít put a fresh tape in and keep this one, because itís not on tape, itís a memory chip. I suppose I could buy a new answering machine, but that seems extreme. I guess Iíll just leave the message sitting there, permanent until something changes; the phrase Ďthe ghost in the machineí keeps rising inexorably to mind.

Posted by Chaz at 12:53 PM GMT [Link]

Thursday, December 23, 2004

My fatherís funeral yesterday. The odd thing, what felt really wrong was that we would only do it once. The dead donít go away, but they do stay dead; it seems perfunctory, to content ourselves - or them - with just the single funeral. I came home feeling that this should be a regular occasion, a cumulative measurement of loss. Perhaps I just donít believe in closure?

Or perhaps itís because cremations have such an unsatisfactory ending, a closure only of a pair of curtains. Itís not like a deep dark hole, and earth thudding down. Actually, my dad will be having a second funeral, which I could go to if I chose; his ashes are heading north to Orkney, where my sister will inter them in her local churchyard with a headstone and everything. This is a perfect solution to an irreconcilable difference; my stepmother and her family wanted a humanist service and a cremation, my sister wanted a Christian service and a burial. Both parties satisfied, I hope.

A sidelong view of families: both my stepsisters came today, with their partners and all their children, a full turn-out. Of my fatherís own family - his sisters, his children, his grandchildren and several varieties of cousin - well, there was me. I didnít mind, I could stand in for us all, and I do understand at least several of the reasons why, but it still felt like a statement of dysfunction. Another statement of dysfunction. Been like that all my life. Hey-ho.

Posted by Chaz at 07:44 PM GMT [Link]

Friday, December 17, 2004

Itís a truism, of course, that no one really comes face to face with their own mortality until their parents die. And itís one of the nastier little habits of truisms that they do have a way of turning out true. Me, Iíve been denying this one for twenty years, all through a chain of other peopleís deaths, people I felt much closer to than I did to my parents. But now my father has died, and suddenly - well, yes. Itís like having half a cocoon ripped away. Thereís a gulf there, and no one to stand between me and the edge.

So what do you do? You turn your back on eternity, obviously. Itís scary out there. I have been utterly working, all this week. Thankfully, I had something urgent to do. The first Phantoms at the Phil event was this Monday; my father died the Friday previous, and I had still not finished the story I was due to read.

Deadlines do concentrate the mind, when they are for once absolute, and crucial. I couldnít delay the gig, and I couldnít fail to contribute. So I spent all weekend working, and by Sunday night I had a story. Ten thousand words of story, that would have taken an hour to read. And we had another absolute limit on wordlength, the three of us together, because the three read-aloud stories had to fit onto a CD. So I spent all Monday cutting, when I wasnít tutoring at the university. I cut the story twice, and got it down to six and a half thousand, about thirty-five minutesí reading. Should have cut it one more time, but Iíd run out of time by then.

So down to the Lit & Phil, and actually everything went like a dream. People came, the place was pretty much full, and even the bottled mulled wine was nice. Seanís story was, what, a little bit Poe and a bit more Borges; Gailís was surprisingly light-hearted, even a little bit uplifting; mine (I am told) was brutally bleak, so no surprise there, but people were nice about it none the less. And it did all - just! - fit onto a CD. I have the master in my bag as we speak.

And then Tuesday was all university, the last day of term, and keeping up the fine tradition of students not attending booked tutorials (with the interesting variation this time of his turning up to tell me that he wasnít turning up), and through a talk from Maggie Gee to a dinner for all of us disgruntled creative-writing tutors. That was fun.

Wednesday I was starting to run out of work - except obviously for the rewrite of Selling Water, which is just too big to get started on - so I cooked and shopped and such. And again yesterday, baked a Xmas cake and wrote a column for the British Fantasy Society and so forth until it was time to go to the Lit & Phil for the second Phantoms gig. This was a much more relaxed affair - no microphones, for a start, no time-pressure and we knew the stories worked - and a very different audience. Our personal audiences largely, I think, rather than the Lit-&-Phillers who came on Monday.

And today all of that is behind me, and I really donít know what to do. I ought perhaps to start work on Selling Water anyway, just for that sense of having begun the thing - but I have just been smitten by a rather lovely idea for another story. Does anyone know the Latin equivalent of an elf? Or more specifically, Vivat Regina! for an elf-queen?

Posted by Chaz at 12:19 PM GMT [Link]

Saturday, December 11, 2004

My father died today.

Heís been in hospital for the last couple of weeks, but the last time I spoke to him, I think we both thought he was getting better. I was going to go over to see him next week, once all my commitments here were done with. It is in the nature of death, of course, that it creates a lost future in a moment: those good visits that we never make, those final conversations we never have. I hate it, that we last spoke on the phone rather than in the flesh. I dislike phones at the best of times, which this was not; no goodbye ever is sufficient to be the last goodbye, but ours was almost perfunctory.

Iím not going to post a eulogy here, nor even an obituary. But let the record show that Donald Stuart Brenchley was a good man, a quiet man, since his retirement I think a happy man, and he probably deserved better of his children.

Posted by Chaz at 12:04 AM GMT [Link]

Friday, December 10, 2004

Yesterday, I spoke of wasting a couple of hours going into university for a five-minute conversation, at a time when I canít afford the time.

Today, I had an interview booked with the BBC. The Beebís studio is right across the park from my house, a slow five-minute saunter. But today my beloved Julia was doing her show live from the Sunderland Empire, which meant that a half-hour commitment promised a month ago became a four-hour epic. Quite how a man is meant to work under these conditions, I cannot imagine. Still, I did get to see ĎStarlight Expressí in dress rehearsal; just a couple of minutes of that was enough to convince me that I really, really donít want to see the whole show. And me a man who loves musicals, and is not averse to fit young things parading their blading skills in gaudy costumes either. Oblige me by sitting there and trying to imagine how bad it has to be...

Well done. Your reward is another recipe for kedgeree. This one is, as it were, a legitimate bastard: a clean cross between true Indian khichri and the Rajís favourite fish dish.

Skin a fillet of naturally smoked haddock. Cut away all the skinny and frilly bits, chop them up and put them in a pan with just enough milk to cover. Add a couple of whole cloves and a few bits of cassia bark, bring slowly to a simmer and then fish out the fish and reserve. Discard the spices, but reserve the liquid.

Cut the thick chunky part of the fillet into thick chunky slices, and put to marinate in lemon juice mixed with half a teaspoon of turmeric and half a teaspoon of chilli powder.

Put 100g of whole mung beans in a pan with 250ml water and half a teaspoon of turmeric. Bring to the boil and simmer until all the water is absorbed; the beans should be al dente, cooked through but still with a little bite to them, a nutty kind of texture.

Boil another 100g of basmati rice, again to that point where itís still got a little bite.

Melt a couple of tablespoons of ghi in a pan and fry a teaspoon of cumin seeds until they brown. Add one finely-sliced onion with an inch of slivered ginger and a couple of sliced green chillies, and soften over a low heat. Add the mung bean dal and the fishy milk; mix in one chopped tomato and a couple of handfuls of chopped coriander; cook for a couple of minutes and stir in the rice; finally add the reserved frilly fishy bits and turn the heat off.

Put a little oil into a very hot pan and flash fry the thick chunky fish slices. Youíre aiming for brown & crispy on the outside and barely-cooked within. Give up on colour rather than overcook.

Heap the rice-and-beans onto a plate, top with the fried fish and balance a poached egg over all.

Posted by Chaz at 12:14 AM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

There are five days to go before the first ghost-story gig at the Lit & Phil, and I have things to do on three of those days. I have written perhaps half a story so far, and Iím going to have to cut the majority of that if Iím to have any hope of coming close to the twenty-minute time allowance. I am, you will gather, starting to feel a little pressured. So I wasnít best pleased by a sudden summons into the university, to sort out an unpaid pay claim; but I went in like a good boy, waited twenty minutes to see my summoner - only to find that all she actually needed to tell me was that it will be paid this month. Which she could have said in the e-mail that called me in. Instead of which, thatís the whole damní afternoon gone, and my temper with it.

When the going gets tough, the tough get cooking. This week, I have been playing with kedgeree. My current favourite is not the traditional Indian rice-and-lentils khichri, nor really the breakfast dish of the British Raj. A variant on the latter, certainly, but a supper-dish, I think. I make it this way; and if it sounds complicated - four pans on the stove at once - rest easy, itís really very simple.

Skin a fillet of naturally smoked haddock, tweeze out the pin-bones and cut it into chunks. Put in a pan, cover with milk and bring it to the lightest conceivable simmer. After a couple of minutes, once the fish has lost its translucency but before it starts to flake, fish it out with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Into the fishy milk put half a finely sliced onion, a crushed clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of smoked paprika, a quarter-teaspoon (or to taste) of cayenne pepper, salt and pepper and a few grates of nutmeg. Bring back to a simmer and leave simmering, stirring occasionally as you pass by.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, and cook long-grain rice for two; you know how much you like, and how you like it.

Heat some clean oil in a frying-pan and add the other half of the finely-sliced onion, an inch of slivered fresh ginger and a sliced green chilli (if liked). Turn the heat very low, and sizzle gently until the onion has entirely softened without colouring. Depending on the fineness of your slicing, this might be ten minutes, or it might be twenty. It helps at this stage to keep it all in a heap in the centre of the pan. When itís done, knock the heat up a tad, spread the onion etc around and watch it colour. Once itís golden and crisp, lift it out onto a plate (if itís golden but not very crisp, donít worry; it will crispen up off the heat. Thereís probably a scientific reason for this).

Meanwhile, be heating another small pan full of water. When itís not quite boiling, break a couple of eggs into it and poach them lightly. Itís not actually a disaster if the yolks set, so do them as you like.

When the rice is a couple of minutes short of cooked, add the fish and a quarter-pint of single cream to the milk & onion pan, to warm through.

Drain the rice, and heap it onto a serving-dish. Pour on the fishy creamy milky stuff, and mix in. Add handfuls of finely chopped parsley or coriander (or both), and mix again. Top with the poached eggs, scatter with the crispy onion etc and sprinkly with a little more smoked paprika. Go eat.

Posted by Chaz at 04:21 PM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

I was away for a few days, the back end of last week. Oxford, Henley, and a day in London to have lunch with my US agent. Itís always odd, meeting someone in the flesh after a correspondence at distance; takes a while, to find the familiar mind in the utterly unrecognisable body. Good when you get there, though. We had lunch in the Blue Print Cafe at the Design Museum, with a table in the window, looking out on Tower Bridge and the river; fabulous to watch, if death to conversation. Rivers, seas, lakes are like real fires: hypnotic, seductive, liminal.

What was stranger, though, was being back in Oxford. I grew up there, and left twenty-five years ago; havenít been back for twenty. Walking through town was a constant double-take, between déjà vu and bewilderment. Half the city is bedrock, unalterable, the colleges and mediaeval buildings all looking exactly as they did throughout my childhood; the other half is as constantly revisited and remade as any city centre in the country, and unrecognisable to me. I stood by the church where Cornmarket meets St Giles, and St Giles looks exactly the same as it has for the last forty years, and every single shop on Cornmarket has changed. It was like that everywhere, all the time.

Then I came to my own patch, where my old friend Helen is now being a GP in the exact same building we used to go to when we needed doctoring. And the main drag again is almost entirely changed, and even some of the streets are different; the old hospital has become a mosque, and there are whole estates where there didnít use to be. But the house I grew up in is still there, still shabby, let to students at a guess; and the house I was born in is still there, and tiny, unbelievably small for five of us. But that was generic, the whole city felt small. Which is famously the case when you revisit childhood haunts, because youíve grown so much bigger since you saw them last; but I left Oxford when I was nineteen, this same height I am now, more or less. Which means that actually the nostalgia-kick I get when I go back is not related to my last years there, it ties in all the way back in my childhood. Back - if I may be maudlin for a moment - back when I was happy. Which I think is really, really interesting...

Posted by Chaz at 11:45 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.