Archive for October, 2009


Remember, Remember….

… when boiling sugar always to keep an eye on it. Turning away for two seconds is long enough to set the hob alight.

In my effort to decrease my Christmas consumerism, I’ve been making marmalades (as I may or may not have said in my last post). Today I decided to try and combine said preserve with my favourite substance ever – tea.

To get a festive sort of flavour, I opted to use chai tea – a spicy, Indian variety that in recent years has come to be very popular in latte form. Basically, I just brewed a giant cup full, using a saucepan and sieve instead of teapot and strainer. I added some citrus juice to freshen it up a bit, and hopefully add a little pectin to help the jam set, and then poured in my preserving sugar.

There I was, diligently stirring away, when the phone rang. I gave my pot one last stir, noted the whole sugar granules, grabbed the phone and then turned round to-

– just in time to see a huge plume of smoke, towering out of my pan. In the few seconds it had taken me to turn round, the jam had not only started boiling, but had boiled over onto the red-hot hob. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t remember if sugar fires are one of the ones that you can’t put out with water so in desparation, I prodded the saucepan out of the way and tossed a dampened cloth over what looked like a sticky, black honeycomb of smouldering sugar.

The jam, I am pleased to say, is fine*. As is the vast majority of my kitchen. The only real casualties of the incident were the hob – which now has a lovely matt finish – and my fingers. A small price to pay, I feel, for combining two of the more incredible substances in the world.

Another successful day of self-employment, though I’m not sure how much longer this will last in its current form.  I want to continue working as a freelancer, but perhaps not exclusively. I went to a job interview yesterday in a bid to earn enough money to justify having the ding removed from Charlie Micra’s bumper. I’ll find out on monday if I have it or not, but I’m crossing fingers.  I wouldn’t mind the little imperfection on by gorgeous car had it been central, or on the opposite side to the exhaust, but as it’s on the same side, the back-end looks a little off-balance and it’s bugging the hell out of me.

Anyways, I’m off to make stovies. For those of you who don’t know what that is, look it up and try it.  Just bear in mind that you should leave it cooking until the tatties disintegrate and form a grey sort of soupie stock. That’s how you know it’s done.

 

*The jam is something of a masterpiece, actually. It tastes like really sweet tea, and has the consistency of honey rather than conventional jam. I daresay a spoonful dissolved in hot water with a slice of lemon would do someone with a sore throat the world of good.

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Christmas

The mad rush is starting already, and it isn’t even November. I think there should be a law banning people from advertising Christmas merchandise until after Hallowe’en. We know that Christmas is coming – that we’re going to spend December and January financially recovering on a diet of lentils and baked beans – we don’t need reminding how utterly miserable we’ll be every time we check our bank balance, thank you.

I decided to make a stand this year – not least because my current fiscal situation demands it – and to opt out of being a total consumer whore. I really love Christmas – or rather, I used to when I didn’t have seventeen thousand relatives to buy for. Christmas with my Mum and Dad was magic, and my favourite Yuletide memory is of the year my parents made a train set for my brother. The fact that they produced the gift themselves, that it was unique, made it all the more precious, and though D- is now 20, he still has said train set tucked away in his room.

My gifts this year will be things I’ve created myself, or things that I’ve managed to purchase for a minimum fee – ideally second hand. Not only does it mean that everyone will be getting really individual presents, it means that if something has been bought for them, I’ll have done so with a great deal of thought. In previous years, like many other people, I’ve fallen into the trap of making a last minute grab for any old item, just so that I can hand over a present. I wonder how much money has been wasted in that way over the years – how many people have smiled politely, accepted the unwanted gift and put it on ebay as soon as the giver was out of sight.

So far, I’ve been making lots of jams and marmalades, and I’m finding the process incredibly addictive. Not only can I invent new and interesting flavours, but whilst boiling up my sugar, I get a huge buzz of achievement and excitement. I can’t wait to hear what people think when they spread it on the homemade oat cakes that I’m going to produce nearer the time, and the knowledge that I’m giving my friends something that no one else possibly could, is an incredibly nice feeling.

It isn’t even November yet, but I’m already really looking forward to the holidays – something that I haven’t done for a good long while.

It hurts
to talk,
in ways
I hadn’t
guessed.

Seamstress

A few weeks ago I bought the parts for a dress.

A woman in the state of New York had purchased an old, Victorian house and moved in. On arrival though, she found her new home to be packed to the rafters with the former resident’s things. A mammoth cleaning operation ensued and the goods were listed on ebay, including pre-cut pieces of a 1950s dress patern, made from a lovely grey wool-weave fabric. And at the princely sum of $1.99, I figured, ‘what the hell.’

So yesterday, the dress arrived and I set to figuring out how the parts fitted together. There were some instructions about constructing a skirt, but on closer inspection, I found that they were for a different skirt altogether…

I haven’t ever made a dress before – unless you count stitching straps and a sash to an old gypsy skirt so I could wear it as a little knee-length frock whilst at the beach – so my knowledge of which-bit-goes-where is rather limited. Still, I love a challenge, especially one I’m not qualified to undertake, and before too long I was faced with something dress shaped. And three extra parts.

I’m telling myself that they’re just suspiciously pattern-shaped off-cuts and leaving it at that. The real problem isn’t my excess of parts though – it’s that the dress is ten inches too big for my waist. I’m not sure what to do now, though. With my limited skill and my 115 year-old sewing machine, I’m a little unsure on how to best proceed in taking the dress in? Am I best to unpick the whole thing and recut the patten shapes, or simply sew something akin to a dart along the waist line to nip it in?

Dilema, dilema.

Aside from making antique dresses on ancient sewing machines, I’ve been entering a lot of writing competitions lately in a bid to make lots of money and have publishers falling over one another for my novels. Alas, I did not win the Bridport, nor the Fish Publisher poetry and flash fiction prizes… or the Sid Chaplin short story contest. Still, things can only get better from here. I did get runner up in a poetry competition for Forward Press and hopefully I’ll do well in the Fish short story prize and Glass woman prize. We shall see. At present I’m writing for these guys, though as my tale is a woeful one of teenage angst, I find myself in the mood to listen to dire power ballads and wear black.

The trials of being an artist, eh? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some 3 Doors Down to listen to at ridiculous volumes in my darkened bedroom…

Charity Rock Band ROCKATHON

A group of people I used to work with in Norwich are doing something amazing.

They’re going to play non-stop Rock Band for eight hours on a 24m screen in an attempt to raise money for The Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust. Cheesemint Productions have a Justgiving site and a group on facebook so why not take a look?

Below is an article about the attempt – it looks like it’s going to be many fun!

Cheesemint, a group of local video gamers in Norwich will use FUSION, the GIANT digital screen gallery at The Forum, as the base for their charity Rock Band Rockathon on Sunday 15th November.

The Rock Band Rockathon is being held in support of the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust and will see the video gamers perform a marathon of 100 songs, non-stop over a period of eight hours.

The Rockathon will be staged using the popular XBOX video game, ‘Rock Band’, where players use a microphone, guitar and drum controllers to rock out to their favourite songs. The performers will be Cheesemint, a group of local gamer friends who meet socially to produce web-videos. They are also dedicated ‘Rock Band’ enthusiasts who have decided to take up one of the game’s hardest challenges – ‘The Endless Set List’ – in order to raise money for their chosen charity.

Performing in public for the very first time, the group of eight friends will tackle the ‘Endless Set List’ which consists of 84 songs of varying difficulty, from the very easy building to the incredibly difficult before topping off the marathon with an encore of 16 other songs.

Opened by The Forum Trust, in partnership with BBC East and City College Norwich, FUSION is Europe’s largest permanent digital screen gallery. Measuring an incredible 24 meters the attraction, installed at The Forum by Snelling Business Systems, has recently won 2nd place and a ‘Highly Commended’ award in the prestigious National AV Awards 2009.

Dave Chapman, one of the founders of Cheesemint, says “FUSION will give us a great opportunity to not only play in front of the enormous digital screen, but also to play in a public place where people can come and watch and for a small donation, have a go themselves”.

Cheesemint is keen to point out that they are not professional musicians. “We just like playing video games,” says Dave. “And Rockband is possibly one of the most enjoyable experiences we’ve discovered on Xbox and a great way to engage the public to help us support this charity, the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust, which has a particularly close meaning for us and many other people.”

The Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust is the leading charity dedicated to brain tumour research, and patient information and support in the UK. They were incredibly supportive through the difficult times after Dave’s wife lost her father from a brain tumour last year.

Steve Falvey of The Forum Trust says, “The Trust is delighted to be supporting the Charity Rockathon. FUSION is incredibly versatile and it’s fantastic to see the space being used by the community in this way”.

Editors Notes:

You can see the gamers play at Fusion in The Forum on Sunday 15th November from 10am to 6.00pm. Admission to Fusion is FREE.

You can support the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust by donating on the day, sponsoring in advance or donating at http://www.justgiving.com/cheesemint

The Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust (SDBTT), since being formed in 1996, has become the leading charity dedicated to adult and childhood brain tumour research in the UK, raising awareness, funds for research, as well as support to patients and families of those diagnosed. The SDBTT is Registered Charity 1128354, and further information about the SDBTT can be found at http://www.braintumourtrust.co.uk

Rock Band is created by Harmonix, founded in 1995 and now part of MTV Networks, formed initially not to develop videogames but to create new ways for non-musicians to experience the unique joy that comes from making music. Rock Band 2 was released summer 2008 and is close to having over 1000 tracks of music that can be played in the game. (www.rockband.com)

Cheesemint is the collective name for a group of local gamers in Norwich (www.cheesemint.com). Dave Chapman is one of the main instigators of the Rock Band Rockathon and can be contacted on agentfrankie@ntlworld.com .

Gumtree

Gumtree is always something of an adventure.

With the move coming up, I’m trying to clear out as much as possible so we don’t have quite as many things to lift on the actual day. In addition to posting all of my old clothes on ebay*,  I added some furniture to Gumtree because I thought people who live locally would be more likely to see it there. To begin with, S- and I got rid of the three piece suite that was simply too big for the new house and our old fridge – complete with my “I ❤ tea” sticker.

The people who bought our settee were actually really nice, but when they came to collect it, the street’s resident drunk appreared at the door, barged into the house and demanded to know what I was selling,

“Just the suite,” said I, “and these people are here to pick it up.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were selling it? I’d have bought it!” she replied, circling the room.

“Well, the add was posted online-”

“I don’t have the internet,” she replied accusingly, as if I should either grant her access to the web somehow, or come knocking on her door to tell her when something new is posted on the internet.

“I’ll give you twenty quid for the table,” she adds.

“Um… no…” The gorgeous Victorian dining table cost over two hundred. I asked her to leave shortly after for fear of things going missing. Whilst dropping off the fridge wasn’t quite so interesting, it did pose a number of unique problems. The lady S- had to deliver it to kept refusing to give her phone number, and when I finally did get one out of her, she didn’t answer it, leaving husband waiting outside of an all girls’ college in his hat and leather coat looking rather shady. Luckily, the woman was online so I managed to get in touch to tell her to go and answer the door, so all was well in the end.

Last night, I added a shelving unit to Gumtree’s lists. I’d purchased said shelves less than a year ago and wrote my ad accordingly, asking for £40 o.n.o. I woke to the following email:

“hello wud u exceptŁ20 for unit cud pick up asap ty” – This is exactly as it appears in my inbox. I replied:

“Hello. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be prepared to go as low as £20. The item is almost brand new and has been treated to help preserve the wood. Thanks for your interest.”

Five minutes later, I received this lovely response:

“hello wud u except Ł20 for unit ty”

I’m willing to accept (or possibly even “except”) that people are unable to spell. My own spelling is not overly fantastic but I think “wud” and “cud “reach beyond the threshold of inability into the realms of txt-spk. The “ty” in lieu of “thank you” supports this hideous theory.

That someone has addressed me in such a way makes me feel dirty – like I am an accessory to the ruin of the English language. In response to this second query, I simply said, “No.” As of yet, there have been no other replies.

* My ebay page is here if anyone is interested… there’s lots of vintage clothes for sale.

Another Poem

I’m not sure I like this poem quite as much as the last one because it doesn’t rhyme and works solely on the rhythm of the syllables. I wrote it around midnight last night on hearing the train race through Soham without stopping. Normally from my house, there’s no way you’d even know there was a railway line nearby, but last night the village was so quiet, you could even hear the wheels on the track. The poem is meant to be read in the rhythm of an old steam train building momentum and works best if read aloud. I hope it works.

SOHAM AND THE TRAIN

My room is cold
I like it here
The glazing lets the train sound in.
The village – quiet – sleeping, still and
moving as I close my eyes, the gin
infusing as I watch the ceiling spin.
The train goes by, the train goes by.
Sleep. Sleep.

Cup of Tea

I’ve been watching ‘The Secret Millionaire’ today.

It’s not what I’d normally pick from the 4oD catalogue, but I’ve run out of episodes of ‘Time Team’ so I thought I’d have a go at something from the ‘most popular’ list instead. The show was actually pretty moving in places and it’s amazing the amount of determination which goes into running the nation’s charity sector.  One woman had even mortgaged her own house twice in order to help the ‘last wishes’ group she ran  – that’s beyond dedication, and it puts my own paltry efforts to shame.*

The thing I found most interesting though, was the way in which people interacted. The millionaire subject of the show was a cockney man – unwilling and uncomfortable when it came to expressing his emotions. Every time anyone opened up to him, he would instinctively reach for the PG Tips as a momentary distraction. I’ve noticed that I do the same – as soon as things become socially uncomfortable, my immediate reaction is to ‘put the kettle on’. I suspect a wide number of others do the same.

It’s an interesting national character trait – the need to fiddle with the paraphernalia associated with a cuppa when things become awkward. And it isn’t the drink itself which acts as a liquid shield, it’s the time that its preparation lends us. As we faff around in the kitchen – pulling out teapots and cups, sugar and milk – we are acting, yet we also have the time to decide how we feel about what has just been said, what has just taken place. We’re stalling, I suppose – trying to buy ourselves more time to decide what we believe will be the best course of action.

The familiar act of making tea is perhaps another reason we rush out to make a brew when things get tough. Making a cup of tea is something most of us do many times a day and the routine of it is something we know in a suddenly unfamiliar world. It is a constant – something which remains unchanged by what has just happened.

Whilst I think the ritual of preparation is perhaps the most important element of the drink in a crisis, this survey shows that the chemical make-up of the tea plant is also an important element. For me, a cup of steaming hot tea is a sort of life-preserve. I cling to it, both hands wrapped around the mug so that its heat seeps into my fingers. It’s both comforting, and I draw a sense of strength and constancy from it.

I wonder what happens in coffee-drinking nations when something bad happens… I wonder if percolating brings as big a sense of relief…

*I do volunteer, going on home visits for a local charity – Cam Sight – as well as helping out with bowling for the blind. It’s a really good group – very worth getting in touch with if you’re in the local area.

Labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis, alas, has nothing to do with David Bowie and the muppets. I feel rather hard done by as a result.

You know that feeling you get when you’ve had far too much Sangria, and you and N- can’t find the jug of coctail you just made because you’re holding it in your hand and the room is spinning too much for you to focus? Well, I feel like that whenever I move my head, which is irritating because none of the fun stuff – like playing through Guitar Hero 3 and discovering that you could probably break into that warehouse full of old cars if you weren’t nearly unconscious on the computer chair – has happened. And the worst part? Worse than feeling sea-sick and being denied the Muppets? I’ve been told to avoid driving.

It’s like losing a limb. My car, my baby, my Charlie Micra… I mean, obviously I don’t want to crash, for the car’s sake if nothing else, but being confined to Soham until the world begins to look a little more like its usual, non-blibbly self is not a prospect I particularly relish. Nothing to do now but play Fable 2 and hope my hero’s debauchery will make me feel better. Either that or work… but you know how these things go.

Oh! While I’m rambling, I highly recommend that everyone go take a look at http://cakesbymisti.co.uk/ This incredible cakestress – it’s a word, who says it isn’t!? – did my wedding cakes and so impressed the chef and owner of the restaurant we’d hired that he came out to tell her how good they were.  She does all kinds of incredible goodies, including lemon merangue cupcakes, black forest cupcakes and the most incredible chocolate Guiness cake you’ll ever get your mits on.

Another story

Seem to be on a roll now. This one is 100% true and happened to me whilst working at a castle in Aberdeenshire. As always, any comments or suggestions would be very, very welcome.
_______

There are only six days left. Six days until the end of the summer vacation, until the tourist feet sit trapped in the footwell of a car, walking between clutch and brake in rush hour traffic. Six days until I say goodbye to this job, this place – the architect of my childhood games. Autumn is approaching and the day cools, evening advancing on the edge of the rose summer sun. I look across the path to where the castle stands, luminous ruins in the fading light. This place breeds fairytales and belongs in clouds – spires of pink stone rising from luscious earth into the waiting porcelain sky.

M- is with me, having walked the three mile-long dirt road from my parents’ house to the castle. It is a familiar path to both of us and is the place our games of chivalrous knights grew into stories, then novels and finally hopes of a career.

J- is there too, and we lie to one another with touches. We know this is not love, that it is some strange, teenage state between friendship and nothing but we pretend anyway. It will end soon and our awkward adolescent romance will be forgotten in favour of honest conversations and genuine camaraderie.

The three of us fall into a guilty hush as the last visitor leaves. I take the six-hundred year-old key from its hook and together, M- and I leave the ticket office for the back-lacquered castle door. The setting is intoxicating, the characters from our long-outgrown imaginings infringing on the present. We look at one another, sharing a wicked grin as we enter the building. We make sure there is no one else there, and try to lock the door form the inside.

The mechanism is easy, despite the fact the key is the length of my forearm. The old iron workings of the lock are a beautiful testament to the craftsman’s skill. We are elated, the first people in at least a century to work the key from within the courtyard. We imagine the preparation of a great banquet in the kitchen ahead of us, the lighting of fires in the many bedrooms to our right. We see guards, passing a tankard of ale between them as they watch two maids at the well.

Outside, J- calls and the spectres retreat. We push the key into the lock and turn it, but too far. The blade breaks and falls into the dark chasm of keyhole.

Our ghosts return but their nature has changed. Our imagination paints a siege, and we are gripped by an urgency to escape. In the lower rooms the windows are narrow to guard against entry and those in the kitchen – slightly wider to grant the staff more working light – have been barred to stop visitors who do not want to pay the proper toll. On this level at least, we are trapped.

We sprint up the main staircase, into the great hall. The ground below is rough and uneven, and we can not see any foot holes in the wall. Our plight becoming ever more urgent, we flee across the gallery to the round turrets at the castle face. J- stares up at us and, forlorn, we explain our predicament. Keeping to the outer wall, we lead him around the castle and he tries to find an escape route. Then I realise. Beside the ticket office is a workman’s shed and therein lies our salvation.

I halt our procession and fumble in my jacket for the keys, tossing them down to J- – a cold metal parody of a damsel’s handkerchief. As he leaves, M- and I grow frantic, trying to find the flattest patch of ground below a window. We run from room to room until we return to the gallery. The window farthest from the main staircase has crumbled slightly around the edges, granting us more room to turn before our decent. Resolutely, we stand our ground here and wait.

When J- returns, he carries a ladder, tucked beneath the crook of his arm. He pushes it into position below the window and I am suddenly overcome with nausea. The theory is sound, but the act of swinging myself onto this metal contraption from high above the ground makes my knees weak.

Around me, the ghosts of my childhood games fade and I hear the phone ringing in the ticket office. I should have registered the site as closed by now. There will be problems if I don’t do so quickly. I pull myself together and try to remember that this is not fiction, that nothing dramatic will happen if I simply climb down the ladder. I step towards the window and push all thoughts from my head, gripping the shimmering pink granite ledge. I descend, and throw my arms around J- in the first genuine embrace we’ve shared. He is my hero, and in this moment our future friendship is cemented.

M- follows me soon after and we laugh with relief at the feel of the solid floor. Slowly, we make our way back to the office, trembling slightly. J- returns the ladder to the bothy and I make my phone call, explaining how the key broke as we closed up for the night. From the proper side of the door. After I’m finished, we set off on the long road home, writing a new story – an alibi – as we go.