Feeding My Habit.

My approach to book-buying has, of late, come into line with my attitude to purchasing stuff in general. That is, I have learned to resist the hype and take the marketing with a generous pinch of salt.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve needed to have a book on the go and, ideally, a next book on standby. Books are my drug of choice for escapism, for stimulation and for comfort. While I’ve always craved the latest front-table bestsellers, I haven’t always had the budget to indulge in them. I’ve learned to source my books wherever I can – I can’t pass a charity shop without checking their shelves.

Our local library, by the way, is not great and anyway, the ownership of the book, the shelving of it amongst its peers, is all part of my habit.

For many years I’ve simply read the best I could find at a small price. Slim books were largely ignored as the page to price ratio was unsatisfactory. If I splurged on a shiny new book it needed to be BIG. I’ve spent happy hours scouring the shelves of Waterstone’s looking for something to match Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

In the last couple of years, call it a mid-life crisis if you will, I’ve realised that I need to be more discerning. I know now, as I somehow didn’t quite accept before, that I will eventually die without having read all the books that I should have read and, much worse, all the books that I wanted to have read.

Now I keep lists. When I approach the dusty shelves of a charity shop or those huge stacks at the Ballinora Christmas Bazaar (aka the bizarre bazaar due to outlandish nature of items on offer) I do my best, I try (not claiming perfection here) to limit my purchases to books on my list. I just don’t have TIME to waste on fifty shades of shite, however cheap its going.

To get to the point, three such listed books leapt from the 2-for-a-euro ranks and I pounced on them with unadulterated glee. I have reveled in reading these in ‘off’ mode. No note-taking, no recipe-making, no sales-pitch reviews.

In brief:

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

This one has been on The List for years but fell down the slim book chasm. It’s extremely short, barely a novella, but gloriously good fun.

Her Majesty the Queen happens by chance upon the visiting library bus at Buckingham Palace. Curiosity leads her to chat to the driver and politeness forces her to take out a book.

“Is there anything you would recommend?”
“What does Your Majesty like?”
The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people.

Before she really understands what is happening, Her Majesty becomes a Reader. In other words, an Addict.

And later:

There was sadness to her reading, too, and for the first time in her life she felt there was a good deal she had missed.

Wonderful. The perfect book for anyone who knows they love books, or anyone who thinks they don’t.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

A comment I read on Instagram, someone saying they hated the ending, was enough to put me off buying The Goldfinch. Tartt’s books seem to divide people. When I posted a photo on Instagram lots of people said they loved this book but dislike another, or the opposite, loved her other books but couldn’t get into this one.

I thought The Goldfinch was a cracking read. I was hooked from the off and had to be physically prised out of it when the Christmas visitors rang the doorbell.

It is the story of a boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing of a New York art gallery, and somehow walks away with a priceless painting.

In complete contrast to The Uncommon Reader, it’s massive. Part art-heist, part family saga, part sordid tale of drugs and violence, part philosophical treatise on the meaning of Art, perhaps it tries to be too much. Some sections are written in what seems unnecessarily minute detail. Then years are skimmed or skipped. I might have got cross about that, had I not been breathless to find out what happened.

The protagonist, Theo Decker, got on my nerves. I mean he literally made me nervous. His choices made no sense which was fine when he was a kid but got close to incredible as he got older. A nagging fear that the whole plot was on the verge of collapse only added to the almost unbearable suspense.

It’s a book that doesn’t get to the point until the very end. I liked that. And I like the point.

Here’s a line:

-a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart by all kinds of angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.

Have you had that happen? Mine is this one. I’m not alone; it was voted Ireland’s favourite painting. We’re a romantic lot.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Can you forgive my lack of enthusiasm for a book, another book, about slavery in America? The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize. Obama called it terrific and The Guardian called it devastating and my heart just sank every one of the half dozen or so times I picked it up in a bookshop, and put it down again.

I put it on the list and on the long finger. Then I found it at the bazaar propped up against Obama’s Dreams From My Father and I bought both (for a euro!).

I bought it because I thought I should. I finished it with a blush of shame for my ingratitude. I can read whatever the hell I want and for that alone I ought to be grateful. It’s easy to say that but rarely we mean it.

Have you read it? Layer upon layer of ingenuity. I finished it late the other night. It was still in my head when I turned over the following morning. I must have been processing it all night. My waking thought was “The star…Black Beauty…f***ing brilliant.”

For readability, pathos and creativity, The Underground Railroad is awesome.

I read this book only because I thought I should. You should read it.

Three very different books but they had a thread in common. Art, art as pictures or music or books, is certainly more than a luxury. Art is a privilege but also somehow a necessity.

Donna Tartt quotes this line from Nietzche:

We have art in order not to  die of the truth.

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I’m moving on now to the books Santy brought for my family. Fortunately, Santy has a peculiar habit of delivering books I’m aching to read.

I finished Nigel by Monty Don earlier today. Gardeners of these islands are familiar with the presenter of BBC’s Gardeners’ World and his handsome, scene-stealing Golden Retriever.

The book is a mixed bag – stories of Nigel’s antics, memories of other beloved dogs and a history of the garden at Longmeadow. It reads as though Monty just sat down every now and then and spilled a few thoughts on to a page, much like a blog post, and they all got stitched together into a book. He writes as he speaks, gently, but also firmly enough to keep the reader to heel.

If you like dogs and gardens, it’s a lovely read. I wept. Husband wept.

Charlie slept on.IMG_1128

One last thing, I learned a new word from Alan Bennett.

Opsimath: one who learns only late in life.

That’s me.

The Annual Leap of Faith and…

Do you ever think that all that believing in Christmas is somehow a clever bit of short circuitry to believing that Spring will come again?

Every year, without fail, I have a lapse of faith. While Husband turns his attention to seed catalogues, I burrow under a pile of yarn, hooking stitches as though my life depended on them and muttering despondently, bah, that garden is too much work.

And every year, without fail, we make that sharp turn in our circumnavigation of the sun and, lo, here I am with my nose pressed against the kitchen window wondering when the rain might ease off so that I can go survey my plot of earth.IMG_1059

It was a funny old Christmas. Two people died. They weren’t people I was close to, or even knew well, no need for condolences, but the circumstances of both, young people leaving tiny children behind, were shocking, really shocking, and desperately, awfully sad. A woman said to me that it put all the Christmas ‘stress’ into perspective and I nodded but really I thought, no, it doesn’t. It makes no sense at all. None.

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I’m a bore, a steady eddy. I put what must get done ahead of what could be fun. Teenage Son accuses me of constantly procrastinating with the ‘just one more job I have to do.’

I like to believe I am reliable. I work towards security. I don’t buy lottery cards. I’m not interested in gambling.IMG_1022

And yet, here I am stuck, with you and everyone else too, in this great big game of chance.IMG_1018

It was Ophelia who broke those poppy stems, all tipped over at what must have been a weak spot in their stems. I left them there because I admire their tenacity and because, even in decay, they are undeniably beautiful.IMG_1021

There’s very little left now of last year’s fruit. Only a few grim hangers-on, like these rose-hips, have withstood the persistent wet of an Irish winter.IMG_1034

Still and all, it has been another remarkably mild winter and there is probably more life in the garden than, by rights, there should be.

The perennial wallflowers are living up to their name, and then some.IMG_1000 (2)

And surely, there can be nothing in the world more reliable than daffodils.IMG_1007

And rhubarb too, seems like a safe bet.IMG_1027

And there are tiny buds on the Acers…IMG_0998

and bigger buds on the lilac…IMG_1004

and sticky, rosy buds on the Ribes.IMG_1012

And even where there is no sign of Spring, there are signs of life.IMG_1028

And there is reassurance in knowing, knowing because I can see it and knowing because I can rub my thumb against the strength of it, that there will be a rose here…IMG_1043

and a fig here…IMG_1038

and a bunch of blueberries here.IMG_1032

And I think I might say yes next time Teenage Son offers to teach me how to play the guitar. And I think I might venture out of my safety zone. And I might fail. And I think I might risk it.

And, and, and…IMG_1042

and it goes on.IMG_1040

Happy New Year.

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And at Christmas You Tell the Truth…

I’m not entirely open with you here.IMG_0601

It simply wouldn’t do to spill all the beans.IMG_0607

Sultanabun is my brave, confident (read foolhardy) and competent alter ego who doesn’t worry too much about what people think. Sultanabun doesn’t burn the arse out of her best saucepan by allowing herself to be distracted by Instagram. Sultanabun doesn’t have weird pink scum around her bathroom taps. Of course she doesn’t and she doesn’t find herself sitting, alone, in a coffee shop window with uninvited tears falling down her cheeks. That simply wouldn’t do.

No. There are levels of honesty. IMG_0613

There are always good and bad things about this time of year. That’s sort of the whole point of it, really, when you think about it. Christmas is the light in the darkness, the thing that gets you through. I read an interview with Richard Curtis about writing Four Weddings and a Funeral. He re-wrote his story about four weddings a dozen times but couldn’t get it right. It was too happy, saccherin sweet, until a friend suggested he add in a funeral. It worked. Light and shade, chiaroscuro, that’s life. It’s better because it’s sometimes bad.

It doesn’t do, I think, to pretend that it’s perfect but today I’m choosing to write, honestly, about the things that are good about this time of year.

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Music.

Is there ever so much music about as at Christmas? I love that we belt out Jingle Bells in the car on the way to school, that I can hum Santa Claus is Coming to Town at mid volume while pushing my shopping trolley without anybody even suspecting that I’m mad, and I love that George Michael is going to make it to Number One for Christmas, I love that.

I particularly love the school carol service and nativity play. The Small Girl was, as it turned out, the only homemade donkey at the birth of Jesus which didn’t seem to bother her, or Jesus, one bit. She sang her song, and performed her actions with gusto, shedding only a very small amount of her lustrous mane in the process. As I write she is practicing her party piece.IMG_0703

Creativity (aka Cutting and Sticking).

I love that Christmas grants us all permission to dolly up our homes in whichever daft fashion out hearts desire. The madder the better, if you ask me. It’s all so wonderfully liberating. Once you get past the notion of carting a whole tree inside the house, you can’t really criticise anyone’s style, can you? This from the woman with gold tinsel and multi-coloured lights draped around her sofa.

Every year I get a dose of the bah-humbugs and swear that I can’t be arsed making a real wreath for the front door, every single year.

And then I do.

I thought it would be the work of mere moments to recreate a very simple ring of hazel twigs I saw at a craft fair. It seems I will never learn the lesson that things at craft fairs which seem very simple, invariably, are not.

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Several hours, two glasses of wine, some cursing and forty-two Christmas songs later…IMG_0749

I don’t, in general, have any objection to bells, ribbons or jangly bits on Christmas wreaths. I have previously made a wreath entirely from the wrappers of Cadbury’s Roses so I am reliably unsophisticated in my efforts. This year, however, I had a notion that my wreath would be made exclusively from what my garden (and, being honest, my mother-in-law’s garden) had to offer. I may be still a pheasant feather shy of sophistication but I do like this wreath, a lot.IMG_0753

Kindness.

Have you noticed it? People in cars let you out at junctions with a wave, maybe even a smile if they happen to be belting out Jingle Bells with their kids. People in shops offer to gift-wrap your presents, or double bag your turkey. Strangers tell you stories about their Christmas party, or how they cook their sprouts, or who belonging to them is flying home on Friday. Christmas cards come in the post and surprise me, again, that someone I haven’t spoken to in years still thinks of me. A friend, who I hardly realised knew me so well, turned up on my doorstep with a gift so perfect, so unbelievably thoughtful, it left me breathless.

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Darkness.

Yes, with emotions more contrary than I can explain, I do like it. I like the sound of rain battering the windows. I like the heavy, leaden skies that take striking a match and touching it to a candle from the realm of unnecessary luxury to vital  force. I like the insulating blanketness of it, the closeness of it, the weight of it. And I like that I know, in my heart of hearts, that it will end soon enough. I like the bottoming out of it, the sense of an ending.

If you go all the way down, you get a bounce that brings you clear into Spring.

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And you, my friends who live behind this screen, have shown me real kindness. You have, somehow, endured my litany of complaint. You have encouraged my efforts and applauded my small achievements. I have lovely, lovely followers – you are nice people. Thank you.

I wish you a Happy Solstice Day, clean and bright and with a fine bounce to it, and I wish you a Christmas with just the right balance of light and shade. Nollaig Shona daoibh.IMG_0775 (2)

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For My Child And Your Child Too.

A Boy Called Christmas

I came this close, this close (holds forefinger and thumb together and squints left eye in demonstration of just how close) to writing a post about sadness. Not because I’m sad, but because I’m not, and because, when I am, I can’t write, or say, or even think, anything  productive at all. Anyway, it’s all there, written on a page with a pen, and maybe we can come back to it one day. For now, ’tis the season to be jolly.

Did you know that Santa wrote a book? It was an elf-help book called How To Be Jolly. It had a very limited release but topped the charts for its target demographic. This, and much more, I learned from Matt Haig’s thrilling  exposé,  A Boy Called Christmas.

Haig revealed, at last, the true and previously unrecorded secrets of Father Christmas’s early years. You may wonder how the author learned these facts. Haig, rather honourably I think, refuses to reveal his sources. He argues that you shouldn’t really question such things. He just knows, otherwise why ever would he have written the book?

A Boy Called Christmas

Whether you call the great man Father Christmas or Santa Claus or Saint Nick or Sinterklaas or Kris Kringle or Pelznickel or Papa Noël, the important thing is that you know he exists.

“Can you believe there was a time when no one knew about him? A time when he was just an ordinary boy called Nikolas, living in the middle of nowhere, or the middle of Finland, doing nothing with magic except believing in it? A boy who knew very little about the world except the taste of mushroom soup, the feel of a cold north wind, and the stories he was told. And who only had a doll made out of a turnip to play with.”

Nikolas’ childhood was none too promising. His parents, Haig tells us, were kind and loving but very poor. His mother was a jolly soul, with red cheeks and a warm laugh. His father, Joel, was an industrious woodcutter with only 9 ½ fingers and very tired eyes. Nikolas had no brothers or sisters or friends. His only childhood companion was a small, very hungry, brown mouse called Miika who, even though he had never even seen it, or even smelled it, believed in cheese.

A Boy Called Christmas

Our first clue to Nikolas’ destiny is the fact that he was born on Christmas Day and, for that reason, nick-named Christmas by his parents. Joel even made Nikolas his own wooden sleigh and painted his name, Christmas, on the back of it.

Haig’s account introduces us to Nikolas at eleven years old, soon after his mother had died in a tragic accident. Despite determined efforts to be happy, Nikolas was a bit sad, and maybe a bit lonely, and really, extremely hungry. Little did he know, things were about to get much worse.

Lured by the promise of a rich reward from the King of Finland, Joel the woodcutter undertook a dangerous expedition to the Far North to find proof of the existence of elves. He took with him the Christmas sleigh (but at least not the turnip doll) and left Nikolas in the care of his miserable and ancient (she’s forty-two) Aunt Carlotta.

“Everything about her, even her voice, seemed covered in frost.”

Aunt Carlotta’s shocking deeds do not make easy reading. Suffice to say, Carlotta was greed incarnate, so unbearably mean that poor Nikolas gathered his courage, put his mouse in his pocket, and simply walked away.

“Then, with Miika peeking out at the road ahead, Nikolas turned and headed north through the trees, towards the place he thought he might find his father and the elves, and tried his hardest to believe in both.”

It would, I fear, be irresponsible of me to reveal what Nikolas found at the Far North. You’ll have to read the book. I won’t even whisper a word about the flying reindeer, the truth pixie or the exploding troll. I will not give credence to the miserable lies extolled by The Daily Snow newspaper, or give my opinion of the media mogul elf who believes that goodwill is just another name for weakness.

What I will tell you is this: Nikolas found food. He discovered gingerbread and sweet plum soup, jam pastries and bilberry pie. And, Miika found cheese. While those things may not constitute a happy ending, or a happy Christmas, they are a very good place to start.

This book is so good, it gave me chills. I loved it so much I crocheted a set of the characters for the Small Girl.

A Boy Called Christmas, crochet

The reindeer at the back is Blitzen. Yes, I made him last year and he has changed his name by deed poll at my request. Anyone can have a red nose at this time of year. Standing on Blitzen’s left foot is Little Kip, a very small elf with very big ears. Next to Kip and staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (what my children call the smell the fart pose) is our hero, Nikolas. My best attempt at a tiny turnip doll lies below his hand and Miika, the mouse, is on the chair. Father Topo, Mother Ri-Ri (with the plaits) and Little Noosh make up the cast. I stopped short of Father Vodol, the media Mogul. I made the decision that, for Christmas, it’s as well to believe that he and his ilk don’t exist. Also, I ran out of yarn.

A Boy Called Christmas is a fine story with a very important message, actually several vital messages:

“We must never let fear be our guide.”

“An impossibility is just a possibility that you don’t understand.”

“Humans are complicated.”
“Elves too.”

“Life is pain.”
“But it’s also magic.”

“Perhaps a wish was just a hope with a better aim.”

“…and hope is the most wonderful thing there is.”

With each new book I read from this author, I find myself believing more and more in Matt Haig. To a world darkened by fear-mongering, where fake news is the order of the day, Haig delivers a message of hope, of generosity, of inclusion, and of kindness. You might choose to believe that this book is a fairytale, written just for gullible children. You could believe that this is book is allegorical, that Nikolas’s journey reflects a pilgrim’s progress from friendless boy to benevolent father figure. If you are very brave, you can choose to simply believe, as I do, in a boy called Christmas.

Now, on to that food…(but first, Blitzen and Nikolas doing the King Of The World pose)…

A Boy Called Christmas

An Elfin Feast.

Gingerbread.

Ingredients.

3 oz (80g) butter
3 oz (80g) soft dark sugar
2 oz (55g) golden syrup
1 egg yolk
8 oz (250g) cake flour, sieved
2 oz (55g) crystallised ginger, chopped into small dice
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger.

300g icing sugar and the juice of 1 lime to make icing
Icing pens, baubles, sprinkles, jelly tots, etc.

Method.

Cream the butter and sugar together until the sugar crystals dissolve and the mixture gets pale and fluffy.
Add the golden syrup and the egg yolk and mix well.
Mix the flour, ginger, bread soda, cinnamon and ginger together and then tip the lot into the butter mixture. Mix to combine and then knead the mixture lightly into a ball.
Leave the dough to rest in the fridge in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and cut out shapes using cookie cutters.
Bake at 180˚C (350˚F) for 10-12 minutes, depending on the cookie size.
Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
Add the juice of a lime to the icing sugar and mix vigorously. Add more icing sugar if the icing is too runny. Allow your creative juices run riot. Failing that, enlist children.

A Boy Called Christmas

Plum Soup.

Bramley cooking apples are sour and cooking down to a mush. If you can’t find bramleys, use soft cooking apples and perhaps less sugar. At worst, cook the plums in good quality apple juice and omit the water.

Ingredients.

1 ½ lb (650g) plums
1 lb (2 medium sized) bramley cooking apples
6 oz (150g) sugar
5 oz (150ml) water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 orange
3 cloves
whipped cream to serve.
 

Method.

Cut the plums in half, remove the stones and place them in a saucepan.
Peel, core and chop the apples and add them to the plums.
Cut a slice from the centre of the orange, stud it with the cloves and add this to the pot.
Cut some strips of peel from the orange, as long as you can make them, and add them to the pot too.
Squeeze the juice of the orange into the pot.
Add the water, the cinnamon stick and the star anise.
Cook over a low to medium heat for 20-30 minutes until everything is soft.
Fish out the spices and pieces of orange and peel.
Whizz up the soup in a liquidiser or with a stick blender until smooth.

You could serve this soup warm but we like it chilled, with a blob of whipped cream on top and a garnish made of the cooked orange peel. We, the grown-ups, also appreciate a slug of sherry stirred in to the chilled soup.

Bilberry Pies and Mince Pies.

Bilberries are the Northern European cousins of blueberries. They look and taste almost the same. If you can lay your hands on bilberry jam, by all means use it. Blueberry jam was the closest I could find. This pastry recipe has been handed down through the generations of my family under the title “pastry for mince pies.” It makes a delicious, sweet and buttery pastry which is easy to handle and reheats perfectly.

Ingredients.

1 jar of blueberry jam
1 jar of mincemeat
8 oz (250g) flour
2 oz (55g) icing (confectioner’s) sugar
5 oz (135g) cold butter
1 egg yolk (save the white for glazing)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ice-cold water

Method.

Sieve the flour into a large bowl. Sieve the sugar on top and mix through.
Cut the butter into cubes and add to the bowl.
Wash your hands in cold water and then use the tips of your fingers to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Mix together the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the cold water. Add this mixture to the flour and butter and fork it through until the dough begins to clump together.
Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it together gently. Use your palms to flatten the ball into a disk shape ready for rolling out. Wrap it in cling-film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and use a suitably sized cookie cutter to make circles to line a bun tray or mini-muffin tin. There is no need to grease the tray as the pies will come out quite easily. Cut out stars, or any shape you like, to make a lid.
Fill the cases with jam or mincemeat and pop the lids on top.
Brush the lids with the leftover egg white.
Bake at 180˚C for 15-20 minutes depending on the size.

A Boy Called Christmas

My title, by the way, is taken from the song Peace on Earth best enjoyed in the gloriously daft and magical Bing/Bowie duet.

I pray my wish will come true, for my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory, see the day when men of goodwill
Live in peace, live in peace again.

P.S. The eagle-eyed will have spotted that I took the food photos while I was only halfway through the crochet project. Poor Nikolas is, literally, legless. I blame the optional slug of sherry in the plum soup.

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How Lovely Are Thy Branches.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree…

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It was a fiasco. (See instagram post here)IMG_0642

Every light that could break, broke. IMG_0646

Some lights died, were resuscitated and died again. Others came out of their brand new packages dead. IMG_0661

It took seven hours, three visits to the local hardware, and a partridge in a pear tree to get it going.IMG_0651

But, despite the chaos and frustration, the mess and expense, the torment to small children waiting with baubles at the ready, for hours, it was a memorable day for all the right reasons. We kept it together. We laughed. We ate cake. We had a couple of stiff drinks. IMG_0657

We kept in mind that, even when it all seems to be going wrong, these days are precious. So very much depends on how you look at things.

This is the view from the kitchen window, street lights versus Christmas tree with honesty (lunaria) inside and teasels outside. I considered writing a whole post based on this photograph. I might yet. IMG_0673

Then I turned on my heel and took this photograph. I love the way the street light still threw its shadows on to this one.IMG_0676

The tree is up. Let the festivities begin.

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Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

Right so, who’s up for a frank and honest conversation about perimenopausal symptoms, the perils of freelance writing, and the politics of who is going where on Christmas Day?

No? No. Me neither.

Can we escape, instead, into a book? Come with me, please, this one is worth it.

The books. There are books in the kitchen, books in the study and books in the drawing room. There are books in my satchel, books on my desk and books by my bedside. There are novels and short stories, biographies and diaries, haikus and travelogues. There are gardening books and poetry and of course there are cook books…”He was never without a book.” I can see it now, carved on my gravestone.

He had me at “drawing room” and doubly so at “satchel.” That’s Nigel Slater using some of those words in the English language that we Irish have never felt fully entitled to use. It is an excerpt from a chapter, or entry really, as The Christmas Chronicles is more diary than cookbook, entitled A Sweet Moment. Slater describes the simple pleasure of sitting in a comfortable chair to read a book.

Howling wind or falling snow aside, the best reading companion is the smell of something baking in the oven.

No arguments here.

This is an extraordinary cookbook. I’ve never read any other cookbook that felt so intimate, so genuine, so much like an invitation to step inside a real kitchen and make myself at home.

“Come in.” Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. “Come in.” They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear.

Can anyone else hear the ghost of Christmas present laughing in the background?

And yes, I know the world is a shit-storm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour.

Nigel Slater’s writing would verge on maudlin, if it wasn’t tempered with such enthralling honesty. He doesn’t pretend that his memories of Christmas past aren’t tainted by grief. He doesn’t pretend that he always makes his own mincemeat. He doesn’t blithely ignore the existence of his competitors on the cookery bookery shelves. He gives credit where credit is due.  He mentions, and thanks, his followers on social media as though they were flesh and blood people.

All of this adds up to something that feels fresh and immediate and very modern. At the same time, by some sorcerer’s trick, Slater endorses time-worn traditions and exudes acute nostalgia. He made my chest ache. Ah, listen, let me cut to the chase. He made me cry. A flaming cookbook made me cry, IN THE SHOP, before I even paid for it.

If you are expecting a book of practical instructions on how to cater Christmas, you may be disappointed. The chronicles take the form of a day-by-day diary, beginning November 1st and ending on the 2nd of February. There is a lot to learn from this book: anything from the history of tinsel, Christmas stamps and pantomimes to the burn rate of candles to the best Brussels sprouts.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

You don’t know what you are going to get from one day to the next and at times it reads as though it was a surprise to him too. Some of the entries bear all the hallmarks of a sleepy head – half formed thoughts jotted down by candle-light before dawn. A less well established author might have been compelled to edit, to tighten up, but these sleepy paragraphs, to me, were beguiling.

The only fault I found was that the book ends rather abruptly, as though he simply tore this clump of pages from his diary and sent them off to his publisher. One can only presume that we will pick up with him again, on February 3rd. It works, it leaves you wanting more, but it’s a bit too low key for me. I’m needy.

The food? I have two words for it. Comfort and joy.

Have you ever roasted a head of cabbage and then smothered it in cheese sauce? It is, without exaggeration, a cruciferous revelation.

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You’ve heard enough, I think, ( here) about the Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perhaps less of the comfort on that one but certainly joy, or maybe glee. It was worth it for the laughs.

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Cauliflower soup with a cheesy sourdough crouton was an equally delicious and less incendiary option.

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Toad-in-the-hole is not something we habitually eat in Ireland. Like drawing rooms and satchels, and Paddington Bear, this is a particularly British thing that we are not certain we are entitled to enjoy. It’s funny, when you think about it, how distinct are our cultures. I like it that way which, I suppose, is why I resist the blending of them. Regardless, this was undeniably comforting on a wet Saturday night.

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Slater’s recipes are mostly very easy and undemanding. What he offers are suggestions for a way of eating, and a way of enjoying the winter, rather than prescriptions for what is correct, or seasonal, or must-have or must-do or must-make.

My six-year-old made the Lebkuchen Chocolate Cream, all by herself…a triumph!

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The Stollen was my own particular triumph – a first but my no means last attempt. I even made the marzipan. It doesn’t look remotely like Nigel Slater’s stollen but it was very good to eat. Yes, I am quite proud.

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The Ricotta Filo Tart, a sort of Sicicilian baked cheesecake in a crispy shell was almost too pretty to crack open. Almost, but not quite.

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My forays into combining fruit with brandy have already been well-documented (here) but, I assure you, the joy continues.

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I made four jars of Slater’s quince mincemeat. It may not look beautiful but this stuff has been the mainstay of my mental health in recent days. Jar, spoon, Poldark book 10…I may just survive.

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This afternoon, by popular demand, after my girls have had their piano lesson (the piano is in the kitchen which is a very good thing with only occasional drawbacks), I shall make another batch of these quincemeat and mascarpone pies. They are exquisite little self-contained puffballs of Christmas cheer. You do have to eat them while they are still warm. Does that sound like a problem?

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I have only one other Nigel Slater cookbook on my shelves. It is called Real Food. I hardly ever cook from it, I’m not sure why not, but it contains my most favourite ever recipe –for a perfect chip butty. It’s not really a recipe, it’s a poem.

The fact that I didn’t cook much from that book has thus far inhibited me from buying any other of Nigel Slater’s books. That and the inescapable fact that they are quite expensive. Nonetheless, Item 1 on my list of New Year Resolutions is to source (hopefully second-hand) more of his books and to devour them just for the pure pleasure of it.

Slater’s is the sort of writing that makes me feel better. His words provide a sort of nourishment for the weather-beaten soul. I found this book both enlightening and inspiring. I want to eat like this, have a garden like this, make a wreath like this and yes, more than anything else, I want to write like this.

While Nigel Slater may not have the power to halt the shit-storm, he might empower you to shut the door on it. If nothing else, here is a book full to bursting with tidings of comfort and joy.

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A Fairly Unbiased Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks.

Can there ever be such a thing as an unbiased review?

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A good portion of the people who pick up Uncommon Type will do so out of curiosity to discover whether Tom Hanks, the Hollywood A-lister, can write. You would expect him make a decent fist of it, wouldn’t you? After all, we already know Tom Hanks is a smart and articulate man. He’s a professional communicator, has an understanding of timing and character development and he’s funny. Does all of that add up to being a good writer? I, for one, was rooting for Forrest Gump to come up trumps.

Occasionally, when Tom Hanks is out and about in the real world, he meets a small child who can’t understand how the man he is facing could possibly claim to be Woody from Toy Story. Hanks knows exactly what to do. He asks the child to close his eyes and then, to the amazement of all, he performs the voice and the child knows without any doubt that he has met the real Woody.

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Having read Hanks’ first collection of short stories, I’m left with the impression that he intends to play the same trick on his readers. Even the most commercially successful of authors, Stephen King or Dan Brown or Paula Hawkins, don’t have the advantage Hanks has of having a voice so very familiar to us. If I were to say to you, ‘My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates…’ I’m willing to bet you can hear Tom Hanks’ voice in your head finishing the sentence.

There is no doubt that the actor’s spoken voice shines through, clear as a bell, in his writing and that, absolutely, is a real pleasure. He brings the same affable, jocular manner we’ve all seen on some chat show or other. He sounds like himself – at his ease and, more significantly, in control. Hanks is a natural raconteur, an exemplary story-teller and to read his book is the closest you will come to having the Tom Hanks you know so well from the movies actually take a seat by your fire-side and spin you a yarn.

My problem is this: I think he’s still acting. He’s still performing voices, acting the author, while we, so to speak, read with our eyes shut.

The collection opens with a story called Three Exhausting Weeks in which a man who was previously content to spend his days doing a load or two of laundry and watching a game on TV begins dating an old school friend, a woman who is fit and smart and driven to succeed.

“Being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy Seal while working full-time in an Amazon fulfilment center in the Oklahoma Panhandle in tornado season.”

The story charts the increasingly hectic, but mercifully brief, course of their mismatched relationship.

It’s a snappy and entertaining piece of writing and introduces a quirky foursome of friends who appear twice more in later stories. With each reprisal, I liked these characters a little more but even three stories, a trip to the moon and a bowling championship, later, they seemed more like the cast of a sit-com than real people.

Another character who wins himself several appearances in the collection is Hank Fiset. Now, this guy I really like. Hank Fiset is a bit of a crank, a Grumpy Old Man but also an old school, small town, newspaper man who crafts his column so that it can be read in exactly the time it takes to boil an egg. He accompanies his wife on a trip to New York where he finds the Caesar salad too tart, the parking inconvenient and the art for Art’s sake only.

“I saw a movie that was nothing more than time passing – really, a lot of clocks ticking and people looking at their watches. I gave it ten minutes.”

He mourns the demise of print newspapers and recalls a colleague, a re-write man at the old associated press, whose type-writer was a Continental.

“The man made quite a racket doing his job a few hundred times a shift– the chonk-chonkka of his typing with the ba-ding of the bell, the krank of the carriage return, the shripp of the copy ripped from the machine.”

This brings me to the author’s most charming device, the hook on which the collection hangs. In each story there is an individual type-writer. Some are older than others but all can lay claim to the term vintage. In some stories the type-writer plays a starring role, in others it’s an extra hanging about in the background but it’s always there somewhere. The type-writer made me smile, every time.

Close enough to the centre page of this book, and at its very heart, you will find a real gem, a story called These Are the Meditations of My Heart. It’s about a girl who can’t resist buying an old type-writer that’s going cheap at a yard sale.

She brings the type-writer to a repair shop where an old fellow with a, probably, Polish accent teaches her a thing or two about type and type-writers and why we are so attracted to them.

“Because they were built to last forever.”

Can’t you just hear Hanks doing that probably-Polish accent?

“You are seeking permanence,” he says.

It was in this story that I thought we might, just might mind you, be hearing the voice of the real Tom Hanks rather than another of his myriad characters.

“I’m not one who types between sips from a tumbler of booze and drags from a pack of smokes. I just want to set down what few truths I’ve come to know.”

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Hanks failed to convince me that he is a writer. He doesn’t display the compulsion to bare his own soul . Sure, Hanks writes and he writes well. He writes convincing scenes of American lives, poignant characters who recall a better past or believe in a better future. But, he doesn’t say anything in these stories that he wouldn’t have said better in a movie. He doesn’t give himself away. He’s still playing Woody, doing a voice, acting.

It may be that Hanks is too good an actor, too smart, too practised at guarding his privacy, to be a writer. It may be that I was looking for something he was never going to give.

When you see Hanks’ name on a movie poster you know you are in safe hands. Tom Hanks is never less than entertaining. Equally, his stories are thoughtful and congenial. Some are moving, others hilarious but they are not provocative and they are not personal. His stories are safe, which is a pity really, because Tom Hanks can write.

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