Words to Live By.

freshly podded peas.

I’ve no idea how it can possibly have come about but I find I have read another Hemingway. It was entirely unintentional, I assure you. I had sworn to avoid the man as being far too depressing but his books, somehow, keep popping up just as I mutter the words, ‘what will I read next?’

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris, turns out to be barely an amuse bouche of a book at just 125 easily read pages. That’s the thing; he writes with such simple eloquence, you can knock it back with barely a thought until the bitter note at the end leaves you reeling with sadness.

Image result for hemingway

He’s a bit of an arse too, isn’t he? I mean, I just can’t bring myself to like him. Or perhaps it’s that I feel I wouldn’t trust him. There’s something else though: his writing is sexy. Listen, it’s a much misused word. I’m the first to roll my eyes in despair when I hear a chef describing a cheese toastie as sexy, and you are all aware of the intensity of my relationship with cheese toasties, but I do think Hemingway, well, just has it. Charisma. Scott Fitzgerald, apparently, turned to Hemingway for advice on how to satisfy Zelda. Poor Scott, I don’t suppose he expected his buddy to publish the conversation in a book. While we are on the subject, can anyone tell me whether that scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls is the origin of the phrase the earth moved ?

‘…suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.’

Moving swiftly along…he writes a lot about visiting Gertrude Stein at her salon and recounts some of her advice to him. Stein advised Hemingway to stop writing stories which were inaccrochable. I had to look that one up. I think its safe to say he ignored her.

She refused to discuss Joyce and implemented a three strike rule where those who mentioned his books a third time were never invited back. I might do the same, if only to avoid embarrassing omissions from personal reading list (note to self: try Ulysses again).

‘You should only read what is good or what is frankly bad.’

Sound advice. I wallowed merrily in Hello magazine this morning and it did me a power of good (those royal toddlers are too cute). Of course, as Hemingway points out, choosing books is just another form of gambling; no book, whatever the reviews say, is a sure thing.

Word of mouth is the way to go and there are some lovely people hereabouts who have never put me wrong when it comes to book recommendations. Several of you urged me to take a look at Persephone Books and, oh, my goodness, what a well spring of pure joy I have discovered! Thank you, so much, for pointing me in the right direction. I have, in turn, pointed Husband in the same direction with a whisper of ‘all I want for Christmas…’

So far, I have read E.M. Delafield’s  Diary of a Provincial Lady. I can’t recall laughing aloud so heartily or so often since I read Adrian Mole. Proper, nearly choked on my coffee, laughter. There aren’t enough funny books anymore. I’ll write more about this another day. I’m moving on, gleefully, to Agnes Jekyll’s (sister-in-law to Gertrude of the rose) Kitchen Essays.

Persephone Books.

Where was I? Oh yes, Gertrude Stein’s advice to Hemingway: ‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she told him,’it’s that simple. No-one who is not very rich can do both.’

I opted for a picture, just the one, and it’s very small, but I love it. Husband, Teenage Daughter and I met up with a dear old friend, with excellent taste it must be said, and we all went along to the Crawford School of Art Graduation Exhibition. The clientele was almost like a separate side exhibition of the Cork populace. The place was jammers with blue-haired artistic types who had clearly constructed their own clothes from crisp packets, their proud relations, canny financial types with a keen eye for a bargain and a few random punters like ourselves doing our best not to accidentally drink an installation.

From the Crawford Graduation Exhibition, 2017

Belonging, firmly, in the ‘not very rich’ category, I spent the next evening darning the elbows of school jumpers and re-enforcing the toes of my beloved espadrilles.

Dinner, following this week’s splurges on fine books and fancy pictures, must be foraged from the garden. Spuds, peas, beans, courgettes and herbage a plenty; what more could you want?

Grow your own food.

Now, that’s what I call a moveable feast.

freshly podded peas.Did you ever see anything lovelier?

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Sequels and Spin-offs: 11 ways to re-live Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice.

The very first published piece of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, which I suspect may have been the first of any fan fiction, was a book called Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton. Having no small number of Pride and Prejudice spin-offs on my own shelves, I had a notion of collating a list. Holy Moly, I had no idea how many were out there! A girl could spend her entire life reading nothing else. Darcy and Elizabeth grow old, or don’t, have two sons, have five daughters, have affairs with Bingley and Charlotte respectively (yes, in that order), battle zombies, are transformed into Antipodean animals, and, most horrifying of all, agree to take part in a reality TV show.

My girl reading Pride and Prejudice.

Meanwhile, my lovely twelve-year-old daughter has been reading the real thing. She ran upstairs last night to tell me, through the bathroom door (why must big announcements always be made through the bathroom door), that she had finished it.

‘It was so exciting! At the end! It all happened so fast! After all the long stories! With Wickham and everything! And then Jane and Bingley! And then Elizabeth and Darcy! It was like wham, wham, wham, The End! But what will I read now?’

Like thousands before her…

Eldest daughter helped me design a solution to finding your ideal dose of Darcy. For rapid reviews of these books, click hereSequels and Spin-offs to Pride and Prejudice.

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The Longbourn Letters with Rose Servitova.

The Longbourn Letters by Rose Servitova.

Big news, big news! Rose Servitova is here (well, you know the way, sort of, virtually, here) and she is brilliant. But hang on, let me start at the beginning.

For me, Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice has been the cause of Delight and Despair as I have spent a lifetime searching for anything to match it. I’m thrilled to have discovered a real gem which I think shall sit quite happily alongside my battered and worn Austen collection.

Rose Servitova. Author of The Longbourn Letters.
Rose Servitova.

The Longbourn Letters, by Rose Servitova, is a collection of the correspondence between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins over a period of seven years including the events of Pride and Prejudice. The gentlemen exchange as much commentary on gardening affairs as they do on family exploits with particular attention paid to Mr. Bennet’s miraculous and prize-winning blackcurrants.

Mr. Bennet frequently resorts to a bolstering measure of port, or cognac, or fine wine (as available) before tackling correspondence with the indefatigable Mr Collins and his letters, while polite and jovial, seem to primarily serve as a method of keeping his cousin at arm’s length.

‘May I caution you, sir, not to trouble yourself with rushing to our sides.’

Nevertheless, Mr. Collins is a deal more bearable in writing than in person and Mr. Bennet grows to appreciate Collins’ candour and naïveté.

‘I must confess, I would not give up our correspondence for all the geese in the land, or for all the port either, for that matter, although the sacrifice be greater.’

The Longbourn Letters convinced me completely. It was a joy to become better acquainted with Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins and to witness the rather moving relationship which develops between them. I willingly admit to shedding a tear and fear I may have been overheard snorting with laughter in a most unladylike manner.

The Longbourn Letters by Rose Servitova.

Rose Servitova, it turns out, is a funny and charming woman, an Irish woman at that, and an excellent correspondent. I have greatly enjoyed a rapid-fire exchange of emails with her over the last couple of weeks and now, by the magic of the internet, here she is to chat with me about her book.

Rose, how and when did you first come to read Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice in particular? 

I first came across Jane Austen’s works at my grandmother’s house. She kept all the classics, happy, happy days.

If you were to describe yourself as one of the Bennet girls, which would you be?

Mary Bennet – would you believe? I see her as a spiritual and deep individual, who does not conform to what’s expected of her by society. In my version of her, she is nature-loving and likes lots of alone time. I see her as being as witty as Mr Bennet but as she does not use it in the same beguiling way that Lizzy does, it is not seen as ‘charm’ or as an attractive, effeminate wit but as something quite out of place in a society where she should not be smarter than the men in her company.

Yours is an epistolary novel. Are you, in real life, a writer of letters?

Image result for mr bennet and mr collins

I certainly did write hundreds of letters in my lifetime but only send emails now – rarely letters. I await a ‘beam-me-up Scotty’ machine. Then the fun will begin!

Jane Austen included lots of letters in her novels. Do you think people sometimes reveal more in a letter than they might in conversation?

When emotions are hard to deal with, it may be easier to express in word rather than in person. On the other hand, there’s the risk of misconstruing a message and I have often had to send a clarifying correspondence because I saw that unintentional mischief was afoot.

The book opens with the discovery of a box of letters long hidden behind the shelves of Longbourn’s library. Would you agree that many of us who grew up reading Austen are more than half convinced that Pride and Prejudice really happened?

You would be surprised if I told you how many people asked me about the letters I discovered, so convinced they were by the prologue. They knew I had written a piece of fiction but they were convinced, somehow, that these letters were real, including their discovery. It made me laugh. I do think that The Longbourn Letters is more ‘real’ and convincing in that sense than the original Pride & Prejudice because there’s no pandering to a plot or a romantic storyline, there is just an unfolding of a relationship, that will catch you unawares. It is only at the end that you really see how far they’ve come, though the humour and shenanigans keep the reader engaged throughout.

Did Jane Austen’s plot figure more as a constraint or as a support to your novel?

Excellent question!! It has been noticed by some reviewers, very cunningly, that the novel really takes off once the plot of Pride & Prejudice comes to an end in the middle of the second chapter of The Longbourn Letters….and they would be right. It was a great scaffolding to help me along at first and I never had any intention of deviating from Austen’s genius, but once I was freed from the storyline of Pride & Prejudice I could allow Mr Collins and Mr Bennet the freedom to get on with things themselves…and they did not disappoint.

Mr. Bennet is one of Austen’s wittiest characters while poor Mr. Collins is all but witless. Why did you think their relationship could develop beyond the demands of duty?

To me it was as obvious as Darcy and Elizabeth. Mr Collins and Mr Bennet were made for each other and I have no doubt that when writing, Austen was aware of how much their contrasting with each other showed the other one up.  While avoiding the company of Mr Collins, Mr Bennet confessed that he relished his letters. Due to inheritance, marriage to a neighbour and Lady Catherine’s nephew becoming Mr Bennet’s son-in-law, they were destined to see and hear more from each other over time and not less. I had to learn what those letters contained, how they maintained correspondence over the years and did they change any for being in each other’s lives.

I’ve long believed that there is a special bond between cousins, even those whose characters seem incompatible. It seems to me that your book touches on that bond. Would you agree?

Absolutely! Some of my closest friends are my cousins. There is a bond – a pulling together that happens as a result of being cousins that is very special, especially if you spent time together in your youth. It’s a Famous-Five type relationship.

You seem to have channelled the voices of Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Did that come easily? Did you find yourself writing regency style texts and emails to family and friends?

Haha! It amazed me how easy it was for me to get inside their heads. It says a lot about the author, in my opinion – an ability to have a dry sense of humour and be as ‘thick as a ditch’ at the same time.  The letters were a good way to go because once one was written, I knew immediately how the other would respond. I also found it so easy to write ‘regency’ as you refer to it. Perhaps my internal dialogue is reminiscent of the late 18th century.

I finished your book with damp cheeks and a wobbly chin. Were you sad to reach the end of their correspondence? Are you tempted to further explore Austen’s characters?

Thank you for that, I still cry and laugh at certain parts (and I know what each letter contains). No, there was no sadness. It felt complete. In fact, one person in the industry recommended I add an extra 30,000 words and publishers might be interested. I said ‘no’, it was perfect as it was and I don’t care about word counts and watering down plots to get extra pages. It was about my two men and their tale had been told and was just right. Life is like that. Things don’t always go on, they finish when they finish. I am tempted to explore more Austen characters but will they ever be as light and easy to write as The Longbourn Letters– I doubt it but I will give it a go.

I was chuffed to discover that Austen’s first love was Irish. Tell me a little about Tom leFroy.

It was certainly a romance-of-sorts that had the potential to develop into something but his relations, seeing that ‘danger’ was afoot, separated them. He was the eldest of eleven children, whom he was obliged to support and so he was expected to ‘marry well’ and climb to the top of his career in law. This he did do.

Limerick has good cause then to join in the celebration of Jane Austen’s bicentenary. Tell me about the events you have planned.

They cover screen, theatre, fashion, music, dance, architecture and talks/workshops from July to December 2017. To name but a few, at this early stage, I can confirm that director Whit Stillman will be joining us for a screening of Love and Friendship with Q&A afterwards. The amazing Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, Limerick woman and costume designer on Becoming Jane, Love and Friendship, Brideshead Revisited and many more, will be joining us. The Irish World Acadamy of Music & Dance collaborate with Sound Heritage Ireland to see music of the era come to life again in one of the Georgian manors in the region, the one-woman comedy Promise & Promiscuity is coming to theatres, a whole host of speakers and historical costumers are presenting at a number of incredibly popular afternoon tea events held at the wonderful Georgian hotel, No 1 Pery Square. There is more but please check this link for individual event details and for a full programme when finalised www.facebook.com/janeausten200limerick .

You can discover more about Rose and her book at these links:

Here’s a sweet little video clip summarising The Longbourn Letters.

I’m very grateful to Rose for taking the time to chat and for allowing me to delight once more in the delights of Longbourn.

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Unmissable: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick.

Mister Memory. Marcus Sedgwick. review.

The facts of the matter are these:
At a little after eight o’clock in the morning of the first Friday in June, Marcel Després landed in my postbox in the form of a book called Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick.

Mister Memory. Marcus Sedgwick. review.

I flicked, as I am wont to do, to the first page and read a paragraph.
And then another.
And didn’t stop, except to make coffee and point my family towards food, until I had read, and revelled in, the last paragraph. Click to read on.

Nurturing Activists of All Ages: Luis Sepulveda and Arundhati Roy.

Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

By complete coincidence, I recently reviewed two books written by authors with impressive histories of political and environmental activism.

Luis Sepúlveda‘s life story is one of breath-taking courage and adventure so it’s hardly any wonder that his book for children, The Story of a Snail Who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow inspires individual thinking and heroism.

I thought this was a fine story to read to young childrem. Read my review here.

Luis Sepulveda. The Importance of Being Slow.

Arundhati Roy‘s new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was heralded as the most anticipated book of the decade. As one who was bowled over by The God of Small Things, I dived into this with high hopes. Read my review here.Arundhati Roy. The God of Small Things. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

What are you reading at the moment? I’d love to know.

Also, anyone know who stole the summer?


Elderflower Profusion.

It’s a bank holiday here, it’s raining in a fairly gentle manner, the teenagers are (they say) swotting for their exams which begin on Wednesday, and the small girls are sitting behind me watching Horrible Histories on a loop (it’s very funny).

I have nicked somebody’s headphones, for the sake of insulation from Terry Deary’s distracting puns, and am listening to Coldplay. Did you watch the Manchester concert last night? I was fiercely impressed by the spirit of it. It was respectful and uplifting, I thought, and appropriate. Not to even mention that thing Chris Martin does to a piano stool…

Ireland peaks in June. There’s enough sun, enough rain and enough hope of a glorious summer still to come. It’s a feeling so good you (or at least, I) want to bottle it. Which perhaps explains the frantic rush to preserve the scent of elderflowers.

But first, sad news. We had a death in the family. Kombucha with pink elder flowers. Second fermentation.

Alas, poor Scoby died. Or turned mouldy anyway and I, with a massive sigh of relief, held up a DNR notice. So, this bottle which was only marginally enhanced by the addition of pink elderflowers, was officially the last bottle of Kombucha to be fermented in this house.



Now, on to the good stuff.

First, a quick note on Elderflowers (Sambuca nigra). I have a young plant in the garden of a pink variety called Black Lace which has a lovely cut leaf and pink flower. I have been advised, however, that another variety called Black Beauty has a darker pink flower and makes and even darker cordial so that’s one to look out for at the garden centre. I was willing to sacrifice only a half dozen or so heads from our little plant so most of these recipes were made with bog standard wild Elderflower foraged from the river bank where we walk the dog. The rule of thumb is to take only what you can reach from the ground and leave the remainder for the bees and birds. The scent of Elderflower is potent; you don’t need much. And, it’s nice to go back for elderberries to make Autumn Pudding.

Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is the book of the moment. It is a goldmine of recipes for anything you might forage, find or foster in your garden. If you want to sample some of the recipes, many have been included in Darina’s column in The Examiner (known locally as de paper) over the years. I’ve linked to those posts where I could find the relevant recipes.

I was pleased to discover that Elderflower Fizz (or Elderflower Champagne, same thing) counts as a fermented drink. Wahoo!

Drink up, it’s positively good for you.

It’s also dead easy to make although I have been warned that it is notoriously prone to spontaneous nocturnal explosion.

Elderflower fizz, or champagne.

The recipe says to wait two weeks but I suspect we will be popping a bottle before then. Can you see the fizz already ?! The recipe is here.Elderflower fizz.

The Fizz needs fairly rapid consumption so, for longer keeping, we made Elderflower Cordial. This was made with wild elderflowers and just one pink head added for a hint of colour.

Elderflower cordial.

With an abundance of elderflowers to hand we also made some Elderflower Medicinal Vinegar according to the recipe in Rebecca Sullivan’s Natural Home Book (reviewed, here). It’s really just apple cider vinegar with flowers in it. I have no idea what this might be good for, other the just admiring the prettiness of it. On that account I insisted on adding a few rose petals.Elderflower medicinal vinegar.

It does make me feel better, just to look at it.

Aaah, just came to Fix You. I loved that last night. Great choice.

So. Gooseberries.

I wasn’t really keeping an eye on them, it’s been wet and I wasn’t in the garden for a few days and then, wham, all of a sudden, the bushes were hanging to the ground with the weight of the berries. A proper bumper crop. I donned a protective long-sleeved denim shirt (don’t approach a gooseberry bush without one, says the voice of experience), brought a chair over, and a cup of coffee and picked and topped and tailed for ages and ages.

Picking gooseberries.

Those bushes sure don’t part easily with their fruit. I was impaled by several award-worthy thorns for my efforts.IMG_7436

Worth it though. Someone asked me recently how I know when the gooseberries are ready. According to the oracle that is Darina Allen, they are ready to cook with when you see the elderflowers blooming. I think they are ready when you can see the seeds though the skin or, in this case, when the bush can’t hold them up any longer. Or, they are probably ready when they are big enough to block out the sun.

Gooseberry big enough to block out the sun.

I only picked from the first to crop of our three bushes but had something in the region of 8 lbs of fruit and more to come. Eeek.

Darina Allen. Forgotten Skills of Cooking.

My first 4lb of gooseberries went to make Elderflower Gooseberry Compote. I love faffing about with a bit of muslin. Makes me feel like I’ve wandered into the kitchen at Longbourn. The recipe is here.

Gooseberry compote.

A word of caution here: I doubled the recipe but later realised that I need not have doubled the quantity of water. The result was a compote that was definitely too watery. I strained off some of the excess syrup and put it to good use. Here’s my very complex recipe:

Just add gin.

Elderflower and gooseberry gin cocktail.

SO good.

Onwards and jamwards. The recipe for Elderflower and Gooseberry Jam is here. I think it is my favourite jam ever but I tend to have exactly that thought every time I make jam. I actually don’t eat much jam. When I treat myself to toast, I like to savour the salty butter, but this jam is incredible in place of raspberry jam in this coconut pudding.

Elderflower and gooseberry jam.

With a boost of confidence (doubtless from the cocktail), I embarked on Elderflower Fritters. Something that Darina Allen does consistently in her books is tell you that you CAN do things and make things and, since the woman simply brooks no argument, you do.

These look wildly impressive. Well, I think they do. Elderflower Fritters.

Other than having to heat a pan of oil which always makes me nervous (I don’t have, or want, a deep fat fryer), they are easy peasy to make.

The recipe is here.

One flower head per person would be an appropriate serving.

Elderflower Fritters with Gooseberry Compote and whipped cream.

I’m not going to tell you how many I ate.

We’re not far from London or Manchester. As it happens, my in-laws flew into London on Friday night. What happens there could happen here. Geographical and cultural proximity makes it all the more horrifying. The layers of immunity are, one by one, being stripped away. It gets scarier. And then you think, to be scared is to let them win. To be honest, I’m trying not to think about it.

Whatever happens, life goes on. Gooseberries ripen. Elderflowers wilt. All we can do, I think, is keep our chins up and keep living.

If you want your spine tingled, try this:

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I’m delighted to join in the celebration of all things glorious in the garden Old House in the Shires.


Cooking the Books: Fish For Friday by Frank O’Connor.

Cooking the Books: this month it’s Revolutionary Cod with Cork man Frank O’Connor.

Frank O’Connor, born Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, is a writer who resides close to the hearts of Irish people simply because, for very many of us, his short story ‘First Confession’ was our first brush with great literature.

A boy of seven, searching for his bearings in the pitch dark of a confessional, locates the shelf where penitent adults might rest their elbows. He imagines the shelf is for kneeling on and clambers up, telling us he was always a competent climber, from which height he must hang upside down in order to address the bemused priest behind the grille.

As a child of ten or so, I pitched off my school chair in hysterical relief that I wasn’t alone in my fear of mortal sin, or mortal embarrassment, within the shady confines of the confession box. Click to read on, please.

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Frank O’Connor. Fish For Friday and A Revolutionary Cod.