A blog without words?

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Jonah Jones – from his centennial exhibition at Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Llanbedrog

The best exhibitions are the ones that make you want to work, send you out into the daylight filled with determination and – so the gallery hopes – with a new sketchbook and some rather expensive pencils, bought at the shop through which you are always obliged to pass on the way out. That’s one of my two measures of the success of a show – how much does it make me want to work?  The second measure is more larcenous than aesthetic – is there anything here I’d like to take down and walk out with under my coat. In my defence I’m bound to say I do not have a collection of very small paintings filched from the walls of galleries, because if if I was willing to deprive artists of their proper income I’d be an art dealer.

On the same day we visited the nature reserve at Newborough (blogged on Tuesday 5th March) we kicked off in the morning by visiting Oriel Môn which translates – minus any resonance – to “Anglesey Gallery”, and which doesn’t sound half so much fun nor a fraction as erudite. I’ve used a lot of Welsh this week because we’re in one of the remaining strongholds of the Welsh language and I applaud every effort to keep it alive and kicking. In a very small way I understand how the deprivation of a language can drain a culture of meaning.  It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I was brought up in an area with a strong local – really local – dialect. Away from home and school, where they were punished, we still used ‘thee, thou, and you’ in the distinct subtle meanings you can find in Shakespeare. When I went to work as a (very bad) welder at Jordan Engineering when I was seventeen I knew that when Brian – who was a brilliant welder – addressed me as ‘you’ – he was putting a distance as wide as the Bristol Channel between us. There was no other way of expressing that subtly insulting tone. The nuances of local dialects and languages are irreplaceable. A language helps you to think differently and so I find the only way of even beginning to understand what’s going on here is to engage with the Welsh language in my own embarrassed and fumbling way.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m too shy even to say ‘diolch’ when I leave the local shop.

Anyway, like my good friend Samuel Beckett (OK I made that bit up) I sometimes wonder whether the ease with which I can write is as much a curse as a blessing. Familiarity with the language comes with a big price.  I have absorbed the clichés, the lazy habits and the spent and lifeless rhythms so well that they can slip past me on to the page. And after an hour with Kyffin Williams’ drawings, prints and paintings I was wondering whether it would be possible to give up writing for a month or so and just draw. There was a large drawing of a garden by another artist at the end of the gallery and it seemed possible that instead of writing about the allotment I could draw it for a while. A daunting prospect for me, but the very condensed capacity of a drawing to express far more than hundreds of words is appealing. It’s as if wordiness can be boiled down in some kind of alchemical experiment resulting in a lyric poem and, returned again to the fire, can become a sonnet, then a haiku and finally a drawing. The very writing of which sentence makes a kind of argument aganst conceptual artists who – peering up their own arses – can see nothing and then write a long essay about it. The essential beauty of the drawing over the word is that it eschews the concept. Anyway, enough of that.

So filled with transcendental artistic desires we went off to the nature reserve and I was transported into a different frame, pushing disruptive thoughts to the back of my mind while we hunted for plants. Until Wednesday, that is, when we drove over to Plas Glyn-w-Weddw at Llanbedrog mainly to get out of the ceaseless wind and rain and stumbled on the centenary exhibition of work by Jonah Jones, an artist neither of us had ever heard of. There’s probably a reason and a couple of PhD’s in that fact. Welsh art hasn’t, in large measure, managed to fight its way past Shrewsbury or cross the Bristol Channel. You might cite different networks and funding bodies as reasons, but speaking from the English side of the channel I sense that there’s a bit of a dismissive attitude there. We watched a documentary about Kyffin Williams recently, and one of his faux friends implied that he sold too easily and produced too much uneven work. I’d answer that with two words –  “Damien Hirst” and rest my case. Yes, Welsh Art does seem to have been remote from some of the nonsense of the past decades and that may turn out to be its saving grace, but much of the best of Welsh painting and drawing has been bought because people love it and want to live with it, not as an inflation busting investment kept in the bank. Yesterday I asked my question of one of the attendants at the MAC in Macynlleth. She said that it was true that Welsh art hasn’t crossed the border much but she went on to say that every time she drives back into Wales she sense a different atmosphere, a different ambience. She seemed to think that Welsh artists had something very special going for them and it emerged from the culture, the language, the landscape even. I think it’s the lyricism that’s all but disappeared from mainstream British art. Somebody pass me the stepladder and I’ll get down off this high horse!

But Jonah Jones was a revelation. His illustrated and hand lettered poems seemed to be answering my Tuesday question about words and drawing. I thought they were beautiful in a very Blakean way, and the slowness of his technique of hand lettering seemed to be a homage to the poems themselves. Jones was taught letter cutting in Eric Gill’s workshop. The hand lettering almost adds to the meaning of the words in a symbiotic relationship that does justice to both, suggesting that the answer to my question should be “not one or another but both” I should mention that when I was twelve or thirteen I found a copy of Edward Johnston’s  “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” in the library and was so captivated by it I taught myself to write in italics and uncials from it.

Two days. two artists, and less than £1500 would have bought three limited edition prints that would give us endless inspiration and pleasure. If you’re anywhere near you really must see this exhibition. But then, at that price could they possibly be any good? – the British critics ask.  Aaargh. We’re too skint to find out!

But Hazlitt was right, and I’m missing the allotment too. The photos both come from the catalogue to the exhibition.

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Jonah Jones again. Beautiful!

“One of the most scenic railway lines in the whole of Britain”

IMG_5046The sharp eyed will notice that at this point in the journey we were the only passengers on the train apart from two conductors, the driver and someone who seemed to be a peripatetic cleaner.

We had slept badly – sharing a three quarter bed requires some organisational ability – and with the threat of an early start hanging over us, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns crowded for attention. How long would it take to drive to Pwllheli? (27 mins). Would we find a parking space? (Yes) where was the railway station? ( 2 mins away at the end of the street). And so the allowances of extra time soon aggregated and we arrived at he station with just over half a hour to spare.

There must be circumstances when a half-hour wait for a train might involve lolling in the sunshine on a seat commemorating the deceased owner of a local clothes peg factory. Not so for us.  We were in the midst of a storm of the type that blows so hard and so wet that your expensive mountain raincoat pockets fill with freezing water via the gaps in the zips. Opposite the station was a Costa with a couple of people who looked as if their wives had kicked them out and were trying to book a hotel on their laptops. We opted for the station cafe which had a more cheerful look about it – Christmas lights pressed into service for the first day of Lent and a huge range of all-day breakfasts with amusing names served up by a girl who looked as if she actually enjoyed being there. Our train pulled in and the driver rushed in, ordered and ate a prodigious breakfast in a couple of minutes and we followed him, his ulcer and his dicky heart back on to the empty train.

The fare was billed as £18 each for an ‘anytime return’ – I think there must be some passengers who arrive at Machynlleth and don’t feel the need to explore beyond the car park and the industrial estate, and get straight back on the next train home.  Anyway, the conductor consulted her nifty handheld replacement for the entire booking office and said she could “do it for £13” – which was a bit of a first – possibly a dreadful weather discount?

The tourist guide, however, is entirely accurate.  It really must be “one of the most scenic railway lines in the whole of Britain”.  Sensibly, in a mountainous region, the line doesn’t  just hug the coast, there were times when it was the coast. The seas, big and grey, were being whipped up by wind gusts of up to 65mph and breaking over the great boulders that protected the coastline. Waves ten feet high and more, were capped with white foam. Wherever we moved away from the coast the intervening land was sodden, often flooded and populated by miserable looking sheep huddled against any windbreaks they could find – and, my goodness, some of the stone walls were approaching five feet thick, possibly they doubled as footpaths  during spring tides and floods.

Two and a half hours is a long time for a journey that would take about an hour by road, but I was fully occupied with the scenery, and the prounciation of the tiny station names as we stopped at a series of halts, clumps of grass and an abandoned MOD site.  It was as if we’d got into a groundhog day somewhere near Adlestrop. How can a place name have so many letters but lack a single vowel? I know the answer to that because I once ran some writers workshops for the Welsh Academy in the Welsh Valleys, and I had to learn how to pronounce place names so I could get about on the local buses. But although Welsh is a phonetic language, the diphtongs are incredibly tricky and the stress on the last but one syllable often catches me out. Nonetheless it is the ‘queen of languages’ as my Greek tutor (a Welshman) used to say.

If there’s a downside to the coastline it’s the proliferation of caravan sites at the edge of the sea – probably empty for nine months of the year, they look like abandoned intensive farms: hafodydd (summer dwellings) for thousands of people escaping their unique versions of ‘everyday life’. As we crossed the long viaduct at Barmouth the train felt as if it was flying slowly and noisily over the water.  I’ve looked at photographs of that structure so many times, and it was an ambition fulfilled actually to cross it – so, soon enough, having taken a detour up a long valley, the train pulled into Machynlleth station where it would become part of another train to Birmingham.

I had carefully planned the afternoon and I knew that the restaurant I’d booked, and the gallery (MOMA) we wanted to see were both within easy walking distance.  But you will know that when you plan days out, you don’t normally factor-in storm force winds and 18mm of rain. This turned an easy walk, punctuated by pauses to look at artisanal shoemakers and interesting bookshops to something akin to wading up the Amazon. Cars detoured into deep puddles in order to give us a proper soaking and my right arm had to be extended several times in a single finger greeting accompanied by obscene curses heard by no-one at all.

Did I just write ‘restaurant’?  From 25 yards I read the word ‘bistro’ and as we burst through the door propelled by the storm, the word became café. Good luck to them: we were the only customers and they served us decent reviving food and a couple of glasses of wine as we watched hapless townspeople being washed down the street crying for help . The hairdresser in the shop opposite was equally under-employed and soon abandoned his attempt to smoke a cigarette outside as water flooded in torrents down from the blocked gutters. The whole world was a monochrome of grey slate and reflected white, like the parody of a Kyffin Williams painting. My new Tilley hat, the “Outback” model in waxed cotton had performed admirably with strong pegs driven into my ears but its broad brim had collected about half a pint of rainwater that ran down the waiter’s hands and on to her trainers as she took it from me. However she  was kind enough to say that since we’d arrived she’d turn on the heating.

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John Dickson Innes

An hour later we struggled around to MOMA – the gallery of modern Welsh art – in search of anything by John Dickson Innes and found the door locked against the wind.  This led to a very friendly personal greeting as we were admitted by the (volunteer?) receptionist who confessed that she’d never heard of JD Innes and didn’t know whether they’d got any. After a phone call she admitted that they did have a couple of his paintings but they were in storage which could mean any one of a number of facilities across the town while they wait for a purpose-built store to be constructed.  Innes was a terrific and underrated painter whose death – aged only 27 – ended a career that would surely have eclipsed his friend Augustus John.

So back to the train for the return journey, but this time it became the ‘school bus’ for several dozen young people.  As per Adlestrop, people came and went in the rain but this time the pre-recorded station announcements somehow got out of synch and each station was hailed exactly one stop early.  No-one seemed to be fooled by this, and eventually the conductor turned the machine off and did the announcements himself – which gave me the chance to compare his pronunciation of the place names with the satnav versions in the morning. ‘Little things please little minds’ – as the teenage girls on the train might well have said when they were rehearsing a put-down for use in later life. A small drama unfolded as various girls attended to one of their number who had locked herself in the toilet in tears. A drunk man got properly told off by someone for attempting to take photographs of the children on his phone. Madame fell asleep holding my hand under the table out of deference to the schoolchildren who can’t cope with displays of affection by old people.

Then, as we passed the old Butlins site, we spotted the sun shining weakly in the sky, like a torch reflected in a steel bowl, and as we pulled into the station it stopped raining at last. I do love the Welsh and their country – not so keen on the weather, though.

Feijoada -the perils of translating food

IMG_4476Isn’t that the prettiest railway station you ever saw? I took it on a trip to Lisbon in 2009, and it popped into my mind yesterday when madame was going through an old sketchbook in which she’d handwritten the recipe for feijoada from our friend Denis some time in the mid-1970’s. Here’s the first trick of the memory, because I’d always assumed it was his own take on the Brazilian Sunday lunch, but written alongside the recipe in pencil was the name Ursula Bourne, and the name of the dish was not feijoada at all but “feijao frade com chourico”.

Denis was young, Portuguese and a wonderful singer who could light up a party just by walking through the door.  He was an olympian drinker and smoker whose lifestyle finally killed him when he was absurdly young, and he could sing Fado so powerfully that ‘though you couldn’t understand a word, you knew it was dragged wailing out of a very dark place. We had some memorable times and parties – once, I recall, involving a huge quantity of alcohol liberated from the Venuzualan embassy by the son of the ambassador’s chauffeur.  We were all working together at an old-school mental hospital that was in the throes of  moving out of the eighteenth century Bedlam it had become. I still dream about some of the stuff I saw there.

But it was Denis that first cooked that meal for us and (I was quite certain) called it feijoada. I remember the discussion we had at the time about the impossibility of cooking it properly because so many of the ingredients were unavailable in this country and so he had ‘translated’ it into something close enough, using – as I discovered yesterday – Ursula Bourne’s recipe. I recalled then that I’d bought two of her books secondhand last year for next to nothing and so I grabbed them out of the bookshelf and double checked.

So the story I’d made my own was that you needed all sorts of meat, goose, bacon and sausage which you cooked with beans and a kind of chopped greens only grown in Portugal. The Denis/Ursula Bourne version was made using garlic sausage and celery with a bit of cream and lemon juice added at the last minute, and for years we enjoyed cooking and eating it.  It was cheap and cheerful but very filling for a growing family with no money.

IMG_4751Then, as funds permitted and the food culture changed, I was once able to try it in a real Brazilian restaurant in Bristol where my son was working as a chef. It was OK but absurdly expensive and sanitized from the description Denis had planted in my mind. Over the years I’d been cooking and learning about other cuisines and my collection of cookery books was growing and so I’d made a resolution to try to eat as many of these disppearing recipes as I could whenever I came across them; which was why when we arrived for a week in Lisbon we set about hunting a couple of them down. There were two in particular – one I called ‘stone soup’ which Denis had talked about but never cooked.  Its real name is Acorda Alentejana and it couldn’t be simpler – or harder to find. We trailed around the cafes and restaurants until eventually we found a cheerful waiter who spoke good English and knew what I was after.  Except he point blank refused to sell it to me – “it’s horrible and you won’t like it” he said. But I pressed on and promised that however disgusting it was I wouldn’t blame him or complain and that I’d pay in advance if that was what was needed. He went and talked to the chef and eventually he brought it to the table shaking his head and, not for the last time that week, he hung around waiting to see what I’d make of it.

Well, it was pretty basic. A couple of crushed cloves of garlic and a slice of bread covered with boiling water with a raw egg broken into it and a sprinkling of parsely on top. I finished it off and it was, as he’d said, pretty disgusting, but I thanked him, shook his hand and ticked it off my to-do list. The cafe did not, however, do feijoada and he didn’t know anywhere that did.

Later we wandered around what was then a market but has now turned into a foodie venue.  We found the required cabbage, called ‘couve’ heaped up in the market next to what looked like a victorian chaff cutter which they used to cut it into fine shreds.  But nowhere we visited had feijoada on the menu and no-one knew where we could buy it.  We were followed by many curious glances wherever we asked, until eventually ( as if he were confessing to a mortal sin) someone told us about a cafe down near the market that occasionally offered it. They were open.  It was on the menu. I almost had to beg for it but eventually they relented and we sat outside in the sunshine drinking beers and waiting for the final reveal. There was everything short of a miltary fanfare as a really huge cazuela was brought out, probably enough for four hungry peasants, followed by the entire waiting staff who came and surrounded me curiously as if I’d just landed by helicopter in the main square.

I cannot adequately describe the contents which included a big chunk of pig’s skin, a great number of bones from various animals, and – I swear – a tooth! But true to my resolution I ate about half of it and the crowd drifted away.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and – like the curate’s egg – was good in parts. Memories of Denis were swirling around me as I ate, and later in the day we visted the Fado museum to see if we could find a photo, but we didn’t.

But in answer to my own question about translating food there are two things to add. Isn’t it interesting that the more obsessive about “authenticity” we become, the more homogenous the food culture seems to be. Adding new ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean accessing another culture. What generations of poor people ate (still eat) out of necessity doesn’t translate at all when you’re wealthier beyond their wildest dreams.

Megilp and the naming of parts

2017-09-04 12.12.44Megilp is not the hero of a western, but one of those words that get lodged in your mind and can’t be shifted. It first entered my head from the pages of a Windsor and Newton catalogue C1964 and it’s lived a kind of shadowy existence there ever since, emerging from time to time especially in art galleries. It sometimes comes in its original and incorrect form ‘meglip’ which was how I misread and remembered it first; so now when it emerges I have to go through this routine of remembering and then correcting the misremembered word. It is megilp and it is a painting medium, and I have just asked this computer to remember it too.

Megilp. If you Google it you’ll discover that it is a mixture of some kind of mastic, a natural resin, and linseed oil – more usually I think boiled linseed oil. Boiling the oil makes it set, or dry quicker and the added mastic gives the medium an unctuous and shiny quality which was much admired by painters notwithstanding its dodgy reputation for turning yellow and aging badly.

You see, I can talk about it now and in a school for artistic bluffers I’d be the Principal but then, in the pages of a very small (the size of a mobile phone) catalogue, it was suffused with a kind of mystery. What was megilp? What indeed were many other things in the catalogue. I dreamed of burnt sienna – I could almost feel the heat of an imagined Italian sun. The names of the colours alone were the passport into an imaginary world of incredible richness. The oils and pigments were for me a pharmacopeia of forbidden and illicit sensations. In my imagination I would load one of the hideously expensive boxes with even more hideously expensive colours and set out with my carefully chosen palette and my easel and I would ……Here the fantasy ran into the sand because I had never learned the skills to make a painting. Colour charts, though, were like maps to me. Each colour was the trigger to a sensation, a flavour if you like that unlocked feelings through its power of association. Cerulean blue held the power of the summer sky, while the ochres were landscapes reduced to simples. Their proper names became metaphors for the feelings they evoked.

And the words would pop out from my jackdaw memory whenever I smelt linseed or turpentine. If I saw a painting, particularly, let’s say something from the Newlyn School, a Stanhope Forbes for instance, a Matthew Smith or a Sargeant I would look at the sumptuous fat colour and the word megilp would insinuate itself into my mind. It wouldn’t be a French painting of course – I don’t know why, but megilp seems such an English word. It belongs with cowslip and cats ear.

Lists, classifications and categories become a kind of obsession. I could write my personal history by listing catalogues I’ve fallen in love with. Actually the series would have to begin with my own children’s’ encyclopaedia which was my first gateway into the seductive joys of words, it it was – in its way – a catalogue because each word had its own illustration and so from the earliest age I learned to associate words with pictures. The original ‘house’ was a lovely brick building in some leafy part of, let’s imagine, Surrey. Necessarily it became an iconographic building against which all other houses would need to be judged.

After that it was an Ellison’s catalogue and I lusted after itching powder and a Seebackroscope. I could furnish the complete works of Jung with dreams based on that catalogue. Secret powers, magic tricks and disappearing ink were all available and (because I never bought any of them), they never ever let me down. It was sufficient to know that such things existed.

Then there was the John Hall tool catalogue where I first encountered the bolster and the slater’s ripper. I adored and even bought a couple of box handled chisels which I still treasure fifty years later. They were naturally ‘firmer’ chisels and ‘though I had no idea quite what distinguished them from any other type, it please me to know that there was such a difference. Other tools were beyond avarice. A series of illustrated cabinet maker’s planes of such beauty I could fall asleep while fondling them in my imagination.

Then came Winsor and Newton and later, when I was in my twenties, The Whole Earth Catalogue which was the granddaddy of them all, and the loss of my copy grieves me still. Could you imagine what it would be like to own a knife forged from old Chevrolet springs?

Later again it was cookery books. Who could resist the thought of a cardamom or lardon? What of a mandoline that silently took the ends off your fingers. And pottery too. I fell in love with Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” because I was overwhelmed by the thought of Varcoe’s Ball Clay. Was there a Mister Varcoe ? and did he operate a small claypit surrounded by harts tongue fern and tussocky grass? Then came plants because words like toothwort and purging buckthorn were more beautiful to me than spring days because I could evoke them at will. I dragged these catalogues around with me like a comfort blanket and they stocked my vocabulary with all those delightful words each of which conjures up a picture.

There used to be a wonderful firm of ironmongers in Bath called Hine and Collinson. They were like the typesetters to my imagination. They could reliably furnish the most obscure object you’d ever found a word for. A man in a brown coat would go off in search of a ‘double duplex lamp glass’ and lo he would reappear from the dusty warehouse some time later with the very word objectified in a brown paper parcel. It was there I saw my first Tilley Lamp, an event which was for me like meeting Helen of Troy (which reminds me of a joke told to me by Mike Harris: Question …‘what is a millihelen?’ Answer …. ‘the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.’)

When at school we learned the poem ‘The naming of parts’ the irony escaped me completely and I was transported by the names of the parts of a gun. Words do that to me. Each one is like a precious stone with its own picture and its own special feeling which can be threaded one after another like stones in a necklace.

“Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica.
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

Please take a seat, a waitress will come to your table

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Another bit of writing from maybe 10 years ago.  I’m going to put it in a new category which I’ll call ‘longer writing’, and I’ll add some of the other stuff that fits more comfortably there. It’s fun and I think it still stands up. The obsession with crab sandwiches is still alive and well!

Six months ago, in April, we were in a beach café in Cornwall. It was the notice that caught my eye first. It was to the left of a whole line of fruit sundae goblets on the top shelf; written by hand on a piece of pale brown cardboard that was just an inch too deep for the space it occupied, and so it was folded over at the top and jammed fat-bellied into place. In particular the hand in which the sign was written told its own story as all the letters were inscribed in a slightly florid hand that drew inspiration from a hundred typefaces. The W in waitress resembled Neptune’s fork, which was fortuitous since the café, being perched at the edge of the sea, specialised in seafood. You could only imagine the sign resulting from a particularly trying day when steam clouded the windows and the tourists persisted in queuing at the sweets display. The owner, who was eating with friends near us had, or at least his haircut seemed to have, pretentions, notwithstanding which, I couldn’t think it was he who wrote the notice which was in too feminine hand. I scanned the waiting staff who were waiting indeed since it was a cold but bright day with a cold northerly wind and occasional flurries of hail battering down between periods of sunshine. They were students, any of whom would have knocked out a typographically perfect notice on their computers in less time than it takes to throw two teabags into a stainless steel pot.

Something about the notice seemed to be pushing beyond the pale‑blue painted wooden shingles and the gift shop next door, perched as they were on the edge of a cliff with nowhere else but the sea to expand. Something about the almost innocently applied curlicues and serifs of the felt‑tip writing that subliminally referred to a higher authority, One to whom passes would be shewn, and from whose carriages one might alight rather than simply get off. Something about the plurality of waitresses waiting to attend which elevated the café beyond the ordinary.

And yet it was the ordinary.

Maybe, I thought, the notice was supremely ironic. Maybe it was one of the waiting staff’s idea of a joke – but again a joke at whom? But the staff seemed too young and inexperienced to have developed the necessary detachment for such a quiet joke, and too worldly to be capable of feigning its innocence.

The proprietor’s mother came to mind, and then went again. His partner, perhaps? (assuming he had one) but then I was into the territory of the seaside postcard, of burst pretentions, red noses, weedy men and enormous women. Even storytellers have their limits. Any further investigation would have been pointless because the truth – were it ever possible to know it – would have been simple, indivisible and I suspect rather moving. A moment of innocent aspiration through which a cardboard sign came to embody something a bit weightier than the simple instruction “Don’t queue!” When someone gave a notice something extra and launched it into the world full of hope. Hope for a bigger, better world where hard work might be rewarded and beach huts might mature into restaurants: but eventually, just like those of us who also come to find something beautiful, lost at the sea’s edge, it was washed up on the top shelf, next to the fruit sundae goblets and other lost dreams. Worn down by that other tide that ebbs and flows up and down the motorway.

And weren’t we just a part of that tide? In October of the same year we were back again on an uncannily similar day. Squally north-westerly showers were driving across the coastal path. We had parked in the centre of Lizard village and walked across the fields to Kynance Cove along one of those raised paths you often see in that part of the country where the footpath is actually the top of the wall. There’s always a mild sense of illicit pleasure in following them. Kynance was, as usual crowded with visitors. Apart from one or two teenagers heedlessly surfing in the cold sea, the majority of us were crowding the beach in stout shoes and Gore-Tex jackets. The English middle-classes at leisure, replete with  Labradors and wellingtons and loud voices and the certainty that everyone else on the beach will be fascinated to listen in on our conversations. Forty years previously we had stalked the same beach as students, and scraped our last coppers together to buy the best cucumber sandwiches we’d ever tasted. We had slept on the clifftop and camped at a local farm and I’d quietly hated all the people who seemed never to have to worry about money, and who called their children Henry, and who only needed to think of something in order to do it.

Walking then, as now, back to Lizard Point along the cliff nothing had changed. In the intervening years the chough had disappeared and miraculously reappeared a couple of summers previously. We had seen both the last of the original population and the first of the pioneers, newly arrived we were told, from France.

Then, our skin was brown, and our hair was bleached by the same sun that still appeared from time to time between the showers. Unaware of our beauty we resented the very people who would have given their right arms to have a single day of our freedom. It’s a malign culture that can so arrange our consciousness that we rarely understand what bliss is until it slips through our fingers.

Then, we had feasted one day on a plate of ludicrously expensive crab sandwiches and enjoyed every last crumb as if it were the foretaste of a kingdom of plenty in which we would always be the outsiders. So to tell the truth, I suppose half the reason for going back forty years later was to enjoy the sensation of ordering the same round of sandwiches – ‘no – lets have one each’- without caring what it cost. This was something of a challenge because, ‘though we now have a lot more money than we did, the cost of a crab sandwich was on the far side of my pain threshold.

So our revisit in the autumn had more than a touch of the pilgrimage about it. In the meantime I had tried to write about the notice which had unaccountably pressed itself on my attention. Why on earth should a piece of card become the central thought in a piece of writing – except why on earth should it not? It had got under my skin, as had the owner’s haircut, and exposed a vein of mean spiritedness in me that I disliked intensely. The writing – I didn’t know what to call it – had ground to a halt at the point where the real significance of the epiphany had run out, and all I could all upon to complete it seemed hopeless, shoddy, lazy and brutal.

Then we went back and a saw the sign again and I had the sudden urge to photograph it, to preserve it. With a bit of prompting I asked the waitress if she would mind. Was she the waitress though? There was something about her that radiated a bit more authority, as if she was moving in her space. She fitted her skin, which was a surprise because just by virtue of that observable fact my thesis – that the café was the site of an imploded dream – crashed in flames. She didn’t mind, ‘though she asked with a smile if I was photographing it because we had waited for so long. The café was crowded with walkers sheltering from the icy showers. I couldn’t tell her the reason, but she was happy enough for me to take it; she even offered to pose in front of it. ‘No need’ – I thought. We ate our sandwiches which were lovely. Brown bread and butter, crab meat with plenty of the brown meat heaped on. Nothing added and nothing needed. One pot of tea for two. I caught her giving me strange glances from time to time. Why on earth would anyone want to photograph a notice? I kicked myself for not taking up her offer to pose, and yet how would that have helped. She was probably the owner, or the co-owner, or the owner’s partner. They had built up a perfectly lovely café which was the expression of the best they could do there with that particular site and with their particular talents. It was, like every other human enterprise, good – very good in parts. The notice was factual – ‘Please take a seat, a waitress will come to your table.’ Well that’s what happened wasn’t it. Apart from the incredible castles-in-the-air- building capacity of my writer’s imagination.

Then I unexpectedly caught sight of myself for a moment in a large mirror. That’s never a very comfortable moment in my experience, with no time to compose the face and arrange the presentation. Just another middle aged, middle class bloke in an expensive waterproof jacket. Who, I thought, was feeling sorry for whom? Isn’t there always something melancholy about the seaside? That’s why we go there – to remind ourselves of our finitude. To listen to the melancholy soft withdrawing roar of our own aspirations and, if we are very lucky to eat a crab sandwich and laugh out loud at our pretentions.

Pasta the way it should be

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Another bit of ancient history – 9th September 2008

“Pasta the way it should be”, a recent feature in the Guardian was a superb example of the stuffed and drizzled whelk’s testicle school of writing. From the first sentence – “I first tasted Franca Barberi’s cooking more than a decade ago when I was visiting the medieval town of Lucca in Tuscany”; to the last “What does she think of English cuisine? She shakes her head firmly. ‘I only like Italian.” – we get the picture. Good food is foreign and very, very difficult. The ingredients are rare and expensive. Only experts should even try. You need to be well travelled, well educated. In fact it’s a private party and we, the food writers, are the bouncers whose job is both to lure you in and to keep you out. And so the desperate diner, like a supplicant for the guest list, is prepared to endure almost any level of humiliation just to be able to say that they let them in.

The difference between a food tourist and a cook is covered in a question that Henry Hammond, once head of the ceramics course at Farnham Art School, apparently got into trouble for asking a female interviewee. He asked her if she was strong enough to lift a 25Kg bag of clay. It would, of course, have been an outrageously sexist remark had he neglected to ask the same question of the male candidates and I don’t know whether he did or not. But we know that the food tourist is never going to have to pick up the 25Kg bag. And notice that I’m talking here about cooks and not chefs. Chefs are too often like dancing dogs and premiership footballers; their principal audience, that’s to say the consumer, has not the slightest intention of practising any skills whatever. Just to have been there, to have bathed in the ambience is all that’s needed.

So where’s the Henry Hammond question that never gets asked in the Pasta the way it should be article? It’s this. Have you got a big enough kitchen table? Because if you haven’t got a big enough kitchen table – and most of us only have work-tops fit for opening tins – you’re stuffed before you start. A pound of pasta dough rolled thin takes up a lot of space. The rest, assuming that you’re even remotely serious about making some pasta, is pretty irrelevant. The feature is about the writer and not the subject. And so we lean that Julie Bindel has been to Tuscany and knows enough about Italian culture to slag off those punters who might be taken in by “almost a parody of the Tuscan Trattoria.” She thoughtfully provides a translation of “Molto stanco”. Very tired. This is of course to establish her credentials as a cognoscente, to let us know that she knows. Our subject and mentor “Barbieri” is an artiste of the pasta. We know this because she speaks Italian and doesn’t have a Christian name. ‘Oh My God’ we cry as we inhale the perfume of fresh sage, the wild garlic, the roast meats, tomato and of course basil. Our digestive juices are storming at this point but we’ve as much chance of actually eating this stuff as I have of making love to Circe because we, poor sad souls that we are, are reading a newspaper not eating a meal. In fact, if we rely on the feature to tell us how to cook the meal then we are in real trouble.

Because catch number two is this. None of the ingredients are easy to obtain. In fact it would be quicker to seek enlightenment in a Carmelite monastery than to buy the particular ingredients we need. The eggs, we are told in hushed and breathless tones, have unbelievably yellow yolks and so they have to be imported from Italy.

OK so here’s a quick excursus on eggs. Organic eggs aren’t all they are cracked up to be if they are mass produced. Almost all the free-range organic units I’ve ever seen are surrounded by bare earth. Chickens very soon scratch up all the grass in the paddock, and grass is important because hens like it a lot and it makes the egg yolks very yellow. So if you want unbelievably yellow yolks you don’t import eggs from Italy because then they will either be stale, or they will carry a carbon footprint the size of an industrial estate. What you need to do is find a small local producer of organic eggs and buy them fresh. There is no mystery about this, and food writers who pretend there is some kind of magic about stale imported eggs because they come from the south slope of a sun drenched olive grove in glorious Tuscany have got their hand in your wallet.

Here then is the recipe. 100g of “00” flour and two eggs. The Italian flour is probably worth the effort of obtaining, ‘though if I was really stuck I’d give any high protein bread flour a try. What you need when you’re rolling out pasta is a very strong paste. That means lots of gluten. Mix it, rest it, roll it, stuff it and cook it. Now you try.

The giveaway line in the article is this ‘“we had just been to a nearby restaurant for a mediocre lunch,” says Caldesi [the owner of the cookery school where this demonstration is taking place] “when we noticed La Buca. Two hours later we were eating again but this time it was the real thing.”’

What exactly is the real thing? Could that line be translated to say ‘we had a meal in one place that we didn’t enjoy very much, and then we found another place where the food tasted better.’ Authenticity is the delusion that keeps a thousand foodies tumescent. I had a Portuguese friend called Denis. His family owned an olive grove and he told me once that the family especially treasured the oil that ran spontaneously from the olives when they were picked and ripened in barrels but before they were pressed. It was, he said, grass green and tasted heavenly. It’s a lovely story, and I wish I could have tasted it too, but spending £100 or even £1000 on a bottle isn’t going to replicate Denis’s experience. Some things can’t be bought and sold. We can treasure those personal experiences of food that make us well up with joy but we can’t buy other peoples’ experiences. There’s a name for that kind of thing, and it suggests that the food writers and restaurateurs who trade in spurious authenticity are respectively panderers and brothel keepers to the over inflamed greed of their customers. And if that sounds like moralizing, well and good!

Regional cuisines work well because they use fresh local ingredients. If you take those selfsame ingredients and bottle/freeze or envelop them in nitrogen gas so you can drive them halfway across the world then they are no longer local or fresh. What they have become is rare and expensive. They don’t taste very good but your fellow diners can only look up to you in awestruck admiration because you’re getting it tonight ….. dusted with aged parmgiano; drizzled with an exquisite dressing of oil from a single variety Tibetan mountaintop olive, squeezed between a beautiful woman’s thighs and stirred into a 65 year old drop of balsamic vinegar.

Regional cuisines work well because their cooking and eating practises are embedded within a whole culture. The truth is, it’s not pasta that isn’t “the way it should be” it’s life. This is invalid food for a spiritually and culturally aetiolated people.

The subeditor has added the line to the title – “In the hands of an expert, pasta can be sublime” Sublime is the big idea. It trespasses into the non-material realm. There’s a proverb that says Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17).

So get a big table, cook on it, invite your friends and eat around it; even make love on it if you can get away with it, because it will have to have strong legs anyway if you’re going to knead pasta or bread dough. And remember, you cook with your heart not with your ingredients.

Buying fish in Newlyn

Bit of a rave from the grave, this one – but I thought the amateur cooks like me  might enjoy it.

Buying Fish in Newlyn (1st November 2008)

The first time we tasted scallops was at Corsham when we were at Art School. There was a party and Chubby came back from Kirkcudbright with a salmon and some scallops. As always the cooking was accompanied by fierce debates as to the correct way to deal with them. I imagine, ‘though I can’t remember for sure, that Tim was at the heart of the arguments. He always was. Cooking and eating were, for him, explorations of the extreme. The question was always – “how raw could you eat beef fillet?” We were different. We were working class and we liked our food cooked.

Looking back (and of course that’s the only way to get a nice joined-up narrative with no loose ends); looking back the lyrical and epiphanic experiences always had an additional element. There was more than food going on. My mother’s spices were kept in a circular white painted tin divided into segments into which each ingredient would go. At the very centre was a small circular compartment in which dried ginger root was kept. I can remember clearly that you could never get your fingers into the compartment to lift out the mysterious looking root, so it had to involve jiggling with a knife or some other tool. The tin came out primarily at Christmas when the puddings were made. My sister and I were allowed to stand on a chair and stir the mixture. In reality the mixture was so stiff we could only move it at all with a little help from our mother. The tin, though, was a metaphor. Just like fish and chips on the back doorstep. It was about something bigger – it might be a wonderful sunny day with no quarrels – something simple like that.

There were other experiences. Barney once said he could understand how people could live in little houses like mine. I don’t think he was being patronising, not deliberately. He just hadn’t ever though that a family could live an entire life in and end-of-terrace 1930’s house. My mother always said it was semi-detached but I thought that was pushing it. It wasn’t joined on to a row of houses on one side.

It was Barney’s mother that would start cooking supper (new idea) at around six. Out would come the sherry and cooking would take place. We only ate there a couple of times. On one occasion he said “don’t break the glasses they’re Jacobean” They felt wonderful in my hand. There was a Hiroshige print in the toilet (lavatory); a Tang dynasty horse upstairs and paintings by Paul Feiler just like the one in the Museum. You can get seriously seduced by that kind of stuff.

So, forty years later we went to Newlyn last week to buy fish. Over the years, since that time in Corsham I’ve bought and cooked scallops all over the place, always, though, so far as I can remember, frozen ones. Actually I know that’s the case – for reasons I‘m about to explain.

An amateur chef, like me, has to find everything out the hard way. In fact it was Barney who gave us our first cookbook. He must have seen the way I was looking at his mother. She was very sweet but probably thought I was a bit exotic, being properly working class as I thought then. Cookbooks in the sixties were not like cookbooks now. For a start there were virtually no useable illustrations. There were plenty of charming illustrations, line drawings most of which involved Chianti bottles. Nothing, ‘though, to tell you how to skin a rabbit or draw a chicken. Many years later when we started to keep chickens the local butcher showed me how to do it. I probably wasn’t paying enough attention because the first time I actually did it myself I steeled myself to kill the bird – so far so good I thought – as it expired without too much fuss. However when I shoved my hand up its rear end to extract the guts I must have pressed on the lungs and so the cock, which had previously seemed irrevocably dead suddenly crowed. My blood slowed down, went backwards for a bit and then froze. In the end I learned but it was a slow process. One thing I did learn was that the bigger the animal the greater the challenge. A friend once asked if he could borrow our kitchen to butcher a deer he’d caught. Don’t ask!

The recipe says ‘take a dozen small onions and peel them’. That’s an Elizabeth David. In Stoke on Trent market I wandered around for an hour buying two small onions here and comparing them with two there. I’m anally retentive when it comes to recipes. So a couple of dozen scallops seem straightforward enough. Actually it’s more complicated than that because there is significance to numbers. How many is too many and how few are too few?? Five sounds a bit cheapskate, as if you’re just trying them out. What if a dozen turned out to be beautiful but just too few? We’re talking about a forty mile round-trip here. But two dozen puts you in a good light; a man who knows his scallops. You might think this is all a bit silly but I’m very intimidated by experts. Maybe I should get counselling some time.

And why Newlyn? Well, that’s where the fish come in: are landed. Romantic Newlyn, Cornish Newlyn; home to the Newlyn School whose luminaries – Stanhope Forbes, for example, loved the romance of the fishing life. Take almost any municipal art gallery on a wet Saturday afternoon and look in the gloomiest corner and you’ll probably find a Newlyn painting. Largely ignored, beyond the indifferent gaze of the children out for a funless afternoon of access with their estranged fathers, there will be a painting with a story. A narrative involving impossibly handsome young fishermen leaning seductively against glistening granite walls, as their winsome young ladies gut mackerel with happy smiles against the backdrop of a gathering storm in which you know SOMEONE IS GOING TO DROWN.

Actually Newlyn, these days, is no great shakes. One local fishing fleet owner is in the midst of being prosecuted for faking fishing quotas. There’s nowhere much to park. The local heritage Pilchard Experience has closed down and there are one or two faintly dangerous looking men leaning against the wall of the Fishermens’ Institute. Stanhope Forbes it ain’t. But the sea is as blue as only the sea in Cornwall is capable of being. It’s a breathtaking mixture of turquoise and ultramarine, shining and glinting in the light. We try the newly refurbished Newlyn Gallery but it seems to be closed. The Guardian What’s On? Says there’s meant to be an exhibition called Social Systems which is dispersed over several sites in Newlyn and Penzance. It’s responding to the potential of everyday life practices. We can see a couple of women talking, and downstairs there’s a table with decorator’s equipment on it so we go away. Later in Tate St Ives they told us that the exhibition was on, so maybe we missed something.

Still, there were the scallops to buy, so we walked hand in hand along the road past the ice works, the trawlers, the sheds where they auction the catch. What I’m saying here is that there’s a load of freight attached to buying these shellfish. This is not fish fingers we’re after here, it’s a piece of conspicuous consumption. I don’t need bloody Tim, or bloody Barney’s mother or anyone else to tell me how good this is, or how I’ve got to cook them. I’ve got a bottle of Muscadet in the fridge. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have dared to admit that, but on the telly I saw Rick Stein saying there’s nothing better than a nice bottle of Muscadet with shellfish. Fair do’s, I’ll buy that one Rick, and in any case there’s only the two of us so there’s no need to be even secretly embarrassed.

So we got to the fish shop. It’s like arriving at Canterbury after an arduous pilgrimage as we peered through the door, a little nervous about going in. There was a family in there already gathered around a young, dark haired man who seemed to be explaining something to them over the slab. They all looked so intimidatingly absorbed that we left the shop and walked up the road a bit to another fish shop. But the display there wasn’t that great. In fact I’ve seen a bigger variety of fish on display at Tesco. So we went back again to shop number one. The family appeared to be leaving empty handed; perhaps they’d ordered something for later? The dark haired young man was still bent over the slab. He was filleting a piece of fish very very slowly, and as he cut into the fish his head was gyring and bobbing almost imperceptibly. I’d seen a similar affliction in the workers that jiggered and jollied in Stoke on Trent. “Look here” he said, motioning for us to come closer. “Ringworm” he said as he teased one of the parasites out of the rapidly shrinking fillet. And then, just in case we weren’t really sure we’d seen the whole horror of the infestation he pulled out several more tiny worms, slightly bluish against the white of the fish flesh. I remembered reading in Michael Bourdin’s book Kitchen Confidential about infestations in swordfish, but when I mentioned it to the young man he said he’s never seen it in swordfish.

I could see a big basket of scallops on the floor covered in ice, but I didn’t want to buy them immediately so I said “Have you got any fresh haddock?” “How fresh do you want it?” he asked, meaningfully pulling a very small haddock from the display. Was it a haddock? How did I know it wasn’t a cod? Could I safely identify half a dozen white fish varieties?? Probably not, I was on the back-foot again.

“Do you want me to fillet it for you?”

He took the knife, the same knife he’d used to prod out the worms. He didn’t sharpen it. He hacked away inconclusively at the wretched fish until it yielded a couple of absolutely tiny ragged fillets. The plump remains looked almost capable of swimming away. I’ve seen dead fish look all sorts of ways but never complacent before.
Stella, meanwhile, was inspecting the freezer. “They’ve got whitebait!” She knows how much I love whitebait, but I can rarely find them. I think it offends the sensibilities of most people to eat the whole tiny fish, bones, scales and guts as well. We had a bag of whitebait.

I was loosing confidence fast. The pilgrimage was going a bit awry at that point, but I would have my scallops. Two dozen live scallops in their shells. He counted them out and we negotiated some extra ice and a polystyrene box. We returned to our rented cottage.

I’ve been ill on shellfish. I once truly thought I was going to die after a desperately greedy meal of live shellfish in France. It wasn’t so much food poisoning as toxic shock I think. So here are the rules for shellfish. If they’re open and won’t close don’t eat them. If they’re closed and won’t open in water don’t eat them either. You want your mussels, your clams and your scallops to function like Olympic opening and closing athletes. You want them to slam shut at the tiniest tap.

These scallops turned out to be a bit sluggish in the opening and closing department. Those that weren’t already dead were suffering. But worse still was the smell. Rule three is this – if fish stinks don’t eat it. But there were still a few, maybe thirteen scallops that passed tests one and two. I thought if I removed the obviously deceased the smell might go away.

Then there was the learning experience. I’m sure I can remember Rick Stein opening scallops with a penknife and downing them whole and live. It was one of those paeans to the wholly fresh and natural that they do on the television; more lifestyle and spirituality than straightforward eating. But that must be a false memory because when I prised open the first scallop it was – well – full of the mildly unpleasant stuff that living things always have. Stuff you don’t want to think about let alone eat! It turned out that scallops are more complicated than you’d imagine. You have to clean them, removing frills and black bits and sand and membrane and oh God stuff. By the time you finish you’ve got the muscular bit that joins the part you’ve just thrown away to the shell and, if you’re lucky, a fragment of coral that you didn’t manage to burst while you were peeling the rest off. And from two dozen shells four inches across I got less than half that number of very small scallops – the kind I think they sometimes call noisettes in France.

I put them in the fridge but by that time I’d suffered a crisis of faith. I kept getting them out and sniffing them but somehow the smell wouldn’t go. It was the smell of the fish trains at Temple Meads when I was a child. So forty miles of driving, half an hour of fiddling about and any sense of the lyrical possibilities of holiday food lost forever I threw the scallops in the bin, tipped half a bottle of oil into a pan and cooked the whitebait. Bottle of muscadet, slice of brown bread, salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon; sunshine and the sound of the sea in our ears. It was good.