Happy-making

So. Today was another day of waiting for progress on the book front and rather than waste time trying to write something else when I already have several irons in the fire or hanging in the wind or whatever metaphor you might prefer to describe projects stalled in the ‘your call is valuable to us but all our operators are busy so please hold…’ phase, I decided to do things to make myself happy.

Things like baking bread.

This made me happy on several levels. One: thrift. There were four eggs left over from before Christmas, so I cracked them and sniffed cautiously and then turned  them into what I think is called a ‘reinforced dough’ with the addition of honey, salt, yeast and flour. The dough rose like a rocket, but that may have been because I sat it in a very warm place.

Two: simple alchemy. Making bread makes me feel like a goddess of the kitchen. Nothing like Nigella, more of a minor magician, adding a pinch of this and a bit of that and stirring it all in my crucible. The way dough rises is like life itself. Forcing its way up, even in the oven as it is transmuted into bread.

Three: making grown-up mud pies. There’s nothing quite like footering around with bits of dough to take me back to playing with my bestie Isabella when we were seven. Roaming wild in the dust and sand behind Tante Fiona’s house in Majorca, we used to make pretend food, smoke Uncle Morty’s cigarettes ( and throw up in the bushes – eughhh, why were we so keen to grow up?) and generally play at being grown-up ladies. I wonder where Isabella is now? Anyhoo, I digress. Mud pies rock, especially when you’re middle-aged and much in need of some proper playtime.

Four: the smell. Bread, just out of the oven has to be one of the best smells ever. It greets you as you come in the door, it warms the kitchen and it makes me want to eat and eat and eat…

Alas. My appetite in this wintry season is all-consuming. And double alas, I sprained my ankle a few weeks before Christmas and didn’t realise that I’d done such a thing until I went running  and wondered why my ankle swelled up like a dodgy doughnut. And despite all my careful exercises and taking it easy and not over-using it and blah de boring blah, I’m still unable to even do my basic 10,000 steps without it blowing up again and letting me know that tomorrow belongs to it.

Consequently, I’m a larger version of myself than I’d like to be. Which is so very much a first world problem that you may well wonder why I’m banging on about it BUT, without physical activity, my mental health takes something of a nosedive. I rely on running to keep me reasonably level. Without it, I’m flailing around trying to find straws to clutch to keep me afloat. And if you throw a lack of action on the employment front into the mix, you have a recipe for disaster.

Hence baking bread. And making new things for supper just about every night. Last night I made gnudi (little ricotta dumplings with a sage and tomato and basil sauce thing) from a recipe in the weekend papers. I’m looking at you, Señor Ottolenghi. To my dismay, they began to disintegrate in the simmering water just like a poached egg does round its margins. I fished them out, but they were a dozen damp little disasters rather than twelve perky little pillows. I did my usual post-mortem on them as I hoovered them down; ricotta too wet, celeriac too tasteless, basil and sage fighting it out for alpha flavour ( the basil, being an Italian thug, won) but oh, how disappointed was I? Tonight, it’s back to the safe haven of the Student Vegetarian Cookbook’s pumpkin goulash.

IMG_4397

Ochhhhhh. In a week’s time, I’ll pluck up courage and try Señor Slater’s version of gnudi, and see how they are.

This weekend it’ll be the annual marmalade-fest when the house fills up with the smell of simmering Sevilles and I fill the cupboard with jars of what I hope will be crystal clear jars of orange sunshine. Laying down supplies for the year ahead. A good way to spend time when I’m on hold.

Waiting and waiting and waiting for the go-ahead for a book means also waiting to earn money. Eating very, very economically. Trying not to breathe too deeply less something else falls off and requires some form of therapy to put it back together again. Gnudi are cheap. So is home-made marmalade and my heavens, pumpkin goulash is amazingly inexpensive. Especially if it’s made with half a pumpkin found lurking at the back of the fridge. So nothing gets wasted. Not even four eggs, one month past their sell-by date. Ew.

Shhhhhhhhh. Don’t tell. A well-raised loaf keeps its secrets.

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Oh, Baby

IMG_4334World, meet Rebecca Eilidh, born yesterday. Approximately seven hours old here, and determinedly sleeping, less she wakes up and discovers she’s not inside the safe warmth of her mummy. So small and so perfect.

Her daddy suggested that she’s concentrating on her next bit of magic after setting the Trump Tower alight. I must have missed that bit of news because all I could think of yesterday was the safety of Rebecca’s mummy and the safe arrival of ( at that point) Little No-Name. Not a lot of anything done at GlioriSchloss yesterday, apart from waiting for the phone to ring.

So very glad all went well. Another small miracle quietly performed by the NHS.  It’s amazing when you think of it ; the maternity wing is a bit like a spaceport from a science fiction story. Whole persons ( albeit the bonsai version) materialise inside its walls from thin air. Two people ( I’m being boringly normal here – insert whatever number you want)  walk in and three ( as above) leave.

Where will the world be when Rebecca holds her first grand-daughter in her arms? Let’s all hope that we’ll collectively have grown some brains and made it a safe place to raise little humans. But for now, shhhhhh. We’ll tiptoe backwards out of the ward and leave mummy and baby sleeping, warm and safe on a winter’s night in 2018.

Travelling hopefully

IMG_4039In truth, I travelled fearfully, not being even remotely adventurous. Back last summer when I was asked by my lovely editor at Hot Key Books if I’d like to attend a book festival in India, I jumped at the chance. Come November, two weeks before departure, I was a migraine-ridden wreck, unable to sleep, catastrophising every possible thing that could go wrong and gazing at my open, unpacked suitcase as if it was a blue set of jaws threatening to swallow me whole.

My  past avoidance of air travel meant that arriving at Terminal One in London felt like stepping into some ghastly version of the future with added shopping opportunities. So many people. So much money. So many destinations. So many elevators. And I was about to climb aboard a tin tube and be hurled thousands of miles away from Da Bonnie into an unknown land. Where untold bacteria lurked if all the tourist manuals and WHO warnings were to be believed. And due to a worldwide shortage of some vital vaccine ( Hep. A) I was under-prepared. There was a large hole in my First World armour. A friend counselled me to keep my lips firmly sealed in the shower. Another said brush your teeth in bottled water. Yet another mentioned the possibility that I might want to pack my own syringes and needles in case of dreadful accidents befalling me where, presumably, I’d rise off my theatre bed and demand that the surgeon used my pre-packed supplies.

WHAAAAAAAAT?

On arrival, the smog in Delhi was everything promised by the various sources I’d read before leaving. It was toxic, but also ethereally beautiful in its own end-of-all-things kind of way. This is how the world ends, not with a bang but bronchitis. The traffic in Delhi, as promised, was sclerotic. There were wild pigs rooting in the gutters on broad leafy thoroughfares. There were people sleeping on the dirt barrier between the north and south travelling lanes of motorway traffic. Cooking their breakfast in the middle of speeding cars and smog and ever-present danger. Tiny children with liquid eyes tapped at the window of my taxi and mimed putting food into their mouths. Camels pulled carts and tuk-tuks honked their horns, swerved in front of us and belched fumes. Every lorry, no matter how decrepit, was hand-decorated with flowers and symbols and on the rear, the notice to ‘sound horn’ and ‘flash at night’.

Four of us bound for the book festival, plus a guide and a driver travelled in a people-carrier from Delhi to Jaipur. A long, interminable drive which should have taken about four hours but ended up taking nine. (To which, add my seven hour sleepless flight the previous night). We stopped in traffic, we stopped to worship at a temple, we stopped for lunch at a fast food roadside place where I drank two sips of possibly the nastiest drink that has ever crossed my lips bar none. And I have drunk rabarbero*, so I know whereof I speak. This particular Rajahstani horror was a lime soda, but it tasted of pure sulphur, like something excreted by Satan then chilled for future consumption. One of us got food poisoning that day, but remarkably, it wasn’t me. Perhaps swilling sulphur isn’t such a bad thing?

*Rhubarb aperitivo beloved of old Italian men in the bar down the road from my Nonna’s. Has a catastrophic effect on a younger person’s colon. Obviously designed for self-irrigation. Or perhaps it was just me?

Found & Lost redux

Don’t know if you remember the two abandoned guinea pigs we found in the snow, six months ago? Tiny little mites? Yes- those guys.

Well. A lot of water under the bridge since then, I can tell you. Not to mention bushel-loads of hay, kale, lettuce, apples, beans, courgettes- no, eughhhh, they hate courgettes. Which is a damn shame, since M grows them in such jungly profusion that another two pairs of jaws would have been very helpful at such times as when the tides of zucchini threatened to overwhelm GlioriSchloss and all who cooked there.

Since those early days, M has built a summer house with slot-in pig transporter so that the Boyz may be gently portaged from indoors to outdoors and released into their airy chateau sur les herbes HQ without too much stress and squeakings. And brought back in at night, since neither of us could bear the idea of the poor little mites cowering in their hutch while cats prowled outside trying to find a way in.

Since we first clapped eyes on each other, I’ve written a book about their earlier lives ( sheer curiosity and a long period of waiting for various projects to get off the ground drove me to imagine what on earth could have brought two little guinea pigs to a snowy car park in the back of beyond*) with a great deal of fanciful embroidery and writerly hyperbole, but hey…that’s how I roll. Besides, Lost may well have been the descendant of a Russian émigré…

However, as usual, I’m going off-topic. The thing is, time has passed and the Boyz are now the guinea pig equivalent of teenagers. Oh, boy. Oh BOYZ. NO! STOP! Eughhhhh.

Sex has supplanted food in their scheme of what is most important in their lives, and heaven knows, the poor wee guys need something to take their minds off a life spent in what amounts to a very pleasant prison. So scrawny little Found spends an inordinate amount of time sniffing hopefully ( or perhaps suicidally) at Lost’s cojoñes until finally, Lost manoeuvres his vast bulk around and jumps on top of Found. There is a considerable disparity in their sizes, I might add. Not to mention their intellects. Found, despite this behaviour detailed above, is definitely the brains of the outfit. But even so, we occasionally have to take them off to the bath, put them in a centimetre of warm water and gently launder their fur. BOYZ, I tell you…

I look at them in their cage and wonder if we did the right thing all those months ago. Then we have a rare sunny day, we hook up the slot-in pig transporter, the Boyz run flat out to be first inside, and look, there they are, being carried lovingly outside to their hutch. Where they run freely, jump all over each other, play with their toys, eat lettuce till I swear they’re stoned out of their tiny minds and generally have the air blowing around their whiskers.

Air on your whiskers, no predators, a wide and plentiful variety of things to eat and a hot and cold running supply of humans to do your bidding…how bad can that be?

*The answer is not – their own legs. Anyone who has ever seen a guinea pig waddle would know that they’re not built for distance.

Hands across the ocean 2

So. Tickets found and I’m on a train which we caught by a mere whisker. Miss Mouse is a bit of a quivering wreck to be honest; running for trains with wheelie cases and fiddle in tow is not her idea of A Good Way to Pass a Sunday Afternoon. Still… 

Where was I? Yes; back to LA. After a few days of acclimation we ventured out ( always by car) to do a bit of sightseeing. The Californian coast was dotted with hundreds of those ‘nodding donkeys’ endlessly siphoning oil all the better to run the beating, glittering, air-conditioned heart of the City of the Angels. The coastline was lovely, we had picnics, drank date shakes ( yum) fended off predatory squirrels intent on stealing our picnics and generally enjoyed the warmth. Heading back into town with the sky a hot grey and the smog a visible presence as we drew closer to the city, we saw that all around on the Santa Monica highway were the biggest cars and suvs and trucks I’d ever seen.

Back then, that was. 

In 1988 to be precise. Since then, we’ve adopted the supersize US model in so many things, aligning our cars, portion sizes and expectations to those of our cousins across the Pond. After 9.11 we wrote that we were all Americans now. Just as after recent atrocities in Europe, we’ve been Parisians, Londoners etc. 

So now, as hurricanes batter Cuba and St Kitts- are we all Cubans now? As Irma bears down on Houston and Florida? Where are we on that? As wildfires turn an area of California roughly equivalent to Germany, France, Spain and Portugal combined ( combined!) to smoke and ash… where are we on that? 

What the hell will it take for us to wake up and say- ‘ we’re all humans here and we need to get our shit together before…’

Before we destroy our one and only home.

I don’t know if those siphoning nodding donkeys are still doing their thing on the California coastline. I don’t know if the outdoor pools I swam in and indoor a/c I enjoyed is still running. I suspect the cars are smaller; only the poor drive those vast gas-guzzling museum pieces. I don’t know if the highway still has fourteen lanes of traffic.

Or if the squirrels still try to pinch your picnics.

One thing’s for sure; we are all nodding donkeys now.

I hope we wake up in time. 

Hands across the ocean 1

First time I ever went to America, we flew from Edinburgh to London then caught another flight to Los Angeles. With two children. One of whom, a baby, spent the entire fourteen hours clamped to one or other of my breasts. By the time we landed at LAX, I was a shrivelled prune, as dearly in need of rehydration as one of those California raisins I’d been consuming since childhood. I’d always loved the packaging on those ; a vanishing series of girls holding a box of raisins on which was a girl holding a box of raisins until she was so small, she was invisible.

matruschka of California girls. I’ve always loved those Russian dolls too. With their smaller and smaller editions of the mama dolly, until the penultimate  tiny dolly yields what I like to refer to as ‘the Bean’. Woe betide the hoover or dog that devours the Bean. Anyhoo, I digress. America. We landed, were picked up by our in-laws ( well, then they were out-laws) and driven in an enormous car out to the ‘burbs to a house with two vast, panting Alsatians with Greek names. I suspect the dogs were for security purposes rather than any love of dogs since their lives were proscribed by the smallness of their back garden enclosure and the lack of places to run, walk or generally be a proper dog.

Overhead, planes took off and landed all night long. Police helicopters chopped past, shining floodlights down into the glittering streets. Morning brought floods of sunshine, Cheerios and a trip to the supermarket which was an education in itself. The Santa Monica highway was seven (seven!) lanes wide and drivers of open-topped cars sat reading ( reading!) as we inched along.

Some years before, a boyfriend had nicknamed me Miss Mouse, and would draw little encouraging drawings for me if I ever had to take a portfolio down to London or go anywhere outwith my normal zone of operations. For that same Miss Mouse to find herself in LA was disorientating in the extreme.

I’m going to continue this later because I’m going to Morayshire tomorrow and somehow, I’ve lost all details of my train times. I know Morayshire isn’t that far, but Miss Mouse is still having a Major Fret and feeling totally overwhelmed. So for now, I’m off to hunt for train times and leaving you with the promise that I will return.

Squeaking.

Best bun, ever.

Those of you who have been following this blog as it takes its infant steps across the digital carpet* may have noticed that it has had a makeover recently. Before then, I was reduced to weeping and swearing like a Clydeside docker at my laptop. What the hell was a widget? How was I supposed to know if I needed to tag things, or use a standard format and how come my illustrations wouldn’t fit on the welcome page?

A friend helpfully pointed out that my blog looked a bit corporate, then confessed that she hadn’t a clue how to help make it look better. Cheers, mate. Other friends made soothing sounds and muttered something encouraging about how it was the content, not the packaging that counted, but…och. I mean OCHHHHHH. I’m supposed to have a degree in graphic design and illustration for heaven’s sake. So what if it was handed out in a bygone age when we ( I kid you not) learned our typography skills by slotting little tiny metal legs with individual letters impressed on one end into other metal slotty things ( technical term) which were, in turn, slotted into big metal clampy things ( another arcane technical term) and then inked up and slooowwwwly thudded down onto bits of paper. At which point, I’d invariably discover that I’d put the d or the p or the q or the b round the wrong way. And out it would all come, and I’d begin again. Oh, how we suffered, just to put together one single paragraph of type. This single post, back then, would’ve taken three miserable afternoons in the Case Room, enduring the wrath and scorn of the grumpy printer whose karmic destiny it was to instil the rudiments of typography in a group of delinquent art students. Poor man.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Making my WordPress blog look good. So. On I went, trying to ignore the mess of the home page, the fact that I seemed to have spawned not one, but three blogs and the feeling that I was adrift in a sea of technical jargon, surrounded by much evidence that every single other person using this site appeared to be terrifyingly accomplished, design-savvy IT gurus. I’d landed on WordPress like a newbie at Wimbledon armed with nothing other than a burning ambition to play using  an old, saggy Slazenger. Oh…Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Oh, do shut up, Gliori.

Until…an email arrived from my friend the Bookwitch. Being a Witch, and not just a common-or-garden Witch, but  a witch who blogs, she had divined that I was making a mess of my attempts to prettify my blog. And offered help. Real, practical help. Hers plus the assistance of her husband, the Resident IT Wizard.

Really? I mean, why would you want to be trapped in your own gorgeous sunroom with a waffling, flapping and deeply confused illustrator who can barely recall her own password, let alone decide what template she’d like to use on her new blog? Why? This, friends and neighbours, is an important question. Why would you do this to yourself?

I think the answer lies in kindness, in all of us working together, sharing skills, giving up of our most precious commodity ( time) and also, I may be alone in thinking this, but it was fun. I really enjoyed spending an afternoon in the company of a BookWitch and an IT Wizard. We talked of many things ; politics ( how could we not?) long-distance walking, far-flung daughters, how long a kilo of pasta can stave off starvation and finally, of buns. Vanilla tea was poured, followed by a plate of buns.

Ohhhhhhhhh. The buns. Imagine, if you will, a brioche-type dough, but denser than that. A reinforced bread/cake hybrid. Imagine it baked to a shyly golden hue, then cooled and its little top sliced off. Imagine it is then gently filled with a grainy paste, something like marzipan ( I love the old word ‘Marchpane’ for this sweetmeat) but far more granular. On top of this is piled a pillowy, billowy cloud of whipped cream, whereupon the little lid is replaced on top.

Behold. The Bookwitch’s Lent bun. My illustration doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. A thousand thankyous to you and your husband for making my day. It was, as the young people say, MIGHTY.

*Apologies for this. Digital carpet? Who writes this stuff?