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Archive for June, 2009

Us/Them

And the parade of the poorly dressed.  One man has seen fit to slit his trousers from waistband to hem, so that from behind we catch the sight of his naked bottom, the crack between cheeks.  At night the girls flock to nightclubs and wear getups that even Fellini could not have imagined.  And always in pairs.  One girl in a zebra-print skintight dress that doesn’t quite cover the twin bulbs of her rear, the other wearing rubber tights and something resembling a top.  Disappearing into the pulsating intestines of a place called Raw or Moles.  Hens in chefs hats meet stags in kilts on street corners, lose themselves in a cloud of smoke, emerge with outfits askew and cigarettes burned to the filter.  The air is heavy with shouting.  I think it’s happy shouting; but how to tell, when the calls of the drunk before he (or she, in ripped denim skirt, sequin blouse) slips finally into the realm of not-remembering are so close to calls of anguish?  Perhaps it’s the sound of the self letting go, leaving the conscience behind, two aspects parted by a sip too many.  Will the zebra girl wake with ears still numbed by techno, breath still seeped in rum and the empty taste of a late-night kebab-shop feast, and have a regret?  Even a single one, a small one: those shoes, she might think, they’re too high, my knees are sore from dancing now.  The naked-bottomed man might sit, later, upon a cold park-bench, might feel the metallic chill in new places, places he didn’t know could feel things.  Perhaps in this way the senses seem suddenly to expand.

But you see them together and you think that some sort of game is being played, surely.  That the girls fumbling with purses on the street corners are deliberately emulating the hookers of bigger cities; that the blokes, staggering in zig-zag patterns, letting their English voices loose upon the town, are deliberately ignoring every siren call until the last, choosing not to look up a zebra-patterned skirt or at the way a pair of rubber legs is crossed.  Each human his (or her) own, complete, exhibit.  And each exhibiting for an invisible audience.  Not for the disdainful eyes of you or me, or of the girl in jeans holding her boyfriend’s hand.  No, not for us do they strut and pose.

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I wake to a hot-air-balloon floating past the window.  We have been here before: the Circus, the Royal Crescent–but I hardly recognize any of it.  Only the glimmer of grey stone under half-sunlight sometimes, only the slope of a garden path.  We spend the day walking in circles.  The balloons going up all morning, all afternoon, all evening.  It smells like jasmine dripping from the petals of wet English roses.  And sometimes pizza, espresso, men soaked in ale, a woman’s sickly perfume (she must have bathed in it, showered with it, washed her hands with it, drunk it like tea for its fragrance to follow her so strongly).  At lunch a surly Thai woman wishes, we’re sure, that we’d never entered her restuarant, gives the flimsiest smile I’ve ever seen at every customer.  At the edge of night we walk to the park, where blue-and-white striped chairs, all empty, are having thier own party now that the loungers and the picnickers have fled the grassy banks.  Empty chairs, and the bells ring out for the empty hour.

And now the curtains are drawn to block out the last, late vestiges of June light and the cricket is on the television, and the balloons, I think, have all come down to rest, and up the hill from us the circus and the royal crescent sleep.

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Lots has been happening lately.  I’ve been on journeys.  I’ve started to re-write the book (I can hear those sighs from afar…).  My family has come from thousands of miles away to visit me.  But today is all about food, because I’m participating in World Blog Surf Day, and like many other expat bloggers all over the interweb, I’m going to take a few minutes (and a few words) to consider something vitally important, on both a physical and a cultural level.

Ten years ago I visited Britain for the first time.  My parents and I toured the country for two weeks in a blue Ford Focus; I sat in the backseat listening to a Cranberries CD over and over again and writing stories in a green spiral-bound notebook.  We came from California, where friends brought us eggs freshly laid from their free-range chickens, or lettuce from their organic vegetable farm; I picked my own oranges and watched my grandparents crack macadamia nuts with a machine in the garage.  And we’d heard jokes, every one of them, the gist of which was: Haha!  The English can’t cook!

But the funny thing was, there we were, and we weren’t having a hard time finding a good meal anywhere.  We ate the best Indian cuisine we’d ever tasted; we had Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese.  And pasties!  Cornish pasties!  After a long hike along the coast a pastry full of hot meat and creamy potatoes is exactly what you want, especially when it’s just started to rain with such force that the parking lot has flooded and turned the stairwells into waterfalls.  We had bread and cheese, glorious cheese; and ate more chocolate, I don’t know why, than seemed humanly possible.

Ten years later, and here I am again in England, living here.  The English are no longer the focus of quite so many food-based jokes; we’ve learned better, it seems.  But what I like best, and what’s most interesting, I suppose, is the European approach to eating.  Here’s what I mean: you can stretch a meal out.  And there’s no better day to do this than on Sunday.  The Sunday Roast is the classic way of doing this, and it doesn’t get more English than this: a hunk of meat (beef, pork, chicken, or lamb), potatoes roast in goose fat (or butter), vegetables (maybe some cabbage, carrots, parsnips, leeks), all slathered in gravy.

The thing that’s nice is not so much the hearty sustenance (though I’ve no objection to it!), but that it’s more of an event than a meal.  A Sunday lunch (or dinner) is a social engagement of a very special nature; casual, gentle, slow-paced.

How to Have a Successful Sunday Lunch

  1. Plan ahead; but not too far ahead.  Mention to your friends on Friday or Saturday that you’re thinking of doing lunch, and would they like to come?  But don’t buy any of the ingredients until Sunday morning.  Planning is over-rated, but also, you’ll get fresher stuff.  Go to the butcher, not the supermarket, if you can.
  2. Don’t start cooking until your friends start to arrive; that would be silly (remember: planning is over-rated).  They’ll be late anyway, which means you have the morning free to do with it what you will.
  3. By this time, everyone will be starving.  Serve some crisps and a few drinks.  Commence the cooking!
  4. Forget a crucial ingredient; take a stroll to the corner shop and hope they’ve got what you need.
  5. Several hours later, the food will be ready, and boy will you be ready for it.  But to wash down all that meat and grease, wine!  Lots of wine!
  6. Remember halfway through the meal about pudding.  Something quick–a fresh fruit crumble is always nice–that you can involve your guests with.  Have them get their hands dirty making the crumble while you nip to the shop to get cream.
  7. Continue with the wine-drinking.  For maximum effect, do not do anything even remotely productive for the rest of the day.
  8. (Tailor these instructions to suit your needs.)

And now, without further ado, I send you off to your next food-based destination: Nurinkhairi.  Happy surfing!

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A few writing-related things have come to my attention of late.  First, Dave Eggers’ “buck up” to anyone worried about the decline of literary culture: “This is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page…Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they’ll pay for it.”  And then literary agent Nathan Bransford’s football-coach-style rally:

Listen up! We got a big submission Friday night, and the publishers out there are going through some hard times. They want to see your submissions sparkling! They want perfection, and as the literary agent of this here team I aim to give it to ’em! It’s time to look deep inside yourself and step up yer game! This means everything from revising to your queries to your submissions needs to be absolutely 110% perfect. And anyone who wants to cry about it can take off their shoulder pads and get off my field!

Looks like maybe I’m not the only one who’s been feeling a little low lately.  But with my new resolve to make sure this book is finished by September, there’s never been a better time to “step up my game.”  Much as I want to resist succombing to sports metaphors, maybe we don’t get to pick what inspires us.

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Numbers

I’m at work doing some non-work-related number crunching.  I’ve just learnt that if I want to have an average-length manuscript completed by the 1st of September (an arbitrary length, an arbitrary date) I’ll need to write the equivalent of aproximately 544 words per day between now and then.

Bring it on.

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Anatomy of Worry

I’ve had a panic-feeling brewing in my chest of late.  I forget that I’m still susceptible to this kind of worry, that knowing better doesn’t actually make it better.

I received two emails yesteray, rejecting a few proposals I’d sent off.  I almost felt crushed, except that I was so happy that the editors had even taken the time to respond to my queries I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d made some sort of perverse progress.  In celebration, and indeed mourning, I decided to take the long way home.  I cycled through Port Meadow, surprised as always by the city dissapearing before my eyes.  There were kids on bridges, leaping into the brown Thames.  A trio of boys with an old bicycle attached to a rope, pedalling at high speed towards the river, over a hump, flying a few glorious feet through the air, splashing and sinking.

I cycled along the river pathway until I reached a nature reserve, somewhere between the Osney lock and Folly Bridge.  To my left, the canal, the narrowboats with their potted plants, their sun-worn owners puffing smoke from deckchairs on the shore; to my right, the train tracks, the industrial detritus on the outskirts of a city: but in the nature reserve, nothing but green.  I walked my bike in a circle through the heat.  I passed only a man with a walking stick, and a sunbathing couple.  Nothing to suggest my location (maybe I’d dreamt all this up); except the rush of a train, sometimes.  Except the bells ringing out four o’clock from a church tower. 

Maybe I’d been out in the sun too long; but as I cycled down my street at long last, almost an hour later, I started to feel truly strange; for though the day was only an ordinary one, though I’d been to work in the moring, eaten in the cafeteria as usual, had my two cups of coffee, I was returning home from the wrong direction.  Do you know what this is like?  Every day you cycle down Hurst Street from the James Street end, and now you’re cycling down Hurst Street from the Magdalen Road end.  All the things you usually see and do on your commute (passing the Radcliffe Camera, gazing through the gates at All Souls thinking how cold, how unfriendly, yet how much you’d like someday to be allowed past the gates; crossing Magdalen Bridge, hearing bells if you’re lucky; struggling up the Iffley Road, the relief of turning finally into residential turf) erased.  I did it deliberately, to shake myself out of a rhythm I think I had ceased to enjoy, to make myself see my world anew, but as soon as I’d arrived home I wondered if I’d been too ambitious, if I’d done something too drastic, if my spirit would recover its balance, if the vertigo would fade.

Later I tried to nap upstairs with the window open, but the dry air made my lungs feel scratchy and the heat went to my head, gave it strange thoughts.  By evening I worried I was getting ill, and then I realized I was making myself ill by worrying, and then I worried that I wouldn’t be able to control anything, and felt even iller.  Then I tried to be reasonable and count the worries, but this is harder to do than it sounds and I wound up just making dinner and sitting half-asleep on the couch with the Man, which was the most comforting thing of all. 

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But having said all that, having laid it in melodramatic stone, I must also say this: it’s a more productive breed of worry than I’ve often experienced in the past.  I see progress in rejection and comfort in simple things (food, company); I can stay my mind from straying too far into the future.  I can even, though the thought is still in its fragile infancy, consider that I may need to make some major thematic and contextual revisions to the book which will require hard work and strength of heart but which will ultimately make it a far better (more readable, more marketable, and indeed, more authentic) piece of writing.  More on this, I’m sure, to come.

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