Thursday, August 29, 2013

Flying away

I've cleaned everything in sight ready for the housesitters, and I've ticked off  everything on the list except the last scraps of packing tomorrow - those awkward things you have to wait to the very end to stow away, like your glasses and make-up, because you need them at the last minute.
       By Sunday evening NZ time I'll be in Berlin. I know I'm really lucky to be going, and I intend to enjoy it thoroughly. But I still can't help feeling Harvey's absence intensely when I get to the point of leaving home on my own for a major expedition like this. We travelled very well together. Still, I'm going to see some really good friends who knew him well
        This will be the first time I've gone away without taking any actual books. I have six new ones in my iPad instead. And when I come back I'll look forward to reading this year's NZ Post Book Awards fiction winner, Kirsty Gunn's The Big Music. It also won book of the year, the first time a work of fiction has won since 2009. The full list is here.
          Meanwhile I've been reading a book Harvey rated very highly and wanted me to read too - only I didn't get around to it until now: Hugo Young's biography of Margaret Thatcher, One of Us. It seems strongly suited to the times, given the abject failure of the policies she drove through, which were then copied here, to deliver anything more than a minimum-wage existence to so many people, while a small proportion grow every richer. Overall, according to Statistics New Zealand, employees’ compensation as a proportion of GDP fell from about 55% in the early 1980s to about 45% in the 2000s (it was 46% in 2009). And that was surely the whole point - to reduce wages and increase profits. To them that hath shall be given even more. I wonder what the reaction will be to tonight's documentary, Mind the Gap, which focused on inequality. Is it too much to hope that there may be some kind of tide-turning going on?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A night at the Grand

We're always being urged to "follow your dream" - but sometimes it doesn't turn out quite how you expected. Note that I'm carefully not saying where this hotel was - and I have no idea (if it's still there) what it's like now.

My mother-in-law has just finished telling us, for the 329th time, the story of not being invited to her great-niece’s christening. I can’t help myself: “That was 25 years ago, wasn’t it, Joan?” “Oh no,” she says sternly, “it was 27!” I retreat early to the bedroom. Tomorrow we’re going away on our own.
We drive off straight after breakfast (“It’s not that far, what’s the rush?”) under a vast blue Canterbury sky. We can spend all day negotiating the hairpin bends of steep gravel roads leading down to gloriously deserted bays, because, as usual, we’ve booked ahead. And this time, instead of a perfectly functional but entirely predictable motel, I’ve managed to talk Harvey into staying at one of those wonderful old country pubs I’ve been longing to try for years.
It’s nearly five when we pull into the carpark, with its view out over the silky waters of the harbour. “It’ll be even better from upstairs”, I say confidently. Murmuring about Gone With the Wind, I climb the stunning kauri staircase sweeping up to the centre of the first floor, and turn the key to our room.
Two sagging wirewove single beds, spread with limp pink candlewick. One narrow window, too high to see the harbour unless you’re standing right in front of it. A rickety oak wardrobe and a chest of drawers. One dim plastic shaded light-bulb hanging plumb in the middle of the ceiling.
In the corner beside the window, one cold tap drips slowly into the washbasin. A neatly typed notice on the wall informs us the toilet is next to the bathroom at the end of the landing.
Harvey’s face has an odd expression, but all he says is, “It’s only one night – and these places always do a great breakfast.” We go out and spend much more than we meant to on a consoling crayfish dinner and enough wine to send us both straight into snoring oblivion.
The sun wakes us too early, flashing in through the gaps between the unpullable brocade curtains and the brown holland blind. Neither of us feels up to trekking along the landing and clambering in and out of the bath for a shower. So we make do with a few swipes of cold flannel at the basin, go for a walk to clear our heads, and turn back to ask about breakfast.
The landlord’s behind the bar counting up the night’s takings. “Just through there,” he says, pointing to a carved archway.
Starched white tablecloths cover four tables, but only one is set for two, with thick white china, white napkins in silver rings, and neat ranks of heavy old silver knives, forks and spoons. Any minute now, he’ll come to take our order. Fruit, definitely bacon and eggs, maybe toast with home-made jam? “This is more like it,” I say.
Ten minutes later, I notice the narrow table against the back wall. Lined up on it are three boxes – weetbix, cornflakes, puffed wheat. In front stand a bowl of tinned peaches, a jug of milk and another of what looks like well-diluted Raro. They’re flanked by a toaster, a loaf of white sliced bread, and a saucer with two little foil-topped packets of butter, two of Vegemite and two of marmalade. “I think this is it,” says Harvey.
The landlord comes in with a kettle and a small wicker basket full of teabags and sachets of instant coffee and sugar. “Sorry, forgot these,” he says. “Got everything you want?” 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

How to live

I thought I would post some short pieces of writing here. This one is about someone whose writing has been particularly important to me, though it took me years to appreciate her true worth.

How to live 
A dark-haired, fine-boned girl sits at the table in her drab English twinset and neat skirt,  silent with shyness, not quite sure how to behave or what to expect. She can follow most of what Madame and Monsieur and their daughter Denise are saying to each other, because her French is already quite serviceable; but she is making the disturbing discovery that knowing how to speak French is one thing, actually speaking it to French people in France is quite another.
          She is sixteen, and this is her first trip abroad. Her widowed mother has taken her difficult, intense second daughter away early from the Tunbridge Wells school where she was becoming “too hockey-stickish”, and has instead packed her off to live with a French family and attend the Sorbonne for eighteen months. Having her at home was impossible, and it seemed as good a way as any to fill the awkward gap between leaving school and making a suitable marriage.
It’s been a long day in the train, and she’s hungry. She glances down at the soup the maid has just ladled into her wide, shallow plate. It looks nothing like the soup she is used to at home – smelling vaguely of fat, always too thick or too thin, and no matter what it’s called, almost always brown.
This is pale apricot, with tiny green specks, and tastes – what does it taste of? Cream, yes – and butter. Potatoes. Tomatoes. Onions? In fact, as she will later find out, it’s leeks. And the green bits? She doesn’t know, she has never eaten chervil before. But for the time it takes to finish her plateful, she becomes completely absorbed in an almost entirely new sensation: the pleasure of eating superbly simple, perfectly cooked food.


It will take her years to learn how to make that soup, with its honest name: potage crème de tomates et de pommes de terre. At eighteen, in her first job, she is still so ignorant of anything to do with the kitchen that she has to be shown how to make a pot of tea.
But three decades later, when she is 47 and has invented a whole new way of writing about food, Elizabeth David will recreate that first experience of French cooking in the “exceptionally greedy and exceptionally well fed” family she calls the Robertots, and salute it as the turning point of her life:

What had stuck was the taste for a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before…beautifully prepared vegetables…egg dishes, and soups delicately coloured like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green…chocolate and apricot soufflés…

By this time she knows exactly what eating that food meant, and she is determined her readers will understand it well enough to be able to experience its essence for themselves. Rather than “elaborate sauces or sensational puddings”, this is:

the kind of food…which constitutes the core of genuine French cookery, but which to us [she means, of course, the benighted British - and here comes the subtle sting in the tail that salts her writing] seems so remarkable because it implies that excellent ingredients and high standards are taken for granted day by day…

She is writing not just about how to cook and eat; she is writing about how to live.