Poisonous you are, and beautiful too.

The project for our photography club today was close-ups and macro shots of flowers. Members brought in lovely specimens of tulips, irises, bluebells, chrysanthemums (also known as “kiss aunty’s bum” according to one member) :D, and all kinds of wild flowers.

I had a strange problem with my camera, I don’t know what it was up to, but it fought tooth and nail not to focus and was generally uncooperative. None of my shots came anywhere near capturing the beauty of the flowers as well as everybody else, but I did get a few that I was pleased with, and they were all of a stunning hellebore.

This is the one I thought came out best. Its soft focus and grainy texture make it look like a painting (I think).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Warning! Book Thief – Make Sure Someone Else isn’t Profiting off Your Book

Watch out, there’s a thief about!

Do not trust this site:

http://www.urbookdownload.com One of my author clients just informed me that her book was illegally downloaded by this online company. If you have a book in the marketplace make sure these guys aren’t taking your hard-earned money! If they are, go immediately to your writer’s union/guild/club (e.g. SFWA, RWA, etc.) and they will help you fight this! If you have DRM (Digital Rights Management) then get it working for you. MJ

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Junk junkies and a naughty little bit

When my step-mother said that we would replace my outgrown jodhpurs with a pair from The Thrift Shop in Nairobi, I was aghast. I’d never been to The Thrift Shop, but I knew it was about second-hand clothes! Other people’s cast-offs. Tatty old rags with tears and stains. We were very comfortably-off, but my step-mother was ever one to count every cent. How humiliating! What if somebody we knew saw us in there?

The first person we knew who saw us was my school English teacher, and the next person one of my school friends with her mother. The teacher was buying a flowery and floaty chiffon dress, and my school friend’s mother was buying her a school uniform to replace the one she’d outgrown. None of them seemed to be the least embarrassed at being seen there. They had no need to be. The clothes were all immaculate, hanging neatly on rails, and finding a pristine pair of jodhpurs that cost a few shillings and were a perfect fit was a pivotal moment in my life. I was hooked.

When we lived in England virtually all my clothes came from charity shops. That’s how I could afford to wear designer suits and evening dresses, bought at a fraction of their original price and still in new condition.

We don’t have that many charity or second-hand clothing shops here, but what we do have is what the French call “Chez Dior”, and the more down-to-earth English call “The Rag and Louse”. It’s a gigantic hangar behind a cement works, and it’s my favourite haunt when my wardrobe needs restocking.

If you can try to visualise the world’s biggest jumble sale after an earthquake, it will give some idea of the chaos that is the Rag and Louse. There are no hangers, no tables. The clothes lie in mountainous heaps on the floor, vaguely sectioned apart. There are men’s shirts, jeans, sports clothing, frocks, ladies coats, bedding, children’s clothing, lingerie, men’s jumpers, ladies’ jumpers, ski wear, scuba wear, swimwear, hats, shoes, blouses, wedding dresses, fabrics, handbags, work clothes, leather and fur coats. There is an unpleasant smell from the fumigation process which causes people to sneeze and cough. Vast trolleys of new stock are constantly arriving.

Photography is not allowed, but this might give some idea of the scene.

There is no easy way to find what you want. You just have to do what everybody else does, and dive into or onto a pile and start rummaging. See a flash of a colour you like, and pull. Pull! Eventually it will emerge from the pile so you can see if it’s what you hoped for. Hardened shoppers sit on top of piles and methodically work their way through them, often in pairs. There’s a primitive changing room behind a curtain. Don’t think that everything is worn out, stained or torn. Some of it is, but there are also plenty of new clothes still with their price tags on them. Like panning for gold, you just have to sift through a lot of mud to find a nugget.

Are you horrified? It’s no place for the precious or the snob. But for bargain hunters it can be a gold mine. One of my French friends, a senior fonctionnaire and the chicest lady you’ll ever see, buys most of her clothes there and always looks as if she’s stepped out of the pages of Vogue.

It’s a popular haunt for traders who snap up leather and denim by the van load for resale.

When a trolley load has been treated with whatever it is they treat it with, the trolley is wheeled to the centre of the hangar, where one of the staff sorts the contents rapidly, tossing them into wooden bins surrounded by shoppers keen to have first dibs. This is the hub of the place, and the ladies (it’s not really a man thing, here) chatter and laugh while grabbing at flying garments.

I don’t know how the conversation started yesterday, as I had only just managed to squeeze between two ladies guarding the bins, but the lady sorting the stuff from the trolley said loud and clear, in English: “A little bit.”

There was uproar, the ladies laughing as tears ran down their cheeks, clutching at each other, and temporarily forgetting the clothes flying past them.

If you don’t speak French, this will mean nothing to you, but if you do, you’ll know why a little bit (pronounced with a French accent) caused such mirth amongst the ladies. 😀

I came home with a gorgeous skirt, beautiful two-piece outfit, blinding white fancy top, chic black top and soft cashmere sweater.

Oh, did I mention the price? You pay by weight. My purchases cost €6.90. 🙂

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Lou Messugo

Katherine Gallagher to present a Stevie Smith workshop at the Charroux Literary Festival August 2015

Charroux Literary Festival

Katherine Gallagher will be presenting a workshop ‘Not waving but drowning’* based on the work  and life of the poet Stevie Smith.  Thursday 27th August 2015 10.30-12.30. Katherine comments that Smith is heartbreakingly alert, sad, witty, funny, and has an enormous range of poems from the comic to the tragic to the fantastical. She engages with myths and fairy tales, always roaming from the bizarre to the tragic.

*© Stevie Smith   (From Not Waving But Drowning, 1957)

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Turbot poached in pink champagne

Ah yes, I remember it well!

It was one Christmas day in the late 1980s, at what was then Flambards Restaurant in Berkhamsted. We had been seduced by the idea of eating a decadent meal cooked for us, rather than our usual home-cooked Christmas lunch with its attendant shopping, preparation and clearing-up marathons.

It was during the pampered years, when we worked in  ‘Financial Services’  a euphemism for the Life Assurance industry. Success brought with it vast privilege, and we enjoyed luxury holidays – called conventions for tax purposes – in exotic parts of the world. We stayed in the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants, all at the company’s (or more accurately the clients’) expense.

Money was no object – we had loads! Enough to own a small private aircraft and two horses. An additional perk for branch managers involved taking the top salesmen out for a meal once a month. The budget per person was generous enough to allow us eat at the very best establishments, which we did. Responsible for selecting the restaurants, I admit that my choice seldom coincided with the tastes of the salesmen, many of whom were young people whose preferred meal was a burger and chips or a Sunday roast. They would stare in bafflement at a menu offering elaborate dishes made up of ingredients they couldn’t pronounce and had never heard of. I always hoped that it would open their eyes and taste buds to the world of gastronomy, but I don’t really believe that it ever did.

During that period, which lasted for some ten years we nonchalantly ate our way through hundreds of exquisite and expensive meals, but the only one I can remember in detail is the turbot and pink champagne. It was just that: a generous portion of turbot, bathing in a warm sauce of pink champagne. There were some vegetables to the side, I recall, and warm, freshly baked bread rolls. It was our children’s first experience of ‘formal’ dining, and they behaved impeccably. Even our monstrously fussy daughter put aside her prejudices and tucked in. The restaurant was subtly decorated with sprays of holly and ivy, gold ribbons and white candles. There was a crackling log fire, and pretty chintz curtains and cheerful conversation. It was luxurious, but at the same time comfortable, comforting and homely and has stuck in my mind ever since.

When our lifestyle changed abruptly, due to a number of uncontrollable events including a recession and mortgage rates rocketing to 17%, it was farewell to the plane and farewell to free holidays and luxury meals, and ultimately farewell to our home. Our horses survived thanks to the generosity of friends who ‘adopted’ them. The well-being of our five dogs was our priority. What little money we could scrape together went first to their food, and what was left to ours.

My best friend was Smash instant mashed potato. Although it was more expensive than buying fresh potatoes, it could be ready in a few moments, saving on electricity because we were on an electric meter that swallowed coins at a fearsome rate. So we had Smash for lunch, and Smash for supper. It didn’t seem to do us any harm. Sometimes we added brown sauce, sometimes a small knob of butter, and on special occasions grated cheese. I can still remember the sheer pleasure and comfort of a steaming bowl of creamy mashed potato. I discovered you could make very drinkable wines from tinned fruit or jam; the lemon verbena wine rendered the visiting tax inspector legless. 🙂

But that’s another story.

I’ve always been fascinated by food, and devour all the television cookery programmes, with boundless admiration for those who spend hours producing divine creations decorated with emulsions and mists and floating bubbles. I’m a Masterchef addict, in awe of those displays of true passion, dedication and creativity. Sometimes, though, I think it not only looks too good to eat, it doesn’t really look like food. And I don’t understand why they are always constrained to an almost impossible time limit so that they have to panic and run around as if their lives depended upon being plated up at the exact moment. Well, I suppose that’s television for you.

And the stress they put themselves through! I couldn’t do it. I find cooking a way of relaxing, and to be relaxed I have to know that whatever I’m preparing stands a reasonable chance of succeeding, and that I’ve plenty of time to do it. No stress in my  kitchen, please! Mess, yes, stress, no.

Unlike the long forgotten fancy restaurant meals, the ones I remember are inextricably connected to people and places.

A Marmite sandwich instantly takes me back to a Pony Club picnic when I was 14. We are sitting beneath a tree drinking cherry-flavoured Vimto, our ponies hitched behind us on head collars, nodding in the afternoon heat. There’s a sudden rustling noise, and there’s my pony Cinderella chomping on a couple of Marmite sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper, which she has somehow extracted from the plastic string bag in which they were hanging from a tree branch. The apple, a treat for her, is untouched. She munches her way contentedly until there is not a fragment of paper, nor a crumb of bread left, just a brown sticky mark on the tip of her muzzle. That’s what Marmite means to me.

A fried egg sandwich reminds me of sitting in a slightly seedy café in the backstreets of Nairobi, having run away from home when I was twelve, due to a row with my step-mother over an undercooked omelette. If there is one thing I cannot eat, it’s uncooked egg white. It was a tiny quantity, maybe one quarter of a teaspoon, but I couldn’t eat it. She insisted I must. I couldn’t. She ran from the room crying and cursing, and I walked the two miles from our house to the centre of town with no idea what to do next. As darkness began to fall, as it does so suddenly so close the Equator, I was sitting in the doorway of the local cinema feeling very worried and rather frightened. Along came a Cameronian soldier. The Cameronian Scottish Rifles who were based in Kenya at the time had a fearsome reputation for drinking and fighting and smashing up bars. My Cameronian persuaded me away from the doorway, and into the aforesaid dingy dive, where we ate soft baps filled with fried eggs, with brown sauce, and drank milky coffee. He left briefly to ‘wash his hands’, but it wasn’t long before a police car arrived and bundled me into it, and led him into another, and I realised my new friend had shopped me.

Every dish I love contains memories, mostly happy, some bittersweet. Smoked salmon, chocolate mousse and Lambrusco was ‘the suicide meal’  I ate before metaphorically jumping off a cliff, and being caught in a safety net just in time. Omelette – well, maybe you can work out what that reminds me of.

There are shelves of cookery books around the house. I used to collect them fanatically, until the day I recognised that I very seldom used them. Once in a while I enjoy trying a new recipe; often they don’t live up to expectations, either because of some fault on my part or some fault with the recipe. The food I cook most often is based on meals I’ve eaten with friends and family. The recipe has to be quick and simple, more Tom Kerridge than Heston Blumenthal, and it has to taste good.

Over the decades pages torn from exercise books, scribbled notes on the back of envelopes or receipts, screwed up pieces of paper and vague memories have been my source of inspiration. I decided to collect them and make them into a book so I could find them easily. If you’d like to share them, the first book (savoury recipes) will be published on 22nd June by Blackbird Books in digital and paperback formats. Book 2, sweet recipes, shortly after. The recipes are interspersed with tales of where they came from.

I’m more delighted than I know how to say that David Lewis, cartoonist and caricaturist extraordinaire, was gracious enough to find time to create the fabulous cover, and I can confirm that the stirring mechanism really does work as shown. 🙂

All the recipes are written in simple ‘free form’, i.e. no long lists of ingredients or numbered instructions, because I’m hopeless at remembering lists, but if something is written like a short story, it sinks in.

I like to think of these recipes as ‘quick and easy’, but I’m told that they’re more ‘lazy’. 🙂

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