In the Country of the Dead

The Dead smell of musty files and fading ink. The Dead are wary, and hide among crumbling papers and three ring folders, and they are coy, and leave little breadcrumb trails through the forests of the past, that you follow eagerly only to find yourself with a handful of dust and the sound of mocking laughter.

It’s called genealogy but there is nothing genial about it. Those elusive ghosts have all sorts of tricks up their ectoplasmic sleeves. They change their names, forge their papers and lie about everything. Born in Buffalo sounds better than born in Bermondsey, and even census takers have a weird sense of humor, writing down New Yorkshire for New York.

But every now and then one of these timid ghosts steps out from the shadows and shakes off the dusty cloak of the past. Not timid at all, they look you in the eye with a knowing smile, and you can’t hide, or look away, not while you are looking into your own eyes, and she is smiling at you with your daughter’s mouth. She seems amused that you have found her while you were stumbling about the Internet in search of your great great grandmother. That is not who she is, this perky little lady – she is great great grandmother’s sister, and she is me.

She died so long ago that it would have been impossible to know her. I can only meet her ghost on a cabinet card from 1884, and wonder. She lives in the country of the dead and their musty boxes of files but she doesn’t belong there. She belongs here with me, sharing reminiscences of our past, my little sister who never was, my blood sister from long ago.

I’m missing someone I never knew, yet she is somewhere here inside me, in my genetic memory. I strayed too far into the country of the dead. I want her here now, I want to hug her and hear her speak, I want the sepia complexion to be flushed and shining as it was in life. I want her to be alive – and I look at her, so young and fresh, I know I looked like that once, and my daughter looks like that now. It is not all sadness and a sense of loss. I know now why I went looking for the past – to find her, to find myself.

 

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Five Things I Learned from The Food Channel

The food channel is almost as addictive as cupcakes – I say almost because I don’t really like cupcakes. especially the modern extravaganzas covered in gooey fondant and piles of candy. Perhaps it is more like lasagna – when it is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is bollocks. But if you watch it long enough, you do learn a few things.

Would you eat this bad boy? I can hear my own bad boys yelling “Yes! Yes!”

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1: Disgusting food is very hot right now. Whether it is the biggest, greasiest, most revolting pile of deep fried crap the eye has ever beheld, or the guy on Bizarre Foods inhaling something really offal (see what I did there?) with bits of fur and claws hanging out, this is the very definition of food porn. It makes you feel dirty, queasy and desperate for a shower. It’s the Zapata moustache and tight flares of food porn. Watching huge men tucking into huge food resembles an orgy in a pig factory. Suck on those trotters! Yet it also hugely popular and won’t go away – like porn.

2: Some of the women on the Food Channel look like Stepford Wives on steroids. They have names like Giada, Tiffani and Katie Lee and are so skinny and shiny and well dressed that you can’t help wondering if there is a lot of regurgitatng going on between takes. They have frightening Hollywood hair and teeth and there are some celebrity connections – Giada is the granddaughter of Dino Di Laurentiis, Tiffani Thiessen was all over TV soaps once upon a time and Katie Lee was married to Billy Joel. They make Nigella look overfed. Are they really actually cooking and eating that food? How do they stay that spotless without an apron?

3: Aussie chefs rule. No really, forget Jamie and Gordon, the US is having a moment with Curtis Stone. His chiseled Bazza Mackenzie jaw turns up all over the place. When he’s not churning out recipes for our local Woolies, he’s making American women swoon as he leans over their culinary efforts on cooking shows. He’s their Manu Fieldel.

4: You can’t teach Americans to eat healthy food. There’s a show called Junk Food Flip, where two earnest young foodies try to emulate some disgusting deep fried concoction using substitutes like lentil fritters and millet buns. They and the demonic minds behind a burger that looks like it would have made Elvis puke (but not their customers) go head to head to see which version the great unwashed prefer. No contest really.

5: Cupcakes! There’s a show called Cupcake Challenge where contestants have to create cupcakes that make the judges drool. Then they wheel in snake-hipped Jessica Alba as one of the judges. That woman looks like she could do with a cup cake or three. One of the contestants, a well padded Latino, beams at her as if all his Christmas cupcakes have come at once. Once again we are

reminded of food as porn. An orgy of Latin loveliness and foxy fondant awaits. But would she really eat one? Desserts and cakes don’t stop at iced buns on the Food Channel. These are towering confections of cream, fondant and candies. And nobody gets fat on them except the contestants.

OK, it’s not all skinny chefs and junk food, but with the US content in particular, there is an almost gleeful approach to unhealthy cooking. The traditionally built host of Farmhouse Rules piles on the butter, sugar and cream with abandon, while contestants on Cutthroat Kitchen seem to dish up an endless parade of burgers and hot dogs. But there are real chefs heading real cooking shows like Adam Liaw’s Destinations, .Maeve O’Meara and the team from The Chef’s Line and Shane Delia. Try NITV as well, Cafe Nugini is sheer pleasure.

The Bude Stone

A souvenir of a perfect day in Bude, Cornwall – I’m sitting between Uncle Richard and Aunty Annette,with my mother at the back.

The rocky coast of Cornwall is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Little towns and bays nestle amongst the cliffs, each with its own distinct character.

In 1957, I spent a wonderful late summer touring these towns with my parents. Mum and Dad were part of a carnival that visited places such as Clovelly, Barnstaple, Bideford and Bude. Part of the touring company on this trip was a dance duo, old friends of my parents, whom I called Uncle Richard and Aunty Annette.

We loved every minute of the tour, but at Bude we had a special treat. No one came to the fair. The other attractions in that beautiful little town proved too strong for the tourists, so the fair closed early and we got the day off. Show people and travellers rarely get to play tourist – other peoples’ holidays are our working days. It was delicious fun to get away, like playing hookey from school.

First we looked around the town – especially the churchyard, for we all enjoyed studying old headstones. We had tea at a charming inn with white washed walls, sitting outside under a magnificent bank of wisteria, sipping shandies (beer and lemonade) and enjoying scones with jam and fresh clotted cream.

Finally we went down to the beach, but it was too crowded so we braved the climb down to the wonderfully named Strangles beach, where many ships have foundered over the centuries. My father took a picture of us all sitting on one of the jagged rocks, then he went for a stroll. He was an inveterate beachcomber, and among the treasures he found that day was a small, perfect white pebble.

Later, he polished the stone and painted the word Bude on it in bright red and yellow letters as a memento of the day. My mother kept that stone in her china cabinet and would take it out and show it to her grandchildren and great grandchildren, and tell them the story of the Bude Stone.

Bob Dylan: All Along The Watchtower

The most fitting tribute I can think of to our new poet laureate – my current favourite version of one of his greatest poem/historical novels by the immortal Eddie Vedder. It sums up the reason Dylan is one of our greatest literary figures – in this short verse he creates a whole world, a drama bigger than Game of Thrones and a cast of characters that fire the imagination.

 

Love is a highway at 5:29

Poet Devereaux Frazier has some good work on his blog. I particularly enjoyed the rhythm and rock feel of this one.

An Aspergian's Chemical Romance

Highway_401_by_401-DVP

Pull out of your comfort zone
Far away from your home, and into the unknown
I guess you could call it fate
That every time I hit the road I find myself
Quite too late
The lanes are crowded
Unable to pass left or right
One slip and the moment is lost
Lovely evening turned panic stricken night
There’s so many out there
Big, small, and in between
Happy and sweet, angry and mean
Many I pass by, pushing faster as I go
Because that one I never wish to know
I slow down for others, even checking their rear
Wide, luminous, and ironically austere
But there’s one that stops me entirely
Hands up, windows out, breaks down
To her everything I am bound
Over mountains, under trees
Every passing minute makes this feel like a tease
But when I see her lights flash
Eyelids rise, pupils dash
And all…

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Oracle Night by Paul Auster

OracleNight
I’ll start by saying this is the first Paul Auster novel I have read, although he has a large body of work. I was attracted by the enigmatic title, and by the first page of the novel. You’ve heard all that advice about hooking them from the first paragraph – Auster does it so well it looks easy.

Oracle Night is a deceptively simple story. Sidney Orr, a New York writer, has suffered a near-fatal illness, and is slowly recovering. He walks into a stationery shop called the Paper Palace,  run by the strange Mr Chang, and buys a blue notebook from Portugal.
This very simple act sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the question every writer, sooner or later, asks his or herself: why does everything I write come true?

Oracle Night is a writer’s novel – it is about a man writing a book about a man reading a book, to put it in the shortest possible terms. Orr uses the blue notebook to begin composing a story based on Dashiell Hammett’s `Flitcraftian episode’ from the Maltese Falcon, Flitcraft being a man who decided to walk away from his humdrum life after nearly being clipped by a falling beam from a construction site.

Orr’s protagonist Nick Bowen is an editor, reading a manuscript called Oracle Night by one Sylvia Maxwell. While out walking one night, he escapes death by inches when a piece of masonry plunges into the street. Like Flitcraft, he has an epiphany and sets off for Kansas City. Orr is using the Flitcraftian episode as a springboard for a new novel. As Orr writes compulsively in his blue notebook, fiction and reality begin to intertwine, and tragedy becomes inevitable.

Auster’s writing is extraordinary. While I found Sidney Orr to be a somewhat weak, unattractive character, I couldn’t stop reading. Orr breaks every rule in and out of the book – he eschews chapter headings, so the novel reads more like a long short story, he switches viewpoints and tenses willy-nilly, he writes long sentences with loads of commas, and he even adds numbers into the text for back of book notes, for Heaven’s sake.

Yet it all works, in this ghost story without ghosts. Orr is haunted by the past, and by his characters, and most of all by the feeling that the world has become a dangerous and unpredictable place.. Meanwhile, Orr’s wife Grace is acting oddly, his writer friend John Trause has a blood clot in his leg, and Trause’s son Jacob is heading for Hell in a hand basket.

It is truly fascinating to see how Orr develops his Flitcraft story, to watch briefly sketched characters come to life – and within this story again, is another story, the true Oracle Night, the story of a psychic called Lemuel Flagg. As for that question that every writer asks sooner or later – he wisely ends it on an uplifting note, or none of us would ever write another word.

Didn’t See That Coming Either…

I posted a little while back on the way science fiction of the 50s and 60s completely missed feminism in the future – not that far into the future either, let alone a century or two. But then sf writers were mostly male and they didn’t see the rise of female sf writers either. Speculation on what the future looked like was always a major theme in science fiction – indeed it became known as speculative fiction. But even as late as the last decade of the 20th century – even into the 21st century – sf still managed to miss the bleedin’ obvious.

It happens a lot with sf movies – only Kevin Costner’s much maligned Waterworld caught the whiff of changing times with bad guys called ‘smokers’ who scoured the endless oceans for ships carrying cigarettes. Everywhere else, smoking in the distance future was still regarded as normal. In the claustrophobic confines of the Nostromo, the crew lit up constantly, and more recently still, Sigourney Weaver’s xenobotanist in Avatar awoke from her sleep to demand “Where’s my Goddamn cigarettes?” Yeah right, try that on a space station. It seemed the western world’s rejection of passive smoking never occurred to those speculating on the future as they plugged away at their word processors in a nicotine smog. A future where smoking is banned almost everywhere (even in your own writing den if the niconazis had their way) – unthinkable! But at least Star Trek and Larry Niven postulated a future with no smoking on star ships or the invention of harmless cigarette substitutes. Maybe the Nostromo crew were vaping? But no way would Grace Augustine settle for that shit. Meanwhile, back on Battlestar Galactica Starbuck puffed on ‘fumarellos’ and you could collect cigarette cards of him doing that in the real world.

In spite of the video phones in Bladerunner, and the ire of Phillip K. Dick’s heirs over the name of Google’s 2010 smartphone, neither book nor the movie saw the splendid comedy of people walking into light-posts as they gazed intently at their screens and failed negotiate street furniture. Public video phones didn’t catch on, not because people would caught in embarrassing situations when the phone rang, but because they couldn’t be made vandal-proof. Personal phones that people can lose, drop in water or crack the screen are much more profitable.

But that’s the trouble with predicting the future. Like Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.” (Well, you don’t if someone hides the chart guide to the fillings.) All you know is it will be different, and things you take for granted now will be banned or just disappear.