Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Oh dear, I had such good intentions but here's another poem, the next post will be something I wrote, I swear!

I like Wislawa Szymborska. The fact that I like writers like this is probably indicative of why I never really got on with traditional pedagogical education. I mean, we never read anything like this...

The Terrorist, He's Watching

The bomb in the bar will explode at thirteen twenty.
Now it's just thirteen sixteen.
There's still time for some to go in,
and some to come out.

The terrorist has already crossed the street.
The distance keeps him out of danger,
and what a view - just like the movies:

A woman in a yellow jacket, she's going in.
A man in dark glasses, he's coming out.
Teenagers in jeans, they're talking.
Thirteen seventeen and four seconds.
The short one, he's lucky, he's getting on a scooter,
but the tall one, he's going in.

Thirteen seventeen and forty seconds.
That girl, she's walking along with a green ribbon in her hair.
But then a bus suddenly pulls in front of her.
Thirteen eighteen.
The girl's gone.
Was she that dumb, did she go in or not,
we'll see when they carry them out.

Thirteen nineteen.
Somehow no one's going in.
Another guy, fat, bald, is leaving, though.
Wait a second, looks like he's looking for something in his pockets and
at thirteen twenty minus ten seconds
he goes back in for his crummy gloves.

Thirteen twenty exactly.
This waiting, it's taking forever.
Any second now.
No, not yet.
Yes, now.
The bomb, it explodes.

I like the anxiety of the terrorist, and also his egotism, sitting and watching to see exactly who will be killed or injured, indifferent. Despite the fact that people are described solely by their physical features their humanity still breaks through despite the protagonist's perspective; which of us hasn't returned to collect gloves or an umbrella we've forgotten in a bar or café? The victims are random, the target a cross-section of society, terror targeting everyone. The terrorist will even wait to see the bodies carried out, but still his anxiety forces us to identify. A great poem, in my humble opinion...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I was going to call this post 'lost in translation' but that's so clichéd...

Here's a sonnet I like by the 16th century Portuguese writer Luis Vaz de Camões. The first is in the original, the second a direct translation, the third a more popular rendering:

Erros meus, má fortuna, amor ardente
em minha perdição se conjuraram;
os erros e a fortuna sobejaram,
que para mim bastava o amor somente.

Tudo passei; mas tenho tão presente
a grande dor das cousas que passaram,
que as magoadas iras me ensinaram
a não querer já nunca ser contente.

Errei todo o discurso de meus anos;
dei causa [a] que a Fortuna castigasse
as minhas mal fundadas esperanças.

De amor não vi senão breves enganos.
Oh! quem tanto pudesse que fartasse
este meu duro génio de vinganças!


My errors, cruel fortune and ardent love
conspired to bring about my ruin;
the errors and fortune were superfluous,
since love alone would have done as much.

Although it’s over, the dreadful pain
of what I suffered is still so vivid
that I, with bitter rage, have learned
never to try to be happy again.

In life and words I’ve always strayed,
giving Fortune cause to punish
my poorly founded hopes.

In love I’ve known just brief illusions.
Oh! if only my ruthless Genius
would have its fill of wreaking vengeance!


My errors my loves my unlucky star
these three things have been my curse.
My luck and my errors were bad enough
but love was the worst.

I have survived. But the pain
has bitten so deep in the bone
the rage and grief will not let go --
too hurt to want contentment now.

The blunders scattered through my life
are like a broken rosary.
I gave myself to fortune; fortune broke me.

Of love there is hardly a ghost left.
O who, what angel of power can assuage
my terrible demon of revenge!

What's more important, direct translation, or a translation that perhaps diverges from the original meaning of the individual words but captures something more of the original sentiment?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mark Eitzel

I'm going to see Mark Eitzel play in Edinburgh in a few weeks. I've seen him a few times before and even met him a couple of times, totally embarrassing myself on both occasions. He's such a brilliant live performer, he's really funny one moment and then he plays an incredibly poignant song. Your really go on an emotional journey when he's on form - can't wait!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Comrade Aching

A poet I got into in my undergraduate days was Conrad Aiken. He acted as a mentor to Malcolm Lowry whom I read avidly as well. I haven't focussed on their writing for years. They wrote the kind of work that you have to really immerse yourself in to extract enough meaning for you to truly enjoy them, and even then the meaning you've gathered isn't enough.

Conrad Aiken fascinated me perhaps partly because a lot of his work was about not defining your identity by past experiences, that your memories are merely linguistic constructs which can be unpicked and redefined. I always found this very comforting. Perhaps Aiken tried to contrive this philosophy because of an horrific formative experience that took place when he was a child. His father killed his mother then himself in Aiken's nursery room - Aiken then found their bodies. He about wrote it in his autobiographical essay, Ushant:

"After the desultory early-morning quarrel, came the half-stifled scream, and the sound of his father's voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and he tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever."

Pretty traumatic experience to say the least. It's something that Aiken spent a lifetime trying to get over and, let's face it, he never succeeded. Here's his final poem, written in a Savannah nursing home. It's unfinished so a bit rough and ready, but nevertheless it resonates. It's unavailable in any of his poetical collections but I'm taking it from his Selected Letters:

Death is a toy upon the nursery floor
broken we know that it can hurt no more
and birth, much farther back, begins to seem
like that recurring and delicious dream
of middle age, the twin isles blest
in the Atlantic, where we paused to rest
and saw the sacred people of the west.
Ourselves? But in another time to be?
No, no such luck for such as we.
Angelic beings through and through
heart and mind and stature equal grew
all that they did and said was crystal true
a distant chime
from world invisible and unspeakable
in human prose and rhyme.
Dream, or a vision, we could not stay
and it is lost.
How can old age receive such Pentecost?
And yet, not so.
For no,
we heard the mystics, saw the mysteries,
it is to these
with clouded sight we turn once more
to look at death upon the nursery floor.

During his life he seemed to try to subsume his anguish in dissecting his pain through his poetry, by analysing every last detail of his life experience in words, to distance them from him and then bring them closer, re-contextualised and new:

Surround the thing with phrases, and perceptions;
master it with all that muscle gives
of mastery to mind, - all strengths, all graces,
flexes and hardnesses; the hand, the foot;
quick touch of delight, recoil of disgust;
and the deep anguish too, the profound anguish,
which bursts it giddy phrase. Surround the thing
with the whole body's wisdom, the whole body's
cunning; all that the fingers have found out,
the palm touched of smoothness or roughness;
the face felt, or coolness and stillness;
the eye known, of mystery in darkness;
the ear found in silence.

Surround the thing with words, mark the thing out
passionately, with all your gestures become words,
patiently, with all your caution become words,
your body a single phrase -

And what do you say -?
O simple animal, twisted by simple light -!
do you sell space or time what the thing is?
Or do you tell the 'thing' that it is you!

That poem's from Time in the Rock. I could go on quoting his poetry as I love it, but simply don't have the time. More of his stuff will appear, all in good time!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

My recipe for roast chicken

I made this last Saturday and it worked so well I think it's the way I'll cook chicken from now on. I actually bought the chicken from Glasgow's excellent farmers' market just so I could make stock, which I reduce down almost to a glaze and freeze into ice cube trays. Doesn't taste too good in whiskey though!


One whole chicken
Haggis (or some sort of stuffing, but haggis is great)
Onions, or shallots
Bottle of cider (I used Weston's organic cider - probably best not to use White Lightning)
Olive Oil
Salt and pepper

So, firstly cut some onions into quarters, or halve shallots if you have them, and chop some carrots length ways (I used a packet Tesco's carrot batons, they were reduced and cost 25p, okay?). Heat the oven to around 200-220 degrees centigrade. Stuff the haggis under the skin of the bird, it's best not to stuff it into the cavity as it never really heats through. Paint or rub the chicken with olive oil then rub some butter onto the skin. If you're at all interested the olive oil prevents the butter from burning. Season with salt and pepper then place the chicken on to a bed of the sliced carrots and quartered onions, along with a bit of butter and olive oil, and cook on the high temperature for around twenty minutes.

After this take the chicken out and turn it upside down so that the thighs are facing upwards. This is because you want the chicken to cook evenly. Turn the oven down to around 180-190 degrees and pour in around half a bottle of cider, around 300ml I'd imagine. Make sure the chicken is still resting on the onions and carrots. Give it around 25 minutes upside down in the oven.

For the remainder of the cooking time (if you don't know the right times then check a specialist cooking website) turn the chicken the normal way up with the chicken breasts facing upwards. It's nice to drape a couple of slices of bacon on the top of the chicken at this stage, it will give the skin a pleasant saltiness and adding it at this stage should ensure it doesn't over cook and dry out too much.

When the cooking's complete (check this by piercing the thighs and ensuring the juices run clear) remove the bird from the oven and cover it in foil and leave a warm place to allow the meat to rest for around twenty minutes. You can remove the carrots and onions from the roasting dish and they will form part of the accompaniment to your meal. The sugar in the cider should have caramelised them slightly and they should be rich and unctuous. You can use the remaining liquid left by the juices from the chicken and the remaining cider that hasn't evaporated to make a gravy, which will be quite sweet but should complement the dry wholesomeness of the haggis stuffing.

Probably best served with roast potatoes and some sort of green vegetable, but the hassle of making other veg is overcome by using the carrots and onions that should be imbued with the flavour of the cider and the chicken.

If anyone makes it I hope it works well for you!

I should add that I got the idea of chicken and cider from Keith Floyd, but the recipe's sufficiently different to assuage my guilt!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Five ways to make Match of the Day bearable viewing

Match of the Day, the BBC's flagship football programme that's been running since year dot, is one of the laziest most complacent pieces of television currently being broadcast. MOTD seems to exemplify the BBC's attitude towards their viewers. I imagine that they think we're all gurning morons, empty minded and passive, incapable of digesting challenging or alternative view points. I guess that because MOTD gets high viewing figures they think all's well, neglecting to consider that they have on their hands an inelastic product and that therefore viewers without cable or satellite subscriptions have nowhere else to go to get a round-up of the weekend's football results. Here's five ways that they could drastically improve the show:

1) Ask James Richardson to be the presenter. Okay, his puns may stink worse than Gary Lineker's, but he's infinitely less smug, is capable of spontaneous wit, talks to the viewer like he's his peer not a mentally defective schoolboy, and has a wide knowledge of world football. This brings me on to point two.

2) Cover some football from around Europe, or even the world. I'm not saying that they should present in-depth analysis of La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga, but a little acknowledgement that football is played outside of these shores would be nice. The BBC seem to be following Sky's dictum that they should constantly claim that the Premiership is 'the greatest league in the world', and present it like it exists in the vacuum. Showing us the goals from around Europe might give us a little bit of context as to why the premier league is quite good, highlight the feats of players we read about in the rumour mill's of the national newspapers and, frankly, would just be plain enjoyable. Are they afraid that viewers will suddenly think, 'god, Barcelona are a bit tasty aren't they? I'll give up supporting my English team and start following them' and switch off?

3) Get rid of Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer. Fuck, these guys are dull. I suspect Hansen may have been replaced by a robot in recent years. He has about seven stock phrases which he reels out according to the game he's being asked to comment on, most of them to do with poor defending, e.g. 'That's the worst defending I've seen in my life!' - thanks for the brilliant insight there Alan. Lawrenson seems chronically bored by football - has anyone noticed that after watching a team in the bottom half he always say 'they'll be fine'? They can't all be fine Mark, an opinion here or there wouldn't go amiss. Don't even get me started on Shearer, I literally have no idea what he's doing there. So, who do you replace them with, James Richardson can't do it on his own (although even alone he'd be better than this shower). Move on to point four.

4) Bring in football journalists and comedians. Okay, so really this is still part of point three, and I'm not including so-called journalists like Ian Wright here! The BBC seems to think that you have to be a former professional to have an informed opinion about the game. Are the rest of us just sitting there wondering what's going on like clueless cretins? What would be wrong with having Paul Wilson in one week, Henry Winter the next, both respected football writers? Are the BBC frightened that they might say something controversial? How about having Dara O'Briain, Sean Lock, or Alan Davies, in to discuss the game with the pundits? They're all fans who regularly attend games, they're actually funny, intelligent and might just put a different spin on proceedings that we as viewers might enjoy. This takes me to my final point...

5) Don't take it all so seriously! Okay, I know that for most of us football is a serious business and a good or bad result can affect our mood for the rest of the weekend. As many of the above points illustrate though, football is meant to be fun. We need to shatter the illusion that it's of life and death importance. What passes for light-hearted moments in MOTD currently is old-boys backslapping humour of the lowest and most cringe inducing order. Yes, let's have serious analysis that challenges our perspective on the game, but also let's laugh at it and acknowledge that we all get caught up and invest way too much gravity into it. MOTD's sister programme, MOTD2, comes closer to recognising this and let's face it, we're all disappointed when there's a big match on a Sunday and the BBC wheel out Gary Lineker in place of the genial Adrian Chiles. Chiles comes a lot closer to pricking football's pomous self-importance and for me is infinitely more bearable than Lineker.

Those are just some thoughts from Sheepfold Hill. Not all of them practical I'm sure, but for Christ's sake, MOTD has become depressing viewing for me and surely something's got to give!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Floyd on death

'Drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink...' -Mark Eitzel

It's a few weeks since Keith Floyd departed now but he's been playing on my mind since he died. There's no point in me writing an obituary for the dual reasons that a) no one will read this anyway and b) there's been plenty written already by people far more erudite. So, here's some thoughts from up here on Sheepfold Hill about the man.

Being born in 1982, as I was, I missed Keith the first time around. It wasn't until, three of four years ago, watching Saturday Kitchen one morning, I saw footage of him attempting to cook clams in champagne in a galley kitchen of a boat during what I imagine was a storm. He explained jovially that the director and the cameraman were both being sick up on the deck so he was shooting and directing the sequence on his own. As the boat rocked from side to side, the sound of glasses smashing and crockery crashing to the floor punctuating his good-humoured banter, he swigged champagne from the bottle and tipped clams into a pan to cook. I have no idea how to replicate the recipe for clams that he was attempting to show the viewer, but sat in raptures of pleasure enjoying this chaotic television so different from the staid environment of the Saturday Kitchen studio.

Over the next few years I bought as many of his books as I could pick up for next to nothing on Amazon. Something I love about his books, apart from the anecdotes and literary allusions, was the simplicity of his recipes. It occurred to me that he was about a decade, if not more, ahead of his time. There are lots of asides in the recipe lists saying things like 'you can't get coriander from your local supermarket but all good Asian food shops will supply it'. I never shopped in supermarkets during the eighties but it shocked me to consider that ingredients as seemingly basic, and now ubiquitous, were not readily available then. Keith was right at the inception of the movement of television chefs who inspired people to experiment with food and not be afraid of new and unusual ingredients. I still hassle my fishmonger regularly to get me some cod tongues to try out a Floyd recipe!

For me, Keith pretty much laid down the framework for how a good and interesting cookbook should be, and the books since by Rick Stein, Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver etc. are at their best when they deviate as little from this framework as possible. The newspaper columnists seem to have placed far too high a stock, if you'll excuse the pun, in his television work, and barely emphasised the quality of his published work at all. Perhaps this is a consequence of his rambunctious personality, and the fact that many of the commentators are part of the generation of television chefs that followed in his wake.

The influence of his recipes, haphazard and vague though they often are, perhaps partly goes unacknowledged because he never copy-wrighted any of them. As a consequence of this chefs can copy, or re-interpret, them without the need to nod to the man that first committed them to the page. A year or so ago I was surprised to see Keith's mackerel and gooseberry sauce recipe printed in the Guardian Weekend magazine by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Keith believed that recipes were public property, the accumulation of generations of experimentation and improvisation by cooks. No one creates a recipe without cultural context of course.

My final observation is that some of the commentators seemed to lament the fact that Keith was a drunk. This aspect of his personality was something he was lauded for whilst he was alive. It seems a bit harsh now he's dead to cast him as a man who serves as an example of the dangers of over-indulgence. Ironically, like Malcolm Lowry, an autopsy revealed his liver to be in perfect health. I wonder if that's because he only drank decent wine and spirits, as opposed to the poor drunk's tipples of choice, Special Brew and cheap cider?

I'll always have my Floyd books to refer back to so this will be the legacy that he has bequeathed me and I'm sure I'll think of him every time I cook one of his dishes.

Cheers Keith!