Posts Tagged ‘festivals’


July 21, 2014

All the heat has meant this week has been one of battling with exhaustion and feeling quite ghastly. Various low points have included sitting in a cold bath while commanding the bemused husband to make me a bucketload of pasta, spending half-an-hour hanging around in the bank just to take advantage of their air-conditioning, and falling asleep in the middle of a conversation. In fact the first time I felt normal all week was yesterday evening when, after managing to get thirteen hours sleep (twelve overnight plus another one in the afternoon!), I went for a swim in the peaceful haven of Hampstead Ladies’ Pond and at last felt reduced to a normal temperature.

Jane EyreLuckily, I have had a feast of good reading to keep me company while sweltering through the sultry weather. Next weekend I am off to Deer Shed Festival, up in the beautiful wilds of Yorkshire, where I will be interviewing Samantha Ellis – author of How to be a Heroine, which I wrote about here; Susie Steiner – author of Homecoming, which I will write about below; and doing a walking book club on Jane Eyre, which I suspect I will write about next week. Three terrific books to read or re-read – really I can’t complain! (A little aside to URGE you to re-read Jane Eyre, or indeed read it for the first time. It is completely brilliant, even better than remembered. And then you could come along to the festival and come on the walk … and then together we can imagine Jane striding away from Thornfield Hall and coming across Mr Rochester on his horse, while trudging through a landscape not so different, although of course ours won’t be treacherously icy. Go on, dig out your old copy, and begin it again, I promise you won’t regret it!)

HomecomingHomecoming is also set in Yorkshire, and while the landscape might be as wild and beautiful as Bronte’s, the concerns are very different. The Hartle family are struggling to make ends meet on their farm. There is a great deal about farming, which for a born-and-bred Londoner like me was surprisingly fascinating. Now I feel I know a little about things like ‘lifting the beet’, ‘lambing’ and the importance of not stacking hay too tightly. Joe loves the farming life:

The ground giving up its treasure to him: it was a beautiful thing. He pictures the soil and the layers – the substrata – brown then red, then glaring orange, reaching down to the earth’s core where it was hot. And him on the surface, gathering its riches up – drilling goodness and filtering it into trucks. This was what a man was meant for.

Ann is more pragmatic, and it is she who has to make the grim trips to the accountant, who tells her money is so tight they will barely make it through to lambing. On the way back, she stops at a petrol station and ‘resists a Ginsters pasty, even though she’s ravenous. Better to save the money and make a sandwich back home.’

The book is structured around the farming year, with a new calendar month for each chapter. It gives a feel of the rhythm of the year, but moreover of its unstoppable movement forwards. It is a tough year for the Hartles: disaster follows disaster (I won’t go into details here for fear of spoilers) and there are many times when you wish a rash act or unfortunate consequence could somehow be undone, but to no avail. While farming is the context for most of these tragedies, really it is as much a novel about the different ways in which people face change, and the playing out of complicated family dynamics. And those are things to which we can all relate!

Joe and Ann have two sons, Max and Bartholomew. Max works the farm with Joe, and Joe would like to pass it on to him, only Max is, quite simply, too useless. Bartholomew has gone down south, where he has set up his own garden centre, though that isn’t without its own share of troubles. Bring the four of them under the same roof for Christmas and you get the hellish mess of resentment, jealousy, grudges, nagging and everything else that almost all families suffer at that time of year.

Then there are all the other characters – the wives and girlfriends, the friends and local busybodies, and the dreadful barmaid from Essex… It is a rich cast, but my personal favourite is the ingeniously dreamed up Primrose, Max’s wife. She is a very peculiar woman, who is terrible at forging emotional connections with people, even her husband. Instead, she spends her free time wiring and taking apart plugs and things, evidently feeling more comfortable with electrical connections than human ones. How I long to ask Susie Steiner where she found the inspiration for her!

Steiner cleverly moves the narrative perspective between her many characters, so you get a nuanced understanding of their varying points of view, the different demons with which they struggle. It is a powerful device for creating empathy, and by the end of the book you feel rather like you’ve been living under the Hartle roof, absorbing their various quirks and idiosyncrasies and feeling very fond of them in spite of their many faults. I suppose much as you might feel after spending some time with your own family.

Luckily, for all the changes that the Hartles face, Homecoming is a pleasingly reassuring novel. And it does this without falling into the trap of being too cosy. The outcomes are not the straightforwardly happy ones which the various characters would have wished for in an ideal world, but if Steiner is a realist, she is still an optimistic realist for the results are largely positive, albeit very different to what they might have hoped for.

I suppose this is the thing about change – and at the moment, I feel like I am faced by CHANGE in capital letters whenever I glance down at my growing bump. It is a terrifying thing in that it is unknowable. Suddenly your course has altered and you’re no longer entirely sure where it is you’re headed. Of course you might not end up exactly where you’d imagined and things might not work out just as you’d hope, but in Homecoming we feel relieved and reassured that they do at least work out somehow. Phew.

Anyway, I am very much looking forward to discussing Homecoming with Susie Steiner at Deer Shed Festival next weekend. Come and say hello if you’re there too!


The Leopard at Perch Hill

July 14, 2014

The weekend was spent in a blur of food and flowers, as Emily’s Walking Book Club went to Perch Hill for its first Summer Feast. We feasted on an Ottolenghi dinner of lamb with pomegranate and tomato salad, delicious beetroot puree and aubergine delights. (We had made bets on the train down as to key Ottolenghi ingredients that would be included and we did very well indeed, as we managed to get: pomegranate molasses, lamb, aubergine, cardamom and za’atar – oh the horror on Yotam’s face when a naive punter asked, what’s za’atar?) Then came Sarah Raven’s breakfast and lunch, with everything picked fresh from the beautiful garden, including extraordinary nasturtiums, making the salad almost too pretty to eat.

And then came Emily’s literary feast – the walking book club discussed The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, paying particular attention to the abundance of food in it.

Perch Hill walking book club 1 - striding over the Sussex hills

It was a beautiful setting and we wandered through woods and over fields looking out at the Sussex countryside and thinking how different it was from the Sicilian landscape described in the book and how lucky we were that our summers were rather milder than those in Sicily, ‘as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success’.

I wrote about The Leopard a few months ago, so here I thought I’d write more specifically about food in the novel.

We had better begin with the famous macaroni pie:

The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

Delicious, and just about enough of a recipe to try to make it at home. In fact my brother recently attempted to concoct it, albeit without the truffles, with great success. It rather puts all our Italian pasta dinners to shame…

More interesting, however, is how Lampedusa describes the reception of the dish:

The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The arch-priest made the sign of the Cross and plunged in head first without a word. The organist absorbed the succulent dish with closed eyes; he was grateful to the Creator that his ability to shoot hare and woodcock could bring him ecstatic pleasures like this, and the thought came to him that he and Teresina could exist for a month on the cost of one of these dishes; Angelica, the lovely Angelica, forgot little Tuscan black-puddings and part of her good manners and devoured her food with the appetite of her seventeen years and the vigour given by grasping her fork half-way up the handle. Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving this fantasy with the pudding; the Prince, although rapt in the contemplation of Angelica sitting opposite him, was the only one at table able to notice that the demi-glace was overfilled, and made a mental note to tell the cook so next day; the others ate without thinking of anything, and without realising that the food seemed so delicious because sensuality was circulating in the house.

Perch Hill walking book club 2 - feeling rather gluttonous with all that pieThis is real eating! I love the way they all give themselves up entirely to the food. There is a remarkable ‘sensuality’ in the way they eat dinner – everyone appreciates its sumptuous goodness, just as they do Angelica’s beauty. A far cry from the stuffy dinners of English country houses at the time…

The rich macaroni pie is a very good example of Sicilian cucina baronale – literally the cooking of the barons – and Lampedusa emphasises this by showing the organist thinking he could exist for a month on the cost of it. He would be used to the contrasting, rustic cucina povera. Indeed, later on in the book, the priest goes home and Lampedusa notes that the simple dinner there ‘was much enjoyed by Father Pirrone, whose palate had not been spoilt by the culinary delicacies of Villa Salina’. The Prince, on the contrary, is so used to the cucina baronale that he, with his refined palate, is the only one to notice the defect in the demi-glace.

Angelica, who turned everyone’s heads as she entered the novel a few pages ago is shown ‘grasping her fork half-way up the handle’, betraying the fact that while she may be beautiful and wealthy, she is certainly no lady. Tancredi is shown to be an infatuated young romantic, imagining tasting her kisses with each bite, but also – and this is key – a pragmatist, for he soon gives it up when he realises it’s ‘disgusting’, thinking he’ll try again with pudding. Of course it is Tancredi who has the famous line ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ He is open to change and compromise, happy to bend his ways with the times in order to come out on top, and his eating of the macaroni pie is no exception.

It is astonishing how many deft, minute character studies Lampedusa crams into this paragraph of macaroni eaters!

A similar sensuality of eating and food appears a little earlier in the book with the ‘foreign peaches’, grafted from German cuttings:

There was not much fruit, a dozen or so, on the two grafted trees, but it was big, velvety, luscious-looking; yellowish with a faint flush of rosy pink on the cheeks, like those of modest little Chinese girls. The Prince felt them with the delicacy for which his fleshy fingers were famous.

Brilliantly, these luscious peaches are next seen as they are borne by Tancredi’s lackey as a present for Angelica. Surely there could be no more fitting gift. You can almost read Tancredi’s mind, as he thinks her kisses would taste more of these peaches than of the macaroni pie.

Perch Hill walking book club 3

We wondered, on the walking book club, if there might be any significance to the fact that they were grafted from German cuttings. There is an earlier description of a rose brought from Paris, ‘degenerated’ thanks to the ‘strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth’ into something ‘obscene and distilling a dense almost indecent scent’, like ‘the thigh of a dancer from the Opera’. Here the message is clear that the Sicilian environment is so intensely sensual that it degenerates the refinements of Paris into something obscene. But what about the German roses, which ‘succeeded perfectly’ though yielded little fruit. Perhaps, suggested one clever lady, this is a reference to the alliance between Germany and Italy during the Second World War. An excellent theory, for the War was very much in Lampedusa’s mind as he wrote The Leopard in the years following. It even makes an appearance when he flashes forwards to the ceiling being destroyed in 1943 by ‘a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn.’ – just as Lampedusa’s own family Palazzo was destroyed during the War.

Indeed, food is often a metaphor for politics in The Leopard. My favourite instance of this is in his description of the rum jelly:

It was rather threatening at first sight, shaped like a tower with bastions and battlements and smooth slippery walls impossible to scale, garrisoned by red and green cherries and pistachio nuts; but into its transparent and quivering flanks a spoon plunged with astounding ease. By the time the amber-coloured fortress reached Francesco Paolo, the sixteen-year-old son who was served last, it consisted only of shattered walls and hunks of wobbly rubble. Exhilarated by the aroma of rum and the delicate flavour of the multi-coloured garrison, the Prince enjoyed watching the rapid demolishing of the fortress beneath the assault of his family’s appetite. One of his glasses was still half-full of Marsala. He raised it, glanced round the family, gazed for a second into Concetta’s blue eyes, then said: “To the health of our Tancredi.” He drained his wine in a single gulp. The initials F.D., which before had stood out clearly on the golden colour of the full glass, were no longer visible.

This is not just an account of a family eating a jelly, but a rather lavish metaphor for Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily as part of the Risorgimento, which is taking place at that very moment.

The Prince has recently bid farewell to Tancredi who has gone off to fight to aid Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala. Lampedusa even manages to slip in the name of this port, as the Prince is drinking a glass of it. The jelly, like Sicily, would seem to be impossible to scale, but is in fact penetrated ‘with astounding ease’. Garibaldi did indeed invade ‘with astounding ease’ (helped by the presence of British ships), and soon Sicily’s resistance was no more than ‘shattered walls and hunks of wobble rubble’. Tellingly the initials F.D., which stand for the last Bourbon King Francis II, become invisible.

Once again, I was reminded of how wonderful a book The Leopard is, and the walking book club concurred. As did this very sweet little sheep that first bleated at us from afar, no doubt keen to join the discussion, and then bounded over to us as we approached. Perhaps he always felt himself to be a misunderstood leopard.

Perch Hill Walking Book Club 4 a literary sheep


July 27, 2010

There’s nothing more juvenile than having a hero.

At least that’s what I’ve always told myself as consolation for never being able to think of one when reading those silly celebrity questionnaires. ‘Who do you most respect and why?’ ‘If you could have dinner with anyone at all, alive or dead, who would it be?’ ‘Who’s your greatest inspiration?’

My mind has a habit of emptying itself pretty quickly when put on the spot in such a – well, shall we say juvenile? please? – way. Before job interviews I always try to think of an appropriate answer. One that would make me look both supremely knowledgeable yet also humble and somewhat irreverently witty. But I’ve never ever managed to come up with a good one … and that inevitably makes me spiral into paranoid collapse (Oh my god, they’re going to ask me it and I’ll say someone like Virginia Woolf and they’ll think that’s really naf and then they won’t want me. Argh…).

On reading Kelis’s answer to the question: ‘What living person do you most admire and why?’ in the Guardian (here), what little respect I had for her completely vanished. ‘My mom. She has been a fashion designer and run a catering business.’ I mean, come on …

So, now I find myself in something of a quandary. Because now I realise I have a hero. It’s so juvenile. It’s so silly and daft, and it’s so pathetic that I feel the only way to make it at least half-way bearable is to write about it, because that might be a way of making it into something slightly more useful.

I only realised I had a hero, when he walked past me at Port Eliot festival on Saturday afternoon just after he’d given a phenomenal talk. I told him that I thought it was fantastic and he said some suitably humble, charming replies before running off to the bookshop to sign more copies of his book, which was – of course – in high demand. I was standing with my cousin, who hadn’t seen the talk. Who didn’t suspect me at all of my hero-worship.

‘Who’s that?’ she asked. So innocent.

And then I knew that he could only be described in one way. ‘That’s my hero.’

I sighed. She laughed. Then I explained.

So, for those of you who haven’t guessed, he is Edmund de Waal, a potter and the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I’ve banged on about here and here already.

I met him when I was about a third of the way through reading his book. He was giving a talk at the bookshop, and I asked him a few questions before everyone turned up. Why had he written it in the present tense? Had he found it hard to drag himself out of this incredible world of his ancestors? Was it difficult to avoid falling into the nostalgia trap?

He was utterly charming, humble and articulate – both when talking to me and when addressing a crowded room. He seemed nervous about giving a talk, grateful that people liked his book. He said he couldn’t believe its success, and wanted to go around writing ‘thank you’ in everyone’s copy. (He actually wrote it in mine!)

I too was nervous before the talk. Although I wasn’t even half-way through The Hare with Amber Eyes, I knew it was going to be one of the best books I had ever read. And I was going to meet its author. What if he were ghastly? What if he were really stuck-up and seemed like a real plonker? It would be so upsetting. It would detract from this magnificent book, and make me feel like a bit of an idiot for believing in it so strongly.

But he was wonderful. And the rest of the book was all the more wonderful for having met him.

So it was a very happy surprise when, having just arrived at Port Eliot, standing gormlessly near some tipis in a field with my fiancé, I saw Edmund de Waal. I said hello and immediately thought maybe I shouldn’t have. Oh god, I thought, how dreadful, I bet he doesn’t remember me at all. He thinks I’m someone who looks slightly familiar, who might be a friend of a friend of a friend or something. I introduced him to my fiancé, and then, to try and smooth over any awkwardness, reminded him that I’m Emily.

‘I know, I know.’ He said he remembered me from the bookshop. We chatted amiably about Port Eliot, how excited we were about going for a Wild Swim with Kate Rew, how pretty it all looked and how many interesting talks there would be. I asked him if there was a particular talk he was really excited about, and he said Diana Athill.

Anyway, off I trotted, pleased as punch that he – my HERO (although I had not yet reached this epiphany) – knew who I was.

His talk, the following day, was brilliant. In fact it was almost better than the one at the bookshop. Edmund de Waal (I don’t think I can call him just Edmund) had told me, in our little chat outside the tipi, that he was going to be given various objects from the big stately home an hour before the talk, which he would then have to talk about. And he managed it with great aplomb. He talked about books and the touch of different grades of paper, and ceramics, and – of course – netsuke spontaneously and effervescently and the whole room was set alight.

Ah. Well. I have my hero. I shall just have to get over it. I suppose the only consolation is that he has his heroes too. And, indeed, heroines. Like, perhaps, Diana Athill.

He had said how much he was looking forward to Diana Athill’s talk, so you can imagine my glee when I made a discovery that evening … I was chatting to a friend who, by some strange twist of fate, had given Diana Athill a lift down to the festival. En route they were nattering away and Diana Athill had said that she’d just read the most marvellous book – The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Yes, really!

How I longed to bump into Edmund de Waal again and tell him that Diana Athill loved his book, that his heroine thinks of him with just as much respect. But I didn’t have to, because at his talk she was sitting right at the front. How incredible that must have been for him. And how terrifying!

It must be extraordinary when someone who you think of as completely amazing, someone who is balanced on a pedestal way up there, swaps places with you. Just imagine them sitting down at your feet to hear what you have to say. And then imagine what might happen next? I spotted Grayson Perry and Jarvis Cocker hobnobbing over a cone of chips. Perhaps Diana Athill and Edmund de Waal were going to head off for a cuppa. Imagine chatting to your hero so easily on such level, if muddy, ground. Perhaps then they might fall from hero status a little bit and be more of a friend. Or perhaps you would be more of a hero yourself.

Well, perhaps if and when I have a book launch/give erudite yet entertaining talks/am on the radio, he might be there listening. Then I might say to him afterwards, over a whisky, ‘Oh yes, I remember reading your book. It was quite marvellous.’ But I’d say it in rather a nonchalant fashion, not in a juvenile way at all. I certainly wouldn’t let on to anything about heroes. And then, for sure, I’d feel that I’d made it.

Festivals and Forster

July 23, 2010

This weekend I will be under a different sky, breathing in fresh country air. I’ve fled London’s smog and will be frolicking in a field at Port Eliot literary festival.

I’m always amazed at how free people are at festivals, how happy and chatty and energised. I feel, perhaps naively, that it’s more than all the drugs that are inevitably on offer. It’s being in a new setting, free from the constraints of home.

The liberating effect of a different landscape is something that I feel Forster explores with real intelligence. In Italy I read Where Angels Fear to Tread. Set in ‘Monteriano’, a thinly veiled San Gimignano, it was a perfectly-placed novel for a stay in Tuscany.

The Italian landscape seems to turn everything, in Philip’s (the main character’s) eyes, into aesthetic scenes. When he goes to the opera:

he saw a charming picture, as charming a picture as he had seen for years – the hot red theatre; outside the theatre, towers and dark gates and medieval walls; beyond the walls, olive-trees in the starlight and white winding roads and fireflies and untroubled dust …

Later he describes Miss Abbott and Gino with a baby:

Just such a baby Bellini sets languid on his mother’s lap … So they were when Philip entered, and saw, to all intents and purposes, the Virgin and Child, with donor.

But the Italian air has more of a profound effect on the women in the book. Miss Abbott, after the opera

had had a wonderful evening, nor did she ever remember such stars or such a sky. Her head, too, was full of music, and that night when she opened the window her room was filled with warm sweet air. She was bathed in beauty within and without; she could not go to bed for happiness.

Miss Abbott (and Lilia before her) fall in love with Italy, and are transformed from uptight gossipy characters in small-town England into greater, more romantic figures. Italy puts everything in a new light, transforms characters, pulls them out of narrow-minded Englishness.

This is far more optimistic than Forster’s portrayal of India in his last novel, A Passage to India. Here it is the Marabar Caves, which have the most powerful effect. These caves, the very first thing that is mentioned in the book, are a menacing yet exciting presence on the horizon; the are the only ‘extraordinary’ thing about Chandrapore, the fictional Indian city where it is set.

One fateful day, Aziz takes Adela and Mrs Moore on an expedition to the caves. Mrs Moore is overcome with horror when they go into one of the caves. This is because of ‘a terrifying echo’, terrifying because it is ‘entirely devoid of distinction’:

Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘ou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’ – utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce ‘boum’ … And if several people talk at once an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.

Mrs Moore is completely overwhelmed by this echo, which continues to reverberate her head, making her feel that everything essentially boils down to the same sound, the same engulfing nothingness. And Forster implies that this hideous, deadening, nihilistic echo is the sound of India; it is how ‘the mood of the last two months took definite form’.

The expedition to the caves is an attempt to bridge the gap between the English and the Indians – an attempt at friendship – and it results in catastrophe because of the caves. For Adela then claims that Aziz has assaulted her in one of them, and this is the beginning of the end of Aziz’s reputation and a warning against future attempts at cross-cultural friendships.

Trouble after trouble encountered him, because he had challenged the spirit of the Indian earth, which tries to keep men in compartments

Forster returns to this idea of the Indian earth, the very essence of India, being against friendship between the English and the Indians throughout the book, perhaps most effectively at its close. Aziz and Fielding want to be friends with each other, after all the messy events of the book, and Fielding says to Aziz, ‘Why can’t we be friends now? … It’s what I want. It’s what you want.’ Forster states:

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single-file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voice, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.’

So India and its echo prevents any true union between the English and the Indians. Forster suggests it is the land of India itself that makes it so difficult, the Indian earth, the Indian sky. Rather than helping people grow out of small-town narrow-mindedness, like Italy, India seems to actively prevent it. Perhaps Forster grew more cynical with age.

I just hope the festival will be cynic-free …