31 August 2009

Tomato, To-mah-to

Apparently, the entire world is having problems with tomatoes this year. It is selfish and pathetic, but all I can say is, thank God it's not just me! I was beginning to seriously doubt myself, and had started to have sleepless nights, and vexing, vegetable-centred, bad dreams...

Until I came across this article in The New York Times: "For Tomatoes, Green is the New Red" (28 August 2009).

So, I can with pride share a picture of my beautifully under-ripe gems in all their green glory...

So, The D.E.B. and I tried our hand at a bit of "Grow Your Own" and we are only now seeing the fruits of our labours. (Pun intended.) 

At last...one, single red tomato...

We spent our Bank Holiday afternoon yesterday celebrating our one, bright, red tomato! And did a pre-autumn tidy up of the garden, and planted some winter pansies in pots and our window boxes. We have had more success with our flowers this year than our veg. But, of course there is always next year.

Autumn pansies for a bit of colour this Winter

Lucy overseeing the garden tidy up

 "Pansies, that's for thoughts." - Ophelia


One of the things I love most about living in England, apart from the ample and steady supply of solid and liquid carbohydrates, in the wonderful societal institution that is 'The Bank Holiday.'

Bank Holidays are extended weekends with Monday as a day off from work. The Bank Holiday is a special treat -- I get to have my D.E.B. for an extra weekend day!

Like clockwork, Bank Holidays typically promise bad weather and great stuff on telly! So, last night, The D.E.B. and I indulged ourselves yesterday with raspberry trifle, popcorn, Bath Ale and part 1 of the latest adaptation of Emily Brontës’ Wuthering Heights, on ITV, featuring “Cute Brit Boy” Tom Hardy as Heathcliff.  

Here’s one for the Goth Girls…

Dark and brooding Tom Hardy as Heathcliff

You have to love the Brontës. Doom, gloom and despair. Lovely. 

I must say, I have always felt so sorry for Anne, the youngest Brontë sister. Think of it, one of your sisters writes Jane Eyre and the other, Wuthering Heights. Talk about literary pressure! Oy vey!

One of my favorite jokes about the Brontës is this: 

On a dark, rainy, afternoon, Papa Brontë is in his study. He calls Emily in to see him. She enters the room and finds her father holding a large book. “Emily,” he says opening the book, and revealing a dead, smashed bird inside. “Oh, Emily. Why can’t you just press flowers like your sisters?”


But I digress.

A break from the norm, a Bank Holiday is time to just do what you want. And it’s such a good idea the month of May has not one, but two Bank Holidays!

On one of the May Bank Holidays, the D.E.B. and our beloved hound, Lucy, walked from Wasperton to Hampton Lucy. It was a lovely walk, and on route to The Boar’s Head pub in Hampton Lucy, we paid a visit to the Charlecote Mill.

Charlecote Mill is an historic, working mill on the River Avon, which is even mentioned in the Doomsday Book (written in 1082). 

Although there has been a mill on the site since those times, the building that stands there now dates from the 18th century. 

(We love history!)

The present day millers at Charlecote Mill are still producing cornflour, wheat and wholemeal flour with machinery from the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The Mill has a variety of “Open Days” throughout the year where visitors can come in and have a look at the facilities and milling in process, and of course there are plenty of products to buy. I bought a small bag of organic, wholemeal flour, and am still using it. It feels good to support local industry, and help to keep places like Charlecote Mill open and running. 

Have a look: Charlecote Mill

Here are some photographs from our day at Charlecote. What looks like snow or dust is, of course, flour...

We have no such adventuresome plans today. We are going to do some work in our little backyard garden, and have a lazy day here at home. 

Ah, the Bank Holiday is such a pleasant and civilized thing.

21 August 2009

Minding your manners

"She look like man!" blasted the defeated Russian. "She's a man!" roared Italy's Elisa Piccione. And now, the World Championship gold medal winner, Caster Semenya, has been told she has to "prove" that she is a woman, or lose her medal.

I am fascinated and appalled by this story on so many levels. 

This debate calls a whole host of issues into question. On one hand one could argue that the most pressing issue here is "fairness." I am all for fairness, and am a firm believer that cheating should not be tolerated in any form. But that is not the only driving forces behind this.

What does it mean to be a woman? 

How does one prove that one is a woman? 

What does it mean to be a female athlete? 

How and where do concepts of Beauty and Attractiveness play into this debate? And especially the concepts of Beauty and attractiveness that apply one, (and, dare I say, white/Anglo) Western rule of thumb for all womankind. 

Let's break this down in lay(wo)man's terms: Caster Semenya isn't pretty. She ain't Beyonce Knowles. 

But cases like this one, bring out the ugly side in everyone involved. One has to question whether the Russians and Italians would reacted as fiercely as they have if Caster Semenya had been a svelte, long-haired, pretty girl from Iceland or Norway? Or would they have just slipped away, suffered their agonies of defeat in silence.

I was very proud this morning to read in The Guardian's coverage of all this that British runner, and Bronze medalist, Jenny Meadows, was "too polite" to make any comments regarding the gender controversy surrounding her South African competitor.

Jenny Meadows' very British stance shows a grace and decorum that serves as a lesson the rest of world could do with learning.

20 August 2009

This Green and Pleasant Land

“Charlotte,” I hear my next door neighbour, Rachel, calling out to her small daughter, “go out into the garden and pick some blackberries for us, please.”

I hear the sound of tiny, wellington boots clomping through overgrown, summer grass. “Mummy!” sweet Charlotte calls back to the kitchen, “I will pick some for us, but I’m going to leave on enough here for Mrs. Blackbird and Mrs. Robin. Mrs. Blackbird and Mrs. Robin have got lots of babies to feed.”

Charlotte is completely adorable, in that way little, English children uniquely are. I am very often struck by her tiny, but astute sensitivity to nature. And I think this is very English trait.

“How are your tomatoes coming along, Alycia?” asks Jackie 1, during a short swimming break in the pool. “They’re struggling.” I confess sadly, fearing my less-than-green, American fingers had failed in their gardening attempts. “Oh, no,” Jackie re-assures me, “mine are dreadful this year, as well.”

‘The Brits and their gardens’ is a fascinating facet of life here. From the legendary and highly-acclaimed Radio 4 program(me), “Gardeners’ Question Time” to the weekly pilgrimages to the breath-taking gardens of the National Trust, Britons are utterly captivated by nature, landscape and greenery.

No matter the size, or lack of the size, of the plot, an English garden—even if it is merely a window box—is a must. The passion does not stop at roses and foxgloves, oh no. Long before the economic crunch, and eco-friendly, organic philosophies were all the rage, generations of Briton have been “growing their own” in allotment plots up and down the country.

Allotments are serious business here in Barford. Rumour has it that there is a 10 year waiting list for one of prized plots, just off Wasperton Lane.

I can see that in a terribly lovely, quintessentially English way, The D.E.B. longs for a garden of our own. He longs for a connection with the earth, time spent out in the fresh air, working with his hands. And I must confess, I’ve caught the garden bug, too.

I am quite, quite proud of my window boxes full of colourful pansies. And I, too, long for a back garden of our own, full of color and possibility. I think more than anything  else, I’d like to grow garden peas – that classic, English veg.

But, with thoughts of gardens, come thoughts of houses, which at this juncture is painfully sore topic.

What is it about English houses?

I mean, seriously, I’m not a very large person, by any stretch of the imagination, but when we go on property viewings, I walk into to some of these places and think (often aloud), “You have got to be kidding me, I had more room in my microscopic, one-bedroomed, New York apartment then there is here, in this ‘Cosy Cottage’.”

What is it with Estate Agents, anyway?

Do they happen to think we are all mindless, gullible buffoons? Who doesn’t know that buzzwords, such as ‘quaint,’ ‘cute,’ ‘cosy’ and ‘charming’ are all just code for: “This place is no bigger than a cat’s head?

And don’t get me started on architecture! It is as if British architects and planners of the 1960s and 70s, looked upon any vacant and available green space, and had one, insane directive: “Erect as many dwelling places in this one square foot area as possible!”

I will accept that it is a fundamental flaw in my American character that I do not wish to live like a sardine. “Terraced houses”, “semi-detached,” “end of terrace,” that’s all code for: “You don’t have space of your own. There is no breathing room between you and your neighbours.”

Yes, I am cranky about house-hunting in Warwickshire. (Could it possibly be the most expensive county in England?!)

I resent the fact that in America, somehow, even people with the slightest of means, and possibly even without any means or a steady income at all, seem to manage to have big houses, with big backyards. Land and space are practically birthrights in America.

Hyperbole? In some ways, yes, but not entirely.

Our wonderful friend, Sally, said something a few weeks ago. Sally, born and raised here in Britain, has lived great stretches of her remarkable life in the UK, USA and Canada. She reckons that in Britain today the discrepancy between the have’s and the have-not’s is greater than it has ever been. And the tightest squeeze is on those in the middle. I think she may be right.

Someone tried to explain the English property situation to me: “Britain is an island,” (Thank you for stating the obvious.) “and, as such, land is a dear commodity.” At the end of this lecture, the point was made that the “problem” here is that the bulk of the land in this country is in private hands, something like 3% of the population own something like 80% of the land.

Which leaves the rest of us to fight it out for the remaining 20%. Brilliant.

Well, all that the D.E.B. and I want (with apologies to Virginia Woolf) is a place of our own here in Barford. Nothing too grand or ostentatious. But, something with a bit of character, not too modern or flashy. With a nice garden, and room to breathe and move around in.

It’s very funny, we had a look at this one place on the market here in Barford, a “barn conversion” – let me just say, if this place had been a barn once, it must have been a barn for at the most two Shetland ponies. Or a tribe of hobbits.

The minute we walked into the “Living Room,” I thought (possibly aloud), “Our nephew, Harry, would never even fit in this room, if he came to visit.” And that was truth! It was a doll-house.

Of course, we would have better chances if we ventured further afield.  But we love Barford. We have put down roots here, made friends, feel a part of a community, and have people we care about here.

Very frustrating.

Our house pursuit comes and goes. Some days we are both very keen, and other days we don’t see the point of bothering at all at the moment. We find ourselves in a very rational frame of mind, and say to ourselves: “Let’s just hang on, and see what happens.”

Right now, I feel another “why bother” spell coming on…

18 August 2009

Birthday panic

The D.E.B. and I share the same birthday: 22 August. 

That is four days from today. In truly uncharacteristic fashion, I have somehow allowed this significant date to sneak upon me without warning.

What am I going to do?!

 I am normally several steps ahead of the game, and usually have more than one sassy trick up my sleeve. Not this time. I got nothing.

I have no idea what to get him for a birthday present! And the clock is ticking.
Our birthday plans have only now taken shape in the past few days. We are having a weekend away in the Cotswolds in our little camper van.

With the work and preparation for my Lit Fest appearance next month, and a Shakespeare lecture on The Winter's Tale, for the University of Helsinki next week, I'm just drowning. So much for my attempt at being the "Goddess Wife." Nigella would have managed all of this with ease, prepared some deep-fried Mars Bars and baked a cake...

Oh, well. I still have a bit more time to make some magic happen.
Speaking of magic...magic moment last night as we had dinner in the garden.
I asked the D.E.B. what he'd like most for his birthday. He responded by smiling his beautiful smile, and putting his hand on my belly. Oh, my.

Well, we shall have to see about that. I wish that, too. I would love to make him a dad. I've never met a man who needs and should be a dad as much as my D.E.B. does. And I'm not alone in thinking so. So many of his female friends have said to me: "I'v e always thought he would make such a fabulous dad." I think they're right.

So, I guess we need to start thinking about all that then. On top of everything else. But, what a delightful thought.

17 August 2009

An early gift from "Santa"

How like a winter has my absence been!

Time has a way of passing so quickly when you're trying to stay on top of things. And, Dear Reader, I have not been completely honest. I have been utterly shy and evasive about the main drain on my time these days. I have been squirreling away on a new writing project. 

The D.E.B. and I have a very dear friend who is a culinary expert. (He taught the guy, who taught Gordon Ramsay everything he knows!) I have mentioned him here before, as he is the mastermind behind the wonderful culinary evenings the D.E.B. and I have attended at Stratford-upon-Avon College.

Getting to know our friend, Master Chef, over the past year, has revealed that he has a healthy interest in literature, history and theatre; and that I consider myself more than just a passing "foodie". So, we have decided to combine our respective passions and knowledge, and collaborate on a "Shakespeare Cookbook".

And I will confess, it has been a truly wonderful, guilty pleasure! I have no doubt that my friends of the "scholarly, academic" persuasion will be queuing up to scoff at me with disdain... 

Truth be told, I have put as much of my heart and brain into this, as any other project I have pursued. But, the fact that I'm actually having fun, somehow makes it feel less "worthy" than if I were spending hours upon hours slaving over  writing something along the lines of "the performative and deconstructed social realities, abridged discourse, and political anxiety of gendered violence in early, 18th century, Italian productions of Titus Andronicus according to Derrida". 


No more of that for me, thank you very much. I have served my time in the academic trenches, and now, I doing what I please! And I can think of few better ways to spend my time than sitting in my garden, sipping tea, and contemplating the (over 2,000!!) food and culinary references in Shakespeare works.

Master Chef and I are both taking this project very seriously. We have done very good, earnest, and hopefully entertaining, work. And, we've had quite a favorable response so far. Even without a physical, printed text to hand as of yet, we have been invited to preview our work at the Throckmorton Literary Festival next month, at Coughton Court. 

(I cannot say what it meant to me to see my name in print alongside such legends as Kate Adie and David Starkey--a.k.a, the Thinking Girl's Pin Up!)

So, I have been keeping my head down as they say, and getting the work done. At the end of last week, Master Chef and I sent out our first book proposal (to my favorite, UK cookbook publisher), and we'll be getting more proposals out this week. It's a funny old game, a lot of hurry up, and wait...and wait...

This weekend, after a successful trip to the Wellesbourne Post Office, I was feeling quite proud of myself, and had an overwhelmingly uplifting sense of infinite possibility! But, in the bright sunshine of this brisk, Monday morning, I feel the need to brace myself for disappointment.

It sometimes make me wonder why I even bother. All the effort, putting yourself out there, only to get rejection, after rejection, if anything. But still, we keep trying. I think one has to. The only other option to to give up, and not try at all. And that won't do!

Over the weekend, I read an interview with Italian novelist, Santa Montefiore, in W.I. Life magazine. Her words were a gift to me, just when I needed them. She said: "The secret is this. Write what you want."


08 August 2009

Picture Prince Charming

We are still trawling through our wedding photographs. Our wonderful photographer, Elizabeth Harper, sent us a cd with over 750 photographs. The D.E.B. and I have yet to make it through the entire disk! 

We starting perusing in earnest, with the intention of viewing them all, but we inevitably get distracted...

Here is one of my favo(u)rites of my dashing D.E.B.:

Coffee mornings

Glorious morning full of sunshine – at last!

Yesterday, after a quick swim, I went along to the Coffee Morning at the Machado Gallery. Sue Machado’s “first-Friday-of-the-month” Coffee Mornings are an institution in Barford, and yesterday was no exception.

I arrived around 11:30 AM to find a gathering of familiar faces. Sue Machado maneuvering graceful in her wonderfully bright and hearth-y kitchen area. Her formidable AGA was working at full tilt producing an array of beautifully baked breads, and goodies. (I opted for the spelt & ricotta pancakes with rhurbarb & maple syrup and homemade vanilla ice cream – yum!)

Out in the garden, the “Old Barfordians” were basking in the sunshine. The Old Barfordians are a group of ladies who re-unite at the Machado every month. All roughly in their 80's, these women grew up together in Barford, went to school and were in "Girl Guides" (British equivalent to "Girl Scouts") together. They have seen many changes of live together over the ways, some of them now live far away, but make the journey to Barford every month to reminisce over coffee and nectarine flan. They shared some of their old photographs with me.

Another regular feature of the Machado Coffee Morning is Di Hadley from Middle Watchbury tempting us all with lists of her farm offerings: locally raised and reared beef, pork and lamb. Her “Mutton and Mint” sausages are to die for. I ordered a pack of these, and put in a tentative order for a small Goose for Christmas.

Orders for Christmas, in August? Good grief, but, it will be here before we know it. I’d love to have a go at cooking a goose. Reminds me of one of those old English carols we use to sing in Choir, in junior high school.

For my life, I can’t remember the title of the song, but one of the refrains is: “Christmas is coming, the goose is going fat. Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat.”  I used to love that tune! And whenever we sang it, my thoughts would drift away to this blessed isle, and images of happy, English Christmases with plump roasted goose, steaming puddings, hats and Christmas crackers.

Last year, the D.E.B. and I had another English classic, a sexy alternative to traditional roasted fowl for Christmas dinner: “Sirloin Steaks and Stilton.” It was absolutely gorgeous, but this year, I’m thinkin’, “Bring on the poultry!”

 My thoughts about Christmas are only fleeting at best, I’m one of those people who likes to hang on to summer till the bitter rainy end. The D.E.B. is dying for us to go for a camping holiday in our little camper van. We should be away to the Cotswolds this weekend, but we feared that the weather wouldn’t cooperate, and of course, it’s sunny instead.

Ah, British weather you have to love it!

Our holiday plans have also been complicated by the fact that we were recently invited to a wedding in Spain. (One of my former students is getting married.) I’d love to go – any excuse to wear a hat – it falls at a somewhat awkward time for us to get away.

But, if we don’t go to Spain, we could delay our summer holiday to September instead. The weather here may in fact be better then, than it is now. We’re thinking a trip to visit the rellies in the Lake District, or a road trip on in search of my ancestors in the mountains of Wales.

For now, morning cups of tea in bed…