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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Reverie In February

It was a little after seven fifteen this morning when I got up. The night before had gone rather well; an impromptu gathering of friends and neighbours fuelled by several savoury nibbles and a few bottles of good wine. With conversation ranging over many issues (most notably perhaps the secret sex life of retailers), this was a gentle evening of good humour.

By ten o’clock I knew I had drank enough red wine for the evening and swapped to tap water. A couple of chums did the same and Debbie also. By midnight it was all over bar the farewells, leaving Debbie and I to ready the green room for breakfast duties. Cleaning and washing, we swapped conversational tidbits that each of us at opposite ends of the table had picked up during the course of a very convivial evening.

After finishing the chores, we went to bed feeling happy and contented. Seven hours later, I woke up feeling very relaxed and happy, keen to get the day’s first pot of tea on the go.

Gathering the tea-tray from Debbie’s desk in the yellow room and setting off for the kitchen via the green room is one of my favourite journeys. It may not be dramatic or compare too well with some of the great travels that have inspired books and all kinds of art. Compared to Kerouac’s crossing of a continent or Hannibal’s legendary outing, this is really a timid squeak of a walk barely worthy of the name and most likely devoid of merit or sights to write about.

Yet for all its parochial ambition and well-worn predictability, it enables me to ruminate on what needs to be done and what I’d like to do, and in its own way can be just as inspirational as any exotic vista.

Carrying the tray and its contents of assorted cups, milk jug, plate and half-full teapot balanced on my left arm, I cross the landing past our bedroom to take the 26 steps downstairs. As I levelled with the green room, the corner of the tray nicked the door, knocking the tray and subsequently me, completely out of balance; slapstick routine ensues. The tray becomes a bucking bronco of errant crockery as I tap-dance forwards and backwards. The milk jug slips sideways pouring its contents onto the floor before me; a cup goes overboard splintering into tiny china barbs that eagerly awaited my dancing feet.

Somehow I managed to keep the teapot horizontal through-out this spastic high-wire walk, avoiding an even greater catastrophe and eventually managed to park the tray onto the table. Whatever I had been thinking about or planning for the morning’s work had been spectacularly knocked aside. There was nothing to be done but get busy with the mop and bucket and give the green room another going over. It wasn’t how I envisaged starting the day but I made the best of it, trying to see the funny side of it as I picked a couple of splinters out of my bare feet.

And then after that, I made a loaf of bread – another seemingly mundane task but one apparently loaded with all kinds of symbolism and meaning as this email from the recently hospitalised but now recovering John Sargent demonstrates.

Meanwhile, from hospital reading - Authenticity, by David Doyle ('Where does this New Realism come from? What are its demands and how will it shape our future lives? And what, exactly, does it mean to be truly 'authentic'?), this:

'By the end of her life, Elizabeth David's main focus - much to the irritation of some of her original fans - was to rediscover the authentic traditions of English cooking. And, as so often in the authentic story, that meant a determined search for roots. 'We need to go back to the recipes of a century ago or further, when an authentic and still strong English cooking tradition flourished.' she wrote. What had begun as her rejection of puritantism had grown into an equally powerful rejection of the kind of third-rate, fake food the technologists and food corporations were serving up for us all.

And nowhere more than in her defence of authentic bread in her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery which she finished writing just as the restaurant tables were coming out onto the London pavements in that long hot summer. British bread was by this time the most chemically treated in Europe, and Elizabeth David turned her attention to defending small independent food producers, knowing that authentic food required diversity.

She wasn't alone. Small is Beautiful author EF Schumacher - another pioneer of authenticity - thoroughly embarrassed his dinner-party hostess by making the same point a few years before. He started buttering his perfectly white napkin, to make the point that it was indistinguishable from the perfectly white slice of fake bread on his plate.

With Schumaker's help, bread has become a symbol of resistance to fake food. After all, the thirteen big bread manufacturers now control a £3 billion industry producing airy loaves with so few nutrients in them that they have to be injected with vitamins. Every environmentalist should learn to make their own bread, says Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence: citing it as the kind of act of defiance as Ghandi's learning to spin was in India.'

Well, after a morning that had seen me teetering between comedic pratfall and unwitting Foodie insurrection, I did eventually get my pot of tea and then something else that I hadn’t bargained for.

Sitting upstairs in the yellow room I watched the first real snow of the year flutter down. Protected from the cold winds, with Ginger Bob purring on my knee, I was listening to Michael Nyman’s Decay Music. As the snow flakes swirled and darted about on high-octane wind, the glacial pace of this music contrasted perfectly was a perfect accompaniment and antidote to the high-speed frosty spectacle. It was a moment of sharp contrasts; warm and cold, calm and frenzied, one balancing the other.

Despite the unexpected tea-tray drama and resulting cut foot, the sense of well-being that had hung over from the night before had not been pierced or broken. Indeed, from where I sat it was as though it was being actively enhanced with each note on the piano or squalling gust outdoors. From downstairs, the homely smell of freshly baked bread drifted around the place, insulating me further from the steadily worsening weather, somehow provoking a sense of equanimity.

As someone predisposed to terminal uncertainty and a perpetual feeling of dread that has me hand-wringing for a portion of every day, I had unwittingly entered into a different space that I can only describe as clarity. I realised how lucky I was; the woman I love was sleeping in our bedroom next door and I could hear my children stirring for the day. We had good neighbours and friends that enriched our lives in ways that seemed to go beyond civility and polite society.

In that moment anything seemed possible, nothing was locked off from me. Most of all, the crawling panic I usually encounter was notable by its absence. This was heady stuff. I felt ridiculously and passionately alive. This was what was real. This is what was authentic; the diamonds in the dirt.

Looking back on it much later in the day, I wasn’t going to write about it at first because now that I was out of the moment and getting on with the life of the house, doing homework with the boys, making cookies, washing clothes, ironing school uniforms, going to the shops and the million and one other commonplace duties we all perform, that special lucidity seemed a tad corny and cheesy.

It felt profound but when I tried to write about it somehow it looked trite; as we hurtle about our daily lives, we often miss what’s important and however dumb or obvious that statement may read it’ll do me just fine.

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