Friday, 28 September 2012

Cheese sauce and odd coincidences

It always pleases me when I find I have something in common with someone I admire.  If I’m reading an interview with a musician or an actor and they say their favourite holiday destination is the Greek Islands, I think “Ha!  If I were ever stuck in a lift with you, we could talk Greek Islands to while away the time until help arrived.”  Believe me, I can talk Greek Islands till the cows have come home, poured a drink and settled down with their feet up to watch Mastermind...  (Of course, the down-side of this is the slightly yuk feeling one has when one reads an interview with someone and they turn out to have politics that make one wince, or to be deeply evangelical over something one feels cringey about (like loving “Hello” magazine), or they are simply full of sh*t.  It isn’t quite so bad if they turn out to be nice but as thick as a plank, but still rather flattening to one's admiration.  Luckily, admiring musicians and opera singers, actors and artists, ballet dancers and writers and film directors and architects and the like, I tend to find myself more interested in someone when I read an interview, instead of less).   

Anyway; I will try and steer this rambling onwards to the point.

I went home last night and looked in the refrigerator, and saw a random range of vegetables, and a lot of cheese.  I thought “Mmm, macaroni cheese with veg!” and I began preparing the random veg and putting them on the hob in a pan of melted butter to soften, with salt and pepper and about ten cloves of crushed garlic.  The mushrooms soaked up a lot of the garlicky butter, so I added more butter, because to make macaroni cheese with veg you need enough melted butter in the pan to make the white sauce around the veg – they then cook in it (it saves on dishes). 

But then I opened the flour jar; and there was nothing in it.  Oh drat.  No flour = no roux = no white sauce.  Rats!   

I didn’t have any yoghurt or any eggs, so couldn’t do my usual gluten-free cop-out cheesy sauce.    I didn’t have any cornflour, so couldn’t cheat that way either.  I had a pan of butter, garlic and lovely veg braising sweetly away, and another pan of macaroni bubbling merrily beside it.  I swore, being me; but swearing didn’t solve the problem.  I could have thrown the lot out and ordered a takeaway.  I can afford to do that, occasionally, these days.  But it does so offend my pride as a cook, to chuck out perfectly good food; and I knew nothing I could order was likely to taste as good as that garlic smelled.  Good evening, Problem, what do you need?  Problem, meet Solution.

I put couscous in it instead, and went ahead exactly as if it had been flour.

The result was actually very tasty, if a bit heavy on the carbohydrates.  Couscous does not make a roux, but it soaked up some of the butter, and it cooked into a sort of creamy, grainy mush when I added liquid.  There were so many good flavours in there, what with the garlic and broccoli and sugar peas and mushrooms, that by the time I’d slung on some more pepper and half a cup of grated strong cheddar cheese I was almost pleased with my invention.  I don’t think I’ll be serving it to company any time soon, as the texture was fairly odd (& remember, I’m one of those strange people who like cornmeal grits and tofu).  Think cheesy gruel with vegetables, on macaroni.  But, heck, it was food.  That's always an improvement on no food, after all.

And then I was reading an interview online, in my lunch break today, and I found the subject talking about problems and solutions and being able to make a meal out of whatever is in the ‘fridge.  I had to laugh.  I love bizarre coincidences. There have been occasions in my life when odd coincidences have brought me real blessings.  I'd like to hope this one may - I sent GY to yet another agent a couple of days ago.  Please, please, please, let me get what I want...

So anyway, now I know, if I’m ever stuck in a lift with the actor in question, I can wipe the embarrassed stars from my eyes and talk cheese sauce recipes with him.  Mmm. 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Struggling as I face the final struggle...

I have to write the dénouement of the story I’ve been bounding through since mid-June,  and I am struggling rather.  It’s what would be twenty out of the last twenty-five minutes of a film (if this were a film), when the conflicting characters have their final struggle; the climactic fights-and-explosions (if you are James Bond), or blow-up-New-York-City (if you are The Avengers) scene.  In my case it’s blow up bits of a research institute, after evacuating most of the people inside and fighting the ones who won’t evacuate (on account of them being the villain and his cohorts – look, I never claimed this was subtle stuff).  But I’m stymied, not least because I’ve never blown anything up in my life.  Not even in fiction. 

How do things blow up?  I‘ve had to research some odd stuff in my time (armaments of a nineteenth century sloop,  location of telephone booths in the Royal Festival Hall in 1988...) but looking for youtube films of explosions is a bit outside the scope of my normal interests. 

And there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Oh, how there aren’t.  I have a full time job.  I like to cook and eat a proper meal when I get home of an evening.  I have friends and family I like to keep in touch with; I even try to see them sometimes.  I like to watch the news occasionally, and have the odd evening at the theatre or the cinema or something.   I have a life, for goodness sake.  But I also have a story; and this particular one has come like the proverbial express train.  I have clung on to a swinging door and hoped I didn’t fall off when it went round corners, and I have written about four fifths of it in three months.  Even if I really struggle with the climactic blow-up-the-Droit-Institute scene, I could well be finished by the end of October.  It’s been weird, and rather exhausting at times, but also it has been wonderful.

Back to work now.  On the notice board above my desk I have stuck a picture of Rimmer from “Red Dwarf” and a picture of Hawkeye from The Avengers, and given them little speech bubbles.  I look up at them, and feel encouraged.  They are both cute, in their wildly different ways, and both good guys.  I imagine them working together to keep me on my feet, and I believe it’ll all come right in the end.  Please god.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Why I love London (or one aspect of why, anyway)

I’ve been living since mid-May in a room in a shared flat, just across the river from work; it’s one of forty-odd apartments in a small block, near the railway line from Waterloo.  The other inhabitants are a very mixed bunch, about half from the British Isles and half from pretty much all over the world.  It’s quite a sociable block, largely I think because a lot of the people living there are families with kids, and all the kids play together after school, rushing about in the area where the washing lines and parking spaces are.   Listening to the adults talk, one hears a myriad different accents; but all the children sound the same – just indeterminate cheerful west London kids’ voices.

Yesterday evening I was cooking supper with the kitchen window open, and a heated conversation was going on outside between two of the kids.  It started off being about whether the FBI were the bad guys or not (poor old FBI, there was a time they would automatically have been the heroes).   Someone wanted to be a bad FBI man, and they couldn’t decide if that meant he was a rengrenade (“You mean renegade!” “No I don’t, I mean rengrenade!”) or not – he wanted to be able to shoot people before they shot him, which apparently only bad guys do.  The problem seemed to be that if the FBI are the bad guys, then a renegade FBI man is actually a good guy (while a rengrenade sounds like a very dangerous guy indeed).   Incidentally I wasn’t really eavesdropping; they’re kids – they shout. 

Once they’d sorted that out, things went something like this:
Child 1: But can I shoot you?  Please!
Child 2: Okay, okay, you’re a bad guy then.
Child 1: Yeah! (Passable fake American accent) I’m Jake Walker, FBI, you’re harbouring a fugitive!
Child 2: (No attempt at accent) Don’t shoot!
Child 1: Does Hannibal Lecter live here?
Child 2: No! He’s gone away!
Child 1: Where’d he go, asshole?
Child 2: He went on hajj!
Child 1:  You’re lying!  He’s a Nazi!  I’ll get you, asshole!  Bang!  Bang, bang!
Child 2: Aargh!  I’ll get you, I’ll get you!  Bang, bang!  Aiee!
(Various bangs and thumps).
Child 2: Banzai!
Child 1: Expelliamus!

I looked out of the window at this point.  Child 1 had a water pistol and a wooden spoon for a wand; child 2 had a piece of garden cane for a samurai sword.  There’s nothing like a really imaginative fighting game.  I’m sure I ought to disapprove, but they were using their imaginations, and rushing about getting lots of exercise in the open, and getting wet; and they were having a great time.

What I really loved, though, was the wild mixture of cultural references, and the way each of them knew exactly what was going on.  I caught at least six different themes in that game, and there may have been more that I missed.

It’s one of the big pluses of living in a city; saccharine terms like “multi-culturalism” and “melting pot” become dynamic and thriving realities.  And the children, at least, seem to be totally at home with it.  

Of course there are plenty of other reasons why I love London; it's really rather a fine city in many ways, despite the noise and the grubbiness.  I do like having a choice of about eight different cinemas within half an hour by bus.  And being on the doorstep of world-class opera, ballet, concerts, theatres and galleries.  And seeing people I admire in the street doing normal things like carrying their own groceries.  And I do love Kew, funnily enough!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


I've been away; hence lack of blogging.  I went to Cornwall for a week with my mother and elder brother, to celebrate Mum’s 80th birthday.  Cornwall was beautiful, as always, the weather was variable, again as always, and the peace and quiet and fresh air were all blissful. 

The journey down did not go well.  It had all looked straightforward on paper.  Mum and I were to meet at Paddington and get a morning train to Exeter, Stephen would meet us there with his car, and we would drive on as far as Plymouth, picnic at Jennycliff, then drive on to Polruan in the afternoon.  Simple!  Except Mum and I managed to get on the wrong train.

I’m still not sure how we managed to do it.  I really thought we were on the right one.  But we were spotted, and thrown off, because our tickets weren’t valid on the service in question.  The train was extremely crowded and by the time we had managed to get back on to the platform the train we should have been on had left.  Just to add insult to injury (at least in my own mind) one of my favourite actors was on the train and very sweetly helped us with our luggage, and I failed to recognise him and growled “No, no, I can manage, honestly what a bloody cock-up”, when I should have been smiling and saying “Thank you” courteously.  What a cock-up, indeed.  Hopefully not being recognised is a pleasure rather than a pain for the chap in question. 

No, not that actor, alas.  This was the lovely Samuel West.  Who turns out to be rather taller than I had imagined, and in fact damnably attractive in person.  Lovely brown eyes with crinkles at the corners.  Bah humbug.  If I had recognised him I would probably have made a perfect bally fool of myself all the way to Exeter, so I guess it was all for the best.

All this meant we were running late; Stephen rearranged his journey, and was able to meet the next train without undue trouble, but as this meant we arrived at lunch time instead of well before, we went down to have our picnic lunch beside the Exe instead of overlooking Plymouth Sound.  We parked outside St Clement’s church, below Powderham Castle; and Stephen promptly reversed into the church collecting box.  Which was built into a large granite pillar.  So the starboard stern bumper of the car looks as though it's been attacked (though luckily none of the rear lights were damaged).  Poor little Volkswagen; but at least it gave as good as it got - the collecting box looks as though someone tried to stage a smash-and-grab raid on it...

Then we went down to the foreshore with our food, and I sat in a large lump of tar.  Large enough, and warm enough (it was a very sunny day, and tar melts in the sun) that it went through my trousers, through my underpants, and onto me.

I now know one can get tar off one’s backside quite efficiently with a good squirt of WD40, so I learned something useful from this; but still, it was not a good start to a holiday.

From then on, though, things were okay.  It was almost like the old theatrical adage about a bad dress rehearsal meaning a good first night.  Nothing else went wrong, and pretty much everything went right.  We all caught up on some sleep, walked on the coast path and along the Fowey River and its assorted creeks, got a lot of wonderful fresh air, talked to cows, visited country churches, bird-watched, ship-watched, paddled, went to the Eden Project (fascinating but very expensive!), talked our heads off, drank a lot of gin and tonic, and ate too much.  Perfect family holiday, I think.

Sadly I didn’t manage to do much writing, as I was too busy doing all of the above (& too tired by the time I went to bed each evening).  But I’ve got stuck into it again since I’ve been back.  Only I do wish I were still in Polruan, with that clean, clean air to breathe.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A killing...

As I keep saying, I’m writing something at the moment.   I have no idea if it’s any good (I have a feeling I keep saying that, too).  But it keeps coming, and all I can do is go with it, hope to get to the end, and then look back over it and try to decide, as dispassionately as I’m able (which isn’t very) if it is worth the time that the typing up and editing will take. 

It will need typing up, since I’m writing it long-hand, in notebooks.  And it will need editing, and some re-writes.  The villain’s motivation is extremely obscure, for example.  It isn’t obscure in my mind – I know exactly why he is doing what he is doing and what makes him tick.  But I’ve made a right lash-up of explaining it.  No use me knowing, if I can’t show anyone else what I know.

I can see where I can sort that out, which is good.  There’s a point, not long after he’s first introduced, where one of the protagonists meets him in an office.  It’s a context where it will be easy for them to talk for longer than they do, and I can cover most of what I need to say there.  It should also ramp up the tension, since at that point there’s what I perhaps laughably think of as an action scene coming, and an extended conversation first will hold one in suspense for a bit longer.   Says she, hopefully.

But that will have to wait, because it’s flowing, and I daren’t break the flow by backtracking.

I’m halfway through the fourth A5 notebook at the moment.  If each notebook takes approximately 16,000 words to fill, that puts me at around 56,000 words and counting.  I reckon I’m currently about 2/3 of the way through, so I estimate coming in at somewhere over 80,000 words.  That’s respectable, I think.  “Ramundi’s Sisters” ended up being on the short side at just under 60,000 words, chiefly because it needed so much editing (okay, cutting – let’s be honest here, Dent!).  “Gabriel Yeats” is just over 100,000. 

Good lord, that’s a heck of a lot of words I’ve written over the last few years.  That’s not counting several long-ish short stories, and “Fortitude” and “Midnight in the Café Tana”, both of which have broken off about 1/3 of the way in, and need to be returned-to at some point. 

I’m rambling, sorry.  I do ramble.  Really, it’s amazing that I don’t write a 200,000-word doorstop every time I try to produce so much as a blog post.  If I had the time, I very likely would.  A large vocabulary is a blessing, but being prolix is not.

In the current effort, which at the moment is scratching its head thoughtfully under the not-quite-right hat of “Gold Hawk” as a title, I have just killed someone off.  He’s a relatively minor character, who I created initially solely in order to kill.  The whole idea was to show how ruthless and mwa-hah-hah EVIL the main antagonist is, by having him bump this character off almost immediately.  Then I looked at the eager-eyed, bushy-tailed, not-very bright figure who’d just spring into being, and I felt sorry for him, and thought he might come in handy later, and I didn’t kill him on his first appearance.  But it became very clear that he was going to come to a sticky end eventually, and last night he did.

I've been edging my way up to this for a couple of days; knowing it was coming, and finding myself surprisingly uncomfortable with it.  Finally yesterday the crunch moment arrived.  I wrote solidly for a couple of hours, cleaned my teeth and took out my contact lenses, and wrote on for another hour and a half.  Once I’d got going it really flowed, and he and his best friend made their way through the last few hours of his life and came to the moment when he is shot, and the moments after that; and all of a sudden it was over.  I re-read what I’d just written and thought “This probably needs tidying up, but it sounds okay.”  

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find myself crying.  I don’t say that out of some kind of weird self-aggrandisement – I cry very, very easily (& have cried at some pretty odd stuff in my time).  I think he made a good end; he wasn’t doing anything particularly worthwhile, but he was being a bit more grown-up than he had managed up until then, and that’s not a bad way to finish. 

Tonight, though, I really want to give myself an evening off.  I think I might go to the flicks and see “Brave”.  That sounds appropriately harmless and light-hearted to ease the slightly odd feeling of being a bit of a murderer.  The character I killed off had been around just long enough, and had grown just enough as a person, that I really wish he hadn’t had to go. 

I may let him be a ghost.  Heck, it’s urban fantasy; I can have ghosts if I want.