Saturday, 25 September 2010


Well, what a fool I felt.  Why hadn't I heard of him?  Maybe I had.  In a sort of distant way, you know, the name rang a distant bell, but not enough to pursue. Or he was mentioned in one of those pieces in The Sunday Times written by an old school cove who you didn't really know and skipped over.  The army was mentioned, the war, Greece, dressing for dinner, anecdotes, regimental silver - that sort of thing.  Oh dear.  It was my loss.
Patrick Leigh Fermor.  That's the man in question.  Of course, you're probably sniggering now, being well acquainted with his work and thinking - where has she been not to know of him? I bow my head in shame.  I do, really. 
A Time of Gifts is an unexpected treat.  A young man (obviously well connected, let's make no mistake about this) sets off from London to walk to Constantinople in the 30's.  Yes, walk.  Through Europe.  Through the rising Nazi threat in Germany. 
A quick update of his upbringing is called for - so - troubled but privileged childhood, Father was a Geologist and away discovering fossils and rare rock strata's, Mother a dippy and enchanting society woman, Patrick not qualified and penniless starts his adventure armed with a rucksack, a sketchbook,a pair of boots and an army greatcoat and the promise of four pounds every month or so posted to his at various ports of call.
It's a classic memoir of forgotten Europe.  The Europe that I, certainly was not familiar with.  The Black Forest, The Danube, The Rhine, Schlosses, Abbeys and crumbling castles perched on rocks. Eagles, Bears and the finer points of Bavarian aristocracy, woodcutters, crones and monster perch. He has an insane thirst for arcane knowledge and picks up the most delightful trivia along his way.  This book is a treasure chest of the most wonderful writing, making me yearn to see the domes, the monasteries, the Bavarian snow, the last of the duelling schools, and the wildlife of pre-war Europe.
He describes when walking through the snowy forests the effect of a million of pine needles catching the frosty light and cross hatching the snow with a hundred thousand sequins.  That alone made me want to be there.
He muses on the correlation between the Baroque and decorative ironwork, the fact that from Nepal to Switzerland or wherever there are cold winters and mountains, woodsman with too much time on their hands in front of the fire and access to sharp knives take up fretting and carving wood to within an inch of its life and the rise of the brown shirts...
"In cold weather like this," said the Innkeeper, "I recommend Himbeergeist." I obeyed and it was a lightening conversion.  Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost - this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice cold in it's misty goblet, looked as though it was homeopathically in league with the weather.Sipped and swallowed it went shuddering through it's new home and branched out in patterns like the ice ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold.  Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes.  Vodka, Aquavit,, Danziger Goldwasser.  Oh for a thimble full of the cold north!
I like to think that when the weather gets bad this winter (and I think it will) Patrick can knock at my door and I can offer him some of my Sloe Vodka that will be a fiery-frost potion to spark his blood and revive aching limbs and send him back on his youthfull travels, rocketing through the ice and snow.  Cheers.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Homes and Houses

There are houses that become homes, and homes that are never mere houses.  I've lived in a few.  You know, the sort of house that starts to take over.  In a friendly way.  Nothing spooky.  But the rooms become so much a part of the person or people that live there that it's impossible to think of one without the other.  My friend Sonya who lived in The Old Mill in Padstow I found impossible to think of without conjuring up the sheer madness of her home - the home with the wooden carved Gothic font rescued from an obscure French Cathedral, the galloping Edwardian carousel horse with a gilded barley twist pole, the stuffed owls playing poker, the hatboxes on the stairs and the hundreds of soda syphons that lined the freezing living room. 
The Bloomsbury lot have been occupying my mind for some weeks now - and this wonderful slim volume has been a real joy to discover.  Bloomsbury in Sussex by Simon Watney is a little treasure trove of facts and snippets of those two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia,  that still linger in our imagination.  Even if we don't know their work, we are all still in thrall it seems to their chosen way of life.
Charleston and Monks House.
Charleston of course, sounds jollier.  Even the name conjures up flappers dancing, whilst Monks House does have a slight ring of gloom.... I loved knowing so much about the houses.  The fact that Virginia, who loathed shopping and felt that the shop keepers mocked her for her shabby dress and inability to make a simple decision, leant on her sister Vanessa heavily for all domestic choices.  "I have ordered some wonderful brightish red-orange stuff for the curtains to be lined and bordered in mauve."
Vanessa was of course the Bloomsbury domestic goddess, but with very little cash.  She urged Virginia to attend a cooking class in Bloomsbury where she distinguished herself by baking her wedding ring into a suet pudding.
Charleston was of course decorated within an inch of it's life - and jolly good it looked too.  Heavily leaning on the new Russian Ballet for inspiration and colours, it was, and still is, an amorous house. With rooms leading off rooms and all with an individual, casual shoes off, collar undone and stays loosened sort of feel to it.
Monks House was different - more formal, very austere and oh - so little comfort. (Neither house was in any way luxurious and must have been so cold in the chilly Sussex winters)  The guests complained amongst themselves, but put up with it as The Wolves's were a joy to be with.  Water from a pump, no electricity and outside 'earth closets'.  All this changed when the money started to come in, but even then there were certainly no frills.  A range in the kitchen, hot water in the bathroom and tiny electric fires in the bedrooms were a big concession.
But - and it's a big BUT, I know....the houses then seemed to sing with the joy that the inhabitants took with their surroundings that very few homes seem to have now. 
Vanessa remarks in later life that she is amazed that they had the energy for so much decorative flair - even the murals were hard to do with their chalk grounding and lime wash.  But I'm so glad they bothered. I leave you with a wonderful painting that hangs on my wall of an impression of Charleston by Jason Lilly.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Food festival

One of the nicest things about being an author is that sometimes you are invited to do things out of your day to day life - well, I've never cooked in front of a group of strangers before, but today, on the live food stage at Brighton & Hove Food Festival, I did.  And jolly good fun it was too.
The real chef was old mate Andrew Kay, but I was allowed my own radio mike, chopping board and very sharp knife, which I eyes with a great deal of mistrust. I was convinced that I'd cut myself and bleed on stage, and there's nowhere to hide, as there are those horrible professional mirrors above the working surfaces and cooker, as well as cameras following your every move.... But, fear not, all went well.
It was a stonking wonderful autumn day, bright blue skies, sunshine and a hint of falling leaves and conkers in the air.  Tapas was on the menu, so we knocked up Chorizo and Butter Beans, Chicken livers in Sherry, Green beans braised in Olive Oil and Garlic and some Padron Peppers - now, I'm sure you are all aware that the infamous padron peppers is the equivalent of a gastronomic game of Russian Roulette.  These pretty looking green things are briskly pan fried in olive oil till blistered then drenched in flaky sea salt and eaten warm.  They are sweet and delicious - but - one  in ten are fearsome hot.  I mean, mouth numbingly, sweat inducing, throat clutchingly hot.  What to do? Well, I picked a random looking innocent and chomped away.  Nothing but sweetness and a salty taste.  Andrew was not so lucky.... Poor boy, nor the woman sitting in the second row.  A certain amount of schadenfreude on my part was going on, it had to be said.
The food went down incredibly well, judging from the rush of people to sample it - but the best was definitely the Chorizo and Butter Beans.  A perfect quick snack or a great supper dish with some crusty bread and a sharp green salad. So, here it is.....
Olive oil
1 large sweet onion
1 good quality cooking chorizo
2 or 3 tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
1 large tin of Butter Beans, drained
 Pinch of smoked sweet paprika
Slug of sherry

Throw the thinly sliced onion into the hot oil along with the garlic and sweat for a few minutes, add the chopped chorizo and watch in amazement as the colour from the chorizo turns everything the most glorious colour.  Breathe in the heavenly aroma for a while whilst stirring and imagine a back street of Barcelona, complete with orange trees and clinking wine glasses and a rather gorgeous man smiling at you... oh sorry.... I drifted off there for a moment....anyway, let it all sizzle away for about 10 minutes then add all the rest of the ingredients, put the lid on the pan and leave it for another five to ten minutes. Time to pour a glass of wine and make the salad.  That's it.  Simple and gorgeous.  Cheers.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Commuting on the Orient Express

Princess Marthe Bibesco was the darling of Europe.  Born at the turn of the century in Romania which was just emerging as a player in Europe after being dominated for so long by the Ottoman Empire, her striking looks, her chestnut locks, her emeralds, her precocious education and her wit made her a figure of international gossip. 
Enchantress (Marthe Bibesco and her world) by Christine Sutherland is a real hagiography.  But no matter.  I can live with that.  Especially as I learn that the woman had her OWN bespoke carriage on the Orient Express that she practically commuted on, shuttling backwards and forwards to Romania, Paris, Berlin, Bucharest and London.  Oh, and let's not forget pre-revolutionary St Petersburg.  When the train drew into her stop for her country house in the Carpathian mountains, young gypsy girls with yellow and orange striped flounces skirts would greet her by singing and handing her through the carriage window earthenware pots of wild strawberries covered with sage leaves.  At this point in the book I practically swooned with envy. And who wouldn't?  (Due to extreme generosity of BF I was whisked back from Venice on said train for a 'special' birthday and have spent many an idle hour working out if I sold my flat how long could I actually live on the train.  Answer: Two years. But what a two years they would be!) But Marthe, of course, didn't have those worries. Pretty wealthy anyway, her books were bestsellers and she raked it in.  She was adored by two Kings, a Crown Prince and a British Prime Minister. More or less at the same time.  Whilst she was married.  Crikey.
She opened her doors in Romania during WW1 as a hospital (and very fetching she looked too in a sort of nuns habit, reading to injured soldiers and holding the hands of the wounded) and helped her husband set fire to the oil fields so that the Bosche wouldn't benefit.
Back in Paris, Proust was an intimate friend as was Anatole France.  Her cousin Anna, Countess of Noailles was a bit sniffy about her - jealousy I suspect as Marthe was undoubtedly the uncrowned Queen of the Left Bank.  Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco were also cousins - and Marthe fell in love with that enigmatic tortured man, Emmanuel, not realising that he was gay and the love could never be returned.  (He came to a mysteriously sticky end, and his devoted and debonair brother, Antione,  was comforted by Enid Bagnold of National Velvet fame.  He thundered at Enid - 'Never speak of this! And never speak of your silence!'  She later wrote a play about them both and on the first night there was the most terrible storm and the theatre flooded.  Antione exacting retribution,)
Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses, Earls, Lords, Ministers and mere politicians flocked to Marthe for advice and entertainment.  She knew everyone in power and sincerely believed in a united Europe.  Of course when Hitler came to power she wept.  Then dried her tears and settled down to write some more books. 
Her only child, a daughter, Valentine, was not very close to her and Marthe certainly didn't let motherhood cramp her style in any way.  After her husband caught syphillis from one of his many consorts Marthe never kissed him again - but great affection held between them and he would rush to her side when she was operated on in Paris and nearly died.
Cecil Beaton photographed her in later years and remarked that her intelligence shone through her wattles.  Oh dear. And Enid Bagnold wrote that she adored Marthe but it was such a chore having her to stay as she would bring a ladies maid that insisted on ironing the silk sheets that Marthe demanded every day - causing upset 'below stairs' (The sheets, by the way, travelled in a separate steamer trunk and were drenched in her personal perfume of lilacs)
That world has long gone, but echoes of it are probably still to heard in corners of Europe, and a glimpse of the Carpathian mountains from any train, let alone the Orient Express will still have me swooning.