The Alchemist's Daughter, Chapter Two

(Reasonably pleased with this chapter. …At the moment.)

Sir Kingsley has been sitting in his library with Tom Hawkins the poet. Not a proper library, as he is all too aware; not like the library he has designed for the new house in Holborn, which is almost finished. This is a large and perfectly well appointed parlour in which books have been piling up for several years now, rising up to the coffered ceiling, giving the room the air of an inner shrine in some decaying, disreputable temple. Hawkins, always the man for an early start, is sitting with a volume of Latin verse on his lap and a horn cup of cock ale in his hand, talking too much, of course, to have drunk more than a quarter, while Sir Kingsley Paget is on his second cup and looking forward to the third. He has overseen the brewing of it and had even selected the cockerel himself from the hundreds of birds crammed into wicker prisons at Smithfield Market. A big, old bird starting to get scrawny and thin of feather but still plainly a fighter. He had admired its muscular legs and the unusually long, curving sickles of its spurs. Later, in the kitchen, he had thought it only fair to wring its neck himself, and it had laid open his wrist as it thrashed out the dregs of its life. He had approved. That had been two months ago, and the bird, roasted, pounded with raisins, dates, mace and nutmegs and soaked in sherry sack before being added to a barrel of fermenting ale, has vanished, at least corporeally. Its essential nature still lingers, however: pugnacious, sharp and sinewed; and it is this ethereal presence that Sir Kingsley Paget has been exploring on his palate as his friend launches into another of his expert but somewhat familiar observations on the Horatian ode. It is undeniable, he thinks, that one can capture such presences, and not just the virtues such as they exist in a tincture of some herb or mineral. What is presence, exactly? What is the essence of a thing? Where does it reside? These are all more intriguing things to ponder than Horace, but just then Hawkins taps his finger with authority on the page of his book and Kingsley nods, not exactly listening: just so, just so

“Drink, Tom. You have a drawn look about you,” he says. The older man grunts, sips absentmindedly. “Your love for Horace is commendable, my dear fellow, but is it not a little early for verse? I have some Paracelsus for us to worry over.”

Quare et vos suffocata mihi in tuis querentes? Why do you stifle me with your complaining?” Hawkins quotes amiably, and Kingsley has just opened his mouth to protest that he is hardly Maecenas (and that Tom Hawkins is merely the translator of the Roman bard, not the bard himself) when a fusillade of knocking sounds on the door, followed immediately by a furious rattling of the old door latch.

He frowns, drains his cup and turns with mild irritation. “What is it?” he barks. One of the servants, Hettie or Hester – his wife can remember, though he cannot – is new and so far ill-trained, which deficiency, coupled with a forceful nature, makes for a discordant operation of the household. But it is not Hester who appears in the doorway. Chandler the major-domo stands there, with Mary, his wife’s maidservant, bobbing feverishly behind him. She is flushed and her hair is disordered. Chandler, by contrast, is bone-white, so pale that the lines on his face seem to float in the air in front of it. 

“Might I ask…” Kingsley has already resigned himself to dealing with some small misfortune, and is reaching for the jug of cock ale when Chandler interrupts him.

“Lady Lucretia, sir. Oh, sir…”

“Has she returned from her ride? She said she would join Sir Thomas and me when she came in.”

“She… She did not go for her ride, Sir Kingsley,” stammers Chandler. He is tying his fingers into knots, but no-one is paying him any heed. Thomas Hawkins is still scanning the verses of Horace and his master is sipping the froth from his ale. It is Mary who pushes past him and stands in the middle of the carpet, in this room where she hardly ever goes, surrounded by crooked pillars of leather and gilding. Her voice is cracked and comes out much too loud.

“My lady did not wake up! We cannot rouse her, sir!”

“Then let her sleep! Would that not be the Christian thing to do?” Kingsley is not often involved in the basic stuff of domesticity.

“She will not wake, sir. She will not! Oh, mercy, my lord! You must come at once!”

“Will not wake?” Kingsley turns in his chair. The words do not make sense to him. Indeed, they have several senses, and he realises he is expected to know which one pertains. 

“Never again! My poor lady! Never again…”

“That’s enough, Mary!” snaps Chandler, his composure so completely vanished that his voice has lost its gentleman’s polish and reverted to the rough accent of Shoreditch. “My lord, I must entreat you to come at once to your wife’s chamber.”

“Oh, very well.” Kingsley rises, feeling somewhat angry at being used in such a way by these servants in front of his guest. But his habitual good nature stifles the anger and all he is left with is irritation and a certain unease. “If you will excuse me, Tom?”

“Of course, of course.” Tom Hawkins is far too engrossed in Horatian stanzas to even raise his head.

Kingsley follows the two servants out of the room and up the stairs. The ale had been good and strong: his legs feel pleasantly loose in the joints and there is a warmth in his chest. Perhaps, he thinks, that is why he is being so patient with Chandler. The door to his wife’s room is ajar and the new maid – Hester or Hettie, is standing half in and half out. Chandler and Mary stop in front of the door and Kingsley almost trips over them.

“Come now,” he mutters, pushing open the door and remembering to bend his head, because he is properly tall and the house was built when men were of shorter stature. He has spent his life with a bruised forehead, though at the age of thirty he is finally getting the hang of doorways. He straightens up and frowns, because the room is dark, the heavy curtains still drawn, and there is Lucretia, still in bed. He steps closer. There is a faint smile on her face, he thinks, and the ale gives a little surge of warmth, a tiny nudge of delicious anticipation. A jest, then. All is clear. A woman’s jests are one of life’s finest pleasures, and the jests of a clever woman, such as his dearest Lucretia might concoct for his delight…

“Lucretia? Good morning, my love.” He says it gently, expecting to see her eyelids twitch, her lips to curl up into her own divine smile. Instead he hears an out surge of breath behind him, words catching in someone’s throat, feet hurrying out of the room and down the stairs.

“Lucretia?” He steps to the edge of the bed, stoops beneath the heavy crimson velvet drapery. She is so pale. In this bad light it is hard for him to see where her skin ends and the white linen of her nightdress, of the sheets and bolster cover, begins. She is lying on her back, her face turned away from him, resting on her right hand. Her left eye is open ever so slightly. So she is watching him after all! He chuckles fondly and brushes her cheek with the back of his fingers.

It is bitterly cold. The shock of it makes his whole arm clench. “Don’t be so silly, my love,” he says, nervously, and bends down to her, cupping his beard in his hand, because she sometimes scolds him for the way it tickles. With the other hand he touches her brow. It is hard beneath his palm, which prickles as if he has touched frost. Her eye shows a narrow sickle of white and a fine line of grey iris. It is quite still. He extends a suddenly reluctant finger and touches it to the delicate fringe of her eyelash. There is no response. At that, he knows. Though he will not let the word even flicker into his thoughts for hours yet, he knows what he has found. He has seen it often enough but not like this. He never thought to find it settled in his bed, though often enough he had wondered how it would find him. An easy death, the soul departed in the night like a dishonest guest, leaving the servants to discover the empty husk in the morning. And he had wished, if he wished at all, that he should be taken first, because the thought of this… the thought of this…

He opens his eyes and sees the painted boards of the ceiling. He smells the strangely comforting mustiness of the thick Turkey rug on which he is stretched out to his full length. Someone is still pulling on his legs. He raises his head and meets the apologetic eyes of Tom Hawkins.

“My good fellow,” says his guest, and trails off, lowers his head. He hears sobbing above and away from him. There is a spider’s web bisecting one of the square coffers of the ceiling, with a large, pallid, thin-legged spider working in one corner, patiently attaching threads to the red petals of a painted rose.

“A doctor,” says Kingsley, struggling up onto his elbows. “Call for a doctor.”

“He has been fetched,” says Tom. Who adds, gently and precisely, “And a priest as well.”

“No need for a priest!” says Kingsley. He rises, crouches, feeling his long arms and legs to be strangely monstrous, like those of the spider above him. “A doctor will suffice.” But he knows, from the way the air seems to tighten around him, thick with the discomfort and the pity of those who are standing there, that it is the priest and not the doctor who will find employment this morning. He does not stand, but half crawls, half collapses against the bed, where he carefully lowers his high, wide forehead onto the sheet. He smells lavender, and the scorch of the iron.

He is hunched there when the doctor arrives, the doctor who does not need to waste more than one minute on his diagnosis. One touch of Lady Lucretia’s brow is enough. The doctor meets the priest on the stairs and they murmur together, two men in dark clothes for whom this is terribly ordinary. Whatever is said, the priest’s face seems to brighten, though there is no-one else to see it. The priest goes on up the stairs. He had been having a pleasant morning in his study, as pleasant as the hangover he was nursing had allowed. A trim man with fashionably long hair and a pointed beard in imitation of the king, the Reverend Edward Finch is a friend of Sir Kingsley. He shares with him an interest in church practices even higher than Archbishop Laud will allow, though unlike Kingsley he is not a secret Catholic (Mr Finch guesses this, though he has no evidence, and secretly he approves. He feels the tug of Rome’s moon in his own spiritual waters). He should not have taken so much wine last night, he is thinking, as he allows Chandler to open the bedchamber door for him and goes inside.

There is nothing Mr Finch can do. The servant who came running to fetch him, sprinting all the way to Christ Church in Newgate Street, informed him in a torrent of disjointed words that there had been a death at the house of Sir Kingsley Paget. He did not seem to know, or was too afraid to say, if it was his master or mistress who had died. But the doctor had whispered the necessary information to him on the stairs. A dreadful shame, Finch mumbles to himself. Lady Paget had been a beautiful woman, and rather extraordinary in her way. She had certainly held some strong enchantment – Finch’s thoughts are poetical, not literal: he might believe in witches, but would not seek them in Charterhouse Yard – over her equally extraordinary husband, the man who now lies like a broken toy across her deathbed. She was an open Catholic, though, as all of London knew. Mr Finch is the wrong sort of priest. He can have no dealings with this corpse. But he can give support to the living. He kneels beside Kingsley and whispers some words of comfort to him, words that have served him well in such situations, but he might as well be talking to a wooden effigy: the man seems as lifeless as his wife.

It is Thomas Hawkins who sends a messenger to Somerset House with a note for the queen’s chaplain. He is another Catholic, though a very private one, and is careful to let Mr Finch know who will be arriving. The curate is grateful and shakes the poet’s hand, but this is as much as his Anglican conscience, such as it is, will allow, and he is not there when the confessor, a grey, compact Scot, arrives. Father Robert Philip knows Kingsley well, having been Lady Paget’s confessor, but the priest gets no words from him, save a muffled command not to move his wife’s body. Father Robert finds this commendably sentimental, as the poor woman does look undeniably peaceful, as if deeply asleep, so he applies the holy oil, mutters the Eucharist (though strictly speaking it is too late for that) and blesses the body before leaving the house quietly – so quietly, in fact, that no-one is quite sure that he was ever there. Father Robert has ministered to the dying in far more dangerous times than this, but even now, with a Catholic queen in England, priests know how to make themselves invisible.

When Kingsley finally raises his head, his servants, and those friends and acquaintances summoned by the rumours that are already abroad in the city, leave off their whispering and gather around him. He regards the crowd with wide, unfocussed eyes, blinks, coughs.

“If someone would call on Master Rincke at his house in Blackfriars,” he says, his voice hoarse but steady, “And tell him that I would be obliged by his company?”

There are whispers at that. Johann Rincke is famous. The ladies – there are one or two – feel a certain frisson, as the painter is reputed to be a handsome man and in any case his work is the very height of fashion. Some of the whispers, however, are not approving. First a Catholic priest – shameless, the way these Papists go about in broad daylight these days. But this is not said aloud, so as not to offend the dead woman’s spirit which, some are thinking, cannot be very approving of her husband’s behaviour. And now a Catholic painter. A painter! Bereaved or not, is this the behaviour of a gentleman? Where are the women to wash the corpse, lay it out? Where is the coffin maker? Flowers are needed, and candles… And now, Christ’s blood, the man is calling for the curtains to be opened!

By the time the painter arrives, the house is getting quite full. It is May Day, and people are in a festive mood. A death, if it is not one’s own, is always a fine diversion. Some have come to pay their solemn respects, others to have a look at the famous Lady Lucretia in her final sleep, and at Sir Kingsley, the privateer, the fighter of duels, the alchemist. Some are just hoping for a jug of ale. They, together with the merely curious, have been politely ejected by Chandler, who, now that the first shock of discovery has worn off, knows how to handle an occasion. Friends of Kingsley are poking around in the makeshift library, gossiping on the stairs, drinking in the hall. Thomas Hawkins has remained with Kingsley, answering questions, keeping people he does not recognise – as he is not a particularly sociable man, this is a greater part of the uninvited guests – away from the bed and his friend. Johann Rincke, with two curious young assistants in tow, nods and bows his way politely and expertly to the bedchamber. He finds Kingsley animated, his huge frame lurching awkwardly, with too much forced enthusiasm, through the task of replacing the heavy crimson drapes of the bed with blue velvet. This is a job for a servant, but he will not let them near the bed and besides, he is tall enough to do it without standing on a chair. The velvet is new, bought to the house by a nervous haberdasher in puritan garb who keeps eyeing the dead woman as if some Popish devilry will cause her to raise up and bite him. He is not, however, above making several suggestions for the draping of a coffin and is finally got rid of with coin and promises of further custom. The velvet rises and falls, trembles and settles, catching the light in cascades of silver. Rincke circles the bed quietly.

“I want you to paint her, Johann.” Kingsley is finished with the drapery, and now, with nothing to occupy him, he feels he is turning back into the huge, pale spider, his very own allegory of despair. He stands by the window, aware of the sunlight outside, the fresh green of the spring trees, the noisy birds, but the window panes cut him off like sheets of ice from all of that. He is in here, in the dead place. His friend the painter, he knows, wants to comfort him, but that is not why he was summoned. “Will you do it?”

“Of course, of course,” says the painter, because it is what Kingsley wants to hear. But he is thinking, paint the dead? I never have. I do not wish to, and in any case, how? The habits of the English are still quite strange to him. In Holland they do not, as a rule, paint corpses, but since coming to England he has been shown several mawkish depictions of dead worthies, done in the flat, antiquated and honestly primitive manner of the last century. His feeling, from having studied these unlovely things, is that they are a vulgar form of still-life, and that dead people have much less intrinsic interest than dead rabbits or pheasants which, coupled with a bowl of fruit or a cheese, a scattering of nuts and leaves, can look rather magnificent, show off the painter’s skill, or at the very least set one to planning one’s next meal. But these deathbed still-lives are nothing but a pointer to that final meal when one is oneself the ingredient and the dish. Still, he cannot refuse a friend. 

“When Lady Lucretia is laid out, yes?” he says, picturing the style in his mind: the corpse trussed in frilled grave clothes, chin bound, covers drawn up, pale hand on bible or cross, the bed linen folded into sharp lines and angles. The Paget coat of arms displayed tastefully overhead. A skull, perhaps, in case one might have missed the point.

“No. Like this. As she was found. As she was taken from me.”

Rincke cannot come back that day. He has a sitter, a grey-haired, ponderous soldier who wants to be painted with his Indian servant. He assumes – hopes, rather urgently, in fact – that this will disqualify him from his friend’s morbid commission. But Kingsley simply shrugs.

“Tomorrow, then.”

The day passes quickly for Rincke. His sitter proves to be far more entertaining than expected: garrulous, sharp-witted and far from ponderous, the Earl of Launceston arrives dressed in Moghul silk with a young Indian carrying a slender and expensive musket. They spend much of their time drinking and discussing how the painting is to be composed. The earl has recently returned from India, where he brought letters from King Charles to the Great Moghul. Rincke presses him for descriptions of barbarous magnificence, but the earl instead tells him of how he went into the wild forest in search of things to shoot and became hopelessly lost. It is this very servant – the boy now sitting tailor-fashion in a corner of the studio, rocking slightly with boredom – who brought him to safety. Over more wine they decide that this is the scene that should be depicted. No painting is done, but a plan is drawn up: props must be found, the earl and his boy will return in two days’ time. Launceston raises an eyebrow when he hears that he has been thrown over for a corpse, but then they go back to discussing the terrifying lushness of the Indian forest, and the curious habits of the natives, and Rincke forgets all about the dead woman in Charterhouse Yard.


The Alchemist's Daughter

I’ve been working on a novel for a few years, off and on. I like the deep structure but it needs a complete rewrite and, as if by magic, I suddenly have a possibly unlimited amount of time on my hands, as my day job as a chef has abruptly ended.

I thought I’d post a chapter as and when I re-do it. Trigger warnings: it is extremely dark in places but is NOT about plagues or anything like that.

The formatting will improve as I re-learn this platform.

I hope you enjoy it…

A Novel In The Time of Covid: The Alchemist's Daughter

Chapter One

The milkmaids are preparing for the dance. In rutted lanes, ducking with nervous laughter as late-to-bed bats flit in and out of the blackthorn hedges, they tie ribbons in each other’s plaited hair, pick cow parsley and dog roses and campion for garlands. Their men, those who could be bothered to stir themselves at such an unchristian hour, are murmuring to each other in little knots, unimportant for once. The first pipes of the day are lit and sweet smoke billows and rises. Young girls and older women peer at each other’s faces as they straighten ribbons, push in a flower, searching for what they once were, what they will become, and the darkness hides their feelings: envy, regret, relief. There is laughter. Down the hill, the lights of the city make dim, fragile spider webs: lamps along the streets where the rich folk live, candles in upstairs windows as servants wake up; lanterns on wagons and carriages. A blackbird starts to sing in the hedge. It is May Day.

Someone gives a sign and the women lift their yokes of polished wood onto their shoulders. The pails are empty today and the yokes are no burden but still the women mutter and curse out of habit as the wood settles onto their broad, hard backs. Down the lane they go, heavy petticoats swaying and sweeping the dust. They are going to walk beside the Fleet River and dance their first dance of the day in Charterhouse Yard.

Cattle are lowing and crying hollowly in Smithfield and drovers are yelling above the clatter of hooves in Aldersgate Street. But Charterhouse Yard is quiet and content in the dark. The nightly drunkards, taking the boozy shortcut between Drury Lane and Smithfield, have all passed through and now there are only cats under the clipped trees that criss-cross the ancient square. In one of the fine houses a woman turns over in bed. Half-waking she becomes aware of the absence beside her: the large frame of her husband is not there. She remembers: a late night, and he had promised to sleep in his dressing chamber so as not to wake her. She smiles, and the pleasant effort of it sends her back to sleep straight away, turned towards the considerate absence of the man, her cheek cupped in her hand, her dark brown curls settling onto the white linen that smells, very faintly, of scorching iron and lavender.

Across the city wall in Angel Street, another woman is in bed with an empty place next to her. But her husband is downstairs drinking wine and scuffing the floor with his boot in a mild panic, because his wife is giving birth. It is an easy one, says the midwife, the same who delivered the first one, the difficult one, always difficult and now lying under stone in Christ Church. Still the woman grunts and sweats, the linen sopping beneath her, clinging to the long furrow of her spine and her plump backside. The laces of her coif are digging into her straining neck and she scrabbles at the knot, tearing the stitching clean off. She balls up the damp, greasy cloth and jams it between her teeth as the midwife barks at her to push, there’s a good girl, don’t be lazy, don’t be a lump. The midwife slaps the straining woman’s hand away from where it has strayed to the perfect dome of her belly, squints through the dim yellow candlelight, sees flesh part for a sleek black head. The woman screams and a puckered brow, two screwed up eyes and a nub of a nose appear. Push, you great cow. Push it out, for the love of God! She pushes. The midwife’s hard fingers grasp at the little creature, slide around the tiny neck and under the arms. Push, you clever girl!

In Charterhouse Yard, the sleeping woman dreams of a glass, a wonderful goblet which she holds in her cupped hands. A thin stream of garnet-red wine is falling straight down from far above her, thin as a silken thread, into the clear bowl. She watches it fill, and as the liquid rises so the wine becomes redder and more beautiful, as red as the ruby her husband brought her from Scanderoon, as red as the setting sun. There is something in the depths of the glass: a rose? A flower, she thinks, a damask rose, a tight maze of petals. And the stream falls in a perfect line from heaven and fills the bowl, fills it to the rim and over the rim, so that the redness, held by the glass lip, bulges and catches her reflection. The wine domes impossibly, rising to meet the falling thread until she is holding a great red spike in her hands, trembling where its motion holds the light. Her fingers are smooth and perfectly white against the glass. She looks into the heart of the wine. It isn’t a flower after all, but something else. Not petals, but a maze indeed: streets, walls, houses, church spires.

“Oh!” she says in wonder. The thrill makes her fingers tighten minutely against the shell of glass. It shatters, and as it breaks she finds that she had expected it to happen, but not that the wine would still hang there, a great red drop suspended by a single thread of liquid from some impossible height. The broken glass dissolves into the flesh of her hand. She feels it come into her like the cold from a frosted windowpane. And then there is a sudden feeling of vastness, of the immense space above her, the measureless dome of absence through which is falling a single thread of garnet-red wine. The weight of it all is too much. She lifts her head to look up, and the thing in her hands turns to hot liquid that engulfs her.

The dark curls do not move on the white pillow. They fan out from beneath her nightcap, across the pale curve of her neck. Her hand is still beneath her cheek. One eye has opened slightly, but it doesn’t see the faint gold of false dawn, just enough light to show the furrow in the bed next to her where her husband ought to be. She will not hear the milkmaids of Islington dance into the Yard, singing and clashing their burnished pails. She will not turn to wish her maid good morning, and she will not see her husband, the big man, fall onto the Turkey rug with a crash that will set the curtains of her deathbed quivering.

On The Bridge


Firenze mapSometimes the universe seems to be nudging you in a particular direction. As a Buddhist I tend to ignore ideas of ‘fate’ – karma, yes, but that’s a different subject. Sometimes, though, you feel yourself being edged along a path that isn’t, perhaps, the one you would have chosen yourself. It’s hard to ignore a really good coincidence. Continue reading

The Painter Of Souls – Into The Hands of Fate!

My latest novel, a speculative look at the early career of Fra Filippo Lippi, is out now!


Meanwhile, although my last post – almost seven months ago – was about writer’s block, it was obviously therapeutic to write as I’ve been completely immersed in my new novel ever since. It’s finished and now I’m emerging, blinking like a bat in daylight, from my writing cave.

Nice and symmetrical: one book finished, another one published in the space of two days. The experience, though, is decidedly asymmetric. Continue reading

The Doldrums

Odilon Redon: ‘The Smiling Spider’ 1891

When you catch yourself looking up the definition of writer’s block on Wikipedia, you know you’re in trouble.

I’ve done it, and the very act of typing writer’s block into the search box felt like wading through tar. After that, I didn’t really need to read the page, though I did, and found it clinical and rambling at the same time, not an easy thing to pull off. The writer, I decided, bitterly, hadn’t been suffering from the affliction he or she was trying to describe. Quite the opposite. Lucky them.

It’s a strange phenomenon – I say that with an air of detachment, as if I’m peering at it through a macro lens or studying an MRI, but I’m not detached at all – and perhaps it isn’t the easiest thing to understand if you happen to be one of the many sensible people who don’t need to write for a living. Writer’s block isn’t really a thing; more an absence, though it feels like being mildly ill. Like having a cold inside your skull. You want to write, but you can’t. You need to write – it’s a job, after all – but nothing happens. You have an idea, a good idea, but when you sit down in front of that glowing, radiantly empty page on your screen, your idea evaporates. Or worse, it hangs in the unmediated space between you and the screen, mocking you with its poverty, its grotesqueness, like one of Odilon Redon’s nightmares. This is what you wanted to write? Me? Please: go ahead…. And of course, your fingers scrabble desperately for the mouse which takes you, with the merciful speed of broadband, to Facebook or eBay or some other digital rest home for the once-creative.

When I need to write but can’t, I try to combat the sense of time burning away like an unsmoked cigarette smouldering in a melamine ashtray. It’s been decades since I smoked – quite a few years since I’ve even seen a melamine ashtray, in fact – but that’s what it feels like: I’m an abandoned ciggie, burning away, leaving the ghost of myself in hollow ash and a smear of sepia tar. At this point, what would you prefer? The Redon spider or the cigarette? Choices, choices. You could look for a Redon print on eBay. You could look for a melamine ashtray.

These doldrums can stretch into days, even weeks. If you aren’t careful you can end up marinating in anxiety. Action is the only real medicine. Preferably something mindless but useful. Nothing better, when I can’t get my hero to do what I want him to do, than taking a chainsaw apart on the dining table. Or at least sharpening the chain. Which is what I did today. I got the bigger saw – the 70cc Husqvarna – sorted out, with the intention of cutting up some oak logs. The driving sleet that came across the valley in white sheets like the curtain of a purgatorial opera house put paid to that idea. But I did get the chain sharpened. Yesterday I cut up a heap of beech logs that had been sitting for a couple of years. Beech blunts a chain really fast, for some reason, though it burns beautifully, and this pile had knocked the points off most of the cutters. The house was empty. The Chef wasn’t around to yell at me for covering the table with oily sawdust and iron filings. DSCN7064So I filed, and checked the rakers, took the bar off, deburred the rails and greased the sprocket. Put it back together, took a look outside at the weather and said to hell with it. And then, after I’d put the saw away, got rid of the filings and the smears on the table, I sat down, stared at the horrible vacancy on the screen, and started, slowly, to write.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Tara Vaughan-Hughes

all-done!I think bread is a very good place to start.  Almost everyone (99% of UK households) loves a good loaf of bread, but almost no one makes it themselves.

And do you want to know a secret? It’s not hard to make a loaf of bread. It’s not even particularly time-consuming. But if you haven’t done it before, or if you’ve tried and it hasn’t worked out the way you’d intended, it can be daunting.

a pot of no-knead bread My first successful foray into breadmaking started with this. I was hooked!

Even though one of my first jobs out of high school was working in a home bakery, helping to make challah and croissants, I have always been a bit intimidated by bread-making. (I know, I know, with a starting point like that, you’d think I would have had a little more confidence.) But my perspective changed when the No-Knead Bread, developed…

View original post 1,167 more words

New Year Pies, The Great Schism, and a Recipe


My Greek family didn’t really celebrate Christmas. If it was our turn to spend the holidays with them, my grandparents would let us get on with our English Christmas stuff around them, but it was New Year’s Day – Saint Basil’s Day – that they were waiting for. agios vasilisThe Catholic Church split from the Orthodox Church in 1054, a disaster known as the Great Schism which sentenced the Byzantine Empire to a slow death. Every year we would cross this vast cultural divide which, in our case, existed as a hairline crack along the M4 motorway somewhere between Bristol and Ealing. Saint Nicholas on one side, Saint Basil on the other. What it meant to us children was more presents and the chance to stay up incredibly late on New Year’s Eve. We would drive in my uncle’s tiny Morris 1100257e0866c81b7dd68408667a63c160ad across London to the Greek Cathedral on Moscow Road in Bayswater and I would find myself jammed into a pew, surrounded by older Greek ladies in fur coats. I would stroke the furs – no-one seemed to mind – and listen to the chanting, which I didn’t understand. The touch of fur, the smells of mothballs and heavy French perfume from the coats, frankincense and myrrh from the priest’s censer, candlelight winking off gilding and cut glass… It was strange and magical. Then we would stuff ourselves back into the less than magical Morris and head back to Ealing, where a meal would be waiting for us, long past midnight. My grandmother would have been cooking all day: stuffed cabbage leaves, baked lamb, and the essential dish: vasilopita. Saint Basil’s pie.

My grandmother’s vasilopita was essentially a rice pudding heavy with cinnamon, baked inside a filo shell. A silver sixpence would be hidden inside, just like in a Christmas pudding. It would be cut with great ceremony while my mother and her brothers sang the New Year carol, Agios Vasilis Erhetai. By that time, my sister and I would be ready to pass out with tiredness.

Looking back over forty years, I can see that there were other schisms at work. Our family version of the carol has a different tune and many different words to the usual one. And the vasilopita eaten in most Greek households is a sort of sweet bread. Our versions must be particular to where my grandparents came from: the lake town of Kastoria kastoriaand the long-extinct Greek communities of Bitola. There’s a sense that it’s all long-lost, that perhaps my mother is the only one in the world who remembers any of this. She’s passed it on to my sister and me, but so far from the source, what we’re dealing with are essentially Chinese whispers dredged in nostalgia for things, places and people long gone.

Last year I decided – as you do – that I wanted a Kazan vasilopita instead of a birthday cake. Handily, my wonderful wife is a professional cook, and I shall let her complete the story:


A few years ago, Philip asked me to make this for his birthday, instead of the usual layer cake. I asked my mother-in-law for the recipe, and she said she didn’t have one written down, but she was sure I could find a version somewhere. I searched the internet and came up with…nothing! It seems this dish is very particular to the Kazan family, so I had to quiz Philip and his mum about what, exactly, was in it. And if my memory is correct, this is the version I more or less came up with.

1.5 cups pudding rice

3 cups milk

1/3 cup white sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 eggs

½ teaspoon cinnamon

5 or so scrapes of fresh nutmeg

1 pack phyllo pastry

150g melted butter

Mix the rice, milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, not boiling, until the rice is al dente.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together and add a bit of the rice mixture to temper the eggs. When the eggs have come up to a warm temperature, add to the pot of rice, stirring all the while so the eggs mix in thoroughly and don’t curdle. Remove from heat and stir in the nutmeg and cinnamon. Taste and adjust flavours if necessary. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 170C.

Brush an ovenproof dish with butter, and then lay one sheet of phyllo in the dish (don’t worry if the edges overhang). Brush the phyllo with butter, and set another sheet on top, at a slight angle if necessary to get even coverage of the pastry. Brush with butter, and continue layering the phyllo until you have about 6 -8 layers, depending on the overlap of layers.

Tip the rice mixture into the dish, and then add another layer of phyllo, again building up the layers so that you get complete coverage. Brush the top layer with butter, then trim all the edges around the dish with a sharp knife or pair of scissors. (If you would like a more lively and interesting appearance for the finished dish, the final two layers of phyllo can be brushed with butter before you put them on and then crinkled on top of the dish if you like – this will look fantastic when cooked and will result in some lovely golden brown variations in the pastry.)0

Cook in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the top is a beautiful golden brown. Let cool slightly before cutting. If desired, you can also dust the top with icing sugar before serving.

An Atheist Christmas Card

A14474.tifI come from a long line of believers. Welsh and Devonian clergymen (and some Lancashire Quakers) on one side, Greek ikon painters on the other. Admittedly, some of the Greek side got into fatal trouble  with Ali Pasha, the Lion of Ioannina, around the time of Lord Byron (ending up, as those in trouble with Ali Pasha often did, in cauldrons of boiling oil), and at least one of the Devon vicars caused a divorce scandal that got as far as the House of Lords. In spite of, or probably because of all that, we haven’t been to church as a family for decades. The last time was one Christmas Eve long before my sister and I had families of our own. I don’t know why we went, really: we were all atheists or at least drifting towards the deep end of agnosticism. Perhaps it was just for old times’ sake, or to hear bells ringing out over the valley. That particular night, the village church had brought in a popular vicar from Plymouth to give the sermon: a dark-haired, red-faced, rotund man bulging with Puritan self-satisfaction. “Birth…” He scowled at us from the pulpit like a constipated Roundhead. “Birth… is a bloody business.” I remember my father raising his eyebrows ever so slightly. That was it. And we’ve never been back.

St George AltarpieceAtheism just hit me one day. A reverse epiphany. I can remember the exact moment when it happened. I was walking down a street in the London suburb of Ealing, on my way to the shops. I must have been around 9 years old – this was a long-forgotten age when 9-year-olds were allowed to wander down to the shops on their own to buy a few sweets or a comic – and it was summer. We’d been visiting my grandparents and there had been a lot of handwringing over my lack of a religious upbringing. I’d been feeling guilty, and a bit scared. It hadn’t been that long since my last visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum and the inevitable encounter with the Saint George Altarpiece, 375 square feet of Spanish Gothic grand guignol, that used to stand at the bottom of the grand staircase, waiting to terrify me. image004-208x300The saint is slaying the dragon in the centrepiece but all around it, people are slaying the saint in various inventive ways, each one more disturbing than the last. I loved – still love – the V & A but the altarpiece always seemed to ambush me. And each time I’d notice a new, horrible detail. George boiled in oil. George dragged behind horses, or crushed, or bisected by two men wielding a planking saw.  It was obviously a cautionary tale but I couldn’t tell what the moral might be. What it seems like now is one of those illustrations  from the manuals that come with dangerous machines: table saws, chainsaws. Except that belief seems to be the dangerous machine in question.

Perhaps the painting was on my mind that afternoon as I strolled along, trying not to step on the cracks in the pavement. At the end of the street I happened to look up at the dark green leaves of a bay tree that grew over the wall at the corner. I looked up, saw the dark, pointy leaves and the blue sky beyond and realised that there was no God up there. No God anywhere. No need for all the suffering and the guilt. All the painted blood that was somehow supposed to be on my conscience. It was an enormous relief. That’s what I remember, as sharp as leaves outlined against the London sky: a sense of infinite space and an intense, almost ecstatic relief.

That Plymouth vicar was right, though, in his way. Life is a bloody business. It’s quite possible that some lucky percentage of a rural Devon church congregation back in the early 1980s might have been deliberately or even accidentally unaware of world events. Didn’t read the paper, didn’t watch the news on the telly. A couple of the people listening to the vicar had never even been to Plymouth, 12 miles away. Hard to do that now, though, in a world where technology conspires to shove everything in our faces, all the time. The information age is an age of focus, of the zoom-in. News is claustrophobic in its immediacy. In that sense, the Saint George Altarpiece is almost modern. There’s no point in looking away because everywhere you look, something brightly appalling awaits the eye. And there’s nothing that requires belief in the sense of faith, because everything is, or appears to be, fact.

So to my surprise, and as an atheist, I’ve gone back to Christian art in search of that sense of space and relief. To the clear colours and pure beauty of the Early Renaissance. To painters like Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, whose paintings open onto more light and depth than any earthly window.Filippo_Lippi_-_Madonna_col_Bambino_e_due_angeli_-_Google_Art_Project Fra Filippo, whom I wrote about in Appetite and who is the subject of my next book, knew pain. He knew horror. By the time he had painted the unearthly beauty of his Madonna with Child and Two Angels, he had been tortured on the rack by the magistrates of Florence. But in the Virgin’s face – possibly the face of his mistress and great love, Lucrezia Buti – there is serenity, unaffected humanity. There is grace.

I find that I spend my life looking. Technology wants us to look. It doesn’t necessarily require us to see. Fra Filippo wants us to see. I think he’s telling us that if we open our eyes, belief will follow. We know what Fra Filippo, the old Carmelite friar, must have believed. But I’ve never felt that he’s telling me what I should believe, unless it’s that beauty transcends everything. He wants to remind us that it’s still there: all that space, all that serenity. The devastating calm of true beauty. Despite all the noise and blood and dangerous machinery. Even for an atheist like me.

A late Merry Christmas to one and all.