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!

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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

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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…

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New Year Pies, The Great Schism, and a Recipe

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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:

Vasilopita

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.