Ghosts

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot recently. My Greek grandmother. Yaya. Υαυα μου. She was foreign, and foreignness was a problem off and on during her life in England, in the ways that Brexit is stirring up again. We were close; I’ve never quite lost the habit of talking to her even though she died over a quarter of a century ago. She was wise, irascible, rude, pessimistic. Generous, and full of powerful, angry and sometimes despairing love for her grandchildren. I lapse into her heavy Kastoria accent far more often than my kids think is amusing. And I still ask her advice about stuff, which is also amusing, because I’m fairly sure she’d disapprove of at least 90% of my life choices to date. That is, obviously, one of the key things about talking to ghosts: they usually don’t answer back.

Yaya – Andromache, her name was, though nurses in the last years of her life tended to call her Anne, which she didn’t like at all – would have understood all about talking to ghosts. She was the first young woman from her town to go to university, and later she went back to Kastoria to teach. But she left Greece in 1924, packed off by Georgios and Venetia, her impoverished parents, to marry a man she’d never met. Her father, a lawyer, had been active in the Macedonian Struggle against the Bulgarians and Turks, but had lost his livelihood after the war was won in 1912 and his boss, the ultra patriotic but morally dubious archbishop of Kastoria, had fallen from grace. My great-grandfather ended up scraping a living by writing emigration documents for the thousands of Greeks leaving for Western Europe and the US. He must have written one for his own daughter. Andromache never saw her parents again: they both died young, in the 1930s, and she never got over the loss. My mother remembers her standing at the kitchen sink, singing a Macedonian folk song as the tears ran down her face. Tou Kitsou I Mana: a mother’s lament for her warrior son.  Andromache was sad for the rest of her life, but she was angry too.

My grandfather, Costa, was a short man with a round head, a serious expression and a toothbrush moustache. He was fond of bowler hats, and people remarked on his resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Although he was quiet and immensely kind, Andromache thought he was disreputable, because though the family was also from Kastoria, his father had actually been a brigand who spent his life in the mountains, part of the endless guerrilla war against the Ottomans. Although he’d wanted to study poetry, he became a furrier, the traditional trade of Kastoria, and opened a factory making fur coats in the City before the Crash brought bankruptcy and a spell in debtor’s prison. By the time I knew him he was long retired, though for many years he had made fur coats for the rich and famous of London in the attic of the nice house in a West London suburb he had bought during the heartbreakingly brief moment of his success.

Andromache had been angry about that. She didn’t like rich people at all, because they had made her little husband stagger up and down two flights of stairs, laden with heavy furs, while they waited in the living room, sniffing disapprovingly at the decorations and the foreignness. Foreigners and trade: nothing could have been worse for those socialites and magnates, with their Rolls Royces idling beyond the garden gate. Andromache must have hated dealing with them. She never liked the English, really. She’d never felt at home here. London in the 1920s and 30s could be a hostile place for immigrants. My mother was bullied every day as she walked home from school, and when the war came, Andromache was sworn at in the queues for rationed food. “Bloody foreigners, comin’ over ‘ere…” Cliché, but those were the words. “Taking our food…” Foreign was what she was. The details weren’t important. No-one knew or cared where Greece was anyway.

In the 1970s we would watch the National Front marches on the telly and she would shake her head in disgust, but not surprise. Never surprise. She suffered in the dim light of suburban London, this woman with a classical education. Every now and again I would visit her and find her with friends, all refugees from Smyrna or Alexandria or Constantinople, huddled over tea and almond biscuits, talking in Greek. Exiles. Stripped of whatever class or status they’d once had, living in bedsits in Holland Park and Bayswater. Foreigners.

I loved Andromache for her contrary passions. She hated the Turks but thought they’d been more civilised than the Greeks who’d liberated her in 1912. She hated the Greek dictator Metaxas. She loathed Churchill for his part in starting the Greek Civil War. And she couldn’t stand Margaret Thatcher. O Thatchett, as she called her. She would shake her head at the telly while we had tea together in her front room. “A most horrible woman,” she would hiss, and I was very happy to agree.

She wasn’t lukewarm about anything, and I’ve inherited that. She would have been absolutely enraged by Brexit, but it wouldn’t have surprised her. Absolutely not. I can imagine watching the news on the telly, with her nodding along to every new bit of xenophobia, every multi-millionaire man-of-the-people, every bit of cruelty to European citizens. “You know, Pipaki, I told you so,” she would be saying, and there would be ghosts somewhere behind those words. She’d watched the Ottoman Empire collapse in flames and now she was living through the slow, grey fade-out of the British Empire too. Brexit is one of the last frames of that fade-out.

England was what she gave her children. Or rather, my mother and her two brothers were her gift to England. One brother became a world-renowned medical researcher; the other a judge who saved Covent Garden from demolition. My mother, taught by Mervyn Peake, Auerbach and Paolozzi, gave up art to have me and my sister. First generation Britons: their success delighted Andromache, but their sense of belonging would never be hers. She belonged with the exiles. I could feel the loss and the longing even as a little boy: it clung to those old ladies like the Guerlain perfume they wore. Educated, multi-lingual, the most cosmopolitan people I have ever met. All living in the most reduced of circumstances. I loved to listen to their conversations, even though I didn’t understand them. I’d pass around the biscuits and they’d pinch my cheeks. They were talking to each other but there were always ghosts in the room as well.

I thought of those old ladies when Theresa May made her speech about citizens of nowhere. I don’t remember any of their names, now, though I remember some of their rooms, done up beautifully with a few salvaged treasures, the tea so lovingly offered, the slightly stale sugared almonds left over from some wedding or other and carefully doled out to the children. They were citizens of places that no longer existed, for people like them anyway. But they had all been citizens of somewhere before nationalists had declared that ‘somewhere’ applied to some people, but not to others. Brexit wants us to believe that identity is simple. That Somewhere is an address, and that address is here. It demands that we ignore complexity, and memory, and ghosts. It tells us that we can only be one thing. It tells us that when we sat in our grandmother’s kitchen and smelled grated onions and cinnamon and lemon juice, or listened to Easter Mass in the cathedral on Moscow Road, and thought this feels like home, we were wrong.

I was brought up to be English. Completely English. My mother never taught me Greek, even though she talked to Andromache every night on the phone in what is actually her first language. She didn’t like me telling other people that I was half-Greek. I have my very English father’s name. When I decided to write under a variant of Andromache’s surname, my mother was worried. But I’m neither properly English nor Greek. This is a little bit of trauma I’ve inherited from those xenophobes and racists who bullied her in the park, the older ones whose expressions changed when they heard her surname, from housewives muttering behind Andromache in the queue at the butcher’s shop. There must be millions and millions of people just like me. There are about to be millions more if the half-cocked experiment in patriotic identity management goes ahead. Millions of abandoned identities. Millions of us, talking to our ghosts.

 

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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.