No. 27: The nightingales are drunk, Hafez

I’d like to introduce you to Hafez. Hafez is a poet from fourteenth-century Persia. His interests include mythology, nature and women. He loves a social gathering, particularly if there is wine involved, though I’m sure he won’t mind my saying he’s no connoisseur. He thinks aloud, particularly in the battles of his heart, and is an argumentative drunk.

IMG_4069

Are you sold? You should be. Hafez’s poetry made for brilliant Bank Holiday reading.

The tone is pretty much set in the second poem, which begins:

“Ah, god forbid that I relinquish wine”

It was clear Hafez and I were going to have some fun together.

My first impression of the poet was that he is, essentially, a party boy. These poems are, for the most part, based around Hafez drinking, his creative juices pumping as he drinks.

Amid his musings about life, love and religion, he demands “Bring wine!” and, on one occasion admits “I’m drunk; it’s true!”

Hafez won’t let anyone ruin the party and tell him to sober up, demanding:

“Go mind your own business, preacher! what’s all This hullaballo?”

Despite there being some 700 years age difference between the two of us, I felt an affinity with Hafez. I was surprised that he could be so unashamedly drunk and proud and honest, despite there being great distance between the two of us. Chaucer, another fourteenth-century poet and a lot closer to home for me, being associated with London and Kent, wasn’t so forthright and personable in his writing.

Hafez’s poetry is littered with references to him enjoying a glass of wine and being drunk. I don’t exaggerate – every other poem mentions booze.

But there is another side to Hafez, a darkness…

“What does life give me in the end but sorrow?”

This is the first line of a four-line poem. It’s so short and final, giving a real bipolar edge to his writing. My stomach dropped when I read it and I flicked through to the following pages to learn whether Hafez found some shred of joy once more. I’m pleased to report he did.

He doesn’t seem to do anything by halves. He’s mouthy, ecstatic, drunk, romantic, sweet, sad, bad. He is very human and I could quote so much of his poetry here because it’s brilliant. You should go and read it – you’ll find a real friend in Hafez.

Love and wine seem to be his lifeblood, his religion almost. He worships the two in equal measure, and is equally infuriated by both, which I’m confident most of us can relate to.

Despite Hafez’s moments of melancholy, his poetry filled me with such joy. Life doesn’t seem quite so bad when Hafez leans in with a glass of wine in hand.

And so, to the celebration. And it did feel like a celebration, unlike when treading the pebbles for Hardy’s previously discussed poetry, which was mournful, poignant and reflective.

After a busy Bank Holiday sightseeing, my man and I followed Hafez’s style and indulged in a bottle of wine.

It was a rather special bottle, dating 1990, the year we were both born. Tim’s Grandpa, is Swiss and lives in a beautiful town called Montreux (also Freddie Mercury’s preferred place of residence). He purchased a hundred or so bottles in the year of Tim’s birth, as he did for all of his grandchildren’s birth years.

We visited Tim’s Grandpa at Christmas last year. Tim plucked a couple of these precious, dusty bottles from his Grandpa’s cellar, which is conveniently situated beneath his ‘caveau’. It’s like something from a book, this caveau. Down a flight of stairs you wouldn’t know existed, is an imposing wooden door. Behind this is a large room, the caveau, which can sit sixty or so on high days and holidays. A lot of the furniture was crafted by Tim’s Grandpa, and tools, jugs and cupboards are mounted across the walls – plenty to gaze at while you swirl your glass. A small kitchen sits at the other end of the room, where raclette is prepared and empty wine bottles are discarded.

Here, Tim and his Grandpa adjust an artefact’s position, and below is my favourite display of sewing machines…

IMG_3684

IMG_3682

Tim and I tucked into the 1990 bottle, intended for special occasions, with some Continental nibbles on the balcony of my flat after a busy day sightseeing.

IMG_4060

It was idyllic. We sat, quaffed our wine, and I recited some of my preferred extracts from Hafez’s collection.

I am joking. We did sit and quaff wine. But most of our attention focused on a group of hoodied men who were being questioned by two policemen in the park opposite my flat.

Welcome to East London.

IMG_4080IMG_4065IMG_4061

Despite this, and the threat of light drizzle, we sat and sipped at our wine. And the drizzle did hold off. There’s no denying that it was very pleasant, and we felt rather smug.

Two drunk nightingales. I‘m sure Hafez would have approved.

Thank you Dad for picking this Little Black Classic.  I raise my glass to you, and to Tim’s Grandpa also. Next week I will be blogging about The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe.

IMG_4043

Advertisements

No. 33: The Beautifull Cassandra, Jane Austen

It was appropriate that my sister chose The Beautifull Cassandra as my third read, the short story having been written by Austen for her own sister, Cassandra.

I like Austen, and Sense and Sensibility is my favourite of her works. It’s not as happily tied up as her others – you’re left with a bit of an uncomfortable feeling as Marianne Dashwood marries a man almost twenty years her senior, her first love marrying another for her money.

But my chief reason for loving Sense and Sensibility is that the Dashwoods make me think of my Mum and sister. Mrs Dashwood, worried for her girls, the apples of her eye, wanting what’s best for them and, at the same time, whatever will make them happy – the two not necessarily marrying. Elinor Dashwood, the older sister, down-to-earth, sensible, thoughtful, wise, fiercely protective of her younger sisters, Marianne and Margaret. Marianne, next in age, is more innocent, idealistic, prone to dramatise, putting her heart on the line more readily.

Many parallels can be drawn between the Dashwood women and the Richards!

I was really excited about reading The Beautifull Cassandra, and getting a sense of the young Austen sisters.

This Little Black Classic consists of six short stories, written by a teenage Austen for the amusement of her family.

If I’m totally honest, I struggled with them. As a said before, I like Austen but I don’t love her like I do Hardy. And I didn’t find she was teaching me anything, as with Mayhew (click for previous blog links). I really had to make myself read these short stories, which was a shame. I was genuinely desperate to enjoy them but alas I found myself a bit bored and rather ashamed of this.

I guess I find Austen’s writing… well… a bit samey. (I can hear the gasps of Austen fans as I type this.) I know, this is a terribly narrow-minded, uneducated conclusion. But despite my love for Sense and Sensibility, her writings are remarkably similar and I can get them confused.

The collection in this Little Black Classic includes all those Austen traits that we’re now so familiar with – family, money, love, class, humour. It is striking that these were clearly the seedlings that would grow into her renowned repertoire.

For example, I could see Mrs Dashwood (Elinor and Marianne’s sister-in-law) in Lady Greville in ‘Letter the Third,’ and Lydia Bennet in Henrietta in ‘From a Young Lady.’

Austen’s wit and turn of phrase can be found throughout, emphasising that she was a clever wordsmith even as a teenager. Take the quote that Penguin used for the opening, which I have paused to drink in (pardon the pun) several times when seeing it plastered across the wall of the Underground.

IMG_4042

It did pass briefly through my mind that perhaps my celebration of this read would involve downing pints, but I am the world’s slowest drinker. And, more to the point, I didn’t think Jane would have approved.

It was, however, obvious that I needed to get my sister, Katy, involved in this week’s Little Black Classic activity, particularly because this story written for Austen’s own sister was undoubtedly my favourite in the collection.

As with all of these short stories, she opens with a dedication. Here is the dedication for her sister, Cassandra:

IMG_0063

This exaggerated (I hope) description sets the tone for the following story…

Cassandra is from a prosperous family of milliners, based in London. When Cassandra is 16, she puts on a beloved bonnet and ventures out in to the city. Here she finds a coffee shop and devours six ices (SIX!) and refuses to pay, knocking out the pastry cook when they demand she fronts the bill. She hails a taxi and orders him to drive her about town, refusing to pay when he finally drops her off at the same point they started at, instead placing her bonnet on his head. She then ignores one of her friends in the street, before returning home and concluding ‘This is a day well spent.’

The scandal! The horror! I couldn’t possibly ask my sister to mirror such behaviour.

Instead, I requested my sister don her best bonnet and meet me outside Jane Austen’s brother’s house, on Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. (Alas a lorry was parked slap bang in front of the building and its plaque commemorating her stay here, hence the illegible image below).

IMG_3954

IMG_3981

We proceeded to eat just one cake each, not six, before heading for a drink in the piazza, determined NOT to have sobriety classed as one of our weaker qualities.

IMG_3966

What I really liked about this story was Jane’s evident affection for her sister. The sycophantic dedication and sensationalist story are clearly world’s away from her relationship with her respectable and humble sister – Austen’s best friend and lifelong confidante.

Jane never married. Cassandra, the older of the two, was engaged but alas her fiancé passed away, leaving her some money. Otherwise they were at the mercy of their brothers.

This is undeniably poignant – neither finding love, living as spinsters.

But I confess I find it touching and heart-warming that they had each other. It clearly provided Jane with a lot of inspiration and material. Sisters are essential to her writing. Dashwoods, Musgroves, Elliots, Bennets, Bingleys – the list goes on.

Speaking for myself, I find having a sister by my side is a bit like having a magnificent shield on my arm. I can personally recommend a sister – they take all sorts of hits for you, and you feel rather invincible when you’re together.

IMG_4021

Perhaps I am feeling sentimental about the Austen sisters, and my own, because my Katy is, rather excitingly, engaged as of three weeks ago!

In actual fact, my family raised a glass to the happy couple at Dungeness, in the last blog post. We provided a fleck of joy on an otherwise soulless landscape.

I’m incredibly excited for my sister, who will be gaining another two sisters of her own and I, brilliantly, will be getting a brother! This calls for six celebration ices…

A huge thank you to The Beautiful Katy for choosing this Little Black Classic. Next week I will be blogging about The nightingales are drunk.

IMG_4033

Footnote: People have been asking me a lot of questions about the Mrs Beeton pie I made in week one. In hindsight, I think I was censoring my writing, not wanting to scare anyone away from the first blog post. For the record, it was vile. Looked great, smelt lovely, tasted awful. The issue undoubtedly lay with the liquid. Mrs B recommended filling with water before cooking, and pouring the gravy in post-bake. At the time of reading the recipe I thought it was odd, but as Mrs B says, I does. I learnt my lesson – sometimes it is best to go with your gut.

No. 26: Of Street Piemen, Henry Mayhew

Prior to reading these chronicles of Victorian London, I had no existing knowledge of Henry Mayhew. I restrained from typing his name into any search engine, relishing the prospect of my first Little Black Classic being a complete unknown.

What I found was a very revealing and genuinely gripping account of life in Victorian London, without the familiar circus cast of Dickens’ cannon. Ultimately, this is a great read for anyone living in London or any Londonphiles.

A collection of eight extracts, taken from various articles and essays, guide the reader through varying London scenes: the struggling independent piemen competing against pie powerhouses; the small, more human appearance of the Metropolis from a hot air balloon; the chaos of popular markets; the lewd and clearly tempting setting of the Music Hall; the progress reflected in London’s great ports; the poverty and squalor of young flower girls; the rural views offered by a train journey to Clapham; and finally the patience of local birdcatchers.

It has to be said that I do skim read long descriptions in any book (cheating, I know) and Mayhew’s elaborate depictions were no exception. I tend to regard detailed scene descriptions as waffle, preferring soundbites of description. For example, in one city portrayal Mayhew described London as ‘one immense black spot’, a portrayal that I paused to drink in.

Mayhew also drew a lovely image, from the vantage of the hot air balloon, of a train’s cloud of smoke seeming nothing more than the puff of a boiling kettle. An Englishman reducing a revolutionary, industrial machine to a signatory of teatime. Truly marvellous.

I could also appreciate the power of the chapter dedicated to London’s ports; living in London docklands myself, where old weather beaten dock buildings stand aside modern accommodation, I enjoyed imagining the hustle of shipments.

It was the accounts of real life Victorians struggling in the great urban smoke that were particularly compelling, especially as Henry interviewed many himself. It seems that however beautiful the city was from above in a hot air balloon, or outside of a rattling train carriage, this beauty didn’t reach some poverty-stricken city-dwellers.

The opening study of London piemen really captured my imagination. These forty or so street vendors were competing with the new penny-per-pie stores popping up across London, an antiquated version of our independent high street retailers struggling under the weight of giant corporations.

Henry clearly felt for these men, hinting that the quality of the meat in these pies was not the highest, using a lot of seasoning.

IMG_3853

This made me think of happy summers spent in Devon with my Grandparents, in the house my Mum grew up in. The homely and moderately nauseating waft of hot pasties and sausage rolls filling the car as we stopped for lunch is a prominent memory, and today I just need to walk past a West Cornwall Pasty Co. stall to be right back in the back seat, attempting to catch any renegade pastry in a greasy paper bag.

In honour of these hard-working piemen I decided to cook my own traditional, comforting English savoury pie.

I turned to two women for instruction on pie-making.

We had ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ on our family lounge bookshelf for as long as I can remember. Perhaps its sheer enormity is what placed it in my consciousness. I never dared pluck it off the shelf for fear of it falling on me. Death by book.

It was at university that I became more familiar with Mrs Beeton, studying her in one of my modules. A Londoner herself, Isabella Mayson married publisher Samuel Beeton when she was twenty, and thus the first published cookery writer was born. Rather intimidatingly, Mrs Beeton wrote these articles, advising readers on how to successfully run a Victorian household, when she, like me, was in her early twenties.

She covers everything: the different methods for cooking meat; which vegetables are in season when; tips for hosting a dinner party; drugs to keep in the medicine cabinet for all ailments; appropriate care for animals; fashion; and the duties of a housemaid.

IMG_3849

I really like Mrs Beeton. Admittedly, this household bible is rather intimidating. Despite being her age when this was published, I am incapable of poaching eggs. Otherwise, here is an ambitious woman with valuable advice for everyone under the one household roof. She is clearly confident and knows her own mind.

She also signed off letters to her husband with ‘Fatty.’ Here is a woman I could have been friends with.

The second woman I turned to was my Mum, another intelligent, capable woman with a great sense of humour.

Mum studied Home Economics at university (Food Technology in modern terms), which I benefited from, growing up with delicious and nutritious food, and was packed off to university with knowledge of a balanced diet and recipe book written by Mum. Any food related emergency, I call Mum.

Between the two of them Mrs Beeton and Mrs Richards gave me confidence to set to and bake a chicken pie.

I managed to track down mace, a ground spice Mrs Beeton litters her pie with, and also armed myself with rosemary, salt and pepper, remembering Mayhew highlighting that the piemen used a lot of seasoning.

IMG_3833

I confess that I bought the puff pastry rather than making it. I know, I know. I’ll withdraw my Great British Bake Off application anon.

I made a stock with the chicken, herbs and onion, which filled the flat with a lovely, homely smell, while simultaneously boiling some eggs. Move over Nigella.

At Mum’s suggestion I fried up some leeks to add some green to the pie. When everything was ready, I layered chicken, leeks, ham and the sliced hard boiled eggs, before seasoning with mace, salt and pepper. This was followed by half a pint of water and the puff pastry casing.

IMG_3834

IMG_3835

IMG_3836

I placed this in the oven for 45 minutes and, upon removing this golden crown, I filled it with the gravy as Mrs Beeton instructed.

IMG_3841

IMG_3838

It looked and smelled beautiful.

Flavour-wise, I’m not so convinced.

It was terribly watery, and the chicken was rather bland. I did add a lot of seasoning, as recommended by Beeton and Mayhew, but I would often hit a patch of mace, which made my eyes water.

IMG_3851

In Victorian times, I’m convinced this pie would have been delicious, comforting, filling. But for me it was rather tasteless and thin. It didn’t pack much of a punch and it was an awful lot of work. The kitchen was chaos.

All credit to those London piemen; an awful lot of work in a struggling trade.

A big thank you to Tim for choosing my first Little Black Classic. That’s No. 26 ticked off the list! Next time, I’ll be blogging about Thomas Hardy’s ‘Woman much missed.’

IMG_3859