Friday, August 24, 2007

wake me up

Again there's a haze-veil on the sea horizon, a line above the line. A sliding window comes across, projecting sunlit spaces down a grass and pool-aqua corridor between the buildings. And this veil, which I often notice, "Is it a political allegory? Wake me up when you come down to earth." I'm speeding into my grandmother's scullery, I'm burgling my mother's kitchen: Earl Grey tea, Haliborange. When she died my uncle redoubled his cruelties, (Galdós), -- no, I'm going back to my mother's fitted kitchen. The cupboard doors had a special kind of hinge so that they would not slam - but sometimes I amused myself by making them slam, as when you run at automatic doors and you can just manage to get to them before they open, but not really to hurt; and the staff sighed, standing at the tobacco counter like red-topped bottles of oil and vinegar on a table-top.

It was May. The rubber-plant trees extended long red tongues, letting go of old yellow. On a planter Eve accepted an apple from the snake's mouth. Adán made traffic signals, palm held against his groin, and then an angel showed them the exit. My grandmother had seeded raisins on her muesli - you can't seem to get them now. I crunched them, mainly, while Grannie extracted them carefully from a little purse at the front of her mouth. She also pared apples and laid the little boat-shapes on a bank of oats. From the balcony I see the same game I played then, with cars and lorries on a board with a square of streets. Transport is pleasure and everyone gains pleasure from using their own mode of transport, not only the sharp-edged delivery vans but the cyclists and the people on the bus. I looked up for my mother to wipe my face with a cloth she moistened by licking it. My nose took a buffet but it didn't break my line of thinking; still the truck moved along the broad avenue and went Boff at the motorbike flying across it. I made brake-squealing noises and threw both vehicles into the still air so they clattered on the board. A political allegory? Well, the haze-line wasn't there this evening - the sky above the horizon was white. I don't know what the haze-line is, whether it's an optical illusion or perhaps evaporation from the still sea: it's a long way off. A gold clashing gong crowded with muleteers says, you'll never get to me. You can't get back - burglar, infiltrator, what's worse than a lost boy or a furtive dog named Takeaway. Solicitors for the bike trade: Hills, Short and Stiff. A glass screen slides across another.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

additional notes on the below

Regular readers will know that I'm apt to carry on expanding blog entries for some time after their initial publication, though I know this can be a frustrating practice and I apologise for it. I never really regard any of the entries as finished. Just this once I'll try and group a few additions here:

On the stone pine: Mussolini's regime became totalitarian in 1924, the same year as Respighi's Pini di Roma. Since I was impolite enough to speculate about a common admiration for the military machine of Classical Rome, I will redress the balance with another speculation: that perhaps the opening part of Respighi's later Feste Romane (1929), the brutal gladiatorial combat titled "Circenses", makes its own comment on those who would reassert the values of ancient Rome.

Plums: I went and filled up a mighty bag of plums. The whole lot came from just a few of the most accessible branches of the most accessible tree. It's easy to forget the awe-inspiring superfluity implied in the word "glut"; there were enough plums on these dozen trees to feed the whole neighbourhood. Removing them from the fridge after a week, they looked awkward to deal with and I wondered how I'd ever remove the stones. In fact it was easy, just heat them up, give them a few cursory prods with a fork or slashes with a breadknife and they melt down very satisfactorily. Eventually the only pale fish in this deep red broth are the stones, which can then be lifted out with a spoon. (The stones also identify themselves by the distinctive noise of a wooden clack against the spoon as you stir it all around.) I've added what I thought was quite a lot of sugar but the mixture is still very tart. There's enough to fill a hundred small pies and it remains to be seen if this Herculean labour ever occurs.

August vegetation: Around maize-fields and in urban sites I keep seeing a group of alien species including cockspur grass (Echinocloa), bristle-grass (Setaria) and amaranth (Amaranthus). I'm sufficiently deterred by Clive Stace from attempting closer identification. While discussing the last of these families, Stace takes the opportunity to insert one of those stray personal judgements that are the light relief of botanical books: he calls Celosia argentea, much utilized in park bedding schemes, "probably the world's ugliest plant". Aficionados will recall Francis Rose's equally unexpected lyricism about the Lady Orchid "one of the most beautiful European plants". Both these intrusions occur in texts otherwise systematically descriptive for some hundreds of pages, and are like the "easter eggs" that were once the secret delight of those engaged in the numbing task of coding operating systems.

Since I'm on the subject, something I never understood until today is how the idyllic classical connotations of "amaranth" came to be associated with such an apparently unpromising genus as the pigweeds. Did Browning's Paracelsus, exclaiming: "Twine amaranth!" imagine twining such stiff upright greeny-brown spikes? Was the author of Fields of Amaranth (in Powell's novel) an aficionado of salt-marshes? The explanation is this: the classical amaranth was a legendary flower that never faded, associated with immortality. The generic name Amaranthus was given to the popular Victorian garden annual Love-lies-bleeding (A. caudatus) - originating in South America - because its long lax magenta spikes kept their colour when used in dried flower arrangements. This decorative plant turns out to be in the same genus as the mundane species (somewhat resembling docks and goosefoots) that you find around the Mediterrean; a few of them native to those parts, though many unintentionally introduced from America, e.g. A. retroflexus, the Common Amaranth. With the warmer weather they are becoming commoner in the UK, too.

Running: I learnt a lesson today. I wanted a new route and cut out of the town eastwards past a new housing development (formerly, a factory) and so down to the river. I know there was a return-path along the river that would bring me nearly back to my home, so I set off along it. It was early morning and the grass was (as some poet said, though I can't remember who) "rough with dew". When the grass turned into waist-high stands of Indian Balsam I started to get very wet and ran on holding my mobile phone above my head (I've already destroyed one this summer by subjecting it to a cloudburst on the Mendips). As I ran through it, I set off a train of small gunfire, the explosive dehiscence of balsam fruits. The lesson is that I should have worked out at this point that no-one had been using the path all summer and I should have turned back. Instead, not recalling exactly how much further I had to go, I carried on running. I didn't mind much about being soaked or my feet landing ankle-deep in obscured swamp; but the problem came later when stinging-nettles took the place of the Indian Balsam. My legs had no protection at all, and while a few nettle stings are not worth mentioning, a quarter of a mile of stings at every step is more disconcerting. Still, it was useless to turn back now, so on I went. I distantly remembered that it was good for the circulation to be stung by nettles. When I got home both my legs were a uniform blotch of red, not a centimeter unstung; this evening, they still tingle incessantly. All very entertaining, of course. Still, I won't be running along that path again - at least, not until winter comes to clear it all out. The stings are, after all, intended as a deterrent. It's disrespectful to ignore nature's messages too flagrantly; you'll come a cropper, says the accumulated weight of culture from Hesiod onwards...

[That night, the entertaining tingle turned more fretful - I couldn't get to sleep. But after that things were OK, though even a week later I can re-activate the irritation by scratching my shins. The sting contains formic acid, histamine and serotonin according to Wikipedia. There's an annual competition for eating raw nettle leaves at the Bottle Inn in Marshwood, Dorset - the men's record, held by Samuel Ellis, is the leaves from 52 feet (about 16m) of stems eaten in one hour. I expect he had a pint of beer to wash it down.]


Friday, August 10, 2007

soft fruit

(I am Hermes...) I'm sitting here mugging up on firewall concepts, route injection mechanism, and thinking about my plums (he says guilelessly).

I'm hearing from Norrland that a very dry spell in June means there's not many berries around - the hjortron (cloudberries) either did not flower or aborted. But it's different here in SW England, where the blackberries are huge and early, apples are ripening fast, and it's a signal year for plums. They are not strictly mine. They are in an untended orchard now overgrown and nearly inaccessible through brambles and shoulder-high stands (see a couple of entries back). The trees are absolutely loaded and now they're ripe, so I want to take some plastic bags in there and fill the freezer with stewed plums for future pies and yoghurts and mueslis.

That won't be today's first encounter with soft fruit. My water-based muesli involved finishing the last of a punnet of peaches - the one that's gone a little over-ripe, wrinkled and going squishy brown in one spot close to where the stalk was. [My idea with these water-based mueslis is basically to replicate or improve on a normal muesli while banishing milk and sugar. This one consisted of oats, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, ground almonds, raisins, a few bran sticks, and the aforementioned peach. And water. Milk-fans please note: the water when mixed with the oats goes a reassuring white colour; in fact this is the basis for one of the best non-dairy whiteners, in my opinion better than soya milk for most purposes - though, since you're asking, spiced rooibos ("con un toque de especias") with added soya milk makes a sensational kind of chai. I use tap-water, but be cautious. For example, some recent plumbing improvements, intended to prevent caking in the pipes, mean that that the water contains copper ions, which once drunk bind to the wrong things and interfere with key digestive processes. This water is not satisfactory for use even in the kettle. Nor is filtering the answer; it fails to extract all the copper but does remove beneficial minerals, leaving the water rusty-tasting and insipid. A good bottled mineral water, fairly high in carbonates and calcium and especially magnesium, but low in sodium, is the ideal solution. This advice is not authoritative...]

That wrinkled peach hotlines into a childhood memory - I've written about it before somewhere - one of those that becomes central, at least in the creative imagination -perhaps it did not start off central, but became like that from brooding on it so long... Old Swedish relatives, all now dead, sometimes used to offer me, clearly signalling a special treat, a wrinkled patched old peach, the last in the meagre fruit bowl. I was grateful for the honour, though I bit into it a little queasily, scarcely thinking it fit to eat. That there was a glamour attached to this peach I easily grasped. As Kalm's Travels in North America (1812) lamented: The peaches were now almost ripe. They are rare in Europe, particularly in Sweden; for in that country hardly any but the rich taste them. Soft fruit in the form of berries were indeed of critical importance in the northern forest: bilberries, cloudberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, European cranberries and rare delicacies such as the arctic brambleberry: the lingonberry in particular was the principal source of Vitamin C through every long winter. But larger fruit such as apples and plums, let alone peaches, did not have enough summer to ripen. Commercial cultivation of the peach (native to China) took place a long way from northern Sweden - the nearest sources were France, Italy and Greece. By the time the peach made it to a shop in Sundsvall, it was necessarily to be accepted in an advanced state of ripeness. I suppose this has now changed and, there as here in England, we have acquired a preference for the pristine exterior of chilled air-freight, in turn leading to a preference for the taste and texture of fruit that we call "fresh", meaning not fully ripe: that's how we like our bananas and apples.

Another time in Sweden we were taken along to a high dinner-party and for afters we had raspberries and whipped cream. I went a bit quiet and couldn't finish mine. Afterwards I told my mother about the maggots that I had tried to segregate and that crept blobbily around the rim of my bowl. I was glad that these fruity misadventures fell on me and not my young sister; I considered I was relatively well fitted to cope with them. But the peach, gift of my own relations, is the memory that mattered. It so easily symbolized the love that they wanted to give me and gave me in form - though the substance did not survive translation - , the relationship between us that could not be fully established because of my imperfect Swedish. Though in reality this made our relationships unimportant, in that other world of dream and imagination it became of correspondingly great importance, since the peach had symbolized a failure of realization that even as a child I couldn't but reflect on. As a symbol it was naturally over-determined; the peach also represented (as I uneasily tried to exclude) their own wrinkles, their sweet softness amounting to deliquescence, my fondness steeled by its very determination to hide a disgust that I mustn't even know of myself. In imagination I have indeed modelled myself into the perfect companion of lost grandmothers, the true goal of my affections. But of course such developments within the other world don't occur without feeding back into the thin film that we call biography. The moral authority of my grandmothers grew when they died. From being the possessors of a past that could sometimes, with difficulty, be expressed to me, they were now promoted to being the possessors of a past that was inexpressible and therefore nothing less than holy. The imaginative overgrowth affected real decisions. For example, was it any wonder that at university I studied not (what could have been a rational response) modern languages, but Middle English? And that in this prolonged delight what constantly exercised me was not, how very much could be known of fourteenth-century Europe, but (I insisted on it) how much could never be known... The presence of my grandmothers becomes strong, especially in August. What for example is the point of me collecting the plums from the deserted orchard and preparing food that no-one really wants, the bulk of it iced in mute food containers, perhaps for years, until one day I'll go abroad forgetting to feed the meter, and then the whole lot will have to be slung? With the frugal example of my English grandmother always in my mind, I oscillate between a tender parsimony and, perhaps no less tender, a destructive wastefulness. Wynnere and Wastoure is my handbook of home economy. Apparently it integrates well with unified threat management, too.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

flag of pre-dawn

Those stripes: blue, grey, salmon ... will I be admitted into this country?

In the early hours I'm mulling over old words - [1.] corn. Let me not under-rate maize. It is second only to rice as a sustainer of the human population; wheat comes in third. And even here it's now a commonly-grown crop. It has every right to take over our ancient word corn, as in corn chips, corn pancakes, cornflour/corn starch, popcorn (a special variety of maize), etc.

This is all a bit confusing when our cities are full of Corn Exchanges, Cornmarkets, Cornhills and Corn Streets. These placenames embody the older meaning of corn. They do not refer to a particular species of cereal, more to the hard grain in general: the bit that is left behind after threshing, but not yet milled. The word is related to kernel and ultimately to Latin granum and all the grainy granary type of English words that derive from it.

     See you our little mill that clacks
     So busy by the brook?
     She has ground her corn and paid her tax
     Ever since Domesday Book.

This older, pre-Linnaean meaning remains useful (and therefore in common use) in non-specialist contexts. Few who are not farmers can identify at a distance exactly which arable crop is ripe for harvest in a golden field seen from a car window. Our most common name for this phenomenon is therefore still corn-field. It might in fact be wheat, rye, barley or oats. The one thing it won't be is a field of maize, which looks quite unlike our ancestral idea of a corn-field.

As I write it keeps coming back - I'm smelling the sour oil, almost tasting the toasted corn that is a crunchy snack in Spain (salted along with sunflower seeds, chickpeas, etc). But this memory is all mixed up with the bags of corn I used to go and buy when a child - as it happened, from a windmill, though it did no milling, - I can't remember for which animals, but I remember the silky clacking of the corn running through my fingers and my own attempts to suck and soften that orange-yellow gravel for long enough to be able to chew on it.

Few who are not foresters can identify conifers at a distance, and we have a common name for these trees, too. We call them fir-trees. Paradoxically the undifferentiated word [2.] fir is of no use to botanists but remains a useful standard term in the common language for all needled tree-size "conifirs". Originally it would usually have meant our one native tall conifer, the Scots Pine. But under Linnaean classification this species was seen to be related to the classical pine tree, the Stone Pine of the Mediterranean, and was perforce included in the large genus Pinus. As this information percolated down to literate non-botanists the term "Scots Pine" took over.

The Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) was much planted in and around Rome during the Mussolini era because of classical, Virgilian, association - this tree and the Italian cypress. Mussolini wanted to promote a rebirth of military imperialism. How do these ideas connect with Ottorini Respighi's great tone-poem of 1924, Pini di Roma, - I mean the final episode, in which a Roman legion returning from the East marches dramatically and somewhat terrifyingly into view along the Via Appia? Anyway, somewhere between the massive popularity of Respighi's work and the Fascist tree-planting scheme the Stone Pine (aka Umbrella Pine) became the avenue tree of choice in Rome. (According to Roberto Piperno, the popes had preferred elms; 19th-century planters favoured plane-trees.)

Humans have always spread plants around the Mediterranean and the Stone Pine may have been introduced to Italy - its native area the Iberian peninsula. Extracting the pine-nuts by hand from the large cone requires effort and an indifference to getting messy - the cone is very sticky with resin and the nutshells, once you have peeled off the vestigial wings, are covered in a sort of sooty dust. These very tough shells can then be cracked (carefully, without squidging the kernels) using pliers. It's a slow amusement, a slow way of eating not very much, on a hot pavement, somewhat akin to using your thumbnail to split open the leathery sunflower seeds known as pipas that are sold for almost nothing in large bags and leave little drifts of shells around café tables.

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? (Matt. 7:9)

Botanically the word fir survived only as a constituent of the English names for two other genera, the Silver Firs and the Douglas Firs - neither native to the British Isles. This is typical of the confusions embodied in non-scientific names - a linguistic category falling somewhere in between the Latin scientific name and the ancient pre-specific term. For example, many trees include the word "cedar" as part of their lay name, though botanically they are not cedars. People named exotic species by analogy with what they knew; timber merchants named any fragrant wood "cedar" if they possibly could, because the timber then commanded a better price. The same thing happens with flowers; e.g. the New World evening-primrose named by analogy with a popular Old World flower (which it is not related to and doesn't really look like - it's only from a distance, sprinkling a grassy bank with pale yellow, that you can sometimes catch the resemblance - it's important not to be able to see the tall tough stems). These names continue to sow confusion; it's not unusual to find cosmetic products using oil of evening-primrose whose packaging in Britain is illustrated with the familiar spring flower and all its lambkin and Easter bunny associations.

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