November 22, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I was raised by Sir Terry Pratchett.
Not in the literal way of ever having met him. Just in the way that I have read him for so long, his perspective on life has shaped my own.
Somebody leant me The Colour of Magic when I was eleven years old. It was silly and funny and I fell in love with the innocence of Twoflower and the way that his passion and interest seemed to shape the world around him. Look around, the book seemed to say, there is beauty everywhere.
Twenty-three years later, I am still in love with Pratchett’s Discworld and his deeply funny, deeply felt stories of the wonder and power of being human, whatever shape you come in.
At World Fantasy Con, Pratchett and his assistant Rob are talking about his new book, Raising Steam. Pratchett’s PCA seems to be progressing cruelly. His vision is impaired—his hands bang into the microphone repeatedly, eliciting a grimace each time. Frustration? Embarrassment? Even from my second row position it’s difficult to tell. Rob reads a section of the book for us which seems as funny and vital as ever. There are more details of the book and his struggles in this recent Telegraph interview.
Rob does all the heavy lifting of the appearance. He dangles morsels of information about upcoming TV and film projects, but the third member of the panel (Mike?) won’t allow him to give away much. Rob shares anecdotes about the writing and media development processes, pausing frequently to leave Pratchett space to contribute. Sometimes he does. Often, he doesn’t respond, or seems about to speak but decides against it. When he does land upon a small anecdote to tell, a thousand people in the audience hold their breath. We hang on his words like they are a rope dropped into the dark well of our lives, guiding the way up and out.
The joy of reading Pratchett, is that he knows the world is a slick smiling conman built from the lies we tell ourselves and each other, that pile up into a lie so heavy that no-one can move it alone. He knows we all struggle to see, let alone change our own realities. Pratchett twitches back the curtain and shows us how ridiculous it is—shows us the greasy machinery of prejudice and ignorance behind the scenes and inside our own minds. We don’t feel stupid for believing the lies. We’re all in it together, he says.
But we are left thinking that we’ll spot it next time. Next time someone tries to trick you with your own fear, with ignorance or vanity or shame, you’ll see it for the silliness it really is. You won’t feel angry or afraid or any other emotion that provides fertile soil for lies to grow. You’ll remember his stories and you’ll laugh. The lies will shrivel. Leaving space for a breath, for a lifetime.
That is his gift to us: a brief respite. A moment’s freedom for us to figure out what we want our own truths to be.
October 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
If you’re coming to lovely Brighton for World Fantasy 2013, take a few moments to step outside the hotel and enjoy some of our delicious food and coffee. Nothing is very far away in Brighton, you can walk across the whole downtown area in half an hour, and if you haven’t got time to walk, the cabs are easy to spot with their unique livery: white with turquoise bonnets.
Avoid chains and going to most places on Preston Road or Western Road (the two main streets leading leading back from the sea front to the right and left of the hotel respectively. Instead, stroll down to the Lanes (10 min walk from the Con hotel) or the North Laines (20 mins) and you’re pretty much guaranteed wonderful experience whatever independent place you stumble into. That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a place in mind if you’re short of time, so below are my recommendations.
Taylor St: a three minute walk from the station towards the seafront. Excellent coffee from obsessive Australians. The food is good if you can get a seat too.
Small Batch Coffe: My favourite coffee in Brighton, they roast their own beans and also supply a lot of other coffee shops locally. Don’t miss their coffee truck at the station when you arrive.
If you’ve only got a few minutes to grab a coffee or food, then The New Club is super close to the Con hotel. Turn right out of the venue, walk for 3 mins. It’s on the corner of Preston Street. I haven’t tried it yet and Trip Advisor has mixed reviews, but it’s close if you’re in a hurry.
Dumb Waiter: A crazy little cafe. Kind of disorganised but great food and a Brighton institution. 9-6, Sun 10-4.
Seven Bees: Officially the best breakfast in Brighton, 9-3.
Mad Hatter: Good, cheap cafe. Milkshakes, falafel, burgers and sandwiches. 9-6, Sun 11-5.
For fabulous bread, pastries and cakes, try either of the Real Patisserie locations. Western Road open 7.30-6 every day, Trafalgar St. 7-5.30, closed on Sundays.
Iydea – home-cooked vegetarian cafe. Eat in or takeaway. Tucked in the North Laines it’s the best food you’ll get for under a fiver. 9.30-9pm, Sun closes at 5.30.
The Chilli Pickle: You’ll need to get there early or book if you want dinner, but it’s usually a bit quieter at lunch time. The best Indian food I’ve had in England. Bar none. Open 12-3 and 6-10.30.
Mange Tout: Excellent french bistro for any time of day. 10-6 on Thursday, Fri & Sat 10-10 and Sun 10-5.
If you want something fancier than the lunch places above, there are two excellent fine dining vegetarian restaurants in Brighton:
Food for Friends: Everything on the menu is wonderful (12-10pm). Terre a Terre: (11-11pm) Food divine and diverse, booking is essential at peak times.
There’s excellent seafood at English’s, 12-10pm, or sit down fish and chips at the Regency, 8am-11pm – not too pricey. Or for fast food that’s open late, Grubbs Burgers is a Brighton institution, 12-12.
Some quirky and distinctly English pubs worth checking out are The Quadrant: surprisingly chilled for it’s central position, real ale and whiskeys. The Lion & Lobster: multiple cozy rooms and decent pub food from 5pm til 2am, and The Robin Hood: a not-for-profit pub with great beer and handmade pizza. Also, The Cricketers - An old school English pub, with all the horse brass and flock wallpaper you could possibly need.
If you head across to Kemptown (east of the Lanes) there are more great restaurants and pubs, and a plethora of gay bars to choose from. A couple to mention are the Camelford Arms and Marine Tavern. Both gay pubs with nice atmosphere and good beer, rather than pounding music.
The WFC site also has some recommendations and covers afternoon tea particularly well (scroll down to the end of the page).
August 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Two wonderful discoveries.
First, I’m reading Carol Ann Duffy’s collection, Rapture. It is gorgeous, lyrical and rich as butter. Read reviews at the Guardian and The Rumpus, or just go ahead and buy it now. You won’t regret it.
Second, the poemhunter website, a repository of thousands of wonderful poems has a ‘random poem’ function. I have set this link to be my browser homepage. Every time I open my browser, I have the wonderful gift of a new poem to read.
You can use this link to do the same: RandomPoem
July 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
There *is* a magic formula! I knew it. I just knew it.
For years I’ve thought bakers have secret knowledge to which the culinary proles (i.e. me) have not been granted access. I am vindicated. Michael Ruhlman says so.
My success with baked goods has been middling at best, due to a tendency to forget ingredients or make inappropriate substitutions leading to a spectacular collapse equalled only by Australia’s batting performance in the Ashes yesterday.
If you’ve ever wondered what made a brownie so gooeylicious and a cupcake so undefinably distinct from a muffin, I am come to the rescue, armed with references and of course, a graph.
These three goods belong to the ‘batter’ category of baking – a pourable mixture with more liquid than solid. The key factors determining the nature of a batter end product are 1) the mixing method and 2) the ratio of the key ingredients (some or all of: flour, fat, eggs, sugar, liquid).
Cupcakes (usually based on a sponge cake recipe) are light-footed airy little pixies. They require the sugar and eggs to be beaten first (called foaming), then the butter and flour added afterward. Sidenote: if you use the exact same ratios but start by creaming the butter and sugar, adding eggs and flour after, you get a much denser pound cake as a result.
Muffins and brownies* are both quick breads, where the wet and dry ingredients are mixed separately and then stirred together, just enough to combine them. Quick breads are leavened by baking powder, whereas cakes don’t necessarily need it if you are skilled enough to get exactly the right amount of air into the mixture when beating it. But why not take advantage of modern (early Victorian) science and make life easy for yourself?
Below are the relative ratios for cupcakes, muffins and brownies. The cupcake is the base case, using equal proportions of flour, fat, eggs and sugar for a light but firm bite. The muffin and brownie both contain additional liquid (milk and chocolate respectively) adding moisture to the final result. Meanwhile, in the brownie sugar has replaced about 1/4 of the flour (vs. cupcake) leading to a weaker structure and slightly gelatinous consistency.
Voila! Secret staircase revealed. You can use these ratios in any quantity to make the kind of tasty treat you love best. But for those interested in *why* these ratios make such a difference, I will turn to my other favourite cook book: McGee on Food and Cooking which discusses the properties of each ingredient.
When wheat flour is mixed with water, the glutenin protein molecules link up end to end to form long, composite gluten molecules, giving the dough both elasticity (resists pressure and moves back towards original shape) and plasticity (changes shape under pressure). ‘Working’ dough allows more of these long chains to link up, strengthening the structure — necessary in yeasted breads, but giving undesirable toughness to cakes and shortbread. This is why cake recipes often warn against over mixing, and flour is usually put in last.
Starch makes up about 70% of wheat flour. Starch granules interpenetrate the gluten network, breaking it up and so tenderising it. In cakes, starch is the major structural material as gluten is too dispersed in the large amount of water and sugar to contribute to solidity. During baking, starch granules absorb water, swell and set to form the rigid walls around the carbon dioxide bubbles, containing them and maintaining the structure.
Fats and oils ‘shorten’ a dough or weaken the structure thus making the final product more tender and flaky (e.g. pastry). in rich breads and cakes, fat bonds to parts of the gluten protein coils and prevent the proteins from forming strong gluten.
As well as adding sweetness, sugar retains moisture, and limits the development of gluten. Hence the more moisture you like your brownies to have, the more sugar they will need.
Are the magical all rounder ingredient, doing a great deal of work for your baked goods. The proteins provide some of the structure that holds the cake together. The yolk contains emulsifiers that help the other ingredients blend together, fats that make it richer and better-tasting as well as softening the texture of the cake, keeping it from becoming chewy.
A note on gluten free baking:
Gluten free flours such as rice and sorghum are often supplemented by separate starches e.g. tapioca and xanthum gum. The gum, which is secreted by a bacterium and purified in industrial scale fermenters, provides a gluten like elasticity.
Some time ago the on-line gluten free community started a project called the gluten-free ratio rally to better understand how to transpose recipes into their GF equivalents. You can find more on it and recipes here, here and here:
*At least, the recipe that i’ve used from my Usborne First Book of Cookery is. Brownie recipes vary wildly.
May 22, 2013 § 3 Comments
I am not alone in my enthusiasm for spreadsheets and tracking daily progress. A few people have asked for copies of the spreadsheet they can use.
In case you too would like to join in, I’m posting an Excel version below.
You’re welcome :)
May 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
The sense of achievement I gain from completing projects is huge. When I worked as an analyst, this was fairly easy to come by.
My internal id monologue on a typical day in the office: Plan the thing, do the thing, (yay!) do the thing again, do it better! (double yay!) Didn’t work? Don’t worry, do the next thing. (Woohoo, new thing!)
But in writing a novel, there’s not really the same sense of discrete tasks. There was a planning phase, for sure. But now I’m into the writing phase it’s just a long, lonely race with myself until the end.
Mix that with the boredom threshold of a grasshopper with ADHD and it makes long projects somewhat challenging.
So I create way markers. Things that give me a sense of achievement even though they are purely arbitrary. Every day, a thousand words. Bing! Achievement unlocked.
But today was special.
Today my manuscript hit ten thousand words in total.
Only ten more of those to go for this draft. And then only *mumblecough* drafts to go until submission. These things are the things that keep me focused.
(Yes, I do update a spreadsheet with my daily word count every day, that in turn updates this pie chart. I like spreadsheets. They’re pretty and orderly, and they never want to give you an update on the gestational progress of the British royal lineage.)
September 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
St. James’s street. Darkness pocked with electric yellow. A narrow road, crowded in by three storey brick buildings.Every other shop front blasts music and sells drinks. From the hair salon to the ice cream parlour.
The street is filled with tattoos and tight white t-shirts, boys in sailor suits with their arms in the air, and girls in loose vests, short hair curling in the nape of their neck. I am crushed by sweaty, friendly flesh, pressing into me.
Bodies and rainbows everywhere. Rainbows in garlands and face paint and striped hair, and enormous billowing flags worn as capes and dresses and tucked into handbags. All of the faces smiling, bodies thrusting and a thousand voices shouting along to the music. It bounces off the windows and the walls and wraps you up in a safe place. Everywhere you look, mouths make the same shape, speaking with one voice. Whatever the words they sing, what I hear is, ‘I belong’.