December is for Displacement Activity

No wonder NaNoWriMo (see last post) is held in November. Getting 5,000 words down, let alone 50,000, in December would be a challenge for me. I wonder whether all writers regard December as a  month to (apologies for the pun) write-off.

Writers are notorious for finding displacement activities as a way of putting off sitting down at a desk and starting the hard work of putting words on the page. Suddenly tasks like ironing, filling in your tax return or going to the supermarket all acquire an attractive urgency compared with doing what you supposedly aspire to make your vocation. (I’m told this affects all writers — probably more so for those who make their livings writing as then writing equals the dreaded four letter word that begins with W.)

But December is something else again — all that precious time you normally manage to find by clearing time at weekends, grabbing the odd couple of hours on a weekday evening or even a little scribbling on the train is mercilessly elbowed aside by the extra demands of the festive season.

Like most people I’ve been up to my eyes in shopping, putting up decorations and, of course, lots of socialising. I’ve tried to convince myself that some of that socialising counts as writing-related, such as the excellent Word Factory Christmas party that I attended with Guy from the City course.

Unlike most Word Factory events, where I’ve listened to writers as diverse as Alexei Sayle, A.L. Kennedy and my own second year MA tutor, Nicholas Royle, the floor is open at the Christmas party for readings from the Word Factory audience and there were some excellent short stories read at the event by their authors, including those from friends Isabel Costello and Pete Domican (who were much braver than me by putting their names into the hat — maybe next year for me).

From This Fruity Mess at the end of November...
From This Fruity Mess at the end of November…

 

I’ve also tried to convince myself that, because food plays a large part in the novel, that all the time I’ve spent preparing mountains of home-cooked food for Christmas will contribute

To This Beauty on Christmas Day
…To This Beauty on Christmas Day

as research time — that I’m connecting myself to the tastes, aromas and textures of food preparation. Perhaps there’s a case for this when I’m kneading out the dough for stollen, spicing some slow-cooked red cabbage or getting my hands up to my elbows in a mixing bowl of herby stuffing mixture but there doesn’t seem much inspiration to be found in peeling King Edwards at one in the morning (writers’ block would need to be rather severe for that to be a displacement activity).

Picking Sloes October 2014
Picking Sloes October 2014

The novel also follows the rhythms of the English countryside’s changing seasons of the best part of a year — the principal characters meet in late summer,  experience a few chills and blasts over winter and then burst into new life in the spring. So it’s surely for research purposes that I made my own version of the bottled essence of summer that is traditional sloe gin. The prickly business of picking over a hedgerow on a fine, early October day, gathering a couple of kilos of

Bottled Sloe Gin December 2014
Bottled Sloe Gin December 2014

the tiny purple fruits certainly gives time to meditate on the shortening days and ripening of the harvest. And the periodic shaking of the steeped liquid through early winter heightens the anticipation of its eventual bottling at the end of the year when it takes on a gorgeous deep red hue. It certainly warms you up inside when you drink it so it’s best drunk in small quantities– mine lasted until the start of Lent last year.  Maybe a small slug of the 2014 vintage will kick off my writing at the start of 2015?

December is also a time for visiting family and most of mine are quite a distance away. I may have mentioned on the blog previously that I originally come from the Lancashire side South Pennines in a town hemmed in by hills. Virtually every upward glance would take in the ‘wily, windy moors’ that provided inspiration for a surprising number of great writers and poets, the most local being Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and, of course, the Brontë sisters. My theory is that the wild and desolate landscape represents forces of nature that can’t be conquered or subjugated by civilisation and they’re also a potent metaphor for the subconscious.

Bronte Parsonage Museum
Bronte Parsonage Museum

While visiting the north a few days ago I took the opportunity to revisit the Brontë Parsonage Museum (bizarrely driving about fifteen miles of the route of this summer’s Tour de France — the roads are still marked with slogans encouraging Wiggo and company). It’s a fascinating museum cataloguing the family’s life. But for me the highlight was standing in the dining room.

Maybe it’s something innately writerly but I felt transfixed in an almost religious experience when I read that this was the room where both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were written, probably side-by-side at the dining table. I know Jane Eyre intimately, having studied it at school and written a dissertation on the novel and early feminism in the first year at university. To witness where the books were created (and the room is largely preserved as it was at the time) helps develop an understanding of the process of writing.

Stockholm Waterfront  in December
Stockholm Waterfront in December

But perhaps my most tenuous piece of research was to investigate setting up a possibly lucrative sideline in Scandi-noir. At the start of December I spent the weekend in Stockholm. It was a bit crazy really — flying out first thing on Saturday and returning

Yes, It Might Be Juvenile But This Still Cracked Me Up
Yes, It Might Be Juvenile But This Still Cracked Me Up

Sunday night — spending about 34 hours in the city. I’d been there a few times before in my previous job (and got to know a few Swedes quite well) but a visit in December, when the light starts to fail about two in the afternoon and doesn’t return until about nine the next morning, helps to explain why the Scandinavians are particularly good at the dark side of fiction.

The northern Europeans have a reputation of doing Christmas ‘properly’ — with Germany’s Christmas markets being so popular that they’re popping up all over London — and the

Guess Who's the English Tourist with the Boots Carrier Bag
Guess Who’s the English Tourist with the Boots Carrier Bag

Frankfurt market that takes over Birmingham city centre is phenomenally successful. (This welcoming of other countries’ customs is another reason why I believe the British aren’t Eurosceptics at heart.)

Sweden celebrates Christmas in a way that doesn’t appear brashly commercialised — with its own traditions such as baking saffron bread and celebrating St. Lucia’s day around a

fortnight before Christmas. I visited the most famous Christmas market in Stockholm, at the Skansen open air museum, which was a relatively rustic affair with open log fires and arts and crafts and reindeer meat stalls.

Stockholm itself is a beautiful city and would provide plenty of inspiration for writers. The Vasa, an incredibly well-preserved 17th century battleship that was lifted from Stockholm harbour, is jaw-dropping when first sighted in its museum and would provide all kinds of period inspiration for historical and nautical sagas.

Another theme of the novel is looking at this country (and London, which is arguably a unique place in itself) through the eyes of a European. There’s immense insight to be gained in seeing how other countries celebrate festivals — the better to understand the unique aspects of our own.

Kim in the novel is a devoted anglophile who thinks her excellence at spoken English and several years living in London means she understands the country completely but her German logic is occasionally confounded by the sheer eccentricity of the British.

Owlswick Morris with their female Father Christmas and cross-dressing St. George
Owlswick Morris with their female Father Christmas and cross-dressing St. George

While I witnessed it much too late to go into the novel, I’d have

The Doctor Arrives
The Doctor Arrives

loved to write Kim’s fictional reaction to a traditional mummers’ play performed by local morris side, the Owlswick Morris, in my local pub on Boxing Day.

Mummers’ plays date back to the middle-ages as they are very

loosely based on the crusades. When I was at school we performed a Lancashire version at Easter called the Pace-Egg play. I was the Prince of Paladine and had to have a swordfight with St. Andrew, as I remember.

The version performed by Owlswick Morris gave a few more nods to contemporary sensibilities and featured, among others, Father Christmas (not principally known for crusading through the Levant) who was played by a woman and a cross-dressing St. George.

Redchurch Brewery Shoreditch Blonde
Redchurch Brewery Shoreditch Blonde

The top-hatted doctor, whose resurrection skills make him one of the most recurring characters, fortunately made an appearance to revive slain Slasher. (Who knows, he might be an early precursor of Doctor Who?).

I can see the slapstick elements of the mummers’ play appealing to Kim’s German sense of humour but I imagine she’d still be puzzling out how to interpret it several days later.

And thinking of Kim, whom my RNA reader described as a ‘great character and an unusual and original heroine’, I came across the beer in Utobeer in Borough Market that I mentioned a year or so ago on the blog was presciently appropriate for her — Redchurch Brewery‘s Shoreditch Blonde. (Not so much for the hair colour but because at the start of the novel she works in a pub near Shoreditch and her expertise with beer puts her at the vanguard of the recent popularity of craft beer. Redchurch Street in Shoreditch is also a place where she’d get out her spray cans and create her street art.)

I didn’t have a choice but to buy a bottle to open on a special occasion (like Kim, it’s sophisticated and not cheap). So what better time than New Year’s Eve?

Here’s a toast to Kim, and all my other characters, and to hope they help make 2015 a very special year. And a happy New Year to all my blog readers and best wishes for all your plans and endeavours (writing or otherwise) in the year ahead. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

Toasting the Shoreditch Blonde
Toasting the Shoreditch Blonde, New Year’s Eve 2014

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Flaming Pudding

My novel has a lot of food in it — and probably one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I’ve received from the many and varied people who’ve been kind enough to read parts of the manuscript (or have been forced to endure it as part of a course) is that they enjoy the writing about food — the sensory appeal and so on. (Maybe it might not be thought a Good Thing by readers if I make them hungry?)

As a follow up question, people often ask if I like cooking or if I’m much good at it. I was even asked by an agent who read the first chapter if I’d actually been on a TV cookery programme. (She was reading the chapter for one-to-one feedback at York Festival of Writing — I’ve yet to submit it properly to her.)

Interestingly, the novel has various other ingredients too — a liberal seasoning of sex, for one thing — but no-one asks me the same kind of questions about that. So, partly to celebrate the newly-allocated extra database space which allows me to put even more photos on here, I’m going to use this blog post to demonstrate with lots of salacious photos that, despite the novel writing’s effect on the frequency with which I’m able to manage it,  I still work enough on keeping my hand in to participate enthusiastically in the annual orgy

The Bible
The Bible

of gastronomy that is preparing Christmas dinner — a labour of love that started a whole month before the climax (beat that, Sting).

I’m not making any extreme claims of epicurean expertise. After all this is Christmas dinner — Sunday dinner on steroids — although some of the supermarket advertising on TV this year has stirred up controversy by suggesting this is beyond anyone but ‘mum’.  My culinary achievements are much overshadowed by my old secondary school friend, David Wilkinson, who puts mouthwatering photos of his ambitious creations (such as Kale Chips and Fruit Kimchi — not together, though) on Facebook pages and his blog Nothing But Onions.

(He’s a better photographer than me too — as an aside, we both visited Abbey Road Studio Two together earlier this year — where the Beatles recorded almost all their songs and a fantastic experience I’ve yet to blog about.)

But now to my cooking. It would be interesting to see if my style of cooking has any parallels with the way I write. Perhaps there’s a parallel with my Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake making — a sensory profusion of fruity ingredients, loads of booze involved, it takes ages to get to the table and I made so much mixture that there’s still a bit left over in the fridge that I’m reluctant to throw away?

Christmas Pudding Mixture -- Three Weeks Ahead
Christmas Pudding Mixture — Three Weeks Ahead

Looks rather unpromising in the bowl — mind you, the beer looks tempting — but on the day it will become the pièce de résistance.

Being a mild Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall type, especially when overdue for a haircut, I sourced my turkey from a relatively local farm (look out for the flooded River Thame in the background.)

Driving down the narrow lane to the farm I had several close encounters with other ethical turkey customers, many somewhat weakening their eco-credentials by driving tank-like 4x4s (probably using their vehicles for the only time in the year on the sort of road they were designed for).

The Turkey Farm and the Flood
The Turkey Farm and the Flood

In an even more River Cottage touch I had to drive through this on Christmas Eve — makes negotiating the Waitrose car park in Thame look slightly less of a perilous hazard by comparison (although it’s a mean middle-class battlefield when people stampede for the red sprouts and Heston puddings).

Turkey collected, it’s time to do all the boring, necessary stuff like chop all the veg. But being Christmas (and actually also because it’s miles cheaper than buying the stuff pre-made in the supermarket) I also made my own breadcrumbs.

These were destined for both the bacon-wrapped stuffing balls and, possibly my favourite dish of the whole meal, bread sauce.

Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated
Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated

I possess the basic cookery knowledge that chopped onion and garlic sweated a long time in a pan gives savoury dishes the flavour equivalent of a satisfying bass note — a subtle depth that’s usually only noticeable by its absence. A chopping board of alliums was given the sauna treatment.

I can’t say all this chopping and preparing is much fun but the exception is creating the clove studded onion that’s used to infuse the bread sauce. I always think it’s like a tiny alien space ship that’s landed in the pan of milk — or a mine, but that’s not very Christmassy.

The Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo
The Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo

The turkey giblets go into making proper stock — this precious home-made liquid that’s so much more nutritious and worthy than the cubed or powdered stuff but that still never seems to get used beyond the Christmas gravy.

While the preparations were underway, sustenance was needed for dinner on Christmas Eve so I baked some salmon in foil, marinaded in plenty of white wine, naturally. And, as Delia instructs, mince pies have to be baked to the strains of carols from King’s (or was it sausage rolls?). I also got ahead with the bread sauce, which looks far better in the pan that it eventually did in the serving dish but its savoury clove taste is appropriately divine.

Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce
Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce

Salmon, of the smoked variety cooked with scrambled egg also goes well with a glass of nice fizz on Christmas morning — something I first made after that Denis Healey ‘puts the top hat on it’ advert from the days when Sainsbury’s was almost as Waitrose as Waitrose. I don’t think Denis did it but marinading the salmon in cream overnight doesn’t seem to do any harm — nor adding a little flat-leaved parsley.

Puts the Top Hat On It
Puts the Top Hat On It

Refuelled by the Champagne Socialist scrambed eggs on toast, it was then to the main business of cooking the turkey and, most crucially, getting everything ready to serve with it. This is the aspect of Christmas dinner which I think is more like project management than cooking (and if my dinner had been delivered like some of the projects in the organisation where I do my day-job I think it would have been lucky to be on the table by New Year’s Day or Easter or, more likely be frazzled and cancelled altogether with the diners sent a huge bill).

The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be 'red')
The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be ‘red’)

Those roasties are pure foodie p&rn  — ampersand to discourage spammers and perverts who I’m sure will be very disappointed to find only a well-greased King Edward. Even so, they’re enough to set my heart racing (although the accumulations of duck fat might slow it down a bit).

I guess this is also where cooking at home starts to slightly take on the stresses of a professional kitchen. Although they will be co-ordinating many dishes to many different times, it’s still quite gratifying to get the roast potatoes, pigs-in-blankets, sprouts, carrots and so on to the table before everything else goes cold.

Then there’s the Christmas tradition of being paranoid about whether the turkey is properly cooked or not. I looked through several different books, magazines and websites to find a consensus about how long to cook it and at what temperature — but they were all different. No wonder people get confused.

I probably cook mine longer than necessary but to stop it drying out I put some flavoursome things in the cavity — lemons, onions, herbs, garlic — but not too many to stop the air circulating. Instead of putting the stuffing inside the turkey, I use a method which isn’t for the squeamish (and for which it helps to have had a glass or two of early morning fizz) that involves pushing the stuffing into the neck and then between the skin of the breast and the meat underneath. It looks good when the turkey’s carved if it’s been worked through well enough under the skin.

Bootiful
Bootiful

That’s a rice, mushroom, apricot and pistachio stuffing, by the way. The breadcrumbs went into the ‘other stuffing’ with sausagemeat.

Of course, after a huge meal with unnecessary accompaniments like devils on horseback and homemade cranberry and orange sauce as well as all the above, it’s utter madness to follow it with even more calories but that’s what tradition — and Delia — insists on.

As well as Delia’s cake, I made a dessert that Delia may well have approved of but isn’t in her Christmas bible — a jelly made from almost 100% port — just a little added lemon juice. Next time I may add a bit of sugar to sweeten it but the jelly did its job of making everyone jolly — as did the cake, fed on a diet of brandy and calvados.

Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake
Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake

But to finish almost where this post started — the end result of that unpromising sludgy-stuff in the mixing bowl was repacked into its mould (again looking so much like an alien craft I wonder if it was made in Roswell), steamed for a couple of hours and then soaked in hot brandy and ritually immolated (a process bound to kill off any extra-terrestrial life-forms, just in case).

An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?
An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?

So, yes, I do cook but, like a few other interests, it’s something I’ve cut back on the time I spend doing while I’ve been writing this novel — although I do cook a lot more often than once a year, it’s the Christmas dinner that is the most intensive burst of activity so, given the general lack of other evidence of my foodie interests, hopefully this post has redressed the balance rather than been self-indulgent.

I suppose cooking a big meal is a bit like writing in that you put in a lot of preparation, transforming your ingredients into an something that you enjoy yourself but also hope that others will appreciate too. And hopefully both the writing and the Christmas dinner will leave a final impression that’s a little memorable and entertaining — there’s nothing quite like a flaming pudding.

The Flaming Pudding
The Flaming Pudding

Broad Beans and Sea Urchins

Writing-in-Situ---Tate-Modern
Writing in the Field -- Tate Modern Espresso Bar

I was in London today and took the time to do a bit of novel-related research. I’m planning on setting a small part of my novel in the Tate Modern and so thought it might be in the spirit of the novel to actually write some of it there.

So, as the picture shows to the left, my netbook is out next to my Tate cappuccino while I wrote a few hundred words about what my characters were doing in the same place — I’m not sure if that does anything for the authenticity of the words on the page but it probably helps me feel that I have some sort of credibility in attempting to use this as a location.

I guess the photo is a bit symbolic in showing the subject of the writing along with the means by which it’s intended to be captured — the Word 2007 screenshot.

The floor where I was sitting is home to the current Gerhard Richter exhibition. This is an incredibly well-reviewed exhibition featuring the works of one of the world’s leading artists, who happens to be German, which fits a little with my novel.

I went to see the exhibition (it’s one of those you have to pay to go in) about five or six weeks ago and was actually very impressed with it. Richter is an incredibly versatile artist who’s created abstract art as well as fascinating landscapes and portraits and still lives — two of his works are exceptionally well known: one of his daughter turning her head and another of a candle that was used on a Sonic Youth album cover .

The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia
The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia at Christ Church Greyfriars

I then had a look around Daunt Books’ new Cheapside shop.

Nowadays I have to enter bookshops with a resolution of steel — I WILL NOT BUY MORE BOOKS (because I haven’t even got room for all those I currently have — let alone time to read them all). But as soon as I set foot over the threshold I’m ready to be seduced.

And seduction was on the menu for the book I found on one of the tables in the store was The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia by Mark Douglas Hill. And seeing as my novel has lots of food in it and relationships then it immediately attracted my interest.

Co-incidentally I was pleased to see this book as I’ve spent an amount of time on the web trying to see if I could get any more seriously foodie information on this subject myself and oddly enough the range of websites that come up tend to be a bit gimmicky or commercial.

I won’t reveal exactly what my intentions are for purchasing this particular volume of literature to peruse but I think some of the more unusual combinations might give me a bit of fun.

Looking through the table of contents, I initially wondered what wasn’t an aphrosidiac — there were quite a few foodstuffs that are pleasant to eat but perhaps not best known for their aphrodisiac qualities — e.g. steak, honey, caviar, chocolate (although I guess a lot depends on how one might use the last three on that list).

Then there are the sensual or symbolic foods that would go on any Valentine’s night menu — oysters, asparagus, truffles, figs and maybe a few others.

I was quite puzzled over the aphrodisiac qualities of some of the book’s contents — watermelon, celery, pine nuts, quince, anchovies, cheese (which sort — presumably not Stinking Bishop, which I bought recently from Neal’s Yard). Having read some of the foods’ entries these less erotic inclusions appear to made on the strength of their vitamin and mineral content — zinc being a favourite plus various amino acids or similar, like trpytophan, which apparently triggers the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Apparently, the book says, eating a banana mimics in a presumably more muted way the taking of ecstasy.

The book gives a recipe (for two, obviously) for each of the ingredients — and some look rather nice. I’d guess most lovers would appreciate a well-cooked meal, even if the ingredients were fairly commonly eaten anyway — like eggs or pineapple. However, some choices seemed utterly bizarre — such as broad beans. How a food so unavoidably associated with flatulence can be considered at all sexually alluring is something of a mystery — apparently it’s all something to do with the ancient Greeks and Pythagoras and the supposed similarity in the bean’s shape to the male gonad (and it also produces dopamine, apparently — better tell the ravers).

At least broad beans are quite familiar unlike some of the aphrodisiacs. The most unusual include pufferfish, sea urchin and iguana. I’d probably rather breakfast on cold pizza in the morning or a leftover kebab heated in the microwave than eat sea urchin. But, then again, in the words of 10cc, eating pufferfish might be one of the things we do for love.

As for iguana, I don’t think even the characters in my novel would go so far as serving that up in pursuit of seduction. (Apparently iguanas have some powerful glands in their inner thighs that produce powerful sex pheromones, which causes them to be turned into an aphrodisiac stew in their Native Nicaragua.) It’s a shame as the book has a recipe for ‘Roast Iguana with Chipotle and Oregano Marinade’, which would have been an interesting dish to feature in my novel. Maybe I’ll go instead for symbolism and have a character with a pet iguana which the cognoscenti will know is a symbol of their hidden, raging sexual passion.

Of course, the Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia doesn’t take itself very seriously (see the link to the author bio above). This is a point that seems to be missed in a rather humourless and contradictory review of the book in the Observer — stating that the way to spot a mediocre novelist is the inevitable use of a meal as a metaphor for sensuality but then goes on to equate eating with sex and states that an intimate meal involves ‘wearing your elemental self on your sleeve’ (maybe it’s OK to use the metaphor in a review but not a novel or maybe I’ve missed some self-reflexive irony?).

Of course  there’s not much science behind the claims for most aphrodisiacs — although the social and cultural associations of some of the better known foods in the book are enough to make the consumption of these foods in the right context a suggestive and potentially innuendo laden act. I’m sure I can put the research to good effect.

And on the way between the Tate Modern and Daunt Books where I was seduced by this volume, I walked over the Millennium Bridge, which gave me the opportunity to monitor the progress of the Shard again. This time I’ve got a smeary-lensed, city scape with what my blogging acquaintance Female PTSD describes as a giant Issey Miyake perfume bottle (that’s an analogy as a male I never would have got).

The Shard 6th December 2011
The Shard Nearly Finished -- 6th December 2011

‘Sweat Me Garlicky’

We had to take along a published poem (by someone else) to Metroland Poets last night on the theme of ‘Poems to Read Aloud’. There was a very varied and entertaining selection ranging from ballads by Walter Scott to Edwin Morgan’s famous ‘Loch Ness Monster’s Song’.

I made a choice in about five minutes flat but was quite pleased with the poem that came to mind. It’s ‘Cooking with Blood’ by Linda France, which is featured, along with an interview with the poet, in the Open University’s ‘Creative Writing’ course (A215). Click on this link for the poem and an opportunity to hear her read it out.

Again there’s a link with The Angel as it’s all about cooking (in the section I’m workshopping on Monday James tells Kim about his passion for food). It’s also dedicated to Delia Smith in a way. Delia is someone I’ve loved even more since her famously tired and emotional appearance on the pitch at half time at a Norwich City game.

I get the feeling she’s far less prim and proper than supposed ‘edgier’ cooks like Nigella and Jamie Oliver (who I think, to use Kim’s vocabulary, is a bit of a tw*t).

‘Cooking with Blood’ was inspired when Linda France was looking through the index of a cookery book, probably Delia’s, and found all kinds of exotic names for dishes and techniques. What people found quite remarkable when I read the poem was the amazing use of these names as verbs in the poem. ‘Wouldn’t we sausage lots of little quichelets’, ‘She played en papilotte/for just long enough to sweat me garlicky’, ‘I’ve stroganoffed with too many of them’, ‘[I] triped
myself into a carcass’.

Making imaginative use of verbs (and, in fact creating new verbs like this) is something that I don’t really do enough of in my own writing — probably because I do it too quickly. I’ve got the opportunity to experiment a little in this way in my next chapter when I get James and Kim completely plastered. I’d like to try and hint at their altered states of consciousness by attempting to play with language in the same sort of way.

The poem also appeals to me as it’s very sensual. There’s clearly a link between food and sex in the poem (even as far as talking about procreation) but it’s amusing and thought-provoking: ‘After I’d peppered her liver, stuffed her goose/
and dogfished her tender loins, she was paté/in my hands’ and ‘We danced the ossobuco;/her belly kedgeree, her breasts prosciutto.’ I think this poem must have tapped into my subconscious quite deeply as I tend to return to similar elements in my writing: people say it’s quite physical. I tend to write a lot about what people do with their hands and their body appearance.On Monday in the workshop I’m sure it will be noted that James is something of a compulsive breast watcher (well, he’s done it twice once with each of the women). I’ve played this up deliberately for mild amusement but I’m starting on the journey to finding my writing ‘voice’ and I think I’m always going to have a theme of the physical and sensuous. I’ve done the same in ‘Burying Bad News’ with Frances imagining herself and other people with physical attributes of grape varities. It’s interesting as I’m not a touchy-feely type person in normal life at all — I just seem to write about it.

One of the women poets was surprised that ‘Cooking with Blood’ was written by a woman as she thought its tone was quite male. Perhaps that’s down to the physicality of its approach as opposed to the more metaphysical, spiritual tone she might have expected in a poem with a similar message written from a more conventionally ‘female’ point of view. I’m not so sure there really is such a gender bias in reality between male and female writers. At least three of the male novelists on the course are writing from female points of view and Eileen writes in a very convincingly masculine voice in her novel extracts. However, there’s no doubt that many readers form expectations about reading a novel just by reading the gender of the author. That, famously, is why J.K.Rowling is known by her initials — the publishers didn’t think their initial market of teen boys would want to read a book written by someone called Joanne.