Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A Gentlewoman's Game

I'd initially only planned three books in my Three World Series: The Dawn Herald, The Shield-Bearer, and The Arc Of The Sky. However, whilst staring in horror at England destroying its No1 status during the recent Test Series, a new book came to mind. Literally. It arrived with all the unstoppability of a runaway freight train (and other such appalling analogies) just as we finished on 72. Now, 22,000 words later, it's looking fair to be a riproaring yarn, featuring all our old favourites: the source of all ancient evil (naturally) in the form of the Old Ones, Isolde (temporarily without her broadsword), the Witch-Queen of Ira Doon, the Reverend Mother of Caravel, assorted warriors, talking Squirrels, Dryads, star sailors, eight-legged Daughters of the Dawn - not to mention islands popping in and out of the ether as they are piloted through many dimensions. But would I even have had such inspiration if it hadn't been for cricket? Is my writing ability contingent upon the noble game? Am I so hopelessly addicted to the sight of Tendulkar's propensity to sky a magnificent six over long on or Panesar's corkscrewing left arm spin that I can't be creative without it?
Regrettably few people 'get' cricket (almost as few as get me, but then I push the eccentric envelope through the sorting room wall). You start talking enthusiastically about a perfect reverse sweep - my favourite shot, elegant and almost orchestral: I call it 'The Conductor'- or a cover drive straight down the ground and watch their eyes glaze. You share an anecdote about how the chap at silly mid-off or backward point lost half his face when a tail-ender batsman, who wields their bat like a lawnmover, smacked them one, and get the response: 'I don't care'. It's Test season, you're watching the news, and whilst you're eagerly awaiting news of how our Brave Boys have been faring, you have to endure piece after piece about football - how much someone was sold for, or how someone didn't shake someone else's hand and caused WWIII. You try to share your chagrin over Pietersen's decision to cut the ball at a spinner and lose his wicket, and they shake their heads politely and say 'who'? (This about the best looking man in cricket, whose recent lamentable performance is mitigated by the perfection of his jaw.) You're unable to discuss bizarre fielding decisions, like not putting in a slip or gully when the best-bowler-worst-batsman Panesar comes to the crease, with ANYONE. Malinga's extraordinary bowling style - like a man flinging himself at a brick wall - means little to many.A wide ball suggests elephantitis, DRS a railway line. Shane Warne's famous because he's engaged to Liz Hurley (and had his teeth bleached so that they are neon-bright, and ran over a cyclist). Speak of a slip and people will try to look up your dress.
Endless T20s, 40-over and ODIs aren't helping matters either. (Not to mention DRS, which has profoundly changed the dynamic and pace of the game, the approach of the bowlers and the importance of the umpires vs a mechanical system.) I'm a purist; if the chaps aren't out there in their pyjamas for five days, it's Just Not Good Enough. Now it's frenetic, populated by big hitters who bang fours through the covers and invariably get caught out LBW because they're simply trying to score as many runs as possible in the shortest space of time. Shorter matches may be getting more people into the game, but try to explain to them the sheer artistry of a Test, the gentle pace of the gentle game, and you'll be met with a chorus of 'bor-ing'.
I, on the other hand, live for Tests. I get up at half-five (and I am NOT a morning person) if a match is being played in Dubai. Some of my happiest afternoons are spent en-sofa'd, with the neighbour's-cat-who-looks-like-Hitler curled up next to me, writing in between deliveries. In short, I'm utterly obsessed. And if it helps me to write books, so much the better.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Ultima Verba

What would you want your last words to be? Spike Milligan immortalised himself with 'I told them I was ill' on his tombstone (he also wanted to have himself buried in a washing machine so that hundreds of years later people could open it and go 'ooh, look at their burial practices', but an austere vicar forbade it). Bismarck is said to have murmured 'I could die for a good cigar', and, having lit one, promptly expired. Steve Jobs famously cried 'wow' before he went into the beyond. Many die in silence, others in terror; still more are unable to speak, though wonder is etched on their fading features. At present I'm opting for 'Shalom', in the hope I'll be greeted in kind.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Value of Money

I've bitten the metaphorical bullet and lowered the price of The Dawn Herald to 99 pence. A difficult decision. While I was crafting a hen pie (leeks, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, Fino sherry, white wine, mustard, chicken stock, browned chicken, lemon zest, thyme and heavy cream) and roast potatoes (in duck fat, crusted with rock salt, naturally) for a dinner party we had last night (during which I bit the Dude, and not merely from hunger: I'm still not entirely sure why. Suffice to say, I was vexed about *something*) I gave the knotty problem some considerable thought. A glass of wine and a touch of lightheadness later (note to self: don't drink blends, only the pure stuff), I came to the conclusion that the reason why I and half the world's population balk at cheap stuff is precisely because it IS cheap.
The cheaper the item the less likely people are to want it, except at Sale time, when they lunge on uninspiring blouses and vomit-coloured trousers with all the frenzy of a Dude at feeding-time. No-one would ever imagine that the cubic zirconia from Claire's Accessories bear any relation to De Beers' diamonds. Because De Beers charges up to many millions for its pieces, rather than 99pence. People wouldn't willingly choose a Vauxhall Astra over a Lamborghini. Rarity value is everything. And books are no exception.
What books do you associate with 99pence? Why, discounted books, of course. In one of those metal cages that resemble large wastepaper baskets with 'Clearance' on the side. Or in a warehouse of all the books that had become too dog-eared and foxed on the shop floor. Or the books no-one wanted, the rejected brainchildren of many a hopeful author. Conversely, books selling for the requisite £8.99 command respect. They've been printed by proper publishing houses, they seem to say. By people who want the author's work and are prepared to market it for them. Illustrated by entire departments of artists. With fonts especially created for them. £8.99 and above sounds serious. 99 pence does not.
However, I've decided that the rarity quotient just doesn't apply to virtual media. Bands put their music out there for free. The finest writers jot thinkpieces in the ether. Great art is available for the entire world to see and be inspired by. And offering a book on Kindle for 99 pence doesn't devalue it. On the contrary, it allows the author the kind of exposure that costs a publishing house millions of pounds in publicity - for free. Success is an elusive sort of thing, desperately sought by many and achieved only by the very few: one must use whatever means are at one's disposal to achieve it.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Fast Food and the Dude

Xavier Denamur, top French chef and rightfully angry gourmand, has launched a campaign against the processed food which is doing such damage to France's international culinary reputation. It seems that naughty restaurant chains are having such French essentials as confit de canard preprepared in factories and passing them off as the real thing. This, says Denamur, is the Outside of Enough and Cannot Be Tolerated. The French are getting fat. With this diet - alors; horreur! - they are turning into their continental cousins: obese and with little appreciation of decent food.
I'm entirely with Denamur. No matter how prettily packaged the ready meal is, it's like an elegant socialite with her front teeth knocked out. Like learning to be human by correspondence course. Incongruous. All that 'inspired by ancient Goan traditions' and 'hand-prepared in our artisan kitchens' is merely shorthand for 'cranked out of a giant vat by Doris, our furious and unfulfilled assembly line worker, into a plastic tub which is then sprayed with enough chemical preservatives to murder a million bees and shoved into cold storage for eighteen years'.
I once tried to buy a ready meal. In Marks & Spencer, which is a byword for such things. I approached the package from every angle. It sat squatly on the shelf, mocking me. I picked it up gingerly and read the ingredients. And quickly flung it back. I believe I even wiped my hand on my coat afterwards, to remove the taint of contamination. I don't want to eat something that's '26% chicken pieces minimum'. Nor do I want to ingest something that has a great big traffic light on its label, indicating just how much quicker I'm going to die from the transfat overload. I don't want to have to ovenbake something which looks eerily Stepford and perfect, only to have it taste like minced mouse in a pig slurry gravy, wrapped in a pastry made from bathmats and tweed. Food shouldn't look as though it's been botoxed. When a label says 'free range', I want to know it's as freely ranging as the ducks, geese, chickens and deer that roam around our nearby fields and lanes, not some poor shivering hen crammed into a basket with a number of other shivering hens because the producer's found a loophole that means he can treat animals like dirt yet seem ethical. Which I am sure will be a staple in Denamur's campaign.
However, Denamur may also have an issue with my cooking. My food will make you fat. This is because I have a love affair with butter. We get through three blocks a week, minimum, and very little goes on my (obviously) homemade bread. How could you marry the perfections that are spinach, purple-veined garlic, alpine gruyere, heavy cream, beef stock, nutmeg and cracked pepper with some oily spread that promises to lower your cholesterol? What would a beef pie be if you'd sauteed your beef and chestnut mushrooms - the mere act of slicing which feels like cutting through cashmere - in cooking spray? And as for roasted potatoes: if they are not seared in goose fat and the best French butter with enough salt to demand an angioplasty, they're just not worth it.
The Dude is becoming rather complacent about my cooking. He pootles off each day with a full lunchbox of homemade comestibles, is occasionally fed a pigwich (bacon sandwich) for breakfast when the cricket is on, and comes home to a house warmly scented with whatever delectableness I've prepared him that day. On the list this week is coq au vin, curry prepared with my own curry base that took three hours to make, stroganoff impregnated with enough brandy to put you over the limit and a smoked salmon and gruyere souffle. Sometimes he has the audacity to ask whether I need to use every pan in the house, but I soon quell him with threats of withdrawing food favours.
While the Dude sits hunched over his laptop drooling over brass pencil sharpeners, titanium bike frames and tan leather goods, I can be found cooking three to four meals at once. Preparing stocks and sauces. Fending him off with a carving knife when he starts cheeping at me, mouth open like a baby cuckoo, pointing at his maw frantically to indicate the fact that he is hungry. Contemplating the latest development in the three novels I'm writing - or is that four? I have so many ideas buzzing around in my bonnet that I forget which world I'm actually living in - whilst marrying flavours that make my mouth water to think of them. So, to all eaters out there: throw away the ready meals and get into the kitchen. Ditch the Diet Chef and spend your Saturday baking. Xavier Denamur will hunt you down if you don't.