Infiltrating The Old Girls’ Network 

My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June. I always experience a special feeling when a book is released into the world. Of course, I’ve been working on it for some time, from the moment I had the first scratchings of an idea to the moment I sent off my final edit. A book travels a long distance and meets a lot of people before you finally see the finished novel.

Most of my stories are about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a chateau. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsleigh Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way.

Barbara and Pauline have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.

Barbara is initially an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.

As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel,not least whether they should finally find love or not.

I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure; Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.

I usually write two novels a year and the next two stories I’m currently working on deal very differently with the idea of whether a character should end up with a significant other or not. As one character says in a book I’m writing, being single is not the opposite of being happy. Rest assured though, my characters won’t all find true love and some who find it may not always keep it. Some will, though.

There are a variety of happy endings to be enjoyed, including boy meets girl, but that ending is not always a necessary or foregone conclusion. I’m more interested in reflecting real-life issues than tying the final lines up neatly for a happily-ever-after as the curtains close. I can understand the need for books that take the reader to a good place on the last page, but that’s not something I’ll promise to achieve for every character every time.

However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.

It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimms is the very best I can offer.  

CSC_0571

Lockdown suppers: more ideas for dinner when the cupboard is almost bare

Out here in the sticks, we have a food delivery once every nine or ten days. Day ten’s last supper, before the food van arrives, usually involves a hearty stew of whatever gnarly bits and pieces are left over in the vegetable rack and the fridge. My mother used to be proud that she could make something out of nothing and I’m the same, although the word nothing for my generation means I may not have all that much in the way of fresh produce, but we are fairly well-stocked for spices, herbs, condiments, cans of beans and rice. ‘Nothing’ in my mother’s day meant exactly that – hardly any food at all, so I cook with the realistion of how lucky I am. 

The first seven days were fine. I have tins in the larder and a few items in the freezer such as plant-based sausages, home-made vegan chorizo and a bag of peas but they are just there to embellish any dish I cook. So by day eight, the fresh produce was becoming a bit dog-eared, the couple of remaining potatoes were sprouting. There were a few veggies in the rack: a butternut squash, a couple of  onions, a beautiful big celeriac gifted fresh from my neighbour’s garden, a few sweet potatoes. At the back of the fridge, I had a couple of unhappy mushrooms, a damp carrot or two and a few ends of celery and leeks.

That night I made a leek and onion quiche: the pastry was easy to make with the last of the plain flour, some plant-based margarine and shortening rubbed in, salt, white pepper and a little cold milk. I left the pastry in the fridge wrapped well for a few hours as that really improves the crumbly texture when cooked. I sweated off some onions, garlic, leeks in a little olive oil, turned the pan off and added plant-based cheese, then in a blender I whisked a small carton of silken tofu, a tbsp of plant-based milk and some nutritional yeast. I then combined this mix with the cooked onion and leek mixture and poured it all into a greased quiche tin lined evenly with my pastry, rolled out and placed in just before.

It was baked in the oven for 40 minutes at 180;  the quiche turned golden brown and the leek mixture set perfectly. I left it to cool for a couple of hours as I always find this improves the texture and taste, and warmed it up again for ten minutes with some chunks of sweet potatoes (with a little oil, salt and black pepper, some lime juice) roasted in their skins the oven 20 minutes earlier. I made a  creamy coleslaw, using the last chunk of red cabbage I’d found in the fridge, some onions, carrots, walnuts, raisins and mayonnaise.

By day nine, I decided it was time for the celeriac to step into the limelight. I slow-cooked a few lentils and some old vegetables – a sweet potato, a potato, a drained tin of sweetcorn, broccoli, onions, a bit of leek, some kale that had seen better days and some frozen peas. This was much improved by a dollop of harissa, a bit of paprika, some grated lemon zest, a dollop of coconut yogurt. The peeled celeriac was chopped, steamed and then put in the blender with a bit of plant-based margarine, salt, pepper and the last dregs of a pot of horseradish I found at the back of the fridge. (Celeriac mash is delicious with just a little salt and pepper, but a dollop of mustard would replace the horseradish and take it to the next level.) Served with the slow-cooked stew, it makes a really tasty meal.

Which brings me up to the last meal before the night-time food delivery: the butternut squash was roasted in the oven and added to a pan with a little oil, some sweated onions and garlic and anything else I could find in the fridge, which wasn’t much, (three pieces of kale, three green beans, one very wrinkled mushroom and a bit of celery) plus a tin of chickpeas and a curry sauce made from spices that I roasted in the pan beforehand: fresh ginger, chilli, garlic, fenugreek, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, garam masala and turmeric. These spices, blended into a paste with the last of the coconut yogurt and a spoonful of tomato puree or, in this case, ketchup because I was out of puree,added to the vegetables will create a thick and delicious sauce. I always make curry hours before I eat it and then serve it with rice, home-made naan and papadums.

The alternative is usually to saute the onions, then cook all the vegetables gently with some red lentils and vegetable bouillon. Put the lot in a dish, taste and season the gravy and smother the top with potatoes mashed with mustard and black pepper. This dish is much improved with the addition of a dollop of marmite, brown sauce or even soy sauce to the gravy; a bit of plant-based cheese on top is good too. The picture above shows the shepherd’s pie just before it goes in the oven – it’s another great stand-by dish to make when there are only old bits of vegetables left in the house.

Now the fridge is virtually bare and the vegetable rack has only one onion and one potato. Later, when the delivery van arrives, we will be ok for food for another week, or maybe ten days. I look forward to food deliveries with excitement now in gthe same way  I look forward to Christmas. It’s a joy to have fresh food in the house. Thank goodness for all those key workers who bring things to our door so that we can stay safely at home: where would we be without them?

 

 

It’s a time of surreal and vivid dreaming…

Many of us might have noticed that we are dreaming a little differently in these strange times. These dreams are often surreal, often presenting the most unlikely scenarios. They are very vivid and packed with detail. These have been called ‘pandemic dreams’ and the reason we’re experiencing them is because the situation we find ourselves in currently is very different to what we’re used to. 

Basically, we are now experiencing more REM sleep (our eyes move more rapidly) in the second half of the night and REM sleep gives us more emotive and visual dreams. It is good that we’re able to dream this way, apparently. It is because we are reverting to our natural state: we seem to be more relaxed and unstressed, something which makes it more likely that we will have vivid and powerful dreams.

I used to write a blog called ‘Dream Catching’ under a pseudonym, in which I interpreted other people’s dreams (or sometimes my own). People are very interested in having their dreams analysed. Often dreams can be powerful experiences and they sometimes influence our moods when we wake up in the morning.

People are fascinated by the content of their dreams and many think that their mind has not just simply thrown out some random combination of  subconscious thoughts and waking experiences. Instead, people believe that a dream reveals something meaningful from their psyche and they will often hope for an interpretation that includes a message or some sort of prediction.

The idea that dreams are full of symbols is a popular one. I’ve heard people suggest that a house may symbolise the heart or contentment; that shadows may symbolise death. My mother used to say that dreams were an inversion of reality: if you dream of death, there will be a birth announced soon, that sort of thing. There are many thoughts about why we dream. 

Dreams may represent some people’s hopes and fears; other people may think that their dreams can be visited by others: that if you dream of someone, they are sending you some kind of astral message. Some people think dreams help us to cope with life’s stress; other people assume that a dream is a random jumble of thoughts we have during sleep.

My starting point when I’m asked to interpret a dream, having listened to the person offer me a description, is to enquire about the overriding emotion of the dreamer during and after a dream. If you dream that you are falling from a great height, it will mean something different if you are feeling afraid in the dream or if you are laughing. 

Some dreams are clearly based on anxiety. Something like the dreamer’s  teeth falling out implies that normal waking worries about any sort of thing from meeting deadlines to disapproval may still be lodged in the mind. These anxieties infiltrate dreams. Context is everything, as is emotion experienced during and after the dream.

Those people suffering from the worst stresses of Coronavirus – being jobless, concerned about managing money, family stresses, loneliness, working long hours, feeling unwell – are less likely to enjoy the benefits of these vivid dreams. In fact, they are more likely to suffer from sleepless nights and periods of restlessness.

While many of us are experiencing wild and whirling dreams and are benefiting from the best sort of sleep, many other people are wide awake, keeping the rest of us safe and well. I wish them safety, good health and I send my thanks that, while we are all enjoying the peace of vivid dreams, they are out there, allowing the dream of returning to normality to become possible again by keeping us safe in the interim. To selectively quote Hamlet, my favourite Shakespeare play, “What dreams may come… must give us pause.”

How does lockdown affect creativity?

I read something a few days ago about a writer who couldn’t work during the Coronavirus lockdown period because she couldn’t think straight with all the current change and restriction: basically, she said, her brain was in ‘flight or fight’ mode. She said that it was hard to concentrate on creating something new and exciting with her thoughts all over the place, anxieties about Covid-19, wondering how long the self-isolation will continue and what might happen next. 

That is very understandable: I can see how the writing process might be affected by anxiety. Her situation led me to wonder how the current situation and the separation and lack of social interaction might affect other people who work creatively. How much do we need to interact with other people beyond our households to be better creators? Is it possible that some people work best in isolation? Will our period of lockdown, however long it may last, result in a glut of exciting new novels, poems, art of all kinds, or should we be prepared for a dearth of them? (I heard from someone connected with the writing industry that there will be so many novels about lockdown romances and murders emerging in several months’ time. Why am I imagining gritty inner city crime thrillers about people visiting the local Morrisons twice a day?…)

Many of us who are writers or artists tend to work from home in isolation. There is an old stereotype of a writer wearing glasses, perhaps perched on the lower bridge of the nose, bent double over a clanking typewriter, typing away in a garret with a small slice of light seeping through the window. Complete the image with a wine or gin or whiskey bottle not far from view. It seems quite normal for writers and some other creative artists to work alone, to use what’s in their heads as inspiration for their work and from that place create something innovative. Should the lockdown change anything?

I have several friends who are painters. One of them has joined a national artist’s group to share her work on a website that helps to sell paintings; it’s a great idea, to support artists to make a living during these difficult times and to profit from the solidarity of a group of like-minded people. Another friend was finding stimulation difficult, being home alone, but by joining a scheme online in which a group of artists painted at the same time every day, she was able to respond to a schedule and she has produced some wonderful work. What both of these artists have in common is that a collective group has given them the encouragement or structure to work towards a common goal, despite being alone.

For writers and novelists, although many wonderful and encouraging collective groups exist, we find it easy to work in isolation once we have our initial idea. Editing and upgrading work requires focus and a clear mind but it is, for the most part, easy to do that type of work alone. Creating a novel from scratch, however, demands energy, enthusiasm and the belief that an idea can readily transpose itself on the page to something substantial, entertaining and satisfying.

For me, being outdoors is a great aid to writing. Ideas come quickly and blow through my mind as new and exciting thoughts when I’m outside; being able to roam around, surrounded by nature, is where I think best. And many of my novels involve travel or journeys; I like to be on the road, in the camper van, going to old places or new places, talking to people I’ve never met before, experiencing different locations. Ideas come from new things.

I’m sure some people will say that their ideas come from inside their head, from wide reading, from past experiences, from who they are, from dreams. All that’s probably true. But, for me, the richest resource is beyond that, the resource of new experiences and interactions.

I don’t have the necessary background in psychology or anthropology to understand what effect the lockdown will have on the creative mind of any individual. I am aware that enforced isolation will bring about loneliness, anxiety and all the ensuing problems for many people: we are all naturally social animals. But it’s interesting to consider what effect it will have on our potential to think, to innovate and to create.

I’m lucky – my next novel is out in June. I have already written the subsequent one; I’m editing the one after that to improve it and I’m 20,000 words into the one after that, so I’m well ahead of the game. I’m also good at working for long periods. I’m very focused and I seldom procrastinate. If I wake at four in the morning and end up planning for three hours, it’s not a problem – it’s part of the writing process. Similarly, if I take a day off and go for a walk in the woods to get an idea in focus or a character into perspective, it’s part of my working day. I never feel guilty if I do nothing at all if I’m allowing thoughts to ferment: it’s all part of the working process.

The lockdown has given us a chance to rethink who we are and what we do each day, to evaluate the times we used to enjoy, to look forward to appreciating the future when normality is restored. More than that, I think we are emerging with a better sense of the people we can be and, most importantly, the social animals we are meant to be. And that involves sharing with others, including them in our plans and considering their well-being more than perhaps we did before the virus.

A plant-based feast for dinner. 

I wanted to push the boat out and make something really nice for dinner: It had to be healthy and a bit celebrational, a feast for the senses. I managed to buy some aubergines, one for each person, so I made a dish of zata’ar aubergine, salads and flatbreads. The main part of the dish, the roasted aubergine, is something my son thought up, having seen a version suggested by the chef Yotam Ottolenghi. (The original uses buttermilk or yogurt, so here is my plant-based  version!) Zata’ar is a lovely blend of strong herbs with a middle eastern flavour. These days it’s not too difficult to find in supermarkets and shops, and using a liberal sprinkling takes this dish to another level.

First of all, the flatbreads: I made a yeast starter with warm water, dried yeast and a teaspoonful of sugar and left it to ferment for ten minutes, then I mixed it into two cupfuls of strong flour, a pinch of salt, the juice and zest of a lemon (I love zest, so I put a whole lemon’s worth in, but adjust to your tastes), some chopped rosemary, two tablespoons of plant-based yogurt. I added a little water until it became a firm dough, kneaded it for ten minutes and left it for half an hour. (If it seems too slack or sticky, add a bit more flour. I’m assuming you have flour. I’ve improvised with oats milled in a food processor or gluten-free flour or rice flour, but strong flour gives best results if you can find some.)

As well as the dough for the flatbreads, I made the aubergine dressing in advance; I poured boiling water on a cup full of cashew nuts, then after ten minutes I drained them and blended them with coconut yogurt, the juice from half a lemon, a good sprinkle of zata’ar, a tablespoon of nutritional yeast, and a pinch of salt and pepper. A pouring consistency is ideal so a little plant milk or yogurt can be added if it seems too thick.

I roasted the aubergines, halved and with several knife-scored cuts in the flesh (with a bit of olive oil massaged in) in the oven on 180°C .They become brown, soft and unctuous after thirty minutes, but it’s a good idea to check their progress after twenty. They shouldn’t need more than forty minutes! Once they are cooked, and a sharp knife goes easily into the soft flesh of the aubergine, sprinkle them with some lemon juice and keep them warm. 

While the aubergines were roasting, I made a couple of salads: a coleslaw with red cabbage, carrots, raisins, walnuts and onions in some plant-based mayo and lime juice; a leaf and tomato salad with lemon juice, oil and zata’ar dressing, and an oil and balsamic three-bean salad with a bit of chopped chilli for some warmth, a small drained can of sweet corn, chopped red onion, chopped peppers and a few fresh herbs (parsley or coriander), with some pomegranate seeds on the top.

The bread, once risen, is divided into six portions and each one is rolled out flat then fried in a very hot pan with very little oil, turning once, so that it is puffy and brown, cooked on both sides.

To serve, put the flatbreads on a large plate alongside the salads. Serve up two roasted aubergines per person, smothering them with the cashew dressing and decorate the top with an extra sprinkling of zata’ar and few pomegranate seeds. Everyone can serve themselves as much or little salad and flatbreads as they like with their aubergine.

It is really delicious, it smells heavenly and it’s an easy meal to cook and prepare. And, like so many of my recipes here, goes just perfectly with a nice, full-bodied red wine too… Happy cooking!

 

Banana Bread  recipe – because we’re all making it

Apparently, during the lockdown, everyone is becoming an expert at making banana bread. There are lots of recipes for plant-based banana bread; some are crumbly and light and some turn out a bit rubbery. I love the idea of using up overripe bananas as they are so nutritious.This recipe makes a delicious, airy banana bread that slices well, stays fresh for several days and is nice by itself or spread with plant-based butter.

You will need two bowls or a bowl and a blender. In the larger bowl, put 250 grams of plain flour, a pinch of cinnamon, a teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda, 70 grams of brown sugar (or more if you have a sweet tooth), a pinch of salt and you can immerse some blueberries in the dry mix. 

In the blender/ the other bowl, put two ripe bananas, a teaspoonful of vanilla paste, a tablespoon of cider vinegar, four tablespoons of light oil and 60 ml of plant milk – I use oat. Blend or blitz the wet ingredients and then mix the liquid blend into the dry one. Add a bit more milk if the mixture needs loosening a little. It should resemble cake mix, not too thick and not too sloppy. Pour it into a greased loaf tin.

Bake it for 40 minutes at 180* and then check it. The banana bread  may need another ten minutes. It’s done when a toothpick comes out clean.

Let it cool then slice it and eat it.

Now here’s the really interesting part. Making the banana bread sing takes a bit of imagination and any ingredients you have at the back of the cupboard. I found some crystallised ginger and some preserved bitter orange peel. I added these ingredients, chopped, to the basic recipe and it really created a very delicious and special loaf. So, basic banana bread plus anything lying at the back of the shelf that needs using up takes this recipe to the next level. 

Playing about with the ingredients is half the fun. It’s nice to make a crunchy topping with a few smashed up oats and walnuts, a bit of brown sugar and a few blitzed seeds such as sunflower or pumpkin.

If you like, you could also add grated lemon rind, pecans or walnuts, or cocoa powder and chunks of chocolate, or raspberries or blackberries into the flour bowl before you add the wet ingredients, whatever takes your fancy. Put all the mix in a greased loaf tin. Press a few of the berries or nuts into the top of the mix so that they don’t all sink to the bottom.

There’s no end to what you can add to this basic recipe. Toast some sunflower seeds or some almonds and add them to the dry mix: any crystallised fruit goes really well in this loaf. This isn’t just one recipe, it’s so many. Mix it up and play around with anything that needs using up, within reason.

You can make a sophisticated banana bread with a whiskey marmalade filling spread through the middle and topped with plant-based cream cheese and icing sugar frosting. You can make it wholesome for the kids by adding a few ground linseeds or some raisins. You could make it decadent by adding chocolate chips, toffee chunks, bits of cinnamon biscuit, pieces of pear or apple. Have fun. Choose your own favourite.

 

A couple of things I’ve learned from lockdown 

These are interesting but difficult times as the country, indeed much of the world, learns to deal with Covid-19, and it will be fascinating to discover at a later date how we’ll all emerge from the current state of lockdown. There are things happening now that I’d never have thought possible several weeks ago, before all of this started. For example, I didn’t imagine that a local shopkeeper would be mugged for some toilet roll. He’s fine, as it turns out – he hurled the mugger onto the street by the scruff of his neck! In fact, I felt a bit sorry for the assailant who’d reached a crisis point of panic, faced with the insecurity of having to deal with the prospect of a lack of toilet hygiene. People are anxious now about normal things they took for granted two months ago.

I didn’t imagine there being a time when I wouldn’t be able to see my friends or family whenever I wanted to but, all of a sudden, we can’t. I didn’t imagine living in a world where there was no football on telly. I had no idea how lonely some people might become in such a short time and it didn’t take long to realise that I share responsibility for others’ welfare. I now message and ring friends more regularly and that I try to find nice things to do to make others’ lives better. Some have lost jobs or are still working under intense pressure. I know some feel lonely or stressed or in need of human contact or unsure about the future as, indeed, we all do. But how suddenly grateful have we become for all those things we took for granted.

All people manage anxiety and deal with problems in different ways and it’s not fair to judge those who deal with the situation in ways we wouldn’t do ourselves. For example, I have been inundated with friends who want me to share hugs on Facebook or post a photo of something silver; others have asked people not to send such requests. It’s about trying to reach out but being safe at the same time – there are plenty of scams attached to opening chain mail, and plenty of fake news being bandied around on WhatsApp.

I live in a place where it is possible to roam about outside without meeting another person and, because it’s a rural area, those I do meet by chance can stand at a distance and even chatter before we move on. I’ve noticed how much people want to socialise now. I met a great couple in the woods while I was collecting firewood (culling herbs, listening to birdsong…) who simply wanted to pass the time of day with another human. I would have invited them round for a cup of tea but… of course, that’s for future times.

I am delighted that everyone is now saying openly that they are fully behind the NHS workers: whether it is an opportunity for weekly applause or for supermarkets to allow vulnerable people early access to shops or for publishers to give away free novels, it is good that indispensable key workers are in a spotlight and that we are all united in appreciating what they do. 

More importantly, if and when we return to normality, it would be good if their work could be rewarded by better pay and conditions. They deserve much more than a retracted promise on the side of a bus and a few well-meant words of recognition for the immense job that they do.

Lots of other people deserve credit too: teachers, police officers, care workers – how tough must it be to work in a supermarket or a shop at these times. I’ve always been in awe of postal and delivery drivers who bring communication, food or goods to our doors and, in these difficult times, it has become normal to wave thanks to someone as they rush out of the gate, having left the parcel on the porch.

I wrote to my MP six times about better pay and conditions for Amazon delivery drivers before the lockdown; sadly, she never found the time to replied to me. I live in hope that things will change for the better for all key workers who have done so much for society during these hard times. Our representatives have a responsibility to step up and make that happen.

The rest of us have probably found a daily routine which is so repetitive that  we can’t tell one day from another. I received a great poem from a friend of mine recently that simply repeated words like ‘wake eat phone eat phone TV phone sleep’ on many lines, suggesting that for herself and possibly other people in lockdown a routine was emerging which didn’t necessarily inspire challenge and opportunity.

One thing which is really important is that we use this time to try new things that will  improve our lives, taking us away from humdrum repetition and boredom. We need to make each day as meaningful as we can.

People are reading more, cooking from scratch more often, spending more time planting vegetables in the garden or making quality time to talk with their families, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many things people are doing that are inspirational.

One friend is learning to play the guitar; another is crocheting blankets for homeless people; another is learning Italian; another is painting each day. I’m writing another novel – I wonder if it will be finished by the end of lockdown. One thing is for certain – none of us know exactly when that will be or what it might look like. 

And that is my point. We wished for more time with those we love; we wished for a cleaner planet, more leisure time, to be able to work from home. Now that we have the chance to make some of those things a permanent part of our lives, how can we integrate them into a future world that we’d most like to live in? How can we turn this time of challenge into a time of opportunity?

The most important factor is that we all come through this period of time as healthily as possible, through staying indoors, through being sensible about contact with others, sharing resources, shopping carefully and wisely, talking to others at a distance and keeping those who are alone as safe and happy as possible.

But when the dust clears, we may have the opportunity to make the world better. We can care more for isolated people than we did; we can try to see the positives in new situations and try not to spread fear and negativity; many people can now work from home, spending less time travelling to work in their cars,and we can appreciate all the friends and family and freedom that we already knew we appreciated but perhaps we needed to remind ourselves.

For many people, these are times of fear about our own well being and that of those we love; fear of the unknown and a panic and anxiety about things we’d taken for granted which is, in the case of some people, so powerful that it sends them into the streets to accost the shopkeepers. 

However unprecedented this may be,we can channel what we have experienced to bring about improvement. We can use the situation to spread cheer and solidarity, to practise neighbourly behaviour, to be kinder, more appreciative of others and to find ways to retain both quality of our own lives and ways to improve the lives of others. We can find better ways to care for the planet, which appears to have become healthier after just a few weeks of lockdown.

Whether it is baking for the lady next door or giving away free books, distributing food parcels or phoning someone who lives alone, we all have the chance to move forward and make the world a better place for us to share. Dickens wrote about the best of times and the worst of times. It would be nice if, out of a bad situation, we could create the best of times for everyone making such great sacrifices now, especially those who have been so profoundly undervalued until this lockdown. We owe them so much.

Book and a bite: jackfruit tortillas 

I made this when we were getting a little low on ingredients in the house. We did have a packet of tortillas, a tin of jackfruit, and a few vegetables. With a few salad leaves and some rice, it served three, but could have served four!

Rinse and drain the jackfruit and place it in a bowl. Break it up. Add some tomato puree or sauce, a bit of sriracha or chilli sauce to taste, and some liquid smoke if you have some; you could add a bit of brown sauce or barbecue sauce or soy sauce, some garlic and some seasoning. Mix it all up and spread it on a baking tray, then bake it in the oven for 20 minutes at 180°C.

Then take it out and shred it with a fork – it should pull apart nicely. Add some sliced onions and peppers and bake it again for 20 minutes. It shouldn’t burn but it should dry a little and the onions and peppers should be succulent and soft. Taste it and adjust the seasoning; add black pepper, make it hotter if you wish.

Warm eight tortillas and then divide the mixture between them. I added a dollop of coconut yogurt and some coleslaw made from red cabbage, onions, carrots, an old apple and a dollop of plant-based mayonnaise. You can play with this: if you have avocados or tomatoes or salad leaves or cucumber or plant-based cheese, they will work well with the jackfruit. Or it’s fine as it is, but the extra coleslaw makes it go further.

Roll the tortillas into a wrap, serve them with salad or vegetable rice: I mixed some cooked rice with garlic, onions, sweetcorn and cooked beans.

A spicy sauce, tomato sauce or a dollop of yogurt with lemon and/or mint makes this dish really special. I got my hands on some mole sauce (which my son brought us back from Mexico!) and a bottle of red wine: that sent it through the roof.

Twelve protagonists? Why not?

Recently an author-friend of mine said a novel she’d written had been refused by a publisher because there were four central protagonists, which they said was three too many. There is a template in romantic comedy that requires one heroine, someone with a problem that needs to be solved, one handsome male who might do something to resolve it, and other interesting or quirky subsidiary characters that help to make up a full and well-rounded story. I suggested to my friend that, although we have much more chance of success if we stick to the rules, they are there to be broken. 

When I wrote Five French Hens, I was aware that readers would have five characters to get to know at the beginning of the book, rather than the standard one or two, and I introduced them carefully so that differentiation wouldn’t be too problematic for most people.

I do have sympathy with readers struggling to assimilate a large number of characters. It happens all the time in books and in films. I adored The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham but I had a hard time telling who was who among the townsfolk at the beginning of the novel. After a bit of perseverance, it all became clear. It was the same with the TV series Peaky Blinders: there were only so many men with variations on short-back-and-sides appearing on the screen before I had to ask, is he the brother or the son? But it doesn’t detract from what is a cracking series.

Lots of novels have multiple main protagonists, from Little Women to The Famous Five, and confusion is usually avoided because the characters look and behave differently (one could even be a dog?). They are often introduced separately or they interact together in smaller numbers at different times, which helps.

So when I started to read Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, I was intrigued by how she would introduce a cast of some twelve women without confusing her readers. The answer is, she does it very well, with a great deal of skill and panache.

The novel probably isn’t for everyone: I read reviews of it and some people were confused by the large cast of women. Others thought the scarcity of punctuation was difficult but I found it really easy to assimilate: after the first two pages, I didn’t need it and I didn’t look for it. In fact, the absence of full stops and capitals adds something to the style and the rhythm of the novel.

Initially, I wasn’t hooked; the character of Amma and her daughter Yazz were interesting enough but there were lots of peripheral characters to take on board and a lot of ‘telling’ about their pasts. For the first two chapters¸ I wasn’t engaged with the protagonists, although they were characters I felt some sympathy for, but there wasn’t much to distinguish them from lots of other people in the world and make them stand out for their own qualities.

But Evaristo’s master stroke is how she mingles the characters with each other throughout the novel, introducing one at an early stage as a subsidiary character and then putting her on the spotlight later to fill in gaps and then she develops each one as a flawed but fascinating individual. Suddenly, the novel clicked for me and became absorbing; the ‘telling’ of backstories became central to understanding the character and how she relates to others.

Characters such as Carole, LaTisha, Shirley, Penelope, Bummi, Winsome, Megan/ Morgan and Hattie are cleverly interwoven, each other’s mothers, daughters, friends, grandparent, so that by the time each one has her own chapter, we know her from a different context already and so her story comes into sharp focus, important and relevant not just to the other characters but to what she contributes to the world as it is now. Bernadine Evaristo shows that attitudes to race, gender, sexuality and culture have changed over many generations and are still changing. She makes it clear that change is ongoing and her observation of these changes and developments in women’s lives is pin-sharp.

It is an important novel on many different levels. Firstly, it reveals something about women’s lives, how experiences of the world have improved over time and how women are perceived now in a fairer and more equitable way: things are changing; they needed to change; the change is not yet complete; things are not perfect yet for these women but they have, over time, achieved a little more in the way of independence and they have been assigned some measure of higher status; at times they have been listened to and their needs have been addressed. Change is good, but there is still a long way to go; there are still difficulties that need sorting out.

It is an important novel because it tells us about the world as it is now for each of its contrasting protagonists and their story is told freshly, honestly and with style. Furthermore, a novel with multiple protagonists tells the story of many women who, for their own different reasons, deserve to be listened to. It’s not just a simple story of one women whose problems will be easily resolved by a new partner and, while that can in itself be a very valid story, Evaristo’s insistence on defying heteronormative expectations and telling the stories of a dozen strong and exceptional women defiantly living their own lives is to be applauded, celebrated and read. 

She’s come a long way from Mr Loverman (which I adore) and produced a winner of a novel which is remarkable and ground breaking. Evaristo proves that when it comes to protagonists, less isn’t necessarily more.

‘Any leftovers’ Pizza

If you have any strong white or wholemeal bread flour and you’re making bread, here’s a useful meal you can make from the leftover dough and anything that’s lying in your fridge or larder. The bread is simply half a cup of warm water, a teaspoonful of (brown) sugar and a tablespoonful of yeast in a bowl, left for fifteen minutes somewhere warm and then added to the flour with a pinch of salt. I’d probably use half a kilogram of flour, more if you’re feeding a hungry group or making lots of bread. You can also add other things to your bread – I always put ground linseeds in bread as it adds useful vitamins and oil.

Mix the flour and yeast liquid together and continue to add warm water a little at a time until the mixture becomes dough-like. If it’s too wet, add a bit more flour. Knead it vigorously for a good ten minutes.

Leave the dough somewhere warm to rise for 50 minutes. Divide it into rolls, a loaf, bread-stick twists, whatever you like, but leave some over to make pizza.

Roll out the pizza and put it on a greased baking tray. Spread some tomato puree over it and any of the following you may have left over in the fridge or the cupboard:

  • Plant-based cheese
  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes – tinned is fine.
  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweetcorn
  • Plant-based chorizo, sliced. (I make my own – recipe to follow soon)
  • Pineapple
  • Peppers, any colour
  • Chillies
  • Courgettes
  • Jackfruit, tinned, shredded and baked in the oven in a nice tomato and chilli sauce
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Tofu chunks
  • Herbs such as thyme, oregano, mixed herbs – fresh or dried

You might want to drizzle a little olive oil on top and add olives.

Bake the pizza in a hot oven, 180*,  for 30 minutes. Check it after twenty.

It’s ready to serve with a green salad or a carrot and red cabbage and onion coleslaw and, if you’re really hungry, bake some herbed polenta or sweet potato chips in the oven at the same time. Flip them over after 15 minutes of cooking.

In the absence of  a football game on TV, I’ll be eating this while reading a good book ….