The launch party for my new novel, The Old Girls’ Network is virtually perfect!

Lockdown has affected everyone’s life in so many different ways. I have been lucky: I’ve been able to work from home and go outside. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with my family while they’ve been home, and that’s what I’ve focused on. These are interesting and unusual times and, while it would be easy to focus on the negatives, it’s a great opportunity to spend quality time together.

I’ve written another novel in lockdown, but it’s not about lockdown, it’s about the opposite. It’s about being outside, being able to travel, to experience life. I love being able to write about being outdoors, exploring the world, making changes happen, growing. A good friend of mine recently described his experience of lockdown as ‘dull,’ another friend said he was ‘lonely’ and, although I believe I could write a lively lockdown story that celebrates the things I hold dear, it’s nice to step outside of current restrictions and rejoice in freedom and fun. Enter The Old Girls’ Network.

My new novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three characters: two are sisters, Barbara and Pauline. They are very different and lead different lives. Barbara is difficult to warm to at first; she seems  starchy and aloof. Life has made her that way and she uses her bluntness as a coping mechanism to keep her safe from being emotionally bruised. Pauline is the opposite: warm and good-natured, but strong. At first the sisters clash over their differences, then the enigmatic Bisto Mulligan arrives on the scene as a house guest and the three characters’ adventures in the Somerset village of Winsley Green lead to them being able to develop, to learn and to grow.

Winsley Green is the setting for the novel and in many ways the story is a perfect antidote to the negative side of lockdown. Much of the action takes place outdoors: there are antics on the village green, a cricket match, a Shakespeare play, Morris dancing, welly-wanging, a local fête – all sorts of colourful activities. I’ve also included a bright array of local characters who interact with Pauline and Barbara and who befriend Bisto, from whom much of the mischief, mayhem and mirth comes.

I’m hoping readers will find the book fun and enjoy it as a celebration of life. It’s a mixture of comedy and contemplation, and a validation of human nature as each character strives to develop their horizons, to be happy, and to be the best person they can be.

But, in a time of lockdown, I can’t have a physical launch party for my new novel. I usually enjoy some sort of get together with friends and family – I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate. It’s fascinating to try to find ways around the restrictions we’ve come to rely on for safety, and one way of launching The Old Girls’ Network will be to toast the novel’s journey individually and at a distance, either to meet on zoom or to send photos of each person celebrating the novel. Boldwood Books are kindly willing to put photos on their website, people holding copies of the book, or kindle downloads, lifting a glass of something, dressed in ‘country-style clothing,’ whatever that might mean. I’d welcome photos – please upload your contributions to Twitter and tag me in, @JudyLeighWriter

Today, Tuesday 16th June, is the release date for The Old Girls’ Network, and I hope you will all have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, which was a great deal of fun indeed. Please do raise a glass and, if you wish, send me a nice picture of yourself celebrating. Lockdown won’t last forever and I hope we will emerge healthy and happy, wiser, better educated and with a firmer grasp of our priorities as a society, and ready to party again.

July France 2016 2219

Time to watch a series on TV?

I’m not someone who watches much television. I’m quite boring in that respect: whenever friends enthuse about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I’ve no idea what they are talking about. Watching a popular series on TV is a great opening to conversation and I’m aware that sometimes I’m missing out on it. I tend to be too busy to sit in front of the gogglebox as I spend a lot of time by myself working in the evenings: besides, the cats and I have quickly realised the danger of tuning into programmes like Luther when we are by ourselves. How many nights have I checked under the bed and hoped no-one will pop down from the attic via a hole in  the ceiling?

But since my son arrived back from South America and came to stay with me during lockdown, (and since there has been no football to watch for several months,) we have spent more time in front of the TV beside a warm fire with a glass of something nice. Firstly, we binge-watched all five series of Peaky Blinders, which I really thought were excellent. I enjoyed it for so many reasons that I’d have to write a blog about it separately, but one of the greatest highlights was Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Alfie Solomons. Absolutely inspired timing and characterisation- no-one else could have got away with it!

Then we sat through a whole series of Life on Mars, which was ok. Conceptually, it wasn’t for me but my theatre background has made it quite easy for me to separate a programme into the various compartments to analyse, and although I wasn’t keen on the story line or crazy about some of the characters, I enjoyed the acting, particularly the hilarious role of Philip Glenister. 

Then my son suggested that we watch all three series of  Hannibal and I agreed we’d try that. Of course, I should’ve known – as a vegan, I’m hardly a prime target audience to enjoy a suspenseful bloodthirsty cookery programme in which human flesh is prepared with elegance and relish. But I thought I’d give it a go. The cast was impressive and the series came recommended by someone whose opinion I value.

I love the opportunity to watch something and be surprised by my own reaction. Of course, I need to qualify what I mean by ‘watch something’: I spent most of the first two series on the floor with my hands over my eyes calling out ‘Can I look yet?’ While I enjoyed the powerful acting, the brilliant script, the clever photography, the symbolism, I couldn’t watch most of the gore, and there was a lot of it. It was too shocking for someone as easily horrified as I am.

The third series was a little less gory and more psychologically-tense and I preferred it, but only for that reason. Hannibal is not a series I’d naturally gravitate towards, and that’s why I’m so keen to blog about it. As a group performance, the acting is sensational, particularly Mads Mikklesen as Hannibal. The photography is excellent, the scripting is incredible and the way the characters develop and blend in a tense unfolding of a complex and well-contrived story is really good. 

It’s an intelligently written and directed series that invites the viewer to think, to work things out: nothing is quite as it seems; the use of symbolism and semiotic or suggestion is impressive and, all together, I really enjoyed it. Well, not enjoyed. It’s not enjoyable because it is distasteful, uncomfortable and often simply revolting. But it’s clever, well put together and thoroughly satisfying intellectually and aesthetically.

I can’t quite believe how much I did enjoy it while, at the same time, I regularly almost stopped watching it because the violence was unbearable. But I persisted. Both compulsive and horrific, Hannibal wouldn’t be suitable for anyone unless they were sure they weren’t prone to nightmares. I had plenty of awful dreams as a result, but the programme was utterly powerful, and I (almost) watched it all. A great series for all the right reasons. Dreadful for one reason alone – it is really nauseating. But I’m so glad I sat through it to the end. I wish there had been a series four.

Now what’s next on my list of things I don’t usually watch?CSC_0561

Appreciating ‘Dappl’d Things’ during lockdown

During the difficult lockdown moments when the sun isn’t shining and the world looks quite bleak, when people no longer have a reliable source of income and they can’t buy some foods or they have to queue at a distance to get them; when we all miss the simple things like going out for a coffee with a friend or watching the sport on TV, I find one of the best answers is to try to engage in some positive thinking.

I’ve always thought it was a good thing to make a list of positives when we feel a bit low, and there are some definite positives at the moment, one of which has to be the glorious weather we have been enjoying these past few weeks. I’m also enjoying reading wonderful books and watching a serial on TV I’ve never had time for in the past. I’m getting lots of writing done and there is time to tend to the garden, to listen to music, to go for long walks and to stop and think about and discuss the fascinating issues our communities are faced with right now.

Two of the many things I love and am most grateful for are words and nature. I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages and I enjoy reading and writing poems, blogs, songs and articles where I try to choose the right words for the right effect. Being able to walk outdoors in nearby woodlands gives me time to think and often words and ideas come to me and start to gel into some sort of plan. 

Yesterday, I was walking in my favourite stretch of woodland when I came across a dappled area, where the trees were filtering the sunlight on the grass and I began to think about how much I love dappled things. It’s the idea that something isn’t just one colour: everything is marked with darker spots or rounded patches, dark against light. I began to think of other dappled things that are beautiful: horses, cows, cats. Shakespeare uses the word ‘brinded’ to mean dappled, patterned or tabby, as in the witch’s line ‘thrice the brinded cat hath mewed’ in Macbeth. It’s that shade again, light on darker brown, a mottled effect.

Then as I trudged through the dappled glade, I thought of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote Pied Beauty, a lyric poem or curtal sonnet praising God for creating beautiful variegated things. His poem implies that the world is transitory; he suggests that  everything in the universe is destined to end or alter apart from the unchangeable beauty of God. It struck me that, whatever our religious beliefs, the poem is apt. We live in uncertain times and yet nature is always there for us and, of course, we need to take good care of it in return.

What I love most about Hopkins is his striking choice of language and the ‘sprung rhythm’ he uses when he writes, a clever use of stressed and unstressed syllables. For great examples of this, look at the poems The Windhover and God’s Grandeur by Hopkins. I love the way he uses powerful words that have visual impact; he uses language cleverly, selecting evocative words and choosing effective repetition such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme. 

A Victorian poet, Hopkins’ life was tragic. He went to Balliol, Oxford, a promising academic. He became a Jesuit priest; he was probably bipolar and never published his poems in order to subdue any feelings of egotism. He was forty four years old when he died of typhoid in Dublin. Despite bouts of severe loneliness and melancholy throughout his life, his reported last words were: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy, I loved my life.’

Against this background of sadness and self-denial, Hopkins’ love of nature and his religious fervour, which is often written so powerfully that it seen akin to physical or erotic love, is astonishing. The Windhover, for example, parallels the flight of a bird of prey and the glory of Jesus’ life and crucifixion: it is a poem rich in symbolism: the bird buffeted in the wind is a metaphor for Christ’s divine revelation to mankind.

I digress: this blog post is about a walk in the woods, thinking about words and looking at pretty colours from the sun as it filters through the trees to the shadows on the grass. Dappled things are wonderful to look at and, during these times when pasta and rye flour may be in short supply, you will find me down in the woodlands walking in a glade where the sunlight falls onto the ground in attractive blotches. 

The poem below will explain it much better than I can and I hope you will enjoy Hopkins’ choice of language as much as I do. Whether the reader is religious or whether he or she just likes a good walk outdoors and enjoys the feeling of being immersed in nature, it is a poem that might bring inspiration or even comfort in these troubled times.  

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things 

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced –

fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

Dappled 2

The ultimate and best (plant-based) Sunday roast ever

I make roast dinners for large numbers of people quite a lot: nut roasts, nut wellingtons, nut parcels, steamed puddings, vital wheat gluten roasts, all sorts of centrepieces find themselves alongside crispy pototoes. zingy vegetables, gravy, delicious yorkshire puddings, but this one is my favourite roast dish to date. It features chestnuts at the heart of the meal, although you could substitute walnuts or a mixture of nuts and seeds if you prefer, but this works so well with pre-cooked chestnuts. It’s a great meal for a celebration, for Christmas, for Thanksgiving, or just for that special time when families get together and you want to push the gravy boat out.

Preparation

Parboil enough peeled and chunked  potatoes (Maris Pipers work well)) for everyone sharing the meal. Drain the potatoes. Put them in a big bowl with a few chunks of sweet potatoes. Add olive oil, salt, black pepper, lemon juice and leave to marinade.

Make the roast: blitz a packet or tin of drained (cooked) chestnuts, two slices of brown bread, herbs of your choice (thyme, sage, parsley), a little water, a little oil (a tbsp), a shake of soy sauce, a couple of tbsp of brandy, black pepper and then stir in some sauteed onions, garlic, celery and chopped mushrooms. Mix together and put it in some greased individual pudding dishes, one for each person. This should feed four with one individual roast each but I know some people may want to make twice as much. The individual roasts go in a bain marie, a tin containing water, to cook later.

Prepare the gravy. Make a roux out of plant-based margarine and flour or, if you prefer, use a heaped tbsp of cornflour in water to thicken the gravy. Saute onions, garlic, mushrooms and celery; add a little water and a tbsp marmite. Blitz the lot (or most of it if you like bits in your gravy, as I do) then add a little more water, the thickener (roux or cornflour/water mix) and cook gently until the gravy thickens, darkens and bubbles. (I always add a glug of either marsala or, if I can’t get any, blackcurrant or blackberry liqueur to my gravy. Don’t ask why, but it really works well!)

Prepare your veg: broccoli, kale, carrots, beans, peas, whatever you like, in a steamer ready to go.

Prepare the yorkshires – blitz 2 cups self-raising flour, two cups plant milk (I use oat…) and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pour a little oil in each ‘pudding hole’ of a yorkshire pudding tray.

Forty/ fifty minutes before you want to eat.

Put the potatoes, covered in a little oil, on a tray into the top of the oven on 190. NO need to pre-heat.

Put the bain-marie containing the individual chestnut roasts in the middle of the oven.

25-30 minutes before you want to eat.

Shake the potatoes in the tin so that all sides will roast evenly. Move them down the oven to the centre shelf – I put them on top of the individual chestnut roasts to stop the tops of the roasts burning. Put the Yorkshire pudding tray with oil on the top shelf of the oven. 

Eighteen minutes before you want to eat.

Take out the yorkshire pudding tray. Pour the yorkshire pudding mix into the sizzling fat. Put the tray back on the top shelf. The mixture makes between 9-12 yorkshires, depending on the size of the tin. Turn the oven up to 200. Check the potatoes and give them a vigorous shake.

Ten minutes before you want to eat.

Steam the veggies. Season. Add some fresh herbs to the potatoes if you wish. Check the chestnut roast is almost done – firm to the touch or you can insert a tooth pick (but do remember to take it out again!)

Five minutes before you want to eat.

Reheat the gravy. Check the food in the oven is almost ready. Depending on your oven, you’ll be ready bang on time or you may want to cook for another five to eight minutes. The yorkshires will be crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. The veg needs to be just cooked. Drain them and add a pinch of seasoning if it needs it and some lemon juice, then cover and  leave them until you plate up.

To serve

Invert the chestnut roasts and put the potatoes and veggies on plates.  Add the yorkshires. Smother the lot with gravy, just how you prefer it: a lot, a little, everywhere, just on the chestnut roast. A bottle of red goes down very well with this meal.
wine

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 Winsley 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.  

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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.