Archive for August, 2008

Comfort me with apples

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Discoveries in all their blushing sweetness

Apples are my absolutely favourite fruit. I like lots of different fruit and I enjoy the whole experience of seasonal produce – so I’m finishing up the raspberry/strawberry season now, with regret at its passing. But the beginning of the apple season is always a biggie for me. Here in England, June and July are dismal apple months because the local fruit has lost most of its appeal: even if it’s been well stored most of the varieties have gone a bit spongy and look very low-spirited. Despite my eco-worrier’s anxieties about food miles I eat New Zealand apples when they’re around, partly out of loyalty and partly out of delight in their flavour. (And I tell myself they’re shipped to the UK rather than flown, so they must surely carry less of a carbon footprint.) I cook and freeze big bags of apples just about all year round, and rely on those to carry me through the lean times of apple-free months.

And now the long wait’s over – Discovery apples have arrived! They’re the prettiest as well as the earliest, and I tell you that my heart lifts when I see the first of them in the shops and markets around the middle of August. (Those are Discoveries in the picture above.) The translucent skins have such a pretty pink blush to them, and that seeps through into part of the fruit as well. Discoveries have a good light crunch and they’re pleasingly sharp, too – they don’t have as much flavour as other apples that come later in the season, but they’re good. They cook into a lovely froth of foam, rather like Bramleys, but their flavour’s a lot more interesting than Bramleys, I think – in fact I seldom use cooking apples for cooking; I much prefer to use dessert apples for baking and stewing.

This week I also saw the first Worcesters in the market – there’s a short season for this smaller, dark red apple, which has a dense texture and a flowery scent. Next month there will be Laxtons, Blenheims, Egremont Russets, and James Grieves, to be followed in October by Kidd’s Orange Red – and finally by the king of all the apples as far as I’m concerned: Cox’s Orange. And I’ve only named a few varieties that I can easily buy in local shops and markets – there are lots more that might turn up on a stall or a friend’s tree.

So suddenly the world’s more cheerful. Britain did brilliantly at the Olympic Games, it hasn’t rained in London for at least 12 hours, and the apple season has arrived.


The lion and the mouse

Monday, August 11th, 2008

I’ve just caught up with a recent New Yorker article about my favourite children’s book – ‘Stuart Little’ by E.B. White. Apparently, it took EB White more than seven years to write the book, although the article suggests he’d been working towards writing it for most his life. (“He’d had a pet mouse as a child; he thought he looked a little mousy himself. In 1909, when he was nine, he won a prize for a poem about a mouse.” And sometime in the 1920s, White fell asleep on a train and “dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing.” White started writing about his ‘mouse-child’ soon after that, and named him Stuart – but he didn’t get down to it seriously for ages. The book wasn’t finished until 1945 and first published later that year.)

As you’ll know if you’ve read this excellent book, Stuart Little is a mouse who’s born to the Little family in America. The book is the story of his development into a kind of Don Quixote character, and it ends in a unusually abrupt and unresolved way. The article cites this as a possibly distressing characteristic, although as someone who’s read both this book and EB White’s later and more famous ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to many children, I’d say that the latter is the more obviously distressing. (I’m not saying that the distress is inappropriate in ‘Charlotte’s Web’: I think quite the opposite, in fact. But it’s certainly there.)

“Stuart Little’ was banned (banned!! that wonderful mouse!!) in some American libraries for a time because the powerful children’s librarian at the New York Public Library took against it – perhaps because of its unresolved ending (which I find curiously satisfying) or because of Stuart’s unconventional arrival as a child in a human household (but more of that later). Or maybe she had no taste for true genius.

But here’s my point – well, three of them, actually. Number One: It’s perfectly OK to leave children in doubt about how a story might end. My own favourite books are often those where you know the story goes on after the book ends, but you’re not sure exactly how it’ll develop – and there’s no reason on earth that books for young people shouldn’t do that, too.

Number Two: I finally understand why I love books about quests! It’s undoubtedly because, when I was ten years old, I read a book where a courageous mouse sets off on a quest, believing against the odds that he was heading in the right direction to find his heart’s desire. And that set a benchmark for my future reading.

Number Three: The fuss about Stuart, as a mouse, being born to the human Little family strikes me as weirdly incongruous. Where will you stop, if you once start looking for simple reality in a story based on imaginative fantasy? The article says that in the original editions, Stuart was ‘born’ to the Little family, but in later ones EB White made a tiny change. “Mrs Frederick C. Little’s second son is no longer born. He arrives.” I am delighted and proud to say that my battered old copy – bought for me in New Zealand towards the end of the 1950s – is one of the ‘born’ originals.

Ignore the recent film. Read the book: it’s still proudly in print after 63 years.

Here’s the link to the article:




Landscape & memory

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

I’ve always planned to talk a bit about the pictures on the blog intro page on my website. I had a few more up to start with but it looked a bit confusing, so they got cut down to the present five. I plan to update them all from time to time – but not before I’ve had a chance to talk about each one.

So here goes. First off, the river-scape, bottom left. This one.

It’s a shot of the glorious Hokianga River in the far north of New Zealand’s North Island, and every time I look at it I feel a rush of attachment and longing for its beauty. Tidal rivers are especially magical, and this is the loveliest I have ever seen. Just look at the silvery sweep of the river with mangrove mudflats in the foreground, and the way the hills swell up on the far bank: harbour land; river land. I took the photo standing in front of the little house I rented in a place called Kohukohu, which in turn was the inspiration for writing RIVER SONG.

The other iconic New Zealand view for me is Takapuna Beach, which looks like this at sunrise (not my photo, although I wish it were). The island is Rangitoto, a dormant volcano, which explains the satisfying symmetry.


 I grew up here, and even just the thought of it still delights me.

 Attachment to place is a curiously powerful thing. It doesn’t seem to be something you can predict or control – or at least, I don’t think so. It’s a bit like love – well, it’s not like love: it is love. And although you can control what you do about feelings, you can’t stop the rush of emotion that’s keyed by a magical sight or sound – or maybe even by a smell or a taste, like the plump little madeleine cakes that swept the famous writer Marcel Proust into memories of the past.



Thinking about childhood

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Two wonderful quotations about childhood have been tugging at my mind in the past couple of weeks. They’ve been important to me for a long time, although I’ve no idea why they’re both running through my head right now. Anyway, I want to share them.

The first is from Abraham Lincoln – born almost two hundred years ago, so you have to forgive or ignore or just plain old tolerate his use of the male pronoun throughout. Listen to this:-

A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started. He is going to sit where you are sitting, and when you are gone, attend to those things which you think are important.

You may adopt all the policies you please, but how they are carried out depends on him. He will assume control of your cities, states and nations. He is going to move in and take over your schools, churches, universities and corporations. 

The fate of humanity lies in his hands.

 It reminds me of that great Ewan MacColl song about young people, with the line: “We are the writing on your wall”. I must try to track the rest of it down – I don’t even remember the title, but as far as I can recall, the lyrics are terrific.

And the other quote is from Graham Greene: it’s become an important key in my writing. This is it.

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

 Real food for thought.