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I like cooking as a general rule but just lately I’ve lost my mojo a bit. I think it is looking back over all the many thousands of meals I’ve cooked and having my nearest and dearest laugh at the memory of the giant memoryfoam pillow sized ravioli I once made or the Dwarf Bread.  I manufactured that by fluke, without the benefit of a recipe or even a smallish bag of wholemeal grit. Bread is a hard taskmaster, emphasis on the hard there. It has taken me the best part of 20 years to get it right.

I have always been conscious of budget and quality. I don’t require everything to be dirt cheap because then it is generally made, as my husband might put it, from lips and arseholes. I don’t want my meat ground or mechanically recovered. Some people think this is snobby, they are the kind of people who feed their dog on kibble.

I was always one for eat less meat but eat free range when you do. In recent years we took the idea of Meat Free Monday and ran through the rest of the week with it. Meat is a treat, a special occasion. I am still, however, chided on the future of the planet by my militant Vegan daughter. I am beginning to think that we should have named her Vegan. I find it amusing that my conscious parenting where I brought them up to think about nutrition and food and care about plants and animals, has come back to bite me. Literally. Is THAT CHEESE???!!!!

In my mind my dream time travel job has always to be employed in a kitchen somewhere in a castle or stately home. I think it comes from the Ladybird book Dick Whittington where the kitchen, where Dick met the cat, always looked busy and welcoming, if not very vegetarian friendly with its roasting hog. Also lets not mention the rats. I have previous where they are concerned.

It might also be down to the fact that I was brought up with the idea that food was love. I cannot eat salad cream without thinking of all those crispy Iceberg lettuce and prawn teas at my Grandma McKiernan’s house. There was tinned salmon and celery and spring onions. It might involve tinned crab or ham perhaps as my grandmother had honed her cooking skills in the war. It was a feast, not just on account of the pickled beetroot but because it was with family.

I envision myself as the kind of cook who is called ‘Cook’ and who can concoct a vast array of decorative and delicious cakes and comestibles with one swipe of her ladle. I am wearing rosy cheeks and a pinny in this fantasy and also a mob cap. I’m the kind of cook who is kindly to the snivelling scullery maid and always has the kettle on the boil ready for cups of tea. Although in the castle scenario this alters slightly, the mob cap vanishes and is replaced by a linen caul and dorelet number and there is no tea, only a flagon of something I have brewed earlier.

Did you know that once all the brewers were women? It was considered one of the feminine arts and they were known as Brewsters. Fact. It’ll pop up on The Chase no doubt.

In the Past, I’m the kind of cook who knows all the local gossip but in an informative and secret keeping fashion. I am the kind of cook that Cinderella could ask for a stray pumpkin, or if she can check that the trap has any mice in it to be transformed into footmen.

Oh. So maybe I don’t want to be a cook at all. Maybe, what I really want to be is a Fairy Godmother.

 

 

We were at St Fagans the other day, in the blistering heat and popping into the wonderful bakery. I love St Fagans with its collection of historic buildings saved from all corners of, well, Wales actually. It is the Museum of Welsh Life and its worth a visit any time of year.

It’s one of those places where you can time travel. The fires are lit in Winter and there is always the idea that you’ve just stepped into someone’s house while they were out. If you like rollercoasters and white knuckle thrill rides then it probably isn’t going to float your boat but if, like me, you like history, then Boom.

Funny thing, history. There are certain periods of time that appeal to me greatly. Don’t misunderstand me, I studied history, I’m aware of the horrible social conditions and the lack of welfare state of the past. I have no illusions that things were ‘better in the past’, far from it.  They were interesting and they had  better clothes. Hats, in the main, there are not enough hats these days.

Where were we? Napoleonic. Regency. I feel at home in a Georgian house and by that I mean one that is open to the public, not one that someone has torn the heart out of in order to instal a modern kitchen. I’m not into modern kitchens. I like a scullery and a turnspit. Kitchens are my favourite part of any visit to any stately home. If you want to get in touch with history then the kitchen is the place to do it. Imagine it bustling with people, poorly paid servants, think of them dragging buckets of hot water up to slipper baths and you start to get a real feel for history.

Victorian. Good grief, how any student of history shakes their head at the idea of ‘Victorian Values’. Yes, they were innovative and inventive and they put style and panache into their public buildings but they did this by paying my great grandfathers tuppence ha’penny to cut timber and glaze windows. That said, I love the feel of Victorian buildings, from the grand public spaces like the V&A and the Pitt Rivers to the more personal spaces of well, say for instance, my living room.

I live in a Victorian house. Only just. It was built at the tail end of the era and it was very welcoming on the day that I first viewed it and said to my husband  ‘I think I’ve found the house’. We were, at that point, living in a Victorian terraced house, another lovely, warm welcoming place. My kitchen there was tiny, a galley kitchen par excellence. I loved that little kitchen and the yard beyond.

I grew up in a Sixties box house. My dad bought it when it was a patch of dirt and Mr Potter said ‘This is what it will be like.’ There were many happy years in that house. Light, bright, picture windows and, best of all, a hatch through from the kitchen!

Tudor/Medieval. I can go with that.  It’s a lovely walk from Stratford on Avon town centre out to Anne Hathaway’s cottage and you feel as if you’re coming home.

Castles. I think we all know my thoughts on castles.

Iron Age/Roman/Bloody Long Time Ago: Skara Brae, say no more, the Neolithic spread for Country Life, complete with ‘stone dresser’, yes folks, dresser.

1930’s/1940s. Nope. Can’t go there. I’m being serious. There is something about that era that makes me shiver. In museums please do not expect me to walk through the 1930s exhibit of the drapers shop or air raid shelter.

At St Fagans they have a small terrace of mining cottages. They are dressed in different times, from the earliest 1805 to the last one 1985. The one I dislike the most is the 1930s cottage. There is something about the furniture, the mantelpiece and fireplace, the squareness of an armchair, the antimacassar. What is going on? I feel cold and uneasy. This is not the first time this has happened to me.

What I feel is unease and fear. My writer head suspects that in a past life the 1930s was not the best place for me and that if was to be regressed back it would not be a great recollection. There is a recurring dream folks and a house in that dream that holds something undisclosed and terrible. Guess which era the house is from?

The 30s and 40s were turbulent times,  you might say, possibly it is the idea of war and destruction, but then so was the Civil War and I’m quite happy wandering the tents and battles of any re-enactment from Richmond Castle to Chalfield Manor House.

Who knows what is behind my irrationality, all I know is that next time H G Wells decides to pop in and suggest a Day Out, I’d better watch where the dial is being twiddled to on the Time Machine.

 

The pic, btw, is Wentworth Woodhouse, near Sheffield, well worth a visit too.

If you are at a loose end and fancy a free book, how about signing away your sanity and receiving The Ice King? http://www.helenslavin.com/signup/  Just a thought…

 

I find it odd sometimes when I stroll around Bath. That’s not to say that the city is odd, far from it, Bath is, as anyone who has ever visited will acknowledge, a serene and beautiful place. Packed with tourists, yes, but genteel and refined.

No. What I find odd is the legacy of Jane Austen.

In Miss Austen’s day the social hierarchy was strict and uncompromising. Academics and the literati often describe Jane Austen’s novels as if they were some delicate piece of embroidery, twee and romanticised. I always find them the opposite. If they are pieces of embroidery they are stained with blood from pricked fingers. The needle that she uses is sharp, the stitches often cross. She is adept at depicting her society, warts and all. There are tough times and hard hearts throughout Austen.

Her own life was not without its low points. Her progress through the city of Bath from Sydney Place to the terrors of Trim Street is a geographical representation of the family’s social decline. In Sense and Sensibility the Dashwoods are evicted from their home on the death of their father thanks to the inheritance passing down the male line. The same fate is in store for the Bennett sisters of Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen lived this. Her cousin inherited Chawton and was kind enough to find lodging for Jane and her mother in the small cottage on the estate. Kind enough.  Eventually.

Beneath the costume drama prettiness of bonnets and petticoats there is a dark heart at work. The flashes of light through Austen are always, to my mind, the glint of sunlight on a rapier blade. I think there is a bit of a misconception that because Miss Austen wrote about the middle and upper classes, that somehow that isn’t as tough as being dirt poor and therefore is somehow less worthy, less real. It was all too real for Miss Austen and her family.

In her lifetime Jane Austen was neither famous nor rich. At one point she suffered a fate of many writers, and certainly female ones, in being robbed of her rights and royalties by a publisher, a turn of events which befell the Bronte sisters some years later.

I don’t have to imagine the machinations, the social politics, the snobbery of her life in Bath, she has put it all on the page for us. No one in the city would have thought Miss Austen and her family to be of the slightest consequence. She was neither pretty nor rich and intellect and imagination were not considered commodities of any great worth in her lifetime, certainly not if you were female.

What I find odd is that in the 21st Century Bath is Jane Austen’s city. Of course the Romans have their part in the proceedings, hovering in the corner there with the Baths and Sulis Minerva keeps a watchful eye. Reference is made, here and there, to Bladud and the ancient history of the restorative hot springs, but the engine of Bath, in terms of tourism, is Miss Austen.

She has her own museum and tea rooms. Her image is to be found all over the city. There are tours of ‘Jane Austen’s Bath’.  Only the other week I dragged my daughter up Sion Hill to Lansdown Place on our very own Jane tour. I walk in the streets where Jane walked, strolling up to Beechen Cliff although she would not have known the Victorian houses that crowd around there now. Each September there is a Jane Austen Festival involving a Promenade through Bath where Spencers and breeches are the order of the day. If you can time your visit for this it is worth it, a real spectacle, people of passion putting care and detail into their historical garb and all, all mind, in honour of Miss Austen.

The oddity for me is that I wonder what she might have made of it all, not simply the success of the books and the lasting love that her readers feel for her characters, but the actual commercial enterprise that is Austen’s Bath.  She owns the city in many respects. She is an interwoven part of its history, outshining even that most illustrious of personages, Beau Nash.

She might look up from her work, perhaps, with a wry smile.

 

 

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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