Monday, 24 February 2014

Valentine's Day in Modena: a thank you letter

I was brought up to be polite; I write thank you letters (as you can see); I always remember to smile and say please; I rarely ignore social rules willfully. So I was a bit disconcerted to discover on our drive back from Heathrow last week I’d been breaking one of the latest rules in restaurant etiquette: I took photos of my food (although I didn't ping them out into the ether — until now). But I don’t care — and frankly, I doubt if the irrepressible and creative chef Massimo Bottura would care either. In fact, I think he would welcome me sharing his designs with the world — so here goes.

We first saw Osteria Francescana featured on the final of Masterchef — The Professionals; my husband suggested it would be a good place for Valentine’s Day — and it would have been churlish to argue, so I didn't. These days, our holidays tend much more to the long weekend than the fortnight in the sun — and when we lived in Kent, we have been known to pop over to France for lunch. However, even for us, a day-trip from Devon to Northern Italy seemed excessive, not to mention impossible with the transport links from the South West in the parlous state they were at the time. We flew into Bologna, took the bus to Modena (€15 Euros, 45 minutes) and then walked into the city to find our accommodation. Isn't it amazing how much more energy one has at the start of a holiday? When we returned to Bologna four days later, we took a taxi door to door.
Arriving at Quarto Piano, the delightful B&B run by Antonio and Alessandro, I discovered my Italian was not as good as I thought. Expecting to find a whole building containing multiple musical instruments, we were surprised to be directed instead to the fourth floor of an apartment block! Luckily there was a tiny elevator (for a few seconds, we had flashbacks to our visits to Kiev, where our apartment was on the fifth floor — those suitcase-carrying climbs were so hard). There was however a musical connection as well; the building used to be owned by Modena’s famous son, Luciano Pavarotti. We had a beautifully, if idiosyncratically, decorated room in the eaves and there was a tiny lounge for relaxing after a hard day's eating.     
Osteria Francescana is located in a narrow back-street in the semi-pedestrianised part of the city. Massimo was chatting to two friends outside and greeted us expansively before knocking on the huge wooden door and ushering us in. With only twelve tables in total, split across two separate dining rooms, there seemed at times to be more waiters than diners. They appeared stern and formal initially, but this was probably because they were concentrating on understanding their customers’ requests — none of which was delivered in Italian. Two or three times during service, Massimo came out and visited each table, chatting to diners and ensuring we were all happy (and we were so happy!)
We chose the Sensations Tasting Menu, which promised seasonal dishes from the restaurant’s experimental kitchen. And that was all the information we were given on the menu! It was a fascinating experience, not knowing in advance what would be presented next; trying to guess from the cutlery — and usually getting it wrong. Some dishes worked better than others: I loved the crunchy part of lasagna, a deconstructed dish with crispy pasta garnish, the shrimp ravioli and the frogs' legs, but was not so sure about the abstract of a winter salad  which turned out to be a sort of rice pudding and ham dish (which seems to have lost something in the translation). The beef plate shown above, fillet cooked sous vide, is a tribute to Jackson Pollock and in a world where most Michelin-starred chefs pride themselves of every plate being identical, I can confirm that the accompanying sauces (horseradish, beetroot and basil) were indeed thrown randomly on the plate so that each was an individual work of art.

If I have one niggle, it's that Osteria Francescana doesn't do desserts as well as some other restaurants we've eaten in, but the pancakes, stuffed with apple and foie gras, were superb. And if we wanted something sweeter, there was a three-day chocolate exhibition taking place in Modena’s main square (although it was more than 24 hours before we could find room to try any of the wares on sale there).
Modena is a quiet little city and in February there isn’t a lot to see or do.  But other lasting memories of the weekend include visiting Parma and seeing crowds weeping over the body of 19th century saint Don Bosco, who is currently ‘on tour’; attending sung Mass in Modena cathedral and realising that fifty years after we started using the vernacular, I can still remember the words of the Creed in Latin (maybe I was concentrating at school after all); wandering around the food market and wondering why we don’t get fruit and vegetables like that at home; and of course, that chocolate festival.

Thanks for a brilliant weekend go to: Massimo Bottura and the team at Osteria Francescana; to Antonio and Alessandro at QuartoPiano; but most of all to my wonderful husband for making Valentine's Day 2014 so very special.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Make Do and Mend [Part 3]

We didn’t usually bother to dress up when we went to the Youth Club. Jeans and jumpers were the order of the day. But that night was different. I’d come straight from having tea with an old friend of Mum’s; very ‘old-school’ she was — in fact she’d been a school teacher before she retired. Wearing my new blouse of cascading lace ruffles and a pleated skirt, I felt a bit over-dressed to be honest. But then Ted walked in and suddenly I was glad I’d made the effort. Not that he came near me all evening, but I caught him watching me several times. 
We were getting our coats at the end of the evening when I felt a sharp tug at my shoulder.
“Keep still,” said a voice in my ear, “we seem to be tangled up.”  I spun round and found my face inches from Ted’s; his arm was stretched across my shoulder at a strange angle. He frowned at me. “I said keep still. Turn round again.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not doing anything! My watch buckle’s caught in your blouse.”
I twisted round further to look over my shoulder. He sighed and shuffled after me, trying to unhook himself. We must have looked like two dogs chasing each other’s tails. Suddenly, with a tearing sound, his arm pulled away, trailing a steamer of lace from his watch strap. There was a moment of deafening silence before I grabbed my coat and ran from the hall in tears.
I never did wear that blouse again. But I never threw it away either.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Losing the Power of Speech?

Some years ago, I sat in a walkway at Blue Water Shopping Centre and watched the crowds pass by. It struck me then how many people seemed to be eating: burgers, chips, ice-creams, cookies; the need to stuff one's face in public was everywhere. And for a while afterwards, I saw the same phenomenon wherever I went: shopping in Oxford Street, strolling through the park, at the seafront; even in our local supermarket, some customers seemed incapable of waiting until check-out before feeding themselves - or their children. 
These days the urge to eat constantly seems to have been replaced by the urge to communicate, or at least keep up to date via emails, texts and social media. Everywhere I look, people are absorbed by their screens, whether phones, tablets or laptops. I'm writing this is a tiny airport lounge (more about that next week, although I'm afraid it involves the dreaded V word). No-one in here is talking to anyone else, apart from the staff. The passengers are checking emails, sending texts, writing reports (and I've written enough of those in the past to know they are rarely read or acted upon), watching the news on soundless TV screens. Hell, I'm writing a blog post; who am I to talk?
During the weekend, we sat in a restaurant in a pretty little city in Northern Italy, enjoying a leisurely lunch and chatting. At the table next to us were a young couple who arrived together and left together, but barely exchanged a word throughout their meal; their eyes rarely left their phone screens long enough to put food in their mouths.
I can't help wondering if future generations will lose the power of speech altogether in favour of written communications - and if so, would that be a good thing for writers?  

Monday, 10 February 2014

Blog Tour: My Writing Process

I’ve been following with interest the blog tour about writing process, so was delighted to be asked by Cathie Hartigan if I’d like to follow her in answering four questions. If you missed Cathie’s fascinating answers, you can find them HERE.
Here are my answers:
What am I working on?

As usual, I have several projects on the go at once. I have a novel I’ve been writing since 2006; I’ve just finished yet another edit and it’s currently being read by members of my local Book Club. Once I have their feedback, I’ll decide on the next step: another rewrite; submit to agents and publishers; or publish it independently via my own imprint, Chudleigh Phoenix Publications. I am also putting together an ebook on Writing as a Business, based on the workshops I present each year at Swanwick, The Writers’ Summer School.
But my main project at the moment is to edit and polish the material I drafted during NaNoWriMo last November. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, with quantity being more important than quality at that stage. This was my third attempt and my first success. I wrote a series of short stories, and when I reached 50,022 words with a couple of days to spare, I stopped — not quite mid-sentence, but certainly mid-story. I didn’t think about it again until this weekend, when I started editing. I had forgotten the details of what I’d written and was pleased to find a great variety of pieces I can work on for competition entries and submission to magazines. I was also shocked to see how much detail of my own life went into my fiction when I was just writing without thinking too deeply about it. There was one scene over the breakfast table that was eerily familiar. My aim is to find a home for all these stories before it’s time to start NaNo again on 1st November.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I really struggle with categorising my writing into a genre at all. I don’t write romantic fiction, although I’ve got more than one love story in my novel; I don’t write historical fiction, although two of the novels that are currently yelling for attention in my sub-conscious are set in the past, as is a major strand of my novel. I don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, although I read more of this genre than anything else. I don’t write about crime, although one of the stories I wrote in November... you get the idea. I tend to write ‘nice’ stories where the goody ends up on top and the baddy gets his just desserts, although anyone who has read The Well Brought-Up Woman in Life is Not a Bed of Roses will know it’s not always that simple. I guess it goes back to what I said earlier about writing my own experiences into my fiction. Many writers do that at some point; and since my life is unique to me, that’s how it’s going to differ from others. For example, there will usually be references to pharmaceuticals and/or Russia, two of my main influences.
Why do I write what I do?
I spent more than twenty years working all over the world, made some wonderful friends and had fascinating experiences. I turned from technical to creative writing in 2006 and originally tried my hand at life writing but quickly found I was much more comfortable writing fiction. Some of my early life-writing pieces finally saw the light of day in Parcels in the Rain but I still mostly write short stories — apart from the novel — and the non-fiction ebooks — and the blog posts. Actually, I guess I just write.
How does my writing process go?

I have a reputation for being well-organised. I’m usually the one who knows dates, times, exam rules etc. in my head. I’m the one my MA friends would email if they couldn’t find the handbook. In my former life, I was a project manager. So it won’t surprise anyone to hear I am a compulsive planner.
I have a set of annual writing objectives which I review and update in August (at Swanwick) and at the end of December. I have a monthly plan showing which project I am concentrating on. Every month I prepare a detailed To Do list and each day starts with Writing-4 hours, Writing-2 hours etc., depending on what other commitments I have. I’ve found from experience that if I plan to write every day and then can’t, I beat myself up about it — and this writing lark is supposed to be fun. So now I plan in advance NOT to write sometimes — and then I don’t feel guilty. I also have a detailed spreadsheet with all my pieces of work catalogued, records of when and where they’ve been submitted — and all the upcoming competitions I want to enter.

I generally write to triggers, either competition themes or self-imposed ones. I will usually plan my stories first, either on a flip-chart with post-its or on the cork board view in Scrivener. If I’m having trouble getting a piece written, I play the numbers game: 2000 words needed, that’s 10 scenes at 200 words or 4 scenes at 500 words and so on and start with a bullet point for each scene. It's second nature to a former scientist to work like that, but it was a tip I picked up from Richard Beard on an Arvon Course some years ago.

Sometimes I try out the ‘pantster’ route by taking part in Write Invite or exercises at one of my Writing Groups (Chudleigh Writers’ Circle and Exeter Writers), but I’m not too good at that yet. I carry a notebook everywhere but rarely write by hand and tend to spend most days glued to a keyboard and screen.

I can write anywhere, so long as I have my iPod to shut out distractions, so have written on planes and trains, in libraries (not so quiet as one would expect these days), in hotels in remote parts of Russia, and in cafes. At home, I have a wonderful writing room in the garden with walls of melted chocolate and buttercup yellow. In summer, I open the doors, let in the sunshine, the smell of the herbs and the sounds from the farmyard across the stream. A little piece of Heaven in rural Devon.
So that's my writing process. I'm handing the baton on to friend and Swanwick buddy Madalyn Morgan. She's up to her eyes in finishing her second novel at present; you can read about Madalyn's writing process on Monday 17th February by going HERE.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Generation Game by Sophie Duffy

[From this month, I'm introducing a book review into the monthly blog mix. From March, they will be new reviews, but I'm starting with one I posted elsewhere a few months ago; I loved this book and gave it a 5* rating.]
At the start of The Generation Game, it is 2006 and the central character Philippa has just given birth to her first child. We do not know whether Philippa is married, who the baby’s father is or whether they are still together. We do know, gradually, that the baby is unwell and as Philippa waits to find out whether her child will survive, she tells her own story in flashbacks.
We hear of her birth in a London hospital, to Helena, an unmarried mother who tries her best but is overwhelmed by having to take responsibility for another’s life. We see Helena flee with Philippa to Torquay and later, alone, to Canada. Philippa grows up with a variety of friends, some of whom she loses forever while some she loses and then finds again. There is Bob, who becomes her de facto guardian after Helena leaves. There is Lucas, the little boy who is her best friend even when he is no longer with her. There is the wonderful Wink, with her parrot, her front room that stinks of bird pee, and her addiction to Bruce Forsyth and the eponymous game show which was a part of so many people’s Saturday evenings. And there is Terry or TJ as he prefers to be called, who is always around in the background – and sometimes in the foreground as well.
I loved this book from the first page to the final word. Starting back in1965, it will strike a chord with readers who remember the sort of childhood that was common in the 1950s and 1960s: children present and observing but not fully understanding the goings-on of the adult world. There are some great cultural references: taking Blue Nun to dinner parties in the early 1970s; street parties for the Queen’s silver jubilee; that kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace when Charles married Diana. Each of the flashback chapters is headed with the name of a television programme from the era: This is Your Life; New Faces; Gladiators and so on. While these do not necessarily relate to the content of the chapter, they are additional links back to the period in question.
The Generation Game won Sophie Duffy both the Luke Bitmead Bursary and the Yeovil Literary Prize. It’s not difficult to understand why.
[In addition to the monthly posting, you can read more of my book reviews on Elizabeth's Book Reviews .]