Penelope Fitzgerald, 1940 © Dooley Archive

This week, Professor Dame Hermione Lee was awarded the James Tait Black biography prize for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Here, she introduces an extract from the book

I’ve written a biography of the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald because I think she is a great writer, though she would never have described herself in such a resounding way. She was born in 1916 and died in 2000; she started publishing books in 1975, around the age of 60. She won the Booker prize, and, with her last novel, she became famous at 80: so hers is an encouraging story!

My biography explores, for the first time, the life and work of a very private person and a very remarkable writer. Working on her was a challenge and a privilege, and not always straightforward. Her books are short, and hard to pin down. She writes about her own life, but keeps herself carefully concealed. In her first novels she drew intensely on her own experiences – working for the BBC in wartime, living in Suffolk and working in a bookshop there in the late 1950s, teaching child-actors, and living in the 1960s on a leaky Thames barge, which sank. But she gave little away about herself. In her four last novels, published in the 1980s and 1990s, she changed direction. They moved from using the material of her own life to creating astonishingly vivid historical worlds. They are all set at a time when change seemed possible: Russia before the revolution in The Beginning of Spring; post-war Italy in Innocence; pre-First World War Cambridge science in The Gate of Angels; the first stirring of Romanticism in Europe in The Blue Flower. These novels involved vast amounts of historical research, which is buried deep below the surface. She liked economy, and believed that “less is more”. She didn’t like to tell her readers too much: she felt it insulted them to over-explain.

Still, though she resisted explanations, there is a strong morality in her writings. She is a comic writer with a tragic view of life. She was drawn to what she called “exterminatees”, decent, muddled characters who are bullied or exploited. She had strong religious beliefs, though she keeps them implicit in her fiction. She spoke for the underdog, for the vulnerable, for children, and against tyranny.

Fitzgerald’s life-story has strong English roots, though she’s not at all insular. She was interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement and the Anglican church. She was passionate about painting, pottery, colours, gardens, flowers, and music. She had an old-fashioned style of dressing which made no concessions to fashion but was very alert to colours and fabrics. Her artistic heroes included Ruskin, William Blake, Burne-Jones and William Morris. She minded about the look of her books. She pays great attention to craftsmanship. There is always a job to be done in her novels: running a bookshop or a school, keeping a barge afloat. And it is often the women who do the jobs.

In this extract, we see her in full flight as a brilliant Oxford undergraduate – known as the Blonde Bombshell – editing and writing for the student magazine Cherwell in the 1930s. She seemed all set to be a writer. But then came the war, and everyone’s lives were thrown up in the air. And she didn’t start publishing for many decades. One of the mysteries my biography pursues is how much she was writing during the thirty or more years between her student days and the mid-1970s, when the brilliant young “Penelope Knox” finally became that extraordinary, original novelist Penelope Fitzgerald.

An extract from Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life – Chapter Three, ‘The Blonde Bombshell’

In ‘The Curse of a Literary Education’, a lover of literature has her visits to the countryside ruined because of all the quotations going round in her head, which she has to apply to everything she sees. ‘Look, Stranger’ is a parody on a sensitive, alienated soul who has quarrelled with Nature, the Brotherhood of Man, and finally with herself: ‘I cut myself dead. I was surrounded by strangers.’ The last of these Cherwell pieces, ‘Wicked Words’, published after she left Oxford, tells her history of being unable to swear, with a caricatured version of her school life, and one or two autobiographical clues: ‘When I fall in love, which happens twice a year, and wish to end a tempestuous quarrel, I usually say “Drat you”. When my heart is broken I say “Cripes”.’ At Somerville, they all knew how to cry, but not how to swear. ‘We should all have liked to do so, because we were young, and wanted to be thought vicious.’

She couldn’t swear, but she could spell. In January 1938 she was selected as one of two women on the eight-strong Oxford team for the first ‘Spelling Bee’ to be ‘conducted by wireless across the Atlantic’ (as The Times reported it under the title ‘Hard Spells on the Air’). The opponents were from Radcliffe and Harvard, and the spelling had to follow the rules of the Oxford Dictionary (for the Oxford team) and Webster’s (for the American team). They went to the BBC on a freezing cold Sunday train, hung about for ages while the engineers dealt with faulty headphones and microphones, were sent down to the cafeteria (‘Cup of tea and Virginia cigarette, 2d, Cup of tea and Turkish cigarette, 2 ½d’) and then did the forty-five-minute quiz, with thirty seconds allowed for each word, after which the other side had a go. The booby traps were ‘haemorrhage’, ‘pettifoggery’, ‘anonymity’, ‘truncheon’, ‘labyrinthine’, ‘trachea’ and ‘corollary’. The Oxford team lost by four points, but ‘Miss Knox, like her listeners, found her early temerity an attractive pose and retained it throughout the contest with great effect.’ Her spelling of ‘daguerreotype’ was ‘loudly applauded by both teams’. It was her first experience of the BBC, and she enjoyed herself. The Spelling Bee sealed her reputation, in her final year, as an Oxford star. ‘BLONDE BOMBSHELL BEATS THE LOT’, ran the Isis headline, and its annual Valentine competition (‘First Prize, One Hundred Oxford Memory Cigarettes and Two Seats at the Scala Cinema’) listed for its recipients ‘Greto Garbo, Miss Penelope Knox, A Female History Don, or Mistinguett’. The results of the competition largely consisted of verses written to the ‘evidently well-appreciated Penelope Knox’: ‘O Bombshell with the golden thatch’; ‘Penelope, my Busy Bee, I love your voice, you must love me’; ‘Venus, Minerva, Spelling Queen,/All three in thy small Frame are seen;/Fair Goddess, thou hast caught me well,/Wrapped in the magic of thy “Spell”.’

Copyright © Hermione Lee 2013. Extracted from PENELOPE FITZGERALD: A LIFE by Hermione Lee, published by Chatto & Windus at £25.00.


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by TOAST ( 27.08.14 )

Kate O’Brien

Last month I spent some time sleeping next to Mont Blanc in a friend’s cottage in Chamonix. We were six girls in total, each with fluctuating degrees of breathlessness, bad habits and ideas about endurance. Our host – neat, French and stubborn with the agility of a mountain goat – marked ambitious trails on a map in sharp pencil. The rest of us towed the line. Every morning we set off at daybreak with a packed lunch (cheeses Beauford and Reblochon, nectarines and rich red wine in a bright red flask), our ‘swimmers’ (said host’s charming translation for ‘togs’) and binoculars in the hope of spying kestrel, peregrine falcon or the shy marmot.

It’s impossible to imagine the Alps without its white cloak. In high summer the mountains change outfit and brilliant white snow is replaced by a delicate spray of meadow flowers, shrubs and mossy rock. Our field guide started indoors: the apartment was decorated to the hilt in a down-to-earth seventies style that expressed itself in flowers – burnt orange dandelion print on bed throws, dried petals pressed into books, framed landscapes with pine forests and vases full of dusty silken rose. Most useful was a poster in the toilet helpfully entitled ‘Alpine Flowers’, from which we made notes (snapped on camera phones) as reference for our walks.

Three trails were chosen, bringing with each new day a fresh panorama – though the same cheerful faces showed up to greet us. They were dwarf bellflower, fuzzy cotton grass, and bladder campion (a distant relative of the carnation, though you wouldn’t know it to look at it). Hikers were cordial but exchanged knowing looks about my hiking garb – a city slicker’s take on what alpine trekking should look like, unmatched by heavy Brasher boots some 40 years old. Passing the noble ibex on the ascent, I felt like a city goat. But like the kestrel, marmots and the few fluorescent caterpillars we met along the way, the ibex was unconcerned. The flowers of the Alps were equally as forgiving or just didn’t notice.

When sprung from such a rich and natural setting as this, common field flowers like the daisy can afford to be lighter and at the same time more expressive – in the Alps they are called moon daisies. Here bluebell heads nod a dance rather than droop; buttercup is barely recognisable and endlessly more elegant – pure white on stony ground; lichen is as vibrant as I have ever seen, which of course is a sign of fresh, fresh air.

So taken by the quiet charms of these alpine flowers, I almost forgot my fear of heights (which inevitably returned clinging with jelly legs to an iron ladder, itself pinned to a rock, at a drop of 2,600 feet). The flowers’ soothing effect was almost my undoing. It was so pleasant to descend from the high mountains to the climate of living things that I became a little too carefree. Taking a moment to study up-close the forget-me-not, eritrichium naum, I almost tripped and fell over a precipice hidden in drypis spinosa. As I am the most unfit of all my friends I lagged behind alone, with no witnesses but the flower. Forget me not indeed.

Kate O’Brien is editor of The Plant

Pictured: dwarf bellflower, a cyanotype by Holly Mitchell

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by TOAST ( 21.08.14 )

Richard Cook is a painter who, having trained at St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art, has been exhibiting for over 40 years. He has work in the Tate Collection, The British Museum and Arts Council Collections and has exhibited at The Royal Academy, the Hayward Gallery and the Tate St Ives, to name but a few. Here, Richard – who paints primarily with his hands (no brushes) – tells us a little about his workspace in Newlyn, Cornwall.

My studio is an integral part of my house in Newlyn. I’ve been here for 30 years. People who visit are struck by the paint on the floors and walls. It’s on two levels and an odd shape; square with a piece cut out of it. It has a skylight, a window with a blanket over it and a larger window overlooking the sea, covered by a painting of moorland. The studio is hermetic, sealed off from too much bright light. It’s a place of work and solitude and, in a way, dreaming. When I work I turn off the phones.

I bring to the studio the drawings I do in nature – West Penwith in Cornwall, Dartmoor and the Black Mountains. The other morning I stepped over a stile into a field and did a drawing in seconds. I brought it back to the studio and that energy became the painting.

My paintings and my studio have a direct relationship with each other. The studio is like an animal’s lair under the roots of a tree – mossy, bits of earth crumbling down and light streaming through the canopy above. The paintings emerge from this half-light.

I’m in the studio every day, but not all day. I go in, I come out. When I was younger I worked all God’s hours but now my painting has its own momentum. It’s like a river that changes in depth, speed, flow and shape.

If a painting is any good it comes out of the studio. The soul of the work that remains contains the soul of the work that I have destroyed.

The muted colours I use are not intentional, they occur. Colour is a song and is one’s own. It changes of it’s own volition, but it is rooted. If you try to control it, to trap or shape it, it dies. That knowledge has taken half a lifetime to trust.

I need silence when I work, my own voice, in the studio, must be dominant – no music, for example. I need to feel lost to the world and not vulnerable, in a physical sense at least.

Soon I am moving into a new studio next door. It’s huge and full of light. When it was offered to me by the Smart Borlase Trust my first reaction was to say no, but that changed to seeing it as a gift and I said yes. In a year or so it might start to look more like this one, but a bit less Spartan, with perhaps a Persian rug and some paintings hanging up, making it easier to show to people who visit. I’m getting used to the idea that I’ve been unearthed.


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by TOAST ( 15.08.14 )

Orlando Gough

Last week I went to stay in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, which our friend Robin, with whom I was staying, describes as a Radio 4 gated community. With its bleak beach, quirky medieval town hall, Martello tower, Benjamin Britten obsession, and award-winning fish and chips, it embodies a certain kind of utopia, although the presence of Sizewell A and B (and soon C) up the road is a reminder of the real world. I was particularly delighted to be able to potter down to the shore where from several rather beautiful black wooden sheds it is possible to buy locally caught fish. I walked in on a discussion about how long to keep skate before they are ready to eat. Fish too fresh to eat! Whoa!

I was working on a piece, The World Encompassed, that I wrote a few years ago for the viol consort Fretwork. The regular members of this brilliant group are two redoubtable English men called Richard and two equally redoubtable Japanese women, not called Richard. The piece is about Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. He sets out from Plymouth late in 1577 with a crew of 164 men, including four viol players, on five tiny ships. The intention is not in fact to circumnavigate the world but to wreak as much havoc as possible on the Spanish Main. This is partly a political move and partly a personal revenge for a setback at the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios a few years before. He is fuelled by a fierce Protestant piety, obsessed with cleansing South America of the ‘poisonous infection of Popery’. It is said of him that ‘he steals by day and prays at night’. His attitude to the local people he encounters is much more benevolent, if patronising. ‘Neither is any thing more lamentable than that so goodly a people, and so lively creatures of God, should be ignorant of the true and living God’. The expedition returns almost three years after it sets out, with just 58 men and one ship, the Golden Hind, but with enough Spanish loot and East India spices to pay off Queen Elizabeth’s debts and have enough left over to start the Levant company, which becomes the East India Company. This is surely the start of the British Empire, with its familiar mixture of muscular Christianity, thuggery, benevolence, and entrepreneurship.

However much one might disapprove of the piracy, one has to admit that the bravery and stoicism are astonishing. Emerging from the Straights of Magellan into the Pacific, they are caught in a 52-day storm in which two of the ships are wrecked, and another disappears. Almost immediately they are chasing after, and being chased by, the Spaniards; and then they get horribly lost and find themselves stranded half way up the coast of North America. And it’s a constant battle to find food, and, more importantly, fresh water. A crucial stop-off in the Cape Verde Islands, where they find an abundance of figs, grapes, coconuts and plantains, allows them to make the 60-day journey across the Atlantic to Brazil. There are, of course, fish, including ‘one, as strange as any; to wit, the flying fish, a fish of the bigness and proportion of a reasonable or middle sort of pilchard. By the help of his fins, when he is chased by the bonito or great mackerel, he lifteth up himself above the water, and flieth a pretty height, sometimes lighting into our boat as we sail along’. In the Straights of Magellan, they moor up on an island where ‘we found great store of strange birds which could not fly at all, nor yet run so fast, as that they could escape us with their lives. Such was the infinite resort of these birds to these islands, that in the space of one day we killed no less than three thousand’. That’s a lot of penguin meat.

Having walked in on the skate seminar, I inevitably bought some, and the next day we cooked it au beurre noir. Lovely, if rather predictable. How else to cook it?

The Koreans eat fermented skate. I can see this could be useful on a circumnavigation of the world, but I’m too cowardly to try it. Alternatively, try this Japanese-inspired dish:

For two people, grate a knob of ginger, and slice a small red chilli finely. Put into a wok with 1/2 litre fish stock or dashi, and bring to the boil. Put in two skate wings (or, better, two halves of one large wing) and poach for about six minutes, depending on the thickness of the wings. After a couple of minutes, add some sugar snaps. When the fish is ready, drain off the stock. Mix a ladleful of stock with a dessertspoonful of white miso paste and add it back into the wok. Sprinkle over some chopped coriander leaves and the juice of half a lime.

PS. The Japanese use flying fish for making sushi.

Next week: 10 best penguin recipes.

You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal. Click here to find out more.

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by TOAST ( 08.08.14 )

Michael Smith

As we drove over the water, above Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s rail bridge of 1859, straddling the epic sweep of water that is the border of Devon (or perhaps England) and Cornwall, I felt certain feelings well up, feelings it’s hard to sum up with a word or two.

We were on the way to Port Eliot, a place that means a great deal to me, and even though, if you wanted to be a pedantic killjoy about it, it all only boils down to a handful of weekends in a tent over the years, my memories of those weekends are so treasured and special that I’m always swept along with a feeling of returning, of reconnecting with this enchanted little nook of the world.

I’m not the hugest fan of festivals, but it was love at first sight with Port Eliot, the perfect cocktail of prettiness and naughtiness and cultured fun, where you can disco your way into the wee hours and then wake up to a Fortnum and Mason breakfast, spend the afternoon listening to a debate about Ovid in The Idler’s tent, or field recordings of birdsong in Caught By The River’s tent, nursing the night before with a Hendrick’s gin punch or a plate of delicious oysters, then spend golden hour swimming in a river that’s delightfully warm and muddy underfoot, before the joys of the nighttime roll round again.

I remember one evening, as I stood by the bushes and trees in those small hours, staring up at the starry skies, imagining giant elfin faces in the shapes of the branches and leaves, realising how obvious it must have seemed to our ancestors in those evenings of firelight and magic mushrooms that the land was alive with spirits and sacred energies.

Bobbing along in the river the next lazy afternoon, I hit a shallow bank; once I’d righted myself, I pulled my hands out of the water, which were covered in rich, dark, warm mud, and looking out onto beautiful rolling straw-coloured pastures and pearly English skies, listening to a story floating over the water from a nearby tent about mythical giants with names like Gog and Magog, giants who were somehow the embodiment of the ancient spirits of these lands. I thought of this island of ours, and all the places I love in it, from the soft, warm, rolling Cornish hills in front of me to the sharp, magnificent, enormous skies of Scotland, and its rivers as clear as ice, and I felt a sense of belonging to all of it, and then a thought struck me: more than likely I’ll die on this island that birthed me, and there was something lovely about thinking this.

Humans have a deep-seated need to belong, an instinct to love their land, and a sense of the profundity of this welled up so strongly in me it was almost overwhelming. But before it puffed me up with that foolish sense that we were somehow the best place, more special than the rest, I realised there was probably an overly romantic bloke in Germany or France who was floating around in some Alpine lake who was overwhelmed by exactly the same feelings for his land and its magic at exactly the same time as the thought struck me.

Pictured: Port Eliot Festival 2014, with thanks to Michael Bowles.

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by TOAST ( 01.08.14 )

Nat Lucas

“Good symphonies are often in some ways an unfolding sequence of miniatures,” says composer Thomas Adès. This prompts me to discover whether it is possible to create a symphony from a sequence of bar miniatures. In preparation I select two different 50cl bottles each of gin, vodka, rum, brandy and whisky.

A friend arrives and I explain my mission. We open the miniatures and test for pitch by blowing across the neck of each bottle. All except two sound an F sharp. The Vecchia Romagna brandy sounds an ‘A’ and there is one non-starter – the Flora de Cana rum is presented in plastic instead of glass. We tune them using half sips and arrive at a range of five notes. The difficulty of the undertaking begins to dawn on me. Even if scored for two players, all of the intended five symphonic movements will need to be molto adagio (very slow), to allow time for raising each bottle to the lips for blowing. I experiment with a percussive rather than melodic approach. However, only the note of the beater in the form of a knife, chopstick or pencil, is sounded as each bottle is struck. This results in either resonant bell tones or dull clicks of little sustainable interest. In fact, there is now so little interest that my friend departs.

I try suspending the bottles using string over the frame of a chair. They chime against one another like a 1980s executive toy. My two cats become anxious and circle the room. All imaginings of my opus turn to ashes in my mind’s ear. Clearly, this has to become a miniature symphony of silence in the tradition of John Cage. I work my way through the movements tasting the spirits in pairs.

1st movement ‘Gin’ – the inspiration here stems from Tchaikovsky’s setting of Eugene Onegin, the story of a battle for love. For the ‘Symphony of Miniatures’ this becomes ‘two gins,’ Miller’s and Hayman’s sloe gin. The citrus bursts out of the botanicals in the Miller’s while the plums sing fruit crumble in the sloe gin. A bold exposition of themes in a major key.

2nd movement ‘Vodka’ – when discussing musical form, Schoenberg stated, “Contrast presupposes coherence”. This movement sets the resinous Russian Tovaritch against the baritone smoothness of Dutch Ketel One. The grain of the Tovaritch ripples in the mouth like a sound that one becomes less aware of through repetition. The movement trickles away pianissimo.

3rd movement ‘Rum’ – this heralds pleasant surprises. Not only does the Rhum J.M dance around the tip of the tongue, but the Flora de Cana tastes exactly like the sound of a bassoon. Specifically, it tastes like the opening of the Rite of Spring, rather than the bubbling use of the instrument in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Wistful and melodic.

4th movement ‘Brandy’ – by now it is fair to say that tastes and themes from previous movements are mingling with the current notes. The Vecchia Romagna ushers in wonderful burnt toffee flavours. These burst the constraints of the Courvoisier Cognac and nudge it into French horn territory. By this I mean that it acts as egg yolk upon the imagined orchestra, binding together the strings, wind and brass. At least, at this point, I think that is what I mean.

5th movement ‘Whisky’ – a bottle of Macallan Gold and another of Laphroaig 10 Years Old remain. Unfortunately I am now defeated and wish to invoke the example of Schubert who left his Eighth Symphony ‘Unfinished.’ On reflection, given that he was interrupted in his composition by death, perhaps it would be better to consider the fifth movement of the ‘Symphony of Miniatures’ as ‘implied.’

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by TOAST ( 25.07.14 )

Caroline Davidson

My copy of Anna Karenina looks a little as if it’s been hit by a train. Pages around the 500 mark are liberated entirely from the mangled spine, while others are torn at the point of turning. The title pages are yellowed and the cover is badly disfigured. Its edges bear the mark of Taylor’s Hot Lava Java. Thanks to a meeting with the Celtic sea, the book billows like a Russian concertina.

Anna Karenina took me an age. It was by my side, or stuffed into my bag, or balanced on my stomach for so long that we gave it a nickname. It’s not that I couldn’t get along with A.K., it’s that I’d regularly read pages over a few times before I turned them. Tolstoy’s observations made me giddy. They rang so true I could barely believe it.

My godmother, who actually is not my godmother but my mother’s, but whom I adopted because she is perfect, has read A.K. some 10 times. Bella is a 96-year-old Russian girl of Jewish descent who grew up in Paris and Palestine and married first an Irishman and then a cockney called Charles – a newspaper man she met in Egypt. Together, Charles and Bella lived in Kenya, where they met my young parents, before retiring, of course, to Tunbridge Wells.

I suspect that Bella, who answers few questions about herself, has read A.K. time and again because she is, a little bit, Anna Karenina. Happier and more straightforward than Anna, Bella nevertheless shares with Anna a confidence betrayed by the things she wears. It’s a quiet confidence inspired by not only physical beauty, but an accurate sense of her intrinsic exoticism.

The writer James Meek wrote a memorable article a couple of years ago in which he imagined Anna’s brother, the charming but shallow Stiva Oblonsky, “as a tanned guy called Steve in a pink open-necked shirt”. If I were to apply the same treatment to Anna, she’d come out in Bella’s uniform: a cashmere jumper. She’d read The Daily Telegraph cover to cover out of boredom and she’d talk about Facebook as if she knows what it is.

Of course, there is darkness to Anna, which is where Bella leaves the page. For all his empathy with the characters he draws, Tolstoy is suspicious of Anna’s sophistication – as if its misuse is an inevitable conclusion.

When early in the book Anna turns up at a ball in a black velvet dress, her riding roughshod over Kitty is a sure thing. Tolstoy makes much of Kitty’s prior entrance into the ballroom wearing a “complicated dress of white net over a pink slip”. With a rose-adorned high coiffure made of thick curls of fake hair, Kitty is a loo roll holder blushing in bows and laces. Anna’s simple dress, meanwhile, is set off with an unobtrusive hair-do decorated with a modest crop of pansies. The award for Belle of the Ball goes to Anna, who in seeming not to care less, totally smashes it.

Tolstoy refers regularly to Anna’s understated dress. Never overdressed, her frocks are often plain and muted, if top notch. As the sweet, guileless Kitty realises at the ball, Anna’s “charm lay precisely in the fact that her personality stood out from her dress”. Anna’s downfall lay precisely in knowing it. A woman intelligent to the point of danger, it was not her skirts but her complicated inner life that would ultimately trip her up. Or was it hubris?

Perhaps it was her choice of men. While Kitty came to her senses and married a thoughtful man in search of a simple life, Anna left her husband for a simple man in search of a thought. To vacuous Vronsky, Anna was but one of his prizewinning racehorses. If her clothes betray anything but self-assurance, it’s a desire to be taken seriously. ‘Trophy girl’ is not a role Anna set out to play. The day she sees “clearly in the piercing light” that Vronsky found in her “not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity” is the day she throws her red handbag to the wind before jumping in front of a train.

For all she brought down herself and those around her, Anna is a rich, knotty character that, like the book about her, can’t be read in a single sitting. Bella, for whom I think Anna is just the tragic, exaggerated self we all look for in books, once told me that ‘Tolstoy’ means ‘fat’. Photos suggest the man was of medium build, but his books are pleasingly rounded.

Pictured: Levin and Kitty in a copy of Anna Karenina, with thanks to A Beautiful Mess.

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by TOAST ( 18.07.14 )

Kate O’Brien

The shoe fits when it comes to collective nouns. Consider a flock of predictable sheep or a murder of watchful crows. Owls are solitary birds but when they come together they do so in parliament, perching no doubt in the upper house, their peers donned in crimson robes and horse hair wigs. While an army of caterpillars conjures a bright fuzzy image with thousands of paired feet on the move, chubby legged alligators congregate and pigs drift.

In the plant kingdom, the family Cactaceae is split into three collectives known as tribes. Each share a kinship for sun worship, independent living against the odds and an impressive capacity for water retention, but vary madly in looks from clan to clan. The totem of all cacti, that which populates the landscape of Speedy Gonzales cartoons and springs to mind when you think ‘cactus’, belongs to Tribe Cereeae and bears no resemblance whatsoever to flowering Peireskieae. The plant found on the Mexican flag is called the prickly pear cactus, the Opuntieae tribe’s mascot which also happens to be edible.

Last year I spent some time on a smallholding on the northeastern fringes of Mexico City. Dry white clay that marks the Atizapan region also happens to be particularly hospitable for prickly pear cactus (or nopal). Sometimes used as fencing (the ‘cactus curtain’ in Cuba prevented escape to the US) nopales are more often served sandwiched between tacos or scattered loose in salad. It was the promise of huevos con nopales for breakfast that set me along a rocky hillside in my pyjamas one morning, dutifully following five members of the Bonilla family, who owned a small field full of nopales plants. They had convinced me that harvesting nopales would be fun and rewarding. Having tried tinned nopales once before (bland slimy shoots mixed with corn) I can’t say I relished the idea, but with very poor Spanish all I could do was nod enthusiastically, politeness pushing me along a rocky ravine in pursuit of the prickly pear.

In slippered feet I gained foothold onto a field lined with Mexican cypress where hundreds of nopal trees were huddled together in long curving rows. We tread carefully past a pack of mean looking watch dogs, snoozing soundly in the shadow of cacti over 10 feet tall. Prickly pear cacti have large, flat pincushion pads that sprout baby pads which look like mini mouse hats. Juicy baby buds curiously known as ‘tuna’ are cut easily from the adult bud and stuffed inside older pads, then grilled on the BBQ.

It was lunchtime by the time we returned home. My harvest was declawed of their ‘espinas’, boiled with salt and an onion bulb, then served in the most common and delicious way – long thin slices cut and tossed with chilli, fresh tomato, onion, coriander and a generous squeeze of lime served in what is collectively known as Ensalada de Nopalitos.

Kate O’Brien is the editor of The Plant.

Pictured: a cyanotype of Opuntia (prickly pear), created for Toast Travels by Holly Mitchell.

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by TOAST ( 11.07.14 )

Michael Smith

I was happily lost in Cambridge, enchanted by its gothic backstreets and Georgian terraces of dainty yellow brick, taken by a college green with an apple tree in the middle, which turned out to be the spot where Isaac Newton first imagined gravity after the famous apple bounced off his head, which gave some inkling as to the enormous significance this place has played in the history of human thought.

I wandered over the River Cam and its sighing bridges, over to the other bank, which immediately assumed a far more quiet, residential feel, and ended up stumbling on Kettle’s Yard, the personal art collection of a former director of the Tate, housed in his old home, which he bequeathed to the university on condition it was left exactly as is, which to me is what really makes the place such an intriguing treasure. It may be one of the key collections of British Modernism, but I love the place more because it seems like a manifesto on the art of domestic living.

Inside it feels cottagey, cosy, intimate. Gentle light pours through Venetian blinds onto whitewashed walls, with art dotted around the decidedly homely interior: a Ben Nicholson sits humbly on a shallow ledge above the spare single bed with its brown woollen cover and sheets of raw unbleached cotton; an Alfred Wallace painting of a boat hangs quietly above the bathroom sink, again, a sink of plain white enamel, no frills, just the lovely, minimal clutter of the pictures, every single one of them in the plainest wooden frame. The grain and wear of wood is everywhere, so much beautiful wood – wooden tables, wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden chairs that invite you to sit in them, which you’re happy to discover you’re allowed to, and then quietly ponder an arrangement of pebbles on a wooden table.

There are lots of little clusters of pebbles in Kettle’s Yard, all arranged so precisely, in simple spirals on the plainest empty table, pebbles raised to aesthetic objects by the simple and profound act of placing them deliberately in space, and through some transformation of the act of looking; this idea’s made explicit by the placing of a tiny, matchbox-sized Ben Nicholson oil painting of simplified circular shapes on the window ledge next to a series of similar shaped shells, as if to say the pebbles and shells should be seen in equivalent terms. Continuing this theme, a big plexiglass lens hovers in front of a row of plants by window and skylight, revealing their enlarged details – again, it’s all about the experience of looking, this time through a big magnifying glass.

The house is like a meditational exercise designed to put you in a simple present moment, through the calmness and clarity and mindfulness of this basic, fundamental human act. The house seems to be telling us that the important part of the artistic experience is precisely this kind of looking, rather than the particular paintings one happens to be in front of. I’m inclined to agree.

When I was done looking and it felt like time to leave, I wandered by some rose bushes that emerged on a modest path running round the back of a row of houses, like emerging from a secret garden, where I left this treasure trove of quiet mindfulness and wandered back to look intently at bustling, dignified Cambridge.

Pictured: Cottage Droom at Kettle’s Yard (top) and the main house. With many thanks to the kind people at Kettle’s Yard.

To see Toast’s House&Home collection, click here.

posted in: Do, Explore, See
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by TOAST ( 04.07.14 )

Orlando Gough

The other day in the Grauniad, under the headline DON’T KNOCK FAST FOOD (I confess to having immediately thought: I shall knock fast food if I want), was an article by the journalist Kathryn Hughes. Fast food is an interesting subject, with its inevitable class war connotations – chavs eating junk food while the fragrant middle classes pickle their own herrings; but her argument was strange: the middle classes, for example Mrs Beaton, originally promoted slow cooking as a way of encouraging attributes – patience mainly – which would make them good entrepreneurs. And now people who eat fast food are similarly upholding the capitalist system, so they’re doing an equally useful job. Er… what? (And what a bizarre argument to find in the Grauniad of all newspapers.) According to Hughes, a large section of the population doesn’t even have the wherewithal to cook slow food (really?); they’re more likely to have a microwave oven than an Aga (well, yes).

For a time we lived in the village of Southwick, just outside Brighton. It had originally been next to the sea, but a large part had been bulldozed in the 50s to make way for a spanking new road which was never built. So it had a strange lopsided feeling, despite being arranged around a charming green where our dog Nell once won Best Bitch. We rented a beautiful Georgian rectory from local self-made man and Harley Davidson fanatic Dennis Clark, owner of several lucrative care homes.

The Old Rectory, tick, with an Aga, tick.

My relationship with this cast iron behemoth was – to borrow a phrase from Gandhi describing his relationship with the British government in India – not a happy one. Cooking on it was as easy as navigating using a sextant. It was good, as you might expect, for extremely slow cooking and extremely fast cooking, but anything between those extremes, i.e. almost everything, was fantastically difficult – unnecessarily difficult given the invention of that splendid gadget the cooker. Baking a cake or cooking a soufflé involved a complex process of oven swapping, inserting and removing plates which might or might not have been sprinkled with water etc. To an Aga afficionado this is all doubtless a piece of cake, but I never got the hang of it, partly due to the fact that it’s impossible to smell anything that’s cooking in an Aga oven, so it’s correspondingly easy to incinerate it. Consequently the hot oven was like an ancient blacksmith’s forge, caked in unidentifiable carbon-rich slurry.

In the winter the Aga admittedly warmed the house, lovely; in summer the kitchen was like the engine room of a ship. Before cooking one needed to throw the windows open and strip to the waist. But the main problem was that the damn thing kept breaking down. In principle the solution was to ring up a specialist company in Horsham or somewhere, but their call-out fee was about £10,000, so Dennis, who was both thrifty and a handyman, would come round and futz around for several hours with screwdrivers and thermostats. And the Aga would either work or not work. If it did work there was then a frustrating fallow period of several weeks (or maybe it was a few hours?) while it heated up again.

For Dennis these sessions were surprisingly fruitful – they gave him a chance to infiltrate his house and check that we were treating it properly. Actually we treated it much better than he did. He once tried to dig up the beautiful floor of the back passage because he needed some bricks, and we more or less had to lie down in the passage, like protesters on the site of a proposed motorway, to stop him desecrating his own house.

After the Aga had broken down for the nth time and Dennis had put in the mth new thermostat, unsuccessfully, he lent us a microwave oven as a substitute. This was surely a category error, like lending a hockey stick to someone whose cricket bat has broken, or a hamster to someone whose dog has died. We completely failed to come to terms with this mysterious machine. We obligingly went out and bought a Marks and Spencer take-away Chinese meal, but made a complete balls-up of heating it up. I think we were afraid of a mini-Hiroshima, so the food never made it to more than a couple of degrees above room temperature. It tasted absolutely dismal, and we were probably lucky it didn’t poison us. As enthusiastic cooks this was a staggering level of failure, on the scale of a research scientist not being able to change a plug. We didn’t use the microwave again, and gratefully returned to the warm embrace of the Aga when it was finally mended.

Since then I’ve discovered that there are many beautiful uses of a microwave oven:

- for heating milk
- for cooking vegetables without compromising their nutritional value
- for fusing together the broken crepe soles of shoes (have to be careful with the temperature here I’d imagine)
- for exploding eggs (I think our friend Boyd was trying to cook the egg)
- for storing cheese (my father-in-law, who like us never got the hang of his microwave, used it as a larder – odd, since a microwave has no ventilation, and, you could argue, is basically the opposite of a larder)
- as a percussion instrument – it works as a complete drum kit, and the bell is useful too.

Meanwhile we have moved house, and use a completely standard cooker. I’m extremely happy with it. And continue to knock fast food without compunction.

Pictured: Salt baked veg, cooked in an Aga

You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal.

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