Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Kitchen - Cafe Theatre

Theatre has evolved in this country, perhaps more interestingly, if that's a word, than any other genre. Travelling players such as the Jolly Boys who come to Durham Castle and perform outdoor Shakespeare in the summer and Heartbreak productions - I saw them at Dunham Massey a couple of years ago performing An Ideal Husband. These things are picnics with plays.

 However, here in Durham we have gone a step further than that and a very clever and wonderful step it is. We have a catering company who have their premises at The Kitchen on Alnwick Road and last night I went with my friends Joan and Malcolm to a murder mystery night, complete with three courses and coffee for twenty pounds. What a bargain. There are only half a dozen tables and I don't suppose that anybody is making a fortune but what lovely people. The actors, the staff and the meal were all great, brie parcels, steak pie and some wonderful dessert concoction which I do not know the name of.

They supplied us ( mostly me, to be fair) with lots of red wine and in between courses we were set to solve the murder that they acted out for us. Inbetween courses also they came and talked to us in character and I was able to harangue the nasty man in the play for being mean to his wife. He denied it all.
Malcolm and Joan went to see Brief Encounter last month and said it was superb.
To put on a play in a small cafe such as that is like pavement art, so close and so good.

I do love the way things move forward in such a positive way. Everybody was there because they wanted to be and the intimacy made the whole thing so immediate.

They do other things as well, they have bistro nights, special occasions for children and a gorgeous Christmas menu.  They also have paintings for sale on the walls so I think I might walk up there this morning and take another look at the one of Staithes which I liked so much last night when I was full of food and wine.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Here's to you, Peter Robinson

I ran out of Rebus novels a few weeks ago. Oh, the pain. I know that Ian Rankin has another coming out and I ate up his two new novels with his new guy who doesn't drink and smoke and is the opposite of rebus except that he is very clever but there is nobody like Rebus. I picture him asleep in his chair, having drunk the whisky I hesitate to spell here. He makes me feel better about my faults, Rebus is sexy and dark and drinks at the Oxford Bar. I want to go to the Oxford bar. I could bore on about Rebus forever and I am very excited that Ian Rankin and P.D. James are speaking in the cathedral at our literary festival next week.

And then I found Peter Robinson.  The joy.  Banks is sexy and clever. He has moved on from whisky to red wine and therefore we have lots in common.

 Banks lives in Richmond. Peter Robinson doesn't call it Richmond. Banks lives in a village outside the town of course, at least he  may have moved on. I am reading the books all back to front as I can find them, and don't really mind. Amongst all the streams and ducks and stone cottages the place is full of crime and there are lots of murders in graveyards and on the lovely moors. He drinks at lunchtime, he's like something from a better dark age when people didn't care that they might live to be old and pissing their knickers in a nursing home at ninety because they didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't have Brie and didn't eat scones and walked three or four miles a day.
In Banks the local coppers go to the pub at lunchtime. The other thing is that the weather is awful. I love bad weather. I'm such a happy bunny when it rains and snows and hails and all the other things it does regardless of what the calendar suggests.

I came home yesterday with All The Colours of Darkness. It's like hiding a radio under the bedclothes when you were a kid except that my parents would never have minded.  I have lots of pillows and read and revel. I have just finished Innocent Graves. A murder trial. Yes!
I have also just finished The Litigators by John Grisham which is a totally different level, rather funny and quirky. I love anything about the law, how it works, how it doesn't work and am a big fan of Helena Kennedy who wrote a wonderful book called  Eve Was Framed. The only thing is it makes me seethe for how the law has treated and still treats women.
In the meanwhile I have Banks looking after North Yorkshire and it's a very comforting thought. And I still have about twelve books to go.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The World's best cathedral?

I had a problem over the weekend. I saw a cathedral I liked as much as Durham. Very worrying. If you can't be prejudiced about such things as the one in your own city what can you do?
My lovely daughter took me to Milan for my birthday. Oh, the shops. I didn't know until then that Milan is the shopping city.
I think I would feel very poor if I lived there and very badly dressed since I cannot afford to pay five hundred quid for a handbag. I'm not convinced I would ever spend such money. It seems obscene. There is the argument of course that the designer tries to reach the heights, be it a Ferrari or a handbag. And they must of course.
We did however go to Gucci for coffee. The waiter didn't speak to us. I realized after a while that it was not a communication problem, it was a city problem. Nobody talks to you or smiles at you and people push past, all intent on their own business.
Milan is covered is beautiful buildings and graffiti. You get used to the look after a while and you concentrate on the food and wine and Italy has to be the best.
Designer dogs are all over the place and I like that in other countries than ours dogs and children are not taboo. The first night we ate at a place recommended by my daughter's American friend, Kate, who has been everywhere and is a real foodie. There were children, even at ten at night, eating and enjoying themselves. Nobody crying. It was a Friday of course and there weren't many English people around. The second night we went to Lucca's. Oh my God, the world's best steak, cooked over sizzling herbs.
We had gelati and the kind of coffee you cannot get in England.
Also, I hesitate to say this because of how everybody slags off Ryanair but they were lovely, apart from the two dragons in Milan who made my kid squash her Furla bag into her tiny suitcase. It did recover, you will be happy to hear and no, it did not cost five hundred pounds but it is melon pink, round and shiny.
The flight there was early, the flight back was early. We hadn't paid for priority booking. My advice is don't, it isn't necessary, and yes, we didn't sit together on the way back but I was just in front.  The staff were lovely. The wine and crisps gorgeous and the pilot was very reassuring Good old Ryanair, eight five quid return from Manchester to Milan. Cheaper than the trainfare to Edinburgh which was the other place we had thought of going.
Our lovely hotel was half an hour's joyful shopbound walk from the cathedral, the room was spotless, the staff kind and very competent, the breakfasts -  so many croissants, parma ham being bacon, - new one on me and one I may adapt.
The sun shone in Milan and the cathedral is free. How many cathedrals in Britain are free? Ours is of course. I hope it always will be.
So if you do happen to go to Milan, comparisons are odious but the cathedral is awesome. We had lunch the second day on the roof top of a department store. We sat outside, right next to the cathedral and watched people up at the top taking pictures.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Gordon Ramsay, inspired

I've never liked Gordon Ramsay. He isn't prissy enough for me. I like my chefs polite and middle class. I like Nigel Slater and I loved Elizabeth David. I can't stick Gordon's Ramsay's programmes as he swears and tells people what to do. He reminds me of a little street kid, spitting on the way to school because he wishes he could stay at home and play.
The stupid thing is that until I sat down, word blind yesterday from working too hard and happened upon Gordon Ramsay cooking, I couldn't see his appeal. It should be obvious that he didn't get to the top of his profession unless he could cook but strangely I'd never seen the guy cook before and he wasn't trying to turn tricks or given any personality impression. He really is a chef. It was less Gordon Ramsay and more the food he cares about and his enthusiasm and expertise made me want to get up and make something to eat which should be the whole point of cookery programmes. Nowadays I think it's just food porn.
I stopped cooking many years ago, being left with a small child who refused to eat anything that had been within several feet of an animal. I was queen of the casseroles and I hated vegetarian food. For years we lived on garlic bread and blue cheese and I used to go to the supermarket and come home with nothing other than red wine and salad.  Sometimes even now I walk round and round, wondering what the hell I'm doing there.
Yesterday afternoon I went into W.H.Smith's and looked for Gordon Ramsay's books and there he was, looking like the school bully, when in fact he's one of the swots and can turn into a magician, before your very eyes and show you how to make the kind of food you really want to eat and you believe him and trot off to the kitchen in search of better dining.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Room at the Top

BBC4 has recreated Joe Lampton and all the characters thought up so brilliantly by John Braine. I remember reading all John Braine's books and Room at the Top evokes the 1950s so well in all its greyness. The era when young men ogled young women, every one of them in Joe Lampton's case. It was the time after the second world war when rationing was just ending and nobody had any money. You forget how far back it was and when I watched the tv production I discovered it wasn't something I wanted to go back to however temporarily, this idea of the working class lad and the posh girl and striving to get somewhere and how awful the meals were. Mind you, Maxine Peake was amazing, as she always is.
A l ot of writers however, think the best book Braine wrote was Writing a Novel. I reread it so many times I can still remember whole passages from it and this was Braine's legacy to other writers.
It isn't easy, writing a book of advice for other writers and making it less pedestrian than what to do with grammar, how you try to get an agent and all the other things which are actually of no help at all. I taught creative writing for two years so I do how hard it is to get the messages across.
There are four books I can think of which cover the subject with style. The first is John Braine's book, the second is Stephen King's  On Writing, which I've read three times, the third is James N.Frey's How to Write a Damned Good Novel.  I will never forget him saying that you will know when you are finished because every time you look at the book you want to throw up!
But the person who taught me and many other writers how to write as well as they were able was the creative writing teacher and novelist Natalie Goldberg. I can't even think of her name without becoming all Americanized because I used to have her Writing Down the Bones on tape in my car. I listened to it endlessly.  She has written a couple of novels but her greatest talent is teaching others to write and my God she is good at it.  She likened writing to meditation, clearing the mind, one of the hardest things of all.  She wrote several books on writing, My friend Leah Fleming used to holiday in America and would bring them back and present them to me for Christmas. 
In the publishing world, as in John Braine's book, there is always room at the top. I can't remember who said that for writers ( and presumably in almost every job ) it's ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration.  Getting to the top is hard, be it the best seller list or K2 and almost impossible in the fickle world of publishing. Maybe that's why we love to attempt it because the view, like from Everest, is the better the further up you climb and you have the incredible feeling of achievement as you go, in spite of all those teachers who told you as one of mine did,
'Yes, Elizabeth, but when are you going to get a proper job?'
I'm sure my parents felt the same. I never did get a proper job. It's just after six in the morning here and all sensible people who don't have to get up and go to work are still in bed but here I am, drinking early morning tea and thinking about my book.