Thursday, 14 June 2018

Pistachio Ice Cream

Family history is an obstinate yet gratifying puzzle.
Is that a statement? A personal view? A deliberate contradiction? Yes, yes, yes and not like When Harry Met Sally as in said with quite the same wild abandon, though I guess you might echo such enthusiasm to a lesser degree if your interest (or trade) was genealogy.
I have an interest, but I'm not well-versed in it. I have to rely on the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? and suchlike to not only whet but satisfy my appetite; that and snippets that crop up every now and again in relation to my own muddled origins. Muddled as in I can't get it or keep it all straight in my frenetic head, and therefore it's impossible to write down though there have been instances where I tried as well as to impel others to map out uncles, aunts, cousins and relate remembrances. These attempts were, I confess, too much – I gave up, indignant at my paltry efforts to get relatives to write something, anything down! And yet in spite of these failures, the curiosity remains in my own and everyone else's.
When a tiny detail, or a person even peculiar to me or some other, that's been previously overlooked emerges it brings forth a memory of eating pistachio ice cream for the first time: Tunisia '95, at a table of holiday-makers, which with the exception of my parents were all strangers, in the hotel's dining room, because when the spoon brought that first taste of ice cream a light shade of green to my tongue the world in which I was sitting shuddered. Like a small tremor you're unsure you've experienced and yet you know it happened. And continues happening, at least for as long as there was ice cream to be spooned into my baby bird-like mouth, by my own hand for I was a big girl, fourteen or thereabouts. The room wobbled and everything else around me faded: faces and surroundings blurred and voices seemed farther away, as my senses were flooded with and adjusted to this new flavour, the likes of which we didn't see much of in the UK.
And now pretty much the same occurs when an unexpected piece of information suddenly surfaces, except its effect is more like the fizz of sherbet or the pop of popping candy. Like a lit firework, rather than a pistol with an empty chamber; there's a flash of cognition, and my brain rather than diving for safety absorbs the full impact, as if I were indeed still a child firework-gazing or searching the night sky for comets. The main difference being that depending on what's revealed I might flounder around a bit after. Basically, it's pistachio ice cream with toppings that either pack a bit of punch or are a mix of crunch and chew, before it becomes just a puddle of fat and sugar, and part of you: who you are and why.
Well, I had that experience again recently. And it wasn't even something earth or universe-shattering. Or even entirely new. Nor had I gone looking for it; how it found me was as much about choice as it was about serendipity. One of those evenings where you're looking for something to watch as you prepare dinner, and where the subject incidentally happened to be what I planned to eat: pasta, and the manufacture of it, which was quite fascinating if you have an interest in knowing how raw ingredients become what they become, in the various dry packaged forms we know them as. And because I'd recently been reading Primo Levi I was intrigued by the inside of factories of any description, but it was the pasta that opened a door, unsurprisingly and surprisingly, to Italy.
In short, it occurred to me to question my remembrance of my grandparents using, correctly, tagliatelle with meat sauce and making an authentic lasagne: why? how come? when the English were and still are for the most part ignorant about what types of pasta to use with what, which led to my mother and learning that it was thanks to her aunt, my great-aunt Sandra. Alessandra from Vicenza, who met great-uncle Paul in Italy during World War II and was, so we assume, a war bride. My mother remembers her making her own pasta and hanging it to dry like on a washing line: sheets of it aerating; and she was practically salivating down the phone at the memory of her braised peaches in juices. 
And so another link, its influence having been authenticated, ends in a puddle of pistachio ice cream.

Picture credit: Pistachio Ice Cream, eRecipe

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Error is Such an Ugly Animal

The past has always deeply interested me and so I write of it and in it. Huh? Yes, prior to publishing this very article it will be reread for any missed grammatical errors by a future self. I have no idea what she'll think but I can tell you this much: she won't change one single word, with the exception of maybe a missed comma or two or a misspelling. Though usually the past me (me now) checks before saving the finished copy and the back-up, because accuracy is important particularly if you're book or name-dropping, and as I think you might have noticed from previous essays (is that the right word? Check later- Ed) there's been rather a lot of that. This year. No, last year, as of when penned not published.
Readers, I confuse you. Purposely. How can I not when I myself - past or future – am in this state? That's the one thing I can say with certainty I'll be, though to what extent I cannot since that depends upon other factors over which I have less control, and such events as they occur may over or underwhelm me yet leave me somewhat at sea, and so this is the general state you'll find me in and under which I write. Write sometimes not very well and other times better, but as I said I don't, no stubbornly refuse due to some moral code, to rewrite what's written. Ever.
Once you begin to erase, you might as well redo the whole article. Which is fine if that's your design, but not if it's just because your eyes now are not the same ones you saw the piece through originally, because subtracting and adding to in a different mood alters the narrative and makes it altogether something other than it set out to be. It is what it is: that same space can be never be recaptured. And sometimes, though rarely, it improves on renewed association. Mostly, all you feel is indifference however, since you're unable to enter into the same spirit in which it was completed. Therefore readers, you are the judge and jury. But in this code I'm not alone as I do recall reading of at least one other writer (I forget his name though I'm 99% sure it was a him) who like me also resisted re-editing. (Was it Graham Greene? -Ed)
Yes, such revisions could elevate so-so prose to greatness, to success that you never dreamed of in a million years, but that for me has never been a goal. Or a dream. Not even as a path to being a better, improved writer, or at the very least known of. I really don't care about any of that. I'm not that kind of writer. Are any of us really? that sit day in, day out in a front of a screen tapping keys recording whatever waylays us. I don't even do that. I have a routine, sort of, which usually involves a few hours from late afternoon through to evening. My brain's not up it to in the mornings; it's primed for work, functional work of the administrative kind which yes, can include household matters, not the structure of prose.
Can I claim to write? when surely all I'm doing is putting words together and when those words have often been infiltrated by another writer's. Not their exact words, unless it's a direct quote, but their ideas and the thoughts they've subsequently given me. What this admission is not is a confession of plagiarism. No, it's more an exultation in another's words, fictional or autobiographical, and an unleashing of what that's inspired in me and maybe a reaching out to others, not that I'm convinced there's anybody else there. Is there? (I'll confirm the circulation figures later-Ed).
I don't mind if all I'm doing is talking to myself though; I've been doing that my whole life. You could say my love of words, which the English language is endowed with, has shades of religion. I wouldn't argue with that analogy or think it was somehow blasphemous; I mean, the Bible doesn't have pictures does it? (You may be going a bit far here -Ed) Well, my grandparents' cloth-bound bibles never did, nor have any I've ever glanced through in hotel room drawers. (Change the subject -Ed). The meeting place for this love is here, whether those works testing my powers of recall are amateurish or accomplished, where it is honoured in tones that are perplexing, depressing, philosophic and enamoured, and where error, unlike the old saying, is not such an ugly animal. (For the old saying, in full, see The Wrench, Primo Levi. -Ed).

Picture credit: Flood, 1996, Paula Rego

Thursday, 31 May 2018


Would you at any point in your life want to be described as 'truly infectious'? Professionally speaking, whatever your profession may be, in a general summing up of character or possibly a recognisable trait such as a laugh? Though such laughter if it's also the belly quaking sort is usually described as contagious which is, I think you'll agree, another dubious choice, despite the laughter being exactly that: caught and passed on indiscriminately, like disease.
Somebody's personality, I gather, can be infectious but naming it thus does make it sound rather unpleasant, as if one should be immunised against it or take precautions to avoid at all costs. Last year however 'truly infectious' was uttered by quite a few lips in homage to someone and with each utterance I almost recoiled. How horrid! 
I say almost because it wasn't pure revulsion for I understood its meaning was complimentary and yet something within me still thought: surely you could have used a more pleasing phrase, not just to the ear but to the eye.
The phrase every time immediately brought to mind Philip Roth's Nemesis, which is about the scourge of polio in Newark, New Jersey, 1944. The main protagonist, Eugene (Bucky) Cantor would not, I think, have welcomed being seen as infectious, either positively in regards to his work as a playground director or later, as he came to believe, as a carrier of the disease where the damage done was largely irreversible and often disfiguring. That he came to think this way of himself was punishment upon punishment because polio finally got him too and left its mark. It infected everything, whereas in the innocuous stage he was a witness, doing what he could when he could, and polio was the foe that none of the community could account for and were all in fear of. When it pegged him, with certainty despite lacking in evident symptoms, that all changed.
Of course it was a false accusation, and by none other than Bucky himself, because even if he was throughout the event a carrier it was unknowingly so; therefore he's blameless. He, even before, and upon diagnosis judges otherwise. I didn't however (in my reading) think that was the case: his catching of the disease was circumstantial. I rightly or wrongly concluded that when no answer from God was forthcoming he took it upon himself: willed himself to believe he was indeed the agent, which, as he suffered but survived, made him culpable and undeserving of any good that might later befall him.
It's easily done when nobody's too sure of the causes and everything's viewed with suspicion, including the very elements that give and sustain life: air and water and food. To think that these are poisonous must have been crippling even without contracting the disease that could cause exactly that. To exist alongside fear, in whatever capacity: man-made, airborne, poor sanitation etc., is strangulating and divisional.
History attests to it: TB, HIV, Aids and Ebola, because little was known and there was nothing to prevent its spread or effect a cure. In short, there was a growing list of suspects, rumour-driven and not evidence-based, because anything at the time of an outbreak was a likely source.
For Bucky, after his disengagement with God, to come to believe, firmly believe, that he's the most obvious and logical cause of much suffering seems omnipotent, even that it's a story he's had to tell himself to apologize for what he feels were evading actions when all along the God he was seeking answers from had provided him with the answer: HIM. It's very sad that someone's life could be so destroyed when others somehow make the best of what life offers: good or bad. But experiences can do that to you; it only takes one event to blow the positives to smithereens, which even the strongest-willed in the world find it hard to bounce back from.
Or be the same person after. The latter is often an impossible task, far less accomplished in full than in half-measures. A sort of existence and a lengthy wait for all associations to fade, if ever.
So, would you now choose to say of someone 'you're truly infectious'?

Picture credit: An Egyptian stele thought to represent a Polio victim, 18th Dynasty, 1403-1365 BC. Source: