This Old House - Happy Stormy Hallowe'en


Shepherd's Warning 

Sitting at this desk, high up in the house, facing south, is a bit like being in the wheelhouse of a ship in this stormy weather. Every so often a flurry of horizontal rain is flung against the windows. Just like it's doing now.

I'm tired. 

In an old house like this one, the wind makes the house sound as though all 200 years of previous inhabitants, and a few from the house that was on the site before, are wandering around the place, pushing and tapping at doors, randomly, thumping on the stairs, creaking around on not-so-silent ghostly feet. It is just the wind, of course. Although if you think the wind is harmless, you've never read O Whistle and I'll Come To You. Don't do it. Don't blow the damn whistle. 

Anyway, I came to bed late, my husband was asleep, and I made the huge error of closing the bedroom door. At that point, the night was calm, a wonderful full moon was shining. And I closed the door.

I was woken at 2.30 am by the creak and muted thump as the door swung open a little way and closed itself again. This happens all the time, whenever there's a wind blowing. Just that I forget that on windy nights, I have to leave it open for the wind (or those previous inhabitants) to come and go as they please.  I was too cosy to get up, drifted off back to sleep, but only managed half an hour before more irritatingly random creaks and groans, this time from both doors into the room, woke me again - my office is just off the bedroom. 

So I had to get up and make sure the doors were open, by which time it was blowing a hoolie out there, and the various loud thumps and bangs and creaks from the rest of the house, as it adjusted to the weather, kept me wide awake. It's not frightening, you understand. Just irritating enough to banish sleep. 

I read for a bit on my Kindle. Coincidentally, I was reading Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts. I can recommend it, just not, perhaps at 3am in a very old house in the middle of a storm! 

I did doze off eventually for a couple of hours, only to be woken at 6.30 by my husband, who had had a disturbed night too, deciding that he had had enough and creeping downstairs. I followed him. The heating came on, and we sat clutching big mugs of tea - hurriedly made in case the power went off - it still could do just that - and watched Singin' In The Rain. It seemed appropriate somehow. And very cheering.

This Hallowe'en, do I think the house is genuinely haunted? I don't, really. It's old and friendly, and if any of the previous inhabitants are lurking about the place, they're very friendly too.  Although interestingly, one of my sisters-in-law stayed over in what became our son's bedroom years ago, and vowed never to do it again. I think it was the creaking doors again. It does sound exactly like somebody trying to get in. Charlie grew up with it and doesn't even notice it, although when he was living at home, even he got into the habit of leaving the door ajar on stormy nights, before he tried to get to sleep. 

Five Days Till November.


No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon —
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day.

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! —

Thomas Hood

November is my least favourite month of the year, and we're not even there yet. Bad enough when we're not in the middle of a pandemic. Horrible right now with the virus, with Brexit looming and Christmas quite probably cancelled. 

The only thing keeping me reasonably sane is writing. Research and writing. Of which more very soon. 

Hood didn't get it completely right though. Plenty of birds in our garden, demanding to be fed. 

Not My Ghost Story

Jock in winter 

 I've been reading the excellent A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke. (Not the R4 series of the same name but the earlier, brilliant book.) Seek it out, because it's well researched, thought provoking and entertaining. His exploration of the story of the events that may have inspired The Turn of the Screw alone is worth the price of the book. It's something very few people know anything about, perhaps because instead of a vulnerable governess, the hypothetical true story involves a brave 18th century woman, who was able to put up with a string of extraordinary events that would have had most of us screaming and running for safety.

I'm very fond of a ghost story myself and I've written quite a few - for example Rewilding is a ghost story of sorts, (and I'm thinking of writing the sequel, because there is one.) But there's also this little collection, titled Stained Glass although I think that the story called The Penny Execution in that eBook is the creepiest of the lot.

Have I seen a ghost? Well yes, yes I have. Years ago, when we were looking after my parents' dog, I was coming back from a walk one evening, when I saw an elderly man on the opposite side of the road. You have to understand that this is a small village where people often stop and chat. Besides, the dog saw him too and pulled me over the street to get to him. He was walking beside a low wall that runs alongside the old 'glebe' - the field that used to belong to the manse. 

When I reached him, he disappeared.

It was exactly like somebody switching off a TV set. I wasn't so much frightened as disconcerted. I found myself looking behind the wall, and up the long, open driveway of the old manse, to see if he was there. But he wasn't. Nobody was there. Later, my husband, who has lived here longer than me, said, 'That sounds like Jock.' And indeed, when I saw pictures of him, it looked like Jock. He was the village blacksmith and handyman and an elder of the kirk. What he didn't know about all the old houses wasn't worth knowing, and he used to patrol the village in the evening like an unofficial watchman, making sure everything was as it should be. Perhaps he still does.

The best ever 'told as true' ghost story, however, was not mine, but was related by a friend of such sound common sense, a practical man in every way, that to this day, it gives me a little frisson of fear. 

It happened many years before when he was a young man. Some of them had taken a party of scouts to camp out at Culzean, a few miles outside the town. It was a fine summer night, the wife of one of his friends was about to go into labour with their first child and - feeling worried - he had decided to walk back into town. Our friend volunteered to accompany him. So they found themselves walking along the High Road back into town, a road that on old maps follows what was once the ancient post road between Ayr and the coast (and incidentally the route that Tam O' Shanter would have taken in the poem of the same name.) 

He said his friend, anxious to get home, had outstripped him and was keeping up a good pace some yards ahead, when they heard the 'clip clop' of a horse approaching. This was about three in the morning, and at midsummer here, there would be just enough light to see what was coming. 

He looked up and saw a tall man on horseback wearing what he swore was a cloak and one of those old fashioned, wide brimmed slouch hats. 'Like a cavalier, in the pictures' he said. He wondered who on earth could be on the road at this time. He knew somebody who kept a horse and did sometimes ride out of town, (we knew them too) - but he couldn't imagine why they would be out here in the early hours, and dressed so oddly too. 

Just then his friend drew alongside the rider, paused briefly, and suddenly took to his heels and ran. Our friend said he himself stood still while horse and rider approached, looked up - and realised that there was no face, no head, nothing at all, between hat and cloak. Just a blank, black space. 

He too ran like Tam o' Shanter's mare, until he caught up with his friend. They kept on running and neither of them dared to look back till they were almost in the town. 

The road, of course, was empty. 

Not my ghost story, but a pretty good one all the same! 

Christmas Pudding (bit early, but still ...)

Christmas Eve at home. Probably not the same this year.

 To be clear - I haven't made my Christmas pudding yet this year, and I may even have a year off. Or as the Sheriff of Nottingham so memorably said, 'cancel Christmas and no more merciful hangings'. 

However, a friend asked me about this recipe the other day, and since so many people seem to be keen on cooking and baking these days, I thought it would be nice to post it on here. I've been making this for years, and had to dig into the back of an old bakery book to find it written down. The book was inscribed from 'Auntie Vera, to Catherine, Christmas 1973'. But in fact my mum first found the pudding recipe in a Radio Times Supplement from December 1966, Fanny Craddock's Guide to your Christmas Table. (If you don't know about Fanny, she was a phenomenon!)  Her pudding recipe was the one that the great chef Escoffier made. But in our family, we modified and changed it over the years, so like the proverbial axe that has had several new handles and blades, it's a new pudding with a long history. 

Christmas puddings have a reputation for being ever so heavy, but our modified pudding has the advantage of being reasonably light. In fact it's a bit like a fruity bread pudding. And while you're cooking it, your kitchen will smell wonderful. The traditional Christmas pudding - such as Dickens describes in A Christmas Carol - is a more solid version of the kind of  'frumenty' that you will find in many cultures. This is a rich porridge made of boiled grains, fruits, eggs and honey for a time of celebration. My Polish dad occasionally made something called Kutia, which was a strange and wonderful mixture of wheat grains, ground poppy seed, raisins, honey and cream that was eaten on Christmas Eve. 

Anyway, here's what you will need to make one very large and one smaller, or two medium sized puddings. I've translated pounds and ounces into grams. This will give you a lot of mixture. If you want to make smaller puddings, just halve these quantities.

500 grams fine white breadcrumbs. (Don't use wholemeal. The pudding will be too heavy if you do.) 

250 grams suet (I use vegetable suet but either is fine) 

250 grams SR flour

200 grams soft dark brown sugar

1 kilo mixed dried fruit, including peel (but leave it out if you don't like it.)

1 large cooking apple (or two ordinary eating apples) peeled and grated.

2 or 3 pieces chopped preserved ginger - the kind preserved in syrup (optional) 

1 teaspoon of mixed spice

Juice of one orange and one lemon.

1 teaspoon of vanilla essence

2 large or 3 smaller beaten eggs

A can of Guinness or similar 'porter' type beer. 

Milk as needed. 

1 large tablespoon of molasses (black treacle) 

Put all the dry ingredients into a very large bowl and mix them together. You can use clean hands. It looks like a vast amount, but it will shrink later. Then, add all the liquids as far as the beer, which will foam up a bit. Once again, mix thoroughly, with either a wooden spoon or clean hands. I don't use a mixer for this, since it makes the whole thing too smooth. It should be quite sloppy. If it isn't, add a little milk and mix again. 

Everyone in the house should have a stir and make a wish. 

Cover the bowl and leave overnight in a cool place. The next day, mix it again. The breadcrumbs will have absorbed the liquid. It should be about the consistency of a thick cake mixture - you should be able to drop it from a spoon but not too easily. This is a very forgiving recipe so it you feel it's too sloppy, add a little more flour. At this point, stir in a good tablespoonful of nice sticky molasses or black treacle. I sometimes add a small glass of my favourite Crabbie's Green Ginger Wine at this point, to give it a little gingery kick, but it isn't essential. My mum used to add a grated carrot, as well as the apple, and that would be nice too. Some recipes use almonds, but in my experience not everyone likes them so I leave them out. 

Grease two medium pyrex basins, or a single large and one smaller basin, put the pudding mixture into them in large dollops, smoothing down well. Then put two or three folded, greased layers of greaseproof paper over the top, tucked down inside the basin, and finally a double layer of kitchen foil, right over the top and folded down well at the sides. You can tie this down with thread or even with string, but I find that the foil sticks to itself pretty well. Old and canny cooks used to fashion a handle out of string to make the basin easier to lift in and out of the pan.

Heat water in a large lidded pan to simmering point - about a quarter to a third of the way up. No more than that. Two pans if you are making more than one pudding.  Lower your basin in very carefully, using oven gloves and put the lid on. It's a good idea to use a low trivet if you have one, to keep the bottom of the basin off the pan, but you can do without as long as you don't let the pan boil dry! Make sure there is room between basin and sides of pan, because you are going to have to top up with hot water from the kettle from time to time. 

You'll have to have patience because it takes hours. The water should be simmering gently all the while, but not going crazy. And it will have to be topped up occasionally. If you are making two or more puddings, you can have a production line of several pans going at the same time. Your kitchen will soon start to smell amazing. Smaller puddings take less time to cook and make great gifts.

After many hours, eight to ten for a large pudding, five or six for smaller versions, you should be able to see that the whole thing has turned a rich brown colour. Again using oven gloves, take the basin out of the pan, and remove the damp foil and greaseproof paper carefully. Tip a small sherry or liqueur glass of brandy or whisky over the top while it is till hot, and then leave it to cool. Once your pudding is cool, put more greaseproof paper and tinfoil on top, and store it away in a cool place, or at the back of your fridge. Some recipes will tell you not to do this, but it'll be fine. I've also frozen a pudding for the following year although you can keep them for ages in a cool cupboard or old fashioned pantry if you have one.

On Christmas Day, put the pudding back in a lidded pan of slightly simmering water, and  leave it for a few hours to heat through. This doesn't take just as long as the first cooking, but there's no hard and fast rule. It should be hot all the way through. If you really want to follow tradition, just before it's ready to be served, turn it out onto a plate, put another few spoonsful of brandy or other spirit over the top, and - turning out the lights -  set fire to it. But make sure the kids are all seated.  On the other hand, tradition also dictates a sprig of holly on the top, but if you want to risk the brief beautiful flame effect, do remember to take the holly off first. Otherwise it will burn. And your smoke alarm will go off.  

Serve with custard, brandy sauce, or home made brandy butter, made with butter, icing sugar and a good measure of brandy all creamed up together. Or thin cream. 

Leftover pudding can be heated up in a frying pan with a little butter (horrendously calorific) - or you can cheat by heating it in the microwave, but be careful - it overcooks very quickly. 

A little of this goes a long way. Best to have an alternative for the guests who don't like it. 

Good luck. I'll post my family Christmas cake recipe - which is incredibly economical and very good - early in November. 

Writing Classes, Rainbows and Pots of Gold.



I've just finished reading a book called Negative Capability by Michele Roberts - a memoir of a difficult year in her life. Among the memorable passages was one dealing with writing classes. 

She points out that 'most of the students equated novels with producing marketable commodities. They were obsessed with writing correctly to certain agent identified, agent approved agendas.' A little further on she points out that 'they trusted literature less than self help writing manuals.' Roberts goes on to remark that she can't stop herself from bursting out in 'defence of making art' which cuts no ice with the students.

I found myself highlighting these passages and going back to them with sympathy and recognition. I too have taught writing classes and workshops. Over the years, I've seen the balance shift from the desire to learn about the craft of writing to an obsession with commodity and some hypothetical market - the pot of gold at the end of the writing rainbow. 

I used to teach creative writing for the Workers Educational Association. We lost funding, but eventually, because I was working in what was termed an 'area of social deprivation' (it was certainly that, but the people were the nicest, funniest, most talented bunch I've ever worked with) - the local council offered to supply the deficit. Except that suddenly they wanted an end product. It wasn't enough to encourage people to write in different ways, whether it was prose or poetry or drama - and we had people working on all of these within the group. No, there had to be an outcome. A thing at the end of it. Hence a great many funding applications that involved the production of box ticking anthologies. 

It marked a shift from a perception of the value of doing something for itself alone, to doing something only if there was a tangible result. When the relative impossibility of that tangible outcome became obvious, they decided that health and wellbeing was enough of a thing, so you had to demonstrate that you were prepared to be a cut price and largely untrained mental health professional as well. This is an attitude that is now so deeply and disastrously embedded in the bodies set up to support the creative industries that I doubt if we will ever manage to switch back to valuing participating in the arts purely for its own sake. 

I play the piano because I love doing it. I'm never going to be a concert pianist. I learn to play things because it gives me a bit of a buzz, and I suppose that's a wellbeing outcome of sorts, but frankly, I do it for the sheer enjoyment of playing and that's reason enough. I do it to do it. 

This is why, although I'm happy to give talks about my fiction, about the experience of writing and publishing, and also about the practicalities of research, I'm no longer keen to engage with the highly prescriptive aspects of a writing life, such as all those social media posts about the dos and don'ts of constructing query letters. And as for those agents who post scathing online take downs of terrible-query-letters-I-have-known for a bunch of sycophants to laugh at, in hopes of currying a bit of favour ... don't get me started! 

The harsh truth is that, even if you do manage to land an agent in the net of your perfect query letter, there is no guarantee at all that that agent will find you a publisher. But if you write to the specifications of a string of other people: the agent's reader, the agent, the publisher's reader, the publisher, the editor, I'm not at all sure that what will emerge will have done your development as a writer any good at all. Add to that a clutch of so called beta readers - a term from the video games industry that doesn't mean what people think it means -  before you even start on the long road to finding an agent, all with varied opinions about what you should and shouldn't be writing, and you'd be better to do a whole lot more reading and a whole lot more writing. As Roberts so succinctly puts it, find your own way into 'making art'. 

That's what Stephen King recommends here, and whether you like his books or not, I reckon he's right about this one. 

Which is not to say that a good editor isn't a wonderful thing: one who asks all the right, difficult questions and allows you, the writer, to rework and to learn a lot about your own craft in the process.  But that's a very definite professional skill, and not one usually possessed by an opinionated literature graduate intern working for peanuts for an agency or publishing house. 

The harsh truth is that the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow is as elusive and mobile as the mythical one. And as William Goldman accurately states, in his Adventures in the Screen Trade, 'nobody knows anything'. Unless you're one of that growing band of celebrities in another field deciding that they've always wanted to write a book, the really big hits tend to come quite suddenly, out of left field, unpredicted by the industry itself. Not just unpredicted, but often rejected. Then they all want more of the same, until the next big hit comes along and takes them completely by surprise. If you're ready to ride that new wave - which tends to be a matter of coincidence and luck rather than anything else - good for you. 

Otherwise, write what you love, write what obsesses you - and to hell with the rest. If you don't, you may find yourself missing the beauty of the rainbow, in pursuit of an elusive pot of gold that will probably turn out to contain a few dried leaves. 

Fairy gold, you see. Just can't trust it. 

Where do the crows roost at night?

Drawing by Alan Lees 

 The birds in our garden have pretty much kept me sane throughout the past covid infested months. Especially a pair of very large crows - carrion crows, I think - that have become reasonably tame over the summer. At first they would watch me from a distant rooftop and only come down into the garden once I was safely indoors. 

Now they watch me from our own rooftop, and will even come down onto the bird table when I'm still in the garden. A couple of weeks ago when we were taking advantage of the last of the fine weather, sitting outside for a late afternoon glass of wine with our immediate neighbours, they even flew down to have their customary supper from a smaller feeder, with a drink of water from the bird bath afterwards. We carried on talking and they carried on eating, glancing around occasionally to make sure that we were still in friendly mode.

I put out a seed mix for the birds - we have a lot of small birds in this garden: sparrows, tits, robins, wrens, blackbirds and many more, as well as bigger birds like wood pigeons and collar doves. There are covids in plenty: jackdaws on all the roofs, rooks in the trees in the overgrown field at the bottom of the garden, and a pair of magpies that are not very welcome since they do tend to bully the smaller birds. However, there is plenty of cover for the wee ones in this garden, so they should be OK.

The crows are shown a great deal of respect by everyone else. It's fascinating to watch them. They don't seem to be particularly aggressive, but the smaller birds, and even the smaller corvids, always give way to them. 

Very occasionally I'll put out a bit of stale bread. The crows love it, but they will dip it in the bird bath till it's nice and soft, like dunking a biscuit I suppose. Sometimes, with a particularly hard bit of crust, they will leave it in the water for a few moments, eat a bit more seed, and then come back to it. 

What I really want to know though, is where they roost at night? I assume it must be in one of the bigger trees. We have old fashioned hedges and a big viburnum, and I know that's where all the sparrows hang out. The blue tits and the robin commandeer a holly tree. The pigeons take shelter in a tall fir tree, very thick at the top. The jackdaws lurk among the chimney pots.

But I've never managed to see exactly where the crows go to roost. And they're so big that you'd think it would be obvious. 

When the gorse is in bloom, kissing's in season.

 Drove past 'Trump Turnberry' today, as always noting its faint resemblance to the Overlook, on the way to and from one of our local farm shops for tatties and carrots, freshly dug this morning. The carrots smell like a completely different vegetable and I'm going to make some of them into a salad with the last apple from the garden and a few cashew nuts. Too good to cook. Actually, it's the last-but-one apple from the old Golden Noble apple tree at the bottom of the garden. It's so old that it's on a two year cycle, a rest year and a fruiting year. This year was a rest year and it managed about six apples. I was waiting for the last huge apple at the top of the tree to fall, but by the time I got to it, it was a hollowed out shell - the birds had got to it. I couldn't begrudge them it. They give me so much pleasure. 

The whins are in bloom. That's the Scots word for gorse. And as the old saying goes, when they're in bloom, kissing's in season. Because they're always in bloom. But in spring, they are so bright that they dazzle your eyes and the scent of coconut is overwhelming. Now, they're strangely and sporadically in autumnal bloom - one or two bushes covered with vivid golden flowers, among several others with no flowers. Throughout the winter, here in the warmish west, you'll see a few flowers lingering here and there and then slowly but surely, you won't be able to tell whether they're last year's clinging on, or the beginning of spring. 

Always a cheering thought, because I hate November, and I hate mid-covid November even more, because usually there's Christmas to look forward to, but it looks as though we might be cancelling Christmas in this house, anyway. 

All the same, who wouldn't be cheered by the gorse? And did you know that you can cook up the blossoms and use the resulting liquid to flavour cakes and things? I didn't, until I watched the wonderful Nora On Food. I haven't tried the cheesecake yet, but I might make a perilous gorse flower expedition and give it a try.