Confessions of a terrible baker, and how my mum rescued me

Barm Brack, aka Working Mother's cake, plus tea and muffins

Barm Brack, aka Working Mother’s cake, plus tea and muffins

I have a confession to make – as my children and husband know, I’m a terrible baker. If it wasn’t for them, it’s quite possible that my oven would be used for shoe storage, like Carrie’s in Sex and The City. We’re talking Bridget Jones levels of ineptitude here. My sponge cakes just don’t rise, and I once made tuna pasta without the tuna in. And as for what happened when, as a child, I was left in charge of a pan of simmering rice… Well, of course, I went off to my room to write a story and forgot all about it.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I started a new job and found that my office was full of keen and very expert bakers, and they had a cake club which I was immediately invited to join.

So what did I do? I turned to my mother for help.

This is her recipe for Barm Brack, which she used to make pretty much every week when I was a kid. I think it was originally her mother’s recipe. I promise you, it works, even if you’re really rubbish like me. And it rises into a nice satisfying loaf and makes your kitchen smell all cinamonny. Serve with butter and a nice cup of tea.

(Easter Sunday update: my mum tells me the recipe is actually based on a Mary Berry one, which she adapted depending on what she had to hand. I remember Mary Berry’s Hamlyn All Colour Cook Book having pride of place on a shelf in our kitchen in the 80s. So all hail Mary Berry, the source of happy tea-times down the decades!)

I’ve been thinking about this recipe because I’ve been reading Jenny Colgan’s Meet Me at the Cupcake Café (I know, about a million years after it came out), which has lots of recipes in it that are named according to how the heroine is feeling at the time. For me, this cake is Working Mother cake. It’s the cake you can knock up when you’re knackered and it’ll still come out all right. And it makes me think of my mum and my grandma (there’s a pic of me going to collect eggs with my grandma at the end of this post.)

Oh, and my cake club liked it!

Sorry, it isn’t metric. If you want to give it a go, hope you can figure it out, and that the recipe works for you too – let me know!

The pic at the top of this post dates from a bake-off my daughter challenged me to last summer. She made some very delicious muffins. Luckily, thanks to Working Mother’s Cake once again, I wasn’t too badly disgraced.

Happy Easter everybody!


Barm Brack (aka Working Mother cake)

½ pint cold tea

6 oz soft brown sugar

12 oz mixed dried fruit

10 oz self-raising flour

1 egg

Put tea, sugar and fruit in bowl – cover and leave to soak overnight (or for 2 hours!)

Add one teaspoon each of nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice for flavour. (My note – don’t forget this bit! I once did and fished the cake out of the oven to add at the last minute – shades of the tuna-less pasta once more.) Beat egg and stir with flour into mixture. Grease and flour 2lb loaf tin, add mixture and bake in oven, gas mark 4 (180 C) for approx 1 hour/1 hour 10 min.

(PS – when I read How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis recently, I came to a bit where she said it wasn’t possible that somebody could be quite so useless in the kitchen as Bridget Jones – it was the bit where Bridget leaves blue stringy packaging on the meat, or does something bad to spaghetti, or something like that. Samantha, I’m sorry to break it to you, but it *is* possible, alas!)

(PPS – luckily for everyone, I married an absolutely excellent cook. I think Sheryl Sandberg should stress the importance of this, if she hasn’t already.)

childhood time in the countryside

Benjamin Britten and three lessons in creativity

childhood time in the countryside

Benjamin Britten’s music makes me think of countryside and childhood

A cold clear blue-sky day in Oxford, children from primary schools across the county singing, young and old in the audience, everybody drawn together by the music. I went to see my 10-year-old daughter and her school choir at the Sheldonian today, taking part in a ‘Friday Afternoons’ concert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten – and it was fantastic!

It was also a chance to hear Professor Robert Saxton, who is professor of composition and tutorial fellow in music at Worcester College, answering questions from the schoolchildren about Benjamin Britten, who taught him. Was Benjamin Britten a grumpy teacher? Well – a bit sharp sometimes, if people weren’t up to scratch or weren’t being efficient; but he was also very generous and very kind.

Dr John Traill, the conductor, passed on the children’s questions during an interview with Professor Saxton before the choirs embarked on the Friday Afternoons songs. Professor Saxton was also asked for tips for composers, and described three important lessons he had learned from his own teachers – including Benjamin Britten. His advice struck me as being relevant to pretty much any creative work, including writing, so here it is, paraphrased:

  • Think of the whole when you are working on the part. If you’re composing a line of music, have the impact you want the whole of the composition to make in mind.
  • Make it real. Get other people involved. Being able to record something and play it back via computer isn’t the same as letting other people loose on it to see if it works. (I suppose this is like the scary but essential part when you give your writing to readers.)
  • Work very hard! However great your ambitions for what you hope to achieve, none of it will be possible without working away on your technical skills.

It was amazing to hear the children singing songs I remember from my time in the South Berkshire Music Centre junior choir thirty years ago. You can’t beat a truly thundering finish with Old Abram Brown.

Happy St Cecilia’s Day everyone!

The Brixton bomb and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

I was on my way towards the centre of Brixton when the bomb went off. At first I had no idea what it was. I have no recollection of hearing an explosion. What I remember is the helicopter that almost immediately appeared above the rooftops of Brixton Road.  It was early evening and the sky was tinged with red; the helicopter whirred and hovered, watching, waiting. It looked apocalyptic. It looked like a scene from a war film, and therefore it was also weirdly familiar, like a déjà vu, and I carried on walking towards it.

When the bomb went off I was just approaching the junction with Coldharbour Lane. I was on my way to Brixton Rec for a swim; my route ran right through the blast, and if I’d been a few minutes earlier, I would almost certainly have crossed over and walked into it.

But by the time I approached the carnage there was already glass scattered all across the pavement. I think I remember a double-decker that had ground to a halt, its windows blown out. It’s always a busy thoroughfare, but the traffic had come to a standstill and many people on my side of the road were standing and looking around, dazed and uncertain.

I still didn’t understand what had happened. I thought perhaps a gas explosion? It didn’t occur to me that this might have been deliberate. This was before 9/11, before 7/7; more longstanding Londoners would have remembered IRA attacks, but I did not. This was 1999, and my experience of the city had been peaceful.

When I looked across to the opposite side of the road I was horrified to glimpse someone lying on the pavement, clearly seriously injured, being attended to by somebody else. A man sprinted past me, heading away from the destruction back towards Brixton Hill, where I had come from. He shouted out that it had been a bomb, that we were fools, that we should all get away. For a moment I thought this was farfetched. Then I realised it was not. It seemed to have taken a very long time (though it was probably mere minutes) but the emergency services began to cordon the area off. Somebody was in charge again.

I turned round and began to retrace my steps, heading back towards home. All the way along Brixton Hill people were coming out of shops and cafés, asking what had happened, telling what they knew. Numbers of the injured were mentioned. People were shocked, disbelieving, matter-of-fact. I have never in my life been in any other situation in which every single stranger around me was talking so intently and so urgently about the same thing.

Back home, I turned on the news. The terrible details of the suffering that had been inflicted became clearer, and I began to realise what I had escaped. Later I went out and got good and drunk at my friends’ house round the corner, and I think lots of others did the same; I heard that there was a mood of bravado in the clubs and pubs of Brixton that night.

Sometime in the next few days I saw an image from that evening that has stayed with me, as it must have done for many: the x-ray of the head of a 23-month-old baby injured in the blast. A nail from the bomb had penetrated the child’s skull, lodging in the brain.

I thought of the Brixton bomb when I read Kate Atkinson’s excellent novel Life After Life earlier this year. The heroine experiences her life over and over again, cut short by different combinations of incident and coincidence and reaction. It’s a salutary reminder of how close we often come to danger, and how much of the time we may not even be aware of what we have escaped.

Life After Life made me think of another experience too − not my own, one that was related to me by a friend. One night this friend was out driving with his girlfriend somewhere rural in the US; they came to a level crossing that had no barriers, and only just managed to stop before a train thundered past.

After the train had gone and everything was still and quiet again one of them turned to the other and said, ‘Did you feel that?’ – meaning, did you feel that near-miss, near-impact, that sudden, terrifying proximity to disaster? It was shared between them as intensely as a secret, almost impossible to convey to anyone who hadn’t been sitting in the car at that particular time and place.

This is what Life After Life does. It is a history-melding litany of deaths and rebirths. The heroine goes under time and time again, slipping into darkness, but she always comes back, and the next time it is a little different and there is another ending, and another beginning.

Peril is never far away, but then, that’s how it is for us, too. We are so often just a hair’s breadth from the end; sometimes, we can feel it.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

Q and A with an artist: Greg Rook and his Survivors paintings

The Cornfield, by Greg Rook

The Cornfield, by Greg Rook

It’s a long time since I’ve been to a private view, but back in October I left the school run to my other half and got the train to the OMT Gallery in Deptford, where I saw these fantastic paintings.

I think they’re beautiful, but also a little sinister and unsettling – you can guess at the relationships between the people in them, but you can’t quite tell what’s going on. It’s like catching a glint of a story out of the corner of your eye.

Morning with plough, by Greg Rook

Morning with plough, by Greg Rook

‘Not so mock heroic paintings of our past potential futures’

I know Greg Rook, the artist – twenty years ago, we were students together – but I don’t know anything much about him as an artist. I’m always interested to know, with writing, how other writers set about their work – cork-lined study? Pyjamas? Kitchen table? Morning? Evening? – and I was curious to find out more about what went into this series of paintings, and how they developed. So I asked Greg if he’d do a guest Q & A post on my blog, and here it is.

What prompted you to make the Survivors series of paintings? (Did you see the recent remake?) Besides the TV series, was there anything else that provided inspiration?

Greg: The original and remake acted as an inspiration in that they seemed like a right wing, apocalyptic reaction to ‘The Good Life’. Both the original ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Good Life’ were first broadcast in 1975 and they function as opposed versions of potential futures imagined in the sixties and seventies.

I was brought up understanding ‘The Good Life’ to be some kind of ideal – affable, well-intentioned making-do and self-reliance were the cornerstone of my moral upbringing – and yet the more I romanticise an agrarian, self-sufficient lifestyle, the more I fear that it will only come about, not through enlightened, progressive thinking, but through disaster and collapse.

Harvest, by Greg Rook

Harvest, by Greg Rook

What was the process – how did you set about them?

Greg: As with my earlier cowboy paintings, it is important that there is some remove between me and the imagery, as there is between me and the lifestyle – there is a level of naivety in my romanticising.

I spend months searching on the internet, through films and in specialist  ‘backwoods’ and ‘survivalist’ books and magazines sourced online, looking for the right figures and landscapes, researching the commune and off–grid movements that have been proposed and that have existed. I hoard, sort and refine until I have a body of images to work with. For this series I found myself particularly drawn to English Georgic landscapes, seventies US communes and Soviet social realism.

With my source imagery I set about creating collages in Photoshop. For this series I would have produced over a hundred from which I eventually paint about a dozen. In painting the chosen few I try to harmonise the different sources and yet let it remain evident that these are collaged from paintings, black and white photographs, film stills and drawings.

Landscape with goat, by Greg Rook

Landscape with goat, by Greg Rook

Where did you work on them? (What’s your studio like?) What do you have around you when you’re working?

Greg: I have a beautiful studio overlooking the canal in Bethnal Green. I’m surrounded by all the paintings that I’m still working on, as I work on all the paintings in the series at the same time, and a wall of windows watching the boats and towpath pedestrians as they pass. I nearly always have podcasts playing in the background – arts, politics, comedy. I find music a bit overwhelming whilst I’m working, and silence even more so.

How long did they take to do? Was there a particular pattern or routine to the time you spent on them ?

Greg: I work on all the paintings, in stages, at the same time – they are all sketched out, then I work on each one for a day. Some are finished at this point. Some need another day. Some need rescuing and I have to come back to them again and again. As much as I enjoy the freshness of the paintings that work first time, I get great satisfaction from bringing a painting back from the brink of disaster.

Untitled (tents), by Greg Rook

Untitled (pigs), by Greg Rook

The people in the paintings are doing various tasks – some of them labouring away, others not so much. If you were a Survivor, what do you think you’d end up doing?

Greg: Part of the ambiguity in my take on commune living, agrarian life styles and self-sufficiency lies in the fact that, although I romanticise it, I suspect I would be a terrible survivor. Although I might have some of the skills or knowledge, I lack the inclination.

Are the women working harder than the men?

Greg: A previous series of paintings saw men indulging in foot washing, laying on of hands and snake handling. I worry about men’s tendency to get lost in beliefs and self-importance and I predict that women would carry the burden of providing following a collapse. I imagine factions, sects, conspiracies and theories occupying the men’s time.

Untitled (tents) by Greg Rook

Untitled (tents), by Greg Rook

Do you think these Survivors are going to survive?

Greg: Ultimately we are adaptable and our happiness is relative to our circumstances. If our expectations become limited then our aspirations shrink to fit, and what we require to survive adapts accordingly.

Which artists do you think have most influenced you (and these paintings)?

Greg: There are always paintings that inspire you to paint, and often very different works that are referenced or inspire you to make a particular painting. I love Michael Borremans’ ‘Red hand, Green hand’, George Braque’s studio paintings, Phillip Guston’s ‘Ravine’, ‘Pit’ or ‘Ancient Wall’, to pick a few. But in this series I’ve used Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, whilst perhaps being most directly influenced in the way I approach the paintings by the work of Neil Tate, Varda Caivano, Edouard Vuillard and the drawings of Van Gogh. Then again the colours owe a debt to early Technicolor and the hand tinted photographs of the early 1900s.

If you had to describe your work in 140 characters, what would you say? (I know, I know – I got asked this one about my writing. Mine was, “you may laugh now, but wait for the dying fall”).

Greg: Not so mock heroic paintings of our past potential futures.

Is there a famous painting , or other work of art, you’d particularly like to be able to borrow for a bit and have around the house? (Choose more than one if you like…)

Greg: At the moment it would be ‘Red hand, Green hand’ by Michael Borremans. It makes my hands itch with wanting to paint.

What’s your next project?

Greg: I’m not yet done with this series of work. There will be another show documenting this ‘group’ as they continue to construct their lives.

Corn Dolly, by Greg Rook

Corn Dolly, by Greg Rook

You can see more of the Survivors paintings and other work on Greg’s website.

Catching up on the fun stuff

A friend of mine has a phrase for the way the rest of your life goes by the wayside when your kids get sick: she calls it ‘falling down the mummy hole’. That’s when you can’t leave the house, or see or chat to anyone on the outside, and the most you can do is just try to get through whatever bug they’ve got.

Sometimes I end up doing the writing equivalent of this – falling down the writing hole. Boy, writing can eat up the hours… Novels are like time machines than suck in real time from their writers and their readers, and convert it into the imaginary time that we all get to spend somewhere else.

Then, in the end, you come back up to the surface and oh dear, the garden’s full of weeds and you have a gazillion practical things to attend to. But also, you get to catch up on fun stuff. Like what’s on telly.

The other night I watched two of Channel 4’s new-ish American comedy imports, 2 Broke Girls and Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23. What an eye-opener! They’re both anti-children of Friends – they’re about friendships that aren’t always friendly. And about being skint, and living somewhere that’s not all that great, with someone you wouldn’t ideally choose to be with.

2 Broke Girls had a slightly Paris Hilton-ish blonde, the posh one, who couldn’t afford to keep her horse any more, and a cute deadpan brunette, the normal one, who’d fallen for the horse but had to say goodbye to it too. At the end off they went to console themselves with cut-price booze and a video of a cat on a piano on youtube (or something like that – I paraphrase, but you get the idea).

Remember how in Friends they lived like bankers in a swish apartment, but actually they did stuff like waitressing/archaeology/being a chef/going to auditions? By rights they should have been squished into a grotty dump of a place, and much too poor to afford all those lattes. The Broke Girls really are broke – at the end of each episode a message flashes up telling you how much $ they have got left now.

On to the B****, and what a peculiar, but likeable, programme this is, and what a great job it’s doing of reformulating the career of James Van Der Beek, who plays a down-at-heel version of the former Dawson’s Creek star. This episode was all about James Van Der Beek’s sex tape. He was quite up for it coming out, thinking it might help him win the public vote on the reality celebrity dance show he was involved in. But he was worried that the weird lip-licking thing he did through most of it would put people off. So he wanted to re-shoot.

This show is not only the anti-child of Friends, it’s the anti-child of Sex and the City – lots of suggestive rudeness and less glamour to take the edge off it. What does your flatmate get up to in the bathtub? You may not want to know – but the B****, who is a scruple-free marvel of disinhibition, is most definitely interested. The B**** prides herself on being nasty. Friends was so not nasty, ever. It didn’t feature a pastor who paid for her nose-job and office refit by selling on a sex tape, either.

In the ad break there was a trailer for a film called Magic Mike, which looks like a US Full Monty, with the likes of Matthew McConaughey in it. Men taking up stripping because they can’t find work, broke girls tallying their $, making the best of flat-sharing with a B****… I guess we’re all counting our pennies and wondering when, and how, things are going to look up.