Leaving the restaurant at half ten, throats sore from an eight-way conversation in the middle of a Friday night crowd, past a drunk and angry man punching a wall like that might help, we find everything outside sparkling wet, even a few puddles on the ground. Rain at last.
It’s been seven dry weeks, which is nothing compared to properly arid places; but this is England, where seven dry days in a row is an event greeted with surprise.
Unprepared for the heat and dust, beset by biting flies, everyone is fractious and weary. On the scorching terraces outside airless pubs, recently ice-white skin flashes scarlet and crumpled, hastily-unearthed holiday wardrobes look out of place.
This time last year we spent a night in Death Valley, and even while I’m burning my hands on the steering wheel and stumbling downstairs in the middle of the night to lie on the cool kitchen floor, I remember the heat of that place. Desert heat like a punch in the face; every bone in your body knowing that you’ve ended up somewhere you aren’t meant to be. The urge to scuttle under the shade of the nearest pile of rocks against the likelihood that snakes have beaten you to it.
Checking in, the lady in reception told us politely but firmly not to mess with the air-conditioning unit, and we didn’t, even though it was like sleeping next to a bus. It may have been loud but it knocked twenty-five degrees off the temperature outside, and that was worth it. This week, I could do with one in my house, noisy or not. The rain lasted an hour.
OK, so that reality where I was doing the Bucks Art weeks and then I could spend the whole summer painting and lying in the shade drinking iced tea thinking creative thoughts turned out, predictably, to belong to some other parallel dimension.
The two weeks themselves – which were fun but proved that people want my paintings about as much as they want stone axes, or tapioca pudding – led right into another whole thicket of admin, end-of-term trips, job applications and feedback surveys, overtime and shopping. Plus the weather is freakishly un-British, it hasn’t rained for weeks and it’s too hot out there for the paint and for me.
And now I’ve been offered another event, off the back of an email I sent months ago and had almost forgotten. It’s great, it will be something different and it’s in a really nice place, but suddenly there are emails saying things like ‘so, if you could just send us a copy of your public liability insurance details…’ an entirely reasonable thing to ask for, but one which involved a big chunk of time reading policy details on websites in the hope of spotting one that I could afford but which might actually save me from jail. Fun. Next up, display stands…
Watching too many cookery shows while doing the ironing has left me thinking about cookery and cuisine.
In principle, all cuisine is the same: available foodstuffs, prepared in whatever way makes them as palatable as possible. At the harshest end of this are foods like Drammach: the Scots name for a mixture of milled oats and cold water. Such a meal speaks of privation, even danger – no fuel, or no safe place to make a fire (because then you could make porridge), no flavourings; just crushed dried grains made into a paste, so you can get them down without choking. The fact that there is a even a name for this concoction gives a sense of grim subsistence in lean times, and the most ardent supporter of fashionable ‘primitive’ diets wouldn’t want to stick to it for long.
At the other end of the spectrum are millennia of the luxe confections of the rich: larks’ tongues in aspic, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, lobster and caviar in hand-carved ice grottos. The emperors’ banquets have their modern equivalent in the shrines of gastronomy: plates smeared, dabbed and powdered with crumbs of costly ingredients, spiced and sweetened, fatted and bejeweled, every suggestion of skin, scale or shell tweezered away by brigades of chefs. Food for people who aren’t hungry, the main course always the glossy reflection of the diner’s self-importance.
In between these two extremes are the rest of us, eating whatever best suits our budgets and supplies, our preferences and customs, whatever we have time to provide and the kids will eat without too much protest.
In the modern world, huge juggernauts of policy, supply chains and marketing are deployed to steer our choices in the interests of others, but the best meals are always going to be the ones made from fresh ingredients, by people who know what you like to eat. Not because it’s healthier, or costs less, or is better for the environment (although those are all important goals), but because of the immense tangle of human connections behind the question ‘what shall we have for dinner?’
Back in the south of Ireland for the first time in ten years, and the most remarkable thing was the weather: days of bright sunshine. At home so much rain fell, for so long, that across town a store roof collapsed under the weight of the water.
Dublin was busy but jovial; thousands of tourists had put up post-its in support of the abortion vote; the RHA summer show was superb; hen parties were squealing in Temple Bar. Out of town, the roads were a world away from what they were twenty years ago, all sleek dual carriageways in embankments. We covered the ground in half the time it used to take, without a pothole in sight.
When I lived in Ireland I was constantly broke, frequently lonely, often miserable. It ended badly and although I went back a few times to visit friends, as they too moved on I just stopped going, and it never occurred to me that I might miss it. This time I was surprised to find I almost did, although that might just have been the sunshine. And the chips.
Somehow half the year has passed. There is far too much to do and with impeccable timing I have a stinking cold, and am too sick to even go to work, reduced to filling bins with snotty tissues and glaring listlessly at all the things which I could be doing if only breathing wasn’t taking up so much time and effort. In three weeks I will be sitting in a church hall with paintings and prints, on the off-chance that someone wants to buy one. I’m not madly hopeful – how many people, after all, actually buy original art from the people who make it – but still I’m making preparations as best as I can with the time and money at my disposal. Never quite enough of either, it seems…