Monday, October 25, 2010

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Monday, October 11, 2010

I've been commissioned to write a piece for The Observer Magazine on my Appalachia trip, using my quest for banjo tunes and good food as a guide. For reasons of length and story-strength, the food aspect has been removed, and it's now a story about my search for the banjo. I'm really sad about that; I met so many great people and ate so much amazing Bar-B-Q on my food trip, and so I as I cut chunks out my article, I shall post them here instead.

(I still feel like a cheat though; one Bar-B-Q in North Carolina gave me a plate of luscious roast pork, wonderful red coleslaw and a bowl of delicate crispy hush-puppies and refused payment. I don't know how I will explain to him what happened without sounding like a freeloading journalist (I did try to pay!).)

‘Southern’ food, the slow-cooked meals that shimmer with love and lard, starts appearing in restaurants somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, where northern reserve meets southern hospitality and charm. I plunged right in at Allman’s Pit Cooked Bar-B-Q, a joint off the highway near Fredericksburg, a town full of civil war history, for a mid-morning sandwich of slow-cooked pork and lovingly-made ‘slaw’, drenched in thin-but-sweet barbeque sauce.

“Ah been here so long I don’t eat barbeque anymore,” drawled Mary Elizabeth Brown, “better known as ‘Mom’”, a small smiling black woman with two gold front teeth that twinkled as she showed me the electric ‘pit’ where every night for the last 51 years she has roasted 29 shoulders of pork.

“Every day ah make 6 gallons of slaw and 8 gallons of sauce- they ma mother’s recipes. I wrote them down before she died.”

Tales of how a man once allegedly offered Mom $10,000 for her sauce recipe resounded in my head as I set off, encouraged by the load in my stomach, into the foothills of the Appalachians that loomed large and blue above Fredericksburg.

Friday, October 08, 2010

I was delighted to be able to see a great cellist play live on Tuesday night, in a small arts centre on the outskirts of Oxford. Barney Morse-Brown, who goes by the name of Duotone is an experimental cellist with Baroque and Classical tendencies who made an album last year that cheered me through our long, cold winter. His songwriting is both sad and witty, and the whole thing an impassioned embrace of strings. I don't really like trying to talk to musicians after shows so I went away thinking about how much I would like to tell him what an impact his music had had on me, and wondering how I might do it.

The next night was a whole other show- Tony Allen's 70th birthday, a long musical party for a great Nigerian musician who is far more interesting behind the drum kit than he is infront of the mic. Weary, I left the after-show huddle and, weighed down by metres of Nigerian dress, made my way home.

At London Bridge I changed buses, only to see the 35 pull away before I could get to it. I settled down to read my book at the bus stop, wishing I had left the show earlier.

A couple of minutes later, I looked up and saw a man who looked like Barney. I looked back down at my book, assuming I was wrong, then did a double-take when I noticed he had a cello bow in his hand. It was him!

I went up and introduced myself; he must have been as surprised as I. We were waiting for the same bus- he was staying not far from my flat- so we rode the top deck together and I told him how much I loved his album. He looked a little surprised, perhaps, or maybe just shy. After he got off I wanted to proclaim to all the Nigerians on the bus that they had just travelled with a great musical talent, but it all seemed so unlikely so I kept quiet.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

I was away in the USA for a month without a computer, hence the lack of blogging. To be more precise, I was in the Appalachian Mountains which should really be its own state for its cultural seclusion from the rest of the country. I can't really make up for it now but these photos do seem to sum up the trip.

The Blue Ridge Mountains, a chain of the Appalchians which give off a dew that makes them appear blue, are a soft and grand sight around every corner. In the northern part of the mountains, around northern Virginia, the ridge is slim and sharp, the valleys falling on either side inhabited by people who seemed to echo the grand mountains in whose shadows they live. Further south, getting into southern Virginia and North Carolina, the mountains are higher, broader and inhabited by people who seem more open and warm. In eastern Kentucky, where I had the amazing fried chicken, anything goes. Desperately poor and continually shafted by the policy-makers in Washington DC who want the coal to keep coming out of the ground whatever the environmental and social cost, this is a place where everyone has some sort of musical talent, where kids barely in their teens are performing old-time banjo tunes on stages and recording albums.

I discovered that I am not a lost cause when it comes to making music- I learnt five banjo tunes and am about to go to my first old-time jam in the hope of joining in. I also ate a lot, learnt a lot about old-time music and the people who make it, and made countless new friends. The USA really is a great, over-weight, friendly, proud, rich and wonderful place. But I am glad to be home.

Of the many highlights of this summer, the Salen Show in August sits high at the top of the list. I enjoyed the tombola, in which I won some Iron Bru and a mini-manicure set, and the dog show reminded me of when we used to take our dog Dolly in the hope of bringing home rosettes. But my favourite was the cows, whose long red coats shone brilliantly in the summer light as their owners, dapper in waistcoats and chaps, brushed them, soothed them with quiet voices, and polished their horns with WD40.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We used to live at the head of the loch in a big house with walls two feet thick. My room had a sloping ceiling with a deep window sill where I used to sit and watch the snow, waiting for Father Christmas. Once, my sister and I opened our stockings at 4 in the morning and then wrapped them all up again so that we wouldn't get into trouble for opening them before morning. I don't remember it being that cold but I do remember having electric heaters, so I don't think we had central heating back then. They were the happiest memories of my childhood, that feeling of driving over the cattle grid knowing that granny and poppa were waiting for us in the house, and Dolly, their springer spaniel, would come out with her soft brown ears and wag her tail. Getting there meant weeks of freedom, doing roly-polies on the lawn, exploring the trees and moss in the wood behind the house, swimming in the river, riding the ponies.

Yesterday I went to the house for the first time in the ten years since we sold it. The family welcomed me in and gave me a tour of the house. They've done nothing to it since we left, except changed the kitchen a little bit, so all the old furniture's still there, though where there was once a grand piano is now a ping-pong table, which I think we would have preferred. The banisters we used to slide down seemed tiny and the stairs where my brother got us to jump down (I think my sister broke a bone) would have been easily manageable now. The Aga, where I learnt to cook, seemed so small to me now and the big kitchen table where Grandpa would lift me up to sit on while he cooked, was just an ordinary height table. Everything seemed smaller, just a normal house really.

"We've been very lucky," said the current owner as we sat in the warm kitchen and drank tea and ate flapjacks. "We've had ten happy years here."

The house is full of children, dogs, welly boots and dripping wax jackets. The sheds are brimming with bicycles, tools, kayaks and quadbikes for the farm. Everyone seems really happy, the house full of life. As I left I gave a heavy stamp down the sloping hall floor which runs the whole length of the long, narrow house. It still made the same hollow noise as it did when we were kids and we would race eachother down that hall, invariably annoying some adult who was snoozing infront of the fire.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The other night I had dinner with C. and A. who, as usual, provided me with brilliant conversation, our topics darting from wrestling to peoples' love of eagles. A.'s watch is broken and the watch face and half the strap are attached to his wrist with three red post office elastic bands. I worried that the bands were uncomfortable but he said not; C. assured me he was going to get it fixed at some point.

On the way home from their remote house overlooking the Treshnish Isles and under a perfect mackerel sky- where the sky shines silvery and the clouds ruffle like the dark and light strips on mackerel skin- I met with various creatures of the night; rabbits (all grey but for one tiny handsome black rabbit), highland cows grazing the hedgerows, sheep whose eyes glinted ominously in the headlights, and four hedgehogs. One sloped off quietly, one puffed itself up and I watched fascinated as its cream spines grew from its black fur, one sat in a ball as I managed to swerve around it, and one was recently dead, its bright red blood spilling from its ruptured middle, a gory mess splattered majestically across the road. Over all of this, two stars low in the sky: one white, one glowing orange, probably Venus. It is in places like this, on remote hilly roads, that one remembers that up there is a whole other world to which we are totally unimportant.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I've not been to the Salen Show for years, probably since I was a little girl and used to enter my grandparents' Springer Spaniel Dolly in to the dog show. We were so proud of the rosettes we brought home; I remember a blue one which must have been second place.

Today I went along to the show, parked in the field and walked across the bridge at Aros Mains to where the Highland cattle were snorting and huffing from their pens. A judge in a tweed hat and a thick gold wedding band on his purple wrinkled hands stood in the middle of the ring and tenderly felt each cow in turn: the horns, the neck, the hips, the tail and the legs. He had them parade around and around, pulling on the ropes attached to their heads, and all the while the owners groomed and preened their long red hair, combing the fringe right down over the eyes almost to the noses and the fur on their coats upwards so it curled and flickered in the breeze. The farmer from Laganulva, not far from our house, took the first prize in a few categories and everyone leaning on the metal fence clapped and admired the beautiful beasts as he shyly slipped the red rosettes into his jeans pocket.