Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Joy of Poetry

The Perth Writer's Festival was this weekend passed, and in discussing with my mother the various sessions I would be attending, we lighted upon one which discussed whether it is novelists or poets who are more likely to make us swoon. Now for me, this is easily resolved: in my experience, it's always been novelists.

But is this because the only poetry I've been taught to appreciate is, though well worded, of a depressing nature, focusing not on the beauty of life and love, but on the misery and suffering it can inflict upon some. Take for instance Gwen Harwood's 'Home of Mercy'. It is a thought provoking poem, but its topic is the plight of unmarried mothers forced into a home of mercy where they are make to feel more acutely the social degradation of their situation. And when read from even the slightest of feminine viewpoints its complete absence of menfolk highlights the gender imbalance that we in part are still fighting to this day. Or take John Donne's 'The Apparition', a poem about sexual revenge in the form of syphilis. Even his poems of love fail to rejoice in the beauty of life but instead focus upon the depressing fact of the objection of his lover's father.

In fact, very little of what I studied in English Literature would be deemed as positive reading. The poetry was melancholy and the plays tragic. In three years, the only Shakespeare we studied were three tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth. Shakespeare is renown for the breadth of his plays. He wrote histories and comedies in addition to his tragedies, and yet it is the tragedies alone that we are forced to study on a yearly basis. We are allowed to enjoy the comedy of Juliet's nurse, and the tertiary actors, but only in amongst the greater context of two love lorn teenagers who disregard their parents and take things into their own hands with tragic consequences.

And yet, while we focus upon these stories of murder, deception, youth suicide, injustice... we still wonder why the youth of today are so depressed and so often fail to see the beauty in the world around us.

Is it simply because we've been trained that way? 

Writing Monologues - Analysis

Attending a monthly screen-writing workshop hosted by Stages WA, for the March meeting we've been asked to write a 10 minute monologue that will be read out on the night by one of Perth's actors.
Now while I am a writer, I've never written for screen or stage before, preferring to specialise more in lengthy novels. I write to set a scene and record the interactions that happen therein so that my readers can have as much joy in the lives of my characters as I do. I write to recreate for my readers the scene that plays out in my head as realistically as if I'd overheard that exact conversation between friends. And for this, they need to know the setting and the context in which a conversation might occur. There is no point in confusing the reader before they begin for then they will never understand a scene enough to enjoy it and follow my characters on to the next.

I know a monologue is different, shorter, pithier, but I have no idea of how different or how to write the intended story in an alternative way so that it is a monologue that is both interesting and in the generally  accepted style. Particularly when I have no idea what the acceptable style is. And I wasn't the only one, while the screen-writing group comprised of a few older published screenwriters it also comprised of a bunch of younger writers who were interested to find their feet within the industry and were using this a brainstorming opportunity and the motivation we needed to get some much needed writing done. For this later group, this was our first attempt at writing monologues and so it would have been beneficial to have had a little bit of guidance, a few pointers...Like, how to roughly estimate 10 minutes without recording it time and time again, how to create an interesting enough story so that the monologue doesn't become monotonous, how to draw the audience in...
Unfortunately it was not to be.

Instead, it required a friend with a convenient source of knowledge and industry experience to reveal the tricks of the trade. That you may need to identify the audience as a character within the piece. How to take the audience on a trip by feeding them a snip-it of information and then playing on their assumptions so that when you feed them the next bit of information they're jolted out of the presumed track of the monologue into a different path so that by the end of the performance they are nowhere near where they'd thought they'd end up. And to make it more spectacular, leave the key to the piece to the very end, keeping it as the biggest reveal so that only as the performance finishes are they forced to think back as to how it all fits together. How, to keep the audience's attention, include an action every minute, and introduce an array of characters whom the audience is intrigued to learn more about.

Now, I have my character, my setting, my audience's identity and my secondary characters.
Now to see if I have an interesting monologue!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Review - La Marea

A mild summer's night is probably the best time to make my way into Subiaco to watch the street performance of La Marea, a series of tableaux from Buenos Aires that are staged along a cafe strip in shop front windows and on cafe terraces. Over the course of the two hours, it was delightful to wander between the various scenes enjoying the brief window into the mind of everyday people as they go about their business on a busy shopping strip. Played out, for the most part in silence, the inner most thoughts and mental journeys of the characters are surtitled with each act and it is this which makes for a fascinating commentary on the society around us.

However what intrigued me most was the feedback one of the scenes received from a few of the audience members. Worth noting is that the 10 scenes, played out on repeat over the course of the evening, are not of the most uplifting nature: they are filled with dark and depressing concepts ranging from death and murder to torture, incest and desertion. However the scene most people appear to have issues understanding is that called 'Exercises and Piano'. Are the surtitles his inner thoughts, reality, a form of psychosis...? It is as though they understand every other scene because they empathise with it, they have been there themselves, whereas this one scene is just that little further removed from their experiences to the extent that they do not understand it, they cannot understand it.

Personally, I find this scene far easier to understand because I find it far harder to understand how the majority of the audience can empathise with the other scenes when they contain such negative thoughts and imagery. 'Exercises and Piano' is as strange a mental train of thought to have as that of getting a dog and then killing the dog. In a world where we have to much to revel in, so much to enjoy and so much to be thankful for, it is strange that we still dwell so much on the negatives of life. 

Friday, 15 February 2013

A bitter taste

Two of my great loves in life are history and cooking (more specifically baking), and of late I've taken to combining the two. In part its research for my novel: determine what recipes were standard fare 100 years ago and then see what type of ingredients a back-water little place like Perth would have had access to.

What's also delightful is learning how these delightful dishes were summoned into existence without the aid of electricity or plastic. Without mixmasters, food processors, freezers... Without plastic mixing bowls, plastic spatulas, silicone moulds... Without many of the things we've come to take for granted as necessary implements when cooking. But while the presence of these just increase our ability to produce goods for consumption, there are yet other elements to the recipes which raise a puzzled eyebrow and ask more questions than they answer.

Take for example bitter almonds. Bitter almonds are poisonous. Exceedingly so, for they are choked full of cyanide, one of the most infamous poisons of our time. And yet they appear in Victorian recipes, 4 or 6 bitter almonds accompanying the requisite number of pounds of sweet almonds. In her advice, Mrs Beeton is kind enough to provide a definition of the bitter almond and a warning as to its danger:
'BITTER ALMONDS.—The Bitter Almond is a variety of the common almond, and is injurious to animal life, on account of the great quantity of hydrocyanic acid it contains, and is consequently seldom used in domestic economy, unless it be to give flavour to confectionery; and even then it should be used with great caution. A single drop of the essential oil of bitter almonds is sufficient to destroy a bird, and four drops have caused the death of a middle-sized dog.'
However she doesn't provide an indication of its taste, what it contributed to the dish, and why its use would possibly be encouraged amongst the general population who made up Mrs Beeton's readers.

In subsequent publications I had not seen any reference to the use of bitter almonds. I'd failed to spot them in recent recipes and have never seen them available for purchase, hidden in amongst the sweet almonds, or cordoned off with warning signs around.
That is until Maggie Beer decided she needed to use them in her latest recipes.

And with still no indication of what flavours they bring to the dish, I just don't know why they've re-emerged. 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Mastering Macarons - Attempt Two

I haven't made macarons in years.
I suppose it didn't help that I was living in London for two years where the kitchen was shared and where there were too many other things to see and do to spend an entire day, or weekend, fussing over almond meal and sugar syrups.

So I decided to wait until I got home.

In the interim, Perth decided it had developed a taste and my sister decided she was going to attempt to create these fanciful mouthfuls of flavourful sugar.
By god she succeeded!
Whilst still in London Facebook would tempt me with pictures of her creations as she experimented with decorative ones, and ones with unusual flavours, but each of which bursts in your mouth and makes you eager to try every other colour in the hopes that each flavour is an intriguing and as sensational to the senses.

I was jealous. I only had access to Paul and Laduree, but not the craziness and quirkiness that is my sister and her creations.

So when I finally returned home I was greeted with a garden party, her friends and mine, and  a table covered in a rainbow of macarons all lovingly made by hand while I had unpacked and started the mountains of washing that inevitably needed doing.

These macarons were amazing! Each one was just the right size to delicately stuff into one's mouth so you could fill you hands with another half dozen to carry back to your seat.

There were passionfruit creams,
blueberry and orange cheesecakes,
pistachio ganaches,
raspberry chocolate ganaches and
macha (green tea) ganaches.

Hoping that she would pass on her tricks and techniques before she disappeared off to Germany, we hinted frequently and fervently for a lesson or two so that like her, we could keep the freezer brimming over with such masterpieces.


So, when the macarons had disappeared and my sister had moved to distant lands, I made my own way into the kitchen to attempt again this mystical art. Desirous of perfecting the shell and its requisite foot I avoided the brilliant colours that made my sister's craft so eye-catching and focused on the use of dustings to differentiate between the three fillings I'd decided upon.

Surprisingly, they were fun to make. Time consuming and still incredibly fiddly, but this time I felt less of a need to be a Hindu Goddess. Instead there is the craziness of filling a tea-bomb with pulverised spekulaas to dust a select portion of the shells and testing the heights from which one can drop trays of uncooked meringue before letting them rest and recover for a half hour so they will behave nicely when slid into the hot oven.

And they worked. Against expectation they behaved well, filled beautifully, stored to perfection in the bottom of the freezer and were eaten way too easily and too quickly.

And yet, while they tasted better than many of the commercial ones that can be purchased around Perth, they weren't as amazing as my sister's. So I've decided, I need to improve upon the fillings and branch into mascapones, curds, butter creams and dark chocolates (after all everything goes with dark chocolate) and get back into making creme brulees and creme caramels so I have the spare egg whites necessary to play with.

Next time...

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

What memories are made of (Coffee Granita)

I love a good coffee, but in this weather, a latte, or even an iced coffee is just a little too warm to be truly refreshing. Even an espresso freddo dilutes the longer you leave it to chill, on the rocks. 

Growing up, my Mother says her grandmother always kept a jug of coffee granita in the freezer in summer. Strong, dark coffee with just a little sugar added, it was a perfect refreshing summer treat. 

And so simple. 

Brew about 500ml of strong espresso coffee and while its still hot add 1/2 cup of caster sugar (you may want to add more depending on how sweet you like your coffee). Stir until it's dissolved. Once the coffee has cooled pour it into a shallow baking dish with about a two litre capacity and freeze for about half an hour. 

As ice crystals form around the edge of the dish carefully scrape them back into the centre with a fork before returning the dish to the freezer.
Repeat this process about every half hour until there is no liquid remaining, just a mass of coffee ice crystals. 
Store in the freezer until ready to serve. The coffee crystals may clump together in the freezer, so you may want to get it out about 20 minutes before serving so they loosen up again. 

Serve in an old fashioned champagne glass with whipped cream on top. 

Or if like me you're too impatient, serve in an old-fashioned and enjoy as your morning coffee. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Review - Hello Boys

As a friend once said to me, 'comedy is full of old jokes', but it is this fact that makes the stories in Maddy Bell's Hello Boys so identifiable to audience members both young and old.

Hello Boys follows the plight of four 20-somethings as they navigate through the dangerous world of dating from the clubs to coffee dates, from one night stands to avoiding the embarrassment of introducing the family.  They carry you along on a couple of bad dates and reminisce about some good ones before reaching the conclusion of contemplating the merits of speed dating over hooking up in a club. This is a timely decision supplemented on Thursday and Friday nights with the audience's participation in Mario-Kart Speed Dating. With superb characterisations of a nervous boy (Andy) and girl (Natalie), and sexually confident boy (Kit) and girl (Laura) these stereotypes resonate with the audience who saw enough of themselves in each of the characters to fill the theatre with a continued wave of laughter. To hear the audience groan in recognition or mumble an eponymous 'I've been there...' is what makes it so much more delightful to partake of.

From the title, and an acquaintance with Maddy Bell, my expectations were of a slightly more feminist piece, how women react when the boys are under the spotlight: dating with the lust, innuendo and un-repressed leers coming from the female side of the dance floor. An honest portrayal of what women are really thinking, without the bias of social expectations. However while the blurb hints at a coverage of wider views, Hello Boys follows the safer, straighter path with a well balanced cast where neither gender can be accused of monopolising the limelight and the antics of both are delighted at in turn.

A little raw around the edges with some flimsy connections between the sub plots, it is the first piece from writer Maddy Bell, but if her subsequent pieces create as many laughs and evoke as many memories of our own experiences, they will be well worth the wait.

Monday, 4 February 2013

London Snow

I remember it well: snow does dreadful things to London.
The black ice trekking down the hill towards the train station, the frozen ground that numbs toes clad in office-appropriate shoes, deceptive puddles of slush by the roadside. And that's without even mentioning the effect it has on transport.

It is as though the trains, like the tourists, stop to admire the beauty of the landscape.
Year round.
In summer the tracks heat up too much for the trains to run properly. In London, too hot... you've got to be kidding me. 23°C is NOT too hot.
In Autumn the leaves get on the tracks causing insurmountable dangers.
In Spring the rain gets in the way: slippery tracks. Or something.
But in winter, on the odd day that it snows, well then the public transport surpasses itself. It shuts down completely. But not without staggering the cancellation notifications of each service, leaving a false ray of hope for those of London's inhabitants who have no other way of getting to work. That one train that is fighting its way through the frost to wind its way past you into the city, just in time for work... That one train that suddenly disappears off the schedule when you'd already waited a full half hour for its arrival.

I remember Waitangi Day last year, when a fine dusting of snow allowed me to travel across London at the usual pace and get home to a warm bed without the slightest trouble or delay. 1 hour and another dusting later it took the lovely C more than 3 hours, several transport changes, optimistic waits, lengthy waits and a very queasy stomach to make a journey that should have taken at most a bare 30 minutes to complete.

And yet, I miss it.

I miss the blanket of white that covers the dull depressing grey of London town.

The bare branches of Greenwich Park's trees covered in a delicate frosting and lifting the spirit of the whole neighbourhood.

I miss the childlike spirit that comes out to engage in snowball fights and tobogganing in the park.

The delight of students and teachers alike as school is closed for the day.
The happiness of the childrens' bright snowsuits as they contrast with the winter terrain.

Snowmen also showing the signs of last night's celebrations and this morning's hangover.

Real Christmas trees frosted with real snow.

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