Monthly Archives: May 2015

Cookies And Dreams

  

Last night, I dreamt that I was in New York standing outside the vegan equivalent of a ‘Millie’s Cookies’ store. It was baking hot, and I was second from the front in a mile long queue looking up at an array of neon lights advertising things like ‘dark and chunky double choc’ and ‘dairy-free ice-cream dream’; and I was so excited by the prospect of claiming my chewy, soft-baked treat, that when I got to the kiosk my mind went blank and I couldn’t think what to order.

 This, of course, is exactly the sort of thing that would happen to me in real life. If Antonia was with me, we’d go to Caffe Nero beforehand and spend an hour enthusiastically writing a list of our top favourite cookie flavours – and then we’d write a reserve list just in case they ran out of our first choices; and then we’d get to the front of the queue and end up spending an absolute fortune by buying one of everything, and probably make ourselves sick.

 I got my dream cookie in the end – a double chilli chocolate one with pieces of sour cherries and brazil nuts, and its circumference matched my handspan – and as I walked along in the sunshine I bit into it… and Antonia nudged me awake.

 After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about cookies and ice-cream all morning. And two hours later, I found this recipe: [cookieshttp://www.veganbaking.net/recipes/cookies/chocolate-chip-cookies] And, despite my previous multiple kitchen disasters, I was inspired to give biscuit-making another chance. Because, with the exception of the three egg-free cookies I bought in Edinburgh’s ‘Forest Café’ back in 2005, I have personally never managed to find a shop-bought vegan cookie that has lived up to my expectations in terms of chewiness.

That’s not to say that I think other commercially-made cookies are rubbish – I don’t – although the one I bought in the American Sweet shop in Glasgow a couple of years ago tasted like I was eating sawdust out of an armpit. I love the ‘Lazy Days’ shortbread rounds (which of course aren’t meant to be chewy) and I think it’s a amazing that a tiny wee company from a little-known Scottish village has earned shelf-space in mainstream supermarkets with a product that has been aimed at a minority palate. My gripes with other vegan cookie brands are that their products are far too sweet or too crumbly – and that’s entirely down to personal preference; when Antonia and I discovered ‘Going Against The Grain’ (another dairy-free, egg-free and gluten-free company), she mowed through her fun-size sachet and saved my uneaten ones for later.

 I followed my recipe to the letter. And blamed the oven when after fifteen minutes my cookies remained squishy. After twenty-five minutes, I gave up trying to get them to ‘cook’. I later realised they’d come out exactly as they were supposed to; just like they did all those other times when I chucked my soggy hot-mess ‘failures’ in the bin. I didn’t know, and the recipe didn’t say, that you are supposed to leave them for half an hour to set.

 Antonia loved my chewy chocolate chip cookies. And so did her gran. And so did I.

 I think I’ll make chilli-chocolate ones next…

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Kissing Games For Girls (A Companion Piece To ‘Good Kisser’)

Yesterday, in the deepest, darkest recesses of my word-processor, I excavated an unpublished article that I composed more than a decade ago.

‘Good Kisser’ (https://beanloveblog.wordpress.com/good-kisser-written-in-springsummer-2004/), a personal account which explores the discomfort I often experienced with regards to sexuality during my teens and early-to-mid-twenties, was not only a testament to how much my writing has improved over the years, but also a window into the ways that it has lost some of its boldness. Because despite the clanging cliches and baggy sentences, and the initial mortification I felt when I reread my proclamation to the world about how I was a ‘bad lesbian’, who often snogged men in straight bars out of boredom, I was secretly pleased with its unyielding honesty – and truth be told – a wee bit jealous of the devil-may-care attitude brandished by my twenty-five-year-old self.

At the time I wrote the piece, I had been single for about half a year, following a final dramatic break-up with my first serious girlfriend; I’d also recently thrown myself head-first into the lesbian dating pool once again and was revelling in the attention. Now, I won’t bore anyone with the specifics of my love life except to say that there were a lot of dates with a lot of different girls; there were also a helluva lot more knock-backs, but that did not dissuade me from putting myself out there time and time again. Back then, I was high on optimism, and it also helped that I was not too bad looking.

These days, I can’t imagine myself seeking romance in a gay bar. I can’t imagine walking up to a strange woman and asking for her phone number or offering to buy her a drink. But I did those things frequently, and without hesitation. My friend, Tracy, who often played the part of wingman, was thoroughly amused at the way I used to ‘work’ the room: staking out the attractive single ladies and then insinuating myself into their conversations, and often their affections; although she admitted to me later that the novelty very quickly wore off as, more often than not, the girls who were most interested in me turned out to be the ones we needed to steer well clear of.

A lot of the scenarios which occurred during that period were later embellished upon as I poured them into my fiction: I wrote mostly about bar-culture and queer-culture at this time; and my butch narrator, Vicky Romeo, gained a greater sense of humility as one by one her previous conquests came back to haunt her during one of the many rewrites of my novel, ‘Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz’ (https://beanloveblog.wordpress.com/an-extract-from-my-novel-vicky-romeo-plus-joolz/), as well as a back story where she endured a lonely adolescence as the girl who had never been kissed.

Nothing was wasted. Nothing is ever wasted. Those hours I spent wining and dining Ms Wrong were valuable experiences, as were the lonely teenage years I whittled away by trying to make myself appear attractive to boys I didn’t really have the heart for.

Writing For Well-Being – Freedom From An Emotional Prison

  
It’s been almost a year since I left my post as writer-in-residence at Polmont Young Offender’s Institution, but recently I keep thinking about prisons and similar places where people are isolated from society and the arts, and this leads me to wonder how my ex-students are getting on.  Most of the young men I worked with, during my two year stint, are in their early twenties now, and will either have received parole or moved on to complete their sentences inside adult correctional facilities; and with any luck they’re all behaving themselves.

Also, now that I’ve completed my diploma in Crime Fiction, I find myself asking ‘What’s next?’: it’s in my nature to constantly be on the look out for new challenges and learning opportunities, and once again I’m contemplating when, where and whether I should make my return as a practitioner of writing for wellbeing.  

My first foray into the facilitating of therapeutic writing workshops was in November 2004: it was the same year that I published my autobiography (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cracked-Recovering-After-Traumatic-Injury/dp/1843100657) and began studying a creative writing masters degree at Glasgow University; and despite having no previous experience in counselling  or teacher training, my old college lecturer, Dave Manderson, asked if I’d be interested in running a class aimed specifically at adults with mental health problems. I also had no idea how to go about structuring or running a workshop back then, but I knew I wanted to help – not least of all because Dave had helped set me on the path to becoming the writer I am today.  (Back in 1993, when I was in a fifteen-year-old inmate in an adolescent psychiatry unit, no-one once  suggested I might try writing about my problems or the traumas that I’d suffered – it was Dave, whose creative writing class I went to five years later, who insisted that I tell my story.)  And I believed the very least I could do was help him to help others find an outlet for their psychological pain.

The therapeutic writing course was a pilot venture arranged between Reid Kerr College in Paisley and the town’s Charleston Centre, and it was scheduled to last six weeks; but on the last day as I was leaving, one of the students piped up: ‘When do we start back after christmas?’  In the end, it ran for more than three years, and I’m positive I learnt just as much from my students as they did from me. 

Since then, I have always felt that part of my vocation was to help others – primarily underdogs and people who are in some way socially excluded – to find their own voice on the page; and over the last twelve and a half years, I’ve facilitated writing workshops with an array of culturally diverse groups including LGBT Youth, the Renfrewshire Brain Injury Project and Paisley’s Disability Resource Centre.  My emphasis when working with these vulnerable groups has always been on using the written word as a tool for healing – I frequently use humour to do this – and I can only hope that most of my students have benefited in some way from the exercises I’ve set them.

I feel very strongly that the arts should be accessible to everyone, no matter what their background or ability is.  And it is my personal opinion that writing for cathartic reasons not only helps assuage negative emotions such as anger, jealousy and depression.  Ultimately, this helps reduce crime too, which is why I’m now looking into the possibility of becoming a mentor for talented ex-prisoners who have expressed a serious interest in pursuing a writing career.  

 

Recipe For Disaster

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Today I tried to make strawberry rocky road bars. ‘Tried’ being the operative word. Because I am rather well-known for my culinary catastrophes: brick-like biscuits, disintegrating scones and short bread fingers that’ve emerged from the oven as dough balls; not forgetting the rice milk I once spent six hours preparing as a romantic gesture for Antonia, which she later told me tasted like sewage. Despite this, and that fact that I prefer savoury foods to sweet ones, I would much rather spend the afternoon stirring cake mixture than watching lentils browning  in a pan.

The rocky road bar recipe which appeared in the May issue of ‘Vegan Life’ magazine (http://veganlifemag.co.uk/) should have been easy enough: there were eight ingredients (plain chocolate, golden syrup, margarine, strawberries, an apple, almonds, dried cherries and icing sugar to sprinkle on the top) and four simple instructions none of which involved timing or an oven; and I imagine most people (vegans and non-vegans alike) would have managed to go to their nearest supermarket, collect the aforementioned ingredients, and then gone on home to complete the task within … oh, half an hour.

Not me though.

To be fair, the rocky roads were not the first thing to catch my eye in the magazine. I’ d originally fancied making the double chocolate pie on the opposite page (59) – and that would probably have been a better bet seeing as I have an uncanny knack for making anything and everything that contains pastry turn out pretty much perfect – however,

despite the thrill of a pie crust made of Oreos which contained a rather yummy sounding strawberry filling, I was put off by the fact that the recipe was a tad more complicated,  and more importantly, involved a food processor; and aside from the fact that I’m slightly scared of food processors (I like all of my fingers attached to my hands), it had been so long since I used mine that I couldn’t  remember how all the parts fitted together.

However, having decided that I was definitely going to bake something today, I spent another full  hour deliberating over all the different dessert recipes I could try out, before narrowing my options down to blue-berry choux pastry or rocky road.  (I had been threatening to make choux pastry for months,  ever since my friend, Sophie, gifted me the Welsh vegan cook book ‘The Voluptuous Vole’).  And in the end, I decided that I’d go to the shops and make the choice whilst I was there, depending on whatever ingredients I saw first.

Stupid plan.

Stupid, stupid plan.

I understand that sometimes it is difficult to get a hold of certain vegan ingredients – things like silken tofu and egg replacing powder aren’t exactly thick on the ground.  But chocolate?  Blueberries, for god’s sake!?

I was lucky to get the last two punnets of strawberries in the second supermarket I went to (that was after the detour to two health food shops).  And by the time I returned home, another two hours had past. I didn’t manage to get the dried cherries so I decided to add some kirsch instead (I had a quarter of a bottle left over from the black forest gateaux I made last xmas).  And I didn’t see the harm in melting together the various different dairy-free chocolate bars I had at home (they were all dark chocolate even if one was espresso-flavoured  and another had orange and geranium through it).  I added some freeze dried raspberry pieces and cranberries too just for the hell of it, and when I licked the spoon I thought the melty chocolate mixture tasted damn good.

In all honesty, I don’t know what want wrong.  I had a little trouble chopping the almonds and when I finally added them to the mixture the chocolate had gone a bit clumpy.   When Antonia saw my creation the first thing she said was: ‘Oh dear, hen, it doesn’t really look like the picture in the magazine, does it?’

I harrumphed.

Earlier, I ‘d given my friend, Fiona, a running commentary on my shopping and baking experience; and I did say the rocky road bars were ‘either going to be marvellous or dreadful’.

I can confirm, they were anything but marvellous.  In fact, in my opinion, my rocky road bars more closely resembled a muddy road, and they tasted like one too.  Antonia, on sampling them, very kindly said they were ‘not that bad’, but added that the biggest mistake I made was baking enough for about sixty people when there are just two of us.

Antonia takes a bite
Antonia takes a bite

Loyalty

When Antonia first suggested ‘loyalty’ as the theme for this week’s blog, my mind turned immediately to thoughts of longstanding friendships, and to partnerships and marriages and family ties, before pendulum-ing in the direction of disloyalty, misplaced loyalty, infidelity and betrayal.  Next, I thought of patriotism, of leaving Scotland, and of nationalism and the thinly-veiled anti-Scottish statements I’ve heard since arriving in Sudbury; and from there my ideas spiralled till they covered everything from naziism and neo-naziism to  secondary virtues such as duty, benevolence, sacrifice and servitude.  Finally, I considered my own loyalty, not specifically to my country or even towards other people, but to the extended beliefs and principles and humanitarian causes that have mattered to me over the years, as well as the commitments I’ve made towards maintaining my personal fitness and crafting out a career as a writer.

I have been vegan for nearly half my life now, and I’ve regarded myself a writer for an even longer period: I decided when I was seventeen that I would write a book about myself, my experiences and my views on the world, and I did (although at the time, there were many skeptics); and two years later, I pledged to follow a plant-based diet and to avoid wearing and using the by-products of animals, and I have stuck to that resolve despite the harsh criticisms from others. 

There have been other instances in my life, however, where I have not been quite so purposeful: I’ve started many short pieces of prose that have languished uncompleted in notebooks that are now gathering dust, and I once abandoned an arts council funded novel eight chapters in because on completion of my research (which involved travelling round several Scottish islands and trying to embrace their customs) I became disheartened with the subject matter; in January 2014, I made two New Year’s resolutions a) I would include more raw food in my diet in a bid to be healthier, and b) I would beat an old sports record of mine by running five kilometres in under twenty-five minutes.  I ate a lot of ‘Nakd’ bars that year, and possibly bought kale twice; I also grew bored of sprinting and took up both swimming and long distance running (which I always favoured over short distances) once again.   

 It used to be that when I set a challenge for myself, I’d be hell-bent on following it through to the finish, no matter how ill or unhappy it made me, or what the consequences were; and this was doubly to my detriment as I included kamikaze relationships and friendships into this equation, and the result was often a negative one albeit a frequent learning curve. I used to think that calling time on a goal or a friendship that was making me miserable was equivalent to throwing in the towel, to having no staying power, to being a failure; and during those times, I often found it hard to stay true to my own core values. 

Over time, it has become easier to align my beliefs and my interpersonal connections with others: I have made friends with other people who are vegan (or who want to be), and being in a relationship with someone who is as dedicated to her artwork as I am to my writing helps me to feel grounded; I also consider myself very lucky to have a partner who cares as much about ecology and ethical veganism as I do.