I think that last week, one of those impish spirits that rule the universe must have stubbed a toe, mid-flight, on the Cumbrian mountains, sending ripples down through the earth’s crust that finally shuddered to the surface in the village pond opposite my windows. Because for some reason last week, everything was slightly off kilter. Not in a disastrous or alarming way, by any means, but just as if events were struggling to catch up with the meaning they usually embody, like a picture that’s out of register.
The whole working week was a bit of a struggle, not least because my son was poorly with a nasty cold and so stayed home. Not that he was the least bit of trouble, but because he was unwell I kept him company during the day, and working to a background accompaniment of World of Warcraft mixed with whatever is on the television tends to scramble my brainwaves. But it wasn’t just that. I was trying to put together yet another version of the motherhood proposal and the stuffing has gone out of the project for me at the moment. Most sensible advice to aspiring writers suggests you go where the energy is, which is fine until you reach the fourth or fifth rewrite and are heartily sick to death of what you absolutely must do. Writing guides tend to fall silent at that point. Still, by Friday I had cobbled something together and now I’ll let it sit for a while and stew before returning to it in a week or so. It may not be the fault of the project, of course. I don’t feel that my writing is working particularly well at the moment, which happens from time to time as the year waxes and wanes. I’m going to research magic realism for a while now, and I hope that it will perk my imagination up. I have some utterly gorgeous French novels to read that cannot fail to inspire.
And then midweek the UK was gripped by hysteria because a portly 64-year-old ex-political commentator resigned from a television dancing competition. You’ll probably have heard about this, yes, even you at the back in Uruguay. I don’t know if this is a cultural feature in other countries, but we have a system here for derailing a straight fight, which is called the public phone vote. I’ve watched Strictly Come Dancing for about five series now and every time there is some unfortunate soul who lasts far, far longer in the competition than is truly wise because the chance for the average viewer to both witness humiliation and effect rescue is too good to pass up. It’s all the fun of watching your favourite Christian in the amphitheatre, knowing that with a press of a button you can send the lion down the trapdoor, if need be.
This year the ‘worst’ competitor was a man called John Sergeant, whose incompetence was mitigated by a kind of Winnie the Pooh cuteness. The judges were rude as they always are, the public voted for him in droves and then the pack split: half considered him to be a delightful tool for undermining the judges, the other half considered the joke was flat and that he was spoiling the chances of other, talented competitors. The battle lines were drawn up on the message boards of the internet and then spread into other sectors of the media, where vitriol and flaming reached such a fever pitch that John Sergeant, wily ex-political commentator that he is, staged a tactical withdrawal. Well, quite. The public was perfectly willing to kill him off when the competition reached the stage of demanding two dances a week from each contestant, and the prospect of having to undergo three or four in the final must have been daunting. I hear he is heading off to give a series of lectures on a cruise ship next week, which must seem a better prospect.
The rights and wrongs of this situation are beyond me, but I do know it all boils down to what you consider the spirit of ‘entertainment’ to be. I know that I am tediously aligned with the law, and for relaxation I still like to be presented with a view of an orderly world. I watch Strictly Come Dancing for the same reason that I love to shop in John Lewis – on the grounds that it’s impossible to imagine anything truly unpleasant happening there. Seeing the tempers mount on the message boards has been a disconcerting experience for me, revealing the war-mongering heart of folk who were supposedly enjoying a gentle, old-fashioned Saturday teatime programme. I know some people find a big old row thrilling spectator sport, but I hate the conflict and the excess. All those folk on the message boards screaming in capital letters ‘It is all supposed to be a bit of harmless fun!’ are clearly, to my mind, somewhat lacking in irony. But actually I think it’s emotional displacement from worrying about the credit crunch and the state of the mortgage and not having put by a little nest egg for a rainy day, etc. There’s a certain frenzy to this conflict that seems completely over the top.
Anyhow. Not to worry, I thought yesterday. I had voted to participate in Cam’s virtual Thanksgivings celebrations and decided to take the opportunity of a friend’s visit to hold an English version of the dinner. I proceeded to spend an age studying recipes on the internet for something I could recreate with UK ingredients. Not as easy as you might think, when whole turkeys are only readily available at Christmas and then they come in industrial sizes only. Unwilling to leave my poorly son home alone, I gave up an unequal fight and decided to get a chicken from the supermarket a few doors down the road. As luck would have it I had a bag of sweet potatoes, but there was no point even looking for a pumpkin. The recipes were all such a strange mix of sweet and savoury that I ended up making my own version. There was only one person I knew who would consider eating a combination of sweet potatoes, a bag of brown sugar and a vat of marshmallow. ‘Yum,’ said my son. ‘Now that’s a vegetable dish I could get behind.’ Telling you what I made instead will have to be a description rather than a recipe, as well, I’m afraid. But in the end I pot-roasted a chicken, which I prepared by wrapping bacon rashers over its carcass with sprigs of fresh thyme. Surrounding the chicken in the dish I placed three-quarters of a butternut squash and a bigish sweet potato, cubed, along with some chilli, a few whole cloves of garlic and some chopped fresh sage. I poured a little hot chicken stock over the vegetables and then slow cooked it in the oven for a couple of hours, taking the lid off for the last twenty minutes or so to crisp up the bacon. When I came to serve it, I mashed the vegetables together along with one of the roasted garlic cloves (you could add as many or as few as you wished). It was a very simple version, but it tasted delicious.
So I had my meal, but what about the thanksgiving? It was not as easy as I’d hoped to find the emotional ingredients for a celebration meal, either. I had told my husband we’d be having a Thanksgiving dinner ‘Oh? Great,’ he said, sifting through the day’s mail. I might as well have told the pot plants. ‘I’m going to cook a Thanksgiving dinner, like they have in America,’ I told my son. ‘Uh-huh,’ he replied, managing the almost implausible feat of paying less attention to me than my husband. When my friend arrived, she was brimming over with excitement about a possible new relationship. It’s fair enough to say that her mind was not exactly on the meal. Of course, it’s not just that I’m a hopelessly un-forceful hostess (although I am that), I’m also a disorganized one. I hadn’t been able to get candles or crackers, as I’d hoped, to dress the table and make it look pretty, and people need a few tangible markers to indicate a celebration. Even more problematic, we don’t do Thanksgiving over here in the first place and so have no clear concept of what it means. I had thought I might ask everyone to name something they were grateful for this year, but as the others got stuck into my son’s maths homework, discussing why five to the three over eight to the minus three didn’t result in two to the one (or something), I realized this was just not the social moment to do so. My family and friend were happy, and had enjoyed the meal, and if the spirit of thanksgiving didn’t exactly put in an appearance, well, perhaps the ripples emanating from the boot of that other clumsy spirit sent it off course a bit and it landed, unexpectedly, on the dinner table of a family in Hemel Hempstead. I hope they all had a nice time.