Friday, 30 October 2015

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. [And a love letter to local adventures.]

Imagine parking your car in a town centre car park at night, climbing out, closing the door behind you and, filling the air all around you, are the voices of small children, who you can't see, but who you can talking about what scares them ... in the dark.

Unnerving, no?
Well that's how we were greeted as we arrived at the Don't Be Afraid of the Dark event hosted in Middlesbrough's Centre Square - by creepy talk through a CCTV tannoy system which is usually reserved for telling people to pick up their litter or stop fighting.

And, as you weren't there, [unless you were lurking in the dark and  I just didn't spot you] I wanted to share photos and thoughts on the event for a few reasons:
  1. It's the kind of thing / the kind of event / photos I'd like to flick through if I spotted it on someone else's blog. 
  2. It's a little bit Halloweeny ... [in the same way that hiding upstairs and pretending you're not home when Trick or Treaters come is Halloweeny. Not just me?]
  3. And ... it continues the conversation we began the other week when I asked you about what you thought your town needed. Because not only did I take the photos from that post during this event, I believe the event itself was the kind of thing our town needs. 
And, from many of the comments you left I know many of you feel the same ...

  • That your town may not be the biggest or brightest. 
  • And it feels a little left behind in the creative stakes. 
  • And if only someone would shake things up a bit and give us something worth going out of our way to see we'd go out of our way to see it. 
  • That, alongside a nearby medical centre or school, our towns need a little bit of magic from time to time too.

So how about I share my photos from the Don't Be Afraid of the Dark event with you and, while I'm at it, I'll squeeze in a few things I found to love about the occasion?

And then, in turn, maybe you'll feel like seeking out something to love in your town ...

I loved that ... they must have been expecting me:
Too right there will!

I loved that ... these strange, ethereal objects had a practical use: 
The 'Litre of Light' installation was created to [pun intended] shed light on the method of using water bottles to illuminate homes in the poorest parts of the world.  The water sort of catches and refracts the light which is needed when people are living in the kind of basic, windowless, huts that can quickly and easily be built following disasters etc.

I loved that ... we got to experience the art gallery at night ...
Remember when your school held a concert or a presentation - on an evening? Remember how, even though you'd witnessed those corridors and rooms hundreds of times previously, seeing them at night, outside of school hours, seemed to cast those spaces in an exotic light? 

A little bit like you shouldn't be there ... or else ... like you lived there? That it somehow felt more 'yours' because you were experiencing it at a time of day when you would usually be sitting in front of your own TV? 

Well, that's what this felt like:
During the event the mima gallery stayed open until late so people could browse the exhibitions, try out some shadowy fun [more below], enjoy a cocktail and lots more.

It was wonderful. It was busy, bustling with life. It was festive and welcoming and made me glad I'd made the effort to wrap up on a dark October evening and leave the house when I'd normally be settling down in my pyjamas! 

I loved that ... shadowy fun with paper-crafting took centre stage in the gallery's dimly lit atrium:
People could join in with cutting and arranging figures in back lit frames to create atmospheric scenes. Here's one from the front:
And behind:
It was great to see people having fun playing with paper. 

And ... dare I say it ... it was good that it was something adults could play along with. So many 'hands-on' activities in public spaces are intended solely for kids ... and if you don't have any, and you're no longer one yourself ... you can get the idea that people think it's only children who like to be creative. 

I liked feeling free to take in the magic of the scenes without worrying that I was meant to be accompanied by a 5 year old!
For the record: I also loved ... how well my camera [Fuji XM1] handled photographing everything in low light without back-lighting the whole area and ruining the dark/light contrast. [You know I like to take every opportunity I can to feel relieved at making a good choice! Go me!]

I loved that ... they allowed people to float their light in the fountain:
You could make an origami boat, complete with LED light, and then float it in the fountain [which was turned off for the night ... otherwise it would have been a rather less serene sight!].

I'm sure, that for many of the children who were crouching to set free their glowing trinkets it was a lovely memory in the making. One which they might just recall whenever passing by in the more mundane light of day.

I loved that ...this artist used her child's handwriting to depict 11th Century proverbs in neon!
They were part of an outdoor installation by Beth J.Ross called 'I Haven't changed my Mind in a Thousand Years'. Each line, taken from the manuscripts has been turned into a neon art strip using the handwriting of the artist's little boy. 

I loved that ... we got to see behind-the-scenes. 
James and I took the twilight tour of a local nightclub that began life as a music hall in 1899

It was interesting to see the wide-variety of people who attended the tour: young women taking selfies, older people who remembered the venue as a theatre when they were young ...
... and several women, like me, who were taking photos of everything as well as trying to remember to pay attention to the guide!

This is my favourite photo of the tour [again, when I wasn't paying attention to the guide] ... it's maybe even one of my favourite of the two of us ever:
And, seeing as I've already mentioned him ...

I loved that ... I had someone to share it all with:
Not only did he sort out practical things like booking the tickets for the guided tour and driving us there, he excelled at the other stuff too. He didn't question why I wanted to spend an October night outside in the dark, he was open to whatever on earth the evening was going to offer, and he didn't hesitate to play with the shadowy paper-cuts just so I could take photos ...
When you know you've got someone who will take whatever happens in his stride, you can really breathe out and enjoy being there ...
Which brings me to my final love note to my local adventure, which you might relate to. Let me just set the scene ...

I'd been following this event on Facebook, and telling family members they should come along [which they did]and it all sounded so interesting and festive and worth a visit that I just assumed the place would be thronging. That the word would have spread .That the whole city would be there.  I even doubted we'd get parked easily. And yet ... 

... when we got there there was just a handful of people wandering around between just a few focal installations and, as enthusiastic as I was, I couldn't create a festival atmosphere on my own! 

There'll be all kids of explanations I'm sure. Arriving at 8pm we'd probably missed the majority of families who'd brought children after school; it wasn't exactly a summer's evening and, on another occasion I too might not have bothered to get my coat and hat on and make the effort. And there was just one food stall, and not a lot - other than the events in the gallery - to draw people into staying on a little longer after whizzing round to see the features. 

Fortunately I had my photography to keep me occupied ... which is what helped me to pause and focus on what was there ... rather than what wasn't ... and so ...

I loved that ... this half rainbow made the perfect metaphor for what our local events need:
'Over' [a work by Stuart Langley and  Andrew Middleton] needs one thing to make it complete ... you.

From a  distance it's just half a rainbow but, step inside ... 
... and through the mirror you'll see it's complete! 

So yes ... it would have been great if the Don't Be Afraid of the Dark event had been as busy and atmospheric as I'd imagined it might be. And it would have been amazing if it could have tapped into something like Durham's Lumiere extravaganza. 

And yet ... things like this have to start somewhere and we have to do our part in making sure the powers that be can't say "Well, not enough people came to the last one, so we can't fund another.". 
We need to remember that our small local events are just like that half a rainbow: sometimes, to turn them into what they're meant to be, we need to meet them halfway. 

We need to do our bit and turn up on autumnal nights and be prepared to help make the magic for ourselves.


For more details on the event and the installations you can view the programme here.

Do chip in your thoughts on this ...

  • maybe you run local events and have first hand experience.
  • maybe, like me, you really like staying in on a night and have to really prod yourself to make the effort to attend things like this! 
  • maybe you've started going to more events, experiences, tours, exhibitions etc recently and would like to share what you've gained from it [I definitely have over the last few years ... and I've gained plenty of stories, photos and blog posts from it!] 
Whatever you'd like to chat bout ... let's get started ... 


Sunday, 25 October 2015

How my 300 in 30 days blog-commenting challenge measured up.

I finished my 300 in 30 days blog commenting challenge last weekend; you might have heard the sigh of relief from wherever you are.

If you don't know why I would attempt to do such a thing then my initial post will explain more; plus, it's better than me trying to tell you about it now, as that earlier post was written while the idea was still fresh, while I was still hopeful for what it could achieve, and before all that typing aggravated my old war wound [well, my dodgy elbow/tendon from the time I fell off my bike and met a pavement rather suddenly back in 2008.]

Like I say, my 30 days ended last Saturday, but I'm only just writing about it now as I've been ill ever since. Whether those two things are connected ... who knows?! It could be a nasty case of blog-commenting-itis.

So if you're joining in with the challenge yourself ... just watch out ... if you wake up one morning and your partner says "Your voice has gone down an octave overnight" ... you might want to think about taking the next week off work and finding a way to sleep upright.

You might also want to squeeze in some sexy voiceover work before you get better.

But ... back to the commenting challenge:

It started with a noble intention: 30 days of aiming to maintain and broaden my blogging network. But the reality was more taxing, more time-consuming and yet ultimately more enlightening than I ever imagined it would be.

Another time I'll share some of that enlightenment, some of the broader lessons I learned during my 30 days ... if nothing else, it might save you some time and effort if you plan to do something similar. But until then ....

Here are some of the statistics I clocked up during my challenge: 
[BTW: if you're a fan of tracking things with statistics then you might like to join in with My Month in Numbers one time - everyone's welcome.]

First things first ... no, I didn't reach the 300 I set out to:
  • Instead I made it to 270 comments, which felt like a huge achievement considering how far behind I fell at one point. 
  • 300 in 30 days may well sound feasible when you think of it as an average of 10 per day yet ... that doesn't take into account the fact I had to FIND 10 posts per day that I felt I could genuinely comment on. 
  • On most days this just did not happen and on the days it did that still meant READING 10  posts first. Again ... not as easy as it first sounded!
Another reason it took me so long [and one which you can easily bypass!] is that I kept detailed records of the challenge!

I kept a record of where I'd left each of my 270 comments on a colour-coordinated spreadsheet:

This allowed me to analyse what I was doing as it showed that those 270 comments were shared out between:
  • 137 individual blogs.
  • 26 of which were familiar to me prior to the challenge and were places where I regularly left comments already.
  • Then there were 11 places which I had visited before ... but mainly as a reader/lurker, so I corrected this by leaving comments this time round.
  • While the bulk of the challenge saw me leaving a comment for 100 new-to-me bloggers. [Yes, I did work hard at the end to make that a nice round number!]
I saved each of the 137 blogs I commented on [plus a few extras ] to my 300 in 30 Days Pinterest board:
If you're looking for some new-to-you content ... visiting the board and clicking a few of the likely candidates will cut out a lot of browsing time for you. [You can thank me and my aching elbow later.]
Pinterest board of bloggers

And, in case you don't use / can't view Pinterest I also added each of the 137 blogs to a Google doc [just click the image to visit and save the full list.]
Of those 100 new-to-me blogs [up to now] I've added approximately 12 of them to my regular blog-reader. 

While I feel I've made a genuine friendly, reciprocal, connection with maybe 5 or 6, a handful, at most. 
And while that's quite some attrition rate ... I'm not despondent; there's a lesson in quality over quantity in there somewhere; which I'll no doubt explore further in my 'Lessons I learned while leaving 300 blog comments in 30 days' post soon. 


So ... what could you take from these stats [apart form the obvious stuff like I've clearly got too much spare time and am a little obsessed with giving myself 'projects' to play with.]

Well ...
  • you could visit some of the 137 blogs on the list and maybe find new places to visit, new bloggers who you'd be happy to hear more from in the future.
  • you could dip your toe into just seeing what else is out there, beyond your usual blog visits, by visiting just one new blog.
  • you could think about how and where you're connecting with people these days. You could blog about it. You could send me a link and I'll come and visit. 
  • you could send me recommendations of blogs you think I'll like ... I'm still open to finding new connections.
  • you could share my challenge with someone you think would be brave/eager/experimental/misguided enough to try it out!
  • you could come and massage my overstretched elbow*. [*You couldn't. That would be freaky. I'm going to leave that to the nice lady who does my deep-tissue massage. She's a professional.]
Right ... my virus-riddled-after-leaving-270-comments voice is on its last legs [last chords?] so I'm going to go and drink something useful. 

I'm still deciding between whether that will be 5ml of 'Catarrh Relief Formula' or a glass of Sauvignon Blanc ...

Catch you soon. 


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

How to tell you're on a university campus in the *first month* of term

Hi you.

Did you recently pack-off an 18 year old to a university campus that you've only ever seen once on an open day then again when you were decanting duvets and instant noodles from the back of your car before hugging them goodbye?

Or are you planning to head off to university in 12 months' time, and you’d like a little heads-up on the sights and sounds you can expect to find?

Or maybe you're just curious to immerse yourself in the 'exotic' vista of a campus at this peak time of the year?

Between my own experience as an undergraduate, and my current role, as an assistant to students with disabilities, I’ve witnessed 13 fresh, shiny and new, October terms.

So let me offer you a sense of the bustle and hubbub of campus life at this time of year, a sense that you won't find in the prospectus ...

Sign No.1: There are people there. 

Lots of them. They're everywhere. An ocean. 

A swell of them in the foyers gets funneled frothily down and along into corridors. They build, break, and flow outside, along the pavements, between buildings. They get swept across public spaces, and arrive lapping at the door of another building.

And the queue for refreshments? It makes the herds of buffalo or zebra flocking to a watering hole in the African grasslands look like a poorly attended leaving party.

These crowds are most likely made up of the First Years; those who, like those zebras, are clinging strongest to the idea of safety in numbers.

Yet the mass of the crowd is punctuated by two particular breeds of Lone Wanderer:
  1. the Staff, Second Years, Third Years - old hands - forging ahead alone. 
  2. And the Brand-New-and-Lost ... lagging behind.
Sounds obvious doesn't it? That there'd be people there. But it's notable because ... it won't last.
  • As I tweeted in October 2010 "That noise in the background is the sound of hundreds of eager students on the 1st week of term. You won't hear it again after next week."
And it's true. Come November the crashing tide will have receded.
This is, naturally, down to the signing-up for things en-mass being completed; the queuing to sort out teething problems abates; and life picks up its own structured, less frenetic, less herd-like, rhythm.

Well, that ... and the fact that the new experience gets old pretty quickly ...
  • Overheard on campus October 2012: "I just can't be arsed coming in all the time." 
And that was on day two of term.

And of course, wherever there are lots of people, there are lots of cars, which are also effected by the inevitable quietening down of the campus come winter ...
  • Overheard on campus October 2011: “I like it when they all drop-out after Christmas; it leaves more space in the car parks”.

Sign No.2: All those people are looking anywhere but at you. 
That sea of people are focusing on just one thing: getting somewhere. They're missiles of nervous energy seeking out their next destination, working out the layout of the campus, deciphering the room number codes which will reveal to them where they need to be next.

If you're walking anywhere near them you'll need to have your wits about you as any moment now they'll be stopping randomly

without warning

stock still in front of you.

They'll become their own monument, a statue, a street performer.

You may be tempted to throw money. Don't do this if you don't mean it. Remember that these are students, and therefore they’ll gladly take it.

Some will look up scouring their eye-line for clues; others will look down to consult a map or an app.

They'll roll the name of their desired destination around their mouths, like an incantation, in the hope of being divinely pulled in the right direction.

Come unto me the lost and baffled and I will give you directions.

And then … aha! A moment of clarity, a Damascene conversion, a comfortingly familiar building name or room number is located on a sign

You have reached your destination.

Sign No.3: There'll be queues outside lecture theatres.
All this conscientious map-reading, the dedication [born from terror] of being at the right place, at the right time, leads to them arriving in good time for lectures/seminars.

They’re there early. Gathered. Eager. The space has to adapt and expand to stow them all together:  new alcoves, doorways, crevices.  Their hula-hoops of personal space get bent out of shape.

And then ... the dam breaks, the door opens and the previous lecturer releases their hold on the room and the great displacement of bodies can begin again. One module's worth of bodies being exchanged for another. The seats still warm.

This will tail off.

Not the unnerving sensation of pre-warmed seats. That's an evergreen treat. No, the eagerness. The early arrivals. The promptness.

They won't always be as anxious to please their tutor: 
  • Overheard on campus February 2009: Lecturer: "Well maybe if you took your headphones out you’d have known what I said". Student: "Oh, I can hear. I just wasn’t paying any attention". 
And then, far from being early, some will begin rolling in at the last second like Indiana Jones through a fake stone doorway. While others will saunter in when the lecture is over half way through setting off a chain of ‘Why would you bother?’ looks across the lecture hall between those who’ve been there for the duration.

And some will find themselves having to leave early ... but not always managing to ..
  • Tweeted from campus October 2009: "A student tried to inconspicuously leave a lecture early tonight except ... she went into a cupboard instead of through the door."

Sign No.4: They'll be carrying bags. 
Their bags won't always have such a smiley face as my own work bag does. 
Of course there'll be those, like me, who will always carry a bag around campus; well beyond the first month of term: from induction to graduation.

And they'll have the lopsided shoulders to prove it.

[I'm possibly still bitter about carrying the 2000 page breeze-block of a book the Norton Anthology of Poetry around for at least the whole of my first year.]

But it's not only bags they'll have with them ... it's what's inside them too, it's notebooks, and pens, and those rarely-spotted-beyond-winter items: books.

Soon many will have lost any pens they started term with; which is round about when promotional events/stalls offering free pens suddenly become popular.
  • Overheard on campus November 2009:  "Sitting here, I’ve picked up a free pen. So I’m one up already."
Either that or they'll simply revert to taking notes in lectures via their laptops and phones.

Or so they'd have you believe.

Those of us sitting behind them,  reading over their shoulders, will know that they are in fact on Facebook, sending texts, or playing games.

So yes, if you're on campus in October you'll see plenty of bags on display [you might even spot the one you bought your offspring to take with them, because you thought they would need it.] ... but after that ... well, the bags will either vanish altogether [at the point where just bringing themselves, fully clothed and conscious to a 9am lecture seems optimistic] or else ... the bags will just start shrinking ...
  • Overheard on campus 2008: “I’m having a small-bag day today” “What’s that then? What’s in it?” “One pen, a lipstick…and lots of keys”.

Sign No.5: You'll be able to guess their allegiances.

Fashion, personal style, eccentricities: they're all something you'd expect to be on display at university. It's neither school nor work, there's no dress code, no uniform, no need to fit in with everybody as you'll spend a lot of time working with like-minded souls on your particular course.

And in those first few weeks, while exploring and expressing their personality students' style can be very singular.

Dressed, as they are, in a distilled essence of ‘me’ they can appear as exaggerated displays of who they are and what they like. Their outfits will boldly declare their allegiances; setting themselves up as ‘this’ type of person as against ‘that’.

'And my tribe shall know me by my Dragon Ball Z back-pack / my Walter White sweat-shirt / my pork pie hat that really doesn't go with my rain coat'.

Of course this personal style lasts beyond the first month [assuming of course that they conquer the use of the washing machines in the halls of residence that is], but their wish to be recognised as a particular kind of character is perhaps never so acute as in those initial stages.
  • Overheard on campus October 2013: “I'm easily distracted, I meant to look for books but I ended up searching for a 'How to Train Your Dragon' sew-on patch instead”.
  • Overheard on campus November 2014: “I’ve been brewing my own mead.”

And, finally, they may well want to be themselves ... but at the same time ...

Sign No.6: They just really want to be liked. 

If, after looking out for the first 5 signs I've offered here, you're still not sure what time of year you find yourself in then look into the eyes of the nearest student ... the clues are there.

When a First Year wanders around [see Signs 1 + 2 above] perhaps lost, definitely awkward, a look at their eyes will reveal how they're thrilled they are to suddenly spot people they know. Even if they just met them that week. That day. 5 minutes ago.

Their eyes and their very being lights up to see a familiar face; like a soldier's child seeing their father arrive home safely from war.

As they trail around learning the lay of the land, following get-to-know-the-campus scavenger hunts, tagging on to each others coat tails, you'll notice how eager to please they appear. How vulnerable.

There's something biddable about them; something of the toddler, the puppy.

There they sit, having coffee with new friends, thinking they’re the very epitome of cosmopolitan nonchalance. But look closely and you’ll see that their eyes and body language are reminiscent of your own when, in that recurring dream you have,  the toilet cubicle door suddenly turns transparent. [Just me?]

Like everything else [crowds, bags, punctuality] this fervour, this hopefulness, this desire for connection, this honeymoon period won't last for long. In a month's time those faces which they initially delighted in seeing will begin to repel them.

Like the morning-after-the-night-before they'll become embarrassed they got so close to someone whose work-ethic, politics, personal hygiene, capacity for alcohol etc varies vastly from their own.
  • Overheard on campus November 2012: "I don't know what to put. It says 'Interests' but I don't have any interests and you can't put 'socialising'".
  • Overheard on campus March 2008: Student on mobile phone: "You threw up on your bed? Awww that’s the worst that! You know what’s funny though? Did you still sleep in it even though you’ve threw up? Yeah! I’ve done that!! Just get a bacon sandwich and Lucozade down you!"
  • Overheard on campus November 2010: "I'm pretty sure I ended up in hospital last night, I have a vague memory of being laid on a bed with a curtain around it."


So, those are my 6 signs that will tell you you're on a university campus in the *first month* of term. Use them how you will ...

Next time you're on the end of a phone with your First Year, you can at least have a broad brush idea of what's going on around them when you call. Feel free to pass this post on to them to see how much of it they've experienced so far themselves.

Or if you're going to be that First Year then hopefully this will take some of the mystery out of it. After your UCAS and loan paperwork is sorted you can now do some guided meditation picturing yourself in each setting ... working out how you'll respond. Forewarned is forearmed an'all.

And if you find yourself on a campus in the next month - or any start of term - feel free to use the 6 signs as a 'First Month Bingo' game.  Give yourself a prize for spotting any of the scenarios mentioned in this post, things like:
  • a flowing crowd
  • someone halting without warning to read a map
  • an interminable queue
  • a bag / book / pen
  • a look of terror
  • a puppy-like gaze
  • a 'vivid' outfit 
  • etc


For the record: Yes, all those overheards are genuine.

I've been scribbling them down in my notebooks and in the unused pages of my work diaries since I started working there; I've been tweeting them since I found Twitter; and I've been thinking I should compile them into a book since ... forever. 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

What does *your* town need? [Apart from the obvious stuff, like fezzes.]

Hi there. 

Is there something missing from your town/city? Do you ever catch yourself saying "Why don't we have ..."? or "If only we had a ....". 

Last night, at a late night opening at mima gallery, we came across a pin board asking just that question about our region. 

Why not see if you can find common ground with any of the respondents? Maybe your area could do with some of these too ... 
So far, so admirable. 'Love', 'no drugs', 'independent cinema', 'more tea shops', 'bees' ... nothing to argue with there. 

Same here with 'better housing', 'more money spent on it', 'ice cream & a jive group' and 'a printmaking studio': 
Regarding that last point - about the need for a print room - I like how someone's replied beneath it giving the address of place that has one! [The Navigator North Studios where I attended the book-binding workshop I blogged about earlier this year.] Nice to see a conversation - and a useful one at that - continuing on the board.

The next is a poignant one. Your region may not need this, but ours does. And, until this week, it had some:
After 170 years of steel-making in the area, the final steel plant closed down with a loss of over 2000 jobs. It's all still very raw. It's not surprising to find it featured here.

The same can't be said for the next suggestion that caught my eye ... clearly there was a Dr.Who fan who couldn't wait to get this one of their chest:
'Fezzes shops, fezzes, fezzes everywhere! #DrWho.'

OK, you may not feel your town needs fezzes to quite that extent ... but I bet you could get on board with this next one ...
Admit it, there's a narwhal shaped hole in your city-life isn't there [and it's an interestingly shaped hole at that.]

And finally ... I like the confidence, the ego, the unabashed certainty of this one:
After all you may complain about it ...

... you may wish it had this, that and the other.

And fezzes.

But, when it comes down to it, if your town has any chance of ever having any of those things, of ever improving, expanding, securing investment, providing for its people ...

... it really does need you to believe in it first. The rest can follow.

But tell me ... apart from you [and tea rooms and narwhals. Obviously. They're taken as read.] ... what does your town need? 



[As a side note - I'm guessing that this question feeds into mima's Localism exhibition which focuses on the history and creativity of the area, which is well worth a visit if, you're one of those people who has always wished the gallery would focus on local themes. I'm not particularly in that camp - I really love that it's attracted world-wide artists too - but I know people who would prefer a local slant and so, if that's what you've been waiting for ... it's there now, now go and see it!]. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Almost like a recipe for ... Italian stir-in pasta sauce. [I know. Me. A Recipe. It'll be baking* next]. *It won't.

Here's something I never thought I'd be sharing here: a recipe.

Well ... almost ...
A recipe for pasta sauce, by someone who doesn't write recipes.
A food writer would start this recipe by stating that it is “perfect for using up that glut or organic home-grown tomatoes we all have at this time of year”. But I’m not a food writer.

I’m not even an amateur recipe writer [although, trust me, by the end of this recipe the word ‘amateur’ will be at the forefront of your mind …]

Tomato plant. Recipe.
While it’s true that I did create this dish as a means to use up an excess of tomatoes from my droopy rusting plants what I’m more likely to tell you is that it’s “the kind of one pot, chuck it all in and, very nearly entirely, forget about it” kind of tomato sauce you can make in advance, while the kitchen’s already a mess because you’re cooking something else. [I was cooking steak and chips at the time but you should feel free to choose an alternative.]

In fact, it’s so easy to make it’s the kind of recipe anyone who doesn’t like following recipes might actually be happy to follow. 

After all, it’s already the kind of recipe that someone who’s never written a recipe before might actually write.

So let's get started with my Italian stir-in style pasta sauce ...


Serves 2. 
[Mainly because there are two of us at home to eat it. If you are mid an exceptional carb-craving episode and end up keeping it all for yourself, I won’t judge.]

  • Large homegrown tomatoes.
  • Or any tomatoes you have. Any at all. And preferably those you need to get rid of in a hurry. 
  • Use the oldest, squishiest, most likely to explode, leak, and attract flies, first. 
  • I used around 10 but the amount will depend on how many you can fit in that single roasting tin you own that spends most of its life in the bottom of the oven, empty. 
  • Around 25 button mushrooms. 
  • This is only a rough estimate. You just need to fish out however many you’ve got lurking in the bottom drawer of the fridge as long as they’re not mouldy or slimy. Which I accept is a long shot.
  • Around 5 green olives. 
  • Or however many you have left over in the fridge since the last time you entertained guests. [If your guests find olives entertaining that is.] 
  • 4 large cloves of garlic, skin on.
  • Fresh oregano leaves. Chopped.
  • The amount of oregano you use will depend upon how much the person you asked to fetch some in from the garden brings back with them.
  • Top Tip: Just make do with however much oregano they deliver; this is autumn, it’s chilly out there, and while they may happily fetch you some the first time round, a second trip may be pushing it. 
  • Salt and black pepper to season.
  • Olive oil.
  • Pasta shapes of your choice. 
  • I went for fusilli, but you may prefer penne, or even novelty penguins or penises. It's all the same really. [Unless you're planning to put it in your child's school lunch box. Then you might want to lay off the penises.]


Wash and halve the tomatoes. [To be truthful I didn’t wash mine, but then I did used to eat mud as a child so, in the ingestion-of-dirt stakes, I’m really no example to live by.]

Trim away any of the core/stem.

Cram the mushrooms, olives and tomatoes, skin side down, into the baking tray, sprinkle with salt and black pepper and the chopped oregano.

[This is the baking tray I used. A food-blogger would probably have photographed it when it was clean.]

Hide the garlic cloves beneath the tomatoes. 
This is to prevent their skin burning during cooking rather than as part of some elaborate game. Do not shout ‘Coming ready or not’.

Drizzle with olive oil. [The most food-writery thing I’ve ever written.]

Roast in an oven preheated to 220* degrees for 10 minutes.  
*This is a guide only as the middle range of numbers on my oven wore off long ago and, unlike a conscientious Bake-Off contestant I never cook anything that ever really necessitates accuracy.

Basically you just need to have the temperature dial set somewhere past half way but not as far as full whack. As Delia has never said.

Reduce heat to … well … less than whatever you, or I, had it on for the first 10 minutes and cook for a further 15-20 until the tomato juice is bubbling and the kitchen begins to smell like you know what you’re doing.

Completely forget to take photos of the process because, after all, you’re not a food writer or blogger.

Turn off the heat and leave tray in the oven to continue cooking as it cools.
Optional. If you want to eat it then and there, in your pyjamas, I say go for it.

If, like me, you’ve been preparing another meal while this sauce has been roasting go and eat the other meal while watching a recorded episode of Pointless.

3 hours later, after Pointless is long over but while the smugness of getting an actual pointless answer lives-on, go to the toilet. [You may or may not have had two glasses of wine after tea. And mid-week too. Get you!]

While there, start pondering what you can make for tomorrow’s lunch then suddenly remember that you domestic-goddessed the life out of some tomatoes back when it was still daylight and that they’re still in the oven waiting for you!

Flush. [And wash your hands.]

Put the TV on pause. 

Rescue the now-cooled tray from oven and remove the skins from the roasted garlic cloves.

Cook and drain the pasta.

Blend together the cooled tomato mixture with a hand blender until smooth, but not entirely liquid. 

Stir the sauce into the pasta and put it into a bowl or storage container.

Make the person nearest to you smell just how ‘properly Italian’ it smells, then put it into the fridge ready to be reheated at lunch the following day.

My lunch, the following day. 
Lick the spoon.

Leave the pots and pans near the sink, go and un-pause the TV, put your feet up and marvel at your achievement.


If, through a miracle or pity you give this recipe a try ... do let me know. James and I lived to tell the tale and I'll be making it again this week so ... that's some sort of recommendation. Kind of. 

If you've enjoyed this can you do me a gigantic favour and share it. Somewhere. Anywhere. I don't mind. Tell a friend using social media, or just your mouth. Either works for me. 

I'd like to make a real go of this writing thing and what's a writer without readers? [Other than 'lonely' and 'wondering what they're doing with their life'. But .. apart from that ... ]

Thanks and buon appetito!


Friday, 9 October 2015

Fancy joining the Lucky Dip Book Club? A club for local creatives ... no matter where they live!

How do you like the sound of a new book-inspired creativity challenge each month? Because I might just be able to help you out there ...

Do you remember the days of The Copy & Paste Project? [A blog challenge/creativity kick-start hosted by me and my inordinately talented friend Kirsty Neale between 2009 - 11].  It doesn't matter if you don't ... this isn't really connected to that ... it's just that those of you who do remember how it ran will understand why the Lucky Dip Book Club caught my eye ...

This book club with a creative twist has its base at the MIMA gallery [Middlesbrough, Teesside] but you don't have to live nearby to join in. In fact anyone and everyone is welcome. Follow me and I'll get Danielle, the club's organiser, explain more ...

"Hi, we’re a new book club based in the town of Middlesbrough, UK, but we aim to be accessible from anywhere. You can join in no matter where you live if you can get to the internet." 
You see? I told you you could join in.  Here's how it works [I've highlighted some of  the key points in Danielle's original description] ... 

"We are an experimental book club. Here’s how we are different to a regular book club:
1) Our books are chosen by a combination of chance and recommendation. Every month we ask visitors to Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, where our club is physically based, to suggest a book to go into the hat. We encourage people to open minded, playful, and even dastardly with their suggestions. It’s acceptable to put a book you hated into the hat, just to see how our participants will respond if it gets drawn.
2) Every month, THREE books, not one, are picked from the hat to be the focus of the month. How you use those books is up to you. For example, you may just choose one book to work closely with and disregard the other two. Or you could use all three of them for your own means, which leads me to… 
3) Your response to the book does not have to be to read it from cover to cover and provide a full and informed opinion at the end. We don’t care if you read it or not. We are fine with it if you despise it. We encourage ‘responses’ beyond forming an opinion. For example:redesign the book cover. Do a piece of creative writing giving a voice to a character you think needs more page time. Draw a comic depicting the gruesome end of a character who lived happily ever after, much to your disappointment. Crochet a doll of a character. Write a score for a scene. Do a photography project embodying the atmosphere of a chapter. You are welcome to produce, anything and also nothing, because…"
And here's where I think this project gets extra-interesting ...

Here's where this project ties-in with what we've been chatting about and confessing here lately about blog commenting, about feeling too shy to join-in, about not having the confidence to speak-up, and about the splendidly named position of  lurking!! 
"4) Lurkers are welcome. We appreciate this sort of experiment can be daunting. If you are just curious and/or shy, you are welcome to join us as a spectator, you will not be judged for it. You are also welcome to join us at any time, and come and go as you please. There is no competitive agenda or requirement to create.
5) There is no deadline for responses. Every month we will draw three new books, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop working on a project from a previous book. You are encouraged to share your progress with us. But you don’t have to. The aim of this group is to provoke creativity and the confidence to use books as inspiration and fuel for your own ideas.
6) This tumblr is a space for those who want to attend remotely. If you have mobility or social anxiety issues please don’t be afraid to get involved without ever coming to a physical meeting. They are only one hour a month anyway, the main project happens within you, maaaan. We’ll also use it as a place to show our own work, and examples of similarly inspired projects to serve as inspiration."

So those are the official details ... what do you think? Are you coming? 
  • Maybe it's something you might like to hover around for a while.
  • Maybe it's something you can imagine dipping into each month to grab a starting point for your own creativity. 
  • Maybe the idea of it been fully accessible online might give you the confidence to drop by and play-along sometime.
As for me well ... I attended the first meeting, in person, in the flesh, on my own. And I was nervous. But I felt it had been too long since I'd really pushed myself to try something new, something with unfamiliar people, something vaguely social ... but not too social. Heaven forbid.

But I was nervous. Did I mention that? 

The other members were perfectly nice, and while I welcomed having a cup of tea to hug throughout, I still had a headache by the time I got home! And yet ... I'm pretty certain I'm going to give it a go and return next month. 

And if you like the sound of it, and you fancy joining in online, but you're nervous, shy, introvert, or feeling awkward then you should know you're not the only one! But that doesn't mean we have to always miss out!

Danielle has clearly thought about this and wants the club to be inclusive and to appeal to lots those people who think they'd never dare attend something like this 'in real life'. So ... if you're tempted then here are the final additional details you'll need to join in ... 

The first 3 Lucky Dip books drawn from the hat were:[and it was an actual hat I can verify that. I was there. I saw the hat. I even picked out one of the choices from it!] 
  1. The Whitsun Weddings poetry collection by Philip Larkin
  2. The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me by Roald Dahl and 
  3. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr.Seuss
What you do with them is entirely up to you! Have another read of the points 2 + 3 above for more of an idea of where you might begin. 

And don't forget you need not even have read the books to take inspiration from them! But, if you do want to read without buying them [I haven't] then try your local library or have a search around online - you can find examples or text and/or imagery from all three titles without having to even touch the books. 

After finding the text of Green Eggs and Ham online and a copy of the Larkin in the library I'm currently at the stage of pushing vintage paper scraps around to see what comes of it, taking some of the imagery / text of the original sources as my starting points. 

I will no doubt share my finished pieces here, but the club also welcomes works-in-progress contributions by anyone to the 'Bookydip' Tumblr page

[I'm not really 'getting' Tumblr, so we'll see how that goes! Danielle did say people can email her their work to upload ... maybe this might develop as the club becomes more established].

So that's the inclusive, come-as-you-are, join-in-from-the-comfort-of-your-pyjamas [if you're at home that is ... I won't be wearing my PJs to the next meeting!] Lucky Dip Book Club ... 

... anyone reaching for some Larkin/Dahl/Seuss yet?