About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Makowiec - Poppy Seed Cake - A Polish Christmas Cake


I know Christmas is long past, but Makowiec - which is a sort of poppy seed roll  - probably counts as my favourite cake in all the world, and not long ago, somebody asked me if I might be posting any Polish recipes on this site. I will - after all, food looms quite large in the Amber Heart - and here's the first of many. You can make it for Easter, instead of Christmas. But it's a bit of a cheat, really.Polish cuisine (and Austrian too) uses poppy seeds not just in bread, but in a variety of desserts and cakes. As in Austria, many of their cakes and pancakes and pastries involve yeast as a raising and lightening agent. I once spent Christmas in Warsaw with my Polish relatives. All the food was excellent, but it was the poppy seed cake, aromatic and delicious and strange, which I remembered more than anything else - the poppy seed cake which still seems to me to be the 'taste of Poland.' Sadly, it's hard to find and difficult to bake. Or it was, until very recently.


But now, Polish delis are springing up all over the place - we have one in Ayr called The Polish Cottage, and occasionally you'll find a piece of Makowiec in their chill cabinet. I browse around this shop a lot, listening to people chatting in Polish, reading the labels (they stock some of the best jam I've ever tasted) and sampling the salamis, But it was only on my most recent visit that I spotted the can pictured above and realised that you can now buy the filling for poppy seed cake ready made - a filling which was always tricky to make, involving cooking and grinding something that's impossibly fine anyway! This is a can of 'poppy seed mass' with ground seeds, orange flavouring and a few other things. I know it's a bit of a cop out, but I couldn't resist it. I haven't made my 'instant' Makowiec yet, but I will. And meanwhile - here's the recipe for the characteristic yeast pastry which you'll need to contain the seeds.

Cream 2 oz fresh yeast with 3 tablespoons of cream, sour cream if you can get it, and a teaspoon or two of sugar. Leave aside in a warm place until it begins to bubble a little.
Rub 6 oz of butter into 1lb of plain flour sifted with a scant half teaspoon of salt.  Add 2 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar, and then work in the yeast, two whole eggs beaten with one or two egg yolks (eggs vary in size) a teaspoon of vanilla essence and (if necessary) a little milk. Work the dough well, by hand. It shouldn't be too stiff or too wet but like a soft pastry. You can add a little grated orange peel if you wish.
Roll it out thinly into a rectangle on a lightly floured board. Spread the poppyseed filling evenly (and quite thickly) over the dough, leaving a margin all round of about an inch or so. Then roll up carefully and seal the edges with a little milk or beaten egg. Transfer this to an oblong buttered pan (you can line it with foil if you wish) and allow to rise for an hour or so. Pierce the dough once or twice with a skewer to prevent it from splitting. Then bake in a medium oven for about 45 minutes. It should be brown and well risen.

This recipe, incidentally, comes from a wonderful old book called Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the table, by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry, which is crammed not just with excellent recipes, but with lots of fascinating information about Polish history and cuisine.You can use this pastry for all kinds of other things - especially those wonderful Austrian pastries with plum jam and cream cheese. And you can buy that rich plum jam - more like a plum butter than a jam - in your local Polish deli too.

Friday, March 16, 2012

eBay and the eBook Revolution


About six years ago, when I was working as Royal Literary Fund 'Writing Fellow' at a university in Scotland, (helping students purely with their academic writing) one of my students, studying Commercial Music, remarked, 'You know, you writers should be doing what musicians like me are doing. Forget big publishing. Just find some way of getting the work out there yourselves.'
At that time, eBook Readers were available, but not yet the phenomenon they would soon become. After a writing career so checkered with success and failure that you could have made it into a board and played a game of chess on it, I agreed with her, but I couldn't see how to do it. It wasn't just that musicians could do gigs and get paid - in fact it wasn't even that, since as any musician will tell you, they don't get paid very much and besides, I already did get the occasional 'gig'. My RLF Fellowship was an extended and wonderfully supportive gig.
But although there were all kinds of ways for musicians to get their music 'out there', I didn't yet see how the same might apply to writers. 
Back then, I had just read Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (if you haven't read it, go and get it now!) and it made sense to me. But I had become frustrated at being cast in the role of humble supplicant by my own industry, an industry that seemed to have grown complacent over the years, an industry that increasingly disrespected the talent upon which it was forced to rely.
My 'day job' - the work that bought me time to write - was, and still is, an eBay shop called The Scottish Home, mostly selling antique and vintage textiles. I had always had an interest in such things, and had started out by trying to sell them at antique markets, but it was a thankless task. Then I discovered eBay and realised that here was a technology company providing me with the tools to do the job, worldwide. Soon, I was selling embroidered tablecloths to Australia and vintage linen sheets to fashionable New York addresses. Over time, I built up a nice little business and it's one which I can manage so that it fits in with my writing. When I'm snowed under with writing work - like now, when I'm deep into final edits on a new novel - I can wind it down. When I badly need some extra income, I can work like a Trojan and increase my turnover. I can take advantage of seasonal spikes, such as Christmas. But most of all, I think, my eBay experiences gave me a sense of how to run an online business, how to become friends with my customers, how to add value, package nicely, enclose pretty postcards, and write a blog to give people the extra information they enjoy.
It was only when I tried to apply these same lessons to my writing business that I found myself meeting a brick wall of indifference - not from readers, I hasten to add. When I could interact with them, they were appreciative. But from the layer upon layer of gatekeepers who seemed to have interposed themselves between me and those same readers.
I had an agent, I had a decent publishing and production track record, I had work waiting to go, but in spite of all kinds of praise from editors, my work was generally rejected at the 'sales' stage. I was routinely told that it was 'not linguistically experimental enough to be literary' but 'not quite fitting any genre, so we don't know how to market this.' God help my innocence, I even approached one or two Scottish publishers with the suggestion that a more businesslike relationship should be possible. This met with a disapproving silence. Not the way they worked at all. How dare I?
Until Amazon came along and brought technology to bookselling instead of vice versa.
The parallels with eBay are irresistible. You'll find the shysters and the incompetents on there - of course you will. But you'll also find millions of efficient small-to-medium sized businesses, from sole traders to online incarnations of known names, most of them giving excellent customer service, backed by a superb search facility.
Here's a very ordinary example.
Recently, we realised that the wheels on our shower doors had worn away. A plethora of local bricks- and-mortar businesses shook their heads, with that loud indrawn breath that is peculiar to sales people, and suggested that a new cabinet was the only option.
Five minutes on eBay, one digital picture sent to a seller - and a packet of new wheels arrived by the next post.
Last night, I came across a superb essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, characterising the way in which publishing is changing. It's called 'Scarcity and Abundance' and it should be required reading for publishers and writers everywhere. Essentially, it's a piece about mindsets. And the analogy could be extended to include the way in which our High Streets function (or increasingly don't function.) My local 'bathroom supplies' shops,with their beautiful glossy showrooms, were in a 'scarcity' mindset and sliding door wheels did not loom large for them. eBay, on the other hand, with its unlimited shelf space and abundant individual small businesses, could allow me to find the handful of suppliers in the UK who specialised in such things and - moreover- an individual who knew his stock well enough to be able to identify my requirements from a single digital picture. The wheels were not cheap, and I'll bet he's making decent profits - but they were a hell of a lot cheaper than a new cabinet and I was one happy customer.
All of which makes me think that the young literary writers who choose to see the eBook revolution as some kind of capitalist plot to ruin publishing couldn't be more wrong. One is lead to the inescapable conclusion that what they really can't stomach is the democratisation of publishing. They seem to feel that our gain is somehow responsible for their loss. John Carey was right when - brilliantly dissecting literary snobbishness in The Intellectuals and the Masses - he argued that the √©lite who felt their position threatened by the 19th century increase in literacy, invented new forms which would deliberately exclude the lower orders. A plethora of recent Guardian pieces (and - with a few notable exceptions - their comments) have all taken this remarkably superior stance. For a more balanced picture, you have to go to the technical pages. No doubt the bathroom showrooms feel exactly the same about eBay, even though it is entirely open to them to embrace digital, and set up an online store as well. But that would also mean embracing the mindset of unlimited shelf-space, of abundance, of trusting the abilies of people to search for what they want, coupled with the benefits of good - really good, not just adequate - programming.
A coder friend once told me that when most conventional businesses go digital, they don't understand the difference between an excellent programmer and a merely adequate programmer. All programmers are the same to them. The results are potentially disastrous and you can see them every day in clunky websites that are frustrating to use. Technology companies such as Amazon, eBay, DropBox and so on, always realise this and employ the best.
Above all, embracing the digital revolution means trusting the customer to know what he or she wants. And for most traditional publishers (although not, it seems, for writers) that seems to be a bridge too far.
Of which, more in my next post.


Bird of Passage, on Kindle

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Inspirational Polish Dad - Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski


My late mother used to tell the story of how, as a young woman in postwar Leeds, she went into a local shop where a casual acquaintance said to her, 'Now that the war is over, I think that they ought to send all those Poles back, don't you?'
'Not really,' said my Leeds Irish mum. 'You see, I've just married one.'
The one she had 'just married' was my lovely dad, Julian Czerkawski.

My grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski


Dad was very young when war broke out. That's him, the toddler with the girly hair, at the very top of this post, with his rather aristocratic parents, Lucia and Wladyslaw. I always think my grandfather, whom I never met, looks like Laurence Olivier playing Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. I only have two pictures of him, but I love that wavy hair, those wide-set eyes and high cheekbones, that clear, direct and somewhat daunting gaze. I wish I had known him but - although we didn't know it at the time, because he had simply disappeared in the war  - he was dead long before I was born.
There's my dad again,  just a little later, on the right, in his velvet 'Lord Fauntleroy' suit and wrinkled tights, looking much more boyish.The billy goat was called Goat, plain and simple, and for some reason he loathed women. He would chase and butt any woman who ventured into his paddock. Lucia - plump and pretty - was afraid of him, but he rather liked Julian. Poland was, of course, caught between the rock of the Nazis and the hard place of Joe Stalin. If one of them didn't get you, the other did. My grandfather was imprisoned under Stalin, released when Uncle Joe changed sides, but sent - as so very many Poles were - on the debilitating long march east across Russia, to join the army units on the Persian border. Like so many Polish soldiers, (and so many civilians too) he died of typhus and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road.

My father, meanwhile,  had been through a string of deeply harrowing experiences, but eventually he had made his way to England, via Italy, with a Polish tank unit, as part of the British Army. He was initially stationed at Duncombe Park near Helmsley in Yorkshire, and when he was demobbed, he worked for a while as a textile presser at a mill near Leeds. The choice of jobs for refugees was strictly limited at that time: mills or mines, and no arguments.




While there, he met, courted and married my mum, Kathleen, (on the right of this picture, holding my hand - her elder sister, my Aunt Vera, is on the left) and soon after that, he went to nightschool and began studying the sciences which he loved. Had the war not intervened, he was destined to be trained as an artist, by his uncle-by-marriage, distinguished Polish watercolourist, Karol Kossak. Julian dabbled in art all his life, and it remained a much loved hobby for him, although he always doubted if he could have made a career of it.
Me and my dad. Note my ringlets. I think I look like something from the 1920s or 30s - but dad was always handsome!

By the time my father retired, many years later, he was a distinguished biochemist with a double doctorate - a DSc as well as a PhD. He always wore his learning lightly, was the perfect gentleman, the best dad a daughter could wish for and in spite of, or perhaps because of, all that he had suffered in the war, he was never bitter.

Perhaps because dad had married an English speaker, and perhaps because of his background, which was rather cosmopolitan, we were only on the fringes of the Polish community in Leeds. I remember wearing a traditional Polish costume, with embroidery and ribbons. I remember eating Polish food - my best friend at school was Polish too. But we seldom went to the Polish club. Because he was studying, dad wanted to learn English as quickly and as well as he could so - to my great regret - I didn't learn to speak anything but the most basic Polish.

All the same, dad had a fund of stories - and he told me all about the Poland of his childhood. He had been the son of a landowner, who had an old estate at a place called Dziedzilow, near the ancient city of Lwow. The family even had a coat of arms (oddly enough, it includes a goat!) It all seemed strange and enticing: nothing like my typically working class Yorkshire childhood. For me, back then, and for many years after, the Poland of my imagination was as exotic and enchanting as a place in a fairy tale - and with the same faint air of unreality. I knew that I wanted to write about it. In fact, I did write a couple of radio plays set in Poland, which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4. But I wanted to tackle something much longer, and I thought even then that it would be a novel. I began to research the background material many years ago, and one of the main sources of inspiration for me was my father. After he retired, I asked him to put down everything he could remember of his early life in Dziedzilow. I have his notebooks and sketches still. By the time he was born, the old manor house, which inspired a somewhat embellished Lisko, in my novel, was long gone, burned down in some previous conflict, although the cellars and ice house were still there. The family lived in what had once been the old Steward's House. The landscape of Lisko, in the novel, is the landscape my father described to me. This may be one reason why writing The Amber Heart was such a pleasure - it was written straight from my heart!

Dad, in his father's car - the only car in the district

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Amber Heart - an epic tale of love and loss in 19th century Poland.

Painting by Juliusz Kossak

A beautiful, butter-yellow mansion.
A spirited heroine.
A troubled hero.

When Maryanna Diduska first meets Piotro Bandura, they are both children, but their situations could not be more different. Maryanna is the pampered daughter of Polish aristocrats, while Piotro is the child of a poverty-stricken Ukrainian widow.

Stefan took a pouch from his jacket and, with a laugh, scattered coins, as though scattering grain, watching them spread out and dive, hunting among grasses, squabbling volubly, fighting for what they could find like so many starlings. But one of them didn’t move. He was the tallest and the oldest, a boy of perhaps eleven, his hair black and matted, his face sallow under the grime, his eyes an unexpectedly bright cornflower blue. He stood still, hands hanging by his sides, fists clenched, and he stared up at Maryanna, unsmiling, unmoving. She shifted uneasily. For perhaps the first time in her life, she saw a gaze of pure resentment directed straight at herself. She turned her head into her father’s jacket.
‘Daddy, tell the boy not to look at me,’ she whispered.




But this is also the tale of the beautiful house of Lisko, Maryanna’s beloved childhood home, and the way in which the lives of its inhabitants will be disrupted by the turmoil of the times.

Out on Kindle, before the end of March 2012, The Amber Heart is a vivid, dramatic and unashamedly romantic story of love and loyalty, of personal tragedy and triumph, set against an intriguing backdrop: the turbulent Eastern Borderlands of 19th century Poland.

The first draft of this novel was written many years ago, while my Polish father was still alive. He was the best dad anyone could ever wish for and the book is dedicated to him. The novel was praised by my agent at the time, the late Pat Kavanagh, and then by countless editors. 'I couldn't put it down. I stayed up all night reading it. I wept buckets!' wrote one of them, before adding that she would have to turn it down. You see, The Amber Heart always fell at the sales and marketing hurdle. 'Nobody knows about Poland!' they would say.

Over the years, I've gone back to it from time to time and - rereading it - have realised that it has stood the test of time. Now, a few other people have read it and said the same thing. I've worked on it, of course, honed it, polished it, responded to some useful editorial suggestions and brought the benefit of my own greater maturity to the story. The advent of eBook publishing has finally allowed me publish this novel which, of all the things I have ever written, has been closest to my heart. So many of the elderly Polish people who generously helped me with research for this novel are dead and gone. But they have left me with a great mass of interesting material in the shape of documents, photographs, postcards, diaries and first hand accounts, not least the notebooks my late father filled with stories and sketches of the Poland he remembered.

My dad.

If you read the Amber Heart, and are intrigued by the background to the book, you'll find more to entertain you here. Over the coming months, I'll be mining all that fascinating background information to write the occasional post about pre-war Polish history, customs and traditions, costume, arts and crafts, and food. Whatever takes my fancy, really. I'll even post a few recipes.
I hope you find it entertaining, and that you might  like to join in with your own comments.





Thursday, March 01, 2012

What Would Make Me Go Back to My High Street Bookshop?



I've always loved books. The way in which this house is positively stuffed with them is evidence of that. Periodically, I decide to have 'a bit of a clear-out'. Then I go to a library or car-boot sale and come home with replacements. I have a big collection of books about textiles and costume, mostly discovered at library sales. They aren't terribly valuable, although they would be difficult to find anywhere else. But over the past few years, I've found myself buying almost all my new books from Amazon, and now I download even more of them straight to my Kindle. I read a lot more but buy fewer and fewer new 'dead tree books'.
Don't let anyone persuade you that Kindle is only for 'light reads'. Actually, Kindle is brilliant for the really heavy reads. I read Nicolas Nickleby on my Kindle over the Christmas holidays, even though I have a nicely bound copy of it sitting on my bookshelves.
It was easy to hold and easy to read. And I felt exactly the same way about this wonderful novel as I did when I was reading that 'real' book. Except that I seemed to read with even more total absorption in the contents, if that were possible.
But on World Book Day, I've been thinking about why I frequent my local bookshop less and less, and what might make me go back to this or - even better - to a small independent bookshop.
Partly, it's where I live. We're deep in the countryside and it's easier to buy online. And if I can't find what I want on Amazon itself, I can usually find it from a small bookseller on the same site.
I go 'into town' once a week on average, but I don't browse around the shops very much because the High Street of our nearest town is - not to put too fine a point on it - awful. It's dirty and scruffy and full of empty shops and charity shops, dog pooh, chewing gum and human spit. You may think that's because people like me no longer shop there much and you may have a point. But it's more complicated than that. Because once upon a time, my husband and I had a small shop in the centre of town, selling crafts and pottery. Our turnover was pretty huge. If we had told anyone at the time what it was, they would have thought we were living the life of Riley. But we soon realised that we were working all the hours that God sent and earning very little.When we had paid everyone else: suppliers, fuel and accommodation for buying trips, astronomical rent and rates, electricity, phone, VAT, accountant, there was almost nothing left over for ourselves.
So after a few years, we got out of it. The customers were there at that time - but the overheads were so vast that the game just wasn't worth the candle any more.
I doubt if that situation has improved.
Our single bookshop has had a checkered past, and I remember when it was the Big Bad Wolf which came along and ousted the lovely indie bookstore, where the staff not only knew all about their stock, but also knew their customers too. Now the Big Bad Wolf is running scared of the even Bigger Badder Wolf - well forgive me if I'm a little less than sympathetic.
A couple of years ago, a friend and fellow writer said  'Is it just me, or do you go into a bookshop these days and find literally nothing you really want to read?'
I found myself agreeing with him. I thought I had got picky in my old age. But perhaps not. At  least at Waterstones they have got rid of the three for two offers where you could never find a third book you wanted. But those tables still tend to be a mix of celebrity bios, cookery books and television tie-ins, the shelves full of a narrow range of heavily promoted titles. And even if something 'different' is well reviewed in one of the Sundays, you can bet you won't find it in your local store. I could name at least three titles I expected to find in my local shop last year - well reviewed books by Scottish writers - but they would have had to be ordered.
So in an effort to be positive I've started thinking about what would make me go back to my High Street Bookshop.
Here's my personal list:
1 An eclectic mix of popular and unusual books: some currently well reviewed titles, plus a genuinely personal choice from whoever is managing and working in the shop - and who is prepared to talk about books to the customers. Maybe even a good deal of 'local' specialisation, according to the siting of the shop. I suppose I'm looking for the equivalent of the local deli!
2 A second hand and antiquarian section - not 'nearly new' books such as charity shops stock - but genuine out-of-print and collectable books.
3 A coffee shop: one that's comfortable, informal and friendly with good tea as well as cakes and sandwiches.
4 Lots of evening and possibly even weekend events (preferably with the coffee shop remaining open and not firmly closed): readings, talks, question-and-answer panels, signings, workshops - in other words, a bookshop as a resource for all those people in the community, and there are lots of them, who are interested in writing and writers and a wide variety of subjects about which writers might write, fiction and non-fiction alike, properly promoted, not just the occasional celebrity piloted in. We already have a cafe in the town which does this kind of thing and does it well - but why not a bookshop?
5 Short queues. In Glasgow's Borders, I often used to browse, take my book to the check-out, take one look at the queue snaking around the shop, put the book down and go home and order it from Amazon instead.




One thing I don't want is to buy downloads for my eReader in my local bookshop. Why would I? Any more than I would buy an app or a game for my phone in a mobile phone shop.
But if my local independent bookshop was truly local - a friendly place, a resource for me as both reader and writer, a place where I could browse and buy old and new books, drink coffee with friends, listen to writers talking about their craft - if they built that, I would most certainly come and carry on coming to it, several times a month.

I'm aware that all of this is what's known as a 'big ask'. But I'm also aware of one or two bookshops and book cafes in Scotland which seem to be doing just this, and thriving.
What do you think? Feel free to add you own thoughts below!