Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Poster Child for an Improvised Life

When I was a teenager one of the most popular bits of poster wisdom was, “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it is yours. If it doesn’t it never was.” Today the vox populi likes to quote, to the point of chanting, Eleanor Roosevelt, exhorting us all to “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”

I have had a nomadic life thrust upon me, I who treasure my nest am without a garden, sleep where unfamiliar things go bump in the night, and cautiously try to find my way around other people’s kitchens. Scary. 
Attempting new recipes in unknown territory didn’t seem like a good idea, so when I promised to make lunch yesterday I decided to improvise on a Nigel Slater dish I’d made a couple of times before, the caveats being I was doing it from memory and couldn’t get all the original ingredients . . .
Here’s how it went. I sauteed separately a diced onion (should have been a couple of shallots, I think), three slices finely chopped bacon (should have been pancetta, I think), and a cup of sliced mushrooms. I grated six ounces of emmenthal (should have been gruyere, I think). I mixed the shredded cheese with the sauteed onion, a little of the bacon and a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped parsley. I cooked four pork loin steaks two minutes each side, layered on the mushrooms and then the cheese mixture, which should have been stuffing, and briefly grilled them (they weren’t thick enough to stuff). I deglazed the saute pan with sherry and made a warm salad dressing with the remaining bacon, olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. I cheated with some prepared microwaved mash potatoes, which were decidedly gluey, but at least they looked the part.
Letting go of people is hard. Letting go of dreams is even harder. It’s downright scary. The challenge of the nomadic life is not knowing what ingredients will be to hand, and not mourning for too long what is left behind.
In Praise of Late Bloomers
Mary Wesley’s novels are a mercurial mix of abandon, wit and cruel darkness. Many people, including her biographer, Patrick Marnham think her middle works, like The Camomile Lawn are her best, but my favorite is her first, Jumping the Queue. 
Most of the “post Jumping” books feature the beautiful, independent and unconventional Calypso. Having now read Wesley’s biography, Wild Mary, it seems to me that Calypso is Mary Wesley as she wished she had been, while Matilda, the heroine of Jumping the Queue is Mary to the bone, not just the stylish frock.
Wesley is credited with revealing to the younger generation that Larkin was wrong, sex didn’t begin in 1963. Long before Mary had three sons by three different fathers, and she probably couldn’t have told you how many lovers, two husbands, both of whom she respected, one of whom she loved. She converted to Catholicism and remained partial to the Latin rites while never shedding her liberal attitudes to sex or her scorn for hypocrisy. In old age she found herself impoverished and alone. Then, in a two week span, she sold two of her novels. She was 70. It’s a riotous, sometimes infuriating story, well told. 
I am writing this in England in mid-winter where crocus and daffodils are courageously reaching for the weak sun. They and Mary Wesley remind us we can’t always choose where and when we bloom, we can only seek to grow.
P.S. Podcast Bonus - Hear Mary
Here’s a link to the BBC Radio 4 website, Desert Island Discs Archive 1988-1991 for April 22, 1990, featuring Mary Wesley, wonderfully honest, indisputably brave.