Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Tufty Club and other stories

Today I contacted the Armagh City Library to ask if they could accommodate me for a book signing when I go home at Easter. The manager was terrific and immediately agreed. I was delighted because the Armagh City Library holds a special place in my heart - I used to live in the same street as it.
Market street, 2014 - Our house on the right and the Library is house in the building on the left.
So when I hung up the phone, it was no surprise that my mind-Tardis dumped me back in Market Street, Armagh, circa 1973, where I'd lived from the ages of 4 until 9.

It's not many kids who can say that they had a library in their front yard, but I did. In fact we shared Market Street with a library, a Cathedral, and a cinema - the Ritz. People from Armagh used to call any cinema a "Ritz" in the same way "Sellotape" or "Scotch tape" became a generic name for sticky tape. I was an adult before I realized that the Ritz Carlton wasn't a movie house! 

The cinema was so close to our house that when my sister and I fell asleep at the movies, my Dad would carry one of us home and then go back for the other one! I remember going to see Jaws there. My best friend, Lucia and I went together to see Grease - both of us too young and innocent to actually get the sexual innuendo in the jokes. By that stage we had moved out of Market Street, so I must have been 11 when we saw Grease.

Often the Ritz would be evacuated because of bomb scares, and if anyone we knew was at the movies they'd come over to our house. If we didn't need to evacuate ourselves, they'd be welcomed in. I have a vague memory of us all lying on the living room floor because snipers were taking pot-shots at the army and the police outside. Dad would pass out beers for the grown-ups from the fridge, and we'd wait it out on the swirly orange and brown carpet. After all it was the 1970s in the North of Ireland - we were inured to the Troubles, not to mention the decor!

We didn't frequent the Cathedral on our street very often. It's not that we were heathens and didn't pray. Armagh has two Cathedrals, a Catholic one and a Protestant one - this one was the Protestant one and while, from time to time, our parents would take us up for a walk around the grounds, being Catholic we worshiped at the other one. I don't really remember being told not to go and play up there on our own, but on the occasions I did, I had this mixture of thrill and unease that I might be breaking someone's rules.

Church of Ireland Cathedral
Our house's front door opened directly onto the street. No paths, no gardens, no fences for us. The British Soldiers used to hunker on our doorstep, hoping to to shelter from rain and sniper bullets in the alcove created by the slightly recessed front door.

Dad used to tell the story of how one evening after dinner (except back then it was called teatime because we weren't posh enough to call it dinner) he was helping Mum clear up. He was planning on staying in for the evening and had already put on his slippers. He went to put the empty milk bottles out for the milkman to collect the next morning - this was back before recycling was invented, so we had to reuse instead!

Dad open the door and a soldier who was leaning against the door fell into the front hall on top of him. Both were understandably startled, but in a "surprise!" competition the guy with the gun is going to win. Embarrassed and pissed off, the soldier arrested my Dad on the spot. He didn't let him go back into the house to tell my Mum where he was going. He just bundled Dad into the landrover and took him to the barracks, in his slippers and still carrying the milk bottles! They held him for a few hours and then released him. No explaination, no apologies - though my Dad always did point out that he'd been lucky that the soldier's gun hadn't gone off when he'd opened the door or it would have been a much shorter story.

Anyways, poor Daddy, still in his slippers had to walk home a couple of miles through the town from the barracks. When he arrived home he got no sympathy! Mum was mad at him. She thought he'd sneaked off to The Foresters's Club a few doors down from the house. Eventually, she believed him because he was still in his slippers, and Dad would never go to the pub in his slippers!

The Troubles played a big part in all our lives back then. One day my sister and I were playing in Market Street, and we found a parcel wrapped in brown paper. We'd been told in no uncertain terms that unattended packages were dangerous. So we went straight to our parents and told them what we'd found. It was right in the middle of the street - a huge tarmacadamed expanse, not the beautifully landscaped area it is today. The entire street was taped off, and the homes evacuated, and we all stood (as we often did during evacuations) along the top of the hill looking down Market Street. Dozens of police and soldiers milled around and then the parcel disappeared. They found a guy calmly walking away with it. Someone had been loading/unloading a van with innocent parcels and had left one out. When he noticed it missing he'd come back for it, and had just walked over and picked it up!

"Better safe than sorry," my Dad said to us later.

But getting back to the Library...

The Library is a beautiful limestone building that had once been a technical college. I remember it as always being a warm, calm place with the wonderful smell of books, a smell that very writer and avid reader mentions. I know I risk being cliche when I say that that smell still gives me a sense of anticipation - something good or interesting about to happen.

Even when I was a kid (yes, way way back then!) our library had excellent programs for children. I was in the Tufty Club. Tufty was a human sized squirrel - perish the thought! Imagine what that could do to a garden. Tufty, along with his other woodland friends taught road safety, a strange choice of character judging by the number of squirrels that get mashed on our roads in San Jose and whose remains are feasted upon by other squirrels (I kid you not!)

As well as the regular story time and Tufty club meetings, we had a quiz team. I was on the team that made it to some finals or other...a big enough deal for it to attract the local press. My sister and her favorite teddy, Jumbo, came to watch our team compete. I can't remember if we won. Obviously that wasn't foremost in the newspaper photographer's mind either, because the picture that appeared that week in the paper was not your's truly and her quiz team, but instead, my sister and her teddy. Over the years I've tried to hold her stealing the limelight against her, but it's been hard - she is such a great sister. And who could blame the photographer? She was so adorable!

This picture was in the Armagh Observer sometime around 1976
I wonder will she bring Jumbo to see me when I do my book signing in the Library in April? I've a feeling a certain little nephew will, and I wouldn't be surprised if history repeats itself!

Nevertheless, it will be a nostalgic and poignant moment to see my book on the shelves of the peaceful haven that existed in a crazy time and place, where I first fell in love with books!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Writing for a great cause

Cookbook for a Bug is compiled and written by a group of gardeners who coalesced in a social media group called Gardenaholics Anonymous. I became aware of this group through Gardening Jones, a fabulous blog on gardening that I've been following for years now. 

One of the members has a daughter with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) type 1. This little girl's nickname is Bug and all proceeds from the book go towards helping with her medical needs, such as a chair or breathing hoses and monitors. 

This is  a wonderful cause and so I was absolutely delighted that  Cookbook for a Book won Amazon's Awards for Best Books of 2014!  Click here to see the award.

Good for you Amazon for recognizing the great work these writers have done. And good for them on producing a fine book to raise funds and awareness for such a great cause. The recipes are inspiring, using up produce from the garden (though you can also easily buy the ingredients at the grocery store) and some are intriguingly unusual (Grape Salad - grapes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream), whilst others are comfortingly familiar (Lasagna - hard to beat!).

I particularly liked the recipe for Zucchini Burgers since I'm usually buried in zucchini during the summer. In fact, its quite gratifying that there are at least 7 recipes for things to do with zucchini - looks like I'm not the only one who loves zucchini but needs different ways to keep eating it all summer long. There are so many recipes I am dying to try out next summer - Tomato Marmalade - I have some frozen tomatoes from last summer. I wonder would that work...

There's a delicious and simple recipe for Beet Greens similar to one I use when I'm harvesting beetroot. It works a treat and even My Husband, who refuses to eat beetroot likes the greens done this way.

And oh my goodness - the baked goods section! I may have to actually cut those pages out and shred them....that is if I can separate them after all the drooling I've done on them. Cherry Chip Ba Da Bing Brownies, Chocolate Zucchini Cake, and (OMG) "The Fudge I Grew Up With" - YUM!

I've never had Baked Meringue Spice Cake, but I am so going to make it next...It sounds so good.

Consider getting some as a stocking fillers for Christmas gifts. 

You can find your copy of this cookbook-with-a-heart Cookbook for a Bug on Amazon. ISBN 9781502456267 

It costs $20 and remember the recipes will tickle your taste-buds, stuff your stomach and fill your heart knowing that you helped a brave and lovely little girl. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Breakfast - the most important meal of the day!

'Tommy followed her to the table where Molly was just bringing out the last of the food platters filled with bacon, sausage, potato bread, fried soda bread, mushrooms and eggs. The potato bread was crispy, golden – fried to perfection. The mighty Ulster Fry – heart attack on a plate – would keep their bellies full until dinner time. Tommy’s mouth watered.
      “There’s beans too, if anyone wants some,” Molly said.'
I was either very hungry or very homesick the day I wrote page 185 of March to November, but I know one thing for sure - when I wrote it, I had not figured out where to buy Irish bacon in the Bay Area, nor had I discovered the The Britannia Arms on Almaden and their Irish breakfast.

Saturday, October 18th marked the one month anniversary of the release of March to November and to mark the occasion Michael from the Britannia Arms  generously offered to recreate the breakfast from the book. He even requested that I send him the description as it was written.

I was very excited when he said he would make potato scones. I really hoped he was talking about what we called potato bread. Potato bread is my favorite item in an Irish fry, or more specifically, an Ulster fry. Our regional variation tends to include more breads than other versions of the Irish fry. It's really just potato, flour and butter, mixed together and fried (in bacon fat for the most delicious effect!) Click here for the recipe I use when making it because it's not something you can buy in the supermarket in California. You can see it in the picture below, the round farl on the right-hand-side of the plate.
My neighbors tucking into their first Irish fry!
Then there's black pudding. (Mid plate.) It's an acquired taste and maybe why my characters didn't bother with it in their breakfast. But I love it, especially when I can't have it.

The funny thing is that I generally don't like beans with my breakfast. When I left mine at the side of the plate everyone commented on how even in the book they were an afterthought!

About thirty people showed up.
It was great craic explaining some of the food in the fry. 
So the thing with the black pudding is....
Did I hear her right? Have I just eaten...

Yeah, I think that's what she said. Have you eaten it already?
They ate it!
Yes, black pudding is made from pig's blood - it's still delicious! And no, probably best not to order a potato "scone" by itself because it's not really like a scone.
At least the coffee is safe!
And yes, noon on a Saturday is a perfectly acceptable time to be eating breakfast in Ireland - especially one that has so much food.
Well, it's breakfast time somewhere in the world!
And yes, yes, yes, it probably does explain why there is such a high incidence of heart disease in Ireland. But it really, really tastes like a slice of heaven to me and once in a while it's a treat...right?

The Britannia Arms staff were wonderful, their food only surpassed by their service and hospitality. I'll be a regular there for sure.
After we'd eaten I signed books.
I'm pretty overwhelmed by the response to the book so far. My heart is full to the brim with gratitude and relief!
I still can't quite believe that I've done it - that my book is published and I'm an author, but for now I'll keep pinching myself and leave you with  the video!

All the photos and video on this blog post were taken by Paul Kavanagh. Thanks for everything Paul.

The music on the video is by Caolas.

Byddi Lee

Friday, October 3, 2014

Lost in the shuffel!

I lost my list of favorite blogs when I reshuffled this page to advertise the launch of March to November.

If you'll like to be reinstated... or added to the list leave me a comment.

In the meantime, I'll try to find my lost links...

Byddi Lee