Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Famished Road, Ben Okri

This is one of my favourite books. I first read it when I was 12 or so, after my father read it. At that time I thought it was fantastic and beautiful, but of course reading it as an adult was a completely different experience. The following passage is one of the few involving food that is somewhat joyous - yet at the same time is also deeply ominous and foreboding (if you've read the book, this will be particularly clear to you). And in terms of this blog, it's a big a change from the crumpets, toast, tea and cake that have so far dominated the excerpts here.

When we got to our new home the children ran out to meet us. The men came to help Dad with the sack, but he didn't want any help. The women talked excitedly. Our door was open. Folding chairs had been arranged all around the tiny space. The centre table was loaded with drinks. There was a bowl of kola-nuts and kaoline on the floor. There was the potent aroma of fresh stew in the air. The room was empty. Dad went to the backyard and we found Mum in the kitchen. She was fanning the wood fire, tears running down her face, a mighty pot on the grate. When she saw us she came out and held Dad tight and picked me up. Dad put the sack down on the kitchen floor. He looked at me for a moment, and said: 'I have kept my promise.'
Then he went out of the kitchen, to the room, came back with towel and soap, fetched water from the well, and had a long bath. I stayed with Mum in the kitchen, coughing when she coughed. The water boiled in the pot. Women of the compound came and helped her with getting the boar out of the sack. They poured boiling water on its skin, loosening its hair. They shaved it. Five men helped them butcher the fierce-looking animal. They decapitated it, cut it to pieces, and gutted out its monstrous intestines. Then the woman began the cooking of the wild animal that Dad had caught in the forest.
When the meat was cooking, on another fire a great pan was sizzling with oil. The whole compound smelt of aromatic stew, peppers, onion, wild earthy herbs and frying bushmeat. When everyone could be seen salivating in anticipation, Mum made me go and bathe. I wore a new set of clothes. Visitors and compound-dwellers came one by one to our room. They took their seats. Mum combed my hair and gave me a parting. Dad also had a parting. Mum bathed. In the bathroom she dressed up in her fine clothes. She did her hair and made her face up in the passage.
Soon our little room was crowded with all kinds of people. Many of them were from our compound, one or two were from our previous habitation, a few of them were total strangers, and a lot of them were children. It was hot in the room and everyone sweated. All the chairs were filled and all the floor space was taken. A woman struck up a song. A man struck up a more vigorous song. The children looked on. Mum came in with a plate of alligator pepper seeds, a saucer of cigarettes, and breadfruit. And then we heard a flourish outside.
It was Dad. He was at the doorway with an empty bottle in one hand, a spoon in the other. He was beating a tune out of glass. He wore a black French suit and had a fresh change of bandages. An eagle's feather stuck out from the back of his head. He looked happy and a little drunk. He came in, beating his metallic tune on glass, dancing and singing to music of his own invention. The crowd laughed, cheering in appreciation. Everyone began to chatter. Voices rose in volume. Jokes passed across the sweating faces. I felt a stranger amidst the celebration of my homecoming.
Then to our delight a woman appeared at the door, sounding a heraldic song. Mum came in with three women, carrying a great steaming pot of stew. Behind her were three more women, bearing basins of jollof rice, yams, beans, eba and fried plaintains. Children brought in paper plates and plastic cutlery. The aroma of the marvellous cooking overpowered the room. Everyone straightened. Faces were bright with aroused appetites. There wasn't a single throat that didn't betray the hopes for a feast of abundant cooking in which all anticipation would be fully rewarded.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton

I'm back! And with an excerpt that haunted my childhood dreams for years after I read it. It's interesting how writing that's so simple, and not that descriptive, can evoke so much for a child. Just a note - this blog won't be daily from now on, but I will try to update it far more often. Enjoy!

How the children hoped the day would be fine! They woke early and jumped out of bed. They pulled their curtains open and looked out. The sky was as blue as cornflowers. The sun shone between the trees, and the shadows lay long and dewy on the grass. The Enchanted Wood stood dark and mysterious behind their garden.
They all had breakfast, then Mother cut sandwiches, and put them in a bag along with three cakes each. She sent Joe to pick some plums from the garden, and told Beth to take two bottles of lemonade. The children were most excited.
Father set off to town, and the children waved goodbye to him from the gate. Then they tore off indoors to get the bag in which their food had been put. They said goodbye to their mother and slammed the cottage door. Ah, adventures were in the air that morning!
...[once they're further up the faraway tree] At this moment the yellow door opened and a small fairy looked out. Her hair was fluffed out around her shoulders, drying, and she was rubbing it with a towel. She stared at the peeping children.
'Did you ring my bell,' she asked, 'What do you want?'
'We just wanted to see who lived in the funny little tree-house,' said Joe, peering in at the dark room inside the tree. The fairy smiled. She had a very sweet face.
'Come in for a moment,' she said, 'My name is Silky, because of my silky hair. Where are you off to?'
'We are climbing the Faraway Tree to see what is at the top,' said Joe.
'Be careful you don't find something horrid,' said Silky, giving them each a chair in her dark little room, 'Sometimes there are delightful places at the top of the tree - but sometimes there are strange lands too. Last week there was the land of Hippety -Hop, which was dreadful. As soon as you got there, you had to hop on one leg, and everything went hippety-hop, even the trees. Nothing ever kept still. It was most tiring.'
'It does sound exciting,' said Beth, 'Where's our food, Joe? Let's ask Silky to have some.'
Silky was pleased. She sat there brushing her beautiful, golden hair and ate sandwiches with them. She brought out a tin of Pop Cakes, which were lovely. As soon as you bit into them they went pop! and you suddenly found your mouth filled with new honey from the middle of the little cakes. Frannie took seven, one after the other, for she was rather greedy.