keeping a promise

uts-creative-writing

I have wanted to do my PhD for a very long time. Apparently I even talked about it at school! In my last year of my BA I remember it being all-consuming, and being devastated when, convinced I was speeding merrily along that path, I reached a dead end after my Honours year. 

But life went on. As some things ended, I found new beginnings. I moved interstate, then overseas. This time last year, more than 15 years had passed since reaching that dead end. Tom and I were packing up our lives in London, our flights back to Australia booked, his visa safely approved. I was in a routine I’d been in for years, though admittedly at the tail end of it. The daily grind. Happy enough but wondering if this particular dream would ever see the light of day after the best part of two decades in a cupboard. 

If anyone had told me a year later I would be enrolled in my PhD and attending seminars at University of Technology Sydney, meeting my supervisor who is one of the most creative, motivating and intelligent women I’ve ever met, well....I would have wanted to believe it. But I still thought it was unlikely. 

I entered the UTS building last Thursday and thought I would explode with joy. I sat at tables with some of this country’s brightest minds, most respected historians and highly praised writers and thought.....I belong here. Not in an arrogant way, you understand. I am honoured and beyond grateful to be here, but I also know this is where I’m meant to be. These are my people. This is work I understand and want to do with all my heart.

But this isn’t happening because I was ready. I thought my PhD was still years away. I’m here and doing it because life decided I was ready. After all these years, the space suddenly opened and when it did, I didn’t question it. With encouragement from some wonderful people, I jumped. 

This feels like the biggest journey of my life. Bigger than the move to Melbourne or London, bigger than the quest to get fit and healthy, bigger than the marathon. This is the keeping of a promise to my younger self, my most essential self. I want to look back on my life and know that, despite taking the scenic route, I did not fail her. 

So if you’re reading this, wondering if your own dream - the biggest dream of your true, most authentic self - will ever happen, please take heart.

Trust yourself and the timing of life. 

And never, ever give up. 

silverbeet, ricotta and feta cannelloni

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This is vegetarian winter comfort food at its finest. Silverbeet (chard in the UK) is such a nutritious winter vegetable and can be bought readily and cheaply at this time of the year. It goes in everything - pasta sauces, stir-fries, soups, stews, pies, frittatas. This is eating seasonally at its best!

And if fussy eaters in your family sometimes eschew the silverbeet stalks, I promise they’ll barely notice them in this delicious dish. You can use a bechamel sauce to top the pasta rolls instead of passata if you prefer, but I love the acidity and brightness of a tomato-based sauce with this dish. It contrasts so nicely with the creaminess of the cheese and the filling.

This dish has become my standby for winter entertaining, and everyone I’ve served it to has exclaimed with pleasure on taking their first bite. I’m sure you’ll be the same!

It partners well with a rocket salad, steamed green beans, broccoli or any green vegetable on the side - just keep it simple. This dish is the soprano in the mid-week dinner opera.

Silverbeet, ricotta and feta cannelloni

Serves 4-6 depending on appetite

1 onion, finely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 bunches silverbeet (or you can use cavolo nero, kale, spring greens or chard, if you’re in the UK), washed and chopped reasonably finely (stalks and leaves)
Stock or wine, just in case it sticks
1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs or oregano OR a handful of fresh sage and rosemary, finely chopped
1 x 375g tub ricotta
100g (roughly 1/2 a packet) feta
Any other cheese you might have lying around you want to use up (blue cheese is especially good)
1 x 150g tub basil pesto (Coles does a good one)
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
A bit of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
1 x 375g pack fresh lasagna sheets (roughly 12 sheets)
1 x 690g jar tomato passata
1 x 220g tub cherry bocconcini (baby mozzarella balls)
A sprinkling of fresh parmesan (optional)
A little chopped fresh rosemary and oregano to sprinkle over the top
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200 C. My oven needs to be on 220 to get it to this temperature - you want a hot oven basically!

Heat some olive oil in a large, non-stick pan (which has a lid) over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and garlic, and cook for a few minutes until starting to soften. Add the chopped silverbeet and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or so until it starts cooking. You can then reduce the heat slightly, put the lid on and leave for a few minutes for the stalks to cook and soften. Add some stock, water or wine to the pan if it starts to stick.

Once the silverbeet is cooked, turn off the heat and set the pan aside to cool slightly while you assemble the rest of the filling ingredients.

Add the herbs and ricotta, crumble in the feta, and grate or crumble in any other cheese you wish to use (I find making this is wonderful around Christmas too, when you’ve inevitably got lots of random bits of cheese in the house). The add the tub of pesto, lemon zest, nutmeg, chilli, any other herbs you might like or have lying around (parsley, thyme and basil are all good) and a good cracking of fresh black pepper and a smidge of salt (you won’t need much because of the feta). Mix everything together well.

Assemble a large baking dish (what you’d normally cook a lasagna in), buttering/oiling it if need be. Take each fresh lasagna sheet and place roughly two tablespoons (1/12th) of filling on top, spreading it slightly but keeping it mostly in the middle, then roll up loosely to enclose the filling. Place the rolled cannelloni, seam-side down, in the dish, taking care not to pack them in too tightly. Continue until all the lasagna sheets and filling are used.

Pour the jar of passata over the top, spreading the sauce out evenly. Place the cherry bocconcini evenly on top, to ensure equal cheesiness in each portion! You may not need all of them. Finally, sprinkle the top with a little fresh parmesan (if using) and the chopped fresh herbs.

Place in the hot oven and bake for around 35 minutes (if your oven is temperamental like mine, check after 25 minutes) until the dish is bubbling and the top is golden brown and looking irresistible.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before dishing out and enjoying, preferably with a glass of excellent red wine alongside. If a Barbaresco is easily available where you are, I highly recommend that. Otherwise, an Australian pinot noir or cab sav is delightful.

peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips and sea salt

peanut-butter-choc-chip-sea-salt-cookies-philippa-moore

I don’t know what it is about the taste of peanut butter, but it has an almost Proustian effect on me.

As a child, I rejected every other sandwich filling for my school lunchbox. In fact, I rejected sandwiches most of the time - they were dull in taste and vomit-inducing in texture, the opposite of everything I wanted and believed food to be. So for most of primary school, my usual lunch was a bag of carrot sticks and peanut butter on crackers. Peanut butter became a familiar, quotidian taste and I found it far from exciting. Once I was old enough to make my own lunch for school, peanut butter was off the menu. I’d had enough to last a lifetime, or so I thought.

But as an adult, I’ve found tasting peanut butter again quite ambrosial. I love it on apple slices, on toast, in stir-fries, in smoothies or even by the spoonful.

Peanut butter also makes a divine and, with the addition of a sprinkle of sea salt, very adult biscuit. But the method is so simple a child could make them (with a little supervision). I find making biscuits such a faff that I was determined to make these in one bowl/pan. Success.

Be warned, these are incredibly addictive.

Peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips and sea salt

150g smooth peanut butter (I like Bega Just Nuts or Pic)
125g unsalted butter
65g rice malt syrup
125g brown sugar
1 egg
Splash of vanilla extract
100g dessicated coconut
270g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bicarb soda
120g dark chocolate chips
Sea salt flakes, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 180 C (fan-forced). Line two baking trays with baking paper.

Place the peanut butter, butter and rice malt syrup in a large saucepan (you will use this to make the whole mixture, so make sure it’s a big saucepan) over low heat. Stir occasionally until just melted. Turn off heat.

Add the brown sugar, egg and vanilla, and beat well until combined.

Add the coconut, flour and bicarb soda and stir to combine.

FInally, add the chocolate chips and stir until evenly distributed through the mixture.

Using a teaspoon and your hands, roll into balls of a size to your liking (just be consistent!) and place evenly spaced on the trays. Once all the mixture is used, use a fork to flatten the dough balls slightly.

Sprinkle the tops with a little sea salt (only a little - we’re not going for a hundreds and thousands look! Just a flake will do. Be restrained and judicious here). You could also put a few more choc chips on top (as I did).

Bake in the oven for roughly 8 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown. For goodness sake set a timer, otherwise you’ll pull a groin muscle running to the oven to rescue them.

Allow to cool slightly on the trays, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. You can eat them warm(ish) but I think they’re at their best cool. They are “crisp yet fluffy”, as Tom described them.

Perfect with a cup of tea or (I imagine) crumbled over some vanilla ice cream.

william, an englishman: a book for its time, and ours

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William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton was the first book published by my beloved Persephone Books in 1999, a reprint from the novel’s original publication in 1919. If you don’t know about my love affair with Persephone, do check out this post to be brought up to speed!

I stockpiled a number of Persephones before leaving London and this was among them. I read it at bedtime over the course of a few weeks, not something I’d recommend, as it’s not an escapist read to send you off into a dreamy, calm sleep. But it is an incredible book for its time - and for ours.

William and Griselda are young newlyweds, both heavily involved in various causes and social justice, extremely earnest and ready to fight for what they believe in. But they are in actual fact very impressionable, have been swept up in these various movements that were rocking the social foundations of Britain in 1914 (namely socialism and suffrage), and parrot the beliefs of the movements they support, as opposed to analysing and considering them, determining their own moral compasses rather than blindly following a crowd. They think they know what “fight” means but really, they haven’t a clue.

They honeymoon at a remote rural cottage in Belgium in August 1914. After three weeks of contentment, they are blissfully unaware of the world around them (they don't know war has been declared, let alone that Belgium has been invaded) and they don’t even speak the language so they cannot understand the warnings from the farmer's wife who cooks for them (despite everything it's amusing that William and Griselda are so oblivious).

On the day of their departure, they go to the farmhouse nearby to arrange for the boy to carry their suitcases to the train station, as he did when they arrived. Instead, they find the house deserted, with all the people and animals gone, and a lot of evidence to suggest they left in a real hurry. Bewildered, William and Griselda begin their way into the village to the train station on foot, when they are captured by the invading German troops. They finally learn what has happened and from that moment on, are caught up in the brutal, cruel horrors of war - a real one.

Cicely Hamilton spent the entire First World War on the frontline in France - she wrote this novel in a tent during the hostilities. You can tell. This is a woman who saw the horrors of that war firsthand and was unapologetic about exposing the ignorance of so many people as to what was really going on, what "war" really means when you're caught up in the middle of it. As an Australian soldier I knew, who died of his wounds in Iraq some years ago now, said, "it's not beer and skittles."

At the same time, this novel is not entirely "anti war" - Hamilton actually goes after the pacifists quite a bit too, asserting that they live in a "paradise of fools", that the things that were happening in Europe were horrific and the British war effort was actually very important and vital to fight the evil that was brewing on the European mainland.

William and Griselda are initially taken prisoner by the Germans, and separated at this point. William eventually makes an escape and finds Griselda, whose clothes are torn and spirit is crushed, she is utterly traumatised. Hamilton doesn't spell out what's happened to Griselda - we’ve already worked it out. The restraint with which she writes this scene, when they are reunited, is quite extraordinary.

Weakened from injuries and lack of food, the pair attempt to get to safety through the Belgian countryside to the French border. They are helped by travellers along the way, managing to remain out of sight of the enemy. But a road accident weakens Griselda further - and a few days later, as a kindly villager gives them a lift in their cart, she dies lying on a pile of straw.

William then mercifully finds someone who speaks English and manages to get through the trauma of burying his wife. His Good Samaritan, Edith, helps him get the train to Paris and eventually another train and boat back to England, where he arrives a broken man.

Having seen the horrors of what is happening in Europe and determined to stop it, he attempts to enlist in the Army, but he is rejected because he doesn't meet the height requirement. "Oh don't worry, in a few months they won't care about that," William's friend Faraday consoles him. And oh how true that turned out to be.

In the meantime, William attends meetings that he used to go to all the time, full of fiery speeches to motivate everyone into supporting the socialist and pacifist causes, which he loved and felt a sense of community in. But now, he is appalled. These people aren't brave - he realises - for they have sacrificed nothing. They haven't got the first clue what he's been through, what thousands are going through, of the brutality, the horror of what he's witnessed and what he's so cruelly lost. And it must be stopped. Now is not the time for pacifism, in his opinion. He is incensed, enraged and utterly broken.

Eventually he does get accepted by the Army and ends up in what one might deem a communications job - he writes letters, takes dictation, files documents. But then William moves to the third phase of his character development - utter disillusionment. What difference has he actually made? He has done his duty, yes, but what has been the point?

“He hated the war as it affected himself, was weary of the war in general; all he longed for was its ending, which meant his release from imprisonment; but neither hatred nor weariness had blinded his eyes to the folly of that other blindness which had denied that war could be.”

Eventually, as was the fate of so many, he is involved in combat, suffers massive injuries, and dies quietly in a field hospital.


It is not a happy read, but Hamilton did not intend it to be. I think she thought people had their heads far enough into the sand and they needed a reality check. This book won the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse, the highest honour bestowed on female authors in 1919 (probably the equivalent of the Stella or the Women's Prize today) and no wonder. It’s unforgettable. And I think it's just as relevant a read now as it was then.

when july was summer

Gin and tonics in our backyard last July.

Gin and tonics in our backyard last July.

Last July, it was summer, not winter.

Our one-way tickets to Australia were booked.

London wasn’t home any more. It’s a hard feeling to describe, when life is carrying on as much as it always has, but now there is no point buying plants for the garden, or that piece of furniture, for you know now there is an end date, and soon you will leave this corner of the earth. The house you live in and love will soon be someone else’s. You will disappear. It will be as if you had never been there at all.

Here is something I wrote at the time. Just some little observations. Things I wanted to remember.

Tom and I walking up to the street fair, July 2018

Tom and I walking up to the street fair, July 2018

8 July 2018

The third weekend in a row of high temperatures, the sun beating down, unfiltered by cloud. My shoulders tanned brown. Tom and I walk up to the village Green, where there’s a street fair. They’ve closed the road by the train station so the usually car-choked streets are filled with donkey rides, Enfield for Europe protestors, gin and tonic stands, a Mini convertible we know no one will win. The smells are intoxicating - Caribbean food, curries, kebabs, Vietnamese tofu grilled on hot coals, halloumi fries piled with pomegranate seeds.

enfield-for-europe-july-2018-philippa-moore

England are playing Sweden in the World Cup in a few hours so giant television screens are set up on the green, the air full of expectation. By the time we walk home with food for lunch, the streets will have emptied significantly. A few hours later, roars, screams and cheers will signal that England have triumphed. 

I linger at the plant stall, my favourite, full of varieties of sage and mint - apple, peppermint, pineapple. Heartsease, its purple flowers shaped like little hearts. House leeks, to ward off bad spirits. Thai basil, which I’m longing to cook with having been watching Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey. All the plants I would buy if we weren’t leaving. But it’s going to pain me to part with the ones I already have. I keep my coins in my purse and move on. 

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For weeks now we have lived on salads, veggie burgers, dips and raw vegetables, grains that can be cooked with water from the kettle. I can’t remember the last time I made pasta, soup or a curry. We have a little rain for the first time in nearly four weeks and my thirsty plants gulp it down.

The hard cantaloupe melon we bought yesterday, barely giving off a fragrance, is already ripe and begins to perfume the house. It is beginning to dip into a smell that is less perfume and more compost heap. I suspect we must eat it today.

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The smell of over-ripe melon will always make think of that last summer in London.

PS: The reason for the photos with captions on them is because a few days later, on 13 July - bizarrely, coinciding with Trump’s visit to London - my phone died and I hadn’t backed up any photos since May. The only way I could access these pics was through Instagram stories!