22nd November. The Centenary of the Birth of Benjamin Britten.


Love will expire - the gay, the happy dream
Will turn to scorn, indiff'rence, or esteem:
Some favour'd pairs, in this exchange, are blest,
Nor sigh for raptures in a state of rest;
Others, ill match'd, with minds unpair'd, repent
At once the deed, and know no more content...


From Tale IV of 'The Borough' by George Crabbe (1754-1832)

I once spent a summer living and working in Oxford. I had a boyfriend there and I shared a rackety Victorian house with him and some of his colleagues, most of whom worked for the student branch of Oxfam. I can't remember now who we were visiting, but we went for tea in some upstairs rooms in the centre of the city. I was attracted to the view from the window, which looked over Christ Church College. There was a lodge in the grounds and in the garden an old man was pottering around the roses. Our host said "That's Auden. Back from America. Christ Church have given him a house." Auden! The most famous and celebrated poet of his generation. And I saw him in his shirtsleeves shuffling around his back yard. Here he is looking louche.


(Britannica Image Quest)

Between 1940 and 1941 Auden shared a similarly disorganised house in Brooklyn Heights with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. The other residents were Carson MacCullers, George Davies the former literary editor of Harper's Bazaar and Chester Kallman, the young poet who was Audens lover. This amazing ménage was completed by Gypsy Rose Lee (!) and other temporary residents who included Louis Macneice, the children of Thomas Mann, (one of whom Erika, was legally Auden's wife) plus numerous other artistic and literary types.

It was an extraordinary time and for the rather conventional Britten something of an eyeopener. The dives of the Brooklyn waterfront were a regular haunt for some of the residents and not infrequently, bewildered sailors found themselves breakfasting with a famous burlesque artist and some of the twentieth century's most innovative and creative individuals.

It was all a long way from Lowestoft.


(Britten in a boat off the Aldeburgh coast. Britannica Image Quest)

Benjamin Britten was born there on the 22 November 1913, the third child of a reluctant dentist and his musical wife. They were prosperous and respectable. Britten's prodigious talent and his homosexuality propelled him into another world - not least the sort of bohemian set-up that existed at 7 Middagh Street. But you get the feeling Britten was never comfortable in bohemia, certainly not the way that his friend (at the time - they fell out shortly afterwards) Auden was. The Middagh Street ménage was short lived and Britten was homesick for the fens, but two things happened whilst he was in the US that had ramifications for the rest of his life.

He and Peter Pears had gone to America as friends and colleagues, they returned as lovers and life long partners. Whilst they were there, Peter Pears wandered into a second hand bookshop in New York City and bought an old copy of the poems of George Crabbe. Crabbe was an eighteenth century clergyman from Aldeburgh in Britten's beloved East Anglia. His narrative poetry breathes the big skies and open spaces of that unique landscape. One poem in the collection called 'The Borough' tells the tragedy of a harsh fisherman who was an outsider in his small community. His name was Peter Grimes.

The opera that Britten wrote based on Crabbe's poem set the tone for most of the operatic works that followed. There is usually a main character, who for reasons which are sometimes of his own making,  sometimes not, cannot be admitted to the mainstream of life. He is an observer, an outcast, a maverick.  

Pears and Britten returned to England in 1942 and both registered as conscientious objectors. Britten at his tribunal said he was a creative person, he could not bring himself to participate in the destructive force of war. Am I right that Britten's felt his homosexuality set him apart from bourgeois society, but his essentially conventional nature set him apart from bohemia? I don't know. Maybe. All I do know is that the music is wonderful and it's the song and not the singer that really matters.

Back at 7 Middagh Street, the chaotic lives of the residents were somewhat regulated by the availability of good food. Gyspy Rose Lee introduced the house to a wonderful cook called Eva. Auden would say before supper, "We've got a roast and two veg, salad and savory, and there will be no political discussion."

Eva produced nightly meals of a delicious main course, often followed by a chocolate pudding. She might have made this, or she might have bought it at Ebinger's, the chain of Jewish bakeries in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Blackout Cake

So called because of its crumb coating. The blackout cake was created by Ebinger in the Second World War and named for the frequent blackout drills that had to be undertaken by Brooklyn's port side community.

This is from an old edition of The Daily Mail. Not my usual reading I have to admit.

Make the filling first so it can cool. The quantities below make a lot more than you need (well more than I needed), so if I made this again I would reduce the quantities by a third or even half. Why do so many recipes get this sort of thing wrong? Left overs could always be frozen or served with ice-cream.

75g cornflour
600ml milk
300g golden caster sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
100g cocoa well sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g unsalted butter diced

For the cake

180g soft unsalted butter
300g golden caster sugar
3 eggs
1tsp good vanilla extract
50g cocoa
1tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
280g plain flour
200ml milk

2 x 20cm loose-bottom cake tins at least 5cm deep.

To make the filling, mix the cornflour into about a third of the milk until smooth. In a small nonstick saucepan, bring the remaining milk to the boil with the sugar, syrup and cocoa, whisking until smooth. Add the cornflour solution, bring to the boil, stirring constantly, until you have a rich, thick custard. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract and butter, stirring until it melts. The mixture should be silky smooth, but if not give it a quick whiz in a food processor. Pour into a large bowl, cover the surface with clingfilm and set aside to cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 190C/170C fan/gas 5 and butter the cake tins.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a mixer or food processor, then incorporate the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla extract, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Sift together the dry ingredients and add them half at a time to the creamed mixture, then add the milk with the motor running.

Divide the mixture evenly between the cake tins and smooth the surface. Bake for 30-40 minutes until a skewer inserted at the centre comes out clean. Run a knife around each cake and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Cut both cakes in half horizontally using a bread knife. Set aside the best-looking top half. Place the other top half in the food processor and whiz to crumbs.

To assemble the cake, stir the cold filling to ensure it is lump free. Spread a quarter over one cake base, taking it almost to the rim, place the other base on top and spread with another quarter of the filling. Lay the reserved cake top in place. Coat the top and sides with the remaining filling.

Coat all over with the cake crumbs (this is the blackout). Take handfuls of the crumbs and gently press them against the side, leaving any loose ones to fall down and discarding the excess. Chill for a couple of hours and take it from the fridge 15-30 minutes before eating.

Should you have troubles (pets will die 
Lovers are always behaving badly) 
And confession helps, we will hear it, 
Examine and give our counsel: 
If to mention them hurts too much, 
We shall not be nosey. 

From: 'For Friends Only' by W.H. Auden (1907-1973)













2 comments:

Helen said...

What a shame you didn't see 'The Habit of Art.' You'd have loved it.

Liz Woods said...

I know!! Missed the bus again...