…of the week 16

Bake of the week: Chocolate and salted caramel cupcakes
Movie of the week: Manchester By The Sea
Book of the week: The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

I haven’t posted for a while. To be honest, I simply haven’t felt like it. Winter has been long and grey and full of viruses. Even Christmas was a bit, well, meh. However today has given me hope. Today I was too warm in my big parka. The sun is shining and the bulbs have started to poke their heads up. There are clumps of snowdrops and here and there in a sunny spot, you can even see a daffodil blooming. Things are looking a bit more positive.

2 weeks ago, in the middle of the greyest drizzliest part of winter, I made chocolate and salted caramel cupcakes for choir rehersal. Since, to paraphrase Piglet, no one can be un-cheered with a cupcake. I enjoy making caramel these days. The first few times I had a go, it was a complete disaster. I left it for too long and burnt it, or stirred it and it went gritty. Now I’ve got the hang of it (and happily seen many Bake Off batches go straight in the bin) it’s quite fun. And I know that you don’t ever stir it, however much you may be tempted. The sugar will dissolve. Have faith.  To help you, especially if you are a caramel virgin, I made a little slideshow of my latest attempt so you can see the stages. It’s really not that difficult!

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I find the easiest way to work out if it’s bubbled enough, is to go by a change in colour and a smell of buttery popcorn. It never looks as dark as commercial caramel. I don’t know whether this is simply because I don’t have the confidence to keep it going longer, but it tastes right, so I’m happy. I’ve put the recipe for the cupcakes here. I like to finish them with a Malteser on top – because I like Maltesers and I find it entertaining that it makes them look a little like boobs. I used to be a breastfeeding peer supporter and finding it funny to make things look like boobs comes with the territory. It probably stems from spending a lot of time squeezing knitted ones.

First things first, though, you need to make some chocolate cakes. Try and use really good quality cocoa as it really effects the taste. Either cream the butter and sugar together first or use an all-in-one method – I don’t think there is much difference really, just personal preference. While the cakes are in the oven you can make your caramel – this should give it enough time to cool down before you need to make the buttercream. It mustn’t be too hot or it will melt the butter. When you’ve made your buttercream, swirl on top of your cakes and stick the Malteser on top and enjoy!

One thing that definitely wasn’t as cheery as a daffodil or as sweet as a cupcake, was Manchester By The Sea. It was an excellent film, but even the trailer was enough to put you on a downer for an entire day. It mostly takes place in the depths of a New England winter with shots of grey seas and grey skies filling the screen and contributing to the general gloom. The movie begins with us following truculent janitor Lee (Casey Affleck) as he goes about his daily duties. He seems to be the embodiment of modern masculine alienation – he is abrupt with the building tenants, starts fights in bars, is impassive in the face of criticism from his boss and lives in one dark dreary room. Then one morning he gets a call on his ancient mobile and heads off to the hospital in his home town. His brother has died. Lee copes with this in exactly the way we would expect from what we have seen of him so far. He walks around seemingly in a daze, pulling his jacket defensively around himself, his face giving away very little. His surroundings appear to distress him, but it is unclear why. He tries to wriggle out of becoming guardian to his 16-year-old nephew (a responsibility he was not expecting) but he can find no one else to do the job and reluctantly agrees to take Patrick on. It is sometime around then that the flashbacks start. In flashback we see a relatively happy and carefree Lee, with a wife (Michelle Williams) and 3 children. As the story unfolds, it is with a deep sense of foreboding as to what turned this fairly cheerful man surrounded by friends and family, into the depressive loner of the present day.

Usually, I would write more about the movie at this point, but how I feel about it is so deeply tied up with the book that I’m featuring, that I think I should say a little about that first. In The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry is examining masculinity. What it is, how it is constructed and how it needs to change to make happier men more fit for the modern world. I feel like I have been railing against the contraints of gender roles my entire life – this probably isn’t true, but it’s certainly as long as I can now remember. All sorts of things irritate me about how entrenched gender stereotypes are in our world, and how these seem to be getting more and more rigid for children. My own secondary school was an all girls school where it was treated as a given that girls can do anything that boys can do, and probably better, and at university I discovered feminist and queer theory that excited me with the possibility that binary gender was a peculiar concept that was on its way out. In all this reading about femininity, sexuality and gender there was a great deal of writing about how our patriarchal society is bad for women, however, there was very little on how bad it can be for men. For me, The Descent of Man fills this gap. It is a very accessible book, pretty light on the technical jargon and has some satirical artwork that cheers it up a bit – all of which make it quite a good place to start for anyone who might be unfamiliar with ideas of gender as performance, or like me, read about it a very long time ago! While Perry’s notion of Default Man as our culture’s supposed “normal” setting reminded me of ideas of Everyman that I have come across before, the naming of the pressures on men to conform with this “ideal” as the Department of Masculinity appealed to me. It’s convenient have a name for your enemies.

What made me pair this book with Manchester by the Sea was that I also read the movie as a critique of masculinity.  When tragedy strikes Lee, he is unable to deal with the emotional fallout – he tries to commit suicide in an attempt to hold himself responsible, drinks excessively and picks fights in bars because he feels the need to be punished for what has happened to him. Unlike his wife, he is completely unable to cope with the pain and finds it hard to ask for help. His internal Department of Masculinity cripples and isolates him, leaving him unable to move forward with his life (I have also read some articles about Casey Affleck’s own appalling behaviour which bring to mind the sense of entitlement that comes with Default Man). Perry’s message is essentially that if men could stop listening to this Department of Masculinity, then they could free themselves to be happier and more constructive people, fit for a world that has progressively less need for traditional masculinity.

In Manchester by the Sea, it is this unexamined traditional masculinity, shown to be so destructive to Lee, that has been passed on to his nephew Patrick. Patrick, played by the superb Lucas Hedges, is presented a world where emotions are not expressed, complicated situations are run from and a man’s value can be measured in how many girls you are currently banging. After the death of his father, he is in desperate need of emotional support that he cannot get from his uncle and finds himself unable to ask for elsewhere, so throws himself into his latest project – finding the time and space to have sex with one of his girlfriends. This provides some welcome light relief in what would otherwise be a relentlessly grim movie.

While both the book and the movie are deeply critical of the current state of masculinity within our society they really stop there. There is little suggested in the way of an alternative other than the plaintive cry that if men were allowed to express their emotions more freely then they would have healthier relationships and be happier. However there is little inkling of how we can persuade men that this is a worthwhile goal while it remains unapproved by the almighty Department of Masculinity. The traditional masculine role has been developed and refined for hundreds of years and is unlikely to be revolutionised in a generation, but I intend to help my sons give it a bloody good try, and start with the basics – that as boys, they can wear what they want to no matter the colour, that there is no such thing as a “boys’ toy” or a “girls’ toy” and that however old they are, when they are sad they are allowed to cry and that they should always ask for help when they feel they are in need.

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