Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Contrary to my previous post, I am still having real problems posting anything on this blog whilst I am in China, and despite valiant attempts to resolve matters it is still not happening. (BTW a friend in the west has posted this on The 3Rs on my behalf)

As a result I have decided to put The 3Rs - Reading, Ranting & Recipes on hold until I am back in the UK, and start a new blog about my time here in China.

Do drop by and tell me what you think, it would be great to have your company and comments.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I am now resident in Beijing, where to my horror I found that all Blogger/ blogs are blocked - as is Facebook and You Tube.  This was certainly not the case back in 2008 and though I know Google and the PRC powers-that-be had a massive falling out back in mid 2009, I can still get gmail and Google ok. Its just the blogs that are blocked. I have not been able to discover why, so the past fortnight has been horribly frustrating. 
Fortunately the DH and I were invited to a party here in BJ last weekend and lots of young computer geeks from the west were there, they are all working for a big computer manufacturer here in China. I asked them about my problem, and they gave me sound advice about acquiring something called a VPN, and recommended various on-line companies. 

The next day I started on my quest to break through the Great Firewall of China, and with a phone-a-friend helping me, I got a VPN all set up and here I am.  Thank god I know El Tel though as it is not as straightforward as it seems and I am not exactly the most technologically adept person.

It is just so bloody frustrating that they blocked Blogger in the first place.


I've read so many books since I last posted on the blog that I scarcely know where to begin. The book that kept me sane when the final days of packing and moving were driving me demented was a book I first read when I was a teenager, and I discovered a copy amongst my late mother-in-law's things when sorting through boxes that were going to be stored.

Desiree by Austrian writer Annemarie Selinko was originaly published in German in 1951. It was translated into English by Arnold Bender and E.W.Dikes and published by the Reprint Society in 1954
Desiree is a romance, and all the more romantic for being based on a true story, and although it is not exactly what one would describe as a great book, it captures the attention and one learns a huge chunk of European history without really trying.
Bernadine Eugenie Desiree Clary was born in 1777. She was the younger daughter of a prosperous silk merchant in Marseille. When she was 16 or 17, after the death of her father, her older brother was arrested by the local branch of the Revolutionary Government, and the good offices of a young Corsican clerk called Joseph Bonaparte helped to secure his release. As a result, Joseph and his brother Napoleon met the Clary family, and quite soon Joseph married Desiree's sister Julie; Napoleon and Desiree fell for one another and when she turned 18 they became formally engaged. Napoleon then went north to Paris where he met and became involved with the charming and sophisticated widow Josephine de Beauharnais. Josephine's husband had been sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Napoleon jilted Desiree and married Josephine.

Some years later Desiree married one of Napoleon's fellow generals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, and they had a son, Oscar. Napoleon appointed Bernadotte as a Marshal of France, a move he later came to regret. Bernadotte was an inspired military leader, but it meant that he and Desiree spent much of their married lives apart as he was always away on campaign. In 1809 the Swedish parliament offered him the role of heir-presumptive to the Swedish king who was old and childless. He and Desiree renounced their French citizenship and became Crown Prince and Princess of Sweden, though for many years Desiree continued to live in Paris. Eventually when the old King of Sweden died, they became the King and Queen, thus establishing the Royal house of Bernadotte who are the Royal Family of Sweden to this day.

The book which was hugely popular when it came out, was made into a movie starring Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, which I would now like to track down on DVD. As a teenage girl I just revelled in the romance of it all and paid scant attention to the history, but I found that re-reading the book made me realise how patchy my knowledge of the Napoleonic Empire is, most of what I knew was from a British perspective. As a result I now have a biography of Napoleon and some other books about the period on my 'Must Read' list.



As I am in Beijing and not doing much cooking as yet it seems a bit of a cheek to post a recipe, but I made this for a lunch we had just before we left London. It is always so popular with people who have a sweet tooth. I am told that the concept/recipe originated in a pub in East Sussex called The Hungry Monk back in 1972, though it is so ubiquitous it seems to have been around for ever. I you have some ready-rolled puff pastry in the freezer, and a jar of Dulce de Leche (or a can of condensed milk) you only need a few bananas and some double cream and you can have the whole thing assembled in half an hour.


Serves 6

1 pack (220-250g) ready rolled puff pastry - fresh or frozen
4 or 5 large bananas
1 can/jar of Dulche de Leche (Merchant Gourmet make a good one, and so do Nestles Carnation - look for the tins marked 'Caramel')**
300ml double or whipping cream.
1 teaspoon cocoa powder

Pre-heat the oven to 200C

Lightly grease a 21cm loose bottomed cake tin, press the rolled puff-pastry into the tin so that it comes at least 2cms up the sides, cut off any excess. Prick the base all over with a fork. Line the pastry with some baking parchment or greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Bake for about 20 minutes til the pastry is golden and crisp.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

When cool, place on a serving dish and spread the whole tine of Dulche de Leche over the base of the pie. Slice the bananas and put a double layer over the caramel. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks and spread over the bananas, be generous!
Use a small seive to sprinkle the cocoa powder over the cream to garnish. Keep in the fridge until ready to serve.

Now, how easy was that?!

** If you can't find ready-made Dulche de Leche you can make your own quite easily, but you will have to make it the day before you want to make the pie.
 Put an unopened tin of condensed milk ( NOT evaporated milk) into a saucepan and cover with cold water; bring to the boil and then simmer gently for about 1.5 hours, making sure the water doesn't boil dry.  Remove the tin from the pan and allow to cool completely. It can now be kept in a cupboard until you want to use it. It is  always a good idea to make two tins at the same time, then you have one ready at all times, it keeps virtually indefinately.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


But a word or two of explanation is necessary to explain why I have been posting so sporadically. 

Since December I have been having some eye problems which have made life tricky, but the good news is that I am due to have an eye op tomorrow and with any luck that will sort things out. 

My other challenge has been that the DH who had been away in China for 5 weeks, returned to say that at the beginning of June we are moving to live in Beijing. 

We won't be there all the time, but will spend about 9 weeks there, then 6-8 weeks back in the UK, then another 9 weeks or so in China, and so on and so forth - and this will continue for about 2 years. An apartment is being provided for us in Beijing.

The house we have been renting for the past couple of years has a prospective buyer, so we are packing everything up and it will go into store for the duration, and we will just have a small pied-a-terre here in the UK.
So here I am, surrounded by boxes, feverishly packing stuff, planning a huge farewell party for mid-May, and psyching myself up for tomorrow's op.

Friday, March 12, 2010


*Psittacula krameri


Small Wars by Sadie Jones is one of those books which you find yourself thinking about long after you've finished reading it. It is her second novel, her first -The Outcast - won the Costa 1st Novel Award in 2008, but I think that this is by far the better book.
Small Wars is set in Cyprus and England in the mid-1950s, it is both the story of a marriage, and of British foreign policy. Major Hal Treherne  has been posted to the British Colony of Cyprus in during the EOKA Emergency. Hal is a decent man, the only child of a family with a long military history, and after six years  stationed in Germany where there was no action to speak of, he is looking forward to doing the soldiering job for which he has been trained.  He is joined in Cyprus by his wife Clara and their two little daughters. Hal and Clara have a good marriage, they are very much in love, but living in the army base near Limassol they soon find that they are leading parallel lives and this 'small' war strains their marriage almost to breaking point. 
Hal finds he is being expected to ignore incidents of torture, rape and murder by army personnel, and his Colonel, who is a friend of his father, more or less tells him that he must set aside his integrity in the interests of military pragmatism. Suddenly everything he has ever believed in, the army, his country, his honour, his marriage, seems to be crumbling away. For the first time in their marriage Hal and Clara seem unable to communicate their feelings to one another and become more and more distant; she is fearful for her daughters and unable to understand why Hal has become so hard and taciturn, and he cannot begin to express to her the depths of his disillusionment. 
I cannot tell you more about what happens without spoiling the book for those who want to read it, but the ending is both inevitable and yet unexpected.

Since World War Two Britain has been involved in any number of 'small' wars, they are often in places where the job of the army is as much to win 'hearts and minds'  as it is to fight an enemy, and often the 'enemy' is the population of the country they are in. Afghanistan is a case in point, and the issues of how the military should to deal with 'insurgents' are very much the same now as they were for Hal in Cyprus in 1956.

Rated 4*


What in the world was Lori Mason thinking of when she allowed her husband, maverick chef/restauranteur Daniel Angerer to make cheese using her breast milk and then serve it to his customers?
Yuck, yuck, yuck! Human breast milk is for babies, not for over-sophisticated Manhattanites to munch on whilst sipping a glass of Reisling. Presumably Mr Angerer and Ms Mason have an infant otherwise she would not be lactating, so the poor babe must be losing out as some of the milk he/she could be having is being syphoned off (pardon the expression) so that dad can make cheese with it.  Apparently the New York Health Department are not happy about this and are taking steps to prevent this breast milk cheese being made, kept or served at the Klee Brasserie.
Years ago I took my kids to a farm in the Auvergne to see St. Nectaire cheese being made  (the expedition triggered a major family row about 'elf an safety, and EU farming subsidies, but that's another story) and I remember being surprised how much milk is required to make quite a small amount of cheese. With that in mind, Ms Mason would have to be 'milked' several times a day to get the liquid volumes required. I have only two words for her: Silly cow.


Cauliflower is not top of my list of favourite vegetables, it can be so bland and wishy-washy , especially if it has been over cooked. Over the last few years I have learned to appreciate it more, mainly because I have discovered some delicious recipes, and this is one I came across recently. It is from the Ottolenghi cookbook, though I have tweeked it a little. If you like spicy food, and like pakoras, you'll love these fritters.


Serves 4
350g cauliflower  
120g plain flour 
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley 
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 
2 shallots finely chopped 
4 large eggs 
1.5 teaspoons ground cumin 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
0.5 teaspoon ground turmeric 
1.5 teaspoons salt 
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
500ml sunflower oil for frying

First, prepare the batter by mixing the flour, chopped parsley, garlic and shallots together with the spices, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the eggs and use a wooden spoon to mix everything together and then beat the mix into a thick batter - make sure that all the flour and spices are well mixed in and that there are no pockets of dry ingredients.

Prepare the cauliflower by cutting off all leaves and the thick central stalk,and then divide it into small florets.  Put the florets into a steaming basket and steam over boiling water for about 20 minutes until very soft. (You can cook the cauliflower in boiling water if you wish but make sure you drain it really well)
Add the warm cauliflower florets to the batter mixture, and mix everything together breaking the florets down as you do so.

Put the sunflower oil into a large frying pan - it should be about 1.5cms deep - and when it is very hot carefully spoon quite large portions of the fritter mixture into the oil, approx 3 tablespoons per fritter. Make sure they are spaced well apart. I find that you can fry four fritters in the pan at the same time. Fry them for about 3-4 minutes each side, take care not to let them burn, if the oil is getting too hot, adjust the heat.
Use a fish slice or slotted spoon to remove them from the pan and drain them on crumpled kitchen paper to remove excess oil.

They are great tucked into pitta bread, with some tomato and cucumber, or served with a dollop of yoghurt or chutney.

Monday, March 01, 2010


Hearts and Minds is the latest book by Amanda Craig, and I think it is her best so far.  
In the last few years there have been several books (The Road Home by Rose Tremain, The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, My Cleaner by Maggie Gee) and one or two films (Dirty Pretty Things, Breaking and Entering) tackling the subject of what life is like for an immigrant/refugee/asylum-seeker living in Britain. In Hearts and Minds Amanda Craig has given the most readable, detailed – and at times depressing – overview of how our society functions only because of the huge underbelly of people from other countries who live and work here.  As I read it I kept thinking that this is the book everyone should read if they want to understand something of London life in the Noughties.

Like many big cities, London is a place of contrasts, and these are unveiled to show everything from the pampered luxury of life in a Hampstead mansion, the comfortable middle-class terraces of Islington, and the squalid apartments in ‘Kill Burn’ and Camden where brothels are called Massage Parlours.

The novel has five points of view: there is Job, the Zimbabwean mini-cab driver who is an illegal immigrant fleeing the horrors of Mugabe’s regime and who hasn’t heard from his wife for nearly a year; Anna, the fifteen year-old girl from Russia, who thinks she is coming to work as a cook or chamber-maid but finds she has been enslaved as a prostitute, her passport seized by the traffickers and without any access to the outside world. Katie, a young American who is escaping from a broken engagement, and is working for a pittance on a temporary visa. Ian is a white South African supply teacher working in a sink school in Hackney, and then there is Polly a divorced mother of two school-aged children who is struggling to advance her career as a human rights lawyer. These seemingly diverse individuals are connected through various chains of events which cross each other and interweave, all beginning when Polly’s Russian au pair, Iryna, vanishes without a word, and later when her body is discovered in a pond on Hampstead Heath.

Whilst I wouldn’t exactly put Craig and Dickens side-by-side in the pantheon of English literature, I certainly felt that the author was a very worthy successor to Dickens’s crusading zeal for depicting London life with all it’s social injustices, and she does so with a page-turning story and real characters who are tragic, frightening, charming, endearing and above all, believable.

Rated 4.5*


I have never been one for using much in the way of make-up, though as I get older there is no doubt that from time to time my complexion needs a little help to look its best. I call myself 'low maintenance' but what that really means is 'lazy'. However I do tend to put on some lipstick before I leave the house - that is if I remember.  For some reason I feel better dressed and more confident if I have applied a quick slick of lippy. 

I don't think I'm alone in this, thousands of women would probably choose  lipstick as their desert island luxury and nearly every handbag (or purse as the Americans  call it) probably has a tube of lipstick lurking somewhere in its depths.  Apparently during economic recessions - and we all know about those don't we? - the sales of lipstick actually rise because they are a small, feel-good purchase; if you can't afford a dress by Dior at least you can buy the lipstick.

As I am not what might be called a fashionista, I have a three lipstick policy, one shade for winter, one shade for summer and one shade for special occasions - I also have a little pot of lipgloss, but that is just an optional extra.  Last week I had to buy myself a new lipstick as my default winter shade was worn down to a nub. It should have been easy, but no, yet again the lipstick I like, the lipstick I want, has been discontinued.  
Instead of  just stopping at the beauty counter to pick up a replacement I ended up faffing around for 20 minutes in a swither of indecision whilst being 'assisted' by a young woman with glossy navy-blue fingernails, a tatoo or two, and at least five facial piercings.   

I am sure the cosmetic companies do this just to irritate me. I don't mind them bringing out new ranges of colours (although they always seem perilously, but not quite, like the previous range) with wacky names like 'Just enough buff', 'Wine with Everything' or 'Toast of New York' but please, please, please don't keep discontinuing the colours I like.



This area of North London has many Greek Cypriot and Turkish grocery shops, and I love some of the products they sell. Recently I bought a large tub of Taramasalata  (for which I have a great fondness) from a shop I use regularly and which always stocks good quality produce.    When I served it up with some hot Pitta bread I was most disappointed, it was artificially pink and bland. On close reading of the listed ingredients  it seemed there was very little cod roe in it, and rather a lot of vegetable oil, water and bread. The pink colour apparently came from beetroot juice! Beetroot juice - what the hell was that doing in taramasalata? 
I decided to make some myself, after consulting various recipes I phoned a Greek friend and she told me what to do - and also told me to leave out potato or bread which some recipes give to pad it out. Likewise any garlic, the flavour of the cod roe doesn't need garlic.  So here is the recipe:

TARAMASALATA - Helen's version

250g smoked cod roe
Juice of half a lemon
250ml olive oil - though you could need a little more
Boiling water

Soak the cod’s roe in a bowl of cold water for several hours or overnight.
Drain and peel off the outer membrane.
Put the roe in a food processor  give it a quick pulse - do not over process it.
Bring the speed up a little and add the lemon juice.
Now, just like making mayonnaise, start adding the olive oil in a thin stream, little by little whilst the processor is running slowly  Keep adding the oil until the mixture begins to look like a puree . The amount of oil needed varies and you will have to keep an eye on it.
Then add boiling water, a tablespoon at a time, until it becomes light and mousse-like.
Scoop into a serving bowl and scatter chopped parsley on the top.
Keeps well in the fridge (cover it tightly)

Monday, November 30, 2009



I should start by confessing that maths was never my strong point at school, I struggled with algebra, logarithms, etc and although I wasn't too bad at geometry I admit to a sigh of relief on leaving school, knowing that double maths lessons would never blight my life again.
It has therefore been something of a surprise to me how much I loved reading 'The Housekeeper & The Professor' by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder). This is a perfect little jewel of a book, and I read it at one sitting.

The housekeeper of the title is a young unmarried mother with a ten-year-old son who is employed to look after an ageing Professor of
Mathematics. This brilliant man has a problem, he received a serious head injury in a car accident seventeen years previously and since that time has lived with an eighty minute short term memory. Every morning when the housekeeper arrives for work, she has to re-introduce herself to the Professor as he lives in the moment, and anything which happened more than eighty minutes ago is wiped from his mind. He has tried to develop a method of coping with this by writing little notes to himself which he attaches to the suit he wears each day. The most important of these notes reads "my memory only lasts 80 minutes". His suit is absolutely covered with these aide-memoires. Despite this handicap, his passion for mathematics is still very much alive and his mental world is composed of equations, numbers, and mathematical problems from the past.
When the Professor realises that his housekeeper has a son who is home alone after school each day, he insists that the boy come to join his mother at the Professor's house. He immediately
nicknames the boy Root, as he says the boy has a flat head which looks like the square root symbol, and with clever mathematical riddles he slowly builds a delicate relationship with the mother and son. The housekeeper who (much like myself) has not thought about maths since she was a schoolgirl, is drawn in to the mysterious beauty of pure mathematics and soon she is beginning to learn about prime numbers, triangular numbers, amicable numbers, perfect numbers, the concept of zero and complex formulae and theorems.
Root has a passion for baseball, which is the most popular sport in Japan, and he supports a team called the Hanshin Tigers. He discovers that the Professor also loves the game and is a huge fan of a famous, long retired, player called Enatsu who played for the same team - but of course the Professor does not remember that the man has retired, and Root attempts to shield him from knowing this as it might upset him.
Over time, these three rather lost souls become like a family, a family that each of them had needed in different ways.
Their story is really charming, and very touching - and guess what, I even learned some maths!

Rated 5*


In October the government's Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) became law. The scheme was devised as a result of the national panic following the horrible murders of two schoolgirls in Soham in 2002.

Right from the outset I have been very dubious as to how effective it would be in keeping children safer than they were previously. The government has ignored all criticisms of the scheme, and now it is
firmly in place and will become mandatory from next year. For those who do not know what the VBS is, or how it works, basically it means that anyone who works or applies to work with children or vulnerable adults - either in a paid or voluntary capacity will have to apply for clearance (and unless they are volunteers) will have to pay £64 pounds for doing so. Their background will be checked for any criminal records, and non-conviction information from different sources when building a view of an individuals suitability (ie heresay or local gossip) for clearance. The scheme will be administered by a new body, to wit the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA)

This new scheme covers a huge range of people such as teachers, private tutors and sports coaches but also people such as doctors and nurses, opticians and dentists and taxi drivers who regularly take children to school. It will also cover librarians, parents who help out at their children's school on a regular basis, Brownie, Guide and Scouts leaders, and anyone who takes groups of children to such clubs or to ballet lessons, football matches etc. It will cover any parents who host an exchange student for a couple of weeks. It will cover staff in children's clothes or shoe shops, Sunday School teachers and anyone who assists them, I could list more but you get the picture. In fact, earlier this week a primary school in Cambridgeshire announced that when the entire school makes the ten minute walk to the local church for its annual carol service, escorted by the police and teachers, any parent who accompanies them will have to apply for clearance. I kid you not.

In all it is thought that nearly 11 million British adults will have to go through this scheme.

Many charities are worried that they will loose volunteers who do not want to go through the hassle of this process, and school language teachers are concerned that the foreign language exchange schemes will fizzle out because of it.

The ISA has taken on 200 employees and has been set up with offices in a marginal Labour constituency which has a high level of unemployment (and there is a general election coming up in six months or so - hmm, call me cynical but....). With one in four British adults needing to go through the scheme, it will produce shed-loads of money for the government, how handy is that when the national finances need all the help they can get.

The danger with this sort of legislation is that once in place, more and more organisations seek to use it either because they are paranoid, or to cover their backs, or because it is a form of control and empire building.

The example of this purpose-creep ( I don't know if that phrase exists, but you get my meaning) which has me frothing at the mouth today, is that OFSTED (which stands for the Office of Standards in Education - yet another government body) has announced that the parents of home-schooled children will have to go through the VBS and be cleared by the ISA.

What? a parent will be checked to see if it would be a danger for them to school their own child, not from an educational perspective, but in case they are not suitable? This is crazy. What if they are not granted clearance. The child might then have to attend a local school where the staff have been cleared, but at the end of the school day they would return home to be cared for by the 'unsuitable' parents. I think OFSTED are off their heads.

But above all, I think that treating all adults as potential paedophiles or abusers is a very bad thing to do, a society where so many of its citizens are not trusted is a very damaged society, and what is more it is unlikely to achieve its aims. Of course I want children to be safe, -there are nasty people around and each of us has to be vigilant, but this legislation won't keep anyone any safer
Do you think the ISA has checked to see if Santa is registered and been cleared?


Did you know that the term Vegetarian was only coined in the 19th century? before that people who did not eat meat or fish called themselves Pythagoreans. Although I, and all my family are what can only be described as greedy omnivores - we love meat and fish - we do eat a great many non-meat meals. Recently there has been quite a bit of comment in the press about how we could stop global warming if we didn't eat meat. Hmm, I'm more than a bit skeptical. But just to show my intentions are good, here is a wonderful recipe from a book I love called 'The Greens Cookbook' by Deborah Madison; you can enjoy this dish and feel virtuous at the same time!


2 Tablespns olive oil

½ onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

¼ teaspoon dried thyme or leaves from 4-6 stalks fresh thyme

1 bayleaf

Salt & pepper

120ml dry white wine

½ teaspoon paprika (or ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper)

450g tomatoes, fresh or tinned, peeled and chopped

1½ teaspoons sugar (if necessary)

1 butternut squash weighing approx 1.3 – 1.5 kg

Olive oil for frying

120g Gruyère cheese, sliced

Fresh herbs, parsley, marjoram, thyme etc, finely chopped.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and add the chopped onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf, and a little salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until onion is soft, but don’t let it brown; then add the wine and let it reduce by half. Add the chopped tomatoes and the paprika and cook gently for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is quite thick. Taste, add sugar if it is too tart and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Whilst the tomato sauce is cooking prepare the squash by peeling, removing all seeds and stringy bits, and then cutting into slices approx 7.5cms long and 5mm thick ( 3ins x ¼ in).

Heat enough oil in a large frying pan and fry the butternut slices on both sides so it is lightly browned and just tender. Remove slices from the pan and drain on paper towel to remove excess oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Pre-heat the oven to 190°C

Assemble the gratin by covering the bottom of a large shallow oven-proof dish with the tomato sauce. Lay the slices of butternut on top of the sauce in overlapping layers interspersed with slices of cheese.

Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the gratin is hot. Serve with the fresh herbs scattered over the top, a green salad and crusty bread.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I read this recently - and am ashamed to say it is true in my case.


Asylum seekers seem to be in the news all the time these days, what with the French clearing out the squalid camp on the outskirts of Calais and our own Attorney General being fined for employing someone who had no right live and work in Britain.
Harare North by Brian Chikwava paints a picture of what it is like to be an asylum seeker living below the official radar in Britain today - and it is pretty grim . Harare North is the nickname for London - along with Johannesburg (Harare South) it is one of the destinations of choice for ex-patriot Zimbabweans.

" I disappoint them immigration people because when I step forward to hand my passport to gum-chewing man sitting behind desk, I mouth the magic word -'Asylum'- and flash toothy grin of friendly African native. They detain me."

This young man whose name we are never told, is released after 8 days, and a cousin and his wife who already live in London grudgingly take him in. Some weeks later he drifts to Brixton where he re-connects with an old childhood friend called Shingi. Shingi is living in a squat with various other Zimbabweans who are all struggling to find a way of earning a living wage when they are illegal or semi-legal, and have none of the official paperwork employers demand.
The squat is run by Aleck who works as a BBC (British Buttock Cleaner) ie in a residential care home, which is one of the better paid jobs available - presumably because no native Britons wish to do such work. One of the other squatters is a teenage Zimbabwean girl called Tsitsi who has a small baby.
"Tsitsi have start to bring in small money by going out to the salon; MaiMusindo and them other women is helping she rent out the baby to other women that want to apply for council flats as single mothers. For £50 any woman can take Tsitsi's baby to the Lambeth Housing Department and play out to be single mother, fill them forms and take baby back to salon as she have been interview."

The language used is quirky, often ungrammatical and misspelled, and frequently relies on phonetics, and this gives the tale a flippant, almost casual tone which belies the life our nameless narrator has lead and is now leading.
At times I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The Zimbabweans living in the UK are often fleeing from the violent political situation back in their own country, and the news from home gets worse and worse as time goes by. However we learn that our narrator, an extremely self-centred young man, was a member of one of Mugabe's notorious youth squads 'The Green Bombers' who used to mete out 'forgiveness' (beatings) to anyone who has fallen foul of Mugabe's regime, and he has come to Britain reluctantly to try and get hold of $5000 to pay a bribe after having beaten someone to death. He refuses to acknowledge the atrocities being committed by the regime, and does not let his fellow ex-pats know of his history. Although the narrator is actually a rather unpleasant individual he has a very engaging way of expressing himself, and the reader is won over by his unflagging attempts to raise money one way or another. Working illegally at a succession of short-term, poorly paid jobs he manages to amass a little cash, most of which he starts spending on liquor and skunk. Slowly but surely he begins a downward slide into paranoia as the strains of living in Harare North start to tell on him.

I actually picked this book up because of the title, as I have a deep affection for Zimbabwe,
and had no idea I was going to be learning about one aspect of life in my own city. London exists on a raft of illegal immigrants who do much of the city's dirty work, and yet their plight is rarely written about. Brian Chikwava is a great new voice in African writing, and I look forward to reading future books by him.

Rated 4*


When you were seven years old,
what did you want to be when you grew up? - yes, I realise its a long time ago, but work with me on this.
I seem to remember wanting to be an artist or a synchronised swimmer - not that I knew what scantily clad girls who fooled around in a swimming pool were called - but splashing about for hours on end seemed highly desirable. My son and his best friend decided they would have a chicken farm ( presumably for a constant supply of eggs and chicken nuggets) with an attached diamond mine. Mind you it was a close thing as the lure of joining the A-Team was fairly enticing.

Our esteemed overlords, in the person of the Secretary of State for Education Mr Ed Balls (and that is an unfortunate surname for a politician don't you think?) have decided that primary school children as young as seven can't have these sorts of foolish ideas, and they should now get careers advice. Careers advice for heaven's sake, it'll be pensions advice next.
These are children, let them BE children.

It seems ironic that Ed Balls is introducing another loony government initiative in education when we still have too high a proportion of children who are unable to read by the time they leave primary school aged eleven. Surely basic literacy and numeracy is where any extra effort should be concentrated.
And who is going to deliver this advice to the nation's little darlings? our already overburdened teachers? or will a whole new strata of educational advisors, specially trained at vast public expense, be created to talk little Johnny, Sarah or Mohammed through their options. Hmm, should they be considering the legal profession, horticulture, or joining a scaffolding firm...or perhaps something in the meedja.

Thank god my kids are all grown up, but for the sake of my as yet unborn grandchildren I hope this stupid idea dies a death before too long.

What a shame no-one took the newly graduated Ed Balls aside and whispered in his ear just one word "Plastics" , that might have steered him away from a career in politics, to the benefit of the nation.


We have had the most gorgeous Indian Summer for the past month, but the evenings are definitely beginning to feel quite cold, and so my thoughts have turned to serving what I call 'winter' food. At the weekend I looked out an old Joseline Dimbleby recipe (I mean the recipe is old, not JD!) which I have not made for years, and jolly good it was too.
Use the cheapest piece of bacon you can find for this pot roast.

BACON IN BEER (aka Gammon in Guinness)
Serves 6

1.3 - 1.8kg bacon joint - preferably on the bone

3 onions, sliced
250g carrots, scraped and cut into largish chunks
1 can of peeled tomatoes (approx 400g)
330ml bottle of stout (I used Guinness)
6 cloves
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cornflour

Soak the bacon joint in cold water for several hours - overnight if possible - changing the water once or twice.
Put the bacon into a large saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 15-20 mins. Drain, rinse with cold water and then slit the thick skin and peel it and most of the fat off.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C.
Put the joint into a casserole dish with the onions, carrots, cloves, caraway seeds and sugar. Pour in the tomatoes from the tin and the stout and season with pepper. Do not add salt.
Bring the casserole to simmering point on top of the stove and then transfer it to the oven and cook for 2-3 hours, basting the bacon with the juices now and again, until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone.

Remove the joint to a carving board and put the casserole on top of the stove . Mix the cornflour with a little cold water, add to the vegetable and juices, bring to the boil and allow it to bubble for 2-3 minutes.

Serve the bacon with the vegetables and juices accompanied with boiled or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.