Tuesday, September 19, 2006

MY CANDLE BURNS at both ends; It will not last the night; But, ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends - it gives a lovely light.

Edna Saint Vincent Millay


Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem is a surreal detective story set, you guessed it, in Brooklyn New York. Lionel Essrog is one of four adolescent orphans from St Vincent’s Home for Boys who are taken on by a local fixer/tough called Frank Minna who intends the lads to become “Minna Men”, his sidekicks in the fly-by-night detective-agency-cum-limosine-service he has started. Lionel is known as the Human Freakshow as he suffers from Tourette's Syndrome
and is continually shouting out nonsense and swearwords, compulsively counting things, touching things and twitching or “ticcing” as it is properly called. Because of his condition Lionel’s innate intelligence is discounted by everyone, until one terrible day when Frank Minna is murdered and Lionel is compelled to really become a detective, and to try to find his way through shady undergrowth of Brooklyn’s gangster land and the web of threats and favours that surrounded Minna.

Jonathan Lethem had written Sci- Fi before he wrote this novel, and has obviously been influenced by Philip K. Dick’s writing. What gives the book its USP is the character of Lionel and his daily, even hourly, battle with the behaviours caused by his condition. He is isolated from forming any real relationships by his Tourette’s Syndrome, which is brilliantly described and which I found incredibly moving. I wasn’t sure quite what the author wanted this book to be. As a detective story it is satisfactory but fairly mundane, so was Lethem primarily trying to write a book about someone with Tourette’s?

Tourette’s is a condition which is life-long and there is virtually no treatment for it. People who suffer from it are often shunned in society. I well remember my very first day as a magistrate, 20 years ago. I had to sit in court at Horseferry Road in London. One of the very largest and busiest magistrate’s courts in England. As you might imagine I was nervous, and slightly stunned by the sheer volume of clients who passed before the bench. A case of criminal damage was called on, and into the dock came a man of about 30, f-ing and blinding and throwing his arms around, he paid little attention to the chairman of the bench telling him to be quiet. The chairman was an elderly chap in his late sixties, and he became very red in the face as the man kept shouting “fuckfuckfuckfuckcuntfuck” etc, and he threatened to have the man sent down for contempt of court. I suddenly realized that the man had Tourette’s (although back then I knew it as Gilles de la Tourette’s Syndrome) so I gathered my courage and managed to whisper to the chairman that I would like us to retire. When we did, I explained what I knew of the syndrome – which was not that much – but persuaded my fellows that the Probation service should be asked to get the man an appointment with a neurologist at Guy's hospital, and find him a place in a hostel (he was living on the streets) and that that would be a far more positive outcome than just locking him up. Sadly, I expect he appeared in other courts at other times poor chap, but at least on that one occasion I felt I had achieved something worthwhile, not a feeling I have had very often in my little corner of our creaky justice system.

Are we going nuts as a society? Maybe it’s just me going nuts, but I am getting really irritated with the ridiculous warning labels on packets of food or household goods, I think it is creeping into this country following the US model. Check out this website about idiotic warning signs in the USA

Today I was making my usual weekly dash round Waitrose when I came across the most blatant example of an illogical, crazy warning I have seen .

A promotion was going on in the fruit & veg section. A Waitrose employee was standing at a little table offering customers free samples of a line of produce – you know the kind of thing, a whole lot of little plastic dishes with a tiny taster in each, and a waste bin beside the table for the used dishes. There was an artistically arranged pile of packets of the goods for customers to purchase once they had been seduced by the tasting. Prominently displayed on the table was a large laminated sign reading ‘May Contain Traces of Nuts’ – and what you may ask, was the product being promoted? Why it was Nuts, packets of Waitrose’s own label nuts. Cashews, almonds, brazils, macadamias, pistachios, and some packets of mixed nuts. There was nothing else in the packets, just nuts.

‘May Contain Traces of Nuts’ – I should bloody well hope they did – they WERE nuts and I went nuts. I rushed up to the employee and asked them (very politely) why they had that stupid warning sign up and I was told ‘we have to have it by law* in case someone who is allergic to nuts eats something without realizing it has nuts in it.’ - ‘but’ I said, ‘these ARE packets of nuts, the samples you are handing out are nuts, why would anyone with a nut allergy even consider taking a sample? You don’t need this warning label’ Anyway, there was no point discussing it with her, she was merely following company policy.

I drove home thinking about how stupid our society is becoming – having to be warned about the obvious all the time, why are we letting this happen? Where will it all end?

* It is not true that you have to label for inadvertent traces of nuts, I have just looked up the UK’s food labeling regulations to be sure. Having said that, I can see that it might be sensible to put such a label on a packet of food containing a mixture of ingredients where there is a chance of the food having some nutty component. I just think companies are taking it to excess without looking at logic because they are scared witless of being sued.


After that nutty rant, I thought I would include a recipe that definitely contains nuts. This is a cauliflower salad - well I call it a salad - that has variations across Spain and Italy. I like this Italian version, and presume it came from the town of Rimini. You can make it all year round as it is just as good in winter as in summer. The other good thing about it is that you can prep everything several hours ahead, and just assemble it at the last minute, so it is really good as a starter when you have guests.


Serves 4 as a starter, or 2 as a main course.

1 medium cauliflower, leaves discarded, broken into small florets.

Generous pinch of saffron

75ml olive oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

50g pine nuts

50g raisins

Extra-virgin olive oil to dress

Small handful chopped fresh mint

Small handful chopped flat leaf parsley

Heat a saucepan filled with a generous amount of salted water, add the saffron and when it comes to the boil, pop in the cauliflower.

Cook for just 2-3 minutes, so that the cauliflower picks up a little colour from the saffron but stays very much al dente.

Drain well, and spread on a tray to cool quickly.

Meanwhile, put the oil in a frying pan over a high heat. When it is just starting to show wisps of smoke, add the onion. Fry briskly for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the slices start to look crispy and caramelised. Add the pine nuts and raisins. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes (the raisins will swell and the pine nuts should colour a little). Tip into a sieve and drain off the excess oil, then transfer into a large bowl.

To serve, toss the cauliflower with the onions, raisins and pine nuts and season to taste. Drizzle generously with the extra-virgin olive oil and scatter with the chopped herbs.

The salad is also good when topped with shavings of a salty sheep milk cheese such as Pecorino.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah at last instructions for how to take a dump. To follow instructions on how to breathe and how to blow your nose.