Wednesday, February 21, 2007

UNBROKEN HAPPINESS IS A BORE, it should have ups and downs.(Molière)
Think about it.


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell was our book club choice to read for this month. It is O’Farrell’s third book, and though I enjoyed her first one the next two left me fairly indifferent, so I was not expecting to enjoy reading this book as much as I did. The writing is very evocative, and it is a fascinating story so I was completely absorbed from the very start.

Esme Lennox is the second child of Scottish parents who live in colonial India just after the first World War. When she is a small girl her baby brother dies of typhoid and eventually the family move back to live in Edinburgh. As a child growing up in central Africa, my sister and I were taken on a trip back to visit my grandparents who lived near Glasgow, and when I read “Esme and Kitty curled round each other in a big bed, their teeth chattering. Esme could have sworn that even her hair was feeling the cold” it seemed to me to be describing my own memories of that visit and how alien an environment Scotland was for me, so I could really imagine how strange life in Edinburgh must have seemed to Esme.

Always a feisty girl with a stubborn streak of independent thought, Esmé finds it hard to adjust to the rigid social expectations of upper middle class life, unlike her pretty older sister Kitty. Even as a very young child she always irked her mother, who finds her irritating and troubling, and this gets worse as she gets older. Things go really awry when the suitable young man who has been earmarked for Kitty shows a decided preference for Esme, and when she is found trying on her mother’s clothes all hell breaks loose.

The book is told in flash backs, beginning in the present when a young woman called Iris receives a phone call to say that her great aunt, Esme Lennox, is to be released, after 60 years, from the mental institution in which she has been kept. The institution is closing down and Iris is thought to be responsible for her – the problem is that Iris didn’t even know she had a great aunt, she thought her grandmother Kitty was an only child. Kitty is still alive, but in a home as she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. There are three distinct voices in the book: Esme, Iris and Kitty, and through their thoughts the reader slowly learns long buried family secrets. Esme seems remarkably sane for someone who has been institutionalised for so long. She had, as a child developed a mental trick of distancing her mind from the situations she found herself in, vanishing in effect. At the end of the book Esme and Kitty meet again which leads to a startling denoument.

As I read the book, I became both sad and angry when I realised how easily a young woman could be locked away under the powers of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 (which included people, who were deemed to be ‘Moral Defectives’) just on the say so of a father or a doctor.

I found the book had particular resonances for me as some aspects of Esme’s story were similar to my mother’s early life. Like Esme, my mother was born in India in the years between the two great wars, and when she was a small girl her younger sister died suddenly too – as children often did in those days. My grandmother was grief stricken, and for a long time my mother seemed to remind her of her dead daughter. The relationship between my mother and her parents was never an easy one after that, and she was sent away to boarding school in England where she remained on her own for several years, during which time my grandparents had two more children before finally returning to settle back in Scotland.


HIV/Aids is a truly ghastly disease, but thanks to the tireless efforts of medical researchers it is now much more controllable than it was ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. How the disease can be passed from person to person is now understood, and with some relatively simple behavioural changes people can seriously reduce their risk of catching the virus. In much of the ‘western’ world, the number of people suffering from HIV/Aids has remained fairly low, but in other parts of the world, Africa in particular, the virus is still rampant. Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children have died in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola and other sub-Saharan countries. Aids Charities, NGOs and government health services are all doing their best to bring this disease under control, but it is not easy. I have spent time in villages in KwaZulu-Natal where the entire middle, income-earning, generation has been wiped out, leaving only the elderly and the very young children to fend for themselves. Many of those children are themselves HIV positive and facing an uncertain future. It could break your heart.

The last thing that the people of Africa need is some nutter like the President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, telling his fellow citizens and the world that he has invented a three day herbal cure for HIV/Aids. At the moment he is getting a good deal of publicity, splashing liquid over supposed sufferers, or rubbing ointment onto their bodies – liquid and ointment both being of dubious provenance - and giving them mysterious concoctions to drink. This “treatment” is being seen on TV by millions of Africans who may believe that it is all true. Many of the individuals he is supposedly “treating” may really have HIV/Aids and think they are being cured, which is unforgivable.

The various governments who provide foreign aid on which The Gambia relies so heavily, the WHO and the UN, should tell President Jammeh in no uncertain terms that this is a load of dangerous nonsense and he must stop immediately or there will be serious consequences. The international TV news organisations should be far more rigorous in their reportage, and ensure that no-one watching their coverage could possibly think his cure was genuine.

Only last year the Minister of Health in South Africa, Ms Manto Tshabalala-Msimang made a similarly ludicrous statement, urging HIV sufferers to cure themselves by eating beetroot, garlic, lemon peel and African potato which aroused such mirth abroad that an embarrassed President Thabo Mbeki was forced to issue a rebuttal (and he has not been exactly sound on the treatment of the disease) However this mad claim by Jammeh is much more serious and much more likely to cause harm to people.

The west is very pusillanimous in its treatment of African leaders, it does not call them to account when they behave in dangerous ways and continues to dole out money to the countries they rule, money which frequently makes its way into the Swiss bank accounts of those leaders.

Last week we did a lot of entertaining, and one of the desserts I made used the delicious new season's forced pink rhubarb. These jellies have such a glorious colour, and taste so good that even people who say they don't like rhubarb will be converted. The added bonus is that you can make it a day or two in advance. It is ideal after a rich main course.


Serves 6

500g rhubarb
1½ teaspoons fresh ginger root, finely grated
60g caster sugar
15g gelatine powder (one sachet)
3 tablespoons orange juice ( I use OJ from the carton of ready squeezed we have at breakfast)
2x 275 bottles of Ginger Beer – (use the best you can buy, I use Fentimans)
2-3 pieces stem ginger chopped
200 ml carton crème fraiche

You can cheat by using 1 x 135g packet of Hartleys orange jelly instead of the gelatine and OJ.

Wash the rhubarb and cut it into pieces. Put it into a saucepan together with the grated ginger and the sugar and heat very gently until the sugar is dissolved and it stews in its own juices. It takes about 20 mins. Stir from time to time to prevent it burning. The pieces of rhubarb will fall apart but that doesn’t matter. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Prepare the jelly mixture by putting the orange juice into a microwaveable jug and sprinkling the gelatine over it. Leave for five minutes to allow it to ‘sponge’. (If you are using the orange jelly method, cut the jelly into cubes and put into a microwaveable jug with 3 tablespoons of water.) Place the jug in the microwave and heat on full power for about 1 minute for the gelatine(jelly) to dissolve completely. Stir well. Make the quantity of liquid in the jug up to 520mls with the ginger beer. (You can drink any that is left over!)
Mix the poached rhubarb and its juices together with the liquid mixture and stir well. Pour or ladle the combined mixture into six 200ml wine glasses or similar, and put them in the fridge to set – preferably overnight, but for at least 6-8 hours.

Before serving them, top each one with a dollop of crème fraiche and scatter a few pieces of chopped stem ginger on top.


charlotte said...

Always a very well-rounded and satisfying post here! The Maggie O' Farrell and the rhubarb jellies both sound like delicious treats.

And of course you're right about AIDS - the last thing anyone needs is another leader coming up with some ludicrous "cure".

Reluctant Nomad said...

It's incredible that another African leader is going around making totally irresponsible pronouncements on HIV/AIDS.

Those rhubarb jellies remind me of guava. Colour-wise, that is.

Have you noticed how UK supermarkets, while stocking all sorts of unsual fruits from all over the world, never stock guavas? I know that Waitrose used to (still does?) stocks tinned guavas, but tinned guavas also seem unknown there, as is guava juice. Some of the grocers here in Amsterdam stock them but not bought any yet. I absolutely love them!

violetforthemoment said...

Gosh the jellies sound yummy. I've got really into baking lately so maybe I'll make a foray into the world of jelly next.

mawm said...

Herschelian - I have just come across your blog. It is wonderful!

The lack of responsibility shown by the leaders in African countries towards HIV/AIDS is shocking. I agree that the rest of the world should wake up to what these men and women are doing to their countries and what they are denying their own people. Manto is a disgrace as she supposedly is a medical doctor and should know better.The Bono's and Geldhof's would be doing a lot more good by exposing their greed and lack of empathy for their own kind than by raising yet more money for the elite to get their grubby hands on.
I'm not an Afro-pessimist, to use a popular phrase. Madiba showed us all what a kind, intelligent African can do; unfortunately the rest of the motley bunch are only interested in themselves.
Bill Gates and his wife (Melinda?) have realised that the only way charity works in Africa is to have a hands on approach and are doing marvellous things. This is how we in the Western world need to approach AIDS/HIV education and treatment in Africa.