When 'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion was chosen for this month's bookgroup reading I must admit my heart sank. All I knew about the book was that it was about the year following the sudden death of her husband, and about how she coped with the grief - not, you will admit, the subject most likely to cheer a reader. So I decided to grit my teeth and get it over with, borrowed the book from Highgate Lit & Sci, and started reading....and I am SO pleased it was selected. I can't think of when I last read a book which was so rewarding . Joan Didion is an author with considerable reputation in the USA and reading this book one can understand why. Beautifully written, her prose is simple and elegant, and conveys her thoughts and emotions with incredible clarity. The book is NOT a "downer" at all, in fact it is remarkably life-affirming.
On the evening of December 30th 2003 , Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne (to whom she had been married for over 40 years) returned to their New York apartment after spending time at the ICU of the hospital where their only daughter was gravely ill and in a coma. Whilst Joan was preparing their supper her husband had a massive heart attack and died. As she says at the beginning of the book: "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
For a year after his death, and whilst dealing with the ongoing anxiety of her daughter's situation, she struggles to understand what death is, how we deal with it, how she grieved, how society deals with the bereaved, and how what she refers to as the "vortex" of memory keeps making her react in ways she hadn't expected. In effect, she thinks that grief makes one slightly deranged, one's judgement and thought processes twisted into strange shapes.
At the same time, the book is the portrait of a marriage; a long, close marriage, which she had not expected to end so suddenly. Not just a married couple, she and her husband had been colleagues and collaborators working from their home, often on joint projects, bouncing ideas off one another, seeking advice and approval from each other for their work. At one point she says she entered their apartment and wanted to ask his opinion on what she should do about his death, a curious moebus loop of thinking. As she suffers from the "unending absence" of her husband she realises how other people see her as getting old, whereas he never did, he always saw her as the person she was when they married, and that kept her feeling young.
The book has made me consider how I have been when with friends who have been bereaved, and I think I must approach things rather differently than I have done.
I have now bought my own copy of the book, and another two copies which I have given to friends. This is a book that all adults should read - we are certain of few things in this world, but death is the one thing that is certain, deaths of family and friends as well as our own deaths, and we need to consider how we perceive it more carefully, Joan Didion has helped me do that.
As soon as some bright spark in this bloody government gets an idea in their pea-sized brain they rush to have it implemented.
Today, we are the recipients of just such a hasty, ill-considered act.
Today we have a new ministry - The Ministry for Justice.
This new ministry has come into being without any Parliamentary debate, and with what seems very inadequate consultation with the various interested parties. The Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer (who is Blair's ex-flatmate and legal chum) told the Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords that in principle it was constitutionally acceptable.
Oh if you say so,that's alright then.
Just deciding within a couple of months to make major changes to one of the great departments of State, without any democratic scrutiny, and without various serious questions of implementation having been resolved is both worrying and yet typical of this government. What will be the relationship between this new ministry and the courts ? how will bugeting for the costs of the court systems be kept separate from the political idiology of the government? where are the checks and balances which will keep the judiciary independent of the politicians?
I am but a humble little plankton in the choppy waters of the ocean that is our criminal justice system, but I knew my anxieties about the speed with which this new Ministry has come into being were justified when no less a dignitary than the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers said:
"The Ministry of Justice has come into being today. The judiciary consider that the creation of a new Ministry of Justice raises important issues of principle; these have been communicated repeatedly to the Lord Chancellor since January 2007 and are summarised in the judicial position paper of 29 March 2007. A working group composed of senior judges and senior Government officials has been meeting since 21 March 2007 to discuss the issues with the aim of putting in place constitutional safeguards to protect the independence of the judiciary and the proper administration of justice. " and continued to say:
"We have not yet reached agreement on a way forward. We will continue with our discussions with the Government in our attempt to resolve the important issues of principle that remain."
Troubled times lie ahead.
A bredie (bredie is pronounced “bree-dee” not “bread – ee”) is basically lamb and a single variety of vegetable stewed very slowly together, but that doesn’t really describe it at all. The famous South African gastronome Louis Leipoldt wrote the most perfect definition of a bredie: “….a combination of meat and vegetables so intimately stewed that the flesh is thoroughly impregnated with the vegetable flavour while the vegetables have benefited from the meat fluids…neither dominates but both combine to make a delectable whole that is a triumph of co-operative achievement.”
You can make bredies with most vegetables but the most common are Tomato Bredie, Waterbloometje Bredie, Green-bean Bredie and Pumpkin Bredie. Bredies are always served with rice, and are always better eaten the day after you have made them. They are a wonderfully homely and ideal for feeding a large family relatively inexpensively.
Cass (Cashifa) Abrahams is the doyenne of
2 large onions, roughly chopped
1 cup water
3 Tablespoons cooking oil (not olive oil)
6 whole Allspice berries
2 large Cinnamon sticks
A piece of green ginger the size of your thumb, peeled and crushed
5 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 large red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 Kg Butternut, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 Kg lamb or mutton cut into large chunks
½ glass dry white wine
Salt and Pepper
Chopped fresh coriander leaves to garnish
Put the chopped onion, cinnamon sticks, allspice and cloves into a big flameproof casserole. Add the cup of water, bring to the boil and simmer, stirring regularly, until virtually all the water has been absorbed by the onion and spices. Then add the oil, and cook gently until the onion is golden; add the lamb, garlic, ginger, chilli and turn the heat up to medium to brown it a little, when the meat is almost cooked add the white wine and butternut, cover with a tight fitting lid and continue to cook on a very, very low heat until the lamb and butternut are almost melting together, the meat practically falling apart and the butternut soft and mushy; stir from time to time to prevent the bredie from catching on the bottom of the casserole. Season to taste.
Remove from heat and leave to re-heat the following day, garnished with chopped coriander. Serve with boiled rice.