Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Martin Luther King


A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon had enormous expectations riding on it following the massive success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. At first I found the book rather mundane, rather like the sort of story that would feature in an old-fashioned women’s magazine, and wondered whether I should bother finishing it, but it gathered pace, and the tone became both funnier and darker as Haddon describes how mental illness can creep through lives, never being properly understood or addressed.
In A Spot of Bother, George a retired
middle-aged man married to Jean is beginning to find life worrying. He has developed a real anxiety about dying, and is having intermittent panic attacks. George and Jean have two adult children, neither of whom lives with them. Katie their daughter is a divorcee with a young son and lives with a chap called Ray. Neither George nor Jean like Ray, they don’t think he is good enough for Katie, socially or intellectually. Their son Jamie is an up-and-coming Estate Agent in north London, and is gay – a fact his parents cannot bring themselves to acknowledge. To compound matters, Jean has been having an affair with David, a former colleague of George’s, and is debating leaving George for him.

The story kicks off when Katie and Ray come round with Katie’s son Jacob, and announce that they are getting married. Jean and George, feeling guilty about their dislike of Ray, over compensate by offering to throw a wedding party for them. At the same time, George has discovered a patch of rough red skin on his hip that he becomes convinced is cancer. His GP assures him it is eczema and gives him cream to apply, but George’s anxieties increase. Unwilling to bother any of his friends or family by talking about it and becoming more and more troubled, he takes action, with awful but hilarious consequences. Family rifts, break-ups, reconciliations and wedding hysteria swirl about George as he battles his demons. His bothersome spot has caused a spot of bother and as with the Butterfly theory of chaos, small incidents lead to bigger dramas. Eventually all is untwisted, the wedding takes place, Jamie comes out of the closet, and things return to normal – or do they? George is still suffering from panic attacks, depression and irrational fears. Mental illness doesn’t come to a neat end.

Rated: 3.5*


In 2005, aged 17, Rizana Nafeek arrived in Riyahd from Sri Lanka to work as a housemaid for a Saudi family. Soon after her arrival she was sent to their other home 390 kms away where her employer’s wife was living with her new baby son. Despite having no childcare experience and not able to speak Arabic, she was given job of looking after the infant, and had to bottle feed him. During a feed the baby started to choke, as young babies sometimes do, and Rizana panicked, she shouted for help whilst trying to clear his throat, pat his chest etc, members of the family came running quickly in response to her shouts, but the baby had already choked to death. The distraught family summoned the police and said she had strangled the child. She was arrested. She was not allowed an interpreter. She was not allowed a lawyer. She was made to sign paperwork, which she subsequently discovered was a confession. When the Sri Lankan Embassy managed to make contact with her and got her a translator she immediately retracted the signed ‘confession’. The court refused to listen to her statement, and refused her legal representation. They sentenced her to death by beheading. Rizana is now just 19 years old and the Saudi justice system plans a public execution.

The justice system in Saudi Arabia falls far short of accepted international standards of jurisprudence as has often been demonstrated, but this is truly barbaric. The plan to execute a teenager, who was only 17 at the time of the alleged offence, who was tried behind closed doors with no access to legal representation is savage to say the least. The Saudis seem to be turning a blind eye to fact that the execution of juvenile offenders is expressly prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by Saudi Arabia in 1997. Executing Rizana Nafeek would be a violation of this agreement as well as contravening international human rights law.

If you feel as outraged as I do about this, I urge you to check out one of these links, and join the international protests against this barbarous sentence.

Asian Human Rights Commission

Amnesty International


Tomorrow is the BFCT's birthday. If she were here, or I were there, this is what I would make as a birthday cake/dessert, but as that isn't possible I'll just have to post the recipe instead. Happy Birthday Dee!


12 Digestive biscuits
5 Tablespoons butter

50g soft cream cheese
4 Tablespoons icing sugar
1 package lemon jelly
200ml water
Rind of 1 lemon, finely grated
150g sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla essence
4/5 grenadillas (passion fruit)

Pre-heat oven to 180°C

Put the digestive biscuits in a plastic bag and bash them to crumbs with a rolling pin. Melt the butter in the microwave. Mix the biscuit crumbs and butter together and then press evenly over the base of a 23cm springform cake tin. Place the cake tin in the oven to bake for 12 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Cut the lemon jelly into pieces and place in a bowl together with the water, microwave on high for 2-3 minutes until the jelly has melted and stir well.

Place the cream cheese, sugar, sour cream, lemon rind and vanilla in a large bowl and beat everything together until smooth and creamy. Add the cooled lemon jelly mix and whisk everything together.

Pour the cream cheese mix into the tin and smooth level. Chill in the fridge for 8 hours or overnight.

Carefully remove the cake from the springform tin and place on a serving platter. Scoop the pulp out of the grenadillas and spread over the top of the cake. Keep cool until ready to serve.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Charles Dickens, (1812-1870)

I enjoyed several glasses of champagne yesterday as it was not only my birthday, but much more importantly, the first anniversary of this blog. I can hardly believe a year has passed since I began. I've learned so much and yet I still have such a lot to learn. Thanks to all my friends for their comments and encouragement.


Burning Bright is the fifth book by Tracey Chevalier whose first novel ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ became an international bestseller.

The title is taken from the second line of the poem “TheTyger” by the 18th century poet and artist William Blake, and Blake features as one of the characters in the book.
Set in 1792, this is the story of two youngsters,
Jem Kellaway a country lad from Dorset whose family move to London following the sudden death of Jem’s older brother; and Maggie Butterfield a feisty 12 year old from a wheeler-dealer family of Londoners who live in Lambeth. The two meet when the Kellaways arrive in Lambeth and settle into a couple of rented rooms where Jem’s father hopes to continue his trade as a cair-maker. William Blake and his wife live in the next-door house, and Jem, his sister Maisie and Maggie get to know them. Blake has just finished printing the 27 plates for his book of poems “Songs of Innocence” and is working on the companion piece “Songs of Experience” and at the end of the book Maggie and Jem are given copies. He and his wife live an unconventional life by the standards of the time, across the Channel France is in the throes of its bloody and violent revolution, and Blake supports many of the ideals of the revolutionaries; there is a high level of confusion and anxiety in London, with the authorities fearful that these radical ideas may spread to England and threaten the monarchy.
Meanwhile Jem’s family gets drawn into the world of Astley's Circus, one of the great entertainments of the time, and based on a permanent site in Lambeth, just across the river from Westminster.

Jem and Maggie are on the cusp of adolescence and are finding themselves attracted to one another, however Maggie is hiding a dark secret and when Jem finds out what it is, it drives them apart.

Chevalier has evoked the sights and sounds of 18th century London, and how huge, noisy and frightening it must have been for country folk, and she recreates Astley’s Circus brilliantly; however I did find the story somewhat disjointed and Blake, whom I had expected to be the main character after reading the pre-publication press, has little more than a walk-on part. Of course Blake was a very complex and subtle poet and much of his work is not easy for the un-tutored reader to comprehend, so I think it was a good idea to concentrate solely on his Songs of Innocence and Experience. But then I felt she made a meal of the metaphor that Jem, when he first arrives in London, is Innocence, and that Maggie is Experience; a metaphor which she extends to country-life versus city-life; and it is emphasised that Maggie and Jem together are moving from childhood innocence towards adult experience. Okay, okay, I get the message.

I could see this book being turned into a BBC costume drama, and almost felt it was written with such an outcome in mind. It lacked the fresh immediacy of Girl With a Pearl Earring which I like thousands of others really enjoyed, and from which I gained a real sense of who Vermeer was, whereas after reading Burning Bright I still had no real image of William Blake in my mind.

Rated 3*


If you are determined to stay a virgin until you marry, well bully for you.... if that is what rocks your boat; but is it necessary to have a special ring to wear, and to make a fuss about it? Is it really of any interest to anyone else? is it the business of anyone else? No, no, and no.

Just DO it, just stay a virgin, don't make a bloody great song and dance about it.

And please don't waste court time and public money by bringing a case that your human rights are being violated. Saying a purity ring is a sign of Christianity and you must be allowed to wear it as a religious symbol is a load of poppycock. Thank goodness the High Court has given a clear judgement in the case brought by Lydia Playfoot who insisted that her school had no right to stop her wearing a purity ring and that it interfered with her fundamental right to practice her religion. I thought it was quite interesting that her father, a Christian minister is one of the directors of the company The Silver Ring Thing (UK), and her mother is the company secretary. Hmm, both parents on the payroll. Quite a lot of merchandise on their website. This is religious crap at its worst.


I thought we might have a quick window of sunshine today and be able to have lunch outside in the garden, no such luck unfortunately so we ended up eating inside again. This is one of my summer staples, so easy, so colourful and so adaptable. I got a little worried that I was mucking about with a classic recipe and foodies would tell me off, so I did some research, and finally the sainted Jane Grigson's words convinced me that there are no hard and fast rules for making


4 large free-range eggs
6-8 small new potatoes
3 large ripe but firm tomatoes
6-8 anchovies
12 black olives
1 tin tuna
3 small crisp lettuces such as Little Gem, Cos or Romaine
Parsley, roughly chopped
French dressing

Optional extras:

Tablespoonful of capers
Handful of fine green beans,
3-4 spring onions, sliced up

Put the eggs into cold water, bring to the boil, simmer for 5 minutes, drain and peel. Boil or steam the new potatoes until just cooked through and cut into quarters. If using green beans, blanch them in boiling water so they are cooked, but still al dente.
Core and chop the tomatoes into chunks, drain the tuna and the anchovies.
Tear the lettuce into manageable bits and put into a large shallow bowl, scatter with half the tomato, the potatoes, spring onion and beans. Flake the tuna over everything , cut the eggs into quarters lengthwise, and scatter them over the salad, followed by the anchovies, olives and capers together with the remaining tomato and scatter the parsley over everything. Toss with the dressing immediately prior to serving.

All you need with this is some crusty French bread, and a glass of either rosé or red wine.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007



Our book group never meets in August, too many people are away on holiday or visiting or being visited by friends and relations so we take a one month break. Years ago we established a tradition of having a supper party at the July meeting, and instead of reading a book to discuss at that meeting, we each bring a dish for the buffet, and three paperbacks, one of which must be relatively new. All the books are piled on a table and then, after much eating, drinking and gossiping, everyone can select three books for summer holiday reading. The system works very well, and it is surprisingly rare to find we have duplicates.

I’ve been giving my selection of books to contribute some thought, and thought you might like a sneak preview:

First up is ‘Notting Hell’ by Rachel Johnson. Set in what is now one of London’s most sought-after postcodes, this is mummy-lit of a very superior kind. Being a Notting Hill Mummy is a full-time job and requires a six-figure income. After all one has to have the house feng shuied, the kids in the best private nursery-schools, daily dog-walkers for one’s designer Labradoodle, a personal PA, and a family nutritionist. One must always be on the q.v. for who is going up in society and who is going down, what is in and what is out. Its all so exhausting darling, that you will need private yoga classes and regular wheat-grass smoothies to alleviate the stress.
As one of the cover blurbs says: “snappy, witty, clever, shallow, heartless, and hugely
BTW the author is journalist sister of blond mop-headed Tory MP Boris Johnson and I suspect that the characters are all based on real people.

Rated: 3.5*

My next choice is A Quilt of Dreams by Patricia Schonstein, a South African writer who studied literature at UCT under the aegis of J. M.Coutzee. The book is set in Grahamstown, a small city in the Eastern Cape, during the 1990s when political unrest was at its height. Reuben Cohen van Tonder is an unhappily married, alcoholic jew who runs a local bottle store. He had a ghastly childhood which has left him with a well of deep unhappiness and he is desperate for peace of heart. Vita Mbuli is a young Xhosa girl, daughter of a black activist, who has become determined to undo the curse that she thinks has given her family such bad luck down the generations. Although these two characters have never met, the story flips in and out of the past, linking them together. Magical realism is the ideal style of writing to interlace the brutalities of apartheid, anti-semitism, tenderness and hope.

Rated: 3*

My final choice is The Easter Parade by Richard Yates; I read and enjoyed his book Revolutionary Road which is being made into a film starring Kate Winslet, and that nudged me into reading this book – I think I preferred it to Rev. Rd.

It is about two sisters, Emily and Sarah Grimes who are the daughters of divorced parents. They grow up to become very different women; Sarah settling for marriage and suburbia, and Emily wanting a much more exciting life. Both women are trying to find the happiness that has eluded them since their parent’s parting. Beautifully written.

Rated 4*


Tony Blair, Cherie Booth/Blair, Alastair Campbell, Fiona Miller...wouldn't it be wonderful if we never had to hear from or about any of this incestuous little group of ex-chums ever again? No such luck. Apart from the fact that we'll hear no end of TB trying to sort out the Middle East (some hope), I now learn that the BBC has paid £250000 for three one hour programmes featuring Alastair Campbell reading his sodding diaries aloud. That's £250000 of license-payer's money so he can advertise his book. Words fail me. I am seriously, SERIOUSLY, pissed off.


Considering this is July the weather has been unseasonably cool, wet and gloomy. I long for proper summer sunshine. The other day I bought some strawberries to serve when my daughter came for lunch; I was intending to have them with some icecream, but it was so chilly I felt we all wanted something warm to eat.....hmmm, warm but summery, using strawberries....hey presto


400g ripe strawberries, washed and hulled
2 Tablespoons ground almonds
4 Tablespoons caster sugar

1 packet ready rolled puff pastry
Icing sugar for dusting

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Using the base of a cake tin as a template, cut out a 24cm circle from the puff pastry and lay it on a greased baking tray. Using a sharp knife and a steady hand, score a second circle 1½ cms inside the edge of the pastry circle. Take care not to cut right through the pastry when doing this.
Sprinkle the ground almonds and 1 tablespoon of the caster sugar evenly over the inner circle. Place the strawberries, pointed end upright, closely together in the inner circle. If there are any gaps, cut a strawberry into quarters and use the sections to plug them. Sprinkle the remaining caster sugar over the strawberries.

Bake in the oven for approximately 25 minutes, until the edge of the tart is puffed up and golden, and the berries are dark and beginning to caramelise.

A dusting of icing sugar over the berries is all the garnish required.

Serve hot, warm or cold with a dollop of crème fraiche or a scoop of icecream.

Thursday, July 05, 2007



The Saffron Kitchen is Yasmin Crowther’s first novel, and to a certain extent it fits into the genre I mentioned on the blog back in May when I had just read 'Minaret'.

Set in London and rural Iran, this is the story of Maryam Mazar and her daughter Sara. Maryam was the independent and wilful middle daughter of a well-to-do General in the Shah’s army. She was resistant to his attempts to arrange a marriage for her, as she wanted her own life and then in her late teens she was disowned by her father for having brought dishonour on the family, she was sent away to Tehran and from there she eventually made her way to Britain where she met and married Edward. Sara is their daughter, an only child, she is now a primary school teacher, married and expecting her first child.

When Maryam’s schoolboy nephew Saeed arrives to live with them following the death of his mother in Iran, his arrival sparks off a chain of events. As a result of Maryam’s treatment of Saeed, Sara loses her unborn baby. Racked with guilt Maryam returns to Iran and seeks her past in an isolated rural village called Mazareh which is up in the north-east of the country near the Afghan border. Edward and Sara have been left in London to care for Saeed, and they are distressed and bemused by Maryam’s apparent abandonment of the family.

Sara decides, that she must go to Mazareh herself and bring her mother home. Although she is half Iranian, and can speak some Farsi, she finds Iran a mysterious country which is totally foreign to her, and she is confounded by the primitive lifestyle to which her mother has elected to return. But when Sara meets Ali, the village school teacher, a man with whom her mother had a deep and loving friendship when she was young, she begins to see that Maryam had a previous life of which her family in England were unaware. Just before Sara returns to London Maryam finally tells her of what happened to her all those years ago, and how she and Ali had paid a heavy price for their relationship. Sara finally comes to understand that her mother is a very different woman from how Sara had seen her, and that a long buried secret of love, shame and unhappiness has surfaced to change all their lives.

Yet again I was struck by how women in some societies are so suppressed and how cultural norms tend towards such suppression. We have had a lot of discussion in the British media recently about so called “honour” killings, and in this book Maryam is subjected to unbelievably horrible treatment, ordered by her own father – who is a sophisticated, educated man of the world – and all in the name of honour, or rather, an imagined breach of honour. What Maryam experiences is so dreadful, so emotionally damaging, that it changes her whole personality; and despite her trying to bury the incident in her mind it festers like some tumour until years later it bursts forth.

I thought that the book dealt well with the emotional difficulties of going to live in a country that has a culture very different from what one is used to, and how no matter how successfully someone seems to have assimilated, they will still have a kernel of yearning for their childhood homeland, the homeland of the heart.


FREE AT LAST!! After 114 days of captivity Alan Johnston is free. Ranting has turned to Rejoicing for today. Frankly my rant seemed petty in the face of good news, so I binned it.

Speaking to the media this morning
Alan Johnston compared his captivity with being buried alive, and I can imagine nothing worse than to be held captive by a group of volatile political extremists who threaten to kill you, it must be absolutely terrifying. The group holding him called themselves "The Army of Islam" and seemed to believe that by taking a hostage the British and Israeli Governments would accede to their demands. Johnston must have known that this would never happen - in fact it must never happen - because once goverments cave in and do deals with hostage takers, every one of their citizens becomes a potential hostage.
The big irony in Johnston's situation was that his captors had seized the one man who lived and worked in Gaza and who actually reported on the plight of the Palestinians to the wider world through his BBC broadcasts.
It is terrific for Alan, for his parents, family, friends and colleagues that he is free.
The next piece of great news would be to hear that little Madeline McCann has been found safe and well, but sad to say I think that is far more unlikely.


I love cumin, and I love meatballs, so when I found this recipe in a newspaper years ago I fell upon it with jdelight and have made it many, many times since.
This is a version of an ancient Iranian/Greek recipe from Asia minor – the sort of simple dish which would have helped feed Xenophon’s army of 10,000 men!

SOUTZOUKAKIA (Lamb and cumin meatballs)

750g minced lamb
2-3 slices good quality bread

1 egg
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Salt & Pepper
4 tablespoons plain flour
3-4 tablespoon sunflower oil

Cut the crusts off the slices of bread and put the slices in a bowl, pour in enough cold water so that the bread is just covered and leave to soak for 10 minutes.
Squeeze the bread dry and place it in a large mixing bowl together with the minced lamb, egg, peeled and crushed garlic, ground cumin and seasoning . Mix together with your hands until all is well blended and silky.

Put the flour into a shallow bowl.

Take a heaped teaspoonful of the lamb mixture, the size of a small walnut, and roll it into a small oval shape with your hands, set aside. Continue doing this until all the mixture is used up, then roll the meatballs in the flour until well coated, shake off excess flour.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and cook the meatballs in batches, turning regularly, until they are lightly golden. Drain them on kitchen paper.

These can be eaten immediately or put in an oven-proof dish together with a good homemade tomato sauce and baked in the oven for 30 minutes then served with rice or noodles. They are also delicious stuffed into warm pitta bread together with a simple salad of tomato, lettuce and onion.