Friday, September 21, 2007

Off went the van wiv' my 'ome packed in it,
I followed on wiv' our old cock linnet
But I dillied, I dallied, I dallied and I dillied,
Lost me way and don't know where to roam.
I just stopped off for the odd half-quartern*
Now I can't find my way 'ome.

* old time measure of Gin - I won't be stopping for any when I follow the removal van, I'll take it with me!


The narrator of When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale is a eight/nine year old boy called Lawrence. His father and mother are divorced, the father remaining in Scotland whilst Lawrence, his younger sister Jemima and his mother Hannah now live in a cottage in England. His mother is very frightened that her ex-husband is stalking the family and will do them harm. On a sudden whim she decides that they should flee to Rome where she had lived and worked before her children were born, and where she thinks they will be safely out of his reach. Within hours of her decision they have packed the car with as much as it will hold, including Lawrence’s hamster in its cage, and set off for Italy.

After driving for two days through France and northern Italy they arrive in Rome where Hannah contacts some of her old friends who still live there. With little money and no fixed accommodation available to them they stay with one friend after another, eventually exhausting their hospitality and causing anxiety as Hannah gives increasingly strange reasons for why they have fled from Britain.

From early on in the book you are aware that Hannah is suffering from depression. Lawrence, who does not understand that his mother has mental problems, seems to be taking responsibility for his mother and and only sees his mum as either happy or sad; he is desperate to keep her happy and functioning on a more-or-less even keel. He is on tenterhooks all the time, continually trying to assess her moods and divert her from extreme depression to some semblance of normality.

Hannah’s mental state, and her rising paranoia about her ex-husband made me feel extremely anxious for the two children – of course mental illness is not infectious, but it can have a very powerful effect on people exposed to it, and their mother’s behaviour is taking its toll on Lawrence and Jemima.

Lawrence has two great interests, outer space particularly black holes, and the Roman Emperors – particularly the mad ones such as Nero and Caligula – having been given one of the Horrible Histories books on this subject by one of his mother’s friends. Lawrence’s thoughts on these subjects have been seamlessly woven into his account of the increasingly surreal life he is living. Matthew Kneale has used the voice of a child to great effect, and the book is written with the wonky grammar and bad spelling that a lad of that age might well use, but half-way through the book this really started to irritate me.

At first this book reminded me of Mark Haddon's book ,The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but actually the resemblance is very superficial, maybe it is the faux naivite of the language, When We Were Romans is a much darker book in every way.

Rated: 4*


What the hell are Police Community Support Officers FOR? I see pairs of them wandering around our local shopping areas, but I really don’t know what they are doing. I do know what they are NOT doing: they are not making arrests, they are not busting drug dealers, they are not catching truanting schoolchildren and returning them to school, at least not in this neck of the woods. On the BBC this morning I discover another thing they are not doing, they are not rescuing a drowning 10 year old boy, merely assessing the situation and radioing for police assistance, standing by for five minutes, so that when he was hauled out of the pond he could not be resuscitated.

I feel quite strongly about this for personal reasons. Many years ago my DH happened to be on Westminster Bridge one frosty morning in early January. A tourist called his attention to a woman who had fallen in the Thames, and who was crying for help. The DH shouted at other passers-by to get assistance (remember this was in pre mobile phone days), and then stripped off his coat, scarf, suit, shoes etc, and dived into the river. As he said afterwards, it was bloody cold, and the current was stronger than he had expected, however he managed to get hold of the woman, and hold her up whilst the river swept them under the bridge and he finally got her to the bank at the spot where the London Eye is now. By now there were people waiting to help drag them ashore, and they were hustled off to St Thomas’s Hospital to be warmed up and check they were ok. That woman would have drowned if DH had not acted as he did, and she was very grateful to him and I was immensely proud of him. In fact about six months later the children and I went to see him being presented with the Royal Humane Society’s Gallantry Award.

Apart from tooting his trumpet for him, the point I am trying to make is that going to help another human being who is in trouble is natural to our species, and is particularly so when the individual in trouble is a child.

Those Community Support Officers who stood and waited for someone else to come along, because they were not “trained” were not behaving in the way our society would expect adults to do in the circumstances, let alone people who have been taken on to act as quasi police. Let’s get rid of these pointless and expensive Blunkett Bobbies, and spend the money on real policemen and women.


I do love a good party, which is just as well as we seem to hold rather a lot of them. Any excuse will do, and at the moment moving house is an ideal reason. Tonight my DH and I are having a farewell thrash at the house we've lived in for 20 years - we're expecting about 50 of our nearest and dearest friends but I have not done much in the way of cooking as everyone is bringing a plate of something for the buffet and this morning I went and bought a tray of baklava from the Turkish bakers in Green Lanes. Last weekend my adult kids had 20+ friends of theirs for a farewell braai prior to them moving out finally and permanently. Obviously given their ages they left some years ago, but like homing pigeons they kept returning for days or months at a time. My contribution to the braai was a dish which is so commonplace out in South Africa that you can buy it ready made in cans, and I'm told there is a restaurant with the same name in Putney; It is great with braaied meats as a side dish but is also often served as a relish. Can be served hot or cold.


Serves 8

250 ml sunflower or corn oil

30 g fresh chopped ginger

30 g fresh chopped garlic

20 g chopped chillis (choose your type according to how much heat you like!)

3 onions, roughly chopped

500 g tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped - or equivalent of tinned chopped tomatoes

1 large green pepper de-seeded and roughly chopped

1 large red pepper de-seeded and roughly chopped

1-2 tablespoons curry powder of your choice

250 g coarsely grated carrot

1 large tin baked beans, undrained (450g tin)

3-4 tablespoons fresh chopped coriander

Fry ginger,garlic,chillis,onions in the oil. Add the curry powder of your choice and mix. Add the tomatoes and cook for 10 mins. Add peppers and carrots and cook for 10 minutes. Add baked beans and cook until the mixture reduces and thickens slightly. You can get away with cooking for only 5-10 minutes at this stage, but the longer you simmer it, the more complex and melded the flavours will be. Remove from heat and add coriander. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

For years I've waited for a time when I could quote that and it would be apposite, and now the moment has come....and both are going, the curtains to charity and me to a new home.


One of the best things about books and reading, as all avid readers know, is how you can be transported to another place, another time, another world as you read. If your own life is humdrum, or chaotic, or unhappy, a book can be better than any drug for taking you away from everything for a while.

The book I’ve just finished, One Last Look by Susanna Moore, removed me from packing cases and household mayhem and set me down in India in the early years of the 19th century.

This is the fictional diary of Lady Eleanor Oliphant, from 1836-43, when she and her younger sister Harriet travel out east with their brother Henry who is taking up his position in Calcutta as the new governor general of India.

Coming from an aristocratic family, Eleanor has an innate sense of her own social superiority, and many pre-conceptions of how life in India will be. When she first arrives she is both horrified and fascinated by the place and the people but she slowly adjusts to the extreme heat and extraordinary way of life. The diary entries give an wonderful sense of the place with all its sensual allure and hordes of servants, contrasting with the smells, the plagues of insects, lethal fevers which sweep through the colony, droughts, monsoons and the wretched poverty of most of the Indian populace. The sisters accompany their brother on a journey across Northern India to the Punjab to meet up with the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a wily old warlord. The whole excursion is a massive event taking 2½ years.

"Why,'' Lady Eleanor asks, ''must we travel with scribes, equerries, victualers, cooks, officers with their wives and children and parrots and spaniels, tent pitchers, herdsmen, syces, grass cutters, musicians, dancing girls, water bearers, butchers, sweepers, tailors, valets, hairdressers, the Bombay Troop, the queen's 12th Regiment, the Irish guards and 2,000 native archers?''
It seems nothing in India can be done without involving vast numbers of people. On the other hand, most of the British, who are scattered so thinly throughout the vastness of the sub-continent, are half-mad with loneliness.

One of Henry’s objectives is to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t fall under Russian influence, and he instigates a disastrously ill-fated incursion which comes to a horribly bloody end and as a result a new governor general is sent out from England and the Oliphants return to London.

The book has no real plot to speak of, but because it encompasses Eleanor’s time in India it does have a clear beginning, middle and end. Eleanor herself was not a character I liked, and the strong hints given by the author that she is in an incestuous relationship with her brother seemed rather pointless to me. None-the-less I was wholly absorbed in the book and it made me think hard about the early colonial adventures on which the British embarked.

Susanna Moore has drawn heavily on the diaries and letters of three real women: Fanny Parks, who was the wife of a colonial civil servant, and Emily and Fanny Eden who accompanied their brother George when he became governor general of India in 1835; in places she has actually used their words – however she has turned their writings into a fascinating tale of how the British were bewitched with India – as Eleanor says when they return to London “nothing will ever be the same”. If that was true for the Oliphants (Edens) it was doubly true for the peoples of India.

Rated 4*


Here’s a joke for you: ‘Father Murphy walks into a pub and asks a man: “Do you want to go to Heaven?” He says “I do” — and is told to stand by the wall. The priest asks a second man, who also says yes — and also waits by the wall. The priest then asks O’Toole, who says No. The astonished priest replies: “So when you die you don’t want to go to Heaven?” O’Toole says: “Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now."

You may or may not think that is hilarious/mildly amusing/downright stupid, but I’ll take a bet that the one thing you didn’t think when you read it was that it was racist, I certainly didn’t.

However down in Devon that joke, and a few others in similar vein, has caused a furore which has culminated in Denis Lusby the editor and publisher of a monthly local community rag resigning after Ms Ginny Hamilton-White, the head of Cornwall County Council’s equality and diversity committee wrote to local schools complaining that the jokes breached the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000. Apparently she had previously taken exception to jokes about Essex girls for the same reason. You can read all about the brouhaha HERE.

As I am from Africa (Zambia, Malawi and South Africa) and having seen apartheid up close and personal, I have a well tuned ear for racism both overt and covert. And that joke doesn't even come close.
What really gets me is that a stupid, pompous, self-righteous individual is getting away with
using a piece of serious legislation to stifle silly jokes.

We all NEED jokes; life would be bloody dreary without them. Van de Merwe jokes, Irish jokes, Essex girl jokes, Aberdonian jokes, New York Jewish jokes, Polish jokes, Eskimo jokes, Mother-in-law jokes….you can probably think of half-a-dozen more categories. They all tend to be based on stereotypes but that doesn’t stop them being funny. Will people please stop complaining – they’re only JOKES. Ms G H-W in Cornwall needs to get a sense of proportion (it’s probably too late for her to get a sense of humour).

And now, just for my DH who is frae Aberdeen:

Donald called in to see his friend Alistair, to find he was stripping the wallpaper from the walls. Rather obviously he remarked “I see you’re decorating” to which Alistair replied “Och no, we’re moving house.”

Boom, boom! (it’s the way I tell ‘em!)


Packing up the house ready for moving is taking its toll, boxes of stuff are being sent to charity shops, to the dump, to the recycling centre. Now I am working my way through kitchen supplies too. I have found half used packets of all sorts of stuff at the back of one cupboard, jars of exotic things like razor clams in chilli sauce. a box of chinese dried white fungus ( what was I thinking of, buying that??) and an impulse buy of a wholesale pack of 12 tins of corned beef.... Waste not, want not being my DH's creed, we are eating our way through the freezer and the kitchen shelves. Last Sunday I cooked a frozen leg of Australian lamb/mutton which my DDBF had stowed in the freezer a year ago. At the same time I used up an open packet of dried haricot beans, plus the tail end of a bottle of rerd wine which was lingering on the sideboard begging to be drunk.

This is a classic French recipe I remember my mum making, and I always loved it, I haven't had it for years. You do have to start prepping the beans the night before, but that apart it is very simple, and you can go off and pack more boxes whilst it is cooking. It is absolutely scrummy and very filling. (Health warning - does tend to induce flatulence!)


Serves 6 hungry people generously

1 leg of lamb/mutton
thyme & rosemary
2 tbs olive oil
2 large onions
4 cloves garlic
2 oz butter
Juice of 1 lemon
1 large glass red wine
1 tbs flour
4 tbs tomato puree
dry breadcrumbs
1 lb haricot beans

Soak the haricot beans overnight. Rub the skin of the joint with salt, pour some olive oil and lemon juice over it, and leave for several hours or overnight.

The next day, drain the beans and then cook them in fresh water for about an hour and a half (until just tender) - keep the cooking water on one side when done.

Pre-heat the oven to 170C.
Put the meat in a large fireproof dish (not a roasting tin), pour over the oil and lemon juice in which it has been lying, add a little more oil, some thyme and rosemary, and the peeled garlic cloves. Start roasting in a moderate oven about an hour and a half before you want to eat it.

Meanwhile, cut the onions in half, slice them, and fry in bacon fat until they begin to brown. Sprinkle with flour and cook a bit longer, stirring so it doesn't stick too much. Add salt and the red wine and let it bubble and thicken, scraping the bottom of the pan. Stir in some of the bean water and the tomato puree, add the beans and simmer gently for as long as is convenient (10 minutes will do). Add more bean stock if it seems too thick. When the joint has roasted for an hour, pour the beans into the dish, distribute them round the lamb, and cover with breadcrumbs. Cook for a further half hour and sprinkle with parsley before serving.

You can prep the bean mix in advance of putting the lamb to roast if it is more convenient.

Friday, September 07, 2007

HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR HOME THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE USEFUL OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL. So said William Morris, and I am trying desperately to apply his wise words to my decluttering/packing programme....but it's easier said than done.


Can there be anyone in the English speaking world who hasn’t heard of “Just William”, the archetypal mischievous small boy whose life and adventures have entertained generations of readers for over 85 years? His creator was Richmal Crompton, and until a year or so ago I thought that the only things she had written were the William books, and was surprised to find out that she wrote 41 novels for adults, most of which are now forgotten and out of print. Thank goodness for Persephone Books who are rescuing women’s novels from obscurity by reprinting them; it was their edition of Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton that I have just finished reading.

Published in 1948, Family Roundabout is the story of two families, linked by marriage, each family has at its head a widowed matriarch. Set in an English country town during the 1920s and 1930s, the families represent two strands of the middle-classes. Mrs Fowler is fading gentility, verging on upper class, whereas Mrs Willoughby is well-to-do “trade”. Each woman has a very different approach to parenting (or as it would have been called in those days – ‘mothering’) and each of them disapprove of the other and their ways. In the end, it really makes no matter as their children grow up and behave in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and then begin parenting their own children in their own ways.

Family Roundabout is a clever title as it exactly describes how families go round and round through the generations, and at the same time individual members of the family go up and down as their fortunes wax and wane, just like the horses on a carousel.

The book contains some very acute observations about life, love, and what makes a good mother, and at the same time is a really meaty family saga.

All in all it is a most enjoyable, comfortable, book, just what I needed to read at the moment, and I recommend it wholeheartedly

Rated: 5*


I have lived in the London Borough of Islington for nearly thirty years, and I am feeling quite unsettled by the fact that in less than a month’s time we are moving elsewhere.

When we first moved here, Islington had a well deserved reputation for having a “Loony Left” Labour Council, flying the Red Flag above the town hall, crummy services for local folk, and rampant cronyism. Finally, and to great rejoicing from me and many others, after running the council for 40 years they were turfed out by the Lib Dems, and within months everything started to improve, from educational standards to rubbish collection.

This inner London borough has some of the poorest housing estates in the country, and they are cheek by jowl with some of the most expensive property in the country, property which is owned by some of the most influential people in the country. One of the biggest problems across the borough is the dearth of affordable housing, Islington is not alone in this I realise, many other boroughs have a similar problem. Our nurses, teachers, firemen, and other key workers all need places to live and the prices in Islington are very, very high. The council has been working hard to try and improve the situation by increasing the availability of affordable places.

It seems however that their efforts are being ignored/undermined by one of Islington’s own MPs. The borough is made up of two parliamentary constituencies, which have returned Labour MPs since the dawn of time. The latest incumbent to that role in Islington South, is Emily Thornberry MP who has a majority of just 484 votes. Just last month she was photographed at the Town Hall protesting that there are still 13000 people on the waiting list for housing in Islington.

One of her constituents , a tenant in flat owned by the Ujima Housing Association, which specialises in providing housing for black and Asian families, was told that he and his family had to move out; the property was to be sold because Ujima couldn 't afford the renovations that were needed. Extremely worried, as were the other tenants living in the property, he went to see his MP, as one does, and asked her to help. She said she would speak to Ujima, look into the matter and let him know what was going on. So far, so predictable. None-the-less, the property did get sold, and her constituent was forced to move. Ah well, that’s life you might say. But hold on a minute, who has bought the property, for just over half a million pounds? and has now let the flats out to Labour party pals? None other than the husband of Emily Thornberry MP. I don’t think she wrote back to her constituent and said ‘tough luck chum, my hubby is rich and he’s bought the place so you’ve got to hop it’.

What appalling brass-faced hypocrisy. This kind of behaviour really stinks. No wonder the populace have such a low opinion of politicians.

I will be living in a neighbouring borough by the time of the next election, but I sincerely hope the voters of Islington will get rid of Ms Thornberry


Last week I went to a dinner party given for an old college friend of one of my dearest girlfriends. The old college friend now lives in downtown New York and is one of THE classy caterers in aforementioned city. Anyhow - my friend turned out a dinner to die for, and this was one of the dessert options. After two rich and quite elaborate courses, the cool spicy pineapple was a really refreshing finish. This is going to be a real favourite of mine.
As so many other friends are on diets - including BFCT - I thought they would like this recipe as it is low(no) fat, and incredibly delicious:


Serves 6

1 medium pineapple
6 tablespoons sugar

6 tablespoons water
1 thumb-sized piece fresh ginger
1 red chili
Juice of one lime

De-seed the chilli and chop into very, very small dice
Peel the ginger and chop finely
Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to the boil, add the finely chopped chilli and ginger, continue boiling until the liquid is reduced by half and becoming syrupy. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Peel the pineapple and cut in half-lengthwise, de-core each half and then slice the pineapple wafer thin. Lay the slices in overlapping circles on a large shallow serving plate.
Gently spoon the cooled chili/ginger syrup over the pineapple slices, and then squeeze the lime juice over them.
Cover with cling film and chill in the fridge until time to serve.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


Last week Mark at The Book Depository was offering ten bloggers books to review, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the ten. I haven't received the book yet, but of course,when I do I will post my views here too . Head over to the Book Depository because Mark is going to be making other offers over the next weeks, and there is nothing a reader likes better than to get their hands on a new book


I’ve only ever read one novel by Douglas Kennedy and wasn’t that impressed but so many people told me that they had really enjoyed his books that I felt I should try another, so I picked up his most recently published work The Woman in the Fifth,

Narrated by Harry Ricks, a Professor of Film Studies at a Midwestern college who has just lost his wife, daughter, job and money, it all takes place in Paris. In fact the book could have just as easily been entitled ‘Naïve American Down and Out in Paris’. Harry arrives in the city in the bleak days after Christmas, running away from the scandal caused by his affair with a student – something that is totally taboo in the politically correct USA, and when he arrives in France he continues to make really bad decisions. Within hours of his arrival a chain of unfortunate events begins and he is left with little money to fulfil his original plan of going to the cinema as often as possible whilst writing a novel based on his angst ridden childhood. He stumbles from one disastrous situation to another, renting a disgusting chambre de bonne in a houseful of immigrants in the quartier du Turc, and taking an illegal job as a night-watchman, working for shady employers who do not permit him to know what they are doing, but whatever it is is almost certainly criminal. Every euro he earns has to be carefully eked out, and the reader gets to know the detailed economics of his situation--- 38 euros for the treatment of a STD he has picked up, and then 2 euros for a packet of condoms (which he never uses) not to mention the costs of croissants, coffees, the weight of the fish , cheese and fruit he buys at the market etc.

At a salon held by another American ex-pat, he meets Margit Kadar, a sultry, mysterious Hungarian in her early fifties, with whom he embarks on a passionate affair -the raunchy sex scenes leaving little to the imagination. From the start Margit is in charge, and she will only see him at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at exactly 5pm twice a week.. Once Harry has met Margit, strange things begin to happen. Anyone who has ever treated him badly gets their comeuppance in a series of apparent accidents, dead bodies pile up and Harry is detained by the Police on several occasions. His life becomes threatened, and dangers swirl round him as he manages to antagonise a Turkish bar-owner, his nefarious employers, and his extremely nasty landlord in turn.

The plot becomes more and more surreal and Kafkaesqe; is Margit meant to be his avenging guardian angel? or a succubus who will not let him go?

I read right to the end of the book, hoping the author would eventually make sense of it all, but alas no such luck. The question I was left wondering is: Can you have sex with a ghost? I don't think so.

Rated 2*


Year in, year out, millions of us pay our premiums to insurance companies trusting that when and if trouble comes our way we will be covered financially. But all too often these days we hear that the insurance companies try their best to weasel out of paying the monies owed. Yesterday I heard of a case that made my blood boil.

A 29 year old married woman, mother of a two year old daughter, was killed when a suicidal motorist deliberately crashed into their family car. Her distraught husband, an electrician, now a loan parent, tried to make a claim for the death of his wife against their joint life insurance policy with Legal & General. After all, he was going to need to pay for child care amongst other things. To his surprise and distress, L&G refused to pay up, stating that his wife had withheld important information from them. What could that be?

The couple took out the insurance policy when she was pregnant with their daughter. She had given up smoking to become pregnant, and was no longer a smoker. So, on the insurance application form when they asked if she had smoked in the past 12 months, she answered, truthfully, ‘no’. Her husband who was still smoking at the time answered ‘yes’.

After her death L & G obtained her health records from the maternity unit and noted that someone had ticked the box marked ‘smoker’. Who knows what that meant - was it in the context that she had previously been a smoker? Did she know that whoever it was had ticked the box, so she could have refuted it?

So when she died in a car crash caused by a stranger, L& G refused to pay out. Because, they claimed, she was a smoker.

What kind of cheap trick is that? Smoking didn’t have anything to do with her death; it is morally reprehensible that they behaved like this, forcing her husband to go to court, and then at the last minute – 2½ years later- offering an out of court settlement of £100,000. I wonder what Tim Breedon, CEO of Legal & General, would think of such shoddy, despicable behaviour if he were the grieving husband.

The moral of the story is that Insurance companies will happily take your money for years, but they won’t pay out if they can possibly help it. B**tards.


As I may have said, Monday night is always pasta night chez nous - I can hear my everloving first-born saying “for god’s sake Mum, you’re beginning to repeat yourself” - but we do eat pasta on other nights too, if the fancy takes me. Recently I made this for a Friday evening, and jolly good it was too.

Serves four

4 skinless salmon fillets
4 Tablespoons Noilly Prat (or other dry Vermouth)

4 Tablespoons crème fraiche
6 Spring onions, finely chopped

1 Tablespoon chopped Dill
1 Tablespoon chopped Parsley
Sunflower oil for frying
Salt & Pepper

500 g pasta of your choice – farfalle, fusilli, penne or similar.

Put a pan of water to boil for the pasta. When boiling cook the pasta in the usual way.

Heat a splash of oil in a frying pan – just enough to stop the salmon from sticking – and when hot, place the salmon fillets to fry gently for about 2-3 minutes before turning them over and cooking the other side; it doesn’t matter if they go slightly brown, but try to keep them as lightly coloured as possible. Then add the spring onions and the Noilly Prat which will bubble up. With a wooden fork break the cooked salmon into large flakes, add the chopped dill and parsley and the crème fraiche. Cook for a few more minutes stirring gently so the NP, crème fraiche and herbs make a sauce.

Drain the cooked pasta, leaving a small amount of the cooking water in the pan, stir the salmon mixture through it and serve with extra parsley sprinkled on top if you want to garnish it.