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.


Aphra Behn said...

I remember the Emily Eden as fascinating and very readable too, though it is years since I read it. Virago re-published it in the 80s, I think. Well recommended.

And yes, I did think the joke was racist, but racist about terrorism rather than racist about stupidity. That probably says more about just how jumpy I am in the world these days, not to mention my own views on the long history of England and all the Celtic nations, than it does about anything else. That's not to say that I think it's a joke that's not worth telling. In fact, I think we probably should be telling jokes about terrorism, but that's just another set of personal neuroses.

How's the moving going?


Lotus Reads said...


I have had Moore's "One Last Look" sitting on my bookshelf for the longest time (at one time I had more than one copy, don't ask me how), so I was glad to see a review. I like that she has drawn on the diaries and letters of real women in the British Raj. Your review has prompted me to take this book down from my shelf, thanks!

herschelian said...

Aphra, I am slightly bemused as to how one could be racist about stupidity, which seems to me to be a trait spread fairly evenly throughout humankind. As for the move, well its as much as I can do to keep the blog functioning at the moment, and if I never see another brown cardboard box it will be too soon!

Lotus: Glad you've been prompted to read this (apart from anything else, it is so good to reduce one's TBR mountain). Hope you enjoy it. I'll be visiting your blog to see what you made of it - once I've moved house that is!

Jeanne said...

How on earth do you tell a joke that offends NOBODY??! Isn't that thie point of a joke - that somebody has to be the butt of the joke? And as jokes go, I've seen much more offensive...

I agree with you on the racism thing. The stuff that gets called racism over here belittles what people across the world have had to suffer. It may be that telling a joke about Muslims or the Irish or the French is on the same continuum as ethnic cleansing and denying people the vote because of their colour - but it is the very opposite end of that spectrum.

Have these guys heard of the de minimis rule?! ;-)