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.


Around My Kitchen Table said...

I read that story about the PCSOs too - with complete disbelief. What kind of people can stand by and watch a child drown because they are sticking to some "rule"? It beggars belief. It sends shivers down my back for another reason - my niece, when she was 18 months old, fell into a pond and it was only the quick action of two passers-by who tried to resuscitate her and wouldn't give up until the air ambulance arrived that saved her life. She's now a beautiful 12-year-old. Thank God they didn't stand by and do nothing.

Teuchter said...

I've been wondering about sharing this with you, because it's extremely personal and only really relevant to one particular part of your post ...

I agree it was unfortunate that the PCOs felt insufficiently trained to have a go at rescuing that child - and it's tragic that a life was lost. Although I don't know all the details, the water involved appears not to have been as dangerous as an icy river in full flow - or the North Sea.

Your DH was indeed a hero in what he did to rescue that woman. I'm pleased that the situation had a happy outcome for both parties.

My own father was not so fortunate. The woman he rescued lived but he died in the attempt, leaving a widow - and four young fatherless children.

I just hope that woman has had a good and useful life and was worth the sacrifice.

herschelian said...

teuchter - thank you for deciding to share what is obviously a very sad & personal story - it has certainly given me pause for thought. In my DH's case, the woman he rescued ended up - some years later - in Frien Barnet mental hospital, and has subsequently died. (Frien Barnet MH has been closed and turned into luxury appartments - sign of the times!)
Your father was a true hero but you, your siblings, and your mother paid a terrible price for his heroism. However, I suspect he was the sort of person who HAD to do what he did, little thought of his own safety came into it, he just acted. And that is really what I meant when I wrote that human beings usually react instinctively to try to help others who are in trouble. And we should respect and honour them for it.

Teuchter said...

Heroism always comes at a cost. As you said, my family paid the price - but I sometimes wonder if the woman whose life my father saved has also carried a heavy burden these many years. Did she feel a duty to live a life that was "worth saving"?

My father was indeed the kind of man who would have been unable to do nothing in the circumstances. He grew up during the war and would have measured himself against the men and women who performed with such valour in those times.

The real hero of the piece is my mother, who did a fabulous job of rearing four children in difficult circumstances, has lived her life to the full and is rarely bitter about the poor hand of cards life dealt her. Despite losing her faith when my father died, I suspect she still believes that they will be reunited when her own time on this earth is over.
I'd like to think so.

amkt - How wonderful that two people who knew what to do were in the right place at the right time when your niece fell in the pond.
I'm hugely in favour of all of us being taught these skills so that precious lives, like that of your niece, can be saved.

Jeanne said...

What a shocking story! But somehow indicative of the way this country is run. Nobody is willing to venture one inch outside of their job description to help you - it's always "that's not my department" or "I'm not traiend for that" or similar. It's a combination of apathy and this awful culture of litigation that we are inheriting from the USA where people are too scared to even try and help, lest they fail and get sued for even trying.

Your DH impresses me NO END! I have had a long look at the currents in the Thames and there is no way I would jump in there, much less off Westminster Bridge!!

And isn't chakalaka wonderful? I have a post up somwhere about it too - we made it for a fundraising braai last summer and the English guests literally licked the pot clean!

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