Wednesday, October 24, 2007



Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones was one of the books shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, and I am really disappointed that it didn’t win as it is an amazing book. It would have been particularly appropriate if it had won, as it’s underlying theme is of how important books, and sometimes one book in particular, can be in someone’s life.

The book is set in a small fishing community on the Pacific island of Bouganville, which is part of Papua New Guinea, It is in the early 1990s and there is a bloody civil war going on. At the start of the book this war is but a low murmur on the horizon but gradually it grows closer and then the entire community are caught between the rebels and the government military.

The narrator is a young girl on the verge of puberty, Matilda, who lives with her mother, her father having departed a few years previously to try and find work in Australia. There is still one white man left living in the village, an eccentric elderly chap called Mr Watts, who is known to the village kids as Pop-Eye. Mr Watts came to the island with his wife who was a local woman, and has stayed on after all the other white residents of the island had left.

As the war advances towards them, all modern amenities close down one by one, and life becomes increasingly unpredictable. The village school, which was the lynch pin of Matilda’s life, has been closed down for 86 days at the start of the book, when, to everyone’s surprise, Mr Watts steps in and re-opens it and on the first day tells the children that he will be introducing them to Mr Dickens. They all think that this will be another foreigner, so when it turns out to be a copy of ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens they are bemused and disappointed. And yet, with just the one book at his disposal Mr Watts succeeds in enthralling them all.

Later in her life Matilda says¨I point to the one book that supplied me with another world at a time when it was desperately needed. It gave me a friend in Pip. It taught me you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own, even when that skin is white and belongs to a boy alive in Dickens’ England. Now if that isn’t an act of magic I don’t know what is.”

Eventually the whole village is overwhelmed by the violence of the war and like Pip, Matilda’s life changes irrevocably.

I loved this book and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Rated 5*


Once upon a time I thought I knew what the word obese meant. But in the past couple of years it has been hijacked by all and sundry and applied to anyone who is over the approved BMI for their height. By this reckoning most of both the English and South African rugby teams are obese, most of the gold-medal winning British rowing team are obese…I could go on and on.
Personally I think its all just the latest Government obsession and an excuse for trying to control how people live by those who think they know better than the rest of us.

The nanny state has seized on the concept and decided that the British Isles is likely to sink under the North Sea with the combined weight of all its obese citizens, and therefore we must be MADE to slim down. They going to bring in legislation to stop us eating and drinking as we choose.

We must agree to all this, as we are told it is a health crisis and people are going to die of obesity. Well I’m sure one or two will, ‘twas ever thus.

Primary school children are obese, shriek the tabloids, and health experts tell us that they will become obeser (is there such a word?).

I see playgrounds of primary school kids rushing about in the usual way, and apart from one or two, they look pretty much as they ever did to me.

I look at old family wedding photos from the early 1900s and there are some stout parties of both sexes proudly wearing their best hats, and some very Rubenesque young women who bear no resemblance to the slim girls I see everywhere today. Sure there are some families who live on Big Macs, fries, and takeaway kebabs, not to mention fish and chips – but by no means all of us do.

Governments get bees in their bonnets from time to time; in the early 70s it was that by the year 2000 the population would have increased astronomically – they got that very wrong. Never trust government predictions for the future, that’s my view.

As a nation we are living longer and are healthier and wealthier than we have ever been.

And remember : I’m plump, you’re fat, but they are obese!


We eat a lot of soup, and with a slice or two of crusty bread it makes an excellent meal, but it is nice to ring the changes from time to time. I found this recipe in a magazine recently, can't remember which one, and thought it sounded perfect for having with soup. Last night I made it and the DH and I really enjoyed it. It is not like bread, having more of a muffin consistency and because of the courgettes it's quite moist. The salt you mix with the grated courgettes seasons it perfectly, but next time I might add a little black pepper. This morning I had a piece with sliced tomato on it, and it was just as good cold as warm.


75g butter cut into small bits
475g courgettes, coarsely grated (approx 5 courgettes)

2 teaspoons salt
450g Self Raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
25g chopped parsley
2 large eggs
400ml milk
75g strong Cheddar, coarsely grated

Pre-heat oven to 190°C.

Grease and line a large loaf tin (approx 20x13x9cm)
Mix the grated courgettes with the salt and put into a sieve, leave them to drip over a bowl for 10 minutes, then squeeze them dry.
Combine the flower, B.P., parsley and butter – add the courgette.
In a separate bowl whisk the eggs and milk together, then add the grated cheese. Pour the milk mix into the flour and courgette mix and using a knife stir them together until a sticky batter forms. There should be no dry pockets of flour but take care not to over mix.
Tip the mixture into the lined loaf tin and level off.
Bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.
Turn off the oven but leave the loaf in it for a further 10 minutes.
Cool in the tin on a wire rack for five minutes before turning the loaf out.
Let it cool slightly before serving; use a serrated knife to slice the loaf.
Delicious spread with cream cheese.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ogden Nash


Robert Harris’s last two books have been set in Ancient Rome but his latest work The Ghost is set very much in the here and now, and mainly located in Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Cape Cod on the US eastern seaboard.

This book is a very slick political thriller, and a gripping read. The story is of a professional ghost-writer who is hired by a big publishing house to take on the memoirs of a British Prime Minister who has recently left office having become unstuck as a result of his policies in the Middle East. These have embroiled Britain – together with the USA - in a War on Terror, not to mention a real conflict in Iraq. Now, does that remind you of anyone in particular?

The ghost writer is flown out to Martha’s Vineyard where Adam Lang, the ex-PM, and his entourage are holed up on the isolated estate owned by the chairman of the publishing firm who have paid a £10 million advance for the memoirs. He takes over the rough manuscript of the memoirs produced by a former aide of the PM who has died recently, and tries to get to grips with the character and thinking of Lang, but as he says “I realised I had a fundamental problem with our former prime minister. He was not a psychologically credible character. In the flesh, playing the part of a statesman, he seemed to have a strong personality. But somehow, when one sat down to think about him, he vanished.”...hmmm, that strikes a chord doesn't it?

Lang’s wife, Ruth, is a strong character, “everyone had said she was smarter than her husband, and that she’d loved their life at the top even more than he had. If there was an official visit to some foreign country, she usually went with him: she refused to be left at home. You only had to watch them on TV together to see how she bathed in his success.”

A set of events ensues which makes The Ghost realise he is swimming in deeper, murkier waters than he had anticipated, and after many clever twists the book ends with a stunning revelation. It would be rotten of me to reveal anything more of the plot, but suffice to say, anyone who is even slightly interested in British politics over the past ten years will find this a delicious, malicious tale, and a real page-turner. It has best-seller written all over it, and no doubt a film or TV version will follow ere long.

Rated 4.5*


The point of an inquest is to determine how an individual died, but in the case of the late Princess Diana we know how she died, in a car crash in Paris when the vehicle she was travelling in was going too fast, she was not wearing a seat belt, and the driver was –according to the French Police who conducted an inquiry – well over the legal drink-drive limit.

So what is this inquest, 10 years after her death, for? It seems to be to squash, once and for all, the claim that she was murdered as Mohammed Al Fayed, father of her lover Dodi Fayed who also died in the crash, has stated to anyone and everyone who will listen - particularly if they have a TV camera with them.

The whole thing strikes me as a completely unnecessary charade, and a charade that is costing us taxpayers a hell of a lot of money (estimates run from £10 million upwards). I, and probably thousands of others, am utterly fed up with the whole business, and god knows what Diana's sons must think about it.

It seems grubby and prurient for people to be poking through aspects of her life that should be private – every tabloid announcing that she was on the pill and therefore couldn’t be pregnant; jurors, lawyers and court officials being shown paparazzi photos taken of her when she lay dying; speculation that a ring ordered by Dodi meant she was engaged to be married to him (even if she was, it seems bloody far fetched to decide to kill both of them).

There has already been an independent UK inquiry held by Lord Stevens, which took 3 years to complete and cost the taxpayers £3.69 million, but Mohammed Al Fayed wasn’t happy with the conclusion which said that there was no conspiracy and it was just a ghastly accident.

Unless the coroner Lord Justice Scott Baker announces at the end of the inquest that the Royal Family are personally responsible, and the police rush to arrest the Duke of Edinburgh, Al Fayed still won’t be happy. He is an angry and embittered man whose ambitious plans for his much loved son ended when the couple were killed, and he has spent a fortune trying to convince everyone who will listen of his paranoid theories.

As with Kennedy’s assassination, there will always be people who have far fetched views that she was eliminated. Let them have them. The poor woman is dead and buried. Can we please move on. I can't stand the thought that tomorrow morning this whole ghastly business will be all over the media again, and again, and again , until next weekend; and its estimated that the inquest will continue for six months. Aaagh!


The other evening I had two extra for supper rather unexpectedly, and though it was easy enough to stretch the pasta which the DH and I were going to have, the meal seemed a little insubstantial. In such situations what I try to do is rustle up a starter course (not something I would normally bother with for just the two of us). This Tuscan recipe is one of my favourite standby starters, as I nearly always have the ingredients to hand in the kitchen store cupboard. It goes down equally well in winter or summer, and is super simple.

TONNO E FAGIOLI (Tuna and bean salad)

Serves 4

2x 400g tins Borlotti beans
1 tin good quality tuna in olive oil,
1 medium red onion
Juice of half a lemon
Olive oil,
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley

Drain the tins of beans, tip them into a sieve and rinse briefly under cold water, shake off excess water and allow to drip dry.

Open and drain the tin of tuna, and flake the tuna into a bowl.

Peel the red onion and cut it in half lengthwise. Finely slice each half, and separate the rings.

Tip the beans into a bowl, season with salt and pepper and the lemon juice and a good glug of olive oil to dress the beans. Mix gently.

Divide the beans between four serving plates and then divide the tuna flakes and onion between the plates, spooning them carefully over the beans, garnish with the chopped parsley.

Serve with crusty warm Ciabatta bread.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

We seem to have the definitive collection of late 20th Century plastic shoe horns. I'm thinking of offering them to the V&A Museum for a special exhibition.


I’ve no idea why I picked up The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty, apart from the fact I quite liked the cover design, which is an entirely frivolous method of book selection but a method I must confess I use rather often. Anyway, I’m very glad I did because the hero, Smithson ‘Smithy’ Ide, is one of the most interesting and engaging characters I’ve ever encountered.

The book begins with the death of Smithy’s parents in an automobile accident, and this obese, virtually alcoholic, 40 year old has to sort out their affairs. Whilst in the process of doing that, a letter arrives for his father to say that a body being held in a morgue in California has been identified as that of his long missing older sister Bethany. Smithy, whose family lives in Providence, Rhode Island is not sure quite what to do. He gets on his old boyhood bike, and wearing just the clothes he stands up in and carrying virtually no money he goes out for a ride – and he doesn’t stop. The ride turns into an amazing journey as he cycles right across the USA to retrieve his sister’s remains. In the course of the journey with all it’s highs and lows, its moments of danger and of joy, he reveals his memories of his life, his family, his sister’s very challenging mental illness, and his time in Vietnam. The journey heals him, changes him and reveals true love to him. In many ways Smithy is the archetypal innocent abroad in society, and I really, really wanted him to find happiness at the end.

Some of the descriptions of the American landscape are truly beautiful, and the reader gets a real feeling for the immensity and variety of the country, and the diversity of the people who live there.

I guess I’d sum the book up as having been an unexpected pleasure – and despite the title, there is nothing about running in the book at all !

Rated: 4.5*


My local corner shop is owned and run by a Muslim family, it sells newspapers and magazines, bus passes, milk, a small range of groceries, wine, beer and fizzy drinks, and the best vegetable samoosas in north London. There are thousands of these little shops all over the UK. We get our papers there everyday, and other items from time to time. Although they are muslims and don’t drink it themselves, they choose to stock and sell alcohol. They don’t need to do so, as there is an off-licence just down the road, but they do it because the majority of Britons do drink alcohol therefore it is good business and it is legal.

So what the hell is this ridiculous nonsense with some Muslim employees in Sainsbury’s objecting to handling bottles or cans of alcoholic drink at the checkout tills, or on the shelves on the grounds that it is against their religion? Sainsbury’s is a huge supermarket chain with hundreds of branches, stocking thousands of lines of products. It seems total madness to allow some employees to pick and choose what they will or will not handle. Apparently the management have said that if a Muslim checkout person comes across alcohol in the shopper’s goods, they can raise a hand, and another – presumably non-Muslim – member of staff will come and pass the item over the laser scanner, after which the Muslim member of staff can resume checking out the goods. What a stupid, time wasting idea.

You can just imagine it can’t you; it’s 6.30pm on a Friday evening, you have a full trolley load of food, drink and household necessities, the checkout queues are horrendous, there are children crying, harassed shoppers anxious to get home asap, everyone is tired and stressed after a busy week. Your checkout is manned by a lady wearing the hijab, in every trolley of the four people ahead of you in the queue there is alcohol of some variety. The same is true of almost all the trolleys in all the queues. Every time the checkout lady raises her hand for someone else to come and scan the demon drink, there is a long wait as there are not enough staff available.
Customer satisfaction will be at an all time low. And why? Is it because Sainsbury’s think they are practicing religious tolerance? If a staff member says they cannot ever do a Sunday shift because they are Christian, are special arrangements made for them? I’d take a bet they’d either not be employed in the first place or be given their P45 pdq.

Sainsbury’s should be telling all prospective and current employees that either they handle all the goods that the company sells when required to do so, or seek a job elsewhere.

Over zealous, mistaken interpretations of religious prohibitions just lead the religion in question into disrepute.


We've only been in our new abode for six nights and as friends have brought meals round or we've nipped out for a quick bite after hours of unpacking boxes, moving furniture around and so on, I haven't really got to grips with cooking on the new stove. Today I thought it was time to get back to normality and decided to make a quick fish supper for the DH and myself before he set off for a meeting and I flopped in front of the telly.
We are now living in
Muswell Hill which boasts one of London's best fishmongers, Walter Purkis & Sons, so I bought some haddock from them and cooked it like this:

Serves 2 (just increase the number of fillets etc to feed more people).

2 good sized haddock fillets
300-400g each

150g chestnut (brown) mushrooms sliced

5 tablespoons
crème fraiche
2 tablespoons butter

Salt and Pepper

Heat the butter in a small frying pan and sauté the sliced mushrooms in it until cooked and beginning to colour. Remove from heat. Grease an oven proof dish and lay the haddock fillets in it. Season them with salt and pepper.
Spoon the saut
éd mushrooms with their buttery juices over the fish and then splodge the crème fraiche over everything as evenly as possible. Bake in a pre-heated oven, 180 C, for about 20-25 minutes until bubbling and beginning to brown.
Serve with steamed new potatoes and a green salad.