Monday, November 10, 2008

Su Dongpo (1036-1101 AD)


Travelling round China it seemed appropriate to read books written by Chinese authors (in English translation of course). The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa has been sitting on my TBR shelf at home for quite some time so into the suitcase it went, and I finished reading it on a flight between Nanning in Guangxi province, and Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan.

The Girl Who played Go is a beautifully written first novel set in a period of Chinese history I knew little about.
In the early 1930s, Japan invaded the northern part of China known as Manchuria, and placed Pu Yi the last Emperor of the Qing dynasty on the throne as a puppet ruler. There was a great
deal of Chinese resistance to this, as the Chinese feared that Japan would use Manchuria as a starting point from which to conquer the whole of China. Set against this turbulent background, the lives of two individuals are gradually revealled to the reader. The first is a 16 year old Chinese schoolgirl from an upper class family who live in a small town in northern China, she has just embarked on her first relationship with a boy, and like most teenagers is wondering about what the future holds for her. She is a talented Go player, and every afternoon she frequents a square in the town where people congregate to play the game.
The other character is a young Japanese army officer who emulates the ancient Samurai code of honour. He has been sent to northern China where the Japanese are ruthlessly brutal in their attempts to end Chinese resistance to their occupation
. As he speaks Mandarin his senior officer requests that he don Chinese clothing and spend time in the town to spy on the citizens, local resistance groups are thought to meet at the square where Go is played each day. So it is in the 'Square of the Thousand Winds' that these two meet, and start playing a game of Go.

The game of Go has been played in China for over 4000 years, and it became one of the most popular games played in Japan centuries ago. Two players engage in battle of strategy using black and white counters on a board which has been incised into a table top of either wood or stone. Incredibly complex, a single game can last for many days; when play has to be interrupted a careful note of the players' positions is taken, and the game can resume hours or days later at exactly the same point.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine who has won and who has lost.
As the officer says when they have been playing for some time: "The black and white stones now form a series of intertangled traps where those that lay siege are themselves besieged....We are battling for narrow corridors and cramped corners." a comment which also reflects the position of the Japanese within Manchuria.

Written in very short chapters which are alternately narrated by the young girl and the Japanese officer, the story takes on something of the character of the game itself, with each player taking a turn. As the game progresses you become aware of the delicate emotional relationship building between them, and one has a steadily mounting sense of foreboding as events lead them towards a tragic ending.

Rated 4*


We spent five extremely busy days in Nanning, with the usual round of meetings
and banquets (a Chinese banquet is a formal dinner and is an integral part of business life out here) and the concept of the weekend as 'free' time doesn't seem to exist, so it was marvellous to snatch a half day to visit Dalong lake which is about two hours drive from the city. Actually it would take much less time to get there if the road were in better condition. Being bumped about until my backside was numb was well worth it, the lake is stunningly beautiful and completely unspoiled.

landscape is very reminiscent of Guilin which is also in Guangxi province but about 400 kms east of Nanning. The real difference is that Guilin is very much on the tourist trail, and many lotus-eating Westerners have settled there and opened bars, spas and guest houses.

We arrived at a tiny hamlet on the lakeside and hopped straight onto a boat - we were the only passengers - which immediately set off for a two hour cruise. For once I had remembered to take my binoculars, which meant we could do some bird watching as we soaked up the sunshine. It was so peaceful, and apart from the occasional lakeside fishing village and a cluster of sampans here and there, it was hard to believe that this was in the most populous country on earth.
By the time we left the lake I was so relaxed and full of fresh air that even the bumpy road couldn't keep me awake and I snoozed all the way back to the city, waking up just in time to change my clothes and run a comb through my hair before that evening's banquet.


There are so many wonderful restaurants in Beijing and the DH and I have been fortunate enough to have eaten in many of them, but on this trip one of the highlights has been a dinner we had at Mei Fu Jia Yan, or Mei Mansion as it is called in English.

Located in a 200 year old courtyard house in one of Beijing's ancient hutongs, just south of Hou Hai which is a beautiful ornamental lake, Mei Fu Jia Yan is the former home of the late Mei Lanfang - one of the greatest actors with Beijing Opera during 1930s -1950s. Mei Lanfang was famed for playing 'dan' roles, that is to say female roles. As in English theatre in Shakespeare's time, female parts in Chinese opera were always played by men although this no longer seems to be the case.

Mei Lanfang paid enormous attention to his diet in order to protect his voice, his health and his looks. He insisted on eating seasonal food with an emphasis on freshness, with low salt, low sugar, low cholesterol and minimal spice.

Mei Mansion is arranged as a series of private dining rooms set around a beautiful traditionally paved courtyard with bamboos, magnolias and willows and the gentle sound of water murmuring in the background. Owned and run by Mei Lanfang's son, the chef is the forth generation to have worked for the family, and continues to cook and serve the dishes created for the great star.

As is the custom, our host had chosen the menu, which was written on a fan in beautiful Chinese calligraphy, and the meal began with a selection of seven dishes, all presented in the most elegant way and looking like minor works of art. We were then served various delicious hot dishes, I particularly loved the beef with scallops, a combination that seemed made in heaven.
At that point we were invited to go out into the courtyard, where two young musicians were playing the traditional two-stringed fiddles called jinghu, to our great delight a young opera singer appeared dressed in costume, and sang several popular songs from various operas.
We then returned to continue eating, and were each served with freshwater crab. These were served whole, and each had a plastic tag attached to show they were legally caught and met organic criteria.
By the time the meal ended with the usual platter of prepared fresh fruit I was in a blur of taste sensations, and wished I could have taken photographs of each dish without being thought rude.

Mei Mansion is certainly expensive compared with many restaurants in this city, but for a memorable once in a lifetime experience it can't be beaten, and if you are going to be in Beijing it is really worth trying to get a table. I am told you have to book at least a week in advance.

Mei Mansion
24 Daxiangfeng Hutong
Hou Hai, Xi Cheng
Beijing 100000
Tel: +86 106 612 6845

Friday, October 24, 2008

While I am travelling around in China I won't be doing any cooking, and its hard to rant in Mandarin, so for the next blog or two The 3rs will be covering Reading, Relaxing & Restaurants. Normal service will resume when I get back to Blighty.


If anyone had told me that I would be absolutely absorbed by a book about playing cricket in America I would never have believed it as I am not very interested in sports of any kind. However Netherland by Joseph O'Neill hooked me from the first page. Netherland was on the Booker long list this year and I think it should have been short listed. The book is narrated by Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman who is an analyst with the Wall Street office of a British bank. His English wife Rachel is a solicitor and they live in trendy TriBeCa in downtown Manhattan with their baby son Jake. After the horrors of 9/11 the couple have to leave their appartment and move temporarily to the bohemian environment of the Chelsea Hotel. Rachel is very traumatised by the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and eventually return to what she perceives as the safety of London, taking Jake with her. Hans is left on his own. Being at a loose end at weekends, he starts playing cricket - a childhood passion of his; cricket in NY is played in the public parks of unfashionable suburban areas, and the players are the immigrants who have drifted to America from Britain's ex-colonies. West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans all come together to play, eat and socialize. Hans is one of the very few white players. Through playing cricket he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a street-wise Trinidadian with the gift of the gab, who fancies himself as an entrepreneur - one of his most successful ventures being a Kosher Sushi bar - who runs an old fashioned (and illegal) gambling game called 'weh weh' on the side. Chuck has big plans, he dreams of building a state-of-the-art cricket ground in NY, he tells Hans that cricket was played in the USA long before baseball,
"I'm saying that people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they're playing cricket. What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make
peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this. Everybody who plays the game benefits from it . So I say, why not Americans?"
Hans is very much a bystander, observing the city in which he is living, but not really engaged with it. His marriage is breaking down and he seems to be accepting it with detatched passivity. On the pretext of giving him driving practice so that he can get a US license, Chuck gets Hans to drive him all over the suburbs, stopping frequently for Chuck to conduct mysterious transactions. Eventually it dawns on Hans that he is being used in some way,
and that Chuck's business is shady to say the least. Finally Hans decides to return to London and try to resurrect his marriage, and it is there, some years later that he gets a call to say that Chuck's body has been found rotting in a canal where it had been for a year or so. This triggers memories of their short friendship, Hans's time in NY, and also of his childhood in Holland. Joseph O'Neill is a wonderful writer, and the descriptions are so precise, so evocative that the city of New York comes alive to the reader, and in Chuck Ramkissoon he has created a character in the mould of Gatsby, or even of Babbitt. This book is destined to be a classic I am sure.
Do read Netherland, even if, like me, you don't have any interest in cricket!

Rated 4.5*


One of the most fabulous, sociable and inexpensive things you can do when in China is have a foot massage.

It is SO relaxing and afterwards you feel as though you are walking on air. Before dinner last night the DH, BJBF and I went off to one of the best places for this (Lianzgzi has 400 salons all over China, employing over 20,000 trained staff) and after being shown into one of their many, very luxurious, foot massage rooms we were ensconced side by side in huge electrically adjustable arm chairs. Drinks orders were taken, the enormous plasma screen TV/DVD player was switched on, and a bevy of uniformed assistants arrived with special wooden buckets of hot water full of herbs into which our tired feet were plunged. There they soaked for five minutes whilst our three masseurs rubbed every part of them. Then they were removed, spritzed with more herbal liquids and gently pummelled before going back into the warm water. Stage three was when they were removed from the water dried and oiled before the massage proper began. Whilst one foot was being done, the other was wrapped in a warm damp towel.
By now the DH had sunk into a torpor, and eventually a gentle snore or two could be heard coming from the depths of his chair, which he had adjusted to practically horizontal! BJBF and I were chatting away 19 to the dozen, catching up on all the news since we last met up...we discussed the Chinese milk scandal, our children, the Beijing Olympics and what Londoners really felt about the British 8 minute handover section of the closing ceremony, Madonna's divorce, the new vehicle restrictions in Beijing - how were they working?
Every so often a waiter would come in with refills of green tea, and in this way nearly
two hours passed in a flash.

My only moment of disquiet was when the young man , who was massaging my right foot at the time, said sternly (BFBJ translated for me) that my "points" were blocked, the Chi was not moving properly - he felt I wasn't getting enough sleep or drinking enough water, my body was too "hot", I must be sure to eat "cooling" foods.

By the time we were all done, my calves had been beaten into submission, every toe was tingling with new life and vigour and I practically skipped out of the salon like a spring lamb.

I'm thinking of writing to the big boss of Liangzi to suggest he opens a branch in London - I'd be their first customer.


In the five days we have been in Beijing we have had the most amazing dining experiences, all different, but I thought I'd kick off with the only time the DH and I have snatched a meal together on our own. On our first full day here we rushed off to the Yashou Clothing Market in Sanlitun to order a new suit for the DH. An excellent tailors shop he has used in the past is based there. After being measured up we had 40 minutes to grab a quick lunch before the next round of meetings. Right behind the market there is a great little place which serves Shanghai dumplings, xiaolongbao - I know, it seems crazy to eat Shanghai dumplings in Beijing, but we both love them so what the hell. Xiaolongbao are quite different from Beijing jiaozi; they are round, always steamed, and contain a stuffing of minced pork plus another ingredient, usually some form of seafood. We ordered a round of pork+ shrimp, and a round of pork + crab. The kitchen is open so you can watch your dumplings being made, unless you prefer to watch the huge TV screen on the wall, which seems to be permenantly tuned to some kind of crazy physical game show rather like a Chinese version of 'It's A Knockout'. All the locals were engrossed, loudly egging on the contestants and sighing with sympathy when they were eliminated. When our dumplings arrived at the table, stacked in the ubiquitous bamboo steamers, they required careful chopstick technique, as in addition to the stuffing, each dumpling contains some meaty broth which is extremely hot. The correct method is to pick one up, bite away a small amount of the outer dumpling, suck out the broth with a loud slurp, and then dip the rest into the dish of vinegar and slivered ginger before eating it. For those who like a bit of spice there is a pot of chilli sauce which can be mixed with the vinegar. Each steamer contained 8 dumplings, and together with three beers the meal cost the grand sum of 39RMB which is about £3.25p.
Cheap, filling and delicious, this is what fast food should be about.

Monday, October 13, 2008

SORRY, SORRY, SORRY - the last few weeks have been hectic to say the least, what with moving house and a full-on calendar of other commitments, I'm afraid the blog has been sadly
neglected, apologies all round.

In a couple of days time I'm off to China for a fortnight, but hope to blog from there as I am taking my latest toy, a small but perfectly formed notebook made by Dell.


Ruth Rendell is one of Britain’s most prolific and popular authors, in the four decades since I read her first book she has published a further 57 titles, 45 under her own name (21 of which feature her detective creation Wexford and the fictious town of Kingsmarkham), and 13 under her pseudonym Barbara Vine. (to learn more about Ruth Rendell, click here.)

I hadn’t read anything by her for a year or two and decided it was more than time to pick up one of her recent books. In 2006 she published The Water’s Lovely as Ruth Rendell, When she writes as Vine the novels are often multilayered, darker and explore the impact that chance or coincidence has on her characters.

Ismay and Heather are sisters who share a flat in what was once the family house; their elderly mother Beatrice, who has dementia, lives in the flat above them cared for by her sister Patricia. Thirteen years previously, when Ismay and Heather were in their early teens, their stepfather Guy was found drowned in his bath.

Ismay has always thought that Heather drowned him in order to protect her from Guy’s sexual attentions, and has worried whether she should have been complict with her mother in covering her sister’s crime.

Now both young women are working and in serious relationships, but the past continues to cast a long shadow, and threatens their lives.

As always Ruth Rendell has created some memorable characters, and in this book are three of the most compellingly selfish people you could imagine. Andrew, Ismay’s boyfriend, is a truly nasty piece of work. He treats Ismay with contempt and reduces her to abject misery. Heather’s fiancée Edmund has a mother, Irene, who is the most hysterical hypochondriac, using her imagined illnesses to try and control Edmund. Marion Melville, one of Irene’s friends, is a character worthy of Dickens. A manipulator par excellence, she visits several elderly people for entirely selfish reasons and it is through her unwittingly amoral behaviour that Guy’s death comes back to haunt the sisters.

Rendell excels at the psychological crime novel and this is no exception, though I did think it was much more in the style of Barbara Vine, and I am surprised she published it under that name.

Rated 4*


There are times when I begin to wonder what country I am living in, and now is one of those times….am I living in Britain, or East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall ? We are being turned slowly but surely in to a nation that spies on one another, reports one another (sometimes anonymously) to the “authorities” for perceived minor infractions of civil or criminal law.

You may wonder why I am getting all hot under the collar about this today, read on and you may become hot under the collar too.

Lincoln City Council has decided that all council employed plumbers and electricians are to be given training in spotting child abuse, so that when they are in someone’s home to fix a wonky pipe or re-wire an electrical circuit they can spy on the family and report back to Social Services if they think that children may have been abused.

Child abuse is a horrible thing, it harms children and their families. The term is wide ranging, and includes neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It is by its very nature hidden, and difficult to spot even for experts. Just having an accusation of child abuse made, rightly or wrongly, can tear a family apart and do lasting damage which may echo down the generations.
I say this as one who, after 20+ years in the Family Courts, dealt with more cases of child abuse than I care to remember.

To expect handymen (or women) to be able to diagnose children as abused or in danger of abuse after a week or two’s training, when they are busy working on the job of plumbing or wiring is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of.

No it’s worse than that, it is very dangerous and just plain wrong. What on earth do Lincoln Council think they are doing?

The chance of false allegations will be very high; and if a plumber unblocks a sink in Family A’s kitchen and doesn’t report anything, does that mean that all is ticketty-boo and the kids are fine? Does it hell, it means absolutely nothing.

There used to be a good old English phrase “Mind your own business” and the business of plumbers is plumbing, not spying for social services.

I hope that the people of Lincoln rise up and stop this outrageous plan.


Adjusting to a new kitchen takes time - in the first place you have to remember where you have put everything as you unpacked box after box, and then the regular way you move between sink, stove/oven, fridge etc seems awkward and unfamiliar.
Waiting for the plumber to come and sort out the boiler a few days ago, meant a working lunch had to be re-scheduled from a restaurant to being here in the new house, and the menu was dependent on what I had available. -Some frozen Canadian scallops (which are a really useful thing to have in the freezer, they should not be defrosted before cooking and taste delicious), a packet of Puy lentils, and a small Savoy cabbage provided the basis for a really tasty main course which I will be making again.
Puy lentils are the only lentils which have an A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Controlée ), they are small, grey-brown in colour and do not require pre-soaking.


Serves 4

400g frozen Canadian scallops
250g Puy lentils
1 onion, finely chopped
200g bacon lardons
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper
1 small Savoy cabbage, finely shredded
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
Olive oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce

Place the lentils in a saucepan and cover with about ½ litre of boiling water, cook for about 20 minutes until the lentils are soft. Drain and set aside.

In a frying pan sauté the lardons until beginning to brown slightly then add the chopped onion and continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the onion is translucent, add the drained lentils and mix together; add the lemon juice and season to taste. Set aside.

The lentils can be prepared to this stage well in advance, even the day before, and then re-heated in a pan or microwave prior to serving.

Heat a splash of olive oil in a shallow pan, and when very hot add the shredded cabbage, stir-fry for a few moments before adding enough water to moisten it, keep cooking for a minute or two until the cabbage is softened but still has a little bite to it. Stir in the soy sauce and the chopped parsley. Set aside but keep warm.

Heat a frying pan until very hot, add a splash of olive oil and then the frozen scallops. Cook for 6-7 minutes each side until soft, cooked through and golden brown.
Place a ring of the cooked cabbage on each plate, and heap some of the lentils in the centre. Carefully place about 5-6 scallops on top of the lentils and serve immediately with crusty bread.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


"all that morning a packing up, a sending off, a pushing in—upholstery meeting upholstery in deadly contention; streets encumbered with card-tables and arm-chairs in the most awkward irrelation to their proper circumstances; articles even more sacredly domestic exposed to every idle passerby—a straw-and-ropiness everywhere."

Thank heavens it will all be over by the weekend.


The Diplomatic Corpse by Anne Marshall Zwack is a wonderfully light and frothy tale of love, revenge and diplomacy, and just what I needed after an exhausting day of packing boxes prior to moving house.

Maggie has spent 25 years being the perfect wife, dutifully following her upper-class husband, Jeremy, from one European city to another as he advanced up the diplomatic ladder. She has attended innumerable boring diplomatic dinners and receptions, hosted cocktail parties ad nauseum, chatted amiably with the wives of other diplomats, and has never put a foot wrong.

Jeremy is British Ambassador in Vienna when he suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. Hours after the funeral, when Maggie is still numb with shock, she finds out that he did not, as she had been told, die at his office desk in the Embassy but in the arms of his blonde Viennese mistress, Mausie.

Consumed with grief and rage, Maggie decides she will exact revenge on Mausie, and with the help of Zoltan, their lugubrious Hungarian chauffeur, she concocts a plan.

It is only after carrying it out that she discovers that Mausie was but the latest in a line of mistresses, Jeremy having had a liaison in each of the cities to which he had been posted ever since the start of their marriage.

Enveloped in fury, and feeling robbed of the life she thought she had lived, she embarks on a round Europe quest to wreak havoc on each of Jeremy’s other women.

The whole process of planning revenge takes every ounce of cunning that Maggie possesses. Aided and abetted by Zoltan and his whacky Italian girlfriend she careers round Paris, Budapest, and Rome plotting ever more hilarious ways of getting her own back.

Eventually she and her co-conspirators end up back in Jeremy’s London flat where they start a new business as matrimonial investigators. And it is through a case that comes to them that she realises that, in fact, Jeremy has had the last laugh.

Rated 4*


I wonder if the word “elitist” has the same meaning in American English as it does in English. Perhaps not.

Sir Evelyn de Rothschild is an immensely wealthy, incredibly well-connected British financier, born into the famously rich Rothschild banking family, He owns racehorses, is a patron of the arts and active supporter of various worthwhile charities. He is what would be described in Britain as one of ‘the great and the good’.

His third wife, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, is a well known American business woman who has made a fortune in her own right. A life-long Democrat who has raise huge amounts of money for the party, and close personal friend of Hillary Clinton- she and her husband spent their honeymoon at the White House – she divides her time between homes in New York, London and the English countryside.

Yesterday she announced, out of the blue, that she was ditching her long term allegiance to the Democrats and would now be backing Senator McCain in the forthcoming presidential election. This, she said, was because she felt that Barak Obama was too “elitist”.

Excuse me? A woman who is a fully paid up member of the business elite, who has married into one of the most elite families in England, who uses a title and has houses on both sides of the Atlantic, regards Barak Obama as elitist…

Hmm, pot calling kettle methinks.


When you've been packing up boxes prior to moving, the last thing you want to do is think about what to give everyone for supper, so it was fortunate for me that the decision was made by what I found lying around after emptying kitchen cupboards. This is comfort food, easy to make**, and ideal for students to make at uni as it is cheap as chips. Kids love it because apart from being very tasty it looks mushed together in the way that mothers usually object to; "stop messing your food around and just eat normally" is the phrase I remember using long ago.

Anyway, it is perfect house-moving fodder and we all fell on it like starving vultures.

**The most difficult part of the recipe is opening the corned beef tins. In the interests of health and safety I should warn you to be very careful, I suspect more people get a nasty cut off a corned beef can than from anything else. Wrap your hand in a tea towel to hold the tin, or better still, abandon the stupid little opening key provided and use a normal tin opener to open the tin at both top and bottom so you can just push the beef out.


Serves 4

2 tins corned beef
2 onions, roughly chopped
4 – 6 potatoes, depending on size
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Worcestershire sauce
Tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon chopped parsley (not essential)
Salt & Pepper

Peel the potatoes and boil or microwave them until just cooked. Drain and cut into bite sized chunks.
Cut the corned beef into bite sized cubes.

Saute the onion in a large frying pan until soft and just beginning to colour, add the corned beef and continue cooking, use a kitchen fork to break down the beef.

Add a good slug of Worcestershire sauce, and about a tablespoon of tomato ketchup, then add the cooked potato and mix everything together.
Continue cooking, stirring so that as the underneath browns, it breaks up.
Mash down the potato pieces slightly as they cook.
Stir in the chopped parsley if you have any.
Test for taste and add more Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and salt and pepper if needed.

Serve piping hot with a fried egg on top if you are really hungry.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008





British graveyards are full of fascinating, entertaining epitaphs - every month I shall put a new one up on the blog.


There were moments in my childhood where I felt so completely at odds with my parents that I was sure I must be adopted, and that somewhere in the world were two people who were my REAL parents and who would be charming, loving, and most of all, sympathetic and admiring of me. Of course this was not the case, I was the real child of my parents and merely suffering a typical bout of misunderstood youth. For the novelist A.M Homes whose memoir The Mistress’s Daughter I have just finished reading, such feelings were all too true. She WAS adopted as a newborn baby, and had always known the fact. She, like many other adoptees had always wondered about her biological parents, and had made some half-hearted attempts to trace them.

“In my dreams, my birth mother is a goddess, the queen of queens, the CEO, the CFO, and the COO. Movie-star beautiful, incredibly competent, she can take care of anyone and anything. She has made a fabulous life for her self, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link – me.”

However when, aged 31, her birth mother, Ellen, makes contact with her via the lawyer who had arranged the adoption, it comes as a complete surprise.
She discovers that Ellen was 22 when A.M. was born, and had been the mistress of Norman, an older married man, since she was 17 years old. Ellen has also contacted Norman to inform him she intends to trace their child, and so A.M. writes to both of them.

Almost immediately it becomes apparent that Ellen is a very difficult and needy woman. She never married, and has led a rather ramshackle life, both financially and emotionally. She considers herself sophisticated, but seems to be stuck in a time-warp of the early 60s. It is obvious that she has contacted A.M. because of her own needs rather than any desire to fill any needs of her daughter.

“Why won’t you see me?” she whines. “You’re torturing me. You take better care of your dog than you take of me.”
Am I supposed to be taking care of her? Is that what she’s come back for?
“You should adopt me – and take care of me”, she says.
“I can’t adopt you “, I say.

When A.M. first meets her birth father Norman in his lawyer’s office, the conversation is stilted and extremely odd.
“Tell me a little bit about you”, I say.
“I’m not circumcised. My grandmother was a strict Catholic, she had me baptised, I’m not circumcised”.

He also insists that they both undergo DNA testing to make sure she is his child, and when the results prove it to be the case he tells her that he will now introduce her to his family – he has four other children, all born before she was, and he is still married to his first wife. However, though he continues contact with A.M. for a while, he is reluctant to follow through with this promise, and eventually rejects her completely, even refusing to give her the DNA paperwork which proves his paternity.

Ellen dies unexpectedly a year or two after they have met, and A.M. is left even more painfully confused about who she is than she had been originally. Norman’s subsequent rejection, in effect abandoning her for a second time in her life, enrages her, and she embarks on a quest to discover everything she can about her ancestry.

Using all the tools of the electronic age she turns detective, following the tiniest clues and thanks to the wonders of the internet, and diligent fossiking in old archives, she builds up a picture of each of her parents and their antecedents, as well as the family history of her adopted parents who have remained solidly supportive whilst all this turmoil has been going on.
“The desire to know oneself and one’s history is not always equal to the pain the new information causes”.

Eventually she has a child of her own and at last becomes settled in a sense of self.
“I am my mother’s child and I am my mother’s child, I am my father’s child and I am my father’s child…
Did I choose to be found? No. Do I regret it? No. I couldn’t not know.”

Other people’s lives always seem more interesting than one’s own life, merely because their lives are unfamiliar. In this memoir A.M Homes has managed to distil what it is that people crave when they seek out their family backgrounds, a sense of belonging, a sense of place, and a sense of self. I found the book totally compelling.

Rated 5*


“Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

I have had enough of being ignored and today

I am going to play God. “

These are the opening lines of a poem entitled Education for Leisure* by Carol Ann Duffy, one of our most celebrated modern poets.

For the past 5 years, AQA one of the biggest exam boards in the UK, has included the poem together with others by the same poet, in an anthology of poetry used by students sitting English GCSE.

It is a challenging poem which gives much food for thought and I imagine it would generate some interesting comments during classroom discussions.

In all the years that the anthology has been included in AQA’s English syllabus, there have been three complaints about the poem. Two complaints about it both by the same person, referring to the narrator carrying a bread knife with the possible intention of hurting someone,

and one complaint about the line in the poem which refers to a goldfish being flushed down the loo.

Based on a back of the envelope calculation using GCSE numbers given on the OFQUAL website (Office of Qualifications & Examinations Register), I estimate somewhere in the region of ¾ million 16 year olds have written AQA’s GCSE English exam in the past 6 years

So – over several years and ¾ million students only THREE complaints. AQA say they have bowed to these complaints, given the current media publicity about knife crime, and have instructed schools to remove the poem and/or the anthology.

Why not do away with Romeo and Juliet? surely it is not an appropriate play for young people to study in Britain today; it features stabbings, gang warfare, the teenage protagonists are bunking out to have pre-marital sex and it climaxes with a double suicide. And as for The Merchant of Venice....

In fact, why doesn't AQA go the whole hog and just remove anything by W. Shakespeare from the curriculum, his plays are just far too violent and in the current climate of panic over knife crime it would be better that teenagers were not exposed to such influences.

Sorry if I seem snarky, but really AQA has been ridiculously weak - they should have had the guts to tell Pat Schofield - the complainant - that it is a POEM, not an instruction book. Removing that poem won’t stop knife crime – hells bells, the poem won’t have caused any knife crime in the first place.

What will they feel they should censor next ?

*Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

I have had enough of being ignored and today

I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,

a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.

We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in

another language and now the fly is in another language.

I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half

the chance. But today I am going to change the world.

Something's world. The cat avoids me. The cat

knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.

I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.

Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town

For signing on. They don't appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio

and tell the man he's talking to a superstar.

He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.

The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.


Way back in 1975 Shirley Conran wrote a bestselling book entitled 'Superwoman' in which she came up with the line "Life is too short to stuff a mushroom", and for many years I agreed with her. But then the delicious large open brown mushrooms known in the UK as Portobello mushrooms became widely available and I revised my ideas. These are wonderful as a side dish, as the vegetarian option on a braai/barbeque, or on their own as a light supper. The foul weather we have been enduring in Britain this summer has meant that these have had to be baked in the oven each time I've made them - too wet for braaing these past few weeks.


6 large flat mushrooms – Portobello or similar
3 spring onions, finely chopped
120 g white breadcrumbs
2 cloves garlic
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped parsley
Salt & pepper
Olive oil

Optional extras:
A slice of cheese placed on top of each mushroom prior to baking.
A fried egg placed on top of each baked mushroom.

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Remove the stalks from the mushrooms and chop finely.
Heat a little olive oil in a sauté pan and gently fry the spring onions and chopped mushroom stalks until onion is soft but not brown.
Put the breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, minced garlic, spring onions etc into a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Mix together, add a dash or two of olive oil if needed to make the stuffing slightly moist.
Divide the stuffing between the mushrooms and press it in carefully.
Drizzle a little more olive oil over each one.

Place the mushrooms on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the mushroom is soft.

Alternatively, the mushrooms do well on a braai (use tongs to lift them), place round the sides of the grid when the braai is ready for cooking.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Moving house in three weeks (second time in 12 months) hence blogging hiatus.


Of all the books I’ve read in the last few weeks, Away by Amy Bloom has been one that gripped my imagination right from the first page.

Lillian Leyb is a 22 year old Russian Jew who arrives in New York in 1924, having lost her husband and family in a bloody pogrom back in Russia during which her three year old daughter vanished. Like the many thousands of immigrants who entered the USA through Ellis Island she speaks no English, is penniless and her only contact is a distant cousin. She is utterly determined to build a new life, and will do whatever it takes to survive and prosper – after all, nothing can ever be as horrendous as what she has already endured.

She is fortunate enough to encounter Reuben Burstein and his son Meyer who take her under their wing. Reuben is the grand old man of Jewish theatre in New York and his son is a much admired actor, and Lillian becomes mistress to both men. Life is becoming comfortable but complicated.

Then one day her cousin Raisele (who Lillian thought had died back in Russia) turns up, and tells Lillian that her daughter Sophie is alive. According to Raisele, the child was rescued by another Jewish couple during the pogrom and they fled the village taking her with them. They told others that they were going to head east to Siberia.

Lillian is immediately consumed with the need to return to Russia to find her child, but how to get there? After consulting her friend Yaakov who draws up an itinerary for her, she will travel west to Seattle, and from there travel north to Alaska so that she can eventually cross the Bering Straits into Siberia. The Bursteins and others try to dissuade her and one asks:

You already live without your little girl--why not go on living without her? Because she belongs to you? Is that why?”

“…Because she is a little, little girl,“ answers Lillian, “Not that she is mine. That I am hers.”

The rest of the book is the story of her odyssey and the trials and tribulations she endures in cities and the wilderness. Each chapter is a vignette of a section of the journey and introduces the extraordinary people she meets en route. Gumdrop the gorgeous black prostitute who rescues her from the gutter in Seattle, Chinky Chang the Chinese con artist who takes a shine to her when they meet as inmates of a women’s prison near Prince Rupert in British Columbia, and John Bishop the reclusive policeman who killed a man in a bar brawl and is lying low in the wilds of Alaska.

As Lillian moves on her way, the author fast forwards through the life of many of the characters she has met and the reader discovers what happens to them. Gumdrop, for instance, reinvents herself as a very proper school teacher and lives the rest of her life in bourgeois probity.

I would not dream of spoiling the book for other readers by revealing the outcome, but for me the ending was absolutely right.

In some ways this book is a linked series of short stories, so I was not surprised to find out that Amy Bloom has published a couple of books of stories already. Her writing is lyrical at times, sometimes humourous and sometimes tender, and in Lillian she has created a character who personifies how the human spirit can endure the most challenging situations.

It was not until after I read the book that I discovered that the inspiration behind it was the vague legend told in the Yukon of a young Jewish woman called Lillian Alling who “walked to Russia from New York” in the 1920s.

A wonderful life-affirming book, I really recommend it.

Rated 5*


I am so naïve. I thought I knew – more or less – what a charity is. There are two or three which I support because I think they do a wonderful job.
In Britain charities are highly regulated by the Charities Commission. This I presumed was to ensure that conmen/women were not setting up bogus schemes and fleecing the public.

However it was not until very recently that I learnt, from a Charities Commission survey, that two thirds of the biggest charities in this country get nearly 80% of their money from us as taxpayers rather than from donations by people who support the causes of the particular charity. These charities have more in common with quangos; the temptation for a charity receiving 80% of its income from government funding must be to fall in with government requirements for the spending of such funds, thus removing any real independence of action.

Working my way through the list of charities which get money from the government (ie: us, the taxpayers) I came across some which surprised me.

Among them was the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (aka RSPB) which gets £20 million each year. Twenty million pounds per annum to save the birds, this in a country that is denying cancer sufferers, on the grounds of cost, some of the drugs that could help them. Hmm….

Oh and another thing, one of the latest projects funded by the RSPB is to save the Jerdon’s courser, an endangered bird native to India. Don't get me wrong, I like birds and when back in Africa I have been known to spend hours birdwatching, although I could hardly call myself a fully-fledged twitcher. The project is very laudable I’m sure, but am I happy about my taxes going, without my knowledge to a charity I personally haven’t chosen to support who then use that money to save a bird in a country which has more millionaires and billionaires than we do in the UK. Well what do you think I feel? Someone should be telling people that this is where our taxes are going.

I’m telling you now.


Last week I had a phone call from my DD saying that she and DDF had discovered a wonderful bramble hedge with a bumper crop of berries when out walking near their home in Cambridge. They planned to go back at the weekend and pick several kilos of fruit to make jam, and could I give them a recipe.
As I hate the little seeds that stick in your teeth, I usually made Bramble Jelly, but it takes longer and requires more fiddling about with jelly bags or squares of muslin, so I gave them this jam recipe which I have made once or twice in the past. It is an easy recipe and very tasty on hot buttered toast!


1kg brambles
350g apples (eating, cooking or
White granulated sugar. (Make sure you have at least 1½ kilos available.)

Core and roughly chop apple (skin on)

Put apples, cores and brambles into a large heavy bottomed pan, add just enough water to barely cover the fruit, simmer gently until the fruit is soft.

Push the softened fruit and juices through a sieve and weigh the pulp.

For every 450g pulp allow 450g sugar.

Put the pulp and sugar into the pan and heat very gently, stirring, until all the sugar has dissolved.

Bring to the boil and boil rapidly without stirring for 8-10 minutes until the jam reaches setting point.

Once setting point has been reached, allow jam to cool for a minute or two before ladling into warm sterilised jars. Top with wax jam covers whilst hot before sealing jars with lids.

Label and store in a dark, dry place.