Monday, March 24, 2008

W.C. Fields
Sometimes I can empathise with that quote.


When I was out in South Africa last month at least six different people asked me if I’d read
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and when I said no I hadn’t
, the usual response was something like “well you MUST, you really must read it.” They had all loved the book.

Being an obedient sort I have now done so.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a successful New York writer and journalist, who (aged 34) goes through a painful, soul destroying divorce, followed by an intense rebound romance which ends badly. Feeling emotionally battered she decides to take a year off and go travelling to find balance in her life. Eat Pray Love is a memoir of that year of travel.

Gibert starts her year of travel in Italy, Rome to be precise, where she learns to speak Italian and eats, eats everything and anything, from risotto ai fungi and Tiamisu to newborn lamb’s intestines.

After several months in Italy she moves on - to India. There she intends to spend six weeks at the Ashram of “her” guru, a famous Indian woman to whose teachings she had been introduced back in New York some months before; she hopes to find spiritual solace whilst meditating at the Ashram. It turns out that six weeks of trying to meditate is not enough for her, and she ends up staying at the Ashram for all the time she is in India.

Eventually it is time to move on again, and she sets off for the exotic island of Bali to try and locate an elderly Balinese medicine man she had met four years previously. Whilst in Bali she makes friends, observes Balinese life, and falls in love with a Brazilian man some years her senior and her own life takes a whole new turn.

Elizabeth Gilbert has a frank, informal writing style - almost chatty ; she is self deprecating and often very funny indeed. I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book when she is in Italy, but the middle section where she is in the Ashram dragged on and on, and I began to find her emotionally adolescent and self absorbed. To be honest, the whole Ashram thing annoyed me, as I saw it as being run as a commercial business for like-minded nu-age westerners who perceived the east as being the only place to find spiritual truths, and yet Gibert didn’t seem to see that at all.

The time she spent in Bali was fascinating about Balinese life, but again I found myself becoming impatient as she seemed incredibly naïve – when suffering from as serious urinary tract infection one of her local friends, a woman who runs a health restaurant, gives her a vile concoction to drink and hey presto, she is completely cured within two hours – oh yeah? If that were really possible, every mega pharmaceutical company would be beating a path to Bali to register and market the potion.

After finishing it I did wonder whether this was a very carefully calculated account of a year which was always intended to be the basis of a commercially successful book, rather than a true spiritual and emotional journey.

Having said all that,I did find it an entertaining read - it was not slushy at all, which is what I’d expected when I picked it up, and very different from my usual reading material. Which can only be a good thing!

Rated: 3.5*


Last night I had to take my DH to the A&E department of our local hospital - he had managed to slice his right ear in half (don't ask). Anyway, being Easter Sunday at 11pm the place was moderately busy as you would expect.

DH was seen very quickly, the injury was worse than

either of us had realised, and after being cleaned etc, we were shown to a cubicle to await the surgical registrar. We had taken work/books to read, and the time went by. People came and went in the adjoining cubicle.

At one in the morning a very articulate 11 year old and his dad were there. Being a child, he had jumped right up the queue (and thats fine with me), a doctor arrived to see him almost

immediately. As all were speaking very loudly I couldn't help overhearing everything.
The boy was suffering from Ringworm, which he said he had had for some two months. He had been taken to his GP who had prescribed various anti-fungal creams and tablets; these

had not had much success so he had seen the GP again who had changed the medication - some three weeks prior. He listed all the medications he had been given, some of which he was still using.

The A&E doctor asked why they were there in the early hours - and the father said that the boy was going abroad on Tuesday for a week's holiday and they wanted the ringworm to be sorted out there and then! This father was an articulate middle class man who proceeded to throw a wobbly when it was very politely pointed out to him that ringworm was neither an Accident nor an Emergency and that he should take his son back to the GP and get an appointment with a consultant Dermatologist.

They stormed out, the father raging about the inequities of the NHS and how it was failing them. But the reality was that they were abusing the system. Hospital A&E departments are not for general ailments, they should not be used as an open-all-hours doctors surgery. The whole episode took 20-30 minutes of a busy doctor's time, time that could have been spent on others who needed her care there and then (and I do not include my DH among them - he was seen and sutured by a terrific registrar, who hailed from Ghana, about an hour later).

Imagine the scene I overheard being repeated once or twice a night at every A&E department up and down the land, and then you realise why the waiting times in casualty departments are often very long.


My DD and I have sometimes grabbed a quick lunch at Ottolenghi, the chic eatery where rich and fashionable Notting Hillbillies get their organic rocket salad and other delicious things. Some weeks ago I was idly surfing through the on-line UK newspapers and discovered in The Guardian that Yotam Ottolenghi (who is chef/patron of the aforementioned establishment) writes a recipe column for them. This was the recipe that caught my eye. I made it, and all I can say is that the man is a culinary genius - it is super-special, double-dipped divine. When you read the recipe it sounds quite fiddly, but is actually not difficult and the result is worth it. My guests were knocked out by warned, if you come to dinner here anytime in the next few months this is what you will be getting as a starter!


Serves 4-6

30g unsalted butter, melted
375g puff pastry
½ butternut squash (250g), peeled, seeded and cut into 2cm wedges
3 tbsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper
2 heads garlic, cloves peeled (this is a lot of garlic but trust me on this, it is not an over garlicky tasting dish)
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1½ tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp chopped rosemary
1 tsp chopped thyme, plus a few whole sprigs to finish
130g rich, creamy goats' cheese, rind removed
2 eggs
100ml double cream
100ml crème fraîche

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Brush a 22cm round cake tin with melted butter. Roll out the pastry to a square 3-4mm thick, then cut out a circle to cover the base of the tin and come about 3cm up its sides. Brush with more butter, line with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Put into the fridge for 20 minutes, bake for 20 minutes, remove the beans and bake for 15 minutes more, or until the pastry is golden. Remove and set aside.

Spread the squash over an oven tray, sprinkle with a tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt, and roast for 30 minutes, until cooked through. Meanwhile, put the garlic in a small pan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, blanch for three minutes and drain. Return cloves to the dry pan and add two tablespoons of oil. Fry for two minutes, add the vinegar and 180ml water, simmer for 10 minutes, add the sugar, chopped herbs and half a teaspoon of salt, and simmer for another 10 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the cloves are coated in dark, caramelly syrup.

Arrange the squash in the tart case, dot with pieces of goats' cheese and scatter the garlic and its syrup all over. Whisk eggs, creams, half a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and pour over the tart, plugging the gaps but letting the filling peek over the surface. Lay a few thyme sprigs on top.

Reduce the oven to 170C/325F/ gas mark 3 and bake the tart for 35-45 minutes, until it sets and the top goes golden-brown.

Eat warm or at room temperature with a crisp salad - sit back and wait for the compliments!

Thursday, March 13, 2008



On World Book Day which was last week, Boy A by Jonathan Trigell was voted as THE Book to Talk About from a list of 10 contenders (to see the other books listed, click HERE) and I think it a worthy winner.

Boy A has chosen the name Jack Burridge for himself, his real name is never divulged, because Boy A is one of two lads who murdered another child when they were ten years old. Boy B was found dead by hanging whilst still in a Young Offenders Institution.

Now aged 24, Jack has been given a new identity and is tentatively beginning a life out in the real world. Jack has a job, and his minder/mentor who introduces himself to people as Jack’s Uncle Terry, has found him lodgings with a local woman. No-one knows his true background.

Boy A lives a very fragile life, terrified of relationships, never forgetting what he is guilty of having done. He is always aware that the tabloid press are relentless in their attempts to find him. When, because he and a workmate happen to be first on the scene of a terrible car smash, he saves the life of a little girl, he is hailed as a hero which he finds very frightening, as the local press send a photographer round to take their picture. He is also worried about having too much to drink in case he gives himself away, and when some of his workmates befriend him he has problems as they dabble with recreational drugs which are all off limits to him. Eventually he embarks on his first romantic relationship, which is also means a sexual relationship, something he has never had before. As events unfold the reader gets a real sense of foreboding, Jack is too vulnerable, his anonymity cannot be sustained indefinitely.

The story is very obviously based on the notorious case of the two boys who murdered James Bulger in Liverpool 15 years ago. Since then it has been revealed that at least one of those boys has been released on license, and needless to say there have been all sorts of stories in the tabloid press and circulating on the internet as to where they might be, and how they have “got away with murder” as they are no longer incarcerated. As a youth court magistrate for many years, I have visited Feltham YOI several times, and this book conveys the ghastly atmosphere, the bullying, and the deep unhappiness that permeate the place. It punishes youths, no doubt of that, but I doubt that it rehabilitates many.

The author has skilfully managed to cover the complex attitudes society has towards children who kill; how they are seen as more monstrous than adult killers, and how many feel they should be punished incredibly harshly for the rest of their lives. On the whole the public seem uninterested in WHY these children would kill, as they are considered to be almost sub-human.

“She could remember at the time of the trial, everyone she knew was horrified, imagining what it would be like if their child had been murdered in such a way. No one had stopped to think about what it would be like if their child was the murderer. That was why the boys had to be evil, they had to be alien: other, demons”

The book will certainly give readers food for thought, and it would be a fantastic book club choice as it raises several very debatable points of view.

Rated 5*


If I stub my toe, do I immediately look round to see who I can sue? Well no I don’t, but some people would. Scrolling through the BBC news website today I read an item which made me so mad I could spit.

Mr and Mrs Boardman are a couple in their eighties who live in Lincolnshire. Mrs Boardman has heart problems, and recently they had to call an ambulance for her. When it arrived at their house and she had been seen, one of the ambulance men returned to the vehicle to collect a stretcher and fell in their driveway. He has now instructed a lawyer and is seeking damages from the Boardmans for personal injury. The East Midlands Ambulance Service who employ the ambulance technician say that he is doing this on his own behalf and it is nothing to do with them.

The Boardmans were shaken and distressed when they received the letter from this man’s solicitor, and I’m not surprised. It would distress me too. They say they would now be scared to summon the emergency services even if they need them. Accidents happen, you can’t always blame someone else, and it is just plain greedy to try and exhort money from frail elderly people because you fell over whilst doing your job.

What kind of crazy society have we become?


Supermarket shelves are stacked high with crisps, nuts, cheesy wotsits and other snacks for serving with drinks, but they are so expensive and greasy that I am on a bit of a campaign to find other appetisers. I can eat houmous 'til the cows come home, and am partial to taramasalata and bits of pitta bread too but after a while it is good to ring the changes. This is ever so easy and very moreish, veggie friends like it, and I kid myself that it is healthy too!


Serves 4-6

2x 400g tins cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
5 tablespoons olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 teaspoon cumin (I use half ground cumin, and half cumin seeds)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt & pepper
2 tablespoons (approx) finely chopped fresh coriander.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, add the cumin and chopped garlic and cook for a few minutes stirring well – do not let the garlic brown.

Add the beans and mix all together well. Cook gently for 5 minutes, stirring all the time. Remove from heat. Either mash the beans with a fork, adding the lemon juice and extra oil if it is too solid and dry, or whiz in a blender, so that it forms a rough puree. It should not be too smooth so do not over blend. Stir the chopped coriander into the bean mash. Season well to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve with warm grilled bruschetta or toasted pita bread.

This is also delicious spread in sandwiches with sliced tomato and cucumber.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008



The old saw that you can't tell a book by it's cover is undoubtedly true, but I find that I am often drawn to a book merely because the cover appeals to me, and with few exceptions I have not been disappointed. Miss Webster and Cherif by Patricia Duncker is a case in point, the cover was intriguing which is why I picked it up, and within I found a delightful tale which I really enjoyed reading.

Miss Webster is a retired schoolmarm, very much in the Miss Jean Brodie mould, living in a quintessentially English village where she has not endeared herself to her fellow villages with her peppery tongue and dogmatic views on life. Approaching seventy, she feels she has been unjustly pushed out of teaching when she still had much to offer. With nothing much to fill her time she is angry and depressed and eventually has a severe nervous breakdown.

The consultant who treats her suggests she travels to somewhere very different from England as part of her recovery process so she sets off for a trip to Morocco. It is indeed very different, she sees the desert meets various locals and is on the fringe of a terrorist incident. The trip has had the result the consultant hoped for and she returns to the UK with a new vigour.

One evening, shortly after her return, her doorbell rings, and there on her front step is a very beautiful young Arab with a large suitcase. He announces himself as Chérif, the son of the woman who was manager at the hotel in Morocco at which Miss Webster had stayed. From his bag he produces gifts sent to her by his mother; Chérif has arrived in England to take up a college place in Oxford, and as he is unable to find suitable accommodation Miss Webster takes him in as her lodger.

The growing relationship between the elderly spinster and Chérif is delicately portrayed. For some reason Chérif believes that Miss Webster’s unmarried state is a result of her having been an English lady detective like Miss Marple, and together with his misapprehensions about England and the language - he cannot understand why on a motorway there are signs referring to the hard shoulder – this brings about some amusing cultural clashes. He very quickly acquires an English girlfriend and they become a surrogate family for Miss Webster.

After 9/11 Miss Webster finds that Chérif is regarded with suspicion by the locals, and also has attracted the attention of the security services. Is he really who he claims to be? In finding answers to this question Miss Webster shows her courage and her loyalty to her new friends.

Events reach a crisis point which takes them all back to Morocco for a surprising but satisfying dénouement.

In Miss Webster Patricia Duncker has created a memorable character whose bloody-minded attitude to life and to those in authority, manages to overcome xenophobia and convention, providing a hint of steel in what is a delicately charming tale.

Rated: 4*


I've just come back to Britain from South Africa, a country I know and love, a country with real problems and where life is often fragile and transitory. We in the UK live in what is, by comparison, a very safe country - but there are those who don't think so. It seems that here in Britain we have to manufacture dangers where none exist and the latest and nuttiest "danger" to be addressed is that of Unprotected Text.

Some nutter has decided that people who walk along composing or reading text messages on their mobile phones sometimes bump into lamp posts because they are not paying attention to where they are going, and they might hurt themselves. My word that is SO dangerous. What should be done??? Pad the lamp posts. I kid you not, pad the bl**dy lamp posts to prevent idiots hurting themselves. Brick Lane, a well known East London street is the site chosen for a trial study of padded lamp posts. The padding is being sponsored by 118 118 (the company which provides one of the recently privatised directory inquiry services). This is completely mad. If people are stupid enough not to look where they are going that is their problem. Grow up you morons. In the real world there are real dangers.


Anyone who knows South Africa and South Africans knows that the braai (barbeque) is part of the culinary culture. A couple of weekends ago I was in Hermanus and a friend produced this absolutely delicious salad to accompany the braaied meats. It would go equally well with
grilled chops and provided you can get mangoes, which are stocked in asian greengrocers pretty well all year round, it could be made at any time, even in winter.


6 mint leaves,shredded

1.5 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1.5 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon caster sugar

1 Thai red birdseye chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

3 green mangoes

2 tablespoons chopped dry roast peanuts

1 handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped

1 lettuce, shredded - or a generous amount of rocket

To make the dressing, combine the mint, fish sauce, lime juice, chilli and caster sugar in a jar and shake well.

Peel and stone the mangoes and cut the flesh into even 2cm chunks. Cover a serving platter with the lettuce or rocket and put the mango chunks on top.
Just before serving pour the dressing over the mango and scatter the peanuts and coriander over the top.