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.

Friday, August 08, 2008

JIAŌ BĪNG BÌ BAÌ Chinese proverb.

The arrogant army will certainly loose the battle = pride comes before a fall.


The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris is a fascinating book, not for the murder mystery which is the backbone of the plot, but for the glimpse it gives the reader of life in modern Saudi Arabia.

Nouf ash-Shrawi is a beautiful young woman from a wealthy, well-connected Saudi family living in Jeddah; shortly before her arranged marriage is to take place she goes missing, and the family are frantic. Her brother Othman Shrawi calls in a family friend, Nayir Sharqi, to investigate her disappearance. Nayir, a pious young man, earns his living as a guide taking rich Arabs and foreign visitors to spend time in the desert. Working on limited information he starts searching for her, but within a day or so her body is found in a desert wadi.

Othman asks Nayir to find out how she died, so he goes to the coroners’ morgue in Jeddah to ask for details of their findings. He gets past the guards at the morgue who are there to stop the fanatical Muslims from gaining access:

“Slicing and prodding a dead human body was forbidden by law, and while the government quietly sanctioned autopsies, there would always be vigilantes hunting for un-Muslim behaviour.”

At the morgue he meets up with a woman called Katya Hijazi, who is engaged to marry Othman. Katya is unusual for a Saudi woman as she has a professional job, working in the coroner’s department as a forensic scientist. She tells him that although Nouf apparently drowned, she was pregnant, and so she thinks someone murdered her. The two of them join forces and the subsequent investigation makes Nayir start to question his faith, his friends and the culture of a country which keeps women segregated and gives men such a attitude to them.
Eventually Nayir and Katya solve the mystery of Nouf’s death, but the process has changed them both.

Some of the aspects of life in Saudi Arabia seemed extraordinary. Nayir is always worried about being caught alone with Katya, as they would be immediately be charged with adultery – a woman is never allowed to be alone with a man who is not married to her or a member of her immediate family; for this reason he, like many young Saudi men, carries a fake Misyar
(Certificate of Marriage), which can be hurriedly filled in if the religious police appear.

Women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, so many of them have drivers/minders employed by their families to take them wherever they have to go. Women’s faces must never be seen by non-family members, and strictly speaking they should also cover their hands and ankles as if seen these could drive a man to lust. When answering a telephone in the women’s section of the Shrawi household, the matriarch waggles her hand in front of the receiver to disguise her voice, in case it’s beauty drive a male caller to impious thoughts.
The restrictions on women make every simple thing warped and difficult for them. At one point Katya is bought an ice-cream cone, but then has a problem getting to a place where she is permitted to lift her burqua in order to eat it before it melts in the intense heat.

The oppressive heat is very much a feature of the book, and as

“Saudi had no bars, no night-clubs, no discos or cinemas. There were underground hang-outs of course, in the homes of the elite….There were even brothels, private residences where men could find prostitutes – all non-Muslim women, since it was haram to sleep with a Muslim whore.”

bored Saudi men spend their evenings driving round and round the streets in their cars, which are at least air-conditioned; needless to say this results in massive traffic congestion in the cities.

There are some really bizarre moments; Nayir has to go with Othman to a clothes souk one evening as Othman wishes to buy a coat for Katya’s trousseau. Whilst at the crowded bazaar, full of rich men buying furs for wives who will never be able to wear them, Nayir turns to see a female flasher – a woman who stares directly at him and then, for a split second lifts her burqua to reveal her naked body.

Zoe Ferraris is an American who married a Saudi Arabian and went to live with his ultra conservative family in Jeddah, so I assume that much of the detail of Saudi life depicted in the book is taken from her experiences there.

The book was an entertaining read, but at the end I put it down with a feeling of profound thankfulness that I do not live in such a society

Rated 4*


I doubt if anyone could have missed noticing that the Beijing Olympics began today, and
I am absolutely furious about the HUGE sums of money that have been spent on sending publicly funded workers to the games this year.

Nearly 600 people in all, including local councillors, government ministers, policemen, civil servants etc - for example Gordon
Brown has taken 20 staff with him at a cost of £114,000 (why? we already have a fully staffed embassy in Beijing). The reason being trotted out is 'fact-finding' prior to the London Olympics in 2012. The London Development Agency - an internal Greater London Authority quango set up by Ken Livingston have hired one of Beijing's premier clubs for their exclusive use during the game at a cost of £2.5 million plus. This is all stuff and nonsense, most of these people won't be finding any facts, and anyway, if Labour is voted out of office at the next election (which many political pundits seem to think very likely) none of these official, government ministers etc will play any part in the London Olympics. Lets be real, for most of these people it is a jolly at the taxpayers' expense.

However, I reserve my real fury for the BBC who have spent £3 million on taking 437 staff to Beijing, that is 124 people more than the 313 UK athletes taking part in the games. If as a result the viewers and listeners were getting some incredibly special coverage it might, it just might, warrant the expenditure, but we just going to have the usual gang of suspects commentating on the sport, and a few other BBC apparatchiks droning on as usual about the 3 Ts (Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan) and considering themselves very liberal and committed to freedom of expression. Despite all this expenditure, this morning's 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4 (for those who don't live in Britain, this is THE daily current affairs programme, and all opinion makers listen to it or are on it) had the most spectacular piece of nonsense about why the games were commencing at 8pm on 8th August. They wheeled in some lady numerologist who wittered on about the number 8 representing the word China in numerological terms, she hadn't got an f***ing clue why the Chinese Olympic Committee had chosen that date and time. As any fule no, the number 8 is considered very, very lucky in China, and has been for millenia. This is because the word for 8 in Mandarin is bā, which sounds very like the word for wealth/prosperity/good fortune which is fā. Also, 8 has a perfect symmetrical shape both horizontally and vertically which indicates that it is in balance. So to start the games at 8.08pm on 08/08/08 is very propitious for China, the Chinese, and Beijing. So the Beeb has spent all that money, sent all those staff out to Beijing and they couldn't even get a simple thing like the number 8 right - what hope is there for any other information they feed us being accurate?


In the last month or two I've been slipping into the bad habit of buying ready-made salad dressings. It is such a waste of money, as it only takes a few minutes to make a dressing there is really no excuse for buying them, I've just been lazy and seduced by the huge variety of dressings that you find on supermarket shelves. Having admitted the error of my ways, I am now determined to make my own again, starting with Thousand Island dressing which I always loved as a child. Because of it's name, I'd always assumed that the dressing was inspired by a group of tropical islands, but when I googled it I discovered that there is an archipelago of islands which straddle the US/Canada border in the St Lawrence River at the north east corner of Lake Ontario. Sometime in the early 1900s the recipe was passed from Sophie Lalonde, who had a hotel nearby, to a famous actress whose summer home was in the Thousand Islands, and it was she who named the dressing.


75ml mayonnaise
75ml crème fraiche (or sour cream)
60ml tomato ketchup
Juice of one lemon (approx 60 ml)
Dash of Worcestershire Sauce
4 Tablespoons finely chopped green pepper
2 Tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1 Tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 Tablespoon sunflower oil (or similar)
Good pinch cayenne pepper
Good pinch salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk together or give a short whiz with a hand-held blender until all is well combined. Not too long if you use a blender as you don’t want the pepper and onion totally amalgamated.

Pour into a bottle or jar and chill in the fridge. Remove 5 minutes before using.

Will keep for 2 weeks in the fridge in an air-tight container.