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.