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.


Around My Kitchen Table said...

The Duffy poem affair is ludicrous! If we apply this daft PC logic to all literature there will hardly be anything left on the exam syllabus.
Liked the stuffed mushroom recipe, especially as I today bought four large flat mushrooms and have been wondering what to do with them - problem solved!
As for books, I pinched my young niece's The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas last week and would recommend it as a very quick read for adults. I have nearly finished The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. It's brill!

John Self said...

Quite. Perhaps Macbeth should no longer say "Is this a dagger I see before me?" for fear of encouraging children to carry real daggers before them.

Herschelian, you make the Homes book sound absolutely, well, compelling. I've found her a 'cold' writer in her fiction, but this sounds full of emotion.

Jeanne said...

Oh good grief - what next?? Censorship always has been and always will be a very, very bad thing. I had never heard of the poem but it is compelling, isn't it?

Sad about the lack of braai weather, isn't it?!

Simon said...

It can't work as a matter of fact, that's what I suppose.
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