ANOTHER WONDERFUL EPITAPH - this one is to a man named Knott, and is from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire:
He lived Knott, and did Knott die,
Here lies a man that was Knott born,
His father was Knott before him.
Here lies a man that was Knott born,
His father was Knott before him.
Yet underneath this stone doth lie:
And here he lies,
And yet was Knott.
I have never been much of a short story reader.I don't really know why they don't appeal to me now, when I was a girl I used to love reading them in my parents' copy of The Argosy (British version). Anyway, if I'd realised that Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance by Matthew Kneale was a collection of short stories I would probably never have bothered to pick it up in the library, let alone start reading it; it was only when I was a few pages into what I thought was the first chapter that it dawned on me, but by then I was hooked. In fact, like someone who opens a packet of biscuits intending to just eat one, I found myself staying up well past my bedtime so that I could scoff the whole lot.
The stories have a theme. In this inter-connected world the relationship between the haves (we in the west) and the have-nots has become increasingly complex and however well-meaning we may be as individuals, we can find ourselves complicit in situations of moral ambiguity which often have devastating effects on people on the other side of the globe. When is a crime a 'small' crime? after all, what is small to me may be very big to you - or should all crimes be considered equal?
'Stone' which is the first story illustrates this very well. It is of a comfortably off, middle-class English couple, Guy & Chloe Winter, and their two teenage children who go on a trip to China. At the end of the trip it is planned that they will go to Hong Kong where the Chloe has arranged a business meeting with a business man interested in buying her jewellery designs. Travelling with an organised tour group which transports them around the country to the main cultural destinations is not sufficient for their self image of being "travellers" rather than "tourists" so they have decided to leave the group for a few days and travel alone "to meet people and get to know the REAL China,". Needless to say they do not speak Chinese or know anything of the culture, and phrase books fail to bridge the gap; it all goes awry when they meet up with a helpful, English-speaking young man called Jiao, who they nickname Eeyore. Jiao assists them in finding a hotel, getting a meal and doing some shopping but his presence begins to annoy the family. When Chloe can't find the box of her jewellery samples they feel sure that Jiao, being a poor man, must have stolen them. A huge fuss ensues, the local cops arrive, Jiao is carted off following their accusations. As things have turned sour, the Winters decide to leave the following day. Of course, it being China, a crime against tourists MUST be solved and a forced confession is extracted from Jiao. And theft is a capital offence. As they repack their bags, Chloe finds her box of jewellery which had been carefully hidden by herself in a small inner pocket. They debate going to the police to tell them but decide against it in case they are not allowed to leave immediately as planned. En route to the railway station they see Jiao with some other prisoners in the back of a truck, all with their confession boards hung round their necks, being taken out of the town. They know what his fate is likely to be, but close their eyes to it. Back in England the memory of their trip slowly fades and finally they see what happened as "something far away, that was not quite real and that could not touch them".
The stories are very well crafted, and Kneale has a light touch when pointing a moral finger. There is humour too, especially in the story about a London solicitor whose career has stalled and who finds a big bag of cocaine and a mobile phone, and becomes a drug dealer in his spare time. From the other end of the spectrum is the story of the Colombian family who are made destitute when their legitimate crops are destroyed by anti-cocaine spraying, the spraying being done at the behest of the western countries whose citizens buy the drug.
This collection reinforces that it is as important to think about what we are doing on a personal level as well as on a national one when it comes to how we interact with other peoples and countries.
OK - here's a question, what do you think has made the biggest contribution to the emancipation of women in the 20th Century?
Well, I know what the Pope thinks.
Last Sunday was International Women's Day so L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, published an editorial stating that the modern washing machine had done more to liberate women than anything else. Education, the vote, being able to work outside the home, legalised abortion and effective contraception such as the Pill and the condom (especially the last three) apparently count for nothing compared with the benefits conferred on us by the washing machine.
In some of the poorest countries in the world, where people live in shanties, child mortality rates are sky-high, and the Catholic Church has a huge presence, there are precious few washing machines around - not to mention the lack of safe and reliable water supplies to which such machines could be connected, and I very much doubt that any woman given a washing machine would suddenly find herself emancipated.
What would be really helpful for the women and girls in developing countries (and that means most of the women in the world) would be literacy programmes, work that brought in a living wage, the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies, protection from life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases, equal rights with men. I am sure there are many Catholic priests working in such communities who would agree with me. But back at head office, the Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests and Prelates live in an ivory tower where the nuns who wash their robes and cassocks probably have had their lives made easier by the wonders of modern domestic machinery; therefore they assume it is true for all womankind.
Lordy, lordy, the Holy See (as it is called) doesn't have a bloody clue about life, women and the real world . From now on I am rechristening it The Holy-Can't-See-What's-Really-Going-On.
After cooking for a family for umpteen years I have default recipes for certain things, recipes which are tried and tested, totally reliable and practically known by heart - so I tend not to experiment with new versions of dishes I make regularly. Recently I found a new recipe at the hairdressers - there I was, my head covered with foil packets, idly flipping through Hello magazine (what a guilty treat!) and I came across this recipe for an apple pie. How many Apple Pie recipes does one need in life? two, three, more? Well fortunately I decided to copy it down, and last weekend I made it - the DH has declared it the BEST apple pie he's ever had and has begged me to make it again. I will, and so should you, you won't be disappointed.
VIENNESE APPLE PIE
3 tablespoons dark rum
225g plain flour
175g butter 50g ground almonds
175g caster sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 large egg - separated
700g cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced
50g sponge fingers, crumbled
25g roughly chopped walnuts
Half teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon granulated sugar for topping.
Put the sultanas and rum into a small bowl and leave to soak for several hours or overnight. Mix the flour and ground almonds together, then rub in the butter. ( I do all this in a food processor). Stir in 50g of the caster sugar and the lemon zest. Mix together the egg yolk and lemon juice and stir it into the dry ingredients to make a firm dough. Wrap the pastry in cling-film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes. Pre-heat oven to 180'C/ Gas 4; grease and base line a 20cm (8") loose-bottomed sandwich tin. Put sliced apple into a bowl, add the remaining 100g caster sugar, walnuts, cinnamon, sponge finger crumbs and rum-soaked sultanas (plus any surplus soaking juices). Use a wooden spoon to gently stir everything together. Roll out two thirds of the pastry and line the prepared tin with it, allowing any excess pastry to hang over the edge of the tin. Spoon in the apple filling and press down firmly with the flat of your hand (which I trust is clean!). Roll out the remaining pastry and using the tin as a guide cut out a circle to form a lid. Place it on top of the filling, flip the excess pastry over it and roll or press gently to form a neat seam on top of the pie. Use a fork to whisk the egg white until frothy and then brush it over the top of the pie, sprinkle with the caster sugar. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden. Allow it to cool in the tin for 5 minutes before carefully pressing the loose-bottom of the tin up and gently sliding the pie onto a serving platter. Serve warm or cold with a dollop of whipped cream.