Thursday, October 29, 2009

I read this recently - and am ashamed to say it is true in my case.


Asylum seekers seem to be in the news all the time these days, what with the French clearing out the squalid camp on the outskirts of Calais and our own Attorney General being fined for employing someone who had no right live and work in Britain.
Harare North by Brian Chikwava paints a picture of what it is like to be an asylum seeker living below the official radar in Britain today - and it is pretty grim . Harare North is the nickname for London - along with Johannesburg (Harare South) it is one of the destinations of choice for ex-patriot Zimbabweans.

" I disappoint them immigration people because when I step forward to hand my passport to gum-chewing man sitting behind desk, I mouth the magic word -'Asylum'- and flash toothy grin of friendly African native. They detain me."

This young man whose name we are never told, is released after 8 days, and a cousin and his wife who already live in London grudgingly take him in. Some weeks later he drifts to Brixton where he re-connects with an old childhood friend called Shingi. Shingi is living in a squat with various other Zimbabweans who are all struggling to find a way of earning a living wage when they are illegal or semi-legal, and have none of the official paperwork employers demand.
The squat is run by Aleck who works as a BBC (British Buttock Cleaner) ie in a residential care home, which is one of the better paid jobs available - presumably because no native Britons wish to do such work. One of the other squatters is a teenage Zimbabwean girl called Tsitsi who has a small baby.
"Tsitsi have start to bring in small money by going out to the salon; MaiMusindo and them other women is helping she rent out the baby to other women that want to apply for council flats as single mothers. For £50 any woman can take Tsitsi's baby to the Lambeth Housing Department and play out to be single mother, fill them forms and take baby back to salon as she have been interview."

The language used is quirky, often ungrammatical and misspelled, and frequently relies on phonetics, and this gives the tale a flippant, almost casual tone which belies the life our nameless narrator has lead and is now leading.
At times I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The Zimbabweans living in the UK are often fleeing from the violent political situation back in their own country, and the news from home gets worse and worse as time goes by. However we learn that our narrator, an extremely self-centred young man, was a member of one of Mugabe's notorious youth squads 'The Green Bombers' who used to mete out 'forgiveness' (beatings) to anyone who has fallen foul of Mugabe's regime, and he has come to Britain reluctantly to try and get hold of $5000 to pay a bribe after having beaten someone to death. He refuses to acknowledge the atrocities being committed by the regime, and does not let his fellow ex-pats know of his history. Although the narrator is actually a rather unpleasant individual he has a very engaging way of expressing himself, and the reader is won over by his unflagging attempts to raise money one way or another. Working illegally at a succession of short-term, poorly paid jobs he manages to amass a little cash, most of which he starts spending on liquor and skunk. Slowly but surely he begins a downward slide into paranoia as the strains of living in Harare North start to tell on him.

I actually picked this book up because of the title, as I have a deep affection for Zimbabwe,
and had no idea I was going to be learning about one aspect of life in my own city. London exists on a raft of illegal immigrants who do much of the city's dirty work, and yet their plight is rarely written about. Brian Chikwava is a great new voice in African writing, and I look forward to reading future books by him.

Rated 4*


When you were seven years old,
what did you want to be when you grew up? - yes, I realise its a long time ago, but work with me on this.
I seem to remember wanting to be an artist or a synchronised swimmer - not that I knew what scantily clad girls who fooled around in a swimming pool were called - but splashing about for hours on end seemed highly desirable. My son and his best friend decided they would have a chicken farm ( presumably for a constant supply of eggs and chicken nuggets) with an attached diamond mine. Mind you it was a close thing as the lure of joining the A-Team was fairly enticing.

Our esteemed overlords, in the person of the Secretary of State for Education Mr Ed Balls (and that is an unfortunate surname for a politician don't you think?) have decided that primary school children as young as seven can't have these sorts of foolish ideas, and they should now get careers advice. Careers advice for heaven's sake, it'll be pensions advice next.
These are children, let them BE children.

It seems ironic that Ed Balls is introducing another loony government initiative in education when we still have too high a proportion of children who are unable to read by the time they leave primary school aged eleven. Surely basic literacy and numeracy is where any extra effort should be concentrated.
And who is going to deliver this advice to the nation's little darlings? our already overburdened teachers? or will a whole new strata of educational advisors, specially trained at vast public expense, be created to talk little Johnny, Sarah or Mohammed through their options. Hmm, should they be considering the legal profession, horticulture, or joining a scaffolding firm...or perhaps something in the meedja.

Thank god my kids are all grown up, but for the sake of my as yet unborn grandchildren I hope this stupid idea dies a death before too long.

What a shame no-one took the newly graduated Ed Balls aside and whispered in his ear just one word "Plastics" , that might have steered him away from a career in politics, to the benefit of the nation.


We have had the most gorgeous Indian Summer for the past month, but the evenings are definitely beginning to feel quite cold, and so my thoughts have turned to serving what I call 'winter' food. At the weekend I looked out an old Joseline Dimbleby recipe (I mean the recipe is old, not JD!) which I have not made for years, and jolly good it was too.
Use the cheapest piece of bacon you can find for this pot roast.

BACON IN BEER (aka Gammon in Guinness)
Serves 6

1.3 - 1.8kg bacon joint - preferably on the bone

3 onions, sliced
250g carrots, scraped and cut into largish chunks
1 can of peeled tomatoes (approx 400g)
330ml bottle of stout (I used Guinness)
6 cloves
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cornflour

Soak the bacon joint in cold water for several hours - overnight if possible - changing the water once or twice.
Put the bacon into a large saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 15-20 mins. Drain, rinse with cold water and then slit the thick skin and peel it and most of the fat off.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C.
Put the joint into a casserole dish with the onions, carrots, cloves, caraway seeds and sugar. Pour in the tomatoes from the tin and the stout and season with pepper. Do not add salt.
Bring the casserole to simmering point on top of the stove and then transfer it to the oven and cook for 2-3 hours, basting the bacon with the juices now and again, until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone.

Remove the joint to a carving board and put the casserole on top of the stove . Mix the cornflour with a little cold water, add to the vegetable and juices, bring to the boil and allow it to bubble for 2-3 minutes.

Serve the bacon with the vegetables and juices accompanied with boiled or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.

Saturday, October 03, 2009



Alone in Berlin
* by
Hans Fallada is the most remarkable book I have read for a long time, certainly the best book I have read this year. The author's real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and he wrote the book in 24 days and died just a few weeks before it was published in 1947. It has taken 62 years to get it published in English. Michael Hoffman the translator has done a magnificent job.

The novel is set in Berlin between 1940 and 1942-3. 55 Jablonski Strasse is an old-fashioned apartment block and the reader is introduced to various residents, the elderly retired Judge, old Frau Rosenthal whose husband was seized by the Gestapo a fortnight previously, the ghastly Persicke family who are Nazi toadies, Emil Borkhausen a petty criminal whose wife Evie has a sideline as a prostitute, and most importantly we meet Otto and Anna Quangel.

Otto is the foreman in a woodworking factory which made fine furniture in peacetime but now produces large crates for the German war effort. He and his wife Anna are self-contained, conservative and thrifty to the point of being miserly. Otto is fiercely private and independent and has so far managed to avoid joining the National Socialist party as he resents the fact that he would have to give a contribution from his wages to the Party coffers. This refusal has meant that he is regarded with suspicion, gets a lower wage and is passed over for promotion.

When Otto and Anna's only son Ottochen is killed fighting in France, they embark on a scheme of small scale domestic resistance to the regime. Otto starts producing anonymous postcards criticising the Nazi party, and they deposit these all over the city. The first of these postcards reads:
'Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son. Mother! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.'
Another reads:
'Pass this card on so that many people read it! - Don't give to the Winter Relief Fund! - work as slowly as you can! - Put sand in the machines! - every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!'
This is a perilous scheme, the postcards come to the attention of the Gestapo almost immediately, and one of their most successful officers, Inspector Escherich, is ordered to unearth the writer of the cards. Then a cat-and-mouse game begins between Escherich and the Hobgoblin , as he refers to the unknown postcard writer. Esterich has a big advantage in that of the 267 cards produced by the Quangels, all but 18 are handed in to the authorities straight away, so plotting where they have been dropped and thus where the writer might be based is fairly straightforward.
Whilst all this is going on, the other residents of the apartment building are surviving in the twisted world that is now German civilian life. Some are crushed by the regime, others rise as a result of having made dubious moral choices, and overshadowing everything is an all pervading fear of the SS, the Nazi party, and a lack of trust or faith in their fellow Berliners.

Eventually Inspector Escherich himself falls foul of the monstrous Gestapo, which is like some huge juggernaut being driven by a crazy drunkard.

Finally, inevitably, Otto and Anna meet their fate.

I found this book an emotionally exhausting read, but it is so well written that it is impossible to put it down once you have started reading it. By the end I was weeping.
Apparently Ditzen based the Quangels on a real-life couple, Otto and Elise Hample, who carried out just such a postcard campaign in Berlin in the early 1940s. Their lives stand as an example of how the common man can be obdurate in the facing of great evil even when it
will cost everything.

Primo Levi, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, must have read this book in German when it was originally published for he called it "The greatest book ever written about German
resistance to the Nazis".
There are many, many books about World War Two, but nothing quite like this. It has such veracity, and made me ponder how I would have behaved in such circumstances. I think everyone should read it.

* In the USA the book title is Every Man dies Alone

Rated 5*


Cycling England, an organisation which is an off-shoot of the Department of Transport, has come up with the proposal that if there is an accident involving a bicycle and a motorised vehicle be it car, lorry or bus, the driver would be held legally responsible under civil law even if it was the cyclist who was the cause of the accident and they would be liable to pay compensation. If that happened the driver's insurance premium would go up which would be yet another penalty they would suffer when they might have done nothing wrong.
I think drivers will be up in arms when the reality of this plan sinks in.

My DD cycles everywhere (for several years she used to cycle back and forth across central London in the rush-hour, which certainly gave me some grey hairs) and her new husband cycles everywhere too, so I am very cautious about cyclists on the road when I am driving but I fail to see why, if I am obeying the highway code, observing the rules of the road and driving with due care and attention for all other road users, it should be presumed in law that I am to blame in any accident.

Apparently Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have all adopted this type of legislation, and I would love to hear from anyone from those countries who can tell me how it works and how the public feel about it.
A few nights ago I was driving along a major road and through a big junction when a cyclist, dressed in dark clothing and with no bike lights whatsoever happily rode through the red traffic light and across my way. I slammed on the brakes, and missed hitting him by the skin of my teeth, and fortunately the woman in the car behind me managed to brake fast enough not to hit the back of my car, but it was a very close run thing. I confess that the language I used was not fit for public hearing. The stupid sod carried on his merry way either oblivious to, or uncaring that he had almost caused a three car pile up. Under this proposed legislation he
would get away scot free, whereas we drivers would have had a huge insurance imbroglio. In our increasingly litigatious culture this seems an open invitation for drivers to be sued for compensation by any of the crazy Lycra Louts who think they can do as they please on the highway just because they are on a bike

Cycling England seems to be putting out the message two wheels good, four wheels bad - which I resent.


I was recently given the present of a recipe book from South Africa called Cakes to Celebrate Life and Love. It is entirely devoted to the most divine looking cakes and cupcakes, and I can feel myself gaining weight as I turn the pages. The other day I noticed that there were some bananas in the fruit bowl that were a
tad too ripe for my taste, but perfect for cooking with, so I got out the new book and lo and behold there was just the recipe I needed. It is one of those recipes where you bake the cake, and whilst it is in the oven you make a hot sauce, in this case butterscotch, and when the hot cake comes out of the oven you pour the sauce over it and it soaks in.

The quantities given make 2 cakes, so one went to the DD & SIL and the other lasted all of 12 hours as the DH and son decided to keep sampling it "Just to see if we prefer it to your old Banana bread recipe..." Oh yes?
It is a lovely moist cake, and I think it would keep well if you stood guard over it!


3 eggs

400g sugar
330ml corn oil
3 ripe bananas, mashed
80ml buttermilk (or use sour cream)
1 Tablespoon vanilla essence
420g plain flour
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
Pinch of salt
30g dessicated coconut
60g walnut pieces roughly chopped (plus a few extra for the top)

Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Grease and base line two medium sized loaf tins (approx 2kg size).
In a large bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, mashed bananas, buttermilk and vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into another bowl. Add this to the banana mixture, beat together and stir in the coconut and walnut pieces. Pour the batter into the two prepared tins and bake in the centre of the oven for 40-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Whilst the cakes are baking prepare the butterscotch sauce.

100g soft light brown sugar
70g butter - preferably unsalted

60ml cream

Place all ingredients in a small saucepan and heat gently whilst stirring until all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is bubbling. Let it boil for a moment or two and then remove from the heat. When the cakes are done, take them out of the oven and pierce them all over with a skewer, then pour the hot butterscotch sauce over them and leave to cool in the tins.