Monday, 27 December 2010

Yet more snow reading

Well, it was a panic buy.  It was a few days before Christmas and I was determined to buy some NEW books.  Not re-issues of the favourites (which is what I normally end up doing) and it was freezing cold. Bone achingly cold.  The sort of cold that you only go out in if you have to (lack of chocolate or the dog looking so pleadingly at you that you give in. Of course, then there is the joy in knowing that you have deserved the spiced rum tea that you are going to have when you return.) Anyway, so there I was, muffled up to my neck in many layers of very unflattering winter wear in front of the Waterstones 3 for 2 table.  Cold hands and cold feet were troubling me, as well as the fact that I didn't see any books that I really REALLY wanted, but then, 3 for 2 is pretty irresistible, isn't it?  Though I do draw the line at practically anything set in Australia or that has soldiers in it.  Yes, I know... but I can't help it.  I was enviously thinking of last year when I was in Argentina for the whole of Christmas, or my friend who was off on the Nile this year and wishing that it wasn't so damn cold, when this jumped out to me.  The cover alone in the sorry state I was in made me glow.  So, overcoming my book blindness I grabbed two others and joined the queue.
Now, I am aware that Ian McEwan has legions of fans, but I'm not really one of them, his books have always been a bit so-so for me.  But I buckled down with the spiced tea and concentrated.  For t'is about a prize winning physicist, Michael Beard.  Physics.  PHYSICS. 
Now I should tell you at this point that I was allowed to go to the library during maths at grammar school (highly illegal I suspect, and would never be allowed now) but back in the days it was probably just a whole lot easier than having a 'disruptive influence' in the bottom stream of a maths class.  I never even got to physics. Or algebra.  Or Chemistry - though there was an incident of a small explosion that even now I shall gloss over.
So, my heart wasn't really in it, but I persevered - mainly thanks to the hideous weather outside and the Foursquare spiced rum in black earl grey - I urge you try it... And I'm so glad I did. There are two incidents in the book that had me spluttering with laughter into my tea cup.  Our hero Michael Beard (small, podgy, six times married, greedy and with a good line in self deception) is on the back of a skidoo in the arctic attending a global warming conference and he is in desperate need of a wee.  I shan't say any more, but it had me roaring with laughter.  Oh, that and an incident on a train with a stranger and a bag of crisps.

His worlds collide and involve an accidental death, journeys to the Arctic Circle and New Mexico, an unwanted (by him) pregnancy of his girlfriend and yes, there IS quite a bit of physics thrown in.  But even I could grasp it.  Funny and thoughtful and wry and provoking.  Do give it a go.
Now, I'm going to put the kettle on again.  Spiced tea anyone?

Friday, 17 December 2010

All This and Heaven Too.

Well, of course I had to buy a new edition.  Amazon one click is about to bankrupt me.  It's a fact.  I will end up begging for gin and gruel, in Newgate.  Wearing a thin shawl and playing cards amongst the likes of Forever Amber and Angelique.  You see?  I have succumbed to the age old fantasy that we all are prone to around this time of year,  when we all get a bit Christmassy of going all 17th Century.  Or Victorian.  I have no idea why.  I blame it on Dickens I suppose. Snow and roast goose, Tiny Tim and cobbled streets, horse drawn carriages and bonnets.  It seems impossible to enjoy the present without looking wistfully back to different times.
My Christmas book is All This and Heaven Too by Rachel Field.  It's a cracker. (sorry)  But it is.  A dense book certainly, but what else are you going to do in front of a roaring fire, dark early evenings and roasted chestnuts?  Well, OK, huddled under a throw with the central heating on full whack?
It's a true story, as well.  Which always gets a nod of approval from me.
In 1841 Henriette Desportes is returning home to Paris after a spell as a governess in England.  Her next job is as governess to the Duc and Duchess de Praslin.  Oh dear.  If I say that the aristocratic couple have nine children, the wife is a highly strung, fleshy Corsican with a lot of money, the adored only child of her indulgent father - the sort that lounges around in tight violet silk, staring moodily out of the window whilst writing beseeching love letters to her tall, fair handsome husband, who frankly, has had enough of her - you can see just where this is going.
The Christmas chapters, where Paris is blanketed in snow, and Henriette takes a carriage to her impoverished academic friends in the Marais, clutching a basket laden with oranges, the colour of which glow in the dark enclosed dusk of the carriage, a pineapple and bon-bons along with a fine bottle of brandy is enough to have you rushing to make yourself a hot toddy. The Duc hands Henriette a small token of his appreciation of her devotion to his children.  The bauble is a crystal snow ball from the Faubourg St Honore and from then on, forever more, when Henriette sees snow, that is her memory.  Being inside a snug carriage, her cold hands tucked inside her new fur muff, a new dress of plum silk, and the handsome Duc beside her.
But... It's not a bodice ripper.  A murder, the toppling of the French throne, infamous actresses, a spell inside the infamous conciergerie and a hop across the Atlantic to a very churchified America is all in store for you.
Unwrap it slowly, for it's a present to treasure.
Happy Christmas.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Snow reading

There is a good six inches of snow covering Brighton right now.  It won't last, of course, but it has turned us all into Narnia lovers merrily tobogganing (naked in some cases, check out Matt Whistler's Merry Christmas on YouTube) or grumpy old people muttering about how Germany, Switzerland and Canada doesn't grind to a halt for a few inches of the white stuff.  Me?  I veer wildly between the two camps.  But it did make me grab from the shelves Mrs Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. I can't work out when it was first published, but at least 50 years ago, I would think, and looking on Amazon I see that it has been re-printed and it can be bought at the bargain price of £4.50.  There is also a dim memory I have of a black and white film. My copy tells me that it was 10s 6d net.  Bless.
I fell in love with 'Mike' when I first read it, I guess I was about 12.  Gosh.  What a man.  Tall, blue eyes, handsome and no messing about.  He was a Mountie.  This was before Monty Python when Mounties became a bit of a joke, along with lumberjacks.  His beat covered thousands of square miles of untamed wilderness way back when men were men and women married young and had children.  End of.  He was priest, doctor, magistrate and horrifyingly - dentist to all his charges. (The scene where he pulls a bad tooth from a man in agony and they both have to drink whisky to fortify themselves may well be one the factors that has me squirming every time in in the dentist chair)
But really, it's a love story.  Kathy, a young Irish-American girl is sent to the alarmingly empty spaces of Alberta where she meets Mike.  Married almost immediately she sets out to discover life in the wilds of that wild country.  Snow and ice for six months of the year.  Mosquitoes for the rest.  Floods, outbreaks of diphtheria, bears, wolves and 'redskins' are all grist to the mill.  And I will never forget the scene of a forest fire where women and children along with cattle and wild forest animals seek sanctuary in the icy river.
Of course, Mike seems a bit heavy handed now, the language is dated but - oh - the descriptions of snowy wastelands, vast icy mountains and silent snow bedazzled forests are wonderful.  Now, if you'll excuse me I have some hot chocolate to make, with perhaps just a dash of rum in it.  To keep out the cold, you understand.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Dear Jamie

Dear Jamie,
Let me start by saying that I am predisposed in your favour.  I adore what you tried to for school meals, the Turkey Twizzler episode had me writhing with horror, and I appreciate that you really don't have to waste your time with causes that you don't believe in and that get you a lot of stick.  I love that you inspire so many people to cook in an adventurous manner and that you appeal to a massive cross section of the Great British Public.  I.m not going to mock your accent, lifestyle or that fact that you are a permanent fixture on TV.  Oh no, not me guv.  But......I bought Jamie's 30 Minute Meals for my flatmate (yes, of COURSE I have a hidden agenda - I would like a decent meal cooked for me) and, well, oh dear.... first the good points, great layout, easy to follow, clear instructions all on one page so that one isn't turning pages with olive oil coated fingers, and I admire the handsome foil blocking on the cover (working as I do in a publishers I know how expensive that is) but then again you are published by Penguin and gawd knows they can afford it.... may pictures does a cookery book need?  Yep, OK, pictures of a tricky pastry process is always good, and a picture of some raw ingredients give a certain pleasure and a finished pie whipped out of the oven is OK, but double page spreads of you squeezing a lemon (or do you have a hand double?) or you being you just being you?  Really?
Hmmm, Jamie, have you ever thought - 'do you know, I think there's just too many damn photo's of ME - let's lose a few, shall we?' 
Or would that make the book a trifle (food analogy must be forgiven) too slim?
So, said with affection - knock it off.  Please.
Many thanks
An admirer xx

Sunday, 31 October 2010

All Hallows

Well, what I wanted to write about was All This and Heaven Too.  But when I went to pull it down from the shelves, it wasn't there.  This of course gives the illusion that I have well ordered shelves, possibly alphabetised. but I don't.  Far from it.  I have loose sections - like, Travel, Food and Famous Old Dyke's, or Witty Queens in the 30's or Comfort re-reads or People I Know Who Have Written A Book and Might Come Round So It Has To Stay On The Shelf.... Anyway, I felt murderous rage when I couldn't find said book as it has a simply wonderful paragraph on roasting apples in a bonfire on the All Hallows Eve in the country home in France and I thought it would be topical.... but it's not to be. 
But I did come across what was the Family Bible in my childhood kitchen.  Sheila Hutchins Daily Express Cook Book.  Wonderful.  Really wonderful and fun.  With the sweetest illustrations. The pages are falling out, everything is stained, and I cannot find a publishing date, but it must be late sixties.  Poached eggs in red wine served with fried onions. (Don't knock it till you've tried it - along with some crusty bread and a glass of Burgundy.  Sheila was big on Burgundy.  "It slips down the gullet as easily as a little Jesus in velvet breeches" she says quoting a wine expert in Dijon)  She has great chapter headings: You Must Love A Man to Cook Bubble & Squeak in the Mornings, Ice Cold Venus from the Naughty Nineties, or Lyons: Where The City Map is Made of Lentils.  It was a real delight and I have so many happy memories of tootling around in the kitchen with my mother making something garlicky and with wine and that smelt delicious thanks to Sheila. 
She knew her food.  Some of it now is quaintly old fashioned, but all of it is something that I would happily eat.  Mussel soup, Normandy Omelette (stuffed with apple puree and drenched in calvados) Tea ice cream, Parkin, Brown Cucumber Sauce and many more that will fill you with the desire just to try them out.
To Poach Eggs in Burgundy
First brown a minced onion in butter.  Add three cloves of minced garlic, then add 3/4 pint (everything is in Imperial measurements - what a relief!)  Add a glass of water, salt pepper, thyme and a bay leaf.  Boil for five minutes.  Strain.  Poach eight eggs.  Remove eggs and keep warm, reduce liquid by boiling hard.  Thicken with a bit of butter and flour.  Place eggs on toasted bread and pour sauce over.
Really rather yummy and rather suitable for many reasons (symbolic eggs, colour of sauce) for this time of year.
I leave you as I am on all things foody with a picture of a cake I commissioned by Jessica Haggerty here of Rose, Blackberry and Almond.  Now that was bloomin' gorgeous.

Sunday, 17 October 2010


It's a horrid word.  Glut.  With overtures of glutton. And all that's associated with 'letting oneself go'.  That second helping of risotto, the extra slice of cake, the 'dividend' at the bottom of the cocktail shaker.   But - I have had such a glut of good books that I am at loss which to write about.  I have been re-reading the inestimable Ms Bedford, as well as Ms Keane - oh, and I am starting for the first time Stendhal.  Oh dear.  I am glutted out.  So is the vegetable world.  Tomatoes, courgettes, apples, quinces - they are making me itch to start bottling and pickling and chutneying and - oh you get the picture.  It's the perfect time of the year to stand in the kitchen stirring something over the Aga, apple peel on the flagstones, low autumn sun streaming through the sparkling clean windows whilst something jazzy is heard through the open door leading to the music room.  Ha, is all I can say.  In my kitchen it's mismatched saucepans that really have seen better days but are kept on through sentimental reasons, scarred and burnt wooden spoons, a puppy begging for attention at my feet whilst I stare sullenly at the fridge pondering what I can make out of half a wheel of Camembert, a bag of wilting watercress and a jar of cornichons. But I do like eating seasonally so when I had lunch with at the Modern Pantry with the Sandeep Mahal from the very hard working and wonderful Reading Agency a few weeks ago, we both plumped for the courgette platter. And bloomin' gorgeous it was too, complete with stuffed and deep fried courgette flower oozing with mozzarella, and a wonderful courgette souffle.  Oh yes, and vodka spiked tomato relish.  Now, they used up their seasonal glut very wisely indeed.
If eating seasonally has it's reasons, so does reading, I think.  Autumn is perhaps the time for comfort re-reads.... nothing too taxing, something you can slip into with a hint of relief, like putting on a pair of slippers after tottering all day in stillies. A hint of melancholy doesn't go amiss, as long as we're not talking shudder making sobbing, so nothing that has cruelty to animals in it, nothing too obvious, and nothing that makes us want to jump up and 'do' something.  Oh no.  The only amount of jumping up that we're going to do is to the kitchen for another bowl of home made soup, or a tray of tea with a tempting fruit scone spread with cold salty butter.  Then we can curl back up on our favourite reading place, bed, sofa, or cushion  and relax as we turn the well worn pages and let ourselves wallow in a bit of autumn sunshine, shivering a little with delight and awe at the onset of the inevitability of winter.
Perhaps the perfet autumn book for me would be Brideshead.  But then, it's pretty perfect all year round.

Sunday, 10 October 2010


"He'll never marry her"
"How can you be so sure?"
"She pronounces the 't' in "often""
So speak some of the characters in The Two Mrs Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne about Ann Arden (real name Urse Mertens of Kansas) before she stared her heady climb into the uber-rich socialite world of old money in New York in the '40's.  A tale of  love, murder, social climbing and class peopled by semi-fictional characters and the real celebrities of the time.
But, like Downton Park, it's plot is somewhat incidental - the real hook of the book is manners - or lack of them. Manners are a strange and terrible thing, aren't they?  We inherit so much from our parents and then have to re-learn them when we fall in with the peers that we feel at home with. As a child I could swap quite happily from home where I had to say "what?" if I hadn't heard something to the mealy mouthed "pardon?" at primary school.  The same with "loo" and the pronunciation of "Hoorah"  It was just something - along with other incomprehensible things that didn't confuse me as a child.  I put it down to the sheer perverseness of adults. 
The formidable matriarch of the family Grenville that the ambitious Ann tries so hard with is the Emily Post of her day.  Alice Grenville has it all.  Money, breeding, houses, horses, jewels and manners.  She knows that Ann has designs on her only son - Billy, and resigns herself when is a quick wedding takes place. Her daughters cordially loathe her.  Ann may be beautiful, but after all she was a showgirl.... and she wears scarlet lipstick, eye-shadow in the afternoon, over dresses and - horror - cuts her bread roll with a knife at the table.
But, Ann is a quick learner.
"Don't say 'Mansion' say 'House'"
"Don't over-scent.  You're not in the Copacabana now."
"And for goodness sake, just pass your hand over the top of your wineglass before the butler pours if you don't want any more wine, don't turn your glass upside down."
Poor Ann, she used the wrong brocade in her new house, and curtsied to Wallis Simpson (''tacky') and generally got it wrong.  But not for long.  Soon, she looked and sounded like all the rest.  Except of course she wasn't.  Her past catches up with her and she shoots her husband dead one night after a drunken row.
Alice Grenville is caught in a position of horror.  Should she reject her daughter-in-law who killed her beloved son, and risk having the dirty family laundry aired in public - even worse - in the papers?  (She is of the opinion that women of her position should have their names thrice only in the press, birth, marriage and death) Or, should she close, rank, pull in a few favours from the rich and powerful friends and have Ann on her hands for the rest of her life?
From Biarritz to Paris, from Long Island to Kentucky the two Mrs Grenvilles have to tolerate one another in this tale of wealth, glamour and ultimately - terrible sadness.  Maybe money really doesn't buy happiness?
"What does NOCD mean?" Ann asks, knowin that two women were talking about her.
"Not Our Class Darling." is the harsh answer.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

good golly miss molly

Well, it was 75p in 1978.  I found it lurking on my bedroom shelves, which was quite a miracle in itself as it meant that it had survived numerous moves, re-decorations and book culls.  Perhaps a certain sentimentality? (It was certainly the first really RUDE book that I read) Or a premonition?  Who knows.
All I do know is that I met Molly Parkin about 16 years ago when I was producing a long running afternoon TV show (Watercolour Challenge if you must know) and we had her on as the critic when we were filming in Wales. She terrified the director and swept across the Welsh hills in her home made turbans and cloaks.  I remember her being larger than life and good fun, but distracted and a little distant, Then she faded from the public eye.... that is till last week.
She has a new book out - her autobiography - Welcome to Mollywood, and I had the pleasure of re-connecting with her at The Shoreditch Literary Salon.
It was a filthy night out in London  (quite suitable for our Molly) - howling wind and torrential rain, and we thought that not many people would arrive.  How wrong we were.  We were full to bursting.  Positively heaving. Rammed. (See? I can't stop it.  Molly has this effect) and she hasn't changed at all.  Except.... she's got a whole lot more approachable, funnier, wittier and braver.  She still has the face of a 45 year old and still has the fabulous turbans (home made), the sweeping black velvet cloak lined with blue satin and stitched by herself.
If not fearless.
She told me that she had wanted to call her book 'The Paedophiles Daughter' but that she thought that no-one would want to buy it.
It's funny and and inspiring and truthful and very, very fearless.  Her father sexually abused her for years.  And it makes for harrowing and tearful reading.  She also told me in her light clear voice that she loved him and had forgiven him. 
Her love affair with James Robertson Justice, her life as a painter, writer, mother and author and more recently now as National Treasure.
She read the first chapter of her book which involves rodents making off with her toffee encrusted teeth - which she then whipped out and brandished about, much to the horrified delight of over 250 people who roared at her honesty and bravery.
She has designed the book cover jacket herself, and she wanted it to look like a slice of sunshine, and it does. (Not like the oh so seventies book above)
She then had a all too short half hours chat with Damian Barr.  We all loved her.  She is a star. As well as being a National Treasure.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


Well, what a fool I felt.  Why hadn't I heard of him?  Maybe I had.  In a sort of distant way, you know, the name rang a distant bell, but not enough to pursue. Or he was mentioned in one of those pieces in The Sunday Times written by an old school cove who you didn't really know and skipped over.  The army was mentioned, the war, Greece, dressing for dinner, anecdotes, regimental silver - that sort of thing.  Oh dear.  It was my loss.
Patrick Leigh Fermor.  That's the man in question.  Of course, you're probably sniggering now, being well acquainted with his work and thinking - where has she been not to know of him? I bow my head in shame.  I do, really. 
A Time of Gifts is an unexpected treat.  A young man (obviously well connected, let's make no mistake about this) sets off from London to walk to Constantinople in the 30's.  Yes, walk.  Through Europe.  Through the rising Nazi threat in Germany. 
A quick update of his upbringing is called for - so - troubled but privileged childhood, Father was a Geologist and away discovering fossils and rare rock strata's, Mother a dippy and enchanting society woman, Patrick not qualified and penniless starts his adventure armed with a rucksack, a sketchbook,a pair of boots and an army greatcoat and the promise of four pounds every month or so posted to his at various ports of call.
It's a classic memoir of forgotten Europe.  The Europe that I, certainly was not familiar with.  The Black Forest, The Danube, The Rhine, Schlosses, Abbeys and crumbling castles perched on rocks. Eagles, Bears and the finer points of Bavarian aristocracy, woodcutters, crones and monster perch. He has an insane thirst for arcane knowledge and picks up the most delightful trivia along his way.  This book is a treasure chest of the most wonderful writing, making me yearn to see the domes, the monasteries, the Bavarian snow, the last of the duelling schools, and the wildlife of pre-war Europe.
He describes when walking through the snowy forests the effect of a million of pine needles catching the frosty light and cross hatching the snow with a hundred thousand sequins.  That alone made me want to be there.
He muses on the correlation between the Baroque and decorative ironwork, the fact that from Nepal to Switzerland or wherever there are cold winters and mountains, woodsman with too much time on their hands in front of the fire and access to sharp knives take up fretting and carving wood to within an inch of its life and the rise of the brown shirts...
"In cold weather like this," said the Innkeeper, "I recommend Himbeergeist." I obeyed and it was a lightening conversion.  Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost - this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice cold in it's misty goblet, looked as though it was homeopathically in league with the weather.Sipped and swallowed it went shuddering through it's new home and branched out in patterns like the ice ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold.  Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes.  Vodka, Aquavit,, Danziger Goldwasser.  Oh for a thimble full of the cold north!
I like to think that when the weather gets bad this winter (and I think it will) Patrick can knock at my door and I can offer him some of my Sloe Vodka that will be a fiery-frost potion to spark his blood and revive aching limbs and send him back on his youthfull travels, rocketing through the ice and snow.  Cheers.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Homes and Houses

There are houses that become homes, and homes that are never mere houses.  I've lived in a few.  You know, the sort of house that starts to take over.  In a friendly way.  Nothing spooky.  But the rooms become so much a part of the person or people that live there that it's impossible to think of one without the other.  My friend Sonya who lived in The Old Mill in Padstow I found impossible to think of without conjuring up the sheer madness of her home - the home with the wooden carved Gothic font rescued from an obscure French Cathedral, the galloping Edwardian carousel horse with a gilded barley twist pole, the stuffed owls playing poker, the hatboxes on the stairs and the hundreds of soda syphons that lined the freezing living room. 
The Bloomsbury lot have been occupying my mind for some weeks now - and this wonderful slim volume has been a real joy to discover.  Bloomsbury in Sussex by Simon Watney is a little treasure trove of facts and snippets of those two sisters, Vanessa and Virginia,  that still linger in our imagination.  Even if we don't know their work, we are all still in thrall it seems to their chosen way of life.
Charleston and Monks House.
Charleston of course, sounds jollier.  Even the name conjures up flappers dancing, whilst Monks House does have a slight ring of gloom.... I loved knowing so much about the houses.  The fact that Virginia, who loathed shopping and felt that the shop keepers mocked her for her shabby dress and inability to make a simple decision, leant on her sister Vanessa heavily for all domestic choices.  "I have ordered some wonderful brightish red-orange stuff for the curtains to be lined and bordered in mauve."
Vanessa was of course the Bloomsbury domestic goddess, but with very little cash.  She urged Virginia to attend a cooking class in Bloomsbury where she distinguished herself by baking her wedding ring into a suet pudding.
Charleston was of course decorated within an inch of it's life - and jolly good it looked too.  Heavily leaning on the new Russian Ballet for inspiration and colours, it was, and still is, an amorous house. With rooms leading off rooms and all with an individual, casual shoes off, collar undone and stays loosened sort of feel to it.
Monks House was different - more formal, very austere and oh - so little comfort. (Neither house was in any way luxurious and must have been so cold in the chilly Sussex winters)  The guests complained amongst themselves, but put up with it as The Wolves's were a joy to be with.  Water from a pump, no electricity and outside 'earth closets'.  All this changed when the money started to come in, but even then there were certainly no frills.  A range in the kitchen, hot water in the bathroom and tiny electric fires in the bedrooms were a big concession.
But - and it's a big BUT, I know....the houses then seemed to sing with the joy that the inhabitants took with their surroundings that very few homes seem to have now. 
Vanessa remarks in later life that she is amazed that they had the energy for so much decorative flair - even the murals were hard to do with their chalk grounding and lime wash.  But I'm so glad they bothered. I leave you with a wonderful painting that hangs on my wall of an impression of Charleston by Jason Lilly.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Food festival

One of the nicest things about being an author is that sometimes you are invited to do things out of your day to day life - well, I've never cooked in front of a group of strangers before, but today, on the live food stage at Brighton & Hove Food Festival, I did.  And jolly good fun it was too.
The real chef was old mate Andrew Kay, but I was allowed my own radio mike, chopping board and very sharp knife, which I eyes with a great deal of mistrust. I was convinced that I'd cut myself and bleed on stage, and there's nowhere to hide, as there are those horrible professional mirrors above the working surfaces and cooker, as well as cameras following your every move.... But, fear not, all went well.
It was a stonking wonderful autumn day, bright blue skies, sunshine and a hint of falling leaves and conkers in the air.  Tapas was on the menu, so we knocked up Chorizo and Butter Beans, Chicken livers in Sherry, Green beans braised in Olive Oil and Garlic and some Padron Peppers - now, I'm sure you are all aware that the infamous padron peppers is the equivalent of a gastronomic game of Russian Roulette.  These pretty looking green things are briskly pan fried in olive oil till blistered then drenched in flaky sea salt and eaten warm.  They are sweet and delicious - but - one  in ten are fearsome hot.  I mean, mouth numbingly, sweat inducing, throat clutchingly hot.  What to do? Well, I picked a random looking innocent and chomped away.  Nothing but sweetness and a salty taste.  Andrew was not so lucky.... Poor boy, nor the woman sitting in the second row.  A certain amount of schadenfreude on my part was going on, it had to be said.
The food went down incredibly well, judging from the rush of people to sample it - but the best was definitely the Chorizo and Butter Beans.  A perfect quick snack or a great supper dish with some crusty bread and a sharp green salad. So, here it is.....
Olive oil
1 large sweet onion
1 good quality cooking chorizo
2 or 3 tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
1 large tin of Butter Beans, drained
 Pinch of smoked sweet paprika
Slug of sherry

Throw the thinly sliced onion into the hot oil along with the garlic and sweat for a few minutes, add the chopped chorizo and watch in amazement as the colour from the chorizo turns everything the most glorious colour.  Breathe in the heavenly aroma for a while whilst stirring and imagine a back street of Barcelona, complete with orange trees and clinking wine glasses and a rather gorgeous man smiling at you... oh sorry.... I drifted off there for a moment....anyway, let it all sizzle away for about 10 minutes then add all the rest of the ingredients, put the lid on the pan and leave it for another five to ten minutes. Time to pour a glass of wine and make the salad.  That's it.  Simple and gorgeous.  Cheers.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Commuting on the Orient Express

Princess Marthe Bibesco was the darling of Europe.  Born at the turn of the century in Romania which was just emerging as a player in Europe after being dominated for so long by the Ottoman Empire, her striking looks, her chestnut locks, her emeralds, her precocious education and her wit made her a figure of international gossip. 
Enchantress (Marthe Bibesco and her world) by Christine Sutherland is a real hagiography.  But no matter.  I can live with that.  Especially as I learn that the woman had her OWN bespoke carriage on the Orient Express that she practically commuted on, shuttling backwards and forwards to Romania, Paris, Berlin, Bucharest and London.  Oh, and let's not forget pre-revolutionary St Petersburg.  When the train drew into her stop for her country house in the Carpathian mountains, young gypsy girls with yellow and orange striped flounces skirts would greet her by singing and handing her through the carriage window earthenware pots of wild strawberries covered with sage leaves.  At this point in the book I practically swooned with envy. And who wouldn't?  (Due to extreme generosity of BF I was whisked back from Venice on said train for a 'special' birthday and have spent many an idle hour working out if I sold my flat how long could I actually live on the train.  Answer: Two years. But what a two years they would be!) But Marthe, of course, didn't have those worries. Pretty wealthy anyway, her books were bestsellers and she raked it in.  She was adored by two Kings, a Crown Prince and a British Prime Minister. More or less at the same time.  Whilst she was married.  Crikey.
She opened her doors in Romania during WW1 as a hospital (and very fetching she looked too in a sort of nuns habit, reading to injured soldiers and holding the hands of the wounded) and helped her husband set fire to the oil fields so that the Bosche wouldn't benefit.
Back in Paris, Proust was an intimate friend as was Anatole France.  Her cousin Anna, Countess of Noailles was a bit sniffy about her - jealousy I suspect as Marthe was undoubtedly the uncrowned Queen of the Left Bank.  Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco were also cousins - and Marthe fell in love with that enigmatic tortured man, Emmanuel, not realising that he was gay and the love could never be returned.  (He came to a mysteriously sticky end, and his devoted and debonair brother, Antione,  was comforted by Enid Bagnold of National Velvet fame.  He thundered at Enid - 'Never speak of this! And never speak of your silence!'  She later wrote a play about them both and on the first night there was the most terrible storm and the theatre flooded.  Antione exacting retribution,)
Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses, Earls, Lords, Ministers and mere politicians flocked to Marthe for advice and entertainment.  She knew everyone in power and sincerely believed in a united Europe.  Of course when Hitler came to power she wept.  Then dried her tears and settled down to write some more books. 
Her only child, a daughter, Valentine, was not very close to her and Marthe certainly didn't let motherhood cramp her style in any way.  After her husband caught syphillis from one of his many consorts Marthe never kissed him again - but great affection held between them and he would rush to her side when she was operated on in Paris and nearly died.
Cecil Beaton photographed her in later years and remarked that her intelligence shone through her wattles.  Oh dear. And Enid Bagnold wrote that she adored Marthe but it was such a chore having her to stay as she would bring a ladies maid that insisted on ironing the silk sheets that Marthe demanded every day - causing upset 'below stairs' (The sheets, by the way, travelled in a separate steamer trunk and were drenched in her personal perfume of lilacs)
That world has long gone, but echoes of it are probably still to heard in corners of Europe, and a glimpse of the Carpathian mountains from any train, let alone the Orient Express will still have me swooning.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Alice, Violet & then there was Camilla...

Funny things run in families, don't they? With me, it's the nose.  Not something I'm thrilled about to be honest.  But the older I get, the more I notice the nose... It is the exact spit of my mother's, my uncles AND my great aunts.  Others get luckier and inherit the fabulously glossy chestnut curls, or the swan like neck, but, no, I get the nose.  Ho hum.  Well, of course in the case of the Keppels - it seems to be Royal lovers, but in the case of Camilla, she actually got to marry her prince. If Camilla has inherited anything from Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet let's hope for her sake it is an ability to be happy, as I think Mrs Keppel was, unlike her poor daughter - the lover of Vita, the lady novelist, the spoilt darling - Violet.
After Sissinghurst, I re-read a novel by Violet Trefusis (who was the of course the daughter of the infamous Mrs Alice Keppel, who was the consort of the lusty King Edward V11) the novel in question was Challenge, and a jolly good read it is too... as are all her novels if read with an eye for the period and if one is in a forgiving mood about the huge amounts of snobbishness and casual racism that was rife then.
But - oh Violet - what a life!
In the wonderful biography by Diana Souhami - Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter, the most unlikely facts are thrown up.  One of them is the simply appalling upbringing of Bertie, the Prince of Wales.   Amongst his other extensive lessons were housekeeping, drill, archeology, gymnastics, calculating, drawing and - wait for it- bricklaying - which went on for seven hours a day six days a week (no wonder he went so badly off the rails as soon as he could)  He had the most awful reports from tutors 'commonly averse to learning', 'wilful inattention' and 'anti-studious practices', which could easily have been my school report too, so I sympathise madly.
Of course by the time he got together with the voluptuous Mrs Keppel, Violet was in the nursery - though in later life, she dropped not very subtle hints that he was her father, claiming they had the same jaw line (family noses all over again) But this was not the case.  She was not of royal blood.  She could play with the Royal whiskers by the nursery fire and slide buttered crumpets down 'Kingy's' trousered legs. But she could not be his daughter.
Violet was dandled on laps, dressed in frills, taught French, music and art.  What else did she need?  Obviously she was going to marry well and that was considered more than enough.
Mrs Keppel was a shrewd judge of character and a money making machine.  Her wealth, even by Edwardian standards, was huge.  She was sensual and greedy and controlling, and covered all of this with the most amazing mask of manners.  That was the way things were done.  Etiquette ruled. The laws of class were upheld.  Adultery was too common to be remarked upon, lovers being allotted joining rooms at weekends away.  Fortunes were won and lost at the gaming tables, gentlemen shot pheasants, drank claret and the women were trained to amuse and quaff champagne, smile at risque jokes whilst wincing at the tightness of corsets.  Servants outnumbered guests, but were seen and not heard.  Just like the children. 
But Violet proved to be no ordinary child.
She'd already chosen a priceless Doge's ring at an antique shop (making the owner blanch with dismay as he expected her to choose a doll) and her waywardness started early.
She was the temptress, the witch, the seducer who longed to be seduced, by Vita.  It is a sad story of it's time.  Violet and Vita lead a tortured love affair, high on passion and romance, fuelled by forbidden love - then Mrs Keppel steps in and promptly arranges a marriage to Denys Trefusis.
Poor Violet.
She expected Vita (married and with two small children herself) to save her.  But she couldn't even save herself.  Her life was not what she expected it to be.  Still wealthy, still attractive and talented but with no discipline or ties, Violet drifted into obscurity, becoming a bore and a joke to her friends.  She returned from her beloved France at the start of the war, leaving her adored home (Vita and Violet both bought towers, which I'm sure Freud would be chortling at) and then had to endure being recognised as Princess Sasha in Virginia Woolf's love-book ot Vita - Orlando. Sasha IS Violet.  Deceitful, lying, duplicitous but no-one could resist such a siren.  At least, it seems that no well born, high bred lesbian in England did. Violet had many conquests, but there was only one love in her heart and that remained unrequited.  She had lost Vita to her husbnad, her children, her garden.  Violet was left with nothing.
This is a wonderful book, giving clear insights to the manners and morals of the day. The heart-breaking letters are re-produced leaving one with a real sense of the passion that the two women went through and the turmoil and torment they caused for their families.
These are the words that Violet wrote about herself.
Accross my life only one word will be written: -"Waste"- Waste of Love, Waste of Talent, Waste of Enterprise.
I think she was wrong. Her books are more readable than Vita's.  Her life was frittered away rather than wasted, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of frippery now and again...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


I definitely became very Vita-ish, there's no denying it.  And who who wouldn't? Climbing the creaking wooden steps to her writing room in the tower at Sissinghust I was filled with excitement (and annoyance if I'm honest, that I wasn't on my way to have tea with her, but had to share her with the hordes - probably a very Vita like emotion.) Peering through the archway into her double room - where she famously tumbled Violet and later Virginia - felt a tiny bit voyeuristic, to be honest...but I soon got over it.  The divan looked small and shabby, the room was gloomy (the windows too high to be distracted with the glorious views) the writing desk small, and the hearth looked inadequate for anything but a mild autumn day, and how on earth would you carry anything up there? (answer of course - you didn't.  You had servants) A rush up the spiral steps to be blown around by the teasing wind of an English August afternoon and the magical view of her garden.  Bee-hives, apple trees, statues, riots of flowers, and of course the famous White Garden. I was practically elbowing other Vita acolytes out of my way to rush down the tower again and explore the grounds.
Heroically ignoring the many broken armed tourists (really, at one point I thought there was some sort of one armed convention going on the amount of splints, plasters and slings I saw) I whizzed up and down walkways of  pleached limes, box hedges, parterres, and burst upon the White Garden - and oh, my goodness, it was like being on the inside of a glass of champagne.  Bubbly and frothy and exciting and joyous.... and satisfyingly formal.  This wasn't a garden to lounge around in with flip flops, oh no.  Or to share, I suspect.  This was a private joy made by the woman who wore pearls casually 'the size of pigeons eggs' around her aristocratic neck, who treasured a priceless Doges ring, who was daughter of the estate known as Knole, and who fascinated some of the most fascinating people (men and women) of her time.
What was it about her that held people in thrall?  Staring at her portrait inside the main house, it's hard to tell.  Certainly she was beautiful, although the ravages of time were not kind to her, but perhaps she didn't care by then, living for her garden and her writing. The grandness helped of course (what first attracted you to the millionaire?) But really, I don't mean the wealth - I mean the grandness of her very being.  This is the woman who had Leopards as part of her heraldic past, who once saw a stag breathing hot air into a frosty room at the end of a corridor in the enormous Gothic castle of her childhood home, it's antlers wreathed in ivy, snow falling outside, with the caress of ermine at her neck.  Goodness, me the glamour of it all! Hers was a stern beauty worn carelessly, issues ordered from her lips, without a doubt or hesitation that they would be carried out.
But then - the revelation of her intense love of her family.  The love certainly of her husband, her sons, her friends was not something that I had suspected till I read Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson. I could not imagine Vita being, well, being cosy. Choosing jewels in Paris - yes.  Striding in daring trousers through fields with a dog? Yes.Toasting crumpets round the nursery fire? No.  But is would seem that I was wrong, this book sets it all straight.
There are wonderful letters, snippets of history, and the remarkable tender portrait of a woman who we think we know.  But we don't.  Do read it.
Poor old Violet Trefusis doesn't come over too well in it, but I shall deal with her at a later date.
A keeper.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Flying the (vintage) Rainbow Flag

What would Cecil Beaton have thought of it?  I have already headed off 3 Sailors, 2 Supermen and a Fireman walking the wrong way towards Pride this weekend.  If I hadn't stopped them they would be in Shoreham by now, missing out on the dubious delights of the Parade (don't get me started on that... long gone are the days of creativity and joyous abandon, now we have sponsored trucks by high street banks happy to take the pink pound) and the shabby entertainment in the tents in the park.  Oh dear.  Although I am, always have been, and undoubtedly always will be a Friend of Dorothy (some would just say Fag Hag of course) I was wondering what the heck Cecil would think?
In the wonderful Beaton in the Sixties, More Unexpurgated Diaries edited by Hugo Vickers, Cecil comes over as a sensitive soul, although obviously a most glorious snob and would have cringed, I think, at the sheer sloppiness of it all.  An elegant, sharp witted creature who was never quite accepted by the people he longed to be accepted by.  A Royal snapper, a set designer, a painter and creator of gardens, he led what must be seen as now, an incredibly priviledged life.  But, oh, how he worked at it. Nothing is left to chance.  The artfully arranged supper, the careless wisp of silk draped over a lamp, the worry of ageing, the fretting over the details... And my goodness, the people he knew.  A positive Who's Who of the rich, the famous, and the infamous.
The critics often use the word 'waspish' with him.  But... what good would be his wonderful diaries if he wasn't a tad waspish?  Certainly I rejoice in knowing that the Queen Mother was too fat to pose for a portrait with her hands in lap, or that she squabbled furiously with Tony Snowdon and Princess Margaret about using a biro to sign a guest book at the London Zoo.  The gossip is really delightful, and matters not that the people involved in the scandles are dead.  The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are described and conversations reported so that I felt I was there.  There, when the Duke (a tiny, weak eyed man) confessed to Cecil that he was too lazy to use the bathroom for a pee sometimes and simply did it out of the window at their residence in Paris.
It wasn't just Royalty, either, though he did have a bellyfull of them.  He chased the new talent, too.  Mick Jagger gets the Cecil Beaton treatment.... His skin is chicken breast white, and of a fine quality. He has enormous in built elegance....He is very gentle with perfect manners.  I was not disappointed.  But then, a few day later round the pool in Tangiers, Mick Jagger walks towards Cecil and he notes...I couldn't believe it was the same person. His face was a white podgy shapelss mess.... He looked like a self-conscious suburban young lady.  Ouch.
And you feel his despair when he meets up with Greta Garbo on a sailing cruise courtesy of a Rothschild private yacht round the Greek Isles. The pair had been romantically involved for decades, but with Cecil it was all talk, really, his persuasions were not heterosexual.  It was her beauty that enslaved him.  But now, after a parting that has lasted years, they are cooped up together on a small yacht and he mourns her lack of substance. She has nothing to fall back on, no conversation, no intimacy, no humour and not much kindness.  They all have to creep around her, terrified of arousing her displeasure. Only once does he glimpse the woman that he had loved all those years, and he cries at the waste of it all.
Probably at no other time in history could Cecil have moved so much with the movers and shakers.  Picasso, Frederick Ashton, Andy Warhol, Barbara Streisand, Coco Channel and Katherine Hepburn all are friends, but none are spared in the diaries.  It's utterly fascinating.  But perhaps even more so are the figures that are not 'names' but hover on the periphery of history.  They too have stories to tell, and the fascination grows.
I can't see Cecil approving of the boys at Pride this weekend, but he no doubt would have his camera to hand, and I bet he would have found the most interesting figure to talk to over a bottle of something delicious in the bar of The Grand.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Gone to the Dogs...

I can make no excuses.  We've gone dog mad here at Seafront Bookreader. After a very lonely time in the flat without a canine friend, we could bear it no longer and succumbed to the charms of the new puppy.  She is a mixture, but mostly Griffon.  She'll be ready to pick up in two weeks time and we're now dashing round the flat to puppy-proof. (Idle occupation, I am aware....)To while away the time till then I re-read Flush by Virginia Woolf re-published in this rather gorgeous addition by Persephone Books.  The plain and elegant front cover is beautiful enough, in a stern grey - but the end papers are a real delight, with swirling ambers and reds.  Virgina Woolf is one of those writers whose lives I know far more about than her books, to be honest.  I struggled with The Waves, Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One's Own - but Flush - well that was a cinch. The dog in question, is of course, the beloved pet of Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (I will admit that I did think of naming new puppy the same, but then had visions of me calling in the rainy park 'Flush, come here, Flush!' and simply couldn't do it, as the associations with a loo is just a little too much.)
The life of the poet and the dog are intertwined in this wonderful study of calustrophobia and stifling emotions.  Poor Flush is forced into being a lap dog, being fed rich tid-bits from the slim white fingers (marred only by the occasional ink stains) of his mistress.  He has to negotiate the over stuffed and stifling bedroom, full of heavy dark furnture and the light deadening curtains and drapes, the invalid trays and medicines, and sits, cramped on the sofa, just being allowed into Wimple Street for a few breaths of fresh air. It made me question the nature of dogs.
This life is appalling for any dog, but however bad the circumstances, the reward for the human in the equation is unconditional love. The loyalty and sheer good will of dogs, must surely be applauded - or should it? Of course, sometimes they do bite back and it made me long for Flush to do so.
Flush dreams of open meadows and unfettered running, and luckily for him it does come in the well documented flit to Italy.  Of course he then has to suffer sharing his mistress, first with Robert Browning and then the child, and worse was to come.  In the heat of Italy and his unchecked roaming of the streets he develops mange.  The scissors are picked up and he is cruelly shorn of his coat.  Flush looks at his reflection and thinks, What am I now? Nothing. He was nobody, certainly not a cocker spaniel  But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch..... He danced on his nude, attenuated legs.  His spirits rose.  So might a great beauty, rising from a bed of sickness and finding her face eternally disfigured laugh with joy to think that she may never look in the glass agian, or fear a rival beauty.  
Of course the book is a wonderful conceit and talking as a dog is something that only the great writers can do without becoming all Marley and Me ...
If you haven't tackled Virgina Woolf, this is a good place to start.
Now, all I have to do is think of a name for the new dog..... But nothing that conjures up bathrooms.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Plague, Insect Bites and Me

Oh dear.  Who knew that a horsefly (as nasty as they are) could cause so much trouble?  Bitten on Tuesday, at the doctor on Thursday and at hospital today.  Gulp. Wretched thing. It's all I can do to sip some tea from special cup and saucer (reserved for poorly days) force down the big blue pills and comfort read.
The Plague and I by Betty Macdonald is such a relief. It's like having a cold compress to the fevered brow and a beloved and amusing friend perched on the bed. Perhaps her most well known book is The Egg and I which was made into a film starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in about 1940 - the descriptions of Ma and Pa Kettle were later decried as cultural stereotyping but - hey - she wrote them as she saw them. She is a dab hand at the amusing day to day trivia that makes up life. She had a loving and slap dash childhood in a large family, married (disasterously) young the first time round, deserted the chicken farm and re-married, moving to Vashon Island where she wrote Onions in the Stew (such a favourite of mine that I paid hommage to it by entitling my first book Capers in the Sauce) But in 1937 she was diagnosed with TB and spent nine months in a sanatorium outside Seattle. 
It should be a fairly grim book (she was poor, had two children, hospital care was erratic, and the treatment of TB seems to be positively archiac) But it's not.  It shimmers with delight.  Her humour and eye for detail, an isatiable curiosity for other people coupled with a good dose of healthy cynicism makes this book a delight.  And its funny.  You only have to have spent a week or so in a modern hospital to identify with the characters.  The stone cold food, the petty rules, the Southern minx that hams it up for the handsme doctor, the lack of privacy, and of course the one nurse that can make life hell. In her case it was the Charge Nurse -nicknamed by Betty - Granite Eyes. Betty complains timidly that she is cold.  It as, after all, December, in Seattle, all the windows are wide open and she is freezing. After days of shivering Granite Eyes relents and brings her a paper blanket. This crackles and makes so much noise that Betty is reduced to laying perfectly still so not to disturb anyone. 
Silence is the golden rule in The Pines.  Silence and fresh air.  But the inmates invent countless ways to have fun and outwit Granite Eyes.  Betty becomes best friends with Kimi a beautful young Japanese girl, who demands that her family bring in Soya sauce which she smothers all the food in to make eatable. (Years ago when I was in hospital my best friend who was working in France left a message to be relayed by a puzzled nurse asking me 'Have you drenched everything in Soya yet?') Kimi also makes her mother come in with dainty embroidered tray cloths that she substitues for her own terrible efforts at the laugable Occupational Therapy.  These useless things are called by Betty 'toe covers' and are the bane of their lives. Tangled efforts at crochet, knitting, macrame, sewing and embroidery all get reduced to sweaty chains of sagging ribbons.  In my family, any unwanted decorative object was instantly dismissed as a toe cover, and still is. But above all it was the lack of privacy and not being with her chaotic and loving family that Betty missed.
I like people, but not all people. I'm neither Christian enough or charitable enough to like anybody just because they are alive.  I want people to interest me and amuse me.  I want them fascinating and witty or so dull to be different.  Perfectly charming or 100% stinker. I like my chosen companions to be distinguishable from the masses and I don't care how.
Hear Hear.
Should you have the misfortune to fall ill, The Plague and I will be a tonic.  I won't be getting rid of it, but may well invest in a new copy, for mine is ailing itself with a broken spine and fading pages.  Bless. 

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Hendrick's Horseless Carriage and the divine Saki

I had never seen a stuffed albino hedgehog before, nor indeed a bath full of rose petals with gin and tonic flowing from the hot and cold taps, but these things and more were waiting to delight the unsuspecting at Hendrick's Horseless Carriage at Buxton last week.  Part of the sheer joy of being a writer and being involved in all things bookish is that sometimes you are invited to partake in the ridiculous and extraordinary.  Sometimes it's the dull and worthy of course, but this wasn't one of those occasions, thank goodness.  So it was that I found myself in a converted train carriage parked outside the Pavilion during Buxton Literary Festival. Part of the 'peek & speak' session along with Jess Ruston, Alex Bellos and the master of all things ceremonial, Mr Barr. The stories we told involved Roald Dahl, a super egg and a tortiose...helped by simply lashings of Hendrick's gin and tonic.
The carriage was stuffed to the gills with things extraordinary, a Georgian pheasant feather tickling machine, a stuffed weasel, an elaborate birdcage housing cucumbers, a magic book that read itself, tempting piles of vintage luggage, and all the things that one hopes one will find in an out of the way shop of antiques, but somehow never does.  I wandered through it, absolutely entranced and felt sure that the divine Saki had somehow had a hand in this.  For who else could conjure up the magical domestic everyday stuff as surely and as swiftly as he did? I was dazzled by his stories the first time that I read them, and continue to be dazzled still.
Talking cats, Great Aunts taking tea under a cedar tree unknowingly being watched by a man eating tiger, an otter taking revenge on the hunt by ravaging the larder, Clovis taking the air in Hyde Park whilst Pan spies on him and small girls trapping an unsuspecting MP in a bedroom, filling the house with animals from a made-up-for-glee-and-mischievous flood for The Unrest cure are all written with such charm and wit, without a hint of whimsey or sentiment.
In The Boar-Pig, Mrs Philidore Stossen hasn't been invited to the garden party of the season, but she, clever woman that she is, has spotted that a door from the walled fruit garden leads from her own back lawn - once in, she and her daughter can 'mingle' unnoticed. So much less troublesome than to invent explainations as to why they weren't invited in the first place. So, she and her daughter 'suitably arrayed for a country garden party function with an infusion of Almanak de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream'.  Furtive haste and a certain air of perhaps wearing the wrong hats are spotted with glee by the thirteen year old daughter of the house, Matilada, who is perched half way up a medlar tree avoiding the garden party. 'They'll find the door locked and have to  jolly well go back the way they came.  Serves them right.  What a pity Tarquin Superbus isn't loose in the paddock.' And, after all, Matilda thinks, why shouldn't the enormous boar be given a treat by rootling around in the paddock? Mrs Stossen and her daughter are trapped, in their best clothes, between safety and a giant villainous looking boar.
'Shoo! Hish! Hish! Shoo!'
'If they think that they are going to drive him away by reciting lists of the Kings of Israel and Judah they're laying themselves out for disappointment,' observed Matilda from her reclaimned seat in the tree. She makes her presence know to the flustered ladies (after having locked any possible exit from them) and pretends that she is French, which makes the already flustered ladies lose any semblance of that language that they may or may not have mastered,  Mayhem, hilarity, knowing misunderstanding, and a very undignified climb up a plum tree ensues.  After having extracted ten shillings from Mrs Stossen (shilling by begrudging shilling) for the Children's Fresh Air Fund, Tarquin is finally lured away, and the dishevelled ladies released,
'Well, I never! The little minx, I don't believe the Fresh Air Fund will see a penny of my ten shillings!'
Mrs Stossen was perhaps a little too harsh in her judgement of Matilda, for very neatly entered in the ledger were the india inked legend - collected by Miss Matilda Covering, 2s.6d.

Oh, don't you long for a garden party?

The next best thing is to get to the Carriage of Curiosities and sip a gin and tonic...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Seduced by a cover

Have you ever been seduced by a cover? Well, this is what happened to me with this book.  I freely admit that I have a fondness (some of course would say weakness) for small animals, and yes, I was going to write about dogs (as I sorely miss my little fox terrier who has now gone to dog heaven, which as far as I'm concerned firmly exists and is made up of a dappled shady meadow, a small pack of friendly dogs to run with, lots of tussocky nesting places, baby rabbits to chase but never quite catch, the tantalising smell of steak drifting over the grass and my pair of slippers to guard when the sun falls - and I won't hear differently) but somehow, it didn't happen. I had read Flush by Virginia Woolf, but then I tried to re-read The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna.
Now, Arto is huge in his native Finland and just as big in France. It's been translated into loads of languages and far be it from me to disagree with that literary *ahem* paper - The Mail on Sunday - all unanimously decree that Arto is le dernier cri in Finnish wit.
Oh dear.  I felt like Margo Leadbetter from The Good Life when she cries piteously for someone to explain a joke to her.  She just doesn't  get it.  And nor do I.
Vatanen is a journalst who decides that he's had enough of city life and takes off in his car when he encounters a young hare that's injured on the road.  He goes off in search of it and this turns into a road trip, complete with hare.  He meets a lot of strange and, erm, wonderful people on the way.  He ends up quitting his job, leaving his wife, giveing away his possessions and travelling Finland - taking in forest fires, priests, killer bears, war games and pagan sacrifices.
It has been described as a masterpeice of black humour, as sharp as the Arctic weather of Finland, and highly amusing.
Really? I mean, really?
OK, it's not sugary sweet (we're not talking Watership Down here) But all I can say is that foriegn humour perhaps doesn't travel. Us Brits are the master of black humour, sharp wit and the mighty understatement.
The best thing about this book is the cover, oh yes, and nothing nasty happen to the hare.  At least we don't have a recipe for pie.
A keeper? Hmmmm... I don't know, but I but I do so love the cover.  I longed to have a young hare snuggled into my jacket.  I leave you with the last picture I took of Daphne guarding my slippers, with a book in the background.  Now, that's a front cover.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Kitchen Essays

Should you ever need to know what to cook for a Country Cottage Tea, or Food For The Unpunctual, Tray Suppers, or even for Guests For A Christmas Shopping Luncheon then this is IT.  Of course, it would help if we were all living in 1922 had staff, and had lurking in the larder truffles, cream and the odd lobster or two. (Happy thought.)
Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll is a snuggle down read marathon. I bought it the last time I was in Foyles in Charing Cross Road in their marvelous foodie section. It's quite hard to resist any book there. But this is a real joy. I don't think I'll ever cook from it much, but to read it is a sheer delight.
Agnes Jekyll was the sister in law of the more famous Gertrude who was descibed as an artist-gardener, whilst Agnes was an artist-housekeeper. It's published by the sumptuous Persephone Books which are so tempting, that I could happily buy all of them.
What I specially love is the specifics of this book. There are recipes for what to serve artists before they go on stage (eggs en cocotte, or Mousse of Egg and Sardine which involves pressing hard boiled eggs through a hair sieve, TWICE, boning sardines, adding a filbert-sized peice of fresh butter and moistening all with a little cream.  Good for those of a nervous disposition and equally good for breakfast as it makes a change from marmalade, she remarks.)  She's terribly keen on eggs for all artists, musicians and would be M.P's. Frothed Wine Soup is highly recommended, as is poached eggs, covered in gelatine and garnished with truffles (she uses truffles in nearly everything which makes me suppose that she really was extremely wealthy or that truffles were a damn sight cheaper in the twenties than they are now)
I am also in total awe of the women who cooked these recipes without any of the luxury of the modern kitchen. Sieves are a big thing here.  Nearly everything is sieved, usually more than once.  Aspic, cream, butter and sugar are used with gay abandon.  Even a recipe for cocoa takes FIVE to SIX hours of simmering unbruised coca nibs. Crikey.
There's a wonderfully evocative section of travelling which makes me want to throw on a silk camisole and crush a cloche hat on my head and book the tramp steamer to the Riviera.  For a start she says that food for a journey (implying that the journey itself is arduous and can only be sustained with nourishing food taken at regular intervals) must be 'daintily wrapped individually in grease-proof paper with an outer wrapping of foolscap tied with fine twine and the contents clearly marked outside' Oh, you should also have a nest of horn or silver drinking cups.
What would you find in your travellers basket? Well, she suggests green sandwiches (lettuce and watercress) a wisp of oriental salt and coarsely ground balck pepper, breasts of chicken, pheasant, partridge or grouse enlivened with a little foie gras or thin coating of aspic and some lemon cheese tartlets. Fresh fruit and a few Chelsea buns. Just in case.
There is a wonderful chapter on 'Their First Dinner Party' .  The guests at hers, were Browning, Burne-Jones and Ruskin. She suggests Clear Soup (which lets the cook prove her worth - and after having read the recipe, it really would sort the cooks from the boys - involving hours of slicing vegetables, straining, reducing, clarifying, sieving, re-heating and garnishing) Filets de Sole a la Creme and Pommes Pailles followed by Saddle of Welsh Mutton complete with kidneys, creamed turnips and asparagus with hollandaise sauce, Cremes Glacees Tutti Frutti which has a pint of cream, curacoa and rum in it, frozen in an 'ice cave' then scattered with a 'gay ruching of finely cut crytallised fruits - an apricot, greengage, pink pear and red cherries and macaroons served with liqueurs, follwed by a ripe camenbert and hot home made oat cakes.  Oh yes, and after that cigars (just for the men - natch) coffee and more liqeurs and good quality Barley Water which must be plentiful....
Gosh, excuse me, I had to sit down for a moment after all of that...
Let me leave with you with what she says on picnics 'Let us, then get out of the luncheon basket and have a selection for dessert instead of pudding. A small cream cheese wrapped in lettuce and some crisp plain biscuits with a tiny pot of redcurrant jelly, a box of fresh dates or pulled figs, a carton of almonds and raisons...a handful of glace ginger cubes and a tin of peppermnint creams and lastly the cup of hot coffee tasting as good out of the thermos as tea tastes nasty.'
I don't think I can lose this one - not a cookery book but social history through food.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Too hot to read? Cold Comfort for you....

It's as much as I can do to waft through the Sunday papers on the sun roof, after having made what is likely to win 'The Prettiest Salad of The Summer (so far)' complete with pea shoots and white pea blossoms to even dream of reading anything that requires concentration. No, an old favourite is called for.  One that I have re-read so many times, that I am on my third replacement paperback.
It's a hot day, so let's all take the charabanc to Howling, in Sussex (where else?) to Cold Comfort Farm where I can promise you delights that will soothe even the most fevered of brows. Our guide there is Flora Poste.  A wonderfully tart heroine.  She weaves through the book always appropriately dressed and waves her calm hand over the problems of the Starkadders. Flora has been orphaned, you see, so she writes charming begging letters to all her known relatives, pleading for board and lodgings. After dismissing a few replies, she turns up in Sussex to a veritable feast of eccentrics.  Presiding over them all, but seldom seen is crazed Great Aunt Ada Doom (I've seen something nasty in the woodshed!) Judith (who heaves and sighs in a shawl whilst adoring her good looking and lusty son Seth) Big Business -  the bull, Rueben who tallies the books in a somewhat unconventional manner, hellfire preaching Amos, and wild spirit Elfine who adores walking on the downs communing with nature. (Flora thought, 'What a dreadful way of doing one's hair; surely it must be a mistake.') And I cannot leave out Mrs Beetle the 'woman that does' ( 'T'was a black day for me when I took up with Agony Beetle and moved to Sussex....') There is a magical make-over scene, pages and pages of comic genius, and you can almost smell the sukebind as it flowers in the giant urns on the overmantle.
Stella Gibbons wrote this rural parody of a melodrama in 1932. If you haven't read it - please do.  It's funny and smart and Flora is an absolute delight.
A keeper - I might even invest in a hardback....

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Books to read when your heart is heavy

Books to read when your heart (for whatever reason) feels heavy, or scalded, or broken are very different from reading books that are about that.  Those, I find anyway, are not helpful.  When you are tottering on the verge of weeping into your pillow at night, every night, I want a book that absorbs me to the point that I simply cannot think of anything else.  Distraction is the key.  Not too heavy, not too sad, not too many plots to follow. I don't want too much brash honesty and truths, what I'm after is a shifting canvas. Lawrence Durrell and The Alexandrian Quartet is about as perfect as it gets. Consistently voted as one of the best novels of all times, by people, I assume, who KNOW about such literary things, it is a masterpeice of deceptions and shifting ground.  Justine, Balthazar, Clea and Mountolive make up the four books. I first read these when I was an angst ridden teenager (skipping bits, I'm sure) then I forgot about them.  They found a home on the top shelf and stayed there for years.  Later, in my thirties, my heart was broken (a man) and I took myself off for a solitary weekend by the sea in France.  For some reason (directed I suspect from my guiding reading angel) I slung two of these in a bag. They absorbed me so that I didn't think of the man for a full half hour of the time.  (And anyone who has been through that particular heartache will appreciate just how long thirty minutes can be...) They are set in Egypt and centre around Justine.  What was she? A spy? A thwarted woman in love? A sex crazed frustrated wife? All of those things and maybe none of them. The book presents one story told by four different perspectives . Lost in a world of intrigue and sand, wealth and poverty, the all pervading palm print that is put on walls to evade the evil eye -  hidden truths and lies come alive. Smallpox, gout, amputation, terrible uncured sexual diseases, heat, love and lust are played out against the backdrop of Alexandria.  Nothing is as it seems. Once you have tasted that world, you can drink deeply and settle down to losing yourself completely to it. 
I was intriuged to discover that they play bibliomancy in the books, and I have done so ever since.  Just as accurate as the I Ching and a lot more fun. I am heartbroken this weekend (not a man, but a beloved dog) and so, I made some mint tea and started to read again...