Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Things I did not know, an occasional series

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I like to know things. Probably in some murky corner of my subconscious I believe that if I know enough I shall never die, or some other twisted version of magical thinking. Whatever it is, despite an extensive education, I have the thirst for knowledge of the autodidact. One of the miracles of the internet is that amazing numbers of facts are now instantly available through the extraordinary thing that is Google. This immediate access to every kind of knowledge is turbo-charged by the Twitterverse and the blogosphere. The cross people like to get very cross about tweeting and blogging, as we all know, because they insist it is so inward looking. I find the diametrical opposite: it is often because of blogs and tweets that I look outward, into corners of the world or areas of thought that I had not previously visited. That too is a sort of miracle. Almost every day I find out something I did not know before, and this gives me an inordinate amount of satisfaction.

So I am instituting a new series on the blog (like a shark, it must keep moving or it will die). Every time I discover a fascinating new fact, I am going to share it with the group. If it gets too pedantic or dull or geeky, just shout at me and I shall stop.

Here is how today's fact originated. A wry little tweet went out this morning: Having SNP guests for supper, shall I offer English or French mustard. Quick as a flash, the reply came back: French, in honour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was of course Italian. Bonnie Prince Charlie was an Italian, I thought, surely not. I did all those crazy old risings at school and university, I thought I knew everything about the '15 and the '45. Bello Principe Carlo was not on the agenda at all. So I looked him up. I had forgotten that he was in fact born in Rome, but what I discover that I never knew, and this is my fact for the day, is that his mother was Polish. The great hero of the Scots was a Pole. This is an auld alliance I had never suspected. Charles Stuart's mother was the pious and melancholy Polish princess Maria Klementyna Sobieska. She did not much like her husband, spent a great deal of time praying, and died young, at the age of 32. I have no idea why this new fact pleases me, but it does. I shall no doubt spend the rest of the day trying to work out how to shoehorn it into the course of polite conversation.

And because it is the first of the series, here are some bonus facts for you, in honour of the great nation of Poland. Other famous Poles: Marie Curie, Chopin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and of course Joseph Conrad, whom I first read when I was sixteen, in awe and amazement that English, which he wrote so beautifully, was actually his third language. That has been one of my favourite facts in the world for the last twenty-six years.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Extremely naughty pea soup

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

If you are, as I am, a well-brought up sort of person, you will have been given many stern rules about the making of soup. There must be a great deal of sweating, for starters. Almost every soup requires an onion base, and the onions should be gently cooked in olive oil or butter to give up their full flavour before anything else should be attempted. But sometimes I am in a hurry, yearning for something to eat right now this very minute, and I can't be fagged, and so I just put things in a pot and boil them. This is absolute soup heresy, and I can hardly believe that I allow myself to do it (what will my poor old mother think?), and I am almost ashamed to report that you can make a soup of utter deliciousness using this trangressive method.

Today, I wanted to make a quick soup for the mama of the new baby (see yesterday's post), and I thought a lovely fresh pea soup would be perfect - easy on the digestion, full of goodness and comfort. I did not have much time, so out came the pot, and boiling commenced.

This is how I did it:

Put about half a litre of water in a pot and brought it to the boil. I did not have chicken stock in the fridge, but if you do, use that, it will add another layer of heaven. Threw in two garlic cloves and a couple of sprigs of mint from the garden. Cooked at a medium boil for about three minutes. Added half a bag of tiny frozen petit pois; brought the water back to a low boil, cooked for another two minutes. Threw in one tablespoon of Marigold bouillon powder, in my view the only acceptable substitute for real chicken stock, and - this is the real secret of perfect pea soup - half a tablespoon of sugar. This sounds strange, because we think of peas as sweet, but oddly, in a soup like this, they can have a tang of bitterness. The sugar does not taste, but merely lets the full pea flavour come out in all its glory. I discovered this through trial and error, mostly error.

Then, I put the whole lot in the blender, added a good gloop of extra virgin olive oil, and, just for the hell of it, a small handful of watercress. I have been reading a great deal about the miraculous powers of watercress lately (more iron than half a cow, more vitamin C than a bush full of oranges, or some such) and I wanted to emphasise the ultimate greenness of the soup. Blended till smooth. If it is too thick, you just add a little more stock or water. I like it thick but not gloopy, if that makes any sense at all; you will find your own preferred level. Then I checked for seasoning. If you are not using Marigold, you will almost certainly need a good pinch of Maldon salt. Also, I usually throw in a pinch of dried chilli flakes, but I left them out this time on account of the fact it was going to a breast-feeding mother. Did not want to give her little chap a shock on only his second day in the world. Generally though, I find just a dash of chilli gives a charming va va voom to the finished article.

And that is it. It took seven minutes. SEVEN MINUTES. And even if I do say so myself, it was like going to a restaurant. It's a lovely summery thing, even though the sun is resolutely refusing to shine; whatever the weather, a delightful pea soup will evoke the spirit of the season.

Monday, 27 July 2009

It's a whole new life

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I have a large and complicated family with steps and halves and all sorts. One of the lovely things about this is that a lot of babies get born who are vaguely related to me. Today we have the newest addition - a step-great-nephew (I am a great AUNT; I am one of those characters out of PG Wodehouse who comes galloping along corridors with cloven hooves and a faint whiff of sulphur). He is called Cosmo, and he arrived without too much fuss at about three in the morning, and, according to his small sister, he has blue hair. Clearly he is a Bowie fan, from the Berlin period.

We are all thrilled and delighted and enchanted here, as you may imagine. I am with Cosmo's grandfather, aunt, step-aunt, and sisters, and everyone is smiling and exclaiming. It does not matter that it has been raining for a week, that global warming is quite probably going to have its gaudy victory, that we are in the middle of the worst financial crash since records began. It does not matter that some of us have moments of cynicism or pessimism, or even just plain flat out realism. A new baby makes fools of us all. We grin like idiots and everything, overnight, is perfect and fabulous and filled with hope. The world shimmers with possibility.

I could get a bit shrinkish and say that this is the problem. A tiny cute gurgling thing appears and all humans lose their faculties. It's like a mass delusion which can only lead to disappointment. The problems and the let downs and the false starts and the wrong turnings will come, because into every life a little sorrow must fall. This random undifferentiated outpouring of joy is sheer folly and can do no good.

But you know what? I love it. I love that today is a festival. I love that this Monday I am not feeling grumpy about the Americans' perverse inability to get themselves a decent healthcare system even when they finally have a president who wants to do it. I am not working myself up into a state about all the other twenty things that I work myself up into a state about - the Morgan Stanley bonuses, the endless war in Afghanistan, what is really going on in Yemen, why it is that people in positions of power still insist in talking in management-speak when everyone knows it is a sign of insecurity and intellectual poverty. I am smiling and laughing. It is irrational; one new life does not fix any of the things that ail us. The life itself will not always be happy or straightforward; the world into which he enters is in twenty kinds of trouble. But just today, none of that counts for anything. A women grew a whole human being from scratch, which is an absolute dilly of a miracle. A brand spanking new little fellow is among us, and if we had trumpets we would blow them. We can leave the realism to another day; today, we are en fête.

Friday, 24 July 2009

In which I get rather cross; or, people who should know better writing stupid things about Twitter, again

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I wasn’t going to do this, because it will mean ad hominem attacks and once you start on the ad hominem you know you have lost the argument. I told myself: oh well, it’s just one lousy thing that I read and no one is really going to notice and anyway what does it matter what I think about it? I shall write a nice domestic goddessy little blog post about homemade lemonade instead (supersecret ingredient: mint. I’m telling you.). But it has been eating at me all week, and now I must spill into print.

It was no great suprise. The mainstream media, as is now traditional on the third Friday of every month, had a go at Twitter. What was surprising was that the attack was mounted by Rod Liddle, roving editor at the Speccie. More surprising still, he chose all the usual arguments, trotted out like perfectly schooled show ponies: narcissism, banality, who the fuck CARES what you are doing for dinner, and on and on until the last syllable of recorded time. It is curious, because Liddle is usually an antic and counterintuitive writer. He gives really good comment because he avoids the why oh why boilerplate school, and you never, ever know which side of an argument he is going to come down on. He is not a set in stone ideologue; I have read his columns for years without having a clue what his politics are. If you put me up against a wall and made me guess, I should say left of centre on a bed of anti-authoritarianism with a libertarian coulis. He likes to laugh in the face of received wisdom and trample over cheap arguments. But this time, he was not only reheating every single tired old line that every single commentator has ever said about Twitter, he was attacking one of the most beloved elements of British life. Rod Liddle was bitch-slapping Stephen Fry.

The arguments about Twitter are easy to counter, because those who mount them have clearly never used it. They log on, go and have a look at a few tweets by someone like Fry or Ashton Kutcher, wander about for a bit, find someone who has written ‘going 2 get latte and bagel. Gr8 morning!!!!’, and conclude that the whole thing is a perfect shower. As anyone who uses Twitter regularly knows, there are, just as in life, the bores and non-bores. There are the ones who bang on about themselves, although, in my little corner of the Twitterverse, they are vanishingly rare. Mostly, the Tweeters are funny and informative and often unexpected. There are people who have TS Eliot quote-offs (Mrs Trefusis and clever Charlie McVeigh, you know who you are), some who swap recipes or songs or helpful household hints (a very nice woman called Julia Ball told me how to restore burnt cooking pots using Coca-Cola), some who do raging satire (the fake Gene Hunt is the king in this regard) and others who bring a shining surreal edge to the quotidian (Belgian Waffling raises this to Olympic level). This very morning on Twitter I have had a small discussion about the merits of DH Lawrence’s poetry versus his prose, revived memories of the sublime singing voice of Karen Carpenter, and been reminded of the wild magnificence of Last Year at Marienbad, a film which obsessed me when I was twenty three.
I could get tremendously poncy and claim that there is a great intellectual challenge in trying to say something interesting in 140 characters. I could talk about an extraordinary sense of global community in an I’d like to teach the world to sing New Seekers kind of way. But I probably won’t. I love Twitter most of all because it gives me little glimpses into other people’s lives, and I am incurably curious. I like also that it has a raging sense of social justice. The two subjects that I have written of which really caught fire on Twitter were the arrest of the journalist Roxana Saberi, and the plight of the women in the Congo. I don’t put up links to my own posts, because I have an odd, old-fashioned notion that this is a form of showing off – look at ME, look what I have written - and a certain shyness always sets in after I have got onto my hobby horses and gone galloping off in all directions. But these two serious subjects were immediately linked to by other kind Twitterers, and were tweeted and retweeted all day long, to my absolute delight and amazement. I could say that this proves that, far from banality and solipsism, Twitter is the very apex of selflessness and nobility, but then you would all fall off your chairs laughing. In the end, Twitter doesn’t need any defending. The people who like it, use it, and the people who don’t, won’t. All the rest is just sound and fury.

But when a man who left his wife to go and see his mistress whilst on his honeymoon starts bashing up a national treasure, things have officially Gone Too Far. (You see, I told you it would get ad hominem. I am very sorry. Well, slightly sorry. ) Rod Liddle found a tweet where Stephen Fry said he was going to ‘a dinner’. From this, he extrapolated that not only was Fry banal and narcissistic and self-important, and that he would like to bash Fry’s head in with a spanner for such banality and narcissism and self-importance, but that this one tweet demonstrated conclusively that the generation born between 1955 and 1985 is the most banal, narcissistic and self-important that ever lived. Which is, when you stop to think about it for more than three seconds, the most illogical and stupid generalisation of the year.
Rod Liddle is a very good writer. He is also a man who cheated on, lied to, and eventually left his wife, for a much younger woman. Following his logic, you could say that that all fifty-something men are cheating, lying philanderers. You could say that writing an opinion column is a much greater act of self-importance than sending out a tweet saying you are going to dinner. It seems odd that the people who attack Twitter the most are always columnists, who commit the ultimate act of narcissism each week, by telling the world exactly what they think of it. Twitter will sail on its merry way, whatever the pundits have to say about it. But I say: lay off Stephen, Liddle, or Gene Hunt will take you out the back and punch you in the nose.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

In which Sarah gets swine flu

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sarah writes an excellent article about her run-in with swine flu today in The Times. Have a look at it here -

You will be pleased to hear that she is getting better, but when I spoke to her at the weekend I thought I was going to have to send in MASH-style helipcopters to medivac her out. The good news: in a healthy female, it does seem to pass. The bad news: the Tamiflu appears to have no effect at all, except to induce radical vomiting.

Monday, 20 July 2009

How I lost my fear of fritto misto di mare; or, the genius of Doves Farm strikes again

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

As seems to be becoming traditional on a Monday, I veer between old lady grumpiness and the sunniness of a new week. Minuses: a sudden Sunday night mortality attack (we are all going to die, everyone we love is going to die, etc etc; occupational hazard of middle age and too much TS Eliot), start of the week brain freeze which means my writing day has not been productive at all, and the horror of the monthly paying of the credit cards. Pluses: England won the cricket in storming style, my garden is looking suddenly, unexpectedly ravishing (the tiny little purple geraniums and deep scarlet roses are in their pomp) and the sun has actually come out for the first time in days.

So I choose levity over gloom, and there will be no ranting, not today. Instead, I am going to give another plug to the wonderful Doves Farm operation, which certainly makes the world a better place. I have talked of their lovely gluten-free flour before, which led me to invent the little flatbreads which are still such a source of pride to me. Now I discover that it makes the most perfect frying batter. Fritto misto and tempura and those little deep-fried courgettes that you get in good Italian restaurants are some of my favourite things to eat when I go out, but I have never had any success with them at home. Looking up batter recipes has done nothing to dispel the dark sense of failure: all chefs have tremendous secret tricks to attain crispiness - ice cubes, beer, sparkling water, touch of bicarb - yet the more one reads, the more alarming the whole thing becomes. But my cussed streak does not allow me to give up altogether, so every so often I attempt something deep fried, and eat the resulting soggy mess with a melancholy fatalism.

Last week, I had an insistent yearning for fritto misto di mare. I had some delightful prawns and squid in the fridge, and I did not feel like risotto or fish soup, so out came the mixing bowl. I had my new favourite Doves Farm gluten free flour in the cupboard, so I just mixed it up with a bit of water, dunked the shellfish in it, cooked them, and presto - it was like being transported to one of those blue restaurants that sit on a beach somewhere so that you smell the salt from the sea as you eat.

To achieve this loveliness, this is what you do:

Take as many raw prawns and squid tubes as you want. I think that this dish is best cooked for two people only, because the frying must be done in small batches, and everything gets cold if you are making big quantities. So for the lucky two people, just judge how hungry you both are, and use the corresponding amounts. Cut the squid into rings; peel the prawns if you need to.

In a big bowl, put four or five tablespoons of Doves Farm Gluten-free flour, depending how generous you are being with the shellfish. I must stress that I have no fear of gluten, and regard food fads as tiring; I just love Doves Farm, saw one day that they had a flour out I had not tried before, and bought it without reading the label; that it turns out to make perfect batter is a great act of serendipity. Slowly add enough water to make a thick batter (I'm sorry I do not have exact measurements, but it is quite easy to do by sight). Then put all the shellfish in and swoosh it about with your hands. This is extremely messy but very satisfying. The point is to get everything really well covered with the gloopy batter, but not to allow stodgy clumps to cling to the inside of the rings of squid, which is why you need to use your fingers.

In a deep pan, put three to four inches of any plain cooking oil - I think sunflower is best, but you may have your own preference. Put it on a high heat and let it come up to frying temperature. People measure this in different ways, but a good test is to put in a small cube of bread and watch to see if it comes straight up to the surface. Once it is at optimum temperature, I turn it down to seven or eight - if you keep it at full blast the heat gathers quickly and everything may burn. Then take small handfuls of the prawns and squid, give them a bit of a shake to remove any extraneous batter, and throw them into the oil. The smallness of the handful is crucial: if you overcrowd the pan, the heat will plummet, nothing gets enough room to cook properly, and everything goes tragic and soggy. Let the shellfish fizz for a bit and give them a poke if they look like they need separating. Cook them for no more than two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Then cook the next few batches until they are all done. Sprinkle with a good pinch of Malden Salt and a squeeze of lemon and serve on hot white plates. You will be in heaven.

So at last, after forty two earth years, I have discovered that the secret to Fritto Misto di Mare is: Doves Farm gluten-free flour for the batter, plenty of very hot oil, and cooking in very small, very quick batches. I am left with a sense of achievement out of all sane proportion. It's only a recipe. But perhaps it is the tiny triumphs that make the Sunday night mortality attacks bearable. At least I shall die knowing I made perfect fried fish.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Sarah puts the cat among the pigeons

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The reason you only see Sarah making occasional appearances on this blog is that she is very busy writing for The Times. My job is supposed to be putting up links to her pieces so you can all enjoy them. As you may have noticed, I am fabulously useless at this, and have had to give myself a stiff talking to. My most abject apologies.

Anyway, here is her thought for the day. I promise there will be many more from now on.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Women of the Congo

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Yesterday I wrote a jolly little piece about mild grumpiness. Today, I got a call that reminded me I had nothing to be grumpy about. A charming man called Patrick telephoned from Actionaid to talk to me about the women of the Congo.

I have supported Actionaid for years, because they are non-political, non-religious, and do humane and important work wherever they find poverty and deprivation. Initially, I sponsored a little boy called Landing. He sent me pictures of cows and chickens drawn in vivid crayon. I had a fantasy that he would grow up to be a poet or an engineer, all because of my paltry monthly stipend. Then it was decided that it was unfair on the children who were not sponsored, so my money started going to the whole village instead. After a while, I got a photograph of a group of smiling women with a tap. It was a free-standing iron tap, in the middle of a dusty clearing. The women were grinning as if someone had sent them a yacht. They wrote me a letter explaining that they used to have to walk miles every day to get water; now, because of me, they had a tap. I still look at their picture and feel humbled, because they were so delighted by something that I take for granted: clean drinking water. This is the point about charity: it offers the giver something just as important as the recipient. For a very few hundred pounds a year, I get a dazzling reminder of everything for which I should be grateful, and the women of that village get water. It seems to me the most perfect bargain in the world. In some ways, I think they are giving me far more than I can ever give them.

Today, when Patrick called and asked me if I knew about the women of the Congo, I said that I did know about them. They have been haunting me for a long time. In my hopeless, middle-class, first world way, I have not done much about it beyond talk. Sarah and I gave them a fleeting mention in Backwards, but that is not going to change much. They are being raped, systematically, in unbelievable numbers. The government soldiers, the Hutu militias, all sides in the conflict, are raping the women. They rape the children too. A report in the Guardian from last year put the youngest victim at one year old, and the oldest at ninety. The soldiers cut off the women's breasts; they ram rifles up their vaginas; they make them watch while they rape their daughters. A huge number of the women suffer HIV and constant bleeding. Some can no longer walk. Because rape is a huge source of shame in Congolese society, many of the women are shunned by their husbands and families, and find themselves with nowhere to go. So, yes, I know about the women of the Congo.

Actionaid are launching a new campaign for them. I accepted Patrick's polite and rather diffident request to make a monthly payment to it. I did not feel the same sense of a joyful bargain that I get with the women and the tap. The suffering is of an order of magnitude that makes my pathetic donation seem almost insulting. I feel very small and very insignificant. But if enough people can find, even in these cash-strapped times, a few pounds a month, Actionaid can go in and help. Patrick seemed quite optimistic. I asked what response he was getting. 'Oh,' he said, 'you know people are very understanding. People are very good.' He paused. 'It's very rewarding work for me,' he said.

This is not a crusading blog. I don't want to hector you with stories of human misery. But the Congolese women don't get much press; the UN seems to have abandoned them; the public cannot take that much agony and degradation day after day, and so, in a way, it is easier to forget. It is a local difficulty in a far away country of which we know nothing. I am writing this because I think that we should never forget.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Things that make you go grr

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It's that kind of Monday. Nothing awful has happened; there was no life-shattering event over the weekend. (I smoked a bit too much and tried to work out exactly what we were trying to do in Afghanistan.) There is even a bit of tentative sunshine. But still, I am in the class A Monday dumps, that kind of teenage yeah yeah blah blah whatever everyone can just fuck off mood that sometimes comes along and grabs you even when you are over forty and thought you were done with all that.

I generally don't hold with moods. Come along, I say to myself, in my best Mary Poppins voice; you are not living in Chad. Spit spot. But we can't all be little miss sunshine every day, and so I thought I would indulge my inner grumpy old woman and make a grumpy old list of the things that really annoy me. And then you can post your own lists on the comments section and all the bile will be out and tomorrow will be butterflies and bluebells.

So here is my list of things that really piss me off:

Things that don't work.
There was the crisis with the computer of course, but that was mostly my fault for pouring a glass of water over the keyboard, revealing to me that I could not live life without the use of the L key. But my new mobile telephone, which I have treated well, has died on me for no reason, and all my telephone numbers are trapped inside, and everyone is furious because they think I am avoiding them when in fact I have a broken telephone and until I go all the way into Aberdeen and get a new handset there is not much I can do about it. Sometimes, after a big storm, the internet does not work either. I have an enduring fear that someone will just come along and break the internet, and then where will we all be? These things drive me mad not just because something which should work is not working, but because it makes me realise how dependent I have become on technology. I lived for twenty one years perfectly happily without an internet or a mobile telephone. Now I seem incapable of surviving for ten minutes without them and I fear that reveals a tragic character flaw.

The people who stole the word 'disinterested'. It no longer means that you may observe a situation neutrally because you have no horse in the race; it means uninterested. I mourn its loss and if I ever find the felons who looted it they shall rue the day.

The expression 'pan-fried'. What the hell else are you going to fry something in?

My secret solitaire addiction. And that's all I am going to say about that.

Restaurants that serve disgusting food. Amazingly, they still exist. It is actually quite hard to make something taste really nasty; it's almost as much effort as making something taste good. An awful lot of effort is still being given to churning out very nasty dishes.

Ugly fashion. When I am told that this season I MUST HAVE a cobalt blue jumpsuit, I want to punch someone in the nose. And while I'm on the subject, which fashionista decided that Chloe Sevigny was the high priestess of cool? I have never seen her wear an outfit that I like. Don't even get me started on Stella McCartney.

People who ring me up and ask if I would like to have my doors and windows replaced at no cost to myself.

The use of the word like to indicate I said/thought/did. I'm like STOP IT NOW.

Pious people on the wireless who insist that disapproving of homosexuality is a 'matter of conscience'. Bigotry is bigotry, however many fancy clothes you dress it up in.

Dick Cheney.

My hopeless habit of leaving something on the stove, going away to do something else, losing track of time, and then sniffing a terrible burning smell coming from the kitchen and rushing in to find that my heavenly ratatouille is now a charred suppurating mess stuck to the bottom of my favourite pan, which will never be the same again no matter how hard I scrub it.

Pilling. And moths. Half my cherished cashmere cardigans are covered in little bobbles and tiny holes; I look at them and want to cry.

Huge conglomerates who hire actresses to put their names on absolutely disgusting scents, which are then sold at forty quid a bottle. There are about ten truly great scents in the world, and there is no need to waste time and resources on hideous new synthetic ones just because they say J-Lo on them.

The slow death of British pig-farming. (Buy British; save the pigs!)

Ready meals.

The fact that the battle for Helmand Province might never be won, and even if it is, at enormous cost in blood and treasure, it may not make very much difference to anything.

The term 'anti-ageing', especially when applied to cosmetic creams. Who decided that getting older was a crime?

The misuse of the apostrophe.

Grumpy old women like me banging on about all the things that make them grumpy.

Ah, better now. I hand the field over to you.

Friday, 10 July 2009

The American Edition

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There are twenty different things I have wanted to blog about this week, and I have done none of them, because all I can think of is the American edit of the book. So I do apologise for lack of the good meaty stuff.

Sarah and I were ecstatically happy to get an American deal, something that seemed beyond our most crazed dreams. We were lucky enough to be taken up by a great independent publisher, and to have a kind and understanding editor. This week, the marked up manuscript arrived, and I volunteered to do the edit, since Sarah has an entire newspaper to write and a family to look after, and I am the one who is famously anal about the semi-colons. It should have been a straightforward and satisfying week of work. The manuscript was relatively clean, with only one chapter that needed serious reworking to make it understandable to an American audience. And yet it has sent me into a frenzy.

At first I thought I was just taking the thing seriously, as I should. It is my job, after all. But when I found myself getting obscurely grumpy about the fact that sceptical suddenly had to be spelt with a K, I knew that there was more here than met the eye. There is a whole section in Backwards about how one gets furious about Object A when in fact the real cause of one's anger is Object B. I could not really mind that much about cutting a reference to Dame Mary Warnock because she would not play in Peoria, surely? (And that one was not even an editorial decision; I cut poor Dame Mary all on my own. Also Julian Clary and Graham Norton.) I found myself over-reacting in the most intemperate manner when I found sliced carrots in the recipe for Irish Stew had been replaced by grated carrots. 'No, no, no, NO,' I wrote in the margin. 'Grated carrots would be an abomination.' My poor editor, what must she think?

I can't quite work out what Object B is. Even though the work is done, rather more quickly than I expected (I thought I would be bashing away until ten tonight, but it suddenly came together and I have now a blissful free afternoon to listen to Test Match Special and indulge my new and entirely unexpected obsession with The Ashes), my shoulders are still up around my ears with suppressed tension.

I think it is a messy complication of different things. There is probably a dose of raw terror: will our poor little book just sink without trace in the wide open spaces of the vast continent? There is the emotional switch that always comes with any kind of editing, however clever and subtle and gracious the editor is. When you have worked at a manuscript until your brain is about to fall out of your ears, done the eighth and ninth and tenth drafts, lived with it for a year or more, any mark on it can feel like a violation. Even though you are a pro, and you understand this is part of the process, and you know that it will make for a better piece of work, there is a part of you that screams: get off my baby. (I have a horrible feeling that when I use the general You in that sentence, in fact I mean the very specific Me; I am not at all certain that Martin Amis flies into tiny little hissy fit because omelette must be spelt omelet.)

I think too that there is the slight sense of dislocation in being conscious of talking to such a different audience. I like to think I know about America because I watch all the politics programmes on MSNBC, and can recite large chunks of The West Wing off by heart, and have spent my life loving American literature. I believe that, beyond cultural differences, the universal emotions and needs and wants are pretty much the same for all women. I like to think myself a citizen of the world. And yet, doing this edit, I suddenly realise how very British I am. The idioms and history and emotions of this island people are so stitched into me that I cannot tell where they end and I begin. I am steeped in Shakespeare and the BBC and the Romantic poets. I got extremely testy with my poor hapless editor when she wanted to change very heaven to pure heaven; it's from WORDSWORTH, I wrote, pretentiously, in the margin. I suddenly realise that even though the British sometimes startle and surprise me, I know them in a way I can never know the Americans. We all grew up together; we have in-jokes and code words and things that require no explanation. I felt obscurely upset when I had to take out a line about sticky back plastic, because in the US there was no Blue Peter, and no BBC impartiality which meant that references to Sellotape were forbidden. I am afraid that however much I change Inland Revenue to IRS, or BBC to NPR, the American women will not get it, in the way that Sarah and I knew our British readers would.

More tangentially, I realise with stunning force how little Britons figure in the American imagination. It is not that they like us or hate us; it is that, in their eyes, the Brits are Oscar Wilde's Woman of No Importance. The Special Relationship is really only special on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Jingoistic bombast is one of the things that makes me crosser than almost anything except a dangling modifier, so why should this matter to me? It is a plain truth; it does not carry any deep meaning. I think it disturbs me because it stirs the muddy waters of national pride, something which can so easily tip into horrid superiority or chauvinism. But as I have to cut little asides that only my compatriots will understand, I find myself acutely conscious of all the things I love about British life.

I love the sense of humour and the irony and, even in these days of reality television, the understatement. I love Radio Four and fish and chips and our own dear Queen. I love Blue Peter, and memories of collecting milk bottle tops to send to children in Africa (quite what they were going to do with them, no one ever understood). I love Hamlet and rain at Wimbledon and The Two Ronnies. When I listen to the cricket and hear Henry Blofeld call a middle-aged man 'my dear old thing' I want to die with happiness, for absolutely no reason that I can identify. Perhaps it is disconcerting to find that all these things for which I carry such profound fondness almost certainly mean absolutely nothing to a woman living in Duluth.

I can't draw any conclusions from any of this, which drives me a bit mad, because I love a good and complete conclusion. Maybe the conclusion is an echo of the central message of Backwards itself, which is: our psyches are always a little messier and more complicated and unexpected than we think, and there is nothing wrong with that.

And now, my dear old things, it is time for the cricket.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Lovely larder supper

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Inspired by a plaintive wail on Twitter from my fellow blogger La Beet about having to produce a supper from some utterly unthrilling ingredients dragged from the freezer, I am offering you my very own larder supper. Usually, my fridge is extravagantly stocked as I have a faintly worrying end of the world fear of running out of food (otherwise known as rampant greed), but occasionally work gets the better of me or I grow disorganised or lazy and when I trudge to the kitchen at the end of a long day there is nothing but some old tomatoes and rather papery garlic. Last week I had just such a night. I could not face the shop, so I opened up the store cupboard and got jiggy with it.

This is what I ended up with:

Fried cod's roe, with saffron chick pea mash, flatbreads, and roasted tomatoes with garlic and oregano. It is not a combination you would find in any cookery book, but it was absolutely delicious, took only half an hour, and was, mostly crucially in these credit crunchy times, fabulously cheap. And I got the added kick of having made a lovely supper only moments after thinking: I have nothing to eat. (One of the saddest sentences in the world.)


First, put the tomatoes in to roast. I like to cut them in half, anoint them with plenty of olive oil, a great deal of oregano, which I go and pick from the garden, slightly more sea salt than you think (tomatoes will take a really good pinch of salt) and a little chopped garlic. Roast at about 160 degrees for half an hour. If you are thinking ahead, you can put them in at a lower heat, and slow roast them for an hour. The garlic will burn a little, giving a slightly bitter nutty flavour, but I think the sweetness of the tomatoes can take it. If you hate that idea, just very gently fry the garlic and oregano in olive oil for about four minutes and add to the tomatoes when they come out of the oven. You need to smoosh them about a bit if you do it this way, so all the ingredients are well combined.

Then make the chickpea mash. Take a tin of chickpeas, drain and rinse, and cook for about five minutes in a small pot of boiling water to which you have added: large pinch of saffron, one crumbled dried chilli, and a tablespoon of Marigold Bouillon powder. Drain, retaining the cooking liquid. Blitz in the Magimix with a dollop of olive oil. You will certainly need to add a little of the cooking liquid at this stage. You are after a firm but not stiff texture. Take care not to overprocess; you are looking for a lovely rustico effect. Check for seasoning. Put in a bowl and keep warm.

Then: make the flatbread dough. These are my special little not-really-flatbreads-at all things, which I invented by mistake, and now love so much I cook them every week. I have given this recipe before, but for new readers I shall give it again, just in case. The vital ingredient is Dove's Farm gluten free flour, because it gives such an outrageous texture. One tablespoon of flour equals one little bread, so the amount depends on how many you are cooking for. Once you have measured out the flour, add a pinch of sea salt, a generous gloop of olive oil, and enough water to combine into a fairly stiff dough. I do it by increments until the texture is right. The dough will be very short, so you have to pat the little cakes into shape with your hands, pressing with the palms until the things are as thin as you can get them. Cook them in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for about three minutes each side.

Finally: the cod's roe. These come in little green tins which you can find in any supermarket, and are a brilliant store cupboard staple. Drain off the brine. I do this by putting the roes carefully in a sieve; you need to be delicate or they will break up. Then, still handling with care, dredge them in flour. You can use any flour you wish, although polenta flour is particularly good as it gives extra crunch. You may have a favoured dredging technique; I put some flour on a plate, place the roes carefully on top, then sift more flour on top, and sort of pat it in with my fingers, then put the whole thing back in the sieve and shake to remove any excess. The roes will break up a bit, which is fine, but if they fall into too many tiny pieces the crucial texture of the dish is lost, which is crisp outside and melty inside. Cook over a medium heat in a little olive oil for about five minutes each side. Once on your plate, they will need a good pinch of salt and black pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon.

Then get the tomatoes out and assemble your supper. It looks glorious on a big white plate. If you are feeling particularly swish, and have more in the fridge than I did that sad night, you might add a little scatter of watercress or rocket leaves.

I regret that I have no photograph of this feast to show you, but I was too hungry to think of anything else. Next time I shall make photographic proof.

I wish you good eating.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Fourth Plinth

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I have not had time to watch enough of the Trafalgar Square plinth to decide whether it is a bold and thrilling use of public space or a thing of unremitting banality, which seem to be the two currently prevailing views. A quick glance at the webcam set up to record the event showed a man dressed in a large fish costume. No one seemed to be paying the blindest bit of notice. (Actually, now I think about it, that may be the most conceptually interesting thing about that particular hour - man dressed as fish in middle of large cosmopolitan city; everyone goes about their business as usual; as if fishmen are only to be expected in London's fair city.) There was also a very nice view of the fountains. It reminded me how much I love Trafalgar Square. I love the pale blonde length of the National Gallery; I love the lions and the fountains and old Nelson up there on his column; I love that it is built on a slope.

I also love Antony Gormley. I thought Field was a work of immense power and beauty, and beauty is not a word that often applies to contemporary art (the purists think that aesthetic appeal is only for the soft-headed and moribund). Also, I like his smiling face. So I'm going to give the whole thing the benefit of the doubt. I am particularly interested to see what goes on in the dead of night.

What I do like very much, and the real reason for writing this little bloggette, is the pictures Alex Beckett has taken of the first day. Do go and have a look at them. The one of the father and daugher booing the BNP should give heart to unreconstructed liberals everywhere. And let's face it, we need all the heart we can get.

PS. If you have time, go and look at this report on the event from the New York Times. It's very funny.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Stupidest headline of the week (and it's only Monday)

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am considering collecting a series of idiotic headlines and making them into a book. It would be more socially relevant than a book of quotations, a state of the nation kind of thing. It would reveal The Way We Live Now. Or, it would just show the horrid prejudices of certain newspapers and would achieve nothing except the blindingly obvious.

Today’s candidate for worst headline is: The Art of being Single – Stop sobbing into your Chardonnay, being single does not have to mean sad. (I don’t know if you have ever seen the sweet but slight film You Got Mail, but if you have you will remember Tom Hanks writing Meg Ryan a lot of emails, and when he wrote something that he thought was too sappy or idiotic he would screw up his face and waggle his head from side to side in disgust and narrow his eyes and pull his mouth into a grimace; well, I am doing that exact same thing now. Just so you have the visual.) There are several vacuously stupid things about this headline, and if that’s a tautology I am not going to apologise for it, that’s how cross I am. First of all: no one drinks Chardonnay any more, and even if they did, the idea that it is the tipple of choice for tragic, borderline dipso singletons is so out of date that it might as well be wearing shoulder pads. Everyone knows that single women drink Grey Goose martinis, straight up, with three olives. Second of all: the assumption behind the headline is that all single women are so brainless that they ascribe any moments of sadness in their life to their lack of coupledom. It is so reductive that it practically eats itself. All humans suffer from melancholy, whether they are married or single, gay or straight, white or brown. Third of all: it perpetuates the false divide between the hitched and the unhitched, which is so staggeringly dull and wrong that if I have to think about it for one more moment I shall start banging my head on the desk. And fourth of all: it obscures the fact that the actual article is a reasonably nuanced examination of one woman’s life post divorce (turns out, she chooses to look on the bright side).

Whatever is happening in the news – however bearish Russia grows, however tumultuous the streets of Iran, whatever those fascisti Burmese generals are up to – through it all runs the low hum of The Problem of the Single Women, as if that is really what is important. The newspapers cannot leave it alone. They run ghoulish articles about ‘unlucky in love’ Kylie or Renée or whoever it happens to be that week. The ‘epidemic of childlessness’ is another favoured headline. Occasionally they throw in a token article about how being on your own is not really that bad, but their hearts are not in it. And all the time I grow crosser and crosser, at the clichés, the mild bigotry, the lazy thinking.

Here is what makes you demented when you choose to live alone: that you have to explain it all the time. Because marriage is assumed to be the default position, most especially for a woman, most especially for a woman of child-bearing age, if you reject it, you must tell everyone why. (I am thinking of printing up a little pamphlet which I can distribute whenever I get the quizzical look and the inevitable question, or, even more crazy-making, the knowing ‘Oooooohhhhh, reeeeaaaallly?’, just to save time and sanity.) No one marches up to a married person and says: ‘Did you really consider that you were emotionally evolved enough to pledge the rest of your life to one human? Did you do it for the right reasons? Are you sure you were not just marrying your father in an excessively Freudian manner?’ No one says that, and it is absolutely correct that they do not. But faced with a renegade single, no such restraint applies. Maybe they think we can take it, because we are so freakily beyond the pale that we have lost any shred of social nicety ourselves and so must get doses of our own medicine. Or something.

Here is what I think happens: some people get married, and some do not. Some people wish they could get married but cannot find the right person. Some people find the right person and get a horrible shock when the right person turns into the wrong person and goes off and shags the secretary. Some single people are happy, and some are not. Some married people are so crushed by loneliness that they do not know what their names are, and can barely make it out of the house in the morning. Some people who live alone find solitude their highest balm in a fervid world. Everyone is different. It is not a huge sociological drama. It just is what it is. So could everyone just stop with the stupid headlines and write about something more interesting?

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Random thoughts from the north

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Happy Independence Day, everyone. It is too hot to blog, but you know I hate leaving you with nothing, so here are a few random thoughts from the north.

Egregious headline of the week: ‘As Brown and Cameron outdo each other in bid to woo gay vote, who will help families?’
This is so vacuously stupid and wrong on so many levels that I do not have the time to go into it now. But the idea that you may either woo the gays or help the families is more moronic than Moron McMoron of the Clan Moron and all his children. What I want to know is where do the people who pit families and homosexuals against each other (big tendency to do this among the religious right in America too) think that gay people come from? Do they think they are specially made at the Gay Factory? Or that they are all orphans? Newsflash: they come from families too. As the marvellous Rachel Maddow on MSNBC loves to say on her show, politely but with heavy irony: it’s all right, the Gay is not contagious.

Mystery of the week:
Sarah Palin’s sudden resignation from her post as Governor of Alaska. For political junkies like me, there is nothing better than a big meaty gubernatorial question mark to take the mind off the tennis.

Hope of the week:
That mean columnists and bloggers will not start bitching about Andy Murray after he lost at Wimbledon to the formidable Andy Roddick. Murray is, in my book, an exceptional young man who is nice to his mum, sweet to his girlfriend, and adorable to his dog. He works amazingly hard, is roaringly talented and he will be back. His Scottishness should be celebrated, not used as an excuse for jingoistic prejudice.

Sight of the week:
The baby oyster catcher which is wobbling about on the grass behind my house. His parents make a diversionary flanking action about ten feet either side of his, calling loudly to take away the attention of any predators that should be lurking, which he, the size of my palm, takes the first steps on his voyage of discovery.

Food of the week:
Tomato soup, and chickpea mash with chilli and saffron, of which more later.

Best joke of the week:
Jeff Goldblum going on the Stephen Colbert Show after internet rumours that he was dead. Goldblum: ‘But I’m not dead, here I am.’ Colbert: ‘You are dead, Jeff, I read it on Twitter.’

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The cheatiest cheat's tomato soup

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It's all very well, this talk of pop icons and tennis stars, but sometimes one just has to come back to the stuff of life which is, of course, soup.

I made tomato soup last night because I had a glut of tomatoes (sadly not my own tenderly grown ones like Miss Whistle produces, but just bog standard British, bought from a shop). I was feeling lazy and could not be bothered with sweating onions and other refinements, so I did something so naughty I can hardly dare write it. I just put the tomatoes in a pot and boiled them. The end result was utterly delicious, and, I find this morning, equally lovely cold, which is a useful thing to know as we all swoon like Tennessee Williams ladies in the heat.

So here is what you do -

Take five or six big fat tomatoes, roughly chopped, three cloves of garlic and half a dried chilli. Just cover with chicken stock if you have it, or water with a tablespoon of Marigold bouillon powder if you do not. Despite what Marco Pierre White says about Knorr, I insist that Marigold is the only acceptable instant stock. In my case, I had cooked some chickpeas the night before with saffron and Marigold, and I used the water left over from that, thinking it might add a little extra flavour.

Then boil for about ten minutes, on a medium heat - higher than a simmer, not quite so violent as a rolling boil, I should say.

Put in liquidiser, add gloop of good olive oil, the grassier and fruitier the better, and blitz until smooth. If I had had any basil in the house, I would have added it at this stage, and if I had been thinking more clearly, I might have thrown in some of the delightful marjoram that is growing crazily outside my front door. You could play around with different herbs; a little parsley might bring something to the party. If you want a creamier, more Campbell's type soup, you could add a spoonful of mascarpone. In this case I did not, but the olive oil produces such a lush, velvety texture that I am not sure you need any more creaminess.

And that is it. I am almost ashamed to admit the blatant simplicity of the thing. Remember Dennis Potter in his final interview with Melvyn Bragg talking about the most blossomy blossom? Well, this was the most tomatoey tomato soup.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A note before the match: in praise of Andy Murray

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The currently agreed narrative on Andy Murray is to do with his Scottishness. Last year, he was excoriated in the press for being a ‘sour-faced Scot’; worse than that, he was, apparently, dour, petulant, chavvish, and petty. Oh do grow up, the columnists and message boards shouted with one voice. Now, there are the tiny green shoots of a wary liking for him, the tentative possibility that he might be a True Brit after all. It turns out that whole supporting ‘anyone but England’ remark about the World Cup was a joke. It took a very long time for anyone to believe this, despite Tim Henman and the journalist who asked the question patiently explaining it a hundred times. The belief that Murray had no sense of humour was so strong that no one could credit the idea that he might have a capacity for irony. Still, the Scots/English divide dies hard. No one much likes to talk about it in daily conversation; ‘remember the clearances’ is not going to lead to happy chat around the dining table. But the moment a sporting event takes place, all the old prejudices put on their glad rags and go out on the town to do the fandango. ‘I see the chippy Scots are out in force,’ remarked one contributor to the Guardian comment boards this week. (The Guardian! What happened to their bleeding hearts?)

Despite the fact that people are conceding that Murray has grown up, cut his hair, and learnt some manners, the Scottish thing lingers, like a pea under the mattress of every princess. According to the papers, the moment he loses, which could be in under three hours from now, he will be a Scot again, his honorary Britishness swiftly revoked. Everyone will mutter clichés under their breath and start talking of the West Lothian Question. Well, I live in Scotland and love it so much that when I am away from it I miss it like a person. One of the men in my local butcher does give me a funny look when I ask for neck of lamb, but I choose not to believe it is because I do so in an English accent. I resist patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel, but despite this, every time Murray wins a match there is a tiny cheer for Scotland in my heart. Yet it is more than not sheer chauvinism that makes me love him, and love him I do.

I think the reason that people did not warm to him for so long has nothing to do with him being a Scot, that was just a convenient basket of bigotry in which to carry their dislike. I think they did not like him because he did not need them. He refused resolutely to resort to charm. Almost everyone now in the public eye attempts a little bit of charm, so when none if forthcoming it can come as a jarring shock. Even self-styled hate figures like Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsey will occasionally try to please. There was a hint of the Susan Boyle phenomenon in the early days: Murray did not look the part. Compared to the smooth but bland Tim Henman, Murray was all rough and no diamond. Newspapers called him ‘snaggle-toothed’ with casual cruelty, complained about his hair, his spots, his general gawkiness. When the absolute fury that he directs against himself when he plays a bad shot leaked out into on-court swearage, he was accused of throwing tantrums. He was not sweet and beautiful like Beckham, or courtly and polished like Steve Redgrave. He did not tick any of the sporting hero boxes.

In my cussed way, I find all the things that people dislike in him only add to my love. I like it that his will to win is so extreme that he can think of little else. (Interestingly, it is this that makes other tennis players admire him; ‘he just really wants it,’ said John McEnroe last week, with a doff of the cap from someone who really knows about tantrums and desire.) I like that he does not schmooze and oil up and read from the prescribed script. I am in awe of his work ethic: he practises for hours on end; runs, pumps weights and does mad feet-off-the-ground press ups to build up his physical fitness; he plunges himself into terrifying ice baths for a reason I cannot fathom. His dedication to his game is complete. So what if his after-match interviews are not festivals of style and wit?

Oddly though, away from his playing persona, a completely different Murray emerges. I saw a Youtube clip of him being interviewed on Jonathan Ross; he was laughing his head off, not a hint of dourness in sight. At home, he likes playing Frisbee with his dog (massive points in my book, due to incurable canine bias), has a steady girlfriend for whom he buys presents on impulse, and goofs around with his coaches. Despite his reputation for rudeness, he took the time in the middle of one of the most high pressure tournaments of his career to send out a little tweet thanking the staff at his local Pizza Express for staying open late on Monday night so they could cook him a pizza. I call that both thoughtful and polite. ‘He is our hero,’ said the Pizza man, with staunch lack of equivocation. (When this was reported by the Associated Press, the writer could not resist observing that it was a plain old Margherita, appropriate for a man ‘who has been criticised in some quarters for lack of personality’. Go get your own damn personalities, I say to those quarters.) After his victory at Queens, the first thing he did was not preen for the crowd or pose for the cameras, but run over and give his mum a big kiss on the cheek. Petulant, schmetulant. He is also endearingly self-deprecating, a trait the British are supposed to adore, but seem to have overlooked in this case. When asked about the letter of good luck he received from our great Britannic Majesty, he did not showboat about it. ‘That was very nice of her,’ was all he said.

Still, even if he were the dour, awkward chap of popular myth, I think I would still like Andy Murray. When he plays one of those impossible cross court running forehands, it comes as close to poetry as sport ever can. Even I, knowing nothing of tennis, can see the beauty in it. I think he puts every atom of energy he has into his game, so there is nothing left over for playing public relations. He likes the crowd, but you suspect he can do without it. There is a sense of self-containment about him, as he stretches himself to reach the heights he craves. I think he is a purist, and whether he wins or loses this afternoon, I salute that in him.


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