Tuesday, 26 May 2009
To all the Dear Readers - Sitting in the hills of Cumbria, half way to the south, with the last gasp of internet access I shall have for I'm not quite certain how long I think I must not rudely and abruptly disappear without a Word of Warning, but send you a little so long. This is a slightly impromptu trip, and I am not quite sure how long I shall be away from home. I fear I shall have withdrawal symptoms from the blogosphere. I was becoming very excited about the comment boards had gone crazy after the madness that was Carol Sarler.
In the meantime, I hope Sarah will do a bit of posting to keep you entertained (she has a much, much busier life than I do, which is why she really only makes guest appearances) and please have a lovely browse through the archives.
Think of me on the road with two sleek black dogs lying on their black sheepskin rug in the back of a black car. Sadly a few scratches and an incipient attack of rust prevent the car from being quite as elegant as the dogs. But even so. I am thinking of dying my hair black just to fit in.
Missing you all, but I shall be back before you know it. Taniaxx
Oh, my last dying gasp before I sign off - Breaking news is that Simon Heffer will stand against his local MP. SIMON HEFFER!!!!!!!! And you know I never use exclamation marks (with apologies to Cassandra Castle). But - SIMON HEFFER!!!! I do think that more very, very angry middle-aged men is just exactly what our great democracy needs. No really, the crosser the better. Let's have P Hitchens for Chancellor and J Clarkson for Foreign Secretary. And then watch Mr Heffer lead us to victory.
Can't believe I am ending this on a note of ranting sarcasm. It was supposed to be all bluebirds and cherry blossom. Never watch BBC 24 whilst blogging, is my advice. Really am stopping now.
Monday, 25 May 2009
Four days ago, an article of astounding bigotry appeared in a national newspaper. A prolific journalist called Carol Sarler had seized on a survey carried out by Dr Caroline Gatrell, which reported that company bosses were refusing promotions to childless women. These freakish creatures were, according to the good doctor, seen as ‘cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way.’ Employers are apparently loathe to have women working in their offices who ‘lack an essential humanity’ (and really, who could blame them? It would be like working with lots and lots of cross-dressing Dick Cheneys.). Ms Sarler was overjoyed; at last, she too could come out of the closet and admit that she too thought childless women were bizarre beyond words. She was giddy with relief and delight. She now had permission to state proudly what she had long been thinking: when she looks at a woman who chooses not to have a child she thinks: ‘Lady, you’re weird.’
For four days I have resisted writing about this. It’s partly that I am so damn bored of the confected mothers vs non-mothers divide that the media seems determined to keep chugging tiredly along. It’s partly that, old feminist that I am, I really hate attacking other women, even ones who write insane columns telling me how weird I am. It’s partly that almost all of my time has been taken up looking for my essential humanity (I could have sworn I left it down the back of the sofa).
I think if Carol Sarler had confined herself to the weirdness remark, I might have left it, and gone and done something more interesting. I might have shrugged my selfish shoulders and muttered about free speech and everyone being entitled to an opinion. But in the last line of her piece, she officially Went Too Far. ‘So three cheers for the employers who are catching on, who don’t want to people their workplaces with the cold, the calculating, the sad and the mad.’ This is so far off the reservation that I can stay silent no longer: I must speak. I must say: how would you like your prejudices Ms Sarler, over easy, or sunny side up?
Let us have clarity: I am not carelessly throwing words about. A prejudice is an unfavourable opinion formed without knowledge, thought or reason. There are no empirical studies that I can find which demonstrate women who have no children to be ‘cold, calculating, sad or mad.’ There are some studies which suggest that women who do not give birth actually have a slightly higher level of mental health than mothers, and the same or better ‘life satisfaction’ but these are quite small scale, and I would not necessarily find them definitive. The only absolute proved characteristic of the non-mother is that she is statistically likely to have a university degree. The number of graduates not having babies hovers around the forty percent mark. This much we know, this can be mapped. Everything else is pure, irrational supposition. It is blind, here-be-dragons, flat earth partiality.
Mothers, as we all know, come in all shapes and sizes. There are kind mothers and drunk mothers and funny mothers and mothers who can’t get through the day without a fistful of Xanax; there are organised mothers and academic mothers and confident mothers; there are tactile mothers and strict mothers and mothers for whom guilt is a way of life. I know very few saintly mothers, but I expect they exist. You could take all those descriptions and apply them just as easily to non-mothers. Women who decline to breed can no more be herded under one simplistic umbrella than can those who long for nothing more than tiny pattering feet. There are twenty-seven excellent reasons for not having children, not one of them on the Cruella de Vil scale; ‘I am evil and I hate sweet chubby little babies,’ is not necessarily the deciding factor.
What is so odd about the cold calculating mad sad vs selfless and filled with essential humanity argument is that it is so reductive. Working by Ms Sarler’s assumptions, we must conclude that Jane Austen and George Eliot and Louisa May Alcott and Helen Mirren are radically worse human beings than Katie Price and Kerry Katona. By this logic, we must infer that Angelina Jolie is six times finer than Oprah Winfrey. To follow this reasoning to its conclusion, we must state frankly that Kylie Minogue, Renee Zellwegger and newly famous singing sensation Susan Boyle are clearly inhumane, drunken, sex-crazed bitches. (Ms Sarler has a lovely little riff in her article that it is not the mothers who are bitching and coming in with hangovers and making eyes at the boss. You see, mummies don’t drink, cannot even see other men because they are so blinded by love for their husbands, and never have a common thought or mean.)
I could go on. I would quite like to explain why it is that not having a child is not a definitive act of selfishness. I might tempt you with a diverting little rant on over-population. But the awful thing is that this whole argument is boring me so much that I am losing the ability to type. There are women, they are different, they make different choices, some of them are nice and some of them are nasty. There are some females who like Play-Doh and some who don’t; it is not a mark of moral courage or higher integrity. So could everyone just stop with the stereotypes, and stop, stop, stop putting the child-full and the child-free into invented conflict, and calm down and have a nice cup of tea. I, obviously, will not have time for the tea part. I still have to locate my essential humanity. I am almost sure I left it in my coat pocket.
Friday, 22 May 2009
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Finally, it is time for the flatbreads I have been tantalising you with.
First of all, I should admit that they turn out not really to be flatbreads, as such. Second of all, I happen to think they are the most delicious thing I've eaten since the old queen died, but I have very particular tastes and you might think them perfectly disgusting and want your money back.
What I especially love about cooking is when things go quite wrong, but turn out to be rather wonderful after all, even though they bear no resemblance to what you set out to make. This happened to me this week when I bought some new flour home (pictured above). It is from Dove's Farm, and I love Dove's Farm, it all seems so good and wholesome, although I suddenly realise I know nothing about it and the whole thing could be a clever marketing ploy, secretly owned by a shell company controlled by Dastardly Dick Cheney. Let us hope not.
Anyway, I had not tried this flour before, and when I had a sudden urge for flatbreads, I got it out and set to work. There are many flatbread recipes, but I have found that the easiest is just flour, salt, water and olive oil. It makes quite a hard bread, but I like that. I was not concentrating very well, thinking about twenty-seven other things, when I suddenly realised that with this new flour the dough was not coming together very well. I looked closely at the packet to discover that it was gluten-free, wheat-free, everything-free. This explained the flakiness of the dough - gluten is, as you all know, what gives dough elasticity. Well, I thought, this particular flour will be very good for shortcrust pastry and shortbread and anything else which requires excessive shortness. In the meantime, what would I do about my abortive flatbread? I could not even roll the thing out with a rolling pin, because it just fell apart. But I refused to give up and chuck the whole lot away, because it is a waste, and I hate waste. My mother grew up in the war, and remembers rationing well, and I have inherited her horror of throwing away food, which is why my fridge is always filled, as is hers, of little bowls of leftovers, which I am impelled to craft into some new dish if it kills me.
In the end, I found that if I pressed the dough into little patties with my hands I could persuade them to hold together long enough to get them into a frying pan. I cooked them rather dolefully, anticipating a dry, unsatisfying mess. Imagine then my delight and amazement when I bit into the result and found that instead of a crumbly, unsatisfying thing, the little bread was chewy and even slightly gooey and fabulously moreish. I ate three in a row, hardly able to believe my luck.
So, from this incipient disaster, I have an entire new creation. I should say they are like a cross between a flatbread, a potato cake and a pikelet. I recommend eating them straight from the pan, with lots of butter, as you would a Scotch pancake: a perfect tea time treat.
For about twelve little cakebreads take:
Two cups of Dove's Farm gluten and wheat free plain white flour, a good pinch of Malden salt, a glug of olive oil (I reckon this is about two tablespoons), and half a cup of water. Mix up into a firm dough. You may need to add a little more water if it is too crumbly.
Then, carefully, take little balls of dough, and flatten them out in your hands into small cakes. Get them as thin as you can - there is a moment where they will just break apart, so a little trial and error will happen at first. Then put them in a dry frying pan and cook over a medium heat for two or three minutes each side, until they are golden. Smother in butter and enjoy. They are best hot, but still very good once they have cooled.
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
Moods, unlike proper, rubber-stamped emotions, are difficult to map, and hard to disperse. I like a reason for things. If I am sad, I usually know why; if I am angry or happy, I can see the origin of it. I am quite intolerant of people who indulge their moods, and let a rotten one infect the atmosphere like smoke, so that everyone else must suffer with it. I have read all the damn psychology books; I know that you cannot change the thing itself, but you can change the way you think about it. I like to believe that we have some dominion over our own selves; we are not unregulated pre-rational creatures, constantly startled by woolly mammoths. I am a tremendous believer in the wonderful attribute of free will: somehow, somewhere along the line, for a reason that even the neurobiologists still cannot quite explain, we developed oddly large pre-frontal lobes, which gave us the power of reasoning, and choice. One of my enduring beliefs is that humans, unlike other mammals, do not have to be slaves to our baser natures, chained by our own instincts. One of my crazier ideas, nurtured by too much education, is that you can think your way out of almost anything. Come along, fire up that grey matter, and all manner of things will be well.
So when I wake up, as I did this morning, in a five star stinker of a mood, the kind that you can’t dodge (everywhere you go, there it is) I have several instantaneous reactions. There is a cussed refusal to accept it: this is not right, this should not be happening now. There is a dogged desire to hunt it down and find out where it came from: there must be a reason for everything. There is a slight sense of disgust: oh for God’s sake, you are not living in the Congo, butch up. And there is a determination to find a remedy: now, how am I going to shake this off?
Then there is the slide into a disconcerting division of self. There is the good, rational, well-brought up self, which knows that life is earnest, life is real, and you just have to get on with it. This self understands how to call in The Perspective Police and write a little gratitude list: I have all my arms and legs, I live in a nice house with two enchanting dogs, I have command of all my faculties. I am not being held in a Burmese prison, or watching my children be sold into prostitution. I do not live in a theocracy, where I may not go outside without a close male relative by my side. Even as I count these blessings, and remind myself of the reality of things, there is another self, the one that slinks out of its lair when the bad mood hits. This second self is like a furious child, who cannot be reasoned with. This self says: I feel shitty and I won’t do my work and I’m not going to tidy the kitchen and why won’t everyone just bugger off and leave me alone? And then there is a shouting match between these two entities going on in my head, and I mostly want to go and lie down in a darkened room until it has passed.
There are remedies. I find that drinking a great deal of black coffee, putting Janis Joplin singing Take a Little Piece of My Heart on the stereo and shouting along to it at full blast is tremendously cathartic. Sometimes just jumping up and down in a room and shouting fuck fuck fuck fuck very loud can get those demons out. Walking in the open air can be good, although when I am really grumpy I may refuse to go outside. And, of course, there is writing it down. Writing a thing down is the surest way I know to draw its sting; there is something about getting the hurling words out of the head and onto the page which has an almost miraculous restorative effect on the sanity.
But thinking of this now, I wonder: must a remedy be the first resort? Clearly every functioning adult must work out a way of banishing hideous moods, so as to avoid spreading the contagion over innocent bystanders. It is unfair to drag other people into your demonic day. But what if the house is empty, and you have a little space? I tend to think of bad humour as a moral failing in myself: I must be a little ray of sunshine, come on, of course I must. Jung had the idea that deep in our dark side lies a lode of gold; by refusing to countenance the blacker side of human nature, we cut ourselves off from our greatest potential. Which is all very lovely in theory, but quite alarming in reality. It is so much easier and more comfortable to be sanguine and blithe. I begin to ponder: perhaps, sometimes, in the safety of my own room, I should just sit with my filthy mood, and see where it takes me. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just a thing. (Oddly, even as I write those words, I feel my shoulders begin to come down and my mouth curving into a small smile.) My co-writer Sarah, who has a good practical streak in her which I lack, is quite straightforward about these things. ‘I am in a terrible mood,’ I say, when she calls up for our daily morning talk. ‘Oh, all right,’ she says, unfazed. ‘I’ll ring back when you are less grumpy.’ She knows that not all things can be, or even must be, fixed. Let it run, and it will pass. I, on the other hand, must anatomise every element, explain it, put it in its place, until order is again restored to the universe. She knows that a bad mood is just a bad mood, not a national emergency.
I wonder how much of this is a woman thing. I know that not everything in the whole wide world can be put down to gender, but there is still, even in these post-feminist times, a low expectation that women should be sugar and spice. We are not really supposed to get scratchy and shouty, because we are the ones who are spilling over with empathy until our ears fall off. There is, even now, a lingering idea of the importance of being ladylike. I think this might be a contributory factor to my excessive alarm at a bit of bad temper. But I think the real fault line is my own irrational belief that everything must be rational. I don’t like things that just gallop up for no reason and take over the day.
Much as I long to imagine there is an answer to everything, and an explanation for everything, and a nice neat solution to everything, I may have to concede that this is not always the case. Maybe I should finally learn to understand that life is messy and muddly and unpredictable, and, however much I might want to, I can’t make it shiny and straightforward and explicable every day. The entire underlying premise of Backwards is the importance of accepting one’s very human flaws. I know this to be true. It’s just that every so often I have a slip, and fall back into the mad idea that the human condition is, in fact, perfectible. So I am going to sit very still, and embrace the random and the messy and the inexplicable, and put on Janis Joplin very loud indeed.
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
I was noodling about on the listen again facility last night, and stumbled upon this. It is an afternoon reading, which is not a category of Radio Four that I hold much love for. Sometimes, even the mighty BBC falters, and its choice of short fiction often seems determinedly mundane, as if there is some kind of quota that must be filled - the 'we simply must have more about elderly Sikh ladies living in Bolton' school of thought. There is also a peculiar subset of single women talking to dead boyfriends (to be fair, I might be making this one up, but I seem to remember a season of that kind of thing which almost entirely removed my will to live).
It's not just that the short stories chosen for broacast are so often so uninspiring, but there is the granite problem of the readers. Reading for radio is a very particular art. There is nowhere to hide, no television pictures to distract the listener, so every tic, affectation and hint of phoniness is amplified. Actors often make the elementary mistake of trying to perform the thing, all breathiness and misplaced emphasis and special voices. There is one particularly maddening actress who is always rolled out whenever any poetry needs doing; someone obviously once made the mistake of telling her that she had a well-modulated voice, and she does so much damn modulating, carefully pronouncing every single syllable, delicately hitting each consonant in a 'look at me I'm reading POETRY way' that I think my head is going to explode.
In Nothing But Blue Skies, all these dangers are brilliantly, gloriously avoided. It is a perfect, polished jewel of a story. It has everything you want in short fiction: it is human, unexpected, oddly lyrical, faintly mysterious. And like a huge fat cherry on the top of a luscious cake, it has Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio giving a platonic masterclass on how to read. I have never heard her do anything like this before, and she is rather a famous actress, so you could imagine the whole thing might be a car crash of misplaced ego. But she knows absolutely that fiction should be read quite flat - too much light and shade, too much expression and intensity, and the thing becomes about the reader and not what is being read. She lets the story take centre stage, without self-consciousness. She has a beautiful lightness of touch, and her voice is so natural and beguiling that I think there should be a law passed saying she should be made to read everything. (Along perhaps with Sam West and Alex Jennings, two other actors who are glittering stars in this field.)
So there you are, that is your present for today. I apologise to my international readers - I know that sometimes I taunt you with the wonders of the iplayer, and cruelly, it is not available outside Blighty. I do not know why this is, when I can happily indulge my obsession with American politics by watching Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, even though I am not a US citizen. Let us hope that the Beeb comes to its senses soon and fulfils its international remit.
Monday, 18 May 2009
After all the hype and hysteria of the last few days, political news coming at us like the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire, I have fled back to the comfort of food. Most specifically, I am sheltering under the umbrella of tapenade.
Here is what I did:
Took a jar of Kalamata olives, rinsed them, and pitted them. The pitting took ages, and I had to press and fiddle to get the stones to come out, but all the serious chefs who talk about tapenade insist it is really worth it, because olives without stones do not have nearly such a rich flavour. Luckily the rather diverting Museum of Curiosity was on the wireless, which helped take my mind off the dullness of the job.
(Did you notice the omission? No capers. I love capers and would have included them, but they are beyond my local shop, and despite the fact that this entire dish originates from the capers in the vats in the sixth century BC, I did not notice their absence. Probably next time I would add a very few, the ones stored in salt, not in brine.)
I sliced a baguette as thinly as I could and toasted the little rounds under the grill. For perfection, I think a good Italian bread would be better – again, the limitations of my local shop – and I imagine that sourdough might be sublime. I spread a generous amount of tapenade on each toast, added a sliver of Capricorn goat’s cheese and a little suggestion of Parma ham on the top. All the textures worked fabulously well: the crisp of the toast, the black fleshiness of the tapenade, the yielding softness of the cheese and the smooth of the ham. Also, the cool tang of the goat’s cheese cut the saltiness of the olives beautifully.
Saturday, 16 May 2009
Still, the letters pages, call-in shows and the set of Question Time are exploding with ire. One pensioner told one newspaper reporter that she would not be surprised if people got guns and started shooting MPs. The always rational Diane Abbott said that the public wanted to see MPs hanging from lampposts. The exceptionally tired old trope of ‘they are all the same’ is being repeated so frequently that I expect soon to see it etched in stone above the Members’ entrance of the House.
Despite everything, I still think the anger is out of all proportion. The system of allowances is antiquated and wrong, and should be fixed. The fees office is clearly run by very strange people indeed. Some of our parliamentarians have behaved as fools or knaves. All this is true and should not be glossed over and excused. But I still say it is not the most scandalous scandal in the history of scandals.
Let us look at this on a purely financial level. A huge part of the anger derives from the notion that MPs are living high on the hog at public expense; people talk of wanting their money back for the lav seats and moat cleaners and housekeepers. It’s our money, the outraged citizenry is saying, and we want it returned with interest. Well, taking into account salary, expenses, allowances, and staff wages, the cost of each MP to every taxpayer in the UK averages out at around £4 per year. Obviously, some people pay more tax than others, so Stephen Fry probably pays about a tenner for his MP, while someone on the minimum wage pays about 40p. But for the sake of argument, let’s take the £4 figure.
Here is what the latest round of spending on Afghanistan cost each taxpayer: £1400. I should remind you that in Afghanistan the Taliban is resurgent, the government is properly corrupt (they would shriek at the idea of measly pipe under a measly tennis court), girls have acid thrown in their face for daring to go to school, the poppy is flourishing, and our brave boys are bogged down in Helmand Province. If you want to get really angry about something that deserves proper incandescent fury, read James Fergusson’s brilliant book A Million Bullets and you will see what I am talking about.
Here is what the the financial crisis and the bailout of the banks will cost each taxpayer, according to the International Monetary Fund: £5,000. So it would take your MP a thousand years to charge you as much. Bear in mind that the scale of the disaster could easily have been avoided if the bankers had not be stupid enough to bet the farm on complicated financial instruments that they themselves often did not understand, if the regulatory agencies had actually done their job, and if someone, somewhere, had listened to Paul Krugman.
I could go on, but I know you will lose the will to live. My point is that surely our collective rage should be 350 times higher in the case of Afghanistan and a thousand times higher in the case of the bank bailouts. If I were being really naughty, I might even point out that four quid a year for an MP is quite good value. You cannot even buy a packet of fags for four quid. For this, your member of parliament will sit on select committees, take part in debates, vote on issues of the day, answer hundreds of letters, participate, to a greater or lesser degree, in the formulation of policy, throw surgeries where concerned voters may come with their problems, sometimes mount campaigns on behalf of their constituents, open flower shows, and attend various dinners and events and speaking engagements (which might sound feckless and frivolous and quite fun, but often involves earnest conversation with not entirely fascinating people). They must be prepared to keep no detail of their private life private, be polite at all times, even when in the presence of nutters or crashing bores, and be pilloried in the press. Some of them absolutely deserve to be pilloried in the press, and put in the stocks too, but the blameless must expect this treatment along with the culpable.
On top of all this, they must accept that they will be generally regarded as incompetent at best and crooked at worst. The scale of the recent outcry demonstrates vividly that the expenses scandal only confirmed what most people already believed. All surveys show that Members of Parliament have occupied the same subterranean position in public esteem for years. In 2006, when there was no scandal, they ranked below business leaders and only just above journalists in the three least trusted professions. There is no need for violins; they are grown-ups and choose to go into politics. They must know that a thick skin is part of the job requirement. I am not saying that we should not get angry with MPs; of course we should. That is our right, even our civic duty, as concerned citizens. I feel very strongly about this: don’t just carp on the sidelines, get involved – write a letter, sign a petition, start a blog. There is an idiot strain of non-idea abroad that says we should punish the lot of them by not voting. Peter Hitchens told us solemnly on Thursday that ‘the right to vote is just as precious as the right not to vote’. Some sententious moron on The World Tonight said it was this kind of scandal that led to apathy amongst the electorate; then stated smugly: ‘that is why I have not voted since 1974’. I almost started throwing things. If you do not participate, I think you forfeit your right to bitch, but I am a bit hardline like that. I get all sentimental about the people who died for the right to vote, the women who had to fight and scratch and chain themselves to railings so they might mark their ballots.
Friday, 15 May 2009
Thursday, 14 May 2009
In which I go all counter-intuitive. Health warning: this is very long, so you might like to get yourself a nice cup of tea first.
I have a soulful black and white photograph of Martin Luther King on my wall. Why would I not? He spoke one of the greatest lines of the 20th century, that he dreamt that one day his children would not be judged on the colour of their skin but the content of their character. In an age where black people still had to ride at the back of the bus, it was an astonishingly bold statement. In any age, it was a one true thing. He was the youngest man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His legacy still resonates today.
Martin Luther King was famously unfaithful to his wife. We know this from memoirs by his close associates and observation from a paranoid FBI, which was determined to paint him as an evil communist. There are rumours also of prostitutes and threesomes, which may or may not be true. An ugly subset of the racist internet likes to play up these rumours, to make their claim that the reverend was a phoney and a fraud, who liked paying for sex with white women, as if that would negate every single thing he did for the civil rights movement. The great congressman John Lewis, who walked over the Alabama bridge and got beaten half to death for his pains, knew King, and once said of him: ‘he was not a saint, he was just another human being’, so making the tacit acceptant that he might have not been flawless in his private life.
If even half of this is true, does it make any difference to the King legacy? He has a national holiday named after him in America; he made an incalculable difference to race relations in a land that was scarred with the memory of slaves picking cotton in the fields. If there had been no Martin Luther King, there would be no Barack Obama. Would I rather not know that he had catted around? Yes. Did my heart sink a little in disappointment? Certainly. I am not so cavalier as Christopher Hitchens, who once wrote that Dr King spent his last night in dissipation and why not? In the same way, I would like to think that the venerable Gladstone did not have some strange obsession with prostitutes. This great classical scholar had a habit of bringing fallen ladies home to tea with his wife, and then going into a room and flagellating himself for being aroused by them. (We know this from little Greek characters that he wrote in his diaries.) This is slightly pathological behaviour, by any lights. Yet Gladstone fought like a tiger, even when he was old and frail, for Irish Home Rule. He did not win that battle, but just imagine if he had. There would have been no IRA. There would have been no Omagh bombing, no knee-capping, no hunger strikes, Lord Mountbatten would not have been blown to smithereens while his grandchildren watched.
All of which is a very long way of saying: flawed people can do great things, and those great things are not diminished by the frailties of the human being who achieved them.
So I find it hard to understand the frenzy of self-righteous moralising that is going on among the media classes. I love the media classes, adore the BBC, and think there is nothing in the rumour that they are all chatterati hacks who know nothing of life beyond the Groucho. But sometimes a story comes along and produces a mad herd instinct where all reason is forgotten, groupthink prevails, and a collective wail of why oh why can be heard throughout the land. The current unquestioned narrative is predicated on the idea that the public wants a snow white polity. This is why all good hard-working decent Britons are enraged (enraged, I tell you) by what has been going on in their name. I am not sure this is quite true. The British have always held a sceptical and unsentimental attitude towards their politicians. They can be ruthless, even towards national heroes. They adored Winston Churchill when Britain stood alone and only the power of his oratory convinced them that the beleaguered island might prevail. But the moment the war was won, they chucked him out. Pundits and commentators are telling us, day after day, that the public has never been so disillusioned by, despairing of, and disgusted at their elected members. Yet look back and you will find polls and statistics that show public faith in politicians has always hovered around a low mark. Last week, when the expenses scandal started cooking up, a survey showed that 60% of the public was interested in the Ghurkha story, and only 40% in the expenses story.
Personally, I don’t really give a damn about Keith Vaz’s scatter cushions. I could not care less about Alan Duncan’s garden. I have very little interest in Gordon Brown paying £6000 to his cleaner. My own cleaner says, when I ask her what she thinks about the expenses scandal: ‘What expenses scandal?’ I explain it to her. She cocks her head. ‘You mean they are taking the piss?’ she says. I say that some of them could be described in this manner. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘I suppose we all take the piss sometimes.’ She is bright, honest as the day, and a good mother to two small children. Here is what she worries about: her little boy and girl getting a good education, the damp in her council house, and the fact that she and her partner are paying more tax than they used to. This last revelation shocks me senseless: this was the government that I voted for, partly because it promised to relieve the burden on the low-paid. Everyone is kicking up a stink about class war and the new fifty percent top rate of tax, while none of the newspapers are whipping themselves up into a frenzy of indignation over the fact that a mother of two in a council house who works part time is getting hit up for more tax in the middle of the worst recession in living memory. You crusaders over at the Daily Telegraph – where is your righteous fury over the immorality of that?
Down in the village shop, I try out another little vox pop. Jake, who works the till, a young man with an open friendly face, says: ‘Well, they are human, aren’t they?’ I am slightly surprised. Where is the outrage, the fury, the sense of death of the Mother of Parliaments? ‘I expect if I had an expenses account, I might do the same thing,’ he says, cheerfully.
Would I rather that John Prescott had not claimed for faux Tudor beams at his constituency home? You betcha. There is something awfully de haut en bas about Barbara Follett charging the taxpayer £25,000 for ‘security’. The thing with the moat is absurd. There are clearly many elements that are ropey and creaking about the allowances system, and MPs were idiotic when they voted against expenses being published. My prescription would be: put the whole lot on the internet. Claim what you want, but know that your constituents will be able to see it all online. I am not defending MPs who truly abused the system. They are public officials and should be held to account. But the number of egregious cases is a small percentage of the 645 parliamentarians, probably the exact same proportion of people who might steal something from the stationary cupboard in any large company. This does not make it right, or excusable, but in an ironic twist, probably makes the House of Commons quite representative of the public it serves.
I do not whitewash the expenses revelations, but I do attack the crazed reaction to them. ‘Gerry Adams slams expenses gravy train’ yelled a headline on the BBC news website. In 1987 Adams told the Oxford Union: ‘I have never condemned the IRA, and I never will.’ So it is perfectly fine to blow people up, but claiming for a fridge is beyond any ethical pale. A day later, Stephen Fry dared to point out that there really are more important things to get hysterical about, like waging illegitimate wars, say. Ah I thought: a cool dose of perspective. But the papers called foul. ‘Stephen Fry and his big brain don’t get it’ roared the headline in The Telegraph. ‘Stephen Fry dismisses the expenses scandal in typical arrogant-luvvie style, says Liz Hunt,’ it went on. Apart from indulging in clichéd stereotyping, this entirely missed the point of what Fry was saying, but he was so demoralised by the savage reaction that he confessed dolefully on Twitter that he wished he had kept his mouth shut. (Interestingly, the majority of Twitterers came out of the closet and admitted that many of them were thinking the exact same thing.)
If you want real ocean-going, five-star, fur-lined scandal, try this: the government is currently wasting £20 billion on an NHS IT system that, according to one person involved in the project, ‘isn’t working and isn’t going to work’. It is a story with more turns and twists than a convention of corkscrews. One of its finer elements is that Richard Granger, who was originally in charge, on a meagre salary of £285,000, failed his computer studies course at Bristol. Pricelessly, this nugget was revealed by his own mother, who called up The Observer to talk about it. ‘It was pretty serious, so I had to write to Princess Anne,’ she said (possibly my favourite line in any story in the last five years). Granger is currently threatening Private Eye with legal action for a story they want to run on him. Why is this not on the front page for five days in a row? Why does the press not expect good hard-working Britons to be up in arms about this, which takes many more of their tax pounds and directly affects their lives? Could it be that a man with a tennis court and someone claiming for a chandelier is just a sexier story?
A slightly baffled Italian journalist said on the Today Programme this morning that what British MPs are doing is ‘inappropriate’ but that what Italian MPs do is often ‘illegal’. It is worth remembering, in the middle of all this, that no law has been broken. This is not the Arms to Iraq scandal of the Thatcher years: ‘secret government encouragement of arms sales to a dictator who gasses civilians; ministers misleading parliament; perhaps a quarter of the cabinet implicated,’ as the Economist put it at the time. It is not cooking up dodgy legal opinions to justify torture, as has been revealed in America over the last two weeks – a scandal so big and deep that it takes the breath away, and yet gets hardly a mention in our press. It is not government officials in the Department of Energy having sex with oil industry executives and snorting coke off toaster ovens – another unlovely American political outrage of the fag end of the Bush years. (I do not know quite what a toaster oven is, or if you can claim one on expenses, but I am perfectly certain that very few of our parliamentarians are in the habit of using them to chop out grade A pharmaceuticals.)
I must declare an interest. One of my dear friends is a Member of Parliament. I know him to be a good, honourable and clever man. The gap between the person I know, and the current media version of MPs as chiselling crooks, venally out for everything they can get, is so wide I cannot bridge it. Menzies Campbell, whom I do not know, is a former Olympic athlete who took a steady, principled stand against the Iraq war. Now it has been revealed that he claimed £10,000 for decorating a flat. This one act apparently throws him into the cesspit along with the other scum, so much so that the Daily Mail now refers to him as ‘moral’ Menzies Campbell. This is a man who has devoted his life to public service and always displayed thoughtfulness and rectitude; now he is reduced to having the word moral put against his name in inverted commas. Perhaps more than any other individual example, this demonstrates how mad the reaction to this affair has become.
It is not that the thing itself is not bad. It is. But it is not that bad. It could be so much worse. In the context of wider politics, it may even appear rather petty. What frightens me more than a questionable claim for mole removal is when every single part of the press is following an identical narrative. It worries me when journalists I really love and admire, from Andrew Rawnsley to Nick Cohen to Michael White, are all saying the same thing. The story of what was done over the Iraq war, the questions of intelligence, the practice of extraordinary rendition, the odd saga of the Niger uranium claim, was a true matter of ethics and morality; it was a matter of actual life and death. I can’t remember anyone saying, as Nick Robinson did this week, that those involved in the darker aspects of the war should no longer be known as ‘honourable’ members. Most importantly, many varying degrees of opinion were expressed about the conflict, across all the different newspapers, not necessarily depending on political allegiance. This is exactly how it should be in a democracy that prides itself on a free press. The alarming thing about the current saga is that dissenting voices against the prevailing opinion are not only hard to find, but are pilloried for daring even to question the agreed line. I’m not asking for someone to come out and insist that all MPs are perfect, but I do wish that the press might cock an ear to Stephen Fry, take a deep breath, and rummage under the bed to find its mislaid sense of perspective.
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
For the last two days I have had about forty-seven conflicting thoughts in my head, which I have been trying to wrangle into a coherent and stimulating post for you, and I must freely admit that I have failed miserably. Then yesterday people decided they were coming for lunch. I very much like people for lunch, but it is a little complicated on a school day, and I then further complicate matters by deciding that instead of just giving them ham and salad like a normal person, I must make an Italian feast in the manner of a Neopolitan lady on a Saint's day. Five different dishes were presented. Five. What is wrong with me?
All of which is very long way of saying there is no written blog today. But I hate to leave you with nothing for so long, so as way of diversion - here are some pictures of my dogs, sunbathing. This is surely everything which the dyspeptic critics accuse blogging of being: ephemeral, narcissistic, and of really no possibly interest to anyone much. Or: pointless, witless and feckless, and my friend S and I used to chant at each other when we were young. But there, we can't all be pointful and incisive every day. And they are such ravishing creatures. They might not be entirely useful, but they are beautiful, thereby fufilling at least half of William Morris's rule for life.
That is actual Scottish sunshine. It has been going like that all day. Sometimes I have to look twice to believe it is real.
Sunday, 10 May 2009
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Sometimes it's not so much a recipe you need, as an idea. Your poor mind is harried, nothing in the fridge holds much promise for you, you are bored senseless with chicken. You know you should be swishing around like a domesetic goddess but you feel more like a wanton slattern. I have moments when I have absolutely no idea what I want to eat. Today, I actually quite seriously considered making oeufs en gelee (I do apologise to my continental readers for the lack of accents; there seems to be no facility for these in this medium) simply because I discovered an ancient packet of gelatine in the cupboard at lunchtime.
In the end, good sense prevailed, and I ended up with a delightful lunch of bacon salad, followed by a plate of blackberries and strawberries. It could not have been easier; a child of ten could have made it. Yet despite its simplicity, it gave me an odd sense of contentment and achievement. I made it with care, and arranged it all on a big white plate, so it looked pretty, and took the time to add a certain little je ne sais quoi - a final addition of some torn basil leaves in this case - that made all the difference.
There are as many recipes for bacon salad as there are soi disant chefs. Some ponce around with raspberry vinegar and soft boiled quails' eggs. Others are frankly peculiar - I found one oddity that called for cream, and another that insisted that broccoli would be a good notion. (No, no, no, I shouted, are you mad?). One version decided an Asian slant would be a bright idea, with ginger and sesame oil, despite the fact that bacon is the least Oriental of all meats. I take a good slash with Occam's Razor and think plain is best in this case.
So here is my version, for two:
Then choose your leaves. This is largely up to personal taste, but the best result will come from a combination of light crisp lettuce and dark, bitter leaves. I used frisee, which has a particular affinity with bacon - it's a texture thing, I think; then little gem, quite a lot of rocket, and a dash of watercress. Baby spinach leaves are also excellent if you have them. A little sliced celery and cucumber are welcome additions, but absolutely no tomatoes please. This is strictly a green salad. About three generous handfuls will do it.
Put all the salad in a bowl and dress with a good dash of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. I like my salad quite citressy and use about half the juice from half a lemon. If you prefer a more nuanced flavour just squeeze and taste until you hit the exact right proportion. Then add a pinch of Maldon Salt and toss it all about. I used to faff about with French dressings involving Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar and all sorts. Now I find that the simplest dressing of olive oil, lemon and salt gives me everything I crave; I use it on all salads except for tomato salad, where I am such a purist that it is olive oil and salt only.
Scatter the bacon on the top. It should be still just warm but not hot, or it will defeat the leaves. Today, for the hell of it, I added some pine nuts, and some torn basil leaves. Some chopped parsley would be lovely too. I did wonder if one final permissable ingredient might be a smatter of tart goat's cheese; I could imagine that going very well with the salty bacon and crisp salad, and may try it next time.
I have a suspicion that this might be what my cousin V calls 'girl food'. Today I had it in solitary state, while the dogs watched in disgust. (They only get really excited when I have steak or lamb chops.) But it would be perfect for when your best girlfriend comes for lunch. Or just for you, when you want to give yourself an easy treat.
Saturday, 9 May 2009
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Sometimes even the most concerned citizen must take a day off and think of entirely superficial things. Today is one of those days. Today, I am thinking of body cream. Most specifically, I am thinking of the enchanting, luxurious, recondite and satisfyingly hard-to-find potion that is La Compagnie de Provence's Pommade Corporelle l'huile d'olive encense lavande.
One of the great myths about women is that we must be divided strictly into shallow and profound. Either we may worry about the internecine strife between Sunni and Shia, the rocky state of the body politic, and the collapse of the financial system as we know it, or we may think about shoes. Get back in your box now ladies, you can't have it both ways. You may understand every last ramification of the Middle East conflict, or you may have perfectly moisturised elbows.
This is possibly the biggest most steaming load of tosh in the known universe, and I have no idea why it endures, against all evidence to the contrary. It is one of the reasons that Sarah and I wrote Backwards in the first place. It is why we have chapters on politics and cooking, clothes and philosophy. Sarah, my cherished co-writer, is living one-woman proof of the madness of this reductive view of the female condition. She writes a beauty column, there is nothing she does not know about collagen. At the exact same time, she understands every last nuance and metaphor and piece of symbolism in The Divine Comedy. Dante is like mother's milk to her. She also knows how to bake the best cupcakes known to woman.
So it is true that I woke up this morning thinking about body cream. But I was also thinking about why it is that there are members of the United States House of Representatives who go on national television and equate intelligent design with evolution, as if they were two equally valid, scientifically honest theories, and are not challenged in this bizarre statement by the presenter. I was going to write a passionate child of the Enlightenment post about this very subject. Then I thought: it's Saturday, and I can't be serious every day, and it is important to keep your skin supple, in these Troubled Times. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise, as my friend Jeremy used to say, apropos of absolutely nothing.
The hunt for the perfect body cream has taken up a small but crucial part of my adult life. The good ones are oddly hard to find. They are too greasy or too thin, they smell like a courtesan's boudoir or depressingly of nothing at all, they are stupidly expensive or cheap and useless. I think, finally, I may have struck the holy grail. Ambassador, with this pommade corporelle, you are really spoiling us.
My enchanting and generous cousin G bought this delicious cream for me a while ago, in a chi chi little boutique in Bath. It has been sitting in my bathroom while I finished up other products; I kept gazing at it in anticipation, as if I were keeping it for best. Today was the time for best. And oh let me tell you of its wonders. It is the exact right constitency - thick and rich without being too unctuous. It glides onto the body and envelops you in soothing luxury. It smells of lavender with a sharp citrus tang; it smells, in some nebulous way, of the Riviera before it got ruined by high rise buildings and the New Russians. It comes in the most elegantly sturdy brown glass pot. I cannot recommend it too highly. If you want a frivolous treat to cheer you up in these recessionary days, it is the perfect extravagance.
On the other hand, if you are feeling too credit crunchy for words, and there is no lovely cousin to buy you treats, you can quite easily make your own concoction. It is not in the same league as this high class product, but it is a very worthy substitute. Here is what I do: go to Boots and get a nice big tub of emollient cream, the kind that has absolutely no scent at all and costs about two pounds. Choose whichever consistency you like; I prefer a good thick one. Take it home and decant a little into a nice glass pot. Add a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil, the more fragrant and fruity the better. You might like to put this in a little at a time, until you reach the exact consistency you are looking for. Then put in a few drops of whichever essential oils you prefer. I favour a combination of rosemary, lavender and bergamot. Stir it all up, and there you are. Then you can go back to wondering whether the government of Pakistan is going to fall.
The Pommade is only available online at Harrods, in a slightly irritating way.
Otherwise, if you live in the west country, you can find it at the delightful Mee boutique in Bath.
Thursday, 7 May 2009
Wednesday, 6 May 2009
Today I had a real, proper breakfast. I love breakfast and never skip it, but lately I have been eating it on the run, in a fever to get to my desk and start work. Instead of sitting and savouring, I have been regarding it as essential fuel - a quickly scrambled egg, a piece of ham on toast, exceptionally strong coffee not for the joy of it, but for the caffeine. But this morning I had my darling sister staying, and so I was in perfect hostess mode, and a serious breakfast was required.
We had: strawberries and blackberries with plain yoghurt, fresh ginger tea with lemon and honey, and soft boiled eggs with poppyseed toast. (Later, after she had left, as if afraid that I had been a bit too healthy and pure, I whacked down a pot of coffee so thick you could stand up a spoon in it. A girl cannot exist on ginger tea alone.) It was the most intense and simple pleasure. We ate as the sun came dazzling in through the windows, and talked about every single thing that came into our heads. I had that holy Jewish mother feeling of sending her on her way with some good food in her, so that she would not feel weak when she got to the airport. I also felt childishly proud that I had made sure that all the food groups were represented. (This has always been a minor obsession with me.)
It made me think of how much I love breakfast, and of the great breakfasts I have had. There was exceptionally crispy bacon and thick American pancakes in the groovy Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica. My brother came and visited me there, and we made friends with a heavenly waiter called Wayne and ordered all the best claret off the wine list each night, so I needed a good soothing breakfast the next day to steady myself. Once, in Singapore, I had won ton soup every single morning for a week, just because it was so good and just because I could. (I have an odd love of soup for breakfast.) In the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni at Bellagio, a glorious old lady of a hotel, breakfast was taken in what had once been the ballroom. There were parquet floors and vast chandeliers teetering just on the right side of vulgarity and the handsomest waiters I ever saw in my life, dressed up in pristine starched white coats. All manner of food was laid out on long tables draped in linen tablecloths. I had small white rolls and ham and three different kinds of melon and the best and blackest coffee in the world with a little silver jug of hot milk on the side. Once, driving through France on my own, I stopped at a chateau hotel whose name I have forgotten. But I have not forgotten the breakfast they brought me in my room - eggs from their own chickens (I could hear the cock crowing outside my window), croissants as light as air, white unsalted butter, and homemade strawberry jam. I had to keep stopping for fear of finishing it too quickly.
As you may divine from this list, I am a bit of a hotel queen. But I am not a breakfast snob. I take equal delight in a fat bacon butty, or a sausage sandwich with ketchup. I have an enduring love for the humble egg bread, which my mother used to make me as a child, or mushrooms on toast with lots of butter. Marmite should usually come into it somewhere, and sometimes I have an old-fashioned craving for Mr Frank Cooper and his Oxford marmalade. Oh breakfast, I could write a sonnet to it, if only I had a full grasp of the sonnet form.
Monday, 4 May 2009
I can’t remember how I first started making courgette fritters. I think I might have seen a recipe for them in a magazine. Anyway, I have been experimenting with them for a few months now, and the results were always very slightly disappointing. They were not nasty, but there was no va va voom. There was a terrible suspicion of blandness which hung over them.
The fritter seems, as far as I can tell, to come from the Near East – there are Libyan, Greek and Turkish versions, involving, variously, feta, onion, breadcrumbs, coriander, and mint. As usual, I refused to follow the given recipes (too bolshie and contrary), and embarked on inventing my very own. The disadvantage of this is the element of hit and miss. The advantage is that when you finally do get it right, you feel a saintly sense of achievement, in which I admit I am still basking.
Here is my definitive recipe, which was today’s lunch:
Half a courgette, grated
50 grams of cheddar cheese, grated
Good pinch of Malden Salt, and then another little one for luck
One dried chilli, finely sliced
Handful of watercress, chopped
One third of a cup of self-raising flour (when I say a cup, I mean a teacup, not a big old coffee mug)
And then some olive oil for frying
Whisk up the eggs, stir in all the other ingredients. You should have a nice thick batter. If it looks too runny, just add a tiny bit more flour. Heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a frying pan at just above medium (I use six on my stove). When it is hot, drop in tablespoonfuls of the mixture, spreading it out a little each time. You want the fritters to be like little fat Scotch pancakes, but not so thick that they don’t cook in the middle. Give them two minutes each side – they should be golden and slightly crispy round the edges.
You can play around with this – you might like to add a little more cheese and a little less chilli. Sometimes I throw in some chopped basil, although I am not sure the flavour quite comes through the cooking process.
These are lovely for a quick lunch. They go especially well with a tomato salsa – just finely dice a couple of fat ripe tomatoes and a quarter cucumber and a red pepper, (the smaller the dice the better the salsa, so it is worth taking the trouble), add a good pinch of salt, a glug of olive oil, chopped basil and parsley, and a squeeze of lemon or lime, either works well. If you want a stronger flavour, add a very finely chopped garlic clove and a finely sliced red chilli, but you may find that this more robust salsa is better on its own with tortilla chips, because it can overwhelm the flavour of the fritters. And there you are - delicious, all the food groups represented, ready in ten minutes flat, and quite shockingly economical. What more can you ask of a dish?
Sunday, 3 May 2009
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Just as I was pondering what I should cook for lunch, Virginia the pig arrived in the garden, presumably fretful about swine flu and what is happening to her poor Mexican cousins.
I cunningly distract her with carrots until help may arrive.
Is someone there?
Now she's off to find out who it is. Nothing gets past Virginia.
Lovely Matt bravely takes her home, followed at a safe distance by his faithful hound.
And so ends the excessively diverting (for me, anyway) story of the pig in the garden.
Next week: the cat in the hat.
Saturday, 2 May 2009
Friday, 1 May 2009
Today, I was going to give you my very own recipe for spaghetti olio, aglio e peperoncino, but, my darlings, you are going to have to wait for that until tomorrow. Instead, I am going to write a little ode to the wonders of the blogosphere.
I do not wish to sound like one of those grumpy old geezers who are endlessly groaning about how everything was so much better in their day. And I hate the intellectually lazy habit of bashing the media (or the MSM, as I learn we bloggers must call it). But I have been lately struck by the almost indecent delight that the papers have been taking in The Bad News. Railing against bad news is a fast track to derision and rolling eyes; remember when poor Martin Lewis made his plea for some good news, and how everyone laughed and scoffed? No one now dares say stop, and so we exist on a crazed diet of economic crash, swine flu, political malfeasance, feral children and vapid celebrities, who are unpicking the very moral fibre of the country with their bare hands, thread by thread. You can say it has always been so; you can say it does not matter so very much. You can say the punters are just getting what they want. But it does have real consequences. Take crime, for example. Because of sensationalist headlines about knives and stabbing and no police on the streets, the public believes that we are living in a crime wave. The numbers, dry and unsensational, suggest that crime is decreasing at a steady rate; the curve runs down yearly. So there is a canyon between perception and reality, and since no one believes any more a word the government says, those in power have given up even trying to insist on the truth of the matter.
So it goes with the blogs. The general notion is put about that the bloggers are geeks and freaks and blatant self-regarders. Don't go there: it is where the nutters live. When I first started blogging, I was actually afraid. My terror existed on several levels. I feared that people whose opinions I valued would mark me down in the narcissist box. I had an inchoate fret that by going from the safety of the printed page, where I have lived for my whole professional life, to the unknown world of cyberspace, I would somehow be sacrificing my literary integrity. (I know, don't shriek, but we all have our little fantasies about ourselves; literary integrity is one of mine.) And I had a low-level fear that once I entered the blogosphere I would find myself lost in Crazytown without a map home.
Instead, as I have written before and I shall almost certainly write again, I find myself in a disarmingly wonderful new place. I use the word wonderful advisedly: every day, as I navigate the blogging ether, I am actually filled with wonder. Kevin Kline once said in The Big Chill something like - how much fun, friendship and good times can one man take? That is how I feel about the bloggers. I wish one of the bad news merchants would one day decide to write about the cleverness, funniness, occasional blatant brilliance and sheer mass of interesting information that is to be found out there in blogland.
I slept badly last night. My poor old mum is in the hospital; I know she will be fine, but I don't like to think of her in a strange, sterile room, away from home. I woke this morning feeling slightly lost and worried. I listlessly checked my Twitter feed, more out of habit than anything else. And there was a message from Libertylondongirl saying: read my blog. I went to her page to find she had given Backwards In High Heels a glorious, shameless plug. It was a little shaft of sunlight in a grey day. (Also, it is the kind of thing my mum would love; she does not quite understand the concept of blogging, although she listens very politely as I try to explain it to her, but she understands very well the concept of people saying nice things about the book, and diligently clips cuttings on the subject and sends them to me in case I might have missed them.) Praise from LLG is a high thing. She is a serious presence in the blogosphere. When the papers pause in their embrace of the bad news and find a moment to run lists of the hundred best blogs, she is always high up on the roll call. From the moment I entered this strange new place, she took time to welcome me in, show me around, and fire off little morale boosters. No one writes about that, but I discover, to my delight and surprise, that this is what bloggers do. I suppose 'Some bloggers really are rather kind' is not the catchiest of headlines. It's not front page news. But today, it is my front page.