Friday, 30 October 2009

Soda bread, redux

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There is a great deal of excitement here as my mother and stepfather have just moved onto the compound. They arrived yesterday, and so I, in a shameless attempt to get to the top of the Children's List, took them a newly baked loaf of soda bread, because nothing says home quicker than soda bread.

I put out a desultory tweet about this, and several people asked about the recipe. I have written about it before, but because it is my own recipe and it is always changing, I shall give it again here. Then we can all have a special Twitter bake-off, and all those old columnists who loathe the new media can choke on their port and stilton.

Here is my latest incarnation, and it is so easy I am almost ashamed to write it down:
Measure out half best strong white bread flour (I know, white, it seems quite counterintuitive, but go with it) and half Golspie Mill oatmeal. I am partial, because Golspie Mill is a small Scottish business of the exact kind that I get a warm feeling out of supporting, and it is almost local to me, but any fine oatmeal will do. You do not want the flour, nor the big pin head kind, but the finest kind of actual oatmeal.

I do the measuring by sight. I like to make a small loaf, because it is quicker to cook. Add a good pinch of sea salt, a flat teaspoon of bicarb, and mix the dry ingredients. Then add two tablespoons of natural yoghurt, vital to make the rising happen, and enough water to make a loose dough. Again, I do this by sight. The texture of the dough is important, I think, because soda bread has a fatal tendency to be crumbly and dry and demoralising, so keep it as loose as possible, just this side of sticky.

The lovely thing about soda bread is there is no kneading. You just shape the thing into whatever configuration you want - some people like it round, I make a little rectangle, because it is easier to slice. Dust a baking tray with some flour, lay the loaf on top, and cut a cross through it with a knife, about a third of the way through. This is tradition, and I have no idea what purpose it serves, but I always do it. Cook at 180 degrees for about twenty five minutes. Knock on the bottom to check if it is done; there should be a hollow sound.

And there you are. It is heaven hot from the oven, and will make delicious toast the next day; 'I am having it with marmalade for my breakfast,' my stepfather announced. It is especially fine with Irish stew. Today, I am taking my latest offering to my old mum with a big pot of celery soup I have just made. You may also use it to ravish guests: since it takes five minutes to make and twenty five to cook, you can make it before they get up, so they come down to real bread. They will be your slaves for life.

My mother and stepfather have moved five hundred miles from their old life, so a little loaf of bread is the least I can do. In the meantime, should they ever get their internet connection set up and be able to read this, I would like to say: Welcome to Scotland.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

From Rain to shine - a little photo essay

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

You may have gathered by now that I am prone to occasional fits of chauvinism about my adopted land of Scotland, especially her hills and glens and lochs. But even I have been tested after the last ten days of rain. Each year I look keenly forward to autumn: the riot of colour, the cerulean skies, the crisp leaves, the hard glittering frosts. But this October, it felt as if the weather gods came and took autumn from me. Even glorious Scotland struggles to look glamorous when she is overwhelmed by relentless rain, and no matter how much I told myself that without precipitation everything on earth would wither and die, on the tenth day, even I began to feel a little disgruntled. (Does anyone ever feel gruntled, by the way? I'm just asking.)

Since I am devoted to giving you the unvarnished truth at all times, I plodded gloomily out and took these pictures, so you could see what it looks like here in the weather. 'Another dirty day,' said my neighbour, morosely. And that was the correct description; everything drenched and sodden, and skies the colour of old washing-up water.

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This is what we call here 'dreich'. There is no exact translation. But it pretty much means what it sounds like.

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Ominous skies.

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I must admit, though, that I am quite pleased with my artistic puddle shot.

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And at least the lichen, one of my most favourite things in all of nature, does seem to be thriving in the wet.

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And the tiny little ferns are growing happily on the verdant moss.

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And the dogs, being half Labrador, and therefore bred originally for the sea, are not disconcerted by the watery conditions.

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And there is still some magnificent leaf action in the beech avenue.

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Even if my poor little rowan tree, now stripped of leaves, but clinging onto its berries with its last shred of dignity, has to survive against a sky the colour of slate.

But then - a miracle happened. I woke up this morning and there was….SUNSHINE.

Sun on distant hills

See? There is actual light over them there hills.

Sun on leaves

And the leaves are dappled with sun.

Sun in the woods

And there is once more a sense of hope in the dark woods.

Sunshine and tree trunks

So that even an old battered tree trunk can look like a thing of sculptural beauty.

Three beeches

And I remember the glory of the ancient trees.

Purdey on the day after the rain

And the dogs are once again ready for their close-up.

Mango ready for her close up; best picture ever

And can even find a nice dry sunny spot in which to have a little lie down.

The sky is black again as I write this, but like an old camel living off its hump, I am still smiling at the memory of my glorious morning of dazzling sun.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Jimmy Carr makes a joke; outrage ensues

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Another day, another OUTRAGE. I am all for a bit of outrage; in fact, I was perfectly outraged only last night, lying in my bed, reading a passage about James Dobson and his Focus on the Family in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s new book, but that is another story. Only I do start to think that there is such a hair trigger on outrage now that the whole thing starts to collapse in on itself like a black hole, and may end up meaning nothing. It’s a sort of cultural entropy.

Here is what happened. The comedian Jimmy Carr, an edgy say anything sort of fellow, not known for charity or campaigning as so many comics now are, but famous for pushing humour to its limits, remarked that you can say what you want about servicemen amputees, but we are going to have a splendid Paralympics in 2010. The Daily Mail, who has just been under the cosh for upsetting a huge number of gay people, and all straight people who do not live in fear of The Gay, saw the opportunity to press the outrage button. WAH WAH, WAH WAH – red lights flashing, sprinklers on, everyone move calmly to the emergency exits.

Carr's audience, apparently, was left stunned. The Mail then dug up a grieving mother, haunted by her son losing three limbs in Afghanistan, a wounded soldier, and an army commander to say how horrified they were by such sick humour. Oddly, though, on the army message boards, the brave boys came out largely in favour of the comedian. One of them thought the thing was a sort of compliment. Others remarked that it was just the kind of black humour that got the squaddies through the hell of Helmand. One complained that it was his joke, and bloody Carr had stolen it. Dominic Lawson, a conservative chap not much famous for defending alternative comedians, told everyone to calm down. Twitter started tweeting.

My instinctive reaction was: Jimmy Carr has just done those soldiers the biggest favour of their young lives. Everyone now is talking about the dirty little secret of the Afghan campaign, the horror that dare not speak its name. People speak of the dead; they line up in the streets to watch the coffins come home. The fallen are paid proper respect in the House of Commons every Wednesday, when an honour roll of the lost is read out solemnly by the Prime Minister. But a hundred miles away, in the unglamorous suburbs of Birmingham, maimed twenty year olds are being patiently taught to walk again on prosthetic devices. No one talks much of them. They never make the front page of the Daily Mail. They are courageous, fit young men (and they are still mostly men), trained to become dedicated fighting machines. Their life is all about the physical. More than that, their platoons and brigades are their family. All soldiers will tell you that they fight for their country, but maybe more importantly, they are fighting for each other. The shattered young people who come back from a shooting war without limbs not only have to learn to live with the loss of arms and legs, but with the loss of everything they were trained to do, and, most tragic of all, without the camaraderie of those to whom they were so devoted.

As in so many things, context is king. I think part of the reason that everyone got so exercised about Jan Moir complaining about the ‘happy every after myth’ of civil partnerships, was that she wrote it in a publication which hymns heterosexual marriage to the rooftops. Ironically, only a week before, a story had run in The Mail about a businessman who slashed his wife’s throat. No columnist used this as an excuse to challenge the happy ever after myth of marriage, which is in fact much more prevalent than the supposedly vaunted perfection of the civil union. While supporters of marriage insist it is the cure to all loneliness, the solution to every societal ill, and the silver bullet for female contentment, those who asked for civil unions did not say it would mean every single gay person in the land would then skip off into the sunset without a care in the world. It was a simple matter of equity. So when Moir chose Stephen Gately’s death and the suicide of Matt Lucas’s ex-husband to prove that civil unions were unhappy ever after, it proved a prejudice. Two women are killed every week by their other half; that is a much bigger and more scientific sample than two gay men.

So the context of Carr’s joke is important. What was not much known about him was that he had visited the military amputees, in two different hospitals, on several occasions. He did not just drop by for a photo-op, to burnish his image. For some reason, an awkward, edgy comic showed a sustained interest in something terrible, and terribly underpublicised. It is the thing that makes us, the public, turn away, because it is so hard to face. Let’s think about something else; let’s get grumpy about MPs putting bath plugs on their expenses and make jokes about duck houses and moats instead. So when a very cross person on the Daily Mail website accused supporters of Carr of being hypocrites, insisting they would be livid if the joke had been made by Bernard Manning, he was half right. It would be different if the joke was made by a crass comic famous for mother-in-law jokes. The fact that Carr knows of what he speaks makes all the difference in the world.

He is already apologising, and maybe he should. If that one mother and one soldier interviewed in The Mail were genuinely shocked and upset, that is a matter for regret. But it seems to me that the bandwagon jumpers of outrage should be careful. I’m not sure if the gag was actually about the amputees themselves, but directed at general attitudes towards them. I wonder if the butt of the joke was actually the public and the papers and the politicians who allow a war to go on where such tragedies happen, and then brush them under the carpet. When Bob Ainsworth, possibly the worst defence secretary in modern times, comes out with his chuntering statement of objection, he should stop to wonder if he, in fact, is the real outrage, for sending those young people out to fight and die without the proper equipment or an effective strategy. Before you clamber up onto your high horse, Mr Secretary, why not throw in a few helicopters, and some proper boots, and a plan?

Is the real shocker not that Jimmy Carr made a joke, but that in August this year, a soldier called Carl Clowes was told by the Ministry of Defence that he must pay back his compensation for losing a leg? Is the true outrage that the MOD, before it charmingly asked for its money back, valued that leg at £48,000? Banks owned by the state may pay their workers bonuses in the millions, but the leg of a young man who lays his life on the line for his country is not even worth fifty grand. Get outraged about THAT.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The glorious British countryside, and why she must be saved

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This has been a crazy week, and I am wilting like a pale Edwardian lady on a chaise longue, so for today's blog I am handing you over to my friend Terence Blacker in the Indy, and his thoughts on why we must cherish and protect our great British countryside.

What I especially like about this article is that it reminds me that it is not just the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that must be guarded, but the ordinary fields and woods and streams. Once the hedgerows are gone, they are gone. And also, as an old bucolic lady myself, I would quite like it if people stopped regarding country people as a bunch of marauding fox-murdering nimbying braying chinless inbred heathery toffs. Although I must say I am very glad to read in the magazines that tweed is back.

For your visual amusement, there follow some snapshots of the countryside. These are not the famous bits that the tourist brochures show, but just places that I know and love and walk the dogs in, from north to south, and they are as precious to me as diamonds.

And my final, exhausted, whimsical thought, while we are on the subject: if you ever get a chance, plant a tree. Plant many trees, if you can. They will grow for hundreds of years after you have gone, and give keen pleasure to people who will never know your name, but will bless you anyway, and they might just save the poor old planet after all.

Now I am going to have a little rest.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The story of Eileen Younghusband

Eileen Younghusband

I am increasingly obsessed with the Second World War and the forgotten stories from it.  Noodling around on the BBC iplayer today, I found a wonderful programme about an extraordinary woman called Eileen Younghusband.  She made me feel very humble.

Do listen if you can.  The programme is available for four more days.  My usual humble apologies to those of you do not have access to the iplayer.

 BBC iPlayer - My Secret War

Monday, 19 October 2009

A little morality tale; or, in which I dream of the Organised People

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I dream sometimes of The Organised People. I think how lovely their lives must be. When someone rings them up and asks them any question which involves a piece of paper they are able to glance around and lay their hand on it without pause. This is because they have FILING SYSTEMS. Their filing systems involve actual box files or even metal cabinets, with labels, sometimes in alphabetical order. The more I think of them, the more The Organised People take on a mythical aspect, like unicorns. But I know they exist. Sometimes I suspect that only I and that gentleman columnist in The New Statesman actually have filing systems which consist of piles of paper arranged randomly on the floor. (Although I will say that my friend The Man of Letters, as clever and urbane a man as you will ever meet, does have an idiosyncratic approach to his office arrangements.)

But still, The Organised People are out there, and they save untold but probably quantifiable hours and days of squandered mental energy, because they never have to crawl around on their hands and knees searching for a certain receipt. They pay their credit card bills on time and so do not live in fear of the telephone. They never have to steel themselves to open The Cupboard of Doom because a suddenly vital object might be somewhere in the back.

Sometimes I get cross and slag off The Organised People, in the privacy of my own head. Oh they're so anal, with their cross-referencing and their serried ranks. I bet they never put on satin skirts and went drinking with very tall transvestites in illegal bars in Soho until six in the morning, like some people I could mention. They don't know how to live. They are all file this and mark that. But of course in my secret heart I am eaten up with envy. However much I pathetically tell myself that I am a Creative, so I can't be filing, not when I am pondering the Human Condition at all hours, I yearn to be organised. Despite my profound loathing of self-help books, I have even occasionally succumbed to titles such as Clear the Clutter, and Taming the Paper Tiger. They are no good; they are written by The Organised People, and so make assumptions that their readers start from a base of potential organisedness. After three pages I give up in despair and read some Auden instead (I bet he never had any kind of bloody filing system).

But today, my darlings, I lived a little parable in why it is still worth attempting to join the OP ranks. When I went south last week, I took my sister's car, because my own jalopy is riven with rust (the exhaust actually fell off on a recent visit to Speyside; admittedly I did not help matters by driving over a large rock down by the mighty Spey, but still) and my sister did not want me to end up stranded on the hard shoulder of the M6. In a fit of uncharacteristic efficiency, I rang up the Congestion people, explained that I was driving another car with a different numberplate from my own, and paid for the days I was in the city all in one go. I was rather overcome by my own cleverness. Then, this morning, my sister appeared with a sheaf of Congestion Charge penalties; those nasty accusatory photographs, like paparazzi gotchas, and hideous pound figures beside them, ready to leap up exponentially with every passing day. 'Did you write down the reference number?' she laughed, gaily, skipping off into the rain, secure in the knowledge that she would not be ending up in debtors' prison. Did I? I wracked my brains. My usual modus operandi is to scribble any reference number, usually in pencil, on a very, very small piece of paper, which gets scrumpled up and may end up in any number of possible locations: handbag, washbag, suitcase, coat pocket, trouser pocket. It might take all day to track it down.

In a fit of hope over experience, I wondered if, by any miracle, I might have logged the number on my computer. I had no memory of doing this, but I did seem to recall that I was sitting near the computer when I made the call. So, sure that I would find a humiliating blank where a number should be, I looked in my documents file. AND THERE IT WAS. I had amazingly logged my account number, my pin, the long reference number for my payment, and the relevant dates. So instead of the customary 'oh I know I'm a bit daffy but I'm a writer' conversation with the call centre, I had a perfectly civilised 'this is the number of my receipt' conversation with a very nice and helpful lady. I had paid; they had put down the wrong registration number at their end; it appears to be a straightforward computer error. I had the number; there was proof; I did not have to feel like a flake or a criminal any longer. I did not have to spend the day rifling through pockets filled with little bits of dog biscuit. The twenty seconds it took for me to type those digits into my computer has saved me hours of wasted time, and days of pointless self-recrimination for being a dolt.

It felt like a revelation. The deadly dull bore of the thing is that when you challenge a penalty, you have to write a LETTER, to a PO Box in Coventry. I have no faith in PO boxes, and a definite doubt about the postal service just at the moment, with the strikes and all, and it seems mad that you cannot send an email or even a fax. In these credit crunchy times, a stack of £60 fines sitting on your desk is a horrible frightening thing, even if you know you are in the clear. The lady I spoke to at the call centre had all the information in front of her; it seems cruel and unusual that in such a simple matter we could not have sorted the whole thing out over the telephone. But that is not really the point. The point is that, for one day, I knew what The Organised People know. I can't guarantee that this lesson will transform my organisational skills overnight, but I damn well am sure that I am going to type every relevant number to any future transaction into my trusty Dell, in case of emergency.

And just in case you think I am overstating the thing for comic effect, this is what my office looks like -

And that's the dishevelled in an attractively creative way part of it. I am not going to show you a picture of my piles on the floor, because it's too sad, and it's raining outside, and I do not want to bring you all down. Instead, just for the hell of it, I am giving you a sweet little picture of one of the dogs all drenched from the weather, to take your mind off things, and just because I can:

I do start to wonder that if I spent less time making sure the dogs were ready for their close-up and more time contemplating box files, I might get closer to my organisational goal. But that's a story for another day.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

In which I insist that Peter Firth should read everything in the entire world

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to wade into the Jan Moir row, but my friend the intellectual says that everyone's blood is too hot at the moment, and it would be like a young nurse dashing into the battlefield between the Waffen SS and the advancing Red Army. He is a tremendous man for a vivid image. But because I can't ever help myself what I will say is that Jan Moir wrote something nasty and stupid (I use the word stupid not as a playground taunt, but as an empirical observation, since the article contained some of the most asinine reasoning I have ever read in a national newspaper); and the tremendous Twitter outbreak of protest was thrilling and heartening, until suddenly people started tweeting that she was a c***. (I'm sorry for the asterisks, I am not a prude, but it is the ugliest of swearwords, it refers to the female anatomy, and my mother does read this blog, so I am not going to print it under feminist principles and the basics of good manners.) As Lord Mandelson would be able to tell you after his run-in with Rebekah Wade, you really don't win any arguments by referring to people as what he would eumphemistically call a 'chump'. And that's all the moral high ground we have time for this week.

So, moving swiftly out of the path of rumbling Russian tanks, I am instead going to sing a little hymn of praise to the magnificent Peter Firth. If you are lucky enough to have access to the BBC iplayer, do go and listen to the current episodes of the book of the week. It is a fascinating story, an unprecedented examination of the inner workings of MI5, although it is slightly frustrating because it is a very long book, and has been radically truncated in order to fit into one week. The BBC really should have run it over the entire autumn, like This Sceptred Isle. But that is not the point. Even if it had been the telephone directory, I would have listened to it because of Firth's stellar reading. Oh actors, you may be thinking, of course they can read; it's just bread and butter for them, they come into the studio and phone it in. But the astonishing thing is that even the most talented actors have a horrible ability to ruin a book. They think they must earn their money, so they do the special reading voice (almost as bad as the special poetry voice). They put in odd pauses and strange emphases; they declaim; worst of all, they try to act.

Reading an audiobook is a very fine and rare art, and hardly anyone can do it well. Print is a more fragile thing than you might suppose; even the greatest prose can be trashed all to hell by an irritating voice. It does not take much. There is one actress who drives me demented because someone obviously once told her that she must take care to pronounce her consonants; she lingers so much over her Ts that I have to leave the room. Any self-consciousness, any careful modulation, any excessive regulating of timbre, and the thing is spoilt. But lovely heavenly brilliant Peter Firth knows that a book, especially non-fiction, must be read flat. He knows that it is not all about him; it is about the words on the page. He reads quite fast, with no intrusive inflections. It is such a pleasure to listen to him that I now think there should be some kind of statute enacted to force him to read everything there ever was. It is a consummate performance, and I take all my hats off to him.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Yesterday's news

WARNING: CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC IMAGES. (My mother reads this, and I don't want her, or anyone else of delicate sensibility, to be shocked.)

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

All right my darlings, I am back, and in celebration I am going to go all feminist on your ass. (As a Briton I find it interesting that this particular collocation only works if you use the American version; ‘on your arse’ sounds either incredibly pompous or slightly sinister. Still, it’s one of my favourite pieces of demotic and I am not going to give it up just because I risk confusing British readers who may think I am referring to a hardy pack animal.)

Anyway. I know the Polanski thing is all too last week but I want to talk about it all the same. Thinking about whether to write this or not, I was struck by the stratospheric speed of the news. I know there was always the tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping aspect of reporting, and in some ways this is why I love and stick up for journalists, because their secret hearts must always be broken: what they write is utterly vital for the public square, but literally disposable. Even when they break a huge story, like the Trafigura scandal currently tearing up The Guardian, it is very soon yesterday’s news.

I once met a very lovely gentleman of a certain age at Hay on Wye, and he spent an hour telling me about the glory days of The Sunday Times Insight team, when he would spend six months working on one story. ‘They just gave you your bus ticket and said Go and get it, it doesn’t matter how long it takes,’ he said, wistfully. That was how we discovered what Thalidomide actually did to babies. But it seems that now, in the age of the global village and the new media and the crushing commercial pressures and Web 2.0 and the Twitterers and the bloggers, that the news moves at warp speed. I am sometimes a bit snarky about the columnists; occasionally even I, with my stern liberal heart, go a bit clichéd and cheap, and talk about the chatterati and the commentariat, and some of them do deserve a big slap upside the head, but they too have an impossible job in these days of high velocity. They must be ready to comment on the scandal du jour right now, this minute, because if they dare to spend two days pondering what they really think about a big subject, their weary editor will just say: ‘What’s the hook?’.

Polanski exploded like a tropical storm coming out of nowhere, a couple of weeks ago, and now, like any unstable weather system, it has moved offshore. Everyone has had their opinion. The papers have gone back to the archives and dredged up the material about the Warsaw Ghetto and the Sharon Tate murder. The great and good of the film industry have signed their petitions demanding that he should be freed. The friends have appeared on the television saying what a marvellous fellow he is, not as others. The commentariat has commented. The bloggers have had their say. Even moral philosophers have given their considered opinion. It’s done and dusted. Everything that has to be said has been said. But it is such a strange and haunting case, and the reaction to it has been so bizarrely unexpected, that it has taken me a fortnight to work out exactly what I do think about it. So here I am, way behind the curve, but through the enchanting self-indulgence of the blog, weighing in anyway.

What seems to me the oddest aspect of the whole thing is that the central facts of the case are beyond dispute. It’s not as if we have to go back and relitigate the thing. In 1977, Polanski, at the time a hugely famous director, lionised by Hollywood, took a thirteen year old girl, hungry for fame, gave her champagne and Quaaludes, performed oral sex and sodomy on her without her permission, and then drove her home. Due to some complicated legal wrangling and the very strange mindset of the judge in the case, Polanski ended up pleading guilty to only one charge, which was having unlawful sex with a minor. It looked as if he would get off with probation, but then the judge went wiggy, seemed as if he was going to cede to public and press outrage, and possibly lock up Polanski and throw away the key, at which point, Polanski fled. He went back to being a very famous film director, got a hugely sentimental reaction when The Pianist won the Oscar for best picture, and everyone forgot about that unfortunate little episode so far in his past, until the Swiss decided to arrest him.

This was when things got really strange. Moving as a pack, the artistic community expressed righteous outrage and fury, not at a man who raped a thirteen year old girl, but at the authorities who dared to arrest him. People I admire, from Bernard-Henri Lévy to Michael Mann, put out livid statements about the inequity of the arrest. Robert Harris told an audience in Cheltenham that the ‘nightmare’ was that Polanski might have to complete his latest film from a prison cell. (As opposed to the nightmare of a forty-three year old man sticking his penis up a thirteen year old anus. I am sorry to be vulgar, but this whole thing is vulgar.) Inexplicably, it seemed that there was an argument to be had here. The argument was amorphous and inchoate, shifting from post to post: it went from a basic leave an old man alone, to a sort of plea bargain he’s had more tragedy than one man should bear, to a sand in your face but the judge was nuts, and finally, to a blatant but he’s so bloody brilliant. As the lovely Miss Whistle wrote on her blog, this last seemed to be: ‘genius trumps child rape’.

It seems to me that if you rape a child, that’s it. I don’t care how many Chinatowns you direct. All bets are off. I think of my adorable sixteen year old niece, and of what I would do if someone twice her age laid a finger on her. But as I listened to all the furious debating back and forth, and spent my days thinking about it, I was, for a moment, caught by the tragedy argument. For a moment, I wondered if there was any mitigating factor here. To be a Polish Jew in the 1940s, to watch your mother killed by Nazis and your father dragged off to a concentration camp, to find some kind of happiness with a beautiful woman and then be woken with the news that she has been butchered while eight months pregnant, is more suffering than most people know in any lifetime. Perhaps I should have compassion for such a man. His friends, possibly rightly, point out that it is a miracle someone could walk and talk after such a catalogue of horror. Maybe that would lead someone to lose their moral compass, and perhaps instead of judging I should try to walk a mile in his shoes.

There are several problems with this line of reasoning. The central bloodless legal one is: if we were to do that, we would let off, say, a teenage boy who has stabbed someone to death because his father beat him and his mother was a crack whore. If we were to do that, as a society, then the rule of law would break down. There must be some absolutes: no matter how drenched in tragedy your life is, you may not stab a human or rape a child. If you follow the tragedy argument to its logical conclusion, then you end up saying Well, Hitler’s father caned him every day until he bled, so no wonder he had to go and invade Poland. I am not drawing equivalence between Polanski and Hitler, that would be crass and wrong, but I am pointing out where flawed reasoning eventually leads you.

Another problem is that such mitigation leaves out all the people who have endured unspeakable suffering and chosen not to stab and rape and transgress societal mores. There are many of those, probably more than we know, and it is insulting to them to make excuses for those who did not exercise their restraint. Finally, I think you can turn this entire argument on its head. You could say: someone who has undergone unspeakable sorrow should have more care and compassion for other humans, not less. Polanski, more than anyone, knew what it was to feel powerless and persecuted; to inflict those same feelings on a vulnerable child is less excusable, not more.

But, and this is the feminist part, it seems that the really crucial point of the Polanski defenders is that the rape itself did not really matter. It was a peccadillo, in the distant past. There is the terrible suggestion, so familiar in all rape cases, that somehow the girl was asking for it. It has been said that she was longing to be famous, as if that makes it all her fault. It is endlessly repeated that she was the child of a pushy showbiz mother, as if that lets Polanski off the hook. There is the recurring subliminal theme that she was some kind of Lolita, luring poor hapless Roman to his doom. He certainly said that she was a willing participant, and frankly admitted to Clive James in a television interview not long afterwards that he loved young girls, and so what.

This is a story as old as the stones: that men, despite ruling the world for thousands of years, are somehow weak as water when faced with designing women singing their siren song, dragging the poor males onto the rocks. It has a nasty little corollary: that women are so devious that they lie to the sad honest men, just to get them into trouble. We females do not mean what we say, so how are men to know what is right? This is why the old feminists had to keep banging the No Means No drum until even they were sick to the teeth with it. In a truly bizarre example of Stockholm syndrome, Whoopi Goldberg, who I thought might have been of the Sisterhood, said the most horrible thing of the whole tawdry affair. ‘It wasn’t rape-rape,’ she said. No, no, of course it was not. It was at Jack Nicholson’s house, not in a back alley. There was vintage champagne, not a knife at the throat. It was adorable talented Roman, not a faceless man in a balaclava. It was a photo shoot for French Vogue, not a snuff movie. Whoopi, it turns out we barely knew you.

But here is the final point: even if that thirteen year old girl had been a sex-crazed little vixen, which she most certainly was not, even if she had stood naked in the middle of the room shouting Take me now, the correct thing for a forty three year old man of considerable power to do would be to say: get your clothes back on, I’m taking you home, go back to your schoolbooks.

And just so you know, this is what the noble defenders of Mr Roman Polanski are so righteously standing up for:

From the Grand Jury transcript:

A. He said: ‘I’ll take you home soon’.
Q. And then what happened?
A. And then he went down and he started performing cuddliness.
Q. What does that mean?
A. It means he went down on me or he placed his mouth on my vagina.
Q. At any time did he say anything before he put his mouth on your vagina?
A. No.
Q. What did he do when he placed his mouth on your vagina?
A. He was just like licking and I don’t know. I was ready to cry. I was kind of, I was going: ‘No, come on, stop it.’ But I was afraid.

But I was afraid.

I am not going to reproduce the testimony about the sodomy, because it is too much. But maybe the saddest thing about that whole exchange is that the child was so young and innocent that she thought ‘cunnilingus’ was called ‘cuddliness’. Some Lolita.

Further reading:

The always sane and marvellous Libertylondongirl:

The enchanting Allison Anders, whose films I have long loved:

And I wanted to give you a link to maybe my favourite blast of outrage on the whole subject, so lovely to hear coming from a man - my new number one columnist, Hugo Rifkind, writing in the dear old Speccie, but for some strange reason (lawyers? injunctions?) his coruscating piece does not appear online. But just to give you a flavour of what he wrote, the column began with 'He's a paedo, but he's our paedo'. From this tremendous start, Rifkind goes on to slam the weird Hollywood whitewash of Polanski: 'Polanski shags an actual child and they love him. What's that about? Is it because he is European? Do they think it must be an art form?'

If you can get your hands on a copy of the October 3rd Spectator, from a nice librarian or a kindly aunt, do try and read the whole thing. I don't know Hugo Rifkind, but he is now my favourite feminist hero. And that is really not a contradiction in terms.

Friday, 9 October 2009

A moment in the park

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

In London for a moment to see my agent, do some godmotherly duties and generally remind myself that I am occasionally capable of taking the straw out of my hair. The dogs have only ever been in London once before but they have embraced Hyde Park as if it were their very own. Of particular delight is the number of squirrels. In Scotland, our little red squirrels are so tiny and timid that we only see them about once every three months; in London, the grey squirrels swagger about in the open like mafiosi on a job. The dogs stare, narrow-eyed, in some disbelief, before setting off at a nought to thirty gallop, stomachs low to the ground, in fierce pursuit. The squirrels disappear nonchalantly up into the trees, leaving the dogs barking hopelessly into the high branches. I am told this is not at all park etiquette, but hell, we are all three country bumpkins, and the whole thing reduces me to helpless laughter.

This morning, we had a lovely outing to the Serpentine, where I used to go rowing with unsuitable boys in my lawless teenage years. There was a patient man putting out rows and rows of deckchairs, which I found rather touchingly optimistic in October.

Post squirrel-hunting, the dogs had a little rest by the water -

Then we admired the geese, crossing the road -

And said good morning politely to an extremely smart horse and carriage equipage -

And admired the sweetest house in London, and wondered who lived there, right in the middle of the park, like something out of Hansel and Gretel -

And then we sat on a bench for a while and watched the old gentlemen walk by, and contemplated the general loveliness of London's open spaces. I felt very happy and very lucky. I have caught up with old friends and relations, spent time of high quality with my adorable goddaughter, had the most civilised and delightful dinner in the Cafe Anglais, drank slightly too much Chateauneuf du Pape, and set the fear of god into the urban squirrel population. I think my work here is done.
Tomorrow I go to Cheltenham to appear in the literary festival, and then it is back to the hills, and you shall get your proper blogs again when I am once more established at my desk.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A swift bulletin from the South

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This kind of blog post goes aginst muscle memory. Usually, I give the posts a long run of thought, find some nice pictures to illustrate them, do a little secret polish. I know in some ways that this goes against the rub of the thing. The blog is supposed to be raw, uncensored, freeform, but I have been writing for too long to allow that.

For some reason, tonight, very tired, slightly spaced out, oddly happy, I want to give you an unmediated bulletin. So: I have arrived in the south. Most people just dash up and down across the border without giving it a thought. For me, it is as big a journey each time as going into the arctic wastes. I drove through gales (a very alarming moment crossing the high bridge by Perth), in and out of sudden shocking rainstorms, past a horrific car crash, and under a full rainbow. The dogs slept through the whole thing. My stop in the enchanting town of Kirkby Lonsdale was a vast success. I finally arrived in London and went straight to the park, where children were playing and men were throwing frisbees and old ladies were wandering the tan paths deep in thought. The grass was yellow from days of sunshine. The light glittered off the round pond. The dogs, understanding no city decorum, chased every single squirrel they could find, at full pelt, and then circled the trees warily in case the little critters should change their mind and come down again.

Now I am surround by very old friends, godchildren, a girl of eighteen whose birth I remember as if it were yesterday. I miss the hills already, but I am glad to be here, in the hard city streets, which remind me of a life long gone. Tonight it all feels slightly strange, as if I have gone abroad. By tomorrow it shall just be routine.

Friday, 2 October 2009

In which I get excessively cross about the ugliness

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Rushing south for various reasons, I decide that life is earnest and life is real and I just can't justify stopping off at some chic little inn in the Lake District but must bite the bullet and do what millions of ordinary decent Britons do, and break my journey at a motorway motel. The credit crunch is biting hard, and my days of being a hotel queen are over. (I sometimes have actual dreams about the days when I used to check into the Carlyle for a week, or the time I snuck into the Bel Air for three days and did not tell anyone where I was; I never felt so much like an International Woman of Mystery in my life.) But it is time to welcome myself to the real world, and it is good for me to stop behaving like a complete flake for once.

Thank heaven there is the wonderful Tebay, the only civilised service area on the M6, which has ducks and a farm shop and a nice hotel, only a little more expensive than a Travelodge, but has managed to decorate its rooms with actual style, as you can see below. (I am sorry the pictures are so small, I cannot seem to magnify them in any way. Stare closely at the screen for the full effect.)

The Westmoreland at Tebay has done a very clever thing. The sheets and towels are a little thin, as you would expect from a motorway stop, but someone has given more than ten minutes' thought to aesthetics. The rooms are painted in a nice Farrow and Ball taupish sagish colour, the curtains are a wonderful thick felt material, in dark claret, and the carpet is a very nice biscuit. When you get off the road after three hundred miles, your retinas are not assaulted by horror. Also, the bathrooms are very elegant indeed.

But, hideous shock, Tebay is FULL. I must plunge into the terrors of the Holiday Inn Express and the Travelodge. I call my mother. 'Can I really stay at the Days Inn in Charnock Richard?' I say. 'Yes,' she says, firmly. 'You astonish me,' I say. 'The dogs will like it,' she says, obscurely. Then she becomes rather excited. I must, apparently, take all my lovely travel rugs and my own pillows and scented candles and some room spray ('have you got lavender for the bed?' she says) and I can make the room heaven and feel smug that I have only paid £29. By the end of the conversation, we decide that it is a tremendous idea.

Then I look at the website:

Oh, I know it's not the worst bedroom in the world. But bear in mind if this is the picture they put up on the web, this is the best they have to offer. We all know that the actual room might not live up even to this. And there is something so demoralising about it. So I cast around. I find a Holiday Inn:

Again, it's not the ugliest thing in the world. But there is nothing in there that you would want to take home with you. You would not decorate your own bedroom like that. What is wrong with some nice claret curtains and a bit of biscuit?

Then there is the Premier Inn, which actually looks quite smart:

But I stopped at a Premier Inn on the Birmingham toll road once and it was all orange, so much it hurt my eyes, and the room smelt slighlty of mushrooms.

So then there was the Ibis at Preston:

I know. It looks like someone is having a little joke and doing a pastiche of the seventies.

I kept looking at this picture, and feeling sadder and sadder:

And then I thought: damn it, I can't do it. I don't care how many scented candles I bring. It's not just the aesthetic nastiness of these places. If you go to Tripadvisor and type in any chain motel, the theme that that comes up over and over again in the reviews is a sense of neglect. The shower curtain is torn, the grouting in the bathroom is black, the bed was uncomfortable, the lady at the bar would not serve drinks even though it was only one minute past midnight, the wake up call never arrived, the room had not been cleaned, there was mould around the bath, there was a worrying smell, the bedlinen was stained.
And maybe none of this would be so bad if it was only £19, like their websites like to shout. But it is only that if you book three months in advance and arrive on a Tuesday in February. On a Saturday in October it is £55. I must pay £55 to be made sad.

So I used my initiative and many internet hours and finally found a lovely new place in the delightful market town of Kirkby Lonsdale, exactly half way between me and London, ten minutes from the M6. The man could not have been nicer. Of course the dogs were welcome. Nothing was too much trouble. And the price? A knock down £70. For FIFTEEN POUNDS more than the cost of the demoralising rooms above, I get this:

See how much time and care has gone into that room. They have even put a charming leather suitcase under the brass bed, to give you the impression that you might be staying in someone's actual house. There is nothing chi chi or chainish or corporate about it. There is no hint of the Coloroll school of decorating that marrs so many British inns. It is clean and calm. But here is what I really don't understand. How is it that the nice man at Plato's in Kirkby Lonsdale can achieve a room like that, in the middle of a credit crunch (they have only been open for two months), for fifteen pounds more than the soulless nastiness of the Travelodges and the Premier Inns and the Holiday Inns, with all their economies of scale? And why does the great British public not rise up and say we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it any more?

In the meantime, call me old-fashioned, but I am very, very happy that I get to stay here:

Instead of here:


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