Monday, 30 March 2009


Posted by Tania Kindersley.

A new study is out on the science of ageing. Money quote: 'being thin is what ages you most'.

Sarah and I get quite grumpy about the whole 'anti-ageing' buggery bollocks. We become extremely testy when told that women must 'fight' ageing, as if it is some rampaging mob armed with pitchforks. We think that the women who have wrinkles instead of stretched, worked-on, wind-tunnel faces (Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave) are the most beautiful. On the other hand, we see no reason to develop any more lines than are necessary. So we are going to keep on eating the hot cross buns.

Interestingly, this study, like so many, officially confirms what many women have known for a long time. When fat leaves the face, of course it droops a little. And the magnificent Catherine Deneuve said years ago that after a certain age women have to choose between their face and their arse. (The genteel Daily Telegraph translates this as choosing between face and body, presumably because too many of their gentle readers might drop their Frank Cooper's Oxford at the mere mention of a lady's bottom.)

So hurrah for science. Hurrah for a generous appetite. Hurrah for all of our munificent arses.

The art of ease; or, the state of the female nation; or, my rant for the day.

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Here is what the women do: make it look effortless. (And when I say The Women, I obviously mean every single one of Britain’s 25 million ladies, because I would never fall for the evil art of generalising.) I can’t quite work out whether this is a fatal tendency, or not. It might be a marvellous, tremendously British, keep buggering on attitude. It might be verging on the Churchillian. It could be something that people should be writing anthems about. My fret is that it means that not enough people stop, every once in a while, and say to the ladies: bloody well done.

Here is what most women are: worker, bottle-washer, shrink, household CEO, cook, shopper (the lavatory roll must never run out, or dark things will ensue), mother, daughter, friend, dog-walker, domestic planner, teacher, nurse, and, quite often, accountant. On top of all this, they are expected to be informed, imaginative, and elegant. The magazines would very much like them to be a certain size and shape, and for them to keep their hair preternaturally glossy at all times. (It is no coincidence that the expression ‘bad hair day’ has gone into the lexicon.) If they can keep up with fashion and become a bit domestic godessy, that is a bonus devoutly to be wished. The spurious rumour that females are biologically programmed to multi-task – that hideous, managerial collocation – means that women rarely get credit for the many things that they do all at the same time. The talk of juggling fades into so much background noise, so that it is only noticed in the breach – ripples of shock when someone actually drops a ball. The endless articles about work-life balance take on a hectoring air – you are getting it right, aren’t you?

And so, the women, because they don’t want to make a fuss, because they are, after all, British, just get on with it. They do not moan or whine or go on strike or take to the barricades; so the appearance of effortlessness is born. Somehow, the work is done, the children are taken to school with the correct shoes and the right sporting equipment, the husband’s socks are daily located, the supper is cooked, the deadlines are met. Even those who write subversive pieces and blogs about how they are more domestic slattern than goddess do it in such a funny, self-deprecating way that the notion of ease is still somehow there. Women make jokes among themselves about how they must make the transformation from bug-eyed troll into glorious party creature with no more than half an hour, an eye pencil and their native wit; yet they still manage to leave the house looking fabulous. They will occasionally tell horror stories of being woken three times in the night by a small vomiting person, but they still get to work on time.

The absolute personification of this swan-like tendency – serene on the surface, tiny little legs paddling very, very fast beneath the water – is Kate Moss. This might sound a fraction counter-intuitive. But just stop and think about it for a moment. There she is, out every night, still managing to look glamorous even when emerging, dishevelled and slightly bleary, from a taxi at three in the morning. In her life, rather than in the tabloid depiction, she must guard her business affairs, invent new fashions every time she leaves the house, do some actual modelling, field endless requests for endorsements, go out with edgy musicians, design a clothing line, and talk to Philip Green (I imagine not the highlight of her day). It’s not splitting the atom or working the night shift in an NHS hospital, but that’s not the point. You try being a global brand. Everyone takes it for granted, because, you know, she’s just little Mossy from Croydon. But to go from Croydon to household name takes some serious paddling. To stay at the top of such a febrile profession for twenty years is quite an achievement, whatever you think about fashion. To do it whilst giving the appearance that all you do is go to parties is oddly miraculous.

Women don’t want to be put on a pedestal, besieged with bouquets and excessive congratulation. Most of the hundred things they do, they do because they choose them. But just because sometimes it looks easy on the outside, does not mean it should be taken for granted. Just occasionally, I wish someone would give the women a round of applause.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Magnificent Frank O'Hara

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Here, in the nuttiest of nutshells, is the miracle of the blogosphere. The wonderful Mrs Trefusis had a new post up, so I beetled over in my lunch hour to have a look. And there I found a ravishing poem, by a poet of whom I knew nothing. (And I call myself a writer?)

A short Google later, and I now know about Frank O'Hara, have read some of his glorious work, and have fallen entirely in love with him. If it weren't for the fascinating game of shuttlecock that is the practice of blogging (slightly forced analogy, but go with it; can't think of a better one just now) I might have gone to my grave without ever having heard of Frank O'Hara.

So now I feel: slightly better educated, generally entranced, and convinced that the sum total of human happiness has been added to. Which is a potent cocktail for an ordinary Friday lunchtime.

The Principessa as a snowy owl

Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Here is an enchanting picture of Sarah's little girl, dressed as a snowy owl (of course). She is known by me as The Principessa, because she is so elegant and beautiful.
The Principessa is highly artistic, has an inordinate love of very small toy puppies, which she keeps mostly in her pockets, and is an exceptionally snappy dresser. (One gets the sense that she is not at all convinced by her mother's love of black, although she is too polite to say so.) She is a great favourite with my dogs, and very kindly allows them to kiss her all over her face when she comes to stay.

Royal Succession: do we care?

Posted by Sarah Vine.

Okay, so the economy is in freefall and we're all facing tax hikes. And what is the Government doing? They're twiddling about with the royal succession, that's what. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. Even the feminist in me can see that there are rather more important things on the Ministerial to-do list at the moment than bringing equal opportunities to the Royal Family, which is in itself an absurd concept, since the monarchy has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with, you know, hereditary principles. Besides, who cares which of this particular crop of eligible toffs gets to wear the crown? What difference does it make to any of us if Zara Phillips is suddenly 4th in line to the throne instead of 12th, or whatever. None whatsoever, that's what. Not unless, of course, she wants to donate the entire royal patrimony to save the nation (I've always thought Buckingham Palace would make a very nice hotel). They can elect the next monarch via a special edition of the X-Factor for all I care, just stop time-wasting.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Lovely smashed potatoes

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

As part of the Charlotte potato festival that is taking place in my house, I made these for lunch, and ate them with a griddled chicken breast.
Quite idiotically delicious, even though I say so myself.

Take your potatoes, boil in salted water for about fifteen minutes. You want them very yielding, even slightly overdone. Drain and let dry. Then throw them into a frying pan with a good gloop of extra virgin olive oil, and smash them about with a wooden spoon until they break into rough chunks.

Keep the heat fairly low - the point is not to make the potatoes at all crispy, but let them absorb all the delectable olive oil. You may, if the fancy takes you, throw in a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves at this stage. Keep them moving, as you do not want them to brown. This all takes about ten minutes. At the very end, add as much torn basil as you like (I like a LOT), and stir until it has just wilted. Add a good pinch of Maldon salt, and a grind of pepper.

I know these seem quite a complicated set of instructions for a very simple dish, but in some ways it proves my point about cooking, which is that it is not some mysterious alchemy that only a chosen few have the talent for, it is merely the infinite taking of pains. In this recipe, precisely because it is so simple and requires so few ingredients, there is no hiding place. If you heat the pan too much, you will lose the flavour of the olive oil, and also the melting texture of the potatoes, and burn the garlic. If you throw the potatoes into the oil before they are dry, you will dilute it, and again lose flavour and texture. All of which is why, as Sarah will tell you, I am unabashedly bossy when it comes to food.

A final footnote: most of the recipes we put up here are our own inventions. We are not very good at following cookery books precisely (too impatient and bolshie) and so mostly make up our own stuff. Although we do sometimes go to bed with Nigel Slater. If ever we find a recipe that is too good not to share, we will always credit its author. Otherwise, you may assume that the thing is the product of our own fevered minds.

Utterly shameless bit of self-promotion

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Dear Readers,

Please excuse this filthy commercial intrusion into the otherwise perfectly pristine blog. I really would much rather be posting another picture of Tom Batman Force. (See comments section of post below.) But for anyone out there who is thinking of buying the book - and you know you really don't have to - it is only on special offer on Amazon for another two days, at the amazing price of £6.74. Considering cover price is £14.99 this is truly the deal of the week.

That is quite enough blatant advertising, and now I am going to go and sit in my room and think pure thoughts. Thank you for your exceptional patience.
IMPORTANT CAVEAT: please only buy from Amazon if, like me, you live in the middle of nowhere and do not have lovely local bookstore to hand. Otherwise, go at once to excellent independent bookshop with personal service and a soul, in the manner of that of the incomparable Lucy Fishwife.
Now I really am going to stop.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

So adorable I could not resist

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Here is Master William, Sarah's little fellow, in his special Easter bonnet. Master Will is the best story-teller I know, even though he is only four. If you ask him to tell you a story, he will look around the room and incorporate the elements that he sees there into his tale, very much in the manner of Kevin Spacey at the end of The Usual Suspects, except without the sinister intent. He can also tell my dogs apart, even though they are two black sisters. 'Purdey is the one with the white feet,' he says, when he arrives on my doorstep for his annual visit. He gives exceptionally good hugs.

And our survey says

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Stop the Presses! 25% of women say they would rather win America's Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. But the good news: 75% of women would shave their head if it would save the life of a stranger.

Sarah and I have a small obsession with idiotic surveys, but this one may be the most moronic of all. Let's picture the process at Oxygen Media, who carried out the survey, with the aim, apparently, of finding out whether women value inner beauty more than outer beauty.

Meeting room, day. Coffee, bagels, many executives with titles such as 'VP in charge of R&D'.

Exec 1. In these days of instant information and the internets, women are bombarded as never before with images of impossible beauty. How are we to find out what they really think about their looks?

Everyone Thinks.

Exec 2. I have a cunning plan.

Exec 1. Let's hear it. Push the envelope. Think blue sky. Run anything up the flagpole and see if I salute.

Exec 2. Let's ask them (pauses for dramatic effect) - would they rather win America's Top Model or The Nobel Peace Prize.

Ripple of excitement runs around the room.

Exec 1. I'm feeling it! Would you rather be Tyra Banks or Nelson Mandela?

Exec 2. Isn't Nelson Mandela a little last season?

Exec 1. His shirts are.


Exec 3. I know, I know. I've got it. Then you ask them - in order to save somebody's life, would you shave off all your hair.

Stunned silence.

Then, Exec 1 and Exec 2, in unison: Yeah, baby!

Exec 4. WTF?

Everyone ignores her. She will be quietly downsized later in the week.

Personally, I think the one in four women who do not want the Nobel Peace Prize are extremely sensible. Once you have won it, there is nowhere else to go. The very pinnacle of achievement has been reached; it's all downhill from here. Also, people will be far too intimidated by you to dare strike up a conversation, so you will have no one to talk to. Everyone will start sending you begging letters and television crews from South Korea will pitch up on your doorstep when you are having a catastrophic hair day. (When Doris Lessing was told by a reporter that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature she said grumpily, 'Oh God,' and stumped off into her house in an absolute fury; she says she has not been able to write a word since.)

As for the hair thing: well, hair vs human life, no-brainer. But the one in four who refused the deal may have been bright enough to understand that there is no way in hell that hair removal saves anything. Even if you look like Demi Moore in GI Jane. The one in four must have been channeling Martin Amis, who would observe that the entire question is a massive category error.

Sorry, couldn't resist

Teenagers, huh?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

A controversial beef stew

Posted by Sarah Vine.

So last night, feeling a bit chilly, I invented a stew. It's probably all wrong, but I ate it anyway and it was jolly nice. It was inspired by the fact that Waitrose sent me four tins of borlotti beans in my grocery order - must have fallen asleep on the mouse or something, and accidentally double-clicked twice. Anyway, here it is.

1 packet of stewing beef
two tins of borlotti beans
2 glasses of white wine (one for me, one for the pot)
two cloves of garlic, chopped
some lovely button mushrooms
half a litre of chicken stock
pinch of tyme, dried
two bay leaves
four or five good shakes of dried chilli flakes
two sprigs of fresh rosemary
Malvern salt and pepper

Method: put all ingredients in large pot. Stir. Stew on very, very low heat for about three hours. Tania once told me that the way to stop meat going tough in a stew is to not let it boil (I think it's in the book, actually). This is almost as great a revelation as the time she told me how to make her special green sauce.

I ate it with a spoon and the addition of a handful of cooked green beans and some parsley. Really very good. Next time I'd add an onion, though (forgot to order those). And is it greedy to put potatoes in if you have the beans? Probably. But definitely worth a try.

Anyway, it just goes to show that beef doesn't always have to be cooked with red wine and tomatoes. Or maybe it does, and I'm just a philistine.

Let's think about brainsex, baby

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Here comes a quiz in The Times to tell whether your brain is a lady or a gentleman.

This is moderately interesting. I scored sixteen, which I was quite surprised by. I was a tomboy as a child - climbing trees, getting bucked off ponies - and my old shrink was always telling me that I was too much in touch with my male side. Rather pleased to have it confirmed that I have a girly brain.

Actually, by far the best bit of this entire article is the comments section. Comments on a national newspaper, even a broadsheet, are usually a combination of why-oh-why, world is going to the dogs, complete nutter, raging misogynist, and flat earther. These ones, though, are really funny and informative. Especially interested to hear that in India, S-E-X equals S-I-N; and loved the exceptionally dry remark from Karen in Southend-on-Sea - 'I couldn't be bothered to read the instructions and then gave up in a huff. Does this make me a male?'

Monday, 23 March 2009

Jim Naughtie's thong

Posted by Sarah Vine.

You've probably already seen this, but it made me laugh a lot.

Custard Cream, anyone?

Hello to you Cassandra. I adore Custard Creams, although lately I've become slightly addicted to Fox's Party Rings. FEEL the sugar rush. Very bad. Bourbouns are nice, but a little sickly. And Rich Tea have a certain Presbyterian quality to them.

Chocolate Oreos should, of course, be illegal.

Tania is above all this, I should point out, as she does not have a sweet tooth at all and only eats very small, elegant quantities of very dark chocolate.

Is this a spoof?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Hot news off the wires: it is Twitter that has wrecked Western capitalism. Nothing to do with Bernie Madoff, or AIG, or the insane derivatives guys, or Fred the Shred (sorry, I should say Sir Fred the Shred). It was Twitter, you dolts, not complete lack of regulation or hedge funds run mad or raw human greed. Do keep up at the back.

Now, I have been as blindly rude about Twitter as the next girl, although I am starting to come to the conclusion that it may be in fact a miracle of modern science, but this does seem to me a Step Too Far. And call me old-fashioned, but when you read a headline that says 'Economist blames Twitter' do you not hear the wailing of distant alarums? Apart from the delicious Paul Krugman, who is right about everything, most economists did not see any of this coming. They wrote their learned articles in their impenetrable jargon, wallowing joyfully in their endogenous macroeconomic growth theory, when they should have been saying, in plain English: slicing and dicing dodgy mortgages and selling them on as investments that almost no one understands is never going to end well. I'm just saying.

Interesting sidebar on my blogging learning curve and how it all works:
My plan for today (because one must always have a plan) was to write about fireplaces. I took the dogs out into the shiny, windy, Scottish morning, and ran into a man who builds fireplaces for a living. He knows everything about brick and flues and how fires draw, and gave me a fine lesson in the mysteries of flame and smoke. He had tough working hands, and the faraway gleam in the eye of someone who does something really, really well. I was struck by the absolute satisfaction that comes with expertise.

But then I found I had a new follower on Twitter, who linked to the economics article. I found that the kooky story about some crazed economist making statements (as my old dad likes to say) was of more urgent interest. Either this proves that professor Susan Greenfield is right, and the evil interweb is teaching us all to have the attention span of gnats. Or it shows that the blogosphere encourages a supple mind that can, like a Daisy Ashford hero, ride off in all directions at once. Dear Readers, you decide.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Sorry, how rude

I should have introduced myself: Sarah, Tania's lesser co-author. 

Crikey, a UFO?

Have just read to the bottom of the blog (I never read to the bottom of anything, it's one of my most irritating habits. I also never finish a drink, something that annoys everyone I live with since they are always tripping over unfinished cups of tea and getting lukewarm milky liquid on their shoes). Anyway: Tania has seen a UFO! This is quite something, for those of you who don't yet know Tania like I do, because let me tell you she is a firm rationalist. She does not believe in God (or the Sky Fairy, as she likes to refer to Him), horoscopes (this is normal: she is a Capricorn. They are very sceptical creatures) or Fate. I'm not sure she even believes in global warming, although I could be wrong. And yet here she is, with a mysterious object in the sky. Could this be a turning point? Or is it the result of drinking the aforementioned claret too soon?

Coming Soon

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sarah has not had time to post anything yet. As well as writing books, she works for The Times and has two children and a husband to think of. But she will be here soon, and I promise she will be worth the wait.

In the meantime, I send my gratitude and salutations to all you heavenly people out there in the blogosphere.

In which I celebrate the surprising nature of the blogosphere. Or, in which I am a little serious and long-winded and must beg your kind indulgence.

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Until very recently, I did not really know what the blogosphere was. I knew it was out there, but it had a large Here Be Dragons sign hanging over it. I did not read blogs, except for the Huffington Post, which is so big and grand that it doesn’t feel like a blog at all. I did write for a while for the Guardian books blog, but I could not quite get the tone - was it journalism, opinion, something quite else? - and when my editor went on maternity leave, I let it lapse.

I used to be an early adopter. I had email when it was such a baby that I only had my cousin in New York to correspond with. I spoke to a nice man at BT about getting a Blackberry when they were still reserved for corporate clients.
‘Are you a company?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I write books.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I’ve never spoken to a book writer before.’
(We had a lovely conversation about literature after that. I wish I could remember his name.)

But now, the big new world of technocrazy scares me witless. It’s too unknowable and unnavigable. Like all those in fear, I retreated into prejudice. Every columnist with a deadline to meet and a mind blank of ideas has a failsafe: let’s bitchslap the blogosphere this week. I nodded my head as they told me that bloggers were sad geeks with no lives, or preening exhibitionists, or deranged narcissists, begging for attention. I quite saw all the arguments about privacy and even dignity. I agreed that it was an exercise in solipsistic self-indulgence (who the hells cares what you think?).

Then I had a book out. I cared about this book possibly more than any other I have ever written (reasons to come later). I was going to do everything I could to make it a success. I could blog the book, and it would go viral, and I would dance off into the sunset.
I stifled my doubts about throwing my paltry thoughts out in public (as a child, I was often told my grown-ups to stop showing off). But then an entire new set of terrors raced into view. There are around 200 million blogs in the world. Who would want to read mine? Who would even find mine? I would be like one of those discarded bits of spaceship, floating around in a blind universe. I would be yelling into the wind. And even if someone did find me, what if I was doing it wrong? What if the real pros stumbled onto my very basic site, gave a collective sneer, and turned away in disdain?

But here is the absolutely lovely, astonishing, miraculous thing. Through a stumbling serendipity of different internet tools and sheer damn luck, I found myself in the most charming corner of the blogosphere. It’s like one of those tiny streets that only natives of a city know about, lined with painted houses and heavenly shops that sell botanical prints and calligraphy pens and old maps of the world and out of print copies of Michael Arlen.

The other bloggers who follow me turn out to be funny, fascinating, ironic, irreverent, self-deprecating and unbelievably generous. They leave supportive comments and whimsical jokes at the bottom of my posts. They are nothing like the stereotypes that the newspapers adore to deride. Entering the blogosphere is like going to a huge new school where you have no friends and do not know the rules. For me, being found by these particular bloggers is like having the really cool girls inviting you to join their gang on the very first day.

The most lovely twist to this is that the book is all about sending out a big collective ‘bloody well done’ to the women. The zeitgeist likes to tell women that most of the decisions they make are wrong; plus, their bottoms are too big. Sarah and I wanted to talk about all the wonderful unsung ways that women navigate the convolutions of the new century. We practically wrote poems about the joy and profundity of female friendship (my slightly controversial view is that it is more important than romantic love). Well, the people who have come to my blog are all women, and they are shining examples of everything that we talk about in Backwards in High Heels.

So, Recessionista, Néné, Mrs Trefusis, Lucy Fishwife, Lucy and Cassandra – thank you for such an unexpected welcome. You have turned the vast, dark expanses of the interwebs into an enchanted garden. Even if my evil plan to conquer the blogosphere does not come to fruition, and Backwards in High Heels never goes viral, you have made it all worth it. You are the very women that we wrote the book for.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

A mysterious incident

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Just took the dogs out into the gloaming. The last of the light was dying over the hills, and the sky was the colour of delphiniums. There was no moon, and the evening star was glittering in the south. Everything was completely still and silent. I thought a few poetic thoughts.

Then I noticed a much bigger star, fat and round and the colour of amber. Perhaps it is Mars, I thought, the red planet. (My astrological ignorance knows no bounds, although I can identify Orion's belt, a fact that once deeply impressed a handsome Armenian gentleman.) Then I noticed that the 'planet' was moving. It appeared to be gathering momentum, heading east over the black shadows of the Wellingtonias.

A satellite, I thought. But why would a socking great satellite be scooting about over my tiny little village in the north of Scotland? Just as I was pondering this, the thing blinked and then DISAPPEARED. Just like that, in a cloudless evening sky.

I have absolutely no explanation for this. We can only hope that it is not the beginning of an international incident.

Better without sequins

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Spent my crazy Friday night naughtily drinking some of my 2005 claret, three years too early, (it’s the best vintage since the turn of the century, and I should make myself wait until 2011 for it to reach its perfect pitch, but sometimes I just can’t) and watching a rather touching film called Shall We Dance, while the dogs slumbered beside me on the sofa. When they sleep, they lie curled into each other like two inverted commas. Such is my wild life. My life was once wild, but more of that much later. Now I live off my hump, like a camel.

Anyway, the film was not Ingmar Bergman, the kind of thing that culture snobs would sniff madly at with their sniffy noses. (I am not one of those for whom elitism is a dirty word; bring on the elitists I say. But I also see no reason why a girl cannot enjoy The Seventh Seal and Sex and the City. Although possibly not at the same time.) It is set in a down at heel ballroom dancing school, and there is a scene in it which made me realise that old-fashioned dancing, cheek to cheek, is one of the great lost arts. The whole Strictly Come Dancing phenom has brought the tango and the rumba and the waltz snaking back into the public consciousness, but it is all about the spangly costumes and the celebrity spats and tears, and not really about the grace of the dance. In the film, there is a lovely moment when Jennifer Lopez (whom I also realise is better without sequins) does a little dance, just wearing a plain skirt and a serious face, and it is a thing of such grace and beauty that I suddenly realised why everyone fell in love at the Cafe de Paris in the thirties.

I am still learning about the art of the blog. I am not quite certain how to do it or why I am doing it or what it is all about or how to get up there with the best of them. Now I think: just write the fucker. It does not have to be perfect. It might be better without sequins.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Sarah writes a touching letter to her daughter in The Times

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This made me cry.

Today I am eating

Slightly inauthentic panzanella, in celebration of spring.

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There are as many recipes for panzanella as there are middle class Britons who visit Tuscany. Once it gets into the territory of capers, yellow peppers, spring onions, and even, in one crazy American recipe, toasted pine nuts and chicken broth (I know, I don’t either), it has gone so far from its roots as to be unrecognisable. It was originally invented by thrifty Tuscan peasants as a way of using up stale bread; since the bread went rock hard in the hot Italian sun, it was soaked in water to soften it, hence the name, which means little swamp.

The authentic panzanella features only tomatoes, cucumber, basil, red onions, olive oil and red wine vinegar. I am heretic enough to admit that I do not like my bread swampy, but instead cube it and toast it a little in a frying pan, which would make purists call the food police. Also, I do not care much for vinegar or raw red onions, so I am leaving those out.

Here is my version, for two people:

Four fat, ripe tomatoes that actually taste of something.
Half a cucumber.
Two handfuls of slightly stale bread – ciabatta or good white sourdough.
A handful of basil leaves.
Extra virgin olive oil, the best you have.
Malden Salt.

Cube the tomatoes. Sprinkle them with two or three good pinches of sea salt and let them sit for half an hour to bring out the juices. Cube the cucumber. Cube the bread, and fry it up a little in a dry pan, until it is golden around the edges. Tear the basil. Mix it all up in a big white bowl, and add as much olive oil as you wish. I use quite a lot, making sure that the bread soaks most of it up. Add a couple of screws of black pepper. Check for seasoning. Sometimes I add a tiny dash of lemon juice, and, very occasionally, a few black olives.

That’s it – a perfect spring salad for the credit crunch. It is delicious with a grilled chicken breast or a lamp chop.

Important footnote: you can’t cheat on this one. An elderly cucumber from the bottom of the fridge, some furry tomatoes, cheap olive oil, Mother’s Pride and tired basil will not cut it. Because of the simplicity of the dish, the ingredients really count.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

How far is too far?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The very sad news comes of the death of Natasha Richardson. I saw her, almost twenty-five years ago, playing Nina in The Seagull. It was a beautifully drawn performance, delicate and touching, and she held her own against Vanessa Redgrave and Jonathan Price in their pomp. It is, to this day, the best production of that play I have ever seen, and I can still recall it in my mind's eye. At the curtain call, there was a very touching moment when Vanessa Redgrave held her daughter's hand, maternal pride radiating out of her like sunlight.

Richardson was a remarkably private actress. She did not court the tabloids, and all accounts of her speak of a happy family life. So there is something jarring about the rabid media coverage of her death. Of course it is a story when someone so young and talented dies so suddenly of an accident that seemed so innocuous. But did every single paper and website have to wheel out their neurological experts and ask horrible questions like: 'Could Natasha have been saved?'. Did they really have to quote and re-quote the so-called 'family friend' talking about her being brain-dead before the news was confirmed by the family? Did they have to speculate about what her husband and children must be feeling?

The friends who knew Richardson best put out short and dignified statements of tribute and condolence and refused to speak to the press. Martha Stewart, on the other hand, twittered about it. If you have ever been on Twitter, you will know that it is a site of such staggering banality that there are hardly words for it. (I keep trying to get it, and then I realise there is nothing to get; as Gertrude Stein once said - There is no there there.) In the hands of a clever man like Stephen Fry it can have a sort of haiku-like quality, but generally it is the cyberspace equivalent of graffiti. Writing about a reaction to a death on Twitter is like going out and spray-painting it on a wall in Acton.

But Martha was easily outshone by Tina Brown. She went on to the Morning Joe cable show in America to talk about politics, but was asked first: 'You knew Natasha Richardson?'.

'Oh yes,' she said, as if delighted to be asked. 'She was the most womanly woman.' (I have no idea what this means.) Brown then talked about the tragic nature of the death for a few minutes, in an oddly bloodless way, and then pivoted, seamlessly, into taking pops at the Democrats over the AIG bailout, and laughing over general idiocies on Capitol Hill. I know that she is a sharp media creation, but I watched this performance with my mouth open like a cartoon character. If a good friend of yours had just died suddenly, would you go on television at all? And if you did, because, oh I don't know, life has to go on or some other homily, would you not stipulate that it was the last thing you wanted to discuss? Surely some things should remain private?

I think the new media is mostly a marvellous thing; the internet is an Aladin's cave of wonders. I don't think it is rotting the minds of the young people or turning the middle-aged into morons. But when people use it to canibalise a moment of private sorrow, I think it has gone too far.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

In which the irony is so thick you can cut it with a hacksaw

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

One of the dangers of publishing a book is that it can, if you are not very careful, turn you into a monster. I realised today, to my unfathomable chagrin, that I have been in a vortex of solipsism (put that on a t-shirt) for the last couple of weeks that was so complete it was practically performance art. I spent so much time thinking about the book, and worrying about the book, and wondering what people thought of the book, that I forgot how to be a reasonably decent human being.
Even worse, I forgot how to be a good friend. One of the major themes of the book is the joy and art and vital nature of being and having a good friend. Romantic love is all very fine and thrilling, but it is your friends who will save your life. And I forgot how to be one.

So I have put myself in the corner with a big D for Dunce on my hat and have given myself a good talking to. Of course the other irony is that the book insists that perfectionism is one of the curses of that the modern female labours beneath, and that we should all step away from the impossible demands. It says: try not to lash yourself for every tiny lapse. I have indulged in a little lashing, because there is still a crazed part of me which wants to be a perfect person, although I have no idea what that person would look like, or whether anyone would actually want to spend any time with her. It’s practically post-modern.

Still, in a great leap forward in the quest to live by my own maxims, I have admitted that I was in the wrong. There is a whole section in the book about being in the wrong, and how you should own up to it at once and just apologise. I did that! And I never use exclamation marks. I hate bloody being in the wrong, it makes me stiff and cranky, like a cross old lady. But there is no question that I was far in it that I practically needed a passport to get back to good old Blighty.

It seems curious that after hours of therapy, years of pondering, a lifetime of reading, I should find myself, at the age of forty-two, getting in a fiendish twist about something so small and ephemeral as a book. It feels odd that I should get so lost in self-regard that I found myself shouting at someone I love dearly. I never shout. (This may be a slight delusion on my part.) But my friend has done just exactly what the book says that the good friends do: understood and forgiven.

I am going to stop mentioning the book in a moment, but here is one final thought. The main burden of its song is that, despite all the gleaming glossy images of womanhood hurled about in the media, in defiance of the mad stereotypes of domestic goddesses and yummy mummies, perhaps the contemporary female should just be herself, with all her flaws and frailties. Because that is the human condition, and that is sort of all right. I was all human condition today, and perhaps it is sort of all right.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

One for the ladies

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It’s been a demoralising week for females, with the release of a Home Office Survey revealing the depressing fact that there are still many people who think it is all right to hit a woman, and that rape victims are still seen as responsible for their fate (short skirt? She was asking for it). But today, there was an uncomplicated, shining moment of glory, when the fabulous Nina Carberry scored one for the girls.

‘Woman wins race’ might not seem like a banner headline, but when you take into account the contributing factors, we should all be hanging out more flags. This victory took place in the unreconstructed confines of British National Hunt racing, where women riders are so vanishingly rare that they have to change into their silks in broom cupboards, because the facilities are all for men. Racing is in some ways the noblest of sports - the first thing a losing jockey will do is congratulate the winner – but it can’t even spell feminism.
In some ways, the discrimination against women comes from an old-fashioned and quite charming courtliness. Men on the racecourse still lift their hats when they greet a lady, and the idea of half a ton of horse crashing down on a soft female body at 35 miles an hour makes them squeamish. Nina Carberry had to bash through some pretty entrenched ideas even to take her place in the starting line-up. But she was brought up riding like a cowgirl with her brothers, who admit that she is the best of the lot of them, and she has a famously sunny temperament that tends not to see obstacles to her ambitions.

Even more glorious, her win happened at Cheltenham, the Olympics of jump racing, the toughest and most brutal and most thrilling meeting of the year, where all the best horses from Britain and Ireland come to battle up the gruelling hill. There is no quarter given, and no excuses to be made. Every cliché is present – the sheep are sorted from the goats, the men from the boys; fortunes are won, gambles pulled off, and hearts are broken. Racing people look forward to it like children yearn for Christmas. More particular still, the race she won is a testing oddity – a cross country contest which twists and turns all over the course (acute navigational skills are required so that the riders do not get lost), and the horses must jump banks, ditches, hurdles, steeplechases, and an Aintree fence at an acute angle.

So she was up against everything – the men who still think the racecourse is no place for a women, a complicated race in the blue riband meeting of the year, a pack of determined and talented competitors. She plotted her strategy, and picked her moment, and nursed her horse over the three and half miles, and then pulled him out to give him plenty of daylight at the finish.

And when she won, the commentator said: ‘There is that famous Nina smile’. The grin of pure joy flashed out from her muddy face, and despite all the bad news that I have read this week, I thought: if a woman can do that, we can do anything.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

In which I contemplate the mystery of the 8.25 from Chippenham

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

8.25am. I am on the train. (You have to imagine me shouting that in the manner of a banker yelling into a mobile with a bad signal.) I am on the way to London to go on the wireless and talk about the book in an act of shameless self-promotion.

I did a little bit of this last week. I know that you are supposed to have your three things to say and then just say them, whatever the interviewer asks, but I have a fatal tendency to try and answer the question. Worst question last week, from an Irish disc jockey in Dublin: ‘Do we really need another book for women?’ And she was a woman.
Not very sisterly, I thought. I have been having manic ésprit d’éscalier ever since.
‘No one actually needs books,’ I said crossly, afterwards, to my cousin, who was trying to make a chicken. ‘I mean, no one needs War and Peace or Persuasion or The Great Gatsby. All a person needs is food and water and some shelter from the weather.’
(Afterwards I thought: I almost could say that I really do need Persuasion.)

Then, this morning, driving round a mini-roundabout in Chippenham, I stumbled upon the perfect answer to the question. This is how it should have gone:
Not Very Sisterly Irish Radio Host: ‘Do we actually need any more books for women?’
Me: ‘Yes.’

So now I am on the train getting ready for Radio Two and Radio Manchester, and I still can’t remember my Three Things. What I would really like to say to Claudia Winkleman, (for it is she) is: ‘Claudia, why do you suppose it is, that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a hundred years after our great-grandmothers tied themselves to the railings so that we might be free, the first class carriage of the 8.25 from Chippenham to Paddington is colonised entirely by men in suits?’
Why is that? No, really. Why?

There is one other woman in the entire carriage, of a certain age, reading the TLS, wearing a bold scarlet scarf. She looks like a critic or an academic. For the rest, it is entirely men with laptops. One of them has daringly worn a sage green ensemble with a pale pink rose in his lapel in the manner of absent-minded professors or the slightly odd teacher whom everyone adored at school, but for the rest it is blue or grey suit, black or brown shoes, and tap tap tap on the computer.

The lady who brings the drinks trolley (any more teas or coffees at all?) calls them sweetheart, as in ‘Anything else, sweetheart?’ They try not to look at me with disapproval, since I have broken the uniform code. I am wearing: black leather boots with stitching up the side, blue jeans, a dark purple jacket in very soft velvet which has been my favourite article of clothing for the last fifteen years, and a large red flower on my lapel. (I like a corsage; I would like to point out that I was wearing them long before Carrie Bradshaw had her floral moment.) My hair is the purple side of red, and my nail varnish, which I bought supposing it to be a classic rouge, has turned out to be more magenta in colour and has glittery sparkles mixed into it, so now I have disco nails. I think Claude Winkleman is going to appreciate this tremendously. The men on the 8.25? Not so much.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

If you do one thing today

Listen to Anne Widdecombe’s programme on Spinsters in Popular Culture for Radio Four BBC iPlayer - From Jean Brodie to Carrie Bradshaw: Spinsters in Popular Culture (available on the iplayer until 10th March). If you can get past the slightly maddening timbre of Widdecombe’s voice, you will find many treasures here.

Money quote: ‘The spinster is supposed to be a monument to regret.’

I am a spinster, and I feel neither monumental nor regretful. But what does make me crazy is that I am expected to defend and explain my decision not to marry, while those who rush through a whirlwind of romance and dance up the aisle in a large white dress get presents and flowers.
It drives me nuts that marriage is considered the default mode for all successful females, that without it they have somehow failed.
It sends me bonkers that pledging yourself to another single human is considered so much in the natural order of things that no one ever asks, ‘Have you actually thought through the ramifications of spending fifty years of your life with a man who likes watching Top Gear on a Sunday night?’.
It still makes my feminist heart beat with fury that the marriage ceremony involves one man giving one woman to another man, as if we are all in the male gift. And it makes my head spin off with frustration that any woman who questions marriage is dismissed as a cynic, or a freak, or a lesbian, or all three.

Don’t even start me on the false dichotomy. The idea goes that if a woman should choose not to marry she is not only definitively odd, but that she is somehow against marriage altogether; she is beadily judging all those who have chosen it, and is busy finding them wanting. It becomes us versus them, the bitter singletons ranged against the smug marrieds. Films and books and magazines and newspapers love spinning this idiot canard into entire industries, and repeat it so often that it burrows into the female subconscious like a universal truth instead of an entire wrong construction. (Imagine if whole classes of men were divided into husbands and bachelors, riven with conflict and mutual suspicion; it’s too bizarre to contemplate.)

I don’t want to get married, because it’s not my thing. I do reject the lazy idea that matrimony is the absolute single solution to a woman’s problems, the celestial highway to enduring joy, the one-way ticket to never being miserable again. I think some people are built for it and some are not. I think not doing it is not a failure, but a rational choice. I think you can be more lonely in a sad marriage than you will ever be on your own.

I look at the good marriages, and I know a few – the ones where there is affection, good jokes, sympathy and understanding, and a little crazy dose of what-the-fuck every once in a while – and I watch them in awe and wonder. I can not want to emulate them, but I can admire them, all the same.

A very strange day

Today, at around three o'clock, the telephone rang. There was no one in the house. Outside, the rain was racing across the lawn. The sky was the colour of old bath water. My publisher said: 'The book has gone into the Sunday Times bestseller list at number nine.'

I said: 'Are you making this up?' (I may have shouted.)
She said: 'No.'

Still, I shall not believe it until I see the actual newspaper in my hand on Sunday. It has such a whiff of strangeness about it that I can't understand in any rational frame that it might be true.

It is so strange that I am frowning as I write this. There are so many conflicting thoughts in my head that I can't make sense of them; they are all jockeying for position, like crazed shoppers on the first day of the Harrods sale.

The ones I can get any kind of grip on go something like this -

First of all, this is almost certainly a mistake. Second of all, Billy Connolly has a book out this week, which means all bets are off, because he is the most loved man in Britain. Third of all, one of the central tenets of Backwards in High Heels is how really professional success is all very well but it is not the answer to everything and actually the love of your female friends and the joy of having dogs and learning to make really good chicken soup are all much more important, and now I am obsessing about professional success. Fourth of all, I really must learn to be a bit more cool about this; I bet Julian Barnes doesn't go wiggy when his publisher rings him up and tells him he is on the Sunday Times bestseller list. I expect he just says, 'Well, that is nice,' and gets on with his day. I should not imagine that he shouts down the telephone.
Fifth of all, I have never used the expression 'go wiggy' in my life until today, when I used it four times, including just now in actual print. I cannot explain this in any way.

My co-writer rings up. She says: 'This is very strange.'
I say: 'Yes. I can't really explain it.'
I say: 'It can't all be my mother.' (My mother bought twenty copies on Amazon and has given them to all her friends. She signs them herself. My stepfather says that soon copies not signed by the author's mother will be vanishingly rare.)
My co-writer says: 'It's very strange.'
We ponder the strangeness of it for a while. There is a crunching noise.
She says: 'I am eating a crisp.'
I rally. I say: 'There really are complete strangers out there who are not related to us or anything who are buying our book.'
She says: 'We are no one. No one knows who we are.'
I say: 'Sometimes even members of our own family don't know who we are.'
She says: 'I can't explain it.'

We are both struck by the utter oddness that strange people who do not know who we are are going out there and buying our book in big enough numbers to make it be number nine on the Sunday Times bestseller list. We are both professional writers. We worked hard on this thing, for a long time. The agent, who does not get excited, got quite excited. It should not be so operatically strange. And yet, to us, it is. We are not Julian Barnes. There is no way we are going to begin to be cool about it.


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