Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Dressing down the sartorial naysayers

The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant (published by Virago)

Novelist Linda Grant doesn’t claim to be a stylist or even a fashion buff. What she enjoys, she explains, are good clothes. And shoes. And handbags.

So what she has set out to do in her new book is to explore why clothes are important – and why making an effort to think about how we dress is not wasted time.

This accessible – and in places very, very funny – book is not what you’d call a work of scholarly rigour, but Grant still manages to get across a number of messages with enjoyable ease.

She illustrates, with just a cursory look at the distant past, how humans have always cared about how they look – about how they present themselves, from the earliest adornments and tattoos. Which, as she points out, makes a nonsense of the view that fashion is only a product of capitalism and consumerism, and that shallow women are just manipulated into contemplating matters sartorial.

She also illustrates the inherent misogyny in the view that thinking or talking about clothes is an indicator of vapidity. Men base so many of their responses to women on how women look, and criticise them if they don’t look ‘good’, but also criticise the time they spend achieving that look.

As Grant points out, we have to wear clothes: a man begging on the street might have plenty of people pass by and ignore him. But if he’s naked, the police will turn up pretty quickly and take him away. Clothes, in our society, are not an option. It might sound howlingly obvious, but if that’s the case, why do some people consider it to be an indicator of a weak mind – or a capitalist plot – when people enjoy thinking about clothes, shopping and dressing?

Why, for instance, is shopping derided more than, say, watching football or playing dangerous sports or playing shoot-em-ups on a computer – or any other predominantly male form of pleasure?

Grant rails against clothing being limited to the strictly utilitarian, and peppers the book with anecdotes about her own mother – the daughter of immigrants – who understood the way clothing could be used to help fit in. And there is a series of interviews with Canadian style doyen Catherine Hill, an Auschwitz survivor whose teenage life was possibly saved by a moment of old-fashioned, female vanity.

The point that, in the 19th century, department stores were a new and liberating place for women, where they could go unchaperoned, is made too (see Zola's The Ladies' Paradise). And how new designs (by designers, thus stressing the importance of designers) for shoes and dresses also helped in the process of liberating women (from corsets etc).

We read how Coco Chanel created the timeless little black dress as long ago as 1926, and how, in the aftermath of WWII, women swooned for Christian Dior’s beautiful New Look.

Grant is quite clear that fashion – in terms of the catwalks etc – is not ‘real’ clothing, but a form of art, and every bit as valid as a painting or a piece of music. However, she also believes that our innate desire to look aesthetically good – to be attractive – is “irrational”.

But that begs the question of whether art in general is irrational – indeed, whether it’s irrational to consider aesthetics in anything that could be strictly utilitarian (architecture, for instance). And unless you think it is, then it’s difficult to conclude that clothing should adhere to a different ethos.

Grant ends with the story of a single red, high-heeled, patent shoe that she spotted on the top of a display of shoes at Auschwitz, where they’d been stolen from owners who were mostly destined for the gas chamber.

She dares us to denigrate the unknown victim of the Holocaust who had worn or carried with her on that final journey, shoes that she loved.

And she leaves us with a challenge – to live and to make the most of it. Including in the enjoyment of what we wear.

This feels a little like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion: as he was eventually provoked by fundamentalists into writing, so Grant has been poked with a stick by those (including women) who pour derision on others for taking care over what they wear.

And while it doesn’t have quite the force of Dawkins’s work, it’s an enjoyable, interesting and welcome rebuttal to a particular attitude and critique.

Monday, 30 March 2009

The joy of chocolate

There can be distinct advantages to being stuck in the house all day.

Here I am, still ‘guarding’ the flat, spending a second week working at home.

So the question arises: what does one do with one’s lunch hour?

Well, I had just the thing in mind. Some of Saturday’s sweet, vanilla-flavoured shortcrust pastry was still in the fridge, so it was the business of mere minutes to roll it out and line the tart tin while the oven was heating. Greaseproof paper and baking beans inside, and it was ready to go.

Next, halving the measures in yet another Gordon Ramsay recipe, take 200g of good quality chocolate (about 70% cocoa solids) and break it into a bowl. Heat 125ml of double cream with 75% water, until just reaching the boil, then pour onto the chocolate and whisk until it’s all blended.

The pastry case has had its basic cooking by now, so you take it out, remove the greaseproof paper and beans, and give it another five minutes on a slightly lower heat. Then give it another three minutes after brushing the pastry all over with a glaze of beaten egg yolk and water. Take out and set on one side.

Take a beaten whole egg and add it to the chocolate mix. Whisk in. Then very carefully pour the chocolate ganache through a fine sieve and into the tart case. Slide out an oven shelf and pop the baking tray and tin on to it. Top up the chocolate mixture.

Cook for 25 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave it for another half an hour. Remove and leave to cool. Then chill. Just before serving, dust with sifted icing sugar and cocoa powder.

Now that is the way to spend a lunch hour – and I assure you, it is absolutely divine!

Sunday, 29 March 2009

A Sunday in the kitchen

It’s Sunday, it’s the morning and I’m on my own for the day so, as Mr Gershwin might ask: what to do, what to do what to do?

It seems amazing that, even though I’m conscious of it now, I still get twinges of guilt if I’m not ‘doing things’ all the time – even when I have a day off work.

Cooking fulfils the need to ‘do things’ – and gives me an increasing amount of pleasure, so I don’t have to give myself excuses for spending time in such a fashion.

So what to cook today?

I have decided to try my hand at a different sort of bread – a date and pecan loaf. To start with, this means dealing with a different type of flour – granary – and then adding the dried yeast differently too; not by mixing it first with liquid, but by putting straight into the flour and salt, and then adding warmed milk and water.

Even after adding all of the specified liquid (and I am an Überpedant when it comes to measuring ingredients during baking), it’s not coming together completely. Fortunately, I’ve seen enough cookery programmes and read enough books to know not to panic and to simply add a little more warmed water.

Knead for about 10 minutes (at which point I realise the error of not removing my baggy, comfortable old sweatshirt first), until it’s a pleasingly elastic dough, then pop into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film and stick into the airing cupboard.

An hour, and a few essential but boring chores later, the dough is ready to be knocked back and have the fruit and nuts added.

Eh? It’s like trying to cram a quart into a pint pot. At least, for such a seemingly impossible task, I’ve removed my sweatshirt first, and am standing in the kitchen with arms bared and just a t-shirt between me and the dough. It’s an elemental struggle!

I get as much in as I feel is possible, then kneed again for another couple of minutes before it’s rolled it into a ball, plopped it on a baking tray, covered in a clean tea towel and returned to the warm shelf above the boiler.

It might not be very Francophile, but Oasis makes a great driving accompaniment for such endeavour.

Amazingy, it’s almost 3pm when the second proofing is complete. Time flies when you’re having fun. A quick brush with water, a generous dusting with more of the granary flour, and it can go into the pre-heated oven.

Now, for the first time in what seems to have been a frenetic weekend, I’m going to go and sit down and have a read.

Some time later, the bread is cooked. But for all the magnificent aroma, you can’t eat it yet. Oh no, you have to wait to let it cool at least a bit. It’s a form of torture. And in today’s specific case, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as mad for a slice of ‘mere’ bread.

Thus comes the ‘Oh My God’ moment. Still warm, so the butter starts to melt invitingly. So sweet from the dates. Gorgeous. That’s three slices gone already.

More reading. And then: good grief! Where has the time gone?

It’s almost 6pm, but still light, since this is the first day of British Summer Time. It catches you out.

So to dinner. I’m continuing yesterday’s Gordon Ramsay mood, but this time with a dish from A Passion for Flavour: roasted salmon with a sweet and sour red pepper sauce.

To start with, that means softening very finely chopped red pepper and shallot in butter, together with some herbs. Now, partly because this dish is only for one person and not the four that the recipe is designed for, I’m adapting a bit. That and not having all the recommended ingredients.

I haven’t got any Noilly Prat, which chefs seem to love. Vermouth is the next best thing and there’s always some in the cupboard for risotto.

One of the herbs that I don’t have is tarragon, but since I have a French tarragon white wine vinegar, that can easily substitute for the plain white wine vinegar in the book. And one pepper (a red one) will to do instead of two red and two yellow. And today – what a crime! – it’ll be veg stock out of a bottle and not a proper, homemade vegetable nage. So there, Gordon! But thanks for the recipe anyway.

Ramsay has been on telly a couple of times in the last week, with new episodes of the US version of Kitchen Nightmares.

One can’t help but wonder why, if restaurant owners contact the production company to ask them to send in the gobby Glaswegian genius because help is required, so many of them are then so reluctant to take the advice that is dished out?

The pepper sauce has had the vermouth, the tarragon white wine vinegar and the stock added, been simmered for 20 minutes and then had the herbs removed.

Rice is now on and the oven heating for the salmon. For a Ramsay concoction, this seems really easy. All the sauce needs to finish it is a little more butter whisked in. The fish gets 10 minutes in the oven – nothing more required except to sit down and eat, with a glass of red wine and some Dean Martin on the deck.

Perhaps this is one of the most indulgent things that you can ever do – cook really good food just for yourself?

And on that note – cheers!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The curse of the tangy tart

It was June 2003 when I made my first effort to cook a tarte au citron, a night that I doubt I'll ever forget – but for all the wrong reasons, and none of which had anything to do with my cooking.

Just after the tart had gone in the oven, I discovered that one of our cats was seriously ill. It was a Saturday and we'd never had Mabel and her brother registered with a vet. I hit the phone while The Other Half tried to comfort her. Once we found her, half under the bed and unable to move, she started crying. Mack, her brother, stayed out of the way, behind a chair in the living room.

It took hours to find a vet that was open that night – and then a taxi that would take us and a cat. By the time the cab arrived, she'd died.

Needless to say, the tart was ruined – even if we'd felt remotely like eating anything. And I haven't attempted to make any such thing again – until today.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision really, inspired by my standard Saturday morning browse through some cookery books. In this case, an orange and lemon tart from Gordon Ramsay's A Chef for all Seasons. I appreciate that Ramsey isn't everyone's cup of the proverbial, but I've learnt a lot from his books. They are, I suggest, about real, classic, French-based cooking, which can teach you a huge amount about the basics – why reductions work, for instance.

And so early this afternoon, I started on the pastry. It was hardly what I'd describe as an easy task, beating sugar and butter together for the start of the sweet shortcrust pastry. You can develop muscles doing this sort of thing. A vanilla pod was then split and the seeds scraped into the mix, followed by egg and flour.

I'd just got it wrapped in cling film and into the fridge to rest when the curse of the tangy tart hit again. The Other Half's computer decided to have a hissy fit and cease working. Apple were helpful, but he couldn't get an appointment at the Apple Store to see if it's fixable until Tuesday.

I had an Oscar Wilde moment: 'To lose one computer may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two computers in just over a week looks like carelessness.'

Given that I have been sans computer since the St Patrick's Day burglary, The Other Half's set up was essential. Indeed, it had allowed me to work from home over the last week, thus ensuring that the fort was always guarded. With no working computer, we'd both have to go into the office next week – and the new security measures aren't due for another seven days.

Or I could take a couple of days off work altogether – and, since I'm freelance, lose money.

Or I could bolt into the West End and replace my own computer straight away.

It wasn't much of a choice. So, I have a Mac again – and a sexy beast it is too.

But back to the tart. Fortunately, although the pastry had been rested for rather longer than planned, it still rolled out easily enough. It wasn't perfect, as I realised after the blind baking. I hadn't kneaded it enough to get all the air out of it, so there were a few little bubbles in the base. But it wasn't too drastic.

The filling saw orange and lemon juice reduced considerably, then cooled. In the meantime, grated zest from a lemon and an orange was added to caster sugar, egg yolks and cream, and poured into the pastry case.

It was baked at a low temperature for around 45 minutes, then left in the switched-off oven for another hour to set, before being dusted with sifted icing sugar and caramelised with a blowtorch – not once, but twice. While it was baking, I made a stock syrup and a confit of orange and lemon to serve with it.

After all that, it was delicious.

And hopefully, that's the end of the curse of the tangy tart.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

A spot of poetic justice

Families are funny. They try so very hard to inculcate you with all their own beliefs – and prejudices. It’s downright Jesuitical: ‘Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man’, which itself is based on a quotation by one Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary.

As Oscar Hammerstein II so eloquently put it in South Pacific:

    “You've got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight
    To hate everybody your relatives hate,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

My parents had plenty of prejudices to impart. Well, particularly my father, whose personal repertoire included pretty much any group that he could think of from outside England (plus a few inside), with suitably deprecating (if unimaginative) terms for all of them. Never let it be said that he allowed his vocation as a clergyman to interfere with those prejudices. Rather, as he explained to me once about matters political, one had to take into account ‘real life’. His faith could never be allowed to permeate all areas of his existence – just those that he decided were convenient.

He also, of course, has spent years protesting that he didn’t really mean the things he said – that when actually meeting people from foreign climes (or homosexuals), he had no difficulties. That, however, has long felt like rather tawdry pleading.

But he reserved a special hatred for Germans. He’d stood on a hill near the Cornish backwater in which he grew up and watched the fires of the Blitz over his beloved Plymouth. He carried the detestation for many, many years afterwards.

When he retired in 2000, his parishioners gave him and my mother a 10-day holiday to southern Germany, with tickets for the millennium staging of the passion play at Oberammergau thrown in for good measure. He went into panic – partly at the thought of flying, but primarily because it was in Germany. Yes, I had to hear the old stuff about the war all over again and how he didn’t really want to go.

I suppose that, once you believe in the ‘sins of the fathers’, you can go on blaming people for something that they personally had no involvement in – whilst conveniently having a burst of forgetfulness over the ‘sins’ of one’s own ‘fathers’. That is how it seems to work.

In the event, they enjoyed themselves. And even, in succeeding years, returned to that general area of the world.

But his detestation had a peculiar impact on me.

Some of my first clear memories of football are of him screaming abusively at the television as England faced West (as it was then) Germany in the 1966 World Cup final (one of my first memories), and then again in the 1970 tournament. It reduced me, a young child, to tears – not least, I assume, of fear. My mother would tell him off, but to little avail.

He still rants and raves, but his powers have waned to nothing, and any aura of authority that once he had has evaporated. I watch him now and see that he is small and that he knows that his time has passed; that I have grown beyond his control and that I harbour – how shall I put this delicately – ambiguous feelings toward him.

But, perhaps strangely, his bellicosity did nothing to dissuade me from developing a personal passion for football.

And over the years, whilst I wouldn’t dare say anything, I’d watch such matches, in his presence, and silently hope that the Krauts, the Bosch, the Hun would win. I had learned to take pleasure in his bilious disappointment. Schadenfreude. How delightfully German.

In the 1970s, I took music as one of my study options at school. That in turn introduced me to Beethoven – and Haydn and Schubert and Bach and … Well, you get the gist. The music that I loved was German.

Then there was history. It was a compulsory subject, but I found it, for the most part, pretty dull. Corn Laws aren’t really very sexy. A solitary area of our two-year ‘O’ level course interested me, actually claimed my imagination: Bismarck and German unification. Goodness knows why, but it did.

Fast forward over 20 years. I was working at the Guardian, subbing an article from the paper’s German correspondent about Prussia, Potsdam and the Lange Kerls, Friedrich Wilhelm I’s 17th-century regiment of extraordinarily tall soldiers. A different period perhaps, but it reminded me of that interest in 19th-century Prussia. I went out the next day and bought a history book.

A few more such volumes have been added since. Indeed, it’s now become one of my tests of how good a bookshop is to check the history shelves and see if German history covers anything other than the years 1933-1945. Most shops fail, not least because the British (primarily the English, I think it's fair to say) remain obsessed with that period – probably because it’s the last real time we were really important on the global stage, and for once we actually managed to be unambiguously on the side of the angels.

My history reading has expanded, all the way back to the Thirty Years War and into the early 20th century, but it remains an ongoing and developing passion. Explaining it to others, The Other Half has referred to me more than once as “a romantic Prussian”.

Then I discovered foreign-language films – and shortly thereafter, silent film. I’ve got quite a nice little collection of Weimar cinema now.

And literature, of course.

Shortly before that Guardian experience, I’d been working for a company where I’d met a German colleague. Old prejudices go far deeper than we sometimes realise. I remember being astonished to discover that he had a sense of humour. Deep down, and never challenged by actually meeting any Germans until then, I had retained an unquestioning faith in the idea of the humourless Teuton.

He became my closest friend and, upon being asked, offered up various suggestions for reading. Indeed, he introduced me to Thomas Mann – although without realising quite the impact that that would have on me.

We were travelling across London one day to go shopping at a specialist Spanish deli near Notting Hill Gate, sitting atop an old Routemaster bus, when I happened to mention that I’d got a colleague called Brunhilde (amazingly, I’ve met a number of Germans since I first met him). He asked if I knew anything about the name. I didn’t. So he told me the story of Brunhilde and Siegfried and Kriemhild.

I was in my late thirties, yet nobody – absolutely nobody – had ever sat down and related a story to me like that. When he reached the climax, as Kriemhild orders the burning of the hall with all the Burgundians in it, I was utterly shattered. It was the moment at which I finally understood that the UK's soppy excuse for romanticism is not what romanticism really means.

There’s a word in the Concise Oxford Dictionary for the sum of all this (as you might fairly expect): ‘Germanophile’.

It reached an apotheosis when, a couple of years ago, I started digging around for information about my family background. Neither of my parents knows much or cares enough, it seems, to set down a family tree of even the most casual sort.

My Cornish father (with Devonian blood) is a Celt (his red hair darkened before I was born), whose only interest in his ancestors is pride in the knowledge that one was hung as a smuggler. How very Cornish.

On the other side, her mother's mother’s maiden name was ‘Ingham’. With no other information to go on and a complete lack of parental interest, I started trying to find out the origin of this unusual name.

Some time after, I discovered that it meant ‘Ing’s hold’, which didn’t leave me feeling much better informed.

It took an age (I wasn’t very good at this sort of research) to discover that ‘hold’ was ‘home’, and then that ‘Ing’ was one of a number of old Germanic names for the goddess Freya. (It’s also an old English dialect word for a water meadow, but ‘water meadow’s home’ doesn’t really make a lot of sense)

Now I’m guessing here, but it suggests to me that one strand of the family comes down from the Saxon period. It’s probably only a few drops by now, diluted many times over, but I can probably claim a bit of Germanic blood.

What I cannot do is convey to you quite the level of my amusement at this discovery. Schadenfreude, anyone?

Tickled pink, I told my parents. Oh, the horror with which this information was greeted. It was like some form of divine retribution.

Like so many other inconvenient things in our family (my authorship of a collection of erotic short stories is another perfect example), it was quickly and quietly brushed under the proverbial carpet. But I know. And I know that they know. And that they know that I know that they know.

Your parents, as Philip Larkin so eloquently put it, may “fuck you up”. But it’s nothing by comparison with the revenge that you can, so sweetly and in oh so many ways, exact in later life.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Of Rugby League and facial hair

Performing my morning ablutions today, I took time out to cream off the growth on my upper lip. I'm convinced that the rate I grow hair like that indicates high levels of testosterone or something – If I left it, I'd end up with a rather obvious moustache and could tour the country as a 21st-century version of the bearded lady.

But it reminded me, as such a process often does, of my affection for facial hair (on men, that is).

It was only a very few years ago that I suddenly had one of those lightbulb-over-the-head moments and realised that almost all my boyfriends down the years have had facial hair. Pure coincidence? I doubt it.

Another thing eventually struck me: the first man who ever treated me like the proverbial little princess was my maternal grandfather. And he wore a moustache: a white somewhat Ronald Colemanesque affair by the time I knew him.

My grandfather died when I was about seven or eight, leaving me as the only one of the four grandchildren who remembers him. But remember him I do.

He'd started his adult life as an office boy in a steel company in the north west, and worked his way up to being the company boss.

My first memories of him are set against a background of the large house he and my grandmother lived in by then. I was sat on his knee and knocked his cigarette, setting light to the armchair. But I wasn't in trouble.

He'd sing to me – Coming Round the Mountain and the Maurice Chevalier hit from Gigi, Thank Heaven for Little Girls. And he'd show me an incredibly delicate music box that, when you opened it, would reveal a tiny feathered bird that went round and round, raising it's wings and singing. When my oldest uncle dies, it will come to me.

I already have a book of British birds that had been his. I'd sit on his knee and pour over the beautiful colour pictures, calling the owls "pussy birdies" and gigling at his moustache, as though that made him a "pussy birdy" too.

When staying at my grandparents' house, I used to scramble into their bed in the morning – something that never happened at home. My grandmother is a hazy figure in those memories; only later did she take on a more distinct and clear form. From those days, only my grandfather is clear in my mind's eye.

They retired to a bungalow on the Isle of Man, and for two or three years, we flew out in old DC Dakotas from Liverpool Speke (now John Lennon Airport) to holiday there.

He'd take me down in his big car to the dockside at Ramsey, where we'd stand together watching as the fishing boats came in, and then buy fresh herring straight from the fishermen.

He chased me around the living room, hiding behind chairs, peering out with a mischievous expression, a rolled newspaper in his hand, pretending that he was going to use it if he got near enough. I'd squeal with pleasure and a kind of excited fear (if you can possibly call it that). He never did actually catch me, of course. It was all about the chase.

I'd sit on the step of the kitchen door and pod fresh peas. We'd occasionally have a whole plate for supper, served with nothing more than salt and butter.

And every morning when I woke, it was to the sound of the gulls, shrieking as they wheeled above, for all the world looking as though they flew and surfed the thermals for the sheer fun of it.

We'd walk down the narrow, winding path that led down the cliff face to the park that lay below. There were little go karts that required an old sixpence to make them go, and a long slide that I fell off once – fortunately only right near the bottom – leaving a sight scar over my right brow.

Sometimes we'd get in the car with my parents and go to Point of Ayre, and stand on the stoney beach below the lighthouse, all throwing pebbles at targets made of piled stones, topped with an empty drinks can. A few years later, my grandfather's ashes were scattered there.

He died, as I said, when I was very young. I was devastated. But in recent years, I've come to think that I'm almost glad that he died when he did. I've learnt, over the years, that he was a bit of an old reactionary – we'd have disagreed about so much. But instead, he remains safe and secure in my memories – completely unsullied by such unsavoury realities.

I discovered something more about him a few years ago.

In the late 1920s and into the 1930s, he'd been the secretary to St Helens Rugby League Football Club in the north west. Later, he was a director of the club.

But in 1930, Saints had reached the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. The team set out on the Friday in a charabanc. I have a photo on the wall at home of them, looking oh-so-serious, standing outside the coach, waiting to board for the journey south. A few sport flat caps or trilbies. My grandfather stands at the end, one of two club officials traveling with the party, booted and suited, a badge on his lapel, a sheaf of papers in his left hand and bowler-hatted, a heavy-lidded, insouciant look on his face, and with the obligatory dog that's crept onto the picture standing by his feet. There was no moustache in those days.

Well, Saints lost that final. The story I'd heard over the years was that the team had all been drinking in London on the Friday night after they'd arrived, and were too hungover to do themselves justice in the game itself.

But a few years ago, when The Other Half and I were attending a Rugby League game in London, we got chatting to someone who, having heard this story, announced that he knew the Saints' club historian – and that my little tale wasn't completely accurate.

We waited with baited breath to hear what had really happened – only to be told that they hadn't been drinking, they'd spent the night in a brothel.

The Other Half looked nervously in my direction, wondering how I'd take this news. I burst into laughter. "At least there was one character in the family!" I said, with something of a sense of relief. And given that my grandmother was a cold fish (who also bullied her daughter when my mother was a child), I can't say I blame him.

Some weeks later, I told my mother. Then I was the one who was shocked, on realising that she didn't seem surprised. And a few years further down the line, when my niece starting watching the sport, the story came up again. My mother glanced at me with a look that said: 'Don't tell her the real version just yet'. So I didn't. But one day I will.

My mother idolised her father – he was the bulwark between her and her mother, and he spoilt her and made her, I think, feel really cherished. A generation later, he repeated the trick with me.

I can't see my father in any those memories from the time – or rather, I have no really positive memories of him. It's as though he didn't exist for me personally, merely as a supporting actor in the play going on around me. But the man with the moustache did – and still does in my memories. And, without ever intending to or without me ever realising it until the last few years, he left me with an abiding attraction to moustachioed men.

Back in 1996, I was reporting on my third Challenge Cup final from Wembley. Coincidentally, Saints were playing, and beat Bradford in an absolute classic. I suspect my grandfather had pretty conservative views of what women should or should not do, but at that moment, I felt sure that his moustache would have bristled with pride, as his own granddaughter sat in the press box to report as his beloved Saints won the cup.

Of course it's only a fancy, but I rather think I'd be right.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Let me eat bread!

Silver linings and all. I'm working from home this week so that somebody is here at 'guard' the flat at all times until the new security measures are in place.

Fortunately, my editor was good enough to agree readily to the plan – and equally fortunately, this is a comparatively light week.

So in my campaign to turn negative to positive, I'm spending my screen breaks in the kitchen. Yesterday, it was mayonnaise. Today, it's some really quite serious baking.

The plan sounds simple (and French) enough: bake some bread and then, later on, embark on a first effort to make quiche.

To be fair, I've baked bread before, at the most basic level, while I have occasionally made pastry with reasonable success.

But I'm stepping up the challenge a tad.

Firstly, this will be a first attempt at using a starter dough – I'm trying a baguette. Then, since The Other Half doesn't like cheese, the quiche will be adapted from assorted recipes, and will have shallot and smoked streaky bacon as a filling, and sans the cheese.

The first step is to don an apron. My mother used to make me wear a pinny at meal times until ridiculously late, so I've hated them since, but occasional bursts of baking do render it necessary if I don't want to be coated in flour.

Then there's the measuring and sifting of the two flours (strong bread flour and plain flour, plus salt), followed by dissolving the yeast in warm water and letting it have 10 minutes to get going.

Yeast is amazing – a miraculous, living thing. It doesn't look alive – but it most certainly is.

So, beat the yeast with half the sifted flour and salt, and then cover and leave for four hours.

I had my doubts about how alive that yeast was on 30 minutes – nothing seemed to be happening. So I transferred the bowl onto the shelf in the airing cupboard. Three and a half hours on – presto! It's risen and then collapsed – just as the books said it would.

Mix the rest of the flour in and then kneed for a bit – getting everything messy, if you're me. Pop into a clean bowl, cover and leave in a warm place for a further hour.

And whilst waiting, one can contemplate (in true Francophile fashion) the question of bread and France. I love the idea that, by law, every single town or village has to have a proper bakery that bakes proper, fresh bread every single day.

Of course, to get an idea of just how much bread is a part of French culture, one only needs think of Marie Antoinette, who famously said of the peasantry: "Let them eat bread!" Except that, apparently, she didn't. She actually said: "Let them eat brioche", which makes a modicum more sense, since brioche requires less flour than bread.

Such contemplations over, the dough has to be 'knocked back' (thumped a few times to get the air out of it) and is then placed on a floured tray and covered with a cloth for another hour.

It smells extraordinary – like beer. That's that lovely old yeast working away.

Then we bake, with a roasting tin of boiling water in the bottom of the oven.

And while that cooks, it's time to start part two of today's culinary adventure: the quiche.

The pastry is not difficult, but it takes time and patience to 'peck' the chilled, diced butter into the sifted flour. Since it's now gone 5pm and I'm no longer 'at work' too, on to the little kitchen stereo I put Gershwin's Lady Be Good (the Tommy Krasker restoration of the original show) and soon find myself singing along. Almost dancing too, although that's not quite as easy when you're up to your elbows in flour, water, eggs and butter.

Then that goes to rest just as the bread comes out of the oven, crisp and golden. And thus a bottle of cheap but always pleasingly gutsy Tempranillo is opened. I'm an ineffably good mood – I feel as though it's a sort of total 'fuck you' to the burglar. Food, wine and music are a good combination for such statements.

After leaving the pastry a decent time, half of it is rolled out and then placed in a small, fluted quiche dish, before being placed in the freezer for 10 minutes (that's a Jamie Oliver hint). Then the base is pricked (because I forgot to do it before chilling it) and the oven is heated. In the meantime, thinly sliced onion and smoked, streaky bacon are cooking gently in some ordinary olive oil.

This is already the most amount of baking I've done in a single day – but at no point has it felt onerous. Quite the opposite. There's something enormously rewarding about baking – perhaps particularly bread. It's so earthy; so ancient and real.

The egg and cream mixture has been whisked and seasoned. We're just waiting for the pastry case to finish the blind baking.

Oops. The case has shrunk – I trimmed the pastry around the top too early. Memo to self: don't trim until after the blind baking in future. Still, it takes all the onion and bacon, and most of the egg and cream mixture. Just 35-40 minutes to cook now.

Gershwin’s Girl Crazy is my accompaniment now … irresistible music. How can people claim that Cole Porter was the greatest composer of the era?

Here we go – almost ready now.

I’ll let you know tomorrow how it turned out! I’ve got some serious eating to do now!

Monday, 23 March 2009

Of spring days and mayonnaise

I'm glad I used to do a fair bit of bodybuilding in my twenties. You need a strong arms for making mayonnaise.

Early last year, I made my first allioli – the wonderful garlic mayo that heralds from Catalonia. The instructions came courtesy of Rick Stein's Mediterranean cookbook, and it was initially only intended as an experiment.

I like to try things once – so that I understand what the process is (before buying the ready-made version next time). I've tried houmous and taramasalata and tapenade for exactly that reason. Only tapenade has not been shop bought since.

Thus I tried my hand at allioli. But the thing was, it was so utterly gorgeous, that the experiment convinced me that I'd make it again. And again.

And now, this lunchtime, I've made my first mayonnaise proper. More instructions courtesy of Mr Stein. Two lovely egg yolks, with two teaspoons of white wine vinegar, half a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of dry mustard all plopped in a bowl with a damp cloth underneath to keep it from slipping. Take a whisk and gently break the yolks. Then start – extremely slowly – dripping in 300ml of oil (you can use sunflower oil, but I stick with virgin olive oil) and whisking it into the eggs, vinegar, salt and mustard.

The mixture doesn't get looser – it stiffens up: that's the hard bit and my bicep was groaning more than it has in years. But it's a glorious, smooth texture and a wonderful, bright yellow – reminiscent of the daffodils that are now in bloom. The taste ... well, the taste is like incredible.

It screams to me of sun, sea and squid on the Med – or chips in Amsterdam and Berlin. Nothing out of a jar, hauled down from a supermarket shelf, could ever taste of such things, of such memories.

So why do cooks and chefs claim so vociferously that mayonnaise is difficult to make? If you measure your ingredients carefully, take your time adding the oil and work those arm muscles, it's a doddle.

And such a process, when it produces something so special, can hardly be viewed as onerous.

Not, of course, that it should ever be pleasurable. At least that was my mother's view. I remember her intoning: "We eat to live – we don't live to eat". Technically correct, of course, but what she meant was to emphasise the role of food as fuel alone – don't be having any sensual pleasure from it.

Whether because of that attitude – or whether that attitude grew out of something else – my mother has never enjoyed cooking. She's worked hard at it – indeed, she's turned into an art form the ability to take two hours to prepare something that I could do in 30 minutes. She's always been dutiful in preparing food for her family – but then again, duty is A Good Thing. Pleasure is not.

And neither I nor my sister were ever taught to cook. We had to do chores in the kitchen – scraping new potatoes in the summer, prepping sprouts in the winter – and drying up. But we didn't get to actually try any cooking or baking. Mother also considered domestic science at school to be a complete waste of time and money, so I was hauled from those classes as quickly as possible.

It begs the question of where she imagined one learnt any basic culinary skills. By the time I left home, I had not a clue.

Perhaps it's the case throughout the UK?

Perhaps that's why celebrity chefs and cooks always make out that mayonnaise is so, so risky – so very difficult to get just right. Because such an awful lot of people in the UK can hardly do much more than pop a ready meal in the microwave?

I'm never sure whether I want to evangelise about food – or keep it as at least a partial secret. Perhaps that's what those chefs have decided – to retain for themselves a little secret about mayonnaise (and thus retain for themselves the kudos of being clever enough to make it)

But as of today, I'm in on their secret. I have a new skill: I can make mayonnaise. It's gorgeous – and it won't be the last time.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Let's help to tackle 'corrective' rape

In South Africa, there has been a rise in so-called 'corrective' rapes of lesbians, whereby lesbian women are raped in order to 'make them straight'.

It's bad enough in major urban areas such as Cape Town, but even worse outside in more rural areas.

The rights of gays and lesbians are protected under South African law, but these crimes are not being recognised by the legal system as hate crimes on the basis of sexuality.

Please sign this petition to help raise this issue with the South African government, and to raise the issue of so-called 'corrective' rapes.

Please, help to make a difference now.

Capital crime

It was the evening on St Patrick's – although that had nothing to do with why The Other Half and I were having a post-work drink in the staff bar.

After much conversation with friends and colleagues – commiserating with one on the death last weekend of his father, celebrating with another his birthday – we departed for home.

It was probably not much after 9pm when we climbed out of a cab and made our way to the door. The Queen B was sitting on the windowsill of our little office, with the closed blinds behind her, waiting for us.

We unlocked the door, starting taking coats off, putting the kettle on etc. I pottered into the little office and switched the light on. Even after a the benefit of a few beers, it didn't take me long to spot that my computer was missing. As in not on the desk where it had been when I'd left the flat that morning. As in – gone.

We fairly quickly discovered that one of the kitchen windows, which face the road in our ground-floor flat, had been carefully prised open, breaking two locks. Vases and bottles on the windowsill had been equally carefully moved – somebody didn't want to make a noise by knocking anything over, although they'd left a nice big bootprint on the kitchen table.

I got my phone out and called the police. What was faintly irritating was being asked utterly irrelevant questions such as: "Can I have your birthdate?" Does age affect whether or not a burglary was a burglary or whether burglary is a crime?

After I'd conveyed my details, I realised that both my cameras had gone too. A freelance hackette – with all my essential tools gone (well okay – I still had pens and paper, but I'm not sure whether I can remember how to write with such tools in these post-quill days).

That was the moment at which I burst into tears, crying (with exemplary dedication) that I had three photographic jobs to do at work the next day and what was I going to do about it.

That was also the point at which The Other Half tried to tell me to 'calm down', adding: "I know you feel violated".

Well, actually no I don't. This is a popular phrase for describing one's reactions to a burglary, but it's not what I feel.

Not that the police were particularly interested. They didn't bother coming out on Tuesday night. So inevitably some of the 'crime scene' was compromised, as we had to get a company out to secure the window. We look tres, tres old Hackney now, with a great big boarded-up window.

We'll look rather more new Hackney in about 10 days, when grilles are fitted over all the windows at the front, and the front door is strengthened.

Until then, we'll just have to make sure that we don't have a night out together, leaving the place alone after dark.

The relief, of course, is that it was a 'professional' job. Subsequent police enquiries (they eventually bothered to call around on Wednesday, and then send a forensic team down later that day) found a neighbour who'd faintly seen a single individual appearing to jump from a ground-floor window, and recalled thinking: 'how strange – why would the owners be doing that?'

The burglar looked through some drawers, but decided my jewelry wasn't remotely interesting. Thus nothing of sentimental value was taken. My kit was all insured and I can replace it straight away without waiting for the insurance company to cough up. I also have a back-up hard drive, so I haven't lost loads of work. And the burglar was not interested in trashing anything.

So no – I don't feel 'violated', but I still feel pissed off. And I'll feel that my home is a little more secure after the grilles are in place.

I'd like to think they'd get the burglar, but I don't expect it. The police refusal to even come out on the night of the crime doesn't exactly tell me that they feel very interested in the case. Which in some ways irritates me more than the burglar himself. No, that's not to excuse the burglar for the crime – but if the police are barely interested, then why should anyone feel dissuaded from committing such crimes?

And it's not even any point asking whether heavier sentences etc would make a difference with such police indifference.

For a long time I've thought that what is needed for the sake (if nothing else) of public confidence is more police actually patrolling the streets – 'beat coppers' as they were known in the olden days, before they all sat in canteens, waiting to be taken by the van load to arrest one shoplifter who'd already been apprehended by shop security (and yes, I have actually seen such situations).

In the meantime, we shall blockade ourselves in a little more than before. I don't feel 'violated' and I do not feel like playing some sort of 'victim' card, but adding the grilles and stuff does feel a little like a form of giving in to the crooks.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Chelsea flowers show

Spring is sprung! As these beautiful blossoms show so clearly. And look at that gorgeous blue sky. It was warmer in London yesterday than it was in Istanbul. Amazing.

The picture was taken in Fulham, west London – but since it was right next to Chelsea Football Club's ground, I'm going to stick with the pun at the top of this post. It's just too good to resist.

Daffodils are out in the park – it gives humble Hackney a Wordsworthian tinge. The weeping willows in the park are taking on their green veil.

If it stays this warm, it won't be long now before we can cast off all those heavy winter clothes and let the sun bathe our skin.

I used to hate the spring and summer – I much preferred to hide away in the shadows of shorter days and longer nights, buried beneath layers and layers of cold-weather clothing.

If there's a mark of how far I've come in the last decade, perhaps it's that I love the sun so much now.

It won't be long now before I can go for a sauna – and wander out into the walled garden to dry off in the altogether. A blissfully liberating feeling. Which isn't very English of me, I'm afraid.

A great many people who go to saunas in the UK insist on wearing a swimming costume. They're so inhibited by their own nakedness, that they do something inherently unhealthy. Wearing a swimming costume – rarely made of natural materials these days – stops the sweat being able to flow away freely, particularly from areas such as the groin and under the breasts. That can bring about fungal infections. But no – nakedness is bad and they continue to sauna in a costume.

I, I'm afraid, go the whole hog – and I really don't care who sees or what they think.

The first steps I took sans clothes came in our tiny back garden on summer days when I wasn't working, and gradually I edged out there, working out how to stay out of any neighbour's sighlines, but enjoying more and more the freedom. The skin is such an extraordinary organ – and so, so sensitive. And then there was one spring day when it rained and I felt an overwhelming urge to stand in the rain with no clothes on. It was the most extraordinary feeling and I stood there, outside the patio door, (probably) just hidden from view, laughing like a giddy child.

I read an anthropologist's explanation recently of our embarrassment about nudity – that humans have evolved to be embarrassed because it's part of what keeps couples together in the monogamous, long-term relationships that are perfect for bringing up children.

Presumably then, for this observer, no family units in the developing world where people are less embarrassed (if at all) by their bodies can provide secure homes for children?

I'm not about to go wandering around Hackney in the altogether – but it seems to me that it's an infantile attitude to be so scared of the naked body; that in part at least, it owes much to Victorianism and the prudery that we still suffer from in the UK (combined with an extreme prurience that's just as unhealthy – and don't they make an unholy combination).

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Just an ordinary Friday evening

Allow me, if you will, to introduce you to Colin.

Colin works for the same organisation that is currently my number one client, and is the life and soul of the staff sports and social club.

This group runs a bar on the ninth floor of our ten-storey example of concrete brutalism. Volunteers staff the bar from 5-8.30pm, Tuesday to Friday, thus ensuring that the price of booze is kept helpfully low.

A bottle of proper Czech Budvar, for instance, costs just £1.50.

But back to Colin. Let me give you an example of of the man himself at play.

On Friday night, he was one of the first to arrive in what we affectionately call ‘Cloud Nine’. Ben, bar steward for the evening, had gone downstairs to collect a case of wine. So Col, who does his fair share of shifts, nipped behind to serve himself.

There he discovered an open bag of cola sweets, left by a customer earlier in the week after, apparently, having spent two months in her handbag. In the interests of science, these details are important.

Colin joyfully crunched his way through a couple. And then, as other regulars drifted in, came up with an idea. Well, it was a question really – or an idea of how to answer a question.

How long would it take to dissolve a cola cube in a glass of booze?

A shot glass was pulled out and given a nice measure of neat vodka. A bright pink cola cube was dropped into it. Nothing very much happened.

By this stage, Dicky and Tim were enthusiastically joining in too, although Jon looked far less convinced.

There followed lots of boy talk about what might do the trick. Another shot glass had lemonade added to it (well, the chemical excuse for lemonade that shops retail cheaply). The sweet brought forth quite a lot of fizzing and froth, but still determinedly sat at the bottom of the glass stubbornly refusing to dissolve.

At this point, Colin decided that the only way forward was to drop one in his own pint glass of Swedish cider, to sit at the bottom with loads of ice. It still didn’t dissolve, but apparently tasted yummy when he’d quaffed his libation and fished it out from amongst the remaining ice to eat.

The ideas about how to make a cola cube dissolve completely continued. It was suggested that heating the liquid that it was in might do the trick.

Perhaps it would work if you set light to some alcohol containing such a cube? Perhaps – this was a Colin special – you could take a bottle of that never-seen-a-lemon lemonade, put a cube in the bottle and screw the top back on tightly, then put it in the dishwasher and set the machine going so that it would be heated up.

Ben refused to countenance either experiment – the first, because nobody wanted to pay for the booze required, and the second, because he thought the plastic bottle would probably explode in the dishwasher.

But thus was born the social club’s science project – a whacked-out meeting of Brainiac and beer and boys. What better combination could be imagined?

Friday, 13 March 2009

Plenty of pots and pots of potions

If pots and potions are an obvious outward sign of matters magical, then I can expect to find myself convicted of witchcraft sometime soon. And combined with my love of cats, I'd be a goner!

There I was in the bathroom last night, performing my toilet, when it struck me just how many different liquids and lotions this seems to entail.

There’s the cleanser and the toner. Then the face serum, followed by eye cream and a general face moisturiser.

There’s hand cream and lip salve, and foot balm and a body lotion.

Not forgetting the face cream wash for mornings, the face scrub for a couple of times a week, and the body scrub too.

And cocoa butter for the feet.

And we won’t mention the shaving gel (although I promise it’s not a girly pink one).

It’s madness! But I can’t believe it’s a situation that is unique to me.

In partial mitigation, I should point out that the building I currently work in has a dismal air conditioning system, which is very, very dehydrating. Even remembering to drink enough water each day, my skin gets dry to the point of flakiness if I don’t moisturise regularly.

Of course, in days of yore, perhaps I’d have made the contents of these pots and potions myself. But now we witches, trying to find the spell that keeps us young – or at least holds some of the ravages of time at bay for a while – can fulfil our needs at the shops rather than huffing and puffing over the cauldron.

Personally, I’m only in search of a limited amount of magic. I’ve no desire to attempt to look like a twenty-something; I quite like being middle-aged. But neither do I want to join the blue-rinse brigade and wear twinset and pearls – my mother had me doing the latter when I was still in my teens, and once is quite enough.

We live at a time when, for all the pressures women face, we also have far more choices than our mothers and grandmothers ever had about how we live our lives. Whether I use any potions at all is down to just one person – me. The same with make-up and so many other things.

There are times when I think my life is all a bit Benjamin Button – I started out as the youngest spinster in town and became the oldest teenager around.

At least the pots and potions help me feel that I haven’t yet succumbed to looking, as my mother would intone, “like mutton dressed up as lamb”. And long may it continue.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Queen B finds cause to fret

A lovely story cropped up the other day about Santino, a male chimp in a Swedish zoo that has been collecting stones and stashing them away, so that he could later use them to throw at visitors.

Researchers have said that it’s evidence of non-human animals planning for future events – precious little of which had been found previously.

But I’m sure many pet owners see amazing behaviour on a regular basis.

The Other Half and I got home rather late yesterday evening – to find that the Queen B had decided to break with her usual habit and not come to greet us.

The routine is that we have to go into the bedroom, where she jumps on the bed and we all say ‘hello’.

We walked into the bedroom, sans the cat, to find that there was debris all over the floor. A little glass lampshade that we’d bought years ago, put on top of a bookshelf and then forgotten, had crashed to the ground and shattered into smithereens.

Boudicca likes getting on top of that particular bookshelf, so it seems reasonable to conclude, in true Holmesian fashion, that she had been up there while we were out and had knocked it down.

But what is fascinating is that, on the basis of her out-of-character reluctance to engage in our usual greeting ritual (and cats love routine), it seems that she realised that she’d caused it to fall down and was worried in some way about it – possibly even worried what would happen when we got home.

We had to go into the living room, where she was crouched down watching us from behind a chair, to tell her that everything was alright before she came out to get her usual ‘welcome home’ fuss.

The idea that non-human animals are not really sentient has been taking knocks for some years now. Although anecdotes don’t count as scientific evidence of anything, personally witnessing such behaviour is absolutely fascinating.

Monday, 9 March 2009

All the world's a stage

The Mossley years gave me many things – and not least amongst these was an abiding love of theatre.

In 1968, when I had just turned six, I was taken to the Scala in London as a birthday/Christmas treat. The theatre is gone now, but it was near the Post Office Tower. The show in question was Peter Pan, with Wendy Craig as Peter and the late, great Alastair Sim as Mr Darling/Captain Hook.

We sat on the front row of the dress circle; my knuckles turned white with the tension, gripping the railing, when it seemed that Tinkerbell was going to die, as I screamed back at the stage that ‘yes’, I really did believe in fairies.

I remember the colours – the vivacity of the blues and greens that lit the stage; the red and gold of the seats and the walls and floor. It was beautiful and it was magic.

It was also unusual, since my family didn’t ‘do’ theatre. Father, with a background that included a number of Plymouth Brethren amongst his relatives, considered it downright immoral – particularly for women, who were invariably rendered ‘loose’ by association with it.

There were no problems when I appeared in school plays at primary school in London – but then again, I hated the obligatory experience. Clumsy and with a voice that squeaked, I was on the receiving end of audience giggles – for all the wrong reasons – and was appropriately mortified.

The problems started when I stopped hating it. It was the end of my first year at Fairfield. I’d struggled to make friends, was seen as something of a swot and had been pretty much sent to Coventry. For some reason or other, our class decided to stage a play. We wrote a version of Cinderella – I was cast, in a act of overt bitchiness, as an Ugly Sister. Out of this, however, came the revelation. Something had happened in the intervening years – and people laughed for all the right reasons. I was a hit – and I loved it.

Now the trouble with that was that I was then supposed to become the school joker, but it was better than having nobody talk to me.

And of course there was the inevitable declaration at home that I wanted to be an actress.

I can’t recall the initial response. But the drip-drip efforts to put such a crass idea out of mind began shortly thereafter.

“You’re not pretty enough to be an actress,” said my father one day, as he drove me to Ashton for a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme event.

My mother, hearing this many years later, huffed in annoyance – and promptly informed him that there were plenty of successful actresses who were not pretty, citing the likes of Edith Evans and Flora Robson and Hattie Jacques. She was trying to be supportive, but somehow …

Indeed, over the coming years she revealed one major concern: “But what would you do if a role demanded nudity?”

Funnily enough, I never had to make a conscious decision on that score – but some years later, when playing Mozart’s wife Constanze in an award-winning production of Amadeus, I fell out of my corset every night when Salieri pushed me away. And I lived to tell the tale.

After a full school production one spring (a sort of music hall), my father’s famous backhander was heard for the first time: “Hm. I never thought you had it in you.” I wonder sometimes what he ever did think I had in me?

Since being allowed to join the local drama group was out as it rehearsed on Sundays, it became an annual war to be allowed to audition for the school play. Since I wasn’t a tall, leggy blonde, character roles came my way.

In between, there developed the perhaps unusual habit of singing for my supper. Or put another way, I’d do impromptu lunchtime shows in vacant classrooms – singing and stuff – for a few coppers. Teachers found out. I was described to my parents as “eccentric”. They bore this news to me from parents’ evening, wearing concerned expressions. I looked up the word and worried too.

Then I got a date wrong. I gave my parents the wrong date for the annual school speech day. When I found out and gave them the right day, my father went ballistic. Having got home late at night, he stormed into the bedroom and blew his top, waking both me and my sister. The problem, it appeared, came down to the fact that: “You only want to be an actress – and that’s nothing better than a prostitute!” Goodness knows what would have happened if I’d actually really done something naughty.

But I looked up ‘prostitute’ in the dictionary too. And worried some more.

I never did quite make it as an actress – or ‘actor’, as is the accepted usage today (precisely because of individuals like my father, who would revel in ‘the actress and the bishop’ jokes or assume that ‘actress’ meant whore and the casting couch).

But it provided an escape and, as I got old enough to make my own mind up about rehearsing on Sundays, it provided the one place where I could ‘break out’ in guilt-free manner. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I made tarts – with or without a heart of gold – my forte.

College and a degree in the performing arts eventually beckoned. A paternal great aunt, ringing from Plymouth to wish me luck, happened to make the mistake of asking what course I was actually going to do.

“I’d rather die in a toilet than in a theatre!” was her really rather random exclamation on hearing the news. I was subsequently ticked off by Dad for pointing out to her that if, as she claimed, she’d never been into a theatre, then she didn’t know what she was talking about. He already had half an eye on any will she might have made.

A career on the stage has eluded me – and discovering writing eased the need to get up and perform so publicly. But I still remember the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint. And in remembering those things, something in me – some ambivalent, anarchic, vagabond quality – skips a beat and reminds me it’s still alive and that I don’t want to get too fond of respectability.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

International Women's Day

Greetings on 8 March, International Women's Day. Googling, I was astonished to see a number of cards available for the day – very generalised ones, with absolutely no politics behind them.

But with so many problems facing women in the world today – particularly in the developing world – it's important to remember the political origins and meaning of this day.

It's not a new day – it was first marked 100 years ago in the US, and it was always in support of better conditions and pay for working women, together with suffrage.

Women still face violence – in the home and outside it. Rape remains a weapon of war. Girls are subjected to genital mutilation, arranged marriages and so-called 'honour' killings. In at least one country in the world today, a democratically elected government has banned all abortions and women are dying because of that ban. Poverty remains a vast problem for millions.

This year, the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that the specific health-care needs of women are often ignored or insufficiently taken into account in war situations.

In the world’s least developed countries, many of which are at war, women are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than in developed countries, according to UNICEF.

While armed conflicts and other violence affect entire communities, women are particularly at risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence. Because of poor security conditions or because they have no means of transportation, it is often impossible for women to reach a health-care facility so as to give birth safely.

But the problems facing women are not always obvious ones. In Zimbabwe, the crippled economy and massive unemployment caused by Robert Mugabe's nasty regime also mean that sanitary protection is incredibly difficult to come by for women, and incredibly expensive. In trying to find alternatives, from newspapers to dirty rags, women have become infected – and then been attacked by men who think that they've got a sexually transmitted disease.

Dignity!Period is campaign run by Action for Southern Africa (Actsa) that works in a variety of ways to help Zimbabwean women.

We all need to work to make this world a safer place for all it inhabitants. And International Women's Day is, if nothing else, an important reminder of the problems and dangers that face many of our sisters.

Sex and the holy city

Imagine the scenario. A small child is abused and raped by a relative. She's only nine, but she becomes pregnant as a result of the rape. Her mother finds out and arranges an abortion.

If there's a problem, it's that a child has been abused and raped.

But no. That's not the case. In what passes for the mind of the Catholic church, the prime problem is the abortion. And as a result, the doctors and mother have been excommunicated.

Flippancy kicks in. 'Screw you' should, perhaps, be the response to the religious sect in question. 'Fuck you' – and I'll get my strap-on ready to do just that.

But the trouble with that is that it would ignore the power and authority that that sect wields in many parts of the world.

How dare they. How dare they suggest that it is in any way appropriate for a victim of rape and abuse to be made to go through with a full pregnancy and childbirth! I don't like the idea of any sort of 'them v us', particularly when it veers into 'women v men' terrain, but in this case, it is women v religious fundamentalists.

Here we have shriveled up, old men, saying that a child – a victim of abuse and rape – should carry the child of her abuser to term.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine if someone came out and suggested that the victim of, say, a burglary, should entertain the burglar in their home for nine months and possibly beyond?

Can you imagine a situation where the victim of a crime is the one who is punished?

Yet this is what the church of fucked-up old men in frocks think should happen to a nine-year-old child – because the nine-year-old child, as a female, is not as important in their 'minds' as a potential male child. That's what it amounts to. Potential is more than what is already present – particularly since potential allows for a male.

This is the same church that spreads lies throughout the developing world about the efficacy of condoms. This is the same church that skates over the issue of child abuse and rape by members of its own priesthood.

We talk – quite rightly – of how Islam oppresses women. Because Islam is used to oppress women in a great many parts of the world. But we need to remember that it is not the only religion that does so – and this case is an example of just what the Catholic church thinks of women.

It wants to put them on pedestals and worship them (Mary). But don't dare allow women to be sexual themselves – or that reduces them from Madonna to whore. The all-male guardians of the Roman Catholic church wish, most of all, to put the clamp on female sexuality. It caused, through Eve, the fall of man. It is directly responsible for the idea of original sin. And now it has to be stopped again.

It's worth pointing out, at this stage, that the Catholic church is not unique – but merely the vanguard of those Christian religious groups that believe that women have to be kept in check; that women's sexuality is a bigger threat to mankind (the word) than global warming, HIV/Aids, nuclear warfare or anything else.

How on Earth have we reached a point where we tolerate this bunk – and even accord it some sort of respect? Grow up, people! Throw away your comfort blankets and your dummies – you do not need them. Learn to think for yourselves – and stop allowing a bunch of sad, shriveled old men to tell you how to run your life on the basis of a fictional authoritarian figure in the sky.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

A Saturday at the beginning of spring

Spring might not yet have fully sprung, but it is springing.

As I walked along the Regent's Canal to the market this morning, so many plants and trees were clearly bringing forth blossom and shoots. And randy pigeons were cooing, puffing themselves up and chasing females.

Some of the gloriousness of this is dented a tad by the sound, right outside the front door, of heavy machinery digging up and relaying the road. But, as I've explained before, in Hackney it seems that roadworks are as much a part of spring as birdsong.

Shopping for myself is a very different affair. Options increased, I've decided to open a small can of very good sardines tomorrow, and cook them with fennel, pine nuts and raisins, to be served with good pasta.

But tonight's feast posed the biggest questions. I've settled for lovely looking fresh squid (which I always enjoy preparing), and I'll make a paella with some chorizo and a few (frozen) broad beans.

Chores still need to be done, so washing is spinning around in the machine. And, since we've just booked eight nights in Berlin at the end of May, I pulled out a German language course and started revising.

After the dismal language efforts of my youth, I decided about 10 years ago that the inability to speak another language was a flaw that should be corrected. The Other Half, who spent part of his own childhood in South Africa after his parents emigrated there, is rather more multi-lingual. He recommended German, on the basis that, if I got into it, I'd realise how similar it is to English.

Well, I 'got into it' more than I've ever 'got into' any other language. I did a couple of classes and, when we visited Berlin last, around seven years ago, I managed my first ever conversations in a language other than my mother tongue (of sorts and with drink acting as a useful method of overcoming inhibition and under confidence).

Since then, I've picked up some more. But it's not helped by the chronic flaws in the standard of English education in this country. We were taught so little grammar – even at academically-oriented schools – that it's difficult to get your head around grammar in another language. How do you grasp subject and object, for instance, when you've never even considered them in your own language? You have nothing to refer to. And of course, we don't 'do' gender for words in English.

Since we haven't been to Germany for so long, and have visited France a number of times in recent years (plus Spain), I've concentrated on boosting my French in recent years. At least I can do very well in a restaurant in La Belle France now, although perhaps that's cheating a bit, since any foodie should find French menus fairly easy.

But my German is rusty. So I'm putting myself through a crash course to revise what I did know – and hopefully move well beyond that. I've already managed to read a couple of Asterix books in German; by the end of May, I've set myself the target of being able to read Erich Kästner's Emil und die Detektive in the original.

My pronounciation is actually rather good – northerners, apparently, find German easier than southerners, because we can naturally pronounce 'ch' more easily. The legacy of ancient linguistic links, presumably.

But even with my limited efforts, at least it wins me huge brownie points when abroad. One thing that the English have a reputation for abroad is the inability – or refusal – to try to speak the local language. It's embarrassing. But the side effect is great – make an effort and it'll really be appreciated. Indeed, I've lost track of how many times we've had free drinks bought – and the root reason is trying to speak the local lingo: in other words, showing some respect for the country that you're a guest in.

In Berlin last time, I managed to combine my stuttering German skills with the great international language of football. Okay, I might have botched up explaining that the reason that I was cheering on Bayern Munich against Manchester United – I couldn't remember how to say: 'my favourite team is Manchester City' and blurted out 'I love Manchester City' instead – but it worked. Free schnapps and a chat about the "beautiful game" was the very pleasant result.

Eight nights in May. I have work to do, because I want to be able to do and appreciate more than ever. And I'm sure I can manage the odd footy conversation too when we find a decent local bar that's not full of tourists.

Friday, 6 March 2009

I'll let you into a little secret

The Other Half is out of town this weekend – well actually, he's out of the country.

So, having arrived in the office very early this morning, I took a slightly extended lunch and popped down to Oxford Street to look at the Russell & Bromley bag I mentioned yesterday.

I shall be able to take it home without any questions this evening – without any questions or raised eyebrows and, by the time he sees it, it'll be 'too late'.

It is a thing of beauty – a mix of matte and patent black leather, with chains and studs (oh what a kinky minx I am).

And as if that weren't enough, it's actually very roomy – thus practical too.

I'll take a snap this weekend, when I embark on a spring clean of my wardrobe – possibly accompanied (or followed) by one of Irene's cocktails and certainly by my own music.

Doubtless the Queen B will be around to help, as is her feline wont. Or at least to sit and watch in the way that cats do, with an expression that you know means that you're doing it wrong.

And I'll relax – possibly with a suitably girlie movie or even a few episodes of Sex in the City, which I only managed to 'discover' at the end of last year.

Reports will follow, I promise.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

A handbag?

Are you channelling Edith Evans yet?

Having spent years shaking her head as if in grief, asking: “When are you going to grow up” as I walked through the door in a football shirt, my mother is now aghast to hear of my lecherous adoration of handbags.

In my early teens, she forced me to carry a suede creation (this was the 1970s) to church (and put some slap on every Sunday morning). But I complied under protest. I wanted to be a boy – or at least to be allowed to play football and not have to worry about matters girlie.

And once I was free of the every-day authority of my mother, I dumped handbags.

Well into my 30s, a battered men’s tweed jacket, bought in a charity shop, remained preferable, blessed as it was with countless pockets. Who needed handbags?

And that was the situation as it existed when I met The Other Half.

But in the last decade, I have changed. And the changes have included the discovery of handbags.

The Other Half is only just coming to terms with this. I’ve spent the last few years arranging for female colleagues to explain to him, slowly and patiently, that there really is no such thing as too many handbags.

He has worked out that the correct answer to: ‘I need a new handbag’ is not: ‘you need no such thing’, but simply: ‘yes dear’. A quiet life is worth some adjustments to one’s thinking on matters materialistic.

Indeed, Miss Piggy had the right approach: "I find that it is vital to have at least one handbag for each of the 10 types of social occasion: very formal, not so formal, just a teensy bit formal, informal but not that informal, every day, every other day, day travel, night travel, theatre and fling."

Three years ago, I was able to afford my first designer bag – an Osprey, purchased in Liberty after a number of reconnaissance missions to a number of rather upmarket stores.

It was with me when I joined The Other Half in his staff bar a short while later to take part in a quiz night. The rest of the team he was on was female. All the women drooled over the bag and, when realising it was an Osprey, nearly wet their collective knickers.

The Other Half said later that it was only then that he had realised exactly what status symbols handbags are – like cars for men.

Well, I have quite a few these days, including a couple in the BMW class. But one day, when I have the money, I shall step up to the Ferrari class – and I shall buy a Dior bag. Until then, the glossies provide handbag porn for lusting over.

In the meantime, my current day-to-day bag is looking rather tired, so I’ll just have to brave the West End crowds and head for the shops. Russell & Bromley have a nice one in their new spring collection.

Now what was it dear old Oscar said about dealing with such a situation?

Ah yes: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

And just think – I’ll be doing the economy a favour too.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

These are the songs of our lives

Never mind “the food of love”, if music is anything, it’s a measurement of time and memory.

The time was about 1971. The Beatles had barely stopped beetling but the Stones were still rolling. Hendrix and Joplin were dueting in the great concert hall in the sky, while Jim Morrison remained temporarily more Earthbound.

And I had a record token to spend.

It was just after the grand December conjunction of birthday and Christmas: I had reached the grand old age of eight, and the token was from an uncle.

My mother took me and my sister shopping to nearby Putney. Now somewhere along the lines, I’d heard of this thing called ‘pop’, but couldn’t have told you anything about it. Just that it was trendy.

And I wanted some.

My mother had other ideas. So we came home with a 78 each of Pinky and Perky singing such gems as I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus.

Those pesky, pink puppet pigs certainly weren't ‘pop’. They weren’t trendy either. And I suffered such indignity and annoyance at having to their squealings purchased with my record token – as though I genuinely couldn't wait to get home and slap the disc on the turntable.

It would be another couple of years before I was able to spend my own money on what I wanted – and then it was David Cassidy.

As the years plodded along, I discovered Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, which, as described yesterday, became a seminal album in my personal canon.

Another seminal musical moment occurred at Christmas in 1975, when Bohemian Rhapsody first entered my consciousness at the school disco. You could hardly dance to it, but you could stand in the middle of the floor, gaping like a loon in a moment of unexpected discovery.

That lasted too – indeed, when Freddie died, I locked myself in my pokey bedsit, clamped the headphones on and blasted my mind with every Queen recording I possessed, while getting slowly sloshed on cheap Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignan.

My tastes – if ‘taste’ can be applied to such a matter – were usually on the lightest side. For once I can thank my mother for not allowing something – no tartan trim was permitted anywhere during my thankfully short-lived adoration of the Bay City Rollers. Kenny came and went almost overnight – staying around just long enough for me to join the fan club.

As the 1970s wore on, I was introduced to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds – first heard over headphones on a friend’s record player – while an hormonal addiction to Starsky and Hutch produced the inevitable support for David Soul’s warbling career.

By the time punk screamed into the room, I was submerged in ‘O’ level music studies, discovering Beethoven. My mother was thrilled – it made buying presents so easy (and needless to say, so respectable).

In fact, although she’s asked for a list of present ideas for years, she avoided buying anything that could possibly pass for ‘pop’ until the late 1980s, when I received Billy Joel’s Storm Front one gift season.

But I’m rushing ahead. The 1980s changed my musical interests somewhat, with Ultravox, OMD and Kraftwerk adding a very different flavour – and one that persists. Indeed, after years of hoping, Midge and the boys have finally announced a reunion tour – and my ticket is booked for a Friday night in late April at the Hammersmith Odeon (or Apollo or something) to see Ultravox in concert. Finally, I shall hear Vienna live.

I’ve kept on trying new things down the years – more dance and electronic stuff, plus Britpop, Oasis and Pulp in particular.

But when the late ’90s saw the start of the ’70s revival, it was with some surprise that I realised that I knew all the words of Abba songs. And I hadn’t even been a fan at the time!

Then, on the cusp of my 40th birthday, nostalgia kicked even harder.

A whole stack of singles that hadn’t been played in years were awaiting a cull. But as the chucking-out neared, I decided to give them all one last play – for old time’s sake.

In the end, not one single single departed that stack for the bin. They were too good – and they brought back so many memories.

Memories of times and places. Listening to something called a ‘solid state’ radio on Sunday evenings as BBC1 played the new top 40.

Dancing at the Conservative club’s disco for members’ teenage offspring, and at school discos and even in the brief period in 1981/2 when I went clubbing in Leicester.

Coming home hours late from school one winter’s night in the late ’70s, when the snow had cut off our Pennine town and I’d had to trudge through drifts to get back – only to stand, looking like the Abominable Snowman, at the front door, and demanding of my mother the time: it was a Thursday, Top of the Pops was scheduled and David Soul was in the charts. That was the only thing that mattered.

At the weekends, my mother would listen to Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart on Radio 1 while she made breakfast in the kitchen – the songs I’d heard then formed part of this picture. The folksy sound of the Seekers, the New Seekers and Peter, Paul and Mary are familiar old friends.

And iTunes is download heaven – all those odd songs and tracks that are musical blasts form the past, now sitting in assorted playlists, reeking of a time that feels as though it could almost have been last week.

The theme tunes from children’s TV programmes feature in those musical memories too: White Horses, The Flashing Blade, Belle and Sebastian and a French serialised version of Robinson Crusoe that was nearly as long as the eponymous hero’s adventure, but which featured a wonderfully evocative (and short) theme.

Stuff I’d never really liked at the time, from David Bowie to David Essex and way beyond, suddenly cast pictures in my mind’s eye. Times and places and, emotions and faces, cast in the bronze glow of memory.

It’s not even as though the periods that all this music reminds me of were the best times of my life. But that doesn’t reduce the power of what happens when I hear these songs.

Back in the ’70s, my mother used to comment that none of the hits of the day would be remembered in 30 years. She was wrong. And whether they’re critically good or bad, they’re part of our lives, and they’ll go on being played and heard and remembered as long as we live and breathe.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The best-behaved teenager in the world

Fairfield High School for Girls owed its existence to the next-door Moravian settlement in Droylsden – around seven or so miles nearer to Manchester proper than Mossley. And a veritable Arcady by comparison with the grimness of that Pennine setting.

The Moravian church is a Protestant denomination with roots in late 14th century Bohemia. It’s unobtrusive and doesn’t believe in evangelising – but music is an integral part of its traditions.

Ah yes; the music. The school choir used to be specially rehearsed for Christingle every Christmas, when we paraded into the church next to the school, each holding an orange (the world), wrapped around with a red ribbon (the blood of Jesus, given for our sins) and with a candle in the top (Jesus, the light of the world). Such an object is used in many denominations, but its origins are the 18th century German Moravian church. And there we would sing carols by candlelight, the choir performing the descants.

The church’s emblem is the lamb of God with a flag of victory, and it was the school badge too, worn on our blazers. The uniform comprised navy skirts with pale green shirts and ties of green, navy and white diagonal stripes.

I was sent there at the age of 11, having passed my 11+ exam (still the form of selection at the time in some areas of the country). My parents could have chosen to send me to a much nearer school, but Ashton Grammar admitted boys, while Fairfield was not merely single-sex – it also had that religious connection.

It was an outrageously vast building for little me – for the first few days, I couldn’t even find the toilets, and developed the ability to hold myself for a full school day.

No other girls from primary school were there, so I started from scratch. For a brief time, I hung around with a girl called Jayne. My mother enquired, one evening, what her father did. He was an ambulance driver, I replied. My mother, an inveterate snob, wrinkled her nose and advised caution, on the grounds that a Methodist clergyman’s daughter had a responsibility to pick suitable friends, given her father’s high calling. Even then, I was a tad bemused as to why anyone could find fault with ambulance drivers as a class.

After a couple of fairly uneventful years, my parents decided that I didn’t have a social life – and that one therefore had to be created for me. My father was a member of the local Conservative club, which was based just around the corner. Every couple of weeks on a Tuesday, they held a disco for members’ teenage children.

I was therefore sent, with enough change for a bottle of cider. My father, Cornwall born and scrumpy bred, regarded bottled cider as mere pop, thus I was allowed to consume it.

Of course, even then a single small bottle didn’t go far in an evening. My relationships with males of a similar age was not really up to much, but I managed to win regular staring-out contests, with the prize being another bottle.

And of course, I boogied, with a re-issue of Chubby Checker’s The Twist being a particular favourite, as I managed to really ‘get on down’.

I wasn’t allowed to join the local drama group, since they rehearsed on Sundays – the hypocrisy was staggering, since neither parent had any objection to cricket on a Sunday. But then again, perhaps it was more an objection to the suspect morality of the stage.

The school play was acceptable – just. I was already making a reputation for myself in ‘character’ roles.

But as my teens wore very sedately on, and my parents boasted to all and sundry that I was the least rebellious adolescent in history, my greatest freedom came when I babysat for a very respectable and upwardly mobile young couple who lived around the corner.

Those were wonderful Saturday nights. Not only did I get to pocket some cash, I could watch TV – but only if I wanted. And I could watch what I wanted: a revolutionary idea for someone whose Saturday nights had previously involved a formalised sitting-around-the-telly watching what Mater and Pater decreed. So many of my teenage Saturday nights were made up of Dixon of Dock Green, The Generation Game and All Creatures Great and Small.

I could play their records, too.

I could drink the cider they’d leave for me (a large bottle, in the fridge).

And I could read their books.

Ah. Their books. I don’t think for a moment that my parents knew what treasures that little bookshelf contained – or I simply would not have been allowed to pass beneath their portal.

The Joy of Sex and the entire Emmanuelle series are what I remember most. Actually, I remember the first two Emmanuelle books most – I don’t know how many times I read them, mind absolutely boggling. There I was, lying on the sofa, wanking over those masterpieces of smut, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water on the deck, and without any fear of having my privacy invaded.

Oh, the sheer blissful debauchery of it.

Not that masturbation was a new pleasure by then. I don’t know how I ‘discovered’ it, but the first time that I orgasmed, I lay in bed in a state of abject terror, convinced that I’d broken something and was going to be in almighty trouble the next morning.

When the dread day dawned, it brought forth no indication of any such catastrophe, and I soon found myself drawn back to that dirty habit.

It is a complete concidence, I should point out, and down to nothing other than genes, that I am extremely short sighted.

My first masturbatory fantasies, though, were not of local boys from the disco or even pop stars or football players.

They were of women. With tits. Lovely, big tits.

Every weekend, a paper was published in the area called the Saturday Pink. It contained all the sports results from the day, plus reports and articles. And all on pink paper. My father would send me down to the local newsagent to get our copy. What he conveniently ignored was the presence, on page three, of a glamour picture.

One of the models was called Gillian; she remained a regular in my fantasy life for years.

After the paper had been read and thoroughly digested, it was popped into a little woodshed to await collection by the local scouts for whatever they did with them (probably recycled the page three pictures). Occasionally, in a fit of daring, with youthful lechery as the motive and no other outlet, I’d creep down a clip out a picture. The fear of discovery was vast – privacy was difficulty, safe storage of such contraband even harder and my sister was a tell tale – and many were often destroyed quickly to avoid capture. But Gillian’s picture remained for some years, secretly squirreled away for private pleasure.

And there was always the school library. In what I now see was a wonderful subversion of learning and the religious ethos of the school, I actually managed to find masturbatory material in the library. And I don’t mean Chaucer.

I was hopeless at modern languages – perhaps influenced by my father’s anger that, having won the war (personally, you’d think, to listen to him) any English child should have to learn anything other then their mother tongue. French was bad. The announcement that we were starting German in our second year caused dinner table apoplexy. But in the library, for those rather better students, were kept copies of Paris Match.

And these could be guaranteed, in true French fashion, to include within their glossy pages pictures of topless women on French beaches. Or put another way – tits.

So I’d sit at the furthest table from the librarian’s desk, hidden by the high shelves and wedged as carefully as possible behind a desk, staring at pictures of bosoms, hand furtively inside my oh-so-very-unsexy navy knickers and biting my lip to stay mute.

The fear of discovery was always present, but it was an infinitely preferable way of spending a lunch hour than playing chase in the playground.

My mother later decided that I was the youngest spinster in town and dressed me in tweed twinsets (handed down from maiden great aunts), blouses with vast bows at the neck, and even a string of imitation pearls.

If only she’d know what lurked beneath the surface of her placid, respectable daughter, who she probably imagined was destined for life as a virginal singleton, making jam for the WI and attending church at every available opportunity.

C’est la vie, eh?

I’ll tell you one thing, though: if I’m birdwatching these days, it’s still the tits I look out for.