Monday, 28 June 2010

Getting in the swing of summer

It feels – finally – as though summer is really here. Glorious sunshine, headily azure skies and heat to warm the marrow of the bones – there's no mistaking it any longer.

With the signs set for a hot weekend, The Other Half and I forewent the pleasures of an evening in the staff bar on Friday and pottered down to John Lewis for a bit of seasonal retail therapy. Specifically, a pair of metal-framed 'deckchairs' and a new braai, since the previous one had started to collapse. still, it had only cost around £20 from a local Turkish shop and had lasted us some years.

All that meant some work in our garden. I suppose it's roughly 15' by about 12' – can't be much more than that – but it's such a precious space. The Other Half spent Saturday de-cluttering it. First, the old braai – a tin box on legs – went out. Then he finally got around to bashing a garden bench into pieces so that we could carry it out and decant it into the communal bins.

We've had that bench for years, having bought it from a small shop on Hackney Road and, when we got it home and mostly errected, found out that it was missing two struts. It was one of those affairs with cast iron ends and wooden slats. For whatever reason, we never got around to going back to the shop and either demanding the struts or our money back.

So it has occupied space against once fence for years: always wobbly and getting wobblier with every passing season. It was long past our being able to sit on it. We talked of getting rid of it some years ago, but Trickie, one of our cats at the time (and as neurotic a cat as we've had) loved it, so we left it there.

But Trickie is long gone. And in the last week, one of the wooden slats fell off. It was a rallying call.

We'd also had a little table and two folding chairs in our tiny space, but both chairs had finally given up the ghost. So we have now simply shoved the table out of the way, leaving the patio clear for the new 'deckchairs'.

And once that was sorted, the plan for the rest of the weekend was really rather obvious. Sitting in the sun with plenty of chilled water and a book.

And then there was food. Obviously a braai was arranged – that was for Sunday.

But for Saturday, I picked up salmon fillets to poach, plus good new potatoes (still Jerseys), fresh garden peas and fine beans.

And then I made the first aioli of the season to serve with it.

This Catalan version of mayo is an utter delight. When I'd made it, I had a struggle to stop myself scoffing the stuff by the spoonful as it set off an orgy of flavour in my mouth.

Don't believe all the stories about emulsions being difficult – all you need to do is take your time.

So, take one – or more – garlic cloves. Peel and crush, then blend with some coarse salt until you get a paste.

Pop that into a large jug and add the yolk of a very fresh egg. Then whisk until you've got a lovely, stiff mixture.

Now, here's the only real trick: as you keep whisking, start adding some good virgin oil – very, VERY slowly: you really need to just drip it in at first. If anything, your mix should stiffen even further. Okay, it takes a few minutes, but keep going – slowly. When you've eventually got something that looks like a really good, stiff, golden mayo, you can add the oil a little faster until you get the consistency that you want.

Decant it into a pot and stick in the fridge – it'll keep for up to a week, although that's only if you can resist the temptation to use it much much quicker!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Right, let's get on with the football

Well, it's over. To be specific, the 2010 Fifa World Cup is over for England.

And to be honest, it's a relief. I'm always torn when major tournaments come around: there's a side of me that really would like to see England do well, but there's a side of me that is always bloody relieved when then hype is over. Then I can get on and just enjoy the rest of the tournament.

And my support for England has always been rather iffy. Since Euro '96, there has been a real reclaiming of England for non-loons. And that's been good – very good. England – in terms of football at least – has become something that is no longer the misappropriated baby of the far-right, snubbed by the left as if it were some sort of poison.

If I potter down to Whitechapel for the shopping, I can see plenty of the locals – both those of Anglo-Saxon origin and those of Asian origin – with England shirts and flags on display. I like to think that, in my days of writing about sport professionally, I did a tiny bit to advance that change in attitude.

But then again, a match against Germany would always leave me particularly torn. As I explained some time ago, not only am I a Germanophile, but a particular part of that rests on my experiences of football and, specifically, my father's behaviour.

On Friday, over the phone and in a total blast-from-the-past moment, he railed about how "we need to beat the Nazis". It's rather too late to hope that he'll grow up. I refused to take the bait. Perhaps I can at least grow up.

Not that he's been alone – the British tabloids (English editions) have been at their usual game, harking back to WWII, a conflict that none (I'd vouch to suggest) of their staff will have even been alive during, let alone fought in.

It was quite easy today, as it happens. Germany have been – with the exception of one game – good. England have been poor. Really poor.

But I can't say I'm surprised. I don't understand where all this stuff about 'a golden generation' comes from. I really don't. And frankly, from the moment that qualifying was over, coach Fabio Capello didn't look to have much of a clue either.

Okay, he wasn't helped by injuries and the John Terry business. But the so-called talisman, Wayne Rooney, has been non-existent on the pitch except for his petulance, while Terry has shown exactly the same lapses as he showed after his sexual adventures were revealed in the media and he lost the captaincy of the national side.

And why, oh why, do successive coaches have such a love affair with Emile Heskey? He's an honest player, don't get me wrong. But as a forward, his strike rate is dismal, and if you are going to play him as the lone man up front, then you at least need wing play.

And Chris Waddle, in the moments after today's match, was right in highlighting the difficulty of teaching English players to play something other than the English (ie Premier League) game, which is played at such pace. It might be exciting – it is – but you do not win international tournaments playing like that.

The Other Half was, I think, at least halfway happy with the result too. If England had done as expected and qualified from their group in top spot, they'd not have played at 3pm this afternoon. Because they did, his rugby league club changed the time of their kick-off from 3.30pm to 11.30am! It meant that, even after spending money on train tickets, he couldn't get to Yorkshire in time.

Anyway, the very best of luck to Germany: they're a young team, but even with inexperience, they were a class (at least) above England today. I'll be rooting for them all the rest of the way.

And in the meantime, one thing that has struck me particularly this tournament is the idea that, if football is really the closest thing we have to a global religion, then even taking into account hooliganism, it's got far less fundamentalists than conventional religion – and they have a rather less 'impressive' record of atrocities than other religions.

Friday, 25 June 2010

A hotel for kinky dwarves?

In the past few years, I have become adept at hotel stays. From a time when I might stop in a hotel once a year – if that – I'm now at a stage of clocking up a lot more hotel stays than that, with many of them coming as a result of work.

Last week was just such an occasion – in Bournemouth this time, where I was working at a major conference. Fortunately, given that I (and The Other Half) was away for a full six nights, it was a good hotel. Indeed, it was rather posh; perched high on the cliffs overlooking the sea, with glorious views of the bay, west to the Old Harry Rocks off Swanage on one side and east to the Isle of Wight on the other.

The hotel, indeed, was the Highcliff. Formerly part of the Hilton chain, it's now owned by Marriott International.

None of which obviously explained why not only was there the obligatory Gideon Bible in the room, but also a copy of the Book of Mormon.

For that, I had to resort to good old Google.

It seems that the chairman and CEO John Willard 'Bill' Marriott Junior (who's 78, so not all that 'junior' any more) is a member in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Mormons. Indeed, not just a member, but a member of Area Seventy, which might sound another part of the US that's the secret home to loads of little grey men from outer space, but is apparently a Mormon priesthood.

Which rather sent me away on a surreal musing about what book you could place in a room if you owned an hotel or even a chain of hotels. How about Colin Schindler's Manchester United Ruined My Life? Or a nice little collection of kinky porn stories? Or how about The Communist Manifesto?

Funny but true – any of those might be considered offensive and produce complaints, yet it seems that the one ethos that you can happily foist on others is religion.

But this was hardly the only thing that was weird about the hotel.

Now I've got used to the way in which the end of your loo roll in the bathroom is always folded every day. And I've got used to the current obsession with superfluous soft furnishings – cushions on beds, for instance; what are you supposed to do with them?

But the Highcliff Marriott had me stymied for other reasons, I admit.

Since we were both there for the duration, The Other Half and I had a double room. Except that it wasn't really. It was a large bed – but with six pillows instead of the rather more usual four. What is one to do with six pillows? Assuming one sleeps with two pillows, are the spare two to act as a barrier between bed partners? It's not actually easy to sleep across one and a half pillows, so should you just chuck them on the floor?

But then it dawned on me that there was another clue. In the bathroom, there were three bath towels, three hand towels and three facecloths.

Perhaps it wasn't a double room after all – perhaps it was a triple! They were expecting three in the bed (and bath)!

But here's where it all gets a bit X Files. How could they know in advance that both The Other Half and I might be described as being vertically challenged? (A former editor once christened our home 'Dwarf Towers' – oh, the joys of Scouse wit)

Was there another short-arse trotting around the place that we were being lined up with? Were they – whoever 'they' are – anticipating our bumping into a similarly sized person and inviting them back to our suitably prepared room?

And what of that 'them'? Male or female? I'm easily pleased, but The Other Half is not so flexible, as far as I know.

Those Mormons are – or were – into polygamy: perhaps it's all intended as a form of horizontal conversion, to go with the book that stayed in the drawer?

By the end of a week in which adrenalin seems to bring hysteria nearer and nearer to the surface, I was no more enlightened. I just wonder if I missed some sort of opportunity.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Getting over my reading listlessness

It’s been a funny old year thus far for books – having for once not even kept a list, I’m struggling to remember what, if anything, I read while winter was still with us.

That wouldn’t be a first – it seems a sort of unofficial habit of mine: to start off slowly in January and pick up as the months pass.

Venice gave me a kick on the book front: after re-reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice for the umpteenth time, it was on to Donna Leon’s police procedurals set amid the canals and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti.

So far, I’ve read Death at La Fenice, Death in a Strange Country, The Anonymous Venetian, A Venetian Reckoning and Acqua Alta.

They good fun; quite dark and a bit obsessed with the Mafia and corruption, but with a cast of main characters that are reasonably well drawn. They're hardly the apotheosis of the genre, but they're enjoyable for when I want something light, which doesn't tax "the little grey cells" too much.

And there are plenty more in the series, but given the speed at which I gobble them up, I’m keeping a couple for summer and the beach.

I have also managed a couple of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels – Monstrous Regiment and then Night Watch, both of which were as brilliant as one expects from Sir Tez, plus Gore Vidal’s Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings, which was odd, since it had nowhere near the amount of sex I was hoping for, but was superb anyway and had me ordering another collection of Vidal’s essays straight away.

And then, as seen in yesterday’s review, Blake Morrison’s The Last Weekend.

That interrupted a re-read of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep – and thank goodness I could return to that on Sunday evening.

Re-reads are intriguing. There aren’t many books I’ve read more than once – let alone more than that. I should take that as a lesson and I’d easily and quickly be able to cull my library. But Chandler, as with Mann, would be at no risk of eviction.

There have been other bits and pieces in the past few months – I can rarely read history in one go and have two tomes on the ‘reading-in-process’ pile at present.

But my mind is already turning to my reading list for Collioure at the end of August. We barely took enough last year and, since my new case (the old one had to be Sellotaped up on the way back from Venice) is bigger and lighter, it shouldn’t be a problem to ensure a nice variety this time.

On the more serious front, I’ve promised myself I’ll take Elizabeth David: A Biography by Lisa Chaney.

On something of a crime fiction kick, I’m tempted to try one of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels, which are set in Sicily, together with one of the Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, plus – as mentioned already – some more Donna Leon and inevitably, some Maigret.

I may pack the new collection of Vidal essays and possibly the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, plus some poetry: I’m about two thirds of the way through Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid, which has finally conveyed to me the glories of Greek mythology – not least in actually getting me familiar with a few of the stories. On these grounds, I’m contemplating some more Hughes.

Such a selection should keep me going. At least for a few days!

Monday, 7 June 2010

A lost weekend leaves an unpleasant taste

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

Chatto & Windus (HBK) £12.99 RRP

When Ian and Emily Goade receive a surprise invitation to spend the August bank holiday with old friends of Ian’s, in a remote country house, they’re sceptical about the motive. But in desperate need of a break themselves, they take up the offer.

Ian, who had known both Ollie and his partner Daisy at university, has always been caught in a fierce competition with Ollie, his more privileged friend: jealous yet adoring, resentful of his patronage yet besotted.

But as the weekend begins, amid chronic traffic and in sweltering heat, tensions start to bubble beneath the surface of all the relationships, and the subject of an old bet is raised.

An interesting take on country house mysteries, Blake Morrison’s themes are many, from the lies we tell to class tensions to male rivalry and competitiveness, we well as nods to Larkin's comment that your parents "fuck you up".

The denouement is pretty predictable – Morrison signposts it constantly – while Emily, together with Ollie, Daisy and their troubled teenage son Archie are all rather vaguely sketched types.

Indeed, you could take Ollie and Daisy's surname, the Moores, as representing the point that they have more of everything. And the Goades? Well, on one level, say it sounds like 'good' – and as a primary school teacher and social worker respectively, Ian and Emily can be viewed as 'good', by contrast with the Moore's less socially beneficial careers (he a successful, well-off lawyer, she with her own successful agency representing artists).

On another level, 'Goade' works as goading – a comment on Ian's behaviour.

Descriptions of the weather are well done, but are a fairly obvious indicator of trouble ahead.

What drives this beyond a rather unsubtle read is the central character of Ian, who narrates it.

Just how reliable a narrator is he?

In his development of Ian, Morrison seems to give more than a passing nod to the character of Charles Kinbote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire: what is delusion and what is reality? What is fantasy and what is truth?

That central question is what gives this novel impetus and interest – in an increasingly horrific way.

I'd not read any Morrison before, but was asked to do this for review purposes, so did it easily in a weekend (which ended up feeling rather like a lost rather than last weekend). Like more than one of Nabokov's novels, it takes as its core a deeply unpleasant character and shows not so much a descent into madness, but provides a gradual revelation of just how deluded that character really is.

At doing that, Morrison is good. And The Last Weekend is easy to read and rocks along at a fair old pace. But the book as a whole lacks the subtlety, the wit and the downright fun of Nabokov. And the taste that it leaves is not one of having enjoyed a book in spite of the subject matter/character, as unsettling as that is (Lolita, for instance), but of not even being able to claim either enjoyment or elucidation.