Thursday, 26 August 2010

A soggy day in London town

You could be forgiven for thinking that summer ended on these God-forsaken islands about a fortnight ago. Because the weather since then has been piss poor – as in pissing it down with rain. Okay, interspersed with occasional and all-too-brief sunshine and, in the last few days, sudden strong gusts of wind.

The Met Office has even issued a warning of flash flooding over the next few days. You could be forgiven for thinking that it must be the August bank holiday weekend!

In a superb example of the triumph of optimism over reason, The Other Half and I had looked at the weather forecast last weekend and decided that we could just manage one final braai of the summer.

So I returned from shopping on Saturday morning with substantial amounts of meat to put on the fire, only to spend the day watching as it became ever more evident that the cloud was not going to shift or think enough to make such a proposition pleasant.

Since then, we’ve been working our way through the meat in dishes that I would never usually contemplate until autumn.

Last night, when it was the turn of the steak, I even bought a parsnip and two little turnips in the shop; in August! The compensation was the pleasure of cooking something without needing to go to any book or recipe, though – something I would not have felt able to do 10 years ago.

So, cut the meat into pieces and brown in a mix of olive oil and butter. Remove to a plate.

Chuck in a diced onion and soften. Add some chopped garlic and then some flour. Let the flour cook for a couple of minutes, and then start adding wine slowly, deglazing as you go.

Pop in some stock, a couple of bay leaves and any other herbs you have around and fancy adding. Add a squeeze of tomato purée for a little added flavour. Put the meat back in the pan.

Add your peeled and diced veg – in this case, the parsnip, turnips and a couple of potatoes. Stick the lid on and leave to simmer on a low heat, stirring occasionally, until everything’s as cooked as you want it.

I love the fact that I can cook like that now – it seems so easy these days, but in the past, it might as well have been rocket science.

At around 2.13pm yesterday, I hit demob happy state. My work almost done – or everything that could be done, while I await a couple of phone calls and emails done – I found myself on the cusp of screaming: 'Let me out of here! Have mercy and let me into civilisation!'

"Civilisation" is around an hour away by train and will be reached, after 20 minutes of darkness in the tunnel, at approximately 9.30am, British Summer Time, tomorrow morning.

Dr Johnson apparently observed that: "He who is tired of London is tired of life." There are times when I feel very tired of London: the dirtiness, the constant noise, the fastness and impatience of everything. I suspect that, if the good doctor was to see London now, he'd agree.

Right now, I want to hear myself think. There was brief few minutes last year, when we were in the gardens of Sanssouci, Frederick the Great's palace just outside Berlin, when I could hear nothing but the birds, the breeze and the insects. It probably says something that, 15 months on, I remember that time with such clarity.

Collioure will not be quite as quiet, although when the French season ends this weekend, it does get a lot quieter. And the street that we’re staying on, just one street back from the seafront, always seems quiet: you’re not woken in the morning by constant noise and you go to sleep at night with the sound of the sea lap lap lapping at the shore. Instant chicken soup for the soul.

Packing awaits this evening, of course, although I’ve already got quite a few things well on the way to being sorted.

I’ll make sandwiches for tomorrow’s journey – we have breakfast on the first leg aboard the Eurostar, but will picnic on the train on the second leg. It might be France, but train food is not better than in the UK.

So, soft rolls with German meat for The Other Half, soft rolls with very good French paté for me; hard-boiled eggs; a little crème brûlée and a pot of berries for each of us; an apple for him and a banana for me. All accompanied by a bottle rosé from the Languedoc. There’s more than a little of the ‘coals to Newcastle’ about this part of the trip!

The books have already been stacked up, ready for the case this evening. I’ll pick up a pad and some pastels this afternoon, as I want to give that a go. And I have a dongle so that I can – if I get around to it – blog from our holiday home.

But if you don’t hear from me again until I return to soggy London town, adieu and have a good time.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

A cross to bear

The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín, brought up a Catholic in Ireland, set out in this 1994 book to understand something of his own background. Having grown up in a family where relatives went on pilgrimages – including his terminally ill father to Lourdes when he was in his early teens – he has long ceased believing in the central tenets of Catholicism, but remains fascinated by the history of the church that he was baptised into and by people's links with it.

But as Tóibín discovers on his travels around Europe, Catholicism means different things to different people in different places.

In Seville, for instance, where Holy Week sees dozens of marches around the city with statues of the crucified Christ and the Virgin Mary, he discovers that many of the men who volunteer to carry the statues have no personal religion and do not even attend Mass during the rest of the year. For them, the marches are to do with local tradition and their cultural heritage.

But not all that Tóibín observes is like this. Medjugorje – a rocky, barren outcrop of Croatia – is the home to a shrine where six teenagers claim to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. They say that the Virgin has blue eyes and speaks Croation. And they continued to have apparitions and receive messages from her.

Tóibín, who visited during the Balkans conflict, never doubts the sincerity of the six – or of the pilgrims who have radically changed Medjugorie – but what he clearly finds discomforting is the link between Croation Catholicism and a nationalism that remains unapologetic for being a Nazi client state, for persecuting and exterminating Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and even retaining much of the symbolism etc of that era (the national football team's badge and shirts are based on the badge that was worn by Croation Nazis).

In Poland, Tóibín is uncomfortable at the presence, so near to the Auschwitz concentration camp, of a Catholic convent, given that country's long history of anti-Semitism and since the majority of those who were killed there were Jewish. Is it an appropriate place? It's an interesting question at a time when the issue of whether a mosque should be built a couple of blocks from the site in New York of the World Trade Towers that were attacked on 9/11 is causing such discussion.

In Slovenia, it is suggested that perhaps the reason that Croat and Polish Catholicism have become so intertwined with extreme nationalism, while Slovenian Catholicism has not, is that the latter country experienced the Reformation and rationalism.

Elsewhere on his travels, Tóibín is astonished to discover that there are no Scottish Catholic writers of note in that country – while his visit to Glasgow also reveals both sides of the sectarian divide spouting lies/myths about their neighbours or their own perceived victimhood.

In London, he finds then MP and Catholic convert Anne Widdicombe to be particularly English in her attitude and faith (she hadn't converted for "the smells or the bells or the saints", for instance), while he sees, in the 5 November celebrations in Lewes – known for their continuing anti-popery (but now apparently down to one, unnoticed banner) – nothing other than displays for the heritage industry, in a country that has lost any interest in such parts of its history.

In one chapter, which initially seems at odds with the rest, Tóibín describes his experiences as an adult at a retreat where people had gone to work through difficult issues with a psychiatrist who had developed new techniques for bringing out repressed memories. In the author's case, these were to do with the death of his father when he was 14. The retreat was not religious, but at the end of his own experiences, finally letting out the grief that had been bottled up for decades, Tóibín found himself wanting – needing – to make the sign of the cross in the air as a way of dealing with, of expressing that grief, and of bidding farewell to his father.

The non-believer needed the rituals of his childhood; the rituals that bored him as a child (and leave him feeling similarly blank when he experiences masses across Europe, including in St Peter's in Rome) as a way of dealing with his own life. The book itself, then, is partly an extension of that: an excavation of memory. And he went on to further explore his father's death in the 1999 novel, The Blackwater Lightship.

It is a fascinating book, one that in places is very funny and also one that, in places, is deeply disquieting.

Tóibín is an excellent writer of both fiction and non-fiction. That was partly why I read it. But also too, I have been intrigued by European Catholicism since an Easter visit to Perpignan some four years ago when we witnessed the sanche on Good Friday: the 'march of the penitents', the like of which is described in this book.

But I also read it because it seemed a natural step after Wolf Hall, with that book's fictionalised examination of the English Reformation.

Catholicism, I think, has understood human nature far more than Protestantism: it has catered for a need for drama and emotion more; the ritual of confession seems to comprehend more and provide for human 'failings' in a way that a personal relationship with God, with no intercessors, cannot. Catholicism can be seen as a polytheistic religion rather and a monotheistic one – with its pantheon of saints and a goddess in Mary.

Protestantism is less poetic, more serious. 'The Protestant Work Ethic', for goodness sake. As someone tells the author in Glasgow, you want the Calvinist as your accountant, while the Catholic will be the romantic, the dreamer. Could a Protestant really have created the word – and the concept – of Utopia, even if Thomas More's book was light years removed from his own attitudes and behaviour?

Yet as Tóibín puts it: "Protestants one Catholics nil" on the music front, after hearing a Bach's St John's Passion in a Protestant church in Regensburg one Good Friday. Later, he feels disappointment that none of the great classical settings are used for the service at St Peter's: it's the same rather drab and uninspiring music as at home in the Enniscorthy cathedral of his childhood. Yay! We can create great art too.

What is extraordinary is how much one's own religious heritage clings, as Tóibín found as he dealt with the loss of his father. Wolf Hall makes quite clear the issues of the democratisation of religion – of thought – that were part of the Reformation across Europe, and a direct result of the invention of the printing press. But I cannot help wondering why – apart from it being interesting in an anthropological and historical sense – religion still seems so important to me, even though, like Tóibín, I no longer have the actual beliefs. Those simply drifted away from my shoulders a decade ago, without a shred of pain or any sense of loss.

Has anything else from my childhood left such an imprint, to the effect that even now, I seem to feel a need to point out the theological fallacies of Catholicism? That has no relevance to the other, current issue, of religion in general and the public sphere.

Perhaps it's simply inherited hatreds? But then why do I not have the same attitudes as my parents – and my father in particular – other, related things, such as Ireland and Celtic FC?

My sympathies, since 'O' Level history taught me the phrase, "too little, too late", have always been with the Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.

In that peculiar way that so many English football fans also have a Scottish team that they sympathise with (it doesn't work the other way around!), my father has always considered Rangers – one half of the passionate football rivalry in Glasgow – to be infinitely superior, as they are Protestant. I've long sympathised with Celtic: the club might be Catholic, but it dumped sectarianism (if indeed it ever had it) decades ago.

Why is it that religion exerts such a pull on us; leaves such marks on us, even when we think that we have "put away childish things"? It's not difficult to understand why Richard Dawkins rails against such a mark being put on a child: no child is described as 'a socialist child' or 'a Conservative child'. Whatever one's parents' political beliefs, everyone accepts that you'll choose your own later. But religion is different: religion can be used to label an infant from birth.

Yet my father, oddly, always got on better with the local parish priest than he ever did with assorted Anglican clerics. Partly, I imagine, because they shared a love of whisky. Perhaps he felt an empathy on screwed-up ideas of sex. Sometimes, it was if his bigotry was merely for show.

The memories don't fit together into a coherent picture. And there's no box to see what it should look like.

But perhaps that's it. Religion as part of a rootedness – part of a picture of home and family and community. Not a singular thing, but merely one aspect, reflecting and part of a range of others, that present a whole, as the men in Seville appear to feel.

There are no roots or much of a family in my background. Perhaps that is why religion has loomed so large and still puzzles.

But Tóibín's book has perhaps offered some understanding of what the picture on the box might look like.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Is chick lit itself bad – or just the term?

A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian launched a debate on its blog pages about ‘chick lit’, with author DJ Connell blasting the derogatory way in which that tag is often employed.

The day after, Michele Gorman responded with a defence of women’s light fiction.

And then, a few days ago, Still Learning asked for my opinion of US author Jonathan Franzen. Now I didn’t know anything Franzen, so I did a quick bit of research – and a related question came up.

It appears that Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, but after initially being favourable to his book’s inclusion, the writer later asked for it to be removed.

He explained: “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry – I’m sorry that it’s, uh – I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say: ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.”

Now, setting aside the fact that Connell doesn’t apparently understand the history of feminism – she claims that it only began during or after the 1960s: “the pre-feminist, satin sheet and jacuzzi 60s” – and setting aside the ridiculous boast that she doesn’t have a handbag (have we really not yet got over the idea that you can’t like handbags/wear lipstick and be a feminist?), she raises a serious and interesting question.

Why is so much female endeavour derided?

It’s not just books. In comedy, for instance, female comics are often dismissed on the grounds that their routines are about pregnancy and periods. Well yes – those are big parts of the female experience of life that their main audience will recognise.

But the point is that women are judged differently: men’s comedy is not similarly treated because most male comics deal with male experience.

Non-literary books that are aimed at a male audience are not derided in a similar way – whether that’s within genre fiction that is considered to largely appeal to a male audience (war fiction and sci-fi, for instance, together with the sort of non-fiction books by ex-SAS soldiers, recounting their adventures).

Or perhaps the point is that such gender-based judgments are applied when popular forms of entertainment are being considered. Generally, it’s not the sort of criticism that you’d expect to see applied to women’s literary efforts.

But beyond the rarified realms of literature, popular culture has been dominated by men, leaving a template of male tastes and attitudes; and a suggestion that the male approach to life is the only legitimate one.

Of course the thing with popular culture is that it attracts far bigger audiences than high-brow culture. So when such an attitude reveals itself in the popular realm, it suggests that the attitude that women's light entertainment is not as good as that for and by men is widespread.

What is perhaps oddest of all is the idea that all people, irrespective of any difference, should all like the same things. And it seems equally peculiar that anyone would expect that men and women to enjoy the same light fiction or comedy or TV programmes etc.

Let’s start from a point of saying that there’s nothing wrong with light fiction.

But unless we seriously think that there are no differences between men and women, then why would we imagine that, by and large, those two audiences wouldn’t like entertainments that reflect their own experiences or interests or fantasies/dreams?

I have no problem, for instance, with men enjoying male comics. What I find irritating is the apparent assumption that female comics can be discounted by men because they don’t ‘speak to’ a male audience. Well why should they – any more than male comics should ‘speak to’ a female audience?

It works the other way too, of course. Some months ago, a female colleague suggested that I should read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – simply because “it has a really strong female character”. I don’t pick the books that I read on such a spurious basis.

It seems that, for all that we have made vast strides forward on equality, there are still people who want, for a variety of reasons, to pigeonhole women: men who scoff at what entertains many women; women who do the same, because it deals with romance and shoes and handbags etc – the things that they do not believe any proper, grow-up woman should invest a moment’s thought on.

I have sympathy with Franzen’s view, and it illustrates again how groups pigeonhole themselves: ‘I’m not reading that, it’s a women’s book: it must be a women’s book because it’s been on Oprah’.

Why scoff at light entertainment in general? Don’t make pretentions for it either, but it has a place. It’s be a bloody drab world if we were only allowed to read ‘proper’ novels or watch ‘proper’ films or listen to ‘proper’ music – our entertainment always selected for its level of high-browness.

Personally, I’d only take issue if popular entertainment threatens to wipe out anything else (and here we’re back with that pet little gripe of mine about the death of independent bookshops and the prevalence of the chains that concentrate on the mainstream and the light to the exclusion of pretty much anything else.

As a very slight aside, I have a test for a bookshop. I go and check out its history section, and if those shelves are weighed down by Hitler porn and pretty much nothing else, then it’s probable that the shop in general isn’t going to prove much fun for me.

But back to the issue at hand: if some women want to read light fiction, then let them. It doesn’t need to be derided any more than the light fiction that men read should be derided as such – and that applies as much to male as to female ‘commentators’.

Monday, 16 August 2010

History that leaves you begging for more

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning tome – and checking in at 650 pages, it more than qualifies for the ‘tome’ description – has been sitting on my shelf since a few days before last year’s prize was awarded. A massive challenge awaiting me; recommended by many, but still the sort of fat book that you feel is going to tax your ability to really concentrate on a serious literary work.

So it says something that a not-very-fast reader like me has absolutely roared through it in a fraction over a fortnight – with a number of those days not providing opportunities to read much at all.

Set in the early 16th century, Mantel has taken the oh-so-familiar history of Henry VIII and the English Reformation, and worked wonders with it. What she does, rather than put the Tudors themselves at the centre of her stage is to give that role to Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s right-hand man – a Machiavellian schemer who could make Peter Mandelson look positively naïve.

Or at least, that’s how Cromwell has long been viewed – a perception most particularly created by Robert Bolt’s play about Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons: an unpleasant, bullying man that you would never trust.

What Mantel has set out to do here is, in some part at least, a riposte to Bolt. And indeed, while she does nothing remotely as clumsy as making her More some sort of cartoon villain, neither does she portray him as a gentle, otherworldly martyr and future saint.

Here, we have a Cromwell who fought to find ways to keep More alive; who respected and liked him. But here also, when More claims that he has never wished ill on anyone or done ill to anyone, Cromwell finally explodes, flashing back at More examples of those that he has had destroyed – up to sending them to burn at the stake.

While on the surface this is a tale of how Henry wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn – partly because he was so desperate for the male heir that his first wife seemed unable to give him – it is also a very timely story of religious fundamentalism. And, partly because we know that this story did not stop when Mantel wrote the final words here, we know that that fundamentalism was seen on both sides of a Christian church that was splitting asunder right across Europe.

But while Henry’s motive for the English Reformation was less a theological one and more a political one (ending Papal authority over his realm), there is plenty here too to flesh out the theological arguments that were, for many people, very real.

Again, Mantel does well to convey how, for many of those people – including, to an extent at least, Cromwell himself – what arose were not the complaints of Martin Luther, but the questions of whether, for instance, the communion wafer really does become the body of Christ or whether relics and priests and popes and saints are even mentioned in a Bible that they are finally beginning to be able to see and read in their own language, however dangerous that is at the time in which this book takes place.

This is about the democratisation of religion, to an therefore, the democratisation too of thought, and freedom of conscience.

Luther himself described reason as “the devil’s whore” and saying: “Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God.” It is sometimes easy to forget that whatever Luther’s role in the Reformation from a theological perspective, the role of the printing press was paramount.

These were, of course, dangerous times, and Mantel creates an atmosphere of danger, of fear: a sense that you had to be very, very careful who you talked to and what you talked about; of what you read and of how you kept your books and your papers.

There is no shortage of executions in the book, but she never overdoes this. Having described in some detail one burning at the stake and one death by hanging, drawing and quartering, she leaves subsequent ones to our imagination.

In terms of that danger, here is More again: this time, at the centre of a spy network that seeks to catch out anyone who dares to disagree with what he believes is the divine truth – even to the point of having them burnt until nothing is left of their bodies but fat and grease: nothing left for God to resurrect; consigned to eternal damnation.

Mantel leaves no possibility that her readers will not notice the cruelty of the times and perhaps particularly the cruelty of a man who has been canonised since his death; hailed as a saint and a martyr to conscience. But here is a thing: if we hail More now – a religious fundamentalist, even by the standards of his own times – what do we say of religious fundamentalism today?

We also see Cromwell as a new figure on the political landscape; a politician as had never gone before. This is, indeed, the last absolute monarchy in Britain’s history. It is the end of the old and the beginning of a modern era in so many ways.

Cromwell, the merchant and the money man, represents the change in political balance; as well as by being a commoner with no noble blood at all; a man who rose by talent and luck, resented by so many of those who come to rely on his services.

And for Britons who still believe that somehow the history of these islands has not been inextricably bound up with the history of the rest of the continent that we are a part of, Mantel has also created a reminder that that is not the case: Henry might have wanted to break with foreign power, but whether it occurred to him or not, he could not avoid or break the links with everything else that was happening, in a variety of ways, across the continent.

There is an extraordinary cast of characters here, all fleshed out in a way that makes you feel that they are now etched indelibly in your mind: Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s family, Anne Boleyn (scheming and nasty), Henry himself, the artist Hans Holbein and assorted diplomats and clergy. The London that is painted here is a brilliantly vivid one too, while Britain as a whole is a country where religion and ancient myth still mingle as the mist clings to a still un-mapped land.

Mantel is apparently working on the second volume in what she intends to be a trilogy. It’s a measure of her achievement here that one can hardly wait. Wolf Hall is beautifully written; an humane novel that is both very funny in places and very moving in others, and which fleshes the bones of tired history and makes it come fully and rounded to life. Stunning stuff indeed.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

All you need are herbs

You wouldn’t really think it was much to ask, would you? The ability to purchase a single herb – one that will grow on these shores and that could hardly be described as exotic, being easy to purchase in dried form.

But getting hold of fresh oregano this weekend proved far more difficult than expected.

First I tried every possible outlet on Broadway Market – and the even traipsed all the way to a major supermarket, which proved to have an exotic collection of herbs I’ve never heard of, but no oregano (or even marjoram).

Then today, I went in search of a new Sunday farmers’ market that I knew had started doing business in mid-May. Having totally misread and/or misunderstood the directions, I walked right past it and on to London Fields and the Lido, where I sat down with The Other Half for a coffee.

On the way back, we happened to spot what we should have seen before and, with only a few minutes to go until closing time, had a first chance to look at the new market.

It’s small at the moment – but it is new and this is August. And this is very much organic produce and not imported.

I was able to solve my oregano problem, buying two growing pots of the stuff, plus one of thyme, in a three-for-a-fiver deal.

The annoying thing – apart from it being so difficult to buy some fresh herbs (chives and sage are also often ridiculously awkward to find), is that I had been planning kleftiko for a good week and could have taken the chance to either buy some oregano when in Waitrose earlier in the week or even add some to the list when I was doing a bulk internet order.

But ultimately I need to get myself sorted out and plant some new herbs. I had a small selection for some years – bay, rosemary and thyme, but while the bay tree is going strong, the thyme has died to nothing and the rosemary has been subjected to the onslaught of Chrysolina Americana, a rather attractive – if bloody infuriating – metallic green beetle with purple stripes.

A native of southern Europe, it has become established in the south of England in the last two decades (global warming, anyone?). And it loves thyme, sage, lavender and rosemary.

Come the autumn, after we’ve had the remains of the ‘grass’ in the garden paved, I’ll get a load of big new pots and planters and start again with some home cultivation – attempting to actually think of a way to protect my crops from the bloody beetles.

But back to the cooking. Although I’ve done kleftiko before, from Rick Stein’s Mediterranean Escapes, it was only in Venice this spring that I was really turned onto the joys of lamb and lemon in combination.

Saying that, the moment is vanishing far into the past when I last considered grilled or roasted lamb as something that you only ever serve with mint sauce, plain new potatoes and some fresh peas.

But the idea of doing a kleftiko again now was partly a practical one – meat flaking off bone will be easy to eat for the dentally challenged: and I do feel a need for a bit of meat this weekend.

It’s robust food, but for all his infectious enthusiasm (and the essential quality of his recipes) Stein never seems either to quite get simplicity or to be able to get past his classical French culinary background.

For instance, in this recipe, he calls for the fresh oregano or marjoram to be measured out by the teaspoon. It’s difficult enough to imagine any Greek home cook doing that – let alone the Klephts who gave their name to the dish; rural bandits who, according to legend, stole lambs or goats and cooked them in a sealed pit to avoid the smoke giving away their location.

So instead, I take my cue from Jamie Oliver, and just pull a load of leaves from my potted oregano plant and then, after juicing the lemons, add the torn skins to the pot too. Why waste all that flavour?

So: heat your oven to 180˚C.

Take a shoulder of lamb that you’ve had your butcher cut into four, through the bone (this will do for four people), and pop it in a large pot with the juice of a couple of lemons, 100ml of water, two or three glugs of good olive oil, half a dozen bay leaves, a shake of dried oregano and as much fresh oregano as you want. Tear or cut the lemon skins up a bit and then toss them in too.

Take a bulb of garlic, pull as much of the papery skin off as possible, then slice the whole bulb in half through the middle. Peel some potato and cut into chunks. Add plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper, then take some kitchen foil and wrap it over the contents of your pot. Pop on a lid and pop in the oven.

Give it two hours and check to make sure there’s still liquid in the bottom. If there isn’t, add a little more. Then cook for anther hour.

Robust, gutsy, melt-in-the-mouth food indeed.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The eyes have it

Having bitten the dental bullet (in a manner of speaking), I grasped the ophthalmic nettle and had an eye test yesterday.

Or perhaps that should be: had a number of eye tests. And a modern visit to the optician has become akin to visiting a form of torture chamber, with all manner of devices that you almost have to be strapped into to have air puffed at your eyeballs, to have your eyelids turned up and goodness knows what else.

It’s all rather different to my first memories of eye examinations.

The first optician that I remember was called – if memory serves – Miss Anderton. I picture her as white-haired and wearing glasses; thin, tall and gentle, but with the manner of a slightly jolly hockeysticks sort of schoolmistress, all very businesslike.

This was Mossley – and being a Pennine mill town, it wasn’t really the sort of place that was overburdened with such characters.

It had started to become clear apparent that my sight was far from perfect when I was little more than six or seven. By the time I was 10, I was having to wear glasses all the time. Miss Anderton told us that I had inherited myopia from my paternal grandfather, after the genes had skipped a generation.

My parents – I suspect as much from a fear of having to cough up for more spectacles more often that strictly necessary – tried to pack me in more cotton wool than usual. It provided a glorious opportunity to tell me, for instance, that I should stop playing football.

At my grammar school, I was never allowed to play hockey because of being a speccy four eyes. In fact, the only time my glasses actually ever took a bashing was playing netball.

My sight worsened rapidly. Miss Anderton told us that it would continue to worsen until I stopped growing. Which gave it a good decade to get bad and then get worse.

I finally got my first contact lenses when I was in my late teens – we went back to Miss Anderton from our then home in Lancaster to get them: I don’t have a clue as to why we hadn’t registered with an optician there instead.

I wore them on the way home, as my father drove. It was astonishing; clouds seemed to be three-dimensional. And then there was getting used to how everything was a completely different size to what I’d spent years being used to. Pavements, for instance, suddenly seemed to be miles higher than I had known. It took some getting used to.

One of the biggest shocks was being able to see when I was on stage – indeed, being able to see the audience!

In more recent years, I haven’t worn contacts on a daily basis, but mostly when I’m on holiday – vital for a spot of snorkelling and besides, it’s nice when you’re in the water and you can still see your surroundings in detail.

Yesterday’s test went well – I actually spent part of it telling myself silently: ‘this is not a test you pass or fail; this is not a test you pass or fail’.

My eyes are apparently in good health – my near sight is doing well and my far sight is a fraction worse, but not enough for the optician to insist on a new prescription. I shall probably get a new pair in the autumn, but for now, my main concern was making sure I could get enough lenses for holiday later this month.

There are people I know who would self-identify as disabled on the grounds of such very short sight. But it’s not something that I can imagine doing.

It’s not how I want to be perceived – it’s not how I perceive myself. As I get older, one thing that, for me, is clear: I am less and less interested in having labels attached to me, whether by myself or by others.

And I do sometimes wonder, however convenient labels may be, for a variety of reasons, whether they don’t simply divide more than they unite. And they always seem to be simplistic – not even half the picture.

And then there are labels that are just plain daft. One that gets chucked at me on occasion is ‘champagne socialist’. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a socialist (see above), but even if I did, what’s wrong with champers? Is it written somewhere that socialists shall only drink beer of Adam’s Ale?

And if we were playing that game, then surely nothing is too good for the workers: if they want a glass of bubbly they shall have it!

No. The more I think about, the less I want to have any labels pinned to me at all.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Shaking up British literary complacency

A row is taking shape in British literary circles after academic Gabriel Josipovici declared that some of the countries’ leading authors were not literary giants.

Josipovici condemns the likes of Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis largely on the grounds, it seems, that while they write well, he thinks they all display a “petty-bourgeois uptightness” and are “prep-school boys showing off”.

According to the Guardian, he apparently “singled out The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's story of obsession, as easy to read but lacking ‘a sense of destiny, of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words’, unlike that experienced through Proust or Henry James. McEwan's novel is read ‘to pass the time’, he said.

“Such novels had a ‘lack of vision and limited horizons’.

“‘One finishes them and feels, 'So what?' – so very different from the gut-wrenching experience of reading Herman Melville's Bartleby or William Golding’s The Inheritors,” said Josipovici.

Now, I’m aware that a similar question has been raised about literature in the US, but don’t remotely know enough to comment on the situation over The Pond.

In this case, I’ve read at least some work by all the authors that Josipovici is quoted as mentioning. What I’ve read of McEwan’s work I’ve enjoyed – Amsterdam is very darkly funny. I’ve not been stunned by Barnes’s fiction, although I like his non-fiction (Pedant in the Kitchen is very funny). I enjoyed Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; I didn’t like Amis’s Money.

I’d add into the same mix Blake Morrison, whose latest book, The Lost Weekend, I reviewed a couple of months ago.

When I start to really think about it, Josipovici is right. All of the above write very well. You can enjoy them. But they don’t leave you with any great sense of underlying questions afterward.

I mentioned Amsterdam as a book I enjoyed – but I can’t remember anything about it that left me thinking afterward – compare that to Golding's Lord of the Flies, which I hated at school and then was stunned when I re-read it as an adult a few years ago.

The article also mentions the current plethora of historical novels as though this were necessarily a negative thing in terms of thought-provoking literature.

Now I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (last year’s Booker winner), a big book about Thomas Cromwell and his role in the English Reformation.

With 101 pages of the 650 to go (I’m absolutely racing through it, given my usual reading speed), I’d have to say that not only is it a very entertaining read, Mantel has penned a deeply informative novel – and one that does make you consider questions around its story.

One could say the same of Thomas Mann’s family saga, Buddenbrooks, which was the title listed on his Nobel citation in 1929.

So if we take Nobel (and Booker) status as indicative of literature, then historical novels certainly count.

But if we’re looking for more than a good read, well written – a ‘novel of ideas’, in other words – then there is no shortage of literary greats (and entertaining to – see Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum).

Personally, Mann is a giant in that area: after reading Buddenbrooks, my introduction to his work, I read a collection of the sort stories, culminating in Death in Venice. The book took me three months to read, because I didn’t want to miss anything and there was so very much to see. And when I read that final novella, my jaw was left on the ground.

I’ve read Death in Venice a number of times since – and on each occasion, I see something different. Reading it initially left me stunned – I don’t think that I had ever quite realised just what a book could contain.

And that, I think, is what Josipovici is bemoaning a lack of.

But if not quite on that scale, there is actually plenty of thoughtful stuff around in genre fiction – if you set aside the snobbery about genre fiction in general.

As an example: recently, in a sci-fi mood, I read Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space and Iain M Banks’s Use of Weapons in succession.

Both are well written, rollicking space operas. What differentiates them is that, where that’s pretty much where Reynolds’s book ends, Banks leaves you with a few things to consider: the nature of crime, punishment, forgiveness, repentance and restitution – and that’s without mentioning the constant question that all his Culture novels raise, of foreign policy; of the ethics of interfering in other countries’ affairs.

And as I mentioned last week, setting aside all the hype, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo offers more than just the thrills that its ‘thriller’ tag might lead potential readers to expect.

What is interesting, though, is why such a situation has occurred? Are there no new ideas – or even reworking and rethinking of old ones for our current times? Given the complexities of these times, you have to wonder why not.

It's not that we've always lacked such writers – Golding was mentioned above: there are plenty more, from Virginia Woolf to Iris Murdoch.

Perhaps it’s simply another aspect of the attitude toward intellectualism and intellectual pursuits in the UK? But then again, we have almost nothing that could be described as philosophy in this country – or nothing that anyone outside some hallowed ivory halls has heard of, leaving us with populists such as AC Grayling and Roger Scruton. So maybe it's not really a surprise. Perhaps, after all, we're doing really rather well to have nicely-written books that entertain?

Friday, 6 August 2010

A new culinary challenge

After a second bout of 'heroism', I now have a new challenge.

Being entirely sans gnashers in the upper jaw department, with a section of gum only just beginning to heal and the rest a mere eight days into that process, the question is what to eat.

Last night was easy: a tin of Heinz macaroni cheese, which needed no masticatory exercise at all. And yes – I do have my junk food moments (most notoriously, the occasional chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle).

But Sybarite cannot live by tinned macaroni cheese alone, and nor do I have desire to spend the time until my gums start to harden in the consumption of baby food, while there's a basic healthy diet to take into consideration too.

So, a day earlier than usual, I have been contemplating menus – this time, starting by making a list of foods that I could obviously manage with ease: yogurt, soup, rice etc.

Fish will also be easy – white fish grilled, salmon poached or even smoked mackerel. No problem there.

I'm not sure about meat at present – although a trip to the shops this morning saw me handed a sample of fennel salami in the deli and, accepting it without thinking, I then realised that I didn't actually know whether I'd be able to chew it. I managed. But it was wafer-thin.

For the moment, I'm looking at plain yogurt and sliced banana for breakfasts, with fruit juice.

Then soup for lunch: I bought a batch of single portion cartons of gazpacho (ready made, but with no additives) – some are already waiting in the office fridge for me next week. Since The Other Half notoriously doesn't like chilled soups, I'll make a pea and mint one for lunch tomorrow. Seasonal, tasty and edible for the gummy.

But that left me wondering what to do this evening – and I finally settled on making some courgette timbales: add cream and egg, plus loads of basil, to cooked courgette, then blend, pop in greased ramekins and bake in a bain-marie. Easy and tasty – season with plenty of black pepper or even some nutmeg. With that, I'll try some picked beetroot and I'll do some cannellini beans, puréed with lemon juice and virgin oil (a River Cafe idea, that, and lovely it is too). And I should be able to manage some strawberries at some point.

So that makes quite healthy nosh for today. The Other Half can have a timbale and whatever else he wants with it – there's plenty in.

Tomorrow, I'll do some fish – what with, I'm not sure yet.

Sunday is a complete enigma at present, since I usually do something seriously meaty – and I'm not sure (thinly-sliced fennel salami apart) what meat I'm up for eating yet. Mince is one option, but it's not the season for a cottage or shepherd's pie, and I did meatballs last week. Perhaps a really good spag bol?

One thing I'm looking forward to doing is puréed potato, French style: not mashed, but seriously puréed with virgin oil. I could roast a load of bulb garlic first and then purée that with it too, for an extra kick.

And Monday will probably be a mushroom risotto.

So after wondering just what I would be able to eat, I've sussed a number of options already. And health and taste will not have to suffer.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Thoughts on the cusp of a new season

It's a funny old time of year. August is, traditionally, the hottest – and certainly the most humid – month in Britain. It's the height of the summer season; of the school holidays.

And yet the new football season, which seems one of the major harbingers of autumn, is almost upon us. Today, I forked out a crazy £51 for a ticket to see Manchester City's opening Premier League fixture at Tottenham (at least the travel will cost me next to nowt!).

Since the season is so near, and the transfer window remains open for less than a month, gossip is rife.

Actually, it's quite funny. Until the 2007 close season, City rarely featured in such gossip. The fact that now, with rich owners, we're never out of it, is amusing for someone who has spent the best part of 35 years supporting a team that, by and large, has been regarded fondly, but also as something of a laughing stock.

I cannot imagine what I'd be like if we actually won something serious – I went bonkers enough when we won the Division II play-off final against Gillingham in 1999 – but there are things that I can see as unpleasant side effects of any success.

• bandwagon jumpers. I had a colleague at one time who had been a Liverpool fan throughout the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, he became a Manchester United fan. I do not look forward to the idea that, if we actually become successful, we'll start getting bandwagon jumpers;

• humour. I really hope we don't lose our sense of humour. Usually, it's been gallows humour. I remember a Saturday afternoon match at Bramall Lane, the home of Sheffield United. They were chanting: "We hate Wednesday, we hate Wednesday", referring to their local rivals, Sheffield Wednesday. We piped up: "We hate Saturday, we hate Saturday."

Or on another occasion, having lost 6-0 in a midweek cup game to Liverpool, we found ourselves getting trounced 4-0 by them in a league game at the weekend. Our response? "We'll score again, don't know where, don't know when, but we know we'll score again some sunny day", to a familiar Vera Lynn tune.

Perhaps surprisingly to many, having very rich owners hasn't meant that the club suddenly feels that it's not ours any more. The Peter Swales era, when we owned by a local businessman, taught me long ago that local does not equal good. It was a great day when we got old shredded wheat head out.

Rebuilding has taken time. Even given the vast improvements since 2007, I've still seen more dross on the pitch over the years than otherwise. But what happened in the summer of 2007 was that suddenly, the close season ceased to become a break from the torment of being a City fan, but a time of excitement and speculation and hope.

And yes, it was the first time in years when we'd started to dream again. And dreaming is what it's all about. Until – just perhaps – those dreams start coming true.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Passing the test

It’s something of a shock, but I feel rather heroic at present. Not that I have really been heroic – just that I’ve been to the dentist.

‘Oh look, folks; I’ve been to the dentist – how heroic I am!’ Give the girl a medal.

Heroism is a funny thing. It’s easy to say that of course you would ‘do the right thing’ in circumstances that demanded it from the comfort of circumstances that do not.

Would you really defy a repressive regime if your own life would be put at risk? Or if the lives of your loved ones would be in danger?

The latter was pretty much how I thought God behaved when I was a child: I was convinced that I would be punished by bad things happening to those I loved.

And even having finally grown out of religion, that sort of approach has changed into a deep-rooted feeling that any physical shortcomings are my own ‘fault’: that if not a punishment, they’re the consequence of my own behaviour or failings. Or a weakness.

The Other Half has observed that I hate eye tests so much because I treat them as though they’re a test that you pass or fail – and that inevitably, as someone who has had myopia since I was small child, it’s a test that I always ‘fail’.

Finally, in this circumstance, my rather feeble heroism has seen an immediate reward rather than any punishment.

I’ve been stressing out and getting very, very wound-up for some months about the process of dental care that I am now – finally – in.

I knew, six months ago, that I would have to have all my teeth taken out because of gum disease. The diagnosis was partly a surprise; partly not.

That’s the joy of years of not going near a dentist because your teeth were not hurting and you had no money. When I had money, my eyes had to come first.

And then when I got around to going to a dentist around five or six years ago, the dentist in question didn’t even mention gum disease, said he would do something in general when two rather wonky teeth had fallen out, and then cleaned my teeth in what was an utterly horrific experience. I came out shaking from head to toe.

My new dentist, who is Spanish and rather good looking (a welcome distraction) did not originally seem to have quite the easiest manner. But last week, when I finally got around to booking an appointment, he was firm but gentle, and assured me that “there will be no pain: you might feel some force, but there will be no pain”.

And there wasn’t. There wasn’t much force either – the six he removed then came out ridiculously easily, before he applied stitches (there was a first – I’ve never had stitches).

I had no pain, even after my face had stopped feeling like rubber. And the tenderness had pretty much disappeared by Sunday. So I really don’t feel anything like as worried about my next appointment, this Thursday, when he’ll remove four more to leave me with no gnashers in my upper jaw.

What’s perhaps most irritating is that there’s no sign of any decay on the teeth. So I wasn’t outrageously neglectful on the basic oral hygiene front.

But I realised, a day or so after Thursday’s surgery, that I felt almost elated: I’ve spent so long being embarrassed and downright ashamed – learning to cover my mouth when I laugh as a habit, and to smile without showing my teeth – that the relief of finally grasping the nettle of my fear and getting the treatment underway has proved a huge relief.

The moral of the story, as I took the chance to tell my niece a couple of days later, is don’t skip dental care. Although of course, it would be rather nice if the NHS hadn’t stopped providing it universally (along with ophthalmic care) and if dental insurance plans were actually decent (I haven’t seen one yet that provides real coverage).

And just think – in a few months I’ll be able to bite into an apple properly for the first time in close to 20 years.

Now all I’ve got to do in the next week or so is have an eye test so that they’ll let me buy some more contact lenses for my holiday at the end of the month.

Monday, 2 August 2010

All by the book

I was fortunate enough to have an invitation to a book launch last week – and a jolly pleasant evening it turned out to be.

The volume in question – The Faber Book of South American Cinema – was written by Demetrios Matheou, a colleague. And there have been times over the last few years when I can’t help feeling that The Other Half and I have been amongst a number of people who have, in some ways, helped provide pre-natal care for his baby.

So it was most gratifying to be there for the official birth. We heard a little speech from the author himself and we were served copious amounts of South American wine and beer, and we bought his book and got him to sign it.

But it has to be confessed here that a very great part of the pleasure of the night was the venue itself – Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street in west London.

Daunt Books is a little bit of paradise on Earth.

Originally built as a bookshop in the Edwardian era, it's centred on a lovely, long room with a stained glass window and a gallery. And it's arranged in the quirkiest manner I’ve ever encountered: by country. So you have sections in varying sizes for all of Europe on the ground floor, while the continents of Australasia, Africa and the Americas are represented, by country, in a vast basement space.

But Daunt doesn’t just sell travel books – far from it. Each of those sections includes history, literature, poetry, popular fiction and language as well as travel.

And because it’s an independent, you find things such as AC Baantjer’s DeKok and the Dead Lovers, one of a substantial series of police procedurals set in Amsterdam.

Or Berlin Noir, a collection of the first three of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther police procedurals set in Berlin.

Or the original Collete story of Gigi, published in a slender volume with The Cat

Or Klaus Mann's Mephisto and Goethe’s erotic poems.

The most mainstream thing that I picked up, as I mentioned yesterday, was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

That is the only book I could have expected to find in the majority of bookshops that now adorn our high streets – or the supermarkets that have spent millions to drive independent retailers out of business by deciding that they could make even more mega bucks by selling everything imaginable under one roof!

And that’s why such moves do not only have the negative impact of homogenising our high streets – the reality is that they also reduce choice. Not improve it – reduce it.

Okay, so I didn’t get the discounts I’d get online. But then again, the pleasure of browsing brought the reward of finding things that I’d either never have heard of at all or didn’t know were actually available in print/English.

Britain is apparently one of the biggest producers of books in the world. But quantity is not the same as quality.

I don’t want to stop people having the chance to buy their crass biographies of reality TV ‘stars’, but why should I find that my opportunities to discover rather better – and a greater variety of – books decreased?

I use Amazon devoutly. I browse; I take recommendations; I search. But it is not the same as going into an independent bookseller (or music shop, for that matter) and being able to physically browse. It is really not the same. And cyber browsing has nowhere near the pleasure of the physical version.

The Other Half and I will make the effort to go to Daunt again – we’ll have to travel halfway across the capital to do it, but we will. So it’s not that we’re ‘lazy’ in our own interests. Or that we expect what we like to be particularly cheap (we’re in the fortunate position, at present, of not having to worry about whether we pay the listed price for a book or get it on a special offer).

But we will travel half way around the second biggest city in Europe (Moscow is the biggest) to visit a real, quirky bookshop that offers one of the best browsing – and, therefore, learning – experiences that I have ever seen.

It’s all rather an interesting insight into the current stage of capitalism that we’re at. In Paris, town planners actually work against the big franchises that want to wipe out independent stores – not just of books, but of other things too. They think that the 'soul' of the place is worth working for – not to preserve it as though it were a museum, but to keep it alive.

That’s part of why I increasingly love France. Yes, there is a place for Fnac (a chain of entertainment mini-malls, in effect – and excellent they are too) but there is absolutely a place for the Daunt Books of this world. And the French realise that far more, at this point in time, than the British do.

Perhaps it’s no wonder I feel myself increasingly becoming a Francophile – and the same for any other Continental nation, because they have similar attitudes – and why I sometimes feel so tired of what I increasingly feel is a small-minded nation.

PS: And that’s without mentioning that Amy Winehouse was in the same bookshop as us, at the same time.

PS#2: So, a big plug for The Faber Book of New South American Cinema by Demetrios Matheou

PS#3: And Daunt Books. Take the virtual tour of this Edwardian bookshop, if nothing else.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

A thriller that offers more than thrills

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist is co-publisher of Swedish magazine Millennium which has a built a reputation for holding dodgy businessmen (and women) to account for their actions.

But when he receives information that leads him to print a story about industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, Blomkvist finds himself in court on libel charges, and with the realisation dawning that he cannot back up his claims.

Sentenced to three months in prison and having resigned from Millennium, he is awaiting the date for his incarceration when he's invited to visit Henrik Vanger, the elderly former CEO of Vanger Enterprises. Vanger asks him to take on a job in a freelance capacity – writing a book about the extended Vanger family. But that is a cover for trying to work out what happened to his niece, Harriet, who disappeared without trace in 1966 and who Vanger believes was murdered by a family member.

Vanger has already employed Lisbeth Salander – 25 and a ward of state after a deeply troubled childhood – to find out everything that there is to know about Blomkvist. The asocial Salander, we discover, is a genius with computers, but she has problems of her own with her new state-appointed guardian.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one of the most hyped novels in recent years: as such, I'd avoided it. But a number of personal recommendations concluded last Wednesday night when I was at a book launch in a book shop – and on the way to pay for some books, I picked one up. In effect, 500-plus pages disappeared over two days.

A thriller and a detective novel: dark and violent, cynical and yet written in a very unrushed and careful style, the first of Stieg Larsson's trilogy is a super read.

And that's not simply because it's entertaining as a piece of genre fiction – which it certainly is. But what Larsson also created here was a series of very interesting and quirky characters, and a very morally complex piece of fiction. Add into that such things as as recurring debate about nature v nurture, and you have a very satisfying piece of fiction indeed.

The tragedy is that Larsson himself died shortly after delivering the three manuscripts to his publisher. What a shame he never lived to realise what a success the books would become – and well worth that success they really are.

Of course, there are huge amounts of snobbery around about genre fiction, but this is more intellectually challenging than some 'proper' literature.