Soup for Miracles

Saturday, 31 October 2009

My cousin Angus was a pyromaniac before he could walk. Not an arsonist, let's just get that straight. He loved, respected and was enraptured by fire. Not just the flames, but the whole religious ritual. Before the NS's abdication, we lived in Cumbria in a house on a cliff with a fireplace that all the children could stand up in together. Every Christmas Eve, the dads bundled us overexcited kids into wellies and waterproofs and marched us through the gloaming over the field with the Roman remains, scrambled us down the brows and onto the beach to womble* for the Christmas Log.

This huge lump of tree was then hauled back up the cliff using old rope, chains and as much bot-power as social services would let them get away with. Whining was verboten, especially with Santa's Fairies on constant lookout for places to leave the apocryphal lump of coal. The Northern Socialist would then channel his inner Thoreau and build the fire using the Guardian, twigs, the scantest bit of coal and finally, the Christmas Log. This would then burn for about three days, sparking and whistling. Strange colours would flame out of it, whooshing among the crannies and no doubt getting us kids all well off our tits on chemical fumes. No matter. While the grown ups were in another room shrieking to Morcambe and Wise, we would lie in the dark, rapt on the hearthrug, Christmas lights twinkling, and make last-minute bargains with Santa.

Angus always came the closest to getting a coal-stuffed stocking. He hated leaving the fire, and would push Santa's fairies to the limits of patience dragging his feet in protest at the unfairness of leaving his place of worship by the hearth. In the morning, he was always first downstairs, loudly lisping tales of still-burning miracles to bedrooms flurried with wrapping paper and spent stockings.

When I was at University, he came to stay with me for a night in my terraced hovel. I assumed at fifteen, he'd be keen to enjoy cheap unsupervised booze. Instead, I went to the pub and he stayed behind, cleaned out the chimney in my dank little room and built me a crackling, beautiful fire.

Seven long years ago, he married a wonderful girl. They waited to have a baby. And waited. Through all the cousins' babies, he kept the fires burning. He taught my son and nephews how to use a chainsaw and took them on tractor rides and always smiled. It must have been very hard for them - I cannot think of two people more suited to parenthood. Last month, at long last, they had a son. Many tears of joy were shed, many glasses raised, many fires lit.

Today they came for lunch and I met a bonny happy baby. His parents beamed non-stop. While Angus inspected the chimneys, I made them a firey soup.

Angus's Soup
Fry onions and garlic in the time-honoured way. Add a teaspoon each of cumin and smoked paprika. Chuck in several handfuls of red lentils, add two cartons of tomato passata and top up with (sorry Antonio) vegetable stock. Simmer while you hoist a month-old baby onto your shoulder and breathe in the smell of skin and wonder. When the lentils are tender (about 40 minutes) serve with rustic bread and eat with one hand, patting the sleeping baby with the other. Feeds vegetarians and carnivores alike.

*"..making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folk leave behind.." For more of this click here.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat

Thursday, 29 October 2009

My Granny could still do the splits into her seventies. When I was small, she told me she'd been a Bluebell dancer and that she had killed lions. But then she also told me I was on safari in Africa when I was quite clearly sitting in a cardboard box in the North of England. She had a fabulous tea set which I coveted. She promised me that it would be mine when she died. It was twined with pale roses and was so translucent you could see your stout little seven year old hand through it. She made a wonderful deal of tea, peopling the table with invisible guests - Dickon from The Secret Garden, Marlene Dietrich, Big Ears. The only rule was that you could never be silent and afterwards you had to brush her hair while she swooned in pleasure, sucking forbidden fruity boiled sweets. In the 1970s, the Northern Socialist uprooted our family and fled the UK to avoid living under a Thatcher government. Sadly I never saw my Granny or the tea set again.

Many years later someone kindly gave  me a tea set which pretty much matched my memories of Granny's one. I love using it, but do so all too infrequently. This morning, I woke to a house ringing with the shrieks of Rose's four birthday sleepover chums. I set the breakfast table with my rosy tea set and assorted sugary and chocolatey nonsense. The girls trooped in and Rose excused my oddness, muttering "My mum thinks she lives in the 1930s." They sat down and tucked in, while in the background on Radio One, Carrie the Sports Announcer announced her pregnancy.

Hissing whispers. "Carrie's pregnant." "No." "But she's just come back from honeymoon." "Yes, but I think she got married last year and only just went on honeymoon now." "Weird. Why would you do that?" Silence while they all counted to nine several times. "Well. She'll have to stop working now."

Members of the Breakfast Womens' Institute - you think I live in the 1930s?

A Treat for an Autumn Evening

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Doesn't she look like a sweetie?
Apparently she'd drink you under the table then make you cry.
I want to be her when I grow up.

Molly Keane (1905 – 1996) was an Irish novelist and playwright. She loved booze, hunting and her dogs. She was a great chum of Elizabeth Bowen, her co-chronicler of the decline of the Anglo-Irish stately home and way of life. Her work, in case this jewel of a writer has escaped your notice, falls pretty much into two separate time periods, separated by almost forty years. The first lot is pretty good if you fancy whiling away a few hours in a mannered pre-War drawing room from a time that died. The second lot of books are the real stunners.

Molly's adolescence was marked and profoundly affected by the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Black and Tan war, spelling the end of the iron ruling by the Anglo-Irish upper classes and the final death throes of that way of life. Her mother was remote and her father was weak - her unhappy childhood is revisited over and over again in both her early and later novels, which are peopled with wonderful characters who will stay with you long after the last page. She takes no prisoners - if you can't hunt and don't love horses, you have no place in her world. Tough, unsentimental and absolutely certain that drinkies and a dog to hand cure most ills. In this world of victims and blame culture, she renders me nostalgic for a period I never knew.

Her early career, in the 1930s and 40s was written under the pseudenoym MJ Farrell, a name she spied on a pub hacking home from a hunt one afternoon. To her sort, writing was hideously declasse, so her books and plays were kept a secret from the huntin' shootin' and fishin' types she lived among. Her plays even ran in the West End. She suddenly stopped writing in 1946 - partly because her husband, Bobby, the love of her life and father of her two young daughters, died suddenly and tragically at the age of 37; and partly because the crisis in the economy caused the sources of income from the Empire to dry up to almost nothing, spelling the end of that peculiarly upper class way of life. The huge houses fell into ruin over the ensuing decades, wardrobes and stables grew empty and the lower orders no longer knew their places.

For almost forty years, she kept her head down and her nose clean, then suddenly, dripping wickedness and a rapier wit, Good Behaviour appeared in 1981. There are many of us who think she deserved the Booker prize for it that year. This was followed by Time After Time (1983) and Loving and Giving (1988). These books are, bluntly, bleeding brilliant. The characters are observed with a heady cocktail of spite and intelligence. They are dark, often hopeless, always amusing. This is what happened to those glamorous people after the war. Lack of money, crippling snobbery, equestrian obsession and huge albatrosses of house around their increasingly wrinkly necks. Uppity servants, clouds of dogs to feed, tarnishing silver and fading albums. Beautifully observed and possibly the best accompaniment to a crackling fire on an autumn day. Make yourself a plate of Gentlemans Relish* sandwiches, pot of china tea, lock the door and just wallow in her biting prose and meticulous observation of human foibles.

She was a neighbour of the family of a friend of mine and an abiding regret is that I never managed to extricate myself from London to make the trip to Waterford to meet her. When I eventually made a visit, several years after her death, I mentioned this regret to my host. A retired senior British Army officer, he was a seriously tough old guy. He said, 'yes, I know you were keen on her books and I'm glad we never had to invite her over to meet you. She was utterly bloody terrifying.'

*Bit of an acquired taste - I think anchovy is the key ingredient - very salty, just use a scrape.

In which I become golf-mad for 45 minutes

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

It's half term here and Rose (who will be 11 tomorrow. Gulp) is at hockey camp for three days. Camp implies some lovely bosky New-England site, all Abercrombie-type counsellors and perfect-smile kids with rosy cheeks and the promise of toasted marshmallows later on in the cabin. In fact, she just goes between 10 and 4 every day, and it happens in a sports place. (I'm not sure what the exact term is for this since I think sports is bollocks and am in daily terror of being found out by my sporty bots.) It has a sports hall and an outside bit with astroturf and several big fields with lines all over them. Everyone wears a tracksuit of some man-made stuff and you have to check in at a window where I suspect they also dispense steroids and new passports for Chinese table tennis players. Anyway, Rose loves it and has a new mouth guard and a special T-shirt and several new bruises.

After we dropped her off, Freddie and I drove to the beach to walk the dog and buy dreadful coffee in the sort of plastic cup that pops off its own lid before depositing the boiling hot contents all over you. I was dabbing elegantly at my crotch with some napkins when he asked if we could have a go on the Crazy Golf course by the esplanade. I have long been enchanted by this place - it is exactly the sort of thing I imagine rockabillies and mods taking their sweethearts to before banging hell out of each other with chains. It is slightly seedy, very run down and, compared to anything else we've done this week, cheap as chips.

It was also knock-your-socks-off good fun. On a sunny windy day, knowing we should be doing nothing else until 4 o'clock, we decided to do every single hole. Some were easy, some fiendishly hard, involving tunnels, water features, hills. I reckon it was built in the forties, with the primary paint on each hole redone every winter when it's closed. It was pretty packed, all things considered, with players of all ages and degrees of sobriety. We had an absolute blast, laughed our heads off and argued the score with passion and increasing competitiveness. I let him win.

I have come home to a kitchen full of a neighbour's rhubarb (crumble, compote), grapes (a handful with a sharp old cheddar) and quinces (arrange winsomely in a cracked old bowl til they go brown then throw them away - seriously, have you ever read a recipe for quince jam? You need a PhD). Rose has asked for an Indian takeaway and thinks that she might like have done crazy golf for her birthday. I have already paid a king's ransome for a party in which ten little girls are covered with gold leaf and studded with diamonds make a necklace each. Do you think I should cancel? They might prefer crazy golf and coffee scalding instead.

Sunday Sonnet*

Sunday, 25 October 2009

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain,has such small hands

Another silly summer job was being a torch lady (nope, not belting out Gloria Gaynor in drag)  - a lovely old-fashioned role, showing people to their seats in a cinema. I saw Hannah and her Sisters about 150 times that summer, and was word perfect. Not quite so enraptured with Karate Kid II; then I passed the time accidentally landing snogging couples in the full searchlight of my little torch. Anyway, I thought that the bookshop scene and subsequent reading of ee cummings was the most romantic thing I had ever seen in 19 years. Gorgeous film, gorgeous poem.

*Am assuming you're over this by now

Smashing Pumpkin Risotto

Saturday, 24 October 2009

A few weeks ago I shamelessly blagged my way into was lucky enough to be invited to a dinner party at one of the bot's wee chums whose father is a chef with a Michelin background. We had seven breathtakingly delicious courses, including scallops 'flown in by Rick Stein's people' and the most delicious pumpkin risotto I have even been introduced to. The chef is a delightful fireball of Spanish and Italian parentage, and his years of cooking for premier footballers have resulted in a spectacular four-star vocabulary. I was astounded to see a fair whack of the risotto disappear down the Colonel's neck - a solid meat-and-two-veg lad, his previous encounters with it (ugh, shudder, wet rice etc) are best forgotten. I asked Antonio exactly how he made it; pumpkin was a gift, premium Parmesan and chicken stock. "Always chicken stock. Even for da vegetarians." Pause while he sloshed more red wine into our glasses. "Eespecially for da faakin vegetarians."

So, this golden October afternoon, the bots, dog and Colonel jumped merrily to at my command. We donned adorable Gap hats and bright wellies and strolled along the river to the organic vegetable market to buy the perfect pumpkin to recreate Antonio's triumph. The dog didn't eat a single mouthful of slurry; the children skipped ahead hand in hand, leaping in delight, catching the leaves which twirled to the ground; the sun obligingly shone prettily through the oaks and glinted off the boats in the estuary.

As Antonio would say, deed we faaak. I left squabbly bots and Colonel debating TV choices - Sky Sports versus Disney, it's a constant narrative - and roared off in the car to Sainsburys, where I grabbed an intensively farmed pumpkin and whizzed home.

Here, with a little interpretation from me, is Antonio's Risotto:

Risotto cannot be hurried. You need to park yourself stoveside, glass in hand, with some chilled out music and plenty of time. I recommend a long cold vodka and tonic and JJ Cale. No telly schedule and not Golden Earring*. You know who you are.

Peel and dice a pumpkin. Heat olive oil and a knob of butter and gently cook a diced oinion until soft. Add the pumpkin and stir gently until it starts to colour. Chuck in a few handfuls of arborio rice and stir to coat in the oil. Here's where it starts to be relaxing. You will have prepared a jugful of warm stock, either because you did the right thing by last Sunday's chicken carcass, or because you have microwaved a tub of Joubere Stock or even added a cube to hot water. It depends how poncy you feel. Ladle by ladle, add the stock, SLOWLY, stirring between each ladleful until the rice has absorbed the liquid. When it starts to get sticky and dry, add the next lot. Stir constantly, enjoying the slow rythm and the thought you are following the motions of Italian mamas through the centuries. Alternatively, stir with one hand, slurping your v&t and refereeing the ongoing TV control war in the next room at the top of your voice.

Either way, eventually, you will end up with a gorgeous savoury mess of cooked (but still al dente - keep tasting to check, you don't want it to overcook) rice and tender bits of pumpkin. Add a splash of vermouth or white wine. Chuck in two handfulls of finely grated parmesan, stir till melted and serve immediately. If you can be arsed, or have somebody to seduce, hollow out the pumpkin shell and serve the risotto in it. It is an absolute show-stopper. Sprinkle prettily with parsley, sit on the TV control and enjoy.

* Hideous seventies one-hit-wonder rock band. From Holland.

Vita, Vita, Polenta-Eater

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Skye Gyngell in the kitchen at Petersham Nurseries
(wearing exactly the same dress as I do to cook in)

After several years living literally in a desert, I came back to England and bought a flat in St Margarets, the badlands near Richmond-on-Thames. My sister (the Pretty One) was living across the river in Petersham, and we nipped back and forth to see each other on a little boat - whistle or shout and the man appeared in his wooden craft and saved you the bother of schlepping along the towpath and crossing Richmond Bridge. It was an expat's wet dream - lush waterside meadows, grazing cattle, beautiful dark red Georgian buildings, tiny church and thundering polo ponies.

A decade or so later, St Margarets is seriously sought-after and a few oligarchs have constructed odd chalet-style compounds but the place remains relatively untouched, even though you can be bang in the West End of London in 15 minutes.

There was a  crazy little ramshackle nursery where we (no, the green-fingered Pretty One; I kill any plant I look at) used to wander about trying to find plants for her garden. In the first panicky flush of motherhood, the criteria was simple - would it poison a baby? Her boys are now young men and Petersham Nursery has become incredibly chichi and sought after; I was fascinated to read this article in Vogue a couple of years ago. If you can't be bothered to, it basically tells how the new owners of Petersham Nurseries wanted to develop the restaurant side of the businesss and in a stroke of genius, offered the chef's gig to the beautiful, troubled and talented Skye Gyngell. The daughter of an Australian tycoon, she fought a herion addiction for twenty years, emerging recently as a clean, happily settled mother of two ready to unleash her amazing gift on a grateful, greedy world.

It is, especially in the summer, almost impossible to book a table at under four weeks notice, so famous has the restaurant become. They grow all their own vegetables and the menu is composed depending on what the hand-picked suppliers deliver at 11 am. Skye has an impeccable cooking pedigree. A self-confessed control freak, she has seduced many hard-bitten critics with her passionate cooking as well as scaring several sous-chefs shitless with her perfectionist standards.

So with few hours to spare before a London conference, I finally got around to going back there with the Pretty One and her dog. If you get a chance to visit, grab it with both hands. It's the most authentic, eccentric English experience. We missed lunch, but had tea and perfect tart, moist lemon polenta cake. Being vain and the wrong side of forty, we shared a piece, eschewing smugly the amazing saffron-coloured carrot cake studded with dark chocolate, magenta beetroot cake and perfect nursey-tea scones. Actually, the PO and I inhaled half each and the dog lying hopefully under the table never got a look-in.

The plants and flowers are stunning, and the people who work there are just delightful. They promised that the amaryllis bulb would flower red just in time for Christmas, and that the hyacinth bulbs are almost indestructable. Apparently, even I, sworn enemy of Nature, could pull off the whole Lady Chatterly something-Mellors-and-I-have-been-working-on thing.

The shop is like a huge, slightly run-down Edwardian greenhouse. Battered tables, lush displays of greenery, shabby baskets holding all manner of treasures. Things I would have snapped up if I had limitless funds: antique French mirror, shabby stone urns, huge fragile silver and glass Christmas baubly-type things. Things I would have snapped up if I had limitless legs: dark blue lace-up wellies. Their own-brand garden bits are also covetable - canvas and leather aprons, gauntlets and boot bags. Very Sackville-West.

The PO was busy sniggering her way through a story she'd been told by some well-connected neighbours of hers about an actress and some randy husbands. Unfortunately, we're all slightly deaf in our family and she had misheard 'bike' as 'dyke,' which completely changed the tale. I thought it made it heaps better. NOT very Sackville-West.

"the one who put the Brit in celebrity..."

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Bots abed, filthy rain swirling about outside, lamps on, dog snoring. I should be ironing, but I paid someone else to do it instead. I should also be reading the whopping stack of Sunday papers that a forest died for, but I am putting them out for the binmen tomorrow with nary a prick of conscience because I'm doing something so much more enjoyable, and all by accident. I am listening to Robbie Williams' first live UK performance in over three years at the Roundhouse in Camden, part of the BBC Electric Proms series and blow me, he's proper back. You can listen again here if you fancy.

They've been playing 'Bodies,' the new single everywhere since he performed (wild-eyed, sweating and cokey-shakey. Get a grip.) on X-Factor last weekend. Is it just me, or are his lyrics cool, witty and deep at once? I would take Escapology to a desert island and take a long, long time to tire of it.

Los Angeles poolside posturing and alien obsessions aside; we all have our moments. However, the guy can write a snortingly funny lyric then bring you up short with a devastating observation on vacuous celeb culture the next line.

Am so ridiculously pleased that there's another album out, that I suspect I might have become a massive fan while he was away being mental. No cynical Take-That-bandwagon jokes from you at the back - let me enjoy this moment.

What does worry me though, is the picture above makes him look like the spit of a shameful crush I had at eight years old and have only ever confessed once before. Separated at birth - Robbie and Norman Wisdom?

Why bots don't blog

Monday, 19 October 2009

"Are we in it? Why not? Is it just for grown-ups? That is sooo boring"

"I don't want to see it anyway. Can I just see one page then?"

"If I wrote a blog, it would be all about Match Attax. And Chelsea."

"If I wrote a blog, it would be about fashion and how to train a dog."

"Yeah, not boring old your stuff. Your interests"

" Yeah, books. And cheese. And French people and the fine arts."

"And 'How I wrecked Club Penguin by installing Net Nanny'."

"And 'How I had a million boyfriends.' Oh, oh and 'How I Went to a Top University through Hard Work'"

"Yeah, and 'How All the Other Mums Didn't'. And that's why you have an Important Job and can give us Nice Things."

"And 'How My Kids Always Eat Fruit.' Cos there's never anything else in the house."

"And how embarrassing it is when you try and be cool and say fo'shizzle and in the hizzoo. It's so lame. Bet that's not in your blog."

"Is there any effing and jeffing?"

"Bet nobody reads it anyway."

"And all the sweet serenity of books"

picture from here

Longfellow clearly spent no time in my library. Yes, you did just read 'my library.' And your sigh at my pretension is blown away by the absolute joy with which I wrote it. The Colonel and I have spent several lifetimes each buying, collecting and (just me, no truck with morals) liberating books. So we finally had the chance to transform a whole room here at Monavis Manor into a real library. We ripped out carpet and wallpaper and a man came and covered every single wall, including above the door, with proper shelves. He even put in the little brass rails so we could adjust them. Time has mercifully blotted out the memory of painting every single shelf. Twice. Still, all done eventually.

Vive la difference! The Colonel wants everything practical and Dewey-indexed. I envisage a riotous cornucopia - my mother's leather-bound Dickens next to my well-thumbed Rosamond Lehmann, interspersed with interesting chapatti presses from Kerala and stunning b&w photos. He wins. A to-scale map is drawn. It details the categories of book and where each shall go. Some make sense (tall shelves down low for his collection of oversized books of tanks and uniforms; sixties German erotica high above the door) and some don't (biographies, alphabetically in a category alone. I argue that it makes sense to keep the authors close to their works. My opinion is ignored).

We schedule a weekend when the bots are at Grannie's. We are up very early. Books are unpacked, reading is forbidden. Organisation reigns. Boxes empty, books are divided, filed, piled. The shelves are slowly filled, genres are observed. It is apparent I live with a man obsessed with military speeches and tactical warfare. The Colonel expresses mild surprise at the number of obscure early twentieth century female authors I have collected. He suggests that many of them needed a good man. That is not exactly the word he uses. I take umbrage and wreck several perfect piles finding books to prove that Gaston Palewski killed off Nancy Mitford by not loving her enough. He argues back about the Free French, toppling several more piles to illustrate that my Francophilia is misguided at best, dangerous and unpatriotic at worst.

I start a new category of non-British authors, many of whose countries I also feel allegiance to, having lived in them. I declare them out of bounds. I make a sandwich just for me and eat it. In my absence, TC moves Military Strategy to the seven shelves we had agreed were for poetry. I fill the designated Former Yugoslavian War Crimes space with Historic Houses of the West Indies. Ha. Feminist tracts and rants on Bad Messages Sent by Victorian Books for Girls lose out to twenty-four volumes of Naval Reminisces from the Napoleonic Period.

Eventually, we declare a truce. All the books find a place. Alphabetisation is mutually, peacefully checked. The chapatti presses are found; photos and bibelots whimsically arranged. We add William Morris sofa, reading lamps and cushions. Over the years, we love the library. We read in it and drink tea. The bots and dogs wreck the sofa springs. Santa leaves things there, we drink cocktails with our friends. Jokes are told and wine is spilled. We need to repaint. My sister gives us beautiful tartan heavy silk curtains. I find the perfect green for the walls. All the books come off the shelves and pile up in the hall while a real decorator deals with the tricky bits. The green walls are a triumph, the curtains provide appropriate luxury and hush. We just have to put back all the books.

 This weekend, I'm headed to Grannie's.

Sunday Sonnet*

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Photo by Lee Miller, one of the original Surrealists
image from here

The Lover

She is standing on my eyelids
And her hair is in my hair.
She has the shape of my hands,
The colour of my eyes,
She is absorbed in my shadow,
Like a stone upon the sky.

She keeps her eyes open
And doesn't let me sleep.
Her dreams in broad daylight
Make the suns evaporate,
Make me laugh, weep and laugh,
And speak, without a thing to say.

Paul Eluard (1895-1952) - key surrealist, gave up his first wife to Dali, wrote streams of surreal love poetry to her. Great chums with Andre Breton (founder member of the Surrealists) until he (Eluard) joined the Communist Party, thus pissing off the whole of the movement and being chucked out. Sadly lived on in Paris after the war, being sent to Coventry by possibly the most interesting group of artists/poets/writers/drunks/libertines to ever live there.

And I happily include the Murphys AND Satre and de Beauvoir in that sweeping statement.

*Nope, I know it's not a sonnet, don't get all pedantic on me. It just alliterates better.

Chicken Soup for the Bots

Saturday, 17 October 2009

So with the bots away (abseiling and down a mine respectively) for the week, I ran away to London to get my hair cut.  I had every intention of a couple of elegant little blogs filed from there, but for all sorts of reasons, some technological, others involving vodka, it didn't happen. I did have a couple of meetings to while away the afternoons though.

I will spare you recent developments in Data Protection Legislation.

More interestingly, I invested in my first grown-up scarf, which is this one is you are as nosy as I am. Liberty was doing a pop-up collaboration or some such trendy nonsense with Hermes. Two of my favourite brands in a one-er, I thought. In fact it was complete bollocks. The scarves I saw looked as though someone had eaten a paint box and then thrown up on some rather itchy fabric. So I allowed myself to be taken through into the Scarf Room and talked into a more traditional pattern. I expect this means I have probably reached middle age. I expect it is this realisation that sent me screaming into the arms of several cocktails in some rather louche company later that evening.

Which sadly meant that I didn't get to the Maharaja exhibition at the V&A, but I think that you should go. It looks amazing and I will make time to nip in next week when I'm supposed to be at a conference.

Back to Planet Mummy yesterday. My son Freddie? Came home? Talking like this? At like his camp, yeah? There was this like mega-awsome guy? Called Spanner? Who like loved his stripy cool socks? This way of speaking takes so much longer than the way he used to speak last Sunday, so it took quite some time to hear that Spanner was really christened Simon and other riveting bits about this mystery teen who has so captured my lad's admiration. Freddie stank like a pole cat. He apparently wore the same pair of Spanner-blessed socks ALL WEEK. He then slept in his tracksuit and didn't bother wearing pants for the last two days. Horrible little beast.

Rose of course had showered every day and spent lots of time planning outfits from the 36,293 pieces of clothing she took Up North. They learned about smelting and electricity and Victorian ironwork. Nobody got Swine Flu but one person had Usual Flu. Rose was homesick for ten minutes on Tuesday until one of her friends sang her a Leona Lewis song. A new boy turned out to be a complete laugh and told them a brilliant story about how his mother once laughed so hard that she weed all over the sofa. I am very much looking forward to meeting her.

Both children? Came back with spare sweets and like voices like Eartha Kitt? They want to go to bed like sooooo soon? And don't care? About the X-Factor? They have asked for chicken soup? On the sofa? For supper?

Chicken Soup that Mends Everything*

Sling a whole chicken, bunch of parsley, onion, peppercorns and a couple of carrots into a pot, cover with water and simmer for a couple of hours then cool. Drain the stock off, pour back into the pan with a large chopped onion, diced potato and carrots. A parsnip is as exotic as you should get - there is no place here for butternut squash or anything else of that ilk. While the vegetables are cooking, strip the meat from the chicken carcass, chop and add to the broth. Serve with love.

*broken hearts, hurt feelings, struggles with hard sums. Not being picked for netball, not being picked for anything. The recession, global warming and terrorism.

Be happy for a moment. This moment is your life.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

One of the best films I have seen over the past few years was Unfaithful, from the pretty reliable stable of Adrian Lyne. (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal). A stylish remake of Claude Chabrol's 1968 film La Femme Infidele, the story details the fatal consequences of an affair. Diane Lane and Richard Gere are convincing as the Edward and Connie, a suburban couple who have it all - apart from their desperately irritating son (the usually endearing jug-eared Erik Per Sullivan). Part of this film's charm is the absolute credibility of the affair. OK, you've got Richard Gere keeping you in Martha Stewart style - (so haulage is far from sexy but it clearly pays) - passing perfect clapboard days doing charity work, having facials and choosing cashmere sweaters. So far, no reason to stray.

Then enter Olivier Martinez, words any red-blooded woman would enjoy rolling slowly around on her tongue most days of the week. The tornado imagery is perhaps a little overworked as Connie staggers through SoHo streaming balloons and plastic soccer party bits all over the sidewalk, but as she is blown into the arms of Martinez (Paul, a French book dealer) and into his apartment, the obsession really begins.

For me, the show is stolen by Paul's SoHo apartment, a bibliophile’s fantasy land. Stacked floor to ceiling with tempting antique tomes, arranged in a maze of shelves and interspersed with fascinating global objets d'art, I defy anyone not to be instantly seduced. Connie is, pretty much. She farts about primly for a bit in the face of this exotic European sophistication, but soon she’s hooked and embarks on a fantastically observed sexual awakening.

Edward knows immediately that there’s a rabbit off, even without the clumsily drawn arrow on Connie’s stomach, and Gere captures perfectly the bewildered eyes and winded expression of a man fighting an unseen enemy.

Unseen until he boffs Paul to death with a glass paperweight, that is. A paperweight that Edward gave Connie and which she, with all the forethought of a woman in the thrall of sexual obsession, has blithely given her lover.

The final third of the film doesn’t disappoint. Shared history, family ties and terror all combine to draw husband and wife closer than ever as they try to patch up their once perfect lives and play their roles in a horrific murder investigation. A more ambiguous ending than the original, the final scene haunts and provokes thought in equal measure. Do see this film. Alone, if you want to avoid awkward coversation afterwards.

Why have I come over all Barry Norman? Last night, I watched Nights In Rodanthe, which promised Gere and Lane reprising their on-screen chemistry. Not to the naked eye, they didn’t. Gere smirks, Lane twitches and the whole film is stolen by her stroppy tattooed teenage daughter, sulkily observed by Mae Whitman.

If you can't get Olivier Martinez round tonight, I recommend instead a candlelit bath, good book, Moroccan coffee and this on the stereo. Much safer.

Sunday Sunday

Monday, 12 October 2009

Yesterday was dedicated to finally sourcing every single item on about 32 pages of A4 lists and cramming the ensuing mountains of stuff into suitcases - the bots are both going away this week on 'educational' trips. I bloody well hate packing. The thought of clambering into the attic to find suitcases leaves me longing for a lie-down. Everything they want to take is in the wash or at Dad's house. Everything I try and pack is sad, nerdy or itchy. The lists are seriously winding me up. Sunglasses. Have you looked outside? Stout shoes. What are they, WI members? My blood pressure ratches up another notch when I find them both downstairs checking X-Factor results on my laptop.

Lots of un-Sabbath-like shouting. Several ridiculous threats that we all know would land me in court if I had the balls to follow through. They wonder why can't I be a Nice Mummy then slink upstairs while I google 'Louis Walsh boyfriend.'

My son announces he can't find his hat. I am quite pleased because it's a chavtastic Chelsea beanie. I know he also has another, navy and white stripes, from the chandlery, which announces 'I live in a seaside town, have some links to sailing and a mother with impeccable taste.' Naturally, that one is missing too. After transmogrifying into my own mother ('if I come up there and find them myself, I'll be giving you something to think about') and banging fruitlessly about in his cupboard, I grab dog and bots and shoot down the hill to buy another, lest he be expelled or develop Frozen Skull Syndrome.

I am not a target customer for the retro-ironic yah yah Britannia shop we end up in. I know that because I have never:
  • gone to Cornwall in a pale blue VW van
  • strummed a guitar wearing bits of leather on my wrists
  • knocked up a full English breakfast on a beach in a bikini and granny cardigan
  • surfed in England
  • worn anything made of crochet
  • enjoyed burgers round a camp fire with Jamie Oliver
  • done all or any of the above in a montage to a Toploader soundtrack
Also, the window is full of garden gnomes. Eh?

We find a hat. It is hideous. My son loves it. It comes with Dickensian fingerless gloves that convert to mittens, and have a suede patch on the palm. Presumably so the wearer can high-five fellow campers with exquisite tenderness. Braless Ali MacGraw behind the counter confirms we cannot buy the hat separately. I grumblingly fork over a fortune. The bots are given postcards to fill in to send to a garden gnome. The tweeness is starting to get on my tits. They pretend to have forgotten how to write so Ms MacGraw is forced to bend over and help them. They boggle down her shirt. I pretend they belong to somebody else.

When we get home, I find the two lost hats in the attic in a box labelled 'Bots. Winter'. I pack all three. Later, when he is asleep, I write my son a soppy note and hide it in his suitcase. I think about it for a minute. Then I replace the note with a catering size pack of Haribos. I am a Very Nice Mummy.

Watty the Gimp

Saturday, 10 October 2009

One of my less silly student summer jobs was guiding American tourists round Abbotsford, Scottish home of Sir Walter Scott. My best friend got the gig through the Catholic Mafia in the Borders; I swung in on her coat tails because they needed a French speaker. I also claimed working knowledge of German, Spanish and Dutch. Luckily, there was a dearth of non-English speaking travellers in 1986, so I spent most of my time playing cards in the housekeeper's sitting room and eating stock-damaged chocolate chip shortbread.* Imagine the warren of servants' rooms in Gosford Park. Like that.

Occasionally, one of Sir Walter's great great great granddaughters, the Dame and the Lady-in-Waiting, would drift about 'helping' in the gift shop which was also Downstairs. "The Mancini Tartan? Let me just check, my deah."

We guided groups of old folk through the study (see the secret drawer! Here's his death mask!), library (a Quaich that once belonged Bonnie Prince Charlie!), corridors of significant oils and the Hall. Hanging from the wall was a Bride's Scold. A metal contraption which fitted over the head of any garrulous gossipy woman. A hank of steel fitted into her mouth and compressed her tongue, rendering the poor wench speechless. It was called the Muckle Mooth Meg - Big Mouth Margaret. At the end of our little speech about this a Yank wag would always ask if he could buy one for his wife in the gift shop. Laugh? I nearly read The Heart of Midlothian.** There was also a pair of little boots, one of which Sir Walter had had built up in the heel. He had a deformed foot because he had polio as a child.

I also spent time filching delicious tiny strawberries from the kitchen garden with a Cambridge boy I was briefly in love with. His job was to go on the coaches with the Americans up and down the UK. The romance went nowhere, but he told me a great story. The coach was driving through Melrose and slowed down at a pedestrian crossing. A passenger asked him what the beeping noise was. My Romeo told him it was to let blind people know the traffic lights had changed. Stunned silence. Then, "Gee. In the States, we don't let the blind people drive."

Inevitably, the Northern Socialist had some thoughts on my employment and told me the truth about Sir Walter Scott. He was a jumped-up nowt without a literary bone in his body. He stole all his stories from the Etterick Shepherd, an illiterate peasant with a rich stock of Border folk lore. He was a filthy snob who sucked up to royalty and bought his way into smart Edinburgh society. He had stupid shoes made so he could walk more easily round the sides of the Border hills.

One day, my group included two of my chums, incognito, sporting deerstalkers and loud jumpers. My tour became sillier and sillier with me showing off in several languages. And sharing some of the NS's thoughts on Sir Walter. By the time we reached the Hall, I was on spectacular form.  Through tears of mirth, I drew the group's attention to the wee boots and invited them to imagine the literary giant hobbling round the side of the Eildon Hills.

Unfortunately, the Lady-in-Waiting and the Dame had just given lunch to the headmaster of Eton. They were gliding through the Hall to see him off just as my story finished. Later, with infinite grace and kindness, they sacked me.

*Wallop the box on the ground. It damages the stock.
** Don't bother.

Gary, Gary, Gary, Fight, Fight, Fight

Friday, 9 October 2009

Does anyone else share my flexible relationship with reality when it comes to celebrities, particularly chefs on the telly? Perhaps because I spend more time reading cook books than is healthy for someone of my overactive imagination, I really believe that I know them all personally. I used to go to cocktail parties on Oxford lawns with Nigella, both trussed up in jade taffeta. Rachel Allen and I had sleepovers and hung round stables together. John Torode nicked my dinner money and told everyone when I got my first bra. And I think everyone I know imagines giving Gary Rhodes a good shoeing behind the cricket pavillion.

However, on a day like this when the wind and glowering skies dictate my menu, it's to lovely Mr Slater I will turn. He'll whisk round my kitchen making this and this, while I sit nursing one of these. We'll have a good laugh about the excruciating algebra class we took; he'll tousle his godson's head and over a bottle of this will admire how elegantly I have adapted to life here in Bonkers-on-Sea, reminding me of London's bomb threats, knife fights and puke-spattered pavements. And Hatchards, cocktails at Claridges and 24-hour falafel.

Anyway, tomorrow I am going to dinner at a new mummy's house. Points for being overheard saying "god, I need a drink NOW". Double points because it was 10.30am. Perhaps there'll be puke on her pavement.

Meyoorie Puppens

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Image from here

One of the things about my pre-DVD childhood (who am I kidding - pre-betamax. Three channels. Well, two really as ITV wasn't educational enough) was the rolling around of Disney films in the cinema, in particular Mary Poppins. Dick van Dyke's eclectic approach to cockney vowel sounds, the whirling excitement of 'Step in Time' and the utter heartbreak of 'Feed the Birds' - I really thought London was just like that. Pretty much up till I moved there in the late 80's and learned the hard way about paintings on pavements.

Anyway. These rare cinema outings and the odd Christmas telly airing were always wrecked by my dad. Professional Northern Socialist, the whole Edwardian upper middle class thing was a personal affront, and not one he took quietly - as the policeman returned Jane and Michael "bloody toffs, can't even look after their own kids" - Glynis Johns huskily parading her suffragette credentials "Clear your throat you stuck up tart" - the children sweetly describing their ideal nanny "Christ, give me STRENGTH" and Mr Banks going proudly off to work "bastard".

I sat down recently for some bot-bonding over the Disney TV show that features a pair of foppy-haired muppets.I had a pretty lukewarm reception. What? They grimaced a bit then, in VERY silly voices, said "get a haircut, you two". "What, they live in a HOTEL? Blimming Americans, got no handle on reality". "She's based on Paris Hilton, you know. Vacuous little madam"


Thank you God for the Smells

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

So my kinderbots did their Harvest Festival yesterday in a crumbly mid-Victorian church in the equally run-down seaside town where they go to school. Inevitably, I was late and had to scurry down the hill with Verbal Diarrhea Mummy who caught me rattling through my handbag (in fact hiding ciggies, mobile and other instruments of Satan). "Have you lost your keys? Our William lost his keys last week; I lost my keys in 1983 etc etc." Tragically no room to sit together or I would have had to kill her with Hymns Ancient and Modern.

The theme was a general big-up to God for giving us all senses to appreciate the harvest. Given the number of recent weekends I have attempted to haul my two (9 and 10) out to collect blackberries (seriously, is there a cut-off point for middle-class mummies to just GIVE IN to 2009 and leave them slumped in front of Hannah Montana rather than squeeze them mentally into itchy hand-made jumpers and enforce frolic about the hedgerows?) and, having failed, had the ensuing crumble rejected in favour of Muller-sodding-Corners, they had a cheek even being there.

Inevitably, my son's class was grateful for the olfactory sense. They twinkled and nudged through their poem, exploding into relieved grins and muffled fart sounds as they finished.

The church smelled of mice. My fellow mummies smelled of capability, Allure and hairbrushing. The two token daddies smelled of freedom from work and a swift half respectively. The vicar always smells of apples. The sugar paper the service was printed on smelled of childhood. The air outside smelled of the sea and chips. My bots smell of soap powder, playing fields and sleep.

On reflection, quite a lot to say thank you for.

Evelyn's War

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Just finished this lovely biography of Evelyn Waugh, which was gripping and moving, though perhaps non-Waugh bores might find it all a bit sycophantic. Hugely funny all the same, and I want to know who will replace those fabulously dotty old dipso aristos dotted drunkenly about SW7 seemingly immune to the fact it's no longer 1939 and that if you want to make a plan for drinks, you can just text.  Sadly I am just too young, but it's a worthy ambition. Perhaps I will start by only using my landline, gingerly held in the same hand as a Sobranie Cocktail, gin rattling happily in the other, and shriek into the receiver.
In the meantime, welcome along to debate and reflect on the great bits of life: reading, eating, drinking, lusting after - and occasionally buying - gorgeous clothes, attempting to raise children and nosing into other people's houses.
Tonight I have got some leftovers of heaven in the form of Nigella's chocolate pavlova in my fridge. Of course, it has splintered and bled, but at this point on a rainy October afternoon, who cares? Recipe from here.