Sunday, November 11, 2012

Goats and monkeys

In the 1990s my sister (who must surely by now be tiring of me appropriating her/our stories) was invited to travel on an all expenses paid trip around the motorways of Britain as "assistant" to a family friend who was writing a book about off-the-motorway beauty spots. (A great idea, I think - instead of stopping at some moribund service station for grey coffee, chips and sad burgers, why not, guided by the book, travel up some anonymous slip road and find a small pub by a river with a weeping willow under which you consume delicious roast pork sandwiches? But I guess the internet will do this for you now.)

The "assistant" tag is as dodgy as it looks; he was after her body, but was, I'm afraid,  a deeply unprepossessing man - we'll call him A - known to us as "A the Goat" because you didn't even need to half-close your eyes to see him as a billy (perhaps even the stinking one my Dad once owned, a creature who was dubbed by my brother "the Cultural Wizard" on account  of his little wispy beard and crazy-wise yellow eyes, who had to be locked in a shed down the road far from human habitation because he smelt so bad). Claire was having none of it, and at one point stormed from the car with A tailing pleadingly after her.

A drank himself to death at a tragically young age, and my mum went to his funeral last year. She passed on the post-funeral celebration, which was scheduled to take place down the pub. A fitting location, you might think, given how much he loved booze, but I think it a little bit of a queasy choice to be celebrating the life of someone who killed themselves with alcohol by raising a glass of it.

Although my sister and I mocked him (and we had some prior history with him, having spent a very strange Christmas in a holiday cottage in Wales with him and his girlfriend at the end of the 1980s, and Claire endured who knows what on her motorway odyssey), I'll always have a special fondness for A because, in a travel piece he wrote for the Scotsman, he managed to get this past the subs: "The Kyle of Localsh and the Kyle of Minogue".

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It is always the unreadable that occurs

I remember coming home from primary school at lunchtime and hearing the news on Radio 4 as my dad made lunch — "Dominy Carrot" (Dominic Harrod) and the World at One. I knew it was important even then, at the age of 7 or 8: my dad would be shaking his head, worried about portents, concerned about developments (oil, the Middle East: plus ça change). This was serious. At school we had to report back, every second day, about "real" news: the other days were about what had happened to us personally (fell over, scraped knee, climbed tree, built a little dam of sticks to block the stream, ate wild garlic on the way to school, got a puncture on the bicycle, climbed on a hay bale). I listened intently to the radio to glean "real" news, but I remember only writing about murders, even then being fascinated by them: the Black Panther, self-titled (oh the hubris) who murdered the heiress Lesley Whittle by hanging her in a bunker after his demands weren't met (what a sad and pathetic and, ultimately, 1970s story that is!); and a bit closer to home,  the World's End pub murders (still officially unsolved, but controversially so).

I've been what you could call a "news junkie" ever since — albeit I object to that term, since on the facts, I wouldn't steal from my mother, or inject myself with anthrax in order to get my fix. The Australian press is shockingly poor, partisan without admitting it, partial and lazy; I still read whatever I can get my hands on. I still read The Guardian (the best newspaper in the world - am I wrong?) every day, a habit that's almost lifelong (my brother Robin, when he was 13 and I was 15, brought a copy home and we were all hooked). Even though it sometimes seems absurd and pointless, I check every day to see what's happening in the world and become enraged anew at some injustice.

It's fascinating to look at Max and wonder how he will get his news — if he is even interested in it — and what he will find to sigh over.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Here's mud cake in your eye

White chocolate mud cake with chilli chocolate ganache (D's birthday cake). Aside from the sweet potato brownies below, I can count on the tines of a fork the number of times I've baked a cake in the last 10 years, so I was inordinately pleased with how this one came out. It's soft as can be when freshly baked but by day two it has developed a fudgy consistency and the ganache is no longer quite as pleasingly shiny. It still tastes pretty wonderful, though.

The recipes all suggest using white chocolate for the ganache, but I thought this might lead to sickliness overkill, so I experimented with chilli chocolate instead, in a mostly successful attempt to provide an interesting counterpoint to what's inside.

White chocolate mud cake
300g white chocolate (I used Whittaker's white chocolate)
200g butter
250ml (1 cup) milk
165g (3/4 cup) caster sugar
2 teaspoons (10ml) vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
100g (2/3 cup) self-raising flour
150g (1 cup) plain flour
  •  Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
  • Grease a 20cm square cake pan and line the base and sides of the pan with baking paper.
  • Place chocolate, butter, milk and sugar in a large saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat when chocolate and butter have melted, and stir mixture until completely smooth. Allow mixture to cool at room temperature for 15 minutes.
  • Add vanilla and eggs to chocolate mixture and stir until well combined. ©
  • Stir flours together in a large bowl. Add one cup of chocolate mixture to the flour and stir until a smooth paste forms.
  • Add remaining chocolate mixture and stir until mixture is smooth.
  • Bake for about 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes. When the cake is ready, a fine-bladed knife inserted into the centre of the cake should come out without any batter attached.
  • Loosely cover cake with greaseproof paper or a clean tea towel and allow it to cool to room temperature in pan.
  • The cooled cake can be iced with the white chocolate ganache immediately (see directions below), or stored and then iced on the day of serving.
  • Store cake in an airtight container in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving. 

Chilli chocolate ganache
200g Lindt chilli chocolate
88g double cream
  • Melt chocolate in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring frequently. When chocolate has completely melted, remove from heat and quickly stir in cream. Use immediately.   

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stop on red

Lest anyone think that the experience of having a baby has caused all thoughts of the shallow to fly clean out of my head, may I present to you a long overdue visit to style dreamland, in the shape of the following:

Bag, Alexander McQueen; Dress, Michael Kors; Shoes, Christian Louboutin, all at Net-a-Porter

Monday, August 13, 2012

Claire de lune

My sister Claire and I went to see the Éric Rohmer film Les nuits de la pleine lune ("Full Moon in Paris") in Edinburgh in 1984, when it came out. I was very impressed by the quirky glamour of Pascale Ogier, the star, and her skinny chic, left bank, all-in-black style. Pascale was 10 years older than me and was immediately elevated to the category of impossible beauties whose apparenty effortless life I'd have loved to emulate (see also Béatrice Dalle). Not long after the film was released, Pascale died at the age of 25 of a heart attack caused by a drug overdose. I heard about it at the time, but so successfully did I translate this into a more romantic cause of death (a brain hemorrhage, of course) that only when I was looking for information about her this year did I rediscover the grubby truth.

I'm not sure why she came to mind but when Claire recently visited us in Melbourne we discussed this film again. Sadly, I remember very little about the plot or anyone else in it. The main thing that springs to mind when I think of the film, and of poor Pascale, is that it has gifted me with the steadfast conviction that the French can't dance. In my defence, I present the following:

Friday, July 06, 2012

Snow Day for Lhasa

By Patrick Watson and Esmerine, for Lhasa de Sela who died in January 2010. Beautiful, and another contender for saddest song ever written.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Words fail

Because I was spending a fair portion of each day sitting in a chair feeding Max, we hit upon the idea of buying an iPad to enable me to read the news, answer emails, and play games; I'd been a bit sneery about the idea of iPads and couldn't see the point of them, but now I am a total convert. When Max grows up he will be completely au fait with the idea of touchscreen operation - it will probably be old hat by the time he's 5 - but it's still a wonderful novelty to me: close your fingers, or sweep the screen, and everything is available to you. Although I dislike the glacial speed of typing on a touchscreen keyboard, and there are some other slightly irksome features of the interface, it's about as good as a small portable device could be, and I find myself irritably swiping in vain now at the screen of my Kindle, which at the time of purchase, barely 12 months ago, had seemed like such a miracle.

Apple's refusal to enable Flash on its mobile devices has, indirectly, led to a strange brush with the bottom half of the internet. I can't play (Flash-powered) Facebook Scrabble on the iPad, and have had to fall back on its predecessor, once called Scrabulous back in those early Facebook days, and now forced to call itself Lexulous and make some significant changes to the gameplay, including the provision of eight letters, not seven, which at once makes the game easier and necessitates a bigger board. Just as you can with Scrabble, you can play with random, more-or-less-anonymous strangers and if you wish, leave comments for them. In hundreds of games of Scrabble, my messages from them were never much more controversial than the occasional "Good luck" or "Good evening from Auckland". 20 or so games in to Lexulous, I've encountered perplexing, albeit very different, remarks from two opponents. The first one began with a torrent of personal abuse aimed at me. At me personally, because he'd seen my picture, and thought it might be... funny? or provocative? to heap abuse on me. Maybe he was deploying  abuse to make me quit and thus to take the win; maybe he was just very angry for some reason. The abuse was racist, so he wasn't the sharpest tile on the board. I wondered whether to respond, decided against it, got more abuse, maintained a dignified silence, and got my revenge by winning the game.

That was pretty vile, but manageable; the second was just plain creepy, although in hindsight our exchange was also quite funny:

Creep: Did you see my invite?
Me: No, Lexulous can be a bit funny like that, messages don't get through.
Creep: I asked for players who wanted to have a naughty side bet on the outcome of the game.
Me: [Silence as I try to work out how to get out of this gracefully]
Creep: So, are you up for it?
Me: No thanks.
Creep: [Quits game in fit of pique and takes the loss]

Friday, June 08, 2012

England's dreaming

In 1977 I was chosen to be a flower girl for the annual village gala. This was always considered an honour (though I was probably quite randomly selected from the small pool of 8 year old girls in the village) but in the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, it was supposedly particularly special, although the day itself was the same as any other gala day in a small Scottish village: wearing pretty dresses (green with white hearts) made by our mothers, two of us followed the impossibly beautiful, sophisticated 12 year old Gala Queen solemnly, with a trademark halting step, as we travelled the tiny distance from the village's west to the east, first on the back of a lorry waving at handfuls of people on pavements, before ascending to a makeshift stage for the "coronation" ceremony.

There were "teas" and a disappointing gala bag with a stale pie; there was a welly throwing competition, and livestock on display; I don't remember much else except the crisp feel of new dress against my neck, and sitting ceremoniously in place for a long time, and clutching my commemorative giant 25p Jubilee coin, which lived for years thereafter in a tiny flowery purse on the basis that it might one day be worth something. An increasingly decrepit Jubilee mug sat on our cup shelf for years, guiltily preferred by me to my mum's hand-thrown cups on the basis that it was shop- bought.

I was only dimly aware of the Queen and the meaning of royalty; it was only later, during the eighties, that I developed a proper sense of outrage at the inequity of inherited position and the parasites who take advantage of it. But 1977 was a year in which there was at least a semblance of objection to the status quo; in Scotland, celebrations would always have been more muted, but for right-minded adolescents the Queen was a target figure, someone to be mocked and ridiculed, and possibly the most memorable punk record of all, God Save The Queen, was released as a reaction to the farrago of the Silver Jubilee. "You ain't no human being", "there is no future in England's dreaming"; these words may have been written by the much older Malcolm McLaren but snarled by Johnny Rotten, he seems to speak for a disaffected generation.

I have to declare a lack of interest; as an eight year old, if I had any awareness of punk, it seemed frightening and discordant. But it's hard not to long for the nihilistic clarity of a hyper-sarcastic "we mean it, ma'am" in the face of the outpouring of sycophancy that has been evident, even from afar, on the occasion of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My kind of town

Max is eating well, so I'm often to be found sitting in the same chair and I'm getting through lots of books - thank goodness for excellent Australian libraries. More by accident than by design, I read three books set in New York one after another.

The first, Pariah by Bob Fingerman, met my deep-seated need to read about the forthcoming zombie apocalypse so much more effectively than the current, colossally disappointing AMC series The Walking Dead ever could (although to be fair, I'm still persisting with the latter, two seasons in, in the vain hope it will lift its game from being a soap opera with the occasional zombie). In Pariah, people actually ask the questions that will need asking in the event of the dead rising: how did this happen? How will we survive? What will happen to the zombies over time? What's the best place to hole up? What's the point? A motley group of previous strangers are starving to death in a barricaded New York tenement, tantalisingly close to the doors of a supermarket, a small, unbridgeable distance away and guarded by flesh-eating zombies in apparently good health. Then someone wanders by in the street whom the zombies don't want to eat ...

The second book is more ambitious and in some ways more satisfying, being rooted in all-too-readily imaginable reality: The Submission by Amy Waldman reconstructs the process of choosing the 9/11 memorial for the site of the Twin Towers but imagines a scenario where the winning design, chosen anonymously from thousands of submissions, was created by a Muslim architect. Before the selection has been announced to the public, the selection committee is torn apart by the resulting conflict. The book was written before the controversy about the proposed Muslim cultural centre at Ground Zero, but eerily foreshadows it. The characters are complex, and beautifully drawn with their frustratingly dogmatic thoughts and opinions, never quite behaving the way they should, and never quite making the matter an easy one.

The last book, which I finished this morning, is a superior detective novel set in Lower Manhattan, Lush Life by Richard Price. It's partly a collection of observations from New York life and acute character sketches, and partly a traditional police procedural written with a keen sense of empathy. It's about wasted dreams and wasted lives, as in some way the other two books also are; apart from that they have nothing else in common except the city where they're set.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Box of tricks

At the end of this year I will have lived away from the UK for 10 years. In that time, a new tradition has developed whereby my Mum and my sister send me, for birthdays and Christmas, a magnificent parcel filled with individually wrapped items that can only be bought in the UK or, more specifically, in Scotland. These have in the past consisted of, in no particular order (and without suggesting that I don't want surprises next time):

1. Scottish Blend teabags
"Specially blended for Scottish water", and with an accompanying sarcastic advert alluding to the fact that it never stops raining in Scotland: these possibly fraudulent (will they only work with Scottish water?), but nonetheless excellent teabags have frequently been smuggled through customs in Australia for me. They really do taste better than any other teabag. Even with (previously) inferior Hong Kong and (now) Australian water.

2. Shortbread House of Edinburgh shortbread
I first encountered this peerless brand when I was working in Morningside in a wholefood shop called Cornucopia. Rich, buttery, and absolutely irresistible. The website offers all sorts of perversions of the original idea (cinnamon and demerara? "Christmas"?), but in this I am a puritan: it has to be plain. And it's not just me who says so; Shortbread House's original recipe has won nine of the prestigious Gold Great Taste Awards.

3. Protect and Perfect
Boots the Chemist is probably the best chainstore in the UK, a fact you don't really appreciate until you leave and find yourself searching the dispiriting recesses of inferior pharmacies in vain for the sheer variety of products available in even the meanest, tiniest Boots. Boots' own brand is pretty reliable. When Boots launched Protect and Perfect a BBC science programme (clearly a peer-reviewed reliable source) declared that it actually reduced wrinkles. From my personal experience, this may not be true, and the stuff does smell strongly chemical; but my skin feels quite silky afterwards, and you can't ask for much more than that. P&P gets a kicking from some sources (click here to see all your favourite products mercilessly critiqued, except for, oh, products created by the site's founder).

4. Thorntons Brazil Nut Special Toffee   
No more needs to be said.
5. Soap & Glory: The Scrub of Your Life
Soap & Glory products are packaged in retro pink, with graphic imagery and concepts (rotten puns) which are possibly shamelessly stolen from Benefit, but it's true what it says on the tube: this is a near perfect scrub which smells great and leaves the skin feeling very, very soft.

6. Bio-Oil
This is a relative newcomer which I started using when I was pregnant and have been using ever since, not only on my distorted stomach (before and after) but also on my face. It smells faintly but not powerfully plasticky (repellent though that may sound, it's pleasant; it reminds me of the smell of new dolls) and is as slick as you like. It's supposedly good for scars. Like all similar products I think the benefits of regular massage may have more to do with it, but I've been using it just for the sheer pleasure of application.

Believe it or not I'm regularly approached (via email) by PR people asking if I'll promote something on one of my blogs (a fashion designer, a restaurant, a jewellery range). I always say no: if I'm asked to promote something in some sort of quid pro quo arrangement, I can't be neutral, and unless I genuinely like something without being asked to, I couldn't promote it. This is the closest I'd ever get to promoting anything, and that's only because this is what arrives in my magic box.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

O sweet spontaneous

O sweet spontaneous
 earth how often have

           fingers of
 prurient philosophers pinched

 ,has the naughty thumb
 of science prodded

       beauty      .how
 oftn have religions taken
 thee upon their scraggy knees
 squeezing and

 buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

 to the incomparable
 couch of death thy

           thou answerest

 them only with


e.e. cummings
For some reason this poem was going through my head when I was shivering in the (astonishingly cold) operating theatre undergoing a c-section. I was in labour (unimaginable pain, waves of it), for minutes, hours (all day): the closest parallel which occurred to me at the time, in my drugged state,  was that I was being oppressed by an enormous ceiling fan beating ceaselessly overhead, Apocalypse-Now style, delivering layers of agony). Birth by c-section, the crucial part, takes 5 minutes; the longest part is being stitched up again. When the baby was removed, I could feel a strange stretching and tugging sensation. I think I must have been deliriously equating the poem with the reality: the doting fingers of prurient doctors pinched and poked me so I answered them only with Max.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Jocky Wilson Said

One of the first LPs my sister and I bought together (by the cliched but nonetheless effective methodology of saving up our pocket money) was Dexys Midnight Runners' debut album, Searching For the Young Soul Rebels (1980). Listening to it again, it's stood up very well; it's full of humour, intelligence and acute observations as well as the distinctive sounds of a kick ass horn section. Classic songs on the album include "Geno", still a great and curiously moving song; and the hyperarticulate "There There My Dear".

One song in particular, Thankfully Not Living in Yorkshire It Doesn't Apply, reminds me of dancing in the livingroom with a guy we called Randy Andy, a friend of my mum's in the category normally known as "freak", laughing with sheer joy because he was such a funky mover. The song contains the inimitable line "Lord have mercy on me, keep me away from Leeds". Which at the time, based on a complete absence of evidence, we deduced was about the Yorkshire Ripper.

Dexys went through some odd incarnations after this northern soul, teams-that-meet-in-caffs period: moving from serious, rather po-faced men in black clad in woollen hats to embrace the excesses of the day. Who can forget the risible dungarees circa "Come on Eileen" and the questionable hair? To the jaundiced eye, the age old problem: they seemed to have sold out as they got more popular. Their appearance on Top of the Pops for Jacky Wilson Said was notable for the pictures of tubby Scottish darts player Jocky Wilson displayed in error by BBC props staff. Kevin Rowland went through several breakdowns and ended up heavily made up and wearing a dress on the cover of his solo album My Beauty. Not that there's anything wrong with this, of course; better a dress than dungarees.

Jocky Wilson, March 22 1950 - March 24, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

At the top of the circus

The adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a remarkable film, a million miles away from the glib cynical story package that is Hugo, and hence nowhere near the running to win sheafs of Oscars (although Gary Oldman, pictured in this link in a rather disturbingly anodyne series of portraits of the nominees on the Oscars' official website, is nominated as Actor In A Leading Role; it's also up for Music (Original Score) and Writing (Adapted Screenplay). FYI, Transformers (Dark of the Moon), is also up for three).

Recent anecdotal evidence reveals twentysomethings' verdict on Blade Runner, arguably one of the best films ever made, as having been that it's "slow" and "boring". "Tinker Tailor..." stands no chance against this sort of ruthlessness: if you like your excitement packaged and delivered to you in two-minute bursts, go and see "Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol" (itself, particularly in an iMAX cinema, an incredibly enjoyable, albeit ultimately of course completely shallow, experience).

On the other hand, if you want to see beautifully restrained performances, particularly from Gary Oldman, about whom John le Carré apparently said that his whole acting life has been leading up to this role: to being able to play it with such masterful understatement, then you must see this film. You can smell the 1970s emanating from the screen. The music is essential but unobtrusive. And not a single gesture is either wasted or hysterical.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Here comes the fall

For the last week I've been on maternity leave, prefaced by that holiday feeling where I look at my desk and the papers thereon, and feel certain I'm never coming back. I've slipped into it slowly, still feeling that I ought to be paying attention to emails, and still feeling that heartfelt sense of anguish when I hear we've lost business to the competition, as well as being irked by office politics and not being copied in (I still have to run this business when I go back...). I think I may still be in denial about what is about to happen, but now we have a timetable: because of the gestational diabetes, I'm not going over the due date. My mum arrives on Tuesday and I check in to the hospital on Sunday, unless he decides to arrive sooner.

One of the other pitfalls of pregnancy has been visited upon me: falling over in the street. More specifically, it was Sydney Road, on the way back from the IGA supermarket, and without warning, in awful slow motion, I tripped and dived to the pavement. I took most of my weight on the heels of my hands, and apart from scuffing my toenail varnish (Graphite, in case you wondered), the only real injury suffered was to my already-shredded dignity. Falling over is surprisingly common and all the (mostly terrible) baby books mention it: the result of an altered centre of gravity and heightened clumsiness (in my case).

To add to the humiliation, a helpful drunk raced across the road from the pub, dodging the traffic of Sydney Road with scant regard for his own safety, grabbed me by the arm and tried to haul my not inconsiderable frame off the pavement.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Charmless garments: 6

Number 6 on the list, and what took me so long: animal prints (albeit this is, perhaps, a category error, a print not being a garment). They've been fashionable of late: I was reminded of my distaste by an email from net-a-porter about "this season's style safari". I've never been into prints all that much, but I will occasionally wear a discreet pattern of some sort; where I emphatically draw the line, though, is with regard to animal prints. The horror is perhaps borne of an instinctive dislike of the idea of wearing the skin of an exotic animal, mingled with my suspicion of those who opt for ersatz when they wouldn't tolerate the real thing (vegetarian bacon, I'm looking at you); but the overall impression of animal prints, no matter how expensively rendered, is all just a bit too Pat Butcher for my taste. (It also appears to be mandatory to adopt a sulky expression when wearing them, QED by the above picture, although Pat, bless 'er 'eart, is always smiling in leopardskin.)

The grandmother of a four year old girl of my acquaintance gave her a "sparkly t-shirt and leopardskin skirt" for Christmas. That this was seen as grossly inappropriate by everyone except (presumably) the grandmother illustrates the biggest problem with animal prints: after all it could be argued that Pat Butcher invests them with some sort of despite-everything dignity. However, they also appear to be the universal tacky garb of underwhelming would-be sexpots and hookers. Not, then, a look for a four year old.

Friday, January 06, 2012


Eve Arnold, April 21, 1912 – January 4, 2012. She was most famous for taking photographs of Marilyn Monroe, but this is one of my favourites. "It's the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is."