Thursday, 31 January 2013

In which I read through January

It’s a slightly odd phenomenon that I forever seem to best stick to my New Year’s resolutions a whole year after I’ve made them. I managed 2009’s in 2010; I blogged more in 2011 than I did in 2010, when I resolved to; 2011 I resolved not to go on dates – and, well, we know where that got me. And so it only seems fitting that this year, I seem to be carrying out 2012’s resolution to finish more books than I abandon at page 100. So far, and entirely out of character, I’ve abandoned none and finished five, which is an achievement worth celebrating…

1. Title: Super Sad True Love Story
Author: Gary Shteyngart
Recommended by: @matt_muir, and bought at Foyles on the South Bank.
Read: End Dec 2012 – 4 Jan 2013

An unlikely love story between the son of Russian immigrants, and the daughter of Korean, set in a dystopian America of the future. Satirical and disturbing, with some slightly terrifying prescience about the names of burger chains. Not entirely my cup of tea – I didn’t care about the characters enough to be really, madly invested in them, but as a read out of my usual comfort zone, worth doing. Score: 6.5/10

2. Title: It’s Classified
Author: Nicole Wallace
Recommended by: I can’t remember. I think I saw an interview with Wallace after something nuts that Sarah Palin did. A Christmas present from Ma Blonde.
Read: 5 – 8 Jan

A novel set in a White House where the main players are women and the VP sounds like she’s not-very-loosely based on Sarah Palin (Wallace is her ex-Chief of Staff). It’s easy to read, and keeps the attention, and West Wing nuts will probably enjoy the small, familiar details. Sadly the writing isn’t good, and there could have been more made of the plot – so much potential, but not fulfilled.
Score: 6.5/10

3. Title: Heartburn
Author: Nora Ephron
Recommended by: everyone when it was announced Ephron had died. A Christmas present from Ma Blonde.
Read: 8 – 12 Jan

It’s brilliant. She’s brilliant. I want to write just like this.
Score: 9/10

4. Title: I, Lucifer
Author: Glen Duncan
Recommended by: @matt_muir, who kindly provided me with his spare copy too, for the bargain price of a Sherbert Dip Dab
Read: 13 – 21 Jan

The tale of the fall of Lucifer – told from his perspective. Lucifer takes on human form for a month as part of a deal with God. Blackly funny, and sometimes horribly unsettling.
Score: 7/10

5. Title: Tigers in Red Weather
Author: Lisa Klaussman
Recommended by: I can’t remember. I think I saw it reviewed in a Sunday paper ages ago, and a Christmas present from Ma Blonde
Read: 21 – 30 Jan

Took me a while to get into, but easy to read and very well-written with some brilliant turns of phrase. It has faint overtones of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road – a period piece, with bleakness under the glamour. A higher-brow-than-average beach read.
Score: 7/10

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

In which two good friends get married

The Writer and I attended our first wedding of the year on Saturday.

It was totally different to the handful of other weddings I’ve been to, which have been overwhelmingly of the summer-in-the-English-country ilk, the ceremony in the bride’s church, and a reception, more often than not, in the bride’s parents’ back garden or local field (although the one with the Spitfire flypast will always stand out).

I’m well aware it’s enormously wrong to compare people’s weddings; whilst they say a lot about the couple and their taste and values, they’re also prey to family politics, and finances and a whole host of other factors I can’t possibly begin to imagine, not having been through the planning process myself. So I do desperately try to resist the temptation to rank them in a little mental league table. That being said, Saturday’s wedding was, without reservation, one of the most glorious.

Rather than being in a small village church, it was instead held in an utterly gorgeous venue in central London, bohemian and arty and completely covered in lights (I’m a sucker for anything covered in lights). The time of year meant that rather than lots of flesh on show, female guests were wrapped up in velvet jackets and fur stoles. But possibly the most striking thing about the whole day was that nothing at all gave the impression that any of the details had been planned under duress, just because that’s how things are done at weddings. From start to finish, it was completely them.

As befits an event planned by two food-obsessives, everything that people put in their mouths was meticulously delicious, from the negronis before dinner to the 10 Greek Street-catered meal (so good that TW, to the unconfined horror of the fashion editor sat at our table, had fourths). The music, enormously important to both bride and groom, was phenomenal – whether it was the jazz acapella group’s brilliant rendition of Chili con carne performed before dinner, or the bride taking the stage afterwards to serenade her new husband with a little Stevie Wonder.

One of the readings in the ceremony was a recorded video message from Caitlin Moran – a favourite writer of the bride’s – reading a section from her book and wishing them well; the first dance was participated in by all the guests; and it wasn’t left to the men of the day to make the speeches, with the bride being particularly witty and brilliant in a way that, despite never having considered making a speech at my own wedding, if I ever get married I’d rather hope to emulate.

Of course, I might have just been enormously well-disposed towards the whole event as it was the one day I allowed myself off during an otherwise-dry January. And lovely as everything was, the taste of the first glass of sparkling wine to pass my lips in over three weeks was beyond ambrosial and there’s a real danger it went straight to my head.

But somehow, I don’t think so.

Monday, 28 January 2013

In which the act, not the reporting of it, is what's wrong

Recovering gently following our attendance at what has become a contender for The Best Wedding Ever, The Writer and I demolished coffees and pancakes at Senzala on Sunday morning before heading to the Ritzy for an early showing of Kathryn Bigelow’s much-lauded and Oscar-tipped Zero Dark Thirty, because if there’s anything that says “chilled out Sunday”, it’s a little bloodshed and high-octane excitement in the hunt for one of the terrorists who defined the geopolitics of the last decade (no, really. It’s just how we roll).

There’s been much made of ZDK in the press – but less for its completely brilliant screenwriting, directing and acting than for the scenes of torture which take place early on, as CIA agents interrogate suspects they believe are withholding information about their cohorts and future planned attacks.

The scenes are, without doubt, bloody and uncomfortable to watch. Seeing people strung by chains from the ceiling; beaten; and waterboarded doesn’t sit well whilst you’re casually munching on the popcorn.

That the film included these scenes has led commentators to denounce ZDK as “pernicious propaganda”, with “zero opposition expressed to torture”. Critics fear it could lead people to believe that it’s a legitimate way to secure vital information.

Maybe it’s that I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to extreme violence, but I don’t think that any of the torture scenes in the film glorified the process; it didn’t endear me to the characters performing it or convince me of their humanity; and I certainly didn’t come out of the film thinking that it was a necessary evil, even when conducted in the aftermath of a terrible, tragic incident in which so many people were killed.

Whatever your position on it, a quick look at just a couple of the photos which came out of Abu Ghraib clearly show that torture happened during the years after 9/11. “Enhanced interrogation” techniques were admitted to by Dick Cheney during his time in office (on which note, anyone who’s idly wondered whether waterboarding is all that dreadful would do well to read Hitchens’ personal account of the process, which might crystallise your view).

The scenes in the film make horribly uncomfortable watching, and they don’t show the US or the CIA in a very flattering light. But the problem isn’t that they’ve been documented in a film – I’m with the director when she says that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement – the problem is that they happened at all.

Since the topic came up during both philosophy and politics courses at university and I was forced to really consider my position, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t consider torture ever to be a valid course of action. I like to think I’m not na├»ve, and that the murky worlds of international terrorism sometimes mean that the normal rules of play are suspended. Sometimes extraordinary measures need to be taken. But I still don’t believe that torture is ever acceptable.

The film, on the other hand, is utterly brilliant. But I wonder whether the politics surrounding it will mean that it doesn’t garner the awards in the US that it deserves. Because just last week, a former CIA agent was jailed for his part in whistle-blowing on the US’ programme of “Rendition, Detention, Interrogation”. He didn’t torture anyone, but he made it clear that other people did. So far, he’s the only one who’s gone to prison. Which rather puts the attitudes around state-sponsored torture into sharp, cinematic-quality relief. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

In which inheriting is all about good timing

I was skimming various bits of the Telegraph website this morning, when an article in their “Woman” section caught my eye.

“Be nice to your aunt,” warned the wagging finger of the headline, “or her fortune will go to the dogs.”

The piece follows a story* that was in the press last week, quoting a wills expert, Nicola Marchant, at law firm Pannone, who’s said that there’s been a threefold increase in the number of families contesting wills over money left to pets and animal charities.

Today’s article went on to say that in this straightened economic times, maybe a few extra visits and a little more kindness shown to Great Great Aunt Betty before she pops her clogs will disincline her to leave her worldly wealth to the local donkey sanctuary.

Quite frankly, I’m inclined to think that if you’ve got to the end of your life with a covetable pot of cash that you’ve managed to conceal from grabby family members and grabbier HMRC officials, then you deserve to do with it what the hell you choose – whether that’s your daughter or the donkeys.

But the story reminded me of a tale a friend used to tell at university, of the way his grandmother would lure younger relatives to visit on a regular occasion.

When visiting at her large London home, relatives would be encouraged to place small, discreet, coloured stickers – akin to the small discs, no bigger than a fingertip, that denote ‘sold’ items in art galleries – on the back of objects they’d taken a fancy to and would like to inherit upon the occasion of her demise.

The catch was that there was no limit on the number of times a particular piece could be claimed – if your visit happened to be the most recent, and you fancied the Grandfather clock which had already been claimed, you’d simply peel off Uncle Bob’s blue sticker, and replace it with your own green one. Whoever’s coloured sticker was on the object when Granny eventually popped her clogs would be its ultimate owner.

Of course, it absolutely did the trick. Relatives would be popping in and out all the time to check on the status of their chosen heirlooms – with the result that Granny got all the family visits she could ever possibly want.

I think it’s genius – if I’m ever old enough, with the covetable possessions to make the scheme work, I shall be doing precisely the same. The donkey sanctuaries will just have to come and visit.

*Yes, it’s quite clearly a PR-placed story. No, that doesn’t make it any less engaging.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

In which horses in hamburgers aren't the real problem

There’s been much made of the news that Tesco (amongst others) has been found to be selling beef burgers that contain horsemeat.

Given that I don’t eat meat, I’m not one of those affected. As I’ve said before, I don’t eat meat simply because I don’t like the way it tastes or its texture, not because I think eating it is immoral. But I know there are many who do think that; it’s a point of view I respect; and it’s certainly far more morally consistent than my own attitude.

Because there’s no logical reason why the thought of eating a horse should make me feel any more uneasy than the thought of eating a cow or a pig or a sheep. And yet it does, and deeply, deeply so.

Unsurprisingly, I’m enormously sentimental about horses in a way that I’m not about cows or pigs or sheep. I learnt to ride at a very young age, and I’ve spent a lot of time with, and become very close to, individual horses. Eating them would, for me, be akin to eating an animal member of the family. It’s not something I’d ever be able to bring myself to do.

And judging by the enormous amounts of media coverage the story has had and the public reaction, I’m clearly not the only person that feels a bit queasy about the whole thing.

Setting aside the question of morality, there’s a clear rational inconsistency in not objecting to eating a cow, but objecting to eating a horse. If you’re being logical, it’s a good alternative: horsemeat is low in fat, and high in protein and iron, and apparently tastes like a sweeter cross between beef and venison. Yet the UK appears to have a collective aversion to it – clearly, or it would already be readily available in restaurants and supermarkets across the country.

But we have a different history and relationship with horses from that which we have with other animals. They’ve been used for sport, and labour, and companionship – much as dogs have – in a way that just hasn’t happened with other animals that we consume. Maybe we’re over-anthropomorphising horses – or maybe that shared history is more powerful than we give it credit for.

Of course, the real issue in this particular saga isn’t that some people have ended up eating horse. It’s that they’ve bought and consumed a product in good faith, when that product was something totally different, and there was no way to know that its description wasn’t accurate – illegal, as well as immoral. For those whose religion precludes them from eating the animal meats found in the products, it must be particularly distressing.

And there’s a much bigger question raised by this incident than Brits getting sentimental about aesthetically pleasing creatures: that of the true and fair cost of food. For too long, we’ve not paid a price for food that reflects what’s involved in growing or rearing it. The prices demanded by consumers – and pandered to by supermarkets – don’t reflect the honest cost of humanely raising and slaughtering animals and providing meat for human consumption, and it’s not just meat: you only have to look at the state of dairy farming in Britain, or the manipulation of agricultural commodity prices on the world markets to see that food pricing is an extremely serious, moral, global problem, and one that needs to be addressed.

Still, it doesn’t make the thought of eating ponies any more palatable.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

In which I waste not, want not

A report in the headlines last week made pretty grim reading: up to half of all food that’s produced around the world is wasted, some of which never even makes it to the consumer because its appearance isn’t up to the supermarkets’ high cosmetic standards. Morality aside (and I think we can all unequivocally agree that food waste is A Bad Thing), it’s bloody expensive to chuck out half of what’s in the fridge.

Throwing out food is one of the topics on which The Writer and I have differing approaches.

Whilst he’s pretty keen to dismiss foodstuffs that are several days past the date stamped on the packet, I’m more of the “sniff it and if it doesn’t make you retch, it probably won’t kill you” school of thought (of course, not eating meat does take a certain element of risk out of the proceedings: a floppy aubergine is unlikely to do you the same amount of damage as an elderly chicken).

It’s not hard to see where I get it from: among Pa Blonde’s many excellent and varied characteristics is that of overwhelming thrift. He has never knowingly thrown anything away, claiming everything from old bits of wood from a long-extinct garden shed to bikes, go-karts and fish tanks will “come in useful one day”. So it’s unsurprising that he’s loathe to throw away food that might otherwise be considered past its best – although he takes it a little further than most.

Whilst I’m more than happy to chop the end off a bit of fluffy Cheddar, or throw a squashy courgette into a pasta sauce, I draw the line at happily stirring mould into a yoghurt before eating it (quote: “it’s penicillin, you daft child – it won’t do you any harm at all.” Yes, Pa, it might not harm me, but heavens to Murgatroyd, it’s definitely going to harm the flavour), or putting a splash of so-geriatric-it-could-feasibly-be-called-heirloom Tabasco sauce into a recipe. As an aside: did you know if you keep a bottle of Tabasco some 10 years after its best-before date, it actually goes a murky shade of pond-bottom brown? No? Neither did I. (He, in turn, got it from Granny Blonde, whose cupboards were an Aladdin’s trove of Past Its Best – some items having survived from the days before dates were stamped onto the bottom of things which, to give an idea of context, was 1970.)

Of course, not blogging himself, and unable to put his side of the argument on the pages of the national publication for which he writes, I should say that TW is easing his stringent stance on out-of-date foodstuffs. There’s far less chucking out of milk “to be on the safe side” than there was when we first moved in together, and he even went so far as to rescue a handful of uneaten salad leaves after supper at the weekend to be re-used on another occasion. Pa Blonde would approve.

But there is some work to do. I got dagger stares the other night when I tried to suggest that a couple of eggs that had been sitting forlornly in our fridge (I know, I know – they just last longer that way) for a while might be fine for a frittata. After a small verbal skirmish, they made their way to the bin.

At this point, I’m willing to make concessions. If it’s a couple of prematurely chucked eggs, or living in fear once again that the yoghurt has become Forest Fruits with Added Mould, I know which I’d rather.

Monday, 14 January 2013

In which I don't exercise with other people

Since the days of enormous blue gym knickers; teenage girls wielding hockey sticks with terrifying aggression; and a euphemistically termed “pavilion” comprised entirely of holes strung together with bits of splintery wood, in which we got changed at super-top speed lest the East Anglian winds whirled their way under our skirts and froze us to the spot before we could scurry back to double Latin, I’ve not really been one for team sports.

In fact, sex and riding being the notable exceptions, there’s very little physical activity whatsoever that I like to do in the company of anyone other than myself. So rather than getting involved in some after-work netball team, or going running with a pal, I choose to get my aerobic kicks on my own in the comparative anonymity of a small, London gym.

It’s not just that I’m horribly scarred by my school Games experiences: I have such a people-focussed job that it’s really quite delicious to be able to spend some time entirely by myself, not thinking about things and, most importantly, not having to talk to anyone. I can wrap myself up in a TED talk and tune out the rest of the world for an hour or so.

There’s also the rather salient fact that I am not one of life’s attractive exercisers. If my gym is anything to go by, there are frustrating numbers of women who’re able to breeze through an entire workout and leave with nothing more than the vague glow of the exceptionally healthy. I’m not one of them. Being blonde with impractically fair skin means that barely half an hour of anything faster than a mediocre walk will leave me pink and blotchy and definitely not in a fit state to run into anyone I know.

So imagine my sheer, unadulterated glee last week when a colleague announced that she was joining my gym.

Not only am I not in favour of exercising in company, I am most certainly in favour of not exercising anywhere near the people one has to work with. Once you’ve seen each other on a treadmill – or worse, blotchy and sweaty and, gulp, naked in the changing rooms afterwards – it’s almost inevitable that any professional respect you have, mutual or otherwise, is going to disappear in a perspiration-coated instant.

I’m yet to nail down the shared-gym etiquette, preferring instead to pretend the situation hasn’t arisen. It’s not a perfect system: I’ve taken to scurrying out of the office in as furtive a manner as I can muster and practically running to the gym so that I can change and stash myself on a machine as close to the corner in the darkest bit of the place as possible, head down and earphones in and no eye contact made before I think that enough time has passed that she’ll have passed through the changing rooms that I can get in and out again before I’m caught having to make awkward small talk by the lockers. MINEFIELD.

It rather makes a girl long for the days of the enormous blue gym knickers.

Friday, 11 January 2013

In which marzipan is oddly divisive

Marmite is always feted as the “love it or hate it” ingredient, which I’ve always found to be an inaccuracy. Whilst there are definitely people who won’t touch the stuff, I’m yet to find someone who thinks it’s the bee’s knees, and the category which Marmite marketing claims doesn’t exist – those who have no strong feelings either way – is far larger than any alternative.

There is one thing, on the other hand, that seems to provoke strong feelings in everyone. And for a foodstuff apparently so innocuous, marzipan is bizarrely divisive. 

This Christmas, just like the last few, Pa Blonde baked his little heart out. Since semi-retiring, he has Discovered Cooking, the result of which is that almost everyone my parents know is, come mid-December, in receipt of a Christmas cake (this year there was even one spare one that was raffled off, with the proceeds donated to church funds).

As such, The Writer and I have half a very large Christmas cake sitting on our kitchen side. The reason that there’s still half of it when we’re approaching the mid-point of January and I’ve already donated a large slab to The Spectator, is that TW doesn’t like marzipan.

The man eats almost anything – writing this, I’m struggling to think of anything that he refuses to eat, other than tofu. He also has an exceptionally sweet tooth, meaning that cakes, cookies and any sort of sugar-heavy baked good in our house has the life expectancy of a fruit fly with congestive heart failure. And despite the fact that he’ll eat almonds, drink Amaretto, or wolf down several of late Granny Blonde’s Bakewell slices in a single sitting, marzipan is something he won’t touch.

So, given the generous layer that’s applied under the equally generous layer of royal icing on top of Pa Blonde’s so-boozy-you-can-get-drunk-by-sniffing-it Christmas cake (containing rum, brandy, cherry brandy AND port this year), it’s down to me to work my way through it. As I said, it’s going slowly.

But TW’s not the only one that dislikes the stuff. Younger Sister feels so strongly about it that her Christmas cake, somewhat controversially, has butter icing on instead; and at least two thirds of my colleagues recoiled in horror when I said I’m a fan during a discussion about Christmas foods back in December.

Personally, I love marzipan, and the thicker the layer on the Christmas cake – or, as Pa Blonde also made this Christmas, the Fraisier cake – the better. And there is little more delicious as a mid-afternoon treat with a cuppa than one of those marzipan Ritter Sports. Or marzipan fruits. Or BATTENBURG – truly a prince of cakes.

And I’m not alone: there was one girl in my form at school who loved the stuff so much that she’d eat it by taking bites straight from a block. Which isn’t necessarily the level of almond appreciation we’re all after, given, but it goes to show the stuff has its fans.

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