Tag Archives: St John

Jeremy Corbyn and Ways with Sevilles

I was about to post a piece concerning Jeremy Corbyn when the doorbell rang. On the doorstep were three well-built men in trenchcoats. I invited them in and offered them each a cup of green tea. The former offer they accepted but the latter they disdained. Their leader indicated that publication of my piece would be looked on unfavourably. How they’d found it goodness knows: something to do with Google I suppose.

“Looked on unfavourably who by?” I said.

“Us.”

What about free speech, I asked.

“We don’t prioritise free speech.”

I tried a different tack.

“I do say that he has twinkling eyes,” I said.

“Jeremy’s eyes do not twinkle. They are stern but kindly.”

“Just like Uncle Joe.”

“Mr Alablague,” said the leader, “there is an easy way of dealing with this and there is a hard way. Which is it to be?

The other two goons were fingering my soft furnishings in a menacing way. One of them moved to a painting and started to pick at the surface with a grubby finger nail – one of ten. I am no coward, but I do value my soft furnishings, and so does the better half.

“All right.”

The leader grunted and left the house. The others followed him. As they did so one of them said, “Why does he call him ‘Uncle Jer’?”

“Who?”

“The enemy of the people. What does he call him Uncle Jer?”

The leader turned through ninety degrees and hit him on the ear.

We live in perilous times and there is always a risk of causing offence. That is the last thing that I would want to do, even if there were no goon-linked risk to my soft furnishings. I looked through the curtains to make sure that they had gone. Sure enough they all got onto their bicycles and peddled off, no doubt to correct Error wherever else it had arisen. Bicycles: in the Eighties they would have been in a Mondeo. Today’s goons would be healthier as a result. The Blairist Terror had not been without all benefit.

I wondered what I might innocently write about and settled on marmalade.

When I was a child there was a brief time in the year when my mother would buy great quantities of oranges and boil them on the Aga so as to produce our year’s supply of marmalade. There was no Frank Cooper for us. Marmalade was compulsory at breakfast, so a year’s supply was a lot. Mysteriously she referred to them not as oranges but as ‘sevilles’. Inevitably I linked this with my father’s otherwise inexplicable habit of shouting:

Let us bang these dogs of Seville
The children of the Devil!

Sometimes instead of shouting this he would sing it. The words are taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long poem The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet and my father was also familiar with its musical setting by the composer Stanford. This became one of my favourite poems: top five I’d say: beats Keats & Shelly into a cocked hat. Once, years later, I entertained my fellows on a Southern Region train, held outside Waterloo for fifty minutes in the rush hour, to a recitation of the work, assisted by two friends, who handled the oratio recta.

Years more later I encountered Seville itself, accent on the second syllable and one of the most magical places in the World, and a year after that our satnav failed on its by-pass, which was less magical. Indeed, it nearly resulted in a fatality, when the better half decided that it was all my fault.

But marmalade, as I say, was an essential part of my childhood diet.

Recently it has become more, in two respects.

The first was a sort of double whammy. We went to St John’s, my favourite restaurant. It was St John’s Bread & Wine, in Spitalfields, because the main restaurant in Smithfield was fully booked. They had Marmalade Ice-cream. I almost didn’t have it, because of course I was full. Thank goodness I did. It immediately became one of my best-loved dishes: top five I’d say.

I say that it was a double whammy. I went to St John a few times thereafter and it was not on the menu. Maybe it had been a one-off, I thought, to dispose of unwanted sevilles. Then one day it was available in the guise of Marmalade and Brown Bread Ice Cream. Words at this point fail me.

The second was on the occasion of my birthday. My eldest daughter presented me (among other gifts of a more sturdily artistic nature) with a small bottle. It was of Marmalade Gin. This is made by Slamseys of Braintree, in Essex. They infuse their gin with Seville oranges and it is enormously delicious. You wouldn’t dilute it with tonic or even ice:it is best taken neat, in tiny intense sips when no one else is looking. It is like a perfect breakfast without the stress of the day to look forward to.

It’s not available in supermarkets, but you can buy it online.

I sat back daydreaming of marmalade and how it has enriched my life. My inbox pinged officiously. Heavens, it was the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. What had I typed now that was inappropriate? Was it the Seville by-pass? Is that racist? I can take it out if you like.

No, it was more emollient. Reference to Uncle Jer’s twinkly eyes was not after all black-listed, so long as they were also referred to as stern but kindly. And – this was stressed – the sternness and kindliness were to be prioritised.

The email ended with the hope that they had been of assistance, and there was a picture, in colour, of Himself in his cap. There was nothing however about my piece, which I suppose is still embargoed. I am grateful in a way. If he does come to power it would be a shame to have anything incriminating on the record.

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Hogget Pudding

Not having a menu, or indeed a price list, has never restricted the provision of food in Great Secret Miss. It tends towards the exquisite – albeit casually presented and consumed – rather than the filling. You might be handed a small dish containing morsels of something unidentifiable in an equally mysterious sauce. Eventually you would be relieved of a more or less appropriate sum of money: in cash as likely as not, as for most except a privileged few, including I am glad to say myself, the card machine will be unexpectedly broken.

Similarly, not having a licence has never restricted the availability of wine: this will not be provided for money but there will usually be a bottle or two already opened and made available at, of course, no cost. Senior members of the local constabulary are among the patrons and have expressed themselves entirely content with this arrangement.

Amy and her girls work long hours and tend to eat on the premises, although there are some excellent Italian restaurants round about. Some of the regulars also treat it as a reliable source of one or other of their three main meals of the day. Those who are fussy about these things keep their own chopsticks behind the counter, and I am confident that they are thoroughly cleaned between bouts.

So it was a surprise when Amy announced to me, without any preamble:

“I don’t want this stuff for my luncheon today. I read about hogget pudding. I want to eat hogget pudding. Like steak pudding and kidney, but hogget. Find it for me please.”

“Where do you read about this pudding?”

I thought that her exploration of English literature might have penetrated back to Fielding, or Richardson, where I could, or would, not follow her.

“I can’t say – but find it in London please.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

She sighed and handed me her iPad.

The last time that I had hogget pudding was at the Garrick, but the great clubs were not an option since I am not a member of any of them. I phoned St John. They had served it a few weeks back but it was not intended to return to the menu in the near future. I Googled, also without success. Finally I telephoned Jake at The Kingdom. I should have tried him first: you can often rely on Jake.

“Curiously,” said Jake, “I do have some hogget and I can make a pudding for you. Obviously not for luncheon, because the preparation takes some time, but I could serve it to you for supper.”

I put my hand over the phone and consulted Amy. Then we agreed a time. I called the better half.

“Jake at The Kingdom is making a hogget pudding because Amy wants to eat one. Eight o’clock. You’ll come?”

But the better half had to meet a Russian client early in the evening and said that she would join us when she’d finished; we shouldn’t wait.

Jake called back.

“Greens?”

“Perfect. Potatoes would be too much.”

The afternoon opened up ahead of me. I read the Spectator for an hour. Then Amy told me that she was experimenting with a flavoured version of the house kefir and I agreed to be a guinea pig. One of the girls took me to the back with a glass of the stuff and soon I was sleeping.

“Good dreams?”

I had emerged.

“Colourful. Dramatic. Maybe too dramatic. Like being in Assassin’s Creed.”

“Assassins…?”

“Computer game. Actually I’ve no idea what being in Assassin’s Creed would be like. I’ve only seen the adverts.”

“I’ll take the edge off it anyway,” said Amy.

“Isn’t it time to set out?”

The Kingdom, as I’m sure you know, is to be found in one of those streets towards the Euston Road where Fitzrovia ceases to be Fitzrovia even to an indulgent eye.

“We can walk,” I said. “You need to get your energy up for a hogget pudding.”

“Pft,” Amy said.

We took a taxi.

The usual layabouts were sitting around, but Jake had kept one of the pine tables for us; there were even flowers on it. The Kingdom is more formally a restaurant than Great Secret Miss. There is no menu as such but there are suggestions on a blackboard, and some people go there to eat and then go away again. As with Great Secret Miss, there is no liquor licence.

In the interests of drama the greens appeared first, shining with freshness and a lump of butter. It then turned out that fortuitously a bottle of malbec had been opened. Then the hogget pudding was borne to the table. It was big, certainly enough for three. The suet was the colour that suet should be, quite unlike the colour of faces that are described as suety. At one point it was darkened by gravy that had broken through, and the suet had been stretched over so as to cover the point of the eruption and keep the intense flavour inside. I was reminded – and I told Amy – of the scene in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale where the children visit the charcoal burners, who cover their fire with earth to keep the wood slow-burned until it becomes charcoal, and whenever a flicker of flame breaks through they trowel more earth on top.

“Charcoal burner has snake. Very tasty food.”

I was not sure that she had the point. She continued:

“I thought Swallowdale below standard book, but reread, revised ideas, very good book.”

“You’ve reread Swallowdale!”

No wonder the Chinese are going to be top nation.

Jake plunged a knife in. The gravy unleashed ran on to the plate. The smell of the mature meat and the herbs in which he had cooked it was indescribably wonderful.

Forty-five minutes later the better half arrived. Amy was sitting propped up in her chair, an idiotic smile on her face, fast asleep. This had enabled me to take more than my share but there was plenty left for the better half and she set about it.

“Takes away the taste of the champagne,” she said, with the sound often rendered as ‘Pah!’.

In the fullness of time Amy woke up.

“Hogget pudding very wonderful,” she said. “Fielding or Richardson don’t say the half. And great dreams. Man in hood. Very sexy man. Is it Assassin Creed?”

I tried to catch the better half’s eye but she was staring intently at the hogget pudding, helping herself to the last piece.

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Nose to Tail

Last week my friend John, who is an American attorney, was passing through London on his way from Malawi to Dallas. As we always do when he is in London, we dined together at St John restaurant in Smithfield. He knew well in advance that he would be coming from Malawi to Dallas last week, so it was possible for me to book the table and for him to discover that the only possible flight was through London.

He also very much likes to stay at the Rookery hotel, which is just round the corner from St John. John says that the Rookery is his favourite hotel and that St John is his favourite restaurant in the world, and since his experience is not limited to Malawi and Texas but also includes the great capitals and fashionable centres of the world as well as Moscow and obscure but delightful spots in rural China, his views, even if coloured by the afterglow of a St John pudding, are to be treated with respect.

When John tottered off to the Rookery at the end of our evening I realised that what St John needed was a love song; and here it is.

I have been visiting St John since it opened in 1994. I remember the very first occasion. Bowled over by the excellence of the food, I ordered a large and creamy pudding, involving raspberries. Half way through I was at that point where you regret starting, since there is actually no room for it, but you know that you will undoubtedly finish it. As I struggled on, already feeling slightly glassy-eyed, a waiter walked past me with a bucket, which he took through to the open-plan kitchen and presented to the chef, who taking a cleaver in his right hand withdrew live eels from it, and decapitated them one by one. Sometimes the vivacity of the eels meant that more than one blow each was required. I glanced at the blood red of my pudding and the stains on the cleaver. (Do eels bleed? I remember them as red.) I knew that this was the place for me.

I formed a principle that I would never overlook the chance of eating at St John. I took business contacts there and charged it to expenses. Some of them stared at the menu with undisguised horror but others, like John, became fans. When I turned a certain age and work colleagues generously offered to host a dinner for me I asked if it could be in the private room at Smithfield, where some twenty of us ate a very large skate and an enormous pie and at the end I murmured platitudes while we all drank the Languedocian house red.

People who are not fans talk about the outlandish dishes which you can eat there. I have had squirrel (not in peanut butter as Elvis had it, but in red wine, like rabbit), and almost uncooked pigeon, and pig’s spleen with bacon (very delicious). What is best, though, is the simple food. Their bread is the best that I have ever tasted – and I, like John, have been abroad. Their long-time baker Justin Piers Gellatly has recently gone independent, so that may no longer be the case, but the principle holds. Their eel, when smoked, has a depth of taste missing with other smoked eel, and the horse radish that accompanies it is so creamy that you could eat it by the spoonful. The madeleines are little parcels of joy. The only problem with the madeleines is that you have to order them specially and wait fifteen minutes and so they come absolutely fresh and almost wholly devoid of Proustian nostalgia.

Once I had marmalade ice cream. Sidney Smith said that he imagined heaven as being like eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets. My hope for eternity is St John marmalade ice cream. The cloud to eat it on I can take or leave.

Apropos of bread, and indeed of very large pies, I had a business meeting once with the trustees of the estate of a great painter, for whom I acted. The meeting ended at about twelve thirty. A couple of hours were required for some documents to be typed. I suggested that we have lunch at St John. This was in the days when that was still possible at such short notice. The waitress said, when she presented the menu, ‘There is also a very large pie. Just one. Fergus thought this morning that he’d like to make a very large pie. It would do nicely for the five of you.’

So we had it and years later I asked them to duplicate it for my party. When we set out back to the office, we all bought a loaf of bread to take home. The trustees signed the document, now typed, and I asked a colleague to witness their signatures. She was so beautiful that Jeff, one of the trustees and sentimental as a result of the very large pie, presented her with his loaf. When they’d gone, she told me that gentlemen often gave her things, but never before a loaf.

“And what a loaf,” I said.

They’re also very nice there, particularly if you enter into the spirit. Once I was dining with the better half. She asked the waitress, having just finished something especially wonderful, ‘How on earth do you do that? I’m trying to work out the process but I can’t.’

“Hang on,” said the waitress.

She returned some five or ten minutes later. “Fergus says,” she said, “that he hasn’t put it in the cookbook so he’s written the recipe out for you.”

That doesn’t happen at Nobu.

These days, as I say, it’s harder to get a table, but you don’t need to book at the bar and most of the starters and the puddings can be bought there, and rather cheaper. And so we do.

But the other day, walking into the main dining room with my friend and fellow enthusiast John, for the first time in some months, there was that familiar feeling: a combination of adventure and coming home. It’s like nothing so much (since this is a love song) as emerging from the arrivals tunnel at some airport, tired and desiccated, still smelling of Malawi perhaps, and there unexpectedly to greet you is your better half. “How very nice,” you say, and, after a pause, “What’s new?”

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Ísland I Remember Living Here

My first experience of Ísland (as they call it there or ‘Iceland’ as we say) was not propitious. It was eleven o’clock at night and the sun was shining. They are still having white nights there. Curiously we had set out from Heathrow in darkness, whereupon the sunset reversed itself and the further north we went the more cheerful the afternoon became. Anyway, having achieved a point above Reykjavik airport in the sunshine we plunged down through the cloud and landed in impenetrable fog.

I had agreed to meet my colleague Chris at the arrivals gate. I had not seen him before but we both imagined that there would be few people around so late and that it would be easy for me (I was to arrive first) to recognise an American attorney, for such he is, striding through with immaculate and possibly monogrammed hand luggage. In England at the arrivals you can always recognise a flight from the US immediately. They dress differently from us Europeans, in particular as regards the acceptability of shorts for international travel, they are better fed than those who suffer under the bitter German yoke and their t-shirts bear inexplicable rallying cries.

Furthermore his firm’s website has a photograph of him smiling encouragingly, as does mine. I knew we would recognise each other. Finally, we had each other’s mobile numbers.

It was not to be. The arrivals hall was crowded shoulder to shoulder. It was clear that these were adventure tourists. They had their tents, their sleeping bags and their pots and pans and were intent on lighting out for the wilderness where men are men, just as soon as they could fight their way out of the airport building. All of them had enormous packs on their shoulders and wielded fishing rods. Occasionally they would recognise each other, emit guttural cries and hurtle together, their packs swaying dangerously from side to side, so as to exchange big hugs.

They were hideous. Maybe it is from narrowing one’s eyes against a distant horizon, but theirs seemed to be unnaturally close together, and maybe it is from placing one’s entire life-support system in stout Gortex on one’s back but their foot-control seemed to be impaired.

They appeared to be about to break into the sort of song favoured by dwarves imagined by Professor Tolkien.

These were not Icelanders, who are by and large the reverse of hideous to look at. Why visitors to Iceland should be like that I have no idea. Anyway there were so many of them that the chances of discerning an American were nil. To make matters worse, Chris’s American service-provider, taking a principled stand against Abroad, had cut off his telephone signal the moment he departed the hallowed turf of the United States, over Maine.

So I got a cab. The driver explained about the dramatic landscape we were crossing, the famous lava fields, but by now it was as dark as it would get and besides there was still thick fog.

From then it got better. You would not expect me to say anything about my dealings with my clients except that they were charming and we held our meeting sitting outside – the fog had gone – overlooking a most satisfactory lava field, eating rhubarb pancakes with cream.

In Iceland they rate rhubarb highly. They call it rabarbía. We also valued it when I was young, and I cannot think that it is to our advantage that rhubarb has been allowed to fade from our national consciousness. Things appear to be even worse in America, if the attorney Chris is anything to go by. He had never heard of rhubarb.

What is this thing, he said, and (being of an enquiring nature) how does it appear when growing?

I told him of the luxuriant leaves and the thick pink stem and how one would remove the former from the latter and plunge it into a bowl of sugar, which would stick to the broken flesh, fibrous and juicy, where the leaves had been torn off.

Pft, he said, thinking that it was an exuberant fantasy on my part.

Later in the day things got more hard-core, from a culinary point of view. Our clients recommended a restaurant called something in Icelandic that translates as ‘The Three Overcoats’ or ‘The Three Frenchmen’: it is apparently a pun. We went there at a venture and although it was fully booked someone didn’t turn up so we got a table. The food was sensational and the waitress, seeing that we thought it was sensational, brought us samples of other things to try. I recommend it to anyone going to Reykjavik, particularly if you know and love the food at St John in London. They have horse and reindeer, shark and whale, and the smoked breasts of seabirds. Whale is a problem for some, and because eating it is a federal crime in the United States, whose agencies have eyes, ears and tentacles throughout the World, Chris thought that he should decline it. All I will say is that it was not from any of the endangered species of whale, that the whales were not caught primarily for their meat, which was sold to the restaurant so as not to be wasted, and that it is extremely delicious and unlike anything else I have ever eaten.

Shark is eaten fomented. It is buried in sand for two months and then hung in the wind for another three. The taste is explosive. Contestants on Come Dine with Me often say with a self-regarding simper, ‘I never eat fish.’ It is certainly not for them.

At the restaurant we met Thor, a sculptor, and his wife Gudrun and we went on to a bar that he had designed where moss grew on some walls and others were made of the skins of fish.

Back at the airport the trolls had been magically replaced by English gentlemen with weather-beaten faces and pink trousers.

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Mr hoare, the tempest and a blood pudding

Our bank is C Hoare & Co.  Not only did C Hoare & Co resist the temptation to invest all their money in mortgages for trailer parks in Arizona, not only are they unfailingly sympathetic about little upsetting things like overdraft limits, but sometimes they give us treats,.  Last night they took some of their customers to a performance by Jericho House of The Tempest at St Giles Church, Cripplegate.

It would have been wise to look up the story on Wikipedia first.  Doing that today revealed that some liberties had been taken and that at least one character, whose role in the dynastic struggle I thought I had sorted, had arbitrarily changed sex.  Also some important bits of business disappeared behind the woolly head of the C Hoare & Co customer in front of me.  We were sitting in church pews, and they don’t have pulpits for nothing.  But it was a vigorous production and it looked lovely.  Ariel bore a disconcerting resemblance to an old girlfriend, not only her features but her habit of flying through the air.  This is forgivable in a spirit; less so in a girlfriend.  Her – the old girlfriend’s – ability to levitate was usually fuelled by rage.  I will never forget the sight of her flying towards me, crouching/hidden/whatever dragon-like, arms akimbo, Doc Martens travelling unerringly towards my knees. The better half (they made common cause for a time) remembers her levitating in rage over a suitcase that she was unable to close on account of having bought a quantity of new clothes.

Favourite title for a CD: Old Girlfriends and Other Horrible Memories, by John Fahey.

A wonderful CD too, dark and mischievous, from a great man.  Not his best, but the one I play most often.

Favourite title for a book: How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, by John Fahey.

Anyway, revenons à nos moutons, as the French say, not necessarily or even ever, as the evangelical American lady explains, in the context of actual sheep; it is a figure of speech.  Prospero buried his staff, ceased to be an egotistical colonialist, changed into a sports jacket so that he suddenly resembled Roman Abramovich, and sought our release, which we freely gave him and left the church into the night.  Finding St Giles Church, Cripplegate, like anywhere else in the Barbican, is an Arthurian quest, but getting out is simple.  Suddenly we are on the street, next to the offices of a large and grim firm of solicitors.  Getting in and out of the Barbican is just like a Shakespearean comedy: bewitchment, resolution, back to the real world.

If we shadows have offended, think how much worse it would be if you worked for Linklaters.

We decide to walk home, me, the better half and our friend Mariana.  Inevitably we end up in St John’s Bar.  Mariana ordered the smoked mackerel.  I had a bit of it on a fork and it would have brought tears to my eyes if I cared about food.  Beginner’s luck on her part, I say.

I had blood pudding.

My friend Jason, incidentally, to whom I have introduced this blog, mocks me for talking about food.  ‘I ate foie gras with champagne,’ he cries, in a satirical voice.  I wish.

 

 

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africa

Daughter 3 is in Tanzania with her boyfriend.  We delivered them to Heathrow yesterday, they texted from Doha where they changed planes, and now they are in Dar es Salaam taking Swahili lessons.  In a couple of days’ time, when they have mastered Swahili, they are heading off to the hills – and out of mobile contact – where they will spend some weeks in a remote village helping to build a school.  They will reward themselves by going to Zanzibar afterwards.

 

The better half has been in bits about the whole thing, as has her mother (Daughter 3’s grandmother, my mother-in-law) on the grounds that Africa is full of danger.  The people smile but cannot be trusted and even giraffes have off days when they turn on you.  Daughter 3 lives in Manchester and her grandmother ekes out an existence in a vicious and lawless dictatorship, so I think – I hope – that their fears are exaggerated.  As so often, it seems to me that survival comes down to a few simple rules.  Don’t drink the water from the well.  Don’t confuse the African elephant with his benign Indian cousin.  Treat creatures that announce themselves as eels with caution.

 

Of course I have even less idea what Africa is like than Daughter 3’s mother and grandmother.  My imagination combines The Just So Stories with memories of a business trip to Capetown.  The great grey green greasy Limpopo River haunted my dreams as a child and still does.  But I am very proud of her, and jealous; though the jealousy is mainly confined to the Zanzibar bit.

 

Last week I had lunch with Daughters 1 and 2 and the Granddaughter.  It was Daughter 2’s birthday.  We went on an impulse to the St John Bar and had delicious food.  The Granddaughter, who is twenty months old, demolished a Welsh Rarebit with Worcester Sauce and I had a scoop of ice-cream flavoured with Dr Henderson’s Remedy, a hangover cure consisting mainly of Fernet Branca and crème de menthe.  It was surprisingly tasty – though I doubt whether Walls will pick up the franchise.  Daughter 2 revealed that when not deep-sea diving or addressing learned societies she had taken up climbing cliffs.  She showed me a photograph to prove it.  As a foolhardy activity I think it trumps going to Africa.  Afterwards I wondered whether I should have urged her not to, but only briefly.  For one thing it is none of my business.  For another, if I used the tactics and decibels employed by Daughter 3’s grandmother to deter Daughter 3 I should have been barred from St John, and I should hate that.

 

My efforts to learn colloquial French continue.  I discover that whereas the English consider that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the French have no such preconceptions, although they will allow that you can’t teach an old monkey to make new faces.  I pass this news on to the family pet, who would of course accompany us in our new life.  He is mightily relieved.  He is an old dog himself, and has been steeling himself to learn appropriate new tricks, such as how to treat creatures that announce themselves as eels, and how to procure a copy of whatever they have there by way of a newspaper and bring it home for the master of the house, grasped in his soft but moderately dry mouth, to accompany my breakfast.  Were he received, on presenting himself at the newsagents, having mastered the colloquial French for ‘Guardian’, with a contemptuous ‘Bouf!’, he would I am sure become depressed.

 

Still reading Larry McMurtry’s Moving On.

 

Listened to:

William Byrd: the Complete Keyboard Works, played by Davitt Moroney.  This is a seven-CD set to which I return often.  It is astonishing, all-human-life-is-there music.

Handel’s harpsichord music played by Paul Nicholson.  The Eight Great Harpsichord Suites.

Tricky’s Maxinquaye, which I lent to Daughter 3’s boyfriend and which he returned en route for Dar es Salaam.  I hadn’t listened to it for years.  It didn’t live up to my memories; but at the time it encapsulated an era, so I suppose it wouldn’t.

Ate

 

Rather a lot recently, unfortunately, but of the highest quality.

For lunch today we visited our friends Anthony and Evie and the better half made a Spanish picnic.   We had gazpacho and then paella.  I am proud to have contributed the mini-chorizos, bought (or, as we say now, ‘sourced’) from Budgens.

In order to assuage her complicated feelings about Daughter 3’s departure for Africa, the better half barbecued on their last evening four quite enormous steaks, one each for Daughter 3, the boyfriend, the better half and me.  Afterwards one had the ruminative feelings appropriate to a boa constrictor that has just swallowed an aid worker.

Tonight we welcome our friend Mariana, who is coincidentally enjoying a temporary respite from the same vicious and lawless dictatorship to which the mother–in-law submits.  She will be staying for a few days.  Delicious smells waft up from the kitchen.  The better half when I last went down was manipulating a tin which she had just opened and which contained a viscous white liquid.  I asked her what it was and she said a chicken, so I suppose it is to be a surprise,

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Thread in the Bottoms of Babushkas

I wake up with the face of the better half only inches away.  Without the cares of the day, and without the calculating and distrustful face that she sometimes adopts to deal with them she looks very beautiful.  She wakes up soon after I do.  “You look very beautiful,” I say.  “No, I don’t,” she says, putting on a calculating and distrustful face.

Yesterday a strange thing happened.  On an earlier visit we went to a town where there was a huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral, which was shut.  We always wanted to go back and see inside.  The building looked from the outside as far as it is possible to imagine a monument to a god of love.  We remembered the town as Pezenas, because we bought the local pies there, which look so nice and taste so dull, and they are called Pezenas pies. So yesterday we went to Pezenas.  It’s quite nice, and full of cultural amenity, if you like candle shops.  But there is no huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral.

The French have a tradition involving the rapid removal of cathedrals.  One thinks of the Jacobins.  One thinks of Debussy’s cathedral engulfed by the waves.  Closer to home one thinks of Musrum, by Earnshaw and Thacker:

A torpedoed cathedral sinks rapidly into the ground.”

Or perhaps it wasn’t Pezonas but somewhere else, and the huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral endures yet.  Google may reveal.

The visit wasn’t wasted however.  On the way back we climbed the hill and looked down on the huge and wonderful dried etang at Montady, perfectly circular, a mile across and shaped just like a tart that has been sliced and is ready to eat.  See http://www.360cities.net/image/oppidume-etang-montady#41.86,21.00,70.0

I think that I may have maligned the younger Belgians.  They have become affable, to each other and to us.  Maybe it was a row that made them morose.  Anyway, they left today and are replaced by a family with two babies.

After breakfast, the older Belgian man and I have a conversation about food.  He refers to the reputation of English food as leaving something to be desired.  I say, as I always do on these occasions, that the food in restaurants in London is as good as anywhere, but that the food routinely available in England, such as in airports and in the high street, is still by and large dire.  I tell him about the great genius of Fergus Henderson and how the St John Restaurant is slowly changing the world.  The older Belgian man adopts the thoughtful look of one has long ago stopped listening to anyone else.

“I once – there is thirty years – ate a steak and kidney pie.  The taste was, er, not so bad, but – bouf!”

He gestured expressively, but what did he mean by ‘bouf’?  He put on a kilo?  He was most unwell?  His cultural integrity was fatally compromised?  Suddenly I feel squeamish and I change the subject.

The weather is hot and cloudless, so we go to the beach.  The French by and large stay away.  As Anthony Powell remarked, French people when in an expansive mood tend to inform you that the difference between the French and the English is that the French operate by logic; the English by experience.  Logic dictates that by September the winter has begun; experience that the temperature is in the high thirties, there is nota cloud in the sky, the little waves curl refreshingly about your ankles and it is all quite good.  Even better, last week, when it was not winter, there was a café on the beach with a ghetto blaster dispensing the sort of sound that reminds you that the French may have the best food and wine in the world and some estimable painters, but their pop music is crap – and now it is silent.

Three women of a certain age parade along the beach.  One is wearing a headdress appropriate to a closed order of nuns, and instead of a bikini bottom an arrangement in string.  It is as one imagines the dress code might dictate for an orgy.

“Russians,” says the better half.

“How do you know?”

“Because only Russian women wear string instead of bikini bottoms on the beach.”

She is prepared to leave it at that, but I can’t help wondering why that should be.  Is it something in their cultural history?    Were secret papers transmitted during Stalin’s terror entwined between the buttocks of babushkas?  Does it go further back than that?  Did Genghis Khan and his henchmen rage across the steppes, ever closer to the heart of Holy Russia, with string in their bottoms?  Probably speculation is useless.

Reading:

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner

Wylder’s Hand by Sheridan Le Fanu

Ate

Cold chicken, tomato and avocado salad

Domaine de la Mirande: Picpoul de Pinet (bought from the back door)

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