Thursday, 29 September 2011

Stop Press

The Moffat News today yesterday reported, correctly, that Moffat Book Events withdrew an initial application to Annandale and Eskdale area committee for funds. What was not reported is that, following guidance on the presentation of our accounts, we have re-submitted the application for our Oct 15 event. Once non-repeatable 'start-up' costs, which were anticipated (and met by our sponsor), were extracted from ongoing costs and ticket sales, our April event broke even - as we expect our forthcoming Jeans or Genes? to do. The paper that books are printed on comes from trees, and I am happy to say I spent yesterday in a forest of those trees twenty miles north of Moffat,. The trees thrive in warm, wet conditions, so yesterday was ideal for them - you could practically hear them smile.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


From today's online The Writer's Almanac:

In the Christian world, today is Michaelmas, feast day of the archangel Michael, which was a very important day in times past, falling near the equinox and so marking the fast darkening of the days in the northern world, the boundary of what was and what is to be. Today was the end of the harvest and the time for farm folk to calculate how many animals they could afford to feed through the winter and which would be sold or slaughtered. It was the end of the fishing season, the beginning of hunting, the time to pick apples and make cider.
Today was a day for settling rents and accounts, which farmers often paid for with a brace of birds from the flocks hatched that spring. Geese were given to the poor and their plucked down sold for the filling of mattresses and pillows.
Michaelmas was the time of the traditional printer's celebration, the wayzgoose, the day on which printers broke from their work to form the last of their pulp into paper with which to cover their open windows against the coming cold -- the original solution for those who could not afford glass yet had more than nothing -- and the advent of days spent working by candlelight.
In the past, the traditional Michaelmas meal would have been a roast stubble goose -- the large gray geese that many of us only get to admire at our local state and county fairs. Today, when most poultry comes from the grocery store in parts and wrapped in plastic, a roast goose can be a difficult luxury to obtain, but any homey, unfussy meal is a fine substitute -- especially with a posy of Michaelmas daisies or purple asters on the table.
In folklore, it is said that when Michael cast the Devil from Heaven, the fallen angel landed on a patch of blackberry brambles and so returns this day every year to spit upon the plant that tortured him. For this reason, blackberries would not be eaten after today, and so folks would gather them in masses on Michaelmas to put into pies and crumbles and preserves. And they would bake St. Michael's bannocks, a large, flat scone of oats and barley and rye, baked on a hot griddle and then eaten with butter or honey or a pot of blackberry preserves.
Whether you recognize Michaelmas or not, you can still greet what comes with the symbols of today: gloves, for open-handedness and generosity; and ginger to keep you warm and well in the coming cold.

And lastly: Happy Birthday to Miguel de Cervantes, baptised Miguel (the Spanish for Michael), author of Don Quixote.

Exclusive preview

Here is an exclusive preview of the menu for our exclusive tea at Jeans or Genes?, our literary event at Moffat House hotel on Oct 15:

Smoked salmon sandwiches & Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches
Scone with cream and raspberry jam
Apple & cinnamon cake
Almond macaroon
Raspberry cream mille feuille
Lemon meringue tart

Unlimited refills of best Scottish tea

Monday, 26 September 2011

Full circle

I started to write about history yesterday, musing about events in Europe during my mother's lifetime having come full circle yesterday, then was distracted. She was born in 1917, so you can imagine that my thoughts were pretty gloomy. However, this morning the clouds have quite literally lifted. Moffat is basking in warm, golden autumn sunshine. Zac is recovering well from his chicken pox. A friend sent me a hilarious account of taking part in a car rally for the over 60's in the south of France. Not so much Dornford Yates as I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue. I read Dornford Yates's stories about smart young things racing their open tourers to the south of France (or was it Biarritz) when I was about 12, impressed by their wit and style. A few years ago, I opened a copy hoping to re-kindle that memory but oh dear. Very dated, rather feeble, if not positively nasty. Par contre, my friend's account of her and her husband Teddy's 'rally' was a catalogue of mishaps, from discovering that on the dawn of the event that their open car was covered in the cat's muddy pawprints, failing to read the instructions and finding themselves within half an hour, by following the clues, outside their own front door. A 'go/no go' decision had to be made: to cut their losses and go to the flea market for some new wine glasses, or join the rallyistes for the end of event picnic in a nearby tourist trap. No prizes for guessing which they chose. Cheers, Teddy and Nicola!.

Time for a coffee?

I wonder if Moffat could support a year-round centre for book events, in other words a bookshop big enough for people to sit in and have a coffee, or hold 'meet the author' events and other literary activities. My hoped-for excursion to Wigtown today had to be cancelled but I am still planning to get across to Wigtown later this week, and will do some research.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

What's in a name?

It was announced today that the BBC is dropping 'BC' and 'AD' in favour of 'BCE' and'CE'. As Matthew Parris pointed out on the Andrew Marr show, this is simply using the same dateline - the birth of Christ - while avoiding the apparently offensive direct reference. We are having a similar debate about our international conference to be held in Moffat next year, originally to be entitled Christianity without frontiers. Alternative suggestions include On shared ground? Religious faith and contemporary culture. The theme of the conference is values and attitudes, inspired by the life and work of Alexander Men 1935-1990, a Russian priest. The hope is that by avoiding precision in the title, a wider variety of participants will feel inclined to attend than might otherwise have been the case. So: are we part of what seems to be an increasingly fashionable pre-emptive cringe? Off tomorrow to the Wigtown Book Festival, for a session on Voice and Presentation For Writers and pot luck for other sessions I haven't booked for. I will practise tweeting, a habit I haven't managed to acquire but am resolved to master.

Friday, 23 September 2011

More recipes from The Frugal Cook

Yesterday, I made kedgeree. Cooking time 10 minutes. Equipment - frying pan with lid or dinner plate to cover.
  • 1 small fillet smoked haddock
  • Semi-skimmed milk
  • 5 hard boiled eggs
  • 1 pack Uncle Ben's pilau rice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
I placed the fillet of smoked haddock in a frying pan and added milk with a little water to cover and simmered for a few minutes to cook (with a lid on). Then I added the pack of Uncle Ben's pilau rice and continued to simmer for 3 minutes. I had 5 hard boiled eggs* in the fridge, which I peeled and sliced. I turned off the heat, placed the slices of hard boiled egg on the top of the fish and rice, spooned a little of the cooking liquid over them and put a lid over.

There was far too much for one person, so after I had had what I needed for supper (lots of freshly ground black pepper because it was tasty but quite bland), I put the remainder into a plastic box in the fridge. Today, I plan to fry an onion, sliced, and some mushrooms with grated nutmeg which I will add to the kedgeree mixture for Meal Two.

*I had a pack of six fresh eggs that I hard boiled before I went down to Kent last week to visit my mother aged 94. One of the eggs went on the train with me for my picnic: a roll cut in half and spread with mayo, garnished with sliced tomato.

Jeans (F)or Genes

I went to see Lesley Watson, head teacher at Moffat Academy yesterday afternoon and from under her desk she produced a poster similar in size to ours headed Jeans For Genes (whereas ours says Jeans or Genes?). It turns out there is a charity supporting children with genetic disorders which raises money by students paying £1 which entitles them to wear jeans to school on a particular day - this year it's Oct 7, the week before our event! What an extraordinary coincidence! Moffat Book Events will certainly consider making a donation at our next meeting on Oct 11.


This blog is rapidly becoming a guerilla cookbook. I want to talk to you for a moment about porridge. I had porridge as a child in Kent because both my parents were either (in my mother's case) genuinely Scottish or (in my father's case) was brought up from an early age, went to school etc in Scotland. We also had a Scottish nanny in the Mary Poppins sense, rather than in the mother of one parent sense. I therefore know exactly what porridge should be like, and all too often is not. First and most important it should never, ever be made with milk. It should be made with water and salted. In the plate, it should be faintly blue at the edge. You can add milk to the porridge once it is in your plate, even sugar if you like. When porridge cools it should be possible to transport in a wedge eg in greaseproof paper, as a snack. One makes porridge once a week in a large vessel which you reheat as required.

The really magical thing about porridge is that if you make it to a satisfactory consistency (say) on a Thursday and eat a helping, and leave the rest in the pot, by the following morning you will be able to add enough more water to the original batch to more than double the quantity without in any way detracting from the quality of the dish. A small enamel mugful of oats will last you for four or five days.

Recipe for oxtail

From time to time I find myself inventing dishes - see the recipe for cous cous I published here on Sept 13 2011. Here is one for oxtail which I pass on because it is different from most you find online:
  • (in my case)go to the dentist in Lanark because the shop for oxtail is right next door. Or go to the excellent butcher in Moffat
  • Hugh Black & Sons in Lanark also sells fish, soup and other things. Buy a carton of their homemade lentil soup - a smooth yellow cream.
  • 2 large Spanish mild onions
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic
  • sunflower oil
  • large heavy casserole dish
  • bay leaf
  • pepper
Switch your oven on to whatever heat keeps things cooking slowly. This kind of dish tastes better the day after so ideally you are cooking this eg in the evening to eat the next day. It took me about 20 minutes from start to finish. Brown the onions cut into 4 chunks, the cloves of garlic (peeled and halved) and the oxtail ( I got two packs which is enough to feed 4 )in the sunflower oil for quite a long time, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, turning everything regularly, enough to make the oxtail brown all over. Add the carton of soup and some boiling water if necessary to cover, the bayleaf and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Bring back to the boil for 5 minutes on the hob before putting into the oven. I left my oxtail in for over 3 hours at 100 deg and left it to cool in the oven overnight. In the morning, I brought it to the boil again at breakfast time and put it back in at 150 deg for another 80 minutes. Ideally, the meat should be meltingly tender, fall off the bone.

Now: what carbs are you going to eat with this? May I suggest you take a pack of mixed microwaveable vegetables past their sell by date, brought from a fridge 300 miles away. Steam these forgetting that this will release the two pats of flavoured butter through the holes into the steaming water. Drain into a frying pan to conserve this savoury liquor, some of which you can add to the oxtail if it needs topping up. Now: put the cooked shredded mixed veg into their flavoured buttery cooking liquor and use the rest of the cous cous from the packet opened on Sept 13. Stir well and leave covered for a few minutes until ready to eat.

For your fresh green veg you will find two rather limp courgettes, homegrown by someone in Moffat bought from the greengrocers next to the butcher. Boil them, drain and serve.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

or not, as the case may be

Melvyn Bragg writes: Shinto, without a written doctrine, without an original sacred source, without a single revelatory leader, was always at the stage of recreating itself. And the hold or the grip that it had, and has, is that it deals with the origins of Japan; it deals with what is Japanese. There had been many stages along the way for Japan, where they thought that they came nowhere in the list of countries which had a proper past. People and ideas came in from Korea, from China, from the Pacific islands. Shinto did for Japan what Joshua, according to Martin Palmer, did for the Jews in the 11th century BC, i.e.: made of the different tribal accounts a single narrative story which was their story and one which they accepted, or pushed off (his phrase). So Shinto is about lineage every bit as much as religion.

Our Moffat Book Event on Oct 15 deals with lineage via our DNA (Alistair Moffat's talk at noon) and Moira Cox will help us dress to impress, making the most of ourselves. Carolyn Yates will lead the children's storytelling session on who am I? who are we? who are you? Identity was famously once said to be established by which side you cheered for at cricket (or football). Work defines us, too. It doesn't have to be paid work - although Dr Johnson said that only a fool writes but for money. More fool me then. But a book is definitely on the cards. It may be along the lines of Roger Lewis's gripping Suicide Notes,one of my favourite funny books. Or The Tap Dancer, a fictionalised story about a real family, brilliantly observed by Andrew Barrow, author also of Gossip which derives its power from selection and focus (it is compiled from items taken from the gossip columns of the newspapers in the 1950's). Look out today for wry comments on things that travel faster than light. My candidate: interest charges on tax demands I was never sent in the first place; time, when you're due at a meeting and still holding while a bank employee 'asks the technical department' for a way through the bank's new token system for online banking.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Reivers in Wyoming

It turns out (Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx)that north Britons took their reiving habits to Wyoming, but there it was called 'rustling'. I wonder why 'rustling' - as in leaves?

A propos our next book event on Oct 15 on the theme of identity: here is an excerpt from an item by Eileen Reid from today's Scottish Review, an excellent online magazine supported by donations.

...the question of who we are is fraught with confusion. That part of our identity is tied up with various groups is undoubtedly the case: family, club, workplace, city, the nation. Problems, however, seem to emerge with over-identification with a group. For example, I have noticed that people of the far left and certain nationalists often absorb ideological or political criticism as deeply personal. When this identification is excessive, problems arise.
In the case of the Old Firm rivalry, Rangers and Celtic fans have come to identify their own wellbeing with the fortunes of their respective club. When Rangers lose, the Rangers fans have been harmed. When Celtic loses, the well-being of Celtic fans is compromised. When they lose to each other, each has been harmed by their greatest enemy. This causes extreme anxiety and frustration. Unable to assuage anxiety on the park, the desire for revenge on the aggressor is impossible to satisfy immediately, so they resort to violence at the first available opportunity – often in the safety of the home.
This kind of analysis of post-Old Firm match violence is commonplace. But I do think it is largely right. If so, solutions must focus on the mechanisms and triggers of Old Firm violence. The solution proposed by the Ancient Greeks is clear enough. Each individual has to re-assess their beliefs about their self-identity, and develop a rational detachment from their tribe. But this solution requires of fans a degree of self-awareness and moral seriousness that is not to be expected. We're not dealing with ordinary decent rational people who accept there is a problem. We are dealing with profoundly ignorant, drunk men. So Scottish society needs to think of alternatives. It must make it more difficult for people to self-identify with the Old Firm in the first place, and, failing that, reduce the number of encounters - although in the latter case vicarious rivalry would likely emerge.
If you think about it, what use is Old Firm tribalism to contemporary Scottish society? What good is the Old Firm to Scottish football? What would Glasgow lose without Rangers and Celtic? What about a truly revolutionary solution to a smelly conservative tradition: a merger of the two clubs? We are merging universities and colleges, why not football clubs? Glasgow United – now wouldn't that be something to be proud of?
Frankly, measures short of this rather drastic proposal will not address the problem. Clubs issuing anti-sectarian bromides are doomed to fail, and are too complacent because they do not distinguish aggressive tradition from destructive hatred. Mary Midgely in her book 'Wickedness' claims that there is a strong tendency for social scientists to hold that hatred and violence is not innate but a result of external forces. Well, if true, good: presumably then, these forces can be removed. But they won't be removed. Scotland will have to tolerate this tradition for another few centuries. Hold your nose.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Supper with the Admiral

One of the pleasures of being in one's late sixties is catching up with old friends. One of the pleasures of a visit to London is celebrity-spotting. On my way to supper with the Admiral on Monday, on a narrow pavement I brush shoulders with Ralph Lauren whose London house is nearby, behind his shop in the area now known as Brompton Cross, just along from the beautiful art deco Michelin building housing Bibendum. I also scored Nigel Havers on the forecourt of Euston station yesterday afternoon, and a possible Richard Stilgoe, ditto, hurrying for a train. The Admiral and I knew each other when we were sprogs in south London aged 12 or 13, playing mixed doubles and going to the theatre. He can't remember the tennis and claims we saw Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic. I remember the tennis well, and think it was The Mouse Trap. Whatever. It is good to see him, instantly recognisable after 55 years, happily married and supposedly a retiree, although, like me, he seems busier than ever. The rendezvous is in a restaurant I was invited to nominate. Unaccountably for a Monday evening, I had suggested one which specialises in fish, and when we meet there it turns out that their fridge failed over the weekend so there isn't much meat either: we settle for salad and meatballs. Shades of Cold War menus in Moscow or Croatia in the bad old days ! The past is disposed of swiftly; as for the present: on the home front both his mother (like mine) and his mother in law are still going strongish in their 90's, so regular visits (his wife's mother lives in South Africa) are the order of the day. Being an Admiral means a preoccupation with defence, and whether Britain has a Plan A let alone a Plan B. Specialist journals have to be edited, and government ministers visited with varying degrees of success. One senior minister isn't interested in defence at all. Another says: 'let's meet again and talk some more'. Will that happen, or is it just a politician's version of the ubiquitous 'see you later'? Should one leave London altogether, and live in Suffolk? Or Oxford, where the Admiral's intake has just celebrated 50 years, hosted by one of their number, now the Dean of a college? Meanwhile, there is much to do: public speaking, writing articles for newspapers, 'consulting'. Will any of my three grandsons join the navy, I wonder? As a family we used to have sailing holidays, working our way in successive years from Poole Harbour to Athens. In Year One, when nobody on board really knew much about the sea, on one famous occasion I came below to report that we were passing mooring buoys at a rate of knots, and since we were supposed to be anchored, this had an electrifying effect on our captain. One member of our family, Richard Ingram, is a serving naval officer, currently serving in Oman, but we are mostly landlubbers: farmers, artists and property developers. We bid au revoir at South Ken tube, a visit in prospect to my childhood home, where my mother still holds court and the Admiral remembers we had an ancient open-topped Ford called Genevieve which we learned to drive on, bumping over the grass and between the trees.

Monday, 19 September 2011

A Weekend in Cardiff Fri Sept 16-Mon Sept 19

I am reading Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx. So many coincidences with my own experience: the book is about building a house in the wilderness; there is a water quality problem; the house is in conifer country (in Annie's case, lodgepole pine; in mine, Sitka spruce); the birds and animals are comparable except for elk; the flora ditto; there are access road issues; an architect named Teague (a family name). There is a need for a big room with long tables to put papers for various pieces of writing work on; the discovery that the road to get to the property is problematic in winter months; recurrent trouble with straying cattle . I decide to write to Annie Proulx.

I am spending a long weekend with a friend in South Wales, in Penarth. Penarth is a delightful Victorian/Edwardian seaside resort just west of Cardiff. Wonderful big houses built when Cardiff was the biggest exporter of coal in the world, with incomes to match. There is a promenade with the famous view painted by Sisley west to Cardiff Harbour, and east across the water to Weston super Mare on the Somerset coast. Sun is sparkling on the water. A good time of year to visit – still plenty of foliage on the trees laden with fruit, and colour in the gardens. It is so pretty that planning crimes and misdemeanours stick out: the new over-big ‘garage’ at the end of a plot with the little conservatory on the east facing back to the house – thereby betraying itself as not an outbuilding so much as another house, or guest cottage. A little further down, there is another suspicious bit of development: a ‘garage’ with velux windows in the roof, bolted on to another pitched roof structure; you cannot see more over the fence because it has been heightened by a two- planks- width extension.

My journey down by train was increasingly pleasurable: squashed like a sardine from Lockerbie to Carlisle across green rolling countryside. Then from Carlisle to Crewe, through Cheshire - places such as Nantwich near Alsager, where I started married life. The sun came out as the train wound south, and stayed all the way to Cardiff, increasingly stunning countryside, Ludlow, Abergavenny.. The train arrives on time, and Y is on the platform to meet me. I shout as I spot her. She continues to walk towards me, preoccupied,no sign of recognition on her face. Again: ‘Y!' We are face to face. ‘Y! It’s me!!’

The train on the first leg from Lockerbie to Carlisle, which goes on to Manchester airport, was packed with holidaymakers. I had a seat reservation somewhere on the train, which I had forgotten about. A kind man travelling with his wife and young son moved across to share a seat so that I could sit down. For the leg from Carlisle to Crewe, the train was also packed. I had to ask a woman to move out of my booked table seat by a window. For two hours we sat in uneasy proximity, and I waited in vain for a ticket inspection so that I could ask if I had to change platforms when I next changed trains. Eventually, the two other passengers sharing the table got up and left the train, and my neighbour moved to the other side of the table to give us both more room. As we approached Crewe, it turned out that we were both changing trains there for Cardiff, and we became allies; she turned out to be friendly. The train was running late, so we only had six minutes to find the platform or the Cardiff train, sprint up a steep flight of stairs, along and down another to just catch the train, the Arriva 14.08. What a contrast. There was practically no-one else on the train. A grandfatherly Welsh Indian with a grey moustache strolled up and down in a proprietorial way, checking tickets, quiet, calm and kindly. The elderly Fat Controller look-alike wheeling the trolley, was also inclined to be chatty and sat down in the seat across from me to gossip as if we were in a pub. Other, younger railway personnel got on at Newport, where my father was born in 1905; a new trolley was loaded – the ‘set’ goes as far west as Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire.

Y and I walked with my wheely case from Cardiff station to the site where the old Mail and Echo office, where we had both worked in the 1960's, had been – her car was parked in an alley just behind it. She showed me the new offices of what is now called ‘Media Group’ which we were invited to visit if we felt like it (in the event, we didn't). Her house in Penarth 20 minutes drive from Cardiff along the coast is in a pretty terrace of late nineteenth century brick houses with tiny front gardens and ornamental wooden porches on the street side, and gardens leading to an alleyway behind. Into a narrow hallway; up steep stairs: straight ahead is the bathroom, and round a turn in the stair two bedrooms back to back. Downstairs, to the right, off the narrow hallway is a through parlour with fireplace at one end and windows facing east to the garden and west, and beyond, a step down to a kitchen, with one window by the sink and another in the small dining extension overlooking a narrow garden full of mature fig trees, vines, jasmine, honeysuckle, a tamarisk and pink cottage flowers. A blue door leads from the end of the garden into the lane running along the back of the terrace, and beyond that are the back gardens of the larger houses beyond. Everything in the house is picturesque, second hand, unmatching, rickety but pretty and clean. The wallpapers and curtains are Colefax and Fowler, frayed. Carpets are threadbare, the furniture tilts and wobbles. The view from the bath is unrivalled, looking east across the garden to trees and sky beyond. The weather is autumnal, bright warm sunshine interspersed with heavy showers. Enormous white clouds scud across the western horizon over the blue grey and sandy coloured water. If only I had ever come to Penarth to look for digs in 1965 when I came to work on the South Wales Echo, instead of Splott. There has been a mining accident: four men killed and one critically injured following a botched operation to open up a new seam, releasing flood water from an earlier tunnel.

The first morning, after an excellent night’s sleep, I got up and decided to stretch my legs and get some fresh air by walking to the nearest paper shop. I forget to take my umbrella, and half way there I was caught in a such a heavy shower that I had to shelter under a tree until the worst had passed. The café/ shop is on the headland, warm and inviting, with big picture windows overlooking the sea. Two elderly men are sitting at tables far apart, one with his dog, both with their newspapers. A young woman serves me – no FT so I buy the Guardian for Y and the Daily Telegraph for myself. After breakfast, we decide to go for a walk during a break in the showers. We walk along past the big house where her partner of 20 years lived with his mother, until she died. Two weeks after he and Y moved in to their own terrace house, and shortly before he was due to retire, aged 65, he died in the newspaper office where had worked all his life. We turn down a steep path onto the promenade, past a smart modern looking café set in an old seaside building with a lovely Victorian wrought iron verandah, and wicker chairs set out on the sun-filled terrace with sea view. We sit and talk on a bench for a bit. A light shower, so we put up our umbrellas. Two or three couples or families pass us. Then we decide to walk on, up the hill and past the same café where I had bought the papers, back to the house. By now it is one o clock and Y cooks a fry-up of bacon eggs mushrooms and laver bread – my first ever experience of this uncategorisable green Welsh staple. It is nothing like bread. It is a thick paste or slimy sludge with claims to nutritional iodine and a taste which might be the famous Japanese fifth one, neither sour, sweet, salt or bitter but savoury. A slice of beetroot goes well with it, as does bacon, because it is on the sweet even sickly side, and needs to be cut with a sharper flavor. It is after half past three by the time we have finished lunch and I take the papers up for a couple of hours kip. Emerging at 6pm, we sit chatting by the west window until 8pm then have roasted vegetables and shoulder of lamb – Y is a wonderful cook - , starting off with avocado and my four cherry tomatoes left over from my picnic on the train, laced with excellent vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar. We talk on until after midnight about this and that, roaming far and wide, from contemporary politics and the looming financial crisis to language, aviation (Y learned to fly a plane and belongs to a local aero club), old times on the newspapers we both worked for, research for features on hermits , shoes, ships, sealing wax and string. Much laughter and many reminiscences continued on Sunday when two more former colleagues with their wives come round for a long Sunday lunch. Then, impulsively - it is a beautiful warm sunny afternoon - we set off to walk to the headland where Marconi sent his first signals across the Atlantic. Three hours later, exhausted, we flop down for a cup of tea and a slice of Bara Brith fruit loaf and by 8.30pm I am fast asleep.

I was glad to be going to London for a night on my way home, to savour this experience, allow it to mellow in my mind. We were nearly at Paddington when the train stopped. Someone had thrown themselves in front of the train at Southall. The emergency services were called - we saw them walking past our carriage: ambulance, police, a man in a suit (a doctor?). I am thinking: 'This is the way the novel by Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago, begins, with a body on the line'. The train stands for two hours, thoughts for the deceased in all our minds, practical calls being made: 'I'm stuck on the train' 'I'm sorry, I'm not going to make the meeting'... Free tea and coffee was dispensed. A middle aged woman said 'Well, that's the end of my jolly' - she had had a full programme in London planned, perhaps a theatre matinee. At Paddington, two hours later, the staff were ready to allow us all through the barriers without showing our tickets.

I had a chance to touch base with my daughter and her husband, heading home to Durham after a busy week in London with agents and bookers for appearances and compering comedy nights round the country, planning a new show - writing starts next month for 2012 - , then supper with the Admiral - of which more in my next.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Me and Agatha Christie

Today is the birthday of English mystery writer Agatha Christie, born Agatha Miller in Torquay in 1890. During the first and second World Wars, she worked at a hospital dispensary; this gave her a knowledge of pharmaceuticals and poisons that would later serve her well as the author of more than 70 murder mysteries, including Murder on the Orient Express (1933), Death on the Nile (1937), and the play The Mousetrap (1952), which has been running continuously on London's West End since 1952, the longest initial run of any play in history. Her first husband, Archie Christie, was an aviator with the Royal Flying Corps; they had a daughter, and he left her for another woman in 1926. Her second husband was archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan; she once said, "An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her." (The Writer's Almanac). My first date when we were both aged about 12, accompanied I seem to remember by one or both sets of parents, was to see The Mouse Trap with my tennis partner (later an admiral in the Royal Navy). We have a reunion set for the next couple of weeks. In student days, I used to play bridge with Agatha Christie's nephew Matthew, to whom she left the benefit of royalties in the Mouse Trap. More relevantly for Moffat, yesterday we had a meeting to progress our plans for an international conference in honour of the murdered Russian priest Alexander Men 1935-1990. The idea is to discuss themes for our lives and times arising from his life and work in a secular state. It was noted yesterday that platform discussions with several interesting participants, and a moderator or chair, or X 'in conversation with' Y have overtaken the 'chalk and talk' model for this sort of event. Two interesting book events I have attended this year were the English writers 'in conversation' about a French classic eg Will Self on Montaigne, and Edmund de Waal on Proust at the Institut Francais in South Kensington. By far the most thought-provoking 'festival', over one weekend this summer, was Books, Borders and Bikes at Traquair, combining high level topical political discussion with superb literary 'conversation' - eg James Runcie with Olivia Laing on her book To the River. Moffat Book Events has taken note.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


I know this blog is supposed to be about books, but today I want to describe the anatomy of a couscous dish I made - perhaps that should be 'assembled' - last night for supper. The whole thing began by buying a pack of new potatoes with a knob of butter already inside, the sort you are meant to microwave, and a pack of carrot batons. The potatoes were already at their best by or sell by date, so after a day or two, I took them out of the fridge and tipped them into a frying pan for fear they might go bad. As long as they were sitting in the frying pan looking at me, I could not forget them. One had already gone a bit dark and mushy on one side so I threw it away. I cooked the carrot batons in the normal way, by boiling them in water. Another day passed. I decided to make soup. I chopped up an onion and some cloves of garlic and softened them in some sunflower oil, then added the potatoes in quarters, and the carrots. After five minutes or so I added water to cover and a spoonful of Marigold vegetable stock powder. The soup was not very tasty, so that evening, I took a ladle full and added it to a tin of Baxter's Highland Crofter soup, made with pearl barley, beef and lamb. The soup was a surprising tomato colour, but did add to the interest of my homemade effort. In the way of things, the ladleful plus tin of soup was annoyingly more than I could manage for supper, but too much to throw away. I had three spindly courgettes by me, locally grown, and a pack of couscous so (you're guessing already) last night I sliced up the courgettes, added a good sprinkle (for the scientifically minded about 200gm) of couscous mix brought the whole damn thing to the boil, added a little boiling water and left with the lid on for twenty minutes. It was absolutely delicious, but of course unrepeatable in the sense that no one in their right mind would have set out to make it from scratch. Lots of home cooking is like that - miracles of happenstance and makeshiftery you wouldn't ever put in a recipe book. Rather like Life Itself, in fact.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Bird Cloud (cont)

Bird Cloud page 15: ..'we tried to visit our mother, Lois Gill Proulx, once a month. She had been ill for years with bronchiectasis, an uncommon degenerative lung disease which she fought with exercises diet, medication and willpower. Frequent bouts of pneumonia and colitis attacks lurked as accompanists'. Wow. Me too. Bronchiectasis, pneumonia etc. Perhaps a link will be discovered one day between women who write books, build houses in remote rural places and suffer from lung diseases. I have a feeling I am going to like this book. Proulx, who came from partly French-Canadian stock, is going into how she searched for her family history, with help from a professional genealogist. This is something my sister and I embarked on some years ago, and which she has pursued with more tenacity than me. Our father used to tease us when we asked him about his family by saying that we came from 'a long line of horse thieves'. We wondered if that meant travellers, or maybe being Irish. So far the ancestors on his father's side seem to have been cab drivers in London, a perfectly respectable calling and maybe that's where horses came in. It was our great grandmother who catches the eye, who had six or seven children with grandpa without going through any form of marriage, then bolted to live with another man who we believed was David (the African missionary)Livingstone's brother. Sadly, the rumoured connection does not seem to survive close scrutiny. Like many a 'bolter' before her, far from coming to a sticky end, she seems to have had a terrific life. It is exceptionally windy in Moffat today, as we catch the tail end of Hurricane Katia. A branch came off one of the old birch trees on the mill leat just across the road, and last night an extraordinary number of house martins flew round and round outside my window, as if bringing warning of the storm to come.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Bird Cloud

I have embarked on Bird Cloud. When the book first appeared earlier this year, I was immediately interested because it is about a woman building a house in a remote wilderness, which is what I did at Crookedstane. The woman who built a house at Bird Cloud is the novelist Annie Proulx, author of nine books including The Shipping News, an unforgettable tale set in Newfoundland. I am interested in building houses - I have also just received the DVD of series 8 of the Channel 4 TV series Grand Designs, which starts its ninth series on Wed (Sept 14)at 9pm. The first few pages of Bird Cloud reveal details of the author's early life, relevant to her desire aged 70 in 2005, to build the sort of house she did, where she did. I will keep you posted. This is a book event site, so it is appropriate to record that today is the birthday of D H Lawrence, who believed in flesh and blood. It is also of course the 10th anniversary of the Al Quaeda attack on the twin World Trade Centre towers in Manhattan.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Chicken pox

My eldest grandson, Harry (aged 6) was sent home from school yesterday with chickenpox. I don't think I have ever had chickenpox, but that probably means I never will - famous last words. He came in the day before yesterday (Thursday Sept 8) after school (I live next door) to tell me about a school trip he had been on that day, to Sea World in Edinburgh. He had seen a shark and a stingray, and been allowed to handle a starfish. I thought he looked remarkably well, better than he has for a while. Maybe that was because the 10 day 'incubation period' was over and he was about to break out into spots. As I write this, Tony Blair is being interviewed live on BBCR4 about 9/11 and 7/7. Mention is being made of the difference between 'Islam' and 'Islamism'. Some years ago, I used to make a regular bus journey on the number 328 from the Chelsea Bun (the route's southern terminus point) to visit a friend for a drink and an early evening meal in Notting Hill. I arrived at the stop and noticed that - unusually - four 328 buses were parked, lined up back down the road. It was dusk. After a few minutes, the door of the front bus opened, and four drivers emerged. As they got out, one turned to me with a smile and said 'we were just breaking our ramadan fast'. That was a turning point of a sort for me. Another, not associated with Islam, occured several years earlier. I was on a packed red London bus travelling down Park Lane and noticed to my surprise that not only was I the only English person on the bus, including the driver and the other passengers, I was the only native English speaker - everyone else was chattering away in other languages. I related this experience at an open meeting in Edinburgh to discuss 'multiculturalism' and was hissed merely for recounting it.

Friday, 9 September 2011

what we were doing and where we were going

what we were doing and where we were going is the title of a collection of five short stories by Damion Searls. I bought it because I bumped into this prodigy, a kind, interesting, polite, quiet self-effacing individual, representing himself only as 'a travel journalist' covering the W G Sebald weekend at Aldeburgh, for Harper's magazine in January 2011. We fell into conversation on a surreal excursion to the former atomic weapons test site near Aldeburgh, now curated by the National Trust, open on certain days of the year, or by appointment, to the public. In a charabanc returning from the visit, he gave me the title rivalling in length that of his own book, of a recent runaway cult success he thought I might enjoy: The Possessed; Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them by Elif Batuman. I have been intimidated by Searls' own slim - 100 pages - paperback, handling it with the caution of a shopper who has bought an exotic fruit in a moment of uncharacteristic experimentation, gets it home and then sits staring at it, wondering why they didn't stick with a Pink Lady. I am no great reader of fiction; I lack familiarity with the genre because I have become a lazy, slick and cowardly reader. The most I seem to do nowadays is re-read The Leopard or Dr Zhivago (both of which, oddly, were published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli). Searls makes things more difficult for a reviewer such as myself by appearing to be widely and well read in four or five languages. At the end of the book, he acknowledges works by Gide, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Yasushi Inoue, Nabokov and Tomasso Landolfi, none of which I have read. He is described in the blurb as having translated many of Europe's great writers, has edited a new edition of Thoreau's journal and received many awards. wwwdawwwg reveals itself to be an exercise in 'framing'. A quotation from Aragon's Henri Matisse : A Novel gives a clue to the project: '..if there were no model one could not deviate from it.' In reading Searls' stories, I was reminded of a time when I knew people who aspired to write like this, and of a time when I read Borges and Isaak Dinesen. I was a student in Oxford in the 1960's, when there were quite a few very talented Americans around such as John Lahr, who I did meet and Bill Clinton, who I didn't, and others who went on to become theatre directors, professors of law or ad men you maybe wouldn't have heard of but who added tremendously to the general level of discourse. My room mate Mopsy had already done an internship in Mademoiselle and her fiance Duncan's father, an architect, had written a thinly fictionalised version of his amorous adventures as a young man in Paris. Searls' book reminds me of that time, when the notion was accepted that one could - one should - not only deliberately set out to live one's life recklessly, like Hemingway or oh, I don't know, maybe if you were a woman, Sylvia Plath, (bearing in mind of course that they both committed suicide so maybe not Hemingway and Plath) but also be capable of writing about it. The first of these five finger exercises, presumably framed in homage to Andre Gide, 56 Water St (after Andre Gide's Marshlands), deals in a love triangle against a setting of the well off and the well educated American elite, at home quite literally in the world - north America, south America, Europe. The Cubicles (after Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Custom-House') deals with day to day working life for one of those mysterious (to me) west coast companies that sprang up as the internet boom gathered resonance. Goldenchain (after Inoue's 'Obasute') deals with the end of a marriage, marked by a trip to an island in Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, a setting familiar to me. A Guide to San Francisco (after Nabokov's 'A Guide to Berlin'); Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems (after Landolfi's 'Dialogue of the Greater Systems') is a Borges-like story that mirrors the conceptual theme underlying the collection, a meta-commentary on the whole damn messy business of living the examined life as per the prescription. I commend this collection to anyone with half a brain who needs reminding.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The initials 'W H'

An incident occurred during my visit to Kent last week that could have been the fatal turning point (think Hardy; E M Forster) in a certain kind of novel. An old friend has been instrumental in re-starting a school well known because in a former incarnation it was attended by Princess Di: West Heath. It now specialises in children with special needs of all different kinds. Daisy, my mother's neighbour's daughter, attends a school with the same initials: Walthamstow Hall. My elderly mother made the (understandable at age 94) slip of telling us that the child had just started at West Heath with the obvious potential for misunderstandings and awkwardness. Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated to 'Mr W H', which of course is just an odd coincidence. I am trudging through the last 18 pages of To the River by Olivia Laing. I heard her reading a passage from the book at Traquair last month, and discussing it with James Runcie who runs the Bath Book Festival. Why 'trudging'? It is a beautiful book, both physically and the way it is written.Laing walks the course of the river Ouse in Sussex, from its source in a puddle to the sea. As she goes - she is in no great hurry; she is collecting herself at the end of a long relationship, - she describes what she sees and what she feels, and (being a literary lady) recalls Eng. Lit at every turn. At the end of the book, every chapter carries a long list of other books and writers evoked, from Auden to Woolf. There are passages about fossils and dyes made from whelk shells, Sussex dialect and folklore. It is exactly the sort of book I can just about imagine myself having written, and I suppose that is the trouble. You can sort of see the joins. The walk in itself isn't spectacular: in fact, it is almost laughably unchallenging, starting and ending only a couple of hours from home. The situation - sadly - not unfamiliar. A relationship has run out of steam, after long enough (10 years) to make a big hole in life. If I were starting a book group, I would suggest that everyone read this and W G Sebald's Rings of Saturn to compare and contrast. Two books about taking a therapeutic walk, but Ah! the contrast is between eating a cream tea with strawberry jam and oysters with a glass of Sancerre. I am reading, have read and will re-read before commenting further on: what we were doing and where we were going by Damion Searls, a young American author and translator who I met at a W G Sebald weekend in January.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A Bad Dream

Last night, or more probably, early this morning I had a horrible dream. I was in a London black cab which was being driven erratically. There were two other passengers, a child and a man in his 30's. I got out and saw the cab drive through some security tape and off the road into deep murky water. The shape of the child - a boy of about 7 or 8 - floated eventually to the surface, and I managed to pull him out. The scene then switched to a rambling well-furnished building, someone else's home, where I was trying to make a telephone call, surrounded by indifferent people apparently unaware of my plight. I was trying to make contact with the bank to explain that everything - my mobile phone, my diary, my wallet with my credit cards, my house keys etc - were at the bottom of the dock. I know other people's dreams are tedious but I wonder if this kind of anxiety surfaced because of the current flood of 9/11 memories. The event that changed everything. I had an appointment at my dentist in London that day. I walked in through the front door and found everyone: the two dentists and their staff, nurses and secretary, standing in the small room immediately to the right off the entrance hall. They were watching a small television in silence. One of them beckoned to me to look. I saw the second plane crash into the south tower. The scene continued. Small confetti-like shapes were falling from the towers. I said: Oh my God. Those are people. The commentary said that it was thought that one hi-jacked plane was heading for London. One of the partners said to me: go home, and if I were you, leave London. I went back out onto the street in a daze and got a cab home, where my elder daughter and husband were unaware of what was happening. We watched the TV pictures together, and eventually decided that to leave London was unnecessary. By then it may have been clear that all four hi-jacked planes were accounted for. By a terrible and strange coincidence, the very next time I was on my way to the dentist again, walking up the King's Rd on 7/7 I saw a small crowd clustered round the window of a Bang and Olufson TV shop watching the bombings on the London underground and a double decker bus unfold. My cousin Mary's elder daughter Jackie lives on the lower west side of Manhattan. She had just left her daughter Anastasia at nursery when the first plane hit. She ran back to collect her and they got home before the towers collapsed, but their apartment was filled with dust. I was in NYC last month for a family wedding, and it struck me that no-one had mentioned the anniversary. But it changed our lives. And I changed my dentist.

Alec Guiness and Me

The premier of the new movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Gary Oldman as Smiley, but - more to the point - Colin Firth as the baddie, brings back memories. In 1979, I let my house in Paultons Square, Chelsea to the BBC to allow a bedroom scene for the John le Carre spy series to be filmed. Alec Guiness sat in my office chair on the ground floor at the back of the house and in my garden in between takes. The 'bedroom' was in fact my first floor drawing room - the bedroom on the floor above wasn't big enough to accommodate Alec, the director and the camera crew. I thought of that yesterday as I walked down Bywater St where Smiley was supposed to live - there are shots of him and others going in and out of one of the front doors in the original BBCTV version. Some months later, as the series was being aired, there was a piece in the London Evening Standard, commenting on how life imitates art, when I became engaged to my second husband who worked for MI5. Some years later, we came to know David Cornwell aka John le Carre because of a chance remark I made at an official lunch in Moscow. Our Russian host suddenly proposed to my husband, whose job was to organise cultural exchanges between the UK and the then USSR that he stage a tribute to 'the patriot, Kim Philby'. I was inspired to butt in and say 'Yes! And you could do the same for the patriot Oleg Penkovsky (who had just been shot by the Russians for spying for us)'. We told this anecdote to our ambassador before we left, and he said that he had just received a letter from John le Carre/David Cornwell, with whom he had done National Service, asking if a visit could be arranged now that his security status allowed him to be in Russia. The research David C/John le C conducted as a result became 'the Russia House' with its setting of the Moscow Book Fair and publishers.

Pasternak and me

I heard about the publication of Dr Zhivago in 1958 as soon as it came out, and bought a copy. Being only 14, I did not really understand any of it, but I had heard of the book and the exciting and scandalous circumstances - how the manuscript was smuggled out of Russia, and the author as a result was in the doghouse with the Russian government - because I had just started studying Russian. I had just been sent from England to school on the Lake of Geneva near Montreux, where the school chaplain John Findlow was also the vicar of the English church at Territet, and was married to Irina, who was Russian. She had been born in St Petersburg where her grandfather was adviser to the Tsar on forestry, and her father was an artist. The family had lost everything at the Revolution in 1917, and moved to Estonia, and Irina had come to England as a penniless teenager to work as a skivvy. She and John had met through the auspices of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, an organisation which sought a rapprochment between the eastern and western churches. Many years later, in the 1990's I revisited Dr Zhivago in the course of writing a play about the murder of the Russian priest Alexander Men based on a rehearsal of T.S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. I became interested in a colour, lilac, which you will remember is the colour associated with the mysterious little old lady who passes Zhivago as he lies dying on a pavement, unnoticed by passersby. The Lilac Fairy in the Tchaikovsky ballet Sleeping Beauty commutes the sentence of death to sleep, and of course lilac features in 'April is the cruellest month...'. It was not until I studied at the Institute of Orthodox Studies at Cambridge that it dawned on me to what extent Zhivago is imbued with Christian language, metaphor and symbolism. To take just one example: the name of the protagonist,' Zhivago', is the routine Old Church Slavonic qualifier - 'living' - with the word for God, used in every church service . The work of a translator is really an impossible one in that sense - unless, like Nabokov (who was living at the Palace Hotel in Montreux while I was at school) you fill three of four volumes with footnotes, the fourth being the original text (in Nabokov's case, Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin). I came to know people who had known Pasternak while he was living in Peredelkino, the writers and artists village outside Moscow. One of them rather like the mysterious passerby in lilac was Fr Alexander Men's literary secretary, helping to type manuscripts and research references. During a long interview, at which she presented me with a copy of her memoirs, she told me that she used to smuggle pieces of the consecrated bread which is left at the back of Russian churches after the eucharist for parishioners to take for invalids unable to attend from the church, to Pasternak during his last illness. Pasternak is Russian for parsnip.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Invisible Translator

The Writer's Almanac records: It was on this day in 1958 that the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, was published in English by the Italian firm of Feltrinelli, in a hurried translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari (ER). Doctor Zhivago is set during the Russian Revolution and World War I, and it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his love for a woman named Lara. Pasternak worked on his novel for decades, and finished it in 1956. He submitted the book for publication, but although Pasternak was a famous writer by then, his manuscript was rejected --the publishers explained that Doctor Zhivago was not in line with the spirit of the revolution, too concerned with individualism. An Italian journalist visited Pasternak at his country house and convinced the novelist to let him smuggle a copy of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak is said to have declared as he handed over the manuscript: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!" He was not executed, but when the upcoming publication was announced in Italy, Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to send Feltrinelli telegrams insisting that he halt publication of the novel. One of them said: "I have come to the profound conviction that what I wrote cannot be regarded as a finished work," and in another Pasternak called his novel "in need of serious improvement." But Feltrinelli was not fooled, and continued with publication. Soon enough, Feltrinelli received a private, scribbled note from Pasternak begging him to continue. Pasternak wrote: "I wrote the novel to be published and read. That remains my only wish." Feltrinelli published Doctor Zhivago, and helped get it published all over the world. The Soviet Union's attempts to stop its publication only made it more interesting to readers. When it was first published in Italy in November of 1957, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out within the first day. Doctor Zhivago was published in the United States on this day in 1958, and even though it wasn't published until September, it was the best-selling book of 1958. It quickly became a bestseller in 24 languages. Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1958, and when he first head of the award, he sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy that said: "Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." Two days later, Soviet authorities forced him to write again, this time to say he would refuse the prize. Pasternak died two years later, in 1960, and Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. Doctor Zhivago begins: "On they went, singing 'Rest Eternal,' and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths, and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: 'Who is being buried?'--'Zhivago,' they were told.--'Oh, I see. That's what it is.'--'It isn't him. It's his wife.'--'Well, it comes to the same thing. May her soul rest in peace. It's a fine funeral.'

There was no mention of the translators of Dr Zhivago in the Writer's Almanac's otherwise praiseworthy original account posted online today - I added their names. Quite coincidentally, yesterday evening I received the following round robin from Robert Chandler:

'Many of you will know that the BBC is about to do a long dramatisation of Vasily Grossman's LIFE AND FATE. This is based on my translation of the novel. This is a dramatization, not a reading, and therefore it does not use only the words of my translation. Nevertheless, most episodes use a large number of my words, and at least one - The Last Letter - uses few, if any, words indeed that are not mine. If you read through this press release, you will find credit duly given to directors, producers, dramatizers, actors, composers and players of music. There are no prizes for guessing who is not mentioned: the invisible translator.

Some of you will have noticed that this seemingly wilful ignoring of the role of translators is a part of the culture of the BBC. If you listen to a translated novel on the programme "Book at Bedtime", the translator is usually credited after, on average, one in five episodes - whereas both reader and adaptor will be mentioned after each episode. And it is the same with all too many programmes. Nowadays no respectable newspaper or journal treats translators in such a cavalier manner. Why the BBC behaves in this way I do not know - but I think it is important that we do what we can to change things. I'll be very grateful to everyone who can write a brief letter of complaint. Here is an email address: ' (message from Robert Chandler ends)

If you visit the Boris Pasternak entry on Wikipedia you will see that Pasternak himself was a translator, and cared passionately about this highly skilled art. Having translated and co-translated several non-fiction books myself from Russian, I know how hard it is. Incidentally, the English subtitles in the film The Hedgehog (Le Herisson) that I reviewed in my blog yesterday were a laughably inaccurate rendition of what was being said in French in the movie.

The Hedgehog

I went to see Le Herisson (The Hedgehog) yesterday (Sat Sept 3) at the Cine Lumiere, which is part of the Institut Francais next to the Lycee in South Kensington. The film is based on a novel which the friend I went with, who herself lived in France for some years, says she heard serialised on the radio. It is a fairy tale set in a mansion block in a smart Paris arrondisement, and records the parallel lives of an 11 year old girl, Paloma, who lives in one of the flats with her family - her politician father, neurotic self-obsessed mother and annoying older sister - ,and the concierge who keeps an extensive secret library in her modest ground floor apartment. An unexpected romance develops with a new resident, a wealthy Japanese widower, who also befriends Paloma and events unfold which lead to the death of one of the protagonists ( I don't want to spoil the plot). It is the sort of film only the French seem able to make, an observation of the way ordinary human lives intertwine and relationships develop, and in this case, a salutary reminder that life can come to an unexpected end, therefore no time should be wasted. One of the cinema goers was 100 years of age, a fact she revealed to my friend, who has a painful inflammation of her hip, as they both chose to go up in the lift rather than use the stairs. I had spent the previous day (Friday Sept 2) in Kent with another old friend: first, at lunch with my mother - who is herself a remarkable 94 years old -, at her house, which my friend last visited 47 years ago when we were all students, then for tea with neighbours ,who I have also known all my life, who farm hops in the Darenth valley. It was an idyllic summer's afternoon, the end of a perfect summer day, the sort that will linger in the memory, as we sat together in a beautiful garden by the river, three generations (I was with my daughter Elly and her youngest, Olly), some who have known each other for nearly 70 years.