Review: The Dressmaker – mischief and mayhem

‘The Dressmaker,’ a novel  by Rosalie Ham, was recommended to me by a writer who knows what she’s about. It is out on film at the moment starring Kate Winslet and it really doesn’t look like my thing. Set in Australia, the novel’s strapline reads ‘an unforgettable tale of love and hate and haute couture.’

I dislike sewing immensely: to me, it is a micro-product of our patriarchal history, keeping women bent over and myopic, fiddling with something in close vision, darning and mending and preventing them from looking out into the wide world. Of course, I also blame the sewing teacher at school who irritated and bullied me so much I stuck a pin through my finger and bled all over my bias binding in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to be thrown out of the class and sent to the much more sympathetic and stimulating Art teacher.

I was wrong about ‘The Dressmaker’ too. I am not particularly interested in romances and poor-girl-gets-a-hero stories, and the cover with Kate in fashionable glory with wide brimmed hat and gritty gaze suggests that the genre may be romance and the usual fare of girl struggles with prejudice and unfairness, then gets her man and all ends happily.

But not this novel!

I found in Rosalie Ham a kindred spirit; in fact, some of the literary devices and ideas I have used in my own novel appear very successfully in hers.

The setting is fascinating and real; I have never been to Australia but it’s scents and sights seep from the pages. Ham’s language is evocative and exciting.

At first, we are introduced to the locals and they are caricatures. I struggled with this a bit initially; my failing, not Rosalie Ham’s, as I was trying to accommodate and remember an outback town full of characters, many of them objectionable and obtuse.

However, I am so glad I read past the initial crowding of characters. The protagonist, Tilly Dunnage, has an interesting history, as does her mother, Mad Molly. No spoilers from me, as usual, you’ll find it much more exciting reading it for yourself.

The setting, style and characters are impressive. But what Rosalie Ham does best is a quality I really admire in a writer: she understands mischief and writes it intuitively. The characters she has created often  deserve a little playful derision and Ham excels here, whether it is Lesley’s toupée lying like a scrotum on the ground after he has fainted or Trudy’s fly-blown afterbirth on the posh carpet. Ham has a real sense of humour and she is capable of sharing the infectious belly chuckles with her reader.

But the book is not just a comedy, hence the strapline. The haute couture is Tilly’s talent and the townspeople hate her, apart from Teddy. Then the story weaves and lurches at a breakneck pace and the unexpected becomes the norm, with the good characters quickly gaining the reader’s admiration and the crazy ones becoming antagonists.

I like unpredictability in a novel and ‘The Dressmaker’ satisfies.Strong writing, fascinating characters, twists and turns in the story and an atmospheric and credible setting, it is a good read and defies the genre of romance to become a well-written tale of more complex human relationships. However, the sense of mischief sets it apart from others; I wonder how well the iconoclasm will transpose into the film? It has Hugo Weaving in it, so I can imagine it is effective and a fair interpretation.

I can imagine the film being entertaining and fast moving, but the novel is richly written and packed with fun. Read it first!

Football- what is there not to like?

I have two wonderful friends who both hate football. They hate it with a vengeance. They are both brilliant musicians – I am not sure if that is a relevant factor – as if, in some way, being a specific kind of underpaid genius is a fair reason which justifies their sustained disdain for all things football.

Friend one is a classical pianist and to hear him play his beautiful music makes you want to cry or laugh or both (Even Lionel Messi doesn’t do that!).

He says of football: ‘I don’t really see the point. They’re overpaid and it’s boring.’

Friend two is a virtuoso bassist who has played with the best and, for all his talent, he lives on a minimum wage. Music is a passion and a lifestyle but it doesn’t bring in the pennies. He says of football. ‘I hate it. I just fucking hate it.’

I had a friend, many years ago, with whom I used to go to watch the home games. He would leave a blood trail if our team lost; he’d punch a wall and his fist would bleed as he walked away sobbing. In bars at night he’d smash glasses and lose his temper and threaten to hit people, simply because a player hadn’t performed well or scored. You can see why we’re no longer friends. (In his defence, he was a great guy, sober – full of fun. But what a tragedy, a lifestyle of misery or happiness, based on the lottery which is a football result!)

I could go on and on about why I love football. To me it is like theatre- the curtain goes up, the whistle blows, the intrigue develops. There are goodies and baddies, highs and lows, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. There are injustices and tragedies- there are comedies and just desserts, then an interval and you come back again for another 45 minutes until the cathartic 90th minute, plus extra time, when the climax is achieved and you know for sure whether you have watched a comedy of errors or a revenger’s tragedy.

There are the evil enemies and those players we respect – there are the martyrs, the buffoons, the casualties, the knights errant and the heroes. And it’s only for 90 minutes and then you start to plan for the next game, seek out the next fixture, analyse the stats so that you can hope for a run of form on the next Saturday match day. There is the transfer market – we might buy a hero who will score for us, or solve the hole in our defence. We might lose our super sexy striker, although I live in hope that Sturridge will stay and one day Suarez will come back. If love is the drug, then it’s love of the beautiful game which keeps us hooked and waiting avidly for the next score.

I even quote Camus a lot to justify my love of football, but not to the two friends I mentioned at the beginning. I don’t mention football at all to them. But Albert Camus said:

‘Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.’

Of course, Camus meant women too. And he’s right. Loyalty, camaraderie, courage, collaboration, winning, losing, desire, daring to hope, breaking the rules. Oh, those golden moments: Stevie G being sent off against Manchester United forty-seven seconds after he was brought on; recently returned Sturridge setting the team up to blast six goals against Villa. Then there was that memorable night in Istanbul… stuff that dreams are made on!

I have another friend who tells me that I like football so that I can look at the men’s legs. She so doesn’t understand. They aren’t men! They are combatants, athletes, warriors, protagonists, mascots, movers and martyrs. Actors in the sublime soap opera around which I plan my social life. I can’t go out for a Mother’s Day lunch on March 6th as we have a televised fixture at two o’clock!

Last Thursday, I watched the Europa game against Augsburg. I made every excuse in the fans’ book for the lacklustre performance: it’s very cold, we haven’t warmed up yet, so-and-so is still recovering from injury; we’ll be better in the second half, after Jurgen Klopp gives them hell at half time.

Yes, the game was certainly no classic; the players were somnambulant, so they were obviously saving themselves for the replay at Anfield this evening when there will be a corker of a match in front of home fans. Or they were holding something back because there will be a glut of goals – all ours – on Sunday in the cup final against City.

You see, there is this other thing about football fans like me. We are crazed optimists, believers in fate; we invest in the future; we live for happier times when goals will shower like sugar candy and we will bask in the sunshine glory of victory after victory. We are passive, hopeful fools who spend our entire lives BIRGing, (Basking in reflected glory – of others’ achievements).

So perhaps there is something to be admired, if not emulated, in the words of my two musician friends. They live in a world where they do not have the luxury of being overpaid for inconsistent or dull performances. They bash out brilliance for small change on a weekly basis and they are glad for the remuneration and a little recognition. Adulation isn’t a part of it. Yes, my muso friends, I concede – you are both right.

But on Thursday evening, I will hope for that great game in which we will battle well and emerge victorious; on Sunday I will be glued for goals, my eyes fixed fast on plasma.

So, to my talented friends who hate football, I urge you to look down for a moment from the heights of your unacknowledged  but unswerving genius, and spare a bit of pity for those of us who cannot hope to possess such skills in our fingertips as you have displayed with ease and enthusiasm for an entire lifetime.

The rest of us have turned our heads the wrong way; we look down at the feet, or at least the boots, of temporary, short lived, inconsistent, briefly flickering stars. We live in hope of the unlikely twist of fate: we thirst for that thrill which will probably not happen, at least not this season: perhaps we might buy a new team in the summer,  but for now, we can only stand and watch and worry and wait!

Punch and Judy politics? Send them to the naughty step!

During Jeremy Corbyn’s response to David Cameron setting out his position on Europe and the upcoming referendum yesterday, the leader of the opposition was prevented from delivering his opinion due to some lengthy heckling, including the interruption of ‘Who are you?’ implying that leaders of other socialist parties in Europe didn’t know who he is.

This came from the Tory benches, and was greeted by fits of laughter and cheers and jeers amongst Tory MPs, and even wry smiles could be seen on the faces of Andy Burnham and Angela Eagle, the shadow ministers sitting either side of Mr Corbyn.

Some of Mr Corbyn’s critics have a partial explanation for this. He was interrupted because Jez is unelectable and no threat to the Tories. The logic goes: people don’t respect him, he isn’t a viable leader, and there is little or no comeuppance for the Tories enjoying their pantomime in parliament if there is no credible opposition ready to replace them as a government. Therefore the Tories are bound to heckle him.

While Corbyn is far from being a perfect leader, and his and Labour’s polls have looked pretty gruesome over the past few months, that’s not how I see it. Free speech should be a given right and it is certainly given to all speakers in the House of Commons. It is difficult to have any respect for the hecklers and their football chant, which is designed to make an individual look insignificant, therefore giving them dubious superiority.

There are rules in football grounds which govern fans’ behaviour: insidious hissing at Tottenham, throwing coins at West Brom players, racist chants: it’s all abuse and if fans are seen on camera, then quite rightly they lose their place in the ground and their chance to watch the games is taken away. After all, if they can’t behave acceptably, they have no right to be there.

In a primary school, bullying would not be allowed and gang bullying would certainly be frowned upon. Bullies would be dealt with and all pupils would be clear about standards of acceptable behaviour within the culture of the school. Kids who bully are singled out by the teachers, spoken to, sent home: in the cases of repeated bullying, they are told to look elsewhere.

Why, then, is it acceptable to heckle in the House of Commons? There should be standards in place: if I am to have any respect for the people who are elected to run the country, then they should be able to demonstrate acceptable behaviour at work, doing their job, representing us.

The hecklers should have received their marching orders. They could – perhaps – be fined a week’s pay for their behaviour? I have no respect for these people, their way of conducting themselves in a debate, or their politics of oneupmanship, bullying and boorishness. Corbyn has the right to speak without interruption: not only because he is the elected Labour leader and an MP, but because he is a human being.

The bullies were even at it again later when the eminently more popular BoJo stepped up to the plate to speak about Europe. Again the heckling: someone even shouted ‘Tuck your shirt in.’

Politicians are experienced, qualified and important people: they are lawyers, historians, journalists, economists, public servants: they have a legacy of responsibility to their constituents, to the nation, and this also involves an implicit code of behaviour which shouldn’t include abuse, mob rule and mooing like cows.

It is wrong that our leaders should demonstrate behaviour that would not be tolerated in any other workplace. It is time they were called to account. The rules need to be updated so that their example becomes one of intellectual responsibility and decorum.

They should lead from the top! Just imagine if the rest of us were to follow their example. Imagine doctors shrieking at each other during operations, or zero hours contract supermarket assistants singing ‘Who are you?’ at their colleagues?

It ought to be risible, but the elected leaders of our country should surely have more respect for the gravitas of their role. Bawling and name-calling doesn’t belong in the hallowed halls of high politics. Those who chant abuse and name call should be sent out to stand in the corner, or they should be shown the red card and given a ban or a fine. They have a lesson to learn about having higher expectations of themselves and focusing on who they are serving, and it should not be primarily their own egos.

‘The Program’ – blood bags, syringes and sleuth.

I watched ‘The Program’, the biopic of Lance Armstrong’s exploits, which deals with his fight against cancer and his decision to take performance enhancing drugs in order to become a Tour de France winner.

The film relates the story of Armstrong, from his early days of being a competitive young rider, through his battle with cancer, to his tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey on live TV. The story is shown from the perspective of journalist David Walsh, on whose book ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ the film is based. Walsh suspected Armstrong’s success was due to his use of banned substances, and ‘The Program’ is largely about his hunt for evidence. We all know the story: at first, cycling has its hero in Armstrong, the champion of seven consecutive Tours de France and the legend of the Livestrong Foundation campaign, supporting people with cancer. Walsh’s accusations ended in a court battle from which Armstrong emerged victorious and ranks closed, until individuals found themselves in a position where they had to tell the truth and Armstrong’s status fell from champion to cheat.

The film deals quite openly with the doping in cycling and we understand the younger inexperienced Armstrong’s  competitive desire as he reaches an epiphany, having lost a hard race, and he realises he must make a career decision based on pure scientific data: he will not win based on his merits alone, and he is faced with the choice of  remaining a noble competitor or having science on his side in the shape of EPO and testosterone or HGH, and becoming a winner.

Armstrong embarks on a programme of drugs and a powerful propulsion to seven titles and world-wide admiration.

If you are looking for a film which tells the viewer how to feel about Armstrong, showing his background and character in depth, then this film will not be satisfying. We see hardly anything of his courtship, his wife, his family. His relationship with Sheryl Crow is not mentioned. When we see him at home, he is alone, with only his framed yellow jerseys for company. This highlights the solitude of his performance as a cyclist, his blinkered dedication and how he was teetering on the brink of detection, avoiding it craftily for so long.

Ben Foster plays it exactly how it is: Armstrong is a doper on a bike, infected with a desire to win. There isn’t much else to him at this stage in his life: hunger for victory consumes him and, if he cheated the world, he cheated with conviction. We see him inside his team caravan, needles in his arm, needles ready and primed in trainers before the race, used needles hidden inside drinks cans and then disposed of in bins: the plot and the strategies were well planned and slickly executed. We see delaying tactics so that he could pass off blood samples to avoid detection and we see him practising for press conferences in the mirror, smiling, modulating his voice: ‘I have never used performance enhancing drugs.’

We see Armstrong’s bravery and his humanity as he sinks into a wheelchair after cancer treatment and there is a tender moment when, much later, he visits Jack, a cancer sufferer, and offers him his time: we know Armstrong understands the boy’s situation exactly.

Armstrong is nothing more than a talented athlete consumed with hunger to be the best. It is clear from this film why substances were used widely by cyclists: it was the only way to win; victory is a cyclist’s raison d’être, and the film portrays this perfectly.The film is, if anything, about cyclists’ mentality: their dedication, their desire and their blind single-mindedness, without which they would not ever be a valid competitor.

Ben Foster dabbled with such substances himself in order to prepare for the role, and his performance is honest and informed. He does not hold back – Armstrong is created with sweat and lies, dilated pupils and controversy – but there is a humanity to the character. As Foster says ‘That’s what Lance did – he went to war with his body. That shifts your consciousness.’

This isn’t a romantic film or a moving film: it is, at times, more of a documentary and it hits hard. Much of the footage is genuine and there is a priceless and moving  moment where we hear Phil Liggett commentating on the Tour de France television programme, praising Armstrong with superlatives and refuting the existence of doping in the sport.

This is a film for people who know and love cycling. They will admire Foster’s performance and Armstrong’s situation will strike a chord, however they feel about banned substances.

It is a film for people who know nothing about cycling, but who are intrigued by the doping scandal, how it unfolded and how Armstrong rose to the heights of hero then descended to the depths of villainy, and what desire, instincts and convictions compelled him, what chances and risks he took, and what sacrifices he made. Those who are interested in a journalist’s battle to tell the truth against the background of media adulation will find the film captivating in its realism.

For those who want a rounded story, well told, with a nicely finished ending, this may not be the film for you, but ‘The Program’ carries with it some good performances and some interesting thoughts about competition and the desire to be the best, the cost and the pain, and the inevitable Paradise Lost.

All about the cheese.

I used to blog about food: in particular, I used to blog vegan recipes. Apparently, veganism is a bit of a trend at the moment: Beyoncé has given it a whirl and famous full-time vegans include Joaquin Phoenix, Alec Baldwin and Prince, Natalie Portman, Grace Slick and Morrissey.

I’ve been a vegan for years – difficult to tell how long as I have never wilfully eaten meat, although I was a wilful child when confronted with it. I grew up with pheasants hanging in the kitchen, and I was regularly confronted with the feather flying, gut pulling, nauseating down burning routine which followed until the meat arrived on my plate, punctured with little hard bits of shot. It didn’t go down well.

I came from a meat eating family: my mother made a great potato pie with the scrag ends of meat; my Dad brought home pheasants and rabbits: my grandmother baked hedgehogs in clay. My being a vegan is a something of a disappointment.

I am a quieter vegan nowadays: I invite people to eat single meals without meat and enjoy the cooking rather than shout slogans about animal abuse. Of course, I respect all life and don’t eat, wear or use any animal produce, but I also respect free will.

I have lots of friends who aren’t vegans but enjoy vegan food and the thing I hear most frequently is ‘I’ couldn’t be vegan: I could give up meat but I love cheese too much.’

creamy cheese with herbs

Cheese is ubiquitous on the table: cheeses with wine, cheeses with fruit or cheese board with biscuits: goat’s cheese, sheep’s cheese, hard cheese, garlic cheese, Pont L’Eveque, Haloumi, Brebis, Gruyère, Boursin, Mozzarella. A cheese lover relishes such cheeses to cook with, to savour, to share, and most vegan cheeses are ok, some are even quite pleasant, but your average French gourmand would turn up a wrinkled nose and say something like ‘caoutchouc’ or ‘merde.’

I have spent a few months working out how to make my own vegan cheese and the results are surprisingly good. I can make a reasonable cheddar, with herbs and beer too, and a passable boursin, a fairly nice emmental, gruyère, brie, mozzarella. It’s protein-packed, as one of the main ingredients is soaked cashews, which are then ground in a strong blender.

The vital ingredient, however, is a stinky water called rejuvelac, which makes the cheese taste tangy and works along with carrageenan and other ingredients to make a flavour and texture which resembles dairy cheese.

Rejuvelac is made by soaking a grain – I use quinoa – in water and washing it out daily, keeping it somewhere warm, until the grain sprouts. The ensuing water is then left for a few days until it goes cloudy, then it can be kept in the fridge for two weeks to make cheese.

Cheddar with beer

Vegan home made cheese keeps for a couple of weeks in the fridge and it freezes well too, so I always have some basic cheese on hand to make pies and quiches, macaroni cheese, lasagne, sauces, or even to serve on the cheese board. Even better, when I try out these cheeses on friends who think they are gastronomic experts, they like them and say they are a plausible replacement. Of course, I haven’t sourced a sumptuous stilton yet, but my brie is pretty rock and roll.

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Gruyere cheese





Slade House – David Mitchell. Come in and feel the noise!

I have just read David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’. It took me a day and I didn’t put it down. What a clever book! Again, no spoilers from me for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but there is a scarily  weird place, Slade House, where things happen and have happened in the past, which the reader visits with readily suspended disbelief and held breath.We are propelled from one terrorised protagonist to the next with car-crash speed, but the journey is breath takingly enjoyable.

The novel is short: it is composed of five stories or novellas, set in different time periods, nine years apart. Slade House is a mysterious place, a huge mansion down a dark alley, accessed by an iron gate, and its residents are fascinating twins Norah and Jonah who lure their prey into the house with scary results.

David Mitchell is the master of the ability to show the reader every detail of a character without telling. His first narrator, Nathan, is a teenager who is obviously on the autistic spectrum and is charming and delightfully funny, although Mitchell allows the reader to discern the character’s individuality through anecdotes, such as tales of his teacher/ enabler getting him to practise reading people’s expressions, or his examples of semantic/ pragmatic errors, such as the brilliant story: ‘Our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter.’

In true ‘Psycho’ style, Mitchell builds up an intriguing hero and then disposes of him, and the reader doesn’t know whether Nathan has taken too much of his mother’s valium or if something horrendous has happened to him, but we are led to suspect the latter.

The second narrator, CID Gordon, is not so likeable. He is sexist, racist, a bit of a player and a manipulator, but the character is evoked without obvious exposition: details are filtered cleverly through action, dialogue and description, and the plot rolls forward as we wonder why Norah and Jonah seem to be still active as ghosts in Slade House and they frighten him witless when he is there ostensibly on a hot date.

Each novella develops the story’s intrigue and propels us through the possibilities, until the final climax in which they merge and there is an exciting conclusion.

I enjoyed the clever twists of this story and the way each novella’s character was plausible, written vividly and very quickly established with depth and idiosyncrasy. While the narrator is becoming a credible part of the reader’s experience, the parallel story of Norah and Jonah is tantalisingly present, but no solutions about them are made clear, so that the reader is constantly looking for clues and signals.

Mitchell makes it apparent to us that the twins are evil in nature, malevolent and capable of soul- sucking slaughter. Moments such as when we see Nathan’s portrait on the wall, in which he appears dressed in a bow tie and with facial blemishes, exactly as he was on that day, but with his eyes missing, are powerful symbols which hook the reader into the storyline and make us hang on for the next moment of suspense.

Mitchell writes well; his characters are captivating, his dialogue witty and his language exactly perfect. There is a small section where Nathan is in Rhodesia with his father, and the colours and characters are perfectly evoked and we are there with him; although he has taken valium, and we are never sure what is real and what is distorted, and Mitchell continues this brilliant confusion for the reader until the last section, leading us by the nose round twisting, turning, unexpected corners.

Vampires and ghosts have been done to death! Most writers, myself included, have dabbled in writing the supernatural dirt, evoking atmospheres bulging with haints, dybbuks, mulo, monsters, spirits and psychics. It’s fun to write but not always fun to read, unless the writer has the ability to create the credible and enable the reader to invest in outcomes.

Mitchell keeps us prickling with gooseflesh and all the time he is having fun with ‘Slade House’: he doesn’t expect us to take it seriously, but he is a slick dude of a writer who can mix in jokes about tropes, throw in some farce and a bit of spine tingling horror, and what emerges is a spell of magical reading which is a gift of pure enjoyment and impressive stylistic skill.

As readers, we are safe in Mitchell’s hands, we are safe within the genre but we are not safe in the sinister Slade House. His prose sings spells from the pages and we laugh, we cringe and we shiver. It is a skilful book and one which shocks and which entertains. ‘Slade House’  is a genre-bending horror tale and one I enjoyed more than I thought I could . Superb writing!

Europe – to be in or not to be in? That is the question.

Everyone is talking about Europe at the moment and , in particular, the referendum in June (probably). We will all be asked to decide on whether we want to stay in the European Union or not, and there are many voices out there, in the media, telling us what we should think. Most of these voices are politicians, journalists, businesspeople and a few celebrities, and most of their arguments are based on an emotional response to issues like immigration, sovereignty and the abstract notion of ‘Britishness’.

The truth is, I don’t know much at all about the real issues involved here. How many of us do? Who can truly explain the difference between the ECJ and ECHR? I know they stand for European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights, but that’s about it. And who knows the difference between Donald Tusk and José Manuel Barroso? One is the president of the European Commission and the other the President of the European Council: but not that way round. And what about the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers? How do they all affect us here in the UK? And what proportion of the voting population can hazard a guess at any of that without resorting to Wikipedia?

Perhaps we aren’t very well informed on European hierarchy and administration. Perhaps many people don’t want to be: perhaps the bottom line, which governs the in or out vote, is the judgement we make in the next few months about how it will all affect our lives. Perhaps that is why many of us will vote with our instinct rather than our logic, and our votes in June will, for many of us, be based on what we think we think, and not what we know to be factually true.

There are a lot of scaremongers out there who are pedalling the usual fears about Britain being marginalised and weakened within the European community. We would have leaders whom we didn’t know, whose names we might not even be able to pronounce, as opposed to those with whom we are familiar: Cameron, Osborne, May, Gove, Hunt. It is suggested that we shouldn’t trust all those European people we don’t know anything about: we are encouraged to believe that we will be so much safer with the aforementioned list of politicians whom we can rely on because we ‘know’ them. With what is currently happening in Britain in terms of austerity, the refugee crisis, the Junior Doctors’ crisis, that particular argument isn’t really working for me.

Europe isn’t perfect, what with the monetary problems in Greece, the rising right in France, Sweden, Holland: places I have always admired for their libertarian, people-centred politics. However, I consider myself European as well as British; Europe is expansive, there are many cultures, many languages, many different landscapes. What is there in Europe not to admire, not to want to become a part of, rather than retreating into insularity? Can we not be bigger, better, reciprocal and more influential in the EU rather than out?

Let’s examine the issues, briefly, which I think constitute the in/out argument in a nutshell. They are globalisation, climate change, the prospect of international co-operation and the old favourite, immigration.

There are as many British nationals living overseas as there are immigrants in the UK, and I am so pleased that the thousands of Europeans who support our ailing health service are here, not to mention the other industries so many people work for so tirelessly. I also admire Yvette Cooper’s stance on the issue of refugees, demanding a humanitarian solution and offering leadership within the EU : ‘A quota system across the EU is not right, but there has to be a coordinated plan across different European countries. Historically in big European crises Britain has provided leadership.’

Many people have been encouraged to develop fears about immigrants, that somehow their presence in Britain will mean that they receive benefits of housing and employment or financial support which is somehow otherwise reserved just for British citizens. I don’t see this as a realistic equation. The whole topic of immigration may well be one we share responsibility to solve and, to that end, it is better to resolve it as part of the EU.

Increased international economic integration, or globalisation, is a central issue for many people in terms of the in/ out vote. EU firms receive better opportunities in new and expanding markets and sources of finance and technology, and consumers can access a larger variety of goods at lower prices. This offers potentially significant gains if we are in the EU, with higher levels of productivity and  wages.However, many British people worry about the potential for job losses and lower wages or poorer working conditions.Again, perhaps we need to be in it to influence and change the economic situation to benefit our workers in Britain.Exactly the same is true of climate change: it is a huge concern for all of us, and we can only make things better with a concerted European effort based on a widespread agreed action plan, generated expansively.

It is the possibility of effective international cooperation which makes staying in the EU a rational argument: the idea that Britain can be part of a bigger group and have some influence, perhaps we could even offer strong leadership within the union, making the most of the potential for collaborative research, invention and innovation which could exist across the European community and benefit us all.

A slightly separate point about a possible result of the UK leaving the EU is that it might mean there’s no UK at all. Scottish Nationalists, still enjoying electoral hegemony and likely to extend it in May, would use a British exit from the EU to demand another referendum, one which -under such circumstances – they might well be likely to win. Are ardent Eurosceptics really willing to risk Great Britain fragmenting in order to break away from the European Union?

Gordon Brown, whom I admire for many things, including his his succinct comment that ‘we spend more on cows than the poor,’ said it perfectly in his article in The Guardian when he warned ‘leaving Europe to join the world is really the North Korea option, out in the cold with few friends, no influence, little new trade and even less new investment.

I stand with Gordon on this one. My vote will be a ‘Remain’ vote and I will end this article with a couple of interesting quotations from current political figures who have expressed  views on European membership:

From Nick Clegg: ‘The UK is not going to leave the European Union. Of course not. We are inextricably wound up with Europe. In terms of culture, history and geography, we are a European nation.’

From David Cameron: ‘After the Berlin Wall came down I visited that city and I will never forget it. The abandoned checkpoints. The sense of excitement about the future. The knowledge that a great continent was coming together. Healing those wounds of our history is the central story of the European Union.’

From John Hutton, former Defence Secretary : ‘Effective regulation at the European Union level can make a massive contribution to achieving our shared goals of improving competitiveness, jobs and growth.’

Inside Europe we can be part of something powerful: out of the EU, we might turn into Little Britain.

Writer’s Block? No way! But is this even worse?

I’ve never had Writer’s Block. Instead, a more sinister affliction has taken hold.

I know many writers who claim to have had ‘Writer’s Block’. They sit at the computer and stare at the screen and mutter ‘Oh, what can I write?’

A day goes by and ideas don’t arrive, and they go for a walk in the fertile English countryside, the wild and windy moors, the wide open spaces which create wide open spaces in the mind, in the creative centre behind the eyes. Still nothing comes. They are back at the computer again and try really hard, and in two hours they have written two sentences, maybe less. I believe this is how Writer’s Block goes. It must be horrible, but apparently the block or blanket of darkness or whatever it is which prevents the writer from writing lifts eventually and our trusty author is back on track, creating killer phrases.

I have never had Writer’s Block. I have the opposite problem: what could we call it? Writer’s… effluence? Give me an idea – any idea – my mind is full of them- and I can sit down and bang out 2000 words of something in an hour or so which, left to simmer and returned to later, can be edited or used as a good starting point. It is not difficult or unusual for me to have several projects on the go at one point. Take right now. My word page is an Aga of ideas, with seven tabs bubbling away. There’s a poem, there are three short stories, a research page and two early novel ideas, both of which are about 5000 words long.

I have a case of Writer’s bleak.

No, Writer’s block isn’t my problem. But I have just encountered a new problem of my own, which I will need to rectify. Let’s call it Writer’s bleak. Yes, that’s it: I have a case of Writer’s bleak.

Let’s make a hypothesis. The yo-yo goes up, comes down, but can be jerked up again. The sun shines, then it rains, it’s windy, it freezes a bit then the snowdrops and crocuses come out and the sun shines again and spring is here. In other words, a life philosophy might suggest that after the bad comes the good: you have to have the negative to realise the positive. So, that being the case, a bit of Writer’s bleak will lead to more cheery writing soon.

I think I should explain Writer’s bleak first. This week, I was asked to write a short story which included a conversation between people of different age groups. I wrote one in which a mother spoke to an unborn child before a miscarriage. I thought that was too bleak, so I wrote another in which drowned children spoke to their dying mother. Bleak. One of my novel ideas is about abuse of women: the other deals with neglect and anger. Bleaker and bleaker. I wrote a short story which had to be about food and I ended up writing about the holocaust and the fact that no grass grew in Auschwitz for the starving inmates to eat. Bleakest. It appears that, whatever I write at the moment, it’s not very nice.

I know I have had critics in this area before. I wrote a story about Cinderella after the fairy tale ends and explained how empty her marriage had become. A fellow writer called it ‘horrible’: another said it was ‘Carter-esque’ (which is an incredible compliment!). It was good enough to be published.

Another story dealt with a young man’s bitter hatred for his mother; another dealt with a boy who was in love with his abusive teacher. Both published. Both bleak!

I wake at night excited by new ideas: maybe that’s the problem. Maybe my ideas need to arrive in the day time, when I am walking with gambolling lambs, riding a horse, strolling on the beach, hugging the cat. Maybe then I can get rid of my bleak writing habit?

Perhaps people revel in the bleak, in the Schadenfreude safe place which the reader occupies. It is always difficult to talk about the ‘reader’. I know a talented writer who creates brilliant pornography: he is the master of it, not only in his shocking ideas but also in the clever way he writes it. To be fair to him, he can write anything, but I have seen the detritus created by the right genre read by the wrong reader. I have two friends who write fantasy and YA: I marvel at their skills, but they both have the capacity to be a little dark. Dickens was bleak. Hardy was bleak. Bronte was bleak. Beckett was bleak. Orwell- Orwell !– was bleak. So why am I beating myself up about my bleakness?

My novel, ‘Older, Wiser, Wilder’, the first one, the one which is completed and out there for representation, is not bleak. It is uplifting, a celebration, a demand for recognition and for life to be lived, to be enjoyed and for chances to be taken. The pages are packed with humour, mischief, a bit of third age iconoclasm. Not much bleakness: even when there is tragedy, the novel bursts with new optimism. So what has happened to me? Why am I so bloody bleak? I am a happy person: I am annoyingly positive, I exercise every day, do yoga, meditate, run around in nature like a Pantheist. I am a Master Reiki healer. Why so bleak in my writing, then?

Maybe there is a market for bleak? The Bleak Market.

Perhaps it is the darkness of winter which brings out the bleak in me? Perhaps as the sun shines and the earth warms, I will lose my Writer’s bleak and start to write about love, joy, success, fluffy bunnies? Perhaps my field of vision will widen and I will see beyond the death and despair which clogs my current writing.

Or maybe I should just go with it. Maybe there is a market for bleak? The Bleak Market.

Or perhaps I should simply stop worrying about it and get on with my writing. There will always be good stuff, better stuff, and stuff which is best filed away for later. I am lucky to be prolific: I have never had writer’s block.

I think that’s the answer. Just keep on writing, whatever. It’s all just another stage in the turning pages of a writer’s life.

I’d welcome other’s views on the subject but, for now, bleak is beautiful.

Probably the best food I ever tasted…

Picture this: there we all were, in the middle of a country in West Africa. It was the end of the day on a beach, a superb sunset and four of us looking for food. We were an Iraqi pleasure seeker, a ravenous omnivore, a Buddhist from Burma and, the difficult one, as always, me, the vegan. There were so many places we might not eat and be compatible. Last night, our Iraqi friend sang Frank Sinatra’s My Way in a sleazy club; the night before, the Burmese brainy one beat everyone in a general knowledge quiz in a hotel pub somewhere we could not remember by the next day. I was happy to eat vegetable yassa or some rice or beans or just fruit and vegetables. Then we stumbled on Ali’s Cafe  at a crossroads in the middle of a dusty town.

Ali’s looked like a 1970s fish-n-chip café, all formica tables and cracked ceramic tiles and a cold floor and one of those blue fierce electric things on the wall which zaps bugs. There was no-one else in there, at least, no-one visible to the eye. Ali beamed and showed us to a table, brought out a bottle of Lebanese wine and said ‘A meal with no meat? No problem.’

I had no idea what was to follow, as I expected – and I would have been delighted with – a plate of hummus and bread and a bit of a salad. However, Ali turned out to be the best host in the world and a blindingly brilliant cook.

When the food came out, there were cheeses for the others, soft white goat’s cheese and creamy soft cheese topped with oil and zaatar and pastries filled with cheese and pine nuts and all sorts. But it was not one of those meals which I often find myself confronted with, where it’s all about me having to question and then avoid most of the stuff on the table. At Ali’s, I was spoilt for choice. Baked pastries with spinach and nuts and vegetables, delicious vegetables and nuts rolled in vine leaves, baba ganoush, pickled vegetables, salads such as fattouch, olives, tabbouleh, dips, sauces, fried potatoes, fried pastries, aubergine dishes, okra dishes, rices. Oh, and hummus and flatbreads. And falafel, mutabbel, mujaddara, makdous, fuul, toum, batata harra, roasted nuts.

Of course, then there was the fabulous coffee- I seldom drink coffee but this sweet black coffee was an exception – and the others nibbled honey-soaked baklava. The meal lasted for three hours – the food didn’t stop, and we ate slowly, with pauses between dishes – and of course this meant that the conversation flowed from philosophy to politics to literature and then degenerated totally to shared laughter and shared good memories.

I cook Lebanese or Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food a lot at home. Lebanese wine and the coffee are favourites too. I seek out good restaurants such as Mashawi in Exeter and Kilis just off Upper Street in Islington where the food is exceptional and the service friendly. I have great memories of both of those places; in particular, two of us were in Kilis waiting for two more people who were detained in traffic for an hour and we drank some good Lebanese wine and were uselessly happy for the rest of the meal. Good food, good company, good conversation shared. Good times.

It’s interesting how much of our culture is based on food. Family meals, sharing, celebrating. Meals at home and out with friends. No wonder Cesar Chavez said, ‘If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.’

You don’t have to eat a lot, or drink too much. But there’s an old Irish proverb: ‘Laughter is brightest in the place where food is.’ And given their history, our Irish foreparents should probably know best.


Three books I wish I had written…

This is a blog post I may return to again and again: there are lots of books I wish I had written and today I will discuss three of them. By ‘books I wish I had written,’ I don’t mean simply that I enjoyed the book or even that I admire the narrative style and the characters. Of course, these things are true but what I really mean is that the subject matter is so engaging that I wish I had thought of it first and the impact of the novel is so powerful that has changed something within me either while I was reading it or, afterwards, I was somehow affected and altered in how I saw the world.

The first book is Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, which I read while I was working in Israel. It is, without doubt, the most frightening book I have read and it was so gripping that I used to crawl under the duvet with a torch at night and read it into the early hours and shiver with fear. It deals with slavery and with ‘haints’ or ghosts, two subjects which resonate with me strongly. The main character, Sethe, is vulnerable as a mother and the story emanates from decisions she has made about her children when she is faced with threats against their lives. Morrison is not afraid to challenge the reader with either her storyline or her language, and when Beloved returns, we ask ourselves if the character is a sad consequence of Sethe’s actions or whether there is something  demonic and dangerous about her. The way Beloved comes back to the house and how she is first discovered, and how she changes subsequently, and the effect on the others in the house, is breathtaking.

The mother-daughter relationship and the psychological implications of slavery and oppression are themes which will always fascinate me. However, it is Morrison’s gift with words and the credible and tangible horror which she develops  render the book memorable. I couldn’t put it down although I was shaking as I read it. ‘Beloved’ is a superb example of how a novel opens with a gripping scene and keeps the reader in a tight grasp of tension throughout.

The second book is ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ by John Irving. This book was as funny as Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ is terrifying and I read it while recovering from a sporting injury. I was lying in bed having torn a muscle in my back and the book made me laugh so hard that I cried with the pain but I still couldn’t stop reading. The ‘Jesus child’ scene where Owen appears as the baby Jesus in a Nativity play is uproarious and I will never forget it.

The story is narrated by John and he is Owen’s friend, so he is best placed to comment upon Owen’s development and his belief that he has a connection with God. As The Ghost of a Christmas Yet to Come in a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’, Owen claims to see his full name and the date of his death on Scrooge’s grave stone.

Despite its criticisms of organised religion, the book is very spiritual and it is cleverly constructed, interweaving three different stories of past John, present John, and Owen’s life. It is about war, friendship, religion and loss and Irving’s ‘repetitive plot’ motif makes for a rigorous ordered plot which actually did make a hard-boiled reader like me both laugh out loud and cry. Sublime.

Another book I admire greatly is Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ which I will watch as a film soon, but the book was impressive by itself  for its concept, its protagonist, its clever style and its fast-paced empathic storyline. It is a story about a five year old boy, Jack, the narrator, who has known nothing but captivity as he has spent his life imprisoned with his mother in a room. His captor, Old Nick, gives them food and basic necessities. Jack’s mother was kidnapped when she was nineteen and Jack is the result of his mother’s rape by Old Nick.

Jack knows nothing outside his life in the room and his mother tries to keep them both healthy and alive by a series of mental and physical exercises and daily routine. Then she plans an escape and the rest of the storyline deals with the trauma which follows. Donoghue’s idea came to her after reading about five year old Felix in the Fritzl case in 2008. The early scenes between Jack and his mother, and the reader’s slow realisation of the horror of their situation, makes gripping reading.

The 2015 film, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is currently stunning audiences, but the book is a wonderful example of using an unusual narrator and, as life in the room and the subsequent action are seen through the eyes of Jack, a unique tale unfolds. Donohue is clever in her ability to show us nothing more than the child would know or perceive, allowing us to fill in the spaces, the practical details and then we supply the awe and emotion which must follow. A triumph of an idea, superbly written.

There will be three more books to follow; already I can think of another three, plus three, plus three, superb works of fiction which I wish I had written. Please do let me have any feedback.