Cook Quick tips from the 1950s

P1010820 (557x800)There’s something fascinating about period cookery books – I posted about my late mum’s Fanny Craddock books before, but whilst playing with my books the other day, I found another old cookbook – The Daily Telegraph Prize-winning Readers’ Recipes (with cook quick illustrations).

There’s no date of publication, but it contains ‘Cook Quick’ methods from the newspaper which appeared from 1949. Also it has my mum’s maiden name in so must be pre-1954.

I love the red rabbit jelly with chopped lime jelly grass on the front cover. We had one of those jelly-moulds and I remember my mum doing those for our birthday parties in the 1960s.

The recipes themselves are the usual homestyle mix you’d expect from a early 1950s cookbook, but it’s the ‘Cook Quick’ illustrations that fascinated me flicking through this book. They are a wonderful mix of the obvious, the time-savers we no longer need, and just occasionally – that just might come in useful tips,  like this one below:P1010822 (800x640)

It brings to mind that maths puzzle where you have 3 and 5 litre jugs, and have to measure out 4 litres (answer at the bottom).

At the top of some of the pages are further tips.

Have ingredients ready: Weigh Accurately.

Once mixed, put cake in oven quickly.

Those were in the cakes chapter.  Then there was this cook quick tip …

P1010821 (800x600)

This is a tip that Masterchef contestants might find useful to try – they seem to be good at curdling their creme brulées.  I don’t know if it works though.  I’ve always added a splash of warm water and re-beaten to try uncurdling a cake mixture.

I also liked a tip for lifting bottles and jam-jars from a sterilising pan – just put each one into a cotton flour bag – “these bags prevent the bottles touching one another and facilitate their reoval from steriliser.”  If only I had some flour bags!

Finally on the very last page – how you can earn a ‘Cook Quick Guinea’:

Reading about time-saving cooking hints in this book, you may have been reminded of one which you yourself have invented.
If it is accepted as suitable it will be photographed by The Daily Telegraph and published on the Woman’s Page, and you will receive a guinea prize.

I’m afraid I can’t offer a guinea, or any money incentive, but if you have any Cook Quick tips of your own you’d like to share, please do …

* * * * *

Answer to maths problem: Fill the 5l.   Fill the 3l from the 5l, leaving 2l in the 5l. Discard the contents of 3l.  Pour the 2l from 5l into 3l.   Re-fill the 5l and fill the 3l jug which already has 2l in from it – it’ll take 1l, leaving 4l in the 5l jug.


“The extraordinary happens every day”

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Having wept like a baby during reading Ness’s last crossover novel, A Monster Calls (my review here) – a story about a young boy coming to terms with love, death and grief, and incorporating magical elements and fables, The Crane Wife – his first full adult novel seems a natural progression.

crane wifeThe Crane Wife is the story of George, a good man who inspires loyalty in those around him, but needs direction in his mid-life. One night he wakes to find an injured white crane in his garden. He breaks the arrow through its wing, rescuing it, and it flies away.

Amanda, George’s daughter is also struggling with life at the moment – she’s angry with everything and everyone, especially her boss Rachel – the only exceptions are her father and her young son JP.

George runs a print shop, assisted by Mehmet an out of work actor who is pretty useless but a good friend. George tends to leave the front of the shop to Mehmet so he can hide away in the back room where he makes pictures with cuttings from old books.

To take his blade and cut into the pages of a book felt like such a taboo, such a transgression against everything he held dea, George still half-expected them to bleed every time he did it.
He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He’d never really warmed to e-books because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer fies were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no emails from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book?

When the mysterious Kumiko, an artist, appears at his print shop dressed in white, they start dating. She appears to be the answer to all that is missing in his life. What’s more, his paper cutting complements her intricate collages made from feathers. Put together onto one tile, their art attracts attention – and buyers.

George has never been happier, yet the arrival of Kumiko on the scene does complicate life for all around him.  She is an enigma, George knows nothing about her, he just accepts her for what she is…

Interwoven into the contemporary story is that of an old Japanese folk tale re-told by Ness, about an unlikely love story between a crane and a volcano. This parallel narrative worked well, Ness having found an entirely natural way to work it into the main story through Kumiko’s art; she is recreating the story in her tiles, now with added cuttings from George worked into them.

 ‘… A story needs to be told. A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’
‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.
‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story – ‘
‘And explain it-‘
‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flowers. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely would.’

I love stories in which authors make magic a natural extension of life. I thought that Ness achieved this here with ease, weaving in the Japanese folk tale with the extraordinary real events.

He also made George and Amanda easy to love. Amanda in particular, is one those characters you can easily empathise with – we’ve all been there at different times in our lives. Her pent-up anger at her lot, keeps spilling over and alienating those around her – her husband left her, she has few if any friends, and a very sparky relationship with her work colleagues, it’s a good thing she has George and JP. George meanwhile is so good, he needs his edges rubbing off.  Kumiko is harder to fathom, but she is the cypher through whom the others will work out their problems.

Once again, Ness tugged at my heart-strings and although there are some light-hearted moments, I read large parts of the novel with a tear in my eye, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous.  (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, pub April 2013, Canongate hardback or trade paperback, 305 pages.

An experiment in greed

This is my second post for Simon’s tribute to his late Gran – Greene for Gran.

Last week I reviewed England Made Me, an early novel from 1935, which I hadn’t read before. This week, my second is Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party, one of his later books published in 1980, a re-read for me.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party

doctor fischer

This is a short novel, of only 143 pages in my Penguin edition, but it is one of Greene’s keenest satires – a portrait of greed, and how greed begets more greed.

Alfred Jones is an English widower in his fifties. He lost one of his hands during the Blitz, his wife died in childbirth years before. He now works as a translator in Vevey, Switzerland for a chocolate company – echoing that oft-misquoted line from The Third Man:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Note – no ‘chocolate’.  However, Vevey, near the eastern end of Lake Geneva is where the HQ of Nestlé is (I always associate them with Dairy Crunch chocolate bars, but in reality they are a huge food company, Nescafe etc.).  But back to the book…

One day, Jones bumps into a young lady in a café, and they strike up an immediate friendship which very soon deepens into love.  Anna-Luise is the daughter of Swiss toothpaste magnate Doctor Fischer (of Geneva), her mother disappeared, presumed dead.  Alfred and Anna-Luise decide to live together and will marry, but Alfred is keen to get her father’s approval.

‘I’d better go and see him.’
He might set the police looking for you.’
‘They wouldn’t look very hard,’ she said. ‘I’m above the age of consent. We haven’t committed a crime.’
But all the same I wasn’t sure that I had not committed one – a man with only one hand, who was well past fifty, who wrote letters all day about chocolates and who had induced a girl who wasn’t yet twenty-one to live with him: not a legal crime of course, but a crime in the eyes of the father. ‘If you really want to go,’ she said, ‘go, but be careful. Please be careful.’
‘Is he so dangerous?’
‘He’s hell,’ she said.

The first of many references to Fischer as the devil or Satan.  Fischer eventually meets Jones, but doesn’t bother to come to their wedding.

Fischer’s so-called friends meanwhile are called the ‘Toads’ by Anna-Luise, a term that Jones adopts enthusiastically.  They’re all rich in their own right, an alcoholic film actor, a retired general, an international lawyer, a tax adviser and an American widow.  Fischer is infamous for his secret parties which the Toads all go to, soon enough an invitation arrives for Jones – Anna-Luise is distinctly not invited. Jones isn’t sure what to do. ‘The approaching menace of Doctor Fischer’s party had come between us by that time and it filled out silences.‘  They come to an agreement that Alfred should try one party, and that he needn’t stay.

Jones arrives to find the Toads already there…

‘I always insist,’ Doctor Fischer said, ‘at my little parties that everybody enjoys himself.’
‘They are a riot,’ Mrs Montgomery said, ‘a riot.’

They go on to tell Jones about the prizes.

All we have to do is just put up with his little whims,’ Mrs Montgomery explained, ‘and then he distributes the prizes. There was one evening – can you believe it? – he served up live lobsters with bowls of boiling water. We had to catch and cook our own. One lobster nipped the General’s finger.’
‘I bear the scar still,’ Divisionnaire Kreuger complained.

The Toads continue to discuss the prizes, and Fischer reminds them that if they contradict him, they will lose their prizes. Then it is time for dinner to start, and I won’t spoil the fun by describing what happens except that Jones refuses to take part saying ‘I have something of more value than your present waiting for me at home.‘  Eventually Fischer tells Jones what his parties are all about.

… I want to discover, Jones, if the greed of our rich friends has any limit. If there’s a “Thus and no further.” If a day will come when they’ll refuse to earn their presents. Their greed certainly isn’t limited by pride. You can see that for yourself tonight. Mr Kips, like Herr Krupp, would have sat down happily to eat with Hitler in expectation of favours, whatever was placed before him. …

We’re not even halfway through the book, and Fischer’s mind-games with his so-called friends know no bounds, nor his callous disregard for his daughter.  Soon tragedy intervenes, and again Fischer is noted by his absence. When an invitation arrives for Jones to attend his final party the ‘bomb party’ of the novels subtitle, he feels he has nothing to lose…

This is Greene at his funny-grotesque best, but of course underlying the near-gallows humour is a story full of sadness. He comments on the human condition through the nasty deadly sin of avarice, contrasting the haves with the have nots. Fischer has truly become a monster, seeing himself as God playing dice, whereas to everyone else he’s more the devil – ultimately trying to tempt Jones as Jesus in the desert. It is full of the most delicious dialogue, but do remember this is a tragicomedy.

The one odd thing that struck me was that it didn’t feel as if it was set in the 1980s, more like the 1950s say. It’s only the occasional references of modern accoutrements like dishwashers, the pill and credit cards that remind you when it was written, and somehow they seem like anachronisms, when they’re not!

Re-reading this short novel has confirmed it in my mind as one of my favourite Greenes.  (9/10)

Doctor Fischer (1984, BBC)

The novel was adapted for a TV movie by the BBC in 1984 which starred James Mason (above) in his last ever performance as Fischer, with Alan Bates and Greta Scacchi as Jones and Anna-Luise. Sadly, it’s not available on DVD, and it’s years since I’ve seen it on the telly, here’s hoping that they’ll show it again some day.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dr Fischer Of Genevaby Graham Greene, Vintage paperback.

Things I’ve (re)learned from kittens …

Do you realise it’s well over ten days since I updated you about our kittens!

The most important thing I’ve (re)learned, (well I did have cats before), to paraphrase the tagline from Field of Dreams is …

If you clean it, they will come.

I’m referring to their litter tray of course. They are prodigious poo-ers as I said before, and are costing us a fortune in cat litter.

They’ll be going for their second set of jabs and micro-chipping next week, and we have to keep them in for a further week after that for the jabs to do their work. Then we’ll be buying kitten harnesses and my daughter will show them the garden in a controlled way for a bit, before we work out the next steps.

Above is Ginny looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth – which leads me to another thing I’ve learned…

If you leave it out, they’ll eat/lick/bite/sit on it.

Yes – they like to help with washing up! Buttery knives from my breakfast toast or this lunchtime’s bowl with basil and tomato pasta sauce residues get licked clean. A bread crust left in the little bowl where I leave used teabags for the composting bin got eaten too. They did try a teabag, but learned their lesson there! A plastic straw also got well-chewed. Their favourite found things though are the scrunched up brown paper that comes as filler in parcels, and florist’s raffia which I was saving.


Here is Harry – actually in flop mode with his front legs over the edge of the sofa. He is the sweetest little thing, very purry and cuddly, and although not a long cat he has broadened out, having been very tiny when we got him.  He has a lovely spotty tum and is quite amenable to having it tickled (unlike Ginny, who will bite rather than have her tum stroked).  Ginny is going to be a long thin cat, and obviously has a little bit of an oriental shorthair cat in her due to her head shape and nose-break when you look at her in profile.

The final thing I’ve learned is:

Cats like the high ground

In general, shoulders are better than laps, the back of my reading chair is a great pouncing/leaping position (Ginny), curtains are for climbing (Harry, although he’s not made it far up yet before being removed), and sneaking upstairs and running along the bannister is fun (Ginny).

The only exception to the height being good rule is that beds – if you can get into a bedroom, are for hiding under!

Our bedrooms are strictly verboten, as it turns out that Juliet is slightly allergic to the kittens.  She wasn’t allergic at all to our old cats, but with the kittens, she does get a bit wheezy after a lot of exposure.  Keeping her bedroom kitten-free and having an inhaler and piriton to hand is sorting it out largely, plus a lot more vacuuming/cleaning than I’m used to!  It appears that a lot of people are more allergic to kittens than cats – ongoing exposure can lead to desensitisation, and of course they’re 100% indoors at the mo.  Also it may have been triggered because we had a six year gap between having cats.  So cross your fingers for us on that front – any advice that doesn’t involve getting rid of carpets etc (can’t afford it) will be appreciated.

I’ll be back with another kitten update in a couple of weeks after they’ve had their first outside experiences.

Gone Girl meets The Secret History – not quite, but a good try

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight


When a novel sets itself up on the front cover to be compared to Gone Girl (my review here), and in other places I’ve seen it compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, it raises the bar rather high…

Kate is a hard-working lawyer and single mum to teenage daughter Amelia, who appears to have been doing alright at her posh Brooklyn high school, despite her workaholic mum’s absences, and not knowing who her father is. When she is at home, Kate tries really hard and she and Amelia have a good relationship but, as she will find out, she has no idea at all of what’s going on in her daughter’s life, until one tragic day.

On that day, Kate is about to start one of the biggest presentations of her career, when she gets a call from her daughter’s school.  Amelia, the hard-studying, academic, over-achieving student has been suspended for plagiarising an essay about Virginia Woolf, and Kate is required to collect her pronto.  By the time Kate arrives, having got delayed in the subway, Amelia is dead.  They say she jumped off the school roof.

It’s not until a couple of months later that Kate is together enough to question things, and when she receives an anonymous text that matches her own instincts – Amelia didn’t jump, she persuades the police to reopen the investigation. Gradually Kate, and Detective Lew Thompson will piece together what happened, as layer upon layer of secrets and lies are exposed. No-one, it seems, is squeaky clean – teachers, parents, pupils, friends, or colleagues, and the school is awash with teenagers exploring their sexuality, secret clubs and bullying.

The story mainly alternates between Kate and Amelia’s voices through flashbacks. Kate’s chapters are mostly in the present as she investigates her daughter’s life. Her past sections are from 1997, when she as a promising young lawyer got pregnant. Amelia’s chapters are all from the months preceding her death, and they include her text messages and Facebook statuses. The only times we don’t hear from Kate or Amelia are blog posts from the school’s anonymously authored scandal sheet.

I predicted the key ending early on, but other developments were less telegraphed, and there were some genuine surprises.  Although Kate was being put through the wringer with everything that happened, and for a mother losing a child is such a tragedy, I found Kate’s need for validation that she wasn’t really a bad mother a little tiring.  I was more interested in Amelia’s story and finding out the identities of secret texters and bloggers.

Despite the book being based around a high school, there is too much sex and swearing to recommend this as a YA novel, but it should appeal to slightly older New Adult readers.  I enjoyed it too, but it’s not in the same league as those other two page-turners I mentioned back at the top. (7/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight, Simon & Schuster paperback 2013, 380 pages.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Books in Bath and a French Farce

Yesterday my daughter and I went to Bath, it’s only an hour and a half from us, and the delights of the city are many. Yesterday was all about shopping, dining and theatre – we’ve done the heritage bit on previous visits.  We arrived in time for lunch (Nandos), then got stuck into shopping…

One of the key shops to visit was Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, a rather wonderful and well stocked bookshop, where I indulged a little of course, buying Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version, and an American import paperback Smonk, by Tom Franklin – a western that’s been on my wishlist for ages.

Dinnner was at Jamie’s Italian in Milsom Place, which is one of those posh little arcades of eateries and design shops.

Then our evening entertainment was at the Theatre Royal, a small but lovely theatre which has a formidable reputation for staging pre-West End runs of plays with top actors. Our mid-stalls seats turned out to be about the best in the house…


The play we went to see was A Little Hotel on the Side by Georges Feydeau, adapted by John Mortimer (of Rumpole fame). Feydeau was a prolific author in the Belle Époque era, and was famed for his farces.

This was not the first Feydeau/Mortimer farce I’ve been to. Back in 1989, I saw a production of A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic starring Jim Broadbent. It was hilarious. Flea, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece, was written in 1907 and involves: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments amongst its plot elements.

Feydeau HotelHotel, meanwhile which was written in 1894 is about: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments.  OK, they’re standard farce ingredients – just shuffle them about!

It’s about two couples, the Pinglets, and the Paillardins.  Mr Pinglet (Mr P), a builder, is rather hen-pecked by his domineering wife – he calls her the ‘hornet’, whereas Madame Paillardin feels ignored by her architect husband. Mr P and Mme Paillardin decide to have an affair and as Mr Paillardin will be away on business and Mme Pinglet is going to visit her sister, they set up their assignation at the Free Trade Hotel.  Before all this is to happen, Mathieu, a ‘friend’ of the Pinglets from their holiday turns up hoping to stay with them, and having brought his four daughters with him. Mathieu has a stutter, but only when it rains (loads of scope for f, f, fu, fu*, functioning type laughs there).

Needless to say, with his brood unwelcome at the Pinglets, they decamp to the hotel, where the Paillardin’s nephew Maxime is also planning to lose his virginity with the Pinglet’s maid, and Mr Paillardin has been legitimately hired to investigate poltergeists and ghosts.  So everyone, except Mme Pinglet, is in the same place at the same time. Mathieu and his girls are mistakenly given the same room as Mr Paillardin, who sees the girls in their nightdresses as ghosts and runs away.   There is much door-slamming – and Mr P and Mme Paillardin never manage to get a kiss before the police arrive on a raid and a lively chase ensues. Caught, Mr P says his name is Mr Paillardin, and Mme Paillardin gives her name as Mme Pinglet to the police. Mr P pays FFr5000 bail.

The next day, we’re back at the Pinglet’s house, and Mme Pinglet arrives back from her trip in a real state – her carriage’s horse had bolted and she ended up in a ditch. She declares her love for Mr P, saying ‘You nearly lost me!’ – only nearly he thinks.  Then a writ comes from the police for Mme P saying she must confirm her identity, and similarly one arrives for Mr Paillardin – of course neither were there at the time – how will this all be resolved?

An all-star cast was led by Richard McCabe, fresh from his Olivier award opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience, and maybe familiar on TV as one of Ken Branagh’s Wallander crew.

CCF20082013_00000 (800x550)

In the late 1980s McCabe was at the RSC, and I will forever remember him as Puck in John Caird’s 1989 punky tutus and bovver boots staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (far right, with John Carlisle as Oberon).

Now in his early fifties, he made a wonderfully fleshy Mr P. His comic timing, facial contortions and asides to the audience were brilliant.  He was aided by Hannah Waddingham (whom we last saw as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz), was his toweringly tall and overbearing wife – a very scary woman!  Robert Portal and Natalie Walter played the Paillardins, he all brusque, she suitably histrionic, Tom Edden was manic as the stuttering Mathieu and, in what is little more than an extended cameo, Richard Wilson (familiar to many as Victor Meldrew in TV’s One Foot in the Grave), was the rather downbeat seen-it-all-before hotel manager.

It had some hilarious moments of slapstick and double-entendre, and everything happened at breakneck pace, yet there was something slightly not quite right about the ending, which was a little sudden.  I wasn’t sure that everything had been resolved satisfactorily – but that was deliberate on Feydeau’s part commenting on the Parisian upper classes habits of bending the rules to fit themselves apparently.

All in all this was a really fun performance in a great little theatre. We had a good time and it made a change from the unaffordable West End at less than half the price, and we were home before midnight.  A great day out.

Greene for Gran – “Something will turn up.”

I’m joining in Simon Savidge’s tribute to his late gran – Greene for Gran, reading one (or more) books by her favourite author during August. The first novel I’ve read is…

England Made Me by Graham Greene

england made me 2 I thought I’d read all of Greene’s novels, but I found one on my shelf that I hadn’t read before. It was amongst the books I inherited from my late mum, so was particularly appropriate. I had to make sure I had the right reading glasses on though, this traditional small format 1970 Penguin edition has tiny text.

England Made Me is one of his early novels, the sixth, and was published in 1935 when he was 31. It was republished with the title Shipwrecked in 1953.

A pre-war morality tale, it concerns twins, Anthony and Kate Farrant. Brother and sister are at first glance like chalk and cheese which makes for a good set-up.  Here’s the beginning …

She might have been waiting for her lover. For three quarters of an hour she had sat on the same high stool, half turned from the counter, watching the swing door. Behind her the ham sandwiches were piled under a glass dome, the urns gently steamed. As the door swung open, the smoke of engines silted in, grit on the skin and like copper on the tongue.

But it’s Anthony she’s waiting for. He eventually turns up, apologetic but unrepentant, and telling her the same old story:

‘I’ve resigned.’
But she had heard that tale too often; it had been the yearly fatal drumming in their father’s ears which helped to kill him. He had not been able to answer a telephone without anxiety – ‘I have resigned’, ‘I have resigned’, proudly as if it had been matter for congratulation – and afterwards the cables from the East tremblingly opened. ‘I have resigned’ from Shanghai, ‘I have resigned’ from Bangkok, ‘I have resigned’ from Aden, creeping remorselessly nearer. Their father had believed to the end the literal truth of those cables, signed even to relatives with faint grandiloquence in full, ‘Anthony Farrant’, But Kate had always known too much; to her these messages conveyed – ‘Sacked. I am sacked. Sacked.’

England made me 1

So we have the measure of Anthony, a waster and sponger, reliant on false brotherhood conferred by an old school tie which he is not entitled to wear; fired each time he is found out.

But what of Kate? She may despair of Anthony, but as his twin there is a very strong bond between them.  She’s an ex-pat too, however, she has a steady job as secretary – and lover, to Krogh, a Swedish financier and industrialist living and working in Stockholm.

Krogh is the epitome of the fat cat who has got rich by shady dealings – exploiting monopolies and insider trading, price fixing; all common practice to him. Greene apparently based him on a real Swedish magnate – Ivar Kreuger, whose empire was founded on matches.

Kate takes Anthony back to Stockholm with her, and gets him a job as Krogh’s bodyguard.  Krogh’s life is ruled by the attentions of the newspapers and paparazzi.  His every move is chronicled, he can’t go anywhere without it being reported and commented upon, especially by Minty, a down-at-heel journalist and perennial victim.

Farrant plays the middle game – sort of befriending Minty and Krogh.  He persuades Krogh, who habitually goes to the opera most nights, to come out of his shell a little, to escape the paparazzi and go to a club; he tells Minty he’ll get the exclusive when there’s a story.  Underneath it all, Farrant is a decent chap. Then one day Krogh asks him to do something which is against Anthony’s internal moral code – which way will he go?

A complication is added in the form of a girl for Anthony, Lucia, on holiday with her parents. Anthony falls for her and for perhaps the first time, Kate is worried about the possibility of her not being the number one female in his life. Being a twin, their bond has been so strong, she likens excision of it to be akin to an abortion!

This novel is truly murky on all fronts, including the autumnal mists of Stockholm as it prepares for the end of the season.  This is not one of Greene’s ‘entertainments’, it’s dark and serious and full of moral dilemmas. None of the characters are likeable, although Anthony has puppyish moments about him. Kate is too brittle and too involved, and Krogh is a tyrant. The seedy Minty has public interest at heart though, and helps Farrant with his decision.

england made me film posterGiven that it was published in 1935, I wondered why it had been set in famously neutral Sweden, it gave the whole rather an air of blandness, and the northern European setting is unusual for Greene.
The novel was filmed in the 1970s with Peter Finch as Krogh and Michael York as Farrant, but they relocated it to Nazi Germany, which I’m sure added a frisson of excitement – but maybe less shades of grey?

So, not my favourite Greene, but still a fascinating read with complex characters and some great descriptive moments. (7/10)

* * * * *
Source: Inherited copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
England Made Me : by Graham Greene, Vintage paperback.

“Let all the children boogie”

Tony Gardner as Brian in My Parents Are AliensOne of my daughter’s favourite programmes from the noughties was My Parents are Aliens which ran on Children’s ITV from 1999-2006. In it a pair of marooned Valuxians morph into humans and adopt three orphaned children in an attempt to fit in, and experience many funny things as they learn what it is to be human. It was surreal, a bit subversive, yet sentimental when needed, and there was always a moral human punchline. It was great children’s TV, and I found it fun too (until endless repeats dulled things for me). The versatile actor Tony Gardner was superb as Brian, and I couldn’t help thinking of him as I read Matt Haig’s new novel…

The Humans by Matt Haig

the-humans-lst111127 Professor Andrew Martin is a famous mathematician at Cambridge, and one night he solves the Riemann hypothesis – the greatest remaining riddle of prime numbers, and promptly disappears. He is found wandering naked and confused – and different. Everyone puts this down to a mental breakdown after working too hard. His amnesia means he doesn’t recognise his wife Imogen, his son Gulliver, or Newton their dog.

Andrew knows differently for he is a Vonnadorian. He has taken over the body of the Professor and his purpose is to make sure that his proof of the Riemann hypothesis never sees daylight, for it will lead to the destruction of the universe. This rather sinister motive adds a real dramatic drive to the novel, which contrasts and indeed will conflict with our erstwhile alien’s experiences at getting to know his family again.

The novel is written / narrated by the Professor as a guide to being a human and is full of insights into the human condition.  In the following extract, he reflects on being hospitalised in the psych wing after finally being aprehended, naked, on the lawns of Corpus Christi college…

Mad People
Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead.  But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So, we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.
Basically, the key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.

What is charming about the novel is seeing how he starts to build a new relationship with his wife, son and dog. It’s not all plain-sailing though, apart from having to get used to looking at humans, it soon becomes clear that all was not right in the Martin family. Fifteen year old Gulliver is alienated from him, and gets bullied as a result of his father’s new notoriety after the naked incident. Imogen although a good historian and author in her own right, has put her own life in second place for so many years, as the Professor’s single-minded pursuit of mathematics takes precedence.

‘You’re out of bed,’ said Isobel.
‘Yes,’ I said. To be a human is to state the obvious. Repeatedly, over and over, until the end of time.

‘Recovering’ at home, the Professor finds himself listening to music he’d never considered before, and reading poetry – particularly Emily Dickinson. These provoke an emotional response in him that the previous him would never have recognised. He also begins to get a life outside mathematics, to become human.  They go to the theatre and later discuss all the death in Hamlet …

‘Are you scared of death?’
She looked awkward. ‘Of course, I’m scared to death of death. I’m a lapsed Catholic. Death and guilt. That’s all I have.’ Catholicism, I discovered, was a type of Christianity for humans who like gold leaf, Latin and guilt.

This all makes it sounds very light-hearted and indeed there is much to chuckle about in this novel, however, it does have a very dark underside. This bittersweet tragicomedy will also bring a tear to your eye and a fervent desire for a satisfying ending.

As he proved in his novel The Last Family in England, (which I adored just pre-blog) which told of a family’s disintegration from the point of view of their dog, Haig is very good at making you laugh one minute, cry the next.  There is depth to his characters, yet he can make you look at them with wide-eyed innocence.  I’m a big fan, and I now want to go and read some Emily Dickinson too.

I can’t really do this lovely novel justice in a review.  I would urge you to read The Humans and hope that you’ll love it as much as I did. (10/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Humans by Matt Haig, Canongate Hardback, May 2013, 309 pages.

Title quote from Starman by David Bowie

P.S. Note to the publisher: I wish you hadn’t put the roundel with The Radleys TV Book Club winner on the hardback cover – it spoils it.  Also two major typos – p4: Holst not Holtz, and p100: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, or Bernstein’s recording of…  

Extra/Ordinary Stuff!

1000 Extra/ordinary Objects by Taschen

I have long admired German publisher Taschen’s affordable art and design books – I have quite a few in my library on favourite artists (Hopper, various Pop Artists, etc).

1000 objects

To celebrate their 25th anniversary, they produced a series of books, and 1000 Extra/Ordinary objects (note the slash) is one of them.  I found this in one of my local charity shops, and snapped it up.

It simply features 1000 objects clearly photographed against a white background, with a short descriptive text for each in English and German. But what a collection of objects!

They are divided into thematic chapters:  Food, Fashion, Animals, Body, Soul, and Leisure.  A short foreword by Peter Gabriel discusses our relationship with our stuff…

People like to surround themselves with objects – it’s part of our nature. It may be an anal instinct, but we like our stuff.
People are surrounded by their objects, whether they are useful, decorative, beautiful, ugly, common or rare, we can’t help but leave clues everywhere as to our identity. Clues about our culture, national identity, political ideology, religious affiliation and sexual inclinations, our objects reflect who we really are and who we want to be. …
We have made pictures of our ancestors from the things they have left behind. So it will be for the archaeologists of the future – by our objects you will know us.

I’ve picked a very small selection of objects to share with you below. The majority are even more interesting than these, but would be difficult to show here in isolation for all sorts of non-PC reasons…

P1010791 (480x640)P1010792 (480x640)P1010789 (640x480)P1010788 (640x480)

Food: (left) 3.7 million cans of this were sold in 1997 – the shapes include dolls, bows, necklaces, high-heels. There are all sorts of brain and designer foods in this section too.

Fashion: (right) A South African carry case for your AK-47, only available in black. Also featuring a variety of boots, pubic wigs, bottom enhancing pads etc. Very few conventional clothes!

Animals: (left)  US La Pooch perfume from 1987 was available in his (spicy) and her (musky) fragrances for your dog.

Body: (right) you can buy aerosols containing pure oxygen.  NB: Most of the objects in this section are sex-toys or body enhancements!  I did learn why condoms are called ‘French letters’ though (they were illegal in England at one time, and were sent inside letters from France – simples!)

P1010787 (640x480)

P1010786 (478x640)

Soul: (left) a Star of David slinky in national colours from the USA.  Also many plastic icons, prayer aids, and the cilicio (as worn by Silas in The Da Vinci Code, a device to make you feel uncomfortable).

Leisure: (right)  Now the war is over, you can buy engraved bullet cases in Sarajevo.  Also a Polish Lego model of a concentration camp, Philippino paper chains used as room separators made from ciggie packets.

All of human life is here – absurd, funny, fascinating – but nasty, gruesome and thought-provoking too.  None of these items are ordinary – those future archaeologists will have a field-day!

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
1000 Extraordinary Objects, Taschen (2000), Colors (2005). Currently o/p.

Actor, Lover, Soldier, Spy!

Waiting for Sunrise  by William Boyd

I was surprised to find that Waiting for Sunrise was the first novel by William Boyd that I’ve reviewed on the blog – I feel as if I know him better than I do, thanks to excellent TV adaptations of his books Restless and Any Human Heart in recent years, but I’ve only read two before: The New Confessions (which I really enjoyed), and Brazzaville Beach, both years ago. I am however looking forward to his forthcoming James Bond novel with great anticipation. But what of Waiting for Sunrise, which was our Book Group’s choice for discussion last week…

waiting-for-sunrise UK hardback

The novel opens in Vienna, 1913 – that year before the war when Freud was a veritable star in that city.  Alexander Rief, son of a noted British actor and Austrian mother has come to Vienna seeking treatment for a rather intimate complaint. He ends up in the waiting room of pschoanalyst Dr Bensimon, when a woman bursts in and jumps the queue.

‘And I’m Hettie, by the way,’ she said. ‘Hettie Bull,’ thrusting her hand out. Lysander shook it. She had a very firm grip.

Lysander is instantly smitten, and they will embark upon an affair, but she is a woman of complications and their acquaintance will have far-reaching consequences.

Meanwhile back at his genteel lodgings, Lysander is discovering more about Vienna’s dark underbelly from fellow lodger Wolfram who is serviced by the upright Frau K’s servant Traudl…

‘This place – this Pension Kriwanek – is just like Vienna. You have the world of Frau K on top. So nice and so pleasant, everybody smiling politely, nobody farting or picking their nose. But below the surface the river is flowering, dark and strong.’
‘What river?’
‘The river of sex.’

Hettie not only cures Lysander’s problems, but really dumps him in it when her jealous other lover ‘forces’ her to say Lysander raped her. He takes refuge in the British consulate, and in return for help in repatriation to England, agrees to become a spy for Munro, the scheming attaché.

waiting-for-sunrise UK paperback

Back in England, he goes to stay with his adventuring Uncle Hamo, who is in love with an African youth he has brought back to Blighty as his manservant. His engagement with actress Blanche broken off, and Lysander is in stasis over what to do. This problem is solved when it is made clear to him that he has a debt to the government, and that it can be repaid if he’ll do more spying now that the war has started.

Thus enlisted, he is tasked with finding out the source of leaks to the Germans. This will involve spy action in France and Geneva for Munro and his colleagues.

‘Why me?’
‘Because you’re completely unknown,’ Colonel Massinger said.
‘Geneva is like a cesspit of spies and informants, agents, couriers. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Any Englishman arriving in the city, whatever his cover story, is noted within minutes. Logged, investigated and, sooner or later, exposed.’
Lysander was fairly sure that his features remained impassive.
‘I’m English,’ he said, reasonably. ‘So surely the name thing will inevitably happen to me.’
‘No,’ Massinger said, showing his stained teeth in a faint smile. ‘Because you will have ceased to exist.’

His later investigations reveal a complex web of bluff and double-bluff, masked identities and problems rather too close to home for comfort. Added to this, Hettie turns up again – unrepentant and with revelations to impart; she is a piece of work!

This is a novel of two distinct halves – the first of psychology and sex in Vienna, the second of applied psychology and spying; there is a distinct difference in tone and pace.

They are linked however, by Lysander’s ‘Autobiographical Investigations‘. These first person chapters are taken from Lysander’s journals that he keeps for Dr Bensimon. They occur every few chapters throughout the novel, breaking up the main third person narrative.

‘I want you to start writing things down,’ Bensimon had said. ‘Dreams you have, fleeting thoughts, things you see and hear that intrigue you. Anything and everything. Stimulations of every kind – sexual or olfactory, auditory, sensual – anything at all. Bring these notes along to our consultations and read them out to me. Hold nothing back, however shocking, however banal. …’

Another theme in the first half is that of Bensimon’s theory of ‘parallelism’. A sort of cognitive behavioural therapy in which you imagine a parallel world in which you don’t have your problem. This and his other form of more physical therapy with Hettie seems to work on Lysander, ultimately enabling him to become a finisher in all senses of the word, a quality that will be needed once he takes up spying.

Boyd’s evocation of Vienna and the other locations is rich in period detail: geographical, what was in the news, clothes – all are described to give a strong visual picture of the novel’s settings. The supporting characters are also strong: the kindly Dr Bensimon, devil-may-care Hettie, mysterious spymaster Munro, lovelorn Hamo, just to mention a few. Lysander may have started off as a somewhat aimless young man, unsure what direction his life should take, but all his experiences as actor, lover, soldier, spy will, in one way or another be the making of him, allowing him to act whatever part is required.

Our book group for the most part enjoyed this book, finding it an engrossing read with enticing settings. We had good discussions about psychoanalysis, Freud, ids and whatnot too, and we all thought Hettie was an amoral chancer. The spy’s world is amoral too, but was shrouded in ambiguity making the actor Lysander perfect for the role. Waiting for sunrise is a book of two halves, sure, but they both offer a satisfyingly complex drama. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher giveaway. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd (2012), Bloomsbury paperback, 448 pages.