Back in London, I’m in the back of the taxi taking me to the hospital — nothing serious, just a check-up — and the driver, with whom I normally exchange a couple of pleasantries about the weather or the traffic before we both fall silent decides that today he’s going to tell me his life story. I don’t mind. It’s a lovely morning and his story is quite interesting: he comes originally from Kurdistan, “not a country any more” and he’s been in London for more than 20 years. Has he any family back home, I ask, and he says there are lots of them. They’ve mostly gravitated to Istanbul, and they’re constantly asking him send them money.
I’m thinking a lot about my own family, my nephew and niece, who emigrated to New Zealand 20-odd years ago and now have families there that I’d never met, but this summer they’ve been back in England for an extended visit and I’ve been able to meet up with them and spend some time with them, which has been marvellous.
Things got off to a slightly shaky start when Jessica (married to nephew Andrew) tested positive for COVID which she must have caught on the plane and they all had to isolate for a while, so my first meeting with them took place on the back lawn with plenty of social distancing, like lockdown revisited. This was my first sight of Andrew’s family and even without hugs I fell instantly in love with them all. It was great for me to able to buy the girls presents too — it’s been years since I’ve had any kids to spoil — and later of course we got together for proper meetings and meals out too. I suppose that everyone thinks their own kids are special and adorable, and I certainly do. I won’t go on about them. I’m sure yours are great too.
Later, in August, my niece Juliet arrived too, and it was wonderful to see her again. She came on her own because her kids are older and there have been changes as her son Finn has taken up his invitation to go as a trainee to Wellington Phoenix (NZ’s best soccer club, I now know), which means that the family’s relocating from Tauranga. I hope to meet the whole tribe one day, and maybe I will because they’re talking about coming over next year for a massive family reunion. Wow. I’m getting a lot more luck then I deserve.
The results of the cancer tests are good, btw. My PSA is now extremely low, and my testosterone level is heading in the right direction. If only I didn’t feel so tired all the time I could get a few things done, but I’ve no complaints really, and it’s still a lovely day.
The original version of this piece was one of the first things I posted on this blog when I launched it two years ago. It didn’t attract much attention at the time, which was hardly surprising as I’ve done virtually nothing to promote the blog, but one never knows who might find it and read it, and sometimes people get in touch. One such was a member of the family now running Bettys Cafés — unidentified for legal reasons — who told me things that I didn’t know and which mean that my piece requires correction and expansion. Most of the new stuff comes in the Postscript but I’ve made minor corrections and added extra illustrations throughout.
In the north of England, Bettys Cafés1 are famous — indeed, they are celebrated. Well-known people such as Alan Ayckbourn, Jilly Cooper, Alan Titchmarsh, James Herriott and Ian McMillan have all sung the praises of Bettys. and Alan Bennett has namechecked the Harrogate café in one of his wonderful plays.
Bettys is celebrated because it’s good: “the nearest thing that Yorkshire can do to produce one of those lovely continental pastry shops … But more than that, it caters for the northern appetite, which is very, very important, and offers value for money. High tea — that is a very northern thing. And it’s getting better and better — their cakes are lovely and it is very well done. It is elegance at its best — you have your little tea strainer, your pot, your lovely cake stand and I think it is beautiful. The staff are very courteous and it suits the smart town of Harrogate.” 2
But who was Betty? My family was closely involved in the creation of the cafés in their early days (there are now six of them, all in Yorkshire), but since no-one seems to know much about their involvement let me tell you what I can and who I think Betty actually was.
According to the official version of the story Frederick Belmont, a baker and confectioner, arrived as an emigré from Switzerland in 1919 speaking little English, and somehow found himself in Bradford. He liked the Yorkshire countryside and decided to stay and start his own shop in Harrogate, which became the first Bettys. Since then it has gone from strength to strength. So the tale goes, but in fact Mr Belmont had a partner: my grandfather, who bore the illustrious name of John Smith.3
How this began I know only in bits and pieces from what my mother told me. She was proud of having been involved in the formative years of Bettys and often boasted about it. To her it was always ‘our firm’. She had spent her childhood in the village of Laycock, where my grandfather had a small farm and owned the village bakery. He probably had other business interests in the area too. By all accounts he was a very kind chap, a good man to do business with. He was certainly very kind to me as a child. Anyway, at some point he met Freddie Belmont and they evidently hit it off, becoming partners soon afterwards. To him Mr Belmont was ‘Binkie’ by analogy with the theatrical impresario Binkie Beaumont who was well-known at the time. Binkie Belmont married a local girl, Claire Appleton, who was known to them as Bunny. Binkie and Bunny.
As Bettys prospered the Smith family moved into a spacious house in Harrogate, where my mother spent her teenage years. She told me that she accompanied her father on scouting expeditions for new premises for Bettys and, once they were established, helped out as a waitress and in the kitchens during the school holidays.
Among her effects after her death I found a bound carbon-copy of the original Bettys recipe book, which she used from time to time when making cakes etc. in later life. She kept this in her bedside cabinet and obviously regarded it as very precious.
The Smiths were good friends with the Belmonts as well as business partners, taking holidays together in Switzerland before the war. On the walls of the house in Harrogate were pictures of the Swiss lakes and mountains — tinted photographs in gilt frames, as was the style of the time — and various souvenirs. One of these particularly delighted me as a child. It was a carved wooden match-holder in the form of a hollow tree-stump with a wolf beside it, a momento of Berne. This eventually came down to me, and it sits on my mantelpiece today.
My mother was very bright, and on leaving school she went to London to work in the Civil Service — but war was looming and the family wanted her back home, so she returned to Harrogate and trained and worked as an accountant, marrying my father during the war and having me when the war was over. My sister followed four years later. We lived first in Wakefield and then in Leeds, and made frequent visits to Harrogate to visit the family there.
On one of these visits I was taken round the Bettys factory by my grandfather — I’d have been three years old at the time — to see the cakes and sweets being made. Great to have a grandpa with a chocolate factory! but those were less indulgent times and at the end of the tour I was allowed to help myself to just one sweet.
From the same period I also recall a gathering at my grandparents’ house in Harrogate, where I was presented to the assembled Bettys clan. Mr Belmont and his wife were there, of course, and some others too, probably relatives of theirs. My main memory of this is of the ladies present, who all seemed to be dressed in black and lace in a very old-fashioned style, but what really fascinated me as a gawping child was their wobbly double-chins. Too many cream cakes, perhaps! My apologies to their memories.
My grandfather had married a young woman named Elizabeth Gill, a teacher in Keighley. According to family legend he had courted her by walking five miles to chapel every Sunday in the hope of having a few moments with her after the service, then walking the five miles home again afterwards. To him she was Betty; to my mother she was Mum; to me and my sister she was Nana. I can’t be sure, but my mother insisted that she was the Betty after whom the original café had been named, and in the absence of other plausible candidates I think it quite likely.
Sadly, my grandfather died suddenly of a cerebral tumour in 1949 at the relatively young age of 59. There was no-one then to take over from him, as his son (my Uncle Ray) was committed to farming and the outdoor life, while my mother was now married to a clergyman and busy being the minister’s wife, and of course a mother to me and my sister. Mr Belmont had now reached retirement age and he and Claire (Bunny) had no children, so their family, the Wilds, took over and bought out my grandmother’s share of Bettys, and our connection with the firm ended.
My mother was very regretful about that. The settlement gave us a little nest-egg, certainly, which probably paid for my education, but in later years she would sometimes say ruefully that if my grandfather had lived longer I would have had a secure future with the firm. I wasn’t so sure that I’d have wanted that or been very good at it so I tended to keep quiet at these times, and since Bettys seems to have been extremely well run since then I think it has worked out fine, though I’m sorry that my grandfather has been largely written out of the firm’s official story when he did so much for it. A recent history of Bettys commissioned by the Wild family does at least give him a brief but friendly mention.4
As for Betty herself, I have been greatly amused by the speculation as to what she was really like — there has even been a book about that — but I can tell you what our Betty, my grandmother, was like. She was not at all the buxom, rosy-cheeked lass that some have imagined her to be, but a tall, slender, extremely intelligent and sophisticated woman. Photographs of her taken in the 1920s show a very cool presence, elegantly gowned and hair shingled.
She occasionally smoked Du Maurier cigarettes, a rather superior brand, and spoke fluent French. She was very kind and generous, though she would stand for no nonsense, and she was modest, never wanting any publicity as the ‘real’ Betty. She would have considered that vulgar.
I knew her well, as she came to live with us after my grandfather’s death and continued to do so until her own death many years later, and I came to love her dearly. When I was young she helped me with my homework and let me watch cartoons on TV, which my parents disapproved of. When I was a music-mad teenager I built a super-powerful hi-fi from kits and bits of wood that I salvaged from here and there, but the one thing I couldn’t make was a turntable. Nana kindly stumped up for a very good one, and the completed sound system annoyed the neighbours for years afterwards.
My last memory of her is from Christmas 1967, when the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was first aired. She had a colour TV in her room and we had only a black-and-white one, so the whole family gathered in Nana’s room to watch it in colour. When it was done she said “Well, I didn’t think much of that.” A blunt Yorkshirewoman to the end.
POSTSCRIPT Since writing the original version of this piece two years ago more information has come to light amid some controversy and family disagreements. It seems that our forebears, both the Smiths and the Belmonts, were by no means the models of propriety that I had taken them to be:
A philandering founder. A suspected love child. And a bitter family feud: The teacup-rattling ructions that shattered the dynasty of Bettys Tea Rooms
To read the full scandalous story as reported a few weeks ago in the Daily Mail click here. All this was a surprise, to be sure, as I’d never heard any whisper of Mr Belmont’s philandering or of Valerie’s existence, and it made me wonder whether he’d had a fling with my Nana early on … but no, surely not. I feel embarrassed even to have thought of such a thing.
Where I definitely did get it wrong in my original account was in the matter of alcohol. I said that all the members of my family, being strict Methodists, were also strict teetotallers, and while this was true of my parents I now find that for my grandparents it may have been very different. They too were Methodists, to be sure, but Annie Gray’s book4 says that during the war the Bettys in York, in the premises scouted by my grandfather and my mum and opened with some ceremony in 1937 (see the photo above), acquired an alcohol license and opened the cellar as a bar, which became known as The Dive during the war and enormously popular with servicemen and their girls — famous enough to inspire this cartoon in The Tatler:
Grandfather evidently made no objection to any of this, and it has has prompted another little memory from me, buried for many a long year, which is that when we visited Nana’s house after Grandpa’s death and I was nosing around the place I found a soda siphon in the pantry. It was empty and would have had to be taken to the grocer’s to be recharged or refilled, which Nana flatly refused to do. I think I had ideas of squirting it in my little sister’s face, and only now does it occur to me that the only reason for having a soda siphon was that someone liked a splash of soda with their whiskey or brandy: my grandfather, obviously.
I find all this very pleasing. I like to think of my grandpa enjoying a drink and a cigar after a hard day’s work running Bettys, just as I used to relax after work until the doctor told me not to, and in the intervening years Bettys have evidently loosened up a good deal:
1 The name was originally Betty’s but the apostrophe was dropped somewhere along the way. 2 Quotation from a comment by Frances Atkins on the Bettys website: https://www.bettys.co.uk/timeline 3 Joseph John Smith in fact, and known to the Belmonts as J.J. 4 From the Alps to the Dales: 100 Years of Bettys by Annie Gray (2019). Earlier publications include Who Was Betty? A Whimsical Collection of Tall Stories edited by Samantha Gibson (2011) and Hearts, Tarts and Rascals: the Story of Bettys by Jonathan Wild (2005)
After spending most of the summer in Broadstone I’m now back London. My return was delayed by the petrol shortages which are already seeming like a distant memory but which were very frustrating for motorists only a month ago. Broadstone was no bad place to be stranded but I was missing my COVID and flu jabs and the next installment of my cancer treatment, and there were other things that needed dealing with, so I was getting rather twitchy as the time to return approached.
This recent summer has been a whole lot better than last year’s, however, when amid the double isolation of lockdown and shielding I underwent a course of radiotherapy, which was torturous in itself and which didn’t work. I still have cancer, and it’s spreading. This wasn’t helped when my next-door neighbour in London played a cruel trick on me for her own amusement, which wasted a lot of my time and work and thoroughly humiliated me. Before she did that we’d been quite friendly, but that killed any possibility of future friendship and has made the neighbourhood into a very unfriendly place for me.
There have been good things happening in Broadstone, however, apart from getting together with the much better neighbours there. Celia’s caponata was a real treat, but the reason I went there in the first place was to meet up with a visitor from New Zealand, my neice Juliet’s husband Gerard whom I’d never met and who had wangled a visit to see his father and Juliet’s father, my former brother-in-law, both stricken with cancer. The damn thing’s everywhere. Gerard proved to be a very nice guy. I hope to see him and the rest of the tribe again one day.
Another nice thing that came completely out of the blue was a request from a publisher to reprint a piece I’d written on my blog — this very blog — in a collection of new writing that they were bringing out. I said yes, of course. They’ve moved quickly to get this done and I’ve now received a copy of it. It’s the latest volume in an ongoing series called Emanations, and I can’t deny that I’m chuffed to bits. It’s the first time my name has appeared in print for about 20 years, and it’s encouraging me to write more and maybe try my hand at drawing again. Emanations 9, with a lot of fascinating writing in it including a new Jerry Cornelius story from Michael Moorcock, is now available from Amazon here, but the original version of my piece (with illustrations) is still here to be read for free.
I got some other things done in Broadstone, like writing a whole lot of stuff about vegetables for reasons that are obscure even to me and getting my car through its first MOT, but most of the time I basically flaked out. After nearly two years of near-isolation and inactivity perhaps this was what I needed to do. Eventually I felt better for it, and returned to London somewhat energised and ready for the fray.
The fray in question was likely to be the next assault from my horrid London neighbour. Last time I returned I found that she’d been making complaints about the somewhat overgrown state of my garden — not to me, however, but to the estate agents representing the freeholder of the flat she lives in with her husband. She’s well aware of my health problems. Her complaints were soon dealt with but the fact that she had made them and in such a devious way has soured the atmosphere even more. I’ve been wondering what I can do about this as it’s been bugging me, and I was somewhat heartened by a newspaper story that I came across here while I was away, about an incident that happened not far from Broadstone. It was good to see the other neighbours rallying to this poor woman’s defence and getting together to help her with her garden, and while I can’t quite imagine the same thing happening in trendy North London I think a bit of naming-and-shaming of my persecutors might not go amiss. I can’t imagine what makes people so self-righteous, judgemental and mean-spirited. Some of the charities dealing with the problems of older people are now speaking out against such abuse and may be able to help me and perhaps speak for me, since I’m not always very good at speaking up for myself. We’ll see.
In the meantime I’ve returned to something of a financial crisis, partly my own fault for not dealing with the agreement on my car while I was held up in Broadstone, but all the relevent documents were in London and in my semi-comatose state I let it slide. The problem’s solvable but is taking a good deal of phoning and emailing and running around to banks, and until it’s solved I’m just about broke. Not starving, but broke. Gerard’s now back in New Zealand after a longish period in a quarantine hotel in Auckland where he didn’t want to be when he was longing to get home to Tauranga. The rest of the family seem fine, and now Gerard is too. I’ve now had all my jabs and despite all the problems and the cancer I’m feeling quite optimistic. Again, we’ll see.
Michael Moorcock writes: “One of my closest, longest and best friendships was with Lang Jones, a talented composer, editor and writer, one of the most modest people I have ever known, with the sweetest nature of almost any human being I’ve met. He was Assistant Editor of New Worlds. He restored Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake to the edition you probably read and wrote the music for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb. You can hear his lively piano on ‘The Entropy Tango’ here. His own collection of stories The Eye of the Lens (1972), remains his only fiction in book form. He was a socialist and conscientious Ascot-elected councellor for many years. I last saw him about two years ago, at the wonderful wedding of his daughter Isobel to Jason Nickolds, for whom he was extremely happy, and he said he had stopped writing and composing and had never felt better. He leaves a son, Damon, as well as his daughter. One of the few people of whom it’s possible to write: Loved by all.”
I didn’t know Lang nearly as well as Mike did but during the ten years that I worked on New Worlds I saw a good deal of him and initially admired him as an extremely conscientious editor. Mike tells me that when they had to check the proofs of some particularly boring serial story they would sing the text to each other, but however it was achieved New Worlds was always remarkably free of typos thanks largely to Lang’s scrutiny, and personally I found Lang a very congenial fellow. By the time I appeared on the scene he had been working with Mike on the magazine for several years and could have been prickly about an arriviste like me, but he wasn’t: he accepted me straight away, made me feel welcome. and was always encouraging and actually enthusiastic about my artistic efforts.
Indeed, enthusiasm was the quality that I came to associate most with Lang. He was of course hugely enthusiastic about the works of Mervyn Peake, whose work I greatly admired too, and in Lang I found someone with whom I could talk about serious music, though he knew much more about it than I did having studied music at college earlier in life. This was refreshing at a time when most of the gang were enthusing about Hendrix, Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, though in Mal Dean I found a fellow jazz-lover. But it was Lang who suggested that I should listen to Schöenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, a favourite piece of his, which I did and after some initial resistance I came to love it too. I initially favoured the work as scored for orchestra but Lang persuaded me that the string sextet version was even better, the purer conception, and he was right. Listen to it here and if it makes no sense at first, as it didn’t with me, try it a a couple more times with a drink or two and let the magic take hold. Thanks for that, Lang.
It wasn’t all serious stuff, however, I found that Lang and I shared a liking for the radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again with its brilliant musical parodies by Bill Oddie, but while I just listened to them for fun Lang taped them for future study. He was also keen on clocks, collecting strange ones that he found on the stalls of nearby Portobello Road Market — his flat was full of them, and one of his best stories is ‘The Great Clock’ — and at one time he became rather obsessed with the movie Beneath the Valley of the Dolls (1970), returning to the cinema several times to relish its delights afresh. Lang was an amusing guy in many ways.
He was still writing fiction for New Worlds when I knew him but I only once got to illustrate his work which, time being short, I did with a collage of images of Jerry Cornelius. With characteristic enthusiasm Lang said that it was the best collage he’d ever seen, which was way over-the-top but that was Lang. But whoever illustrated them it was always a treat to find that the latest issue of the magazine had one of his stories or reviews in it. Here are some of the ones that gave him a namecheck on the cover:
Mike Moorcock adds: “His fiction is wonderful. When asked why he didn’t write more he said: ‘That’s all the stories I have to tell.’ The Eye of the Lens is closer to Borges than anything but, like his playing of Mozart, for instance, utterly and precisely idiosyncratic. He had only artistic ambition and was never rich. He appears to have died pretty much as he lived, steering his own steady course to the end.”
He certainly wasn’t rich. I recall visiting him at his flat in Colville Terrace and finding the newborn baby then known as Plonk because of the sound he had made in utero stashed away in a cot beneath the grand piano which dominated the room. We had to speak in hushed tones so as not to wake him. The baby was soon properly named Damon, and he seems to have survived this unusual babyhood untraumatised by the experience. Once, to raise a bit of money (with me acting as negotiator and go-between) Lang sold a suit to Mike Harrison — a rather nice white linen suit with broad lapels and flared trousers in the style of the time, and even a waistcoat, the whole ensemble a gift from Mr Moorcock — in which Mike looked very dapper, wearing it for a croquet weekend at my parents’ place in the country and cutting a dash at science fiction conventions both here and in the USA. A deal, and a suit, that pleased everyone.
Lang’s anthology The New S.F. (1969) more or less defines the new wave of the period and is well worth seeking out. He was also involved with Mike Moorcock in compiling the anthology of stories and cartoon strips about Jerry Cornelius, The Nature of the Catastrophe (1971), which contains some stuff by me and which gets reprinted from time to time. Lang’s own fiction was collected as The Eye of the Lens (1972), which has been reprinted by the good people at Savoy Books and as our personal memories fade that will stand as his memorial.
A further selection from my forthcoming magnum opus, which is coming along nicely. A few non-famous people (signalled like this ❃] are now getting in on the act, with my blessing and indeed encouragement. Do send me any particularly good vegetable recipes of your own. It’s good to share.
ED BALLS: Broccoli. The former Cabinet Minister has been having a lively time since leaving office. Following his electoral defeat he was appointed chairman of Norwich City FC and in 2020 he became Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London, meanwhile taking part as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing surviving until week 10, and in 2021 competing in the BBC’s Celebrity Best Home Cook which he won with this dish: chargrilled broccoli salad.
• 1 head broccoli, cut into half florets
• 1 bunch asparagus
• olive oil
• 3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
• 1 red chilli, finely sliced (seeds removed if preferred)
• 1 lemon, grated zest, juice of ½, the other ½ finely sliced
• 2 tbsp flaked almonds, toasted
• salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Blanch the broccoli for 1–2 minutes. Add the asparagus to the pan and blanch for a further 2 minutes. Drain and leave to cool slightly.
2. Heat a large griddle pan over a high heat. Drizzle the broccoli and asparagus with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Place the vegetables in the griddle pan and cook for 1–2 minutes on each side, until lightly charred.
3. Mix 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the garlic, chilli, lemon zest and juice. Pour into the griddle pan and heat for a minute or two, stirring to coat the vegetables. Add the lemon slices and chargrill for 1–2 minutes on each side, until charred.
4. Transfer the chargrilled broccoli, asparagus and lemon slices to a serving plate and scatter with the flaked almonds.
BRIGITTE BARDOT: Tabbouleh salad. Ah, Brigitte! How you fuelled my teenage fantasies and the dreams of many another young lad in the early 1960s. John Lennon was one. He had a big pin-up picture of Brigitte cut from a magazine taped to his bedroom ceiling so that he could … well, you know. After he’d found fame as a Beatle an assignation was arranged for him to get together with her in a London hotel, but faced with his dream-girl in the flesh he was overawed and failed to rise to the occasion. Mlle Bardot was not pleased.
Perhaps she consoled herself with a nice bowl of tabbouleh salad, the traditional Middle Eastern grain dish known throughout the Mediterranean area. The word is Lebanese. I found this recipe, by Sharon Salyer, here. “The story of the dish — and Bardot — was recounted in the Times Sunday magazine by Frederic Van Coppernolle, the grandson of Bardot’s cook and home helper, who went on to become an executive chef.” she writes; “Bardot, he explained, wasn’t easily pleased with the dishes she was served, including this tabbouleh. She was said to like lots of lemon zest. And if you don’t have a zester and have to extract the small lemons shreds using a boxcutter — as he did — it can be a knuckle-skinning experience.”
To save you copying and printing the recipe, here’s a summary:
Ingredients (serves 4 to 6)
• ½ cup tomato juice
• 1½ cups instant couscous
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 1 cup chickpeas
• 1½ cups diced tomatoes
• 1 cup peeled, seeded and diced cucumber
• 1 teaspoon finely-chopped garlic
• 3 tablespoons shallots finely-chopped
• zest of half a lemon
• 3 tablespoons lemon juice
• 2 cups tightly-packed mint leaves, finely chopped
• 2 teaspoons salt
• black pepper to taste
• dash of Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper
Bring one cup of water and the tomato juice to a simmer in a small saucepan. Put the couscous in a large heatproof bowl and pour the hot liquid over it. Add the oil, stir and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside.
In another bowl, stir the chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumber, garlic, shallots, lemon zest and juice, mint, salt and pepper. Use a fork to mix the vegetables with the couscous and finish with Tabasco or cayenne to taste.
Cover and refrigerate preferably overnight to allow the flavors to blend.
Brigitte is happily still alive aged 86 at the time of writing, long retired from showbiz and devoting herself to the cause of animal rights. In 1986 she established the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals, became a vegetarian, and raised three million francs to fund the Foundation by auctioning off jewellery and personal belongings. Her valuable work continues.
John Lennon’s former home In Liverpool where he lived with his Aunt Mimi has been restored as a tourist attraction with a picture of BB once again on the bedroom ceiling.
CHER: Minestrone. The mega-platinum recording artiste is the same age as me (currently 74) and looking a hell of a lot better than I do, possibly as a result of subsisting on healthy dishes like this (I wouldn’t dream of mentioning plastic surgery). I’m very partial to a good minestrone myself, feeling that in this age of trendy designer soups we shouldn’t neglect the tried-and-tested classics, and Cher’s recipe is a really good one.
• 1 medium carrot
• 2 stalks of celery
• 1 small onion
• 410 ml of chicken stock or 14.5 oz can chicken broth
• 350 ml water [1½ cups]
• 1 teaspoon dried parsley
• 1 teaspoon soy sauce
• 1 teaspoon pepper
• ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
• 28 oz can Italian plum tomatoes, drained and chopped, or 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
• 225 ml of a passata type sauce. or 8 oz can low-sodium tomato sauce
• 16 oz can red kidney beans, drained
• ½ cup Ditalini pasta [though I prefer anelli/anelletti for this –RGJ]
• grated parmesan cheese
Place first 11 ingredients in saucepan. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 10-15 minutes or until carrots and celery are tender. Add kidney beans and Ditalini pasta, cook for 10-15 minutes more or until pasta is al dente. Serve with a sprinkle (no more than 1 teaspoon) of parmesan cheese on top of the soup.
PRINCESS DIANA: Stuffed peppers.
Darren McGrady spent four years as Diana’s chef at Kensington Palace and 11 years cooking for Queen Elizabeth II. His cookbook Eating Royally is sprinkled with lots of personal tidbits — helping princes Harry and William make their Mummy’s favorite dishes, dancing with Diana at royal balls, and helping the Queen rescue her belongings while Windsor Castle was on fire. According to McGrady, as well as watching her weight carefully Diana never ate red meat or shellfish: “Her favourite dish was bell peppers stuffed with zucchini, mushrooms, rice, garlic topped with Parmesan and mozzarella and finished with a smoked tomato and pepper sauce.”
JOAN DIDION: Artichokes au gratin. I first came across her writing in Tom Wolfe’s groundbreaking 1973 anthology The New Journalism, which led me to her earlier Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), a key book for me amid the nonsense that was being written about the counterculture of the time, then onto The White Album (1979) and later The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) following the death of her husband. She was profiled in the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne in 2017.
This recipe for artichokes au gratin is based on Joan’s handwritten note-card (reproduced here). “Beloved as she was for her writing [writes Molly Beauchemin here] Joan was also a fabulous cook, effortlessly seasoned in the way that only a shrewd culture observer can be. We chose to play with her artichokes au gratin recipe because you don’t really see this item on menus anymore. But in the 1970s, it was considered the pinnacle of fine dining, de rigueur at holiday gatherings and chic dinner parties. Because of the heaviness of the cream and cheese, we recommend serving this as a winter dish -– it’s perfect for holiday meals.”
Ingredients (serves 8)
• 2 (9 oz.) packs frozen artichoke hearts*
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• ¼ cup butter
• dash white pepper
• 1 teaspoon onion salt
• ½ teaspoon prepared mustard
• ¾ teaspoon salt
• ⅓ cup flour
• 1½ cup reserved artichoke liquid
• 1½ cups hot milk
• 1 egg slightly beaten
• ½ cup grated Swiss cheese
• 2 tablespoon dry bread crumbs
1. Heat oven to 450 °F.
2. Cook artichokes according to pack directions, adding lemon juice to water.
3. Drain, reserving ½ cup liquid.
4. Place artichokes in a single layer in a 9-inch shallow casserole.
For the sauce
5. Melt butter, add spices and flower, stir until smooth.
6. Gradually add artichoke liquid and milk, and cook, stirring, until thick.
7. Remove from heat, add egg and half of cheese.
9. Pour over artichokes.
10. Sprinkle with remaining cheese, bread crumbs and paprika.
11. Bake for 15 minutes.
* These are globe artichokes, of course.
❃ I won’t be including Jerusalem artichokes in any of these posts because I had a very bad experience with a Jerusalem artichoke when I was young and can’t stand the things. Ugh.
FANNIE FLAGG: Fried green tomatoes.
Ms Flagg is apparently a familiar face in the USA as an actor and comedienne, but here in the UK she’s mainly known as the author of the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café which was made into a very successful movie in 1991. I happened to be in New York with my friend Kathy at the time and we caught it there, thinking we’d steal a march on the folks back home by seeing it several weeks before it would be released in Britain, and we enjoyed it — it’s a touching tale of an unlikely female friendship — but I didn’t pay much attention to the titular vegetables at the time, lazily assuming that they were just sliced tomatoes cooked in a frying-pan as usual.
Not so. The dish in question would be more accurately described as tomato fritters, and the tomatoes need to be green because red ones turn the interior of the fritters to mush when they’re cooked. They also need to be as big as you can get them, as slicing up small tomatoes makes for tiny, fiddly fritters that are hardly worth bothering with.
This guy shows step-by=step how the dish is done — and btw the results are absolutely delicious, either as a snack on their own or with a dip, or as a side-dish for non-veggies with bacon and eggs, which is the way I like to eat them myself.
STEPHEN FRY: Tofu (it’s made from soya beans so counts as a vegetable).
I’ve been a fan of Mr Fry since he first appeared on our tv screens in Saturday Live in 1986, and I surely don’t need to summarize his glittering career since then. His Wikipedia entry here does a good job of that. I’d merely add that he’s bidding fair to take over Peter Ustinov‘s mantle as Renaissance Man of Our Times. Like me, Stephen has recently been suffering from prostate cancer — though there the resemblances end.
Not long ago on Twitter Stephen was encouraging people to eat vegan for National Vegetarian Week by wearing an ‘Eat to Beat Climate Change’ t-shirt and showing his followers what meatless recipes he was cooking, including this one for Vegan Tofu Rogan Josh with Chilli Rice.
For the marinade:
• 1 pack Cauldron Organic Tofu
• 1 onion, roughly chopped
• 1 inch of ginger, grated
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 2 red chilli
• 2 tbsp tomato purée
• ½ tbsp ground cumin
• ½ tbsp ground coriander
• ½ tbsp ground turmeric
• 50 ml water
For the curry:
• 2 tbsp oil
• 4 cardamom pods, crushed and ground
• 1 cinnamon stick,
• 2 bay leaves
• ¼ tsp salt
• ¼ tsp black pepper
• 100 ml vegetable stock
• 150 g passata
For the rice:
• 400 g brown basmati rice, cooked
• 20 g coriander
• 1 red chilli
• 1 tbsp lime juice
• ¼ tsp salt
• 2 tbsp vegan yoghurt
• 10 g fresh coriander, chopped
• 1 red chilli, finely sliced
1. Drain the tofu for 20 minutes by placing it in between two chopping boards lined with a clean tea towel or kitchen roll. Put something heavy on top, e.g. food cans, to apply pressure. Once the tofu has been pressed, chop into 2.5cm cubes. Set aside.
2. To make the marinade for the tofu, combine all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Place the tofu in the marinade and transfer to the fridge for at least two hours before cooking.
3. To make the sauce, place a large saucepan on a high heat and add the oil. Add the tofu with all the remaining marinade and fry for 3-4 minutes.
4. To make the curry, add the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Fry for a further 2 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and passata and continue to cook on a lower heat for 10 minutes.
5. To make the coriander and chilli rice, place the coriander, red chilli, lime juice and salt into a small chopper or food processor. Blitz until smooth and stir into the cooked rice.
6. To serve, plate the rice with the curry and garnish with a drizzle of vegan yoghurt, chopped coriander and sliced red chilli.
❃ Or you could just order a Rogan Josh as a takeaway from your local Indian restaurant.
GHANDI: Purslane (Kulfa). Purslane is reported to have been one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite foods and it was also eaten by Thoreau at Walden Pond, where it grew wild. It is pleasant, cool and moist with a sour flavor, and can be used in salads, pickles, stir-fry dishes and soups as a cooling summer food. Purslane is used in Creole cooking and in the mideastern salad, fattoush. The dried seeds can be ground and added to flour.
There are lots of Indian recipes that employ purslane, but in the spirit of Ghandi I’ve opted for this very simple salad:
• purslane (a large bunch, about 4 cups)
• 1 red onion, peeled and finely diced
• 1 tomato, finely diced
• 1 lemon, juice of
• 4-5 tablespoons olive oil
• ½ teaspoon salt
1. Make the dressing by mixing the lemon juice, olive oil and salt together. Adjust seasonings to personal taste.
2. Thoroughly rinse the purslane and remove the small fleshy leaves in clusters (the stems are easily broken with your finger and thumbnail). Rinse the purslane and pat dry. Add the diced onion and tomato and with your hands mix everything together. (Remove any roots that may still be attached.).
3. Add the dressing and again mix well so that all the leaves are coated, as well as the diced onions and tomatoes.
4. Serve as a light salad with cheese and/or rustic bread.
Anyone curious about the many other dishes involving this plant might like to check out 45 Things To Do With Fresh Purslanehere.
JUSTIN HAYWARD: Bubble and squeak. The lead singer with The Moody Blues (‘Nights in White Satin’, ‘Forever Autumn’ and many other classic tracks) contributed this recipe to a celebrity cookbook long ago. It’s a very simple thing to prepare:
• 8 potatoes
• ½ pound brussels sprouts
• ½ pound carrots
1. Boil the vegetables.
2. Mash the potatoes with a little butter and milk.
3. Chop the cooked sprouts and carrots into small chunks.
4. Mix everything together and put the mixture into a large non-stick frying-pan, then pat it into a pancake shape about 1½ inches thick.
5. Heat until it begins to bubble and squeak.
Portions of the mixture can be moulded into little patties and finished off in the oven, or the whole thing can be placed under the grill to brown off the top. Either way, it goes very well with bacon and eggs (for non-veggies like me).
“Brown sauce (H.P.) is a very tasty condiment to enhance the flavour.” adds Justin. Chacun à son goût.
LIZ HURLEY: Watercress soup. “I swear by this and drink at least six cups a day when eager to lose a few pounds” says the glamorous actress/model/whatever.
Ingredients (serves 4)
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
• 2 potatoes, diced
• 2½pints chicken stock (water can be substituted for even fewer calories!)
• 3 large bunches watercress, stems removed
• salt and pepper, to taste
Sweat the onion in a little chicken stock or water until translucent. Add the potatoes and the rest of the chicken stock and bring to the boil. Add salt and pepper and simmer until the potatoes are soft.
Add the watercress and stir for 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat. Blend.
Put the soup in a small metal bowl and place in a sink full of ice to keep the colour green.
❃ As I write this comes the news that Boris Johnson has added British watercress to the Geographical Indications (GI) scheme, which is supposed to protect our products from foreign imitations. Watercress has been added because ‘its production methods, associated with steadily flowing water … deserve special status because it has remained unaltered by selection and breeding – meaning that its unique flavour has remained largely unchanged for generations.’ The protected status means that only specific plants grown in flowing water can bear the name watercress when commercially sold in Great Britain. The EU does not recognize the GI scheme and can do as it pleases.
HUGH JACKMAN: Kale. I’m under doctor’s orders to lose some weight so I’m always interested in recipes that help with this and aren’t too boring, like Liz Hurley’s above and this one from the Australian actor, who patronized Franklin Becker’s Little Beet restaurant in New York when he was trimming down to play Wolverine. Wearing a bike helmet, black T-shirt, sunglasses and a backpack [says my source], Jackman told the staff that he loved the food and happily posed for photos with customers and staff.
So, what favorite foods brought the actor back to the restaurant again and again? One of them was this kale salad, and Becker shared his recipe for it with a magazine. The dish ‘pops with pickled currants, a generous helping of Pecorino cheese and a bright, tart dressing made from vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice and lemon oil.’
Ingredients for kale salad (serves 4)
• 5 tbsp. currants
• 1 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
• 1 tsp. lemon oil
• 2½ cups baby kale
• black pepper, to taste
• salt, to taste
• ½ cup grated Pecorino cheese
• 5 tbsp. pumpkin seeds
• lemon dressing (recipe below)
1. To pickle the currants, place them in a small bowl of vinegar and lemon oil. Let sit for a minimum of 30 minutes. 2. Season kale with salt and pepper. Add half of the currants, Pecorino and pumpkin seeds and toss gently. Add dressing and toss again. Sprinkle remaining Pecorino, currants and pumpkin seeds on top.
Ingredients for the lemon dressing
• 2 tbsp. lemon juice
• 2 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
• 2 tbsp. lemon oil
• ¼ cup olive oil
• black pepper, to taste
• salt, to taste
Instructions Mix the lemon juice and vinegar together with a whisk or stick blender. Add lemon oil and olive oil slowly until fully incorporated and the mixture thickens. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
❃ Long ago I shared an office and became friendly with a woman named Anne who introduced me to her own very simple slimming recipe — I wanted to lose weight even in the 1970s — which I subsequently cooked for myself and became quite partial to. It involved shredding some white cabbage and flash-frying it in a little olive oil, then putting it in a bowl and sprinkling it with soy sauce. It’s cheap and ultra-quick with practically zero calories, and tastier than you might think. Anne is gone now but I still cook this dish occasionally.
JERMAINE JACKSON: Dum Aloo. With his brother Michael he was one of the Jackson Five, of course, and to promote his own career after Michael’s death he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother with Shilpa Shetty (see below). I don’t recall him doing much cooking on the show but more recently he was persuaded to test a recipe by the excellent people at http://www.allrecipes.com who presented this Indian dish as Spicy Vegan Potato Curry (Dum means slow-cooked, and aloo is potato). “I made the recipe exactly as written.” said Jermaine; “Good recipe! It has some kick to it so if you’re ‘spicy sensitive’ adjust as necessary.”
• 4 potatoes, peeled and cubed
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 yellow onion, diced
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
• 4 teaspoons curry powder
• 4 teaspoons garam masala
• 1 (1 inch) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
• 1 (15 ounce) can garbanzo beans [chickpeas], rinsed and drained
• 1 (15 ounce) can peas, drained
• 1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk
1. Place potatoes into a large pot and cover with salted water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and allow to steam dry for a minute or two.
2. Meanwhile, heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and garlic; cook and stir until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Season with cumin, cayenne pepper, curry powder, garam masala, ginger, and salt; cook for 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes, garbanzo beans, peas, and potatoes. Pour in the coconut milk, and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
FRANZ KAFKA: Bramboracka (Czech potato and mushroom soup). One of the very few modern writers to become an adjective (Kafkaesque) from his nightmarish stories like Metamorphosis and The Trial, Kafka became a vegetarian initially for his health but soon became disgusted by the very idea of eating meat.
‘Soup, in particular,’ [says paperandsalt.org whence comes most of this information about his eating habits] ‘flows throughout Kafka’s stories and diaries: pea soup, goulash, even “fruit soup.” The most arresting image comes from Kafka’s diaries, where Max Brod [his friend and later biographer] sits on the ground, “eating a thick potato soup out of which potatoes peeped like large balls.”
‘Brod was likely eating bramboracka, a traditional Czech dish loaded with underground treasures: mushrooms, carrots and the omnipresent potatoes. This version has a buttery, rich taste thanks to the roasted garlic—pure satisfaction, no meat required.’ Here’s paperandsalt’s recipe for bramboracka:
• 2 garlic heads, outer layers of skin removed
• 2 tablespoons butter (or olive oil, to make it vegan)
• 1 small yellow onion, diced
• 1 tablespoon flour
• 2 cups mushrooms (I used cremini, but button or shitake would be good too)
• 6 cups vegetable broth
• 3 to 4 carrots, chopped
• 2 leeks (white and light green parts), chopped
• 1½ cups baby potatoes
• 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
• ½ teaspoon dried oregano
• ½ teaspoon salt
• freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Slice off the top of each garlic head and drizzle with oil. Wrap both heads in foil and bake for 45 minutes. Let cool, then squeeze or scoop roasted cloves into a small bowl. Set aside.
2. Warm butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for 2 minutes, then add flour and stir until lightly browned, another 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until tender.
3. Add broth, carrots, leeks, potatoes, caraway seeds, oregano and salt. Add roasted garlic paste. Stir, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
MARIAN KEYES: One of her recent post-lockdown tweets went “My notion-y tay! An Ottolenghi recipe! An easy one, this one, only 51 hours of prep and a mere 7 of the ingredients had to be ordered from Jupiter… Mind you, Himself will be in for a ‘right land’ if we ever go back to normal and the elaborate dinners come to an abrupt halt.”
Taking a break from writing bestselling novels and baking cakes she’d just cooked Yotam Ottolenghi’s ‘Sticky sweet-and-sour plums and sausages’ from a recipe torn from The Guardian (available online here), and while it’s not specifically a vegetable dish it does contain onions, garlic and potatoes, and as Yotam points out vegetarian sausages can be substituted for meaty ones — and doesn’t it look good! It is good.
❃ My friend Celia is a fan of Yotam Ottolenghi too and sometimes cooks his wonderful Caponata, with twists of her own: more about this under Martin Scorsese below.
LIBERACE: Gazpacho. The flamboyant entertainer — I can’t quite bring myself to call him a pianist, with Martha Argerich, Oscar Peterson and Jerry Lee Lewis active at the same time (Liberace died in 1987) — liked to entertain as lavishly as his stage costumes might suggest he would, but however tasteless we might have found Liberace personally his recipes were good ones, as tasty as can be. Gazpacho, as Rimmer in Red Dwarf learned too late to avoid embarassment but as I’m sure you know as well as Lisa Simpson, is served cold. It originated in Andalusia as poor man’s food for workers in the vineyards and olive plantations.
Ingredients (for 8)
• 2 gloves garlic, crushed
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 8 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, or one 14-ounce / 1lb can
• few drops Tabasco sauce
• 1 tablespoon vinegar
• 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 small cucumber, peeled and cut up
• 1 medium onion, cut up
• 3 tablespoons bread crumbs
• 2 cups chicken broth or water
• ice cubes
• 2 cups hot croutons
• minced scallions
• grated hard-cooked egg yolk
• chopped pitted green or ripe olives
• chopped green pepper
1. Buzz the garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, Tabasco sauce, vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar, cucumber, onion, and crumbs in a blender with the broth. (You may need to divide the ingredients; the blender shouldn’t be more than three-quarters full.)
3. Serve in soup bowls with an ice cube in each, or from a tureen with a number of ice cubes. Pass the croutons piping hot and have any or all of the minced vegetables available in bowls as garnish.
LORDE: Onion rings. Some mystery surrounds the New Zealand songstress’s alleged enthusiasm for these. Could she really have had an Instagram page devoted to the subject? It seems that she did: “I sort of naively didn’t realize it would be a thing,” she’s reported to have said; “I was going to different places and trying the onion rings at each of those places.” She has now taken the page down, however, because “I feel like it kind of reads like the kind of thing a pop star would do to look relatable, which I wasn’t doing. It was like a funny thing with my friends on the tour and I was like, this is a good pastime.”
That was in 2017, but this year Lorde seems to have resumed her online onion ring reviews — I say seems because it’s sometimes difficult to tell the real from the fake — as in these comments on the Pickled Onion Rings at Auckland’s Hotel Ponsonby: “We’re talking PICKLED onion rings which is a first for this reviewer. I totally vibe the concept — used to eat pickled onions out of the jar as a youngster — however I think if you’re gonna go there, go there, and let acidity rather than sweetness dominate. Absolutely sensational batter, perhaps the best I’ve tried. 4/5 overall ringsperience.” The Instagram page, genuine or not, can be found here.
So what makes a really good onion ring? Lorde’s fans have not been slow to come up with ideas, some of which look delicious. See them here. I haven’t tried any of them yet, having already made the batter for the fried green tomatoes [see under Fannie Flagg above] and feeling a bit battered myself at the moment.
DAVID LYNCH: Quinoa. It’s a grain rather than a vegetable, but since the other main ingredient in this dish is broccoli and since it comes with a bizarre instructional video from the great movie director how could I exclude it? [Click on the picture to watch the clip.]
I find it rather hypnotic and indeed hilarious in a strange, Lynchian sort of way but if you don’t have the patience to sit through the whole clip here’s his recipe summarized:
• ½ cup quinoa
• 1½ cups organic broccoli (chilled, from bag)
• 1 cube vegetable bullion
• Braggs Liquid Aminos [available from Amazon in the UK]
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Sea salt
* Fill medium saucepan with about an inch of fresh water.
* Set pan on stove, light a nice hot flame add several dashes of sea salt.
* Look at the quinoa. It’s like sand, this quinoa. It’s real real tight little grains, but it’s going to puff up.
* Unwrap bullion cube, bust it up with a small knife, and let it wait there. It’ll be happy waiting right there.
* When water comes to a boil, add quinoa and cover pan with lid. Reduce heat and simmer for 8 minutes.
* Meanwhile, retrieve broccoli from refrigerator and set aside, then fill a fine crystal wine glass — one given to you by Agnes and Maya from Lódz, Poland — with red wine, ‘cause this is what you do when you’re making quinoa. Go outside, sit, take a smoke and think about all the little quinoas bubbling away in the pan.
* Add broccoli, cover and let cook for an additional 7 minutes.
* Meanwhile, go back outside and tell the story about the train with the coal-burning engine that stopped in a barren, dust-filled landscape on a moonless Yugoslavian night in 1965. The story about the frog moths and the small copper coin that became one room-temperature bottle of violet sugar water, six ice-cold Coca-colas, and handfuls and handfuls of silver coins.
* Turn off heat, add bullion to quinoa and stir with the tip of the small knife you used to bust up the bullion.
* Scoop quinoa into bowl using a spoon. Drizzle with liquid amino acids and olive oil. Serve and enjoy.
❃ I see that someone on YouTube has offered this theory about the clip: “The quinoa represents the eternal quest for sustenance of the soul. The broccoli represents the eternal darkness of evil. When combined with some vegetable bouillon, you are left with the convergence of all realities. And dinner.”
MOBY: Improvised Chilli. The popular recording artiste has recently published his own vegan cookbook* in which he tells us that there are no real measurements here: “You just kind of throw a bunch of stuff in a pot and at some point you decide it’s done.”
❃ Moby is evidently a man after my own heart, for this is very much my own approach to cookery too, as you’ll see when I start publishing the somewhat eccentric recipes from my personal repertoire. Maybe next time.
In case you don’t know (I didn’t until I found this recipe): although it’s made from wheat, seitan (pronounced say-tan) has little in common with flour or bread. It rather surprisingly acquires something of the look and texture of meat when it’s cooked, making it a popular meat substitute for vegetarians and vegans.
• onions, maybe 5? (5 onions, diced)
• garlic cloves, I don’t know . . . 10 cloves? (10 cloves garlic, minced)
• 10 or so? tomatoes (10 plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped)
• 4 cups water or vegetable stock
• frozen corn, a few bags (6 cups frozen corn)
• 6 cups sliced seitans
• 3 cans black beans (15 ounces each)
• lots of chilli powder (1 cup chilli powder)
• 1 tube polenta (18 ounces polenta, chopped into 1″ cubes)
• 1 tub tofu (16 ounces extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into 1″ cubes)
• fresh salsa
• salt, optional
Add the corn, seitan, black beans, chili powder, polenta, and tofu. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, so the chilli doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for 3 hours.
Serve with cornbread and fresh salsa. Salt it, if you wish.
Surrinder Syall is another cook who eschews quantities: see the entry for Meera Syall below.
* Moby’s book is The Little Pine Cookbook: Modern Plant-Based Comfort (Avery, 2021). “Whatever you’re making, the spirit of Little Pine, of community, of sharing, and of giving is in all these recipes, and they are here for you to savour every day.”
MUSSOLINI: Garlic. The Italian dictator’s favourite dish was a simple salad of chopped garlic dressed with oil and lemon, which he maintained was good for his heart. “He used to eat a whole bowl of it,” his wife Rachele confided to the family cook after his death; “I couldn’t go anywhere near him after that. At night I’d leave him to sleep alone in our room and take refuge in one of the children’s rooms.”
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: Artichokes. A friend at school became interested in philosophy and urged me to read Nietzsche [1844-1900] whose ideas he was finding impressive, so on his recommendation I bought the newly-published Penguin translation of Also Spracht Zarathustra (illustrated below right), but didn’t like it: all that stuff about the Superman and the Will to Power etc. didn’t sit well with me, and my parents were appalled to find me reading it, having endured a war in which another German tried to put these ideas into practice. They didn’t like me listening to the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss either, but I find that I can still enjoy it without thinking too much about their politics.On the domestic front, however, ‘Nietzsche absorbed a love of cooking by learning … through those around him. In Sorrento, in a villa surrounded by lemon trees, his housemaid showed him her secret to a perfect risotto, lovingly ladling out the stock as she stirred. Studying the techniques of his Italian housekeepers, Nietzsche was eager to become a teacher himself. He wrote to his mother: “I shall teach you later how to cook risotto — I know now.” In Genoa, his landlady taught him to fry artichokes and whisk eggs for torta di carciofi, the local specialty.’ [–from paperandsalt]
An excellent recipe for artichoke tart (illustrated at left above) can be found here.
TONY ROBINSON: Turnip. I’m not much given to name-dropping (do I hear a chorus of “Oh really?” from the people who know me) but when he was a budding young actor Tony bought the artwork of one of my cartoon strips for £20 which at the time I was very glad to receive, and I’ve followed his career with interest ever since. He seems to have done pretty well for himself. One of his recent tweets says “Try my recipe for turnip surprise” which goes as follows:
1. Dig up a turnip
2. Throw it at someone
I wonder if Sir Tony still has my drawing framed and hanging on his wall. Somehow I doubt it.
COLONEL SANDERS: Squash — and not a chicken in sight. The Colonel, or someone representing him on the website (he died in 1980), says: “This is a vegetable dish that was a great favorite in my restaurants. Take it from me, it is just out of this world.” [–from colonelsanders.com]
• 1 acorn squash (2lb or 900g)
• ¾ teaspoon allspice
• ½ to ¾ cup sugar
• ⅓ to ½ cup melted butter
• ½ teaspoon salt
1. Peel the squash the cut the flesh into cubes about ¾ or 1 inch in size. Put into a medium saucepan.
2. Sprinkle on the mace and salt. Add sugar, butter, and water, which should completely cover the squash.
3. Bring to the boil then simmer slowly until the squash appears transparent and has taken in the butter and the sugar (about 45 minutes).
Did you know btw that Colonel Sanders’s first name was Harland?
❃ Just as I’m writing this the newspapers are reporting that “New Zealand considers jabbing KFC customers under a drastic new Covid-19 vaccination strategy as Jacinda Ardern aims for 90 per vaxx rate.” It seems that KFC is very popular amongst the Kiwis, with reports of “police arresting two men attempting to enter locked-down Auckland with ‘a boot-full of KFC’.” while the NZ Herald reports a man setting up a tent outside his local fried chicken takeaway ahead of the restaurant’s re-opening on Wednesday. They could of course eat vegetables instead.
MARTIN SCORSESE: Aubergine (eggplant). The dish is Caponata, from his mother’s Catherine’s recipe.
Mrs Scorsese appeared as an Italian matriarch in several of her son’s movies, most memorably in Goodfellas (1990) in which she appeared as Joe Pesci’s mother during the gangsters-come-home dinner. Often, she cooked meals for cast and crew members of her son’s films. Her tomato-and-meat sauce was probably the only recipe ever to receive full billing in the credits of a movie when Martin Scorsese starred the sauce and his parents in Italianamerican, his favorite of all his films. In 1996 all the recipes from the family were written and published in Italianamerican: The Scorsese Family Cookbook, with photos and anecdotes that tell the story of three generations of Scorseses.
Ingredients (serves 8-10)
• 2 large eggplants [aubergines]
• 1 jar oil-cured black olives (6½ ounces)
• 1 jar green olives (5¾ ounces)
• 1 jar capers (3 ounces)
• 4 large stalk celery, diced
• ½ to ⅔ cups olive oil
• 2 large onions, sliced
• 2 can tomato sauce (16 ounces)
• ¼ cup sugar
• ½ cup red wine vinegar
• freshly-ground pepper to taste
• salt to taste
1. Trim the eggplants, cut them into 1-inch cubes, and transfer them to a colander. Sprinkle with salt and let them stand for 30 minutes. Rinse, drain well and pat dry.
2. In a bowl, combine the black olives, green olives and capers. Cover with warm water and let them plump for 20 minutes, drain well.
3. In a saucepan of boiling water, blanch the celery for 1 to 2 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and pat dry.
4. In a large skillet set over moderate heat, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil until hot. Add the eggplant in small batches and cook it, stirring occasionally and adding 3 to 4 tablespoons of water to prevent sticking, until just tender and golden brown. Transfer the fried eggplant to a bowl and, adding oil and water as needed, fry the remaining eggplant.
5 Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet and heat it until hot over moderate heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, just until tender. Add the tomato sauce, 2 cups water, the reserved eggplant, olives, capers, celery, and season with salt and pepper. Simmer the mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
6. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and vinegar, stirring until dissolved. Add the sugar mixture to the eggplant mixture and stir to combine. Transfer the caponatina to a bowl, let it cool to room temperature, and chill it, covered, for 1 to 2 days to allow the flavors to blend.
❃ On my first selection of Vegetables of the Rich and Famous my friend Celia commented: “… have you tried caponata? If not, you might have to come round to ours, soon, as I feel one coming on!” Celia did indeed make a caponata a few days later, and it was fantastic. I’ll hope to return to Celia’s caponata in a future post, giving it ita own entry as there’s no reason why she and it should be marginalized by the Scorseses.
SHILPA SHETTY: Corn fritters (pakoda). She was well-known as a star in Bollywood movies and as such famous in ethnic communities outside India, but she wasn’t a very familiar face in Britain until she appeared on tv in Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 and suffered some unpleasant racist abuse from three of the other young women in the house. Jermaine Jackson (see above) was there too but managed to steer clear of the racist crap. The viewers sided with Shilpa and voted her the winner of the series.
Ingredients for the fritters
• 1 cup sweetcorn, boiled and coarsely mashed
• 2 small sweet potatoes, boiled and grated
• 2 spring onion greens (scallions), finely chopped
• 2 tbsp coriander leaves, finely chopped
• 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
• 1½ tbsp flax seed powder
• ½ cup breadcrumbs
• 1 cup Cheddar cheese, grated
• salt to taste
• vegetable oil for frying
For the dip
• 3 tbsp curd
• 1 tbsp mint leaves, finely chopped
• salt to taste
Instructions for the fritters
1. In a bowl, add the mashed corn. Add sweet potatoes, spring onions, chopped coriander leaves, red chilli, flax seed powder, breadcrumbs and grated cheese. Mix all the ingredients well.
2. Add some salt and mix again.
3. Now grease your palms slightly with oil. Take a portion of the fritter mixture and shape them into small triangles.
4. Heat frying oil in a pan. Place the fritters on the pan and cook for about two to four minutes on each side till they turn golden brown. Your fritters are ready.
For the dip
* Take curd in a bowl. Add chopped mint leaves and salt. Mix the ingredients. Your dip is ready.
Shilpa now has her own cookery channel on tv, with many of her cookery demonstrations (in English) on YouTube. She has also published several cookbooks and dvds.
MEERA SYALL: Vegetable biryani. Emma Freud met Meera on one of her tv shows and introduced her like this: “Meera Syal is one of my favourite humans. Not only is she a brilliant actress and stunning novelist, but she makes the best vegetarian biryani I’ve ever eaten. Her culinary skills were taught to her by her mother, Surrinder, who lives with her in north London. We talked about her mum’s rural Indian childhood, and Meera cooked me her signature dish.”
Emma: How did your mum become such a great cook?
Meera: My mum grew up in a small village in the Punjab, and her family were farm owners so they cooked whatever they had picked that day. They didn’t have fridges, ovens or kitchen appliances, and never wasted anything. Mum grew up making her own butter and yogurt, and the whey that was left over was mixed with spices and drunk as a health tonic, or used as a conditioner for hair to keep it shiny. [..] I find it bemusing that most famous chefs are men, whereas I think the really creative cooks are the women who transformed whatever was in the cupboard into three meals a day. That’s proper cheffing, not doing something fancy with a blowtorch.
Emma: Have you got family recipes that have been passed down through your family?
Meera: I wish my mum would write a book. I’ve tried several times to get her to transcribe her recipes, but it’s impossible because of the instinctive way her generation cooked their food. Forget about precise quantities — it comes down to a bit of this, a splash of that, cook until you feel it’s ready.
❃ I love a good biryani myself and have occasionally had a go at cooking one of my own: not recently, however, because the last time i tried it the dish was just about done when I lifted the cheap wok from the hob, and the pan — imperfectly attached to the wooden handle — did a 180° flip and deposited its contents onto the kitchen floor. I’m now saving up for a better wok.
K.T. TUNSTALL: Zucchini (courgette). During the recent lockdown the talented singer/songwriter guested on Quarantine Kitchen to make her Zingy Chili and Lemon Zucchini Noodles, or zoodles.
❃ Her recipe begins “Spiralize your zucchini” which puts me in something of a quandary. I like to test these recipes before posting them but am I really going to buy a spiralizer, which I suspect I might use only once or maybe twice before consigning it to a kitchen cupboard along with the Breville Sandwich Toaster, the George Foreman Grill and various other gadgets purchased over the years, never to be seen again? A bit of online research reveals that there are other ways of preparing these noodles, however — here‘s one — and suddenly I see that I don’t need to buy a spiralizer at all.
• 1 large zucchini/courgette
• large knob of salted butter
• 1 small tin of anchovies
• 3 garlic cloves, chopped
• zest of 1 lemon
• chilli flakes
1. Spiralize your zucchini
2. Melt the salted butter in a pan
3. Sauté the chopped garlic for a minute or two, then add the anchovies. Stir over a gentle heat until the anchovies melt into a paste
4. Add the zucchini noodles to the pan and stir well to coat them with the anchovies, garlic and butter
5. Keep stirring to heat the zoodles
6. Once the zoodles have softened to your desired taste, add the lemon zest and the chilli flakes
7. Drizzle a little extra olive oil over the dish and serve
❃ On my first selection of Vegetables of the Rich and Famous Celia commented: “Hoping to sneak in under your riff-raff radar, I’d like to offer courgette slices lightly floured, then fried in olive oil and good butter, until crisp on the outside but meltingly soft on the inside. Sea salt sprinkled over adds to the deliciousness.” Indeed it does.
PETER USTINOV: Okroshka (cold soup of Russian origin).
Ustinov was one of the 20th century’s leading contenders for the role of Renaissance Man: playwright, author of stories and novels, screenwriter, actor on the stage and in films (two Academy Awards), cultural ambassador, humorist and raconteur … He was proud of his Russian heritage, writing books and hosting tv series on the subject. He died in 2004 and is greatly missed.
Ingredients (serves 4)
• 1 tbsp. each minced green and white parts of scallions
• ½ tsp. dried tarragon
• 10 radishes, minced
• ½ tsp. dried tarragon
• 1 tbsp. minced fresh dill (or 1 tsp. dried)
• 1 tbsp. each vinegar and lemon juice
• 1½ tsps. of salt
• 1 tsp. of freshly ground pepper
• ½ cup sour cream
• 2 hard-cooked egg yolks, mashed
• 1 tsp. prepared mustard (or horseradish
• ½ cup cooked mashed potatoes
• 1 No. 10½ can undiluted chicken broth (or beef consommé)
• 1½ cups dry white wine (or beer)
• 2 small cucumbers, peeled and very finely minced
• 2 hard-cooked egg whites, mashed
• ½ cup crushed ice
1. Combine scallions and radishes with herbs, vinegar, lemon juice and seasonings.
2. In a separate bowl blend sour cream, egg yolks, mustard, potatoes, chicken broth and wine. (If beer is used add just before serving.) Stir in scallion mixture, blend well. Cover tightly, refrigerate at least 3 hrs. Spoon into flat soup plates. Divide cucumbers, egg whites and crushed ice evenly in each plate. Serve with slices of sour rye bread or dark pumpernickel lightly spread with sweet butter.
Thoughts: Russian cooks traditionally chop the vegetables very finely but American cooks can accomplish the same with a blender. [The rest of us can do it with a blender too –RGJ]
VICTORIA WOOD: Cauliflower. In her own words, this recipe makes The Best Cauliflower Soup Ever Made.
The death of Victoria Wood in 2016 deprived us of a huge talent much too soon. Pace the recipe reproduced below she may not have been well-known outside the UK but she was hugely admired — loved — here. I personally liked her rv sketch-shows best, especially the ones featuring the spot-on parody of bad soap operas Acorn Antiques, but I never missed her musical performances and her appearances as a stand-up comedienne. Later in her life she concentrated more on tv drama, variously as writer, producer and actor, always good in every capacity and the recipient of several awards for this work. An amazing woman.
I’ve seen this recipe in a couple of places online but haven’t been able to trace its original source. Did Victoria contribute it to some celebrity cookbook or tv show? The screenshot below is as close as I can get to an explanation. I’d guess that the recipe is genuine — it seems characteristically Victorian, so to speak — and anyway it’s a good one.
PHILIP WORKMAN: Vegetarian pizza. Far from rich but briefly famous in 2007, Workman made headlines worldwide when he was sentenced to death by lethal injection for killing a policeman while robbing a Wendys hamburger joint in Nashville, but when offered the usual last meal of his own choosing said that he didn’t want one and instead would like the prison to give a large vegetarian pizza to a homeless person.
The prison officials denied his request but on May 9, 2007 as Workman was being executed, homeless shelters across Tennessee received massive numbers of vegetarian pizzas from people all over the country honoring Workman’s last meal request. “Philip Workman was trying to do a good deed and no one would help him,” said one woman who, together with friends, donated $1200 worth of pizzas to Nashville’s Rescue Mission.
❃ Back home, and less dramatically, the Papa John pizza chain do a pretty good veggie pizza which they call ‘Garden Party’, but when there’s time I like to buy a good-quality vegetable pizza from a posh supermarket and augment it with a selection of sliced Mediterranean vegetables, fresh home-grown basil and oregano, and lots more cheese before heating it up in the oven. Yum yum. I don’t drink much these days but this practically begs to be washed down with a glass or two of red wine.
I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that I’ve never made a pizza from scratch.
If you’d like to send me a recipe of your own please email me via the Contact panel at the top [or here]. Your Comments are also welcome, of course.
As an inveterate reader with very eclectic tastes I often come across odd scraps of information and things that simply please me or interest me in one way or another, and sometimes I remember to note them down as well as odd things I’ve noticed in real life. Here’s a fairly random selection.
Advice: Never stick your hand in a pike’s mouth [–Daily Mail last weekend]
Antisimile: Raymond Chandler once described Los Angeles as “a city with all the personality of a paper cup.” If a simile is an explicit likening of one thing to another, an antisimile — my own proposed term — tells us that something does not possess a particular attribute by likening it to something else that lacks it, usually in a sarcastic, wisecracking way, as when Dorothy Parker wrote that a book by Margot Asquith had “all the depth and glitter of a worn dime.”
“Welcome as a snowflake in hell.” [–anon, 1920s]
“Denis Quilley played the role with all the charm and animation of the leg of a billiard table.” [–Bernard Levin]
“She informs us that she moved to Italy in order to escape an incestuous passion for her brother –- but relates it with all the excitement of someone describing a head cold.” [–from a review in The Guardian]
“… about as useful as an ashtray on a motor-bike” [–Spike Mullins]
and a late entry heard on tv the other day:
“Gordon Brown: a man with all the carefree joie de vivre of a haunted cave in Poland.” [–Cunk on Britain]
‘Build back better’: A slogan much used by politicians in recent months to indicate a determination to reform after things have gone wrong in one way or another, even when they’ve caused the damage themselves. Joe Biden is using it to describe his proposed stimulus package. A variation on it, #rebuildbetter, has been used by the US solar industry in a joint letter to congress asking for an extension of the Solar Tax Credit. And it’s being used by governments elsewhere too. The UK, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, and the OECD have all used the phrase in reference to green recovery plans. I wonder if the Taliban are now saying that they’re going to build Afghanistan back better. [Thanks to Paul Petzold for drawing my attention to this phrase].
Censorship: It was still rife in the late 1960s particularly where sexual matters were concerned when I started to get my stuff published, but I suffered from it only once when a speech-bubble in a comic strip I’d drawn was altered by a cowardly printer:
I’ve always wanted to change this back when the strip has been reprinted but never had the opportunity to do so. I think the customers should get the fucks they’ve paid for.
Churchgoing: “Went to church by myself. The clergyman preached an odd sermon. Said the devil laid eggs in us. An unpleasant idea.” —Mary Gladstone, from her diary (31st March, 1872)
Diastema: “Diastema refers to a gap or space between the teeth. These spaces can form anywhere in the mouth, but are sometimes noticeable between the two upper front teeth.” (–Healthline.com). Elvis Presley had this condition as an adolescent and had his teeth capped as soon as he started making serious money. Marilyn Monroe sufered from diastema too and had a tiny bridge made which she inserted when she was being filmed or professionally photographed. The candid photo on the right below, taken during the filming of River of No Return (1954), shows the gap and also that she was a secret smoker.
From some website: “If you have a gap between your front teeth, you’re in luck – at least according to the French. They call the teeth on either side of a gap dents du bonheur or dents de la chance. While many cultures consider the gap unattractive and something to be fixed, chez les Françaises it’s fashionable and alluring.”
Dieting: Philip Larkin pointed out that we put on weight by eating food that we like, but he didn’t make the corollary suggestion that if we ate only food we don’t like we’d soon get slimmer. If I had to live exclusively on beetroot and sardines I’d be as thin as a whip, and very miserable.
Double-entendre: Curiously, the French don’t use this term. There are a few other French-sounding terms in English that are scarcely known to the French, e.g. cul de sac, cause célèbre, encore, fait accompli, negligée … and their expressions for what we call a double-entendre — mot/expression à) double entente and (mot/expression à) double sens — don’t have the same suggestiveness.
We Brits seem to like our innuendo more than most other nations. There was recently an entertaining article on the subject in The Guardian [read it here], and I personally don’t think the #MeToo movement will make any difference. We’ll carry on sniggering at soggy bottoms and tenderized rumps regardless as we sink slowly into the sea.
Elephants, dead: Reading Steve Aylett’s Lint — wildly funny and highly recommended — I came across this affecting little poem:
an elephant mended
is a tusker befriended
an elephant dead
is as big as a shed
which reminded me of the elephant-funeral sequence in the movie Santa Sangre when the circus folk have an elaborate ceremony for their beloved elephant carrying their late chum to his rest in an enormous coffin, which is indeed as big as a shed, and quite a large shed at that. It’s a sequence that’s both hilarious and quite moving, though the rest of the movie wasn’t so good.
Entropy: This concept was central to New Worlds magazine during the time that I was involved with it (I wrote about it here), and I was interested to come across this ancient text showing that such concerns go back a long way:
“… the world has now grown old, and does not abide in that strength in which it formerly stood. This we would know, even if the sacred Scriptures had not told us of it, because the world itself announces its approaching end by its failing powers. In the winter there is not so much rain for nourishing the seeds, and in the summer the sun gives not so much heat for ripening the harvest. In springtime the young corn is not so joyful, and the autumn fruit is sparser. Less and less marble is quarried out of the mountains, which are exhausted by their disembowelments, and the veins of gold and silver are dwindling day by day. The husbandman is failing in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp. Honesty is no longer to be found in the market-place, nor justice in the law-courts, nor good craftsmanship in art, nor discipline in morals. Think you that anything which is old can preserve the same powers that it possessed in the prime vigour of its youth? Whatever is tending towards its decay and going to meet its end must needs weaken. Hence the setting sun sends out rays that hardly warm or cheer, the waning moon is a pale crescent, the old tree that once was green and hung with fruit grows gnarled and barren, and every spring in time runs dry. This is the sentence that has been passed on the earth, this is God’s decree: that everything which has flourished shall fail, that strong things shall become weak, and great things shall become small, and that when they have weakened and dwindled they shall be no more. So no one should wonder nowadays that everything begins to fail, since the whole world is failing, and is about to die.” [—St Cyprian (circa 250 AD) translated by Rebecca West, from St Augustine (1933)]
Epenthesis: During the recent spell of football mania here in the UK I’ve repeatedly heard Wembley spoken as Wemberly, and in recent months have heard athaletics, arthuritis and even emberlem (for ’emblem’) too. The rhetorical term for the insertion of an extra sound into a word is epenthesis, from the Greek ‘putting in’. According to some linguists, “vowel epenthesis is often motivated by the need to make consonant contrasts more distinct” (–The Handbook of Speech Perception). I think it was Tony Gubba back in the 1970s who abandoned any notion of pronouncing ‘hat-trick’ as two separate words, opting instead for hatrick, rhyming it with Patrick, and most other sports commentators have since followed his lazy example, though I suppose hatrick is better than hattertrick.
Fan mail: Here’s a letter received by John Lennon at the height of his fame with The Beatles, though whether the writer was really a fan is debatable:
I should have written to you years ago. I might have avoided a great deal of suffering and unhappiness if I had. As you know very well a brain operation was carried out on me by the Queen in 1959 whereby a person was enabled to pick up my thoughts in his head. From the very start I was writing songs and he put them on tape and sold them to singers, songwriters, and recording companies who copy-writed them and recorded them. As you probably know it was my idea to form the Beatles; I chose the name and specified that the group should come from Liverpool (as close as I dare come to Belfast). Needless to say when I suggested letting Lennon & McCartney claim to have written the songs, I really didn’t want to be famous — I did want the money. Over the years I have probably written songs worth hundreds of millions pounds but have received not a penny for them. I am at present living on £11.35 per week invalidity benefit. Do you not consider that this is grossly unjust? I don’t need to write a list of the songs, — you will know very well which were written by me. I presume that all the songs which he sold to you were mine although he might have written a few himself. When I wrote “Give me money” I meant it. I intended to get a fair share of the massive profits which were being made and expected to be offered a just cut of the takings. I thought I would complete my education first and worked hard to get to Cambridge where my ambition was to become a History don. As you know the results of the man in my mind were that I got very depressed and lost my concentration and was lucky to get a degree. I stopped writing songs — “Vincent” was my last. He proceeded to operate again on me — this time in an attempt to kill me’
I am trying not to blackmail you although I gather that blackmail has been very very rampant and understandably. I don’t want to recover that money — I am prepared to write it off, as long as I get 50% of the money still around. I write to you because you are the most intelligent of the four and I hope you I will not have to write to them or even to you again.
Do reply and I will burn your letter. As I say only want ½ million from you. The rest should come from him. If you cooperate the whole agreement should be sewn up in a few weeks and I will never bring it up again.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Ferrets: I recently posted this on my Facebook page: “In the newsagents the other day there was a young woman with a small furry creature scurrying about on the end of a lead. It didn’t seem to be a dog or a cat so I asked what it was. It’s a ferret, she said. I’d never seen a ferret before and asked if it was friendly. Oh yes, she said, and picked it up and let me stroke it: such a beautiful creature, much like the one in the photo, and indeed very friendly and very happy to be lead along the pavement as she continued her shopping. And now I’m seriously thinking of getting a ferret of my own.”
This produced an astonishing set of responses offering advice about ferrets as pets, some against the idea (“they stink”) and some encouraging me to go ahead (“They’re lovely friendly creatures,” “Get two,” etc.). When I post about serious social or political issues the reaction is usually tepid at best, but when it’s about cute furry creatures …
Heliotrope: “… the only flower whose name sounds like a Victorian flying machine” [–from Lint by Steve Aylett]
Japan: has a Penis Festival. It’s called Kanamara Matsuri, which means “the festival for the phallus of steel”. It’s celebrated every year on the first Sunday of April. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, is reflected in illustrations, confectionary, carved vegetables, decorations, and a parade with a mikoshi (portable shrine). I’ve never been to Japan and it’s unlikely that I ever will, but if I did go it would be to see original prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, to see Mount Fuji itself and perhaps some exquisite gardens, and by way of diversion maybe take a ride on the bullet train — but I certainly wouldn’t want to get caught up in any penis festival. Nothing against such things, of course, but definitely not for me.
Kudos: Recently I’ve come across several websites which invite me to click on a button which grants them one kudo by way of approbation. I don’t, because I know that kudos is a singular noun from the Greek, like chaos and pathos, and it’s pronounced koo-doss, not koo-doze. Just as there is no such thing as a chao or a patho there’s no such thing as a kudo.
Spaghetti, on the other hand, isn’t a singular noun: a single strand of spaghetti is a spaghetto.
Lucy Mangan: I’ve been a fan since first reading her in The Guardian some years ago, and she continues to hit the nail on the head, as in her column last Saturday:
Somehow, as one looks at the empty supermarket shelves as food rots in our fields, the growing shortage of medical equipment, the increasing entrenchment of mask and vaccine refuseniks, news of Christmas supplies being threatened by the 90,000 lorry driver vacancies, McDonald’s running out of milkshake, companies asking to use prisoners to make up for the lack of labour, it becomes harder and harder to keep the faith about anything at all.
–Exactly how I feel myself. I greatly enjoyed her reminiscences of childhood reading in Bookworm too — and on her Guardian recommendation I’ve just started watching Kevin Can F**k Himself on Amazon Prime. Seems promising, though so far it hasn’t actually made me laugh much.
Marilyn Monroe: For my previous post [here] I found a picture of Marilyn eating a carrot but I’ve now found the better one above, showing her not only wielding a carrot but also reading a book. She was a keen reader and in a future post I hope to show that she was by no means the dumb blonde she was often made out to be.
Neighbours: I’m fortunate to have two places where I can stay. At one of them the neighbours are friendly and when we get together we’re relaxed and have a nice time, but at the other my neighbours treat me as a pariah and make things unpleasant for me in various ways — yet I’m the same mild, inoffensive person in both places. This puzzles me and weighs rather heavily on me, and I don’t know what to do about it.
New Zealand’s finest export: undoubtedly Eric Partridge, the lexicographer, who compiled dictionaries all by himself long before the age of computers, the internet and whole departments busily monitoring the English language. His Slang Today and Yesterday is one of the most diverting books I possess, with expressions like these (from the Yesterday section) which I reproduce verbatim:
Admiral of the Narrow Seas — a man spewing into another’s lap
Bag of Mystery — a cheap sausage
Dine Out with Duke Humphrey — to go dinnerless
Eel-Skins — very tight trousers
Ferricadouzer — a knock-out blow, a thrashing
Little Grey Home in the West — vest
No Milk in One’s Coconut — brainless
Rhinocerical — rich
Think Tank, Have Bubbles in One’s — be crazy (motorists)
Tulip-Sauce — a kiss
Umble-Cum-Stumble — to “rumble”; understand, suspect, detect
‘Oblivious’: Oblivion ought to be about forgetting, from the Latin obliviosus “forgetful, that easily forgets; producing forgetfulness” via the French oublier, to forget, but to forget something one has to have known it in the first place so it really makes no sense to use the adjective oblivious to mean ‘unaware’, as here:
You know the person who’s walking down the street, totally oblivious to the fact they have bird muck on their shoulder?
Until a serious event occurs, such as a heart attack, many people live life oblivious to the fact that they even had high cholesterol as it does not present warning symptoms.
This usage is now very widespread so should I stop bitching about forgetfulness when I come across it? With a sad little sigh, yes.
Rhyming slang: I recently came across the suggestion that scarper, meaning run away, leave, scram, might be rhyming slang from Scapa Flow (=go). Could be.
Satanists, unexpected: Sammy Davis Jr. was one: “… for a time, I became a Satanist. I was introduced to some very interesting people, including the head of the Satanist Church in the States, and became fascinated by their philosophy. I actually joined the church to find out what I could about their beliefs. As it turned out, it was a short-lived interest, but I still have many friends in the Church of Satan. In Amsterdam, for instance, the Satanists are very strong and they never fail to send a deputation to see me as soon as I get into town.” —from his autobiography Hollywood in a Suitcase (1980)
Serial killers: Almost twice as many are born in November than in any other month. (I was born in May.)
“So”: Why do young people begin nearly every utterance with this word? I’m tempted to reply “So what?” but of course am much too polite to do that.
“So fun”: an Americanism that seems to have spread to these shores, replacing our own more grammatical ejaculation “Such fun!” — or so I thought until I happened to look at the text of The Tempest for a piece that I was writing about Shakespeare and found this:
Ferdinand: … for several virtues
Have I liked several women; never any
With so fun soul, but some defect in her
Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed
And put it to the foil: but you, O you,
So perfect and so peerless, are created,
Of every creature’s best!
Sootikins: A sootikin is a “small, mouse-shaped deposit formed in the vaginal cleft, usually of poorer women who did not wear undergarments — common until the nineteenth century. A sootikin built up over several weeks, even months, of not washing. It was composed of particles of soot, dirt, sweat, smegma and vaginal and menstrual discharge. When it reached a certain size and weight it tended to work loose and drop from under the woman’s skirt.” [– from The Dictionary of Disgusting Facts by Alan Williams and Maggie Noach] I’m glad to say that I’ve never come across a sootikin — my intimate friends have always been very clean, though not everyone is so fastidious: remember Napoleon’s letter to Josephine (“I’m on my way home. Don’t wash.”).
Symphorophilia: Sexual arousal from causing or witnessing disasters such as car crashes. J.G. Ballard explored this phenomenon in his 1973 novel Crash long before the term was coined.
Tabasco: A word of Mexican Indian origin meaning “damp earth” or “place where the soil is humid”. Such earth is favourable for the cultivation of the peppers that are made into the famous sauce.
“Tuh”: Current pronunciation of “to” by posh people, tending to linger on the vowel-sound as in the first bit of turd. Boris Johnson is a major tuh-er, as we’ve found during his many tv appearances during the recent pandemic. You’d have thought they’d teach them better pronunciation at Eton and Oxford.
Vegetables: I spent more time than I care to admit researching my previous blog piece Vegetables of the Rich and Famous and its successors (there are going to be successors). Why? I’m not a vegetarian, though I might be heading that way, and not especially star-struck. I suppose it’s because I’m eating less meat these days and looking for new ideas and getting a bit obsessed with it. Luckily these obsessions don’t tend to last very long though this one is proving more resilient than most, and other people are now sending me recipes and suggestions, which is nice. I plan to include some contributions from non-famous chums in the next piece, so if you, dear reader, have a particularly good vegetable recipe do send it along,
Worst line in a movie?: “Fish, I love you and I respect you very much.” spoken by Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea (1958), script by Peter Viertel from the story by Ernest Hemingway. I think that auditioning actors should be asked to say this line with as much conviction as they can muster.
Yorkshire pudding: “My mother would make a Yorkshire pudding the size of a football field, and my father and I would tuck into this Sunday feast: Yorkshire pudding with gravy, Yorkshire pudding with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding with treacle.” [— Michael Parkinson in last Sunday’s Observer]. That’s how it was in my Yorkshire childhood too, though my sister and I were sometimes allowed to have jam instead of treacle on the last course.
Zoophobia: a fear of animals. Most of the time, this fear is directed at a specific type of animal. [–Healthline]
Being extracts from my forthcoming masterwork in 12 de luxe volumes coming next year from Stroud & Greene, publishers of fine works for the gentry.
BEN AFFLECK: Carrots. This recipe for pan-seared carrots with maple and thyme comes from Makini Howell of Plum Bistro in Seattle who says that it’s a great favorite of Ben Affleck‘s, which seems plausible as Howell has served dinner for Affleck and his wife Jennifer Garner in their home, and he also cooks for Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix and a host of other celebs.
“We can see [says the website] why either Affleck brother would gobble these carrots down. Thanks to maple syrup, chopped garlic and smoked tofu, each bite is sweet, savory and smoky all at once, not to mention vegan (the younger Affleck has been vegan for more than 15 years). Howell says Phoenix is also a fan of the dish.” I am too.
Howell specializes in vegetarian and vegan food, and is happy to share his recipe here.
Marilyn Monroe was another carrot fan, but she preferred them raw: see below.
LINDSAY ANDERSON: Brussels sprouts. Not the most popular vegetable but I quite like them myself and have even been known to cook and eat them at times other than Christmas, but Lindsay Anderson the theatre and film director really liked them. He ate them several times a week himself and bullied his friends and the actors in his productions into eating them too, giving detailed instructions on the (in his view) correct method of cooking them, insisting amongst other things that the stem of each sprout should be scored with a cross before cooking. Delia, however, says that doing this makes no difference at all to the cooking time or the flavour and I tend to agree with her, though I still do it.
BEYONCÉ: Avocado. This recipe for guacamole is the only recipe that the popular songstress has ever published, and it’s good and very easy to make. Peel two ripe avocados and remove the stones, then break them to fragments with a spoon in a bowl. Chop up one small onion, one small tomato and one clove of garlic and add them to the bowl. Add a couple of tablespoons of lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Put the bowl in the fridge for about 20 minutes before serving with corn chips.
BRIAN BEHAN: Lettuce. The Irish writer and raconteur, brother of Brendan and Dominic once said “I had cancer of the arse and I cured it by drinking Brighton sea-water and eating lettuce.” Make what you will of that remarkable assertion. See also Philip Larkin.
CAPTAIN BLIGH: Breadfruit. (Let’s not ignore it.)
The captain of HMS Bounty — then a mere Lieutenant — whose imperious manner provoked the famous mutiny of 1787 was actually on a mission to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti and transport them to the West Indies to feed the slaves there. Cast adrift by the mutineers in a small boat Bligh and few other officers eventually made landfall in what is now Indonesia, and he eventually got back to England to explain why he’d lost the Bounty. The wikipedia entry here gives a reasonably fair account of all this and of what became of the mutineers on Tahiti and Pitcairn Island. Not a pleasant story.
Bligh was exonerated of all blame and promoted to Captain — it seems that he was by no means the tyrant depicted in the movies of the mutiny, memorably so by Charles Laughton — and in 1791 was given another chance to obtain breadfruit for the Caribbean islands from Tahiti, and this time he was successful in transplanting a large number of trees, though the slaves didn’t much like breadfruit, preferring bananas.
Breadfruit — the taste is supposed to resemble freshly-baked bread, hence the name — is actually a versatile and very nourishing foodstuff which can be baked, steamed, boiled, fried, microwaved, grilled, barbecued … It really ought to be more popular than it is. This recipe for breadfruit curry is a good one, the video showing how to cut up the raw article (which I’d argue is much more of a vegetable than a fruit) before making it into a delicious meal.
JOAN COLLINS: Red beans. “This recipe is for people who give parties but don’t like to cook” says the glamorous actress. It’s called Red Bean Salad and it couldn’t be simpler: fry up some red onions in butter and when they are cool, mix them with cooked beans and sour cream. Sounds weird, tastes good.
The great jazz musician Louis Armstrong loved red beans and rice prepared in the New Orleans manner — he often nostalgically signed his letters “red beans and ricely yours” — but as his recipe contains ham hock it’s disqualified from this blog. Instead, here’s another another recipe for red food:
SALVADOR DALI: Red salad. The famous surrealist published various cookbooks which contain some outrageous — and completely impractical — dishes, included more for their shock value than usefulness, but while the recipe here goes for a visual effect — red, red and more red — it does actually work as a palatable dish, especially if you like red cabbage (which I do). This serves 4 for lunch or 8 as a first course
• 8 ounces red beets, diced
• 12 ounces red cabbage. finely grated
• 5 tablespoons heavy cream, chilled
• 3 tablespoons lemon juice
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 1 shallot, sliced
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Combine the cream, tomato paste, sugar, shallot and pepper. Beat with a whisk until mixture is light and foamy, about 3 minutes. Slowly beat in lemon juice. Place beets and cabbage in a bowl. Add dressing and mix well. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a bed of lettuce [says Dali, but I think radicchio would be more in keeping with the red theme) with hot French bread and a light red wine on the day it is made.
MARLENE DIETRICH: Potatoes. Seeing a revival of The Blue Angel at the local art cinema when I was a teenager made a great impression on me. (Seeing Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot at about the same time knocked me sideways, but anyway…) Marlene was an enthusiastic and expert cook, and if she’d lived longer she’d no doubt have published a celebrity cookbook in the USA where she lived and worked after fleeing the Nazis, but the only one that saw print was in her native Germany: Ick will wat Feinet (Berlin slang for “I want something good.”) by Georg A. Werth (2001), which contains her recipe for ‘potato salad Potsdam style’. Poking about online I found an earlier version of this in an old movie magazine — it was evidently a favourite of Marlene’s — and here I’ve blended the two, omitting the warm meat broth from the Werth version as we’re being veggies today. Vegetable stock should perhaps be used instead, as Marlene insisted that “the salad must be nice and moist!”
Wash six medium-sized potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until soft. Cool, remove the skins and cut into very thin slices. Cover the bottom of a baking dish with the potatoes, seasoning with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with finely-chopped celery and finely-chopped parsley [and slices of cucumber and green pepper, and finely-chopped onions too in the Werth version], and work into the potatoes. Mix two tablespoons each of tarragon and cider vinegar and four tablespoons of olive oil, and add one slice of lemon cut one-third thick. Bring to the boiling point, pour over the potatoes [with the veg stock], cover, and let stand in the oven until thoroughly warmed.
GRETA GARBO: Okra, also known as lady’s fingers. The silent movie star Dagmar Godowsky knew the reclusive actress and said: “Isn’t it funny, you remember certain habits of people. What they liked to eat; She liked — what is it, that Southern vegetable? … Stravinsky loved pistachio ice cream. I can’t see pistachio ice cream without thinking of Stravinsky, and … Garbo loved okra! She could eat that every day. She loved it.”
I once cooked some okra to make a Creole Gumbo and found it revolting: slimy, horrible-looking and foul-tasting but above all slimy. I’m told that there’s a way of cooking okra that renders it crisp and delicious, but I can’t believe that this appalling plant could ever taste good so haven’t tried that.
ALLEN GINSBERG: Beetroot. The famous beat poet made a lot of soup, often a vegatarian version of borcht, which of course consists mostly of beets. His recipe goes like this: boil two big bunches of chopped beets and beet greens for one hour in two quarts of water with a little salt and a bay leaf, and one cup of sugar. When it’s cooled serve it with a bowl of sour cream, accompanied on the side (if you like) by hot or cold boiled potatoes and/or salad.
Ginsberg became fond of Indian cooking as he travelled around the world in the 1960s and on the way he learned how to cook aloo gobi, the classic cauliflower and potato dish, but since Gwyneth Paltrow seems to have bagged cauliflower as her celebrity vegetable on this blog may I direct you to the version by the excellent Felicity Cloake, whose recipes I follow avidly in The Guardian every Saturday. Here she is, and also from the wonderful world of Indian vegetable cookery here’s a recipe from
GEORGE HARRISON: Lentils. When the Beatles first became famous and were interviewed for the teen magazines they all said that their favourite meal was steak and chips, but when they moved down from Liverpool to London their tastes became more sophisticated. John Lennon was dubious when offered mangetout for the first time (“OK but put it on the side of the plate away from the food”), and George Harrison spoke of branching out into “the avocado scene”.
As the 1960s progressed the Beatles’ tastes developed still further. John met Yoko Ono and they adopted a macrobiotic diet, though they both gorged on caviar. Paul McCartney and his wife Linda became very high-profile vegetarians, while George became interested in Indian music and religion — and food. Ringo seemed happy with his baked beans.
Unlike the McCartneys, George wasn’t one for publishing vegetarian recipes all over the place but he did share one for what he called ‘Dark Horse Lentil Soup’ with Mary Frampton for her book Rock and Roll Recipes (1979), and here it is:
• 1 red chilli
• 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
• 2 large onions, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1 cup lentils
• 2 large tomatoes, chopped
• 2 green peppers, chopped
• 1 bay leaf
• Salt and pepper to taste
Directions. Heat a small amount of oil in frying pan. When oil is hot, add chili and cumin seeds. When seeds stop sputtering, brown onions and garlic in heated oil. Wash lentils well and cover with water. Add browned onions to pan of lentils. Add tomatoes, peppers, bay leaf, plus salt and pepper. Bring to boil, cover, then turn down to a very low heat. The soup is ready to serve in an hour and tastes even better the next day.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: Peas. When he wasn’t busy drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence, buying Louisiana for the nation, founding the University of Virginia or having affairs and spawning children with some of his 6oo black slaves, the 3rd President of the USA liked to grow peas. He was no dilettante pea-grower, however, cultivating as many as fifteen types of English pea on his estate at Monticello, and his frequent jottings on these vegetables in his Garden Book indicate that he paid particular attention to this pursuit, happily noting when “peas come to table.” By staggering the planting of different varieties Jefferson was able to eat them fresh from the garden from the middle of May to the middle of July.
This wasn’t just because Jefferson liked peas. He also entered an annual local contest to see which farmer could bring to table the first peas of spring. The winner had to invite the other contestants to a lavish dinner that included the peas. Though Jefferson’s mountaintop garden, with its southern exposure to warmth and light, should have provided an advantage for the contest, the contest was almost always won by a neighbour named George Divers.
I hope that some of the slaves who actually grew the peas managed to sneak a few for themselves when Jefferson wasn’t looking.
I’m tempted to include the late Linda McCartney’s recipe for pea soup here which I think was her first published recipe long before she turned herself into a brand, but it’s much the same as George Harrison’s lentil soup (and comes from the same source), so if you want a good thick pea soup just follow George’s instructions substituting split peas for lentils.
JOAN JETT: Tomatoes. “A lot of vegetarian food is repulsive. Take quiche and soufflé -– why would you eat that?” says the feisty rock star. ” I like pasta with good olive oil and garlic. I also love tomatoes and make a great passata to go on top.” See also Elvis Presley.
PHILIP LARKIN: Lettuce. The poet/librarian liked to read while he was dining alone in his flat, as he generally did, and found that the ideal meal for this purpose was macaroni cheese, because it took about 20 minutes to prepare (this was before the advent of microwave ovens), which was just enough time to sink a couple of stiff gin and tonics and play a few of his favourite jazz records, and when it was cooked he didn’t have to pay attention to what he was spearing on his fork because with macaroni cheese “it’s all the same.” On the rare occasion when he entertained guests, however, he made no attempt to cook for them and fed them with lettuce sandwiches. The reaction of his guests to such fare is not recorded. See also Brian Behan.
MARINETTI: Fennel. The Italian Futurist published a cookbook in 1932 which contains the following recipe for ‘Aerofood’: “The diner is served from the right with a plate containing some black olives, fennel hearts and kumquats. From the left he is served with a rectangle made of sandpaper, silk and velvet. The foods must be carried directly to the mouth with the right hand while the left hand lightly and repeatedly strokes the tactile rectangle. In the meantime the waiters spray the nape of the diner’s neck with a conprofumo [perfume] of carnations while from the kitchen comes contemporaneously a violent conrumore [music] of an aeroplane motor and some dismusica [music] by Bach.” [–translated into English by Suzanne Brill]
MEGHAN MARKLE: Zucchini — baby marrow, better known in the UK as courgette. Lately there’s been a bit of a fad for zoodles, noodles made from zucchini which have the advantage of being gluten-free [see here if you’re interested], but the Duchess of Suffolk has her own way with this vegetable, which is to slow-cook it for several hours with a little bouillon until it turns to a “filthy, sexy mush” and then use this as a pasta sauce with nothing else added: no oil or butter, but you can add a sprinkling of parmesan cheese on the top if you like.
It sounds and looks disgusting but it’s actually very tasty. Do try it. Go on.
You know you want to.
MARILYN MONROE: Carrots again. Marilyn told a journalist that her evening meal was almost always the same — some sort of meat with raw carrots. “My dinners at home are startlingly simple. Every night I stop at the market and pick up a steak, lamb chops or some liver, which I broil in the oven. I usually eat four or five raw carrots with my meat, and that’s all,” she said. “I must be part rabbit, I never get bored with raw carrots,” adding that she always saved room for dessert.
Re carrots: Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder and CEO, avoided meat and had many strange dietary fads, at one time eating so many carrots that he started to turn orange. Marilyn, clever girl, seems to have avoided this.
See Ben Affleck’s entry above for another way of enjoying carrots.
GWYNETH PALTROW: Cauliflower. One of the best summer recipes from Gwyneth’s recent cookbook It’s All Easy is for Cauliflower Tabbouleh. Goes very well with her Falafel. This recipe serves 4-6 as a side dish.
• ½ medium head of cauliflower
• 1 small garlic clove, very finely grated or minced
• Juice of 1 small lemon, plus more to taste
• ¼ cup olive oil, plus more to taste
• A pinch of Aleppo pepper
• A pinch of salt, plus more to taste
• About half an English cucumber, seeded and cut into ½-inch pieces (1 cup)
• ⅓ cup chopped fresh parsley
• ⅓ cup chopped fresh mint
• ⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro
• 2 scallions, thinly sliced
To make the cauliflower “couscous,” break the cauliflower into florets, then pulse in a food processor 10 to 15 times for 1 to 2 seconds each time. Stop when the cauliflower has been broken down into pieces the size of quinoa or couscous. In the bottom of your serving bowl, whisk together the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, Aleppo pepper, and a pinch of salt. Add the cauliflower, cucumber, herbs, and scallions and toss to combine. Season with salt, more lemon juice, and olive oil to taste.
Allen Ginsberg (see above) liked cauliflower too.
ELVIS PRESLEY: Tomatoes. It may come as something of a surprise that Elvis ate any vegetables at all given the appalling state of his health and his huge appetite for hamburgers, ice cream and his favourite fried sandwiches of which he could stuff down a dozen or more at a sitting, but his regular breakfast consisted of burnt bacon, Spanish omelette, biscuits — the American kind resembling bread rolls — and tomatoes: “A sure way to the King’s heart was with a big plate of sliced beefsteak tomatoes.” [–Brenda Arlene Butler in Are You Hungry Tonight? Elvis’s Favorite Recipes] Although he sang about polk salad I don’t think Elvis ever actually ate the ghastly stuff. See also Joan Jett.
VINCENT PRICE: Corn (off the cob). When we were old enough to pass for 18 some of us used to bunk off school in the afternoons to go and watch horror films in the local fleapit which often featured Vincent Price in some adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe, and we loved his over-the-top acting in roles like Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death and many another. It wasn’t until some years later that I discovered that he was actually a very cultivated fellow, a connoisseur of art and music, a decent actor when given a good part, and a real gourmet with several excellent cookbooks to his credit. This recipe for Elote con Crema a la Mexicana (Mexican creamed corn) comes from A Treasury of Great Recipes which he compiled with his wife Mary in 1965, and which has proved to be the most popular item on this blog which collects movie-stars’ recipes: dozens of them. Here’s this one:
1. In a skillet melt 4 tablespoons butter.
2. Add 1 medium onion, chopped (4 tablespoons), and 1 clove garlic, minced. Sauté until onion is lightly browned.
3. Add the kernels cut from 8 ears of fresh corn, 4 chilies poblanos, thinly sliced [green peppers will do at a pinch], ½ teaspoon salt, and ¾ cup diced Swiss or Muenster cheese.
4. Cover with a towel and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
Serve the corn with a bowl of sour cream on the side. A generous spoonful on top of each portion is delicious.
MARY SHELLEY: Kale. When she wasn’t thinking about graveyards, body parts and horrid electrical experiments the author of Frankenstein quite often thought about kale. Her husband Percy (the poet) was careless of his health. “He could have lived on bread alone without repining,” his biographer Richard Henry Stoddard wrote. “Vegetables, and especially salads … were acceptable,” and the vegetable was often kale, which like most other people at the time she saw not as a health-giving comestible but as a comfort food. When her aunt Everina fell ill, Mary, far away in Rome, persuaded a friend to put together a care package for her: “jelly, oranges, sponge-cakes and her favourite kale.” Kale became a frequent gift.
The excellent Paper and Salt blog (from which most of this information comes) says that ‘Kale had a vogue for some time as a “miracle food” – which it is not –- but it was around long before the fad. In fact, it was commoner than cabbage in Britain for centuries as a basic green vegetable. Young kale used to be chopped up into what we called “spring greens” (along with colewort), when I was a boy. There is the secret for kale and for colewort (called collards in the US). If you let the leaves grow big, they also get tough and hard to cook. But if you cut them young in the spring, they are tender and easy to cook. That means you have to grow them yourself of course. Commercial greens are always going to be old and tough(er).
‘The simplest way to prepare kale is to strip the leaves from their stalks by hand and to rip them up into small pieces. Wash the pieces thoroughly and then put them into a pot with the water still clinging to them. Cover tightly and steam until tender. With young leaves, this is not a long process, but will take trial and error. Drain and mix into the greens some olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and minced garlic. Reheat for a few minutes, and serve. Even Shelley would like that dish. If you want to get fancier, serve the kale with poached egg on top – or add some chopped ham in with the kale.’
NED SHERRIN: Artichokes. The innovative producer and broadcaster was fond of artichoke and parsley soup, which he made himself every December (“I like to have a good thick soup on the go at this time of year.”) I like to do that too, and I often make a wonderful thick vegetable soup in the winter months from a recipe I clipped from a newspaper years ago, but as I’m personally neither rich nor famous I’ll have to find an excuse to share that with you another time.
LEO TOLSTOY: Cucumber. In Blessings in Disguise, one of his volumes of autobiography, Alec Guinness tells a story that he heard from Sydney Cockerell: “In 1903, when Tolstoy was living at Yasnaya Polyana, Sydney had an opportunity of visiting him there […] When he arrived at the Tolstoy home he was shown down to the apple orchard, where the entire family was taking tea. He said they were all sitting or lying in long grass under the trees, drinking tumblers of black tea and eating cucumbers spread with honey. The samovar was crooked, the conversation nil, the only sounds were of hissing steam, bees and the crunching of cucumbers.” I haven’t tried this as I dislike honey and think it would just spoil the cucumber, which I do like especially with a good vinaigrette, but for literary honey-lovers a plate of these offered to guests might make an interesting and unusual hors d’oeuvre.
MARK WAHLBERG: Macaroni salad. The actor, producer, and as Marky Mark a former rapper once said “Nobody makes pasta salad like my mama,” but thanks to his brother Paul, a chef, we can have a shot at their late mother Alma’s speciality, though note that the quantities given here make enough for a dozen people.
• 1 pound elbow macaroni
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder
• 1 teaspoon celery salt
• ¾ cup mayonnaise
• ½ cup finely-diced green bell pepper
• ½ cup finely-diced celery
• 3 tablespoons diced red onion (optional)
• 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
• Salt and freshly ground pepper
Step 1 In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the macaroni until al dente. Drain, then rinse the macaroni until cool. Drain very well. Step 2 In a large bowl, toss the macaroni with the oil. Add the garlic powder, celery salt and mayonnaise and toss to coat. Stir in the green pepper, celery, onion and parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill before serving.
FOREST WHITAKER: Asparagus, green beans, and hearts of palm. I’ll close this selection with a triple whammy of vegetables from this fine actor, aided and abetted by Martha Stewart. I was delighted to find this recipe as green beans are my own favourite vegetable and this is a really excellent way of serving them.
• ¼ cup white-wine vinegar
• ¼ cup vegetable oil
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill leaves
• Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 3 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and sliced crosswise
• 1 small onion, thinly sliced
• 1½ pounds asparagus, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
• ½ pound green beans, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
• 1 (7- or 8-ounce) can hearts of palm, rinsed, drained, and cut into ½-inch pieces
• 2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, seeded and cut into ½-inch pieces
• ½ small head iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced
Step 1 In a large bowl, whisk together vinegar, oil, sugar, and dill. Add cucumbers and onion, season with salt and pepper, and toss until well combined; set aside.
Step 2 Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt and return water to a boil. Prepare an ice-water bath; set aside. Place asparagus in boiling water; cook until just tender, 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer asparagus to ice-water bath for 1 minute, remove and pat dry; transfer to cucumber mixture. Add beans to the boiling water, and cook until just tender, 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer beans to the ice-water bath for 1 minute, remove and pat dry. Transfer beans to cucumber mixture along with hearts of palm, tomatoes, and lettuce. Season with salt and pepper; toss until well combined.
I was going to write about what’s happening with the pandemic here in the UK, but this piece from the latest Private Eye summarizes the situation better than I could.
Whether you think it is a good or bad idea, the UK is now living with high levels of Covid. This is down to a combination of a carefully planned and executed vaccine programme, which has given many adults the confidence of double protection, and a carelessly planned and executed border control programme which needlessly imported the Delta variant in very large numbers.
It is now spreading through those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, but the harm it is causing is more from short-term malaise and long Covid than widespread hospitalisation and death. Even the doubly vaccinated are not immune to (re)infection, and some will also suffer disabling long Covid.
Covid deaths and hospitalisations will inevitably rise as restrictions are lifted, particularly among the elderly and most vulnerable who had vaccinations last December and January, the protection from which start waning after six months. NHS workers are similarly being re-infected after early vaccination. The last thing they — and the UK — needed was a huge Delta wave before the autumn booster jabs. But nothing can stop it now.
By cock-up or design, we are letting hundreds of thousands of people catch the Delta variant, and crossing our fingers that the long-term consequences won’t be too bad.
The other day Michael Moorcock was kind enough to post a link to this blog on his Facebook page and it brought a lot of new readers here, for which I’m grateful. Quite a few of them seem to be interested in the goings-on of long ago, especially those connected with New Worlds® and its various characters, which is as surprising to me as it’s welcome. I’ve touched on these matters in a few earlier posts and I plan to write more along those lines, but in the meantime here’s a bit more about the magazine itself and my involvement with it.
New Worlds was launched as a professional magazine in 1946, which makes it the same age as me, but I didn’t learn of its existence until 1967 when I was at university and a group of us undergraduate psychologists were treated to a talk on science fiction by some self-styled expert whose name I’ve forgotten, and one of the questions at the end came from a bearded fellow at the back who was indignant that the lecturer had said nothing about the new wave in sf that was beginning to cause a stir in magazines like New Worlds (he said). This upstart proved to be a newly-arrived graduate student called Bob Marsden whom I got to know a bit. He was engaged in a project on creativity and for some reason decided to interview me as part of his research, though I had shown scant evidence of creativity at the time: some student journalism and a few appalling poems and short stories. Bob says that I’d be highly embarrassed to hear that tape now, which I can well believe. The poems and stories are staying right where they are, buried in ancient files.
At the time I was keenly interested in decadent literature from Wilde via Huysmans to Jarry, fancying myself as something of an aesthete and trying my hand at drawing in the manner of Beardsley and a few others, and I recall telling Bob that I was rather fixated in the 1890s, but that was by no means the whole picture. In fact I read all sorts of extra-curricular stuff at university, including a lot of writing by Kerouac and the other beats, Max Beerbohm, the complete Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer, Kafka, Flann O’Brien, Raymond Chandler, humorous pieces by Damon Runyon, S.J. Perelman and Dorothy Parker, and much much more. University shouldn’t just be about passing exams, boozing, and discovering that sex with a woman is actually possible, which for me at my Methodist boarding school it certainly hadn’t been.
I liked science fiction and imaginative writing generally (Poe, Haggard, Wells, Conan Doyle, Orwell, Huxley and Golding) but not much of the hard-core generic material had come my way. I’d read the books that were being published by Penguin — John Wyndham’s and the anthologies edited by Brian Aldiss, and a few other things — but not much else was available in Sheffield at the time. I bought a copy of Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell and from it made a list of the sf novels that looked as though they might be worth reading (Blish, Kornbluth, Bester), and couldn’t find any of them. But I got a nice surprise when my friend James told me that as a pupil at King Edward’s School in Birmingham he’d been presented with a set of books by one of the school’s old boys as a reward for something or other but they hadn’t been to his taste — they seemed to be all about elves, he said disgustedly — but they might be to mine, with my eccentric tastes in literature. This turned out to be The Lord of the Rings, and I was instantly hooked. James saw me enjoying his books and decided that perhaps he should give them another chance, and soon he was hooked too. We swapped the books to and fro until we both got to the same point in the story, then we went down to the pub to discuss it and drown our sorrows when Gandalf was killed by the balrog and speculate about whether Frodo would eventually make it to Mordor. I got hold of a copy of The Hobbit, which wasn’t easy to find at that time, and we devoured that too. In Sheffield there was no sign of New Worlds, however.
It wasn’t until I moved to London in 1967 that I actually set eyes on a copy of it. Some university friends were paying me a visit in my new surroundings (a spacious flat in Belsize Park shared with James and a colleague of his called Willoughby) and they said that I ought to meet some friends of theirs who lived nearby. Mike and Di were living in a tiny, dismal bedsit in Tufnell Park, and we hit it off instantly. They had dropped out of college and come to London where Mike was trying to make it as a writer, while to help them survive Di had got a job with Exquisite Form Brassières in an office behind Oxford Street. The initial bond was Tolkien. I’d acquired my own set of LotR and had now read it for a second time, but Mike had read it FIVE TIMES and he’d had a short story published in a fantasy magazine while still at college, and a tight friendship developed in which Mike and Di took me under their wing and in the process gave me a crash course in modern science fiction, amongst other things. Their bookcase held not only the three volumes of Tolkein but volumes from the Phoenix edition of D.H Lawrence, Dune (which Mike had specially requested as his 21st-birthday present), various works by Samuel Beckett, well-thumbed paperbacks by Thomas Pynchon, Samuel R. Delany, Alfred Bester and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and a couple of stout volumes bearing the name of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith on the spines — and much more besides. They also had a portable record player and albums by Dylan, Hendrix, Mayall with Eric Clapton, The Velvet Underground and — a particular favourite of theirs — Roy Harper. This seemed like a very good place to hang out.
Mike and Di read New Worlds avidly, and had not only the latest issues but a collection of earlier issues from the period when it was a paperback book published by Compact rather than a magazine, and soon I was buying and reading New Worlds myself and looking out for back numbers wherever I could find them, and from them I learned that it had quite an illustrious history. It had been brought into being by a group of science fiction fans in post-war London who felt that there should be a British sf magazine to rival the American ones that dominated the market, and after sort of pre-existence as an amateur mag it found a publisher and was launched as what is termed a prozine under the editorship of John Carnell, who everyone called Ted. [Note by the way that aficionados refer to this genre as sf (pronounced ‘ess-eff’) and never as sci-fi.] By the time I arrived in London Carnell was regarded by the younger generation as a bit of an old fogey but that was unfair, for he was a dedicated and at times inspirational editor, opening New Worlds’s doors not only to British writers like John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke and a host of new local talent but welcoming US writers like Harry Harrison, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley into its pages, some of whom were having difficulty getting their more adventurous stories accepted in their own country. New Worlds did well enough to spawn a sister publication too, Science Fantasy, also edited by Carnell, which published some interesting work including ‘Deep Fix’ by a young Michael Moorcock and the first appearance of his soon-to-be-famous character Elric.
The outstanding writer in the science fiction world was J.G. Ballard, whose dazzling early stories had been published in New Worlds in the 1950s and early 1960s by Ted Carnell and when he published ‘The Terminal Beach’ in 1964 it caused a sensation among the younger readers and effectively ushered in the New Wave. Under Mike and Di’s tutelage I soon caught up with all this, and when Michael Moorcock took over the editorship later that year and championed Ballard New Worlds became the New Wave’s home, attracting a roster of young writers who enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to experiment with new forms and subject-matter. Through Mike and Di I got to know quite a few of them. Some of them called at the Tufnell Park bedsit while I was there just hanging out. If we occasionally scraped together the money for a bottle of wine it was just the one and it had to be shared between all of us. Usually there was no money for more than the basic necessities to stay alive, though Di was ok for bras, and she made Mike a warm waistcoat by stitching together free carpet samples [photo to be inserted when I find it].
One frequent caller was Graham Hall who offered to buy Di from Mike for £100, and they were so broke that they considered this very seriously before eventually turning it down. Graham was richer than the rest of us as apart from his involvement with New Worlds — he’d had three short stories published in its pages and was sometimes billed as Assistant Editor, which made him a big shot in this little world — he wrote scripts for D.C. Thomson’s comics, mostly schoolgirl yarns for Bunty. This enabled him to buy a spanking new Hillman Imp, a tiny car for a big guy, in which he drove up to the head office in Dundee from time to time. He offered to show some of my lighter work to Thomson’s to see if I might cut it as an artist for the Beano or Dandy, but he never did, and I realized that as far as I was concerned Graham was playing manipulative and rather cruel games. He was a troubled person — family issues that we never really found out about — and was rather theatrically saying that he meant to drink himself to death, so he became known to us as ‘Deathwish’ Hall. Whatever. He didn’t like me, and I soon grew to dislike him right back.
By way of diversion Mike and Di took me to meet the established sf writer John Brunner at his luxurious flat in Frognall where he too was extremely rude to me for no obvious reason and with no provocation, but the real meeting-place was The Globe pub in Hatton Garden where sf writers and fans gathered on the first Thursday of every month, and there things were much more congenial.
Here I met, or at least set eyes on, people like Brian Aldiss, Chris Priest, Ted Carnell, Arthur C. Clarke, Ted Tubb, Tom Disch (who tried to chat me up but not being gay I demurred), John Sladek (who later became a good friend), and many more whose names and faces have faded into the mists of time. One surprise was hearing a voice saying “Hello Richard, what the hell are you doing here?” It was Bob Marsden down in London from Sheffield, who turned out to have known Mike and Di for some time and who was already a member of their little coterie. I saw a lot of Bob after that and he too became a close friend. Most significantly for me at the time, though, it was at The Globe that I first came across Michael Moorcock and Charles Platt — and I mean no disrespect to Mr Moorcock if I refer to him by his surname in what follows, as there’s already one Mike in this story. The Mike I already knew was Mike Harrison, who wrote as M. John Harrison as there was already a fairly well-known writer called Michael Harrison.
Back in Tufnell Park, Mike was very keen to be part of the New Wave and to be published in New Worlds, and was writing rather Ballardian stories to start with and planning a sort of campaign to achieve it. He acquired an agent — an important step for any young writer — in the shape of Ted Carnell, now retired from his editorial duties, who got some of Mike’s stories published in places like Transatlantic Review and New Writings in SF for extremely modest fees, but New Worlds remained elusive until some personal contacts were made. It happened in a roundabout way. Bob had moved to London to pursue his study of creativity which involved interviewing some of the New Worlds writers, and Charles Platt had fixed him up with a flat right opposite the one he shared with Diane Lambert in Portobello Road and which served as the New Worlds office. Mike and Di and I sometimes went over to Bob’s on a Saturday evening, where it turned out that the flat below Bob’s was currently occupied by James Sallis, an American who had seemingly appeared from nowhere to become a co-editor of New Worlds, and who had a vintage Gibson guitar and an electric guitar too, plus a set of harmonicas on all of which he could play a pretty decent blues or two. We usually took our own guitars with us on such outings and before long we were jamming with James Sallis, and through him Mike got to know Moorcock and was soon appointed Literary Editor of New Worlds, the monthly fee for which enabled Mike and Di to move to a slightly larger flat (a sitting room containing twin beds with an adjoining kitchen) in Camden Town.
Bob was sharing his top-floor flat with a university friend of his called Marek Obtulowicz who was studying to be an architect, while the ground-floor flat was occupied by my non-pal Graham Hall, who was now editing a ‘New Writers’ issue of New Worlds in which Mike was to make his debut with his story ‘Baa Baa Blocksheep’. Mike wanted me to illustrate this and I was keen to do it and produced a very rough pencilled rough (the blobs in the foreground were going to be sheep) which was shown to Graham, but Graham had different ideas and gave to job to Marek. I liked Marek but this really pissed me off, and I had to watch helplessly as the New Writers issue (No. 184) appeared with Mike and other friends like Graham Charnock and R.G. Meadley in it, but not me. This may have been because Marek’s drawing was much better than mine, of course. Bob had a story published in New Worlds too and I didn’t get to illustrate that either.
My own first appearance in New Worlds was actually as a book reviewer (commissioned by Mike) in No. 187 in February 1969 and I was ridiculously proud to be appearing in a national magazine, buying extra copies to send to my family and friends who were polite but less impressed than I’d hoped they’d be, which I gather is often the way with these things. My parents thought that I was wasting my time on this stuff when I should have been concentrating on getting my Ph.D and perhaps becoming a junior lecturer in Psychology somewhere, a prospect that was becoming less appealing by the minute. My first illustrations appeared in No. 189 accompanying Mike Harrison’s first Jerry Cornelius story ‘The Ash Circus’ — Mike had liked my drawings and recommended me — which for some bizarre and forgotten reason I’d done in charcoal: a medium I’d never used before and never would again.
[I should probably take a break here to explain the Jerry Cornelius phenomenon which played a large part in our lives at this time, but that would mean introducing other characters like the artist Mal Dean and the publishers [Clive] Allison & [Margaret] Busby, other publications like International Times and Frendz, Jon Finch who played Jerry in the film of The Final Programme, and all the other authors who wrote Jerry Cornelius stories … Another time maybe.]
Reverting to pen and ink more of my illustrations followed in the next few issues [I’ve scanned some of them for my Gallery here for anyone who’s interested], and by No. 195 I was on the staff and credited as Designer — I’ve already written about how I became a New Worlds staffer here — though to be honest at the start I was merely assisting Charles with the designs and layouts. I was quickly learning the mysteries of Letraset, Cow Gum and Process White, however, and Charles was kind to me and generous in letting me try my own design wings occasionally, while his partner Diane Lambert fed me with home-made apple crumble.
With the ice broken Mike and Di and I took to spending Saturday evenings at Moorcock’s large flat in Ladbroke Grove. By now I’d learned to drive and got a second-hand car thanks to my mum’s generosity so getting there was no problem, and we no longer had to race to get the last tube home from wherever we were. When we arrived at the flat in the early evening there were usually other people around, including the Moorcocks’ beautiful kids Sophie and Katie who were soon packed off to bed; Jim Cawthorn was often there too, Moorcock’s long-standing friend and a talented illustrator who was friendly and complimentary about my drawings when I could make out what he was saying in his thick Geordie accent; Lang Jones sometimes popped by with proofs that he was collecting or returning; Keith Roberts was sometimes a large gloomy presence by the fireside; John Clute was in the process of becoming the magazine’s lead reviewer and was frequently closeted in the top bedroom with Moorcock discussing critical matters…
Others came and went and exchanged a bit of friendly chat — I never once saw all the New Worlds staff in the same place at the same time, and a couple of them like Christopher Finch and Eduardo Paolozzi (‘Aeronautics Adviser’) I never met at all — but as the evening wore on they all melted away leaving just the two Mikes, Di and me in the large sitting-room with pictures by Cawthorn, Peake and Paolozzi on the walls and bookshelves on either side of the ornate marble fireplace stuffed with first editions of Mervyn Peake and T.H. White, with the Nebula award that Moorcock had won for Behold the Man (first published in New Worlds) on the mantelpiece. Moorcock usually sat in the upright wooden chair beside the small desk where he wrote, Mike sat in a smaller chair opposite him, while Di and I spread ourselves out on the huge lime-green sofa that straddled the room — and we talked, talked and talked, often very late into the night.
As we arrived there was usually some banter about the difficulties we’d had getting there, whether dodging the machine-gun fire of insurrectionists or escaping an alien invasion, and how we’d only made it to Ladbroke Grove by the skin of our teeth, then we settled down to the business of the night. This was the first time I’d got to have a good look at Moorcock and come to know him, who was (and remains) a big guy, about 6ft 2in and by no means slimmest person in the world, but a charismatic figure and a very amusing talker. The other Mike was not tall but he was wiry and infectiously enthusiastic, while Di was calmer and of medium size with long straight blonde hair. We all had long hair at the time, in fact, though mine would only grow long enough for me to suck the ends of it, to my chagrin. We all smoked cigarettes continually, but otherwise these sessions were remarkably austere with no food or booze, no hard drugs — not yet anyway — and the only refreshment was occasional cups of tea brought by Mike’s wife Hilary from the kitchen downstairs. I was interested to find that the Moorcocks had a cat named Bilbo and a dog named Precious.
The first business of the evening was usually to scan the trade papers to see what forthcoming books we might want to review — Mike was the Literary Editor, remember, and responsible for distributing the books to reviewers and sometimes nursemaiding them through the reviewing process — whilst I would unveil any new drawings or designs I’d done to see what the others thought of them. After that we sometimes played our guitars for a while or listened to any new records we’d got; Moorcock was into Creedence Clearwater Revival at the time (“good, tight band”) but Mike’s attempts to get him to like Roy Harper fell on deaf ears. Then we talked.
The conversation was often hilarious and impossible to evoke here — as the saying goes, you had to be there — but there were visual diversions too, as when Moorcock sometimes appeared clad only in an enormous nightgown or when he would disappear for a while and return with his beard dripping with blood: when peckish he liked to get a slab of raw liver from the kitchen and swallow it whole (“Slides down a treat’), to our mingled amusement and disgust. When someone, usually the prolific Moorcock, had a new book coming out or had given an interview to a newspaper or magazine we’d pile into my car and go down to Fleet Street to pick up the early editions, which went on sale there soon after midnight. It was an exciting time. The Beatles were still around and had just set up their Apple HQ in Saville Row which was advertising in the underground press for creative talent of various kinds which they said they might support, so Moorcock and Beatle-friend Bill Harry paid Apple a visit to see if they could score some Beatles money for New Worlds. They managed to have a chat with Derek Taylor and a few words with George Harrison but there were rumours that Apple was in trouble and they decided that any spare money should go into Apple Records rather than avante-garde sf mags. It was also exciting for me to see a succession of books being published from people I now knew personally, some of whom I could regard as friends: the two Mikes and Charles, obviously, but also Lang Jones, Tom Disch, John Sladek, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, Chris Priest, Keith Roberts, and some I knew only very casually. I was often given free copies by the writers I knew best.
There were signs that science fiction was actually becoming fashionable. Earlier it had often seemed, especially to outsiders, as a minority taste fit only for lab assistants and nerds — a calumny on the percipient people who had discerned its merits all along — but when David Bowie recorded ‘Space Oddity’ things changed, with many others recording songs suffused with imagery from sf and fantasy, though some of the bands went more for the costumes than the content. But in 1972 alone there was T.Rex’s ‘Metal Guru’, Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’, Bowie’s ‘Starman’, Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ and Billy Preston’s ‘Outa-Space’, while John Lennon’s ‘Across the Universe’ (on a charity album that Charles had) was still played frequently in the office. There were sf movies too, notably 2001: a Space Odyssey based on a story that had appeared in Carnell’s New Worlds, which signalled the end of the crude movies that had hitherto presented sf to the masses. This vogue didn’t immediately translate into increased sales of sf books and magazines, however, and it certainly didn’t for New Worlds which preferred to set trends rather than follow them and was in any case having problems with distribution. (Brian Aldiss once wrote that he had paid New Worlds a visit and found Charles and Diane selling copies on a street corner outside in the snow.) The nearest the magazine ever got to a movie tie-in was with Barbarella, with a cover collage by Charles which included a stll from the film but inside was a highly dismissive piece entitled ‘Barbarella and the Anxious Frenchmen’.
Graham Hall disappeared to university as a mature student (Hooray!) and Jim Sallis had returned to the USA for reasons of his own after publishing a critical piece called Orthographies whose purport baffled even the keenest minds among us, so the two Mikes and Di and I became what has been called the New Worlds inner circle, and at one stage Moorcock even suggested that we form ourselves into a company with the four of us as directors. That didn’t happen, but we plotted and schemed, exchanged gossip about writers and publishers and agents, endlessly discussed the writers and publishers and agents we liked and didn’t like, got excited about some of the new writers who were appearing, sneered at some of the older ones who we felt weren’t moving with the times (John Brunner was one), and made our plans for novels, short stories, anthologies, cartoon strips …
Over in Portobello Road I continued to work on the design and layouts of the magazine, unaware that things were starting to fall apart there. For me, it was an amusing place to work and hang out. Charles had a large tape recorder which played music almost continuously and sometimes as I arrived I’d hear Bob Dylan singing “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?” which may have been coincidental — or was it?
I never knew what to expect. The large notice-board which covered one wall was suddenly filled with pages from the Beano, mostly spreads of Dennis the Menace with his dog Gnasher (Mike and Di got a black cat which they called Gnasher) and a character that Charles evidently liked called Corporal Clott. There were boxes of pin-up photos of girls in various states of undress classified in different ways for one of Charles’s other activities compiling girlie mags. On one occasion I found Scalextric tracks snaking all around the flat, and in those days before affordable answering machines Charles had made his own from Meccano ingeniously linked to the tape recorder, which was clunky but worked: a foretaste of many devices that Charles would make in the ensuing years and include in his very successful Make books.
Another time I knocked on the door of the Portobello Road office and as usual Diane opened an upstairs window and threw down the keys to let me in, then I went upstairs to find Charles wrestling with a problem. “Ah Richard,” he said, “Perhaps you can help with this.”
“I’ll certainly try,” I said.
“If a couple jumped out of a burning plane without parachutes” he said without preamble “would they be able to couple and reach a climax before they hit the ground?”
“Just hit the ground splat?” I ventured.
“Splat indeed,” said Charles.
It seemed that Charles was writing an erotic novel for Essex House, a Los Angeles publisher who was commissioning such work from some quite well-known writers like Philip José Farmer, David Meltzer and Charles Bukowski, and from a few other things that Charles said I gathered that this one would take the form of a sort of Quest for the Ultimate Orgasm, with many bizarre variations on the basic theme.
Of course I had no idea if the situation Charles envisaged was possible and began thinking about how these two might get (their) things together in freefall — no easy matter, I felt, before they could even start with the jiggy-jiggy stuff — but Charles was more concerned with the physics of the situation, scribbling calculations involving height, weight, altitude, terminal velocity, wind speed etc. Science fiction of that sort had to be plausible.
Essex House didn’t last long and I don’t know whether Charles’s erotic novel ever saw publication, though he did publish one called The Gas which became somewhat notorious. Back in the real world two doors along, John Sladek and his new girlfriend were enthusiastically exploring these things in a more practical way, including a technique they’d devised involving a hostess trolley … but I digress.
I didn’t know that Charles’s relationship with Diane was in difficulties and that he was feeling distinctly burnt-out having been producing New Worlds on a monthly schedule for several years by now, and recently I apologized for not being more understanding.
Charles replied: ‘”Burnt out” is a mild term for the state that Moorcock and I were in by the beginning of 1970. […] Kind of you to imagine that you could have helped, but — no, not possible, there was nothing anyone could do to help! Running away was the only remaining option, and not only for me.’ Charles has published his own account [here] of this period which anyone interested in this stuff should read. Moorcock too has been publishing his own (fictionalized) memories of these events, the second volume to be published soon with the first one already available here: further essential reading for New Worlds fans.
Our Saturday night sessions chez Moorcock continued for some time yet, however, and it became clear that the two Mikes were engaged in a sort of bonding process, talking about their own works-in-progress and putting the sf world to rights, which often involved scathing attacks on the sort of writers they particularly disliked. I recall one long night when the victim was Larry Niven who to them represented almost everything that was wrong with sf (which by the way was now being taken to stand for ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’), but never having read a word of Niven and knowing nothing about him personally I had nothing to contribute to the discussion and was aching with tiredness by the time we adjourned at 3 a.m. — and this became increasingly the case, with me feeling rather sidelined as the months went by. I started wondering what I was doing there at all since I had basically drifted in on Mike Harrison’s coat-tails, for although writing and the state of the sf/fantasy field was of vital interest to the Mikes as professional writers it was for me only a sideline, interesting though it might be.
Things were falling apart for me in other ways too. Since moving to London my life had perforce been lived in separate compartments, one for my academic life at UCL which had been quite successful with a paper published in my first year, another for my artistic life with New Worlds and a myriad other strange publications, and a third for my private life. I had once taken a girlfriend round to Mike and Di’s to see if she could be integrated with that part of my life but the experiment hadn’t been a success, and I’d been careful to keep other occasional girlfriends well away from the predatory males of New Worlds, especially from Graham Hall, who regarded any presentable female with a pulse as fair game. But illness brought my faltering academic career to an abrupt end and without my college scholarship I was hard-up, and when the old lady died who had been renting rooms cheaply to various young artistic types like us the house was bought by a property developer who lost no time in evicting us in very brutal ways. With no career, little money and facing homelessness it was clearly time for me to get a proper job, and with Moorcock’s help I was lucky enough to get a publishing job at Longmans in Harlow fairly quickly. The design training at New Worlds and the driving lessons which now got me to Harlow every day had paid off!
But in Notting Hill everything was falling apart. Mike and Di fell out first with Bob, then with me, and a bit later with Moorcock too, then they moved north where they evidently fell out with each other and split up. Charles and his Diane were breaking up. Moorcock and his wife Hilary were divorcing. It was also becoming clear that writing new wave sf was not going to get anyone a mortgage, and some of the writers who had clustered around New Worlds were drifting away or turning to other things. Jimmy Ballard, always a step or two ahead of the game and having had some trouble with his book The Atrocity Exhibition in the USA, eventually turned to more accessible mainstream work with his novel Empire of the Sun which when optioned for a movie by Stephen Spielberg made him rich. When the movie came out it made him even richer.
Brian Aldiss, who had appeared in New Worlds almost from the start and had supported it into its new wave phase by getting it an Arts Council grant, had a best-seller with his autobiographical The Hand-Reared Boy (1970) which spawned two sequels. Tom Disch and his partner Chuck wrote a historical novel about the Carlyles, of all things, which wasn’t so successful. Some of the erstwhile contributors to New Worlds gave up writing altogether. Charles decided to move to New York and without him the business of producing New Worlds as a monthly magazine was going to be well-nigh impossible, so a deal was done by which it would be published by Sphere as a quarterly paperback book, edited initially by Moorcock who asked me to continue as Art Editor. There wasn’t, in all honesty, much art editing to be done but I was pleased to be asked and I did what I could with very limited resources, and now I was frequently calling at Moorcock’s on my own as the sitting room filled with guitars and strange hairy people as Moorcock became involved with the local music scene [touched on in my piece here]. I was glad that I was still involved, and very pleased when Mike (let’s call him that now that the other one has moved offstage) asked me to illustrate some of his novels and to design jackets and covers for some others. It was fascinating to get glimpses into Mike’s creative processes now and again. On a bookshelf above his desk were a set of handsome books ‘Myth and Legend in Literature and Art’ published by Gresham in the 1920s, and Mike told me that one of them, Hope-Moncrieff’s Romance and Legend of Chivalry, was one he turned to when he was looking for fresh inspiration for his fantasy novels. “When in doubt I turn to good old Hope-Moncrieff,” he said, though it was difficult to know how seriously he meant this. For his more serious novels he made scrapbooks, collecting cuttings, images and memorabilia often picked up in nearby Portobello Road Market, presumably to create a sort of ambience in which to let his imagination rip. I imagine that those scrapbooks will one day be of great interest to scholars as well as being worth a few quid. It was also pleasant to hear the sound of his rather nifty banjo-picking emanating from the toilet downstairs where he liked to practice while I read typescripts and looked at artwork upstairs.
There were movies being made too. Mike’s first Jerry Cornelius novel The Final Programme (originally a serial in New Worlds) was filmed with Jon Finch as Jerry, and it was fascinating to see the character I had drawn so often being brought to life on the screen, then Mike and Jim Cawthorn wrote the script for The Land That Time Forgot based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and by way of preparation Jim got books on Hollywood’s classic period from the local library and would regale us with tales of the exploits of David O. Selznick, Irving Thalberg and Harry Cohn, all the more entertaining when related in Jim’s Geordie accent.
New Worlds was ceasing publication as a monthly magazine but there were loyal readers who had taken out subscriptions which could not now be fulfilled, so by way of compensation we produced a special issue just for them, a special ‘Good Taste’ issue, in part a response to the censorship issues that had caused problems for New Worlds when it had serialized Norman Spinrad’s novel Bug Jack Barron causing questions to be asked in Parliament about why the Arts Council was funding an obscene publication. Issue 201 was a thin effort but we knew that it would become a collector’s item and hoped the subscribers would see it that way too. Nobody asked for their money back.
… And so began another phase in the history of New Worlds. We soon found that Sphere’s in-house designers had their own ideas about how New Worlds should look from the outside, and we hoped for the best; in its magazine phase we had been confined to two colours, which Charles had often employed with great ingenuity, but the Sphere covers would be in full colour and might be stunning, though we begged them not to use pictures of space-ships which scarcely represented sf’s new wave, and to begin with they didn’t. Instead they came up with circular images representing god knows what and disappointing everyone, after which it was back to the dreaded space-ships. There were US editions of these books too and their covers were even worse.
After the first four issues Sphere decided to publish New Worlds twice-yearly rather than quarterly, and the editorship was passed on to Charles (who returned from the USA for brief visits) and to Hilary, the former Mrs Moorcock, who also kept me on as the (often notional) Art Editor. As such I got to know Hilary better than I had before and got on with her very well. As well as editing the magazine and looking after the kids — there was a third one now, a late arrival whom they named Max — she liked to get together with her mother occasionally to make and cook a rabbit pie, which they ate for their lunch (“Yum yum,” said Hilary). I always seemed to arrive a bit too late to partake in these treats, though the smell of the delicious rabbit gravy lingered in the flat and amongst the stacks of typescripts. (Mike had remarried and moved to a flat round the corner in Blenheim Crescent so he was still close to the kids.) Hilary was amusing company and a good editor as well as being a fine novelist in her own right (her Polly Put the Kettle On gives her own fictionalized slant on those recent events) and the standard of writing in New Worlds remained high, and although it never sold very many copies, especially in its magazine phase, it was influential, keenly read by a number of young and emerging writers. Neil Gaiman was one, and he has recently had some nice things to say about it here (Mike’s Stormbringer, the first Elric novel, is the second of his The Books That Changed My Life).
Incidentally, although I was involved in endless conversations about the future of sf and fantasy fiction I had little to do with the actual selection of the stories that were published in New Worlds. I was often privileged to read new work as it was being produced by the writers I knew personally, of course, and I naturally read the stories that I was illustrating or getting others to illustrate, but the editorial decisions were made by the Editors with no input from me — except once, when I had done a layout for a story by a certain Bob Franklin called ‘Cinnabar Balloon Tautology’ which I quite liked but which was dropped at the last minute to make way for something else. Putting together the next issue we had a couple of empty pages to fill and I suggested that we use it to fill the hole. “Oh all right, bung it in.” said Charles, and I did. I recently read in the Ansible sf newsletter that Bob Franklin had died and that ‘Cinnabar Balloon Tautology’ had been his only published story.
The arrangement with Sphere ended after three years with their 8th issue (whole number 209), to be taken over by Corgi for a couple of issues in 1975-6 with strange covers that at least weren’t spaceships, and when they pulled out New Worlds might have disappeared altogether but in 1978 Mike acquired a high-quality photocopier and decided to produce a home-made version of the magazine on it: a freebie issue for former subscribers and friends, and once again I was roped in to assist with the design and layouts. The quality improved markedly with the next issue, No. 213 (the ‘Empire’ issue) which contained two cartoon strips by me done in collaboration with Mike and a friend of mine who I’ll call Flip. More about Flip in a moment.
Mike then decided to let others produce their own versions of New Worlds, the next two coming from sympathetic publishing souls in Manchester in the shape of David Britton and Michael Butterworth, who were in the process of setting up their Savoy Books with – I discovered later – Mike and Di in residence. The issues they produced were excellent, addding new dimensions to the New Worlds concept, and Charles returned to London to edit and produce the last of this series, with another great cover from him and some good contents too. This wasn’t meant to be the last issue, however: the next one was entrusted to me and Flip, a school friend who had followed me to London and whom I’d introduced to the New Worlds scene. He’d had various short stories published in the magazine to some acclaim, and a New Worlds done by the two of us was looking promising as a superb story by a young writer named William Gibson had been passed on to us. Flip was in the process of relocating to the North of England and he promptly appointed himself Editor-in-Chief and disappeared northwards with all the material. I did some work on the designs without having anything much to play with, and waited for Flip to deliver his manuscript … and waited, and waited some more. Forty years later, I’m still waiting.
By now I was starting my own publishing company and very preoccupied with that and so the moment passed, and that was effectively the end of New Worlds as a magazine. William Gibson, who had shown enormous patience, eventually withdrew his story; I subsequently learned that it was ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ and when published elsewhere did much to create the genre of Cyberpunk, a wonderful opportunity that we missed thanks to Flip’s shilly-shallying and probably drug-induced lethargy. Thanks a lot, Flip. In this unsatisfactory way my involvement with New Worlds whimpered to its end: it had lasted for ten busy and often fascinating years.
Another ten years went by before New Worlds was eventually revived by David S. Garnett in 1991 as a paperback quarterly published by Gollancz, and it’s subsequently been awakened from its slumbers by others from time to time with no involvement from me. Currently a new version — again as a paperback book — is about to appear from PS Publishing, and from what I gather from the advance information I think I might be rather disappointed as from my perhaps rather biased viewpoint it seems to be looking backwards rather than forwards, with illustrations culled from the early Carnell-era New Worlds and pretty much ignoring the innovations that we were making in the 1960s and 1970s. Obviously I can’t comment on the stories until I’ve read them, though I see a few good writers in the contents-list. To be honest, I’ve been disappointed by all the previous attempts to revive it, feeling that none of the editors (apart from Moorcock himself, who produced a one-off issue to mark its 50th anniversary) have really understood what New Worlds is about, or what it should be. The issues produced by others don’t seem to my possibly jaded eyes to look or feel or, most importantly, read much like the genuine article. Some of us survivors from the magazine’s heyday have been chatting privately and vowing that if New Worlds should ever find itself without a publisher again we would seize back the reins and do it ourselves. We might even do something of the sort anyway, whether we call it New Worlds or something else. There are writers that we always wanted to include in the magazine but were never able to, and some very exciting new ones emerging.
That would be fun. Most of the quarrels of yesteryear have now been largely forgotten, and I would love to re-unite with some of my old colleagues to see if we can recapture some of that first fine frenzy. Please don’t send us any stories or artwork just yet, though. If we decide to go ahead with this scheme it’ll be announced in the usual places and of course I’ll let you know about it here.
Graham Hall achieved his ambition, dying from cirrhosis of the liver in 1980 at the age of thirty-three. Michael Moorcock’s Letters from Hollywood (1986) contains an account of this and of the break-up of his marriage to Hilary Bailey who died in 2017 at the age of 80. Her manuscripts and correspondnce are now held at the Bodleian Library.Mike subsequently married Jill Riches, then Linda Steele in 1983 to whom he remains happily hitched. Mike Harrison’s former partner Di (Diane Boardman) and Charles Platt’s Diane (Lambert) have both disappeared from view, untraceable by me. John (‘Ted’) Carnell died in 1972. James Cawthorn and Thomas M. Disch both died in 2008, J.G. Ballard in 2009, Brian Aldiss in 2017 and David Britton in 2020. The other main characters mentioned here are happily still alive.
The two available first-hand accounts of life with New Worlds are Charles Platt’s An Accidental Life: volume 2, 1965-1970: the New Worlds Years, which Charles self-published with Amazon (2020), and Michael Moorcock’s fictionalised autobiographical trilogy starting with The Whispering Swarm (2015), and the second volume The Woods of Arcady written and in the pipeline. J.G. Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life (2008) has a brief account of his involvement with New Worlds, while Hilary Bailey’s Polly Put the Kettle On (1975) is a novel drawing on her then-recent life.
There’s a great deal more about New Worlds in print and online. The Wikipedia entry here provides a useful overview, while Colin Greenland’s The Entropy Exhibiion: Michael Moocock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction (1983) gives an academic analysis and David Brittain’s Paolozzi at New Worlds (2013) explores and celebrates the visual aspects. The archive here though seemingly unauthorized has been useful to me as some of the issues featured can be downloaded as PDFs, which has saved me a lot of work. Googling ‘Michael Moorcock’, ‘J.G Ballard’, ‘Charles Platt’ and ‘James Sallis’ (Orthographies 2 never appeared) and ‘M.John Harrison’ will tell you more about the careers of these excellent writers than I can here. Langdon Jones’s anthology The New SF (1969) is a good representative collection from a key period, and there have been many ‘Best of New Worlds’ collections which may be found online sometimes.
My apologies to those I haven’t mentioned in this rambling account. I hope to write separate memoirs of John Sladek, Mal Dean and perhaps Mervyn Peake sometime soon, each important to New Worlds in their different ways, and another about Moorcock’s character Jerry Cornelius who loomed large in my artistic life in the time I’ve been writing about.
My thanks to Bob Marsden, Charles Platt and Michael Moorcock for good-naturedly allowing me to publish these reminiscences and for gently setting me straight when I got things a bit wrong. The opinions expressed are my own, however, as are any errors that remain.
New Worlds has been registered in the USA as a trademark by Michael and Linda Moorcock.
Later: Since I posted this piece Langdon Jones has died. He’s mentioned only incidentally in my account but he was an integral member of the New Worlds team while I was involved with it. This isn’t the place for a full obituary or tribute == there’ll be plenty of those — but it’s perhaps worth saying that Lang was largely responsible for the magazine’s high standard of proofreading which he did under the often chaotic conditions that I’ve described. Under his aegis there were hardly any typos. On a personal level he was the kindest fellow, welcoming me into the New Worlds fold and always being complimentary about my artwork. Lang was one of the best of us, now sadly gone.
Computers and I go back a long way. When I came to London as a research student in 1967 the whole of London University was serviced by a single huge computer. It was called Atlas and it occupied an entire building in a street alongside Euston Station. It looked like something from a science fiction movie, with rotating tape reels and flashing lights but no keyboards or screens and nary a mouse to be seen as they had yet to be invented. Atlas was staffed by young men in white coats — I don’t recall a single female operative — and mere students weren’t allowed anywhere near it. The data from our experiments had to be fed in on punched cards, and at UCL there was a special shed full of hole-punching machines where distraught researchers like me cussed as they punched holes in the wrong places and had to start all over again. If you were lucky you’d find that there was an existing programme to analyse the data on your cards, but if there wasn’t you had to write one yourself, and I was sent on a programming course to learn how to do this in a language called FORTRAN IV. There was a waiting-list for data processing, and when you eventually got your results they came in the form of numerical print-outs: reams and reams of paper. Not even the science fiction writers predicted that in the future all this would be miniaturised and made affordable for home users.
It took a while, however. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the publishing firm I worked for could obtain sales figures from the warehouse via a dial-up modem attached to a telephone line, which was a slow and highly unreliable process, and once again I was allowed nowhere near it. More years went by, and I started my own publishing company. Towards the end of the 1980s some of our authors were writing on Amstrad computers with green lettering on black screens (no graphics), saving their writing onto floppy disks and expecting us to be pleased about receiving these state-of-the-art submissions. A decent-sized novel could occupy three or four disks and we had no computer to sort out the damn things, so people quickly acquired daisywheel printers and sent us stuff that we could actually read. We saw no reason to get one of these crappy computers or printers for ourselves.
I didn’t acquire my own computer until 1995 when, feeling I ought to be learning about these new-fangled things I enrolled on a basic computing course, which I got for free being theoretically unemployed at the time. Windows 95 was hot news at the time, and while it was ok for processing text its graphics capabilities were pretty well non-existent. The course was fun, though. Most of the other students were college-leavers trying to get a first foothold in the job market, and some of them were female. They all watched Friends, in which Monica was just embarking on an affair with Richard, played by Tom Selleck, an older man with a moustache, which seemed to give some of them the idea that getting to know an older man might be a neat idea.
I was certainly no Tom Selleck, but I was an older man called Richard with a moustache, and two girls in particular started being very friendly to me. One of them was clearly unstable (you don’t have to be clinically insane to fancy me but it helps, as the saying doesn’t quite go), but the other was tall and slim with closely-cropped black hair like Louise Brooks and she’d just graduated in Art History. I’ll merely say that we got on extremely well, and if she hadn’t had this boyfriend back home in Warwick … I still think of her sometimes. She was lovely: intelligent, beautiful, gentle and kind. Damn it, I should have fought much harder for her. Anyway, in amongst all that I bought a second-hand PC running Windows.
This computer didn’t last much longer than the course and the romance, but computing for me changed vastly for the better when my friend Bob who was supporting a big project that I was working on gave me an Apple Mac together with a matching scanner, laser printer and modem. Astonishingly kind, and I lost no time in enrolling on another course, learning Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark XPress over a period of eight months and copping an NVQ Level 2 into the bargain, boast boast, and connecting to the internet for the first time, which was not then plagued so much by advertising. This enabled me to do most of the things that we now take for granted on our Macs and PCs, and as not many others were doing desktop publishing at the time it helped me get going as a freelance editor and designer, and saved my bacon financially. Since then we’ve got much faster computers and near-universal broadband and — well, you know the rest as well as I do.
It’s astonishing to realize that the cheapest modern laptop is more powerful than Atlas was. The other day I was relating all this to another twenty-something woman, a freelance writer — I’m a fascinating conversationalist — and trying to persuade her that if things could change so much in the last 50 years computing would be vastly different 50 years hence when she’s a granny, but she was reluctant to believe that items like keyboards, screens and mouses would disappear and be as forgotten as card-hole punchers, floppy disks and modems when they’re superseded by all the data and imaging going directly to the brain. It’s already happening. I read in the newspaper the other day that a dog has been trained to move things about on a screen merely by willing them to do so, and I believe that Elon Musk is working on direct connections to the head. I’m glad in a way that I won’t be around to see the fruits of these researches, though I’d quite like to return to this young woman as a ghost saying in spooky tones “I tooold you sooo.”
As I’ve been writing this piece I’ve found Pulp’s ‘Help the Aged’ playing in what’s left of my brain. Can’t think why.
Am I woke? If I am woke is that a good thing or a bad thing? If I’m not woke should I be? What is woke anyway?
From Wikepedia:Woke is a political term that originated in the United States, and it refers to a perceived awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice. It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression “stay woke”, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. First used in the 1940s, the term has resurfaced in recent years as a concept that symbolizes perceived awareness of social issues and movement. By the late 2010s, woke had been adopted as a more generic slang term broadly associated with left-wing politics, social justice activism and progressive or socially liberal causes such as anti-racism, LGBT rights, feminism and environmentalism (with the terms woke culture, woke politics and woke left also being used).
I became aware of the word last year. I missed Erykah Badu’s song ‘Master Teacher’ in 2008 which apparently popularized it with the chorus ‘I stay woke’, but the Black Lives Matter movement last summer brought it to much wider notice, including mine, while the recent accession of Joe Biden to the US presidency provoked a lot of questions along the lines of ‘Is he Woke’? and the right-wing media have seized on the term with stories like these, all from the Daily Mail in the last few days:
Why NO ONE is safe from the woke warriors trying to stamp out free speech
REVEALED: How ‘woke’ English teachers have cancelled Shakespeare because of his ‘white supremacy, misogyny, racism and classism’ – and are instead using his plays to lecture in ‘toxic masculinity and Marxism’
Black Country residents have slammed ‘woke’ Facebook rules after a local history group was threatened with a ban for discussing the local delicacy – faggots and peas.
It’s reminiscent of the scorn which greeted the Political Correctness movement a few years ago when people ridiculed the more extreme examples with cries of “It’s political correctness GONE MAD.”
From what I’ve learned I think I’ve been woke ever since I first became interested in politics and social issues in the early 1960s when nearly all of my generation were lefties. Some of my friends went to extremes, becoming Trotskeyites and even Anarchists and looking forward to the Revolution that seemed imminent as the sixties progressed. One of them told me that he and a few fellow radicals had been practising with home-made Molotov cocktails on some waste land somewhere, and many of them attended the anti-American demos in Grosvenor Square; Graham Hall (now dead so I can name him) boasted of having knocked over a police horse, which disgusted me as I didn’t think that horses held political views.
I never bought into any of that stuff. As a jazz fan I knew about Jim Crow from an early age and was horrified by the accounts of what had happened to some of my heroes: Lester Young having an appalling time in the army, Billie Holiday not allowed to sit with the rest of Artie Shaw’s band, Duke Ellington having to buy sandwiches for his band because no restaurant in the South would serve them … and as the 1960s progressed there was much talk of Revolution, but I knew that there wasn’t going to be any such thing. For one thing, the people planning it were so incredibly inept, but we did what we could on a local level, starting adventure playgrounds for disadvantaged kids, getting involved with ‘alternative’ publications, supporting the Labour Party etc. — but this isn’t a recital of my own woke credentials, such as they are. I did a bit, but nowhere near enough.
I think I’m woke, though I hope I’m not sanctimonious about it and definitely not a woke warrior. Which takes me on to the next key question of our times: am I a Snowflake?
I recently posted some photos of myself on my Facebook page and was surprised at the number of Likes they got. The pictures showed me playing my saxophone — or pretending to play it — in 1963 shortly after I’d acquired the thing from a family friend. I’m somewhat diffident about posting pictures of myself, but people do seem to be interested in these things and I may post more.
Incidentally, my record number of Likes on Facebook has been 528 (plus 65 Shares) for a little snippet that I posted in a forum called The English Language Police, probably because it mentioned Neil Gaiman who appears to be enormously popular these days.
When he was a young wannabee Neil and another guy submitted a book proposal to my fledgling publishing company, and I turned it down. Oh dear…
But the photos set me reminiscing to myself about my various musical endeavours, which have been many and various, and wholly unsuccessful. They started with Saturday-morning piano lessons taken at my mother’s insistence when I was a schoolboy in Leeds. The teacher was Miss Banbury who lived in a rather gothic-looking house in a sort of park nearby. To get to it I had to open a huge creaky garden gate then walk up a long path snaking through overgrown rhododendrons to the house, where the door was opened by a maid who ushered me into the drawing room which housed the grand piano to await the arrival of Miss Banbury. She had leg-irons so I could hear her clanking towards me long before she arrived, which added to the Gothic qualms I was feeling — but she was actually a nice old lady, if rather strict.
For homework she gave me a booklet called Forest Fantasies which contained simple little tunes for piano which I dutifully worked my way through with no enthusiasm at all, but I pored over the cover which was by someone called W. Heath Robinson. I had shown some little talent for drawing and I thought that if I ever got good at it that was the kind of thing I’d like to do. A seed had been planted, albeit a non-musical one. The original booklet is long gone but much later I got hold of another copy which is now framed and hanging on my wall.
Miss Banbury got me through Level 1, which was quite an achievement as playing the piano was for me just a grim duty, and when I was packed off to boarding school at the age of twelve I flatly refused to have any more lessons. My mother told me that I’d regret it later and she was right, I do.
Music for me as a child consisted of the hymns we sang in church, the choruses and songs we sang as Boy Scouts (‘Ging-Gang-Gooly’ etc.), and Uncle Mac on the wireless who played a seldom-changing selection of so-called children’s records every Saturday morning. My sister and I were plonked down in front of the radiogram for this supposed treat, but I hated all those songs, especially the ones that left us little listeners hanging: there was The Runaway Train who ‘came down the track and she blew’ which ended ‘For all I know she’s blowing still’; the Three Little Fishies who swam and swam right over the dam and right out to sea, and the Billy Goats Gruff and the troll … and some of the records were downright creepy, like My Grandfather’s Clock which ‘stopped short never to go again / when the old man died,’ and of course the Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly (‘She’s dead, of course’). Uncle Mac was much later revealed to have been a suspected pædophile.
The radiogram housed a small collection of records — 78s in those days — handed down from my Harrogate grandparents and supplemented by a few that my father had bought. His taste was for the lighter sort of classical music, Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan plus a few sacred songs, which I sometimes played when it was raining outside and there was nothing else to do. My favourite was one of my grandfather’s, ‘(I Got Spurs that) Jingle Jangle Jingle’ by The Merry Macs, but I secretly quite liked ‘All In the April Evening’ by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and its flipside ‘By Cool Siloam’s Shady Rill’ which I heard as ‘… shady Rhyll’, the North Wales resort which we’d visited and which hadn’t seemed particularly shady to me.
This all changed dramatically in 1958 when the family moved from Yorkshire to Bromborough on the Wirral where I soon fell in with a bunch of kids who were into rock ‘n’ roll. One of them, Graham Noble, had an older brother who was a big fan of Elvis Presley and between them they had a collection of records by Elvis and a few others. I was vaguely aware of Elvis but hadn’t liked ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ — too slow, too morbid — but when Graham played ‘Hound Dog’ at full volume I was an instant convert. Our old radiogram had been discarded when we moved house and my father had bought a portable record player which would play these new-fangled little 45 rpm records, and I soon started collecting them myself whenever I could scrape together the money for one. After a few false starts — the very first record I bought was ‘Big Man’ by The Four Preps, and to my subsequent shame and the mockery of my friends I even bought a Pat Boone EP — I soon tapped into the real thing, and for the next few years rock ‘n’ roll became something of an obsession: not much Elvis as Graham and his brother had all his records, but Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis and, best of all and partly because he was the one my otherwise tolerant parents couldn’t stand, Little Richard.
Rock ‘n’ roll in those days was regarded as a plebeian taste and at my posh boarding school it was frowned upon, but I soon found that there were a handful of boys who shared my passion for this degraded music and we formed a little rebellious clique. The records we collected were I suppose a form of escapism, seeming like mysterious messages from another, much more interesting world — the USA — and apart from their sheer excitement we learned from them that there were such things as sock-hop balls, red bluejeans and girls called Moronie. We puzzled over some of the more mysterious lyrics much more assiduously than we did over our French irregular verbs or the more obscure passages of Shakespeare. What on earth was ‘Jambalaya’ on about, for instance? Gotta go do a what on the bayou?
Back home in the holidays I soon discovered that the best record shop in the Merseyside area was NEMS in Liverpool, and I soon became a regular and rather annoying customer — annoying because having come a bit late to rock ‘n’ roll I was always looking for the more obscure records invariably to be told that they were deleted. (There were no ‘golden oldies’ or reissues in those days and once a record had had its few weeks in the charts it was removed from the catalogue, seemingly forever.) I remember being served by a polite, smartly-dressed young man who who addressed me as Sir seemingly without satirical intent and who asked if I’d like him to order it for me, which never produced the goods. It got to the point where I had only to show myself on the stairs leading down to the record department in the basement for the rest of the staff to yell out “It’s deleted, it’s deleted,” which was embarassing for a self-conscious 14-old, but I was on a mission and it didn’t deter me. A couple of years later when the Beatles were becoming famous I recognized their manager, Brian Epstein, also becoming famous, as the smart young man who had sometimes tried to help me in the shop.
Like many other kids on Merseyside I wanted a guitar and there was excitement when my dad came home from a church bazaar with an interesting-looking parcel, bulgy at at one end and tapering at the other which turned out to be … a banjo. It was an ancient instrument with five strings, one of which disappeared down a sort of tunnel half-way along the neck. This sure as hell wasn’t what I wanted as I had no enthusiasm for trad jazz or folk music, but I did what I could with it until my teenage pal Brian Patten (not the poet, another one) called round and saw me through the window posing with it in front of the mirror, trying to make like Duane Eddy. When he came in he was laughing so hard he actually fell over. But Brian had a schoolfriend who was looking to sell his guitar, and my dad obligingly bought it for me. It cost £3 and it was a wretched thing, a Spanish-style acoustic with plastic strings and a very wide fretboard, but at least it was a guitar: much better for posing purposes and on it I managed to teach myself some basic chords and was soon able to play a few simple songs and even compose a couple of my own. But I was on my own with that. Brian and Graham had no musical instruments of their own, and on my trips to Liverpool I didn’t happen to meet John Lennon or Paul McCartney who might have helped me.
We did hear about these Beatles quite early on, however. Some of Brian’s schoolfriends had been to this place called the Cavern Club and Brian wanted us to go (“Apparently they play songs by Little Richard and Buddy Holly — all the stuff we like”) but our parents wouldn’t let us, thinking that as a club the Cavern would be serving alcohol which was strictly forbidden to us young Methodists, so we missed out on that treat though we did get to a Beatles concert in Southport a couple of years later.
At the time though (1959-62) we only very occasionally got to hear some live music. The first time was at the Liverpool Empire early in 1960 with a bill shared by Duane Eddy and Bobby Darin. I had all of Duane Eddy’s records including his first LP and was delighted to find that on stage he was as good as he sounded on the records. This wasn’t always the case: when British acts performed live on tv backed by some hastily-assembled session musicians the results were usually dire, but Duane had brought his own band The Rebels with him and they were terrific, filling the theatre with sounds that it had probably never heard before. Bobby Darin was excellent too. Graham and I went back a couple of nights later and got their autographs at the stage door.
Back at school in Bath in term-time there was even less opportunity to hear visiting Americans, and I ached with frustration when a package tour with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent played at a theatre in the city. There they were, these legendary figures whose records I knew by heart, performing just down the road while I was stuck at school doing prep with absolutely no way of getting out. It got even worse when it came on the news the next day that their car had crashed shortly after the gig and Eddie Cochran had died in a Bath hospital. Happily, Gene Vincent survived and I was able to see him a bit later when my school friend Chris phoned me in the holidays to ask if I’d like to join him seeing not only Gene Vincent but also Jerry Lee Lewis doing a show in York, where he lived at the time. Indeed I would and it was a great experience, with the two stars supported by two emerging British groups, The Animals and The Nashville Teens. Chris and I had a bet on which of these groups might make it big. I opted for The Nashville Teens …
… And there I must leave it for the moment as I find I have much more to say about music than I originally thought. You’ll have gathered that it means a great deal to me and I’ll write more soon.
Will Richard abandon rock ‘n’ roll when it goes all soft in 1961? How and why did he get into jazz? Did he ever learn to play that saxophone properly? Why does he now have several guitars lying around the house, and where does Bob Dylan fit into all this? Has Richard’s enthusiasm for music been passed on to the next generation on the other side of the world? Don’t miss the next thrilling installment of My Musical Career, coming soon to a blog near you.
I had my first one yesterday. The summons came out of the blue by phone on Monday evening, and the appointment was for Tuesday afternoon. I’d hoped that these Covid-19 innoculations would take place at my GP’s surgery which is easy for me to reach, but no: I had to go up to Tottenham and the first problem was how I was going to get there. A few minutes online research told me that parking my car anywhere near the centre would be impossible, and the nearest tube stations and bus stops are further away than I could walk even if I dared used public transport, which I haven’t for months. It would have to be a taxi, then.
The local taxi service that I’ve been using for hospital visits were busy with many more such calls but said they would take me there and bring me back again — I’ve been a good customer of theirs and a generous tipper — so at 3:40 off we went. Our destination was the Lordship Lane Primary Care Centre which has been hastily adapted for administering hundreds of jabs, and the place was seething with mask-wearing seventy-somethings. Checking in, I was given a ticket and found that I was No. 60 in the queue. As I sat down No. 32 was called, so I sat down and waited.
There was only the vaguest attempt at social distancing, and many of the waiting oldies were getting increasingly agitated and distressed as the numbers were called. Some of them were in wheelchairs or on crutches. We were asked to write our telephone numbers on a form that each of us had been given to fill in, and the woman in the chair next to me couldn’t remember hers. Like me she had a taxi waiting outside to take her home and the cost of it was bothering her as we waited and waited as the meters ticked over. The room presented a distressing scene.
The book I’d brought with me proved less than gripping, and as I waited my mind started to wander. I started to see the place as a field hospital in a future war in some dystopian science fiction story where old people are conscripted and treated as expendable cannon-fodder, while the younger ones sit safely behind enemy lines in bunkers operating their computers and managing the conflict. This might make an interesting movie, I thought, since there are so many famous actors now too old to play action heroes or romantic leads. There would have to be a rebellion of the old against this appalling treament, of course. I wondered whether Clint Eastwood is still alive …
My reverie was interrupted when I heard my number called. I was ushered into a corridor and told to follow the green line on the floor which led me to another corridor. The jab itself was very quick: sit down, roll up your sleeve, dab dab, you’ll feel a bit of a prick (stop sniggering at the back there), didn’t feel a thing, then we’re done and follow the green line out again, which led back through the still-crowded waiting area to the observation room, where jabbees have to wait for fifteen minutes in case there are any immediate side-effects. None of us seemed to be showing any.
It was dark by the time I got away. My taxi-driver was still there and remarkably good-natured about the long wait he’d had to endure. He’d been hanging about for more than an hour. I gave him a very decent tip. At home with a large mug of strong tea I turned on the news and learned that during the course of the day 1610 people had died of Covid-19: a new record, so despite all the hassles I’m very glad to have had the jab. By my very rough calculation I’m the four million, two hundred and sixty-six thousand, five hundred and somethingth person to get the jab in the UK. When I’ll get my second one is anybody’s guess, so I’ll just have to sit around for a while longer waiting for the call.
I wonder how many old folk missed out because they couldn’t manage a trip to the Centre, or couldn’t quickly find £40 or so for a taxi. I hope that local charities and neighbourhood networks are mobilizing to help them, but full credit to the authorities for getting the innoculation programme organized so quickly even if the organization isn’t always perfect — and we must suppress the resentment many of us feel about them getting us into this mess by acting too late in the first place then relaxing the rules much too quickly. The ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme seems almost suicidally stupid in retrospect. Some of us thought so at the time, and said so, and I was appalled at the speed with which some people immediately started socializing and even going on foreign holidays as though there had never been a pandemic. So foolish, so appallingly selfish.
Only another twenty-five million jabs to go, then we have to do it all over again for the second jabs, and after that there are the kids to protect — if the jabs are effective.
My previous post was uncharacteristically upbeat and even jolly, but now it’s time to get back to normal with a quick look back at some of the year’s nasties together with a few perennial grouches.
ALCOHOL: I enjoy an occasional drink myself and don’t want to be hypocritical about this, but having had to watch two of my closest friends succumb to alcoholism and eventually die of it and quite a number of promising young writers ruin their talent and their lives because of booze I’m very wary of it. I’m not being preachy here, but I’ve seen some dreadful things and been unable to help.
‘ALBATROSS’: We booed Fleetwood Mac for selling out (as we thought) when they played this at a free concert on Parliament Hill Fields one Sunday evening long ago, and since then I’ve become really sick of hearing it played as a party winds down. Try this instead.
BEETROOT: Nature’s most unappealing vegetable. Dear friends, If you’re kind enough to invite me round for a meal please don’t let it be beetroot-based and especially not borcht. It has happened.
DIGITAL ADVERTISING: Does anyone actually like all the pop-ups, cookies and trackers that dog our every movement to try and get at our money by selling us things we don’t want or need? Mac-users might like to install Little Snitch and run it for half an hour, and if you don’t already know you’ll be appalled to see the dozens of unidentifiable creeps that are accessing your computer whenever you go online. It’s especially nauseating when this insidious business is targetted specifically at children, as it increasingly is. I could name names …
DRAG ACTS: I’ve never liked them, and the current popularity of Mrs Brown’s Boys depresses me beyond belief. I find the whole thing demeaning for men and insulting to women. Dame Edna might be an exception.
FISH: Can’t eat it. I say that I’m allergic, which isn’t quite true as fish doesn’t put me into hospital with anaphylactic shock, but if I eat it — and I do try from time to time — it disagrees with me so strongly that I’m confined to the bathroom for hours or even days afterwards, which is a real nuisance as it reduces my personal menu by about a third. And it looks so good!
THE HONOURS SYSTEM: As I write this the New Year’s Honours List is just being announced, with its usual slew of cronies, Civil Service time-servers, sportsmen and sportswomen, and showbiz veterans, most of whom have already been amply rewarded with fame and money. The politicians keep saying that the whole thing needs reforming but they never do it. A quick doff of the hat, though, to the splendid people who have turned honours down, especially Alan Bennett who has refused the offer of a knighthood on three separate occasions, and our friend Herbert who turned down an MBE because being from Nigeria he wanted nothing to do with the British Empire.
‘IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’: I never saw this movie when I was young and only caught up with it at a time when my business was in trouble thanks to the bank panicking unnecessarily during John Major’s recession — and did my authors, clients and suppliers rally round to support me like the townsfolk do in the film? With a couple of exceptions they did not. The movie lies, people, and I hate it.
LONDON: It used to be a magical city but for me it has shrunk to a few dismal streets and a couple of hospitals. Now unable to enjoy its pleasures I long to get away but — for the time being anyway — I can’t, damn it.
MEN’S PONYTAILS: Don’t have one, guys, unless you’re actually aiming to look like an arsehole.
MY BODY: A wreck. ‘Nuff said about that horror, and definitely no …
SELFIES: A psychologist studying the phenomenon of social media generally and Instagram in particular called the phenomenal number of people continually posting photos of themselves ‘vanity validation’, which seems spot-on. Have we really become so narcissistic? From what I’ve seen, yes. But I hadn’t realized that the selfie could be used as a cruel taunt until I received one from someone who had avoided a get-together and sent me a photo which seemed to be saying “Here I am having fun scoffing fish and chips at the sunny seaside while you’re stuck in London trying to cope with gruelling cancer treatment on your own, ha ha. And by the way, aren’t I cute?” If there’s a good-natured way of responding to something like that I’m afraid couldn’t find it.
TIME: It goes by too quickly, and this sure as hell isn’t how I wanted to spend what I have left of it.
TRAVEL: I’ve never been a keen traveller and wouldn’t want to make a virtue out of not travelling since I can’t anyway, but I’ve been a bit miffed by people lecturing me about not recycling a few garden clippings when these same people jump on a plane at every opportunity, which is about the worst thing anyone can do to our poor suffering planet. The photo on the right shows me on a camping holiday in Spain in a rare moment when it wasn’t raining — but we drove there. Did I just get a bit preachy? Oh well.
WEEDS: Hey Science, when you’ve got rid of the coronavirus could you please turn your attention to producing a really effective weedkiller? The bottom of my Dorset garden is infested with deadnettles which have resisted my efforts to dig them up and burn them and this year they’ve come back stronger than ever while the London garden is overrun with brambles, to the annoyance of the neighbours on both sides. Sorry, neighbours. I’ll have another go when I’m able.
I sympathize with you, Science, when the politicians disregard your warnings and blithely lead us into a second wave of a pandemic that’s even worse than the first one, and I do realize that eliminating the virus is a priority — I’m not completely selfish — but let’s not forget that the world also needs a chemical that will get rid of weeds completely and permanently.
YODELLING: You know those people who can turn their eyelids inside out or bend their fingers right back and insist on doing so just to revolt you? Yodelling is like that to me. Some so-called singers evidently have some throat malformation that enables them to yodel, and by god they do. A bootleg of Bob Dylan when he was young revealed that can yodel but he doesn’t. He deseves the Nobel Prize for that alone.
ZOOM: During 2020 I got sick of being told to clear off because an important Zoom meeting was scheduled. So rude! So humiliating! I’ve never Zoomed myself, and I hope I never will.
Sorry about all that folks, but it’s been good to get a few things off my chest and where else could I have done it? I’m afraid that many of these things will still be around to annoy us in the New Year, but perhaps I can be less of a curmudgeon. Resolutions don’t usually last very long, but mine is a big one: to try and find a role for myself in the post-lockdown world when it comes. I’ve gone on far too much about illness and have been feeling like a burden on the state and to my friends, and urgently need to find a way of making myself useful somehow. What will it be? Charity work as a volunteer. raising money for good causes, being more generous with my limited resources, writing the novel that’s been buzzing around in my brain for ages? We’ll see.
Do you feel as if you’re hanging by your fingernails to the crumbling edge of a cliff?
Have you been worn to a frazzle?
If the answer is yes, congratulations are in order, says my horoscope in The Daily Mail — I hate their politics but buy it on Saturdays for the weekly TV Guide — and it’s as if the paper’s resident astrologer Oscar Cainer knows me personally. It certainly has been a tough year, for you as well as me I’m sure, but I’ve done enough moaning in this blog so let me take stock and look at the good things of 2020. There have been a few.
FAVOURITE ANIMATED CHARACTER: Brian from Family Guy, for about the seventh year running.
FAVOURITE BLOG: M. John Harrison’s ambiente hotel here. Mike and I collaborated on various things back in the day when he was a struggling writer and I was a very amateurish artist, and it’s been a real pleasure to see Mike’s career blossoming since then. His novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again won the prestigious Goldsmiths Prize this year. His blog is elegant, always interesting and of course beautifully written.
FAVOURITE BOOKS: I read a lot and it would be tedious to list all the books I’ve enjoyed, but I was pleased to discover the short stories of Miranda July and am currently reading her novel The First Bad Man. I was also delighted by David Nobbs’s autobiography I Didn’t Get Where I am Today, full of hilarious anecdotes about his career in comedy writing, and while sorting through old books with a view to getting rid of some I found myself re-reading Viz annuals, following the surreal footballing saga of Billy the Fish from beginning to end.
FAVOURITE CANCER NURSE: Jingle: lovely, friendly, funny and super-efficient. When we were out on our doorsteps applauding the NHS I was clapping louder than anyone — and why did we stop doing it? These wonderful people are still working their asses off and taking great personal risks to keep the rest of us safe and cared-for.
FAVOURITE CAR: I hate my own current car and hope to replace it with a better one next year, so my choice of car is my long-term favourite, the Duesenberg Model J Phaeton. This was Jerry Cornelius’s car in Mike Moorcock’s novel The Condition of Muzak (1977) which I illustrated, and not having access to the real thing and with no internet in those days I bought a plastic construction kit which I carefully assembled and painted in Jerry’s colours (cream and chocolate brown), and drew the car from the model. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize that year, but I doubt whether my illustrations had anything to do with that.
FAVOURITE CHAIR: My Lazyboy, like me very scruffy and fraying at the edges but still more comfortable than any other.
FAVOURITE CHEESE: Wensleydale, but it has to be the real thing made and perfectly matured in Yorkshire. The plastic-wrapped stuff in the supermarket’s chill cabinet isn’t the same.
FAVOURITE DEATHS: A tie between those of the Moors Murderer Ian Brady and of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. The world is better off without those two, and now we no longer have to pay for their decades-long upkeep in jail. Also, I wasn’t too distressed by the death of Des O’Connor, who told me to fuck off when I asked for his autograph as a shy and acutely self-conscious 13-year-old.
FAVOURITE DOG: Lady, next door’s elderly Red Setter, now deaf and arthritic but still a sweetheart.
FAVOURITE DOWNFALL: Harvey Weinstein’s. We had some very unsatisfactory dealings with him when I was running my publishing company and we knew he was a wrong ‘un long before news of his sexual shenanigans emerged. He’s currently serving a 23-year jail sentence, his company has gone bust and he’s tested positive for the coronavirus. There is a god.
FAVOURITE DRINK: Heaven’s Door [see my earlier post ‘Heaven and Hell’]. Runner-up: Marston’s Owd Rodger which my friend Bob and I discovered in a country pub we used to frequent, and being less mobile these days I was pleased to find the bottled version for sale in my local Kwik-e-Mart. Not quite as good as the keg but still a wonderful relaxative when needed.
FAVOURITE DRUG: Levothyroxine. A daily dose keeps me alive.
FAVOURITE FILMS: It’s years since I visited a cinema so I have to make do with what gets shown on the multifarious tv channels that I get.
This year I particularly enjoyed How to Build a Girl starring Beanie Feldstein, having read the novel by local author Caitlin Moran. Also good was The Constant Gardener, viewed on DVD as I’d missed it first time around and was reminded of it by the recent death of John Le Carré.
FAVOURITE FOOTBALL TEAM: Leeds United, always and for ever. 2020 was their first year back in the Premiership after a very long and dreary absence, and it’s been a huge pleasure to see them holding their own in the upper tier and playing some superbly entertaining football.
FAVOURITE FRUIT: Pineapple. A surprising late entry this, as for my previous 73 years on this planet I’ve had a sort of ‘I can take it or leave it’ attitude to pineapple, but in recent weeks I’ve found I can’t get enough of the wonderful yellow stuff, and when I haven’t got any I’m thinking about how to get some. The recent hormone treatment I’ve been undergoing has done peculiar things to my body and my metabolism, but I wasn’t anticipating such a strange craving. I think I might be pregnant.
FAVOURITE GARDENING IMPLEMENT: Draper’s telescopic soft-grip bypass ratchet-action loppers with aluminium handles, bought just before the radiotherapy put me out of action for a while. Next year I hope to be able to use them a lot more. Lopping is fun!
FAVOURITE GARMENT: Not much clothes shopping this year because of the pandemic and various misguided online purchases, but a baggy pale grey top by Tu bought on a grocery-shopping trip to Sainsbury’s is very comfortable. I no longer care what I look like.
FAVOURITE HEADLINES OF THE YEAR: “FA confirm Wembley is NOT being turned into a giant lasagne”; “Monday Night Toilet Roll Fights: sport in the age of coronavirus”; “A Man Whose Parents Threw Out His Porn Collection Wins Lawsuit Against Them”; “Bad Sex In Fiction award cancelled – as people have suffered enough in 2020”; “Adolf Hitler elected in Namibia’s local council elections – but has ‘no plans for world domination'”.
FAVOURITE HERB: Oregano, now that I grow my own.
FAVOURITE HOLIDAY: No holidays this year. No big deal as I hate travelling anyway.
FAVOURITE INTERNET MEME: Wojak.
FAVOURITE JOKE: Q. What’s the difference between COVID-19 and Romeo and Juliet? A. One’s a coronavirus and the other’s a Verona crisis.
FAVOURITE KITCHEN THINGIES: A pair of little rubber grippers, Poundland’s re-invention of the oven glove. They do the job and are much smaller and easier to wash than the quilted cloth things I’ve been using up to now.
FAVOURITE LOCOMOTIVE: Union Pacific 4014, reputedly the world’s biggest working engine. All of the other surviving Big Boy class are in museums but over the course of the year I’ve been avidly following the restoration and testing of this one on YouTube, and the sight of it now running under its own steam is a wonderfully stirring thing.
FAVOURITE MEAL: A pasta dish — don’t know its name — made by Celia-next-door. Her mushroom risotto was really good too. Much appreciated.
FAVOURITE MUSIC: I love music and in recent years I’ve been listening mostly to classical stuff, but I’ve always been a bit deaf to the charms of opera. Finding this on Youtube started to change my mind and I developed a bit of a thing for Elīna Garanča, so when I learned that she’d starred in Carmen I bought the DVD and am entranced by it.
FAVOURITE PIZZA: ‘Garden Party’ with extra cheese, from Papa John’s.
FAVOURITE POEM: If I was trying to impress I’d choose something by Donne or Eliot or Larkin, or something really obscure, but ’Jenny Kissed Me’ by Leigh Hunt (1838) has been popping into my head lately. I’ve always found it rather charming, and with advancing age it has taken on extra overtones. Here is someone reading it quite nicely. I’ve had only one kiss this year and was as delighted by it as the guy in the poem.
FAVOURITE POTATO CRISPS: Vicente Vidal plain crisps. Quite hard to find and rather expensive when you do find them, but as something of a crisp connoisseur I’ve found these light and fresh and much tastier than other brands.
FAVOURITE PUNCTUATION MARK: The colon: I know that I over-use it.
FAVOURITE RADIOLOGIST: Bridgid. It’s been quite a while since an attractive young woman fiddled about with my dangly bits but she did it chatting merrily the while, then retired to a safe room to watch x-rays of my guts while the raygun did its work, so it’s very encouraging to find that knowing me literally inside-out she still wants to see me.
FAVOURITE RELATIVES: The Tauranga mob, and not only because they’re now my only living relatives. It’s rather touching to know that a new generation on the other side of the world knows me by the nickname that my nephew and niece called me when they were children. Yay, I’m still Uncle Whiskers.
FAVOURITE RESTAURANT: I’ve been to only one in 2020 and that was the one at the Whittington Hospital, where the food is rather good with (currently) plenty of social distance between the tables. Their chicken kebabs served with rice and salad are very tasty. No booze at a hospital, obviously.
FAVOURITE SERIAL KILLER: I don’t actually like them of course, but having written and edited and published several books about them I try to keep up with the latest developments in Serial Killer World, and this year I was pleased to learn that they might have finally caught the so-called Golden State Killer, a particularly nasty specimen. He’s currently in jail awaiting trial so I’d better say no more except nail the bastard.
FAVOURITE SLANG WORD: Flart, an old fart who is something of a flirt. Have I been a bit of a flart this year, particularly in the Radiology Dept? Possibly.
FAVOURITE SOAP OPERA: Coronation Street, which I’ve been watching on and off ever since it started and the only soap I’ve ever watched. It’s pretty dire these days, relying far too much on overheard conversations which were a cliché in Shakespeare’s day, but a large part of the pleasure is discussing the preposterous plotlines as they unfold with fellow cynics on the Digital Spy forum.
FAVOURITE SOFTWARE: Photoshop. Yet again.
FAVOURITE TRANSSEXUAL: Darcie Silver.
FAVOURITE TREE: The aspen at the bottom of my garden. It was growing rather lop-sided as a sycamore — in my view the weed of the tree world — grew up alongside it, but men with a chainsaw and a digger got rid of the intruder, and over the course of the year the aspen has balanced itself. I love to see its leaves shimmering in a light breeze.
FAVOURITE STEELY DAN TRACK: We lost Walter Becker this year but much of the Dan’s music is on my perennial playlist, and I’ve been listening to ‘Deacon Blues‘ a lot recently. It seems to speak to me personally, as a good song should.
FAVOURITE TV SERIES: Killing Eve, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, I May Kill You … If pressed I might admit that I’ve also watched a couple of episodes of Naked Attraction — purely for its sociological interest of course. I had no idea that so many young people have so many tattoos.
FAVOURITE US PRESIDENT: No contenders this year.
FAVOURITE WEAPON: My antique swordstick, probably illegal to own these days but I sleep more soundly knowing it’s by the bed in case another burglar appears in the bedroom in the middle of the night.
FAVOURITE WEBSITE: Facebook, which I joined a few months ago and which has put me back in touch with lots of old friends and colleagues, and brought some new friends too.
FAVOURITE WORD: Adomania: the fear that the future is coming too quickly.
Let’s hope that next year will bring more of the good stuff and much less of the bad. Oscar Cainer thinks that for me it will: “The Solar Eclipse heralds a welcome (and positive) change. There’s no need to try to hold on to anything or fight against an invisible force. You’ve done enough. You can let go and flow with the tide. You’re being taken on a course that’s heading towards a safe and welcoming destination. Wonderful opportunities arise that are going to energise your life.”
That’s good to know, and I hope that 2021 will be wonderful for you too. In the meantime may I wish all my readers a very