Saturday, 28 February 2009

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

Drunk by the very best of Parisian artistic society in the late 19th century, absinthe is a drink that has fascinated me for some time – well, at least since its revival in the last decade and it's unbanning in many European Union countries.

What is it? Why is it so awful that it was banned for years?

Those are the sort of questions that run through one's head.

Even the traditional preparation is about as Bohemian as it's possible to imagine.

Take a glass with a shot of absinthe, then place a special slotted spoon across the top, with a sugar cube on it. Drizzle ice-cold water on the sugar, so that it slowly dissolves into the absinthe, thus making a cloudy mixture as the herbs in the spirit are brought out. There's even a word for the cloudy look – louche, which rather adds to the mystique.

Well, there I was in Manchester, feeling not remotely grim up north and having discovered Vanilla, a most conducive lesbian bar just off the legendary Canal Street.

Having an evening to kill, I was attempting to look sophisticated by drinking G&Ts (apparently, my desire to have the Gordon's gin rather than the house standard was a sign of poshness) and trying to make myself generally agreeable to a very friendly crowd.

Now, lesbian bars and I have a history, which goes back to Amsterdam some years ago, when I visited Saarein. Delighted to see a pool table, I came instantly unstuck when it was made clear that hustling was out – this was uncompetitive pool. Which was a bit like suggesting I visit Manchester to watch City play uncompetitive football matches – although some might say that's been the reality for years.

I made an effort – which itself seemed oddly opposed to the idea of an uncompetitive game – but I readily confess to being utterly hopeless at not trying to win. Suffice it to say that I impressed nobody.

So, fast forward to Vanilla. The pool was competitive (but played in a perfectly well-mannered way) and the clientele and staff were open and friendly.

A few G&Ts down the road, I happened to notice a sign in the toilets, advertising 'flaming absinthe'. So I enquired. It materialised that the 'flaming' bit was off the menu, since it was well gone 9pm (I remain in the dark about this reasoning), but that I could have a shot of the stuff. I took the opportunity.

Canal Street may not quite be Montmartre, but it's quite Bohemian, in it's own fashion. The LGBT crowd are joined at weekends by hen parties and groups of straights, eager to enjoy the sights and get a fix of the party athmosphere.

The little plastic shot glass was full of la fée verte.

Here we go.

"Oh my God! Is that absinthe?" shrilled a girl next to me at the bar, sighting the glass. Another girl chipped in.

"I had some of that one night and I was so ill the next morning."

Now or never: I'm the daring one here.

A sip. Just a very small sip. 

Boy, has it got a kick. You know how whiskey has been called 'fire water'? Well this stuff makes whiskey feel like mere water.

A man behind me, thinking he wouldn't be outdone, ordered a shot too – and gulped it back in one. He was gasping, clutching at his throat for several moments after.

A sip. Just a small sip. I'm not a total fool.

Very aniseedy. You need the iced water and the spoon and the sugar to bring out the other flavours of fennel and grande wormwood. But very pleasant none the less.

Recent research has debunked the claims that absinthe is a powerful psychoactive drug – but it's still a powerful something. The warmth spread rapidly to my limbs, but my mind stayed clear (well, as clear as those G&Ts and an absinthe allowed).

I decided to melt into the night while I could still think about doing so.

Did it make the heart grow fonder? Well, it did nothing to quench my extreme horniness. But since my chances of pulling had decreased with the arrival of a very loud gang of straight women celebrating one of their number's 21st birthday, I popped into a nearby CloneZone and purchased a cheap and nicely proportioned dildo. It was enough to help make the rest of the evening, in a bland hotel room, very pleasant. And even appropriately louche.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The wages of sin

'Look at them – they're as miserable as sin.'

Just where does this come from? I know it's Lent and we're all supposed to be feeling pious because we've given up something for a short period of time in order to win spiritual brownie points with the Big G. But sin is miserable?

Oddly enough, I've never found that to be the case. Indeed, I find quite a bit of sin to be rather good fun.

We all know that, when the religious start talking about 'sin', what they really mean is sex. Well, what can I say? Sex doesn't make me feel miserable.

But then again, quite a lot of sins are 'forbidden' pleasures.

According to one Father Roberto Busa, a 95-year-old Jesuit scholar, men and women sin differently.

For men, it's a case of lust first, followed by gluttony and then sloth. Anger, pride and envy follow, with greed taking up the rear.

For women, it's pride, followed by envy (Damn! I really want the handbag she's got!) and then anger. Lust comes a poor fourth.

Mind, the poor dear probably doesn't get out much.

And he hasn't met me.

Or quite a few other women I know.

How extraordinary though – that a (presumably) virginal 95-year-old should be such an expert on sin, after living an exemplary life of contemplation, scholarship and piety.

I'm going to admit something here: it has sometimes crossed my mind that would be a rather good ruse to take confession – just to see how quickly I could make the priest's hair curl.

And confession is good for the soul, so they say.

But then again, probably not half as much fun as a bit of sin.

Liberty, rights and fear

It's a tiny purse: black with a gold-coloured clasp; a little battered. It could hardly hold more than a few coins. When it was found, it held a return ticket from Epsom to London.

Emily Davison never returned to the capital. Instead, she died after running out in front of King George V's horse, Anmer, at the Derby, a martyr to the cause of women's suffrage; to the right of women to participate in the political and democratic process of the country.

The purse – and the return ticket – are currently amongst an extraordinary collection of items in the British Library's exhibition, Taking liberties: the struggle for Britain's freedoms and rights.

There is one of only four known remaining copies of Magna Carta. A 1651 first edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. A 15th century letter from Owain Glyn Dwr, a 13th century papal bull, a notebook belonging to William Blake and handwritten notes from Gladstone on Home Rule for Ireland in 1893.

But two things almost take the breath away: Davison's purse is one. Charles I's death warrant from 1649 is the other.

The parchment, fragile and yellowed with the passing of over three and a half centuries, remains an extraordinarily powerful document. Oliver Cromwell's signature is third down on the left, a confident hand. And the seals of those who signed are like drops of blood, gathering pace as they put their names to the document; as they sought to send to his maker a man who believed that, as a monarch, God had granted him his powers and no mere man could take them away.

It is with awe that one looks at these exhibits, trying to draw something from them, to understand the events behind them and the events that transpired as a result; to conjure in the cinema of the mind's eye what these artifacts represent.

What was in Davison's mind as she faced the horse? What were those men thinking as they put their signatures to the death warrant?  

And the mind turns to the question of how readily some would give away the rights that have been so hard won; that have cost real blood.

Britain is the CCTV capital of the world. It'll cut crime, so it's said. For Londoners, you can expect to be photographed around 300 times a day while going about your entirely legal business. The concomitant cut in crime has not noticeably occurred.

The government is trying to introduce ID cards, but without any obvious reason. They have gone from the idea of compulsory ID cards to voluntary ones, with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith explaining that they'll only really be needed by people 'near' borders. So that'll be passports, then?

In high-profile interviews, senior police officers float the idea of a universal DNA database to test out public opinion – every new-born baby would have their DNA taken and placed on the database in case they do something naughty when they're old enough. Yet as the DNA database that we already have has grown massively, convictions have not grown at anything like the same rate. DNA is not some magic bullet that will solve or stop all crime.

And so many of the people, in their fear of terrorism and crime, say: 'well, if you've nothing to hide ...'

The police are given new powers, making every offensive imaginable an arrestable offence – even dropping a sweet wrapper on the street. And in another new move, they can also, under the guise of fighting terrorism, stop people filming or photographing them.

And so many people, in their fear of crime and terrorism, say: 'well, if you've nothing to hide ...'

We have helped to launch an illegal war. We have been complicit in rendition and torture. We have imprisoned people without trial – and government would like to be able to hold people for longer without charge.

And so many people, in their fear of what politicians and media tell them to be afraid of, say: 'well, if you've nothing to hide ...'

As Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Those people who see no problem with the creep of a Big Brother state should see this exhibition. And think on what it shows.

Because the message is clear: our rights came at a cost. Do not readily toss them on one side.

You get Mardi Gras ...

... and we get Shrove Tuesday. And pancakes.

Don't get me wrong – pancakes are great. But compared to Mardi Gras ... well, one can't help feeling a little shortchanged.

The English, being a people of obvious restraint, don't do fiesta at any time. The idea of authorised anarchy – that chance to really let down the hair, with permission – isn't one that we know.

We don't get to go wild before Lent (or at any other time): we get to use up our eggs and flour before 40 days of denial.

Not that I personally do the denial bit, you understand. But I did the pancakes – after a few beers and rather a lot of white wine.

I sifted the flour, à la Delia, then whisked in eggs and milk and a little water. I'd never made pancakes until last year, but was inspired to do so by the purchase of a very good, copper-bottomed French omelette pan.

Melt a knob of butter and get it piping hot. Ladle in some of the batter and swirl around to thinly cover the base of the pan. You know it's ready to turn when you see the edges lifting away from the metal.

Squeeze fresh lemon juice on them and sprinkle with sugar; roll up and eat. Delicious.

There was some criticism last night that I don't toss, and was using – what a culinary faux pas! – a metal spatula to flip them over, but the results were tasty enough to earn thanks.

But why don't we English do fiesta – Mardi Gras?

Perhaps if we had those moments, we wouldn't have the distinctly unauthorised drunken brawling that characterises most English town centres every weekend.

Perhaps, because we're still not over the prudery and Puritanism of the Victorian era, we go to extremes more often in an effort to escape it?

Still, at least such attitudes don't invade pancake making.

Risotto, for me, used to be the Protestant work ethic transferred into the kitchen. Taking cookery books as conveying a literal truth, it was probably the one dish that left me with a real sense of having had to work at it.

You chop, you peel, you grate – and then you stand over the stove and sweat for 20 minutes as you stir stock into the rice.

It's only recently that I've discovered that risotto can be made much more easily – that it (and cooking in general) doesn't have t feel like such hard work in order to be good.

So tonight, in my continuing search for culinary simplicity (particularly in the middle of the week), it's going to be some of the weekend's left-over roast chicken, with a salad of a few boiled potatoes, some grapefruit segments and thinly sliced red onion, all served on a bed of lamb's lettuce, with a classic dressing of grapefruit juice, virgin oil and dry mustard.

It might not be Mardi Gras, but it's not the stifling refusal to enjoy life either.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis

Inspiration comes from all sorts of sources. There was I, watching the final of University Challenge last night, when poet Wendy Cope walked out to hand over the trophy.

‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘I’m sure I’ve got one of her books on the shelf. It’s about time I read it.’

A few hours later, I rooted out the appropriately ‘slender volume’, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (her first published collection, from 1986), propped myself up in bed and started to read.

How absolutely delightful. Laugh-out-loud funny in places, Cope’s verse is clever and quirky.

She beautifully captures the intensity of relationships: the heightened emotions that could be love – or hate; the all-consuming lust and, for women particularly, the adaption to what the man wants. Into that mix, she adds a deliciously funny take on looking for ‘Mr Perfect’ (Rondeau Redoublé) and female versions of dumping someone because it isn’t the ‘real thing’.

Some of the poems are penned by her fictional creation of struggling ‘male’ poet Jake Strugnell from Tulse Hill, while elsewhere, Cope delightfully parodies other writers, including TS Elliot – Wasteland Limericks is particularly entertaining.

It’s an incredibly varied collection, shot through with pathos. Tich Miller strikes a tragic note that carries with it the anger of someone who remembers from childhood the cruelty of children.

Cope is a deceptive poet. She has the sort of skill with rhythm and rhyme that brings to mind John Betjeman, but unlike him, the England of her verse is not an anti-industrial, chocolate box confection, looking back through rose-tinted spectacles to an English Arcady that never really existed – or only for a privileged few.

Rather, there are hints of darkness here and of complexity and passion behind the joviality. It’s good stuff indeed – easy to read, but with a sharp and complex aftertaste.

And so I’ll provide an example. The following poem opens the collection (and amused me enough that I had to go and read it out loud to The Other Half then and there, and subsequently to my editor this morning). This is how it is presented in the book, with the explanation as an intro, before Cope’s riposte.

Engineers’ Corner

“Why isn’t there an Engineers’ Corner in Westminster Abbey? In Britain we’ve always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint ... How many schoolchildren dream of becoming great engineers?” Advertisement placed in The Times by the Engineering Council.

We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –
That's why so many poets ends up rich,
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It’s always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day.

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering –
You’re sure to need another job as well;
You'll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.

While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You'll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.

No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.

There’s far too much encouragement for poets –
That’s why the country’s going down the drain.

Wendy Cope

Monday, 23 February 2009

The art of the flâneur

The French have a word for it.

Well … they would, wouldn’t they? And it comes resplendent with the sort of deeper meaning (suggesting sophistication) that is so much of the reason that so many of us love (and secretly envy) the French.

For 19th-century French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, the flâneur was a stroller – someone who walks the streets of a city, not simply as way of getting from A to B, but in leisurely manner so as to appreciate and experience that city.

The word was initially associated with Paris, but has come to be applied to any leisurely pedestrian exploration of urban streets.

Almost inevitably, given Baudelaire’s idea of the flâneur as “a botanist of the sidewalk”, it has been linked with street photography.

In her 1977 essay On Photography, Susan Sontag noted: “The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque’.”

Back in 1962, Cornelia Otis Skinner had described it thus in Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals: “There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur. Cassell’s dictionary defines flâneur as a stroller, saunterer, drifter but none of these terms seems quite accurate.

“There is no English equivalent for the term, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.”

Quite accidentally, about two years ago, I ‘discovered’ street photography. There I was, innocently ‘flâneuring’ away a lunch hour in Russell Square in the centre of London, camera around my neck as I looked for interesting things to snap, when I spotted the doorman from a nearby hotel.

He’d walked around the corner, possibly looking for cabs to hail or possibly just taking a few moments break. But there he was, bowler hatted and with white gloves, shoes polished to a mirror-like shine and a red carnation in his lapel, leaning back against a bollard.

Street photography has been around for a long time – it’s apotheosis, probably Henri Cartier Bresson.

But that porter was my personal introduction. As though some deep instinct kicked in, I became an animal stalking my prey, knowing instinctively how this target needed capturing.

And I keep doing it. Yesterday, I shocked friends by snapping a man right opposite me on a train. Now he was reading a paper, which I think made quite an interesting shot in its own right, with the emphasis on the solitary hand that you can see. But the friends in question were convinced that he’d have been aware, given how near I was – or rather that I'd get my proverbial lights punched out if someone realised that I was snapping them in such a fashion.

But, for me at least, there is no intention to deprecate. This is about capturing the moment.

There are claims that flâneurs are essentially shy people, who have to conquer that in order to get off their shots. Perhaps that’s true.

But it is amazing how few people realise that they’re being photographed – even though you’re wandering around pointing a camera in their general direction.

It is, however, a hunt. And the resultant trophies, at their best, are magnificent, as though you have somehow managed to ensnare a little bit of life itself.

Some time ago, I had an online debate about this with a fellow snapper, who was doing faux outrage over the invasion of privacy that he claimed my personal efforts entailed. He was utterly unable (or unwilling) to grasp the value of stopping time; of capturing these ephemeral moments.

And street photographers – sorry, flâneurs – will continue to stalk and snap their prey, and to capture the life of the city for posterity. And they’ll try to get nearer and nearer to their targets; to capture life more closely than ever, and to test themselves and their hunting skills. Just how near can I get?

* The picture at the top of this post was taken in the home of flânerie, Paris, in December 2007.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Of Printemps and patent pumps

Perhaps it was the mere act of contemplating matters sunny yesterday, but the weather has changed.

No … not the weather: the season (fingers crossed).

Lunchtime yesterday was fine enough to sit out at the café in Russell Square and drink frothy latté.

Today has been better yet. There is warmth in the sun and the light has lost the brittle quality of wintery days.

So it seems perfectly in keeping to have turned to the Mediterranean for culinary inspiration today.

A chicken is already in the oven for a long, slow cook, à la one of the River Café cookery books. The bird is stuffed with garlic, sage and rosemary and is sitting in a tight dish with 200ml of water in the bottom at around 80˚C. After three hours, it’ll have butter rubbed on it and Vermouth added to the dish, before being returned to a hotter oven for a final half hour (or until it browns).

I’m going to serve it with good bread and with zucchini scapece – courgettes, thickly sliced and then salted for half an hour, before being dried and fried in vegetable oil with mint leaves.

The body has already been ready for the change of season for a couple of weeks: I’ve been binging on salads most evenings; ludicrously simple things such as plate of lamb’s lettuce, with a few baby beets and some smoked mackerel. Delicious.

At lunchtime today, I borrowed some more inspiration from River Café, cooked myself some broad (fava) beans from frozen and tossed them over a sliced pear, some goat’s cheese and toasted walnuts, dressed with nothing more than a drizzle of virgin oil.

As snowdrops display their beauty in the planters at the front of the flat, these are the tastes to go with it.

It’s been so pleasant sitting out that, when I finally got around to getting the camera out and taking a picture of the Marc Jacobs patent pink pumps for Irene, I was even able to take advantage of the natural light. They’ll go brilliantly with the dress from Monsoon, that I found on my Thursday shopping jaunt.

I feel soothed and relaxed. Chores are out of the way and I can sit out in the garden for a little longer. The days are drawing out and buds are just beginning to peak through on the bushes and trees that I passed alongside the Regent’s Canal as I wandered to the market this morning.

Looking up, you can see silhouettes of the first blossom against azure skies. The birds have been tweeting away all afternoon, driving the Queen B into a frenzy of chuntering and chirruping to herself.

We’ve had a good winter – a real winter. The cold has exhilarated and cleared the senses.

But now it’s time for spring, and everything seems to be reaching out for it.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Sun, sea and salt

The sun on your skin has to be one of the most sensual experiences ever. Warmth in the air and salt on the sea breeze. Gulls wheel above, flying and shrieking as though out of nothing but joy.

A friend sent me some extracts from Mark Kurkansky’s excellent Salt: a world history this morning, and managed to turn my mind straight away to the south of France; to Languedoc-Roussillon, to the Mediterranean coast, to the vast salt pans visible from plane or train and, most of all, to Collioure.

The little port, nestling below the Pyrénées, has two claims to fame: anchovies and art. The art in question is Fauvism – Matisse thought the light there the most beautiful in the world. The little fish were integral to the village’s economy; salted and dispatched to various parts of the world, valued as the finest anchovies anywhere.

Just reading about it made me long to be back there. The pebbled beaches leave the Mediterranean crystal clear. Venture in and fish will soon be swimming around your legs. Don a snorkel and goggles and float, face down, gazing into a different world; a world where sunlight, refracted through the water, glistens all around.

Keep your eyes open and watch: spot the tiniest of lifeforms shifting around in their shells; creatures scooting out of sight behind rocks as the seabed falls away and weeds sway languorously below. Daurade as big as dinner plate and busy shoals of multi-coloured smaller fish go about their business.

Stay still: let your body stop. And just watch.

Wander along the narrow, winding streets of brightly painted houses: admire the art – there’s plenty of it. Sit at any one of the seafront cafés and watch the world go by. Banish any timepieces.

Lunch on anchovies and olives, or sardines charred on an open grill right next to the beach and stuffed between bread with the fingers. Dine on squid dipped into unctuous aïoli or tuna with ripe tomatoes and fresh bread dipped into virgin oil, squeezed from the groves on the surrounding hills. Drink the sweet, local Banyuls to start, before moving on to a carafe of the house rosé. Perfection in simplicity.

Relax and let the place rub away all the stress and the tensions of modern living. And still the sun; blissfully hot, caressing the skin; the water, lapping the shore, and the blue, blue sky overhead.

The end of February nears. It’s still chilly in London, although milder than for some weeks. Time for winter to end. I need the sun on my back and the salt in my nostrils again.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Of misandrists and men

How long ago is it that women had the debate about whether feminists could wear lipstick?

Like you, I thought that that issue was dead in the water – after all, isn’t feminism supposed, at core, to be about women’s liberation? And wouldn’t any meaningful idea of liberation mean that women could choose things for themselves?

And isn’t it about women taking responsibility for themselves and their own decisions and actions?

Well, unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward, as Irene’s story and the responses to it that she received illustrate.

And it adds yet more weight to what I’ve been noticing in the last few years.

Self-appointed, unaccountable women who have decided that they hold the keys to everywoman’s experience of womanhood – of life – and will do their damnedest to foist their views onto every other woman around.

They’re fundamentalists and, like other fundamentalisms that are on the rise these days, feminist fundamentalism is also rearing its ugly head.

In various places, I find other women telling me what to do: how I should dress, how I should behave, how I should fuck (and whom). I’ve even been told that I should be afraid to walk the streets – and when I respond that I am not, I’ve been told that I’m a fool.

The Guardian newspaper, supposedly a bastion of liberal thought, lends legitimacy to this fundamentalist feminism by allowing its exponents pretty much un-challenged space in its opinion columns and online blogs.

The British government is creating dismal legislation that has comes out of an alliance between fundamentalists of feminist and religious hue.

The whole thing is full of misandry – and misandry is no better than misogyny. Indeed, it’s also full of misogyny – such feminists seem to despise the overwhelming majority of their ‘sisters’.

So get out of my life. If I want to be spanked by a man, I’ll damned well be spanked by a man – and I’ll damned well enjoy it.

If I want to wear a burgundy velvet dress, team it with a studded wrist band and idly contemplate what handbag will work best with it – I’ll do so. And I’ll damned well enjoy it.

I’ve managed to rid myself of the controls of religion on my life and thoughts; I’ve dealt with the long-term consequences of having grown up with an emotionally bullying parent, and the impact on my self image and self confidence of yo-yo and faddy dieting and weight worries since the age of 12. In oh so very many ways, I spent years in an intellectual, emotional and sexual burka, hiding from view, from life. It is absolutely no coincidence that, during those days, I hid my physical self beneath layers of drab, shapeless clothing, embarrassed and ashamed by my own body and by my own physical needs and desires.

So I am most certainly not going to start kow-towing to a bunch of women telling me how I, as a woman, should live my life now.

And it would be such a dull and colourless life, because their dull and colourless little brains are filled with bile and jealousy and the need to justify their own tawdry existences by controlling others.

Like puritans and prudes and prigs everywhere, they live in fear of anyone else having any pleasure – unless they’ve approved it first.

According to a certain view, the whole fashion thing, for instance, is a male conspiracy against women – not least, because it’s about getting women to dress for men; in a way that men like.

Let’s assume for the sake of the discussion that such a simplistic idea has some legitimacy – as we’ve discussed elsewhere, dress is partly about attracting a mate.

So …

So what? If I want to dress to attract, why not?

If I want to dress to ‘play the game’, why not?

If I want to dress a certain way because it gives me pleasure … why not?

If I get a kick out of being aware that I attract male glances on occasion (these boobs are difficult to hide), then what on Earth, in Mother Nature’s name, is wrong with that?

The logical conclusion is that it is wrong for men to behave like … well, men. And that it is wrong for women to enjoy men behaving like … err, men.

How do we ‘solve’ this? How about all females of the species wearing burkas? Let’s stop those looks by removing temptation from men – because we all know that it’s women’s fault that men are sometimes tempted to behave badly, and therefore it’s women’s responsibility to avoid that. We know it, because the story of Adam and Eve made it clear that women are the temptresses who must be kept under control, lest they drag down decent, honest, God-fearing men.

While we’re at it, let’s return to the olden days where, in rape trials, the question of what the woman was wearing was paramount – was that short skirt or low-cut blouse ‘asking for it’?

There are times when these radical ‘feminists’ seem to have an awful lot in common with sexist bigots such as the Taliban. Indeed, they’re quite happy to make unholy alliances with religious conservatives in the West when it suits their ideas on certain issues – Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon are a case in point. What an irony! So-called feminists climbing into metaphorical bed with the very sorts of people who would limit women’s choices!

Feminism is not dead. It better hadn’t be. Because we have many, many important things that still need achieving. In the UK, for instance, equal pay is just one such thing. A real thing. A real, day-to-day, economic issue for millions of British women.

Elsewhere in the world, women are dying because a bunch of dried up old men in frocks have decided that they cannot be allowed to have control over their own bodies and their own fertility.

In parts of Pakistan, as the Taliban gain ground, girls are being barred from education.

But no: the important questions are whether women should be allowed to like handbags and green angora sweaters and lipstick. And whether they should ever dare to allow themselves to sexually play a submissive role to a male Dominant (the other way around is just about acceptable, apparently).

What spectacularly crass priorities.

Simone de Beauvoir must be spinning in her Montparnasse grave. But then again, de Beauvoir understood the value of intellectual rigour – not the sort of self-indulgent wanking that the women who would replace a patriarchy with a matriarchy like to pretend passes for ‘thought’.

Now, if you'll excuse me: I've a clothes and lippy shopping trip to plan for this evening.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Breaking the dress code

Dress – I’m beginning to think it’s a like a code, and I think I might have cracked it.

Either I currently look so ridiculous that I’m aware of getting a lot of looks, or I’m getting them because I’m finally learning to make my clothes work for me.

So why do we bother making such an effort: why invest time in attempting to put together something that pleases us? Why don’t we all simply just wear the same, utilitarian clothes, keeping costs down and probably being more comfortable, at least on occasion?

Well, obviously the question of attracting a mate comes into it – although the success of this aim doesn’t suddenly stop people making a big effort with their look.

But then there’s also what could be described as the desire for individualism; to stand out in a crowd.

Let’s take a step back in time to 1982, to an institutionally bland room at Leicester Polytechnic, undistinguishable from any other in a block that had been thrown up a decade or so earlier.

We were working on a scene from August Strindberg’s dour Scandinavian drama, The Father, where the nurse has to con the captain to don the straitjacket.

I still remember how powerful it was and how a fellow student (amazing – I can remember that it was lanky, blonde Gary from Manchester) and I got right beneath the skin of the thing in the sort of way that left us emotionally drained afterward.

Our tutor was a man called Tony Yates, a great actor trainer. I remember how he told us all: “You’re gods, all of you; because you have the power to create. Never forget that.”

I haven't.

But if the act of bringing words on a page to life is one of creation, then how much more is the act of creation that we all, to some degree engage in – the act of creating the self that we choose to present to the world – the work of ourselves as gods?

A few days ago, I mentioned self-awareness.

Is it a case that the more conscious the act of self-creation, the higher the level of self-awareness?

Take Marilyn Manson, for instance. You might not like him, but he’s set out with a very specific aim of creating himself for himself – and to piss off the establishment – and been rather successful in terms of achieving those aims. How many other people achieve such a distinctive and successful self-creation as Manson?

And dress, of course, is part of the process. Perhaps too, self-awareness brings with it confidence – and confidence is also something, like clothes, that attracts people's attention.

Maybe the dress code is really just a question of knowing thine own self and then being true to it?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A designer-clad foot in the fashion door

London Fashion Week is almost upon us, with the opening catwalk show slated for Friday.

Now this might not seem particularly newsworthy – except for the fact that I know that it’s happening. And when. And in advance.

This is the girl who spent much of her childhood wanting to be a boy – or at least wanting to be allowed to play football, which was pretty much the same thing at the time; a girl who disappointed her mother with a worrying lack of interest in clothes, handbags or make-up – the very things that it is assumed all girls naturally like.

My mother, who was determined to rectify such shortcomings (regardless of my thoughts on the matter) escorted me to Boots with some Christmas money shortly after my 13th birthday. There she selected what she considered the appropriate make-up. Blue eyeshadow (this was the 1970s), a compact of powder and a medium purple lipstick: the latter was a small thing and I eventually threw it out around 10 years ago. Which tells you something of how much – or how little – I used to do make-up. There was cleanser and toner and moisturiser too.

This had to be applied for church going at the least. God presumably thinks a touch of slap essential for worship, although on the basis of what was excluded from that shopping trip, mascara is just a tad too tarty in divine circles.

But here we are, some 30 odd years later, and I know when London Fashion Week starts.

All due, of course, to a newfound dedication to the glossies. Not that they’re for reading, but for ogling: porn for apprentice fashionistas.

So I really know what this season’s caged boot is, and I know that it comes from Yves Saint Laurent.

Kinky, eh? And probably a darned good thing that I’m not good in heels and designers don’t make things to fit me.

Let’s be quite clear – I’m not a shoe slut: but only because my feet are such an obscurely awkward size.

To be frank, with size three tootsies (wide fitting) and a bra size of 40H, I feel like a cross between a Geisha and Dolly Parton. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I don’t fall flat on my face more often.

So shoes are out.

Or were, until I happened upon a pair of patent pink Marc Jacobs pumps in Harvey Nicks, Bristol, while working in that city in January. A photo will follow shortly for Irene. But they were an historic find: designer shoes that fitted. And suitably credit crunched by around 50% in the sale. A rarity – and the exception that proves the rule.

Still, there are always handbags.

Lovely, lovely handbags.

But that’s a story for another day.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Life and death in Venice

When Jane Hudson disembarks from her train in Venice, she’s full of excitement at the prospect of spending time in the beautiful city. But her awe at the beauty of the sights takes a blow when the sights that she sees include Italian men eyeing up women in a rather obvious manner.

As her dream holiday unfolds, Jane is torn: desperate to be her independent self on the one hand, but lonely on the other; shocked by the sexual openness that she sees around her, yet desperate for an experience that has eluded her.

And when she meets handsome antique dealer Renato de Rossi, he challenges a whole host of her beliefs about relationships.

Written originally for the theatre by gay US playwright and stage director Arthur Laurents, before being scripted for film in 1955 by the quintessentially English talents of HE Bates and David Lean (more famous for Dickens and deserts than romance) Summertime, Lean's own favourite film, is as astonishingly open work for the time.

It’s quite clear that there can be no hope of anything but a holiday romance, and Renato, separated but married, challenges Jane to question her illusions: that all romances could be out of the storybook of her dreams, with a complete set of idea criteria. Indeed, he even tells her that Americans are mixed up about sex.

So when Jane makes her decision, she is under no illusions, but chooses to embrace life. Extraordinarily, in terms of the 1950s, there is no price that must be paid by this unmarried woman who has an adulterous relationship, and the film closes with no moral judgment.

The judgment of the viewer, though, will surely be that she was right to grasp the opportunity: that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It is better to have reached out and grasped the opportunity to taste the life-affirming power of love and lust, passion and sensuality, than to have fled in the belief that somehow those things are wrong unless governed by strict rules.

And it brings to mind another work set in the same city – Death in Venice. Thomas Mann’s novella, filmed in 1971 by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde in the central role, tells the story of acclaimed writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who is utterly dedicated to his art, disciplined and ascetic to the point of severity.

Tired and disturbed by a strange encounter with a rough-looking man he sees on a walk, the writer resolves to take a trip to Venice. Once there, he is appalled by the appearance of an elderly man who has tried desperately to use make-up and a wig to make himself look young.

Once installed in his hotel, Aschenbach finds himself fascinated by the young son of an aristocratic Polish family who are fellow guests. Over the weeks, it becomes an obsession and, even when he realises that cholera is ravaging the city, he stays put, refusing to warn the family and convincing himself that, if the boy Tadzio dies now, he will never age and lose his beauty.

But even as Aschenbach tries to regain his youth, his own trips to the barber for hair dye and make-up a pathetic mirror of the man at the beginning of his visit, he realises what he’s doing and warns Tadzio’s mother.

A day later, as the family prepare to leave, the sickening author sits in his deckchair, watching the boy bathe one last time. Delirious, he sees Tadzio as an almost classic vision beckoning him. Aschenbach attempts to rise, only to fall back, dead from the cholera.

Mann, who spent a lifetime struggling with his own sexuality, partly intended the piece to show passion and sensuality as a disease. But it is far more than that.

For Aschenbach, at the end, has an epiphany: finally, he is full of joy – full even of life. He pays for it with his life, but his existence before that lacked anything but dedication to his work. Work as disease, denying the human being the chance to blossom fully, to become.

Mann, like Aschenbach, was disciplined and ascetic, his writing almost a duty. This was the Protestant work ethic applied to art. Perhaps he believed that, if he gave full rein to his own passions, it would kill him – or at least his work. Perhaps that, by submerging himself in his work, he could kill the passions. But perhaps he envied Aschenbach too, for that final epiphany: a salvation, if you will, that is earned at the last by his warning to the family to flee.

Unlike Jane Hudson, Aschenbach pays a price that we know of. But as with her, Venice opens him up to sensuality and pleasure: as with her, it breaks down the barriers of Anglo-Saxon repression and fear and even guilt, and offers him, however fleetingly, a moment of pure beauty.

Life and death intertwined in Venice. Two works created by two very different northern European artists, but both reaching a strikingly similar conclusion. To live fully, means to live sensually and passionately.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Girlies doing it for themselves

On the off chance that you’ve been off world for the last week or so, yesterday was Valentine’s Day.

Now in the dim and distant past, The Other Half announced to me that he isn’t “romantic”, so over the years I have become accustomed to 14 February being just like any other day. At least when it’s at the weekend, one doesn’t have to put up with hearing colleagues announcing their own plans for the evening debauch.

It does all, of course, beg a few questions. We’ve been together for almost 20 years and, for the first 10 or so, I’d send him a card but was quite used to the lack of any reciprocation. Yet in the second half of that sentence, I have begun to feel differently. There is even, occasionally, a little sense of annoyance. Why? Have I perhaps decided that I actually deserve a bit of that “romance” – however soppy it may sound? Or, worse still, have I started to succumb to the dread god of commercialism, and am merely now hankering after what Hallmark tells me I should have?

Whatever the answer, instead of pondering too long, I have the chance for a little girlie indulgence today – and fully intend to make the most of it.

Super League – the pinnacle of European club rugby league – has recommenced. So, packed lunch in his rucksack, The Other Half set off at 8.50 this morning for the twilight zone. Or Yorkshire, as it’s sometimes known.

Girlie plans can now be put into place.

Actually, most of those “plans” flew right out of the window at the first hint of reality – I can do (or not) what the hell I want: there is nobody else to answer to. In a fit of indulgence, I took a stroll to the nearest shop that I know of that sells crumpets, salving my conscience by buying an Innocent smoothie (two of my five a day) as well as the crumpets, which later dripped with good, unsalted French butter.

I took the time to sit in a café-bar near Colombia Road flower market and browsed the music section of the Observer, feeling so at one with the world that I even enjoyed a lengthy piece about Saint Bono of the U2 without feeling the need to snarl cynically.

Later, I messed around with the camera at home, producing nothing of value except a few lessons in lighting.

Then I chilled in front of the TV and watched some cricket.

Those plans had included serious amounts of this and serious amounts of that. And all of it worthy. But here I am now, a risotto on the hob (yesterday’s stock smells glorious as the Arborio absorbs it), tapping away on my laptop in the kitchen, feeling relaxed and at ease. Usually, this is the point at which I start guilt-tripping, as that old time Protestant work ethic invades my leisure, leaving me with a sense of having wasted hours simply by relaxing, but rest has a great deal of value all of its own. And for today at least, I have successfully banished such guilt.

The risotto is a simple one – more Jamie Oliver. Take ye basic rice dish, add lashings of wonderfully fragrant thyme, fresh stripped from the twigs, stir in rich Marscarpone at the end and serve with a topping of toasted breadcrumbs and slivered almonds. I promise you, I’m not depriving myself.

I have a single-portion almond and pear tart for dessert, which will be perfect as I will pour myself into my armchair and watch a film. Since this is still my post-Valentine girlie day, I’ve selected Summertime, David Lean’s beautifully shot tale of a repressed Anglo-Saxon spinster (Katherine Hepburn) on the holiday of a lifetime to Venice, being swept off her feet by a touch of Latin passion (Rossano Brazzi).

I can’t claim that there are any great artistic reasons behind this choice – although one could perhaps suggest that Brazzi was a piece of Italian art in his own right (and oh, he had taste – his beloved wife Lydia was more my shape than that of an Ava Gardner). I shall lech in quiet pleasure. I first remember seeing him as Emile de Becque in South Pacific … “Some enchanted evening” … oh ye Roman gods (even though he was a Bologna boy).

In those days I didn’t know what lust was, imagining naively that what was going on was love. Ah well, we all grow up – and I am unapologetic. I like the story too: all we girls, brought up with that Protestant work ethic and repressed senses, could do with a little of the Latin in our lives.

The Protestant work ethic has been shut in the cupboard in the hall, where it's thumping the door and squeaking in protest. But it can bang all it likes – it’s not coming out tonight.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Terrific tuna

Here it is: today's tuna, with slivers of garlic and red jalapeno chilli inserted into carefully cut slits in the succulent flesh, and with rosemary added for even more flavour.

Then it was all ready to pop into a pot with loads of tinned tomatoes and juice, anchovies and capers. It was poached gently for about 30 minutes and then served with hanks of good bread.

Mmmmmm. That's why I like food.

And that's why I'm always bemused by the attitude in this country toward Jamie Oliver. This dish comes from Jamie's Italy. Now okay, the "pukka" stuff on TV might be a tad irritating, but his books make it easy to cook great food. Perhaps that's the problem? Maybe if he was 'selling out' like Gary Rhodes, who has taken to advertising spread that's had the fat stripped out of it, thus becoming gray and requiring colourings as well as flavour to be added to it – otherwise known as margarine – he'd be less of a target for so many people?

After all, the whinging about Oliver surely can't be jealousy at someone's success, can it?

A little art for Valentine's Day

In case you wondered – no, I haven't forgotten what day it is.

More of that tomorrow – but here's a little bit of appropriate art for you to enjoy.

It's a netsuke – a miniature Japanese sculpture. They were first invented in the 17th century for a practical purpose – to help hang a sort of purse from a man's kimono.

Almost inevitably, they developed into an art form. And equally inevitably, one of the many different forms that they took was erotic. Known as shunga, erotic netsuke can be as overt as this or they can be humorous or very symbolic.

This one is traditional ivory. It was probably carved in the early 20th century, is just over 4cm long and was bought in Amsterdam at new year – my first piece of original erotic art.


S is for Saturday, shopping and stock

It’s a rather sybaritic day, in other words.

As I plod into middle age, it becomes increasingly clear that food is truly one of life’s great pleasures.

Thus my Saturday, as so often, started with a mug of coffee, a few cookery books and paper for the compiling of lists. There are two lists – menus for three days and then the shopping list itself.

It is said that real foodies descend on the market sans such lists: they are prepared for whatever treasures they might unearth, and able instantly to know what they’ll conjure with their finds.

I am nowhere near that experienced or confident: it’s a racing certainty that, if I tried it, I’d forget something important. Like the wine or the crème fraîche – you know. So I sit up in bed with a coffee, browsing my books and making my lists.

For almost five years now, our little corner of Hackney has entertained a farmers’ market. It’s a haven for those who don’t share the rather widespread British belief that the belly is best served by taking a trolley around a supermarket and filling it with a week’s worth of ready-made meals, selections of crisps in perverse ‘favours’ such as Cajun squirrel and builder’s breakfast, and bottles of lemonade that have never been within a million miles of a lemon.

Until the farmer’s market arrived, helping to breathe new life into a street that had been three-quarters derelict for decades, I too had to endure the supermarket trip.

Now, I start by delivering my empty egg boxes back to the farmer I bought eggs from seven days earlier. If I have meat I want from him, I order it then and pick it up on the way back.

The next port of call is Vicki, my fishmonger. She has a small stall, full of wet fish, gleaming and bright on a bed of ice. This is a paradise all of its own – and as near as I get to that list-less shopping. The new-old shopping experience of the market means, today, waiting quite a while as, with consummate skill, she fillets eight herring for the customer in front of me.

The British have forgotten herring. We used to eat it by the ton, but now we neglect it. Unfortunately, The Other Half isn’t a big fan, so I take a nice piece of tuna, which will be poached later in a tomato sauce with garlic, chilli and rosemary. A Spurs fan, she has us all, I suspect, categorised by our interest or otherwise in the game. Mr Herring is a West Ham follower: they discuss the possibility of coach Gianfranco Zola being poached by Chelsea (but not quite as nicely as my tuna). When it’s my turn, we consider Manchester City’s chances this afternoon at Portsmouth.

At a stall that sells Dartmoor beef, the farmer tells me in jovial fashion about dealing with the recent snow.

At the French deli, Stephane updates me on how well the move to their new premises is going.

And as always, I exchange pleasantries with Turkish Tony in the general shop.

This is shopping as it should be: a sociable affair; friendly and not rushed. Food is worth taking time for: producers and shopkeepers worth building relationships with.

Back home, once everything has been unpacked and put away, I roughly chop onion, carrot and celery. Celery is one of the miracles of the market – it comes covered in soil, and it smells and tastes, for goodness sake. Smells and tastes, not of water and insipid nothingness, but of celery – real celery. Peppercorns, bay leaves from the tree in the garden, parsley stalks and crushed garlic cloves go into the pot too, before the water is added. I’m in the mood for more risotto in the coming days, and good stock is essential.

And it’s hardly as though making stock is difficult or expensive. This is another joy – knowing how do make these building bricks, and knowing what a difference they make.

Then it’s time to consider lunch: since we’re doing our own thing, I chop more celery, a couple of shallots, some chilli and some more garlic and sauté them gently in olive oil. Re-hydrated couscous is added, together with a few pine kernels and some raisins. Then the whole mix is seasoned and packed into a halved and cored courgette and a yellow pepper to be baked. How easy is this? Tasty, cheap and healthy too.

Some locals complain about the market. They complain about the £3.50 loaves of bread that have taken on an almost mythical status amongst those who have heard, who have never been but who like to carp.

One day, a neighbour was complaining thus to me in my local pub. Every so often, she went outside for a cigarette (over a fiver for 20), between swigs of an almost-£3-a-pint stout. How odd to think that £3.50 for an organic seven-day sour is considered particularly expensive alongside much more ephemeral pleasures.

But that’s what so many Britons seem to think – that food is merely fuel: it should be cheap as chips, should take as little time as possible to prepare and should be consumed in front of the telly, in a house that doesn't even have a dining table.

For myself, I’ll continue to take my time, to appreciate and learn, thank you. It’s the only properly sybaritic approach.

Friday, 13 February 2009

It's all a question of dignity

I am now convinced that even inanimate matter has a life of it’s own.

The Queen B herself told me so this morning.

There she was, sitting on the bathroom shelf amid the pots and potions as I went about my ablutions, when the shelf rose up and tipped her off.

I know this, because cats do not fall off things all by themselves.

And if they do have such ‘an accident’, then the Great Commandment applies: ‘thou shalt not laugh at the cat’. Because the cat gets very, very huffy indeed if she sees you laughing at her.

She stared accusingly at the shelf – so I know it was the shelf’s fault. I bit my tongue.

Then she turned and, tail in the air, strutted out of the room, determined to show every ounce of her feline dignity.

A couple of hours later, my attention was drawn to a 2006 report from Newsweek, which says that scientists studying the behaviour of non-human animals, in the search for signs of self-awareness, have discovered that the famous mirror test might not be a reliable indicator.

This is the test whereby a mark is put on an animal and then they’re placed in front of a mirror to see if they notice that something is different about their appearance – to see if, for instance, they attempt to remove the mark. Elephants can’t ‘pass’ the test, apparently – although we know they’re intelligent. Yet some animals that do ‘pass’ are not expected to, because they don’t have the ‘right’ sort of brain.

Boudicca, our little Queen B, has never shown any indication of interest in her reflection. None of her predecessors did either. But they have all shared that sense of dignity that particularly reveals itself when cats fall (or not).

And if you have a finely tuned sense of personal dignity, then it would seem fair to suggest that that reveals a certain self-awareness. So, on an anecdotal basis, I suspect that the scientists are right: the mirror test is flawed.

Of course, reading this article the day after Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, in the same year that also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, served as a useful reminder of just how anthropocentric we humans are, right down to the whole idea of our having dominion over the rest of life on this ball of rock we call home.

So it’s rather amusing to see that even the Vatican has finally got around to admitting that evolution happens. But that's so last century, boys.

Boudicca, who probably doesn’t realise this (although one can never be too sure with cats), is an everyday reminder to me that we are not the only sentient beings, and that we have a responsibility of care for the rest of the world around us, which we should never simply take for granted.

Although perhaps that’s just more anthropocentricity speaking? After all, I’m equally convinced that in any relationship with a cat, I’m not remotely the top dog, so to speak.

The first sign of spring

I know it must be nearly the beginning of the end of winter: as I ventured into the chill air this morning, I was met by the sight of a veritable little copse of plastic road barriers that had sprung up overnight.

“My, my,” I thought to myself, as a little frisson lifted the spirits.

“It must be February and the start of the road digging up season – otherwise known as the end of winter.”

For in humble Hackney, with more reliability than the first snowdrops poking through, come roadworks.

They dig holes in our road at least twice a year – I am increasingly convinced that they use us for training apprentice road digger uppers: it’s difficult to work out otherwise why it happens with such astonishing regularity.

And our little stretch hasn't even had its old Victorian sewers replaced yet – this time next February, perhaps?

Thursday, 12 February 2009

In the presence of greatness

Barack Obama’s inauguration is going to be one of those moments where people will recall, years from now, where they were.

But as the public looked on with a sense of hope that suggested Obama has something of the divine about him, one of my own household gods was being transported into a committee room at the Westminster Parliament to talk to a few dedicated souls.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, America’s foremost man of letters, Gore Vidal, had flown in to tell his small (but perfectly proportioned) audience about the “spitefulness” of the Kennedy brothers toward the island.

Wheelchair-bound and struggling with an obstreperous microphone, Vidal held us rapt; we leant forward to grasp every last intonation in the soft voice, to see every faint roll of the eyes or barely-perceptible shrug.

Not only were we honoured by the presence of Gore the great writer, but also of Gore the performer.

History concertinaed before us, time shrinking as he reminisced, almost as though to himself. “The beach was milky white as I played backgammon with Jack. He lost as usual”, and he mimicked the petulant pair’s favoured response to anyone who dared to object to their plans: “They’re just jealous”.

He brought us “a gift” too – as though his presence were not enough. Introducing his young carer as ‘Flavian’, this smart, conventionally-attired young man turned out to be rather openly AWOL from the US navy. Now mentored by Vidal (as the great man had himself once been “mentored by Eleanor” [Roosevelt]), he explained that, after realising that his role in Iraq was just “guarding oil”, he felt that he was no longer prepared to be “a muscleman for the thugs in the White House”.

Of course, there were one or two of the more knowing members of the audience who, being a tad more aware of Vidal’s proclivities, smiled and gave an extra round of silent applause. It’s hearting to know that pleasure is not the preserve of youth.

Struggling in my new, pink patent pumps by Marc Jacobs, I scrambled straight for the platform at the end of the meeting, with two aims firmly in mind: one, to talk to the great man and two, to ask him to sign a copy of The City and the Pillar, which I’d managed to find in the gay bookshop near work at lunchtime, a total lack of any greater notice of the event having prevented me from bringing a copy of anything that I already possessed.

Is it acceptable protocol in such a situation to go autograph hunting? I really don’t know, but was working on the basis of it possibly being my last such opportunity.

As I stood politely waiting to catch his eye, he was tapped on the shoulder by a middle-aged man, who exuberantly informed him: “Hello, I’m ******** ******** and I’m the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union”.

Well to be strictly accurate, dear – you’re the leader of half of Britain’s biggest trade union. Protocol nearly took another bashing, but I fought my gut response – to make a gesture at him suggesting solo sexual habits. The onanist, having said his piece, disappeared rapidly, presumably self-satisfied and leaving Vidal looking as inscrutable as ever.

It was my turn. I burbled a greeting and profuse thanks for his talk. I managed to call it “erudite” – and brought forth a smile. Even household gods enjoy a bit of flattery.

Then I proffered the book. I felt a twinge of guilt later, looking at the crabbed hand and wondering if such a visible reminder of his present infirmity aggrieves him more than any pleasure he gains from the recognition that being asked shows. But you take such chances when they occur – household gods don’t visit every day.

I caught the highlights of the inauguration later, after adjourning to a pub right opposite Westminster for a suitably boozy interlude with journalistic friends and colleagues. But when anyone asks me where I was that night, I shall have no problem remembering a very special literary audience.

Hello and welcome

Here we are – the first post in a new online era for me.

To anyone looking in – thank you and welcome. I hope you'll pop back soon to see something a little more interesting and informative than this rather skinny opening.

This blog will be about many things – I want it to give scope for my myriad interests. So I hope you'll find something to enjoy as we tread this blogging road together.

There'll be many subjects discussed, but if there's going to be a core 'theme', I hope it'll be the pleasures that life affords. Hence "The Voluptuous Manifesto".

But we have to start somewhere. And I do have plans for rather more fun in the not-too-distant future.

See you soon!