Thursday, 29 November 2012

In bed with Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson
I spent last night in bed with Bill Bryson's At Home. My friend Kate Toullis loaned me this excellent compendious (483pp) book, and it is a real page-turner. Bryson never dwells too long on any one topic, but on every page he makes discoveries. The conceit is that it's all about houses, but radiating out from that theme are many far-reaching tentacles. He explains how one thing leads to another, altering the layout and use of a house, including how long it took us to get cosy and comfortable at home. That rang a real bell with me. Proper central heating is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Britain. There was no central heating upstairs in our house as a child, or in my boarding house at school aged 7-14, or in my student lodgings in the 1960's or in the house where I boarded in Cardiff, working as a trainee journalist on the Evening Echo. I stayed cold when I moved to London to flat-share. It was only when I married, in 1969, that I was able to install central heating in every room of our house with a big enough boiler to cope. Do read this book - it is endlessly fascinating.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In bed with Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway's passport photo
Ford Madox Ford, in Paris at the same time
I get ill - in American 'sick'  - a couple of times a year, always with the same old thing. I'm sick (we  would say 'ill') now. I couldn't read for a couple of days but now I'm on the mend I'm reading 'A Moveable Feast' by Ernest Hemingway. I commend it to you. Did you notice, I'm doing a bit of a Hemingway thing there?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

There's a french horn thing going on

Perfect reading to go with Kate Toullis's exhibition at the Moffat Gallery
Kate Toullis's exhibition of bright, beautiful paintings at The Moffat Gallery, 21 Well Road, Moffat, DG10 9AR, has a musical theme and within that theme french horns figure - should that be 'loom'? - large. This is no accident. Kate's husband Tony is a professional french horn player, and she plays along with him to keep him company. They make a superb sound in the closed acoustic of the gallery so try walking by one day - you may hear something surprisingly tuneful. Needless to say, the pictures are the main thing, though, and are extraordinarily brilliant. At the end of the first afternoon, many Moffatonians had crossed the threshold to enjoy the paintings, and Kate had received a commission. Well done Kate! Meanwhile, I am enjoying 'I Found My Horn' by Jasper Rees, loaned to me for the duration by Mr & Mrs T.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


More than meets the eye

This famous photograph by Man Ray of a French music hall artist is a multiple verbal and visual joke. In French, the translation of the word for a 'hobby' is violin d'Ingres - because the painter Ingres' hobby was playing the violin. Hence, if (say) you were a French lawyer by profession whose hobby was gardening, you might say: 'cultiver mon jardin -c'est mon violin d'Ingres'. OK? Clear now?

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fifty years on

My issue of the monthly 'Novy Mir' for November 1962 containing the original publication of 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'

 The contents page: Solzhenitsyn and Hemingway

It is 50 years since 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was published in the literary journal 'Novy Mir' (New World). I had not noticed until now that there was a short story by Ernest Hemingway in the same issue. I will spend the day reading/re-reading them both. I am indebted to my tutor Evgeny Lampert for urging me to subscribe to the journal. I started my degree course in Russian Language and Literature that same term (autumn 1962) so this may have been the very first issue I received. It has travelled with me for fifty years, from the Banbury Road in Oxford to north Kent to London,  Stoke on Trent, and London again (where it survived a fire in our drawing room) before coming to rest in the best- ever bookcase in the best -ever house, in Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. The modern bi-lingual version seen lying flat in front of the original is one of several copies sent by the All-Union State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow as part of our partnership agreement. Thanks, guys. NB To hear Solzhenitsyn reading the story, go to:

Monday, 19 November 2012

A pheasant

Recipe books are in the news, for not conveying the true art of cookery. Let me give you a case in point: I went into our local butcher in Moffat the other day and the greengrocer next door and bought a pheasant, some streaky bacon, an onion, a carrot and some cumberland sausages. I roasted the pheasant, using the streaky bacon over the breast, putting half the onion inside and the rest of the onion and the carrot chopped up in chunks with the sausages round about. It turned out that by the time the juices were running yellow not pink, the pheasant was quite tough. So I only ate a little of the pheasant roasted, with a couple of the cumberland sausages (bear with me, this is going somewhere) and half the baked potato which was also on a rack in the oven cooking at the same time as the pheasant. So then, dear reader,  I did what real cooks have been doing since stone age man came back to camp with a lump hacked off a woolly mammoth: I made stock with the tough pheasant, the roasting vegetables and the half baked potato. I added more onion and some garlic and some bayleaves and black peppercorns. Then I drained the stock and made cous cous. I took the now tender meat off the pheasant and diced it to add to the cous cous. Then I froze it into six or seven meal-sized portions. Simples. Oh, and I had the cold sausages for supper with a bit of cheese and a tomato. That's not what recipe books tell you, but it's what most real cooking is about.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

An artist, writer and illustrator

'HORN' by Kate Toullis
Kate Toullis is a Glasgow School of Art-educated artist, writer and illustrator. After 30 years in exile in the far west of Ireland, she and her husband have come to live in lucky Moffat. An exhibition of Kate's wonderfully life-enhancing, colourful paintings will be opening at The Moffat Gallery next Sunday Nov 25. Readings from her three beautiful children's story books will follow in due course.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


Russian 'stakan'
The last apple
I had enough apples from my two new apple trees to make a big apple crumble. Here is the last apple of the season, a mysterious, damaged but somehow beautiful fruit. It smells of childhood. Russians drink their tea black, sometimes with a slice of apple in the glass. In Russia, you drink tea by the glass, in a 'stakan', not by the cup. The glass comes with a removable holder, beautifully wrought with a handle so you don't burn your fingers.

Monday, 5 November 2012

A perfect bonfire night

The bonfire at The Green Frog, Moffat Nov 4 2012
It was pretty much a perfect night for Bonfire Night with fireworks at The Green Frog in Moffat last night. I stood up Alistair Darling talking about managing another sort of conflagration at Lennoxlove and dashed back in time to join the crowd of happy children and parents stumbling around in the dark, enjoying the monster slide, the revolving teacups ride and the stall where you could win a light sabre or a big bouncy ball for £2. The man ran out of light sabres too soon, much to everyone's disappointment including his. There was mulled red wine, hot soup and a dessert (I never discovered what) along with the entry fee. The path to the bonfire itself was lit by extraordinary tree trunks hollowed out and slit down the sides so the intense fire burning inside them glowed through. The great bonfire burned magnificently, sending bright red and yellow sparks high into the starry sky. The fireworks were astonishingly loud, bright and varied. All in all a fantastic success - chapeau to Kris and all at the Green Frog.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

East Lothian: a book festival and a stay in an hotel

Lennoxlove - cannon facing outward from the front of the house

Lennoxlove - door to book festival book shop
Lennoxlove is a great venue for a book festival. I had tickets for three events, but in the end I only went to one: Richard Holloway talking about his autobiography Leaving Alexandria with Sally Magnusson. A fascinating session. I misread the time of Alistair Moffat's session revealing some discoveries about British DNA so I missed it, but luckily I met someone who had been there and confirmed that the big news is: there is no difference between Scottish DNA and any other British DNA. What will Alex Salmond make of that, I wonder? I had booked for Alistair Darling tonight but missed it to return for The Green Frog fireworks. It was spectacularly beautiful weather at Lennoxlove yesterday and North Berwick today, as I gather it was too in Moffat.

Less good news: my room at Macdonald's supposedly five star Marine hotel in North Berwick, featuring peeling paint, plug points near the floor, kettle stand with flex too short to reach a table; stained headboard. Not pictured: the heavy tea tray was positioned above head height on a high shelf in the clothes cupboard; a very noisy party was taking place in the room next door to mine until 9.30pm when the revellers went down to dinner; the hotel failed to deliver the newspaper I had ordered;  don't get me started...
Depressing: peeling paint round door to room 219

Kettle: to boil, place on floor - note length of flex

Stained headboard

the only other three pin plug point, near floor behind easy chair

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Murder in Moscow

Still from performance of A Russian Rehearsal at Mark Rozovsky's theatre 'At the Nikitsky Gates'in Moscow
Great news today: the T S Eliot estate has given permission for translation out of Russian into English of the text of a play I collaborated on at Mark Rozovsky's Theatre At the Nikitsky Gates to tell the story of Fr Alexander's murder via the device of Russian actors rehearsing Murder in the Cathedral. Curiously, this news fits well into the themes of two of our major events next year: Crime Fiction (April 20-21) and an international conference on translation (in its widest sense) Sept 27-29 2013

Friday, 2 November 2012

My Autumn Stores

Top shelves of my stores: coffee; meringues; last year's panettone;light bulbs;spaghetti; oatcakes; flask; wicks; rice; Smash; cous cous; Dorset cereal; matches; Tina Fox's vegetarian calendar with recipes; oatmeal for porridge; oatcakes; honey; apricot jam; Twinings herbal tea; chocolate biscuits; iron cleaner stick; herbal teas; plate display gadget; triangular glass dish; electric room freshner; spruce room spray; powdered lemon tea; hemp seeds; mint humbugs; Maltesers;Snickers bars...

Bottom view of my shelves: oven gloves; Twiglets; Pringles; Christmas cake; cake tins; drying up cloths;
Last week I showed my autumn mantelpiece. Today I show my shelves. This may be a way of shaming myself into putting things into proper order. I moved out of two houses in Dec 2009, and into this one in Sept 2010 so I am two years into the process of getting things sorted out. My dining table is now clear of assorted debris, thanks to Sally Tait, and I am giving a cautious lunch party for three uncritical friends on Tuesday to force me to learn how to use the cooker and discover how many plates I have got, check numbers of knives and forks etc. I often praise this house, which is easily the best and most convenient I have ever lived in. I have lived in: a house my father built in Kent; a flat in Curzon Place W1 (with Vidal Sassoon); a flat in Basil St , SW3 (with John Cleese); a house in Paultons Square next to Kathleen Raine, lover of Gavin 'Ring of Bright Water' Maxwell; a dacha in south Lanarkshire and now here in Millburn House. The reason I need to discover how to use the cooker is that the house has two kitchens: one upstairs which I use all the time, and one downstairs which I have only ever used the first Christmas I was here ie Dec 2010. Christmas lunch was a complete disaster. I had fondly assumed that we  - my two daughters and their respective spouses and children - would gather like Hannah and her three sisters in that Woody Allen film doing Thanksgiving - chatting as we peeled spuds and sprouts, someone playing the piano and someone singing (it was the grandfather and grandmother in the film). As so often happens in real life, things could not have been more different. For a start, in total contrast to my childhood and what I remember about Christmas when my children were young, no one really wanted to eat anything. This quite literally knocked the stuffing out of me, and the whole event. The cooker was quite antiquated, and since then my generous landlord has supplied a new one which I now intend fully to get to grips with. 


Well, I went to see the new Bond film yesterday evening at the Odeon in Dumfries. It is a bit of a curate's egg (the film, I mean. The Odeon Dumfries is definitely addled through and through). There are moments of great beauty reminiscent of the film that won director Sam Mendes his Oscar, American Beauty. It has a very clever plot, setting up story lines for the next one, which I guarantee will feature the Provos or former members of the IRA - you'll see why when you see the film. Some other bullet points: Daniel Craig looks like Putin, and those who know Richard Grieveson, director of D&G Sport and Arts will also see a resemblance. I may have nodded off but do you think there is a muddle about which shoulder Bond is wounded in? Does the yacht set off from the same bay with the same island as the unidentified but we assume Turkish seaside place where Bond is lying low at the start of the film. But aren't we meant to be in Macau? When my attention strayed in a film, I thought of watching Albert Finney going in to see his agent in a house in Curzon Street, opposite the flat where I was living studying for my A-levels in 1961. Finney spent many years with Diana Quick whose grandfather was a builder in Dartford who employed my father in the 1930's. Judy Dench's brother Geoffrey, also an actor, lived in a caravan in my aunt's garden for a while when he was starting out. The last time I saw him he was my partner at a croquet match in Wiltshire at my cousin John's house for some special birthday - maybe a 70th. There was a tangible rustle of satisfaction in the audience yesterday when it transpired that the climax of the film takes place in Scotland and that Bond is - yes! Scottish by upbringing at least. I wonder if VisitScotland is on to that?
Which side was the bullet wound?

A family history of caravans and croquet
 The Dartford connection