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Showing posts from July, 2013

A Shorter History of Melancholy Literature.

Of course, in the last year of school, we had had an unofficial competition to judge the most miserable book on the curriculum. That year the education bureaucrats, in a final post-modern lurch towards literary desolation, thought it would be a good idea to make English Literature students plumb the depths of human misery on the written page. One prescribed book after another excavated the quarry of human melancholy. The buzzword of the time was 'alienation', a word as common then as today's 'diversity' or 'sustainability'. We took to the task with a morbid sense of purpose. Across the year, I moved through the catalogue of misery slowly, like reading tombstones in a cold empty cemetery. Long Day's Journey Into Night was a day in the life of a dysfunctional, drugged, drunken family who verbally abuse each other as the light dies and the fog rolls in. The End. Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill Desolation score : 2.5 stars. Sum

Oh no, not the dog ...

Some books just disappear. Then they resurface, years later. I found A Man About a Dog , by Alec Coppel, in the back of a dim, dark secondhand shop (which oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, reminded me of the shop in The Painted Mirror episode of iconic 1970s horror series 'Night Gallery'). Published in London in 1947, the slim volume was in brand new condition and had probably sat untouched on a shelf for sixty years until its owner died. The story: Clive, a psychiatrist, is married to Storm, who has a lover, Bill. Storm also has a Scottish terrier, Montgomery: 'Montgomery was quite a lad. Jet black, relieved only by that flash of scarlet tongue, as worn by all the best Scotties, slightly protruding through the teeth.' Clive catches Storm and Bill in the act. Storm storms off, and Clive takes Bill at gunpoint to a place whose location is not revealed to the reader, or to Bill for that matter. Here, Clive restrains Bill via an ankle chain for some months, until spec

Disappearing into stories.

A bookseller discusses reading therapy in last week's Weekly Review : Every day in our bookshop we meet customers keen to 'disappear into a story' but who are struggling to find, or regain, their literary mojo. Some ... suffer a reading disorder. ... We meet customers with health issues; their chemotherapy, or post-op recovery, drug treatments, or sheer exhaustion, have affected their attention spans. 'I just want an easy read' is a common request from the unwell, the infirm, the emotionally drained, the weary. The writer's 'remedial' reading list includes J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye , Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird , Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach . Uplifting or wrist-slashing? Is Catcher in the Rye more likely to reignite one's literary passion, or kill it stone dead? Some of those books are icons of a particular kind of mid-twentieth century literary mindset. It must be d

Forget nasty animated movies in the major cinemas: take your children to the library during the holidays.

Two teaspoons of salt? someone exclaimed (re yesterday's recipe). It’s not that much, I replied. Indian main courses are meant to be small serves filled out by much more rice or bread and vegetables. And in any case, these recipes are upfront about their ingredients, instead of sneaking them in progressively like some others. Take a British-style beef stew, for example; in which the beef is shaken in seasoned flour before being browned. How much salt goes into the flour? More than a shake. Then stock is added to the stew. How much salt in the stock? Who knows. The rest of the seasoned flour usually thickens the stew. If it is served with potatoes, these may be cooked in salted water, mashed with more and then salted further at the table, as are any side vegetables. The whole thing may then get a downpour of Worcestershire, HP, tomato sauce or similar. Thoroughly delicious: and by that stage, quite salty. The curry, on the other hand, is garnished with yogurt and herbs. In o

Fragrant chicken soup with cardamom and coriander.

It used to be a department store, with six floors, linked by an escalator, with ceilings and interior walls and oil heating; and that was a long time ago, because buildings don’t have oil heating any more. Then the department store closed and architects turned the building into a warehouse ‘shell’, and ripped out the top ceiling revealing skylights way above, and took away the concealing walls and heating pipes, and painted the stone cold walls behind them white; and, finally, cut a giant longitudinal floor-to-ceiling hole - almost the length of the building – through the floors on five levels, and put a steel stairway in the hole, with wire rope barriers winding around each level, so you didn’t go over the edge and fall to the ground. It looked like H division at Pentridge. You could stand at the bottom and monitor the inmates behind the wire around the perimeter at every level. Then the building was leased to a company whose workers sat at computer terminals all day, and froze.

Car buyer dizzy at prospect of pristine 1988 car.

Alright, straitened times. So I had to sell the blue whale . (Warning: don't take heavy-handed irony in that story literally, I'm prone to exaggeration.) Before buying it, the new owner, a retired car fancier, walked around it about a hundred and fifty times, which must be a world record. I thought he was going to turn into melted butter. But he didn’t, and bought the car, and drove away in a fairly straight line. I know he will enjoy owning it because he told me the car would be joining, in his garage, an old Mitsubishi Magna and a 1970s Fiat 130. The latter model's engine was reputed to have come from the Ferrari drawing board. More likely, someone at Ferrari sent the Fiat designer a black pen to sketch it with. Fiat 130s are not seen on the roads any more as they cost a fortune to run, and then turn to rust. So in terms of initial and future outlay, buying my 760GLE would have felt like popping down to the shops for a litre of milk. The 940 remains. It has recent

The pizza that time forgot.

Do you still do the Vulcano pizza , I asked the girl. No , she said. But I’ll ask the chef. He’s been here about thirty years. He’ll know. She came back. What was on it , she asked, puzzled. That meant the chef didn’t know. Hence I hadn’t been in this place for more than three decades. It must have been the late seventies. I and my first wife used to dine here with her father and Penelope, his Canadian lover, the dimness of the restaurant’s brown-brick interior adding to an almost clandestine atmosphere. He and my mother-in-law had never divorced, but he lived with Penelope in a stark modern 1950s house that hung off sheer Coonan’s Hill like a light on a Christmas tree. My mother-in-law did not approve of her daughter seeing her father, a difficult situation solved by simply ignoring the disapproval. My wife’s father used to order the Vulcano pizza from the menu. It was a thick-based pizza on which was built a fiery mountain of hot salami and prosciutto and fresh diagonally-cut