Goodness, I just came from seeing “Atonement” again, and it was even more riveting and more admirable than the first viewing. Each shot is like a perfect moment under glass: every object in every room a necessary evocation of a moment in time, every performance, and I mean EVERY, noteworthy. No character is imperfectly cast, the music is completely waterworks-producing (especially this little bit of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which I remember my mother playing on the piano when I was little, so even more reason to get emotional). It is a wonderful, wonderful film and I only wish it were a little less, shall we say, mature in theme, so that Avery could see it. In a couple of years, perhaps. Please go!
Well, Avery was able to accompany us to the PLAY! On Friday night, in Richmond (little did I know it was coming to London at the Wyndham, next week! ah, well, Richmond’s always a treat) It’s called “Shadowlands”, and I’ve always loved Charles Dance, the actor playing CS Lewis, since seeing him (as you probably all did) in Gosford Park. Then…
Do you ever have one of those days when everything you encounter seems like something you just can’t live without, and you start worrying about when they won’t be there anymore? Or am I just morbidly fearful and Scandinavian? Well, I have those days quite frequently, and so today I’ve decided to turn myself around and instead of worrying about losing them, just concentrate on being glad I have them. I don’t know how successful this strategy will be, going directly counter to my usual method of making even positive things potentially negative, but I’ll give it a try.
I have to start with this morning’s visit to the “Cafe Rouge” at Avery’s beloved school. Every autumn the French teacher organises a coffee morning to benefit the Macmillan Cancer Trust. All the mothers at school are invited to come, in carefully organised groups, and sit in the dining room of the school and be served croissants and coffee by our little gulls. All this is accomplished in what I will again describe as “French,” and is very funny. There is a little script on each table denoting what the gulls are meant to say, and what the mothers must say in response. Believe me when I say that any deviation, however small, from this script is met with the blankest of stares. “Bonjour, madame. Bonjour, mademoiselle. Vois avez choisi?” and so on.
Now while I feel understandably that my child is practically perfect in every way, I have to step up and say that her French is not, shall we say, her strongest point. In fact it’s dire. How this can be when one of my few talents is foreign languages, I do not know. But even so, we had fun. “Mummy, I’ll go get your pain au chocolat, but I don’t think you’ll really want it, and if you want me to, I can eat it for you.” And silly me, I actually asked for three further helpings which it then turned out I did not want. I really think these children would benefit a LOT from having several helpings of pastry at 10:30 in the morning every day. They were all very chipper.
I kept thinking that this time next year, she’ll be at a different school, and I will not be welcome anywhere near. I won’t be able to buy myself a seat in her school dining room. And soon after that she’ll be getting to and from school on her OWN, unbelievably, so no more of my official favorite moment of the day, when she emerges laden with all her clobber and lots of stories about her day. Sob.
Then, get this sad news flash: her uniquely wonderful headmistress has announced her retirement in July. Double sob! From day one, she has been the perfect combination of stiff upper lip and warm hand on one’s shoulder. A sense of humour, great tact, genuine love for each child, the whole nine yards. Of course they will find a great replacement no doubt; I would imagine it’s a pretty plum job. But it will be an enormous loss. So I stood and chatted with her after the gulls had gone back to class, and we made plans for the Leavers’ Annual Book which we’re planning to organise all year: a photograph of each child, plus a piece of work from every single one. That will huge fun to accomplish. Sob.
Then, let’s see, I sat up very late one night this week and just chatted with my mother. Too infrequently does this happen. It’s the time difference, and the general sense that once it’s late enough to call her, there’s school pickup, homework help, dinner to organise, eat and wash up, bath, stories, songs. But this week I just sat down when everyone else was asleep and we had the nicest time. I got brought up to date on their household projects, and health and cuteness of their new cat, my grandmother’s health. And of course there is no better audience than a grandmother for stories about a remarkable child, so I got to spill all my little tales to the one person besides her other grandmother who never gets tired of hearing about Avery. And who is always on my side, in any dispute! I love that.
Also, on the subject of things to love, yesterday I came out of my study to find a note in the hallway from our next-door neighbor saying, “Dear Kristen, Have you lost a torty kitty? There is a very friendly one in the garden that I have never seen before, and I wondered if you had an escapee. Janet.” Because yes! Tacy and Hermione have become vagabonds. They discovered, somehow, nearly two years after we moved in, that they can squeeze through my open bedroom window and escape. And after accompanying them a couple of times, I decided that it was worth the tiny risk of some predator being back there (or that rarest of criminals: the kidnapper of worthless mutt cats), and they’ve been happily coming in and out since, many times a day. Hermione came in once, with something in her mouth. I screamed slightly and said, “John, you’ve got to go look. If it’s dead… and if it’s not…” So we both went stealthily over to where her little tabby body was crouched protectively over her prey, and looked. It was a leaf! That first day she went out, she killed at least six leaves and brought them proudly in to give to us, so like fools we find ourselves saying, “Good hunter! Good kitty!” Clearly we both need to get a job.
And yesterday at my class was one of those days when I really adore living in London: the amazing variety of people you meet! Plus I guess when you narrow your cross-section of humanity down to people who want to write autobiographical short fiction, you’ve already got an interesting bunch. Or at least a memorable bunch. Well, this group of thirteen students promises to live up to its statistical potential. We’ve got two professional translators: one of Dutch instruction manuals (how big can that market be). He expressed his sort of existential dissatisfaction with his job by observing, “No matter how good you are, and how much you get praised, your greatest accomplishment is in being just like someone else, only in a different language. I need to express MYSELF.” In instruction manuals? Why not?
Then, funnily enough, another translator, who’s translated all Jean Cocteau’s original screenplays. For what purpose, one is tempted to ask, but it’s a big city. She’s also a psychiatrist, naturally. Then there’s a lady who’s apparently thrown up her in West Sussex to learn to write her life story, and finds Hammersmith the most confusing place in the world to find one’s way around. And a French girl with a degree in comparative literature from the Sorbonne, and a West Indian lady with a lilting voice and giggle, and a lady who speaks French, English and Arabic, and of course my friend Dalia, Lebanese-born and raised in Nigeria and English boarding schools, who’s a life coach.
We had a great first day, with one glitch that only time will tell how we can iron out: one of the students, a very frail little lady with a superbly luxurious Italian gilded notebook, interrupted the tutor after perhaps the first ten minutes of the class had gone by and said, “You know, I have no hearing at all in this ear, and very little in the other. I have not heard one word you’ve said.” Silence. What could we do? “You’ve got to throw your voice, you know,” she continued, “throw it right to me. And if anyone else speaks, I cannot possibly notice.” Hmm. The tutor said that she would try to speak up (writers are notoriously soft-voiced, Dalia pointed out!) and then gamely suggested that if anyone wanted to make a comment, to raise a hand in warning. “But you see,” persisted the lady, “If I’m trying to read your lips, I cannot possibly also be looking for people putting their hands up.” Oh dear.
And before we could think of a solution to this, another lady said politely, “And please, no writing on the board, or if you do, you must please tell me what you’ve written. I have no sight.” The tutor looked truly dashed at this point, and a man in a wheelchair said kindly, “We’re merely talking about access issues here. Perhaps for our deaf friend we can all speak very firmly, and for our blind friend we can make sure we do not communicate in a way that requires sight. It’s all just access issues.” All these people have my complete respect because I feel certain if I were similarly challenged, I would just stay home and shrivel up. The blind lady had a fascinating computer system whereby she typed what she was hearing into a laptop and then somehow the laptop spoke back to her what she’d written, in little headphones. And she explained that having this process occur whenever she wrote was actually very instructive, because hearing your own words spoken to you gives a whole new perspective on what you’ve said. Now that’s a positive attitude.
Well, I think my experiment in enjoying rather than dreading has paid off! I’m feeling quite cheerful. We’re headed to the skating rink with Avery and Jamie, and then off to Richmond tonight to see “Shadowlands,” with Charles Dance who is one of my favorite British actors, and I’ve just been reading some fantastic reviews. I’ll be sure to report. TGIF!
All right, it’s an odd combination of subjects. Such is my diverse set of interests these days. First, the play.
I have never read “Saint Joan,” by George Bernard Shaw, and it’s highly unlikely that I ever will, but the play was an absolute revelation. Now, I confess that I was first drawn to see the play because it stars my crush’s wife (well, one has to do what one can to feel close to one’s crush). And I have loved her in Shameless and The Way We Live Now. She even had a tiny cameo at the end of Notes on a Scandal. But she, Anne-Marie Duff, was tremendous.
I feel really remiss that I saw it on the last day, so I can’t send any of you to it. But honestly, over the summer when I bought the tickets from Connecticut, it was sold out every evening and I got matinee tickets only by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. I thought: three hours long, burning at the stake, maybe NOT the place to take my ten-year-old child? So we went on the last day, just the two of us. And it was shattering. From the introductory music with old-fashioned bell-ringing and a haunting vocal score by Melanie Pappenheim, through the very disturbing battle of Orleans, and Joan’s eventual collapse at her trial, and the last moments of her time at the stake, Duff’s performance was a tour de force of every emotion possible. She was vulnerable, passionate, flirtatious, innocent, violent soldier, religious fanatic, and finally at the end, a fragile vision in white blowing ashes over the audience. Amazing.
See her in anything she’s in!
From that it was a bit of a comedown to have ordinary life resume, picking Avery up in a rainstorm at Anna’s, homework supervision, dinner prep and the like. But I must tell you while I have always felt I had a good lasagne recipe, I have discovered two secrets that I will share with you: and both of them were the result of my laziness. First off, you need to start your tomato sauce in the afternoon because you won’t be home until 6 and you don’t want to deal with creating it that late in the day. The beauty of this is that the sauce had time to simmer off a large part of its liquid, without which step I find a lot of lasagne is watery. SO make your sauce at noon or so, and rashly leave it out on the stovetop to (you think) shrivel up and die. But NO. This waiting period is a good thing. Then you can turn the heat up under it when you’re ready to assemble your lasagne and it is thick and rich and NOT watery.
Second lazy bit: I was at Marks and Spencer grocery shopping and there was no ricotta. Lasagne without ricotta! It surely cannot be. But faced with the choice of “make do with something else” and “go somewhere else,” I improvised. And it turns out: half mascarpone cheese and half cottage cheese is FABULOUS. Provides a rich, creamy layer among the pasta and meaty tomato sauce, and is simply divine. Give it a try.
Well, let’s see, today it was onto the new writing course. I have been quite devoted to CityLit since I’ve been here, taking at least four courses in writing various things and really enjoying myself. But I decided to follow the tutor from last term to Birkbeck where our course was today to begin, and I must say she was marvelous. My friend Dalia and I signed up together, and it seemed so strange to me that something planned months ago, in a farmhouse in Connecticut, should be coming to pass in a Hammersmith school building. I never really believe that the things I’m planning for will come to pass, and feel continually amazed when they do; just think, that in March, when this course ends, we’ll know where Avery’s going to senior school, John will doubtless have a job after our glorious year of no-job, we may even have found a house. It all seems hard to believe.
I confess to being completely whacked right now, having consumed our dinner of roast pork fillet with rosemary, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, and roasted beetroot, sauteed carrot and asparagus, baked squash and mashed potato. Can you tell I was cleaning out the fridge? I simply took care of every last languishing raw ingredient and we ate, discussing Avery’s short story from class today. Is there anything more sensitive than a writing project, having received a bad mark? I don’t know, but the brave little soul has revised it to her teacher’s content if not her own, and is tucked up with hot water bottles against the early-chill September night. Be cosy, wherever you are.
Naturally on a sunny autumn Sunday in London, young ladies’ thoughts turn to… a little scooping detail after The Blessing of the Horses. Not that you’d know it to look at them, but the girls had a thoroughly good time on Sunday (I turned these photos black and white because they looked SO Dickensian with their brooms and baskets). After last year’s experience with this arcane and bizarre (but somehow very sweet) ritual, we definitely were not going to miss the ceremony. Simply dozens and dozens of horses clamoring for attention, whinnying and rearing, lining up in the square to be blessed.
Avery was put in charge of the barn dog, Zola, and struggled along with Ava who had hold of the family dog Holly. The riders were chosen by lottery, and sadly none of our girls won out, but the dog duty was pretty nice as well. Then home for a quick lunch while Avery ate hers at the stable, and we all met up again at the ring on the Knightsbridge side of the park for the gymkhana. Avery has progressed (or simply aged, I guess) to being in charge of the little ones and spent most of the show trotting with a lead rope in her hand, kicking up immense amounts of dust while she led a little girl across the jumps. But she was rewarded by being classed with the big girls for the real jumping later! A glorious afternoon hanging out with Becky and Mark, and Avery was more than happy to repose for a long time in a warm bath afterward.
We spent Saturday evening with Avery’s friend Julia’s family seeing “As You Like It” again, at the quaint little Curzon Mayfair cinema (a hidden little Mayfair jewel)and I would highly recommend it if you have a chance. Great casting wtih lots of faces you’ll recognize (Kevin Kline and Adrian Lester among them), and all the girls enjoyed it. Pizza afterward at a little joint in Shepherd Market and lots of conversation about the upcoming school poetry reciting competition (they can find ANYTHING to compete about at that school!), plans for October break, the hidden Jungian meaning of the play (well, that was Julia’s intellectual mother, not me). A really nice night.
Saturday itself was one of those afternoons that makes me truly love living in London, on a gorgeous sparkly autumn afternoon. We dropped Avery off at her acting class (she says a casting agent came to watch!) and then John left me up at the top of the Marylebone High Street to run a couple of errands, and it was such a pleasure! Starting off at the little food and clothing market that runs on the weekends, I was able to pick up a bottle of my favorite Danilo Manco super-spicy chilli-infused olive oil, which makes any salad better. And a great olive-oily rosemary foccacia from The Flour Station, and even a stem ginger cake from Rummanco. Such nice people, and so pleasant to buy real food from actual people who made it.
From the market I sauntered on to Daunt Books, always a dangerous thing to do, especially if I have my wallet with me. I ended up with a copy of Amsterdam, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Ian McEwan, whose Atonement is such a stunning film this fall. I can’t stop thinking about that film, although it could be that I just can’t stop thinking about James McAvoy. An understandable obsession these days! Plus, some travel books about Ireland, to get ready for our October break: two days in Dublin and four days at a haunted castle in County Kilkenny! Can’t wait for that. There’s something about the experience at Daunt that makes me feel there’s hope for us all: staff who genuinely want to help you find something good (and they’re nice to Avery, which always makes a big difference), piles of books you would never find in America like biographies of obscure gardeners and diarists), a soaring sunlit travel section (I love it that Shakespeare appears in the English travel section), and lots of contented customers perusing the dark wood bookshelves.
It was but a step from there to FishWorks, which while I recognize is a chain of sorts, and not the family-owned fishmonger that used to inhabit the shop, is nonetheless a solid purveyor of great fish, and the guys in the front who filleted my lemon sole for me are so kind. We discoursed about my discovery of The Fish Society as a place to buy softshell crabs, and recipes for lemon sole, and I felt happy. To be here! I suppose someday all these little errands will become commonplace, but not yet.
Right now I must eat some lunch (yellowfin tuna with red peppers, red onions, lemon zest and horseradish, anyone?), but then I’ll tell you about…“Saint Joan.” What a play! I’ll leave you with a perfect simple autumn recipe. It just about invented coziness.
Oh, my film and television friend Sue took me to the most impressive and enjoyable screening (I’m throwing about that cool word) of “As You Like It,” at Bafta! I’ve never been to 195 Piccadilly, home of the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, but it’s very swanky, very plushy, all the chairs in the screening room labelled discreetly in brass with “Endowed by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones,” or some such luminary’s name. There is a strict house rule that no one makes a sound from the moment the lights go down until the last credit rolls, which makes the atmosphere much more anticipatory than your ordinary theatre. And the film was lovely! Great performances from the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard and David Oyelowo made the entire film worthwhile, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction is fresh and energetic. It opened last night in regular theatres and I would say it’s worth an evening. We’re going to take Avery and her friend Jamie to see it tonight, and I think it will be very interesting to see if 10-year-olds can follow a very cheerful and cheeky but still Shakespearean plot.
Where on earth did the week go? I saw the film on Monday night, and now what do I have to show for the following four days? I can’t imagine. Well, first paired reading on Tuesday morning with my little Form Three gulls, who have grown quite shockingly since last July. Enid Blyton, Dick King-Smith, all the favorites were trotted out in their posh little accents. I hate to think that this time next year, I will have no reason to hang out at King’s College, where there are truly little children. Instead Avery will be the youngest at a new school, surrounded by… teenagers. How did that happen?
We made a ruinous trip to Riders and Squires in South Kensington, for new half-chaps and gloves. This world is littered, from sea to shining sea, with riding gloves Avery has left in one barn or another. It’s like socks in the dryer. Anna came with us, since the girls were in a state of delirious happiness at having been named “Environment Prefects” at school. Now, while you might think that this job would entail encouraging their schoolmates to recycle, it seems that it’s actually to do with making the school environment more appealing. So right away, they took bunches of flowers in the next day. Surely we can’t have signed on for supplying the school with flowers all year?
And I made a nice trip that afternoon to the nearby Whole Foods, as tantalizingly stocked with glorious choices as ever. I came away with three whole lemon soles, having watched them be filleted right before my eyes. Trying that process once was enough for me. Leave it to the professionals, I say. But it was completely delicious. Be sure to get wholemeal flour (it’s often labelled “for breadmaking”, I like Hovis). It has much more body, grain and flavour than all-purpose flour. Save that for a nice apple cake.
And how about another night of completely simple fish, for your Omega-3 oils?
In our experience, you need to allow for one fillet per person plus one extra if you’re three. It’s so light and delicious that you’ll find each person needs one more little helping. With both these dishes, a generous blob of mashed potatoes and a nice green veg are all you need. Or if you’re Avery, copious numbers of slivered red peppers, sauteed in olive oil.
But really, what did I accomplish this week? Not much. Avery had her first weekday riding lesson since summer, and the ponies were feeling fresh. Little Ellie was tumbled off Seymour, Brody gave Anna a hard time, and even Amber was a little frisky for Avery. But the rain that threatened the beginning of the lesson blew over, thankfully, so I was left just shivering, but not actually soaking wet.
John and I have been taking long, long morning walks in the park, and I realize something odd: you’d think that a summer spent in the countryside of Connecticut would leave you really fit, with plenty of exercise, but not so. It’s much easier to stay fit in a city where you’ve got to walk everywhere, than in the country where you jump in your car. So my legs are thankful it’s autumn.
Well, one thing I did manage to organise: our Irish holiday in October! We’ll be staying in a castle, mind you, lovingly restored by Irish Landmark Trust, just outside Waterford. I’ve still got to get a hotel for us in Dublin for the first two nights. Has anyone stayed at the Dylan? It sounds frightfully chic, when I’d really rather a place that was old Irish, cosy and warm. But Dublin seems to run to either threadbare and smokey-smelling, or frightfully chic. It sounds like such a great adventure.
Then, without a doubt the crowning glory of the week was yesterday’s lunch at Maze. We have been intending to go there since we moved to London, such is the reputation of the Gordon Ramsay stronghold in Grosvenor Square. But as so often happens, it takes someone else’s motivation to get the thing done. My barn-mother friend Kristin mentioned at pickup on Thursday that she was going for her birthday with our mutual friend Becky, and did I want to join? Well, I really should have been grocery shopping, or getting up to date on my photo albums, or writing the introduction to this cookbook I’m working on, but it was the work of a moment to drop all that nonsense. And I’m so glad I did. It was ridiculously… over the top.
I thought I’d seen about everything as far as precious presentation and funky ingredients go, but this restaurant is beyond the pale. I have never before needed to keep back a copy of the menu as a reference guide during the meal! We began laughing when the first course came (carpaccio of tuna and swordfish with lime and cucumber marinade, soya dressing) and never stopped till the last bite. I could have eaten six helpings of the tuna dish: little translucent medallions the size of pound coins, of each fish, topped with edible flowers (the waiter said, with a surprising degree of humour in one so doggedly French), “Don’t, of course, eat the flowers. They are quite lethal. Just kidding.” Then Becky had ordered “Jerusalem artichoke veloute with braised Gressingham duck leg,” and was most surprised when along came a tiny white bowl with a scattering of little brown objects in the very bottom, which was promptly covered by a stream of liquid from a gravy boat by the assiduous waiter. The little brown objects turned out to be the duck leg, cubed incredibly small, and the liquid the soup. Unbelievably subtle and delicious flavours, quite indescribable. Then there was “honey and soy roasted quail with Landes foie gras and spiced pear chutney,” and would you believe Becky does not like foie gras? I felt it was the least I could do to take her portion away: every so lightly sauteed with a crust of minced chives, sea salt and fresh black pepper, YUM.
Then I had “Roasted Orkney sea scallops with cured ham and maple syrup, egg and peas.” But this description cannot convey the minute perfection of the dish: “egg and peas”? Try one minuscule quail’s egg, sunny side up, and a lashing of bright green pea puree. Magical!
We had so much fun. And while it was expensive (about 30 pounds a person), we all felt that for the ridiculous luxury and the absolute perfection of every bite, it was worth the money for a special occasion. And Gordon was there! He signed copies of his latest cookbook, “Fast Food,” for us. Now I must say that even with the celebrity glow, and the memory of the fabulous lunch, the cookbook itself is… very lazy. Only a celebrity chef could get away with such a nebulous concept, such forgettable recipes, and such bad photography. I have to be honest. I think I would have been better off with one of his over-the-top silly cookbooks with uncookable fancy food. More like fiction than real-life.
What fun. It was one of those afternoons when all was right with the world: good friends, a beautiful atmosphere, the early-autumn leaves of Grosvenor Square just beginning to fall outside the windows, perfect food. Thanks for including me, girls.
Just a photo to add to the endless compilation of images of Avery harassing wild birds in public places. She will not be disturbed in her quest to catch one, and follows them around saying, “Here chickabiddy, here chickabiddy,” a la Betsy-Tacy.
Well, I can report a qualified success on the softshell crabs! I say “qualified,” because while they were very good, they were nothing at ALL like the restaurant crabs I love so much and wanted to replicate. Somehow in the space between getting the list of ingredients and the cooking method from the nice waitress at Mandarin Kitchen, and producing them in my own kitchen, a crucial element (probably magic) was lost. They were very good, and since you probably haven’t sampled them from Mandarin Kitchen, I can give you this recipe with all confidence that you will enjoy it. It just wasn’t what I was expecting.
They were delicious! I cannot praise “The Fish Society” highly enough. The crabs arrived promptly, completely frozen in dry ice packs. Their quality was much higher than the actual crab in the restaurant: meaty and substantial, and tasting of perfectly fresh seafood. I will happily order from them again. Apparently, this UK-run company gets its softshells from Thailand, but the purveyors there are former Bostonian fishermen! I love that. You would not believe the variety of seafood available from this company. Dive in and order something exotic.
When I told Becky blithely last week that I was going to buy some softshell crabs (not knowing that it simply can’t be done outside Chinatown and I was too intimidated), she laughed and said, “Oh, Mark will be by later then to pick up Anna and… some softshell crabs. He adores them.” So it was but the work of a moment to pick up the phone when they arrived in the post and arrange a dinner. Naturally not one single child would consider eating one, nor would Becky herself, so she brought her incomparable Chicken Marbella, chock-a-block with garlic, olive, capers and prunes. It was perfect, and the noodles and sprouts I made to go with both went down a treat. Anna, Avery and Ellie were all rather filthy in their horseback riding gear, after a day at the barn, but never mind. Ashley was, in her teenage way, perfectly turned out and sat with the adults. That mysterious transformation from little girl to young lady is, of course, taking place.
Becky and Mark have the loveliest aura of Southern gentlefolk! I love to hear Becky say “visit” as she does. “It’s so nice to have a chance to visit,” she will say, or tell Mark on the phone, “I’m just here visiting with Kristen.” It’s good to have people in your life who you know instinctively (and by now with a fair amount of practical proof!) will always, always do the right thing in any situation. In any big city, any big competitive environment, I’ve found, there’s a goodly display of expediency. What will this relationship, or this decision, net me today? some people ask themselves. This was SO not a part of my growing up in the Midwest (or at least in my family, with our friends) that when I first encountered it in the East, and certainly in London, I was taken aback. It’s not evil, it’s just… expedient. And happily, Becky and Mark are just about the least expedient people I know. They are in it for being good, and honest. It’s certainly an example I like having in my life, and set before my daughter. And they’re a hoot, besides! John and Mark know lots of business people in common, so stories were fast and furious about “idiot hedge fund managers I have knows,” and “investment bankers who have screamed at me,” and extravagant birthday parties run amok in the business world.
It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the life John has been living for the past year, happily unemployed, has run its course. His mind really thrives on all those stories, all that knowledge and history. It’s about time for him to get a job. But nothing, nothing could ever replace the world we’ve had for a year. A world with one small child and two parents to look after her, lunch together every day, my husband to tell everything to all day, get his perspective, a year when he knew all the stories, all Avery’s friends, never missed a performance or a party or a playdate. Still, all good things must come to an end, and the realisation of this dawned last week when a bunch of us mothers (John included) were talking about senior school decision. “It’s all about the uniform,” John declared. “The Godolphin gray and red is really nice…” Suddenly he caught Becky’s eye and she burst out laughing. He said ruefully, “It’s time for me to get a job, when I have opinions on SCHOOL UNIFORMS!”
In any case, we had a lovely evening. Becky brought just enough dessert for all of us (to supplement my dessert-challenged contribution: mixed berries with Cointreau): peanut butter cookies topped with mini Reese’s peanut butter cups and chocolate chips. Only… while the little girls were away from the table playing dressup or whatever, we ate them ALL. Oops. A super evening with super friends.
So today was another day, and I traipsed over after school to my friend Nancy’s house with Avery and Nancy’s adorable daughter Sally, to have a snack and do homework and catch up on life gossip. On the way Avery and Sally commiserated on the not so much evil, as completely incompetent French teacher at King’s College. “Mademoiselle… Stanway!” Sally chortled. “My brother calls her Mademoiselle Steinway, because he’s obsessed with piano,” she added, and Avery said, “We learned the signs of the ZODIAC today. Why? I can’t even say ‘down.’ Or ‘up’ for that matter!” We arrived at their gorgeous Nash house off Regent’s Park and Diana served us a lovely fresh apple cake and the girls settled down to homework while we chatted. Diana is the UK coordinator for Barack Obama’s campaign, so I was happy to get a bird’s-eye view of that situation. I don’t know enough, frankly, to have a strong opinion on the various candidates, but Diana is passionate about Obama (as she is about everything she cares about; Diana is an intense and intensely passionate person in general), so I listened. I wish I had the firm conviction that any one person can change anything as enormous as the American political scene (and therefore, I’m afraid, a lot of other things). I’m too much of a dreamy non-politician to have a firm grasp of any given year’s choices to get too awfully committed to any one of them. But it’s a lot of fun to have the chance to learn from the woman behind the man (at least one of them!).
Tonight I’m abandoning my family to leftovers (Becky’s chicken will not go unappreciated, thank you!), while I head with my friend Sue (aka 6point7 to see an advance screening of “As You Like It” at Bafta. I’ll be interesting tomorrow, I promise.
I really mean it. If you are in the UK and “Atonement” is playing ANYWHERE near you, run, do not walk. It is staggering.
Of course I adore James McAvoy, who wouldn’t. He was spectacular in Narnia, in Last King of Scotland, in the BBC telly programme “Shameless.” He was even wonderful in “Becoming Jane,” a sort of Jane Austen Lite. But in this film he is incandescent. You can’t take your eyes off the screen. The man can act more with a lift of his eyelids than most actors can with their entire bodies. Quite simply the most compelling love scene ever in a film I’ve seen, and done so stunningly in a sort of postmodern now-and-earlier fashion, where you see the eventuality from more than one point of view: breathtaking. How anyone could come away from this film never having been deeply in love, and survive… I don’t know. I wish he had more chance to smile in any film: his smile is enchanting and wicked. Luckily I had my loyal husband with me, who was similarly (if not equally) enthralled. A fabulous film.
And the sound editing! You can hear cigarettes light, kisses happen, drops of water fall. And the DP! Whoever he is: the fall of garments! And the art director: the bedrooms full of 1930s clobber that puts you RIGHT in the scene. And the MUSIC. One Debussy strain will leave you weeping. Gorgeous. I’m still thinking about it 10 hours later, and plan to see it again.
You must see it. And when it comes to the US (don’t know when exactly) you must not say, “Well, it will come out on DVD.” No, the World War II scenes especially MUST be seen on the big screen. Do go. You will be captivated for 2 hours and 3 minutes. Take tissues. You will need them.
irst I have to say: this is the crazy kitty who has been such a problem to us. And yet: since we got home from the summer she’s been nothing but a delight. Look at this serenity. Cats are a mystery.
Saturday dawned incredibly fair and cool, truly the perfect weather in any city, anywhere. Slightly chilly in the shade, perfect in the sun. Blue skies and tiny white clouds. I think we brought this weather with us from Connecticut. So we decided the day could not be spent indoors, and in a rush jumped into Emmy and headed to Kew, to the and the Henry Moore show that opened today. Why wait? We are such suckers for anything advertised on the sides of buses, I hate to say. Henry Moore at Kew? Done! No research needed.
Except that we did. Need research, that is. So consider your research done, my friends: I have suffered for you. Not suffered in any significant sense, mind you, and probably everyone knows what I’m about to tell you, but I didn’t. Tip one: the traffic can turn wicked on the way to Richmond, and it took us nearly an hour to get there. Tip two: the cafe is disgusting and the snack-ish shop worse, and both very expensive. Tip three: one could spend an entire day, even more, at the RBG and not make a dent.
So here’s what happened. We had three hours to enjoy between sleeping late and Avery’s acting class, so we blithely headed off. Got stressed, in a minor way, by the unexpectedly inflated traffic. Arrived starving and were forced to eat repulsive sandwiches and drink something unfathomable called Fentiman’s Dandelion and Burdock Something or Other, AWFUL. And by the time we arrived we had just an hour and a half to spend and didn’t get to see a tenth of what we wanted to.
But that’s the bad news. The good news is I was with the two least complaining, most agreeable people I know, and so we made the proverbial lemons into… well, at least not Dandelion Elixir. In future, I think I’d drive through town and Chiswick and avoid the motorway. As it was, we all just bit the bullet and enjoyed the walk from the car park to the Gardens (hop the brick wall and you’ll find yourself on the tow lane for the river, looking right down to the Thames and all its exotic water birds), then paid the surprisingly enormous fee to get in, and swallowed our awful lunch with good humour. Mostly we planned on the picnic we would bring the next time, when we’d have all day: egg salad with cress, duck pate sandwiches, roast chicken, potato salad with scallions and dill, strawberries and cream. It’s easy to dream. With a book each (as it was only Avery had something to read, “The Princess Bride,” with which she is obsessed lately in an adorable way, but at least she loves to read aloud), a nice waterproof rug to lie on, and all day to spend, it would be heaven.
And plan to spend all DAY. There are nearly 30 sculptures by the genius Henry Moore, one of my mid-century favorites, heavily influenced in the negative by my old chum Rodin, scattered around the acres of gardens. We got to see almost a dozen, wandering around toward the Palm Court and taking a brief trip through the marine life centre, a sort of mini aquarium. Lovely.
But it ended all too soon. We got back into town just in time to deliver Avery to her acting class, and for me to birthday-shop for our friend Estee, celebrating her eighth in style in Bermondsey. And luckily her father Vincent was cooking, in a BIG way.
This, with the simplest of potato salads, tiny new carrots steamed and drizzled with olive oil, and a green salad, was the perfect large party menu. And an ENORMOUS chocolate cake of Vincent’s own design, studded with Smarties.
And the presents! We gave her the present of the moment, in my opinion: simple and perfect. A pile of white t-shirts and a set of fabric markers. She immediately had everyone sign it, as a memento of her birthday party, dear girl.
What great guests: Kate and Malcolm, architects extraordinaire, Tara and Brian, happy former owners of “Fresh and Wild” (I had a stirring discussion with him about the sale to Whole Foods, that bastion of epicurean controversy). Brian is now deeply into his new concern, Nude skincare, a completely organic cosmetics group if you can imagine. I can scarcely be bothered to slap my face with whatever’s left from my body lotion after a shower, but fair enough, I know most women are much more careful of their appearance. Lord knows I should be. And there was our old friend Boyd. This made me very sentimental: Avery caught sight of Boyd and hissed under her breath, “You never told me Boyd was here!” The friendships that were nurtured by that trip to Morocco will never die. And there were new friends Nick and Tony, a tremendously congenial and happy group.
We all simply ate and talked until we couldn’t anymore, watched the present-opening and Vincent’s heartwarming joy in the gathering of his beloved daughters, their friends, his friends. Perfect company, delicious food, good music, a great birthday. Thanks for inviting us, Estee. The next party’s on us.
Well, it’s not a classic yet, but it might become one. “Run, Fatboy, Run” is really worth seeing, if you like self-deprecating, sophisticated English comedy. I don’t know if it will have wide release in the States, but it should. It always amazes me that we here in England can really love an actor like Simon Pegg, and he can be phenomenally successful here, and yet there aren’t a lot of Americans who will recognize him. Whenever I think that our two cultures are gradually merging and losing all individual identity, I comfort myself with that fact. Although I’d like him to be successful.
Anyway, my gorgeous friend Dalia and I met up yesterday for lunch (I was in food-spy mode as I tried to identify all the ingredients in my favorite soft-shell crabs at Mandarin Kitchen), and to see the film. First we had to catch up (her summer trip back to her Lebanese family in Nigeria (how exotic is that?) and discuss the food. She recommended the crabmeat and sweetcorn soup, and it was delicious, but take a leaf from Dalia’s book and order soy sauce and chilli sauce to go with it, as it kicks the flavor up from its original rather bland stance.
I can’t wait till our new writing course begins week after next: “Prose Fiction and Autobiography” at Birkbeck, part of the University of London. Everyone not employed fulltime should take note: so many colleges do part-time courses, and it’s a great inexpensive way to try out a new subject and make English friends. It will be so nice to see Dalia every week, instead of the random get-togethers we manage now. She is my polar opposite in nearly every way: little and dark, with a fiery temper and very strong, passionate opinions about absolutely everything. She is a fascinating combination of terribly strong and very gentle, and one of those comforting friends where I could turn to her in any situation and know that she would be on my side. And we haven’t even been friends for a very long time. But it’s been a joy to have her to play with. Plus she’s married to a saxophone-playing model with what has to be a devastating Irish accent. I can’t wait to meet him.
So I weasled what will have to pass for a recipe from the head waitress (most importantly, no batter, just flour), and I’ll be giving it a try when Becky and her family come to dinner on Sunday. Becky’s bringing her famous Chicken Marbella as well, since neither she nor any child would consent to eating soft-shell crabs! I hope I’ll have both my recipe and Becky’s when Monday morning comes around.
The movie was great fun. A rather silly premise: man throws pregnant fiance over at the altar, then fast-forwards five years and wants her back, but has to compete with her obnoxious American (sadly a rather repetitive description over here, I’m afraid) boyfriend who runs marathons. So Simon Pegg’s character decides to run the marathon as well. But running underneath is a sweet story between Pegg and his little son, and a hilarious friendship between Pegg and the DIVINE Dylan Moran. I am such a sucker for an Irish accent! Or Scottish, come to that. And it’s an in-love-with-London film. Great panoramic shots as well as cosy neighborhood rambles. You’ll love it.
I met up with Avery and John at the incomparable Daunt Books in the Marylebone High Street, and we came away with an embarrassing stack of books. I can’t seem to say no to a book purchase. She is in such heaven in a bookstore or library, and then reads them all over and over. “Are you sure you need ALL those books, Avery?” She thought for a moment. “I suppose I could go over them again,” she said, and came up with a couple she thought she could live without, including a gorgeous book on the Flower Fairies she loves so much. “How about if you wait until your birthday for that one? It’s not very far away,” I suggested, and the little dear agreed, because she is a nice person. “But Mummy,” she averred, “I know to a grownup seven weeks is not a long time, but to me…”
Now the last few days there has been a little nip in the air, and more than occasional leaves drifting down into the garden. The giant tree (that if I were a real English person I could identify) at the bottom of the garden is turning from its dark summer green to a sort of yellowy shade, and I know it won’t be long before the whole garden is stripped of its leaves, so I’m enjoying it. It also makes me think of wintry foods, and so last night’s dinner was appropriately warming. I need to think of a better name for this recipe, clearly, schmier being the only word that comes to mind (in Alyssa’s voice, since this week was Rosh Hashanah). But the coating wasn’t crispy so it couldn’t be called a crust, nor was it dry so it wasn’t a rub. Help!
With this we had our favorite spinach and cheese casserole. It’s a very forgiving recipe. Because I was feeling lazy, I reverted to frozen spinach, and because I had not adequately grocery shopped, I had no evaporated milk. I used skim milk and some parmesan cheese instead, and it was lovely. There being a refrigerator full of cheese, I did not indulgently buy something special for the casserole, and it turns out Red Leicester is fabulous in this dish.
Well, today is back to the skating rink for Avery. I will just be glad to get away from this desk and its piles of passport applications, school applications, insurance forms, accountants’ bills and the like. TGIF!
So. We’re walking home from the car yesterday evening and there’s a huge crowd of Asian photographers with huge furry microphones and all sorts of equipment, hanging about the doorway of the block of flats across the way. John approached one of the guys sitting on the stoop of our building and said, “Hey, who’s coming out?” “The former Prime Minister of Pakistan,” the fellow answered, and sure enough, like clockwork, up went a bunch of green flags with a man’s picture printed on it, and the man himself emerged from the building. “Cool,” John said, and aside from watching in my apron from the kitchen window, I didn’t give the matter much further thought.
Until the Breakfast News this morning.
“Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, left his posh red-velvet flat in London’s Mayfair today for Heathrow Airport, to fly to his native Pakistan where the Supreme Court has overturned his exile.” Then, later in the day, he was deported to Saudi Arabia, pending further Supreme Court machinations with General Musharraf. To think this was all happening in our very own neighborhood! One day last spring John said, “Run to the window, there’s David Frost across the street!” He must have been going to interview this chap. Amazing!
Nearly as interesting as these international politics on our doorstep is… a lovely sprout dish I invented tonight. It’s a variation on the leftover flank steak recipe I made for lunch at Red Gate Farm this summer. This requires no leftovers, and includes even more veg, for your health. Enjoy.
This was fantastic. So simple, so inexpensive, so easy. Colorful and children will LOVE it. It had all Avery’s favorite things: chicken, peppers, noodles and SALT.
Let’s see: tomorrow will be the unhappy anniversary, which does not mean so much here so it was perfectly normal for the school to plan its 5th anniversary celebration. So tomorrow afternoon will find us gathering at All Souls Church in Langham Place to hear the sounds of little piping voices. I myself still find it hard to buy milk or anything else whose sell-by date is stamped September 11. Such a dumb thing, but I feel that way. It’s just too evocative, still. Ah, well, some people assert that after six years it is time to move on and stop observing anniversaries and reliving and such. I’m not sure about that, so we will be getting together with our New York friends, the McBs and Vincent and Peter, but just to get together. And to cook and eat! I haven’t a clue about the menu yet, but I will let you know. Doubtless, with that cast of characters, the food will be noteworthy. Wherever tomorrow finds you, be safe and put an arm around someone you love. Even maybe two, arms and a someone.