Sunday, 30 May 2010

Keeping things simple

So after last Saturday's utterly disastrous pizza episode, I decided to keep things simple this weekend. Continuing with several themes - the vaguely Italian, reticent culinary adventures and salad, I present the tomato and mozzarella salad, or Insalata Caprese for the initiated.

I must confess, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with vegetables, in so far as if they are deep fried I'll happily marry them (and that's saying something because I'm not inclined towards all things marital). I am however Scottish so possibly the tendency towards fried things is inherently in one's genes. However in their raw, unadulterated state, particularly leaves or what I like to refer to fondly as weeds, I have real trouble.

But the weather's getting hotter and I'm not getting any younger, so I felt it was about time I conquered the fear. Turns out the fine line between salad phobia and salad heaven, for me at least, is mozzarella, particularly mozzarella di bufala campana.

Okay so here are our ingredients, for what is arguably the world's easiest and possibly most delicious salad: good quality mozzarella, basil, tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil. Seasoning well with salt and pepper goes without saying.

For posterity's sake here's a close up of the cheese in its lovely packaging. I have a thing for food packaging so I couldn't resist snapping the sweet buffalo cartoon at closer range.

And here's the finished product -

Just slice the tomatoes to your preferred size and shape (some slice them, I like quarters) season well with Maldon salt, set aside. Slice the mozzarella, once again to your preferred specification, toss into the tomatoes, stir and add torn basil leaves.

Season with lashings of olive oil and pepper to taste.

My flatmate suggesting ending this arguably stupid blog post with buon appetito!

But given how easy this salad is, I'd prefer not to patronize any further.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Worth It?

Cheryl Cole, as featured in The Sunday Times' Style supplement. Photograph of magazine taken by Dora Petherbridge.

Perhaps it would be fair to say that before I write what I am about to write, I think the point of this has nothing to do with Cheryl Cole. I think that if she were not the ‘nation’s sweetheart’ another woman would be in her place. That’s the problem with this kind of thing - the women are to all intents and purposes replaceable. Dare I say it their appeal depends on a delicate bank- balancing act, one in which they are marketable for as long as they are ‘in’. This makes the comparisons between Cole and Vera Lynn all the more disturbing. For if Cole were a talented musician in so far as she wrote her own songs and composed her own music she would perhaps be in a position in culture out with a time and space continuum that begins and ends with a man called Simon Cowell. Indeed she might not need at all to have been reduced to the sum of her parts: hair, legs, face, the clothes.

As it stands fair play to the woman, she’s making an honest buck and she’s living the ubiquitous reality TV star’s dream - the one that other young people believe is only a hair-extension’s breadth away. Nope its not about Cole. My problem is with the media. For it has been a while since I’ve read anything quite as sycophantic as this interview by Edwina Ings-Chambers (from The Sunday Times’ Style supplement) prefaced with the strap-line ‘She’s Worth It’. I’m sure she is, but aren’t all women? Or are we to believe that it’s only the photogenic, cellulite free, fine-featured amongst our wretched gender that are deserving of attention?

Take this dazzling piece of prose for example:

‘She’s clad in a white T-Shirt, a striped APC blazer, stacked Stella McCartney wedges and micro blue shorts that reveal legs so toned and perfect (and, yes, cellulite free) that your eyes follow them round mesmerically while your brain registers simple disbelief.’

Well that’s just lovely, but what if anything, does it have to say about Cheryl Cole, other than, in case you didn’t get the point, she’s blooming marvellous to look at?

Is it any wonder then that Cole goes on to say this? -

‘If you could just give me one word to be, ‘inspirational’ would be the one, I think ... Like, one woman said to me, ‘I’ve got you on my fridge door to inspire me to go to the gym,’ and I felt that about Britney when she did I’m a Slave 4 You. So to think that I can be inspiring someone like that – or in any kind of way.’

While I’m not against anyone going to the gym or making the best of their appearance I do wonder whether a picture of Cheryl on my fridge door would be inspiration enough to make my life that little bit more ‘worth it’. Indeed once detached from the hyperbole, the clever marketing and the agendas, when we separate the gods from their perfectly formed legs, what exactly do cellulite free thighs actually mean? Are they the marker of success, above achievements beyond the body beautiful? Do they inspire generosity, kindness, goodwill, spirit, motivation, ingenuity, creativity and empowerment? Will I need them around if I get ill or if my heart is broken?

Nah, I don’t think so.

So in a vain bid to restore some kind of balance to the madness, I give you some women of note and inspiration.

Whether any of them have (or did have) cellulite is none of my business.

Virginia Woolf – novelist, diarist, publisher, feminist
Mary Woolstonecraft – writer, philosopher and feminist - vindicator of women
Michelle Obama
The Suffragettes
Nina Simone – Jazz artist and civil rights activist
Marie Stopes – pioneer in the field of family planning
Marie Curie – physicist and chemist, pioneer in the field of cancer research
Jane Austen - writer
The Brontes - writers
Margaret Atwood – writer and feminist
Susie Orbach – writer, psychotherapist and psychoanalyst and campaigner for body diversity
Naomi Wolf – political consultant, writer and spokesperson for the third wave feminist movement
Lionel Shriver – journalist and author
Meryl Streep - actor
Crystal Renn - plus size model and author of the memoir 'Hungry'
Susan Sarandon - actor
Melody Gardot – musician, writer, Buddhist and helping to develop a programme for music therapy and pain management
Toni Morrison – Nobel Prize winner, writer and professor
Doris Lessing – Nobel Prize winner
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir - Prime Minister of Iceland, first openly lesbian head of government
Tori Amos – pianist, singer/songwriter
Kathryn Biglow – First woman to win an Oscar for best director

None of these women inspire me to go to the gym.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Pizza Express Vs Pizza Depress

'Its easier to write about those you hate - just as it's easier to criticize a bad play or a bad book.'
Dorothy Parker

What wonderful sentiment Dorothy and I think of your pearls of wisdom as I settle down to write this post. Come to think of it, while you had your pearls, I have my perils (of wisdom). For lesser ladies, but by no means less truthful, taught girls such as myself of the inevitability of adulthood: that pride always comes before a fall, dear. All this is a rather roundabout way of explaining what is about to ensue. It is a tale of highs, lows and in-betweens. There were moments when we had flashes of hope that it all might turn out for the best, only to be quashed by the inevitable impending doom of failure delivered in a mournful forkful.

To fully understand the gravity of this incredible fall from grace, one must transport oneself back to last Sunday evening. On that day I posted a rather triumphant post. If I did not exactly wax lyrical, I certainly laboured a point and the point was this, one must celebrate the small achievements.

Oh but that was the kind sentiment of a naive soul and I have proof of its folly. For come Wednesday the following week I found myself in my local Pizza Express pouring over an ever expansive menu of all things not-so Italianate. Don't judge dear reader, but I did choose the only thing on the menu cringe-worthy enough for reflection in the real-world, but legitimate enough to order under the circumstances. For Pizza Express is as about as Italian as the Super-Mario Brothers and I'd feel no more comfortable ordering a Quattro Formaggi there, than I would ordering a McDonald's anywhere. So I did the only thing I could, I ordered this -

Its the American Hot and its laced with all kinds of questionable things, including jalapeno peppers.

It was alright. You can't say fairer than that, but you can't say more either. And so as I relieved my plate with my final forkful I turned to my fellow diner, stretched, delivered the silverware to the plate and smiled. Its around about this time that I uttered the fateful words.

'I can do better than this!'

Smugness is not an admirable quality.

And so now comes the bit about the fall and the pride coming before hand.

It wasn't until Saturday that I decided to take up the challenge. I'd create a pizza to rival the chain restaurant. It would be so good we'd need not ever dine out again! I set about to work, scouring the supermarket for suitable toppings. I'd pile the base high with mozzarella, smooth to the touch, squidgy inside. I'd tear basil leaves from their stems and sprinkle capers over tomatoes. I'd season with olive oil and I'd top with salami and shavings of parmesan.

And it all started out so well.

And the finished article came out vaguely resembling a pizza -

But alas it was too good to be true. For while I had insisted on sourcing the best of ingredients for this pizza from heaven, I'd left the business of dough making to my dear old flatmate. Well I must have taken forty winks. For when I returned to the kitchen two almost-perfectly formed bases sat on our table which she presented with an exuberant smile.

They were so filled with promise. How then did they become the way-ward thing that in years to come we'd ponder, where did it all go wrong? One mouthful of the above pizza only merely foretold the horrors that lay ahead. The topping slid off, the base oozed water, the dough had risen at an unprecedented rate. This was no thin and crispy.

Even more alarmingly the second pizza came out like this -

One may never know the mystery of how the dough ended up this way. We've retraced our steps, we've theorised the possibilities, some even posit the suggestion that the hot weather played havoc with the yeast. We'll never know.

But there are lessons learned. Above all of them, I am indeed a struggling perfectionist, doomed to sometimes fail.

Photographs by Dora Petherbridge

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Edward Petherbridge in The Sunday Times

Below are a couple of photographs of my flatmate's father, actor Edward Petherbridge, looking particularly suave and sophisticated, as he is featured in The Sunday Times' Culture magazine. Edward will be appearing in The Fantasticks, at the Duchess Theatre, London, from tomorrow.

We've composed a rather artistic set up where, on this blog at least, he appears alongside the ubiqitous Cheryl Cole (who is featured today in the Style Magazine). Rather hilariously Edward is the last person in the country not to have a clue who Mrs Cole is.

Edward Petherbridge (bottom right) as featured in The Sunday Times' Culture magazine.

And one more for good measure:

Edward writes a wonderfully literary blog here.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Postcards and Letters to Juliet.

Today has been one of those days when the heat is so oppressive that indoors there is no respite. And outdoors, poses a whole other set of problems. In a somewhat controversial attitude I tend to prefer to stay indoors when the weather is what they call clammy or close. It’s just not nice when my face sweats so much that its slides down into my chest. That is my make-up slides, but blogging lends itself so well to being over dramatic. Of course if I insist on shutting myself away from the world whatever will I write about? I’ve been scouring the flat for inspiration, things I could photograph in the vain hope that they might be of interest. There’s really no reason to worry about the interest factor, other than I’ve noticed that visual blogs work the best. This realisation comes from a purely personal level in which I’ve discovered that the ones that balance the words with images are the most pleasing to the eye.

Anyway I thought about photographing a couple of antique postcards that my flatmate, sentimental old bean that she is, bought from a local bric-a-brac shop at the end of our street. Its one of those incredibly quaint places that stocks all manner of strange relics from another age: costume jewellery, miniature train sets and towns, tiny glass statuettes of animals and ancient cosmetic apparatus. Outside the shop there is a box containing old postcards. Thanks to my flatmate’s curious nature, we are now the proud owners of two such postcards from the past. And where did we decide to put them up? In the bathroom of course, for I believe that you can never have enough literature or visual stimuli in there.

By strange coincidence while I was thinking about these postcards I stumbled across an article about the Club di Giulietta, ‘Juliet’s Club’, were a group of volunteers, known as ‘Juliet’s secretaries’ reply to hundreds of letters to Shakespeare’s fictional romantic heroine. I never knew people sent letters to Juliet. This seems at once an incredibly strange and romantic idea. The very notion that people in their hour of heart-broken need would think to write to the ill-fated Juliet, rather than turn to their friends, or even a therapist, seems incredibly odd in the 21st century. And yet human nature never fails to surprise, for while I sit here ‘blogging’ like millions of others with access to the world-wide web, in an age when we take instant communication for granted, what with emails and mobile texting, ‘Juliet’s Club’ receives the humble hand-written letter more than any other form of correspondence. Emails apparently don’t feature that prominently. Coupled with the fact that Juliet’s secretaries work for free and we have an incidence of seemingly altruistic communication in which they bring small words of comfort to the heart-broken and forlorn.

Perhaps it’s something to do with age and getting older, perhaps it’s to do with our current climate of economic doom and gloom, but I find myself gravitating towards these tiny pieces of information that reveal aspects of human nature at its finest. We do look out for each other after all and we are interested in what others are doing and how their lives bare out. In some ways blogging by its very nature is evidence of this. Only yesterday I discovered the wonders that the world has to offer in the form of a video from Denmark (posted on Tania Kindersley's excellent Backwards in High Heels) where a bus driver received an amazing and moving birthday surprise from his regular passengers. It sounds cheesy but this is the kind of world I want to live in. All too often I’m accused of cynicism, for its hard as a feminist not to sometimes get caught up in a flurry of discontent and this is of course entirely necessary, but one also needs their soul revived. One also needs to take pleasure in the small things. Sometimes one just needs to go with it.

With this in mind I’m going to post the postcards here. For I love a good postcard and I worry with emails and instant messaging that the art of writing a postcard and sending one from some far flung corner of the world might begin to die out. And that would be a bit of a shame.

Image by Dora Petherbridge

This rather hilarious postcard was sent in 1963 and shows us Brits living up to our reputation for enjoying a bit of bawdy 'carry on' type humour. Inside the card reads 'Having a lovely time the weather is sunny & hot. Last night we went to see the Cliff Richard Show. It was fabulous. See you all Monday.'

Image by Dora Petherbridge

The postcard on the right has its message on the front and reads 'Dear Mouriel The beds at home are a treat after your homemade ones.' One can only imagine what 'homemade' beds are like ...

If you would like to read more about 'Juliet's Club' the article can be found here -

Monday, 17 May 2010

Trying something different ...

When I'm not being pretentious, self-absorbed and a feminist, I like to do a spot of cookery. Okay so technically no cooking was required in the following recipe, but I really felt I had to post this for several reasons - all of them feminist - that goes without saying.

The main reason is I hate salad. I also suspect that women who say they like it are liars. To me it was an 80's invention engineered to make women feel bad about themselves. Indeed it is a conspiracy used to fill them with false hope that they might end up with a body like Cindy Crawford's after a couple of tomatoes and lettuce leaf.

But this salad is different. Its incredibly moreish if you like sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy things. And let's face it who doesn't?

Also I've been reliably informed by my vegetarian flatmate, who when she's not giving out interesting bits of information, can be found scouring the shelves at Holland and Barratt, that carrots contain Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene. Good news for the eyes and the skin!

So here we go, this is my attempt at a Japanese Carrot Salad.

The recipe is by Allegra McEvedy and it can be found in The Guardian, here -

(I didn't bother to toast the cashew nuts. You can if you want. I was just too busy reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex)

Image by Dora Petherbridge

And here's the obligatory flash-photography shot. No food blog post should be without one ...

Image by Dora Petherbridge

Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Feminist's First Dinner Party

In a slight twist on a blog which to be fair is quite hard to pin down - thematically at least - for I am not solely interested in one topic, I have decided to post a few pictures of my flat warming dinner from Friday night.

There are several reasons for this exciting turn of events. The most important is this - regular readers (whoever the hell they might be) may have noticed I've been somewhat given to introspection of late. I blame this on the fact that I am getting older, and everyone knows that a direct consequence of getting older is that you become wiser and more philosophical. That's just a fact. And just in case the irony hasn't translated thus far, it is also a fact that with age comes the ability to laugh at one's self. Admittedly I'm still working on this one. But honesty is also another wonderful grown up quality.

Anyway I'm given to anxiety with regards to this blogging lark. Like all good things in life I thoroughly enjoy it when I'm on a roll. When the writing flows its like good wine, just keep pouring the bottle I say. But when your not writing it can feel like creatively speaking, at least, you are on the wagon. Translation being, 'bad times.' But the other night I was talking this through with a fellow feminist friend and I came to the unfortunate conclusion, that one of the reasons why feminism gets a bad rep is because it takes itself too seriously. Now I'm not one to extol the virtues of a happy-go-lucky existence and certainly there is a lot about equality issues which simply just isn't funny, but I am willing to concede that we could all stand to take ourselves a little less seriously. Sometimes.

One of the wonderful things about this blogging business is the amount of time and effort my fellow bloggers invest in their blogs. They really have managed to create spaces where they can explore ideas, food, fashion, frivolity in all its wonderousness. The visual blogs particularly astound me and this has made me acutely aware that I don't illustrate my points often enough. The main reason for this is the old chestnut rearing its ugly head that 'others do these things better'.

But If I continue with that attitude I'll simply never get anything done, no matter how rubbish the outcome. And like I've said before its a process. This is all a process. So in a bid to explore my creativity further I give you a feminist's first dinner party.

Turns out that despite Betty Friedan's best intentions, this feminist at least wanted to be a good hostess because I spent the best part of last week devising, concocting and creating a dinner party befitting of my fabulous friends. I blame Nigella Lawson.

These are the results:

Here's the dining table -

Image by Dora Petherbridge

And here's a close-up

Image by Dora Petherbridge

And now to the important bit - the food. Deciding that I didn't want to make things easy on myself I went with a Thai/Asian theme. Here for starters we're having Japanese carrot salad (which I would like to dedicate a blog to because it was so easy and delicious), tempura prawns (these were a real baptism of fire and I have the oil-splatter burns to prove it!) and chicken satay skewers with peanut dipping sauce.

Image by Alice Turner

And so to the main - Thai Red Prawn Curry with coconut rice. My friend Alice, who is an excellent photographer, photographed the food. But having consumed a jolly amount of red wine, she forgot half-way through the evening that this was her designated job for the night, and so this image is of her dinner half-eaten. Still, that's realism. And in some ways that's feminism.

Image by Alice Turner

I suppose I've blogged about this because I think the little things, the minor triumphs, the well-executed meals, the hilarious jokes over wine, the putting together of a lovely dinner table, which, although not earth-shattering in and of themselves, are still important. Yes there's doom and gloom around at the moment, but not enough to forget that there are good things to be done. Some of these things are worthier than others, but that's just life.

With this in mind I'm now making a concerted effort to emphasise the lighter side of life too. Indeed it will be a feminist's take on frivolity.

To that end I leave you with a foodie related quote from the sharp-witted (and tongued) Lionel Shriver;

'I'm not a subtle person, and I cook the way I write. In the kitchen or at a keyboard, I push flavour towards an absolute limit. Food, like fiction, should leave an after-burn. As a good novel should make you cry, so a good main dish should make your eyes water and your nose run.

In neither books nor cookery is Shriver nice. I would no more concoct a bland, cautious dish with half a teaspoon of rosemary and a "pinch" of cayenne than I would write a novel about a kind lady who knits and her exciting trip to the post office. Although the hands-on physicality and instant gratification of cooking provide a merciful antidote to a mere-words manuscript of two years, both projects hew to the same directives. They both benefit from the drama of the triangle. They should both lead with a dominant theme. And both food and fiction should knock your socks off.'

From an article which can be found here -

Monday, 10 May 2010

Love's Spaciousness

The amount of friends who are getting married or shacking up has sent my flatmate and myself into a temporary state of existential crisis. On Saturday night we drank wine to at least temporarily lift the last remaining scraps of clarity in our poor wee heads. What with the hung parliament and the impending apocalypse that will surely ensue if the men don’t get their acts together, our minds needed a little bit of muddling. Talk turned inevitably to love. At first it starts off fairly ordinarily, one recounts an experience, the highs, the lows, the feelings, blah, blah, blah. But very soon because we are English literature graduates the whole thing descends into a pretentious mess, where a four letter word is looked at on a conceptual level. With nods to feminism it’s derided as an invention sitting on a trajectory spanning capitalism, oppression, and the perpetuation of the ‘heterosexual matrix’. By the way, if anyone can explain what that means I’ll give them a prize. Soon we are denouncing notions of romantic love as Western propaganda that ensures that grown women no matter how well educated, no matter how successful, no matter how beautiful, still fantasise that a handsome man with a good bank balance will come along and fix all their problems. As if. The idea that any man could possibly navigate let alone understand the inner workings of the female psyche is as about delusional as still believing in Santa Claus. And yet women still want their princes, so I suppose I arrest my case.

But how do we quantify a feeling that we take as a given and as almost universal? Characteristics of it might even be displayed in the animal kingdom, after all Dolphins have sex for pleasure and certain species mate for life. In some ways if we speak of it in terms of the animal kingdom it all seems very silly. Like sex is an absolutely ridiculous concept if we actually think about it, but it tips over into the sublime if we imagine cows, lions, ants, fish, Dolphins for crying out loud, doing it! Okay there is no need for mood lighting in the animal world, but I wonder if I have a point. So thinking back over our conversation on Saturday night/Sunday morning when we had exhausted our intellectual capacities, when we had sated our need to speak of this thing on a higher plane, I got a little melodramatic. For how does one write about such a thing as love? ‘Far better people have written about this!’ I declared head in hands. My flatmate turned towards me but continued to do the dishes. She’s far more pragmatic than I. ‘Oh that’s just silly.’ Those were her words. ‘But, but I continued, think of the worst physical pain you’ve ever experienced. Are you thinking?’ I’m almost desperate. ‘Yes’ she replies with a sigh. ‘Okay, now imagine trying to put that into words.’ I instruct. After what seems like minutes, days even, time stands still, I’m waiting for the pragmatist’s response, she replies, ‘well I’ve been quite lucky. I don’t think I’ve had much physical pain in my life.’

So there you go. The quest to not only qualify oneself but also learn to put this ‘thing’ into words continues. They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but don’t underestimate the subtle power of the heart-broken women nursing her pen. Or in this case a lap-top.

This weekend’s existential crisis uncovered this little piece of writing by Diane Ackerman. Ironically it was read aloud by the groom’s father at one of our friend’s weddings a few years ago. I especially sympathise with the bit about insanity ...

‘Love. What a small word we use for an idea so immense and powerful it has altered the flow of history, calmed monsters, kindled works of art, cheered the forlorn, turned tough guys to mush, consoled the enslaved, driven strong women mad, glorified the humble, fuelled national scandals, bankrupted robber barons, and made mincemeat of kings. How can love’s spaciousness be conveyed in the narrow confines of one syllable? Love is an ancient delirium, a desire older than civilisation, with taproots stretching deep into dark and mysterious days ... The heart is a living museum. In each of its galleries, no matter how narrow or dimly lit, preserved forever like wonderous diatoms, are our moments of loving and being loved.’

‘Love’s Spaciousness’ from A Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Faltering at the Final Hurdle ...

I’m finding it hard to keep up the momentum this week on all fronts. I’ve retreated to my bedroom at silly hours, like eight o'clock to read fiction. Its election day tomorrow and I feel intensely gloomy and despairing. People who know me know that I can get like this sometimes so it’s not necessarily the possibility that we might wake on Friday morning to find we have a Tory government. It’s not in anticipation of the ‘mythic’ hung parliament. No, we've had a coalition government in Scotland for a while now and we are doing all right. This moment of introspection isn’t even because I’m undecided. It’s more to do with the insistent, probing question that faces me in the darkest hours. And the question is this: ‘what is the bloody point?’

Damned self-indulgence I know but I can’t shift a mood that feels like a huge heavy bird has swooped down, propped a claw on each of my shoulders, spread its wings and cast shadows over everything. ‘What is the bloody point?’ In these final hours, I am not filled with the possibility that this country will endure great change, for there is no leader of the three spirited enough to instill the confidence, let alone inspire it.

But I will vote tomorrow for the countless Suffragettes and Suffragists who fought so hard for my right to put a cross on the ballot paper.

These women obviously felt there was a point ...

Image from Photograph The National Archives

I’ll do it alone, for the year I suffered through Higher History where the struggle for the Votes for Women was met with sneers and indignation from the boys in the classroom. I did get my own back - I was the only one of the lot to get an ‘A’. So much for history.

But still I wonder, what would the Suffragettes have made of this three party race pantomime headed up exclusively by men, flanked by their good dutiful wives ...