The Night Manger and the Cold War

I would like to suggest that we spend all day on productive, useful, creative activities and then have something for supper made from some organic veg box – and across the dinner table we discuss Bentham’s principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the finer passages of the Iliad.

But actually, we have supper in front of the telly more times than not – and that can be re-runs of Lewis if one of us has had a particularly hard day, or recordings of what is making the ‘culture’ news.( And we don’t have an organic veg box delivered.)

And recently, like everyone else ( or at least everyone else like us,) it has been Happy Valley and The Night Manager.

We are of an age to have read John Le Carre avidly as ‘young people ‘ and to still enjoy a ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ‘ DVD with Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

I was raised in the Cold War and those stories seemed all too believable. I still like them. In our recent cull of some of our books (we still have many, many, left) all the John Le Carre were protected as they will be re-read.

(Now, I could do a list of books that I will always want to lay my hands on when a current book is finished/boring, I have a stinking cold and need to be tucked up with a good book or things are bad and I need to be sure my book will be escapism of the best order – but that is for another time.)

Some young person came in the Oxfam shop the other day and asked for any John Le Carre as she had seen The Night Manager and wanted more. Sadly, we didn’t have any, but I explained (in great detail) which she should read and why. She backed out of the shop, nervously…

My favourite is still The Little Drummer Girl which is about a young woman who is ‘recruited’ both by Mossad and the Palestinians and is pulled in one direction and then the other.

Surely, it would make for an excellent follow up to The Night Manager but international political sensitivities, or put it another way, the Israeli sensitivities, might put paid to that.

But, it was the Cold War spy stuff which resonated from my youth when I visited Berlin.

What I expected were steamy cafe windows with unshaven men looking unhappy or furtive and passing slips of paper or a few words between them, and eating hurriedly.

Sadly, I didn’t make it there until after the wall was well and truly down – and so what I found was more or less a city like any other European capital.

My friend, who is German, and I visited the Jewish memorial at dusk and found it eerie and impressive – lots of narrow tunnels between blocks which look like raised graves and it is a brilliant, thought-provoking place to be.

But of steamy cafes, there were none.

She was too young, too German ( as in, not raised on British spy novels) and too pleased to see a united Berlin, to understand my disappointment.

Since then, I have been back and now can see signs of the old left in the new. Berlin is a really big city with no real historic centre and lots of areas in which you can see signs of whether they were east or west, American, Russian or British – just about.

And the flea market in Berlin had lots of shadows of the older Berlin. (I bought a very welcome sheepskin coat which was very welcome when I was walking the very long distances between a and b which you find out about in Berlin.)

But back to the time when John Le Carre was writing the first stuff and I was young, and it was the Cold War.

We had a very real feeing that nuclear war could break out at any time.

I am too young to remember the Bay of Pigs and the brinkmanship around that, but I do remember growing up with the feeling that this issue was live and it only took someone nervous or mad to spark off a nuclear holocaust.

I clearly remember going on holiday to Cornwall and before we left there was some issue – I forget what – between the USSR and the Americans.

This was in the day, of course, of no mobile phones and, indeed, in that place there was no phone, tv or radio – we were cut off from news.

I was walking on the coastal path and thinking – as we did in those days – do you want to try and survive a nuclear fallout or do you want to to be killed by the first bomb. I always came to the decision, the first bomb.

There was a television series at that time about survivors of the nuclear holocaust and part of it was filmed where I grew up in Malvern – I remember the station being a location.

And for people of our age, if you are lucky, you can still catch The Day of the Triffids on Radio 4 Extra. Now, I know that is not a nuclear war story as such but the aftermath story is very similar.

But we, like John Le Carre, have moved on to issues which now face us and the next generation after us have no points of reference to the Cold War.

The Night Manager could start me on a riff about BAE systems ( but that is for another day.)






Mutton and Lamb

I may have mentioned that I am a charity shopper, and I may have mentioned that this has been acerbated by losing some weight ( not enough, but quite a bit.)

I may also have mentioned that Petersfield has a great selection of charity shops and I am practiced in a CSI-type fingertip search of them on a regular basis.

Surely, by now, anyone who is interested in this field of exploration will be au fait with the rules:

Don’t go looking for anything in particular – you can guarantee if you want a denim skirt, there won’t be one and in your rush to try and find one, you will miss the delightful duck-egg blue leather coat for £15 – and of course, dear reader, I did buy it.

If you can, think about altering the delightful find to fit or be jazzed up – I can’t do that so have to settle for what I can find/fit into.

Don’t buy cheap makes – look for the good stuff and so get quality materials cut, design etc. I have a wardrobe which has fistfuls of good makes in it, and all for a fraction of the price.

(And Oxfam has a great project in Senegal. The Senegalese are also onto the case – they would rather buy good quality second hand stuff than new cheap, shoddy stuff from China. Go online and see Frip Ethique. It is amazing.)

But there is another rule for people like me.

Don’t do mutton dressed as lamb.

It is a phrase taught me by my mother, and indeed grandmother, and one I have to mention now and then to close friends of a similar age.

Just because it is a great make and just because it fits you, it doesn’t mean you should be seen out wearing it.

The Germans have one of those compound words which translates roughly as 20 years old from behind, 70 from the front.

Even if you have the figure to wear mini-shorts with – and they were/are in fashion – black tights underneath, you really have to think about whether they are going to look like good, or very bad news, on you.

That being said, I do avoid elasticated trousers ( or slacks as my aunt would call them) whatever the make.

I do avoid any shoes with those heels/soles made of that compound which is supposed to look rather cork like….

There is mutton, and there is chic mutton.

My best friend has recently said she will give up on white jeans – but that will be the day.

I will have difficulty in giving up short, straight skirts with thick tights and jumpers – my style when Love Story set the fashion tone for young women, as I then was.

So, for all the vintage Jaeger jackets I have, for all the times my best beloved tells me I look very chic, there will be those times when I am walking around Petersfield looking rather too lamb than mutton.

Three Lambs

Being this time of year, Easter and all, there is much lamb stuff about and always willing to join in, I have had three lamb ‘references’ recently.

We went to a surprise birthday lunch for a good friend of Nick’s held in a very nice pub next to the river near Oxford. We got their early so had time to peruse the very nice menu.

We hardly ever eat out as I am not willing to go to somewhere where I feel ( not always rightly) that I could cook the food as well as they can. ( There are, of course other reasons, such as never being that organised/dressed up/willing to leave the fire and the telly…)

I hasten to add, this was not the case at The Perch. The menu all looked very delicious and I had my eye fixed on smoked goose and the rest of the ‘Butcher’s platter’ for a starter and then for main- well, not the fish and chips as you always get that at a pub, not the lamb shank because I can do that but hey ho, maybe the barbary duck….

So, we all sat down at the table and I knew I was the youngest there, always a nice feeling. Not by much, and indeed not in as good a shape as the retired GP next to me, but still.

The host suggested we would only have one course and not as bothered about the duck as the goose, I settled on that.

However, as I was basking in my relative youthfulness, I decided not to reach into my bag for my glasses and point out what I wanted to the Hungarian waiter.

‘The platter,’ I said. ‘With pickled vegetables?’ He said. ‘Yes,’ I said, thinking how nice, a bonus. ‘With chips,’ I said. ‘Small or large?’ he said. ‘Small,’ I said, feeling rather smug.

Of course, dear reader, what I got was a platter of pickled vegetables and some chips. And the moral is, those of us who are not spring lambs anymore, should always reach for our glasses.

A couple who were there, were sheep farmers.

This is the nice thing about a lunch like that.

You have the GP talking about setting up a practice to provide medical care for refugees in Bradford and alongside that, information on how you get a ewe to adopt a lamb.

It involved sheep psychology of course, something about making the lamb smell right to get it licked and once licked, it was on to a winner – and being willing to be up all night if necessary to make sure all was well in the lambing shed.

They were lawyers turned lamb experts.

Having wasted my lunch out on a pickled carrot or two, I was pleased to be looking forward to lamb kleftiko, which I planned to cook the next day.

We don’t often do the full meat thing unless we have visitors, so it was a treat.

I have enjoyed lamb kleftiko in Greece, but the best time was in Brussels.

My best beloved was in charge of a multi-national European team.

Stavros, (unsurprisingly a Greek, ) expansively announced that if Greece should win the Euro Cup that year, he would take all of us to lunch at the very nice Greek restaurant nearby.

Well, much to everyone’s surprise, Greece did win and the restaurant provided amazing lamb kleftiko for us all.

( The origins of this dish are said to be sheep minders or rustlers – depending on who you listen to – who dug a pit, put a fire in the bottom, threw in the lamb and cooked it very slowly. The pit was covered so no one would see the smoke – so my money is on rustlers. Nowadays it gets cooked slowly on a bed of garlic, lemon and potatoes.)

All a cinch if you have an aga.

But somehow, I messed it up. Wrong potatoes – and yes, that does matter. Wrong lamb – decided a leg was too much for two people so had no bone in my lamb – and yes that does matter too. And so on and so on.

It was OK and saw us through Antiques Roadshow, but not my proudest lamb moment.

Astute readers who have got this far will be expecting the third lamb reference, but this is long enough as a blog and I have to get the pseudo-moussaka made with the leftover lamb, in the oven so the last lamb instalment will be later.


Living Life Backwards

It is surely a sign of age but I increasingly find myself in conversations with people (especially my nearest and dearest) which go along the lines of ‘You know that woman who was in that series when her mother disappeared, and yes, yes the mother was also in the West Wing and she was the lover of the young bloke who got lost in Idaho, come on, you remember. Anyway, he is in a play on in London which got good reviews. No, not sure what its called but might be worth making the effort to see.’

So, I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 presented by a bishop, I can’t remember which, quoting a man, can’t remember who, about living life backwards.

Obviously I cannot remember it exactly but it struck me as marvellous. So, I will try and re-tell it – needless to say it is not an exact reproduction.

You start life in a old people’s home, frail, dependent, maybe unhappy but you get younger and younger, more active and independent, until they throw you out.

Then you start retirement and you get to take up a new hobby, have leisure time, go for walks, do some volunteering, have nice holidays.

Then as time goes on, you get back into work. You are relaxed about it at first, but then you get more and more ambitious and work harder and you meet someone and set up home.

Then you find yourself at university – lots of energy, social life and ability to get up after a great night out and three hours sleep and still go to lectures and take it in…..

Then you go back to school and re-learn all sorts of stuff, head back into primary school and being love with stuffed toys.

Then you find yourself being fed by lovely people and being tickled and thrown up into the air, enjoying putting your toes in your mouth and having songs sung to you before you got to sleep.

And then, back into the womb with an endless comfort of security and finally, finally, you go out in an orgasm.


If only it was like that.

A Mission In Spain

I do like a mission in life.

I would now like to be able to say that I was off to Lesbos to help care for refugees and support the over-stretched, very over-stretched, Greek people, but I am not. (Not least because I am not sure they need a middle-aged do-gooder who speaks no Greek, has no Arabic, no medical skills etc etc.)

So on the absence of a proper mission in life, I set myself small ones.

When we lived in Paris and the best beloved was at work all day and I had no friends, I used to walk across the city on small missions after small missions.

I might be going to buy a new wooden spoon and new there was a great cook shop by the canal, or I would create a trail based on Jewish shops and synagogues, or I would find yet another circuitous route to Shakespeare & Company, the amazing bookshop on the left bank.

That way, I learned a lot about Paris, and it kept me sane.

The best beloved hates British winters and wants to spend a month in Southern Spain in say February next year.

I don’t mind the winter, and have Oxfam, pilates, upholstery and other Sussex housewife things to keep me amused.

He wants a blast of sun and to write his book.

So, we went for a week to Seville to think about it for next year.

I really like Seville, enjoyed the tapas, nice apartment, Cordoba, sights and scenes and etc etc but I did wonder what my mission would be if I was there for a month.

Learning Spanish is not going to do it – before you, dear reader, suggest that.

He has suggested that, and indeed bought me a Spanish CD course from Lidl, but no, that is not going to do it.

I need something to get me out of bed early and cheerful with a sense of doing something purposeful and I am just not sure what it would be.

Before anyone berates me for having the problems of the rich, I would just like to admit that indeed it is a problem for a rich person but it doesn’t mean that I will be able to spend a month counting my blessings and doing bugger all.

Paris, Naples & Pigeons

When we were living in a posh suburb of Paris, we had a flat with a small balcony and I bought a bird feeder.

Among the visitors – sparrows, tits if various sorts etc – there were a pair of pigeons.

We got a letter which said that we had to desist from feeding the birds, and when I was accosted by someone on the ground floor, I was reminded that it was also prohibited to put an airer of clothes on the balcony.

“This is not Naples,’ I was told.

The pigeons were definitely not to be encouraged, but we did anyway.

They were Fred and Marge and stupid as pigeons are, but a darn sight more friendly than a some of the locals.

They would sit in the tree outside our kitchen window and watch me cooking supper.

When we moved into the depths of the Sussex countryside, we found a couple of pigeons lived in our trees – as do, more delightfully, a couple of collared doves.

Not very imaginatively, we called the pigeons, Fred and Marge.

One of them – I am not sure how you sex a pigeon – was eaten (down to a few feathers, not even a beak or a foot) by the sparrowhawk. Unless it was a fox, or something.

Anyway, that was then.

Since then, the survivor has taken up with another, and for all I know, many others – and more have arrived, so that tonight I saw a flock of what must have been fifty to a hundred of them.

( Last Autumn a pair set up temporary home outside our bathroom window and watched balefully as we went about our ablutions. They will nest and breed at any time of year it seems.)

I’m no twitcher, but I am pretty sure there were nowhere near as many when we arrived.

Whilst I can still be pleased at the sight of a pair of red kites swooping over the field, and like very much going to sleep with owls hooting, and get very pleased when I can tell the difference between one small brown bird and another, I am no longer much of a pigeon fan.

But I can hang out my washing with no one complaining.

Drought and Uncertainty

Usually I am complaining in a rather martyred way about the amount of books I am clearing every shift at Oxfam, making it quite clear that there is a never ending flood of books that only I am holding back from swamping the shop.

Well, dear reader, it is course not just me by a long chalk – and what is more, at this moment, the flood has turned into a drought.

So, out the back of the shop where we pile the sacks for recycling it is usually just this side of chaos – this week was clear, blank, empty – even, hoovered!

I am not sure what to do with myself if truth be told. Usually whilst sorting books I am complaining ( in a rather martyred way) that I could get on with all sorts of other things to make our shop even more successful if only I didn’t have to empty another ten boxes of books.

But, I have sold the latest collection of erotica to the second-hand bookshop – Oxfam frowns on the idea of selling sex in the shops.

I have put the hobbies and crafts into order – now embroidery books are next to knitting, well away from DIY in a retro/pre-feminist move – and all the books you would ever, ever need to learn how to paint or draw are sitting with each other.

Religion has been sorted into world religions ( in groups, starting with Buddhism and moving alphabetically onwards) with all and sundry other stuff about crystals and angels and spaceship visitations attached on the end of the shelf.

(One day someone is going to buy the massive tome on Dreams and Their Interpretations. I think it may have been around in the shop, one way or another, longer than I have.

Occasionally, I find someone has moved it to the Academic section and, although it protests, I insist on moving it back to Esoteric.)

I have re-ordered the Old & Interesting into blocks of colour – all the blue books, the green books etc etc.

And every time you change the shelves – update, juggle, fiddle, change the front-facing books, you always get more interest in them.

There were two books – dating from the 1960s – about hunting in junk shops.

They have been out on the shelves for months and I was just about the cull them – short as we are of books, standards need to be maintained, or at least upheld more or less  and anyway, they didn’t find my colour-coding plan – when a customer fell upon them with delight. At £1 each she had a bargain and another two books were rescued from the recycling fate.

Someone came in looking for an ‘interesting’ golf book for her son. (Now to my mind there are very few interesting golf books – and all of those were written by P G Wodehouse.)

But such is the drought, that we had none – we who are usually knee deep in golf and cricket books – had none.

After a bit of thought, I persuaded her that a much better idea was the lovely (and it was lovely) hip-flask with St Andrew’s etched on it. Luckily, that was £7.99 of hip flask rather than the usual £2.49 of ‘how to improve your swing’ book.

Upstairs, my stock of book collections is also looking thin.

We still have the box on heraldry and chivalry – based on a generous donation of heraldry books supplemented with anything I can find with a knight on the front.

But we need a centrepiece for the window to go with it, and no one I asked had a suit of armour within their reach….

We have a plan to do a window on the birds and the bees ( no, not a way to sneak in sex) using a few of the lovely bee palaces my fellow volunteer sells. (

But we are short on bee books. Bird books, even lovely ones, are two a penny but there is a shortage, not just of bees, but bee books.

We might have to broaden it out to pollinators and include butterfly books, bat books -hummingbird books at a pinch. But birds and pollinators does not have the same ring to it.

Our manager reckons it is uncertainty about the EU referendum which is causing this drought of donations.

I’m sure in the corridors of power, they are talking about the influence of uncertainty in the referendum, but I bet they are not taking the Oxfam bookshop in Petersfield into account.