Archive for January, 2011

Hoping Tomorrow Happens

This is the best pos­si­ble time to be a woman.

In some places.

I hoped to find friends on mov­ing to Italy, but I didn’t expect to find such a shoal of sup­port­ive, intel­li­gent, funny, adven­tur­ous, pos­i­tive women. They’re deal­ing with all the usual stuff that afflicts peo­ple on the brink of get­ting a bus pass — wid­ow­hood, errant part­ners, poverty, ill­ness, grumpy hips, being pul­verised between ancient par­ents and melo­dra­matic prog­eny — but they make it an absolute pri­or­ity to gather together and talk, share, cook, laugh, drink. 20 women can con­fi­dently arrange an event, men optional, and bask like cats on a radi­a­tor in the warmth of each other’s presence.

I’m com­par­ing my priv­i­leged free­dom to the con­straints imposed on my mother’s gen­er­a­tion, for whom finan­cial inde­pen­dence was still a chimera. She got a dou­ble first at Cam­bridge, but my father’s career took prece­dence. She had jobs wher­ever they fetched up, by def­i­n­i­tion tem­po­rary, ephemeral, cho­sen to dove­tail con­ve­niently into his life.

It would never have occurred to her to invite a coven of mates over for an evening of talk and laugh­ter. She didn’t have them, for a start, partly because of her hau­teur, and partly because of their peri­patetic life, pack­ing up and going wher­ever his career threw them: Peking, Nanking, Shang­hai, Amoy, Hongkong, the Philip­pines, Brent­wood. (Brent­wood? They were so inno­cent, didn’t know about Essex).

For her gen­er­a­tion, other women always threat­ened to become The Other Woman. There was too much at stake — liveli­hood, spend­ing habits, sta­tus — to let them get too close.

When my sons were small I once got the sour metal­lic taste of belong­ing to a man. I don’t blame him, who’d hap­pily vol­un­teer to sup­port another able-bodied adult? But when he said ‘when you make the money, you can make the deci­sions’, I did make a deci­sion. I chose penu­ri­ous inde­pen­dence. Laugh­able, in the eyes of my male employer at Nat­mags who paid lit­tle and expected much, dif­fi­cult and fright­en­ing at times for me and my boys, but a source of self-knowledge and strength to me. I’m not in any way heroic, but I do know who I am. Who are you if you’re defined by your rela­tion­ship to some­one or some­thing else?

A gen­er­a­tion ago, your man was not only your Beloved and all that, he was sur­vival. Even if you had a stel­lar edu­ca­tion, tal­ent, and energy, you were still one of his belong­ings and did as he directed. Cyril Con­nolly blamed the pram in the hall, the ram­pant tares of domes­tic­ity, among the ene­mies of promise, mean­ing of course mas­cu­line promise. How much more so for women, for whom babies rep­re­sent a career hia­tus at a cru­cial junc­ture, or a source of guilt if they are cared for by a min­der. I’ve seen the milky trail of infant puke on the left shoul­der, the mask of grief on the face of the deputy edi­tor at Coun­try Liv­ing, after leav­ing her dis­traught baby in the hands of a nanny.

Felix Den­nis said ‘the rea­son why we’re (men) all so bad-tempered now, Miranda, is that there’s nowhere left to explore.’ His notion was that we could make a bit more space and invent a spot of healthy extreme sport by decamp­ing to the moon, ‘not as phys­i­cal bod­ies, Miranda, but as holo­grams,’ to which I smiled politely and chomped on the Cadbury’s minia­ture swiss roll that the 74th rich­est man in the UK served as the grand finale to our lunch of British Rail sarnies. But he’s right — that is how this planet feels now — in the uncar­ing pos­ses­sion of angry and insanely pow­er­ful men who tram­ple about in the slurry they’ve cre­ated, look­ing for a fight. Ram­pag­ing around the nurs­ery, smash­ing each other’s toys.

The dis­like and sus­pi­cion of women for each other is a myth that men have grate­fully exploited. It is called ‘divide and rule’. Given inde­pen­dence and self-respect, women love each other’s com­pany. Con­trary to the myth, they work bril­liantly together. Any­one who has gone through the pain and has­sle of giv­ing birth is more dis­posed to coop­er­ate with and sup­port other peo­ple than to fight them. It is pre­cisely this easy, nat­ural attrac­tion and abil­ity to be open and share expe­ri­ence with other women that is so threat­en­ing for men. Hav­ing bul­lied their way to the apex of the pyra­mid, it is alarm­ing to look down and see the foun­da­tions rum­bling, the worker ants mov­ing off where they will, con­gre­gat­ing con­vivially with each other, refus­ing to fol­low orders.

But the fab­u­lous, feisty women of my acquain­tance dance on very thin ice: we co-exist in a time when in some places it is cus­tom­ary to stone a woman to death, jus­ti­fy­ing this psy­chotic com­bi­na­tion of cow­ardice and cru­elty with the slight­est hint of a sus­pi­cion. Or where the casual immo­la­tion of wives and wid­ows for finan­cial gain is unof­fi­cially condoned.

Women are built to work for peace and heal­ing — most women, of course there are excep­tions. Women are the cus­to­di­ans of the future. Women are vis­cer­ally com­pelled to pon­der the world of their grand­chil­dren: every female foe­tus has all her eggs four months after conception.

Astound­ing fact: Your grand­mother car­ried you as an embry­onic dot within the grow­ing body of your mother for five months.

It feels to me as though we’re liv­ing in a scary age of diver­gence — just as the gap between rich and poor is widen­ing, so is the gap between men and women. What could be more alarm­ing and call for more strin­gent stric­tures than the pos­si­bil­ity of women doing it for themselves?

But what women do for them­selves and every­one else is pro­vide the social glue that con­nects peo­ple to each other — remem­ber birth­days, invent rea­sons to bond, share feel­ings and expe­ri­ences, find com­mon ground. Nec­es­sary for the future of the planet. Long may it continue.

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Oscar Wilde — the Second Coming. Page 1

Oscar Page 1

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Souk. And ye shall find.

Car­pets in the Magic Souk

Archi­tec­tural Antiques

The rea­son we all go, is because Morocco is sunny and exotic. If shop­ping at Wait­rose tests the outer lim­its of your courage, Mar­rakech is not the place for you. But if you go for the rich tapes­try, like a bit of chal­lenge, can swag­ger with panache and nego­ti­ate with elan, you’ll have a won­der­ful time and make real friends, who will joy­fully shout your name a decade down the line.

Inside the Souks

They don’t play by famil­iar rules: that’s why you’re here. I mean, not only is the sun shin­ing, not only is every­one dressed like extras from Lawrence of Ara­bia, not only are you dip­ping a toe into the (actu­ally shal­low and safe) waters of extreme weird­ness, but you are just THREE HOURS from Gatwick and have landed in 1432 — check out the cal­en­dar on the bank manager’s desk and you will find that dur­ing those three hours you have time-travelled 600 years or so.

How much you pay?’

Mar­rakech is one vast empo­rium, whose male pop­u­la­tion has a thou­sand years of sell­ing exper­tise. Every­one will sell you any­thing — shirt off back, house, used chew­ing gum — you will find your­self being seduced into think­ing ‘Yes! That’s it.’ They gaze at you beseech­ingly and call you ‘gazelle’, caus­ing a momen­tary, thrilled tach­yarrhyth­mic fris­son, which the tirade of invec­tive that fol­lows if you don’t buy swiftly expunges. You are also accu­rately pin­pointed nation­ally and socio-economically. Marakchi sales­men know where you come from, and pre­cisely how much money you have in your bank bal­ance. They can see into your heart and know that what you really want is a love potion, a glit­ter­ing feline-green peri­dot ring the size of a Bel­gian endive, or a devore vel­vet kaf­tan pat­terned like a shower of autumn leaves. The object of your desires does not have a price — it is your price that the ven­dor is calculating.


The wise old men who have spent half a cen­tury watch­ing the mot­ley just sit in their tiny booths, and barely look up as you pause. They just get on with stitch­ing orange leather onto another pair of babouches, and when you ask, do not harass you, empty the entire shop at your feet, offer you mint tea or oth­er­wise bully you — they sim­ply pick up a card upon which is writ­ten 800 dirhams, smile despite rheumy old eyes, and carry on stitch­ing. In his youth, sales­men would grab your arm — which put off every right-thinking vis­i­tor from ever return­ing to the coun­try. Now the ven­dors are not allowed to touch you, on pain of some­thing, prob­a­bly medieval.

Rugs, car­pets, dhur­ries, flatweaves.…

You should be aware that there is a range of cajol­ing tech­niques known to the locals as ‘Dje­maa el Fna tricks’, which have to do with unset­tling you into unex­pected expen­di­ture. Brits are per­fect prey for this because we are obsessed by our DEFENSIBLE SPACE, and panic when approached closely. One of the most suc­cess­ful ploys is the jos­tle and res­cue — which is quite alarm­ing until you are wise to the pathetic object of it — sim­ply to get you into a shoe/rug/jewellery shop.

Aloe silk

It goes like this. You are ambling mind­lessly — sated by the rain­bow over­load — along Souk Sma­rine on your way to kebabs and salad at Chegrouni. Sud­denly two youfs, hands in pock­ets, one with unfairly white teeth (given the quan­ti­ties of Coke he drinks), the other a hoodie bear­ing the leg­end ‘Niker’ on his bob­bly grey poly­ester zip-front, biff into you with their shoul­ders — not painfully, but annoy­ingly — come up too close, and bar­ing every bril­liant incisor, hiss ‘Inglees? Where you from? What you want?’ mak­ing you feel quite claus­tro­pho­bic and sur­rounded, though there are but two of them. So there you are, clutch­ing your pos­ses­sions and whim­per­ing. Being British, you are not mak­ing a fuss, scream­ing or call­ing the police (All per­fectly legit­i­mate tac­tics — there will be a plain clothes tourist police­man within five yards ready to spring to your assistance).

Tea Glasses

At this point the suave, urbane mem­ber of the trio shim­mies up and ‘res­cues’ you, keep­ing a respect­ful dis­tance, ask­ing politely whether you are all right, and send­ing off his broth­ers with a splat­ter of insults, involv­ing many a glot­tal stop. He then shep­herds you gen­tly into his shop to recover, sits you down, and brings you mint tea to calm your nerves — you are put­ti­fied and do not leave until you have bought the gar­nets and the sil­ver ear­rings, hap­pily grate­ful to the gen­tle­manly shop­keeper whom you rec­om­mend to all your friends.


Theirs is a dif­fi­cult job. There are maybe 500 shops, all sell­ing EXACTLY the same wares. Some­how they have to get you into theirs, and blind you to all the oth­ers, block­ing your exit and woo­ing you with the qual­ity and vari­ety of their mer­chan­dise. ‘Yes, 100 per­cent silk/cotton/linen’ they will swear, as the poly­ester in ques­tion spits with sta­tic. “how much you pay for three?’ they ask in des­per­ate times, ‘What do you want to pay?’ Be pre­pared for the­atre. You will name your price and the guy will look tragic. He will say qui­etly, ‘no, be seri­ous. Seri­ous price.’ He doesn’t have to sell, you don’t have to buy, just try to remem­ber that when he’s blam­ing your tight-fistedness for the mal­nu­tri­tion of his entire family.

Hats and Henna

In my expe­ri­ence, you have to know your tex­tiles (Moroc­cans are BESOTTED with poly­ester) and glued shoes are best avoided. Stitched soles may get you home, but glued soles part com­pany from their uppers well before you’re out of the souk. And the ‘Con­verse’ that Dan bought for 500 dh had card­board soles that did not cope well with rain.

Dan buys a Carpet

It’s not all tat in the souks. Hand­bags, belts, backgam­mon sets made of deli­cious scented thuya (check that the hinges are up to the job), glazed ceram­ics, pierced tin lanterns — there are loads of good things. Decide what you want before you go into the melee, decide how much you think is fair, be ready for the cal­cu­la­tion from dirhams to some­thing man­age­able, name your price, stick to it, and walk away if the guy goes into the harangue-dance, know­ing that the same object is repli­cated in its thou­sands up and down the souks. My oth­er­wise won­der­ful friend Nan brought me to the brink of Nanocide by want­ing to buy a par­tic­u­lar scarf she had seen three days pre­vi­ously on the way to the square. Say, 50 scarf shops, each of which has prob­a­bly 500 scarves. She couldn’t remem­ber which shop but had total recall of the scarf. ‘No, it was like that one, but there was more blue.’ HOURS. If you love it, buy it. Right there and then.


Use a bit of com­mon sense. If you send Nourre­dine out for a pot of honey and it costs you £20 con­sider that maybe a) you should do your own dirty work, and b) in this desert coun­try where are the flow­ers? where are the bees? It’s just pos­si­ble that that is what honey gen­uinely costs. Though unlikely, I admit.

Berber Herbs

Talk­ing about food­stuffs, argan oil is quite deli­cious, fab­u­lously ben­e­fi­cial, and does not, as I used to believe, come out of a goat’s bum. That was once the tra­di­tional way of gath­er­ing the argan nuts, using the goats that skit­ter up those twiggy trees as a mobile col­lec­tion ser­vice, but these days the women sim­ply put the nor­mally (as in olives) har­vested nuts out on a rooftop to dry and then crack them by hand. BUT accord­ing to G, our friend from Essouira where the things grow and the oil is made, the argan oil you might buy in Mar­rakech is not fresh or 100%. Best to take the trip to the won­der­ful wide-open beaches and buy from one of the women’s coop­er­a­tives en route. Famil­iar­ity is no safe­guard — Dan’s really good (but quite often stoned) friend from the magic souk sold him a Fanta bot­tle of argan oil. It turned out to be eight drops of argan oil — enough to give the char­ac­ter­is­tic fra­grance at first sniff — rest­ing on a base of cook­ing oil.

Berber Phar­macy

You may well leave the Berber phar­macy or the spice souk, stunned that you have just parted with the equiv­a­lent of £30 for SPICES. You never use spices. You haven’t a clue how to use them. Two things here — learn how to use them, they’re good, fresh, deli­cious, and many have med­i­c­i­nal pow­ers about which you may be igno­rant. The other is you’ve got HALF A POUND of corian­der — not some pid­dly lit­tle ten grammes in a super­mar­ket bot­tle. Be prof­li­gate, throw them into every­thing and cure your inflamed hip joint (turmeric) or your husband’s lack of Whoopee (galan­gal) or share them with a friend.

Painted Wood

Don’t whinge, observe.

Cute Metal Basins

Don’t bleat. Celebrate.

Beau­ti­ful Bone Inlay

If you want to do seri­ous shop­ping, to go beyond gew­gaws and mixed kitsch into the realm of seri­ously desir­able, I rec­om­mend that you allow ‘Shop­ping in Mar­rakech’, by Susan Simon and Nally Bel­lati to be your guide. Their shop­ping routes — in pur­suit of taste­ful mer­chan­dise — take you to the derbs less trav­elled where get­ting lost is part of the buzz, and the book illus­trates what you will find.

Intri­cate Carved Fountain

Much of the wear­able stuff comes from the French part of town, where more sophis­ti­cated cafes line the moped and caleche choked boule­vards. You might stum­ble across the haven of calm and san­ity that is the Lit­er­ary Café where you could open your lap­top and try being J K Rowl­ing for an afternoon.

Posh Ceram­ics

Pro­fes­sional mav­er­icks can fol­low their hunches, and go way out of the main souks to try their luck — of course prices come down dra­mat­i­cally the fur­ther from Djemma el Fna you go. On the other hand, if bar­gain­ing brings you out in hives, you can just go straight to the gov­ern­ment prix fixe place and pay some­what over the odds.

Carved African Door

Dan thinks the above is very neg­a­tive and will put you off the whole place. I hope he’s wrong — if your dna has a shred of feisti­ness about it, you will have a great time. The kalei­do­scope city of Mar­rakech is an invi­ta­tion to adven­ture, and to explore it, and your­self a bit. I want you to go home happy — all I’m say­ing is that you have to be obser­vant and crit­i­cal, you have to know that the rules are dif­fer­ent, under­stand that they’re just try­ing to sell some of their Al Addin’s Cave of STUFF, and don’t take it too seri­ously. You set the lim­its, only you know what that pur­ple leather rhino is worth to you. This oper­atic mer­ce­nary dance is mind-expanding, and you might go home with a shim­mer­ing Chagall-blue bed­spread that you gaze upon there­after with a heartlift of pure exhilaration.

Metal Work

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Riad Maizie — the Cast

Early Morn­ing Sun on the Roof

Sun in the Courtyard

Dan and I bought Riad Maizie, in the very old­est part of the  Med­ina of Mar­rakech just 100 yards away from the orig­i­nal mosque, ten years ago. We knew that it was here that we could devote our­selves to gam­bling and gladly read We fell in love with it imme­di­ately, and then pro­ceeded to slither head­long into one drama after another, until two years ago, when we realised that it had to be run Mafia-style, within the fam­ily. The story of our bumpy ride can be read in my book, ‘Cin­na­mon City’. Riad Maizie is now a fam­ily busi­ness — you can see the seri­ous info on — but I thought I’d intro­duce you to the peo­ple who give it warmth and character.

Maizie her­self


Maizie was a mere dot when we bought the pretty, aban­doned court­yard house in Octo­ber 2001. We named it after her to cel­e­brate its com­ple­tion and her arrival on the planet. Her first visit was some­what marred by the fact that she had chicken pox, and spent the time explor­ing the accoustics. Despite every­one tip­toe­ing, she would wake at the twit­ter of a soli­tary bird, creak of a sin­gle hinge, a per­am­bu­lat­ing lizard’s quiet cough, and she would scream and scream. She has greatly improved since then.

Dan, work­ing in the Olive Room


Dan the Carpenter

Dan loves Mar­rakech — the King­dom of Boys. It takes me for­ever to get to Dje­maa el Fna these days because every other bloke wants to know how he is, where he is and when he’s com­ing back to Mar­rakech. The answer is that he spent a year man­ag­ing the riad, quite bril­liantly, and now lurks here in Italy in his frow­sty lair doing his Oscar car­toon, and noth­ing short of an earth­quake will budge him.

Leo, Chi­lali and Maizie



Leo and Saki are Maizie and Chilali’s par­ents. Leo is a Web­site Meis­ter, and really got us going when he did such a bril­liant job on — of course he always com­plains that it needs updat­ing. He web­site is called for rea­sons best known to himself.

Super­man and Batboy

Plus ca change.….


When Dan came back to Italy, Spigs took over. He com­bines eccen­tric, effi­cient and con­vivial man­age­ment with learn­ing Ara­bic, provoca­tive paint­ing, superla­tive cook­ing (he worked as a chef for a cou­ple of years in Spain) and SKATEBOARD FANATICISM.

Spigs the Charmer

Spigs the Chef

He has a mas­ter­plan to set up a skate­board park for the bored youf of Mar­rakech — who oth­er­wise turn to less salu­bri­ous pas­times — and to some­how to pro­vide them with afford­able skate­boards. It’s a great idea — his  name is Will, and I can’t help but think, where there’s a Will, there’s a way.

Spigs the Artist

Amal and her Family

Amal holds the place together. With a sweet, secre­tive smile, she makes Riad Maizie into a home. She has a major reper­toire of fab Moroc­can cui­sine, for which she shops fresh every day — even down to the spices with which she makes her own dis­tinc­tive ras el hanout.

Amal and tomato man

Amal and spice man

Hicham, his wife Nezha and her sis­ter Amal

The trio work peace­fully together and for them the riad rep­re­sents sta­bil­ity, cash, and amuse­ment. They observe us, our friends and the guests with dis­creet inter­est, and earn acco­lades for their quiet atten­tion to com­fort and plea­sure, with­out a trace of judge­ment for riotous or eccen­tric behav­iour . Nezha buffs the brass basins until they shine like gold, she and Amal cook together, and Hicham is guard,  handy­man, organ­iser and gen­er­ally Mr. Fixit.

Our Mates, Yussef and Jamal

Yussef, Spigs’s Ara­bic teacher

Jamal and friend — famil­iar to read­ers of the book.

Jamal used to play and sell musi­cal instru­ments, but decided it was irre­li­gious and now sells teapots.


Me with appar­ently no legs — a prob for a yoga teacher

Oh, there they are.….

So, there you have it — you now know every­one. Next I’m going to intro­duce you to the riad, the city and the shop­ping. Baci, M

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Books — rating and choosing

There are 15 times as many lin­gerie shops in Italy as there are book shops — though Ital­ian women have only one and a third babies. (Greek and Span­ish women have even fewer). I no longer spend hours rootling in Water­stones  — the only thing I miss is the smell of new books. When in the UK I trawl the book shelves of Char­ity shops, which I pre­fer any­way -  to find the weird, the orig­i­nal, the import and the small run which never appear on the 3 for the price of 2 table. In Italy most of the books I buy come from the more eso­teric back­wa­ters of Ama­zon and its subsidiaries.

The Oxfam book that I was ecsta­tic to find for 50p is Stephen King ‘On Writ­ing’. Partly I like to buy books for pen­nies because it means I can deface them with gusto. I’m one of the world’s great under­lin­ers, have a woolly cloud down the mar­gin of entire inter­est­ing pas­sages, hairy taran­tu­las for things I must go back to, excla­ma­tion marks when I take excep­tion to some­thing, and float­ing ufos for phrases that I’d love to steal. So, you don’t want to inherit my library.

I say all this because I was unusu­ally respect­ful of King’s hard­back (which has one of the weird­est cover images I’ve ever tried to puz­zle out). It was a curi­ous expe­ri­ence, read­ing it. At first it raced, then about one third through it slowed to a glacial crawl — or maybe I did. What­ever. I never take longer than 2 days to read a book — this one took eleven. I was wad­ing through mud, fas­ci­nat­ing and thought-provoking, but hard work. He him­self explains this mys­tery at the end. A man called Bryan Smith ran him over, break­ing his leg in 9 places, frac­tur­ing his right hip, chip­ping his spine in 8 places, break­ing 4 ribs and caus­ing sur­face wounds requir­ing much embroi­dery. ’ Writ­ing is not life, but I think that some­times it can be a way back to life.’ There is so much con­fes­sion, so much good sense, his email address even, which make the book a prof­li­gate act of communion.

I like that he doesn’t bang on about plot but just jumps into nar­ra­tive clad lightly in a cou­ple of ideas. He’s very good on back­story and research. Ruth­less with adjec­tives and adverbs. He quotes his high school teacher’s com­ment on one of his essays: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. For­mula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%.’ He advises you to find or imag­ine an ideal reader, ‘Try to decided whether he or she will  be bored by a cer­tain scene’. OK, he’s quotable too. ‘The scari­est moment is always just before you start. after that things can only get bet­ter.’  Agents — ‘It’s easy to con a writer who’s des­per­ate for rep­re­sen­ta­tion.’ The book is full of inspir­ing stuff that makes you long to rush off and write. It is writ­ten sim­ply with endear­ing mod­esty. What a lovely man to have on your shelf. 9/10

The Ama­zon book of the week for me was Uzzi Reiss’s ‘The Nat­ural Super­woman’, vehe­mently rec­om­mended by Mar­gosha, an elfin Pol­ish painter whom Anna the Swedish chef met in the pub­lic sul­phur bath at San Cas­ciano Terme  — where they were both audi­tion­ing boyfriends. Uzzi Reiss’s book eulo­gises about bioiden­ti­cal hor­mones, as being the solu­tion to sex tedium, stress, depres­sion, anx­i­ety, insom­nia, osteo­poro­sis and mem­ory holes. It sounded pretty con­vinc­ing to me, but I have no idea what to do about it or where to find these things. But if you enjoy that sense of recog­ni­tion when peo­ple describe your very own ail­ment, you might find this excit­ing. He also rec­om­mends — with sci­en­tific evi­dence — the mul­ti­ple health ben­e­fits of reduc­ing caloric intake by a quar­ter. I could do some­thing about that, but would rather ignore the promised reju­ve­na­tion for heart, brain, bone, mus­cle, skin, sex­ual response, kid­neys, liver, eyes and homones, and have one more piece of but­tered toast and Mar­mite instead. 6/10

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YouthDude’s rx for Holiday with parents.

The impor­tant thing here, is to make sure that no one has a good time.

Start cam­paign well in advance, by refus­ing to go on the hol­i­day that Par­ents are propos­ing. They have not been able to afford a hol­i­day for four years, and the idea has come up now because your elder brother has finally got a job and your mother’s aunt Daphne died, leav­ing enough money to take the fam­ily some­where sunny.

1 Repeat often and loudly that you don’t want to go, that it’ll be bor­ing, you hate for­eign food, you’d rather have the money, none of your friends are going away, you want to stay with Fish, your par­ents are always mak­ing you do things you don’t want to do, no one else’s par­ents make them do things and every­one else’s par­ents give them more money and let them do as they like. Imply that your father is a slob because he doesn’t have a BMW and because he has not bought you the sound sys­tem that Kenny has.

2 Slam doors.

3 Shut your­self in your room with Kenny and Fish and play Ixnay on the Hom­bre very loud, espe­cially at four am on Sunday

4 Raid the kitchen when every­one is in bed, leave the fridge door open, and, hav­ing removed the can­dles, eat most of Lydia’s 9th birth­day cake out of the tin leav­ing crumbs and can­dles over a wide area.

5 Con­tinue with 1 – 4 until the eve of depar­ture. Announce that

a) you can’t find your passport,

b) you need new green Con­verse which cost 90 quid,

c) you will be sick if they make you eat for­eign food. Stare out of the win­dow a lot with your mouth open, jig­gling your left foot. Make no attempt to pack or find your passport.

6 When Par­ent finds, buys and brings you new Con­verse, point out that they’re BLUE.

7 When Par­ent finds your pass­port and tells you to put it some­where safe, put it on the pile of news­pa­pers that father is throw­ing out. Grunt at mother when she remarks on this, and replace pass­port on top of the fridge.

8 Stay up until four the night before you all have to be up at six, play­ing Tupac, soul­ful but loud.

9 Stum­ble around the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Be surly. Get in the way. Demand a proper break­fast. Shrug shoul­ders and sigh loudly if any­one talks to you. Say: ‘don’t care’ or ‘dunno’ in response to ques­tions about pack­ing, pass­port and Spinhaler.

10 Develop a sud­den and unusual fond­ness for Fido. Tell par­ents how cruel they are to leave him with strangers.

11 Wait until you are at the check in to remem­ber that pass­port is on top of fridge.

12 Sigh heav­ily and look aggrieved when your dad says how lucky it is that the flight is delayed by two hours and he’ll just have time to go back and col­lect it.

13 In father’s absence, demand money from your mum so that you can buy a com­puter game and have a dou­ble cheese­burger, chips and milkshake.

14 Do not be where you arranged to meet until eleven min­utes before the plane is due to leave.

15 Bring up cheese­burger, chips and milk­shake on unknown fel­low pas­sen­ger on the plane.

16 Blame your mother.

17 Com­plain about the heat and the smell on landing.

18 Com­plain about the heat and smell in the hire car.

19 Vomit on Lydia.

20 Say at two minute inter­vals dur­ing the drive ‘Aren’t we there yet?’

21 Mut­ter incom­pre­hen­si­ble swear words, and answer ‘noth­ing’ if any­one asks what you said.

22 Feel aggrieved when Par­ents take the dou­ble room at the villa. Slam the door of your allot­ted room and refuse to come out. Be pissed off when you hear the oth­ers hav­ing fun in the pool. Eat the Lasagna they bought for din­ner, leav­ing four dirty pans – one irre­triev­ably burnt – a bro­ken egg on the floor and a trail of sticky plates, cut­lery and sur­faces. Com­plain about the Lasagna. Com­plain about the ants when your mother points out that there is noth­ing left to eat

23 Com­pel your par­ents to drive to the vil­lage ten miles away to get another Spinhaler

24 When they sug­gest you might like to come with them, point out that they left your BLUE Con­verse at home.

25 Eat all the Hob­nobs while they are out. Refuse lunch.

26 Be sick again. Get a temperature.

27 Sud­denly feel much bet­ter when they have gone back to the vil­lage to find med­i­cine for you, and play Nin­tendo for the next eight hours, snack­ing on a loaf of bread and all the Nutella.

28 Refuse sup­per. Tell your mother she is an alco­holic when she sug­gests to your dad that they have a glass of wine

29 Scowl and look embar­rassed when the owner of the villa drops by to see if you need any­thing and your mother talks to her. Point out that the tele­vi­sion does not have the sports chan­nel and that the cd’s are bor­ing old people’s music.

30 Sleep all day. Play Heavy Metal and Nin­tendo all night

31 Refuse all sug­ges­tions for trips to Water­world, the local fiesta, horserid­ing, the sea, the pizza restau­rant. Feel mar­tyred if they go with­out you.

32 Keep this up for the week or fort­night, and there is a good chance that you will not have to endure another hol­i­day with your parents.

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How to Grow a Writer

If you want your child to become a writer it is imper­a­tive that you treat it to a con­found­ing vari­ety of soli­tary and strange expe­ri­ences. It is a good pre­cau­tion to make sure that the child never gets a chance to form alliances. Also an excess of hap­pi­ness is very dele­te­ri­ous to the cre­ative juices, so it is wise to sub­ject it to emo­tional jolts at reg­u­lar inter­vals, with­out ever explain­ing what hap­pened, what is about to hap­pen or why. Any sense of auton­omy might give the child the notion that it can have some influ­ence in the real world, and you may end up with a politi­cian on your hands. Or some­one who can fit in, earn money, marry, have well-balanced chil­dren and a happy life. Appar­ently there are peo­ple who want that for their offspring.

I was the last, very likely unex­pected, child. My sis­ters Jocasta and Judy are 10 and 7 years older than me respec­tively, con­fi­dent, loud, glam­orous and best treated with cau­tion. My brother Christo­pher is just four years my senior.

My par­ents and I lived in China, Xia­men and then Hongkong. We stayed in Hongkong for 18 months, where my mother taught in the Kennedy Road School. For some rea­son she refused to allow me to grad­u­ate to her class when the time came, with the happy result for me that I briefly became a very clever seven-year-old and scooped all the school prizes. I hardly ever saw my sib­lings. They were shipped off to board­ing school when Christo­pher was seven, and stayed with Mrs Dabbs in Fowey dur­ing most of the hol­i­days. How per­verse. Why have chil­dren at all?

In the UK I was sent to a con­vent school, which cured me defin­i­tively of reli­gion, not that I was ever deeply afflicted. Expe­ri­ence of nuns left me with an abid­ing hor­ror of reli­gious hypocrisy, a frisky flight or fight vis-à-vis the gloat­ing self-righteous finger-wag, and the cer­tainty that redemp­tion lay in not get­ting caught. How could you attach your­self seri­ously to a reli­gion whose most pas­sion­ately upheld tenet con­cerned wear­ing a hideous brown, yel­low and blue striped blazer, and white gloves in public?

Jocasta used to come home on brief raid­ing sprees dur­ing the Uni­ver­sity hol­i­days. She would bor­row my things – clothes, jew­ellery, a cute lit­tle card­board suit­case given to me by my father – and I might get them back even­tu­ally, usu­ally minus some vital part.

When, as a rounded nine-year-old I asked her to write in my auto­graph book, her response:

‘Miranda may be a fat

Girl, but she’s none the worse for that’ cured me com­pletely of auto­graph books.

Judy was kinder, but had a con­sci­en­tious head-prefect’s sense of duty. She was always telling me to do the things that I had hith­erto mirac­u­lously man­aged to avoid – wash­ing up, hang­ing out wash­ing, lay tables. And she would always put you right on dates and what peo­ple said. I devel­oped a Fear of Facts so severe that when I was inter­viewed for a place at Brighton Uni­ver­sity, I could not remem­ber my name.

When I was a rotund and cred­u­lous crea­ture, Christo­pher fed me chill­ies telling me they were sweet­ies. Appar­ently, when I was still a small but chunky human blob he took me out for a swim head­ing across the South china Sea in the gen­eral direc­tion of Jalisco in Mex­ico, and it is only due to my mother’s long-sightedness and sprint power that I am still around. I have a sus­pi­cion that he also sys­tem­at­i­cally broke every stick of fur­ni­ture in my doll’s house. His con­ver­sa­tional gam­bit was to say ‘prove it’, to what­ever inno­cent opin­ion was voiced by any­one younger than him­self. Me. So I steered clear of boys, became wary of show­ing peo­ple my trea­sured pos­ses­sions and gave up express­ing audi­ble opin­ions. How­ever, a con­stant wit­ter in the head is a cru­cial tool for a prospec­tive writer. My highly respected ex-editor at coun­try Liv­ing, Deirdre Mac­Sharry, used to describe Ire­land as being full of writ­ers talk­ing out their nov­els. I sus­pect that most writ­ers keep their words locked within, build­ing up pres­sure, until they are forced to com­mit the stuff to paper.

Being part of my par­ents’ bag­gage meant that I did not have much opti­mism where friend­ship was con­cerned. There was Carol Aylen and Fiona Mac­nab, but no sooner had we bonded over cen­tipede dra­mas and eat­ing con­densed milk from the tin than I was snatched away to some new rainy coun­try where I couldn’t speak the lan­guage of my fellow-pupils. Out there — For­mosa (now Tai­wan) — was a lonely and dan­ger­ous place. It was far far safer to spend those lonely hours sit­ting beneath my father’s desk wait­ing to go home – wher­ever that was – with my imag­i­nary friend.

I’m shar­ing this mis­ery mem­oirette because it was some­where here in that mis­fit, soli­tary child­hood that the seeds of writ­ing were sown. Plainly life was nasty and brutish, and the safest place was within my own head. I became a lolly stick nerd. I used to invent sto­ries, and make tiny gar­dens where minis­cule dra­mas were enacted – which is where the lolly sticks were handy. Diminu­tive picket fences for a bon­sai paradiso.

One good rea­son to write – no one could take my imag­i­na­tion away from me. I issued no pass­ports for entry into the mad minia­ture world where I was top despot. My thoughts were my trea­sure, pre­cious, secret, and very often vin­dic­tive. Revenge and anger are high-octane fuel for a would-be writer.

Another fab­u­lous aspect of writ­ing, is that no mat­ter how weird is the thing you absolutely have to get off your chest, you can do it. You can closet your­self with your com­puter and spew it all out, and no one will inter­rupt. My his­tory of occa­sional loud sib­lings has left me with a con­vic­tion that there is no point in try­ing to tell any­one any­thing. So many times I would launch into some anec­dote only to observe that every­one had left the room, or turned on the tv, or felt a vio­lent need to hoover. It gave me a wispy feel­ing of unre­al­ity – so often I would won­der if I had actu­ally said those fab­u­lously witty things aloud, or had they just remained in a thought bub­ble float­ing above my head.

Mar­tin Amis claimed that most writ­ers have at least this in com­mon with Nabokov: ‘I think like a genius, I write like a dis­tin­guished author, and I speak like a child.’ The obses­sion to write must so often grow from a small unat­tended child jump­ing up and down, pulling parental coat-tails, and shout­ing ‘me, me, me, lis­ten to me.’

To be lis­tened to, to be heard, to elicit echoes of recog­ni­tion, to find an inter­ested audi­ence – this is for me the most thrilling aspect of writ­ing. I love get­ting emails from readers.

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What we do in Italy, is: Eat. Drink. Make merry. For­get where we put our glasses…. both sorts.

A rowdy group — yoga stu­dents and gen­eral good-time bon viveurs — came round to Santa Lucia last week for a food spree hosted by Suzie Alexan­der and her hus­band Anto­nio Santaniello.

The menu that night con­sisted of warm sour­dough bread made by Suzie, anointed with their freshly pressed olive oil of impec­ca­ble pedi­gree, chick pea and rose­mary soup, ribol­lita (see below for RECIPE), deli­cious nutty pecorino and sub­lime, sub­tle, sweet ricotta — which hith­erto I had always con­sid­ered a sen­sory white hole, a sort of flavourfree spackle use­ful for plug­ging pro­tein short­ages — which they mar­bled with sun­flower honey warmed by the fire. Spritz­ing our taste buds the while with organic apple juice, red Mon­tepul­ciano le Berne, and white wine pro­duced by a trio of artists.

Of course they’re empty

Start­ing as a per­sonal quest for the best and most tooth­some local organic pro­duce, and snow­balling as an ever more com­pli­cated busi­ness, Suzie and Anto­nio began Suzie’s Yard — see less than a year ago, and since then they have been pro­vid­ing Umbri­ans with all the neces­si­ties of the good life sourced within a 40km radius of their home: spelt flour, farro and upmar­ket carbs; fresh organic veges in sea­son, not flown in from Zanz­ibar; unsur­pass­able Chi­an­ina beef as chomped by Roman sol­diers con­quer­ing the world; mmmmm cheese; cit­rus sliv­ers and other gor­geous things drenched in dark­est chocolate.

Cheese made in Heaven

Umbria is in a state of per­ma­nent foodie renais­sance. La nonna, of course began it. Any nonna, doesn’t mat­ter, but woe betide you if your melan­zane alla parmi­giana does not share the iden­ti­cal thick­ness of aubergine slice, con­sis­tency of tomato sauce. Quite rightly, we are all in awe of tres­pass­ing on the culi­nary tra­di­tion that rev­o­lu­tionised French cui­sine from the time of Cather­ine de Medici and which still causes eyes to glaze — all over the world — moist with desire, at the drop of the word ‘pizza’.

A feisty cheese mate, to be approached with caution

But there will always be mav­er­icks, fear­less icon­o­clasts who labour in their kitchens — known as lab­o­ra­to­ries — to per­fect new­fan­gled con­cepts such as jewel-bright, intensely-flavoured velvet-textured purees of pear and mus­tard, straw­berry and corian­der, green tomato and vanilla, red onion and bal­samic vine­gar, apri­cot and saf­fron, which act as star­tling and piquant condi­ments for your tra­di­tional mild, deli­cious sheep’s cheese or ricotta fresh from its whey drain­ing bas­ket. Small, pas­sion­ate pro­duc­ers for whose obses­sions we can all be grate­ful. Thanks to Suzie and Antonio’s research and energy, this event pro­vided a lit­tle bou­quet garni of new flavours, ideas and recipes to chew upon.

Francesca shows you

how a real Italian

Suzie’s Ribol­lita

Recipe serves 8

eats spaghetti


250 g split peas soaked in plenty of water overnight

2 onions, finely chopped

1 dried red chilli crushed

1 cel­ery stalk finely chopped

2 car­rots peeled and chopped small

3 small cloves of gar­lic crushed

small bunch of sage

2 pota­toes peeled and chopped in small cubes

sea salt & freshly ground pepper

125 g farro decor­ti­cato (hulled spelt grains) rinsed

1 tblsp tomato puree

350 ml tomato passata

1 bunch cavolo nero (kale), thick stalks removed, finely chopped

a good Tus­can olive oil to serve

Drain the soaked split peas and rinse, cover in ample cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 1½ hours. Drain once cool.

Cover the bot­tom of a thick soup pan with olive oil and over a low heat sweat the chopped onions, chilli and salt, until soft.

Add cel­ery, car­rot, gar­lic and sage (tie 5 stalks together with cot­ton to make removal eas­ier) and cook on a low heat for 20 min­utes to release flavours.  Add potato & farro and a cou­ple of min­utes later the tomato puree, then the pas­sata, turn up the heat.  Cook for 5 min­utes whilst boil­ing some water on the side. Remem­ber to stir to avoid pota­toes sticking.

Add in the drained cooked split peas and cover with ample hot water, enough for a thick veg­etable broth.  Stir in the cavolo nero and reduce the heat.  Sea­son with salt and pep­per. Cover and cook for at least an hour stir­ring every now and then.

Remove from the heat and let cool com­pletely.  Let the soup stand for a cou­ple of hours for flavours to infuse and reheat before serv­ing and driz­zle with a good extra vir­gin olive oil.

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The Marriage of Shiva and Parvati — By Dan

When things had only just began

Shortly after dawn of man

A god called Shiva did appear

All pow­er­ful, mighty, caused great fear

But though he was a god and tough, he

Per­son­ally was rather scruffy

And peo­ple got a big surprise

When meet­ing him– he had three eyes

Long black hair which was fright­fully matted

(Later he would have it plaited)

Was cov­ered head to toe with ashes

Now and then he’d smoke some hashish

Half naked, wild, he looked alarming

But actu­ally could be quite charming

See, gods are just like ordi­nary folk

Who sit around and have a smoke

Apart from the third eye of course

An attribute of godly source

You’d think. But actu­ally the fact is

That with ded­i­cated Bud­dhist practice

You can grow your own. Sensation!

(Fail­ing that, try trepanation)

Now Shiva loved the god Pavarti

Nice girl, good fam­ily and quite arty

And she fan­cied him which was just as well

Nobody else could put up with the smell

And the blood on his loin­cloth after slaugh­ter­ing foes

His habit while eat­ing of pick­ing his nose

The things in his hair and his ash on her dress

But when he asked her to marry him she just said YES

Though nor­mally dar­ling, I would say maybe

But I have to tell you I’m hav­ing your baby’

Shiva dumb­struck but Pavarti

Said ‘We’d have a smash­ing party!

But we must do it quickly, honey

Cos pretty soon I’ll have a tummy’

They spoke to the vicar of their devotion

Set the wed­ding plans in motion

Sent out lots of invitations

To friendly gods and their relations

The cater­ing was left to mortals

Soon food and wine came through the portals

Of the villa they had rented

With the gar­den fully tented

(Pavarti’s house was far too small

And Shiva’s wouldn’t do at all)

Next day the church was filled with flowers

The con­gre­ga­tion waited hours

Until the groom, trans­formed, appeared

Plaited hair and shaven beard

Mas­cara painted round his eyes

Rented suit of largest size

SOMEONE’S influ­ence was clear

Sud­denly there came a cheer

And up the aisle strode fair Pavarti

Really gor­geous but not tarty

Shiva took her by the hand

Slipped on her fin­ger a golden band

Then he grasped her round the hips

And with pas­sion kissed her lips

Oh what joy, what jubilation

After such anticipation

Ring the bells, set trum­pets blasting

Sing for hap­pi­ness everlasting!

(I got that last bit over quickly

I find that sort of thing quite sickly)

Thank god that’s over’ Pavarti said

I’ll spend the after­noon in bed’

But no, she had to stay awake

To look at presents, cut the cake

And pose for por­traits which took forever

Cos they were painted, slow but clever

Cam­eras hadn’t been invented

Which meant artists were contented

Pavarti def­i­nitely tiring

Presents mostly uninspiring

Tow­els, ser­vants, gold in chests

(Shiva’s mum gave him a vest)

That’s it, I’m dead’ Pavarti said

I’ll have a drink and go to bed

I don’t think that’s a good idea’

Said Shiva ‘The evi­dence is now quite clear

That too much booze affects the foetus

When it comes to par­ties, you drink litres’

Dar­ling, don’t be such a pain

I only sip the best champagne

And any­way, look who’s talking

I can tell from the way you’re walking

You are com­pletely out of your tree

So don’t go preach­ing stuff to me’

She sneered at him and then departed

As usual Shiva was outsmarted

To cut the story rather short

I’ll only give a quick report

Of the party which ended early

Due to exces­sive hurly burly

And Shiva, danc­ing, stoned, elated

Mis­tak­enly decapitated

Some hap­less human, no-one important

But it intro­duced a note discordant

And Pavarti shouted at him shrilly

Danc­ing with swords is VERY SILLY

Blood all over my wed­ding dress

Don’t expect ME to clear up this mess!’

With that she stormed off to her bed

With­out her things became rather dead

Shiva smoked a final joint

And tear­fully asked ‘What IS the point

Of mar­riage?’ So you will agree

Their rela­tion­ship is all at sea

But has their love gone done the toilet?

Well no but I don’t want to spoil it

For you because that’s it for now

Later there’ll be more… somehow

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