Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Holiday at Home

I wrote a blog recently on holidays-at-home, and have just taken one. As we sometimes go to Dieppe, in Normandy, for a few days in springtime, we thought that we would enjoy a quiet holiday-at-home instead of the hassle of going abroad. We started on Sunday for a reunion. Once a year, fellow pilots, who trained together in Oklahoma in the war, get together with their families at a restaurant in Datchet, a hamlet on the Thames off the M4 motorway half an hour out of London. There are four of us left alive, the others having “left the circuit”. Of the four, one has had a series of strokes and is rather frail. The others, all in our late 80s, are thankfully hail and hearty. Wives, children, and now grandchildren, make up the numbers to around 16. Sadly, one wife, well in body and spirit, was not quite with us in her mental state. But everyone had a happy lunch and were in excellent spirits, even with the fund of our wartime stories exhausted. It was a very English occasion – not like Dieppe at all. That was Sunday. On Monday, Margreet and I had booked for lunch in our favourite and very English restaurant in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. We set out to have coffee in Soho, as we might have enjoyed it had we been in France. Then, as we were still early for lunch, stopped off in Chandos Place for an aperitif in a very small central London pub that is a favourite of ours (there’s nothing remotely like it abroad). For this, our grandest lunch, we now barely look at the menu, sharing 6 oysters and a rib of rare beef – with the best horseradish around. Wine, too, was as usual when we splash out, being Ribera del Duero, from Spain (in Dieppe it is French wine only). We once also had an excellent rib of beef in rural France, and wanted to take the bone back to England for a dog. But the French would have none of it. It was forbidden to take food out of a restaurant – even a bone. But we took it – much to the pleasure of that English dog. After a good lunch, as when on holiday in Dieppe, an afternoon snooze is called for. And after eating generously in the day in London or Dieppe, we have little appetite for more food in the evening. On holiday in Dieppe we can usually only manage a light evening picnic in our room overlooking the sea. Tuesday came, but it came with much early morning rain and a forecast of flooding on the south coast. We had planned a rail trip to Chichester to view an exhibition of paintings. So we decided to postpone the visit until the following week. We took lunch at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant where the food had French overtones, the country having once been ruled by them. Our plans for Wednesday were to eat out for lunch and then visit the theatre for a matinee performance. We took an aperitif in a splendid, polished brass, red plush, and cut glass pub in St Martin’s Lane. Over a small drink there we people-watched – mostly tourists – before walking into Covent Garden for an excellent lunch, this time at a Belgian restaurant – the like of which a Belgian tells us does not exist in her country. The theatrical performance was a Commedia dell’ Arte, by Goldoni, altered and set in England, in modern dress, and with English jokes. There would be nothing like that in Dieppe, where the only and quite beautiful early 19th century theatre has become an interesting memorial of the war and, more specifically, the terrible failure of the Dieppe raid – mostly involving Canadian troops and the well-entrenched Germans. Anyhow, slapstick theatre in the Haymarket was great, and had a packed audience “rolling in the aisles”. Which brings us to Thursday. We had read about, or heard of, a Lebanese restaurant on Golborne Road, the Portuguese and very cosmopolitan area at the end of Portobello Road. So we planned to eat there and, when in that part of London, search for olive oils. My theory about olive oil is that as much of it is a “blend from EU sources”, it is best, for authenticity, to aim for the countries from where the bulk of blending oil is actually made. Of these places, Morocco, Spain, Portugal and Greece might feature. So we bought a Portuguese oil from a Portuguese shop, Moroccan oil from a Moroccan shop, and Greek oil from a shop run by a Sikh. But the restaurant of our quest was Muslim enough not to offer wine – or even allow customers to bring in their own. So, as local advice is always the best, we returned to the Sikh with our dilemma “You’ll get good fish and wine next to the Post Office,” he said. Next to the Post Office was a Spanish restaurant. He was right. The lunchtime menu was fine, the house red and white wines were from Rioja, and the sherry was cold. We were transported not to Dieppe but to the Iberian peninsular. The tables were nicely furnished, the wallpaper was peeling, and the old waiter exactly as an old Spanish waiter should be. We enjoyed it. By bus, we carted home bottles of oil and some merguez sausages that had been freshly made in the shop where we had obtained Moroccan oil. Full again, we found that those sausages were quite enough for our evening snack. Our Friday jaunt involved a curry lunch (unwise in Dieppe) and to see a film about English oldies in India. The cinema in question has a curry restaurant as part of a complex. So we ate a lunch of curry before, appropriately, watching a film set in India. Advertised at the table were Indian red and white wines – one of each colour. India? Wine? When we were once in the West Indies, staying in Grenada, we visited, by chance, a Chinese experimental agricultural project. There they were cultivating various fruits and vegetables, I suppose with a view to either growing the successes in the hotter parts of China, or starting up farms in the tropics to supply the Chinese market. Of the fruits on trial, grapes featured. They seemed to be doing rather well in the humid heat. One of the drawbacks of making wine in hot conditions is to obtain enough acidity in the vinification. So acid must be added at some stage. This process, if not done with great skill, can easily upset the balance of a wine. I once knew a man who, many years ago, added to his fortune by supplying acid by rail tanker to Argentine winemakers. The two Indian wines on offer were Cabernet Sauvignon red and Sauvignon Blanc white. They were made north of Mumbai in the Nasik Valley. We tasted each and both were excellent – fresh, and with plenty of taste. But they were expensive. So, if the Indians can make wine this good, there is hope for more – but at a lower price. The film was charming, with some shots taken from the roof of a rather seedy hotel where we once stayed. I remember the hotel for the noise and sight of dhobi-wallahs washing and beating clothes across the rather green water of the Udaipur lake, and of the extended view of the lake with its white palace seemingly floating on its surface. I also remember the place for a large cockroach on which I stepped with a flip-flop. It seemed to hardly notice. And when we were having an evening drink on the roof terrace, a flying fox crashed into a tree next to us for its night-time roost. What films of India cannot convey to viewers is the dirt, noise and smell that makes the country so special. It is a wonderful sub-continent, loved by some (me) but not by others (Margreet). That was the end of our holiday-at-home, except for the postponed visit to the gallery in Chichester. We had enjoyed ourselves enormously – as much if not more than had we gone to Dieppe. And we had avoided the early morning and late return by the M25 and country roads to and from Newhaven, the Channel crossings, hotel booking, dealing with foreign currency, talking with the French, and the tiresome delays of passport and customs controls. We’ll be holidaying-at-home again for sure.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


A country friend, arriving for lunch out in our part of London, was astounded at the low price of meals. An hors d’oeuvre in the country would cost more than a meal here, he told me. It is true. But it is lunch that is almost always far cheaper than an evening meal hereabouts. So when we want a meal out, it is usually one starting between noon and one o’clock. (Margreet and I have the advantage of age and time.) The one item that stays expensive night and day is wine. I have noticed that restaurants that fail to survive have generally been too greedy in the wine department. Margreet was astounded recently, when returning with a friend from a lecture on Africa, that the friend’s friend, who runs the restaurant they went to nearby, was charging £27.50 a bottle for their cheapest wine. Will the restaurant last? Indian restaurants usually serve better value draught beer, which is, anyway, more appropriate for Indian food. We are very lucky to live in an area stuffed with restaurants – from an oriental one where one can obtain three excellent courses for under £7 to one across the road from it where that £7 might possibly get you a bottle of water. We are not great pizza-eaters. But there is an exception, where the food is served only in the evenings. It is a pub. There, on Tuesdays for a special price, they serve giant, wafer-thin pizzas (for two people) with a topping of about everything that ever goes on a pizza – and for £18. Expensive? No. That is because the price includes a bottle of excellent, if rustic, wine. And that wine (at present coming from Sicily) complements the pizza splendidly. So not every eating place is greedy when it comes to the price of wine. But, sadly, they are few and far between. If I were younger and computer-literate, I would start a restaurant guide based on customers’ recommendations of restaurants where wine is considered to be the natural accompaniment to food, and priced accordingly – that is, reasonably.

Friday, May 04, 2012


It was a television programme that made me think of the past. I was once a medical student, extracting the semicircular canals from a dogfish intact – a considerable feat, I was told. Beyond that I know little or nothing of medicine – or radiation. But my experiences in those far oft days, when there was no cure for TB, might be of interest today. Just after the war ended I was grounded as a pilot, learned to be an air Photographic Intelligence officer, and contracted TB during the terribly cold winter of 1947. The disease was discovered when I was about to be demobilised. When working as a late entry into medicine, the TB in my lung returned. There was still no cure for it. One simply hoped for the best. But it was the end of medicine for me. Rest was considered to be all-important for recovery. And to rest the affected lung an artificial pneumothorax was administered. The procedure involved was to insert a thick needle between the ribs to introduce air to a gap between lung and ribcage (no anaesthetic and no fun if the needle hit a rib on its way in). This air gap would then become a buffer and thus rest the lung. But this air, passing into the gap under atmospheric pressure, became absorbed by the lung and had to be topped up – initially weekly, and then fortnightly, over a period of seven years. Before each air-introduction process, doctors wanted to see the size of the air gap so as not to penetrate the lung with the needle. For this I was scanned – that is, placed between a powerful x-ray machine and the doctor, so that the medicine man could actually see through me – or, rather, the upper part of me. The doctors in question wore leaded protection from the x-rays. I, obviously, had no protection whatsoever. So my body, over those seven years, was submitted to a vast amount of powerful radiation. As I write, I am 87 years old. Most consider me to be much younger. So they ask for my secret. I just say “plenty of red wine, plenty of garlic and a good sex life”. That ends the conversation pretty quickly and we can go on to other matters. In looking back, the treatment I received was almost medieval in concept, combined with modern radiation – a word that was later to get a very bad name indeed with the advent of the atomic bomb. But was all that radiation shot at me possibly the real reason that at my age I can still run for a bus, out-walk my wife, cook, paint, garden and all the rest – and all done with little effort. Is, then, radiation, perhaps, rather good for you after all?