Saturday, 27 February 2010

Topsy turvy land

Hello readers. I'm Otto and I'm stepping in to write this blog post today while Sybarite is busy.

To be frank, we had a big, big order of cat food and cat litter delivered by a man this morning π and she's still trying to find where to put it all. Fortunately, she also remembered to get some cheese – I'd have been really annoyed if she'd forgotten that.

And since that delivery, she's gone a bit silly and unpredictable after her football team won when she didn't expect it. It's not likely to happen in my kittenhood, but I hate to think what she'd be like if City actually ever win one of those silver cups that their fans get so excited about.

When Loki and I first moved in, it was a bit of a shock to realise just what a state she gets into when they're playing on the big box in the corner of the living room. If they score a goal, she gets a bit hysterical – but I suppose that's women for you.

My brother Loki is well – I think you've heard about him before – at present he's running around after his tail, which he thinks is a new discovery every day.

Apart from that, Sybarite is introducing us to Gilbert and Sullivan. Last weekend, when The Other Half was away watching his sporting heroes, she showed us My Fair Lady, and insisted on holding me while she danced around the room to I Could Have Danced All Night. The week before, it was The Mikado – which made her sing a bit, but fortunately didn't give her any chance to try to make me dance with her.

Not that I mind too much – I've got her pretty well trained already in being a very good cat servant. So I suppose a few foilbles are acceptable.

Tonight we're watching the Mike Leigh film, Topsy Turvy, which seems to mean much the same music as The Mikado. To be honest, I'm more interested in a big pen stick thing I've just found under the sofa, but I'll try to look interested, just to keep her in a good mood.

And at the end of the day, someone is chucking big bangy things around outside, so I'll take this option any day.

I hope you all have a good time and look after your cats (and even your dogs) properly.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Lessons in not being underdressed

With his 50th birthday celebratory trip on the Orient Express nearing, The Other Half has gone mad on the sartorial front.

The website proudly proclaims that: "You can never be overdressed on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express."


"The historic decor of the train and its atmosphere encourages everyone to dress to suit the occasion. Dinner provides you with a marvellous opportunity to recreate the style and glamour of a bygone age."

Ahhhh. Glamour. Hepburn, Dietrich, Garbo.

"For evening dinner, many travellers will wear black tie or evening dress. At least as a consideration for your fellow passengers you will need to meet our minimum requirements of a suit and tie for gentlemen and an equivalent standard for ladies. During the day “casual but smart” is the rule. At lunch for instance, gentlemen might wear jacket and tie. At no time during your journey will jeans be acceptable."


Not that I would have been planning to wear jeans, you understand, but there are limits to what I own that constitutes evening dress.

The Other Half decided quickly what he was going to do.

And last week he visited a tailor in the City to be measured for a new suit. To be fair, his previous suit had been ruined by a dry cleaner – he only found out when putting it on for a wedding 18 months ago: I had to dab mascara over the holes so that rather large spots of lining or flesh wouldn't show.

Indeed, he'd only taken it to the cleaner after it got splattered with blood at a family funeral when some distant nephew or other tried to put his fist through a reinforced glass window.

They do things their own way in Yorkshire.

So, off he went to a tailor and ordered a "midnight blue" three-piece suit. He's a sucker for waistcoats.

Then he added another jacket – same material, but this time an evening jacket. Then a tailored dress shirt and a dress waistcoat.

Since then, he'd ordered white braces and white and black bow ties (not clip-on ones).

And there was I hoping to get away with the black, devore Windsmoor kaftan top I snapped up in the John Lewis pre-Christmas sale, plus some decent black trousers. But frankly, if he's determined to dress like an extra in an Agatha Christie period piece, then I'm going to look – and feel – woefully underdressed.

He came up with the answer – or at least part of it. I do have a long black dress. It's not really an evening fabric, but it's incredibly simple and always looks very flattering.

"Why not wear that?" he said.

"It is a £15 summer dress from Marks & Sparks," came my riposte.

"Then dress it up," he retorted. You'd think he was Castleford's answer to Trinny & Susannah.

I have, however, decided to do just that.

Thus far, I have splashed some cash on a Kara Ross gold cuff as a hulking statement piece (everybody will look at that and ignore the £15 dress), while I've picked up a black lacy bolero shrug from ebay for little more than pennies.

I have next to no gold jewelry – I am absolutely NOT wearing the gold coffee bean earrings from Argos that my sister gave me years ago – so I need a ring and some earrings. A visit to John Lewis is on the cards.

I have a very chichi evening bag (small, round, black and with tassels) that a former colleague, who had been a model in her youth, gave me.

Shoes will be the biggest problem. I have awkwardly shaped feet – short and wide, with hereditary hammer toes (The Other Half claims I’m “deformed”) – and absolutely nothing elegant enough.

Obviously I’ll have a hair appointment shortly before the trip (and we’ll go for a rich teaky colour to get rid of the grey), and if I can manage to keep my nails from splintering in the coming month, I’ll have a proper manicure done too. I shall have to give some thought to my make-up – foundation will be essential for once, and I’m wondering whether my usual purples will work best or the current ‘nude’ look.

This might just work. And at least these days I enjoy trying!

Ten years ago, I’d have been in despair. Indeed, in 2000 I was due to attend the Bafta awards ceremony through work, but almost bottled out because I was absolutely convinced that I had nothing appropriate – and matters had not been helped when my boss weighed in, putting on her best New York Jewish princess routine to just ask me nicely not to embarrass the company with my obvious lack of sartorial elegance. Only at the last minute did I manage to get something together and go, after days of panic and feelings of inadequacy.

This’ll be a cakewalk by comparison!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The making of a little gourmet

Otto is a bon vivant in the making.

He has discovered cheese and chicken – and is besotted with both.

It seems a long time since I had the fun of dealing with a cat following me into the kitchen at every possible opportunity to see what was going on. Mack used to do it, and he'd sit near the sink and watch me closely. Cats being cats, he was probably thinking to himself: 'Stop stirring it around in that pan – you need to leave it be to get the lardons cooking properly'.

Otto, however, is already going a stage further, having volunteered himself as my tester in chief. This works along the lines of: 'you've just opened the fridge and now have something on the work surface ... what is it?' Boing! Onto my shoulder and then, if it looks or smells really interesting, onto the work surface.

Followed by my popping him down on the floor. Followed by 'Boing!' etc.

I suspect that this is all related to his skinniness when he arrived nine weeks ago – you couldn't simply feel his ribs, but between them: he was clearly smaller than his brother, although no less feisty, and his fur was a bit like sheepskin.

Two months down the line, he's slightly bigger than Loki, wonderfully sleek and with an immaculate coat. And he likes his food.

The cats all prioritise food differently. For Boudicca, when we arrive home in the evening, 'hello' fuss on the bed has to be followed by a few mouthfuls of fresh food and then the garden.

For Loki, this is time to spend under the kitchen table re-discovering that he's got a tail.

For Otto, it's serious eating time, to which he dedicates himself without interruption – except to check whether Boudicca's bowl has more interesting meat or to take a few sips of cat milk or to munch a few cat biscuits.

A few days ago, when I was getting myself a bit of cheese – Double Gloucester – he clearly wanted to try it. I have now made a rod for my own back. He went potty for it. He's tried Boursin – a crumbly, creamy French cheese with, in this case, peppercorns in it – Stilton (probably not his favourite), an orange Cheshire and, yesterday, a creamy goat's cheese, which was, apparently, even more bonkersly delicious than anything he'd previously sampled.

Mind, on the grounds that if he's having something she better have some of it too, the Queen B has also decided that she wants cheese. Interestingly, she has always struggled to easily take food from anyone's fingers. Otto seems to have mastered this without even giving it a thought.

Last week, after I'd pared all the meat off the carcass of the roasted chicken we'd had for Sunday dinner, I gave them some tidbits on a saucer. Within moments, Otto was growling at his brother. Clearly that chicken was for him and nobody else. Loki had to have some chicken separately.

All this comes when they were getting bored of kitten food anyway – well, apart from kitten biscuits, and Boudi's helping them much through those. Her ladyship's food seems to be infinitely more interesting to them.

Now all the containers of kitten food say that you should feed them kitten food for a year. How do you do that – force feed them? It's not easily practical to cut off the kittens from Boudi and her food or visa versa – not least because cats naturally graze, so I'm not going to leave them stuck in different rooms with separate bowls and litter trays while we're at work every day.

In retrospect, both our first cats – Mack and Mabel – grew up on a diet of ordinary tinned cat food. I doubt if, at that stage, I even knew that kitten food existed.

And they're all going to get a slight addition to their diet when I can next get to the butcher on Broadway market – raw chicken wings. A colleague with even more experience of moggies than us was showing me some advice on a veterinary website last week.

As it so accurately puts it in the section on feline oral health: "Minimise dental disease by feeding a food for which the teeth of your 'hunting creature' have been designed.

"Cats are little hunting creatures. No hunting creature hunts jelly or gravy." They may like those things – but they don't hunt them.

And it goes on: "Give your cat mouse-sized chunks of raw meat twice a week as a meal. Raw chicken wings are ideal.
Don't feed cooked bones."

So, that's a new treat in store.

The "little hunting creatures" are getting into everything. And the bedroom window sill is no exception. Right behind the bed, it's very wide and covered with a wooden blind. Every cat we've had has enjoyed climbing into it to look out at the garden or, more accurately, a bay tree and a little bit of the garden. The kittens are no exception and both of them can now manage to get themselves up and behind the blind.

On Sunday, when we were having a pleasant lie-in, Otto got himself up there. And then had to get down. During which process he slipped. Straight onto my face. I got lovely cuts on the bridge of my nose and cheek from kitten claws that are like razor-sharp needles. Fortunately, they're clean and will heal without any problem, I think. If they don't, I'll go all romantic and claim they're duelling scars. Very Prussian.

Not that I could be remotely cross – for some reason or other, I have the patience of Job when it comes to cats.

Of course the development of my little gourmet raises one or two ethical questions. When Mack was first ill at around 16 years, the vet first announced that he needed dental work (which we had done) and that we should give him a diet of dry food only – to be bought from the same vet, of course.

We tried. He didn't like it one iota. Was it better to feed him what he wanted or what the vet said was best for him, but which he would just leave? Better to let him get to starving point before giving in and eating what he didn't like? I did the former.

As it happened, he had kidney disease. I've sometimes wondered if his favourite treat of all – tinned tuna, but only in brine – had helped cause that problem because of its salt content. I've never served it to any cat since he had a saucer of it on his last night alive.

We tried to convert Boudi to dry food only, but while she likes biscuits, she quite clearly doesn't believe that they constitute a properly varied diet. Indeed, after Mack died and she became a lone cat, we found that a few weeks later, she started to develop ways of making it crystal clear that meat was required. Mack – and before she died eight months before him, Trickie – had always been the ones to do the demanding and organising of their human slaves, but suddenly she had to learn to do it for herself.

Interestingly, the woman from whom we got Otto and Loki is a veterinary assistant – and she told us that they were used to having two meat meals a day, plus biscuit. So there's no veterinary consensus.

But a few bits of cheese? Is it bad for Otto? What if he really likes it, though? Is it cruel not to limit them only to strictly cat food? Shouldn't we all eat just exactly what is strictly nutritionally perfect for us? Or would that not be just a tad boring – a tad anti-life?

As it happens, a bit of checking suggests that the odd bit of cheese will do no harm.

And I get pleasure from it too – it's fascinating and funny to see what cats decide they like. Mabel liked to sit on The Other Half's knee and be fed tiny bits of Scotch pancake. One evening she even ate fried onion out of a sandwich he'd made himself.

Mind, how many domestic cats eat anything like a natural diet in the first place? I've never seen Whiskas offering a range of mouse patés or Felix retailing sparrow chunks in spider gravy. I could be wrong, but I'm not aware of cattle as ever having been the natural prey of small felines.

Perhaps I shall discuss this with Otto when he gets older. I'm sure he'll say that a little bit of what you like does you good.

Monday, 22 February 2010

When the paper for the list stays blank

I made an intriguing discovery at the market on Saturday: my main butcher had little pots of something called za'atar. This turned out to be a mix of a very intensive thyme, sesame seeds and olive oil, and had been produced by Palestinian farmers in Galilee.

Out of a combination of curiosity and international solidarity, I bought a pot.

As it happens, Saturday was unusual in that I'd headed for the Broadway Market without any really clear idea of what I was going to cook over the weekend. I had been half wondering about buying some mutton – it's enjoying a revival and my butcher had had some a couple of weeks earlier. He's not having it every week, so I wasn't sure whether Saturday would be a mutton day or not.

As it happens, it wasn't. Musing over what to do, I spotted a pork tenderloin and picked that. It struck me almost the moment that I spotted the za'atar that it looked like the kind of thing you could cover a piece of meat in to form a crust. And although it's often used as a dip for bread – take your flat bread, dip it in olive oil and then in the za'atar – it worked perfectly well on the pork.

That part of the shopping having been done, I headed on. I really didn't feel in a fish mood – but equally I didn't want anything complex or fancy. In the end, I opted for black pudding, and turned it into something like a me version of 'himmel und erde' ('heaven and earth'), with sliced apple friend in butter and mashed potato and parsnip, moistened with the butter from cooking the apple, plus some sautéd leek on the side. And jolly nice it was too.

But so to Sunday and the pork.

Although it contains olive oil, the za'atar wasn't very 'wet'. So I drizzled a little oil over the meat, then coated it in the thyme-sesame mix and left it in the fridge to marinade for a couple of hours. Later, I roasted it for around an hour.

It worked very well – and I served it with sweet potato and shallots, roasted in orange juice, honey and olive oil, together with shredded savoy cabbage, sautéed with smashed garlic. And to follow, the first rhubarb syllabub of the year.

All in all, not bad for a very rare trip to market without a proper list! And I'll certainly use the za'atar again – indeed, I really fancy trying it as a bread dip now.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Time to give the tastebuds a lift

Right. That's it. Enough of this winter thing!

It's been a long one – and colder than for many a year and with far more snow, more widely distributed, than the UK has seen for – well, decades. And with more of the white stuff forecast for the coming days. I find my enthusiasm for the season fading somewhat.

My body wants a change. I can feel it in terms of what I want to eat. I'm not actually craving light salads yet, but I'm moving away from what might be viewed as the most obviously season hearty, comfort food.

The last couple of weeks have seen a binge on pasta: but not with heavy sauces. A couple of shots at one I love where you roast tomatoes, red pepper and red chili, then blend that carefully with some toasted ground almonds, adding a little virgin oil if you need to loosen it.

There's another sauce with roasted tomatoes, anchovies, sultanas and toasted pine nuts – it's Sicilian in origin, apparently.

Last Saturday, when The Other Half was gadding around in Yorkshire for the Rugby League, I made myself a dish with quality tinned sardines, sultanas, some dried chili and some pine nuts. And tomorrow, when he heads in the same direction, I shall quite probably open another can of sardines and do them with chili, garlic and fennel.

All dead simple, all quick, all cheap, all tasty – and all healthy.

But last weekend I roasted a chicken for the first time in more than a couple of months. The first time since the kittens arrived, indeed. And of course that afforded the opportunity to experience being thoroughly kittened when I was stripping the carcase to make stock on Monday evening.

None of our previous cats – nor Boudicca – have ever been bothered about chicken, whether in a prepared cat food or the proper stuff. With the Queen B, indeed, it seems to be her least liked meat flavour. Otto, on the other hand, seems to have set his stall on becoming a full-blown feline bon vivant. When I gave him and his brother some scraps to taste, he went bonkers – and even growled lowly at Loki, as if to say: 'This is MY chicken – not yours!'

After stock making, I took the opportunity to make risotto last night. And with plenty of meat left from the weekend bird, I decided to find a way of using some with this classic rice dish.

I have to say, I was delighted with the result.

Take a shallot or two and chop finely. Soften this is some olive oil, adding some chopped garlic and chopped celery as you go.

When it's good and soft – but not brown – add your risotto rice (a good basic guide is around 45g of raw rice per person). Keep stirring and after that's gained a nice translucence, pour in a glass of Noilly Prat. If you can't get that, use white Vermouth or even a dry white wine. The smell at this point is utterly divine – and just think of the flavour it's adding.

After that's absorbed, start adding chicken stock by the ladle – make sure you've had it warming on another hob, because you don't want it to cool down the dish. Stir frequently and, as each ladle of stock is absorbed, add another. It'll probably take around 20 minutes.

In the meantime, take a parsnip or two and peel it. When you've done that, use a potato peeler like the one pictured to cut long ribbons of parsnip.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add the parsnip ribbons. As they soften, add some sage leaves and then a glug of the booze you used earlier and let it bubble away for a few minutes. Again, a great smell. Season to taste – plenty of fresh ground pepper is great.

Once your rice has absorbed all the stock it's going to, check your seasoning and then add your cooked chicken. I didn't dice mine, leaving it in pretty much in the shapes and sizes that had come when I'd torn it off a thigh bone. Let that warm through.

Then you could do the classic risotto thing of adding a knob of butter and some grated Parmesan, but since The Other Half hates cheese, I skip this and the butter and add a good dollop of crème fraiche instead. Then pop in around half your parsnip and sage and stir carefully.

To serve, pop the risotto on a plate or in a bowl and top with the remainder of the parsnip mix.

Still comforting, but pretty healthy, it tastes great, it's really easy – and it's a lot lighter than those classic winter warmers.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Bring me that horizon

Isn't it always the way of things?

Once you become aware of something, you see or find much more of it.

The same goes for my discovery of romanticism

And although I don't quite remember when it happened, George also introduced me to a poem that, although it had long been sitting in a book on the shelves at home, I had never read. But after the acquaintance of some years, it still sends goosebumps up and down my spine – and perhaps my lifelong fascination with the sea reveals some sort of comprehension of what this Brecht poem describes?

Last year, when we were holidaying in the south of France, we took a boat trip and sat on the open-top deck.

It sped easily from Collioure to Argelès sur Mer, but after leaving that harbour, ran straight into what seemed to me to be really rather big waves. Sitting on top of the boat accentuated the movement as we bounced around. My knuckles were white as I gripped the rail. The spray hit my face, leaving the tang and taste of salt.

I had to consciously unclench my gut and open myself to the experience. 'Breathe ... breathe ... and embrace it.' When I did, it was utterly exhilarating.

As I said yesterday – fear is relative. And dealing with fear is relative too.

The year before, we'd been out twice on the traditional sailing schooner, the Treguern. It hadn't been anything like as choppy, but it was an equally intense experience: as we got further out to sea, everyone on board were silent. The only sounds were the water itself, lap lapping, the seabirds crying and the rattling of the rigging against the masts. Azure above, cobalt below; breeze in your hair and sun on your skin. A cornucopia of sensual experience.

Brecht's poem evokes a very alluring idea of freedom – not least the freedom from fear. A sense of abandon that allows the experience of life at its fullest, at its most intense, and devil take the consequences.

Perhaps part of the reason for the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films is that they manage to at least hint at what Brecht explores? (The heading on this post is a quote from the second of those films)

Is 'civilisation' a sort of barrier between us and the fullest experience of life?

Anyway, enjoy.

Ballade von den Seeräubern (Ballad of the Pirates)

Frantic with brandy from their plunder
Drenched in the blackness of the gale
Splintered by frost and stunned by thunder
Hemmed in the crows-nest, ghostly pale
Scorched by the sun through tattered shirt
(The winter sun kept them alive)
Amid starvation, sickness, dirt
So sang the remnant that survived:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

No waving fields with gentle breezes
Or dockside bar with raucous band
No dance hall warm with gin and kisses
No gambling hall kept them on land.
They very quickly tired of fighting
By midnight girls began to pall:
Their rotten hulk seemed more inviting
That ship without a flag at all.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Riddled with rats, its bilges oozing
With pestilence and puke and piss
They swear by her when they're out boozing
And cherish her just as she is.
In storms they'll reckon their position
Lashed to the halyards by their hair:
They'd go to heaven on one condition -
That she can find a mooring there.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They loot their wine and belch with pleasure
While bales of silk and bars of gold
And precious stones and other treasure
Weigh down the rat-infested hold.
To grace their limbs, all hard and shrunken
Sacked junks yield vari-coloured stuffs
Till out their knives come in some drunken
Quarrel about a pair of cuffs.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They murder coldly and detachedly
Whatever comes across their path
They throttle gullets as relaxedly
As fling a rope up to the mast.
At wakes they fall upon the liquor
Then stagger overboard and drown
While the remainder give a snigger
And wave a toe as they go down.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Across a violet horizon
Caught in the ice by pale moonlight
On pitch-black nights when mist is rising
And half the ship is lost from sight
They lurk like wolves between the hatches
And murder for the fun of it
And sing to keep warm in their watches
Like children drumming as they shit.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

They take their hairy bellies with them
To stuff with food on foreign ships
Then stretch them out in sweet oblivion
Athwart the foreign women's hips.
In gentle winds, in blue unbounded
Like noble beasts they graze and play
And often seven bulls have mounted
Some foreign girl they've made their prey.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once you have danced till you're exhausted
And boozed until your belly sags
Though sun and moon unite their forces -
Your appetite for fighting flags.
Brilliant with stars, the night will shake them
While music plays in gentle ease
And wind will fill their sails and take them
To other undiscovered seas.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

But then upon an April evening
Without a star by which to steer
The placid ocean, softly heaving
Decides that they must disappear.
The boundless sky they love is hiding
The stars in smoke that shrouds their sight
While their beloved winds are sliding
The clouds towards the gentle light.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

At first they're fanned by playful breezes
Into the night they mustn't miss
The velvet sky smiles once, then closes
Its hatches on the black abyss.
Once more they feel the kindly ocean
Watching beside them on their way
The wind then lulls them with its motion
And kills them all by break of day.
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Once more the final wave is tossing
The cursed vessel to the sky
When suddenly it clears, disclosing
The mighty reef on which they lie.
And, at last, a strange impression
While rigging screams and storm winds howl
Of voices hurtling to perdition
Yet once more singing, louder still:
Oh heavenly sky of streaming blue!
Enormous wind, the sails blow free!
Let wind and heavens go hang! But oh
Sweet Mary, let us keep the sea!

Bertolt Brecht, 1919

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Romanticism on the streets of Belfast

If you were contemplating romanticism, then Belfast probably wouldn’t be the first destination to spring to mind.

But if there’s one sentiment I came away from last week’s business trip to that city, it was a sense of the romantic.

It wasn’t the first thing that I noticed. That was the music shops. There were probably more in the few streets I explored than there are in the whole of London – music is hugely important to local culture.

And from the Unionist marching bands to the rebel songs of the Republican movement, it has long been intertwined with the politics and identities of the area.

But that’s only part of it.

On the Thursday morning – a glorious, crisp day, with frost beneath and blue skies overhead – I set out to walk the mile or so to interview a number of hospital staff at the Royal Victoria.

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the hospital sits firmly on the Falls Road or Bóthar na bhFál as it’s known in Irish: ‘road of the hedgerows’.

‘The Falls’ had registered in my mind many years ago. Whether one lived in Northern Ireland or not, ‘The Troubles’, as they were so euphemistically known, were never confined to that region. The Falls itself and the Falls Road in particular were part of the scenery that regularly filled television reports.

And with that came the memory of the famous Republican murals.

A Northern Irish acquaintance had told me that I should get a bus tour of the area – including the murals. Once I’d finished my work, I scoffed at the idea, took some basic directions and headed off to walk all the way back down the Falls Road to the centre of the city.

The murals hit you for a number of reasons. After all the years of essentially anti-Republican propaganda in the mainstream UK media, you realise very quickly just whose history you’re looking at. Or rather, whose eyes you’re looking at history through.

The Gilbralter memorial, to the three IRA volunteers who were killed by the SAS on The Rock in 1988, shows paramilitary figures firing into the air at their funerals.

But the murals are not dominated by such images. Indeed, these are few and far between. The themes that dominated all the murals I saw, including all those on a stretch known as the Solidarity Wall, were of peace, justice, history, equality and respect.

And a sense of revolution – of rebellion – bound up in poetry. Nothing better illustrates that than the famous mural to hunger striker Bobby Sands, who is described as a “poet, Gaeilgeoir, revolutionary, IRA volunteer”. ‘Gaeilgeoir’ is an Irish language enthusiast.

Here is something that goes way beyond any conventional ideas of a terrorist And the image of Sands – a slightly hippyish young man with an open-necked shirt – is also a long way from stereotypes of revolutionaries.

There’s nothing particularly serious about the image – or Christlike, as in Alberto Korda's famus photographic portrait of Che Guevara, the template for all would-be revolutionaries ever after. You do get that, but it’s on quite a scale, at the Cuba section of the Solidarity Wall.

No. There is something particularly – uniquely? – Irish about the romantic, poetic nature of Irish Republicanism.

It doesn’t stop with a few paintings on the walls of homes in a working-class area of the city. Or even with the words of Sands, whose verse is quoted in more than one place.

After I’d come to the end of my walk, snapping away and being greeted with friendly nods and ‘hellos’, I was flagging somewhat, so I decided that on my way back to the hotel, I’d pop into the legendary Crown Bar for a glass of Guinness.

The name of the pub has its own lovely bit of history. It was first built in 1826, a lushly decorated “liquor saloon”. The couple who owned it was a mixed one: the Protestant husband wanted to call their hostelry ‘The Crown’. His Catholic wife agreed – on one condition: that the name and a representation of the crown were created in the tile floor outside the front door, so that her customers could step on it!

Initially, I wandered about outside, snapping away at the incredible detail on the building. Around one side, two men stood, an empty sherry bottle on the ground and cans of lager in their hands.

“Why don’t you photograph me?” said one suddenly, striking a pose. So I did.

“And what about my friend, here?” he added. So I shot – but not in an old Belfast way – his friend too.

“I’m Brian,” he told me. “And now you can say you’ve met two real Belfast alcoholics!

“Have you got any change?”

A few minutes later, there I was, perched on the one remaining bar stool, a Guinness on the bar in front of me, and reviewing the days photographs, when suddenly I heard a little chuckle and, as I glanced up, was snapped on a mobile phone camera.

This proved to have utterly tickled pink the man whose phone it was.

Much as I initially tried to return to my own photographic musings, he was in no mood to let me.

Fergal, as I came to know him, wanted someone to chat to.

It appeared he was one of nine children (a bit of a hint in terms of which community he came from). All his siblings, he told me, had emigrated to “find better lives for themselves.

“But I thought: ‘why not stay here and make a better life for yourself’?”

That started ringing bells – the sort of bells that asked how, in the context of the last 40 years of Northern Irish history, someone from the Nationalist community would plan to do just that.

Over the course of a couple of hours – and a few more pints – more hints came out. Hints? Or just things that I was particularly alert to? Who knows?

He challenged me to agree that the bombing campaigns had ultimately saved lives: self justification?

He wanted to talk philosophically about guilt – about how I shouldn’t feel guilt for what my forefathers had done to the island of Ireland or he for anything his forefathers had done, but what did I think about the Potato Famine? We could only feel guilt for things that we ourselves had done.

And there was a vein running through it all of the romantic. The love of words in spite of his own dyslexia. A sort of pick-‘n’-mix spiritualism. A belief in an aim of making things better, even if having to shed blood in doing so.

A young man came in at one point, almost certainly stoned. He hung around and, when I popped outside for a quick smoke, scrounged a fag, before trying to discover whether he knew Fergal. It seemed that the older man knew his family.

Returning inside, he hovered. Ever the generous visitor, I offered him a pint. He took it. But within a few moments, Fergal had apologised to me and quietly escorted him out of earshot. When he returned, it was to inform me that our hanger-on was leaving. Which he did so a few moments later, thanking me quickly on the way out.

What persuasive methods had been applied to hurry his departure? I didn’t ask.

I did, later, put the blunt question of whether Fergal had ever been ‘involved’. Daft really, since simply being in Belfast, simply being in Northern Ireland, meant that you were ‘involved’.

He said that he had never “been a volunteer”. But later, he suggested that he had ‘made things’ for those who were volunteers.

It was a fascinating encounter. Not what I expected, but perhaps in a way just what I wanted. I’m not prepared to say with absolute certainty that he had done anything that would have seem him imprisoned, but I have the feeling that that was the case.

He was far from what one might expect a terrorist to be like. And while he might not have been the picture of a romantic revolutionary, romanticism ran through his conversation and ideas.

The next day, attending an event, it gave me a huge amount of amusement to see the utter horror on the face of a woman who was bemoaning my having been left to tramp around Belfast on my own. When I told her this story, she was even more mortified. As it happened, I had never felt remotely unsafe. Fergal was sounding me out to a great extent – seeing what the obvious stranger in town was about – but then I was playing the same game. And it was fascinating.

One thing about romanticism is the lack of fear. Fear, to an extent at least, is relative. What is frightening for one person is not for someone else. In Gateshead and Newcastle in January, it was something like fear that had infiltrated my bones so deeply that I barely moved from my hotel. Perhaps this little trip has helped purge me of that.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Just an old romantic

How do you cope with the trip to work in the morning? Particularly on dark winter days and particularly on Mondays?

I seem to have spent the greater part of my winter travelling with headphones firmly attached to my ears and creating a bubble of warmth around me with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (first and third movements in particular).

My corporeal self might be on the 394, but whatever else it is that constitutes the rest of me is elsewhere: standing, à la Kate Winslet on the prow of the Titanic; only not on a liner at sea, but speeding over the snowswept Russian landscape in a horse-drawn sleigh.

Yes, I know that Scheherazade is supposed to be about Arabia, but Rimsky-Korsakov was also one of Russia’s great nationalistic composers, who used folk songs and lore in their own work. Such incorporation might have been known as orientalism, but what I hear – well, what I see – when I listen to Scheherazade is a Russia, blistered white by snow; a cold that burns your eyes and rasps the skin, and leaves you feeling more alive than ever and even vaguely heroic.

This morning, for a change, it was Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – the second movement is like floating in honey. If it’s not the apotheosis of Romantic music (and convention certainly says that that has to be Wagner) then it’s not far off.

But this is all really quite new in terms of my musical tastes. I’ve loved classical music since I was a teenager, but until recent years, the likes of Wagner and Strauss were far too rich a diet for me.

Then something happened to change that.

It was a few years ago. I was heading west with m’friend and culinary guru George, to visit Garcias & Sons, a rather fabulous Spanish deli and cafe on Portobello Road.

It was a long journey by bus – neither of us like the Tube, which, apart from anything else, is always too noisy to enable conversation.

So there we were, upstairs on an old Routemaster, plodding down The Strand, chatting away. And since George is German, I happened to mention, as a snippet that might be of passing interest, that where I had been doing a bit of work in the preceding weeks there was a German colleague called Brunhilda.

This – unexpectedly on my part – proved to be a cue. Specifically, for the story of the Nibelungenlied – the German legend that is the basis for Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle, and an influence on many other artists – not least, JRR Tolkien (and more of him later).

But on the basis that one of the central characters is called Brunhilda, I was told the story – of Siegfried, the dragon, Kriemhild, Brunhilda, Gunther, Hagen … all the way to the climax, where the Burgundians are burned alive in the hall, loyal unto death.

I don’t know whether, in reality, my jaw really did hit the floor of the bus, but that’s what it felt like.

Metaphorical or actual, my gobsmackedness was real.

First, there was the shock of being told a story. I have no other memories of anyone, at any time in my life, telling me a story in such a manner. And this was storytelling – as an art; an ancient art of communication. I don’t remember anything like it from my childhood. And certainly nothing since, but this was not childlike storytelling, but something completely grown-up.

And then there was the dawning realisation that this was what romanticism meant. Not daffodils and bland insipidity. Not soppy stories of lovelorn couples, but something with teeth and guts and passion.

From there is was hardly a major step to start ‘getting’ Wagner. And it was like finding part of my soul.

Coincidentally, I have a slight Tolkien connection. Around 22 years ago, just after I’d moved south, my parents decided that I hadn’t had a holiday in years. This much was true.

So they decided that I should holiday with them. In Torquay on the so-called ‘English Riviera’. This, by and large, was a mistake: a single woman of such tender years and an un-rebellious nature is not likely to have much fun when holidaying with parents who believe that she should dine with them in the hotel every night and go to bed at the same time they do (for some reason or other, I also remember trout with almonds and dry white wine from that holiday – which tells you something if that was a central memory from a whole fortnight away).

Anyway, the hotel that we stayed at was run by a nephew of JRR. It had, if memory serves, nine rooms. And the owner and his wife had long been thinking of having each room designated not by a number, but by a place from Middle Earth. So Rivendell and Bag End etc. The idea was to have illustrations from the books done and then mounted on the doors beneath acrylic plates.

The problem was that of all the people they’d met down the years, the Tolkien enthusiasts couldn’t draw and the artists didn’t like the books.

My father leapt in to offer my services as someone who could tick both boxes. Thus, in the face of the understandable skepticism of JRR’s nephew, I meekly went and bought myself a drawing pad and some pencils, and proceeded to sketch some ideas.

I got the commission. Eventually, I even got a bit of money for it. And I can still legitimately claim to have done artwork for the Tolkien family, based on JRR’s books.

So there you go – that’s my little Tolkien connection. More salient in terms of this story is the point that, until just over 10 years ago, if you’d have asked me to name what I considered the best book in the whole wide world, I’d have said: Lord of the Rings.

Now before I upset anyone, let’s make it clear that Lord of the Rings is a very fine work of literature.

But to quote Terry Pratchett – who was commenting in 1999, during the frenzy of polls and lists marking the end of the millennium: “If you don’t think Lord of the Rings is the greatest book in the world in your teens, there’s something wrong with you.

“If you think Lord of the Rings is the greatest book in the world in your forties – there’s something wrong with you.”

I was saved from that embarrassment by the onset of my own late (but better late than never) surge into something resembling adulthood, and the suggestion by George (after a request for recommendations) that I might appreciate Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

I did. And being aware of the title of Mann’s seminal novella (but not of the first thing about its actual subject matter), I read that next. And was thus thoroughly gobsmacked all the way into the middle of the following week. Or to put it more precisely, I found myself incapable of writing anything for several months – and then finally, when standing on a remote beach in Ireland, watching the wind blow a layer of sand across the beach like a magic carpet, I struggled to find the words to describe the scene to myself. And when they came, it was a dam break, with words pouring out: a vocabulary that seemed to grow almost exponentially in the coming weeks.

You see? It’s that romantic thing – and that’s before you get to Visconti’s film version, with the lush sounds of Mahler’s third and fifth symphonies making up the score.

Not that I realised the romantic nature of the story at the time – that only emerged later, after that telling of the Nibelungenlied.

The sense of fate, of the tragic but somehow honourable – all that: a feeling of something outside – beyond – convention; raw and edgy, violent and noble at the same time.

So there you go. Yesterday might have been Valentine’s Day, but give me the power and the passion of the Nibelungen any day.

Give me the thorns and not the roses – or at least, if you’re going to give me the roses, gives me the thorns too.


Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Up, up and away

I am not the greatest traveller. Or perhaps it would be better to say that I'm not an easy traveller.

Tonight, I'm in Belfast for the first time, for work. Right now, I'm very pleasantly relaxed, with a sense of victory at having hot here, in one piece and without any major snafus. I flew from Heathrow early this afternoon - only the second time I've flown on my own. I only really started flying 12 years ago: oh, I'd flown as a very small child, DC Dakotas from Liverpool Speke as it was called then, to the Isle of Man to spend summer holidays with my maternal grandparents. But then there'd been a long time where I had never taken wing.

That first grown-up flight was 13 hours to Durban to see the common law in laws. And after my initial panic, I developed a blasé attitudeto flying that would never let you suspect my really being an airborne ingenue.

But about four years ago - maybe even on that maiden solo flight - I started together nervy. Or rather, fatalistic. I'd be strapped into my seat and suddenly, unbidden, would come a voice asking what I'd most recently eaten - and whether it was fitting for a last meal.

Now the rational part of me lectures on the safety record of air travel. But another voice chips in to comment on the sheer insanity of sitting in a metal tube, high over the Earth.

This morning, some of this underlying worry was reduced by another form of panic, as I found myself leaving home half an hour later than I had planned. Would I make it on time?

My parents were both dreadful timekeepers. According to the old saying, they'll both be late for their own funerals. They'll probably manage to make me late for mind too, if their record is anything to go on.

So, there I was, waiting for a bus, and wouldn't you know it that no 48 or26 was to be seen, but only a 55 - which is never around when I actually want one! Eventually, with panic rising, I hailed a cab to Paddington - and then spent the next period worrying not just about time, but also about whether I gad enough cash in my purse to pay the driver. Only when we got past Baker Street did I start to relax.

Paddington was thus the beginning of my sense of victory.

I bought tickets for the shuttle and had enough time to over-fill my handbag with glossy magazines. After that, the shuttle was easy - I even got off at the right terminal stop. And then - miracle of miracles - I managed to sort out getting my ticket, checking in my bag and getting through security without help and without actually making a prat of myself.

The magazines were a worthwhile investment: I drooled over the handbag porn in an Elle accessories supplement as we taxied and took off. Then treated myself to a G&T as a celebration for managing to behave like a grown up.

I've sorted out my work for tomorrow now and had the chance for a wander and a bit of retail therapy (a blingy new compact mirror and a chunky statement bangle with an animal print, both from Jaeger).

In half an hour, I have a massage booked. And then, after a shower, I'll go for a meal. And I might not just stay in the hotel for that either, as I did in Gateshead. I told you that that new leather jacket really was more than simply an item of clothing.

At this rate, I'll be feeling like an experienced jetsetter very soon!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Getting ready for girlie time

This is it. Tonight is the first official girlie night in of 2010, as The Other Half speeds up to Yorkshire for an evening of Rugby League.

Planning for this auspicious occasion is well underway.

It started with today's breakfast visit to Pret a Manger. Alongside the eminently sensible porridge, I picked up a slice of chocolate cake. It was opening, with no ceremony whatsoever, 10.38am, revealing a lovely slab of rich, moist sponge, topped in grated chocolate.

The key plan for the evening is simple. I will work through lunch so that I can leave work early. I will get the bus to Oxford Street and re-visit Ann Harvey, where I will ask them to remove the security tag from the leather jacket I bought there on Monday. Given that it didn't set off any alarms when I waltzed out of the shop with my purchases, I didn't notice it until Wednesday.

I will then go to almost-next-door John Lewis. Once there, I may drool over the shoes, but the main task will be to visit the food hall.

I've got my fingers crossed that they'll have some scallops. Preferably, king ones. I had scallops a couple of weeks ago in Gateshead. The hotel boasted seasonal aspects to the menu, including a 'turf 'n' surf' dish of scallops from nearby Whitley Bay, plus a steak from Northumberland cattle. The steak was decent, but the scallops – three small ones, looking lost on top of the meat – were a disappointment, not least for the amount. And that was ironic, since the hotel restaurant had that very UK habit of serving over-sized portions.

One evening, I decided to go for the chef's menu – a very reasonable £25 for three courses. I started with a salad of red bell pepper, some other vegetable that I've forgotten, Feta cheese and a tapenade dressing. Very nicely presented as a sort of tower affair, there must have been at least two – if not three – whole peppers included. There wasn't too much Feta or the second veg, and it was pleasant – but why so much?

Then came my main course: oven roasted salmon with a shallot and roasted tomato risotto. Oh dear. Setting aside the dryness of both fish and rice, there was at least as much risotto as I'd serve for a whole meal, plus twice as much salmon as I'd serve for a portion. An absurd amount. Oh – and shallots should form the base of a risotto anyway, so don't list them as a special ingredient when they're nothing of the sort. And if you're going to claim that roasted tomatoes are a major flavouring, then make sure there's more than two small bits with such a hulking amount of rice.

There are times when knowing about food isn't really conducive to enjoying what's put in front of you. Although at least it creates some balance – not everything can be universally brilliant.

But back to scallops.

I have no intention of this being complex. It'll be simple stuff – seared seafood, served with cannellini or borlotti beans (let's see what I can get) with a little red chili and some wilted salady stuff. Simples – as those bloody meerkats on the advert keep telling me.

And a good white wine. That's a must. Something crisp and fresh to compliment the seafood and the chili. Maybe a good Riesling.

So, that's dinner sorted.

Before that, I'll get back, do any chores I need to do and then chuck myself in a luxury bath with Molton & Brown bubble bath, then I'll don my jimjams and slob for the rest of the evening.

I may watch a film. If I do, it may be a musical. If that's the case, it may be Rodgers & Hammerstein – possibly even The Sound of Music. In which case, with wine as accompaniment, I will doubtless join in.

And I will, of course, have the kittens and Boudicca to keep me company.

I'm not sure, of course, but I don't think it could be much more girlified – and I'm looking forward to it enormously.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Have camera, will travel

It's little more than a week since I got back from Newcastle – and it feels less – but just as I've managed to catch my breath, I'm preparing for another trip; to Belfast, this time.

It's funny – I never really imagined traveling for work. But our new editor – well, newish now, after a year in the job – is determined that I should not be officebound. And it's one of the surprising points about the last three years that, where previously my career had developed so that I had become a 'humble' sub editor who could also write, I now have an all-rounder tag, with photography becoming almost as important a part of my work as the other two aspects of journalism.

Now that's something I never expected.

I first picked up a camera back in 1982. Or to put it more accurately, a college friend foisted a couple of lenses on me (charging me a nominal amount), after she'd managed to bust her own camera body under her car and wanted to upgrade to a different make.

The body had been a Zenith EM – Soviet made and a sort of T34 tank of a camera: so solid that she must have gone some to bust the body with anything other than a tank. Thus, on a trip from college in Leicester to London, she carted me into a shop at London Bridge and organised my purchase of a new Zenith body.

You may gather from this that I didn't have much of a mind of my own at the time, although I will add, by way of some explanation, that she was a mature student.

Any mind of my own had been absorbed, for some years, by chasing my dream of a life in the theatre. So, banned from even attempting to get into drama school, I was studying for a degree in performing arts at Leicester Polytechnic, majoring in drama. The year was a disaster: I was booted out at the end of that time – for having had the temerity to suffer a nasty back injury at the hands of one of the leaders of a 'voluntary' workshop, and then being signed off by my family doctor for a further week after the Easter holiday.

I wondered about legal action – but my parents were not remotely interested (I suspect they considered it some sort of a divine blessing, wrenching me away from theatrical types) and the students' union was no help either.

My plans were in ruins. But the almost-unshatterable Zenith stayed with me for years. Not that I did much with it. Film was expensive and developing costs even more so. Particularly for someone with a negligable income, as I lurched between poorly-paid work and the dole. This was a decade of two recessions – both of which hit the North West hard.

When I did pick up the camera, it was as mysterious as an archeological relic covered in runes. I hadn't the first clue about aperture or shutter or measuring light or anything else. I could point. And I could shoot. And if I was very lucky, I might get a picture worth looking at. Actually, if I was lucky, I might get a picture that you could actually see.

Some years later, after I'd moved to London and was living in a squat, the camera was stolen from my room. To be honest, I didn't really miss it. Holidays – such as they were – in the coming years were recorded in standard snapshots, with basic Kodak jobbies and even, on one spectacularly broke occasion, staying with an old friend in Anglesey, with pencil and paper.

Then, just over four years ago, my ship came in when an elderly relative left me some money. The old computer took one look at the cheque and died with a fine (if theatrical) sense of timing. Having replaced that, it seemed sensible to invest a small amount in a compact digital camera. I got an Olympus from Boots. For half the original price and with a load of loyalty card points as an extra bonus. And then I put the camera away until our first jaunt to France and Spain, around six months later.

Free from the fear of spiraling developing costs, the pictures were surprisingly good, although even then, I didn't pay much attention to that.

It was another few months down the line, planning a job, that I realised that taking the camera to an event would allow me to do an illustrated vox pop, instead of expecting the 'official' photographer to follow me around. Without realising it at the time, I'd set a snowball in motion.

Eventually, the sensible thing was to get a more serious camera – an SLR. Gradually, I began to understand and pick up the technical stuff; but the crucial thing was the realisation that I have 'an eye'.

All those years ago, when I was battling, heart and soul, to carve out a life treading the boards, my teachers had firmly expected me to go into art. Specifically, into graphic art. My training and career had been mapped out. In detail.

Yet somehow, the girl who couldn't refuse to buy an unwanted camera from a domineering college friend managed to refuse teachers and parents. But even if unappreciated or simply hidden, 'the eye' remained.

And next week, before flying out to Belfast – dragging a heavy rucksack of camera gear through security in the splendour of Heathrow – I'm slated to cover an event at Westminster to do with supporting families and young people. With cartoon character Peppa Pig and 'Mum of the Year' and former glamour model, Melinda Messenger.

One things for certain: it's a long way from that Zenith EM and complete photographic illiteracy.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Tales of a leather jacket

After what feels like a rather frenetic January at work – including five days away on business in Gateshead and Newcastle – it's been most theraputic to have some time to myself.

It was back in October when I first committed myself to a trip to Rigby & Pellar to get new bras, but I finally got around to it yesterday, when I gave myself a sort of 'ladies who lunch' day shopping. Well, it wasn't a full day – not least because my visit to R&P was completely successful, but considerably shorter than expected, due to a surprising lack of a queue for fittings.

I'd started the day with the fullest intention of enjoying myself, and had dressed and done my make-up with that in mind. I was going to do the smart, sophisticated shopper routine for once in my life.

With R&P concluded so fast, I headed up to Oxford Street. The eastern half, from Oxford Circus to Tottenham Court Road, has long been the rather less classy part; shops full of tacky souvenirs and faintly trendy (in a sort of attempted rock 'n' roll way) clothing.

Yesterday, it looked even less enticing – downright sad, really. Record and DVD store Zavvi was one of the first casualties of the recession, and it's flagship store on Oxford Street had previously been the Virgin Megastore – an absolute gem of a shop, not least, from a personal point of view, because it had a wonderful, dedicated classical music section with knowledgeable staff. Now that's gone. Several other shops are empty – even on such a major street. And to cap it all, there are the beginnings of huge new roadworks cutting a zig zag along much of that part of the street.

So apart from the Marks and Spencer just east of Oxford Circus, I usually head down to the other end. And particularly to John Lewis.

Yesterday was no exception. But with the extra time (and money – my bra expenditure at R&P turned out to be massively lower than my previous visit some five years ago), I headed to Ann Harvey first. A few doors down from John Lewis, it's shop was revamped last year – and the clothes seem to have been given a makeover too. Although it's aimed at the 'larger lady', I'd tended to avoid it, at it seemed rather frumpy.

Either I have since headed into frumpydom myself or things have improved. The end of the January sales are still dragging on and I picked up a quality pair of smart trousers for £15, before lashing out considerably more on a new jacket – soft black leather, fully lined and styled in biker fashion, with a diagonal zip closure.

It was like a reminder of myself. Only that morning, I'd been struggling to know what jacket or coat to wear, and testing a black, leather jacket I'd been reminded just how shabby that staple of my wardrobe had become.

It's around 10 years old: the first leather jacket – or any other piece of leather clothing – that I'd ever owned, and was bought at a shop around Petticoat Lane market one Sunday afternoon. It was just after the start of my 'adolescent' development; an emerging from a sort of shell. Late – 40 was only just over the horizon – but better late than never.

Part of what followed was a realisation that I didn't have a clue how to dress. I had to start pretty much from scratch and try to learn. And that leather jacket – with collar turned up as a friend suggested – was the first piece of statement clothing I bought. You could dress it down or up. You could wear it anywhere – I did. And looking back, it was probably the first piece of clothing that I bought then that has survived that process of learning. It was my first 'right' piece.

You never forget your first leather jacket. I'm not about to throw it out just yet – although it's so battered that I've been wearing it less and less in the last couple of years. It's been re-lined twice, but the pockets have gone again and the leather itself is worn in a number of places, plus there are a number of little snicks where I left it hung over an armchair once, only for one of the cats to walk all over it with claws out.

This new jacket will be hung up carefully in the wardrobe when it's not being worn. There will be no repeat of that feline episode.

I am not ready for 'frumpy'. And I need to give myself a slap to stop falling into the temptation of being conventional. Decades of silent tears, spilt first because I longed to be 'normal' and then because I'd lost whoever the real me was by trying to be something I wasn't, should have taught me that happiness doesn't lie down that route.

But there seems to be a huge appetite for approbation from the more naturally conventionally inclined; from society and The Establishment even.

Look at actors. Once upon a time, considered far from respectable, but now regularly hobnobbing with royalty and picking up honours. The same goes for rock stars and writers and even journalists.

Journalists, for goodness sake! Why don't we want to be outlaws and reprobates any more? What happened to the spirit of rebellion and non-conformity? What great art or music or literature has ever been made from conformity?

It's such an irony that my parents are, in religious terms, non-conformists. My mother, in her determined effort to make me a poster girl for conformity, stuck me in handed-down tweed twin sets and (imitation) pearls in my teens. If such a thing had been possible, I imagine she'd have had me joining the WI (junior section) and making jam to sell at jumble sales.

So I have to fight regularly against this deep-seated compulsion to conform. Never was it revealing itself more than in my panic about what clothing to wear on our forthcoming trip on the Orient Express. Given the stuff I'd been browsing on the web recently, I was in mortal danger of inventing whole new levels of twee.

The leather jacket has pulled me back from the brink. Now even if I wear the smart new trousers (a dark, tweedy check) and a plain blouse, if I top it all off with the jacket, with collar turned insouciantly up, then even such an ensemble gains an edge. And there are, of course, plenty of other things that I could do with it: wearing the bowler hat that I bought in Berlin last year, for instance: it might not quite make me Sally Bowles, but it'll be a million miles from Hyacinth Bucket.