The US in bullet point form

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Wednesday 17 April. 10.30am. Des Moines Airport, Iowa. Waiting to catch my flight to Chicago and from there I’ll pick up the flight to London (if the thunder and lightning have stopped by then.) Here’s my end-of-trip round-up. Things I have done and learned.

NB This is full of generalisations. But generalisations are fun.

  • I have talked for seven and a half hours in total.
  • And signed hundreds of books.
  • Had my photo taken with a lot of people. There are a lot of bad photos of me out there right now.
  • Had scrambled eggs, blueberry pancakes, crispy bacon, waffles and pints of coffee. For breakfast. This morning.
  • Have also had the dubious pleasures of peanut butter pie, key lime pie and raspberry sundae. But not all at once. Except for last night.
  • Been to Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Miami, Jupiter Island, Jacksonville, Sea Island and Des Moines (and now going home via Chicago). That’s four states in nine days: Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Chicago.
  • [Postscript amend: Chicago is not a state. Illinois is what I meant. Honest.]
  • Presidential campaign tours must be hard work.
  • Americans still believe that Marilyn Monroe is the most beautiful woman that ever lived.
  • Nobody is interested in the death of Margaret Thatcher. They did not admire her. They largely did not even know who she was.
  • Britain is a small island off the north coast of Europe.
  • There are ads on TV and in the magazines for drugs of all kinds: anti-depressants, severe plaque psoriasis, halitosis. This is strange but it gets even stranger when the camera is panning over ‘America’s Next Top Model’ Candidee English tossing back her blonde extensions and enjoying her new psoriasis-free skin with a voiceover in the monotone that is supposed to indicate ‘small print’: “Safety and effectiveness have not been proved beyond two years. This may cause cancer. Discuss with your doctor if you have cancer.”
  • I haven’t seen anything older than a hundred years except for the residents of Palm Beach, where it’s hard to find anybody who can walk and eat unaided. Miami is populated by the very old and the very gay, all sharing their love of big hair, Botox and tans.
  • Image 2(Dear Palm Beach – see NB above. Please invite me back)
  • They are funny – cue the airline steward on Southwest Airlines (say the following to yourself in a Texan drawl): “As you all know, smoking has been banned FOREVER. If you really want to smoke that bad, walk out on to the wing. That’ll be the in-flight entertainment….In the event of an emergency, if you are travelling with a child – though God knows why you would want to do that – attend to your own mask first. If you are travelling with someone who is acting like a child, that’s your own freaking problem.” And at the end of the flight, when the light pinged. “Awlright. Get off.”
  • Everything feels so big – roads, trucks, horizons, buildings, coffee cups.
  • Nothing so big as my stomach – apparently no meal is complete unless it contains at least one of the following options, but preferably all four: cheese, gloopy sauce of indeterminate flavour, deep fried batter, corn syrup. I ordered steak salad last night – it came with blue cheese, deep fried onion rings, fried potatoes and a hunk of bread.
  • There is quite an evenly spread mix of whites and non-whites on TV, also in senior management (as evidenced in hotels, venues etc) and also amongst the audiences I met. But all the low-grade jobs – porters, cleaners, chambermaids – were exclusively held by non-whites. (If you say ‘black’ here it means ‘Afro-American’).
  • Their newspapers are terrible – hard to read, little international news, badly designed.
  • Ditto the news shows which appear to choose one major story – North Korea, the Boston Marathon bombings – and talk about them for 48 hours. A ticker tape of news running along the bottom of the screen is the only way to find out that anything else has happened.
  • Their newsreaders all look like contestants from Miss World 1999.
  • The men are quite frequently ridiculously good-looking, especially the silver-haired limo drivers. You never saw so many square jaws as in the taxi queue.
  • They are generous, kind and welcoming.
  • They are free with their compliments. I have been told how cute I am, how gracious, how nice, how much fun etc. This could all quite easily go to one’s head except for the fact that I cannot believe a single word of it. I don’t know if this is because I am British or because I am suspicious when there’s no change of tone. If they were rude about one thing in front of me, I’d be more inclined to believe they didn’t parrot polite phrases. Still, I’m not complaining – it’s nice to hear.
  • And some of it’s true. If someone wishes you a great day, quite often you have one. At the very least you wish them one back. I can’t help but feeling London taxi drivers might benefit from this small point of knowledge.
  • Even the most basic hotel rooms have: WIFI, an iron and board, a hairdryer, huge TV, aircon.
  • It is near-impossible to find anyone to do your hair in Fort Lauderdale. I did all my own hair this week, which partly accounts for the bad photos.
  • Don’t say blow-dry, say blow-out.
  • Their service is the best in the world. No kidding. But you pay for it – I’ve spent a hundred bucks in tips.
  • Sex is never in the air. They don’t flirt. I guess it’s been litigated out of them. Or I just ate too many of those goddamn blueberry pancakes.
  • It’s been great. I’m happy to go home. Thank you, America.

When puddings meant love

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Yesterday, I flew to Miami on American Airlines. Weirdly, I’ve always rather enjoyed aeroplane food. I mean, it’s obviously revolting, but there’s something about the little trays and wrapped butter that can only engender excitement: they all add up to the sum of my going somewhere far away, towards new places, people and memories, both formed and triggered. As I was being treated – and thank you very much AA – to a Business Class flight, the food was plentiful. For my pudding I was served a giant round ball of ice-cream, swimming in butterscotch sauce, topped with whipped cream and chopped nuts. I haven’t had butterscotch sauce for years, not since my mum made it and I last ate so much of it that it put me off until now, what must be some 25 years later.

My relationship with food now is on the whole a fairly balanced one, I like to think. Balanced, that is, relative to being a woman and, furthermore, one who is occasionally on public view. Every now and again I’ll lose weight through some faddish thing, the Dukan diet or an Ayurvedic detox, then keep an eye on things, then take the eye right off the ball until a look at the scales sends me back to Googling ‘lose a stone in a fortnight’. But my shape never changes hugely and I live, as most do, wishing I was about half a stone lighter, took a bit more exercise and had a free pass to a salon so that I never had to wash my own hair.

I think my generation – 70s kids – was probably the last to enjoy a childhood where food was nothing but simple pleasures. The 70s hit that magic period before paranoia set in about toxins and weight:  E-numbers (the blight of my sister’s childhood; she was an 80s baby), organic hype, local food, Jamie’s chickens, corn syrup, Gywneth Paltrow… the myriad of edible elements we worry about on a daily basis in 2013. Pre-1970s food wasn’t so great either: children ate what they were given and what they were given was largely over-boiled vegetables and suet puddings. My mother, born in 1949, remembered the intoxicating arrival of spaghetti, muesli and yoghurt. My father’s favourite food is mushy peas, because it was something digestible that he was served at school.

Food fads and diets, of course, are nothing new. My grandmother swore by half a grapefruit every morning as a magical solution to burning off calories eaten later. She used to tell me of Parisian models in the 1950s fed pills by their agencies – one left her pills on the mantelpiece, only to find tapeworms crawling out of them a few days later. Physical exercise was considered extremely important to many women born in the 1920s and 1930s, with many doing quick daily routines when they got up in the morning. At the turn of the last century, corsets might have helped with creating an ultra-flat stomach but they were a cruel reminder of any second helpings. You would be laced into your corset by a helper the first time and that shape would be retained so that you could hook yourself in thereafter: it would be very uncomfortable to wear if you got any bigger and if you didn’t have a lady’s maid to hand to let it out a bit, you’d be constrained all day.

So. Back to the butterscotch sauce. Hot and sweet. Too much of it on my ice-cream, with a small cup on the side of an extra helping. This was my mother’s treat on a Wednesday night. Actually, on any night. Every supper had puddings with names as sickly as their high-sugar content: Angel’s Delight, Viennetta ice-cream, Spotted Dick, Bread & Butter pudding, Apple Brown Betty, rhubarb crumble, mashed banana with brown sugar and cream, custard on anything or on its own. Never a yoghurt, not even a fruity one, let alone plain and unsweetened, or slices of fruit or even a cracker and cheese. But strawberry jelly, Arctic Roll, Neapolitan ice-cream, pancakes with lemon and white caster sugar. Each pudding came one shade or three of the artificially enhanced rainbow. Glutinous lashings of fructose syrup on the tinned peaches filled each mouthful, expanding within, coating my tongue in its clingy texture, each tooth wrapped and shiny from chowing down nightly on mouthfuls of sucrose. Despite faithfully brushing my teeth twice a day, I had five fillings and two gold teeth by the time I was 13 years old. (To put this in perspective, my nearly-15-year-old stepson has no fillings and is yet to lose all his milk teeth.) “No need for braces,” my dentist would smile brightly. “Your teeth are perfectly straight.” That was considered a win.

I think puddings, for my mother, were a sign of love. Not that love wasn’t lavished on us daily, in a thousand different ways, but because every night she had the power to bestow a treat, and this pleased her. To not give a treat would not have been seen as, say, levelling out the balance so that it could be a treat by the terms of its definition (something warmly appreciated thanks to its occasional appearance) – no, to not give a treat would be to be strict, or boring, or following a discipline of denial. Moderation, when it came to love, was not my mother’s line.

Which was not to say that she was greedy. I mean, she dieted. She was usually a little heavier than she’d like to be but she knew that she only had to stop the treats and she’d be fine. She was funny, very beautiful and glamorous – I don’t think anyone except her noticed the little extra on her hips. Sometimes there would be a brief enthusiasm for the latest fad – callisthenics (which appealed at first because it was based on doing only tiny movements; it soon wore off because you had to do hundreds of them); Rosemary Conley’s Hip & Thigh Diet; some strange green powdered drink sent over from the US; the pineapple diet, in which you ate nothing but pineapples and the weight fell off but your mouth felt blistered and sore.

When not on the diet – and even when she was on one, she still gave me the same food – we had our usual repertoire. Frosties for breakfast, then toast thickly spread with butter and marmalade. School lunch (mint-green custard has always stuck in my mind). Home from school, I’d be rewarded for my toil and strife with crumpets spread with Golden Syrup, toast and marmite, French Fancies and ginger nut biscuits. Supper was more or less on rotation and almost everything was some sort of meat with mashed potatoes: Shepherd’s Pie, Corned Beef Hash, Barbecued Spare Ribs, Fray Bentos pies, lamb chops…followed, (un)naturally enough, by pudding. The only change was on Friday nights, which always meant fish, but not fish so that you could actually recognise it. Smoked haddock or squares of cod would be disguised in fish cakes, kedgeree or a quirky fish pie which was topped with crisps and grated cheese. Most things got slightly burnt: “Charcoal is very good for cleaning out the insides,” she’d say. I still like burnt toast. Before bed we’d have a mug of hot Ovaltine. The arrival of the microwave was enthusiastically welcomed.

Recalling it all now, I wonder that she didn’t just pour me three bowls of sugar a day and be done with it.

Weirdly, however, right alongside all this was a new health consciousness. My mother had Multiple Sclerosis and diet was supposed to help her. This took us to the new and rare health food shops where every single packet appeared to contain sawdust and often tasted just as exciting.

Each morning, the whole family had to ingest several enormous vitamin pills – why were they so BIG in those days? – that came out of sweet-jar sized dark brown bottles. Mum was vegetarian for a few years, off and on, in the 1970s. It was a hard time not to eat meat – you certainly couldn’t maintain it if you went to anyone else’s house for dinner (“If I chop up the bacon very small,” said her mother-in-law, “could you still have the salad?”) and you’d have to invent a meat-free option on a restaurant menu as it wouldn’t be specially put on there. At home we ate a lot of recipes from Crank’s (the only vegetarian restaurant in existence), the basis of each dish being either pasta, potatoes or lentils, except on high days and holidays when you’d have all three at once. Everything would be covered in white sauce. Nut roast for Sunday lunch became rather a favourite. Samosas were my reward for helping in the supermarket and I remember becoming very fond of Sesame Snap bars and carob chocolate. Even now, I prefer brown rice and wholemeal bread…so long as it’s followed by cheap vanilla ice-cream.

I only remember it all as being very tasty. Others thought so too, as my mother apparently had a reputation amongst her friends as being something of a cook, albeit one who had never so much as clapped eyes on a bottle of olive oil. If you were invited to a dinner party more than once you knew, with what she presumably hoped was reassuring familiarity, what you would be served. G&Ts on arrival, with Bombay Mix and Twiglets handed out by me. (Waitressing duties over, a thrilling glimpse of the guests having been caught, I’d be sent to bed.) Smoked mackerel pate to start (fish mashed with cream cheese); cheese souffle with salad followed by a pudding from her favourite recipe book, ‘Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone To So Much Trouble’, which consisted entirely of dishes which were a cheat of some sort, usually involving tinned salmon. The dinner party pud was Greek yoghurt into which spoonfuls of lemon curd had been stirred, then garnished with slices of kiwi. There would be masses of wine, from a box (I liked to blow up the silver bags the next day, for use as stylish cushions, so long as the tap was kept hidden underneath) and smoking throughout. There’d be a joint with the coffee.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, I was a slim child, rarely ill once I’d grown out of the childhood illness phase. It wasn’t what we’d do today, but it was just fine then. Without coming over all Louisa May Alcock, every morsel was served with love. And that kept us happy and healthy. I’ll take that over Agave Syrup any day.

Country vs City: The Town Mouse View

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english country lane

I’ve been living in the country (note: posh* people never say ‘countryside’) for nearly three months now and I’ve always said that it takes about that long to get used to anything new – relationship, job, house. After three months you should have that inward sigh of small happiness when you get within a certain distance of the front door. That safe feeling you have when at home begins to extend to a further point – the last street corner you turn, the bus stop you get off at – where you feel ‘if anything tries to get me now, I’ll be ok’. (Funny really we should feel like this when most accidents happen within a three mile radius of your home.) You should have got your bearings now too. You know where the nearest dry cleaners is; you’ve finally registered with the doctor. At work after three months, you’ve sussed the quickest commute, you know the right bit of platform to stand on to get your preferred tube carriage. And in a relationship, three months is pretty much the point at which you know whether it’s a goer or not, how many sugars they like in their tea and which friends of yours they don’t like much.

So here I am and yes, I’ve got the dry cleaner sorted. Got my Waitrose layout nailed and know the best place to buy sausages. I’ve met the neighbours, too. In fact, I met my neighbour the very first night I was in the house, when she popped round with a card and a bottle of wine, because that’s how they do things in the country. I remember wanting to invite all my neighbours round for a drink when I first bought my flat in Notting Hill, one of nine in a converted house. “Don’t,” said a friend. “No one will come and they’ll earmark you as a nutter.” Which was probably true. We all know you don’t say hello to people in the city. The shorthand for ‘goofball character’ or ‘alien from outer space recently landed in New York’ is always achieved by having said weirdo/alien relentlessly smile at all the passersby who bury their faces even further into their turned up collars. In fact, so used to this was I that when I first got together with my now-husband, then living in Suffolk, after one walk I remarked that he seemed to know an awful lot of people because he’d said hello to everyone we’d passed.

A Londoner born and bred I grew to love the anonymity the city gave me. Round my flat, where I lived for almost eight years, I had enough local friendliness – the launderette, the cafe that knew how I liked my coffee, the market stalls on a Friday – but also the ability to disappear on a whim. No one to question my whereabouts, my mood or just what I was doing having breakfast with this bloke when I’d been having breakfast with quite another last weekend. The thought of losing all this to a village life that might be cosy and supportive but also nosey, bigoted and judgemental frightened me out of my cynical urban wits.

I was wrong.

First of all, we are not really in a villagey-village, although there’s one nearby. So I don’t feel in any way watched. But even if we were, I doubt there would be many who would take much notice. Turns out, people who live in the country, have a life too, you know? And, what’s more, I’m not sure I would mind all that much even if they did notice. After a lifetime of strangers on the street turning away if you ever so much as hint at needing some help – falling over, say, and bleeding – it’s actually been a rather surprising comfort to find that I like people caring. Thanks to utter strangers taking a kind interest in me, I have real, live neighbours who do things like give my son presents, buy me tickets for the local literary festival and bring round gluten-free brownies (I don’t need them, but they do). I had a sitting-room full of people I had never so much as heard of three months ago, let alone met, and I was truly happy to have them there. That’s been a new one on me. Just as you think you know yourself…

Secondly, the thing of physical proximity, the feeling of being invaded is much, much worse in the city. I only realised this when I got the train down yesterday and then had to get a packed tube, having stupidly coincided my cross-city trip with rush hour, and found myself nose-to-armpit with both savoury and unsavoury types. Nothing was threatening it was just a bit, you know, close. It’s not just that the country has wide open spaces and to bump into someone on a walk you’d have to target them with the efficiency of a drone, it’s the fact that there’s none of that arty-farty city kissing and hugging either. We all nod hello and maybe shake hands first time, but that’s about it. Passing in the car might merit a wave, but more likely a lifted finger or two from the steering wheel and a barely perceptible nod. All acquaintances and best friends are treated alike. It’s not unfriendly, not at all – it’s just a respectful distance. God, I love it. And my predilection for smattering even a note for the milkman with xxx’s is being shown in comic relief here. My new bezzie mate here may have told me the ins and outs of her marriage but she’s not put so much as an x at the end of a text to me.

There is one unexpected thing, however. I’ve noticed that the class divide is blown much wider in the country. That great cliche, the melting-pot of London, is true. When everyone’s a blow-in, there are millions of people who are reinventing their story, building their platform, ironing out their accents and all living cheek-by-jowl. We all live on the same street, go to the same schools (apart from that tiny percentage that go to very exclusive ones), travel on the same tubes and buses, see the same movies, eat at the same restaurants. Of course you can see class divides in London, but out in the country it feels much more pronounced. I think it’s partly the size of the houses, partly the rustic accents are thrown into sharper relief (not so many BBC voices here). It’s harder to pass yourself off as proper country, than it is to be a Dalston trendy, say, within a week of arriving. (I know I’m failing in keeping up appearances out here but then, I’m not trying. More on the clothes and other giveaways another time, I’m still spotting them.)

I’m not in what many would call proper country anyway – it’s ‘lunch-country’ (you can get here and back from London just for lunch). I’m sure in Devon or Dorset it would be a different story (anyone care to enlighten me?) and certainly in Oxfordshire, most of the people I’ve met are ex-London and still say they’re going ‘up to town’ pretty frequently, and they don’t mean Abingdon or Oxford. But, still, that’s how it’s been for me. The best thing I can say? I’m pleased I made the move. So thank you neighbours. See you in the pub later.

 

 

 *Hmmm. I’m not THAT posh. But, anyway. 

Town Mouse moves to the country

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When I was thirty years old, I was appointed Deputy Editor of Country Life magazine. To  all my friends – and probably most of the staff of the magazine – it was hard to fathom. I had begun my career with six years at the celebrity-chasing Mail on Sunday, lived in London my whole life, could only walk in high heels and couldn’t tell my Doric from my Architrave. When the then-editor, the charming Clive Aslet, sent out an email announcing that I would be starting in the job, the staff Googled my name and the first thing that came up was an article I’d written about knickers. They didn’t hope for the best.

In the end, I stayed over four years, acquired five pairs of Hunter wellies and although I don’t think I succeeded in achieving my brief (to modernise the culture of the magazine – “like trying to modernise Prince Phillip,” a friend of mine remarked), I learned a lot. I also gained a real respect for the sometimes quieter way of going about things, for the men and women who had spent their years learning their craft or chosen subject, sometimes obscure but always valuable if they were not to disappear forever, whether that be the growing of cobnuts or the restoration of 14th century oak beams.

Some lessons were harder won. I was, after all, a townie, and the ways of the country were a mystery to me. After I asked my editor what the difference was between hay and straw, the only answer I could remember was that hay is a book festival and straw is something you drink cocktails with.

During my time there, I wrote a column for the now-defunct The London Paper, which appeared on Fridays, encouraging townies to go to the country at the weekend and indulge in the pleasures of pubs, stately homes, walks, strange Guy Fawkes night parades and so on. These formed the basis of my first book, Mud & the City: Dos and Don’ts for Townies in the Country (now available as an e-book). At the same time, I wrote a column for the magazine, as the Town Mouse, describing my various antics in and around the harsh pavements of London.

Now I have moved to the country for real. (This is partly why I’ve been a quiet on the blog front lately.) We are in Oxfordshire and I’m having to put some of my advice into practice – getting to know the neighbours, employing locally, chatting to the shopkeepers. There will be chickens, there may even be a dog. Some things have been surprising – for all the fresh air, I’m much more unhealthy in the country, baking and eating endless cakes and never walking anywhere (everything is a car journey’s distance away). Some less so – the house is freezing in the afternoon, it’s eerily quiet at night. I don’t feel quite up to writing a Country Mouse column yet (still using straws for cocktails), but perhaps a Town Mouse In The Country blog will do. I’ll let you know how I’m getting on. In the meantime, do come over for tea. There’s cake.

Something Dangerous by Penny Vincenzi

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I’ve just pressed the last click on my Kindle (hmmm, it’s not got quite the same ring as ‘turned the last page’, has it?) and finished ‘Something Dangerous’ by Penny Vincenzi. It’s a fabulous book. A proper family saga, that stretches from 1928 until after the Second World War. There’s a vivid host of characters and I got completely swept up in it – again, doing rather more reading than writing. I was intrigued to read a Vincenzi book, partly because she’s the mother of a friend of mine (Sophie Cornish, with whom I wrote the ‘Build A Business From Your Kitchen Table’ book) but also because she’s a successful – very – novelist, former journalist, and I think one sometimes hopes to be able to detect the magic formula that made it work for her.

One can’t, of course. Each writer is different, each reader is different. But there were lots of things about her book that I thought really worked (and, reader, if you think I’m gushing because of the connection, I’ll tell you now, if I thought it was rubbish, you wouldn’t even know I’d read it). The rich variety of characters, for one, and the way she slipped from writing from all their different points of view. This is VERY hard to do – to have all the different voices, and yet keep the book consistent and keep the reader attached. But she made it very fluid – I found it, oddly, much less disruptive than the current fashion for having alternate chapters for two central characters.

The attention to historical detail was brilliant – just a smattering, just enough for you to know she knew what she was talking about. The names of the fashionable designers, then, or the Society names (she had two Fellowes’s in there – Mrs Reginald Fellowes, a well-known hostess and Daisy Fellowes, a beauty), the clubs they went to, the details of the big events being played out on the world stage and how they infiltrated and infected the smallest of domestic concerns. Sensing how reliable this knowledge is, makes one very comfortable with the rest and gives the right context – a made-up successful author is very quickly believable when set alongside casual mention of Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, for example.

She uses a lot of dialogue, without doing huge tracts of ‘he said’, ‘she said’. These exchanges took me longer to get comfortable with, just because of the use of the period colloquialisms (a bit like reading dialect, which I personally always find difficult). But it was still the right thing for her to do, and it got one into the characters, and helped you recognise them as got further into the book, to feel almost intimately familiar with them. But they also became a brilliant plot device, as conversations would start and you wouldn’t immediately know what it was referring to and you have an enjoyable guessing game.

Vincenzi is an absolute master of setting up tension. I’ve not been on tenterhooks so many times within one book. Two characters will be racing against time in one way or another and because it’s such a big saga, with so many people, there’s just no telling how it will turn out. So many times I either sighed with relief; others, I wept.

And for me, this was a great book because it absolutely tackled a fascinating time in history. A time when women who lost their lovers and brothers to the horrors of the First World War, then found they had to send their sons to the same in the Second World War. I’ve read less around the subject of the latter war, and I was very moved by the descriptions of the bombings in London, the emotional tiredness everyone suffered just to keep going, the people who abhorred the war, the ones who loved it.

Oh, and terrific sex scenes, too.

I’m rather bereft it’s over now. But very exited because 1) there are two more books in the trilogy to read (idiotically, I’ve only just realised this) and 2) I’ve decided I’m going to ask her out to lunch and try to find out more about how she did it. I’ll keep you posted.

If you want to buy the book yourself, go here: Amazon.co.uk

Although you should probably not do as I did, and start with the first of the trilogy – No Angel.

Enjoy!

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