Tuesday, June 30, 2009


My clever first cousin once removed is part of a team from Cambridge University designing an eco-friendly racing car. She has invented a gate in the engine, preventing the petrol from sloshing over to one side while the car screeches around corners and disabling the pump. (As you may gather from this explanation, I am no mechanic.) The car will be in a race at Silverstone and amongst the competition will be another Cambridge designed car which is solar-powered. My cousin is hoping there will be no sun that day.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Cunning Little Vixen

We went on what has become our annual family visit to our local opera, The Grange, to see The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by David Alden. My aunt brings the wine, my cousins, the strawberries and I, the main course which was this year a jambon persille which involved much cursing under my breath as the aspic jelly had to be strained three times through double-folded muslin. It was worth it in the end and Ottolenghi's recipe for squash and butter bean salad was also well received.

The opera was surreal with a huge mayfly swirling around the roof of the stage, characters wearing heads of badgers and dogs and a great leaping frog. There was a hilarious chorus of clucking hens which were eventually killed by the vixen. The Vixen herself, Ailish Tynan, stole the show with her flirtatiousness and sex appeal.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Could they be related?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Hermit of Peking

I met a relation of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the infamous fraudster who lived in Peking from 1899-1944. Sir Edmund duped many people about Chinese history and politics. One of his feats was sending historical manuscripts from the Imperial Court to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The first batch arrived in 1913 and Chinese scholars at Oxford were thrilled to read the documents. More manuscripts were sent over during the following ten years and by 1923 Oxford had received eight tons of paper from him. The scholars began to question how Sir Edmund had procured all the documents. They looked at them more closely and were overcome by a wave of nausea and horror: all the manuscripts were forged.

Sir Edmund's niece was 7 years old in 1944. She had heard many tales of her sinophile uncle in Peking but had never met him. One night she was awoken from her bed by a loud banging at the front door. She went downstairs into the hall and opened the large door. She saw a man in full Mandarin dress. "I am your Uncle Edmund," the man said, "and I've come to stay for a couple of months!" She showed him to a guest bedroom and went back to bed.

In the morning she rushed down to breakfast in a state of high excitement. "Mummy, guess what? Uncle Edmund arrived last night: he's staying for two months!" Her parents were disbelieving. They went upstairs to the guest bedroom. It was deserted. The girl was bewildered. The next day they received word that Sir Edmund had died in Peking two days before.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Florentine adventures

I am seeing some old friends this evening with whom I enjoyed a very amusing holiday in Tuscany many years ago. We were a group of ten and were staying at a villa which had been divided into various apartments, all sharing one swimming pool and one landlady, a glamorous signora of a certain age called Carla. Carla's boyfriend was handsome and at least 10 years younger and they were most hospitable.

One of our friends was arriving four days into this holiday so a few of us drove into Florence to meet him at the station from his train which was due to get in at 9pm. We were early and sojourned to a local bar for a drink. When we arrived punctually at the station there was no sign of any train. On making enquiries we were told that we were at the wrong station and should in fact be on the other side of the city! We didn't have a good map so we instructed a taxi driver to drive there, saying that we would follow him in our car. We arrived at the other station at 9.30pm. It was deserted. The train had arrived punctually, the passengers had disembarked, there was no sign of our friend. Our friend had a military background and we assumed that he must have taken a taxi to the villa. We drove back.

On our arrival, there was an extraordinary sight: on the gravel drive in front of the villa was an armchair, a mattress, a small table and various cds lying on the ground. It was a very warm night so we imagined that somebody had decided to sleep outside. There was, however, no sign of our friend and we were worried.

Half an hour later he arrived. He had been taken all around the hills by the taxi driver who was charging him E150 for the ride.

In the morning, our other friends told us that they had heard an almighty row going on the previous night and that a lot of furniture had been thrown out of one of the upstairs windows. Carla emerged, beautiful as ever, to serve us our breakfast. We then spotted her boyfriend. He had a huge black eye!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Christmas was cancelled

Two people were laid off from our company in December and so it was felt inappropriate to hold a Christmas party. Our very efficient office manager had booked a table some months in advance at The Vineyard in Stockcross for this party and was told that the deposit could not be refunded but that we could keep the reservation for six months. Therefore we held our 2008 Christmas party on Saturday and I brought along two small Christmas trees as table decorations and a couple of left over Christmas crackers to celebrate. We had fun. The crackers were pulled but nobody wore the hats. Shame!

Friday, June 19, 2009

My word is my bond

Today's FT reports a bizarre story of two men in their 50s, carrying Japanese passports, on a slow train from Italy to Switzerland earlier this month. They were asked at Chiasso whether they had anything to declare. "No," they said but on further investigation, one of their suitcases was found to have a false bottom which contained a staggering $134bn in counterfeit US Treasury bills, believed to be the work of the Mafia.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Driving west to east

In 2004, 4.8m cars were sold in China and 17m in the USA. This year car sales in China are projected to be 11m, compared with 10.2m in the USA. Nevertheless, foreign brands still account for three-quarters of the cars sold in China. Three young tigers are doing their best to break this stranglehold: Li Shufu whose company is called Geely, Wang Chuanfu of BYD (in which Warren Buffett owns a large stake) and Yin Tongyao of Chery, the number one car exporter in China. The crisis at western car manufacturers is also tempting Chinese players: Geely is trying to buy Volvo from Ford and a Sichuan based company called Tengzhong is bidding for Hummer. Ho hum...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A day at the races

Yesterday was my racing friends' annual Royal Ascot picnic and I'd procured a guest badge for the Buck's Club tent, where I was hoping to take my unreliable friend, Tubby, for tea. Tubby said he'd do his best to make it, however, he hadn't arrived by 1.20pm when some other friends invited me to their box watch the Queen arrive. I hadn't seen them since our lunch last summer at Deauville racecourse where we had enjoyed a most amusing day. They had brought their two sons and the girlfriend of one of them to Ascot and the six of us departed from the picnic. Off we went to the box via a quick glass of champagne in the White's Club tent and I explained to the girlfriend-less Boy that I had a spare badge for Buck's and that he would be most welcome to accompany me there for tea as Tubby had not turned up. The Boy said he would be delighted. At 2.30pm Tubby called me, asking where we should meet. "Buck's Club, after the third race," was my answer. I told The Boy that Tubby had arrived so he was not obliged to come to Buck's if he preferred to stay in the box. The Boy was crestfallen! "Of course I'm coming to Buck's!" he exclaimed, "We can get another guest badge for Tubby!" En route, I enquired gently about The Boy's girlfriend. He told me that he had not had a girlfriend but had been keen to get one and that a friend of his at Aberystwyth University had introduced him to a suitable candidate. He likes her very much and they have a common interest: Heavy Metal. "The only thing is," he said, "She's really into saving animals and is involved in dolphin and whale preservation work so I'm not sure that she approves of racing and didn't dare tell her I was coming here today. I said I was driving my Dad somewhere!"

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tom du Val

Tom du Val, one of the Winchester choristers, organised an amazing summer concert yesterday to raise funds for another choristership at Pilgrims School. The Winchester home team, by whom I mean the choir, the Director of Music, Andrew Lumsden and his assistant, Simon Bell, put on a tremendous performance. They were joined by the husband and wife opera singers, Stephen Gadd and Claire Rutter who sang, amongst other pieces, rousing renditions of Drake's Drum and Summertime. Tom had also written to invite Blake to perform as two of them had been Winchester choirboys. They initially refused his invitation but Tom wrote back indignantly, insisting that they had to be there and, in the end, they agreed. Their singing was terrific and I shall never forget their performance of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. As Sally Taylor of BBC South (who was presenting the concert) and the Dean, the Very Reverend James Atwell, remarked, Tom du Val could very well become Enterprise Tsar one day.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Question of the day

Scientist: "Why do you think the sun goes round the earth?"

Non-scientist: "Well, it looks like it!"

Scientist: "So what would it look like if the earth were going round the sun?"

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Christopher Purves

Yesterday was my birthday and was such a brilliant day! I was taken to Glyndebourne on Tuesday to see Falstaff with the excellent Christopher Purves wearing much extra flesh and the wonderful Marie-Nicole Lemieux playing a very amusing Mistress Quickly. One of my goddaughters lives near Lewes and her brother shares his birthday with mine so I stayed with them and we opened many presents in the morning. He was 13 and got a sparkling red and silver bicycle. He was also given (by an errant schoolfriend) a roulette set so we were at the roulette wheel by 11am before going to one of the best Chinese restaurants in Brighton (China Garden) for a dim-sum lunch. Eurodog will be pleased to hear that I was very restrained as I had a birthday dinner later at the Brasserie Blanc in Winchester. P.S. My diet has started today!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Nonsense of the day

I am greatly enjoying reading (for the first time) the classic satire, "England, their England" written by A.G.Macdonell in 1933. It's a study by a Scotsman of English society in the 1920s. Here's an excerpt:

"Do you prefer crocodile or suede for fog containers?"

"For what?" faltered Donald.

"For fog horn containers. I've just lost mine beside the Mitcham Gasworks, and I've put an advertisement in the Dog-Lover's World and also in the Battersea and East Putney Philatelist to say that the Finder may keep it." He gazed at Donald with tragic intensity.

Donald's brain began to go round in circles.

"But surely that was a waste of money," he began."I mean, was it necessary to advertise, and why in a philatelic newspaper - I mean -"

The red-faced man looked as if he was about to burst into tears.

"You think the Amalgamated Assistant-Laundrywoman's Gazetteer and Boomer would have been a more attractive medium?" he asked lugubriously. Then he suddenly brightened and went on before Donald could collect himself sufficiently to say anything:"You are going to dispute my implied suggestion that any medium can be attractive. I think you're right. I hate all spiritualists myself!"

Monday, June 08, 2009

Strawberry tiramisu

Welshcakes Limoncello, the author of the wonderful Sicily Scene blog and one of the best cooks in Sicily, gave me an excellent recipe for strawberry tiramisu which was very well received by my guests for lunch on Saturday:

300g strawberries
7 teasp. caster sugar
3 egg yolks
500g mascarpone cheese
1 packet of sponge fingers

Hull the strawberries , halve them and sprinkle with 3 teaspoons of the sugar. Beat the remaining sugar into the egg yolks. Add the mascarpone and most of the strawberries. Mix well. Arrange half the sponge fingers in a deep dish. Slosh some Grand Marnier/sweet sherry/other liqueur over them. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over them. Add another layer of sponge fingers sloshed with more liqueur , then the rest of the mascarpone mixture. Decorate the top with the reserved strawberries, orange slices, flaked chocolate or however you like.

Friday, June 05, 2009


Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and also, according to some people, Socrates' 2477th birthday. I was 14 when I first read (in English) a Socratic dialogue, the Meno, and it made a huge impact on me. I was amazed by the clarity of the argument and decided to "do" Greek for O Level and then went on to read Classics at Cambridge, which I enjoyed enormously.

The Meno discusses whether virtue can be taught. Meno becomes very confused by Socrates' argument which professes that man could neither search for what he does know, because he would already know it, nor for what he does not know, because he would not know for what he was looking. Socrates goes on to prove his argument by getting one of Meno's slaves to do a geometrical calculation which the slave was unaware he could solve. Socrates thereby points to a link between knowledge and eternal truths.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Parliamentary selection

In Radio 4's tribute to him, Clement Freud recalled the tale of his selection by the Liberal Party to fight the by-election in the Isle of Ely in 1973. He said there were three candidates and each was called in by the local association for interview. There were so few members in the hall that they'd invited 13 people from an old people's home across the road to make up the numbers. Clement was second to be interviewed and had to wait an hour and a half for the first candidate's questions and answers to finish first. He went in. They asked him some questions and after 15 minutes thanked him for his time. The result of the vote was to be announced after the third candidate's interview. The third candidate went in. After an hour and a half, Clement decided that he could not possibly be in the running so he left and went home. The Chairman called him later, "Mr Freud, you didn't wait for the result!" "No," replied Clement, "Who won?" "You did!" exclaimed the Chairman. "Really?" he replied, "By how many votes?" "Thirteen," said the Chairman.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Can you hear me?

Ever since my father got his NHS hearing aid earlier this year, we have a routine conversation with my question, "Would you like me to put your hearing aid in?" and his reply, "What did you say, dear?" The main problem with the hearing aid is that he can't put it on or adjust the volume by himself. The other is that we went to a party in March where he sat next to a 101 year old lady who spoke to him for 45 minutes. However, because of the background noise, he could not hear a word she said and this has made him lose complete confidence in the hearing aid. He now says it's "hopeless" and refuses to wear it.

A couple of weeks ago, his attention was caught by an advertisment in a local paper for hearing aids purporting to be far better than those of the NHS. He arranged an appointment with the company and a charming young woman came over to our house. She sat very near my father and explained her business. He understood what she said and congratulated her on her enunciation. She started with a hearing test and asked him to close his eyes and to repeat after her 20 words. "Death," she said. "Desk," he said. "Bat", she said. "Back," he said. "Slice," she said. "Choose," he said. "Deaf," she said. "Desk," he repeated and so it went on. The result was that he scored 7 out of 20. I hadn't realised how much he depends upon lip reading.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Home Secretary

I'm hearing that Hilary Benn will be the next Home Secretary now that Jacqui Smith's taking more time to watch films with her husband. GB couldn't find another competent woman so he chose somebody who sounds like a woman...

Monday, June 01, 2009

North and South

In Oxford, North Parade is south of South Parade. The reason for this dates back to the Civil War. The Roundheads were approaching Oxford from the north so South Parade was their southern front. Meanwhile the Royalists were approaching from the south and North Parade was their northern front. The land between was, I suppose, No Man's Land.