Archive for the ‘general’ Category

On not reading

March 21, 2018

However hard it is to leave your kid screaming at nursery, it is a whole different level of difficult to leave him slumped and silent under a general anaesthetic, to help carry him in his tiny gown to the operating table, and then be ushered out of the room by a host of scrubbed up surgeons. What can you do for those impossibly long two and a half hours? You can barely read a twitter feed, certainly not a book. I spent most of it sitting beside his empty ward bed, with my eyes closed, counting my breaths.

I’m so glad to say that Ezra is getting better. In fact, I have just left him for a couple of hours at nursery (they were instructed to phone me if the initial scream lasted more than two minutes!). But he has been very unwell. And we have all been through the hell of it.

This is a books blog, rather than a blog about my family, but I would like to write about this experience, and I’ve not been reading much of late. For those of you who want books, then please turn to my feature – about private libraries – for the Financial Times Weekend here. For those of you who can stomach a bit more about what’s been going on, then read on.

The problem with raising a toddler is that there is almost always an excuse for something being up – teeth, a developmental surge, a reaction to the MMR vaccine, separation anxiety, a virus picked up at nursery …

Ezra is now fifteen months old, and started nursery in January. I remember when Vita began nursery, she picked up something slightly grim pretty much every week, so I didn’t think much of Ezra being in a bad mood for a couple of weeks. And then there was the MMR jab, and then there were three molars coming through, and then … and then I began to think hang on a minute, perhaps there is something else wrong. The thing is, he was confidently walking when he turned one, but stopped after getting a nursery bug, and didn’t start again. After 3- 4 weeks, I noticed that he had practically stopped crawling, and just wanted to sit on my lap. He didn’t seem too happy standing either, and would slump over the table or whatever it was he was holding on to.

He’s fine, said the GP. It’s just that his confidence has been knocked, since getting that virus a couple of weeks’ ago, and he is getting used to being separate from you. Send him back to nursery, you are being a very good role model to him by working, don’t feel bad about it.

We were going through a week where whenever we got Ezra up from a sleep he screamed, inconsolably, for about 45 minutes. The next day I picked him up from nursery and they told me he had cried pretty much all day. Although he was crying a lot with me too, I thought that if he really was missing me quite that much, I would take a few days off work and see if that helped.

Then next morning I took him to see a health visitor. They jotted his weight down in his red book and didn’t tell me that he weighed less than he did a fortnight ago. I explained the full situation. Take him straight back to nursery, she said, he is a perfectly healthy child. We talked for about twenty minutes. She didn’t think it was strange that he cried when taken off my lap, that he was uninterested in going over to the box of toys, and told me that most people ‘couldn’t afford the luxury of taking time off work’, like me. She said she’d call me in a week to see how I was getting on. I’ve not heard from her.

That was on a Friday. On the Monday I went back to the GP. By this point, Ezra was crying when I left him sitting down, and I noticed that he soon rolled on to his tummy to play. It was a different GP this time, and he paid me more attention. He doesn’t need to go to A&E, he said, there are no acute symptoms, but something does seem to be not quite right. I would like to see a paediatrician, I said. He phoned up the hospital and spoke to one. I got an appointment for that Wednesday.

I turned up to UCH children’s outpatients with everything written down on a postcard, ready to try again to convince a doctor that something was wrong. I am a second-time parent and seriously concerned about him, I began. The doctor looked at me, looked at Ezra, called in another doctor and then said: he needs blood tests now, and an MRI scan today; we’ll admit him.

That afternoon, we sedated Ezra for his MRI, and I sat in the dark beside the machine for the hour and a half he was in it. His ears were triply protected from the strange thudding rhythms of the scan, and he looked like a little space man, so small in that enormous machine. He is so small, I kept thinking. He is too small for this.

That night, Ezra fell asleep in the sling on me, and we were waiting to go on ‘home leave’ till the morning. Some of the blood tests had come back earlier on. The good news is it’s not muscular dystrophy, the doctor had said.

The night shift doctor came in. I’ve had a look at the MRI scan, she said. The good news is his brain looks fine.

I think I can see the problem. Do you want to sit down? she asks. There is a very bright patch on his spine. It looks to me like it could be an infection in a disc between the vertebrae, which might have spread into the vertebrae. This is treatable with a course of antibiotics.

There is a pause while I hear Ezra’s snuffly breaths on my chest and try to process exactly what she has said. I repeat it all back to her. Great, I say. So he just needs some antibiotics.

The doctor explains this would be six weeks of a daily dose of intravenous antibiotics. A serious medical procedure. That is, she said, if it is discitis.

And what if it isn’t?

Well it could be a malignancy. It doesn’t scream cancer to me, but we need the neurosurgeon at Great Ormond Street to look at it, and that won’t be until the morning.

Ezra and I got a cab home, in which I found myself, ridiculously, sending some work emails.

The next morning we were told it was almost certainly not cancer. They wanted Ezra to have a biopsy, partly to be sure, but moreover so that they could see which bacteria was causing the infection so that they could treat it with the right antibiotic. In the meantime, they would treat it blind. Ezra endured the first of five cannulas being fitted, and the first dose of antibiotics was given. This, combined with a constant rotation of calpol and nurofen, meant that by the next morning he was already a little better, clambering around the baby sensory room so much that it was clear a cannula wasn’t going to last long.

We were in and out of UCH for the next few days, and then got a bed at Great Ormond Street on the Sunday, for the biopsy to happen on the Monday morning. They would also insert a PICC line – a very long line that comes out of his arm and goes all the way into his heart. It would mean no more cannulas, and no more painful pricks for blood tests. It was a nil-by-mouth: we could wake him for some milk at 2am, he could have water until 6.30 am and then that nothing. By 10.30 am Ezra had flopped asleep on the husband’s shoulder as we walked round and round the ward.

He’s not going to have it today, a nurse ran up and said. You can give him something to eat.

What? Why? What? Why? When? But…

We will try to find a slot for him later this week.

After kicking up a stink and phoning UCH to get them to kick up a stink, we were scheduled for the next morning. That’s when I left him in the operating room.

That first trip to UCH outpatients was four weeks’ ago today. A nurse has been coming to our home every day to administer the antibiotic – it takes about an hour. She has taught me how to make up all the syringes and give it to him myself, so this week we have started to do it on our own, over breakfast. We have another two weeks to go.

We have weekly hospital appointments. Every time Ezra enters the treatment room – site of those early cannula fittings – he screams and makes a break for the exit. The doctors usually have to see us in the play room instead. They found two bacteria in the disc biopsy, both of which are normally found in the mouth. As it is so rare and weird for this to have happened, they are doing some further investigative tests to see if there is an underlying issue. We are waiting for the results for a complicated blood test that shows if there is something wrong with his immune system. We are back at Great Ormond Street for a heart scan on Friday. I am trying to concentrate on the fact that he is recovering well from the infection.

This weekend, Ezra started walking again.

Last night, I started reading again.

This morning, I started writing this again.

After a terrible time, I hope life is beginning to get back on track.

Here is that FT private libraries feature again.

And here is my tiny Guardian review of Xiaolu Guo’s excellent memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East:

 

Once Upon a Time in the East Guardian

 

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Junketeering

January 22, 2014

Those of you who might have thought I was slacking off in not providing a post for your delectation on Monday, I hereby prove you wrong! I was merely getting you hungrily excited for THIS:

Six Views from a Window

Click through to read my essay in the brand new issue of the wonderful Junket.

Enjoy! And I’d love to know of your own window-gazing thoughts and experiences.

 

 

A tiny holiday post

July 31, 2013

EmilyBooks is in France for a few days, hence the lack of a post on Monday.

Yet I thought I’d interrupt the silence to show you the lovely little library that sits by the path here, down to the river.

A little French library

Isn’t it heavenly?

A little French library 2

Could you imagine if we Anglais adorned our paths with a bench with a view and a selection of books to peruse? Fine literary inspiration indeed…

And look what was waiting for me further down the path:

A bicycle with flowers

Books, flowers and bicycles – three of my favourite things.

Emilybooks will be back as usual on Monday.

London riots

August 9, 2011

There is something strangely paralysing about the feeling that history is going on around me.

It is an uncanny mixture of connection and separateness. The riots were a short walk from my front door, but how can I have the arrogance to feel affected by them, when the violence hasn’t actually reached my front door? My windows haven’t been smashed, my car hasn’t been torched, my bike hasn’t been nicked. Who am I to feel that the riots concern me?

It is disorienting to hear the sirens zooming past, the chop chop chop chop chop of the helicopters overhead, but to look outside and see the street looking absolutely normal. I can only see the images, hear exactly what’s going on through the automatically-updating newsfeed on the screen of my laptop.

Last night I spent hours glued to a mixture of Twitter and BBC News. A Guardian journalist reported rioting in Chalk Farm, not far from my bookshop. I feared for the shop, envisaged its windows smashed, the books going up in flames. I considered cycling over there and was told by the fiancé not to be ridiculous. I realised that I couldn’t do anything other than hope for the best.

Hearing it happening all around me made me want to go outside and see what was going on. Reports on the news of anyone not dressed like a hoodie being mugged, made me think again. Surely, it isn’t right to walk down to the end of the road to watch shops getting looted – I’m hardly going to be able to help. All official voices told people to stay indoors. So I was reduced to being a curtain-twitcher, peering outside at the helicopters, keeping an eye on the street just in case a gang came along to smash up some cars.

But nothing was happening right outside, so I become a twitter-twitcher, watching a long stream of tweets, few saying anything particularly meaty. I felt restless, helpless. I was sure there must be something I could do. I couldn’t believe that this was happening so close to my home yet I was so distanced from it.

Once it got to two o’clock, I decided to go to bed.

This morning, I’m back on twitter, thinking I’ll help clean up the streets of Hackney. But operation #riotcleanup finds that the council workers have done it all for them. So there’s nothing to do except continue to watch the reports and wonder how such a thing can have happened.

I appreciate, of course, that there are at least two sides to every story. Something is making the rioters do this; violence doesn’t spring out of nowhere. But, as a shopkeeper – albeit one whose shop is, for now, intact – I feel absolute rage against the looters. Why target the shops? What have the shops done to deserve this?

We are a nation of shopkeepers, and London is a city of shops. A shop isn’t just somewhere to buy something, but it’s a space where one can spend time, where one can browse on one’s own, or meet a friend. People ‘go to the shops’, or wander along their High Street as a fun thing to do on a Saturday.

Over the past few recession-hit years we’ve seen a sad decline in the High Street. Lower rents and overheads have seen people’s shopping habits move to out-of-town centres and online. Communities in which people used to know their butcher and greengrocer have switched to supermarkets and online ordering in which as little interaction as possible is needed. But some of us are still trying to keep the High Street alive. Some of us are paying higher rents to provide a space, a parade for the whole community. So why are the rioters punishing these people who are keeping the High Street alive?

If they are angry about the police, the cuts, the system, the politics, then they should fight against that. How dare they torch that furniture shop in Croydon that had stood there for generations, that had survived the Blitz? Why hurt these shops – be they chains or independents – that provide employment for local people, which aim to serve local people, which provide a service to the community? This is a case of people literally biting the hand that feeds them. How can anybody think that this is ok?

This lady says it pretty perfectly.

Goodbyes

November 2, 2010

There is something magnificent about goodbyes. I don’t mean those goodbyes you say to friends as you’re leaving a party – jovial, shambolic, hammered hugs – or the goodbyes that friends say when they move abroad, when you know it will be months before you next say hello.

I mean the goodbye of trees as autumn turns to winter. And the goodbye of a building as it is demolished.

Everywhere I look I can see leaves, no longer lush fresh greens, but shining yellows, luminous reds, burning oranges. They’re unbelievably staggeringly beautiful, and they’re everywhere. No longer happy to be strung out along a branch, leaves fly through the air, press up against a windowpane, scatter along the ground. Grey pavement, black tarmac, brown muddy paths are all at once thickly carpeted in rich burnished ambers.

At this time of year, trees are begging to be noticed; bored of being overlooked in favour of summer’s flowers, they change colour and spread themselves to fill everyone’s vision. It is their goodbye, their swansong. They know that as winter comes on, and their leaves continue to swirl to the ground, soon they’ll be no more than bare greyish skeletons, nothing much to look at, too easy to forget.

Currently existing not quite as a skeleton, but rather an extraordinary shell, is an old school, in the midst of being pulled down. Its huge frame soars up above the rubble-filled old schoolyard, way up past the protective fence erected by the demolition team. Its insides are open to the world, scarred in blue, pink and yellow, marking the different coloured paints that used to coat each wall. Old chunks of floor and ceiling hang suspended, caught by twisted lengths of metal, momentarily saving them from dropping to the ground. The stairs are a rubble slide and doorways gape open, paths from dereliction to more dereliction.

It’s impossible not to stop and stare, while walking past, to gawp at this huge megalith as it is crumpled, crumbled up by the demolition machines gnawing steadily away at it. Soon it will be nothing but rubble and dust. And then something new will be built in its place, sealing its erasure from the cityscape.

I won’t remember the school as it used to be – a big, nondescript, vaguely ugly building that always had police at the gates. It’s this dramatic scar, this final, painful, ongoing goodbye that will imprint itself in my memory.

It’s every bit as beautiful as the leaves.

Getting Wonderfully Lost

August 16, 2010

There’s something so urbane about standing on those terraces on a sunny afternoon gazing across London. It makes you feel like a citizen of the city.

So said Steve Tompkins, the architect who redeveloped the Young Vic, about Lasdun’s modernist National Theatre on London’s South Bank. And it is a feeling I share on Saturday afternoon, when weaving my way around the South Bank, getting lost on my way to the Hayward Gallery.

I get off the bus on Waterloo Bridge and then go down, and then up, and then around, and then up again, and then around a bit more. I lose my bearings almost immediately and am soon reduced to guesswork, following the concrete around, occasionally climbing a staircase, turning a corner, hoping for the best.

And, as I walk, each step brings new vistas across the concrete. I see again and again incredible interlocking planes, lines, spaces; the greyness the perfect foil to the colourful crowds of skateboarders, freerunners, theatre-goers, families, tourists and the backdrop of the London skyline.

Needless to say, I don’t find the staircase leading directly from Waterloo Bridge to the Hayward Gallery entrance until it is rather too late. But I don’t mind – getting lost amidst the concrete is a wonderful experience.

But this experience of getting lost in a concrete jungle, finding oneself stuck in something akin to an Escher drawing, is usually a criticism of the South Bank and also another of London’s modernist complexes, the Barbican.

Architect Piers Gough responds to this criticism in a pretty inspiring article for Building Design (here), in which he lauds the Barbican as inspiration for his own architecture:

The criticism is a bit off because we expect and enjoy getting lost in cities and finding unexpected routes and vistas. The Barbican has these in spades. If you’re in the mood to explore, it’s a wonderful place with its changes in level, vistas up and down, intimate areas, dramatic piazzas, the gardens opening up below then there are amazing glimpses out to the city’s slick office buildings and the dome of St Paul’s. Of course the residents themselves rather revel in their maze-like world.

He’s right. Getting lost in the Barbican, or on the South Bank, can be exhilarating, eye-opening. It makes one see the city in new, unexpected ways. It makes me feel proud of London, excited by it again, amazed at how it all meshes together. As Steve Tompkins said, ‘a citizen of the city’.

Of course, on the occasion that one is running late and trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible, getting lost en route isn’t always such a fun experience. Enough of these amazing concrete views, where the hell am I? would be the predominant thought.

Yes, getting lost isn’t enjoyable, playful or particularly enlightening when one doesn’t have time to kill. And people rarely have time to kill in London – one of the most fast-paced, time-precious places in the world.

People often have a similar frustration in the bookshop. The books are arranged in a slightly, well let’s say ‘idiosyncratic’, manner. Most people expect everything to be arranged A-Z by author and neatly divided into sections like ‘Philosophy’, ‘Women’s studies’ etc. Frustrated when looking for a famous book, they march up to the till asking crossly, ‘Why don’t you have The Quiet American?’

Then we calmly explain our system and dash off to fetch them the book, often dragging them slack-jawed in tow.

Somebody complained to me about it the other day. ‘How am I supposed to find anything on my own? I always have to come and ask you to get it for me.’

Well, you see, that’s kind of the point. Everyone who works in the bookshop really loves books. We have all been involved in the book world for several years. We are all full of recommendations, tailored to suit a huge variety of needs. What makes the job interesting, and what makes the shop a success, is being able to talk to people about books.

If a customer comes up and asks me for The Quiet American, this sparks all sorts of conversations. We can talk about Vietnam and other good books about it – perhaps Norman Lewis, for instance – about Greene and other books by him, and then I might mention the new biography of Greene’s family by Jeremy Lewis. Likely as not the customer doesn’t know about this new biography but is very interested in it. Or he hasn’t heard of Norman Lewis. Or he’d like a few suggestions of other particularly good novels by Graham Greene. I go and bring him all these books and he spends a while in the shop having a very happy browse. Either he leaves with The Quiet American and is grateful for the help, sure to return soon. Or he leaves with The Quiet American and some of the other books that I’ve suggested, pleased as punch to have been introduced to them. And, of course, I’m happy as anything not only to have sold some more books, but to have helped someone find a good book or two.

Surely this is better than having everything unimaginatively signposted? Yes, people get momentarily lost, but then they get help and then they find all sorts of things, as well as what they were looking for.

The problem with the Barbican and the Southbank is that people – perhaps Londoners (dare I say male Londoners?) in particular – are rarely inclined to ask for help or directions. Rather than asking a passer-by which way to get to the Hayward, or where to find an elevated walkway, or the loo, people tend to persist in trying to work it out for themselves.

This trait has been greatly worsened by iPhones, with their Google maps app. Why bother to start a conversation when one can plug into some technology and work it out for oneself? Well, perhaps because people aren’t always as adept as map-reading as they would like to think. And because the Google maps of the Barbican and the Southbank are as good as useless in any case.

So perhaps an unexpected product of these two Modernist complexes is the need for conversation. Perhaps, in these particularly urbane London landscapes, we should be less urbane. Perhaps we should step out of our insulating bubble of iPods and iPhones and solitary individual lost wanderings and ask other people the way. After all these complexes are Modern, not Post-Modern. Conversations aren’t such terrifying things to start. Other people hanging out at the Barbican and the Southbank are generally pretty friendly, pretty interesting, happy to help if they can.

Unless, as was the case with me on Saturday afternoon, one is in no particular hurry and perfectly happy to get quite wonderfully, unexpectedly lost.

London, from the Overground

May 24, 2010

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ So begins L.P. Hartley’s magnificent The Go-Between … and probably several hundred GCSE English essay titles, followed by the word ‘Discuss.’

But yesterday, as I entered Haggerston Station, excitedly about to embark on one of the new London Overground’s virgin journeys, I also felt like I was in a foreign country. And I was stepping into the future, not the past.

Balloons arched over the station entrance to celebrate the line’s official opening. The ticket man was giving out free one-day travelcards, complete with a small chit of card stating: ‘Issued to mark the opening of the new London Overground line between Dalston Junction and West Croydon on 23rd May 2010’. Cool train-geek memorabilia.

The station itself was spacious, clean, other-worldly. Perhaps it did feel slightly brutal, slightly communist, but then perhaps that’s appropriate – bringing transport to the masses seems like quite a utopian, communist idea.

And then, instead of getting escalators down into the smelly netherworld of London, we walked up the stairs, out into brilliant sunlight above. The platform is the perfect spot for a bit of voyeuristic snooping. While waiting for the train – which was remarkably unBritishly punctual – we had a brief chance to peek at nearby residents’ balconies, and peer through huge glass windows into a few snazzy flats.

The trains themselves are beautiful. Instead of being spliced into carriages, they are single long vessels, wonderfully wide, and air-conditioned. It’s the first time I’ve ever put on an extra layer of clothes on the tube. It was clean, spacious, and the doors beeped rather dramatically when closing.

The whole experience was so foreign, so new, so much better than the rest of the tube. I knew we weren’t in Tokyo, however, because of the familiar tube maps glued on to the edges, the robotic voice announcing (in English) that the next station is Hoxton and the seats, which look markedly similar to the ones that were on the old District Line.

And then the train took off – it really feels like flying. It hurtles through the skyline, charging across the Regent’s Canal, bending, curving gracefully between tall converted warehouses and new-build apartment blocks. And this is the true piece of disorientating magic. Here is London, laid out at one’s feet, here are the landmarks that one knows and loves, here are the crowds of people swarming along Brick Lane, and buses, and cars, and trees. The train flies through the city showing one all these things, these places that are absolutely, resolutely, fundamentally London. And yet this new view, this new route is almost enough to make it somewhere else entirely.

It is eye-opening, fascinating, thrilling, to fly through East London on this new trajectory, linking places together in ways that can’t be done by road. In fact, I was so intrigued as to where the railway actually went, which roads it crossed over, where exactly it curved, that when I got back to my laptop I looked on Google and Bing maps to trace the precise route.

And that’s when I really felt I’d been in the future, or a foreign country. The internet maps, of course, are photographic. But they’re not particularly up-to-date. The new trainline isn’t yet on them.

I looked for Haggerston Station in vain. The new bridges, dropped in over the Regent’s Canal and Great Eastern Street, are missing. Instead there is a long thin green scar running parallel to Kingsland Road – the ghost of an old trainline, the shadow of what is to come. (Iain Sinclair has a somewhat more cynical view.)

According to these maps, the London Overground doesn’t yet exist. So I can only conclude that yesterday I really was in the future, in a foreign country. And, mulling over L.P Hartley’s words as I went between Haggerston and Canada Water, I was proud and impressed and happy to find that yes, they do things differently there.

Daniel Libeskind’s zigzags

May 4, 2010

Last week I went to hear a talk by Daniel Libeskind, a well-known Jewish architect. His most famous work (and, probably his best, according to the fiancé) is the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Libeskind talked and talked, and talked, about being an architect and being Jewish. I sat there and wondered if I were the only person who thought everything he said was rubbish.

Now the thing is, when it comes to architecture, I often feel that I’m bluffing. The fiancé is studying architecture, and most of his friends are architects-in-training too. This leads to my frequently being stuck in conversations about architecture in which I’m fighting to tread water. Japanese-sounding names are dropped, buildings discussed, words like ‘parametric’ and ‘iso’ tend to pop up. It’s got to the stage now where I can sometimes recognise the name of an architect and know a building or two of theirs, but after that I come a bit unstuck.

So, to begin with, I thought perhaps I was just out of my depth in the Libeskind talk.

‘Every building has a message,’ he declared. ‘The message of lots of buildings is “I am solidly here, with my four walls and four corners.”’ Or words to that effect. He then joked, ‘None of my buildings really has that message.’

Now that isn’t quite right. Even I know enough about architecture to know that buildings don’t have just one meaning. Buildings mean an infinite amount of things, varying on so many different parameters. What about context? What about who sees the building and which bit of it they see?

Let’s imagine, for example, an Italian, working in an office in New York, who always takes the stairs as he gets claustrophobic in lifts. Now the staircase is a bit more run-down than the rest of the building – the back stairs aren’t really part of the smart façade of the main office block. Perhaps they remind him of some stairs in Italy, like the staircase he walked up when visiting his father at work when he was a child. That part of the building – the staircase – is going to ‘mean’ that to him.

But then let’s imagine someone else who works in the same office: a well-heeled young lady who takes the glossy chrome lift up to their office on the top floor every morning, always checking her reflection in its mirror, never ever going near the back stairs. For her, the back stairs are as good as absent in her impression of the building. Their only ‘meaning’ is unnecessary space. It’s the lift that means something to her, a quiet space where she can fix her appearance before the working day begins.

And what about someone else, working in the same building but looking for another job? She dives out into the back stairs whenever she needs to take a phone call from her headhunter. For her, those stairs are a forgotten space in the building where she can be out of earshot.

I’m not sure that Libeskind really believed his statement either. When he was discussing a shopping centre he’d designed, he said it was about bringing together different experiences – shopping, culture, leisure etc. Well, surely he must see that someone who comes there on a Saturday afternoon to go shopping is going to experience the building differently to someone who comes on a Friday night for a concert?

When it came to the end of the talk, someone asked Daniel Libeskind why there are so many zigzags in his buildings. He said that he didn’t think about something as banal as the humble zigzag when he was being inspired to make architecture. But, now he came to think of it, he decided that there was something very profound about the zigzag – it is symbolic of not taking the most direct route, thereby gaining all sorts of insights on the way. (I have spared you his lengthy clichéd anecdote a la Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist of going on a long journey only to have to go all the way home to find the treasure where you began.)

The funny thing was, every time someone asked a question, he seemed to zigzag around answering it. Somebody asked him if there were any projects going on in London that he was excited about and he said he never went hunting for new commissions, but if there were any developers here at the talk, they should let him know. Similarly, when somebody asked him if there was one building that he really respected and thought was amazing, he said he never got jealous of other architects.

So when the zigzag question was posed, I wanted to scream, ‘YES. There is a reason why your buildings are full of zigzags. It’s because you keep on fundamentally missing the point.’ Because really his talk (like his architecture) was an elaborate series of zigzags. He went one way, and then later contradicted himself, and then went back on himself yet again. If only he could bear to admit that there really isn’t anything particularly profound about that.

Volcanic thoughts

April 19, 2010

‘This volcano going off is just like something from a science fiction film,’ my mother and grandmother have said to me at least four times (each) since Eyjafjallajoekull began erupting last week.

I’m tempted to feel overjoyed that at least somebody else feels like they’re living in sci-fi (see this J.G. Ballard post). ‘Yes,’ I want to say. ‘That’s exactly it. You feel like you’re living in some strange futuristic place where nothing quite makes sense … I’m so pleased you understand how I feel!’

But actually I disagree. It’s not really like sci-fi. Volcanoes erupting make me think of Vesuvius erupting in 79 AD and Pliny (and GCSE Latin). Far from feeling futuristic, the eruption feels so strange because it’s such an ancient, old-fashioned thing. Natural disasters are still known as ‘acts of God’. Proof, perhaps, that they’re so anachronistic that the words around them haven’t taken into account science from the 1960s about tectonic plates.

Obviously it’s pretty bad for everyone who’s missing out on going on holiday, and even worse for people who can’t get back home (although, I have to admit, being forced to spend an extra week on a beach in Spain wouldn’t be such a hardship). But for those of us who weren’t planning on flying anyway, hasn’t it been wonderfully peaceful having the sky free of aeroplanes?

Silence and sunlight swept over London at the weekend, the air completely free of clouds. Normally, even on a cloudless day, thin white lines trail behind aircraft, tracing through the blue. It must be the first time in almost a hundred years that this has happened. We’re going back in time, not forward.

And, for those who have given up on their long weekends away, endowed with a few blank days in London, a new calm has descended from the air. They have all this time, a gift of days. There’s nothing they need to rush to sort out, take care of, tick off. People have been coming into the bookshop, browsing for hours, explaining at the till that as their flight’s been cancelled they’ve finally got time to read something.

I happened to have to go and buy some computer stuff on Saturday to help the fiancé out of some technical emergency. Cycling through London’s quiet sunny streets was bliss. I passed park after park of lazy, snoozing bodies, people strolling along the canal, or sitting outside cafes reading and chatting. I went into the enormous computer shop and it was completely empty. There was one other customer in the entire space of several thousand feet. The staff were, funnily enough, incredibly helpful, and when I mentioned how quiet it was for a Saturday afternoon, they agreed. ‘I think it must be the weather,’ said the girl, ‘although even when it’s sunny it’s not normally this empty.’

Perhaps it’s beacuse of the volcano, I thought. Perhaps we really are going back in time – to a time before computers, a time when people were happier reading and chatting and lying in the sun, rather than watching screens.

Although, I suppose you’re reading this on a screen, so that theory does fall down a bit. Still, it would be wonderful to think that we might keep a little of the calm and relaxed pace of life, finda bit more time to read and think and talk once these few strange plane-less days really are history.

Easter Eggs, Passover Eggs … and Claudia Roden

April 2, 2010

Happy Easter! A time for many things, not least the eating of Easter Eggs.

But Easter Eggs aren’t the only eggs to be eaten at this time of year. Coinciding with Easter is the Jewish festival of Passover. Eggs are part of that too. Rather than celebrating the rebirth of Christ (a classic case of ironic, neurotic guilt – if we allegedly killed him in the first place), Passover celebrates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. It lasts for eight days but the main event is a big dinner on the first night – which was on Monday – Seder Night. That’s when the eggs are eaten.

Seder Night is essentially a really big meal, with a long preamble, during which everybody joins in to tell the story of the Exodus. There are a great many symbolic moments during this preamble – the spilling of ten drops of wine as the ten plagues God brought upon the Egyptians are recounted; the repeated chorus of ‘Dayenu’ (‘it would have been enough’) as God’s actions when he got us out of Egypt are listed; and, of course, the food. There are matzos, a bit like crackers, eaten because no leavened bread is to be eaten over Passover – the Israelites fleeing from Egypt had to leave in such a hurry that there was no time for the bread to rise. But there are other symbolic foods too … including eggs. Passover eggs, however, rather than being delicious and chocolatey, usually accompanied by a chocolate bar or two, are just normal chicken eggs, served in salt water.

Eggs are one of those things that are symbolic pretty much everywhere. In fact I can’t think of anything more symbolic. Much more so than Geoff Dyer’s take on hats. Eggs mean birth, new life, and they’re perfect for Spring, when everything comes into bud, and baby animals are born etc. etc. My understanding of the Easter Egg symbolism – having done a spot of googling to check – is that they are an adaptation of the egg = new life symbol, and are meant to represent Christ’s resurrection, his new life.

At Seder Night, when eggs in salt water were duly distributed before we got to Granny’s chicken soup (perhaps answering the eternal ‘which came first?’ question), one of my cousins asked me why we always eat eggs in salt water at Passover. I told her what I thought was the correct answer – the eggs symbolise the birth of the nation of Israel and new hope, and the salt water represents the tears shed when we were suffering as slaves in Egypt.

I had a different question. Having almost given up on getting the chicken soup recipe out of my Granny (after years of trying) I asked her how to make haroset. Haroset is a yummy sweet fruity, nutty paste, which is another of the symbolic foods eaten on Passover. I always thought the reason behind it was something to do with balancing out the maror, the bitter herbs (usually horseradish for us), which are eaten to symbolise the bitterness of being slaves. A kind of – oh it was so awful and bitter and terrible (maror) but then God saved us so it became full of sweetness and hope (haroset). I suppose it’s a bit like my interpretation of eggs and salt water.

Nobody really knew how to make the haroset – buy it from Panzers (a Jewish deli) was Granny’s advice. Undeterred, when I got home that evening I looked it up in one of my favourite books, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.

This book is completely wonderful. Not only does it tell you how to make absolutely any Jewish food you can imagine – including all the yummy Sephardic Middle-Eastern stuff – it is also a beautifully-written social history of Jewish food, full of interesting titbits. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Polish Jews had a taste for sweet foods, adding sugar to their pickled herring, whereas Lithuanian ones were particularly keen on peppery and sour foods, such as fermented pickled cabbage (yuk)? And there are some food-related jokes scattered through the pages, which always make me want to say ‘oy’. Here’s one:

A man orders a five-course meal at Soli’s. He stuffs himself, and everyone wonders how much else he can eat. When the bill comes, he says he has no money at all and can’t pay. Soli is furious: he wants to call the police. Then he says, ‘I will let you go if you do one thing – if you go tomorrow and do the same thing across the road at Sam’s Deli.’ The man replies, ‘I already ate there yesterday and they told me to come here today.

So, when I picked up this enormous wonderful book the other night, aware of the feast of brilliance laid out in the pages, it would have been a sin to go straight to the index to look up the recipe for haroset. Instead, I leafed through the book, glancing at page after page, until I happened to reach the section on Jewish festivals and found the entry for Passover. Here, clear, concise and elegant, was an explanation of the symbolism of all the Passover foods. And I was shocked to find that I’d been wrong about the egg in salt water.

According to Claudia Roden, the egg should be roasted, not hard-boiled. The roasted egg symbolises the sacrificial offering to God of a roasted animal, which apparently used to happen at festivals in biblical Jerusalem. The salt water isn’t supposed to accompany the egg, it’s supposed to go with the green vegetable (karpas). Although, at least I was right about the salt water symbolising the tears of the slaves.

All sorts of questions are thrown up by this discovery. Not least, how do you roast an egg?! (Boil it first, apparently.) But then, I suppose it’s not that surprising that I always assumed the egg was a symbol of new life rather than of an animal sacrifice. It seems to mean new life everywhere else. And eggs at our Seder Nights have never been roasted, and I doubt anyone would have hard-boiled an animal sacrifice …

But now I find myself in a quandary. What happens next year? Should we roast the eggs, following the gospel of Claudia Roden? Or should we stick to our own tradition of hard-boiling them and serving them in salt water? And what about the green vegetable? We normally pass around a few lettuce leaves extracted from an M&S bag of salad, but next year should they be dipped in salt water?

Judaism is a religion that’s full of traditions. That’s what I love about it. I love the apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah (‘may your New Year be full of sweetness’), and I love Seder Night with all its fuss and symbolism, and I love the memories I have of all these festivals. Every Seder Night I remember my brother teaching me the Manish Tanah – the four questions that the youngest person present has to recite; I remember all of us running around the dining room year after year, excitedly hunting for the afikoman – a piece of matzos hidden by a grown-up earlier on; and I remember being a teenager and giggling hysterically with my cousins when we had to read out the bits about being in Egypt ‘in bondage’ or God using a ‘rod’. Gosh we were told off so many times.

And, part of that tradition, is being offered a hard-boiled egg in salt water just before Granny’s chicken soup is dished out. Every year some hands eagerly shoot up, while others politely decline, and then there is the inevitable discussion about whether egg in salt water is delicious or disgusting. It would be awful to lose this, just because the eggs are actually supposed to be roasted.

Perhaps it was like this when Easter Eggs started being yummy chocolate feasts rather than painted chicken eggs. Perhaps some people still think, ‘oh if only we still painted eggs rather than gorging on all this chocolate.’ But it seems unlikely; chocolate eggs are too delicious to regret the change in tradition. Sadly, I imagine that roasted eggs and hard-boiled eggs taste pretty similar.

I don’t know what to do about the egg situation. But I did, in the end, remember to look up how to make haroset. Again, I was surprised to find a new symbolism for it. The sweet paste isn’t just something to balance out the bitter herbs, maror, it is in fact supposed to symbolise the mortar that the Israelites made with Nile silt when building the Pyramids for the Pharaohs.

The really awful thing is – please all my Jewish friends don’t hate me for my ignorance – I didn’t even realise that the Israelites made the Pyramids. I always thought of the Pyramids as something that the Egyptians built. I hadn’t twigged that the Jews-as-slaves-in-Egypt period overlapped with the Pyramid-building period.

Perhaps I would have learnt all of this, and hence the egg dilemma would never have arisen, if I hadn’t been thrown out of Jewish Sunday school at a young age for repeatedly eating bacon-flavoured crisps. But, on a positive note, at least haroset looks pretty simple to make. All you need to do is grate apples, and mix them with chopped walnuts, cinnamon, sweet red wine and a little bit of sugar or honey to taste. No eggs at all.