Archive for the ‘other sides to this life’ Category

Europe becomes ELSEWHERE–“over there” again, at midnight, as the UK ups anchor and sails away (or free falls from a ship in the sky!)

I was born in January 1942, so for two and half years I lived in a Europe torn apart by war,  blissfully unaware of the horrors that were happening.

I was lucky. “Elsewhere” featured strongly in my life in the 1950s. My parents were outward-looking and liked to travel, using Dad’s concessionary travel permits (a perk as an employee of British Rail). I took it in my stride; never felt scared of the idea.

My first trip in 1951 was to Paris with a school party.

We traipsed through the streets in crocodile file–two abreast.

Blissfully ignorant of what being occupied had meant for people we were passing on the pavements.

My recall is minimal but I do remember the hot chocolate in cafés and the scary view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Two years later (summer of 1953), on our way to a beach holiday in Lloret del Mar on the Costa Brava, I remember feeling shocked seeing young boys begging on the street in Barcelona, just fourteen years after the end of the Spanish Civil War,

I remember Franco’s sinister police with their winged black helmets and machine guns keeping the beach “decent”.

I discovered the taste of an egg fried in olive oil, too.

I remember my first trip to Germany–1957–twelve years after the end of the war. I took the train to Flensburg near the Danish border and had my wallet stolen.

I remember the generosity of my German host family, who replaced the precious money I’d lost.

I remember in Spring 1961, on a nine-week tour of Europe before University, bashing steel for a week in a factory in Dusseldorf to make connecting rings for pipes and being astonished how quickly the city had risen from the ashes–just sixteen years after the end of the war.

I remember in 1961--(twelve years after the end of the Greek Civil War)–picking mulberries from the tree at a corner of the road leading into Delphi and feeling guilty, trying to wipe the purple stain of mulberry juice from my arms.

That same year, The National Youth Theatre toured Genoa, Florence, Perugia and Rome with a modern-dress production of Julius Caesar (I played a shouty First Citizen). In Rome,  Caesar dressed in a garish uniform may have been an uncomfortable sight for some in the audience. One performance finished at 2am. The producer had run out of money and refused to pay the electricians, who went on strike in the interval. None of the audience left. This was definitely “elsewhere,” we learned that night.

I remember my mother beside herself with worry that brother Jack (six-years-old) was drowning on the beach at Marina di Campo on Elba in summer 1961–146 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars!!

“There is a world elsewhere”, I pronounced as a defiant Coriolanus–banished from Rome. A college production this time on a tour of Norway, Denmark and Germany.

By now I knew there was and I thrived on exploring it.

I was lucky.

All these early remembrances of times past and many more in the years that followed –experienced in the war-free zone of newly uniting/united Western Europe.

Increasingly and quickly, war became inconceivable within the EU–and has remained so.

Unlike the twenty years after the end of the Great War, a stabilising and unifying  organisation had emerged from the rubble.

And let’s not forget what erupted on the doorstep of the European Union in former Yugoslavia in the mid-nineties.

It was brutal, it was tribal. Neighbour killing neighbour.

A genocide in Srebrenica–8000 men and boys, massacred.

Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley last Sunday:

Now Foolish Albion is sailing away, jumping out.

That is why I’m sad or if I’m honest–mad as hell.


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A personal anecdote about a favourite actor–Gene Hackman–who is 90 today.

The plan was to meet in Manhattan.

I was flying from London and Meredith from Snowmass where she was doing a few downhills  with the family.

I arrived first on a beautiful early Spring afternoon and checked into the hotel on the south side of 58th street between 5th and 6th Avenues. I’ve forgotten the name but it was known as an actor’s hotel because of the location and the reasonable rates; no room service though!

[It’s no longer there.]

After parking my stuff I strolled out into the sunshine and had my shoes shined on the corner of 6th Avenue and 57th Street. As I sat sunning myself looking forward to Meredith’s imminent arrival, I remember thinking the cherry on the cake would be to take in a new Gene Hackman film that evening.

Shoes gleaming, I twinkled–toed back to the hotel to wait for Meredith.

From my room I spotted a coffee shop directly opposite the entrance to the hotel and decided to pop over, get a coffee and bring it back to the room.

As I was crossing back, coffee and a sandwich in hand, out of the hotel heading for the cafe, wearing a beautiful Hawaiian shirt and looking like he hadn’t a care in the world, to my utter amazement, came–Gene Hackman.

I managed not to drop my comestibles and continued into the lobby of the hotel.

End of anecdote, sadly.

I should be able to recount how I sat in reception and waited for the return of my hero and how I went up to him and told him how much I had enjoyed his performances over the years since Bonnie and Clyde.

No, sadly, I took the lift to my floor and sat rather dazed and ate my sandwich and drank my coffee like a gobsmacked idiot.

I had form in this regard–and Meredith just can’t understand my reticence–so un-American!

I’ll put it down to shock and shyness–but it’s silly.

He is one of the big beasts of cinema–actors you can’t take your eyes off.

Ineffable presences: Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, my Mother’s pin-up–Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Jimmy Cagney, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery….

Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Ginger Rogers (I’m surprised each time I catch the breathtaking brilliance of Fred and Ginger–how drawn I am to her effortless concentration), Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman….

Name your own!

But Gene Hackman is also an imposing character actor.

Contrast Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection and French Connection 2:

with The Conversation.

So–from across the pond and about thirty years late–THANK YOU, Gene Hackman and MANY HAPPY RETURNS!!



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Cats are like kids in the 1940s and ’50s.

Out to play after breakfast–not seen again ’til tummies rumble, early evening.

It’s what our tribe are like–not sure kids can do that these days.

A couple of days ago young Shadow came into the kitchen all–

“Hey fiddly dee, a kitty’s life for me! Just stopping by for a couple of spoonfuls, before hopping out.

“Uh-uh!–why no food bowls?”

Instead, the trusting little guy faced one of the less pleasant experiences of a young cat’s life.

Being neutered.

We reckon he’s about six-months-old–and it’s time.

Heartbreaking moment to see him jauntily enter the kitchen, ready for another day in Paradise, only to find no food and a strange looking container with a grill door sitting on the kitchen table.

“HELP! this isn’t how it should be, how it normally is.”

Driving to the vet, I felt recurring surges of emotional upset at what we were putting the poor mite through.

That old schoolmaster’s lie as he beats his pupil: “This is hurting me more than it hurts you!”  came to mind.

A few hours later, after the simple procedure, Meredith picked him up and drove him home.

Not visibly distressed–simply exhausted and still drowsy from the anaesthetic, he slept through the night–but slipped out of the house in the early morning.

As the day developed, we realised he was not around.

He didn’t react to our calls. We started to worry.

He’s gregarious by nature and is always trying to engage the others in “conversation” and play–victim of the “third child syndrome”(Meredith knows about this; Jack too)–where the “others” are too busy to bother with “junior”.

High and low–house, cemetery, field, hedgerow–we searched; no Shadow.

The church was locked and windows newly-mended but then Meredith remembered that years ago one of our other cats, Peanut,  when still semi-feral, found shelter in the church, beneath the wooden floors of the vestry, through a ventilation conduit.

Beau rues the fact that this conduit is too small for him now!

She located the opening and called. No reaction.

She bent down low–Ben was with her–and peered into the black hole.

There, peering back dubiously at her, were a pair of green eyes.

She managed to coax him out (perhaps reassured by Ben’s presence) and together, the newly formed trio set off on a tour ’round the church.

His confidence and trust in us were shaken by this traumatic experience–and it has taken a few days to win him back.

Last night he snuggled up to Meredith on the couch to watch a bit of “Scandi noir” on TV (the denouement of a Norwegian series)–followed every word, he did!!

Then he scared the daylights out of me by chasing a small ball across the floor exactly as he would a mouse.

“It’s a BALL for heavens sakes,” shouts an unsympathetic Meredith.

(I take care of the spiders, she takes care of the mice.)

Feels like he’s fully back in the family now. 














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This elegant creature arrived last Monday on the dot of 10am, as promised by the delivery company.

Pianos are heavy and I expected at least four sturdy removers.

Two sufficed–with barely a puff or red face.

They installed it in ten minutes and even fingered a little tune–taught to the removal man by his granddaughter, he said.

It’s a demi-grand Erard, made in 1914.

The church–constructed fifty years before the piano–exulted in the vibrations.

Sebastien Erard (1752-1831} built his first piano in Paris in 1777. He went on to build them for Kings and Queens and a impressive list of famous composers: Beethoven, Chopin, Fauré, Haydn, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Verdi, Ravel, among them.

His invention of the “double escapement” action–allowing notes to be repeated more easily–enabled these ambitious composers to challenge performers to astonishing heights of virtuosity.

Here is an (overlong) explanation of how this works on a piano made for a Queen and her Consort…

Ours is a considerably less ornate version–in beautiful light brown walnut wood.

We are its guardians, not its owners.

Brother Jack’s partner, Claire Béjanin, is the proud owner, inheriting the piano from her grandmother, who used to play duets with her husband on cello.

We must wait for the moment when Claire, a talented performer, teases the ivories and baptises it with a sweet air.

Until then, it will be covered in cotton sheets and wool blankets–no plastic–against the damp.

We need violins, violas and cellos; flutes and clarinets, and my favourites–oboes and bassoons, to make up a chamber orchestra.

Sopranos and contraltos, tenors and basses–baritones too.

Hold, hold, my heart–’twill come–all in good time.

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CORRECTION to Monday, Monday!
A pair of sharp eyes from Bristol points out that:
It’s not “4 score years and 20″!
That would make Keith an impressive but unlikely 100!
3 score years and 20″.
Maths never a strength chez moi!
Thank you, Deming!

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A Monday morning to cherish–for once–a beautiful blue sky and a crisp white frost covers the back meadow.

It’s the first Monday of the new decade and Twelfth Night to boot.

“If music be the food of love play on–give me excess of it.”

We are in need of some good news; so “an excess of love” in these troublingly, divided times would be good news.


Our friend, Keith Richmond on whose olive farm south-east of Florence we have “laboured” at harvest time, is 80 today.

Three-score years and twenty–as a friend of his observed this morning.

Ten more than the traditional span.

Good news!

Buon Auguri, Keith!!

May you and your olives trees continue to prosper for many years to come!

(The olive oil from Boggioli is gorgeous, by the way, and Keith is an expert at export!)

The second piece of good news we awoke to this morning:

Our friend, Brian Cox, won the Golden Globe last night for Best Actor in a TV Drama Series for his role in Succession.

He’d told us a couple of weeks back that he didn’t fancy his chances. That Tobias Menzies, as the Duke of Edinburgh, opposite GG winner Olivia Coleman’s Queen Elizabeth, would be a worthier winner.

Separating two such stunning performances is invidious but hey! This is showbiz and we are rejoicing at Brian’s deserved triumph. His portrait of the media mogul monster–Logan Roy–has delighted and disgusted us in equal measure and left us panting for the third series, which he says starts shooting late Spring.

Good news!

Just for a moment I’ve been able to park The News–from the Middle East, Australia, No 10 and Mar-a-Largo.

And like the besotted Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night believe that love “can purge the air of pestilence!”

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I like to cook with the seasons and when possible, with local produce…

Our neighbour, Alice Frezoul gave us a medium cauliflower freshly cut from her vegetable patch last night.

Meredith had worked with her in the beautiful late December sunshine on the essential exercise of de-miting the bees.

This recipe is in the Winter section of my new book:

Robin Ellis’ Mediterranean Vegetarian Cooking

Available for pre-order on Amazon UK

I also like both the convenience and look of gratins.                                             

They often involve pre-cooked ingredients so the final stage is a simple matter of heating through, which means you can do an assembly job beforehand, heat the oven and hey presto!

The juicy black olives lend depth and an exotic twist.

For 2

1 medium cauliflower–broken up into bite size florets

3 tbs olive oil

1 medium onion–chopped

2 cloves garlic–pulped with a pinch of salt

a dozen or so, juicy black olives–stoned and halved

2 tbs parsley–chopped fine

4 tbs parmesan–grated or 2tbs each of parmesan and pecorino romano (if you use pecorino, keep in mind that it is quite salty.)

2 tbs wholewheat breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 190c

Steam the cauliflower florets to your taste in tenderness–I like them a bit firm.

Set aside.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté the onion until soft and browned a little–about five minutes

Add the pulped garlic and the parsley and cook for another couple of minutes.

Turn off the heat and mix in the olives.

Add the cauliflower to the pan and turn it over in the mix–seasoning as you go with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle over half the cheese and turn it over.

Taste for seasoning.

Turn this into a shallow gratin dish.

Mix the remaining cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle over a tablespoon of olive oil

Place in the middle of the oven for about 20 minutes.

It should come out sizzling quietly and nicely browned on top.

We had it with sautéed Brussels sprouts.

Not the most photogenic dish, but scores high on taste.

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