Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Granny vs The Internet, the Great Bake-off

More than four months since the last post! One giant leap from sunny picnics to Christmas bake-offs! Here's my excuse: I had to finish that novel. And having finished it and handed it in last week (well, the first draft) I couldn't quite face writing a blog post about... finishing the first draft. I will, at some point, probably in January. In the meantime, I've found that baking is an amazing way to relax after writing a 120,000-word piece of fiction.

To make it more interesting, I decided to stage a baking contest between my lovely Granny and the Internet. My Granny left us one single biscuit recipe, aka "Granny's Biscuits". She used to bake these once a year around Christmas time and store them in a big tin, which I would open and sniff just to get that vanilla high.  Her competitor is a website called that features a recipe for Vanillekipferl, an Austrian specialty. So it's a double bake-off: Granny vs the Internet, and East Prussia vs. Austria.

The basic ingredients are the same for both recipes (fair is fair), but one thing struck me right away. Vanillekipferl have to be baked for about 20 mins, then carefully rolled in icing sugar (they break easily). Granny's Biscuits take 5 minutes, then they're ready. "Now why is that?" you wonder. Well, there's an easy explanation. Vanillekipferl were invented in old Vienna - think men sitting around in cafes with nothing much to do other than talk about mothers and penises. Occasionally one of them would get up and check on his Vanillekipferl. East Prussia, on the other hand, was all about waves of ethnic cleansing. So the point of Granny's 5-minute Biscuits is that you can bake about twenty trays before the Russians come.

And with that cheerful thought in mind, here we go. 3...2...1...

Check the oak sapling. We grew that from an acorn. Sorry, I digress. So, Granny's is the bigger lump. Of course it is. East Prussia doesn't do small. The winters are long and the fields are wide. Interesting fact: Granny's recipe includes a pinch of baking powder. Why add baking powder to crunchy biscuits that aren't supposed to rise? I scratched my head over that one, but I think it's because my Granny's generation was still idealistic about chemicals. Chemicals were supposed to be good for you. Natural food was what poor people ate. So I think the baking powder was just meant as a tribute to Science and Progress.

Left: Vanillekipferl. Right: Granny's dough, ready to be cut with a little tin biscuit cutter. I bought one in the approved shape that she always used. If you don't have one, and don't want to buy one, you can always use a drinking glass. But then don't complain if your husband runs off with a woman who uses a proper cutter.

Done!!! The little knobbly bits on Granny's Biscuits are a sort of almond-sugar-vanilla crunch. They're the best thing about the biscuits and the reason why Granny won the contest hands down (come on, you didn't really think I would let an anonymous website beat my own grandmother?).
I recruited two independent test subjects. One, let's call her the Academic Taster, is an assistant professor at Columbia University in New York. The other, let's call him the Entrepreneurial Taster, holds an MBA and is a world-class management consultant. Both have years of experience in eating cakes and biscuits.
And both preferred....
Granny's Biscuits!
"Because of the crunchy bits," they both said.
"Though the other ones are also nice, especially with a glass of whisky on the side," the Entrepreneurial Taster added.

To help you make up your own mind, here are both recipes.

Granny's Biscuits (aka "Omas Kekse")

500 g flour
250 g butter
150 g sugar with a vanilla pod scraped into it (the seeds, not the whole pod)
2 eggs
2 tsp baking powder (I just used one. They're meant to be biscuits, not panettone.)

Crunch: egg yolk, ground almonds, sugar with a vanilla pod scraped into it (the seeds).

Roll out, cut, top with a crunch mixture, bake for 5 mins at 250 degrees Celsius or the hottest (reasonable) setting on your oven. The original recipe says 259 degrees but I think that's just a case of mis-transcription over the generations.



250 g flour
210 butter
1 egg yolk (I added this as glue, though purists would leave the egg out)
100 g ground almonds
100 g sugar with a vanilla pod scraped into it

Knead, put in the fridge for 30 minutes, shape into little crescents, bake for 20 mins at 175 degrees. Let them cool for a few minutes - they should still be warm, otherwise the icing sugar won't stick - and drown in a bowl of icing sugar mixed with vanilla sugar. Take out and leave to cool.

Guten Appetit, merry Christmas, happy Chanukah and all the best for 2012!


Thursday, 11 August 2011

"Stealing is not necessary, thanks."

"My name is Casey. Hello, I'm telling you about my borough, Hackney. In the morning people eat their daily fry-up in their local cafe. It is fattening, filling, sizzling and sloppy. I will be taking you to my local cafe. In your world you can steal but in mine you can't. So stealing is not necessary, thanks."

Written as part of a literacy project on Thursday afternoon, the message was aimed at a fictional pirate - Captain Stripes - but it might as well have been addressed to one of the rioters who wrecked part of Hackney and other London neighbourhoods this week.

Casey and her friends are spending three weeks at a summer school organised by the Hackney Pirates, my favourite local charity. The Pirates hold after-school workshops in Hackney all year round, but the summer school is something special, from the incredible location (a roof garden) to the content (last week, the children made their own animation from scratch).

This Tuesday, however, the charity had to send the kids home early for fear of the rioters. Police evacuated the entire building and some volunteers helped the cafe next door lock up signs and chalk boards - as they could be used as weapons. In the end the streets stayed calm that night; apparently some plucky kebab sellers brandished their doner knives to keep off the mob. Still, for the Hackey Pirates it meant their lovingly planned summer school was disrupted by a bunch of rioting idiots.
In Ian McEwan's Saturday one of the characters manages to pacify a burglar by reciting Dover Beach; my own dreams of literary revenge were less lofty and involved bashing the rioters over the head with War and Peace.

On Wednesday, the Pirates regrouped and turned the chaos into something positive. They made a mini-documentary about what caused the riots and how they could be stopped, with the children as talking heads. Here are my favourite streetwise extracts:

"If David Cameron didn't go on holiday then this wouldn't have happened."

"I think the people who've been looting and burning have had a bad life or they're upset at something that's been happening to them."

"Maybe they're poor and they're really sad and they've got anger inside."

"It's not because they're poor. They had no proper role models."

And my favourite among the favourites:

"There was no reason, they could have just written a letter to the House of Commons."

That last quote is in itself a pretty powerful advert for literacy projects, right?

As for how to stop the riots: "We should bring the army in 'cause it's getting too hectic."

(You can watch the whole discussion on the Hackney Pirates channel on Youtube)

On Thursday, the summer school was back to normal and the young Pirates were scribbling letters to fictional pen-friends extolling the beauty of Hackney.
It felt a bit surreal given this week's pictures of Hackney in flames, but the children were perfectly serious. They consulted the dictionary for the best way to praise Mickey's Fish&Chips ("fresh battered fish, caught especially for you, served with chips. It's mouth-watering!") and came up with lots of adjectives not usually associated with Hackney ("The atmosphere in the Curve Garden is peaceful and safe").

Surely a bright future in real estate, poetry or the tourism industry beckons. Which brings me to why I started volunteering with the Hackney Pirates in the first place. I'm usually a bit suspicious about writers going on and on about the importance of literacy - it's a bit like Cadbury's talking about the importance of chocolate. And I don't believe that reading or writing books makes you a better person; just look at all those depressed writers. But I do think that education in general and literacy in particular are among the most decisive factors that shape a person's life. I used to volunteer for a similar project in Paris and I never cease to be cheered up by the sheer optimism of children. No matter how deprived their background, at a young age they really do believe that everything is possible and that they can become a scientist or astronaut (or real estate agent, or travel brochure writer) if they want to. Supporting charities like the Hackney Pirates helps, at least in a small way, to turn that belief into a reality.

And even if it didn't, it would still be worth it for the existentialist dialogue, overheard during Thursday's workshop in the Curve Garden:

Girl to snail: "You're nasty, mate, I'm putting you back into that bush."

Other girl, watching: "You just called a snail your mate!"

Girl with snail: "No I didn't! I said... I said... you're nasty, FATE."

Friday, 1 July 2011

Secret Diamonds

One of the most heartening things for a writer is to see a forgotten author being rediscovered. It's comforting because it means that even if this generation fails to appreciate you, even if critics hate it, buyers snub it and you're 900,000th in the Amazon rankings, your book might just outlive them all and catch the eye of a true conoisseur wandering into a second-hand bookshop by the Seine in, say, 2111. (Unless you only publish e-books, in which case, shudder, your book might be deleted before future generations get the chance to rediscover it. A strong argument for hardbacks.)

Imagine my delight then when I came across the work of Esther Kreitman. It was a double rediscovery. Kreitman, the sister of the Nobel Laureate Issac Bashevis Singer, wrote novels in Yiddish, depicting life in the Hassidic community in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was born in Poland but entered an arranged marriage with a diamond cutter in Antwerp, and this is why I found her in the first place.
I was in Antwerp a few weeks ago to find out more about diamond merchants and diamond cutters as part of my research for my next novel. The main story is set among British conscientious objectors during World War Two, but one of the characters is from an Anglo-Belgian family of diamond cutters. It's an absolutely fascinating community and as soon I went to Antwerp, I was completely absorbed by the history of the city and its inhabitants.
Erwin Aelbrecht, a gemologist at the Diamond Museum and an Antwerp native, generously gave me a condensed masterclass in gemology and took me to the workshop of his friend, Pieter Bombeke. I came away with black diamond dust on my fingertips and hundreds of stories about medieval court cases, secretive guilds and perfect forgeries in my head.

And then I found Esther Kreitman. I wish I could say that an old diamond cutter slipped a battered copy of her book, "Brilyantn", into my hand, that I devoured it in a dusty corner of his workshop and was fluent in Yiddish by the time I finished it.
The truth is that I googled "diamonds", "Antwerp" and some other related terms and read about her on Wikipedia.
Even better, the Internet told me that a kind soul called Heather Valencia recently translated "Brilyantn", the story of a group of diamond merchants and cutters who escape from Antwerp to London during the First World War. It was published in English as "Diamonds" last year - almost 70 years after it first came out. Isn't that a wonderful coincidence? Yiddish is close to German and I can understand some of it, but without the translation I would never have been able to read the whole novel. Thank you, Heather.

So, about Esther Kreitman, nicknamed Hindele. Her arranged marriage with the diamond cutter didn't work out and it sounds like she had a pretty awful life. Here's an account of her reunion with her mother in 1926, when she was about 35 and hadn't seen her parents for more than a decade:
(Her mother) "pauses out of reach... In a husky warble she declares, 'Why Hindele, you're not all that ugly! I always thought you uglier than Lena... the village idiot."

Much of Kreitman's work revolves around the intellectual frustration and thwarted ambition of women in conservative religious families. This sounds rather bleak, but what really made me fall in love with "Diamonds" is her sense of humour. There's Leybesh, the rebellious atheist who makes his point by munching his way through an enormous feast on Yom Kippur, when the rest of the community is fasting. There's Berman, the wealthy diamond merchant with anger management problems, whose one aim in life is to sell lots of diamonds and see his sons marry rich girls. And what do his sons do? One spends his days drinking and dancing; the other becomes a Communist. And there's Reb Beynish, Antwerp's only matchmaker, who swings boasts about his deals and rubs in the fact that Berman's competitors are grabbing all the good girls with big dowries:

Usually he snapped up young men from the Hassidic shtiblekh... Reb Beynish caught them in the street, in the synagogue, in the shtibl or at home. Among all the worshippers he was always the first to greet a newly arrived young man, ask him in great detail who he was, where he came from, what he did for a living and so on... "You say you're not ready to get married? Always the same old tune! Heh! Heh! Heh! But never mind, you'll soon be ready!"

Beynish goes on to paint a vivid picture of the dangers that await a young man trying to make it in Antwerp: he will fail miserably, he will lose all his savings, he will be exploited in sweatshops, he'll never get his hands on a parcel of diamonds to trade... unless... he marries a girl from a good family:

"Follow my advice and you'll do well in the world. You'll have a home, a wife, a family, and you'll never be lonely."

Well, by the end of the chapter I was ready to call Reb Beynish myself and ask him to find me a Hassidic wife.

I didn't see any matchmakers in long black coats with sheepskin collars hurrying from door to door in Antwerp, but a lot of other things have remained the same. The spinning disc that grinds the diamond is still called a scaife, even among English-speaking cutters, and the handle that holds the diamond is known as a tang, just as in Kreitman's book. Antwerp is still one of the world's diamond capitals, and particularly difficult or precious stones are sent here from around the world because the city has the most skilled cutters. The workshops are tucked away at the end of dark corridors in unassuming grey buildings behind the train station, and some of the surnames on shop signs and doors show exactly what the families have been doing for generations - "Rubin & Sons" and so on.

As for what has changed since Esther Kreitman scribbled away at her novels here: unsurprisingly, cutters now use a computer programme to calculate the best way to cut a stone. When I went to visit Pieter Bombeke, the diamond cutter, he told me that in the old days about a dozen craftsmen would have been crammed into his workshop. Children were expected to help out with dirty, dusty tasks like making diamond dust for the scaife. Now the industry finds it hard to recruit new talent and the children of diamond cutters become management consultants or perhaps novelists. Indian diamond traders outnumber the Hassidim, which is in some way fitting since the first diamonds in Europe came from India.
And apparently ninety-five percent of diamonds are now polished according to a formula for the perfect brilliant that was devised by a mathematician called Marcel Tolkowsky in 1919. It's the typical bling-bling, super-sparkly cut we now associate with diamonds and it maximises the stone's brilliance, but I feel it's a bit of a shame that older cuts like the flat, sweet rose or the baguette have gone out of fashion. The baguette in particular may not be as sparkly but it's very beautiful and classy in its simplicity:

Given the ongoing craze for all things vintage, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the older cuts came back into fashion. Pieter Bombeke is also working on some very special new cuts that combine brilliance with unusual patterns - spirals, for example, or the Star of David. It's a far cry from the diamond cutters in Kreitman's book, who grind away in their sweatshops while hoping for salvation in the shape of a brilliant match made by Reb Beynish:

"In the middle of the street, pale young men with wispy beards and older men with long thick ones were riding on tricycles. Their sallow faces told sad tales. Their beards brushed the baskets full of fish, bread and meat, which these former diamond traders and other poor people were delivering to rich houses... It always amused Berman to see these hopeless cases with their dog carts. But he didn't, God forbid, laugh at them! For who can tell what tomorrow will bring."

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Chambermaids and French dinner parties

Autumn 2009. A dinner party in western Paris. Roman Polanski has just been arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and there's a separate controversy over culture minister Frederic Mitterrand, who has written about his experiences as a sex tourist in Thailand. The guests are outraged. Not because of the sexual abuse, but because of the philistines who want to bring down two great men over a matter of private mores. Surely sexual freedom is as French as the red wine in our glasses and the foie gras on our plates.
Philistine that I am, I point out that Mitterrand's behaviour isn't exactly a private matter since the sex trade is a form of human exploitation. Just to add a bit of factual evidence to the discussion, I talk about a feature I once wrote about Nigerian prostitutes in Italy, and the harrowing stories the women told me about their work. When I'm done, the French bohemian next to me thoughtfully cradles his wine glass.
"Bien sur, prostitution is exploitation," he says. "But you know what, working in a factory, that's also exploitation!"

I'm in London this week and can't report live from a French dinner table, but reading Bernard-Henri Levy's column about his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest is almost as good. "No one knows" if DSK is guilty of sexual assault, Levy says quite rightly, and he could have left it there. But that wouldn't be quite spicy and controversial enough, so he swiftly adds that the accuser shouldn't have cleaned the room alone, and that another woman who has accused the IMF head of sexual aggression merely "pretends to have been the victim."
And also, poor Greece is going to collapse now, and all because of a chambermaid who shouldn't have cleaned the room alone in the first place.

Because, you know, bien sur, slandering a woman who says she has been sexually assaulted is a form of exploitation*.
But working in the factory of international finance while being distracted by an irritating court case, that's also exploitation.

*Speaking of which: the New York times just reported that DSK's defence lawyers have hired Guidepost Solutions, a global investigations company led by a former federal prosecutor and US Secret Service special agent, to look into the chambermaid's background. There goes her chance of ever having a normal life again, whatever the outcome of the case. Does this happen with any other form of crime? If someone were to burgle my flat, would the defence team hire an investigator to look into my background? "A childhood friend who knew S.H. from 1992-93 reported that she had a history of leaving the front door unlocked." Clearly, she was asking for it!

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Tongues of Men and Angels

"If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal..."

Yes, it's the Corinthians! And no, we're not at an English wedding, you can put away your fascinator. It's just that I'm reading Paul's letters for a new project, which for once means I'm part of a broader trend. The advantage of living in Paris is that you can spot the hottest new looks before they catch on in the rest of Europe. Spring/Summer 2011 is apparently all about wedge heels and Christianity. Sarkozy himself, that great crusader for secularism, shows it off nicely in this photo of him congratulating some Christian ladies in headscarves on their religious heritage.
("But I thought he was against headscarves," I hear you say, fiddling with your wedge heels. Do keep up, please. Headscarves are only bad when they're Muslim headscarves.)

So, the Corinthians. I was reading the King James version, eagerly scanning the pages for the best bit - because the passage about love is, after all, very, very beautiful. There's a reason why it's a wedding classic.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I couldn't find it.
I went back to the beginning and read the letter again, more slowly this time, and realised why I had missed it: in the King James version, the Greek word for love is translated as charity. As in: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity..."

This made me sit up because two days ago, a friend of mine sent me an e-mail about charity, lack of. She'd been attending a European Union event where people with long, important titles were congratulating each other on inventing free travel, human rights, correctly shaped bananas and, yes, charity. That was on the day the Guardian reported that 61 migrants had been left to die of thirst and hunger on a boat in the Mediterranean. 

My friend failed to specify what tongue those charitable EU souls were speaking in. In any case, their self-congratulation chimed nicely with this recent quote from Sarkozy, who was clearly speaking in the tongue of a politician seeking reelection:
"Christianity has given (France)...a magnificent heritage of civilisation," he declared during his springtime visit to Puy-en-Velay, where he met the nuns in the photo, adding that it's "always dangerous to amputate your memory."

Sarkozy is a busy man, flitting between nuns and summits with Italy over reinstating EU border controls to keep out those huddled boat people. So I thought I'd to my bit to prevent the amputation of our memory with this slightly adjusted passage from the King James bible, as a reminder to myself and all those men, angels, presidents and English wedding guests out there:

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself.
Charity turneth not away North African immigrants at the border, nor seeketh to abolish free travel, nor trumpeteth its hard-core immigration policy to win votes from the far right.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Conversation with a Minute Man

Parties, flowers, reunions with old friends, champagne, dancing...since the Registrar was published on April 1, life has turned into one big celebration. This morning I picked up the bouquets I'd put into storage after my launch party in London. They were so voluminous (see picture) that I had to take a cab home. As soon as the driver pulled out of Soho I began to boast about my book launch, and all the people who'd flown in from over the world, and my novel about migrants, and the beauty of it all...
The driver listened patiently, then revealed that he'd previously worked as a "minute man", a mercenary preventing Mexicans from crossing the US-Mexican border.  

His view on migrants: keep them out. If you can't keep them out, take them out.

I timidly pointed out that I was a migrant myself and did my best to contribute to my host country... And surely migration was, overall, a great contributor to economic growth and prosperity...

"Oh no," he said, waving one hand as if to sweep away my objection. "First-world migration is fine. I'm talking about third-world migration. I'm talking about letting in terrorists." Then he railed against European governments catching Somali pirates who attack European merchant ships off Somalia, and putting them on trial in Europe. I mumbled something about the rule of law being a good thing. He snorted derisively. The Russians, he thought, were dealing with the problem much more cleverly.

"So what do they do with the pirates?" I asked against my better judgement.

"I'd tell you but you wouldn't like it."

"Go on..."

"They sail up and down the Somali coast and take them out one by one. Like those big game hunts in Africa, you know?" Our eyes met in the rear view mirror. He grinned. "I told you you wouldn't like it."

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Literary Embassies

Publishing a book has simplified my life in many ways. Take people, for example. When I was an unpublished author, I sometimes found it difficult to decide whether I liked or disliked a person. Now the answer is pretty easy. I like anyone who buys my book, and the more copies they buy, the more I like them.
Imagine, then, my delight when a couple of bookshops asked today if I could sign their copies of the Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages. I was so excited that I got the date wrong for the first 30 copies or so (sorry. I tell myself there are probably collectors who pay good money for that kind of thing).
My first stop was at Goldsboro Books on Cecil Court, a tiny alleyway packed with shops specialising in rare and old books. Diagon Alley, where Harry Potter bought his cauldrons, was based on this street, according to sources close to the matter.

Nice, huh? And David, the owner, spontaneously placed my book in the window after the signing. That's the beauty of an independent bookseller. 
It was also a rare instance of hearing good news from an independent: Goldsboro Books recently moved to larger premises and is apparently thriving. They specialise in signed first editions, which are big with UK and US readers/collectors (though not with the French), and they keep in touch with thousands of loyal customers through their website. Interestingly, David is also a literary agent. Could that be the future of bookselling - a return to the comprehensive retailer-publisher-agent-salon along the lines of the old Shakespeare&Co bookshop in Paris in the days of James Joyce?

It's always nice to see a plucky independent, but I'm also brimming with affection for the chains on Charing Cross Road and Piccadilly: Blackwell's, Foyles and Waterstone's. Blackwell's because they placed my book particularly well: if you walk straight into the shop and keep walking, your nose will basically hit the Registrar's cover. Foyles and Waterstone's because they both recommended the Registrar as a favourite debut. 

"Debut authors always go the extra mile," Glenn at Blackwell's noted as I scribbled a cheerful "Enjoy! Sophie Hardach" into the sixtieth copy (which made me think about the importance of a well-placed exclamation mark). 

Glenn, it turns out, is learning German, which cheered me up even more. A person who buys lots of copies of my book and is learning German! This put me in such a good mood that I decided to engage in a bit of guerrilla marketing and visits other shops on the off chance that they might want me to sign their copies, too.
Which brings us to Hatchards on Piccadilly.  Before my impromptu tour, I didn't even know this bookshop existed. Look at it. It's gorgeous.

Not just one flag, but two. And the coat of arms. The wood pannelling. It's not so much a shop as a literary embassy.

Inside, the luxury continued. Instead of marking the signed copies with stickers, they lovingly wrapped beautiful white bands around each book:

Well. When I say that I like anyone who buys my book, I obviously include e-book users. The Kindle is a practical and clever thing and I can see why it's nice to be able to take half your library on holiday. However, a few days ago my Dad, after listening to all of us praising e-books, said: "You know, I'm grateful to live in a time when people still read books." And after spending an afternoon signing title pages, chatting to booksellers, admiring displays and watching people dreamily peruse shelves full of beautifully designed books, looking for the perfect match, I can kind of see what he means.

Friday, 1 April 2011

My book is out!

Oh happy, happy day. The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages is on sale now.

Amazon says there are only 5 copies left in stock. Surely that's a good sign?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Quake crackers

"Do you remember the name of that naughty boy in your class at the German School in Tokyo? The one who ate the emergency rations in his earthquake backpack?" I asked one of my brothers on the phone last night.

"Erm..." he hesitated. "I think that was actually me."

The boy who ate the quake crackers was one of many anecdotes from our first stay in Japan, when I was about three years old. My brothers went to the German School, where they were given proper earthquake training and a backpack with water, a blanket and crackers. I was probably too small for that. All I remember is crawling under the table whenever the floor started shaking.

Those well-prepared schoolboys with their little backpacks were on my mind when I spoke to my uncle, who still lives in Japan, on Saturday. He was in the middle of bundling his wife, two sons and various suitcases into a car. Several German families had already left Tokyo, driving south, away from the nuclear reactors that were hit by the earthquake.

At that point, none of my other friends in Tokyo were considering leaving, but Germans are particularly allergic to nuclear news because of our memories of the Chernobyl disaster. I still have vivid memories of people in my German hometown walking around the supermarket with Becquerel tables - mushrooms and lettuce were off the menu - and being told not to play in the garden, as the rain had contaminated everything. TV showed an elderly lady in a nursing home happily munching her salad. "Radiation causes cancer in the long term, in about 30, 50 years," she said. "I'll be dead by then anyway." I remember being impressed by her logic.

During my second stay in Japan, from 2007-2009, when I was working for Reuters news agency, I would still feel earthquakes that locals no longer noticed. Sitting in the Reuters newsroom on the 30th floor of the Akasaka Biz Tower, I would feel an unpleasant tremour and shout "jishin!" - "earthquake" - to puzzled stares all around. Minutes later, the local wires usually confirmed that there had been a very minor quake. It was a bit like being Cassandra, or a cockroach.

Being in that newsroom on Friday, when the big quake hit Japan, must have been terrifying. Former colleagues told me that people were grabbing their helmets and diving under their desks, and that the shaking was so bad it made them feel sea-sick. As journalists, their next step was not to rest and recover but to head straight to the disaster zone and tell the world what had happened. Reading their stories, part of me is in awe of the reporters' strength and courage; another part wants to grab all of them and pull them away from the contaminated area.

And yet, despite all that chaos and uncertainty, my friends in Japan remain astonishingly upbeat. Melinda in Tokyo fought the doom and gloom with an impromptu Champagne potluck.
Hanae in Yamanashi prefecture wrote in an e-mail: "Life goes is important to keep calm especially in a confusing situation like now." 
Juni, who is also moving south, wrote in another e-mail: "For the Japanese people, natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunami, typhoon are sadly part of our fate. But we didn't expect a nuclear catastrophe...I'm wondering, what's safe? Now I don't care whether it's organic vegetables, organic tofu. Yesterday I bought seaweed (nori, konbu etc - contains iodine) in a supermarket...we pray to the universe for south wind."
Kyoko posted a video on facebook with the following comment:

"Synopsis of the video: You'll see news of a rescue scene. The man interviewed was saved with 2 others after being stranded for 3 days. He is asked if he's daijobu (ok). Gleamingly, he answers, "Daijobu! I experienced the Chile tsunami too! Let's rebuild!" Man of steel!!"

In that spirit, here is how we can help the Japanese rescue effort: the Red Cross is one of the main aid organisations working in the area, and it's really easy to make a donation through their websites. for Britain, for America. 

My brother will be making a particularly large donation to atone for those stolen emergency crackers.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Bang! Smack! Wham-bam!

"I'm a poet. I know bugger-all about boxing," said my fellow judge, got up, put down his scoring pad and walked out.

"But we all know bugger-all about boxing!" I called after him. "I thought that was the point!"

At least I hoped that was the point. Admittedly, we were all a bit surprised by the fact that there would be real, actual boxing. As in: mouth guards, padded head protection, a makeshift ring in a dark Parisian basement, vicious blows to the face, a punch in the stomach that landed with a loud "smack". I thought that only happened in films where they'd gone a bit overboard on the sound effects.

"Let's take into account the poetry as well. Just to encourage them not to blindly smash each other up. We should judge the overall package of the performance," I said in our pre-match judges' conference. We were crouching on a low wooden bench, our noses inside the ring, the beer-sipping crowd pressing up against us.

"I like that," said Terry, a cheerful book-seller who revealed an unexpected fondness for martial arts. "I like the idea of the overall package. But I'm also hoping to see some good action." He punched his palm.

"Perhaps we should move away from the ring a little."

In the end, the idea of the "overall package" went out the window because we were too busy counting blows. This was a bit of a shame, as the theatrics before the fight deserved a special mention. Jess "Sleazy Martini" read out "The Glove Song of J Alfred Prufrock" ("Find blood in this tedious argument of pure and violent intent... There's a time to create, and a time to murder."). Georgina, dressed in a natty brown suit, listed all the problems she'd faced for saying yes too easily: "'re tied to a bed and not only is the other person holding a whip, but he's forgotten the safety word." Peter and Chris slipped in references to a mysterious episode in which a cow was (accidentally) killed. Beth "Silver Spandex" had dug out an early poem that began: "I want to hurt". Kirsten, wearing an enormous Sid Vicious style wig, speed-read a piece about a brawl in a supermarket. Her coach dabbed her gloves with Marmite for good luck.

As for the bang, smack, wham-bam: I'd expected it to be a bit like a ballet brawl. You know, two men in tights dancing around each other, until one pretends to be mortally wounded, does a pirouette and falls over. It wasn't like that though. The gong went, Georgina punched Jess's head, Jess countered with a left hook, Georgine landed a smacking punch on Jess's stomach, and I sat there and winced throughout; although, in a perverted and horrible way, I was kind of enjoying it.

Afterwards, I asked them if they were ok. Yes, they said, totally fine. "I was just amazed by the violence," I said to Jess. "And you're from Kent! I always thought of Kent girls as being nice and sweet and going around picking strawberries - but then you had such a vicious fight."

"Oh," she replied laconically, wiping some smudged mascara off her cheek. "That's easy to explain. I went to an all-girls school."

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Book Club meets Fight Club

I'm not a natural when it comes to full-contact fighting. It's something about the stress of being attacked, the guilt of punching another person, and the physical pain.

"Sure, but how about the adrenaline - don't you find that once you're in the ring, it's such a thrill?" an ex-boyfriend asked me after my first (and last) term of taekwando at university. The university was in tropical Singapore, so on top of the physical pain, there was the perspiration factor.

"No," I said. "I just find it kind of unpleasant."

Years later, I went to watch a Thai boxing tournament on the island of Koh Pha Ngang. It was during a yoga retreat: oddly enough, the yoga centre, which radiated with inner peace, was right next to a Thai boxing school where perfectly normal, nice guys beat the crap out of each other. I went along to the tournament to cheer on one of the nice guys; he got knocked out within minutes. I decided that fighting, whether as a passive spectator or an active punching bag, was not for me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was asked to judge this event: "Writers get violent", which combines boxing with literary criticism (Au Chat Noir in eastern Paris, Thursday March 3). Apparently writers will read from their work, criticise each other, then fight.

"Well, my next book is going to be about pacifists in the 1930s, so I'm not sure I'm the best person to judge a fight," I said to Alberto, the organiser.

"All the better! You can give points to those who throw the fewest punches."

"I guess so. The others on the panel can be normal judges, and I'll be the weird pacifist judge." I agreed to do it. After all, how violent could it be? I vaguely knew some of the contenders and they were all friendly, peaceful. Not exactly Rocky types.

"There's not going to be any actual violence, right? It's just a symbolical thing where they wear boxing gloves," I said, just to confirm. The image I had was not so much Hemingway as Woody Allen sitting on a chair, reading a short story and occasionally waving a boxing glove at the audience.

"Well..." Alberto hesitated. "I thought so, too, but then I went to see one of the practice rounds and they were really at it. I'm trying to get [a mutual friend] to come along and be our emergency doctor, just in case."

"Oh. You mean, they're really beating each other up?"

"Let's put it that way: after I left, they went out to buy mouth guards."

Expect a detailed match report in the next post.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Housewife, 49

I'm reading "Nella Last's War - The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49" as part of my research for novel number two, and am enjoying it so much that I have to keep telling myself to put it down and get back to writing. Here's an extract from 29 November, 1939:

My next-door neighbour has every religious service on at all hours, and finds comfort in it. I wish I could do so - I would only find irritation at the loud noise. She says she prays God strike Hitler dead. Cannot help thinking if God wanted to do that he would not have waited till Mrs. Helm asked him to do so.

And another, dated May 1940, on visiting her elderly but somewhat difficult Aunt Eliza, who has just had her equally elderly and difficult spaniel put down:

She begged me to come round to see her if she missed coming in for longer than a few days, as she felt she would not be here much longer. I said, 'Well ducks, we have all got to go and you have had a hard life. Cracker will be waiting for you.' It seemed to be the right thing to say, for she steadied up and I made her a strong cup of tea and gave her an aspirin.

Nella Last was 49 when she signed up to Mass-Observation, a project set up by a poet and an anthropologist to record the voice of the masses by asking ordinary people to keep regular diaries. Her diary begins with the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939 and covers Dunkirk, the Blitz, rationing - all from the perspective of an intelligent and perceptive housewife in the northern town of Barrow-in-Furness.

As wonderful as the book is, there is an underlying sadness to her story; not just the sadness of the war, but the sadness of a life that was perhaps not lived to its full potential. Reading Nella Last's entries, I felt torn between feeling grateful that the Mass-Observation Project provided an outlet for her talent as a writer, and feeling angry because that talent went mostly unrecognised. She describes how she used to dream of writing, exploring and travelling: "when I was younger I used to be nearly wild with the longing to be off and away...the sound of a ship's siren as she moved down Walney Channel has, at times, changed a busy capable housewife into a wild caged thing who could have set off without a backward glance - BUT there was always my two boys."
There was also her husband, who did not like to travel, or indeed leave the house, and who forced Nella to stay at home with him and put up with his moods.

On a more uplifting note, the diaries show that it's never too late to change one's life (emboldened by her war effort, Nella eventually tells her husband to stop his tantrums) and that it's never too late to become a writer: Nella Last continued to keep her diary for 30 years.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Sex, spies and arm tubes

The undercover police scandal in the UK seems to get worse every day, with some anonymous former officer now saying he had no choice but to sleep with the environmental activists he spied on - he just did it to fit into the "promiscuous" environmental scene. Talk about blaming the victims.

From a German perspective, the whole affair looks particularly nasty because it's so reminiscent of Stasi methods. When I read about the officer who married one of the activists he had been monitoring, I immediately thought of Vera Wollenberger (now Vera Lengsfeld), a famous pro-democracy campaigner in East Germany who later found out that her husband and father of her children had been spying on her for a decade. It's bizarre to see something like that happen in Britain, and even more bizarre to see it being used against a largely peaceful movement.

On a lighter note, following the story has made me think about the anarchist chapters in The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages, especially the scenes where various activists talk about the best way to disrupt a nuclear transport - using arm tubes, chaining themselves to the tracks, etc. When I was writing the scenes, that kind of activism seemed like a pretty niche subject. Now it's all over the papers!
And even the old arm tubes get a mention:

"In 2008 (former undercover officer Mark Kennedy) was invited to a forest on the French-German border where groups from around Europe would share skills.
'It was almost stereotypical. The Germans made very technical, clean and precise incendiary devices, the French were flamboyant and used Gauloises cigarettes to light the fuse and the Greeks were all for a big bang: they strapped a gas canister to a basic incendiary device.
'When it was my turn I shared details of arm tubes - when protesters clip their arms into steel tubes to create a barrier. I think others were a bit disappointed but British activism didn't have the militancy or violence of other countries.'"

(From a Mail on Sunday interview with Mark Kennedy)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Survey the Scene

A couple of years ago, when I was still working for Reuters, I was sent on a hostile environment training course taught by a former marine in Bangkok. We practiced first aid on various Reuters bureau chiefs, found our way out of a minefield using only a pencil, and got kidnapped by Thai actors who were covered in fake blood.

The reason I'm writing about this is that I'm staying in a hotel in London this week, and hotels always remind me of some of the more peculiar lessons I learned on that course. The former marine - let's call him Brad - had a lot to say about hotels. For example, don't pick a room above the lobby: if someone is going to blow up the hotel, they'll probably do it by crashing (or throwing a bomb) into the lobby. Also, always remember where the fire exit is. Brad blindfolded us to simulate the effect of smoke and made us crawl around the hotel on all fours in search of the exit. It did make we wish I had checked.

The oddest lesson, however, was the one about securing your hotel room.

"Think about the staff. Of course it's nice when they do up your room," said Brad, standing in his suite, a dozen journalists at his feet. "But you never know. They might use your toothbrush."

The thing is, I had never even considered the possibility of hotel staff using my toothbrush. I mean, why would they? Then again, I'd never been a marine.
As a marine, Brad had learned to be aware of all the risks all the time. His guiding principle was survey the scene, closely followed by situational awareness. "Survey the scene" was reasonable enough: look around you to see if there's anything fishy, eg a sign saying you're in a minefield. "Situational awareness" was much harder to attain. It was a state of mind that basically involved booby-trapping your hotel room to prevent the cleaning lady from using your toothbrush.

This is the second reason why I was thinking of Brad (who actually showed us the portable burglar alarm to secure the door of his hotel room) this week. I'm in the Quaker library, reading pacifist Quaker magazines from the 1930s as part of my research for my next novel, and I was thinking about the contrast between the world of Brad and the world of the average Quaker.
The remarkable thing about Brad's "survey the scene" philosophy was that it involved constantly thinking about potential threats and hazards and how to ward them off - all the time, even if you were in an apparently benign environment, like a pleasant room in a Thai hotel. Quakerism, on the other hand, is all about maintaining a calm and peaceful mind, at the risk of underestimating threats.
This meant that in the run-up to the Second World War, many Quakers refused to participate in air raid preparations. Just after the outbreak of war, it turned out that the caretaker at the Friends' Meeting House on Euston Road in London had converted the cloakrooms into air raid shelters. The Quakers felt rather annoyed:

"The ... decision had been a great shock to them, and they regarded it as an invasion of the stronghold of the Peace movement. If war came the situation would be changed, but we should pray for peace and not pre-suppose war," said Frederick J. Tritton on behalf of several young Quakers at a meeting on Sept 1, 1939, two days before Britain declared war on Germany.*

With the benefit of hindsight, that can sound a little naive. In the weeks it took the Quakers to discuss the pros and cons of reinforcing their cloakrooms, Brad would already have built five air raid shelters and secured them with portable burglar alarms. However, there was something touching about this little group of believers clinging to peace right up until the outbreak of war, and I did find the concept of the peaceful mind very compelling. And certainly less nerve-wracking than situational awareness.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering how to get out of a minefield using only a pencil: you take your pencil and gently insert it into the ground at a 45 degree angle, which exerts apparently just enough pressure to detect the metallic surface of a mine, but not enough to set it off. You do this in a widening circle around your body, millemetre by millimetre, marking the safe spots and the mines with coloured bits of paper as you go, until you've marked a safe way out. Good luck.)  

* From: The Friend (Quaker magazine), September 8, 1939.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

New year, new cover, new website!

Ta-daaa! The cover for "The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages" is ready! I'm incredibly pleased with it. I've always loved illustrated covers (and, for that matter, illustrated books) and I think the designer, Alessandro Gottardo, has done a very nice job.

The book will only be released in April, but if you want to read the first chapter you can visit my brand-new website: (second Ta-daaa!). I haven't been this excited about the Internet since I got my first hotmail account in 1998. The site was built by my friend Jonah, assisted by Katrina, and they came up with so many beautiful features and details.
Jonah has both a fine arts background and a tech background, hence the beauty of it all. Even the contact form is a little work of art.

Look forward to lots of virtual postcards from you, and hope you enjoy the extract.