Book review – The Universe versus Alex Woods

Alex Woods is an unusual boy. It’s not many 10 year-olds who have survived a meteorite landing on them, after all. And who suffers from epileptic seizures. And who has a clairvoyant Mum, and no Dad.

So it’s no surprise that he’s a natural target for school bullies.

But it is a surprise when he strikes up an unusual friendship with cantankerous, reclusive old Mr Peterson. Especially as he only gets to know the old man after breaking his greenhouse.

Image result for the universe versus alex woods

Gavin Extence’s debut novel is a delight from start to finish. Some of the narrative strands arguably struggle to fit together at times, but the depth of friendship this odd couple develop is beautifully observed.

What a shame then that Mr Peterson is dying. And tries to commit suicide. But it’s ok….Alex saves him.

The final third of the novel sees Alex entering into a pact with Mr Peterson, that is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming.

The author clearly did a huge amount of research into the process of assisted dying in Switzerland, that’s all I’m saying.

The book poses some fundamental questions about the right to die, the right to determine the timing of your own demise, when you’re suffering from a terminal illness that you know will render your last days painful and incapacitated.

But most of all the book is about people at very different stages in their lives, who have much to teach each other and who need each other’s support in very different ways.

Darkly humorous, educational yet entertaining, sad yet uplifting….The Universe versus Alex Woods will surprise and delight you.

Thank you, Gavin.

Image result for gavin extence

 

 

 

 

 

Restaurant review – River Cottage

 

18-Agretti-Heart-Corbis.jpgSo what was the spindly green vegetable?”, I asked. “Looked a bit like samphire?”

Agretti“, said the chefs. “Italian. But we grow it in the garden here, then cook it and serve with three types of beetroot – candy, purple & golden.”

Nice. Loved it. And what about the cabbage?….I’ve spent 59 years avoiding it, but that tasted so good with the beef and all the other veg.”

“Yeah, that’s just a bit of lovely summer cabbage, chopped finely and cooked with chives and lemon.”

Whoever thought vegetables could be so interesting and tasty, almost hoisted to the front of the stage after years cowering in the wings?

I was in the kitchen of River Cottage HQ, in a gloriously verdant valley just outside Axminster, on the border of east Devon and west Dorset. I have never really watched the TV series but one of our holiday group is a fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, staying nearby for a week, Sunday lunch at RC HQ sounded an appealing prospect to us all.

But this is so much more than just another meal.

From the moment you arrive – transported from the car park to the farm by rustic tractor and trailer – everything done here is a joyous celebration of nature and food, rather than a reverential prayer at the altar of yet another temple of gastronomy.

Welcomed in a splendid yurt with a glass of apple cider brandy, we sit on straw bales to hear what’s in store.

In a moment, we’ll bring round a couple of appetizers to enjoy with your drink. Then feel free to wander anywhere you want. The cottage is on the other side of the dining barn. The kitchen garden is beyond the cottage. The pigs and chickens are up on the ridge, by the polytunnels, where the tractor dropped you off. Drop into the cookery school, where they’re being taught how to make blue cheese today. And go and say hello to the chefs in the kitchen.”

Labneh with cumin, pickles and sauerkraut, and pork liver pâté with tomatillo chutney, got the taste buds moving. And after exploring the estate, sitting communally in the cathedral-ceilinged dining barn on two long tables, British split-pea hummus with seeded dukkah, and smoked pollock rarebit with leeks and apple chutney revved up everyone’s culinary engines.

Between courses, ask the friendly chefs about ingredients and techniques. No sweary, over-stressed prima donnas in this kitchen.

 

Or browse through the RC books and other merchandise on display by the bar, although there is no hard sell at any time. Or find out what’s brought your fellow diners to River Cottage.

Back at the table, fennel roasted carrots, green beans with shallots and tomatoes meant the innovative veggie support acts were threatening to steal the main course show.

But not quite.

The undoubted star was the 6 year-old local heifer, barbecued overnight in the rustic smoking machine, carved and served with that perfect combination of blackened crust and still reddish meat. Add a rich, silky beef-bone gravy, anise hyssop Bernaise sauce, roasted skins-off charlotte potatoes, the symphony of vegetables and a glass of red and you have a meal that lingers long in the culinary memory.

Orchard mist jelly, barely concealing cheeky wobbling raspberries, apple crumble, cinnamon and vanilla ice cream completed the show.

We wandered around the estate and trudged back up the valley to cars, reluctant to leave River Cottage behind.

This wasn’t a cheap lunch, but the overall experience was worth every penny. Come here to see first-hand the easy, natural transition of food from farm and garden to table, to understand better how to combine ingredients and how to cook with passion. But don’t come here if you want just another Sunday lunch.

Thanks to all at River Cottage, and especially to Andy Tyrrell – senior sous chef – for his humour and for his patience in annotating all the ingredients for me!

We’ve got a vegetarian friend coming for lunch tomorrow. I hope she likes agretti…..

Theatre review – Black is the Color of My Voice

I worship books. I love movies. I like music. But is there anything better than live theatre? And when it’s a wholly original piece, brilliantly performed, in a quaint seaside theatre and seen on your 19th wedding anniversary, with your wife, family and good friends, the whole experience takes some artistic beating.

Apphia Campbell wrote and performs Black is the Color of My Voice. For 75 mesmerising minutes, she stands alone on the small stage of the Marine Theatre in charming Lyme Regis, and she is Nina Simone.

In a virtuoso one-woman performance, she locks herself away in a dingy bedroom in an effort to battle her demons, and to reach peace with her dead father. Along the way, she plucks props out of a battered suitcase on the floor, and we gain insights into her troubled life.

Donning a hat, hopping up onto the spindle-leg table, crouching and adopting an exaggerated negro drawl, she becomes her bible-bashing mother.

An old frock reminds her of dancing with her beloved Daddy. Faded love letters are from her first – and lost – love. And those same letters introduce us to her jealous, violent, controlling fiancé Arthur.

But what persists through a damaged life is her music. At the age of just three, she has already assimilated how to play the piano. The proud family raise money to send her to college, and she is on track to become the country’s first black concert pianist.

And then she finds her voice. That smoky, bluesy, jazzy voice. The Devil’s voice, as her disappointed mother calls it.

Image result for apphia campbell black is the color of my voice

But it gives her money, fame, and the ability to stand up and be heard in the long, bitter, violent fight for racial freedom in the entrenched racist southern states of the US.

Apphia Campbell is not only a gifted actor, she also has a damned fine voice. For the iconic songs, interlaced with key episodes in her troubled life, Nina Simone is on stage in Lyme Regis.

I Put a Spell on You; To Be Young, Gifted and Black; Mississippi Goddam; See line Woman and others are beautifully reproduced, with just a distant gramophone player occasionally accompanying the singular voice.

And Feeling Good brings down the curtain on a scintillating theatrical performance, leaving you humming those haunting rhythms as you head out into the Dorset night.

Apphia first performed Black is the Color of My Voice in Shanghai, in 2013. She’s bringing it to the UK now, on a short tour, until early November. Catch it if you possibly can, for a life-enhancing piece of live theatre.

 

 

 

Restaurant review – Galvin la Chapelle

The Galvin brothers are gastronomic rock & roll stars, with several acclaimed eateries in London and Edinburgh.

Image result for galvin brothers chefs

La Chapelle is their outpost near Spitalfields Market in the city, close to Liverpool Street station and Bishopsgate. Once St. Botolph Hall, the building was a girls’ school in the 1890s and served as a parish hall and gymnasium until 1975. It was due for demolition in the late 1970s, until a group of local residents chained themselves to the front door gates to stop the bulldozers moving in.

Derelict for years, it was only opened again in 2009, as La Chapelle restaurant, after extensive refurbishment for Chris & Jeff Galvin.

Image result for galvin la chapelle outside

And what a refurbishment. As soon as you walk through the front door, the building and the interior space is as much a star as the food. Well, almost. Your eyes are drawn to the soaring cathedral-like ceilings, light flooding in from the Gothic-arched church-like windows, and the suspended mezzanine floor inserted into history.

Image result for galvin la chapelle

The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2011, and continues to dazzle. We went for the first time a couple of years ago, for a special celebration, and vowed to return.

Well, we just have done. With friends, and to take advantage of a special summer menu, at a fixed price of £29 for 5 gastronomic courses, and including a glass of fizz. Yes, it’s expensive, but not bad value really for such an acclaimed venue.

Parfait of goosnagh duck liver was as light and ephemeral on the tongue as a church wafer…but much more sinful.

Lasagne of Dorset crab, with beurre Nantais and pea shoots, was a perfect marriage of English seaside and Italian pasta. I wonder if it will last…

The central culinary pillar was pot roast supreme of Landes corn-fed chicken, nestling down on a risotto of girolles and soft herbs. This was an unctuous dish, a tad salty but with rice of that perfect texture that is so elusive at home.

The cheese course – a creamy blue Fourme d’Ambert, with grape chutney and walnuts – was so small that we sent out a search party to find the fromage.

But a raspberry souffle, bathed in decadent Valrhona chocolate sauce, was a suitably indulgent finale, before we staggered out into the Spitalfield night.

Service throughout was impeccable. Professional, friendly and engaging, but not subservient as it sometimes can be at temples of gastronomy.

If I’m honest, the meal was slightly disappointing. It fell between the twin stools of a proper a la carte menu and a grazing option, and felt a little like a summer conveyor belt. If you decide to push the boat out, la Chapelle is highly recommended but go for the full a la carte experience, if you and your wallet dare.

Happiness is…..Costa Rica

You’ve seen all those surveys about the most enjoyable places in the world to live, right?

Vancouver, Melbourne, Cape Town and Auckland are often mentioned. In the most recently published version, Vienna was again voted the world’s most liveable city.

Austria's elegant capital and the world's most liveable city, Vienna.

The Austrian capital was deemed to offer the highest quality of living in the latest survey of 230 cities, ranked by a measurement based on factors including political stability, crime, currency exchange, recreational facilities, housing and climate.

But does that mean the good burghers of Vienna are happy? Does quality of life equal contentment?

The annual Happy Planet Index (really!) was also published recently. And this time, the criteria – amongst the surveyed 140 countries – was what matters most…sustainable well-being for all. Not GDP – economic growth – but how well countries are doing in providing their people with long, happy, sustainable lives.

And by these measures, the UK ranks a lowly 34th and the USA – so-called land of the free – sits near the bottom, in 108th place.

And the happiest? Costa Rica. Yes, this small country in Central America brings more smiles to its people’s faces than Sweden. Or Switzerland. Or Spain.

Image result for costa rica

Why?

According to the HPI:

This tropical Central-American country is home to the greatest density of species in the world. Costa Rica’s GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European and North American countries, and is primarily based on tourism, agriculture and exports.

Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949, and has since reallocated army funds to be spent on education, health and pensions. In 2012, Costa Rica invested more in education and health as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product than the UK.  Professor Mariano Rojas, a Costa Rican economist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, attributes Costa Ricans’ high well-being to a culture of forming solid social networks of friends, families and neighbourhoods.

Costa Rica is also a world leader when it comes to environmental protection. The Costa Rican government uses taxes collected on the sale of fossil fuels to pay for the protection of forests.

In 2015, the country was able to produce 99% of its electricity from renewable sources, and the government continues to invest in renewable energy generation in an effort to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2021.

As luck would have it, I’m travelling to Costa Rica in October, on a press trip with Explorethe adventure travel experts.

So I might leave a country still supporting an army and Trident missiles, struggling to pay for its education and pensions systems, and burning through its energy resources…but I’ll return from Costa Rica with a huge smile on my face.

Image result for smiley face

Theatre review – The Shawshank Redemption

The 1994 Oscar winning movie The Shawshank Redemption is regularly right at the top of many favourite film of all time lists.

Image result for the shawshank redemption movie

Based on a novella by Stephen King, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker incarcerated in the infamous Shawshank penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover.

Andy initially remains aloof inside the brutal prison, but slowly forms an unlikely friendship with fixer Ellis “Red” Redding. He continually professes his innocence of the double murder, but over the years inside The Shank he uses his wit and intelligence to make life as bearable as possible.

This intriguing tale has now been transported to the stage. I can’t compare to the movie or to the original book, but it stands alone as a thrilling, life-affirming piece of live entertainment.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Paul Nicholls plays the wily banker, Jack Ellis the devious Warden Stammas and Ben Onwukwe, as Red, is a convincing double for Oscar nominated Morgan Freeman.

With stealthy set changes and a little imagination, we’re on the inside of the penitentiary with the cast, moving seamlessly from the canteen to Andy’s cell – adorned by a Rita Hayworth poster – into the exercise yard and back into the new library, a reward for Andy’s money-laundering efforts for Warden Stammas.

The cast of just eleven men punches well above its collective weight, thanks to a clever soundtrack and theatrical trickery .

We come to despise prison bullies and rapists Bogs and Rooster, pity institutionalised librarian Brooksie and laugh with the other long-term inmates.

In just two hours, we live with them all through almost 20 years of lies, violence, fear, friendship and – ultimately – redemption.

I might yet see the much lauded film one day, but it’s hard to imagine it could be a better experience than seeing this stage adaptation, on a wet September night in Windsor.

Image result for the shawshank redemption movie

 

 

How not to write a novel

I stumbled on an interesting and entertaining TV programme last night. Giles Coren, the Times’ famously vitriolic restaurant critic, was talking about his own novel Winkler.

Giles Coren My Failed Novel.jpg

(image courtesy of the Independent)

On Sky Arts, it was one in a series of programmes exploring artistic failure.

Winkler certainly flopped. Published in 2005, it sold all of 771 copies. I bet Coren’s publishers loved that, after paying him a £30,000 advance.

Giles was so scarred by his literary disaster that he hasn’t attempted to write another novel. But to his credit, he wasn’t afraid to try and understand why it failed so spectacularly. He even met his nemesis, critic Stephen Bayley, who said the book had a certain lavatorial awfulness.

Geoffrey Archer told him how he rewrites his own novels 18 times before sending to his publisher. Giles thought he might have amended his Winkler manuscript twice, so convinced was he of its immediate literary perfection.

Rose Tremain, David Mitchell and Hanif Kureishi all gave him deep insights into their own successful writing processes.

 

He visibly squirmed when reading the first 5,000 words aloud to the renowned creative writing class at the University of East Anglia. Their feedback was thoughtful…and destructive.

He sat in the back room of a bookshop, eavesdropping on the opinions of a ladies’ book group discussing Winkler. He met them. Everyone laughed. Their feedback was thoughtful…and negative.

Image result for howard jacobson

Howard Jacobson told Giles that failure is the ingredient you need to have. And there’s the rub. Giles, already a successful journalist with a public persona, didn’t have to subject his first novel to a publisher’s slush pile review, and inevitable rejection.

 

So he failed publicly, rather than privately. He knew the writing was flashy. He wrote a lot about arses. He wrote for himself, rather than for the reader. But it was published.

I still don’t particularly like Giles, but I admire him for analysing the reasons he failed so spectacularly with Winkler. And if he risks writing another novel, it will be interesting to see if he writes it for himself, or for the reader.

By the way, you can read on Amazon what Winkler is all about. And some very critical reader reviews.