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Sunday 27 December 2009

Mussel Soup

I first ate mussels many years ago as a student in Granada, when a neighbour came over to prepare us a paella. While it was cooking we were given a tapa of fresh mussels, very simply prepared - just placed in a covered pan (if you like, with a dash of white wine), heated until the shells open (any that do not should be discarded), then eaten directly from the shells with a squeeze of lemon juice. They were absolutely delicious.

Excellent mussels are available from good fishmongers in many places in the UK but I think I’m right in saying that they are not widely prepared in British households - in spite of being extremely nutritious and pretty cheap. They must be very fresh and in their shells. I think they usually have a better texture when they are not too big. You will need to clean them before cooking - scrub and de-beard, then soak for a while in water with a dash of lemon juice to get out any grit.

Here are a couple of delicious, simple soups to try:

Mussel and Leek Soup

A Spanish friend often used to serve this at New Year - but you could also eat it cold on a hot summer day. It can be made the day before - keep the mussel meats to one side, and heat up before serving.

Ingredients (For four people)
1.5 kg mussels - only the freshest, from a good fishmonger
a splash of white wine
500 grams leeks
1 onion
a little olive oil
a pinch of flour
500 ml fish stock. If you want to make your own, salmon or monkfish heads are great for this. If you can’t be bothered, try a good delicatessen for a quality prepared stock.
a generous pinch of saffron (ground to a fine powder with a few grains of salt with a mortar and pestle)

Wash the mussels, pull out beards.
Place in large pan with a dash of wine and heat, shaking frequently, until the shells open.
Pull any remaining beards, and remove the meat from all but 4. Set aside.
Drain the mussel liquor through a sieve and keep.

Chop leeks and onion and add to a pan with a little olive oil. Cook on a low heat for about 3 mins. Stir in the flour until smooth.
Gradually add the mussel liquor, remaining wine and fish stock to the pan, stir until smooth. Bring to simmering point and then add the powdered saffron.
Cook for a further 25 mins.
Whizz the soup with a blender.
Heat through.

Just before serving, add the mussel meats and the mussels in their shells. Some people also add a swirl of cream.

Mussel Soup with Tomato and Chilli

A different kind of mussel soup can be made by making a sofrito with onion, garlic, some chopped red chillies, a couple of chopped ripe tomatoes and a cup of chopped fresh basil leaves. Then add the white wine and fish stock. Simmer for about 30 minutes, add the mussels and cook, covered, for 2-3 mins, until the shells have opened.

Monday 21 December 2009

Something For My Christmas Stocking

Very nice to receive today, a cutting from The Mail on Sunday (December 6th) in which Simon Shaw, in his paperback reviews, says:

“Most promising newcomer this year was Aly Monroe, whose debut wartime thriller, The Maze of Cadiz is an atmospheric tour de force.”

Happy Christmas to all.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Of Gardeners and Butlers.

About fifteen years ago, my husband came back from lunch with a publisher who had said he would be remiss in his job if he did not keep an eye on the business models used by pornographers – ‘because they are always the first to react to market conditions.’

Apparently the latest development in the business then was the death of the stars and the advent of ‘normal people’ as protagonists - what was called either ‘amateurism’ or ‘democratisation’. This was accompanied by a great expansion of what some call fetishes, others special interest groups, and marketing people term ‘genres’.

At the beginning I was, frankly, doubtful about all this. The use of the word ‘punters’ for book buyers struck me as more macho wistful than real, certainly in the mainstream of British publishing.

I was, of course, quite wrong. This argument - that where pornography points the rest follow - has now become commonplace. I remember reading a long article in the Guardian about it. More recently, the Financial Times had an alarmist report from the West Coast of the US, which said that even pornographers were struggling to survive with new technologies, and were experiencing the same problems that have afflicted music producers - how to make money when so much is freely available to download. There were other problems.

In his afterword to Lolita, Nabokov, suggests (remembering childhood fairy stories) that consumers of pornography needed what he called ‘sutures of sense’ so as not to feel cheated as they skip-read. He also suggested that pornographers were doomed to adding more and more characters and combinations. ‘In de Sade they call the gardener in.’

I suspect this argument shows Nabokov as an innocent moralist. Certainly this is no longer true. In the age of YouTube and YouPorn, no ‘sutures of sense’ are required. As I believe the director of the first Lara Croft film put it, ‘narrative is so last century.’

We might call this ‘instant effect’. I have to be careful using terms like shorthand – though shorthand descriptions have always existed. Lolita was after all first published, as Nabokov put it, ‘by a supplier of ‘one-handed literature’, before a mainstream publisher decided to cash in on scandal and greatness. In Spain, people sometimes referred to crime books as ‘el mayordomo’ – the butler.

I am not by nature censorious - certainly not when I have been charged with being akin to a pornographer myself.

Why? Genre, I was told, works on the same principles as old-fashioned (ie printed) pornography – ‘the manipulation of words to the satisfaction of the consumer’. The ‘consumer’ wants guaranteed satisfaction within narrow limits. P D James’ assertion that crime fiction is comparable to a sonnet shows that she does not know the difference between form and formula. And, to quote Nabokov again, ‘nobody wants to read a crime novel without any dialogue in it.’

In short, the crime reader wants consistency, a short cut to resolution or justice - usually of a conventional or atavistic sort that confirms and never challenges their presumptions and prejudices. Originality and curiosity are prohibited.

If you are reading this on this site you probably think the above case is, to put it politely, over stated. I was also told that I had ‘joined the herd. Romance was, Crime is – and there will be another shift in due course.’

I have to admit I found this stimulating. Apart from the obvious rejoinder - that this argument closes the arguer off behind dogmatic barricades and will probably leave him looking po-faced and wrong when future courses have taken their supple due - I found the argument too formulaic.

I will certainly not say that all crime books contribute to the well-being of humankind and advance our knowledge of human nature. But I would like to point out here - as I did at the time - that in Lolita, Nabokov had made use of ‘certain techniques’ – the confession, elderly pornographic novels – to spin a murder story of his own. Not his main intent? No. But he needed the readers’ familiarity with those conventions to work his magic. I also, probably unfairly, suggested that the genre-pornography argument given me was like accusing Nabokov of paedophilia, pseudo-taxonomy, and an inability to distinguish between real life and fiction. Hokum? You bet.

‘Bliss’ - which was Nabokov’s aim in writing - is a tall order, and varies from reader to reader. Ask a pornographer and he’ll probably say – you mean a happy ending? And for a pornographer, that is a balance sheet.

Yes, publishing involves money. Huge quantities of novels appear every year in the hope of acquiring some. And this hope is not just the publishers’ - some writers do find themselves, more or less planned, more or less willingly, in the grip of a formula to attempt to achieve this.

It may be that reflective, intrinsically slow prose will be twittered away, but I suspect that independent book stores and ‘boutique’ markets will persist for some time yet.

Honestly? If I could afford it I’d love to examine the possibilities in the new. (The e-books seem to me old mind set in a new technology – rather like early photographers slavishly referring to Old Master paintings.)

Finally, someone else has recently used the crime, thriller, spy genre for his own purposes: Javier Marías, who I have mentioned in earlier blog posts. I will be posting on him a little later.

In the meantime, have a supple and exciting Christmas and New Year.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Lionel Davidson (1922-2009)

Last year (Sunday 30 November 2008) I wrote a blog on Lionel Davidson, pleased that Faber and Faber had brought out a collection of all eight of his books for adults published between 1960 and 1994.

Lionel Davidson died at the age of 87 on 21 October 2009. You can check the obituaries in the Guardian, Times and Daily Telegraph but here I’ll repeat that he was the youngest of nine children of a poor Polish-Jewish tailor (who died when he was two), that later, when the family moved from Hull to Streatham, he taught his Lithuanian-Jewish mother to read and that, on leaving school at fourteen, he got a job as an office boy at the Spectator and by the age of seventeen was writing syndicated features for the Morley Adams Group, including a column for children and advice to the lovelorn.

He served as a telegraphist in submarines during World War 2 (though he never used the experience directly), freelanced his way to Czechoslovakia in 1947 and later worked for the Keystone press agency and as fiction editor of John Bull Magazine. His first novel, The Night of Wenceslas – set in Prague – was published in 1960.

I should declare a tenuous connection. Lionel’s lovely brother Cyril and wife Kathleen were my family’s close friends. We’d see Lionel, his first wife Fay Jacobs and their two children on Boxing Day and later, when Lionel and family moved to Israel for about ten years, hear how they were getting on.

I always seem to have known that Lionel Davidson suffered from depression. The death of his wife Fay in 1988 did not help.

His second wife, however, the author Frances Ullman, encouraged him to write again. This was not easy. Lionel Davidson always said he did not enjoy writing. Working on films made him feel ‘like a road digger’, he finished novels feeling like the loser in a boxing match.

At one time, in a spectacular effort to solve writer’s block, he bought a lighthouse on Beachy Head. I don’t believe he ever moved in. The lighthouse is now apparently owned by the BBC.
What turned out to be his last book, Kolymsky Heights, was published in 1994, sixteen years after the seventh.

In memory of a writer who, after all, was in the business of entertainment, this may all seem a little grim. Far from it. This is a thank you note for the life of a charming, witty and inventive writer of excellent thrillers. Apart from also working on films, he wrote a number of children’s books under a pseudonym and his own name.

One last confession. My father always bought Lionel Davidson’s books when they came out and would give them as presents. This worked very well until The Chelsea Murders. An elderly recipient wrote back to say that she was not going to read the book because she had heard it was ‘pornographic’. (I believe there is an allusion Swinburne). But the kerfuffle meant I never did read that novel. I have just ordered it.

Monday 7 December 2009

The Seas South of Gaudi

When, on his way back home from Australia in 2003, Manuel Vazquez Montalbán died at the age of 64, at least half (the left-wing half) of Spain went into mourning. Television and newspapers went into overdrive. Spain had just lost a prolific journalist and writer who had provided frequently waspish and funny, always acute commentary, up to, through and beyond what is called the Transition – the movement out of dictatorship and into democracy.

Vazquez Montalbán was from Barcelona, born in the poor Barrio Chino (the Chinese Quarter, Chinese in Franco’s Spanish meaning Red Light), which was subsequently flattened for the '92 Olympics. Mediterranean, Catalan, he grew up as a Left-wing, gourmet workaholic, who said the only slavery he could countenance was his own. Articles, essays, poems and books in many genres poured out of him.

Amongst all his other activities Vazquez Montalbán was one of the very first crime writers in Spain.

You may think this an odd thing to remark on.

But when I first went to Spain I was struck by how popular English crime writers like Agatha Christie were. On asking for Spanish writers in this genre I learnt there were indeed a few thriller writers – they wrote macho adventures, usually set abroad. It soon got through to me that ‘perfect societies’ – also known as societies with censors –have no place for crime novels because they involve investigations and uncovering truths. Spain at that time did not need that.

The Pepe Carvalho novels actually began in 1972 (Franco had three years to go). It is difficult now to understand the limitations imposed on Spanish writers at that time. For example, the newspaper El País could not have started while Franco was alive. The name was regarded as insulting by the old guard. El Pais means, simply, The Country. Not nearly grand enough. Where was the Fatherland, the grandeur of Spain?

Likewise the censors would not allow ‘bad Spaniards’ in fiction unless they met an exemplary end. But they looked superficially: Is Carvalho a Spanish surname? No, it is Portugese. So it was passed.

‘Biscuter’ is the nickname of Carvalho”s sidekick. I saw people howling with laughter at this. Apart from being a description of the character’s sexual orientation(s), the name refers to the Biscuter (Bi-Scooter), a tiny vehicle with a two stroke engine and drive to one wheel, that was produced when Spain was excluded from the UN and licensing agreements. It became a byword for ugliness, the tatty pretensions of the dictatorship, and the diminutive size of the dictator.

Does this matter now? Probably only in the sense that things date, and names, expressions and attitudes are left alone, looking orphaned, long after a dictatorship has gone.

Freed from forty years of Franco, the Spanish leapt to ‘join Europe again.’ There were some odd conjunctures. Political and sexual liberation came together in what was called the destape' (uncovering). One of my favourite memories is being handed a magazine, a garish buffet of naked women, to find the centerfold was a long, closely argued article by the man called ‘the old professor’ - Enrique Tierno Galván, a mild-mannered, very serious, somewhat self-conscious intellectual who would become Mayor of Madrid.

The Spanish sum up this climate now by pointing to a photograph of the amiable old professor, quite unaware that a porn actress is flashing beside him.

The sexual revolution at that time in Spain, certainly in print in magazines and in S cinemas now long gone, was decidedly male orientated. The word ‘macho’ is after all a Spanish export. Yes, I think there was definitely an element of women as food, probably best expressed by the Jack Lemmon character in Some Like it Hot when, surrounded by the members of the female band, he recounts to Tony Curtis his dream of being locked in a cake shop - though most of the stuff was not as charming or as funny.

My point here? Manuel Vazquez Montalbán was what the Spanish call ‘extremely well prepared’ – that is, he was very intelligent, highly educated and well-read. Un hombre culto – a cultured man – meant a lot in Spanish politics then. He represented the left in this respect, could take on the right-wing intellectuals as a man who had had academic success and knew about Schrödinger’s cat, Philip Glass or Ubu Roi.

But he was not as innocent as the old professor, and some of his writing reflects the greasy nature of some ‘cake shops’, and an appetite that does not think much, if at all, about the cake herself. I suspect this is why he is popular in Italy.

One more thing. There is a ritual in Spain. Every year since 1952, on October 15, the winner of the Premio Planeta is announced. Though books are submitted under pseudonyms ,the winner tends to be well known already. The list of winners is a veritable roll call of Spanish cultural life. The money is so big that one winner, Juan Marsé I think it was (he has also written crime novels) called it ‘la casa’ – the house. He meant that the money was big enough to buy one and, after years of scraping a living, it meant security. Juan Marsé, a recent recipient of the Cervantes prize and the prize in honour of the wonderful Juan Rulfo, won the Planeta in 1978 with his La Muchacha de las Bragas de Oro – literally The girl with the gold knickers - published in English with the title Girl with Golden Panties. It is not actually a prize but an advance and is currently 601,000 euros.

The Planeta is now a tradition, like cologne and socks at Christmas, a popular present and in some ways the book of the year, ie the one book bought, usually for Papa or Dad. Sales are enormous, the marketing at saturation level. It is very tempting. And to win it, the writer is asked to be accessible --- and to reflect society.

The Southern Seas (Los Mares del Sur) won the Planeta in 1979.