Wednesday 21 January 2015

The Sleeper and the Spindle

There seems to have been a glut recently of people re-writing classic fairy tales and 'The Sleeper and the Spindle' is Neil Gaiman's contribution. It is a concoction of ideas from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, with a very clever twist, and beautiful, subtle illustrations by Chris Riddell that bring a real fairytale feel to the book. 
Our main protagonists are a group of three dwarfs who discover a sleep plague spreading across a neighbouring kingdom and so seek the assistance of their queen to break the enchantment; it turns out she has some experience with these matters. We are not told who they are, but details emerge as the story progresses:
"They had names, the dwarfs, but human beings weren't permitted to know what they were, such things being sacred.
The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty. Names are in short supply in this telling." (p.23)
Meanwhile in the castle at the centre of the enchantment a wizened old hag wanders alone and angry amongst the sleepers.
But when the princess is awoken things are not as they might at first appear, and the tables have to be turned before the spell is broken.
The whole experience gives our queen a taste for life and instead of returning for her wedding she sets out with the dwarfs in search of something else.
 A book that can easily be read in one sitting, as a bedtime story or on a wet Wednesday afternoon. A tale without the neat happy-ever-after cliché and some wonderful subversion of traditional expectations.

Sunday 18 January 2015

Whale Hunting for Beginners

I had an image in my head of what Moby Dick would be like. It was nothing like that. I am at a loss to know quite how to review such a strange book. Perhaps it might have helped to read the wiki page first. It is 500 pages of Whaling Encyclopaedia and then 50 pages of denouement. I kept wondering when the story was going to take over and Captain Ahab was going to come out of his cabin.  I was left mostly with a desire to go to sea, for real, in a ship with sails, and to see a whale.

So Ishmael, our hero, is feeling a bit out-of-sorts and so decides to go to sea for a few years, and takes himself off to Nantucket to join a whaling ship:

"Look at it - a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canadian thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that bits of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravagances only show that Nantucket is no Illinois." (p.76)

To be honest we don't learn much else about him; he recounts the events but never gives his own opinions on the venture upon which they are engaged. Over the course of a couple of hundred pages we get to know the crew and the workings of the ship and the nature of seafaring and the principles of the business of whale hunting, but we see hardly a glimpse of Ahab. But then when he does emerge it is to rally the crew to his crazy cause; he gives a speech that must be the inspiration for the one that occurs in all good disaster films, where the leading man inspires the remnants of the human race to engage the enemy in spite of overwhelming odds against them. And at sea what else is there for them to do but cheer him on, he is their captain, despite any misgivings, obeyed to the bitter end:

"Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals - morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge."  (p.188)

Because of the amount of detailed information about the voyage and its purpose, both folklore and serious study about whales and whaling, you find yourself drawn into their remote and isolated little world. Although their former lives, and wives and children at home, are mentioned in passing it's as if the rest of the world ceases to exist. All there is is the water that surrounds and engulfs them. They meet other whaling ships, each time Ahab seeking information on the white whale, but you come to wonder if maybe he is a figment of the imagination. Time passes, but how much time, and how far they travel is very vague. 

Some things about life on board ship, major and minor that struck me in reading. Of course, the postal system:
"Ahab stolidly turned aside; then said to Mayhew, 'Captain, I have just bethought me of my letter-bag; there is a letter for one of thy officers, if I mistake not. Starbuck, look over the bag.'
Every whale-ship takes out a goodly number of letters for various ships, whose delivery to the persons to whom they may be addressed, depends upon the mere chance of encountering them in the four oceans. Thus, most letters never reach their mark; and many are only received after attaining the age of two or three years or more.
Soon Starbuck returned with a letter in his hand. It was sorely tumbled, damp, and covered with a dull, spotted, green mould, in consequence of being kept in a dark locker of the cabin. Of such a letter, Death himself might well have been the post-boy." (p.308)

The slightly gut-wrenching process of rendering whale blubber:
"Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works had to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood was used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contained considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in ti for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgement; it is an argument for the pit." (p.402-3)

But it is passages like this that left me a little mystified, there are words, and I know what most of them mean, but this description leaves me with little idea of what is going on; I am left wondering what were the bits that were supposedly 'too tedious to detail'? :
"Before lowering the boat for the chase, the upper end of the line is taken aft from the tub, and passing round the loggerhead there, is again carried forward the entire length of the boat, resting crosswise upon the loom or handle of every man's oar, so that it jogs against his wrist in rowing; and also passing between the men, as they alternately sit at the opposite gunwales, to the leaded chocks or grooves in the extreme pointed prow of the boat, where a wooden pin or skewer the size of a common quill, prevents it from slipping out. From the chocks it hangs in a slight festoon over the bows, and is then passed inside the boat again; and some ten or twenty fathoms (called box-line) being coiled upon the box in the bows, it continues its way to the gunwale still a little further aft, and is then attached to the short-warp - the rope which is immediately connected with the harpoon; and previous to that connexion, the short-warp goes through sundry mystifications too tedious to detail." (p.275)

In the run up to the final encounter Moby Dick the atmosphere becomes wild and tempestuous, with Ahab's madness reaching fever pitch. It reminded me of the storm scene from King Lear, and he even has his 'poor Tom' in the shape of the traumatised Pip, who has become something of a mascot for him in his madness. A typhoon strikes the boat and Starbuck tries to reason with Ahab:
" 'We must send down the main-top-sail yard, Sir. The band is working loose, and the lee lift is stranded. Shall I strike it, Sir?' 
'Strike nothing; lash it. If I had sky-sail poles, I'd sway them up now.'
'Sir? - in God's name! - Sir?'
'The anchors are working, sir. Shall I get them inboard?'
'Strike nothing, and stir nothing, but lash everything. The wind rises, but it has not got up to my table-lands yet. Quick, and see to it - By masts and keels! he takes me for the hunch-backed skipper of some coasting smack. Send down my main-top-sail yard! Ho, gullets! Loftiest trucks were made for wildest winds, and this brain-truck of mine now sails amid the cloud-scud. Shall I strike that? Oh, none but cowards send down their brain-trucks in tempest time. What a hooroosh aloft there! I would e'en take it for sublime, did I not know that the colic is a noisy malady. Oh, take medicine, take medicine!' " (p.478-9)

And in the lull before the final storm, we find him bowed down with the weight of his challenge, I even felt some pity for him:
"Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side, and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cantankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel - forbidding - now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that wee drop." (p.506)

It's kind of a good thing that the book is so long because it does take a little while to get used to the verbose language and the dated feel of everything about their lives and understanding of the world. I have not read much except modern literature for quite a while so it felt a little jarring. Having said that once I allowed myself to get immersed it was a fascinating book. I expected it to be about Ahab, and it wasn't. I thought it might be about Ishmael and it wasn't. I got quite attached to Queequeg, but it wasn't so much about him either. It is a novel about whales and the men who hunt them. As Ishmael points out it is a much maligned profession but you are left to wonder how would the world have been a different place without them.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Reliable people don't drink fruit juice

Usually I read books and suggest them to other people. Monkey has been reading 'The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared' by Jonas Jonasson for a couple of weeks, and has been telling me how crazy it is and that I have to read it. Sending her copy is apparently too complicated for her busy life so after work on Saturday I checked the catalogue and finding an available copy in Chorlton library I went to pick it up. I plonked myself on the sofa and started reading at about 3.30pm, and finished it about 12.30am on Sunday. It is crazy. My evening was punctuated by texting her with random quotes and updates on where I was in the story. I had intended to go to bed much earlier, but by the time I was thinking of doing so I was too far into the book to give up.

Allan, as it turns out, is not your average crotchety old geezer, and his reaction to the idea of a birthday party without vodka is utterly understandable. He sets off on an adventure, and as we discover, it's not his first; Allan has had quite an eventful life already. One part of the story follows the hundred year old Allan as he boards a bus with someone else's suitcase, meeting up along the way with Julius, Benny, Gunilla aka The Beauty, and Sonya the elephant. The other interspersed chapters tell us the rest of Allan's life story that led up to the day of the birthday party escape. He starts out just an ordinary kid who's dad ran off to join the communists (and gave him an intense dislike for politics) but he becomes a major player in international relations of the twentieth century. It was like some kind of comedy version of Any Human Heart, it is uses the same technique of integrating the character's life into real, well known historical events, although unlike Logan Mountstuart, who remains on the periphery, Allan takes on a much more proactive role. So he bounces round the world, rubbing shoulders with pretty much every major political figure of the century. He escapes almost certain death at least a dozen times, sometimes by talking his way out, sometimes by making himself useful, but mostly because he does good turns for people as he goes along ... and good karma always pays off. 

Allan is a lovely complex character. He is clever, resourceful and self-reliant. Allan is very much a people person, he makes friends easily wherever he goes, even though they frequently end up dead. He is ultimately reliable but also has his own agenda and won't allow himself to be used by stupid people. But in some ways you could see him as a bit of an idiot; he is very impulsive, acting 99% of the time without considering the consequences of his actions. He seems to like a quiet life, but unwittingly allows himself to be sucked in to all sorts of dangerous situations. His life philosophy, handed down from his mother seems to be 'que sera, sera', he doesn't have high expectation and just gets on with the disasters when they happen. The five years in a soviet labour camp just fly by with that attitude, and it's only the lack of vodka that really spurs him to risk an escape plan. Along with Einstein's illegitimate brother (not a real person) he blows up Vladivostok (possibly not a real event, but who knows) and ends up in North Korea, and only makes it back to civilization because of the occasion when he saved the life of Mao's wife Jiang Qing when she was in the hands of Soong May-ling (not a real event from what I can find). It is precisely his naive trust of human nature that both gets him in to, and out of, most of the sticky situations. And vodka of course. Vodka is a very useful tool. 

"The little boy grew up and added his own opinions to those he had acquired from his parents. Priests and politicians  were equally bad, Allan thought, and it didn't make the slightest difference if they were communists, fascists, capitalists or any other political persuasion. But he did agree with his father that reliable people didn't drink fruit juice. And he agreed with his mother that you had to make sure you behaved, even if you had drunk a bit more than was wise.
In practical terms, that meant that during the course of the river journey Allan had lost interest in helping Soong May-ling and her twenty drunken soldiers (in fact there were only nineteen left since one had fallen overboard and drowned). Nor did he want to be around when the soldiers raped the prisoner who was now locked up below deck, regardless of whether she was a communist or not, and of who her husband was.
Allan sat down with the guard and suggested that they should have a drink.
'Never try to out drink a Swede, unless you happen to be a Finn or at least a Russian.'
The bomb expert, Allan Karlsson, the mess boy Ah Ming, and the eternally grateful communist leader's wife, Jiang Qing, slipped away from the riverboat under cover of darkness and were soon in the mountains where Jiang Qing had already spent much time together with her husband's troops. The Tibetan nomads in the area knew her and the fugitives had no problems eating their fill even after the supplies carried by Ah Ming had run out. The Tibetans had good reason, or so they thought, for being on friendly terms with the People's Liberation Army. It was generally assumed that if the communists won the struggle for China, Tibet would immediately gain its independence." (p. 135-7)

I liked this quote because it sums up both Allan's attitude, and the attitude of the author. He helps other people just because they need it, without reservation or expectation of repayment. And then you get the not-so-subtle comment about the fate of Tibet, that shows the author tends to share Allan's approach to politics.

"The solution, said Allan, was often to down a bottle of vodka together and then look ahead. But now there was an unfortunate problem in that Benny was a teetotaller. Allan could, of course, look after Benny's share of the vodka, but he didn't think it would be quite the same thing.
'So a bottle of vodka would solve the Israel-Palestine conflict?' asked Bosse. 'That stretches all the way back to the Bible.'
'For that particular conflict you mention, it is not impossible that you would need more than one bottle,' Allan answered. 'But the principle is the same.' " (p.197)

In the other half of the tale there is a small gang of gangsters who want their suitcase back, and the police detective who is heading the hunt for the missing elderly gentleman (believed possibly an abductee, but then subsequently a murder suspect), all of whom are in hot pursuit of the newly formed tribe of miscreants; going on the run with an elephant is definitely something only the truly desperate would contemplate. 

Ok, I really don't want to give away anything else about plot, and anyway it's far to complicated to explain. From getting drunk with Harry Truman, to suggesting Stalin shave his moustache and comforting the very young Kim Jong Il Allan certainly has an eventful time of it. And so, as the story comes full circle, you can fully appreciate why he climbed out of the window at the prospect of a birthday party in an old people's home. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

On Looking

'On Looking' by Alexandra Horowitz was yet another recommendation from Brainpickings. I could fill an entire 101 books list from this website, every time I visit I say 'ooh, that looks interesting' and go see if it is on the library catalogue. Having said that, and even quite enjoyed it, I am struggling with how to write a review of a book of essays describing a series of perambulations.

The essence of the book is that the world around us is so much more full and interesting that you can possibly appreciate. That it is not the destination but the journey that matters. Alexandra starts by taking a walk around the block where she lives with her toddler son, trying to see the world from his perspective and appreciating the world as he experiences it. Having lived with small children this was not much of an eye-opener for me; I have spent many years experiencing life from the point of view of a toddler. She seemed to find it quite an effort to slow down to his pace. This walk is followed by one with a geologist, who shows her all about the rocks that her environment is constructed from. Then an expert in typography, and another in insects, and another in sounds. She walks with a blind woman to try and understand how she experiences the world, and also with a dog and gives us a rundown of the intricacies of canine olfactory skills. She lost me a bit there and I skipped the doggy chapter. 
It felt like with each chapter all she was doing was pointing out yet another way in which us mere mortals were missing out. The one I really did enjoy was the walk with Maira Kalman, which was really so much more an exploration, being open to new places and opportunities, than some expert sharing their knowledge. 

"Of course, I - and each of my fellow walkers - had been in four dimensions all along. Still, the progression of the walks was decidedly three dimensional; always up, down, and along sidewalks. Except when disabused of this notion by my son, I had defined a walk as a straightforward journey along a path between two points, A and B, the beginning of the walk and its end. What we manipulated was the time it took to cover that path: many of my co-walkers had slowed down to look more carefully at something underfoot or overhead. Occasionally we sped up to catch a glimpse of a store window before a shutter was pulled down, or we briefly galloped, as though someone were lighting a match to our tailcoats, to avoid becoming a pedestrian-automobile accident statistic.

But with Kalman, the definition of the space changed. She walked straight off of the sidewalks. I don't means she floated, in her blue canvas sneakers, hovering inches above the ground. (Though the image suits her, and matches many of her charismatic drawings that pose the subject, be it a pleated skirt or a robin, frameless on the page.) No, Kalman climbed not a tree. Instead she veered. She abandoned the course. She left the route and wandered into buildings that interested her. Over the course of five blocks and two hours, we went off course a half dozen times. We knocked on the door of a local halfway house. We meandered into a church. We descended into a basement senior centre that advertised itself as being specifically for 'black social workers.' We made it into the anterooms of an odd small museum of Russian art and a Buddhist temple, only stymied by ongoing renovations in each. Eventually we made it from A to B, but not before visiting all the later letters of the alphabet." (p.78-9)

So I learned lots of fascinating things, about rock formation, invasive species and what your walk says about your health, but it felt a very anecdotal book, there was nothing that linked the walks together. Writing the book was almost just an opportunity to talk to some interesting people about their work. She points out that our culture tends to value speed, rushing around, 'getting things done', and this is the antithesis of paying attention to the world. So maybe just slow down and look around a bit, you never know what you might notice.

Friday 2 January 2015

101 Books in 1001 Days

wikimedia commons
We all like a good book challenge. These very challenging looking books came up when I searched for an image, they are made of sheet lead and thorn bushes. I like it. I was reading the other day about one of those 101 things to do list challenges and decided that rather than jet-skiing across the pacific I would stay home and read a few of those books ... you know, the ones that you read a review of ages ago, or spotted on a list of 'must reads' or read the obituary of the author, and thought 'I have always wanted to read that some day'.

So my plan is to make such a list. Bear with me, as it may take some time to put together. There will be some classics, there will be some new ones, there will be some non-fiction, there will probably be some poetry too. I might include a few re-reads, something I don't do often, but occasionally I am aware of having read something, but now so long ago that the merest trace of an inkling of the content is all that remains. Some are from my shelves, some from my library wishlist and some from the one on Amazon (I have resolved to stop buying there... but it's still a very useful catalogue). I liked the idea of 1001 days as this means that it doesn't totally dominate what I might choose to read, allowing me new finds as well. I guess I might cheat and add new interesting books to the list but that's ok as I can make my own rules. The list is in a random order, no hierarchy of interest or importance is implied.

  1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  2. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  4. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  5. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  6. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  7. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  8. Girl is a half-formed thing by Eimear McBride
  9. Red Doc by Anne Carson
  10. Stags Leap by Sharon Olds
  11. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
  12. The Sound and the Fury by Willian Faulkner
  13. Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
  14. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
  15. When I was a child I read books by Marilynne Robinson
  16. Portable Atheist by Christopher Hitchens
  17. A visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan
  18. Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis
  19. Who will run the frog hospital by Lorrie Moore
  20. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  21. Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
  22. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  23. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  24. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  25. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  26. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  27. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin
  28. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
  29. Inferno by Eileen Myles
  30. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevski
  31. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  32. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  33. Nine Stories by JD Salinger
  34. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  35. Bento's Sketchbook by John Berger
  36. Thirteen Moons by Charles Frasier
  37. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
  38. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  39. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
  40. Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut
  41. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  42. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  43. Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  44. How to be Alone by Sara Maitland
  45. Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx
  46. Midnight all day by Hanif Kureshi
  47. Without a Map by Meredith Hall
  48. I, Etcetera by Susan Sontag
  49. Something to Declare by Julian Barnes
  50. Faithless by Joyce Carol Oates
  51. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
  52. Misreadings  by Umberto Eco
  53. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  54. A Life Worth Living by John Holt
  55. Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
  56. Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson
  57. And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips
  58. Who was changed and who was dead by Barbara Comyns
  59. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage
  60. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  61. 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman
  62. Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
  63. The Hole by Oyvind Torseter
  64. How Proust can change your life by Alain de Botton
  65. The Butterfly Tattoo by Philip Pullman
  66. Beautiful Words by Nik Perring
  67. In the Kettle, the Shriek by Hannah Stephenson
  68. You learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt
  69. On Lies, Secrets and Silence by Adrienne Rich
  70. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
  71. The latke who couldn't stop screaming by Lemony Snickett
  72. The year of the hare by Arto Paasilinna
  73. A Clockwork Orange by Antony Burgess
  74. The uncollected Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
  75. People First Economics by David Ransom
  76. The Fault in our Stars by John Green
  77. The Fire Eaters by David Almond
  78. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  79. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  80. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  81. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  82. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  83. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by mark Twain
  84. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  85. Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
  86. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
  87. Lost Cat by Caroline Paul
  88. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century by Neil Postman
  89. How to talk about books you haven't read by Pierre Bayard
  90. On Grief and Reason: Essays by Joseph Brodsky
  91. Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
  92. The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
  93. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien 
  94. To Have and To Be by Erich Fromm
  95. Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher 
  96. The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall
  97. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

  98. If anyone would like to join in, feel free,
    a bit of mutual encouragement is always welcome.
    Comment at the bottom so people can visit
    and check out your list for interesting suggestions.
    The list above will contain links to reviews as and when they are read. My finish date for the challenge (by my torturous calculation) will be 28th September 2017.
    List is now moved to the 101 Books page linked on the header.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Pennies and Bhajis for the New Year

It turns out that £40 is not statistically significant because the total in this year's found money pot is an impressive £89.42p, though I did have to take out £30 the other week when the man came round to fix my bike and the long term wear and tear was rather more expensive than I had anticipated.
I am however left with enough for a nice new year treat.

I spent my new year's eve with friends. We ate dhal (lentil curry) with all the trimmings, had a Dr Who quiz, danced to the soundtrack of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, played tiddlywinks and 'Midlife Crisis' and drew pictures of what we wanted from life in 2015. I had anticipated a grown-up evening ending at a sensible hour, but the young people decided to join us so we soldiered on til midnight and popped a few corks. Jill's house is quite tiny so it was hard to get the camera far enough away to get everyone in.

My now traditional contribution to the evening was vegetable bhajis. There are many, many variations on the recipe for bhaji so I am just giving you here my adaptation.
You start with the batter:
besan or gram flour, this is about 8oz, but quantity depends on how many people you are cooking for
finely minced red chilli (I used half of a huge one)
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric (just to make them nice and yellow)
1/2 teaspoon of cumin
1/2 teaspoon of salt
cold water (some recommend chilled sparkling water)
The batter should be very thick. If it goes too thin just add more flour.
(Health and Safety Warning: do not rub your eyes after chopping the chilli, even if you have washed your hands several times)
Into the batter you stir some finely chopped veggies. I put the batter in two bowls and put two sliced onions in one portion and a chopped head of cauliflower in the other. Mushrooms are good, as are potatoes. I did courgettes once, they are ok but cook very quickly and go a bit soft. Feel free to mix and match according to your own preferences. You want them to be mainly vegetable with just a coating of batter, otherwise they can get a bit stodgy.
Deep fry in small batches. I just drop spoonfuls into the hot fat and turn them over several times. I set the timer on the oven to 3 minutes for each batch and that seemed to work out well:
Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm in the oven (they are still ok gone cold but I like them hot).
Enjoy with mango chutney:
Hoping everyone has a great 2015.