Sunday, 22 July 2012

To all appearances (London)

At our first lunch at this Indian restaurant featured in the blog entry Elephant’s Trunk, one of the dishes Jenny and I chose was chargrilled chicken drumsticks.  I love the bony bits, so I asked her to cut off all the meat for herself and leave me with the bones.  As I tucked in happily to what Jenny transferred onto my plate, it suddenly occurred to me that we must make a very British colonial picture:  Jenny, the white memsahib, keeping all the meat to herself and feeding this oriental servant only the bones.
(London 1983)

Elephant’s trunk (London)

When I was working on the Channel 4 TV documentary series about China, The Heart of the Dragon, back in the early 80s, my Australian colleague Jenny and I had lunch one day at the newly-opened Indian restaurant round the corner, and found they had some unusual dishes.  We told the other colleagues about it, mentioning—vegetarians, look away now—”sheep’s brain” as one of the exotic offerings.  
The following week, everyone from the office wanted to go and try out this place.  After arrival, we were sitting down when Annie caught sight of one of the items on a menu placed upright on the table, and cried out, “ELEPHANT’S TRUNK!!!”  
It turned out to be the cocktail menu.
See also: To all appearances
(London 1983)

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Madeleine in Madrid (Spain)

Madeleine had got up to Grade 3 Spanish but felt she still couldn’t speak the language properly, so she thought a stint at the Amnesty office in Madrid might help.  She and I were both regular volunteers at Amnesty, and they have an office in Madrid.  Not being confident enough about travelling on her own, she asked if I’d like to go along, to which I readily agreed.

The trip was doomed right from the start, with me being late for the flight, first time ever.  We had to catch the next one some six or seven hours later, which got us into Madrid central well after the Amnesty people had knocked off work.  I’d been tasked with getting the air tickets, and Madeleine the accommodation, through the Madrid office.  She had failed to note down the details of where we had been booked into, relying instead on our arriving on time in Madrid and being taken to the hotel by the Amnesty colleagues.  So, at 9pm and in an alien city, we had to find somewhere for the night, wandering around, looking for signs and asking in our very limited Spanish all likely candidates.

The next morning, we set off for the Amnesty office along the long Gran Via.  Madeleine espied a sign in a restaurant window advertising a Madrid speciality and decided she wanted it, there and then.  I tried to put her off, saying we should be trying to get to the Amnesty office first, as we needed to go to our hotel before we lost our pre-booked room.  Besides, we were going to be in Madrid for ten days, so there was plenty of time to sample this speciality, which must be available at lots of other places anyway, but she was adamant about trying it at that very establishment and right then.  In the face of all this determination, I had to cave in.  

The restaurant had a revolving door and a normal door.  The latter was too narrow for Madeleine’s wheel chair to go through, so I had to go in and persuade the staff to dismantle the revolving door which, luckily, they most obligingly did, bless them.  

Within a few minutes of sitting down and consulting the menu, Madeleine pronounced she’d gone off the idea of trying out the Madrid speciality and ordered spag bol instead.  All that work dismantling a whole revolving door, for us to get in, and then again to get out, just to have spag bol in the end.  
(Madrid, 1992)
NB:  For those readers who need help over “spag bol”, it’s short for “spaghetti bolognese”, because it has become a common (as in “everyday”) dish to the extent of British people treating it as a standard easy-to-cook-yet-exotic meal.

Monday, 9 July 2012

We don't sing anymore (China)

On the 1988 film shoot in China, going from Shanghai all the way to Pakistan, we came upon Fengyang in Anhui Province, famous for its Flower Drum Song.  The motorcyclist was to be filmed going to the market to get a watermelon, and I was tasked to stay behind to guard the motorbike, a BMW which was still a novelty at the time in China.

I’d been commandeered earlier that day to abandon my position in the mini bus and ride with the motorcyclist so that he could ply me with questions about things he saw en route that took his interest, without having to resort to the cumbersome walkie-talkie communication method. 

A huge crowd, of practically all men, very soon gathered around the motorbike, and they were not shy about fingering the bike.  I tried to put them off as politely as possible, with things like, in Chinese, “Please don’t touch the bike because there are no spare parts to be found in China for this bike if you break anything.”  To no avail.  They did seem surprised that I could speak Chinese and asked me how it was that I knew how to speak Chinese.  I suddenly realised they couldn’t see my face as my head was encased in the tinted crash helmet I was still wearing, so they thought I was a Westerner as the motorcyclist and the crew were all white.  My answer was a non-committal, “Well, learn!”

That then gave me an idea for distracting them from the BMW, by asking them, in Chinese, about their town.  “This is the world famous Fengyang, is it not?  The Fengyang of the world famous Flower Drum Song?”  Yes, that’s right, they replied, attention diverted from the bike, rather pleased that this “foreigner” had heard of their town and their traditional folk song.  I continued, still in Chinese, “I remember learning the song.  How does it go now?  Speak about Fengyang, talk about Fengyang.  Now I can’t remember what’s next.  Can you help me out and finish it off for me?”

A young man in his mid-20s said, “Oh, we don’t sing anymore.”  Why not, I asked.  The young man said, “We have money now.”  What has having money got to do with singing, I asked.  He replied, “当然啦!没钱唱歌,有钱睡觉!(“Of course!  No money, sing.  Have money, sleep!”)”  

(China 1988)

Friday, 6 July 2012

The smell (London)

I used to go on day-long rambles at the weekend, stopping at a country pub for lunch about halfway through, before finishing the walk and returning to London.  Lunch could be early or late as it depended on how far into the ramble the pub was, and as I don’t eat breakfast, I had to pack a snack for my blood sugar level problem.  

Boiled chick peas are one of my favourite snacks, as they are delicious, nutritious, cheap, and easy to make.  I’d soak the dried ones (never fancied the pre-cooked tinned type for some reason) the night before, cook them in the pressure cooker with a pinch of sea salt the next morning for 3–5 minutes (letting the valve reach the red level), switch off and let the residual heat finish off the cooking process while I got into my walking gear (which is both ecological and efficient time management), pop them into a plastic box and leave the house with them still warm (no time to let them cool down).

On one such occasion, I found myself seated, on the Tube train, opposite an oldish man (in his late 60s/early 70s??) who had all the visual makings of a tramp:  shabby clothes, unkempt appearance and, to top it off, flies undone.  I caught a whiff of hydrogen sulphide, and thought, “He’s let off a smelly fart in a public and enclosed area.  How disgusting.”  

When I got to my destination and disembarked, he remained on the train, to my relief.  As I walked along the platform towards the exit, the odour was still discernible and right behind me.  To my horror, I realised that it was emanating from my rucksack, the source being the boiled chick peas that I’d packed, still warm, in the plastic container!

(London, 1997)