July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

I may have mentioned that I attend a book group. Apparently it is the trendy thing to do but I didn’t know that when I agreed to go. I liked the women involved and I like reading so there was nothing to lose (I also like to drink wine and gin and tonic – not that that influenced my decision).

We have read some interesting books, including 50 Shades of Grey, A Tale of Two Cities, The White Queen, Three Cups of Tea, How to be a Woman, other books I can’t bring to mind at the moment and something by Joanna Trolope that I was not that impressed by until I heard the others rave about it. Depending on the story I generally find the writing more important than the observation and this book was about astute observation. I stood corrected.

I have just finished July’s People and was so moved by it that I feel I must laud it here.

It is the story of a micro-period in the lives of a white South African family taken in by their servant, July, during the breakdown of White Power in the country. They live in his village and the children are assimilated into the culture. The woman instinctively understands the way of the village and of her former servant and the man becomes as a stranger to her as they apply their different attitudes to their new surroundings.

The writing takes a bit of getting used to as the punctuation is pretty non-existent. This makes one concentrate on the most beautiful and evocative words. It is impossible to hurry; a bit like reading poetry. The final chapter is breath-takingly beautiful and I commend it to my two readers.

Not a good day

Thursday is my first day at home after three days of work, which are often followed by a mind-bending evening at youth club. Although I have chores to do it is a nice feeling to get up and feel in control of my day, answering only to myself – well in theory anyway.

So yesterday morning I rose, planning a shower and a cooked breakfast. I put my head round Mavis’s door and told the hump of duvet that it was seven o’clock. I went into the bathroom and performed my ablutions. I came out of the bathroom and told the duvet that the bathroom was free. I went downstairs to put on the kettle and began to read my emails while sipping my cup of tea.

It began to dawn on me that time had passed and when I looked at the kitchen clock it was 7.50. As this is the time the school bus is supposed to arrive at the bus stop I became a bit agitated. There was no sign of Mavis and when I yelled up the stairs, a muffled voice responded – clearly coming from inside the duvet hump.

I issued a few choice words, at volume to signify urgency. They might well have been audible at the bus stop, they were very urgent indeed. I then legged it up stairs to drag some clothes onto my unwashed body and take it, hollow and irritable, to the car in order to chauffeur Miss Lazy to school in Duckchester.

Now, to explain about the traffic: If we leave the house at 7.50 we can be at school by 8.10. If we leave at 8pm, we are there at 8.30 and any later, it will be about 8.50 – 9am before Mavis gets to school. This is what usually happens with the school bus; Mavis is late for school much of the time. We, however, managed to get out of the house at 8am, no mean feat on Mavis’s part: duvet to seat belt in 10 minutes. It’s quite amazing how fast a teenager can move when prompted by the right stimulus. Did she wash though? Who cares? Time was of the essence.

Mavis was due to go to the orthodontist at 9.50 that day, one of the reasons for my irritation. My plan had been to swan into Duckchester at 9.30, collect her from school, park the car in town and stroll into the dental place with five minutes to spare. In the circumstances this was not appropriate therefore on the way out of the house I had grabbed my laptop so that I could fill in the hour writing my book.

The morning was foggy; headlights were switched on. We crawled along but made it to school for 8.30. I parked up in the school grounds and set about writing while I waited for Mavis to return.

I was so engrossed in my task that the first I knew of Mavis’s arrival was the car door opening and the car dipping as she plonked herself on the seat. “Hang on a tick.” said I, finishing a sentence. I then folded the laptop, put it on the back seat and said “Hello”. turning the key in the ignition at the same time – nothing occurred.

The car has been playing up a bit lately. Sometimes it just stops and then, a few seconds later it starts again. This is disconcerting but not earth shattering. I tried again; still nothing. Then it dawned on me. I had left the lights on, for a whole hour! The battery was as flat as a fluke.

We set off on foot at a spanking pace, heading towards the orthodontist’s. Five minutes later I was to be seen jogging in the opposite direction, back to the car to collect my mobile phone- which I would need to sort out my eventual rescue. I jogged back towards Mavis thinking, as I often do, of the positive spin on this: no breakfast and a jog, I must have shed at least an ounce by now.

By some miracle of navigation we got to the dentist’s with five minutes in hand. On the way I had explained to Mavis how convenient it was that we were walking because now she knew the route and next time she could do it on her own. I don’t think she was convinced.

I rang Whizz, in some trepidation. He already thinks I’m three knives short of a cutlery set. “Hello…” I said in a slightly small voice.

“Hello?” he replied in the kind of voice that suggests the owner is not expecting good news.

“Um, I’ve done something very stupid.”

Silence, although I could almost hear him thinking Nothing new there then.

I told him of my misdemeanour and apart from sighing a bit he was, as ever, uncomplaining.

After a while, Mavis with new, tighter bands on her teeth and I, hoping nobody had pinched my laptop, arrived at the car, and Whizz soon followed. I popped the bonnet of the Mercedes (this is not as opulent as you might think, it is very old, has many injuries and inside it looks and smells like a cattle truck – actually it is a dog truck). Whizz did the same on the Peugeot. Then we looked under the bonnet of the Peugeot to find the battery. It wasn’t there. We kept looking as if it might inexplicably appear but no, it was definitely not there. Whizz got out the handbook announcing that it must have a battery somewhere.

Now, we have used our handbook many times because our car, a Peugeot 807, is the most illogical car I have ever driven – the handbook is equally illogical. It has an index decreeing which page to consult, but it has no page numbers!

Eventually we located the battery, it is under the driver’s carpet in the foot well. This is a very silly place to have a battery when you want to jump start another car. If you get close enough to the car for the jump leads to reach the other battery, you can’t get out of the driver’s door. Ridiculous! Anyway we managed overcome that barrier and I was once more mobile.

I decided to do my shopping, originally planned nearby in Duckchester, in another town, some miles away, so that the battery would recharge, and I headed for Waitrose.

There’s more…

I got to the entrance of the car park. In this particular Waitrose there is a barrier that presents one with a ticket and then opens automatically when there is a parking place available. When the car park is full, some system notes when a car leaves and lets a waiting one in… usually! Of course today this did not happen. We in the queue watched in frustration as car after car exited, and our barrier remained firmly shut. We sat and sat. The man at the front got out of his car and gesticulated with a Gallic shrug to the rest of us that he hadn’t a clue what was going on. He was helpless poor man (read this to yourself in a sarcastic voice)!

Guess what; I was jogging again, across the car park to ask the man in the exit booth to sort us out. I don’t know how long we would have waited if I hadn’t done that. Give me a pat on the back – and another ounce shed.

Waitrose is very efficient – customer focussed you might say. Within a couple of minutes a smiling man rushed to help and we were let in. There were loads of parking spaces to choose from.

I was starving. Starving is not a good state of mind to be in when shopping in Waitrose but I knew this and I was on the alert not to buy everything I fancied and to make sure I did buy everything on my list.

As a low carb eater my choioce of quick food is limited. Often when we are out Whizz and I share a pork pie, he has the pastry and I, the filling. I particularly like those pies with the egg in the middle, there is something about the rubbery consistency of the egg and the way it absorbs the flavour of the pork that gets my taste buds tingling, so I couldn’t resist taking one off the shelf and mentally setting it aside for my lunch, which was quickly becoming afternoon tea.

On exit from the shop I contemplated eating the pie in the car park. I could wrench off the pastry with my thumbs and stuff the meat into my mouth. I decided on reflection that this would be too undignified for Waitrose so I forced myself to wait.

When I got home I didn’t even put the frozen food in the freezer; I sliced the pastry from the pie (with a knife not my hands), got out some tomatoes and sat down to enjoy my treat. I sliced a bit of meat off, hmm, the egg must be at one end, I sliced again, I checked the box, yes, it definitely said Pork Pie with Egg. I sliced and sliced. NO EGG!

Not a good day at all.


One final word on the convenience option

Tonight, the fridge full of ready meals of one description or another, I decided that, given the quality thus far, nobody would like any of it. Reluctant to waste it I decided to cook a buffet.

On offer were:

  • One portion of lamb rogon josh from the reduced counter and a pot of rice I forgot to put out! It is still in the microwave as I type.
  • Two portions of pork medalions with shitake mushrooms and strogonov sauce.
  • Three quarters of left-over stuffed crust pizza with the formerly mentioned dubious pepperoni on the top
  • A tray of McCain’s home fries or whatever they call themselves now
  • A whole family tray of Chicken, Bacon and Potato Bake- sadly it had some kind of sauce underneath. It was a mistake to buy this because my two don’t do sauce, well not the bechamel variety.

I left the stroganov sauce off the pork.

I shoved it all in the oven at various intervals. I earmarked the curry for myself but took half in case anyone else fancied some.

Here are my comments:

  • Pork – tough and tasteless
  • Curry – the most bizzarre lamb I have ever encountered. It had the consistency of cooked beetroot and was clearly not cooked in the sauce – which tasted of tomatoes and spices, not unpleasant but definitely not lamby
  • Pizza – too tomatoey and the stuffed crust filling, pasty
  • bake: not even touched although I did get tempted to a small spoonful and it tasted, well, peculiar. I don’t know how else to describe it
  • chips – excellent as ever, why fry when you can bake, but it has to be McCains Home fries/chips (in my”humble”opinion)

We are all full but peed off. The dogs enjoyed the bake.

I know there are lots of people who need cheap food. I watched with the rest of the country as Hugh and Jamie promoted their free range chickens and failed with the broke single mother. But one proper, unflabby, happy chicken can feed a family for several days, and should. The mistake we have made (again IMHO) is not teaching people to cook. Why did that stop? When did academic subjects become more important than practical ones? Don’t you think that we still need to know how to prepare food and construct and mend goods. Recycling has its place but why throw away in the first place?

Have you seen Wall-E? It is thought provoking indeed. In it the human race has left the Earth because polution has killed life. After many decades, maybe centuries, everyone lives in a kind of encapsulated world floating in space and nobody can do anything practical. They wait to be entertained and are so fat they need to be transported on special chairs. Food is manufactured, nobody has seen a chicken or a cow. I wonder if this is such a ridiculous concept. Are we heading this way?

Stand up and be counted. Have cookery lessons, or ask a middle aged neighbour to teach you to cook – we all know how! Shop locally, eat fresh seasonal veg, don’t let the Tescos of this world pull the wool over your eyes. What we ate this week was not food, even if it was nutrition!

I feel I must go back to food

Having read this blog from end to end a few weeks ago – it must have been during the summer holidays – I decided that I went on about food too much and I would cease. Sadly I have had an experience this week that makes me want to revisit the subject, so apologies to my two readers, I just have to say this:

I don’t think that anyone will argue with the hypothesis that married life can be frustrating. Living with another human being, no matter how much you love them, has its challenges. I encountered one of these last week when, pushed to the limit, I asked my family (there are two of them) to help with the washing up after the Sunday roast I had lovingly (and skillfully) prepared for them. Suddenly there were pressing jobs that just had to be done.

In fairness Whizz did have to fly to Ireland that evening and needed to pack his bag – I had to drive him to Heathrow though. Mavis as usual had left her homework until the last minute so I found myself, alone and fuming, with the greasy dishes.

I had a conversation with myself. Who is the idiot here? Why do you feel the need to cook a roast on Sunday? Why aim to please everyone? They haven’t asked you to do all this, they don’t even seem all that interested in what you cook. I made a snap decision – my favourite type – OK I’ll stop. We’ll eat convenience foods, I can throw away the containers and get a life.

I couldn’t wait to get to Tesco. I bought Shepherds pie, lasagne. Spatchcock chicken in garlic butter, pizza with a stuffed crust, ready made mashed potatoes and prepared vegetables. I snuck round hoping nobody would recognise me. Silly me! I met a teaacher from work and felt I had to explain my basket – even though I would normally not even be seen dead in Tesco! None the less I felt really excited to be liberated from the kitchen.

The week started well. As you know I eat a low carb diet so the food I was giving to Whizz and Mavis was not the food I was eating. Mine was delicious. Theirs, it soon became evident, was not.

Shepherds Pie – what can you do wrong with that? Well, I don’t know where the beef came from but I have my doubts that it came from a cow! The lasagne was similarly flavourless. The pizza went down well although the pepperoni I bought to top it had a strange taste we didn’t like much. I had great hopes for the spatchcock chicken in garlic butter. Silly sausage! As with the beef, did it really come from a chicken and how did it get so flacid? Where was the garlic, where was the butter. There was liquid in the tin but if that was butter then its provenance was disputable.

On the plus side the food bill was actually lower than normal and the washing up – well, with the aid of the dishwasher and the recycling bin, I didn’t do any. The food however was – not to put too fine a point on it – disgusting!

So, back to local and free range. We’ve got used to it. I suppose we could get used to the other type of food but do we want to? I had a blinding moment of inspiration and decided that if I don’t want to wash up, and they don’t want to either, we should stop eating. No not really, but I’ve bought foil roasing tins and a catering sized roll of aluminium foil. I’m going to cook on that, simplesk!