#13 HIGHGATE : a stroll through 400 years of history..

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“…and THAT, by the way, is Jude Law’s house” remarked our guide wearily, fully expecting the sudden burst of madness that followed – long sighs, loud gasps and lots of click-click-click-flash-selfie-selfie-selfie ( you get the picture, right? )

We were almost an hour into a guided walk through Highgate Village, North London’s best kept secret, when he made this declaration for the benefit of a dozen people in our group of ‘walkers’ who were more likely to be impressed by Jude Law than Samuel Coleridge ( yes, me included! )

A charming man with greying sideburns, our guide Richard ( or Richard III, as he liked to call himself since there are no less than SIX  ‘Richards’ presently employed with the London Walks Company!  ) took us on a ramble through a neighbourhood not entirely unknown to me. I live barely a few stops from it, further north in Barnet, and I’ve passed Highgate several times on my way into town but I was warned that there were interesting stories lurking around the corner from me which I knew NOTHING about!

“1.45 PM in the ticket hall of Highgate Tube Station” said the brochure and around twenty of us braved a bitter, cold afternoon and showed up for, what turned out to be,  an extraordinary walk through the history of London. Leading up a steep hill along Jackson’s Lane, Richard marched us to a spot, well hidden from the main thoroughfare, which provided a panoramic view of London stretching ahead, down below from where we were perched.

It was the prefect vantage point from where to begin a journey into 400 years of history!

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It was a miserable day so we couldn’t see much of the iconic skyline ( the  familiar silhouettes of St Paul’s Cathedral, The Tate, The Gherkin, The Shard…) but on a clear day, it was possible to see up to a distance of about 50 miles, all the way to the South Downs, we were reliably informed. Turns out, the main city of London along the Thames lies in a dip ( in the shallow curve of a spoon, as it were ) , as seen clearly from North London, specially Highgate which forms a part of the North Hills.

Hundreds of years ago, when people burned log fires to keep their houses warm, palls of thick smoke would rise up from every chimney in London. Being cold and damp all year ’round, the heavy clouds overhead pressed down on this blanket of chimney-smoke and gave rise to the infamous smog – a soot-infested cover of smoke+fog so vile that it made you sick and so thick that you couldn’t see your own hand in front of you.

This is when those who could afford to escape the City, came away to the northern fringes, to Highgate and Hampstead – hill-stations affording them clean, fresh air and magnificient views. The added romance of Hampstead Heath, 800 acres of green space boasting natural springs, ponds and wild, untamed, rugged beauty cradling some of the highest points in London  ( much of it preserved to this day ) drew the artistic set to its bosom, away from the financial heart of the city down below.

The name ‘Highgate’ harks back to the time when the Bishop of London extracted a fee from those who wished to cross his land. The toll ‘gate’ nearby stands testimony.

The Highgate Society exists to this day to maintain the ‘character’ of the landscape. Most buildings in the area are Listed by English Heritage depending on how old they are  ( from pre 1600 to Post World War II ) – in other words,  you can’t carry out any major structural changes, no matter how rich or famous you are!

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http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/listing/listed-buildings/

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Next to it, the Highgate Scientific and Literary Institution  ( pic above ) housed in that somewhat dull white building from 1839,  is known to be the first public library in this country.

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Pond Square in the heart of Highgate Village ( picture above ) no longer has a pond in the middle. Standing there now, it’s a little hard to imagine what a ‘celebrity hub’ it once was and continues to be. Every few metres there are houses with plaques on them, announcing their illustrious heritage – here lived Charles Dickens, Samuel Coleridge, JB Priestley, John Betjeman ….the ‘Village’ is heaving with names that shaped the world.

Richard III makes dramatic gestures every time he pauses before a “celebrity” home and feeds us nuggets of history and gossip. Margaret Rutherford ( Miss Marple ) Robert Donat  ( Goodbye, Mr Chips ) Ray Davis ( the Kinks ), Yehudi Menuhin,  Jonathan Price ( now best known as a Bond Baddie from Tomorrow Never Dies ) Terry Gilliam  ( Monty Python ) Victoria Wood, Jude Law…. Highgate Village was quite the hunting ground for all the 80s popstars too – Sting, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Boy George have all been locals here.

And these are only the names kindly estate agents would openly divulge!

There is a plaque to Dickens on a house where he lived at the age of 20, still unblemished by fame. Rumour has it that Dickens only ever stayed there for two weeks. In fact, he’s believed to have put his bags down in that house while he actually LIVED in the pub next door! Curiously, the plaque doesn’t mention that.

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There’s also a house which is considered the largest private residence in all of London, with the exception of the Royal residences ( Pic below, boarded up, to the right of the glorious sunset )  It once belonged to a Soap Magnate who made his fortune with the very humble SUNLIGHT soap ( we in India, know the brand too! ). His wife moved in High Society and often had the Queen and Princess Margaret over at her Highgate residence for pool parties and a round of tennis.

Today, that house is rumoured to be owned by a Russian oligarch, undergoing a serious face-life as we walked past it. We’re told he’s planning a basement, a sub-basement and a sub-sub-basement for his fleet of wheels, a swimming pool, private theatre and personal gym..!

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Knowing very little about the history and architecture of England as I do, it’s fascinating to see Richard point to buildings and go “..Gothic, Gothic Revival….Edwardian, Georgian, Late Victorian, mock Tudor, Grim 1960s etc ) Even if he’s doing it merely to show off  ( to me and the Japanese girls in the group, the only non-Europeans  )  it’s impressive!

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An Alms House ( picture above ) for the ‘desirable poor’ who went about their chores uncomplainingly. There’s not enough room to swing a cat yet families of up to 10 lived in each of those rooms and were considered blessed. The ‘undesirable poor’ were frogmarched to the ‘Workhouse’ as described by Dickens in Oliver.

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There are grim reminders too ( above ) of the times when Londoners were slapped with a crippling ‘Window Tax’ – anyone with more than nine windows had to pay, as a result; many windows were boarded up ( bricked off ) for good.

Since then, sunshine in London has been at a premium!

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A block of flats down the road from Pond Square, HIGHPOINT ( above )  is also a much-desired Highgate address, designed by Russian-born Berthold Lubetkin. It looks dated now and rather compact yet a flat in there is on the market for over a million pounds. Built in the 1930s, it was very modern for its time, with an Open Plan and a rooftop garden, it also has a heated-outdoor-swimming pool, tennis courts and jaw-dropping views ’round the back.

Fortunately for Londoners, a brilliant annual event, Open House,  gives us the opportunity to poke our noses where they don’t belong. Each year, several private spaces ( houses, mansions, libraries and offices of historic importance and interest ) open their doors to the public in September. Richard seriously recommends a look at the skyline bathed in summer twilight, from one of the top floor windows of HIGHPOINT. “1.2 million for THAT would be a steal”, he muses.

http://www.openhouselondon.org.uk/

Throughout this walk across present-day Highgate, we are made aware of how closely and lovingly it has guarded and preserved its glorious past, its inextricable links to history. A haven for millionaires today, strewn with “cottages” with extensive grounds and all the comforts money can buy but it’s all behind closed doors, shrouded in ‘period’ minimalism, veiled under sedate exteriors that haven’t changed for centuries!

Another interesting feature of the area is the Cemetery ( divided into East and West by a long, sinister road ). It’s a veritable Who’s Who, too vast to explore on our walk. I came back later for a quick stroll past a few famous names.

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The sun went behind an angry blob of grey clouds and it suddenly turned suitably eerie to be walking past the dead. Karl Marx commanded an impressive presence ( below )

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George Eliot lay carelessly among sculptors, thinkers, writers, bespoke shoemakers, firemen, painters, philosophers, lawyers, rock stars, designers and archaeologists, engineers, Naval Commanders, even the Chiropodist to Abraham Lincoln ( what??)

And then there was Douglas Adams –  his fans and ‘hitchhikers’ have laid down their pens to salute his writing. Clever and moving!

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The Dickens Family Plot was over on the other side of the road, in the West Cemetery, amidst a similar list of renowned names. Waterlow Park ( below )  bordering the Cemetery,  set the scene beautifully for a spot of quiet soul-searching, yards away from the famous dead.

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Towards the end of our walk, we came to another very English institution – the Pub! And Highgate has one which is hard to beat in terms of ‘feel’ and ‘character’ –  The Flask ( so called because people in the old days would come up here and fill their flasks from the nearby springs, a source of clean, pure, healing, mineral water ) Haunted, revered, seeped in history since 1663, the Flask was the watering hole for the English Romantics – Keats, Byron, Shelley who often came here to meet a friend living across the road from the pub, Samuel Coleridge.

Coleridge who spent over 20 years in Highgate, up until his death, was often seen roaming the streets in search of dealers who would sell him opium. Dangerously addicted, he would even urge the boys of Highgate School ( ’round the corner from the Flask and his home ) to leave vials of opium for him in their school grounds, hidden among bushes, in return for sums of money and other inappropriate favours. High as a kite by day, he would sit by a burning candle, deep into the night and churn out literary masterpieces. There’s a shrine to Coleridge in the local St Michael’s Church, a few meters away.

As our guide charmingly put it ; “When you read ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ you sometimes wonder – WHAT is this guy on ??  Well, the answer is  – OPIUM !”

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Coming back to The Flask, Dick Turpin, the highway robber, was also known to hide in the stables here, away from the authorities when they came looking. Painter William Hogarth was a customer, so was Karl Marx. The hauntings at this pub involve a Spanish barmaid who hanged herself in the wine cellar over unrequited love and a man in Cavalier uniform who is sometimes seen striding across the main bar, then disappearing into a pillar.

Locals believe that you have to consume at least THREE pints of stout before you can actually see either of them!

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The much sought-after Highgate School ( below ) once the preserve of wealthy, aristocratic boys only, is now co-ed yet just as exclusive. It owns extensive riding grounds, rugby and cricket fields across vast swathes of Highgate, straddling two London Boroughs – Camden and Haringay. The borderline separating the two ( formerly separating two Parishes, not Boroughs ) is marked halfway down the middle of The Gatehouse Pub, across the school gates.

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As we end our walk at the Flask and unwind over a pint, Richard sums up Highgate with the words, “well, if you wanted to make money – as a doctor, lawyer, trader, civil servant….you lived in the City. if you wanted a life of notoriety and debauchery or wanted to live ‘dangerously’  chasing literary pursuits of high artistic merit, as well as mingling with free thinkers, socialists, mistresses to royalty and highway con-men…you came away to Highgate!”

Pointing to the house right in front of us, where Coleridge and JB Priestley both once lived ( not together, I add! ) Richard casually muttered, “it’s now the home of Kate Moss”. And left us in stunned silence to refill his glass at the bar.

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The sighs and gasps and “click, click, flash, flash, selfie, selfie” began all over again…

MY favourite story from the afternoon?

John Betjeman, when a student at Highgate Junior School, was taught by a ceratin T S Eliot ( known as the American Headmaster ) He once plucked the courage to scribble a few lines of poetry and took it up to Eliot, who dismissed it as “terrible” and urged him not to pursue poetry anymore.

Sir John Betjeman grew up to be one of the MOST LOVED Poet Laureates of the UK from 1972 until his death.

Moral Of The Story ;  Sometimes, you’ve just gotta do what your heart says!

 

#12 and the OSCAR goes to….

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“…And the Aaaskr ( Oscar, to the rest of us ) goes to….

Perhaps the most famous refrain from any Award Ceremony on the planet.

But it’s not March yet.

There are other, smaller but no less coveted, longed-for, celebrity-studded awards AND ceremonies, specially when it comes to recognizing outstanding work in theatrics. The BIG ONE on the British calendar – the LONDON EVENING STANDARD THEATRE AWARDS happened last Sunday, with the Who’s Who and Who’s That? of Theatre coming together for a night of pretty frocks, sharp suits, funny, witty speeches and endless champagne.

Theatre has always been the poor cousin to Film in the Money & Fame stakes , yet it is where many crave recognition,  from both – the public and their peers. It’s relatively easy to ‘perform’ with the aid of technology – blue screens, body-doubles, 44 retakes, if needed, in addition to being tapped on the head by a magic wand in Post Production which can ‘fix’ virtually anything.

But can you cut it on your own in a dark room, oozing wit and charm, love and lust, humour and pathos, as envisaged by someone else ( the playwright / author / poet ) – getting the lines and the emotions spot on, show after show, in a room full of strangers who’ve paid good money to come and see you. Can you do it ?

I’ll tell you who can.

GILLIAN ANDERSON !!

She took home the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress for playing Blanche DuBois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the Tennessee Williams classic, self-admittedly her best performance ever which I was lucky to witness.

I got the impression that playing Blanche is to an actress, what playing Hamlet is probably to an actor. There’s prestige, there’s tremendous (  illustrious  )  history,  layers and layers of emotion,  reams of dialogue and attempts to embrace a story that has stood the test of time. And a burning desire to make it your own.

Few can master that.

Even though she’s lived in London for many years now, Gillian was obviously drafted in to lend Hollywood glamour to this play, drawing from her 20 years in Film and TV, most notably as Agent Dana Scully in the X-FILES ( the very embodiment of a  “Thinking Man’s Crumpet” )

Prior to its short, much anticipated run this summer, A STREETCAR… had already made history by becoming the fastest selling show EVER at the Young Vic. It was also filmed and broadcast to more than 2000 cinema screens worldwide. “Electrifying” was a word being used a LOT in describing this production.

Naturally, I was curious.

Gillian was following in the footsteps of a long, distinguished line of women. The Guardian did a little tribute in pictures to remind us of the famous names who’d gone before her.

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/gallery/2014/jul/16/gillian-anderson-streetcar-named-desire-young-vic-in-pictures

Anderson’s interpretation of Blanche was a personal and artistic benchmark – overstrung, fragile but profoundly sympathetic – in a radical production by Australian director Benedict Andrews who plucked the story out of its original home – a decrepit, disreputable corner of 1940s New Orleans and hauled it up to the present.

The set was nothing but a slow-revolving square, an intimate audience huddled all around it.

A few columns and beams ( a mere suggestion of “walls” ) enclosing a free-standing sink,  door,  bathtub,  dressing table,  bed,  some chairs and a stairway,  dotted haphazardly within that square and flimsy net curtains separating bedroom from bathroom, interior from exterior, perception from reality –  IKEA minimalism at its best!

Here’s what director Benedict Andrews said about his unique vision for the play.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f01dcf00-06b3-11e4-ba32-00144feab7de.html#axzz37k9gRX60

The set design was sheer genius!  Adding an extra dimension to the narrative,  playing mind-games with the audience while constantly altering their perspective in more ways than one.

In course of the 3 and a half hours, the actors rarely ever leave the stage. All the action – change of scenery, change of costume, the pacing of dialogue, screams, laughter, tears, tantrums, breaking glass, slamming doors, copious consumption of alcohol,  conversations fraught with danger and sexual frisson – we see it ALL –  right there, before us in all-encompassing 360 degrees and nowhere to hide. It’s uncomfortable viewing.

Often, you get the feeling that you shouldn’t really be there, watching and listening in on the characters going about their lives, hurtling towards certain disaster.
Slowly, Tennessee Williams peels one layer after another with admirable finesse, taking you closer and closer to the real Blanche DuBois – a booze-worn beauty and disgraced schoolmistress whose haughty charm while seeking sanctuary in her sister’s claustrophobic apartment is a red rag to her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley.

A lot in the story is implied. And Gillian Anderson speaks louder with her silence than anyone else I know. She elevates Ms. DuBois to dizzying heights with her stellar performance of a woman beaten, broken but unwilling to let go. I can’t remember a time in the theatre, or elsewhere, when I’ve gone from laughter to tears in under 30 seconds…when I’ve loathed and loved a character so much, all at once.

The fabulous Miss Anderson nailed it for me.

The London Stage is no stranger to Hollywood glamour and I’ve seen my fair share of stars in the last 13 years, patiently queued up at the Stagedoor for autographs on my Programme, eaten soggy tubs of Haagen Dazs during Interval…and done all the rest of it.

But Gillian Anderson turned an awesome performance into an unforgettable experience for me.

It doesn’t happen everyday.

http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/a-streetcar-named-desire

 

#11 “…but I have MUM!” – Bollywood Redefined.

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Picture this.

The year – 1975

The Film – DEEWAAR ( THE WALL ) Yes, Pink Floyd took another 7 years to get there!

Brothers on either side of the law.

One a cop, the other a criminal ; locked in an edge-of-the-seat showdown as only Bollywood can offer.

At the end of a cat-and-mouse chase,

The Criminal : “So, what have you got? After ALL THESE YEARS in ‘uniform’, enforcing the law and doing the ‘right’ thing, WHAT have you got to show for it, bro?
Look at me, I have a palatial house, the best car, everything that money can buy..EVERYTHING…and you? All you have are your ‘values’ and ‘morals’…ideals that wouldn’t buy you a square meal, if you tried!
Is that ALL you have to your name after a lifetime of being ‘righteous’…?”

The Cop : “True, you have it all, my brother… everything.
But you forget,
I have Ma…”

END OF.

The audience rises to its feet ; crying, clapping, whistling, cheering, knowing that it’s been money + 3 hours well spent, for that ONE LINE alone ( and the film is studded with many such ‘iconic’ pieces of dialogue )

Bravo !

Welcome to the larger-than-life, singing, dancing, many-splendoured world of Bollywood featuring verbal-sparring par excellence.

A trifle baffling perhaps, to those not tuned in to our unique sensibilities but nothing that can’t be explained.

We’re the LARGEST film industry in the world, we’re the BIGGEST form of entertainment for over a billion people + fans worldwide, we like to break the monotony of a ‘narrative’ with song & dance, we adore heavy-duty dialogue and cheeky punch-lines, we love to dress up, aren’t shy to flash a bit of flesh, we laugh from the pit of our bellies and our tears could cover the water-deficit in a small tropical country, we copy shamelessly, just as we are totally original. We do daredevil stunts, we do breathtaking locales, we do comedy-tragedy-realism-farce-art house-mainstream- THE WORKS!

And every Friday, we set aside differences in caste, class, religion and rank until the end of the film ( two hours, at the very least ) to bond over our shared love of all things ‘filmy’

Oh, and one of our superstars allegedly takes home a pay cheque slightly heavier than Tom Cruise.

I ask you, what’s NOT to like, love , adore ??!

I could do a MILLION posts on Bollywood and still not be done but this one’s inspired by a piece in yesterday’s INDEPENDENT, titled “Bollywood promotes the leading ladies – but won’t pay the wages”

Tut, tut…

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bollywood-promotes-the-leading-ladies–but-wont-pay-the-wages-9891689.html

As the piece suggests, it is a wage-gap not entirely unique to Bollywood. Or even to film, for that matter.
Alongside the Meryl Streeps of the world ruing the dearth of women-centric roles and remuneration to match, we have women in TV, theatre, art, politics, sport, finance and virtually all walks of life, all-too-often confessing to their heads scraping a ‘glass ceiling’ – it’s universal, this fight to even things out amidst male dominance.

Specifically in the context of film, I’m hoping that Bollywood will take significant steps to rectify the problem, and it is a PROBLEM, before the sun sets on my generation.

After all, we’ve witnessed SO many SWEEPING changes to the way things used to be. From the time I remember going to the movies – essentially the 80s and thereafter, it was primarily seen as ‘mass entertainment’ which was largely a means of escapism ( a dreamy flight to a world most Indians couldn’t afford and exotic places we couldn’t visit )
All it had to do was cater to the lowest common denomination ( the song-dance-laughter-tears-happily ever after formula )
A few wise words from Samuel Coleridge was everything that was needed before a trip to the movies – the ability to draw upon that “willing suspension of disbelief” inherent in our DNA.

Perfectly sane, rational, ‘normal’ people would think nothing of, say, a ‘heroine’ ( leading lady ) pirouetting on the snowy peaks of Alaska in a tantalising chiffon saree when the man next to her was swaddled in three layers of jackets from The North Face. Perfectly acceptable!

Or when a ‘hero’ couldn’t scrounge the means to afford lunch but miraculously found the time, money and VISA to be able to visit, then pine for his lost love on the edge of Lake Lugano, lyrically weeping into his cappuccino – only to return to his tattered village-life when the song ended.
Nope, nothing wrong with that either.

It happens ALL THE TIME ( er, in Bollywood, it does )

Or indeed the need for our star-crossed lovers on screen to first hug trees, then dance around them before declaring their love to each other.

Believe me. That’s 100% normal.

THEN INDIA CHANGED.

With liberalisation in the 1990s, with markets opening up, with jobs flooding in, with an increasingly wealthy-confident-challenged and charged-up Middle Class coming to the fore, with the mushrooming of “multiplex-cinemas” which allow small, labours of love ( india going indie ) to live and flourish amidst BIG BUDGET BLOCKBUSTERS, with the very fabric of society changing in what can only be described as a paradigm-shift and the world clamouring for a piece of this ( lights! camera !! ) action – EVERYTHING transformed in INDIA, hence in BOLLYWOOD too.

Post – liberalisation, movie budgets have gone through the roof, cutting-edge technology is now leading the way and the most dangerous element of any creative endeavour, REALISM, has crept in when no one was looking, when those 1.2 billion people were busy debating whether or not Aishwarya Rai Bachchan had shed enough post-pregnancy pounds to warrant another slice of the red carpet at Cannes…( that sort of stuff gets us hot under the collar, all the time )

The song and dance routine in our ‘MASALA MOVIES’ continues but Bollywood embraces a much wider fan base now. Not everything has to be ‘Paisa-vasool’ or ‘money’s worth’ in the sense that earlier, a single movie had to have something for everybody ( song , dance, drama, melodrama, action, comedy, tragedy, social message… )

Bollywood today, has gone somewhat niche!

My personal favourite from a recent crop of films – LUNCHBOX. A small-budget film about love and longing in a bustling city, initiated by the folly of a ‘dabbawala’ delivering the wrong lunchbox to the right guy 🙂

I went in there expecting another “Slumdog Millionaire” – hope-in-the-face-of-doom attuned to a strictly Western sensibility. Lunchbox had garnered enough column inches in the press here, from all the right sources too ( BFI, The Guardian, Bollywood Season on Channel 4 ) for me to sit up and take note.

The final push came from an elderly English lady who took me by the arm at someone’s party and confessed that it was one of the best films she’d ever seen, well worth the £20 for driving to ODEON, Marble Arch ( congestion charge + parking fee ) before she’d even paid for the movie and the popcorn!
Praise indeed.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/13/lunchbox-bollywood-review-banked-emotions

What I personally loved about the film?

The fact that it broke even the ‘Art House’ rules in India and refrained from ending on a strictly ‘happy’ or ‘tragic’ note but fell somewhere in-between.
It was life, as we all know it and LIVE IT everyday but rarely see in our films.

That’s HUGE.

Who knows, parity in fee for our leading ladies may just be ’round the corner too, patiently awaiting its first audition in a dusty suburban Mumbai studio, as I write…

Given the infamously horrendous Mumbai traffic, it may take a while to get to its destination, though.

While we wait, let’s dance!

” ONE.TWO.THREE.FOUR – say, Shaavaa Shaavaa, mahiya…say shaavaa shavaaaaaaa! ”

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#9 food & friendships…

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The English Weather, deliciously warm and comfortingly glorious for precisely 2 and a half days in a year, leaves much to be desired.

I have moaned about it endlessly for the last 13 years, driving Friends & Fam to despair. Perhaps it is time to make my peace with it and seek out a way of looking at the proverbial glass as being “half-full”.
It’s going to be a stretch but I shall try.

Actually, there ARE some wondeful things to be said about permanent grey skies and slanting, freezing sheets of incessant rain…stay with me…it’s inconvenient and horrible for the MOST part, when you have a life to lead.
But on days you can afford the luxury of curling up with a book under the duvet, it’s heaven.

Specially if you’re into Conan Doyle and Cookbooks.

I am convinced that Holmes wouldn’t have held the same charm for me if he were’nt conjured up by the damp, pickled brain of Conan Doyle holed up in misty Edinburgh. I doubt if he’d have painted the same bone-chilling picture of Victorian London sitting on a sunny Florida beach, Pina Colada in hand. The RAIN made him do it!

Similarly, ‘Comfort Food’ would quickly lose its raison d’etre if it weren’t for people like me needing all that comforting in the face of, say, today’s forecast for London – “Cloudy with persistent rain for much of the day, heavy at times. Drier weather with clearing skies will spread eastwards to all parts through the evening. However, temperatures will fall quickly, with a frost and shallow mist patches in places by dawn.”

And this is when you need something warm and sustaining in your arms – like a book that looks good, evokes the right notes and leaves you wanting more.

Buying, reading, sniffing, caressing, dreamily gazing at Cookbooks is a passion I’m happy to declare.
If someone paid me, I might even write one someday. Though there’s little I end up actually cooking from my sizeable collection other than what falls strictly within my own comfort-zone ( mostly Indian  )
Nevertheless, I’m drawn to a beautifully- produced, well-written one like a moth to a flame.

Or an Englishman to a Ruby Murry!

I may be oblivious to the current state of affairs in Syria or be totally clueless about where Lewis Hamilton stands in F1 this season but I DO KNOW that the best  £ 2.90  to be spent every four weeks in London is on the OBSERVER FOOD MONTHLY ( edited by one of my favourite chef-writers – Nigel Slater. Also featuring often-controversial yet always-entertaining words from Food Critic Par Excellence – Jay Rayner )

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I discovered Yotam Ottolenghi on TV a few years ago and have been a fan since. I picked up his food bible JERUSALEM recently on a friend’s recommendation and wasn’t able to put it down until I’d devoured the first 20 pages in Waterstone’s. In the introduction, he talks about a lot more besides food – things that made him the man he is today  –   his childhood in Jerusalem, his family and a potpourri of influences, both culinary and otherwise.

 

Jointly written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, it says –

” ….This book and this journey into the food of Jerusalem form part of a private odyssey. We both grew up in the city. Sami in the muslim East and Yotam in the Jewish West, but never knew each other. We lived there as children in the 1970s and 1980s and then left in the 1990s, first to Tel Aviv, then to London.

Only there did we meet and discover our parallel histories; we became close friends and then business partners…
It is more than 20 years since we both left the city. This is a serious chunk of time , longer than the years we spent living there. Yet we still think of Jerusalem as our home. Not home in the sense of the place where you conduct your daily life , or constantly return to. In fact, Jerusalem is our home almost against our wills. It is our home because it defines us, like it or not.
The flavours and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them even though we may have adopted a few more sophisticated languages….everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences…”

 

Who wouldn’t want to read a story like that even though most of the narrative beyond page 20 comes in grams, ounces and liters…

I remember feeling the same way about Russell Norman’s POLPO – a book that does Venice proud and sits beautifully with others who marry ‘style’ to ‘substance’ with remarkable ease. POLPO ( also the name of his uber-cool restaurant, a ‘bacaro‘ to be precise ) dispensed with the notion that good restaurant food always demands prior booking! It drove the critics and food snobs MAD, to find that they couldn’t book a table in advance but had to turn up and jostle for space with the hoi polloi ….ooooh!

Yet POLPO continues to be the most lusted after table in town. And for good reason. Serving small-plates of fine Venetian food and drink, with impeccable style.

I’ve yet to set foot in there myself or take a stab at a  “Duck Ragu, Black Olives and Gnocchhi”  in the comfort of my own kitchen – but the book and its opening pages redefined ‘love at first sight’ for me. It speaks of a man and his passion –  for what he cooks, eats and serves AND for Venice, the city of love!

http://www.polpo.co.uk

I suppose I am partial to those whose pens flow as freely as their spices.
Jay Rayner once wrote, when people ask me at workshops, WHAT  the secret to being a good food writer is, I tell them – forget the food, you just have to be a good WRITER. That can be honed but not entirely taught. Every fancy thing you need to know about FOOD – you can learn. Or google!

TRUE.

In that department, Nigella Lawson makes mincemeat of her competition – she is the undisputed Queen of Words and of food fantasies on telly. You would want to lick the spoon clean, if she gave it you covered in mud – such is the allure of her writing ( HOW TO EAT, HOW TO BE A DOMESTIC GODDESS among many other bestsellers… )
Hollywood looks,with a lifestyle to match and those devilishly dark tresses complete the package.

No one comes close though many have tried.

Yet it’s NOT just about the look and the gloss, I hasten to add.

There has to be a beating heart underneath!
A passion and fire that cuts through the fluff…

Like Nigel Slater’s autobiography TOAST. Very simply yet elegantly written, it ranks among my most favourite books of all time.

 

photo 3

 

If glossy pages and sharp photography were everything, Sophie Dahl would’ve had a winner on her hands. A model by profession, MRS. Jamie Callum by choice and if that weren’t enough, Roald Dahl’s grand daughter too – Sophie attempted a food show and the follow-up book some years ago.

Everything was perfect – the recipes, the mandatory shots of her stringing up rows of bunting as fruity cakes fluffed up in the oven and hearty soups bubbled away on the hob. Even snatches of poetry and distant strains of Jazz thrown into the mix – the show had ALL the ingredients needed to keep you watching and glued.

Yet, looking at her going about her business ( in this case, dishing up delicious food ) one got the feeling that the hottest thing Sophie may have ever come across was more likely to be her curling irons than her stunning AGA. It felt a bit ‘staged’, if you know what I mean. The appeal wore off quickly.

 

photo 4

 

There is a book, however, that I love to read more than any other. And another one that I actually cook from.

Tasting India is almost too heavy to take to bed but it oozes charm from every page, a warm and vibrant food-journal by Christine Mansfield, studded with recipes I don’t have the remotest urge to try. Yet a book I return to again and again for the way she talks about my homeland ; as seen through a pair of devoted,  hungry Australian eyes…

And last but not least, my stained, smelly, oil-splattered, dog-eared, second-hand copy of The Calcutta Kitchen by Simon Parkes and Udit Sarkhel. Between its covers, it holds everything I need to know about everything I love to cook.

Not to impress, not for updates on Facebook but it is food I LOVE to eat. Sometimes, straight from the pan before it’s had a chance to cool. Even when it looks like something the cat may have dragged in, so completely un-Instagrammable!

Cooking is an amazing adventure, as therapeutic, stressful or mundane as we chose to make it.

Nothing is set in stone ( except when you’re baking maybe ) and everything survives an overzealous chef’s signature tweak.

With a fair grasp on the basics and a smattering of confidence, it allows us to build bridges to the future ( full of promise and culinary possibilities ) while it keeps us rooted to the past ( one of my biggest regrets – not finding a suitable replacement for my Thakuma’s rich, tangy, forbiddingly dark ‘Kooler Aachaar’.  Still looking… )

In some cultures, food conveys emotions far more eloquently than words. In Bengal, for example, you are more likely to hear, “here, have another Roshogolla”  than  “I love you”  from members of your family. To them, it’s one and the same thing.

If you think about it – good food and good friends are hard to beat.

The quality and quantity of the food we eat largely determines how long we live.
The depth and sincerity of our friendships determine how quickly we make it through the darkest storms. Or to the sticky, gooey bottom of that Hot Chocolate Fudge!

Everything else is negotiable.

#8 “so here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun…”

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2014-11-20 08-1.24.58Oxford Street, 20th November 2014

 

“So here it is –
Merry Christmas,
Everybody’s having fun…”

The chorus from the Christmas No 1. by Slade ( Merry Christmas Everybody, 1973 , my year of birth !  ) which kicks-off all things White & Wintery for us – you hear it on the radio, in the supermarket, wafting in the cold night air and you just know Santa’s on his way. Again.

Changing the lyrics ever so slightly could also be a fair indication of how things roll in the Autumn months
“So here it is –
Merry Christmas,
Everybody’s raising funds…”

It never fails to fascinate / amaze / amuse/ move me ,  to see how many people come together at Christmas time for acts of charity to raise money and extend a helping hand to others.
Perhaps it is this festive camaraderie that brings out our most charitable side.

Gazing at the glitter and sparkle festooned across London at this time, heeding the call of the High Street to loosen the purse strings, coming home with a truckload of baubles that you did not need but couldn’t resist, confessing to dreams of mince pies swathed in Brandy sauce and desperately trying to find a hiding place for wrapping paper that cost you more than the present ( ok, that’s just me! ) – Autumn is the time for falling leaves and rising debt, such is the allure of “Christmas Shopping”

It is also the time when Britain reminds me, year after year, why it is still GREAT.

A clutch of worthy causes and charities that champion them abound ( more than 150,000 if you’re into stats )  – the British Heart Foundation, Oxfam, Cancer Research UK, PDSA, Mind, AGE UK, Bernados for Kids, Shelter, RSPCA, NSPCC, Water AID, Macmillan UK, Greenpeace, Poppy Appeal – these are some of the biggest charities, with outlets on every High Street selling secondhand wares for our money in addition to organising marathons, bake-offs, blood donation camps, galas, comedy nights and coffee mornings…there’s always something on !

However, there are TWO phenomenal ( annual )  fundraising events I’ve been witnessing since I arrived here and I can’t praise them enough!

They leave me with the same question every year  –

WHY can’t we have something like this in India?

Do we lack the resources – NO.
Do we lack the will – CERTAINLY NOT
Could we pull it off if we really tried – HELL, YEAH!
What’s stopping us then – Ermmmm, er, well….it’s complicated.

Let’s talk about the two events first.

The first, CHILDREN IN NEED – is for, well, exactly what it says, needy children.

It’s the BBC’s baby with a staggering £600 million raised since 1980 for the sake of disabled children and young people in the UK and people volunteer to raise money in the wildest possible ways  – ( I shall wear my pyjamas and cycle backwards for 3 hours in the freezing rain or similar ) schools pull out all the stops and ask you to come in fancy dress + a donation ( at least a pound  ) but the icing on the cake is the Telethon – when all the channels of the BBC collaborate for a  L -O-N-G  night of entertainment – from about 7.30PM  until the wee hours of the morning.

This is where pop stars, football legends, actors, singers, stage and theatre artists, newsreaders, comedians, statesmen, butchers, bakers, candlestickmakers….everyone gets on the telly to act, sing, dance, mime, play the fool and have fun.
A telephone number flashes across the screen all evening and the stars plead with us to pick up the phone and make a donation. Simple!

The sum on the cash till ( money raised on the night ) goes up and up before our very eyes as the show progresses. Setting records year after year, WE raised in excess of 32 million this year and we’re still counting….

Everyone pitches in and no one is spared – THIS was decidedly one of Tony Blair’s BIGGEST MOMENTS in the public eye when he was PM. What a performance !

 

 

We’re also told AND shown exactly HOW the money is spent every year and WHY it is crucial in changing the lives of disadvantaged kids in the UK. This is the bit where everyone’s left fighting tears because it demonstrates HOW MUCH we can do, WHAT A DIFFERENCE we can make to the lives of others of only we DO IT TOGETHER with a plan that works.

A tenner from me won’t change the world, but even a pound from 61 million Britons, just imagine….

COMIC RELIEF is much the same – the name aptly salutes the pair behind it – comedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry who simply wanted to help the famine victims in Ethiopia in 1985. They rounded up some famous friends, put a show together, urged  people to donate and from there, it grew into an annual TV gala studded with comedians and all manner of celebrities, raising a laugh AND serious amounts of cash for Africa and the UK each year.

Comic Relief also lead to Sports Relief ( for disabled sports men and women  as well as for the overall encouragement of sport, specially among those who can’t afford the training ) and it championed the Golden Pound Principle – basically, EVERY POUND raised is spent on charitable causes, with ALL operating costs paid for by sponsors. Or by the interest gained on cash waiting to be distributed!

A fantastic cause, a great laugh with comedians trying to out-do each other every year…

And oh, more than £650 million in the kitty since Ethiopia and 1985 !

Stick with this sketch till the end and you will laugh until you cry, I promise…

 

 

What fascinates me is the EASE with which you can embrace them and make a donation. Agreed, that the BBC has tremendous clout, not many can boast such an intricate, all-permeating network. But it’s heartwarming to see how it uses it to facilitate fundraising on a massive scale, nationwide.

We’re made aware of Children In Need and Comic Relief looming large through posters, print and TV ads months in advance. Supermarkets start selling official merchandise, schools and offices pitch in, banks allow you to make donations at the ATM, there are easy numbers you can call or text your donations to, addresses you can send off cheques to, fundraising kits you can order, bills you can round up to the nearest pound ( or more ) towards donations.

And if none of this appeals to you, you could simply drop your loose change into a sealed and secure charity bucket practically at every street corner!

The message is SIMPLE  – Get up and DONATE. we will do EVERYTHING within our power to make it as EASY for you as possible…and tell you EXACTLY where your money is going. No red tape, no bullshit –  JUST DO IT…

Who wouldn’t.

People here may think of it as normal but coming from the Third World as I do, I marvel at such professionalism.

And this is EXACTLY what India needs – a concentrated, organised, annual nationwide effort to raise awareness AND funds for the many, many social causes that could benefit from it.

Of course, we already have numerous charities in place, we have countless celebrities giving their time and money to help the poor and disadvantaged, anonymous benefactors across the country changing lives, we have millions of nameless, faceless bravehearts toiling in the heat, fighting corruption, discrimination, political agenda, social stigma and dogged ( misplaced ) beliefs to bring food, water, shelter, education, health and dignity to those who’ve almost given up on life – and they do it, not for the fame or to see their names on the Queen’s Honours List, ( just saying…) Oh, no!

They do it for the sake of charity alone. And against all odds. Mostly anyway…

Yet there’s nothing, NOTHING that happens annually AND on a national scale with the support and blessing of the government!

No, not merely after an earthquake or a Tsumani or despicable acts of sexual violence, religious unrest or devastating floods.

But EVERY YEAR, come rain or shine.

An evening of fun and fundraising for the entire nation to enjoy and contribute to – perhaps a LIVE SHOW which is beamed across all TV channels, is picked up by radio, supported in Print, endorsed by the government with the added financial blessing of all Corporate powerhouses –  the mind boggles at the amount 1.2 BILLION people could accomplish if they got their act together.

Forget the rest, if Bollywood and Cricket alone joined forces to stage an annual song and dance gala appealing for funds, we’d all be sorted in a day!

If only,

there’s no intent to political gain

no religious/sectarian/caste/class spin put on it

no mile-long queues or complicated procedures hounding those who wish to donate

no ego clashes between A Khan, S Khan and SR Khan or any other Star Who Matters to derail the whole show and defeat the cause!

And

if there’s complete transparency in money matters and a genuine will to make a REAL difference.

It will take a miracle, perhaps, but India is a country where miracles happen everyday….

I patiently wait for this one.

I’m a girl of strong opinions. What I love about my adopted home, Britain, I ADORE – their acerbic wit, their unique brand of self-deprecating humour, their admirable style of fundraising are a few examples.

Then again, there are things that make my blood boil.

Like the Tower Of London charging me  £ 22.00  for a fleeting glimpse of the KOHINOOR.

WHAT ??

TWENTY-TWO QUID to see something which is MINE,  to start with….( not mine, personally, but you know what I mean…)

YOU MUST BE JOKING !!

Let’s stick to fundraising…