Over Christmas, we’ve had a house full of family.

car carrying furniture soft top Louise 916.JPG
(Brussels, 2016)

Now we’re getting ready to move house.

The new house is sure to be smaller.

During our St Silvestre meal this evening we discussed what furniture we’ll try to find room for.

We agreed that the épergne, bought at the end of the nineteenth century by Travelling Companion’s Great-Grandfather, who worked in the City in shipping, should come, kangaroo and all.

epergne kangaroo 1218.JPG

It is two feet tall. Who even knew what an épergne was?

We should put stickers on the undersides of such things with their history. How it was us that cracked one of the épergne’s bowls. How on Boxing Day, at the house of Travelling Companion’s Aunt, it used to be in the centre of the dining table piled with fruit. How the leaves of that dining table, a polished walnut table that came from Travelling Companion’s Grandfather and is now in our house, used to drift apart. How one evening our friend T.H. turned up with wire to tie it together.

We should put a sticker on the underside of this house, telling what we know of its history. The soap and perfume factory, the dealership in American cars. Poking around in the cellar, the new people or their children will find the sticker one day.

furniture cart, Sue and Mio Bungoma 813.JPG(Bungoma, Kenya, 2013)


Montmartre (& Simenon, & Malta, & Napoleon)

Penguin have out new translations of Maigret stories. In A Maigret Christmas, I recommend the story Seven small crosses in a notebook. There’s a chase that finishes in the Orient Bar near Rue Damrémont… at Montmartre’s highest point, not far from The no man’s land of the suburbs.

France took Malta from the Knights of Malta in 1798. After Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile the island was put under siege by the British navy. In 1801, there were peace negotiations. Napoleon said frankly to the British ambassador…  ‘Peace or war depends on Malta. It is vain to speak of the Netherlands and Switzerland, they are but trifles. For myself, I would put you in possession of the heights of Montmartre rather than of Malta’. (Peter Elliott, A naval history of Malta 1798-1975, 1980). Nevertheless, Napoleon gave up Malta to Britain in the end.

restaurant Montmartre 113 2.JPG

The photo shows a restaurant in Montmartre where Travelling Companion and I had lunch one January, a few years ago.

It’s true that Paris can be annoying. But when it is its own self, in places like this, nowhere can beat it. Britain stayed in Malta until the 1960s. If Napoleon had given Britain Montmartre in exchange for Malta, I don’t think the arrangement would have lasted long.

Making watercress soup on Christmas day

Travelling Companion is a terrific cook. Son buys the best cheese. If I am going to contribute to Christmas lunch it is only going to be a gesture. I make soup.

The past few years I’ve made pea soup on Christmas day. Yuk, said Son, when I mentioned that possibility. So I looked up the recipe in Sarah Brown and went back to what I’ve made on Christmas day in the past, watercress soup.  I bought watercress yesterday in Carrefour, just before it closed; and lemons; and yoghurt.

It was only when I opened the cookbook this morning that I realised these are the ingredients for a cold soup. In our household among the younger generation there is no understanding of cold soup. Yuk, said Son, Daughter, and Son-in-Law. (Retrospectively).

That wasn’t the recipe I used to use: so what was it? I found one in Julia Child that looked vaguely familiar – taking some pleasure in the light of yesterday’s blog about Julie and Julia.

I believe that reading ahead is to be discouraged, in novels and in recipes.

Half-way down Julia Child’s recipe for salade niçoise, however and for example, we find Arrange the potatoes in the bottom of the bowl. Looking up the list of ingredients we find ¾ lb cold French potato salad (preceding recipe). Time needed for that preceding recipe: quite a bit (at least long enough to boil the potatoes and let them cool). This time it wasn’t like that. But I found it hard to believe the final instructions:  1) mix egg yolks and cream; 2) beat the soup into this mixture, first drop by drop and then in a thin stream (we’re talking a bucket of soup); 3) stir in some softened butter, again a little at a time. I obeyed the butter, skipped the cream and poached the egg yolks directly in the soup. Which made it a bit odd.


The people ate it, even so. Subsequent courses: the salmon en croûte was divine. Son has gone off Herve, which is the perfect Christmas cheese, but I had some in reserve. Grandson, who slept through most of this, dined on chicken.

The picture shows a station on the Watercress line, a heritage railway line in Hampshire, England. We had a trip on it in spring 2014.

public bird Ropley Watercress Line 314.JPG


Having a fire at Christmas

When we visited California this summer I found, in one and then another of the houses we borrowed, a couple of books about the cookery writer Julia Child. They were her memoir My life in France, written with Alex Prud’homme (2006), and Julie and Julia (2005), whose author, Julie Powell cooks, over a year, all the recipes from Julia Child’s book Mastering the art of French cooking (which could also be found in the Aptos beach house).

Julie Powell lives in New York. She goes back home to Texas for Christmas. It’s always nice to go back to the folks’ house, she writes. There’s no mildew in the bathtub, and you can shower for as long as you want and the water will stay hot. There’s a queen-sized bed to sleep in, no roaring semitrucks passing in the night, a hundred channels on the television, and broadband on the computer. On Christmas Eve we jack up the air-conditioning so we can light a fire. 

Even if my energy-efficient soul is in revolt, I know what Julia Powell’s family are thinking of with the fire.

In the late 1990s we moved to a house, here in Belgium, with a little old metal stove. The people who sold us the house tried to claim that the stove was a mere content of the house, not a fixture or fitting, and to take it away, but we won the argument. (Compared with England, what’s odd in Belgium is that aspects of house purchase, like this, are still debated on the day the house changes hands.) That Christmas, Daughter and Son wrote letters to Father Christmas. We lit the stove and used it to propel their letters up the chimney.

Not long after, when the stove was lit again, we saw that its metal exterior was glowing red. We were unnerved. We never used the stove again. We unfixed it, or unfitted it, and left it in the cellar. I’m afraid that the people who bought the house from us probably chucked it away.

Son is grown-up now. We spent last Christmas with him, in London. He had a dog basket in the fireplace and a nice fire on his TV screen.

Linton's flat artificial fire stockings Christmas Day 1217.JPG


keyboard Ekaterinburg 812.JPG(Cleaning a keyboard on the bank of the river Iset – Ekaterinburg, Siberia, 2012)

Today I came across a quote from the Observer (22 January 2017) – Research company Gartner reckons that by 2018, 30% of all interactions with devices will be voice-based, because people can speak up to four times faster than they can type, and the technology behind voice interaction is improving all the time. 

This doesn’t look right to me. I think we type faster than that. In my first job at the European Commission I was a speechwriter. I had to provide 100 words for each minute that the speech would last (120 for Commissioner Kinnock). By contrast I type at 40-45 words a minute (including thinking time).  Two or three times slower, not four times.

In French I type half as fast as in English (more thinking time). In Russian I type a thirtieth as fast (much more thinking time – the main reason – and a different keyboard).

When I write by hand I go two thirds as fast as when typing. I was sad when I found that out. I like writing with a fountain pen, on paper with a bit of resistance in it. But when you can, typing on a laptop seems to be the best way to write. It’s fast, and afterwards, it’s searchable.

I have one more quote about typing. It comes from a review by David Bromwich of “On Empson” by Michael Wood (New York Review of Books, 26 October 2017). In 1937-1939, William Empson taught English in the makeshift universities of China under siege… [W]hat they chiefly required was books, and “Empson, without saying anything, typed out Shakespeare’s Othello from memory”.

Linton's computer keyboard 613.JPG(My son’s old computer keyboard)

Economics; tastes; George Orwell

cigarette temporary opera tour and taxis 916.JPG(Interval of opera, Tour and Taxis, Brussels, 2016)

A few years ago I was in a meeting about waste policy. An economist said to an environmentalist, You are assuming that the optimum amount of waste is zero. You have not demonstrated that.

In economics, people have “tastes”. Tastes are the quantified values (which can be positive or negative, and are assumed to be additive) that people place on different outcomes. The optimal outcome for society is the one in which the sum of the value of the outcome for each individual is the highest. “Utility is maximised.”

Mainstream economics assumes that people know what they want. People are expert in their own tastes. It follows that if an outside influence persuades someone to change what they want, to want something different, that influence has reduced that person’s utility – has caused them harm.

(Goodbye religion, philosophy, everyday ethics and behavioural economics, by the way. Goodbye politics.)

If someone is a smoker and we persuade them to stop, we have caused that person harm.

If someone is a smoker and normally throws away their cigarette ends on the street, and we persuade them to hold onto them until they find a bin, we have caused that person harm. We may, in fact, have wrongly assumed that the optimum amount of waste is zero.

All this to introduce this quote from George Orwell in an article by Alan Johnson in Prospect last January:

His self-declared intention was “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive for”. He certainly succeeded so far as I was concerned. 

Recently, people campaigning about plastics have altered my idea of the kind of society I should strive for. Last summer this man showed me a day’s worth of rubbish he’d collected from the beach at Santa Cruz, in California.

man with a day's worth of rubbish from beach Santa Cruz 818 2.JPG

I do not feel harmed by the plastics campaigners.