Saturday, 23 May 2020


Friday 28 December 2007

Before the trip , we head first to learn how to make sushi, our joint Christmas gift from my wife Christina (Steens). The Japanese couple, who give the course from their home, live in Golders Green. 

While waiting for the course to start, we kill time in a kosher coffee house, as the area is overwhelmingly Jewish. 

We are the only goyim in the shop, a fact made obvious by: 

a) our looks and 
b) the dumb questions I ask about why some of the croissants are in a section marked parve and others in one called milki

This, I am explained by the girl at the counter, is due to the fact that meat and dairy cannot be eaten at the same meal. Parve means neutral in Hebrew, neither meat nor dairy. Obviously, the milki ones contain milk (or butter).

Our Jewish lesson is cut short by a phone call from Steens, who informs us (via a relayed call from Mr. Matsunaga, our teacher-to-be) that we have illegally parked. We rush off, and arrive at our sensei's house. 

Mr. Matsunaga is a tall (by Japanese standards, not Toby standards) 
combination sushi chef/acupuncturist. 

Not too many of them, I imagine.
His wife sits us down after we have removed our shoes and donned our white sushi jackets and we chat over green tea. We then adjourn upstairs through the dark panelled wood interior (think Tudor castle in a semi-detached row house) to their kitchen. 

 Our lesson is divided into five parts, a fibonacci number. 

 1) PREPARING THE RICE FOR COOKING Washing (6 times) until the water is clear, achieved by massaging it. 

 2) COOKING 15 minutes in a Japanese rice cooker, followed by 15 minutes "rest". 

 3) CHOPPING RAW MATERIALS These include fish: in our case sake (salmon), ebi (shrimp..already prepared), and suzuki (sea bass). There are also many vegetables to prepare: cucumber, avocado, takuan (the yellow pickled radish or daikon). There is also tobiko (orange flying fish roe). 

 4)PREPARING THE RICE (AGAIN) This consists of mixing the rice and vinegar (sushi, in case you didn't know, means vinegared rice) in a large wooden bowl like a cut-off barrel with a wooden spatula in a chopping motion and mixing the wasabi paste from powder and water. 

 5) ASSEMBLING THE SUSHI This last part is the crux of the whole enterprise. Using the same raw materials, (and I mean raw in the literal sense), there are innumerable types of sushi, all of which involved assembling the component parts in some unique fashion. Just as the Italians boast of their infinite types of pasta, there are tons of different ways of making sushi. We learned just a few. 

We concentrated on:

1) maki, or sushi rice rolled in nori (seaweed); and
2) nigiri-sushi, which are the lumps of rice with a bit of wasabi inside and a sliver of fish on top; We did not attempt the other two; and
3) inari-sushi, or sushi rice stuffed into a tofu pocket; and 
4) chirashi-zushi, which is fish on top of rice in a bowl. 

 Did you ever see the movie Desperately Seeking Susan? 

There was a great exchange between Madonna (yeah, I know...) and a taxi driver about sushi. Says the cabbie: 

"Sushi? Yeah I tried some sushi once. Took it home and cooked it. Tasted just like fish."

 Lest you think that what we attempted in 3 hours is a dawdle, it takes 5 years of apprenticeship in order for a sushi chef to become a ita-mae, (literally before people) or a chef who can step in front of the customers. 


 There are basically three sizes of maki sushi: 

hosumaki, which are the small rolls, 
chumaki, which are medium, and 
futomaki, which are large. 

Kappamaki has the nori, or seaweed, on the outside. 

Uramaki has the rice on the outside (which is why it needs to be sticky, and is dipped in sesame or other seeds or spices or roe. 

There are also regional variations, from Tokyo: temari maki, which is rolled up into a ball in cling film, or oshi sushi from Kyoto/Osaka, a variation which is jammed into a box and comes out perfectly square.


 Like most things Japanese, there is a correct way of doing things, honed over the centuries. Think you can just take a blob of rice and make nigiri-sushi ? Nuh uh.

You have to do it right, and in the right order. Those with fumbling fingers and little patience need not apply.

We emerged after three hours, a little wiser, perhaps, but rank amateurs. We did however, have a huge plate of sushi which we duly took home and presented to Steens. Guess what? Tasted just like fish, even without cooking it.

Go to Chapter 3

Thursday, 19 March 2020

EDUCATED - Tara Westover

EDUCATED Tara Westover

An unlikely journey of escape, discovery and intellectual growth 

Friday, 5 August 2016


There has been a furore about the overuse of the F word on the it has devalued our language and our morals and deadened our senses. This is especially true in the US presidential election of Trumpistan, where feelings run high and almost anything is fair game. 

Words are indeed powerful. They evoke an automatic response from our consciousness. In a sense, they do our thinking for us. They are contextual, however, and if used too much, either lose their meaning entirely or indeed mean exactly the opposite of their intention. Consider the epithet FxxxxxxA. It no doubt used to be an insult; now it is more an expression of surprise.

Why not use a half-word instead? A half-word will not explain anything for us; it will force us to think to understand. Of course it will be a euphemism for its full partner, but it will require active participation for comprehension and will stop us cheapening our language with all-purpose potty words that, in fact, may mean anything or nothing at all.

Take the half-word It, for example. No prizes for guessing its full partner. But use it for a while, and you will quickly find just how confused our language can become when overuse turns into saturation, and where context then becomes everything.

IT has amazing properties to transform itself.

For example, someone who knows his IT is seen as smart; someone who knows IT, dumb.

Both good IT and bad IT can be good, usually when followed by the word man, as in: This is good IT, man, or this is BAAD IT, man.

You can either take a IT, or have a IT, or just plain IT, and it all means the same thing.

Being IT hot is good, being a hot IT is seen as selfish and egotistical.

Being full of IT, or a IT head is also bad, but if you have your IT together that is good.

If you don't give a IT it is also bad, whereas saying he gives a IT means in fact he doesn't.

And so on and so on.

By stripping away the full word you will make people think about what you are saying, and make you think twice before you say it.

And if someone should ask you what you are doing, just say you are using half-words, and if they ask you what the other half of IT is, just look at them and respond quietly: "What you should tell yourself the next time you mindlessly say IT:........Sh....

Monday, 13 June 2016



I was fortunate to have met Muhammed Ali twice.

The first time was in the Miami airport when I was a student. I noticed a huge hullabaloo in the baggage claim area, and spotted the distinctive Eraserhead grey frizz of Don King’s afro. My mate and I went over to investigate.

Don King was in terry cloth slippers looking like a bum, literally, and there perched on the baggage carousel surround by a mob was Ali, signing autographs. Most people gave him large dollar bills to sign….20s and  100s and the like. He signed and signed, hardly looking up. I waited in the massed queue (not really a queue, more like a rugby scrum) and passed him the only bill I had, which was a one-dollar bill.

He stopped and looked up.
“A Dollar?” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a student. If I use a twenty I’ll have to spend it. Now I’ll keep it forever.”

He shook his head, smiled, and signed.

The second time was in the early 1990s when he was on a book tour in London on Old Broad Street in a bookstore. I bought the book, and tried to approach him,  hoping he would sign my dollar bill, which I always carried in my wallet. By this time he was shaking like a leaf from Parkinson’s. His minders were not letting anyone near him. I said: “Do you think Muhammed would sign this dollar bill? He signed it for me in 1978 when I was a student.” The minder shook his head.
“No autographs.”
All of a sudden Ali, who heard this exchange, mumbled something, and gestured for me to come over. His face was all puffy, and it was impossible to decipher what he said, apart from “Come…come” in a very slurred speech.
I was in my mid thirties at this point, but I felt like a schoolboy. I showed him the dollar, and he scrawled his signature on it. You could make out the M and not much else. It only took a second.
There was something magical about the man. The energy which flowed off of him was like standing next to a heater. I will never forget it.
When I found out he died, I cried. The first time for a public figure that I can remember.

The dollar was subsequently stolen along with my wallet, and no doubt spent by someone for whom it meant nothing.

No matter. I shall always have the memory.

The word great is bandied about way too much. But he was a great man.
The Greatest. 

Sunday, 17 April 2016


WRITTEN IN 2010..... POLITICS EH? Originally written on 27 Sep 2010....long before this interloper ran for Prime Minister......

Would you even consider a leader who wasn't even elected by the members of his party? Who gets in power by an alliance with unions but in the next breath disavows them?

Do you really ever want a government in place where behind the scenes a union boss can call on a strike without EVEN A MAJORITY OF HIS OWN MEMBERS?

Well, that's what you have got with the latest Labour party farce.

After an election process which, let's face it, was completely off the radar screen, Fast Eddie won the battle of the brothers, sneaking up at the last moment with the unions in his pocket (or he in theirs). Neither the majority of party members, MPs, or MEPs voted for him.  And some of the union members are not even in the Labour party.

What a system, eh?

Saturday, 26 March 2016


Spring in England always carries with it the kind of mixed messages carried by harbingers who are slightly unsure of what they are supposed to be carrying. A lovely sunny day can easily be followed by the grey wet which has preceded it, pulling the springtime rug straight out from under the psyche desperate to jump onto it after a grey dull winter. There are no magic carpet rides in the British spring.

This year especially, I will have an Easter to remember. Bad news comes in threes, and the past month has seen me have an ear operation to remove a basal cell carcinoma (skin cancer), an interior job which is very slow to heal as it is on the inside of the ear. Then food poisoning. Then le comble as the french say, the finger incident. 

Riding home on the Tube, straphanging as one does on the newer carriages, the driver hit the brakes just after leaving Sloane Square. My left finger got caught in the strap as I hurtled to the floor, knocked off balance by the twisting of the strap and the suitcase on the floor next to me. The finger stayed behind. Snap.

I fell down, and one gentleman helped me up and offered me his seat. Are you alright? he said. No, I broke my finger I said, and held up my hand for him (and the rest of the carriage) to see. Gasps and horrified looks. But mostly averted gazes.

A nice gentleman next to me said quietly:the closest hospital is Chelsea and Westminster. I stumbled off the train at South Ken, crossed the street to hail a cab (but not before a young girl scuttled across the road to nab the one I was heading for). I found the next one in the rank, and showed him my finger. Ouch, he said, and carried on a sympathetic conversation. 

My finger was dislocated and fractured in three places (those with a nervous disposition should look away now).

The NHS rocks. After an hour wait, I got a very competent and friendly doctor (Kate MacEwan, like the lager she said although she is a Mac and not a Mc).After diagnosis and  X-rays, the Filipino med assistant cut off my wedding ring. 20 seconds of nitrous oxide, and Kate pulled the finger back into place. The whole process took about four hours. Now I have to go next Tuesday to a specialist to see if they need to put pins in.

The point is not the rich vein of bad luck I seem to have tapped into, but the reminder that the body is a very complex and fragile instrument, and that despite whatever happens, you will figure out a way to cope, and there are a hell of a lot of other people worse off who should be remembered at Easter. But in this faux spring as the water drips down on what should be a nice Easter Saturday, this will be an Easter which I will remember. And do take care riding on those new trains. Those straps can be lethal (think of a hangman's noose which closes around you).

Thursday, 19 November 2015