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Two notable things have happened to me so far this January, usually rather a sluggish time for me (of which more later). After months of urgings from my publishers, I joined Twitter – I’m still not sure how I feel about it – and we got burgled.
It was about 6am on a Sunday and the thief jemmied the lower sash out of the ground-floor front window frame. He (virtually all house breakers are hes) gathered up my son’s Christmas present, a Nintendo 3DS plus games, my husband’s new iPad, a computer, my purse, two iPhones (one of them mine) and a really good iPhone speaker. His exit through the stiff squeaky kitchen door woke my husband, who got to the bedroom window in time to see him, anonymous in a black beanie and anorak, emerging from our stiff squeaky front door, and scuttling down the road with our swag. Our neighbours have a Porsche, which they had parked in front of our house (our 12-year-old second-hand motor is so broken we can’t turn the radio off). The police, who arrived about 15 minutes later, reckoned he was looking for the keys. We froze for a good two hours in our dressing gowns, standing watch over the gaping window, not daring to touch anything, waiting for the SOCO (Scene of Crime Officer, I learn – should I know this as a first-time thriller writer? I have mitigating circumstances: my book is set in 1837) to look for forensic evidence. The SOCO was a woman, just like on Silent Witness. Then a letter arrived, dated the same day as the robbery, telling us there was “insufficient information to proceed”. After that it was all too predictable: oceans of weary-making phone calls, form-filling and retrieval of receipts. Appointments booked with the locksmith and the alarm company, and the joy, along with my lovely shiny new iPhone, of a lovely shiny new insurance premium.
The one thing that surprised me was how untraumatised I felt. I put this down to the fact that my husband saw our thief leave, so we knew exactly when and how it happened, and, roughly speaking, whodunnit. It would have been much creepier to come down the next morning and find the window open and stuff gone. It made the whole experience less existentially scary. Also he didn’t get my computer, which had three-quarters of my next book on it.
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I was cheered up by a wonderful culinary discovery. Last year I had to give up wheat and gluten (also, among other things, chocolate, milk, caffeine). It’s been rather traumatic: food is one of my chief pleasures, gluttony brought my husband and me together; my youngest son and I had spent evenings in front of The Great British Bake Off, talking large about our plans to make profiteroles some time in 2017. Of course gluten-free foods have vastly improved, or at least there are vastly more of them on supermarket shelves. There have been a small number of de-glutened gustatory highlights over the past year but I’ve also, in pursuit of a carbohydrate fix, bitten into a lot of grimly lacklustre, if not actively nasty, gluten-free foods: unbearably sweet and weirdly textured cakes and biscuits; sawdust-like breads; pork pie crusts like a bit of damp cardboard. Last week, however, the warm rolls provided for me at a post-post-Christmas treat lunch at our great neighbourhood restaurant, Trinity in Clapham, brought tears to my eyes. I asked the waitress to send my extravagant thanks to the chef. She smiled breezily. “They’re actually the only thing we don’t make ourselves.” And the name of these little pieces of crusty heaven? Sainsbury’s freefrom vacuum-packed ciabatta rolls. My nearest Sainsbury’s Local doesn’t have them, and now I’m having anti-Proustian moments: what if they don’t live up to my memory? What if six months of renunciation and second-rate freefrom foods have tragically blunted my palate?
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It’s the last few days of Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum, an exhibition of 70 exceptional works dating from AD700 until the end of the 19th century. We’re unlikely to see anything this good on Chinese art in London for decades, if ever, and the most startling works are the paintings from the Song dynasty (from 960 to 1279), extraordinary for their naturalism and sophistication when you consider what was being produced in Europe at the same time. I remember seeing another exhibition of medieval and early modern Chinese art in Hong Kong in 1997, just before the handover. What stood out there were the paintings of European and Middle Easterner merchants dating from the time of Marco Polo; the Chinese artists were fascinated by the foreigners’ noses: they were all enormous – hooked or beaky.
Not that we’ve actually seen this exhibition mind you – though we’ve been talking about it ever since it opened in October; we’ve even splashed out on the very beautiful catalogue. There’s a joke in our family. It runs, “Shall we go and see such and such?” The answer is, “Or shall we just talk about it and not do it?”
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What do we do in our house instead of visiting London’s cultural landmarks? We watch telly. Lots of it. If you’ve reading and writing all day what else can you do but slump happily before the 21st-century home’s true hearth? Also, it’s January, come on. My current forthcoming highlights? Royal Cousins at War, commissioned for the BBC’s first world war centenary season, on which I just happen to be series consultant. (Just to get in my own teeny anti-Govian strike: even George V – that famous leftwinger – called WW1 “that horrible and unnecessary war”). The Taste – I swore I wouldn’t invest in another TV cookery competition, but by last Wednesday I had pathetically succumbed to Nigella Lawson’s celestial motherliness, Anthony Bourdain’s macho competitiveness and Ludo Lefebvre’s magnificent French sulking. By a whisker, however, my most longed-for TV show is season four of Game of Thrones, which starts in April. In this I am far from original – the first trailer for the new series went out last Sunday; by Wednesday it had already had more than 10m YouTube hits – but I was an early adopter, honest. My love of it, however, is being sorely tried. I said at the beginning of this diary that I had somewhat uneasily joined Twitter the other week. My family have ragged me mercilessly about it. “You’re not very funny,” my son says, looking up from his phone. “You should be tweeting history puns.” “I don’t know any history puns,” I say. He offers me a chemistry joke instead (“A man has sodium thrown in his face. It’s assault.” A salt. Geddit?) I’m afraid I did tweet this. I don’t think anyone laughed. Well, maybe the chemists. Then, every three or four hours my husband asks, cackling, “How’s your slave army?” He means the 59 nice, kind people who have been so good as to follow me on Twitter. We have another saying in our family: “Repeat until funny”. I don’t think Daenerys Targaryen would be amused.
‘The Strangler Vine’ by MJ Carter is published by Fig Tree on January 30