The mystery which wasn’t

Agatha Christie: The Biography is a mildly overblown account of a life which was slightly less interesting than the author wanted it to be. It reads more like a genteel domestic saga than a penetrating piece of investigative biography, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I became increasingly irritated, though, with the amount of what I suppose could be called poetic license but which I might instead call “making things up”. At one point we are told that Agatha was “far more beautiful than is apparent from photographs”, and given that the author isn’t much older than me, I found myself thinking but how do you know?

Good book, bad title

On Beauty was more fun than I expected it to be, on my second attempt at reading it. The cover blurb describes it as a “comic novel”, which I don’t think does it any favours at all, because whilst it is beautifully observed* and deftly plotted, one thing it isn’t is all that funny. But it made me want to see what she does next, which is a better review than it sounds.


*Thanks to my days in a tiny corner of a big newspaper, I cannot type the word “observed” without giving it an extra “r” – “observerd”. Likewise, I always initially add an involuntary “ian” to the end of the word “guard”. I just did both things while I was typing this.

…and then the hamster died

The Christmas Letters: The Ultimate Collection of Round Robins is Simon Hoggart’s collection of edited highlights from the round robin letters his readers have sent him over the years. The awful people are, of course, the funniest, but there are some gems from people whose mailing list I’d be genuinely pleased to be on. I shan’t spoil it by reproducing my favourite (and very short) extract here, partly because it would probably be illegal.


I’ve changed my mind about having a “Books” page and am going to make it a separate category with individual entries, which means I’m about to re-post everything I’ve already said about the books I’ve read so far this year. Sorry about that.

A creature of habit

There’s another sandwich shop just opposite the one with the raw onions. This is an altogether smarter affair, with chicly-attired eastern European women serving the food in a humblingly brisk and competent manner.


But I have gotten myself into a…situation, and I’m not sure how – or whether it’s even possible, without causing offence – to extricate myself from it. The problem, you see, is that they do really good cheese and tomato panini, so that’s what I always order, and now as soon as they see me the staff start preparing a cheese and tomato panini (panino?) for me, before I even get to the counter. Which means that whatever I go in wanting, what I come out with is a cheese and tomato panini, because once they’ve started making it I can hardly ask for something different, can I?


They have lots of other nice-looking food, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get the chance to try it. I suppose I could order a panini and whatever it is I actually want, but that seems unnecessarily extravagant. So I guess I’ll just go on having the panini.

And a raw onion on the side, please

Remember when kebab shops used to display plastic vegetables in their glass-fronted heaters, to make up for the fact that they didn’t sell any fresh food? Maybe they still do it; it’s some time since I’ve visited one (and I’ve still never had a kebab – my kebab shop adventures all took place during my decade of vegetarianism, so I used to make do with chips in pitta bread, which I still crave from time to time).


But a variation on that theme seems to have emerged in sandwich shops, where increasingly I see whole fresh raw vegetables plonked between the trays of sandwich fillings. I hadn’t given this trend much thought until this morning, when I caught the sandwich man next door by surprise as he was carefully arranging green peppers, red onions and tomatoes in a fetching tricolore pattern around the various bowls of tuna mayonnaise (I expect there were more fillings on offer than just tuna mayonnaise, but they all looked like tuna mayonnaise). He was clearly giving it some thought, and it made me wonder what, exactly, he thought he was doing. I wonder if they keep a separate collection of vegetables aside to use purely as decoration? And, you know…why?


My office is on the thirteenth floor, and has picture windows all the way around, so that – with the exception of a small part of the northwest corner which is blocked off by a similarly-sized building next door – we have a 360º view of London. And what we don’t have is a clock, so whenever I’m not at my PC and want to know the time, I have to look down Victoria Street to Big Ben (or St. Stephen’s clock, or whatever it’s really called). Which is great: using Big Ben as your office clock is like keeping your jewellery in the Tower of London, or getting your groceries from Harrods.


All of which reminds me that when I lived on Tooley Street we used to refer to the mini-supermarket on Shad Thames as “Harrods”, because its wares were similarly ambitiously priced. In fact, I’m fairly sure you could buy the constituents for a meal more cheaply at the real Harrods than you could have done at this place, whose name I have conveniently forgotten. Still, I’d undergo worse hardship than that to live on Shad Thames.

Small pleasures

There’s a man whose job it is to stand outside my building holding a placard that directs passers-by to a tanning shop down a side street. Generally, and especially on slightly miserable days like today, he does this with a fixed expression of gloom on his face, as well he might. But once or twice a day, he lays his placard down flat on a wall and retreats to a sheltered spot about five yards away from his pitch, to stand for a few minutes without holding up a placard, out of the wind and rain. And when he does this, the expression on his face is one of sheer delight. I admire his ability to find a reason to be cheerful in the least promising of circumstances.