Wednesday, 16 September 2009

"I simply fell in love with that glorious food"

I hadn't heard of Julia Child before I visited the US last month. Now, after a series of Julia-related incidences and coincidences, I feel I know this remarkable woman well.

First, I saw Julie & Julia. Next, while visiting the Smithsonian in Washington with my friend Ellen (we spent most of the time in the shop), I stumbled on Child's kitchen, which she donated to the museum in 2001. Then I found myself on Olive Avenue, a street in Georgetown, DC, lined with cute clapboard house where – I later discovered – Child used to live.

But best of all, I read her memoir, My Life In France, and discovered a spirited, curious, no-nonsense, sexual, determined woman: extremely tall, extremely loud and very, very funny.

Child was America's more fabulous answer to Elizabeth David. She bought French cooking to Americans – then just discovering the delights of meals-on-a-plate – in the form of her best-selling 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She went on to host, exuberantly, several series of cookery programmes. She died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday.

Her husband, Paul Child, was posted to France in 1948, and Julia fell instantly in love with the country, its people and, most of all, its food. She found everything "terribly exciting" in a Joyce Grenfell, hockey-sticks sort of way, and was unfazed and amused by most things life threw at her.

She started lessons at Cordon Bleu – and found her calling. She spent hours at home, experimenting. On mastering mayonnaise she wrote: "I thought it was utterly fascinating. By the end of my research, I believe, I had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history. I made so much mayonnaise that Paul and I could hardly bear to eat it anymore, and I took to dumping my test batches down the toilet." She sent her tried-and-tested recipe to friends in the US. "All I received in response was a yawning silence. Hm! I was miffed, but not deterred. Onward I plunged," she wrote.

Above all, I loved Julia and Paul's relationship. They had enormous fun together. Everything and everyone had a nickname: their apartment on 81 Rue de l'Universite in Paris was christened 'Roo de Loo'. Their Buick station wagon was 'The Blue Flash' – mutating into a verb ("We Flashed into Rouen..."). They posed for silly photos on Valentine's Day (see below, in 1956). They were deeply in love, an apparent meeting of souls.

They met while working for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, during the Second World War, first in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), then China. He was 42, cultured, a "natty dresser" and dated lots of women. She was 32, inexperienced but game. They discovered a shared love of trying exotic food. "I was lucky to marry Paul," she wrote. "I hated being without my husband. Paul and I liked to travel at the same slow pace. He always knew so much about things, discovered hidden wonders, noticed ancient walls or indigenous smells, and I missed his warm presence. Once upon a time I had been content as a single woman, but now I couldn't stand it!"

It has been written that meeting Paul was the point in her life when Julia was found. "I was a late bloomer who was still growing up. I didn't get started on life until I was about thirty-two, which was good because I was old enough to appreciate it. I had it all ahead of me."

Photograph (top) by Arnold Newman, 1970.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Blood On The Tracks

A freshly retired crime correspondent might be happy to hang up his mac and never darken the Old Bailey again. Not Duncan Campbell. “I get terrible withdrawals,” he says when he reads about cases such as the recent £40m jewellery robbery in Mayfair. “It was exciting, fascinating, another world. There was never a dull moment.”

He has an expert's eye: the Mayfair robbers, for example, enlisted a make-up artist from a salon in Covent Garden to alter their appearances. “That was a mistake,” he says, knowingly. “The inside man is always the weak link. They’re the ones that crack”.

But he also has a writer’s feel for crime’s black, often comical, turn of events. “There was the 1991 tale of the Suffolk barrister’s wife and her flying instructor lover who plotted to kill her husband by luring him naked into the living room and drowning him in the duck pond in a fake lawnmower accident. Whatever happened to them?”

Campbell, a law graduate, covered some of Britain’s biggest cases: James Bulger, Stephen Lawrence, Rosemary West. But he doesn’t fit the profile of a hard-bitten hack: he’s a self-confessed hippy, former commune-dweller, world traveller and culture fan – when we meet, he’s just back from a week at the Edinburgh Festival.

In this latter respect he’s no different, he says, from many criminals. “The crowd I got to know best were bright armed robbers who’d got degrees in prison. On the outside they were all ‘fucking this, fucking that’. But they were extremely well-read. One told me he was reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’. When I mentioned this to another robber, he sucked his teeth: ‘It’s not her best.’

“The police were the same, listening to Bob Dylan, quoting Harold Pinter. You couldn’t put them in a novel, they’d be too florid. It was a great lesson in never to assume anything about anybody.”

Campbell’s first big case was the Torso Murder in 1977, which he covered for Time Out: back then it had a radical news section. The wrong people were convicted – Bob Maynard and Reg Dudley, victims of a witness who later admitted to Campbell he’d made up his evidence. They were eventually cleared but only after 20 years in jail. It was Campbell’s first proper brush with wrongful imprisonment, a cause he has a championed ever since.

He joined the Guardian in 1987, aged 42, after a couple of tries. His most memorable trial was Rose West – convicted in 1995 of 10 charges of murder of young women and girls. “What struck me most was how all that horror had taken place in such a small space,” he says of Cromwell Street. Reporting on the trial was like covering the end of a more innocent time, he says, and it marked a sea change in how seriously crimes against women were taken.

He stood in the dock himself in 1997, when the police sued the Guardian for libel over an article Campbell had written about police corruption. “I didn’t sleep the night before,” he says. Against the odds, the paper won. “We had a smart jury. But it made me more cautious about everything I wrote after that.” Operation Jackpot subsequently became one of the biggest inquiries into police corruption.

Seeking a change, Campbell headed to Los Angeles as the paper’s correspondent. “Someone once said LA is a a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit. I agree – it has many layers, but you have to unpeel them slowly.” The job took him far afield: Colombia, Chile, Mexico, even Sydney.

Unlike many young thrusters, Campbell was 26 – almost certainly a ripe age in 1971 – when he realised he wanted to be a journalist. So he took himself, his long hair and his bell-bottoms off to India in search of adventure and stuff to write about.

He kept a journal from that long trip, which also took him east to Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. “I’m glad I did: you think you’ll remember things, but you don’t.” He discovered it when he came to write his debut novel, 2008’s thriller The Paradise Trail, set in a traveller’s hostel in Calcutta in 1971. It’s full of delicious period details: the books (Siddhartha), the music (Velvet Underground) and the late-night discussions over a smoke (how to change the world and what Bob Dylan lyrics really mean). “I loved writing it.”

His second novel, If It Bleeds, is a thriller about a British crime correspondent on a national newspaper (the title refers to the news editor’s axiom ‘If it bleeds, it leads’). “It’s a strange world, writing fiction. You end up giving away a bit of yourself,” he says.

“You were a bit of a hippy back then,” said Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger at Campbell’s leaving party a few months ago. “Still am,” said Campbell proudly. Hippy ideals, crime writing and campaigning against injustice, it seems, do go hand in hand after all.

If It Bleeds and The Paradise Trail are published by Headline.

Photograph: Beth Evans (

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Pro Patria Mori

“It’s ok, I didn’t know him real well. He was on my Dad’s side, I think.” The middle-aged lady, a little moist-eyed, her husband and young son had found Barry A Bidwell on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. They’d been looking hard: it’s an extraordinary structure, a long, L-shaped walkway complete with 58,256 names of men who died or remain missing from that war.

I had memorial fatigue by the time I made a right by the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, after already visiting the World War II memorial, Washington Monument, Ulysses S Grant memorial, White House and US Capitol. I also had Memorial Back – it’s a bit like Tennis Elbow but lower down.

But with the Vietnam memorial, that vanished. It was unexpectedly moving. A young boy sat with his father looking up at it (pictured, above). “Some of these guys volunteered,” said the father in a southern baritone. “But a lot of them were drafted. Do you know what that means?" His son shook his head. "They took the ones who weren’t doing real well in school and made them sign up.” I think there was another lesson going on there, too.

The ranks of names – all but Barry A Bidwell anonymous and without any human context – reminded me of recent front pages back home of those killed in Afghanistan. How big will those memorials be?

As I left, another young boy asked his father, “Dad, was Vietnam the Second World War?” “No,” he replied wearily. “The Second World War was different. Vietnam was, well it was Vietnam.”