In praise of soup

Yesterday evening I think I surpassed my personal best – four different soups within twenty-four hours. I have very good teeth, so this is a pity (in my forties and no fillings, Iranian genetics apparently). I’ll be in my care home, begging for soup, and being given other nasty crunchy things like Kiev and fish fingers, when I all want is my slops. Actually I like Scotch eggs as well, so the children have been primed to smuggle them in. I’ll be OK. 

So yesterday evening was Tom Green’s excellent squash soup (from the allotment, last one for a year), with home-grown garlic, sausages and a dash of cream. For lunch, at the Royal Society of the Arts (thanks to two very lovely academics, with whom I was discussing, rather pertinently, a food project), I had a minestrone, which was a trifle too sharp on the tomato, but otherwise very nice indeed. Earlier that day I’d pre-cooked a veg soup (nothing special, I had to use up what was in the fridge), and then skimmed off a clear soup for my fussy beloved daughter before whizzing the rest up with the handheld, so obviously I had to have a quick taste. And then, the night before, I’d cooked down the end of a chicken with sweetcorn, melted down the quivering jelly and then made the most delicious soup, which we gobbled up with homemade bread. 

I guess I wouldn’t be in such a soupy mood if it wasn’t for two things; a nasty cough and a rubbish spring. So soup is my compensation and my comfort blanket. I can eat it and all my self-pity magically disappears. 

Other people, in these dark times, grow beards, it appears. I eat soup. 




The state of care

Over the last few months, I’ve worked with the Centre for the Modern Family, a relatively new but influential think-tank, and its expert panel, authoring a report on the state of care in the UK. It was an interesting but very disturbing report to write. It was very clear that those supporting disabled people, who were already experiencing some cuts to benefits, were struggling to make ends meet. The same was true of those caring for older people. 

What was also sobering was that both groups – as well as sandwich carers – felt forgotten by society at large. They felt largely failed by Government (perhaps a little less so by local Government). And they felt that the unspoken contract that we as a nation signed, post-war, to support our vulnerable citizens, at times of need (and we can all be vulnerable at times) was being whittled away in this time of recession. 

Read the report, therefore, and weep, for the shades of Bevan, Beveridge and Atlee, who in their own ways created the modern welfare state. As our nation ages, and as our economy worsens, the contract they undertook – to support those in need – seems to be under question, as never before. 

You can read the report here:



Everest, Sherpas, Chris Bonington and Spangles wrappers

In 1975 my dad’s brother, Andrew Quarmby, then an aid worker in Nepal, invited us to join him on a trip to the Himalayas. My mum and dad trained us hard, despite the lamentable lack of hills in Norfolk; the one small slope near our home became our ‘Everest’ and we walked up and down it twenty or thirty times during our fitness sessions to build stamina, rewarded with chocolate chip cookies if we didn’t moan. We saved furiously for the trip; it was the trek of the lifetime. I was only eight and my brothers were ten, eleven and twelve. At the beginning of the summer holidays we flew in Kathmandu and met Uncle Andrew and family  and their great friends, Sherpas Nema and Pemba, who organised our trip for us. 

Before long we were trekking twenty miles a day, in monsoon season. Leeches attacked us; our Sherpa companions would light cigarettes and touch the tip to the fat, blood-bloated leech, which would drop off. I and my brothers and cousin would take great delight in stamping on the leeches until they burst and the blood spattered everywhere! My mother was horrified at our blood-thirstiness; she let the leeches feed on her and just drop off when they were done; I think she may have been a Buddhist in another life.

The aim was for Uncle Andrew and my dad, both great walkers, to reach base camp. Every day we ate watery porridge, endless packets of Beanfeast which we had brought with us and sometimes the Sherpas would kill a scrawny chicken along the way. (I shall never forget the sight of a headless chicken, still running around in the dusty road, after its head had been sliced off with a sharp knife.)

We learned to respect the Buddhist gompas we visited on the way, passing them on their left, as ritual dictated, and got used to seeing prayer flags flutter in the air. Sometimes the Sherpas, who carried much of our baggage, would carry me and my younger cousin, Sarah, across fast-flowing rivers. They were kindly to us; taught us how to play games with stones and how to count up to 14 in Nepalese. I still can; I learned, to my surprise, when I was interviewing some Romani families up at Appleby Horse fair last year, that Romani numerals are almost exactly the same in pronunciation. 

We were walking in the trail of Chris Bonington, the great British climber who was attempting to scale the south-west face of Everest that same year. His team were, of course, far better equipped than our family one. They had cheese, unlike us (my starving middle brother would hang around their camp sometimes until someone would take pity and feed him) – and Spangles. The wrappers ended up on the trail. We would follow on, in his wake, and my mouth would water, as I remembered the fizzy taste of Spangles, and how much I loved them, as I saw the wrappers stretching out in front of us. But the wrappers were always empty.

His team were better paid too and had lighter loads too. One day our Sherpa team (to the great embarrassment of Nema and Pemba) went on strike and demanded the same wages as the Bonington team. Perhaps they fancied the Spangles as well; I couldn’t blame them!

Eventually it was resolved and we made it to the beautiful villages not far from base camp, Kunde and Kumjung. For the children and mothers, that was the end of our trip. I and cousin Sarah made friends with the kids at the local hospital, and we collected treasures we found lying around – old bits of medical film, bandages, old scraps of anything we could play with. We played for hours in the thin, clean mountain air. Only one thing bothered me – having to drink Nepalese tea, flavoured with ghee. I never got used to it, legendary as it is for its health-giving qualities.

My father and Andrew trekked on with a few Sherpa companions. They got within sight of base camp, but then Andrew felt his recurrent malaria coming back. With no access to drugs in such an isolated place and at that high altitude, they had to turn back. Neither of them ever made it back to Everest. Years later Andrew, by then campaigning to raise awareness of Aids in southern Africa and of the need for land redistribution, died in a suspicious car accident in Namibia. 

We returned to Kathmandu and took a tearful farewell from our friends, our Sherpa guides and friends. Hearing about the altercation at Everest reminded me of our own time in the shadow of the great mountain, in happier times when few Westerners were privileged to visit the Himalayas. Perhaps, in these days of so many organised expeditions, with so much money to be made on both sides, something real in the human relationship between the local people and the Westerners who come to visit has been lost.