Notebook

The joy of eating birdseed

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

Rather like unpacking after a holiday, when you take unworn clothes from the case still neatly folded because the occasion to wear them didn’t arise, unshown film sequences from my travel programmes are carefully edited and stored. The cancellation of this year’s long trip along the Spice Route made us look at these stories again; with not much prompting we have made three whole programmes from them. In the few years since we made these series the world has changed. The champion wrestler in Mongolia, the softly spoken Mr Battulga, for example, has become president of that country. He told me of his plan to build an eco-city on the plains, the streets radiating from the focal point of a colossal figure of the Buddha as a young man. We drove to the remote site: cranes and diggers were at work, and sections of the statue lay on the grass, gleaming gold under the cobalt sky. One holy hand lay apart, each finger three times bigger than my whole body. Battulga’s utopian dream may not have been realised yet, but the thought of solar-powered factories and windmills was attractive in every way. In Ulan Bator, Battulga’s other huge monument, the immense equestrian statue of Genghis Khan, 40 metres high, stares across to the east where he was born near Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, with approximately the same amount of water as all of America’s Great Lakes combined. Everything is on a different scale in Mongolia.

Sunflower seed hearts are sold in our local supermarket in two different aisles. One has small packets for human consumption; in the other they are marketed as birdseed and among the pet food. I buy the latter, as they are exactly the same, only much cheaper. Spread the seed hearts on a baking tray, sprinkle some soy sauce over them, rummaging them about so they are all covered, and put into a slow oven for about 30 minutes. They should come out crispy and brown: excellent for scattering on salads or soups, or served along with crisps beside a chilled martini, preferably a vesper as described by James Bond in Casino Royale. Nowadays bartenders tend to question the proportions set out by Ian Fleming, but here at home in Stockwell we play by his rules: three measures of gin, one of vodka and a half of Kina Lillet, shaken with ice, not stirred.


For five nights in late July, Horse Guards Parade was occupied by film cameras, regimental bands, a choir, an orchestra, veterans and performers. We gathered together in the early evening; the shooting went on well into the night. The commemoration of Victory over Japan Day, VJ Day, will be shown on BBC One on 15 August, 75 years to the day since the second world war was finally over. Projected on to the buildings surrounding that vast quadrangle were photographs and film clips of veterans, jungles, aircraft, Vera Lynn, spangled stars slowly dropping down the windows and archways. We moved silently in the dark, the huge camera jibs rearing over the proceedings, flying forward to grab a close-up, tracking sideways to show the massed musicians. Quiet groups stood round screens which showed all the shots. The sound was slightly delayed to the ear over the colossal expanse of gravelled courtyard, although microphones will have us all synchronised. My father was a Chindit, so the memories were particularly poignant. The Forgotten were being recalled here in the darkness, small pools of light glowing and dying as a sequence came to an end, a tiny smattering of applause as a song came to an end. The distances between us made it all seem dreamlike; London was far away outside these recollections of the war in the Far East. The lights in the upper windows of 10 Downing Street shone on through the night. There is a new baby there, and lovely life goes on. We packed up in the early hours, and now the only evidence of our brief encounter remains in the film we made, and in the enduring memories of an army once forgotten, now remembered for all time.

During lockdown I found that I had a good supply of a paint called Green Smoke. I painted a chest of drawers, two tables and a chair and there was still some left. For ages I had thought that front doors in London were supposed to be black, so ours had been very dark green for nearly 30 years. Now it too is painted in Green Smoke, but not until I’d checked out the surrounding houses within about half a mile. Some are mauve, red, purple or grey, and one or two a fairly similar hue to my new go-to colour, so I felt safe in making the change as we live in a conservation area. Now it looks wonderful, with the brass gleaming on the door. It’s like having a haircut or, for a heavily bearded man, a shave: the same underneath but quite different.

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, labuntur anni! Blimey, Postumus, doesn’t time fly! Nothing has changed much since Horace wrote those words.

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