If you've had enough of Deliciously Ella, Helmsley and Helmsley and even Jamie Oliver, this is the blog for you! Maverick Priest, Stand-Up Comedian and Messy Cook Maggy Whitehouse has had enough of fake food pictures. This is real cooking — down and dirty and scrumptiously yummy. Maggy is also the author of the bestselling comedy novel 'For the Love of Dog' and 16 books on metaphysics and the Bible.
Sleeping with Three Strange Men
As the train left Beijing station on its overnight journey to Changchun, I felt very alone and lost. It was
The kitchen on a Chinese train.
a big step to be
going out into this strange world alone apart from Chen, my interpreter. The other two,
belonging to the Railway Publishing House, were remaining in Beijing.
‘You’ll be fine,’ PBW had said that morning
as we hugged goodbye. ‘Just beware the carriage attendants and, whatever you
do, don’t get drunk.’ I wasn’t in the habit of getting drunk so I was quite
affronted by this but then I’d never had a glass of Mau Tai before.
Each carriage had its own female attendant
guarding the steps onto the train and the one for our section smiled at me as I
tried a polite ‘Ni Hao’ in greeting before boarding. I felt reassured and
laughed off PBW’s warning until five minutes later she came into our carriage
to check Chen’s and my tickets and roared at me for putting my suitcase on the
wrong bed. ‘You put your case on that bed, you pay for that bed,’ she said. I
got the message.
Chen and I were travelling soft class
lying, which consisted of four white covered bunks per compartment with washbasins
and loos at each end of the carriage. As the train started off, we sat on one
lower bunk with two complete strangers on the other, both burly Chinese men who
did not know whether to stare at me or not. Manners obviously forbade them to
ask Chen about me and there was certainly nothing I could tell them myself
Normally, in those days, white people ate
alone in the dining room of a train, either before or after the Chinese, just
as in the hotels. However, Chen persuaded them to change the custom, explaining
that there was only one of me and that I was relatively harmless. I was quite
an attraction, a bit like a Panda bear in the UK so after some hesitation, a
couple of men came and sat down with us. Chen was happy to talk with them while
I amused myself trying the differing dishes on offer and the sweet wines of
China together with the ubiquitous tea. We had fatty pork soup with cabbage,
bean curd with sesame seeds, pak choi and chicken’s feet. The men sucked on
those with relish but I declined politely and finished up my rice.
‘You must be careful in Changchun,’ said
Chen. ‘To finish your rice means that you have not been well fed. It is very
rude. As a guest you should hardly eat any.’
Chastened, I considered the very real
possibility that these two weeks might turn out to be a very effective diet.
After supper there was little to do by
the dim lights in the cabin but talk or read or go to bed — but of course if
you are sharing a compartment you can only go to bed by common consensus. I
wanted to read but Chen wanted to ask questions. By the time the lights went out
— and they did go out at 10pm and you had no option of turning them back on — I
was exhausted and feeling like a very poor representative of my country. That
was a state which was to last for the whole of the rest of the trip.
The problem was two-fold: firstly Chen’s
total lack of anything approaching a sense of humour and secondly, his profound
intelligence and diligence. He was determined that, by the time I returned to the
UK, I should be a credit to him and that he should be a credit to me. I should
know Chinese history, art and politics to degree level and, as a light
alternative to this barrage of information, he would interrogate me night and
day in what proved to be a rather vain attempt to improve his knowledge of
British art, politics and history.
To start with, we discussed the history
of England with particular reference to the Hundred Years War, the Industrial
Revolution, the Jacobites, William and Mary and both world wars. For the first
time in my life I wished that I had not opted for Art ‘0’ level rather than
History and my lack of knowledge was sadly felt. My interest in the Tudors did
raise Chen’s hopes about my value as a source of information but that led to an
hour and a half on Protestantism, Catholicism, Luther, Calvin, the Pilgrim
Fathers, the Holocaust and the Huguenots during which I was, frankly, out of my
It did however allow me to turn
the subject to a spirited discussion on the existence of God where I, amateur
though I was, almost managed to hold my own. God wasn’t officially allowed in
China at that time and Chen was appalled that I, a modern woman, believed in such an anachronism. He was
very put out by my assertion that the Chinese people’s lack of belief did not
have any effect on God’s existence per se and certainly did not hinder God’s
belief in Himself
Surely, he said, if God did exist, the
very fact that so many people knew that He didn’t would be enough to make him
doubt Himself. And anyway, he could not exist in China because He was not
At which point I felt a distinct desire
for a gin and tonic.
Apart from debating Life, the Universe
and Everything, it was quite tricky getting used to going to bed in a Chinese
railway carriage with three quite unknown men. All of them slept in their
shirts and underwear and it took me ten whole minutes to explain to Chen that I
needed a few moments’ privacy to change into a nightgown. Once he had the idea,
he chivvied the other men out as though he had always known of this quaint
Western custom and I realised for the first time how very proud and how very
terrified he was to have a foreign woman in his care. Half of his nagging and
fussing was because I was such a completely unknown quantity with my
inexplicable laughter and my long brown curly hair; my pretty frocks and my way
of dancing and making jokes. He did not know that it was just me; he thought it
was all Western Women and it was so important to him to tell other people that
he had acquired this strange and esoteric knowledge of the habits of the female
For all that, I did sleep well and, before I dropped off, I was
amazed and relieved that I felt comforted and happy with the thrum, thrum, thrum, cer-lick, thrum, thrum, thrum, cer-lick of the wheels over the tracks
and content to be lying in this strange, foreign bed on a strange foreign train
with strange foreign people.
It took me some time to realise why I was so content until I
realised that, as a baby, I had been lulled into slumber, more often than not,
by tape recordings of steam engines and of the clunkety-clunk of bogies going
over the gaps in rails echoing up through the floorboards from PBW’s study
below. But it was more than that. Communication challenges apart, I was on the
other side of the world, having a real experience of life where there was no
opportunity to take anything for granted. It was scary but it was great. And
the reason why it was great was because there
was actually something to be scared about.
I’ve spent most of my life in a kind of low-grade fear. I
suspect most of us do. Certainly, working as a journalist and radio presenter
meant that I raced around on deadlines, competing with other journalists. That
didn’t help but I think I was attracted to that nerve-wracking kind of world
because I was nervous anyway. In some strange way, I felt better as long as
there was a real reason behind my fear, even if that reason was dealing with
Margaret Thatcher or a fierce news editor. Once, when I worked as a newsreader
at Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton, I continued reading the news after the fire
alarm went off because I was more afraid of the news editor than I was of
burning to death.
It’s also true that sometimes it’s hard to tell the
difference between fear and excitement. Perhaps the line is very thin indeed.
I’ve often found it useful to ask myself which of the two I was feeling at
critical times and often the answer has often surprised me. Sometimes I’ve been
resisting something which could actually be very uplifting or releasing or just
plain different by thinking I was registering fear instead of excitement.
However, it was not exactly exciting to be
woken at 5.30 am by the blaring of the train radio and tannoy system coming on
loudly in my ear. There was no ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch and the suddenness and the
volume of the alarm were an unwelcome shock. The train radio had been on the
previous evening but, then, it had just seemed part of the overall strangeness
and it had stopped for the night as soon as the lights went out.
At breakfast the Chinese ate a mixture of
meats and pickles with tea but the train staff, aware that they had a Female
Foreign Devil aboard made a special effort for me. Hot, sweetened powdered milk
accompanied two slices of cornbread fried in beaten egg, sandwiched with pickle
and sugar and topped with two fried eggs.
To my shame, I couldn’t eat it. As the China years went by, I learnt to greet such a feast of
carbohydrates with gratitude for it might be all I could eat that day. This
time I picked at it and, when Chen had gone to the kitchen to ask for some more
tea for me, I wrapped it in tissues and hid it in my bag.
Windows didn’t open on Chinese trains,
but the lavatories opened straight onto the track so I was able to dispose of
the evidence and sneak a Mars Bar from the stock of pemmican that the all-wise Dad
had insisted that I packed in my suitcase for times just such as this. Nutritious, it was not. Comforting it was.
When I lived in Birmingham, I used to go to
the German Christmas Market in Victoria Square; it was an interesting sparkle
of an experience but there really never was much that I wanted to buy—or eat,
for that matter. So when we moved here, to Devon, and I discovered
that Exeter had a Christmas Market in the Cathedral Square, I wasn’t all that
keen...but I do like to get Christmas cards from the cathedral and you don’t
have much of an option if you want to visit St. Peter’s in November or
December; you can’t get there without encountering the market. And what a market it is! So far it’s my
favourite. Ever. Okay, I’ve only been to about six and I’m going to Italy next
week so I’ll report back on the Florence and Lucca Christmas Markets which may
be stunningly incredible but, trust me, if I like a Christmas Market, then it’s
a good one. I’m a total Christmas shopping cynic. How much of a cynic? So much so that I
don’t agree with the concept of chocolate Advent calendars. Advent is about
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I'm asked quite often how to cleanse spaces, whether they are at home or the office. So here is my Church's recipe for Holy Water and the blessing we use for spaces. It works — there are many other ways of blessing a space also so you should choose the one that resonates for you. If the Christian symbology doesn't work, then it's not for you and that's fine...The wording says 'priest' but you are the priest if you are saying the prayers. The Blessing of Holy WaterFill a jug with water and place about a tablespoon of salt in a small bowl.Where there is a + make the sign of the cross with your hand over the salt or the water.Over the salt say the following:I cleanse you, creature of salt, by the living God, by the holy É God, by the omnipotent É God, that you may be purified from all evil influences, in the name of the most Holy One, who is lord of angels and humanity, and who fills all the worlds with his majesty and glory. Amen.I pray to you, O God, in your …