Gooseberry and strawberry crumble

Just the other day I was complaining about how difficult it is to get hold of gooseberries in North London, and how much I love them, when a good friend of mine took my complaints to heart and gave me a punnet of gorgeous gooseberries as a present / to shut me up. Well she is now the patron saint of gooseberries in my house, and long and fruitful may her beatification be! This recipe is based on a timely Hugh Fearnley-Stanley-Wittingstall one from The Guardian, but I've made it into an oaty crumble, just because I love crumble almost as much as I love gooseberries.

  • 1 punnet (about 200g) of gooseberries
  • 1 punnet (about 200g) of strawberries
  • 75g of caster sugar
  • The zest of 1 lemon
  • 75g of plain flour (or you could use almond flour for extra sumptuousness - I will next time)
  • 75g of oats (I used rolled oats - I'm not sure if that's important)
  • 75g of unsalted butter
  • 75g of brown sugar
  • A handful of pecan nuts
  • Butter for greasing
  • Creme fraiche, to serve
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Cut the stalks off the gooseberries and strawberries, cut the strawberries into halves, and mix the fruit in a bowl with the lemon zest and caster sugar. Leave to rest while you get on with everything else (Hugh calls this 'mascerating').
  3. Use the extra butter to grease a pie dish that will fit all the fruit in it. Or use a non-stick dish instead.
  4. Cut the 75g of butter into cubes and put it into a bowl with the flour and oats. Rub it all together with your hands until you have sort of breadcrumby little lumpettes.
  5. Stir the brown sugar into the oaty mixture and you get crumble.
  6. Break the pecans into bits and stir those into the crumble too.
  7. Put the 'mascerated' fruit into the dish and spread the crumble on top.
  8. Bake for 30 minutes. You'll know it's done because it will smell like heaven and be starting to brown on top.
  9. Serve with the creme fraiche and thankful prayers to St. Helen of the Cross.
P.S. My crumble filling turned out to be fairly liquid, which (as a critic observed) was probably because Hugh's recipe was for an open flan, in which the extra liquid would probably evaporate. Also I used more strawberries than I should have. But the liquid in question tasted like some kind of Olympian ambrosia, so it wasn't altogether unwelcome.

“Some broken down ideals”: character and ideology in A Foreign Affair

For me, A Foreign Affair (1948) rises above a mere romantic comedy. Yes, the movie questions the emotional and cultural shortcomings of its characters, as any romcom should; but it also questions the use and usefulness of their ideologies. We see two women set up in opposition to each other, to contrast them as they battle over a man (so far, so Hollywood), but that contrast also explores their attitudes towards their femininity and how it relates to power and powerlessness.

Jean Arthur plays US Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, who comes from what I assume to be a fairly privileged background in a stable, comfortable society. She often refers to her close agricultural community and of course the libertarian values of the American political system. By contrast, Marlene Dietrich plays Erika Von Schluetow, a former Nazi sympathiser who has managed to do fairly well for herself among the ruins of Berlin; but her cultural infrastructure has been utterly destroyed by war. Where Phoebe has abundant food and clothes, friendly neighbours in Iowa and the authority of a stable political power to back her, Erika has a scavenging, mercenary black market, social relationships built on barter and deceit, and the political powerlessness of a defeated nation. At first glance, the dynamic is simple: Dietrich plays the baddie, the femme fatale with nasty values who will get her just deserts in the end, while Arthur plays the goodie (two-shoes) whose true American worthiness will win both the guy and the moral victory. And that is exactly what happens, in a way; but during the course of the movie the ideologies that these characters represent become muddled – what works in theory becomes confused in practice.

Our first view of Jean Arthur’s Phoebe Frost is a brilliantly succinct character summary, mostly wordless. Urged by her fellow passengers to look out of the plane window at the ruins of Berlin below, she meticulously puts away her pen and glasses first, in a series of special compartments and dedicated cases. She is unhurried and calm: for her, the importance of order and personal discipline prevail over the need to confront the human devastation visible with a simple glance to her right. Arthur immediately defines Congresswoman Frost as prim, correct and proper – but then undercuts this with a flash of sincere feeling. When she finally looks down at the ruins, she gasps “Golly!”. At this point I already believe that “golly” is the most appropriate expression this character’s vocabulary affords, which is consistent with the prissy business with her glasses. But Arthur injects the word with such a sense of shock that depths of soft, emotive warmth suddenly open up beneath the formal veneer.

This short scene establishes two sides of the character, but also the trajectory of her development. That “Golly!” resounds like an echo through the subsequent scenes devoted to rules, exactitude and moral vigour. It’s clear that the character is destined to rediscover the feeling behind the “Golly!” and develop that side of her personality. But first we see a third aspect of her, which is the missionary zeal, the determination to impose and enforce all-American values and morals onto the war-ravaged remaining citizens of Berlin. Arthur’s deft characterisation already implies that this woman’s reforming fervour will be undercut, but it isn’t so obvious that the values she represents will be undercut as well.

It is Dietrich’s character, Erika Von Schluetow, who shows up Phoebe’s limitations as a person, but also lays bare the inadequacies of the values she promotes. Dietrich creates her character in a very different way to Arthur. To start with, her visual impact is enormous – which is essential. Erika is and must be extraordinarily beautiful for the character to work – and of course Dietrich delivers. But Erika’s personality is revealed through a series of contrasting scenes. We see her at home, scrabbling around to get dressed and then fawning on her American lover, Captain John Pringle (played by John Lund). She gamely lets him mime strangling her and threaten to knock her teeth out, and the overall impression is of a needy, rather down-trodden woman who is desperate to wheedle gifts and favours with her physical attractions. Then later we see her singing in a nightclub, so in touch with the people working alongside her (the spotlight operator and piano player – fellow survivors of war) that she can interact with them wordlessly, using casual, intimate gestures. She commands and mesmerises the room, powerful in her glittering gown. It’s a very different person to the fawning woman we saw in the flat, and it becomes clear that this character plays different roles for different purposes in different situations – she can choose to be weak, and choose to be powerful.

But it’s a subtle and dangerous game to play. I can’t watch this movie without remembering a comparable role that Dietrich played nearly ten years later, in Witness for the Prosecution (1957). In that movie she appears as another nightclub singer in a similar bombed-out Berlin dive, but this time her glamour has no authority. Her trousers, so symbolic of Dietrich’s glamorous potency since their appearance in Morocco (1930), now frustrate the mob of sexually aggressive men so much that they rip the costume open to reveal her famous legs. This symbolic rape is much closer to the reality of what happened to many women in Berlin after the war than A Foreign Affair’s picture of Erika Von Schluetow commanding a crowd with sheer force of personality. The comparison reminds me that Erika’s power is fragile, and requires deft skill to maintain. In order to achieve it she has rejected more traditional cultural values: her songs “Black Market” and “Illusions” reveal that these have become material for barter, and therefore morally valueless. Hollywoodish romance (“such romantic illusions”), physical love (“chewing gum for kisses”) and even nobler ideologies (“ambitions, convictions, the works”) are all up for grabs, in exchange for the necessaries of life. Erika manages to defy her powerlessness by treating bankrupted ideologies as commodities, and therefore generating a detached, aloof glamour.

But some of those things that Erika is willing to barter or reject as “illusions” are the same things, perhaps, that Phoebe is desperate to preserve.

Now, the contrast between the women in terms of power ought to favour Phoebe. She always chooses to be upright, correct, and to draw on her political strength. But in fact, Erika seems to hold all the cards throughout the movie, because underneath, Phoebe feels inadequate and vulnerable. This comes out in the scene where they meet for the first time outside Erika’s ruined apartment. Phoebe confronts Erika, demanding answers, determined to position the German citizen within the American moral and legal framework that the congresswoman represents. In response, Dietrich’s Erika assumes a cool, nonchalant manner and never responds to the questions, focussing instead on Phoebe’s failings as a woman, criticising her makeup and fashion choices. Erika cannot defend herself on Phoebe’s terms, so she attacks on her own terms instead – and wins. She carries the victory in the scene because she’s more confident, more beautiful, and wittier. This reveals Erika’s values: urbanity, sophistication, beauty, fashion, a chic attitude and cutting wit – and these enable her to gain power when politically and morally she is cornered and destitute. Moreover, these are the very values that Phoebe lacks, and because she lacks them as a woman (Erika makes it about being a woman) she is undermined.

This undermining produces much of the comedy: the uptight congresswoman attempts to engage with the femme fatale on the latter’s terms, buying a glamorous dress on the black market, changing her hair and makeup. This in turn leads to a breakdown of her moral values – she ends up drinking and dancing in dingy clubs, breaking and entering to read classified files, and getting arrested. Of course, true to the design of all comedy, she is restored to her right self in the end (albeit softer and wiser), but along the way the application of the values that she holds dear are seriously questioned. When Phoebe and Erika are arrested together, we see another aspect (perhaps the true aspect) of Dietrich’s character, as they address each other woman to woman. Erika explains what she went through after the fall of Berlin, and also how she managed to survive. “What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in?” she asks, adding the world-weary refrain: “I kept going.” It becomes clear that the same lax morals and sexualised behaviour that Arthur’s character is so determined to rout in order to preserve the values of society, are exactly what Dietrich’s character uses to both survive and preserve her sense of self when society’s values completely break down.

At this point I can’t help comparing the circumstances the characters have experienced. When Erika was socialising with Hitler during the war, she was in a comparative situation of political influence to Congresswoman Frost, even if the politics involved were diametrically opposed. When the war ended, Erika rejected the values that could no longer sustain her, and focussed on those that would. But how would Phoebe have survived the Russians? Would her values (wholly good in themselves as they are) have helped her to keep going as well as Erika’s have? In such extreme circumstances, do glamour, sexual manipulation and sheer chic have equal or even more value than order, discipline and moral rectitude?

Rape and destitution can reduce a human personality to a brutalised victim, but in spite of this, Erika has managed to create herself as a woman – an illusion of desirability and therefore power. It is an illusion, but it has real utility, whereas the homely values that are supposed to be real and grounded are dismissed as the illusions instead. At the end of the movie, Erika is sentenced to carry out hard labour clearing bricks. It’s incongruous to think of Erika in that situation - it threatens to destroy her illusion, her individuality, in the same way that the appalling fallout after the war threatened to do the same. But at the last minute we see her using her power to try to escape her fate, by charming the soldiers sent to guard her. We never find out if she’s successful, but it’s depressing to me to think that she won’t be.