Tuesday, November 28, 2006

MY BLOG TRACKER THINGIE has 25 different flags on it. I know it's childish but I get so excited when I see a new country listed; I only expect my blog to be read by one man/woman and a dog, and in the main I suspect that is a pretty accurate analysis of my readership....but....dear blog reader from Peru, welcome! I'm so delighted to see you here, thank you for popping in.


I keep trying to plug the gaps in my reading experience, catching up with books that are so famous that it is assumed that absolutely everyone has read them - and yet some how you never have. One such book is Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, which was written exactly 50 years ago. Because I was too young to read it when it was first published, and because I grew up in central Africa and had no TV and little access to cinema, I have never seen the film nor the TV series which sprang from the book, so I thought it was just a salacious American best seller of little literary merit. Earlier this year I heard an extract read on Radio 4, and decided that the time had come that I should read it for myself. To my surprise it turned out to be a much better book than I had expected, and a very absorbing read.

Peyton Place is the name of a small (fictitious) New England town in the years just before the Second World War It is a town which looks like the quintessential American community, as wholesome as apple pie, a town like thousands of others all over the USA. Metalious strips away the veneers of respectability to expose the secrets and lies of the inhabitants of Peyton Place.
The story of teenager Allison McKenzie and her mother Constance provide the framework of
the book. Constance has built a life based on a lie; everyone, including her daughter, thinks she is a young widow bringing up her daughter on her own. In reality, Allison is illegitimate and Constance is terrified of the reaction of others if they knew the truth, she is obsessive about protecting her daughter from making the same mistake as she made, and her controlling behaviour is driving a wedge between them. Surrounding Constance and Allison are the other characters who live in the town, and the reader is drawn in to their lives and stories. There is Kenny, the town drunk who goes on a massive six week bender and nearly kills himself; Selena, a girl of Allison’s age but from the wrong side of the tracks, who has been sexually abused and raped by her stepfather – eventually resulting in her pregnancy and an illegal abortion; Rodney Harrison, the spoilt son of the richest man in town who dies when he crashes the sports car given to him by his doting father; the local doctor, Dr Swain who manages to force Selena’s stepfather to leave Peyton Place by threatening to reveal his behaviour to the community. All the various strands are woven together to give the reader a sense of small-town prurience, predjudice and hypocrisy.

When it was first published in 1956, the book became an instant best seller; it touched a nerve in the American reading public, and sold 60,000 copies in the first ten days following publication, eclipsing Gone with the Wind. Peyton Place became a defining book, apart from the follow up novel written by Metalious herself (Return to Peyton Place), various other “sequels” have been written by other people, there was a Hollywood movie, and then a long running TV series. The blockbuster TV series of recent years, Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City are very much descendents of Peyton Place. Sadly, after the book was published Grace Metalious and her family were reviled by her neighbours and fellow citizens in the New England town where they lived. The stress caused by their continual shunning of her turned her to drink, and she died aged 39 of cirrhosis of the liver.


Yesterday Tony Blair made a statement of regret about the practice of slavery, which Britain abolished 200 years ago. Some black pressure groups felt that he should have apologised on behalf of the British people for the fact that slavery had taken place at all. What a load of rubbish, this is gesture politics at its most cynical.

If we all start apologising to one another for wrongs done by our ancestors there will be no end to it. The only person who can genuinely apologise for something, is the person who did the wrong. The people who initiated, enabled, or profited from slavery are long dead, we are living in different times. I am not responsible for slavery, I loathe the idea of slavery - I certainly have nothing to apologise for, and I resent the idea that our Prime Minister should even consider apologising on my behalf and that of my fellow citizens.

There seems to be a deep-seated belief within some sectors of the black population here and in the USA that any current troubles they may have are as a result of slavery hundreds of years ago, and they want financial compensation to be paid to the descendents of slaves. A distorted myth has grown up, which bears no relation to the true facts about slavery. Slavery was a horrible business, and it is a sad fact that the British engaged in it, but apologising will do nothing for anyone, we can’t go back in time. History marches on.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years, and in virtually every culture of humankind. The Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Goths, Arabs, and Ottomans have all bought, sold and used slaves. Ancient Britons were taken as slaves by Romans, and owned slaves in their turn. Slavery existed in Africa long before the British or other western nations went to Africa, and it is still going on today, albeit illegally. Some in Africa are still engaged in selling men, women and children into other societies. In South East Asia women and children are kept as virtual slaves to the sex trade. Young girls in Afghanistan and other central Asian countries are sold by their fathers to be “wives” to old men, and they then live lives that are tantamount to slavery. Rather than apologising we should all be doing our best to ensure that a stop is put to slavery as practiced in the world today.



Serves 4

1 Butternut Squash
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil

200g Feta, drained and cubed

1 clove garlic, crushed
50g Pine Nuts, toasted

1 teaspoon dried Oregano
8 rashers of smoked back bacon
350g Farfalle or Penne Pasta

Pre-heat oven to 200° C, Gas Mark 6.

Cut the Butternut in half, scoop out and discard the seeds.

Peel the squash and then cut the flesh into bite-sized chunks and place in a roasting tin.
Drizzle with the olive oil, stir in the garlic and oregano and season with freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 20-25 mins, stirring occasionally, until the squash is golden and tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.

Pre-heat the grill to high, and cook the bacon for 4-5 mins until crisp, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling water until al dente in the usual way, drain well and keep warm in the pan with a lid on.

Add the bacon and feta to the roasted squash and return to the oven for 2-3 mins until the cheese is beginning to soften and melt. Remove from the oven and stir in the drained pasta.

Serve immediately seasoned with freshly ground pepper and the toasted pine nuts scattered over the top.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

WOW, RAIN AND STRONG WINDS, ITS NO WEATHER TO BE OUT IN...but I can't wait to be all cosy in bed while its a howling gale outside.

In Havoc in its third year the author Ronan Bennet has chosen an historical setting to address a range of moral issues. Set in England, in an un-named town and county, but I suspect it is somewhere like Yorkshire. The year is 1630, Charles I is ruling without Parliament and
sectarian discontent is building towards the Civil War. John Brigge,the central character, is a recusant, living in an increasingly fanatically protestant society. He is a landowning farmer who also holds the role of local coroner. A young itinerant woman is accused of infanticide, the locals are sure she is guilty, but his investigation of the case uncovers the growing tensions within the local community. Their leaders capitalise on the fear of crime, fear of immigrants and of those practicing other faiths. All are used by the powers-that-be as reason for ever more restrictive legislation, with harsh punishments for supposed transgressors. The rising paranoia has allowed old rights and entitlements to be leached away thereby placing more and more power in the hands of the governors. The leader of the governors holds the title of Master, and is a man who came as a young idealistic lawyer to challenge and remove the previous corrupt regime (supporters of the previous regime wear a blue ribbon in their hats!). As time has passed the Master has become more and more draconian in his attitudes until there is little difference between his governance and that of the regime he ousted, and anyone who even questions him on any decision is considered an enemy and in the wrong.
Set against this sombre canvas is the detail of Brigge's personal life, and his attempts, as a decent man, to hold true to his beliefs.
It is no easy task for an author who has chosen to write of a particular period in history to find the right style. Modern English would seem too lax but to write it in imagined historic speech can seem arch and I loathe it when a book is written in a style I call "forsoothly". Bennett has managed to find a spareness of language that fits the time perfectly. The book has echoes of Millar's play "The Crucible", with Brigge as John Proctor trying to find a path through the treacherous quicksands of fanaticsm. I think this is an outstanding novel, Bennett has written an extraordinary allegory for our times, and even the most politically disinterested reader cannot fail to grasp the illusions Bennett has drawn between those times and Britain today.


I wish some advertising guru could explain to me the point of putting all the slippery paper inserts into newspapers and magazines - don't they know there is a collective noun for this stuff it is 'Junk Mail' with the emphasis on Junk. Who reads it? do you? - no, I didn't think you did, you probably do what I do, chuck it straight into the recycling bin. Honestly, do these morons think we are all so devoid of excitement in our lives that we go "oh goody, another fascinating offer from Exwhyzed Life Insurance with a free digital alarm clock if we sign up" or "wow, fifty varieties of commonly available garden bedding plants on offer even though its mid-winter I better have some of those" Obviously the newspapers and magazines get money for allowing these insertions so they like having them, but I think the average reader is pissed off with all this crap having to be disposed of. Then of course there is all the junk mail that comes with our post - I shan't go into that, as some seriously experienced ranters have already torched that whole issue, suffice to say you can get that stopped . In this part of north London we are also plagued with letterbox leafleting from various local pizza places. Luridly coloured pizzas which cost less than the paper the leaflet is printed on are offered with a free bottle of some fizzy drink or other as an inducement. Every day we get one or two of these flyers through the door, it drives me mad. And then there are the leaflets from Saga....car insurance, holidays, household insurance you name it, offered to the "over fifties" (code for geriatrics). I may be une femme d'un certain age but I am not yet in my dotage, and resent all this - in the words of Catherine Tate "how very dare they!"

Tomorrow is what is known as Stir-Up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent in the Anglican church calendar.
The term comes from the opening words of the collect for the day as set out in the Book of Common Prayer 1549:
Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is customary for the preparations for Christmas to begin on Stir-Up Sunday, in particular the making of the Christmas puddings, which require that all the household should stir the mixture. However,because my family are all over the place, I prepared my puddings a fortnight ago when I knew they would all be coming home for Sunday lunch. I have made this recipe many times over the years since I was married, it is a recipe that has been handed down in my maternal family since 1838 when my Great-great-great Grandmother, Elisabeth Middleton worked as cook/housekeeper to the Duke of Northumberland. In 168 years,it has been made in India, in Canada, in Scotland, Zambia and South Africa, and now I make it in London. My daughter will be the seventh generation when she starts using the recipe in years to come. The one thing to remember about this recipe is that it makes 3 puddings - one to be used this year, and two to keep for following years. The pudding keeps brilliantly in a cool dark place.


Makes 3 puddings; (I have converted the quantities to metric.)

340g fresh white breadcrumbs
250g plain flour
500g of each of the following:
Currants/Raisins/Sultanas/ Citrus Peel/ Brown Sugar/Suet
Juice of two oranges
Rind of two lemons
90g ground almonds
15g chopped nuts
1 nutmeg, completely ground
1 teaspn ground cinnamon
½ teaspn ground ginger
½ teaspn ground allspice
2 good pinches salt
8 eggs
1 wineglass brandy
A little milk

Clean all the dried fruit. Place in a large bowl, pour the brandy over it and leave overnight to soak.

Next day, mix together in a new bowl – Flour/breadcrumbs/ground almonds/nuts/suet/ sugar/spices/ orange juice/ lemon rind.
Beat the eggs and add to the mixture. Mix the fruit into the flour mixture. Stir well – EVERYBODY MAKE A WISH !!
Place in well-buttered pudding bowls, cover with a double sheet of well-buttered greaseproof paper with a central pleat in it. Then cover this with a double layer of pleated aluminium foil. Tie down firmly.

Boil for 6 (six) hours, taking care that the water doesn’t boil dry.
When the puddings are cool, remove the foil and greasproof paper, replace them with a fresh double layer of greaseproof and a square of pudding cloth ( I use old pillowcases). Tie down firmly.
The puddings can now be stored to mature, they keep well for up to 2 years in a cool dry place.

On Christmas day boil or steam the pudding for 2 hours - once again, make sure the water does not boil dry -easily done in the excitement of Christmas day! Turn out onto a heated serving dish and pour flaming brandy over, top with caster sugar and a sprig of holly.

Serve with Brandy Butter.

Monday, November 20, 2006

DON'T COME TOO CLOSE, I'm absolutely streaming with cold and I wouldn't want you to get it. Honest to goodness, if they can put a man on the moon and invent the iPod shuffle you'd think some bright spark would have got the common cold under control by now.


How to waste an hour and a half looking something up.

Like many other people I love almanacs, encyclopaedias and other reference books of that ilk. Yesterday I came across a classical reference in a novel I’m reading. Now I did do Latin until I was about 12, and have read (many moons ago) the Greek myths, but this was not a name that was familiar to me – Pylades – do you know who he/she is? Anyway, when I was having a mug of coffee at my desk, I thought I’d just look him/her up in my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Big mistake, nearly two hours later I was still browsing through Brewer’s. First I found Pylades, turns out he was bosom friend of Orestes, so they hung out together like David and Jonathan; while I was at it, I thought I’d look up Eagle stones, which lead me to Aetites and then on the next page I spotted St Agatha –the patron saint of volcanoes, and who is depicted in paintings holding a platter with her severed breasts on it. This reminded me of a little Italian village we once visited, called St Agata Due Golfi which is just south of Vesuvius. My DH and I once had a fabulous dinner there at a restaurant called Don Alfonso 1890, which has 3 Michelin stars, and the bill nearly broke the bank.

Then I thought I would quickly look to see what Brewer said about Dick Whittington, because on Highgate Hill (which is nearby), he and his cat heard Bow Bells tell him to turn again – but there was nothing I didn’t already know. Then I started opening the book randomly, and discovered all sorts of fascinating titbits – the name of the Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (Joseph Hobson Jagger); the smallest pig in a litter of piglets will reputedly follow its owner anywhere, and is known as a Tantony Pig, and a Wapentake is a subdivision of a county similar to the Hundreds or Ridings. Anyway, when the phone rang I suddenly realised how much time had passed and how totally absorbed I had become, what was I thinking of…and on a Monday morning too.

Every home should have a copy of Brewer’s Dictionary; it is an essential household requirement for settling arguments, solving crossword clues and general time wasting.


Time for another rant at the ludicrous use of Health & Safety legislation in this country.

Those of you who have or have had children may know of a famous fictional character called Postman Pat. A cheery chappie, he delivers the mail by driving his little red post van around country lanes, accompanied by his black and white cat Jess. There was a TV series, books, tapes and other toys based on Postman Pat, he is loved by thousands of British children.

For the last six years, a mechanised, coin-operated Postman Pat Post van ride has stood in a shopping precinct in Market Harborough. You know the kind of thing. Your 3 year old sits in the little rocket, car, train or whatever, you pop some coins in the slot, and the machine rocks gently back and forth. It is a welcome distraction when shopping with a young child.

Now the owners of St Mary’s Place Shopping Precinct have said it must go. A spokesman for St Mary's Place said it was targeting "material outside shop boundaries with health and safety implications." Not because the ride itself is considered dangerous – rides already have to comply with stringent H&S guidelines regarding manufacture and maintenance. No, they think it might be a H&S risk for pedestrians. The fact that this particular ride has stood in the same position outside a particular shop for the past six years without one single person walking into it or tripping over it, (in fact there has never been any man, woman or child involved in any sort of incident with the ride) would seem to contradict their views.

So why this sudden anxiety? Well, one of two reasons I suspect. Either the local council’s Health & Safety gaulieters have decided to justify their jobs by scratching around for something to have a go at, and have been all over the owners of St Mary’s Place like a rash OR the owners of St Mary’s Place want some more money from the shop owner who owns the ride, and this is part of a softening up process to get it. Or maybe it’s a bit of both. Whichever it is, Health & Safety is again being cited as the reason. Soon we’ll be fined if we don’t tie our shoelaces to their satisfaction.

Welcome to the house of fun.


How to satisfy a craving for something sweet to eat when there isn't a biscuit in the house, you havn't been to the shops yet and the fruit bowl only contains two rather elderly cooking apples...throw together this little number, it takes no time at all, and hey presto, sweet craving satisfied.


170g self-raising flour
1 large egg

1 teaspoon baking powder
85g caster sugar
6 tablespoons milk

28g melted butter (do this in the microwave)

For the topping

28g melted butter
85g caster sugar
1 level teaspoon cinnamon
500g cooking apples

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Line rectangular baking tin (28 cms x 18cms) with baking paper.
Sift flour, baking powder together into a bowl, add the sugar and stir in.
In a jug mix the egg, milk and melted butter together.
Mix the sugar and cinnamon for the topping together in a small bowl.
Peel and core and quarter the apples, and cut into slices.
Pour the egg mixture into the flour and using a wooden spoon mix well to form a stiff batter.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and spread it evenly – it will seem a very thin layer.
Brush the batter with the melted butter for the topping and then arrange the apple slices neatly over the surface in overlapping rows.
Finally, sprinkle the mixed sugar and cinnamon evenly all over the apple slices.

Bake for approximately 30mins until risen and golden.

Cool, and then cut into squares.

Friday, November 17, 2006

LETS HOPE THE WEEK ENDS ON A BETTER NOTE than it began, I seem to have been out of sorts the whole time, have rowed with my elderly mother (her fault not mine), horribly hurt and offended a dear friend (my fault not hers), and have generally made a mess of things. TGIF.


I have been sifting through my bedroom bookshelves, which mostly have paperbacks, and have become horribly clogged up and muddled -originally I had the books in alphabetic order by author. Anyway, I have come across some old favourites and have started reading them again. One of these was a book I was bowled over by when I first read it.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban is a truly extraordinary and brilliant book. Not an easy read, because of the way Hoban has modified the English language, (it helps to read it aloud). When I first read the book in my early twenties, I had no knowledge of the legend of St Eustace, nor of the Green Man mythology, both of which feature in this book. You don't have to know about them to make sense of the story, but it helps.

It is set somewhere in southern England far into the future, when modern life as we would recognise it has vanished following what was presumably some nuclear apocalypse which had occured long before the book even begins. The narrator is Riddley Walker, a twelve year old boy describes life in what is a peasant society living a medeiaval existance. All previous knowledge has been lost, even the events which changed the world have become a faint folk memory.

At the start of the book three important th.ings happen to Riddley. On his naming day (the day he turns twelve) he kills a wild boar, he sees the leader in a pack of dogs is watching him - ever since the nuclear holocaust, dogs have been the sworn enemies of man,- and three days later his father is killed in an accident, leaving Riddley to inherit his father's role in the community.

The book is haunting, unsettling and terrible, but there are instances of humour and the natural spirit of mankind bubbles up all the time.

Re-reading the book I was struck by the fact that it was written in 1980 - many years before text-messaging (SMS) had been invented, yet much of the language Russel Hoban has invented is incredibly like txt talk. I think this might make the book more accessible to young people today who are used to communicating using this type of language.


That is what HMQ said in her speech opening the 2006/07 parliamentary session three days ago. Of course, she didn't write the speech herself, it was written for her by government apparatchiks with input from all the Departments of State. One of the biggest of these departments -if not THE biggest - is the Home Office, the department which is responsible for our police, our prisons, and our justice system.

So they want victims to be at the centre of the criminal justice system do they? Oh yeah? Well in that case, why, in the very same week, did the Home Office decide not to defend the case being brought by a group of drug addicted criminals? A group who were forced to go "cold turkey" when they were imprisoned, and who alleged that their human rights were violated as they did not give consent, and that their negligent treatment amounted to assault.

Withdrawal from using drugs, especially 'hard' ones like 'crack' or heroin, is frequently believed to be more difficult than it actually can be. Whilst quick withdrawal from certain drugs (alcohol, barbiturates and tranquillisers) can be dangerous, withdrawal from heroin may be comparable to a nasty bout of flu. Undesirable, but hardly life threatening. (The real difficulty for most addicts, is not coming off the drugs, it is staying off them). It seems extraordinary that this group was thought to have substantial grounds for making their claim.
The Home Office were supine in failing to defend the case with the utmost vigour, and deciding to make an out-of-court settlement. An out-of-court settlement which will give 197 prisoners a payment of £3500+ each. An out-of-court settlement which comes straight out of the taxpayers' pockets.
These people are in prison because they were found guilty of having committed crimes, what settlement are the victims of their crimes getting?

This whole business is an outrageous nonsense, it beggars belief.
I will have to go and have a lie-down, my blood is boiling.


The nearest I've ever got to Sweden is IKEA in Wembley, but there is a dish from Sweden that I like very much. It goes by the unlikely name of Jansson's Temptation. I first tasted it at a restaurant called Anna's Place in north London many years ago, and eventually I tried making it myself. Basically it is a potato, onion and anchovy gratin, bathed in cream and baked until meltingly soft and unctuous. The name comes from a Swedish opera singer, at the end of the 19th century who liked cooking up a little something for supper after the opera, something with which he could tempt ladies of the chorus, and this was his signature dish. He was called Pelle Janzon, but eventually changed his name to Jansson as he became more successful (I'm not too sure whether his success was as a singer, or as a lothario). It seems to be a dish that the whole of Sweden eats at Christmas time, but I think it is great on a cold winter evening when you want to eat comfort food, but something a little different.


Serves 4

6 medium sized potatoes
2 medium onions
3 tablespoons butter
15 anchovy fillets (a
pprox 2 tins)
75ml single cream
75ml double cream
2-3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs

Pre-heat oven to 200

Butter a gratin dish generously, using half the butter.

Peel the onions, cut in half and then slice very, very thinly. Melt one tablespoon of butter in a frying pan and gently sauté the onion slices for a few minutes.
Drain the anchovy fillets, rinse and pat dry, then cut each one in half length-wise.
Mix the two creams together in a saucepan over gentle heat, do not let it boil.
Peel and grate the potatoes. You should work quickly now as the potato will discolour quite rapidly.

Put a layer of grated potato in the gratin dish, cover with a layer of the sliced onion, then place a lattice of anchovy over the onion; repeat the layers of potatoes, onion and anchovy, ending with a layer of potatoes. Smooth the top layer, and press down firmly with the palm of your hand.

Pour the warm cream over the potatoes. Sprinkle the dry breadcrumbs over the top and dot with the remaining butter.

Bake in the oven for 1 hour.

Serve with a green salad and a cold beer.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

TODAY IS ARMISTICE DAY, and at 11am I kept the two minute silence, while standing alone in our kitchen. I thought of my Great Grandmother who lost two sons in the First World War, and of my own paternal Grandfather, who was shipwrecked in January 1916. On a life raft with two other men, he was the sole survivor after being adrift for three days in the North Sea.

Thousands of books have been written about war, remembering war, set in a war. As it is Armistice Day I thought, that rather than blog about what I am reading at the moment, I would list some of the books I have read over the years which deal with war and conflict.


All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The Good Soldier Schweik
by Jaroslav Hašek
August 1914 by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
And Quiet Flows the Don by M. A. Sholokov

Spanish Civil War:

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway


The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
Most Secret by Neville Shute
The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
The Guns of Navarone by Alistair McLean
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat
That Summer by Andrew Greig
The Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
The Seige by Helen Dunmore
How Sleep the Brave by H.E. Bates
Enigma by Robert Harris

The Gulf War:

Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNabb


IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Yet again a group of PC people are trying to get people to stop wearing red poppies as a sign of remembrance, It makes me livid.
Poppies have been a symbol of death and sleep since the time of the ancient Greeks so it is entirely appropriate that they have become synonymous with remembrance of all the servicemen and women who died in the First World War and all subsequent wars. The poppies are red. They are red because they are a certain type of poppy – popaver rhoeas – which grows naturally in conditions of disturbed earth, and can be found growing all over Western Europe. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century battlefields became fields of blood red poppies growing up around the bodies of fallen soldiers. During the First World War which raged through northern France and Belgium, the heavy shelling and trench warfare ripped open the landscape, and once again large numbers of poppies began to appear. None of them were white.

From time to time some group, or person, tries to say that we should be wearing white poppies for peace. This seems to imply that those who wear red poppies are against peace and are glorifying war. They seem to think they have commanded the moral high ground. What offensive, patronizing rubbish. To wear a poppy does not say that the wearer is either for or against war, just that they remember those who have died in war. In fact I can’t imagine that anyone in their right mind would be in favour of war per se. War brings fear, danger, cruelty, death, destruction and poverty in its wake; The price paid by individuals and families is often very high. To remember the dead, and to honour them, is to remind oneself that as nations we should be extremely wary of threatening , declaring or initiating war, or of becoming embroiled in other people’s wars, If there is a way of maintaining peace that is honourable, just and equitable we should always espouse it.

I , like millions of my fellow citizens, am entirely opposed to this bloody business in Iraq, and am equally opposed to our position in Afghanistan, but nonetheless I will be wearing my poppy and remembering that men and women are dying in war, yet again.

As someone wrote today -"The money from red poppies goes to help ex-servicemen; the money from white poppies goes to subsidise people spouting their opinions. "


Whilst reading the controversy about poppies in the press , wearing a poppy myself, and writing my rather mild little rant above, I suddenly remembered a recipe for muffins I have made a few times and it seemed appropriate to post it here today. They are yummy when still warm accompanied by a mug of really good coffee. Enjoy!


Makes approx 1 dozen

280g plain flour
15 ml baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
200g caster sugar
1 egg
240 ml milk
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind
90 ml vegetable oil OR 85 g butter, melted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons poppy seeds

Preheat oven 190°C

Line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Stir in the sugar and poppy seeds.
In a separate bowl, beat egg with a fork. Stir in milk,
followed by grated lemon rind and oil/butter.
Add lemon juice.
Pour all of liquid ingredients into dry mixture. Stir just until
combined. Batter will be lumpy but no dry flour should be visible.

Spoon into muffin cases – they should be ¾ full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until tops are
lightly browned and spring back when pressed gently.

If you want to make them extra special and very lemony, you can mix 3 tablespoons of icing sugar with one tablespoon lemon juice to make a glaze, and drizzle it over the tops of the muffins whilst they are still hot.
Cool on rack before serving

Thursday, November 09, 2006

FEELING SHATTERED HAVING STAYED UP TOO LATE watching the results of the US Mid-term election results - Woo Hoo, Americans have woken up and given Bush a bloody nose at long last...and that foul man Rumsfeld has gone! Hooray! Mind you, he patronised everybody to the bitter end, in his valedictory speech he said that the war in Iraq was too complex for most people to understand - so he understands it but we don't eh?


I bought The Thirteenth Tale because I had read in the press that it had sold barely 600 copies in the UK but over 70,000 in the USA, and I was curious about it.
From the very first chapter I was totally engrossed in this beautifully written book. The author Diane Setterfield, whose debut novel this is, has written a mesmerizing gothic mystery which explores themes of love, loss, and obsession. The book is structured like novels from an earlier time, with a clear beginning middle and end; and yet...the story loops round on itself, twists and turns and comes back to where it began whilst simultaneously carrying the reader forward towards the end. In brief, it is the story of a famous but reclusive writer, Vida Winter, who contacts the writer of the book, a young woman by the name of Margaret Lea, daughter of an antiquarian bookseller, and invites her to visit and start writing Miss Winter's official biography. Miss Winter tells her story of the twins Adeline and Emmeline to Margaret in an episodic fashion and Margaret is not always sure if she is being told the truth about Miss Winter's life, or just more of her fiction.
Diane Setterfield pays homage to previous great writers with subtle references to Bronte's Jane Eyre, Collins' The Woman in White, Du Maurier's Rebecca, and James' Turn of the Screw all of which have echoes in this book.
Above all for me, the author articulates what it means to be an avid reader in words that exactly mirror my own experience and feelings:" I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books."
With this book, Diane Setterfield has given me back some of that childhood lost pleasure.


"Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat where have you been?

I've been up to London to look at the Queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat what did you there?

I frightened a little mouse under her chair."

Well pussy cat, you can’t do that again, you probably wouldn’t be allowed into Buck House, and you are certainly not allowed into the Houses of Parliament. Not if those twits at the Health & Safety Executive have anything to do with it.

Some years ago, MPs began to notice that the House of Commons seemed to be infested with mice. Mice are often a problem in old buildings. The thing about mice is, despite what the huggy-bunny brigade may think, they are not sweet little Beatrix Potter creatures - they are incontinent, disease-carrying vermin. They usually contaminate foodstuffs with urine, droppings, and hair. One mouse can excrete up to 100 fecal pellets per day, as well as deposit hundreds of small droplets of urine during its travels.

In 2002 some Lib Dem MPs asked if a couple of cats could be brought in to sort out the problem. They seem to have been blanked by those who organise the housekeeping of the HoC/HoL although a few old fashioned mousetraps were put down. Recently the mouse situation has become much, much worse. To the extent that they are often seen running about – one even crossed the floor of the Chamber during a debate. The Houses of Parliament have several cafeterias/restaurants/bars all serving food to a greater or lesser extent. In addition, many MPs work through the lunch hour, taking sandwiches and rolls to eat at their desks. Obviously there are crumbs, and their waste paper baskets have the remanents of anything they haven’t consumed. All in all the whole Palace of Westminster is vermin heaven. Why would they bother with traps baited with manky bits of bread and cheese saturated with poison, when there are much better gourmet pickings to be had? Anne McIntosh, a Conservative who represents the Vale of York in Parliament, told the Daily Telegraph that she requested a cat after seeing a mouse in the Commons Tea Room.

I should point out, that if this were a commercial catering outlet anywhere else in the country they would be shut down before you could say gnat’s crochet, and quite rightly too. But because this is the HoC it just carries on as if nothing had happened, despite umpteen complaints.

To be fair, Pest Exterminators have been brought in, but they have concluded that because of the age, complexity and layout of the HoC, it is not a situation they could control.

So a cat or two (or even three or four) would seem to be a Good Idea. After all, what do cats do? They catch mice, indeed you could say that that is their raison d’etre. They are clean animals, they do not run about dribbling urine for a start. They are low cost, work anti-social hours, do not require employment contracts, and will not add to global warming or the balance of payments. But those good old Health & Safety gauleiters who seem to have disproportionate power these days said NO (nix, niet, nein, non).

Anne McIntosh was told that a cat would not be permitted as “it might get near food” – so mice can wee and poo all over the tea rooms, that’s ok, but a cat is potentially unhealthy.

Who are the nutters who make these decisions? I despair.


This week I had intended to have a pot roast for Sunday lunch, but when I got to the butcher's he had no brisket left. So I opted for a shoulder of lamb instead, and asked him to bone it out for me. I have boned a shoulder myself in the past, but it took forever to do and was quite fiddly, a butcher can do it in two shakes of a lamb's tail! Shoulder is cheaper than leg of lamb, but much fattier, and a stuffing soaks some of that up, and makes the meat go further. This is a stuffing I used to make years ago - so it was time to revive it. It has a sort of north African influence, with the apricots and cumin, and is really delicious and different with lamb. Do be sure to season well with salt and pepper though, or the balance of flavours won't be as good.


One large boned shoulder of lamb

4 slices of good quality brown bread, crusts removed
½ medium sized onion, finely chopped
½ green pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon sunflower oil.
2 tablespoons pine nuts
8 dried apricots, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper
1 large egg

½ wineglass medium sherry mixed with ½ glass water

1 ball of string

Tear the bread into pieces and whiz into crumbs in a food processor. Tip into a bowl.
Brown the pine nuts in a dry frying pan, stirring constantly, it only takes a few moments. Add to the breadcrumbs.
Add the oil to the frying pan and gently sauté the chopped onion and green pepper for 3 or 4 minutes until translucent and soft. Add to the breadcrumbs, along with the chopped apricot, ground cumin, salt and pepper. Mix all together with a wooden spoon.
Lightly beat the egg with a fork and add it to the mixture, stirring well to bind it all together.
Lay the boned shoulder of lamb on the work surface “skin” side down. Carefully remove any excess fat you can see. Season the surface of the meat with salt and pepper, then spread the stuffing over it evenly, making sure it is in all the pockets in the meat, and that you do not spread it right to the edges.
Roll up the meat carefully, pressing the stuffing in if it bulges out. Cut several pieces of string long enough to go round the rolled lamb, then tie the lamb firmly with string in 3 or 4 places around the roll to hold it together whilst cooking. This is not as difficult as it sounds, but if you haven’t done it before, you may find it easier with someone to help you.

At this point you can set the lamb aside until you are ready to roast it; it can be prepared the day before, and kept overnight in the fridge.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.

Place the lamb, joined side down, in a roasting tin (one of those old-fashioned ones with a lid is idea, but you can just cover the tin with cooking foil), and pour the sherry and water over the lamb.
Cover the roasting tin and cook in the oven for 1½ hours.
Remove the cover and return to the oven for a further ½ hour. Remove lamb from the roasting tin strain off any excess fat, and use the juices to make gravy.

Let the lamb rest for 5-10 minutes out of the oven before serving.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Remember, Remember, the fifth of November

The gunpowder treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes Guy, 'twas his intent

to blow up king and parliament

Three score barrels were laid below

to prove old England's overthrow.

By God's mercy he was catched

with a dark lantern and lighted match.

Holler boys, Holler boys, let the bells ring

Holler boys, Holler boys, God save the King!


Whilst waiting at Kings Cross Station for a train to Scotland, I decided to kill time in W.H. Smith's. There was one of those 3 for 2 offers on selected paperbacks, and I couldn't resist. I picked up
A Winter in Madrid by C. J. Sansom (never having heard of it), along with two
others, and I am so glad I did. By the time I'd read the first few pages I was deeply absorbed.

Set in Madrid during the late autumn and winter of 1940, when, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a post-Dunkirk Britain is desperately trying to keep Franco from joining Nazi Germany and the Axis nations. The three main protagonists are men who were all at the same English public school together several years previously. For different reasons of personal history they have all ended up in Spain and their lives become linked together again by a series of events.

Sansom has written a book which is a classic spy thriller with echos of Graham Greene and John le Carre, and also a poignant romantic tale of missed opportunities, and the compromises people make in emotional relationships. He manages to convey a terrific sense of place, the reader is IN Madrid, feels the cold, senses the tensions within the country and the raw wounds left bleeding after the civil war. All this is bound together with a very impressive dollop of history, which has whet my appetite for more reading about this period. Before reading A Winter in Madrid my knowlege of the Spanish Civil War, Anglo-Spanish relations during WW2 and the role of the Catholic Church in the Franco regime was scanty to non-existant.
This one of the best books I have read this year, and I recommend it highly.


Last week I had a young person appearing before me in court who was charged with “possession of an ADULT firework” – WTF?? Neither of my colleagues nor I had ever heard of such an offence.

After making some enquiries, and doing a little digging this is what I found out:

it is now illegal for any person under the age of 18 to have in their possession, any firework (apart from sparklers I think). They may not buy fireworks either, but that is a separate offence. So if you have a teenage daughter aged 17¾ (or any other kid of less than 18) who is going to a firework party at the neighbours’ house, do not ask them to carry the fireworks you are contributing to the event or they will be breaking the law and could be arrested, charged and brought to court. Give them the sausage rolls, and YOU carry the fireworks.

Bloody ridiculous don’t you think? I discovered that this is just one of the 3000 (yep – you heard it right – 3000) new criminal offences which have been created by the Labour government since it came into power in 1997.

Three thousand new criminal offences is virtually one for every day that Blair and his cronies have been in office. They are running wild with legislation, I think they need medical help. Here, for your delectation are a few of the other new offences:

It is now against the law to impersonate a Traffic Warden – why would you want to? They are amongst the most reviled people out on our streets, and most fancy dress parties stick to conventional themes like Vicars & Tarts, Traffic Wardens & Lollipop Ladies just doesn’t cut it when planning a fun evening, at least not in my book.

It is now illegal for anyone to buy or sell grey squirrels - like who does?

It is illegal to buy Brazil nuts from Iran, but buying pistachios from Iran is ok.

It is illegal to set off a nuclear explosion – bit of a no-brainer this; but if you did, we’d all be dead, probably including you, so who would know you were the guilty one and come and arrest you?

From 1925 to 1987 a period of some 60 years, there were 6 changes of the Criminal Justice Act. From 1997 to 2006, a mere 9 years, there have been 11 changes to the Criminal Justice Act. Magistrates, judges, clerks, solicitors, barristers, and probably Rumpole of the Bailey, are struggling to keep up with it all. I’m reminded of an old army saying “If it moves, salute it. If it remains motionless, paint it white.” Some how this government have got it into their stupid heads that if something happens, legislate against it, if something doesn’t happen, legislate to make it happen; and they apply that formula to absolutely everything – including grey squirrels, brazil nuts, traffic wardens and fireworks.

Just don’t blame me – I never voted for the buggers, and what is more I told you they would be like this.


This is my husband's favourite soup, and so it is one I make often during winter when parsnips are plentiful. It is so quick to make, just as quick as heating up some ready meal from a supermarket, and it costs next to nothing. You can vary the amount of curry powder you use depending on your taste. I like the soup to have a slight curry flavour, but not for the curry to overwhelm the slightly sweet taste of the parsnips.


1 kg parsnips, peeled and chopped into chunks
2 onions, roughly chopped
1 large potato, peeled and chopped into chunks

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
50g butter
2 heaped teaspoons curry powder
1.5 litres hot chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
200ml double cream (optional)

Melt the butter together with the oil in a large saucepan. Add the chopped onion and sauté gently until translucent. Add the curry powder to the onion and cook for a few moments, stirring all the time. Add the parsnip and the potato, stir well.
Add the hot stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are very soft.
Whizz the soup to a smooth consistency using a hand-held blender, or use a liquidiser or mouli.
It should be really velvety. Season to taste.
To make it really luxurious stir in 200ml of double cream, mixing well.

Serve piping hot, garnished with finely chopped spring onion.