Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Don't Forget the Gemstones

There is a picture book we used to have about a small boy being sent to the shops to buy some things for his mother. As the boy walks along, he tries to recall the various things his mother has asked for.

"Six farm eggs, a pound of pears, a cake for tea  - and don't forget the bacon", she tells him at the beginning, but these items all get garbled, except, so far as I remember, the bit about the bacon. 

Perhaps it was the reading of this text over and over again that gave me an interest in shopping lists. Certainly I have a habit of picking up any I see - and you'd be surprised how many one does see, dropped in car parks, forgotten on cafe chairs, or simply fallen from pockets. 

Sometimes people incorporate their ideas for a whole week of meals on their list, with notes of who will be attending and which day and what time. I love these lists most, because they provide a glimpse into someone else's life, (without wishing to sound extremely creepy, I get the same pleasure from walking along streets after dark and seeing lit interiors where people are talking or reading, watching television, talking on the telephone, working or preparing meals).  

I sometimes wonder whether the lists where people write down what exactly they are planning to cook and who will eat it could, with the application of time and a bit of imagination, provide the basis of a series of short stories or perhaps a novel, (I have a memory of a rather brilliant story by Faye Weldon, made entirely from lists - but that is not quite the same as what I have in mind).  

Although the list I picked up this morning has nothing to do with meals - at least I hope not - I definitely think that it could be worked up by some clever person into a piece of fantasy literature, perhaps a tale of suburban witchcraft. It is certainly the most exotic list that I've discovered thus far:

Red jasper
(Ruby bloodstone

I don't know why, given that nothing on this list is mentioned in the play, but an image of a heath and a cauldron and three wild female figures comes to mind. I just hope the other members of the trio have their own lists and one of them remembers to bring along some fenny snake and tongue of dog.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Food in Books - The Island of Sheep

To join other literary meals I have enjoyed devouring - here and here and here and here and here - here is some lovely sounding - or perhaps, in the style of the narrative, I should say "some splendid" - food that I found described in John Buchan's final Richard Hannay novel The Island of Sheep. 

To being with, there is a lunch that takes place after shearing, (called "clipping" by Buchan) in Scotland:

"There was beer for all, but whisky only for the older men. There were crates of mutton-pies for which the Hangingshaw baker was famous, and baskets of buttered scones and oatcakes and skim-milk cheese. The company were mighty trenchermen, and I observed the herd of the Back Hill of the Cludden, to who this was a memorable occasion, put away six pies and enough cakes and cheese to last me for a week."

Towards the end of the book, when the action moves to a Scandinavian island, there is a description of the arrangements that his host makes to ensure his and his guests' nourishment:

"He had his own cows for milk, the mutton was about the best in the world, and he cured his own hams and bacon; he grew all the simpler vegetables, including superb potatoes: the sea yielded the fish he wanted, not to speak of lobsters, and there were sea-trout and brown trout to be had from the lochs. Indeed, I never ate better food in my life - simple food, but perfect basic material perfectly cooked. In two things only it deviated into luxury. There was a wonderful cellar in which the sherry and madeira in particular were things to dream of, and following the Northern fashion, our meals began with a preposterous variety of hors d'oeuvre."

Ah, memories of the hors d'oeuvre trollies that used to be a normal feature of English hotel dining rooms in my childhood dance briefly in my mind's eye.

Monday, 3 September 2018

In Praise of Twitter - an Occasional Series - 18th Century Students

Once again a whole world has been opened up to me thanks to Twitter. This time it is the very funny world of 18th century students and the things they got up to, plus the discipline they were then subjected to. I learnt about this via a thread from a Twitter user called Jenny Bann; she decided to share her knowledge of 18th century student disciplinary records, in order to counter the view being expressed by the Times Higher Education supplement that millennials are the worst generation yet.

This is what she revealed (there is also an interesting side trip into the history of the sedan chair in Glasgow, plus some interesting replies, including one quoting Shakespeare's view of the young):

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Through a Glass Darkly

The other day there was a report in the newspaper about what was described as some "psychedelic research" that had been carried out at Imperial College London. The article explained that, in the course of this work, Imperial College's researchers had discovered that people who took a substance called DMT reported the same sensations as people who had returned from near death experiences. The leader of the research team, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, was then quoted on the conclusions he drew from this finding:

"These findings", he said, "are important as they remind us that near-death experiences occur because of significant changes in the way the brain is working, not because of something beyond the brain."

Had Dr Carhart-Harris stopped before the phrase "not because of something beyond the brain", I could have agreed with him. However, it seems obtuse to draw the conclusion he does in the last part of his statement. In near death experiences and when taking DMT indisputably something changes in the brain - but surely what changes is the nature of individual perception, in which case what is revealed by the researchers' studies is that human beings, when they are in the standard, everyday state of consciousness, do not see the entirety of all that exists.

If that is the case, then it may well be that when something changes in the brain - when, to use Aldous Huxley's phrase, (via William Blake), the doors of perception are opened, (or at least nudged slightly ajar) - we observe things in a different way or from a different perspective, but that is not to say that that perspective is less rather than more revealing of reality than our default state. Perhaps the changes in our brain are just a case of lights being turned on so that things we aren't normally aware of are able to emerge from the gloom and be recognised.

Rather than proving that what people see under the influence of DMT or during a near death experience is imaginary, the experiments of Dr Carhart-Harris and his team may well demonstrate that beyond the brain in its normal state are many things of which we are entirely unaware.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Poetry in Advertising

After yesterday posting a video of Les Murray reading a beautiful poem about Australia for a Qantas advertisement, I remembered that another great poet had also got involved in the dark arts of the advertising world. The poet was Marianne Moore and in 1955 Ford, the car makers, asked her to help them choose a name for their latest model. The correspondence that followed can be read here. As much as the suggestions that Marianne Moore came up with, I like the whole tone of the letters to and fro - there is a gentle formality to them that I think is missing from most interchanges these days. It is a pity though that in the end the company did not choose any of Moore's suggestions. And actually, on second thoughts, it is mainly the suggestions I love, coming thicker and faster, increasingly conjured up, (I suspect), from a sense of the comedy of the venture. Is Mongoose Civique my all out favourite? I think, by a hair's breadth, perhaps it is.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Beginning

In an entry in his diary dated 26th August, (although some argue it was really 25th August), Captain Cook described the start of his voyage of discovery 250 years ago today:

“At two pm got under sail and put to sea having on board 94 persons including officers, seamen, gentlemen and their servants, near 18 months provisions, 10 carriage guns, 12 swivels with good store of ammunition, and stores of all kinds”

An adventure into the unknown, barely imaginable today, leading to the discovery of the huge island that would become Australia, so beautifully evoked here by Les Murray, the nation's greatest poet (and in my view the greatest living poet in the world today):

Yes, that is an advertisement, but it is also a lovely evocative piece of poetry that evokes the special qualities of the country Cook discovered as well as anything I know. 

Thursday, 23 August 2018


Driving back to Hungary from Britain, we stopped for the night in a pretty old-fashioned inn. In our room was a very nice antique chest and also an antique cupboard:

There was a beautiful old tiled oven:

All the objects that I've shown here suggest that the inn-keeper appreciates well-made, well-designed things. What then drove him to add this weird glass television holder, come desk, come mad paintbrush displayer, to the room? A misguided impulse to seem modern, perhaps or just a mysterious lapse of taste:
I am baffled.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Frankly Outdated

I somehow got sucked into an email argument over open borders and Douglas Murray's book, The Strange Death of Europe, which I haven't read, although sometimes I feel that I have, since a person I live with has told me so much about it. The argument was with a young editor at a large newspaper, and, because of this, I found it particularly dispiriting that, instead of being able to carry on a genuinely thoughtful debate, my concerns, where they diverged from his, were simply brushed aside, with statements such as the following:

"The whole terrorism/Rotheram/fgm thing is just an easy way of signing up to this idea that Europe should be preserved as some kind of judeo-christian monoculture which is frankly a bit outdated."

Just to tease out one of those issues, the "Rotherham thing" - (which has to be seen hand in hand with its counterparts in Telford, Derby, Newcastle, Oxford, Rochdale and possibly other places as well) - indicates a worrying situation for women in countries where people of Islamic origin settle, as does "the fgm thing". While I am definitely not saying that all people of Islamic faith are going to take part in or support such things, a Venn diagram covering those who do get involved and the whole of society would include within it only people of an Islamic persuasion. 

This indicates to me that it is unwise to dismiss without proper attention concerns about such behaviour and the cultural attitudes from which that behaviour arises; apart from anything else, suggesting that we do so seems to me to indicate a lack of concern about women. Rather, it is important and necessary to be alert to possible problems of perspective when people brought up in an Islamic culture arrive in a non-Islamic country. This is not racism; this is about culture and avoiding clashes between people with very different outlooks and beliefs. As a female, I do not want to give an inch on the rights of my sex, particularly if the reason for doing so is the accommodation of religious beliefs that have absolutely no cultural connection to the culture of the countries of which I am a citizen.

But such a view is, it seems, "frankly a bit outdated". 

After that argument, it was cheering for me to spend a Sunday in rural Slovakia and find that many Slovakians are also "frankly a bit outdated" and seem to be naively enjoying their attachment to "some kind of Judeo-Christian monoculture". In every village we passed through it was exceptionally moving to see that the churches were not merely full but absolutely overflowing, and that the locals appeared to enjoy dressing up in their own national costume - none of these places were tourist spots, so what they were doing was motivated purely by their own pleasure in the activity. 

Nationalism is the big sin these days, (this was also made clear to me in the above argument, although once again, worryingly, given our news is in part filtered through this person, my interlocutor did not seem to have been trained by his tertiary institution to articulate the thread of the argument that led to him saying that he had to "completely disagree with" me "that nationalism can be a good thing".  I suppose the argument in his mind must be that the rise of Hitler was an example of nationalism as a terrible thing, but the other side of that coin is that I cannot imagine how Hitler would have been beaten without a reciprocal nationalism emanating from the British Isles).

Anyway, here are some photographs from a sunny Sunday in Slovakia, spent among many people who are "frankly a bit outdated". Long may they remain so:

For those not particularly keen on clothing and embroidery, I should add that, as well as traditional costume, I saw what I would call an almost traditional tractor. It reminded me of my brother's story about a farmer who advertised for a wife. The farmer's small ad reportedly read as follows:

"Farmer seeks wife, preferably 25-35 years old, healthy, with own tractor. Please send photograph - of tractor"

For any seamstresses, here is a close up of a traditional Slovakian male trouser, which I hope will assist those keen to try their hand at making a pair at home:

Monday, 20 August 2018

Trip to London 4 - Secret Women's Business

While in London, we went into a pub called The Grenadier in order to have some lunch. These beautiful anonymous watercolour sketches from the Crimean War decorated the walls of the ladies' loos.

The one that first attracted my attention was this menu for a dinner at Camp Balaklava, March 55, (presumably 1855). The dinner was supposedly given to Lord Rokeby in Colonel Ridley's hut, with guests listed as Lord Rokeby, Colonel Hamilton, Major Ellison, Captain Higginson, one illegible,  (plus a reference to Lord Arth-Hay, possibly as co-host?) I am assuming it is a fantasy dinner - in battlefield conditions would it really have been feasible to produce such a fine meal?

The dishes served, supposedly, were:

Consomme aux Oeufs - Clear soup with eggs (presumably a kind of straciatella)
Petit Pates a la Menshikoff - some kind of pasta (this is the only reference I can find to Menshikoff)
Filets de poulets aux Champignons - Fillet of chicken with mushrooms
Cotelettes de illegible, (Mouton? probably) aux petits pois - Cutlets of some kind with young peas
La Dinde Rotie - Roast turkey
Jambon au vin de Madere - Ham with a madeira sauce
Choufleur, sauce Hollandaise - Cauliflower in hollandaise sauce
Creme au Chocolate - Chocolate cream (a mousse?)
Tarte aux confitures - Jam tart

Then we have a zouave on a cold day, in a place or a set of clothing I cannot make out, dated 12th December, 1854:
a zouave in his daily dress, 11th December, 1854:
and a zouave cloaked up, 13 December, '54
Maddeningly, a woman started banging on the door and shouting loudly, so I had to take the rest of my pictures in a hurry. I did try to go back in later, but, strangely, the same thing happened again, so the writing on the last ones, on each occasion, came out blurred, because I was in a hurry and nervous, so I suppose my hand started shaking, because I am such a shrinking flower (alternatively an incompetent photographer):

I think the caption on the picture abovesays, "A specimen of Private in the Guards, before serving in the Crimea, and afterwards"

As far as I can make out from my shaky photography, the caption on the upper of the two pictures below says: "After coming off night duty in Crimea, with illegible gaiters of his own construction and very warm illegible". "New hooded cloak sent out from England illegible, but rather striking to look at" The lower picture is simply captioned: "At post in Crimea"

This one, I think, says, "A baggage pony, before service and after he has seen service in the Crimea, in this state", with something written at the very bottom that I cannot make out at all - I will have to return to the pub and find out the truth!

Anyway, these little pictures were a quite unexpected pleasure - and they represent to me part of what makes travelling so thrilling.