Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Words, words, words

I see Madame Defarge is feeling deprived of the opportunity to comment in her Blogger identity. Such is the world of dependence on "free" software, but that's one of my King Charles's heads when I'm at work, and I don't intend to harp on it now.

Instead, let us ponder the relative frustrations of, on the one hand, having things to say and not being able to say them, or - as in my case in recent weeks - having a space to say things, and not finding that much to say.

It might, perhaps, be an idea to try a different sort of concept: in which spirit, this website offers some ideas for blog titles - Crepuscular Degeneration, anyone? Withdrawn Lassitude?

Alternatively, some new vocabulary might be in order. In which case, in honour of Burns Night, here is a test of some opportunities from north of the border. (29 out of 35, since you ask, mostly by inspired guesswork: and I'm still working out how to create the opportunity to call someone a kenspeckle bauchle cockapentie - now that would be a blog identity to have some fun with).

Sunday 16 January 2011

Just when we thought we'd seen enough ice

One of my colleagues is in China, aiming to visit the Harbin Ice Festival, practically on the opposite spot on the globe. How should I tell him when he comes back that the Canary Wharf bread and circuses events team have just organised something similar here in London?

Well, all right, not exactly (OK, not a lot) like that, but interesting all the same. There were professionals from Africa, Hungary, France, the Netherlands and Portugal as well as the UK, doing some amazing things: the Africans had a lion and an elaborate carved archway sort of thing, the Netherlands had a collection of London icons (including the Dome, complete with its crown of support struts), the Hungarians had an intaglio screen of London "types" striding out, Abbey Road crossing style, and the French (surprise, surprise) offered a sculpture of a lady with a rather large bottom. Ordinary punters got a chance to have a crack at something less ambitious - no chain saws, but plenty of chances to work off some energy stabbing, prodding, sawing and scraping away:

Monday 10 January 2011

How musical are you?

Yet another online test to play with, this time one set up by BBC Radio 3 and sundry serious researchers.

I can't say my results surprise me much; if anything, I'd have thought my musical perceptiveness had dropped off a bit more over the decades than these results show. It turns out my "melody memory" is better than I'd have thought, and beat recognition about what I'd have expected. I'm dubious about the notion that one can really distinguish rock, pop, jazz and hiphop from each other on the basis of a one or two second beat - I certainly couldn't, but then, I haven't had the detailed exposure to what strike me as categories with fairly variable boundaries.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Feeling chuffed

The sight of the first Seville oranges in the supermarket inspired me to have a go at making some - but something a bit out of the ordinary, some lemon and lime, for which the Blessed Delia came up trumps again.

And it worked. However, I do notice that neither Ms Smith nor my trusty Marguerite Patten cookbook goes out of their way to reassure those of us who weren't listening in Chemistry that the mixture will stay liquid while hot, and that there's nothing wrong if it swirls around a bit even after you've started putting in the jar. No magic involved, provided the test sample was setting in the cold. The last time I tried something like this, you see, I didn't believe the test sample, and ended up with what I can only call gooseberry toffee: nice in its own way, but not easy to spread on toast. This time, however, trusting Delia worked a treat (but, my word, the lime makes it sharp).

All this domesticity set me off down memory lane, to my mother's proud efforts. There was a delicious three fruit marmalade, a large jar of which made it all the way to Paris to my school exchange family, and promptly fell off the kitchen table before anyone had a chance to try it. My mother swore by (and occasionally at) her pressure cooker for jobs like this (though a mechanical shredder would have saved more labour, if not cooking time). Hunting round to see if there's an image of the type she used, I find they have an example in the Science Museum, which adds a certain perspective. You can see why they used to talk about the Kitchen Front, can't you?

Saturday 8 January 2011

I thought it was getting warmer

Suddenly the winter layers of clothes seem too hot. And this morning, the bushes of broom around here were showing a first few tentative yellow flowers.

Wednesday 5 January 2011


How fitting that the return to work should take place in all-encompassing gloom of cloud over the last few days; and that my new glasses should finally arrive to reveal a bright, sharp view of ... dreich drizzle.

On which note, I bring you this all-purpose weather prediction for the British Isles:

Saturday 1 January 2011

What makes a good antidote to seasonal excess?

My eye was caught by a poster advertising the final days of the exhibition on the Second World War Ministry of Food, at the Imperial War Museum.

The Ministry led the drive to produce more food at home, to prevent waste and help people to make the best of what was available. In peacetime two-thirds of food had been imported: the consumption of meat and wheat had to be reduced, people had to be encouraged to eat vegetables rather than bread, to grow their own supplies wherever possible, using allotments, parks, gardens, back yards and the earth covering air raid shelters to raise not just vegetables but bees, rabbits, chickens.

It's often held that, overall, the rationing was so effective that the restricted diet of less meat, fat and sugar, and more fruit and vegetables, left the population healthier at the end of the war than in peacetime.

But, though the nutritional research underlying all that effort was the start of much of our modern knowledge about food and health, the exhibition focussed instead on the propaganda and promotional campaigns of the Ministry. There were plenty of the iconic posters, information films and snappy "Food Flash" announcements in the cinema, radio talks and recipe suggestions sent in by listeners (what on earth was in the pudding described as "Skinflint's Joy"? Probably something described, in a comedy sketch programme used to deliver nutritional advice and cookery hints, as "Another way to disguise parsnips"). There are recipes for lots of soups (so that people could use up the likes of pea pods and turnip tops), and ways to use hedgerow fruits (sloe and marrow jam, anyone?). A lot of this lasted well into my childhood - butter papers saved to grease baking tins, school mornings broken by free milk and fish oil capsules, and rose hip syrup to liven up boring milk puddings.

It wasn't all worthy nagging. The constant reminders employed a range of approaches, sometimes congratulating the audience when, for example, huge savings in waste were being trumpeted.

The style and language can grate a bit on modern ears. Anything to do with food, cooking and home was shown as a matter for harassed housewives, and shopkeepers as authoritative older men. Information films reminded people about the massive contribution of the Commonwealth countries, but the voices supposedly expressing the enthusiasm for the cause of the different countries are all from the British upper crust (even for the Gold Coast - now Ghana). The jokiness can be clumsy and some of the advice is gratingly patronising, even to the point of stating the bleedin' obvious:

But I could only silently salute the resourcefulness of people coping with such restrictions - and realise that the snacks I went home to make for our local New Year's Eve party would have been unthinkable then. So easy for me to make some pizza tartlets (onions - almost unobtainable for about 18 months after the fall of France, olives and tomato puree - rarely, if ever, available as imported goods) and some cakes from a magazine recipe (two weeks' ration of eggs, half a week's sugar ration, almonds and stem ginger - likewise, rarely available imported luxuries). We take so much for granted.