Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Here comes the Sun and I say...

...Really? Is that he best you can do?

I went to Waitrose  yesterday and glanced at the newspaper stand. The Sun's headline caught my eye: Maggie dead in bed at Ritz.
It's only my own words I make up.
As a factual statement, I guess you can't fault it, but I was under the impression that the Sun has bulging files of potential headlines, just waiting for the right news story. If that is true, is that really the best they could manage? Perhaps they were caught on the hop and simply weren't expecting it, but I'm not sure how that could be; Margaret Thatcher has been I'll and frail for some time. I don't think it was a state secret.

I was half expecting other papers to follow with:

 'Maggie not immortal after all,' say Sun. 'Who knew?'

I'm just saying, from the paper that brought us this, I was expecting more; I was expecting better:

Speaking of Margaret Thatcher, I remember the day she was elected, with the same kind of clarity my parents generation refer to when asking, 'Where were you when Kennedy died?' Born in 1971, I grew up in Thatcher's Britain. I was eight when she became prime minister and I was at a friend's house, playing with their Play-doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop TM set (Google with care), when my dad arrived to take me home.

Just so you know, I didn't make up that, either.

'Margaret Thatcher's prime minister!' he declared, as he arrived in the kitchen/Play-doh salon.

'Oh no!' I replied. 'Not that awful woman!'

I clearly remember the brief silence that followed, and the stunned look on my dad's face. You can't blame him - I wasn't a precocious child and neither was I politically aware. I'd seen her on Newsround, explaining, in that way of hers (head tilted to one side, breathy voice that bore a slight hint of patronage) to some disgruntled school children, why they no longer had school milk. 

'What have you got against her?' asked Dad.

'She's got that awful voice! I can't stand the thought of having to listen to her go on and on!'

Privately, I also lamented the fact that the information I'd pencilled into my Brownie Pocket Book was now incorrect. Under, 'Who is the prime minister of the United Kingdom?' I'd carefully written, 'Jim Callaghan', and I'd had to ask people for the answer, too. All that effort and research, for him to be replaced by, 'that awful voice'.

I do vaguely remember the explanation of British politics that followed my outburst, but I'd pretty much gone back to sculpting the perfect bouffant from yellow Play-doh.

We are a play-doh likeness.

Monday, 18 March 2013

There's an App for that

I'm stuck at home at the moment, nursing (not in the American sense - not any more) two sick children, one sick husband and one sick me. Of course, you know what happens when you get stuck at home for days on end? Well, yes, you do go stir-crazy, but you also run out of groceries. About the middle of last week, our cupboard was looking about as bare as Old Mother Hubbard's. However, this being the modern age 'n'all, I wasn't too worried. I knew I could shop online. In fact, since the arrival of the Nexus 7 tablet, online shopping just got easier...or so I thought.
Fire up the Nexus, Fido!

Using the app for my favourite online retailer, the one that brings me James in a Courgette Van, I logged-in, booked my delivery slot and began my shopping. Mid-shop, I was abruptly logged-out and the tablet helpfully informed me that an automatic update was taking place. I was able to log back in again and complete my shopping...but not pay for it. In order to check out, I had to choose a new password, confirm my new password and then log back in again....which required me to choose a new password, confirm my new password.... ad blooming infinitum!

Dear reader, I do confess I did once type the password, 'o4duxsake,' or something very similar. Will I ever learn?

(Thanks to
Anyway, during the time this took, my delivery slot got passed to someone else. And then all the following day's slots became unavailable. And then I might have got a bit cross, because I was ill and had no groceries. And I might have dashed off a home-counties-style angry email.

The following day brought me no groceries, but an apologetic email. (By now I'd had a Lemsip and was feeling a little apologetic, myself.) Apparently there was a glitch in the app, which they were working on. Full of hope and paracetamol, I logged back in, only to find the Glitch still running amok, having stolen not just Christmas but any chance of me receiving bread and milk by the weekend.
 Wait, no...that's the Grinch

I then turned to the supermarket where you slap your back pocket to show you've made some savings. Ah, what a stress-free process that was!

Delivery time, however, brought it's own challenges, which I guess was at least something, because it didn't bring all my groceries. Now, tell me, if you were scouring the supermarket shelves for 'free-from fusili, 500g packet,' would you, dear reader, would you think, 'Well I guess this 1kg pack of wheat pasta will do'? Would you? Because if you would, you'd be about 1000 grammes of wheaten wrong! Like Rod Campbell in his quest for a pet, 'I sent it back.'

It's OK though, because I wasn't relying on the pasta. (And because even I, in the grip of fever and ague, can spot a first world problem. I may not have got all my groceries, but I did get a grip.)

I also took a phone call from the original online retailer. A very nice lady from customer services thanked me for my email. I felt bad about that, I must admit. She said that they were glad I'd alerted them to the glitch, gave me some tips for getting around it until it's fixed and asked me to report any further problems as that would be very helpful. So I'm officially helping them now. Except I'm not on a salary from them. Yeah, so that's probably just code for, 'We've got a live one here!' isn't it?

She asked me if there was anything else she could help me with. Rumour has it they have a delivery driver named Jesus. You get a text, giving you the name of your driver and the vegetable the van is named after. I long for a text saying, 'Your groceries will be delivered by Jesus in a Cabbage van,' truly I do. I would never delete it. So, when the customer services operative asked me what else she could do for me, I very nearly said, 'Yes, can you please arrange for Jesus to deliver my groceries?' but it occurred to me that I was probably on speaker phone, on account of the whole office having already sniggered at my email. So I didn't.

Good news, the glitch is fixed. Now, where's my pay check?

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Lovely Bones

There is an expression doing the rounds at the moment, which keeps playing on my mind. This isn't unusual for me; I pick up on other people's expressions all the time, often adopting them for my own use. Other times I just let them run round and round my head, probably until something else comes along to take its place. Its quite a distraction, really.
I know how you feel, Kylie.
It's not just expressions either. Rhythm and tone also fall prey to my magpie tendencies. If I'm somewhere where the dominant accent is very different to my own, I have to make a conscious effort not to speak back in the same accent. Especially if the accent is Welsh. One episode of Stella  or Fireman Sam and I come over all Dilys Price. (Presh.)
I suppose he is quite appealing.

Still, the expression that is running round and round my head now is not Welsh, it's just a bit weird, or maybe it's only weird to someone with a with a visual mind and a slight tendency to see these things literally, and it literally makes me wince. And, yes, I do mean, 'literally'. It's, 'Ooh, I love the bones of him!' Or her, but it seems to be more often him. If you know what I'm saying.*

Of course, I know that's not what it means. I know it means you love someone so completely, you love them down to their very marrow. But it sounds weird. And why stop at the bones? Why not declare undying affection for his pancreas, or his spleen. 'Ooh, I love his organs!' Hmm...OK, maybe not. I can see how that would get misinterpreted.
You couldn't remain impartial about this one.
Anyway, if you were going to impress me with an outlandish declaration of love, it wouldn't be my bones you'd have to demonstrate great affection for, oh no. My bones are so-so - much like yours, I imagine. No, if you want to convince me that you're the one, it's my immune system you need to state a liking for, because that's the thing that'll cause you the most grief, believe you me.
*small print: I'm saying it seems to be overused by fluffy-talking women.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Over-Egging the Pudding

I'm busy writing a novel at the moment. Well, actually I'm busy writing this blog entry, and baking chocolate steamed pudding, and packing for the Mouse to go on Brownie Holiday. When not doing any of those things, I'm working, or cleaning, or shopping, or just sitting down with a cup of tea. You get the picture: I'm employing a variety of avoidance techniques and very much not writing my novel.
 A woman's work, like the next tricky chapter of my novel, is never done.

Actual childhood photograph of me.
I've been writing this novel for years, It is set in my childhood and early adulthood. When I first started writing it, the latter part of the novel was a work of contemporary fiction, if I don't crack on with it, I will have to start approaching publishers of historical fiction. That's right, folks, I started as Joanne Harris and will finish as Georgette Heyer.

In case you're polite enough to wonder what it is about, it's about cooking and the healing power of a good meal, pretty much. I've shamelessly mined my own past for incidents, characters, locations and ideas and then added a lot of fictional events. I have to add that bit, as my main character finds herself guilty of 'murder by omelette' and, to the best of my knowledge, I've never killed anyone with my cooking, although my family still refer to the awful day when I served 'Avocado and Chocolate Mousse' as a nadir in my culinary adventures. It was completely inedible and I will never make it again. Nobody died though, despite the children's dramatic objections.
Good gracious, it was vile!
The novel begins with a description of a grandmother's kitchen, which, coincidentally, sounds very much like my own grandmother's kitchen. 'Granma,' as she was known (she almost always missed out the 'd') was a keen cook. Aged 14, she'd gone into service and, according to her, generally ruined various dishes in the kitchen of the big house where she worked. Somebody, presumably the cook, taught Granma (Phyllis, as she was then) how to cook and she gradually became a lot better at it. I'm not sure of she ever graduated from 'Daisy' to 'Mrs Patmore,' as she got married before she would have had much chance of promotion but she did later get a job as a school cook and some of my strongest memories of her are linked to the dishes she made and the way she made them. Some of my own early cookery lessons came from her, although I don't generally cook on quite the grand scale she did. I don't know whether it was as a result of a simple country childhood, livig through the War and rationing or just a general love of abundance, but Granma never cooked by halves. An ordinary Sunday tea would invole a table bursting with good things to eat and Granma's admonishments of , 'Have another - go on. Ooh, Jacqui Spratty, you don't eat enough to keep a flea alive!' It was like dining with the Berkshire equivalent of Mrs Doyle.
Not my Grandmother.
Christmas was when Granma really exercised her love of abundance, though. For reasons that still aren't clear to me, she always insisted we had turkey and pork or, with her talent for spoonerisms, 'Perky and tork,' often corrected to, 'Oh - Perk and torkey!'. My aunts - one of them Granma's daughter and the other married to one of Granma's sons, would join in, each vying to bring the most avant-garde stuffing, the tastiest Christmas cake or biggest gateau. We had the largest living room, so would often host dinner for the masses, which meant living off leftovers for quite some time afterwards - there was always far too much to eat in one day, or even in one week.  The highlight of the Christmas dinner, however, was Granma's Christmas pudding. Huge, with several smaller versions given and stowed away - I'm fairly certain one year we had puddings from the same batch, two years running - it would be pretty much drowned in brandy and carried in like an Olympic torch much to the loud potestations of her firefighter son-in-law. I sure they'd deny it, but I'm fairly certain that's why my dad and uncles tried to recreate the most memorable scene from 'Towering Inferno' every year. Every family has their peculiar traditions: the annual torching of the Christmas puddng was one of ours.

It wasn't just the serving of the pudding that was steeped in tradition and alcohol, however. Making it was just as much a ritual. If you were at Granma’s house when the pudding was being made, you got to have a ceremonial stir and make a wish. The thing is, you weren’t allowed to wish for any old thing. Oh no! There was one particular thing you had to wish for. When one of my uncles (one of the filial pyromaniacs) was small, he had a kitten whom he adored. I remember that cat; he was a beautiful long-haired grey cat called Smoky, who either consented to be petted or totally ignored you, as he saw fit. In  between times he pretty much ruined the legs of the kitchen hutch cupboard, by using them as a scratching post. When Smoky was still a kitten and my uncle still a little boy, he was asked to stir the pudding and urged to, ‘Make a wish, Neville!’ Closing his eyes tight and stirring with all his might, Neville uttered the words, ‘I wish my cat grows nice and big!’ In one of those strange quirks of family history, the wish itself became a tradition and Uncle Neville has never been allowed to forget it. For as long as I can remember, I have stirred puddings, cut cakes and blown out candles, all to the words, ‘I wish my cat grows nice and big!’ On my wedding day, I went to cut the cake, turned to face my uncle, opened my mouth to speak and all that side of the family roared with laughter, as Uncle Neville good-naturedly said, ‘Oh, shut up!’ My own children know they’d better wish for the same thing too.  

How I propose to add the finishing touches.
Regarding the alcohol, Granma once conspiratorially informed me, ‘I always make it with Guinness, Jack Spratt.’ A lesson I dutifully committed to memory. Despite that, I’ve never actually made a Christmas pudding. There was never really any need to when Granma was around, and then my dad took over the tradition, although he did scale back the quantities somewhat. This year, my lovely neighbour, the Pink Engineer, kindly offered to make our Christmas cake, so I thought I’d give the pudding a go. I’ve borrowed Dad’s copy of his mum’s recipe book, so I can make the real thing. Good sense tells me I ought to scale back the quantities too, but a desire to make a true tribute pudding and curiosity as to just how many puddings it makes, has led me to try and attempt the full eight egg, pound of this, pound of that version. Granma made hers in an old china washstand bowl, which now resides at Uncle Neville’s (only fair, given his wish contribution) and I don’t have anything big enough to mix the pudding in. A lament of this nature, posted on Facebook brought in the loan of a brand new washing up bowl from friend and former work colleague, Thermal Girl (I hope she doesn’t mind being called that, but she’ll know why!). We agreed ‘a pudding’ as suitable payment. Pink Engineer has been offered a pud as payment for the cake, although she’s not really getting a good deal there as I’m making her supply her own pudding basin. A further pudding has been offered to my dad. Let’s hope it works!

I’ll let you know how it goes, although I’ll be relying on the comments of others since it will be full of ingredients I can’t eat. I’ve decided not to try and make it free-from this year: for my first attempt, I’m going to try and faithfully follow Granma’s recipe. If it works and I’m feeling cocky next year, well watch this space…

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Little House Cookbook

Amazon, in one of their slightly unsettling moments of knowing more about me than I'd like them to, has correctly deduced that two of my favourite activities are reading Little House books and cooking. In what must be something of a triumph for them, they have come up with the ultimate book for me and emailed me forthwith, with the happy news that I can now purchase, 'Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories'.

All set and ready to bake!
I've got to admit, I'm tempted. What a marvellous way to indulge my inner 1880s pioneer woman! With this book propped open on the kitchen counter, I could make Johnny Cake, Vanity Cakes and churn my own butter. Mind you, I'm not really sure you need a book for all of this: the books themselves are so detailed that by the end of one slim volume, anyone with a mind to it and a ready supply of logs, bear grease, old button and a candle wick could easily build themselves a cabin and construct a button lamp. There is a minutely detailed account of how to make butter, how to fry salt pork in an iron spider and how to use every last bit of a recently slaughtered pig. On second thoughts, I'm not so sure this recipe book is such a good idea. It's not the pig I'm worried about, it's more that a true Little House Cookbook would involve recipes nobody much would want to make.
Blizzard raging from October 'til May? Nearly all your wheat supplies used up? Game either hunted to extinction or frozen under eight feet of snow? Family racked by cabin fever and malnutrition? Worry no more! Try our recipe for 'coffee grinder wheat'. That's right: use your coffee grinder to make flour, using the last of your seed wheat. The work is exhausting, largely unproductive and you've run out of leavening anyway, but follow our simple instructions and you may just save your family from starvation!

It's hard work!
Trust me, I've been on the Dakota prairies and ground wheat in a coffee grinder and it is thankless work! Oh, all right, I was just trying it at a visitor centre and doing a bit of re-enacting. And it was hot and sunny. But I've tried it, right? And it was hard work! And that's the thing, all these tie-in products and experiences give us a taste of life on the frontier, but it's a fleeting glimpse, not the real thing. I don't think I'd want the real thing, to be honest (note the hint of indecision there!). Year after year of ruined harvest, debt, isolation, hardship, near-starvation... it all sounds a bit much. That's the thing with being drawn to the past, isn't it? On the one hand, you can tap into the strangely satisfying yearning for a different, less complicated time. On the other, you'd probably be lying if you thought the lack of plumbing, heating or enough food to eat was really an option. One Amazon reviewer inadvertently has a go at summing it up, thus:

I was so annoyed I had to take a pen and cross over all the -homogenized- in basically every single recipe that included milk. The author even uses homogenized milk when making butter, which is utterly ridiculous because you cannot separate the fat from the milk and thus make butter if you use homogenized milk...

And further more, the first homogenizing machine was patented in 1899, and therefore homogenized milk isn't applicable on traditional cooking in the 1800s.

That's right, K. Norsetdt: ridiculous! I hate it when 'homogenized' takes over a cookbook and you're so darned right about the first homogenising machine (at least I assume you are - I can't be doing with verifying that). There was no homogenized milk on the prairies in the 1880s (to be fair, once the cow got malnutrition too, there was no milk of any kind and l can tell you're not one to split hairs). You know what else? There was no darned Amazon, either! Stick that in your purist's cup of milk and homogenise it!
You see, folks, you can't have it all. You can buy the Little House Cookbook (and I still might - Ma's instructions for vanity cakes were awfully vague and I can't hold a proper Plum Creek party without them now, can I?) and hope to rekindle a little of that way of life, but you can't replicate it entirely.
Not also available in Bronte.
Right, well I'm off now to 'pill a putatuh,' in the style of the Bronte's household servant. Wait - no - I don't think they had Good Grips peelers back then! Bother it! I'll have to think of something else to do now. Perhaps I'll read this blog instead and wish I'd thought of that.
Small print (because I know Nancy likes this bit): I know you're not supposed to start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'. But sometimes I want to. Also, the lovely picture of the ingredients came from the blog linked to above. I have no idea if the milk in the picture is homogenised.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Fanfic

Is it me, or is this the year when the whole nation is gripped by craze after craze, fevour after fervour? I like a little bit of collective, national joy and happily bedecked my home in red, white and blue bunting for the jubilee, thus subscribing to two current fads: jubilee fervour and bunting. In fact, mine was home-made from fabric scraps, so I can tick off 'vintage' and 'shabby chic' too. The bunting is still up, looking a little more pastel now, having been battered by the elements for the best part of the worst part of what felt like a month or two of rain. I'm keeping it up for the Olympics (ticks another box) and the street party (tick). I've also finally given in to the cultural and baking tsunami that is cupcakes. For several years now, I have resisted the urge to over-ice over-sized cakes, believing the humble fairy cake was in danger of extinction. To my mind, the marauding cupcake was the invading grey squirrel, pushing the native red squirrel (fairy cake - stay with me) to the very peripheries of the British Isles, i.e. my kitchen. However, the realisation that icing cupcakes might be fun finally dawned on me and now the two types of cake are able to co-exist in my kitchen.

One craze I haven't yet succumbed to is reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' I thought I might give it a go, given that everyone was talking about it and I didn't want to feel left out. I had visions of trying valiantly to hold up my side of the conversation, while all around me were discussing topics I had no knowledge of...

Me: I've just discovered how to do a 3-M swirl on cupcakes!
Other, much cooler, people: Hmmm? Yeah, so anyway, have you got to the bit about the red room yet?
Me: Huh? What? No, my kitchen's painted green...

It's not like me, though, to dive into anything without first reading up on the topic, even when the topic itself is, er, reading, so I read reviews and online extracts and decided that it simply wasn't my thing. I decided to take the, 'slightly superior' line, because, y'know, everyone loves somebody who does that, and tried rolling my eyes at anything involving Fifty Shades, but then I discovered that 'rolling your eyes,' in Fifty Shades parlance, is not a very good idea. Not unless you want to be on the naughty step, or a slightly ramped up version of it...apparently. So anyway, I decided to read up on it enough so that I could partake of Fifty Shades of chat, without actually reading it. I do that a lot. In fact, I'm a bit of a Wikipedia: full of information, but not all of it verifiable.

Today I was talking to a lovely and very talented friend, who has a real gift for writing but who is currently struggling to get her novel published. I don't know why, as I've read it (yes, actually read it) and it is really good. She was encouraging me to write too, but since I am currently 'under the weather' and my brain isn't working quite as well as it should, I declined. I then wondered, aloud, if I could attempt some kinky fanfic, suggesting, rather meanly, that maybe it didn't take much brain power to write. (Miaow!) My friend suggested I write kinky Little House fanfic. I know - it sounds like sacrilege, but here goes:

Laura looked longingly at Almanzo, his hair tousled and his pants hanging from his hips. ‘Holy Moley!’ she said aloud, despite her congrationalist upbringing, and bit her lip. He grasped the log firmly and rammed it into place. Her inner goddess danced a jig and all her corset stays quivered.

‘For Pete’s sake, Laura,’ he gasped. ‘Help me with this log, will you?’

 She shattered into a thousand tiny pieces and her inner goddess made a mental note to put them back together again later. Exactly as she was bid, Laura grasped the other end of Almanzo’s mighty log.

 ‘Stop asking questions and help me build the dashed thing!’ he commanded, commandingly and in a commanding manner.

‘Build?’ she asked, ‘Build?’ This was something he had never yet asked of her and Laura wasn’t sure she was up for this. Wavering momentarily, she took a moment to consult her inner goddess, who was at that very moment wondering whether to whip up a batch of fresh corn bread and Johnny cakes. At the mention of ‘whip,’ and ‘Johnny,’ her inner goddess skipped wantonly through the high waving prairie grasses and Laura’s thousands of pieces shattered into a thousand more, even tinier, pieces. Her inner goddess noted, ruefully, that the whole reassembly thing would now take a lot longer. She bit her lip. Again.
Almanzo rolled his eyes, which was OK for him to do. ‘Yes, woman: build. These are cedar logs and I’m building us another shed.’
‘Another?’ asked Laura, tremblingly, her pioneer undergarments wet like the shores of Silver Lake. ‘But, Almanzo, we have so many sheds already…’ her voice trailed off, mindful of what had happened last time she had questioned him. Her inner goddess privately wondered if decorating the parlor red had been a good idea after all.

Almanzo’s deep and powerful voice cut through her thoughts, like a knife through freshly churned butter, which you can read all about in ‘Little House in the Big Woods’. ‘Laura,’ he breathed, in that masterful way of his, ‘Of course I am building you another cedar shed: I am fifty sheds of grey.’

Well, that wasn't difficult: piece of cake! Cupcake, obviously. Or maybe cakepops. I'm told they are the new thing. Off I go to read up on them.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Rage Against the Machine

I'm so very, very tired...
Firstly, an apology: I do apologise for not writing anything lately and leaving you all hanging in cyberspace, no doubt pining for my latest missive. (Yeah, right.) My silence has been due to a number of factors: I had nothing much to say, I wasn't very well and it turns out that the end of a school year is a manically busy time, especially if you have not one but two jobs in two different educational establishments. So anyway, I haven't been around much.

Now it's the school holidays and a chance to slow down a bit, except that the start of the school holidays round here signifies the start of the St Peter's Church Holiday Club. Not much chance to relax, but a lot of fun! I'm endeavouring to produce some of the teaching materials for the younger children attending the Holiday Club. It's going OK, but you know how it is when you're trying to do something on a computer and it just won't do what you want it to do? Yeah: that! Sometimes I think life was a lot easier before we had computers. True, back then I spent hours drawing and handwriting these things, but at least when things went wrong, I had only myself to blame and could rectify most things with an eraser and a freshly sharpened pencil. These days it takes a plaintive, 'Mr Ruuuuuubbbbbbbyyyyyyyyy!' and much sotto voce cursing at the screen. Thing is, I know what I want to computer to do for me, I know it's done that for me before, but suddenly it seems to be on strike and won't do what I ask it, despite (or sometimes perhaps because of) my increasingly frantic mouse clicking). And the rage this kind of thing inspires? Well, it's impotent rage really, isn't it? Toddler tantrumming, Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew rage. You can get as cross as you like at the computer but in the end you're just ranting at code and code really doesn't give a flying fig what you yell at it.

Am I bovvered?

Incidentally, I'll be darned if I can get the images for this blog post to sit in the right place on the screen. Mr Ruuuuubbbbbyyyyyyyyy!
Small print: I borrowed the 1950s housewife picture from here.