Friday, January 29, 2010

I'm so easily led astray

I didn't get any further than the picture of Olivia Newton-John in spray-on leggings but I'm told Scarlet-Blue tagged me on a meme "to share three classic movie moments that have, in some shape or form, made me buy things/do things/think things that perhaps I shouldn't have."

I'm not proposing to open a debate about whether or not I should have been having *those* thoughts about Fay Wray and Louise Brooks and Jacqueline Bissett in a wet t-shirt. Though I do feel kind of guilty about fancying Anita Harris in "Carry on Doctor"...

Bogie in Casablanca Being a failed romantic at heart I always fancied getting myself a white jacket so that I could do that brooding, mysterious "Casablanca" look. I was streets ahead already, after all. Well, I could do brooding and utterly baffling, which is pretty close.

The time came when I could go for it. I bought myself a white jacket. It looked great on the hanger. It looked great when I put the dark grey hankie in the top pocket. Honest. It did. I don't know quite what went wrong when I put it on.

We'll draw a veil over the white flannel trousers. If it worked for Basil Radford... Well, it didn't for either of us really.

I hate umbrellas. I loathe and detest umbrellas. I once bought an umbrella. Because...

And if you imagine I'm going to explain this one you're off your head...

I should be nominating a few people to follow this meme. Consider yourself tagged if you fancy a crack at it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cold calling

"Hello? How are you today?"

"I'm fine thanks. How can I help you?"

"Am I right in saying that somebody on this number has had an accident in the past two and a half years?"


"Am I not right in saying that somebody on this number has had an accident in the past two and a half years?"


"Ah so you have had an accident?"


"Are you sure?"

"I'm extremely sure that nobody on this number has had an accident in the past ten years."

"Oh. Has a member of your family or a friend had an accident in the past two and a half years?"


"Are you sure?"

"I live alone on a desert island with only the voices to keep me company."

"Oh. Thank you very much for your time, sorry to have bothered you."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Feeding the five thousand (well, two, very hungry after they'd spent two hours in a traffice jam)

Just for the record:

  • Pease pudding
  • A wild mushroom and wine pâté I'm feeling rather smug about having made
  • Mushrooms marinaded to a Russian recipe that quite scared me but turned out OK
  • Baby new potatoes sautéd with haloumi
  • A confit of red peppers, fennel and garlic

I can do it every so often after all.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Disturbing on two counts...

My train home was delayed at signals quarter of an hour while we waited for a freight train to get out of the way. The driver had to get out to ring the signal box to get the OK to proceed.

It is the first time in my life that I have ever fancied a train driver...

...she can't have been much more than eighteen. Or else I'm getting old.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday supplement

I'm feeling my age: for the past four weeks I've been traipsing round in doubled-up socks and a body warmer. Here I am, trying to put over early George Saunders and I'm dressing like Norman Clegg. The snow has gone - huzzah! - except for the odd patches on the pavement where it got piled up. Usually by public-spirited people who cleared their driveways by shifting all the snow into three-foot-high walls either side, on the pavement. And fingers to the bloke who got cross because I kicked his walls down so that an old chap with a stick could get by. (Not an entirely selfless act as I was that old chap.)

This is a single male household, and I gave up on standards a while back, but even so I am distressed by the state of the hall. Again. I was so distressed by it last weekend that I steam-cleaned the floor. I could have saved my time, it's as bad again. Snow, salt and big heavy walking boots have done their worst: it looks like every pigeon in Christendom has roosted in the hall for the past two months. So I set to again, and the floor now looks merely grubby.

In the process I noticed that the radiator pipe needed resealing again. I've learnt from experience that this isn't one of those jobs for duct tape, it needs sealing within the nut of the valve, which requires the use of a silicone gun. That's me, with a silicone gun. Like all good DIY prats I work on the basis that more is better and by the time I'm finished I look like a five-year old pastry chef. But let's see some water leak out of that, eh?

The third time's the charm. I think.

Sundays used to be so different. Nothing to do all day except listen to the wireless and get thumped by my sister for pinching her 'Action Man' so that the goldfish had someone to talk to. We'd start off with Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart with Junior Choice, which always seemed, even in the 1970s, to choose the same variety of 1950s novelty records that Uncle Mac used to play before him. Then it would be Worldwide Family Favourites.

"What's the weather like over Cologne?"
"Well, Jean, it's a bit drizzly today."

"And here's a card from Sapper Loomis of BFPO 45 in British West Hartlepool saying love to mum, granny and the kids and to tell Mavis that the rash has nearly cleared up completely now."

Ah yes. Then it would be a comedy show. Sunday at 2pm on the Light Programme usually meant something from the North of England, usually from James Casey's stable. It wasn't always 'The Clitheroe Kid,' though it sometimes felt like it. 'The Clitheroe Kid' did have smashing opening and closing music, though. If it wasn't from the North of England it was 'The Navy Lark,' a series I have come to treasure as I realise the parallels between the cartoon world of H.M.S. Troutbridge and Naval Command Portsmouth on the one hand and my own working environment on the other. (I know that I'm not alone in noticing the parallel between 'The Navy Lark' and the public library sector.)

Hereonin it was downhill all the way. The fading daylight of winter and the damp from the washing-up of the Sunday meal signalled that it was time to start putting off the weekend's homework. Just to make the point that life can't be all fun, the BBC would give us two hours of Cheery Charlie Chester.

"And here's a letter from Mrs. Ailsa Mutterbucket from Chorley who tells me that her husband's poorly in hospital with a horrible disease he caught at work, that both her infant children have had to go out to work in the mill to pay for her medicine after being under the doctor for the past ten years and to cap it all, last Wednesday her beloved cat, Marmalade, was run over by a corporation steam roller. Mrs. Mutterbucket asks if I could play something by Mario Lanza as he was always such a comfort at Catterick Barracks. Thanks for your letter, Ailsa. And just for you here's The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, to sing 'Hey Little Hen.'"

And the homilies. Oh the homilies! All preceded by a 'jungle' chant jingle that was a bit iffy even in those days.

"Down in the jungle, working all the day, here's what the natives all say!"

Then he'd drift off into some dreary platitudinous drivel. Suffice it to say that the tag line for the programme was: "With a box full of records and a bag full of post, it's radio Soapbox and Charlie your host!"

Then things got worse. As you sucked the end of your pencil and wondered whether you could persuade your parents to buy a dog so that they could eat your maths jotter it started.
"Sing something simple..."

Yes, it was the Cliff Adams singers, with that bloody accordion, to bring a slough of despair into the merriest of households. Here's one of their more upbeat numbers.

So here I am, umpty-dump years later, still not doing my homework but at least not festooned by the miseries of radio. Another triumph for The Ascent Of Man.

STOP PRESS: Russell Grant's horoscope tells me that I should "invest in a computer to ease your workload." Well, good luck to the idiot.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Keeping tabs

One of the Saturday rituals is that I nip round to my parents to cadge a meal and a read of the paper and while I'm there I load up my mum's pill box for the week. She's perfectly capable of doing it herself but it makes me feel like I'm doing something useful. Given all the tablets they're both on I'm astonished they don't rattle but I'm assured this is the norm these days (they couldn't all be placebos, could they?)

The packaging and wrapping of the tablets are just as illogical as any other modern consumable. There are teeny, tiny white pills in teeny, tiny blister packs that can only be opened with a pair of tweezers and a jeweller's glass. There are blister packs that appear to hold big, old-fashioned Zoobs and just disgorge teeny, tiny white pills. The huge red bottle is mostly huge, white stopper. And the horse tablets, two to be taken twice daily, are in the smallest packet in the bag o'pills.

All jammed into the appropriate compartments of the pill box it looks like a child's kaleidoscope. Until the other week it all had a nice retro feel to it: lots of whites and creams, big two-tone capsules in crimson and brown, puce lozenges and capsules in a lovely combination of biscuit yellow and a pale Hooker's green that always reminded me of Ford Anglias. Alas, they've been replaced by a rather garish buttercup yellow and bottle green. I complained about this to my mother.

"They used to be pink and white, I prefer this colour," she replied.

"Why is Thursday morning still there? What happened on Thursday?"

"I've no idea. Don't worry about it."

My dad reminds me that Albert Scanlon was buried on Wednesday. "It's funny to think that I played against him when he was playing for St. Wilf's," says my dad, who was a useful inside-right in his time. I doubt if they've seen each other since then: when the corporation knocked down the old slums to build new ones the lost tribes of Hulme were scattered to the four winds.

When I left they were debating the pros and cons of having Christmas pudding with their tea tonight. There are times when they scare me to death, but I suspect they're getting by rather better than I am.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


A couple of my friends are from Lanarkshire. The lady of the pair is tall and lean and possessed of that loud, clear diction so beloved of the finishin schools of Hamilton. Dressed up in her Women's Institute bondage gear she looks quite scary. In fact she's a real pussycat, though she'd strongly object to such a slur on her character. At first, and second, glance you'd think her partner a quieter, more contemplative sort and the steadying influence in the relationship. Looks can be deceiving: he's the one who'll tell a coach party to stop rustling their toffee papers because he's trying to watch the play.

We were in a restaurant the other day. Nice place, good food. The party next to use were a group of young blokes in their cups talking bollocks. One in particular was issuing forth with his banalities in an especially loud bray. I could see my companions tensing up. I wasn't much fussed myself: my inner recording angel was enjoying the cabaret.

"If I shaved my beard off I'd look just like my twin brother. It's uncanny!"

"Look, I'm all in favour of the European Union. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't have anything to do with it except as a controlling power to stop Brussels taking over the continent."

"How many of us have got a Gilette razor? I've got a Gilette razor. I bought it so that if I shaved my beard off I'd have a Gilette shave."

In the end my friend snapped:

"Excuse me. Please could you keep the volume down? It's not as if you're interesting."

They muttered apologies and settled down and we resumed our conversation. Being a very serious foodie, the lady had been annoyed by a recent promotion that had concentrated on the size of the pizza rather than the quality. As she told our now very quiet corner of the restaurant:

"Och, seven inches should be enough to satisfy anybody!"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday singalong

Jump up and down and wave your knickers in the air.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Saturday night at the movies

I'm a fan of W.C.Fields, though his feature often disappoint: boring longeurs of studio set-pieces punctuated by flashes of lunatic genius. If you check out the plots and the character names of his films on the Internet Movie Database you'll get an idea of just how good the films might have been, given their chance.

Pool Sharks (1915) is his first film and it could, frankly, be anybody in that part. Am I the only one to think he looks like Steve Martin here?

Fields was a professional juggler, and often brought tricks of the trade onto the screen, whether it was a hat that seemed to have a life of its own or getting a fountain involved in a ping-pong match. A lot of his physical comedy was informed by a deft sense of space and timing (keep an eye out for some of his double-takes in the last fillum here). He here is actually being a juggler. You'll notice the name of the act...

"And tomorrow East Lynne!"

And here he is in the glorious short "The Dentist." It's most famous for the scene with the patients (we usually get to see a bowdlerised version), but the domestic scenes have a magic of their own.

WC Fields -TheDentist

"Get those teeth out of there, too, they're right in my line."

"Can I use gas?"
"Gas or electric light, I'd get nervous of you fooling around with me in the dark."

Don't be mean with the beans, mum

There are them folk who plan ahead and soak dried beans in water overnight for meals the next day. And there are others, like me, who say stuff that for a game of soldiers and open a tin. Whichever you are, here's another game I play with my slow cooker. You'll need:

  • A tin of small beans, or at least smaller ones than the ones in
  • A tin of big beans. I find that a mixture of haricot beans with cannelini or brolotti beans is good; red kdney beans paired with butter beans gives you an entirely different, but still good, result
  • As much garlic as you want
  • A big onion
  • A red sweet (bell) pepper
  • One of those carrots you were going to give to a donkey
  • A big red tomato, or a couple of little ones (those big black Crimean heritage tomatoes are great for this if you ever grow them)
  • Dried chili - if you're a chili poseur like me this will be a dried ancho and a dried chipotl; if you're a normal human being it's be a tablespoon of chili flakes; if you're really a normal human being it'll be a teaspoon of chili flakes
  • A couple of fresh chilis; jalapenos or Hungarian wax peppers work best, but go along with your heat tolerance
  • A lime
  • A teaspoon of sweet paprika (plus a teaspoon of smoked paprika if you want)
  • Some tomato puree
  • Dried oregano, and/or thyme if you want; winter savoury is good if you've got it
  • Ground cinammon

Singe the skin of the peppers (including the chilis) over a flame, enough to make it blacken and bubble slightly. If you're really fussed you could skin the thing if you want, but if you were that fussed you wouldn't be following my recipe anyway. Deseed and chop roughly.

If you're using whole dried chilis you'll want to chop them roughly, too.

Finely chop the garlic, onion and carrot and sweat them in a frying pan with some olive oil. You want to be softening and only very slightly colouring the onion. Now add the pepper. Give it all a stir, warm through then transfer the lot to the pot of the slow cooker.

Drain the tins of beans and put the beans in the pot. Add a can-full of water. Grate a bit of lime zest into the pot then add the juice of the lime (heavily rolling the lime on a worktop will release a lot of the juice). Chuck everything else except the oregano into the pot with a bit of salt and pepper then stir the pot. I like the combination of cinammon and tomatoes so I put a few shakes of the jar (barely quarter of a teaspoon) into the mix. Cook on low for an hour then add some dried oregano.

Give it another hour and see how it tastes. I like this with rice or couscous, or spooned onto tortillas with a bit of grated cheese.

Variations? Endless. Mushrooms, fresh and/or dried are good. Green beans finely cut into discs the thickness of a coin add interest. Corn, barley, cracked wheat, all tried and all are splendid. Committed carnivores would add some chopped salami to the pot. A big sprig of rosemary stuck in at the beginning changes the dish entirely.

Visiting friends in the States I once picked up a jar of pickled watermelon rinds. These are excellent; sweet, unctuous and with a slight spicy bite to them. They worked brilliantly in this dish, adding a depth to the sauce as well as another texture.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Mystery meat

The always-excellent "Not always right" page has a classic customer encounter...

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Cold comfort

My parents bought me an electric slow cooker a few years back and a great boon it has been, even before the weather turned nasty. It has two great advantages:

  • You prep the food, chuck it in the pot, plug in and go away.
  • There are a lot of cuts of meat that are cheap and very tasty but too tough to just whap on the grill for five seconds and pretend it's cooked.

When we were kids (and every so often now if I'm lucky when I pop round for lunch) we would have shin beef. This would have been simmering on a low heat on the hob for a few hours beforehand and delicious it was, too. This is a good one to do in a slow cooker. In these times of financial crisis, it's worth pointing out that it's dead cheap, too*.


  • Shin of beef, cut into lumps about one- or two-inch cubed
  • A few carrots
  • A big onion
  • Some spuds
  • Water

Unless the cow was very, very, very young, shin of beef is meat that has done a lot of work. On the down side it isn't naturally tender. On the plus side it's jam-packed with flavour. Slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue that makes it so chewy. You'll want to trim off any excess fat (I know fat means flavour but there'll be plenty enough left within the meat itself). Don't brown the meat before placing it in the pan. I know you're supposed always to do it, just this once don't. Shin of beef tends to go "eek!" at the touch of direct heat.

Choice of variety of spud? If it'll make good chips it'll do fine here. There are times when a potato's tendency to fall enriches a dish, tater hash being a case in point, but in this case we want the potatoes to take on the taste of the stew but keep their identity.

Chop the carrots and onions up. Not too finely, you don't want them disintegrating, about the thickness of a pound coin will do.

Chuck everything into the pot; roughly, veg then meat then veg, and just cover with water. You don't want to get to the top of the pan: both the meat and the vegetables will release more water. A bit of salt and a very little pepper. Slowly bring the pot to the boil. Give it a minute or two then turn the heat right down to barely a simmer. Now leave it alone for at least three hours. The meat should be tender by now. If not, leave it a bit longer. (Actually, this is a good one to do one day and reheat the next.) The flavour of the meat and vegetables will have infused both the clear, golden broth and the potatoes.

Dead simple, cheap, unpretentious and tasty, honest.

You can complicate this if you want. Turnips work well with the carrots. Peppers, garlic, mushrooms, the gourds of your choice, can each or all add their little something. If, like me, you like pearl barley, chuck a handful in. You may want to add beans. Parsley stalks are good additions (tie them together, you'll be wanting to remove them at the end); you can add the shredded leaves at the end of the cooking (I'm not sophisticated enough to know words like chiffonade). A bay leaf or two; or myrtle if you have it. Thyme's good, as is marjoram. Rosemary and tinned tomatoes gives it that 1980s "Provencal" vibe. You might want to add a slug of Worcestershire Sauce. Or anchovy essence. Or wine. Or ale. You get the idea.

An uncompromisingly savoury version can be made by replacing the water with Guinness and adding a few chopped-up pickled walnuts. You might find the results a bit bitter for your taste, if so you can ease it back up a bit by adding a tablespoonful of redcurrant jelly and giving it another quarter of an hour.

* Of course, if you're really on your uppers you'd probably just be having beans on toast anyway.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Running a cold, and having chapped lips, I popped into the chemist's for a stick of lip balm.

"Is it properly kissproofed?" I asked.

"Is it an issue?" asked the pharmacist.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Britain shivers

I'm not going to do any prognostications this year because last year's were scarily accurate and I don't want to play any more.

Far better to live for the day. (The one and only prediction I will make is that someone may need to remind me of this some time this year.)

Given how cold and blowy it's been, the garden is still remarkably green. There aren't actually all that many evergreens out there - the tree heather, a couple of small, shrubby Hebes, a Skimmia a... well, there are quite a few evergreens out there, but most of them are at the bottom end of the garden. Closer to the house, the Cape fuchsias and the Penstemons are still in full leaf, though the last of the flowers were at the beginning of December. The geraniums, sweet williams and lobelias gave up on flowering the week before Christmas.

Half a hundredweight of lard and a few bushels of seeds virtually guarantee me six or seven species of birds at any one time. One of the treats of looking out of the window is the flock of sparrows that are around more often than not. There's never less than a dozen at a time, which comes as a great relief. The starlings, sometimes as many as twenty-three of them, descend on the garden three times a day. You don't have to look out of the window to know they've arrived. I'm of two minds about the arrival of bullfinches. I'm delighted to see them, but I hope they'll leave the fruit trees alone. The long-tailed tits, on the other hand, are an unalloyed delight.

Oh look: there are buds on the Hellebores. A promise of Spring.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

One of the weekend mysteries

I wonder what song my niece thinks she's singing when she trills:

The bells ring for Tim,
The cat is bald,
King of the wild frontier!

I blame the father.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The remains of the day

Friday, January 01, 2010