Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Well, we're almost there...

Another decade over, a new one about to begin.

'Normal' service will resume at the Animal Disco as soon as the last cork has been popped - and trust me when I tell you that I've got a lot of waffle to fill these electronic pages as soon as the holiday is over! But in the meantime, have a wonderful one, one and all. And if you're wondering the best way to celebrate, then take my advice (or rather, Mark Twain's):

"Dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening, love like you've never been hurt and live like it's heaven on Earth" - it's always worked for me.



Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Season's Greetings, one and all!

Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without it! Have fun, Disco buddies! See you in 2010.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Girls, Girls, Girls: version 2.0


For the first (and, I hope, the only) time in my life, I’m actually grateful to Jan Moir and Nick Griffin. Heck, even the dominant chatter about the postal strike has offered a bit of relief. Still, it can’t be long before women are blamed not only for Steven Gateley’s untimely death, the BNP’s unwelcome coup and fractious communications between the Royal Mail and the CWU, but for all the world’s ills from the invasion of Iraq to premium phone line scandals - then the newspaper headlines will be back to business as usual.

Until the Moir/Griffin/postal strike obsessions, reportage in all forms was regularly dominated by stories about ‘bad’ mothers and wicked women, from reports on how the children of working mothers (which both the BBC and the Daily Mail still refer to as ‘career women’ - aaargh!) lead unhealthier lifestyles, drink more alcohol and eat poorer diets than those from a ‘traditional’ family to the rise of female paedophiles. But away from the news headlines, standards haven’t dropped one iota: ‘shocking’ primetime documentaries dominate the TV schedules, and endless ‘groundbreaking’ investigations into ‘the truth’ about women binge drinking, trawling the internet for sex or acquiring an ‘unnatural’ thirst for violence all surely serve a similar purpose: the bitch hunting season has officially started. Flick channels, and back-to-back screenings of superficially frivolous makeover shows largely focus on women who have either ‘let themselves go’ or gone too far in their quest to be ‘good enough’. How long can it be before Gok Kwan shows his lovely ladies how his Slicker Knickers™ can put an end to the global warming caused by saggy grey pants, while Trinny and Susannah show army wives What Not To Wear if they want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan?

So, is the current ‘Down on Women’ campaign highlighting proof that women ‘aren’t what they used to be’ (ie, good girls who are born to be mothers and ‘proper’ housewives - and if so, thank goodness for that!), or has society accepted that so many men are, by nature, irredeemable alcoholics and/or violent abusers who don’t give a stuff about what their children are given to eat or drink that therefore the full responsibility is on women to try - and, apparently, fail - to sort everything out? There’s little point in looking to contemporary feminist icons to solve this conundrum; we Venusians are, it seems, as intent on warring with each other as our fellow citizens on nearby Mars are encouraged to do with us. Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf - formerly my favourite reliable commentators on issues around contemporary media trends - are apparently too busy fixing their hair for their next reality TV show gig to comment, leaving genuinely wicked women like Moir, Melanie Phillips and Ann Coulter to spew as much bile against their own gender as they can hack up. With little else but a one-sided debate being thrust at us, it’s no wonder that even Michelle Elliott - founder and director of Kidscape, the charity committed to keeping children safe from abuse - is confused about what, exactly, sisters are doing not for themselves, but to each other. Although she recently acknowledged (in a feature for the Guardian) that a woman accused of abusing children is likely to be far more vilified than a male would be, she went on to say that it is women themselves who propagate a “conspiracy of silence” on the subject, blaming a “feminist axiom” for perpetuating the “myth” that it is largely men who are responsible for child abuse. If I wasn’t so busy drinking, trawling the internet for sex, filling kids with Happy Meals and squeezing into Gok’s knickers, I might have time to respond with the actual cold, hard facts. But then again, I’ve got enough on my plate having to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Girls, Girls, Girls...


I must have been around 12 years old when it happened for the first time. Kat - a family friend some 25 years older than me - was sitting at our kitchen table smoking a cigarette and drinking black coffee, her Ziggy Stardust hairdo all mussed up and traces of last night’s make up still evident around her eyes. She looked like the sort of person I’d seen in the backdrop of photos of Berlin-era Iggy, or linking arms with Debbie Harry after a night out in Studio 54. But Kat wasn’t a photo; she was real. And in our house. And smoking. And that was the moment my first Girl Crush got a grip. Fast forward some 30+ years, and I’m standing in Bristol’s Colston Hall fixated by a tousle-haired cello player swigging beer straight from the bottle as her glossy red stilettos stamp out an unruly rhythm to accompany my pitter-patter heart. Am I in lurve? No: just saturated in joyful, innocent GC lust for one night only.

Aaron Peckham’s Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) defines the Girl Crush as “a feeling of admiration and adoration which a girl/woman has for another girl/woman; a nonsexual attraction, usually based on veneration at some level”. When I had my first GC experience, I had no idea that such a state would eventually be acknowledged as a rite-of-passage phenomenon so commonplace that, three decades on, discussion of similar infatuations would become common currency in women’s magazines and chat shows, or a hot topic debate on any given girl’s night out. But neither did I ever suspect that my crush on Kat indicated inclinations or tendencies any more profound than the fact I wanted to be like her when I grew up. Today, I recognise aspects of Kat in the Me I eventually became (and my mum holds her solely responsible for my Marlboro Light habit). While my fascination with Pamela Anderson can only be blamed on not being given a Barbie doll in my formative years, I’m hoping that certain qualities and attributes inherent in my current crushes on Cheryl Cole, Mariella Frostrup and BBC news anchor Kate Middleton can be similarly absorbed into my psyche without sacrificing anything of my authentic self.

But over on Planet Boy, the inflexible male ego often dictates that a man who expresses any kind of admiration of - or empathy with - another man beyond referring to them as some sort of ‘hero’ (sport; war; whatever) must surely be a ‘poof’, while any woman who articulates related themes as I’ve done here is similarly categorised in equally obnoxious terms (or subjected to that self-conscious, knee jerk rejoinder, “can I watch?”). But Team Mars could learn a lot from the contrary Venusians sitting next to them on the settee. Most heterosexual men I know fit into three categories on the Jez-o-meter: they’re either a Clarkson, a Paxman or an Irons. But what they all fail to understand is that if they publicly acknowledged the appeal of their favourite Jeremy (or indeed, what it is that makes Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp or George Clooney such perennial objects of desire), they themselves would automatically become far more attractive than fellow team mates who blindly cling to their ‘macho’ insensibilities. Admiration is a far more attractive sentiment than envy, and few men I know wouldn’t benefit from absorbing a pinch of Parkinson, a frosting of Firth or a light sprinkling of (Jon) Snow - and I reckon they know it, too. But while many men would view formal acknowledgment of this fact akin to being caught writing a love letter to David Beckham, same-sex crush aficionados know that the aim isn’t to shag the object of your affections, just be a little bit like them; choose your crush wisely, and that can only be a positive thing - except, that is, if your first one was a chain-smoker.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Bath Thrifty Cookery Book


In my professional life, I’m always banging on about Bath’s seemingly limitless capacity for top notch eateries and celebrity chefs. So - being a bit of hippy'n’all - I try to balance the seemingly luxurious position of writing about my food for a living by doing my bit for folk who often struggle finding food they can eat in order to live. At home, meanwhile (and therefore supposedly off duty entirely), there’s nothing I like more than inviting a few friends around on a Saturday evening and spending the whole day rustling up a feast, preferably experimenting with recipes I’ve never tried before. So when an opportunity came along to combine all three elements into one fascinating, tasty package, I grabbed it with both hands - but if it hadn’t been for my ongoing experiences working for Venue, I’m not sure I’d have been up to the task of editor of (and recipe contributor to) The Bath Thrifty Cookery Book.

The publication of The Bath Thrifty Cookery Book is, on one level, a vehicle to raise awareness of Bath-based charity the DHI (see panel), which celebrates its ten year anniversary this month. The original idea for the book came about because those involved with the charity’s ‘Off The Wall’ magazine tended to end up discussing wallet-friendly recipes in their editorial meetings. But while the concept of a thrifty cookbook is hardly a new one, the book that grew out of those discussions is totally unique to Bath.

Juxtaposing recipes from DHI service users (many of which know far more than most about making their money go further) with contributions from head chefs at Bath’s most popular independent restaurants, The Bath Thrifty Cookery Book represents a fascinating collaboration of ideas, styles and abilities, resulting in a full-on collection of 30 recipes, none of which cost more than a fiver to rustle up. A democratic approach embracing all contributors means that you’ll find service user Jim Timoney’s downhome Spicy Beef Bake a couple of pages on from Michael Caines’ swanky scallops, Rachel’s Estranged Beanzy Pie following Gideon (River Cottage) Hitchin’s ragu and Steve Woods’ Misshapen Bacon Risotto snuggling up next to a recipe from Jamie Oliver’s mentor Gennaro Contaldo. Head chefs at Gascoyne Place, the Beaujolais Bistro, the Marlborough Tavern, No 5 Bistro, the Hudson Bar and Grill, the King William, Bistro La Barrique, Casanis, Velo Lounge, demuths, the Olive Tree and the Firehouse Rotisserie have all freely contributed their time and expertise to the project, and all the recipes were tested and approved using ingredients from the DHI’s own allotment at a series of DHI cook-a-thons, the results of which you’ll find on the photographs that illustrate the book throughout.

I know I’m at risk of being accused of nepotism by banging on about how good the book is. However, I played only a very small role in a team that worked far harder than I did to produce a wonderful cookery book that benefits many people on many levels. So tuck in and enjoy - I know I will.


ABOUT THE DHI

Since it became established as an independent charitable company in 1999, the DHI has worked with many thousands of individuals from a broad range of socially excluded groups, offering a bespoke programme of practical and emotional support services across Bath and North East Somerset, Wiltshire, Swindon and South Gloucestershire. By recognising that every individual’s circumstances are unique, the DHI challenges social exclusion by offering a flexible, creative approach in supporting their clients to reach their full potential and move towards becoming a valued, integral member of their community. Today, the charity represents a constantly evolving point of contact for the service users, their families and their friends, many of whom would describe their involvement with the DHI as being a life-changing - or even life saving - experience.


Buy The Bath Thrifty Cookery Book directly from the DHI, via The Pig Guide or at selected participating bookshops, restaurants and delis in and around Bath (£4.99).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Shout it while you're dancing on the-e-er dance floor...?


September always causes me to spew forth and wax lyrical about the glorious harvest festival that is the autumn menu. But this year more than ever before, I’ve noticed that, in a similar, erm, fashion to the designers who live for the annual fashionista shebang that is London Fashion Week, the food world has an annual wardrobe shake-up too. Let’s take a stroll through the current chart:

1. Pop up/underground restaurants: staying in (at a stranger’s house, and making a donation for the ‘pleasure’) is most definitely the new going out (to somewhere with a Food Standards Agency licence)

2. Things on Toast: from crab to courgettes and sumac-infused cream cheese, trendy toast toppers are the way forward.

3. Middle Eastern flavours, most notably sumac (see above). Not familiar with the lemony tasting spice/garnish proliferating throughout your mezze? You soon will be...

4. Fresh figs: supremely sexy, the ultimate ‘make the most of now’ fruit (and they’re greener than you think - fresh figs are always imported by sea, as they explode at high altitude).

5, Turnips: sweet, pretty and bang on-trend for autumn.

6. Lentils: red, green or puy - ‘tis the season to be windy.

7. Pomegranate, in pulp, seed or juice form: despite dodgy eco-credentials (you ain’t never going to see this deciduous, fruit-bearing shrub down the local allotment), foodies just can’t seem to get enough of those bright little jewels.

8. Tamarind: hot, sour, sweet, earthy, sexy - and, like, totally fashion-forward.

9. Galangal is the new ginger, seviche the new sushi and shin the new shank.

10. Water, water, everywhere: offering tap instead of expensive, imported bottled water is no longer a fad; congratulations to all concerned for turning what should never have been a novelty into the norm.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ah, Freddie....

It's a review of an album! And it's going in a proper book! And the book is going to be published this month! And I love Queen! And I love Freddie! And I'm not going to include my usual accompanying dog pic here because it would be disrespectful to all concerned...and anyway, if you read the review all the way through the end you get Freddie himself...and what could be a better prize than that???


Queen’s 1991 album ‘Innuendo’ - the last to feature entirely new material and the final studio project to be recorded before Freddie Mercury’s death - is an elaborate tapestry that weaves both bold flourishes and sublime, subtle nuances together into a richly decorated masterpiece.

Bookended by two classic but stylistically disparate anthems, a dozen strikingly individual songs chart a course that many believe mapped the emotions of those at the helm. If this is the case, the result of what must have been an inordinately harrowing experience produced a surprisingly upbeat album that offered one of the most charismatic characters in rock a fitting finale. But even if you ignore such a context, ‘Innuendo’ - from the rumbling beats at the start of the extraordinary, baroque title track to the defiantly audacious anthem ‘The Show Must Go On’ - is a bold, uplifting adventure, with the many experimental twists and turns along the way underpinned by the band’s trademark style from start to finish.

The thrilling guitar breaks, catchy refrains and raspy vocals on ‘Headlong’, the grungy ‘Hitman’ and the fast-paced rhythms that infuse the otherwise moody slow-burner ‘Ride The Wild Wind’ with energy evoke similar former glories on a pomp rock theme. The iridescent sheen of glamour that lightly coats every song sparkles most brightly on three intelligent lullabies: the emotive ‘I Can’t Live Without You’, the heartbreakingly tender ‘Don’t Try So Hard’ and the dreamy, ephemeral ‘Bijou’ all serve to showcase both Mercury’s inimitable vocal range and his fellow band members’ ability to instinctively gauge when to allow their frontman his moment in the spotlight. Elsewhere, a life-affirming blast of rock gospel set against an operatic backdrop in ‘All God’s People’ brings a spirited thrust to proceedings somewhere around the middle of this gloriously eclectic trip; so far, so very good.

It would be easy to single out the powerfully emotional ‘The Show Must Go On’ as the album’s defining aria; indeed, it’s an edifying, unforgettable tour de force. But two other tracks stand out above the rest. The layer of vaguely sinister, dark undertones that ripple menacingly beneath the superficially camp, eccentric surface of ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’ lift the song from mere novelty status into more insightful realms, turning it into an idiosyncratic paean to the bleak, disturbing feelings of desolation, alienation and sheer derangement experienced when contemplating the imminent arrival of the Grim Reaper. The surreal accompanying video featured Brian May dressed as a penguin, John Deacon as a court jester, Roger Taylor with a kettle on his head and Mercury - his manic grin beaming out from underneath a mask of melting greasepaint - wearing a formal dinner suit and balancing a bunch of bananas on top of a wild, wild wig. Combining elements of the visual extravaganzas that promoted both ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in 1975 and ‘I Want To Break Free’ almost a decade later, it was as bizarre - and, in parts, hilarious - as it was shockingly moving, exemplifying the time-honoured bravery of a pioneering rock band playing games with their audience and taking a gamble against odds that, this time around, were most definitely not stacked in their favour.

Meanwhile, ‘These Are the Days of Our Lives’ offers a very different perspective on a similar, defining theme. On one level, this contemplative, wistful ballad - penned by drummer Roger Taylor but, like the rest of the album, credited to the band as a whole - is an overly sweet, sentimental ditty, lacking depth or focus and not very typically Queen. But here, it stands alone as an enduring tribute to a man who turned his whole life into a performance. Listen carefully to Mercury’s final, breathless whispers at the end of the song, and you can rest assured that, underneath the crown, the furs and the brazen, largely untrammelled ego, there was a humble man who appreciated those around him for supporting the spectacle of his roller coaster existence as much as he enjoyed creating it.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oh please, I'm not 'that' sort of camp...


As summer prepares to do its disappearing act for another year, it’s time to take stock and recall your fondest memories of the season. Decry and protest what I’m about to say all you want, but I’m willing to bet that, for any honest person over the age of around 30, it wasn’t camping at Glastonbury.

There comes a time in every man and woman’s life when flat sandals and/or wellington boots play havoc with your fallen arches, decent bathroom facilities are a right, not an option and the constant rumble of Bolivian drummers is anathema to those who crave a good night’s sleep. So why do so many people who really should know better still insist, year after year, on grimly undertaking to endure the whole festival debacle, including running away from home to be there?

“But it’s a wonderful experience for the kids!”, they cry, as they punch the Charlton Park postcode into the Skoda Roomster’s TomTom. But come 17, those kids will (we hope) be going it alone and creating their own festival memories anyway, just as their parents once did (or maybe didn’t, hence the desperation to recapture their youth today). And unless those parents are happy about setting their kids up for years of therapy, their memories are unlikely to involve mum’s ‘Lady J’ (if you don’t know but really want to, Google it) or dad’s inability to erect his double-skin Outdoor Revolution. “But a day ticket is a cop-out!”, the Skoda family wail. Yeah, right; if you’re not feasting on an e-coli bap and wondering where the handy wipes went seven hours before the first decent band appears on stage, you’re merely a festival tourist. It seems that those old enough to remember the Beastie Boys in their earliest incarnation still believe that unless you fight for the right to party, you’ve no right to be on site. Oh, they have no idea what they’re missing...

When Jarvis Cocker took to the Glastonbury stage in 1995 and sang the opening line to ‘Sorted for E’s and Whiz’ (“is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?”), the crowd went wild - so wild that they missed the punchline. Much later on, I got in the car and drove home - yes, home: where the heart, the bathroom and the bed is - to have a long soak, a dreamy sleep and plan for tomorrow’s posh picnic. The next day I returned to the site refreshed, revitalised and all ready to pick my way over the casualties - some of whom with confused, miserable small children in tow - who seemed to have left an important part of their brain somewhere in a field in Pilton. Oh, how I pitied the poor fools!

Since my initial (dreadful!) Glastonbury Festival camping experience decades before, I’d vowed never to do it again. Decades on, and I refuse to go back on my word. Glasto, V and Download; WOMAD, Roskilde, Les Eurockennes - my fond recollections of the music, the atmosphere and the zeitgeist of the day are punctuated with memories of hotels ranging from the East Midlands Travelodge to the Hotel Ambassadeur in Belfort. Are my experiences any less authentic than those who gambled with trench foot, ‘holiday’ tummy or donating their entire temporary abode to ruthless thieves? Is a nightcap enjoyed at a warm, snug bar more or less of a ‘festival high’ than a dodgy tab pushed at me by some mashed up bloke from Camden Town? And psst: wouldn’t you really much rather have watched Blur from the comfort of your own sofa?

Come on, admit it: you had your fill of E’s and whiz twenty years ago; these days, a cup of tea, a hot bath and a nice clean duvet is what really gets you through the night. And kids, pay heed: this is indeed the way the future’s meant to feel.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Two go wild in Dorset (and Bath...)


I've just returned from a foodie trip to Dorset and have some serious over-sharing to do, mainly involving fabulous shenanigans at River Cottage HQ (followed by lunch at the original RC Canteen in Axminster), an overnight stay (and dinner) at the gorgeous Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster and supper at the Hix Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis. How was it for me? FabFabFab, as you can probably imagine...I'll be spilling a cauldron full of beans here soon. Meanwhile, I thought you might like to read this (below); I don't often share my Folio/Venue reviews here, but a certain VIP has asked me to. And Hugh am I to argue? I'll be back soon, to tell you all about my Dorset daydreams. For now, read on and enjoy (and whether you do or you don't, let me know).

SPLISH SPLASH - AN EVENING IN BATH


I don’t think I adapt particularly well to change. I languish in cosy comfort zones and I’m much more likely to mutter “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” than embrace the kind of novel fad gadgetry that others seem to thrive on.

I waffled on about similar themes last time I reviewed the cosy piscatorial paradise that is Onefishtwofish, back when what’s now the almost-completed new Southgate shopping centre was a pile of unpromising rubble and restaurant ownership in Bath had turned into a seemingly endless game of pass the parcel. My point was that Onefishtwofish is one of those rare places where no change is a really positive thing: it’s as lovely today as it was when it first opened its doors, and as a result it’s quietly, calmly gone from strength to strength (and garnered heaps of acclaim in the process) - my kind of place indeed. But just as the Bath landscape started to slip back into a more settled routine, my personal horizon started shifting around. By the time you read this, it’s likely that Folio editor Rachel will have a lovely l’il baby to take care of. Meanwhile, the magazine you’re bouncing on your lap right now is being nurtured by Rachel’s temporary replacement, Laura. For a self-confessed stuck-in-the-mud, this situation was initially all very disconcerting. So, when Laura and I arranged to meet for the very first time over a review dinner, I was grateful that we were off to one of my favourite familiar, easygoing bistros in Bath - too much shiny and new in one evening would have been a recipe for emotional indigestion. As it turned out, I’d have to be a very bitter old trout indeed to find anything about the ensuing experience indigestible.

Tucked away in an atmospheric subterranean enclave reminiscent of similar ventures on the Marseilles’ harbourside, Onefishtwofish is as gently characterful as Bath ever gets. I was standing at the dinky bar humming the ‘Blind Date’ theme tune when Laura arrived, but it wasn’t long before we were yakking away at a table for two underneath the arches, Laura tucking into a specials board squid starter that she declared to be the “lightest, freshest and all-round nicest squid experience she’s ever had” while I made merry with a pile of creamy scallops doused in a lime and ginger marinade and sandwiched between layers of crispy wantons, all dotted hither and thither with velvety avocado. After that, I did the ling thing, and my sweet, meaty fillet (a lesser-known member of the cod family, don’cha know) came with an irresistibly moreish smoked salmon bubble and squeak and a luxuriously creamy clam-strewn chowder - a combination that went down as smoothly as the chat that drifted effortlessly from “hello, who are you?” formalities to “hi, this is me” familiarity. Such was the level of girly - sorry, professional - banter while we were ordering that both of us completely forgot what Laura’s plump, spicy Szechuan-peppered red snapper came with; as a result, I ‘knowledgably’ informed her that the exotic, flavoursome semi-broth it came resting on can only have been puy lentils when in fact it was nutty, toothsome black rice - there, now she knows me properly for the big mouth no-nothing that I am.

For puds, a toffee cheesecake topped with fresh chilli and a dense slab of white and dark chocolate mousse cake were, like the rest of the meal, rich in contrast, wit and individual style...just like the company. Despite my initial protestations about novelty, new friends and the imminent arrival of new babies will always make me smile; mingle both against a backdrop of reliably good food served in properly welcoming surroundings and I’ll happily raise a glass to shifting scenery. In fact, I’ll crack open a bottle - some things, at least, never change.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Yum, yum...yum?


For such a small city, Bath punches well above its weight in terms of an illustrious reputation for posh watering holes. And a recent survey by Condé Nast - the publishers behind many esteemed, international foodie/travel/style publications including Gourmet, Bon Appetite and the Epicurious website - has just confirmed the city’s appetite for eating out: apparently, there are more restaurants per capita in this dinky little mini-metropolis than there are Newcastle, central Manchester and nearby Bristol combined. So if my frequent meanderings around Bath’s eateries can be taken as a snapshot of what’s going on across England, here we have Food UK in microcosm.

The Good: options, options, everywhere you look, from globally-inspired exotica to really good, properly British home cooking. The credit crunch has inspired a return to long-forgotten ‘unfashionable’ cuts of meat from shin to shoulder while imaginative use of offal has revitalised jaded, carnivorous palates. But vegetarians are no long overlooked: today, meat-free choices are likely to be the most creative, inventive gems on the menu.

The Bad: service. I know it’s a tough job, but seeing as somebody has to do it (and millions do), they could at least stop letting us know what a huge favour they’re doing for us. In Bath, slow, offhand or arrogant service isn’t that unusual. Being told that breakfast isn’t served until 11am or that teacakes and scones aren’t available after lunchtime is typical, and the coffee machine being turned off before you’ve even ordered dessert is par for the course; surely we all deserve better?

The Ugly: “Ingredients are locally sourced according to seasonal availability” - except when they’re not. Kenyan green beans, New Zealand lamb, pears in May, raspberries in January, exotic fruit and pre-baked pastry cases delivered by Brake Bros do not a ‘locally sourced’ menu make; mission statements are for life, not just for luring customers.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Don't rain on my parade? Why on earth not?!


It is a truth universally acknowledged that we Brits are obsessed with the weather. Never mind what political, global or domestic crisis is dominating the headlines; the worse the weather forecast at sign-off time, the better the outlook for stand-up comedians, daytime TV chat show hosts and queue conversations across the land.

When the Met Office recently declared a volte face on their predictions for a ‘barbecue summer’, we would have partied in the street - if it hadn’t been so cold, of course (and if we actually liked our neighbours). We seem to expect some kind of meteorological shop steward to “do something about” the fact that our summer season is very often far too similar to every other season of the year - ie, rainy. Because we don’t get a lot of sun, we either go to drastic measures to bask in the amount that’s available elsewhere or spray/toast/paint ourselves orange to make it look as though we have. But all the time, we’re missing the point: right here, right now and regardless of the weather, the UK climate (that’ll be mid-latitude oceanic, kids) creates, to my mind, a spectacularly beautiful environment all year round.

The hues of our British town, village and cityscapes, whether wrought from urban concrete or Cotswold stone, come to life in the rain; dust, humidity and sun that ‘cracks the flags’ can’t possibly create a tapestry anywhere near as rich or various. Greenery - be it the kind that flourishes along the byways that cut through acres of pastoral paradise or a dandelion stalk peeking from a crack in the pavement outside the local 24 hour garage - comes alive, thrives, and continues to survive when subject to regular showers. The world takes on a uniquely atmospheric ambience just before a storm, when clouds the colour of a bruises divide earth from sky with a claustrophobic canopy. Afterwards, when the drama has passed, it leaves in its wake feeling of promise and optimism far more inspiring and refreshing than the draining, oppressive aftermath of a too-hot day. Meanwhile, at the Great British Seaside...

In the 1920s, there was a huge leap in the number of people able to take a holiday by the sea. The original staycationers created an opportunity for the architects of the day to get truly creative, creating ultra-modern (for the time) holiday paradises all along the British coast. Up until cheap air travel dominated our psyches in the late 1970s, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Clevedon, Weston Super Mare, Weymouth, Morecambe and Torquay were the hip destinations for cool travellers; today, the grand, camp and often brazenly kitsch architecture of these once-glorious resorts still reflects the glamour, frivolity and allure awaiting all who originally hopped aboard the seaside express. And storm clouds on the horizon never stopped play - such places were built with the vagaries of the British weather in mind. Even when it rains, it rains pennies from, if not exactly heaven, then an original 1950s fruit machine in a vintage games arcade that reeks of candyfloss and wet dog. You’ll never be far from the evocative assault to the senses that is an indoor funfair, complete with a carousel, dodgems and waltzers manned by louche young men as nonchalant as Edwardian dandies who take great delight in spinning thrill seekers into temporary oblivion And after your voyage of rediscovery, take it as an indisputable fact from an obsessive foodie that nothing - no food, anywhere in the world - tastes as good as fish and chips eaten from a warm, damp wrapper while taking shelter in a structure especially built for the purpose on the esplanade.

New York has its cityscapes, the Bahamas its beaches, Turkey its wallet-friendly lira. But Britain has a unique, indigenous charm all of its own - it’s called rain.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Think global, act local?


I may be suffering from a bout of seasonally affected disorder (a holiday? Yeah, right), but watching Rick Stein’s latest foodie-travelogue (his ‘Far Eastern Odyssey’, BBC2, Wednesdays) has really given me a taste for...anything but safe, dull, uninspired British food.

Rick Stein brings a real sense of joy, excitement and humour to all things food-related; he tucks into the world on a plate with the enthusiasm of a puppy dog being told he’s going on ‘walkies’. In the Far East, he’s discovering the energy, history and traditions behind what's possibly the most exciting food in the world, stuffing his face with rich pickings on trains, roadsides and farm workers shacks (hah! Imagine trying to do that on Britain’s motorways); in summary, it’s the most invigorating thing on TV right now, whether you want the recipes or not.

Now compare and contrast Rick’s FEO with his ‘Food Heroes’ series, the UK equivalent of his odysseys. Throughout the last series, we drifted through self-conscious farmers’ markets packed with self-righteous posh families getting off on the frisson of having their (organic) carrots wrapped up in yesterday’s Guardian - a sharp contrast to the vibrant, bustling markets of Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Phuket. We met grumpy pig farmers grunting on about profit margins, cheese makers promoting expensive cheese that ‘smells like fart’ and WI members who yakked on about the war years - yawn, yawn, yawn.

Despite all the flim-flam about the rediscovery of ‘forgotten’ cuts of meat, restaurant mission statements supposedly promoting locally sourced food and food writers (myself included - eek!) banging on about the UK ‘food revolution’, modern British menus are too often largely based around the practicalities of convenience, either for the home cook or the restaurant chef. Real food represents culture, heritage and survival, not snobbery, ignorance and elitism - and in the UK, it’s still generally in tragically short supply.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A forkful of blah-blah


At the grand old age of forty-blah-blah, I am at last the proud owner of....cutlery. Now please don’t get me wrong, here; I haven’t been eating with my fingers for the past few decades (although it has to be said, there’s nowt wrong with that). But as far as my personal experience goes, cutlery drawers have comprised of a mix’n’match jumble of pronged, curved, dented and semi-blunt instruments collected over years of house moves, donations and acquisitions - until now.

Now it has to be said that I love my current cutlery drawer. I love the battered old tablespoons that I think once belonged to my grandma and the forks with leaves engraved into the handles that most definitely did. I love the knife that fell into my bag (and not in a Scouse way - it literally, honestly did just that) when I was eating at a certain restaurant in Bath (I didn’t know where it had disappeared to until I came home). I love the teaspoon with a picture of a very eccentric cat on the handle, another teaspoon that came home with me from my very first trip to New York (long story) and I the little dessert forks with a diamond shape stamped into the base of the prongs (I used them as a 10 year old, and still use them lots today). But for a woman who hosts a lot of dinner parties, the current cutlery just will not do. While mismatched, reclaimed, or authentically vintage dishes are fine (and just a teensy bit chic), mad cutlery doesn’t always work well. I recently declared that I’d get married again just so I could put cutlery on the gift list. Yesterday, while I sat outside the lovely Chandos Deli on Broadmead bemoaning the horrors of Bristol’s Cabot Circus (of which more later), He saved me the hassle of finding the right dress and making cupcakes for 70 people and cut straight to the chase: we now have - courtesy of the Aladdin’s Cave for stylish bargain hunters that is TK Maxx - a shiny, completely matching 58-piece flatware collection in a lovely box AND a proper pestle and mortar AND a really fab, chrome manual juicer: three items, surely, that no domestic goddess can or should live without? When we got home, there was a huge temptation to set the table for eight. Instead, we put the cutlery in the spare room to be unveiled at the next DP, juiced a dozen oranges and ground their oil out of the pulp and flesh in the pestle and mortar, for use in hundreds of curries-to-come. Hoorah!

Now then: Cabot Circus - oh, what a show indeed (but not in a good way). Oh crikey, it’s just vile - the culmination, I guess, of a whole generation of young adults being force fed a diet of junk TV, Z-list celebrities and food that isn’t really food and now need somewhere to spend the cash they haven’t got and will never have, thanks to places like this: layer upon layer of bland, faceless shops staffed by zombiefied sales people who probably can’t afford most of the over-priced tat on the rails. Alongside a Kurt Geiger outlet, a mini Harvey Nicks and a Mac shop, there’s a huge branch of Primark and a Zara, both of which - stocked as they are with shredded rags and bits of plastic - already look like temporary shelters for the crisis victims who stand in a bleak queue at the tills, desperate for temporary sustenance. In the Mac shop, I broke into a cold sweat as a Coupland-esque ‘droid tried to explain how the ‘no till’ policy works before I ran away to Raymond Blanc’s gaff to chug cold cappuccino served by an exceedingly snooty, disinterested teenager for the grand price of £2.50 per cup. We had a nice dinner at Tampopo though, before which He grabbed those kitchen bargains from TKM (which, funnily enough, is and always has been successfully situated at what used to be called The Galleries but is now called The Mall, at the heart of the ‘old’ Broadmead). But still, our day out in Bristol reminded me why I live in Bath. Okay, rant over, and on to more typical Animal Disco things...

Apart from our day out, I’ve been in for five whole days and evenings in a row, so have therefore been cooking lots - look out for the results of some very successful experiments and revisits here over the coming days. I’ve also been commissioned to write a series of feature - hoorah! - for a broadsheet - hoorah! - all about my foodie memories - hoorah! The Great American Disaster and the Chelsea Kitchen (both on the Kings Road), the first dinner I ever cooked for Him, Sea Urchins in Toronto, an ice cream in Cannes, a hotel dinner in Bastard, Norway, corned beef sandwiches eaten by the trampolines at Southport fair, backstage buffets, Michelin men...all will be revealed soon. For now, whoever and wherever you are, thanks for reading and come back soon; keep it real.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

First Life - you just can't better it


If the bedroom is boring and even the kitchen table has lost its allure, where next for mindless, impromptu - and, if you’re so inclined, anonymous - sex? Perhaps we can ‘out’ our urges...without leaving the house.

Most of us know all we all need to know about internet dating, chat rooms and related online frolics, including ‘strategic life simulation computer communities’ - yup, that’s where I’m headed. The long-established Sims is the obvious choice, but Second Life - Californian cyber behemoth Philip Rosedale’s lovechild, complete with its own, thriving virtual economy and constantly evolving, multi-layered potential - has a slightly hipper mission statement. “Second Life is a global community built on creativity, collaboration, commerce and entertainment,” goes the blurb. “We strive to bridge cultures and welcome diversity. We believe in free expression, compassion and tolerance as the foundation for community in this new world”. Phwooar?

Day One
My ‘First Life’ boyfriend isn’t too happy, for reasons that might be obvious...to him, anyway. “Please don’t get addicted to it,” he pleads; “I need you to cook”. I try to encourage him to sign up and get his own Avatar (the online version of him) so he can meet me online and we can forget about dinner together, but he doesn’t want to play, so I’m left to explore virtual reality on my ownsome.

For a ‘new world’, the women featured on the ’What is Second Life?’ homepage have a distinctly old world thrust about them: think ‘Heathers’ vintage Winona Ryder meets Joan Jett. But unless I buy myself a clutch of Linden™ dollars - the ‘official’ Second Life currency, named after the Linden Lab, the game’s creator - I have to make do with choosing from the preordained selection of Avatars (the online version of you/me). Hey-ho, clickety-click: five minutes later, my name is Puppy Catnap (ah, cute! ...and just a little bit weird) and she - sorry, I - am a shy looking brunette in a modest polka-dot dress. With her ‘real’ boobs, knee length skirt and shiny hair, I reckon Puppy will be popular with Second Life boys who have tired of women who look like Tina Turner in Mad Max. But two really frustrating hours after registering (downloading the whole kit and caboodle takes absolutely ages), I’m up for nothing more exciting than saying goodnight to Puppy and heading off to my real life bed with my real life boyfriend because my real life eyes are exhausted and my nearly dead computer screen keeps going all wobbly - the result, I fear, of massive memory assault.

Day Two
I can fly! I can teleport myself between tantalising locations such as the post-apocalyptic ‘Wasteland’, Blueberry Hill Dance Hall and Cologne Cathedral! But the trouble is, I don’t know how to do anything when I get there; in fact, I’m not even sure if I appear on anybody’s screen but my own. Fortunately, help is on hand in the form of one Lady Leonardo, who pops up and tells me - via instant messenger (another download) - that ‘she’ is a 53 year old male nurse from Colorado who ‘likes helping obvious newbies’. I’ve found a friend! LL takes me to the Welcome Area; here I learn to walk (albeit like a Thunderbird puppet) and attempt to familiarise myself with pose balls: floating spheres that enable Puppy to sit, stand and walk - almost. But I'm already getting a bit bored with all the clumsy graphics, garish colour schemes, gothic backdrops and stilted conversation. LL, apparently, is bored too; I’m suddenly on my own in cyberspace. But not for much longer.

Enter HangLong, a character who - rather thrillingly for me, but, I would imagine, rather off-putting for some - looks a bit like David Bowie in Labyrinth. HangLong asks me if I’d like to play in the snow. I tell him I’d love to, but I don’t seem to be able to do anything other than walk, sit down or stand up; HangLong, however, is not deterred. “I’ve just paid for a penis”, he tells me - an intriguing opener if ever there was one. But before I can respond (how?), the IM box tells me he’s offline. I decide that I am too - being chatted up by a cartoon man in fancy dress who has to brag about buying his genitals just isn’t sexy.

Day Three
I go shopping, and all the other girls I pass at the mall (browsing clothes, houses, furniture, pets, flowers, fireworks, revolvers and ‘Tenderlove Poses for your Active Avatar’) look like Christina Aguilera. While I’m looking for HangLong’s penis shop, Lady Leonardo makes a brief return to invite me to a pool party. So off I go, and before I know it, Puppy’s standing at the edge of a pool full of nubile, bikini clad babes cavorting with a bunch of topless biker boys, all of whom have impossibly perfect six packs to match impossibly large bulges only just restrained by impossibly tight leather breeches. Feeling ridiculously overdressed, I try to sit down, but my pose ball technique still isn’t quite up to it; I appear to be flat out on the floor, unable to move. “Whazzup wit u?” asks somebody called GiftHorse (Avatar: Alice Cooper circa 1973). “I’m drunk!”, I joke. “We don’t tolerate alcohol abuse around the pool area”, says an anonymous - what? Robot? Administrator? “Actually, I can’t work out how to stand up”, I say “It’s a technical problem”. “Well why donchou come back when you’ve learned to becoz we all think u r very rude”, comes GiftHorse’s helpful response.

Annoyed at myself for feeling rejected, I transport Puppy over to the Kiku Art Gallery in the hope of meeting somebody who can actually spell. Here I get chatting to a variety of people including one AliceBToklas (Avatar: a sparkly witch) who tells me she’s a New York based theatre manager and an online performance poet who, strangely enough, asks me if I’m a journalist. “No, but why do you ask?” I say. “We get loads of journalists visiting Second Life,” he explains; “they’re usually looking for sleazy stories; you can tell because they’re over-friendly and only hang around for a couple of days”. I suddenly feel really guilty; both Alice and the performance poet seem like genuinely nice people - and I feel like a lying, cheating sleazemonger (exactly what, in this instance, I am). So I say my goodbyes and am just about to go offline when a familiar name pops into my box: HangLong has found me hanging out with the culture vultures. “Hey babe, I iz back!”, he declares; “Wanna git ur rox off behind the rox??”. Aware that this is probably the last time I’ll be swapping my first life for this one, I do the following/teleporting thing - and suddenly, we are indeed behind a pile of rocks.

The Climax
As I refused to let HangLong buy me the necessary ‘moves’, he kindly offered ‘to f**k me in the box’ (meaning the instant messenger thingie) instead. As getting down’n’dirty with someone I don’t know, never want to meet and might be a 72/17 year old male/female gaming addict ‘talking’ to me via clumsy, semi-illiterate ‘screen chat’ (probably from an internet cafe, with several first life friends in attendance) is not my idea of fun, I decline as politely as I can. “So give me ur fone number u stoopid bich!!!” HangLong graciously suggests.

Erasing all traces of Second Life from my computer takes far less time than installing it did.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More Tales from the Larder of Life: This Much I Know


Table manners tell you a lot about what someone is like in bed. If he/she doesn’t share, talks with his/her mouth full or whips out a calculator at bill time, end the date as soon as you come out of the restaurant.

Despite what the ad men are desperate to have us believe, M&S ready meals are indeed just food and it’s unlikely that anybody who wants to be a ‘serious chef’ starts their career at KFC.

Fish and chips cooked to order and eaten on a decked patio next to a lake, the remains fed to a fleet of friendly ducks. The cost: £5. Location: Stafford services, southbound. Who’d have thought it? (they sell Marshfield Bakery cakes, too. If service station food carries on upping the ante, I’m putting Welcome Break on the review schedule.)

The older I get, the less I understand the point of pizza.

No matter how carefully you plan them, picnics rarely live up to Nigella Lawson photoshoot-stylee expectations. Next time the sun is cracking the flags, grab a hand-raised pork pie, a box of fresh salad and a bottle of Fentimans ginger beer from your local deli instead.

Le Creuset cookware is, to the foodie, what Lacroix is to the fashionista. Pyrex, meanwhile, is equivalent to Primark.

When a family member/good friend asks you what you really think of the meal they’ve just cooked (“go on, put your food critic’s hat on - I’m really interested to know what you think”), don’t take them literally.

A sharp knife, a pair of tongs and decent oven gloves form the backbone of any home cook’s indispensable kitchen kit. But there’s no place in any decent kitchen, however, for novelty toast cutters, microwave egg poachers or battery operated ice cream scoops.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Supermarket Sweep?


As our menus subtly evolve according to the ever-changing food trend tides, so do the attitudes of all who chow down at the trough. But I’ve recently spotted a very odd social trend indeed, in the form of a rather insulting leg of mutton all trussed up in the outfit of a pretty, seemingly innocent lamb.

In recent months, my penchant for baking has done wonders for the Blease budget. Home-baked breakfast muffins and similarly thrifty teatime treats keep those credit crunch wolves from the door when you’ve got a houseful of overnight guests - and to my mind, they’re also far nicer than commercial versions that cost a bomb and rarely taste fresh anyway. And given that creating a cookie ain’t exactly rocket science, there’s hardly any effort involved either. But here’s the rub. Where once a satisfied guest would politely ask for a recipe or involve you in a lengthy debate about milk versus dark chocolate chips, today’s budding domestic goddesses have to prepare to justify themselves against a barrage of accusatory comments all flung with the sole purpose of ‘catching you out’ in mind.

From the conspiratorial tone of “where did you buy those muffins from, really?” to pompous declarations such as “nobody makes their own chocolate brownies!” and the ultimate insult that is “these cookies are exactly the same as ones you can buy in Sainsbury’s”, I’ve recently recoiled from attacks courtesy of apparently well-meaning face-stuffers who simply can’t believe that anybody really actually does what the plethora of food media advises us to do...and turned their own oven on. Okay, you could say that this is a veiled compliment to a attaining a certain standard of home cooking. But think again. If a home-baked cookie tastes like the Sainsbury’s version of the genre, I need to start tweaking my recipes.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pamper me, stupid


I was hanging out in the upmarket version of my local municipal swimming pool (no kids, floating sticking plasters or suspicious yellow clouds passing by; the ubiquitous pervert fiddling with himself behind a potted palm instead of a ‘no petting’ sign) when the question dawned on me: what the hell am I doing with my life?

Okay, the Big Existential Ask regularly wrestles my conscience into meltdown. But as I was voluntarily subjecting myself to one of life’s most inconsequential experiences, I guess my internal emotional boot camp counsellor decided it was an excellent time to blow the whistle. And so it came to dawn on me that spas – otherwise known as pampering hotspots, ‘me time’ sanctuaries and “luxurious urban retreats” – are often little more than privately-funded refuges for woman whose self-esteem has hit an all time low.

On one level, time spent at a spa can indeed be an affirmative, invigorating experience, offering stress-reducing benefits similar to taking a brisk country walk, listening to a live orchestra or reading a good book. But the activities that go beyond floating in a mineral-rich pool or simmering in the Jacuzzi add a distinctly sinister edge to otherwise bland proceedings. Wrapped in a big fluffy robe before being stripped of all dignity (we’ll get on to that in a moment), clients are force fed a menu of spurious ‘treatments’ that, rather than relieve existing insecurities, actually serve to perpetuate them. At best, they’re boring (“don’t worry if you fall asleep during your sand and cottage cheese detoxifying massage – that just proves that the treatment is working”). At worst, they’re downright undignified and completely unnecessary. Is having all traces of excess hair ripped from your most private parts really an ‘essential’ treatment? Before you agree to have a non-surgical facelift, are you prepared to be left with a nasty metallic taste in your mouth for a week afterwards? Did you know you had acne scars under your chin until your ‘therapist’ pointed them out to you? Do you really care? Once you allow the women in the white coats to lead you away, you do now. Because if you present yourself, warts and all (don’t worry – they can be lasered way) for a consultation, the last thing you’re ever, ever going to hear is that you don’t need anything done - if the ‘experts’ weren’t able to make you feel totally crap about yourself, business would shrivel up faster than you can say “smoker’s skin”. But when I had my latest ‘treatment’ I couldn’t help thinking what a vile job the poor poppet who tended to my cellulite had.

Every day, women like her face more cheesy hooves, fat-rippled flesh and odorous nether regions than Jamie Oliver’s beloved pig farmers. They’re obliged to either pretend to be excited about the 43rd wedding they’ve discussed that day or keep completely silent as Lady Muck has her colonic irrigation. They grovel around scraping corns from feet ragged with the detritus of long-term fungal infection, grateful for the fact that the chemicals inhaled while spraying fake tan onto their previous client have temporarily destroyed most of their senses. And if you think that a goodly portion of the £55+ you’ll be expected to pay for an average spa treatment supplements their hard-earned income, think again: I know a beautician who works for a well-known chain of spas for an hourly rate just 40p above the minimum wage. But hey, she loves her job. And most women claim to love ‘being pampered’. And as third-wave feminist Naomi Wolf stated in her 1991 book ‘The Beauty Myth’, “a Western woman’s whole identity is premised upon ‘beauty’ above all else”. But while I’ve yet to discover the hell I’m doing with my life in the long-term, I know one thing for sure: brisk country walks, Wagner and F Scott Fitzgerald will take priority over Botox, waxing and facials.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dhal-ing!


Since we last met, I've had a birthday (and not one but TWO parties to celebrate) (well, a girl doesn't turn 103 every day!) and loads of visitors staying over (all whom stuffed their faces with piles of homemade blueberry muffins every morning then accused me of buying the from Sainsbury's - quelle horreur!). I've been to a totally fabulous garden party that lasted for around 18 hours, eaten in what's possibly the worst restaurant in Bath, been reunited with a wonderful friend* in glorious circumstances, booked totally unglamorous overnight accommodation for me and a small, select group of friends for each night in between three days at the Download Festival (rock chick? You got it!) and gained a rather fetching non-peely suntan (and probably around 3lbs in weight) to boot. So what am I about to dedicate this post to? Coconut dhal, that's what!

I honestly can't remember where the original recipe for this sultry, silky-smooth dish came from, but I have a feeling that the original version that inspired me is probably lurking somewhere amongst the sticky pages of Rose Elliot's 1972 veggie cookery book 'Not Just a Load of Old Lentils', which I've had, like, forever (thank you, Mumkin!) and love so much that I've actually blogged about it here (if you're interested, the original post will be somewhere way down in the 'Food Glorious Food' section). But anyway, I doubt that Rose's recipe featured coconut milk (or if it does, it definitely won't be the low fat version, because that's a relatively new addition to the supermarket shelves) and I bet she fried her onions first. I, however, don't. This is what I do:

Dice an onion, and put it in a pan with around 250g of rinsed red lentils, a teaspoon of turmeric, a sprinkling of dried red chilli flakes and 300ml vegetable stock. Bring it all to the boil, then allow it to simmer for around 20-30 mins (stirring now and then) or until the lentils have gone all soft and squidgy. Then take it off the heat, put a lid on it and tell it to sit there and wait until you're ready to eat it, which you'll do with either (a) fresh, warm chapatis, fresh lime wedges and a dollop of plain yoghurt; (b) seared lamb chops; (c) seared prawns (the massive ones); or (d) griddled pork chops, which is what we're having it with tonight. You don't need to do anything to the fish, prawns or meat other than cook them to your liking, as the flavour is all in the dhal. You can, however, add a finishing touch flourish with a handful of fresh coriander, because that just adds to the fun. And simple though it sounds, this dish honestly is great fun - as equally at home at a dinner party as it is on an evening like this evening, when the sun is just about ready to hang up his hat for the day but kindly chooses to leave a soft, mellow breeze in his wake; not scorchingly hot, just gently sensual and a touch aromatic...a bit like what we're having for supper.

Enjoy.

*Actually, I've been reunited with two wonderful friends, but the first to turn up (for the second birthday party) didn't do a fab gig in a suitably fab location (and neither did he buy me a present), so he doesn't get a link. He does however get a big "Hello Brenda". And yes, Brenda IS a he...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Perhaps it's time to teach the new pups some old tricks...


“All the world’s a stage,” Jaques begins, before going on to define our roles, from puking infant through school-hater, on to woeful lover, hero and slipper’d pantaloon wearer before finally heading toward mere oblivion sans...frankly, if you don’t already know, you don’t want to (however, if you don’t but do, check out act two, scene seven of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ - the monologue generally known as ‘the Seven Ages of Man’).

Medad - a man who, despite technically nestling somewhere between sixth and seventh age, still generally chooses to adhere to the syntax of the script he wrote for his own late adolescence - defines the stages differently, and includes “your girlfriend being mistaken for your daughter” before “holidaying in Weston Super Mare”. While describing him as ‘sprightly’ would never be taken as a compliment, it’s better than another remark he’s overheard, which relates to him “always being so clean”. Patronising? You’ve got it. And yet here we have a man who, on a good day, can navigate his way around the less salubrious Paris bistros of his youth faster than I can say ‘encore du vin’ in each, while even on a ‘bad’ day (ie, when he describes himself as ‘a bit knackered’) he dispenses more wit, wisdom and offbeat opinion than you’d find in a week’s worth of Radio 4 schedules. Sprightly and clean he may be, but in his case, a life well lived amounts to far more than good calf muscles and a decent laundry service - and I would suspect that this is true of many of a similar vintage. But in our haste to beat the clock that ticks away inside all of us, the condescending, shortsighted attitudes that prove how carelessly we overlook those older than us only serves to highlight our own denial.

In the UK today, we live alongside more people of pensionable age (18.5% of the population, as it happens) than we do teenagers. As a result of improvements in health care and medicine over the second half of the last century, that figure is expected to continue to rise dramatically throughout this one; play your cards right (because, oh sapling, the only viable alternative to ageing is an early death) and you’ll be bolstering the stats. But when you get there, do you want to be regarded as second class citizen just because you can’t read the instructions on the back of a ready meal box? Will you deserve to be huffed and tutted at when you’ve misheard what somebody said, or need a bit of extra time to take cash from your wallet? Would you want an optician to casually allow your appointment to lapse for over an hour because the flashy upstart ahead of you is discussing the BOGOF on Gucci sunglasses, or have an assistant loudly exclaim “oh, you still like a drop of wine, then - good for you!” when you add a bottle of Chardonnay to your weekly shop? I’m guessing that your answer is no. And yet, these are typical examples of the sort of experiences Medad endures on a daily basis.

Now I can’t claim to be the most patient daughter - let alone citizen - on the planet. But because Medad is also one of mebestmates, I’m hyper aware of how my generation treats his. I’m sorry to report that, despite all our grand claims regarding an eco-friendly/socially responsible attitude to the world around us, we don’t fare well. Are we so trapped by our own egos that we don’t realise that one day, all this - from bus pass to deteriorating faculties - will be ours? As Jarvis Cocker sang on Pulp’s cheerful 1997 ditty ‘Help the Aged’, “behind those lines on their face, you can see where you are headed” - an updated stance, perhaps, on the Bard’s musings on the same subject, all the more relevant today.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It does tend to make you a bit, erm, windy though....


There’s something really wholesome, satisfying and creative about choosing to follow a meat-free diet. If I’m preaching to the converted, then forgive me for such an obvious statement. But halfway though a seven day experiment to coincide with Vegetarian Week, what I thought was already a fully-stoked obsession has been subject to an intense reinvigoration. I didn’t know how jaded my palate had become until I ditched the familiar flesh in favour of food that was inestimably fresher and far less gory to prepare. The process of rehydrating pulses or grinding nuts coupled with the rekindled realisation that aubergines, courgettes and even the humble cauliflower can provide the thrust of a whole meal, not just a supporting role, has reminded me what real food is all about.

Although a perfect steak, a fragrant sliver of pork or the scent of slowly roasting lamb all offer an appeal that I’m not prepared to give up entirely, taking a week-long break from carving my way around gristle, bone and sinew or justifying my bloodthirsty appetite by paying a small fortune for a dead animal that enjoyed a Brideshead Revisited-style upbringing before it died for me is putting me back in touch with a far more tasteful aspect of my foodie self.

As I was brought up vegetarian, I’m spending many long hours of my flesh-free week experiencing an extended sense of déjà vu, fondly recalling suppers created around potato cakes, homemade hummus, peanut butter and wholemeal bread. I can suddenly remember how weird it seemed to consider eating the real-life version of the toy animals I snuggled up in bed with every night. At the age of 16, a rebellious moment involving a hot dog dragged me off the path of righteousness. Decades on, a hazelnut, leek and cheese burger is leading me back towards the light.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Sunblest loaf and a packet of fags, please


As I mentioned in a previous post, Mike and I recently went for a little wander around the canal one sunny Sunday evening - the Kennet and Avon, to be precise, at the point where it mingles with the city. Gosh, we’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world! Just a short walk away from the rather concrete carbuncle that is the Travelodge hotel (recently revamped, natch), one finds oneself surrounded by the natural, unforced tranquility that only a canal bank stroll can offer. While Mike busied himself taking photographs of a huge sun setting over the cutesy cottages and rather grander homes that nestle all the way up the surrounding hills nearby, I sat on the riverbank feeding a duck and her two tiny babies bread wedges torn from a 39p Sunblest loaf - brought at the Smile stores for that very purpose (although really, I didn’t have to justify my purchase to the cashier there; like he cared about my apparent bad taste!) - and watching the invisible fish just below the water’s surface feast on the dough balls my new friends missed. A cheap loaf, a Marlboro light and sunset over the canal: the experience was, dear reader, about as good as life gets.

Last Friday, I finally got around to putting a real-life face to the name of Theo, a fellow blogger (and Bath-based architect student, and all-round interesting character) whose blog I can’t directly link to here as I still can’t get to grips with Wordpress (!) but who, I trust, might very kindly add a comment to this post and supply a link to his work. Theo was lovely; one of those people that one rarely has the good fortune to come across, who you just know is authentically, genuinely and effortlessly bright, interesting, charming and funny. Ah, t'internet; it’s not just for researching pornography based on a Lion King theme, y’know.

The next day, I spent from 4.30-10.45pm watching the Next Stage production of the entire Torch Song Trilogy at the Mission Theatre, for Venue review purposes. All three plays have a wonderful script and an enthralling storyline linking the trio together, but even so, such attributes would be nothing without the right theatre company to bring it back to live. Next Stage did, I’m happy to report, turn what could have been a totally arse-numbing evening into 6+ hours of sheer delight. After watching the Trilogy again for the first time in years, though, it did slowly dawn on me that the older I get, the more like Arnold Beckoff I become. Is that a good thing, or is it actually a bit tragic? Ah, what the heck; I never was comfortable walking in flat shoes.

And before I knew it, Sunday had rolled around again, and a lunch that, fortunately, failed to be haunted by the ghosts from the recent past (Easter Sunday’s decomposing leg of lamb - remember?). This time around, we feasted on soft roast pork, butternut squash roasted with sage and fresh corn kernels and the ubiquitous cannellini bean’n’savoy cabbage mash, followed by Portuguese custard tarts…and it was all really, really yummy, especially the tarts (which where actually just fresh custard tarts, but Delia’s recipe says they’re of Portuguese origin, and she’s rarely wrong). As the sun was still shining by the time we’d finished eating, we drove up to the Wheatsheaf and carried on supping rose in their glorious garden, an experience marred only by Medad throwing a really weird, self-indulgent tantrum over nothing at all (honestly, nothing at all!) and refusing to speak for the last 45 minutes of our outing. Way to go, Medad! I hope that when I’m 80, I’m still a teenager too.

PS. The first person to get the connection between the dog in the photo and this post wins a prize.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Happily Ever After...?


According to a recent survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics, fewer British couples get married today than they did in 1895, and 1.66 million children are brought up either by unmarried couples or a single parent.

Predictably, the Daily Telegraph published these statistics under the headline “The Death of the Traditional Family”. Inevitably, knees jerked wildly all over the letters page the following day, while the spasms reached fever pitch in the online comments box. Telegraph readers blamed the ‘state of the nation’ on feminists, lefties, the benefits system and “dirty immigrants”. Ho hum, here we go: “put birth control in the water supply - no antidote without proof of assets and a British marriage certificate!” was one typical response. “Perhaps the Catholic Church and other religious bodies which believe in the family could ask politicians not to recognise children who are the by-product of marriages conducted under the state’s auspices OR OUTSIDE OF THIS COUNTRY!”, ranted another. “Get rid of the man-haters who have been running 'Child Protection' agencies and advising the government on social policy!”, spewed yet another bright spark (adding “they’re the ones who secretely [sic] give children contraceptives and love watching girls have abortions” just for good measure). So far, so stereotypical. Personally, I don’t give a toss if children are raised by a commune of transgendered Star Wars fans as long as they’re given a violence-free upbringing, a good education and decent food. What worries me is a far more sinister element of modern life, also unearthed by the survey but largely overlooked by those who either conducted it or so publicly responded to it.

In 2008, 29% of men under the age of 34 still lived with their parents (52% of these in the 20-24 age group). The ONS survey analysts went to great lengths to explain that men have delayed ‘setting up on their own’ because there’s been a substantial increase in those choosing to remain in education, while the cost of living has risen drastically; as a result, almost a third of them still live with mummy. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women (79% of those aged over 21, according to the survey) have flown the nest - but not, as the knee-jerkers will blindly assume, to live ‘the single life’ on state benefits in a council house with five illegitimate children. Single women aged 22-30 are nine times more likely than men to either live in privately rented accommodation or their own property. And yet, women account for over 55% of university places, while another Great British Tradition dictates that they still earn 17% less, on average, than men of the same age. How did the survey analysts account for the fact that women manage where men can’t cope? They didn’t. Because the real reason so many men live the Timothy Lumsden lifestyle has less to do with the credit crunch (or feminists, lefties, immigrants, etc) than a general inability to grow up. If you’re a man who lives at home, you’ve got more pocket money to spend on boy toys such as iPhones, iPods and XBoxes than your boring, grown up mates have. You don’t have to share the TV or computer in your bedroom with anybody else and, after she’s done your washing, mum might bring you a cup of tea in bed...which you can drink while reading dad’s Telegraph, after he’s gone off to work.

The ‘traditional nuclear family’ may be in decline, but men can’t be decent daddies when they still need their own, doting mummies so badly. You can bet a Masters degree in social history that, when children are on the agenda, women aren’t going to consider a 34 year old toddler for the role of father - and that’s a situation that’s going to have more of an influence on the future of ‘family life’ than immigration figures ever will.