31 December 2010

All the Crispins

Among the goodies Keith gave me for Christmas was the one remaining detective novel by Edmund Crispin that I didn't have: The Long Divorce, which is one of his best - hurrah! and other such exclamations. It's always satisfying to get the last of a set of books, especially when it's a previously unread one.

I've been collecting Crispins since the mid 1990s, on the recommendation of another favourite author, Antonia Forrest, who has one of her characters say that she prefers Gervase Fen to Peter Wimsey (but no clue as to author). In those pre-Google days, I was wondering how to find this out most easily when a colleague obligingly took The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin out from the library and passed it to me to read, and the rest is history. Gervase Fen is Professor of English at Oxford University, which seems to interfere delightfully little with his other interests; the same could also be said for his wife, Dorothy, and children (who are quite young in the early books).

There are nine novels: The Case of the Gilded Fly, Holy Disorders, The Moving Toyshop, Swan Song, Love Lies Bleeding, Buried for PLeasure, Frequent Hearses, The Long Divorce and The Glimpses of the Moon; the two collections of short stories are Beware of the Trains and Fen Country. The titles are almost always quotations, and can make little or no sense without recourse to the originals : The Long Divorce, for example, is nothing to do with divorce per se, but is from a speech of Buckingham's in Shakespeare's Henry VIII and does relate to the plot of the novel:
"Go with me, like good angels, to my end;
And, as the long divorce of steel falls on me,
Make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice,
And lift my soul to heaven".
(What doesn't relate to the plot in the Felony & Mayhem edition that I have is an emphasis, on the cover and in the blurb, on the cat Lavender, whose psychic gifts, it is claimed, help to unravel the mystery of some unpleasant anonymous letters - just discount that if you read this edition).
Fen appears for most of it under the alias of 'Mr Datchery' (as in The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and has a very enjoyable time ferreting about in everybody else's business in the village of Cotten Abbas. The villagers are mostly what would now be called NIMBYs, and among other things object to the chapel of The Children of Abraham having been built in their midst. On the other hand, maybe they just object to the standard of the congregational singing:
'The key he had set resulted in the low notes being too low for the high voices, and the high notes too high for the low, so that a sinister drone alternated with a surprised mewing; the text selected was of that lengthy narrative sort which almost always has to do with fish, apostles and storms on Galilean lakes; and the total effect gratified Mr Datchery extremely.'

While I wouldn't claim that the novels are all equally good, people who like 'Golden Age' detective novels often do seem to enjoy them. I particularly like this one and Buried for Pleasure (Fen stands for election as an MP), and am pleased that so many of the books have been reissued recently. There's also now a Wikipedia entry on the author, whose real name was (Robert) Bruce Montgomery, and who was also a composer, notably for the British film industry.

30 November 2010

Breakfast at Elveden, or Bring on the Peasants, sorry, Pheasants

Last Saturday we disregarded all the bad weather doom and gloom on the telly, and set off for Norfolk to visit family. Rather as we'd expected, it was not too bad at all, and the tons of snow that had been talked up were in fact very modest, not to say slightly mean, though it was wonderfully Christmas card-looking in places.

As is not uncommon we allowed ourselves the treat of breakfast at Elveden, in Suffolk (not far from the border with Norfolk) -the Elveden Estate Restaurant does what is quite simply one of the best cooked breakfasts I've ever had, with a delicious combination of eggs, mushrooms, sausages, tomatoes, black pudding, hash brown, bacon and fried bread, for the astonishing price of £7.25. What's more, all the food in the restaurant is sourced from the estate or as from as close by as possible, and is cooked to order, so what you're eating is both fresh and supporting local food production.

The eatery is reached via the food and wine shop, where, well, yes, we usually give in to temptation and buy something, if that's only pork and apple pies for lunch, or fudge for presents (one recent selection being vanilla with cherry and walnut; caramel and cookies; vanilla and chocolate honeycomb; and caramel and chocolate with chocolate pieces). This being autumn, there were some good plump pheasants, so we bought two for dinner on Sunday - yum. Roast in a foil tent and served with jacket potatoes, garlicked roast parsnips, large mushrooms and onion sauce, and even after we'd tucked in, quite a bit over for eating somehow else tonight.

As the East Anglian section of one of my favourite books on dialect 'Yacky Dar, Moy Bewty' by Sam Llewellyn would have it, "Oi loike a pheasant. That eat excellent"!

14 November 2010

Rost befe of olde englande

Well, not entirely, to be honest - the accompaniments were rather more twenty-first century.

This evening we dined off a succulent piece of beef sirloin, reared by our friend Steve Rawlings before he gave up these entertainments in the face of too much aggro from the food police etc. It was cooked with lamb and rosemary chipolatas (I don't normally mix meats, but had exhumed these from the freezer a couple of days ago and they needed cooking) with some large mushrooms added towards the end. I also cooked cauliflower, garlic potatoes, and onion sauce, and we opened a bottle of red wine - the lovely Chorey-les-Beaune (2008) which takes no effort at all to drink. It was a sort of rehearsal for Christmas, it was that good...

Yes, this was a slightly extravagant meal, but it was demmed tasty, and made a morceau of space in the freezer. It was also better value than the meat I was looking at in M&S yesterday - a depressing selection of the expensive, quick to cook, and no effort required to deal with inconvenient flavour factors like bone or skin. It caused me to realise once and for all that I am not one of their core customers. That seems to be the suited and booted male and its female equivalent. Yes, I see plenty of grannies in there buying food, and Marks do well at providing things for the single person - but from observation the majority of their profit these days surely comes from dinner partyish food needing the minimum of preparation, with cost not really a factor to be considered. There are occasions when I'm grateful for it, but when I retire those are going to be fewer and further between...

30 October 2010

.Advanced communications - not

Some fairly good examples of 'how not to say it' from the PA system on the Tube (the first three are not new, but are still capable of making me wonder at the thought proceses behind them):

"Please use all available doors" - well, OK, but we'll probably be here until midnight, especially if everyone tries to do this.

"Please use alternate routes" - that doesn't sound like a quick way to get home either...

"Please use all available space" - it's no good, I've tried, but I just can't seem to activate my self-expanding switch.

"The District Line is behind" - behind what?

(Having just left Acton Town on the westbound service) "This is Wood Green" - OK, right line, wrong end (like 20-odd stops away, and getting further by the minute).

"This train is being held here due to a train at Oxford Circus with no movement" - obviously a new model.

This was followed a little later by a very exasperated

"We are still experiencing delays because of this defective train, which is making its way to Liverpool Street where it will be taken out of service AND PUT AWAY IN A SIDING! "- for ever, left up to him, I'd guess.

"Due to a signal failure at Waterloo, the Waterloo & City Line is suspended and a good service is operating on all other lines" - there, I knew it. They don't have enough power to run the whole trainset at once!

And last but certainly not least
"This train will proceed one station at a time" - you don't know how relieved I am to hear that, exciting though it might be to zoom through the seventh dimension over Hammersmith...

25 October 2010

Thoughts on a bring- and-share lunch

We've just had a bring-and-share lunch at work for one of our interns who's leaving us for her first proper job - congratulations, Kirsty, especially in the current museum climate!

It was a suitably good repast, and a quite glorious mixture - it included a cheese board plus a large bunch of grapes, a large whole pineapple, home-made banoffee cakes, coriander and chilli prawns, home-made pizza, crudités and lots of dips, mediterranean bread, strawberry jam doughnuts, and mozzarella and tomato tart. Apart from bread there really wasn't much left at the end! Oh, and the one thing that my colleagues are quite ludicrously unable to resist (even those who aren't that keen on the sweet stuff, or say that they aren't) is chocolate-covered cinder toffee (aka Crunchie bits).

We've now done enough of these indoor picnics (they're only something we've done fairly recently) that I think we're beginning to know what to bring - there doesn't seem to be much need for bread or meat, for example. We still tend to bring too much food, but too much is better than too little, of course - that just means we graze all day, or the overnight staff get an unexpected bonus, or there's enough food to keep us going into lunch next day.

It is, of course, completely luck of the draw as to the balance of what turns up on the table. In the early days I can remember virtually whole meals of cheese, or cake, and last time we had a lot of falafels (boring) - OK, not exactly a problem, but it's so much more enjoyable when it's more varied. What I particularly like about the idea is that it's so equitable - home-made goodies, smart thinking and sharp-eyed shopping are more likely to bring really good results than just throwing money around.

17 October 2010

The Birthweek

As my recent birthday didn't work out all that well, I spread it out over the next eight days - so more of a birthweek than a birthday, really. Not that extensions are unheard of anyway - one or two have gone on for a fortnight, and very enjoyable, too.

Anyway, back to this year's. It was a Monday, although I wondered if it really was the right day, because for one thing, the weather was wrong. It was raining. Hard. This is not allowed on my birthday, as my 'natural' present is fine sunny weather - at worst dry with sunny spells, but more usually the sort of glorious autumn weather we got later in the week. Somebody must have miscounted...

It was also a Tube Strike day: I had to take Harry-the-Cat to the vet first thing. Eight thirty came and went, with no sign of the cab I'd booked. Eventually it arrived three-quarters of an hour late - extra traffic on the roads because of the strike, which I guess is unsurprising. Oh well, I'd warned the vets, and they were being very accommodating, so let's see if we can get through this without any more ado. Part way up the main road, the driver's radio station of choice came up with Credence Clearwater Revival's 'Bad Moon on the Rise'. I smiled at the cheerful tune, as ever, and its combination with the disaster-laden lyrics (earthquakes, lightning, hurricanes, floods etc) until we got to "Hope you have got your things together/ Hope you are quite prepared to die". Now look here, guys, that's enough!

I suppose it may account for the fact that when we got there the driver tried to be helpful and back onto the forecourt so I had less far to carry the basket. Unfortunately, he backed into a lamp post instead...fortunately he was doing virtually nil mph, so no injuries. I was lucky, as I had been about to get out, and wasn't wearing a seat belt at that point. He was not lucky, having got a sizeable dent in the back of his people carrier. Oh well, the rest of the day was uneventful: Keith had the bad luck to be unwell, so we ate nothing fancy by way of food, but he still managed to arrange presents and cards for me, which were doubly appreciated, and I did get some other nice ones - thanks, everyone!

It was an odd week - a South Kensington day on the Tuesday; in at the museum on Wednesday, and lunch with a friend at Nico's Grill (steak sandwiches and chips to die for); and a retirement seminar on the Thursday and Friday (held at the National Liberal Club, which has rather stunning Victorian/ Edwardian interiors; the food's not bad, either, notably the fish and chips). Retirement isn't until next year, but it's as well to get any help offered, I figure, and in the current financial climate I can see next year's event being scaled back somewhat.

Having thus barely seen my colleagues, I went out for lunch on the following Monday with the team I work with. Someone suggested Pellici's (trad caff plus native Italian), which we all like. Even the member of the team who was heavily pregnant with twins was particularly keen to go ("It'll be my last chance to go there for a bit" she predicted, all too accurately), and soon we were all excavating large helpings of steak pie etc - there's a plate under there somewhere, I'm sure! The follow up was that the twins started to arrive the next day - must have been the walk back afterwards...or something energising about steak pie ?

(A squirrel in Bethnal Green Gardens ponders his local menu)

09 October 2010

More time out of the office

Must be something in the air - I'm certainly not seeing that much of my normal working environment at the moment. I was back on the Embankment on Thursday and Friday, and took the opportunity to explore a bit more and take further pictures of Buckingham Gate. I was intrigued by it, as I often am with gates and windows:

Mind, it looks a bit sepulchral from the back, which is how I first saw it, from Buckingham Street:

Altogether more imposing from the front, though:

It was originally the watergate for York House, which was owned at that point by the Villiers family, so yes, clearly designed to indicate that here lived "an enormous swell". And yes, this is the area of the streets that spelled out the name and title of George Villiers Duke of Buckingham - it's a shame that Of Alley got re-named York Place, I say.

29 September 2010

Time out of the office

Off to Mile End this morning - OK, so it's only one step further on the tube than usual, and surely it's all built-up, grimy inner city blocks? Well, no - just beyond the 'Banana ' Bridge (yes, it has a curved yellow underside) on Mile End Road, is an extensive park with fountains and some rather large iris, as in the photos. (Admittedly I'm cheating a bit here, as they were taken a couple of months ago - it was not good photography weather for most of this morning!)

Mind you, there's no limit to the excitement, really - on Monday afternoon I had to visit a learning charity on the Embankment, and couldn't help but admire Victoria Embankment Gardens, especially the rather flamboyant Buckingham Gate, built in 1626 (pictures later). It's a pity that most people know only the big royal parks, like Green Park, but I do love these smaller ones - so much more character, and often quite unexpected detours on the way through crowded areas that have little or no greenery visible.

27 September 2010

The weekend's nosh

The weekend's nosh had a distinctively Italian theme, at least in the evenings - hot cross buns, mince pies, and ham and cheese and pickled walnuts with bread the rest of the time being about as English as you can get, after all.

Sunday evening's effort was a mere bacon risotto (and delicious, but quite usual), but Saturday evening's was the piece of resistance, as it were. When last we were in Waitrose, we spotted some pig shins treated in the same way as Osso Bucco, and decided to give them a try. We no longer eat veal, so I refreshed my memory of cooking this dish by consulting the blessed Jane Grigson, whose method I had used in the days of my yoof. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I couldn't find the recipe under 'O' for Ossi or Osso, but had to look under 'veal' instead...Anyway, it was much as I'd thought, and dead simple: season and brown the slices of shin in olive oil, add a large glass of white wine, cook for a bit, and add a pint of tomato sauce (or a tin of tomatoes and some sliced onion if you're a lazy cook like me). Cook slowly in the oven until done (and scoff with red cabbage and garlic potatoes in this instance). The meat was almost meltingly tender, and we didn't neglect the marrow in the bones, either - I have eaten a great deal worse (and for far more money) in restaurants.

What I did not do was to serve it with chopped parsley and lemon rind on top, as recommended - some of us know when to leave well alone.

25 September 2010

A former needlewoman writes...

It's a favourite saying of mine that you never know what you've got till you look, but even I was taken aback to realise how much fabric, ribbons, wool etc I've got stashed away. My fit of domestic virtue last week end took me as far as looking at the contents of the wardrobe in the spare room, and I couldn't fail to notice that lot - especially as a cascade of printed cottons, needlecord, silks, dress patterns and a tin of buttons (ouch) fell out onto my head! Fortunately I was sitting on the floor at the time...

Back in my twenties and thirties I made a lot of my own clothes and had time to spare for other hobbies: I spent quite a lot of time on train journeys, didn't have a computer, and hadn't got seriously stuck into the unknown bits of my family history. If I'm realistic, the best thing I can do with most of this stuff is offer it to my colleagues who do craft activities with the families who visit the museum, and any that they don't want can go to the wondrously named Scrap Project - they really do seem able to use most things of this sort, and even come to collect it if we let them know there's a consignment. I'll be keeping the patchwork stuff - oh, and that dress length of Thai silk, though...

19 September 2010

Oh, virtue...but only temporarily

Yesterday Keith and I and our friend Tom (who does our garden maintenance) set out for Norwich to do a bit of maintenance at Keith's mother's bungalow. It's on the market, so hopefully our work may encourage buyers.

The main effort was with the garden (nine sacks of hedge prunings, dead leaves, dying-off grasses etc) and for good measure I also hoovered the floors inside and wiped down a few surfaces. Mercifully Tom tackled the lawns and hedge - which last is the developer's original planting, and is a densely set mix of privet and cotoneaster, now enthusiastically interwoven. To say that it's resistant would be an understatement - frankly nothing short of a rhinocerous could get through it, and one of the neighbours told us that he'd only been able to remove his with the aid of a mechanical digger!
NB We were clearly not meant to notice how many of the neighbours suddenly found pressing maintenance work of their own at the front of their properties, thus getting themselves a good view of what was going on. Meanwhile Keith went off to visit Dora at her new home, taking the things on her shopping list (all fun stuff to buy, majoring in jam, jelly babies, mango chutney etc).

We picknicked on sandwiches from M&S - it's actually little more expensive than buying the ingredients and saves a whole heap of time - and rewarded ourselves for the day's efforts with an excellent pub dinner at the White Lodge on the road into Attleborough. I felt I'd earned my chips, so to speak, but it's amazing how easy it is to clean a house with no furniture in it, and this surge of housework and gardening maintenance will probably not be translated into a similar effort with our own dez rez...

12 September 2010

Walnut and Honey Scones

One of my favourite cookery books is 'Farmhouse Cooking' by Mary Norwak and Babs Honey (paperbacked by Sphere Books in 1973). This is sadly (but perhaps unsurprisingly, given the plethora of cookery books published in the last decade or two) out of print.

It's a two-volume set with so many recipes it would probably take some years to work through all of them, but the recipe I've probably used more often than any other is the one for walnut and honey scones:
1 pound of self-raising flour
1 level teaspoon of salt
4 ounces of butter (or margerine, but I prefer butter)
2 level tablespoons of caster sugar
2 ounces of finely chopped walnuts (I usually use 4 ounces!)
2 tablespoons of clear honey
10 tablespoons of cold milk
Sift flour and salt into a basin and rub in the butter. Add the sugar and walnuts and mix to a soft but not sticky dough with the honey and milk. Turn onto a lightly floured surface, knead quickly and roll out to half-inch thickness. Cut into rounds and put on greased baking sheet. Brush tops with milk or beaten egg and bake at 425 degrees F or Gas Mark 7 for 10 minutes.

To my way of thinking this is all easiest done in a food processor: same ingredients and method, but put sugar in with flour, salt and fat, and run for a short time on 5/ medium speed until blended. Add honey, then trickle milk in while running machine on 2/ slow speed until mixed into a ball, and add nuts by hand during the kneading. These are also very good made with four ounces of mixed chopped almonds and glace cherries, with a little almond essence in the milk.

06 September 2010

All is safely gathered in...

We came back from our short holiday in Rye on Friday still talking about what a good time we'd had with our friends Katy, Tilly, Tallulah and Oscar. It was one of the best visits we've had, and that's saying something.

No sooner were we back than the harvest had to be got in. We've already had the gooseberries, but here are the apples (variety James Grieve) picked by our friend Tom. I gathered what are probably the last of the blackberries, and our neighbours gave us some of their Victoria plums. All very skrumshus, to be Daisy Ashford about it, and free into the bargain! I must try to cook the windfalls soon - my favourite way with cooking apples is to butter them: to a pan of chopped and peeled apples, add a glass of white wine and two good thick slices of salted butter, plus a couple of tablespoons of sugar if known to be wanted for sweet purposes, and cook until softly chunky - for me the butter rounds out the taste of the apple.

14 June 2010

Only in this country, no.2

Following on from the knitted oranges and lemons at St Martin Orgar, one (or even two) of the less well known things which may be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London. These memorials to dogs of Sir Henry Cole, former Director of the museum, are in the Quadrangle. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the custom was not kept up...

19 April 2010

You mean people still do this?

Ooh look, a train station! The Gare du Nord in Paris, to be precise. Not very long ago, either. So, contrary to the current television news coverage, it is still possible to get about without flying.

Listening to BBC Breakfast this morning, it was borne in upon me to what extent the right to take a plane absolutely everywhere really is taken for granted now. Woeful tales of coming from Rome by train, crossing the Channel by boat, and going to Belfast via Scotland (Stranraer) - sheer torture, evidently. Any of these was quite normal even twenty years ago, because flying was so expensive, and they could actually be the most pleasant and meaningful ways of getting there. Yes, I love flying, but my journeys by land and sea were considerable adventures in their own right, and a real indication that I'd travelled hundreds of miles - I don't suppose I'll ever forget the moonlit journey to Stranraer to catch the ferry to Belfast, or getting on board a ferry from a motorboat off the coast of Norway, or seeing the hustle and bustle of Basle station in the early hours of the morning. Clearly sometimes a flight is justified, and I sympathise enormously with those travellers who are now stranded, but maybe we need to go back to the significance of the journey as part of a holiday, rather than just rushing to get there?

16 February 2010

Tales from the shredder

Last week I spent an extremely therapeutic hour throwing out old documents, and took one sentence at random from each:

After five years a distributed mini and micro computer network would have been set up with 72 terminals. The world has changed. I do not want to say more on this for now. Work and responsibility to be divided equally between workers and management coperating together in close interdependence. What steps can you take to maximise positive and minimise negative impact of personality type mix? In 55 minutes from now there will be a fresh egg affixed by string from the ceiling. Whatever you are looking for, our online search facility provides a quick and easy source of inspiration. Think of the Angel of the North. See Efficiency and Effectiveness.

I'm not sure whether this says a lot or nothing at all!

17 January 2010

The last of the snow?

I hope so. I hate to sound like the grown-ups in my childhood, but it was an absolute nuisance in the end. Too much ice and not enough snow, for a start. “I ’ave ad eeenough” as one of my V&A colleagues used to declare. Snow in London always gets dirty and slushy very quickly, anyway, even if when it first falls it can look quite picturesque - as here on the palms in Bethnal Green Gardens last Tuesday morning, with the red brick of the Museum in the background for contrast. It did one very useful thing, too, which was to light up the park after sunset – normally the centre is ‘orribly dark then, but people were walking across quite happily. You still run the risk of being shut in for the night, so I wouldn’t, but at least you’d probably be visible to the parks staff who lock up.

Snow out in the ‘West London Alps’ is a bit different – plodding up and down the side road where we live was really quite tiring all week, even when suitably shod, and there were odd patches lingering in the shade until yesterday.

01 January 2010

Oranges and Lemons

Recently I had to do a BBC Radio London Interview with Max Hutchinson about the origins of the traditional rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons'. This was an outside recording in Martin Lane, in the City of London: I was the first to arrive, and had just succeeded in walking straight past the rendezvous point - what little was left of the church of St Martin Orgar - when my attention was grabbed by this knitted set of oranges and lemons adorning the railings. Only in this country, surely!

'Oranges and Lemons' was always one of my favourites as a child, and not only for "Here comes a chopper to chop off your head" (though that did play a large part). There are several versions of the words, but they all chime - and we concluded that the rhyme had been made up largely for the pure pleasure of the sounds, although it may possibly have had some part of its origin in inter-parish rivalry, perhaps over monetary matters.