Monthly Archives: May 2011

The kids are alright…

I’ve been busy in marking land, coming to several conclusions whilst I tick and comment.

The first thing I do is set up a youtube playlist of 50 tracks, put it on shuffle and listen to them until I’ve done my 50 and marked about 20-odd papers (not 20 odd papers… just goes to show how important a dash can be) I pretty much go with whatever I’m in the mood for. Today, I seem to have regressed to being 13. However, one of the first tracks I added was ‘Changes’ by David Bowie. And it made me think, even though I thought I was an odd-ball geek like nobody else, and I was an odd-ball geek like nobody else, I was actually a pretty cool odd-ball geek like nobody else. And now I’m marking 400 papers, including some kids who are oddball geeks too. I like that. There aren’t so many of them, but sometimes you get a real insight into a fresh and wonderful mind – something quite entertaining and funky.

I’m sure people thought I was a lunatic for picking secondary school teaching. Like, you actually want to teach teenagers? Are you crazy??

Maybe a little bit.

But I love these emergent personalities becoming something new. It’s like watching butterflies emerge. Kids are great – under 11 when they’re just funny and childish – but when they really start becoming something interesting – that’s when they really fascinate me. Some don’t. Some go on to be carbon copies of each other, wearing what everyone else does, doing what everyone else does. For girls, they become Lauren and say ‘Am I bovvered, though?’ – with their townie clothes and orange make-up, tide-mark necks and Argos earrings. For boys, they become Kevin and say ‘It’s so unfair’ and want to wear their socks outside their pants and walk around with their hand down their elasticated waistband. I kid you not. It’s a chav trend I’ve seen several ‘young men’ of about 18 doing. Why?? Who knows??! I’m not interested in what I would have called ‘townies’ – in my generation with their Pod shoes or Kickers, or their Cabrini jackets and Farrar pants. Ski jackets were so ‘townie’ and being a townie was the equivalent of having your brain sucked out. You liked Duran Duran and wore gold sovereign rings and too much hair gel. The girls wore nasty lipstick a shade paler than their skin (oh, Dusty Springfield, if only you knew what you’d unleashed… although I can’t blame orange skin on you!) and huge socks rolled down past their knees and ruched up, like huge, thick legwarmers.

I never fitted in with the ‘in-crowd’. I was too poor to buy Kickers or big socks. I didn’t like Duran Duran or Curiosity Killed The Cat. And I mark papers for kids who don’t fit in with the ‘in-crowd’ sometimes, and it makes me a little glad there are still little unique personalities out there. I didn’t have ‘favourites’ at school, but I had kids I loved a lot – usually the weird ones or the funny ones who were a little bit strange. Sharp kids who didn’t want to conform. They reminded me of myself.

When I was about 12, with the proceeds of my hard work collecting milk money (not a euphemism for bullying… I was kind of like a little debt collector for dues for milk deliveries) I would go down to Bury. I earned £4.00 which wasn’t quite enough for an album unless I saved up a bit. Mostly, I would spend it at a second-hand record stall on the flea market, courtesy of a guy in his thirties who took the time to push certain tracks my way. I like that. I think odd-ball kids could do with adults to let them know they’re okay to be odd. I had a couple of teachers like that, and although I probably wouldn’t have put this guy in that category, he’s largely responsible for what I listened to before I became ‘rock and roll’. It’s kind of the music I listened to before I knew what was cool to listen to. And so much of it so hugely important to me still.

Changes was the first one I got. Life on Mars came next. Here I was, this little 12 year old with her 10p bus ticket buying arguably the best of Bowie. And so much of it meant so much to me. ‘These children that you spit on as they try to change their world…’ I felt like one of those children, sometimes, finding my way in an adult world.

After that, I went all Indie on a route of my own. At 13, I went to a gig in Manchester for the Sugarcubes – the band that brought us Bjork, who was odd before Lady Gaga. 

Sugarcubes, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths, Talking Heads and my big love, Depeche Mode. Depeche Mode released ‘Black Celebration’ in 1986 – and it got to me in ways music doesn’t do very much any more. Then came the Sugarcubes first album. Sure, Bjork is weird – but here, her voice is so… wow. Different, kooky, unusual, feisty, filled with emotion. The year before, Talking Heads released ‘Little Creatures’ and that was just lovely, bouncy, indie pop too. I wish I still had that Sugarcubes t-shirt now! I used to wear it with a yellow paisley silk scarf, a hand-sewn suit jacket, jeans and some uber-cool leopardskin teddy boy shoes I bought from the original Red or Dead in Affleck’s Palace. I had a little army satchel, made of olive canvas, which I covered with the names of bands I liked and badges I’d picked up.

Even when Guns n Roses changed my life for good in 1988 – the void had been filled already with some pretty funky stuff. And even when I fell into the uniform of the rockers with tasselled skirts, skin-tight jeans and motorbike jackets, I still did a good line in ‘LJ unique’.

At the time, I did it because I was poor and I didn’t fit in, but I like to think even back then, it was cool not to fit in. Luckily, I had some very good school friends who didn’t fit in, but who were SOOOO cool. Laura Johnson, Helen Pendlebury and Anna Lee will always be my heroines because they made it cool to be weird way before anyone else did. We wore second hand clothes, listened to David Bowie or Talking Heads, did mix tapes for each other, went to weird gigs at the University or at the International II when we were just 14. I’m as much a product of odd-ball Manchester as I am of them. The city benefits from a huge university (and in the 80s, nobody, but nobody was cooler than Uni students) which brought second-hand shops and good music. In fact, the Academy, one of Manchester’s better venues, is still part of the Uni buildings. The MUSU vanished a long time ago, but I saw some great bands there.

Anyway, here’s to cool kids who don’t realise how cool they are.

And a little track for them, too.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

Apparently, tomorrow is the end of the world. I’d kind of like that. I’ll die in debt and the world won’t owe me a living. I’ll also not have to mark 500 GCSE papers, which is all good since I won’t need to earn cash to pay my taxes. However, it leaves a lot undone. There’s a good few things I need to get straightened out before the end of the world. And a whole world of things I’ve not done. I better get a wriggle on because some of them are time-consuming and kind of important.

I guess it’s time to revamp my consumerist ‘things to do before the end of the world’ list… some of the things are ongoing from my former ‘things to do before I die’ list. So… I’ve still got:

  1. Read the works of Dickens. I’ve got a bit behind on this one. I’m going to have to pick that up again this summer. Maybe I can do it when I’m doing some others to save time.
  2. See the works of Shakespeare. Much harder now I’m in the land of Racine and Moliere. However, I could accept defeat on that having seen The Taming of the Shrew by Propeller – by far the best production ever of anything. Ever. Of Anything.
  3. I’m giving up on India. I wanted to go to it when I thought it was like Kerala, not filled with mobile phones and people called Malcolm. Maybe I’ll go to Kerala.
  4. I might get my nose pierced again this summer when I come back for marking. As long as they don’t put a nasty stud in it. Which reminds me, I’m off to Afflecks tomorrow to see if I can find Jake a cool earring. It won’t have Nike on it, that’s for sure. I’m not a Nike-herdarista. I’m not an anything herdarista. If there’s a herd, I’m leaping over the cliff.
  5. I had skiing and skating to do – but my crappy legs are making that impossible. I need to abandon those maybe.

I still have places to see… I feel like there’s a whole load more to see in Africa for me now – and the whole francophone world to explore with my newly ‘okay’ French. At least I don’t mind speaking on the phone now. So out of 44, I have maybe 10 still to do – get a hummingbird tattoo, go to China, own some murano glass or lalique, drive through California and walk in the Alps. However, these are my next 25 things to do:

  1. Have a year without shopping for clothes
  2. Get back to living out of a kitbag – minimalism, baby! In the digital age, it shouldn’t be a problem. Well, a kitbag and some boxes. Luckily some important Apple-related people have invented everything I need to store all my precious stuff on a laptop.
  3. Go solar
  4. Get some farm animals (other than the chickens)
  5. Pick up horse-riding again – I’d love, love, love to breed working Shire horses in France
  6. Travel through Morocco once more – and across to Egypt through the deserts
  7. Become a herbal medicine Mistress
  8. Make a patchwork quilt
  9. Find my alternative roots once again
  10. Learn another language once again
  11. Make an outfit from scratch
  12. Learn how to make the beautiful skirts I have and make my own
  13. Be one of those clean gardeners who have a pinny and a panier for their mini-harvest
  14. Sell some art
  15. Find my niche as an artist
  16. Learn to crochet
  17. Live with the seasons
  18. Live without debt – not a penny!
  19. Camp on the Cote d’Argent
  20. Become an Art Deco expert
  21. Make my own arbor and plant it up with climbing plants
  22. Create a really big, beautiful garden
  23. Learn how to propagate properly, including roses!
  24. See more of France
  25. Do what I can to live without petrol

Aren’t Nanas brilliant?!

I ♥ my Nana. Not only is she my biggest fan, she’s funny too.

Nanas are brilliant. They always have cake for you, far too many sweeties, several types of biscuit and Turkish Delight secreted about their person. Nanas always have welcoming boo-sums (as my Nana likes to call them) and nothing feels as good as getting a hug from your Nana. Nothing is ever any trouble for a Nana when it involves their grandchildren. Nanas watch cookery programmes and read ‘Good Housekeeping’ and have ornaments and good china. And you could break that good china by accident and they wouldn’t even really mind, even if it was 50 years old and a present. Nanas always have toffees in their handbag and a packet of tissues. Nanas are always glad to get a phone call from you and make the best sandwiches. It’s compulsory for Nanas’ sandwiches to taste far nicer than everyone else’s.

Nanas are always proud of you. I’m proud of my Nana. She does loads of stuff online, sends texts, knows mobile phones and cameras better than I do, always looks stylish and glamorous. She’s not proud of my dirty gardening shorts. That’s one thing she’s not proud of.

I’m not sure my Nana knows how funny she is, in a naturally comical way. She comes out with lines, spontaneously, that comedy writers sit and search for. What’s worse is that my Nana has a loud Manchester whisper and I’m sure other people are in stitches about the things she says.

Once, I took her to RBG in Manchester. Restaurant Bar Grill is a restaurant where lots of famous people hang out. I’ve seen Graham Norton in there, Dwight Yorke, several other footballers and so on. It’s good food, but for a while in the 90s, it was uber-fashionable. We went for lunch one day.

I don’t know why, but she decided to tell a joke about Jesus on the cross. My nana is not at all religious, and she thinks Jesus is funny. She did all the actions – arms out wide – funny voice… and when she got to the punchline: “Peter…. I can see your house from here…” half the waiters were behind her trying so hard not to laugh and keep their cool ‘game face’ on.

Today, we were talking about books. We love to read. She’s found an author we’d not read and she was explaining about the opening event in the first novel. She’d said it was a man getting tortured for being in Ikea. Only my Nana can mix up Ikea and Al-Qaida. Only my nana can mix up HRT with HIV and raise eyebrows about middle aged ladies getting HIV treatment. I love the images she creates, though. I like thinking of Bin Laden in Warrington Ikea with all the screeching plastic scousers and their numerous rowdy scouser offspring. That would be torture. If someone had put his house right next to Warrington and made him go to Ikea every Sunday, I feel sure he’d have given up before then. Or else Sweden would have been in for a bombing.

What I also love about my Nana is she can make anyone smile. She had a full-on conversation with the lady in Gregg’s, and then with the lady in the travel agents, and then when a girl backed in to her in the post office, she thought my Nana was staring at her for being rude, gave her a stare back and my Nana said ‘Oooh, you have LOVELY hair!’

She then said ‘Do you think it was a wig?’ to me. That’s what I love about my Nana. She’s funny and she’s kind. She gets people talking. She’s the nicest lady you could ever meet except maybe my Auntie Mary, one of her very best friends.

Anyway, me and my Nana are planning a Thelma-and-Louise-style road trip through the Dordogne. I’m not sure if it’s where she thought she wanted to go – sometimes things in my Nana’s head are nicer than they really are. She likes the idea of sitting in French cafes drinking coffee, but in reality, she asks for tea, gets something weaker than gnat’s piss with sterilised milk to boot – and it’s not quite how she imagines it. Maybe I will take her some PG Tips in my handbag and some fresh milk in a mini-flask.

One thing is for sure though. We’re having separate rooms. One of us snores. I’m not saying who, but one of us didn’t get much sleep in Bruges and one of us was very crabby when she arrived in Reims. One of us slept perfectly fine thank you very much.

I’m glad I spent it with you…

Andy would have been 34 years of age on Monday. For those of you who don’t know, this is the fine fellow who died in a motorbike accident in 2003.

Bruges, 2000

The worst of it is that on that day, the universe was deprived of one of the finest men I ever had the privilege to know.

We met in a bar in Bolton on its opening night. It was absolutely heaving and he and I waited side-by-side at the bar. It was July 4th 1998. He was just 21 and I was 25. I can’t believe I was so young – and he was little more than a child! We got talking. He told me women who talked to men in bars were lunatics. He was kind of right.

He and his friends came back to my house after the bar shut – some of his friends were friends of two guys who lived round the corner from me – who I knew quite well. I can’t remember the first kiss. It’s a shame. I remember lots of my first kisses. I remember my first kiss with the guy I was seeing before him – Mark – the first weasel I had ever known. I remember my first kiss with Phil, my first ‘proper’ boyfriend. I remember my kiss with Pete and with the Dwarf. But I don’t remember my first kiss with Andy, and I hate that. I wish I did.

He didn’t go home that night, or the Sunday. He stayed pretty much all week. We did all the talking young people in the first throws of love do, and we were so into each other.

By August, he’d moved in, permanently.

We had a life which we wanted – our first ‘grown-up’ life – he’d just got a job at a computer firm doing repairs for £9,000. I was still in my first long-term teaching post. I had a new house and a new cat and it was all quite swimmingly grown-up. We didn’t go out. We never went clubbing or to bars. We stayed in or we went to judo or ju-jitsu together. We watched t.v. and went to the movies. We never did anything exciting.

I’d put all youthful dreams of travelling to exotic places out of my thoughts. We went on holiday to Greece, went to bed before midnight and spent much of our time just playing cards and reading. We lay in bed listening to the same karaoke night after night as R Kelly’s ‘I believe I can fly’ was tortured by some idiot. It was never a dramatic or emotional or powerful relationship. It was plain and simple and ordinary. It’s been about the only thing since I was young that was plain and simple and ordinary. He’s my only non-tattooed boyfriend, non-long-haired, conformist, regular boyfriend. We were like an old couple. I liked that. It’s been like no other relationship in my life.

He was perhaps the kindest man I ever met. When my Gramps got his first computer, up in his bedroom at South Avenue, Andy sat with him for hours teaching him how to use it. Now my Gramps was not an easy man to teach anything. And yet Andy never patronised him, never made him feel incompetent with this new technology and never made him feel like he couldn’t do it. I loved that about him.

When he got his next job as a computer tech in a school, I was made up. I think he got forty Valentine’s cards. He was amazed. I love that about him too – he never thought anything particularly of his skills. I got a promotion too, in 2000, and we saw in the Millennium.

Like that first kiss, I can’t even remember what we did. I know we spent a couple of New Year’s Eves having a Chinese banquet with our three closest friends. I guess it was that – Chinese Pavillion in Westhoughton. And I bet one of us drove. We were so sensible! I know we spent one of our last nights together in the Chinese in Bolton. I sang ‘Perfect Day’ with Kev on the karaoke – and it really was. I have a couple of photos from that night – one of my back that Andy took – and one of Andy of himself doing a Dr. Evil pose.

We didn’t have in-jokes, like me and Pete Nesbitt had. We didn’t have arguments and make-ups like me and Phil. We just had this ordinary, quiet life. We went to Bruges the autumn of 2000 and we ate chocolates and went on the canal with lots of middle-aged people. I can’t really remember it – it was so… ordinary. We didn’t take lots of photos because we didn’t do anything exciting or photograph-worthy. We just lived this ordinary, cul-de-sac life in Bolton. He did DIY and I did the garden. We went to judo. We worked. I know I regret having spent so much time at work because I’d get home late, we’d have tea, watch TV, we’d go to the gym together and do judo. And then we’d go to bed. At weekends, we went to people’s weddings, or we cleaned the house and gardened. We had clean cars. We were those quiet, young neighbours who washed the cars and mowed the lawns and went on holiday to ordinary places.

By the time he died, he had just been promoted for the 4th time. He was running the IT centre in Liverpool and was on £60,000. We were pretty driven, in a quiet, non-threatening way. He and I had discussed that motorbike. It was either a motorbike or a dog. I said we couldn’t justify a dog. We worked such long hours and it’d just get lonely.

Now I will always wish I’d said yes to the dog. Not that it’d make a difference, I know.

So he got his lessons, got his first bike – a small Yamaha – then traded it up for a GSX-R 750. In his favour, he was always safe. If anything, he was slightly a petrol-head. Though it wasn’t a big thing for him. I think he’s my only boyfriend who didn’t have a fetish about something geeky or other.

And then he died.

This quiet, non-assuming, sweet man – the kindest of men – who would fall asleep whilst I stroked his arms – this man who was never sad or depressed – this deeply Taurean man – stoic and patient and dependable – this man would be 34. I wonder what kind of man he’d be – probably the same. Maybe a family man. He was deprived of that. He wouldn’t have done great things, created or been newsworthy. My head is always full of maybes and will-never-bes.

It’s no good to feel sad about death. It gets you nowhere.

A very young Andy and a very young Basil

When he was buried, I wore shoes he hated. I knew he’d have laughed. Seeing my ridiculous pink snakeskin Cuban-heeled mules would have made him smile. He and I had this kind of ‘know what you’re thinking’ look – a smile that’s only in the eyes and not on the face – a secret smile.

So here’s the stuff I remember:

  • he always wore shoes unless he was in the gym
  • he never wore t-shirts unless he was at the gym
  • his heroes were the Gracie family
  • he lived for ju-jitsu and judo
  • he wanted to call our dog Pedalo. I don’t know why
  • he sometimes danced naked on the bed to make me laugh and it always did
  • he wore shirts and jumpers, never gym clothes
  • I broke his nose by accident once in a toy fight
  • he had a crush on Britney and would have been very sad by her life now
  • he was as about a typical Taurus man as it’s possible to be
  • he dreamed about Suzuki GSX-Rs for as long as I knew him
  • he used to clean the house on Friday afternoons so when I got back from work I could relax
  • he never snacked or smoked
  • he kept Japanese fighting sticks under our bed just in case we were burgled
  • I have photos of him and photos he took of me, but I haven’t got one single photo of us together that I like. Either he looks weird or I do. It was almost a joke. If he’d have seen My Name is Earl he’d have laughed at Earl always having his eyes shut. That was one or the other of us on photos of us together.
After he died, I did the first daring thing of my adult life – I went to Brazil. He died on Easter Saturday 2003 and by May, I’d decided to do something a little different. I know he’d have loved it. I watched a ju-jitsu tournament and met a couple of minor Gracie family members, who I stayed with a couple of days, and I know he would have smiled. When I went to Japan – I know that would have been his favourite. Cherry blossom will always remind me of him – short-lived yet beautiful. One of the most famous lines that sums up mono-no aware – the bittersweetness of things – is ‘Ii tenki, desu ne?’ – it’s a fine day, isn’t it? – reminds me of that song Kev – Andy’s best friend – and I sang on that last night out together.
So… happy birthday Andy. I’m glad I spent that time with you. You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good.

The Zen & Forrest Gump of cherry picking…

I’ve now picked another 2 kg of cherries today – that makes 5 in total between us. I had a lightning strike of zen – or a Forrest Gump moment if you’re less philosophical. Cherry picking, it seems, has many things to teach us about life…

  • You have to go out there and do it… if you just sit around waiting, all you’re going to get ar things the birds don’t want, mouldy ones or ones that are not ripe yet. Such is life. If you sit around waiting for good stuff to fall into your lap, you’re going to be sadly disappointed.
  • You can sometimes go all out to get one perfect cherry. Sometimes, it’s out of reach. Sometimes, you get to the perfect one after a lot of exertion and dangerous escapades and it’s rotten when you grab it.
  • Sometimes, you can be so busy trying to get the perfect one just out of reach that you fall off the ladder.
  • Sometimes, you can be so busy trying to get the perfect one just out of reach that you inadvertently trample on the ones you’ve already picked.
  • It’s easy to forget about the 2 kilos you’ve already picked when one catches your eye.
  • You can’t spend all your time looking down on the ground. All you’ll find are stones. You need to look up and seize them.
  • You can’t spend all your time looking up – the sun will blind you and bits of the tree will fall in your eye.
  • Sometimes the best ones are just behind you… you just need to move a little bit to see them.
  • It’s nicer if you can do it with friends and family
  • It’s fabulous if you can enjoy the growing and the picking as well as the eating
  • Some people don’t have big cherry trees in their life. They might only have a patch of dirt. You’ve got to remember to pass them some of your cherries and be thankful that you didn’t get Brussels sprouts.
  • You have to remember, you can’t make raspberry ripple ice-cream out of cherries. You have to work with what you’ve been given and not spend all your time wishing you had something else. If you did get Brussels sprouts, you’re either going to have to learn to love them, or buy a cherry tree. Or move.
  • It takes time, patience and luck. And even then, you can have a crap harvest and it’s nothing to do with you.
  • Some years, you get lots. Some years you don’t.
  • Some of the best things are inherited.
  • You can spoil it all by harvesting too soon. Patience is everything.
  • Sometimes, you get sunny days and perfect conditions to do your work. Sometimes, it’s pissing it down and you need to wear wellies.
  • It’s lots more fun if you have a dog and a cat and a chicken all playing round you whilst you do it.
  • Sometimes, you have to accept you don’t have the right tools to do the job properly and you have to make do with what you can.
  • You can be far too ambitious and end up in hospital. Or dead.
  • When you think your work is done, you remember you’ve got to do something with it all, or it’ll all go to waste.
  • If you think this task is the end, you’re wrong. Just when you have the fruits of your labour, the real labour starts.
  • You want to put some away for a rainy day, or for the winter so you can enjoy it then too.
  • You can’t live off cherries alone. You’ll get the trots. You need a balance, even if you really, really like cherries.
  • Sometimes, you have to sit back at the end of it all and stick a cherry in your coke so you can feel all wonderful.
  • You think cherries are what you’ve got, but that’s just the beginning… there’s so many other things you can do once you’ve made a start.
  • Some people just don’t like what you’ve got and you’ve got to live with that.
  • Some people are going to be jealous of your cherries. You might be jealous of their pears. Nobody’s ever jealous of the guy with the dirt or the Brussels sprouts.
  • Doing it yourself rather than having it handed to you all pre-packaged and sanitised is much more fun.
  • Sometimes, you are going to twat your head in the process and it’s really going to hurt. It might even leave a scar. But it’s always worth it.
  • If it all goes wrong, turn it to Brandy or Kirsch and get drunk. God hasn’t made a vegetable, grain or fruit yet that you can’t ferment and get drunk from.
I think that’s enough cherry-picking-related metaphors about life. Prepare yourself for sunflower-related metaphors about death, carrot-related metaphors about religion and grape-related metaphors about children.

After the rant, a little rave…

I wouldn’t be me if I couldn’t swing from politics to parsnips in one day. I guess it’s all under the same banner of ‘disenfranchised middle-class white-girl values’.

Anyway, we’ve harvested 3 kg of cherries today – the first lot. I’m kind of hoping we can get between 8-10 kg of cherries. Right now, cherries in Asda are 2.97 for 200g – which makes 1 kg come in at about 7.50. Let’s call it 8 euros per kilo. Not a bad little haul. I want every single last cherry off the trees, because cherries are my absolute favourite.

Cherries and elderflower

And I have a renewed thank you to make – to Steve’s uncle Chris and his wife Nush, who kindly gave me a cherry stoner for Christmas. It’s absolutely excellent. I’m in love with it. I could stone cherries all day.

I boiled 1 kg up in syrup to freeze; I have put another kilo in the freezer straight off. 500 g are in the fridge for munching and 500 g are in a cherry crumble that’s currently in the oven. Tomorrow, I want enough to make a couple of pots of jam. Cherry pie and cream during the week, I think. I’m going to do some glacé cherries and some cherries in kirsch too – if I can get 10 kg of cherries, that’s 500g every other week – and that’ll keep me going until next year!!

You can also see that our elderflower are blossoming. I’m off to get some citric acid tomorrow to make elderflower cordial – and I’d really like to do some elderflower fritters too. I love elderflower and ginger cordial – so might make a batch of that to store over the summer.

We had 2 kg of marteau turnips yesterday, too. Now, the turnip is an unfashionable vegetable, and I don’t know why. I cook it in a little butter and it caramelises wonderfully. Yesterday, we had it mashed with carrots – parfait!

Turnip 'Marteau'

Although, I was kind of hoping now that the garden has stopped being on steroids, that it would be a little quieter and I’ve just reminded myself, via aching legs, that most of what happens from now on is in the kitchen preparing stuff to keep us going through the year! It’s not so pleasant in there right now – hot and sweaty. Between the kitchen and the super-sweaty poly-tunnel, I reckon I’ve sweated out 10 kg.

I think I’m having a survivalist panic…

… I’ve been inflamed by several things recently – including rising oil prices, estimates about peak oil production and decline (check out peak oil  and then tell me you aren’t planning on getting your bike out!)

What started it off was the price of chicken food. It’s gone up 70c to 2€ 70. Not a big thing in itself, but a reminder about several other things: wheat failure in Russia and China, rising food costs, inflation. Then Prince Charles, rightly, is telling people to eat less beef. Beef is a hugely hungry food crop – and rearing cattle is costing the planet dear. Something has to give. Either we have to have a drop in the population – probably enforced because of starvation – or we have to eat less-consuming products. Or both. As it is, rising food costs are telling us that we can’t keep going on forever. Not only that, but the people being priced out of the market are the poorest.

Then I read a little something posted by Mark from hed(pe) on Facebook, linking from survivalblog about spotting potential domestic terrorists. And I realise I fit the bill in so many ways.

I have libertarian philosophies!

I am trying to be self-sufficient!

I am afraid of economic collapse! Nothing is too big to fall. If you don’t believe me, ask a dinosaur.

I hate big government!

I would like to add, I don’t have second-amendment issues and think we should all be carrying weapons. I’m leaving protecting the property to Jake in the event of cataclysmic collapse. I’d also like to add I’m not a religious zealot or think the end is nigh. I would like to pass a little of the blame onto the Cold War instigators and also to the makers of Threads – a film about the aftermath of nuclear war. All that fuss about nuclear weapons and enemies and iron curtains and Communism just deflected us from bigger problems: we’re outgrowing the planet and nothing is more likely to spark revolution than hunger. Just ask Marie-Antoinette.

And it’s not just all about what us human ants are up to. Mother Nature has a good way of warning us that she’s still more powerful than all of us. It doesn’t matter that economies are strong, or societies are cohesive if she’s going to throw a hurricane Katrina your way, or a tsunami, or a fukushima-scale disaster.

However, I took a leaf out of the ‘worrying is as effective as solving an algebra problem by chewing gum’ book and decided that my panic was a little premature and I shouldn’t start stockpiling just yet. If the world wants to know how it is without petrol or enough electricity, or with limited resources, it should look to Cuba.

In the interim period before deals with Venezuela and after the Soviet empire collapsed, in the so-called ‘special’ period, Cuba had nothing. All the oil-based goods sank to a minimum. Petrol came in at 10% of its former levels. Imagine having only 10% of the petrol we have! Food was scarce. And I think this would be my ‘look to and learn’ country for how we can avert peak oil problems and food shortages.

Firstly, everybody shares a car. If you have a car, you maintain it and you learn about engines. You realise you can put a lada engine in a huge American behemoth. You travel by any means necessary. If you have a tractor, you hook a cart to it and shift people. And then you are forced to say ‘to hell with travel’ because you can’t get around anyway. No petrol means no petrochemicals and this means no tyres. No tyres means you’re not going anywhere even if you do have petrol or bio-diesel. So you get a bike. If we’re lucky, we’ll soon see the sense in keeping more bike tyres than you need as spares for the future.

And if you can’t get a bike because resources mean there are none, have a horse or a pony, a mule or a donkey. We forget it’s only 200 years since these modes of transport were de rigeur. 

I bet it has a Russian engine under the hood!

Another thing about Cuba: consumerism is dead. There are shops, but they have nothing in them. We went in a shoe shop looking for a pair of sandals for Pete. We found some flip-flops – that was all – and they were so crap they broke within days. But you realise people can get along without ‘stuff’. If you don’t have CDs, make your own music. If you have finished a book, pass it on. If you don’t have a computer, meh, write a letter. Second-hand markets are not just ‘vintage’ and kitsch, but essential!

If you haven't got new stuff, make do with old

In the state-controlled hotels, the food was dire. Clearly there were food shortages and whilst people equate rations with not getting what you need, it also ensures what there is can be shared equally. I like that idea. Not only that, but most people supplement what they get with what they can grow. Chicks were everywhere, as were ducks and geese. Hens are great. Not only do they eat a lot of scraps and insects, but they also provide you with an egg. A vegetable garden and a hen and you have enough to supplement your basic food.

Medical supplies also became incredibly hard to source or pay for – so all those herbal remedies the EU directive banned as from April 2011 would have to come back into play.

Not only did petrol imports drop off, so mechanical aids were useless – no point in having a tractor if you can’t fuel it – but fossil fuels too – so brown-outs became the norm. And then you realise you can live without so much electricity. Street-lights are the first thing to go (and I like the fact our streetlights here go out around midnight and come back on about six in the morning… that’s six hours of electricity less than the lights outside my house in Bolton) and you cut back on all non-essential electricity. All those fancy porch lights and path markers and so on become expensive and pointless.

Oxen are the new black
Oxen are the new black

But petro-chemicals also supply the pesticide and fertiliser trade – so you have go back to organic methods, like nettle feed and horse manure. And you get out all your old horse or oxen ploughs and very soon, by force rather than middle-class white-girl westernised liberalism, you’re organic and petrol-free. Because industry relies on raw materials like steel and fossil fuels, industry drops off and agriculture becomes the main employer once again. People fish to supplement their income. No motor boats means no intensive fishing, so fish thrive. I ate the best lobster ever in Cuba, spear-fished by a guy who used the lobster to supplement his diet – but not having diesel-powered boats meant the waters are clear, clean and those lobster, not over-caught, were huge and delicious.

Diet changes too. Meat and dairy – so expensive in terms of how much it costs to raise, both financially and environmentally – become part of the past, and vegetables and grains take over. People become accidentally healthier – forced into healthy eating. You can’t afford to smoke or take drugs. So health improves although medicine is less available. Ironic. Diabetes, heart disease and early mortality all dropped – albeit in highly unfortunate, imposed circumstances.

So… I’ve decided we should all make our drop in the ocean – although bigger changes are needed to avert major disaster – and not for us, for people in the poorest communities, the most fragile of society, the old, the young, the weak. The death rate amongst pensioners went up 20% in the Special Period in Cuba – not amongst other groups. We owe it to each other. We owe it to our future selves.

Unfortunately, change is often powered by necessity rather than altruism. Drive less, consume less, grow more. Switch things off. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Maybe I should start breeding oxen and cart horses!!

Just as a parting shot, I’d like to say we 30-somethings with dread in our soul are a product of our societies’ upbringing. I watched Threads in school about nuclear disaster. I remember the gravestone-AIDS-ads. Nuclear threat, epidemics and Greenpeace all contributed to this survivalist panic. But no matter what, the media can’t disguise the fact that inflation is up because of two things: rises in food costs and rises in petrol. If you want my money on the future, these two will be the driving force behind change. You can keep your nuclear war and your hazmat suits. We’re only three meals from revolution. And heaven forfend we have to give up our beloved motor vehicles!

Zen and the Art of Garden Maintenance

Things are coming on apace chez nous. Things are growing like you wouldn’t believe – and things that were poor little seedlings are now mammoth triffids. The cherries are beginning to ripen on the tree and I quite believe I could spend from now until October just eating stuff in the garden. I’d probably get the trots, but c’est la vie. Stephen has yet to accept my request that we adorn ourselves with fig leaves to wander about eating from the trees. If only Adam had such a stubborn streak, humanity wouldn’t be in this mess.

So far, we have five plots and a polytunnel in operation.

In the first, we have savoy cabbages, red cabbage and ‘tete de Pierre’ cabbage. Either this is ‘Peter’s head’ cabbage or ‘stone-head’ cabbage. Either way, it made me laugh, so into the ground it went.  Parsnips, salsify, turnips, cauliflowers and leeks have also made this their home. We also have a few straggly beetroot and a whole load of potatoes I couldn’t find last year. Oops. It’s kind of a ‘root vegetable/winter vegetable’ plot with some companion planting to keep beasts away.

In the second, we have nothing but potatoes. Mona Lisa and Belle de Fontenay. I’m going to plant in some of the marigolds to keep it pretty and keep beasts off.

Mona Lisa pomme de terre

This plot was filled with convolvulus and a couple of stray hollyhock beasts, which are mostly gone now. It’s not a bad plot considering it was grass this time last year.

The third plot is a combination of things: sweetcorn, borlotti beans, melons, courgettes and Roma and suncherry tomatoes – sweet plum tomatoes. I’ve kind of rooted it around Mexican three sisters planting: a corn, a bean and a pumpkin – although I’ve gone a bit more melon than pumpkin. Pumpkins are pretty but a bit rubbish at everything apart from Hallowe’en. I might get some in yet. Still time!

The three new plots Steve dug up

The fourth plot is tomatoes: Gardener’s Delight, Cerise, Roma, with a good load of French and English marigolds in there just to keep the nasties away.

Finally, there’s the pea/bean plot which has Kelvedon Wonder, Serpette Guilloteaux and some broad beans, borlotti beans and a couple of spare tomatoes.

The only thing that haven’t grown – at all – are carrots. No luck whatsoever, though I’ve sown about five packets of various different ones!

I’ve got only the swede to sow out – and then August/September sowings for overwintering – so it’s just a matter of keeping the weeds down, the pests at bay and reaping what we sow. I’m getting all Biblical today, obviously, what with the fig leaves and the sowing imagery. Sorry. I shall try and keep it to a minimum!

The polytunnel is the piece-de-resistance. It’s like an amazing science experiment in there. Peas, lettuces – red, oakleaf, curly – radish, turnips, beans, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, more tomatoes ready to be moved outside – although I’m learning tomatoes don’t like being moved too much. Next year, I might start them a little later in pots and then plant them straight out. Leeks, gherkins, melons, peppers and chili peppers. We’ve got some wild strawberries in there too, courtesy of Madame Arrouet who left them in.

Trump and Berlusconi…

… must be two of the most repugnant men on the planet. I’m still getting over Sarah Palin, and then comb-over Trump links up to the Republican party and I’m astonished once more. Is it me, or are the Republicans having a serious crisis?? If you can’t find anyone better than Palin and Trump, you’re looking like a floundering dinosaur flailing about in its death throes – and this is both comical, because Palin and Trump are jokes, and alarming, because Republican Americans might vote them into power at some point.

Trump reminds me of Berlusconi, and maybe Republicans and Americans should take heed.

1. Both have hair issues – Trump with that weird combover, and Berlusconi with his hair plugs. Instantly laughable. This leads me to the second and linked point.

2. Both are too vain to age gracefully. And vanity is not an admirable quality in a leader. Especially when vanity has made them look ten times worse than they’d look if they aged gracefully.

3. Neither of them have much by way of dignity. If you have hair that looks like that, you obviously don’t care what the world thinks of you, either. And if you can’t age gracefully, it’s just undignified.

4. Both are a funny colour. Can you trust a man whose skin looks like it was sprayed on?

5. Both have bleached teeth. And I despise a man who spends more time worrying about whether his teeth are sparkly white than whether their political views are in order.

6. Both are homophobic. What’s wrong with gay marriage, for a start? Berlusconi saying being a pedophile is better than being gay… what’s with that?

7. Both seem to see women as being little more than entertainment. Trump is the man behind several ‘beauty’ pageants, having had several ‘model’ wives with big boobs. I don’t even need to say anything about bunga-bunga parties or teenage prostitutes where Berlusconi is concerned.

8. Both have more money than sense. And that’s never a good thing.

9. Both made a lot of money out of property and are ‘businessmen’ with a bent on making money and not giving much back: charity isn’t really a word these men know.

10. Both make Obama even more rational, sensible and effective, simply by being idiots. Berlusconi’s comments about Obama’s ‘tan’, and Trump’s obsession with Obama’s birth certificate make them look like idiots who couldn’t get into a good political argy-bargy with Obama over anything sensible. Men of little brain, I’m afraid.

11. Both are laughable ‘playboys’ who think affairs are acceptable and yet say family values are important: hypocrites, the pair of them, who want the world to live by ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

12. Both make cringeworthy ‘jokes’ – my favourite is Berlusconi’s about communists boiling babies to fertilise the fields – and yet both fail to realise that they themselves are the joke. The world laughs at them, not with them.

13. Both have too much testosterone. Five kids, really??!

14. Both are ‘pro-life’. Anyone who is pro-life (as I was as a teenager, I confess) should read the works of Marie Stopes. Being able to control birth, pregnancy and break free of the constraints of being at the mercy of pregnancy were the real forces behind breaking women out of poverty and ignorance. Women could study, could work, could build without interruption, could make choices about their health. More women died in childbirth than of disease in the past. Taking away women’s choice to have a child means you are effectively enslaving them and keeping them submissive. Give a woman birth control and she can control her choices and her destiny, her future and her life. Abortion, I confess, is a different issue, but related. When men force women to have no option than to bring an unwanted child into the world they are doing little other than taking away their choices and I find that deplorable.

15. Both show that being rich can buy you a prostitute wife several years your junior and that even ugly, perma-tanned, bleached-teeth racist homophobes with hair issues can buy find love with beautiful, big-haired, big-breasted women young enough to be their daughters. As Caroline Ahearne once asked Debbie McGhee, ‘so what attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’ – it’s amazing how having a billion in the bank can make you attractive to a wide range of supposedly brainless bimbos willing to take advantage of your generosity.

16. Both reveal themselves to be complete racists in their behaviour towards Obama. I’m completely dumbstruck by Trump’s comments that he heard Obama was ‘terrible’ at school and didn’t deserve a place at Columbia or Harvard – thus suggesting the only reason he got in was because he was black. Not entirely sure how someone who is ‘terrible’ goes on to graduate magna cum laude, but there you go.

17. Both seem to shake off controversy and grow fat in its wake.

18. Both seem utterly invincible.

19. Both remind me of the Emperor in the Emperor’s New Clothes – completely obsessed with their own power and invincibility and without any sense of how foolish they really are.

20. Both have suspicious links made to organised crime. Berlusconi’s are well-documented. Anyone who hasn’t heard stories of how he is hand-in-hand with the Mafia hasn’t been reading the papers much. However, some American sources are pointing to links between Trump’s ex-colleagues and organised crime.

I can’t, however, see Trump trying to play hide-and-seek with the very dour Angela Merkel. I can’t see him making jokes about natural disasters in America and saying it’s a good opportunity for people who have lost their homes to enjoy camping. Any man who can annoy the Queen – married to the famously politically incorrect Philip – by shouting to get Barack Obama’s attention – is an imbecile. Berlusconi’s comments about Finland seem more on a par with Sarah Palin than Donald Trump – though both seem to reveal themselves as idiots the more they say. Anyone who refers to himself in the third person, as Trump does, doesn’t deserve Lady Justine’s time. That’s for sure.

Not only that, but Trump’s criticism of Obama isn’t his own idea. It’s Huckabee’s. He can’t even be racist or idiotic with his own ideas. A man who’s been on the verge of bankruptcy and has distinctly questionable financial behaviours leading the country upon whose economic success the whole world’s fortunes rest? I don’t think so! A man who gives a speech in a room in which there is a huge ice statue of himself is not someone I want to be the man in charge of the USA.

As the old adage said: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Both Trump and Berlusconi could learn from that. Unfortunately, to quote another: “A fool and his money are soon elected.”

Let’s hope Trump’s posturing is nothing more than a fairground distraction. Unfortunately, Berlusconi is the main attraction and the ringmaster of the fool’s carnival that Italian politics seems to be right now.

When life hands you radishes…

As you may have seen from my last blog, we are inundated by radishes. I planted some called ’18 day radishes’, some French breakfast, some seeds from last year’s radishes and Jake also planted some. We’ve had half a kilo already, ranging from mini ones to ones as big as turnips. Not bad considering they went in on the 13th March – and were ready at least a week ago!!

In all honesty, I don’t like radishes much. I planted them out of sentimentality because my Gramps loved radishes. Steve likes radish, but even with his love of radish, you’ve got to have a real fetish to eat half a kilo of the things. So, I was looking for recipes with radishes. I found two that might have been a bit appetising.

One was in an old Readers’ Digest manual – brie and radish mousse. The other was in The Silver Spoon – my bible of cooking. We had camembert, not brie, but I didn’t think it would matter. You have to chop the rind off a very ripe brie (or spoon it out – much easier!) mix it with a little double cream, whip up the same amount of double cream, add some powdered gelatine and mix in the radishes then leave it to set. I confess I chose this one because we had a ripe camembert and I needed something to do with it.


Because the cheese doesn’t ever really mix with the cream – it just becomes a mix rather than integrated – and the gelatine has to bind the two – which it didn’t really – it just did that nasty thing of going all stringy and horrid – it just ended up a bit of a gloopy mess. I thought it was quite edible, but it seemed to bring up a lot of phlegm. Dairy will do that if you’ve got a cough! Steve did NOT think it was edible, professed it looked like phlegm, ate one mouthful and did a face like Jake does when faced with any one of his food dislikes: one of utter disgust.

Not one to be kept then!

The second recipe fared a little better. It was radishes in yoghurt. I chopped them (you’re supposed to have an apple in it, but I didn’t have one, and I had a lot of radish, so I just did radish!) mixed Greek yoghurt with lemon juice, celery salt and pepper – perfect. This works. Steve’s finishing it off as I write. I can probably get away with some celery and apple in there too.

Of course, the internet is my favourite recipe book and I’ve since found several that make me want to grow more radishes. The first is the lemon, chilli and radish salad which looks like I might even try it. It reminded me that quite a lot of oriental food uses radish – I saw a lot of dishes with radish and seafood in some kind of eastern sauce. It’s become clear that a ‘smoothie’ of vegetables is a real part of French cuisine in restaurants at the minute – gone are veloutés (despite G. Ramsay’s misuse of the term!) and confits – so my second choice is a french radish smoothie with carrot paté and artichoke and chorizo muffins. It combines much of those elements the French seem crazy about at the moment, cuisine-wise – American stuff like smoothies and muffins, with a real French twist. Plus, it’s cheap to make. I think this is one for the next radish harvest. The final one is a more old-fashioned, dare I say passé recipe from Sophie Grigson for citrus radish confit which also looks splendid. I’m actually looking forward to our next radish crop now.

We noticed yesterday that the cherries are beginning to ripen – some had turned orangey-green. Today, they’re definitely red, although not so many of them are that stage yet. You can almost watch them ripen before your eyes. We ate one each – they weren’t deep red on the inside, but they were still fairly edible. I think I’ll wait before I eat any more though. They were perfect last year when we came in the last week of May.

From this:

To this:

And now to this in six weeks!

I am waiting for this:

Mmmm. Cherry jam. Cherry ice-cream. Glacé cherries. Cherry jelly. Cherry brandy. Cherry compote. I love cherries! I think I’d go as far as saying they’re my favourite fruit.