Thursday, 31 December 2009

And the end of the year ticks away

It's 10.41pm: hardly more than an hour and a quarter until midnight and the end of the year. End of the year - beginning of the year: which? Half empty or half full?

The kittens are playing, Boudi is sitting quietly; there's a Wallender on the telly - good, but a tad depressing - and we have begun our first drinks of the night: bottled bitters.

The Kiwis in one of the upstairs flats are already excelling themselves in the noise department: they seem permanently oblivious to having neighbours. We may well be very glad of the absinthe that will be opened later: and yes, I really do have a bottle, complete with sugar spoons and sugar cubes to serve in the traditional manner. It would also make a pleasantly Bohemian start to 2110.

We're at home because of the kittens, in essence. This time last year, we were sipping cocktails in the Art Deco splendour of the Hotel American in Amsterdam, as Amsterdamers filled the night outside with fireworks. A young boy who had clearly emptied his piggy bank set off little firecracker things - triangles of brief light - on the low wall of the fountain. Later, we stood on the balcony of our room in the hotel, canned Heinekins keeping us warm against eight below temperatures, and watched as the sky bloomed with colour for well beyond half an hour.

I am mellow now. I intend to get mellower.

A very happy new year, one and all.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The pitfalls of feline investigation

We had our first little kitten 'accident' today – no, not a case of forgetting where the litter tray was, but of coming a cropper while investigating the toilet.

I was busy at the computer when I suddenly heard a mad scrabbling; the sound of claw against ceramic. By the time I got to the bathroom, the only evidence of anything untoward was a sopping wet toilet seat and a certain rippling in the bowl itself.

The Other Half quickly found Loki, who, apart from his head, was sopping wet. Fortunately, he was quite placid when it came to being picked up, wrapped in a towel and gently dried off. Although he still sat on the floor looking a little sorry for himself afterwards. I'm not going to say: 'I told you so', but there are reasons that I said, before their arrival, that remembering to put the seat down would be A Good Thing.

But they are now comfortable and confident enough in their new home that every day seems to bring opportunities to try something new. Bed is a case in point.

After we stopped shutting them into the living room at night – not least because The Queen B had started trying to open the door (closed internal doors are verboten to cats, it seems), they popped into the bedroom briefly at night and would arrive again after breakfast for a play and a cuddle if we were having a lie-in or a read.

Last night they decided that coming to bed to sleep would be a cool idea. In Loki's case, he's already decided that scrambling into bed is really good. Otto is perfectly happy to try to balance on some stray limb and purr himself to sleep. You start feeling as though you're trapped into a scenario like that of the whore in the story about King Solomon, when she rolled over in her sleep and suffocated her baby. Fortunately, I seem to have spent quite a lot of the last 17 and a half years learning how to change position in bed without disturbing a cat.

They're chattering more too: chirrups and tweets now pepper the quiet, where none existed when they arrived. We're getting told when they need food and when they need fuss. Furry alarm clock syndrome will not be far behind. Mack was a genius at that – if all else failed, he'd bite my septum: never hard enough to draw blood, just hard enough to get my attention. I long ago learned that, where cats are concerned, giving in quickly is usually the easiest option as well as the quickest one.

Otto and Loki are lucky – we're already well trained in many ways. Although I have little doubt that they'll manage a few more in the coming years.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

10 years – what a decade

With little more than two days left of this year, it's difficult not to be drawn into all the backward looking that accompanies this time of any year. And while this is an annual event, the end of a decades gives it yet more than its usual interest.

It's not been the best of decades in so many ways – 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq ...

And that's just for starters. We in the UK could begin by mourning the demise of Labour's promised "ethical foreign policy", which if it wasn't actually stillborn, died the moment Tony Blair was blinded by the lights of Washington DC.

Oh, there's been plenty to depress and even some to cheer. But you can read all about that elsewhere. For those of you who choose to spend time here, I doubt you do it to replicate what can be found in rather larger web fora.

The last 10 years, for me, have been a period of transformation – of growth. It was the time when, finally, I started an adolescent experience, moving away from all that had held me so firmly in place until my late thirties.

All my previous life, I'd let someone else do my core thinking for me – or giving me a 'manifesto'; a purpose: religion first, then theatre (I couldn't do it for fun, it had to be an all-or-nothing lifestyle thing) and then politics.

Finally, in the last 10 years, I've broken away from all that. It's royally pissed off some acquaintances, but I feel all the better for it. It might have started essentially as a sexual liberation – a liberation from the repression of my upbringing, but it touched so many other aspects of my life.

And with the breakthrough in thinking has come things such as an explosion in my vocabulary. I remember standing on a remote beach in Ireland, watching as a layer of fine sand was blown over the beach proper, for all the world like a sort of magic carpet. I stood there, transfixed, and desperate to find the words to describe what I was seeing to myself. When they came, it was like a damn burst.

Then there was photography: something I'd never really considered, even in my more artistic days. Out of the mists of my distant past emerged an eye – an innate ability to see pictures and know, without conscious thought, what I wanted to capture.

Then there was food, and the beginning of an understanding of culinary pleasure, A beginning too, of learning the skills that allow me to express that pleasure.

A beginning of an end to the anti-European attitudes of my family: a discovery of feeling at home on the Continent: perhaps even more at home than in the UK. First efforts to learn other languages – now I can read Asterix in German at least.

How extraordinary: a decade that seems to have been so short – and yet also so long. It seems a lifetime ago that I stood and watched the fireworks on that millennium night.

And here I am – changed almost beyond my own recognition of myself. Not all for the good, perhaps, but generally so, I think.

How has the last decade been like for you?

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A baby in my arms

The more I think about it, there is not a thing in the world that makes me marvel as much as the knowledge that humans can have relationships with other animals – that we can cross the divide between species.

I've spent a long time today with a kitten in my arms: a little baby, only just over eight weeks old, snoozing away completely comfortably, snuggled up to me.

Occasionally Otto would twitch while dreaming. Occasionally he'd change position. Occasionally, he'd get partly up and nuzzle me and purr and give me a lick, before settling down again and dozing off. Utterly sure that he was safe to relax and rest. Utterly confident that I would not harm him.

How incredibly, utterly beautiful.

I am in awe.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Beginning to relax

It was around 9.30am this morning, after I'd stretched deeply in bed and let my body sink back once more that The Other Half observed: "You're all relaxed now Christmas Day is over."

Well, it's not quite that simple: I felt relaxed last night, after dinner was finished. And then we'd also decided, given that the living is still knee deep in wrapping paper and a box that's large enough for kittens to be able to jump in and out of, not to shut them in that room, with food and litter tray, for the night. Boudicca has been objecting anyway for the last few nights – objecting at least to an internal door being shut.

They did wonderfully well on the first night in their new home where they could ramble around if they so wished. Both came to bed at various points and licked and nuzzled and kneeded us. And Otto slept for a while on my arm. And none of this really seemed to bother her majesty, who is looking more and more relaxed with each passing day.

Christmas Day – well, Christmas morning – wore them out. Boxes and paper are just perfect for kitten fun. After something like three hours of lunacy, they curled up to sleep it all off. It was a joy to watch them.

St Delia of Norwich had been right – lists (and then more lists – do help. This was probably my most organised and, therefore, easy, Christmas Day catering thus far.

I even bothered to do something I haven't done since the last time I spent Christmas with my parents – showered, blow-dried my hair and dressed in tidy fashion, before breakfasting on thin toast and goose foie gras with truffle.

There is an element of truth to The Other Half's observation. Although he'd forgotten that I've also been getting up fairly early this last week to feed kittens. With their way unblocked, if they were really hungry, they could find Boudi's food in the kitchen.

But yes, it's my big cooking event of the year and it might only be for the two of us, but I like to get it right. And whilst obviously I create the meal with more than half an eye to The Other Half's tastes, he's never set me any targets to achieve – I set those for myself.

The menu was, I'm delighted to report, well balanced. The salad of thinly sliced fennel, red onion and orange was made an hour before eating, and because it wasn't leaves, I dressed it then too. The dressing was supposed to be red wine vinegar, virgin oil, Dijon mustard and honey. However, I'd forgotten to pick up any Dijon, so some made Coleman's had to do. And when I'd gone to reach for the red wine vinegar, it was to find a sediment in it. So I substituted with raspberry wine vinegar. No sacrifice there, methinks. Indeed, the dressing proved zingy and fresh – a success, I thought.

Part two of this culinary epic was roast sirloin of beef. I'd started that off with a quartered onion under the meat (thank you, Nigella) and with plain flour patted into the fat on top (Delia again). A bit of a mare to carve, but lovely meat. It was served with a "confit" of whole shallots and garlic cloves, which had been simmered merrily for an hour in red wine and raspberry wine vinegar (again, the emergency substitution did no harm to the taste). That again was Delia – although research in my copy of Larousse this afternoon, while prepping today's sauce, showed me that it was not a confit: that is specifically a way of preserving meat (hence duck confit, which is stored and preserved in duck fat). But that's not to say that it wasn't gorgeous.

I'd done a few roast potatoes and a few sprouts – sautéed and steamed – and we opened a very decent bottle of red wine, having started with a glass of chilled white Banyuls, brought back from Collioure in September, as an apéritif. I'd managed a little gravy for the meat and, all in all, I was pretty satisfied.

And so to the sweet: the pear tarts baked in 17 minutes and were lovely – moist fruit and perfectly crisp pastry. The stem ginger ice cream – my first ever attempt at ice cream, and without an ice cream maker – was, though I say so myself, excellent (thanks again, Delia). The Other Half has already started hinting about making more ice cream – particularly vanilla, his favourite. Somewhere in the back of mind is an idea that more exotic possibilities exist.

We exchanged gifts. It's The Other Half's half century next month, and after seeing a TV documentary on the subject, I'd booked us a March trip on the Orient Express to Venice, where we'll spend five nights. So I'd piled in to Christmas by buying him books about Venice itself and a DVD about the train. There was a new lens for me, plus photography books.

And then it was the pleasure of flopping in front of the TV. Dr Who proved excellent entertainment (my mother never let us watch sci-fi, so this is a recently acquired taste, thanks initially to re-runs on cable) and then the newest Poirot on ITV, with the wonderful David Suchet as the eponymous Belgian detective, and a really rather chubby Tim Curry as an archeologist and peer of the realm. What happened to the Tim who flounced around in basque and stockings, pouting at the camera in The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

It was, as you might have gathered, a most pleasant day.

But yes – now the rather more serious relaxation can begin.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

On the 24th day of Advent ...

Burning sugar. Smells lovely, I must say, and takes me back to my half a decade at Fairfield High School for Girls, just outside Manchester, and within a stone's throw of the Robertson's jam factory. You could always tell when they burnt the jam, because you could smell it for miles. And a lovely smell it was.

Well, now I've burnt jam myself for the first time – and it's a godawful mess, but it smells just as glorious as that aroma from my past!

It's almost 5pm, Greenwich Mean Time, now – and I'm incredibly pleased with what I've achieved thus far today. In oh so many ways, I'd have loved to stay in bed this morning, with cups of Lady Grey, Ms Austen to read and the cats – the kittens having now discovered the bedroom and after they're let out of the living room at breakfast (that's their breakfast, at around 8am), the potential for on-bed cuddles with us.

I started the day by bombing up to Broadway Market to collect the Christmas meat from the farmer (who'd come down in his van from the blissfully named Tuddenham St Mary near Bury St Edmunds) and get a few indulgent bits from Stephane at the French deli (including non-French port, which I've never drunk before, but which I fully intent to experience with cheese tomorrow evening).

After that, I crozzled three crumpets, doused them in salty French butter and enjoyed – greatly! And while I was eating, I indulged in a bit of Nigella – damned if I''m not getting to enjoy her shows! Very soothing, if nothing else.

Then it was down to work – and in keeping with Nigella, I put Tony Bennett and Dean Martin on the CD player as I worked.

First up – the stem ginger ice cream. It's a Delia recipe, so easy to follow, although it took time. I'm still churning it by hand every two hours, since I don't have an ice cream maker. Although it's worth pointing out here that, the first time it needed churning, I had rushed to the local corner shop to pick up extra wine for cooking tomorrow, so The Other Half did it. Well done him.

Then I poached a couple of peeled pears in saffron and ginger, and let them cool.

And here's where it went a little bit Pete Tong, as we say in the UK.

I rolled out some puff pastry and used saucers to cut discs, before placing them on a floured baking tray. So far, so good. In fact, it got better, as I thinly sliced the pears and piled the slices onto each round of pasty, then covered then with cling film and popped them in the freezer.

Then it was a question of reducing the syrup. But it seemed determined not to reduce. So I turned the heat up. And then, when I left the kitchen for a mere few moments, it turned into this strange mass off blackened, foamy stuff – like nothing I've ever seen before. But the smell was something I've absolutely smelt before.

Other than that, it's been a brilliant day. I sat down earlier and made out my timetables for tomorrow – or at least a list of cooking timings. Saves me doing it then.

Now, I'm making dinner: duck confit with mashed, roasted garlicky new potatoes and a little broccoli and streaky bacon. Easy, but far from rubbish.

In retrospect, I don't think I've ever been this organised!

But now, it's gone so quiet. It might be a Friday – an ordinary working day – but most people have gone home. And here I am, with The Other Half and Boudi and Otto and Loki ... and it feels a little like a sort of paradise is descending,

A happy – and peaceful – Christmas to you all.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

On the 23rd day of Advent ...

Mein Gott! Is it really nearly Christmas Day itself! Fortunately, the prep is going according to schedule. I managed my penultimate pre-Christmas shop today – a trip to Borough Market to pick up the final vegetables, plus some lovely Caerphilly cheese (aged for around two months and full of flavour) and a rather large bag of chocolate for cooking (or making into truffles or chocolate bark).

I came back via Moorgate and, in an indication of just how cold it's been – or at least, just how cold I've been feeling – I bought pyjamas. A spritz of perfume doesn't really keep you very warm.

Then there was a 2010 diary for my Filofax, plus some face cream from Boots.

All that's left tomorrow is a few basics, plus picking up the meat order from the farmer – and then a spot of cookery.

It barely seems a week ago that Advent was starting – now we're almost at the climax!

Walking through the park to the bus this morning was beautiful. Bright blue skies and the sun, slung low on the horizon. There was hardly anyone around as I scrunched through the iced-up snow, and I took time to test out the camera on the iPhone.

The results, for something on a phone, are extraordinary. Look at the detail on this pic – see how the ice crystals echo the pattern of the timber itself; the delicacy of the formation. It's water – that's all: H2O. But look how exquisite the formation that it makes is.

It was impossible not to feel a real sense of wonder and awe. Nature really does create miracles. And Apple's phones are close to miraculous too.

A tale of a teapot

For those of you who asked – here is the slate grey Rocha. John Rocha teapot that my parents gave me as a present the other day, when I traipsed out into the wilds of Surrey.

It holds a wonderful five mugs worth of tea. Which is really jolly impressive.

Oh, and the bone china mug was given to me as a birthday present by The Other Half a couple of years ago. It came from a sadly now departed shop in Covent Garden – Coffee, Cake and Kink. I can't imagine what it says about me.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Walking in a winter wonderland

You know you're getting old when you get excited about receiving a teapot as a Christmas present. Now admittedly, it is a Rocha. John Rocha teapot – I'd never really considered the idea of designer teapots – so that diminishes something of the image of an elderly spinster sipping tea, knitting a tea cosy and surrounded by contended cats.

Okay, the cats are part of the scene, but I'm no spinster (despite my mother's insistence on always addressing post to me as 'Miss', rather than 'Ms' or simply leaving out a title at all) and I don't knit. Well, not these days, at any rate.

It is fair to point out that My Favourite Things does include "whiskers on kittens", but it doesn't mention slate grey teapots – although "bright copper kettles" make it, and after all, what's the use of a teapot without a kettle?

It's not that I don't like coffee, but I have been drinking more and more tea in recent months and, when my mother asked what I wanted for presents, just days after my old teapot had broken, it seemed a sensible idea.

The kittens seem to like tea too. On their first morning with us, there was nearly a fight to see who could get their head into my mug to drink what was by then rather cold Lady Grey. It was removed from temptation's way, since I don't suppose that caffeine counts as a good supplement to the diet of baby cats.

The teapot was christened this morning, as we sat in bed and cuddled the latest additions to the household.

I received it yesterday, during a brief visit to my parents, who live just beyond Croydon. It's only around 12 miles as the crow flies, but it takes long enough to get there – and yesterday it seemed to take a veritable epoch to get back.

We have been having snow. Very pretty to look at, but the transport system around the capital in particular struggles to cope with wintery conditions. Mild winters for much of the last decade or so have made this situation even worse.

I caught the bus as usual to London Bridge station, and boarded a train. Just before it was due to leave, we were advised to get off, as it wasn't going where it had been scheduled to. A bit of asking around produced the sole explanation that there was "frost on the rails". On that basis, I hopped back onto the diverted train and got off as near to somewhere I knew as possible – East Croydon – and got a cab the rest of the way.

With the inclement weather, we'd already agreed that I wouldn't stay for an evening meal, but when snow started falling in mid afternoon – and sticking on damp ground – it seemed sensible to leave as early as possible. My father returned from taking a funeral at around 4pm, so we scrabbled through the annual gift-giving and then he went to call a cab for me to go to the station, since the older he gets, the less keen he becomes on driving at night – let alone in such weather. No cabs were available.

I said I'd catch a bus – and told him that he didn't need to walk me to the stop. Wrapped up and having had the common sense to wear my Doc Martens, I waddled carefully down the snowy street to the main road and the bus stop. It was the start of the rush hour, but nobody was rushing anywhere. A mere centimetre of snow – much of it already turned to slush on the road itself – had brought chaos. Traffic was hardly moving and, after a good 20 minutes or more, I had yet to see a single bus on either side of the road.

My geeky iPhone came into its own again, with the app for the rail network informing me that trains were still running (and on time) from nearby Wallington station. There seemed to be only one thing for it. I walked. It usually takes about 10 minutes, but that's in good weather. Hobbling along on impacted slush, worrying about falling and breaking my brand new teapot and trying to relax my muscles, it took around 20.

I had five minutes to spare before the next scheduled train to London Bridge. It arrived on time – and I managed to grab a seat. Then, between West Croydon and Norwood, it stopped. After a few minutes, the driver announced that, due to the weather, there was a train tailback all the way into the city.

Initially, he told us that this would delay us by around 45 minutes to an hour. And then, fortunately, we were diverted to Victoria. After that, it should have been plain sailing as I got a can from the station, and waved jauntily – as I always do on that route – at Thomas Thornycroft's statue of Boudicca in her chariot as we turned onto the Embankment. But we had to take another minor diversion after the road was blocked by a road accident. That proved only a brief hiatus in the final leg of this epic journey.

It's a long time since I've had such a snowy adventure. When we lived in Mossley, the top of the town used to get cut off by snow an average of twice each winter. The first time it happened when I was at school just outside Manchester, the bus only got as far as the top road, before being completely engulfed in drifting snow. There were a few of us returning from schools outside the town and a woman marshalled us to walk the rest of the way, taking us into the pub at the top of the town, where we were partly thawed out with hot blackcurrant drinks. By the time I made it home, for my mother to let me in at the front door, I looked like the abominable snowman – my gabardine mac covered in snow. But the only thing that worried me was the time and whether or not I'd missed Top of the Pops. Nearly, but not quite. I was still in time to see David Soul sing his chart topping Don't Give Up on Us at the end of the programme (which dates it as either January or early February 1977).

After that episode, the school would send us Mossley girls home at the first sniff of the white stuff. On another occasion, when no traffic could get up to a nearby farm, my mother sent me on foot, to buy eggs. I tramped up a hill, relishing the deep, pristine snow – and fell part of the way down on the way back. My mother was concerned – but only about the eggs. Which – fortunately for me – were unscathed.

Anyway, I made it back last night in time to catch the Victoria Wood celebration on BBC2. Which was good – at one point on the stationary train, with a loud Afrikanner telling the entire carriage that Sarf Efriken Rayalways would do it better, I was thinking that I'd miss it all.

Once I got home and changed and sat down with a cup of tea, and having said a proper 'hello' to The Queen B, I had to cuddle Loki and Otto, who continue to love cuddles and fuss.

Boudi has been progressing well – and is now spending much more time in the same room as them, watching as though utterly fascinated. She still hisses a bit if they look too much at her, but seems to have decided that they're not being allowed to take over all her home.

Christmas Day, when there's shiny paper aplenty around, could be a riot.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

All kitted out

It's been just a fraction over a year and four months since Mack died, leaving Boudicca as our lone cat. Past experience suggested that it would be best to leave getting another or more cats for a while, so that she had the chance to really blossom. So we did.

But a few months ago, we started targeting this Christmas as the time to add further feline joy to our lives. Christmas, because we could – as long as we had managed to hit a load of deadlines in time – take a whole fortnight off: ideal for bedding in new members of the household. And we knew that kittens would be easier on Boudi too, rather than bringing another adult in.

Unfortunately, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home had no kittens at this time of year, so I started regularly browsing gumtree.com, an online marketplace where a great many breeders, amateur and professional, advertise. And while it might strictly speaking be the end of the kitten season, if you look at that site, you wouldn't know it.

But looking and getting something sorted were two very different propositions. I rang a couple of people, essentially promising to take two of a litter (and pay the requested amount) – if they only keep them until Saturday, when we'd both have finished with work for the season.

'Urr, umm ... but I have people coming to see them later'.

'I'll ring you tomorrow' – only for the call never to come, although the same kittens were then re-advertised later that day.

And so it went on.

Then I hit gold, with a woman in Barnet (pretty much the far reaches of north London) who had two little boys of seven and a bit weeks that she wanted to see in good homes. She was, it materialised, a vet's assistant. Which was heartening to start with, since it suggested she knew what she was doing. After a fairly detailed email conversation, in which I sketched out our history with moggies, she offered to bring them to us on Saturday afternoon.

Better yet! She had a car, but we don't.

Saturday morning was a sort of manic affair. I had to shop, while The Other Half did a bit of floor cleaning. I'm not sure that kittens worry about the state of bathroom and kitchen floors, but I wasn't going to disabuse him when such a mood was in full swing.

At around 1pm – a good hour after she'd told me that she'd aim for and ring/text us when she was on the way, the doorbell rang, just as I was pacing around, finding that her phone was off and wondering whether we'd been dumped for some reason or other.

They're utterly gorgeous – as, of course, are all baby animals.

Otto (left) is so skinny and really quite scrawny, that one presumes that he was the runt of the litter. Not that you'd know it. He has no sense of inferiority or fear. When he arrived, he was popped straight into my arms, scrambled onto my shoulder and curled around my neck, purring dozily.

Loki (below) was handed to The Other Half and was also perfectly happy to stay and cuddle and purr. But Loki was also the first to start exploring – hopping down from the comfort of the sofa and starting to sniff everything around. So Loki – the Norse god of mischief – seemed a perfect name.

Otto (so called because I love the name – and it's seems to continue a naming style) stayed sleepily put for an age. But even he eventually woke up enough to start feeling inquisitive.

I'd ordered some sachets of kitten food in my bulk online shopping order – to arrive tomorrow. But I realised that they needed some before that. And it had also occurred to me that it might help them feel at home if I got them one of those fluffy sort of covered 'boxes' to curl up together in.

So after a grabbed lunch, I left The Other Half to cat sit, while I nipped to Islington to the nearest proper pet shop that I know. A bus ride and then a short stroll amid Christmas trees shedding their needles and spreading their fresh scent, with seasonal music playing into the street over speakers as crowds hunted down Yule goodies, brought me to the shop – and the rest was the business of a few minutes.

As the evening progressed, I fed them the suggested amount – suggested on both the varieties of kitten feed I'd bought them. They wanted more. I gave them biscuits and they scoffed those too. So I put out a few more biscuits. They bounced and rolled and played and play-fought ... and Otto discovered that curtains are fabulous.

And they enjoyed more fuss. Otto will curl up with you and lie still. Loki gets so excited and will squirm and roll in your arms. Both like to nibble fingers and hands with tiny, pincer-sharp teeth. Both enjoy nuzzling and kneeding faces and necks.

In the meantime, Boudicca sulked. She'd looked on them in shock at first – trying to stare them out. When that failed – they'd spent the first weeks of their lives with other, older cats, plus a couple of dogs, so not much is likely to intimidate them – she retired with indignant hisses to the bedroom. We shared our attention carefully. I made sure that, when at the pet shop, I brought her a new catnip toy. She doesn't seem to blame us, but isn't impressed. On the other hand, she knows that they're babies and can't do anything more than hiss at them a bit.

They stayed in the living room overnight: it was lovely and warm, they had cushions and other things to sleep on – plus their litter tray and some biscuits in a bowl. It allowed Boudi to feel that she had the bedroom – and us – to herself for the night. We heard not a squeak, until I got up at around 9am – later than I'd intended – and got them some breakfast. They're used to specific feeding times of 8am and 6pm – presumably sandwiching the vet's assistant's work schedule.

Well, I stuck with the same recommended amounts again – they scoffed that in no time and made it perfectly clear that they wanted more. On the basis that Otto quite clearly needs to put on weight – there's no danger of either of them being overweight at this juncture – I put out an adult sachet. They scoffed that too. And then spent the next two to three hours romping around, playing and play fighting and discovering Boudi's cache of toys – and proving wonderful entertainment.

They also started venturing beyond the living room into the rest of the flat.

Boudi continues to sulk a little. But she's branched out of the bedroom and has come to sniff everything, sit with me in the kitchen – and here, while I'm writing – and watch them from a safe distance.

She'll get there. And we're making sure to give her fuss and tell her what a good girl she is. In the end, she'll have other cats to run around with – and she's young enough to still love boisterous playing herself.

But in the meantime, if they tell you that Christmas is about children ... well, they may be right. In this case, it's about cat children. And I don't think it could get much better.

Friday, 18 December 2009

On the 18th day of Advent ...

A tummy upset or a fleeting hint of flu or something. Although it didn't really start like that. It started with Quality Street. And Roses. And bite size pieces of Stollen from Marks and Sparks. And more Quality Street.

After managing to be organised enough, it is my last day at work until January. And the office seems to be knee deep in a never-really-decreasing supply of the aforementioned treats, although I remain uncertain as to who are our benefactors.

When I was a child, I'd feel incredibly lucky if I got some Quality Street for Christmas – they were the height of sophistication. And the shiny foil wrappers, in a rainbow of colours, could be carefully smoothed out and then used for some sort of craft project. These days, shiny sweet papers are loosely scrunched into balls and tossed to an excitable cat who bats them around until loosing them under the sofa.

I pulled out a few of this selection this morning – and after two, put the rest back. I'd never fully realised just how full of sugar and milk they are – pretty much devoid of yer actual chocolate.

It was supposed to be the Christmas disco this evening, but at around noon, I started feeling queasy. By 1.45pm, I'd decided that there was only one thing for it: home Jeeves and don't spare the horses, followed by an afternoon curled up on the sofa with extra layers of clothing, heat and a supply of Lemsip. My editor concurred and by just after 2pm I was back home.

A Lemsip, a couple of Bovrils and two episodes of Star Trek later, I was feeling remarkably relaxed and, even though still a little queasy, the aching muscles had calmed and the headache gone. I was in the mood for a chick flick. I don't exactly have a vast collection – but I do have a copy of The Devil Wears Prada, which I bought a couple of years ago and has been sitting on the shelf waiting to be viewed.

And that rather seemed to do the trick. It's funny – Meryl Streep is hilarious as über-bitch editor Miranda Priestly, while Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci also turn in cracking performances in support and Anne Hathaway avoids being too bland as the PA who doesn't care for the world of coutoure.

It actually manages to make one or two little points – not least that saying that you exclude yourself from the world of fashion is impossible, since everything, even on the High Street, is influenced and guided by what starts on the catwalks. It could, of course, have gone further to point out that claiming that you exempt yourself – and even actively trying to do so – is every bit as much of a fashion statement as treating the glossies like religious texts.

A couple of episodes of Sex and the City followed, accompanied by potato farls that I'd found the evening before in Waitrose, having not seen them since my youth. I toasted them and slathered them with wonderfully salty French butter. It wasn't health food, but it was yet another tonic for the fading queasiness.

So, for all that I missed the final big bash of my Christmas season, I ended up thoroughly relaxed and feeling better, and ready for the coming period.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Over-reaching yourselves doesn't equal good dining

Well, yesterday's department Christmas lunch was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon – in spite of the food.

Never has it been so spectacularly illustrated that over stretching yourself is not a good idea.

Harrison's is a decent gastro pub. Last year's Christmas dinner wasn't bad, but when I've lunched there on a couple of occasions in the last 12 months, the food has been very enjoyable. The trouble starts, though, when they imagine that they can cater to something upwards of 60 people in a single afternoon, when they're clearly not used to doing so.

I'd ordered a smoked mackerel salad – but my heart sank when it arrived. The fish was clearly dyed and thus not properly smoked. It was dry too. And it had simply been slapped on a plate with a dollop of horseraddish and a handful of watercress. Which hadn't actually been washed properly, as I discovered when noticing a tiny grub slithering around on my plate. It was my very first such Victor/Victoria moment. The Other Half, who had ordered the same thing, had a bug too.

I told the staff and was promised that the price of the starter would be removed from the bill.

Several people had opted for the paté. Which turned up in small ramekins – with an almost liquid topping. It was either duck or goose fat, which melts very quickly outside a fridge. It should have been clarified butter, which gives a proper seal and allows you to lift it cleanly away from the contents beneath. And amazingly, this was served with slabs of bread that had not even been toasted.

Then came my main course. For a change, I'd been tempted away from roast meat by the offer of a risotto of chestnuts, sage and Pecorino. It was moderately alright – okay, it was hot, the rice was decently cooked and there was evidence of chestnut slivers in the dish. The sage was absent – and sage is not a herb you can hide easily. And the Pecorino was simply grated over the top. It was hugely under-seasoned, which leads me to believe that the stock it had been cooked with wasn't much cop either.

Various colleagues, eating either roast turkey or beef, seemed much happier.

And so to dessert. Thinking of my perennial struggle to consume a full three courses, I'd ordered the cheese, biscuits and fruit, thinking that I could nibble away for some time. But my plate arrived with three substantial slabs of Stilton, Red Leicester and a brie. Plus a few biscuits, but no butter. The fruit was a shock – dried apricots and not even decent ones: those quite hard, orange dyed ones. If you're going to serve preserved fruit with cheese as a dessert, at least have the decency to get good ones – in the case of apricots, undyed organic ones, which are really moist and sweet, and a lovely caramel colour.

At least the wine – a 2009 South African Merlot – was quaffable. And quaff I did. I'm not sure whether I'll go back again.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

On the 16th day of Advent ...

The serious festivities began in earnest last week, with the first of that wonderful institution, the office Christmas party.

First, we had the do that was arranged by the organisation's senior committee to thank us humble staff types. Not only was it the usual free bar (give me that G&T now!!!) and nibbles, but some serious entertainment had been arranged in the ample form of an Elvis impersonator from a holiday camp on the south coast.

Replete in spangly Vegas-era suit, he regaled us with half an hour's worth of The King's hits. Now I can't claim to be an Elvis fan – heaven preserve me from the schmaltz of Old Shep – but it was jolly good fun. And just as we had adjusted ourselves to such a level of entertainment, it got to be even more fun. Or cringeworthy – or something.

A fellow member of staff – a very formal-looking lady of a certain age, who reminds one a tad of a former British prime minister – decided to let her hair down by getting up and dancing with Elvis for around six numbers. Now this wasn't any sort of sedate dancing, but something completely whacked out: arms flailing like windmills, bobbing up and down, posing madly.

Think David Brent in The Office. What made it even worse – better? – was that the individual in question is spectacularly unpopular in the building (well, certainly in parts of it). Yet she seemed blissfully unaware of this – and simply kept giving everyone a ton of ammunition, while her own close colleagues insisted that she'd barely had a sip of sherry.

As a crowded room rummaged desperately in bags and pockets for phones to snap away and record the occasion (video footage exists too) for posterity (and future potential blackmail opportunities), Lynchburg Lemonades (The King's favourite drink, apparently) were quaffed at pace to try and cope with what was happening before our very eyes.

One individual was heard to groan: "Oh God, I'm going to have nightmares – it's what you imagine Thatcher would have been like at Tory conference socials after a line of coke."

It all went a bit flat after Elvis (and special friend) finished – except for the buzz of: 'What was she on?"

Our next spot of festive fun came on Thursday and was a considerably more sedate affair, as our printer insists (and we give in) on taking the editorial team for a slap-up lunch every year at this time. This year, it was Orso, an Italian restaurant in the West End. And jolly nice it was too, with thoroughly restrained and relaxed behaviour from all concerned.

After a glass of Prosecco with a measure of something else in it, plus pink grapefruit juice (boozy and refreshing at the same time) I started with a very pleasant salad of pears, walnuts and an extremely creamy and mild Gorgonzola.

I followed that with calf's liver, balsamic shallots and broccoli – very nicely done – and then a pear and almond tart, which was a bit stodgy and the weakest course by far. A return to the office had never been on the cards, which was a relief after all that food, plus a lot of red wine. So we adjourned to a pub just off The Strand and sat outside, under the heaters, smoking and supping more drinks until around 7pm.

Not that there was much time to recover before my birthday the following day, which descended into a variety of drinks in a rather sparsely populated staff bar, then my local and then home, where we decanted a lovely, smooth bottle of Languedoc Syrah into a jug, and The Other Half made potatoes boulangeres, served with a heated jar of cassoulet.

And so to today – our department Christmas lunch. In just over an hour, we'll head off to a decent gastro pub called Harrison's. Nobody expects us to return. I do wish we were going to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street instead. Built just after the Great Fire of London, it's just around the corner from Dr Johnson's house, one sits in the tiny, dark bar (the restaurant is above) and imagines him holding forth while Boswell makes mental notes. Voltaire, Dickens and Twain all visited. It's impossible not to think that Pepys might have raised a beer here too.

We've lunched here twice in my time and nothing so completely conjures a sense of the season for me. But not this year.

It's actually snowing outside; slow, steady flakes descending onto the bustling pavements. The office is a hive of Christmas spirit.

There's still the Christmas disco to come on Friday.

And no photocopier incidents.

Yet.

There is still time.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A (nearly) auspicious day in the kitchen

It's been an (almost) auspicious day in the Christmas prep calendar. I say "almost", because I enjoyed one roaring success and one ... well, we'll come to that later.

The auspicious bit was the homemade chocolate 'bark'.

Not that trying to bash up a 400g block of chocolate into useable chunks was in any way sophisticated or classy: I resorted to using an old knife as a chisel and a hammer from the under-sink toolbox. Although that didn't provide me with a great target area to aim for and it rapidly became like some sort of particularly demented version of Das Rheingold, where 'Ow!' followed 'Clang!' in rhythmic symmetry.

'Clang!'

'Ow!'

'Clang!'

'Ow!'

'Clang!'

'Ow!'

After hitting my thumb a number of times, I resorted to wearing an oven glove as protection. It wasn't perfect, but it helped enough to get the job just about done.

It wasn't a difficult task from then on.

Melt around a third of the chocolate very gently in a bowl over a simmering pan of water, stirring carefully. Then remove the bowl from the heat and add the rest of the chocolate, stirring until that melts. Add your flavouring – finely chopped stem ginger in this case – and put the bowl back on the pan until the chocolate is a consistency that will easily pour.

In the meantime, take a baking tray and line it with foil. When your mixture is ready, pour into the lined tray and use a spatula to spread it evenly. If you want to try some with salt, add a little ground sea salt at this stage (I did this over a small portion of the chocolate). Then leave to set. After which, break it all up into irregular piece and store.

The taste is super – and the bits with salt on really zing on the tongue. Wonderful.

The Lebkuchen was a slightly different story, however.

I took the dough out of the fridge and let it come back to room temperature, as per the recipe. Then I piled it onto some greaseproof paper, put another sheet on top, and rolled it out.

The trouble was, when I started trying to cut out biscuits, they stuck to the bottom paper and, even when I used a spatula to try to lift them carefully, they squished up completely. In the end, the only logical thing to do was to pile the whole of the flattened dough into the oven on two baking trays and bake it like that.

It looks a mess. But it tastes fine. I still don't know what went wrong. But it's not a complete disaster at any rate.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Getting the Christmas cooking under way

The serious business of the season has begun – otherwise known as the cooking!

The meat is all ordered and right now, a pot full of roasted vegetables and beef bones is coming to the end of a four-hour simmer on top of the stove.

At some point this weekend, inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's section in today's Guardian magazine, I'm going to very slowly melt down some very good chocolate and turn it into 'bark' – slabs of chocolate with things added. In this case – and on the basis of what is in the cupboard, it'll be some candied orange peel and some stem ginger. I might also add what Mr F-W suggests for a particularly "adult" version – a little sea salt on top.

There's finally Lebkuchen dough sitting in the fridge as per instructions – and already smelling like Christmas in one bowl, with ginger and other spices and honey and golden syrup and brown sugar all blended with flour.

In between all that, a large pan of leek and potato soup did for lunch – and will do for lunch tomorrow: you can't neglect today's culinary needs just because it's Christmas in under a fortnight!

All in all, the house smells fab. The Other Half put a Christmas playlist on hours ago – crooners galore crooning their way through the sort of classics that help define Christmas. And after I'd taken The Vortex of Terror (Boudicca, like most cats, hates the vacuum cleaner) through the house, we spent a pleasant hour unpacking and arranging the decorations.

It's getting to be a bit of a daft collection. We're running out of room after buying two handmade wooden Father Christmas decorations in Berlin in May and another one (a Santa waiter with an armful of wine corks) from Paris in July. It's a case of Santas, Santas everywhere and not a drop to ... well okay, that's not quite true.

It's been a good day. Since it was my birthday yesterday (an event somewhat less important than the birthday of the baby Jesus), I have been rather more shamefaced than usual about the choice of tonight's meal – Turbigo (that's the French dish of lamb's kidneys and sausages and shallots and mushrooms, in a sherry and stock sauce, served with rice, that I've mentioned before).

We didn't really do anything yesterday: the bar was still quiet after Tuesday's bash, where an Elvis impersonator (Vegas era) went down a storm. So we stayed a while – I tried a 'Lynchburg Lemonade' – The King's favourite drink, apparently – between a few G&SlimlineTs (it was quite pleasant) and then, with a lack of people around (I'd made no effort to tell anyone) we made our way home via my local.

I say "[i]My[/i]" local because it's never really been The Other Half's place. We had a couple of drinks and then The Other Half suggested that we could go home (a short walk), open a bottle of plonk and he would make dinner – which he duly did: a very pleasant potatoes Boulangère with a warmed through pot of cassoulet. And very pleasant it was too (and this on a work bday when he'd got up and made me a cup of tea before I emerged from the pit!).

That, then, was my birthday – or the evening, at any rate. The day had been about getting a publication off to press.

But I woke this morning feeling incredibly bright and full of the pleasure of the season. And that mood continues.

I've even started my Christmas photography project – trying to snap the various Santa decorations I have so that there'll be a picture for December for next year's calendar.

I must say, I feel knackered now – but the Christmas preparations are well underway and I won't feel remotely guilty about enjoying a much lazier day tomorrow!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Tales of Christmases past

What a funny old thing nostalgia is. That and Christmas. Especially in combination.

I can't say that I look back on family Christmases with any great sense of joy: okay, I might remember sitting on my parents' bed opening presents in the morning when very young, but then we all had to get ready to go off to church, so there was no time to relax or play.

Once that was out of the way, my father would, like as not, go off to take another service elsewhere. We'd go home and my mother would start cooking the festive feast: roast turkey with sausages and stuffing balls, served with roast potatoes, sprouts, carrots and gravy. To be followed by Christmas pudding and custard – the former made weeks earlier to a recipe that had been handed down. On Christmas Eve, I've have been dragooned into helping prep the sprouts. I might be called to stir the gravy shortly before dinner was served.

Not that dinner was ever served early. My father would finish his second service and then potter off to someone's house for drinks or to the pub. We would wait. There might be telly; there would be our presents to play with and my mother would be busy. And there would be waiting.

And later, after any row at his lack of interest in his own family, and after dinner, we'd sit around and watch the box in the corner. Morecambe & Wise are amongst fonder memories. And later still, the BBC2 classic movies – although I still only remember seeing the 1946 version of The Big Sleep. We'd have the bumper issue of the Radio Times, of course, and I go through it with a pen and paper to note down all the films that I wanted to see on those days off school.

The best bits were the carol services – particularly the ones at my secondary school just outside Manchester – and the superintendent minister's annual Christmas party for all the clergy under his charge.

Sitting here now, I'm aware that all of that is from one era – and it's an era that began when I was around nine. I'm trying to think – really think – back to before that time. I'm trying to remember the houses we lived in – to picture a physical entity so that I can place Christmas within it. And it's not working.

I remember being taken to The Scala theatre beneath the Post Office in London to see Peter Pan with Wendy Craig and the wonderful Alastair Sim when I was seven or eight. At around the same time, I was in a school nativity play as an angel, and got laughed at by the audience for a squeaky delivery. And shopping on Oxford Street with my mother and her parents one year, and going into one of the vast department stores and seeing the displays of toys and wanting an Action Man, but being told that such toys were not for girls.

Those are my memories of Christmases before we moved to Mossley.

There are vague, misty hints of visiting my maternal grandparents, but nothing really clear. There are faded decorations that seem to have been around all my life, but that could be memory or simply the knowledge of such longevity.

Now I come to think of it, how on Earth can I have so few Christmas memories from almost the whole first decade of my life? Okay, I know we've never done big family stuff (we weren't a big family to start with), but that's just crazy.

I have memories of later. I remember Lancaster and our family cairn terrier Happy getting excited the moment my mother arrived home with the turkey, wrapped it in layers of newspaper and popped it, in the roasting tin, in the front porch where it stayed until the big day. Happy had to go and sniff at it every day to make sure it was still there.

Her first Christmas, she saw us all opening our presents and went to sulk in a corner, clearly feeling left out. Fortunately, there was something for her and she went absolutely bonkers with delight.

I remember helping my mother with the decorating (so often left until Christmas Eve). One night, we were just finishing off when my father returned home. The TV was on – Meet Me in St Louis. He came into the room and stood and squinted at the screen for some minutes before, obviously recognising Judy Garland, asking: "It's the Wizard of Oz?"

One year, after I'd left home, I actually didn't go to my parents for Christmas – instead, managing to break up with a boyfriend on Christmas Eve. But because he'd been going to take me to friends of his for a big Christmas party on the day itself, he still picked me up and I spent the day getting very, very pissed.

I was gutless for years after moving in with The Other Half. I didn't expect him to go and spend a few days with my parents over the holiday period, but I couldn't tell them that I was no longer going. I remember those Christmases for the tension: dealing with my sister was like walking on eggshells. My mother could barely stand to be near my father's mother. All the work was left to my mother and me.

There'd be the five of us with my baby niece, plus the dog. Rattling around in the house, trying not to drive each other completely demented. Sitting around in front of the TV like the Royle Family, as though that was the only possible option that we had for spending our time.

We'd all be trying to abide by this formula when something would break, such as gran asking my mother – apropos of absolutely nothing whatsoever: "Do you like tinned salmon?" And being snapped down by my father. No, we all sat there like a good little family and watched the telly without comment.

Blood might be thicker than water. It's a bloody pain too.

I eventually gained enough spine to announce that I was no longer going to my parents for Christmas. It was a great relief. Since then, Christmases have at least been relaxed – and with cats to provide much amusement. They have all loved shiny wrapping paper and boxes. These, therefore, get left around for days for feline amusement, which includes conquering and sitting in boxes. Mack used to love the paper in particular and would manage to make a tent for himself, looking out with a wide-eyed look of mad delight from beneath a slightly crumpled, glossy sheet. When Boudi arrived, he was a bit like a much older brother to her – except if she dared to try to sit on 'his' Christmas paper. Then she'd earn a thwack!

But as each festive season approaches, despite all the claims that Christmas is for children, I find myself increasingly caught between excitement and a rather more downbeat mood. Once work finishes for nearly a fortnight, the seasonal socialising is over. The door is rarely opened to the rest of the world.

So what is it that I want? All the ideas, those half-dreamed ghosts of Christmases that have never been, wrought by books and Hollywood, a mélange of Dickens and Bing Crosby; a longing for snow outside and an open fire with a deep fur rug in front; for Champagne and silken lingerie ...

And when Christmas is over and the decorations are packed away again, the feeling will linger that – just once – I'd like to have my Christmas.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

All a bit Brahms and list

Here we go again with confusion over gender roles and behavioural patterns.

On Friday afternoon, a female colleague decided that reveal to all and sundry on the floor some of the most basic differences between men and women: lists are one.

Apparently, men make lists. Women don't.

Hang on a moment – I'm always making lists. For starters, every Saturday morning, I sit in bed with a cup of Earl Gray and make at least one list. I cannot shop without lists. I know there's a theory that you should go to market and see what's there and then decide what you're going to cook, but then I'd get into a complete fluff over what to actually prepare, and I'd also be bound to forget some crucial ingredient or other.

But I also find lists helpful for organising such things as packing for trips away. And, of course, at Christmas they're absolutely essential on so many levels, from gift buying to menus to general chores. Indeed, in her new book, Delia's Happy Christmas, the patron saint of home cooks emphasises the value of making lists. So I'm in good company.

The colleague in question pointed out that what she really meant was that men like making lists to catalogue things or of sporting stats.

But is there really much of a difference? Both are to do with organising – neither variety are absolutely essential to the continuation of life.

Not that my colleague was ready to stop at lists. Collections are, apparently, another difference between males and females.

The former collect things. The latter do not.

At this point, someone interjected with the question of female collections of handbags and shoes. This was easily passed off as being 'acquisitiveness', not 'collecting'.

I finally chipped in, noting that I have collected things since childhood and have a number of collections. This was passed over with a comment that, "in general", women do not collect.

Well, much as it's nice not to be considered to be a "general" sort of example of the species, it's also just plain dumb.

How many women collect ornaments? How many women collect soft toys? Who are all those collections of china plates, thimbles and silver spoons aimed at? Because men are certainly not the prime target buyers.

What an oddity that, we we gain more and more actual, legal equality, some women seem more determined than ever to find differences between the sexes and to create ideas of specific gender behaviours and interests.

Oh well.

Anyway, it's been a successful day. We went down to Hoxton to a very good, independent wine merchant (who also sells cigars and teas and coffees). So that's the booze (including an absinthe set with glasses and proper slotted spoons) and the coffee and the cigars bought for Christmas. Since the festive chocolate arrived from France a couple of days ago, that's two things I can tick off the list.

Anyone who comes up with such nonsense could be mistaken for being a bit Brahms and list.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

A model kind of woman

Yesterday's Craft Day, even if I was unable to actively participate, has left the office with a wide variety of, errr, additional decorations.

It's not that I'm anti craft. Indeed, I've always had quite a crafty bent myself.

Later in the afternoon, a little delivery arrived for me at the office. It consisted of three model kits – two resin and one metal. They're all for figures – two Prussian soldiers from 1870 and Brunhilda, the character from Germanic legend, most well known to those outside Germany from Wagner's epic Ring Cycle.

Assorted colleagues looked at the delivered boxes with wary or bemused expressions – particularly at the soldiers. Apparently, I'm "bonkers". Yet these were the same colleagues who, hours earlier, had been constructing a Christmas tree from an old, rigid board map that was now no longer needed, and knitting tiny scarves for decorative card birds that were to hang on the tree.

And I'm bonkers?

I used to knit at one time. The Other Half even has a traditional black and yellow scarf I knitted him for his role as a fan of the mighty Castleford Tigers.

I have been known to do a bit of needlepoint too. There's a rather complex one of a cat that's framed and hanging in the bedroom.

And I have put together and painted models since childhood, when my parents allowed me to have the old Airfix historical figures, but not the longed-for Spitfire.

The Spock at the top of this post was painted a few years ago and still stands, very happily, on the DVD shelves.

The Prussian soldiers are simply extensions – and quite logical ones, given that modeling background – of my abiding fascination in Prussian history (which started at school – a girls' school, note).

It seems extraordinary that there should be such a gender-based attitude toward something as simple as craft-based hobbies – that as a female, other females were bemused by my interest areas. Not by my interest in a form of craft, but by the direction in which that takes me.

I happen to work in an environment that is highly politicised – and with the majority of the staff being female: in other words, I know, work and socialise with a lot of politicised females. How odd that, while knitting seems to be almost a new form of feminist statement, a woman who prefers to do other kinds of craft as a hobby is – well, not derided, but treated with confusion. It's almost like a new version of my parents saying: 'No, you can't build a Spitfire'.

This, though, does seem to conform to something of a pattern.

Even last night, when there was a bit of Stargate Atlantis on telly in the background, I recognised an ever-so-topical reference to the Hadron Collider, described only by its initials. Isn't that an indication of geekette status if ever there was one?

And while I wasn't paying great attention to the aforementioned programme, I am not averse to sci-fi, either on screen or the page. Indeed, I have a confession: at one time I even maintained a website about one of the characters in Babylon 5, which I adored. And I once attended a B5 convention – in a hotel next to Heathrow airport: although in the interests of making male (and possibly female) readers of this blog jealous, I have to point out that Claudia Christian gave me a full on kiss at that event.

In another recent development, however, I became the one woman in our office (at present) to take delivery of an iPhone. It's logical: I work with Macs at home and in the office. I can synch it with all sorts of things. But yet again, I seem to be part of a 'male' club.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not particularly worried. But it's interesting that feminism – even in people who are very politically educated – would not seem to have really made a great deal of difference to ideas of traditional female pastimes and interests.

Of course, it's complicated further because I don't fall into just one obvious stereotypical category – 'tom boy', for instance. The same woman who loves Prussian history and paints model soldiers also likes handbags and chocolate, and as much as I'm currently reading a vast history of the Thirty Year's War, I've also got my well-worn copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice on the go as deliciously enjoyable light reading. I might love football – but I also enjoy Sex in the City. I might have collections of sci-fi trading cards – but I also collect cat ornaments.

So is an interest in history per se what's considered unusual for a female of the species? Or just certain kinds of history? Is it modeling per se that is considered odd for a bird – or just certain subjects for modeling?

And am I really so unusual – "bonkers", even?

It seems, as Spock might say, to be thoroughly "illogical".

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Calendar girl

It's Craft Day in the office. I'm tempted to say to you: 'don't ask', because it's all really rather bonkers and I do have quite a bit of work to think about first before this little team building exercise.

But Craft Day it is, as initiated by our new editor. She, indeed, has arrived at work in a very nice wool dress that she apparently knitted for herself last winter.

I had been intending to bake some Lebkuchen or a Stollen to bring in, but what with Monday night's table-moving saga and then an unexpected bar shift last night, the opportunity has not been forthcoming.

It remains to be seen what I'll do. I have a delivery of 2010 calendars due – so perhaps showing one of those around the office will suffice.

It was a year ago, after a colleague had had calendars produced from her family snapshots, that I decided to give it a whirl.

The resulting calendar had no family snaps in it, but was a selection of pictures I'd taken over the previous two years. I tried to be a bit arty and, not only were the pictures seasonal, they alternated between monochrome and colour. On a few of the pages, I used selections of three related pictures.

Just recently, my Mother announced that she didn't 'understand' one of these. It was a shot of some old London buildings, pictured as a reflection in a motorcycle mirror.

Curtain Road

It was one of my early shots and took a certain amount of effort in capturing the reflection without seeing me and my camera included in it.

It would seem that my Mother cannot cope with anything other than the most obviously chocolate boxy. So to an extent I have given in and tried to make sure that this year's calendar is as straightforward to 'read' as possible.

I still have an idea of what will happen when she looks through it.

'No, Mother: there is nothing here that you won't 'understand'.

'Yes, Mother. That is a picture of door with a great big door knocker and a tiny grille on it.

'Why did I photograph a door, Mother? Because it was an interesting door, Mother.

'Look, just turn to the next month: that's a church, Mother. Nice and easy on the eye.'

Not that such a subject doesn't have entirely it's own risks.

When we first visited Berlin in 2002, I sent my parents a postcard of the Berliner Dom. Once back at home, I was on the phone to them when my mother told me off for sending a picture of a Catholic church.

'Mother: it's a Lutheran cathedral.'

Pause.

'Oh.'

There's a new photograph of that in the 2010 calendar too. But I expect no repeat of the previous comment.

There really are times when I feel a sense of awe at the ability of some people – and my parents in particular – to complicate life by demanding a naive level of simplicity in certain things.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

On the first day of Advent ...

We finally got a really beautiful, wintery morning! Blue skies, real cold and even a sheen of frost on some roofs and a few parked cars.

A vast improvement on yesterday, which started depressingly dark and gloomy, with rain absolutely chucking down. When I got to work at 8.30am to discover an unexpected job that I had to do before 10am, at a different venue, I was not best pleased. Particularly when the cab company my employer uses was so busy I couldn't get through and thus had to go back out into the miserable weather and find one to hail.

And on top of that, the staff canteen – they call it a 'deli bar', but that's really rather overdoing its level of sophistication – was not able to serve any breakfasts because of a problem with a leaky sink that has apparently stretched the abilities of the building team to actually solve.

After that, the day got better, breaking out from Boomtown Rats terrain. The job in question was a waste of time, but since I had to do it, I was pretty much forced to spend an hour with a photographer we'd hired. Steve is great and it was a pleasure to have nothing else to do but wait, while supping free coffees and talking photography.

I spent part of the rest of the day trying to spy on the head of design, who was working up a leaflet using a series of portraits I've taken. It'd had been my idea in the first place – the portraits, not the leaflet – and the editor liked it and told me to run with it. I was taken rather aback last week to discover that they had been appreciated enough by others for them to be chosen to be the theme for an A4, four-page leaflet that is being produced for use at an event for MPs at Westminster next week. Thus I kept attempting to see how the leaflet was shaping up. It's shaped up rather well – and I admit to a great amount of chuffedness.

The journey home was a tad fraught – a fire in the Blackwall Tunnel did what such things always do in London, and cause snarl ups in the traffic for miles.

When I eventually made it home, I wasn't in the mood for serious cooking. Which turned out to be really rather fortunate.

Our upstairs neighbours are (unfortunately) moving later this week. At the weekend, they'd popped down to ask if we could help with their dining table. After fitting a gate to their front door, they could no longer get it out of the flat that way. So they wondered if they could lower it over their tiny balcony and into our tiny garden.

Obviously we agreed. And sure enough, just as I'd toasted myself some crumpets last night, Marie rang the doorbell to ask if we would be able to help then.

So it was that Mark found himself standing on the top of a stepladder in our garden, with The Other Half standing next to him, as Marie and I started to push the bubble-wrapped table over the balcony railings – before Marie went into panic mode, fearing that we'd break something. Or more to the point, that we'd break Mark.

Fortunately, pervs are wonderfully equipped for such occasions, with plenty of good strong rope in the toy box. The Other Half rolled his eyes, but knows better than to ask in detail about such matters. And besides, it would have been churlish to complain when I was proving to be the saviour of the day.

The rope – which I assured Marie was quite strong, since it had been designed with maritime purposes in mind – was tied firmly around one end of the table and it was an easy task from then on.

Memo to self: I must brush up on tying knots.

But we managed.

Then came the next hurdle. It was suddenly clear that it wasn't going to be easily moved into, through and out of our flat, given the arrangements of laden shelves. So we hoisted it over the garden fence and into the carpark, before leaving it overnight just inside a communal area of the block.

Good neighbourliness thus achieved, I recoiled my rope and went back to rather solid and somewhat cooled crumpets. It had been quite a surreal episode.

And now, with a lovely bright, cold day, I feel quite in festive mode. And since it's actually Advent now, that doesn't feel out of place.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Comforting food for miserable days

With a swathe of basics and baking stuff ordered online, and due to arrive tomorrow, I can look forward to baking tomorrow evening – stollen and lebkucken, which I haven't got around to today.

In the meantime, I've stuck with a fairly easy menu this weekend, but it's comforting food that it's perfect food for facing down yet more miserable weather.

I did a little hopping on Thursday evening and picked up a couple of poussin – in essence, small, young chickens – as I remembered a Jamie Oliver recipe I haven;'t done for years.

Par boil some potatoes until they're about five minutes from being cooked. Drain well and mix with loads of sage leaves, olive oil, peeled garlic cloves and salt and pepper. Now stuff your birds (one per person) with as much of the mix as will go. Pop the rest of the mix in a roasting tin with the stuffed birds. Roast at 220˚C for 30 minutes. Then take some streaky bacon and cover the birds and carry on roasting for a further 15 minutes.

Take the birds out and leave them to rest. Remove as much fat as possible from your roasting tin, then pop in a glass of white wine while it's on a hob, and deglaze.

Serve. I just did some simple carrots with it.

That followed a River Café Easy Two soup at lunchtime, of tomato, butternut squash and potato, seasoned with crushed fennel seeds (and I added celery salt), which is then served with a drizzle of virgin oil, grated Parmesan and a dollop of Mascarpone.

Tonight's grub is marinading. Two hulking pork chops are sitting in a bowl with lemon juice, torn lemon skins, rosemary, peeled and smashed garlic and around 10 glugs of olive oil. I'll give it another hour and then peel and slice some potatoes, core and quarter some pears and scrub and quarter some parsnips. Then everything goes in a roasting tin – meat, veg, marinade – and cook at 220˚C for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the chops (mine will take an hour, I should think).

In the meantime, take some white bread, remove the crust and chop it up. Then blend chopped mint leaves, some medium mustard and wine vinegar until you have a sauce. Or cheat, as I do, and add decent ready-made mint sauce, plus mustard, to the bread.

It's brilliantly tangy to serve with the pork.

Both those Jamie Oliver recipes came from The Return of the Naked Chef – one of the first two cookery books I bought, around nine years ago when I started cooking. I've added more of Oliver's stuff to the shelf over the years, and I keep returning to them. I've used his stuff to learn to make risotto and even bread.

So much of his food is simple – often one dish dishes – without being pernickety. He doesn't, for instance, tend to write that you need half a teaspoon of some finely chopped herb or other: it's more likely to be a handful of something – roughly torn, if anything. And the results are the sort of bursting-with-flavour dishes that, back all those years ago, I could scarcely believe that I could produce.

Oliver gets slagged off by a number of Brits: which I find odd. No, you don't have to like him, but the vitriol seems strange for someone with genuine talent, who has served a real apprenticeship (he actually worked, amongst other places, at the River Café) and has gone on to make good food easy and approachable, to campaign for schools to feed children proper food and not chips and turkey twizzlers and to launch a series of restaurants that aim to give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to get a career in food.

Is it his very success that some people dislike? Perhaps it really does tie in to a rather British thing of building people up and then, when they succeed, trying to knock them at every opportunity. Depressing, though.

Well, at least the food is far from depressing.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Getting into the festive food mood

Slowly but slowly, Christmas food is starting to take shape.

I collected my new Delia Smith book this morning – perhaps rather surprisingly, the first book of Christmas cookery I've got.

On the basis of that, it could well be a roast rack of beef, with a confit of shallots and garlic (plus – probably – roast potatoes and, err, some sort of veg). I'm thinking of doing a salad of fennel, clementines and red onion to start – I found that in a magazine I picked up earlier this week – and then possibly a stem ginger ice cream, which is also in the Delia book.

I may also try her stollen, which looks easy enough. All I have to do now is find proper marzipan from Lübeck, which is famous for the stuff (as well as for being the birthplace of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and the home of Günter Grass).

In the meantime, I'm going to try making my own Lebkuchen this weekend. We have some sort of mad 'craft day' being planned in the office on Wednesday, so if they turn out okay, they'll be a suitable contribution. And if they're good enough, I can make more.

This autumn/winter period marks the tenth anniversary of my giving up dieting, after 26 years trying desperately to find a way of starving my body into some 'ideal' weight. Only when I threw away the bathroom scales did I realise just what a tyranny dieting is. Weighing yourself, morning and night, praying that you'll have somehow found the key to the 'perfect' diet and, via that, the 'perfect' you, which will, in turn, deliver the 'perfect' life.

I even had the family doctor tell me, when in my early twenties and very fit, that because I could never quite get below 9 stone, I should cut back from the 1,000 kcals per day I was dieting on at the time, to 800 kcals per day. In the last decade, I've researched a lot about this. That's little (if any) more than concentration camp inmates were given. An elderly woman, bedridden, requires around 1,200 kcals per day to maintain body weight. All I was doing was driving my body into famine mode: every time I stopped the most drastic diets and ate normally, I slammed the weight back on – and then some more, as my body attempted to store up supplies for the next famine.

And at the same time, food, which you obsess about while starving yourself, becomes The Enemy. There is nothing sensual or pleasurable about a plate of steaming, boiled vegetables, with no dressing or sauce except for loads of salt and pepper, because at least those don't have calories.

I was also vegetarian for a long part of that time. Well, a veggie who ate fish. After I'd left home, whenever I went back for Christmas, I'd make myself a nut roast (partly from a tin), while the rest of the family had the turkey. I never missed roast turkey – only the trimmings: my mother's stuffing balls used to be lovely – particularly when cold – as were the left-over cocktail sausages (she never did 'pigs in blankets – sausages wrapped in bacon). The best of the turkey was always at night, when we'd sit in front of the telly and have turkey sandwiches.

That was usually when, in general, Christmas Day would start to get remotely civilised. My father would have at least one church service to take in the morning – in our Manchester era, it would often be two. Then he'd go off somewhere on his own, while we twiddled our thumbs at home, waiting for his re-appearance in order to have dinner. It'd be roast potatoes and boiled sprouts on the side, with gravy. I used to prep the sprouts and stir the gravy.

I was about 14 when my parents decided that I was old enough to stay up for the traditional B&W classic movie on BBC2 on Christmas night. My presents that year had included a new dressing gown (burgandy in colour and a bit like a padded eiderdown), plus warm, sheepskin winter slippers. We sat and ate sandwiches of brown turkey meat, and watched the 1946 Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall.

Because western used to regularly be on TV at around 6pm on Saturday evenings, I'd been a John Wayne fan for some time. But that night, watching my first Bogart film – I had never seen anything like it. In the space of one film, I grew out of Wayne and fell in love. It's a love that remains.

Christmas now is quiet. We do the big partying in the weeks running up to the final day at work. This year's calendar already looks rather hectic. As well as putting a journal to bed, we have a staff lunch at a good gastro pub nearby, plus an editorial lunch at an Italian in Covent Garden with our printer, plus the big Christmas disco in the staff bar, plus the union's national committee (the senior lay members) also stage a social in the same venue, with a free bar, to thank the union's staff for their work during the year. We've been promised an Elvis impersonator as well as the free drinkies this year.

My birthday is also two weeks before the day itself. It's a press night this year, so it'll just be the staff bar after. I am sort of angling for a meal out the next night – unfortunately, there appear to be no tables available at a new Sir Terrance Conran restaurant, Lutyens, in the old Reuters building on Fleet Street. One of my great regrets, that – I just missed working on The Street itself by a matter of a few months.

But I am on something of a stream of consciousness thing here. Back to dieting.

I gave up, as I said, 10 years ago. Perversely – or so you might think – I didn't put any weight on, even as I started to learn to enjoy food. And around three years ago, I started – very, very slowly – to lose weight. Thus far, I've dropped about one and a half clothes sizes. What an irony.

So, Christmas is now a matter of great pleasure. And planning. I'm getting slightly better at the planning bit with every passing year. And with my first seasonal cookery book, perhaps that will now get even better.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The festive season is almost upon us

First of all – happy Thanksgiving to all my US readers. Although I don't expect you to be reading – get away from your computers and enjoy yourselves with your loved ones!

Second ... OMG, it's nearly Christmas!

That, in my case, means a birthday in between too.

I saw my first decorations over a week ago: fairy lights in the window of a flat in our block. It's not even Advent!

Actually, although it's embarrassing to admit it, I'm starting to get into the mood. Well, I've started listening to classic Christmas tracks on the way into work. Peggy Lee's Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree is a great distraction from the crowded bus.

The Other Half has purchased a festive waistcoast for himself, covered with glittery poinsettias. The girls in the office are delighted, but it's finished off his attempts at a 'bah humbug' persona for good.

Oddly enough, the run-in to Christmas isn't quite as long in the UK as it used to be. I remember the days when, return to school after the summer holiday would be almost instantly followed by shops putting decorations and gifts on display. Now, as we attempt to copy the US ever more, they wait until they've managed to flog Halloween stuff.

Christmas shopping started being a long affair during WWI, when families in the US had to allow a lot of time to ensure that their loved ones in the trenches of Flanders got their gifts on time. Now, of course, it gets going early for entirely commercial reasons.

There are still justifiable reasons for preparing in advance. Since we aren't going Christmas shopping on the Continent this year, I'm having to order my chocolate from France via the good old interweb. I do very heartily recommend Patrick Roger. It's mindblowingly fantastic stuff.

I don't know what I'm going to cook. There's only the two of us, so a turkey – even if we particularly liked roast turkey – would be daft. We did a roast duck for a few years, but that's daffy too: it's far cheaper to enjoy duck breast a few times a year, and occasionally duck legs as confit that buying a whole duck at Christmas.

I have a new book – Snowflakes and Schnapps, by an Australian cookery writer, who was inspired by her German heritage to explore northern European cuisine. It's giving me some inspiration, but I haven't nailed things down yet – hence the purchase of Delia Smith new Christmas book, which I'll collect from my bookshop on Saturday.

This year's Christmas has one major thing pencilled in: more cats. Boudicca is around five years of age and, until a year ago last August, had always lived with at least two other cats. Then my lovely Mack died. Trickie – who we adopted from Battersea Dogs (and Cats) Home – had died around eight months before.

We made a decision to let her have some time on her own – to blossom into herself. It's been fascinating and funny and wonderful. She was no shrinking violent to start with – how could you be with a name like Boudicca? She loves her human company, but she misses some feline interaction too. There's a gated carpark beyond out tiny garden and it gets daily visits from a local cat called Basil, who is as soft as the proverbial.

He always comes looking for her. She goes out and looks for him.

So we're intending to get kittens: two. We're doing it at this time of year because we'll both be off for around a fortnight, which should be useful as they all get to know each other. Even now. we're looking at Gumtree, an online market that includes cat breeders. And I'm wondering about names.

It promises to be a completely mad Christmas.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Daring to question


Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee

The Old Vic, London

When Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee penned their fictionalised account of the infamous 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' Trial, they did so with the aim of making it a parable of the McCarthy hysteria that was sweeping the US in the 1950s.

But their play – originally staged in 1955 and regularly revived in the US – has been badly served on the British stage, with only one small-scale production until this major staging.

Here, the Old Vic, under the artistic directorship of Kevin Spacey, has taken on what has, in the UK, become familiar to most people via the 1960 film starring Spencer Tracey, Frederc March and Gene Kelly, plus three subsequent TV film versions, all of which have impressive casts.

What strikes you watching the play is that it is difficult to locate it as relating to McCarthyism in anything like the way that one can still do with Arthur Miller's 1953 masterpiece, The Crucible.

But what viewing Lawrence and Lee's play now does, to a far greater extent than Miller's magnificent piece – although they share the idea of using real-life examples of religious fundamentalism as their base – is emphasise the continuing present-day conflict between fundamentalism and modern life.

There is a view that the Scopes trial was where modern (a contradiction in terms, surely?) creationism began. For many believers, there was no essential conflict between the Bible and Darwin. Many, many Christians already saw the Bible as allegorical rather than a literal account: thus the seven days of creation could quite easily mean, for instance, seven million years. There was no conflict that affected faith.

In the play, this is what defence lawyer Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow in the real case) attempts to show the court and his opposite number, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), when he describes the Bible as "poetic" rather than literal. But Drummond, of course, wants to stick to his belief – 'Young Earth Creationism' – which takes the Earth as being around 6,000 years old. Any evidence to the contrary is simply dismissed.

The first half of the play sets everything up for the trial scene. It's okay but not brilliant. The second half, which is set entirely in the court room, is far, far better. The writing is sharp and the conflict between ideas of faith and evidence crystal clear.

What the play also has, at the very end, is a very humane heart. Drummond does not take pleasure in Brady's downfall: when the cynical journalist Hornbeck (HL Mencken) derides him for 'faith', it is ultimately for a faith in humanity and human beings, and his refusal to condemn Brady – indeed, his refusal to forget Brady's early role for good, in helping to extend the suffrage.

There are uncomfortable moments: many in the audience seem to relish so much Hornbeck's biting dismissal of Brady and those who think like him, that they have forgotten the Act 1 mentions of his role in extending the suffrage. They enjoy only the bullying of the ultra-cynical Hornbeck. But then, bullying takes centre stage here. Brady himself bullies the clergyman's daughter, who is also bullied by her father. Drummond gets into the act, effectively bullying Brady in court. The attitude of the townspeople – apparently largely committed to a Bradyesque view of the world – borders on verbal lynch mob. They hide behind the safety of being a large and homogenised group that has an belief not simply in God, but in their own righteousness; their own certainty that they know the right way.

Indeed, Brady's downfall is caused by his 'sin' (if you will) of believing that he has a direct and utterly unchallengeable knowledge of the will of God.

The Old Vic's production was directed by Trevor Nun, with all the creativeness and energy that you'd expect from him, and stars David Troughton as Brady and Spacey himself as Drummond.

Troughton is good – very good. But having seen him already this year in the revival of Alan Bennett's Enjoy, you recognise some of the same physical movements. Indeed, going slightly further, my description of his performance in that said that his Wilf was "magnificent: bullying, bluff and frightened". And the same things are here in his Brady.

The writers make us wait for Drummond's entry. And it's late in the first act when he shambles on stage, weighed down by two heavy bags. For a moment, you don't realise who it is. Spacey's physicality in the role is astonishing. Darrow was almost 70 when he defended John T Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee. Spacey is 50, but everything about him is older here – except the mind. And while he might have gone to almost Method lengths physically (although I'd suggest it's more faithful to Stanislavski and less a slave to Strasberg), there are no mumblings here, but real relish for the script and the character and the situation. It's a bravura performance to thoroughly enjoy, and one where, at the end, he brings great compassion to the climax.

All in all, a very good production indeed – and enormously timely, as we find ourselves no further away from fundamentalist religion attempting to control our lives than in Dayton in 1925. It seems incredibly perverse that we seem reluctant to address Christian fundamentalism – the issue of creationism in schools is more an issue in schools in the UK today than it has been for many, many a year – even as we face what we are told is a clash of cultures with fundamentalist Islam.

Perhaps the former is apparently alive and well preceisely because of the threat of the latter?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Time for a traditional treat

After yesterday's almost apocalyptic weather warnings, the day actually hasn't been too bad. I did well this morning, getting to the market quickly and being an efficient shopper (for once), getting there and back between any major showers.

Today is a culinary event day – but not one that takes hours of prep. It's a day for good, old-fashioned fish and chips. Vicki sometimes has cod in – today was such a day – and as she gets it from a sustainable source, I can enjoy it without guilt.

I also bought big potatoes for the chips, plus a tin of mushy peas. This is proper northern fodder – it used to be England's favourite dish, but those times have gone, and with them, most chippies. Those that remain rarely seem to serve hand-cut chips anymore. So it's a treat to do this at home – and something that I do, at most, twice a year.

And for method, it's a classic case of 'in Delia I trust'. At present, the potatoes have been peeled and cut, and I've popped them all in a pan of cold water. That helps to get rid of some of the starch as well as plumping them up. In a while, I'll drain and then dry them carefully in a clean tea towel.

Batter for the fish is a doddle. Sift 110g plain flour and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Add 150ml water plus one scant tablespoon. Whisk together into a smooth batter. Bring your fish out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.

Then heat your oil or lard (I use vegetable oil). To test it's ready, chuck in a small cube of bread. If it browns in a minute, the oil is hot enough. Carefully pop your chips into the oil. If they spit, it means the potato is still moist. Give them around five minutes, then lift out with your chip basket or a large slotted spoon and drain them on kitchen paper. Bring the oil back up to your starting temperature.

Meanwhile, heat some more oil in another pan – the same temperature guide applies. When it's hot enough, dip your room temperature and dried fish pieces in the batter and then pop them carefully in the oil. That'll take about five minutes, but watch for the batter turning a lovely golden as a good guide too.

After the chip fat is heated back to temperate, add your chips for another one to two minutes. Then lift out, drain on greaseproof paper of kitchen towel and serve immediately. At this point, I'm afraid I diverge from northern tradition, and pop a great big dollop of mayonnaise on the side of my plate. According to people who know me, it's an indication of the corrupting effect of the Continent. I just love dipping my chips in it. The Other Half opts for the more usual malt vinegar.

And don't forget to gently warm through your peas. If you want to be really authentic, serve with slabs of white bread with butter on, and mugs of steaming tea. However you serve it, though, it's the perfect accompaniment for a Rugby League match – and tonight sees England take on Australia in the final of the autumn's international Four Nations tournament.

I don't hold a great deal of hope for England's chances, but you never know. And nothing beats beating Australia!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Astonishing picture of a threatened world


A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

I have a small collection of photography books, but not many. This was one that was reviewed in a photography magazine I'd bought during a work trip last month; it was that publication's book of the month – and it was not difficult to see why.

They published small reproductions of several pictures – they completely bore out the review that in so many other circumstances might have been seen as over the top and gushing: I went straight online to order a copy.

This is beautiful stuff; awesome stuff. Nick Brandt has given himself the task of 'memorialising' the natural grandeur of East Africa. This is neither landscape photography nor wildlife photography, but a combination of both. And it has a feeling of creating a mythology right in front of your eyes.

It would never have occurred to me to photograph such a subject (or such subjects) in monochrome or sepia, but the treatment works so well. Brandt works with film, not digital, and there is an astonishing depth of tone that you still find in top-notch film work.

But what stands out most of all is the dignity of the animals he has captured on film. A dignity – yes, I know that this is anthropomorphism – a dignity that makes you want to weep when you consider the fragility of their world, which faces so many threats, and mostly from our species. The pictures have an astonishing intimacy – you feel drawn right into the heart of the lives of his non-human subjects.

Brandt has certainly done a spot of the old dodging a burning – manipulation of photographs is not some new fangled creation of the digital age – but he has created some utterly astonishing images. The mother cheetah with her cubs on the rock is ... well, it's just beautiful. There is a magnificent empathy here and a great deal of power.

It's nearly Christmas: I don't usually do this sort of thing, but if you like photography in general, or if you like landscape photography and/or wildlife photography or if you like B&W photography, then get this book. It has a special something that is difficult to describe, but which lifts it way above most photography. I simply cannot imagine what it must be like to take pictures of this quality.

All the pictures I've reproduced here can be viewed larger by clicking on them. The book itself is printed on excellent art paper, and comes in large format (39.2cm x 31.2cm) that allows the pictures to be viewed easily.