Jam tomorrow: a tale of disappointment

In the old days, students wrote or typed their essays, and submitted the results as physical objects.[1] The staff read the essays, marked them, and returned these self-same objects to the students, possibly even meeting them to discuss, clarify or build upon their comments. Vast quantities of paper were sacrificed, but broadly this system seemed to meet the needs of all concerned. Then, at some point in the early noughties, one of the minions (whose only job is to spoon liquid over the twitching body of the Creature) overstepped the boundaries of his job description, and the world of marking was changed forever.

The Creature, whose existence I infer from what I see around me in the university, is the malevolent controlling force that propels the institution along in ever-stupider directions: a vast, grub-like being that lives in the bowels of Senate House, covered with electrodes and feeding on despair. Suggest other explanations if you wish:none of them can explain all the quirks and details satisfactorily. Perhaps the Creature was relaxing after a hard Friday afternoon digesting a junior member of staff from Personnel, who had dared to point out that a three-hour meeting is at least two-and-a-half-hours too long; or perhaps Personnel no longer have meetings, but simply gather into piles to sleep. Either way, I sense that the Creature was itself drowsy and unfocused, luxuriating in the sensation of the fluid moving around its vat, eyes closed, tentacles relaxed. The electrodes that hook it up to (among other things) the university timetabling software were, I fancy, relatively quiet. This lulled the spooning minion into a false sense of security, and he spoke without considering the consequences of his actions.

balthazar
Balthazar (Buffy, season three). Put tentacles where the arms are, the buttocks at the back and a load of electrodes on each slimy fold, and you have the Creature.

‘Minion,’ mumbled the Creature, who has never troubled to learn the names of those who serve him, ‘do you know how old I am?’

‘Nearly one hundred, Sire,’ replied the minion (let’s call him Gavin). ‘Your centenary is only a few years away. But everybody is living longer these days. I was reading on the internet the other day that–’ A tentacle flopped out of the vat, seizing Gavin by the face and arresting him in the middle of his (no doubt very tedious) sentence. ‘A moment, minion. What is … the internet?’

At the end of the ensuing conversation with the luckless Gavin, the Creature issued a mad decree: that all the world should be taxed that the university couldn’t consider itself modern (modern!) unless all written work was submitted, marked and returned online.[2] As the Creature’s decrees go, this is only mildly mad; my personal favourite is still the edict we had in 2008 to combat the financial crisis by buying cheaper pens. In theory, online submission and marking makes a lot of sense. Certainly it is a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken, but there are obvious advantages. However, in practice it has turned a pleasantly cathartic task into something that makes one chew one’s desk in frustration. The Online Learning Environment (which absolutely nobody refers to as ‘olé!’) is a joyless, counter-intuitive piece of crap. Having clicked through half a dozen screens to get to the blasted essays, each one appears in a window much smaller than one would like. The staff member can then mark up the text by attaching comments (slowly, laboriously) and scrolling through the paragraphs, fingers curled and wizened, all the time remembering that one’s New Year Resolution for the last four years has been to spend less time looking at screens. Marking up in this way isn’t anything like as quick or useful as (say) tracked changes in Word, and very often one simply gives up recording the more minor things. There is also no straightforward way to do detailed work, such as punctuating a sentence or suggesting words that could usefully have been removed from a paragraph, and the autosave doesn’t work properly and periodically tosses one out of the system without warning, like a crotchety bull tossing an inept matador out of the ring (olé!). Having read and marked an essay after a fashion, one is then required to give feedback under a set of meaningless headings, record one’s mark in several places, and then, exhausted, sweaty, and with a lingering sense of doubt that this exercise has achieved anything very much, move onto the next essay. Our marking system was, I suggest, developed by the same moron that put together the online ordering system for purchasing jam jars at my hitherto preferred jam jar emporium.

As I am fond of remarking in fits of false modesty, some can sing; some can dance; and some can make preserves. Happily, I can do all three (simultaneously if required). Making jam, jelly, curd and marmalade is, however, something I can do well. This not just any old jam, jelly, curd and marmalade: these are the finest fruit-based preserves known to man. Late summer is the time to make jam with soft fruit, and the point at which the season turns from autumn to winter is when I make jelly out of hard fruit such as quinces and crabapples.[3] January is for marmalade, because Seville oranges and bergamot (also called Marrakesh lemons, which I prefer as it’s in keeping with Seville oranges) are in season. Marmalade requires three categories of ingredient (fruit, sugar, and liquid) and I like to experiment with all of them. This year, for example, I am attempting three concurrent batches, the first of which contained Seville oranges, lemons, demerara sugar and six pints of ginger tea. One can only eat so much marmalade, and I give a lot of it away. After devouring the smashing orangey bit in the middle, people are often thoughtful enough to return the jars to me, but even so I thought it was high time I bought some more, and ordered forty-five online. That was a week ago, and the third batch of marmalade remains unmade, for reasons that will become apparent in what follows.

Friday
Jam jars arrive. The Seville oranges are looking a bit peaky, but I have time to make the marmalade on Saturday while Giant Bear is at a train thing.

Saturday
Marmalade Tide! Seville orange peel is fairly tough and needs to be cooked down for around an hour, so while it simmered away, I tore open the faintly jingly box. There are my three racks of jars; there are the six ‘fancy’ jars I’ve ordered to give to people who are Extra Special; and there is the delivery note. However, like snake eyes, my jars have no lids.

I manage to scrape together a motley crew of jars and am jolly lucky not to have lost the whole batch. Naturally, I assume this lidlessness is my fault. I am also enraged, assuming that the fucking website has allowed me to order forty-five jars without generating an error message that alerts me to the fact that, while nobody would ever order jars without lids or lids without jars, the wretched things are sold separately, as if a restaurant suddenly started charging extra for plates, glasses and cutlery. I contact the company, apologise for my stupidity and ask them to rush me forty-five lids. They reply that no, the jars and lids are sold as a package: I have in fact done everything right. My lids have been omitted by their system, which understands lids and jars as two separate things (why, since the order does not?). They are very sorry and will have some lids sent out to me with all speed on Monday morning. I say, hilariously, ‘Jam tomorrow!’; am briefly cross that I can’t think of a joke about yesterday’s jam; muse fleeting on the chances that the same person is responsible for my delayed lids and the online marking system; and think nothing more of it.

Monday
Jam Jar Emporium: What kind of jars do you want?
Me: I don’t want jars. I have fucktons of jars. I want lids. GIVE ME LIDS!
Jam Jar Emporium: Great! Glad to hear you’ve got jars!
Me: The order number and the fact that I want some lids are in the subject line of the email.
Jam Jar Emporium: Super! [Is it?] What kind of lids do you want?
Me: I want lids that will fit my jars. I don’t care about the colour or pattern. [I was so cross that I almost quoted Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat]. Any lids will do.
Jam Jar Emporium: What colour do you want?
Me: I literally don’t care.
Jam Jar Emporium: Right, but what colour do you want?
Me: Fine. Blue, please.
Jam Jar Emporium: We’re sold out of blue.

Tuesday
Just after breakfast, I receive an email that says my lids have been packed up and are on their way to me via courier. A nice man on a motorbike arrives with a jiffy bag that makes the right noise when I shake it, with my name and ‘OMITTED!’ scrawled on the outside in black biro. Recklessly, after dinner I email the Jam Jar Emporium idiot to say that my lids have arrived, and I prepare three pounds of fruit (Marrakesh lemons, limes and a couple of tangerines to bring it up to the required weight). The limes are teeny-tiny and full of pips, so this takes ages, but none of them have actually gone over, and it’s jolly satisfying to see it all bubbling away together. I’ve decided to make this batch with weak Earl Grey as the liquid, since Marrakesh lemons are what give Earl Grey its lovely smell, and for sugar I’m using honey. As I add it to the pan, I have the brilliant idea of immediately cleaning, de-labelling and sterilising the honey jars and pouring the brand new marmalade back into them. Accordingly, I sterilise these eight jars, plus another eight jars from the box. I count out the brand new lids, which are a fetching red with spots. Much like a heroine in DH Lawrence, the marmalade reaches its crisis eventually, and I ladle it into the jars. This is the moment at which I discover that the new lids are too fucking small.

Wednesday
Me: These lids won’t do.
Jam Jar Emporium: Don’t you like the colour?
Me: The colour is, as we have established, a matter of indifference to me. They won’t do because they are too fucking small.
Jam Jar Emporium: Are you sure?[4]
Me: Please find attached a picture showing both lid and jar.
Jam Jar Emporium: Oh dear. I think we may have sent you the wrong size.
Me: REALLY ARE YOU SURE.
Jam Jar Emporium: What size jars did you order?
Me [again, the order number is in the subject line of the email, so surely you can just look it up, but whatever]: 12oz.
Jam Jar Emporium: What’s that in kg?
Me: About 340g [I knew this from doing the conversion when buying the honey], but everything on your website is in imperial.[5]
Jam Jar Emporium: Nope. I’ve just searched for 340g jars and we don’t do those.
Me: You do do those. I have forty-five of them in my kitchen. You just call them 12oz jars, which is what they are. Again, however, I must remind you that it is the lids that I require. Do you do the lids for them?
Jam Jar Emporium: You’d assume so, wouldn’t you?
Me: YES. YES, I WOULD.

Thursday
Just after breakfast, I receive an email that says my lids have been packed up and are on their way to me via courier (again). This is less reassuring than it was last time, but the email comes from the boss of the fool I have been dealing with and so I remain foolishly hopeful. This ebbs away as the day drags on, partly because of Trump’s inauguration, and partly because I don’t think motorcycle couriers deliver jiffy-bags of jam jar lids after nightfall.[6]

Friday
It’s 5.30pm, and I am still lidless. This morning’s email from Incompetents R Us suggests I make the marmalade anyway and put clingfilm over the lids of my jars (because jars that have been filled with boiling sugar remain cool to the touch and the clingfilm definitely wouldn’t melt). I recall that, except for walking the dog (I don’t want to be borked to death), I have been unable to leave the house during the day all week for fear of missing one lid-bearing courier or another. The house, myself and the remaining three pounds of blood oranges are still in a state of tension, as, like Adrian Mole waiting for the giro, we continue to wait for the lids. If only I had some marking to do to pass the time.

 


[1] Other options are available, of course, such as not handing in work at all. I was once confronted by an angry student who had been awarded a mark of zero for failing to hand in an essay (and ‘awarded’ is surely the right word here). The student felt that a suitable way to persuade me to change his mark of zero was to yell at the other staff in the room, and then assault me with a quick burst of Cicero-like rhetoric. Under the impression that I was a. interested and b. allowed to make those kinds of decisions (I was neither), he looked me straight in the boob, and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Since I had created and then managed the student database for a year, I knew exactly who he was: I knew his name, mediocre A-Levels and unit choices, and yet I am still assailed by the nagging feeling that this wasn’t what he meant. Happily, not only did the mark of zero stand (because of course it did, despite a telephone call from his father, who turned out to be a minor civil servant and only too happy to take our side when I explained how little work his son was doing), but the student failed a load of exams the following summer and thus removed himself from the university forever, like a tick falling off a cow. Thus perish all mine enemies, saith the Lord.

[2] Why on earth would we want universities, of all things, to be modern?

[3] This year’s crabapple and apple jelly, which I made on Christmas Eve, was a corker. As described in a previous post (see Eve’s Pudding), it is sunset in a jar.

[4] AM I SURE. As if the reply was going to be, ‘actually, I’m not very sure. It’s so hard to tell the different between Things That Are Big Enough and Things That Are Definitely Too Small To Be Useful, isn’t it?’ No woman of thirty-six has ever said this.

[5] This is because making preserves is easy if you do it in imperial. Marmalade, for example, is a fundamentally imperial thing: three pounds of citrus fruit + six pounds of sugar + six pints of water.

[6] Although if they did, that’s a stand-alone early Buffy episode right there: the perfect excuse to get vulnerable jam-making ladies to open their doors to strangers after dark. The episode (and courier company?) would be called Nighthawk; Americans don’t watch ‘Allo ‘Allo, but one might include a sprinkling of hilarious references that only British viewers would understand e.g. Giles wearing a policeman’s uniform, rehearsing Pirates of Penzance, perhaps (‘Good moaning!’); an Italian exchange student shouting ‘The byowtiful lie-dee!’ at Cordelia; everyone stuffing cheese into their ears so they don’t have to hear Xander’s attempts at cafe chantant, and so on. The couriers would be dishy, leather-clad and apologetic, and then BAM! As per The Fly, fruit and sugar trigger these apparently nice young men to reveal beaks and talons and all the vulnerable jam-making ladies would be horribly pecked to death and/or partially eaten and smeared with jam. Then Willow decides to make marmalade for some reason (a school project, say), orders some jam jars that are ‘accidentally’ sent without lids, terribly sorry miss, we’ll rush them to you by courier – and thus our story unfolds.

Tales from the canal-bank

It is a great loss to me (and, I venture to suggest, the world) that I don’t run a creative writing class. If I did, however, this week I would be asking my students to pick one of the following items, all of which I have observed at one time or another on, in or in the vicinity of a canal, and use it as the starting point for a short story.

We begin with items found floating in the water. Pearson’s Canal Companion suggests that canal flotsam is not entirely savoury, and he’s not wrong.[1] Here’s an arresting image from a passage on Langley Maltings (Titford Canal):

The water, too, seemed cleaner, as clear as a see-through blouse; though the contents of the canal bed thus revealed were not quite so desirable as the analogy suggests.[2]

Item one is a dead seagull, frozen in a position that, in conjunction with a set of humming overhead power lines, suggested it had been electrocuted (or, at the very least, greatly surprised) before flopping into the filthy water, wings forever stiffly raised mid-flap – but there could be so many other explanations, each ripe with Adventure and Plot. Item two is a whole, unpeeled and (apart from being in the canal) apparently sound onion, which reminded my husband of a lettuce (also whole, and also apparently fine) he once saw in the canal, forlornly bobbing along singing a song. This one almost makes sense, since lettuce is 100% useless (see Home Economics), but surely one knows that at the point of purchase? One doesn’t buy a lettuce in good faith and then, a few hours later, suddenly experience the stunning epiphany, crashing over one in a chilly wave of horror, that lettuce has nothing of value to contribute to the kitchen.[3] ‘Begone, lying vegetable!’ cried no-one ever, hurling the wretched thing out into the void:[4] one knows before one wastes one’s hard-earned cash that lettuce is Not Food in any meaningful way. A discarded onion, which could have formed the base of innumerable meals, makes no sense. Was it a missile in a heated domestic argument? Did it jump? Was it pushed? Endless possibilities unfold before us.

20160812_195644
A flock of filthy philanderers begging for burnt bacon bits

Our third floating item is a sex toy, last seen gently drifting towards Dudley like the world’s nastiest message in a bottle.[5] From a distance, it appeared to be common or garden white goods, such as I regularly see from the towpath on my morning walk, which also happens to be along a canal. On closer inspection, it appeared that an enraged sex fiend had chopped a plastic women into sections and then discarded what one would have thought was the most useful part, which resolutely refused to sink. This should not surprise anyone who has thrown things into a canal: Giant Bear and I have learnt from experience that the more embarrassing the item, the less likely it is to sink. In our case, two strings of high sausages haunted us for an entire evening. We couldn’t fling them into the undergrowth on the bank in case a dog ate them and was horribly poisoned; in our food bin they would have made the boat stink; and putting them back in the fridge seemed equally mad. We had just moored in an absolutely beautiful spot, as close as we could get to one of the moorings from our honeymoon. As we opened the canal-side hatch, a kingfisher zipped into view, settled on a branch just long enough for both of us to cry, ‘A kingfisher!’ and then was gone again. In other words, it was a moment both idyllic and restful, spoilt by having to work out what on earth to have for dinner now that there were no viable sausages. Finally, we were tired from a long day of locks (me) and boat-driving (Giant Bear), and simply didn’t have the patience to wander up and down the towpath in search of another bin. There seemed no satisfactory solution (“and the canal is full of shit anyway”, we reasoned, recalling several of the items already mentioned), so into the canal with you, where, oh fantastic, you are producing enough noxious gases to float about accusingly for several hours. Fish appear and take a few exploratory nibbles; moorhens peck at you, but you’re far too gross even for things that live in a canal cheek-by-jowl with electrocuted seagulls and discarded sexual aids. Other boats charge past (rather than on tick-over, as they should be), but, how wonderful, you bob up in the wake, battered and intestinal, but undaunted, reminiscent of an unfeasibly lavish greyish-pinkish bowel movement and definitely no closer to sinking. You catch on an overhanging bramble for a few excitingly yucky minutes, but then drift brazenly back into the centre of the canal for all to see. Overnight, mercifully, you vanish, but we are both convinced that you are not gone, but lurking, in the reeds or under the boat, like some mottled sausage-y sea-serpent.

Item four is a rat I have seen many times on the canal at home, who has learnt that a local gentleman in his twilight years likes to sit in a certain spot and feed the pigeons. Pigeons are messy eaters and leave more than enough for a ratty breakfast. This particular rat has been known to wear a little Lucozade bottle-top on his head (I assume it was sticky the first time he encountered it), and thus is known as Lucozade Hat Rat. I venture that this is a rat with a rich and varied existence, with the whole canal to explore (graffiti under bridges! Discarded toasters! That guy who is always in a tremendous hurry and smells of hash!) and his rakish head-gear to distinguish him from what must be literally thousands of other rats in the local area. An updated Tales from the Riverbank featuring Lucozade Hat Rat is just as likely to become a quirky bestseller as any of the things that actually do become quirky bestsellers.

Item five is non-floating, but no less poignant for it: a tableau of a depressed-looking ginger horse with a sore foot (back right), languishing alone in a benettled field. In the foreground, a partially-sucked mint humbug sits on a fencepost, quietly melting in the August sunshine. Was it offered to the horse, mumbled and then rejected? Was it left by a kind passer-by for him to take at his convenience? Perhaps the horse sees and smells the sweet, but his sore foot prevents him limping over to the fencepost to claim it and he is horribly tantalised by its tempting brown-and-fawn stripes. Perhaps he is faking a sore foot in the hope of blackmailing kind passers-by into leaving him mints, which he hoovers up quietly at night, surefooted and sneaky in the darkness. Perhaps the horse hates mints; perhaps he hates passers-by, too. Here, one might pause to give some thought to the protagonist of one’s canal-based tale. There is always the option of taking a cue from Tarka the Otter, Watership Down et al. and basing a story around (say) a family of ducklings, a deceitful horse or indeed a seagull tragically cut off in his prime. There was, for example, that time I rescued a mouse in imminent danger of drowning in the boiling floodwaters of a nearby lock. Surely he returned to his nest that evening and regaled Mrs Mouse with a tall tale of raging waters, foul smells, mysterious engine noises and then –lo!– a stick-based miracle? Or one might choose to write a terrifying horror story, starring one of the many dogs that haunt the canal, a surprising number of which can’t cope with locks, boats, other dogs or Being Outside. Think of the terrors these animals have to endure. The Unattainable Sausages! The Place That Was Dark And Barking Made No Difference! Everything Is Floaty And Weird! ARF! ARF! This year we met a couple with a large boxer, which the chap cheerfully informed me was ruining their holiday. ‘If we go into a lock and leave her on board, she howls, shakes and pees on the floor,’ he said in an almost incomprehensible Birmingham accent, shaking her lead belligerently; she ignored this, continuing to focus all her energies on Barking At The Canal. ‘If we take her off the boat, she tangles her lead around my legs while I’m doing the lock. She’s welcome to drown anytime she likes.’

Students with some knowledge of canals might choose to show off their mastery of canal-related terminology (windlass, cill, pound, winding hole etc.), and model their prose style upon that of Pearson’s Canal Companion, which is certainly idiosyncratic. Consider, for example, Pearson’s description of Holt Fleet on the River Severn (‘A rash of caravan parks and shanty-like chalets mar otherwise unspoilt riverside meadows for everyone but their proud owners’);[6] or the following comment on the Birmingham Canal Navigation:

So what do you think of it so far? […] Are you under its spell, or are you under psychoanalysis, still hyperventilating from its fulminating blend of inspirational industrial heritage and sheer downright ugliness?[7]

One could do worse that to cast a canal gnome as the hero of our tale. The Canal and River Trust volunteers as they are more properly known are easily identified via their blue polo shirts and bright orange life-jackets; they are almost always wiry middle-aged men with Midlands accents (‘Orroight?’), knowledgeable, charming and name-badged. One exchanges the same pieces of information with all canal gnomes: where have you come from; where are you going; yes, it is a pretty boat; yes, it is a nice-sounding engine; yes, my husband is driving it jolly well; yes, the water is low/high today; yes, the ‘missus’ has certainly drawn the short straw, walking miles in the lovely countryside along the towpath and pausing only to open and close locks, rather than standing still for hours in a cloud of diesel smoke and taking responsibility for anything bad that might happen to the boat; and what a beautiful/awful day it is. Canal gnomes help with locks whether one likes it or not, and admire Giant Bear’s driving, but more importantly for our purposes here, I bet they’ve seen it all: dead sheep the size of mattresses; enormously fat boaters bending the lock beams with their monstrous buttocks; broken paddles, lost windlasses, abandoned dogs; tipsy lone boaters leaving their vessels to fend for themselves while they man the lock; fisticuffs between anglers, boaters, walkers and kayakers all scrapping over the same stretch of duck-infested water; narrowboats grounded, overturned, sunk and on fire.[8]

Finally, there is the genre of our putative short story to consider. I suggest that canals are under-used locations in murder mysteries. Susan Hill uses a riverbank in her Lafferton detective novels, and my own humble murder mystery is set a few feet from a tow-path (and speaks of more than one suspicious death that may or may not have taken place in that general area); however, neither of us, or indeed any other mystery writer I’m aware of, has (as yet) made full use of the possibilities offered by a canal tunnel. Canal tunnels are dark, noisy, completely unlit except by the lights of passing boats, and sometimes have narrow walkways on one side, which cry out as places to dump a body (possibly of a person; possibly a large female boxer with a lead wrapped around her neck). The murderer would, naturally, be found out several days later, however. Experience has shown that when he or she least expected it and was peacefully feeding bacon to a passing paddling of perverts, the bloated corpse would loom out of the brown water, bump (softly, sausage-like) against his or her boat and then refuse to sink.

 


[1] The humble duck turns out to be a depraved sexual predator upon further investigation. Mallards have explosive corkscrew penises, covered with spikes and almost as long again as their bodies. Their preferred method of sexual advance is to quack madly, ambush a female duck and grab her by the neck before deploying their terrifying weapon.

[2] J.M. Pearson, Pearson’s Canal Companion: Black Country Canals, Stourport Ring, Birmingham Canal Navigations (Central Waterways Supplies, Rugby, sixth edition 2003), p. 23.

[3] I don’t even put it in a BLT anymore; avocado, cucumber or more bacon are far better options.

[4] This is actually a jolly satisfying part of being on a narrowboat. Washing up is so much more fun when crumbs etc. can be simply tipped out of the window for waterfowl to squabble over. Thus does one make instructive discoveries, such as that ducks don’t like mushrooms.

[5] Pearson writes that ‘there is about the Dudley Canals an independence of style and spirit’, but I don’t think discarded plastic pelvises were what he had in mind. Pearson’s Canal Companion, p. 63.

[6] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 36.

[7] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 17.

[8] One of the boats a lock or so ahead of us got stuck on the cill (the lip at either end of the lock that the gates seal against) and partially grounded while they waited for the rising water to lift them away from it. We worked this out eventually, but there is no standardised system of hand gestures between boaters, and so one bellows emptily above the noise of boat engines and the rushing of mighty waters. I’ve often wondered why the canal gnomes haven’t yet given their minds to devising a system of approved hand gestures to convey a range of common messages to other boats, such as ‘Help help I’m aground’, ‘Do you have an up-to-date copy of Pearson’s Canal Companion?’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You stole our lock. Prepare to die!’

Getting to the bottom of things

Regular readers will recall that your gentle narrator suffers (the word is chosen with care) from bowel disease (see Busting a gut, Bite me, Home Economics, GAH! Michael Gove! and The loud symbols). I have been laxative about contributing to the blog over the last seven months, after being buried under an avalanche of work from which one arm now feebly waves, soon (I hope) to be followed by the rest of me. These two things may not seem related to each other, but my colitis is caused by work-related stress, which is also called work addiction (see I was flying from the threat of an office life and Exemplum Docet). Thus, I live in a little feedback loop, working at whatever pace I feel I can stand and then accepting whatever reward or punishment my insides see fit to respond with. I am eternally grateful to have the skills to work from home most of the time; a husband who finds my swollen stomach and disreputable underwear (of which more later) quirky and charming; and a toilet right next to my study. Giant Bear has even furnished the upstairs toilet with a comfortable wooden seat, a tasteful selection of bra catalogues and a thing called a Primal Stool that cost £20 but is worth its weight in gold (this is a similar thing: do scroll down to see the unicorn-poo advert). John Keay comments on the internal disorder of George Everest (yes, the mountain is named after him. Also, his name is pronounced ‘Eve-rest’, disturbingly), and notes that his ‘[r]ebellious bowels leant an urgency to the working day’. Yes. Yes, I expect they did.[1]

Bowel disease is misunderstood, difficult to talk about, jolly painful and surprisingly common; and work addiction is just everywhere and awful. While I wait for mountain rescue, therefore, here are some jolly facts about bowel disease and work-related stress.

  1. Bowel disease is the great leveller.

People with small children seem to talk about poo all the time: how often their babies poo; how copious, stinky, firm/loose and frequently produced their babies’ poo is; and how their babies sometimes manage to defecate so heartily that they get poo right the way up their backs in a single movement. I don’t have babies, but having colitis allows me to join in nonetheless.

‘Yup,’ I say, finishing my tea. ‘I’ve done that.’
‘When you were a baby?’ My childbearing friend is momentarily distracted by the menu, or possibly the child. ‘Or do you mean last time you went to China?’
‘Nope’.

  1. Working too much makes you a shitty worker.

My understanding of the strike that junior doctors undertook recently (the first such strike in my lifetime) is that they were protesting against two things in particular, captured (as is so often the case these days) in a hashtag: #notfairnotsafe. This captures two ideas, as follows: one, working longer hours as proposed (for a higher wage, but a lower overall hourly rate) implies that the ridiculous hours and shifts that they already work are not sufficient. Two, working longer hours will exhaust them and make them bad doctors. I don’t understand why there is any discussion to be had about this. We all agree that tired motorists are dangerous. Are exhausted doctors dangerous? YES. OF COURSE THEY ARE: TO THEMSELVES AND OTHERS. I have lost count of the number of mistakes I have made, documents I have deleted and spreadsheets I have cocked up because I was simply too tired to be competent. With the obvious exception of smug health-cunt Jeremy Hunt (Jim Naughtie has established precedent, so this is fine), nobody is stupid enough to think a tired doctor is a competent doctor, but nobody, in any line of work, should be working so many hours that they are too tired to do their job properly. I used to work four days per week; then, to cover for a colleague, I did two months of five days per week. I would have done better to stay at four days per week, because I was so tired that a. I caught a bug and had to miss two days’ work; and b. forgot to save my database and lost another two days’ work. Net gain: nothing.

   3. Number of times I have soiled myself since being diagnosed: four.

Once *just* after a Departmental meeting; once while sitting quietly in a chair, reading a book and minding my own business; once in China after some questionable fish; and this afternoon. When I went to Dublin for a week a few years ago, I packed twenty-one pairs of knickers by the simple method of counting seven pairs of knickers into the suitcase (‘Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday’) three times without realising I had done so. Do normal people even *own* twenty-one pairs of knickers? They do not.

  1. Being addicted to work means not being allowed to go cold turkey.

Some addictive substances (drugs, alcohol) are things that we have no physical need of, by which I mean that removing these things from our lives, while extremely difficult, is not damaging, but rather may have considerable health benefits. We may feel the need (physical, physiological, psychological, emotional) for another cigarette (I have written about this elsewhere; see A three-pipe problem), drink, high, win or whatever, but we can live perfectly well without these things, just as we can live without smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex or pornography. The most difficult addictions to deal with, I suggest, are those where cutting the destructive substance or behaviour out of one’s life altogether is not possible. If one is addicted to food or work, for example, one has to find some way of changing that relationship to make it healthy and sustainable: one cannot simply stop eating or working. I don’t think there are many therapists who, confronted with (say) a smoker would suggest that he or she learn to manage his or her relationship with tobacco: the end goal would always and unquestioningly be to give up, totally and forever.

  1. Number of times I have thought, ‘that’s it. I’m going to die on the toilet. Like Elvis, except he had a cheeseburger to keep him company’: three.

Halfway through reading this post, my husband showed me a picture of the thing below (it’s a cheeseburger-shaped anti-stress ball) and said, ‘shall we get one, and keep it in the upstairs toilet?’

52. cheeseburger
‘Not suitable for children under the age of three’

 

  1. Bowel disease makes you feel really, really old

Were I so inclined, I could produce a series of Venn diagrams showing the commonality between my life and that of a woman forty years older than me; let’s call her Daphne. Yesterday’s diagram would show that Jess walked (rapidly, happily) to the train station to catch the same train as Daphne, while Daphne’s great age forced her to make the journey on the bus; Jess has brought a copy of Silent Spring and some knitting to keep her occupied during the journey, while Daphne prefers the Telegraph and crochet; Jess has decided not to bring any food, while Daphne has a packet of mints[2] and so on. Apart from the train itself, the only area of overlap is that both Jess and Daphne will spend a significant part of their day worrying that they are going to disgrace themselves because *there is no toilet at the station*. That’s very annoying, think both Jess and Daphne upon arrival, with enough time to buy their tickets, but not such a long wait that they get cold and cross. The train will be here in a minute, and once we get going I can use the facilities on the train. Imagine the disgust of both our protagonists (Jess says a curse word; Daphne does not, but her lips get very thin) when it turns out that *there is no toilet on the train either*.

My usual train trip is around 50 minutes, and fortunately there *are* facilities at the other end. But, really: good grief. There is a person at the station (sometimes two!) to sell tickets to the Great Unwashed *and* a model railway shop. There must, therefore, be at least one toilet. Giant Bear tells me that there *is* a toilet, but that in order to use it, Daphne and I would have to queue up and then yell through the ticket window that we’d like to borrow the key, please. There is also nowhere for the staff on the train to relieve themselves; at least the ticket inspector can walk from carriage to carriage to distract himself (and maybe do a little poo in the corridor where nobody will notice), but no such luck for the driver. John Pudney said the following about toilets at train stations seventy years ago, much of which still holds today:

For the ordinary run of early railroad passengers, there were no arrangements whatever; and patience was the only necessity. At early morning stops, men were wont to salute the sunrise, as decorously as they might, at the ends of platforms, while women stood in earnest conversation here and there, their long skirts providing cover even though the platform itself offered little by way of camouflage.[3]

  1. Being addicted to work is socially acceptable. 

While I think it could be argued that we have a society with a dysfunctional attitude to many addictive substances and behaviours (food, alcohol and sex spring to mind), the attitude to work goes beyond that into stark raving mad. We all talk about our ‘busy’ lives: it is entirely normal for women in particular to babble on about ‘juggling’ all the things we have to do, on top of earning a living, which somehow takes up far more time and energy than it should. I am no longer surprised to receive (and send) emails at 6am or 11pm; nobody expresses surprise when it becomes clear that I work weekends; and while I was at the university, I once went into the office on Boxing Day and *I wasn’t the only person in the Department*.

  1. Bowel disease has ruined the following words forever: movement, regular, irrigation, stool. On the plus side, Andrew Motion is now a funny name.
  1. Bowel disease makes you feel that nobody will ever want to have sex with you again.

There is swelling (sometimes soft; sometimes tight and hard like a tyre). There is diarrhoea (bright yellow, mostly liquid and excitingly explosive). There is dehydration (headaches, itchy eyes), horrible stomach cramps, massive hair loss, brittle nails, tiredness that mere sleep cannot touch, and endless medical humiliations (pooing into little trays; enemas; strangers inserting Things into one’s special area in the name of Science). There are ruined clothes, from which the physical stains can be removed, but which I can never bring myself to wear again.[4] Finally, there is the terror that every tremor and gurgle in the abdominal region may be about to burst forth into the Bog of Eternal Stench, punctuating yet another day with what can only be described as arse-sneezes: hot, gritty crap that pebble-dashes the inside of the toilet in a splatter pattern strikingly reminiscent of the vomit one sees on the pavements outside student residences, except that this is yellow, streaked with blood and mucus, smells like the devil’s farmyard and CAME OUT OF MY ARSE.

These are the times when the unconditional love (and relaxed attitude to nudity) of an understanding and patient partner is better than all the peppermint oil and herbal tea in the world. Here is a little story I call ‘Disappointment’: the other day, Giant Bear came home from work, and without explanation, silently removed his shoes, tie, waistcoat, braces, shirt, trousers, socks and, with a certain sense of inevitability, his pants. Why, good evening, darling, I thought, ceasing to stir the dinner for a moment, and trying to remember if my own underwear was a. the kind that can be flung aside in a sexy fashion; b. not that kind, but at least stain-free and vaguely respectable; or c. in such a state that I’d have to bundle it up in my jeans and then attempt to kick both carefully into a dark corner. Just as I was about to spoil the moment by talking, my husband had a jolly good look at his pants, turned them round and put them back on again. ‘Had them on back to front all day’, he observed, and went upstairs to get dressed.

——————————
[1] John Keay, The Great Arc (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p.146.

[2] To alleviate what George Sherston calls a ‘railway-tasting mouth’. Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (London: Faber and Faber, 1928), p.299.

[3] John Pudney, The Smallest Room (London: Michael Joseph, 1954), p.75.

[4] Just as I am no longer able to eat English mustard because gaaaaaah.

What a lovely pear

I wonder how long it will be before class is determined not by income, one’s father’s occupation, school or socio-economic group, but by simply placing a load of foodstuffs on a table and seeing which ones a given person can name; which ones they can use correctly in a meal; and which ones they eat regularly themselves.[1] My mother maintained that she once heard a large lady get out of a taxi in Henley-on-Thames and accost a passer-by by braying at him, ‘my good man, is there any butter in this ghastly little town?’ In my mind’s eye, the lady in question is tall, bold about the nostrils, and voiced by Penelope Keith. While we were living in Henley-on-Thames ourselves, my mother picked up the habit of referring to builders and other assorted tradespeople as ‘little men’. I found this most confusing (as indeed any child familiar with the work of B.B. would). The men in question were rarely little, and yet I instinctively reach for both this awful term and my Penelope Keith voice whenever I have to deal with ‘little men’ myself.

Recently, we had some repairs made to the roof of the railway room, by a local builder named Tom. He came to survey the damage before starting work, which meant actually coming into the house. This seemed to discombobulate him, and he insisted on taking his shoes off and carrying them apologetically as we went in and out of various rooms to give him a decent look at the relevant piece of roof. We are not a ‘shoes off’ household, as anyone could tell from a cursory glance at the carpets, but he seemed more comfortable this way. Tom turned up a few weeks later, startling me by being on time and on the day we had agreed, accompanied by what I will refer to as a sous-builder. They set to work, fortified with horrible tea (I bought it specially, of which more later), and were finished by lunchtime. This meant that they came into the kitchen (each clutching their shoes forlornly) at exactly the same moment as Giant Bear came home for lunch. Lunch that day was avocado on toast because OF COURSE IT WAS.

The previous day, while purchasing the aforementioned horrible tea, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of reverse snobbery. Why, I reasoned, should I assume that builders must want builders’ tea (i.e. as strong as possible, with milk and two sugars)? We did already have some black tea in the house, but I somehow felt that neither lapsang suchong nor Earl Grey would get the job done. And yet it seemed so silly to buy more tea, when we already have an entire cupboard dedicated to it: black, red, green, white, pink, orange and various shades of herbal in both bag and loose-leaf varieties, as well as two filters, a tea-ball and three kinds of hot chocolate. For guests so bewildered that they can only stammer ‘Whatever you’re having?’ we have the Mystery Jar, in which any lone or unidentifiable teabags are housed, and subsequently fed to the indecisive (see Indecisive Cake). We are also in possession of no fewer than six teapots of varying sizes, and, bearing in mind that the house usually contains two people at most, twenty-six mugs. In the end, I bought a box of builders’ tea[2] anyway, but stashed it out of sight so as to conceal the fact that I had bought it specially. Halfway home, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps they might prefer coffee, but by then it had started to rain and I had to take my chances. A few hours into the roof-repairing, we reached the moment of truth.[3]

‘Can I make either of you a cup of tea, Tom?’ I asked casually (or so it would seem).

‘Yes, please,’ he rumbled. ‘Milk and two’. I had an apple tisane[4] and we were all faintly embarrassed. A couple of weeks later, we attempted to purchase an avocado in Sainsbury’s and discovered that the man on the till had never seen one before and didn’t know what it was. Giant Bear said helpfully, ‘it’s a kind of pear’. This did not improve the situation.

————————————————————–

[1] I recently came across a restaurant review online, consisting of a single star and the following plaintive sentence: ‘They made my risotto with long-grain rice. Need I say more?’

[2] When we lived together, S used to refer to this as Normal Boring Tea (also called Ordinary Tea, like Ordinary Time); my friend H calls it Normalitea.

[3] This phrase actually comes from bullfighting, and refers to the moment when the matador makes the final stroke, attempting to sever the spinal cord by plunging his sword between the shoulder-blades of the bull. In doing so, his whole body is exposed to the horns, and if he does not hit his mark, he will be horribly gored. Truth indeed.

[4] My beverage of choice when watching a Poirot.

Notes from Nanjing

The following notes (relating to my time in Nanjing in 2009) were found in an old notebook, unearthed this week while I tidied my office.

Day 1, in the airport (Frankfurt)
The smoothest landing coming into Frankfurt that I have ever experienced (I almost slept through it). Going through security I had to remove the 99p bottle of water I had bought in Bristol and drink it before I was allowed into another dingy booth. The German security people thought this frightfully funny and laughed like very efficient drains. I couldn’t see the joke, but perhaps it had been an unusually boring day (or perhaps the national stereotype is inaccurate, and the Germans are a nation of childlike, humorous people). Security in Britain resulted in my incredibly dangerous sun-cream and deadly deodorant being confiscated. The man was unmoved by my argument that sun-cream is too thick to be considered a liquid as such; he was also unable to explain how placing the deodorant in a plastic bag rendered it harmless. As soon as they let me through, of course, I was free to stock up on other, more sinister fluids at the duty-free Superdrug.

I rode the travelator, but this turned out to be a lot less fun on my own. Now I am reading A Dance to the Music of Time (which, so far, I don’t much like), sitting on a comfy chair by a weird bakery (pastry the size of your head, madam? How about if we encrust it with unidentifiable purple crap?), from whence ‘Tainted Love’ is blasting out. The bakery also serves beer (because this is Germany and there is a probably a law about it) and a Chinese man, who might even be on my onward flight, is wearing a purple cardigan that almost matches the pastries, visibly more relaxed than when he arrived and with three empty steins in front of him. Opposite me, a woman is reading the most German newspaper in the world: an edition of Das Bild, with the headline ‘HITLER IN BERLIN SCHATZ STOLLEN’ and a picture of a naked women crouching over a Bratwurst in the middle of a field. The TV cycles ads for HDTV on mobile telephones, urging us to watch CNN on a screen the size of a golf-ball. Don’t they see how they undermine their own sales pitch by telling us this via a screen nine feet long?

Day Six, Nanjing
Signs I Have Seen: ‘Dagoba’ as a misspelling of ‘pagoda’ (‘we can’t possibly repel a Buddha of that magnitude!’) and a sign in the hotel clamping down on guerrilla sewing cells (‘No Smocking’).

Day Ten, Nanjing Holocaust Museum
P [Chinese colleague] suggested that we [myself, colleague James, and John, the husband of our American colleague] might visit a museum together on our day off, which we thought sounded like a fun and educational way to spend the day. The taxi pulled up outside an enormous building with a statue of a weeping woman on the pavement beside it. This should have told us that ‘fun’ and ‘educational’ were the wrong words entirely.

The signs in the holocaust museum, commemorating the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, are confused about how many people were killed – it might be 30,000 (all the students in Bristol), or it might be ten times as many (the entire population of Bristol). Either number is plausible in a city of so many millions of souls.

First there are piles of dusty bones in fish-tanks (almost all adult femurs. They do not look real). Then we move into a darkened room with illuminated glass boxes around the walls. The signs, as I say, are curiously uninformative. There is no mention of the thousands of (actual) rapes perpetrated by Japanese during the (metaphorical) rape of the city itself and I wonder if this is because they simply don’t ‘count’ in the face of so many murders. P seems largely unmoved, and I think James and John are more surprised at being taken on a fun day out at a holocaust museum than anything else. I am comparing this room with Pit 1 in Xi’an. The terracotta warriors marching away in perfect silence are creepy after a while; one keeps expecting them to step forward (all of them, all at once). They don’t, of course.

In the centre of the room is a partially excavated mass grave. Not a reconstruction, but an actual mass grave. The skeletons lie where they fell in 1937. There is a skull with no jaw. There are numerous children. There are couples huddled into each other’s arms. There are several with nails driven through their joints, bright orange with rust. The earth is grey and the bones are brown, and the whole thing is lit up with festive fairy-lights. The colour of each light indicates the gender and estimated age of each victim. There is no explanation offered anywhere of what the Japanese hoped to achieve or why the Chinese did not fight back, and that lack of narrative makes the museum feel pointless and not like a museum at all. Nobody is trying to educate me. No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task. I turn to P to check that he is OK; the whole thing is utterly bewildering and I think I might cry out of sheer frustration. P is fine and takes my question as more P-centric than I intended. He was not there, he says, and there is a reason that he was not there. So, he is OK. I was not there either, and I’m now even less sure why it bothers me so much (and him so little). All of the bones look like children to me and the illuminated panels give more gory details of impaling, bayonets and possible drowning, as the site of the grave appears to have been a shallow pond. This is based on the discovery of snail shells, some of which are on display, rather than the testimony of survivors. Were there any survivors? The Japanese escaped with their lives, I assume? Or, perhaps, some of the Chinese were allowed to live, or some escaped, or were too ashamed to say that they surrendered their weapons on request, but did nothing to reclaim them when they saw what was going to happen. This is what P tells me, when I ask how a force of a few thousand soldiers from a small country can invade a much larger country, march through the middle of the land (Nanjing is not a coastal city) and murder thousands of people in broad daylight. Did the Japanese have superior weaponry, I ask? No, says P. They are better mentally. What does that mean? When the Japanese tell them to put down their guns, they do it, he says. And when the killing started, I asked? P shrugs and I have learnt nothing today.

Day Twelve, Nanjing
Today a student told me that he wanted to broaden his ‘horizontals’ by investing in the ‘stocking market’. I said, ‘I hope your plan holds up’ and nobody laughed. I miss home.

Indecisive Cake

I grew up in rural north Cornwall, on the outskirts of a tiny village, with no pub, shop or post office, but a medieval church, a village green, and an abundance of cows, foxes and old people. From time to time, we would make an expedition to what passed for civilisation, so as to purchase shoes, duck food and other necessities. Our destination of choice was, occasionally, Launceston (pronounced ‘Laaaaance-un’), where I could get my hair cut in a place called Tangles for £4.50, my mother could buy some curtain fabric she didn’t need, and my father could take us all to the Mad Hatter’s café on Church Street for coffee when being in a conurbation of more than twenty houses got too overwhelming for us.

I mention this because the Mad Hatter’s café (and the cake menu in particular) has passed into family folklore. The café itself is still there, complete with a hundred-strong teapot collection and Alice in Wonderland décor, but it has changed hands and sadly no longer retains its original menu. In the early ’nineties, this included a bewildering list of homemade cakes, all displayed temptingly under glass. If a customer found himself unable (me) or unwilling (Father) to choose just one kind of cake, he could order Indecisive Cake, which consisted of a trinity of slightly smaller pieces of cake (unless they were ‘getting towards the end’ of a cake, in which you got extra), chosen at random by the proprietor. I don’t think we ever ordered anything else.

On the subject of indecision, I read The Mandelbaum Gate recently, which quotes the Book of Revelation in a way that seems relevant. The same passage featured in a service my beloved choir sang in over the summer, at Lincoln Cathedral. In The Mandelbaum Gate, Revelation is quoted as follows:

‘Do you know,’ said this passionate spinster in a cold and terrifying voice, ‘a passage in the Book of the Apocalypse that applies to your point of view?’

‘I’m afraid the Apocalypse is beyond me,’ Freddy said. ‘I’ve never had the faintest clue what it is all about. I can cope with the Gospels, at least some parts, but –’

‘It goes like this,’ she said, enunciating her words slowly, almost like a chant: ‘I know of thy doings and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.’

Freddy did not reply. People should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one. It was quite absurd.[1]

It seems to me that religion, religious ceremonies and religious texts, while obviously holding value in and of themselves in terms of structured, collective connection with the Almighty, the consolations and comforts of routine, beautiful words, expressive music and the company of friends, also have a practical purpose that is often overlooked: that of providing direction and assistance with the problems of one’s daily life. Freddy’s assertion that ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one’ is, to me, absurd. What is scripture for, other than to be spoken to other people? This passage from Revelation, for example, has wide application. For one thing, it describes beautifully (and succinctly) the problem of indecision, writ both large and small, and the impatience experienced by the more decisive observer. Had we been able to call it to mind, it would have been a wonderful thing to quote to each other in the Mad Hatter’s café. ‘Father!’ I might have said, ‘I know of my doings and find myself neither lemon drizzle nor coffee-and-walnut; I would I wert one or the other.’ ‘Fear not, my child,’ he might have replied, flourishing the menu. ‘For lo! Behold the wonder that is Indecisive Cake!’

We moved to Cornwall[2] just as the village church was entering what Anglicans charmingly refers to as an interregnum i.e. a compulsory pause between vicars.[3] This meant that the parish passed into a sort of Indecisive Cake period of its own: instead of one vicar conducting all the services, we had several celebrants of various flavours, chosen at random by a higher power.[4] They were mostly aged, well-meaning retired vicars who could be relied upon to read the notices clearly and stay calm in the face of the organist (Father again) playing the tune for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ as we all opened our books to sing ‘Love Divine’ or similar. Two stand out in my memory at either end of the quality spectrum, rather like the angel/devil figures so often used in cartoons to illustrate moral conflict. On the angel shoulder was the late lamented Peter Coster; on the other, a man who we always referred to as the Hobgoblin.[5] Peter Coster was a lay reader of great gentleness and charm. He gave thoughtful, well-constructed sermons about whatever topic had taken his attention that week, and kept to a length and subject appropriate to a tiny congregation of elderly villagers. On the other shoulder, the Hobgoblin was somewhat stronger meat. I think the period I’m talking about here pre-dated Eddie Izzard’s ‘cake or death’ routine, but either way the Hobgoblin did not conform to the notion that you can’t have strong points of view in the Church of England.

I don’t think I ever knew his real name, and in any case the Hobgoblin suited him much better.[6] Top hat notwithstanding, he looked remarkably like the Hobgoblin from Finn Family Moomintroll, with a vigorous beard and dark, menacing eyebrows. The original Swedish title of Finn Family Moomintroll is Trollkarlens Hatt.[7] Trollkarlen (even less recognisable in the Finnish, Taikuri) means ‘Magician’ and the Swedish title (literally ‘The Magician’s Hat’) refers to the Hobgoblin’s search for his magical, transformative top hat. Our Hobgoblin (who may or may not have flown through the air on a panther and may or may not have mislaid the King’s Ruby) had spent some considerable time in the Holy Land, and treated us to wild, distinctly-made-up-sounding declarations, declaimed in Foreign with outstretched arms and blazing eyes.[8] Presumably some of these were blessings and Biblical quotations, but how were we to know? He could just as easily have been translating the parish magazine on the spot. One might modify Freddy’s sentiment accordingly: ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one in a language one does not understand’.

It is reasonable to expect a congregation of Cornish pensioners to find the Hobgoblin somewhat off-putting, with his outbursts of Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish/whatever and mad sermons (some violently anti-Semitic, some only mildly so). I remember one in particular based around the Book of Revelation (possibly even chapter 3, as quoted above), which was almost entirely unintelligible as, channelling Amos Starkadder, he bellowed at us that we (fourteen-year-old me, my parents, and a handful of septuagenarians) were sinners of the first order and should turn aside from the path of fornication before we were gobbled up by the Beast.[9] We took our tongue-lashing in what I assumed was a bewildered silence, but as Father quietly fed a voluntary through the mangle of the tiny, ancient organ to indicate that the Hobgoblin could, if he so wished, sweep magnificently down the aisle and into the vestry, trailing his spotless vestments in a white, cleansing wave behind him, it became apparent that perhaps he knew his flock rather better than I did. He emerged from the vestry, divested (de-vested?) of his vestments, to shake hands with us as we obediently returned our minute hymn-books to the bookcase, and was greeted by Rex, one of the oldest and most Cornish people I have ever known, with a deep bass voice and a handshake of such age-defying vigour that exchanging the peace with him was fraught with danger (‘Peace be with WHAT THE HELL?’). Grasping his hand (the Hobgoblin didn’t flinch as his knuckles were ground into finger paté) and looking him straight in the eye, Rex rumbled, ‘Nice sermon, vicar.’

I don’t know how to apply the Indecisive Cake metaphor to this situation. Should one assume that, were Rex ordering vicar-cake, he would be content to dine on Mad Ranty Sponge every Sunday? Or is it more likely that, just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the random vicar-selector was bound to match up with the theological preferences of one of the shuffled inhabitants of the village sooner or later? I’m talking here about style rather than content – I don’t think for a moment that our tiny hamlet was a hotbed of Jew-hating fornicators (although there may have been one or two), but rather that perhaps the Hobgoblin’s fire-and-brimstone style is an example of what the passage from Revelation is driving at: being cold or hot, rather than lukewarm. I take this to mean, in some sense, having the courage of one’s convictions to either be what one is, or to choose what one will be, however distasteful this might appear to others. The Hobgoblin, regardless of what he actually said, did at least fit one set of ideas about what religion ought to be: passionate, taken seriously, and declaimed without shame or self-consciousness. I said earlier that I didn’t feel his Sodom and Gomorrah sermons had much overlap with the needs of his parishioners, but perhaps that isn’t right. Perhaps from time to time, one feels the need for someone who knows whether they are cold or hot. Cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other.

—————————————

[1] Muriel Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate (London: The Reprint Society, 1965), page 16. Biblical Quotation from the King James translation, Book of Revelation, chapter 3. As I noted in a previous post (see Why Don’t You Do Right?), one should always give one’s sources.

[2] When I say we moved to Cornwall, we actually did. We sold our house in Henley-on-Thames and moved to Cornwall. I mention this because people sometimes assume that the house in Cornwall was a second home, and that therefore we were contributing in some way to the gradual evisceration of the countryside and the communities that live therein. We weren’t: we actually lived there, all the year round. This assumption used to annoy my father so much that sometimes he would bellow at tourists, ‘get out of the way! I’m a LOCAL!’

[3] I don’t know why the church uses this word. Since it refers to a sort of lull, between the acts rather than between kings (and one rarely meets a kingly vicar), ‘intermission’ might be a better term.

[4] The Rural Dean, according to Father, although I think it’s clear he was merely the Lord’s instrument (as are we all).

[5] Discussion with Father revealed that he always assumed Peter spelled his surname ‘Coster’ as in costermonger, and I always assumed ‘Costa’. I have used ‘Coster’ here as a. Father is more likely to have seen it written down and b. this makes the whole name closer to Paternoster, which pleases me greatly.

[6] Father comments as follows: ‘None of us knew the Hobgoblin’s name except the senior churchwarden, who didn’t share as if we might be contaminated.’ Father does not indicate whether we would contaminate the Hobgoblin or he would contaminate us.

[7] Tove Jansson, while Finnish, wrote her books in Swedish.

[8] The first time he did this, I whispered to my mother (both of us cowering in the pews, unable to look away), ‘is he speaking in tongues?’

[9] From my maternal grandmother’s diary, Sunday, Jan 24th 1929: ‘Screaming minister at church’. Nothing new under the sun.

Home Economics

This post is prompted by an article by this guy, and a much more sensible post explaining why it is nonsense. I’m not going to recapitulate Aethelread the Unread’s perfectly cogent argument, since you can read it for yourself. However, here are some thoughts I had on the subject of eating and how to do it economically.

i. Planning meals in advance. I have to do this because of my bowel condition (see Busting a gut), and because I’m a pedant. I limit my consumption of sticky stuff (bread, pastry and cheese), and processed meat (bacon, salami and sausages) because they are difficult to digest and (in the case of processed meat) increase my already elevated risk of developing bowel cancer. This is also a strategy for keeping costs down, because otherwise one is trapped into the ridiculous position of buying, say, a lettuce[1] in order to use only a few leaves, while the rest of the damn thing slowly turns into a slimy morass in the ironically-named crisper.[2] Unless one becomes a painfully precise food-burglar, one has paid for the whole damned lettuce, and therefore should plan to eat the whole damned lettuce.

ii. Shopping as little and as quickly as possible. I hate shopping in supermarkets from the depths of my being. I begrudge every single minute I spend doing this. I hate supermarkets almost as much as I hate airports. One should not only factor in the cost to one’s purse and time, but to one’s soul.

iii. Transport. I don’t have a car. Doing lots of ‘little’ shops is time-consuming (people who are financially poor are also time-poor), esp. when you have to walk everywhere, and we’ve already established that I’m planning my meals in advance and hate shopping. So therefore doing one big shop makes a lot of sense. But hang on. I don’t have a car. Can I do a big weekly shop on foot? No chance: it’s too far to walk with heavy bags. Can I do a weekly big shop on the bus? Not easily, no, because of what I’m going to call the ‘shopping via the bus’ problem’.

iv. The shopping via the bus problem. Here is what taking the bus to the supermarket would entail: walk to bus stop; wait; take bus, which doesn’t go direct; get off; walk to supermarket; do shopping; walk back to bus stop carrying bags; wait some more; get back on bus; take circuitous route home; and then, finally, drag shopping through the streets, secure in the knowledge that i. by now, it is the middle of the night and ii. you get to do it all again in a week. I would probably be able to manage the walk from the bus stop to my house while carrying many heavy bags, because the bus stop is right outside my house, and I’m thirty-three years old and in relatively good health, but someone with a small child would have no free hand with which to grasp said child; someone in ill-health, or who was elderly (or weak from hunger) certainly couldn’t manage either the walk or the burden, or might find themselves tempted to buy things on the basis of whether they can carry, say, a bag of potatoes *and* a carton of fruit juice, rather than on what they can afford and/or want to eat.

v. Comparison shopping. This is the biggest waste of time. Have you seen the smug Asda women crowded round their laptop tapping every single price in to see if they have saved themselves four pence by buying a packet of scourers at Asda? Fuck off, smug Asda women. Who has the time for this nonsense? As we have already established, for someone who doesn’t have a car, the fact that the supermarket in the next town is slightly cheaper is information that they can’t do *anything* with, unless they are prepared to do their shopping via an even more inconvenient bus (see iv).

vi. Comparison shopping again. Comparison shopping does not always produce the results you think it might. I once did two identical shops at Waitrose (my closest supermarket at the time i.e. I could walk to it) and Tesco (which was the second-closest, and required a ten-mile round trip to the next town). I bought the same brands in both supermarkets, and whenever I would buy Waitrose’s own brand stuff, I bought Tesco’s own brand. The Tesco shop was £1.50 cheaper. Once I factored in the petrol and my time, it was considerably more economical to shop at Waitrose. I had a car at the time, so the ten-mile drive to Tesco was door-to-door and relatively quick. If I had taken the bus, however, it would have taken over ninety minutes (i.e. an entire evening) *and* cost more than the £1.50 I supposed to be saving.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I don’t think people should aspire to eat cheaply. Food is the only thing you buy that becomes part of you. I have learnt the hard way that it is incredibly important what you put into your body. Don’t fill it with cheap shit: this will not save you money or time in the long run, but will instead make you ill, fat and/or malnourished, and miserable. Think how wonderful food is, and how much pleasure it gives us – way out of all proportion to the purely biological function of sustaining us for a few hours. It matters whether you enjoyed your breakfast today.[3] It matters whether you are looking forward to your dinner.[4] It also matters where food comes from, what’s in it, who grew it/made it/harvested it, and how, and where. Instead of aspiring to eat cheaply, therefore, I think people should aspire to eat economically.

Cheap food is variable in quality and morality (it’s cheap for a reason e.g. it’s made of shoes). It may not have cost you very much, but it cost somebody somewhere. Moreover, eating economically is much more about what you cook and how little you waste than it is about what you bought in the first place. A chicken, for example, is an incredibly economical thing to buy, even if you buy a super-duper organic Happy Chicken, for, I don’t know, £15. You get a roast lunch out of it; then you get a pasta sauce out of the giblets; then you get a curry or enchiladas or sandwiches out of the leftover meat (probably with enough leftovers to have this again the next day, too); and then you get two pints of chicken stock out of the bones, which you can use to make a risotto or soup (contrast that with a pair of chicken breasts, which will make one rather uninteresting meal). I can make a chicken feed two people five times. If it can do that, it damn well ought to cost £15.

If I were ever to write a cookery book, it would be called Leftovers Are Fucking Brilliant and it would consist entirely of recipes called things like ‘Three Things You Can Make Using The Leftovers Of The Thing On The Previous Page. You Know, The Thing With The Beans’. The aim would be to throw absolutely nothing away and each chapter would be about how not to waste stuff (e.g. ‘Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #95: eat the Goddamn yoghurt’) and how to compost or grow more food out of what little you couldn’t eat.[5] The focus would be on planning to cook sensible, economical things and then buying stuff accordingly; not going to the supermarket, buying whatever was cheap and then throwing half of it away because a packet of hundreds-and-thousands, a tin of kidney beans, a questionable turnip, some elderly plums and a bottle of washing up liquid doesn’t actually constitute a meal, and anyway you had no idea what to do with the questionable turnips that were left over, and, oh dear, you bought eight of them because it was cheaper per turnip to buy eight even though you only wanted one and now where you could have had one questionable turnip that could have been disguised in some soup you have seven that definitely can’t be used for anything and will have gone funny by the end of the day.

Eating economically, for me, consists of doing the following things:

  1. Not throwing anything away. Vegetables that look sad and old? Soup. Unidentified lentils? Soak them just in case and put them in soup or curry. One slice of bacon left? Omelette. Two small hard pieces of bread? Toast, but also, why did you buy such a big loaf, moron?[6] Glut of tomatoes? You could make pasta sauce or chutney, but really, the point is that if you are throwing stuff away because it went funny before you got round to eating it, the problem isn’t just what you’re cooking: it’s the quantities that you are buying.[7]
  2. Growing stuff that’s really expensive. Chillies are really expensive, but easy to grow and taste much better fresh. Ditto herbs of almost all varieties.
  3. Making stuff from scratch. Some things are not worth the effort (consensus reached between myself and my friend KM: pasta, croissants, gnocchi and brioche are Not Worth It). Ice-cream, however, is dead easy, esp. if you have an ice-cream maker to do the annoying churny bit for you; as is custard; as are scotch eggs, pancakes, porridge[8], and pretty much everything else I like cooking.
  4. Planning food based on what I have already that needs eating. This week’s menu, for example, is based around the fact that I have three eggs (eggs and temporary housemate KW’s leftover ham tomorrow night, with toast and fried potatoes); leftover chicken noodle soup (dinner tonight); some bread (toast for breakfast tomorrow); two pathetic turnips (more soup); and some asparagus, which I don’t like (I’ll be feeding this to KW and Giant Bear for dinner on Friday, which means I don’t have to eat any of it but it still doesn’t go to waste).
  5. Using the hob rather than the oven. The oven is more expensive than the hob, so if I use the oven it has at least two things in it. I also cook things that can be hob- or oven-based on the hob (e.g. my amazing white chocolate rice pudding [9]).
  6. Making meals out of other meals. Leftovers are fucking brilliant.

——————————————————————————————

[1] I never buy lettuce. I hate lettuce. It tastes of nothing and takes up space in a sandwich where there could be more of the stuff that goes in the sandwich that you actually wanted. Plus, it’s not good in soup and is therefore Not Food. It’s only a good example if you imagine someone other than me buying and eating it.

[2] I’m looking at you, Milligan. You bought the whole damn lettuce, didn’t you? Then eat the whole damn lettuce, you cretin, and include the cost of the whole damn lettuce in your patronising calculations. Buying four tons of lentils might be the cheapest way to buy lentils per lentil, but you still need to have enough money to make the initial outlay. And a kitchen large enough to store your lifetime supply of lentils. And some idea of how to soak and cook lentils. And some way of preserving the lentils so that they don’t go funny before you’ve eaten them. And some other stuff to eat with the lentils so that a. you don’t get malnutrition and b. the lentils taste of something. And you have to really, really like lentils, and hope that everyone in your house really, really likes lentils, because you just bought a metric fuckton of lentils, and people who are *actually* worried about the amount of money they spend on food don’t just buy four hundred eggs and exclaim over how cheap this was and why don’t people on benefits do this more. They buy what they can afford, and they eat all of it.

[3] I did. I had toast, with homemade greengage and blackberry jam. It was delicious.

[4] I am. I’m having homemade chicken, courgette and noodle soup. I made it yesterday, so I don’t even have to chop stuff up. Om nom nom.

[5] Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #96: half a tub of yoghurt you aren’t quite sure about and a handful of dubious carrots can be made into yummy soda bread by simply adding lemon juice, thyme, bicarbonate of soda and flour. Plus it doesn’t require any kneading or proving. It’s essentially bread without the making bread bit.

[6] The point is don’t buy more than you need, even if buying more than you need costs less than buying exactly how much you want. If you wanted two pairs of socks and two pairs of socks cost £4, but six pairs of socks cost £8, you should buy two pairs at £4. If you buy six pairs for £8, what you’ve done is to buy two pairs of socks for £4, and then another four pairs that you didn’t need for another £4 that you didn’t need to spend (plus, the £8 socks are probably cheaper per sock because they’re made from dental floss). If you think £4 is a fair price for two pairs of socks, just pay it, take the socks home, wear them and feel good about it. Even if six pairs cost £3, buying three times the amount you need only makes financial sense if you can think of something to do with the four extra pairs of socks that you now unaccountably own and *knew* you didn’t need before you even left the house. This is why the natural resources of the world are exhausted: uncontrolled consumption of stuff you don’t need, didn’t want and yet felt you had to buy for reasons you can’t explain.

[7] It breaks my heart to throw food away, even when it has gone well and truly funny. The high sausages described in Notes from Nonesuch made me unhappy on many levels.

[8] Scottish food = awesome.

[9] You may want my white chocolate rice pudding recipe, but it’s better for everyone, and your waistline in particular, if you don’t have it.