Sunday, December 30, 2012

A New Bird Feeder

It is the time of year when our garden birds need food for survival – food that predator birds, cats and squirrels cannot reach.
            On a suspended sunflower feeder, when a pigeon learned how to balance on the side of it and extract the seeds, I added a painted plywood disc, positioned so that these large birds were unable to raise their wings high enough for landing or take-off. It worked.
            Now the problem was how to allow birds to enjoy my winter mixture (stale bread soaked and squeezed dry, with bran, currants, pounded peanuts and melted lard) and protect the food from marauding squirrels.
            So the latest device is a bought wire tube, made for commercially-produced, fat ball food, with my addition of anti-pigeon spikes pointing upward through the lid and downward from its base.  The theory is that squirrels will be unable to approach it descending from above or jumping up to it from below.
            It is a rather frightening, medieval-looking kind of torture device that the birds will have to get used to.
            This new addition has been placed with other feeders of sunflower seeds, peanuts, niger seeds, dried maggots and hemp seed. In London I have an arbour from which to hang such contraptions. There the latest device will stay until birds start to demand food from it. Then it will be re-located to just outside the kitchen window, where we can obtain a better look at our avian friends.
            In the country I made an elaborate double cage atop a greased scaffold pole. One cage of vertical wooden dowel rods had the bars 1” apart for small birds to push through for the food inside, and the other 1 ½” apart for larger birds. Some of the bars could be raised for me to place the food inside.
            On a drained platform, as part of the cage contraption, curtain wire, with screw eyes and hooks held down carcasses, half apples and scraps.
            This arrangement worked so well that I wrote a piece on it for the Financial Times in 1987.
            The 1” and 1 ½” gaps in the above cages are useful sizes to remember as they are the same for the holes in home-made bird boxes of skip-gathered timber. The sides and top of these boxes are best screwed together. With the lower part hinged, the nesting material can be taken out in the autumn and the inside sprayed with bleach (to kill off any resident mites that might lurk there).
            These boxes can be screwed to a tree, but are best positioned on a north, east, or west wall (not south) above the reach of cats.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Chicken Liver Paté

It is not often that I rush into print with a new recipe using a new kitchen toy.  But in this case I have made enough chicken liver paté in a blender to last a bit. And so good it is that I feel obliged to report on its success right away.
I have managed to do without an electric blender since many years ago when I owned one that came attached to a clumsy, multi-tasking object. Since then, a plastic, hand-worked Mouli soup-making gadget has done the kind of blending required.
Then, in a Christmas sale, I saw a blender on offer at a much reduced price, and with so compact a design that it would take up only a little of our limited kitchen space.
At last I could make fine-blended paté – chicken liver paté in particular.
I will be doing the same for years to come (with variations for sure) as the result was so stunningly good, cheap and simple to make.


You will need:
Chicken livers
A spirit of your choice
A herb, or herbs, of your choice
Pepper and salt

Melt a good lump of butter slowly in a saucepan until the bubbles have almost stopped.
As best you can, trim away and discard connective tissue and blemishes from the chicken livers. Then fry the livers in butter until each piece has changed colour all over.
In an electric blender jug put a small splosh of spirit.
On top of it place the cooked livers with their juices.
Add the herb(s), a peeled clove of garlic, pepper and salt.
Pour in some melted butter.
Close the lid.
Fizz up the lot (you may have to disengage the blender jug and push the mixture downward once or twice).
Extract the blended paté from the disengaged jug with a flexible spatula, and lower the mixture into small pots.
Level the paté and, with kitchen paper, clean the insides of the pot above the paté.
Cover the paté with the melted butter.
Allow the pots to cool, and then refrigerate them for future use.
Spread the paté on to biscuits or such to enjoy with drinks.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Goffa's Knoll


Some time in the spring of 1977, having moved to Cambridgeshire from London, I was painting a landscape that had in the distance a small hill, covered with trees.
            In the foreground of sweeping fields of young cereal growth that flowed up to the hill, stood a hide, made of straw bales. This hide was plainly made for a marksman whose job it was not only to scare off the pigeons from eating young shoots in the field, but also to bag as many as possible for the pot or sale.
            There was no sign of anyone in situ. I was quite alone in this expansive landscape. It was the way that I liked to paint.
            I was using oil paint that I ground myself, applying it to paper that I had previously primed with a thin coating of beeswax. Knowing the wherewithal of my craft, in the way of paint, brushes and paper, was all-important to me. With complete knowledge of my equipment and how to use it meant that only the subject matter was of concern.
Just the hum from a distant road and the sound of a skylark disturbed the silence.
A couple of hares appeared and started to engage in their ritual of springtime sparring. I added them to the scene.
            I had been sitting on the grass overlooking this idyllic landscape for some time, painting away, when I was very surprised to see, in centre stage as it were, a little smoke rise from the straw hide, to be followed almost immediately by flames. The construction had self-ignited right in front of me. In a short time there was nothing left of it except for a patch of black, smouldering straw.
            There was still no one about, and certainly no body, or remains of one, where the hide had stood. It was quite disturbing. Moreover, the farmer might happen to pass by and enquire if I had been responsible for this arson attack on his straw hide.
            The marksman’s cover, set in the rolling sward, had been the focal part of my picture, with the tree-clad hill and sky behind. Now, even the hares had departed. So I packed my things away and returned home.
            What was this all about?
            I returned a few days later to look at the scene once more. It now somehow seemed more magical than before.
            I made enquiries locally to learn that the hill was called Goffa’s Knoll and that in an ancient age the local chieftain or king, called Goffa, had been surrounded by his enemies and that after a bloody battle he, his family, and all his men had been slaughtered.
            Was I being told something by being witness to this fiery manifestation?
            I returned to the same spot several times more and came to believe that Goffa’s soul, or spirit, or whatever, was trapped in his knoll and needed desperately to be released from its earthly bonds.
            So I set about doing just that in the form of a series of paintings, combining his release in the light and purity of East Anglian landscape with the seediness of London living.
            That was how I came to contrive Goffa’s apotheosis – in paintings shown at a most successful one-man exhibition in the Art Gallery of Cambridge Central Library in 1977.

Christopher Neve, Art Critic for “Country Life”, wrote: With its mounds, clumps, moods and fecundity, it persists in the sexual analogy of the monotypes but with a sense of timelessness. In the largest works here, most memorably, the painter has chosen to release the energy of Goffa’s Knoll, like lancing a boil. A half-glimpsed figure, sometimes still bound and shrouded, escapes upwards, from tumulus to cumulus. Menacing traffic threatens to run out of the frame. Ubiquitous hares box and run. Bales of straw stand about like stone circles. For me, to an astonishing degree, these paintings have the power to suggest how man’s used landscape mysteriously survives him, marking his place.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Avocado Toast

It was when guests arrived unexpectedly and I offered them Sunday lunch that I knew there was enough of the main course available, but no hors d’oeuvre. So I went into the kitchen to see what was available. There was a ripe avocado. So I fried pieces of my home-made bread in olive oil, drained them, and placed mashed avocado on top. They were much enjoyed.


You will need:
Small pieces of crustless bread
Pepper and salt
Chopped onion or shallot
Chilli (powder or sauce)

Fry desired slices of crustless bread on both sides in olive oil. Allow them to drain on kitchen paper.
            In a bowl put the flesh of a ripe avocado. Add finely chopped onion or shallot, pepper and salt, and either chilli powder or chilli sauce. Mix it all together.
            Put the avocado mix on to the pieces of fried bread. Serve.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Filling out

Have you ever had a tooth-filling fall out, or a broken tooth?
            When this happens, one’s tongue seems automatically to be attracted to the abnormality in one’s mouth. The sharp bits then seem to become sharper and more disturbing to one’s tongue and daily life – until the dentist can conduct his craft to help.
            This happened to me. A bit of a filling came out, then more. And, of course, my tongue was attracted to the tooth as if by magnetism.
            Now it so happened that I had read in a newspaper article that a jawbone from ancient man that had been lying in a museum for donkey’s years was inspected and found to have a tooth with a beeswax filling.
            So, until I could telephone the dentist in office hours, I went to my supply of beeswax. This I have used since art student days as a medium for painting in oil colour and, as an unexpected bonus, as the best wood polish imaginable. (A block of beeswax is added to boiling water, allowed to dissolve, emulsified with ammonia, and the cold resultant crust lifted from the water’s surface and amalgamated with white spirit.)
            So I cut off a little of the untreated wax from its block, softened it between my fingers, and pressed it into the tooth where the filling had previously resided.
            I was delighted with the result. My tongue returned to its normal usage, ignoring the wax-filled tooth.
            But success was short lived.
            After the first meal the wax had gone down with the food.
            Wax is not hurtful to one’s digestive system. It is consumed whenever honey is eaten with the comb.
            Next, the tooth’s cavity was dried with kitchen paper and more (actually less) wax applied. A closed jaw ensured that the cavity had been filled and the wax pressed in. Surplus wax was scraped away and discarded.
            Night came. In the morning I had no idea which tooth it was that had needed attention.
            After breakfast a ragged tooth edge gave an indication of which tooth had had attention – but the cavity itself remained filled with wax.
            An appointment with the dentist was made.
            So, as an emergency measure, Neolithic man, or whoever and whenever he was, had a cunning plan that worked – as an emergency measure at least. So keep a little lump of beeswax at the ready.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bread, Kneaded with no trouble

Since writing a recipe for No Need to Knead Bread I have been making real, kneaded bread, with the least possible work or trouble. I do not believe that the following recipe could be simpler – even though a lot of instructional words have to be involved. Out of it you will obtain six loaves for well below the price of two commercial loaves – ones that will feel like eating polystyrene after enjoying your own make, and without the cost and trouble of a bread-making machine. (There must be some reason why those who buy bread-making machines often give up on them and revert to buying bread from the shops.) From start to finish it will take you about 3 hours and fifteen minutes to produce six wonderful loaves.
What follows is detail. Put simply is this: Empty a 1½ Kilo packet of flour into a bowl and to it add a pint and a half of sweetened warm water in which some dried yeast has started to “work”. When stirred, this makes a dough. Knead it and put the result into greased bread tins in a warm place to rise. Bake for an hour. Hey-presto, bread.


You will need to have ready for baking six loaves in the oven at the same time:
Six non-stick bread tins
Two 1 ½ kilo packets of strong white bread flour – acquire them from the same source each time for consistency
Two large mixing bowls
Two Pyrex glass measuring jars (you will need to see the half pint and pint measuring lines).
Turmeric (for colour)
Olive oil
Nuts if desired (if so, I use sunflower kernels, acquired from a purveyor of garden bird food)
Yeast (dried)
Butter to rub on the inside of the bread tins
A large wooden spoon for initial stirring
A firm spatula
A sharp knife
A teaspoon
Wire racks or oven shelves

Boil a kettle of water.
Put a small lump of butter to soften in each of the six bread tins.
Empty a 1½ kilo packet of strong white bread flour into each mixing bowl.
Into the flour stir some salt (a teaspoon), and a little turmeric for colour (¼ teaspoon). Stir it well to spread the turmeric evenly throughout.
Rinse sunflower kernels and add ¼ pint of them into each bowl (if desired). Stir them evenly throughout as well.
Use your fingers to coat the inside of bread tins with the butter.
Put a teaspoon of white, granular sugar into each measuring jar.
Pour half a pint of boiling water into each measuring jar (the sugar will dissolve)
Then add cold water to each jar, making one pint of liquid (not measuring in metric makes it easier – for me). Test the temperature of the liquid to be sure that it is good and warm but not too hot (the liquid will cool quickly when added to the flour).
Into each measuring jar put two teaspoons of dried yeast. Whisk it into the sweetened water, continuing to whisk until there are no lumps.
Place jars in the centre of the flour in the bowls, then cover the yeasty liquid with a thin layer of the surrounding flour.
Now is a good time to check the spacing of the oven shelves to see that six bread tins fit in well with space around them, and to warm the oven (say 50 degrees for 10 minutes before turning off the heat).
Now leave the yeast to work. Soon, yeasty bubbles will push up through the layer of flour. Leave for some 15 to 20 minutes as the bubbles grow a bit larger and the yeast becomes livelier.
Deal with one bowl at a time by whisking the yeasty mixture before adding it to the flour in the bowl. Pour this lively mixture slowly and evenly into the flour, stirring with the large wooden spoon as you do so.
Add a dribbling of olive oil.
Now make up half a pint of warm liquid in the measuring jar, using hot and cold water. Add this to the flour mixture. Stir it all together, scraping the sides of the bowl with the firm spatula.
When the mixture starts to become dough, use the fingers to bring it all together. Some flour will almost certainly remain in the bowl after you have lifted the dough out onto an un-flowered surface. Scrape out this residual flour from the bottom and sides of the bowl with the spatula and add it to the dough. Scrape off any dough adhering to the wooden spoon and add it to the mix.
Soak used utensils in cold water as you go along, remembering that you will want some again for the second bowl.
Start to knead the dough (it’s good exercise) by digging the fingers into the far side and pushing into it and away from you with the heels of the hands. The mixture will be a little sticky at first, then stiffen up.
A sausage-shape will form. Fold in the ends of the sausage to form a rough ball.
Keep kneading and folding in until the dough is almost too firm to handle. This will take from 8 – 10 minutes.
Form the dough into an equal diameter sausage shape and cut it into three equal pieces.
Put these measured lumps of dough into the three lightly-buttered tins.
Spread out the dough to take up the base of each tin and, with a sharp knife, cut about five diagonal lines into the surface.
Place the three tins in the upper shelf of the previously warmed oven.
Repeat the process with the other bowl of flour, placing the tins on the lower shelf.
The oven should be warm, but not hot. It might possibly need a short boost of heat.
The dough will rise in the tins over a period of about 1½ to 1 ¾ hours. At about the half way mark put the top tins on the lower shelf and the bottom tins on the top shelf. This will ensure equal rising.
Occasionally open the oven and test the air temperature with your hand. If a little low, turn on the oven heat for a minute or so. But with a modern, well-insulated oven this should not be necessary.
When the dough has risen to become loaf size and about to overflow the tins, start the baking process by raising the oven temperature to 190 degrees for 25 minutes, then five minutes at 200 degrees, and finally down to 80 degrees for half an hour (an hour in all).
Turn out the loaves on to wire racks to cool before eating and/or freezing them. I happen to use disused oven shelves instead of wire racks.
Keep bread tins well clear of water. They should never need to be washed.
Soak utensils as you go in cold water. And when you come to clean them be prepared to throw away the cloth, as dough will stick to it.
Buy your bread flour from the same source. Then, by using exact measures of liquid each time, you will have consistency.


Friday, September 21, 2012

A Stylish Faint

It started so promisingly.
            Margreet and I had been invited to a birthday party in London’s most famous 18th century gaming club.
            So, dressed accordingly, we took the Underground train almost door to door, with us having to stand up in the rush hour crush.
            At the club, after ascending the grand, red-carpeted staircase, we passed a gaming room where many tables, designed for gambling with cards were looked down upon by oil portraits in gilded frames of long-dead worthies.
            As the door of this famous room fortuitously happened to be open, we had a glimpse through it to where, in the 18th century, great estates and plantations were lost and won – along with probably slaves and possibly wives.
After being unable to sit in the Tube, and then standing up at the party for an hour or two, I felt a bit faint, and managed to reach a chair with Margreet’s support.
My eyesight and brain became a little befuddled – rather like blacking out when throwing an aeroplane around the sky as G-forces take effect (except that then the brain is more intact).
            Margreet saw my ashen face and called an ambulance.
            The fact that two Members of the Cloth offered me water, frightened Margreet more than me.
            First to arrive, by bicycle, was a paramedic who, seeing that blood had drained from my face toward my feet, led me, under the direction of a servant, to the aforementioned gaming room (where the gamblers had departed). I was asked to lie prone on the floor.
            Blood to the head, a satisfactory pulse rate, demeanour and spirits, soon returned.
            But when medics are called, precautions have to be taken. So all of the medical equipment able to be taken on a bicycle was put to use.
            The summoned ambulance men had difficulty in locating the building as, in the 18th century, there was no need for it to have a number. And, accordingly, no number to the place had since been thought necessary.
            Now, with the arrival of the ambulance men, and me feeling normal once more, I was put into a chair and, because there was no lift in Georgian times (the one for food being too small for anything larger than a small roasted ox – standing up on end), I was carried down that rather grand staircase, with ambulance men fore and aft, as if in a sedan chair.  I expect that Georgian estate owners, having lost their property and inheritance at the tables, might well have fainted, too, or had the vapours or whatever, and been carried down to their carriages in much the same manner.
            I was taken to the hospital where my pacemaker had been installed and cleared by general and cardiac doctors to go home, and to have the pacemaker checked on another day.
            By the early hours of the morning we were home, and glad to consume a bowl of hot soup.
            The pacemaker, which had, until then, given me the feeling of indestructibility, was checked the following day and found to be in excellent working order. I had fainted only by standing up for so long, with blood sinking downward.
            As before, I cannot over-praise our National Health emergency and back-up services.
            But I would rather not have to use them quite so often.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sardines on Toast

In my childhood this dish was a regular favourite. The joke was that because of its propensity to slide off the plate, we suspected that it had been on the floor at least once before reaching the table.
When I remembered this first or second course from the past and made it for Margreet one evening, she said that she could eat it on every night of the week.


You will need:
One can of sardines for two people
Its oil
Pepper and salt

Make a slice of toast for each person and then cut off and discard the crusts.
Empty the can of sardines with its oil into a frying pan.
Slice delicately through the backs of the fish to divide each in half, placing them with the skin side down. Don’t worry if they break up a bit.
Add a little vinegar to the oil and mix it in.
Fry the sardine sides slowly until they just begin to crispen.
With a spatula lay the fish on the toast and pour over just a little of the oil/vinegar mixture from the pan.
Salt them and mill over some pepper.
Serve (being careful not to let them slip to the floor).

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Double Bass

A close associate of a famous pianist had invited us to a vegetarian Sunday lunch in her London garden.
            Another guest was a man of no great stature who parted from our direct company for a furtive few puffs on his Sherlock Holmes pipe.
After pre-prandial, sparkling drinks, he came to sit at our table.
            “Tell me about you,” say I.
            This Englishman was not only a Professor of Music, had played the bass (or was it double bass?) for several years in that famous Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, was in regular demand around the world for playing his instrument and, from working in Holland, had learned to speak Dutch fluently (much to Margreet’s delight).
            Although singing solo at school, I am almost completely non-musical – generally liking silence more than sound.
            Because a tune from some source or other fills my head throughout each night, I suppose, what with my father playing the drums and saxophone, I have been provided with a small musical gene (many more skipping on through to my youngest son who composes and plays the acoustic and bass guitar in rock bands).
            So, knowing virtually nothing of music, I am curious about it. Thus, my poor table companion came in for some questions,
            What are bass strings made of? Gut alone would be fine but subject to changes in temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. So they have a gut core surrounded by wire.
            Has nylon been tried? Yes, but without great success.
            Does the horsehair in a bow come only from white horse tails? No. Some bass players favour brown hair.
            For how long do the bow hairs last? They break and are cut off. Some bows are rather short of hair.
            How about their tension? The hair is tightened before a concert and slackened after it.
            How does the hair grip the strings? It doesn’t. The hair is treated with a resin powder and would make no noise at all if dragged across the strings without it.
            If you lost your instrument, would another be satisfactory? Another could be used, but you get to know your own instrument’s capabilities.
            Do players in an orchestra ever pretend to play, but don’t? Not so much nowadays, but more often in the past.
            When playing in a quartet or such with a singer, how much does artistic temperament enter the equation? There are temperamental players as well as singers, and when a prima donna singer is a nuisance by making unnecessary changes, the musicians generally agree to do what they were going to do anyway.
            Does much solo bass music exist? Yes, often interpreted from other music, but much is now being composed.
Are there many female bass players? A lot are coming along, but few reach the top flight because they are not physically strong enough.
            To press down on the strings he used his fingertips and two parts of a thumb. I asked to see them. The skin was firm but not hard. If, due to a force of nature, he was unable to play for a while, to start again with soft skin was extremely painful.
            Can you teach up to virtuoso standard? No. I can only teach about 45%. The rest is up to the musician.
            I might have misheard the answers to my recalled enquiries, but I was extremely lucky to have had a chance to make them at all.
            With the questions from this ignoramus over, he returned to a corner of the garden to puff on his St Bruno-filled pipe, and I returned to nibble on a lettuce leaf.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Our Olympic Games

We all have our memories of the 2012 Olympics in London. As far as my own family (Margreet and I) were concerned, we planned to not travel, stay at home, lock the door, and watch the goings-on on television.
            But, as I am English and Margreet Dutch, there was a dichotomy of allegiances involved. “We” generally meant English (or British) and us both, and “you” - Dutch. So Margreet had a firmer foot in my camp and me a lighter foot in hers – if you can see what I am trying to say.
What we hadn’t quite anticipated was that we were to entertain some (generally large) Dutch relations and their friends.
Two of these were dressed entirely in orange suits. They were not just ragbag and bobtail but well-educated and fervent nationalists – and out to have fun.
I felt that their violent orange display of nationalism was rather on the excessive side, but then realised that many of the home crowd were adorned equally violently in the bright colours of the Union flag.
Anyhow, after imbibing elsewhere beforehand, our Dutch contingent came to be entertained for drinks in our garden, where a considerable amount of wine was consumed. With only olives and our “house” pancake to eat, they left for Olympic entertainment (provided by bikini-clad Beach Volleyball ladies) in a jolly mood.
Just what happened to them later was none of our business. We heard that they returned to the Netherlands having had a splendid time here.
            Another Dutch relation, an eminent lawyer and ardent sports fan (especially of Olympics), had been residing with friends in a hotel near to Victoria Station. He had seen and enjoyed many of the sporting events that took place in specialist venues – one building of which he found to be architecturally interesting.
            He came to visit family before leaving for home and had quite a different view of the Olympic occasion.
            He loved the sports, but found the Olympic site to be far too large. It had been a considerable trek to get from one venue to another. Whereas the more compact Athens site had been an occasion for intimacy between spectators and athletes, here there was too much space in which to feel part of the sporting and festive scene.
            He also found the colours of buildings and paving to be drab after Athens. All seemed grey, in contrast to the colours displayed in Greece.
            One of his comments really interested us. He was astounded to see so many drunken women lying on the ground in London.
            So, in two groups of Dutchmen, we experienced two diverse viewpoints concerning the games.
            One crowd had come “on the spree” and loved it, the other to enjoy the camaraderie, colour and sport, with the sport winning hands down, and with the rest rather a disappointment.

Thursday, August 02, 2012



Had I but a grain of historical scholarship in my bones I would have evolved the theme of the second most used book on our shelves (the first is the dictionary).
            Whenever there is reference to a king or queen in England’s past history, this book, “Kings and Queens”, is referred to.
            From William the Conqueror onwards, each monarch is given a short monograph.
            The book’s language is simple and direct. So when a Shakespeare play about our royal past appears on screen or stage, this splendid volume is invaluable.
            It is not possible for the ordinary punter to verify the accuracy of the text. But then Shakespeare turned history into entertainment. So there may be some discrepancies – as there is in much of historical writing.
            The book is a paperback, written by Elizabeth Gundrey in 1977. And when telling us about the reign of Henry IV and his persecution of the Lollards and how many were eliminated and burned alive, we wanted to know more about these followers of Wyclif who operated under a name derived from the Dutch language.
            But there was a slight snag. The text recommended on one page that we turn to page 36 to discover more about these people.
            It was then that we discovered that the recommended page (36) might well have told us more had the publishers not omitted to number the pages.
            Perseverance paid off, and on an earlier unnumbered page we learned that in Edward III’s reign, these followers of Wyclif (“in a way the first Protestant”) were critics of the corruption and pride spreading through the Catholic Church. They preached sermons against the power of the Pope and urged the people to return to more spiritual ways with less striving for wealth.
            No wonder they were persecuted and burned alive by those who were then, in the late 1300s to early 1400s, enjoying the fruits of power and money.
            This paperback has been a great and simple source of information. And from it we have now learned a little about the Lollards.
            It was a bit of a job to glean this information from the book’s unnumbered pages – and more difficult, I imagine, for the readers upon publication, as its recommended readership age group was 9 – 14.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ups and Downs

For some time now, Margreet and I have been admirers of the work of a Scottish artist called Alberto Morrocco (1917 – 1998).
            It is a strange name for a Scotsman, but he was born in Aberdeen of Italian immigrant parents who sold ice-cream in Scotland with considerable success.
            Our connection with Christie’s is that they sell my work and we have very occasionally bought from their sales. On the strength of that we had been invited to the Private View of a major sale of Morrocco’s work. This overview of his art and craft confirmed our opinion as we smiled our way around the works on view, for he was a charming, colourful, versatile and very creative artist.
            In passing a display cabinet in the sale-room, a collector, of small stature, had asked an assistant to open the cabinet which contained three of Morrocco’s sketch books.
            Saying to both the collector and Christie’s assistant that it might be better if only one person turned the pages, we asked if we might look over the man’ shoulder.  Both we and the collector were astounded by the power and directness of the pencil and ink drawings.
            As the cabinet was closed and re-locked, we asked the said collector which of the books he might be bidding for, and that out of courtesy, we would not compete with him. He told us which one of the three had taken his fancy.
            So, on leaving the sale-room we left an absentee bid for the book of Morrocco’s Italian seaside drawings.
            It was on the day of the sale that Margreet returned home in a state of depression and tears as there had been a quite unwarranted row between two members of her family, of which she had had no part, but was much affected by it.
            It happened to be her week as the house cook. And on this occasion she was not really fit to contrive it.
            Seeing the possibility of a kitchen tragedy, and despite my passing hints and an offer to take over, she went ahead. The result was smoke and cinders.
            We were eating that evening in our garden shed. To cheer her up, I opened a saved bottle of our favourite upper Rhône red wine. This cheered us up to a state of laughter over the unhappy incident of the day and the pleasure we had taken over the Private Viewing.
            Then word came through from Christie’s on Margreet’s telephone/email that our bid for the Morrocco sketch book had been successful.
            It had been a day of tears that had ended in cheers.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Garden Update Summer 2012

Other than our herbs, our garden edibles have done well in the extended wet and cool weather.
            Runner beans have climbed up and over a bamboo frame from plastic buckets of soil. They are flowering in readiness to produce one of our favourite vegetables, when harvested at about 6" in length.
            Three varieties of tomatoes, grown from seed on a shelf in our kitchen window, have romped away after being planted out in the only strip of soil in our otherwise paved garden.
Charlotte potatoes, planted with six tubers in each of four buckets of soil have produced lush and decorative foliage.
            One bucket was upended on our marble garden table after six weeks growth and produced enough small potatoes for a couple of dishes.
            Another bucket, upended after two months growth, gave us enough potatoes for four dishes.
            These culinary delights were first eaten boiled – with butter, chopped mint and sea salt. The rest became part of salads.
            The only other edible crop was asparagus. From its large flowerpot a mere eight spears grew. Six we ate raw as soon as they were large enough to share, and two were left to grow into our annual asparagus tree – tied to a bamboo. This tree is very decorative with its delicate fronds and red berries.
            Colour in the garden has been provided by the pastel shades of busy lizzies (impatiens), scarlet flowers from the stem of a Bolivian begonia, geraniums (pelargoniums) from the holes in the side of a strawberry pot, lavender and roses.
            We may have been fed up with the weather, but the garden plants seem to have loved it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mushrooms and Onions

My very simple recipe for Sardines and Onions is one of the most popular on the web site/blog. Here is another like recipe that takes very little time to prepare and can be concocted well before being wanted at the table.


You will need:
Olive oil
Small button mushrooms
Pepper and salt
Granular mustard
A fresh herb

Cut up an onion finely and, in a frying pan, cook the pieces in plenty of olive oil until they reach the state of softness and transparency.
            Add lots of small button mushrooms, and turn them over in the pan until the mushrooms are completely covered in the oil.
            Add pepper, salt, a splash of vinegar, and a good dollop of granular mustard. Stir it all together. Tip the mixture into a serving dish. When cold, drizzle some olive oil over all.
Before serving, garnish with some chopped fresh herb – like parsley, mint, lovage, or thyme leaves.
Crusty bread at the table to sop up any juices will be appreciated.
Keep this dish simple to start with, then, if you tire of it, use your imagination to make a change by adding spices, like curry powder or chilli.


Friday, June 08, 2012

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee, 2012

Only the English can put on a public show like the three days of Jubilee celebrations in London. As far as we were concerned, the best way to see it all was on television – and to be warm and dry. However, one of the highlights for us was a very modest St Peter’s Grove street party. This started, for me, at 6 in the morning when I rose to make a cake and a large mince pie. Shortly after 11 in the morning we looked out of a window to see our neighbours across the way (from the house that Margreet rented when we met) fixing up an awning to protect a round table of food and drink from the elements. So, with cake, wine, and glasses in hand, we joined a dozen or so St Peter’s residents with more children of tender years that we ever imagined lived in our street. The children enjoyed themselves greatly, running wildly away down the street whenever possible, with parents in hot pursuit. When I came to live in St Peter’s Grove some 24 years ago, I knew almost everyone in the road. At the street party I met neighbours who I didn’t even know existed. This was a splendid outcome from a day of celebration. With the Thames being so close to us, we went several times to the bank of it, hoping to see the Armada of ships jockeying for position. But we either chose the wrong time or tide, or they were mustering down river far from our sight. But on the brighter side of one walk, we discovered a pub that sold excellent hot sausages. The procession of some one thousand boats took place mostly in the rain – rain that had been falling for some weeks already. Yet with all this water falling from the sky, a regional hosepipe ban to conserve water was still in operation. Impressive was an elegant canopied vessel (Gloriana) propelled by many oarsmen. Its kind featured in Canaletto’s famous depiction of an 18th century river pageant, seen and imagined by him from across the river opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. The Royal Barge was, well, a barge with bling on top, comfortable no doubt, as it needed to be. On it, the Royals looked cold and wet, masterfully showing interest and warmth toward their people. One wanted to go aboard and give them all a stiff and warming drink. On the following evening a concert took place for the great and enthusiastic crowds of well-wishers, conducted from the Victoria Memorial roundabout in front of Buckingham Palace. From sunny day to clear evening darkness, notables from the international field of entertainment strutted their stuff, with ill-equipped stand-up comedians to fill in the gaps as one group took over from another. This eclectic mix was an outdoor Royal Variety performance, conducted with truly admirable stage management. Image projection on to the Palace façade was brilliant. Then there were fireworks. On the third and final day of celebration, there was a televised service at St Paul’s Cathedral, luncheon with speeches, and an impressive procession of gilded coaches and mounted horses moving from Westminster Hall, and then along the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Once again, we witnessed on television the massed crowds proceeding down the Mall behind a thin line of marching policemen as they walked in slow procession to see the upper Royals appear on the Palace balcony. The crowd could then see the Queen waving at them and were able to wave back. The climax for such royal occasions is a fly-past of old and newer aircraft. This is also a highlight for me, as it is whenever I have a chance to see an Avro Lancaster bomber again. In 1943, while training to be a pilot, I flew in the rear turret of one. I was stationed at RAF Skellingthorpe, near Lincoln, when a “Lanc” was to have an engine test before leaving for a bombing raid on Germany that evening. I was asked if I wanted to go along to Scotland and back in the turret with its four, fully armed-up Browning machine guns to fire at the press of a button. Sadly, although we watched for the fly-past from a top window of our house, only a formation of Red Arrows and the sole Dakota ever came into distant view. But that was only a small disappointment in a few days of fascinating obeisance to a long-lasting Queen. Long may she reign.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Holiday at Home

I wrote a blog recently on holidays-at-home, and have just taken one. As we sometimes go to Dieppe, in Normandy, for a few days in springtime, we thought that we would enjoy a quiet holiday-at-home instead of the hassle of going abroad. We started on Sunday for a reunion. Once a year, fellow pilots, who trained together in Oklahoma in the war, get together with their families at a restaurant in Datchet, a hamlet on the Thames off the M4 motorway half an hour out of London. There are four of us left alive, the others having “left the circuit”. Of the four, one has had a series of strokes and is rather frail. The others, all in our late 80s, are thankfully hail and hearty. Wives, children, and now grandchildren, make up the numbers to around 16. Sadly, one wife, well in body and spirit, was not quite with us in her mental state. But everyone had a happy lunch and were in excellent spirits, even with the fund of our wartime stories exhausted. It was a very English occasion – not like Dieppe at all. That was Sunday. On Monday, Margreet and I had booked for lunch in our favourite and very English restaurant in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. We set out to have coffee in Soho, as we might have enjoyed it had we been in France. Then, as we were still early for lunch, stopped off in Chandos Place for an aperitif in a very small central London pub that is a favourite of ours (there’s nothing remotely like it abroad). For this, our grandest lunch, we now barely look at the menu, sharing 6 oysters and a rib of rare beef – with the best horseradish around. Wine, too, was as usual when we splash out, being Ribera del Duero, from Spain (in Dieppe it is French wine only). We once also had an excellent rib of beef in rural France, and wanted to take the bone back to England for a dog. But the French would have none of it. It was forbidden to take food out of a restaurant – even a bone. But we took it – much to the pleasure of that English dog. After a good lunch, as when on holiday in Dieppe, an afternoon snooze is called for. And after eating generously in the day in London or Dieppe, we have little appetite for more food in the evening. On holiday in Dieppe we can usually only manage a light evening picnic in our room overlooking the sea. Tuesday came, but it came with much early morning rain and a forecast of flooding on the south coast. We had planned a rail trip to Chichester to view an exhibition of paintings. So we decided to postpone the visit until the following week. We took lunch at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant where the food had French overtones, the country having once been ruled by them. Our plans for Wednesday were to eat out for lunch and then visit the theatre for a matinee performance. We took an aperitif in a splendid, polished brass, red plush, and cut glass pub in St Martin’s Lane. Over a small drink there we people-watched – mostly tourists – before walking into Covent Garden for an excellent lunch, this time at a Belgian restaurant – the like of which a Belgian tells us does not exist in her country. The theatrical performance was a Commedia dell’ Arte, by Goldoni, altered and set in England, in modern dress, and with English jokes. There would be nothing like that in Dieppe, where the only and quite beautiful early 19th century theatre has become an interesting memorial of the war and, more specifically, the terrible failure of the Dieppe raid – mostly involving Canadian troops and the well-entrenched Germans. Anyhow, slapstick theatre in the Haymarket was great, and had a packed audience “rolling in the aisles”. Which brings us to Thursday. We had read about, or heard of, a Lebanese restaurant on Golborne Road, the Portuguese and very cosmopolitan area at the end of Portobello Road. So we planned to eat there and, when in that part of London, search for olive oils. My theory about olive oil is that as much of it is a “blend from EU sources”, it is best, for authenticity, to aim for the countries from where the bulk of blending oil is actually made. Of these places, Morocco, Spain, Portugal and Greece might feature. So we bought a Portuguese oil from a Portuguese shop, Moroccan oil from a Moroccan shop, and Greek oil from a shop run by a Sikh. But the restaurant of our quest was Muslim enough not to offer wine – or even allow customers to bring in their own. So, as local advice is always the best, we returned to the Sikh with our dilemma “You’ll get good fish and wine next to the Post Office,” he said. Next to the Post Office was a Spanish restaurant. He was right. The lunchtime menu was fine, the house red and white wines were from Rioja, and the sherry was cold. We were transported not to Dieppe but to the Iberian peninsular. The tables were nicely furnished, the wallpaper was peeling, and the old waiter exactly as an old Spanish waiter should be. We enjoyed it. By bus, we carted home bottles of oil and some merguez sausages that had been freshly made in the shop where we had obtained Moroccan oil. Full again, we found that those sausages were quite enough for our evening snack. Our Friday jaunt involved a curry lunch (unwise in Dieppe) and to see a film about English oldies in India. The cinema in question has a curry restaurant as part of a complex. So we ate a lunch of curry before, appropriately, watching a film set in India. Advertised at the table were Indian red and white wines – one of each colour. India? Wine? When we were once in the West Indies, staying in Grenada, we visited, by chance, a Chinese experimental agricultural project. There they were cultivating various fruits and vegetables, I suppose with a view to either growing the successes in the hotter parts of China, or starting up farms in the tropics to supply the Chinese market. Of the fruits on trial, grapes featured. They seemed to be doing rather well in the humid heat. One of the drawbacks of making wine in hot conditions is to obtain enough acidity in the vinification. So acid must be added at some stage. This process, if not done with great skill, can easily upset the balance of a wine. I once knew a man who, many years ago, added to his fortune by supplying acid by rail tanker to Argentine winemakers. The two Indian wines on offer were Cabernet Sauvignon red and Sauvignon Blanc white. They were made north of Mumbai in the Nasik Valley. We tasted each and both were excellent – fresh, and with plenty of taste. But they were expensive. So, if the Indians can make wine this good, there is hope for more – but at a lower price. The film was charming, with some shots taken from the roof of a rather seedy hotel where we once stayed. I remember the hotel for the noise and sight of dhobi-wallahs washing and beating clothes across the rather green water of the Udaipur lake, and of the extended view of the lake with its white palace seemingly floating on its surface. I also remember the place for a large cockroach on which I stepped with a flip-flop. It seemed to hardly notice. And when we were having an evening drink on the roof terrace, a flying fox crashed into a tree next to us for its night-time roost. What films of India cannot convey to viewers is the dirt, noise and smell that makes the country so special. It is a wonderful sub-continent, loved by some (me) but not by others (Margreet). That was the end of our holiday-at-home, except for the postponed visit to the gallery in Chichester. We had enjoyed ourselves enormously – as much if not more than had we gone to Dieppe. And we had avoided the early morning and late return by the M25 and country roads to and from Newhaven, the Channel crossings, hotel booking, dealing with foreign currency, talking with the French, and the tiresome delays of passport and customs controls. We’ll be holidaying-at-home again for sure.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


A country friend, arriving for lunch out in our part of London, was astounded at the low price of meals. An hors d’oeuvre in the country would cost more than a meal here, he told me. It is true. But it is lunch that is almost always far cheaper than an evening meal hereabouts. So when we want a meal out, it is usually one starting between noon and one o’clock. (Margreet and I have the advantage of age and time.) The one item that stays expensive night and day is wine. I have noticed that restaurants that fail to survive have generally been too greedy in the wine department. Margreet was astounded recently, when returning with a friend from a lecture on Africa, that the friend’s friend, who runs the restaurant they went to nearby, was charging £27.50 a bottle for their cheapest wine. Will the restaurant last? Indian restaurants usually serve better value draught beer, which is, anyway, more appropriate for Indian food. We are very lucky to live in an area stuffed with restaurants – from an oriental one where one can obtain three excellent courses for under £7 to one across the road from it where that £7 might possibly get you a bottle of water. We are not great pizza-eaters. But there is an exception, where the food is served only in the evenings. It is a pub. There, on Tuesdays for a special price, they serve giant, wafer-thin pizzas (for two people) with a topping of about everything that ever goes on a pizza – and for £18. Expensive? No. That is because the price includes a bottle of excellent, if rustic, wine. And that wine (at present coming from Sicily) complements the pizza splendidly. So not every eating place is greedy when it comes to the price of wine. But, sadly, they are few and far between. If I were younger and computer-literate, I would start a restaurant guide based on customers’ recommendations of restaurants where wine is considered to be the natural accompaniment to food, and priced accordingly – that is, reasonably.

Friday, May 04, 2012


It was a television programme that made me think of the past. I was once a medical student, extracting the semicircular canals from a dogfish intact – a considerable feat, I was told. Beyond that I know little or nothing of medicine – or radiation. But my experiences in those far oft days, when there was no cure for TB, might be of interest today. Just after the war ended I was grounded as a pilot, learned to be an air Photographic Intelligence officer, and contracted TB during the terribly cold winter of 1947. The disease was discovered when I was about to be demobilised. When working as a late entry into medicine, the TB in my lung returned. There was still no cure for it. One simply hoped for the best. But it was the end of medicine for me. Rest was considered to be all-important for recovery. And to rest the affected lung an artificial pneumothorax was administered. The procedure involved was to insert a thick needle between the ribs to introduce air to a gap between lung and ribcage (no anaesthetic and no fun if the needle hit a rib on its way in). This air gap would then become a buffer and thus rest the lung. But this air, passing into the gap under atmospheric pressure, became absorbed by the lung and had to be topped up – initially weekly, and then fortnightly, over a period of seven years. Before each air-introduction process, doctors wanted to see the size of the air gap so as not to penetrate the lung with the needle. For this I was scanned – that is, placed between a powerful x-ray machine and the doctor, so that the medicine man could actually see through me – or, rather, the upper part of me. The doctors in question wore leaded protection from the x-rays. I, obviously, had no protection whatsoever. So my body, over those seven years, was submitted to a vast amount of powerful radiation. As I write, I am 87 years old. Most consider me to be much younger. So they ask for my secret. I just say “plenty of red wine, plenty of garlic and a good sex life”. That ends the conversation pretty quickly and we can go on to other matters. In looking back, the treatment I received was almost medieval in concept, combined with modern radiation – a word that was later to get a very bad name indeed with the advent of the atomic bomb. But was all that radiation shot at me possibly the real reason that at my age I can still run for a bus, out-walk my wife, cook, paint, garden and all the rest – and all done with little effort. Is, then, radiation, perhaps, rather good for you after all?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Holidays at Home

It has been our custom over many years to spend holiday time in Dieppe on the French Normandy coast. Four or five days there has been enough of eating, drinking well, renewing acquaintances, sitting with a glass in hand to watch people pass by, and to come home laden with wine – mainly everyday plonk that we buy from French supermarkets at half the price of the equivalent in London.
As it was a holiday for us, the cost of these trips was expected to be – well, holiday prices all round and quite acceptable.
I/we would reside in the same hotel in which I had stayed just after the war when it was being built.
To reach Dieppe just after the war with the little money that the British were allowed to take out of the country, was to escape rationing at home and to rejuvenate a deprived body with some of the missing and good things of life.
And so it has continued, with our hotel owner leaving the place to his son, and the son now allowing his daughter to hold the reins.
In all that time I (and then we) have taken the same room, only to change it for a smarter one overlooking the plage when a kite or retro motor festival was taking place on the vast area of grass between the hotel and the sea.
There have been only two main changes in Dieppe over the last 60 odd years. The harbour entrance “pier” has been extended outward, and the ferries that docked in the middle of town to disgorge their passengers on to a train for Paris or hotels in town, have moved to a dock in the tidal outer harbour (making space for a smart marina). Otherwise time has stood still, with only shop owners and some restaurants changing hands.
It was almost like having a second home in a busy French fishing port, but without the trouble of ownership abroad.
But if Dieppe has hardly changed, we have. And one of the main reasons for that change has been the cost. Inflation is rife (especially in France) and everything involved with our holiday outing has now become rather expensive.
The added car insurance for just a short trip abroad has risen in cost, as has the price of petrol, both here and in France. Prices of the sea voyage, cabin, then hotel, food, wine, bar drinks and restaurant meals have risen too much. Only plonk wine has remained excellent value, and buying this in French supermarkets certainly helped to defray the overall cost of our trips to Dieppe. But now inflation has gone too far and begun to spoil much of our holiday pleasure. The gilt has finally fallen off the gingerbread.
So what’s to be done?
“Holidays at home” has become a sort of catch phrase that we think of as a good idea until coming across B&Bs where the cost of a room depends on how many inhabit it (unlike in France). Petrol is suddenly expensive in England, and good food available but often difficult to locate – and pricey.
But holidays based on one’s own home, where bed and pillows are to one’s liking, is surely the answer nowadays when wanting a break.
Mark down a few days in the diary for self-indulgence. For those days avoid the computer. Don’t make appointments, refuse invitations, and do not entertain. Make a list of holiday diversions, like exhibitions near and far, towns to visit, favourite treat places in which to eat and drink, theatrical performances to see, areas of town to explore, and so on.
Then enjoy a real holiday at home – without the hassle of any tedious delays or documentation. But of course this is not for everyone, like those who want to lie in the sun all day or see the world.

Monday, April 02, 2012


An academic institution is, to me, a select club, difficult to join, steeped in ritual, elitist, innovative, selective and channelled. It is a place where cloistered brains reside and knowledge distributed.
It is also an institution that I would never have been able to enter, even if the 2nd World War had not arrived at a vital time in my education.
Academic language, and the way it is used, is hard for me to encompass. In fact, I find its “in-language” close to being an alien method of expression.
Although I took 25 years away from painting and sculpture to write books and articles, I still would not have had it in me to then write a good academic paper.
My wife, Margreet, has just been awarded a BSc. from the Open University. I would love to have been able to help her in her studies. Except for checking for the odd typographical error I was useless in any way other than to offer encouragement.
It was with enormous pride in my heart that we went to the degree presentation ceremony at The Barbican Centre in London.
Beautifully organised, Margreet was robed in fetching black, blue and yellow, photographed wearing a mortarboard, had her name announced to much clapping and cheering, and then presented to Lord Puttnam, Chancellor of the University.
The seriousness of years of study, tutorials, submitted papers, research and reading (all done when she was still working for the Dutch Foreign Service), culminated in this day of splendid accomplishment and sheer joy.
The clapping and cheering of families helped to dissolve the serious panoply of academia to become, for all graduates, relaxed expressions of outward joyfulness and proud inner feelings of a job well done. More than one tear ran down a cheek.
We needed a good lunch after that.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Lost Picture

In the 1950s, way before I compiled a pictorial and written record of my paintings, I painted a landscape of the late 18th century Iron Bridge in Coalbrookdale.
I also made a drawing of this icon of cast ironwork, which was done with the then recently invented indelible, felt-tip, black-dye pen. This was a wonderful invention for a budding artist, making drawing far more effective. And it was almost as easy to use as a pencil – though with mistakes uncorrectable.
These pens were better than those available today inasmuch as you could control the amount of ink delivered by pressing down on the felt tip to release ink into it. So one could use its wedge-shaped tip to draw with a light or heavy line, thick or thin. These pens may well still exist, though I would not consider using one today.
It so happens that I am at present working on a series of A4 pastels entitled “Landscape Recalled”. These are recollections of my past landscape paintings. They are interpretations – to some eyes barely resembling the originals.
One recently finished example of Landscape Recalled is of that of the Iron Bridge, Coalbrookdale. I have no record of the original.
A 2’x 2’ painting, done on that very same journey north to Coalbrookdale, I still have. It is of a barge on the Shropshire Union Canal in 1956, when the bargee allowed me to sit at the prow and record us passing beneath an asymmetrical bridge near Eyton. This was exhibited at the Galerie de Seine in 1957.
So where might that original Iron Bridge oil painting be?
Well, when I sold the studio that I had built on a Thames wharf in Limehouse, London, certain paintings were stored in the loft there and forgotten in the sale and my move to America in 1970.
This studio house in Three Colt Street changed hands twice before the then owner contacted me in London after I left my address with the estate agent who was about to sell it once more.
I went to meet the owner, who showed me the forgotten paintings that he had taken down from the loft. They were dusty and scratched.
Technically they belonged to the owner of the property, who chose four of them for himself, kindly giving me back the rest.
One of those returned to me was the barge painting.
So did this kind house-owner select and keep the Coalbrookdale Iron Bridge painting? I can’t recall.
Lost, given, stolen or strayed, at least I now have my pastel recollection of it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Before spring appears in nature outside, it manifests itself in our bodies and brains.
Even thought the temperature of around 10 degrees outside is winter cold, the same temperature in springtime seems warmer.
A blanket comes off the bed. Winter socks seem too thick. You look around for lighter shoes. The neck scarf is not always necessary. Gloves are left at home. In the kitchen potatoes begin to sprout. Onions have a soft core.
Outside plants, shrubs and trees are still reluctant to come into bud. Even catkins are still to appear. Although the mornings and evenings are marginally lighter, a longer day is still needed before nature really makes a move.
The garden, seen outside the window, is still in its winter guise. But in one’s body there is the feeling that the new year’s work awaits.
Bamboo posts need straightening and ties reinforced.
The lower content of the compost bin needs to be extracted for rejuvenating the upper soil in plant, tree and shrub pots. Some must be put on to the ground and loosened in with a fork. And some needs to be put in a bin for mixing with soil for new plant pots and the buckets for new potatoes. With plenty of good home-made compost, no other fertiliser should be needed. Leaves that escaped the early winter clear-up can now be put into the emptier compost bin, along with any bagged-up leaves for which there was no room in the autumn.
Away in the loft, the last vintage of wine grapes has been fermenting and resting over winter in its demijohns in readiness for bottling. Late bottling has the advantage that the wine might have passed its malolactic “fermentation” stage. It is time to act, to bottle, to cork and to inscribe the labels with the vintage year. Will it have been a good year for red wine? (2011 certainly was.)
Birds feel the springtime urge more than humans. They start to feed and fly in pairs. Favourite nest boxes are eyed up, inspected, and the openings prepared yet again by beak-hammering.
The male blackbirds patrol the boundaries of their territories, running up and down on the side they own, while the male of the adjoining territory runs with him along his own side of the boundary. The hen blackbirds are making up their minds about nest sites. They bath a lot to look their best. They are early to nest in springtime, and have already started before other garden birds – except for magpies who are putting together their twiggy nest balls in bare trees.
The tin of seeds must be sorted out, and new packets bought in anticipation of crops as good as those depicted on the packets. And seed potatoes must be bought to grow in soil or buckets. They must be left in the light to chit but not to send out pale, straggly shoots in a dark place.
It is the time of anticipation and planning.
Yes, spring is in the air.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Curried Eggs

There are some very simple, quick to make, reasonable in cost and excellent to eat dishes about. This is one of them.


You will need:
Oil (any cooking oil)
Flour (plain)
Curry powder (Madras mild or any other)
Stock cube (beef or chicken)
Soy sauce (for colour and salt)

Hard-boil the eggs (1 or 2 per person) by bringing them to the boil from cold water and giving them exactly 10 minutes boiling after that.
As this is happening, in a bowl mix, say, 3 heaped dessert spoons of flour and 2 of mild curry powder (or paste). Mix them well.
Put oil in a saucepan and add the flour/curry powder mixture. Add a stock cube. Stir this together, and after heating it through, add, say, a pint of water, and then some soy sauce for colour and saltiness.
Now whisk this well and keep whisking until the sauce is smooth, scraping inward any mixture caught in the lower side edges of the pan. Keep whisking occasionally.
The sauce will thicken. Dilute it with water to obtain the desired thickness, as some like a thick sauce and some a thin one. Test the sauce.
Now comes the time to fine-tune by adding any (or none) of the following: peanut butter (excellent), Worcestershire sauce (excellent), Tomato ketchup (also excellent), more soy sauce or salt. You might even want to add more chilli (powder).
Keep testing, adding what you will. But it shouldn’t need any more attention.
You will by about now have strained the water from the eggs, rattled them around the saucepan (in one kept specially for boiling eggs) to break up the shells, added cold water, and left them for a little while to ease the shelling process.
Add peeled eggs to the sauce. Eat.
Any sauce left over will make the start of a soup by adding water and stock cubes. You might want to fine-tune the soup. Do this as above.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Nasty Burn

After a recent blog about my medical inventions I’m on to a medical matter once again.
Incidentally, just after my heart pacemaker had been fitted, I went into my local Tesco supermarket and set off the thief alarm when entering and leaving. Perhaps it was the power of my new pacemaker’s battery that triggered it. Having warned the management of what might happen in future, I then went in and out without alarm - presumably as the battery’s power had declined.
What I now write about is the efficacy of a childhood remedy.
Whenever we happened to burn ourselves as country-bred children in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, butter was applied to the burned surface of our skin.
In a rush a few evenings ago, I wanted to change the position of a pot that was cooking in the oven, leaving a very hot empty pan on the top of the stove in the process.
With thumb and forefinger of my left hand I inadvertently touched the scorching metal of this pan, burning the skin badly as I did so. Margreet, who witnessed it, swore that my skin had burnt itself onto the pan.
So I dashed to the refrigerator and rubbed the exposed end of a slab of butter on the wound, coating it thoroughly.
I kept the agonising burn open to the air and covered with the melting butter for the next two hours, until the excruciating pain had subsided.
Margreet, who was rather dubious of the success of this English country remedy, thought that a large blister was forming on my thumb and a lesser one on the adjoining finger. The hurting areas were certainly very red.
I kept the wound in the open air and covered in butter until bedtime, occasionally re-applying the soothing unguent throughout the night.
The next day revealed a thumb and forefinger as if no burn had ever taken place. The area was a little sore, and nerve endings on the thumb’s skin somewhat shaken.
From then on I was using the hand as if no trauma at all had occurred.
It had been a miraculous recovery, and one that had confirmed the efficacy of a country remedy. It also proved that in an era of rather primitive medicine, mother really did know best.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Patient's Minor Contribution to Medicine

I am rather proud of my two contributions to medicine – although I may be the only person to have benefited from them.
Recovering from prostate cancer, I had a catheter fitted that ran from my bladder to a bag strapped to my leg. This bag had to be emptied when it became too heavy for comfort. Then a convenience (often an inconvenience) had to be located, trousers lowered, and urine released.
I had a zip fastener put into the side seam of my trousers from which to extract the drainage tap. Then, even when in public, I could find a drain or flower bed for the purpose. I dubbed it
“The P-R Zip”.

On another occasion, when being released from hospital with a pacemaker, instructions were not to raise my left arm, the side in which the device had been inserted. A reminder was necessary for the following month or so.
I installed a cord (string) loop that rounded and fell from my trouser belt.
With the arm dangling through this loop, there was a restraining reminder whenever I started to raise it. The doctors had not seen one before.
This could be the cheapest medical aid ever invented.
I dubbed it “The P-R Loop”.
The “Loop” can be threaded through a strong safety pin attached to waist-high nightwear.

My other contribution to medicine was only an observation.
In a shaft of sunlight I was using an electric shaver with an oscillating head, and was astounded to see so many small pieces of hair flying about. These, I thought, must be an irritant when breathed in to my ex-TB lung.
I changed quickly to a rotating headed shaver that retains the cut hair.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Background music and nature films

Being laid low by a virus infection gave me more time to watch television. Two matters from this have been food for thought.
Years ago I saw a film that had, as one of its scenes, a man crawling through desert sand about to die of thirst. He was accompanied by orchestral music. So I didn’t see why he couldn’t have turned right, crossed a sand dune, and asked a musician for a glass of water.
Much the same situation has been very apparent in a nature series that I saw on the box.
It is true that long-lens photography of animals making a noise is difficult to record. So, somewhere, a sound person might well have been extracting a cork from a bottle each time a penguin rocketed from the water to land on an ice floe.
When making appropriate sounds to fit the action becomes difficult, a full orchestra is brought into play. Natural sounds are then thought by these portrayers of nature to be unnecessary.
But the accompanying orchestras can be so intrusive that the music detracts from the action.
One feels that all might well be reversed. Why not show the orchestra, with a showman of a conductor encouraging his musicians - with a few nature bits superimposed on a backdrop behind him.
Because we, as viewers, especially of nature programmes, have now seen the intimate lives of nearly every bird, insect and beast on this planet, it has become essential with repeat images to announce every so often that: “This is the first time that anyone has seen…”
The makers of these films have not been watching television. Most of us have seen the lot already.
So that is now the new quest when repeating the subject. It is to find something new.
The great fall-back is to film lions chasing wildebeests toward crocodile-infested water.
Now, if one of these wildebeests should reach the water, see a crocodile, take fright, turn back, and fall into the jaws of a lion, that might be new. But do we care any more?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sirens and red lights

Travelling by rail to and from Amsterdam, with a change of trains in Brussels, would seem to be the best method to choose for a winter’s visit. But there was, at Christmastime, a great deal of heavy luggage to lug about at stations.
And then, in Amsterdam, where space is at a premium, and where stairs are unproductive areas of a house with treads narrow and assents steep, heavy suitcases meant that extra muscle power was required.
Probably because of these additional manual matters, my heart acted strangely on our return to London.
When walking along a street I was suddenly short of breath and struggling. Something was not right.
So, for a few days before the New Year, I took my pulse rate at various times of the day and night. It seemed to be extremely low.
Margreet wanted me to see a doctor. An appointment was to be made at the counter of our local health centre, where we learned that no one could see me for several days. At Margreet’s cajoling, the receptionist then found that, due to a cancellation, I could be seen by my own doctor right away.
After the briefest of examinations, she ordered an ambulance and booked me into the cardiac clinic of Hammersmith Hospital.
So, with me in a wheelchair, ambulance paramedics and Margreet, we set off with sirens screaming and red traffic lights ignored.
Wheeled into the hospital for another brief but thorough examination (symptomatic complete heart block), I was put into a bed and connected up to a mass of cables that led to monitors of lights, flashing numbers and noisy alarms.
I was to have a heart pacemaker installed in my chest. These are inserted beneath the collarbone and connected to the heart by two wires. In place, it would result in my heartbeat being under control at a satisfactory level for life. Fine.
Speed was necessary, but I had to be fitted into the pre-arranged surgery programme. It was not until mid-day the following day that the operation took place. Antibiotic pills aplenty were administered.
The surgical procedure was to be conducted with local anaesthetic.
This obviously involved delicacy and, unexpectedly, some brutal force from a surgeon who was discussing his future in medicine with a colleague. The procedure appeared to be a success.
Margreet was much relieved when I appeared from the surgical quarters looking much the same as before.
With some aches and pains and soreness the following day, I dressed to go home. But a final and more comprehensive extra scan revealed that one wire from the pacemaker to the heart had become detached (atrial lead malpositioned).
So off came my street clothes and, once again, on went that surgical garment – one that surely needs some re-design and logical thought directed at it.
But, once again, with a surgical schedule full, could I be fitted in?
I was (possibly to make up for the previous failure).
Now, a glamorously dressed lady surgeon from another hospital appeared. She read my notes, and retired to change into her surgeon’s kit.
I was not really looking forward to another session of pain and brutality. So I asked for the more liberal use of anaesthetic.
She started the procedure after the accompanying sterilisation of about everyone and everything. I expected a repeat blood-letting and brute force – except that it was not that at all.
The surgeon operated so gently and skilfully that, compared with the previous day’s attempt, it was almost painless. She re-attached the atrial wire to the heart.
The female touch in surgery is to be recommended.
Poor Margreet was the one who suffered throughout this medical saga, imagining the worst – the very worst – when the risks were actually quite small.
So, with almost a new heart, I was returned to my hospital room and to Margreet with the prospect of, once again, returning home the following day.
Final (satisfactory) tests were taken, and doctors released me. I was ready to start life again – with the restricted movement of one arm for several weeks.
To remind me not to raise my left arm, I devised a simple cord (string) loop, tied around my belt and hanging down into which to thread my lower arm. With the arm dangling through this loop, there was a restraining reminder whenever I started to raise it. This was a simple idea and, apparently, one not thought of before. And it must be the cheapest medical appliance ever to be used.
Never throughout the saga having felt ill, at times I felt a bit of a fraud. But doctors and nurses knew otherwise, and had saved me with their expertise.
One must admire hugely the Hammersmith Hospital’s staff, the National Health Service – and Margreet, whose supportive hand needed holding much more than mine.