Saturday, July 24, 2021

Class and Privilege

 It was on seeing an old photograph of my mother in India at the time of the Raj, sunshade aloft, and sitting in some kind of chair which was suspended on two poles, and being carried by four orderlies, that I realised I must have spent my childhood in a somewhat privileged environment.

I was born near the very important town at Silchester, in Berkshire. Our local doctor brought me into this world and never charged the family for his services as my grandfather had got him out of some scrape or other at Cambridge when they were studying there. 

The society I entered was not an ordinary one. One grandfather was a medical Knight for the royal household, the other a country vicar and President of the National Rose Society. Then there was a knighted uncle in politics and a great uncle the Dean of Salisbury. With such connections we were accepted in privileged society. But we were poor.

My father, after Wye Agricultural College was working in the British Protectorate of Egypt when the WW1 was about to take place. He returned to England to join his Territorial Regiment and was sent to India and Mesopotamia. There, in the battle of Hanna, he was shot by Turks in the Ottoman Empire's army and returned to England where he never really recovered.

We had a chicken farm and he had a war pension for income. But I think most of our money for living, education and the like must have come from relations.

My mother, used to court circles, found being a farmer's wife difficult. I remember her being in tears when the local band appeared in our drive at Christmastime to sing carols. We had not a penny to give hem. Perhaps they were given eggs. 

My parents played a lot of bridge. Should they lose, fellow players would always volunteer to pay their debts. That was the way it was. Being in financial straits was accepted. It was who you were that counted.

We children, unaware of the family's plight, grew up with nature, riding horses and bicycles, fishing in ponds and rivers, swimming, dancing (we had a sprung floor) balls, tennis parties (we had a lovely grass court), and generally living an ideal life.

We had a maid called Constance who smelled of Lifeboy soap. She cooked good English fare on a blackened, coal burning range that also heated water. We made our own gas to light the house. Open fires provided warmth. Two wells provided water for the tank in the roof. There was a Swift petrol engine that did the pumping, but when we couldn't get it started (which was often) we took turns at the hand-operated pump in the kitchen. We grew and preserved most of our food, stored in a larder on the north side of the house (there was no electricity for refrigeration). I remember the pheasants there that were hung from the two longest tail feathers. When the birds fell to the floor they were ready to cook. I recall their horrible smell. But that was the way they were treated and enjoyed in those days.

That kind of life was coming to an end just before the Second World War. The chicken business collapsed because of fowl pest and the import of cheap eggs from Poland. My father was dying from treatment of the cure-all of the day, radium, and tried, unsuccessful to grow mushrooms. We sold the house, but not before turning the barns into a thatched cottage, where I sometimes lived alone as my mother moved to London to succeed quickly and become the Chief Welfare Officer for the WVS (Women's Voluntary Service).  She took in lodgers (I remember a deaf General and a retired ambassador) at a time when German buzzbombs were landing indiscriminately on London.

The idyllic and privileged country days for me were over. I went to the USA as a war refugee and returned in 1942 to join the RAF and become a pilot. The war changed our way of life and the way we dealt with it and with our fellow human beings. I barely had an education, but learned much from my time in the Air Force and post-war, the thirst for missed knowledge.

The privileged country days of yore had been wonderful for me, though largely unappreciated. My goodness, how lucky I had been to grow up in such circumstances. 

It seems like an age ago. And I suppose it is an age ago.



Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Triptych

 This is a hodgepodge of a blog. It is to do with food, communication and bumblebee homes (again).

Food 

In our house we like an early evening drink with a small bite or two to go with it. These morsels are seldom the same. Recently it has been a slice of our home-made bread, cut into small cubes and dried to a crispy state in olive oil. Added before or after have been garlic, chilli, Worcester sauce (after), celery salt, powdered ginger and such. But don't leave the stove when frying these bits as they can be spoiled so easily. Keep turning them. The sound will tell you when they are just right. A second or two later and they will burn.

I have just made some hummus, so that will become a many-flavoured dip with heated pitta bread in slices to dip into it.

And if he oven is on, cook aubergine slices, coated in olive oil, as bites, perhaps with a smear of chilli sauce and half a small plum tomato on top for looks.

When using salt, sea salt adds something special, like the sea saltiness and crunch. 

I have written before how splendid are freshly shelled prawns, cooked quickly in olive oil with a mixture of grated garlic, grated chilli and grated fresh ginger. If the prawns are cut in half, this combination of taste and texture makes a splendid sauce for pasta.

Communication

In my old fashioned and old aged kind of way, distant communication should be by landline/telephone or hand-written letters. But today is different. 

Margreet has moved with the times and communicates with things like text message (sms), e-mail, Whatsapp, Messenger, Spam, Zoom, Face time, browser, Google, Safari, Wikipedia and probably others. There seem to be so many. This is wonderful. But with all these methods, communication (possibly even vital ones) can get lost. Progress with modern communications often involves confusion, usually time-wasting, and also waste of paper. I find much of it beyond me, but essential for my blogs, for instance, when my words leave this keyboard and fly into the ether - thanks to Margreet and her know-how.

Bumblebee Boxes 

I have written, I'm sure, on the value and charm of bumblebees. They pollinate, and do so in all weathers in farmers' fields, gardens and commercial greenhouses. So we must look after them in any way possible.

I have designed and made recently two small winter-hibernating retreats for bees - hopefully bumblebees. I wanted a box where a pregnant bumblebee, in early springtime, could make a nest to bring up a family of young.

So I found a discarded piece of moulded, wooden skirting board, and with saw, nails, and glue made such a possible home - lining it with cotton wool.

What I had been seeking before this construction was a suitable wooden box and not found one.

Then, when collecting the early morning newspaper, and passing houses in our street, there, outside one of them, was an ideal wooden box (probably for jewellery) for someone to take away - which I did. All I had to do then was to drill a hole, make a small landing platform and waterproof it.

So now I have two possible breeding boxes, when a week ago I had none.

Come bumblebees to pollinate our runner beans and reproduce with us next spring - like our great tits did - with two broods. 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Red Kidney Beans

 It was my week for cooking and I thought I would make up the menus with the theme of red kidney beans in mind. These beans are excellent, cheap, nutritious and versatile. They are easier to deal with if bought tinned, but more expensive and less environmentally friendly.

So, on Sunday, I soaked plenty of dried beans overnight with a view to boiling them on Monday to form dishes for the week.  Cooking in large quantities (more than for one meal) may make the food a little repetitive (however good), but saves a lot of time and effort. And alterations can always be made.

On Monday I shopped at an Irish butcher's shop and the nearby market for ingredients.

The rough plan was to cook chilli-con-carne, a beef stew (to have the cooked beans added later), and a bean salad. Excess beans would be added to a "never-ending" soup - one that is on the go for most of the time, usually with occasional additions of superfluous food. When this soup has been finished, it is started again with a leek or onion and potato foundation, adding water, stock cubes pepper and salt.

I usually cook soaked beans in a pressure cooker, but cooking them needs different timings, depending on how dry the beans are in the first place. So now I favour fast boiling, followed by slow boiling - looking at them after 30 minutes and every so often after that. They need to be drained when the insides of the beans are soft and the outer part firm.  Strained well, they are put into a bowl and coated with olive oil to keep them from drying out. When cold they keep well in the refrigerator.

The stew is simply made of cubed stewing beef with any connective tissue cut away and discarded. I start with chopped onions and garlic cooked in groundnut oil until the onions are transparant, adding the beef, some flour, stock cubes, possibly tomato pureƩ, gravy browning (for looks), a herb or spice of some sort, and potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes. This cooks slowly for an hour or more until the beef is tender. It can now be eaten right away or wait until wanted, improving over time. But it must be brought to boil every day. Use only one herb or spice, otherwise should you add your favourite mixture each time the food will lose its individuality.

Now the chilli-con-carne. In plenty of groundnut oil (or other oil) cook minced meat of any kind until it has browned and the lumps been broken up. Add the chilli-con-carne powder, a stock cube, salt and water. Cook this slowly on the hob for it to become united. Then add the cooked beans. Again, heat it through each day until wanted, possibly adding water if it becomes too dry. Be generous with the oil.

I make my own chill-con-carne powder in a bowl with dry ingredients. I combine one measure of salt (I use a dessert spoon as my measure), one of chilli powder, one of powdered garlic, three of ground cumin, four of paprika, and three of oregano/marjoram. This is stirred together and kept in a sealed jar until wanted.

For the bean salad, I put the cooked beans into a bowl and add finely chopped shallot, some grated root ginger, some chopped fresh coriander leaves, with olive oil, vinegar (mine is home-made), pepper and salt.

If there are any beans left over from the above dishes, add them to the stew, the chilli, the soup or the salad.

As you may be making enough of each dish for a couple of meals, it will be time to sit back and think of different things. But of course other dishes will be fitting in between, like hot grilled lamb chops with a cold sharp salad, steamed cauliflower with a white cheese sauce, oven cooked with toasted breadcrumbs on top, or thick pork chops with well-scored skin and held together like a roast with wooden skewers. For this there will be no need to carve as if it was a joint, and the crackling should be perfect if the oven is good and hot.

You might like little bites with drinks before dinner. If you cut up a slice of bread (home-made is by far the best) into small cubes, fry them in olive oil with a pinch of chilli powder, turning them around all the time until crisp. Sprinkle sea salt over them before serving.

My week of cooking went quite well, and any unserved food left over went through the Mouli and into the soup.

Cooking is such fun - but it does take time.


Monday, June 14, 2021

Triggered thoughts

 An artist, like myself, who uses imagination in preference to producing pictures derived from what is in front of me, spends much time, night and day, in thought. And those thoughts are not always connected with the art in progress, but are often triggered by it or perhaps by general conversation. So there is a lot going on in an artist's head when he or she is not actually painting, sculpting or whatever.

Yesterday, for instance, my thoughts crossed from bidets to old aeroplanes to punishment, besides deciding that I would have to clean several pastels after finishing a composition that relates to a dog knocking over my first baby.

When using or just looking at a bidet, I keep reminding myself what a wonderful object it is. The French have realised this for years. 

As an impecunious student I would seek out saucy 18th century coloured French prints of the goings on in bedchambers, often aided by a maid with a hidden gentleman looking on. Framed, they adorned my  lavatory in the country. I bought them for a pittance from those sort-of sheds on the banks of the Seine in Paris. Many scenes featured a bidet, and used, as had always been the case, primarily to refresh and clean one's intimate parts. When leaving the countryside to return to London, these coloured prints fetched a surprisingly grand sum at auction.

The house I acquired in Hammersmith did not have a bidet, but a woman in the adjoining street, who had also bought at the same time, did have one, which she thoroughly disliked. So I had it plumbed in to my house - to our mutual satisfaction.

Not all French people find bidets essential to lower-body cleanliness, as the owner of the hotel in which we always stayed in Dieppe, had all the bidets in his hotel dispensed with. We have not returned there.

I then found myself thinking about weather and aeroplanes (they are close connected, but not in any way with bidets).

I rise early in the mornings, earlier in summer, and look out at the weather. I want to see what is happening with wind direction and speed, rain, clouds, frost, snow, ice, dew, the changing seasons, birds, and especially aeroplanes. I like to know which runway is in use when aircraft approach Heathrow from the East. Once a pilot, such observations become habitual and at times life-dependant.

Sadly, the shapes and variety of aircraft are merging into the form of an elegant body and two jet engines. Those with four engines seem to be out of favour as being less commercially economical.

I was pondering about which aircraft I had flown or been flown in that were a pleasure to the eye. I settled on the 1938, four-engined Ensign - now virtually forgotten. And for glorious eccentricity the obvious choice would be the 1931 HP 42, four-engined biplane. The large machine, that always looked to me as if it was a bit bent in the middle, flew from Croydon Aerodrome in London to Le Bourget in Paris. It travelled at a stately 100 miles an hour, giving its 40 passengers plenty of time to be served Champagne by the stewards. These aeroplanes were utterly reliable, but had one been in trouble it could have easily landed in a field, be mended, and then taken off again.

I suppose that thinking of 1930s aeroplanes took my mind back to school when I first took to the air as a child passenger in an Avro Tutor.

The water to flush the tiled urinary wall at school was housed high up in an iron cistern. With strong stomach muscles I was able to pee into it from floor level (boys will be boys). Word must have reached the headmaster about this misdemeanour. I was summoned to his office, short trousers down, bend over, swish, swish, swish, pain, trousers back on and return to class.

The red and blue welts crossing one's behind were almost a badge of courage and pride, being much admired by ones fellow students. 

Some schools, founded in times past, were geared not just to educate but to toughen up the boys (no girls at this school) to prepare them for running the Empire. Margreet. who is Dutch, thought that this treatment was most barbaric. We accepted it - had to. 

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Aromas

 We are involved with smells from birth to death. They are mostly taken for granted and unnoticed unless especially odorous or malodorous, depending on the sensitivity of our brains.

As a child I was most receptive to the smell and taste of wine and happy about it until caught and punished for consuming the dregs in bottles (and flies, too, probably) left out for collection by our wine merchant. Emptied bottles were washed and re-used by the wine merchant in those far off days.

I certainly did not like the smell of rabbits that I had caught in snares or shot, and then paunched and skinned for the pot.

At the time of my youth I had no idea that my senses of smell and taste were so acute.I knew people by their smell and even knew when women were enduring their periods.

I put these abilities to good use later when I wrote on wine for newspapers and magazines. At tastings I was known for my direction and force of expectoration.

I remember that in middle age, and thus many years after schooldays, a man passed by me as I sat in a London bus. He had the smell of a school classmate. I felt obliged to confirm it by passing by him and turning around to get a sight of him. I was right - no doubt about it. I did not feel like renewing our acquaintance.

Again on a bus, I was aware of an unusual male perfume arriving behind me. It came from two American men whose voices had that degree of penetration peculiar to the race. But it was their conversation that made me forget their fragrance and listen to them. In considerable detail one relayed how his sister was invited to the White House in Washington and seduced by President Kennedy. As this was well before the President's peccadilloes had become common knowledge. It was fascinating information - far more interesting than the young men's aftershave.

My acuteness of smell decreased in my mid-eighties, so when I became aware of a new smell in the house in my mid-nineties, I thought that it possibly come from me. And at that time I had a dream that only people of my age and beyond were able and privileged to experience the exotic perfumes used by the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. So, with this illusive smell around, was I being somehow influenced by such ridiculous dreams? 

And there were also the daily aromas to join in with the confusion of now and the past.These other perfumed aromas emanate from Margreet's den every morning. Some of her more recently acquired scents come from the Middle or Far East. They are heady and lustrous. Her French ones are finer and more sophisticated in their complexity. But do they or any others in their freshness or decline have any bearing on this illusive smell that sometimes surrounds me? What is it, I wonder? 

I think I'll run the bath. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Wine in 2021

Sometimes I would like to write on wine again - even without the regular tastings laid on by the trade.

When I did write on it, I belonged to a clique of wine writers who were, at that time, interested mainly on smart and expensive wines for smart and wealthy readers (some still are). Actually, most of us plebeian drinkers were shopping around for drinkable plonk at reasonable prices in those supermarkets that were beginning to offer wine with their other commodities. So I saw a niche as a wine writer, and filled it.

Really good wines for me are a great treat, but like those early times of writing on the subject, when £2 was about the usual price per bottle for recommended wines in my articles and books, I am still on the search for good everyday house wine at a reasonable price. And they are certainly there for those of us who look what's on offer and drink regularly and with pleasure.

I feel that the French have rather overpriced their wines and that their co-operative bottled examples from famous areas do not live up to the grand labels. And for the money asked by the French, I now favour the high quality and much lower priced wines from such as Argentina, Chile, Australia, South Africa, and now Portugal. 

Aldi is at present our favoured supermarket for wine. Let us hope that they don't become too high-class or greedy.

I am suspicious of the sellers of wine who use the same, plastic branded corks for much of their range. But then I am a bit of a cork fanatic, though I love screw tops. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

All Baloney


 


In 1970, having sold a studio house at the end of Limekiln Dock in Limehouse, London, we needed to cart our selves and a week-old baby, Robert, off to America for my ex-wife to take up a position as Post Doctoral Fellow at Yale.

With air fares sky-high, I looked for an Atlantic crossing by a budget airline (then, in their infancy, through a "bucket shop").

I remember climbing stairs in Lower Regent Street to find a small room where I put a lot of faith, and money at risk, to obtain tickets.

As instructed, we appeared at Gatwick Airport on the allotted day with no idea at all about times, aircraft, airline and much else.

I think an announcement was made, or was it simply word of mouth, summoning us and many lost souls like us, who where hanging around anxiously, to move forward and then to board a Laker Airways 707 bound for New York. (Freddie Laker was then a pioneer in the budget airline business.)

The stewardesses were both charming and efficient. After slinging the baby in a hammock above our seats we set off and arrived safely at New York's La Guardia airport.

With an overworked and poorly paid scientific micro-biologist member in the family, it was my job to run everything else.

Our tiny apartment in New Haven had a large balcony on which I made a most productive garden, using various pots containing subsoil from a local building site and with soiled nappies as fertiliser.

The baby and I needed space in which to play. And in the middle of the town was a grassed square, set among Ivy League university buildings. On the grass I watched as an admiring new father, and Robert learning to crawl.

A large black dog, careering out controle, knocked poor Robert flying. He didn't seem to worry too much and it did not put him off from loving dogs.

Also using the square each day was an ancient old boy (probably of Italian decent) selling balloons. "All baloney", he cried, "all baloney".

He, his ballons, the black dog and Robert in nappies are the subjects of this part of my Autobiography in words and pictures.