Monday, December 31, 2012

Pale White Light

For an end-of-year post, I was thinking of writing about the teachers’ nemesis, Michael Gove. But the intention of this blog is to be celebratory; there are plenty of blogs that negatively moan on and on – I know, I used to write one. (The reason I wanted to write about Gove was because I took a group of sixth form students to the cinema to see the new version of Great Expectations at the start of the month, and someone innocently asked me whether I would be able to claim back the money I paid for my ticket. I said I didn’t really know, but why would I expect the public to pay for something that was for my enjoyment? And then, as I and countless other teachers put our hands in our pockets to buy sweets, biscuits and mince pies to celebrate the festive season with our students, my mind turned to MPs' expenses and that culture of claiming for every single one of life’s little outgoings. Gove has spent 2012 turning the word ‘teacher’ into a pejorative term: telling us that we don't work hard enough, we are propping up a corrupt exam system and we are over-rewarded with our gold-plated pensions. So, I thought I would remind myself how he fared in the MPs’ expenses scandal – where he sits in the something-for-nothing culture. Of course, he was as rotten as the rest of them. As well as making a dubious claim for £13,000 in moving expenses, in 2009 he had to pay back £7,000 he had claimed for equipping his second home. These items ranged from luxury furniture from his mother-in-law’s interior design company to a cot mattress from Toys R Us. What shocks me most about this information is the revelation that Michael Gove is married with children…) So, I decided not to write about Gove.

I was also thinking of writing about the incompetence of George Osborne: how he has demonised people on benefits as unemployed layabouts when the welfare bill overwhelmingly supports pensioners and the working poor; how savage cuts in the public sector have stalled the circulation of money that capitalism relies on; how he has missed target after target after target and, despite all the misery, the deficit has not gone down. But I don’t want to write about him, either; John Lanchester’s magnificent essay, Let's Call it Failure, on the London Review of Books website, demolishes him with much more elan than I could ever muster.

And I had thought of writing about the proliferation of technology for its own sake. A year of gigs spent alongside people either watching the band through their phones as they film them, or heads bowed ignoring the band and praying to the pale white light, has made me realise how, for so many people, life is lived vicariously and is only real if it is mediated through a screen. I could have written about the marginalisation of books and the invasion of the classroom by e-readers, tablets and apps; I could have written about the demise of Sussex Sedition as a physical fanzine but its survival as a blog. I had even found quotations from two writers on the subject this year:

“Speed cameras, recording angels on lampposts, our phones, our computers…a nation that could look at everything and see nothing.” - Andrew O’Hagan

“Watching has become mere gaping; open-mouthed and slow-breathing.” - John Banville

But I don’t want to write about any of that; it's all too depressing.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Leeks Midwinter

After a fairly dismal harvest from the allotment this year, the only crop that has made it to the bleak midwinter is the trusty leek. The brassicas were massacred, the carrots and parsnips failed and what little there was of a potato crop has already been eaten. So, on a blustery Christmas Eve morning walk with the dogs, I stopped off at the plot to harvest the last of the leeks, determined that something home-grown would make it to the Christmas dinner table. And there they were, standing upright in splendid isolation: the final four leeks. If the nuclear winter ever arrives, I swear it will be the leek that will be the first to regenerate, condemning generations of survivors ever after to wear leeks in their buttonholes in remembrance. And in the austere spirit of the times, I will make use of the whole vegetable. Here are two recipes: one that uses the traditionally eaten stem, the other the green leafy tops.

Creamy Cheesy Leeks

You will need:
40g butter
4 leeks
1 onion
A few sprigs of thyme
1 glass of white wine
150ml double cream
250g grated cheddar cheese

To cook:
Trim the leeks but set aside the green tops.
Melt the butter in a frying pan.
Thinly slice the leeks and chop the onion.
Gently fry the leeks, onion and thyme until soft.
Add the wine and simmer for 5 minutes to reduce.
Add the cream and warm through.
Put in an oven dish, add the cheese and bake for 25 minutes at 180c.

The green tops of leeks usually end up in the compost; but washed and cooked in butter they are a great addition to the table for the midwinter feast on the 25th.

Leek Tops

To cook:
Wash and finely shred the leek tops.
Melt a couple of ounces of butter in a saucepan.
Add the leeks and cover.
Cook over a medium heat until the butter bubbles.
Stir and turn to a low heat.
Season with salt and pepper and cook for a few minutes more until soft.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Christmas Wassail

From the Middle English greeting ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’, the ceremony of wassailing takes its name. From Kent and Sussex in the east, to Devon and Somerset in the west, the tradition of drinking the health of the apple trees has existed for hundreds of years. A procession moves through the orchards, singing, shouting and banging pots to drive away evil spirits so that trees will be bountiful the following autumn. Toast soaked in wassail - hot mulled cider or beer - is then hung from the branches. The ceremony usually takes place on the eve of twelfth night, 5th January. However, because of the calendar change of 1753 when 11 days were lost, some insist that the ceremony should be on 16th January. It does not really matter when it’s meant to be: it involves so much drinking of wassail that, by the end of the evening, no one knows what day it is anyway.

In more recent centuries, wassail as a drink became associated with the yuletide season. Beginning on Christmas Eve, the wassail bowl would be drunk from all through the twelve days of the holiday. Dickens probably compounded this tradition. In The Pickwick Papers, Mr Pickwick and his entourage arrive at Mr Wardle’s Dingley Dell:

“'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.'
'Our invariable custom,' replied Mr. Wardle. 'Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now--servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.'
Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the farthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face.
'Come,' said Wardle, 'a song--a Christmas song! I'll give you one, in default of a better.'
'Bravo!' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Fill up,' cried Wardle. 'It will be two hours, good, before you see the bottom of the bowl through the deep rich colour of the wassail; fill up all round, and now for the song.'
Thus saying, the merry old gentleman, in a good, round, sturdy voice, commenced without more ado-
This song was tumultuously applauded--for friends and dependents make a capital audience--and the poor relations, especially, were in perfect ecstasies of rapture. Again was the fire replenished, and again went the wassail round.”

Outside the home, wassailing became something that moved from the orchard to the street and was bound up with carol singing: those less well-off would visit the homes of the wealthy and sing for food and drink - “oh, bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer”. The cup of good cheer was the wassail.

There are a huge number of variations in modern recipes for wassail. Some use brandy and sherry for the kick while others use rum and beer - some even use lager and vodka. And some use cider instead of apples which seems heretical to me: for a traditional wassail, there must be apples. Dickens again:

“they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.”

This recipe uses brown ale and sherry; and apples that will hiss and bubble when your wassail is simmering on the top of your stove. You will need:

* 8 medium eating apples
* 6 bottles of real or brown ale
* 500ml sherry
* 150g brown sugar
* 2 teaspoons of mixed spice
* Sliced orange
* Lemon peel
* Large cooking pot with lid for oven and hob use

To make:

*Remove one strip of skin from around the middle of each apple.
*Put the apples, brown sugar and one bottle of ale in the cooking pot.
*Cover and cook for 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees.
*Remove the apples and set aside.
*Transfer the pot to the hob and add the remaining ale, sherry, fruit and spice.
*Bring to the boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.
*Return the apples and keep hot on a low heat as you serve.

This should serve six drinks. Waes hael!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Downland: part two

Below him, to his right, Ridler could still make out the bulk of the tithe barn at Alciston and the lights from The Rose that were beginning to flicker through the pervading gloom. The thought of sitting, musing, a pint of Tamplin’s on a rough wooden table in front of him, appealed. To gaze out of the propped bar door into the warm summer evening, exchange a nod – perhaps a word – with others as they arrived would be the simplest of pleasures; but the reality would be far from this fantasy. Glances, stares, suspicion, alarm, hostility, anger, violence: walking into the bar of a public house would guarantee a starting point at any of the increments on this scale of reaction. Further away he could see the village of Ripe; in the pub there he might be begrudgingly tolerated – not that he had ever tried to test the idea. Perhaps even in the inn at Chalvington to its east, the response would not escalate beyond the stares; but away from home, even a few paltry miles, would make all the difference. Ridler walked on; surefooted, upright and bareheaded. The local pubs had embraced the Writer when he first came to Downland but his turmoil inside had begun to show on the outside and – like Ridler - he had become a spectacle to be judged.

Nearing the Beacon, Ridler felt a sense of relief: he needed to be out on the Downs, needed to be nearer the sky, be able to feel the air, be able to see the world as far as he could, but he always had a sense that no sooner than he felt free, the counter of confinement tugged at him and he had to return to the fetters he had forged for himself. For over twenty years, he had had to live with the limits of his decision to become a spectacle. He had no regret: he and Gladys had lived well during those years – but a price had to be paid. And he had quickly learned that price. Despite all the attention, the gazes of fascination at the World Fair, there was also opprobrium. In Times Square, he had not seen the man as any different from the amused and opened-mouthed throng who parted as he – literally head and shoulders above them - and Gladys, sightseeing, moved through them. Not different until Ridler felt a smart on the side of his face, felt the droplets of blood on his chin and saw the man, flick-knife hanging lazily, mouthing angry words back at him as he melted into the crowd. Never since had he put himself so close to so many people; and never since had he ventured out without scarf and hat to conceal. Except here - the Downs – where the warmth of the summer air, like balm to a wound, caressed and soothed his skin.

Licht und Blindheit

Peter Hook’s decision to trawl through his back catalogue and tour whole albums has seen him fall out with his New Order colleagues. Next month, with his band, the Light, he will perform New Order’s Movement and Power, Corruption and Lies on stage. But for the moment he is still mining the rich seam of Joy Division material. Billed as an Unknown Pleasures gig, his turn at Concorde 2 on Brighton’s chilly Madeira Drive on Wednesday night turned out to contain a lot more.

The one vinyl album I own that has been most worn through continually playing is Joy Division’s debut. I was 17 years old when it was released and it sounded like nothing ever made before. And I’ve never really stopped playing it – these songs are hard-wired into my consciousness – and it still sounds unique despite the scores of bands who have subsequently been inspired by its sound. At the gig, there are countless men of a certain age and Peter Saville’s sleeve design – a diagrammatic representation of the radio waves emitted from a collapsed star - is everywhere: it forms the stage backdrop, it’s on posters and it's on T-shirts, including one worn by one of the support band, Manchester’s Tiny Phillips. But there are a lot of younger people in the audience, testament to Joy Division’s continuing influence.

Expecting the bass line from Disorder when the band take the stage, it’s a surprise when they begin with the patient, swirling build-up of Dead Souls, the B-side of the 1980 Licht und Blindheit single for the French label Sordide Sentimental. After the subtleties of the opener, there are a couple of early songs - No Love Lost and Leaders of Men – from the cusp of Warsaw/Joy Division, and Digital from 1978’s A Factory Sample EP. The sense that Hook was always the most boisterous member of Joy Division/New Order seems to be borne out as he crunches through these early songs. He handles the vocals well, despite the occasional lapse into bellowing; he is sure of the lyrics and delivers them with passion. Perhaps this should not be a shock: it was a toss-up who should take the vocal duties after Curtis’s death and Hook lost out to Bernard Sumner. I love the fragility of Barney’s voice but listen to Hook’s lead vocals on Dreams Never End and Doubts Even Here from New Order’s debut album and consider whether the right decision was made.

The well-replicated rawness of those old Warsaw songs makes me fear for the tender songs on Unknown Pleasures; but his handling of the delicacy of Candidate and Insight allays my fears. The band includes another bassist, enabling Hook to selectively concentrate on the intricate bass melodies that are perhaps the most important element in producer Martin Hannett’s creation of the Joy Divison sound. And with samples of the album’s original production augmenting the songs, the spliced tape intro to New Dawn Fades gives me an emotional catch in the throat.

Once they have finished Unknown Pleasures in its entirety, that’s not it: Atrocity Exhibition, A Means to an End, Isolation, 24 Hours and The Eternal all signal that perhaps Hook’s next project will be playing all of Joy Division’s second album, Closer, live. Finishing with two singles, Transmission and the obligatory Love Will Tear Us Apart, Hook has played for nearly two hours. There has been criticism of his motivation for touring this material but Hook clearly loves these songs and seems lost in the moment on stage. And who could deny someone who was instrumental in creating such iconic music the chance to let it see the light again after so long?