Saturday, April 29, 2006

In the beginning was the red 2x4 brick

The chocolate pudding post was mainly directed at one individual who faithfully reads this blog. (and if he doesn't, I want to know why. NOW!). He knows who he is.

This also is dedictated to the same individual, occasionally known as Anonymous no. 1. If that is who you really are. And anyone who's been a student with a pail of bricks. Bible scenes in lego. As brought to you by The Rev. Brandon Powell Smith.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

It looks like the real thing. It tastes like the real thing

There's a big hoo-ha going on at the moment about a highly-marketed (heck, even I've seen the adverts in the tube stations) 17-year-old Harvard author being found out for plagiarism. Full details on the Harvard Crimson website which broke the story. And there's a lot of interesting online debate about this as well. If interested, head for your favorite book discussion site and follow the links from there.

Anyhow, since I've commented about this elsewhere, I don't feel the need to go into the details here. But what I find really depressing is that it highlights the patronising assumption that readers will buy any old steaming pile of literary excreta, written by a committee to a market-researched blueprint, as long as it's marketed right.

It also reminds me of the incredible let-down I felt when someone I know who works for a small publisher's was chatting about his work. He's a nice person. He loves books. He gave great poetry. But then he nearly broke my heart. You know those little hand-written tags that get put up on shelves to recommend a particular book? They aren't always written by enthusiastic bookstore employees with a love of reading. They're sometimes written by marketing people who pay bookstores to put them up. Really. And this actually makes me want to cry.

The thing is, I think books are lovely. And because I think they're lovely, I've always believed that the people who deal with them love them too. That bookstores and libraries are a kind of magical place where things are just a little bit better than in the outside world. I've always thought that if people didn't actually like books, they'd just not bother with them and go off to watch the telly or eat cheese or something. So it's really upsetting to find out that what I thought was genuine enthusiasm and love of the written word could actually be faked.

For some reason, seeing these tags now makes me more sad about cynicism in the publishing industry than any number of cars driving over the pulped Mills & Boons in the M6 Toll road.

But in happier news, at least Dumpier A. Cramps of International Pharmaceutical Corp hasn't given up on me and my seemingly limitless desire for herbal viagra.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The number you have called is not in service. Please hang up and try again.

Beep… beep… beep...

Apologies for the interruption to service. Blogger couldn’t defeat me, but a report of mind-numbing tedium is kicking my posterior into oblivion.

And it doesn't help I’ve wasted hours agonizing about a decent alternative to “real-life” that had the necessary degree of snootiness.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sunday, December 7th 2,349 BCE

08:43: Humidity high. Fur v frizzy. Nutter with a beard came round offering free cruise tickets. Sounded like one of those timeshare scams. Who’d want a trip in the Med this time of year? Cold callers - scum of the earth.

11:43: Bloody rain. Hate wet feet.

Since I have a penchant for odd museums, I am overjoyed to discover that if my travels ever take me to Phoenix, New York, the delights of the Lost World Museum await me.

Despite the nod to Conan Doyle, the actual mission of this temple of learning is to present the greatest collection ever assembled of evidence for the literal truth of the Bible. It also claims to provide proof of the Actual Way the Earth Looked Before The Flood. That would be the biblical deluge. Any other flood, for example the one in my kitchen after a bit of underwire got trapped in the washer/dryer, would not be aqueous enough.

The museum’s promotional material tantalizes with the promise of untold delights, all unmarred by the taint of secular scientific rationality. Actual artifacts from the Ark. A fossilized spark plug. Bits of giant animals, including an 11-foot kangaroo and 450 lb beaver skull. All of it clear and irrefutable confirmation of Genesis 1-11. Oddly, I am unable to find any mention of either of the latter two animals in my own copy of the Bible, but perhaps my interpretation of the texts is too literal.

Hopefully by the time of my visit, they will have created a tiny coin-operated model of a three-toed sloth swimming in a leisurely fashion across the Atlantic at about six feet an hour, leading a procession of opossums, armadillos and other assorted New World animals to their distant havens.

More excitingly, it seems that the latest coup by their acquisitions team could be the killer blow to evolutionary theory. It is the preserved body of “Cy”, a one-eyed kitten born in Oregon earlier this year. Two fingers to that filthy-minded Darwin and his half-baked theories right there, I think you’ll agree. A one-eyed kitten. Pretty compelling stuff. Think I’d better bin my autographed print of the “March of Progress” (Lucy’s signature was a tad smudged anyhow) and explain to those moths that dunking their wings in soot is cheating. Oh and someone better have a chat with the H5N1 virus about this.

Furthermore, to my unmitigated joy, the pickled pussy has inspired one or two fans to submit their poetry to the site. I believe it’s traditional that women who have achieved my age and spinster status become sentimental about cats (the sweet liddle ickle fluffy-iddy-dum-dums). In the spirit of this endeavour, I have therefore done my humble best to honour Cyclops the kitten in verse form.

Kitty! Kitty! Small and white!
Gifted with uncanny sight.
What begat thy single eye
But holoprosencephaly?

In antediluvian times
Strayed thy kin ‘twixt Noah’s vines?
‘Neath each tiny kitty paw
Sensed rumble of his power saw?

As the raging waters rose
On which deck didst thou repose?
On fishy stew, took thou thy ease?
Ladled fresh from boiling seas?

Could thy monocular eye
Noah’s secrets all espy?
Wither China? Who mucked out?
Did lions the “shipmate snacks” ban flout?

When the ventilation failed
And high-strung platypuses bailed
Did noselessness help thee eschew
Odour of the dino poo?

Kitty! Kitty! Small and white!
Gifted with uncanny sight.
What begat thy single eye
But holoprosencephaly?

Friday, April 21, 2006

I'm a bloody moron

I'm a technically-challenged, computer-illiterate idiot whose brain sloshes with every step I take. So to Candy and Suisan and the other anonymous, profound and abject apologies for screwing up with the comment moderation thing. I've found your comments and I've switched off that bloody, bloody moderation button for good. I swear.

And thank you for all the lovely comments. I feel the love.

Death, for screwing up your ranking you may poke me in the eye with a very sharp stick next time you're over here. And I will bring you a Czech republican mullet wig as tribute.

Suisan, for dropping your comments, you are welcome to stand at the main door shouting angry words as I clean up a stable full of horse poo. With a teaspoon. In heels.

Candy, what can I say? You even emailed me about this and I still screwed it up. I'm a dumbass. You were the first to comment (umm... except for the other anonymous), and your caps lock is most definitely the cappiest. It fair rocked me back in my seat. No punishment is too great. If you deem it necessary, I'll even read a Connie Mason, cover-to-cover, without skipping over any magenta-tinged descriptions while some godforsaken medley of Michael Bolton singing "Special Songs for Women" plays on permanent loop. As I tour Britain's finest bus stations.

And I think I've found all your posts now.

Friday... mmm... chocolate...

All in all it's just another brick in the wall

This Sunday, if I venture out of my front door from around 10 am, I am likely to be trampled to death by a pack of pain-wracked marathoning maniacs. Scientific theory is that runners hit the infamous "wall" at 20 miles, at which point their body runs out of glycogen, hypoglycaemia sets in, and the skinny gits start burning fat reserves for fuel. What fun!

The poor sods will hit mile 19-and-a-half just outside my front door, with mile 20 right by the entrance of the nearest DLR station. Between this fun fact, and the inspiration provided by my colleague Nic's gift of a large bar of swiss chocolate, I'm contemplating making a very large quantity of the recipe that follows and enjoying it for breakfast al fresco on the roundabout that gets you soveryveryveryclose to the action this Sunday.

Soft chocolate Toblerone pudding

It's a British-style baked pudding which comes out a bit like a soft, squidgy brownie, rather than the custardy blanc-mangy affair also known as pudding in some quarters. Recipe stolen freely adapted from Jo Pratt's on the recipes section.

Takes about an hour and a half including cooking time.

Finicky dish bit: You'll need two of these, both oven-safe. The pudding needs to cook in a humid oven to achieve soft nirvana, so you need a dish for it that holds about 2 1/2 pints (1.5 litres) of chocolate loveliness. You also need something like a roasting tray that the pudding basin can sit in comfortably while being surrounded by water that laps gently about half-way up its sides. You could possibly just put a pie plate of water on the bottom shelf as if you were baking french bread, but I've never tried it and I'm skeptical about messing with this side of things.

Take 2oz/55g unsalted butter out of the fridge and leave to warm up somewhere handy. Separate 2 eggs, put the yolks on the counter with the butter and the whites back in the fridge. Grease the pudding basin with something else. Turn on oven to 180C, 350F or Gas Mark 4. Boil the kettle.

Break up about 250g/9oz DARK chocolate Toblerone into pieces. This is 2 and a half of the normal-sized bars. The black ones. (I'm sure when I was young the wrappers for this kind were green). I'll need a calculator to figure out how many triangles from my enormous 400g duty-free bar are required (heh, heh, heh). I recommend eating any leftovers quite soon to stop them from going bad.


Note the DARK chocolate. Please, for the love of Ek Chuah and any other god of cocoa, do not pollute this pudding with that vile and disgusting substance known as milk chocolate. Especially the horrible British kind. Chocolate should be the darkest possible brown verging on pitch black, or it's not worth eating. If French persons bearing gifts of Toblerone are scarce, the Milk Tray man is not an appropriate substitute. Go for a DARK alternative. Next time I'm Toblerone-less, I'm thinking of using Green & Black's Maya Gold as a change, maybe with a splash of Cointreau.

Back to recipe:

Pour 1/2 pint/300ml milk into a saucepan, add the pieces of chocolate and heat slowly, while stirring gently, until all the chocolate is melted. If the whole baking dish issue seems more trouble than it's worth, you could just stop now and drink this as hot chocolate (maybe with a bit more milk). If you want to persevere, there's nowhere handy to stop from now on.

Put the hot choc. on the side somewhere to cool down a bit, maybe adding a splash of espresso (cut down by the same quantity of milk in this case) or a teaspoonful of really good instant coffee (not an oxymoron, I swear. I'd give a brand but what with the Toblerone thing, my product placement hackles have already risen. It's the one in the black jar with the French name).

Use boiled water to make a cuppa. Drink, top up kettle and re-boil if necessary.

Beat together room-temp butter and 3oz/150g muscavado sugar (recipe says light, I like dark for more caramel flavour) with a wooden spoon. No rules about butter changing colour, just get it nicely blended. Mix in 1oz/30g cocoa powder (good kind, please) and the same amount self-raising flour. Recipe says to sift, which is always a disaster where I'm concerned because it inevitably goes everywhere and makes me sneeze. I've learned to live without sifting and I'm a better person for it.

Add the egg yolks, mix well. Add the cooled-down hot chocolate and stir in gently until it's all smooth.

Remove egg whites from fridge. Panic not if you've accidentally left the on the side instead. The being cold business just helps them hold the air, so your pudding may be a bit flatter than normal, but if you've followed the all-important chocolate guidelines, it will still taste good.

Whisk egg whites until they form soft peaks. If you use an electric whisk, use the slowest possible speed. A fast speed gets them very thick, very fast, but won't incorporate enough air for the pudding. This is especially important if like me, you are lacking in the sifting department. Be a bit zen. Hand-whisking is meditative and burns enough wrist calories for two helpings.

GENTLY. Sorry, gently, fold the whites into the chocolate goop with a large metal spoon until totally mixed in. Don't be too slow here, air is precious. I don't have problems with tiny bits of white, others are purists.

Pour batter into the pudding basin which you have placed in the roasting tray. Pour hot water slowly (so as not to accidentally get any in the batter) from kettle into roasting tray until it comes half-way up the side of the pudding basin.

Pop the whole lot into oven on middle shelf. Meanwhile, do the washing-up for good karma, eat the leftover chocolate and drink tea.

After 45 minutes, or when it looks set, remove from oven. To check doneness, if you tap the pudding basin, the contents should still wobble a bit. I prefer taking it out a wee bit earlier, 'cos I like chocolate goop. Take the pudding basin out of the tray of water (carefully) and leave it on the side for about 5 minutes before serving. It might not come out cleanly, but it will come out goooood. Serve as is, with cream, really good vanilla ice cream and/or the sort of fruit you like with chocolate.

Happy weekend.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Devil's Interval

Despatches from the dark heart of choral England

This is not Songs of Praise. This is not The Sound of Music. Any posts about singing and choirs on this site will not feature chirpy little entries eulogising sincere mutual (platonic) affection and joy in the company of our fellow man. They will not trumpet the giddy delights of last month's sell-out triumph in Piddletrenthide. If you want fluffy sopranos burbling on about how much fun they had at the last rehearsal and clean-cut, square-jawed basses who harmonise lyrics like, "Gayer than laughter, are you/Sweeter than music, are you" with sincerity and nary a trace of irony then you're in the wrong place. Go find a Stepford choir.

This is the truth. Choirs are a seething hotbed of frustrated desires. They ooze wrath, lust, greed, sloth, envy and pride from every pore. Even gluttony gets a look-in when the chocolate digestives come out during a tea-break. It's only logical. Put any group of people in a confined space for a period of time, add a generous dollop of performance-related anxiety and the knowledge they're being judged against a subjective yet freakishly over-intellectualised yardstick like musical taste and see what happens. Frankly it's a miracle more rehearsals don't end in pitched battles and illegally-sharpened tuning forks at dawn.

So don't watch the conductor (as if anyone would). Watch this space.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I am serious, and don't call me Suri

This post is in honour of Uncle R. Mainly 'cos I'm about to steal his name joke.

Well, Katie Holmes has popped and infant Suri Xenu L. Ronnette Holmes-Cruise has arrived. Oh frabjous day! Hopefully the silent birth went er… silently, and the infant is now enjoying a noiseless week that creeps by on velvet slippers. With any luck, despite the media frenzy, the alien ghosts won't even know she's there. May she remain unpossessed by those nasty Thetans and live to help Earth reclaim its ancient grandeur as the noble planet Teegeeack, number 76 in the Galactic Confederacy.

At least her parents had the wisdom to name her after a kind of alpaca. So much wiser to set up a relationship on a higher plane between your child and the spirit of a mammal rather than that of a fruit.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Definitely Not a Book Review.

More of a public health warning. Or a shriek of unholy rage.

When I first toyed with the idea of writing a blog, I had the very clear notion that for lots of reasons I didn’t want to do book reviews. So what follows is Definitely Not a Book Review. To make it less like a book review, there will be no mention of the name of book or author. There may be sparkling, fluffing and throbbing, but this behaviour will not be conducted by rankings in the shape of stars, kitties or hearts.

On with the story. Yesterday afternoon I had achieved the kind of semi-recumbent nirvana only possible in the early days of spring. I lay on the sofa watching dust motes float through shafts of warm air and sunlight, feeling cosy, yet blanket-free in my flat for the first time in six months. A synapse or two idly fired somewhere beyond my left ear. Ahhh… Lovely, lovely bank holiday Monday. Nothing to do, too lazy to move. I know, I’ll just lean over the side and pick up this book from the top of my big pile of unread books. Then I’ll read it. Such bliss…

And all this science, I don’t understand

If this were a cartoon, the book in question would now begin to emit that noxious yellow-green light that indicates toxic levels of radiation. It would throb with menace and foreboding. Clouds would roll across the sky to cover the sun and the rumble of thunder would echo in the distance.

But this is real life. Any boding was conspicuous only by its reluctance to come to the fore. All the omens were auspicious. The new-to-me writer had been recommended as a good ‘un. Birds probably chirruped outside my window. Their entrails, if examined, would likely be a healthy colour and portend good things. (I don’t know what this ent(r)ails. They probably looked like pound signs and chocolate-raspberry torte. At this point my traumatic amnesia sets in.)

It’s lonely out in space

I should probably now suggest that any reader who doesn’t sympathise with my preferred choice of low-brow, trashy reading might want to spare me the humiliation, skip the rest of this and just email me directly to say, “I told you so. Serve you right for reading that crap. Stop reading those damn books and read some Proust or Dan Brown instead. Man-titty will only lead you to grief.” Times like this I almost agree with you.

Anyone intrigued by a plot involving vampires, historical/regency settings and HEAs might require a bit more information. Beware: spoilers abound. I can’t do this without them. So to help you decide whether or not to carry on, I will say that the book concerned is the very recently published third book in a vampire series. Setting is historical, vampirism is caused by a virus. Oh, and the title sounds like “The Churning” (of my gut). But with a “B”.

In fact, it's cold as hell

Now there are things about this book that are okay, and even interesting. But I’m not going to mention them. After all, this is Definitely Not a Book Review, and therefore I am not remotely interested in being fair. In fact, I’m feeling pretty damn mean because reading this book destroyed the joy of my bank holiday afternoon. It took my fond hopes, gleefully stomped them flat and let the cat pee on them.

Besides, for me, one bit of the book had an effect rather like a long-ago extremely smelly cheese brought back from France, removed from its special lead container and left in the fridge for a week. It tainted everything else within reach. Even the cat food. I cannot and will not be fair. I will be unjustly focussing on three lines in the book to the exclusion of all else. Because this is Definitely Not a Book Review. If the rest of the book was a work of heart-breaking beauty, I would still not care. In fact, to work the cheese metaphor overtime, that might actually be worse.

It's just my job, five days a week

I’ll skip the detailed plot description. Guilt-wracked hero, (quelle surprise) has dedicated self to becoming an über-warrior and tracking down bad vampires. He has undergone extreme training at the hands of three vampiresses in strategically slashed, silky outfits without a hint of “beauty” tape. One’s short and “rounded,” one’s tall and slim, one’s… oh I can’t be bothered.

There’s some shades-of-Anita mumbo-jumbo about how properly-channelled sexual energy can give him superpowers, etc. etc. Whoopee. Quite literally. Although his training is goal-oriented and divided into three sequential phases with specific requirements and assessment exercises for each, this programme is never going to feature in the national curriculum.

Frustrated lust, orgy-tastic scenes to “drain” him and severe chafing ensue. Phase 2 involves extreme sexual torture to help him “focus”. There are white-hot brands, dagger-sharp nails and blocks of ice with strategic holes (probably 3-4 inches deeper and somewhat wider than one would normally expect). But it’s okay, ‘cos he’s got these vampire healing powers. The details of phase 3 escape me, and I can’t face looking through the book to find them. Oh, and by the way, there’s a greasy, exploding-vampire-shaped mark on his dungeon wall which is all that’s left of the last guy they trained. Since this is told in flashback, the suspense is just killing me.

Zero hour, nine a.m.

So the scene is set. Hero is chained down on stone bench in dungeon. One of the vampiresses wants to accelerate his training. She’s possibly a bit nuts. The others disagree, so she has secretly been providing extra-curricular lessons to our gifted student.

Brace yourselves, kids. Bet Ms. Vampira wishes she had. During a critical stage of training, his long-suppressed manly juice erupts with turbo-charged force. The final, rocket-fuelled spasm propels the superhumanly strong several-thousand-year-old vampiress across the dungeon and into a sideboard. I swear I am not making this up. It’s half-way down on page 242. Three lines of print. What a mess.

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time

I’m not mad because this sent me into fits of hysterical laughter for the next quarter of an hour. I’m not mad because four pages later the stupid psychic virgin heroine, who KNOWS that this has happened says, “I’ll take my chances”, and asks hero to make love to her. I'm not even mad because the main human villain is such a caricature of eeeevilllee, he probably features in a book called "How to Roast Sweet Little Adorable Fluffy Baby Puppies". I’m mad because these three stupid, stupid lines of print have put “Rocket Man” in my head for the last 24 hours. In my mind from that scene on, the hero became Elton John, and for this, there can be no forgiveness.

Oh no, no, no. I'm a rocket maaaaaaannn...

The one that got away

Erm. It was here. Or maybe there. Or in that. But I’m sure I had it at least er, three years ago?

I’m packing, and I’ve just discovered that I’m missing a book. Since I have enough of the damn things to build a luxury outdoor privy and supply it with sufficient paper for a 5 year-long case of dysentery, you’d think I wouldn’t miss one itty-bitty book. But I am. Waaaaaahhhh! Where my book? I WANT MY BOOK!!!!

Several hours of searching through boxes have edged my thoughts with panic, and I'm now desperately trying to recall its book-life. I can remember telling several people how wonderful it is, how interesting it is, how it gives so much and makes life a better, richer thing. But I can’t remember lending it to anyone in particular. I can’t remember all the people to whom I might have recommended the book. I don’t think I’ve read it for a good three years myself, and I’ve moved a lot in this time. It could have fallen into an as-yet undocumented black hole. My bookcase is black. It had a black spine. Maybe it’s hiding? Maybe it’s camouflaged somehow? Maybe it doesn’t want to be read? Maybe it’s a reverse poltergeist?

This vague panic is horribly like a nightmare I had once. In it, I had a very pink baby, but since I couldn’t remember it existed* I kept forgetting it in different places. I left it in a café, on an escalator and on the pavement outside an old-fashioned row of shops in a navy blue padded picnic basket. I think I took the silverware with me, but left it with a tub of wrinkly dry black olives marinated in chilli, orange and garlic** for comfort.

Yes, I could buy another copy. Probably a more up-to-date, shiny new edition with an uncracked spine, no dog-eared pages, a new book smell and brand new foreword. Or I could pick up a cheap second-hand copy somewhere. But it won’t be the same book. I’ve had this one for years. I can remember where I first bought it, where I first read it. It’s part of my life. So any replacement will always remind me of the one that I lost.

I’m a terrible book mother.

*Or how it came into my possession. Not birth, not doorstep arrival. No clue. It was the most secret of secret babies. Even I was only dimly aware of its existence.

**Hey, don’t knock 'em ‘til you’ve tried 'em. They’re like little exploding bombs of flavour. And at least they don’t have sharp edges. What do you take me for?